Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Imagination of Gaudi

I spent only half a day in Barcelona a couple of years ago. Now, seeing photographs of Gaudi's architecture at its richest, I wish I could have explored the city longer. Perhaps one day...

I seldom care for modern architecture, but Gaudi really does epitomise the fairytale landscape rendered in a religious context.

Gateway to Spain...


These photographs were taken on a trip I dearly would have loved to have taken... first to Barcelona, Toledo and Madrid, then to Avignon and Carcassonne and finally to Pisa, Assisi and Roma.

A sampling of Spanish architecture, art and natural beauty...

Friday, October 10, 2008


For me, Toulon held echoes of the young Bonaparte as he began his ascent to power. Toulon in reality was an exciting melange of North Africa and Southern France. The open market was next to a souk where marvelous textiles and traditional Islamic clothing were displayed. Although many of the stalls in the regular market sold cheap electronics and other items of little interest, the displays of fresh fruits, vegetables and breads were gorgeous. A shop nearby sold some of the best of Provincial French textiles.

For some one who loves edged weapons, Toulon had a large selection of shops, some of them less public than others. Automatic knives as well as traditional French Opinels and Laguiole knives could be found throughout the city.

The architecture of Toulon was rather majestic and it was a city rich in public gardens and parks. I wish we could have spent a few days there.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Cats and Cathedral of Cadiz

With my laptop out of commission as far as any wireless connection was concerned, I had not been able to enjoy my photographs of the Mediterranean for a long time, nor to be able to update this site as I would have liked.

It was tonight that I finally looked at some of my Mediterranean photographs again. Like a vagabond of the ethernet, I have been taking my external drive from computer to computer, never able to call any computer home...

In any event, I rediscovered Cadiz tonight. Some of the smaller ports of the Mediterranean, like Cadiz and Valletta were exquisite jewels. I miss the ocean terribly now that I live inland, and being able to walk along the beachfronts with the wind in my face, beneath the shadow of walls and buildings hundreds of years old, was an unforgettable experience. I long to return.

Cadiz is one of the oldest cities in Iberia, and in fact is believed to be the oldest city in Western Europe that remains standing. Its official foundation date is 1104 B.C. Its original name was Gadir. As an outpost established by the Phoenicians, Gadir was a thriving port.

The Greeks believed that Hercules himself founded Gadir after he completed his 10th labour, the slaying of Geryon, a giant with three heads, three torsos and a single pair of legs. As late as the third century, a tumulus in Gadir was associated with the burial of Geryon.

One of the most famous temples in Gadir in antiquity was dedicated to the Phoenician god Melqart and some believe the columns of this temple to have been the original source of the legend of the Pillars of Hercules.

In 500 B.C., Hannibal used Gadir as a base of operations in his conquest of Iberia. Actually, 'conquest' may be misleading in this context as the Punic wars consisted of a conflict between two nations, Carthage and Rome. Cities in Iberia basically allied themselves first with one and then the other during this period.

The sands of Cadiz were threaded with tiny perfect shells. As I waded in the shallow waters close to the shore, collecting souvenirs, I thought of the ancient warriors from Carthage and Rome who conquered and reconquered this city. The contemporary atmosphere of lazy peace that pervades this quiet civilised port is undisturbed by echoes of far those brutal struggles... Yet reminders of conflict can be found in the architecture of every port in the Mediterranean. The silhouettes of magnificent forts and city walls may not resonate now with the cries of the doomed, but their purpose primarily was defence from a world that sought to control their native populations.

Thousands of years later, one can explore the history of those conflicts while retaining emotional distance from the true reality of war. Ancient war was no more romantic than contemporary warfare, and yet anything that remote from us in time achieves an undeniable mystique, transforming conflicts based in greed and exploitation to mythical heroics.

One of the most delightful encounters in Cadiz was an unexpected sight of the cats who lived at the beach. Unlike the feral cats of mainland Italia, who tend to be half-starved, these cats appeared almost pampered. Residents obviously provided them regularly with food and water. Little dishes and bowls were stashed discreetly in niches along the rocky shoreline.

The Cathedral was too large to be called 'exquisite' but it was magnificent. I wish I could spend a fortnight or so in Cadiz. One day was not sufficient by any means.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Carthage in Literature

Literature about Carthage focuses mainly on the Punic Wars and Hannibal. All original sources were written by the enemies of this incredible civilisation. The actual founding of the city is the stuff of legends and when Aeneas was injected into the tale, it made the legends even more unlikely. It is difficult to find good historical fiction that deals with ordinary life in Carthage but upon my return from my brief visit to La Goulette, I was fired with the need to immerse myself in the atmosphere of that ancient civilisation.

I wrote about two good factual studies of Roman civilisation in North Africa in an earlier post. Since then, I discovered two excellent contemporary novels about Carthage. 'Fire and Bronze' by Robert Raymond is a compelling account of the founding of Carthage by Dido. 'Carthage' by Peter Huby deals with the ultimate horrific destruction of the city by the Romans. Both attempt to decipher the reality that underlies the legends and ancient political propaganda to create a plausible realistic sequence of events and both succeed admirably.

Furthermore, I was astounded by the beauty of the prose, especially in view of the fact that 'Fire and Bronze' is a first novel. The two writers are very different but both demonstrate a love of words and images and an expert ability to alternate extraordinary lyricism with graphic realism. In fact, having finished the two novels, I was hungry for more. I found Peter Huby's first novel, 'Pasiphae' and devoured that as well.

I recommend all three of these novels. I read all the 'Classics' as a child but I have to admit that there are many contemporary writers who may supercede some of the Victorian 'Masters'. If I were to teach a class in ancient History, I would be inclined to include these novels in any discussion of Carthage.

I have one negative criticsm of 'Carthage' and I am not alone in this. Many readers remarked upon the writer's use of anachronisms in this book. Some of them were more irritating than others. I found the writer's inaccurate correlation of Phoenicians with Jews to be unjustifiable and infuriating as well, essentially writing the ancestors of the Arab Nation out of the equation. The Phoenicians were NOT Jews. At the time when Qart Hadasht was founded, the Hebrews were well-known as a separate ethnic group.

Qart Hadasht or 'New Town' is the real name of Carthage. As is often the case, however, the victorious Romans ultimately triumphed in history as well as in life, leaving us with their name for the civilisation that may have been Rome's greated rival. So determined was Rome to destroy Kart Hadasht that it sowed the land with salt, preventing any crops from growing there for a hundred years.

One of the few details about ancient Carthage familiar to the general public even when nothing else is known is the practice of infant sacrifice. The entire civilisation has been demonised because of a religious tradition poorly, if at all, comprehended. 'Fire and Bronze' tackles this subject well. In a period of history when mystery religions often demanded the sacrifice of a man's genitals, the sacrifice of the first-born would be an example of true devotion and a very profound faith in the gods and in a world beyond this one.

Religions such as Christianity and Islam stress the principle that this life is transient. If one accepts the premise that the world beyond this is far more substantial in spiritual terms and is the only one that endures, human sacrifice will be perceived not as a cruel and barbaric act but one that sets the 'victim' above and beyond ordinary humans. The child that is sacrificed in essence becomes one with the gods, entering an existence that is free from pain and suffering.

Comprehending a ritual or tradition is not tantamount to agreement with it. Recoiling from horror from the practice of infant sacrifice prohibits any true exploration of a civilisation that was extremely sophisticated and one that based itself on a code of law that was far from barbaric. Religion in any civilisation is a tree that has deep roots in another world, with a distinct logic that is divorced from ordinary existence. If one were to view the principles of 'Holy Communion' and 'Transubstantiation' without reference to the underlying philosophy of Christianity, one might find them horrific as well. An actual need for a god to die in human form in extreme torment upon a wooden cross is the foundation of Christian religion. How one perceives the ultimate sacrifice depends upon comprehension of the system of philosophy that underlies the act rather than the act itself. Infant sacrifice is no different in this respect.

Neither novels are centred upon the religion of ancient Carthage but they touch upon it en passant. In this particular aspect, Robert Raymond's spiritual comprehension of ancient cultures was far more convincing. Peter Huby's insistence on equating the Carthaginians with the Jews severely marred his account of ancient religion. The appearance of Orthodox Jews on the streets of Kart Hadasht was bizarre, to say the least. Even though he included some of the ancient Canaanite tales in his account, his attempt to address Carthaginian beliefs was unsuccessful in my view. He did far better with 'Pasiphae'.

'Pasiphae' incidentally is a tale of ancient Crete and the central character, despite the title, is Daedalus. Sadly, although it is very high on my list of places I long to visit, I have not been to Crete yet. Peter Huby's work deals with the passion of the Queen for the Sacred Bull in the context of Daedalus' own passion to create and explore the limits of human possibilities. Although he missed the point here as well in terms of ancient mystery religions, in my opinion, it is an incredible book and his exploration of human passions is very fine.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Glory that was Rome ... in Africa

Spending half a day in Tarquinia, half a day in Pompeii and half a day on the site of ancient Carthage inspired me to study history again. I came home and read Susan Raven's 'Rome in Africa' and Paul Lachlan's 'The North African Stones Speak'. I would recommend both even to casual readers. Paul Lachlan's cultural prejudices are exposed in a comment here and there, but on the whole, style and content are wonderful. Both books are older studies that have been brought up to date and republished.

History of Carthage

What is amazing to me is how much ancient history I do not know, despite an avid interest in the subject throughout my life. For every site I have visited, moreover, there are a hundred I have not seen. There is no substitute for actual experience, although actual experience is magnified enormously by knowledge. I wish I had read those books BEFORE I visited Carthage, but if I had, I suspect that my frustration at being allowed only a few hours in Tunisia would have overwhelmed me.

I spent almost a month in Roma once, and yet it seems as though North Africa has far more of ancient Roma to show the world now than any site in Italia. The Roman Empire, whether you hate it or admire it, was rather amazing. To think of the thousands of miles that it covered, from England to Libya! All the roads and aquaducts, amphitheatres and temples... but beyond that, the fact that they laid grids everywhere. Surveyors tirelessly working on plans, whether or not the plans ever came to fruition.

It is difficult sometimes to visualise the past. The topography of the countries have changed. What once was a port may be miles inland now. That certainly is the case where Etruscan ports are concerned.

I do not know why the distant past holds such fascination for me. I never wanted to travel to the future, but I still long to go back in time, to see the England of Charles the First, and even further back, to live among the earliest Neolithic settlers of Europe. The Roman Empire is fairly modern in terms of civilisations. It is no wonder really that we see resemblances to our own 'civilisation' in all the works of Rome.

Perhaps my longing to visit Libya is partly based on the fact that it wouldn't be thronging with tourists. The negative part of visiting Pompeii was the fact that one could not look down any path without seeing veritable hordes of 21st century tourists. Carthage wasn't much different actually. Coachloads of tourists swarming over the ruins...

And yet, who knows? Perhaps Libya would be the same. One of my greatest contacts with the ancient world occurred in the Long Barrow near Silbury Hill one rainy afternoon. Not a tourist in sight, enabling me to commune silently with the past. I went over a little gate on a path that was made for sheep rather than humans and walked up a muddy hill to Long Kennet.

West Kennet Long Barrow

I visited Avebury the same day. Avebury is very different from Stonehenge because very little remains of its original configuration. The standing stones have been moved, removed, or otherwise realigned. A major highway cuts through the original grounds. Nonetheless, something magical remains.

That was an odd experience as my own visit at twilight coincided with a professional photography shoot. I can't recall what they were shooting, but it was some sort of advertisement with the stones of Avebury in the background.

Where on earth can one go now, though, and truly expect to be 'off the beaten track'? There are shows like 'Globe Trekker', visiting every corner of the globe and televising the journey to the masses.

In my own case, however, it is not as if I would like to deprive others of the journey but merely to have a few moments by myself in these places. If only...

In that sense, Montserrat was the antithesis of a spiritual pilgrimage. It was more like queueing for a ride at an entertainment park than any religious experience. In fact, the pushing and shoving and queue-jumping was horrific and one wondered at times what spiritual benefit possibly could be gained by such behaviour. The fact that the shrine was due to shut in less than half an hour may have offered some excuse for the indecent attitudes that prevailed in certain quarters. In the same crowd, however, were others who went out of their way to help the infirm and disabled.

Perhaps part of the true nature of a spiritual pilgrimage is to test the soul. Grace is earned through patience and selflessness in these situations rather than a brief glimpse of an icon or statue. I am an animist and I do believe in the efficacy of certain objects or locations to some extent. I do think that these powers are partly dependent on the state of mind and will of the 'pilgrim' rather than independent in nature. In that sense, we do create our own gods.

Despite the negative circumstances of the visit, I did have some magical if fleeting moments at Montserrat. The mountain range rather than the statue was the source of the energy I felt. No wonder the ancients thought of mountains as the ladders to heaven! There is a sense of entering a borderland that stands between our earthly state and the realm of the gods. I expect centuries of reverence and wonder play a part in this as well. In any event, despite the fact that the buildings and pilgrims were modern, one sensed ghostly footsteps, becoming part of an endless chain of humanity that sought to touch the sky.

On the other hand, travel to historic sites of any kind is a pilgrimage of sorts. Whether it is an ancient Bath or a Temple, the passage of time as well as the attention of the masses for hundreds or thousands of years creates a peculiar power that resides in the stones as well as their silhouettes. Places become icons. Witness the 'leaning tower of Pisa' and the 'Eiffel Tower', possibly more visited than any phallic representation of an ancient Power. These buildings are recognised by people throughout the globe, despite the fact that they actually are devoid of any significant content or historical event. Any place, object or structure can become imbued with special significance by virtue only of its long popularity.

I am including two photographs of pillars here. One is the site of a famous martyrdom. The other is nothing more than the site of an ancient bathhouse, yet both possess a special aura of power and mystery now. The blood shed on one site may make it a place of religious pilgrimage but one could argue that ancient Baths are dedicated to the elemental power of Water and when situated by the sea, have tremendous spiritual potency that overrides the simple functional nature of the place. After all, ablutions are a fundamental spiritual rite in almost every religion.

In any case, I would have liked nothing better than to have had the time to wade into the sea on the site of the Baths of Antoninus in Tunis. To watch the sun set framed by the silhouettes of ancient pillars and arches, in the midst of all that ruined splendour would have been a very spiritual experience. Instead, I was forced to adhere to a tour schedule, to be bundled back to the ship with the rest of the tourists...

I should not be ungrateful. At least I saw these places. I breathed the air. My feet trod the ancient stones. It is far, far better than nothing but, like an incipient addict, I long for more.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Joan of Arc at Montserrat

When I visited Montserrat, I was rather taken aback to find a tomb dedicated to Joan of Arc. I have been unable to discover why a tomb for Joan of Arc is situated at Montserrat Monastery near Barcelona in Spain.

Some peculiar suspension of historical knowledge prevented me from questioning the fact while I was there in person. I now would like to know what this tomb signifies, if it in fact houses a relic of the Saint or if it is nothing more than a memorial... If a memorial, however, why would a tomb be erected there?

Meanwhile, I discovered more interesting speculation about the very existence of the Maid. A few years ago, Dr. Serhiy Horbenko, an orthopedic surgeon from Ukraine, was invited to France to study the remains of Louis XI in order to reconstruct his face from his skull. In the Basilica of Notre Dame in Clery, near Orleans, the doctor asked for permission to study remains in other tombs in the basilica, as they belonged to other members of the same dynastic royal family as Louis XI.

He ultimately concluded that the skeleton of a female was that of Marguerite de Valois, illegitimate daughter of Charles VI and half-sister of Charles VII, the dauphin promoted by Jeanne d'Arc.

From the remains, he deduced that the woman had worn heavy armour and had lived the life of a warrior on horseback. He then made another leap in speculation to the effect that it was she, and not a peasant from the countryside, who had played the role of saviour of France. She had not been burnt at the stake, but had been relegated to what basically amounted to household arrest for the remainder of her life, from fear that she might press her own claim to the throne of France.

Five women were burnt at the stake... one of these was publicised as the Maid of Orleans, according to the doctor, even though the true Maid of Orleans lived many decades longer in royal obscurity.

This sort of speculation did not please the French, who honour Jeanne d'Arc both as heroine and saint. The theory was promoted in 2003. It has not been proven or disproven, as far as I know.

It does not answer the question of why there is a tomb dedicated to Joan of Arc at Montserrat but it is another odd twist connected to the woman who has inspired others of her gender to dream of taking the warrior path for more than a thousand years.