Friday, 27 September 2013

Tragedy of the Templars: a 'vigorous questioning of standard assumptions'

The Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, photograph by Michael Haag.  The crusaders believed it had been built by Solomon and called it the Templum Solomonis which gave its name to the Templars whose headquarters this became.
The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States by Michael Haag’ is a ‘sober and thought-provoking study. This is the second tome that Haag has written on the order, and his ease and confidence in discussing various aspects of the Templars is one of the strengths of the book.’

So begins a review in The Catholic World Report by professor Vincent Ryan, which goes on to point out that 'this is not a standard study of the Templars', rather ‘Haag’s book is better understood as a history of Outremer (see his subtitle) in which the Templars play a leading role. This is not a critique. Indeed, this approach makes the book feel fresh even as it covers well tread terrain.’ ...

‘Even more intriguing is his argument that though much of the Levant had come under Muslim control by the time of the Crusades, the population of the region was still predominantly Christian. This interpretation is certainly controversial, but is not without some merit.’ ...

‘Based on his assessment of the Christian demographics in the Levant Haag frequently describes the campaigns of Saladin and other Muslim leaders as “Islamic imperialism” and portrays the Crusades as a counter to a new wave of Islamic expansion throughout the Mediterranean world. ... Contrary to the claims of some modern commentators, the Crusades did not just emerge out of nowhere; they are best understood as a phase in the often combative relationship between Christians and Muslims that had been going on since the seventh century.’ ...

‘It is an engaging read on a fascinating era. Haag might not have all the answers, but his vigorous questioning of standard assumptions makes The Tragedy of the Templars a worthy contribution.’

To read the full review, click here.
The Temple Mount in the late 19th century. The Dome of the Rock is on the right.  The Aqsa mosque, headquarters of the Templars, is on the left.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Desvendando Inferno

Desvendando Inferno, the Brazilian edition of Michael Haag's Inferno Decoded, has been published in Portuguese by Editora Planeta.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Inferno Décodé

Inferno Décodé, the French-language edition of Michael Haag's Inferno Decoded, has been published by Ixelles Editions.

Come Decifrare Inferno

Come Decifrare Inferno, the Italian-language edition of Michael Haag's Inferno Decoded, has been published by Newton Compton Editori. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Lawrence Durrell's House in Alexandria

The Ambron Villa in April 2010 seen from what had been the garden at the rear. Photographed by Justin Tuijl.
An article in today’s Telegraph speaks of a campaign to save the house where Lawrence Durrell, the author of The Alexandria Quartet, lived during his time in the city in the Second World War. (To read the article, click here.)

Durrell and his Alexandrian girlfriend Eve Cohen - who would later become his wife and who also inspired the character of Justine - moved into the upper floor of the house - the Villa Ambron - with a number of friends in October 1943.  Down below lived the owners, Aldo Ambron and his wife Amelia, and their daughter Gilda.  

Eve at 19 Rue Mamoun in 1999.
In an earlier post I said something of my visit to Alexandria with Eve Durrell in 1999. We also went round to the Villa Ambron which was already in the hands of the developer.

Behind the sheet metal the villa was being ripped apart.
The developer had bought the property in the mid 1990s with plans to build several blocks of flats in place of the villa and the artists' studio in the garden. 

There are laws protecting old villas in Alexandria, but in Egypt the law is there to be abused and old villas are there to be knocked down. And so it would have been with the Villa Ambron except that unfortunately for the developer a famous writer had once lived there. Nevertheless damage has been systematically if furtively inflicted on the villa and the studio in an attempt to make them fall down.

In another tactic, as reported in the Egyptian press, the developer demanded the demolition of the villa because it had been inhabited by a kafir.  In Islam a kafir is an unbeliever, an infidel, a person who rejects God and denies the Islamic version of the truth. A kafir is the worst charge you can lay against a person; a kafir is beyond the pale and has no human rights; all his property is forfeit and his wife and his daughters too. The kafir of course was Lawrence Durrell.

Failing that ploy, the developer, Mr Abdulaziz Ahmed Abdulaziz, is happy to sell the property that he never had the right to develop for five million dollars to the British Council.  

The balustrades of the entrance stairway had been 
deliberately smashed.
The columns on either side support a balcony where 
Durrell and Eve used to entertain their friends.
As Eve and I stood there looking at the villa which was being systematically destroyed, in a city without memory, she reminisced about how things used to be.
Standing on the balcony of the Villa Ambron is one of Durrell's friends, Theodore Stephanides from Corfu. During the war Theodore was serving in the medical corps of the British Army and often came to visit Durrell and Eve.  The photograph was taken by their friend and fellow tenant Paul Gotch who worked at the British Council.

Eve and I walked round the block to look at the Villa Ambron from the rear, across what used to be a lush garden of frangipan and banyan trees and ever-flowering forests of violets and ginger lilies. Durrell wrote at the top of the tower on the right.
Although Paul Gotch took this photograph with a bad roll of film, it is just possible to see two people, probably Durrell and Eve, standing in the doorway of the tower.
Durrell commandeered the tower at the Villa Ambron. The tower became his writing place and it was here that he wrote Prospero's Cell, his book about his happy days in Corfu before the war, and here too that he began writing what would become The Alexandria Quartet 

Eve recalled how Durrell would often ask her up to his tower; her presence did not disturb his writing.  'I was in those days a very silent person, I hardly ever spoke - this was because I was still coming out of my past.'

The people Eve had known before were one dimensional compared to the Villa Ambron dwellers and visitors.  'It was as if I had suddenly got myself into a book, of the characters of a book coming alive.  I wasn't sure what my part was doing, but I was happy to observe.'  

Eve said that for all of them, for Durrell and herself and for everyone who lived at the Villa Ambron, 'those were the best years of our lives'. 
Aldo Ambron with the dark hair, 
staring at the camera.
Aldo Ambron was an Italian Jewish civil engineer and architect, a founder of the Banco Italo Egiziano, president of the Italian Club, and bore the title of Grand Uffiziari of the Italian royal court. He was married to Amelia, an Almagia by birth, and had a hand in her family's engineering company that in 1906 built the magnificent sweep of the Eastern Harbour's Corniche that E M Forster celebrated as being in the finest spirit of the Ptolemies.

Alexandria's Eastern Harbour in the 19th century.

The graceful sweep of the Eastern Harbour Corniche, the work of the Almagia family.                      

A charcoal drawing by Amelia Ambron done in her garden studio. The subject is her friend Rose de Menasce, who had been a friend of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy and became a friend of Lawrence Durrell.
Prince Nicholas Romanov,
heir to the Russian imperial throne,
and Gilda Ambron.

Eve described Gilda as short and dumpy but said she had an animated face and was good fun. Gilda, Eve said, 'was besotted with Larry, in a proper way: she was une fille de bonne famille, and she behaved beautifully'. 'Gilda adored Larry', Paul Gotch recalled. 'She was in love with him.'  

At the end of the war Durrell left Alexandria to take up the post of British Information Officer on the Greek island of Rhodes, and it was there that he heard that Gilda had been killed in an air crash.  

Durrell was shocked when he heard the news; it was as though it spelt the end of the Ambrons, said Eve: 'That world we had known at the Ambron villa had already become unreal'. 

Gilda Ambron was the only Alexandrian whose real name would appear in the Quartet. Twice in Balthazar, the second volume, Durrell rolls out 'the majestic poetry of the names which had come to mean so much to me, the names of the Alexandrians', and on each occasion, though the order of the names is changed, he ends with a falling toll on Gilda Ambron.
This was Alexandria, the unconsciously poetical mother-city exemplified in the names and faces which made up her history. Listen.
Tony Umbada, Baldassaro Trivizani, Claude Amaril, Paul Capodistria, Dmitri Randidi, Onouphrios Papas, Count Banubula, Jacques de Guery, Athena Trasha, Djamboulat Bey, Delphine de Francueil, General Cervoni, Ahmed Hassan Pacha, Pozzo di Borgo, Pierre Balbz, Gaston Phipps, Haddad Fahmy Amin, Mehmet Adm, Wilmot Pierrefeu, Toto de Brunel, Colonel Neguib, Dante Borromeo, Benedict Dangeau, Pia dei Tolomei, Gilda Ambron. ... The poetry and history of commerce, the rhyme-schemes of the Levant which had swallowed Venice and Genoa. (Names which the passer-by may one day read upon the tombs in the cemetery.)
The last of the Alexandrians.

To read more posts on Alexandria, please click here.


Two books by Michael Haag for the story of cosmopolitan Alexandria.
Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press
and American University in Cairo Press)

Vintage Alexandria (American University in Cairo Press)

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Nanos Valaoritis: Poet and Friend of George Seferis and Lawrence Durrell

Nanos Valaoritis depicted on the cover of Pan Daimonium, published in 2005.
In an earlier post this year about Sterling Morrison, among other things, I mentioned Nanos Valaoritis whom I got to know some years ago in connection with my research into Lawrence Durrell.  Nanos knew Durrell in Greece in 1939; he also knew Henry Miller then; and in Miller's Colossus of Maroussi, which ends with a terrific letter by Durrell describing George Katsimbalis crowing from the Acropolis at dawn and waking every cock in Attica, Nanos was there and has told me all about it. Nanos is a monument, Nanos is memory, and Nanos is a beautiful man, always fascinating, always a pleasure.

So I was delighted to come across this video of Nanos being interviewed about poetry and language in his Athens flat, seeing him in that room where I have often sat, a room almost impossible to navigate for the piles of books and papers, with Nanos gently holding forth in the middle of it all.

Nanos Valaoritis interviewed in his Athens apartment about language and poetry.
Part of the magic of that room is that while Nanos is sitting there he is capable of reaching out his hand into the seeming chaos around him and plucking from towering and tumbling stacks of books and papers, from the scattered debris all over the floor, exactly the item he is looking for.  This video, though I have no idea what it is meant to be about, nevertheless gives a survey of Nanos in his kingdom.

After first meeting Nanos I wrote an article about him in the autumn 2006 number of The Anglo-Hellenic Review, which I also used to initiate the entry for Nanos Valaoritis in Wikipedia. The article follows and takes up the rest of this post.


Nanos Valaoritis is one of the most distinguished writers in Greece today. He has been widely published as a poet, novelist and playwright since 1939, and his correspondence with George Seferis (Allilographia 1945-1968, Ypsilon, Athens 2004) has been a bestseller. Raised within a cosmopolitan family with roots in the Greek War of Independence but twice driven into exile by events, Valaoritis has lived in Greece, England, France and the United States, and as a writer and academic he has played a significant role in introducing the literary idioms of each country to the rest. The quality, the international appeal, and the influence of his work has led Valaoritis to be described as the most important poet of the Hellenic diaspora since Constantine Cavafy.

Valaoritis was born to Greek parents at Lausanne in Switzerland in 1921 but grew up in Greece where he studied classics and law at Athens University. He was also writing poetry, and in 1939 when he was barely eighteen, he saw himself published in the pages of George Katsimbalis’ review Nea Grammata alongside contributions from Odysseus Elytis and George Seferis, and was immediately taken into their literary circle. It was an ominous yet heady time, those early months of the war, during which Valaoritis was witness to the seminal encounter of Seferis and Katsimbalis with Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, which was to resonate within both Greek and Anglo-Saxon literature for years to come.

In 1944 Valaoritis escaped from German-occupied Greece across the Aegean to Turkey and from there through the Middle East to Egypt, where he made contact with Seferis who was serving the Greek government in exile as First Secretary of the Greek Legation in Cairo. In 1944, at the instigation of Seferis, Valaoritis went to London to develop literary links between Greece and Britain. He met T S Eliot, W H Auden, Dylan Thomas and Stephen Spender, and he worked for Louis MacNeice at the BBC. As well as studying English literature at the University of London, he translated modernist Greek poets, among them Elytis and Embirikos, and contributed to Cyril Connolly’s Horizon and to John Lehman’s New Writing. His own first volume of collected poems, E Timoria ton Magon (Punishment of Wizards), with decorations by John Craxton, was published in London in 1947. He paved the way for Seferis’ success in the English-speaking world by editing and translating, along with Durrell and Bernard Spencer, Seferis’ King of Asine which was published in 1948 to enthusiastic reviews.

The King of Asine by George Seferis was translated from the Greek into English by Lawrence Durrell, Bernard Spencer and Nanos Valaoritis.
Then in 1954 he moved to Paris where, as well as studying Mycenaean grammar at the Sorbonne, he was prominent among surrealist poets under André Breton, and where also he met his wife Marie Wilson, the American surrealist painter.

In 1960 Valaoritis returned to Greece, and between 1963 and 1967 he was publisher and chief editor of the Greek avant-garde literary review Pali. But when the junta came to power in 1967, he felt he had no choice but to go into voluntary exile, and in 1968 he went to America where he became professor of comparative literature and creative writing at San Francisco State University, a position he held for twenty-five years.

A self-described surrealist, Valaoritis sometimes creates a sense of carnival in his work through parody, pastiche and absurdity. But the bracket can be misleading, for surrealism alone fails to convey the depths of his mind and the richness of his work. As in his photographs so in his poetry you see at once the mage and the pirate, or the detached Olympian with an outsider’s bemusement yet a man who can also be intensely lyrical and sensual, as in these lines from Instead of Birds of Clouds:

I filled you once and the sea was born
Then I emptied you and the sky was born
The starry sky and the blue-black sky
The sky of dreams instead of birds of cloud.

Once again Nanos Valaoritis lives in Greece, where he has co-edited the literary review Synteleia (End of the World) and now, optimistically, its successor Nea Synteleia (New End of the World) and has published a remarkable body of work, including essays, translations, anthologies and books of poetry, short stories, a novella and four novels variously in Greek, English and French. His most recent novel, the bestselling Broken Arms of the Venus de Milo (Agra, Athens 2002, and soon to be published in France), is a literary and historical romp which has a basis in a true family story, for the arms of the famous Venus were lost at sea when a French naval vessel stole the statue from an ancestor of Valaoritis, a Greek who was the chief dragoman of the Ottoman navy. Valaoritis’ Anthology of Modern Greek Poetry, co-edited with Thanasis Maskaleris (Talisman, New Jersey 2003) is encompassing and commanding, an invaluable contribution to the dissemination of Greek poetry throughout the English-speaking world, while Pan Daimonium, his latest volume of poetry (Philos Press, Lacey, Washington State 2005) shows him as playful, wise and enigmatic as ever.

Nanos at home in Athens.
In 2004 the Athens Academy of Letters and Science awarded Nanos Valaoritis the prestigious prize for poetry in recognition of his life’s work, and the President of Greece presented him with the Gold Cross of Honour, given for his services to Greek Letters. And still he writes, explaining why he does so in this poem taken from Pan Daimonium and called Every Night I Dream.

Every night I dream of great poetry
Quite different from mine
Or what I will ever write
And yet – every night I dream
Of this very different poetry
Composed of lines so solid
So dense and grainy
They could have been made of granite I ask myself – what is their subject
What do they say these marvellous lines
Which to behold – will leave you aghast
They’ll take your breath away
But – however – in any case – I’m sorry to say
Impossible to guess what it’s all about
And I have tried and tried, believe me,
And puzzled over these lines
Day after day – and in the night
They keep on coming back
With new earthshaking and tremendous
Messages – of great import
That everyone should hear
But not a single word remains
When I open my eyes – they’re gone
They vanish in pure daylight
These huge edifices – those titanic
Workings of each night.

Monday, 2 September 2013

I Have a Dream - In Colour

In my previous post about the 28 August 1963 March on Washington I reproduced some of the photographs I took that day - though only as crudely done scans.  Now I have had the transparencies scanned properly, though the colours have faded over time.

I joined the March on Washington because I wanted to add my molecule to the effort.  Taking the photographs was incidental. I cannot recall what camera I had, but it must have been a fairly simple 35mm something or other with a standard lens.

The great speech of that day came from the last of sixteen speakers, Martin Luther King.  He had a prepared speech but it contained no reference to a dream.  And so to mild applause he began.

It was a very hot day.  Off to the right, visible in the distance, was the White House, President John F Kennedy inside.  Kennedy was watching the event on television in the Oval Room.  Kennedy had not wanted the March on Washington to go ahead; he feared that any violence would impair his own efforts to advance the cause.  And even as Martin Luther King spoke, Kennedy had his finger on the button, literally on the on-off control button for the sound.  If things got out of hand, Kennedy was able to shut the whole thing down.

None of us knew that at the time; that is only what we have been told later by the history books.  But for those of us who were there, the mood was quiet, earnest; a quarter of a million people sharing a kind of prayer.

And so Martin Luther King began to speak.  But no mention of a dream.  Until the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was standing just behind him, cried out, 'Tell 'em about the dream, Martin.  Tell 'em about the dream'.  And King put his prepared speech aside and a bit awkwardly made the shift ... 'So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream'.  And then getting into his stride he wove that dream round and round into a wonderfully ascending chant of hope.
I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, 'We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal'. I have a dream . . .
The final mile from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.
One man has marched into the water.
Approaching the Lincoln Memorial.
Fifteen people spoke, one after the other.  Martin Luther King was the sixteenth and the last.
A quarter of a million people stood in the heat listening to the speeches.
Two people standing next to me.
Like me, these two people must vividly remember that day.
Ovation for Martin Luther King. At the end of the speech I looked to the right, into the far distance where Kennedy sat in the White House.  And behind me the Capitol Building, home to the Senate and the House of Representatives.  How could anything remain the same after this?  Less than three months later Kennedy was dead. Four and a half years later King was dead. And right after that Robert Kennedy was dead.
Martin Luther's speech ended with these words.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.  And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!