Sunday, December 27, 2009

A mystery of Antony and Cleopatra solved?

On Thursday 17th December under the watchful eyes of Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosney and, of course, Dr. Zahi Hawass,  a 9-tonne pylon which once stood at the entrance to a temple of Isis was lifted from the water of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour.
However for me a much more interesting piece of information was the announcement by Harry Tzalas, head of the Greek archaeological mission, of the discovery of a piece of a giant granite threshold. Tzalas believes that this 15-tonne monolith was actually the threshold of the mausoleum that Cleopatra VII had built for herself shortly before her death.
The size of the threshold indicates that the doors would have been 7metres high, giving an idea of the  magnificence of the queen's mausoleum. The Guardian quoted Tzalas, as saying.“As soon as I saw it, I thought we are in the presence of a very special piece of a very special door."
The most intriguing thing about the door is that Tzalas believes that the discovery sheds new light on an element of the dying hours of Cleopatra and Marc Antony which has been a mystery for two thousand years. In the 1st century AD Plutarch wrote that after Mark Antony had been erroneously informed that Cleopatra had killed herself he had tried to take his own life. On learning that his love still lived, Mark Antony wished to see her before he died, and as she was hiding inside the mausoleum with her ladies-in-waiting. But Plutarch tells us that he had to be “hoisted with chains and ropes” to the upper floor of the building and brought in through a window. “When closed the door mechanism could not open again.” 
Tzalas believes that a door of such a size would be impossible for only Cleopatra and her ladies-in-waiting to open it. “Like Macedonian tomb doors, when it closed, it closed for good.”
Plutarch's account was based largely on the testimonies of eyewitnesses and he tells us that Antony died within seconds of seeing Cleopatra, his last hour probably not helped by having been hoisted up and into a building through a window! Days later, Cleopatra took her own life, and large parts of the story of Antony and Cleopatra passed into murky legend, but it seems that even after two thousand years with the help of archaeology it is sometimes possible to shed new light on, or have new theories about, what really happened.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

More finds at Vergina, ceremonial capital of Macedonia


The digging season at Vergina is over for 2009, and it has been an eventful one. The latest information to be revealed is that the substantial remains of the town's defensive wall have been discovered.

A team from the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki have been excavating the North East section of the wall, which is situated in privately owned land. This particular part of the wall is in an excellent state of preservation and at times reaches a height of 1.90m.

Some of the wall-towers reach a thickness of 2.80m: evidence of a very substantial fortification built to withstand threat from siege engines. Stone stairs gave access to the second storey. An interesting feature are the small protected gateways next to the towers, which perhaps allowed the defending troops to make forays against their attackers.

Of further interest is the fact that much of the construction material of the wall appears to be re-used masonry from public buildings in the ancient city. Thorough examination of this masonry should add to our knowledge of the city in the period prior to the wall's construction, which, from the dating of small finds and other evidence, is thought to be of the time of Cassander, or the early 3rd C BC. This was a time when Macedonia experienced unrest due to both civil conflicts and external invasions. The city had a strategic position on the route from the ports of Pydna and Methone to Upper Macedonia and this may have contributed to its need for fortification, in addition to its status as ancient capital and royal burial ground.

Apart from the discovery of the fortifications, a number of artifacts threw further light on city life during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, including food residues such as the seeds of legumes, cereals and olive stones.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ancient sites.... new markets........

The concept of cultural tourism is an old one – from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries many wealthy noblemen completed their education with a period of European travel known as the Grand Tour. The main destination was Italy, considered one of the birthplaces of classical civilization. These aristocratic gentlemen traveled to see ancient Roman monuments and wonders of nature like the volcanic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, near Naples. If they were a little more adventurous, then they might venture to Greece, and as the 19th century wore on travelers went even further to North Africa, Turkey or the Levant. Some wrote poems or accounts of their journey, such as Byron or Keats, others drew sketches or painted what they saw, for example Frederick Lewis or Delacroix, and museum collections owe much to the intrepid early tourists who brought back souvenirs, notably Sir William Hamilton and Lord Elgin.
Nowadays ‘the world is our oyster’ and modern technology has made it easy for us to see the world and seek out new destinations. Independent travel is now easy – often it is no longer necessary to go to even far flung places as part of a group, and the advent of e-commerce means that even travel agents are becoming redundant: a flight or a hotel booking is just a click away. Cultural tourism is no longer something for the brave adventurer, but a choice for everyone who has the desire to learn a little about a place by visiting it as well as reading about it or seeing it through someone else’s eyes on television.
With cheap flights and the ease of booking on the in internet, the business of organized tour groups being led by experts is facing increasing competition from individuals doing their own thing. Anyone, it seems, armed with a tourist guide book (or even hiring a guide on the spot) and the confidence to travel independently can seek out all of the places that previously would only have been visited with as seasoned guide in tow. And of course there is the question of whether older markets have reach saturation point: the old destinations of Italy and Greece no longer seem exotic when we consider that we are all part of the same economic entity. I have been working in the field of cultural tourism for more than a decade now and I spend several weeks of the year as a guest lecturer taking groups of people to various destinations. I also occasionally find myself working as an advisor to travel companies on the subject. A great deal of my work is done in Greece, one of the oldest and most established markets in this area, and one of the most saturated. There are more companies than ever who give added value to trips to Greece, Italy, Egypt and beyond by including experts on them, whether they are archaeologists, ornithologists or another kind of specialist academic.
Including expert lecturers on a trip also means an increase in price. Expertise is expensive, but for some people having someone on hand to explain exactly what they are seeing is vital to their enjoyment of travel. The typical profile of people joining these tours is that of well-heeled professionals who tend to be in their fifties or retired. They often have been educated to tertiary level and in a led tour are seeking an engaging companion who can satisfy their need for information and discussion. For the lecturer, taking a group can be a pretty full-on experience: clients feel quite at liberty to ask you the date of the battle of such and such before your lips have even touched their breakfast coffee! But it is not only the services of your very own academic that is the attraction. Some tour operators offer other extras, such as themed itineraries, access to sites unavailable to the general public, or the services of a tour manager as well as the resident expert. The tour manager’s job is to make sure that everything goes smoothly, from check-in at the airport to collecting your bags at the end of the trip and all points in between. These hardy souls do all the tedious little chores that can be boring on holiday – buying tickets for attractions, making sure luggage is on the coach and that the right suitcase appears in your room, and providing an aspirin/safety pin/plastic bag/whatever just when you need one.
The world is ever changing, with new horizons appearing all the time as political and social changes in different countries open (or close!) the doors to tourists. Tourism is a vital source of income for many countries, and an unfortunate incident, whether by design or by accident, may completely change the climate for those wishing to visit the area. Egypt is one country that has suffered in this respect. Once visitor figures are lost it is a long climb back, and there are always other, perhaps new, markets trying to muscle in.
For me it is the new markets that are particularly interesting. Several years ago I was invited by Saudia, the Saudi Arabian airline, to visit the Kingdom on a preliminary familiarization trip. Saudi Arabia was seeking to expand its programme of international tourism. In these cases, it is normal practice for the Ministry of Tourism or other such agency to invite representatives of cultural tourism in various chosen countries to visit, and then to get feedback on the choice of sites and facilities offered.
Saudi Arabia does not seem a typical tourist destination. Of course, the Kingdom receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year for the Hajj, but it has also much to offer to those wishing to visit for leisure purposes with many sites of architectural and archaeological interest. The Kingdom has had a rich and varied history, but lack of access to the country in the past has meant that this is little known and appreciated. In ancient times the wealth of the Arabian peninsular was based not on oil, but on the control of lucrative trade routes: luxury goods from the Far East and India followed a route around the south and west of the Arabian peninsula. There was also a thriving incense trade: frankincense and myrrh occur naturally only in Southern Arabia and the horn of Africa and were in great demand in the ancient Mediterranean for religious and funerary purposes, for example, Egyptian mummification rituals rely heavily on both spices.

The inhabitants of Arabia, and especially a people called the Nabataeans who flourished between the 1st centuries BC and AD, controlled this trade and left behind spectacular rock cut tombs and other remains. The site of Madain Saleh, to the North of Medina, was along the main trade route. It is a spectacular archaeological site, with large sandstone massifs rising out of the desert as you approach, dotted with the classical facades of tombs housing the elite of the society. Soldiers, doctors, administrators and land-owning women are amongst the professions of those inside the tombs and the inscriptions also detail fines for anyone who desecrates the structures. One of the wonderful things about visiting a country with few tourists is that you can explore a site in relative isolation. Every time I have visited Madain Saleh we have been the only group on the site, a sharp contrast to the most famous Nabataean site, Petra in Jordan, which always seems to be busy.

The site is crossed by the remains of the Hejaz railway, which was built by the Ottoman sultan, to take pilgrims from Damascus to the holy city of Mecca. The railway began operating in 1908 and part of it was famously destroyed by Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab revolt in 1916. Several stations along the route have now been restored and can be visited, both at Madain Saleh and further south towards Jeddah. Jeddah has received more tourists than other parts of the Kingdom since cruise ships have docked there for some time. The city is notable for its traditional architecture of the Ottoman period (which is being carefully restored under the stewardship of the energetic Sami Nawar) and also for the fantastic modern sculptures which line the Corniche.

In the al-Jawf region in the north of the kingdom, in ancient times the Nabataeans were also to be found controlling the trade route into Iraq. These routes were vast, and in fact to visit the different parts of Saudi Arabia tourists need to take internal flights, something which underlines just how impressive these ancient traders were. The town of Doumat al Jandal was on the caravan route to Babylon and is a site of great antiquity, first mentioned in the annals of the Mesopotamian kings in the 8th century BC. The records show that Doumat al Jandal was the capital city of a series of powerful Arab queens who were accorded the same respect and status as the Egyptian pharaoh. The city was obviously wealthy and important, and came under attack many times, so it is not surprising that a large walled fortress is to be found there. On one occasion when I was with a group we were asked by a local to eat at his home. This act of generosity provided an insight into Arab hospitality and culture which is difficult to find in more developed tourist destinations, and the group felt very privileged indeed to feast on chicken and rice with a local family.

A short distance from Doumat Al Jandal is a dramatic complex of standing stones near the town of Sakaka. Al-Rajajil is the local name for this ancient site and means ‘the men’ a reference to the fact that from a distance the stones look like clusters of men in conversation. More than fifty groups of stone pillars, now toppled or broken in many cases, appear to be strewn across the complex, yet on close inspection it seems that the groups were originally carefully aligned on a North-South axis and oriented to face East. On the basis of flint tools and pottery sherds found in the area around the pillars, the site has been dated to the mid 4th millennium BC – at least one thousand years older than the famous standing stones at Stonehenge in England. It is an extremely evocative site, and the fact that you are likely to be the only people for miles around makes this even more special.

The Kingdom has also many sites which celebrate its more recent past. Gazing on the ruins of Dir’aiyah, a short distance from the modern capital of Riyadh, it is difficult to imagine that the town was finally abandoned only just over twenty years ago. Now undergoing a major project of restoration, the town is of especial importance since it is the site of the founding of the first Saudi state under the al-Saud, the ruling family of the Kingdom, whose ancestors had settled in this oasis in the mid 15th century AD. It was from this oasis town in the Wadi Hanifa that the al-Saud and their followers waged a series of successful military campaigns until achieving domination and moving their capital to Riyadh. Most of the remains that can be seen today date from the last two centuries or so. The architecture of the town is formed of mud brick with occasional courses of stone laid onto foundations of limestone blocks. Riyadh too has its attractions: not least the wonderful National Museum, which is well worth a visit. For a visitor though, the atmosphere in Riyadh is slightly more constraining than other parts of the country. Women visitors, of course, need to wear an abaya and scarf (though not in their hotel) but none of my group have ever mentioned that they found this onerous. Male tourists should, of course, avoid shorts or other inappropriate attire.

Other regions of Saudi Arabia have their own distinctive character, and the Asir region is on the south is justifiably celebrated for its distinctive architecture. Here, there is a greater emphasis on stone rather than mud brick, reflecting the natural resources of the region, and also the fact that this part of the kingdom receives greater rainfall. The decoration of the houses, both internal and external has been the subject of various studies and publications: the interiors of the houses are painted in bright colours and this task is carried out by the women. Men, however, are responsible for the intricate carvings on the doors, and invest the decoration with symbols of various, and often long forgotten meanings. These are only a few highlights of the tourist attractions of the country, and it must be stressed that to join a cultural tour of Saudi Arabia you need to be prepared to cover huge distances and take some internal flights. It is a huge country – about five times the size of France.

People who are interested in cultural tourism are generally sympathetic to the local way of life and customs, and are ready to accept any restrictions for the length of their stay. For a guest lecturer, such as myself, spending time in the company of such individuals and being able to share one’s enthusiasm with them is very rewarding. I also like the way that tourism of this type builds bridges: on a recent trip to Iran I was pleased to see that there were a large number of groups of American tourists there. I hope that visitors to these less well known destinations, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, will return to their own country full of stories of the wonderful sights and fantastic hospitality they have received, and if this is the case then I consider myself successful in my role as a tour guide.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cleopatra... or not?



Since giving my gallery talk on 'Rome, city and empire' on 17th October, I've been thinking quite a lot about the limestone bust which is labelled as 'A woman resembling Cleopatra'. Within my memory, this bust used to be labelled as 'probably Cleopatra' but the lovely bust was downgraded at the time of the Cleopatra exhibition a few years ago.

The bust is Roman, and dates to around the time that Julius Caesar fought his African campaigns. The successful general returned to Rome to celebrate his triumph in 46BC and brought with him his most exotic prize, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra's arrival and residence in Rome caused quite a stir: on the one hand her very presence scandalised those Romans who considered the East a decadent place with morals that did not match those of Republican Rome, and on the other she sparked a phase of Egyptomania. Egyptian objects and themes became popular in domestic settings, cults such as that of Isis (established in Rome for a couple of hundred years) were revived and became popular, and even the queen's hairstyle was imitated by fashionable Roman women. This latter is one of the reasons why the identity of the bust has been thrown into doubt - scholars argue that although we know from coins and other media that Cleopatra wore her hair like this, we know that many other women did too.

Cleopatra's coins carried her image, as was common for rulers by that time. The first ruler to show his image on coins was probably Philip II of Macedon, but it was his son Alexander III (the Great) who really exploited this media for spreading the image of the ruler amongst his subjects. Cleopatra was, like these two great monarchs, Macedonian, and belonged to the dynasty founded by Ptolemy I, Alexander's general. But the queen cared greatly for her subjects and was the first of the dynasty to learn Egyptian, the local language. She also foresaw the threat of Rome, and knew that the best way to try and protect her country was to ally herself with the powerful men of Rome - first Caesar and then Marc Antony. As usual, the coins show the queen in profile and in particular reveal her to have had a somewhat pointed and slightly hooked nose. As legend has it (rather spitefully), it was not her looks that made her attractive, but her other charms.... in fact, she was very intelligent as well as being a great queen. I should have thought that these attributes would make her attractive enough, and the fact that she had herself portrayed with such candour is also appealing. This bust, as you can see, has a hooked nose. In fact, it is remarkably like the coin profiles.

So why then, do the scholars discredit this as a portrait? They argue that the bust does not have a diadem, the 'crown' or royal regalia worn by Macedonian and Hellenistic rulers. This is indeed true, but in fact there are extant portraits in ivory, stone and bronze of other Macedonian rulers who are portrayed not wearing diadems. Diadems feature heavily on coins, to be sure, but I think that when it comes to actual portrait statues, context must be considered. The head may well belong to a sculpture which was of a type for which a diadem may have been inappropriate. It may also be the case that the Roman sculptor seeing Cleopatra installed in Rome as queen no longer, may have considered it unwise to depict her as a monarch - a status considered in the ancient world as having religious connotations. We simply cannot know. I suggest you come along to my next gallery talk on Rome on 28th November and judge for yourself.... if she looks like Cleopatra, and has her hair like Cleopatra, and is made at the right time for Cleopatra, then maybe she is Cleopatra!


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Truffle hunting in Alba

You can almost find the truffle fair in Alba by following your nose..... the fair, which takes place in the Cortile della Maddalena, is an annual event in which a huge variety of truffles and truffle-based products are displayed. As you enter the marquee you are hit by the distinctive aroma of the truffle which is pungent and not entirely pleasant. However, grated over a freshly fried egg, the taste of a good white truffle is just sublime. I'm very lucky because I don't have to pay through the nose (sorry!) for these delicacies: my friend Gino is, amongst other things, a trifolaio or truffle hunter. Gino and his little white dogs venture out into the rolling hills of the Langhe to hunt for truffles and they bring back small nuggets of the black and white truffles for family and friends. The dogs are trained from infancy and can detect a truffle up to a metre under the ground, even in the snow. The dog stops directly over the spot that the truffle is buried, and then Gino digs for the treasure. Wth careful instructions about storage and preparation, the truffles are handed over. I must keep them in paper in a jar in the fridge. The jar is important as the odour is so strong that even eggs stored nearby will absorb it through their shells. I need to buy a special truffle grater, as they must be served as thin slivers, much thinner than I could cut by hand. And finally the release of the flavour and perfume as the flakes fall onto freshly prepared pasta........
The lovely town of Alba goes back to prehistoric times, but was re-founded as a Roman town, Alba Pompeia, due to its strategic position on the road from Aquila to Turin. There are a few Roman remains, such as the temple of Pertinax, born in Alba, a governor of the province of Britain and also holder of the dubious honour of being the shortest reigning Roman emperor (86days). The loveliest buildings, however are the medieval towers and beautiful old churches. There are also a few fine examples of Italian fin de siecle architecture with well-preserved wrought iron balconies.
Now it is a thriving, stylish town with good shops, a huge market and a choice of traditional or modern bars. The town owes its air of well-being to the truffles, the wine industry (Barolo and Barbaresco are nearby) and also thanks to the fact that it is home to Ferrerro, the chocolatier. Chocolate addicts can visit the factory shop..... I, however, headed for the Fontanafredda vineyards and, after a tour of the cellars, sat down to a well earned degustazione - or wine-tasting - cheers!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Is there such a thing as Islamic Art?

So, as I'm about to head off to the Algarve to give my lecture, I'm pondering the term 'Islamic Art'. I have to confess that I am not really happy with the term and I think that, as a definition, it would only apply to a small number of things in any 'Islamic Gallery' of a major museum.
If you visit the John Addis Gallery of Islamic Art at The British Museum, what you are actually seeing are objects made in lands where, at the time that the artifacts were made, the ruling body embraced Islam. Notwithstanding the great patronage of many of these rulers, which has produced a vast array of fine architecture and art, a good percentage of the pieces were made by, or for, non-Muslims: and several of the objects, for example wine cups, would not be associated with a Muslim way of life today.
The first collections of 'Islamic Art' as we know it today started to be assembled in the 19th century, with the Duc de Blacas, a French nobleman, being one of the first collectors to really acknowledge the worth of these pieces alongside classical artefacts. Interest grew, until it reached a pitch at the time of the Arts and Craft movement, whose practitioners admired and sometimes replicated the techniques, forms and themes of such things as lustre pottery and enamelled glass. Amongst collectors and admirers there was a certain amount of ignorance about the actual origins of some of the techniques and the objects themselves, and the scholar Oliver Watson would also argue for a degree of intellectual snobbery, with anything particularly fine being labelled (often erroneously) 'Persian', since this was somehow perceived to be more sophisticated than 'Arab'. This particular trait is still clouding the scholarship of lustrewares today.
So, back to Islamic art. Is it a valid term at all? For certain objects I think it is: take for example the beautiful Iznik mosque lamp made for the refurbishment of the Dome of the Rock by Suleyman the Magnificent. Mosque lamps have a distinctive form, being designed to hang in numbers from the ceiling of the mosque, and can be fashioned from glass, pierced metal or ceramic with a lit wick in oil casting the light. It is clear from the use of pottery, which clearly does not let the light shine through it, that the lamps had a symbolic as well as a functional purpose. This is underlined by the fact that many lamps are inscribed with the Surah, or Chapter, of Light from the Quran, in which Allah is likened to a light and is the only metaphor for God in the Quran. This particular example is inscribed with the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith and the first of the Five Pillars of Islam. The combination of the form and the use of Arabic calligraphy, which acquired almost the sanctity of a sacred script due to the fact that it was via Arabic by which the prophet Mohammed received the revelations of the Quran, give the object a meaning far beyond its function and associate it strongly with the Islamic religion. This, I believe, makes this particular object truly Islamic art, but such strong associations cannot really be applied to the majority of objects found in an 'Islamic Gallery' and the lumping together of all objects found in such a wide range of countries (Spain to India) and across so many centuries (7th AD to the present) seems to me to be a construct of 19th century Europe which needs revision today.



Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Recent work in Macedonia

On a recent trip to Northern Greece it was apparent how much archaeological work is going on in Macedonia. In addition to the thrilling new finds at Vergina – where archaeologists think they may have found the tomb of Alexander the Great’s illegitimate son Heracles – many of the major sites have seen new activity, with the most noticeable changes at Pella and Philippi.

Pella is of course famous as the birthplace of Alexander the Great, but in the past several visitors found their visit a disappointment due to the main road intersecting the site which caused a distinct lack of atmosphere as lorries roared past. Today a new bypass has changed all that and continuing excavations have revealed new and exciting sectors of the city.

In its heyday, Pella ranked with Alexandria and Pergamum as a huge and thriving Hellenistic city. However, the city suffered due to the silting up of the Thermaic Gulf, the siting of a new capital at Thessalonika (named after Alexander’s sister) and a major earthquake. Today only a small proportion of the city has been brought to light, but the stunning pebble mosaics and vast Agora (262×238m) give you an idea of its former splendour.

With the asphalt road gone, the atmosphere of a bustling and prosperous city pervades the site, and the new excavations have revealed more of the residential area with its Hippodamian grid system, an industrial area with several kilns for terracotta production and some very well preserved Hellenistic baths. No-one has yet written a good account of Hellenistic baths and how they worked, but that they are different from the Roman type is clear. The baths feature semi-circles or circular rooms of what appear to be hip-baths, though clearly more investigation might point to a different use. Visitors to Thessalonika might have observed a small suite in the South-East corner of the Agora, but the scale of those in Pella are what sets them apart. One is reminded of the bath tub at the Mycenaean palace in Pylos in which, according to the Odyssey, Telemachos is said to have been bathed by King Nestor’s daughter. We know that the Macedonians preserved many Mycenaean customs….. was bathing somehow part of this?

The same archaeological magic has been worked at Philippi. This city, founded by Philip II, Alexander’s father, is now a site famous for those who want to follow in the footsteps of St. Paul as he was thrown into jail there. Visitors are often shown a small cave and told (without any evidence, I have to say) that this is where he was incarcerated. But once again any atmosphere was ruined by a main road cutting the site in two and causing a real hazard to visitors attempting to cross from one part to another. Unlike at Pella, where the modern road has been completely removed and excavated, at Philippi the tarmac has yet to be taken away, but the major improvement is that one now enters the site at the theatre built by Philip, so we can proceed through the site with some idea of the correct chronology. The theatre is very well-preserved, and is also being sensitively restored. It is a very atmospheric place, with the acropolis towering behind and the impressive basilicas in all their glory below, and beyond one can see the famous plain where Cassius and Brutus met their fates at the hands of Octavian and Marc Antony at the battle of Philippi: a place indeed steeped in history. Another innovation is the introduction of computers across the site to enhance orientation. I was initially dubious about these, wondering how they would stand up to the heat, but they are encased in boxes and all seemed to be working perfectly (and with useful information) on my visit.

All across Greek Macedonia it seems that a lot of work is being carried out on the sites: more Macedonian tombs are open to the public, the palace at Vergina is being re-excavated (with some really interesting news that isn’t yet in the public domain – watch this space…..) and the museum at Dion has been updated to include recent finds and a lot of wonderful inscriptions featuring Macedonian kings. For first time visitors, Macedonia is a wonderful place, very different to other parts of Greece in geography, sites and material culture, but nowadays there is plenty for the returning visitor too!