Tag Archives: travel

In the Wild With Whale-Watching Wannabe’s

We hunched shoulder-to-shoulder awkwardly trying to steady “Jell-O” legs on the cramped vessel while dutifully scanning the ocean. The nine of us, decked out from head to toe in screaming orange one-piece jumpsuits, must have had tourist written all over.

“Scan the horizon for movement,” Jason, our certified naturalist and boat operator called out. You can’t miss ‘em; their top fin will come about six feet out of the water.” The blue-green waters gently lapped alongside our rocking 25-foot boat, but yielded nothing.

In addition to the grey and humpback whales we were searching for, here resident pods (families) of orcas – killer whales – also live year-round in the straits surrounding Victoria, British Columbia.

Of the three types of orcas, with each group behaving differently, according to researchers, best known are the northern resident orcas. During the summer months, whale-watching enthusiasts routinely see this species off Vancouver Island. Whale researchers also tell us that orcas are very social creatures. Jason concurred, telling me he often could coax them to play and swim alongside the boat.

On the move again and now well past the breakwaters of Victoria, the Juan de Fuca Straits burst upon us. As we rounded the bend, straits, channels and peninsulas darted off in all directions. Breathless with adrenaline pumping into overdrive, we searched and scanned whitecaps, coastlines; anything and everything in the near distance for any hint of movement.

“What’s that off to the left?” I excitedly asked while pointing a determined finger out to sea.

“Looks like an old salmon fishing boat,” Jason chuckled.

Whale-watching off Vancouver Island near Victoria, B.C. has become one of the most popular must-do activities for visitors to the area.

The chilly water temperature (it averages 45 degrees year-round) and nutrient-rich sea is abundant with salmon. And salmon just happen to be a whale’s first choice for a dinner entrée. In addition to the magnificent and once feared orca, the waters surrounding Vancouver Island feature a variety of marine wildlife including porpoise, dolphins, harbor seals, sea lions, eagles and a variety of sea birds.

Prime time for Pacific Northwest whale watching is June through August when whales follow schools of migrating salmon through scenic straits and island channels.

Whale-watching reservations are required and trips can be booked through a variety of companies, most headquartered out of the Victoria Marine Adventure Centre on the Inner Harbour downtown. Most tours, except during the fall and winter, are three hours long.

Some companies offer an “optional whale sighting guarantee”. They alert you when sightings are 100 percent. Available May through August only, when sightings peak, this is advertised as a money-back guarantee.

Watercraft are well equipped with radar, depth sounders, radio and cellular communications, and underwater acoustic listening systems to guarantee sightings of not only whales, but also dolphins and porpoise.

Over the centuries, whales have been feared as supernatural beings, hunted as commercial products, cheered and applauded for as marine land performers, and respected as the majestic wonders that they are. Their legacy has endured, as man has understood more and developed an appreciative relationship with nature’s most magnificent creatures.

The fascination and thrill of witnessing these aquatic mammals play in their natural habitat must truly be a sight to be seen. Unfortunately on this picture-perfect day in early August, our group saw only breathtaking scenery spanning 93 miles of cold water.

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China’s Terracotta Warriors

Imagine the shock a group of simple Chinese farmers quietly digging a well in a field one day experienced when they stumbled upon an upright life-size terracotta figure of a warrior.

The discovery was uncovered in March 1974, and the site was soon identified as Emperor Qin’s place of burial.

Who was Qin?
Born Ying Zheng in 259 BC, he succeeded his father as king when only 13 years old. Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin dynasty, ruled as China’s first emperor from 221-207 BC. More importantly, Qin was responsible for China’s unification, initiating groundbreaking reforms during his reign.

In 230 BC he began his campaign to conquer China’s remaining six kingdoms, thus unifying the country for the first time in its existence. History indicates Zheng accomplished this feat in less than 10 years, and proclaimed himself the first emperor of a unified China.

Marble-statue-of-Qin-Shi-Huang-The-First-Emperor-of-Qin-Dynasty

It was then that Zheng took the title Qin Shi Huang, which means “first emperor of Qin”. Consequently, Qin Dynasty became the first imperial dynasty of China.

One of Qin’s most important reforms was abolishing the old political system and dividing his empire into 36 districts. He instituted this to avoid political chaos.

He then appointed officials based on merit rather than following hereditary lines, as had been the custom. Military officers who distinguished themselves in battle were rewarded with important military positions.

Two other reforms under his rule were the unification of the law and standardizing the Chinese units of measurement and currency.

His most significant act, however, was to unify the Chinese written language by creating a novel, and more simplified, script that became the standard.

Nevertheless, Qin was an unpopular ruler and considered inhumane through much of China’s history. Ruling with an iron hand, he had more than 450 scholars, whose views he disagreed with, killed and ordered most existing books to be burned. Because of this, Confucian scholars portrayed him as a brutal tyrant and upon his death publicly undervalued his achievements.

Qin is credited with commissioning the original version of China’s Great Wall, designed to protect against barbarian invasions. Showing little regard for human life, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of men died during the construction of the famous defensive wall. While little of this wall remains today, it was the precursor to the Great Wall of China.Great-Wall-of-the-Qin

Now, however, the massive mausoleum complex he had constructed for himself near the ancient city of Xi’an reflects his legacy despite the untold numbers who died during construction and the artisans he ordered killed in order to preserve the secrecy of the tomb’s location and the treasures buried within.

Perception of Death
“Treat death as life” was the ancient Chinese traditional perception of death. According to information in the Chinese exhibit that is on display at Doha, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, “they considered death another form of living, believing that the afterlife one enters after death is an exact copy of the present one.” That is why personal objects used during their lifetime, such as clothes, daily necessities and status symbols, can usually be found in their tombs or mausoleums.

Terrified of death, Qin was obsessed with acquiring immortality. Later in his life he ordered his court physicians and alchemists to create a tonic or medicine that would grant him eternal life. What they came up with were mercury pills, which would supposedly make him immortal. He died on September 10, 210 BC allegedly due to mercury poisoning.

The Terracotta Army Mausoleum
In early China societies, the custom of human sacrifice was followed as part of a funeral ritual. During the Zhou Dynasty that preceded the Qin Dynasty, this philosophy changed to using clay and wooden figures rather than humans. The Qin terracotta warriors exemplify this philosophical shift.

photo-of-terracotta-soldiers-pitQin ordered work to begin on the famous mausoleum soon after he became king. Historians believe it took 700,000 men and 38 years to construct the mausoleum, which was larger than any city of the world at that time. His burial chamber was to be enclosed within the structure.

The life-size warriors in military formation – more than 6,000 of them – “guarded and protected” Qin’s tomb in the afterlife from evil spirits for more than 2,200 years after his death. In addition to this large pit the farmers discovered in 1974 were three other pits. A second pit contained cavalry and infantry unit sculptures, a third consisted of high-ranking officers and chariots, and a fourth was empty, suggesting that the burial pit was left unfinished following the emperor’s death.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this discovery is that the pits were designed with a sophisticated layout, as load-bearing walls were discovered every 10 feet between where the warriors and horses stand.

Chinese Sculpture vs. Western Sculpture
Within China’s art history circles, the Qin terracotta warriors rank extremely high in artistic value. Every detail of the figures was modeled on real persons from their height and proportion to their facial features resulting in a life-like sculptural style. What makes these terracotta figures so unique is that they all differ from one another not only in facial features and expressions, but also clothing, hairstyle and even their gestures. Every terracotta warrior was originally painted in bright colors, which is believed to have added immensely to their vividness.

4-warriors-&-horse

Western sculpture places its focus on form and muscle. “It uses light and shadow to create a sense of depth, and applies the principles of human anatomy to express the human body’s muscular and dynamic beauty,” according to art historians. Chinese sculpture, however, focuses more on portraying a subject’s temperament, which is why the sculptures show a strong realistic feel with artistic exaggeration of facial detail. Rarely does Chinese sculpture indicate a subject’s muscles or detailed body form.

The Terracotta Army and Their Weapons
The soldiers, archers, horses and chariots discovered during restoration work indicate they were created using molds and an early assembly line-type construction. It is believed that only eight molds were used to shape their heads, while distinctive clay surface features were added after they were assembled indicating a high level of craftsmanship and artistry. This explains why each soldier appears to be unique in its facial features yet most of the figures’ hands are identical.

Archaeologists found more than 40,000 bronze weapons during excavation, including battle axes, crossbows, arrowheads and spears, all of which were astonishingly well preserved given the more than 2,000 years they laid undiscovered. They credit the preservation to protective chrome plating, which reveals the sophistication of ancient Chinese metallurgy given that Germany first used this technique in 1937 and the U.S. not until 1950.

Qin’s Unexcavated Tomb
Since the tomb was discovered 40 years ago, less than one percent of it has been excavated. At first archaeologists were concerned about damaging Qin’s corpse and tomb artifacts, but that gave way to concerns about the excavation’s potential safety hazards. In 2005 a team led by Chinese archaeologist Duan Chingbo tested 4,000 samples of the burial mound earth for mercury, and all came back highly positive. Given this chemical evidence, the debate continues over whether to excavate, how to protect people working at the site, and what methods should be utilized to best protect the artifacts.

Proclaimed one of the greatest archeological discoveries in the world, the Terracotta Army Mausoleum is now unofficially hailed as the eighth Wonder of the World. Four of the unearthed terracotta structures, three warriors and a horse, are currently part of the traveling Chinese exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.

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Three Major Dynasties: History Told Thread by Thread

Fragile pottery pieces, old master paintings, elaborate jewelry, ethnic clothing and ancient manuscripts spanning thousands of years and dynasties are mainstays of museums. But how often does one see antique carpets that have survived the times?

Imperial Threads: Motifs and Artisans from Turkey, Iran and India, an unique temporary exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, offers a new perspective to three major dynasties. The cultural exchange between these Islamic world empires led to the creation of some of the world’s most beautiful works of art.

carpets-as-diplomatic-giftsThe artistic collection and interwoven connection of these dynasties – Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal – are highlighted through their handmade rugs, motif tiles, manuscripts and ceramics primarily from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It was commonplace for these empires to exchange artistic and material treasures – and cultures – whether as diplomatic gifts or objects of warfare.

There are 25 historic carpets on display in three sections, divided by bridges, some of which have glass floors with the carpets beneath them for up close viewing, with each section focusing on a specific dynasty. The carpets – some well preserved while others show significant wear – serve as the centerpiece of the entire exhibition.

“We wanted this exhibition to look very special and different,” Dr. Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya, exhibit curator, told Doha’s Peninsula newspaper in an interview. “Each of the three sections has glass floor features because we wanted people to see how the carpets looked like in the palaces, not on the walls as they are usually seen in museums, but on the floor. We wanted visitors to have an idea how grand the palaces would look decorated with various objects and beautiful designs.”

Focusing on the Timurid period in Iran and Central Asia (1370-1507), the Imperial Threads exhibit detailed artistic practices that were shared amongst the three succeeding and neighboring dynasties.map-of-dynasties

The Timurids conquered portions of Iran and Central Asia in the 14th century bringing with them their semi-nomadic traditions. According to exhibit storyboards, the Timurids played an important role in sharing the trade and diplomatic development of the three empires. They also are credited with introducing new artistic styles and practices.

Ottoman Dynasty in Turkey
The Ottoman world took hold at the turn of the 14th century, but the arts scene didn’t begin to flourish until Sulayman the Magnificent’s reign (1520-1566).

As the dynasty expanded geographically and economically, according to a storyboard, this expansion “set the ground for cultural and artistic development that continued until the 19th century.”

When the Ottomans occupied Northern Persia, one of those cities was Tabriz, an important weaving center that provided direct influence on artistic carpet production that included the transfer of motifs and craftsmanship from Iran to Turkey. Tabriz rugs are woven by highly skilled craftsmen using only the finest material and are widely renowned and sought after in collections of Persian rugs.carpet-exhibit

This first section of the exhibit showcases carpets and other mediums characteristic of local tribal designs that were merged with outside Iranian influences.

The different motifs prominent in carpets and other objects on display include cloudband, medallion, animal, cintamani, saz, lotus flower, lattice and flower motifs. Cintamani and saz tile motifs became characteristic of Ottoman materials trending away from geometric designs toward the use of central medallions and the introduction of the saz motif as a principal pattern. These motifs appear in the various pieces produced by artists in the three empires revealing the connection between the neighboring dynasties.

The saz style combines a twisting serrated leaf with other motifs, which can be floral or saz-motif-tilefigural. Artist Shad Quli, head of Sulayman the Magnificent studio workshop, introduced this motif and became well known for his drawings that combined a stylized leaf with dragons.

The wavy ribbon-like cloudband motif forms the shape of a horseshoe. Originally derived from Chinese art, the cloudband is found on a variety of media from the Islamic world including the illuminated Quran and ceramic bowl, both on display. The Mongols introduced this motif in the 13th century.

wavy-horseshoe-motif

Safavid Dynasty in Iran
The Safavid Empire (1501-1736) showcases works from the royal manuscripts workshop, as well as artistic motifs. During this period, books and manuscripts witnessed profound development primarily due to royal court patron support. Textiles and carpets were also produced in great numbers. They played a major role in the sharing and transfer of artistic practices as traveling artists.

illuminated-Qurans

Manuscript illustrations often featured court scenes with palace interiors depicting great detail. “With the representation of colored pavilions, carpets and other fabrics, paintings demonstrated the use of objects manufactured at the royal court workshops in their original and historical contexts,” explains a storyboard. “The meticulous work and the rich patterns and colors used by the painter reveal the attention given to these textiles, and the patterns used to illustrate them may have been adapted from contemporary carpets or other objects with shared motifs.”

Black and turquoise-glazed hexagonal tiles with floral motifs from a Tabriz carpet from the 15th to 16th century were a popular style.

hezagon-floral-tiles

Between war, diplomatic relations and inevitable political changes, “previous objects were transferred across borders whether as diplomatic gifts or war booty, and artists pursued careers from one workshop to another,” reads another storyboard.

Diplomatic Gifts
Gifts were commonly offered to celebrate a new ruler’s ascent to the throne, the circumcision of a ruler’s son, or simply to promote strong diplomatic relations. Common gifts included textiles and manuscripts – always luxury objects – between the three dynasties. This cross-cultural gift interaction explains how styles spread between different courts and influenced neighboring dynasties’ artistic production.

Animal motifs, long time depiction in Islamic and pre-Islamic art, were common on ceramics, textiles, stone work and in manuscripts. In Islamic times, these motifs had a secular context, not religious, and were ornamental architectural elements of palaces or display objects for royal settings.

animal-motif-bottles

Combat scenes in particular, depicting strong animals such as lions attacking weaker prey, were commonly portrayed serving to remind the viewer of the valor and courage their ruler held over his enemy.

Due to the development of firearms during the period of these three great empires, they are commonly referred to as the “gunpowder empires”. Highly decorated weapons manufactured in the royal workshops demonstrate the pageantry function of such objects that would have been made for ceremonial use rather than for battle.

On display are a Turkish-made shield and axe from the late 16th to early 17th century. The cane shield is constructed of iron and copper alloy that is decorated with gold floral motifs, woven silk border, and geometric motifs on a yellow background.

shield-&-axe

Mughal Dynasty in India
The third section of the exhibit highlights the Mughal Dynasty (1526-1858). It was during this period that European prints were introduced to the Mughal libraries. Based on patterns from these books, Mughal artists began creating their own patterns. During this time, Islam was gaining popularity in India and Mughal artists created a new style based on European prints and Islamic subjects.

The Mughal Empire also features the culmination of artistic styles that integrate Safavid, Ottoman and local traditions.

Millefleurs-niche-carpetOne of the important artistic styles coming out of this time period was detailed floral designs that were prominent in carpets and jewelry. On display is a silk and pashmina pile carpet that features millefleurs, distinguished by their floral motifs and vivid colors. The carpet design clearly shows a flowering vase at the base and is an early 18th century product.

Nearby are stunning examples of a 19th century enamel and gold necklace incorporating a floral motif, a 17th century jar made of gold, silver, diamonds and mother of pearl, as well as an 18th century ruby and enamel perfume sprinkler.

19th-C-Indian-necklace

17th-c-jar18th-c-perfume-sprinkler

The lattice motif was made popular in the early to mid 16th century and was not only incorporated into carpets, but also on marble decorations for palaces. The interlaced criss-crossed pattern incorporates natural flowering plants and blossoms arranged in rows against a plain background.lattice-motif-pattern

Cuerdo seca tiles were also popularized in the 17th century. These types of tiles were used both to decorate palace or tomb walls, and show the use of realistic floral designs. Originally derived directly from its use in the Safavid Dynasty, the strong colors recall the miniature paintings of the same era.

Cuerdo-seco-tile

Geometric designs were popular in the 16th and early 17th century in India. Carved sandstone of white marble and red sandstone were used for carved, pieced stone screens known as jalis. These screens were used in Indian architecture prior to the Mughal period.

jali-screen-sandstone

Coming full turn and standing the test of time, these ancient motifs continue to be evident in carpets and other objects produced today. Liken it to the cultural exchange during these three major empires, if you will, and transferring that interaction today with the exhibition’s sharing knowledge of the arts.

green-sphere

As visitors enter and leave, an eye-catching spherical LED display projects colorful patterns in succession duplicating the motifs on exhibit.

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Enger Tower Stands Tall in Duluth, Minnesota

The power of observation takes many forms. It can never be overrated or understated. The simplistic beauty of a sea view, towering pines of a forest and a city skyline all offer up splendid scenic beauty with the naked eye.

Duluth, Minnesota, situated on the shores of Lake Superior in the U.S., provides its own scenic sights from the Enger Observation Tower. The tower’s purpose was – and is – to delight visitors with its magnificent panoramic views of central Duluth, the Duluth-Superior Harbor, the North Shore, and the western tip of Lake Superior.

The well-worn 80-foot, iconic stone façade tower is perched high on the Enger Hill bluffs overlooking Lake Superior, rising 531 feet above the lake’s surface.Unger-Tower

As I hiked up the steep incline one sunny March afternoon, sidestepping piles of frozen ice and snow slowly melting into spring, I marveled at the stunning views in all directions. This area of Minnesota is already beautiful – the gateway to the famed North Shore – but at the tower summit, it truly was a majestic sight.

The stone tower itself was rugged in its own right as if knowing it needed to withstand the test of time through brutal Minnesota winters and the unforgiving weather systems that swirl over the shores of Lake Superior.

Dotted with cut window openings throughout the six-story tower, every angle offered a unique view. On the ground tower inserted into the wall next to the stairway is the Enger Observation Tower Marker dedicated to the memory of Bert J. Enger – Native of Norway, Citizen of Duluth.

The Back Story
The Enger observation tower story is that of a common immigrant laborer, Bert J. Enger, who left a legacy fit for royalty to the City of Duluth over an eight-year period.

Born in Hamar, Norway in 1864, Enger immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13, although records do not indicate if he journeyed alone. He traveled the Midwest working on farms and sawmills in Wisconsin, iron mines in Michigan and northern Minnesota, and the wheat fields of the Dakotas. At some point, he lived on a farm in small town Pine City, Minnesota, approximately 88 miles south of Duluth. It was here that Enger met a business partner, and the two opened a successful furniture store in Duluth.

The former immigrant turned U.S. citizen demonstrated through his own life what so many immigrants fought for and believed in: America was a land of opportunity for an immigrant.Bert Enger

In 1920, Enger anonymously donated $50,000 to the City of Duluth that it might purchase 350 acres of land for a proposed golf course and park for public use. Discovering Enger was the benefactor, Duluth’s city council named the park after him. He continued to share his fortune with the city over the next decade.

Enger, a lifetime bachelor, suffered a stroke and died in 1931. His estate, which he had divided into thirds, bequeathed two-thirds toward a memorial project (Enger Tower), which Enger stipulated was to be “a suitable building on top of the bluff near the Twin Ponds in Enger Park, in the nature of a lookout station, built to accommodate tourists visiting Enger Park.” Around the structure, he directed “that the grounds be beautified and foot paths from all directions leading up to the building on the hilltop be constructed, and a parking space for automobiles be constructed below the paths. The paths are to be accessible to pedestrians only.”Enger-tower-sign

Enger further stipulated that his body be cremated and the ashes placed somewhere in the memorial building. His wishes were granted. Enger Tower was completed in 1939 and dedicated in June that year by Olav, Crown Prince of Norway and his wife Crown Princess Martha, honoring the native Norwegian whose vision and life in America proved that life indeed held enormous opportunities for immigrants. As a fitting testimony, more than 5,000 people attended the dedication.

Should you find yourself in the Twin Port city, regardless of the time of year, plan a short hike up to Enger Tower – open year round – and capture for yourself the breathtaking views.

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Kakopetria Village: Beauty, Serenity and Tragedy

Kakopetria (Greek for place of stones) is one of those villages brimming with history and begging to be explored.

view-of-streets

Nestled into the side of the Troodos Mountain some 2200 feet high and surrounded by thick forest, Kakopetria is the highest village in the Solea Valley. The Troodos Mountain was formed from an explosion of a volcano in the area. When the lava stopped, it became solid.looking-toward-sea-from-Kakopetria

The higher our tour bus crept hugging the heavily vegetated roadside, the more I felt I was shifting further into the center of the earth. It’s difficult to describe the beauty and serenity – and, of course, photos never do justice – but try to imagine the lush green vegetation popping in and out of a forest of pine trees, majestic oaks and even wild olive trees. Hillside terracing spotlights various fruit-bearing trees, such as apple, pear, plum, cherry, apricot and fig that the villagers grow and cultivate.

waterfall-in-KakopetriaA gentle waterfall spilling into the basin within the old village offers melodic serenity and natural beauty. The village was built on the banks of two rivers, which join in the center of the 1500-inhabitant 14th Century village. A hike to the top of the village provides the most beautiful vista of the surrounding landscape as far as one can see. In fact, on a clear day the sea is visible off in the distance.

The entire village is under the protection of the Department of Antiquities requiring special permission if homeowners want to change the exterior appearance of their home. The village’s uniqueness are the narrow crooked lanes mostly impassable by car, and the distinct home construction. The lower portions are constructed with stones while the upper part with clay, mud and bricks. The houses all have tiled roofs and wooden balconies. I found the architecture very appealing.cool-architecture

Almost half way up the steep main street, we came upon the nondescript Church of the Transfiguration. We spent a few minutes inside the small church lighting a candle and snapping a few photos of the interior. I was surprised that even in this tiny remote village, the Greek Orthodox Church also boasted an impressive interior of iconostases. The elderly nun inside knew no English making it impossible to learn anything about the church.church-in-Kokopetria

Back out on the slippery and uneven stone-cobbled road, we walked past numerous winding side lanes the width of a bicycle path and not much more. I can imagine how easily it would be to get turned around if you were trying to find someone’s home. Fortunately for one enterprising homeowner, visitors searching for Irene’s house have a sign indicating the way. Lush green foliage and multi-hued flowers dotted the lanes and flower boxes adding color to the mostly shaded homes. Homeowners lucky enough to have room for a carport utilized the space to grow their own grapes.Irene's-house

There is another reason why this charming village has gained notoriety. Anchored at the start of the climb upward to the residential area is the famous Stone of the Couple. Following an ancient pagan custom of honoring Aphrodite, the goddess of love, newlyweds performed a ceremony by walking around the stone and making a wish. One couple was crushed to death when they lost their footing and tumbled down the rocky incline. From then on, the rock became known as the Stone of the Couple, although locals often refer to it as the Bad Stone. Even today a few couples honor the custom. Eleni, our tour guide, explained that many Cypriots continued to practice pagan customs after the advent of Christianity as many of these practices were deeply rooted in Greek mythology.stone-of-the-couple

Kakopetria is a popular summer and winter resort since its location offers visitors a respite from the sun-scorched temperatures of the large cities, most notably Nicosia, Cyprus’ largest city, an hour or so drive down the mountain. In the wintertime, the mountains are snow-laden offering outdoor activities popular with Cypriots. On weekends, people flock to the village and its handful of hotels are fully booked.

Wandering the narrow lanes and catching glimpses of older Kakopetrians in their windows and doorways smiling as we passed was an enjoyable reconnection with simplicity.

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Larnaca Fort: Cannons, Tombstones and Gallows… Once Upon a Time

After a steady diet of Greek mythology and archaeological ruins, touring the small somewhat restored Larnaca Fort in Larnaca, Cyprus was a nice diversion.

Located a few blocks from our hotel on the southern edge of the coastal corniche road, the fort is classified as a Byzantine structure, but there are two drastically different versions of when it was constructed. It is generally agreed upon, however, that the fort’s purpose was to defend the southern coasts of Cyprus, and in particular, Larnaca’s town harbor, and was later used as a prison, artillery center and an outpost.Larnaca-fort inside-Larnaca-fort

Since it is unclear as to when exactly it was built, most historians accept the late 12th century theory as the initial period given the fact that Larnaca gained great importance as a seaport during the medieval ages. Written accounts add credence to the claim that the fort was built during the reign (1382-1398) of King James 1 of Cyprus. The form of the entrance arch suggests a 14th century date.

fort-layout-diagramIts original shape was never decisively determined, but the fort appears to have taken the form of a square tower, and based on restoration of a monument, the foundations of an earlier phase were discovered indicating that the original fort was larger than the current structure. Documentation exists to support the evidence that it was rebuilt in 1625 during the Ottoman period.

Today, located in the center of the stone-walled fort is a small, nicely landscaped courtyard. Its north-facing entrance consists of a two-story building, now a museum, and is believed to have been from the Ottoman period. This is based on the Turkish inscription above the main entrance. The courtyard is currently used for cultural events, and the day we visited a stage was in place along with about 50 chairs in anticipation of a final concert of the season.

A sign on the grounds explains that the fort was ransacked, destroyed and rebuilt several times “since it was at the center of conflicting economic interests, which had to do mainly with the export of salt from the port of Larnaca.”

According to the fort brochure, famous explorer Abbot Giovanni Mariti, who lived in Larnaca during the first half of the 18th century, records that “the fort was built by the Ottoman Turks, but was already in a semi-ruinous state at the time, even though a garrison was still maintained here.” The abbot also wrote that the fort was mainly used as a firing-gun salute to passing Christian warships.4-medieval-cannons

By the late 18th century, Larnaca Fort lost its importance and the Turks abandoned it. Apparently the next written documentation comes during World War 1 when the Germans occupied the fort from 1914-1918 using it as a military outpost. At the end of the war, the British retook it and converted it into a prison where a gallows was installed to execute prisoners. The last execution was held in 1945. In 1948, the fort was converted to the current archaeological museum, but not opened to the public until 1969. The installations of the gallows were discovered during conservation and restoration works, but a date was not given as to when that discovery was made.

gallows-photoA sign above the gallows states that relatives and friends of the condemned were allowed to watch the execution from the courtyard, but far enough away, where they could not hear the sound of the trapdoor opening. Looking down the steep ladder to the deep hole of the former gallows was certainly an eerie feeling.

Highlights of the fort include a number of cannons on display in the courtyard – some dating to the medieval ages – and a room of tombstones dating from the 14th Century that are mainly from gothic churches of Nicosia, a town about 20 miles away. A second room featured various inscriptions carved into stone on the walls in various languages. Yet another room that faced the sea had a cave where numerous tombstones were originally uncovered.

As I clambered up some metal stairs to the two-room museum on the second level, a quick view of the calm blue sea beyond the old stone wall reflected the medieval character of the fort. Ducking inside the old door, I discovered displays of pottery, including crude utensils and dishware the soldiers used, along with photos from Early Christian churches (4-7th Century AD), Byzantine mosaics of the Early Christian period (same centuries as above), and Byzantine and Medieval Cyprus monuments from the 4-16th Centuries AD. A second room portrayed wall paintings of Cypriot Byzantine dating from the 11-16th Century AD.utesils-used-at-fort

No graceful architecture or any furnishings, for that matter, provided any hints of how comfortable or crude the fort must have been. Based on its size and the display of common household pottery discovered on site, this barren structure must have been sparsely furnished and somewhat lonely; probably not conducive to a “home away from home” for its occupants.

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Al Zubarah’s History: Feuds, Friends and Foes

“People returned to the town after the attack of 1811, but only very slowly. For many years there were only temporary camps of huts and tents. Eventually a new fortified village grew in the heart of the ruins, but this too came to a dramatic end.” (Al Zubarah Archaeological Site sign)

Situated 105 km (65 miles) from Doha, Qatar’s capital city, within a sun-scorched landscape lies the remains of the ancient, deserted town of Zubarah. At its peak (1760-1811), the pearling town was home to several thousand people and stretched almost a mile along the northern coast. It is Qatar’s largest archaeological site.

Pearl merchants Mohammed bin Khalifa and Ahmed bin Rizq left their native Kuwait in 1179, sailed down the Arabian Gulf along the Saudi border, skirting the small island of Bahrain, and anchored in Qatar where the two established the community. Other families and merchants soon followed. In fact, according to historical documentation, Al Zubarah’s population grew to approximately 6,000 consisting of a mix of local tribes as well as Gulf immigrants.

“With access to the rich pearl beds off the coast of Bahrain and strong tribal links to other merchant families, the town became one of six major trading ports in the region, bringing in great wealth and luxuries from as far away as China and Japan in the east, and Britain in the west,” explains a storyboard at the site.

Located in a climatically unsuitable locale, these were dangerous times. Tribal feuds and disputes between centers of power were common as well as the dangerous seas. Because of the discovery of rich pearl beds and the seas as a major seafaring route for trading ships, piracy and raids on pearling ships, trading vessels and settlements were all too common. It’s no wonder walls were quickly constructed to protect the town.

Standing at the entrance of UNESCO’s newly designated archaeological site, I wonder what it must have been like 200 years ago as I gaze about the sun-scorched landscape. Al Zubarah, like many other small communities, sprang up along the bay and flourished due to lucrative pearl fishing and international trade. Surprisingly, the town’s remains are largely intact with the entire street plan having been preserved for hundreds of years beneath the secluded desert sand.

Today, the desert sands conceal 500 ruined buildings, long walls and towers, two screening walls and the sister settlement of Qal’at Murair, where the town’s fresh water wells were located.

As I begin my short walking tour, strategically placed information boards explain that not only has the way of life of this town’s former inhabitants changed, so too has the architecture of the structures. The tour takes visitors behind the walls of the 18th century town, through a wealthy neighborhood and inside a large fortified building. Popular during Al Zubarah’s era, courtyard houses were low, mosques built of stone, and long but low defensive walls with watch towers encompassing the town.

The 1811 and 1878 Attacks
In 1811, the Sultan of Muscat’s army attacked the town and left it burning; virtually destroying the entire area. Shortly after the attack, the town was rebuilt, although at only one third of its original size; thus, beginning its second life so to speak, defined by a new, inner town wall.

Bedouin-hutArchaeology records indicate that people slowly returned and initially lived in palm frond huts, known as barasti, and tents over the ruins of the marketplace (souq). Eventually, the residents rebuilt the town constructing simple, stone-built houses on top of the ruins of the original. It is believed that a new wall and watchtower were built during this time.

Life remained challenging, particularly as area tribes clamored for more power and authority. Ultimately, in November 1878 members of the Bani Hajir tribe and Sheikh Al Bida’s tribe attacked Al Zubarah, which led to its destruction once and for all.traditional-majlas-tent

The local tribes, however, struggled to rebuild and resettle. A number of prevailing factors and events prevented this. The Ottoman Empire claimed the area – although they never physically set up a fort – along with a Bahraini tribe in 1895 that moved to the town. At the time, Bahrain was a British protectorate.

Reportedly, “the move made the British uneasy, and when a large fleet of armed dhows were spotted in the bay, the British took action firing on the assembled ships.” It was further reported that 44 of 200 boats were destroyed with many other vessels seized. The Bahraini Ali bin Ali tribe was ordered to evacuate the settlement within two weeks, which they did.

Al Zubarah was finally abandoned and forgotten, left to crumble under the scorching desert sun and sand.

palace-courtyard-reducedAl Zubarah Townsite Today
Fused into the stark desert panorama, partially uncovered are a palace, a raised walkway that allowed soldiers to patrol the wall, some homesteads and a mosque, all of which were discovered during excavations in the 1980s.

An L-shaped passageway led to the palace entrance – a main courtyard – which provided privacy. Archaeologists discovered a windowless room believed to be the kitchen that was filled wall to wall with deep, clay-lined cooking pits.

The home of a wealthy family that included nine large courtyards was also discovered. Ornate plaster floors and geometrically decorated wall patterns lend credence to the family’s wealth. Also unearthed in the home were date storerooms, various kitchens with ovens, and plaster lined basins believed to have been primitive bathrooms.palace-ruins-reduced

Surrounding the town site in each corner is a round tower that helped support the long walls. According to the storyboard at one of the tower sites, “excavation has revealed internal cross walls for added strength and may have been included to support cannons; a reminder of the dangerous times people lived in.” town-wall-reduced

Al Zubarah Fort
Nearby, but outside the town proper, stands the weather-beaten Al Zubarah Fort. Constructed in 1938, the small stone fort with its simple lines and four symmetric corner turrets overlooks a desolate, windswept landscape. Sprinkled nearby are abandoned villages cordoned off for current and future archaeological exploration.

FORT-WITH-CANNONZubarah Fort was commissioned by Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani as a Coast Guard station to guard against sea intruders. Transformed into a museum in the 1990s, it recently reopened after a major renovation. A hallmark of the fort is the old cannon located outside the front gate.

Research indicates that the fort walls were constructed by blending overlapping chunks of limestone with a mortar and pestle mixture specifically designed for grinding mud. The protective compressed mud roof provided shade and coolness for its military occupants.

The fort has three corners each with massive circular towers used for defense, while the fourth rectangular tower was more for aesthetics. The original eight ground floor rooms, typical of early Gulf fortifications, accommodated the solders with a connecting external wood staircase to reach the upper floors and roof. Today the rooms feature artifacts and storyboards as well as a small gift shop.inside-Zubarah-fort-reduced

The Well at Al Zubarah Fort
Fresh water in Qatar was – and continues to be – scarce. For desert dwellers, water is essential for survival. Therefore, men created wells by cutting through the hard limestone until they reached the water table. The water was subsequently stored in underground cisterns. Large water jars were fashioned of clay that held water to be used for everything from drinking and making coffee to watering crops and ensuring that the animals had water to drink.

At the water table level was fresh water, but if dug too deeply, it was salty and would require boiling prior to use. The well that has been discovered in the fort is at least one-half mile deep and could go deeper. Water was drawn up from the well via a bucket that would have been lowered by a long rope. There are other nearby wells outside of the fort, however they are salt water wells and its water unsafe to drink.Zubarah-Fort-well

The daylong excursion to Qatar’s northwestern portion of the country was interesting and time well spent. Although self-guided, it was interesting to explore and imagine what life was like for these villagers during its years of turbulence. I suspect learning more about the local tribes and their disagreements would make for a fascinating study, thus, providing a more meaningful framework for the archaeological ruins lying before me.

In the meantime, as close as I can come to relating to what life was like in this archaeological site at the moment is atop a camel. Gazing about as my old camel saunters around the fort, I am trying hard to imagine the hardship of life back in the days when desert-camels-from-fort-doornothing could or would be taken for granted.

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