Friday, February 20, 2015

Mongolia | Lunar New Year | Tsagaan Sar

Today is the first day of the New Year according to the Lunar calendar used in Mongolia. Tsagaan Sar, as it is called in Mongolian, is the biggest celebration of the year in Mongolia—kind of like the Gregorian New Year, Christmas, and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. I have spent a dozen or more Tsagaan Sars in Mongolia, but unfortunately this year I will not be there. You can read about the 2005 Tsagaan Sar here.

By the way, as I write this the temperature in Ulaanbaatar is 12ºF, practically a heatwave in UB. Usually this time of year it is 20 to 40 below 0ºF. By contrast it is 5ºF in Richmond, Virginia, USA, seven degrees colder than UB. Richmond’s notorious Devotees of Bacchus will have to break out their mukluks if they want to go out and celebrate the New Year at their local wine bar-temple.

Anyhow, it is the Year of the Female Wood Sheep. Happy New Year!

Cyprus | Larnaca | Zeno | Stoics

Since childhood have always considered myself more or less of a Stoic, although admittedly I later became enamored by other philosophies, creeds, and beliefs.  The belief system known as Stoicism was founded, as most of you know,  by the Greek Philosopher Zeno (352 B.C.–255 B.C.—other dates have been proposed), who was born in what was then the city of Citium, on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. Citium is now the city of Larnaca in the Republic of Cyprus. Hoping to get back in touch with my Inner Stoic, I decided to visit Larnaca, the birthplace of Zeno, founder of Stoicism.

Thus it was that at six o’clock in the morning I found myself standing in snow flurries at the Pazartekke Metro stop in Istanbul just inside the Theodosian Land Walls. I took the first train of the morning to the Zeytinburnu stop and there transferred to the airport train. The one-hour flight to Athens left at 9:30. Of course I have heard about the economic downdraft in Greece, but I was not prepared for the Athens airport. There were maybe two dozen passengers in the whole place. Besides myself there were only two other people in the Aegean Airlines Business Lounge. This is the airport in the capital of a major European country, and it is practically deserted. Maybe thirty people finally assembled for the 1:00 P.M. flight to Larnaca. We arrived at Larnaca an hour after take off. A cab driver tried wanted an outrageous 50 Euros ($57.17) for the fifteen minute ride to my guesthouse; I offered him a twenty, which was still a ripoff. He did not say anything on the way to town, but when he dropped me off I  got an earful of what I assumed were Greek swearwords. This was my first experience of Hellenism. 

My guesthouse, a rather humble place inhabited by ratty looking European backpackers and down market Russians, is a little less than a mile from downtown. One night cost just a little more than the cab fare. I threw my portmanteau into my room and headed down the Phinikoudes, as the seaside promenade is called. Past a long stretch of restaurants and bars (including McDonalds, KFC, T.G.I.F., Starbucks, Pizza Hut, etc.) I finally reached the statue of Zeno. After a proper period of contemplation on Stoicism I returned to a Gloria Jean’s coffee shop (the Australian equivalent of Starbucks) I had noticed on the way to the statue and ordered a large Flat White. They are having a special two-for-one offer, so I actually got two large Flat Whites. Stoics and two-for-one coffee offers—what’s not to love about Larnaca?
The Phinikoudes (click on photos for enlargements)
Another view of the Phinikoudes
Another view of the Phinikoudes
My man—Zeno of Citium

Friday, February 13, 2015

Egypt | Giza | Khufu Pyramid

From The Spinx I wandered up the road to the Pyramid of Khufu, also known as Pyramid of Cheops. This is the largest of the three big Giza Pyramids. Although the grounds were nearly deserted when I entered at 8:00 a.m.—opening time—a considerable crowd has accumulated while I was admiring the Spinx. Most of them appear to be Egyptians. Many have hired horse buggies to haul them around the pyramids. The road leading up to the Khufu Pyramid does not look that steep, but the horses are having a hard time negotiating it. They are shod, and their steel horseshoes keep slipping on the asphalt surface of the road. As I watch two horses slip and fall to their knees. Obviously they are used to this, since they very quickly jump up and resume pulling. One horse, pulling a buggy with a family of Egyptians—father, mother, and three small children—refuses to go up the hill. It tries to turn and head back down, but the driver, who is walking along side, starts whacking it with a cane and it very reluctantly turns uphill. It slips and falls to its knees. Bounding up very quickly, it then turns and attempts again to go downhill, precipitously whipping around the buggy. The driver hauls on the reins and whacks it with a cane, finally getting it turned around. It takes a few steps uphill, but then turns yet again and attempts to lunge downhill. All the while the buggy is being whipped back and forth. The family looks scared. One of the little girls starts screaming. For the moment it looks like the driver might lost control completely and the horse will take off downhill at a gallop, quite possibly upsetting the buggy. But the driver shortens the reins and administers a series of solid whacks with his cane. The horse had probably been through all this before and knows that in the end it must bow to the inevitable. It puts its head down and slowly, carefully plods its way uphill. One imagines the pyramids were built this way.
The road does not look so steep in this photo, but horses had trouble negotiating it (click on photos for enlargements). 
Moving on from this spectacle, I proceed to the base of the Khufu Pyramid. Like millions of other tourists who have stood here I cannot help but wonder, “What in the name of all that’s holy were they thinking?” I mean, seriously, this is one badass pile of rocks. 

The pyramid was built as a tomb for the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu. It was probably built over a twenty-year period ending in about 2560 B.C. Thus it has stood here roughly 4570-some odd years. It was originally 481 feet high, and for almost 4000 years it was the tallest manmade structure on earth. It is now missing its capstone and stands around 455 feet high. Each side of the pyramid is 756 feet long. An estimated 2,300,000 blocks of stone was used in its construction. If the Khufu pyramid was built in twenty years, as suggested, then the builders would have had to put in place twelve blocks of stone an hour, 24/7/365 for the entire twenty years. Put differently, they would have had to install 800 tons of blocks every day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year for twenty years. 

On the other hand, it could have been Built By Aliens using anti-gravitation devices to float to the blocks into place. Or by the Mysterious Nephilim, the Giants of the Old Testament, spawn of Fallen Angels who could not resist mating with human women. Or maybe it was built by a previous incarnation of Donald Trump. Or by the spawn of Donald Trump’s previous incarnation and Fallen Angels. Or by the spawn of Fallen Angels and Snoop Dog.  Tupac Shakur may have been involved, hence his assassination (by the Nephilim?) on September 7, 1996, in Las Vegas, Nevada, home of the Luxor Hotel, which features its very own pyramid. The pyramids seem to invite speculation.
Frontal view of the Khufu Pyramid
Another view of the Khufu Pyramid
Another view of the Khufu Pyramid
Another view of the Khufu Pyramid
The Khufu Pyramid was once completely covered with casing stones of highly polished white limestone. In 1303 A.D. a huge earthquake shook off many of the casing stones. These were carted away and used as building material for mosques and other buildings in Cairo. What remained were used by Muhammad Ali Pasha to build a mosque in the nineteenth century. The pyramid we see today is thus the core of the original pyramid. It must have been a dazzling sight indeed when faced with gleaming white limestone. 
Some of the few original casing stones that remain
Another view of the Khufu Pyramid
Another view of the Khufu Pyramid. 
People are climbing to the current day entrance to the pyramid, known as the Robber’s Tunnel. It was created by Abbasid Caliph al Mamun in the 820s A.D. His workmen used a battering ram to punch a hole through to the existing corridors within the pyramid. Presumably they were looking for treasure. It now costs 200 Egyptian pounds ($26.38) to enter the interior of the pyramid, and several people I talked to said it was not worth it. So I demurred. Maybe next time.
Another view of the Khufu Pyramid
Today it is not possible to climb to the top of the pyramid. Once, however, an ascent was a standard part of the Great Pyramid tour. In 1873 forty-two year old English writer and gadabout Amelia Edwards made the climb and described it in her book  A Thousand Miles Up The Nile. We must rely on her for a description of the view from the top:
The ascent [to the pyramid summit] is extremely easy. Rugged and huge as are the blocks, there is scarcely one upon which it is not possible to find a half-way rest for the toe of one's boot, so as to divide the distance. With the help of three Arabs, nothing can well be less fatiguing. As for the men, they are helpful and courteous, and as clever as possible; and coax one on from block to block in all the languages of Europe. “Pazienza, signora! Allez doncement—all serene! We half-way now—dem halben-weg, fräulein. Ne vous pressezpas, mademoiselle. Chi va sano, va lontano. Six step more, and ecco la cimca!” “You should add the other half of the proverb, amici,” said I. “Chi va forte, va alla My Arabs had never heard this before, and were delighted with it. They repeated it again and again, and committed it to memory with great satisfaction. I asked them why they did not cut steps in the blocks, so as to make the ascent easier for ladies. The answer was ready and honest. “No, no, mademoiselle! Arab very stupid to do that. If Arab makes steps, howadji goes up alone. No more want Arab man to help him up, and Arab man earn no more dollars!” 
They offered to sing “Yankee Doodle” when we reached the top; then, finding we were English, shouted “God save the queen!” and told us that the Prince of Wales had given £40 to the pyramid Arabs when he came here with the princess two years before; which, however, we took the liberty to doubt. The space on the top of the great pyramid is said to be thirty feet square. It is not, as I had expected, a level platform. Some blocks of the next tier remain, and two or three of the tier next above that; so making pleasant seats and shady corners. What struck us most on reaching the top was the startling nearness, to all appearance, of the second pyramid. It seemed to rise up beside us like a mountain; yet so close, that I fancied I could almost touch it by putting out my hand. Every detail of the surface, every crack and party-coloured stain in the shining stucco that yet clings about the apex, was distinctly visible. The view from this place is immense. The country is so flat, the atmosphere so clear, the standpoint so isolated, that one really sees more and sees farther than from many a mountain summit of ten or twelve thousand feet. The ground lies, as it were, immediately under one; and the great Necropolis is seen as in a ground-plan. 
The effect must, I imagine, be exactly like the effect of a landscape seen from a balloon. Without ascending the pyramid, it is certainly not possible to form a clear notion of the way in which this great burial-field is laid out. We see from this point how each royal pyramid is surrounded by its quadrangle of lesser tombs, some in the form of small pyramids, others partly rock-cut, partly built of massive slabs, like the roofing-stones of the temples. We see how Khufu and Khafra and Menkara lay, each under his mountain of stone, with his family and his nobles around him. We see the great causeways which moved Herodotus to such wonder, and along which the giant stones were brought. Recognizing how clearly the place is a great cemetery, one marvels at the ingenious theories which turn the pyramids into astronomical observatories, and abstruse standards of measurement. They are the grandest graves in all the world—and they are nothing more.
Another view of the Khufu Pyramid
There are signs everywhere telling people not to climb on the pyramids, but boys will be boys (actually there were quite a few girls too) and they could just not resist the urge to ascent the rocks. Security guards were forever shouting at the miscreants to get down, but the moment their heads were turned the kids clambered back up again. Of course all the climbers were constantly taking selfies on their mobile phones, using the stones of the pyramid as a backdrop.
Tomb—I think—near the Khufu Pyramid
These are the only examples of hieroglyphics I saw in the area of the pyramids. 
School girls from the nearby city of Sakkara on a class excursion to the Pyramids. They asked me to take their photo and I could hardly refuse. The second one from the left, in the red sleeves, was the only one who spoke English,  and she proved to be quite the chatterbox.

For the classic, if admittedly now dated, study of the pyramids of Giza see W. M. Flinders Petrie’s The Pyramids And Temples Of Gizeh. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Egypt | Giza | Sphinx

No soon had I entered the grounds of the Pyramid Complex than a horde of would-be guides descended on me like a Biblical plaque of locusts. “But who will chase the other people away?” moaned one when I turned down his services. Indeed, some visitors might be tempted to hire one guide just to shoo away the voracious sellers of camel and horse rides, postcards, model pyramids, head wraps, cowboy hats, and a host of other gimcracks and ephemera. But I pushed on; I just wanted to soak in the atmosphere by myself without someone chattering in my ear. First on the agenda was the Sphinx. The Sphinx of course needs no introduction. Reputedly both the oldest and largest monumental sculpture in the world, it is also one of world’s most instantly recognizable images. 

As with most monuments of ancient Egypt, there is considerable controversy over when the Sphinx was built and by whom. I think we can safely rule out the theory that it is over 10,000 years old and was carved out by aliens using laser beams, or that it was built by the mysterious “giants” who keep popping up here and there in the Old Testament. The most prevalent scholarly theory maintains that it was constructed during the reign of the Pharaoh Khafra (c. 2558–2532 BC), the same pharaoh who built the middle pyramid of the three big Giza pyramids. Most onsite tour guides also ascribe to this idea. The face of the Sphinx might be—again this is disputed—that of Khafra himself.   
The Pyramid of Khafra with the Sphinx in front (click on photos for enlargements).
The Sphinx, looking positively Sphinx-like.
 The Sphinx with the Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the Giza pyramids, in the background.
 The Sphinx is 241 feet long and 66 feet high—reputedly the largest stone sculpture in the world.
I remember reading, when I was maybe seven years old, that Napoleon’s artillery men shot off the Sphinx’s nose for target practice. I am pretty sure I did not read this in a “Scrooge McDuck” comic book, even though the adventures of the richest duck in the world did inspire some of my later travels (i. e., “The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan”, a McDuck classic; this is surely where I read about Mongolia and Genghis Khan [Chingis Khan] for the first time). However, a Danish traveler by the name of Frederic Louis Norden made a sketch of the Sphinx in 1738 which shows the nose already missing. This was decades before the pint-sized French megalomaniac arrived on the scene. An alternative tale suggests that in 1378 a Sufi by the name of Saim al-Dahr became outraged after seeing local peasants worshipping the Sphinx, a clear violation of the tenets of Islam, and in a fit of pique knocked off the nose himself. How he was able to do this is not clear. It would have taken more than just a sledgehammer. Anyhow, then as now the local authorities did not appreciate people tampering with tourist attractions. Saim al-Dahr was arrested for vandalism and hanged.
The noseless Sphinx
Another view of the Sphinx
“Penny for your thoughts?”

Friday, January 30, 2015

Egypt | Cairo | Giza | Pyramids

Wandered down to Cairo from Istanbul. Another milk run on Turkish Air. The Airbus took off from the same remote gate as flights to Tabriz, Iran, and Ulaanbaatar. From the gate they ferry you by bus to the plane parked in the hinterlands of the airport. Just once I would like to fly somewhere that deserves a walk-on ramp. At first I thought I was at the wrong gate. At last three-quarters of the passengers were Chinese. Was I lining up for the Beijing flight? But no, they were all Chinese tourists. In Istanbul itself I would guess that at least half the tourists are Chinese. Many older Chinese couples on the plane, presumably retirees, plus the usual bevy of young Chinese women traveling by themselves. 

It is only a two hour hump across the Mediterranean to Cairo. I spent it reading Amelia Edward’s A Thousand Miles Up The Nile, a classic of Victorian travel literature (the Kindle version is $1.99; a fantastic bargain). I also dipped into Barbara Mertz’s Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, a light-hearted romp through four or five thousand years of Egyptian history. Mertz, writing under the pen name of Elizabeth Peters, also wrote nineteen novels featuring the indomitable Amelia Peabody, wife of Radcliffe Emerson, “the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age,” at least according to his besotted spouse. Almost all of the Peabody books take place in Egypt and deal with the madcap adventures of Peabody and her husband. I am embarrassed to admit that I have actually read All Nineteen Of The Amelia Peabody Books. This may sound ridiculous, but on the other hand I have probably not watched one entire TV program in the last twenty years. Everyone is entitled to one shameless vice. 

The Cairo Airport is very modern and extremely large. It takes probably twenty minutes to walk to Immigration. The guest house I am staying at offered a free pick-up at the airport if you stay more than four nights. I am staying seven, so before I even went through Immigration I was met by Abdullah, the representative of the guesthouse. Apparently in Egypt tourist guides can do this. He shepherded me through Immigration and then Customs. They knew him at Customs and we were waved through without the official even glancing at my portmanteau or passport, even though I noticed they were checking everyone else’s documents. The free airport pickup proved to quite a boon, since the airport is on the east side of the Nile, and Giza, where I am staying in on the west side. It can take a hour to get to Giza if traffic is heavy. 

Abdullah it turns out is a history aficionado and while driving to Giza we had quite an interesting chat about the Mamluk period of Egyptian history. Unfortunately he was wrong in his assertion that Chingis Khan invaded Egypt. Chingis Khan died several decades before the Mongols reached Syria, where on September 3, 1260 they were soundly defeated by the Mamluks of Egypt at the Battle of Ain Jalut. He also insisted that the Mamluks were descendants of Mongol slave-soldiers. They are  descended from slave-soldiers, but mostly of Turk and Turcoman descent. I am unaware of any Mongol Mamluks. Happily the discussion soon veered to Fourth Dynasty Egypt, during which time the three big pyramids of Giza were built. Indeed, soon after we crossed the Nile they could be seen looming above the Giza skyline.

My guest house is just fifty feet from the entrance to the Pyramids complex. It is a rather modest establishment actually, although my room is quite large and features a huge double bed. More importantly, the windows provide stunning views of the three Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx. There is also a roof top viewing area with even better views. After stashing my portmanteau I headed across the street to the entrance of the Pyramid complex and bought a ticket for eighty Egyptian pounds ($10.52)
View from my room at the guest house. In front of the middle pyramid can be seen the Sphinx (click on photo for enlargement).

Monday, January 5, 2015

Iran | Sultaniyya | Mausoleum of Ilkhan Öljeitü

Wandered by the town of Sultaniyya, site of the mausoleum of Öljeitü (Ölziit in Mongolian), the eighth Ilkhan. Ölziit was the great-grandson of Khülegü Khan, founder of the Ilkhanate, and the great-great-great-grandson of Chingis Khan. It was Ölziit (r. 1305–1316) who had moved the capital of the Ilkhanate from Tabriz to Sultaniyya, 175 miles to the southeast. At the insistence of his mother Uruk Khatun, a Nestorian Christian, he had been baptized as a Christian and given the name Nicholas. When he was still in his teens, however, he married a Muslim girl, and apparently under her influence he converted to Islam. At first he was a Sunni Muslim, but he eventually became disillusioned by Nit-Picking Sunni Jurists and switched to Shiism. Perhaps to burnish his credentials as a Shiite he hatched a scheme to move the bodies of the two proto-martyrs of Shiism, Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and Ali’s son Husain, from their shrines in Iraq to Sultaniyya and house them in an enormous mausoleum of his own making. It is not quite clear if he also intended the building to be a mausoleum for himself.  The mausoleum was built, but the plan to move the remains of Ali and Husain to Sultaniyya came to naught.  The building ended up as the repository for Ölziit’s own remains. 
The structure is 161 feet high, with a dome eighty-four feet in diameter, reportedly the third largest brick dome in the world. Larger are the brick domes of the Cathedral of Florence in Italy (138 feet), and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (103 feet). Apart from brick domes, the largest dome in the world is the steel dome of Cowboys Stadium in Texas, built by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the Khülegü of our age (click on photos for enlargements).
For comparison, here is the dome of Hagia Sophia
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
The vast interior of the mausoleum is undergoing renovation 
Interior of the mausoleum
The interior of the mausoleum was once covered with decoration. This eight-foot high panel is one of few surviving examples.
Catacomb under the mausoleum. This space may have been built for the remains of Ali and Husain.
The open walkway just below the dome
The open walkway just below the dome
Decoration of walkway
Decoration of walkway
Detail of decoration
View of Sultaniyya from open walkway.  Sultaniyya, once the capital of the Ilkhanate, is now a sleepy little town with a population of just over 5000. It is justly famous for its kebabs. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Iran | Julfa | Church and Monastery of St. Stephanos

At ten I met Hamid and Masud in the lobby for our trip to the Church St. Stephanos. Although of course mainly concerned with the history of the Ilkhanate in Iran, I am also interested in monuments which pre-date the Mongol occupation and have managed to survive down to the present day. There are wildly differing opinions about how old St. Stephanos Church is, but it is possible that at least some parts of it were built before the Ilkhanate period. 

An inch of fresh snow has fallen overnight, but the roads are bare by the time we start out. Just beyond our hotel we pass by a large parking lot where an Ashura ceremony is taking place. In front of a flat-bed truck with loudspeakers a group of actors in notionally seventh century costumes play out the deaths of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters at the hands of the Umayyads. The Umayyad villains are dressed in red. In a ring around the actors are several hundred spectators, almost all the women dressed in black chadors. Hamid does not offer to stop, and I do not ask to. I get the feeling this ceremony is not intended as a spectator event for non-Muslim foreigners. I read to him Evliya’s account of Ashura from 1640s, and he points outs the ritual blood-letting described by Evliya was outlawed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the president of Iran from 1981 to 1989, although it is still practiced in some other countries. 

The city of Tabriz sits in a bowl surrounded by rust-covered hills, now lightly dusted with snow. North of the city we emerge out onto rolling steppe broken up by outcroppings and ridges of red rock. When the Mongols first arrived in this region in 1220 the expansive steppe had immediately caught their attention, since it provided adequate grazing for their horses, something not always available in other parts of Persia. Also, the terrain was very similar to some areas of Mongolia, which may have helped assuage any homesickness they were experiencing on a long campaign far from their homeland. 

After passing through several small towns we arrive at the small city of Julfa, on south bank of the Aras River, about seventy miles northwest of Tabriz. The river here is the border between Iran and Azerbaijan, or, more precisely, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an exclave separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a southern extension of Armenia, which joins with the Iranian border about twenty-seven miles east of here. Although considered a part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan, covering 2120 square miles—almost twice the size of Rhode Island—and with a population of 410,000, has been an autonomous region since 1990 and is governed by its own elected legislature. On the north side of the Aras River is the Azerbaijan (Nakhchivan) city of Julfa. This Julfa made international headlines back in the 1990s when the nearby Armenian Christian cemetery containing thousands of elaborately carved tombstones, many considered historical monuments, were reportedly destroyed by Azerbaijanis, despite the protests of UNESCO and other international bodies. 
Map courtesy of Nationsonline (click on photos for enlargements)
According to legend, the Julfa on the north side of the Aras was found by Tigranes I, King of Armenia from 115 b.c. to 95 b.c. It would have been part of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia, which lasted from  321 b.c to 428 a.d., and at its height stretched from the the Caspian Sea in the east to near the Black Sea in the west and from Georgia in the north to the Mesopotamian plain in the south. 
Greater Armenia (© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons)
By the time the Mongols arrived in the thirteenth century it was a sizable city populated almost entirely by Armenians. In the following centuries it became a major trade entrepôt linking the Iranian Plateau, Inner Asia, and India with Russia, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Basin. In the late sixteenth century is was captured by the expansionist Ottoman Turks. In 1603 the Safavid ruler Abbas Shah retook the city, but he soon realized he could not hold it against the continuing onslaughts of the Ottomans. In 1605 he deported the citizens of the city—over three thousand families —deep into Safavid territory, most of them eventually taking up resident near Esfahan, and burned the city to the ground rather than let it slip into Ottoman hands. Later a village grew up amidst the ruins and a larger settlement was established adjacent to it. The Persians eventually retook the area, and this new settlement became part of the Nakhchivan Khanate, a Persian vassal state. Following the Russo-Persian War of 1826–1828 the Khanate was ceded to Russia, and Sulfa became an official border crossing point between Persia and the Russian Empire. In time the Iranian city of Sulja grew up on the south side the Aras River. The two Julfas are currently linked by a road bridge and a railway bridge. 

Iranian Julfa is now the center of the Aras Free Trade Zone (AFTZ), established by the Iranian government in 2003. The thirty-seven square-mile free trade zone, which borders on the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan, serves as a conduit for goods to and from Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the UAE, and Taiwan. Machinery parts, electrical   appliances, helicopters, glassware, glue, tea, turmeric, various types of dried nuts, clothes, tires, and much else pass through the free trade zone, but perhaps the most important trade items, and certainly the most visible, are cars. The approaches to Julfa are lined with car dealers with hundred of cars lined up on their lots. Hamid, it turns out, is a car buff. His dream, he says, is to own the latest model BMW. He ogles the cars on the lots and at one point shouts, “Look at that! An American muscle-car!” (I didn’t catch the make, and I forgot to ask what a “muscle car” actually is). He asks if on our return from Church of St. Stephanos he can make a couple of quick stops at car dealers to check prices. Expensive cars, like Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, he claims, are five to ten thousand dollars cheaper here than in Tehran, where he lives. 

In Julfa itself we drive by another Ashura ceremony much like the one we saw in Tabriz. In front of a flatbed truck with loudspeakers a group of costumed actors, the Umayyad villains in red, play out the solemn drama of the deaths of Muhammad’s grandson Husain and his family and supporters. Several hundred spectators surround the actors. Just past the Ashura ceremony our driver spots a crowd of men in front of a one-story shopping center. Many are holding plastic clamshell containers in their hands and shoveling what looks like rice into their mouths with their fingers. Apparently part of the Ashura ceremony involves dispensing free food to the public. Evliya Celebi commented on this practice in Tabriz in the 1640s:
Another marvelous and noteworthy spectacle is the Ashura ceremony held every year on the tenth day of Muharram. All the notables and citizens, young and old, come out to [the] polo grounds where they pitch their tents and stay for three days and three nights. They boil innumerable cauldrons of Ashura pudding, in remembrance of the martyrs in the plain of Karbala, and distribute it among rich and poor alike, devoting the religious merit accrued thereby to those martyrs’ spirits.
 “You should try the Ashura meal. It’s free!” says Hamid. In the vestibule of the shopping center four men are ladling a simple rice and mutton plov out of an enormous basin. The leader spots me, an obvious foreigner, and asks Hamid where I am from. Hamid says I am an American. “From America!” shouts the man, “Tell him if he accepts this food he must convert to Islam!” This was apparently meant as a jest, since many of the bystanders burst out laughing. He handed me my clamshell portion with a big smile on his face. Several men came forward to shake my hand. A couple guys insist I pose with them while their friends take photos with their cell phones. Another guy hurries up with spoons for the city guys and their foreign guest who of course cannot be expected to eat with their fingers. Masud has instant coffee, tea bags, a thermos of hot water, and a big box of Persian pastries in the trunk of our car. We stand around the open trunk and enjoy our impromptu lunch of rice and mutton. I am reminded of the rice with raisins often handed out during ceremonies at Buddhist temples in Mongolia. 

About two miles west of Julfa, hard by the banks of the Aras River, we stop at the Khajeh Nasar Caravanserai. Usually, Hamid claims, it is possible to enter the interior of the caravanserai, but today the big entrance door is closed and locked, perhaps because of Ashura, and we must be content with viewing the outside of the structure. The caravanserai had been built by the Armenian trader Khajeh Nazar Armani. He was one of the Armenians deported, as mentioned earlier, to the Esfahan area by Shah Abbas back at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In Esfahan Khajeh Nazar Armani flourished as a trader, amassing a sizable fortune, and soon caught the attention of Shah Abbas himself. With Shah Abbas’s approval he returned to his homeland and built two caravanserais, the one here and another directly across the river. The caravanserai on the north side of the river apparently no longer exists. The remaining caravanserai, measuring about 130 feet by 200 feet, consists a courtyard lined on three sides by quarters for traveling merchants and storage rooms. A handsome structure of brick and cut stone, it no doubt rated the seventeenth century equivalent of five stars. In the seventeenth century the next stop south of the caravanserai was reportedly the town of Shoja, about six and half miles away. This may indicate the the Iranian town of Julfa, now three miles from the caravanserai, may not have existed at this time. 
Khajeh Nasar Caravanserai 
Unable to enter the building I stroll to the bank of the Aras to take photos. About two hundred yards away two soldiers step out of a checkpoint guardhouse and stare in my direction. “We better go,” says Hamid, “Taking photos of the caravanserai is OK, but they may wonder why you are taking photos of Azerbaijan, across the river.” 
Aras River, with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic on the other side
We drive on to checkpoint, where we are stopped, but Masud banters with the two young conscripts, who look to be teenagers, and they wave us on without asking to see our papers. Not far past the checkpoint, at the base of the cliffs on the left, a stone tower with a cone-shaped roof looms above high stone walls. This is the Nakheirchi Church. Hamid explains that in Azeri, the language of Azerbaijan which is spoken by most people in this area, nakheir means “herd of cattle”. A nakheirchi is a cattle herder. According to local legend a cattle herder built this church so that his fellow herders would have a place to pray while they were out tending their cattle. The gate to the high-walled compound is locked, whether for Ashura or not Hamid does not know, so we drive on. 
Nakheirchi Church
The Aras River valley narrows here, flanked on either side by barren rust and mustard-tinted cliffs and ramparts. I would like to take photos, but Hamid points to the  manned guard towers on the Azerbaijani side of the river and suggests that this is not a good idea. Another six miles west up the Aras valley a defile lined with trees leads into the soaring ramparts to our left. We turn off on a narrow lane and half a mile later come to the Church of St. Stephanos parking lot. It is deserted except for a guy with a broom sitting on a bench. He informs us that church grounds are open, but the church itself is closed for Ashura. 
Lane leading to the church 
A short walk up a tree-lined lane brings us to the substantial walls of of the church compound. Off to the right is a prodigious spring which debouches into pond where a small flock of ducks gambol. This spring is no doubt why the church was originally established on this site. Scattered among the trees are benches and picnic areas. Hamid, who had been here before, says that the lush oasis-like surroundings tucked in here amidst the otherwise sere and barren terrain  attract day-trippers from as far away as Tabriz and beyond. On other holidays the place can get quite crowded. This is first time he has ever seen the place deserted. We check the large gates leading into the church compound, but they are indeed locked. I will have to be content with viewing the church from outside the compound.
 Spring with wonderful water; no doubt why the church was found here.
Pond fed by the spring
 Fortress-like walls of the Church compound
 Church behind the fortress walls
 Entrance to the church compound
 Front of the church
Greater Armenia, which included the valley of the Aras River, became Christian in a.d. 301, making it the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion. (The little known statelet of Osrhoene, in what is now southeastern Turkey, with its capital in Edessa (modern-day Sanliurfa), may have actually been the first officially Christian state, but it proved so ephemeral that most historians ignore it and credit Armenia). In the centuries following its adoption of Christianity Armenia would have been in the heartland of the Faith, not an outlier as it is today. The name of the church here in the Aras valley links it to the very earliest days of Christianity. Stephen (Greek = Stephanos), was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Twelve Apostles to distribute food to the poor and needy. According to the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, he was stoned to death after he made a speech which was deemed blasphemous by the local Jewish authorities. This won him the title of Protomartyr, the very first martyr of Christianity. Saul of Tarsus, later the Apostle Paul, witnessed the execution, and Stephen’s steadfast devotion to Christianity may have had something to do with his own eventual conversion to the faith. 

According to legend, a church was founded on this spot in the first century a.d. by Saint Bartholomew, one of the original Twelve Apostles. This tale is no doubt apocryphal; in any case, no one is claiming that any of the current structures date from this era. According to a sign post on the grounds at least one part of the church does date back to at the seventh century. Other sources, most of them admittedly ephemeral (scholarly literature on the subject is scarce), make no mention of this seventh century edifice but instead claim that the complex was built sometime in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, or twelfth centuries. 

It is tempting to think that the St. Stephanos complex was built during the rule of the Bagratuni Dynasty (884–1045) when Armenia freed itself from Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate and went on to enjoy more than a century and a half of independence. During this period Armenia experienced a cultural renaissance, especially in the field of architecture. The capital city of Ani (now in Turkey) became known as the city of “40 gates and 1001 churches.” Among the churches was a magnificent cathedral built in 998-1000 under the direction of the renowned architect Tiridates. There is, however, no direct evidence linking the Church of St. Stephanos to the Bagratid era. 
Bagratuni Armenia (© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons)
In 1236 Armenia, then ruled by the Zakarian Dynasty, became a vassal state of the Mongols, who had arrived in the area as early as 1220. At first Christianity flourished under the Mongols. Sorqaqtani, the mother of the first Ilkhan, Khülegü, was a staunch Nestorian Christian, as was Khülegü’s wife, Dokuz Khatun, who like a true nomad maintained a movable church in her camp. Khülegü’s son, the second Ilkhan Abaqa, likewise encouraged Christianity, although he himself apparently leaned toward Buddhism. He did marry a Christian, the Byzantine princess Mary Palaiologina, the illegitimate daughter of Byzantine emperor Michael VIII. Christianity’s favored status in the Ilkhanate ended with the accession of the Ilkhan Ghazan in 1295. He converted to Islam the same year and almost immediately launched a campaign against other religions. Buddhists, not being “People of the Book”— followers of the Abrahamic religions who have a revealed scripture and recognize one and only one God—were ordered to convert to Islam or leave the territory of the Ilkhanate and their temples were destroyed. Christians and Jews lost the privileges they had enjoyed earlier and were forced to pay a special poll-tax. In effect, they  became second class citizens. Apparently they were allowed to keep their churches and synagogues, so it is possible that the Church and Monastery of Stephanos survived the Mongol era intact. 

One Armenian scholar goes on to claim, however, that over the centuries many of the original buildings in the complex, including those which survived the Ilkhanate, were destroyed by earthquakes and that most of the now remaining structures were built or rebuilt during the reign of the Safavid Shah Abbas the Second (1642–1666). Thus the history of this notable landmark—it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—remains surprisingly speculative. 

According to one modern source:
The beautiful murals on the dome and the relief works above and below it are crafted with a precision that must place this work among the few artistic marvels of the world. Not limited to the domes, the murals, and the ornamentation of the vaults and arches at the entry, this beautiful artistry extends to all the arches and vaults of the western walls, to the pillars, columns and capitals, and to the decorative work both in the interior and exterior of the building.
Unfortunately, none of this is visible from outside the compound walls. I climb the hill behind the complex in hopes of getting a view of the interior of the compound. I am rewarded with panoramic view of the church set against the background of the colorful cliffs on the other side of the Aras River, but few of the details of the church itself or the monastery buildings can be seen. I tell Hamid to go back to the car and wait for me while I sent an hour mediating on the thousand years or more of history encapsulated here. A kaleidoscopic array of images flit through my mind, but when I try to envision what will be here one thousand years hence my mind comes up blank.
 View of church from above
 Detail of church 
 Detail of church. Notice how the stones of the steeple seem to mimic the colors in the cliffs beyond.