Gujarat, India. Part 2

Gujarat, India. Part 2

Dasada, Little Rann of Kutch, Patan, Modhera and Ahmedabad

Dasada and the Little Rann of Kutch

Dasada is a small rural town, and a gateway to the little Rann of Kutch. The Little Rann is a salt desert, and part of the Great Rann. Despite its name, it is a very large salt desert of approximately 30,000 square metres.

I love camels. I was very happy to see camels, camels and more camels around Dasada. Camels alone, camels pulling carts, camels with beads around their necks, all looking as haughty and superior as only camels can.

The Rann Riders Resort, near Dasada is a perfect place to stay to explore the area, for many reasons. The resort is eco friendly. The owners very actively assist the local communities. They care about conservation and sustainable tourism.

My accommodation at Rann Riders was a Kooba house of the Bajania, which I loved. There were also Bhunga structures of the Rabari shepherds. There are other options, but I loved my little house.

A jeep safari, run by Rann Riders into the the Little Rann, proved to be a magical and inspirational experience. The people from Rann Riders have a superior level of care for the environment, and knowledge of the geology and of the wildlife which inhabits the area. I felt so privileged to see Asiatic wild ass – an endangered species. The birdlife would make the most experienced birdwatchers feel that they had died and gone to their heaven. My visit was not during the optimum bird watching time, but I still experienced the joy of viewing the few remaining flamingo’s in what was left of the wet season water.

Among the local people Rann Riders were assisting were the Mir, a nomadic people, who were living in temporary “homes” nearby. The Mir women created artwork with beads, and sold their creations by the roadside of their temporary dwellings. Rann Riders, on their website, acknowledge that, with the design intervention of some of their guests, (see below*) the Mir women were able to create jewellery, using their beads, which people would buy.

I shall never forget these beautiful women and children, and shall always feel so privileged to have met such resilient women.

Patan and Modhera

The drive from Dasada to Ahmedabad takes about 2.5 hours – or it would were it not for the need to stop and explore stepwells and temples along the way.

Stepwells are unique to India, and are subterranean water storeage and resource systems. These wells were constructed in Gujurat from around 600AD, and later spread to other parts of India. Stepwells evolved from pits in the ground to multi levels of elaborately carved sculptures – artistic and architectural masterpieces.

The Rani-ki-vav is a UNESCO World Heritage site at Patan, on the banks of the Saraswati River. It is constructed in the form of an inverted temple, and has seven levels of stairs, each level containing beautiful sculptures – said to be about 500 principal sculptures and many more minor sculptures. It was not difficult to descend down the levels and although the climb up was more onerous, I spent time on each level examining the sculptures, so really only ascended one level at a time.

Detail of a very small number of the sculptures.

The Modhera Sun Temple is a shrine dedicated to the Hindu sun god, Surya, and was constructed in the early 11th century on the banks of the Pushpavati River. The Temple is made up of three parts, Gudhamandapa – shrine hall, Sabhamandapa – assembly hall and Surya Kund – stepwell.

The temple is an excellent example of Solanaki style architecture, magnificently carved inside and out with gods, goddesses, birds and beasts and flowers. I could easily have spent more time examining these carvings in order to learn more about the gods and goddesses.

The Surya Kund contains several platforms and terraces, which include numerous small shrines. This stepwell was much easier to descend into, and particularly to ascend than was the Rani-ki-Vav. The Surya Kund would not provide relief from the heat as the Rani-ki-Vav does since the platforms and terraces are more open to the sun.

Modhera Sun Temple. Rear Shrine hall: Front Assembly hall.

Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad, situated on the banks of the Subarmati River is the largest city in Gujurat, is named after Sultan Ahmed Shah, who founded the city in 1411. Ahmedabad was an important business centre during the Mughal period, and was home to Mahatma Ghandi for several years. His home is now a museum, the Subarmati Ashram. Ghandi arrived in Ahmedabad in May, 1915. He started spinning at the Ashram in 1918. “The spinning wheel and hand-woven cloth or khadi gradually became emblematic of Ghandi’s economic, social and political ideals. He believed that the demise of handicrafts and cottage industries, in particular the art of spinning, had led to the decline of village life..” (Ghandi, Peter Ruhe, Phaidon – page 68).

The Ashram was far from serene, with large number of people viewing the interior and many more relaxing in the grounds on the river bank. Not a place for quiet contemplation

Ahmedabad is India’s first World Heritage City. A heritage walk through the old quarter of Ahmedabad showcases the various architectural styles, which blends Hindu and Islamic influences including Islamic monuments, and Hindu and Jain Temples. The carved wooden houses are unique, and athough one should not covet thy neighbour’s ox (or whatever), I certainly coveted these houses.

The streets in the old quarter provided the opportunity to observe day to day life in that area. People in temples and at shrines, women making bread, a woman ironing and cows and goats milling about.

I was a little startled to observe a palanquin, covered by fabric to ensure the occupant was not able to be observed, passing by. It reminded me that Ahmedabad has a large culturally significant muslim population. It occurred to me that if I had a palanquin when I was a teenager in a gossipy New Zealand village it would have saved me from those lace curtain twitchers in that village.

A palanquin passing by.

The Sidi Saiyyed Mosque is a beautiful building, built in 1573. It has an exquisite Tree of Life stone latticework covered window, the beauty of which adds to the architectural splendour of the mosque.

Having “collected” photographs of doors in many places I have visited over the years, I managed to add to my collection in Ahmedabad.

The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad contains superb textiles dating back to the 15th century. It was founded in 1949, and contains a magnificent collection of antique and modern Indian textiles. Even a most unpleasant bossy attendant did not totally diminish the experience, but she certainly did not make a wise career choice.

The creativity and imagination which is invested in the making of Kathputti puppets and the narratives the puppet shows tell results in a visually exotic experience, even though not a word of the story was understood by me. The actions of the puppets occasionally gave some vague idea of the story, such as a snake being pursued, or retribution of sorts for a recalcitrant.

Kathputti puppets are made of wood and are very brightly coloured. They have sharp features, and “speak” in a high pitched squeak.

Attending the performance outdoors with a background of large trees, watching puppets and humans perform, was a fitting finale for my visit to Gujurat.

I hope that visiting Gujurat was not a once in a lifetime experience. There are a lot more stepwells to explore.

(**Note: One of the Rann Riders guests who provided the Mir women with design assistance and materials, and assisted with marketing, is Carole Douglas of Desert Traditions in Australia. Carole is a textile and arts expert who has been visiting Gujurat for many years. Her company organises small tours to Gujurat, (and other places) and can take textile and embroidery lovers to visit many artisans homes and businesses which tourists do not generally get to see. Desert Traditions believes in and practises sustainable tourism. Carole can be contacted at http://www.desert-traditions.com

Desert Traditions can also be found at face.book.com/deserttraditions and on instagram.)

Photo Credit – Carole Douglas of Desert Traditions.

Gujurat India: Part 1

Gujurat India: Part 1

Kutch – North West India.

Bhuj, Bhujodi, The Banni, Hodka, Bhirandiyara, Kala Dungar (Black Hill), Rann of Kutch, Lakhpat, Mandvi,

I have been fascinated by India for as long as I can remember. It was not the British Raj that interested me. I was appalled to read about that history. Rather, it was Mughal India, and before, which fired up my imagination.

I had little specific knowledge of Gujurat prior to my visit. The State has so many historical sites, ranging from the Indus Valley Civilisation, Hindu and Muslim pilgrimage sites and Buddhist caves, a Unesco world heritage city and sites and more.

The Kutch District of the State is famous for its handicrafts, beautiful landscape, The Great Rann of Kutch, beautiful beaches and lots of animals. I am generally more interested in historical and archaeological sites and art and architecture than in handicrafts, textiles and embroidery, but I have to say that visiting artisans in their villages, watching them at work and seeing the exquisite embroidery, watching master weavers and viewing the finished products is an experience I will never forget.

Bhuj

Bhuj, the administrative centre of Kutch, is an interesting town to explore, due in part to damage and destruction by earthquake and the subsequent rebuilding, making for an interesting mix of architecture. Great loss of life and property occurred during severe earthquakes over the past 200 years – (16 June 1819, 21 January 1956 and more recently 26 January, 2001).

The streets of Bhuj are teeming with activity, filled with colour and fun to walk around. Cars, trucks, tuk tuks, motorcycles and bicycles weave around cows, goats and pedestrians.

From Bhuj it is possible to become immersed in a large area of Kutch.

Village visits.

I felt very privileged to visit artisans at work in their own villages. Watching the Masters of Weaving and the women working on traditional embroidery and seeing the finished products had me (almost) wishing I could create such beauty. My attempts at handcraft have never produced a thing of beauty and have always ended the life of the planned item prematurely.

The finished products created by the artisans using traditional skills are many and varied. Colourful, beautiful and functional. I did get to try my hand at creating a pattern with woodblocks. I rather enjoyed choosing woodblocks and stamping the fabric, but the finished product was not fit for purpose.

The people in the villages were very welcoming and friendly. The experience of sitting in their homes, observing the way they lived their day to day lives, enjoying music and most of all meeting all the beautiful children was a very happy, thought provoking experience. Life in the villages is far from easy, and I hope that these beautiful children are able to obtain an education. The women and little girls were all dressed magnificently. Their clothes were works of art.

The Banni, Kalo Dungar and the Great Rann of Kutch

A day trip from Bhuj to Kalo Dungar provided a day of visual splendour and the opportunity to experience sights, sounds and sunsets which were unforgettable.

The distance from Bhuj to Kalo Dungar is around 89.8km. Every km offered something of interest, be it people, animals and landscapes. The road crosses the Tropic of Cancer – pathetic I know, but I always love to cross borders and boundaries, and photograph the signage if possible.

Kuldip Gadhvi at the Tropic of Cancer

We were very fortunate to be accompanied on this entire trip by Kuldip Gadhvi, the owner/operator of Kutch Adventures India (**see notes for more information). It would be very hard to find someone more passionate and caring, with a such an extensive knowledge of the history, environment, people and places of Kutch. Kuldip is committed to sustainable tourism and cares very deeply for the environment. He is welcomed and respected by the artisans, which makes for a great experience for those visiting.

The Banni Grasslands spread over an area of around 3847sq metres. The Banni has an arid grasslands ecosystem, with high salinity. Vegetation is sparse. Kuldip explained that the grasslands are under pressure – for example by overgrazing, and invasion by a non native, thorny shrub/tree. Cows cannot eat this invader, and are being replaced by buffalo. Droughts are common, which increase the salinity. Human induced climate change adversely affects the area, as it does the world over.

For a tourist from a relatively wealthy country, it was very humbling to see the Maldhari (shepherds/cattle breeders) herding their flocks from their settlements in the morning, and then herding them back in the evening. The sunset was spectacular.

I enjoyed stopping at truck stops by the side of the road for a refreshing Chai.

I am not a tea drinker, but sitting at this truck stop, watching the tea being made, and observing people going about their daily lives, and truck drivers enjoying their chai, I discovered that actually, tea could be delicious.

Kalo Dungar is the highest point in Kutch – 462 metres above sea level – and provides sweeping views over the Great Rann of Kutch, a salt marsh in the Thar desert covering around 7500sq km. Visually, initially, this area looked like the sea. Looking over the area from Kalo Dungar, towards Pakistan took my breath away. This vast expanse of “nothing”, which in fact is not “nothing” was awe inspiring.

I love water buffaloes, goats and pigeon houses. So how good was this day to provide opportunities to see each of these in addition to all else.

The buffalo were enjoying their morning – beautiful creatures. I have always loved goats, and had never seen such varied markings and colours. The goats pictured are just a small sample of the many I saw – just love the spotty eared goat.

Lakhpat

Once a great trading port on the Indus River, Lakhpat declined after the 1819 earthquake caused the Indus River to change its course. A port no more. In addition, the loss of the river meant crops could no longer be grown.

I love historical forts and castles, especially those which are are more or less deserted. The walled city and fort at Lakhpat fitted my criteria for a most desirable place to visit, so I was very much looking forward to exploring it. The fact that Lakhpat is only 30km from the Pakistan border made the visit all the more exciting.

The visit turned out to be interesting and fun. Climbing up onto and walking along the northern city wall, looking out over the Rann towards Pakistan provided panoramic views. It was very difficult to visualise the Indus river flowing past this wall, busy with boat traffic bringing goods to trade, with rice crops growing around. What once was the river is now part of the Great Rann.

Here, the loss of the water source was caused by an earthquake. The consequences for this area were severe. How much more of our land is being laid waste by human activity? If we wish our grandchildren to inherit a sustainable life, governments and major polluters must act with a great deal more urgency to reduce carbon omissions. Farming must be sustainable. We must stop massive land clearing. The consequences for the world – and not just a part of the world, will be catastrophic if we do not. Our grandchildren will not inherit a sustainable life.

Remains of numerous old houses, some of which would have been quite grand, give an idea of what Lakhpat once was.

Some religious monuments have also survived. An octagonal shaped tomb built from black stones, with intricate carved stone decoration was built for Ghaus Muhammad, a sufi saint, who died in 1855. The tomb stands out starkly in the landscape. Unfortunately the door was locked – the view of the tomb through the keyhole was less than optimum. The five domed mausoleum of Sayyed Pir Shah Dargah, built from white stone also stands out. It also has beautifully carved stone decoration.

Mandvi

I was very interested to visit Mandvi, an ancient port, the home of a 400 year old ship building industry. Smaller boats, such as fishing boats are now being built, but in the 18th century the ship building yard could anchor and repair up to 400 vessels.

Boats are built in the same way as they were hundred of years ago – the skills are passed down the generations. The shipyard is on the banks of the River Rukmavathi, which flows into the Arabian Sea.

Glamping at Mandvi Beach was a highlight of my stay at Mandvi. I love camping – glamping takes it a further level, especially when the location is on the shores of the Arabian Sea. I was very keen to conquer yet another body of water – by conquer I mean to swim, or paddle, somewhere I have not been before. I was not disappointed. I loved the accommodation, and paddling in the Arabian Sea added another special experience for someone who grew up with the Pacific Ocean to the east of the country and the Tasman Sea to the west. Lets face it, paddling in the Arabian Sea sounds a lot more exotic – and in reality felt a lot more exotic.

Gujurat is “dry”. That is, alcohol is not available, well that is unless you are a tourist and obtain a Liquor Permit. I am very proud of my liquor permit, which is stamped into my passport. I had stocked up in Bhuj and had a bottle of some dubious white wine with which I intended to chill, and relax with in my tent. Well, chill was not possible, but its amazing how good a warm, second rate white wine can taste when drinking it in such an exotic environment.

A magical experience was dining at the beach, accompanied by a most interesting presentation from Kuldip about Hindu gods and goddesses. I had only really heard of a very few of them (Vishnu, Lakshmi, Shiva and Ganesha, and Ganesha was the only God I could recognise), and was not aware of what they all stood for, so I learnt a lot from Kuldip. Sheer magic, dining beside the Arabian sea, after listening to stories of the gods and goddesses as darkness slowly descended.

Mandvi was my final destination in Kutch, and I was sad to be leaving. An adventure never to be forgotten.

**Notes: Kuldip Gadhvi has won awards for Responsible Tourism. Kuldip can take you to “Explore colourful culture, communities, crafts and off the beaten trails of Kutch Gujarat with Kutch Adventures India” (from Kutch Adventures India website https://www.kutchadventuresindia.com )

Kuldip and his family also operate a homestay in Bhuj – Desert Adventures, which is a wonderful home, very comfortable and ideal for anyone who wishes to experience genuine Indian cooking, and a meaningful cultural immersion with a friendly happy family.

Finally, some images from the Aina Mahal, an 18th century palace, now museum in Bhuj.

The Oxford Experience – A Summer School

The Oxford Experience – A Summer School

Christ Church College, Oxford, England.

I enjoyed my work as a lawyer. I loved the law. Retirement had never been high on my list of desirable lifetime experiences. I was quite shocked when it became apparent that at some point I should consider a life after law.

In part, my horror at the thought of retirement, came from my observations of life after retirement. Admittedly, I did not have a very large group to observe, but it seemed to me that retirement was akin to entering “god’s” waiting room. Apparent relevance deprivation seemed to be a very real concern.

So, how to deal with this inevitable progression of my life? I spent a couple of years before retirement researching possible life after retirement activities which would provide intellectual stimulation, adventure, excitement and fun.

I love travel, and had travelled a lot. I was always interested in ancient history. I enjoyed photography – on an extremely amateur level. Archaeology, also on an extremely amateur level, sounded like a good fit, as I had over the years visited many archaeological sites in Europe and Asia, and enjoyed learning about ancient civilisations.

My research yielded several interesting possibilities to take my interest in archaeology further, one of which was “The Oxford Experience” consisting of a week long summer class in numerous topics at Oxford University in England. Advertised as offering “authentic experiences of life at world famous universities” it sounded like fun, with a little learning thrown in for good measure.

I enrolled in “Archaeology of Medieval Palaces” at Christ Church College, Oxford, and booked a single student room in the Meadows residential building at Christ Church.

Having completed the pre-reading, I arrived at Christ College on the appointed day, ready to learn and more than ready to enjoy the Oxford experience.

Entering the college through the main entrance, off St Algates into the Tom Quad, I felt as if I had fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole into a whole new world. Tom Quad is flanked by the Tom Tower (a bell tower) at one end, and the entrances to Christ Church Cathedral and the dining hall opposite and to the right. A beautifully mowed splendid green lawn with a huge waterlily pond in the centre set off the buildings around the quad perfectly.

A porter took me to my room in the Meadows, despite my request to just provide directions, and I could find my own way. I loved the building, my room, and the view over the meadows.

The medieval palaces tutor was very engaging, interesting, knowledgable and fun. Each morning’s lectures provided the opportunity to learn a little, and to hear about the tutor’s experiences on various sites. He had been involved in excavations of the moat around the Tower of London. The findings were fascinating.

He had also been involved in the Windsor Castle restoration after the fire there in 1992. He related an incident, after the fire. He and his team were working on restoration projects, Elizabeth and Philip were strolling by – Philip was heard to say “oh, I say, what are those chaps doing” – as if “those chaps” were deaf.

Field trips to various archaeological sites bought the lectures to life. The first field trip was to Wolvesey Castle (old Bishops Palace, Winchester). The Bishops of Winchester were powerful and wealthy. They had several palaces, including one in London – a great advantage of wealth is to have one’s own abode in the places visited.

The ruins of the old Bishops Palace in Winchester date from around the 12th century. The history of the palace, its brief period of fortification as a castle, and the events which occurred at the old Bishops Palace, Winchester are worthy of a great deal more time and study – alas, an afternoon only scratched the surface.

We visited the most impressive Winchester Cathedral after exploring the old Bishops Palace. The cathedral is of Norman construction and was built from 1079 to 1532. It has an early Norman crypt, renaissance chapels and one of the longest gothic naves in Europe. I felt that I had some connection with Winchester cathedral – tenuous, but a connection nevertheless. My “sister” cousins were Winchesters. Quite obviously a connection!

A field trip to Bishops Waltham Palace, a medieval palace used by the Bishops and senior clergy of Winchester, as they travelled through their diocese, continued our practical studies.

Bishop’s Waltham Palace as built around 1135, and was a grand medieval palace and one of the finest residences of the Bishops of Winchester. It was destroyed in 1644. The ruins are impressive.

Academic, lite but interesting, was only a part of the Oxford experience. The fun parts provided a very small glimpse of the life of a privileged person attending Oxford.

Strawberries and champagne in the Cathedral Garden on a beautiful July evening, chatting to people from around the world, was a perfect way to end an afternoon.

Dining in the Great Hall, occasionally seated at the High table, provided a Henry VIII Tudor atmosphere. The Great Hall was completed in the 1520’s – a magnificent renaissance hall. The walls are lined with portraits of illustrious persons, predominantly white males. Wider diversification of portraiture would render the walls more interesting. A start was made in 2017. A portrait of Professor Judith Pallot has joined the boys on the walls – the first female Fellow to have her portrait hung in the Great Hall.

The Buttery, one of the student bars, was a nice spot to enjoy pre-dinner drinks. Rather an odd name for a bar I thought, given that there was no butter in sight. A Buttery had never featured in my Antipodean life. I discovered a Buttery has a significant history – store room in cellar, second storeroom to store and decant wine and ale (as opposed to a pantry storeroom, in which food was stored.)

The Master’s garden was a lovely place to stroll around, or to sit and read – one of those beautiful gardens which England excels in. The Cloister Garden was another beautiful space – a medieval style garden, containing medicinal plants, and a lavender lined lawn. There is a fountain, and a planter, containing an olive tree.

Having walked and cycled along many parts of the Thames Path over the years, through London from Greenwich to Richmond, and a little beyond, I could not leave Oxford without exploring the Thames Path at Oxford. I decided to walk from Oxford to Iffley. Come join me on a that walk.

I have travelled far and wide, several times a year, visiting archaeological sites in many countries and learning about the people, history and cultures past and present of the places visited.

I return from each adventure invigorated, and spend a lot of time reading and learning more about the places visited, and the history of those places, and writing about them.

I have to admit to a little soul searching early in retirement, to stave off the relevance deprivation feelings, but a reality check of my relevance bought the realisation that no one is particularly relevant in the big scheme of things, and everyone is relevant in one way or another.

Covid has been trying to nudge me into “God’s waiting room”, and has occasionally had me on the threshhold. It has been nearly three years since I have had an adventure, but god’s waiting room will have to wait. An adventure beckons.

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.

A Recent Journey into the Distant Past.

A Recent Journey into the Distant Past.

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Eastern Turkey – From the Black Sea Coast to Tarsus

SomeSnapshots

I was positive I heard Aunt Dot offering me her camel for my journey from Trabzon to Kars, and beyond. My camel, patiently waiting for me at the door, turned out to be a small bus. Possibly for the best, since I only had three weeks to explore Eastern Turkey, and the camel may not have been up to it. I had obviously been influenced by Rose Macauley’s Towers ofTrebizond.

Kars, a city on the Turkish border with Armenia was a huge disappointment. Where was the snow? My vision of Kars had been formed by Orhan Pamuk’s description ofthe city in his novel “Snow”and becausetheword Kar means snow, I did not think my expectationof the snow experiencewas at allunrealistic. I was not prepared for the reality of Kars in late spring sans snow. There was no doubt at all…

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Bathplaces

Bathplaces

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I had never given bathplaces much consideration until my first visit to Rome, when I discovered historical bathplaces on a grand scale. Since then, I have learned a lot about bathplaces and visited all manner of bath places. Public, sacred, mythical, extant and archaeological remains of bathplaces have been viewed and studied, but generally not bathed in.

One thing is constant. The mythical bathplaces are in drop dead beautiful surroundings. Does this raise a tiny suspicion that tourists will be more attracted to a historical bathplace if it is in beautiful surroundings. Alternatively, maybe historical and mythical figures only inhabited beautiful locations.

Rome gives us numerous bathplaces. The baths of Caracella were apparently the second largest bathing complex. There were cold, warm and hot baths, steam rooms and a large outdoor pool. These are clearly bathplaces for the masses, and accommodated about 1600 bathers at a time. Mosaics, marble and…

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Hastings New Zealand – early settlers

Hastings New Zealand – early settlers

James and Mary O’Neill (Tyne)

Many people of European descent who were born in New Zealand after it became a Colony of Great Britain in 1840, have ancestors who made the long voyage by sailing ship to start new lives. I published the story of my search for Irish ancestors, among whom were James and Mary O’Neill, on this site on 7 December, 2019. travelwithgma.wordpress.com/category/ireland

This then is the story of their life in New Zealand.

The family embarked at Plymouth for transshipment to New Zealand on 29 September,1877, on an assisted passage, at a cost of forty nine pounds sixteen shillings. James and Mary accompanied by two daughters Mary aged 5 and Bridget (Delia)aged 3, arrived in Napier on 4 January 1878 on the Renfrewshire, after a voyage of 97 days. Their son Edmond, aged 17 months, died of diarrhoea on the voyage on 31 October 1877, and was buried at sea, in the vicinity of the Canary Islands. Five other children died on the voyage.

Renfrewshire (Picture held at State Library of Queensland 49708)

It is hard to imagine what daily life on the ship was like. The Renfrewshire does not look big enough to have carried 204 passengers plus crew and cargo – 300 tons of cargo were unloaded in Napier.

After such a long voyage, the family must have been looking forward to disembarking. According to the ship’s master, “when the Renfrewshire arrived at the Port of Napier, everyone was in complete health, and … all on board were up, dressed, and ready to go on shore.” It would have been very disappointing to find that the ship had been placed in quarantine because of an earlier outbreak of scarlet fever on board, and that they would not be disembarking for up to another 21 days. The ship was provided with fresh provisions, and arrangements were made for friends and family on shore to communicate with the ship.

Prior to disembarkation, all of the passengers clothes and possessions were fumigated. Mary would have been very busy, as “all the women then had to wash all their clothes and bedding after fumigation”.

A petition was drawn up by the Renfrewshire immigrants, complaining of being wrongfully detained in quarantine in Napier and was presented to the Minister for Immigration at Wellington. James and Mary must have signed the petition, as it was reported that all of the passengers had done so.

I imagine that the family was somewhat overwhelmed, still no doubt mourning the loss of their son, finally being disembarked to the Park Island quarantine station on 17 January, 1878, after 13 days in quarantine. The Barracks Masters book records show their arrival at Park Island, and fortunately for the family, their departure later the same day. The immigrant’s luggage was loaded onto drays to be taken to the Depot, and immigrants “were marched all into town to the Depot.”

The records stated that they were to go to a “friend’s residence in Napier.”

The Napier James and Mary would have seen on arrival. (Images – Alexander Turnbull Library Wellington)

Several of Mary’s siblings had already arrived Napier. It is possible that, on leaving the barracks, James and Mary stayed with one of them.

James was initially employed by Thomas Purvis Russell, a land owner at Woburn, Waipukurau. Woburn Station comprised 25,737 acres in 1851 – much larger than any farm James had worked on in Ireland. The Station ran sheep and cattle, and had 5 horses. The first sheep were merinos, imported from New South Wales.

In around 1878 Woburn was being cleared from a wilderness in which Maori hunted pigs, snared birds, fished Lake Hatuma and planted scattered patches of kumera and taro. A very alien landscape for James and Mary, who had been living around the Ballingarry area in Ireland.

Ballingarry – the area in Ireland where James and Mary lived before immigrating. Mary’s father and grandfather had farmed in the area.

The photographs from Woburn Station are held by the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

James worked as a labourer and had the responsibility for the transport of timber to outlying areas and goods and supplies from Napier. James work involved ploughing and it is recorded in the Hawkes Bay Herald (24 June 1880) that James O,Neill was placed third in a single furrow ploughing competition for which he received a prize of a guinea (one pound one shilling). There is a small cottage near the woolshed which was formerly used for accommodating workers which dates from the 19th century. It would be similar to the house James and Mary and their children lived in.

It is not clear how long James and Mary lived at Woburn. Their son Martin was born at Woburn in January 1880. They had at least four more children, all born in Hastings – William 1882, Margaret (Maggie) 1884, Catherine (Katie) 1887 and Johanna 1889. Johanna died in 1890.

James attended a land auction for the lots in a plan of subdivision of the Township of East Hastings, held at the Criterion Hotel, Napier on 4 September, 1879. The owner of the land being auctioned was Thomas Tanner. James purchased Lot numbers 69 and 70 for 34 pounds. Lots 69 and 70 were in Karamu Road, on the corner of Avenue Road East. The address was 301 Karamu Road, Hastings.

Above: Early views of Hastings.

James built a house, stables and depot for his carrying business on the land. Initially water supplies were difficult, with daily supplies carried from Heretaunga Street. James is said to have transported timber for his new home in the goods he carted from Woburn to Napier/Hastings. The home remained in the family until 1940 when it was sold to NZ Railways for development into a bus depot. When the house was demolished in the 1940’s it was found to have been built with wooden pegs and had roof trusses which were screwed together.

James and Mary O’Neill’s house – 301 Karamu Road, Hastings.

James established a successful horse and cart carrying business in Hastings. He held the lucrative Royal Mail contract, for which he used an express cart. When he was joined in the business by his son William, a further low cart was was used for general cartage. James and William were well known for their contribution to the operation of the Hastings Volunteer fire brigade. Their horses were available to pull the appliances, and when not required were left to graze at leisure in the streets. It was a well known joke that firemen not only had to put out the fire, but also had to find the O’Neill horses afterwards.

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James O’Neill, near Railway Station.

James was prominent in the Hibernian Club in Hastings, which held its preliminary meeting at Kelly’s Hotel, Hastings in 1884. He occupied all of the offices in the Hastings Lodge. He was active in the Hastings Volunteer fire brigade and supported his sons in their involvement with the Rover Rugby Football Club.

The Hastings Parish of the Catholic Church began in 1882, and James and Mary would have been parishioners. A new Church was opened in 1895 which James would have attended, as did his children and great grandchildren. I took my first communion in that Church, and spent many unhappy hours there. The only part I understood was the sermon, as the mass was said in Latin. I did love the building though. Many family weddings and funerals were held in this Church. Sadly the Church was destroyed by fire in 1992, 100 years after the foundation stone was laid.

Church of Sacred Heart, Heretaunga Street, Hastings.

We are left to imagine what Mary’s life was like. From the hardships of the voyage to New Zealand, to life that would have been very challenging at Woburn and then to a home in Hastings where initially the water supply was difficult and having babies every couple of years. To add to the burden, Mary, to assist with family income, was kept busy as a midwife and in general nursing duties. In 1892, already suffering from consumption, she developed influenza and died on 20 April, 1892. Pity the older daughters -Mary and Delia, who became responsible for the rearing of the family.

James died on 10 July, 1920 at home in Karamu Road. His obituary can be found at Hawkes Bay Tribune July 10, 1920.

Headstone – Grave of Mary, Johanna and James O’Neill. Hastings Cemetery.

James left an estate of 1100 pounds. Probate of his will dated 5 February 1913 was granted to Denis Murnane, farmer of Meeanee (James brother in law, who married Mary’s sister Johanna in 1880) and his son William O’Neill. (Will and Probate record on Archway Archives New Zealand). Among his bequests was to his son William of “all his horse harnesses, carts and other conveyances, horse food, horse covers and all other plant and implements used for and in connection with my carrying business.”

Acknowledgments:

Garry O’Neill, grandson of James and Mary for information about Woburn Station, and oral family history: M.B. Boyd “City of the Plains – A History of Hastings” published 1984 – page 125: Knowledge Bank – Hawkes Bay Digital Archives Trust – many references: Hastings Library.

Mt Ararat: Noah’s Ark

Mt Ararat: Noah’s Ark

Myth, Legend or Historical Event.

I grew up with the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, reinforced by the Nursery Rhyme “The Animals Came in Two by Two”. At that time it sounded like rather a nice thing to do to save all the animals. Clearly I had not thought about the very unpleasant notion of killing all the people.

My world was small – life and education in a country village in New Zealand/Aotearoa was limited. For many years, the history and geography of Britain was just about as close as I got to the world beyond our borders. Mt Ararat, and where it was geographically was well beyond my comprehension.

I always enjoyed the picture book illustrations of Noah and his Ark, and the animals. I love the iconography of religious art illustrating the Noah’s Ark biblical story. It is most interesting to follow the evolution of Ark inspired art over the centuries.

Over the years, I had occasionally read of searches for Noah’s Ark on Mt Ararat, and elsewhere. Despite various claims that remains have been found, there is no evidence to support any of the claims. It was not until I travelled to Armenia and Eastern Turkey, and saw Mt Ararat that I became more interested in the story of a great flood.

Armenia

Travelling through the Caucasus, Armenia was the place from which I first set eyes on Mt Ararat. I shall never forget that first view. Very blue sky, not a cloud in sight, with this beautiful snow capped mountain rearing into view. A somewhat embittered Armenian guide made it quite clear that Mt Ararat was Armenian – even though a redrawn border following the Treaty of Moscow and Treaty of Kars in 1921 resulted in Mt Ararat being under Turkish control.

Mt Ararat could be seen from almost everywhere in Yerevan it seemed. Even my hotel room provided a panoramic view of the mountain. The view in the morning was accompanied by coffee and the evening by wine. Sitting on my balcony enjoying some excellent Georgian wine watching the mountain fading away as night fell provided a perfect start to the evening.

Listening to some members of the Yerevan Opera singing at the Zvartnots Temple provided one of those spine tingling moments of sublime beauty – viewing Mt Ararat through the archways of the Temple while enjoying the singing made for an unforgettable morning.

The Armenian guide’s complaints of historical wrongs inflicted on Armenia were never ending. Her bitterness tainted the narrative – she was unable to impart the historical facts in a dispassionate manner – quite understandable, but not for a tour guide.

It became obvious though that Mt Ararat is a revered symbol for Armenians, not just the sour tour guide. The centre of Armenia’s Coat of Arms includes a depiction of Mt Ararat with Noah’s Ark sitting on top. There were Noah’s Arks everywhere, from ornaments to beautiful wooden toys.

Mt Ararat featured in numerous ways commercially, including Mt Ararat Brandy/Cognac. As a cognac lover, I can vouch for the deliciousness of Mt Ararat cognac. A private tasting at the Ararat Brandy Factory provided the opportunity to taste 5, 10 and 20 year old brandy.

Eastern Turkey

To view Mt Ararat in Eastern Turkey I visited Dogubayazit, which is approximately 15km from Mt Ararat and 35km from the Iranian border. Driving south from Kars, as we neared Dogubayazit Mt Ararat appeared in all its glory – again, as in Armenia, not a cloud in sight. We couldn’t stop at the best viewing point – apparently over the previous few months, tourist vehicles had been attacked by young men armed with heavy sticks.

Our hotel in the town had a huge mural of Noah and his Ark on Mt Ararat. Other than that there seemed to be no commercial acknowledgement of the biblical tale. Mt Ararat was visible from many places during both days we were in Dogubayazit. Lunching at a spot with the mountain reaching far up towards the sky in front of us, it was impossible to visualise it being under water.

Dogubayazit is one of the few places I have visited where I was hesitant to go out on my own, especially after the story of young men attacking tourist vehicles, and the delightful Turkish archaeologist’s comments that Ataturk’s reforms had never reached this far eastern part of Turkey. That is, men still had multiple wives, and it was not unknown for women, while cleaning windows, to fall to their deaths. There were also stories about Dogubayazit being a marketplace for drugs coming from Afghanistan.

The hesitancy was brief. I ventured out after dinner. There were very few women out and about, and those who were were pretty much covered up. I felt perfectly safe

Flood Narrative

I began to think about the flood narrative after seeing Mt Ararat. I had not seriously believed that there was a Noah to whom God commanded to build an Ark. It seemed practically quite improbable that all the animals on earth could fit in the Ark along with their food and water. Is the narrative in Genesis literally true, or was it just a mythological story? Could there have been a historical event behind the story contained in Genesis?

Many cultures have a great flood story, but only two are similar to the biblical story. The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Epic of Atrahasis, both of which were passed down orally before being recorded, and both pre-date the biblical story told in Genesis.

Each of the stories have a god who decides to punish humankind by unleashing a flood. The Noah character (Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis) were warned, and told to build a boat. The dimensions of the boat differ – the Mesopotamian boat was to be round, or maybe square, and to be a reed boat. Noah’s boat proportions, described in Genesis 6.14-16, resulted in either a box shape, or a ship shape, depending of how the dimensions in Genesis are interpreted. No matter what the shape of the Ark was, all have similar characteristics – a door, stalls, several levels and a window among others.

Replica Noah’s Ark, Kentucky – The Ark Encounter.

The extent and duration of the flood differs from 7 days, 6 days and 7 nights and 150 days. The reasons for the god’s desire to destroy humankind varied between the sins, noise and overpopulation.

The resting place of the boat also differs. Genesis 6-7 has the Ark coming to rest on the Mountains of Ararat. Gilgamesh favours Mt Nisir (Nimush). Mt Pir Omar Gudrun, in Iraqi Kurdistan, is thought to be the Mt Nisir of Gilgamesh. The description of the end of the flood is missing from Atrahasis, so it is not known where that boat landed.

Mt Ararat is the favoured landing place of Noahs Ark. There is a slight problem however. According to some archaeologists, Mt Ararat was formed after the “great flood”. Biblical scholars have pointed out that God did not refer to Mount Ararat, but to the Mountains of Ararat, in an area called Urartu (Hebrew equivalent of Ararat) which could mean that the Ark came to rest somewhere in the Land of Ararat.

The Abrahamic Religions have similar Noah and the Ark narratives. The Old Testament in the Bible is much the same as the story in the Hebrew Bible, and both have the Ark coming to rest on Mt Ararat. The Quran also has a similar story, although The Quran, Sura 11.44 has the Ark coming to rest in Judi.

I have not provided any references, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this is a travel blog, not a research paper, and secondly because translations have differed so much over the centuries that for each of these stories there are several different versions. The bible I looked at was the King James version. My copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the 210 version published by The Folio Society, and translated by Andrew George.

Atrahasis and Gilgamesh were inscribed on clay tablets with cuneiform script. The Gilgamesh flood tablet, and part of the Atrahasis flood tablet are in the British Museum.

Conclusion

I believe there was, historically, a great flood. Archaeologists have found evidence of such an occurrence. There are numerous theories about the cause of a great flood, many of which do not favour the view that (a) God was the cause. I am more inclined to believe the non god causation.

One thing I am sure of is that travel, for me, provides a great deal more than the pleasure of seeing and experiencing different countries and cultures. It motivates me to research the history of the places I visit, ancient and modern.