Cities cut in half

I was brought up in Cyprus, and was 9 years old when the island became independent. Archbishop Makarios’s name was known to me, and I was aware that he’d been exiled to an exotic sounding place called The Seychelles. The rival slogans of the Greek community and the Turksih community were familiar. My father was staunchly pro-Greek, and my mother had good Turkish friends. I think, looking back, that most of our British friends were spies! I returned to Cyprus this April. Its divisions pain me but are not surprising. I wandered along either side of the Green Line that separates the Greek and Turkish communities in Nicosia. Large oil barrels or sandbags close off short streets. Idle soldiers sit at vanatage points supposedly on guard. And then there are the crossing points where anyone with an i.d. card or passport can wander over. I choose the Ledra Palace Hotel crossing as I’d seen on the BBC that there was a cafe jointly run by Greeks and Turks sitting in No Mans Land. I popped in for a coffee and rejoiced at the sounds of Turkish and Greek being spoke at adjacent tables. The piped music was English! As I was given my very good latte I made sure to say thank you three times: in Greek, in Turkish and in English. I was staying in the northern/Turkish part of the city, but had a lunch date in the southern Greek half. Late in the afternoon, my hosts’ daughter took me to see the Greek side of the Green Line. She led me into a house (see image) which has stood empty since 1974. We crept upstairs, skirting rotten floorboards and peered out through sniper holes in the sandbagged windows. I was looking at the Turkish defensive positions, but it could have been the other way round. Later I went to lunch with an old Turkish friend whom I have known for 60 years. She told me that the next day she’d go and see her doctor, a Greek, whose surgery is in the Greek south. I shifted to Kyrenia, the town where I lived until I was nearly ten. Settling down to supper in the harbour, I asked the waiter where he came from: Pakistan came the answer. And the answer was the same at my next stop for coffee. The island is seeing some sort of net emmigration, and the vacancies are being filled by people from the Philipinnes and Pakistan glad to work on this lovely island. What strikes me is that the Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots have much in common. Less separates them than divides them. The division of the island into two federations ‘works’…well just works! Each side is bolstered by the mainland states of Greece and Turkey, but the arrangement runs the danger of being backdoor colonialism. And in this divided state, each side can have fantasies about the other. Both the Greeks and the Turks I met asked me about the ‘other side’, even though there are no barriers to prevent them from crossing. Those who do cross over find that they are welcomed. To hear Greek voices strolling around ‘Turkish’ Kyrenia Harbour, or Turkish voices shopping on Ledra Street in Greek Nicosia gave me enormous hope for the future.


Lament for Palmyra by Simon Loftus

In 2006, Simon Loftus travelled with Rufus Reade to Syria.

Palmyra, a lament

 In the Tower of Elahbel, in the Valley of Tombs, it was cool and dim, with only a shaft of sunlight slanting across the threshold. Tall pilasters crowned with fronds of acanthus (waving in a phantom breeze) framed stone shelves on both sides of the chamber. I reached into the dark recess above one of those shelves, stretching towards the fragment of a pale bowl. It was almost weightless, smooth and rounded on the outside, delicately fissured within. With a sudden shock I realised that the bowl was bone, the crown of a skull. Gently, carefully, I placed it back where I found it, deep in its slot in the wall, and made a wordless prayer for the dead.

The tower originally contained three hundred of these funerary pigeonholes, each of them designed to hold a single corpse - a condominium for the departed. One of many such towers on the edge of this ancient city, it was built two thousand years ago as a place of eternal rest for the wealthy citizens of Palmyra. Their rest was disturbed many times - robbed of jewellery and other valuables, long ago - and then the archaeologists arrived and looted the sculpted portraits (which had once sealed each slot) and sent them to museums around the world. But that fragment of a skull survived through the centuries, until the tower was blown apart in August 2015, less than ten years after my visit.

Palmyra had a long history of devastation, being attacked and ruined, re-built and shattered by earthquakes, before eventually it was abandoned to the winds of the desert, which covered much of it in sand.

It was ‘rediscovered’ towards the end of the seventeenth century by English merchants based in Aleppo, and a panoramic engraving of the ruins was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, in 1695. The leader of this expedition, William Halifax, described his first sight of the place, gazing down across Palmyra from an Arabic castle on a high crag to the northwest – as I did three centuries later, looking over his shoulder from the castle, with the setting sun throwing long shadows across the sand dunes, of colonnades and towers and a jumble of honey-coloured stone – a deserted city, silent, empty, breathtakingly wonderful. The next day at dawn (with a pale moon in the sky) I explored the ruins alone, and imagined I was the first for a thousand years.

Later, as the sun rose and a few boys with camels arrived and sellers of souvenirs, the illusion faded, but the sense of time foreshortened persisted. The 12th century Arab walls surrounding the sanctuary of Bel seemed a barricade against imminent attack, with sections of Roman columns hastily piled on rubble from the ruins. The sanctuary itself (dedicated to a Mesopotamian god in 32 A.D.) was later used as a church, and then as a mosque, and the pattern of its coffered ceiling (published by Robert Wood in 1753) served as a model for some of the great houses of 18th century England. On fallen stones nearby, carvings of vines and leaves, crisp as if done yesterday, evoked an immediate delight in fruitful abundance, while an image of veiled women following a camel laden with a small palanquin (also heavily veiled) was resonant with mystery. On the walls of the Tomb of the Three Brothers names of the deceased were painted in red, in fluent brush strokes that resembled Japanese script. It was in fact Aramaic, a ‘dead’ language that I had heard spoken as a living tongue in the hill village of Maaloula, two days earlier, when I bought a couple of bottles of sweet red wine from the local priest, Father Toufic. Made from semi dried grapes, the wine was a distant cousin of those enjoyed in Palmyra, in classical times.

And then there were the date palms.

The Roman name Palmyra, and its older name, Tadmur, hint at the palm trees that surrounded this oasis, four or five thousand years ago, and still do today. Hidden springs gave water and the dates provided sustenance for caravans carrying goods across the desert, on trade routes from the East to Rome. Palmyra acted as host and entrepot, and levied taxes on everything that passed. It grew enormously rich, and powerful enough to defeat the Persian emperor. Then its queen, Zenobia, challenged Rome itself. She was forced to surrender in 273, taken captive and died in exile. The city declined, new caravan routes were established and the trade on which it had prospered dwindled and vanished. But the dates survived.

Carrying his nargileh (water pipe) - as he did wherever we went – our bus driver Adnan shouted for us to follow as he roared off on the pillion of a motorbike, steered by a local date farmer. The farmer’s brother led us along a dusty track, between crumbling mud brick walls that bordered the patchwork of small plots which subdivided the palm groves. Eventually we arrived, to discover Adnan seated in the shade, smoking his pipe (tobacco scented with rose petals) beside a trestle table laden with sacks of dates, a few of the twenty different varieties cultivated at Palmyra. Each was named as we tasted it, and then a small boy was sent to shin up a nearby tree and cut down a bunch from the golden clusters that gleamed above our heads. These, we were told, were Ibrahim dates – lighter in colour than most, slightly less sweet, but with a delicious nutty flavour that I preferred to all the others.

I bought a bag of them, munched them throughout the rest of my time in Syria and took some home to Suffolk. The taste of these dates was what I remembered most vividly from Palmyra. That distinctive flavour, with a hint of the dry desert air, seemed a direct link to the ancient past of this city, alive, evocative, cutting through history. It was the taste of the caravanserai, when Palmyra was young.

Then came news of the catastrophes that overtook Syria, the destruction, the killings, the savagery of fanaticism and its repression. So now, when I think of Palmyra, I remember the Bedouin woman (two small children clutching at her skirts, and pregnant with a third) who tried to sell me souvenirs at the Tomb of the Three Brothers, and our driver Adnan with his water pipe, and the date farmers. And I wonder with dread what happened to them.

And I think of the old barman at Baron’s Hotel in Aleppo, and the hotel itself, almost unchanged since T.E. Lawrence shot wildfowl from the terrace - where I drank whisky, sunk in a leather armchair, dreaming of a past that I never knew. And of the family celebrating a wedding in a famous restaurant in the city, who invited me to join them and plied me with wine. And the Druze children, waving to me as I strolled through the Roman city of Shahba. And the young bakers at Deir es-Zur, on the banks of the Euphrates, who gave me a taste of unleavened bread, blistered by the heat of the oven, late at night. And the veiled girls, graceful as gazelles, harvesting cotton stalks in a field near Halabiyeh. And the baby asleep in an improvised hammock, slung from an olive tree outside the ‘dead village’ of Kfer al Bara, as three generations of her family gathered the olives and piled them into sacks. And the men travelling to work in the back of a builder’s truck in Damascus, who grinned as I passed, early in the morning on my first day in Syria. And Yusef the shoeshine boy, who haggled with me for quadruple his usual fee, as he polished my shoes on the pavement, on my last day.

In all that destruction, did they survive?


The young woman selling postcards at the Palmyran Tomb Tower.

The young woman selling postcards at the Palmyran Tomb Tower.

Burnt to a cinder

On 10th August 2018, a wooden church at Kondopoga in Northern Russia was burnt down in what appears to have been an act of madness by a teenager. The church sat on a low promontory on the shores of Lake Onega. It was built entirely of wood and without nails. Its wonderful proportions, a tall elegant spire are now reduced to a pile of ashes. The Russians of Karelia know how to build in wood, so hopefully a church will be built to replace it. The inside of the church was blessed with the most wonderful painted dome, which my composite image tries to convey. I was prompted by the tragedy of the fire to write, by email, to the Russian Consul General here in Edinburgh to offer my commiserations. His deputy was kind enough to write back 5 minutes later. Hopefully a fund will be created to rebuild this lovely church which dated to 1774, when it was built in memory of the victims of an uprising, brutally suppressed by the Czar. There has been a sad history of those seeking fame by committing such appalling acts, as my friend Warwick Ball pointed out, when I wrote to tell him the sad news. Herostratus burnt down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus so that his name would become well known: 'Herostratic fame'. The Temple of Artemis had been called one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by among other people the historian Herodotus (484 – ca. 425 BC) and the scholar Callimachus of Cyrene (ca. 305–240 BC). This church of the Dormition has rightly been called 'the most beautiful wooden church of Northern Russia". Its survival through the Soviet period was all the more remarkable.


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A real gentleman of Swat

There was that poem about the Akond of Swat by that prince of the absurd, Edward Lear. It was his ear for the good rhyme which must have led him to write a poem full of questions about a character who must have seemed almost mythical. In 1989 I travelled to the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan, and you may be amused by an encounter I had. I was travelling around in search of stock for my shop Out of the Nomads Tent, and trying to work out if I should bring a group to this beautiful part of the world. I decided to stay in the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation hotel in Maidan. As I was costing out a tour I was keeping a close eye on expenses, to get a full understanding of how to price a tour. I was shown my nice bedroom and told the time for dinner. In due course I made way over to the dinning room and after a good meal I asked for the bill. The waiter apologised, saying that bills were normally only presented when guests left the hotel. I made a bit of a fuss and insisted that a bill be brought. The pound signs began to stack up in my imagination and I could see my costs spiraling out of control. Eventually the manager was summoned and politely asked what the matter was. I once again asked for the bill for my supper. He too repeated the mantra that bills were normally presented on departure but he said he'd prepare a bill immediately if I wanted one. In due course a waiter appeared bearing my bill for the equivalent of 75 pence. I felt so ashamed that I'd made such a fuss for a bill that amounted to less than £1. I settled up. I checked out of the hotel and went off to Baltistan (Devla Murphy wrote her account of that place in Where the Indus is Young). After a week away I returned to Swat and checked into the same PTDC hotel. The following day I checked out and when I cam to pay my bill I could see that the cost of dinner the previous night had been omitted. I pointed this out to the man at the reception desk who explained that dinner had been their gift to me!

In due course I did bring a group to Swat and you can guess where we stayed. As we were leaving after a lovely couple of days in this very special valley, the same manager, Mr Habib Afridi invited the group to a corner of the garden to formally plant a tree in memory of our visit. I was handed the spade and unaccustomed as I am to planting commemorative trees, solemnly put the soil onto the roots of the sapling.

A few years later, I was at home in Edinburgh when got a phonecall from Mr Afridi to say that he was in Vienna and would like to fly over for a night: could he come and stay? I made him welcome and in due course he arrived. He only with me for one night and during the following day I showed him round Edinburgh. I could see that he was unexcited about all that I could show him. We walked past the museum in Chambers Street, and then along George IV Bridge. Still nothing made him enthuse. I could see that as a tour guide I was failing. At the end of George IV Bridge, right next to the magnificent Bank of Scotland building we leaned on the railings and looked north over Edinburgh. It's a magnificent vista, but Mr Afridi was unmoved. And then suddenly his eyes alighted on the trees that cover Corstorphine Hill and he exclaimed 'Trees', and I realised I'd have done much better if I had taken him to the Edinburgh Botanic Garden.

It's nearly 30 years since my first visit to Swat, and I am still in touch with Mr Habib Afridi via his nephew, who rang today from Peshawar with Eid Greetings. What gentlemen.


Looking for bears in the Carpathians

The Carpathians snake through Europe, from southern Poland where they are called the Tatras through to the Alps.  A friend of mine who cycled from London to Delhi seemed to mainly remember steep climbs into the Carpathians when I told him I was visiting Romania! I was there in search of brown bears. I had heard that the largest concentration of bears in Europe is in Romania. The story, as you might imagine, is a mixed one!  Bears are iconic, but close up they are very dangerous. They don't like being surprised! So singing loudly as you walk through the beech woods is recommended. I saw the bears from the safety of hides. Some hide owners feed the bears with so much food that the bears alter their lives in light of reliable feeding. The males who are normally solitary will allow other bears to share their territory. Bears who get habituated to regular food (for example the rubbish bins in Brasov) may become dangerous when humans gets close. Where hide-owners are less generous in the food they put out, visits by bears may be fairly regular, but the small tit bits won't alter the bears behaviour. In the fading light of an October evening I photographed this bear who'd be lured to the hide by maize. The debate about bears is highlighted by the desire of some people to shoot this 'trophy' animal which can earn the landowner £25,000 per head. Paying to visit the hides seemed to me the better option.

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Meditation on Raqqa

The Syrian news may not get the front page as often as it used to. But the fall of Raqqa is widely heralded as the last stand of the odious forces of a barbarous so-called caliphate: if only life could be that simple.  I've only been to the city of Raqqa once. Although today in 2017 largely abandoned it used to be the 6th largest city in Syria, situated in the very east,  on the banks of the Euphrates, 300km from the Mediterranean. It reminds of me of a time when the border of the Roman world butted up with their rivals, the Persians. In those the days the major centres of the world were Rome, Byzantium, Baghdad, Ctesiphon, Alexandria. My suspicion is that ISIS/ISIL/Daesh seized the city because of its remoteness from Damascus. Over the last two thousands years it has been captured, devastated and seen an unfair amount of warring nations: Romans, Persians, the Omayyads, and the Abbasids. When the Mongols sacked the city in the 13th century, they destroyed a remarkable ceramics tradition. I am grateful to the distinguished potter, Laurence McGowan, for pointing this out when we were there: he told us that the term Rakka or Raqqa ware is still used to describe the distinctive pottery which was once produced there with lovely examples in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  It was a sad city when we were there in 2006 with very high levels of unemployment, though we were warmly greeted by school boys in their blue uniforms. Some of the kids who were not in school clambered up the brick walls of the Baghdad gate, as you can see in my photograph. The city's capture/liberation in October 2017 by a combined Kurdish/Syrian Arab force supported by the USA will I am sure now open another can of worms, since no doubt the Assad government supported by the Russians will claim that it should be governed from Damascus. Pray for the people of this sad city.


Courage in the face of enormous adversity

A rug hanging in the current Dovecot Festival exhibition “Daughters of Penelope” (Edinburgh Fringe 2017) is described as dedicated to Irina Sendler, a name I’d not heard of before. The name sent me scurrying off to look her up and the most moving account of the 2500 babies she and her team smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. The story is an incredible one of courage, as every day under the guise of a health worker looking for typhus she took out babies in the bottom of tool boxes, or concealed beneath the stretcher of the ambulance. The ambulance driver had taught his dog to start barking to cover up the cries of the babies, which in turn set off the barking of the guard dogs. Irina Sendler hid the names of each child and the foster family in a jar which she buried beneath an apple tree so that after the war there was a chance of reuniting the babies and their families. Tragically most of their parents in the ghetto were killed. To learn more about this incredibly plucky woman see 


Fifty times more visitors

We may think we are travellers and other people are tourists but the truth is that we are all part of a huge surge in people who travel abroad. A quick look at the figures tells the story; as the cold war ended the worldwide figure for people who travelled was 25 million a year. By 1995 the figure had risen 20 fold, and the figure has since more than doubled. This year 1.2 Billion people crossed international boundaries. That means that nearly 50 times as many people travel today as did 30 years ago. FIFTY TIMES…

Much tourism seems to a few places: people continue to pile into the favourite cities. Barcelona, Berlin, and Paris come to mind, and Dubrovnik and Venice see too many cruise ships (the locals say). Some economies depend on the very thing that bites: tourism makes up 12 per cent of Spain's economy.  Biting the hand that feeds is not a recent tendency. Growing up in the Channel Island of Jersey in the 1960s, I was used to locals referring to tourists as ‘groccles’.

Since tourism employs more people than any other single industry in the world, decisions about limiting visitor numbers to Barcelona or Venice or Edinburgh need to be done thoughtfully. I have two concepts known as the 'Triangle' and ‘The other side of the river’. The Triangle is the idea that much tourism concentrates excessively on something like three sites in a country. Think of 'London, Oxford and Stonehenge'; or 'Delhi, Agra and Jaipur'. ‘The other side of the river’ is the observation that something over 6 million people visit the Taj Mahal every year. It is one of the great buildings in the world. But it is also lovely to see it from across the River Jumna. I have never known more than a handful of people on the opposite bank.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but certainly I increasingly aim to lead tours away from areas of mass tourism: we’ve just travelled in northern Russia where there were no crowds in May, where the museums have beautiful displays, and where we always felt safe.

The other answer may be that high pressure areas will need to levy a charge on each bed-night to pay for the services (litter collection and subsidised public transport?) that tourists demand, and discourage the very large numbers that are overwhelming the locals, and which is driving up rents through services such as Air B’n B.

Observers of Bhutan suggests that this lovely country got it right many years ago when they imposed on foreign tourists a minimum spend per day. It was said that they had seen what uncontrolled tourism had done to Nepal. Backpacking tourism from the 1960s onwards is said to have brought drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll to the Nepalese capital, threatening its fragile Buddhist and Hindu culture.  In Bhutan the high daily levy limits tourist numbers and a third of this levy goes towards the government’s budget for education and health care.

Here we are in the midst of the Edinburgh Festival, with pavements overflowing onto the streets, and the whole city energised by its very welcome visitors (both performers and audience). We mostly benefit from the street performers, the range of entertainment, thought provoking talks at the Book Festival and a boom month for those looking for a temporary job. Unlike tourism which concentrates everyone into a tight squeeze, the Edinburgh Festival/Fringe often crowds people into little used spaces, so the effect of so many people is dispersed through the city. The flip side must be the inflated rents, and those locals who cannot afford somewhere to live. A city without affordable rents will eventually get into a terrible mess…no teachers, no rubbish collectors, no skilled craft workers, no one to mend the fabric of the city…the list goes on. The onus is now on governments (local and national) to thoughtfully approach this hot potato and not get their fingers burnt.