Lumiere London 2016

January is a traditionally dark and dreary month. Everyone is back at work after Christmas/New Year, that is, if they weren’t working over that period anyway. It’s dark and cold. It rains and, sometimes, snows. We need cheering up.


Shiny things are very cheering :D

Across a number of sites in central London, for four evenings, light installations are wowing the populace.

My first stop was at King’s Cross, where I went with the folks.

Next, I popped into town after work. It wasn’t quite late enough for a lot of the installations to be lit, but I did get to see a few.

On Saturday evening, I met up with pal Ang to go to an event in Stokey, but we ducked out of that early and went back into town for more shiny things.


The way home was tricky because of all the traffic and loads of people out enjoying themselves, so I had to get off the bus having gone hardly any distance. This gave me a very brief opportunity to pop into Leicester Square to have a look at one last installation before going home.

This really was just a brief look, as the lights snapped off promptly at 10.30.

Wipe out

On a short visit to Jordan over the Christmas/New Year period, I stayed for three nights in Madaba.


Most tours of Jordan stop off in Madaba to visit the church of Saint George (above), which is the site of the early Byzantine church which housed the world famous floor mosaic depicting Jerusalem and the Holy Land.



There are, however, lots of other churches in town and in the surrounding area which those people on group tours often miss seeing.

Most of the church remains date to the Byzantine period, the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries, and their re-discoveries were often the result of the resettlement of Christians in the region in the early 20th century. Christian Jordanians were permitted to build new churches in the resettled Madaba, but these were largely confined to the sites of earlier churches, and many mosaics, and other remains, were discovered  during this period of construction. Many are still in situ.

The mosaics are nice examples of Byzantine work and feature themes such as the natural world, with animals, birds and plants prominent;

The Church of the Apostles, Madaba.

The Burnt Palace, Madaba

The Burnt Palace, Madaba

Madaba Archaeological Museum, Madaba

Madaba Archaeological Museum, Madaba

important towns and cities;

The Archaeological Park, Madaba

The ancient city of Heshbon at The Archaeological Park, Madaba

Jericho in the Map Mosaic at St. George's, Madaba

Jericho in the Map Mosaic at St. George’s, Madaba

The personification of Rome, Gregoria and Madaba in the Hippolytus Hall, The Church of the Virgin Mary, whcih can be found in the Archaeological Park, Madaba.

The personification of Rome, Gregoria and Madaba in the Hippolytus Hall, The Church of the Virgin Mary, which can be found in the Archaeological Park, Madaba.

ancient gods and mythological figures;

The Hippolytus Hall, The Church of the Virgin Mary, whcih can be found in the Archaeological Park, Madaba.

The Hippolytus Hall, The Church of the Virgin Mary, whcih can be found in the Archaeological Park, Madaba.

and religious scenes and symbols.


The Church of the Virgin Mary at the Archaeological Park, Madaba

The Church of the Virgin Mary at the Archaeological Park, Madaba

However, an interesting, and telling, phenomenon associated with many of the mosaics, is the evidence of iconoclasm.

The Church of St Stephen's, Umm ar-Rasas

The Church of St Stephen’s, Umm ar-Rasas

In a number of cases, mosaics have been altered, possibly beginning in the 8th century when the Emperor Leo forbade the use of images of people and animals (“God is the only creator”).

The Church of St Stephen's, Umm ar-Rasas

The Church of St Stephen’s, Umm ar-Rasas

This doesn’t look like a frenzy of destruction though, rather the tesserae in the areas of the images being obliterated have been carefully removed and replaced with single-coloured or, randomly-coloured cubes. The images have, effectively, been pixilated out.


The Church of St Stephen’s, Umm ar-Rasas

At the Martyr’s Church, Madaba, this camel has more or less survived but his owner has been carefully erased and replaced with a plain herringbone infill.


The Martyr’s Church, Madaba

Some of the changes are a bit unsubtle, like this blotted-out animal (the feet and legs look like cow’s legs) with a small tree plonked over the top of i t.

The Archaeological Park, Madaba

The Archaeological Park, Madaba

This removal of images of people and animals may have been associated with the Byzantine iconoclasm, but it could have been the result of Islamic strictures or influence on Jewish and Christian communities in the region. It may not necessarily have been a directive ordering the removal of images, it may have been a voluntary action which was the result of a prevailing mindset.

In any case, it was pretty interesting looking for mosaics which have been altered and adapted in this way.

For info:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree

Let me tell you a tale. A tale of unimaginable wealth, of pride, of hubris and of mystery. A tale told to me by an Amman cab driver. For its truth or accuracy I cannot vouch and I know no more than I was told.

On my last day in Jordan, in Amman, I decided to go out for the morning to see a Hellenistic site called Qasr al-Abd just near to the town of Iraq al-Amir. My driver was very pleased because this was the town where he grew up and he declared it his favorite place in all of Jordan. He was particularly gleeful when he told me that, as well as driving me to Qasr al-Abd, he was going to show me a secret palace in the hills. This palace, he said, was practically unknown, even to people who lived nearby, on account of its extreme secrecy.

I cannot adequately convey his glee as he kept saying things like “can you see a palace?”, ” would you believe that there is a palace in these hills?” He really couldn’t wait for the ‘ta-daaah’ moment to arrive and when it did his delight was unbounded.

Frankly, it’s bonkers.


I pressed him for as much detail as possible and this was the story he told me. A wealthy Egyptian banker had bought a large plot of land in the hills near Iraq al-Amir and had commissioned the building. However, it turned out to be one of those on-off jobs which continued for five years until it finally ground to a halt ten years ago. It hasn’t been restarted since.


It was built from “firestones” (flint) which it had taken a full year to collect from the surrounding countryside. A full year! Just to collect the stones!


Apparently each floor is different with one floor full of spaces for Arab-style seating and one floor full of guest rooms, all ensuite of course (how he knew this, I don’t know).

There is a blue swimming pool and a house built just for the pigeons! With stairs and everything!

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And now the shell of the house, abandoned and unfinished, is fenced off and left to the elements.


What became of the Egyptian banker? My driver could not tell. I told him that this tale reminded me of Citizen Kane, but he hadn’t heard of that.

Rich people are mad.

A Persian Odyssey: Purrrrr-sian cats


Right from the off I’m going to make it clear that none of these cats are Persian cats. They’re Iranian cats.

Cats, cats, cats…

and more cats.

In Ayeneh, there were two gingers. This old(er) boy,


And this, frankly, demented-looking youngster.


After the usual preliminaries (some furious yowling and squaring up) they had a little set-to. They didn’t actually come to blows, but if they did I wouldn’t know which one to put my money on. I mean, the older cat was much bigger, but that youngster looked like a nutter.


They’re all so cute and furry, but other Persian cats have a harder edge.

At the Reza Abbasi Museum in Tehran, there are quite a few artefacts in gold, silver and copper-alloy, some cat-shaped.

This is a copper-alloy incense burner, dating from 12th century CE.


At Persepolis, alongside the cat friezes carved into the stone columns and platforms…

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there are also cat objects in the museum, such as this fragment of cat statuette


and this stone sentinel.


And at the National Museum in Tehran, there are several cats from the small to the monumental.

My last cat is this stone cat, sat at the bottom of supporting columns at the Golestan Palace in Tehran.


It’s a cat all right, but that face is not a cat face. It’s quite clearly a person face! Hmm.

A Persian Odyssey: the dome of the firmament.

Iranian/Persian architecture has its own particular features. Heavy decoration. Ivans. Squinches*. On my travels in Iran, I saw many examples of all of these but the things that I became particularly obsessed by, and the things that my travelling companions repeatedly found me peering (up) at was the ceilings.

That’s right. This is a blog post about ceilings. To be fair, they were rather striking ceilings. Many involved the aforementioned squinches.

Jame Mosque, Esfahan

Jame Mosque, Esfahan

Or decorative coving and clerestories.

Khan-e Lari - Traditional House - YazdKhan-e Lari - Traditional House - Yazd

Khan-e Lari – Traditional House – YazdKhan-e Lari – Traditional House – Yazd

with portraits in a hybrid Persian-French style.

Khan-e Lari - Traditional House - Yazd

Khan-e Lari – Traditional House – Yazd

Or panels.


Naranjestan, Shiraz

chehel soutan, Esfahan

chehel soutan, Esfahan

Or arches.


At the Towers of Silence Yazd

These ones, in brick and tile,  are in Yazd, at the Towers of Silence. These buildings were used to conduct the funerary rites for deceased Zoroastrians.


At the Towers of Silence Yazd

Or domes, many of them beautifully tiled.

Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfallah 1.

At the Masjid-e Jameh in Isfahan the many domes are all made using different patterns of brickwork.

A peculiarly Iranian decorative style involves mirrors. Lots and lots of mirrors. Had a mirror-related mishap and now have a pile of broken mirror? No problem…

Golestan 1.

Chehel Soutan, Esfahan 1.

Even the ceiling.

Naranjestan, Shiraz

Naranjestan, Shiraz

At the last Shah’s palace, in Tehran, there was a bedroom decorated in this style (no photos allowed). I can’t imagine how he could have slept in such a room.

And one final, very special, ceiling.

In the Ali Qapu Palace, there is a music room in which all the walls and ceiling have been created using intricately molded plaster.

The music room at Ali Qapu Palace, Esfahan

The music room at Ali Qapu Palace, Esfahan

The niches could be used to display objects and the molding was designed to improve the acoustics.

The music room at Ali Qapu Palace, Esfahan

The music room at Ali Qapu Palace, Esfahan

The music room at Ali Qapu Palace, Esfahan

The music room at Ali Qapu Palace, Esfahan

This is just a tiny selection of the amazing ceilings of Iran. If you do get to Iran (or are already in Iran), be sure to look up.


* a ‘squinch’ is an architectural element that enabled Islamic architects to fit a round dome on to a square building. Basically they squash the upper corners of the walls in.

A Persian Odyssey: Small world

On a free day in Tehran, when I was let off the leash, I went on an adventure. A journey around Iran, to see sights I’d never seen before and marvel at ancient and modern civilizations. In miniature.

The Miniature Garden Park of Tehran is a relatively new (I think) site where 1:25 scale maquettes of Iranian World Heritage and sites of interest are on display.


It’s in a suburb of the city, away from the bustliest bustle of the centre (although, TBH, it’s still pretty bustly in the burbs). I’d seen a photo of it on Facebook, as I’d followed a couple of Iranian groups before my holiday. Having seen it once, I was absolutely determined to get there if at all possible.

After doing my usual trick of wandering about in the wrong direction for a while, seeing a few interesting things and then realizing, and wandering in the right direction, I finally found myself at the entrance to the park. I was pretty excited, I can tell you.

It was awesome :D


Obviously there’s more than a touch of kitsch about this, and I did find myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. I mean, we’ve all seen those hilariously twee model English villages and this is a kind of version of that…but Iranian. Nevertheless, it was actually really good. The models are really good and you get to see the entirety of large sites in overview. This can actually make it easier to get an idea of the relationships between different structures, features or zones of a site.

Here’s Persepolis.


The actual site is pretty extensive, and even the model is big, but from the viewing platform the whole archaeological site is laid out on view.



With the tomb of Ataxerxes on the mountain side.


As well as getting to see models of sites that I’d actually visited during the tour, there were also maquettes  of sites that I didn’t get to visit.

This is one site in particular that I would really have liked to have visited. Susa, ancient Shushtar.


When the Emperor Valerian (253–260 AD) was defeated at the Battle of Edessa (260), and captured by the Sassanid ruler Shapur I, he, and many thousands of his troops were transferred to Shushtar and held captive.

Here is the image of Valerian (standing on the left) held captive by Shapur, from the royal tomb site at Naqsh-e Rostam.


It is said that Shapur used Valerian as a footstool (this may not be true) and his troops were used as forced labour, building large-scale hydraulic installations for their captor (this is true).


I would really love to visit this city and its remains, but on this occasion, I had to content myself with the mini-version. On the day of my visit it was being invaded by giant birds.


There is also a model of the Arg-e Bam, the walled citadel of the ancient and medieval city of Bam.


Partially destroyed in the terrible earthquake which struck the south-east region of Iran in 2003, this is one of Iran’s 19 World Heritage Sites. Its origins can be traced back to the Achaemenid period (6th to 4th centuries BCE) but this kind of vernacular architecture is constantly renewed so it is both old and new.


I just love the little tiny tourists visiting the site.


Little people? Giant leaf? Single foot!

As a little bonus, one of the attendants pointed me in the direction of an exhibition of beautiful photographs of the real sites.


This was actually a very good bonus, as the images were stunning and it was lovely to see the living sites in all their glory.

The garden seems to be a bit of a work in progress, with more maquettes planned. This just made me want to make another visit to Iran. Hopefully the relevant authorities will read this blog post and sort it out so that we can all visit more freely in the near future (I very much doubt it, but I can live in hope, can’t I?).

Here’s a little selection of some of the maquettes.

Maydan-e Imam, Esfahan.


P1270492 P1270488

Takht-e Soleyman


P1270548 P1270540

Gonbad-e Qabus

P1270590  P1270591

Tabriz Historical Bazaar

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If you fancy a visit, the nearest metro is Golbarg on Line 2, then it’s about a 5-10 minute walk.

A Persian Odyssey: Tehran from below


I come from a big city with a big underworld under it. As a consequence of this, I am able to become slightly obsessed with other big cities with big underworlds. I want to know if they are in any way like my own. Tehran is another such big city, with a large and growing underworld. The Tehran Metro.


I can’t quite explain the frisson of excitement that I felt when I bought my first Metro ticket and set off, alone, for the adventure of a lifetime…otherwise known as the trip from Mayden-e Vali-e Asr to Golbarg.


The first thing that you notice is that it’s just like any other urban metro system, anywhere you might go. There are tunnels and escalators, signs pointing in every direction, tube maps, advertising and people, people, people.

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On the platform you notice a few things that are a bit more specific to the Tehran Metro. There are areas on the platform reserved exclusively for women. Signposted in Farsi, English and hijabi pictograms, just so you know.

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These correspond to women-only carriages on the trains themselves. From what I can gather, women can travel in the other carriages with men but men just better stay out of the women-only carriages.


As I was alone, I travelled in the women-only carriages and was fascinated to see how much buying and selling goes on. There are small businesses being run in these carriages, with livelihoods clearly depending on small-change trade.


I didn’t want to be too blatant about taking photos, but it was riveting stuff so I grabbed a few surreptitious snaps on my phone. The saleswomen (and a few young boys) clearly had their sales patter off to a tee and made loads of quick sales of small items; cleaning cloths, small kitchen items like graters and sink tidies, sweets, make-up, scarves, socks, bras…wait…what?…BRAS?!


Yep, very brightly coloured bras, for sale on the metro. Underwear on the underground. I’m guessing that this only takes place in the women’s carriages.

At certain times of day, the metro is absolutely packed. Morning and evening rush-hours, of course, but lunchtime too. Perhaps lots of people go home for lunch.


Business didn’t stop, even during the busiest periods on the metro. Even when the carriages were full to bursting, sellers still squeezed on with boxes and bags of stock and gave it a go. Cash was passed hand to hand along from the buyer to the seller, and goods passed back.

Seriously, I could have watched this all day. However, I had places to go…more of which another time.

If you happen to find yourself in Tehran, do not miss out on the show that is the metro. It costs tuppence ha’penny and is well worth a look, even if you have nowhere in particular to go.