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"Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel." - G.K. Chesterton

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.

Casas de Indianos: Barcelona’s Colonial Legacy

During the cultural walk that I organized for my Mediterranean Heritage students in Barcelona, we explained several heritage elements that included the Renaixença (the 19th century Catalan Renaissance), els Jocs Florals (Floral Games involving poetry contests), la Sardana (a traditional Catalan dance), the Tertulia (cultural salon), the Castellers (human towers), and the Casas de Indianos, which I explain in more detail in this post.
Following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Spain referred to the native Americans as ‘Indios’ (Indians), inspired by Columbus’ famous original misconception, thinking he had discovered India, rather than a new continent. Eventually, many explorers, navigators, and soldiers-of-fortune would follow the example of Columbus and try their luck in the New World, hoping for money or fame: Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Hernando de Soto and Alonso de Ercilla are just a few examples. The Age of Discovery had begun, and so did Spain’s ‘Siglo de Oro’ (the Golden Century).
Scores of Spanish men, young and old, saw the New World as an opportunity to accumulate riches. The sugar and the coffee industries were among the most flourishing businesses in America, and many Spaniards managed to accumulate riches in Mexico, Chile, Cuba, Puerto Rico and elsewhere before Spain finally lost its last colonies overseas during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Those Spanish adventurers and business men that came back to Spain having made a fortune in the Americas came to be known as ‘Indianos’. Those rich Indianos used their fortune to wield power and prestige: they tried to buy noble titles, gain social status by patronizing artists and poets (like Eusebi Gϋell becoming the patron of Antoni Gaudí) and building fancy houses and palaces in the colonial style. These houses came to be known as Casas de Indianos, and they share certain characteristics: the use of marine motifs (like the anchor, the trident of Poseidon, sea serpents, etc.) and native American inspirations (most commonly the head of a chief or a slave with feathers and arrows, but also exotic fruits and brids) as decorative elements; the cultivation of palm trees in their gardens (if they have one), and the use of porticos or colonnades or other elements of colonial architecture.
In Barcelona, we visited the most elaborate example, namely Casa Xifré in Passeig d’Isabel II, which dates back to 1840. The house, which shows clear masonic inspiration, features a very interesting iconographic program that includes, in addition to marine motifs and native American faces, a row of medallions featuring the busts of Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus and many other iconic explorers and navigators from Spain and Portugal.
Though many Indianos were involved in illicit trade, trafficking and promoting slavery, their contribution to cities like Barcelona and other parts of Spain was overwhelming. In addition to their own houses, they undertook urban projects, promoted the industrial revolution, built banks and educational institutions, sponsored art and culture, introduced new traditions and tastes to their native communities and -in some cases- even left us a body of literature chronicling their endeavours and offering us a first-person glance into the Americas.
Barcelona is a city that has a lot to offer, and yet, most tourists and inhabitants skip the colonial legacy of the city (which inspired a whole musical genre known as the Habaneras, named after la Habana or Havana, the capital of Cuba) in favour of the usual suspects that include the Gothic Quarter and the Modernist architecture of Gaudí and Co.
Below are images of Can Xifré and a nearby Casa de Indianos in El Born.

 

‘Defend Europe’ and Mediterranean Xenophobia

The closing of the Mediterranean route is the only way to Defend Europe and save lives.” – excerpt from the mission statement of the far-right group Defend Europe

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 118,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea this year, 80% of whom arrived in Italy, with the remainder in Greece, Cyprus and Spain. Over 2,400 migrants have died (or are missing) crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, and the tragedy is far from over.
As the world intensifies its efforts to rescue migrants and pools resources to face the crisis, the far-right group ‘Defend Europe’ has managed to raise funds for the exact opposite purpose: they sent a boat with full crew to patrol the coast and circumvent the rescue efforts in an attempt to send the refugees/migrants ‘back to Africa’. The discourse is not new and the excuses are age-old, including security concerns, economic pressures and the misguided desire to protect Europe’s identity (whatever that means). This and other far-right groups in France, Germany, Austria, Greece and elsewhere are oblivious to –or consciously ignore- the fact that identity is a dynamic concept and that the European culture would be inconceivable without pluralism, mobility and dialogue. Blinded by Xenophobia and racism, they forget that migrants gave Europe its earliest civilizations and forged its culture over millennia.
You will not make Europe home!” is only one of the many messages that Defend Europe sends to migrants through huge banners on its boat, the C-Star. They accuse NGOs involved in rescuing migrants of collaboration with the human smugglers, fashion themselves as saviors of Europe and enemies of human-trafficking, and they continue their fundraising efforts and their toxic propaganda at a part of the world where tensions have been already growing.
Is “the closing of the Mediterranean route” really “the only way to defend Europe and save lives”? Isn’t curbing the arms manufacturing and arms deals a better way than ‘Fortress Europe’ to save not only Europe but the whole region? Isn’t intercultural dialogue a tried-and-trusted means to save the entire region? Isn’t this the very same Mediterranean where the Phoenicians taught Europe how to write and the Arabs gave Europe its numeral system?

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, because 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. ‎
The fact that our part of the world is currently plagued with a full spectrum of regional challenges should guide our moral compass to a new, more humane geography in which building bridges and engaging in dialogue -rather than flashing economic sanctions, resorting to armed conflict, and stooping to political and cultural Darwinism- would pave the way for a better future.

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The Painter of Nightmares

Not Herni Fuseli, not Goya, not Dalí…

I first learned about Zdzisław Beksiński thanks to his cover art for an album by a metal band. As I started exploring his artworks, I came face to face with a gothic realm of nightmares where art is more than just a medium. I cannot think of any other artist that reproduced nightmare landscapes the way this man did; surrealism was never so ‘real’!
Many attempts have been made to classify his artwork, and like always, the obsession with terms and categories are meaningless when it comes to contemporary art. Those with a taste for the grim and the eerie will most definitely appreciate his art, but so would those with the slightest interest in surrealism.