Always lead from the rear, they say. Heeding this good advice, Kaptan Kaylee took the rear seat in our double kayak when it was offered. We were off on a short four-day kayaking trip in Sweden.
This has several advantages on such a trip: (1) the marine serf in the front can’t see you when you are not paddling (or lily dipping which has a similar effect to not paddling but is less easy to spot) (2) You control the steering which is an advantage when your crew cannot read a map (3) When conversation is needed (eg instructions) the serf in front can hear you but you can’t hear him (complaining).
Having organised ourselves appropriately (according to pecking order) with pecker at rear and peckee at front, we set off into the wilds of Sweden. Based on history it should be a dangerous place since it is populated by Swedes who claim to be descended from the Vikings who pillaged half the western world. In reality this is Swedish myth since they really aren’t Vikings at all – that’s more the Danes and the Norwegians.
But, as always, in the era of Trump neither undersell yourself not let the facts get in the way of a good story. This is the reason the Swedes have to make Scandinavian noir thrillers since, if you are not the real thing, you can at least make films that pretend.
The reality was that the greatest risk to our safety came not from the Swedes but from ourselves and our “great” kayaking skills and experience which was limited, largely, to playing with plastic toys in the bath at age 3. Not counting, of course, the fact that both of us were about as fit as the average mid-western American would be after a year of bingeing at McDonalds.
In order to increase our risk factor we chose, according to the owner of Scandinavian Kayaking Adventures, Darren, the only August since 1367 (possibly when the Vikings were out raiding) which had bad weather…or at least not great weather.
The inception of our kayaking trip to Bohuslän occurred during a day, earlier in the year, when, in my overwhelming enthusiasm for shopping, I decided the best way to reward Kaylee for reaching 56 years and putting up with me, was to put as little intellectual effort as possible into buying a present.
Searching around on the internet I found The Adventure People who advertise adventure holidays for 64 year old men who still think they are 21. Or, at least, a variety of adventure holidays for people of different skill sets and fitness all around the world. And, in order to increase my commission, I can advise that both Scandinavian Kayaking and the Adventure people were excellent and efficient. Really.
After much deliberation, Kaylee picked the kayaking holiday because (a) she doesn’t dive or like sailing holidays much and (b) I don’t do long distance walking since the inside of my knees look like a something out of a Heath Robinson contraption. This pretty much made sea kayaking or jumping off high cliffs the only remaining options.
Hence, via this circuitous logic and present buying process, we arrived in Gothenburg ready for our four day kayaking trip in a double kayak. After a pleasant two hour trip up the coast to the Bohuslän region (specifically the small town of Hamburgsund) and half an hour getting ready it was time to put in, as we kayakers say. Everything was provided and packed: Boat, paddles, water, food, maps, safety equipment, compass. The only thing lacking was my sense of direction which I didn’t bring.
There are about 3,000 islands and 5,000 islets (skerries) in the Bohuslan archipelago. Now this is both good and bad. Good because it provides lots of shelter, and places to camp which are not far apart. Bad because every island looks like every other island (well sort of) and there are a lot of them. Which means if you have my map reading skills it is easy to mistake one island for another and you normally end up in Norway when you should be in Finland.
Undeterred we set off. The first day was fine and perfect for navigation (initially). We had to paddle up a narrow channel for an hour or two. No chance of getting lost. This was no doubt Darren’s intention: Thinks…”Where can I send these idiots where they won’t get lost for at least the first half day…?”
The sun was warm, the weather was calm and the paddling was easy. I noted that the Kaptan was paddling too hard and would get tired quickly, so I suggested slowing down. This was of course part of a plan to make sure I didn’t have to paddle too hard – if Kaylee didn’t work hard I wouldn’t have to either.
We stopped for lunch at a beautiful small beach/cove. This is typical of some of the islands which are mixture of a small number with nice beaches and inlets and a lot which involve a rocky landing if you want to go ashore. But importantly there is plenty of shelter if the wind gets up. Here we encountered some Dutch people who seemed to think the water was warm and who went swimming. But then compared with the North Sea, Tasmania is warm.
Most days were a pleasant and not too stressful paddle of around four hours. All but one of our campsites had no other kayakers or boats (the plus side of going later in the season) and only the last was shared with two others.
Regrettably the Kaptan had assigned the navigation to the crew and this led to a few incorrect detours. Day one started easily, sliding up the passage between the mainland and Hamburgo Island following a large sailing boat for most of the way. No chance of getting lost. From here you head north and around the island south of Kalvo. With my keen navigation antenna on I managed to take us much further north and around the north of Kalvo, thus requiring a much longer paddle south against the prevailing wind and waves in order to get to our first campsite.
We arrive at the campsite at about the time when the Kaptan is thinking of throwing the crew overboard for incompetence. Just adjacent to Gaso Island, this is the perfect camp spot, a sheltered, sandy beach with level rocks for cooking and basking on. From the top of the island you can see far across the archipelago and we are treated not only to a magnificent sunset but to a mini wonderland of tarns and soaks with wildflowers abundant – and it’s full moon. First though, an hours sunbaking in the remains of the sun with wine and snacks is order of business. The long (well, perhaps not long but not so short) paddle is forgotten.
The morning brings more fine weather and we paddle to Porsholmen Island, just off Fjallbacka. We could go much further west but a strong wind deters us and, initially, we have a gentle two hour paddle past a myriad small islands and islets, fishing villages, lighthouses and inlets. As the the day wears on the weather changes and it becomes greyer and colder.
Luckily today’s paddle involves no major navigational errors but still we resort to mobile phone and GPS a few times in the early stages until finally we are easily guided by the sight of Fjallbacka in the distance. We approach Porsholmen but the location of the campsite is not obvious so we pull into beach which is facing the prevailing wind with the intention of having a recce for a better landing and camp spot.
I get out and, at this point, with the elegance of a rhinoceros in high heels I catch my sandals in the cockpit and plunge side first into the water, soaking myself. On top of everything it is now raining lightly.
The Kaptan is highly concerned that I may have hurt one of my many joints that no longer work properly; wonky knee, sore ankle, bad back…but all that is hurt is my pride and my body temperature which is now, in the cold wind, close to hypothermic. Falling in the ocean is standard practice since I’m required to have at least one misadventure every holiday or trip. This is a requirement to be a member of the Idiot Traveller club.
The Kaptan goes off to recce while I nurse my wounded pride. She reports that we must re-launch and paddle around to the other side.
This is another beautiful camp spot which we have all to ourselves – the two Norwegians who are there paddle off as we arrive; the lateness of the year means everyone else has disappeared. Just as we pull in the sun reappears. There is a nice warm cabin and toilet nearby but they are locked and surrounded by a fence. Clearly whoever owns it does not believe in socialism. We put up the tent and find a spot out of the wind in the evening sun. Normal service is resumed.
Day three sees us paddle to Fjallbacka. There are two main objects in sight. A warm shower at the youth hostel and a good coffee. But when we arrive the youth hostel is still closed. It’s 10 am and the Swedes clearly have adopted Turkish work hours. So we wander off into town.
Fjallbacka is an elegant little town famous for, among other things, the fact that Ingrid Bergman visited every summer bringing a bunch of other famous film actors and directors – and where she has a square named after her. Its mountain is known for its views and the passage that passes between two parts of it.
We wander the streets firstly looking for good coffee – eventually ending up at the bakery where we get a grade 6 coffee. Then we have to do the Kaptan’s shopping (clothes etc) and food shopping. This is an obligatory routine on every holiday. The Kaptan goes shopping for gifts for every living human being she knows on the planet and the crew sits meditating on the nature of consumer society. Once this routine is finished, the visit is rounded off by hot showers and phone recharges.
At 1 pm we are back in the kayak and heading for Lilla Brattholmen Island. The wind is now pretty strong and Kaptan is unhappy. Her unhappiness is compounded by the failure of the navigator to navigate correctly and instructions are given to check the GPS. Tolerance levels are now at about 2 out of 10. I check and, sure enough, the Kaptan is right. Due to a following sea and winds we have been moving at approximately the speed of The World’s Fastest Indian, (note this has nothing to do with kayaking but I just like the film) meaning we are about halfway to Norway by the time we change course.
We alter course, meaning that what could have been an even longer & unnecessary detour is avoided. The bad news is that there is but one tiny beach to land on and it is exposed to cyclonic force winds from the south-west. There is one other kayak beached there. The only solution is to find the camping location they have and join them.
This involves carrying every last item needed for the night, about 100 metres across the beach up a 20 metre sheer cliff, across a moorland that would have given Heathcliff pause and down the other side. All this while being threatened with an early death through being caught in a sudden updraught of wind and carried off into the ocean. Intrepid adventurers, as we are, we succeeded, however. The two other erstwhile campers are safely ensconced in their tent and don’t emerge for a while.
For us it is tea and siesta time…leading into diner. Afternoon tea/slash dinner time can sort of merge into one on these trips with good planning. We meet our neighbours who are a German/UK (Boris eat your heart out) couple, Eiko and Pascale, pretty much the first people we’ve met on our little trip.
The spot in which we are camped is quite beautiful with a mass of heath plants, lichen, and great views on all sides (once you get out of the camp area). The other three spot a seal. I am convinced it is a bird but am firmly in a minority of one and don’t have my binoculars. So a seal it is.
We pass a pleasant and convivial dinner together and turn in for the night wishing for fine weather to allow us to pack up in the dry in the morning.
Day Four arrives cold, wet and windy. We decide to paddle ensemble directly to the take out point which is TanumStrand – the alternative being the recommended sightseeing tour around a few islands. It turns out this is only a short paddle of about an hour and we arrive to find that there are hot showers and toilets on the beach. The locals have apparently failed to realise that it is not a hot summer’s day and are taking their money dip and complaining about the prevalence of stinging jellyfish. I refrain from telling them it’s because they eat too many predator fish.
Having showered we wander off in search of somewhere dry, warm and with coffee to await Darren’s pick up. Fortunately the TanumStrand is kind enough to provide all of these for free whether intentionally or otherwise. Two hours later we are on the road back to Gothenburg.
1980: The year of Rubik’s cube, of the eruption of Mt St Helens, of the establishment of CNN, the start of the Iran/Iraq war, the murder of John Lennon…and Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.
All important events, of course, but…more importantly 1980 was the year we sailed the Nile. I say we meaning myself and a random group of French travellers I met in Aswan. As one does. We had all arrived (I think) – or at least I had, the previous day from Abu Simbel.
For those in the know Abu Simbel is both a monument to the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians and the rank stupidity of modern industrial society. Abu Simbel is not the temple’s original name – it’s named after a young Egyptian boy who led explorer Giovanni Belzoni to the site – the main temple was called “the “Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun“. Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1264 BC and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 BC.
Inside Ramses temple, Abu Simbel
Flying into Abu Simbel, Lake Nasser in the distance
The four great statues of Ramses II
The temple is entirely a monument to Ramses II’s ego – nothing changes with Kings and politicians – and twice a year, (October 22 and February 22), allegedly his coronation and birth, the sun strikes directly through the temple door and illuminates the statues of Ramses and two of the three Gods with whom he is seated. The fourth is the God of the underworld – so stays in darkness.
Legend has it that for all of modern science and engineering it proved impossible to site the temples to recreate, precisely, what the ancient Egyptians had done – so the sun now enters on different days that it would originally have done (this may be an urban/desert myth, I’m not certain – in other words fake news).
Lake Nasser, behind the dam, is huge. It stores nearly six trillion cubic feet (157 km3) of water! This is about four times the amount of water stored behind Hoover Dam (USA, Lake Mead) and Three Gorges Dam (China) (Chao et al., 2008).
But more importantly, in terms of important globally understood yardsticks this is 340,000 Sydharbs approximately (1 Sydharb = 500 gigalitres) – more Sydharbs than you can poke the proverbial stick at (but perhaps my maths is wrong – it seems a lot). For the uneducated, Sydharbs are the global volume measuring standard – based on the amount of water in Sydney harbour)
On the Nile: women and girls gather water; Nile fishermen
The construction of the dam meant that millions of tonnes of silt normally carried to the Nile delta were now stopped by the dam – meaning that farmers now had to fertilise their crops with superphosphates. Aside from that there were the 90,000 displaced Egyptians and Sudanese, the erosion of the Nile delta and associated increase in salinity and the increase in prevalence of schistosomiasis/bilharzia among other things.
That is not to say there were no benefits from the Aswan High Dam. It produces a significant amount of electrical power (enough originally for about 50% of Egypt’s needs, now less than 15%) that allowed electrification of “rural” Egypt. It controlled floods, it allowed permanent irrigation of many areas and it led to a fishing industry on Lake Nasser.
Having arrived in Aswan, I wandered down to the Nile from my Aswan Hotel – I don’t remember a lot about it after 39 years except it was on the 2nd floor, it had a bed (nothing else, nada), tiled floor and it’s walls were white – strange what sticks in the memory. My mission was to try and get a ride on a felucca (a traditional Egyptian Nile sailing boat). But being on my own made it almost impossibly expensive, especially on my budget, never mind much less interesting than travelling on a boat in a group. So I wasn’t hopeful.
The beauty of the Nile
Unlike today, where if you turn around you will trip over a tourist or possibly 40, 1980s Aswan was largely devoid of tourists. So a group of five white people haggling with Saiid, a Nubian, stood out like the proverbial dogs balls. I wandered over – it was my big break. They were leaving next day for Luxor, five days and 216 kms downstream (or, as the Felucca sails, nearer to 300-350 kms since you cross and recross the river with the wind). They agreed to take me as an extra passenger (and financial offset) and I was off with four non-English speaking Frenchies.
My six companions were, Saiid, our esteemed Captain, Francoise, Alain, Bernard, Miriame and Caroline. We spent some three weeks travelling together, down the Nile, visiting Karnak (in Luxor), the valley of the Kings, Alexandria and Cairo. I even flew back to Paris with Caroline. But unlike today where, if we like the people we travelled with, we are forever linked by social media, I never heard from or saw any of them again and I occasionally wonder where they are, what they did with their lives and if they are all alive or not.
Clockwise from top left: Bernard and Caroline on the way to Valley of the Kings (VOK); Alain at Giza, Alain and Bernard on the oars, The crew (l to r Francoise, Caroline, Bernard, Alain, Saiid, Miriame), Alain at Philae, Bernard and Francoise on the road to VOK
Feluccas are the traditional Nile boat, single sail and they travel by tacking backwards and forwards across the Nile using the winds out of the desert. In 1980 few people were taking the felucca trip down the Nile, so we were source of constant interest to everyone we met – in this case no one other than locals. While we saw a couple of large cruise boats heading upriver, from a tourism perspective we felt a bit like Robinson Crusoe.
Before leaving Aswan we had to visit the Philae temples, which sit on an island in the middle of the Nile below the original Aswan (low) dam. Like Abu Simbel these temples would have been flooded by the original dam and to save them an entirely new island was build and the temples were reconstructed there.
Philae temples below the Aswan low dam
Ancient cities such as Edfu were entirely deserted. After a brief taxi donkey ride from the river we spend several hours exploring the complex entirely undisturbed by anyone else.
On day three we ran out of wind. This required a us to bring our best rowing experience to the fore, taking it turns on the oars. By midday, however, the initial burst of olympic like enthusiasm for the task at hand and confronted by the prospect of another few hours of rowing in the heat the crew succumbed to the lure of a tow and we hitched the felucca to a cargo boat heading downriver.
Nile taxi (left); tea break on the Nile; Nile sunset (bottom right)
Nights are spend camped on the boat, where we eat, drink and smoke into the middle hours of the night; days are a gourmet feast of Egyptian sights and sounds, ancient cities, small villages, groups by the Nile, water taxis. And each day is embraced at both ends by golden sunsets and warm breezes. It is the blue riband of travel, scarcely to be found these days. And each day and night the Nile flows by carrying its myriad sights and stories. It’s the backbone of Egypt, its lifeline, its water supply, its power supply, its sewer, its drinking water, its bathing and washing water, its highway.
Five days after leaving Aswan we arrived in Luxor. Like all good tourists we visited Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. It was a rather different experience to today, I imagine. I remember wandering Karnak, both in the mornings and the evening and during the son et lumière with no more than 20 others spread around the temple complexes. We had no worries about security, terrorists, crowds. Nothing needed to be booked or arranged in advance.
Our trip to the Valley of the Kings involved simply jumping on six bikes and heading off for the day. Along the way there were numerous side trips to fallen monuments and opportunities for visits to small traders. From high on the hills you can see the sliver of green, in the desert, that is the Nile. Never was any country so dependent on a single river. In so many ways it is truly astounding that this country built such a rich heritage and history from such a poor land and the Valley of the Kings simply serves to emphasise this. Astounding wealth and beauty in an empty, hostile and largely barren (and least for human purposes) landscape.
Clockwise from top right: The tomb of Seti, tomb of Ramses VI, Hassan Araby’s daughter, fallen statue of Ramses II, The Nile valley in the distance
From Karnak and the Valley of the Kings we travelled south by train to Cairo and Alexandria.
Saiid Hassan Araby and Family on the road to the Valley of Kings; Deir El Bahari and Temple of Hapsetshut
Cairo, for me, is my childhood home and the place where I grew to love (most) aspects of Middle Eastern culture and hospitality (see: The hospitality of Strangers in a Strange Land). I spent five years here between five and ten (1960-65) and this was my third trip back to the city. When we lived in Cairo it had a population of 3.5 million. Today that is closer to 20 million and it remains one of the world’s fastest growing city.
City of the dead (centre); Mohammed Aly Mosque (right)
Cairo has its roots in the ancient settlement of Memphis, now 24 km southwest of the city. It was founded in 2,000 BC and ruled by King Menes who united Upper and Lower Egypt. It remains one of the world’s most fascinating cities and, if you suspend your tourist “danger” monitor, one of the most friendly and interesting.
Glass blowing (left) – in Cairo
Wandering the ancient souk (markets) near the city of the dead and Al-Azhar University and having walked across Cairo from my hotel, I was approached by a friendly Cairean. Like a myriad other names and places his name is long forgotten but I shall call him Ahmet, after our Egyptian cook (yes, colonialism at its best).
As usual he wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing. At this point he told me he was the “guardian” of several closed mosques and would show me up the minarets if I was interested. At this point all the stories about idiot travellers robbed and left for dead in the backstreets of strange cities came to mind.
“Ah, well, I thought “nothing ventured nothing gained. So commenced a day of experiences only open to idiots who cast aside the normal warnings. After trips to the top of three locked minarets, he (whose name is long forgotten) invited me back to his flat.
Now I saw the headlines about tourist kidnapped, drugged, operated on for their kidneys and left for dead. But I accepted regardless. Five minutes later he opened the door to his tiny flat. Inside were approximately ten other men all in a lather of excitement. It turned out the occasion was a soccer game: Egypt versus some other African nation.
A childhood in Cairo
I spend an hour in a room with a dozen frenzied Arabs screaming and throwing things at the television, calling down Allah’s curses on the opposition. If the second coming was happening in my guide’s front room they couldn’t have been more excited. About 4 pm the match ended (yes those were the days when football happened during the day). I prepared to leave. Mustafa grabbed my arm. He requested five dollars (about $20 in today’s money). When I asked what for, he replied “You wait”. Fifteen minutes later he returned, grabbed me and two others remaining and we went off to the tea house. Except it wasn’t. In my naivety I had assumed all of these little cafes with people smoking were tea houses.
Temple of Edfu; getting a tow on the Nile; gathering water.
It turns out a significant proportion were hash cafes and Mustafa has just used my $5 to buy a big nail of hashish. We sit in the cafe for about two hours progressively smoking the entire amount via a water pipe as the proprietor brings us charcoal to heat the hash. Now anyone smart, knowing that these guys probably smoke hash for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I have only consume drugs once every blue moon, would probably have made off after half an hour in a reasonable ambulatory state. But no. Yours truly waits until it is late, dark and he is totally shitfaced.
At this point, several kilometres from my hotel, in one of the seedier parts of Cairo, with no taxis or other transport visible, I lurch off into the night trying to head in what I think is the correct direction. I have no idea where I am going. The streets are dark and unpaved.
This is normally the point in the story in which the Idiot Traveller ends up in the gutter, robbed and mugged, at best, or dead at worst. Fortunately, I am still alive to tell the tale; an hour and four kilometres later I turn the corner and see my hotel. It is the closest thing to a Damascene miracle since Christ was a boy. Except in this case, in Cairo.
The pyramids at Giza
Hash and football nights aside, Cairo and the nearby sites of Giza, Memphis and Sakkara are so rich in history and glorious buildings and sites that one could spend a lifetime exploring. Our time, on this occasion was limited to a week, just enough time to visit Giza, Sakkara and Alexandria. Then it was time to part never to meet again.
The Valley of the Kings (left top and centre); Sakkara stepped pyramid; above the valley of the Kings, 1980
They say that Einstein said that the sign of an idiot was doing the same thing twice (actually I think the word was repeatedly) and expecting a different outcome. This is the thesis of the Idiot Traveller. I am a world expert, while travelling, in repeating mistakes.
I am also happy to go on accrediting the saying (in reality it was “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results“) to Einstein, although there is no evidence he ever said it.
So having done little travelling in the last year it was important to follow the the creed of the Idiot Traveller. You start with booking your car, for pick up on arrival in Tirana, on the wrong day. Cost: an extra €30. You compound this by booking it for return two days after you leave, cost €60 (wasted). How does one do this? Buggered if I know.
Then based on these mistakes you book your car in Podgorica a day late and at the airport. Which isn’t useful when you are arriving by bus. Cost €20 (taxi fare) and €30 (extra days rental).
Then of course there is the small issue of leaving bits of my DNA everywhere. No, not in that sense. Two pairs of sunglasses, adaptor, hat, keys (requiring me to be rescued via a new set of keys sent by taxi). The list goes on. You’d think that after 55 years of travelling (yes I was first stuck unaccompanied on a plane at 8) that you’d learn to check twice before moving.
So, our first job was to persuade the rental company to find a car a day early. This might have been easier if I hadn’t decided to try and entertain the rental car person with my witty repartee about drivers in Turkey and Georgia; asking him if Albanian drivers drove like Turks or Georgians (the thesis being that Turks are good drivers and Georgians are simply people in cars with a death wish).
That’s right. Jokes don’t work well in second languages. He looks at me strangely and replies “No they drive like Albanians. Here we are Albanians”
Panda 2 (right): cheaper to run and prettier
On finding we have a Fiat Panda and him asking if a Panda is ok for us. I tell him it’s fine. Cheap to run. Just find a patch of bamboo. That joke doesn’t work either. At which point Kaylee tells me I’m an idiot (traveller) and the car guy thinks so too.
Solitary confinement creates trauma..
Albania, was until 1991 Europe’s equivalent of North Korea. An entirely closed and paranoid society. Its long time leader, Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha) believed Albania was the only true communist society on earth and refused to even associate with Russia or China after they fell out.
No one was allowed to leave Albania and few people, if any, entered. The society was a police state with everyone subject to strict controls and surveillance. Any breach of the rules and everyone in your family paid the price.
If Albania were a person (Al Bania) he would be a very disturbed individual and this, perhaps, explains Albania’s many idiosyncrasies.
The House of Leaves
Albania’s trauma is well documented in a great little museum called the “House of Leaves” located in central Tirana just across from the orthodox cathedral.
Albania was, for fifty years, the archetypal police state. Every aspect of public and private life was controlled via the state security apparatus.
Tens of thousands of Albanians were recruited as state spies to eavesdrop and spy on their fellow citizens. Virtually no one was allowed to enter or leave the country. The society was completely closed. Everything was rationed. In 1991 there were a mere 3000 cars in the entire country (heaven!!)
The House of Leaves Museum tells the story of the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The walls list the thousands executed, imprisoned or persecuted by the state under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha).
Mercedes for everyone
One of the first things one notices about Albania are the German cars, especially the Mercedes. For a poorish European country it has a remarkable number of expensive cars. That, in itself would not be an issue except that there is a German car gene that emerges in Albanians driving German cars…it’s a sort of arsehole gene which convinces them that they can drive as they want regardless of road rules, safety or manners.
If you drive a Mercedes you may overtake where you want, when you want. You may drive at whatever speed you feel like but, most importantly, it is compulsory to treat every other car driver as a second class citizen, cutting them off , cutting in, abusing them and generally. No level of psychopathy is too extreme for Mercedes owners.
This specific problem (call it the Mercedes syndrome) is compounded by an odd Albanian trait which essentially persuades all Albanians that it permissible to simply stop wherever they want, for whatever reason. Need to grab a coffee. No worries! Simply stop in the middle of the road, blocking all traffic, and nick in for take away. Feel like a park? Don’t worry about finding a parking place. Just stop. Need to pick your nose? Look at your phone? Think about the meaning of life? Just stop where you are. No worries.
Mercedes, yes, religion and communism, No!!
One of the side effects of 50 years of totalitarian communism (a sort of oxymoron) apart from a love of symbols of outrageous consumerism (eg Mercedes, BMWs and Audis) is that all the most obvious remaining signs of the era have been systematically erased, except perhaps in Albanians commitment to secularism (it is the least religious society on earth some say).
The giant statues of Stalin, Lenin and Enver Hoxha now hang out discreetly behind the museum, hidden from the everyday of Albanians, waiting, one day perhaps, to be restored as a part of history rather than as the open wound of the recent past, as they might currently be seen. We visited Stalin, Lenin and Hoxha, where they were hanging out, as part of the city walking tour (highly recommended) which also included Enver Hoxha’s house – also closed for now as part of the same concept of keeping the recent past hidden.
Ironically, directly across from Hoxha’s erstwhile house is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (apparently Albania’s first fast food outlet – as yet Albania has no McDonalds) the sign of which reflects nicely in Hoxha’s living room window – a symbol, so our guide tells us of the victory of capitalism.
The remnants of the recent past are everywhere. In the park on the corner are one of the 270 bunkers built all over Tirana/Albania from which the valiant Albanians would repel the perfidious Americans, Russians, Chinese etc. And in the middle of the park a piece of the Berlin wall sent to commemorate the fall of communism. It sits next to a replica of the entrance to the chrome mines where political prisoners were sent to mine and die.
The abandonment of the past is not restricted to images but to buildings also. On our tour we pass the Pyramid, constructed after Hoxha’s death and intended to be a massive memorial to his memory. Today, after several uses over the years, including as a Telecom building it lies empty.
Despite the irreligious attitudes of Albanians, the wasteful symbols of formal religion abound. A new and, as yet, unfinished mosque donated by Turkey (a miniature version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul) – costing billions because the Turks need to waste their spare billions on something – and a cathedral incorporated in 2014 and incorporating an impressive ceiling with the largest mosaic in the Balkans.
Speed limits and speed humps (aka sleeping policemen to the Poms)
In theory there are speed limits in Albania but everyone ignores them. There is a good reason for this as Albanian speed limits are totally idiosyncratic. You can be speeding down a freeway at 80-100 kph and next minute there is a 30k speed limit. The reason? An intersection. Never mind that only one tractor and a passing camel have emerged from that intersection since Christ was a boy. And it’s like that at every intersection. So everyone just ignores them.
Similarly most stretches of superhighway have 30, 40 or 50 k limits for no apparent reason other than either (a) a peculiar Albanian sense of perverse humour (let’s really give drivers the shits) or (b) let’s collect lots of traffic fines by imposing weird and ridiculous speed limits.
If this were not enough, Albanians have an obsessive love for speed humps. Everywhere. And often. And in the weirdest places.
That is bad enough in itself but for whatever reason the accepted speed to traverse a speed hump is apparently 0.1 kph. So everyone slows to a virtual stop even though most of the humps could be comfortably crossed at 50 kph. The reason for this excessive caution is not clear but maybe goes back to when there were only 3000 cars in the country and a car cost you the equivalent of 10 years wages.
Having said this, most of the speed humps are entirely unnecessary since traffic in Tirana makes traffic in Istanbul or Sydney look like a paragon of fast flowing traffic. The city is one large traffic jam – but nevertheless it has many redeeming features from a plethora of tree lined pedestrian streets, good markets, to great night life, good food (especially the boreks) and lots of friendly, helpful people.
Meeting the Deputy Minister for Justice
You know how it is? You rock up in your AirBnB in Divjake after going out for dinner and go to tell your host (who speaks no English) that you will be leaving very early in the morning so will not need breakfast. Not to worry. she indicates that her daughter, Fjoralda, speaks good English. So we sit on the lounge chatting about life, death, Albania etc…Eventually I ask Fjoralda about her work and life and it turns out that Fjoralda Caka is the Albania Deputy Minister for Justice. You never know who you will meet on the lounge in Divjake.
A day at the beach and in the mountains
This was the archetypal Australian at the beach experience. Arriving in Divjake – which unlike many of the ugly beachside towns find throughout the Mediterranean (see eg most of Spain, most of the Albanian and Montenegrin coastal architecture) – has made a real effort with its buildings and streetscapes.
It’s a hot day and we head for the beach – which turns out to be a wasteland of eroded dune systems – systematically vandalised by thousands of cars – dirty looking water in a lagoon etc. We dutifully pay our beach entry fee anyway and head out on the long ricketty boardwalk which had been built over the lagoon out to the ocean proper…
The boardwalk ends at a bar on the beach which, at least serves good gin and tonic and plays some good blues…while we contemplate the miles of cars and umbrellas on the beach and long for a proper Australian beach.
If you can criticise Albanian beaches (or at least the ones we saw because we heard Himare and other places are much better) – you can’t criticise the mountains which are spectacular and a welcome escape from the heat and crowds of the coast. if you are a walker or mountain lover – Albania’s alps are beautiful and rugged.
Skanderbeg and Krujë
Then there is the famous Skanderbeg. Now you may never have heard of Skanderbeg but every Albanian has. There is a statue on every second street corner in Albania. There are Skanderbeg streets, Skanderbeg parks and a giant Skanderbeg museum to be found in Krujë just outside Tirana.
But there is more. Not content with populating the country with more Skanderbeg statues than there are Albanian citizens, they are busy erecting Skanderbeg statues in every other country in the world. No Skanderbeg in your country? Don’t worry one is coming soon.
Skanderbeg mania and idolatry not withstanding, Krujë is well worth a visit. The old citadel incorporates not just the aforementioned museum, but the ethnographic museum, a great old church now converted to a mosque and incorporating some nice frescoes, among other things such as great views, the Skanderbeg olive tree….
See the full set of images on Flickr below click links):
I must have been in my teens when “Marrakesh Express” came out (1969). Those were heady days. Before Hendrix (1970) and Joplin died (1970). The Lizard King was still alive (died 1971). We were still trapped in Hotel California. Barclay James Harvest would play at our school a year or two later, followed by Genesis. We paid them ￡200 and a year later they were playing in Brighton for￡2000. There are some music pundits that say that Marrakesh Express is among the worst pop songs ever written. But we didn’t care because to us it represented something totally different from the school environment in which we were trapped.
I can remember, to this day, singing the lyrics of the CSN song and fantasising with my teenage mates about heading off to Morocco – before we even really know what drugs and sex were. Instead I made it to the Costa del Sol, with two other school friends, where we got drunk on cheap champagne and risked imprisonment by hiring a car on a provisional licence and then driving around the Pyrenees with no insurance. That was the limit of our budget, nerve and time.
Had we met any women in Spain, I know that I, for one, would have had no idea what to say, let alone anything else. Being brought up with two brothers and attending an all male school for all but two of your school years will do that. It took me another 15 odd years (odd being the operative term) before I got over that handicap in life and, I’m sure, some of my female friends will argue I never got over it.
So, I guess, Morocco had been on the proverbial bucket list for somewhere around 50 years before I finally landed in Fes, earlier this year. A trip taken somewhat wiser about things like drugs and sex (or at least I like to believe so) but just as profoundly ignorant about Morocco and most of Africa.
Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies Ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall American ladies five-foot tall in blue
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind Had to get away to see what we could find Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led Listen not to what’s been said to you
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express? They’re taking me to Marrakesh All aboard the train, all aboard the train
I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there I smell the garden in your hair Take the train from Casablanca going South Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth
Colored cottons hang in the air Charming cobras in the square Striped djellabas we can wear at home Well, let me hear ya now
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train, all aboard
And so I boarded my RyanAir flight. As any wise traveller knows this, in itself, was my first mistake. Non Gaelic speakers may not know it but Ryan is the Gaelic word for “complete shite”. And if it’s not it should be. If you don’t have a bad back when you board you will when you are carried off. The seats are made from some form of indestructible rigid plastic and, far from reclining, are actually set in a bolt upright position.
The décor is what you imagine they’d put in Guantanamo to torture the inmates. And all this before you even get to the booking process and charges which if you have any self-respect, you’d never put yourself through twice. People say “Oh but it’s a budget airline”. I mean, Aldi is a budget supermarket but no one would go there if they behaved like RyanAir. Can you imagine? Want to walk down the aisles? That’ll be $5. Basket? $5. Customer assistance? $20. Pay for your goods? $5. Use the toilet $10. Still at least we got their alive albeit with a stiff neck and sciatica.
My second mistake in Morocco was breaking rule 2 (the first being don’t travel RyanAir) – which is don’t try and cram a four week itinerary into a two week period. One would imagine any Idiot Traveller would know this after 60 odd years of travelling. But no. So Morocco turned out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, I.e good in parts – meaning of course that a revisit is required to make amends.
This is a country which is fundamentally Muslim and traditional in it’s Berber culture. It’s population is about 75% Berber and about 25% Arabic.
Morocco hasn’t been overly corrupted by tourism, and is also a relatively modern in ways that many African countries are not yet. Good public transport, good drinking water, great food, good accommodation and remarkable accomodating to tourists. So it’s really the best of both worlds. Politically is is relatively liberal and socially and religiously it falls somewhere between a historically liberal and secular muslim society, such as Turkey (perhaps was), and the more conservative societies of Iran and Saudi.
On the road to Merzouga, Morocco
My two week trip took me on a circuit via Fes, to Volubilis the ancient Roman city, to Merzouga, in the desert, and then on through the Atlas mountains to Marrakech before finishing my trip in Casablanca and then flying back out from Fes.
It’s a day long trip into the desert but it’s a trip that should really take at least two days and once you are there it’s a full day trip back to Fes or onto Marrakech. In the ideal world this should be a week’s circuit at minimum. A couple of days out. Three or four in the desert and a couple of days back. And even that is scratching the surface.
On the road to Merzouga
My first AirBnB was in the heart of the Medina, which is reputedly the largest and oldest in Africa. Morocco greeted me with freezing weather and the tail end of a few days of rain. And it turned out that the AirBnb, I’d selected, while having many redeeming features, not least it’s location, could well have doubled as the site for the winter Olympics.
Absent any heating the only solution, after about 4 pm, was either to go out or to bury oneself in bed wearing every possible scrap of clothing. Still the foodcooked by our friendly hosts was good and his brother, usefully, also owned a cafe about 50 metres up the road which allowed for evening entertainment and supplies not normally availablein the Medina.
I shared the paid bit of the accommodation with two other guests, an Australian woman, Tiffany and a French woman, Alex, with whom I would visit the desert out near Merzouga.
Mohamed and the monkeys at the ski resort
The Idiot Traveller rule for all new places is to have at least a half day, if not a full day. for organisational purposes. Work out where you are going to go. Find the teller machines, the railway and bus station, the best cafes, the interesting bars, the live music. Work out the timetables, plan your route, make your bookings if necessary.
Then a minimum of two days to put that plan into effect. That’s the theory but often the first day turns into a sort of desultory blob of a day where you get up late, have a brunch, get some money out, study your map over a coffee, stroll around a bit and climb up the nearest hill (if there is one) where you can buy a wine and look at the city below. That then becomes your spare day so you need four days minimum instead of three. So that was day one in Fes. Meaning the first part of day two is taken up doing what you should have done on day one.
My second day in Fes involved a side trip to Volubilis, the ancient and former capital or Roman Mauretania. Not that I was aware that the Romans even came this far south-west but clearly they did since just an hour from Fes is bloody great Roman ruin, estimably well preserved.
This was an Idiot Traveller instant decision – the sort you make when you haven’t been forced to make decisions of any importance for so long that you can no longer remember how to make them. Shall I go, shan’t I go, shall I go, shan’t I go…for about four hours. With the result that by the time I actually headed for the station it was already about 11 am.
So you jump the train omitting to note that one should get off at the second stop in Meknes. As a result you descend at the first station in town thus finding yourself marooned several kilometres from the “grand taxis” which you are supposed to share to go to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town, and then on to Volubilis.
The holy city of Moulay Idriss
Here I encounter Chloë Mayoux who has made the same mistake as I but hasn’t yet realised that she has made that mistake. Chloë is a half French, half British being. She can’t decide if she is French or British and thus was a sort of Brexit before Brexit ever existed.
Chloë says she feels more British than French even though she exhibits every sign of being psychologically about 90% French and prefers to speak French. She is being cajoled by an elderly Moroccan who is trying, illegally, to sell her an unofficial tour of Volubilis.
On seeing me he determines that I shall (a) be his second victim and (b) by persuading me he will also be able to persuade Chloë as the cost to each of us will be halved. Unfortunately for him I perform the Scots gambit, a tourism form of a chess move which prevents one being checkmated by a clever tourism operator and saves a lot of money.
So I persuade Chloë, clearly against her better judgement, to share a petit taxi to where we can get a shared grand taxi.
Chloë’s protective alarm systems are at Code Red. I can sense the hackles rising on the back of her neck as she tries to decide if I am (a) an axe murderer (b) a sex slave trader (c) merely a dirty old man who is likely to annoy and harass her. Having made the judgement that the latter is the most likely and reasonably benign outcome, but clearly still being very doubtful, we set off.
Communication is sparse as Chloë follows the female strategy of “don’t think I’m going to encourage your interest in me by speaking to you”.This is a sort of partial inverse of the female complaint about being sexually invisible after about age 50.
In fact the same sense of invisibility applies to older men but, not only that, one is burdened with the perils of being perceived as a potential serial molester of young women if one is the least bit friendly to any female stranger under the age of 30. It is perhaps poetic justice for several thousand years of patriarchy.
Arriving eventually at Volubilis I can tell that the last thing Chloë wants is to be forced to do the tour of the ruins with me. Which is fine because I feel the same way. For me being forced to undertake tours as part of a group, however small, is about as satisfying is it is for my partner to be forced to take me shopping. It ruins the entire experience.Still we bump into each other a few times as we tour the ruins and by the time we come to return it appears that Chloë is no longer at code red.
Volubilis itself is a delight. It’s large and well preserved as Roman ruins go. It sits high on a mini-plateau with spectacular views all around – especially good for sunset viewing – and it has a plethora of well preserved buildings, mosaics and bath houses.
This was the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and, as such, was full of grand buildings. Historically this was also the capital of numerous empires. Built in and occupied since the 3rd century BC, Volubilis had seen its share of residents – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans – before being taken back by the locals by 285 AD.
The city remained occupied by Latin Christians, then Muslims, then the Idrisid dynasty, the founders of modern Morocco. In the 11th century, it was abandoned when the seat of power moved to Fes. The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone for building Meknes.
The buildings include a massive arch to the Emperor Caracalla. It was built in 217 by the city’s governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the Emperor and his mother. Caracalla was himself a North African and had recently extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces.
By the time the arch was finished both Caracalla and his mother, Julia had been murdered by a usurper – perhaps a warning against misplaced vanity. Other major buildings include the Capitol dedicated to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva and the Basilica . The Capitol was built under the obscure (at least to me) Emperor Macrin (the ancestor of the current French President, perhaps).
The Arch, Basilica and Capitol, Volubilis
Volubilis is sufficiently intact that, wandering around the ruins, in and out among the baths, houses and mosaics one can almost imagine the footsteps of a thousand years ago, echoing down the stone streets. In winter this is exploration of the past at its best. There are few places in the world to see better examples of Roman mosaics, in situ.
Volubilis. Every step a joy
Our return trip to Fes is more relaxed and somewhat hilarious, or at least the first part. Our “grand taxi” is an old Mercedes which is already completely full save the front passenger seat. This means that Chloë and I have to share that seat and I make the mistake of not insisting on being in middle.
Being a manual car this means that every time the driver changes gear Chloë has to perform a feat of yoga practice combining a new move, known as upward dog, combined with a right hand twist in order to avoid getting groped by the taxi driver each time he changes gear. This is repeated about 40 times on the trip becoming increasingly hilarious as time passes. Maybe it was the Roman air. Our return to the station is made easy by a Moroccan woman who goes out of her way to accompany us the 500 metres to the station out of the goodness of her heart and we finally arrive back in Fes around 8 pm.
I have another day in Fes. The Fes Medina has allegedly over 8000 streets and lanes and venturing out into that maze of alleys to find a particular location is a bit like looking for ethics and values in a modern day democracy. They are out there somewhere but finding them is somewhat tortuous with no guarantee of success.
In my view better by far just to set off blindly and hope that, by chance, good things will happen. This was my plan if you can call a plan with only unknown unknowns a plan. But the advantage is that you stumble across all sorts of interesting little side alleys and cafes populated only by locals where you can either have good conversations or get mugged and robbed.
Either are, of course, interesting experiences but one is less stressful than the other. In addition you escape the majority of the other tourists who tend to stick to tried and true routes. Still since I was close to the famous blue Gate and the tannery these were included in my itinerary.
The trip to the desert was like Gordon and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. We knew, ostensibly where we were going, but beyond that we had little information about the how, when, why or who with.
This was a variation on my Fes Medina exploration, this time with some known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. I was to travel with Alex, a young Frenchwoman just about to return to France having finished her studies, who was desperate to visit the desert before she left.
Then there was Mohamed the owner of the AirBnB, his cousin Salah and there was the driver who was apparently anonymous and who tried hard not to smile or communicate during the entire trip.
Prior to leaving I knew only Mohamed and Salah among the group and they were the known unknowns.Alex, Mohamed and Salah had known each other for a while, so I felt a bit like the third wheel.
Alex and me, Mohamed and me, the two boys and Alex and the road trip crew
Alex and Salah, in particular, and Mohamed to a lesser degree apparently had a form of love hate relationship going on where which felt like some form of asexual codependency where Salah spent the entire trip trying to touch and fondle Alex, which she accepted and appeared to even like until such time as it went beyond some unwritten and unspoken boundary at which point a shouting match would start and Salah would sulk off in a passive aggressive way until the entire sequence started again.
The trip to the desert passes through the nearest ski resorts and through many kilometres of semi-desert with the shining Atlas mountains in the distance.
It’s a fascinating trip broken by a few stops to visit villages and desert oases en route.
Each of the stops and where we go next is a bit of a magic mystery tour because Mohamed’s idea of being a tour guide is to just to go and not really tell anyone where the tour group is going, or when or why. The exemplar of this was arriving in Merzouga where Mohamed and Salah just mysteriously disappeared leaving Alex and I abandoned with no information and, more importantly, no alcohol.
In the morning we pile into the van and are driven out to Khamlia to see a performance by a group of musicians from the Gnaoua – about whom you can read more below.
The music and performance are worth going for but for the sense that The Gnaoua musicians feel like a cross between circus performers and sweatshops labourers in Bangladesh.
The Gnaoua – maudlin musicians
There is a distinct sense of ennui which makes watching the performers a tad uncomfortable for the onlookers – in fact some look so sad at being therethat you feel that they are about to start weeping – . You know you will be shuffled out the door and in another half an hour the performers will perform the same songs for another group of tourists. It’s the sort of thing that makes one want to avoid anything organised of this type.
From here we drive further into the desert to look at a semi-traditional Berber settlement – where the inhabitants are still on the margin of our technological society but are no longer nomadic and then onto a desert mine where a couple of miners scrape a living extracting a variety of stones for jewellery via a semi mechanised small scale mine.
Metal miners in the desert cold
Being winter the conditions are harsh, cold, with a biting dust laden wind. My sense of discomfort at being a spectator of other peoples’ lives is repeated. No matter how hospitable the people are or how interesting the places are the sense of intrusion is overwhelming.
Berber desert dwellings. How to feel intrusive
The sense of exploitation soon becomes a sense of the ridiculous. We are to go into the desert to camp overnight at a desert camp. These are specially constructed for tourists to give them a better sense of being in the desert. Which, in itself, is fine but it’s the way we get there that is somewhat hilarious. We are to go by camel about which I don’t have a particular issue until I discover that while Alex and I are to ride the three others, our camel guide, Mohamed and Saleh are to walk alongside.
And the poor shall walk. While Alex and I perched precariously on our ships of the desert, like Lord and Lady Muck, the poor people walked
So, there we are perched precariously on our lurching ships of the desert to go to somewhere which is close enough to walk to, while alongside us the serfs are required to walk. Not only that but they are doing so in a wind which constantly lifts sand into all our faces and much so for those walking. It’s a neat encapsulation of modern day capitalism where the rich ride, metaphorically, on the backs of the poor (who cannot afford a camel ride).
Nevertheless the night is entertaining with good food, wine and music….unlike the previous stops the workers at the camp appear to be enjoying their work and the evening jam session is a delight. That combined with the beauty of the desert night and dawn make a Moroccan Desert experience of sorts a must do – just not the way this Idiot Traveller did it.
Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session
It is 392 kilometres from Sofia to Belgrade and another 600 kilometres from Belgrade to Vienna. From Vienna you are on the fast rail networks of western Europe but these first two legs of my journey are about 200 years in the past in terms of train technology years.
The trip from Sofia to Belgrade in particular, is the railway equivalent of slow boat up the Nile. The Nile slow boats are a sailing boat called a Felucca, a boat, incidentally, that I know well (more of that in another post).
Faster by Felucca
These train services are so bad they make Australian trains look like the bullet train.
The Avala – the Vienna Express from Belgrade
The concrete thing, Sofia Station
The “Avala”, the Vienna express, and the concrete something at Sofia station
This is serious regret country. Where you think “was this really a good idea to travel from Istanbul all the way to Malaga by train”. Even my fellow passengers look like refugees from some gulag in the east. Either exhausted, rough or disillusioned.
Not much joy from the fellow passengers either
To get a sense of the rapidity of travel we leave at 7 am on a cold Sofia morning and we don’t arrive in Belgrade until about 8 pm. The average speed is 30.15 kilometres per hour. Consider this – the average male marathon runner covers the 42 kilometres of the marathon in about 2 hours or around 21 kilometres per hour.
In other words this inter-city express would win a Boston Marathon but only by around half an hour. Or alternatively the marathoner could theoretically reach Belgrade only a few hours after the train if s/he could keep going – and the trip would probably be more comfortable than the train trip, since it seems that these trains were probably once used to torture their occupants via sleep deprivation. If you do accidentally fall asleep the lurching, bumping and grinding will have you on the deck in a matter of minutes.
There are, by my count 46 stops between the two cities which, if you work it out is one stop every 8.52 kilometres. Most of these stops, apparently, require that the driver or guard, possibly both, get off the train have a short winter holiday and then re-board before leaving the station. On average 0.75% of a person boards or descends at each stop.
From Belgrade to Vienna things decline further, other than the speed which is a little faster. We board the Vienna Express at Belgrade Station. The Vienna Express is likely the East European version of the Marrakesh Express of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, but absent hippies, drugs and things of interest.
The Avala – the Vienna Express from Belgrade
The Avala Mk2, looks good but just as slow and broke down
It consists of a single locomotive and carriage and an assortment of co-passengers that look as if they stepped off the set of Midnight Express. The Avala only travels as far as Nis, where we change trains to a the more modern version of our Felucca. To ensure that we are not, however fooled by this impression of modernity, our express journey includes an unscheduled one hour stop in the Serbian countryside just after we have changed trains.
Here we wait in a small town with several other trains while they repair the railway tracks. Apparently they started work on the track the night before and forgot that trains were supposed to run on it the following day (or something like that given that my Serbian was not really up to interpreting the announcement other than it was a track problem). It does have the advantage that we are all able to take a short tour of the village, have a smoke, get extra supplies, or whatever takes our fancy, etc.
The average passenger is also psychologically traumatised since the train, from Belgrade is called the Avala which sounds like it should be some slick modern train. In my brain it sounds a bit like Areva which is, of course, the French company which builds nuclear reactors. It’s the power of association. Even though nuclear reactor are themselves outdated 60s technology.
The psychological dissonance suffered by the passengers who believe they will be boarding something the name of which sounds like the TGV but which operates like the train in the accompanying photo (below, at Nis station) is a traumatic experience for which the railways would be sued were we in the US.
Nis station (right) another model of modernity and (left) the fast train from Nis
For the first world, western European/Australian, traveller the journey through the Serbian countryside is, in itself, also a blast from the past in various senses.
Even the names of the towns such as Dimitrovgrad, where we stop on the Bulgarian/Serbian border, are reminiscent, to my ears, of the greyness of the planned cities of the Soviet Union. And, as it turns out Dimitrovgradwas exactly that. Here light grey concrete, blends nicely with dark grey concrete in an artistic panorama reminiscent of Peter Dutton’s mind. Devoid of anything pleasant.
Here, we have a Bulgarian/Serbian repetition of my experience of crossing the border from Turkey into Bulgaria which you can read about here. Multiple border guards mount the train and make off with our passports to perform some secret police ritual in the offices of the adjacent buildings. Satisfied that any potential Syrian refugees are not, in fact, on board the train but are back in Ghouta enjoying being murdered by the Assad regime, we are allowed to proceed.
Later we will have a similar border experience at Subotica on Hungarian border, a border which is replete with a 2.5 metre, razor wire topped anti refugee fence. This stop involves not just the standard passport control but also involves the border police getting on their hands and knees and searching under each seat bench for errant refugees.
Despite its shortcomings the trip is scenically quite spectacular as we pass along the Danube River valley gorges near Gradište. The Danube swollen by full floodwaters from the recent storms surges through the gorges past the cliffside forming a spectacular backdrop to the rail trip.
We also pass a plethora of small towns each with its own unique railway building and railway staff who perform the railway rituals that seem to come with the territory in most of the Balkans and eastern Europe. These involve a variety of uniforms, strange hand signals, flag performances and assaults on the train using strange looking hammers.
Railway guards each with their own ritual and the railway stations – about 46 of them
Many of the cities are a different story, especially along the train lines. Here, in every country in the world, seem to be the areas that are full of the most impoverished looking, dingy parts of each city.
This is particularly so in many of the major cities of Eastern Europe where every passing kilometre is littered with dead trains, carriages and buildings but, worse, sometimes for tens of kilometres, are ground zero for seemingly uncontrolled rubbish dumping as far as the eye can see.
Abandoned buildings, trains and things. And abandoned hope.
Piles and piles of household, industrial and building waste, much of it plastic. Whether it is the absence of recycling facilities, an historical or current disdain for the environment, the absence of tipping facilities or the cost of disposing of waste it leaves an unpleasant vision of a form of industrialised hell.
Rubbish central. For miles. As far as the eye can see. Here near Belgrade.
As we near Belgrade our train comes to another halt. After half an hour we are informed that the train has broken down. Soon after another train pulls alongside us. The doors are opened and we all climb off, onto the tracks, with our luggage and board the relief train which takes us to Belgrade Center Station.
Now, one might imagine that Belgrade Center might be in the centre of Belgrade but no such luck. It turns out that this is merely a suburban station some 5 kilometres from Belgrade, where some tricky apparatchik has decided to fool all the capitalist visitors by naming it Belgrade Center. Apparently, there is track work between Belgrade Center and Belgrade Central Station, so you can’t get between the two.
Moreover Belgrade Center station is devoid of any immediate public transport connections or even taxis and there is zero signage or information. So I and several fellow passengers mill around wondering how we get from here to Belgrade proper. Eventually we find an office and the staff there order a taxi for us. This signals the end of our journey and where I and another lost passenger share a taxi to downtown Belgrade.
As my AirBnB host says to me, sarcastically when I explain my delay “Welcome to Serbia”
Sofia coffee rating (note, based on limited sample) – 6/10 at 2 locations (for ranking system see here):
Братя Хлебари / Baker Brothers, ulitsa „Georgi S. Rakovski“ 44, 1202 Sofia Center, Sofia – 6/10
The Rainbow Factory ул. Веслец 10, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria – 6/10
The train which we boarded in Istanbul stops at the Turkey – Bulgaria border – and, refusing to be outdone by the Australian rail system, this train is old and slow and leaves from some part of Istanbul far from civilisation – a 45 minute bus ride from central Istanbul – what Australians would call woop woop.
The central Istanbul station – but you can’t leave from here
Inside Sirkeci. The non-station station
Turkish high speed rail – just like Australia
The station which is not a station (Sirkeki)
The train, itself, is some form of exercise in Turkish logic. My carriage is numbered 483 even though the train contains just four carriages. One assumes this is designed to confuse foolish yabangee (foreigners) since, no doubt, Turks understand this logic.
Err…carriage 483 on the four carriage train
High speed rail to Bulgaria
The border is where modern nationalistic, autocratic Turkey meets the remnants of the centralised monolithic communist state and its obsession with bureaucracy and control. Never let it be said that the era of easy globalised travel has reached the Turkish, east European and Balkan borders.
Here the obsessive nationalism, paranoia and xenophobia of some or all of these countries conspires with an antiquated infrastructure, and a disregard for the modern desire for speed, to ensure that no traveller shall go unpunished for daring to cross the border.
Pulling into Kapikule on the Turkish border we are first disembarked at 2.30 am. All of the 30 odd people on the train to Sofia are woken and de-trained in the dead of night. There is no purpose to this that could not be achieved by a single immigration officer boarding the train and politely requesting passports and ID cards so that they can be checked against the database to ensure that we haven’t just fled from Daesh controlled Syria. Having evicted the passengers from the depth of their sleep and the warmth of their beds, those passengers arrive on the platform only to find that there is nothing that resembles officialdom anywhere within rifle shot and no sign of a passport office.
Eventually we discover that they have hidden the passport office on the other platform cunningly hidden by the train. On discovering this we all head, sheep-like, for the crossing over the rail lines where, we have noted, various railway staff and security personnel are crossing.
They shall not pass. Turkish and Bulgarian customs posts
But, no, this is not acceptable since there may be a train passing this way sometime between now and Christmas. A phalanx (well 3, at least) of Turkish security/police shouting “you shall not pass” and waving their AK47s, ALRs or Uzis blocks our way.
So, we are forced to march 100 metres east, through a tunnel with harsh, flashing, white lights which would, undoubtedly, have sent survivors of the Gulag Archipelago into a frenzy and then 100 metres back to the passport office which is, as the crow flies, a mere ten metres across the lines and platform from the train.
Here we queue as the indolent passport officer scrutinises us at his leisure, while his colleague standing next to him is, presumably, taking his annual leave. Very slowly, presumably to avoid RSI, he checks each person off against a list of passengers after which we are allowed to return to the train.
Should any of the passengers marked as being on board the train not appear at the passport control the train shall not leave. In their wisdom, however, this turns out not to be a problem, since our train sits at the station for a further 90 minutes while the Turkish locomotive which, clearly, does not have a visa for Bulgaria is changed for a Bulgarian locomotive.
This gives Turkish immigration plenty of time to search the train for errant passengers. In the process they wake us twice, for light entertainment, presumably to check that no passenger has transmogrified into a refugee or alien from space or smuggled a refugee on board while the train was standing at the station.
In addition, presumably to ensure that no one actually has the presumption to try and sleep, the locomotive changing exercise takes the full 90 minutes and involves, apparently, smashing the new engine into the carriages repeatedly. The purpose of that ritual is unknown unless it is some form of crash test using live passengers as dummies. As it is the entire train suffers a form of horizontal whiplash with their heads being violently catapulted side to side.
The end result is that what could have been a pleasant nights sleep is turned into the sleep equivalent of coitus interruptus where what is, theoretically, pleasurable is interrupted to ensure that Turkey does not lose anyone which it wishes to protect in its internment centres and that Bulgaria is not impregnated by the arrival of unwelcome guests.
The detritus of the Communist era. Decaying building and half finished buildings everywhere
Arrival into Sofia is at 8.30, an hour later than scheduled. Mussolini clearly never visited Bulgaria. Here we are disgorged into a railway station that appears to be a practice run for building Bangkok which, as any person who has visited Thailand knows, is the world leader in ugly concrete structures.
To ensure that every passenger knows that they are in an ex-Soviet satellite state the front entrance to the station is adorned with a large-ugly-concrete-something that apparently served to use up the spare truck of concrete when they had finished the station.
The concrete thing, Sofia Station
Sofia – welcomed by a very concrete station and an large ugly concrete something
Bulgaria can’t quite decide whether it is Sovexit or Eurentry. The result being a sort of schizophrenic society which retains large slabs of the former Soviet society, culture and architecture, like a brutalised lover that can’t quite bear to throw out the photo of their tormentor; someone s/he didn’t really love or even, really, like but to whom s/he has a type of sentimental love/hate relationship. On the other hand s/he doubts the bona-fides of the EU, the new flash lover who promised much but has so far delivered far less than the marriage vows described.
This is reflected in the visual and economic aspects of Bulgaria and, even Sofia. Rural Bulgaria is old agricultural Europe. Depopulated with abandoned houses everywhere as people have fled to “better” lives in the cities. Then as you approach Sofia you move into the old Soviet Union. Abandoned factories and warehouses and, everywhere, piles of litter, building waste, industrial poisons, the detritus of a society that cared/cares little or nothing for the environment.
Then, finally, there is central Sofia a pleasant, small modern city strewn with the monumentalism of the Soviet Union and the religious fervour of a part Catholic and part orthodox Christianity.
In this context symbolism is everything and the bigger the better. From the massive Orthodox Cathedrals, the latter with more gold on the roof than that hoarded by every Indian on planet. For the environmental and social destruction wrought by its obsession with gold and gold leaf, the churches should be doing penance until the second coming.
Sveta Nedelya Orthodox Church
When it’s not the churches hoarding the wealth of society in its land and buildings it’s the grandiose neo-fascist symbolism of the ex-Soviet Union and its satellites celebrating the theft of millions of lives in their monuments to their so-called communism – that communist society being more akin to that which is feverishly being pursued by modern day neo-cons – in other words more a controlled klepocracy than anything resembling socialism.
The Russian Orthodox (Alexander Nevksy) Cathedral. More bling than Sarkozy
If, however, you ignore the religious and political follies that created these various buildings they are undoubtedly fine specimens of their type. The Russian Church, the St George Rotunda, and the Cathedrals of Sofia are all worth a visit if you are passing through, as is the Russian memorial, the Presidents Building and the ex-Communist Party headquarters. At the Presidents Building if you arrive just before the hour you can enjoy a remnant of the Soviet era in the spectacle of the goose-step driven changing of the guard.
Always hard to leave your authoritarian past behind. The changing of the guard at the President building
The nadir of this obsession with big and grand can be found at the Eagle Bridge which though by no means the largest symbol of stalinist excess is a suitable folly. This fine bridge adorned by four magnificent eagles spans a concrete drain containing a rivulet. This rivulet contains about as much water as the Darling River after Cubbie Station, in Australia, has extracted its billions in water to be wasted on a cotton crop. It’s a typical Australian plan. Take one of the world’s iconic rivers on the world’s driest continent and suck it dry for a crop that would be better grown almost anywhere else in the world.
Monumentalism everywhere both ancient and modern, including the famous Eagle bridge and the river (ditch) it runs over)
Cubbie, for non-Australians, is a cotton “farm” in Queensland which has been allowed by Government to pretty much destroy the Darling River by extracting so much water, along with some other culprits, that the second longest river in Australia is now an empty ditch.
Nevertheless, despite being burdened with a large quantity of cynicism I found Sofia, a pleasant city to visit. Most of the major attractions within the city centre boundary can be walked around in a day and the city is clean, open, populated with numerous gardens, has a good public transport system if you don’t feel like walking and is stacked with interesting buildings, if that’s your thing. It does have its idiosyncrasies among which are the paving of streets and public areas with large quantities of yellow pavers.
These pavers not only are a distinct vomit yellow but are specially designed to ensure that, should it be wet, no visitor to Sofia shall walk the city without sliding and falling on them at least a couple of times. This presumably is an economy building exercise since injured tourists, unable to walk, stay longer and spend more money. While I didn’t witness the large number of rear end collisions that presumably occur when cars try and brake in the wet, these accidents, one assumes, these also add to the GDP in much the same way as wars and earthquakes.
I arrive in Rhodes on a slow winter’s day. The 60 kilometre journey from Fethiye, in Turkey, by hydrofoil has taken twice as long as expected due to heavy weather. The Rhodians are fortunate because, had I decided to behave like almost everyone else who has arrived for the last couple of thousand years, I would have invaded it.
Rhodes harbour at dawn
As it is, looking at Rhodian history, it seems that it was a bit like a conga line of uninvited dinner guests. They arrived sans wine or food, hung around for a while, behaving unpleasantly, living off the hosts and then leaving when someone even more unpleasant arrived. Occasionally unable to find a better dinner party they’d return and gatecrash a second time.
This unparalleled complexity of Rhodian history has left an 80 kilometre long island full of rich mixture of fabulous archeological sites from a dazzling array of cultures all within a days drive.
Rhodes was inhabited from Neolithic times but around the 16th century BC, the Minoans came to Rhodes followed by the Mycenaeans the following century.
Later Greek mythology recalled a Rhodian race called the Telchines and associated the island of Rhodes with Danaus; it was sometimes nicknamed Telchinis.
Then from around 700 BC the arrival of uninvited dinner guests accelerated starting with the Dorians for pre-dinner drinks. The Persians arrived for aperitifs about 460 BC but left when the Greeks arrived in time for hor d’oeuvres in 458 BC. In In 357 BC, the Carians turned up from Turkey but left when the Persians returned in 340 BC, for soup. The Persians clearly didn’t get along with the Hellenes because they left again when the Macedonians returned.
By this time we are on to main course and all the uninvited guests have left and the Rhodians and their invited guests (the Romans) stayed and enjoyed themselves until the Arabs and Genoese started coming around and dropping in for the odd year or two. Finally the Knights Hospitallers turned up around 1310 AD, followed by the Ottomans for coffee in 1522. In 1912 the Italians came for port and cigars and stayed until 1945 when the British arrived for a quick pre-bed time snack before finally handing the entire place to the Greeks in 1947.
Most visitors I talked to seemed largely unaware of this history and for them Rhodes is just famous for the Colossus and for the fabulous medieval city left by the Knights Hospitallers of St John. Apart from that all they know is that it is just another Greek Island.
But Rhodes (Ρόδος to the Greeks, Rodi in Italian, Rodos in Turkish and Rodi in Ladino) is anything other than just another Greek Island. To begin with it’s also Turkish in the sense that it is one of the few remaining large Turkish communities in Greece. Around 2000 Muslim Turks live in Rhodes, a historical anomaly due to the fact that Rhodes was under Italian rule when the population exchange was done between Greece and Turkey in 1923. It also had one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in Europe until the Germans sent most of them, except a few dozen rescued by the Turkish Consul, to Auschwitz.
Memorial to members of the Jewish community murdered by the Nazis
The city of Rhodes is also the largest remaining intact medieval city in Europe, with the old city being a world heritage property. And like everywhere else in Europe if you visit in winter you can have it almost entirely to yourself with just the small disadvantage that three out of every four cafes, restaurants and bars are closed and that most museums and archaeological sites close at 3 pm.
This has both advantages and disadvantages depending on your preparedness to get arrested and left to rot in some Greek jail. Essentially almost all closed archeological sites are, simply, open archeological sites with a closed gate and no security. Walk around and, generally, somewhere, there will be a gap in the fence, steps up the wall or a combination of both, thus inviting you to have a very personal, free and uncrowded tour,
Given that security costs money there is rarely security and, if there is and you are caught, indulge in the Gallic shrug and explain that you actually got locked in when the site closed. Regrettably if you are not prepared to take this risk and you arrive too late, well tough. And, yes, yes, we all know the “but what if everyone did that argument?”. Well they won’t.
A quick visit to a deserted Ialysos courtesy of dodgy fences
Time was, when arriving in a strange city, you’d simply jump in the nearest taxi go to your hotel, check in and sort yourself out. Said hotel had a reception and someone awaited to, at worst, let you in or, alternatively, you just stayed at one of a plethora of hostels which were also permanently open.
Today, however, in the epoch of mobiles and AirBnBs one may well arrive to a locked door and, in the event that you do not have a local sim card, you end of standing by the front door in a form of limbo. Do you wait and hope that someone turns up? Or leave and try and find a wifi connection? Is so where? And can you justify investing in your 26th coffee of the day just to have a wifi connection? Or just go and get a coffee and hope someone turns up by the time you get back? Will the host arrive and leave again before you return?
Normally, in these circumstances, it will start to get dark, the rain will start to come down, you will realise your parka is at the bottom of your pack under 10 other items. If you go for a coffee, the nearest cafe is closed and, if not, you only have a 100 Euro note to pay for a 2 Euro coffee.
By now your bad knee is hurting walking around town past past ten other closed cafes and, as you realise you are finally and completely lost, you notice standing, on the corner, in the shadows, a group of 5 large tattooed bikies. It’s no good appealing to God or Allah because you are an atheist and you prepare to hand over your computer, camera, wallet and passport. So, wishing for something good to happen, like the death of Donald Trump you walk on in hope.
As you approach the only bad thing that happens is that you realise your prejudices and cowardice are as rank as the next persons, as one of the five heavily tattooed female soccer players greets you pleasantly in broken English…then as you turn the corner you see your AirBnB with the light streaming through the open door. Still, life was simpler when you either booked into the local Hilton or you couldn’t afford to travel at all.
There is little about Rhodes that is not to like. Stunning coastal scenery, friendly locals, one of the most beautiful medieval cities in the world, the three ancient Dorian/Roman cities of Lindos, Kamiros and Ialysos, plus an incredible mixture of Greek, Turkish/Ottoman and Jewish cultures, among others. Not counting of course the indelible traces of 200 years of occupation by the Crusaders.
A couple of hours to the south are the remains of two of the six great Doric cities, Lindos and Kamiros. Of the third Ialyssos, just above Rhodes City, little remains apart from a temple and some stairs and fortifications. All of these ancient sites sit in stunning locations above the water and for hundreds of years during the Dorian and Roman eras were the most important Rhodian cities.
A winter trip to Lindos down the highway takes just an hour, followed by a further fifteen minute walk from the empty car parks through the winding white-washed deserted streets of the modern day Greek city and up the ancient stairs to the fortress. This is a place of four ages, first the Dorians, then the Romans, the Crusaders in the form of the Knights Hospitallers and the modern Rhodians.
From here the inhabitants were masters of all they could survey and that, perched in their fortified eyrie, was a large slab of Rhodes.
Rhodes, though is far more than the grand gesture. The real beauty of the old city of Rhodes are hidden lanes, gardens, the lights, the fountains, the footpaths, the doors and steps and a myriad other bits of the city that in other places are simply sources of light or places to walk but in Rhodes are works of art.
Around the streets of Rhodes
The most famous building and street on Rhodes is, arguably, the Palace of the Hospitallers and its adjacent road. Certainly it and its surrounding defensive network of moats and walls are impressive and as the Ottomans found, initially, an attackers nightmare. But while it’s certainly worth investing time in visiting it, for me the surrounding laneways, alleys, ruins, mosques, synagogues and the hospital etc are equally if not more impressive.
The palace in Rhodes
One of the features of the palace are the mosaics, a number of which came from Roman ruins in Kos. In the absence of almost any interpretive signs – the Greek custodians, presumably, believing that if you don’t provide signs then visitors will be obliged to buy guidebooks – you are required to guess at the use of most parts of the building.
This includes guessing whether the mosaics were stolen from Kos by the Hospitallers (which given the propensity for the Catholic Church to steal most things it owns is highly likely), or later by the Italians who decided that they knew best what Rhodes should look like.
Mosaics in the Palace
The Hospitallers hung out in Rhodes for a couple of hundred years having returned from killing Muslims on the crusades and, following a four year campaign ending in 1310, they made Rhodes their headquarters and their private domain until evicted by the Ottomans. What goes around comes around. From there they went to Malta after their defeat by the Ottomans.
At the bottom of the Street of the Hospitallers is the famous hospital, now a museum. Here the victims of the church, the dead and wounded from numerous campaigns were bought to recover or die having been sacrificed for God or King. The knights were well known for the medical practice, ironically enriched by their contacts with the Arabs, with significantly improved hygiene practices.
My departure under a beautiful winter sky heading out on the next stop on my mini circuit of southern Turkey and adjacent Greek islands. Next stop Kos, via Symi.
The complete archive of Rhodes images can be found below:
“Life is art, art is life, I never separate them.” Ai Weiwei (AWW)….and everything is political.
If you take the view that I do, which is that even drawing breath is a political act, then Ai Weiwei’s exhibition, in Istanbul is a great expression of the philosophy that Art is Life and that everything in life is political.
I slipped, almost literally, through the front door on a rainy, slippery, Istanbul day. For a cultural illiterate, such as I, who normally can’t tell the difference between Mahler and Wagner or between a Rembrandt and a Vermeer and who thinks a Concerto is a brand of Honda car, an Ai Wei Wei exhibition is perfect.
You don’t need to know anything about art or about Ai Weiwei. You just need to know something about life and politics. Everything else is explained.
Vases as columns against a backdrop of scenes depicting refugees, emigrants, prisoners and other similar groups
The exhibition is eclectic ranging over the Sichuan earthquake, Palestine, tigers, refugees, freedom of speech, the destruction of his studio, attitudes to power and authority, Chinese labour camps, beatings, stone age tools, war, iconoclasm, still life, traditional art.
For those who haven’t been to an Ai Weiwei exhibition here is a virtual tour……
Countries as art and political statements – as you enter you are greeted by a map of China in ceramic, it’s a form of jigsaw in a way, and it’s really reflective of the rest of the exhibition which binds together art and political statement – with interesting cultural bits of information about the use of iconography as political dissent.
Much of the exhibition utilises common place objects as a link between the everyday and the political and cultural. A coat hanger as the basis for a portrait and car window winders to demonstrate the absurdity of totalitarianism which attempted to prevent protests from moving vehicles over Tiananmen Square by removing all the window winders from cars.
Between 2008 and 2011 Ai Weiwei became the subject of political persecution by the Chinese Government, a process that began with his investigations of and blogging about political corruption that had allowed shoddily built buildings to kill tens of thousands of people during the Sichuan earthquakes in May 2008. The dead included 5000 schoolchildren killed by poorly-built schools throughout the region. AWW named each of the dead children.
There are echoes of history in his subsequent detention. His father, the famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing, who was exiled to the Gobi Desert, said in 1946: “I believe that art and the revolution must go together; they can never be separated. We are political animals, and sometimes we write as political animals. If the revolution fails, the art will fail, but in as far as is possible the artist must be a revolutionary. As a revolutionary and as an artist he must represent his times.”
Left: the earthquake zone, centre: ceramics recreating twisted metal reo from the buidings
Ai responded to the deaths in Sichuan with a series of angry blog posts, and by the next year had set up the Citizens’ Investigation on Sichuan earthquake. The police responded by making a threatening visit Ai’s home, and a few months later, when Ai was in Sichuan to attend the trial of an earthquake activist, police broke into his hotel during the night and beat him. He was left with a cerebral hemorrhage and required emergency brain surgery.
AWW filmed part of the earthquake zone and superimposes a series of negative responses from officials that he received when he tried to get information on the impacts of the earthquake and who was responsible.
A part of the exhibition uses the beating and the brain scans that led to surgery as as the basis for two ceramics using a scan of his brain.
It was during this period that AWW was arrested, as he was boarding a flight to Taiwan, and then detained for 81 days. Subsequently he was barred from overseas travel and the studio he had been invited to build was torn down by the Chinese Government.
In literally 24 hours the entire building was demolished, razed to the ground and the rubble trucked away so that not one shred of evidence of the buildings existence remains – a sort of instant re-writing of history (at left, below, the building before demolition and then the paddock shown after the building’s removal at right, below). AWW documents the process in a video.
From here the exhibition moves on to document a series of images of AWWs response to authority in a very simply and symbolic series of images of iconic buildings which in some form or other represent wealth, power or images of a society’s culture…such as, in the case of Australia the opera house. In each AWW stands with finger raised as we all wish to do to authority figures, much of the time.
Similarly he uses images such as those of massed crabs to document mechanisms of secret protest against authoritarian regimes. Chinese people use the word for the crabs as a synonym for censorship as it sounds similar to the Chinese word for “harmonious” and refers directly to Chinese attempts to create a harmonious society via censorship.
Following AWW’s arrest and detention he was put under house arrest and then had his passport removed so he could not travel abroad, specifically, in the beginning, to prevent him receiving his nobel prize. His resistance to the removal of his travel rights is documented in a series of images of flowers (perhaps resonant of the famous 1967 images of George Harris and Jan Rose Kasmir using flowers in the face of the rifle barrels of National Guardsman.
Jan Rose Kasmir (left and centre photographed by Marc Riboud) and George Harris (right photographed by Bernie Boston) – at a rally of 100,000 against the Vietnam war
Over a period of 600 days Ai Weiwei placed flowers in the basket of his bicycle to protest against the loss of his passport. His use of flowers as a symbol of protest is repeated in a number of works in the exhibition and the centrepiece (centre, below) is a wall-papered room showing each of the bunches of flowers that were placed in the bicycle basket.
The rest of the exhibition follows similar themes using a variety of artistic mechanisms to document his views on Palestine through his videos of the last tiger, starving in Palestine’s zoo following the Israeli blockade (the tiger was later saved) and documenting the treatment of refugees and other groups around the world (bottom images).
Moving through Lycia on cool winter’s day. The sun shines. I am absolutely completely alone with the old stones and the graves. Nothing moves. No sounds but the breeze and the tinkle of goat bells as they move, invisibly, through ancient Lycian ruins and pines.
The ancient Lycian city of Pinara
The Lycians ruled this part of Turkey for around 2000 years and their presence is evident in the ruins of six major cities. The three I visited were Pinara, Tlos and Xanthos. The Lycians had powerful sea and land forces by the second millennium BC and had already established an independent state. The earliest historical references to the Lycians date back to the Late Bronze Age (ca 1500-1200 BC) in numerous Egyptian, Hittite and Ugaritic texts.
I discovered these things on my visit to Lycia (more on that here: Pinara, in the Valley of the living Dead) which was not only fascinating but it simply compounded the sense that I had, from travelling in these parts, of my profound ignorance of Ancient World history (although others might say “and pretty much everything else too!”).
My suspicion is that most others would know little more than me about Lycia or most of the rest of the region. If so this post is for you.
If you are like me you may have heard of the Lycian Way, especially if you are some bushwalker who likes stomping around Turkey in your boots, eroding the ancient landscape. But do you know anything about Lycia and its culture?
I’d guess for 99% of people that’s a no. Along with me, until recently. And that’s just for starters. What about the Sumerian, Babylonian, Parthian, Seleucid, Carian, Carthaginian, Assyrians, Akkadian, Hittite, Egyptian, Mongolian, Phoenician, Ptolemic, Roman, Greek, Persian, Ottoman cultures/empires, among others.
And those empires are just the beginning. After that you start on the semi-independent, largely self-governing states of Rhodes etc. – Rhodes being my next stop. In fact there are more empires than you can poke a stick at, half of which I’d never even heard of (or at least barely). Have you been to the Dordogne in southern France and counted the number of chateaux? If you were gobsmacked at how many chateaux there were, that has nothing on the number of little tinpot trading and military empires between 4000 BC and now.
Since we started with the Lycians, one of the more interesting aspects of their society was that it was also one of the few non-Hellenistic societies of antiquity which could not be called ‘barbarians’. In fact, their image, in antiquity, was much like that of today’s Swiss: a hard-working and wealthy people, neutral in world affairs but fierce in the defence of their freedom and conservative in their attachment to ancestral tradition.
Lycia was the last region on the entire Mediterranean coast to be incorporated as a province in the Roman Empire and even then the Lycian Union continued to function independently. The Lycians spoke a language of their own, with their own unique alphabet, before adopting Greek around the 3rd century BC. Their many monuments, especially their beautiful tombs which embody their ancestor cult, still dot the entire landscape of the southwest coast of Turkey between the Gulf of Fethiye and Phaselis.
The ancient Greeks knew and admired the Lycians, for the Lycians had solved a problem which baffled the ancient world: how to reconcile free government in the city-state with the needs of a larger political unity.
Besides their unique form of government, the Lycians may have had one unusual custom that the Greeks found very unfamiliar. Their society had strong matriarchal elements. Herodotos noted: “They have customs that resemble no one else’s. They use their mother’s name instead of their father’s.
Not that this great commitment to Matriarchy actually did the women much good. When the Lycians were about to be defeated by the Persians, at Xanthos, the men whipped back into the city and killed all the women and children so that, presumably, they couldn’t be either enslaved or raped. That was just before the men then sallied forth again to be killed…
“Now, dear, those nasty Persians are about to come over the kill and rape you. I don’t want you to have to endure that, so I’m going to kill you right now, ok?”
“Ok dear, no worries.”
You can find out more about the Lycians, if you are interested: here and here.
The rest of this post is, well, not really a traditional post – it’s more a history tour of the local neighbourhood spread over several thousand years – if that interests you – read on. If not go for a coffee or something.
Leaving aside South America, China, India and the ancient cultures of south-east Asia, Australia and the north Americas, I’ve discovered that, even within my own lineage and it’s near geographical neighbours, i.e. the Caucasian cultures of Europe, North Africa, West Asia, South Asia and parts of Central Asia my knowledge of the history of 6000 years of “civilisation” is pitifully poor.
We look about us now and see what is happening in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, West Africa, Yemen, Somalia and, yet, compared with ancient times, we live in an age of relative peace and tranquility. Small comfort, of course, to those currently having their lives torn apart by the grasping at power by our corrupt rulers and petty despots.
To read ancient history is to get the impression of a never ending wave of wars, looting, rape and then revenge. An eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth. A cesspool of violence. To be fair, though, we are talking a span of 4000 years, so I’m sure that the Egyptians got the odd moment to sit back and read their papyrus scrolls in between, allegedly, enslaving thousands to build pyramids and wage wars (although in fact this appears to be largely myth).
For many of these former civilisations there is little left to see primarily because the behaviour of each successive successful despot was akin to the behaviour of Assad or the Burmese or the Saudis. Or perhaps, in Australian terms, to the attempted genocide of Australian Aboriginals.
In other words, let nothing stand in the way and let nothing remain. Or if you are thinking rape and pillage, we need look no further than the behaviour of the Serbs in the Balkan wars to understand what happened in the ancient world. Or for Australians the similarity might be to the male entitlement of Canterbury Bulldogs of 2004.
So here’s a potted history of some of these places, as well as a map of where all these dudes hung out in and around the Middle East, Anatolia, the Mediterranean and the other trendy parts of the ancient world.
Many of these empires hung out and did their thing in Mesopotamia – after the Greek word meaning “the land between the rivers (the Euphrates and Tigris)”. Mesopotamia consists of modern day Iraq, Kuwait, northeast Syria, and southeast Turkey. The dates of many of the empires overlap as they co-existed in different parts of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Anatolia concurrently. The dates shown below are approximate only.
5000 BC – 2000 BC SUMERIA
2300 BC – 2150 BC – AKKADIA
2200 BC – 1900 BC – BABYLON
2686 BC – 2181 BC EGYPT (OLD KINGDOM)
2040 BC – 1782 BC – EGYPT MIDDLE KINGDOM
1900 BC – 600 BC – ASSYRIA
1800 BC – 1100 BC EARLY GREECE (MYCENAE)
1800 BC – 1100 AD TROY
1600 BC – 1180 BC HITTITES
1570 BC – 1069 BC EGYPTIAN NEW KINGDOM (EMPIRE)
1500 BC – 240 AD LYCIA
1500BC -322 BC – PHOENICIA
788 BC – 550 BC – MEDIA
626 BC – 539 BC – NEO BABYLONIA
550 BC – 300 BC ACHAEMENID Persian Empire
700 BC – 146 BC -MACEDONIAN/GREEK EMPIRE (CLASSICAL GREECE)
312 BC – 64 BC SELEUCID KINGDOM
305 BC – 30 BC PTOLMAIC EMPIRE
247 BC – 224 AD PARTHIAN EMPIRE
27 BC – 476 AD ROMAN EMPIRE
330 AD – 1453 A.D – BYZANTIUM
1206 AD – 1368 AD MONGOL EMPIRE
1300 AD – 1922 AD OTTOMAN EMPIRE
332 BC – 146 BC CARTHAGE
5000 BC – 2000 BC The SUMERIANS: Were the burnout merchants of the ancient world and the first of the well known Mesopotamian empires from around 5000 BC. They hung out between the Tigris and Euphrates, in lower Mesopotamia, just around the Gulf of Arabia. They invented the wheel so were the original hoons. They were also big beer drinkers which may explain their liking for fast chariots.
They also invented the plow, and writing (the system which we call cuneiform), so are to blame for both modern agriculture and 50 Shades of Grey. They were great at metalwork, so we can probably blame them for the car and modern weapons too.
Sumer was a collection of city-states or cities that were also independent nations, some of which endured for 3,000 years, the largest being Uruk at around 80,000 people which, when you consider the total estimated population of 40 million, was equivalent to a modern day mega-city of around 15-20 million.
The others were Eridu, Ur, Nippur, Lagash and Kish. Gilgamesh was most likely a real king of Uruk and he stars in his own biopic, the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a 3,000-line poem that follows the adventures of a Sumerian king as he battles a forest monster and quests after the secret of eternal life.
The origin of the Sumerians remains a mystery. A bit like Queenslanders really. We know they exist but no one can quite work out why or how they came to exist in that strange form. They are variously ascribed to Turkey/Anatolia or to India.
2300-2150 BC – AKKADIA: Next were the Akkadians: the world’s first “real” empire was formed in 2350 B.C.E. by Sargon the Great in Mesopotamia. Sargon’s empire was called the Akkadian Empire. There were five rulers of Akkad: Sargon, Rimush, Manishtusu, Naram-Sin (also known as Naram-Suen) and Shar-Kali-Sharri who maintained the dynasty for 142 years before it collapsed.
The civilisation founded by Sargon the Great, prospered during the historical age known as the Bronze Age. Like Sumeria it was a collection of city states under the control of Sargon’s capital city, Akkad. Sargon reigned from approximately 2334-2279 BC.
Sargon’s empire included the Sumerian cities of the Tigris-Euphrates Delta in Mesopotamia, and all of southern Mesopotamia as well as parts of Syria, Anatolia, and Elam (now western Iran) establishing the region’s first Semitic dynasty.
After taking control of these, Sargon went through modern day Syria to the Taurus Mountains near Cyprus.
The Akkadian Empire eventually also stretched across modern day Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon. Sargon is, less plausibly, said to have gone into Egypt, India, and Ethiopia. The Akkadian empire spanned approximately 800 miles.
After the fall of the Akkadian Empire, the people of Mesopotamia eventually coalesced into two majorAkkadian-speaking nations: Assyria in the north, and, a few centuries later, Babylonia in the south. The site of the capital Akkad, in modern Iraq, has never been found.
2200 BC – 1900 BABYLON: Babylon is the most famous city from ancient Mesopotamia whose ruins lie in modern-day Iraq 59 miles (94 kilometres) southwest of Baghdad. The town became an independent city-state with the rise of the First Amorite Babylonian Dynasty in the nineteenth century BC. After the Amorite king Hammurabi created a short-lived empire in the 18th century BC, southern Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia and Babylon eclipsed Nippur as its holy city. The language was Akkadian.
An Amorite king named Hammurabi first created the short lived Babylonian Empire in the 18th century BC. It was from this time that South Mesopotamia came to be known as Babylonia, and the city of Babylon itself grew in size and grandeur.
The empire quickly dissolved upon his death and Babylon spent long periods under Assyrian, Kassite, Aramean, Chaldean and Elamite domination.
After being destroyed and then rebuilt by the Assyrians, Babylon again became the seat of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 608 to 539 BC which was founded by Chaldeans from the south east corner of Mesopotamia, and whose last king was an Assyrian from Northern Mesopotamia. After the fall of Babylon it came under the rules of the Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman and Sassanid empires.
The ancient Egyptian culture and society was one of history’s most long lived. From its inception in the Early Dynastic period, through the old Kingdom, around 2600 BC it lasted for about 3000 years, longer if the fall of the Ptolmaic Empire is not seen as the end of ancient Egypt. The exact duration of the different periods are still matters of debate by scholars and Egyptians do not recognise, for example, any differentiation between the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate period.
The old Kingdom was the era of the pyramid builders including Giza. The historical records of this period, the 4th-6th Dynasties of Egypt, are scarce and historians regard the history of the era as literally ‘written in stone’ and largely architectural in that it is through the monuments and their inscriptions that scholars have been able to construct a history. (see: How the pyramids were built)
The pyramids themselves relay scant information on their builders, but the mortuary temples built nearby and the stelae which accompanied them provide king’s names and other important information.
The Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom, with its capital at Memphis, is “possibly unparalleled in world history for the amount of construction they undertook”. The pyramids at Giza and at Saqqara (Pyramid of King Djoser at, the first pyramid ever built in Egypt), and elsewhere, during this period required unprecedented bureaucratic efficiency to organise the labor force which built the pyramids, and this bureaucracy could only have functioned under a strong central government.
Egypt was divided into a total of 42 provinces. There were twenty-two provinces in Upper Egypt and twenty in Lower Egypt. Each province was headed by a governor who tried to build up power within his own province.
After the old Kingdom collapsed, Egypt had the First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 BC) during which Egypt was ruled regionally by local magistrates who made and enforced their own laws. The rise of these local officials and the power of the priesthood were not the only causes of the collapse of the Old Kingdom, however, in that a severe drought toward the end of the 6th Dynasty brought famine which the government could do nothing to alleviate.
The Middle Kingdom
The Middle Kingdom (2040 BC -1782 BC) during the 12th Dynasty is considered Egypt’s “golden age” when cultural and artistic achievements reached their height. During the 13th Dynasty, however, the kings were weaker and more concerned with their own pursuits and court intrigues than the good of the country.
During this time, the Hyksos were able to establish themselves at Avaris in Lower Egypt and steadily consolidated their presence until they were able to wield significant political- and military power. The Middle Kingdom fell as the Egyptian central government grew weaker and both the Hyksos in the north and the Nubians in the south grew stronger, initiating the Second Intermediate Period.
The New Kingdom
The Egyptian Empire rose during the period of the New Kingdom (c. 1570 – c. 1069 BC), when the country reached its height of wealth, international prestige, and military might. The empire stretched from modern-day Syria in the north to modern-day Sudan in the south and from the region of Jordan in the east to Libya in the west.
Since the empire rose and fell in the course of the New Kingdom, historians refer to the period as either the New Kingdom or the Egyptian Empire interchangeably.
Egyptian history is divided by later scholars into eras of “kingdoms” and “intermediate periods”; kingdoms were times of a strong central government and a unified nation while intermediate periods were eras of a weak central government and disunity.
Statue of Ramses
Temple of Hapsetshut
Obelisk of Hapsetshut
The New Kingdom rose out of the Second Intermediate Period in which the country was divided between a foreign Semitic people known as the Hyksos holding power in northern Lower Egypt, the Nubians ruling to the south in Upper Egypt, and the city of Thebes in the middle representing the traditional Egyptian government.
The Theban king Ahmose I (c. 1570 – c. 1544 BC) drove the Hyksos out of Egypt and defeated the Nubians, uniting Egypt under his rule from Thebes. In his early campaigns, Ahmose I created buffer states around Egypt’s borders to prevent any other foreign power from gaining a foothold in the country as the Hyksos had. In doing so, he initiated the policy of conquest which would be followed by his successors and give rise to the empire of Egypt.
Part of the expansion of the Empire was built around the first professional standing army established by Amenemhat I (c. 1991-1962 BC) of the 12th Dynasty in the Middle Kingdom. Not only were the weapons of the army new and improved but so was the structure of the military itself.
Amenhotep I continued the policies of Ahmose I and each pharaoh who came after him did the same. Thutmose I (1520-1492 BCE) put down rebellions in Nubia and expanded Egypt’s territories in the Levant and Syria. Little is known of his successor, Thutmose II (1492-1479 BCE) because his reign is overshadowed by the impressive era of queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE).
Hatshepsut is not only the most successful female ruler in Egypt’s history but among the most remarkable leaders of the ancient world. She broke with the tradition of a patriarchal monarchy with no evidence of rebellion on the part of her subjects or the court and established a reign which enriched Egypt financially and culturally without engaging in any extensive military campaigns.
When Hatshepsut died, she was succeeded by Thutmose III (1458-1425 BCE) who, possibly in an effort to prevent future women from emulating her, had Hatshepsut’s name erased from monuments. As a result later kings knew nothing of her accomplishments and she would not be known to history again for over 2,000 years.
Thutmose III is often referred to as the Napoleon of Egypt” for his success in battle as he fought 17 campaigns in 20 years and, unlike Napoleon, he was victorious in all of them.
By the time of the reign of Amenhotep III (1386-1353 BCE), Egypt was among the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. Amenhotep III was a brilliant administrator and diplomat whose prosperous reign established Egypt firmly in what historians refer to as the “Club of the Great Powers” – which included Babylonia, Assyria, Mittanni, and the Land of the Hatti (Hittites) – all of whom were joined in peaceful relations through trade and diplomacy.
Amenhotep III’s son and successor was Amenhotep IV who, in the fourth or fifth year of his reign, changed his name to Akhenaten. His wife was the famous Nefertiti.
Under the reign of Akhenaten, the capital was moved from Thebes to a new city, Akhetaten, designed and built by the king and dedicated to his personal god. The temples in all the cities and towns were closed and religious festivals abolished except those venerating his god, the Aten.
This led to intense conflict with the priests of the cult of Amun and led to a decline in Egyptian power as Akhenaten ignored the central cultural value of Egypt – ma’at (harmony and balance) – which was the foundation of the religion and the society was ignored by Akhenaten’s administration and so were the diplomatic and commercial ties with other powers.
Akhenaten’s successor was Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC) who was in the process of restoring Egypt to its former status when he died young. His work was completed by Horemheb (1320-1295 BC) who erased Akhenaten’s name from history and destroyed his city.
During the 19th Dynasty which followed Horemheb, the most famous pharaoh in Egypt’s history would claim to have finally restored the country to power: Ramesses II (the Great, 1279-1213 BC). Ramesses II is not only the best-known pharaoh in the present day but also in antiquity thanks to his talent for self-promotion
The empire continued through to the 20th Dynasty – and ended with the death of Ramesses XI. The country was, by this time, divided between rule by the pharaoh in Lower Egypt and by the High Priest of Amun at Thebes in Upper Egypt. Ramesses XI’s successor, Smendes (1077-1051 BC), would attempt to reign like the pharaohs of the past but, in reality, was a co-ruler with the high priest Herihor of Thebes (c. 1074 BC) at the beginning of the era known as the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BC).
1600 BC – 1180 BC – THE HITTITES. The Hittites were an ancient group of Indo-Europeans who moved into Asian Minor and formed an empire at Hattusa in Anatolia (modern Turkey) around 1600 BCE. The history of the Empire is split in two the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom. In the intervening period the empire was much diminished.
The Hittite Empire reached its greatest heights during the mid-1300s BCE, when it spread across Asia Minor, into the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. Hittites were pioneers of the Iron Age and began manufacturing iron artifacts around 1400 BCE. This is significant because the Hittites’ use of iron and steel created tools and weapons that were more efficient than those made of bronze.
One military engagement the Hittites are famous for is the Battle of Kadesh against the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II’s army in 1274 BCE. This battle is especially important because both sides claimed victory, which led to the first known peace treaty in the history of the world, in 1258 BCE.
The final decline of the empire started at the Battle of Nihriya, in c. 1245 BCE when the forces of Tudhaliya IV were defeated by the Assyrian army.
1900 BC – 600 BC THE ASSYRIANS: For 300 years, from 900 to 600 B.C., the Assyrian Empire expanded, conquered and ruled the Middle East, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and parts of today’s Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
Initially in the Old Kingdom era, at other times Ashur, the first capital, and other Assyrian cities came under the control of the Akkadian empire under Sargon the Great. At other times, Assyria was a vassal state to Ur’s Third Dynasty in southern Mesopotamia.
From around 1250 B.C., the Assyrians had started using war chariots and iron weapons, which were far superior to bronze weapons. These tools and tactics made the Assyrian army the most powerful military force of its time, both doctrinally and technologically advanced.
Assyria’s competitors in the Old Kingdom included Hittites, Amorites, Hurrians, Mitanni, Elamites as well as Babylonians and Sumerians. The Amorites began to settle in the area, taking vital resources needed by Ashur.
An Assyrian king named Shamshi-Adad I (1813 to 1791 B.C.) succeeded in driving out the Amorites and uniting the Assyrian cities of Arbel, Nineveh, Ashur and Arrapkha. Along with the city of Nimrod, this was the core of the fledging Assyrian empire.
Under King Shamshi-Adad I, the Assyrian trade network with Anatolia flourished, giving Ashur power and wealth. While stronger competitors prevented the empire’s growth, the Assyrian core cities were secure. The year after King Shamshi-Adad’s death, Hammurabi took the Babylonian throne and Assyria became vassals to the Babylonians during Hammurabi’s rule.
The final stage of the Assyrian empire began in 745 B.C. when Tiglath Pileser III took the throne. Tiglath Pileser III received the empire in a slump with a demoralised army and disorganised bureaucracy. He took control and began reorganising all aspects of the empire from the army to the bureaucracy to re-conquering rebellious provinces.
Following Tiglath Pileser III, the Assyrian empire was ruled by Shalmaneser V, Sargon II and Sennacherib. Sennacherib’s reign (705 to 681 B.C.) welded the empire into an even greater force; he conquered provinces in Anatolia, Judah and Israel, even sacking Jerusalem. Sennacherib moved the capital of Assyria to Nineveh, where he built a splendid palace and exquisite gardens. Given that no one has actually found any sign of any hanging gardens at Babylon, many scholars speculate that the famous gardens might have been at Nineveh.
One assumes that some Assyrian media manager, in a Trump-like moment, decided that “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” sounded better than “Hanging Gardens of Ninevah”, and stuck out a Tablet Release, to that end, so we have been stuck with the former ever since.
Ashurbanipal was the last great Assyrian king. After his reign of 42 years, the huge empire began to fall apart. It had become too large, taxes were too high and entire regions rebelled. In 612 B.C., Nineveh itself was razed by a host of Persians, Babylonians and Medes. The great Assyrian empire was over.
After the fall of the Assyrian Empire, a Chaldean named Nabopolassar took the throne of Babylon and, through careful alliances, created the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
His son, Nebuchadnezzar II (604-561 BCE), renovated the city so that it covered 900 hectares (2,200 acres) of land and boasted some the most beautiful and impressive structures in all of Mesopotamia. Every ancient writer to make mention of the city of Babylon, outside of those responsible for the stories in the Bible, does so with a tone of awe and reverence. Herodotus, for example, writes:
The Neo-Babylonian Empire continued after the death of Nebuchadnezzar II and Babylon continued to play an important role in the region under the rule of Nabonidus and his successor Belshazzar (featured in the biblical Book of Daniel)
3000 BC – 1100 AD / 1800-1100 TROY – Troy was the most important Bronze Age city in the North Aegean, reaching the height of its prosperity in the middle Bronze Age (1800-1100), contemporary with the Mycenaean civilization on the Greek mainland and the Hittiteempire to the East.
Inhabited from the Early Bronze Age through to the 12th century AD the archaeological site which is now called Troy is 5 km from the coast but was once next to the sea.
The site was situated in a bay created by the mouth of the river Skamanda and occupied a strategically important position between Aegean and Eastern civilizations by controlling the principal point of access to the Black Sea, Anatolia and the Balkans from both directions by land and sea.
In particular, the difficulty in finding favourable winds to enter the Dardanelles may well have resulted in ancient sailing vessels standing by near Troy.
Excavations at the site of Troy were carried out by Heinrich Schliemann from 1870 AD until 1890. This and later excavations have revealed nine different cities and no less than 46 levels of inhabitation at the site. These have been labelled Troy I to Troy IX after Schliemann’s (and his successor Dorpfeld’s) original classification.
Troy VI (c. 1750-1300 BCE) is the period most visible today at the site and is the most likely candidate for the besieged city of Homer’s Trojan War. Impressive fortification walls 5 m thick and up to 8 m high constructed from large limestone blocks and including several towers (with the rectangular plan as in Hittite fortifications) demonstrate the prosperity but also concern for defence during this period. The walls would have once been topped by a mud brick and wood superstructure and with closely fitting stonework sloping inwards; as the walls rise they certainly fit the Homeric description of ‘strong-built Troy’.
1800 BC – 1100 BC EARLY GREECE (MYCENAE) – The earliest inhabitants of mainland Greece (called Mycenaeans after excavations found at Mycenae) developed an advanced culture. But, around 1100 BCE, the Mycenaeans were invaded by barbarians called Dorians and all their civilization disappeared. Greece went into a “Dark Age” to re-emerge hundreds of years later.
The Mycenaean civilization flourished in the late Bronze Age, from the 15th to the 13th century BCE and extended its influence not only throughout the Peloponnese in Greece but also across the Aegean, in particular, on Crete and the Cycladic islands.
The Mycenaeans were influenced by the earlier Minoan civilization (2000-1450 BCE) which had spread from its origins at Knossos, Crete to include the wider Aegean. Architecture, art and religious practices were assimilated and adapted to better express the perhaps more militaristic and austere Mycenaean culture.
With the mysterious end of the Mycenaean civilization during the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BCE (possibly through earthquake, invasion or in-fighting) came the so-called Dark Ages and it would be many centuries before Greek culture would finally regain the heights of the late Bronze Age.
1500BC – 322BC PHOENICIA Strictly speaking this was never an “empire” in the sense we think of empires – at best it was a maritime trading empire dominated by city states, principally Tyre and Sidon.
Because their goods were so highly prized, Phoenicia was often spared the kinds of military incursions suffered by other regions of the Near East. For the most part, the great military powers preferred to leave the Phoenicians to their trade.
The city-states of Phoenicia flourished through maritime trade between c. 1500-322 BC when the major cities were conquered by Alexander the Great and, after his death, the region became a battleground in the fight between his generals for succession and empire.
The Phoenicians were a great maritime people, known for their mighty ships adorned with horses’ heads in honor of their god of the sea, Yamm, the brother of Mot, the god of death.
The island city of Tyre and the city of Sidon were the most powerful states in Phoenicia with Gebal/Byblos and Baalbek as the most important spiritual/religious centres. Competition was particularly keen between the cities of Sidon and Tyre, arguably the most famous of the city-states of Phoenicia.
The city of Sidon (modern Sidonia, Lebanon) was initially the most prosperous but steadily lost ground to her sister city of Tyre.
Phoenician city-states began to take form c. 3200 BCE and were firmly established by c. 2750 BCE. Phoenicia thrived as a maritime trader and manufacturing center from c.1500-332 BCE and was highly regarded for their skill in ship-building, glass-making, the production of dyes, and an impressive level of skill in the manufacture of luxury and common goods
In 334 BCE Alexander the Great conquered Baalbek (re-naming it Heliopolis) and marched on to subdue the cities of Byblos and Sidon in 332 BC.
When Alexander arrived at Tyre, Tyre offered to submit but their conditions were unacceptable to Alexander and so he sent envoys to Tyre demanding their surrender.
Alexander ordered the siege of Tyre and was so determined to take the city that he built a causeway from the ruins of the old city on the mainland to the new island city. Used debris, and felled trees were used to build a causeway from the mainland to the island (which, owing to sediment deposits over the centuries is why Tyre is not an island today).
After seven months, Alexander’s forces breached the walls and massacred most of the populace. It is estimated that over 30,000 citizens of Tyre were massacred or sold into slavery. Only the rich and powerful were able to buy there way out and left to found a new trading city in Carthage.
After the fall of Tyre, the other city-states followed surrendered to Alexander’s rule, thus ending the Phoenician Civilization and ushering in the Hellenistic Age.
By 64 CE the disassembled parts of Phoenicia were annexed by Rome and, by 15 CE were colonies of the Roman Empire with Heliopolis remaining an important pilgrimage site which boasted the grandest religious building (the Temple of Jupiter Baal) in all of the Empire, the ruins of which remain well preserved to this day.
The most famous legacy of Phoenicia is undoubtedly the western alphabet but their contribution to the arts, and their role in disseminating the cultures of the ancient world, is equally impressive.
626 BC – 539 -BC NEO BABYLONIA. Babylon was reborn under the Neo-Babylonians (792 to 595 B.C.), also known as the Chaldeans, who succeeded the Assyrians and established a large empire. The empire reached its peak in the 6th century B.C. under Nebuchadnezzar, the famous Biblical ruler.
Until it was conquered by the Persians, Neo-Babylonian Empirewas the most powerful state in the ancient world after the fall of the Assyrian empire (612 BCE). Neo-Babylonian” refers to the last great Babylonian empire (Babylon was its capital). The Neo-Babylonian empire lasted from 626 BCE, when a Babylonian king conquered the Assyrian empire, to 539 BCE when it was conquered by the Persians.
The Neo-Babylonians began as a little known Semitic people. They rebuilt Babylon and established it as their capital. Their army sacked Jerusalem and enslaved entire races of people. After the Assyrian empire collapsed Jerusalem enjoyed 70 years of independence before it was taken over by Nebuchadnezzar after a year and a half siege.
The Neo-Babylonians made great contributions to science, astronomy and mathematics, which were later passed on to the Greeks. Many of the achievements in these fields credited to the Babylonians were actually accomplished by the Neo-Babylonians.
In Nebuchadnezzar’s time Babylon was built in the shape of a 1.6 mile square and was exquisitely planned. It was surrounded by massive walls and centered around 25 major streets paved with slabs of stone that were organized into a grid. Gates made of brass penetrated the walls. A massive bridge spanned the Euphrates which ran through the middle of the city. Mud brick palaces were adorned with glazed tiles of blue, red and green.
At its peak Babylon was a religious center that was the Jerusalem of its day. It was multi cultural and a free city for refugees. The most elaborate temple was dedicate to Marduk, the patron God of Babylon. Extemenanki—a brightly painted, 300-foot-high, stepped ziggurat—that stood near the Temple of Marduk may have been the inspiration for the Tower of Babel.
The temples not only supported a caste of priests but also a sages and prophets such as Daniel. In the markets were silver, gold, bronze, ivory, frankincense, myrrh, marble, wine, grains, imported woods brought in by caravans and ships from as far away as Africa and India.
Much of the debauchery associated with Babylon occurred under the Neo-Babylonians. According the Bible, debauched partiers at King Belshazzar’s feast were warned by the prophet Daniel that their kingdom would fall with the words Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. Daniel lived in Babylon. He impressed the Babylonian court with his prophetic interpretations of Nebuchadnezzar’s death
788 – 550 MEDIA – The Medes were a largely nomadic tribe from Persia. Prior to their dominant rule there was little centralised authority but occasionally a tribe succeeded in gathering a collection of other tribes under its leadership.
The Medes were one such. They built a capital at Ecbatana (‘meeting place’) in the eastern Zagros from where they extended their power. In 612 BCE, Cyaxares, King of the Medes, stormed Nineveh with the Chaldeans, after which he pushed into the north-west. In 585 BCE, the Medes were fighting the Lydians on the Halys river when a solar eclipse frightened both sides into making peace. Soon afterwards, Cyaxares died leaving an empire of sorts to his son Astyages (585–550 BCE).
One of the regions whose tribes paid tribute to the Medes was Persia, which lay south-east of Ecbatana, beyond Elam. There were around 10 or 15 tribes in Persia, of which one was the Pasargadae. The leader of the Pasargadae always came from the Achaemenid clan, and, in 559 BCE, a new leader was chosen: Cyrus II (‘the Great’).
We are told that Cyrus was the grandson of Astyages, the Median King, on his mother’s side, but that did not stop him wanting to shake off the Median yoke. By 552 BCE, he had formed the Persian tribes into a federation and begun a series of uprisings. When the inevitable showdown with his grandfather came in 550 BCE, the Medes mutinied and joined Cyrus to march on Ecbatana. the Median capital.
550 BC – 300 BC The ACHAEMENID Persian Empire conquered Babylonia and led to its fall. The Fall of Babylon denotes the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire after it was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BCE. … In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great invaded Babylonia, turning it into a colony of Achaemenid Persia. Cyrus then claimed to be the legitimate successor of the ancient Babylonian kings.
At its height the Achaemenid Persian empire was the largest that the ancient world had seen, extending from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia. Its formation began in 550 B.C., when King Astyages of Media, who dominated much of Iran and eastern Anatolia (Turkey), was defeated by his southern neighbor Cyrus II (“the Great”), king of Persia (r. 559–530 B.C.). This upset the balance of power in the Near East.
The Lydians of western Anatolia under King Croesus took advantage of the fall of Media to push east and clashed with Persian forces. The Lydian army withdrew for the winter but the Persians advanced to the Lydian capital at Sardis, which fell after a two-week siege. The Lydians had been allied with the Babylonians and Egyptians and Cyrus now had to confront these major powers. The Babylonian empire controlled Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean.
In 539 B.C., Persian forces defeated the Babylonian army at the site of Opis, east of the Tigris. Cyrus entered Babylon and presented himself as a traditional Mesopotamian monarch, restoring temples and releasing political prisoners. The one western power that remained unconquered in Cyrus’ lightning campaigns was Egypt. It was left to his son Cambyses to rout the Egyptian forces in the eastern Nile Delta in 525 B.C. After a ten-day siege, Egypt’s ancient capital Memphis fell to the Persians.
The Persian empire ebbed and flowed in strength and area reaching a new height under Darius I (the Great). Backed by the army and the noble clans of Persia, grown rich from imperial rule, Darius expanded the Empire further and extended it into the Indus Valley, a prize worth several times more in tribute than Babylon.
Cyrus the Great and his empire
Darius also established a common currency, which made working far from home much easier. He brought together teams of craftsmen from all over the Empire to build, under the direction of Persian architects, an imperial capital at Persepolis.
Ultimately Darius III was murdered by one of his own generals, and Alexander claimed the Persian empire. However, the fact that Alexander had to fight every inch of the way, taking every province by force, demonstrates the extraordinary solidarity of the Persian empire and that, despite the repeated court intrigues, it was certainly not in a state of decay.
700 BC – 146 BC -THE MACEDONIAN/GREEK EMPIRE The classical Greek period begins as early as 7th century BCE, though we tend to be more familiar with its history in the 5th century when Greece consists of a group of constantly warring city-states, the most famous being Athens and Sparta. The Greek victory at the Marathon (490 BCE),(1) the destruction of the Persian fleet at Salamis (480 BCE) and the victory at Plataea (479 BCE) brought and end to the Persian Empire’s attempts to conquer Greece. During the last three decades of the 5th century, Athens and Sparta waged a devastating war (Peloponnesian War 431-404 BCE) which culminated in the surrender of Athens. More inter-Greek fighting followed in the 4th century but later in that century all of Greece would succumb to Phillip II of Macedon, who paves way for his son, Alexander the Great, to spread the Greek civilization across the world.
Alexander, born in 356BCE, was the son of Phillip II (382-336BCE), the King of Macedonia in northern Greece. (And considered a barbarian by the southern Greek city states).
Phillip created a powerful, professional army which forcibly united the fractious Greek city-states into one empire. From an early age, Alexander, displayed tremendous military talent and was appointed as a commander in his father’s army at the age of eighteen.
Having conquered all of Greece Phillip was about to embark on a campaign to invade Greece’s arch-enemy, the Persian Empire. Before he could invade Persia he was assassinated, possibly by Alexander, who then became king in 336BCE. Two years LATER, in 334 BC, he crossed the Hellspont (in modern-day Turkey) with 45,000 men and invaded the Persian Empire.
In three Colossal battles, Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela, that took place between 334 and 331 Alexander brilliantly (and often recklessly) led his army to victory against Persian armies that may have outnumbered his own as much as ten to one.
In battle he would lead his Campanion Cavalry right at the strongest (rather than the weakest) point of the enemy line. When he fights the Persians, for example, he goes for the most heavily protected point of the Persian force surrounding the Persian Emperor, aiming to destroy the leadership.
When the Persian emperor Darius flees at the battle the Persian army collapses.
By 331 BCE the Persian Empire was defeated, the Persian Emperor Darius was dead, and Alexander was the undisputed rival of the Mediterranean.
His military campaign lasted 12 years and took him and his army 10,000 miles to the Indus River in India. Only the weariness of his men and his untimely death in 323BCE at the age of 32 ended the Greek conquest of the known world.
At its largest, Alexander’s empire stretched from Egypt to India. He built six Greek cities in his empire, named Alexandria.
The late 5th and the 4th century are as eventful culturally for the Greeks as it was militarily. Despite constant warfare, this is also the golden age of classical Greek culture—the birth of democracy, the time of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato.
312 BC – 64 BC The SELEUCID KINGDOM was an ancient empire that at its greatest extent stretched from Thrace in Europe to the border of India.
It was one of four “empires” carved out of the remains of Alexander the Great’s the Macedonian empire by its founder, Seleucus I Nicator
Seleucus, one of Alexander’s leading generals, became satrap (governor) of Babylonia in 321, two years after the death of Alexander. In the prolonged power struggle between the former generals of Alexander for control of the disintegrating empire, Seleucus sided with Ptolemy I of Egypt against Antigonus I, Alexander’s successor on the Macedonian throne, who had forced Seleucus out of Babylonia.
In 312 Seleucus defeated Demetrius at Gaza using troops supplied by Ptolemy, and with a smaller force he seized Babylonia that same year, thereby founding the Seleucid kingdom, or empire.
By 305, having consolidated his power over the kingdom, he began gradually to extend his domain eastward to the Indus River and westward to Syria and Anatolia, where he decisively defeated Antigonus at Ipsus in 301. In 281 he annexed the Thracian Chersonesus. That same year, he was assassinated by Ptolemy Ceraunus, the disgruntled son of Ptolemy I.
Seleucus was succeeded by his eldest son, Antiochus I Soter, who reigned until 261 and was followed by Antiochus II (reigned 261–246), Seleucus II (246–225), Seleucus III (225–223), and Antiochus III the Great (223–187)
By controlling Anatolia and its Greek cities, the Seleucids exerted enormous political, economic, and cultural power throughout the Middle East. Their control over the strategic Taurus Mountain passes between Anatolia and Syria, as well as the Hellespont between Thrace and Anatolia, allowed them to dominate commerce and trade in the region. Seleucid settlements in Syria, primarily Antioch, were regional centres by which the Seleucid kingdom projected its military, economic, and cultural influence.
The Seleucid kingdom was a major centre of Hellenistic culture, which maintained the preeminence of Greek customs and manners over the indigenous cultures of the Middle East. A Greek-speaking Macedonian aristocratic class dominated the Seleucid state throughout its history, although this dominance was most strongly felt in the urban areas.
The Seleucid kingdom began losing control over large territories in the 3rd century BC. An inexorable decline followed the first defeat of the Seleucids by the Romans in 190.
305 BC – 30 BC – THE PTOLEMAIC DYNASTY arose after the death of Alexander the Great when the Greek Empire was split into four.
These four parts were:
Thrace & Asia Minor (taken by Lysimachus)
Macedonia and Greece (Cassander)
Egypt, Palestine, Cilicia, Petra, and Cyprus (Ptolemy)
Rest of Asia (Seleucus) – so founding the Seleucid Empire which was comprised of Syria, Babylon, Persia, & India.
The Ptolemaic dynasty controlled Egypt for almost three centuries (305 – 30 BCE), eventually falling to the Romans. While they ruled Egypt they never became Egyptian. Instead, they isolated themselves in the capital city of Alexandria, a city envisioned by Alexander the Great.
The city was Greek both in language and practice. There were no marriages with outsiders; brother married sister or uncle married niece. In the end even the famous Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII) remained Macedonian.
Ptolemy I Soter (Savior) (366 – 282 BCE) was a Macedonian nobleman and, according to most sources, the son of Lagos and Arsinoe. He had been a childhood friend of Alexander, his official taster, bodyguard, and even possibly a relative; rumors abound that he was the illegitimate son of Philip II, Alexander’s father.
Except for the first two Ptolemaic pharaohs, Ptolemy I and his son Ptolemy II, most of the family was fairly inept and, in the end, only maintained authority with the assistance of Rome.
Apparently, Ptolemy II was one the last truly great pharaohs of Egypt. Many of those who followed failed to strengthen Egypt both internally and externally. Jealousy and in-fighting were common.
Unlike many of his successors, Ptolemy II expanded Egypt with the reclaiming of Cyrene (the city had declared independence from Egypt) and acquisitions in Asia Minor and Syria.
He fought two wars – the Syrian Wars – against Antiochus I and Antiochus II (260 – 252 BCE) and would marry his daughter Berenice to Antiochus II. Unfortunately, he also fought and failed in the Chremonidean War against Macedon (267 – 261 BCE).
In Egypt, he established trading posts along the Red Sea, completed construction on the Pharos, and enlarged the library and museum. To honor his parents he established a new festival, the Ptolemaeia.
After 63 BC the Ptolemies ran up against the Romans. The then Pharoah was Ptolemy XIII (63 – 47 BCE) was the brother and husband of the infamous Cleopatra VII. Initially, he had expected to gain favor with Caesar when he killed the Roman general Pompey, who had sought refuge in Egypt and presented the severed head to Caesar.
However, the Roman commander grew irate because he wanted to kill Pompey himself. Ptolemy XIII’s army was defeated after an intense battle, and he drowned in the Nile River when his boat overturned.
The final pharaoh of Egypt was Cleopatra VII who is known to history as simply Cleopatra. She ruled Egypt for 22 years, controlling much of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Like many of the women of her era, she was highly educated, being groomed for the throne by her father Ptolemy XII in the traditional Greek (Hellenistic) manner. She endeared herself to the Egyptian people, participating in many Egyptian festivals and ceremonies as well as being the only Ptolemy to learn the Egyptian language besides speaking Hebrew, Ethiopian, and other dialects.
Her relationship with Julius Caesar has been the subject of the dramatists and poets for centuries. With the death of Caesar and the balance of power in Rome in question, she sided, unfortunately, with the Roman general Mark Antony, only to lose it all at the Battle of Actium. Regrettably, she failed to find compassion in Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus and committed suicide. Her sons by Caesar and Antony, Caesarion (Ptolemy XV) and Antyllus were put to death by Octavian.
In 245 BCE, a satrap named Andragoras revolted from the young Seleucid King, Seleucus II, who had just succeeded to the throne.
In the confusion, Parthia was overrun by the Parni, a nomad tribe from the Central-Asian steppe. In 238 BCE, they occupied the district known as Astavene.
Three years later, a Parnian leader named Tiridates ventured further south and seized the rest of Parthia. A counter-offensive by King Seleucus ended in disaster, and Hyrcania was also subdued by the Parni. The first king of the Parthians (as the Parni were called from now on) was Tiridates’ brother Arsaces I. His capital was Hecatompylus.
Through the conquests of Mithradates I (reigned 171–138 BC) and Artabanus II (reigned 128–124 BC), all of the Iranian Plateau and the Tigris-Euphrates valley came under Parthian control. In 92 BC, Mithradates II, whose forces were advancing into north Syria against the declining Seleucids, concluded the first treaty between Parthia and Rome.
The earliest Parthian capital was probably at Dara (modern Abivard); one of the later capitals was Hecatompylos, probably near modern Dāmghān. The empire was governed by a small Parthian aristocracy, which successfully made use of the social organizations established by the Seleucids and which tolerated the development of vassal kingdoms.
Parthia regularly came into conflict with the Roman Empire. Rome considered itself obliged to enter upon the inheritance of Alexander the Great and, from the time of Pompey, continually attempted the subjection of the Hellenistic countries as far as the Euphrates River and had ambitions to go even farther eastward.
With this objective, Marcus Licinius Crassus, the Roman triumvir in 54 BC, took the offensive against Parthia; his army, however, was routed at Carrhae the following year. After this battle Mesopotamia was regained by the Parthians, but, apart from the ravaging of Syria (51 BC), the threatened Parthian attack on the Roman Empire never materialized.
Finally, in southern Iran the new dynasty of the Sāsānians, under the leadership of Ardashir I (reigned 224–241), overthrew the Parthian princes, ending the history of Parthia.
332 BC – 146 BC CARTHAGE Carthage was effectively a re-incarnation of the Phoenician trading empire. When the Phoenicians were defeated by Alexander the Great, Alexander’s army massacred most of the population (allegedly around 30,000 people) and only the rich and famous were able to buy their lives and freedom.
The city (in modern-day Tunisia, North Africa) was originally known as Kart-hadasht (new city) to distinguish it from the older Phoenician city of Utica nearby. The Greeks called the city Karchedonand the Romans turned this name into Carthago.
Originally a small port on the coast, established only as a stop for Phoenician traders to re-supply or repair their ships, Carthage grew to become the most powerful city in the Mediterranean before the rise of Rome.
The Carthaginians who arrived after the fall of Tyre drove the native Africans from the area, enslaved many of them, and exacted tribute from the rest. From a small town on the coast, the city grew to one of size and grandeur. Within one hundred years Carthage was the richest city in the Mediterranean.
The harbour was immense, with 220 docks, gleaming columns which rose around it in a half-circle, and was ornamented with Greek sculpture.
As Carthage sought to expand it came into conflict with Rome leading to the three Punic Wars between the two empires.
The most famous episode in the Punic wars was during the Second Punic War when Hannibal invaded Rome over the Alps from the Carthaginian territories in Spain.
This second war (218-202 BCE) was fought largely in northern Italy as Hannibal invaded Italy from Spain by marching his forces over the Alps.
Hannibal won every engagement against the Romans in Italy but in the manner of the Greek general, Pyrrhus, suffered sufficient losses that he could not consolidate his victories and was forced to return home.
He was defeated by the Roman general Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama, in North Africa, in 202 BCE and Carthage again sued for peace.
The term pyrrhic victory comes from the episode involving Pyrrhus who defeated the Romans at Asculum in 279 BC but suffered such heavy losses he had to return to Greece.
Following the second Punic war, Carthage believed that once their reparations to Rome were paid they no longer owed the Romans anything. The Romans felt that Carthage should be obliged to bend to Roman will; so much so that the Roman Senator Cato the Elder ended all of his speeches, no matter what the subject, with the phrase, “Further, I think that Carthage should be destroyed.”
In 149 BC, Rome suggested just that course of action and the Third Punic War (149-146 BC) began. The Roman general Scipio Aemilianus besieged Carthage for three years