Monday, November 20, 2017

Greece | Kavala | Muhammad Ali

While in Kavala I wandered by the home of Muhammad Ali (1769–1849), who is often called the founder of modern Egypt. Muhammad Ali was born in Kavala and lived here until he was thirty. The house he lived in is now a museum. His family, who were ethnically Albanian, was involved in the tobacco business (one of the mainstays of the Kavala economy at the time) and his father was the commander of the local Ottoman troops. He himself entered the army and very quickly rose through the ranks, becoming Second Commander in the Kavala Volunteer Contingent of Albanian mercenaries that was sent to re-occupy Egypt following Napoleon Bonaparte's withdrawal in 1801. He quickly became the de facto head of Ottoman forces in Egypt and in 1805 the local ulema demanded that he be made the Wali or Viceroy of Egypt. It soon became apparent the Muhammad Ali intended to seize control of Egypt for himself, but Ottoman Sultan Selim III was unable to depose him. Finally in 1841, after he had attempted to seize Syria and parts of Asia Minor from the Ottomans, he was recognized as the Khedive of Egypt and his family made the hereditary rulers of the country. The last member of his dynasty, the notorious King Farouk, was deposed in 1952 by Gamal Abdel Nasser and other army officers.
Statue of Muhammad Ali in Kavala (click on photos for enlargements)
Statue of Muhammad Ali in Kavala 
House where Muhammad Ali lived in Kavala, now a museum 
Austere interior of Muhammad Ali’s house. I wish I had this room in my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi.
Austere interior of Muhammad Ali’s house
While wandering in Egypt a few years ago I visited the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, also known as the Alabaster Mosque. The mosque was commissioned by Muhammad Ali and built between 1830 and 1848. Located on the top of the Citadel, it is visible from most parts of the Cairo and is now one of the city’s most conspicuous landmarks.
Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha
Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha
Courtyard of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha
Interior of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha
Portrait of Muhammad Ali by Auguste Couder

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Greece | Kavala | Apostle Paul

From Thessaloniki I took a bus 100 miles up the coast to the city of Kavala. Two thousand years ago Kavala was known as Neopolis (New City). It was one of the main ports in Europe for ships arriving from the Levant. The Apostle Paul, he of Road to Damascus Fame, first set foot in Europe here around A.D. 50. I do not know why, but I seem to keep visiting places where Paul had trod before. First there was Larnaka and Paphos on Cyprus Island, then Athens, Corinth, and Thessaloniki in Greece and now Kavala. This was not intentional, I assure you. I am not a Christian, and certainly not a fan of Pauline Christianity. Indeed, I am perfectly aware that many now consider Paul An Insufferable Douchebag Or Worse. However, I am more than willingly to entertain the idea, posited in the book Jesus and the Lost Goddess, that most if not all the books in the New Testament attributed to Paul are forgeries and that he himself was a secret Gnostic:
Of all early Christians, Paul was the most revered by later Gnostics. He was the primary inspiration for two of the most influential schools of Christian Gnosticism, set up by the early second-century masters Marcion and Valentinus. Christian Gnostics calling themselves 'Paulicians' ran the 'seven churches' in Greece and Asia Minor that were established by Paul, their 'mother Church' being at Corinth. The Paulicians survived until the tenth century and were the inspiration for the later Bogomils and Cathars. Marcion was originally a student of the Simonian Gnostic Cerdo, but when he set up his own highly successful school it was Paul he placed centre-stage as the 'Great Messenger'. 
Even his later Literalist critics acknowledged that Marcion was 'a veritable sage' and that his influence was considerable. Valentinus tells us he received the secret teachings of Christianity from his master Theudas, who had in turn received them from Paul. Based on these teachings, Valentinus founded his own influential school of Christian Gnosticism, which survived as a loose alliance of individual teachers until it was forcibly closed down in the fifth century by the Literalist Roman Church. The number of second and third-century Valentinians that we can still name is testimony to Valentinus' importance: Alexander, Ambrose, Axionicus, Candidus, Flora, Heracleon, Mark, Ptolemy, Secundus, Theodotus and Theotimus. Paul was such an important figure in the Christian community that at the end of the second century the newly emerging school of Christian Literalism could not simply reject him as a misguided heretic but felt compelled to reshape him into a Literalist. They forged in his name the (now thoroughly discredited) 'Pastoral Letters', in which Paul is made to spout anti-Gnostic propaganda. 
Throughout his genuine letters, however, Paul uses characteristically Gnostic language and gives Gnostic teachings, a fact that is deliberately obscured by Literalist translators. Like later Christian Gnostics, Paul addresses his teachings to two levels of Christian initiates, called psychics and pneumatics, describing the latter as 'having Gnosis'. Of himself he writes, 'I may not be much of a speaker, but I have Gnosis.' He sees his mission as awakening in initiates an awareness of 'the Christ within' — the one 'consciousness of God' — by 'instructing all without distinction in the ways of Sophia, so as to make each one an initiated member of Christ's body'. Paul tells us that when he personally experienced Christ it was as a vision of light on the road to Damascus. 'Damascus' was a code word used by the Essenes to refer to their base in Qumran, which suggests that Paul, like Simon, had Essene affiliations. He uses the same language as the Essenes, for example when he describes human beings as being enslaved by the powers of fate, imagined as 'the elemental rulers of the cosmos', the 'archons of this dark cosmos', from which 'Christ has set us free'.
If these assertions about the genuine Gnostic teachings of Paul are true, then what has become known as “Pauline Christianity”—basically mainstream Christianity as it is practiced today—must be regarded as one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated upon the human race.  
City of Kavala (click on photos for enlargements)
Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Kavala. In front is a mosaic commemorating the arrival  of the Apostle Paul in Kavala in A.D. c. 50. 
Mosaic commemorating the arrival  of the Apostle Paul in Kavala in A.D. c.50. 
Detail of mosaic, Note the view must be from north looking south, since Paul  is stepping onto Europe on the right. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Greece | Thessaloniki | Galerius | Rotunda

After three months of semi-occultation in Zaisan Tolgoi, Mongolia, I flew from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul. The plane left sixteen hours late because of a huge snow storm that hit Ulaanbaatar the night before. I was almost in a wreck on the way to the airport. The roads were horrific; cars were flying around like pucks in a hockey rink. Finally at one o’clock in the morning the plane took off. The flight to Istanbul took eleven grueling hours. Oddly enough for this flight, we encountered no turbulence,  not even over the Tian Shan. Because of the Recent Visa Flap I did not stop in Istanbul, but continued directly on to Athens. As soon as the plane began its descent into Athens we hit severe turbulence. For the first time in years I was overcome by motion sickness on an airplane. I would have hurled that there been anything in my stomach to hurl, but there wasn’t. Luckily I had skipped the in-flight breakfast. That would have been really gross. I spent the night in Athens at my Favorite Hotel, located literally in the shadow of the Acropolis. The next morning I took the train north to Thessaloniki, where I intend to resume the Role of Flâneur that I was enjoying last summer. I am staying at the same hotel, in fact the exact same room I stayed in on three previous stays in Thessaloniki. The room is on the top floor, at the very end of the hall. It has to be the most remote room in the hotel. I figure the receptionist correctly pegged me as an incorrigible misanthrope who just wanted to be left alone. It is indeed quiet, and having checked in, I move in and out of the hotel like a ghost. The receptionist does not even see me coming or going, or pretends not to. 

From the hotel it is about a twenty minute walk east on Egnatia, the main drag through the city, to the huge monument now generally referred to as the Rotunda. I am particularly eager to see the Rotunda since it was built by the Roman ruler Galerius (c. 260 – c. 311). Galerius first came to my attention when I was in Venice and saw the statue of the Four Tetrarchs embedded in the southeast corner of St. Mark’s Basilica
The Four Tetrarchs, embedded in the wall of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It is not clear which one is Galerius (click on photos for  enlargements).
The Four Tetrarchs were the four emperors who ruled the Roman Empire from 293 to 313. The emperor Diocletian, sensing that he could not govern the vast Roman Empire by himself, had in 286 appointed his general Maximian as co-emperor, with himself in charge of the eastern part of the empire, and Maximian in charge of the west. Both assumed the title of Augustus. In 293 he delegated even more power by naming two Caesars or junior emperors, each of whom reported to an Augustus. The two Caesars were Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. The four made up a Tetrarchy, or rule by four. The statues of the Tetrarchs has originally stood in the Philadelphion, a square in Constantinople (Istanbul). During the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians and Frankish crusaders the statues were seized as war booty and taken to Venice, where they can still be seen today.
The Domains of the Four Tetrarch
Galerius erected several monumental structures in Thessaloniki, including a palace, the ruins of which can still be seen, a huge ceremonial arch, sections of which still exist, and the Rotunda. Construction of the Rotunda began in 306. The round structure is eighty feet in diameter and ninety feet high, with walls almost twenty feet thick. Although damaged by the many earthquakes that have plagued Thessaloniki over the centuries it has never been destroyed. Historians are not quite sure why Galerius built the Rotunda. He certainly did not intend it to be a Christian church, since at the time the Rotunda was built he was violently anti-Christian. He may have intended the building to be used as his mausoleum, but he ended up being interred in Gamzigard, in what is now Serbia. Or he may have intended the structure to be temple to one of the Roman gods; if so, he never said which one. 

After Galerius’s death the building stood empty until 326, when Constantine, founder of Constantinople and defender of Christianity, ordered that it be turned into a church. Some Greek historians have claimed that is the oldest surviving church in the world. This seems unlikely. There are probably older Christian churches in Asia and Africa (the dating of old churches is a contentious issue). It may be the second oldest church in Europe, after the Cathedral of Saint Domnius in Croatia. It is certainly the oldest church in Thessaloniki. In the late fourth century a bema, or sanctuary, was added on the the east side of the building and a propylon and chapels were constructed on the north side. The interior of the dome was decorated with the mosaics for which the Byzantines are famous..

The building continued to be used as a church until Thessaloniki became part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1590 it was converted into a mosque and renamed Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi. A minaret was added at this time. After the Ottomans were ejected from Thessaloniki in 1912 the structure was reconsecrated as a church. It now serves as a museum, although the East Sanctuary is occasionally used for religious services.

According to an informant in the USA, drone footage of the Rotunda recently appeared, very briefly, in the TV show “The Black List”, starring James Spader. I have not seen the show myself. 
The Rotunda
The Rotunda
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary

Another view of The Rotunda
Interior of the Rotunda
Eastern Sanctuary in the Rotunda
Remnants of  Byzantine mosaics on the dome of the Rotunda

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Ismael Samani Mausoleum

From Komil’s Guesthouse I wandered over to Ismael Samani’s Mausoleum on the western edge of town ( N39°46'37.10' / E64°24'2.59', three quarters of a mile from the center of town, the center being for our purposes the square between the Kalon Mosque and the Mir-i-Arab Madrassa). The mausoleum is the oldest building in Bukhara and one of the oldest buildings in Inner Asia. The foundations of the Magok-i-Attari Mosque in Bukhara, originally part of a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian or perhaps even Buddhist temple, may be older, but the original building was destroyed by fire in 937. It was rebuilt in the 12th century, only to be heavily damaged during on the Mongol Assault On The City in the spring of 1220. Apparently only the eleventh-century southern-facing facade has survived intact down to the present day. The Ismael Samani Mausoleum dates from probably the first decade of the the tenth century—it was already completed when Ismael, who consolidated the power of the Samanid Dynasty and made Bukhara its capital, died in 907—and survived the later Mongol onslaught with little if any damage. Thus it is one of two pre-Mongol invasion structures in Bukhara—the other being the Kalon Minaret—which have survived basically undamaged down to the present day. Don’t worry, I will have more to say on the Magok-i-Attari Mosque and the Kalon Minaret in good time; for the moment I will focus on the Ismael Samani Mausoleum.

The mausoleum is a near-perfect cube topped by a dome, measuring 35 feet on each side, with four identical facades which incline inward just slightly. The structure incorporates pre-Islamic Sogdian elements, such as the heavy three-quarter inset columns built into each corner, and Sassanian features like the four small ovoid domes at the corners of the roof, while at the same time introducing new designs, such as the so-called chortak system of supporting the dome. “The problem of setting the dome over a square chamber,” reckons architectural history Edgar Knobloch, “is here carried beyond the simple solution of Parthian and Sassanian times. Consisting of three supporting arches which curve down from the crown of the arch to the walls, the squinch carries the thrust of the dome downward—rather like a Gothic flying buttress.” These new architectural features might well be the product of advances in geometry and mathematics by al-Khorezmi (the Father of Algebra, (780-850) and other leading lights of the intellectual florescence in Mawarannahr and Khorezm in the ninth and tenth centuries.  

What is most readily apparent to the casual observer, however, is the complex brickwork designs on the outer faces of the six and a half foot-thick walls and the corner columns. These have no real precedent in any other surviving Inner Asian buildings, and it would be hard to find their match in any subsequent brick monuments. The extruding bricks in the walls also creates shadows which change the appearance of the designs as the sun moves moves across the sky. On overcast days, when the sun casts no shadows, the building assumes yet another aspect. 

Accounts of the mausoleum over the years mention various tombs inside the mausoleum, including those of Ismael himself, his father Ahmed, his nephew Nasr, and others, but at the moment there only one coffin present. It is not clear if this is Ismael’s tomb, or if it is, whether his body is still inside. 

The Ismael Samani Mausoleum was in its earliest days in the middle of a vast cemetery. Historians believe that it was half-buried in sand and gravel by the time the Mongols arrived in the 1220 and thus escaped their notice. Since it was in the middle of a cemetery it may have also been protected from the fires which ravaged most of the wooden structures and destroyed even the brick buildings in the main part of the city. The building was still nearly buried in sand and debris when it was discovered by a Russian archeologist in 1934. The graves in the surrounded graveyard were later relocated or covered over and the area was turned into Kirov Park, which in addition to the mausoleum and another historic building, the Chasma Ayub, or Spring of Job, he of Afflictions notoriety, now features a ferris wheel and other fairground attractions. 
Ismael Samani Mausoleum 
 Ismael Samani Mausoleum 
 Ismael Samani Mausoleum 
Ismael Samani Mausoleum 
 Brickwork designs on the corner columns
 Small ovoid domes on the corners may harken back to Sassanian designs
 Dome of the mausoleum
 Window with brickwork grill
 Window with brickwork grill
 Tomb inside the mausoleum, perhaps that of Amir Ismael (r. 892 - 907)
Another view of the Mausoleum

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Greece | Thessaly | Kalambaka | Meteora

 Update 08 / 27: USA Today has a story today about Locales Where “Game Of Thrones” is filmed. Meteora is conspicuously missing. The Greek Orthodox authorities and local monks nixed the idea of filming at Meteora, at least according to local informants (see below). The Greek Orthodox Church has near-complete control of Meteora. Even the Greek Air Force is not allowed to fly over the area below a certain altitude, again according to locals. 

Took the train from Thessaloniki south to the province of Thessaly and the town of Kalambaka, located just below the famous Meteora monasteries.
View from my hotel in Kalambaka (click on photos for enlargements)
View from the town square of Kalambaka
View from Kalambaka
View from Kalambaka
View from Kalambaka
View from Kalambaka
The 16th century Monastery of St. Stephen, in the middle of the photo, from Kalambaka. It is now a nunnery.
Monastery of St. Stephen
Kalambaka from the Monastery of St. Stephen
Four of the six now active Meteora monasteries can be seen in this photo.
Three of the monasteries
Two of the monasteries
Varlaam Monasteries, founded in 1541
Varlaam Monastey
Another view of Varlaam Monastery
Another view of Varlaam Monastery
Another view of Varlaam Monastery
Grand Meteora Monastery, founded in mid-fourteen century
Remains of Grand Meteora Monks
Remains of Grand Meteora Monks
Monastery of Rousanou, also known as the Monastery of St. Barbara, founded in the sixteenth century. Now a nunnery.
Monastery of St. Barbara


Monastery of St. Barbara
 On the pinnacle to the left is the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, founded in1475
Monastery of the Holy Trinity
If this monastery looks familiar, it is because a Famous Scene in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only” was filmed here. Locals claim that Meteora’s reputation as internationally famous tourist attraction was spawned by its appearance in the 007 flick. Reportedly the current TV program “Game of Thrones” wanted to film here in Meteora but the monks, after witnessing the hubbub surrounding the Bond movie, refused to give permission. I have been told by locals, however, that some digitized images of Meteora were used as backgrounds in  “Game of Thrones” (I do not know for sure because I myself have not seen the show).