Plutonium in Hierapolis

Passing through the city of the dead, the Necropolis, we would enter Hierapolis through the triple arched northern gate (featured photo), erected in 84 CE, when the town was rebuilt after a major earthquake, to welcome the Roman emperor Domitian. From there a kilometer long path would lead into the city where I really wanted to see the Plutonium.

But between the Necropolis and the gate there was a structure which was probably in danger of collapsing, and was fenced off from tourists. This was the Roman bath, which welcomed travelers to clean themselves after their journey and before entering the city. It is said to have been built in the 2nd century CE, and was converted into a Byzantine basilica a couple of hundred years later. It is interesting that the Romans would oil themselves before a bath, and then would remove the oil with scrapers and water while taking a bath. They picked up the idea of using cakes of animal fat as soap from barbarians. By the time this city was rebuilt, soap would have been common. After walking past the bath/basilica I realized that the fencing could have been prompted by UNESCO, whose listing of this site as a world heritage notes that the biggest conservation concern for Hierapolis is visitors.

Just inside the gate, to our left were the public toilets. The last one which we had seen was in Ephesus. There one had to guess at the structure because the walls had fallen down long ago. This one was fairly intact for a two thousand year old structure. You could see the remnants of the stalls. We’d noticed underground pipes along the road as we walked past the Necropolis. I guess that in the usual Roman fashion, water and sanitation was a major design criterion. The Romans may not have understood the microscopic reasons behind diseases, but they had enough experience to make sure that sanitation was good enough to minimize the chances of outbreaks of diseases. The baths and the toilets, so close to the city gates, were clear signals of their understanding of these principles of health.

The buildings on the other side of the road no longer stood. Some arches columns were still upright, but the rest of the structures had been reduced to foundations. Typically, there would be a market this close to the gate. The more elaborate columns at the back would have been the beginning of the city proper. There was not much to see here, and I walked rapidly through the rest of the long city looking for my target. It turned out to be away from the baths and the travertine cliffs, towards the distance where the theatre stood. I’d already seen several ruined theatres, so I wasn’t planning to walk up to it.

The Plutonium was dedicated to the god of the underworld. It is a grotto near the temple of Apollo (photo above) which emits steam and other gases from the fault beneath the horst of Hierapolis. It is said that the priests of Cybele could approach this opening to the underworld on their bellies, descend part of the way, and often come back alive. There are no priests today, and the whole area was fenced off. The hot springs that flow here are due to rainwater seeping into the faults, and then being forced out. The city is built on top of a geological fault which has slipped by a meter and a half since the late Roman times. Looking at a geological map of the fault zone I realize that the Plutonium was on it. The Romans were right, it was a glimpse into the true underworld. Unfortunately it was closed off.

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Visiting an Oracle

When we stood in the ruins of the “new” temple to Apollo in Didyma, I wondered how old the Oracle of Didyma was. I couldn’t find a clear answer. The “archaic temple” was built in the 8th century BCE, and the oracle is known to precede the appearance of Greeks in this area. Since there were settlements in this region from Neolithic times, and little written history comes down to us from before the Greeks, you can pick your favourite date out of about 10000 years.

The new temple can be dated rather well, however. After the destruction of the archaic temple in 493 BCE by Persians, the removal of the bronze statue of Apollo to Ecbatana, and the drying of the oracle’s well, the cult of Apollo fell into disuse. Alexander visited Didyma after his conquest of Miletus in 331 BCE, and found that the oracle’s well was full again. Seleucus Nicator I brought back the statue of Apollo in 300 BCE, after which the construction of the new temple started. The architects were Daphnis and Paionios (the latter famous for building the temple of Artemis in Ephesus).

The plan was too grand for the engineering skills of that time. The temple was never finished. The base is rectangular, with sides of length 120 meters by 25 meters. Two rows of pillars were supposed to surround the inner temple, making 122 pillars in total. Only 72 of these were ever built, and even among those, several were not completed. Work proceeded for two centuries, then stopped and resumed only in Roman times. A row of Medusa heads was added to the architrave during this later period.

The Family and I walked around the ruins. The sun had started dipping, and the light was brilliant, just perfect for the numerous sculptures (click on the gallery for detailed views) which can still be seen in the ruins. The Medusa heads were the most recent, dating from Roman times. But the sculptures of Nike, bull’s heads, and Gryphons (a Persian touch?) were probably among the earliest. We kept in mind the little sign that we saw on one of the walls (featured photo) and clamped down on the very strong urge to scratch our names into the stone. If you see Khanewala loves Family scratched inside a lop-sided heart on Apollo’s walls, it is not something that we have done.

A doorway in the wall led into a sloping corridor through the massive walls of the sanctuary into an inner courtyard. The narrow corridor slopes down fairly steeply. I wondered why. It looked like a slope down which cattle could be easily herded. Were there animal sacrifices inside? Animal sacrifice was common in ancient Greece (as in other Indo-European civilizations of that time, including Persia and India) but the sacrifices were usually made outside the sanctuary, and there was no tradition of mass sacrifice. Each killing was treated as a major event, full of mystical rites, and ending in the division of the meat between participants. It is thought that such ceremonies were the source of most of the meat eaten in those days.

The inside of the temple is enormous. We walked up to the oracle’s well and peered in to see that the water table is fairly high today. Standing next to the well at the northern end of the rectangular space, I took the photo which you see above. The far end of the area has steps. It is possible that people sat there and waited for the oracle’s response. There was an inner sanctum built around the well and the statue of Apollo. So actually this inner arena could have been used for sacrifices, and the narrow sloping corridor could have been used to lead a bull in. The other opening in the wall was a much wider corridor.

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After spending some time inside, we took the other corridor out and spent some time looking carefully at the bases of missing pillars. These bases seemed to have been individually decorated. Each one was different. Since the temple was constructed over many centuries, some of these differences probably reflect shifting aesthetics. Do some of the differences also reflect individual choice? Unfortunately writing had not yet become so common two thousand years ago that everyone would record their thoughts and feelings, so many of these questions cannot be answered.

We walked slowly around the temple, first stopping to admire the single standing column on the south-eastern end. From close up this column, almost 20 meters high, looked very impressive. There are disks of stone stacked up very precisely over each other. These were the tallest columns attempted by Greek architects. I’m unable to read or translate classical Greek, so I did not attempt to trace down the inscription which says that each column cost 40,000 drachmas. For comparison, an estimate of the daily income of a person working at this site is about 2 drachmas (this would have changed over centuries, since there is evidence of inflation and deflation of currency in Greek and Roman times).

We admired the scroll-work on the capitol of the standing column. As once expects in this region, after Alexander’s time, the columns are Ionic. A board at the entrance had told us that in some of the columns in the front these volutes on the capitals were replaced by heads of Zeus and Apollo. We did not see them in the sculptures displayed at the site. Walking around to the north brought us to an impressive sight (photo above). One of the completed columns has toppled. Each of its constituent disks was higher than me, so they are somewhat over two meters in diameter, and about a meter in height.

Looking out on from the eastern (back) porch of the temple one sees a line of cafes and restaurants around this place. My favourite was the Oracle Pansion. We’d spent more than an hour inside, and The Family agreed that it was time for a coffee.

Circus

If my trip to Turkey taught me anything, it was the single most visible difference between a Greek and a Roman amphitheater. Greek amphitheaters are built into slopes of mountains or hills, whereas the Romans built them as free-standing structures. The amphitheater in Miletus (featured photo) is therefore clearly built during Roman times. When you begin to explore the structure you realize that nothing that old is so simple. What we see today is the Roman era rebuilding of the theater, after later Byzantine works were removed by 19th century archaeologists. There is a little hill at the back into which the earliest Greek theater was built.

Theaters were largely used for watching games in Greek and Roman times, much like today. I thought for a moment that the relief sculpture near the entrance (photo above) showed gladiatorial fights. But when I looked closer it seems that they are more heroic than that. It is not unlikely that gladiatorial fights were staged here, but there were possibly more uses to the arena.

We saw scattered stones bearing sculpted decorations, and much writing in Greek. Even in the Roman era, the language of this region continued to be Greek. I suppose that this constant linguistic friction between the east and west of the empire was at the root of many problems, including the Great Schism of the later part of the millennium. We should really have taken some time to examine the graffiti on the seats in the theater, but I felt too lazy for that. While The Family climbed up the tiers of seats, I looked for a way into the structure.

It wasn’t hard to find. The theater seated 15,000 people, so orderly flow of spectators must have been a design concern. I climbed into the corridors behind the seats and found them in a remarkable state of preservation. It was easy to walk right around the theater, climb up and down different levels. Eventually The Family abandoned her climb through the seats and joined me in the shaded corridors. The sun was warm, but it was quite pleasant inside the massive stone structure. This area is the delta of the ever-shifting Meander river (today called the Büyük Menderes). In the earliest times the seats of the theater faced the harbour of Miletus.

We eventually reached the top level of the theater and could look down at it. At the center of the immense semi-circle, four columns marked the place where the emperor would sit. One can also see the ruins of the Skene, the building behind the stage, very clearly from this vantage point. Hidden behind the far wall of seats is the remains of a Seljuk eta caravanserai which has been converted into a restaurant. We’d had a relaxed lunch there, and met up with a group of British birdwatchers who told us stories of seeing Dalmatian Pelicans beginning to nest nearby. The Family and I instantly marked this area down as a possible birding destination.

If you look at the featured photo again you will notice fortifications on top of the theater. We were now at a level where we could go out and look at them (photo above). This is a Byzantine era fortress raised during the times before the Turkish invasion. The walls of this fortress ran down to the stage, and were removed when the theater was restored. It is said that a military post was raised at this place earlier in 411 BCE by the Persian Satrap Tissaphernes after he conquered Miletus.

From the top one could also see Ilyas Bey’s mosque, erected in 1404 CE to celebrate the safe return of his wife after being captured by Timur’s army. The dome and the mosque seem to be in good repair, but the rest of the complex, the old Madrassa and the baths, are in ruins. The caravenserai buildings that we’d had our lunch in is also attributed to the same Ilyas Bey, emir of Mentese.

We found our way down through the tunnels used by spectators in the Roman times, and exited through the ruins of the Skene. The wildflowers of spring were everywhere and we stopped many times to take photos. In our times this part of the Aegean coast is beautiful in spring. The weather would have been warmer during the time of the Roman empire, and significantly cooler during the Greek period. I wonder what wildflowers could be seen in those days.

Sports and Politics

It seems appropriate to talk about ancient sports and politics during the cricket world cup. We saw a spirited team like Afghanistan’s coming close to beating India’s, and England’s going down to Sri Lanka’s. I would say cricket is more than a game, but Neville Cardus has said it before. I am sure that in the 4th century BCE, when the city center was planned, the placement of the Bouleuterion, the city council, next to the Agora (the marketplace) was deliberate. We walked into the perfectly preserved chamber (featured photo) and looked around the tiered seats. It didn’t require much imagination to complete the building in one’s mind, and there was a signboard put up very helpfully by the archaeology department of the Goethe University of Frankfurt to help you, in case you needed it.

The city would have held less than five thousand people, and six hundred and forty of them could sit in this chamber. That would possibly be close to one representative per family. The governance of the city was pretty democratic, it would seem. This was the place where Bias, the renowned lawyer of Ionian Greece, would have given his speeches.

The pieces of stone at the corner of the street between the Bouleuterion and the Agora, decorated with lion’s heads, apparently marked the basins of water where sportsmen would wash themselves after coming down from the arenas a little further up. This reminded me of cricket clubs playing in Azad Maidan, in front of Mumbai’s High Court. Again, little imagination is needed to conjure up visions of a lively city center: the crowds in the markets around the Agora, the bigwigs at the Bouleuterion, and the young men washing up after games. All the different ways in which families would try to out do each other were close at hand.

We walked down the street slowly. Next to the Bouleuterion is the Prytaneion, where the elected members of the government sat. Between the two, a group of archaeologists has assembled a massive pediment. This is the pediment of the temple to Athena Polias which stands higher up. For a while I was fooled into believing that this was the place where the temple stood. Only when The Family read some of the signboards carefully did we have our epiphany. Of course the temple had to be on the highest part of this city built on a slope.

Further along the pine shaded street is the Alexandrion, a building where Alexander is thought to have lived in during the siege of nearby Miletus. What is more definitely established is that this later became a shrine to him. A web page on Turkish archaeology told us that the marble statue of Alexander which stood here can now be seen in Berlin

Very close to this was a evocative place: a sanctuary to Demeter and her daughter Persephone. This is supposed to be one of the oldest places of worship in Priene. The myth of Demeter and Persephone encapsulates the experience of farming and growing food, so this is entirely believable. The sacrificial pit into which the blood of animals were poured is now a silent and restful place. We stood in this area and looked out at the surrounding land: calm and still full of farms after so many millennia. It was time for us to walk up one of the avenues to the acropolis.

The acropolis of Priene

Driving up the road from the village of Güllübahçe, we came to a vast and empty parking lot from which a rocky path led up to the well-preserved ruins of the ancient Ionian city of Priene. One thing that we eventually figured out about Greek cities was that it is good to start from the highest point: the acropolis. Priene was one of the twelve cities of the Ionian League of the 7th century BCE, currently proposed to enter the UNESCO world heritage list as an example of classical Greek town planning.

So, I suppose that the avenue which led us uphill was built much later, in the 4th century BCE. We followed it until we saw a sign for the Theatre (featured photo). This was built in the usual Greek style: the seats backing into a slope, facing a semi-circular arena in front of an altar. Behind this sacrificial altar was the pillared stage. We wandered behind the stage and found a Byzantine church (photo above). Priene continued to be occupied through the Byzantine era, until the 13th century, when the Turks arrived.

We walked down the nave of the church, and around a small section of a wall. There right in front of us were the ruins of the temple to Athena Polias. This is famous as a temple designed by the architect Pytheos, whose fascination with the style of columns which we call Ionic is visible in the scrolls of the capitals of the five standing columns. The temple was dedicated in 323 BCE by Alexander the Great. Behind the temple you can see the cliff of the ancient hill which was called Mycale. On the other side of the cliff is the temple to Poseidon called the Panionium. This was the central place of worship for the League, and was excavated in 2004.

By this time we were probably the only people left in Priene. The bright sun beat down on the stones of this temple. It had been sufficiently well known that it was mentioned in the histories of Herodotos. Apparently Pytheos came to Priene after his work on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the Hellenic world. The temple was planned and started in the 4th century BCE, but not completed until the time of Augustus in the 1st century CE. As a result, Augustus was installed as a god along with Athena Polias in this temple. The scroll that you see in the photo above is clearly from the capital of one of the Ionic columns whose constituent stones are scattered about in the background.

The few remaining pillars, the scattered stones of a once-magnificent temple, the empty landscape, all came together in a magical place. The Family and I wandered around the open space, reluctant to leave. But we had to go away finally. We crossed the last remnants of a door (photo above), a column of massive of blocks just above a short flight of stairs which took us back to the avenue we had climbed in order to get here.

Lower Ephesus

The geography of Ephesus is a means of separating the upper classes from the rest. Simply walk up the hill to find where the upper classes lived. Much of the reconstruction of Ephesus is concentrated here. The lower levels have not been explored much. I walked through the Tetragonos Agora (featured photo, looking at the southern hills). It originated from the 3rd century BCE, was made into its present shape during the reign of Augustus (early 1st century CE), new elements were added over centuries until an earthquake in the 4th century CE brought down everything. The subsequent rebuilding brought in elements from different parts of the city.

Above the eastern end is the Marble Way. I walked into galleries under it and saw beautiful excavated pieces stored there (one example above). I guess these galleries are now being used by archaeologists as temporary storage while the tremendous jigsaw puzzle of Ephesus is reassembled. Nero had founded a court in this spot in the middle of the 1st century CE. I wondered whether the rooms date from that time.

The lower part of Ephesus, as we see it today, is shaped by two streets. The Arcadian Way (photo above) runs from the Great Theater westwards to the port. The road is named after the 5th century Byzantine emperor Arkadios during whose reign it was given its present shape. The other is the Marble Way which runs above the Agora to the east, between the Celsus library and the Great Theater. Nero’s court of justice stood here before the earthquake, so the road probably dates from after the 4th century.

The Great Theater is one of the few structures being reconstructed in the lower part of Ephesus. It was first constructed at about the same time as the Tetragonos Agora, ie, in the 3rd century CE. It was rebuilt many times until it was the second largest theater in the Roman empire. The stage would have been backed by a two-storey structure called the Skene, which has not yet been reconstructed. One of the remarkable things that you can see in the photo is two women in bell bottomed pants. When did they become fashionable again?

On my way back I took the Marble Way above the Agora. The Family had noticed interesting graffiti along this road, which we wanted to photograph. Now we noticed that the stone has been worn away in places by wheels of chariots. The road that we, and other tourists, took was used in the Byzantine era by wheeled traffic. On one side of the road we noticed a colonnaded sidewalk for the use of ancient walkers. This part has not been restored.

There is a low wall on the side of the road which overlooks the Agora. Part of the wall just consists of old pieces of sculptured stone piled up. We looked at the pieces. Some of them look like they served as the capitals of pillars. Could they be the remnants of Nero’s court? Or were they found in many places, and merely been piled here while people search for the part of the jigsaw into which they will fit?

Thalassa! Thalassa! The snotgreen sea.

Kusadasi could have made me cry out like Buck Mulligan of Dublin in James Joyce’s great novel about an evening of drunkenness. I live in a city by the ocean, and I’d been away from towns for four days. The sea front of Kusadasi had the look of laid back small towns along the Cote d’Azur, at the other end of the Mediterranean. The day had been hot, but here a lively breeze whipped up waves. I walked along the strand, on the seaward side of Atatürk Bulvari, enchanted by the light on the sea-facing buildings.

Kusadasi is a port of call for many cruises in the Aegean, and the Aegean itself is one of the most widely traveled seas in human history. On World Oceans Day (June 8) it is interesting to think about the ecology of the Mediterranean. There are only about 17,000 different marine species in this sea. That is about 1% of all marine species. And it seems that many of them are endangered. The 1988 Convention on Biological Diversity was followed by a setting of targets; one aims to protect about 10% of all seas and oceans. Until now about 7% of the Mediterranean is protected (but see this contrary article).

Driving into Kusadasi earlier, we had passed a wild stretch of land on a cliff high above the sea. This part of the world is beautiful in the middle of spring. The air is cool, wild flowers cover the ground. The setting sun painted everything in shades of gold. We stopped to take photos of the green land and blue sea. A postcard put out by the UN for World Oceans Day reminds us that 70% of the earth’s area is covered by oceans and seas, and that 70% of the oxygen comes from there. All the oxygen in the air is due to plants, created by photosynthesis, as they soak up carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. It seems surprising that the oceans contain proportionally as many plants as the land. We do not see a green ocean, after all. But these numbers are not lies. Contrary to the evidence of our eyes, the sea is green. Maybe even snotgreen.

The library of Celsus

The Family took the high road and I took the low road, quite literally, to the library of Celsus, the centerpiece of the reconstruction of Ephesus. As a result, I walked through an ancient gateway and was surprised by crowds before I realized that I was in front of the library. The Family had a good view of the reconstructed facade before coming down to the square in front of the library. It was the first of Ramazan, and tables were being laid out, possibly for an Iftar dinner for the big brass of Selçuk, We joined the crowd of visitors gaping at the facade which had been reconstructed during the 1970s. Bits and pieces of it had been excavated over the years and taken to museums in Vienna and Istanbul, so the reconstruction had to use the remaining pieces and fill in the rest with reproductions. The result looks glorious, as you can see in the featured photo.

There was a single large room behind the facade, with a semicircular niche in the far wall. Below this is the burial chamber of Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaenus, the Proconsul of Ephesus in 92 CE, the first Greek to hold such a post. The library was built by his son in his memory over the crypt. From the room you can see that the building material included bricks, rubble, dressed stone as well as marble. I was using an audio-guide which told me that there are two interesting things about this structure. The first was that in Roman times people were not generally allowed to be buried in the city, so the existence of the crypt was a mark of singular honour. The second was that this was the third largest library in the empire, after Alexandria and Pergamon. I was struck by the fact that such a large room, and its upper floor, together held only thirty shelves, each of which could hold only 400 scrolls. In the times before printing, the number of books was remarkably small.


The facade is elaborate, with beautiful double rows of marble columns framing three entrances. Between then in four niches stand the (reproductions) of four statues: Sophia Celsus (representing wisdom and learning, whose name gives rise to the word philosophy), Arete Celsus (representing the fulfilment of learning), and headless statues of Ennoia Phillipi (who represents thinking and understanding), and Episteme Celsus (representing provable knowledge). These are categories of knowledge which had been discussed and debated by many philosophers by the 2nd century CE when the library was built.

From the evidence of the decorations in the portico of this building it seems that the family of Polemaenus was superlatively rich. There are complete epigraphs on the facade which have been studied quite extensively. A little search brought me to extensive modern historical literature on the career of Celsus. He was born in Sardis, into a rich family, studied law, did military service in Alexandria in the legion commanded by Vespasian (who soon became emperor). Then in quick succession Celsus became a senator, a judge (Praetor) in Rome, an imperial Legate in Cappadocia, Bythina and Cilicia, then a Consul, a Curator (responsible for the finance and organization of imperial building projects in Rome), and finally Proconsul of Asia.

The library burnt down in 262 CE. In the intervening years Ephesus, the capital of Roman Asia, was a bustling cosmopolitan port city. There is evidence of early Christians living here (including the apostles Paul and John), an Egyptian quarter with temples of the ancient Egyptian gods, and, from the evidence of a menorah carved into the steps of the library, clearly also an orthodox Jewish population. The Mediterranean was a diverse place two thousand years ago.

The emperor comes back

The Roman emperor Hadrian was an inveterate traveler, and visited Ephesus at least twice, once in 124 CE and again in 129 CE. The carefully restored structure on the street of Curetes, which you can see in the featured photo, is said to commemorate this visit and is now called the Temple of Hadrian. The open-fronted porch with its four columns and arched entrance leads, through an inner door, into the inner chamber where, it is thought, that a statue of Hadrian once stood. An epigraph found here says that the temple was built by Publius Quintilius Galeria in 138 CE and dedicated to Hadrian, Artemis of Ephesus, and the people of the city by the Asiarch Publius Vedius Antoninus Sabinus.

The reason that this building is so carefully reconstructed is that it was disinterred in 1956, after the Turkish government passed laws against removal of archaeological remains from the country. The Austrian Archaeological Institute was involved in uncovering the structure, as well as the restoration work which ended in 2014. The keystone of the arch at the entrance is decorated with a carving of Tyche, goddess of fortune and prosperity. She is crowned with the walls of the city, in a style that dates from the high Hellenic period, but apparently popular during the era of the Roman empire.

Above the inner door is a semicircular relief featuring a woman who is now called Medusa, surrounded by scrolls and Acanthus leaves. The same leaves decorate the capital of the columns at the front. The four empty pedestals in front of the temple (see the featured photo) would have held statues of four emperors, going by the names carved on the bases. These statues have not been found yet. The structure was refurbished in the 4th century to honour the emperor Theodosius, and the reliefs along the walls were built at that time. On the day I was there, the structure was cordoned off, so I could not get a good look at them. The originals are in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk.

I could use my camera to take a close look at two of the four panels. In the one you see above, there is an altar at the center. The figure to the left, in Roman military clothing, probably depicts an emperor. The winged figure of Victory (Nike) stands behind him. To the right are figures from mythology. The first one could be Theseus and the bearded figure next to him is Hercules. Four Amazons are shown running from Hercules. The founding myth of the city is that it was built by Amazons, but the story being told here somehow implies that they were driven away.

On the other side of the so-called Medusa was another equally enigmatic relief. Amazons are again shown in flight. This time they are probably fleeing from a figure identified with Dionysius, behind whom stands a Satyr, in front of a figure seated on a small elephant, with a dancing Menead bringing up the rear. I didn’t get a good view of the side panels. One showed the other founding myth of Ephesus: Androclus killing a boar where the city was built. The fourth apparently shows the Christian Theodosius, who banned the worship of the old gods, with some of the banned entities. On my next visit I must go to the museum in Selçuk to see the originals.

Skimmers and Gharials

The one thing common between the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and the Indian Skimmer (Rynchops albicolis) is that both eat only fish. That is if you don’t count the fact that both species are declining in numbers. The Skimmer is classed as vulnerable by IUCN, and the Gharial is said to be critically endangered. We took a boat ride on the Chambal river, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, through the National Chambal Sanctuary to see them.

This was my first good view of Skimmers. As you can see, they are so distinctive that you won’t forget them once you’ve seen one. The general black and white colour is in contrast to the bright orange bill, distinctly down-curved, with the upper bill shorter than the lower one. We saw a small flock skimming across the river, lower bill occasionally dipping into the water. I couldn’t see whether they caught any fish. Although they passed pretty close to the boat, a small boat riding high on waves is not a good perch from which to take photos. I pressed the shutter button down, but the boat yawed a bit and I got a shot of the blank sky. Some people think that skimmers could be largely nocturnal. From the fact that flocks of skimmers were mostly resting, they could be right. There are said to be between 6000 and 10000 of these birds left in the world. We probably saw about 1% to 2% of the world’s population of skimmers.

Gharials used to be common enough once that it takes an effort to understand how severe the crisis in their conservation is. A decade ago there were only about 250 mature individuals left in the wild, now the numbers are estimated to be up to between 300 and 900. The few individuals we saw were about 1% of the world’s population of gharials. The tri-state agency which is supposed to look after the conservation of these grand ancient animals perhaps has more employees than the total number of gharials across the world. Their long snout, and the tightly interlocking teeth used to give me a fright when I was a child, until I realized that they would much rather be left alone to fish. I don’t think any of my nieces or nephews has even seen a gharial. What an impoverished world we are leaving to the coming generations.