Jews in the Muslim World

One of the great ironies of the Middle East conflict is that Jews and Arabs are, in a deep sense, brothers–they both hail from the same region, Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages and Judaism and Islam are faiths of the same Abrahamic tradition. As with Greeks and Turks (see post of 2008.10.28), or Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, it seems that genetic/cultural/historical kinship and familiarity help breed contempt. But looking back in history, we see that antipathy between Jews and Arabs, or between Jews and Muslims more broadly, is far from a historical constant–much like real brothers, the two peoples have often lived side by side, peacefully coexisting.

In fact, our trip through the Muslim world has been almost equally a trip through the Jewish world, because so often throughout history where there were Muslims, there were Jews, and where there were Jews, there were Muslims. The connections between the populations were and are that intimate (not least in Palestine, of course). Through the photographs below, a journey through the Jewish populations (some of them, alas, now historical) of the Muslim world, radiating from Israel to Central Asia and Morocco, to Europe.

Even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a part of the state of Palestine under any future negotiated scenario, has a Jewish presence–in this case a building acquired by a right wing Israeli group imperiously announces its Jewish Israeli ownership.

Hasidic man with child looks over Jerusalem and the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount.

Ever since the days before Moses, Egypt has been home to a Jewish population. (Graham Hancock suggests in his book The Sign and the Seal that a Jewish community based in now Aswan at one point had possession of the Ark.) Below, a picture taken through the locked gate of the 19th century Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue of Alexandria. Fear of anti-Jewish terrorism has the synagogue under constant guard.

Syria was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds/thousands of years, and the old city of Damascus contains a large Jewish Quarter. All but a handful of the Damascus Jews have, sadly, emigrated to the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, leaving their impressive family homes to be renovated as hotels and restaurants, and in many cases artists’ studios, in what is fast becoming a trendy part of town. The first two images are from Bait Farhi, a wealthy Jewish home that is being converted into a hotel (a translation of the writing in the first: “a fruitful vine by a spring” from Genesis 49:22). The third image is the studio of Mustafa Ali, a Syrian sculptor. (See post of 2008.04.07.)

In Iran, many more of the local Jews–some 25,000–have stayed, apparently able to live their lives and practice their religion in peace, as the autocratic/theocratic government continues the historical practice within Islam of letting people of other Abrahamic faiths practice their religions relatively unmolested. (Many Iranian Jews have of course chosen to emigrate, most famously to Beverly Hills.) In this photo, a Jewish man stands outside the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran.

Yet further east was the domain of the Bukharan Jews, who lived not only in Bukhara but in other Central Asian cities, developing a unique culture that was a significant part of the religio-ethnic mosaic of that region. They even had their own language, Bukhori, which was something like Farsi/Tajik written in Hebrew characters. The most visible landmark of the Bukharan Jews in Bukhara may be the cemetery (first image), but a walk around the old city in now Uzbekistan reveals many more remnants of the Jewish population, including a synagogue (second image) and old Jewish homes such as Akbar House, now a bed and breakfast (third and fourth images). (translation of the writing in the fourth: again, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring” from Genesis 49:22)

The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Many Bukharan Jews have also settled in Queens in New York City.

Equally famous for its resident Jewish population, including thousands who remain today, is Morocco, half a world away. All of the great historical cities of Morocco have a large Jewish quarter, known as the mellah.

The narrow streets and tall buildings of the mellah in Marrakesh show how densely populated these ghettoes were.

Jewish life continues in some of the mellahs. Here, Al Azmeh Synagogue in the mellah of Marrakesh.

Large Jewish cemeteries show how much greater were the historical Jewish populations of these cities. The first two images are from Marrakesh, the rest from Fez. In the fourth and fifth images, a small synagogue/museum attached to the cemetery next to the Fez mullah. The Arab decor in the second and fifth images shows how local Jews were very much a part of the local culture (as well as the universal Jewish culture).

Another synagogue, in the Fez mellah

As in pretty much everywhere else they lived, Jews performed a significant role in the commerce of Morocco. Here, a Jewish funduq, or caravansaray/inn in old Fez.

Moroccan Jews were not only in the big cities. In the first image, a Jewish cemetery in the Skoura Oasis, near the town of Ouarzazate. In the second image, the ruins of a synagogue in the Jewish Kasbah of Amezrou, near Zagora in the Draa Valley further south (see post of 2009.01.11 on the multiethnic Draa Valley).

What was in African Morocco was of course also in Moorish Iberia, and there were Jewish populations in all of the cities of Spain. In the first two images, the alleys of the Juderia, or Jewish quarter, of Cordoba (the minaret/steeple of the Great Mosque visible in the first image). In the third and fourth images, an old synagogue in Cordoba (note again the “Arabesque” decoration). The fifth image is a statue of Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher–Jews were the third of the “three cultures,” along with the Muslims and Christians, that made Iberia during la Convivencia the great intellectual hotbed that it was (see post of 2009.02.04).

But of course la Convivencia was not to last, as the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquista and imposed their policies of ethno-religious cleansing. (See post of 2009.02.02.) In part because the Iberian Jews were so closely associated with the Moors and were suspected of being pro-Muslim conspirators, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree or Edict of Expulsion in 1492, exiling all Jews from Iberia. Many of the Sephardi Jews ended up in areas that were part of the (Muslim Turkish) Ottoman Empire, which sent boats to Spain to help transport them. (To the Ottomans, the skilled and wealthy Jews were highly desirable immigrants that the Spanish, blinded by their extreme sense of religious orthodoxy, were foolish to give up.)

The Old Synagogue in the old city of Sarajevo, now a museum of Jewish history in the region. Local Jews continued to use the Ladino language, a Jewish language derived from Spanish.

The Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) Synagogue in Sarajevo, built in the early twentieth century for the Eastern European Jews not of Spanish origin.

The Sofia Synagogue in now Bulgaria, one of the largest in the region, built to accommodate the descendants of the Sephardi Jews who settled in that part of the Ottoman Empire.

Strictly speaking it is not a part of the Muslim world, but a city known for its trade with the East of course had a local Jewish population that could make use of the significant Jewish mercantile networks throughout the East. A couple images from the “original” Jewish ghetto, in Venice.

Secondary Cuisines

Traveling through the world, one gets to taste some terrific (and some not-so-terrific) food. Considering the wide availability of many of the same ingredients all over the world, it’s astonishing how much cuisines vary, from East to Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia to India, India to Iran, Iran to the Levant to Turkey, Turkey to Europe. The food, and the types and availability of restaurants, tell you a great deal about a place–the level of economic development, historical trading patterns and contacts, maybe even the character of a people. This post is, however, limited to one small category of food, which I call “secondary cuisines.”

A secondary cuisine is a cuisine once removed. Not Italian food as served in Italy, for example, but American Italian food. Not Chinese food as served in China, but Korean Chinese food. Not Indian food as served in India, but British Indian food. Secondary cuisines have interesting histories. Sometimes, they are just adaptations of an immigrant class, perhaps modified for broader consumption in the country of immigration. Other times, they are local visions of what a foreign cuisine is, or attempts to create such cuisines without proper training or ingredients. However they originate, some secondary cuisines develop lives of their own, perhaps not exceeding in quality and variety the primary cuisine, but differentiating itself sufficiently that even the primary cuisine would not serve as a substitute for someone looking for that particular secondary cuisine dish. An American tourist could easily be disappointed by pizza the way it is served in Italy, and I have heard from many who prefer American Chinese food over food in China. There have even been cases of transplantation of secondary cuisine dishes into the country of the primary cuisine, whether for consumption by locals or foreigners. Lest this sound rather abstract, let us move on to concrete examples.

The country in which the widest range of secondary cuisines exists is probably the United States, a country of immigrants. Chief among these is probably American Chinese food. Ever since Chinese workers first arrived in the United States in the 19th century, they have been cooking food (as Chinese emigrants do all over the world–see below), and a unique cuisine developed. The greatest concentration of American Chinese food restaurants is probably in San Francisco, the oldest Chinese community in the United States, where restaurants have big signs advertising that most American Chinese dish, Chop Suey. But not far behind are restaurants in big cities all over the U.S., and even in rural areas–Chinese food is omnipresent. Other dishes of American Chinese cuisine include such classics as General Tso’s and Sesame Chicken, and an entire range of American Chinese food is often available in cheap buffet or fast food restaurants in strip malls across America. I read that General Tso’s Chicken, originally a Taiwanese-American invention, has made it back to Taiwan–but I have not seen it on a menu in the Mainland… yet.

There are numerous other American-XXX cuisines. After American Chinese food, American Italian probably comes a close second. Indeed, Italian food served outside of Italy is often not an adaptation of Italian food from Italy, but of American Italian food. Whether served at Pizza Hut or numerous smaller local restaurants, American-style pizza is perhaps the single most popular food in the world. Pizza by the slice being sold in Venice looked and tasted suspiciously like New York pizza, leaving me to wonder whether pizza-by-the-slice is an American invention that has traveled back to Italy, together with the recipe for American pizza. American Japanese food also exists, to a small extent, in the form of newly invented sushi. I’ve read that the California, Philadelphia and Alaska rolls have all, to some extent, traveled across the Pacific to be served in sushi restaurants in Japan. Similarly, a cut of rib grilled for Korean barbeque is known even in Korea as “L.A. Galbi,” after its place of innovation, and I know of a pho restaurant in Saigon that imports “rooster sauce” (Sriracha Sauce), a tomato and chili condiment made by Vietnamese Americans and ubiquitous in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.

America may be home to the the largest number of secondary cuisines, but the country responsible for seeding the largest number of secondary cuisines is, no doubt, China. “Chinese” food is among the most varied in the world (it is probably silly to call it a single cuisine, although of course regional differences are largely lost when exported to other countries), and among the most adopted in the world, not only by Chinese emigrant communities but by non-Chinese locals. We have eaten (some sort of) Chinese food in the U.S. (of course), Europe, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, the Levant, Mali and Madagascar.

Of secondary Chinese cuisines, the two most distinctive, from my perspective, are Korean Chinese food and Indian Chinese food. I am not sure how Korean Chinese food originated, but I believe it was created by Chinese immigrants to Korea (from Shandong Province?) who opened restaurants and modified existing Chinese dishes to suit local palates. Now, it forms a cuisine on its own, its dishes recognizably Chinese but prepared in a distinct style. Every Korean child’s favorite food is Jiajiangmyeon, similar to but different from the Beijing-style noodles, and anybody could tell Korean-style Sweet and Sour apart from its Chinese original. Given the lack of a significant Chinese population in India or Sri Lanka, I am inclined to think that Indian Chinese food is a local creation, a vision of Chinese food by (evidently skilled) South Asian cooks. I am told that some of the dishes, such as Chili Chicken, Chicken Manchurian, etc., are available in Indian restaurants in New York. In Madras we went to the restaurant that supposedly invented Chicken 55, another popular (and delicious) Indian Chinese dish. There are numerous other secondary Chinese cuisines–we were unsurprised to find at a restaurant in Sofia Bulgaria an entire page of Chinese dishes, some more recognizably Chinese in inspiration than others. I should also note that Chinese is often a premium cuisine in many parts of the world, surprising to big city Americans to whom some kind of Chinese food is available at highly competitive prices.

Western food has also been adapted. All over Asia there is some variant of adapted western food, such as pizza with corn as a topping (or thousand island dressing in lieu of tomato sauce, as is available at Pizza Hut Hong Kong), “hamburger steak” made of ground meat and various cream soups. The most well-developed, almost sophisticated version, however, is Japanese western. The Japanese adopted certain western dishes from their interactions with the Portuguese in the 16th century and with the British in the 19th, and some of the dishes have grown quite popular, served not only in Japanese restaurants in Japan but all over the world, including especially Korea. Foremost among the dishes of this cuisine are curry and katsu, both foods I grew up with and love. It was fairly late in my life when I recognized that my love of chicken fried steak and wiener schnitzel (and other similar dishes–every country seems to have its own) came down to their resemblance to Japanese katsu.

When I was recently in Milan, I had to try the local milanesa, the namesake of the breaded meat dish in all parts of the Italian- and Spanish-speaking worlds.

Traveling Rich and Poor, or From Venice to Dakar

Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Street scene, Senegal

Travel is not only about transporting yourself across space, from one set of latitude and longitude coordinates to another. At its most magical, travel simulates movement in other dimensions as well. One of the most intoxicating examples is time. Whether crossing the moat of Angkor Wat, inspecting remnants of a Christian fresco at a Crusader castle in Syria, watching rural life in an ancient Chinese village, walking the alleys of Quebec City’s basse-ville or admiring Shanghai’s Pudong skyline, travel allows us to transport ourselves, if only in our minds, to a different century. Another example is personal freedoms. When an Iranian woman boards a plane to France, or a young lesbian leaves Kansas for the lights of the big city, she sees before herself a world of different possibilities, new horizons unrestrained (see also posts of 6.08 and 11.08).

In this post, I wanted to share some thoughts on another dimension along which people travel: in socioeconomic class and material comfort.

We are by no means rich, but any first world traveler, by going to a poor, developing country, becomes richer, at least relative to his surroundings. I can afford more and better goods and services in, say, Indonesia than I can in the U.S. In Bali, I can easily eat in some of the best restaurants or pay for spa services–every day if I wanted. Even if traveling in more expensive, developed countries, some people, knowing that travel time is a limited resource, may choose to “live it up,” spending what it takes to buy comforts that they might not usually allow themselves at home–eating in top restaurants in Paris or staying at an extravagant resort hotel. All of this, I would term traveling “rich.”

There is also traveling “poor.” No matter how cheap things may be in some countries, that they are less developed will often mean that standards or comforts will not be at the levels a first-world traveler is used to back home. I may be able to hire a car and driver in India, but the vehicle is certain to be much older and in many ways less comfortable than what Avis would give me at LAX. Almost regardless of what one spends, there can be hardship with travel. But budget is also a critical consideration. As a long-term traveler, I am without an income, and have to be careful about expenses. Back in the “real world,” I might enjoy a big evening out, and know that my next paycheck will be able to cover the credit card bill. If I had such special nights frequently while on this extended trip–it’s not like I have to work the next day–I would eat up vast sums of money. Were I on a vacation from my job, I could stay in comfortable hotels, knowing that it’s just a matter of maximizing my enjoyment of limited free time. For 365 nights? I cannot prudently afford it. Every day, I have to pay for a hotel room and two or three meals, in addition to transportation and numerous other expenses. Given the constant choices I have in expenditures, I have to budget wisely, and this sometimes means having less comfort than I would have back home, or even spending less than I can realistically afford, in anticipation of future expenses. Traveling “poor.”

The way we travel, and the way that many others travel these days, involves frequent transitions between traveling rich and traveling poor. We get off business class plane seats (redeemed with miles) to cram into minibuses for the ride into town from the airport. Surprisingly often, we’ll eat a meal that costs more than the hotel room we happen to be staying in that night. We’ll opt for a $15 room instead of a $25 room one night, for sake of cost, to spend hundreds of dollars on an eco-resort the next.

This topic came to my mind because we experienced in the last 48 hours or so a particularly dramatic example of travel in this dimension. Yesterday, we left our Venice inn overlooking the Accademia Bridge to travel by express train to Milan’s Teatro alla Scala for an opera. After the opera? We suffered into the wee hours outside in the cold at Milano Centrale train station waiting for our 4:15 AM bus to Malpensa airport, and after our flight we are now settled into a hotel-cum-brothel in Dakar, Senegal. After such a dramatic shift, from Venice to Dakar, from sitting at a box in La Scala to huddling for heat on top of a subway grate, from a charming Grand Canal-side inn to an African brothel, we could only look at each other and ask what went wrong in the last 48 hours for us to end up where we are. But of course, it was all deliberate, each choice thought out. In the case of Milan, we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see an opera at La Scala, but we also didn’t want to pay for a full night’s lodging (much less at euro-denominated, first world big city rates) for the few hours between our show and our flight. In the case of Dakar, we just found local hotel rooms to be such poor value that we decided to stay in the cheapest acceptable option–which apparently also rents by the hour.

We could be criticized for “slumming.” But it’s not some sort of morbid curiosity that drives us to travel poor sometimes. (As a matter of fact, there are actual “slum tours” that tourists can take–and I must disclose that I’ve been on such a tour, of a Rio de Janeiro favela–but even these I would argue are healthy and valuable, a unique way to see a neighborhood that you could not visit on your own.) Nor do we consider ourselves to be “rough” or “hardcore” travelers on the basis of a few nights at a cheap hotel when we know that we can eventually retreat into a more comfortable one if and when we need it. But just as traveling rich has its obvious advantages–such as comfort–traveling poor often has its advantages. One American tourist (one of few we’ve come across on our trip) suggested to us over a (relatively fancy) hotel breakfast that we “get to meet more people” by traveling poor. But it’s much more than that. If you wake up every day in a comfortable hotel on a hill or in a ritzy suburb, you miss out on a lot of things, including experiencing or sometimes even realizing the hardships of the local people that you see around you. Your air conditioning and sealed windows keep out the swarms of mosquitos and the sweltering heat, or your heater allows you to forget how cold it is outside. You’re more likely to eat bland tourist food with other tourists. You could come to have little idea of how people in the country that you’ve come to see really live, how they get from place to place, what they eat.

But, generally, when we travel rich and when we travel poor, we’re not moving between rich and poor for the sake of doing so, but doing what feels right in the circumstances and what our budget permits. We are just trying to find the best value and make optimal use of our resources while getting as much out of the experience as possible. In some places, that is “rich” travel–one would be a fool to pass up a body scrub in Ubud–in others, lower end.

Travel is not only about the jets that whisk us from the rarefied relics of Venice to the markets of Dakar, within a space of hours. Just as it’s hard to believe that it only takes a few hours to travel from Hong Kong’s frenetic urban lifestyle to the watery floating markets of Vietnam’s Mekong delta, traveling rich and poor in quick succession, experiencing that shift in class and economic development–it brings to the fore the magic of travel. Travel, to us, is a mode of living in which we can seamlessly transition, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, from sitting down in a Venetian restaurant for dinner with wine to eating from a street vendor in Senegal; from sharing a box at the opera at 9 p.m. with a wealthy couple in formal dress to chatting outside the train station at 3 a.m. with African immigrants warning us about drug dealers nearby; from taking vaporettos on the Grand Canal to walking across downtown Dakar, backpacks fully loaded.

La Scala *and* a Dakar brothel? In some sense, it would be surprising that those two experiences were available at all to a particular person over his entire lifetime–but we experience them in a matter of hours, in sequence, almost in the blink of an eye. Seeing the highs and lows of the world, from both high and low vantage points, all of this is afforded to us by travel.

Venice, Entrepot of the East

When traveling in the more exotic parts of the world, such as India or Bali, we sometimes arrogantly wonder how people could want to travel to places like Western Europe–how bourgeois, how boring, we think. We know of course that some of the world’s greatest travel destinations are in the developed first world, but we tell ourselves that we’ll save them for when we’re sixty. We figure that they’re unlikely to change very much between now and then (unlike, say, China), and so we may as visit them later, when we might be less keen on enduring the hardships of traveling as backpackers in the developing world. In traveling to Milan to catch our cheap flight out to Senegal, however, we found ourselves passing through Venice, and couldn’t resist. We’d never been, and, well, it’s Venice. Not only did we expect that it would be beautiful, but our historical curiosity was also piqued, for the city-state’s role as Europe and the western world’s connection to the Levant and the East, from the time of the Crusades to Marco Polo and beyond. We knew Venice was known as something of a tourist trap–a city often with more tourists than residents and in some ways more of a museum than a real living place–but having visited New Orleans just months before Hurricane Katrina, we also reasoned that Venice is not one of those places we can wait to visit when we’re old–it could cease to exist. And so, weather warnings aside (late fall/early winter is supposed to be Venice’s dreariest season), we booked ourselves at the Hotel Galleria and spent three days in Venice.

It did not disappoint.

Part of the pleasure of Venice is the pleasure of traveling anywhere in Italy, such as eating well and drinking coffee and wine (both, even with an expensive euro, much cheaper than at home). But mostly, the pleasure of Venice is for its sheer beauty and the uniqueness of it all, and the feat of human creativity and determination, and apparently power and wealth, that led to the construction of such a city on water. Within minutes of our arrival we understood the cause of the city’s fame, why so many canal cities around the world would want to think of themselves as “the Venice of” whatever, why the Las Vegas Sands Corporation modeled casinos on the city, why, when a character was near death in the Simpsons Movie, he would say, “But I haven’t seen Venice!”

Venice captivates: Macau’s Venetian.

We cannot imagine anybody disliking Venice, although the unseasonably beautiful weather (blue skies, no heat, no canal stench) and relative lack of tourists must have weighed in our favor. So do yourself the great favor and go.

But this post isn’t just “Venice appreciation.” In my first post of this trip, I noted that places are generally by their nature connected. And so it is with Venice. We are traveling through Venice because it currently lies, by rail, between Istanbul and Milan, but one could generalize Venice’s historical role to state that it has always lain between the Muslim east and the Christian west, making it in some ways an essential stop on our Islamic journey.

First and foremost, Venice was a commercial power, using its location on the Adriatic, easternmost in the Latin world, to become the primary entrepot for goods from the east, which during the period of Venice’s height meant the Islamic world. Venetian traders and ships operated all over the eastern Mediterranean, and Venetian (along with other Italian) traders were very active in the Levant. In Aleppo, a city that has come to be known in the west through the obviously Italian form of its name (in Arabic the city’s name is Haleb), we saw a caravanserai that once housed the Venetian consulate. Marco Polo, one of the most famous Venetians of all time, purportedly traveled through Bukhara as far as Beijing.

Secondly, Venice became an important military power, from the time of the Crusades on. Venice led the campaigns of the Fourth Crusade, an invasion by Latin Roman Catholics of Greek Orthodox Constantinople, and looted the city, in the thirteenth century. During Venice’s height Crete and Cyprus were among its Mediterranean possessions, although it would eventually lose both to its greatest adversary, the Ottoman Empire. Venetian advisors could be found as far east as Esfahan, where they were helping the Persian Safavids harass the Ottoman Empire’s eastern border.

Tomb of Henricus Dandolo, the Venetian commander of the Fourth Crusade, in Istanbul’s Ayasofya

Some of the loot from the Fourth Crusade, now found outside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice

Note the similarity of the cross carvings at the base of the columns above to the carvings in the photograph below from Istanbul’s Ayasofya.

Venetian bridge built to facilitate caravan trade, Cyprus

Venetian walls built in a failed attempt to protect Nicosia, Cyprus, from Ottoman conquest

But Venice’s relationship to the Muslim East was not always a hostile one. Back during the Christian Crusades, the Venetians continued trade with the Islamic world, until prohibited by the Pope. Although the Ottomans were in many ways the Venetians’ greatest foes, they were also their greatest trading partner, and at most times the two governments were at peace. There are numerous examples of economic and cultural interchange between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, including many tangible examples to be found in Venice.

The Fondaco dei Turchi, the commercial center of the Ottomans in Venice

Mosaic from St. Mark’s Cathedral depicting the theft of the relics of St. Mark from the city of Alexandria in now Egypt, then part of the Arab Empire. The remains were supposedly smuggled out in a basket filled with pork–the Muslim examiners, disgusted by the pork (see post of 11.12), did not bother to examine the basket too thoroughly, and the relics of the evangelist were successfully brought to Venice. Though acquired by deceit, the relics were held by the Venetians to enhance the city’s religious prestige.

The history of the Campo dei Mori (Field of Moors) is unknown, but sculptures outside a nearby palazzo point to the residents’ extensive dealings with the Islamic world.

Of course, with trade also comes ideas. The decorative motif on the top of the Doge’s Palce (first picture below) is said to have been inspired by the modified merlons on Cairo’s Ibn Tulun Mosque (second picture below).

The windows in many Venetian palazzos and the second floor of the Doge’s Palace (see the first picture in the post) are identical to those found on the Koutoubia minaret of Marrakesh, Morocco (below).

After a treaty signed with Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, the Doge of Venice sent artist Bellini to paint the Sultan’s now-famous portrait. Link to Britain’s National Gallery

PS. Soon after we left, Venice had some of the worst flooding ever. November is supposed to be one of the worst months to travel to Venice, but we were lucky with almost completely blue and clear skies, pleasant cool temperatures and crowds reduced from summertime highs. But I guess the flooding that’s supposed to happen in early winter sometimes does. Link to BBC Article

Persistence of Iconography

It’s amazing how some images persist through the centuries and are reused again and again, sometimes in entirely different contexts and with totally changed meanings. In this post, I thought I would show you some symbols we have run into on this trip, repeatedly and unexpectedly.

Caduceus of Hermes

The caduceus (or wand) of Hermes is a symbol of somewhat uncertain origin of the Greek god, and it is still used as the astronomical symbol for the planet Mercury (and sometimes mistakenly in place of the rod of Asclepius as a symbol for medicine). We saw this image in two odd places on our trip.

The first, the Roman-era catacombs in Alexandria. Alexandria, founded centuries earlier by Alexander the Great, remained a great center of Greek culture for many centuries. This tomb complex is believed to have been built by the resident Greeks; however, it was built largely in Egyptian style, showing that local Greeks had to some extent adopted Egyptian art and forms. Here, the caduceus is shown (on left) with a snake wearing the pharaonic crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The second, Mount Nebo, Jordan. Mount Nebo is an important pilgrimage site for Christians (and presumably Jews, although we did not see any Jewish pilgrims), who believe that it was the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land (and passed away). On this spectacular vantage point are located ruins of Byzantine churches and an active Franciscan complex of worship. Why a caduceus? No clue.

Four Evangelists

It is believed by some that the popular depiction of the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, John and Luke) as four “animals” (bird, bull, bear and human, respectively) is derived from ancient Egyptian funerary tradition, in which bodily organs were placed in four canopic jars of which the lids depicted four Egyptian gods (Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef) in four animal forms (human, baboon, jackal and falcon, respectively). If so, Egyptian Coptic depictions of the four Evangelists in animal form–here they even look like canopic jars–must be some of the earliest.

Chapel, Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea, Egypt

An illustration of the animal forms of the four Evangelists from the medieval Irish Book of Kells

All-seeing Eye

The “all-seeing eye” or “eye of providence,” the cyclopean eye at the apex of a truncated pyramid, is one of the best known of icons and features prominently in some of the most persistent conspiracy theories. Here is the all-seeing eye on the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the U.S. one dollar bill.


Part of the all-seeing eye is of course the pyramid. The pyramid form has been used as tombs from the 26th c. BC on, as other examples from the 4th c. AD and 19th c. AD below show.

Red Pyramid of Dahshur, the first true Egyptian pyramid

Pyramidal Byzantine Christine tomb at al Bara, one of the Dead Cities of Syria

Tomb of sculptor Antonio Canova inside the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy

Why are these images and forms used again and again? In part, I think it’s becuase they’re what artists know how to draw and are used to drawing (or, in the case of the pyramid, a shape of simplicity of stability to which architects may be attracted). But mainly I think it’s because the new tradition (whether the Franciscan priests in Jordan or the Catholic Church in Slovenia looking to ornament their place of worship or the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing brainstorming designs) wants to latch on to the talismanic power that such icons have derived over centuries of use, to base their images on ones that are accepted or believed to be powerful, the grafting of a new idea on an older tree, the same reason that religious sites are so often re-used (see post of 11.10) and ancient stories (from Isis to Mary and the flood of Gilgamesh to the flood of Noah) are incorporated into newer faiths.