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 transit area. 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 wanted an outrageous 50 Euros ($57.17) for a ride to my guesthouse, which I knew was only slight more than a mile away. I offered him a ten, which he refused, and finally gave him a twenty, which I soon found out was still a ripoff.

My guesthouse, a rather humble affair inhabited by European backpackers,  down market Russians, and furtive local gay couples shacking up for the night, is a little less than a mile from downtown. Actually, one night cost a little less 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 lose 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 ascend 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 sooner 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?”

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mongolia | Bactrian Camels

Camels: You can’t help but love them (click on photo for enlargement)