Our trip may be focused on the world of Islam, but our route took us through a great deal of the former Greek and Roman worlds, from the birthplace of Aphrodite on Cyprus and the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria to the Roman ruins of Baalbek and the Byzantine Dead Cities of Syria. Traipsing through such ruins, one sees a great deal of columns and inscriptions–carved in heavy stone, masonry stands the test of time. But another form of ornamentation is apparently delicate and durable in equal parts, and comprises a core bulk of ancient artwork that survives today: the mosaic.

Mosaics are the main representational artwork that survives from ancient times; when paintings have disintegrated or faded, they provide insight into the styles, tastes and beliefs of the day. In this post, I thought I would show you photographs of some of the most impressive or otherwise noteworthy mosaics from our trip, from all over the (expanded) Greek and Roman worlds.

From Palmyra, now in the National Museum in Damascus

Some masterpieces from the Syrian Hauran:

The cities of Suweida and Shahba possess some of the most remarkable mosaics of the Roman world. The second picture below in particular struck me for its sophisticated sense of light.

From Bosra. Bosra and Palmyra may have been part of the Roman Empire, but, in speaking Aramaic and Greek, and using camels, life in the Syrian desert certainly wasn’t the same as life in Rome.

The “Map Mosaic” of Madaba, Jordan, is famous for its depiction of the eastern Mediterranean. The second image is a close-up of the Jerusalem portion of the map, showing not only the major gates and streets but also churches, many of which have survived to this day.

Other works from Madaba. The second image shows “editing” that was done during the iconoclastic period, when depiction of living animals was held improper (as in Islam)–the equivalent of the modern black box over nipples or *bleep* over swear words.

Some masterpieces from Paphos, Cyprus:

These two mosaics from the House of Aion featured some of the smallest tesserae we’ve seen–they are high resolution mosaics.

The house in which this mosaic was found is called the Villa of Theseus; this grand work shows the Minoan labyrinth of Theseus, complete with Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur in the center.

This mosaic in the House of Dionysus is a true standout for its sense of the third dimension and perspective.

Mosaics were not always original creations, but were often ordered from a catalog of designs. This Rape of Ganymede mosaic was apparently larger than the space for which it was intended, leading to the eagle’s clipped wings. In another instance in Paphos, a tableau was bungled by the mistaken placement of a wrong character (of the same name as the right one), presumably picked, like clip art, from a stock selection of representations.

From the Sassanid city of Bishapur, Iran, on display at the National Museum in Tehran. The Persian Sassanids were, for a period, Rome’s greatest enemy, once capturing the Roman Emperor. Some say that this mosaic in the Sassanid capital of Bishapur was made by Roman captives.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. The Umayyad Mosque was built during the Islamic era, but it is said that its construction was very much in the Christian Byzantine tradition, perhaps utilizing Byzantine artisans (and was in fact built on the site of, and perhaps utilizing some remains from, a Christian church). Almost all of the mosque’s surfaces were covered in mosaics, although few of the original works survive today. (See also post of 4.10.)

I can speculate on several reasons mosaics survived so well over time. First, most mosaics were designed to be walked on, and so must have been able to take a fair amount of wear and tear. Second, mosaics were already made up of small pieces, and so there is nothing really to break apart. Since they were already on the ground, they had nowhere to fall, and the collapse of walls and other debris thereon served as protective layers. Finally, another reason that mosaics survived was that they are made of stone–the colors are not pigments that are quick to fade with exposure. Given the beauty and durability of this art form, it seems a shame that we don’t make more mosaics today. Madaba today has a mosaic school, and great quantities of mosaics are produced for the souvenir trade. What do you think are the most memorable mosaics of the modern era? The ones that come to my mind include the mosaics of the New York subways, the Tiffany mosaics inside the Marquette Building in Chicago and the mosaic of 1980 Hong Kong inside Wan Chai’s Hopewell Centre.

Modern mosaic in Penjikent, Tajikistan

Greeks and Turks

Traveling from Palestine to Cyprus, two infamously divided/occupied lands, it occurred to me how so many hostile pairs are, to outsiders, so similar. This post is entitled Greeks and Turks, and it is on them that I wish to focus, but first let’s start with some other pairs. Jewish Israelis and Muslim Arabs: Conservative factions of both groups have relatively severe rules on gender (such as men and women worshipping apart), neither eat pork, both have dietary certification regimes (kosher and halal) and their languages are not horribly far apart. Indeed, Jews and Arabs belong to the same Semitic ethnic group. Is there any doubt that many Jews look like Arabs and many Arabs look like Jews, however offensive it may be to point this out to either such subgroup? Chinese, Koreans and Japanese–however much hostility there may be against the Japanese for 20th century history, let’s face it, no-one can tell east Asians apart 100% of the time. They all use chopsticks to eat rice and salty side dishes, drink tea and have a tendency to fall in line and respect hierarchy. As much as Iranians may hate Israel and Zionists, for whom do they reserve a perhaps deeper well of hate and mistrust? Sunni Saudis. Never mind that many outsiders don’t even know that Persians are not Arabs, or the distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam. And what minority in Iran suffers from the greatest discrimination? Probably the Afghanis, who speak the same language and share much of the same culture as Persians.

But back to Greeks and Turks. Despite all of the conflict between North and South Cyprus, a Greek Cypriot confirmed to us that it is impossible to physically identify a Cypriot as Greek or Turk. He explained that the two communities intermarried for hundreds of years, often dividing up the children of a mixed marriage so that the boys became Christian and the girls Muslim, or vice versa. In fact, prior to the conflicts of the last forty years, it seems that Cypriots didn’t even think of themselves as Greek or Turk, but only as Christian or Muslim–simply a difference of faith rather than ethnic identity. Cypriot cuisine itself is a hybrid of Greek and Turkish food, and does not vary between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities–both eat fish meze and grill halloumi/hellim. During British control, we were told, Greek and Turkish Cypriots attended together English-language schools, only separating for classes in their respective mother tongue.



Setting the Cypriots aside, are Greeks from Greece and Turks from Turkey all that different? Both cultures dine on the small appetizers called meze, drink an anise liqueur called ouzo or raki (not too different from pastis or sambuca, for that matter), drink a thick sludgy coffee called Turkish coffee or Greek coffee (or, it in Cyprus, Cyprus coffee) and snack on a shawarma-like food called döner or gyros. They may be easier to distinguish in appearance than Jews and Arabs or Chinese and Japanese, but there are certainly some physical traits (e.g., hairiness) that they notoriously share in common.

Turkish Coffee

Greek Coffee

No doubt these similarities come from centuries of cohabitation. Ever since the Turks arrived from Central Asia into the eastern Mediterranean, they have been living together with Greeks (and Armenians–see post of 5.17), who had established cities in the region more than a thousand years before. Although the hostility in the early twentieth century (or the late twentieth century, in the case of Cyprus) resulted in Greeks and Turks moving apart into their own sovereign states, essentially to the exclusion of Greek and Turkish minorities within the other state, cultural similarities developed over centuries of living together cannot help but persist.

The same goes for the Jews and the Arabs, and east Asians. I suppose, in the end, that it could be all those years of living together, and all the similarities, that generate the hostility. Cohabitation, especially over hundreds of years, creates the opportunity for regretful incidents, periods of hostility for which grudges are held. Neighbors, with whom there were centuries of trade, cultural exchange and even intermarriage, become mortal enemies. That these opposing cultures are so similar means that, to foster a sense of uniqueness in national identity, there is a constant need to define against, to emphasize differences lest identity become muddled, and so every Chinese child is told that to be proud to be Chinese means in part to hate Japanese, and every Greek child is told that, despite appearances to the contrary, Greek identity is a world apart from, and superior to, Turkish identity. Another example of this is Uzbekistan, which denies the Tajik heritage of some of its citizens and greatest cities, to enforce a stronger sense of Uzbek identity (see post of 7.08). At times we need to forget the past, focus on similarities with our neighbors and not our differences and spend more time thinking about how to work together to promote mutual well-being rather than using scapegoats to promote a shorter-sighted ethnocentric nationalist agenda. The European Union seems to be showing us that this is possible–hopefully the rest of the world can follow its lead.

Divided Cyprus, Divided Nicosia

Looking north from South Nicosia, Cyprus

There have been, in recent history, many divided places. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Jerusalem (although not the Old City) was divided until Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, and likely will be again divided upon the establishment of an Arab Palestinian state. North and South Korea remain almost as apart as ever. But it is Nicosia (Lefkosia, Lefkoşa), Cyprus, that has the undistinguished title of “last divided capital.”

Cyprus is something of a unique historical beast. Originally settled as one of many Greek settlements around the Mediterranean, Cyprus was eventually ruled by the Ptolemies (successors of Alexander the Great based in Alexandria, Egypt) and then the Byzantine Empire. During the latter’s decline, Cyprus was controlled for extended periods of time by Crusaders and Venetians, all essentially Western Europeans and not of the eastern Mediterranean Greek tradition. It was the Venetians who surrounded the city of Nicosia with its formidable walls–in exemplary trace italienne but still barely slowing the Ottoman conquest of the city in the 16th century. With the decline of Ottoman power in the late 19th century, Cyprus became a British colony.

The most recent troubles in Cyprus arose after the departure of the British in 1964. Under the terms of the establishment of the independent Republic of Cyprus, the majority Greek Cypriots were to share power with the minority Cypriots of Turkish origin (some 20% of the population, who arrived in Cyprus over the hundreds of years of Ottoman rule). These arrangements were supposed to be “guaranteed” by the three interested states of the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey. In 1974, after a Greece-sponsored coup threatened to discontinue the agreed-upon power sharing arrangements and cause Cyprus to be unified with Greece, Turkey invaded the island with the stated goal of protecting the interests of the Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus and month of fighting led to a UN-monitored truce along a boundary known as the Green Line, which cuts painfully right through the middle of the old city of Nicosia, the capital. The country remains to this day divided, the northern 30% or so controlled by the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which is recognized as a country only by its sponsor Turkey (and uses Turkish currency), and the rest controlled by the (Greek-ethnic) Republic of Cyprus, now a member of the European Union. The Greek and Turkish Cypriots, who lived intermingled for hundreds of years, moved during the conflict either north or south to live in what are now essentially mono-ethnic states (or moved abroad altogether).

(The Cyprus story is not dissimilar from that of Sri Lanka, where the Singhalese majority tried to overplay its majority control to the detriment of the Tamil minority’s rights, leading to ethnic violence and an unstable situation that is severely detrimental to everyone. The Tamil also formed something of an independent state, in the north of the country, and, as noted by a reader to the blog (see comments to post of 3.23), has received assistance from its co-ethnic, co-religious “big brother” country, India.)

To say that the border between North and South Cyprus runs through Nicosia is something of an understatement, as the so-called Green Line runs right through the heart of the old walled city, with its most important historical monuments only a block or two off of the UN Buffer Zone, itself only one or two city blocks wide, that separates the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot/Turkish forces. The narrow streets of the old city end in blockades and fortifications on either side, sandbags and gun emplacements squeezed into the city’s medieval layout.

Channeling Berlin, in a cafe on the Green Line

It is, quite simply, a shocking sight. It is peculiar to see something that is so whole by its nature–a circular walled city with all of its Venetian bastions in place, like petals on a flower–divided in two with each narrow alley blockaded. It is depressing to see people who lived harmoniously for centuries stare each other down from bunkers laden with barbed wire and sandbags, to see a medieval city littered with so many signs of active discord. It is odd to know that you’re in the European Union, that model of reconciliation and unity, but still in a place with such a real and unresolved conflict. Adding another level of absurdity is that recent progress between North and South Cyprus has resulted in nearly free mobility between the two halves (for all but the recent Turkish immigrants into North Cyprus) and that earlier this year a border was opened right in the middle of the old city itself, effectively seamlessly connecting the urban cores of its two halves, while the rest of the Buffer Zone, one street away on either side, remains forbidden and armed.

You simply walk back and forth, with brief passports checks at both ends. The North conducts a more formal immigration process, complete with stamps, while the South just glances at passports, each trying to confirm or deny, respectively, the existence of a separate Northern entity.

Cyprus was, for us, a depressing finale to the most politically troubling portion of our trip. Israelis and Palestinians in Palestine (see post of 10.21); the Christian sects of Jerusalem, including especially the territorial disputes at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (see posts of 10.19 and 10.20); Greeks and Turks: Can’t we find a way to get along with each other?

E-Z Tours

If you’ve travelled anywhere, you’ve seem ’em–advertisements for quick and dirty, and often cheap, tours, purportedly taking in everything that you need to see in a matter of hours. There’s no end to the selection on offer in Southeast Asia, to help relatively impoverished and inexperienced backpackers plan their itineraries, or to help package beach tourists take in a manageable bite of inland culture. A few bucks to see the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, daytrips to see the “Real Bali,” three-day packages from Hanoi for the mountains of northwest Vietnam.

These tours are not always bad (though of course they often are), and undeniably they are time- and cost-efficient. But, having an entire year to travel, it’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for those who have to opt for the worst of these tours. Our cheap Cairo hotel, or rather pushy travel agent with rooms as some reviewers have described it, offered insane four-day Egypt itineraries, taking in everything from the Pyramids to Abu Simbel in Nubia. Our hotel in Hama, Syria, seemed to offer one-day itineraries taking in a seemingly unlimited number of nearby sites, the time at each shrinking, I guess, with your sightseeing appetite.

But we saw the craziest one yet in Cyprus–Egypt as a daytrip by air, taking in somehow the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, a Nile cruise (including a dance show) and the markets of Islamic Cairo.

The Pyramids are indeed great–but if any country merits a trip on its own, wouldn’t Egypt be a strong contender? Even with intense preparation in advance–and I can’t imagine that the Cyprus crowd spontaneously flying to Cairo has such preparation–can one possibly absorb a meaningful amount of Egyptian history and culture (Egypt, of all places), in less than 24 hours? Most tourists to Cyprus are Europeans (largely Brits), and Egypt is hardly further away from home than Cyprus. Can’t they just enjoy Cyprus for now and go to Egypt some other time? Do these people get only one trip abroad in their entire lives, that they would have to go on such a tour?

Multicultural Israel

It feels a bit strange to say this, especially of a country that was founded on the basis of a common ethno-religious identity, but it could definitely be argued that Israel is the most multicultural country in the world. Given that Zionism as an idea is only a bit over 100 years old, and the state of Israel a bit over 50 years old, essentially everyone in Israel, other than the 20% or so minority that is Arab, is an immigrant or descended from relatively recent immigrants. Even if mostly Caucasian in race, and Jewish in religious culture, the citizens of the state of Israel come from all over–Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, the Maghrib, the United States and even India and Africa–taking advantage of the Law of Return, which allows automatic Israeli citizenship to anyone of Jewish descent. Israel is, in many senses, giving the idea of nation-building a whole new meaning–newly acquired territory, a new language (modern Hebrew having been developed from an ancient liturgical language not in vernacular use), a new national identity.

It would be fascinating to visit different ethnic communities in Israel, and to learn how they were integrated and to what extent they are assimilated, into Israeli society. Israel must benefit from such a wide range of programs, both public and private, to acculturate newly arrived immigrants into Israeli society. From our brief visit, some pictures showing the pluralism of Israel:

The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Bukharan Jews include not only those Jews from the city of Bukhara itself, in now Uzbekistan (see post of 6.11), but Jews from other parts of the Near East, such as Iraq and Iran.

Russian delicatessen, Allenby Street, Tel Aviv. The greatest current immigration into Israel is from Russia, and evidence of this Russian population is easy to find in Tel Aviv, with Cyrillic advertising everything from restaurants to bookstores. We were told by some sources, admittedly Palestinian-leaning in political orientation, that many of these newest immigrants are not Jewish at all, and that Israel was overlooking the faulty Jewish credentials on the part of some immigrants (who are presumably economically motivated), figuring that it was good enough for them to be willing to say they are Jews and to raise their children as Jews in order to expand the future Jewish population of Israel as a bulwark against the growing Arab populations of Israel and Palestine.

Francophone Yeshiva, Jerusalem. Many Israeli Jews claim American and Western European origin. We were repeatedly told that Americans in particular are among the most vehement Zionists and the most aggressive “settlers” (see post of 10.21).

Ethiopian Restaurant, Jerusalem. We had heard about the Ethiopian Falasha Jews and their mass emigration to Israel when we were in Ethiopia in 2005, but were surprised to see so many people of Ethiopian descent in Israel. If anyone can offer me an explanation, please do!

Unfortunately, we did not have time to track down the Cochin Jews (see post of 3.2). Next time!