A day at Persepolis

…and the heritage of humanity in Iran

I arrive in Shiraz by bus in the early morning hours of a fine summer day more than two decades ago. Like so many times before while backpacking in Iran in the footsteps of Marco Polo, I have been approached by a friendly man on the bus, asking me if I would like to stay with him and his family while in Shiraz. Mr A was married and had two kids, a boy and a girl. They lived in a small flat in the suburbs. Like many people I met in Iran they were disapproving to the present regime, and I was their guest for three days.

Already on the afternoon of my first day in Shiraz they took me out to the amazing UNESCO world heritage site of Persepolis, just outside town, with its stunning set of colossal ruins in grey marble. On the image taken by Mr A we are standing just before the Hall of Hundred Columns, often called The Throne Hall and completed by the king of kings Xerxes the Great in the 5th century BC after his famous losses in battle with the Greeks. An enormous bull’s head from the hall is now in the Oriental Institute in Chicago.

Ruins of the Apadana, the great hall of Xerxes, king of kings

We wander the palace area for hours, drinking apple juice and seeing the fantastic Apadana, a great hall for audiences also completed by Xerxes. It was burnt by the army of Alexander the Great in about BC 330 after his victory over the Persian empire. Apadana was excavated by an American project led by the archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld in the 1930s and most of his notebooks, diaries, photographs, and also some archaeological objects, are now in US institutions such as the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the MET in New York.

We also see the Tachara palace, started by king Darius I, and pass by the Achaemenid royal tombs at Naghsh-e Rostam. Later I am served a superb dinner at their home and we discuss what we have experienced together, as people do.

After the infamous American presidential tweet a couple of days ago, threatening to attack heritage sites in Iran, international organizations such as ICOM and ICOMOS have strongly spoken out about the nefarious idea of destroying cultural heritage. The point is, of course, that heritage sites such as Persepolis do not belong to present political regimes or devious nationalists, they are the common heritage of humanity and belong to all of us, not the least to people opposing present governments.

Tachara palace at Persepolis

Castle of the Assassins

Uggla finalMarco Polo tells a mysterious story of “the old man of the mountain”, master of an army of assassins in mountain strongholds which he trained to fanatic obedience and which gave him great power in the Near East. Going up in the Elburz mountains of Iran, I aim to explore this story.

The old man of the mountain, whose proper name was Alo-eddin, had his main castle in a mountain region called Mulehet, according to Marco Polo. In this beautiful mountain valley, he had constructed a secret landscape of marvellous gardens with all the pleasures anyone could ask for close at hand. Alo-eddin gathered promising young men at his court. He sometimes drugged them and took them to the secret gardens, letting them stay there for a while, then drugging them again and taking them out. In this way he installed in them a belief that he had the power to take them to paradise and back which made them fanatically loyal and ready to carry out the most daring assassins for him.

Starting from the city of Qazvin, the mini-bus takes me higher and higher up into the mountains. We are headed for Alamut valley, the “Mulehet” of Marco Polo and the site of Alamut castle, legendary stronghold of the Assassins sect.

This is the third in a series of blog posts relating an attempt to follow in Marco Polos footsteps through Iran, exploring his stories. Read the first one here and the second here.

The Rock of Alamut, with the ruined castle of the old man of the mountain on its top

The mini-bus negotiates serpentine mountain roads in a fascinating system of peaks and valleys with occasional green grazing-spots and the odd clay brick village. Not before long the asphalt road becomes a two-meter-wide gravel track on the edge of the cliffs.

Early in the afternoon the bus enters a particularly wide, green valley with an odd, gigantic rock towering in its midst. This is the valley of the Assassins and the rock is the site of Alamut castle.

On the bus I was generously invited to stay in the family home of a man living in the village below the rock. After having tea in his house, Mr Yar guides me on a narrow path up the castle rock and we soon stand before a landscape of ruins at its top.

Alamut 2
Ruins of Alamut castle

Alamut castle was truly the main stronghold of a sort of sect that have become known to history by the name of the Assassins. Their actual name was different, “Assassins” seemingly having risen out of misunderstanding. They were really the so-called Nizari-Ismaili, a special sort of Ismaili that in turn are a kind of Shi’i Muslims.

The Nizari-Ismaili were led by a succession of rulers from Alamut castle, the most famous one the first “old man of the mountain”, a certain Hassan-i Sabbah (the Alo-eddin of Marco Polo). The sect commanded a series of mountain strongholds in the Near East for a period during the middle ages and certainly committed political murders to further their cause. The scale of these murdering operations seems to have been much exaggerated though

Alamut castle is described in medieval written sources as a great stronghold and an important seat of learning, with fantastic libraries, astronomical observatories and the like. The Nizari-Ismaili state was crushed at the Mongol invasion of Iran in the early 13th century, however, and Alamut thoroughly ruined by the troops of Hulagu khan in 1256, just fifteen years before Marco Polo past by Qazvin. The Nizari-Ismaili community managed to survive and exists to this day, their leader’s part of a line of rulers going back to Hassan-i Sabbah and Alamut.

Strolling around at the ruin landscape at the top of Alamut rock, there are traces of walls, towers and buildings and it’s easy to imagine a great medieval castle here. I see no remains of paradise gardens though and if Hassan-i Sabbah ever had any for the training of assassins is unknown and forever lost in the mists of the past.

The road to Zanjan

Uggla finalThe stunning turquoise dome of Soltaniyeh, just outside Zanjan in northern Iran, rises alone over a vast ruin landscape like a sole survivor. This was once the seat of power of the Mongolian Il-khans of Iran in the days of Marco Polo and the magnificent dome will take your breath away, just as it was designed to do 700 years ago.

I got here by bus from the city of Tabriz where I arrived after having crossed the Iranian border with Turkey. Worried at first, expecting Iran to be a tricky country to travel, people I have met so far have been incredibly friendly and helpful. Getting of the bus in Soltaniyeh I will have a few hours to see the famous dome, a key monument in Islamic architecture and, according to UNESCO, a monument of outstanding universal value as stated when it was added on the World Heritage List.

This is the second in a series of blog posts relating an attempt to follow in Marco Polos footsteps through Iran, exploring his stories. Read the first one here.

Zanjan 2
In the Church of St Mary, Tabriz, Iran

Marco Polo made a big thing of the large number of Christians being present in the vicinity of Tabriz, otherwise an Islamic region by his days in the 13th century. Seeking the truth behind this story I spent my days in Tabriz looking for Christians and Churches.

Finding little evidence of any Christian presence, a strike of luck finally placed me in the office of Nshan Topouzian, high representative of the Armenian, apostolic church and its religious leader here. Confirming there were thousands of Christians in Tabriz and several Churches, he also let me borrow his official car and driver, sending us out Church-spotting in the evening. I eventually got to see two Churches, of which “St Mariam” (Mary) was said to be from the 11th century and could, if that is true, have been visited by Marco Polo.

Zanjan 4
Intricate tiling inside the mausoleum

Early next morning I get to the bus station and board a bus for Zanjan and Soltaniyeh. Getting around by bus seems surprisingly easy in Iran.

When Marco Polo was here in the winter of 1271–1272, Tabriz was the Mongolian capital of their Iranian dominion, the Il-khanate. Though he was travelling on official Mongolian business, carrying the most prestigious letters of passage from the great khan in China, Marco says nothing of any contacts with the Il-khanate leadership in Tabriz. He has a lot to say of Iran in his days though, which I will get back to.

The dome of Soltaniyeh is actually the mausoleum of Il-khan Oljeitu and was built in 1302–12 when he had made Soltaniyeh capital of the Ilkhanid dynasty after Tabriz. It’s a fantastic, octangular structure with the breath-taking, 50 m high blue dome on top. The inside is decorated with magnificent glazed tile-work and designs in inlaid materials. Oljeitu had intended Soltaniyeh to be the greatest among cities but after his death in 1316 it rapidly declined, turning into an elaborate ruin with his splendid mausoleum the sole reminder of its brief period of glory.

From Soltaniyeh I intend going on to Qazvin, the natural starting point for a trip up in the Elburz mountains to explore Marco Polos most capturing story in Iran – the legend of the Old man of the mountain and the mysterious Assassins sect.


The Prague Golem revisited

A formidable monster of clay protects the Jewish community of Prague since the 16th century. It sleeps in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, the oldest active Synagogue in Europe, ready to be summoned again.

The Golem of Prague was a feat of sorcery. Life was given to a large clay man who became a powerful slave to its master, the famous Rabbi Loew (Judah Loew ben Bezalel), who then controlled this monster without a will of its own. There are various versions of the legend, of course, and in most of them the monster is very effective but eventually turn on its master, wrecking havoc.

Just as alchemy, the Golem story is a major theme for the Prague visitor, which can hardly be avoided. I ended up gazing curiously at the attic of the Old New Synagogue, eating Golem cakes and bringing a nice little clay figure home with me.

old new
The Old New Synagogue of Prague, from the 1270s. A Golem sleeps in the attic, some say.

The Golem narrative is a great story, and just as alchemy it fits very well with the gothic blocks of Prague old town. Why shouldn’t there be a mystical clay monster roaming these cobbled streets? Why shouldn’t the masterful Rabbi Loew have made one? Its moral is great too – those who create powerful monsters must beware of them turning on their masters.

The general idea of Golems is much older than the story in Prague and emerged from biblical and Kabbalist Jewish texts. The coming alive of clay monsters seems to have been a legend occurring in several places in medieval Eastern Europe. As laid out in History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe vol 4 (edited by Marcel Cornis-Pope & John Neubauer, 2004), the Golem, in fact, didn’t come to Prague until the early 19th century. It was brought alive not by Rabbi Loew but by the Bohemian Jewish community, trying to establish a new literary tradition.

The Golem story got very popular. It was probably the basis for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and for numerous similar sci-fi plots such as in Bladerunner or the Terminator series.

A fantastic story, the current Golem presence for tourism purposes in Prague is also a sad reminder of an absence. The absence of once vibrant Jewish life here. Some managed to escape, but estimations say that about two thirds of the Jews in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were murdered in the Holocaust and no Golem rose to protect them.

Edge of the Taklamakan

Uggla finalMy journey on the Karakoram highway, described in previous posts, ends in Kashgar and on the edge of the great Taklamakan desert. Crossing this vast expanse of dead, sandy nothingness was a nightmare for earlier travellers along the Silk Roads. The origins of the name is unclear, it may mean “To abandon”, or “Place of no return”, while some say it may derive from Turkish “taqlar makan” or “Place of ruins”, which made a lot of sense to early 20th century explorers and archaeologists here.

The Taklamakan is the world’s second largest sand desert, 1 000 km long and 400 km wide. Historically, two Silk Road routes ran along its edges to the north and to the south. They both started at the Jade gate in the Great wall of China at present Dunhuang to the east, which was for most of history also the western rim of Chinese empires. Along these routes were series of petty city states and then the two Silk Road branches met again in Kashgar to the west.


Xuanzang, the famous Chinese traveller, went on the northern Silk Road route in AD 629, describing the oasis kingdoms of Turpan, Karasahr and Kucha. He visited Kashgar on his way back and wrote about the whole thing in a remarkable travel book. His book is the basis for the much later Ming dynasty novel Journey to the west, published in 1592 and a classic of Chinese literature.

Marco Polo went on the southern route in the 1270s, passing the oasis kingdoms of Yarkant, Khotan and Lop. Among other things he noted the production of jade in Khotan, where the most precious white jade was collected and caravanned east to China proper.

The histories and legends of the Taklamakan are endlessly rich. One of the most significant periods here were the hey days of desert exploration and archaeology which all started with Swedish explorer Sven Hedin.

This was the time of the Great Game of empires competing for control of Central Asia but the Taklamakan area was unexplored, its history little known, which soon attracted men like Hedin, who was the first to explore the desert ruins archaeologically. Arriving in Kashgar in 1894 he set out on an expedition trying to cross a part of the desert, which ended in disaster. After resting he set out again in 1896 and investigated two ruined cities to the north of Khotan with spectacular results, finding ancient buildings, wall-paintings and manuscripts. Most importantly, he wrote a bestselling book about it, Through Asia (1898), speaking about “a Pompeii of the desert”.

This alerted explorers, archaeologists and collecting European museums and the race was on to explore the ruins of the Taklamakan. Orientalist and archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein was soon around, excavating cities sponsored by the British Museum. Albert Grünwedel and Albert von le Coq of the great ethnological museum in Berlin made large excavations of Turpan to the north of the desert, stunning emperor Wilhelm II. Sven Hedin was also back a few times, most famously investigating a place called Loulan and all this went on until the 1930s, filling up museum collections in the West.

Reading their reports today, their motives and methods seem steadily more questionable in the light of new understandings of the age of colonialism and debates on repatriation.

The finds from the Taklamakan ruins of Khotan, Turpan and Loulan are still to be seen in museums in London, Berlin and Stockholm, exciting new generations, while names such as Stein, Hedin and von le Coq perish like echoes in the desert wind.


Great Game heritage

On my second day in Kashgar I discover, to my surprise, that behind the brutal concrete hotel in which I stay, the old British consulate is fully preserved though stripped of its famous garden.

The British interpreter, later diplomat George Macartney arrived in Kashgar on expedition in 1890 and soon became the first British consul here. He was to stay until 1918 as a major player in The Great Game – the struggle between empires for ultimate control of the roof of the world in Central Asia.

Macartney married Catherine Borland in 1898 and together they managed the British general consulate in Kashgar – the Qini bagh – which was a grand house with beautiful gardens famous for their views over the mountain ranges in the south.

The Qini bagh

Diplomats, spies, explorers and archaeologists investigating the ruins of the Taklamakan desert all stayed at Qini bagh and most famously archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein, who often recuperated here after desert expeditions.

Russia, the main British counterpart in The Great Game, already had a consulate in Kashgar when Macartney arrived.

Though Kashgar was formally a Chinese city in the 1890s, the most powerful man there was the Russian consul Nikolai Petrovsky who kept a military garrison on the consulate.

When the Swedish explorer (and rival of Aurel Stein) Sven Hedin arrived in Kashgar in 1894 he was greeted by Petrovsky with free vodka and Hedin stayed several times here, receiving all kinds of support from Petrovsky in his desert explorations.

Previous Russian consulate in Kashgar

I find that the cheapest rooms of the Seman hotel in Kashgar are actually inside what was previously the Russian consulate, so for my second night I reside there.

It’s not well kept but strolling around the house I manage to enter the dining hall, where Petrovsky held banquets for diplomats, explorers and Chinese dignitaries a hundred years ago.

The old consulate houses remain in Kashgar as memorials to the clash of empires on the roof of the world and to the strange age of imperial explorers stripping the amazing ruins of Silk Road cities in the Taklamakan of antiquities to bring home to European museums, which is another story.

Dining hall of the previous Russian consulate





The market at the end of the world

Uggla finalI have never seen a market like the unbelievable Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh, Morocco. It’s like a wild, beating historical heart of the city and perhaps the soul of Morocco.

Imagine a vast and buzzling square filled to the brim with people looking at sneaky snake charmers, wonderful musicians, skilled magicians, daring acrobats and youths showing of chained apes. Then there are food stalls, true story tellers that came down from the mountains, street vendors selling junk, henna tattoo artist and pickpockets roaming the place in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with the secret police.

Jemaa el Fna

On one side is a Mosque with a grand minaret without equal, on another side a great, labyrinthic bazaar where you could get just about anything.

Jemaa el-Fna is a crazy spectacle and an incredible drama that starts all-over again every day. In the morning is the calm before the storm when juice vendors and water sellers walk around. Later comes the snake charmers with their unmistakable pipes, the souvenir vendors, fortune tellers, acrobats and dance troupes. When the food stalls open at dusk there is an immense boost of smoke rising from the square and at sunset the wild show is on with musicians, cross-dressing belly dancers and professional story-tellers with crowds of listeners.

Jemaa el-Fna has probably been there since Marrakesh was founded in the 11th century. It’s the heart of the Medina, the old town, and a UNESCO world heritage.

What the name means is uncertain. It could mean “the gathering/congregation area” or, according to some, “The Mosque at the End of the World”. It’s public life at its most condensed and the world starts and ends at this market every day. It’s world heritage as a “masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” and it will take your breath away for sure.

Jemaa el Fna 2

Ultimate guide to historical Rome

Uggla finalRome is ruins, tourists and sleazy romance. It has amazing views, pizza slices and you really must go. This ultimate guide tells you why.

Rome had a million inhabitants already in antiquity. This is where Caesar was killed, Cicero held his speeches and Augustus built his monuments.

Here is my personal top ten for Rome, focusing classical antiquity.

1. Circus Maximus
Your historical visit to Rome starts with an early morning stroll at the amazing Circus Maximus, easily reached by excellent roman subway.


Looming over the ancient racing stadium, site of a thousand years of lavish games with gladiators and exotic beasts, of religious processions and chariot races, and possibly where the devastating AD 64 fire of Rome began, are the ruins of the Imperial palaces on Palatine hill. You should know that it’s from the name of this hill that the word “palace” actually derives.

Circus maximus is the best place to start since it gives you an instant idea of the scale and complexity of the historical remains of this very special city. It differs from most other Roman sites in that you are free to enter, exit and stroll around as you like.

2. Imperial palaces on Palatine hill
From Circus Maximus it’s a short walk to the Palatine. To get there pass east of the hill up to the arch of Constantine, the largest triumphal arch in Rome spanning what used to be the via triumphalis – a way for triumphs entering the city.

At the arch you turn to enter the via sacra, main street of ancient Rome leading through its centre. Previously for triumphs and religious festivals, it is now the main tourist track. If you possess a Roma pass, easily obtained at tourist spots and worth it’s cost, you skip the line at the checkpoint here, enter the centre of ancient Rome and soon turn left, walking up the northern slope of Palatine hill.

There is much to see on the Palatine, including the houses of Augustus and (possibly) his empress Livia, temples, a circus and – most important – the ruins of a series of imperial palaces which you can now walk through. I am most impressed with the view into the reception chamber of the Flavian emperors and their water gardens.

The Palatine offers a breath-taking view to the north, of the Forum Romanum and the Colosseum and that is the reason to go here first.



3. Forum Romanum
The centre of ancient Rome and its empire for a thousand years, an area of magnificent buildings and monuments and the site of numerous events of great historical impact such as the murder of Julius Caesar and the speeches of Cicero, the forum deserves a guide of its own. You could easily spend days here, going through its many sites.

You don’t miss the senate house and the triumphal arch of Titus, for the rest there is no right or wrong.

forum 1

4. Colosseum
The Colosseum is a wonder of the world, an awesome architectural feat and an ancient slaughterhouse for men and beasts alike. Gladiatorial fights to the death, regular executions and all sorts of crazy shows took place here. You will no doubt find it colossal, irritating for its discomfortable, crowded walking-paths and a feast for the historical eye.

5. Trajan’s Column
You have already seen this column if you ever visited the V&A in London since they keep a plaster copy on display. The original was completed in AD 113 and stands in the remains of Trajan’s forum just to the north of Forum Romanum. It is a victory column over the emperor’s victory over the Dacians. The interesting thing is that it’s covered in remarkably detailed images telling the story of the wars. These images have a wealth of information on contemporary dresses, equipment and the like, making it a treasure for historians and archaeologists.

6. Capitoline Museums
As traditional as you will ever find a row of museums, the Capitoline ones gets away with attracting visitors anyway through the renowned ancient masterpieces they keep on display. See the sculpture galleries and avoid the rest. Works such as The she-wolf of Rome, The dying Gaul, the pieces of the colossal statue of Constantine and the truly queer statue of cupid and psyche are just some of the world-famous things here.

7. Pantheon
After nearly 1900 years, the incredible dome of the Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. Looking up at the oculus, the round hole in the dome letting in daylight, it is hard not to be struck by awe. It’s a beautiful temple whose architecture have served as model for other buildings worldwide.


8. Castel Sant’Angelo
The central tower of the Castel is actually the immense tomb of emperor Hadrian having later been reconstructed as a castle. While all previously mentioned sites are in the area around Forum Romanum, the Castel lies a refreshing walk to the north, on the other side of river Tiber. There’s a good café at the top with great views. On your way out of the tower you will walk the exact steps of the funerary procession which put the emperor to rest here in AD 139.

castel 1

9. The Appian Way
A main road out of Rome to the south, the famous Appian Way was also a great necropolis, strewn with funeral monuments on both sides. To get here you transport yourself south-east from the Forum Romanum area to the Appia Antica regional park. Here you may walk the ancient highway and see some of the remarkable funerary monuments. Walk north, into the city and pass the great San Sebastiano gate in the second century walls of the city.

10. Vatican Museums
Disturbing from a museum professional point of view due to its poorly organized people flow leading to ques and crowding, this is still the 5th most visited museum in the world due to their incomparable stash of amazing world-class art. You might want to pop in to the Sistine chapel, but the collection of rightly famous sculptures from antiquity is what you really must see. Marvel here at the Laocoon group, the Augustus of Prima Porta and many more.

These ten historical spots are my classical antiquity favourites in Rome. You will find others, disagree on my choices and please do, knock yourself out, but just get there.

Explorer Freya Stark and the Valley of the Assassins

Uggla finalFreya Stark, “the nomad queen”, was curious, resolved and a great explorer of the last century. She always travelled alone.

In the 1930s Freya journeyed the Near East. She defied the contemporary idea of how a woman of the British empire was supposed to behave, using practical clothing, travelling on her own without male chaperons and staying precisely where she damn well pleased. She was fearless, not hesitating to travel regions with peoples hating the British.

Freya Stark first arrived in the Levant in 1927 to study Arabian grammar with little more than a fur coat, a revolver and a copy of Dante’s Inferno. She later criss-crossed the Near East on courageous trips that she wrote popular books as well as scientific papers about. In one of her most daring journeys she mapped the ruined castles of the strange medieval Assassins sect in the Elburz mountains of northern Iran.

Freya 0

I had the opportunity to follow in her tracks some years ago, to the site of the main castle of the so-called Assassins – the legendary Alamut. Having obtained a visa and crossed the Iranian border northwest of Tabriz, I had an easy ride with buses to Qazvin. On the way I managed to stop to see the fantastic Dome of Soltaniyeh, southeast of Zanjan. The dome is part of the mausoleum for the 14th century ruler Il-khan Öljeitü, UNESCO world heritage and the third largest brick dome in the world.

Road to Alamut

From the south, Qazvin is the main departure point for a journey in the Elburz. Going off in a mini-bus early in the day you quickly cross the foothills until serpentine mountain roads start and you enter a fascinating system of peaks and valleys with the occasional green grazing-spot and small villages of clay brick. Not before long the asphalt road becomes a two-meter-wide gravel track on the edge of cliffs.

The bus heads for the village of Ghazor khan right below Alamut castle. Immediately at boarding it I was generously offered a bed for the night in the village by Mr Yar. This sort of hospitality regarding meals, transport or a place to stay for the night was a very common thing everywhere while I was travelling Iran.

Early in the afternoon the bus enters a particularly wide, green valley with an odd, gigantic rock towering in its midst. This is the valley of the Assassins and the rock is the site of Alamut itself.

alamut 1

After having tea in his house, Mr Yar guides me on a narrow path up the castle rock and we soon stand before a landscape of ruins at its top.

The old man of the mountain

Legend has it that the Assassins were a sect of murderers, ruled by “the old man of the mountain”, the master of Alamut. Truth is there was really a sort of religious sect, commanding a series of mountain strongholds in the Near East for a period during the middle ages. Their actual name was not “Assassins” though, this name seemingly having arisen out of misunderstanding. They were really the so-called Nizari-ismaili, a special sort of ismaili that in turn are a kind of Shi’i Muslims.

The Nizari-ismaili were in fact led by a succession of rulers from Alamut castle, the most famous one the first “old man of the mountain”, a certain Hassan-i Sabbah. The sect certainly committed some political murders to further their cause, though the scale of these murdering operations seems to have been very much exaggerated.

The Nizari-ismaili state was crushed at the Mongol invasion of Iran in the early 13th century when Alamut was ruined. The Nizari-ismaili community survived, however, and exists to this day, their leader’s part of a line of rulers going back to Alamut.

alamut 3

Freya Stark in the Elburz

Freya Stark had a difficult way here. She started in Qazvin with three muleteers and reached Alamut several days later after an exhausting march. Freya made a thorough investigation of the castle ruins and then continued on further expeditions in the mountains where she was the first to rediscover other castles of the Nizari-ismaili. She also made an attempt to be the first westerner to climb the mountain known as The Throne of Solomon but failed and caught malaria. This didn’t stop her from exploring further and writing her brilliant book The Valleys of the Assassins about it all.

There is a long stretch of ruins at the top of the rock which Mr Yar leads me through. Written sources tell of a fabulous library in Alamut castle and an advanced astronomic observatory. There are no traces of such things now, or of the paradise gardens of legend, where the old man of the mountain would have trained his assassins.

Mr Yar leads me down the steep path to Ghazor khan, offers me a drink of apple juice, later an excellent dinner, and I spend the night in his living room to the sweet smell of cherry trees from the garden.

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