At the Mayan Heartland: reflections and photos

These are the collected mini-posts and some of the photos that I had shared with my friends and followers throughout my trip to Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras (click any photo to enlarge). They include information, reflections and impressions.

First day in Guatemala in the company of awesome friends. The capital impresses with its crowds and markets and monuments. The Downtown is dotted with decadent Art Deco buildings, the trees are everywhere and the National Museum hosts mindblowing masterpieces of Mayan Art from Dos Pilas, Piedra Negra, El Naranjo and elsewhere: stelae, masks, carved stone and intricately painted ceramics. My Central American adventure has begun.
Today I crossed the border from Guatemala to Honduras to visit the archaeological site of Copán, one of the most important Mayan cities from the Classical Period (250-900CE). The site is famous for the widespread use of Mayan scripture, reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Copán is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it’s the first of many Mayan sites on my itinerary for this trip.
According to the Mayan Popol Vuh, the human beings were created from maize following three failed cycles of creation. First, the gods created the animals, but the animals could not worship them, and they were sentenced to be subject to humans. The gods then created humans made of mud, but they were imperfect, and were destroyed by the gods. In the third cycle of creation, they created humans made of wood, but those humans had no feelings, and they -too- were destroyed by a flood. Finally, they created humans made of maize mixed with divine blood, and this is why the Mayans refers to themselves as ‘hombres del maíz’ (men of maize).
I came, I saw, I was stunned.
Today, a dream came true. I crossed an ocean to venture into the Mayan heartland, precisely to see this. Tikal is a spectacular Mayan city dotted with pyramids and temples in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle of El Petén. What’s even more stunning is that the Mayans had no wheels and didn’t use metal tools, and yet they were able to construct wonders like this city that still stands the test of time. Most of the stone pyramids here are from the 8th century, including the magnificent Temple of the Jaguar and that of the Masks. Stay tuned for more.
The Mayan King stands in his full attire. He grasps his erect penis with one hand, and with the other he punctures it using an obsidian knife. The blood drops fall unto tree leaves prepared for this purpose, and the leaves are burnt so that the smoke would carry the message to the gods, hoping they would relieve the people from their plight. This ritual bloodletting scene can be seen in many Mayan ceramics and drawings, and was way less horrendous than the human sacrifice practiced frequently by the Mayans to appease their gods and maintain the cosmic order.
When the Spanish conquistadors discovered the Mayan cities and monuments in Central America, they did not spread the word about it. In part, the Spaniards were interested mostly in gold and silver, and the Mayans had none of that. Moreover, the Spaniards failed to understand how old these monuments were, and would not believe that the native Americans whom they saw as savages were capable of such refinement. In the 19th century, the explorers Catherwood and Stephens rediscovered the Mayan sites of Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Their writings and drawing would revolutionize the West’s perception of the human civilization. Here I follow their footsteps along the Ruta Puuc in Mexico, visiting the spectacular ancient Mayan sites of Kabah and Uxmal.
Mérida is a charming colonial city in Mexico’s Yucatán, founded by the Spanish invaders in 1542 on the site of an abandoned Mayan village that had 5 pyramids. These pyramids were dismantled and recycled into building material for palaces and churches (including the Cathedral and Casa Montejo), and the Mayans were enslaved into forced labor. The city is famous for its patios, arcades, shady plazas, colorful façades, and orgasmic tacos
A cenote is a sinkhole in the limestone terrain, one of the typical attractions of southeastern Mexico. The Mayans believed that these Cenotes were a gateway to the region of Chaac, the rain god. Many human bones and skulls, as well as ceramic vases and accessories were discovered by the archaeologists in some of these Cenotes, which means they were a scene for presenting sacrifices and offerings to the Mayan deities. Today I jumped into the blue waters of the X-Cajum Cenote.
Málo-kín (good morning in Mayan Yucatec language)
Following my visits to Copán in Honduras, Tikal in Guatemala and Tulum and Uxmal and Kabah in Mexico, here I stand in the presence of Chichen Itzá, one of the ‘new’ Seven Wonders of the World.
Here dwells the god Kukulkán, the feathered serpent, whose pyramid (El Castillo) reaches a height of 55 meters. This pyramid doubles as a calendar, with the total number of steps on its four sides adding up to 365, the number of days in a year. The god himself appears in the form of a snake crawling down the pyramid through a light-and-shade trick that marks the equinoxes.
This site shows the extent to which other civilizations like the Teotihuacan and the Toltecs had an impact on Mayan architecture and culture in general. I have always dreamed of visiting this site since I started collecting the National Geographic Magazine over 20 years ago. Dreams come true when you work on realizing them.
Mexican Valladolid (from the Arabic Balad al-Walid) is a quiet city founded by the Spanish invaders in the sixteenth century, famous for its pastel colors and colonial architecture, as well as its track record of political struggle and social mobility. The Spanish conquistadors had a tradition of naming new cities in the New World after Spanish cities, and this is why we find many cities carrying names like Mérida, Valladolid, Córdoba, Santiago and Guadalajara
The Story of Chocolate:
When I had the chance to order Mayan chocolate, they brought me a cup of hot chocolate along with a spice set that included cinnamon, pepper, habanero chili, achiote , etc.
The Mayans were the first to produce chocolate from cacao, and their chocolate was usually bitter and water-based (they had no cows for milk). Actually, the word chocolate comes from the nahuatl word Xocolatl (hot water in the Aztec tongue). Chocolate was a special drink enjoyed by the kings, and the cacao beans were so valued they were used as a currency. The Europeans ‘destroyed’ the authentic taste of chocolate by adding milk and sugar to it; the Mayan chocolate had spices and would be sweetened with honey.
The Mesoamerican ball game was a ritual sport practiced by the Mayans and by other Mesoamerican civilizations. Instead of kicking the rubber ball with their feet or hands, the players were allowed to only use their waists/hips in purpose-built ball game courts with slanting walls on both sides and stone rings through which the ball had to pass in order to ‘score a goal’. The game ended in blood; the captain of the losing side was sacrificed. The game reproduces the story of the Twin Heroes (Hunahpú and Xbalanqué) that managed to beat the Lords of Xibalbá (the Underworld) in a ball game, before rising to the sky to become the sun and the moon. As such, the ball represents the sun and the ball game establishes the link between the Underworld, the Earth and the Heavens.
Few cities anywhere in the world left me as awe-stricken as Antigua did. Once the capital of all Central America, words would not do the city justice, for Antigua seems like an unearthly realm, the brainchild of the three mighty volcanos that surround it. Cobbled streets, pastel walls, baroque façades, artifacts to die for; the city survived the catastrophic 1773 earthquake, but is still bears the scar: it’s the blemish that makes it even more attractive. The more I walked, the more the enchanted corners that I came across, but the journey takes me elsewhere.
Two weeks through my journey at the Mayan heartland in three countries, the time has come to share with you some information and anecdotes about this civilization:
The Mayans constructed the world’s largest pyramid (sorry Egypt!) called La Danta at El Mirador Site in Guatemala. It is still not fully excavated.
In addition to Egypt and Sudan, there are true pyramids in Mexico, Belice, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador
The average life expectancy among the Maya was 45-48 years due to malnutrition, disease and wars
The Mayans had their own cross long before Christianity, with its 4 arms symbolizing the 4 cardinal points. These directions were represented by red for the East, Black for the West, white for North and yellow for South
The Mayans thought that cross-eyed kids were beautiful and blessed by the gods. Some actually would tie a dangling object at the forehead of their kids to make them cross-eyed
The Mayans did not practice metallurgy, but they were great ceramists and stone masons and they used jade -instead of gold- for jewelry and funerary masks
In addition to a architecture and art, the Mayans left literary masterpieces like the Rabinal Achí, the Chilam Balaam and the Popol Vuh
The Mayans aligned many of their pyramids and temples with three stars of the Orion Constellation forming a triangle that represented the primordial hearthstones.
The Mayans referred to themselves as Men of Maize and People of the Jaguar. They developed the first standard writing system in the Americas, used the zero, and developed two sophisticated and accurate calendars.
The Mayans were not exterminated by the Spanish (like the Aztecs for example). They still survive and, in Guatemala alone, there are more than 20 Mayan ethnic groups (Kiché, Ma’m, Kaqchiquel, Tz’utujil, etc.)
The Mayans had their extensive pantheon gods and goddesses, including Chaac (rain god) and Kukulkán (wind god) and Ixchel (medicine goddess)
Having enjoyed the masterpieces of the Mayan civilization, the time has come to explore the contemporary Mayan culture in the villages and towns of Western Guatemala. The Mayans take pride in their culture and their heritage, and it is clearly visible in the way they still use their native languages and keep their traditional costumes, decorated with symbols that reflect their cosmo-vision. I managed to learn some Mayan phrases in a village and I tried using them in other villages, only to find out that every ethnic group has its own tongue. The Mayans suffered ethnic cleansing and deculturalization attempts, but they have managed to overcome all these challenges, despite the hefty price they paid. I asked my guide, Dolores Rastan (a Tz’utujil Mayan) about what it meant to her being Mayan, and she said it meant being connected to the earth and the sky, and never losing the bond with the elements of Nature, just like a tree whose roots dig deep in the soil, while its branches yearn for the sun.
Finally I joined a Mayan ritual, a ceremony associated with Maximón, whom the Maya celebrate as a folk saint-deity-sinner that combines features of Saint Simon, Judas Iscariot and Pre-Colombian gods, and hence, represents both light and dark. They make offerings of tobacco and wine to this saint whose effigy features a seated man with a cigarette in his mouth and a hat on his head. This effigy changes premises every year and people flock to his site to venerate him. One of the most prominent social phenomena among the present-day Mayans is that of religious syncretism, a mixture of Catholicism, Shamanism and Animism. I have visited several Mayan altars and ancestral stones around Lake Atitlán and saw how the Mayans have ‘adopted’ many Christian Saints, linking them to ancient gods so as not to to lose their old beliefs and sacraments, and I have read about how they sacrifice animals inside some churches, like that of Chichicastenango. Many of these churches were actually built on the sites of ancient Mayan temples, but the Mayans never lost the bond with the sites. Watch my photos for more.
How did a splendid civilization like that of the Maya come to an end, with nothing left of it other than monuments and a living cultural heritage in Mexico & Central America? When the Spanish invaders arrived in the 16th century under the leadership of the criminal Pedro de Alvarado, the Mayan golden age (the Classical Period 250-900 CE) was long behind, a distant memory. In addition to civil wars, disease and malnutrition, the most critical factor in the demise of the Maya civilization had been the overpopulation and the accompanying overconsumption of natural resources, accelerating urbanism, and systematically clearing large areas of trees to use the land for agriculture, all at the expense of the forests and rivers. The environmental balance collapsed and the consumption exceeded Nature’s carrying capacity. The climate changed, the droughts hit and there was no turning back. These are lessons from the past, but history repeats itself in our communities.
Lake Atitlán is one of the most fascinating natural sites in Central America, surrounded by many towns where the visitor can explore the daily life of Mayan people (Cakchiquel and Tz’utujil) in the markets, streets, farms and cult sites. The Lake -sacred to the Maya- is surrounded by mountains and volcanos, while the lake itself occupies the site of a very old caldera (I had a swim there). Moreover, there are scores of local artisans and artists.
I have visited Panajachel, Santiago Atitlán, Santa Cruz, Santa Catarina Palopó, San Pedro, San Juan Tolimán and San Marcos la Laguna.
I came to Chichicastenango to spend three days with a Mayan family and to attend the eve of the Feast of Saint Thomas. Once I entered the city, it felt as if I’ve walked through the mirror of Alice in Wonderland! I have never seen such a feast for the senses other than in the most impressive of the bazaars in the Orient, and I’ve never seen religious syncretism as sophisticated as the one here. I leave you with some photos of the market, cemetery and cult sites, and tomorrow we proceed with the Feast that coincides with the Winter Solstice.
I have never seen a community celebrating its faith as zealously and vividly as the Mayans. As a professor of cultural heritage, the Feast of St. Thomas presented me with a tour-de-force and an opportunity to explore the extraordinary richness of the Intangible heritage of the Quiché Maya: dance of the masks, dance of the Jaguar, flying men, fireworks, marimba music, food stalls, processions with saintly effigies that resemble Pre-Colombian gods, pagan and Christian rituals inside the church and offerings at the Church’s staircase which once led to a Mayan temple. This staircase becomes a microcosm where people celebrate St. Thomas and the serpent Kukumatz on one of the most significant days for those that venerate the elements of nature and the serpentine energy; the winter solstice. The music, dance and fireworks never ceased for a second, while more people in their best costumes kept flocking in to celebrate this hybrid feast-carnival-collective hysteria. Here, and despite the poverty, I have seen the ‘joie-de-vivre’ that Europe has lost.
I came to Sant Andrés Xecul in Western Guatemala after two chicken-bus rides to visit the most colorful and iconographically-charged churches in the world. The façade of this 17th-century church features some 200 figures and shapes that assimilate Christian and Mayan symbols in an acute state of horror vacui: angels blessing the sun, others gazing to the west, jaguars supporting a column, all against a backdrop of yellow, which in the Mayan culture symbolizes the maize. Higher uphill, I visited the Calvario Church only to find some locals engaging in yet another Mayan ceremony that involved offerings to an altar outside the church.
For days now, I have contemplated how the sun would disappear behind cloud-clad mountains and mist-covered volcanos. The Kaqchikel Mayans told me the sun would complete its nocturnal journey through the Underworld in the form of a jaguar: The Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire that walks fearless across the dark realm of Xibalbá.
I have seen tamarind skies embellished with black Jaguar spots, I have seen the honey-hued Lake Atitlán in the sunset, but more than anything, I have seen how my Vía Crucis melted into the immense Via Láctea.
No journey is greater than one that inspires a parallel journey of inner reflection. My Mayan nahual (sign) is the ‘Road’; I am the road that I walk

I headed early in the morning to Sant Cruz del Quiché to visit one of the holiest sites for the Quiché Maya, namely Q’umarkaj, the old Quiché capital that was burnt down by the Spaniards that also massacres the inhabitants with the help of the Kaqchikel Mayans, enemies of the Quiché. This city was once dotted with temples, pyramids, palaces and a Ball Game court, but now it is a magnet for pilgrims that come to pray to their ancestors at the relics of the Temple/Pyramid of the god Tohil. Old altars are all over the place, but I only came across a shaman that allowed me to take a pic as he performed a ritual. He asked me where I came from, and when I told him I was Egyptian, he gazed at me, then smiled and said that our ancestors had communicated together millennia ago, and that they would definitely come back one day.
My Central American journey has come to an end, thank you for following. I will forever remember the Quiché, the Kaqchikel, the Tz’utujil, the Popol Vuh, Xibalbá, Chaac, Xpalanque, Hunapú, Kukulkán, the nahuales, Maximón, the huipiles and everything related to the Maya.

My New Book: The Mediterranean – a shared heritage

Last week, I presented my new book, The Mediterranean: a shared heritage, at a ceremony held in Piran, Slovenia, marking the tenth anniversary of the EMUNI University. More than just a book, it is the culmination of a long Mediterranean Odyssey that took me to 20 Mediterranean countries, and to places in the mind that I never knew existed. From the Phoenician coastline to the Pillars of Hercules, may the passion be contagious, may the journey begin.

Brief: The book is centred around the history, culture and heritage of the Mediterranean region, with a focus on common heritage values, bridges of intercultural and interfaith dialogue, and the role of the butterfly effect in shaping our collective history in this part of the world. It also showcases Mediterranean personalities from the past and offers alternative cultural itineraries in various Mediterranean cities.

Forward Note


I. Distant Memories: Birth Pangs of a Mediterranean Legacy
Once Upon a Time in a Cave
The Neolithic Revolution
Pharaohs, Purple Traders and Thalassocracies
Democracy and Other Gifts from Greece
Mare Nostrum and the Pax Romana
The Early Medieval Rollercoaster: Renovatio Imperii?
The Crusades: Deus vult
Renaissance at Last: Humanism Triumphant
Discoveries and Revolutions: Eppur es muove
Constantinople to Vienna: Ottomans at the Gate

II. Unlikely Encounters: The Butterfly Effect
Carthage must be destroyed
Metamorphosis of the Written Text: Papyrus to Paper
Barbarians in the Land of Berbers
Andalusi Diasporas and Accidental Heroes
The Rise and Fall of the Mamluks
By the Walls of Damascus
Captives in Barbary and Beyond
Madrasas of Splendour and Scandal
The Old Masters: Artistic Encounters and Rivalries
Ottoman Blood Tax and Turkish Delights

III. Cultural Bridges: Enlightened Minds and Civilizing Agents
Hypatia: Greek Fire in Alexandria
Ziryab: A Bird from the East
Maimonides: Guide of the Perplexed
Ibn Arabi and Other Andalusi Mystics in the Orient
Ramon Llull: Christianus Arabicus
The Translators of Baghdad, Toledo and Sicily
The Troubadours: Alchemists of Love
Epic Travels, Images of the Other
Women at the Forefront of Cultural Promotion
Byzantine Ambassadors of the Greek Tradition
Le Siècle des Lumières

IV. Living Heritage: Icons of Identity
Epic Poems and Oral Traditions
The Divine Gift of the Mediterranean Diet
Fascinating Crafts: The Story of Glass
Sacred Bulls, Immortal Bison
Urban Fabric: A Mediterranean Legacy
An Ode to the Sea Deity
Circle Dance: From Prehistory to Matisse
Ancestral Knowledge: The Memory of Trees
Cultural Routes, Landscapes and Natural Wonders
Fishing East and West
Healers, Exorcists, Mourners and Puppeteers
More than just Tangible Heritage

V. Sun-Bathed Cities: Cultural Itineraries
Barcelona: What has become of Barcino
Dubrovnik: Ragusan Splendour
Tétouan: The White Dove
Tunis: White and Mediterranean Blue
Valletta: The Real Club Med
Acre: Beyond the Sea Walls
Alexandria: The Winepress of Love
Athens: I came, I saw, I was conquered
Beirut: The Vibrant Capital of the Levant
Marseille: A Taste of Provence

The Final Encore: Where do we go from here?

Photo Gallery
Reference Notes

“Throughout its history, the Mediterranean has been both a civilizing sea and a ‎corrupting sea. It has almost always been what we have made out of it: a meeting point, a ‎melting pot, or a hostile frontier. It is, in short, a genuine epitome of the human ‎condition of its people.”

“The Mediterranean that gave birth to the alphabet, to democracy, to the republic, to philosophy and ‎drama, and to the world’s first great libraries and academies, has always taught ‎us that beyond the imagined communities and the clichéd perceptions, there is a ‎common Mediterranean culture that is omnipresent in the lives of people around ‎its shores. Whether in Sicily or in Byblos, the essence is one: people celebrating life and rejoicing in a ‎variety of expressions and a pluralism of sentiments.”

“More than ever, we need to understand that the ‎moment we see our diversity as a threat rather than a resource, ‎we are no longer Mediterranean. One of the core parameters of our Mediterranean ‎culture is our ability to absorb so many differences without losing our essence, without giving up on what makes us individually unique in a context of pluralism.”

Book Cover

المشهد الأندلسي في عصر الطوائف

كان وصول شاب أموي هارب ومطارد للأندلس في القرن الثامن الميلادي إيذاناً بتحول تاريخي هائل أفرز فصلاً مشرقاً وعصراً ذهبياً للحضارة الإسلامية في هذا الجزء من العالم، والذي صار نبراساً ومنارة للعلم والآداب لقرون عدة. لم يكن هذا الشاب يحلم بأن يعيد إرساء دعائم الدولة الأموية في الغرب بعد انقطاعها في الغرب على أيدي العباسيين، وأن يصير اسمه، عبد الرحمن الداخل، مرادفاً للنهضة والاستنارة والأخذ بالأسباب وتجاوز المصاعب من غربة ومكائد، وهو ما دفع بأعدائه لتلقيبه بصقر قريش.
تحولت الأندلس لاحقاً من إمارة إلى خلافة، وتألقت حواضر الأندلس متجاوزة نظيراتها في أوروبا، ومستحضرة رقي وزهو المشرق في دمشق وبغداد وغيرها من المدن، إلى أن تكاثفت السحب أو عوامل السقوط فحجبت شمس الأندلس ودبت الفوضى في عموم البلاد.
عقب انهيار الخلافة الأموية في الأندلس واندلاع الحرب الأهلية، شهدت الأندلس حالة من التشرذم السياسي والقبلي أفرز انقسام دولة الإسلام في القرن الحادي عشر الميلادي إلى نحو ثلاثين من الطوائف المتناحرة والمتنافسة فيما بينها، كثيراً ما تحالفت مع الممالك المسيحية في الشمال ضد طوائف إسلامية أخرى، الأمر الذي أدى إلى انفراط عقد الأندلس وتعاظم خطر حركة استرداد الأراضي التي شنها المسيحيون من أجل استرجاع مدن أسبانيا والبرتغال. برزت طوائف كثيرة في المشهد السياسي مثل بنو هود وبنو الأفطس وبنو عباد وغيرها من الطوائف إذ تمزقت أوصال الأندلس واستقل كل حاكم بولايته أو مدينته.

يمثل عصر الطوائف بالأندلس حالة تاريخية فريدة وجديرة بالبحث والدراسة، إذ أن التناحر السياسي والعسكري لم يمنع ظهور نهضة ثقافية وعلمية وعمرانية ما زالت بعض آثارها قائمة إلى الآن. ينتصب قصر الجعفرية أمام الزائر كقلعة أسطورية هبطت لتوها من السماء. القصر هو أهم أثر قائم من عصر الطوائف، ويحمل اسم أبو جعفر المقتدر، أحد حكام طائفة بنو هود في سرقسطة. الإبهار ذاته ينتظر الزائر في مدن أخرى مثل طليطلة حيث بقايا مسجد من عصر طائفة بنو ذي النون وغرناطة حيث بوابة إلبيرة من عمل طائفة بنو زيري ومالقة أو مالاجا حيث قصبة أو قلعة طائفة بنو حمود.
وإذ ننتقل من العمارة والعمران للفكر والآداب والفنون، فحدث ولا حرج، فقد أفرز عصر الطوائف بعض أهم العقول والمواهب من أمثال ابن حزم صاحب كتاب طوق الحمامة، والعاشقين ابن زيدون وولادة بنت المستكفي اللذين أثروا الأدب الأندلسي بشعرهم في الغزل، والشعراء ابن عمّار والسرقسطي وابن دراج القسطلي. وفي سياق موازي، كان العلم حاضراً وبقوة في عصر الطوائف ممثلاً في الفلكي النابغ الزرقالي وعالم الفلاحة ابن بصّال وعالم النبات ابن وافد.

يعزوا العديد من المؤرخين المشرقيين والغربيين ذاك المشهد الثقافي الغني على الرغم من المناخ السياسي الخانق لبعض العوامل منها تنافس الطوائف فيما بينها على ميراث قرطبة كعاصمة للعلم والثقافة رغبة منهم في لعب هذا الدور وإدراكاً لأهمية الآداب والفنون في إثراء الحياة الاجتماعية والثقافية. كذلك، فقد لعب بعض الحكام المستنيرين من أمثال الملك الشاعر المعتمد بن عباد صاحب أشبيلية دوراً هاماً في تشجيع واحتضان المواهب الفذة واستقطابها للبلاط.
وعلى الرغم من تلك الومضات، إلا أن الوضع في الأندلس لم يسمح لتلك الطوائف بالاستمرار طويلاً، وكان لسقوط لؤلؤة الأندلس طليطلة في أيدي المسيحيين في عام 1085 م دوياً هائلاً، إذ دب الفزع في نفوس الأندلسيين الذين ضجوا بحالة الوهن والانقسام، فقاموا بمراسلة دولة المرابطين في المغرب من أجل انقاذ الأندلس وتوحيدها من جديد. انضم العديد من الفقهاء في تلك الدعوة استهجاناً منهم لانصراف ملوك الطوائف عن واجب الجهاد وتفرغهم لحياة الدعة واللهو، وكان من بين أبرز الفقهاء المطالبين بتدخل المرابطين الفقيه أبو بكر الطرطوسي والذي توفي في مصر.
استجاب المرابطون البربر بقيادة يوسف بن تاشفين للنداء، فعبروا البحر وأوقفوا الزحف المسيحي في معركة الزلاقة، ثم استداروا لحل ممالك الطوائف ونفي بعض حكامها إلى المغرب. ضم المرابطون الأندلس لدولتهم، فانتهى عصر الطوائف وبدأ عصر جديد في الأندلس التي لم تنجح في استرداد بريقها مجدداً إلى أن سقطت بسقوط مملكة غرناطة في عام 1492 م. وإلى يومنا هذا يستخدم الأسبان مصطلح الطوائف للدلالة على أي فريق من الناس فشل في إحراز الاتفاق والوفاق، إلا أنهم أيضاً يقفون مشدوهين أمام عمائر الطوائف في أشبيلية وسرقسطة وألمرية وغيرها من المدن


Masterpieces of Eastern Med Art: Lecture Brief

The Fertile Crescent and its immediate neighbors share something more profound than just geographical proximity. Countries like Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Greece were all sites of magnificent Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures and civilizations that made the Eastern Mediterranean a vibrant mosaic of human creativity and a treasure-trove of stories about human genius. Art, true to its essence as the mirror of every age, gives us privileged insights into the human condition of the successive communities that inhabited this part of the world. During my lecture on the ‘Masterpieces of the Eastern Mediterranean Civilizations’, we came across Minoan fishermen, Cycladic musicians, Phoenician traders, Mycenaean warriors, Hittite metal smiths, to the end of the long and exotic list.

The masterpieces presented were:

The Totem Pole of Gobekli Tepe, Neolithic Art
Stag Rhyton, Hittite Art
The Frescoes of Akotiri, Minoan Art
The Harp Player, Cycladic Art
Sword with Lion Hunt Scene, Mycenaean Art
Amphora with Ajax and Achilles playing a board game, Archaic Period Art
Statue of Ebih-il, Tell Hariri Art
Coin with Hoplites and Hippocampus, Phoenician Art
The Narmer Palette, Egyptian Early Dynastic Art
The Tomb of Nebamun, Egyptian New Kingdom Art
The Standard of Ur, Sumerian Art

The colors of the Akotiri frescos are vivid and bright, and so are those of the Tomb of Nebamun. The attention to detail in the Ajax-and-Achilles Amphora and the Standard of Ur is fascinating, whereas the abstraction of the Cycladic Harp Player is breathtaking. The Phoenician coin with Hoplites and the Mycenaean Sword with Lion Hunt Scene are miracles of compression, and the Narmer Palette and the Stag Rhyton are both ripe with symbolism.

Once again, many thanks to all those that attended the lecture.

Bruegel and his Fallen Angels

A nightmare landscape. It could have perfectly been a Hieronymus Bosch, but it’s not. All these demons and grotesque creatures that populate the canvas seem to come out of an enchanted neverland. The Book of Revelation is, after all, a neverland: perfectly surreal; perfectly disturbing.
Of all the Flemish and Netherlandish masterpieces at the Old Masters Museum in Brussels, the collection’s most prized jewel is ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ by Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. So prized is this artwork that the Museum decided to resort to new technologies to allow visitors to fully understand and appreciate the multitude of figures and symbols in it; the exhibition is absolutely fascinating, and so is the story of the painting. What story?

It’s the story of pride and the price paid for folly and sin. Lucifer’s pride gets him and other rebel angels to be expelled from heaven, condemned into a dark and hopeless life, and transformed into horrible demons and freaks. We see in the painting how the Archangel Michael and other good angels chase the fallen angels with swords and trumpets in hand; victory is won. Below them, the fallen angels seem to have suffered a horrendous metamorphosis. Deformed anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures clearly correspond to exotic creatures that were filling catalogues at the time (armadillo, pufferfish, etc), while other elements seem to be inspired by the discoveries in the Americas and the contact with the Ottomans (scimitar, helmets, turbans). Different musical instruments can be spotted; the battle between Good and Evil does not lack a ‘soundscape’ of course. Bruegel was a man of his time, curious about the New World, an admirer of Bosch’s art, and deeply inspired by a socio-cultural phenomenon that was on the rise during his lifetime: the Cabinet of Curiosity. A thorough examination of the painting would betray a fascination with such cabinets, their mark omnipresent in his work.

The ability of Bruegel to juggle and integrate all these worlds effortlessly into one dynamic whole gives his artwork a life almost entirely of its own: vibrant, intricate, and almost throbbing…everything you would expect from an apocalypse. Every creature in the painting is interesting on its own, but the total effect is way more than just the some of all parts. I don’t know how long I spent in front of this artwork, but it was long enough to spot Lucifer (top left), the spiral of damned souls pouring from heaven (top centre) and a Medusa-like head (bottom right). I was never a big fan of Flemish/Netherlandish art’s severity and sobriety, but the layers of meaning and symbols in the works of Bosch, Jan van Eyck and Bruegel make life bearable on days when beauty is no longer enough.

Click any image to enlarge it.

My New Course: Art Masterpieces of Eastern Mediterranean Civilizations

I am glad to announce my new course in Cairo this spring, this time dedicated to a fascinating topic, namely the Art Masterpieces of Eastern Mediterranean Civilizations, with a focus on Egypt, the Levant, Greece and Asia Minor.
From the Minoan Marine Style to the Egyptian Amarna Style and from Phoenician panels to Hittite rhytons, this course will be an aesthetically breath-taking journey in space and time for all history buffs and art lovers.

Below are the details of this course:
Title : Masterpieces of Ancient Art in the Eastern Mediterranean
Lecturer : Mohammed Elrazzaz, Prof. of Mediterranean Heritage
Language : Arabic (slides in English)
Venue : My place in Rhoda, Manial, Cairo
Date : 31 March 2018
Duration : 2 hours (7pm – 9pm)
Fees : 350 EGP

Deadline for confirmation is 10 March 2018, but please note that the places are usually booked very quickly, so, hurry up! PLEASE do not reserve if you are not 100% sure that you would come. Have respect for the lecturer and for the other people who want to come.

يسعدني أن أعلن عن المحاضرة القادمة التي سألقيها في القاهرة في مارس المقبل، والتي تتناول موضوعاً شيقاً للغاية، هو روائع الفن لحضارات شرق المتوسط، مع التركيز على مصر والمشرق واليونان وآسيا الصغرى.
تأخذنا المحاضرة في جولة مبهرة في المكان والزمان لكل عشاق الفن وهواة التاريخ، حيث نتنقل بين الطراز البحري للمينوسيين وطراز العمارنة المصري، وبين الألواح الفنية الفينيقية وأقداح الشراب الحيثية.

وفيما يلي تفاصيل المحاضرة:
العنوان : روائع الفن القديم لحضارات شرق المتوسط
المحاضر : محمد الرزاز، أستاذ تراث حوض البحر المتوسط
اللغة : العربية
المكان : منزلي في الروضة، المنيل – القاهرة
التاريخ : يوم 31 مارس
الفترة : ساعتان (من السابعة إلى التاسعة مساءًا)
الرسوم : ثلاثمائة وخمسين جنيهاً

الموعد النهائي للحجز هو العاشر من مارس، مع العلم بأن الأماكن يتم حجزها بسرعة، وأن الأفضلية للأسبق في الحجز. رجاء عدم الحجز دون التأكد من قدرتكم على الحضور احتراماً للمحاضر ولغيركم ممن يرغب الحضور.


Nawamis: The Prehistoric Pearls of Sinai

It was a few months ago that I finally went on my second trip to this Prehistoric wonder. At the heart of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, a cluster of circular stone buildings that date back from the Chalcolithic Age (Copper Age) and the Early Bronze Age are believed to be the oldest freestanding stone structures on earth. Dating back to the fourth millennium BCE, they are practically 5,000 to 6,000 years old, which means they are over 1,500 to 2,500 years older than the Great Pyramids of Giza, and that they are –at least- as old as the Megalithic Temples of Malta and the Cairns of Scotland.

The people of Sinai call these circular structures ‘Nawamis’, a word of three possible origins: a place for sleep (as in, eternal sleep), a place to hide from mosquitos (inspired by the Biblical Plagues of Egypt and the Jewish Exodus), and body/resting place of the body, meaning namoos in Bedouin tongue. Different groups of Nawamis exist in Sinai, including the Gebel Gunna field, the ‘Ain Umm Ahmad field and, most impressively, the Ein Hudra field between Saint Katherine and Dahab.

First explored by the Bedouins, these Nawamis were later explored by Edward Henry Palmer in his book ‘The Desert of the Exodus’, then documented by Flinders Petrie in his book ‘Researchers in Sinai’. They were also studied thoroughly in the 20th century by Israeli archaeologists who concluded -as already forwarded by earlier explorers- that these structures were conceived as family tombs. This claim is supported by the objects found inside the Nawamis, including bones, beads, and alleged funerary offerings. The fact that the Nawamis were reused by successive groups and cultures in later periods makes it difficult to determine with certainty their original use. We are told that in the early 1980s, Sinai had over 1,000 nawamis.

The Nawamis share a well-defined set of characteristics. They are typically circular in shape with a small entrance in the form of a trilithon oriented towards the west/west-south and an inner slanting wall forming a corbelled roof. Local sandstone is the building material of choice, even though metamorphic rocks were also used. The flakes of sandstone are arranged painstakingly to form a compact structure that, obviously, withstood the elements and the sands of time for millennia, even though the Nawamis might have been reinforced by locals throughout their history. The average height of these structures is two meters, and they are almost always located at a place that commands sweeping views of the surrounding desert.

Inspiring awe and wonder, the best time to visit the Nawamis is in the late afternoon when the sun illuminates their entrance and creates a magical effect of interplay between light and shadow. Mystery still shrouds the Nawamis and the exact group that built them. Were they local Bedouins? Pastoral/nomadic tribes? Were they really just tombs? Go find out for yourself next time you’re in Sinai, and please remember: Take nothing with you, leave nothing behind!


Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’

When Willem de Kooning’s Interchange was sold for $300 million in 2015, many art lovers started wondering: “what price would a masterpiece by an old master fetch if sold?” A logical question to which it was impossible to find an answer…until a couple of weeks ago. For a decade now, the most expensive paintings ever sold featured artworks by Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists (the usual suspects: Gauguin, Cezanne, Pollock and company).

Few Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces are owned by individuals, and even fewer could be offered for sale. Such was the case with Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, commissioned by King Louis XII of France around the year 1500. The painting was eclipsed by other masterpieces realized by Da Vinci like The Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and Virgin of the Rocks, specially that it was ‘lost’ and forgotten for centuries, until it resurfaced to the public in 2011 at the National Gallery Museum in London.
Auctioned last week in New York, Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million (auction house fees included), setting a record that might stand the test of time for quite some time. The painting shows Christ holding a transparent crystal orb in one hand, while the other hand blesses the viewer. The crystal orb looks nothing like our world, for he said “My kingdom is not of this world.” His fingers, hairlocks and face seem all seem to dissolve into the surroundings, an exquisite demonstration of Da Vinci’s perfection of the sfumato technique. Then comes the famous trompe-l’œil, a coessential Da Vinci trick of composition: is Christ smiling to us?

One cannot possible ignore the intense blue color of the Christ’s robe in this painting. Known as ‘ultramarine’, this color was obtained using the powder of lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone which, at the time, was imported from Afghanistan! The name ultramarine alludes to the fact that it came from a faraway country through Venetian and Genoese ships. In comparison to cobalt or azurite, ultramarine produced from lapis lazuli does not fade or change color.
Attributing Salvator Mundi to Da Vinci is not universally accepted. Da Vinci never signed his works, and less than twenty paintings can be attributed to him with relative certainty, most of them Madonnas or portraits. A polymath in every sense of the world, Da Vinci had a reputation for not finishing much of what he had begun. Painter, sculptor, engineer, mathematician and inventor, his genius seems to have kept him constantly distracted by new ideas, but some of his experiments proved catastrophic, using painting techniques that proved unstable and unsuitable for the supports to which they were applied.

Why would someone pay 450 million dollars for a Da Vinci? For one thing, the ‘discovery’ of Salvator Mundi sent strong shockwaves across the art community around the world, for all of Da Vinci’s works are in museums around the world (the Uffizi, the Louvre, the Hermitage, etc.) and none of his works are offered for sale. We would never really know the exact motives of the buyer. Is it a true passion for Da Vinci and his art? Is it a decision motivated by religious zeal and an admiration for the representation of Jesus Christ in the painting? Is it an investment where the painting serves as store of value? Big art auctions are difficult to expect, let alone explain. Art, when traded as a commodity, follows the market laws of supply and demand, and yet, it has its own peculiarities. Pricing is not based on labor hours, but rather on a complex set of values, some intrinsic, some perceived, that involve the sentimental value, the halo effect of the artist, the historical value of the artwork, its aesthetic quality, to the end of a very long list. Not even the most experienced and reputed auctioneers would have guessed that Salvator Mundi would fetch such a price! Now the question becomes: when would that record be broken again?

So far, the top five most expensive paintings ever sold are:
1. Salvator Mundi by Da Vinci – $ 450 million in 2017
2. Interchange by Willem de Kooning – $ 303 million in 2015
3. Card Players by Paul Cezanne – $ 266 million in 2011
4. When will you marry? by Paul Gauguin – $ 210 million in 2014
5. 17A by Jackson Pollock – $ 200 million in 2015

Click any image below to enlarge it.


An Intro to the Fine Art of Greek Vases

I first developed a taste for Greek Vases during my visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, whose collection offers a tour-de-force of Ancient and Classical Greek Art. In addition to the fascinating Minoan frescoes, Mycenaean gold masks and jewelry, Cycladic idols and Classical statues, the Museum houses a mind-blowing collection of Greek kylixes, kraters, pitchers, amphorae, askoi and other varieties of Greek pottery from different periods and styles. The styles are so many and the techniques are sophisticated, but here I mention some examples to those interested:

Minoan Marine Style
One of the earliest ‘styles’ of pottery painting during the Bronze Age is the Marine Style developed by the Minoans in Crete during the third millennium BCE. As the name implies, this style is dominated by depictions of marine life on amphora and other vessels. Octopuses, shellfish and fish were painted using brown or black against a creamy background; figures would flow and fill the surface of the vessel with curves and waves. The Mycenaeans also employed this style.

The Geometric Period Style
The Pre-Geometric, Proto-Geometric and Geometric Vases which coincided with the Archaic Period all show intricate geometrical patters that range from simple concentric circles to the famous ‘meander’ motif that resembles a labyrinth design. Moreover, some stylized representations of men, horses and charioteers were used. One of the most impressive examples is the Dipylon Amphora.

Black-Figure Pottery
Attica became the heart of pottery production, and the black-figure style appeared in the seventh century BCE. Simply put, black figures are painted on brown/red clay. Attention to detail is very high, and mythological themes became a main inspiration for the subject matter.

Red-Figure Pottery
In the late sixth century BCE, several artists started using red figures against a black background, producing a wealth of magnificent pottery that eventually turned into a prized commodity throughout the Mediterranean. From everyday vessels, the Greek Vases have become collectable ‘art objects’ and several artists gained fame as master potters (like the Andokides Painter). Moreover, Greek vases became bearers of a tradition and media through which people could peer into the Greek world and its system of beliefs and values through the stories they depict.



Casa Vicens: Gaudí’s Early Masterpieces

“To be interesting, ornamentation must present objects that remind us of poetic ideas, that constitute motifs. Motifs are historical, legendary, active, emblematic; fables relating to men and their lives, action and passion.” – A. Gaudí

This week, one of Antoni Gaudí’s most impressive –and bizarre- houses finally opened its doors to the public. Considered as his first masterpiece, Casa Vicens (1883-1888) is everything you would expect from Catalan Modernism: polychromy, curvilinear forms, wrought iron railings, geometrical and zoomorphic motifs, the interplay between light and shade, to the end of the long list, all with an unmistakable ‘organic’ twist that is a constant in Gaudí’s work.

One particularly interesting detail in Casa Vicens is the use of the ‘muqarnas’ (stalactite) decoration in one of the rooms. Guadí incorporated elements of the Islamic-influenced mudejar style in many of his buildings, but the use of muqarnas breaks the mudejar mould and betrays a clear fascination with Islamic art, not only of al-Andalus, but also of the Orient. In his notebooks, Gaudí explains:

“In the East, everything blends into the horizontal supports and vertical struts. The arch is a simple ornamental motif set within a system of pillars and lintels. Its vaults are simple spherical caps or stalactite vaults – a flat ceiling supporting stalactites as a reminder of the coolness of the cave.”

Click any image to enlarge it.