We will bury you

After leaving the Hagia Sophia, we walked across an open space towards the Sultanahmet mosque. Amazingly, this space has been open since the founding of the Roman city of Byzantium in 330 CE, when it was called the Augustaeum. Entrance to the mosque was temporarily barred to tourists because it was time for midday prayers. We decided to walk off to one side to see the remains of the ancient hippodrome. Standing just to the east of the now-buried grand palace of the emperors, and west of the Sultanahmet mosque, it is now simply an open space, as you can see from the featured photo.

This late-Ottoman style water fountain at the northern end of the hippodrome was intriguing. It turns out that it is called the German fountain for a good reason. It was financed by the German government to commemorate the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Istanbul in 1898. This was the first thing we saw as we reached the area. We admired the beautiful mosaic work on the inside of the dome before moving on. This juxtaposition of new and old disturbed me, until I realized the tragic hubris behind it; Kaiser is cognate to Caesar, and the same hubris would fester for forty years in a dream of a doomed “thousand year empire”. Planting this fountain here in the center of Constantine’s city must have been a political statement.

At the founding of Constantine’s city, this was the stadium where the emperor watched chariot races along with the rest of the city. It was said to be decorated with statues of the Roman gods, wild animals, and creatures out of legends which were brought from across the empire. Interestingly, in medieval times, after the custom of chariot races had disappeared, this place was still a center of social life, and people began to attribute supernatural powers to these statues. The famous gilded bronze statues of the horses which once stood here were looted by Venetians in the 13th century, and now stand in St. Mark’s square in Venice. Interestingly, this was taken to Paris by Napoleon, and placed atop the arch of the carousel, before being returned after his defeat at Waterloo.

Only three decorations from the early centuries remains in the Hippodrome. One of them is the serpent column which you see in one of the photos above. It was first erected in Delphi to commemorate the Greek victory in 479 BCE over Persia in the Battle of Platea, and brought here around the end of the 4th century CE. It wasn’t erected in a sunken pit though. The pit is part of the normal process of building up a city over centuries. The bottom of the pit is the level of the chariot races of the 4th century CE. The past is always buried under a new layer. We got a better feel of this gradual burial of the past when we walked down a sloping road at the north-eastern end of this vast plaza and passed the curved south wall of the old hippodrome. The second decoration is an obelisk from the Theban temple of Amon, which is one of a pair. One was taken by Constantius in 357 CE to be erected in the Circus Maximum in Rome, the other was brought here by Theodosius in 390 CE (photo above). The third is called the Built Obelisk, and is the one in the foreground of the featured photo. An article by Sarah Guberti Bassett explains very lucidly the symbolism of political power expressed by these.

It’s all in the details

We thought we would spend a leisurely afternoon walking through the Topkapi Palace, but it became more hectic than we had expected. The building of the palace started in 1450 CE, soon after the sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul, and continued until the 17th century. The result is that there is a lot to see, and three hours may feel a little rushed. It is hard to make sense of the palace complex as a whole (a feeling I’ve also had in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and also in the palaces of India), so it is best to concentrate on parts separately. Today I thought I would post a few photos of the Imperial Hall (Hünkâr Sofası) in the harem.

The harem was the private palace of the Sultan and his family, and was controlled by the Queen Mother (Valide Sultan). Like in Indian palaces, the Topkapi Palace had multiple throne rooms, and the one here was for private audience. It was built in the 16th century, burnt down in the fire of 1666, and rebuilt immediately after that. The side gallery (featured photo), where the family sat, is an example of this. The Delft tiles and the Venetian mirror in the photo above was added in the 18th century, The gilded sofa was a present from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. I have no idea where the tall Chinese vases came from, and no photo of the gilded clock donated by Queen Victoria.

The central dome of the room is supposed to be the largest in the palace complex. In this view you can see the incredibly ornamental interior of the dome. This is original, from the rococo style redecoration of sultan Osman III, executed immediately after the fire. I looked up at it until I got a crick in the neck. The Family was engaged in a minute inspection of the tiles. This is a room which reflects the aesthetics of the whole palace: a single look cannot encompass it, you really have to examine the details.

In that spirit, I stop with details of two sets of tiles that caught my eye. This trip was my first exposure to Ottoman ceramics. It seemed to me that the first step in recognizing Iznik tiles could be to examine the bright cobalt blue, white, and red colours under a hard colourless glaze. I would get to see more of these tiles in coming days.

Only Connect

If you thought literature doesn’t move society, you should think again. E. M. Forster’s words have been taken very seriously by almost every living human. “Only connect” is now an epigraph to live by. There is now a clear answer to the ancient question, “What does it mean to be human? What sets us apart from all animals?” A cell phone, and a burning desire to post instantly.

This photo was taken an aeon ago (by Instagram time) in the Hagia Sofia. Looking at it I wonder whether the definition of being human has really changed. Isn’t this just another expression of being a social animal? Each of the people you see here is connected to their social network. Connections grow stronger the more you connect.

Wildlife of Priene

After the crowded streets of Ephesus and the markets of Şirince, it was nice to relax in the deserted ruins of Priene. This ancient city never had more than five thousand inhabitants. On the day we were there, the population had shrunk to a handful. Wildlife had begun to take over. Around the ruins of the ancient agora we saw a field of Mediterranean milk thistles (Sylibum marianum). A bee had buried itself between the petals as it looked for nectar. It stayed there long enough for me to move around and take photos from different angles.

In the dirt around the agora a butterfly sunned itself. As I took a couple of photos I realized it was a fritillary. Which one, though? Later, as I looked through field guides I realized that this was the red-banded fritllary, very appropriately named Melitaea didyma. After all the ruins of Didyma were close enough for us to drive there on the same day.

Everywhere poppies raised their bright red flowers to the sun. This is the Turkish red poppy (Papaver glaucum), identifiable by the black patch in the center. The petals are just about three cells in thickness, and the vivid colour is due to an intense concentration of pigments, apparently much more than in any other flower. In fact, the black colour is due to the pigment being present in such large amounts that it absorbs all the light that falls on it.

On one of the ancient marble blocks, shaped by men more than two millennia ago, a Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca) sunned itself. I’d read that they live very long, more than a 125 years in some cases. Even in lifetimes of this extremely long-loved creature the ruins were old: around 20 lifetimes. When our global civilization is not even memories, will the ruins of our cities hold such a variety of wildlife?

Slipstream

Still in light sleep, I registered the fact that The Family had opened the door on to the balcony of our room in Göreme. It was just past sunrise, and the room was full of light in spite of drawn curtains. Then my muzziness was gone when The Family’s excited voice called to me to get up and get my camera. I rushed out with my phone in hand and saw a marvelous sight. There were silent presences hovering in the air above us. It was as if we were inside a story by Franz Kafka, and a tenth of the town’s inhabitants had been turned into delicate teardrops which floated above us.

After some discussion we’d decided against taking a balloon in the morning. It would have been a wonderful sight from up there, but the spectacle from down here was stunning. All the movies about alien invasions, where spaceships come screaming down from the sky, fail to imagine what a stunning sight it is to have a hundred huge things silently floating above you. I went back to sleep, and when I woke later, this was like a strange dream. Only my photo remained to prove to me that what I’d seen was real.

New Tehri

We climbed a little more than a 1000 meters from the Tehri Dam to the tpwn of New Tehri. The old town, now drowned in the waters of the dam, is supposed to have been founded by Sudarshan Shah, one of the rulers of the erstwhile Tehri kingdom. The new town was built by the Tehri Hydro Development Corportation when the dam was under construction in the late 1990s. The old town had a population of more than 250,000 people at the beginning of the 20th century. Ten years ago the population of New Tehri was not even a tenth of that.

The town looked pleasant enough as we drove up to it. The winter sun is pretty strong at this altitude of 1.7 Kilometers above sea level. In the sunlight the houses ranged along the slope above the road looked bright and cheerful, with apple trees in full bloom in little patches of garden.

Later when we stood on the road above the town and looked down on it, I realized that the houses look like they were stamped out of a mould. They were, actually, with the THDC forced to build houses in a hurry in order to rehabilitate some of the people who were displaced by the rising waters behind the dam. The town looked better planned and more orderly than the typical hill town here. However the central bazaar, through which we’d passed on our way up, was just as crowded and chaotic.

There was a nice viewpoint here. We looked down at the clock tower of New Tehri. Nitin told us that it was a replica of the famous clock tower of Tehri. The old tower was built by Kirti Shah, the fourth king of Tehri, in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Contemporary reports of the submergence of the old clock tower sound emotional. There was a ghost of the same emotion in Nitin’s voice. He is perhaps too young to remember the drowning of the tower in 2006 very clearly though.

On the lower edge of the town we’d passed a bright white coloured temple. I asked Nitin about it, but he wasn’t very sure which temple it was. “Local,” was his laconic reply. It was an interesting layout, with four outer structures with peaked roofs marking out a rectangle, and the central temple being the tallest part of the structure. I couldn’t remember temples built in this shape. I wonder whether this was also a copy of a structure from drowned Old Tehri.

It was just past lunch, and only walking about and taking photos was keeping me awake. I peered into a little roadside kiosk and found the owner was taking a little siesta. It was a tight fit, but he didn’t look uncomfortable. The sun kept the place reasonably warm. As we drove out of New Tehri and took the road back to our hotel, I succumbed to the winter’s warmth and dozed off for a while.

Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. It is meant to remind us of the problems we need to solve if we are to continue living healthy and happy lives. “Earth Day Network works year round to solve climate change, to end plastic pollution, to protect endangered species, and to broaden, educate, and activate the environmental movement across the globe,” says the web site of the Earth Day network.

In the last few years, every time I have travelled to a wildlife sanctuary, I’ve seen species after species which could be on the road to extinction. The reason is not hunting or wanton killing, it is just our mindless expansion. So, instead of images of magnificent animals, birds or vanishing trees, I thought it might be good to have a photo of consumption. The featured photo is the dregs of a cup of coffee, which I have coloured green and red. Even this little pleasure has consequences. Multiply a cup of coffee a billion times, one for each coffee-lover in the world, and you have cascading effects through the world.

The most haunted mine in India?

While trying to make a list of interesting places to see in Mussoorie I came across a story of the Lambi Dehar mines outside the town. According to various travel sites (who copy from each other) this is the most haunted place in India: everyone who goes there dies a horrible death, the mysterious screams of half a lakh dead miners ring through this valley, the blood-thirsty laughter of a witch can be heard at nights, there are no birds or beasts around the mines. “Exactly the kind of place I want to see,” I told The Family. It was marked on the map I usually use, so finding the way would not be a problem.

The day we set aside for this started nice, but there was a prediction of a thunderstorm with hail later in the day. By the time we passed Library Bazaar the sky was grey, and wan light was exactly the kind which is best for viewing ghosts. The road was very good, but completely deserted. Our first view of the remains of the mines was perfect (see the featured photo). The road passes a little above the buildings. We stopped the car there and walked down the slope to the buildings. Nitin was happy to remain with his car. The surrounding forest of Banj Oaks (Quercus leucotrichophora) was slowly changing colour, but there was a spectacular orange tree, which I didn’t recognize, in the little clearing we walked down to.

While I was channeling the Chipko movement, The Family had located the spirit which haunts the place. The soft-spoken young man was a fount of information. “Yes, people do say this is haunted,” he admitted. When The Family asked whether he didn’t feel afraid, he smiled bashfully. “Lots of people come here,” he said when we asked about tourists.

That’s why he was there, of course. He runs the little shop in an auto which you see above. I could see that it would be possible for the auto to drive up to the road where Nitin was parked. He smiled again when I asked him if this was the best place for customers. I thought that the side of the road above this place would be a better location, but apparently he preferred to be here in this quiet place. I could see why. I was beginning to relax into the slow rhythm of the place, the bad light, the little chirps of birds.

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The abandoned offices of the mining company had become a canvas for artists, and, of course, lovers. I liked that drawing of a smoker. The idea of alienation seemed odd in these hills, but the exhortation not to become a robot meant that young people here do feel it. Perhaps it is intrinsic in the society we live in. Looking at the ruins, I realized that words and stories come much more easily to us than images. A few paintings, but so much scribbling!

Behind the buildings, in a secluded area these four young people had spread out a picnic. They did not mind me taking a photo. I asked, “You don’t happen to be ghosts, do you?” Laughter ensued, not at all blood-curdling. “No more than you are,” one of them said. I wondered about the internet-wide story of 50,000 miners dead in these mines. If that had ever happened it would have been an enormous disaster. No mining disaster in this area is recorded. Moreover a mining company which employed 50,000 miners in one site would have to leave a huge footprint in media. So what was the real story? The internet has replicated the false story so many times that reality cannot be found by searching for “Lambi Dehar”. A few drops of rain fell as we made our way back to the car.

I was pointed to the real story by this blog. As I’d suspected, the Lambidhar mines, to give it its earlier name, was one of the many limestone quarries in this area which was forced to close by a decision of the Indian Supreme Court in 1996. There is no record of a disaster. After that this site was taken up as a research station in the restoration of the normal ecology of this area. A seven year long project found that eco-restoration improves soil characteristics and allows the oak forest to get a foothold in the area (for example, see this paper). However, when we looked at the quarry site from the road (photo above), it was clear that more than twenty years after closure, the scars of quarrying are still clearly visible. Sadly, reforestation will not be easy. There may be no ghosts here, but Lambidhar tells us that the ghosts of our profligacy will haunt our children for long.

Three postcards from March

March is the cruellest month in the mountains. We often go for a short holiday to the Himalayas in March. The roads are usually open, but the weather is unpredictable. We found a hotel in the Garhwal Sivaliks where we were the only guests, and our room had a spectacular view. Our last day there had been clear (photo below) but clouds began to come in over the high peaks just before sunset. Sunset and sunrise paint the snow in glorious colours. The clouds muddied the colours.

Dawn had been even more cloudy, but it had cleared up soon after sunrise. During breakfast we kept our eyes on the clear view of the mountains. The day was great and the view was wonderful. We decided to travel along a route which would keep the high Himalayas in our view most of the time. This was a day when our luck held, until sunset.

March is cruel. The weather keeps changing, and predictions are not accurate more than a day in advance. When we arrived at the hotel the view we had was spectacular for a photographer (above) but disappointing for a traveler. Every year we keep telling ourselves “Next year we’ll come to the Himalayas in April.” Maybe next year we will.

Entering the desert

It is late afternoon. A short detour from the highway over a bumpy stretch of land, and suddenly we are in the desert. The Little Rann of Kutch seems to be a perfectly flat landscape. I’m lost instantly. There was no landmark that I can see, but the drivers of jeeps here seem to find their way as if on signposted highways.

There must be ways of seeing. This is not barren land, there is life here. Over the next two days I’ll begin to understand its signs. There are clumps of hardy bushes, sometimes even trees. There are insects, birds which eat the insects, and birds which eat the birds which eat insects. There are lizards, jackals, and wild ass. There are scorpions and snakes. Sometimes I can see water in the distance; I will have to learn the difference between a mirage and the water. This is not too hard, it turns out. It is much harder to understand how the drivers navigate.

Now and then there is a hillock. Man made? We come across one near sunset. An imperial eagle rests on top of it. There is dry grass at the base of the hillock, and a white patch, clearly visible even in this failing light. Salt left by evaporated water. The Rann of Kutch lies below sea level, and covered with a sheet of water when the tide is sufficiently high. When the sea level rises this land will be the first to drown.

After the sun goes down the jeep drives around to the east, where there is a thin sheet of water between us and the hillock. The ground must be wetter here than in other places, because there is almost a forest of bushes. I wonder whether the water is permanent. Probably not; there are tyre tracks pointing into the water. Those must have been made when this area was dry. This is a wonderful angle to take a photo from. I’ve never lost cell phone connectivity through the day, so I could share the journey with The Family. Now I send her the last photo of the day.