Saturday, December 31, 2011

St. Francis and the East

St. Francis (1181-1226) is one of the most well-known figures in Christian history. He is most renowned for his love of animals and nature, and for having founded the Franciscan Order of Monks. Like St. Augustine before him, he was caught up in a wild and worldly life before coming to religion, and he is revered for the kindness and devotion that he demonstrated thereafter. What is less known about him is his relationship with the Eastern and the Muslim world which, at that time, represented a great rival to Christendom.
The story of St. Francis is yet another example of the interweaving of eastern and western currents during the Middle Ages, especially those moving from a vibrant Islamic civilization to a burgeoning Europe. This mixing and fertilization was especially evident in Italy and Spain, which directly abutted the Muslim world. Among these currents on the southern shore of the Mediterranean were the Sufi schools of human development.

St. Francis's connections with the East may have begun early in life. He was very interested in the Troubadours of Provence during his youth and may have been influenced by their way of life. They, in turn, were likely derived from Islamic culture (the etymology of the word 'troubadour' is disputed, but it is unusually close to the Arabic word 'tarab', which means a kind of transcendence through music). Later, he exhibited a keen interest in travelling to the Muslim world. He attempted to go east to Syria, but managed only to get to the Dalmatian coast of what is now Albania. He then tried to go west to Morocco, but ended up in Spain.

In 1219, St. Francis did finally succeed in an eastern journey when he reached the city of Damietta in Egypt, which was then besieged by Crusaders. St. Francis crossed from the Crusader to the Saracen side of the Nile to meet with the Sultan Malik el-Kamil. The traditional explanation is that he did so in order to convert him to Christianity, but failed in his effort. There are indications however that his purpose was different.

He was well received by the Sultan and permitted to preach in his lands. Upon returning to the Christian armies, St. Francis did his utmost to dissuade the Western knights from attacking the Muslims. He was ignored and the result was a Crusader defeat at the walls of Damietta. Since the fall of the Crusader kingdoms in the Middle East, only the Franciscans have been permitted to be the "Custodians of the Holy Land" on behalf of Christianity.

In subtle ways, he (and many others in his time) may have symbolized a broader current of human development than either the outward forms of Christianity and Islam can convey. He and the Sufi poet Rumi, for example, were contemporaries and share strong similarities in their poetry.

St. Francis even more closely paralleled the Sufi Najmuddin Kubra, the founder of an order called the 'Greater Brothers' (the Franciscans were also known as the 'Minor Brothers'). Sixty years before St. Francis's birth,
Najmuddin was known for his love of animals, and for having tamed a fierce dog - as the Christian saint was later to do with a wolf.

Indeed, one of St. Francis's major contributions was to infuse a more democratic and "grass roots" movement into a very hierarchical church. He refused to become a priest, and returned the faith closer to the people, and away from institutions and authorities - a characteristic that has defined the Franciscans ever since.

Among his other many achievements, St. Francis, with his love for nature as the mirror of God and for animals as his "brothers and sisters", created the idea of the manger or nativity scene for Christmas, a symbol still very much alive today.

Like many other saints, St. Francis has been depicted in a variety of ways throughout history.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ara Guler's Istanbul

“The secret of Guler’s photographs is that they allow us to see this great imperial centre, still the Turkish Republic’s richest city, in images that also evoke the fragility of its people and the poverty of its streets and teahouses and ramshackle workshops.”
- Orhan Pamuk

The city of Istanbul, a bustling conglomeration of humanity straddling two continents, has always evoked a sense of mystique. Its hybrid East-West character and outward-looking maritime disposition give it an alluring face which beckons the visitor to partake in its robust variety of human interaction.

Ara Guler, nicknamed “the Eye of Istanbul”, is a Turkish photographer of Armenian descent who spent decades documenting the soft human underbelly of this former seat of Empires. Guler spent three decades, beginning in the 1950s, capturing images of Istanbul during a hurried phase in its transformation into a modern, industrialized, city.

His photographs are often described as vignettes that border on paintings. They capture a city and its inhabitants that seem to almost stagger under the weight of new incarnations suddenly grafted upon them. Gritty and mist-covered scenes involving shops, factories, shipyards, back-alleys and the hurried traffic of cars, people, horse-carts and buses, are reminiscent of images from turn-of-the-century New York.

In addition to containing what Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk calls Istanbul’s “ostentatious splendor” one finds in Guler’s photos what Pamuk also describes as “fatigue, the wear and tear, and the human face of poverty.” His images, many of which convey a sense of melancholy and tattered innocence also have a commotion, energy and life-force brought to bear by the human element present in them.

Ara Guler was born in 1928. He started working as a photojournalist in the 1950s for Turkish magazines and newspapers while taking commissions from numerous international publications. In the 1970s, he traveled around the world and to remote parts of Turkey documenting people and life in colour. Yet, his most evocative images are still considered to be the black-and-white images taken in Istanbul in the 1950s and 1960s with his Leica camera.

Guler’s former studio, in the district of Beyoglu, is now a museum and archive containing some 800,000 of his images.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Muhammed al-Idrisi

Muhammed “al-Sharif” al-Idrisi (c. 1100-1165) was a major Muslim scholar, geographer and mapmaker of the medieval Islamic period. He was born in the town of Ceuta, in Morocco, and was descended from a line of nobleman who traced their lineage to the Prophet Mohammed.

Al-Idrisi took an interest in foreign lands and travel early in life. Starting in his teenage years, and continuing into adulthood, he made extensive voyages through Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, deliberately gathering geographical data along the way.

After completing university in Cordoba, Spain, he relocated to Sicily where the Normans had recently overthrown its Arab rulers. Opportunities were rife in Sicily for people like al-Idrisi since, as Ibn Jubayr, another Arab traveler-savant wrote, “the Normans tolerated and patronized a few Arab families in exchange for knowledge.”

Sicily’s new ruler, Roger II, invited al-Idrisi to join his court at Palermo. His education, travels, and his extensive political connections made him a valuable addition to the King’s court. Being a patron of the arts and sciences, and having huge interest geography, Roger commissioned al-Idrisi to produce a new map of the world that would rival no other. It was task that would consume a large portion of the mapmaker’s life.

Al-Idrisi combined his personal knowledge and experience with information from older maps, particularly Roman and Ptolemaic charts. He and his team also collected reports from seafaring Muslim merchants, Norman voyagers, and Christian scholars, and used that information to assemble what would be the most accurate map of its time.

In 1154, after 18 years of toil, al-Idrisi produced his magnum opus, a map which came to be called the “Tabula Rogeriana”, or the “Book of Roger”. It was a chart of the known world comprising Europe, Asia, and North Africa and the Horn of Africa – and extending all the way to Southeast Asia. Al-Idrisi is said to have presented the map to Roger on a disc of solid silver two metres in diameter. The map was also made into manuscript form, a few of which survive today.

In keeping with Islamic tradition, al-Idrisi’s map is oriented with the south appearing at top, and north at the bottom (the maps here are turned right-side up for viewing). Though lacking images of people, animals, or plants, it contains stylized portrayals of mountains and rivers. It is also one of the first maps of its kind to depict the Indian Ocean as an open body of water connecting to the Pacific – details which were perhaps provided by Arab and Chinese mariners.

For three centuries, geographers used al-Idrisi’s unaltered maps. His works inspired some of the world’s greatest explorers, scholars and cartographers including Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, Piri Re’is, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. The above circular map is a simplified reproduction, made in Cairo in 1456, of al-Idrisi’s masterwork, the “Tabula Rogeriana”, seen below.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Silk Factory

The Golden Century for silk, and its use globally, was between 1830 and 1930. It was during that period, in 1893, that one of the earliest silk factories in Lebanon, Maaser Beiteddine, was built.

The women of the villages
were provided with mulberry trees where the silkworm grew, and were made responsible for the production of the fibre. They took care of the worms, including sensitive temperature and humidity control of the storage rooms, until they began to spin their cocoons.

The worms were then transported to the silk factory where they were killed in a process involving hot air, and the silk from the cocoons captured. The textile was shipped from Lebanon primarily to France and Italy.

The silk industry was a useful way for rural women in Lebanon to contribute significantly to the financial welfare of their households, while the men worked in the fields.
The use of silk took a great downturn after the introduction of nylon by Dupont Chemical after the Second World War. The factory in Beiteddine, the town in Lebanon's Chouf region famous for its elegant and aristocratic palace, slowly went into disuse.

This was until Nino Azzi, the founder of ´Art Lounge´
- a gallery and cultural space in the Karantina area of Beirut - and Hala Khattar decided to transform Maaser Beiteddine into a gallery. Hala Khattar's family were the owners of the silk factory, and it made sense to extend Art Lounge to the serenity of the Chouf mountains.

A recent exhibit in the silk factory suitably celebrated "Woman in the Contemporary Arts", highlighting the work of thirty local and international artists.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Yezidis

The Yezidis are a non-Muslim ethnic minority group, concentrated in the Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq, Western Iran, Eastern Syria, southeast Turkey and Armenia. Numbering no more than around 700,00 worldwide, the adherents of this little known religion are a people shrouded in mystery and obscurity.

Yezidis consider themselves to be among the oldest races on earth. Theirs is a monotheistic religion dating back to the time of the Median Empire during the middle of the first millennium BC. It is believed the religion either preceded or derived from Zoroastrianism – an ancient Aryan faith, which is centered in modern-day Iran, and with which Yezidism shares many qualities.

What makes the Yezidi religion so hard to pin down is that there are no surviving texts or scriptures. It is a religion that has been transmitted orally. That, along with its cult of secrecy, and changes to its doctrine over the years, has caused it to be poorly understood even among Yezidis themselves.

But if anything, it is the term “devil-worshipper” which is most frequently attached to adherents of this elusive sect. In the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths the popular story of the angel Lucifer who disobeyed God and was demoted to rule Hell as Satan, has a somewhat different twist in the Yezidi faith.

In the Yezidi version of the creation story, the rebellious angel, who in this rendering is called “Azaziel” or “Malek al-Tawwus” (The Peacock Angel), was later pardoned by God and made chief of a gang of six angels.

The Yezidis worship and pray to the Peacock Angel which has caused others living in their midst to refer to them by the pejorative “devil-worshipper”. The idea in the Yezidi faith that both good and evil are of equal importance in the world, and that neither can exist without the other, has not helped them gain admirers. Reincarnation, another pillar of their faith, is another notion highly reviled by the orthodox religionists living among them.

It is thus of little surprise that throughout the ages, Yezidis have been persecuted and driven into isolation by both Muslims and Christians who had little comprehension, or tolerance, of their beliefs or ways.

European colonial-era travelers, too, who wrote about their encounters with the Yezidis in the 19th and 20th centuries, including such notables as Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, tended to perpetuate the devil-worshipper misnomer without much scrutiny.

Despite the difficulties they’ve endured, the Yezidis continue to practice their culture and religion.

Once a year, Yezidis from around Europe and the Middle East, gather for their annual Eid al-Jameyah (the Feast of the Assembly), at the holy sanctuary of Lalish, near the city of Duhok in Northern Iraq.

This sacrosanct area has no residents apart from the custodians of several spire-topped mausoleums tucked in a valley below scrub-spotted hills. The Yezidis maintain that Lalish is the place where the universe began. During the festival it teems with thousands of families who bring their belongings and camp among the mausoleums for the weeklong festivities.

“This event is a kind of haj to a holy place,” says Sheikh Pasha, the Supervisor of the Yezidis in the Governorate of Ninevah, in Northern Iraq. “Lalish is like the Qa’aba at Mecca, or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem - but of the Yezidi people.”

Music, food, song, dance and socializing underpin the event, which is more akin to an enormous family reunion, than a religious festival.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Saudi Vignettes

A trip to the antiques market yielded another unexpected find last week. There, I came across a book entitled Saudi Arabia: An Artist's View of the Past.

This hardcover book published in 1979 by Jeddah-born artist Safeya Binzagr features interesting sketches and paintings of traditional Saudi scenes.

Binzagr was compelled to capture and preserve images of old world Saudi Arabian life as the pace of sweeping cultural and technological change quickened in the latter half of the 20th century.

Her illustrations (a combination of oil paintings, watercolors, pastels, and etchings) capture the finer details of traditional Bedouin life. The writer of the book's preface commends Binzagr for having “done something commendable, for she has preserved these scenes from the ravages of time and oblivion.”

She reportedly took much of her material from old photographs which she found at such places as the Royal Geographical Society in London.

“It is important for Saudis to remember, and for the West to learn,” Safeya writes in her introduction. “This book will be a record for the new generation.”

A quick Internet search yielded a website for Binzagr’s gallery, which opened in Jedda in 2000, and where many of her works are displayed today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Ancient Olive Trees of Bechealeh

Lebanon is famous for its biblical cedars. But there are also ancient olive trees in the country that rival the cedars in age and beauty. They may or may not be as old as the Ministry of Tourism claims (4,000 B.C.), but nature's craftsmanship and the twists and turns of the wood over centuries is a metaphor for time itself.

This miniature grove of half a dozen trees is tucked away on a small road on the way to Douma in the northern Lebanese mountains. From there, one can climb to the valley of Tannourine, and further up towards the great cedars themselves. Unlike those emblematic trees, however, it's very easy to just drive by and miss the ancient olive grove of Bechealeh.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

'The Baptized Sultan'

Most people are aware of the impact of Islamic Spain on the European history. The role of Andalusian philosophers, mystics, and translators on the development of the West cannot be underestimated. What is less known is the positive effects of Islam on Italy, and its role in the blossoming of the Renaissance there. Over the coming months, we'll examine some of the key examples of this influence, among other cross-cultural learning.

In these days of globalization and the confusion that comes with it, it may be useful to examine some past examples where cultural mixing and tolerance by leaders led to positive and unexpected developments. In the late 11th century in Sicily, Norman kings developed a royal dynasty. One of its first kings, Roger II, had a court that combined East and West, Christianity and Islam, merging the traditions of civilizations from all shores of the Mediterranean. His son, Frederick II, who was a polymath, went on to become an even greater cultural and political innovator, as well as Holy Roman Emperor.

Frederick's string of achievements were unusual: he established a written constitution that protected the rights of his subjects and founded the first secular university in Europe at Naples (Thomas Aquinas later studied there before going on to theological greatness in Paris). He also set up a refuge for Troubadours fleeing from southern France, and a Sicilian school of poetry which directly influenced the poetry of Dante.

Like the great Italian poet, Frederick's court used the local dialect for literature, rather than the traditional Latin. And despite Germanic and Norman roots, Frederick spoke Arabic fluently. His court scholars in Palermo translated the great works of Ibn Rushd and Aristotle, and it is even claimed that Arabic numerals came to Europe through his efforts. Frederick was so Arabized that he was referred to by some as "The Baptized Sultan".

This fantastic cross-mingling that he permitted helped re-awaken European culture. Significantly, Frederick II disbelieved anything that could not be proved by reason. Like Akhenaton, the great pharaoh, he insisted on shutting down charlatanism among physicians, and banned useless cures. He was also a profound religious iconoclast, and is said to have denounced Moses, Jesus and Mohammed as deceivers and fakes. For this and his closeness to Muslims in general, he earned himself a place in the sixth level of Dante's inferno - a heretic to forever burn in his tomb.

Frederick was also excommunicated four times, once by Pope Gregory IX for refusing to join the Crusades. When he finally travelled to the East, he managed to rapidly parlay access for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land in his discussions with the Sultan of Egypt. Indeed, he viewed the peoples of Islam as a rich and honorable society to be respected and learned from - possibly one of the secrets of his success, earning him the title 'The Wonder of the World' in his time.

The Emperor was described by the Damascene chronicler, Sibt Ibn Al Jawzi as having "eyes green like .. a serpent. He was covered with red hair… bald and myopic. Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at the market."

Frederick II is an example of the constructive coexistence of cultures at a time of great intolerance. His achievements speak to the possibility of success even as cultures blend and mix under duress. Through his eccentricities, his liberalism and healthy linkages with the Muslim world, he became a key door for the knowledge of the East to enter Europe and begin the process that we know as the Renaissance.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Islamic Art Across the Ages

The following are examples of Islamic art stretching across ten centuries, and ranging from Central Asia to the Maghreb. They are found in "The David Collection", in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Haji Omran Road

The Haji Omran Road, also known as the “Hamilton Road”, is a little-known rural highway in Northern Iraq that cuts through some of the most rugged terrain in the Middle East.

Sir Archibald Hamilton, a New Zealand engineer in the British army, was charged with building the road. He and a motley crew of local workers (comprising Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Persians, and Turcomen) labored for four years on the project beginning in 1928. The crew, working under the most difficult circumstances, blasted their way through a mountain wilderness where tribes who've always resisted central authority, made their home.

Hamilton completed his namesake route in 1932 and detailed his many adventures in his travel classic, Road Through Kurdistan.

The British desire to create a direct overland route and short cut linking the Eastern Mediterranean coast to the Caspian Sea, Iran and India led to the road’s creation. The route runs north from the city of Erbil, and then turns east connecting it with the remote towns of Rowanduz and Choman, and the Iranian border-village of Haji Omran. Passing through some of the region’s most difficult terrain (including five separate mountain ranges and the formidable Gali Ali Beg Canyon), the road is today still considered a marvel of engineering.

Buses and lorries traveling between Iraq and Iran ply the road. Iraqi Arabs from Baghdad also use the route to reach the higher altitude regions of Kurdistan in the summer to escape the stifling desert heat.

As you push past Rowanduz and head closer to Iran, the traffic thins out. Small side roads of dirt and gravel break off the main route and can be seen threading up towards mountain villages lying in the direction of the Turkish and Iranian frontiers.

In spite of the access granted to the outside world by the highway, and the subsequent inroads made by modernity, the region through which the Haji Omran Road runs remains wild, untamed and autonomous. Smuggling, rebel activity military intrigues and kinder-than-kind Kurdish locals are just some the things lying in wait for those intrepid enough to venture off the road.