Posts Tagged ‘Palmyra’

On the fire at Notre Dame

April 17, 2019

I’m one of the many millions of people horrified by the fire and destruction of Notre Dame in Paris. The disaster prompted me to remember that it’s almost exactly fifty years since, as a school student on my first French exchange, I was taken to see the cathedral; I’ve been back several times since. For me and others, it’s not the most spectacular cathedral in France, but its unique site does give it a special aura. And I found myself also wondering, what is is about this enormous pile of stones that exerts such an effect on so many people around the world, many of whom will not be catholics?

I was moved by the comments of the former Afghan leader who said that to see the destruction of Notre Dame pained him as much as when the taliban has destroyed the ancient buddhas of Bamiyan in his country, and I remembered, too, the Islamic state’s destruction of the Roman remains at Palmyra; I has been touched last autumn when visiting the Roman sites at Arles in Provence to see that the local archaeologists had erected a memorial to the curator of the Palmyra site who had been brutally executed by the fundamentalists for wishing to protect his country’s heritage.

From one perspective, these are all piles of stone, old monuments, buildings or statues. Once can visualise far better things on which to spend the hundreds of millions of euros already pledged for the reconstruction and restoration of Notre Dame… and yet, I’m in favour of that rebuilding along with everyone else.

The cathedral is part of France’s cultural heritage, part of Europe’s cultural heritage, part of the Christian past of the world. And statements along similar lines can be made about the other destroyed monuments I’ve mentioned above. It’s the nature of our attachment that interested me. There’s our sense of awe at the endurance through so much time of such a place – over eight centuries for Notre Dame – far longer than any of us will endure, even in the memories of our descendants. There is our connection today with people like ourselves who so long ago created such magnificent buildings. The dimensions are awe-inspiring, the physical beauty breathtaking, and the realisation of the colossal amounts of time and energy our predecessors expended to create such places must bring us up short if we think about it. No cost-effectiveness or economic rationales involved there! For me there’s also the sense that nothing we are building today is likely to last anywhere near that long. And if all these relics from our past did not have a special significance for so many of us, would we in today’s world lavish so much time and money on preserving them for the future?

Then there’s the deeper sense of what ‘the past’ means for us as individuals, the way we see ourselves and our world, perhaps against the background of time and eternity, and whatever one’s attitude to religion may be, I think it’s hard to avoid using the notion of the spiritual to describe the feelings of awe and of reflection that such places steeped in history are able to inspire in us: we are taken outside ourselves, beyond ourselves, in the direction of thoughts and feelings that are very hard to understand. And somewhere, it seems to me, we all can tune in to such feelings and perhaps we all have a need to experience them at different times in our lives…


Paul William Roberts: Journey of the Magi

July 4, 2017

41TF4DFJVCL._AC_US218_A recent read that I found very interesting and thought-provoking explored some of the early history of Christianity: Paul William Roberts’ book also does, although from a very different perspective and in a very different way. He sets out on a physical journey, beginning in modern-day Iran, to retrace the journey made by the Magi at the time of Jesus’ birth; they were Zoroastrians, a faith that predates Christianity by at least five centuries and which the author demonstrates to have had major influences on early Christianity as well as Judaism as it exists today, and on Islam too. He contrasts Roman Christianity as basically established by St Paul and dependent on faith, with early, gnostic forms of Christianity based on personal experience of God and the individual search for truth: the early church clearly soon divided and it was the Pauline version that won the day, aided in the fourth century by the power of the Roman Empire itself.

Roberts’ travels through Iran, the places he visits and the various people he encounters, are very interesting and thought-provoking; he moves from Iraq into Syria and then to Jordan and Israel, as you might expect given the nature of his journey, but his accounts grow thinner the further he gets until they become quite cursory: it’s clear that the major interest was Persia and the Zoroastrians, and this part of the journey provides the bulk of the book.

The material he presents can be seen as quite controversial in many places, and he is clearly well-educated in his field and very widely-read. So I did find it pretty inexcusable, whether it was his decision or his editor’s, that there are no notes, and even worse, no bibliography: I did not want to take everything just on his say-so. Add to this a somewhat cavalier tone and attitude to details, irreverence at times, and the rather broad-brush approach generally, and you can see why I was often rather irritated. Certainly, it does not have to be like this – Carrère’s book which I read recently and refer to above, is referenced and supported without any of the apparatus getting in the way of the general reader. At times the book reminded me of various odd-ball texts of the past, like Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, or Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos.

Clearly the book adds further evidence to the picture of the origins of Christianity being very complex indeed, much more than I knew, even though I’ve already read quite a lot: much is still mysterious and unclear, and much has evidently been deliberately obscured or even eradicated in the intervening two millennia… there are links between Zoroastrianism, early Christianity, Manichaeans, the Essenes, and even the Cathars, who came along much later, find their place in the jigsaw. I also found the evidence Roberts presents for the ultimate interconnectedness of all faiths quite comforting somehow.

He travelled and wrote in the mid-1990s, so I found his rapturous descriptions of the glories of Palmyra in Syria very saddening, given what has happened in that benighted land so recently. I think you will have gathered that I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. And I will moan again about any publisher who thinks it’s acceptable to publish travel writing without providing maps…

Jonathan Tucker: The Silk Road Art and History

December 9, 2015

31GFEU8hIDL._AA160_If you have read may of my posts about travel writing on this blog, you will know that I’m fascinated by the Silk Road, that collection of routes (for there was no single route, like the M1) which linked East and West from the times of Alexander the Great onwards, allowing people to trade, and to exchange ideas and knowledge. This book is clearly a labour of love: it is helpfully illustrated by many maps of all the different routes that are known, and liberally illustrated with hundreds of wonderful photos of people, places, artefacts and treasures.

The fact that the routes have existed for over two thousand years does put our own world, with its empires and trade routes into a different perspective: how long will what we have invented or created endure? Equally, although these two millennia were never times of unalloyed peace and neighbourliness, it is fair to observe that Christians, Muslims and Buddhists managed to co-exist, to be interested in each other, to preserve contact, to trade, and to learn from one another. Maybe that was easier in a world full of unknowns and uncertainties – after all, travellers never knew whether they would reach their destination…

I marvelled at the vastness of the spaces along the routes, in lands where there was room for unwanted and no longer used buildings just to be left to decay and gradually disappear naturally, crumbling in peace after the people had long gone. They continue to crumble: it is also interesting to realise how the dryness of the desert treat the remains of human settlements, compared with the damp, humid and temperate lands we inhabit: out there, there are reamins of wooden buildings erected over a thousand years ago: shades of Ozymandias, I felt…

I was saddened to think how many of the places described and illustrated are nowadays inaccessible because of ongoing conflicts, and also realised how much had been destroyed by fanatics and fundamentalists since the book was written – the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Roman remains of the city of Palmyra in Syria.

This is probably the book to have on the history and culture of the Silk Roads, as a companion to any other reading on the subject.

No-go areas?

November 15, 2015

I try to eschew overt political comment in my posts, because this blog is meant to be primarily about books and literature. However, the combination of the recent appalling events in Paris, and my enjoyment of travel writing combined to produce a small epiphany this morning.

Most of the travel writing I read is about areas of the planet that, over my lifetime, have virtually become no-go areas for (safe) travel. When I was a teenager, yes not all of the planet was safe to visit, but as far as I can recall, South East Asia was the major danger zone, because of the Vietnam War, which ended forty years ago. Now when I mentally review the planet, the entire Middle East stretching as far as India, the states that once formed the southern Soviet Union, most of North Africa, the Sahara and Sudan are pretty much off-limits. I knew people in my younger days who hitch-hiked from England to India, via Afghanistan – how far might one get nowadays, I wonder?

The regions which have interested me most as a reader have been the Middle East, the Silk Road countries, the Sahara and the Soviet Union. I’m astonished when I look at what’s happened to so much of the world and realise the changes which have taken place. And I’m saddened that so much of the mayhem and death which has blighted these countries has been due to interference from outside, and especially from the West. I cannot perceive anything positive or of longterm value that we have achieved by this.

I was particularly struck by something I read during the past week or so, written by an Arab traveller in the twelfth century, who was either on his way to perform the hajj or making his way home from it, I can’t remember which and it isn’t important. He was travelling through Palestine, at the time of the Crusades, and passed somewhere where Christians were in the process of besieging a Muslim stronghold. He and his companions encountered no problems passing through the region, because they were travellers about their own business, and the siege was nothing to do with them! We may well be over eight centuries later in time, but in attitudes and behaviour?

I’m a quiet life merchant generally speaking; I don’t mind the small adventure of driving hundreds of miles across Europe to visit places and people I want to see, but I can do without extra excitement, thank you. And in these pages I’ve often written appreciatively of explorers who have taken great personal risks, venturing into the unknown or unpredictable on their travels and written entertainingly and knowledgeably about what they saw and who they met. I’m struck by how much of humanity’s past history there is in some of these newly-forbidden places, particularly the Middle East. I know that people are more important than places and buildings, and yet I am always horrified when some relic of human history is destroyed by ignorant fundamentalists – the Bamiyan Buddhas, or the city of Palmyra are two recent instances. In some ways we are an astonishing species, capable of great things, and in other ways we seem collectively not very intelligent at all.

So, for all those places which I cannot imagine ever getting to see with my own eyes, I am very grateful to the travellers, explorers and writers who have brought them to my sofa.

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