Millions of Cosmic Cannibals discovered in Space

This week saw two incredible discoveries that further challenge our idea of the universe.

A space telescope called Wise has just discovered millions and millions of huge black holes. These holes, formed when super massive stars explode and collapse in on themselves, have gravity so strong those not even light escapes from them. The true dilemma is that most galaxies have black holes at their centers: these black holes ‘suck’ matter and gas from nearby stars and other objects in the galaxy, literally ‘devouring’ them. It’s as if there’s a greedy cannibal at the heart of each galaxy.

The other shocking discovery made yesterday was that of sugar molecules in space for the first time in history. These molecules were discovered close to a star similar to our sun, with planets forming around it. Because the star is similar to our sun, the finding “shows that some of the chemical compounds needed for life existed in this (solar) system at the time of planet formation,” said the European Southern Observatory. The creation vs. evolution debate goes on.

Carl Sagan already said it decades ago: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars (…). We are made of star-stuff.”

Naji Al-Ali: Art as an act of Defiance

If you’re wondering how art can serve a political cause, Naji al-Ali is your man.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the assassination of this Palestinian cartoonist who dedicated his life and his art for struggling against the Israeli occupation of his land and for exposing the atrocities of the Israeli regime in Sabra and Shatila and other sites. Al-Ali also harshly criticized the Arab impotence and division, which earned him the wrath of many Arab regimes. A freedom fighter in every sense of the word, his loyalty was only to the Palestinian cause.

He was posthumously awarded the annual Golden Pen of Freedom award of the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers (FIEJ) in 1988, an award given to recognize outstanding actions in favor of freedom of expression.

Al-Ali is best remembered for his cartoon character, Hanzala, now a symbol of Palestinian resistance. Hanzala is a 10-year old boy (Al-Ali’s age when he was forced to leave Palestine as a child). He is featured as a poor and innocent barefoot witness of the war crimes committed by the Israeli Army.

Naji Al-Ali, just like the Chinese Ai Weiwei, the Syrian Ali Farzat and many other artists-activists, is a name you should know and never forget. He lived for a cause and was killed for it, but his ‘Hanzala’ lives on.

Celebrities of the Golden Age in the Streets of Islamic Cairo – 4: Ibn Maimoun

Ibn Maimoun (Maimonides) is a rare example of a man representing a bridge between the Jewish and the Islamic cultures. Born in al-Andalus (Spain under the Islamic rule), he studied in Cordoba and, later, in the Mosque of Qarawiyyin in Fes, before finally moving to the Middle East, eventually becoming the private physician of Saladin’s family in Cairo.

Physician, philosopher, Torah scholar and rabbi, Maimonides was a polymath whose writings showed a clear Islamic influence. A contemporary –and admirer- of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), his synagogue still stands in Islamic Cairo’s Jewish Quarter. Here is my article about Maimonides, published yesterday in Ahram Online:

Mistreating Michelangelo’s Masterpieces

The Popes pushed on him, commissioned him to laborious projects in the Sistine Chapel among other places. It took him so many years and consumed him to the extent that he told his brother: “I have no friends and I want none”

His masterpiece, “David”, was welcomed with stones thrown at it by the public, and was repeatedly targeted by any rioters in Florence, which broke its arms in 3 pieces!

After Michelangelo died, his friend and student, Daniele da Volterra, was commissioned by the Pope to “cover the genitals of all the figures painted by Michelangelo” in the Sistine Chapel because the Church saw that it was “improper” to have naked saints and prophets in a church.

Later on, Caravaggio (Italian Baroque Painter) openly declared his hate and disrespect for Michelangelo among others, accusing him of “spoiling art with his divine rendering of saints and prophets”.

Like the case with Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment was severely affected by the herds of tourists and the layers of soot and smoke formed by candles and dust. A restoration of the ceiling shocked viewers with bright colors that were concealed by a stupid application of varnish by earlier restorers.

So how did Michelangelo handle the pressure in his lifetime?
Well, as he said: “Genius, is eternal patience!”

The Last Supper: the World’s most abused Masterpiece

“The Last Supper is perhaps the world’s most abused masterpiece.” – The Superintendent of Fine Arts in Milan.

Other famous quotes about the deteriorated state of the Last Supper:
“The Last Supper is the most important dying thing in the world…”
“It is a living fossil of an artistic masterpiece…”

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece; was painted on the wall of a dining room in Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan), commissioned by Duke Sforza as a gift for the friars. It was finished in 1498.
It portrays the last supper that Jesus Christ had with his disciples, and captures their reaction right after Jesus informed them that one of them will betray him. The process of restoration for The Last Supper turned into a process of excavation! That involved cleaning and scraping away 500 years of dirt, glues, mould, as well as many layers of over-painting by a succession of previous restorers…but that is not all.

The experimental painting technique used by Da Vinci proved unstable, and much of the original pigment is now lost. In 1566, Giorgio Vasari wrote that it was already a mess and in 1587, the painting was deemed “half-ruined.”
In 1652, the friars of Santa Maria delle Grazie enlarged a door in the wall where the Last Supper is painted, thus cutting off Christ’s feet (in the painting). Later on, the friars put a curtain to cover the painting, which scratched the pigment continuously, and trapped much humidity, furthering the damage.

In 1762, a painter was hired to restore the painting. He did a very poor job, and another painter was brought to remove the over-painting using a scalpel!
Six major restorations took place since 1762, doing more harm than good, darkening the painting and using dirt-collecting glue and wax that obscured and ruined Leonardo’s pigments. The face of Jesus in the painting has become a mere mask. We do not know for sure what features Leonardo conceived for Jesus before restorations. In 1796, when Napoleon’s troops occupied Milan, they used the room where the Last Supper is painted as an armory and a stable. The soldiers did much damage to the painting, and some claim that Napoleon tried to send the wall with the painting on it back to France.

In 1943, an allied bomb landed next to the wall, but as one of the historians mentioned, “the bomb was more intelligent than humans,” and no damage was done.
The porous wall allows humidity, and the already-polluted air of Milan only added to the deterioration of the painting. A successful restoration that ended in 1999 revealed that what we see today is only 20% of the original painting.

Published: The Fate of Timbuktu’s Andalusi Manuscripts

“The last city of al-Andalus is neither Malaga nor Algeciras, it is Timbuktu” –Ismael Diadie Kati, Malian library owner of Andalusi origin.

This is the story of one of history’s most interesting (and least known) odysseys: that of the Kati Family Manuscripts. From al-Andalus (medieval Spain) to the Niger River Basin, few manuscripts in history have a story as interesting as these ones.
Threatened by the political upheaval in Mali, the fate of these manuscripts remains to be a question mark.

What is the story of these manuscripts? How did the story start in Toledo and end in Timbuktu? How did they survive the Inquisition in Spain and successive wars and cultural holocausts in Western Africa? Why are they important and where are they now? Here is the full story in my latest article, published today by Ahram Online:

30 Self-Portraits: From Van Eyck to Warhol

This is a collection of around 30 self-portraits by some of the most famous painters in history.
Portrait painting has always been one of my favorite genres, but it becomes even more interesting when it comes to self-portraits because the message becomes personalized and more intense: the artist tells us exactly what he/she wants us to know about him/her through the painting.

Rembrandt was possibly the one painter that produced the largest number of self-portraits ever, a man ‘obsessed with his own image’ as some historians once put it (in fact, I think it was more of a visual diary than an obsession). Nevertheless, long before Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer had already set a trend through a multitude of self-portraits, and his Christ-like self-portrait remains to be one of the most famous in history.

From the intensity of Jan van Eyck’s portrait with a red turban to the casual look of Kirchner and his model, this is a short journey in time to meet some of the most celebrated figures of art history.

Featured artists:
Andy Warhol (Pop Art),
Albrecht Dürer (Northern Renaissance),
Beckmann (Expressionism),
Botticelli (Quattrocento, Renaissance),
Caravaggio (Baroque),
Cezanne (Post-Impressionism),
Chagall (Modernism, Surrealism),
Courbet (Realism),
Da Vinci (High Renaissance),
Dalí (Surrealism),
Delacroix (Romanticism),
Edvard Munch (Expressionism),
Egon Schiele (Expressionism),
El Greco (Mannerism),
Fragonard (Rococo),
Francis Bacon,
Frida Kalho (Surrealism),
Goya (Realism / Neoclassical),
Gustave Moreau (Symbolism),
Henri Matisse (Fauvism),
Jacques-Louis David (Neoclassical),
Jan van Eyck (Northern Renaissance),
Joan Miró (Surrealism),
Kirchner (Expressionism),
Lautrec (Post-Impressionism),
Lucian Freud,
Manet (Impressionism),
Pablo Picasso (Cubism),
Paul Gauguin (Post-Impressionism),
Peter Paul Rubens (Baroque),
Raphael (High Renaissance),
Rembrandt (Baroque),
Titian (Venetian School, Renaissance),
Van Gogh (Post-Impressionism),
Velázquez (Baroque).

Celebrities of the Golden Age in the Streets of Islamic Cairo – 3: Ibn Khaldun

A new article in my series about the figures of the Golden Age of Islam. This time, it’s Ibn Khaldun, the Father of Sociology. A Renaissance Man in every sense of the word, most people remember him only for his famous book, ‘al-Muqaddimah’ (The Introduction).
Here is what you need to know about him, including the madrasas (schools) where he used to teach in Cairo, his intermediation between the Mamluks and the Mongols, and his views on civilzation, among other things:

The Ukraine Experience: From Kiev to Lviv

This is my travel account for the Ukraine visit with a focus on the cities of Kiev and Lviv, both rich in heritage and cultural attractions.

I- Kiev: Memories of Mother Russia

Kiev is a strange city, the kind of city that makes you think deeply before judging it. I took my time, and slowly started realizing that it was a city of many charms: from the elegant buildings of the Khreshchatyk Street and Maidan Nezalezhnosti to the impressive and monumental green and gold domes and bell towers of Santa Sophia, Saint Andrew and Saint Michael, the city never fails to impress.

Walking down Khreshchatyk Street (the main thoroughfare), I contemplate the colorful kiosks selling ice-cream and fast-food, and I find it hard to believe that this very same street with its joyful atmosphere was the first place in history to be destroyed and gutted by a set of radio-controlled explosions (during WWII, thanks to the Red Army). Most of what I see now is a neoclassical post-war creation with a relatively recent Ukrainian twist.

But the real deal here is the ensemble of three incredible masterpieces of Ukrainian Baroque. I started with the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, an awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site dominated by green domes. The murals and ceiling paintings inside are captivating, with much Byzantine influence.

Then came the unearthly Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. You have to see the scale and elegance of this place to believe it. Even at a distance, I could not stare at its golden domes, glowing under the sun and shimmering like giant mirrors. The onion-shaped gilt domes form part of a wonderful architectural work that seems as if designed to defy gravity. Not far from here is the Saint Andrew’s Church with its dark green domes and towers, located in a spot that lends it an exaggerated verticality against the lowlands surrounding it. From here, I took a nice walk down the Andriyivskyy Descent, Kiev’s Montmartre-sorts-of, with artists and artisans selling their works at the stands lining the street.

Like any good tourist, I had my share of plov (rice with carrot, onion, meat and aromatic spices), had a big scoop of ice-cream, and went on wandering around the streets. Kiev is a nice city, a bit decadent and unconfident, but definitely interesting and rewarding. Nevertheless, I was already dreaming of another city: Lviv. First, I have to take the night train (13 hours) to the Ukrainian Carpathians.

II – Teaching Art at the Carpathians

Not far from Volovets is the summer school where I spent two weeks teaching art and astronomy to students that are 13 to 17 years old. This place became my home in Ukraine for two wonderful weeks, and I would not be exaggerating if I say that, thanks to my students, my stay converted into a unique learning experience.
Seeing art through their eyes, listening to their interpretation of some masterpieces, surrendering to their passion as they explained to me things about Ukrainian art and culture, it has all been unforgettable (and now I’m a fan of Taras Shevchenko!).

Classes apart, the landscape here is one of cheer beauty. Sleepy little villages dotted with random houses, farmers in jeans, haystacks piled up like giant bells made of straw, old women looking like matryoshka dolls, the smell of fried food everywhere, trees, trees, and more trees…I think the photos can do a better job than my words.

I will never forget these students, all of them wonderful guys and girls. Nothing compares to teaching art to the young and the curious.

III – The UNESCO World Heritage City of Lviv

I can put it all in one sentence, a short one: “Love at first sight”! The only problem is, Lviv is worth a whole poem to praise its many charms. Just one phrase will not do.

Lviv, one of Europe’s best-kept secrets and most elegant cities, is understandably a UNESCO World Heritage City. However, one has to venture beyond the historic city to get a full grasp of what Lviv has to offer. It was quite an adventure to visit the Lychakivskiy Cemetery, and even more difficult to reach the spectacular 18th and 19th century wooden churches that now form part of the open-air folk museum, but not in vain.

Back to the city centre, one quickly gives in to the accommodating and lively ambiance of the Rynok Square and its surroundings, specially the Svobody Street. The Church of the Assumption is reminiscent of the Florentine grace, while the Chocolate Factory (Maystrenya Shokolady) is better than sex! Speaking of sex, one could not possibly miss the statue of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Ukranian writer to whom masochism owes its name. Then there is the Holocaust memorial, the Opera House, the Taras Shevchenko Monument, a wonderful art museum (Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum) and much more.

Cobblestone streets, pleasant squares, elegant houses with pastel facades, good food, a bunch of interesting monuments and a vibrant cultural scene with human statues, street musicians and public art…Lviv is everything I was hoping for it to be…a picturesque city in every way imaginable.

Celebrities of the Golden Age in the Streets of Islamic Cairo – 2: Ibn al-Nafis

The Syrian polymath Ibn Al-Nafis is famous worldwide as a great medieval physician. Most of his books on medicine were written in Egypt, and it was in Egypt that he made his groundbreaking discovery of the pulmonary circulation some 370 years before William Harvey. Here is his story, the second in my series of five articles published weekly by Ahram Online: