Postcards from Monetengro

“What belongs to others we do not want, but what is ours we will never surrender.” – Phrase inscribed over the entrance gate to the old city of Kotor

And rightly so, because Montenegro is the coessential Adriatic country that should never fail to impress: on one side, the mountain; on the other, the sea, and in between, little towns and villages are strewn like pearls alongside the picturesque Bay of Kotor. Such is the case with Perast, Kotor and Budva.
The first two are understandably UNESCO World Heritage Sites, while Budva, apart from its awesome beaches, is a city where the urban boom seems to encroach the old city from all directions.

Kotor, the most fascinating of the three, has over 4 kilometers of city walls and fortifications that, in big part, date back the Venetian rule and surround the whole city. The Medieval city is well preserved because –luckily- Montenegro did not suffer heavy bombardment like other ex-Yugoslavian countries (it became an independent country only in 2006).

The dramatic setting of Kotor against elevated mountains creates a perfect backdrop against which all the back streets and alleys seem to vanish into infinity. Add some medieval buildings, pleasant piazzas and great food, and you have just figured out the city’s winning Mediterranean formula.

Then comes Perast, a little gem of a town on the coast that seems to rise from the very waters of the Adriatic, with small colorful boars dancing along the miniature marina. A boat ride to the nearby Island of Our Lady of the Rock is more than just a pleasant voyage: it’s an obligatory visit for two reasons. First, to visit the church and to enjoy fantastic views of the nearby Island of St. George which –somehow- resembles Arnold Böcklin’s painting, The Island of Death. Second, to experience the devotion of the natives who actually built this artificial island using rocks and sunken ships to commemorate the discovery of an icon featuring the Virgin and Child.

One can go on and on, but the photos would do a better job showing the beauties of the Montenegrin urban and natural landscapes.


Copenhagen: A Weekend among the happy Danes

In addition to being the ‘coolest kid on the Nordic block’ as the Lonely Planet puts it, the Danes must be among the coolest people ever: friendly, helpful and cheerful. It comes as no surprise for what is regarded as ‘the world’s happiest nation’!
What makes the Danes happy? There is no one definitive answer, but there are parks and bikes everywhere! Modern design is at home, the urban landscape is fantastic, and the cuisine is as exquisite as you wallet could afford.

I decided to hit the big attractions right away, starting with the picture-perfect 17th century waterfront of Nyhavn, where tradition houses with colored facades stand shoulder by shoulder, casting their playful reflections on the dancing water of the canal. I went again in the afternoon, by sunset, and at night. This is how much I liked it. It gets even more interesting when you hop on a boar for a grand canal tour.

Copenhagen is home to Europe’s oldest attraction park (Tivoli), as well as Europe’s oldest functioning observatory (the Round Tower, 1642), something that makes perfect sense for country that produced the likes of Tycho Brahe and Nicholas Copernicus. The panoramic views from the Tower are lovely, but one can best experience the city on a bike or on foot: the Strædet Street, the Amagertorv Square and other streets and squares in the old town all make for a pleasant walk, while buildings and momuments like the Old Stock Exchange with its fantastic spire, the Amalienborg Palace, the Marble Church and the Gefion Fountain are all not to be missed.

Funny enough, the one thing that no one seems to miss in Copenhagen is the smallest attraction that there is: the Little Mermaid statue that sits further along the Langelinie Promenade. H. C. Anderson’s legacy is alive and so are the houses where he lived in Nyhavn.

Following a nap at the park in the shadow of the Rosenborg Castle, I walked to the nearby David Collection Museum which, surprisingly, houses one of the most extraordinary collections of Islamic Art in Europe, while at the Design Museum I came to understand why the Danes are so good with everything they design! Actually, the whole city is a living monument to the alchemy of harmony between old and modern architecture. In addition to the Black Pearl and the Opera House, the Blue Planet Aquarium is a great example of that modern architecture, and a site worth every penny / second of the visit.

Having quenched my thirst for exploration, I had to appease my appetite, and it so happened that we headed to Schonnemann, a legendary restaurant famous for serving delicious varieties of the Danish national dish: the open sandwich. For someone whose idea about Nordic food is limited to smoked salmon, lunch came as a complete and welcome surprise to my taste buds: boiled-at-sea Greenland shrimps come side by side with friend plaice and marinated herring, a seafood feast with a Danish twist.

It was time for something different: Freetown Christiania. This neighborhood, which claims autonomy, has become an epitome of alternative lifestyle and a barter economy laboratory (soft and hard drugs included). Ever since it appeared in the early 1970s. controversy has persisted regarding its model and its future. Walking around the makeshift shops and graffiti-laden houses, one quickly gets a feeling that, beyond the apparent chaos, some sort of order exists. One that obeys a different rhythm and a distinct logic. A walk up and down then off I went to Nyhavn again to catch my canal tour.

One bridge after another and tale after tale, Copenhagen is a great tale to tell and an even better tale to experience. The only anecdote from my stay was the debate that followed my lecture there (on Northern Renaissance Art) about the inclusion of Albrecht Durer in the lecture: to some of the attendees, he is not ‘Northern’ enough since he was born in ‘Southern Germany’! No comment.

Masterpieces of Islamic Art

The term ‘Islamic Art’ evokes images of flowing calligraphic bands, zellige-covered walls, carved wooden pulpits, Arabesque decoration, illustrated manuscripts, to the end of the long list of wonders and marvels produced from as far to the East as China and all the way to Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula. Whether it is the Alhambra in Granada, the Sher Dor Madrasa in Samarkand or the Complex of Qalawun in Cairo, there seems to be a common storyline despite the profusion of styles. What is that storyline? What binds all these styles together across hundreds of years and tens of thousands of miles?

While many historians opt to the easy answer of ‘unity of faith’, the answer is not at all a straightforward one, and some other historians reject the term altogether. This should come as no surprise given the fact that most of the art history terms used today are relatively modern inventions. How can we define ‘Islamic Art’ then? What are the criteria and the parameters? Is it art produced by Muslim artists and artisans? Is it art commissioned by Muslim patrons? Is it art produced in territories subject to Muslim rule? Is it religious in nature? Secular? Both?

The term Islamic Art, in my opinion, is both reductionist and misleading, as it reduces the art of the Islamic World to only one of its cultural determinants: religion.
Most historians and critics tend to fall into the classical mistake of examining this art through a western lens/mentality, applying classical concepts to an entirely different realm. Abstraction, movement, horror vacui, density and intentional absence of naturalism are some of the most immediately recognizable characteristics of this art, while vegetal decoration, geometrical patterns and calligraphy are its three omnipresent elements.

Last Wednesday, I gave a lecture titled ‘Masterpieces of Islamic Art’, during which I presented 8 masterpieces, namely:

Shah Jahan receives his three eldest sons
Miniature Painting
The Mughal Empire, India

The Ardabil Carpet
Textiles and Carpets
The Safavid Empire, Iran

The Blacas Ewer
Atabeg, Iraq

The Tughra of Suleyman the Magnificent
The Ottoman Empire, Turkey

The Corning Ewer
Cameo Glassware
Fatimid, Egypt

The Djenbereger Mosque
Earthen Architecture
The Empire of Mali, Mali

The Kutubiyya Minaret

Carved Wood / Carpentry
Almoravids, Morocco

The Pyxis of al-Mughira
Carved Ivory
Umayyad, Spain

From the Pre-Islamic civilizations and cultures in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant, the art of the newly-born Islamic world took some inspiration. Nevertheless, the strongest impact on Islamic Art during its early years was that of the Byzantines and the Persians, visible in Umayyad and Abbasid art respectively. Following this early phase, and as Islam expanded, a second phase followed that was characterized by an incredible profusion of styles that coincided with a golden age. This eventually gave way to the Three Empires Phase, in which the Safavids of Iran, the Ottomans of Asia Minor and the Mughals of India controlled vast areas of the Islamic World between the 16th and the 18th centuries.

My gratitude to the 20+ attendees that made this course worth all the effort.

Football & Freedom of Expression: Whistling the National Anthem

Spain is waiting. The media is speculating, the social networks are boiling, many political circles are alarmed, others campaigning and lobbying, and it’s all because of a football match, but it has nothing to do with sport.

Tonight, FC Barcelona and Athletic Club de Bilbao will be playing in Barcelona in the presence of the King of Spain: it’s the Spanish King’s Cup final (Copa del Rey) and the King will hand the cup to the winner, but this is not why everyone is Spain is waiting.

FC Barcelona is a Catalan club, Athletic de Bilbao a Basque one. Catalans and Basques have a track record of whistling the Spanish national anthem in the presence of the king, any king. They have their reasons: some do not identify with the Spanish flag/anthem/politics, they do not consider themselves Spanish; others are separatists and would not miss a chance to express their strong desire for independence. They consider whistling the Spanish national anthem as an exercise of freedom of expression and an opportunity to voice their objection to Spanish politics and to the monarchic system in an event followed by the whole world.

On the other side of the battlefield (I mean the football field) are those who decry this attitude and describe it as an act of defiance to any code of conduct, mixing sport with politics and insulting the national icons of Spain. To them, whistling the flag (and in the presence of the new King) is an unimaginable and unacceptable lack of respect towards the rest of the Spanish people that love their ‘patria’ (homeland).

The debate acquired a new momentum following an unexpected (and unprecedented) twist: the authorities announced that both clubs would be sanctioned if their fans whistle the anthem. Other official opinions had called for suspending the match should this behavior persist. There is no lack of people from both sides of the argument that would gladly fan the flames.

The heated debate is already a trending topic in Spain, and once more, football proves it’s more than just a sport: football, politics, business and culture, they all mix despite the superficial arguments that claim otherwise. The big question, like always, is: where is the line between freedom of expression and abuse of other people’s freedom and rights? ‘The Law’, you might think. Well, not always.

I don’t know whether the fans would whistle and boo the national anthem or not tonight (most probably they will), but one thing I know for sure: after exactly 17 minutes and 14 seconds (17:14), Barcelona fans will sing ‘We want Independence’, like they always do at their stadium, the Camp Nou. The year 1714 is the year in which Barcelona fell to the Bourbon-supporting French Army. It’s a year that marked the destiny of Catalonia ever after, and it still hurts.

Rescuing Palmyra: History’s lesson in how to save artefacts


Following the fall of Syria’s Palmyra to ISIL and the reports ‎about the damage done to parts of the historic city, this ‎article in the BBC is a good reminder on the need to protect ‎heritage in times of conflict. Lessons from Mali, ‎Afghanistan and Bosnia.‎

Rescuing Palmyra: History’s lesson in how to save ‎artefacts
By Roland Hughes BBC News
• ‎21 May 2015‎

Islamic State militants took control of Palmyra on Wednesday ‎With Islamic State militants now inside the historic town of Palmyra in Syria, the ‎question, inevitably, is whether they will destroy the ancient ruins. ‎
As IS continues to sweep through parts of Iraq and Syria, damage to centuries-old ‎artefacts – because IS sees statues and shrines as idolatrous – is plentiful.‎
But history has shown that, when culturally important sites are under threat, people will ‎find a way to rally round and save what they can.‎
Artefacts have been saved in the face of war, natural disaster and genocide – often with ‎seemingly insurmountable logistics and threats to overcome. ‎
Similar efforts have taken place in Palmyra, too.‎
But how straightforward is it to save what others are determined to destroy? And what are ‎the crucial factors that can help save artefacts?‎


In 2012, Islamists seized the historic Malian city of Timbuktu. They started to destroy ‎mausoleums, and banned singing, dancing and sport.‎
Valuable manuscripts dating back to the 13th Century were under threat – and they ended ‎up being smuggled out of the city right under the Islamists’ noses.‎
It took a group of determined Timbuktu residents, who raised money to pay for bribes ‎and worked out when the militants slept in order to move the papers, mainly by boat.‎
Staff from two museums provided a safe house for the manuscripts in the capital, Bamako, ‎and helped smuggle them out of Timbuktu in a complex operation.‎
For the Mali manuscripts to survive, it took co-ordination, planning, bravery and more than ‎a little luck – in that the Islamists did not try to destroy them immediately.‎


Years of conflict and Taliban rule saw Afghanistan’s national museum in Kabul bombed and ‎looted to such an extent it was feared that nothing valuable remained.‎
But, to very few people’s knowledge, the museum’s director and four other men stored ‎‎22,000 of the most valuable items in the vault.‎
It was locked by five keys, one of which went to each man – or to his eldest child if he ‎died. Neither of the men said where the objects were stored – even when threatened at ‎gunpoint.‎
Some objects were moved into the presidential palace on the orders of President ‎Mohammad Najibullah, whose government fell in 1992.‎
A curator at the British Museum, where the objects went on show in 2011, said the men ‎were “undoubtedly unsung heroes”.‎


During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, the city’s National Library was deliberately hit by ‎shell fire, and at least two million books and documents were destroyed.‎
Many people rushed to the library to save what they could, despite sniper fire from ‎surrounding hills.‎
But the fire also spurred the head of another library to take action. Mustafa Jahic led ‎efforts to smuggle more than 100,000 books out of his building in banana crates, ‎moving them between safe houses.‎
He also smuggled equipment through a tunnel near Sarajevo’s airport that allowed him to ‎microfilm rare documents.‎

What hope for Palmyra – and Syria?‎
The advance of IS towards Palmyra gave authorities plenty of warning – a factor that is ‎crucial when it comes to saving priceless objects.‎
Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director general of Syria’s antiquities and museums, said that ‎hundreds of statues and other objects had been moved from Palmyra to safe-houses in ‎Damascus.‎
‎”But how do you save colonnades that weigh a ton?” he said. “How do you save temples ‎and cemeteries and, and, and?”‎
Similar work is being done elsewhere in Syria – largely to take objects out of looters’ ‎sights.‎
The 11th Century minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo was destroyed in fighting ‎
Cheikmous Ali is an archaeology professor and founder of the Association for the ‎Protection of Syrian Archaeology (Apsa), that monitors damage done to Syrian ‎archaeological sites.‎
‎”In Aleppo, in particular, there are people who have done some amazing work to protect ‎monuments,” he said.‎
‎”There are laws that allow you to move artefacts abroad if they are under threat. You have ‎some areas, like Idlib and its museum, that aren’t under government control.‎
‎”But everything in its museum can’t be moved to, for example, Turkey, as anyone who ‎moves it would be considered a thief there and arrested. So everything is still there in ‎Idlib.”‎
The key to saving future archaeological sites is co-ordination, careful planning and an ‎assessment of the safety of the site and of safe houses, said Zaki Aslan, a director of ‎Iccrom, a UN-backed body that works to conserve cultural heritage.‎
He also urged anyone who wanted to protect rare objects to maintain contact with ‎authorities and to catalogue them thoroughly.‎
‎”One can feel helpless but we should try to do something,” he said.‎
‎”Unesco has called for people to co-operate, for even the people in the conflict to find ‎ways.‎
‎”It will be a great loss if even some of the parts of Palmyra are lost. Not just for Syria, but ‎for the world.”


A Weekend among the Volcanoes of Olot

Olot is a charming little city in Girona, Catalonia. More than anything, it is famous for its volcanic craters which form part of the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, the most important such park in Spain. On a visit a week ago, we started with the crater of the Motsacopa Volcano, now all green and serene. The hill commands great views of the city and the other volcanoes. After roaming around –and down- the crater for some time (the volcano has been extinct for 10,000 years), it was time to admire Olot’s modernist architecture (Art Nouveau), specially Casa Gaietà Vila (1901) with its clear medieval air, its rich colors and its fantastic animals and plants worked in iron. Casa Gassiot (1912) is another charming building with beautiful wrought iron and gothic inspiration, and so is Casa Solà-Morales (1916), whose romantic façade was reinvented by the Catalan genius Domènech i Montaner.

In front of the neo-classical Church of St. Esteve, we enjoyed some castellers (human towers, a Catalan tradition listed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List) before trying Olot’s interesting ‘volcanic food’. The city’s tree-lined promenades and parks, its labyrinthine alleys and pleasant squares all invite you to explore further, but the real deal was awaiting a few kilometers away: the splendid natural reserve of La Fageda d’en Jordà, with thick vegetation and a forest of beech trees that grow at an exceptional height on cool lava from the nearby Croscat Volcano. As green as it is, one can only wonder just how colorful all these leaves would be in autumn!

Enjoy the photos, and enjoy Olot if you get the chance!

كليلة ودمنة – مقتطفات

كليلة ودمنة هو عنوان لمجموعة من قصص الحيوان تم تدوينها في الهند. بعد أن قام الفرس بترجمة تلك القصص، قام ابن المقفع بنقلها للعربية في القرن الثامن الميلادي. كليلة ودمنة هما اثنان من الحيوانات المنتمية لبنات آوى

“إن الارتفاع إلى المنزِلة الشريفة شديد والانحطاط منها هَيِّن، كالحجَر الثقيل، رَفْعُهُ من الأرض إلى العاتِقِ عَسِر ووَضْعُهُ إلى الأرضِ هَيِّن.”

“بعض المحاسن آفة لصاحبها، فإن الشجرة الحسنة ربما كان فسادها في طيب ثمرتها فتجذب حتى تكسر وتفسد. والطاووس ربما صار ذنَبُه الذي هو حسنه وجماله وبالاً عليه، فإذا اختال إلى الخفة والنجاة ممن يطلبه شغله عن ذلك ذنَبُه. والفرس الجواد القوي ربما أهلكه ذلك فأُجهِد واستُعمِل لما عنده من الفضل حتى يهلك. وكذا الرجل ذو الفضل ربما كان فضله سبب هلاكه لكثرة من يحسده ويبغي عليه من أهل الشر.”

“ألا ترى أن الماء ألْيَنُ مِن القول، وأن الحَجَر أشدُّ من القلب؟ فالماء إذا دام انحداره على الحجر لم يلبث حتى يثْقُبَهُ ويؤثر فيه. وكذلك القول في الإنسان.”

“إن الرسول هو الذي يليِّن الصدور إذا رَفَقَ، ويُخَشِّنُ الصدور إذا خَرُقَ.”