Sunday, 27 December 2015

A Cultural Guide to Palmyra

Dressing fashionably for the desert journey to Palmyra.
Palmyra and Islamic State have been in the news a lot recently.  Which can be testing for one's cultural awareness. But thanks to Zippy the Pinhead, who has made a visit to the ancient city in the centre of the Syrian desert, all is now clear. 


Zippy and his companion prepare themselves for a cultural visit to the desert.

A procession of women veil themselves for a ritual
at the Temple of Bel. 

Zippy looks for the procession of women at the Temple of Bel but discovers that they, along with the entire temple, have been blown up.
Zippy reports that there is really not much you need to know about Palmyra as most of the cultural bits are not there anymore.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Animals Talk on Christmas Eve

They talk.
Once upon a time I was told that on Christmas Eve rivers flow as wine, trees blossom into fruit, mountains open and reveal precious jewels and that the ringing of bells can be heard from the bottom of the sea. 

I was also told that on Christmas Eve animals can talk.  They talk to one another and have much to say.  Animals always talk to one another but humans do not hear them or do not understand.  But on Christmas Eve when animals talk we can hear and understand.  

I do not know about the rivers and the wine and the mountains and the jewels and the blossoming trees and the bells ringing at the bottom of the sea but I do know about the animals.  I have heard them talk on Christmas Eve.  These two in particular, the ones in this photograph.  Not that they say much, but they say a few simple words and that is enough. 

To hear them talk you just have to be there.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Winter Solstice Sky in London

Church Row on the eve of the winter solstice.
Usually the winter solstice falls on 21 December, but this year the exact moment - that is the moment when the night is shortest and the day longest - fell at about four o'clock in the morning on 22 December. 

So this photograph (another one taken with my mobile phone) was taken on the eve of the solstice, at 4.30pm yesterday afternoon, looking along Church Row towards St John's Hampstead Parish Church which is at least as good for its dead as for its living.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Tenth-Century Egyptian Nativity

Close up of the tenth-century Nativity at Deir el Suriani.  The inscription is in Syriac, a version of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
The Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on the same date as the Orthodox churches of Greece, Russia and elsewhere, on 7 January.  I have several times travelled through Egypt visiting Coptic monasteries - in Upper Egypt, along the Red Sea and in the Western Desert at the Wadi Natrun.  These are some photographs appropriate to the season now upon us that I took at Deir el Suriani, the Monastery of the Syrians, at the Wadi Natrun, halfway along the Desert Road between Cairo and Alexandria.

Deir el Suriani in the Western Desert.
Christian asceticism first most widely flourished at a place once known as Scetis or Scete, now the Wadi Natrun, its monasteries standing as citadels of the Coptic faith through all the adversities of the past 1700 years. After years of decline, all four monasteries (St Macarius, St Bishoi, the Syrians and Baramous) are now thriving monastic communties.
The place called Scete is set in a vast desert, and the way to it is to be found or shown by no track and no landmarks of earth, but one journeys by the signs and courses of the stars. Water is hard to find. Here are men made perfect in holiness, for so terrible a spot could be endured by none save those of austere resolve and supreme constancy.
          - A pilgrim’s account in the late fourth century Historia Monachorum
As you approach, the monasteries give the impression of enormous arks for the faithful sailing in a desert sea. But their high walls were raised only in the ninth century to protect them from Bedouin raids. The monasteries were founded much earlier.

The Church of al-Adra in Deir el Suriani.
During the great Roman persecutions of Christians in Egypt, beginning in 202 under Septimius Severus, continuing in 250 under Decius, and reaching its most awful climax under Diocletian from 303, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were martyred for their faith.

A few sought refuge in the desert, but it was only after Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 313 when the need to flee had passed, that the great exodus began. Martyrdom had offered a direct route to God; now the way would be found in the desert. In an astonishing act of anarchy, Egyptians in their thousands, rejecting any interference by the hierarchy of state or church, deserted the towns and cultivation for the barren wilderness with the aim of shedding all worldly possessions and distinctions, wishing if possible even to shed their sense of self, the better to unite with God. 

Through them Christianity explored another dimension, as they strove to embody eternity in their lives. St Antony said, ‘Let no one who hath renounced the world think that he hath given up some great thing. The whole earth set over against heaven’s infinite is scant and poor.’ That quiet voice from the Egyptian desert, which said that each living moment carried its eternal freight, was to have as profound an impact on the Western imagination as all the Greek sophistication of Alexandrian thought.

It is Deir el Suriani, the Monastery of the Syrians that most suggests a desert ship, its undulating ochre walls riding a wave of sand. Domes, towers and crosses make the superstructure, and palms wag within like prizes bound for Kew Gardens.

The tenth-century Annunciation fresco at al-Adra
in Deir el Suriani.
You pass through this northern wall by a small doorway into a forecourt, then left into the courtyard before the church of the Virgin, al-Adra, remarkable for its frescoes in the semidomes of the choir.

The tenth-century frescos in the south semidome, where the theme is the Annunciation and the Nativity, are the finest still to be seen in situ in a Coptic church in Egypt, the colours as striking as in an illuminated manuscript. 

Gabriel is shown approaching Mary who stands within the doorway of a building. The Virgin is then shown reclining on a couch, the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, though in an unusual feature his legs are bare. Joseph is seated pensively below, while around are angels, shepherds and the Three Kings.

The fresco in full of the Nativity in the semidome of al-Adra Church in Deir el Suriani in the Wadi Natrun.
The monastery has a particular attachment to the Virgin Mary; originally it was founded in her name as the Theotokos, the Mother of God. But the death and resurrection of Jesus is also marked; at the west end of the church is an ebony reliquary containing the hair of Mary Magdalene.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Mary Magdalene and the Shroud of Jesus

The volcano rising behind Madelena.
The island of Pico in the Azores is named for its mountain, its peak, which is a towering volcano, the highest mountain in Portugal, except that the Azores are nowhere near Portugal, they are almost halfway across the Atlantic.  But that is by the by.

The capital of Pico is Madelena.  And in the middle of the town, overlooking the sea, is the Igreja de Santa Maria Madalena, the Church of Mary Magdalene, built in the sixteenth century and rebuilt in the nineteenth century.

I was looking round the church and noticed something odd about the statue of Mary Magdalene which stands by the altar.

Devotional card showing Santa Maria Madalena.
This devotional card which I picked up at the church illustrates what I mean.  Mary Magdalene is clutching a cloth to her breast. The cloth is the shroud of Jesus.  She has been to the tomb but has found it empty.  Only the cloth remains.

This is what Peter saw when he went into the tomb, he 'seeth the linen clothes lie.  And the napkin that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself'', says the gospel of John 20:6-7.

Piero della Francesca has Mary Magdalene in a familiar pose, 
holding a big anointing jar. 
But in John's gospel Mary Magdalene does not enter the tomb.  She does enter the tomb however in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and though none of them mention the linen clothes we can suppose that Mary Magdalene saw them there and perhaps picked them up and clutched them to her breast as portrayed by this statue of her in the church.

There is nothing odd about any of that.  It is what you would expect.

Except that this is the only time I have seen Mary Magdalene clutching the shroud of Jesus.  Maybe there are plenty of examples and I have just missed them.  But what I do see ad infinitum is Mary Magdalene holding the jar of anointing oils. This painting at Arezzo by Piero della Francesca is typical.  

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus on the third day.  The jar announces the expectation that she will find him at the tomb.

But the shroud says something else.  It says that she has found the tomb empty.  

This is a shocking moment.  It is not a moment conveyed by the anointing jar.  But it is conveyed by the shroud.  The tomb is empty and the body is gone.  No explanation is offered.  In the original version of the gospel of Mark which ended at 16:8 there is no resurrection appearance.  Verses 16:9-20 were added very much later.  Originally there is only the empty tomb.  

That is why this statue of Mary Magdalene struck me as unusual and odd.  It directs our attention to that moment when there was nothing there.

Late Winter Afternoon in London


I took this photograph at about 4.30 this afternoon while walking through Hampstead Green. I used the camera in my mobile phone - which is the great virtue of mobile phones.  I never phone anyone and nobody phones me but mobile phones give you a small convenient camera that allows you to take photographs on a whim. 

Nessim Hosnani in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet

A present for me from Jonathan Dawson.
A while back I had a correspondence with Jonathan Dawson of Tangier.  In the middle of that he went to Egypt, as I believe he does from time to time.  From Alexandria he sent me an email saying he had a present for me, something he had picked up in a second hand bookshop.  Some weeks later a copy of English Public Schools by Rex Warner, of all people, arrived in the post.

Winchester College as illustrated in Rex Warner's English Public Schools.
English Public Schools turns out to be a short book with many illustrations, colour and line, and text which gives a brief history of ... well, of English public schools.  It was published in 1945 by William Collins of London as part of a series called 'The British People in Pictures'.  I suppose this was a follow-on from the war effort, a book to show ourselves and the world how we are and how we got here, thanks to English public schools. 

A line drawing in the book.
It is a pretty little book and perhaps sold to the parents of children who were in the appropriate public schools (not all of even the best are covered in the book). I doubt it was a bestseller overseas. And yet here it had come from a second hand bookshop in Alexandria. 

And anyway, why on earth had Jonathan Dawson sent me this book?  I supposed he saw it as a curiosity because it was written by Rex Warner, a classicist who had taught in Egypt for a time, had done an introduction to Cavafy's poems, and had translated Xenophon's Persian Expedition, the version that Lawrence Durrell had drawn on when he gave Nessim Hosnani his historical dream in Justine
He saw so clearly the shrine the infantry built to Aphrodite of
the Pigeons on that desolate alluvial coast. They were hungry. The
march had driven them all to extremities, sharpening the vision
of death which inhabits the soldier’s soul until it shone before
them with an unbearable exactness and magnificence. Baggage-
animals dying for lack of fodder and men for lack of water. They
dared not pause at the poisoned spring and wells. The wild asses,
loitering so exasperatingly just out of bowshot, maddened them
with the promise of meat they would never secure as the column
evolved across the sparse vegetation of that thorny coast. They
were supposed to be marching upon the city despite the omens.
The infantry marched in undress though they knew it to be mad-
ness. Their weapons followed them in carts which were always
lagging. The column left behind it the sour smell of unwashed
bodies — sweat and the stale of oxen: Macedonian slingers-of-the-
line farting like goats.
Bookplate showing the the book had been given to the
English Girls' College in Alexandria by Baron George de Menasce.

And then I noticed the bookplate stuck on the front flyleaf.  'English Girls' College, Alexandria, Library', it said.  And 'Presented by'. Presented by Baron George de Menasce, February 1954.  Now George de Menasce was the son of Baron Felix de Menasce; his stepmother was Baronne Rosette de Menasce; and hs niece was Rosette's granddaughter Claude Vincendon, the third wife of Lawrence Durrell. 

Baron George de Menasce.
Durrell met Claude in Cyprus in 1955 while he was writing what would become Justine.  She would help him complete the book; she also told him of her family background  which decided Durrell to transform what he had intended as a single-volume novel into a quartet with the Coptic Hosnani family actually based on Claude's own Jewish family in Alexandria.
In particular Durrell drew on the secret activities of Baron George de Menasce, the man who throughout the war gave wonderful piano concerts and afternoon teas for the British troops in Alexandria, and who was awarded an OBE for his services to Britain.  The man who was also secretly working to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.  The idea for the Palestine conspiracy in The Alexandria Quartet comes from Claude's revelations to Durrell about the clandestine actvities of her uncle George de Menasce - whom Durrell turned into the Coptic leader of the conspiracy, Nessim Hosnani.

The English Girls' College in Alexandria in 1939.  The girls are preparing themselves for English public schoolboys.
I had wondered when George de Menasce got out of Alexandria.  I knew he had been transferring his valuable collection of oriental porcelain to Britain, mostly by giving it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge which I reckon involved a trade-off of some kind - so much for the Fitzwilliam and so much for George.  I knew he was in London in 1956 because Claude went to see him there then; he paid for her children to go to English public schools while she went off to live with Durrell in the South of France.  And now I know that Baron George de Menasce was still in Alexandria in 1954.  The world there looked like it would go on in the same way forever and ever.  Within a few years it was gone.  And so was George.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Mother of Stupidity


Metaphor can be the mother of invention.  More often it is the mother of stupidity as Zippy the Pinhead has found out.

For more about my friend Zippy the Pinhead see here.