The view from above

I was having a little look at some of my travel photos recently, ones that I haven’t posted online before and I realized that I am strangely fascinated with what I can see out of the plane window. This is slightly weird because, truth be told, flying actually freaks me out a bit, but I’ve found that focusing on the view of sites and landscapes on the ground, distracts my mind, stopping me thinking about crashing down to my death in a ball of red-hot flames.

Anyway, here are a few views from the cheap (economy) seats.

Syria/Lebanon

Flying over Lebanon, out of Damascus airport, I loved the ripples and curves made by the ranges of hills and mountains in the Bekaa Valley.

Algeria

In Algeria, flying is pretty well a necessity. The country is enormous and the country’s history has left it with a legacy of, frankly, unsafe areas. There are still a few places where kidnapping is a very real possibility, making driving dangerous.

The distance from the Ghardaia region back up to Algiers is over 600km so travelling by road is a bit of a schlep. The flight is an hour and the views are spectacular. The landscape starts as golden desert, peppered with towns north of Ghardaia.

As you get further north, the landscape turns to lush green with lakes and reservoirs.

Flight from Ghardaia to Algiers, Barrage Bouroumi, Mahaizia

Libya

Flying into Tripoli, on the coastal plain were miles of neatly planted olive groves.

The olive trees look very sparsely planted but this is the only way get a good yield of fruit, as the tree roots need space around then.

Iceland

Flying out of Keflavik Airport, Iceland, I flew directly over one of the places where I’d spent much of my time on my first visit.

This is Ásbrú, a former NATO base where the festival ‘ATP Iceland’ was held in 2015. It’s all brightly coloured, crinkly-tin shed, like many of the buildings in Iceland. Simple, functional and not especially decorative.I enjoyed the festival, and I enjoyed Iceland too.

And here’s, not the Blue Lagoon spa, but a similar hot water pool.

The heated water is the outflow from the Reykjanes Power Plant nearby.

France

Flying down to Marseille, I spotted a very exciting looking quarry.

Google maps calls this the Perasso Frederic Paul quarry but I think it’s actually called the Perasso quarry of Saint-Tronc. The Perasso company quarries gravel, concrete and sand from here. http://www.perasso.fr/societe-perasso-marseille/

Germany

Flying into Frankfurt means flying over the extensive forests that surround it. I was struck by the appearance of the motorways immediately adjacent to the airport.

This is where the Bundesautobahn 5 meets Bundesstraße 43 and the Bundesautobahn 3. Not quite Spaghetti Junction, but a striking intersection nonetheless.

London

Living, as I do, in Olde London Towne, I generally fly in and out of London airports, mainly Stansted (because it’s the right side of town for me), Heathrow (because it’s on the tube) and City, (because it’s actually IN London, as opposed to being somewhere in a field in a neighbouring county).

This means that sometimes I get to fly up the Thames. This is absolutely my favourite, even though the approach to City is slightly terrifying. The first time that I was actually aware of this, and actually thought about it properly, was when I was flying back from Damascus. I happened to glance out of the window and thought, “that’s Southend Pier!”. And it was.

Since then, every chance I get, I try to spot cool ‘something-on-Thames’ things.

Here is one of the wind farms in the Thames Estuary

and nearby, the Maunsell Forts at Shivering Sands.

This is not the greatest photo because we were in a raging storm at the time, but this is a cluster of six, originally seven, ‘army’ style WW2 anti-aircraft gun emplacements, situated in the Thames Estuary. The seven individual platforms were originally connected by walkways and were arranged as a cluster of six, housing guns and the seventh housing the searchlight.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to get a bit closer to the forts as The Waverley does a couple of trips each autumn.

Further into town, we fly over some very familiar sights. The Thames Barrier

City Airport

Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, Greenwich and the O2

The London Eye…

…and before I know it, I’m home. 😀

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Age-old cities

Paris.

Just a super-speedy flying visit, but it was nice to be there all the same. But the trouble with super-speedy flying visits  is that, no matter how nice they are, they always leave you wanting more. There’s just not enough time to do everything. I mean, I need to get to Musee Cluny to see the new entrance and walkways around the thermes, and for the winter expo,  Naissance De La Sculpture Gothique. There’s also an exhibition at Cité de l’Architecture et du PatrimoineLe Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre, examining the architectural and political significance of the Syrian crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers. But, in the end, the short time that I had just had to be spent at the brilliant Institut du Monde Arabe for the exhibition Age-old cities: Virtual trip from Palmyra to Mosul

The exhibition takes in four ancient and modern cities affected by recent and ongoing conflict, and presents aspects of them as they are, as they were and as they may be in the future. This is not an exhibition of artefacts  but of images. Using photographs, films and photogrammetric survey footage, taken using drones (carried out by UNESCO), we get a view of the cities as they are today. The use of drones, in particular, reveals the significant damage, destruction even, of whole swathes of the urban environment, with deserted, bombed-out buildings apparently teetering on the brink of collapse and the still-inhabited areas thick with dust and debris. As I’ve been to three of the places featured in the exhibition, I’ve added in a few photos of mine, taken on my visits. Some of the other photos,which were taken in the exhibition, are a bit blurry, as they’re of moving images.

Mosul

The exhibition opens with Mosul, a city which I have never visited. On entering the first main exhibition space, I walked into a large-scale panoramic projection of a fly-over of the city as it is now. Now, I’ve seen plenty of drone footage of areas affected by the ongoing conflict but, particularly on a such a large scale, these images of destruction are truly shocking.

Mosul
Mosul

Sitting on the west bank of the Tigris, opposite the Assyrian city of Ninevah, and around 400km north of Baghdad, Mosul has existed as a settlement, at this location or hereabouts, for at least 2500 years (Ninevah is far older). Capture by daesh on 10th June 2014 and only retaken by Iraqi forces, after heavy bombardment, on 21st July 2017, Mosul and Mosulis have suffered terribly as a result of the conflict in Iraq, with women and religious minorities particularly badly affected. The city had been known as relatively diverse, with the Iraqi Sunni Muslim majority sharing the city with Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, Yazidis, Armenians and Mandeans. Although many of the city’s Jews left for Israel in the 1950s, there was still a significant Christian population until the arrival of daesh in 2014.

One  of the specific structures zoomed in on was the al-Nuri Mosque. Famous for its leaning minaret (possibly due to the effects of thermal expansion caused by the sun’s heat), the mosque was the focus of pilgrimage and veneration for 850 years. It was the site at which the daesh leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-declared the (so-called) “caliphate” and the daesh flag was flown from the minaret. The mosque was destroyed during the Battle of Mosul in 2017, although there is some disagreement over whether it was destroyed by daesh or by the forces liberating the city.

Still from drone footage of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 

There is really very little left of the mosque, just the ruin of the domed central hall and the stump of the famous minaret. All the rest is rubble.

As part of the film, we witnessed the digital ‘reconstruction’ of the site. These images are built up using recent photographs from all angles, often people’s holiday snaps (I actually sent some photos of a site in Syria for exactly this purpose), which are digitally stitched together to create a 3d image.

Still from drone footage of the digital reconstruction of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul. 

Aleppo

Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken 5th November 2009.

Moving on to Aleppo, again drone footage lays bare the scale of destruction. We tak a fly-over, and through, the ancient souks, part of the ‘Ancient City of Aleppo’ World Heritage Site, now severely damaged,

…and up the ramp to the Citadel.

This really brought back memories of my time there, when it looked very different.

Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken on 5th November 2009.

The walls of the Citadel have clearly sustained damage, and it looked like parts of the interior space had too, although I  found it a bit difficult to orient myself in this complex site.

Leptis Magna

Arch of Septimius Severus              

The section on Leptis (Lepcis) Magna was less of  an agony for me. Although there has been some illegal digging and looting at the site, local residents, working in militias, have tried to stave off the worst of the lawlessness, and there hasn’t been the kind of occupation or intensive bombardment that we have seen at the other sites showcased.

The images I saw looked pretty similar to the way that it looked when I was there 10 years ago. The ancient structures are partial and the site is, largely, a ruin, albeit a very impressive one, but there weren’t obvious signs of recent extensive damage. Nevertheless, the fly-through of the macellum (marketplace) and the virtual reconstruction of the Severan Basilica was pretty impressive and provided a little respite before the final key site featured, one which I knew I would find hard to witness.

Palmyra

Temple of Bel, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

When I visited Palmyra, and the modern town Tadmur, in late 2009, it was an impressive, pretty well kept ancient site. The main site itself was open for visitor to wander in and look around and it was possible to wander pretty far, as it’s a very large site.

Some people in my hotel were getting up before dawn to go on a camel ride. I, being less interested in camels, got up at the same time and accompanied them for a little way on foot before heading off into the low hills on my own. These hills are the site of the necropolis of Palmyra and I was fortunate enough to have these evocative tower tombs all to myself in the silent, pink, early morning. *

 

 

Several of these tombs were destroyed and/or damaged by daesh in 2014/15.

One of the other notable instances of willful vandalism was the dynamiting of the Temple of Bel (above) and I found myself feeling particularly sad at the images of the theatre and the Temple of Baalshamin, when I found myself standing, virtually, in the rubble of the building.

This was a building in which I had stood, gazing at the beautiful decorative friezes and the carved columns, and thanking my good fortune at having the opportunity to be there.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.

But I couldn’t help but think past the structural damage and the willful and shocking destruction of the ancient temples, to the devastation wrought on the people living in the modern Palmyrene town of Tadmur. I couldn’t help thinking about the people murdered by daesh in the theatre, including Palmyra’s Head of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad (January 1932 – 18 August 2015). 

Throughout the exhibition there are short films, talking heads and personal accounts of the effects of all of this destruction on the people living in these cities but, particularly as a visitor whose French is a bit shaky, the focus of the exhibition really is on the effects of conflict on the built environment. The images recorded by drones are largely devoid of people, the streets thst I remember as bustling and busy with the usual comings and goings of the city, are eerily empty of life. A notable exception is a short film documenting the filmmaker’s return to Aleppo to speak with the people still living there.

He meets the shopkeeper who, despite being surrounded by the dust and debris of countless explosions, still diligently cleans his stock before putting it on display. And there’s the young woman recording a video message on her phone, to send to her sister, who is not in the city.

The young woman doesn’t say anything of any importance, just chats and reads the news and laughs and hopes that she will still be alive tomorrow.

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The exhibition ‘Cités millénaires Voyage virtuel de Palmyre à Mossoul‘ is on at the Institut du Monde Arabe until 10th February 2019.

For updates on the current situations in these regions, follow: @AinSyria ‏ and @AinIraq

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*I had the tombs all to myself except for the small child who chased after me for about half a mile asking for sweets. I had no sweets with me so I gave him a pen. He seemed satisfied with this alternative. I wonder where he is now, and I hope he’s ok. 

 

 

 


 

Horse guards parade.

The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition currently on display at ten sites across the northern frontier lured me up north for a short visit. As I didn’t have the time to get to all of the exhibition sites, I prioritized the expos in Newcastle and Carlisle at the Great North Museum: Hancock, at Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, at Segedunum and at Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery.

I’ve previously written about the extreme coolness of Roman cavalry parade helmets, so this is a little bit of an extension of that, as well as just a general Roman cavalry parade helmet love-in.

First up, Arbeia.

Arbeia Roman Fort, situated at a strategic point on the River Tyne was founded in about 120CE and was occupied right up until the end of the Roman period in Britain. Throughout this long life-span, the fort served as a base for (among others) auxiliary units of cavalry from Spain,  the First Asturian, and boatmen from Mesopotamia. It was converted into a supply station in the Severan period, handling the import of commodities destined for troops in the military zone.

At Arbeia Roman Fort, the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition, ‘Uncovering cavalry‘ is more about highlighting objects in the existing collection with just a couple of additions of objects on loan. This iron cavalry helmet from Limesmuseum Aalen is known as an ‘Alexander’ type due to its resemblance to portraits of Alexander the Great from around the same period, CE150-250.

Many surviving cavalry helmets are made from copper-alloy, sometimes coated in silver, but far fewer iron helmets have been found as they are more prone to corrosion. This helmet was found in a scrap metal dump near the workshops of Aalen cavalry fort.

A quick hop over the Tyne on the ferry took me to Segedunum. The larger exhibition there, ‘Rome’s elite troops – building Hadrian’s cavalry’, looks at the make up of the cavalry units and some of the manoeuvres used by cavalry units in battle.

Segedunum Roman Fort was built in about 127CE, when Hadrian’s Wall, originally starting at Pons Aelius (Newcastle upon Tyne) in 122AD, was subsequently extended by four miles to the east, to Wallsend. The fort was home to mixed cavalry-infantry units including the Second Cohort of Nervians in the 2nd century and, in the 3rd and 4th centuries the Fourth Cohort of the Lingones.

Alongside objects from Segedunum’s own collection are several helmets and helmet cheek-pieces on loan. One unusual helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins is this double-eagle crested helmet, a type worn by members of the Imperial Horse Guard in the third century.

  

Also in the exhibition is this silvered shield boss on loan from a private collection in the UK. The boss shows significant damage, probably sustained in battle during the Dacian Wars.

The boss is decorated with incised images of mythological subjects; Mars, Medusa, Jupiter, Apollo and Hercules. The outer part is decorated with images related to battle; shields, winged Victories, armour and a helmet.

There are two inscriptions on the boss; at the top, a statement of the ownership of the shield by Marcus Ulpius, a member of the Imperial Horse Guard in the time of the Emperor Trajan, and at the bottom, a record of the donation of the shield boss as an offering by Flavius Volussinus in memory of Marcus Ulpius.

Back in town, I went off to Newcastle’s Great North Museum: Hancock to see two helmets of a particular type. The display there, ‘Hadrian’s Cavalry: Shock and awe – the power of the Roman cavalryman’s mask’ shows the Ribchester Helmet (on loan from The British Museum) together with a second helmet of the same type (on loan from a private collection).

 

The Ribchester Helmet was found in Lancashire in 1796, as part of the Ribchester Hoard. It’s a bronze ceremonial helmet with a distinctive peak. The second helmet has been dated to roughly the same period as the Ribchester Helmet; 70-110CE/75-125CE.

Also at the GNM is Mithras.

The museum is home to a brilliant collection of Mithraic images and objects collected from sites along and around Hadrian’s Wall. Alongside more familiar mithraic imagery of the Tauroctony and the companions of Mithras, Cautes and Cautopates, this collection also includes this amazing carved stone sculpture of the birth of Mithras, with the god emerging from the Cosmic Egg.

Added to this, until 27th August, are three objects on loan from the collection at the Museum of London. The three marble busts were found buried under the floor level of the Mithraeum at Bucklesbury. They are a marble head of Minerva, the head of Serapis and the head of Mithras himself.

This is such a great idea. Bringing together the two best Mithras collections in the country. It’s also a good opportunity to have a bit of  look at Mithraeism in two different environments; the Mithraeums up on Hadrian’s Wall were in a military zone and associated with forts; e.g. Housesteads/Vercovicium and Carrawburgh/Brocolitia, while the London mithraeum was in civilian, urban area. The accompanying film also looks at the discovery of the London mithraeum in the 1950s.

A swift trundle west to Carlisle brought me to Tullie House Museum for the Guardians on the edge of empire – cavalry bases and Roman power exhibition, and more helmets. This is the largest of the exhibitions that I visited and there were some fantastic objects on display.

The fort at Carlisle, Stanwix/Uxelodunum, is thought to have housed cavalry troops, most the Ala Petriana. Home to a thousand mounted troops and their horses and support staff. This unit’s exceptional service earned them Roman citizenship while still serving. This is the unit in which Flavinus the signifer whose memorial now stands in Hexham Abbey, served, albeit at an earlier date.

The exhibition focuses, again, on the role and organization of the cavalry on the frontier and has an impressive range of helmets, face masks and other armoury pieces on display.

There are some pretty showy pieces, including this 2nd-3rdc. CE ‘Ostrov’ type helmet from Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins.

The helmet is a shape similar of one found in a burial at Ostrov, Romania and has a distinctive Phrygian cap shape on the upper part, topped with the head of a griffin and covered in scales.

The Gallery Attendant on duty when I visited was also very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the exhibition, and I had several conversations with her while I was looking round. She was particularly interested in this 3rdc. CE Amazon face mask (from Archäologische Staatssammlung München) and wondered about its origins and possible influences on the styling.

 

It really has a strong eastern look, reflecting the exoticism of the Amazon warriors. But comparing  it with the second Amazon face mask in the exhibition (mid-2nd – mid-3rdc. CE, from Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg) just shows up how exotic this one really looks.

This 1stc. CE ‘kalkreise’ type face mask (below), on loan from a private collection, is interesting as it has markings on the cheeks. As Imperial cavalry forces were usually auxiliary, i.e.non-citizen, units raised in provinces incorporated into the empire, these could have been indicative of tribal tattoos.

It’s really interesting to see the number of helmets and masks, and other pieces of armour, on display that are from private collections. This makes these displays even more worth seeing while they’re on, as there’s no telling whether they’ll be displayed in public again.

So there you are. A little peek at a few of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibitions. It would have been nice to have been able to do all ten as a road trip but I only had time for a flying visit. And I should also just point out that these exhibitions are in addition to the already excellent Roman collections at the museums and sites in question. Of course, on the back of seeing these exhibitions and displays, I’m now going to have to get down to Mougins to visit the museum there, and it has encouraged me to add more of Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium to the (never-ending) list.

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The Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition continues until 10th September at ten sites along Hadrian’s Wall and down the western coast as far as Maryport.

More Bridges of the World

On the walkways of Tower Bridge there is currently a display of other iconic, interesting, ancient and modern bridges around the world.

There are some big hitters in the display; the Pont Neuf; the Golden Gate Bridge; Ironbridge, and some interesting but less widely known examples, for example the Moses Bridge at Fort de Roovere, Halsteren, Netherlands. Looking at this exhibition, an in-passing conversation got me thinking about other bridges that have taken my fancy on my travels, so here are a few ‘Other Bridges of the World’.

The Tower Bridge display include a beautiful bridge which I was fortunate to visit in Isfahan, Iran, the Allāhverdi Khan Bridge, more commonly known as Si-O-So-Pol.

Here are a few of my images of this lovely bridge.

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A little way to the west of the Si-O-So-Pol bridge is another mid-17th century beauty, the Khaju Bridge.

Again, the bridge is built of two levels of arcades, and has the original tiles and paintings still intact.

The bridge works as both a bridge and a weir, but it also has a function as a buildings for meetings, a space for the Shah Abbas, the Persian Safavid king, to relax, take tea and admire the view.

The weir’s effect on the river is very evident but, as long as the water isn’t too high, it’s quite safe to sit by the water to enjoy the cool space on a hot day.

When I visited, the area around both of these bridges and along the riverside was peppered with people; individuals, couples, groups of friends and families, all enjoying the same relaxing space as the Shah Abbas. Strolling along the riverbank, sitting by the water, listening to music and eating ice-cream. Some things never change.

The sole Roman Bridge in the Tower Bridge display is the Pont du Garde, near Nimes in France.

I’m including another Roman bridge here for good measure. In Algeria, crossing the El Kantara gorge in Biskra, on the journey south to Ghardaia, we came to the El Kantara Roman Bridge.

The bridge was substantially rebuilt under Napolean but its roots are Roman. Built, probably, by the Third Legion Augusta, who were stationed at Lambaesis, this bridge crossed the gorge which was, and still is, the gateway to the desert. This made it a vital point of access for trade and people.

The bridge eventually fell into disrepair but was  renovated and widened under Napoleon.

Some of the original Roman construction blocks can be seen, and there is also an area of the original pavement, although it doesn’t look like it’s still in situ.

During our visit, we were joined at the bridge by a wedding party, and the happy couple has photos taken by the side of the river and on the bridge. We were told that it’s a bit of a tradition in the area to have wedding photos taken there and it’s certainly a lovely spot for it.

In the exhibition is a bridge which became a victim of war and, subsequently, a symbol of  post-war recovery and reconcilliation: Stari Most, the Mostar Bridge.

Originally built in the 16th century, on 9th November 1993, the Mostar Bridge was destroyed by Croat forces in the Croat-Bosniak War. Its destrucion has been described as a deliberate attack on the culture of Mostar in an act of “killing memory”*, so its reconstruction and reopening in 2004 acted as a symbol of the town’s recovery, both physically and culturally.

A bridge in my own alternative exhibition has suffered a similar fate and, we must hope, may yet act as a symbol for the future. In the northern Syrian town of Deir-ez Zor stood the Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge (Arabic: جسر دير الزور المعلق‎‎).

Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, early misty morning.

This bridge was built in 1927, under the French Mandate and acted as a pedestrian route across the Euphrates, connecting the Levant region of the city on the southern bank with the Upper Mesopotamia region on the north bank. When I visited Deir-ez Zor in 2009, I was particularly gleeful about being able to walk from the Levant to Mesopotamia.

 

The bridge was destroyed in May 2013 in shelling by the Free Syrian Army.

Deir-ez Zor has suffered horribly in the Syrian War and this situation continues with no obvious end in sight. Clearly I have no idea how the situation in Syria will be resolved but I can only hope that one day, soon, the Deir-ez Zor Suspension Bridge might act as a symbol for the end of war and the beginning of recovery, as has the Mostar Bridge.

To end on a slightly less depressing note, a bridge that’s a bit more modern.

One of the (many) things I like about Newcastle is the great abundance of bridges over the Tyne. There are railway bridges and road bridges, some of them towering above the river and the streets below them.

There’s a swing bridge!

Walking over the Tyne Bridge feels like an act of folly due to the thunderous traffic, but it’s quite fun nevertheless.

But there is also a more recent and more chilled out bridge taking pedestrians from the city over to the Baltic on the Gateshead side of the river: the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

Work on the bridge began in 1999 and it opened to the public in September 2001. It is a bit of a symbol of the regeneration of the riverside area. I’m pretty sure that anyone who lives in an old industrial city can testify, ‘regeneration’ can be a double edged sword. Down at heel, even derelict areas can be brought back to life and made really nice. The addition of a decent cafe is always welcome. But in the rush to lure new money and new people to an area, ‘regeneration’ can often ignore the people who already live or work there. I’m not sure exactly how the people of Newcastle feel about their riverside’s regeneration but, as a visitor, I like it.

It’s a tilting bridge which consists of two steel arches, one which carries the footpath and the other which acts as a counterweight. Like Tower Bridge, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge ‘opens’ for river traffic to pass underneath, but rather than using the split roadway idea, the entire bridge tilts.

Despite having seen and walked across this bridge lots of times, I’d never seen it actually tilting but on a recent quick jolly up north to see some of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition, I was able to catch it on its regular midday tilt**. It’s brilliant 😀 I already liked this bridge but, having now seen it tilting, I like it even more.

These are just a few bridges that have impressed themselves on my memory on my travels. There are others that I really like, in Constantine, Algeria; at Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland and, of course, in London, but I think that I’ll leave those for another day.

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*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stari_Most#Reconstruction

** There’s a little Youtube video here: https://youtu.be/lQ0ZqeE7vB0