Alexandria – Egypt

Alexandria – Egypt

Driving into Alexandria from Cairo, we became entangled in a traffic jam of immense proportions. A 20 minute drive became a 2 hour odyssey due to a tram coming up a one way street in the wrong direction. It was excellent – a walking pace tour of parts of Alexandria which would not be normally undertaken, which provided an interesting view of the daily lives of the people in that part of Alexandria.

We were staying at the old Cecil Hotel on the Corniche, with sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea. The Cecil Hotel was built in 1929 in the old Colonial style, and its guests included writers such as Somerset Maugham and Agatha Christie. Winston Churchill had been a guest, as had Al Capone. (I draw no comparisons.) The Cecil was the residence and headquarters of Field Marshall Montgomery, the Commander of the Allied Forces in Egypt during WW2.

My Uncle Bill (Winchester) had been in Egypt during WW2, with the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and I recall his complimentary views of Montgomery. So much so, that my cousin Kay had a guinea pig called Monty, named after the Field Marshall. This called for a drink in Monty’s Bar.

Uncle Bill was responsible, I am sure, for my early interest in exotic places. Not that I heard him talk about Egypt much, but a photograph of him with the Pyramids at Giza in the background made me determined to visit Egypt one day. It took a long time, but Egypt was worth waiting for.

The Cecil Hotel had featured in several books I had read. Lawrence Durrell’s books, “The Alexandria Quartet,” set in the 1930’s, made frequent references to the hotel.

I wanted to see what Justine had seen while waiting in the Cecil:

“gloved hands folded on her handbag, staring out through the windows upon which the sea crawled and sprawled, climbing and subsiding across the screen of palms in the little municipal square, which flapped and creaked like old sails.”

William Dalrymple first came to Alexandria, he said, through the pages of the Alexandria Quartet. He visited Alexandria in 1994, and in his book “From the Holy Mountain” he makes reference to the Cecil Hotel, and Justine (p376):

“I can see across Saad Zagoul Square to the Hotel Cecil, where Justine first makes her appearance ‘amid the dusty palms, dressed in a sheath of silver drops, softly fanning her cheeks with a little reed fan'”

The glamour, sophistication and intrigue, so well described by Durrell had long since disappeared. No Rolls Royces, no apparent assignations and definitely no Justine. The old birdcage lift was still there, the marble staircase still looked very grand, but overall the Cecil had the feeling of fading grandeur, with rather sad looking red velvet curtains and rather outdated decor, but that did not diminish my romantic view of the hotel, nor the pleasure of staying there. I could visualise myself, as Justine (in my dreams!)

My room did not have sweeping views of the Corniche or the Mediterranean. Rather, the view resembled that described in “Miramar” by Naguib Mahfouz (1967)

“From my balcony I cannot see the Corniche unless I lean over the railing. It’s like being on a ship. The sea sprawls below… the Sea. Its guts churn with flotsam and secret death.”

The New Zealand Soldiers apparently had quite generous leave entitlements, and they travelled a lot. I like to think that Uncle Bill visited Alexandria, and perhaps walking along the Corniche, strolled past the Cecil – maybe had a drink in the bar.

An evening stroll disclosed some interesting looking street food – including shavings of palm trunks. The starchy pith of the trunks are set up like a large kebab, with pieces shaved off as required. There were numerous fairy floss vendors, but the highlight of the stroll was sharing a shisha in a side street – apple flavour. Once I got over the initial coughing fit, it was a most pleasant experience, and with the call to prayer echoing around us, it was very atmospheric.

Leaping into the unknown.

Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great (on the site of an earlier Egyptian settlement called Raqote), has been described as a melting pot of people from all over the ancient world. In addition to Egyptian sites, the city contains Graeco-Roman archaeological sites and monuments, as well as modern sites commemorating ancient sites such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Qaitbey Fort – the latter, it is said, built in part with the stones of the Pharos Lighthouse.

The Catacombs of Kom el Shuqqafa.

Young males in Cairo and Giza were constantly trying to sell postcards and little souvenirs. I had my first experience with the female version at The Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa in Alexandria. The girls were a lot more ferocious than the boys, and they had streamlined the process by not trying to sell anything. They wanted money. Just as I thought I had shaken them off, they would pop up in another part of the Catacombs. The Catacombs were eerie enough, without half a dozen young girls surrounding me in a corner, pulling at my clothes and demanding money.

The Catacombs are apparently the largest Graeco-Roman necropolis in Egypt and date from the 2nd century AD. They are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. The three levels of the underground tunnels were cut through solid rock and contain rooms and burial chambers. I found the combination of different cultures on the figures carved into the walls – ancient Egyptian gods for example, with Roman and Greek dress – fascinating.

Pompeys Pillar and Serapeum

Pompeys pillar has nothing whatsoever to do with Pompey. Well really, why would it? The pillar, 30m tall, was erected in honour of Diocletian in 297AD, and is the only ancient monument left standing in Alexandria. The Serapeum is located near Pompey’s Pillar, and Pompey’s Pillar came from the Temple of Serapis. After the temple was razed to the ground, on the order of Theodosius in 391AD, only the subterranean part of the Temple survived. The subterranean part of the Temple contained the temple library, which included religious texts.

The Great Library of Alexandria and Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The Great Library of Alexandria was among the most famous libraries in the ancient world. It supposedly contained works of many great writers, including Homer, Plato and Socrates. The library was established in around 295BCE, probably by Ptolemy I. The library was destroyed by fire – allegedly started by Julius Caesar in 48BCE, although he was not actually intending to destroy the library. Rather, he was trapped by Egyptian ships in Alexandria, and he ordered his men to set fire to the ships. The fire got out of hand and destroyed the magnificent library. Well, that is one story, among many.

No archaeological evidence of a great library has been discovered, and its location is unknown. Was there such a library, or is it a myth? “Even though the papyri themselves have not survived, the legacy of the libraries is attested through the scholarship of such writers as Apollonius of Rhodes and Aristophanes of Byzantium, who both served as directors of the Great Library.” (Thank you Dr Melanie Pitkin.) There are numerous imaginary images of what the Great Library may have looked like. Looking at the first image below, I wonder how the scholars found anything. Perhaps there was a Dewey decimal equivalent for the papyri.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a modern library, was opened in Alexandria in 2002 – a very beautiful building, circular and tilted and built alongside the circular harbour. The reading room, stepped over seven terraces can accommodate 2000 readers. The library’s focus is on storing and and preserving digital information, although it can house up to 4 million books.

I could have happily settled myself on one of the terraces in the reading room, reading, thinking and dreaming.

Not only is this a library. It contains museums, a planetarium, a manuscript laboratory and showcases contemporary Egyptian art. A truly exceptional place. The images below are some of the items of contemporary art on display when I visited.

Qaitbey Fort and Pharos Lighthouse.

The Fort is a 15th century defensive fortress, built by Sultan Qaitbey to defend Alexandria from the advances of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks still managed to invade Egypt, and they used the fort. It was severely damaged during the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882, and has undergone many repairs and renovations. Today, from a distance, it looks rather like the kind of sandcastle that very clever sandcastle builders erect or a toy lego castle. It is however impressive, contains a mosque and offers splendid views.

I have never managed to build a sandcastle which remotely resembles Quaitbey Fort, but clearly it is possible.

Kom al-Dikka

In the centre of modern Alexandria, a semi circular Roman amphitheatre was discovered under Kom al-Dikka (Mound of Rubble), when the site was being prepared for a housing development in 1965. Luckily for humankind, the Alexandrian authorities and developers are not the same species as are found in the city in which I reside. The amphitheatre would not have survived in my city, and consequently the rest of the site of what was once a busy Roman city would not have been uncovered.

The Roman amphitheatre at Kom al-Dikka is the only such theatre in Egypt and dates from the 2nd century AD. There are 13 tiered rows of seats, and some mosaics can still be seen on the floor. Great imagination was required to imagine the concerts, lectures and plays which would have taken place in the theatre, due to the proximity of modern blocks of apartments surrounding the site. It was necessary to find a spot where the modern buildings were not so visible to ignite a little imagination. Maybe it would have been easier if it was possible to sit on the seats – alas, forbidden.

There are remains of imperial baths and cisterns on the site, and houses in the domestic quarter, with the remains of mosaic floors. The villa of the birds, as its name suggests, had mosaic floors featuring birds. There is also a mosaic floor featuring geometric designs and floral motifs with a panther at the centre.

Alexandria is elusive. The modern city is Egyptian, yet its past, the melting pot of many civilisations from the ancient world, seemed to permeate the city I visited. C.P. Cavafy’s poem, “The City” encapsulated my feelings about Alexandria perfectly.

“You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,

find another city better than this one.

Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong

and my heart lies buried like something dead.

How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?

Wherever I turn, wherever look,

I see the black ruins of my life here,

where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighbourhoods, turn gray in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.” – C.P. Cavafy – Translated by Edmund Keeley.

Mosaics: Villa Romana del Casale – Piazza Armerina, Morgantina, Sicily.

Mosaics: Villa Romana del Casale – Piazza Armerina, Morgantina, Sicily.

Sicily has a rich and varied history due to the various civilisations which have occupied it in the past. In antiquity Sicily was settled by the Phonecians, the Greeks and the Romans. Ancient ruins are abundant, some still in excellent condition.

As a mosaic tragic, I was on the hunt for Roman mosaics, and so was very much looking forward to visiting Piazza Armerina in Morgantina to view the remains of a Roman villa.

The Villa Romana del Casale is an example of a luxury Imperial Roman Villa, containing late Roman mosaics dating from around 4th century CE. The mosaics are said to be among the finest Roman mosaics in situ, due to their artistic quality.

The site became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997.

The mosaics are very well preserved due to being covered in mud, from landslides and floods over the centuries. All of the rooms in the villa contain mosaic floors, unusually even in the servant’s area and utility rooms.

The rooms with particularly interesting mosaics include the Ambulatory of the Great Hunt, The Room of the Gymnasts, and the Room of the Fishing Cupids. That is not to say that the other rooms are not interesting, such as the mythical scenes, including the Labours of Hercules, but the mosaics were similar to numerous other sites.

Ambulatory of the Great Hunt

The most impressive in my opinion was the Ambulatory of the Great Hunt, which is a corridor having a length of about 60 metres. Romans conducted these great hunts to capture exotic birds and animals, which were later shown at the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum in Rome.

The left side of the corridor depicts various hunting scenes. The animals and birds being hunted and captured are in Africa and are being loaded onto ox drawn carts to be transported to the port of Carthage to be loaded onto sailing ships.

The central part of the corridor shows a basilica, in front of which are animals being unloaded at the port of Ostia.

Towards the right of the corridor, a sailing ship can be seen in the Port of Alexandria, Egypt which has an elephant and a bison being driven on board. Animals such as dromedaries, tigers, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses were also captured in the Nile Delta.

Tiger cubs are seen being captured in the final section of the corridor, along with a griffon lured by a bait inside a box. There is also a lion killing a wild donkey.

The far end of the corridor a girl is depicted holding an elephant tusk, representing India, a phoenix and a tiger.

The Room of the Gymnasts

In 1959-60 a mosaic identified as the Room of the Gymnasts was excavated. Over the years, the mosaic has been identified as the “bikini girls” – I prefer to describe them as the gymnasts. The gymnasts are engaged in various sports, including a jump with weights (the weights looking very much like the weights we use today), a discus throw, a cross country race and a game with a ball.

Room of the Fishing Cupids

This room was a dining room. The cupids utilise several different methods of fishing, and can be seen with nets, fishing lines, a harpoon and a fish trap. The sea is teeming with fish of different kinds, including what looks like a dolphin.

A villa and colonnade can be seen in the background.

I had arrived at the Villa much later than planned – it was seething with humanity. The mosaics are viewed from walkways, which were so crowded, it took a Herculean labour (the thirteenth labour of Hercules) to actually view the mosaics properly. It was beyond Hercules efforts to obtain photographs which could possibly do justice to the mosaic floors.

Moral of the story – get to the Villa early, and do not become distracted by anything – even a travelling companion falling down and breaking a rib. Just get a cab and go.

Gardens of Stresa, Northern Italy.

Arriving in Stresa as evening approached was magical. The mountains surrounding Lake Maggiori were starting to merge into the dusk, their snowy white peaks starkly contrasting with the bluish purple of the mountains.

The winding road down into Stresa provided beautiful views of the lake, the Borromean Islands, and boats heading in to the wharf.

Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy, and crosses the border into Switzerland. Messing about in boats is clearly a popular activity. Fishermen’s boats abound on Isola dei Pescatori, pleasure boats of all kinds jostle for space with the ferries around Stresa. Stunning lakeside residences have beautiful yachts moored nearby.

Serious hikers and cyclists were thick on the ground early in the morning, heading out to conquer all obstacles. No doubt skiers joined the early morning exodus during the season. Being among the more slothful types, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the terrace of my hotel, overlooking the lake, contemplating the leisurely activities I had planned – visiting the gardens of Stresa and surrounds.


Isola Bella

Isola Bella, one of the Borromean Islands, is wholly occupied by the Palazzo Borromeo, and its extravagant garden. Work started on the Palazzo and garden in 1632, and was not finally completed during 1948-59.

The garden is constructed on ten terraces, and is Baroque Italian style. It is the most grandiose, flamboyant and fanciful garden I have ever visited. Magnificent trees, ponds and fountains, statues, obelisks and pinnacles, orderly flowerbeds and lawns, shrubs, flowers, roses, hydrangea, camellia, azalea and citrus together with expansive views over Lake Maggiore to the mountains provide a visual overload of massive proportions.

Approaching Isola Bella.

The garden is entered through the Palazzo. A colossal camphor tree greets you as you emerge in to the garden. It arrived as a sapling in 1819. There are numerous notable old trees around the garden, which help to balance the grandiose architecture and ornamentation and “carved” trees with nature.

The Teatro Massimo (the rear of which is visible in the image above) has to be the most extreme baroque architectural garden structure ever. It is topped by a unicorn being ridden by a winged figure representing either love or honour. There are 4 huge statues representing four elements – fire, earth air and water. There are statues of the four seasons, each holding a plant applicable to their season. Add some huge scallop shell decorations and many more statues, and you should get the vision.

Terracotta pots of pansies or pots of round clipped buxus lined the various steps between terraces, carpets of multi coloured poppies filled some of the formal flower beds, and everywhere statues were thick on the ground. Here a Neptune, there a Diana presiding over a pool and huge concrete vases, some filled with fruit.

Diana presiding over a pool.

White peacocks strut about on the manicured lawns in front of the Teatro Massimo, occasionally showing off their magnificent tails.

A loud voice rang out over the lawn “Oh I say Mabel, look at them peacocks – we don’t have any in England”. It made me think of a visit to Leeds Castle in Kent a few weeks earlier, where several white peacocks were strutting their stuff. If I had been able to identify the voice, I may have suggested she and Mabel should visit Leeds Castle.

Sipping a cocktail in the Piano Bar at my hotel that evening, looking out over the Lake and listening to Chopin was a perfect end to an enchanting day.

Villa Taranto

“A beautiful garden does not need to be big, but it should be the realisation of one’s dreams” said Neil Boyd McEacharn, the creator of the Botanical Gardens at Villa Taranto, Pallanza.

One of the ponds at Villa Taranto

All very well for him – the beautiful botanical gardens at Villa Taranto cover around 20 hectares. Still, that gives those of us with city gardens some hope of creating a place of beauty.

McEacharn established the gardens in 1931-40. He travelled the world in search of rare species. There are around 20,000 plant varieties in the gardens, which include a terraced garden, a bog garden, a water garden, a dahlia garden and a herbarium.

The Villa Taranto contains one of of Europes largest collections of exotic species. McEacharn’s dream to create one of the world’s most beautiful botanic gardens was fulfilled. The fountains, ponds and architectural features add to the beauty of the garden.

McEacharn died in 1964, and is buried in a mausoleum in the garden.

Isola Madre

Gustave Flaubert, in 1845, said that “Isola Madre is the most sensual place I have ever seen in the world”, and described it as an “earthly paradise”.

Isola Madre is the largest of the Borromean Islands. The botanic garden on the island covers an area of eight hectares, and is described as an English style garden, and was landscaped in the early 19th century. It is one of Italy’s oldest botanical gardens, and contains a 200 year old Kashmir Cypress and a 125 year old Jubaeae Spectabilis Palm. There is no trace of the earlier orchards, and olive and citrus groves.

The garden seemed more tropical to me than an English style garden, with its eucalypts, banana and hibiscus, although it does have wonderful azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. The ponds and landscaping were a little reminiscent of an English garden.

The modern sculpture in the garden included Velasco Vitale’s Foresta rossa (red forest) and Branco, a pack of dogs. Foresta rossa is the name of a pinewood near Chernobyl, so named because immediately after the disaster in 1986, the trees all turned red, and then died. Foresta rossa was created from concrete tar and sheet metal.

Foresta rossa

These dogs are fun. They are created from different materials, and all look different. Each dog is named after a vanished city.

Champagne cocktails in the Piano Bar that evening provided a perfect end to another day in paradise.

Giardino Botanica Alpinia

The Alpine Garden is 800m above Stresa, and provides panoramic views of the Borromeo Islands, Lake Maggiore and its surrounding peaks. The Swiss Alps can be seen in the distance.

The garden was created in 1934, and is the second largest alpine garden in Italy. It covers an area of 40,000 sq. metres, and contains more than 1000 species of alpine and sub alpine plants, and includes many rare trees.

The garden contains botanic species from the Alps and Alpine foothills and from the Caucasus, China and Japan. A wetland area has been created for aquatic plants. An Alpine garden is a pretty wondrous place – seeing the variety of plants which grow and thrive in an alpine climate never fails to impress me.

Wetland area.

I combined my visit to the Alpine Garden with a long walk which took me through Alpinio and through beautiful trees of many varieties.


I then utilised the Mottarone cable car to reach the top of Mottarone. I felt as though I was on top of the world, looking down on creation, when I walked up from the cable car terminus. A 360 degree uninterrupted view of mountains, from the Ligurian Apennines, the Maritime Alps to the Monte Rosa Massif, and the high peaks of Switzerland, seven visible lakes and the Po Valley – this view has to be up there with the best.

Having dinner on the terrace, looking out over the lake, accompanied by a cold crisp white wine, I felt as if all was well in my world.

Parco della Villa Pallavicino

The Pallavicino family acquired this property in 1862. The park was a work in progress for many years, and in 1952 a zoo was added.

The park is approached along a line of Cypresses, tortured to form a row of arches, reminiscent of a cloister, with magnificent views over the lake.

The garden is said to be reminiscent of an English garden, which in parts it was. The rose garden is mid 20th century, and did remind me of English rose gardens, especially the rose archways in the Regents Park in London. The rose garden was established in mid 20th century.

The current flower garden layout is from the 1950’s, and is also reminiscent of an English garden. The flower garden was the former kitchen garden.

The trees are magnificent and include centuries old chestnuts, beeches, maples redwoods and magnolias. There are numerous water features from ponds and fountains to waterfalls.

There are grassy slopes, leading up to more forested areas, with rather odd, though pretty, flower beds here and there. Peacocks roam about, adding to the colour and contrasting beautifully with the green, green grass – or should I say lawns. What I have in my garden is grass full of weeds, what this garden has is beautifully manicured carpets of green.

Grassy slope, with magnificent trees in the background.

I thought that the request from the grass was a great deal more persuasive than the usual command to keep off the grass.

Grand Hotel Des Isles Borromees

I stayed in this historic hotel in Stresa, and had the bonus of its park to wander around. The hotel opened in 1863, and the park/garden has evolved since then.

Grand Hotel des Isles Borromees

The park contains hundreds of varieties of azaleas and camellias, and is in the style of a classic Italian garden. There are pathways winding through trees. Marble statues, mostly representations from Greek and Roman mythology, are liberally sprinkled around, including Neptune with his trident, Apollo and Fortuna, Paris and Helen, Dionysus cupids, and many more.

My room overlooked a fountain and garden. Fountain doesn’t seem an adequate description. The fountain is a reproduction of a marble fountain by Italian sculptor Vicenzo de Rossi. It is much more than a mere fountain. Two levels, granite stairs, multi coloured arabesques, mosaic walls, and a superb mosaic carpet. Statues representing 5 continents (sad to say us Antipodeans are not represented as Oceana had not been discovered).

The most startling thing about this fountain is that on the hour a music box in the fountain plays Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the ninth symphony. Luckily it ceases late at night. I love Beethovens 9th, but a music box version of Ode to Joy every hour stretches the friendship.

There were no gardens on the Isola dei Pescatori, the third of the Borromean islands, but I hopped off the ferry there one day to have lunch. It is a very pretty spot, with the fishermen’s boats lining the shores, swans sailing around majestically and lots of lovely spots to sit and enjoy the views. However I shall never again ask for a “doggy box” at a restaurant.

Having arrived in Stresa at dusk, leaving early in the morning provided a different perspective. As my car wound its way up from Stresa, the lake was sparkling in the sun and the snow on the mountain top was starkly white in the morning sun. There were a lot more boats on the lake. The ferries were making their way to the islands and settlements around the lake and the pleasure craft were heading out the places unknown. I was sad to leave. There are many more gardens to explore in the area, so I will return.

Myths and Legends – in search of St George and the Dragon

Myths and Legends – in search of St George and the Dragon

I had always assumed that St George was English. After all, he is the patron Saint of England and the English flag is the St George Cross. He apparently rode at the head of a group of Crusaders on their way to wreak havoc somewhere.

It was not until I started travelling that I began to notice images of St George in numerous countries other than England. St George also patronises lots of other places and organisations. He is the patron saint of Russia, Georgia (Caucasus), Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal and Venice, and other countries. The list varies.

St George is apparently one of the most venerated saints in many religions, including Catholicism, Anglican, Orthodox, East Syrian and Miaphysite Churches. He may, or may not have been born in Cappadocia, and was possibly a member of the Praetorian Guard for the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian had St George executed in AD303 for refusing to recant the Christian faith.

Although St George is mythologised in the story of him slaying the dragon, the dragon was only recorded in the 11th century. He was quite obviously much more than a dragon slayer.

I do enjoy looking at the dragons, and the variation of dragons is vast. In fact it really was the dragons which initially caught my interest. Were the artists influenced by their culture and the period during which they lived? Or were they having a Hieronymus Bosch moment? Were there dragons about, on which the artists based their images? I have yet to come to any conclusion.

My hunting ground for St George is generally in churches and galleries, although not exclusively. A recent stroll around Stockholm produced a most interesting sculpture, with a very fearsome dragon.

A visit to the Italian Chapel in Lamb Holm, Orkney Islands, constructed by Italian POW’s during WWII, yielded a war memorial sculpture of St George slaying a less than fearsome looking dragon.

The Cathedral of the Assumption (Dormiton Cathedral) in the Kremlin in Moscow has one of the oldest icons, the 12th century red clothed St George, which came from Novgorod

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow contains numerous images and icons of St George, including what is believed to be the oldest known icon, from around 1030AD. A stone relief carving of St George slaying the dragon, adorns the entry to the Tretyakov Gallery.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg is a glorious confection. On a dull day it resembles an extremely decorative gingerbread castle. When the sun is shining, it resembles a brightly coloured marzipan creation. Mosaic portraits of saints, including St George adorn parts of the exterior.

St George could not be ignored in Georgia. He was everywhere. Murals, icons and glittering in gold atop a pole. There were several murals depicting St George slaying Diocletian, who looked like a very colourful dragon. Artists revenge.

Ethiopia is pretty big on St George. He is the patron saint of the country and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and appears frequently in religious art and iconography. I found images in Addis Ababa, Lake Tana, Aksum and Lalibela. One of the 11 rock hewn monolithic churches in Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis is dedicated to St George.

Religious art and iconography in Ethiopia is joyful and a riot of colour. The dragon generally has a black devil sitting on it somewhere. A dragon, in the Middle Ages was often used to represent the devil, so adding a devil to the image is perhaps visually reinforcing the battle of good against evil.

Stone carved St George slaying the dragon are fairly common above church entrances in Sicily.

The 9th century Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo was not somewhere I expected to find a St George slaying his dragon. Ben Ezra was constructed on the site of a 4th century Coptic place of worship, El Shamieen, but only a shell of the church remained.

Etching of St George and the dragon in Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo.

The St George legend came to Australia with the British in 1788. After colonisation, the British in Australia used St George’s name for churches, suburbs, streets, rivers and regions in the Colony. It may be time to change the names of rivers and regions back to the names used by the First People. Clearly St George was not part of their story.

St George’s Cathedral in Perth, WA has a most interesting modern sculpture, titled Ascalon. “Ascalon was the name of St George’s lance in mediaeval romances, and is derived from the city of Ashkelon in Israel.”

Ascalon – “an abstract interpretation of the of the story of St George and the dragon.” Perth WA.

In case it is not immediately apparent that this sculpture depicts St George slaying the dragon, the description plaque on the sculpture reads “The angled pole, white billow and black base are reminiscent of the lance of St George, the cloak and steed of St George and the defeated body of the dragon.”

St George has, in today’s terms “huge market penetration and brand recognition” in numerous parts of the world. I do not recall any other Saint having such recognition. I like to think the dragon assisted. Without the dragon, St George may have remained a local saint, confined to the areas he inhabited.

Caucasus Part 2 – Joy in Georgia.

Caucasus Part 2 – Joy in Georgia.

Crossing the road border into Georgia from Azerbaijan was my first experience of walking through a border.  We got off the bus in Azerbaijan, joined the queue at the border post to have passports and baggage examined.  We then walked across a bridge and along a road, bordered by a fast flowing river, to the Georgian border post.

Another queue, another passport check, and we walked into Georgia.

What could be more appropriate, and what could set the scene better for the joy of Georgia than a visit to a historic wine house.

P1080325 This wine house contained a wine press, said to be 2 centuries old, earthern crocks in which wine would have been fermented and traditional wine making equipment.  An old still in the wine house is still used for making chacha – a Georgian version of grappa.

A sip, or maybe more, of chacha followed by wine tasting left me unable to actually remember what the chacha actually tasted like.  It was strong.  Floating would be a polite way to describe my next few hours.

I floated through magnificent scenery.  Snow capped mountains to the right, fertile plains, sheep and goats wandering about.  Pomegranites in flower, copious mulberry trees.  Watermelons, cucumber and beans were being planted.  A large number of horses were being herded by a man on a horse and a young boy running.  Beehives scattered about.

The next day we were driving through oak and linden forests on our way to Sighnaghi.  There are a lot of churches in Georgia.  I think we visited half a dozen or more of them that day.  All very beautiful, and some with interesting art and history.  The first church of the day, at the convent of the Khakhuli Theotokos, New Shuamata, it felt as if we were entering a little paradise.  The convent was set in a field of wildflowers, bordered by tall trees.  The church was tiny, with the remains of old frescoes on the walls.

I am very keen on St George and his dragon slaying activities. I have enjoyed viewing a large and varied number of St George depictions, killing all manner of dragons, and occasionally Diocletian, in numerous countries.  I was delighted to find a depiction of St George and the dragon, with god’s hand descending from the top corner, in this church.

A candle was lit for Jonathen in this serene and beautiful place.  Under the influence of such serenity, I purchased a couple of icons.  These eventually ended up on Sal’s market stall, at which she sells all manner of things to raise money for Jigsaw the moon bear.  Sal sounded a little doubtful about their saleability, but she kindly took them off my hands.

Another St George was found at the Ikalto Monastery complex in the church of the Transfiguration, killing a multicoloured dragon.  Among the ruins of the old chapel further evidence of historical wine making was visible. Rows of old pottery wine jars were lying against the old stone walls, and the remains of an old wine press could be found in the old winery.

Onward to the next establishment – The Alaverdi cathedral.  The cathedral had a St George, killing yet another dragon on the tympaneum.  The bishop’s throne was magnificent.  It had lion arms, and a big bird on the footplate.  Wine was also produced here, as evidenced by the old pottery wine jars lying about.

We went to Lily’s place for lunch.  Since we were tourists, we had to sing for our supper.  That is, we had to view Lily’s carpets before eating.  Lunch was magnificent.  Dumplings, cheese pie, eggplant with walnut paste, eggplant with mayonnaise, tomatoes which tasted like tomatoes, vodka and honey and home made wine.  I suspected I may be floating permanently in Georgia.

After lunch we passed through more magnificent scenery. Braided rivers flowing down from the Caucasus, walnut farms, vineyards (well of course) farms with crops of corn and beans, and shepherds watching their flocks – generally from a horizontal position under a tree.

Just as the effects of Lily’s vodka and home made wine was wearing off, we arrived at the Tsinandali Estate, a historical winery and an old wine cellar containing wine dating back to Napolean’s time.  A wine tasting followed by a float around a European style garden, and a Persian style house, fortified me for the drive to Signagi.

The landscape passing by was lovely enough to stave off any eyelid closing, even for the most avid wine taster.  We drove through very fertile plains, a lot of little villages where the gardens contained beautiful roses, and then a rather hilly area with a narrow winding road containing a lot of nasty narrow hairpin bends. Sighnaghi is entered on a narrow road through an arch in the old city wall.  Watching large vehicles negotiate this entry later in the day I thought it a miracle that the archway had not been involuntarily enlarged.

A night in the picturesque town of Sighnaghi included more wine tasting, walks around cobblestone streets, lined with houses whose wooden balconies, some richly decorated with lacelike wooden ornamentation, hung out over the street.  Pigs were snorting and grunting in courtyards, and a laneway opened onto a view across the plains to the snow capped mountains.  Carpets were inspected at the local factory, and the obligatory carpet weaver was wheeled in to sit at a loom to illustrate traditional carpet weaving.  Of course the carpets are all made by hand, dyed with natural dyes and made with traditional Georgian patterns!

An excellent St George killing Diocletion featured in the church in the Bodbe Nunnery complex near Sighnaghi.  Another delight was a depiction of the last judgment – I find last judgments endlessly fascinating.  I am intrigued by the different visions of heaven and hell over the centuries.  None of them have pleasant hells, but some are more gruesome than others.  The visions of heaven are not particularly encouraging either. Sitting about looking sweet and maybe flapping ones wings for exercise for eternity doesn’t seem enticing either.

Tbilisi provided the opportunity to discover more churches and several museums.  The State museum was the most interesting.  It contained an archaeological room, full of gold recovered from graves over about 4 centuries.  It is interesting to view the changes in jewellery design and use over the centuries.

The old city is a great place to explore, have a coffee and people watch, rounded off by a visit to a mosque, the sulphur bath houses and a synagogue.  The sculptures in the streets in Tbilisi varied between the usual memorials to blokes, sometimes on poles and one on a horse to modern, some of artistic merit and others not, but all interesting.  My all time favourite was one of the most joyful depictions of women having fun I have ever seen – dancing peasant women.

Despite my best endeavours, I only discovered two St Georges.  A glittering gilded version of St George on top of a pole, and a painting above a church door. There may well have been further wine tastings.

The Jvari Monastery of Mtskheta (the ancient capital of Georgia), on the road to Kutaisi had a very rude monk guarding the door.  The view which overlooked Mtskheta and the confluence of two rivers made up for the less than welcoming attitude of Mr Grumpy monk.  Another grumpy monk was sprawled on the steps of Svetitskhoveli cathedral in Mtskheta, taking photos with an ipad, and talking on his phone, ignoring all “pilgrims”.

Stalin was born in Gori.  I did not find Gori joyful.  I would have happily sat and read a book rather than visiting the Stalin museum, his birthplace and his private railway carriage.  I became grumpy.  I did not go into the railway carriage.  I stalked around the museum, all exhibits seemingly glorifying Stalin.  On enquiring whether there was anything to see that did not glorify him, I was directed to the basement, where a couple of rooms had been set up, showing a jail cell, an interrogation area and posters on the walls describing vast numbers of people killed.

The Uplistsikhe cave town resored my joy, though it too had its horror spots.  The places where humans and animals were sacrificed, a one person jail, being a narrow deep hole in a rock, where a prisoner had to stand all the time.   Exiting the cave town through a long tunnel which bought us to the river, we were now entering Jason and the Argonaughts country.

Driving to Kutaisi we passed through chestnut and hazelnut forests, wooded hills and sparkling rivers in deep gorges.  Pottery workshops and markets were abundant, the potters attracted by the clay soils. We visited the house of a pottery maker, and watched him make a wine jug and a bean pot.  A glass of homemade wine was provided. The potter acquires the clay from the hill behind his house.  He had a woodfired kiln, and his garden contained fruit trees, vegetables, and a pig sty with two baby piglets. Roadside snacks of sweet bread, still warm from the oven, and cheese pie cooked on a bbq were consumed.

Kutaisi and its surroundings have plenty of churches and monasteries, all of which were duly examined.  The Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati, a monastery complex on a wooded hillside contained an 1130’s mosaic of the virgin and child and archangels Michael and Gabriel.  The big wooden front door to the complex had what appeared to be a rather large dog door cut into it.  Apparently the reason for the dog door is to allow people in and to stop cows.

The agricultural markets offered a vast array of fresh food.  Every herb I knew, and plenty that I didn’t, different types of potato, and all the varieties of fruit, nuts, beans and vegetables imaginable.

We were staying in a guest house on top of a hill, with lovely views across the town for some, and a lovely view of the verandah of the house next door for me, which seemed to contain a large lady, dressed in black, asleep on a couch – well I prefer to think she was asleep, and not dead, but she didn’t move for hours.

Jason and the Argonaughts were commermorated by a fun fountain, containing bright sparkling gilded horses, and golden fleece.

As the guesthouse did not serve alcohol, I went down into the town with Sal to hunt and gather wine, this being Georgia after all.  While in town we had one of those lovely unexpected unplanned experiences – a puppet theatre about to start a rehearsal.  We were invited to watch the rehearsal.  The puppets were delightful, and although we couldn’t understand a word being said, we could follow the story.  A fox kidnapped a chicken.  The chicken’s rabbit friends put on a disguise and visited the foxes house, lulling the fox by singing to him.  Fox is then pushed into a bag, and chicken rescued.  The music was good, and the fox had the best tail ever, big red and bushy.

The fox and the rabbit

The next day we were leaving for Armenia, via Tbilisi, the third country to explore in the Caucasus.

So ended the visit to Georgia, such a happy bountiful destination.

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.