Imperial Vienna

Vienna was the imperial capital in Europe from the 15th to the early 20th century. Its historical splendour, importance and continuity easily diminish London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. Vienna was the power base of the Holy Roman emperors of the Habsburg dynasty from 1440 to 1806, then imperial capital of Austria and Austria-Hungary until 1918. All this left a profound mark on the city and a complex imperial heritage.

The imperial city palace, the Hofburg, dates back to the 13th century and was the main residence of the Habsburg emperors. It’s an immense complex, still the seat of the Austrian chancellor, but like the newly reconstructed Berlin Stadtschloss now mostly contain museums and other public institutions.

You cannot miss the Hofburg treasury with the profoundly interesting imperial regalia, including the 11th century Reichskrone used until 1806 and the spurious Holy Lance. The Imperial Armouries is an unbelievable collection of all things martial. There’s also the Spanish Riding School, an ethnographic museum, the Imperial library and an excellent garden café in the Palmenhaus.

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The old Imperial library in the Hofburg, now a representation venue of the National library

Imperial crypt
The Kaisergruft, or Imperial crypt of the Habsburg dynasty since 1633, is situated in the Capuchin monastery in Vienna, a few hundred meters from the Hofburg, and was used as late as 2011 for the burial of Archduke Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary.

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Skull wearing the Reichskrone (Imperial crown) on the sarcophagus of emperor Charles VI in the Kaisergruft

The Kaisergruft is a large underground complex with 145 burials, most in impressive metal sarcophagi and including 12 emperors and 18 empresses. It’s a strange and truly spooky place to visit.

Imperial museums
The imperial complex of central Vienna includes two immense museums, the Naturhistorisches (natural history) and the Kunsthistorisches (art history), both inaugurated in the 1880s, though their collections date much further back.

They have everything to do with empire. The Naturhistorisches builds heavily on 19th century imperial expeditions to all parts of the globe, the Kunsthistorisches has its base in the imperial art collection. Furthermore, their architecture and in particular the painted interior decorations both mould and perform imperial culture through the persons, landscapes and perspectives chosen.

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Kunsthistorisches Museum
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In the Naturhistorisches Museum

The Naturhistorisches Museum contain everything imaginable from the natural world. Typical for its time of construction it also contains European prehistory since this was thought of as primitive/natural then, and it used to contain ethnographica from what was then seen as “primitive” peoples worldwide. The latter has been moved out and is now partly on exhibit in the Hofburg, though murals and plaster people still remain in the decorations.

The Kunsthistoriches, on the other hand, and except for later art, also contain collections from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, since this was thought of as the origins of culture.

Some of these imperial collections, and in particular all amazing things taken under more or less dubious expedition circumstances from peoples around the globe, provoke questions: what are all these things doing here today and how can the issues around their initial collection and the perspectives under which they were exhibited be handled today? There are several ways to address this; to academically historicize the collections and their information reframing context and perspective, to repatriate some of them and also to publicly discuss and exhibit the dark and complicated histories surrounding them. Some of this is being done in the ethnographical section of the Hofburg, more could be done in the old imperial museums.

There is more imperial heritage to be seen, most importantly the Schönbrunn palace complex just outside central Vienna, but that will be another journey.

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Ancient Egypt in the Kunsthistorisches Museum



Ultimate guide to historical Marrakesh

Marrakesh in Morocco is a fairytale sort of place with harsh social realities. It’s an orientalist dream on the surface, but turns out layered and complex. While historically exiting it has a bitter aftertaste of poverty and desperation.

The entire medina, or old-town, encircled by its well-preserved 12th century city walls, is UNESCO world heritage for its notable monuments and history and it’s here you want to stay and be, preferably in classical, riad-style accommodation – not in the modern, French-colonial new town just outside the walls.


The medina has a distinctly medieval feel about it. The mud brick houses look the part. The street plan is and lots of people even wear a monk-style, hooded robe known as a jallabah. If not for the endless mopeds thundering the alleys the illusion would be complete. Misfortune comes in many shapes in the streets: beggars of all kinds, Syrian refugees and disabled people trying to get by through selling trinkets. Then there is a lot of history to experience and here is my personal guide.

City walls and Bab Agnaou gate
The walls have been heavily restored and, as it seems, not too light-handed, but they are authentic to their basic, 12th century outline and certainly impressive. You won’t get up in them but they are well worth seeing and not the least the beautiful though battered Bab Agnaou gate leading to the royal kasbah.


Djemaa el-Fna
The grand, medieval market area Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh is like nothing else you ever saw. It’s a beating heart of the city and full of vendors, magicians, professional storytellers, pickpockets and masterful musicians. It’s UNESCO world heritage for good reasons. Read more about it in this post.

Koutoubia Mosque
The large Mosque on the western side of Djemaa el-Fna is closed to non Muslims just as all the mosques in the city, but the most interesting thing about it is the minaret anyway. This one was constructed at the same time in the 12th century as the Giralda in Seville and the Hassan tower in Rabat but the Marrakesh one is said to have been the original. It’s a symbol of the city, an architectural feat and a sort of sample sheet for details of medieval Islamic architecture.


Central souqs
To the north of Djemaa el-Fna is “the central souqs”, a labyrinth bazaar of narrow alleys full of small shops. This is an historical shopping area of amazing extent and strolling around you will get lost for sure.

Interestingly, there has been a Jewish quarter in the city since late medieval days – the Mellah. It was encircled by a separate wall and closely situated to the royal palace. Both things because of the importance of the Jewish community to Muslim rulers who at the same time wanted to keep it both protected and under control.

The city changes character in the Mellah and it’s interesting to see though its not really a Jewish quarter anymore.


Badi palace
The splendor of Badi palace was once of legendary proportions, having been built by 16th century sultan Ahmed al-Mansour eager to spend the ransom paid by the Portuguese after his late brothers victory in the Battle of the Three Kings in 1578. It was constructed using some of the most expensive materials of the time and by superior craftsmen. It was stripped of all its riches just shortly after construction, however, when a sultan from a new dynasty took it all away to his new capital city Meknes.

Today it’s a superb ruin, well worth a sunny walk trying to figure out which rooms are which and what the ruined pavilions might have looked like in full splendor.


Kasbah and the Saadian tombs
The Bab Agnaou gate of the city walls was the main gate to the Kasbah, the royal compound, or city within the city, and Badi palace was also inside it as well as the old royal palace in Marrakesh which is vast, now privately owned and not open to visitors.

The main thing to see in the Kasbah is the impressive and beautiful tombs of the Saadian royal dynasty and their retainers who resided in the city in the late 16th and early 17th century. The tile work is stunning and most of all so when combined with white Carrara marble and carved plaster in the Chamber of 12 pillars.


Bahia palace
This palace was begun by grand vizier Si Moussa in the 1860s and represents the full, modern splendor of 19th century Morocco. It was planned and decorated by the best artists of their time and is a full-blown dream of a palace with extravagant harem, a grand courtyard with marble-and-tile bonanza, Andalusian orange garden and all.

Ali ben Youssef Medersa
This 14th century medersa, or theological college, is a true treasure of Islamic art with most impressive decorations in Hispano-Moorish style. Unfortunately it was closed at the time of my visit, but there’s always a next time.

Musée de Marrakech
Finally the Marrakesh museum. It has been a palace, a school and then a museum for about 20 years. It’s interesting to see as a palace and mostly so the impressive inner courtyard with an immense bronze lamp hanging from the roof. The collections are less dazzling but worth a look.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.