Thursday 23 March 2023

Sandcastles and Stories


Eight strangers were clustered around the campfire of the distant caravanserai —silhouetted, ragged, and ripened by adventure. As the flames licked the darkness, sparks spitting up into the desert's nocturnal firmament, the traveller dressed in indigo cleared his throat and told his tale.

Opening lines from The Caravanserai Stories by Tahir Shah (Secretum Mundi Publishing Ltd)

 Leaving Amman, we join the old Hajj road that leads from Istanbul to Mecca.  It is now a tarmac road, smooth in places.  In the glory days of camel caravans travelling the Silk Roads, it would have been a foot-beaten path of sand cutting through the stony black and ochre surface of the Jordanian desert. Standing solidly in the desert, visible by its stark square shape rather than its colour is the Qasr al Kharaneh.  Its tall square walls with what seem to be arrow slits and its turrets make it look like a fort or castle (Arabic: Qasr). Al Kharaneh is not a fort designed to control an area; rather it is a place of safety and hospitality for pilgrims and travellers following the old silk roads and pilgrimage routes.  It is a caravanserai.

The Qasr’s only door is huge to allow horses and loaded camels into the open courtyard.  Around the courtyard, there are 61 rooms for weary travellers. There is little light from outside, only the narrow, arrow-slit windows.  Once in here, the traveller is safe from the desert.  The courtyard is open to the stars. Water is given, food and fodder provided and fires are lit. Travellers from all directions exchange goods, ideas and, above all, stories.  The great Berber traveller, Ibn Battuta would have stayed in caravanserais such as this one and his tales still survive.  A few decades later, Geoffrey Chaucer recorded the tales of pilgrims going to Canterbury told in the roadside inns of England.  The English and Arab travellers, had they ever met, would have recognised each other’s experiences.

Today, the Qasr al Kharaneh sits in empty desert. In its glory days, the climate was softer.  Well-irrigated fields and date palms would have surrounded it. Al Kharaneh would have been sociable and lively but the accommodation would have been simple to the point of stark. The next Qasr could not be more different.

Qasr al Amra also sits isolated in the desert.  It is on a smaller scale, more intimate.  It is less harshly square and even has a couple of domes.  I have seen domes like this before in Turkish baths (hammams).  Surely not here?  But that is exactly what it is. If you had been a merchant trekking for a couple of weeks across the desert with only a camel for a friend, you might have liked the idea of a good wash and a massage with scented oils in a hammam.  You would have been out of luck. Caravanserais were also places for Sultans to rest as they travelled their lands.  This one was probably built for the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I (705-715).  We could still see some of the frescoes of hunting and bathing scenes that border on the lascivious.

There are Qasrs like al Kharaneh scattered all over the Jordanian desert marking out old trade and pilgrimage routes. 

On one night among many over the centuries, the Sun has set and fires and braziers light the central courtyard.  Strangers sit round these fires with coffee and dates and water pipes. People start to tell stories of their recent travels, their experience of Mecca, and their trading successes. They share stories of merchants and places to avoid.

They tell new stories of Richard Coeur de Lion and Salah ad-Din.  They tell older, well-loved stories of Scheherazade garnered into Arab literature from ancient Sanskrit and Persian tales.  They tell Bronze Age stories from The Book; stories of Ibrahim and Ishmael and of Moses.

A traveller from the very furthest North of the known world tells a story of Lief Eriksson. The story is too outlandish to be believed. 

A traveller from Egypt relates the tale of Rhodopis.  She is a beautiful slave girl.  While washing her feet in the Nile, an eagle swoops and takes one of her shoes.  The eagle drops it into the lap of the King of Egypt, who is so entranced by the delicate shape of the shoe that he sends out his servants to find the woman whose foot fits it.  They find Rhodopis and she marries the King.

The stories drift up into the desert sky and join the literary heritage of the World.

I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne Tours 

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Photographing People in Vietnam

 Here is a piece I found in my journal from a trip to Halong Bay and the Red River in Vietnam in 2018.  It gives me a good excuse for publishing some lovely photographs.  I hope you enjoy the post and the pictures. Please let me know.


There is an etiquette to taking photographs of people in Vietnam — always ask, always show the result.

People turned me down about half the time. Children, surprisingly, were not the most willing subjects. The boys were keen enough; the girls were shy. But how hard it was to get natural shots. They have somehow learned always to pose with their fingers making a V in the way that every selfie-taker uses nowadays.

The best and keenest subjects were old women. They hunt in packs and descend on tourists. They are keen to talk and do not mind a bit that we do not understand Vietnamese. It is a tonal language and hard to pick up. Nor do they mind that they do understand a word of English.

With help from our guide, I learnt that after saying “Hello”, the very first question is always,  “How old are you?” I learnt to recognise the sound pattern of this question. In Vietnam, it is an important and polite question. The second person pronoun varies in Vietnamese depending on whether you are speaking to someone older, much older or younger than yourself. The follow-up comments to my answer caused our guide to laugh with embarrassment when translating.

“I am 74.”

“No wonder your hair is so grey.” or,

“You look it.”

Occasionally the answer was flattering, “You look much younger.” Those conical straw hats cover lively and inquisitive minds.

A visit to a Roman Catholic Cathedral on a Sunday morning was fun. On partition, nearly 1 million people, mostly Roman Catholics, fled south away from the Communist regime. Religion was not encouraged. There are still huge cathedrals and the one we saw had a big congregation. Religion seems to be thriving. This cathedral had many children in it all wearing Boy Scout style uniforms. The cathedral had open arches at the side. During the service, children kept leaking out to seek adventures such as being photographed.

Two elderly men with whom I shared a cigar volunteered to be photographed and stood stiffly and proudly for their portraits

The best of the laughing faces was the girl in the ceramic-making village, who accidentally spilled water over our feet.  Her fit of giggles that went on for a good five minutes provided me with some wonderful photographs.

The children were fun, the workers serious and the old women full of character. The young women were just enjoying being young and beautiful.

I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne Tours




Monday 13 March 2023

A Pot Noodle Lunch with Jack Sparrow at the Summit of Jebel Attuf

Jebel Attuf with Petra below

 The Naboteans, on whose city I am trampling called it Raqmu. We call it Petra. I am to climb 900 steps up to “The Place of High Sacrifice”. The name is a modern fancy. I prefer the Arab name for the bluff of red sandstone towering above me: Jebel Attuf.

In truth, what I can see above me is the original ground level of a sandstone plateau.  The City of Petra is at the bottom of a deep wadi (gorge) cut out of the rock by water and air over aeons.

At the stall at the foot of the first steps, I sit and drink a Turkish coffee (2 Dinars) to fortify myself for the climb. 

The trail I am following is an invention for tourists. Some of the 900 steps are old, some are modern. I start on worn, shallow sandstone steps. They are extraordinary. Many feet have worn the stone into shallow depressions that feather the millimetre thick geological layers into rings of red, ochre, brown, yellow and black.  I am walking on a petrified Arabian carpet.

At the first turn, an elderly Bedouin woman plays a few notes on a tin whistle.  She stops, “I walk here every day. My husband died.” I part with a Dinar; it is expected.  One of my companions is having trouble with the steps.  The old woman takes my companion’s arm and uses her hidden strength to help her up the next flight.  There is an Arab saying, “Give without remembering, take without forgetting.” 

I am halfway up. I take it steadily.  I start to think about the 900 steps down on the other side. I feel a bit daunted.  Just at that moment, I have to move aside to let a man past who is sprinting up the steps. He has plenty of breath to say, “Merci”.  A Frenchman. Of course he’s a Frenchman. I plod on.

The steps vary in height and depth; it is hard going. Slowly I rise from the valley floor towards the sky and the top level of the plateau.  Near the top is a small Crusader lookout post.  It is built with solid, square cut blocks of sandstone that do not match the surrounding rock.  Did they carry the castle up here block by block?

Finally, I reach the summit.  A young Bedouin man is selling souvenirs and coffee in a black and red tent made of camelhair rugs. The souvenirs are the same as they are in almost every stall in Petra. The Bedouin inhabitants were persuaded to move out of their cave dwellings into a village built for them outside the site.  In return, they have a monopoly on selling and working in what is now a UNESCO protected site.  I order a Turkish coffee. It is only one and a half Dinars despite the fact that everything including the water has to be lugged up to the top.

I ask if I can join him as he sits under the sky on top of a red and ochre plateau of rock that might be on Mars.  He motions me to sit so I sip my coffee as he enjoys his lunch of pot noodles.

Photo credit Jonathan Baltesz, thank you.

Since time immemorial, Bedouin men have applied deep black kohl round their eyes.  It is a protection against the desert sun but they are not unaware that it gives them a dashing and exotic air. They also enjoy thick, lustrous jet-black hair that is naturally wavy.  In a sort of competitive evolution, many of the younger Bedouin now dress to look like Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp’s character in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  The kohl is now drawn into fantastic shapes. Whether the look works some magic on susceptible backpackers from Akron, Ohio, I did not dare ask.

We have a go at conversation.  I have only a few words of Arabic and my accent is so bad that he does not recognise that I am speaking his language.  He tells me he sleeps up here at the top.  He has seven brothers and sisters and that he has a girlfriend in the village.  I realise that these are a few stock phrases of English that he has learnt. We have a companionable ten minutes but no real conversation.  I wish him “Marsalamah” (this he recognises) and I set off down the other side of the bluff.

There are more of the modern steps on the way down. Some are cut into the side of the cliff and turn corners with no railings inside or on the outside of the turn.  I am nervous of heights. Older steps have been worn by water and feet into a sort of slippery cascade.  The walk down is more exciting than the climb up.

The geological layers are now beyond my understanding.  What possible geological process has laid down an inches thick layer of bright yellow stone with a black layer and then another yellow layer above it?  It looks like a Liquorice Allsort, inserted into the prevailing ochre.  Nabotean caves reveal more layers like tapestries.  There are horizontal and vertical layers within feet of each other.  I need to go home, take a degree in Geology and return. I reach the lowest level and find a cool, dark man-made cave.  Inside, two-Dinar coffee is on offer.

I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne Tours

Photo Adrienne Higham

Monday 6 March 2023

Three Tales from the Book


Three Tales from the Book

 Jordan — Mount Nebo

 Standing on top of Mount Nebo in Jordan I can see over the plain of the valley of Jericho, over the Jordan Valley to Palestine and the lands of Judah unto the uttermost sea.  If God did show Moses the promised land (Deuteronomy Chapter 34 verses 1 and 2), this is the spot where he would have got the best view. I could well be standing where Moses stood 34 centuries ago. There is a modern monument here dedicated to Moses and the ideas that unite the three great Abrahamic religions: the People of the Book.

While there is no archaeological evidence to show that Moses existed, the story is an ancient one and these stories do not appear from nowhere.  There will be an origin.  For now, it is enough that the story is sanctified by centuries of belief.

Photo Adrienne Higham

 River JordanBethany

 The River Jordan here is a green stream about 20 feet wide flowing slowly south towards the Dead Sea. On each side of the river, wooden platforms are set into the reeds. The river and desert are silent but there is a low hum of voices from the opposite bank.  A man and a woman in white cotton robes immerse themselves completely in the holy water of the River Jordan.  They emerge, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes. They have undergone a profound and joyful experience.  They believe they have been baptised in the very place that John the Baptist baptised Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 3 vv 21-23).

Photo Adrienne Higham

The remains of a first century Christian church have been found here.  Jesus was thirty when John baptised him.  An early Christian seeking the site in the first century could have visited this place within living memory of John the Baptist’s mission as described in Luke’s Gospel.  It is plausible that this is the right spot.

 Baggage Carousel 2 — London Heathrow Airport, Terminal 3

 We have shared our return flight with pilgrims returning from the Hajj.  The luggage carousel carries white box after white box marked ZamZam Water.  I ask and I am told that this is water, holy to Muslims, from the well at Mecca.  It has physical and spiritual healing properties and they will share it with their family and friends.

The story of ZamZam water is even older than that of Moses. In the Genesis story, Abraham (Ibrahim) has a child, Ishmael, by Hagar (Hajar) the slave of his wife Sara. At Sara’s bidding, Abraham abandons Hagar in the desert, where according to Genesis Chapter 16 Verse 7 …the angel of the LORD [Gabriel or Jibreel] found her by the fountain of water in the wilderness…

Muslims trace their descent and the descent of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) from Ibrahim by Ishmael’s line. 

The Islamic traditional story (there is more than one version) has it that Hajar walked between two hills in the desert seven times looking for water and help.  The angel Jibreel came down and created a spring.  Hajar, seeing the water going to waste cried out “Zam, zam!” [Stop, stop], hence the name of the well, which is sited close to the Kaaba at Mecca. That Hajar, a slave, should be so horrified by water going to waste that she dared shout “Stop!” at the angel Gabriel feels like the authentic voice of a true desert dweller.  It was in this place that Mecca was founded.

Muslim pilgrims recreate Hajar’s walk between the two hills as sanctioned by the Holy Qur’an at Sura 2: Safa and Marwa [the two hills] are among the rites of God. Whoever makes the Pilgrimage to the House, as performs the Umrah, commits no error by circulating between them…

Three tales from the Book and a common reverence for water show that we all base much of our culture and beliefs on a small set of very old stories.

 I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne