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!


 

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.

 

 

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.

 

صور لبعض المدن والآثار المذكورة في كتابي عن الأندلس

بمناسبة مشاركة كتابي “الأندلس: تاريخ الشتات” والصادر عن دار الربيع العربي في معرض القاهرة الدولي للكتاب الذي يبدأ اليوم، يسعدني أن أشارك معكم بعض الصور التي التقطتها في المدن المذكورة في كتابي، بهدف مساعدتكم على تخيل أجواء تلك المدن وتشجيعكم على اقتناء الكتاب. الصور خاضعة لقانون الملكية الفكرية ، وبإمكانكم استخدامها لأغراض غير تجارية شريطة ذكر اسم صاحب حقوق الملكية الفكرية (محمد الرزاز). أرجو أن تنال الصور إعجابكم، مع العلم بأنني سأقوم برفع المزيد من الصور لاحقاً

Bosnia: Sarajevo at the Crossroads of History

The story of Sarajevo unfolds in its historic centre, where Ottoman omnipresence and Austro-Hungarian elegance fuse with an unmistakable Balkan twist. The city is surrounded by hills and mountains from which the Serbs and their allies once poured hell on the helpless civilians. Such is the sadness of geography for a country that has paid a hefty price for its genius loci, always stuck between superpowers and hostile sides.

The historic city centre around Baščaršija (Sarajevo’s Old Bazaar) shows all the ‘usual suspects’ of an Ottoman city, and it should come as no surprise: the city centre is the brainchild of one benevolent and visionary ruler, namely the Ottoman Gazi Husrev Beg, sanjak-beg (district ruler) of Bosnia. Born to a Bosnian father and an Ottoman mother (and grandson of Sultan Bayazid II), his ensemble (architectural complex) includes a mosque, a madrasa, a library, a clock tower, a tašlihan (caravanserai or merchants’ inn), a bezistan (covered market), a hamam (bath), an aqueduct, fountains, to the end of the long list. More than just an ‘Ottoman fossil’, almost all these monuments are still functioning, whether serving their original function or recycled into a relevant use.

I started my day with some cheese-filled burek for breakfast. Walking down the Ferhadija Street (which was conceived around the Ferhad Pasha Mosque), I had a first stop at the Gazi Husrev Beg’s Mosque to admire the beautiful wooden Shadirwan (fountain) and the harmonious interior, before paying a visit to the Madrasa and Haniqah across the street. At the Sarači Street, I could not resist the coffee temptation. A little detour and I found myself at the heart of the Morića Han (Roadside Caravanserai) where I had my first Bosnian coffee (served in a copper-plated pot with a long, decorated neck, called a džezva, with a side cup containing sugar cubes and rahat lokum, better known as Turkish delights). Following the crowds, I ended up entering the busy 16th-century Bezistan, a roofed market lined with shops and workshops selling souvenirs and traditional products (mostly, metalwork, tablecloths and scarves). Back to daylight, I started zigzagging the narrow alleys around the Bezistan, had another coffee, then headed to the Pigeon Square, which seems to be whirling around the emblematic 1891 Sebilj (Public Fountain).

Following this overdose of Ottoman architecture and a hearty ćevapi lunch (a Bosnian variation on kafte and kebab served with traditional bread and chopped onions), it was time for something different, and the Austro-Hungarian splendour was just around the corner. As I crossed the river Miljacka to the other side, I could admire some interesting facades, but the real deal was the group of rather decadent buildings and villas with clear Vienna Secession touch at the nostalgic Petrakina Street. Unfortunately, time has not been so kind to them, but their charm lives on.

The city has many other gems to offer. A Jewish synagogue, a beautiful old orthodox church, and, saving the best for last, the spectacular National Library. Shelled on purpose during the Bosnian War, it was resurrected into its former splendour, having lost over one million books! The pseudo-Moorish façade striped in yellow and red is a visual reference of the city, but once inside, I was swept away by the incredible feat of architecture: arcades, half-domes, glass windows, calligraphy bands…all conceived to perfection. I don’t know how much I spend there, but I finally came back to my senses after walking out reluctantly from this oasis. As I crossed the Latin Bridge, I stopped to read a plaque explaining how a nationalist Serb assassinated the Archduke of Austria nearby, triggering WWI.

Far beyond the Old City, I came across bullet-riddled buildings, abandoned houses and ghastly reminders of the Siege of Sarajevo and the Balkan War: The Children Memorial, the Unitic Towers, the Snipers’ Alley, the Tunnel of Hope, and cemeteries wherever you look. That will be another story, another blogpost. Enjoy the photos and click any of them to enlarge it.

Herzegovnia: From Mostar to Blagaj

The Stari Grad (Historic City) of Mostar is relatively small. Seen from a distance; one quickly comes to understand the significance of the city’s most celebrated icon: The Stari Most (Old Bridge) which, at 25 meters high above the River Neretva, seems to defy gravity, but not time.

The impressive hump-backed bridge connecting both sides of the city is actually less than 20 years old. The original 1566 bridge commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent at the request of the city’s inhabitants and built by mimar Hayruddin was completely destroyed in the 1993 War and had to be reconstructed from scratch.

An icon of Mostar’s identity in every sense of the word, the bridge’s importance surpasses its architectural style and its functional significance: there is so much intangible heritage attached to the bridge in a way that is always present in popular memory and imagination. For centuries, it had inspired songs, paintings, poems, legends, love stories and even traditional sporting skills like high-diving.

Hanging around the bridge and contemplating the mesmerizing views of the river and the cityscape seems to be the national sport here, but as I gazed at the river banks, I realized the bridge was only one part of the story, or better said, the centerpiece of the greater architectural ensemble that appears on the UNESCO World Heritage List: fortifications and towers on bother sides of the bridge, cobblestone walkways, an Ottoman mosque here, another there; I finally decided to climb the highest minaret that dominated the horizon, and it was worth every step up the stairs!

From the top of the pencil-like Ottoman minaret of the 17th century Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, the old city unfolded before me like a dream; the hypnotic gift of Herzegovina to the world. Roaming beyond the Od City, one comes face to face with devastated and abandoned buildings; a sad reminder of the war toll in this peaceful part of the world.

It was lunchtime and, fortunately, I decided to head to the nearby village of Blagaj by the crystal clear karstic spring of the River Buna, so clear that you can actually drink its water. The landscape here is one of ravishing beauty: tender cataracts, green hills, and a dramatic rock wall embracing a serene white building hanging on the water. The building is the Ottoman Tekke (Takiyya) of Blagaj, the equivalent of a monastery hosting Muslim mystics and dervishes.

Dating back to the Bektasi Order of the 15th century, it eventually hosted followers of the Qadiri, Refai, Khalwati and Naqshabandi Orders (Tariqahs). The ensemble of the Tekke includes a musafirhane (guest room), abdesthane (washroom), hamam (bathroom), courtyard, kitchen, prayer rooms and turbe (tombs). The interior of the Tekke offers a little oasis over the river for the pilgrims of beauty: windows command soothing views of the river, a stairway takes you all the way down to the cold spring water, and the decoration of the rooms is both pleasant and elegant.

A great lunch of fresh trout by the river then back to Mostar to catch the Old City in a different light, that magical light that makes the city unforgettable forever after.

 

 

 

The Tomb of Ramses VI: Heaven Underground

Light years away from our daily sorrows and fears, there are unperceived moments which always last.

The most incredible tomb in Luxor’s famed Valley of the Kings is neither that of Tutankhamen nor that of Horemheb, but rather a tomb usurped by the XX dynasty pharaoh, Ramses VI.

An otherwise insignificant pharaoh, Ramses VI will always be remembered for this unearthly tomb where one comes face to face with one awe-inspiring corridor after another, all adorned with fantastic depictions of scenes from the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Day, Book of the Night, Book of the Caverns and Book of the Gates. Then comes the burial chamber with its unique astronomical ceiling showing the constellations, the decans and the daily journey of the solar disc through the body of the goddess Nut: the Netherworld was never so serene; the sky was never so vivid, even if it is a motionless starry sky. Is it any surprise we are made of star-stuff?

There were no other visitors; I had the place for myself. Alone in the burial chamber, I spent an eternity contemplating the celestial splendor at the heart of an underground tomb: a true theatre of heavenly delight, where the mortal and the divine are in perfect harmony, and where my light is the shadow of Ra’s might.

Ramses VI Tomb 1

Astronomical Ceiling of Ramses VI Tomb

Ramses VI Tomb 2

Panoramic View of Ramses VI Tomb

Ramses VI Tomb 4

Tomb of Ramses VI – 1

Ramses VI Tomb 5

Tomb of Ramses VI – 3

Ramses VI Tomb 3

Tomb of Ramses VI – 2

Sun sets over Luxor Temple

Sun sets over Luxor

Relief of Thutmose III at Luxor Museum

Thutmose III