Buddhist Art, Ruined Cities, and Theft on the Silk Road

Buddhist Art, Ruined Cities, and Theft on the Silk Road

Continuing  the journey which commenced with Mosques Pagoda’s and Art – Silk Road Journeys.

The road from Urumqi to Turpan passes through a varied landscape with views of the Tianshan mountains and stony desert during the first couple of hours and then through the Tianshan mountain pass.  The mountains rose on either side of the pass, a small stream was visible, its banks hosting the only vegetation to be seen.  Once through the pass, it was desert all the way to Turpan.

Tianshan Mountains.
Tianshan pass.

Turpan was startlingly green. The area is irrigated from an underground water system, called karez.  The underground tunnels bring water from the mountains and because they are underground, there is little evaporation. The tunnels were built around 2000 years ago. Fruit and vegetables are produced in abundance. The melon fields produced some of the sweetest melons I have tasted.  There were cotton crops, and an area called Grape Valley produced grapes in massive quantities.  Grape drying houses were made of mud brick, with latticed walls.  The area around the “sultana” houses smelt of port.  There were piles of sultanas on the dusty roadside for sale.  There was no wine in 1992, when I visited, although when Marco Polo visited Karakhoja, which became Gaochang, he observed that the land produces grain and excellent wine.   Lucky Marco Polo – I had to drink tea.

Grape Valley in Turpan.

During there 5th to 14th centuries, caves were being dug by buddhist monks at Bezeklik, near Turpan.  The caves are known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, which is something of an exaggeration, since there are less than 100 caves.

Thousand Buddha Caves, Bezeklik

The artwork in these caves has been vandalised, and the less vandalised panels were cut from the walls of the caves and stolen by Albert von Le Coq, a German Archaeologist, between 1902 and 1914.  Manuscripts were also stolen.  

One of the caves I visited had a huge chunk cut out of a wall.  This was pointed out with a great flourish, to illustrate the vandalism of the Devils on the Silk Road.  The stolen art works were taken to Berlin and were destroyed by the bombing during World War II.

The earlier vandalism was carried out by Muslims, who scratched out the eyes, and often the mouths of the Buddhas – so called religious vandalism. 

I was presented with a huge bowl of bones for dinner that evening.  Large bones in a clearish liquid.  Bones for a large dog came to mind. I decided that it was perhaps soup.  The liquid had no flavour, so if it was soup, it was less than enticing. Another large bowl appeared full of a noodle.  One continuous noodle.  The noodle was luke warm and was very greasy, and all but impossible to eat with chopsticks.  I contemplated sucking a mouthful up, and biting off the end, but as it was a shared meal, I thought better of it.  

Breakfast next morning consisted of peanuts, pickled beans, fried lumps of dough, dumplings and cake.  No sign of congee for the pickles and peanuts. The fried dough was quite satisfactory, covered with pickled beans and peanuts.  

 Thus fortified, I set out to explore the ancient ruined cities of Jiahoe and Gaochang.  First stop was Jiahoe.

Ancient City of Jiahoe.

 Jiahoe dates back some 2,300 years. The city was abandoned at the end of the 14th century, after being destroyed following a Mongol invasion, led by Genghis Khan.  We had the place to ourselves.  No other tourists.  No vendors harassing us to buy worthless trinkets. No evidence of anything modern.  Bliss. 

Jiahoe all to myself.

We didn’t have the Ancient City of Gaochang to ourselves.  There were about 6 other tourists and some local people there.  The site is large, with donkey carts to transport people around.  Gaochang dates from around 2BC, and it existed until destroyed by Mongol invasions – not long before Marco Polo was supposedly in the area.  The flaming mountains provided a spectacular backdrop. 

Ancient City of Gaochang
Gaochang – not all to myself.

The Astana-Karakhoja tombs were the local cemetery for Karakhoja.  From items found on the site, it appears the tombs were established in 273AD and abandoned in 788AD. In the early 1900’s Albert Von le Coq, followed by Aurel Stein, the Hungarian born, British archaeologist carried out excavations at the tombs. Russian and Japanese archaeologists were also excavating  They were beaten to it by earlier tomb robbers, but they still managed to steal a large number of relics. 

When I visited, there were 3 preserved bodies on display, and a mural.  I had never seen a preserved body.  I was fascinated to see long hair and fingernails.  The very arid dry climate accounts for the remarkable preservation.

Country near Astana/Karakhoja tombs.
Emin Minaret, near Turpan –  commenced in 1777. Said to have been designed in a pre-Safavid Iranian style.  

I was catching the 9.40pm train to Dunhuang.  The train was the Urumqi to Shanghai service, which stopped for 10 minutes at Turpan.  I have never seen so many people at a railway station.  There was hardly an inch of space on the platform – and it was a very long platform.  People were sleeping, vendors with little carts were selling food, people were boiling up water on little burners to make tea.  The train arrived on time. As our sleeper carriage was at the rear of the train, instead of being in the middle where we were told to wait, we had to move very quickly down the platform, through the teeming multitudes to make it. 

I had barely dragged myself and my case onto the train, when it began to move. I still had to find my compartment, but at least I was on board.

I love trains, and this train trip did not disappoint – although it was a little startling at times.  Just settling down to sleep, when 2 random men turned up, and hopped into the bottom bunks.  They had disappeared by the time I woke up.

The breakfast experience was interesting.  Our sleeper carriage was supposed to be next to the dining carriage, in the middle of the train.  It wasn’t.  The train was to stop at a station for five minutes at breakfast time, and we were advised to get off, and run up the platform to the dining carriage.  With thoughts of being stranded we knew not where, we certainly ran, dodging people disembarking and embarking, and numerous food vendors, selling their wares to people in the carriages.  

Chinese breakfast was still being served and the “restaurant” staff wouldn’t let us have the Chinese breakfast.  We need not have run along the platform I thought – a stroll through the train would have provided perfect timing for the “tourist” breakfast. 

Tourist breakfast for 4 of us, plus 2 British tourists and 4 Japanese tourists consisted of 1 fried egg, a slice of frozen bread, jam and a glass of sweet milk.  The Chinese breakfast would have been preferable. 

Walking back to our carriage through the train after breakfast provided a vision of hell, and the reason for running up the platform to the dining carriage.  The people in the hard seat carriages far outnumbered the seats available. Children were sleeping on the floor.  The noise was deafening and discarded food and other rubbish threatened to bury the sleeping children.  Add to that the chaos of people trying to get off the train, and people getting on, we would probably have been annihilated. 

The train was stopping for 5 minutes only at Liuyuan (the station for  Dunhuang).  How were we going to work out, in 5 minutes, what the name on the station was, fight our way through the people boarding and get our ourselves and our suitcases off the train in time.   I was advised that the train would arrive at 9.30am, so we should get off then.  What if the train was late, or early?  It wouldn’t be we were told.

The train pulled in to a station at 9.30 am, and we got off, hoping our advice was correct.  We had barely alighted before the train departed.  There appeared to be the population of a small city on the platform, and it took several minutes for the crowd to disperse.  We were the only people left on the platform.  The name of the station was unreadable in 1992. I went off to find someone (anyone) in an attempt to confirm that we were at Liuyuan, and discovered our guides inside the station, waiting for us.  Logical really, as it was the 9.30am train, so obviously we wouldn’t be concerned, would we.  Furthermore, they pointed out, if they had gone onto the platform they would have been among the thousands of other people, and we may have missed them and gone on to Dunhuang on our own.  I gave in gracefully, and didn’t point out that it would have been impossible for us to obtain any transport as they had our permits to travel to Dunhuang. 

During the 2 hour drive to Dunhuang desert gave way to crops of  cotton and sweet corn.  The cotton was being harvested. Huge cartloads of harvested cotton were lined up at the gates of a cotton mill, waiting for the mill to open. Camels were loitering along the roadside, disdainfully ignoring  all who passed.

Cotton growing near Dunhuang, with White Horse Pagoda in background.

The highlight of Dunhuang was a visit to the Magao caves, near Dunhuang.  The caves had been built and decorated by by Buddhist monks for over a thousand years from the mid 4th century. In 1907, Aurel Stein, the Hungarian born British Archaeologist, by bribing Abbott Wang, the custodian, “stole” thousands of manuscripts, buddhist silk paintings and the worlds oldest printed document, the Diamond Sutra, dating from 863CE. Mercury, the god of merchants, travellers and thieves, must have been looking after Stein and his ilk along the Silk Roads. 

Magao Caves, Dunhuang

 The Magao site contains around 500 caves of which  I entered about a dozen.  What I saw was like nothing I had ever seen before, and it had a profound effect on my understanding of art and religion.  The stories being told were similar to the stories, myths and legends shown in the art of the christian and orthodox world. Buddha with disciples, attendant bodhisattvas and heavenly kings, Buddhas with hands in meditation postures, early style bodhisattvas, Buddhas resisting temptation, and so much more.  

I did not see any manuscripts, paintings on silk, or any embroideries in Dunhuang. I have since seen examples in the British Museum, the V & A and the British Library.

Marco Polo stayed for a year in Su-chau (as Dunhuang was known), but no mention was made by him of  the caves.  He did however see the Mingsha sand dunes – he referred to them as the rumbling sands due to the noise made when the wind sweeps over them.    Did he ascend the sand dunes by camel, as many people did when I visited.  Alternatively, he may have walked up, as I did, and slid down.  Polo did observe that rhubarb and ginger grew in great profusion in the adjacent mountains, and that one Venetian goat would buy 40 pounds of fresh ginger of excellent quality.  

 On the drive from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan, I experienced some very realistic mirages – a forest, a city, lakes and rivers shimmering in the distance.  Little wonder early travellers perished following a mirage looking for non- existent water.    

The western terminus of the Great Wall is near Jiayuguan.  Beyond this people were banished to the areas I had just travelled through.  Other than being an important link in the old silk road, and the view of the terminus of the great wall, there is little in Jiayuguan of interest.  Polo said of another city “this city offers nothing specially remarkable we shall pass on” which reflects my thoughts on Jiayuguan.

Looking toward the terminus of the Great Wall from Jiayuguan Fort.

Getting out of Jiayuguan proved to be a challenge.  Arriving at the airport for a 9.50am departure, we find the plane has been delayed maybe 2 hours, maybe 3.  Reason – a bit of the plane broke at Lanzhou.  A very sad and decrepit looking plane finally arrived at around 2.30pm.  Its wings appeared to be drooping – down at mouth drooping.  The plane would take us, but not our luggage, which would go by train to Xian, even though we were not going to Xian from Jiayuguan.  After much discussion, measuring and weighing, it was decided our 6 suitcases could go on the plane. By then I was thinking that maybe me and my suitcase should go by train, but was dissuaded on discovering only hard seats were available.

The plane which took people but not their luggage.

The drive to Lanzhou from the airport is 75km.  We drove through lovely misty looking hills, hill after hill fading into oblivion.  

“Original” silk road near Lanzhou.

After driving through an industrial area containing petro chemical plants, the most polluted place I had ever experienced, we emerged into acres and acres of peach orchards. Marco Polo apparently travelled through a river crossing point at Lanzhou during his travels with his father.  He took a more northern route on his second journey.  Lanzhou is not mentioned  in his travels.  Lanzhou is situated on the banks of the Yellow River, a rather brown river when I was there.  The markets in Lanzhou provided my first experience of live produce other than cattle type markets – that is fish in buckets, snakes writhing in baskets, birds in cages and other small animals, which were distressing to observe.  The guide very cheerily announced that people liked to have fresh food, and as they did not have refrigeration, they needed to buy their food “live”. 

 Marco Polo was impressed by Xian (Singan-fu) – which he called a great and splendid city.  He mentioned fruitful gardens and fields, and mulberries.  I did not see fruitful gardens and fields or mulberries, but I did see the terracotta army – serried ranks of warriors and horses emerging from their trenches.  Marco Polo did not.  They were all still safely buried under their mounds when he visited.  It is fortuitous for China that the warriors had not been discovered when Aurel Stein and his ilk were exploring the silk road.

The Big White Horse Pagoda in Xian was originally built in 652AD, so Polo would have seen it, but he makes no mention of it.  I could barely see other than a looming shape through the pollution until I got very close.  I climbed up to the top, but could see very little.

Big White Horse Pagoda, Xian.

The old city wall in Xian is most impressive. Marco Polo described it as a stout and lofty wall about 5 miles in circuit, crowned with battlements and strongly built.  Unfortunately the pollution was so bad, I could hardly see a block beyond the wall, so there seemed little point in hopping on one of the golf carts for a circumnavigation of the wall.

On top of the Old City Wall Xian.

 Banpo, near Xian, contains a neolithic village of the Yangshao culture, discovered in 1953.  The settlement was established between 5000BC to 4000BC.  It felt more like a museum rather than an archaeological site in 1992.  The parts I saw had obviously reconstructed dwellings illustrating different forms of dwellings, some underground with just a roof to 2 room constructions    above ground.  The reconstruction, while useful to show schoolchildren what life looked like in neolithic times, did not inspire me. 

At Banpo Village

An evening at the theatre in Xian provided a most entertaining spectacle.  We appeared to be the only non Chinese in the audience, so hoped that the performance would not be the usual pretend cultural experience for  tourists.  The show was a recreation of Tang Dynasty song and dance. The programme included a fan dance, in civilian form.  The dancing was graceful, resembling ballet.  A mask dance was also performed.  The costumes the dancers wore in both dances were bright and colourful, and appeared to be silk.  Sitting beside the toilets, with the attendant aroma, did not diminish the experience.  The behaviour of the audience indicated that it was a show for tourists – Chinese tourists.  They were videoing, photographing, walking round to get the best angles for their photographs, and chatting among themselves.

My silk road adventure concluded in Xian.  Marco Polo went to Xanadu (Shang-tu).  I did not.  Xanadu is now an archaeological site but Marco Polo was full of admiration for the city, saying “in this city Kublai Khan built a huge palace of marble and other ornamental stones.” He also described gardens and a second palace made of bamboo.  Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge inspired me long before I set out on my Silk Road Journeys. Who would not be inspired by  “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree:…”.  Whether or not Coleridge wrote this while in an opium induced state doesn’t matter.  What matters is that his words inspire – “For he on honey dew hath fed And drunk the milk of Paradise” nailed it.  I am going to Xanadu.


Mosques, Pagodas and Art – Silk Road Journeys

Mosques, Pagodas and Art – Silk Road Journeys

Far North West China

Whether or not there was ever a Marco Polo who travelled from Venice along trade routes, which over the centuries have become known as the Silk Road or Silk Route, the story has inspired a lot of journeys, including some of mine.

My first encounter with the Silk Road was in China, from Urumqi/Kashgar to Xian, in late 1992.  It wasn’t just the traders I was interested in.   I was also interested in the spies, adventurers, archaeologists and thieves who had intrigued, stolen and plundered along the routes which earlier traders had established.

The fact that the plane I travelled on from Beijing to Urumqi actually made it to Urumqi in one piece seemed like a miracle, although worse planes were to come later in the trip.  My seat back fell backwards on take off, and if I leaned back, it also went into recline position.  One passenger had a bucket if water, with fish in it. Another had a burner of some kind, on which he made tea.

A lot of passengers were Russians, who had been shopping in Beijing.  Sewing machines and typewriters and other bulky consumer items were piled up in the aisle. An Aeroflot plane was waiting for them at Urumqi – their struggles with the hand luggage made for interesting viewing.

Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in the north west of China and was a major hub on the silk road.  The Kazaks in the Tian Shan mountains near Urumqi were packing up their Yurts to move down from the mountains for the winter.   Apparently Yurts have been used as dwellings since ancient time.  I have wanted a yurt of my own ever since seeing them in Xinjiang.

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A Yurt near Urumqi

The first thing I noticed was that the majority of people were not Han Chinese.  Uygur people are a turkic ethnic group and primarily muslims.  The second thing I noticed was a huge presence of soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army, all of whom appeared to be Han Chinese.

There had been some unrest in the region earlier in 1992, but the Chinese Government was not practising the mass detention and re-education of the Uygur people that has been happening over the past few years.

It was pitch black when I was awoken by loudspeaker announcements and martial type music on the first morning in Urumqi.  I went out to investigate, following the sounds through poplar trees.  It was almost dawn. There was a slight mist and the autumnal leaves were drifting down from the trees, covering the road with a yellow and orange carpet.  The announcements and music were getting louder. Alarmingly, a platoon of PLA soldiers loomed out of the mist, armed and running in formation, towards me.

I could see the headlines – “Foreign Woman Arrested” or more alarmingly “Foreign Woman Killed”.  They ran past, without a sideways glance, and disappeared into the gloom.   No headlines were generated, and I wandered back to the hotel for breakfast to the sounds of martial music.

The bazaar in Urumqi in 1992 was not the grand bazaar it appears to be today.  The butcher’s stall was was like no other butcher’s shop I had seen.   The carcasses were hanging in the open.  A dog was asleep in front.  When a customer arrived, there was a lively exchange between the customer and the butcher, then a lump of meat was hacked off a carcass for the customer.  All the while the dog slept on.

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The Butcher shop, Urumqi Bazaar 1992

Kashgar is mentioned in “The Travels of Marco Polo”.  Polo was apparently in Kashgar in 1273, about 70 years after it was seized by Ghengis Khan and he described it as the “biggest city and the most splendid city” in the province.

Kashgar is one of the remotest places I have ever visited, and was one of the ancient Silk Road oasis towns.   It is surrounded by the Karakorum and Pamir Mountains, and the Taklamakan desert.

It was here that the spy element of my journey was introduced.  In the late 19th century Britain and Russia were engaged in a competition for power and influence in Central Asia.  Kashgar was a listening post in what was called the Great Game – the diplomats were spies.  In addition to information and influence, they were rivals in the acquisition of silk road antiquities. The British were also worried that the Russians would try to invade India, which at the time was Britain’s jewel in the crown.

I was staying at a hotel which has the former Russian consulate located in its grounds.  My room was in a dormitory type building behind the rather grand main building, and close to the old Russian embassy.  The atmosphere, in 1992, was fairly primitive.  The toilet threw its contents back at you when flushed, and otherwise leaked water all over the floor.  Hot water only available occasionally.  No water available at times, and the electricity supply was very unpredictable.

A number of the women in Kashgar wore a brown woollen shawl like garment over their heads, which fell to below their waist.  There were no eye slits – they had to peer through the weave of the covering garment.  If they wanted to chat to another woman, they both took cover under one garment.

Women chatting in Kashgar

The majority of women did not have their faces covered.  Some wore headscarves, others hats, and many were bare headed. Most of them were very well dressed and smart.  It rained while I was in Kashgar, and the dust turned to mud.  No matter how careful I was, I was still splattered with mud to my knees, and my shoes were caked in mud. The Uygar women remained pristine.

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The bazaar I visited in 1992 appears to have been demolished, as part of the destruction of the Old City.  Recent images I have seen show a very different Old City to the one I saw.  It was the first bazaar I had ever visited, and I was a little apprehensive.  There were no other tourists around.  No one spoke English, and the items for sale in the market appeared, in the main, to be items that local people would acquire.  The only things which may have been for tourists were a large array of very fancy knives and supposedly “genuine” Uygur musical instruments.  Old men stood around chatting, women were shopping and young men were sitting around, keeping the various vendors company.

That afternoon I visited the Old City, which has apparently mostly been demolished, and is now the new Old City.  The mud brick houses crowded along narrow laneways.  Children played in the muddy water.

People worked in their homes.  One dwelling contained a kiln downstairs where the potters who lived in the house fired their pottery.  They sold the pottery in the bazaar. Crops were drying on rooftops.

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Once inside a traditional courtyard house, the squalor of the laneway receded.  The home was very pleasant.  Roses and geraniums in pots in the courtyard beautified and softened the area.  Shy children peeped at us through the  the plants.  Whilst this house was a “show” home, which we paid to enter, occasionally a door would be open, showing an attractive interior courtyard full of plants.

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I also visited a house where a daughter was about to be married.  Her dowry contained items of the most beautiful silks I have seen.  I wondered what her life would be like once married.  When would she have the opportunity to wear these beautiful silk garments?

The most common forms of transport were donkey carts and bicycles.  This was the place where I learned that donkeys did not “hee haw” as such.  The noise that these donkeys were emitting was akin to bellowing.  Very very loud.  I had met a few donkeys in my life, but I hadn’t heard them make any sound, not even a hee haw.  I thought perhaps the braying of Kashgar donkeys was particular to them.  I have since learned that that noise was indeed a hee haw.  They hee when inhaling and haw when exhaling, but they don’t just do it once.  They bray for around 20 seconds, so lots of hees and lots of haws.  I have listened to donkeys braying since, and even with this information, I cannot discern a hee or a haw.


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The Idkah Mosque in Kashgar was my introduction to Islamic architecture.  The mosque was built in 1442, but it is thought to be on the site of an older structure dating back to 996.  It has been renovated and enlarged since my visit in 1992.

The external facade of the mosque is covered in yellow ceramic tiles, and the minarets are decorated with coloured bands.   It was like a drop of sunshine on an otherwise grey day.

Idkah Mosque, Kashgar.

I was less than impressed with the inside. The prayer hall was filled with prayer rugs and carpets, and there was little else to see. An extremely unpleasant man followed us around and made it quite clear that we were not welcome, even though we had paid an entry fee.

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My entry ticket to visit Idkah Mosque in 1992

Visiting Tombs and a Pagoda near Kashgar completed my North Western China experience.

The Abakh Khoja Tomb is situated 5km north east of Kashgar, and is approached through long straight poplar lined roads. The tomb, originally built in 1640, is covered with green glazed tiles and the minarets are decorated with stripes. Five generations of a family are buried in the tomb, which is surrounded by an above ground cemetery.

As we arrived at the Tomb of Mohammed Kashgeri, I could hear the most beautiful haunting singing.  A goatherd was singing to his goats.  The goats were oblivious, but I was entranced.

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Mohammed Kashgeri was a well known Uygur philologist who wrote a Turkish dictionary in the 11th-12th century.  There was a white poplar in a pond, supposedly planted by him. The tomb smelt like cats piss, and the poplar had seen better days.

The Mor Pagoda is only about 35km north east of Kashgar but it took over an hour to get there.  Initially the road was lined with poplars, behind which were high mud brick walls.  Occasional open doors in the walls provided glimpses of lovely grape covered courtyards, and little children came out to wave.  We passed a herd of sheep, and numerous big carts loaded with cotton and sweet corn.  There were dozens of donkey carts being driven by men who were coming home from Friday prayers.

The poplars and the crops dwindled and disappeared, and we were in the desert.

The Mor Pagoda was built around the 7th century and destroyed in the 12th century. Other than the Stupa, little remains.   It was raining softly when we visited – we were wandering around the site, and in the desert with umbrellas.  The landscape was grand and bleak at the same time.

The Stupa of the Mor Pagoda.

It was then time to catch our flight to Urumqi, and begin the next stage of the Silk Road journey.  This stage introduced the archaeologists and thieves – maybe that should be rephrased – the archaeologists who stole antiquities and smuggled them out of the country.










An Obsession with Mosaics

An Obsession with Mosaics

Growing up in a small village in New Zealand in the 1950’s provided no opportunity for exposure to great art of any kind, let alone mosaics.

A visit to Italy, in 1995 provided an introduction to, and immersion in religious mosaics. From Rome, Florence and Venice to Southern Italy and Sicily, I became somewhat obsessed about seeking out the churches which held the most splendid examples – old testament stories, new testament stories, angels and cherubs, saints and sinners – all were represented.

St Prassede, a 9th Century basilica in Rome contains the most glorious Byzantine mosaics, and were among the very first religious mosaics I saw.


The Cathedral of Monreale in Palermo, Sicily was built between 1170 and 1189.  It contains Byzantine mosaics created by craftsmen from Constantinople.   Visiting the cathedral was a golden experience – as in it was as if I was in a golden cave. The featured imagine of Noah’s Ark is in Monreale, as are the following.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has had a chequered history.  A church, a mosque and a museum – and perhaps a mosque again.  Mosaics from the church period were covered during the time it was a mosque and uncovered again when the mosque became a museum.  On my first visit, all of the mosaics were visible.  On later visits, some were inaccessible due to renovations.

The Chora Church in Istanbul also contains some interesting mosaics – my favourite being a representation of Jesus turning water into wine when the wine ran out at a celebration.


Religious mosaics were my introduction to this art form, but it was just the beginning of my journey.  On a visit to Cyprus, I visited the Paphos mosaics, and discovered mosaic floors.  These floors were in the homes of the wealthy, and were from the mid Roman period.  Myths and legends came alive for me in the floors.  Narcissus, looking at his reflection in a pool of water, the triumph of Dionysos and Ganymede and the eagle for example.

The National Archaeological Museum of Naples contains mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum, including panels from the House of the Faun at Pompeii.  These mosaics were created by Alexandrian craftsmen, who worked in Italy around the 2nd and 1st century BC.  The most famous, the Alexander mosaic, which was found in October 1831 in the House of the Faun, depicts a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III.


Some of the mosaics recall scenes from Egypt – not surprising since the mosaics were created by Egyptian craftsmen.  Ducks with lotus flowers in their beaks, hippopotamus, snakes and crocodiles are examples.

I would recommend a visit to the museum prior to visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum – the images of the mosaics on your mind will bring the cities to life in a manner not possible otherwise.

P1020497Cave canem – beware of the dog, from the Casa di Orfeo, Pompei.

The Mosaics of Zeugma are on display in the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in the nearby city of Gaziantep, in Eastern Turkey, close to the Syrian border.  Zeugma was founded by a general from Alexander the Great’s army in 300BC and conquered by the Romans in the 1st Century AD.   The mosaics are from the Roman period, and feature exquisite mosaic floors and panels.  The mosaics, which were threatened by the building of a dam across the Euphrates in the 1990’s, were rescued and restored, and the museum was built to house them.


The mosaic above, known as the Gypsy Girl, is a Maenad – a follower of Dionysus and was a part of a floor mosaic.   I had difficulty in prising myself away from the compelling eyes, which seemed to follow me – imploring me to stay.

The  Zeugma mosaics depict characters from Greek mythology, flowers, birds, animals and fish.  Pictured above top left is the central panel of a mosaic.  The figure in this mosaic is “believed to have been a personification of the Euphrates as a river-god”.  The mosaic in the top centre is the Abduction of Europa.

This mosaic shows Aphrodite being carried across the sea in a cockle shell.  The inscription says “Master Zosimos of Samosata made this mosaic. The fishtailed centaurs are identified as Aphros (foam) and Bythos (the deep).


Aphrodite has been a favourite of mine since I became interested in Greek Myths and Legends.  I visited her “birthplace” near Paphos in Cyprus.  It took a lot of imagination to see Aphrodite rising from the sea froth – a glass of champagne helped.  I also visited her bath place, near Paphos – sadly, no Adonis turned up.  I prefer this depiction of Aphrodite being carried across the sea in a cockle shell by centaurs to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in which she is arriving on the shore on a cockle shell with not a centaur in sight.  My imagination is stimulated by centaurs.

I hadn’t expected to see any mosaics in Egypt.  A visit to an archaeological park in the Kom el-Dikka neighbourhood of Alexandria, which contains one of the few surviving examples of mosaics from the Roman period, was a bonus. The Villa of the Birds contains a mosaic floor depicting numerous species of birds.

The Church of St George in Madaba, Jordan has a floor mosaic created in the 6th century  for the Byzantine Church which stood on that site.  This was a different kind of mosaic than any I had seen.  The mosaic is the oldest known map of the holy land and depicts an area from Lebanon to the Nile Delta in the south, and from the Mediterranean sea in the west to the Eastern desert.  The Dead Sea, Jericho and Bethlehem are shown, along with more than 150 towns, villages and places of interest.


The archaeological site of Umm ar-Rasas, near Madaba, contains some wonderful mosaic floors.  In the church of St Stephen mosaic floors date back to the 8th century.  The mosaic floors depict numerous different cities from the East and West of the Jordan River, and cities of the Egyptian Delta.  I was thrilled be given the opportunity to brush away the sand covering mosaics of lions yet to be protected. Even though I was not “discovering” the mosaic, in my imagination, I was.

An impressive collection of late Roman mosaic pavements can be found in the Villa del Casale of Piazza Armerina, Sicily.  The villa was constructed in around the early 4th century AD.  The mosaic collection is said to be the richest, largest and most varied in the world.  Whether this is true or not, the mosaics were certainly the most varied I have visited.  One of the most interesting pavements is in what is referred to as the Corridor of the Great Hunt, which depicted scenes of hunting, capture and transportation of exotic animals.

One of the rooms in the Villa displays several girls in bikinis.  They appear to be engaged in sporting activities – including discus throwing and ball games.  Clearly bikinis were around long before they became favoured swim wear in the 20th century.

Myths and legends are well represented.  Eros and Pan engaged in a battle, Ulysses and Polyphemus, Dionysus and a splendid mosaic depicting the Twelve Labours of Hercules. There are mosaics representing flowers plants, birds and animals and scenes of day to day life, including scenes from the coliseum

The beauty of mosaics, and the archaeology and history involved lure me everywhere I go.  There are so many more sites and museums I have visited not referred to, and there are still more to visit than I will ever get to see, despite my best efforts.

The additional benefit of my obsession with mosaics, is that I am continually learning and relearning the various myths and legends, bible history, battles and history of the times the mosaics were created.  I also love the animals, birds and flowers of the times.

Often when I am in a remote part of the world viewing mosaics, I think of that child growing up in the depths of country New Zealand, and reflect on how very fortunate the adult that child became has been.

Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou

Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou

A day trip over the High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

It was misty in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.  There was little to see, and I was disappointed.  I need not have been.  The mist cleared as the sun came up, in time for  carpets of red poppies to become visible, along with blue iris and bursts of pretty yellow flowers.  The landscape was full of contrasts from volcanic wilderness, fat black rocks looking like huge mud pies, snow capped mountains to flourishing valleys, stone and mud brick fortresses – Kasbahs – winding rivers, red and orange coloured cliffs, gorges and Bedouin villages tucked into the hillsides, as if they were part of the natural landscape.

As we wound our way up to Tizin Tichka pass, the highest mountain pass in North Africa (2260 metres), I became aware that the car was weaving somewhat, to the point of rounding a hairpin bed on the wrong side of the road.  The driver was using his mobile phone to photograph the dramatic scenery.


Coming down from the pass, we turned off the main road to visit Telouet, a village which was on the route of the old salt caravans, and which is the site of a crumbling Kasbah.  The Kasbah was home to the Glaoui tribe, who supported the French occupation.  After independence, the Kasbah was abandoned.


If  you are a vertically challenged person, you may be interested to know that there are 2 door handles at different heights on the huge wooden doors adjacent to the entry.   The higher handle was for men and the lower handle for women.  I would have had trouble reaching the higher handle, and so I suspect would some men.  Maybe something was lost in the translation.

Entering the Kasbah was an eerie experience.  It was quite derelict and the wind was whistling through the passageways and corridors – very atmospheric.  All of a sudden the derelict gave way to the splendour of Andulusian style mosaics, and stunning intricate carvings, like honeycomb.  I could understand why Winston Churchill enjoyed visiting during the 1930’s, when the Kasbah was owned by the Pasha Glaoui, who entertained lavishly.


Continuing along the little used back road through the Ounila valley, to Ait Ben Haddou, we passed by old salt mines, through red and orange coloured cliffs and gorges, with the occasional green oasis adding to the diversity of the landscape.

Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO world heritage site, and is on the route traders followed on their journey from Timbuktu to Marrakech.  A sign stating “Tombouctou – 52 days” illustrated by a line of camels and traders gave an idea of the length of the trip by camel. Having lunch at an establishment overlooking the Kasbah,  I thought about the slaves who were transported in these caravans, on the way to the slave market in Marrakech.  Where had they come from? What was their fate?

I set off to explore.  Most residents now live in the modern town, across the river, but there are a handful still living at the heritage site, or at least pretending to.

Crossing the river, and entering the site, the experience was not so much one of awe, but of resignation at the line of stalls laden with jewellery, clothing, pottery, leather goods, rugs and the odd sprinkling of fossils and crystals. Once past this area though, the groups of earthen buildings unfold up the hill and I was able to appreciate the architecture and the variety of dwellings, from very modest to those which were large with towers decorated with clay brick motifs.


I saw little sign of habitation, although I was invited into a home.  The entry passageway was a tunnel through the hill.  A loom was set up in the passage – grandma did the weaving, although there was no sign of grandma.  A large room off the passageway, where the family apparently slept was quite bare.  There was no bedding.  There were no cupboards where bedding could be stored.  The next room was the kitchen.  It did have pots and pans, and a traditional fireplace for cooking.  It also contained a more modern small oven.  There was little sign of food. At the end of the passage, goats and chickens could be seen in a small courtyard.  Upstairs were 3 or 4 rooms.  Each of the rooms were empty.  I suspect that the family lived in the modern town, and used the house as a money making venture. It was of interest anyway, to see how the people had lived in the days when Ait Ben Haddou was a place where the caravans from Timbuktoo to Marrakech stopped over.

On the drive back to Marrakech, along with convoys of 4WD’s returning from the desert, trucks of varying sizes and every vehicle in between, we came upon a skate boarder.  Quite oblivious of the number of vehicles building up behind, he was sailing down the mountain, assisted by a huge sail.  My driver appeared to be very happy when the skate boarder came to grief on a hairpin bend.  His comment, as we drove past the unfortunate person on the ground, minus the skate board was “silly man” in a most scornful tone.

I arrived back in Marrakech, determined to learn more of the history of Morocco and to return to explore further.







Heretaunga Street, Hastings after the earthquake.

Hawkes Bay, New Zealand – 3 February 1931

Cel’s Story.

On 3 February, 1931 I set out for my first day at Hastings High School with my sister Mary.  I was 13 years old. It was a typical Hawkes Bay summer day, very hot and overcast making everything seem very oppressive.

The high school consisted of two single level wings, a boy’s wing and a girl’s wing.  There was also a two level administration wing with tall parapets at the side of the building to make it look taller.

Just before 11am I was in the science lab buying my books.  Suddenly I heard a noise like an express train coming at full speed. Actually it was an earthquake. There was no warning, no rumblings just that sudden violence making a heavy roaring sound as it struck us.  We were all thrown to the floor.  Bottles of chemicals used in science experiments stored on open shelves were falling and breaking.  There was a strong smell of chemicals.  The noise was indescribable. People were screaming, and everyone was crawling towards the door.

The teacher had a very deep voice, and was calling “stand back boys, let the girls out first”.  There was no way the boys were going to subscribe to this.  Their instinct for survival was strong and we all finished up in a heap by the door, which had jammed. Two and a half minutes is an eternity when the earth is moving violently, and you are trapped in a room.

Suddenly the violence ceased, and we were able to open the science lab door and join all the pupils on the front lawn of the school.

The first aftershock came as we assembled on the lawn.  It was almost as strong as the first earthquake.  I watched the tall parapets separating from the main building and then clapping back against the main building before collapsing onto the roof.

One of the girls who was missing was discovered absolutely catatonic, still sitting at her desk in a state of shock, too afraid to move.

The pupils were sent home.  Mary and I walked home to Avenue Road West along the main road, Heretaunga Street.  It was only then that the enormity of the disaster registered.  There were very few buildings still standing.  There were no undamaged buildings.  Bricks and rubble covered the street.  Utter devastation.

Our father, Bill O’Neill, was a horse and cart carrier and wore a leather apron when working.  Imagine the horror of walking past a shop which had totally collapsed and seeing a pair of legs and part of a leather apron protruding from the rubble.  We grabbed hold of the feet, and were trying to pull “daddy” out.  A man passing by told us there was nothing more we could do for the owner of the legs, and to go home.

When we got home the scene was chaotic.  The brick chimney had collapsed onto the roof.  The cupboard doors had all burst open, and the contents thrown onto the floor.  There were broken jars which had contained jams and preserves, stores, crockery and china strewn all over the kitchen floor.  All of the furniture had been knocked over, even the beds.  The wallpaper was cracked by the strain on the building.

My mother had been cleaning the bath when the earthquake hit.  She was hurled into the bath, luckily only sustaining bruises.

The brick chimneys on the houses had all collapsed, generally onto the roof, making it dangerous to stay in the house.

My younger sister, Kath had not arrived home, so mother had to go out and look for her. She had been too frightened to come home, and had gone to a friend’s house.  Her friend’s grandmother, a very devout Irish catholic widow, really believed that the angel Gabriel had sounded the last trumpet, and that the earthquake was heralding the end of the world.  She was pleading for someone to go with her to the cemetery, so that she would be there to greet her husband when the graves opened up.

We were relieved to discover that the legs did not belong to Daddy.  He had been home, but as a volunteer fireman, he was out with the fire brigade.  Fires had started soon after the earthquake hit.  All the men were out on rescue work in the town.  The women and children just sat on the grass strip in front of their houses. We were too frightened to go back into the house.

When the earthquake hit, Daddy was at the Pacific Hotel, loading barrels of beer in the cellar.  When he emerged, there was Tom his draught horse, standing quietly in the street, swishing his tail to get rid of flies. The dray was full of bricks from a collapsed building, but Tom had not moved.

Eventually we had to go into the house to drag mattresses out onto the lawn.  We slept on the ground, in the shelter of a hedge.  The ground was quivering almost continually, and there were regular strong aftershocks.

The next night we were just settling down when there was another very strong earthquake.  Everything that had not collapsed in Heretaunga Street then did.  We could hear the falling bricks from our home.  We could also see the fires.

A couple of days after the earthquake, each family was given an army bell tent.  We and our neighbours shared our tents.  One tent was used for dining, and the other two for sleeping.  Meals were cooked over a fire in the back yard. We obtained emergency food supplies at food agencies in the town.  One of our neighbour’s sons knew there were biscuits in a brown paper bag in their pantry He nagged and nagged his mother to let him go in and get them.  She finally relented, and he came out triumphantly waving the brown paper bag.  Imagine our disappointment to discover that he had grabbed a brown paper bag of sticky fly papers.  He wasn’t allowed a second chance.  He was not popular.

There was no power or gas.  The sewerage system was inoperative.  Luckily we had an artesian well in our back garden, so had access to a clean supply of water.  Our toilet facilities were a spade, a roll of paper and a request for privacy.

The local newspaper office was not completely destroyed.  It had one small printing press which was used to put out a daily news sheet, which was mainly a casualty list, and also details of when trains were running for those who were being evacuated.

After 2 weeks of living in tents, experiencing almost constant aftershocks, we were happy to be evacuated, and very relieved to find that the ground was not shaking in Palmerston North.  We came home as soon as our house was declared safe.  Kath did not want to enter the house.  She was terrified of sleeping in the house.  I was made to sleep with her, which I hated.  She has told me I was horrible to her.  I suppose she was telling the truth, but I can’t remember ever being horrible.

The schools opened fairly quickly. Army marquees were utilised as classrooms until the classrooms had been repaired and strengthened.  Coke braziers kept us warm during the winter.  The tents leaked, so we were sent home when it rained.  Once it was realised that rubbing the canvas with rulers exacerbated the leaking, we became diligent with our rulers.

It was months before there was any semblance of normality.

Cel’s family, early 1940’s. Back:  Bill and Mary.  Front: Kathleen, Violet and Cel.

(Cel recorded her story  on 24 October 1993, with Kath providing a commentary in the background.  Cel was telling her personal story, and not attempting to provide facts and statistics, as they would be available elsewhere.)


Siwa Oasis Egypt.

Siwa Oasis Egypt.

Relaxing on a sumptuous couch overlooking Cleopatra’s pool in the Siwa Oasis, sipping tea and eating fresh dates, I wondered what refreshments Cleopatra may have taken.  Perhaps she drank wine, in which she had dissolved a pearl.  Figs, with or without an asp.

Palms were reflected in the pool, people were strolling around the lake, a family went past in their donkey drawn cart and my tea glass was constantly refilled.  People were milling around mud walled, flat roofed thatched buildings – restaurants –  Tanta Waa, a juice bar and restaurant, and Cleopatra’s restaurant.

Cleopatra apparently never bathed here.  There is no evidence to suggest that she was ever in Siwa.

Dates and Tea at Cleopatra's bath
Taking tea at Cleopatra’s bath place.

Time to get off the sumptuous couch. The vehicles have arrived to take us out into the desert.  They are less than pristine.  There are no passenger seat belts.  My seat back was permanently reclined. The vehicle also contained a seat, the back of which fell onto the lap of the passenger behind.  This malfunction didn’t make itself evident until the vehicle was on a steep trajectory up a sand dune.

In the desert

None of that mattered though.  What mattered was the beauty of the desert, the sight of a hot spring in a little oasis, a cold lake containing small fish and surrounded by date palms, a bed of fossilised shells, the adrenaline rush of dune bashing and the silence and peace whilst watching the sunset and the almost imperceptible movement of the sand as the wind rippled the dune surface.

The first sand dune.

We approach our first mountain of sand.   It does not seem possible that a vehicle could drive up it.  Our vehicle comes to a standstill.   Suddenly the driver slams into first gear, and the vehicle lurches forward. We are off up the sand mountain, radio blaring out into the empty desert.  Knuckles white from gripping the window frame in a futile attempt to remain upright, I am sure that we will come to grief, the incline is so steep.  The final part of the climb has us slipping and sliding and moving very slowly.   Just as it felt as though we would be going down the sand dune backwards, we crawled over the crest of the dune and came to a halt.

Golden brown dunes rippling towards the horizon, devoid of vegetation and habitation, rolled on as far as the eye could see.

Looking down over the other side of our sand dune , I felt a twinge of fear.  Were we really going down there?  There must be an easier way.  Less steep surely.

No time allowed for the fear to get out of hand, we are off down the sand dune.  Eyes tight shut, trying not to slam against the seat in front, I can hear a scream, then another.  Was it me?  Was it someone else?  Opening one eye, then the other I began to enjoy the sensation of driving fast in a vehicle which felt almost perpendicular.  My fear was overcome.  Bring on the next sand dune.

The shells fossilised in the floor of the desert looked familiar.  There were several varieties of fan shaped shells, the larger of which looked like scallop shells.  There were shells which could have been oysters, pipies and cockles.  There were smooth shells which had the distinct shape of a star.  It is so far from the sea that it is impossible to imagine this area was once the bed of the ocean.

Fossilised shells

Sitting on a sand dune in complete silence, looking towards Libya, we watch the sky change colour from blue to yellow and then orange before the it slipped over the horizon.  A few more moments of silence before the drive back to Siwa in gathering darkness.

Sun setting over the desert

Alexander the Great visited the Siwa Oasis in 332 BC to consult the Oracle of Amun. Hannibal also visited, as did Strabo who apparently found the Oracle in decline. Consulting an Oracle had never been a high priority of mine, but on the climb up to the Temple, I idly speculated whether an Oracle would have any advice for me.  Which deity would be speaking through the Oracle?  Would there be prophesies.  Although every inch of the remains of the Temple were explored, there was no sign of the Oracle.

Riding a bicycle around Siwa presented some challenges.   There were no adult bikes small enough for me. Solution, a child’s bike. Difficult, but possible. Mindful that women in Siwa do not leave the house unless their bodies are totally covered, we wore long trousers and jackets.

Riding a child’s bicycle with much smaller wheels meant that I pedalled twice as far as anyone else.  My reason for lagging behind everyone else anyway.  Cycling on mud roads on the right hand side, overtaking donkey carts, dodging trucks,  4WD and motor cycles required a high level of concentration initially.

We rode past the ruins of the ancient mud brick town of Shali.  A butchers shop, which displayed cuts of fresh meat hanging in the open air had us wondering what kind of animals the meat came from.  We had only seen camels, but some of the cuts were too small for a leg of camel.  Fruit and vegetable stalls, with an abundance of food for sale spread along the street.   Numerous shops sold dates of all kinds, loose dates, boxed dates, some plain and others stuffed with nuts which made for a difficult choice.  We cycled by a bookshop with no books, stopped at rug shops with rugs and shops selling scarves and handicrafts such as baskets, pottery, shawls clothes and bags. We sailed past some very run down hotels with names like the Desert Rose and the Heritage, and a lawyers office with a sign indicating that the lawyer provided legal advice and real estate investments.  Having exhausted the commercial possibilities, we found ourselves cycling through date palms and olive groves.


As the greenery gave way to desert, I could hear a hissing noise which grew louder and louder.  I became aware of several young boys on bicycles surrounding me.  At least it wasn’t a nest of snakes hissing. What had I done to incite little boys to hiss.

I had taken my jacket off when I got hot, and my arms, from the elbow down, were visible.  I remedied the defect.  The hissing boys peeled off.

The hissing episode prompted me to think more about the women of Siwa.  I realised I had seen very few women and young girls. One woman I saw was operating a handcraft shop.  She was wearing a black niqab.  The only other woman I saw in public was wearing a long skirt, jacket and headscarf.  I understand that only  a few women wear a headscarf, and they would be married to a non Siwan.  I acquired a very informative book in Siwa written by Fathi Malim, titled “Siwa Women Unveiled” published in 2007 so that I could gain a greater understanding of their culture and lives.  No doubt things have changed for the women of Siwa since then, but from my observations, not outwardly.



No one knows where Alexander the Great is buried.  It has been said that Alexander desired to be buried in Siwa. Maybe his tomb is in Siwa. If so, could it possibly be at Jebel al-Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead.  Well, no it seems not. The claims that his tomb has been discovered in Siwa are said to be”mostly sensational declarations by non-serious archaeologists” (Alexander the Great, 2000 years of Treasures” – Australian Museum 2012).

The mountain of the dead looks like a giant honeycomb.  It is riddled with tombs.  Only a few are decorated, including the tomb of Si Amun, the style of which is Greek and Egyptian. Si Amun is portrayed with pale skin, but with Greek style dark wavy hair. Scenes portraying the family show his wife and one son with darker skin and the other son with fair skin, wearing Greek clothing. The scenes in the tomb are Egyptian, and include the sky goddess Nut who appears on the ceiling near the entrance and the Weighing of the Heart ceremony.

Leaving Siwa for the drive through the desert to Marsa Matruh, I had time to reflect on the visit and what had made it so special.  I learned a lot. I had a lot of fun and I wanted to learn more, both historical and contemporary.  I hoped all the young girls of Siwa were given the opportunity to access basic education in the future, and where possible higher education.  I hoped that those who were able to pursue a higher education were able to return to Siwa to provide the next generation, both boys and girls, with hope for access to the best education possible.

The Siwa Oasis lies in Egypt’s Western Desert, 50km from the Libyan border and approximately 550km west of Cairo.
















Jonathen. A different kind of journey.

Jonathen aged 20.

Beginning at the end seems as good a place to start as any.  Jonathan died  in 2002.  He was 38 years old.

Why did he die?  There are many and complex reasons why he died.  Some of these reasons seem insignificant when taken alone.  Collectively, the reasons provide a framework and explanation for his death.

Jonathan was a very sick baby, with an undiagnosed allergy to cow’s milk.  He screamed all day, from 6am to around 8pm.  He screamed when he was hungry.  He was fed, then screamed with discomfort and pain, and vomited.  He was then hungry again, and so the cycle continued.  His maternal grandmother was a great supporter of strict routines including the 4 hourly feed cycle for babies.  She changed her mind.  She would put him in his pram, and walk him around and around the house, for hours.  The motion soothed him, and gave him some peace.

Baby 1

As a small child, he could be irritating beyond belief.  He talked non stop.  He could not stay still for any length of time.  He was unable to concentrate.  These days we would be alerted to the possibility of ADD/ADHD, and would have strategies in place to deal with the issues a sufferer confronts.  When he was a child, he was chastised and punished.

School was a challenge.  The challenge became greater as he grew older.  In the early years, his sweet nature and enthusiasm for life generally helped him through. By the time he entered high school, his school life became an acute misery to him.  He excelled at sport.  He was fine with technical subjects.  The death knell for his education occurred when his school, in its wisdom, placed him in 2 foreign language classes, and no technical classes.

He spent all his spare time building remote controlled planes, flying them, crashing them and rebuilding them.  His planes had to be perfect, and because of his technical skills, they were.

Jonathan had always been entrepreneurial.  As a 14 year old, he lived in a high rise apartment block.  He knocked on every door and offered to put their garbage bins out every week for 50cents.  He always had a paper run, and he collected lost golf balls to sell at a discount back to the golf clubs.

This entrepreneurial spirit held him in good stead when he found himself unable to cope with the school.  He loved cars.  He wrote to every panel beater in the area seeking an apprenticeship.  He was successful, and was very happy in the panelbeating and spraypainting environment.

Jonathan then made a fatal error in judgment.  He became friendly with one of the other apprentices, who was a heroin user.  At 17 years old, Jonathan began his journey to hell.

He was no stranger to illegal substances, as he had cultivated marijuana for his own use, hidden among other plants in the garden.  He was furious one day to discover that all of the leaves on the lower part of the plant were gone.  His sister’s cat had eaten all the leaves she could reach, which probably explained why Bianca the cat had become a laid back friendly cat rather than the cat with attitude she normally was.

Heroin was not a recreational drug for Jonathan.  It insidiously, bit by bit, took over his life.   Apprentice panel beaters do not earn enough to support an addiction to an illegal substance.  Non wealthy addicts start selling whatever they own.  The proceeds do not last very long.  What then?

Jonathan was always very proud of the fact that he did not “steal” from his family at this stage.   He did however borrow from the family and spin great stories about why he needed the money.  Needless to say, repayment never occurred.  That source of income dried up relatively quickly, so the next fatal step was taken.  He commenced his life of crime.  Credit card and ATM fraud – all the time telling himself that the victim was a huge corporation, so it really wasn’t harming anyone.

Inevitably he was arrested and charged with various offences.   He avoided jail, by agreeing to enter rehabilitation.  Family, at the start of their journey, naively thought that Jonathan would emerge from rehab cured of his addiction.

Since, as later discovered, he had arranged for “friends” to stash heroin in the grounds of the rehab centre, that was not to be.

Inevitably the spiral into hell gained momentum.  Jail was inevitable.  The family maintained their support, and visited him in jail weekly.  He emerged from jail a changed young man. Actually, not for the better.  Rehabilitation.  A joke.  Suffice it to say, he had learned to be a far better criminal, and had many more contacts.

The family welcomed him home.  He managed to find work.  However, the contacts formed during his time in jail were what he valued.  They understood.  He did not feel like a second class citizen in their company.  He was still addicted, as heroin was freely available in jail – for what price, we will never know.

Jonathan loved children, and they loved him.  He met a young women who had a little boy.  He adored that little boy, and the little boy loved him.  When he was in jail, the young woman died.  After he was released he tried to see the child.  Her family would not allow it.  He was devastated.

Years passed.  As Jonathan grew older, there were less opportunities for employment.  He continued to commit offences, and was returned to jail on several occasions.  His family continued to support him.  When he was in his early 30’s, he made a huge effort to beat his heroin addiction.  He was successful.

So, happy ever after.  No.  He became addicted to methadone.  Methadone, the government’s answer to to heroin addiction.  Jonathan made a huge effort, and  ultimately managed to leave the methadone programme.

He is very proud.  The family are very proud.   Are we up to happy ever after yet?  No.  He turned to a legal drug – alcohol.  Well at least he could obtain his drug of choice at a reasonable price and no longer needed to commit crimes to acquire that drug.

Jonathan then met the woman who was to become the mother of his daughter.  That relationship was difficult, due to his addiction to alcohol.  He was not a happy drunk.  He was a very unpleasant drunk.

His sister and brother in law set him up in a car wash business.  They provided the vehicle and equipment.  Enthusiasm was high.  His car wash business started well.  Reliability was not his strong suit though.  It was never his fault, you understand.

The customer was unreasonable to complain about him being 2 hours late.  He was acting in the customer’s best interest by waiting for the rain to stop.  Why waste your money having your car washed at 2pm when it is raining.  It is sunny 2 hours later, and the car would stay clean for longer.  Did he contact the customer to give them the choice.  No.  The customer should have understood.

Inevitably business dwindled to a mere trickle.  One day, his partner was driving the vehicle, rolled it and wrote it off, which killed the already dying car wash business.

He was so happy when his daughter was born.  He adored her.  She became the total focus of his life.  What Nikki bikkie needed or wanted was his top priority, well, when he was sober.  He was totally focussed on this little girl, and the fact that he had the most wonderful daughter in the world.

His relationship with his daughter’s mother became more and more dysfunctional.  There were times when they were both happy to share the miracle of their daughter. These times became less and less.

Jonathan consulted a new doctor about his depression, addiction and ADD.  This doctor gave him hope.  The hope was misplaced.  The doctor said there was a physical cause, rather than mental health issues.  The doctor prescribed drugs which had Jonathan crawling up the walls.

As hope faded, his relationship with the mother of his daughter deteriorated and he was unable to see his daughter on a daily basis.

Early in November 1992, Jonathan told he family he was going “up the coast” to stay with friends.  He bought his cat over to stay.  He bought what few possessions he had, to store. He seemed calm, he had not been drinking and was not affected by illegal drugs.

The next weekend, he had his daughter for a day.  We went out for a picnic.  He was happy, calm and pleasant.  It was a lovely day.  One of his nephews remarked that “Uncle John was really nice and fun to be with today”.

He took his daughter home, and was going to stay with friends, he said.

He died during the next week.  He hung himself in a park close by the flat where his daughter and mother lived.  His daughter was 2 years old.

Jonathan left letters for family.  His letter to his daughter read, in part:

“I love you so much.  You are a good little girl and I will miss you.  I know you won’t remember, but I wanted to see you grow up so much.  I just had no hope of that, so I gave up on myself….We had lots of fun.  There are lots of photos at my sister’s place when you are old enough to see.  Love Daddy”.

In his letter to his daughter’s mother and his daughter,  he said “I love you so much, but I had to go my sweethearts.  I was a good dad Nicky.  I hope mum tells you that.”  … He then asked her mother to tell her he was a good dad.

He left a note with his letters, providing contact details. At the foot of that note he wrote “Its a nice night, about 4am, so goodby, Love John.”

And so he ended his life.  His journey was over.