I am sitting, this late November day in 2012, beside a pool in the Ritz-Carlton in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Yesterday, before I left New York, I received a phone call from my first wife. I almost didn’t pick up when the ID flashed, but since this was her first call in 40 years, I thought maybe she had something to say. She always in fact had plenty to say, most of it complaint or nonsense, and this was no exception.
“I hear you are going to Puerto Rico.”
Someone has been leaking information.
“Well, I’ve been there…”
Of course she’s been there and for ten Thanksgivings, that wonderful feast of family, I have sat through endless narratives of her global travels, loaded with mind-melting cultural markers—“The Chinese are very industrious but they smell of garlic”—while confirming photos—“Turkey, wonderful place. Istanbul used to be called Constantinople, you know”—are passed from leaden hand to leaden hand. Elder Hostels, you’re going to have to answer to your Maker.
“…and I have a few places you really must visit. First, there’s a wonderful nineteenth century house in Ponce—I don’t know how those people managed to preserve it. Just ask the family next door for the key. But don’t give them anything.”
“Listen, I know you mean well”—How do I do it?—“but I’m not leaving the hotel. The only excursions I have planned are between the buffet and pool.”
“That’s no way to travel.”
“It is now the only way to travel. My sightseeing days are over.”
“You mean you’re too old for a little adventure?”
“No, it means I’ve already seen every castle, tomb, cathedral, ruin, garden, waterfall, museum, palace and factory in the world, listened to endless evening ragas in India and endlessly depressing fados in Portugal, smelled the roses in Shiraz and Picardy, admired every known species of spoon dance, faux flamenco and amateur opera, watched Chinese acrobats perform in the Roman theater in Busra eski Sham, attended a performance of the ta’ziyeh in Tehran and of the Christian Passion Play in Union City, New Jersey. I have ascended the High Atlas, descended into Ngorongoro Crater, sped across Venafran fields to Lacedaemonian Tarentum, flown over the Matterhorn, dived the Blue Grotto, swam in the Euphrates, run down the Odessa Steps, swanned about the hot springs at Pamukkale, was soaped, scrubbed and pounded in a thirteenth century hammam in Damascus, crossed both the Hellespont and the Equator many times and watched the sun rise and set everywhere from Greenland to Antarctica…”
She hung up.
“…eaten sheep’s eyes with the badu, kibbe in the Lebanon, ful mudammas in Cairo, borscht in Moscow, tartuffo at the Tre Scalini in the Piazza Navona, melons on the shores of the Caspian and by a stream outside the Salang Tunnel in Afghanistan, steak in Florence and Buenos Aires, breakfast fries and mayonnaise in Louvain, bangers and mash in London, mussels in Brussels, hummus bi lakhm in Damascus, fondue in Zurich, Sacher Torte in Vienna, wurst in Munich and dangerous looking fish everywhere from Iceland to a riverboat restaurant in the Nile. I’ve drunk vodka in St. Petersburg, a Singapore Sling in Singapore, Stella Artois at the 1958 Belgian World’s Fair and ice-cold Stella in Palmyra, karkadé in Aswan and had a mystical experience after my second melon softie in Isfahan. I’ve sung “Santa Lucia” in Santa Lucia, recited Hafiz’s Bukhara ghazal in Bukhara and spent April in Portugal…”
Yes, she had bailed out, in the manner of first wives, before I had fairly gotten up to speed. So allow me to explain a little further here.
As must be clear, I’ve gotten around, in steerage as a pauperized graduate student, in business class as a well-heeled professor laden with frequent flyer miles, rich heaps of Delta indulgences that would put a Dominican friar to shame. The big leaps were by plane of course, sometimes in the form of those sixteen-or-more-hour, change-at-Frankfurt killer flights to Jerusalem or Dubai or Delhi that break both body and spirit. But one does what one must. Far more interesting was travel by car. Sometimes it was driven by me, notably over the Alps during a thunderstorm in a tiny rental Fiat when I was young and stupid and later, when I was older but no wiser, in a Volkswagen bug all the way from Beirut to Rotterdam with a ten month old infant in the back seat who was, at each stop, passed from hand to unwashed hand by toothless beldames in every village in the Balkans.
Sometimes there was, more wisely, a hired local driver. These chauffeurs ranged from the dignified and sober Sikh who got me from Delhi to Mumbai in one piece and the garrulous comedian who sped, demon-like, along the splendid paved ribbons of Saudi Arabia to the surly brute who scowled and muttered dark imprecations at me and the world from Rabat to Saharan Ourzazata. And once in a while I went by taxi. On one occasion I stepped into the street in Amman, flagged a cab and, though trained in the humble New York bleat, “Will you go to Brooklyn?,” I boldly announced, “Baghdad…and step on it.” He did, pausing only to pick up another Amman passenger heading in the same direction, an exotic dancer named Venus. She got the front seat; I admired her from behind, her hair, that is.
There were a few formal stops across the featureless steppe. We paused of course at the Syrian customs station in the middle of nowhere—a long stop here; how often did these numbed officials get to host, and inspect, a belly dancer?—and again, a hundred miles or so farther on, at Iraqi customs in another nowhere. Each was a solitary one-story beige building flying a limp, sun-bleached flag, but the Iraqi station also boasted the second filthiest bathroom I have ever encountered, a staggeringly fetid hole in the floor and the home nest to every noxious bottle fly between the Euphrates and the Orontes. Venus, who knew better, disappeared demurely and briefly behind the building. A close second to this Iraqi disgrace are the French-installed toilets in the medieval castle at Busra eski Sham. The colonizers installed them in the Thirties but they neglected to tell the colonized that there’s plumbing that must go along with the porcelain. Never been flushed since 1934. Yow!
The International Airwick Trophy goes, however, to the National Hotel in Suwayda, Syria. It was used as an R&R facility for the Syrian officers fighting on the Golan Heights. The Israelis thought they beat the crap out of the Syrians on the Heights in 1973. Apparently not, or else the Syrian officers held it in until they got back to the National, where they relieved themselves on the floor and walls of the toilets there, and then, when those filled up—that plumbing problem again!—they used the walls and floors of their rooms. Good help must be hard to find in the Syrian Arab Republic. By 1979 they still hadn’t cleaned up the soul-gagging mess.
If the taxi ride across the Syrian steppe was brilliant in the conception (and long and hot in the doing), for sheer danger on the road nothing beat the run from Damascus to Aleppo in the yellow Dodge Charger shared taxis that the Syrians called “Service.” You bought one (or two if you wanted the space) of the five available seats, though prospective passengers were best aware that #5 makes the journey in the front seat straddling the gear box. It’s a trip of five hours or more on a busy, two lane, shoulderless highway with a driver who may already have made that trip once this day. It must be relaxing work in any event since invariably, four hours or so in, in the vicinity of Ma’arrat al-Numan, the driver’s head begins first to wobble and then to nod. Someone shouts Wallahi! Na’im!, “Holy Christ! He’s falling asleep!” Our pilot is poked, jabbed, pummeled, shouted at and sung to in an effort to prevent his driving off the road or, worse, into the grill of an onrushing Turkish truck with its disquieting bumper epigraph, Mashallah, “Whatever!” and whose own driver may himself be cat-napping. Hair-raising!
Driving is dangerous, especially on the wrong side of the road in the British fashion—the best place to practice that madness is on the back roads of Ireland–or anger making, or both in most of the places I’ve traveled. But for sheer romance, I thought, with maybe some discomfort, one must take to the rails. The Chunnel train, Dover to Paris, was in fact exciting and fun, and the TGV plunging down into the warm heart of Provence zippy and astonishing and shows what the French can do when they put their minds to it. And in Italy, Mussolini is said to have made the trains there run on time. And how not since the time it takes a rapidissimo from, say, Florence to Venice, compares favorably with what it would take one to walk there.
Less dangerous by far is travel in the wet. I’ve made long trips by sea (transatlantic crossings, the Pacific to Hawaii, Athens to Singapore) and very short trips, most memorably from the mainland to Capri, when I got violently seasick while still moored to the dock in Sorrento. None of them involved a shipwreck. But then again, most of the ships I‘ve travelled on have been seagoing hotels with hydroplanes so broad and so wide that you think you’re sailing on a Posturepedic. I will skip the details of those voyages since they were mostly cruises that hove to in every touristic purgatory in and around the European continent, and I have dealt with that matter elsewhere.
Transatlantic crossings are generally empty of visuals, though the captain of one liner did slow down his ship and announce, there in the open North Atlantic, that this was the very place where the Titanic had gone down. There followed an iconic instance of folie de mer: the passengers rushed to the railings and took pictures of the water! There was a similar but quite unexpected emptiness on the Amazon, which I sailed for a thousand miles, from its fresh blue-green mouth to its muddy upper reaches. We traveled for hours on end along (apparently) uninhabited banks with flat forests stretching to the horizon on either side of the river like a green desert. Our destination was Manaos, a large modern Amazonian city with a carefully preserved colonial veneer that was chiefly visible in its jewel-like opera house: “Shoes off, please. That’s valuable parquet under your feet.” The place turned my mind immediately, of course, to Klaus Kinski, that wonderful, terrifying German nut case, playing Fitzcarraldo, another nut case who tried to build his own opera house in Izquito in the Peruvian rain forest. But when the Werner Herzog fantasy faded from mind, it was replaced by the more personal memory of a similar gem of an opera house in Cairo. It has since burned to the ground, but once, in another kind of play acting, I stood in its lobby between acts of Madama Butterfly in my white colonial suit and smoked gold-tipped Egyptian cigarettes.
There have been many vessels under my feet. The largest was certainly the gigantic Voyager of the Seas, a maritime embarrassment that looks like a monstrous Trump apartment house perched atop a rowboat. It carries a mere 3,000 passengers; the newer Oasis of the Seas has doubled that. I’ve done lifeboat drills on passenger ship oldies like the United States in 1954 and the spanking new Queen Mary 2, which is now the only example of what used to be called “ocean liners” left on the Atlantic run (she also cruises on the sly). I’ve passed in and out of harbors on lifeboats and/or tenders from liner to shore and back; sailed on a yacht along the Turkish coast and on ferries across the Bosporus and the Victoria Nile in Uganda; on a hydrofoil four hours down Lake Nasr to Abu Simbel and (oh, God!) back; a gondola and vaporetto in Venice; sleek tourist barges on the Seine in Paris and the Liffey in Dublin, and through the canals of Bruges and Amsterdam, where the highlights are a view of the Pink Memorial to homosexuals wherever they are and the house of Anne Frank, though whenever I pass the latter, all I can think of is the stage performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank” that was so bad that when the onstage Nazis approached her house, someone in the audience shouted “She’s in the attic!”.
It’s not my only inappropriate reaction. Sailing out through the Straits of Gibraltar in the dark, Tangier all mysterious on my left, the enormous but cheerfully lit hulk of Gibraltar on my right—Is there any more British place in the world?—I wondered if the anti-U-boat nets were still below…or was that in “Destination Tokyo”? Narrows always seem interesting, but there is something quite special about a canal, like the view of the gentle country landscape, and the occasional oompah band, that glides by at eye level on a passage through the Kiel Canal; or my astonishment at the engineering marvels displayed in the complex locks of its sister in Panama. The journey up the Rhine and the down the Danube, from Rotterdam to the Iron Gates, river and locks combined, is a panorama of Europe, not of its cities and monumental achievements and sufferings, but of its quiet countryside and tranquil river towns. The Suez Canal offers a quite different resonance. It is a gliding voyage through an empty and silent landscape whose history can still be read off its sandy banks.
Necessity or curiosity puts me on boats, but romance is my chief and maybe only reason for travelling by rail, some hangover, I suppose, from a much earlier emotional investment in Lionel model trains. There was always a kind of understated romance in going by rail, especially rolling on what were very close to Lionel standard gauge tracks into the Amazonian rainforest; or riding the Railway at the End of the World from nowhere in particular to nowhere at all in Patagonia; or chugging up the Klondike on a single track in Alaska. These were empty expeditions, however. I had already lost it, not at the movies but on the Hejaz Railway, the narrow gauge line the Ottoman Turks built on the eve of the First World War and the object of T. E. Lawrence’s explosive intentions during that same conflict. It was intended, as a boon to pilgrims, to extend from Damascus to Mecca, but in fact it reached only a far as Medina, 275 miles short of the Holy City since the Bedouin lobby, which lived off the pilgrim camel transport between Medina and Mecca, said “Yok!”
Though there has been the occasional rumor that the Saudis might be fixing up their section of the line, today the only functioning section of the main line of the Hejaz Railway runs from Damascus to Amman. In the quaintly splendid half-Ottoman, half Victorian terminal in Damascus I booked passage on it, first class, Damascus to Dera‘a. I spent most of the slow trip south, borne on the wings of steam, on the rear car platform watching for surviving way stations along the line. At Dera‘a I switched to one of the trunk lines, this one to Busra Sham (another such once peeled off farther south to Haifa). Here the pace was even more leisurely and the landscape through which we chugged was golden with the wheat of the Hawran. Here and there we passed a solemn stone house built, how painfully, from the black basalt once thrown up as lava from the Jebel Druze to the north. It was a lovely and lonely trip—I may have been the only passenger on board—and authentic enough to raise the occasional frisson that a blue-eyed, white-clad Irish actor might blow us up at any moment.
When I recall the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor, it’s not romance that springs to mind but a great deal of tossing and turning in a suffocating upper berth. It was wartime in Egypt—the 1973 dust-up with Israel in the Sinai was winding down—and so there were blackout precautions. Most of Egypt is pretty dark at night to begin with, but in Cairo car headlights were partially blued, though not, of course, the blazing windows of the Nile Hilton. Sandbags were piled high around the Egyptian Museum, and its most famous resident, King Tut, had his own sandy bulwark to protect him. It had worked in the 18th dynasty; why not in the twentieth century?
The railroad did its part. My sleeper was the Night Misr—visitors to Egypt (Misr in Arabic) find the assonance between Misr and misery irresistible—and its windows had been painted the same odd-colored blue as the Cairo cabs. Sitting before the standard anonymous “cutlet” in the dining car, the Nile appeared like a black sheet on my right and the Egyptian landscape was reduced to dark shapes on my left. It was like having a very bad seat in Plato’s Cave. I don’t know if the ventilation was another war casualty—I suspect it was never installed in the first place—but the sleeper berth was an overnight inferno, hours of stifling heat punctuated by clanking stops and starts at every village along the Nile. The man who dreamed of the Orient Express ended up on the Luxor local.
A Room at the Inn
At the end of every flight, outside every railway station, in every port, just off every strada and autobahn, there is lodging, a place to stay, a room at the inn. I had a friend who claimed to travel only by rail and ferry, chiefly for effect, I suspect. He further insisted that the best (read: cheapest) lodging was to be found simply by entering the first place one encountered on leaving the terminal. It’s hard to imagine worse advice, unless of course you fancy run-down pensions, youth hostels or seamen’s hotels. Better to consult the Michelin or follow the travellers with the expensive luggage, unless of course they’re being put up by their pal, the prince.
I did my first serious travelling when I was a graduate student with a very limited budget. As I moved around the Middle East—I think it was called the Near East then—and migrated from one Michelin tag-end hotel to another, I made careful note of all the pleasure palaces that I could not afford but which, even in my certified feckless state, I recognized as places where I must one day stay. And later, armed with a green Amex credit card, I did just that. I booked myself into the St. George in Beirut (later, alas, destroyed), the New Umayyad in Damascus, the American Colony in Jerusalem and the Cairo Hilton (my first choice there, the Shepheard, was another casualty of violence). They felt good, all of them, and not a single one was anywhere near a terminal.
I have my own piece of travel wisdom. The best place to stay, I discovered, is a palace. Some hotels are former palaces, well and good, but the canny traveller will prefer an actual palace. The Jordanian royal family have a number of them so it was no great inconvenience for them to put me up in one such in Amman since they had, after all, invited me to their conference. This palace was unoccupied by the royals, of course, but I suspect that Prince Phillip, who also attended, may have stayed with the Hashemis, where he could have chatted them up of an evening with stories of how it was the Brits who had created the Hashemite Kingdom and put their father on its somewhat shaky throne. I had no such entertainment; the best I could do was make off with as much of the royal stationery as I could carry.
The Saudis boast even more palaces than the Hashemites, but the Saudis seem not to invite strangers to stay in them. No matter. I account my lodging in Jeddah genuinely palatial. It was a splendid villa, fully staffed, with a pool and air-conditioning the likes of which I had not experienced since I first stepped into Loew’s American in 1940, when electricity was 10 cents the kilowatt-month and the AC, had it escaped, would have frozen the entire Bronx in its tracks. The Mobil Oil Company maintained this little Arabian recóndito for the benefit of very high Mobil brass when and if they chanced to drop into the Kingdom. Since there was none such in sight at that moment, they permitted access to the brazen professor whom they had imported to amuse the Saudis for a spell.
I adjusted almost immediately. I pooled upon rising—they already knew my bathing suit size and color preference in Turkish bathrobes—then refreshed myself with real and very cold orange juice and sat down to breakfast—two eggs over easy, bacon, not too crisp, hash browns and a bagel—alone at a long table where I might have invited a dozen friends, had I any, to join me. There followed the tedious business of deciding whether I should be home for lunch, of ordering dinner and having the car brought round. It was a Buick Park Avenue and it took fifteen minutes in the Saudi sun before the frost disappeared from its windows. God, how I miss that place!
The American Colony in Jerusalem was once the palace of an Ottoman pasha and is now a charming Swiss-run hotel that breathes a quiet and quite genuine charm. It was not my first lodging in Jerusalem, however. On my return to the city after my earlier and hasty graduate student visit, I thought it would be extremely cool to stay at the pilgrim hostel that the Italian Franciscan nuns ran inside the Old City. It was winter—who knew it snowed in Jerusalem?—and Casa Nova was indeed cool, cold actually, and extremely Spartan, though I did fulfill a lifelong ambition of having pasta every night for dinner. What I did not count on was that the Good Sisters would close and bar their door at 10 every evening.
No amount of ringing and pounding at 10:15 brought Sister Janitor to the door and so I got back in my rental car and drove to the nearest familiar name, the King David Hotel. At my knocking, the front door there (also locked!) was opened a crack, just enough for the security guard inside to look me over and send me peremptorily away, grounds unstated. But just before the door slammed close, I thought I heard “The Y, across the street,” perhaps in the hope that I would go over and blow it up. The YMCA was open and apparently gave shelter for the night to terrorists. The polished wooden floors gleamed in the dull hall light as I was led to my room. It had, I noticed, thick iron bars on the windows, even though it was on the third floor. And of course, as soon as I was between the cold Christian sheets, the first thought to take hold in my mind, in 24 pt. Arial Black letters, was “Fire!”, an internal scream that quickly yielded to a vivid vision of myself caught between flaming floors and barred windows, while the blaggard in King David’s place across the street said to the gathering crowd that there was probably no one in the building and in any event it was too late to bother the Jerusalem fire department.
Fie on the King David and yes, eventually on the Sisters of Casa Nova, betrayed, these latter ladies, for the more secular pleasures of the American Colony Hotel. The understated building set back off Salah al-Din Street once housed a high Ottoman dignitary, a bey at least, perhaps a retired binbashi or “Chief of a Thousand.” Now it served as shelter for those well-heeled enough and brave enough to lodge in Arab East Jerusalem, where many Israeli cabbies would very much prefer not to go. And the nicely “Oriental” upstairs terrace was the sacred place where every trench-coated TV anchor back to John Chancellor stood and delivered. “This is Peter Jennings reporting from Jerusalem…” And inside was the bar where Jennings and Rather and Mitchell and Amanpour would later tell war stories and cut the memory of Edward R. Murrow down to size.
I lodged down below, in one of the courtyard rooms where I wrote sections of a book on Jerusalem and watched the 80s arrive. I’m sure that neither Peter nor Dan nor the ladies realized what important things were going on downstairs. Nor much cared.
You don’t get much of a sense that you’re in Switzerland when you’re sitting in the lounge of the American Colony, and even less that you’re in Jerusalem or even Israel. The same is true of the Nile Hilton and its sister in Tehran in whose lobbies more English than Arabic is heard in the first and more French than Farsi in the second. Ditto the International in Kabul and the Hilton in Addis Ababa, where, by the way, you should not attempt to lift the copper-clad menu without assistance from the waiter. The Divan in Istanbul and the Buyuk Efes in Izmir (avoid the fish here!) are both splendid, but no place to practice your Turkish.
Once, however, there were lodgings where you could enjoy or, more accurately, undergo, the experience called in Arabic baladi or “local.” One should probably edge into this gradually, in Israel perhaps, with an overnight at the Ginosor Inn Kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee; the “Inn” tells you all you need to know about what’s in store. More than a few steps down from that would be to cadge a room at something like the kibbutz in Upper Galilee called Ayelet ha-Shahar, a farming complex where the agricultural technology is high but the accommodations low.
Two of my baladi favorites are gone now or transformed into something different, more comfortable, to be sure, but now at a very considerable remove from the echt baladi of the originals. In 1960 you had little choice of lodging in Palmyra: it was all in at the Queen Zenobia, a one story, one corridor hotel of stone the color of the desert. There was an extremely impressionistic portrait of the desert queen (a very late Puvis de Chavannes?) in the lobby where she looked down on the new arrival with quite justified suspicion. My room—I was given a choice since I seem to have been the only guest—looked out upon the desert, as in fact did all of them; there was no other view for about 200 miles.
Once he had registered me, the manager (owner?) gave a sharp kick to the lifeless dog lying upon the bleached and threadbare carpet that was the lobby’s sole claim to elegance and he departed for his own, doubtless more fashionable, housing. He returned near sunset—he knew better than I that later there would be no electricity in his establishment–to lay out a supper of the parts of a very slender and elderly chicken surrounded by some downcast frites. What I had on my plate, I was to discover, was the common fare put before franjis from the Pillars of Hercules to the headwaters on the Indus. I sat in the darkness with my cold coq maison and felt, well, very baladi.
The tiny wooden building called Nazzal’s Rest House was in that era the only lodging inside the deep Jordanian canyon where Petra hides, a hotel braver in its self-presentation, if more rustic, than the Queen Zenobia. My room there, like many another in such places, had two metal beds, with sheets and pillowcases stacked neatly atop the standard striped straw mattress. For my added comfort there was an uncertain wooden chair standing next to an uncertain wooden table. Against one wall and partially blocking the doorway was an armoire—most buildings in the Middle East seem to have been put up before the invention of the closet–whose diminutive size suggested that the guest was expected to arrive without luggage and in fact stark naked. There was a toilet in the hall and chicken for dinner. And here too, when the manager departed for the evening, he took the electricity with him, a light burden indeed since the electricity wired into our famous gulch was an extremely thin and elusive thing. Below that standard of accommodation was only the windy night I spent in a Bedouin tent pinned to the earth by a leaden and foul-smelling carpet and another on the ground in the chilly parking lot at Delphi covered only by a monkey skin throw rug.
A degree of colonial-baladi grandeur was once available in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo and there may still be—the times are terrible—at Baron’s in Aleppo, the past haunt of the likes of Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence, whose bar tabs are proudly displayed in the lounge. And since Lawrence’s also included his room number, it seemed like the most errant folly not to take up my own lodging there. The traditions, I am happy to say, were bravely maintained: there was chicken and frites for dinner. A grandeur in sadder and more spectacular decline—Baron’s still has its airs and tattered graces—is on display in the Mark Twain in Granada where I was, once again, the only guest in a hotel that once accommodated many of them, all of them doubtless better togged and better mannered than I. The Mark Twain seems to have been ground down by the competition in a very competitive market in the shadow of the Alhambra. On the other hand, Raffles in Singapore, if it lacks the genuine colonial patina, has at least preserved its original ambience for a new breed of visitors.
Spoiler alert: The loop of the Muzak tape that plays in all the rooms of the down at the heels but extremely baladi Winter Palace in Aswan is precisely four minutes and thirty-five seconds long. You’d better be very fond of “A Summer Place” and the first half of Zamfir’s pan-pipe rendition of the adagio from “Spartacus.”
Winston’s fortunes went up after his Baron’s days—there was the unfortunate matter of Gallipoli—and so did mine as I mounted the academic steps, which meant that he and I could both stay at the sumptuous Mamounia in Marrakesh, where the elderly lion—no, the other one—hunkered down in winter to paint. I just lay by the pool, which tells you something about both me and him. It was not my only palatial stop by any means. The Shah Abbas in Isfahan is a gorgeous pile and, but for the lack of screens on the windows, would be a quite perfect place to take one’s rest. I did, however, leave my personal mark there—check out the commemorative plaque in the dining room–by consuming the largest portion of Spaghetti Bolognese ever served in Imperial Iran. I’m sorry, but when I see something other than chicken, I go for it.
Sometimes it’s the setting that makes the place. Some are just flat out spectacular, like the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, which is, as the name points out, a former Indian raj’s palace set in the middle of a very large lake, the only hotel perhaps where the bell captain wears both a turban and a Speedo. It made even the Hassler atop the Spanish Steps in Rome and the splendid Ferdinand and Isabella parador on the cathedral square in Santiago de Compostela seem a trifle humble in their setting. The only real rival to the Lake Palace Hotel is Treetops in Kenya, which tops the Udaipur lake setting by being located entirely in the branches of a very large tree. The point of this odd arrangement is that the tree looms over a waterhole where the African wildlife comes to drink every night. “Wake up, sir. It’s the elephants!” And so they were, knee deep in the pool, slurping up the muddy water in the moonlight no more than twenty feet beneath my leafy veranda. But life–or is it parenting?–is sometimes cruel. “Where are the lions?” yawned a sleepy and disappointed teenager on the adjoining porch.
There was another kind of authentic baladi experience available to the connoisseur in the Hotel Rossiya in Moscow. It was one of those hotels where the Soviets stored foreign tourists and it was a kind of petri dish of Communism. Nothing worked in the brand new Rossiya, neither the telephones, the elevator, nor the air conditioning (Ha!), not even the room in its very modest role of being a place to live for a brief spell. Mass malfunction was on display at the long desk in the lobby where the distraught attempted to make or, God help us, change transportation arrangements. On one side sat the visitors, caught between derangement and hopelessness, on the other, the apparently deaf, dumb and profoundly uncaring agents of Soviet transport. The eerie sound of despair rose to the heavens like the wailing in Dante’s Inferno.
If the key of despair was dominant at that lobby desk that foreigners were calling “The Wailing Wall,” the sound in the dining room was the drumroll of anger. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that keeps the free market, and the rest of life, moving forward turns out to be tipping. Remove tipping from capitalism and you have the dining room at the Hotel Rossiya: an absent wait staff—at an obligatory Marxism lecture perhaps– and a frothing sea of clients, some fainting from hunger, some raising an apoplectic fist to heaven with a cry for vengeance. The more practical greedily scavenged from neighboring tables a half eaten piece of toast, a cold pot of tea or whatever was still edible from a meal that must once have taken place there. This was almost twenty years before the collapse of the Soviet Union and yet the message was writ large in every room of the Hotel Rossiya: the Soviet system did not work. I didn’t see it, nor, apparently, did the CIA. No, wait; there was one functioning element: the babushka who sat in the hallway of every floor and observed and noted the comings and goings of every guest.
No foreigner traveled in the Soviet Union except by the approval, arrangement and accompaniment of the state-run Intourist Bureau. The guides it provided were usually students practicing their English free of charge. You told them where you wanted to go and they told you that—not why—it was impossible. In Moscow, for example, I was not permitted to visit Moscow University, where the lectures were presumably in cipher. The Intourist preference, whether in Moscow or in distant Soviet Tajikistan, seemed to be factories, dams and monuments to the solidarity of the Soviet peoples. My favorite non-visited place was Ferghana, out where the Soviet Union and Chinese Turkestan touched. When I sprang Ferghana on the young Intourist guide in Tashkent, he was at a loss: he had never heard of the place.
“And why, sir?”
“I’m tracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great and this is about as far as he got.”
The only Alexander the young guide knew about was a czar and he had assuredly never set foot in Ferghana, wherever that was.
The “I” of “I’ll see” was cut from complete Soviet cloth. He would not decide; “they” would. And what they predictably decided was “Nyet.” Since they could not think of any good reason why I should go to Ferghana, there was no good reason.
“I’m sorry, sir. That is not available at present. I have arranged instead to visit a Young Pioneer camp. Very interesting for you.”
And, like the breakfast scavengers back in the Rossiya, I made the best of it: at least it wasn’t a tractor factory. The camp, as it turned out, offered a very nice macaroni and cheese for lunch and all the young Communists in their red neckerchiefs were agog at my stories of Alexander in Ferghana. They had heard far worse, I imagine.
So I’ve had my fill of baladi, some of it enlightening and enlarging, some not. I’ve spent weeks living on the sun-baked and shadeless roof of an Ayyubid fort in Busra Sham, where there was a choice of garbage disposal: you could walk your stuff down three flights of gigantic stairs and deposit them in a bin that was never emptied, or you could toss them over the wall into the surrounding moat, where it was all quickly eaten by a resident goat. The goat waxed fat for a couple of weeks that summer.
More lavish by far was my accommodation in the fully decorated bridal room in a Saudi house in al-Ula where the newlyweds were unceremoniously turned out for the benefit of the guest. All I remember is that the coverlet on the bed was a leopard skin print and that some not entirely fresh fake fur featured prominently on the headboard. There was a tape already loaded in the VCR, but I dared not turn it on. Some experiences are best left local. But it all fades before the nights as the sole occupant of the archeologists’ one-room bungalow, solitary and secure inside the now locked enclosure of temple of Baal at Palmyra. Inside my hut was a bedroll, a hurricane lamp and the promise of breakfast at eight; outside, in the midst of its enormous walled temenos, was the silent temple, all silver in the moonlight. I was all alone with Baal.
A Stone Upon a Stone: The World in Ruins
When people travel in the Western hemisphere they are mostly shown rainforests or national parks or glaciers. In Europe, it’s museums and cathedrals. But from the Mediterranean basin east, it’s ruins, ruins, ruins. Fine by me. I started life as a Classicist and so I loved texts, which I could hold in my hands, and ruins, which I saw only in photographs. Both are capable or raising a sweat on the brow, and each is easier to comprehend on the surface than to penetrate to what lies underneath. I encountered my first real, that is, Roman ruin in 1958 in the arenas, temples, theater and aqueduct at Nimes and Orange in the south of France. Now an instant expert, I headed eagerly south and east to the Italian mother lode.
In Italy there were ruins galore and I saw them all as I made my leisurely, penny-pinching way south from the Roman forum down to Pompeii and Herculaneum, with nostalgic stops at Lake Trasimene and Avernus. There were even more, as I later discovered, and sometimes more spectacular, remains of the Greco-Roman past in Sicily. These were all places long familiar from study, but they now seemed astonishingly new in their concrete reality. Or almost concrete. I was looking at the past rather than touching it: tourists, and that’s what I was, are not encouraged to muck about among the stones. That would come later.
From Brindisi I took ship to Athens and it was in the Bay of Salamis from a deck of the MS Agamemnon that I caught my first sight of the Acropolis, another pictorial cliché come to sudden life. The others staples of my classroom, locales that existed only on slides, sped almost too quickly by to leave an impression: Olympia, Delphi (a dark and dreary place for the sunny Apollo), a pause en route “where three roads meet,” then on to Corinth (I should have read Paul first), Epidauros in Argos, and finally, a startlingly small Mycenae. My first thought was, could all of that mayhem have happened in this tiny place?
Across to Asia, forward in space but backward in time. At Troy I had a sense of the place but none of the city. The remains there were beyond my powers of reimagination, and so the ancient city stayed where I first discovered it, in Homer’s poem. Southward down the western coast of Anatolia: Pergamum, Ephesus, glorious in marble, Halicarnassus, Aphrodisias, Perge, Antalya, through the Cilician Gates to Antioch, now Antakiya, with the sadly scant remains of what was one of the greatest of ancient metropolises, destroyed in a later era not by hostile armies but by the encroachment of the undrained delta of the Orontes.
Syria was one of the garden spots of the Roman East and a plum assignment for a bureaucrat or a soldier. Today it is a veritable treasure house of remains that made it clear that Rome was as brilliant in the provinces as it was at home. Often I looked at the ancient stones with only a book to guide me, but in Syria I had the extraordinary good fortune to wander the country in the company of a generous and remarkable German archeologist. Our focus was on the agricultural south, the villages of the Hawran amidst the red-soiled fields with their still standing and still inhabited Roman private houses. The crown jewel of the Hawran is the exquisite theater in a Biblical town the Romans called Bostra, a building that was designed for entertainment but was later surrounded, and preserved, by the thick walls of a 12th century Ayyubid fortress-castle.
Farther south, at the very edge of the Syrian Lava Lands, is the stark black jumble of Umm al-Jimal, the now deserted “Mother of Camels.” Finally, in the deep south of Jordan, I followed the narrow winding passage into Petra, a city hidden but profoundly exhibitionistic in its deep canyon; and at a later time and from a different direction, I encountered its sister settlement across the Saudi frontier, Mada’in Salih, the “Cities of Salih,” a name that no longer speaks of Greece or Rome but rather of the Qur’an and Islam.
Petra and Mada’in are Greco-Roman only by courtesy or influence: the Nabateans who lived there were Aramaic-speaking Arabs drawn, like many others, into the powerful Roman sunlight and softer Hellenic moonlight that shone all over the Middle East. West of the Jordan there are more authentically Classical remains all the way from Tyre and Sidon to Caesarea-by-the-Sea, some of them from the hand and purse of another Roman by courtesy, Herod the Great. Most of his prodigious building projects have disappeared, but the enormous and still standing platform that supported his wondrous rebuilding of the now destroyed Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, as well as his Sanctuary of Abraham at Hebron, now a very dangerous town, show a bold assertion of Roman aesthetics.
The Romans (and the Greeks before and after them) ranged round the entire Mediterranean, thanks in the first instance to the appetite for glory of Alexander the Great, and subsequently to the irresistible force of Roman arms. A search of Alexander’s most public legacy, the port city of Alexandria in Egypt, yielded very little. The traces of the great Greco-Roman metropolis that once stood there now lie under the waves or the pavement of the later city. Outside the Islamic monuments of Cairo, the Pharaonic remains in Egypt have put both Rome and Islam in the shade. The latter is chiefly represented by modest village mosques, the former by what is left of the temple built by the Romans on the isle of Philae at Aswan. The temple was still standing there when I saw it, but it was all but submerged in 1970 by the construction of the Nile High Dam. The temple was later salvaged, however, and rebuilt on a nearby higher island. Farther west, in Libya—once the sonorous Cyrenaica—lay the grandiose ruins of Leptis, barred to me by politics; and farther still, the intact Roman forum of Sufeitla in Tunisia, untouched by the fierce tank battles that swirled around it in WWII; and the superb Roman theater in what is now the valley of al-Djem, each site bearing mute but convincing testimony to the Roman presence and prosperity in North Africa.
I knew, I thought, all about the Greeks and Roman and their various hybrid offspring, but I also knew something of what preceded them. My first college teaching assignment was a course entitled “The Ancient Near East.” This was the heavy burden passed backward to the ever more junior professors in Classics Departments and one I threw off as soon as I had ten minutes seniority. But not before I learned something about the history of the ancient world. So standing before the ruins of Babylon, I had some glimmer of what had gone on there in the Euphrates plain; the same under the shadow of the Pyramids at Giza, another cliché now shimmering in real light, or amidst the columns of Luxor. I could make some sense of the acres of Achaemenid glory at Persepolis in Fars, a site twice famous. It was there that the last shah of modern Iran staged his folie monumentale in 1971, the hyperbolic gala in celebration of the 2500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy. Grace Kelly showed up, as did Imelda Marcos and Mrs. Tito Broz and, inevitably, Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia. A good time was had by all, except possibly the Ayatollah Khomeini who followed the sordid goings-on from his Parisian exile.
I first travelled the Middle East as a Classicist, and it was with that mindset that I first encountered Islam in the form of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. It had been built inside a still visible Roman temple courtyard and was adorned with breathtaking panels of Late Antique style mosaics done by Byzantine craftsmen for their new Muslim masters in Damascus. Then, within a few days I was standing on Herod’s Temple platform before another Byzantine creation, the astonishingly beautiful shrine called the Dome of the Rock that Christian craftsmen built and decorated for their sovereign, the Caliph Abd al-Malik, in 691 AD, not quite sixty years after the death of Muhammad.
In those days my eyes were focused on those echoes of the Classical past, but eventually I came back to those same places as an Islamicist and with a somewhat new set of eyes. But the Classical echoes kept sounding. One of my first excursions this time around was out to the Umayyad complex at Qusayr Amra on the fringe of the Syrian steppe east of Amman, once Philadelphia, a city with its own considerable Roman remains. This “chateau”—there were others–was apparently a kind of Camp David for the Damascus caliphs, adorned with panels of frisky frescoes, again in the Late Antique style and with hardly a breath of Islam in them.
There are not a great many Muslim ruins as such. Islam is a living faith and Muslims toil to keep up their holy places. There are some, however, that have fallen on bad times. In Iraq the mosque at Samarra with its surviving ziggurat-like minaret—a dizzying climb around its outside spiral staircase–is a desolate and deserted place, and the beautifully restored Mustansiriyya Madrasa in Baghdad, once a famous school in Islam, had also fallen into ruin, along with much else in that city when the Mongols razed it almost to the ground in 1258. Less tactfully restored—the Soviet restorative hand was invariably a heavy one—are the remains of Timurlane’s Registan, the impressive forum-like complex in the heart of Samarqand. The Qutb Minar in Delhi with its gigantic stone epigraphy is another ruined testament to Islam’s medieval glory.
That glory has not entirely departed of course, though more recently it is buoyed on petrodollars. Dira‘iyya, the mud-brick town that is the Saudi dynastic birthplace, is a carefully maintained nineteenth century ruin, a kind of pre-theme park Williamsburg. “How interesting!” I was forced to exclaim. If the Dira‘iyya project was doubtless prompted by nostalgia and Saudi self-regard, something else was at work in Mecca and Medina, the two chief holy cities of Islam that have been part of the Saudi kingdom since 1926. As the official Guardians of the Holy Places, the Saudis are in a high stakes game of worldwide Muslim respect, and they are playing to win.
The Haram is the Meccan sacred enclosure, in the midst of which sits the Ka‘ba, the stone “House of God” that is a focus of Muslim pilgrimage and towards which every Muslim faces in prayer. It has been consistently enlarged over the centuries as the number of pilgrims making the annual Hajj has increased. But the space had remained relatively fixed since the sixteenth century despite the fact that the stream of pilgrims became a river with the introduction of steamship travel in the nineteenth century and a flood in the mid-twentieth thanks to air transport. As the Saudis might say, there is a God: the new flood of pilgrims was accompanied by new floods of oil gushing up from under the Arabian Peninsula.
The Saudis have plowed many of their petrodollars into the modernization—how many Portosans are too many for more than a million pilgrims, how many cameras to ensure security?– and the enormous, some would say gigantesque, enlargement of both the Prophet’s mosque, which I visited and which houses Muhammad’s tomb, and the Meccan Haram, which I did not. The latter has now grown both out and up and, what has raised alarm in many quarters, is being surrounded by looming high rises, many for the pilgrim carriage trade, that have changed the entire character of the place.
Some ruins are quickly rebuilt: Jerusalem after its destruction in 70 and again in135, Baghdad after 1258, Dresden after 1945. But others are not. The once radiant Madinat al-Zahra near Cordoba in what used to be called al-Andalus and is now Spain is still in ruins, as is Samarra on the Euphrates. Both of them were palatine cites built by caliphs intent on escaping their own capitals, Cordoba in the first instance, Baghdad in the second, and their ruins speak of plans gone badly awry. Both enterprises collapsed, Samarra by gradual disintegration after the caliph moved back to Baghdad in 982, al-Zahra through a spectacular looting by Berber mercenaries in 1010. Both now lie in disconsolate ruin, though the restoration here and there in al-Zahra allows a glimpse of its dazzling heyday.
Both these sites were simply neglected after their destruction, but one ruin at least has been deliberately and carefully preserved, the shambles that was once Qunaytra in Syria. I have twice visited the Golan Heights that rise steeply from the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and then descend slowly westward into the Syrian Hawran. The Israelis occupied the western sector of those heights in the Yom Kippur war in 1969, and there was more fighting in 1973 that ended in the current armistice. I drove up onto the Israeli Golan from Galilee. The Israelis have settled and armed and farmed it, all the while with a sharp eye on the other side; and Israeli archeologists have of course been digging away.
The Syrian Jawlan, on the other hand, which looks like peaceful enough farmland, is a highly restricted area, and it took considerable rattling of wusla, “connection,” in Damascus to get a permit to look around there. But if you’re a foreign visitor with a bit of profile, the Syrians are more than happy to put you in a bus and take you in to Qunaytra, the chief town of the area which stands just their side of the narrow strip of the Syrian-Israeli no-man’s land. Qunaytra was pretty much blown up by the Israelis just before they left it in the wake of the 1973 armistice. The Syrians have left it in exactly that rubble state, Hebrew graffiti and all, to show visitors the destructiveness of Israel. Qunaytra is now a carefully preserved ruin and a propaganda poster.
Unless you’re an archeologist, most ancient ruins are pretty inscrutable. More often than not they are simply stones on the ground, in the dim outline of a room or building if you’re lucky, with a few courses of stone if you’re really lucky. Intact buildings from before the Renaissance are relatively rare; from before the Middle Ages, rarer still. Wooden roofs collapsed or were destroyed by fire, rain poured in, the unsupported walls collapsed inward. Then, of course all that nice Greco-Roman stonework was as powerful a temptation to the later looters as is copper wire in abandoned buildings to their modern counterparts. Why chisel when you can carry home someone else’s chiseling and polishing which is, in any event, far better than your own? Most of those ancient constructions that have survived have done so because they were converted into something else, very often a church (just as early churches were later preserved by being converted into mosques) or a palace to house a ruler whose subjects were incapable of building so grandly or so finely.
Nature, or history, or chance has, however, left some solace for the traveller along the trail of starred touristic sites. In some instances the skeletons and even some of the internal organs of ancient cities, deserted now but relatively intact, have survived to astonish even the irremediably blasé. Pompeii is, of course, the prime example, a city embalmed by Mount Vesuvius. Petra in Jordan is another, snug and safe inside its lox-colored canyon. There is lovely and lonely Apamea in Syria, where you can have the ancient city all to yourself; the spectacularly photogenic Gerasa, once of the Decapolis and now Jerash in the of Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Dura Europos poised on an embankment high above the Euphrates, its treasures removed elsewhere but its city plan intact; and the greatest of them all, Palmyra, sitting, against all intuition, paved and columned streets and all, plumb in the middle of the Syrian steppe.
When it comes to ruins, particularly the stone-upon-a-stone type, one way to avoid that dead and dumbfounded stare known as the Tourist Gaze is to possess yourself of a very good guidebook or a very good guide. There’s no lack of such books (the Michelin Green versus the Rough Guide debate once had all the ferocity of a Microsoft vs. Apple conversation), and guides in abundance haunt all the world’s ruins, though they are not of course always good. The well-oiled pitches of local guides are often richly marbled with legend and/or government propaganda—“This is almost certainly the tomb of Alexander the Great”…” “What Palestinians?”…”Of course the water is safe to drink”…“All peoples are equal here!” And they usually do a quick onceover of the site, the “American tour,” well aware that their auditors have a boat to catch or are already straining toward that all-included lunch at the Meridien.
There are, be aware, exceptions. Once at Dayr al-Bahri, the great field of Pharaonic mortuary remains opposite Luxor, on the other, significantly western, shore of the Nile, I encountered one of those elderly German gentlemen who could still be found close to the ground in Egypt in the 70s. This one was an official guide to the archeology of the site, and he inquired at the outset, with a tight little smile (a Bavarian, I concluded, rather than the standard issue Prussian), if I preferred an American or a German tour of the site. The Teutonic gauntlet had been thrown down before me: was I man enough to handle the real thing? “You’re joking, surely,” I said. “The German, of course.”
And so we began, tomb by tomb, stele by stele, nay, shard by shard; everything sized by meter or, more finely, by centimeter; every place and object carbon-dated and supplied with full historical background—I still cannot hear the name Manetho without becoming a little ill–and accompanied by a solidly based conjecture as to its provenance and its place in the larger picture, social, political and theological. The familiar golden disk rose in the heavens, reached its pitiless zenith and had begun its slow descent—the sun seems loathe to leave the Egyptian landscape—before I finally raised my hands and cried “Kaput!” “Ya,” he grinned, “natürlich,” dropping all pretense of being Dutch or French Alsatian. He didn’t have to say it: “Kein mensch dieser.”
Just as dangerous as that war criminal at Dayr al-Bahri are the actual excavators of a site. They too might rope you into the German tour—this is, after all, their life’s work—or else they are too busy to entertain every visiting fireman who drops into their dusty pit and asks, “What’s this all about?” I understand this latter reluctance to deal with amateurs when there’s serious work to be done, but it can be carried too far. Aphrodisias is a famous archeological site in southwestern Anatolia, notable for the amount and the quality of the statuary that has been found there. Statuary and inscriptions are the gold of archeological miners, most of whom spend their entire careers sorting out unremarkable bits of broken pots. The quickest and cruelest way to destroy an archeologist’s reputation is to say, “He’s just a treasure hunter.”
Early on in the archeological era, in the late nineteenth century, there was lots of such treasure to be found, even some actual gold, which the archeologists simply carried back to their home institutions. London, Paris and the Vatican Museum between them house half of Classical Greece, and Berlin has a large chunk of the ancient Middle East in its museums. And the Germans didn’t always have to go and get the archeological treasure: the Sultan often sent it to them as a gift. No more: the archeologists may take home pictures; the treasures are the property of the locals.
Aphrodisias was a somewhat special case however. The excavator, though a professor at an American university, was a Turkish national and he himself, not his university, had title to, and total control of, the lovely, tree-shaded site with the inviting name. Visitors there were not many, however. The place was off the beaten tourist track and there was no “Welcome” sign in either English or Turkish over the lintel. I arrived in mid-afternoon, and after some fluttering of wings—it was not thought wise to disturb the director during his siesta—news came down from that drowsy Olympus that he was, in any event, far too occupied to show the newcomer around in person. He did, however, delegate one of his lesser minions, an MA candidate at a Midwestern evangelical school, to show the inopportune visitor about and out.
OK, I’d been blown off before, but I also happened to be the chairman of the university department where this foolish fellow was employed, and when he returned, late as usual, for that Fall semester, I had him beaten with rods with his baggy Ottoman trousers lowered to his knees and imposed on him the poena ultima of the academic life, a Friday class. Lèse majesté demanded no less.
Walking Through the Air Conditioned Past
Ruins are dusty and hot or cold and damp and I can pretty much take them or leave them. But I’ve developed a positive distaste for museums, with pictures on the walls and statues behind railings, even though the premises are usually air conditioned and there is a nice gift shop that sells expensive Abrams art books and cheap fridge magnets. There are exceptions of course. I do have the occasional hankering to go back to the Vatican, not for the forest of fig-leafed statuary, most of it mediocre Roman copies, but for the manuscripts and books in the library. There is still the breath of life in them, unlike the statuary that now appears cold stone dead after my visits to the sites from which they were wrenched. The Brits have lately recognized the difference. They have now separated the quick from the dead: the stone things like the Elgin Marbles are in the British Museum, the books and manuscripts in the British Library, where I actually put my profane hands on the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, and I can attest: that Greek Bible is still breathing.
It’s not that I’ve ignored the main museums along the way; it’s just that I’m tapped out. I’ve “done”—contemplated and meditated upon– the Moab and the Rosetta Stone (the Blarney Stone, that good natured piece of Irish tomfoolery, was more fun); admired the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, Winged Victory, Michelangelo’s David, original and copies, the Pieta and Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer both at home and on their trips abroad, the Sistine ceiling, which never travels, the Impressionists in the Hermitage and the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum, the British and Ottoman crown jewels, Scythian gold and Incan silver, and Fabergé eggs beyond the counting. No mas.
Some of the very best “museums” are now locked, or at least not advertised to the public. Blame Vatican II, which cast a jaundiced, almost Protestant, eye on the cult of saints generally and more particularly on relics—the ruins of holiness. Europe is filled with many Catholic sanctity museums with their collections of Jesus’ foreskin (I saw the claimant in Santiago; there as many as 18 in European churches), vials of Mary’s milk (multiple encounters) and splinters from Jesus’ cross. If I recall correctly, I may have had one of these latter in my own childhood home, the handout from some Bronx novena. More impressive to me was the arm that was wrenched, like many another body part, off the corpse of St. Francis Xavier in Goa, India, and borne on tour in a golden, torpedo-shaped reliquary by a Jesuit priest who was as smooth as his tailoring. I was privileged to kiss it—the reliquary not the arm—near Poughkeepsie in the Spring of 1946, before the embarrassment set in.
St. Mark’s in Venice stands in the forefront of such collections of saintly memorabilia, which the Church has arranged in a hierarchy of holiness. There is a gradation of origin, of course, a kind of degree of difficulty scale, with Jesus at the very top and any one of John Paul II’s All Hands of Deck Saints at the bottom. A First Class Relic is, as one might imagine, a body part, the bigger the better since there has been a strong tendency to dismemberment. A Second Class Relic was something in habitual contact with the saint, a piece of clothing for example. And a Relic of the Third Class is an object in occasional or accidental contact, like a prayer book, a rosary or, say, a set of skis if John Paul himself ever makes it. St. Mark’s had them all, the nails from Jesus’ cross, the bridle of the centurion’s horse, Jesus’ cradle, Mary’s hair, John the Baptist’s staff.
The richness of the St. Mark’s collection was due in large part to the fact that the gentlemen of the Fourth Crusade carried back to Venice most of the spectacular assortment of relics they had looted from the churches of Constantinople—yes, I know it’s now called Istanbul. Modern skepticism has a cast a pall upon them—the Shroud of Turin controversy rumbles on, however–but no such cloud hovers over the later collection of Muslim relics in that city. There in the Topkapi Museum are a couple of rooms filled with every piece of kitsch lavished on the late Ottoman sultans—mother of pearl golf clubs!—by European rulers vying for the padishah’s favor. But in a room beyond is the real thing. There I had the opportunity to gaze upon Muhammad’s cloak, his sword, his sandals and a hair of the Prophet’s beard. But stay! There is also on display there Moses’ staff and Abraham’s own cooking pot. Keep your Rembrandts and your Picassos; there’s a real museum.
My favorite museum artifacts, I think because of both their immediacy and their backstory, are the frescoes removed from Dura Europos, a place on the far eastern side of Syria that I had also visited. The site was excavated by the French and Americans in the 20s and later. A siege there in 256 AD had caused the frescoes on the interior walls of the local synagogue to be buried, and preserved, shortly after they had been completed. In those days, in the era before the We’ll Take Everything Home and the current Don’t You Dare Touch Anything period, foreign excavators had to share their treasure with the local government. The good Presbyterians from Yale naturally opted to carry off the somewhat sketchy but interesting remains of a Christian house-church, while the Syrians got to keep the synagogue frescoes. They are now installed in the National Museum in Damascus, the two synagogue sidewalls and the front wall with its Torah niche intact. It’s a dark room, but the frescoes shine forth, still bright and fresh and defiantly iconic, a panorama of cartoon like panels of Biblical scenes.
I’ve visited, and that’s precisely the word, two rather remarkable outdoor sites that are, after a fashion, museums. The first is the Sacro Monte at Varallo in northern Italy where a life-size Stations of the Cross, a presentation that once graced the side-aisle walls of every Catholic Church in creation, meanders down the side of the mountain. Each “station” is a partially enclosed, full-scale recreation of a scene from Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, his Last Supper, for example. But what was later reduced to reliefs on wall plaques in churches is here portrayed with as much realism as the makers could manage. The figures are lifelike, the clothes are real, the hair convincing. But it is, for all that, theater, and the inclination is, I think, to marvel at—or deplore–the mis en scène rather than to experience a pulsing in the piety gland. Something similar occurs at another kind of museum, the death camp at Auschwitz in Poland. For me at least, it had too much the appearance of a movie set—perhaps I’d seen it, real or reconstructed, in too many movies. Yad Vashem, on the other hand, a Jerusalem museum and a memorial to the Holocaust dead, which I had long resisted, was alive and more moving than I could have imagined.
Though I no longer much care for the künstlich museum, I still have a soft spot for its quirkier offspring, like the Chocolate Museum in Brussels and the Sandman Museum of Port in—where else?—Oporto; the Museum of Corpses in the Palermo catacombs with its 8,000 fully dressed deceased; the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, the Museum of Exploration in Belem, the Museum of the Belgian Congo in Tervuren (now the Royal Museum of Central Africa) and, by all means, the Imperial War Museum in London. Where else can you admire a genuine Earl Kitchener of Khartoum WWI doll? And then there is the Railway Museum (you know which railway I’m talking about!) in Amman or, even better, its living counterpart, the train yards in al-Ula in Saudi Arabia where the original Hejaz Railway rolling stock sits exactly where the last Ottoman engineer climbed down from the cab of his steam locomotive (Leipzig 1908) and where I climbed all over that still attractive German lady like a model railroader in heat, which of course I was.
Framing the Holy
The world is filled with wonderful things to see. Some are natural, the mountains, rivers, canyons waterfalls, icebergs and wildlife that draw us to distant places; but many are man-made and wrapped moreover in a thick coat not of geological time but of human history. They are what beguile us out of our comfortable homes and onto the road to foreign lands, dark abodes, uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous circumstances. I have felt actually threatened only twice, however, in many decades of travel. The first was in Nablus on the West Bank when I was caught in Arab-Israeli crossfire during the first Intifada. The other was when I was taken into custody by plainclothes Syrian security police in the town of Nawa in a military zone on the Golan Heights. Nothing came of either incident, nor what on reflection appears to me to be far more dangerous pastime, to gambol from stone to stone alone in remote and deserted archeological sites where a slip and a broken limb might have made me a permanent part of the evidence (“middle aged hominid; absence of weapons and unused muscles suggests a member of the Pleistocene leisure class”).
Among the wonders that humans have wrought on the landscape, dams and skyscrapers produce admiration, but it’s the ubiquitous shrines of the world that astonish the eye and draw the mind into the interior of what stands before the viewer. A shrine represents no more than putting an architectural frame, modest or grandiose, elegant or vulgar, around something that is considered notable. It may be to celebrate the possession of power, like a ruler’s palace or the government’s capitol building or parliament. What is often being celebrated is simply money; think banks, bourses or guildhalls. Such shrines can be erected wherever the individual or group with the checkbook chooses to put it. But there is another type of power that is more localized, that is the power of the sacred, the holiness that resides permanently in a place or an individual who is associated with a place. Armed guards protect the other shrines; the religious shrine is shielded by taboo. The Arabs called it haram; the Romans gave us “profane,” an advice to stay “outside the shrine” (pro fano).
My second earliest contact with a religious shrine—the first was that to the pin-striped gods in the outfield of Yankee Stadium–was the Shrine of the North American Martyrs at Auriesville, NY, where I once—don’t ask—spent an instructive week. The martyrs in question were the French Jesuit missionaries who had a few of their fingers bitten off and then killed by the decidedly unconvinced Iroquois. There are no graves in Auriesville–most of the bodies were thrown into the Mohawk River—just memories of where it all happened. The Jesuits now share that place with Kateri Tekakwitha, a pious Mohawk girl converted by them and who seems to have expired, aged 24, in the odor of sanctity, apparently under the weight of the penitential suffering she inflicted on herself, to say nothing of her disfiguring smallpox.
Kateri’s progress toward sainthood through the Roman process was exceedingly slow until Pope John Paul II put her, and everyone else short of Michael Jackson and Porfirio Rubirosa, on the fast track to canonization. She was finally declared St. Kateri in 2012. Just in time, I suspect. The Auriesville Shrine seemed like a failing enterprise during my days there, sad, deserted of visitors and physically run down. It was a shrine without a center or focus, merely the site—one site; the same Jesuits had also worked, and Kateri eventually lived, in Canada, which has its own shrine to both the Jesuits and Kateri.
Auriesville is decidedly minor leagues, even by American standards; far more impressive is the Phillip Johnson Crystal Cathedral in Garden City, CA., which is, I suppose, a kind of shrine to the Rev. Robert Schuller who raised the money for it. I thought it quite spectacular, but a colleague who also visited it came back with a more terse and pointed report, “God is not there.” The major shrines are, of course, all overseas, and I confess to having missed some of the really big ones there, Lourdes, for example—I turned left to Italy instead of right to Spain–and that of the Black Madonna in Czesthochowa, Poland, which just never came up on my radar; likewise Medugorjes in Bosnia-Herzogovina, which I unfortunately passed by twenty years before the Blessed Virgin made her appearance to the peasant children there.
But I have checked in at some notable examples. Never mind the kid stuff at Cooperstown and Akron and that Rock and Roll thing in Cleveland. Much the same for the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. The Dead Sea Scrolls inside are top-drawer stuff, of course, but their enshrinement under an undistinguished aluminum teat, not so much, especially in a city that possesses what is likely the most famous dome in the world. That would be the Dome of the Rock, the seventh century octagonal domed shrine the Muslims had built for them over the rock thought to be the foundation stone of the Temple or, alternatively—one cannot be sure of such things—the rock upon which Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac.
When I first went there in 1960, the Old City of Jerusalem was, silent and sleepy, in the hands of the Jordanians. It was not easy finding the Western Wall, called in those days the Wailing Wall. After many inquiries I finally found the unmarked passage into what was then a fifteen-foot wide alley between the wall of Herod’s Temple platform and the row of somewhat run down houses that faced it. These were the same dwellings that the Israelis bulldozed down when they took the city in 1967 and created the large open plaza that faces the Wall today. But if the Wall was concealed—I was forbidden to take pictures there, “to show to the Zionists in New York!”–access to the Dome of the Rock was easy. All the gates were open on the northern and western sides of the surrounding enclosure, the Haram al-Sharif, or “Noble Sanctuary,” which is in fact the surviving platform of Herod’s Temple. You might then approach the Dome from any direction, remove your shoes and wander about the rotunda at will, with no one paying you much mind.
When the Israelis first occupied and then annexed the Old City in 1967, they left the Haram with its Dome in the possession of “the Muslim people,” actually the Jordanians, an awkward arrangement that persists. But security there, Israeli security, has stiffened dramatically over the years. And with good reason: for Muslims the Dome is a potent symbol of an Islamic restoration in Palestine. For their part, the Grand Rabbinate of Israel discourages, less politely, forbids Jews to enter the Haram out of an abundance of caution regarding ritual purity. And access to the Dome itself is severely limited for everyone and carefully wardened; violence is somehow always in the air in this shrine.
Ritual purity also lies buried within the Muslim prohibition of non-believers from entering the statutory limits of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and, a fortiori, the shrines that lie within them, that of the Ka‘ba or House of God in Mecca and that of the Prophet’s tomb (see below) in Medina. Things can change, however, or at least bend. Mecca and Medina were banned to non-Muslims by shari‘ah or Muslim religious law, and so too were many other Muslims shrines by the principle of extension by analogy so beloved of canon lawyers. And yet in the 70s I and other non-Muslims attending a conference in Baghdad were boldly led into the most sacred shrines of Shi‘ite Islam, those over the tomb of the Imam Ali in Najaf—there’s another such in Mazar-I Sharif in Afghanistan–and of Imam Hussayn at Kerbala, escorted by Saddam Hussayn’s (Sunni) government ministers, while the local Shi‘ite clerics stood silently and stonily by, saving their rage for another day.
If barefaced power politics and/or expediency temporarily pried open the portals of Najaf and Kerbala to kafirs, it was an equally powerful inducement, the tourist dollar, that was the magic key that opened the gates of places like the Moroccan shrine of Moulay Idriss. The gentleman in question was a charismatic eighth century Sufi politico and saint (think Nelson Mandela) who, among other things, founded a long-lived Moroccan dynasty and began the construction of the city of Fez, helping himself, comme d’habitude, to the elegant stonework of the ruined Roman city of Volubilis nearby.
Moulay Idriss, the shrine town named after the saint, was, like many other religious sites in North Africa, which follows a particularly strict version of Islamic law, declared off-limits to non-Muslims. By the nineteenth century, however, when tourism began to assert itself, that prohibition had been eroded down in Moulay Idriss to the demand that the Ingliz be out of town by 3 PM (tea time?). Now, however Moulay Idriss advertises itself as a major Moroccan tourist destination, complete with expensive restaurants and even a disco or two. I had once gone from Fez to inspect what was left of Volubilis. The green tiled roofs of Moulay Idriss’ shrine beckoned attractively from its hilltop in the distance and so later that day I visited the shrine and afterwards sat down in a sidewalk café to a fine tajine and a glass of an excellent Moroccan Merlot. The British may now take their tea in Moulay Idriss.
Pilgrimage is the lifeblood of shrines, but the shrine tourism reflected at Moulay Idriss is a relatively new phenomenon in Islam. Fundamentalist Islam does not take readily to shrines, certainly not pagan shrines. Witness what the Taliban did to the gigantic Buddha in his mountain niche at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. It was there when I visited the site; it ain’t there now. Gone. Rubble. Nor do they much care for Muslim ones. When the puritan Saudis entered Mecca and Medina in 1926, they razed all the tomb shrines, including, sadly, the football field-sized grave of Eve—yes, that Eve—at Jeddah, as well as the enshrined homes of the Prophet’s relatives and early Muslim heroes that had sprouted up in the Holy Cities over the centuries. All that now remains of the famous al-Baqi cemetery at Medina is a walled dirt enclosure with simple stone markers, a reduction to orthodox anonymity that went unappreciated by many Muslims.
But the game is not nearly over. Popular Muslim devotion to Muslim saints goes on unabated. And if the Saudis were to allow tourists into their Kingdom, which seems eventually inevitable, would the visitors be satisfied with the baked-brick attractions of Dira‘iyya? Will they not eventually want to visit Mecca—“Haram view, please and, oh, do you serve kosher meals?” And when the oil dries up, will not the Saudis, or their successors, be inclined to allow them?
Jews and Christians are far less conflicted about access to their shrines. A non-Jew might walk right up to the Western Wall of the Jerusalem Temple, arguably the holiest and certainly the most notable Jewish shrine of all, without let or hindrance, except for the gender segregation there. And Christians never check identity papers at their holy places. The locals, like locals everywhere, are more interested in your credit card than your creed.
Pilgrims and tourists have become almost indistinguishable in the West, something that first becomes noticeable among Western Christian visitors to Jerusalem in the 19th century. The evidence is on every page of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and the wedding of the tourist and the pilgrim is now consummated in almost every major shrine on the globe. In some instances tourism has overwhelmed and almost obliterated whatever sense of the holy was once in the place, as in Manger Square in Bethleham, a nightmare of neon, rosary stands, pizza joints and artisans of crèche tattoos. But at Fatima in Portugal, a large shrine complex at the site of a reported 1917 apparition of the Blessed Virgin to—Are you listening, you tarted-up parochial school girls?—simple peasant children, commerce is kept pro fano, outside the shrine. Pilgrims may approach the Fatima cathedral, some on their knees up the concrete, humbled-accessible walkways, without interference from hawkers of t-shirts, magnets or plastic peasants who glow in the dark.
Fatima is simply a shrine—cathedral, square, surrounding grounds—impressively large but still somehow modest in its raiment. Santiago de Compostela, on the other hand, is a venerable Spanish city and the site of a very ancient cult of the Apostle Saint James. In Christianity he is called James the Greater, to distinguish him from James the Less, Jesus’ brother who was, in most respects, the greater force in the early Church. The Apostle James died in Judea in 44 AD, but his remains were, according to legend, miraculously returned to Spain where, according to another legend, he had earlier preached the new faith. It’s a complex tale but the tradition of Saint James–Santiago in Spanish–took hold in Iberia, and by the ninth century pilgrims were already coming to the town of Compostela in Galicia to venerate his remains. Santiago ended by becoming the patron saint of all of Christian Spain and the iconic Matamoros, the “Moor-Slayer” who inspired Christian forces to finally cast the Muslims out of Spain in 1492.
A large city has grown up around the saint’s remains, as well as a network of well-trod pilgrims’ paths, a kind of spiritual Appalachian Trail, complete with markers and rest stops, that extend across Spain and southern France and lead to the shrine. The remains themselves now rest in a bejeweled golden casket behind the altar inside the large cathedral dedicated to the saint. The church also features, as a major distraction, an enormous botafumeiro, the mother of all incense burners that is suspended from the ceiling and swings dangerously back and forth through the nave spewing holy smoke. The church itself commands a solemn and somewhat gloomy baroque square. Facing is the more sober palace of the bishop of the city, and on the third side is another palace, this one of Ferdinand and Isabella, now a parador or Spanish luxury inn (reserve early). Though there is plenty in the surrounding streets, there is no commerce in the Santiago square itself, which is St. Mark’s piazza in Venice minus the arcades, the cafes, the musicians, the pigeons and the fun.
Kerbala is a Shi‘ite Muslim shrine-city in Iraq. It is, in the first instance, the site of a famous 980 AD battle, actually an ambush, in which Hussayn, the son of Imam Ali and the spiritual head of the Shi‘at Ali or “Party of Ali,” was killed, along with most of his followers, by Sunni troops. It is sacred soil like Gettysburg or Verdun, but sacred in a more profound sense than either of those places since what was being contested at Kerbala was not merely a political issue but a theological one: Was the leadership of Islam to be political or spiritual? Would a royal Caliph or a papal Imam rule the Muslims? But at Kerbala I was not led to a battlefield but to the tomb of Hussayn, the third Shi‘ite Imam. Hussayn was not merely a general, like Grant with his tomb, or a slain folk-hero, like John Lennon with his Strawberry Fields shrine; he was also, and more importantly, a martyred saint.
Christians and Muslims both call those who have died for their faith “witnesses.” Christian martyrs often die in Roman arenas, condemned to death for refusing to deny their outlawed faith. Muslims are rarely placed in those circumstances; more often they perish, like the Shi‘ite protomartyr Hussayn, in battle against the enemies of Islam. Jihad is the soil from which Muslim martyrs spring. One such was Abu Ayyub (Job) who was said to be Muhammad’s standard-bearer and who died, a very old man indeed, at the first Muslim siege of Constantinople in 670. So the Turks claim, and at the upper end of the Golden Horn they have enshrined what is said to be the grave of the man they call Eyüp. It is a favorite Turkish burial place, but the shrine and mosque are also a popular site to celebrate male circumcisions. In Turkey circumcision occurs at puberty, and though the young men are feted and jollied, visitors should be prepared for some very pained expressions.
The Attractions of the Grave
Like that of Eyüp, most shrines—Mecca is a notable exception–have in fact been generated by reason of their up-scale marking of the last resting place of a dead individual. The deceased in question is not of course reclining under a pile of earth. The resting place, whether a grave beneath the earth or a sarcophagus above it, has already been enshrined, modestly at first, perhaps, but eventually, depending on who lies within, into something more notable. An enshrined grave is soon sheltered in a shrine mosque or shrine church, and as the fame of the saint and the shrine grows, the mosque or church is in turn surrounded by an entire shrine-city like Karbela; or else the shrine swallows up the city, as in Santiago de Compostela. In some instances it is only the size or importance of the city (Rome, Constantinople), or the presence of multiple shrines there (Jerusalem), that prevents a single shrine from overwhelming the place where it is found. Compostela yielded easily to St. James, but Venice fought back against St. Mark.
There is no doubt what tomb-shrines are about: their function is to house and commemorate the hero with appropriate architectural and artistic embellishment—mosaics, frescoes, statuary or, for the iconophobic, elaborate calligraphy. Heroes come, of course, in all sizes, shapes and function, though it is invariably some form of power that is being recognized; think Napoleon under the dome in Les Invalides in Paris, or Ataturk lying in his coldly austere mausoleum in Ankara or, for that matter Mausolus, who started it all, in his mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, though not entirely wonderful today. Or if you’re both powerful and wealthy, like a Pharaoh, for example, you can tell your people to build you something truly wonderful to rest in out at Giza.
Power works best in this area of enshrinement, but holiness or wisdom or wit, or just plain celebrity (think Graceland) can bring down enshrinement on the head of the deceased. Strolling through the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris I could reflect on the enshrined remains not only of Eloise and Abelard (together at last), but those of the regretted Borrah Minnevitch, founder and guiding genius of the Harmonica Rascals. Moses Maimonides, the Jewish sage and physician who made house calls on the Sultans of Egypt, didn’t play a musical instrument but he was pretty good on the Torah and has himself a nice little tomb in Tiberias. Poetry is not neglected. The famous Persian poet Sa‘di is honored with a quite modern, and un-Islamic, twentieth century tomb shrine in Shiraz which is, however, appropriately surrounded by gracious gardens. And yes, there is love, especially if you’re married to Shah Jahan, the rich romantic who built the breathtaking Taj at Agra to shelter the remains of wife #3, Mumtazz Mahal.
Forget Grant’s tomb and those of the various Unknown Soldiers. Think big. Think the (presumably empty) tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem and the (presumably occupied) tomb of Muhammad in Medina. The first is ensconced inside a tiny—Watch your head!—house within the much travailed and dispirited Church of the Holy Sepulcher; Muhammad’s sarcophagus lies concealed, along with those of a few of his associates, and an empty one reserved for Jesus upon his return—it’s a long story!—, all of them behind the gilt grills of a sumptuous house inside the bloated and ever expanding Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Though he is not in quite the same league as the other two gentlemen, the tomb of the Baha’i Bab in Haifa is, all ideology aside, in many respects more impressive,
If these are the heavy hitters, there are myriads of lesser saints whose holiness in life has survived their physical death and lingers almost palpably at their tombs, where the faithful resort not only to pay respects but to ask for favors or render thanks for favors granted. Both Judaism and Islam officially disapprove of this cultus of saints, but it goes on nonetheless. In Galilee I have wandered among many such tombs of saintly Jewish rabbis, miracle-makers many of them, and the qubbas or domed shrines of Sufi saints, some tiny, some grandiose, dot every corner of the Islamic landscape from Morocco to India. Most are of local fame, but all Muslims have heard of Jalal al-Din Rumi, and the complex at Konya in Turkey is as much a shrine to the poet-mystic, who is buried there, as it is to his Sufi order of whirling Mevlana dervishes. Farther east, one of the main Sufi orders of India is the Chisti (from the Afghanistan town of Chist where it originated) whose annual forty day retreat in the corner of a small cell makes Ignatius of Loyola’s thirty day Spiritual Exercises look like a casual stroll in the park. The large Chisti dargah or headquarters is in Ajmer, but its most impressive monument may be the delicate tomb of one of its saints, Selim Chisti (d. 1572) at Fatephur Sikri.
Christianity has had no such qualms about saints, their tombs, their relics or their miracles. St. Peter apparently rests quite comfortably beneath the altar of the basilica named after him in Rome, or so the sign says. He is overshadowed perhaps by his staggeringly impressive architectural setting, to say nothing of the spectacularly overstated papal tombs that line the basilica upstairs. Ignatius Loyola has somewhat better luck. The Church of the Gesù in Rome, where the founder of the Jesuits lies, is shout-out-loud baroque, but so too is the saint’s own sarcophagus, fashioned out of what is said to be the largest piece of lapis lazuli in the world. The state of Mr. Lenin’s preservation in his mausoleum in Moscow (long wait; bring reading matter) is due to human skill, but apparently not so that of the impeccably intact St. Rita (d. 1457) in her glass sarcophagus at Cascia in Umbria. Rita reportedly smelled badly in life—not that there’s anything wrong with that–but now, in glorious compensation, she smells like Issey Miyake in death, and she is said to quite alarmingly open and close her eyes on occasion.
There were some who thought her a saint, but saint or not, Eva Peron’s family tomb in the Recoleta Cemetery of Buenos Aires, where Eva’s much travelled body finally rests, is a major tourist destination in Argentina and Eva is now apparently the country’s patron saint and/or chief attraction. Almost in the same league is the tomb of Columbus in the Seville Cathedral. The star of that place is, however, at least for me, the tomb in the Capella Real of King Ferdinand (he of Ferdinand and Isabella fame) who biffed the Muslims out of Spain. He was no saint—a royal predecessor, Ferdinand III (d. 1252), was actually canonized—but a very rare trilingual inscription in Castilian, Hebrew and Arabic on his tomb shines like a bright light in the dark cathedral.
Another pious soul edging toward the outskirts of canonization is the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (d. 1926, struck by a tram on the way to confession). He lies buried in the church of his own making in Barcelona (see below), but his shrines lay scattered all across Barcelona, from the Parc Guell to his two jaw-dropping apartment buildings on the Passeig de Gràcia, La Pedrera (don’t miss the roof!) and Casa Batlló, though, since Gaudi also designed the furniture—architects should not be allowed to design furniture–I’m not sure I’d want to live there.
You Say Synagogue, I Say Jami‘
It’s really all the same. What the Jews and Muslims call their places of worship, and the Christians in between them with their ekklesia, all amount to the same “place of assembly.” The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and of Jesus and Muhammad–deserves only the best and His worshippers have done their uttermost to comply. The Jewish best, the Temple in Jerusalem, which got fantastic contemporary reviews, is gone, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and never replaced. For a very long time afterwards Jews had to content themselves with more modest houses of worship—their Christian and Muslim sovereigns did not much encourage Jewish ostentation—and so it’s only relatively recently that Jews have gotten back into the basilica business, with a distinct nod to their Christian competitors (Temple Emanu-El on New York’s Park Avenue) as well as their Muslim ones (New York’s Central Synagogue).
The basilica business was begun by Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian. He put the funds and the power of the empire at the disposal of Christianity. Christian services that had previously been conducted in homes were now held in their own proper buildings, adapted from the basilica, the long rectangular structure that the Romans used as imperial audience halls and/or law courts and had no religious associations. Constantine had constructed a number of such, notably an imposing basilica next to the domed shrine he had erected over Jesus’ excavated tomb in Jerusalem and another dome-and-basilica complex in Bethlehem at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Both still stand.
The Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulcher is now only a shadow of its Constantinian original, however. The Muslim Sultan of Egypt destroyed most of it in 1009 AD, a mad act that helped bring on the Crusades, and it was later rebuilt on a much smaller scale. It is not now an imposing building, inside or out—the scale invariably surprises the first time visitor–and the tiny structure that houses the very plain stone sarcophagus that marks Jesus’ final resting place, is so grotesquely ornate that it would be perfectly at home in an Italian cemetery in Queens.
The Holy Sepulcher—a Western name; the Eastern Christians call it the Anastasis, Resurrection–is the most famous church in Christendom, of course, but it also bears the scars of the scandalous sectarian turf-wars that are fought there among the Catholics, Greeks and Armenians, with the Copts, Jacobites and Nestorians huddled in the corners and the Abyssinians clinging to their spot on the roof. The Muslims traditionally possess the key to the church, a privilege they no longer flaunt, and the Israelis of course have the final say, a sovereign privilege they sometimes do very cautiously invoke.
The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem is in better shape. There the Greeks hold the church and share with the Armenians the Grotto of the Nativity below. The Latin (Roman) Catholics have their own church, St. Catherine’s, cheek by jowl next door. And all around there is a cloud of centuries-old hostility that flows not only between Christians but envelopes Muslims, Christians and Jews in a narrow space. Christmas Midnight Mass, a Western custom, is celebrated in St. Catherine’s—the candle- and incense-averse Protestants are sent to some remote place called “Shepherds’ Field.”
Midnight Mass in Bethlehem is a hot ticket but I once managed to score one from the Franciscans who run the Bethlehem StubHub. Getting the ticket was not easy, but getting inside was even tougher since it involved an extended encounter with Israeli security who police the event and who seem not to be entirely into the Christmas spirit. I heard Mass—I certainly didn’t see any of it–from my place in a confessional booth of a side aisle, while outside, in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the rollicking Feast of Bad Taste, which begins with the annual migration of the Scandinavian Hippy, rocked on, fueled by pizza and copious arak.
Jerusalem was just the beginning of church building on the grand scale. Churches sprouted everywhere in the Christian Roman Empire, modest to grandiose, suburban to city center. And no longer merely in the shape of the flat-roofed basilica. At the burial sites of Christian martyrs altars were placed atop their sanctified graves and enshrined in circular domed churches. It is the same configuration the Muslims used in their Jerusalem Dome of the Rock shrine, which looks in disdain—Muslims are instructed in the Quran that Jesus did not really die on the cross–and unmistakable emulation toward the rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher across Jerusalem’s Tyropean Valley. The glorious culmination of the domed church, one that raised the architectural stakes by posing a dizzyingly lofty circular dome atop a square building, is Justinian’s sixth century Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia) in Constantinople. Later, when the city was called Istanbul, the Muslims whitewashed over the offensive mosaic representations and converted the church into a mosque. Now, the original mosaics cleansed and gloriously intact, Holy Wisdom is a secular museum in republican Turkey.
The transformation of one house of worship into another, of a pagan temple into Christian church, of Christian church or Jewish synagogue into Muslim mosque and then, on occasion, back, was not unusual. There are still traces of the Damascus temple that the Christians turned into the Church of St. John the Baptist, and the relics of the Baptist are still preserved in the Umayyad mosque that replaced the church. The Muslims did the same with the Christian church in Cordoba, though the mosque there, the Mezquita, an acre of slender columns and striped arches, far outshone its antecedent in size and décor. When, after seven centuries, the Christians eventually regained the city, they simply opened the flat roof of the sprawling mosque and dropped a miniature Gothic cathedral into the space.
Such transformations are commonplace in Spain, where Christians and Muslims surged back and forth over the centuries, with the Iberian Jews caught in the undertow. In Seville the Christians took down the congregational mosque but left standing its impressive minaret, now called the Giralda or Herald, to serve as the bell tower of their cathedral. In Toledo two buildings, the luminous Maria la Blanca and the sumptuously decorated Il Transito, were originally synagogues built for the Jews of the city by Muslim architects in the Muslim style, complete with Arabic inscriptions! With the Reconquista and the expulsion of the Jews, they were converted into churches and now, in a different age, they are houses of touristic worship. And the diminutive and perfectly preserved Cristo de la Luz on the northern margin of Toledo was originally a mosque built on the site of a Visigothic church and then, after the reconquest, turned back into a church.
Muslims’ collective worship is different from the Jews’ and very different from the Christians’. Though they have their own tradition of virtuoso cantorial recitation of the Qur’an, it is never part of the Friday noon service when Muslims worship in common. Their worship is prayer, silent, focused and demotic, without benefit of rabbi, priest or altar. The worshippers assemble in silence and arrange themselves in rows, generally through the length of the building rather than across its width, as the Jews and Christians do. There are no chairs, pews or kneelers. They stand, sit and bow, heads to the ground as each silently utters the brief prayers of praise and petition that constitute the service. There are no statues or shrines to distract, no incense to enhance the mood, no music to underline or prompt an affect.
Mosques come in all sizes, from tiny village halls, where most of the congregation for convenience prays in the outside courtyard, to enormous structures that testify to the piety but more often to the wealth and power of the men who had them built. Most do not tower like the Gothic cathedrals of the West: there are no soaring facades or heaven-seeking spires, merely a minaret from which the call to prayer is sounded five times daily. At first the minarets were square and squat like the Christian bell towers that inspired them, and the type is still visible in the Umayyad mosques in Damascus and Aleppo, many of the mosques of Morocco and the just mentioned Giralda in Seville.
The minaret evolved, however, just as Islam did, and eventually grew round and then slimmer. It reached its evolutionary term during the Ottoman period in pencil-thin towers balancing gracefully against the sky, like that of the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne (Adrianople), the last great Muslim city of Europe, and in the enormous Ottoman mosques whose elegant minarets feather the skyline of Istanbul: the “Blue” Sultan Ahmet, the Suleymaniye, the Yeni Cami or “New Mosque” and the Fateh Cami of Mehmet the Conqueror’s—it was Constantinople itself that he conquered in 1453–atop its crowning hill. They are Islam’s true cathedrals, light on the ground and domed, like Hagia Sophia sitting unperturbed in their midst, the proud assertions of empire.
Standing in Istanbul in the sea of oriental carpetry under the dome of the imperial Suleymaniye Cami, it is difficult to imagine that the first Muslim mosque was nothing more than the courtyard of Muhammad’s mud-brick house in Medina. It is equally difficult, when contemplating the superdome-like dimensions of its modern version in Medina, to imagine the size of Muhammad’s original prayer hall. Unlike the Ottoman mosques of Istanbul, which are graceful in their grandiosity, the Prophet’s mosque in Medina has undergone explosive growth by accretion. Its present sprawling and somewhat garish hall was enlarged to contain—how could it?—the masses of pilgrims who came from Mecca after the Hajj to pay their respects at the tomb of Muhammad which is now under its roof. The mosque is in effect a shrine to the dead Prophet.
The sarcophagus that holds the remains of the Prophet now rests hidden from sight within a grilled cottage-size aedicule located to the left of the front-wall niche that in every mosque that marks the direction of Mecca. The visitor to the tomb stands, closely observed by nearby religious police officers, before three gilt portholes in the aedicule’s back wall. Muhammad lies behind the largest, while behind the other two are Abu Bakr and Umar, the Prophet’s first two successors as the caliph or head of the Muslim community. And, as already noted, there is reportedly a fourth sarcophagus there. It awaits the return of Jesus from the Beyond. Why the police, I asked afterwards. To discourage prayer to the Prophet, I was told, and to prevent Shi‘ite violation of the tombs of Abu Bakr and Umar whom they execrate as usurpers.
The community mosque is the Muslim signature on every town and village in the Middle East, while the Grand Mosques in the cities are the preeminent monuments to Muslim piety, culture, power and wealth. That is the message not only of the mosques of Mecca, Medina and Istanbul but also of the venerable mosques of Amr ibn al-As and Ibn Tulun in Cairo, as well as the stately Sultan Hassan and that powerful engine for the spread of Islam, the mosque and madrasa of al-Azhar in the same city. The Great Mosque of Qayrawan, the fortress-like mosque in Sousse, the Qayrawiyin in Fez and late lamented Mezquita in Cordoba; and eastward, the Shah Abbas and Lutfullah on the Midan in Isfahan, the Red Mosque in Rawalpindi, the Grand Mosques of Delhi and Lahore all deliver the same message. It is the Muslim’s version of Christ Pantocrator rendered in architectural terms. Sometimes there is overreach, however. The enormous King Hassan II in Casablanca may have been intended as a mosque, but given the scarcity of interesting things to see in that city—visitors soon learn that Rick’s Place was actually on a back lot in Hollywood—that impressive edifice, albeit cold and generally empty, is simply a ceremonial venue and a tourist attraction. God, it seems, is not there either.
The Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is a monument in a special sense. It sits at the far southern end of Herod’s platform, now the Haram al-Sharif, and it was the first mosque the Muslims put up after they took the city from the Byzantine Christians in 638 AD. Originally it was built out of debris from the destroyed Jerusalem Temple, but those traces are long gone since the building, unlike the Dome of the Rock, has been many times expanded to reflect the growth of Islam and the growing importance of Jerusalem in Muslim eyes.
During the Crusades, when the Western Christians held the city (1099-1187 AD), they converted the shrine of the Dome into a Latin church (Templum Domini) and the Aqsa Mosque into a residence (Templum Solomonis) for the new king of this Frankish overseas colony; and then, when the royal palace was relocated to the Jaffa Gate, into a headquarters and armory for the Knights Templars, the Waffen SS of the Crusades. Today the Aqsa is a large but rather unprepossessing building, unremarkable in all save its location and its associations.
With the disappearance of the greater part of the Jewish population, many of the surviving synagogues of Europe and the Middle East are simply rather lachrymose monuments. The cathedrals too seem, in many instances, to be yielding their sacred functions to touristic ones. It’s chiefly the Liturgy of Saint Peregrinus that is now celebrated in them. Mosques, however, have been more successful in maintaining their primary status as houses of worship, perhaps because few tourists get beyond Istanbul and perhaps too because there is a Western uneasiness about mosques, particularly functioning ones. Middle Eastern mosques seem always to have worshippers in them—Muslims are required to pray five times daily, though not necessarily in a mosque—and so appear to be quieter and more meditative places than churches, certainly than the European cathedrals with streams of tourists constantly eddying through them.
There’s no shortage of churches in Europe, of all sizes, shapes and vintages. It’s hard to miss the cathedral, however, the soaring Gothic “seat” (cathedra) of the local bishop that still dominates so many urban skylines: Westminster in London, St. Peter’s in Cologne, Rheims and Chartres with their famous rose windows. The Toledo cathedral has its own extraordinary illumination, Il Transparente, the ingenious skylight that focuses the sun on the tabernacle of the high altar. Spanish cathedrals are filled with narrative. The great retablo mayor, the towering backdrop to the main altar in Toledo and Seville is filled to overflowing with richly gilded panels depicting the sacred history of the Old and New Testaments, the continuation of the story begun at Dura Europos and recapitulated on Monte Varallo. And in the choir reserved for the canons of the cathedral, the wooden stall seats are intricately and delicately carved with other scenes from the contemporary history of Catholic Spain.
Italy has its soaring Duomo in Milan, St. Peter’s in Rome with its extraordinary Bernini altar, and my own quirky favorites in Orvieto and Siena. And then, to cleanse the palate, the ecclesiastical guide recommends a visit to the austerely Cistercian monastery church at Batalha in Portugal. Quirky is scarcely the word to describe the Sagra Familia, Antoni Gaudí’s eerily fantastic church in Barcelona, which is still growing mysteriously and organically out of the Catalan soil many years after the architect’s death. I am also partial to Sant’Ignazio in Rome, not only for its off the charts baroque frescoes but because upstairs, in the old Jesuit residence, you can visit the cell of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga—yes, those Gonzagas–who was so highly sexed, or just so weird, that he chose not to look at his mother. Or maybe she was the problem.
The cathedrals are the flashy neon, but there are plenty of other bright lights, with churches in every village, town and city across the continent, many of them now more often used as concert halls than as houses of worship. In Prague, for instance, there is far more Mozart than masses being heard in its glorious baroque churches. And there are dimmer lights too, like the stone hut churches of Ireland, where one local tour guide proudly informed me, “My ancestors constructed these in the sixth century.” I forbore to remind him that somebody else’s somewhat more skilled ancestors were putting up Hagia Sophia at the same time. But tours are always a little disappointing, I suppose. I once took the “Homes of the Stars” tour in Hollywood and was shown the pleasant houses where Robert Culp and Dick Van Dyke Harvey lived. Où sont les etoiles d’antan?
If it’s stone churches you fancy, I recommend those at Göreme Turkey. These odd sanctuaries were not built of piled up rocks but carved out of the soft and strange fairy chimneys of Cappadocia. They are a kind of Christian Petra and the haunt of those Near Eastern ascetics who seem always to have been looking for ever odder ways to assault their flesh. More recently, however, Göreme has begun to advertise “Cappadocian Cave Suites” for those inclined to check out ancient asceticism on high-count sheets. Not too far away, across the Syrian borders and north of Aleppo, one can inspect at Qala‘at Sem‘an the base of the lofty pillar on top of which Simon Stylites (the “Pillar Man”), the gold medal winner among those ancient “athletes of God,” lived on a platform for forty years. He had many admirers and they built around his pillar, which poked skywards from its center, a very large church and a hostel-monastery, thread-counts unrecorded, for the many pilgrims who were drawn to the site.
Simon wanted to escape vertically from the world and its blandishments, but in the end the world came to him to stare, admire and petition. The same occurred in Egypt when a high liver like Antony in Alexandria got religion (the new Christian variety) and fled horizontally to the solitude of the desert to amend his ways and teach his wayward body some rather severe lessons. Soon he had lots of company, and the wilderness began to resemble a commune of emaciated bearded body-afflicters engaged in a penance race. It is still possible to follow in their tracks out into the desert west of Alexandria to the formidable Wadi Natrun—the ancients called it Scetis—and see where they lived, though not exactly how since spiritual descendants of the Desert Fathers have somewhat tempered the fiery asceticism of the pioneers. The present Coptic monastery at the Wadi Natrun is hardly the Scetis Sheraton, but is considerably more than a cave with lizards running through it.
A somewhat different descendant of that early urge to beat up on the flesh and the devil is the monastic complex of Mar Saba in the rocky Judean wilderness southeast of Jerusalem. It is a fifth-century complex of small mud-brick and stone buildings, walled like most against the predatory Bedouin who surround it and clinging to the precipitous side of a wadi. The solitary has always been an eastern ascetic paradigm, but Mar Saba is one of the avatars of eastern cenobitic or community monasticism, remote and inner-directed, just as the Benedictines at Monte Cassino represent the western, more outer-directed and activist type.
Western monasteries reflected in their size and expensive artistic elegance the wealth of the Church that founded them and of the nobles who endowed them. Many were swept away by the twin purge of the Reformation and the French Revolution with its Napoleonic aftermath, but some idea of the power and scope of Catholic monasticism can still experienced in Portugal in the large and imposing Hieronymite monastery at Belém, Alfonso Henriques’ Cistercian foundation at Alcobaça and the complex built by João I at Batalha for the Dominicans to commemorate his 1385 victory over Spain. Spain has its own monasteries, none quite so spectacular as their Portuguese neighbors, but even I might be able to handle a week—let’s say a weekend–at the lovely Benedictine abbey of Santo Domingo at Silos near Burgos.
Simon Stylites and Mar Saba point forward to the Greek monks isolated atop their craggy mesa at Meteora in Greece; the Benedictines in quite another direction, to their ever more aggressive offspring, like the militant but still monastic Franciscans, with their gigantic founder-shrine at Assisi; to the Dominicans, who didn’t invent the Inquisition but certainly rode it into the ground; and to the scarcely monastic and only fleetingly ascetic Jesuits, whose world headquarters you may, if you wish, visit at #4 Borgo Santo Spirito in Rome; just don’t say I sent you.
Beyond the Jesuits lay only the military orders, like the Knights Templars and Hospitalers, chivalrous monks in arms, called into existence by the Crusades and vowed to the repossession and protection of the Christian Holy Land in Palestine. That didn’t work out so well, and the Templars ended up in very hot water and very sad straits, the grist for bad novels and innumerable conspiracy theories. The more cautious Hospitalers moved to Rhodes, which they took from the Turks and kept as their own. They left their mark there: the palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, as they were then called, still stands—Mussolini occasionally spent his vacations there—as do their impressive fortifications. They have also left their stamp on Malta where the knights, now the Knights of Malta, took up residence—the island was a gift to the order from Charles V—after the Turks drove them off Rhodes in 1522. The intimidating fortress-works that still stand guard over the entry to the Grand Harbor are their work. Napoleon swept them off Malta and pretty much out of the fighting business. The headquarters of the Order is now on the fashionable Via Condotti in Rome and no new forts are envisioned by the Knights, who have long since turned in their arms—well, maybe not all the gilt swords–and do chiefly works of Roman Catholic philanthropy.
It was another November, I think, perhaps ten years ago, when I was sitting in the lounge of a Viking Cruise Line riverboat on the Lower Danube with a copy of Leigh-Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water open on my lap. It was raining outside and the Bulgarian shore was gliding by coated in a dark mist.
“We’re coming to the Cherpish Monastery,” a voice said. “Built 1370. A real gem of medieval Bulgarian architecture. You coming?”
I looked down at my book. Cherpish Monastery. It didn’t sound familiar. Leigh-Fermor, who had gone full baladi across Europe in 1933, foot and hoof all the way, must have passed it by. No Viking River Queen or Amex plastic for our Paddy. But he may have had something better. Sure, there was the occasional night in a sheep fold, but the dashing young man played the English gentleman card at every castle keep he came to, and he spent a fair number of nights not with the livestock but drinking brandy and smoking Egyptian cigarettes with the local not-quite-ruined Balkan nobility and, intertextually, sleeping with not a few of their daughters and wives.
“It’s raining out.”
“Oh, come on! How many monasteries do you get to see?”
Not that many, actually, but I did get to spend nine years in one of them. St. Andrew on Hudson was neither Mt. Athos nor the Wadi Natrun, it is true, but it was authentic enough that I got the idea. Maybe Cherpish was very different. I really didn’t care.
“I think I’ll give it a pass.”
“Are You Sure You’re Asking Enough?”
Monks are exhorted and trained to despise the material goods of this world, the trinkets and doodads that turn the eyes away from eternity That’s fine for them, but if we all scorn essential consumer goods like Hummel figurines and Swarovski crystal, the world economic order would surely crash, would it not? Can you imagine a world without Turkish kilims, Irish fisherman sweaters or duty-free perfume? No need. We’re covered. For every trinket-despising Carthusian there are roughly 50,000 tourists who are committed to snatching up each and every Mexican beaded purse ever made, no matter how fast the Vietnamese turn them out. Nobody wants to come right out with it, but the dirty secret of the tourist industry is that for the last twenty-odd years shopping has replaced sightseeing as the most popular tourist activity worldwide. Visitors to the museum now skip the Van Goghs and Picassos and head straight for the gift shop for those really neat Van Gogh magnets and the Picasso cocktail napkins.
The local entrepreneurs have finally caught on. After the millionth American arrived in Naples and demanded real pizza, the locals decided they’d better forget their lame Neapolitan pie and learn how to make authentic pizza the American way. Cruise ships used to stock only toothpaste and Dramamine for their passengers; now you can buy the Thai crown jewels or a Chagall print on board. And to take care of any leftover savings, there’s a casino right next to the boutiques where the odds on winning are roughly those that the Chagall is real. Where once eastern markets had dried apricots and pistachios up front, they now flash NYPD caps and “I Survived Ramadan!” T-shirts.
I am not assuming a holier than thou attitude here. OK, I never actually wear the “College of Cardinals Athletics Department” sweatshirt I picked up in Rome or the pair of red cardinal’s socks I bought in the ecclesiastical outfitter on the Piazza Minerva, but they’re still in my drawer. The mosque lamp I bought in the Damascus suq in 1959 still hangs, undusted, over the TV set, though the yurt straps that I had to have in Tashkent have long since disappeared from my walls; ditto the sheepskin coat from Kabul—who knew that it had to be cured?–that smelled up my closets for years. So I have not been immune. Duty free items no longer much attract me, however; manufactured items seem to be pretty much the same price everywhere, and the VAT has screwed up my calculations, always approximate to begin with, of the price of everything.
I have so far avoided the LLadro obsession and I have passed on the pearls in Majorca, but I confess to having succumbed to the Delftware in Delft, Quimperware in Quimper, Waterford in Waterford, port in Oporto, a loden coat at Loden-Plankl in Vienna, an orange Hermès duffel coat at Hermès in Paris and Jimmy of Maui sunglasses in, where else?–Maui. I’ve laid down good plastic for chocolate in the Lindt factory in Kilchberg, for Matryoshka dolls in Moscow, an antique and very dangerous looking pistol in Kabul, a Solomon and Sheba wall-hanging in Addis Ababa, a Katz safari jacket and a seven foot Masai spear in Nairobi, an overnight custom made suit in Singapore, ceramics in Izniq, tent hangings in Cairo and rugs from the hard sell Turks in Kušadasi and soft-sell Moroccans in Marrakesh, “You will hand it down to your children, sir.” There was no handing down. When he got old enough my son just took it.
In Europe (and Israel) there are now pedestrian only shopping streets in every major city. They were built for the natives, but the Faubourg St. Honoré, the Copenhagen Strøget and Ben Yehuda Streets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are convenient places for the tourist to lighten his wallet. The Ramblas in Barcelona belongs here too, if it’s flowers or birds you crave or–are you ready for the big move?—bringing home a mime for the living room. There are dedicated markets as well—I’m not talking leeks here—like the Burlington Arcade in London, the Gallerias in Milan and Naples and that very expensive bridge across the Arno, if full bankruptcy is the goal.
The best markets are, however, in the Middle East, the suqs and fabled bazaars of the Orient. Some of the suqs, like those in Istanbul and Marrakesh, are wise in the ways of tourism, but others, like the covered suqs in Damascus and particularly Aleppo, albeit a bit close on a warm day, are still traditional to the degree possible in a global economy and a wired-in world. The more remote, the better. The suq in Bukhara is a gem, and the outdoor market under my hotel window in Moroccan Zagora was also exceedingly baladi but very specialized: it traded only in camels. The market in Muscat is untouched by global commercialism, while Dubai, up the Persian Gulf a bit, has a shopping mall and an air-conditioned gold suq for the benefit of the Indian ladies who fly in on Emirate Air from Mumbai to load up on saris and the yellow stuff.
The Middle Eastern suqs sell everyday basics like pots and pans, transistor radios and cheap suits, as well as a cornucopia of useful junk from China and Taiwan, but they also have the items guaranteed to bring little bits of saliva to the corners of the touristic mouth. They will send your purchases by mail—none, even carpets in pillowcases, has ever failed to arrive—and you can pay then, or later, or whenever you get around to it; homo peregrinus is apparently a very honest species. The suq in Istanbul is filled with such items—I have a soft spot for the Grand Bazaar there since that’s where I bought my eye-popping kilim-covered roll on—but the mother of them all must be the famous Khan al-Khalili in Cairo. There are attention-grabbing attractions at every mysterious turn, like golden ankhs with your name in hieroglyphics, or gorgeously decorated galabiyyas, the long gowns worn by Egyptian peasants and grandes dames alike. It is the brass, however, that sounds the loudest of all: lamps, pots, planters, platters, coffee tables and coffee pots, trays, braziers: you name it, they’ll hammer it up for you. I bought enough brass in the Khan al-Khalili—Yes, and how much would that be?–to brazen the testicles of a barrel and a half of monkeys.
The Khan al-Khalili was also the scene of a rare social triumph, like getting a Middle Easterner to go through a door ahead of you. In this instance it was the electrification of an old saw. Visitors are always advised not to admire anything in an Arab host’s house since he is then obliged by the laws of hospitality to give it to you. No living person has ever seen this actually occur. But once in the Khan, a shop owner quite casually commented on my nifty tie, a gold filament-brocaded item from Damascus, which I immediately removed from my neck and forced upon him. His loss of face was immense, and news of his disgrace spread like wildfire through the bazaar. Some say it led directly to the fall of the government and a higher than usual inundation of the Nile.
A temporary triumph, very temporary. Like every American, I think everything has a fixed price, which is usually displayed on the object in question. In the suq, and most everywhere else on the globe, I imagine, the price of anything is what you’re willing to pay for it, and that price is arrived at by that foreign blood sport called “bargaining,” whose rules are as opaque to me as cricket. I am as incapable of bargaining as I am of breakdancing or watching a Robin Williams movie.
I fear I am a grave disappointment to those professional bazaar bandits who have been sitting in their cramped shops for generations and awaiting my arrival. The goods are set before me. I finger them in the prescribed fashion, showing no apparent interest in any item in particular. The vendor is patient but ready to play, and I open with the Fool’s Gambit.
“How much is this?” I try, very casually.
His smile sags, his head sinks into his shoulders. An American.
“Whatever you wish to pay, sir.”
That not really true, but it’s closer to the truth than my stone-blind “How much is that?” I have no clue what price to suggest. None. I insist and he finally comes up with a figure, outlandish in his eyes, I’m sure, perhaps something he saw in the newspaper about the sovereign debt of Greece. And I cough it up.
Sometimes I am not alone in these embarrassing encounters. Once, in Beirut, a shop owner, his eyes near tears at the anticipated windfall that would put his children through college, suggested a price for some “Bedouin” embroidery—“Bedouin” must be the name of a new handicrafts manufactory outside of Shanghai. My companion, who was unversed in both Bedouin embroidery and the rapacious ways of the bazaar, said, “That’s very nice work. Are you sure you’re asking enough?” The merchant’s breath grew shallow, his face turned a deathly pale, the same expression you see portrayed on the face of a saint when he has had a presentiment of the Beatific Vision. He had died, the rascal, and gone to Grifters’ Heaven.
But the slickers of the suq do occasionally, very occasionally, meet their match. The match in one instance I witnessed was in the person of a stunning black beauty with a two-foot Afro, a miniskirt of roughly the same dimension and sporting the precise kind of tank top that touristas are warned against wearing in countries where there are men. We were in the jewelry suq in Meknes, where the cards are shuffled by some of the fastest hands in the Maghrib. I stood, but the lady in question squatted down, butt on heels, directly in front of her victim and picked up one of his baubles. The game was already over; he just didn’t quite realize it yet.
Centuries of training held firm, but there was an odd new quaver in his voice.
“Seventy-five dollars American.”
She bent over to inspect the piece. Yikes!
“Fifty,” he corrected. The rout was on.
“I’ll give you a dollar. American.”
Now I almost fainted. This was Sudden Death Bargaining. The Ultimate Game.
“Five dollars,” he managed to choke out. He was turning purple.
She paused. Kill him and eat him there or just throw him back in the pond?
“OK,” she said. “A dollar and a half. Do you make change?”
I’m not sure she actually paid him. Without removing his eyes from her, he wrapped up the doodad in a page of Meknès Aujourdhui and delicately handed it over.
“Merci, mademoiselle. Shukran ktir.”
“Thanks, guy,” she said and gave him one last quick peek as baksheesh.
One can only imagine what ensued in his home later that evening.
I think I may just be getting tired, tired of looking and listening with increasingly unattending eyes and ears, tired of tramping through endless corridors in Versailles and the Winter Palace in Petersburg. I pass under Evita’s balcony in the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires and Mussolini’s in the Palazzo Venezia without looking up, and I no longer even glance at Hitler’s rostrum at Nuremberg. I am weary of wandering the mazes of the Topkapi Serai in Istanbul and the windy open courts of Akbar’s deserted palace at Fathepur Sikri in Uttar Pradesh, in and out of the lovely but foolish Alhambra in Granada and the Haven’t-I-Done-This-Before Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.
And I am disappointed. The much-abused Little Mermaid in the Copenhagen harbor is somehow off scale and besides, she simpers. The much-ballyhooed Minneken Pis is not only ridiculously small in his Brussels street corner niche; he is gewoon belachelijk, straight out ridiculous. But I am a student of compensatory consolation, particularly the self-administered type, and in Copenhagen a turn round the Tivoli Gardens will soon drown all memories of the girl on the rock, while in Brussels tucking into a heaping plate of scungilli fra diavolo (frites on the side) on the Rue des Bouchers, which is as clogged with restaurants as the arteries of its diners with plaque, should obliterate all images of the little guy and his little schwanz.
Maybe I’m looking in the wrong direction. Maybe I should give up on the castles and the cathedrals and raise my eyes to the natural wonders like Drake’s Passage, the Grand Tetons, the Murchison Falls in Uganda and the Gullfoss of Iceland, the Chilean fjords. Yes! Patagonia! Serengeti! The Empty Quarter! But then I stand before Mt. Etna or Kilimanjaro and I am caught between “What a wonderful world!” and “What the hell am I doing out here in this heat?” The cataracts of the Nile belong there, the Zeeland of Holland and the Falkland Islands. And how can I forget the Geysir, the Iceland thermal spring that has given its name to water spouts all over the world but now apparently suffers from performance anxiety—Are you listening, Old Faithful?—and no longer spouts a lick.
There is no trace of such existential angst poolside at the Ritz-Carlton. The younger kiddies are priced out of this kind of venue and the older kiddies are, I assume, in school. It is an all-adult cast slowly browning in the sun. The more adventuresome are down at the beach tempting the jellyfish, leaving the pool to the stolid and the silent, staring at the calm chlorinated water through half-closed eyes and thinking of the possibility of maybe another mojito before lunch. I have “Bring Up the Bodies” on my Kindle and all of the Swedish “Wallander” on my iPad. I am content.
Where did she say that nineteenth century house was in Ponce?