Monday, 24 March 2014

compare the monument

As you may know if you are a regular reader of Slings and Arrows, if indeed there is such a thing, I have recently returned from a trip to Cambodia, where I beheld with my own eyeballs the awe inspiring Angkor Wat. Inevitably when people ask about the trip I get the question, "Well, how did it compare to other things you've seen?" I always find this a difficult question. Having been lucky enough now to have visited quite a few of the world's great historic sites, although there are plenty more still on my list, I struggle to rank them neatly in any sort of order of impressiveness. AW probably makes a lot of lists of top ten must-see sights, but whenever I read one of those there is always something left off the list that really surprises me. In the end of course it is as impossible as it is futile to compare great architectural monuments and artistic achievements of human civilisation from completely different cultures and eras. How can you judge whether Angkor Wat is more beautiful than say Abu Simbel? Both blew me away. Which is more impressive, the Great Wall of China or the Sistine Chapel? Both made me catch my breath in very different ways.
So anyway, this got me thinking about historical sites I have visited that have had a particular impact on me, sights that have moved me with their grandeur or beauty or places where I have simply felt a great sense of history. Here is a list of ten. They are in no particular order and indeed I could have probably chosen a completely different list of ten without too much trouble. These are just the first ten that came to mind.

The Terracotta Army

If I have to pick one thing, for what its worth, the Terracotta army blew me away. It is the only one of the great historical sights that actually reduced me to tears. I don't know why really. It just absolutely moved the part of me that eats sleeps and breathes history. The main pit is inside a vast covered space the size of stadium with long rows of trenches stretching away from you. The army seems to be rising up out of the ground in front of you as you stand there and stare in wonder. The front ranks of men and horses are well restored, indeed, it is difficult to believe that every soldier was found in shattered pieces and has been painstakingly put back together. As your eye follows the ranks back, the soldiers become a little more battered with more bits missing, and further back still they are only partially excavated, giving the impression of the whole army rising up from beneath the earth and marching out of history. It really is a most incredible sight.

At the Terracotta Army main pit Xian 2005

Sounion at sunset

It had been a tough day's boating from the island of Kythnos to the Greek mainland. I was on a charter boat holiday with my best friend Jon after graduating from university. The sea had been rough and we had struggled to ride the waves and keep the yacht on its heading. Finally we made it into the shelter of the headland upon which stands the temple of Poseidon at Sounion. It was late afternoon and the sun was going down. Its rays were shining down through the clouds in beams and illuminating the temple on the headland above us in bands of light and shadow. It was an awe inspiring sight and as no religious building has before or since it filled me with a sense of the presence of the divine. I knew of course that the sudden calm that descended was purely due to the fact that we were now sheltered from the worst of the wind and waves by the headland but at that moment it felt as if Poseidon himself had intervened and stilled the waters and I understood the power of the temple. If a fleet of triremes had come around the headland at that moment with bronze rams glinting and oars flashing, I doubt I would have batted an eyelid.

The Lone Pine

In places the front line trenches at Gallipoli are so close together you cannot believe it. It was possible to throw a grenade from the Allied forward trench into the Turkish trench and vice-versa. The Aussies brought up their best bowlers for the job. The battlefield known as the Lone Pine, holy ground for those who come from Australia and New Zealand to honour the Anzac fallen, is a small patch of open ground no bigger than a modest village green, three hundred yards long by one hundred and fifty yards wide. It represents the sum total of ground captured in the fighting here, which cost 2,277 lives. Nowhere is the futility of the First World War more brutally illustrated than here. People stand and shake their heads at the madness of it all before walking up to the cemetery and the monument to pay their respects to those who paid the ultimate price for a few hundred yards of dusty ground.

I could weep at how young I look in this picture - Gallipoli 1999

In the gas chamber at Dachau

A sense of moral duty compelled us to take time out from the Munich beer halls and pay a visit to Dachau. I felt a need to bear witness to the outrage that was the Holocaust at one of its most infamous crime scenes. We joined a tour conducted by a man who was the son of a camp survivor. He took us around the surviving accommodation blocks, describing the conditions at the camp, the treatment of the prisoners, the unspeakable things that were done. It was grim, as you might expect. Then we stood in the gas chamber. It was a large group of forty or so people. There was not much room to move around and it felt rather claustrophobic. One poor lady completely freaked out and had to be helped out into the sunlight. Then the guide told us matter-of-factly that they gassed people in here two hundred at a time. I could not imagine the horror of that. Then we moved through to the crematorium to see the row of ovens, the meat hooks in the ceiling where they hung the bodies waiting to be burned. I have never felt a more chilling sense of evil in any place than I did right there. No doubt it was only the product of my own horrified sub-conscious but it went right through me. Two years later I found myself in Krakow and someone asked me if I wanted to accompany them to Auschwitz. 'No thank you,' I told them. 'I have seen enough. But you must go.'

Chesters Fort

In the autumn of 2009 I visited Hadrian’s Wall in the company of some mates on a boys’ expedition. We began at the remains of Housesteads and then set out along the wall itself, following it as it hugged the contours of the land; taking advantage of every natural barrier to a would-be attacker. Our plan had been to walk from Housesteads Fort to Chesters Fort along the wall, a distance of some ten miles. Such was the nature of the terrain however that our hung-over bodies were worn out by the time that we were less than half way there. And so we sat and admired the scenery for a while from a commanding viewpoint, sheltered by the remains of a mile castle from a sudden squall that blew in. This gave us the perfect excuse that as the weather was turning perhaps it would be more sensible to return to Housesteads. As the wind and rain blew into my face I reflected that in bad weather this would have been a grim posting indeed. Suddenly the dramatic Northumbrian scenery had taken on a forbidding cast. It seemed that an army of rampaging Picts may come hollering out of the forested hills at any moment to assail us. Returning to the car we drove on to Chesters which is situated beside a fast flowing stretch of the River Tyne. The remains here were more substantial than those of Housesteads, in particular those of the bath house, whose layout of furnaces, vents and hypocausts was still readily discernible. As we sat in what would once have been the caldarium making jokes about sodomy in the legions I experienced a realisation that Britain had once belonged within the Roman Empire. Its foundations were here beneath our feet and Rome’s story was our story too. There had been more to the Roman occupation of Britain than battles with blue-faced savages; the incongruity of a Roman bath house beside an English river showed that the empire had tried to put down roots here. As the all too British weather persisted in pouring down rain upon us, I could understand entirely the need for the Romans to have the comforts of home.
Boys on a Roman adventure at Hadrian's Wall 2009

The Oseburg Ship

It lay in boggy ground for a millennium before it saw the light of day once more. The burial ship of a  Ninth Century Norse queen, it stands in the austere and light filled space of the church-like Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. I had the museum almost to myself on a quiet weekday morning and was able to walk around it undisturbed. The ship is in incredible condition. The elegant carved prow looked as if it could have been finished the day before. The lines of the ship are beautiful and graceful and from every angle it is a superb example of Viking ship building prowess. Of course this ship with its shallow draft was only intended for coastal and inland use in calm waters but it is nevertheless a very close relative of the longships that terrorised the coastal settlements of Europe from Ireland to Italy and struck out for new lands during the Viking period. Seeing such a thing, in such a condition, which dates from the Viking age, suddenly filled me with an incredible sense of touching history. In fact, I just had to lay my fingers upon the cold hard oak of her prow, just for a moment. Just to make sure she was real.

The walls of Jodhpur

Massive. That's the only word to describe the walls of Mehrangarh Fort which towers over the city of Jodhpur. It is hard to know where the natural rock ends and the walls begin.They appear utterly unassailable. And the scars of cannonballs that ricocheted from their surface leaving barely a dent is testament to that. Of all the great castles and forts I have seen, this is the mightiest. To stand at the foot of the walls and look up is to be in awe at the feat of its construction and it looks like something out of a fantasy novel, something built by giants. Through seven gates you make your way up the steep sloping road that leads eventually to the palace at the top. The delicacy of its construction is a remarkable contrast to the mighty outer defences. Here the imposing power of the Mughals gives way to grandeur and the halls are filled with a magnificent collection of ornate howdahs and palanquins from the hey day of the pomp-loving rulers. On the way back down I paused to see preserved on the wall the hand prints of the wives of the last independent ruler of Jodhpur, who committed sati in defiance of a British ruling which had outlawed the practice. It is a potent symbol of the passing of one empire and the rise of another.

Mehrangarh Fort Jodhpur 2001

The tomb of Ramses VI

Down you go. Down and down and down, leaving the bright sunlight of the Valley of the Kings behind and descending into the earth. It is steep and the wooden ramp that covers the floor of the passage is slippery. On either side the painted walls are rich with scenes from the daily life and afterlife of the Ancient Egyptians. There are magical texts and visions of the underworld and of the judgement of souls. Osiris sits in judgement and Thoth writes down the verdict as the heart is weighed against the feather of truth. The terrible hippo bodied, crocodile headed Ebeb waits to devour the heart of the unworthy. Down you go. The passage reaches a chamber, kinks and then continues down. There at the bottom is a vast black granite sarcophagus in the image of the dead Ramses, cracked asunder across the middle of the chest. Its occupant is long since gone, his body removed to spare him from the depredations of the looters who had already systematically emptied his tomb of its treasures. The eyes of the pharaoh bore into you, demanding to know what you are doing in his resting place that was supposed to have been sealed for all eternity. Having stood in respectful silence before his empty tomb, you head back towards the light with a sense of profound relief.

From the Colosseum to the Forum

My second visit to Rome in 2006 was a completely different and infinitely richer experience from my first a decade earlier. Having spent the three years before devouring books on ancient and classical history I was able to appreciate the city's monuments in a way that I could not possibly have  done as a high spirited nineteen year old on a big adventure. Now I knew the history, the second visit was in fact a much bigger adventure. It was a crisp, bright January day as we elbowed our way onto the bustling metro system and emerged several stops later directly in the shadow of the Colosseum. It loomed above me as I ascended the staircase from the metro, suddenly filling the patch of blue sky that had been visible through the exit to street level with a vision of soaring arches. It literally took my breath away and as I emerged blinking into the sunlight, I stood and stared and was nearly flattened by a man on a bicycle. We circled Vespasian’s masterpiece and then entered and made our way to the highest vantage point which looked down into the labyrinthine system of passages and rooms that had in the building’s heyday been concealed beneath the arena floor. There gladiators had awaited their fate and wild beasts had been goaded to fury before being released. Leaving the Colosseum to provide a number of photogenic backdrops behind us as we progressed along the cobbled path which leads up to the Arch of Titus and thence to the forum, we carried on our way.

A lovely day in Rome

The Arch of Titus made a deep impression upon me as I gazed at the relief carved upon its inner surface which depicted the sack of Jerusalem in a snapshot from history, capturing the moment as the victorious legionaries carried away the seven branched candlestick from the temple as loot. As I looked upon it I recalled the vivid description of the city’s fall by Josephus whose work I had recently finished reading. A picture as they say, tells a thousand words.
Walking through the forum I recalled the events that had taken place here and enjoyed the idea that the very stones beneath my feet had been walked upon by all the great protagonists of Roman history. Of all the structures in the Forum the most evocative has to be the Senate House, the surviving incarnation of which was constructed in the time of Diocletian. It was incredible to think that in the days of the Republic, the fate of so much of the world had been decided from so small and simple a building, or at least one much like it. Ascending the Capitol  and looking back on that famous view I felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction. I had walked in the footsteps of Caesar and that was a special moment for me.

The Kremlin

When I was a boy in the 80's it was not exactly the height of the cold war but it was still going strong. The Berlin Wall was firmly in place and on a daily basis people would jokingly use fatalistic phrases about when the button would be pushed and the bomb would drop. 'Never mind, we could all be dead tomorrow!' World War Three remained a distinct possibility and the USSR was the enemy. I could not have imagined that Russia would be a country I would ever visit. It was the alien other.
But then of course the wall came down and everything changed. In February 2001 I took a fantastic train journey from London via Warsaw and Minsk to Moscow. The snow was deep and the air was so cold that when I took my gloves off to light a cigarette, it froze to my fingers. Walking through the gate in those huge red walls and into the Kremlin I just couldn't believe that I was there, that they had let me in. That it was February and there were virtually no tourists in Moscow made it all the more atmospheric. A road led past some Soviet era administrative buildings towards the three beautiful white cathedrals of the Assumption, Ascension and Archangel with their shining gold domes. As I walked along, at any moment I expected to be detained by a couple of KGB agents in trench coats, told that my papers were not in order and marched away for interrogation. When I accidentally stepped over a painted white line marking the limit of where tourists could go, an AK47 toting conscript in a grey greatcoat and black fur hat blew a whistle at me and shouted. I nearly shit myself, I don't mind admitting. The interior of the Kremlin cathedrals was incredible, filled with the glint of gold from countless icons. I saw Ivan the Terrible's throne, the biggest canon ever made and the biggest bell ever cast, both upon that despot's orders. I idly wondered if they had every tried ringing the bell and firing the canon at the same time to see which was loudest. But the best thing of all was just being there, in the Kremlin of all places. And they let me out again!

To gain access to the Kremlin I had to disguise myself

And now I've completed the list I can't believe the things I have left off of it. How have I not included Petra, or Palenque or the Pyramids or for that matter Angkor Wat? I think I'll have to do another list.

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