Posts Tagged ‘Jerusalem’

ed George Bull: The Pilgrim – Travels of Pietro della Valle

December 3, 2016

51ylhiyeol-_ac_us160_Pietro della Valle was an Italian nobleman who travelled for twelve years in the early seventeenth century and wrote letters home. He saw Constantinople, Jerusalem (you really had to see the holy places in those days), Egypt and the Pyramids before travelling further east, eventually reaching Persia and then India.

I’ve read books about travelling in the Middle Ages, and in the eighteenth century, so I know about the technicalities and the hardships, the distances and the perils. But I often wonder how travellers in those days actually saw and engaged with the world, and particularly the new places they saw. When we travel, we take our preconceptions and prejudices with us, even if we think we are liberal and open-minded; cleanliness and hygiene figure largely in our way of looking at other places, and della Valle seems no different, from some of his observations. He’s interested in the way people dress, and makes concessions in order to fit in, as we have to do today when visiting certain societies.

It’s when it gets to beliefs that we are perhaps different. Della Valle was a Catholic – well, he would be, Italian in those days – and although not blinkered in his attitude to other faiths, is clearly convinced that his is the one true one, and dismissive of others’ beliefs as falsehood, deception, dishonesty or plain ridiculous. And yet he is curious enough to observe and describe closely, and to ask questions. He’s particularly interested, during his travels through India, in the ritual of suttee, where a widow is burned, either on her husband’s funeral pyre or on her own, separately, and often quite voluntarily, it seems.

Culture-specific practices are hard to shake off, too: I wonder what behaviours and rituals we feel we must take with us when travelling to far-flung places. Della Valle is often faced with eating without cutlery, in eastern societies where it’s customary to use one’s fingers and eat from a communal dish, and he finds this incredibly difficult: he needs his cutlery. Overall he comes across as clear that his own civilisation, country and standards are superior to those he meets on his travels.

He describes all sorts of places, people, buildings and other things in great detail, as he had to because he could not take photographs (although he did take an artist with him!). He is very taken with the magnificence of Persia, particularly the city of Isfahan.

Curiosity is what connects us with della Valle, if we enjoy travelling, along with the pleasure of discovery, which is something rather harder for us to experience in a world where everything is known. I will also make my usual complaint about the total absence of maps in a travel book: why do editors and publishers think this is acceptable?

Gertrude Bell: The Desert and the Sown

November 16, 2015

51aesYOaEwL._AA160_This is a reprint of a travel journal published well over a century ago, part of Virago press efforts to bring back into print the long-lost writings of women writers. It’s not a wonderful effort: the reproduction of the text is like a rather poor photocopy, and the replacement map is very poor, showing merely a linear route and some of the placenames. But the hundreds of original monochrome photographs have all been reproduced, and many of them are wonderful; I suspect many of them are of places that no longer exist.

As a travel journal it’s a bit bald and mechanical: certainly it’s less interesting than Bell’s diaries. But she travels though wonderful territory, from Jerusalem to Antioch, via Amman, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and lots of other marvellous places; ancient places abound, sites from the earliest years of Christianity as it spread through the Middle East, before being swept away with the spread of Islam from the seventh century onwards.

There’s a certain amount of overlap with the territory covered by William Dalrymple in From The Holy Mountain, which I read earlier this year, and the mental comparison is interesting. He’s far more interested in the people he encounters on the way and questions them, and he provides a good deal of necessary contextual background, too; he’s also travelling in far more perilous times, both for himself and for the remaining Christians in those lands. Bell is writing during the final, relatively impotent years of Ottoman power in the region, before the First World War, and the subsequent Anglo-French carving up of the area, leaving consequences which are still with us today…

Syria comes across as a sleepy, peaceful and welcoming country, full of crumbling Roman towns and Christian churches; there is tension evident between various confessional groups, but no sign of the horrors to come.

This book also underlined for me something which has gradually been becoming clearer to me as I travel and read: the difference between this small and overcrowded country where I live, where space is precious and any building no longer needed or in use is demolished, removed, replaced, and other, more spacious nations where such buildings are merely left, abandoned; they crumble, maybe stones are taken and re-used elsewhere or maybe not, they remain as reminders of the past.

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