Ultimate guide to historical Istanbul

Uggla finalIstanbul is the most exciting historical city of all because of the spectacular historical events that took place there, because of its sublime complexity and because it is such a great place to visit. 

Though conceived and built as an imperial centre, Constantinople – later renamed Istanbul – was always a place on the edge, on the rim of continents, empires, peoples and religions – between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This position of being special, other, betwixt and between, is what made it rich in unique histories.

Istanbul 1a

Fall of the Byzantine empire
The grand, historical watershed in this town came at dawn on 29 May 1453. After a long siege and several unsuccessful attempts to storm Constantinople, the Ottoman Turks had decided on a final all-out attack on the city walls.

In the early hours of the day, wave after wave of troops were unleashed but failed to breach the walls. After heavy fighting with defenders led by the emperor Constantine XI, the last wave of elite Janissaries finally entered the city, the defence collapsed and the emperor was lost in the turmoil that followed, along with his empire.

Constantinople was plundered and then sultan Mehmed II held his triumph riding through the streets all the way up to the bronze doors of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the greatest church of Christendom, where a massacre had just taken place. It was immediately converted into a Mosque.

Hagia Sophia
Your historical visit to Istanbul must start at the incomparable Hagia Sophia, the church of “holy wisdom”. It is a marvellous architectural feat. It was the main byzantine imperial church for a millennium then turned into a Mosque, fitted with minarets and made symbol for another empire for half a millennium more – just like the city itself.

Istanbul 3a

On the rail of its balcony you can look at runic inscriptions from members of the Viking guard of the emperor and its riches in sights and histories is too vast to be described here.

The Turkish republic turned it into a museum in the 1930s, hoping this would help disarm religion as a political force.

Topkapi palace
Next to Hagia Sophia is the walled Ottoman palace compound of Topkapi. It replaced the great palace of the Byzantines which was in a very bad state at the time of the conquest.

Istanbul 6a

Topkapi is a large area of elaborate pavilions and museums with impressive artworks and historical treasures. It was the personal and representative residence of the sultans. The harem complex is a main sight, as is the section with some of the most revered relics of Islam. These are things like the remains of the beard (!) and war standard of prophet Muhammed, as well as the staff of Moses. Topkapi palace is a world class museum.

Blue Mosque
The so-called blue Mosque, just opposite the Hagia Sophia, is yet another architectural wonder of the city, famed for its beautiful, interior blue iznik ceramic tiles. Its actual name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and it’s an early 17th century edifice. The blue Mosque has a genuine, most elegant splendour about it and parts of it were built directly upon remains of the byzantine great palace.

Istanbul 4a

Next to the blue Mosque you can make out the outstretched, oval shape of the old byzantine Hippodrome in the street plan. Most of it is a public square today. This was an immense racing track and games arena just like the Circus Maximus in Rome.

Take a walk around the outside of its south-western end and see its gigantic, still standing supportive walls in the slope.

The most interesting thing about the Hippodrome now are the Serpent column and the two obelisks, today standing in the middle of the square. These monuments were erected on the raised middle part of the racing track. The Serpent column comes from Delphi in Greece where it had served as an offering to Apollo commemorating a Greek victory over the Persians in BC 479 and it was described by several classical authors.

Istanbul 5a

Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is a vast, covered market with over 4 000 shops and it’s one of the topmost visited tourist attractions in the world. It lies in easy walking distance from the monuments described above.

The Bazaar dates back to the decades following the Ottoman conquest and it may have been the grandest marketplace in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is well worth a stroll.

City walls
The monumental city walls of Constantinople protected it for 900 years without being breached and was an outstanding accomplishment, model for many medieval cities. The walls are still easily discernible, some sections well preserved and reconstructed.

The walls lie some distance from the centre of the old town and are perfect for a half-day excursion. Take the tram to Marmaray station near the old Golden gate at the south-west end of the walls. This gate was part of a fortress here, today a dungeons museum. From here you can walk the entire about 6 km distance of the majestic Byzantine 5th century land walls and that’s an historical trek to remember.

Istanbul has a number of interesting museums apart from Topkapi and Hagia Sophia which currently count as such.

The subtle and ingenious Museum of Innocence, embodies the remarkable imagination of Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, a long-time resident of the city. Pamuk wrote a novel set in Istanbul and while writing collected all kinds of everyday objects from the late 20th century city. These were incorporated in the story and later in the museum. The museum is small, almost impossible to find and simply fantastic.

The Istanbul military museum is actually a national historical museum which tells the story of Turkey, though from a very militarized point of view.

Jewish districts
Jewish history in this as it would seem most Islamic city is another curious story. There are several old Jewish districts, most notably Balat, where you can still see many synagogues. There was a Jewish community in the city from Byzantine times. This was much enlarged at the event of the persecution of Jews in Spain in around AD 1500, when the sultans invited Jews to settle in the Ottoman empire. Get the full story at the Jewish Museum of Turkey near the Galata tower

There is much more to find in Istanbul – the old Orient express railway station Sirkeci, the fairy-tale Dolmabahçe palace, the other great Mosques, the Galata tower, the archaeological museum – there’s no end and you can spend any amount of time here.

Istanbul 7a

The Silk Road with Marco Polo

Uggla finalHave you thought about travelling the Silk Road, the legendary network of overland routes from the Mediterranean to eastern China?

You should, and there is no better guide than Marco Polo, the venetian who was the first westerner to do this journey describing what he saw. When Marco travelled from Venice to Beijing 700 years ago it was like going to the dark side of the moon.

Spellbound by Marco Polos book and its mysteries I followed in his steps some years ago. Who were the strange Assassins sect he writes about, or those worshipping an eternal fire in present Iran? What roads did Marco actually take and could they be travelled again? How could he even do this trip in medieval times without modern equipment? The Mongols, occupying most of Asia, were seen as the legions from hell by Christian Europe, so how did Marco dare to engage with them?

Physical Map of Asia

The Silk Road

The so-called Silk Road is a network of roads rather than a single route, leading from eastern China over land to the Mediterranian sea in the west. By Marco Polos time they had been travelled by traders and caravans for more than a thousand years already, but very few people travelled all the way. Trade was mostly done back and forth over parts of the network of routes and between great cities such as the silk centres of China and Kashgar, Bokhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Herat, Merv, Tabriz, Bhagdad and Istanbul. The historical importance of these routes is immense. Empires thrived controlling them and fell to armies following them.

Going all the way today you might want to start in Istanbul and end up in Beijing, like I did, going through Turkey, Iran and then either Afghanistan and Pakistan or through the central Asian former Soviet republics and finally across China. It’s a 4 000 miles / 7000 km journey as the crow flies, much longer on the ground.

Venedig x

A tricky route

The “oveland trip” from Europe to India was popular during the 1960s and 70s and more or less for anyone though mostly attracting young people, many of which were “hippies” in search of alternative lifeways and seduced by Asian religions or philosophies. The hippie trail eastwards came to an abrupt end though, precisely in 1979 and due to political upheavels. The soviets invaded Afghanistan this year and a religious movement dethroned the Shah of Iran, creating an Islamic republic.

Since then there have been wars in Afghanistan and from time to time impossible to pass through Iran. Travelling the Silk Road today is tricky for the long and arduous road itself. You are, after all, journeying a considerable part of the globe and having to handle the bureacracy of the many countries you will have to pass is a trick in itself.

Yazd x

In a way, Marco Polo had it easier. The Mongols may have been feared by the Christian leaders of Europe, but for smooth traders like Marco and his elder venetian relatives they were no difficulty. The same Mongol empire ruling most of the Silk Road area rather made things easier once the Polos had befriended the great khan. The Polo family even acted as ambassadors for the khan of the Mongols to the Pope, and vice versa, representing the Pope at the court of the khan.

Following Marco Polo

The curious thing about Marco Polo and his book are its many riddles which have kept historians and adventurers going for a long time. Marco recorded his route and his impressions of countries and cities, but he also recorded the many stories and legends told to him along the way. I had the opportunity to investigate some of them, which I will return to.

I followed Marco Polos Silk Road route through Turkey, visiting the lost city of Ayas, spent three weeks tracing his roads in Iran which turned out a very hospitable country to me and where I managed to see Shiraz, Persepolis and the holy city of Meshed. In Afghanistan I stayed with a mujahedin guerilla fraction in Herat before flying to Pakistan and going by the ruff Karakorum highway across the Himalayas to Kashgar in the Taklamakan desert area of western China. I visited the famous Dunhuang caves by the desert and rode steam trains through northern China to Beijing.

Herat x

Kashgar x

Swedish modernity in Stockholm

Uggla finalThe interesting thing about Sweden is that it stands out globally when it comes to progressive values. This has an historical background and Stockholm is the place to explore it.

20th century modernity is history now and well worth exploring for the historical traveller. While Stockholm is rich in museums and old historical sites, Sweden is even more famous for its modern, Nordic model welfare society and for gender equality. Historical sites in my home town Stockholm related to Swedish modernity are interesting and below are my personal favourites.

Sthlm 1

Progressive values
Looking at the famous map of the world values survey, Sweden is found by itself in the far upper right corner. This means it embraces secular-rational values while placing less weight on religion, traditional family values and authority and with low levels of national pride and nationalism. It also means that self-expression values are important, giving priority to environmental protection, being positive to foreigners, to sexual freedom and gender equality as well as to participation in political life.

These values are consequences of 20th century political, social and cultural modernity. Sweden, since the 1930s, has enjoyed its own version of the Nordic model, combining free-market capitalism with an extensive welfare state delivering social security, public healthcare, public education and, as a result, leaving much room for the personal and social development of its citizens.

Visiting Stocholm, you will encounter plenty of dads (and moms) on paid parental leave pushing prams. You will notice that this is one of the best LGBT cities in the world. You will use unisex public toilets and you will see that Sweden is a happy place, ranking in top 10 in the world happiness report. Look here for more country facts.

Sthlm 2

Sergels torg and Kulturhuset
The epicentre of modern Stockholm is a public square of 1967, Sergels torg, with iconic black and white triangular paving being a symbol of the city. Kulturhuset (The house of culture, 1974) along its southern side is one of Northern Europe’s largest cultural institutions and inspired Centre Pompidou in Paris. Kulturhuset has several libraries and vast spaces for theatre, art exhibitions, dance, film and music.

Sergels torg originated in a major redevelopment of central Stockholm decided in 1945 and realized during the following decades. Large parts of the old and worn down city centre was demolished to make place for new, modern architecture and to facilitate the Stockholm subway. This was all part of the modern dream of building a better future. The Kulturhuset architect Peter Celsing said he was building “for a new human being that has to come”. The house is like a showcase with its magnificent glass facade, promoting light and openness.

Sergels torg is where Swedes go for political demonstrations and for celebrating national sports victories (when not visiting Kulturhuset). There is an excellent café on the lower level where you can have strong Swedish coffee and observe the Swedes.

Sthlm 5

The Living History Forum
Stroll south from Sergels torg and get to The Living History Forum (Forum för levande historia) in Gamla stan. Public Swedish cultural institutions are for the most part committed to working progressively with social and cultural diversity, human rights and against discrimination and The Living History Forum especially so.

It is a Swedish public authority commissioned to work for everyone’s equal value with issues related to tolerance, democracy and human rights, using the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity as starting point. Working in cooperation with scholars, with people involved in education, with NGOs and other stakeholders, it develops methods and tools for reaching its key target group: young people.

The Living History Forum has been working with national projects on the Holocaust, on racism and intolerance, on norms in general and the heteronorm in particular, and several more. In their Stockholm venues are exhibitions introducing current projects.

Stockholm Public city library
The famous Public city library (1928) is an architectural jewel and my personal favourite spot in the city. Pop in for another coffee and a look at the great book rotunda. Public libraries in the modern sense are generally a late 19th century/early 20th century phenomena and related to the very modern idea of equal opportunities for all to educate themselves.

Sthlm 3

Årsta community centre
Årsta, about two km south of Stockholm city centre, was the first large-scale modern suburban district in Stockholm planned as a whole in response to pressing housing needs. The idea was to build a new and entirely modern city district and it was a public initiative. Built in 1942–1951 Årsta also got the first community centre (1953) developed outside central Stockholm.

Årsta centrum included a public library, a theatre, a “people’s house”, a café, numerous small shops, a postal office and several healthcare facilities. You can have good coffee in the beautiful theatre/library-building, overlooking the central square. If you want to see the community centre idea fully developed you should also have a look at the even more famous Vällingby centrum (1954) as well, once a world-known model for a satellite city.

Skogskyrkogården (Woodland cemetery, 1940) by architects Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz is a beautiful place for reflection and the second 20th century site in the world to become a UNESCO World Heritage site (1994). The motivation was that it was created as a new form of cemetery, which fundamentally influenced the design of burial sites around the world.

Skogskyrkogården is a big woodland park and the general idea was to achieve an area in which nature and architecture was to form a harmonic whole, making the woods itself the main focus of attention. It was created as a distinctly modern response to the lack of cemeteries in the city.

Skogskyrkogården is for all – the largest part is protestant Christian, but there are two Moslem parts, two Orthodox Christian parts, a large part owned by the Jewish community in Stockholm and smaller parts for Catholics, Baha’i, and Mandaeans.

Sthlm 5

Berlin museums top 10

Uggla finalBerlin is a fantastic historical city with wonderful museums and you can easily spend weeks seeing them all. Here is my personal top 10.

1. Neues Museum
The great thing about Neues museum is that it tells so much history just in itself. It was built as a proud Prussian monument in 1855, had a glorious time in the era of imperial Germany but was then miserably destroyed in WWII and a cold war ruin. When reconstructed in 2009, the architect made sure to preserve all of its historical phases which can now be marvelled at by the visitor. It’s an historical museum with great treasures on display not to be missed such as the Nefertiti bust and the Bronze Age golden “wizard hats”.

2. Jewish Museum
This is the largest Jewish museum in Europe, full of interesting exhibitions. What’s special about this museum is the extraordinarily well performed coherence between architectural form and story content. As a visitor you follow the history of the Jews in Germany chronologically and the house itself gets gradually more sad, desperate and twisted when presenting early 20th century times, ending in the void of the chilling Holocaust tower.

3. Pergamon Museum
The Pergamon museum is fantastic and completely crazy. Archaeologists of imperial Germany, just as their counterparts in Britain and France, decided it was a good idea to bring home not just small artefacts but entire monuments from the classical Mediterranean world. But the Germans did it most thoroughly. Just wait until you see the Pergamon Altar, the incomparable Ishtar Gate and the Victory stele of Esarhaddon.Berlin 34. German Historical Museum
The museum opened in 1987 and stands for a fully updated and thoroughly researched history of Germany. It is big, full of very informative exhibitions, well worth a visit but somewhat boring. It does great and important projects and temporary exhibitions on contemporary subjects.

5. Topography of Terror
This is a place not to be missed when in Berlin since it tells the awful but important story of the terror during the Nazi regime in Germany and Berlin specifically. Located at the site of former main SS, SD, Einsatzgruppen and Gestapo headquarters, it has well-presented but also challenging exhibits due to the difficult subject, both indoors and outdoors.

Berlin 2

6. Natural history Museum
The Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin is not just any natural history museum. What’s special here is that they have some of the most famed dinosaur fossils of all including the Berlin Archaeopteryx, possible the most famous fossil in the world. It’s a big museum, the exhibitions are good and especially the impressive Dinosaur Hall with mounted skeletons of some of the largest beasts that ever lived.

7. Schwules Museum
This is a museum exhibiting LGBT life in Berlin. What’s great about it is that it does this very well and always seems to have new and exciting projects and temporary exhibitions rolling.

8. Deutsches Currywurst Museum
The Currywurst is a signature snack of Berlin. There’s actually no curry in the sausage itself, it is in a special sauce and sprinkled on, but it’s not a bad snack at all. The dish has a charming story including an old lady trying to get by in post-war Berlin and I think the museum is rather good too.

9. Altes Museum
Opened as a Prussian royal arts museum in 1830, the Altes Museum has instead housed the most important Berlin collections of classical antiquities since the early 20th century and still does. The Altes Museum has some startling exhibits of sculptures and, artefacts from antiquity which you should not miss when here.

10. DDR Museum
This place tells the story of life in East Germany in the Cold war era. It is full of trinkets and reconstructions and is well worth seeing though maybe leaning a bit too much towards nostalgia rather than the hard sides of the topic.

Berlin 5 text

Venice – an historical guide

Uggla finalVenice is beautiful, terrible and a great historical city. You will find fantastic historical sites to see and the main sight is the city itself, but choose carefully when and how to go.

Adriatic pearl and predator – historical outline
Refugees fleeing from invading Germanic peoples in the 5th century made a new home for themselves on islands in the marshy lagoons of Venetia.

V 1

Venice became a lonely east-roman outpost in the west while the rest of Italy fell to invaders. Not much else to do in the swamp, the venetians became master boat-builders and traders in the Mediterranean. Before long they created a republic of their own.

They built a network of Mediterranean colonies and almost monopolized trade here, making the city prosperous in the 11th to 16th centuries by predatory pre-capitalism. The republic declined but lasted until 1797 and then soon became part of modern Italy.

The wealthy Venetian trade aristocracy built sublime palaces and was great patrons and collectors of art, making the city more or less one great art museum.

Around the Canal Grande
The main sight to see is the city itself. Its beauty is captivating; its historical layers are discernible in architecture and the best way to appreciate it to stroll around, taking the occasional taxi boat. If you do not come by ship, you will meet it first stepping out of the railway station. This puts you right on the Canal Grande about a kilometer’s walk from the centre at Piazza San Marco.

V 2

Some palaces along Canal Grande are 12th or 13th century and in Venetian-Byzantine style with loggias, round arches and polychrome marbles. Many details such as columns and sculptures are of byzantine origin. The more common, though striking Venetian Gothic architecture of the following two centuries, with pointed arches, is seen splendidly in the Doge’s Palace or the Ca’ d’Oro. There are fine renaissance and baroque palaces as well and combined with the soft Adriatic light and the ever present water, the impression is mesmerizing.

Tourism and crowding is unimaginable. Be strongly advised to go in May or October. It’s expensive to stay in the city itself and if you’re not big on spending, I suggest staying in Mestre on the land side. It’s just a short train-ride away.

Piazza San Marco
St Mark’s Square is the major public square of Venice and here you find expensive but great cafés, the cathedral Basilica di San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and, not least, the Campanile, which is great to climb for spectacular views of the city.

V 3

V 6

Doge’s Palace
The palace of the Doges is a main symbol of the city, has the residence chambers of the Doges and the impressive Chamber of the Great Council, all decorated with great artworks. It’s a 14th and 15th century building though much changed, rebuilt and reconstructed. The palace is connected to a prison by the famous Ponte dei Sospiri, or bridge of sighs.

V 5

Basilica di San Marco
The gold mosaics of the interior roofs of the Basilica will take your breath away. They were started in the 11th century but completed much later and has a complicated, religious narrative program.

Venetian merchants stole the alleged relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria in the 9th century. This act of theft gave the basilica its name and Venice its patron saint along with the winged lion symbol of the saint and the city.

The four bronze horses on the facade (now copies) and the famous statue of the Four Tetrarchs in an outer corner were all stolen from Constantinople at the sack of the city by the fourth Crusade in 1204 in which Venice played a significant part.

V 4

There is a plethora of museums in Venice and what you should see is up to your preferences. I suggest visiting at least one or two of the palaces and why not the popular Ca’ Rezzonico or Museo di Palazzo Grimani. Museo di San Marco inside the Basilica lets you see the bronze horses in original as well as more of the cathedral itself.

The Museo Storico Navale is somewhat elderly but full of stuff and tells the story of Venice as a great maritime republic.

The Arsenal was the city’s main naval centre from the 12th century onwards with dockyards, armories and the like. It’s a large harbor basin surrounded by naval installations of all sorts and produced both military and merchant vessels.

This may have been the greatest industrial complex in Europe before the industrial revolution, Galileo Galilei worked there for a time and it is mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.

By its main gate, the Porta Magna, stands a famous great stone lion that was taken from Piraeus harbor in Greece and most interestingly has a rune inscription on it that must have been made by Scandinavians in byzantine times.

V8 2

House of Marco Polo
Finally, why not have a look at the site of the house of Marco Polo at Corte del Milion? The house where he lived after having returned to the city in 1295 is not preserved. Some details, such as arches, may have been reused from his house though that is not certain. The surroundings is a good place for a stroll and for reflections on travel and on Venice anyway.


Historical Seville

Uggla finalIn the beautiful, seductive and monument-strewn town of Seville in southern Spain, the capital of Andalusia, you can discover Roman remains, get awe-struck by the Alcazár, thrilled by Columbiana and baffled by historical world-fairs.

Guadalquivir and the “Port of the Indies”
Start your tour of Seville at the old harbor area around the magnificent 13th century watch- and prison tower Torre del Oro. Guadalquivir river is one of the largest in Spain and the reason the city exists. There was a town on an island around here from at least the 8th century BC and this harbor is the most significant historical thing about Seville.

Seville 1

The river banks and bridges in this area are pretty and perfect for strolling around. The tower was made by the Muslim rulers in these parts as a key feature of their harbor defenses. A bit later, when in 1503 it was decided that all Spanish trade with her new-world colonies must go through Seville, incredible riches came right here to this precise spot. This was the “Port of the Indies”, sparking a golden age of the city but came to an end when the river silted up and Cádiz took over in 1717. While Seville has remained a great town, its golden age came and went with this river harbor, now just a scenic spot.

Roman Hispalis
The present city centre grew out of Roman Hispalis which was one of their main cities of present Spain and great Roman remains can be seen in Seville. Most impressive are the ruins of Hispalis neighbor town of Italica, today about ten kilometers to the north-west of central Seville. There is a well-preserved amphitheatre and you can walk cobbled Roman streets and see mosaic floors in a large, excavated area.

sevilla 2

In central Seville there is an old-style archaeological museum which holds the finds from Italica and, more interesting, an underground museum, the “Antiquarium” at Plaza de la Encarnación, with well preserved remains of a series of upper-class Roman houses.

Alcazár and al-Andalus
The truly amazing Alcazár is a splendid palace with lush gardens and the most spectacular historical sight of Seville. The palace was built in heavily Moorish-influenced style from the 13th century onwards (after the fall of the Moors) on the ruins of the old palace of the Muslim rulers, of which some parts remain. It features prominently as the water gardens of Dorne in Game of Thrones. And, by the way, it is UNESCO world heritage as well.

seville 3

Seville was not the capital, but a major centre of al-Andalus, the dominion of the emirs and caliphs ruling Islamic Iberia in the medieval period. The most famous landmark of Seville, the cathedral bell tower La Giralda, is actually the minaret of the great Mosque of the city that was demolished on the site to serve as foundation for the present cathedral.

seville 4

Columbus and the General archive of the Indies
Christopher Columbus, a son of Genoa that struck a deal with the rulers of the kingdom of Castille in Spain, had his calculations of the distance to east Asia all wrong and would have sailed into oblivion had not the Americas come in between. Following his discoveries, Spain created its new world empire and during the 16th and 17th centuries all trade with the Americas passed through a powerful agency in Seville, the Casa de Contratación, overseeing trade, taxation, voyages of discovery and map-making. Its principal mapmakers were called nothing less than “cosmographers”.

The super interesting archives of this institution are now in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville together with other archives including handwritten personal material from, for example, Columbus himself and people such as Ferdinand Magellan, Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro. The archive has exhibitions and is open for visits.

Columbus corpse had a remarkable journey including being interred in a Spanish monastery, in the Dominican republic and in Havanna before ending up in a spectacular monument inside Seville cathedral.

Plaza de España and the world fairs
In a park by the river in the southern part of Seville lies the bombastic venues of the grand 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. In particular its central square, the Plaza de España, is well worth a visit and you will recognize it as a set in Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones. The exhibition itself was spectacular, with a replica of Columbus’s ship Santa Maria floating on the Guadalquivir and lamas walking the grounds of the Peruvian pavilion. Many of the national pavilions remain in the park as consulates or cultural institutes.

seville 5

The Exposición Universal Sevilla 92 was another great fair held in Seville (in venues to the north-west of the city centre). Its theme was “the age of discovery”, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the “discovery” of the Americas by Columbus. The exhibition was amazingly grand, with stunning pavilions of which some can still be visited.

Deserted desert citadel – the ruins of Bam

Uggla finalThe spectacular ancient fortress-town of Bam, just south of Kerman in Iran, is a majestic sight. An impressive citadel, large living quarters and a range of buildings such as a bazaar, a caravanserai and several Mosques were encircled by a gigantic defence wall with a moat. The site is UNESCO world heritage and was miserably destroyed by a terrible 2003 earthquake.

Previously unaware of it, I was driven to Bam in a car by two men I randomly met in Yazd and who wanted to show me hospitality and the local sights. The only tourist in the whole amazing complex, it totally blew my mind. Spending a day walking its deserted medieval streets and climbing around in the citadel is a top memory from Iran.

Bam 1

Bam 2

Bam 3

The history of the oasis town of Bam, surrounded by date palm groves and then miles and miles of desert, goes back more than 2 000 years. The essential parts of the fortified city were in place already during Parthian times, though most of the structures visible now have been constantly developed until the 16th and 17th centuries. Medieval Bam may have housed about 10 000 people. The oasis city lay on a branch of the Silk Road and prospered from trade and textile manufacture.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was gradually abandoned, finally serving just as a military barracks but totally deserted by the 1930s. In the late 20th century restorations began and it was developed into a tourist site and a common image on Iran travel agency posters. When a major earthquake struck the region in 2003, killing tens of thousands of residents of modern Bam next by, the ancient city and citadel were also laid to waste.

Post-earthquake images show terrible devastation, but Bam is rising from the desert sands once again and in 2018 the highest platforms of the citadel were opened for visitors just as before.

Bam 4

Bam 5

Medieval ghost town – the story of Ani

Uggla finalAni, the grand medieval capital of an Armenian royal dynasty, had almost impregnable double city walls, a magnificent citadel, a cathedral, several Mosques and “a thousand and one Churches”, all built from stunning, reddish lava stone. It was sacked by the Mongols in 1236, never to recover. Located on the cold-war border between Turkey and the Soviet union it has remained a ghost town and an eerie but remarkable contested historical site.

You approach Ani on a narrow dirt road from Kars in Turkey over vast, flat grasslands when suddenly the black silhouette of its ruined city walls break the horizon. Arriving and entering through the Lion gate, you are about to discover a vast medieval ghost town about a square kilometre large where you can walk street after street with buildings collapsed on their foundations and see its wonderful remaining key features such as the 11th century cathedral by famous master architect Trdat.

Ani A

Ani B

I was there just some years after the end of the Cold War. You could still see the rusty Soviet watchtowers on the other side of the border river right by the city and the guides told stories of tourists having been shot by tower guards for taking photos in the wrong direction.

Ani was built as the capital of the Bagratid royal dynasty and of medieval Armenia of the 11th and 12th centuries. This was a larger realm than the present state which included large parts of present eastern Turkey. It quickly grew to a prosperous city with between 50 and 100 thousand inhabitants, hundreds of churches, strong defence works and a row of architectural masterpieces such as the cathedral.

Ani C

In the late 11th century the city was conquered by the Seljuk Turks, its population slaughtered, and then followed a period of turmoil before it was thoroughly sacked by the Mongols in 1236 and victim to a devastating earthquake some decades later. It lingered on, a shadow of its former glory, before being completely abandoned in the 18th century.

Rediscovered and investigated by travellers and archaeologists in the 1800s, Ani changed hands between Ottoman and Russian empires, later being fought over by the Ottomans and the new Republic of Armenia. After being Armenian for a brief period, it now belongs to Turkey since 1921.

A truly magnificent but much neglected site right on a heavily militarized border zone for decades and a continued source of quarrels between Turkey and Armenia, the latter considering it their national heritage, Ani became UNESCO world heritage in 2016, restoration works are underway and it’s an amazing historical place to visit on a day-trip from the gloomy town of Kars.

Ani D

Herat – battered pearl of Khorasan

Uggla finalThe ancient Silk Road town of Herat, “the pearl of Khorasan”, was historically known for its beauty and amazing historical landmarks from the Timurid Renaissance. In later years this war torn third largest city of Afghanistan has been trying to recover from decades of conflict.

Khorasan is Persian and literarily means “sunrise”. That is because the sun rises in the east and Khorasan was the major eastern region of the Persian empires of classical times. Herat, a major centre of art and learning famed for its prosperity and beauty in the Middle Ages, was rightly named a pearl of Khorasan by one of its most famous sons, the legendary poet Rumi whose grave is still preserved in the city.

H 1

What I remember best from visiting Herat 25 years ago, spending a few days with the Mujahedin fraction controlling the city and having some time seeing its sights, is the clear, high air, the strange pine tree-lined avenues of its centre and the marks of war in the faces and behaviour of people. They had just defeated the Soviet invaders but at a terrible cost.

Herat lies on a key historical gateway between Central Asia and the Persian mainland to the west. The army of Alexander the great passed here and later it became a major node on the Silk Road. Most Persian and central Asian empires of old conquered it, a few of them razing it to the ground. It was battered and torn down several times but always rose again. Its golden age was the Middle Ages before being sacked by the Mongols and then a later period as imperial capital of the Timurids who were great patrons of art and science.

Herat is a very likable city. Despite having endured military conflict, looting, and earthquakes, it has a lot to offer the historical traveller.

Just as the city, the citadel of Herat has been built up and torn down many times. Said to have been first established by Alexander, it has been the quarter of countless armies over more than 2 000 years. After decades of neglect it was thoroughly restored in 2006-2011 and is an impressive sight today though perhaps a bit over-restored.

H 2

Friday Mosque
I couldn’t get into the citadel in 1993 since it was in military use, but was left thoroughly in awe by the Friday Mosque of Herat: a famous accomplishment of Timurid architects, a great place for reflection and a feast of stunning glazed tile-decorated iwans and arcades. If you get there don’t miss the craftsmen’s workshop where they make wonderful tiles for the never-ending restoration.

H 3

H 4

Tomb of Jami
The poet and scholar Jami (Nur ad-Dīn Abd ar-Rahmān Jāmī) was born in present Afghanistan in 1414 and moved to Herat with his parents when very young. He lived and learned here, becoming a celebrated star of the Timurid Renaissance. Jami studied at the local university and held a position at the Timurid imperial court. Jami travelled around but returned to Herat where he died, probably in 1492, and received a stately funeral being buried in the northern part of the present city. The tomb is modest with a finely carved headstone and lies under a tree inside an enclosure.

Musalla complex and tomb of Goharshad
The sad remains of the musalla complex of Herat is by now a small number of minarets and two domed mausoleums. The whole complex once included a grand mosque, a medressa (religious school), more than 20 minarets and more. The musalla complex of Herat was a masterpiece of the Timurid Renaissance comparable to the most awesome Islamic architecture and the Taj Mahal is probably a faint echo of the splendour once seen here.

H 5

The musalla complex was commissioned by Goharshad Begum. She ruled the Timurid empire from Herat in the 15th century first together with Shah Rukh, the son of Tamerlane, and after his death by herself. Goharshad is entombed in the largest domed mausoleum still preserved at the site.

The musalla complex should have been world heritage by now and one of the most important historical, architectural and religious sites of all. But the complex was severely damaged by earthquakes and the grand ruins then miserably destroyed by the British army with dynamite in 1885. They blew it up to create a clear line of fire for cannons directed at the assault route of a Russian army that never came. Prints from the late 19th century before the dynamite show the remains of amazing buildings now lost forever.

Herat, the magnificent pearl of Khorasan, will no doubt return again to economic and cultural prosperity when the sun rises again over Afghanistan.

Wonders of historical Córdoba

Uggla finalCórdoba was the glorious capital of the emirs and caliphs ruling Islamic Iberia in the Medieval period. Possibly the largest city in Europe at the time, its historic wonders are breath-taking.

A great medieval city, Córdoba in present Spain is now small and easy to get around in. It’s a flat, touristy place to see in a few hours on foot in winding medieval streets and its historical centre is world heritage for a reason.

Cordoba 1

The main thing to see and do in Córdoba is the Mosque-Cathedral with its rightly world-famous arcaded hypostyle hall with a “forest” of 856 columns of onyx, jasper, marble, granite and porphyry. The sight is gripping and this hall is a well-preserved interior of the 9th to 10th century main mosque of Islamic Iberia.


The great mosque was ordered in 784 by the founder of the ruling dynasty, Abd al-Rahman I, “the Falcon of Andalusia”, who employed the best available architects and craftsmen, creating a masterpiece of Moorish architecture. Expansions and additions continued until the 13th century conquest of Córdoba (and Islamic Spain) by Christian rulers who converted it to a church. Most Islamic features were saved, however, though Christian ones were also added.

A stunning feature of the mosque besides the forest of columns is the mihrab, the niche indicating the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca (and hence the direction to be faced when praying). The mihrab here is exceptionally well decorated with exclusive stonework and gold mosaics. These mosaics look a bit Byzantine and that is no coincidence since they were actually made in the 10th century by craftsmen sent by the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus II as a gift (along with the gold tesserae used to make the mosaic).


It is interesting that so much of Islamic cultural and historical heritage actually lies within Europe rather than being something external and other to what Europe is and was, as many politicians and debaters of the present would have it. Central Córdoba is UNESCO world heritage and so is the marvellous Alhambra palace close by and also the historical centre of Seville where the Giralda tower, a famous present symbol of the city, was actually the minaret of the grand mosque. The same thing goes for the historical centre of Istanbul, where the holiest relics of Islam are kept in the Topkapi palace museum. The remains of Islamic Sicily are another obvious case.

In later years there have been demands from Muslims to be allowed to pray in the mosque-cathedral in Córdoba with negative responses from catholic authorities. This has led to incidents of people braking this ban with serious consequences, making the site a contested heritage.

The beautiful, fortified “Roman” bridge of Córdoba is a sight as well, though maybe less Roman in its present form due to many reconstructions.


There is an interesting fortress, a medieval Jewish quarter, an archaeological museum and well-preserved city walls to discover in Córdoba as well, though the extraordinary mosque outshines them all by far.

port 2