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.

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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.

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



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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Great Walls of China – and other walls

The yellow sand rises as high as white cloud;
The lonely town is lost amid the mountains proud.
Why should the Mongol flute complain no willows grow?
Beyond the Jade Gate vernal wind will never blow!

Uggla finalThese words of poet Wang Zhihuan (688-742) echoes through the centuries as he speaks of the Jade Gate in the Great Wall of China. To the Chinese of old, this gate in Xinjiang was the edge of the known world and an outpost before the legendary far Western regions of the world.

The liminal, mythological role of the Jade Gate in Chinese thinking is what the poem allures to and whether keeping some enemies out or not, great walls and their gates seem to be a lot more about the mythologies and makings of us and them.

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The ruins of the Jade Gate lie in a final, large bend of the Great Wall, to the west of the last border town of Dunhuang and on the rim of the vast Taklamakan desert. Its name refers to caravans full of jade that entered it from the desert kingdom of Khotan to be transported east along the Silk Road to central China. You can get here today by a 80 km bus ride from Dunhuang, which is well worth a visit also for other reasons.

Great Walls
The Great Wall of China is rather a whole range of walls in different places that were built, changed and rebuilt over more than 2 000 years. Construction of these walls started in the Warring States era in the 7th or 6th century BC and went on until 17th century Ming dynasty times. The main idea was to protect against raids and invasions from nomadic groups from the Steppes in the north.

Chinese walls protected against some invasions, though many raiders and invaders managed to cross them without too much trouble, most obviously the Mongols conquering all of China in the 13th century.

The Great Wall is a main tourist attraction today, of course, and especially some reconstructed parts of it to the north of Beijing. It should best be seen as dark heritage since the cost in human lives building these walls must have been truly terrible.

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Entering China proper at Jiayuguan
The western end of the major stretch of the Ming era Great Wall was in the Jiayu Pass at Jiayuguan city in Gansu province. Like the reconstructed sections outside Beijing this is also a major tourist site, where you get to visit a system of rebuilt and touristified fortresses and gates. It’s impressive for sure.

Ming walls at Mutianyu
Most majestic of the preserved walls are the Ming era ones in the mountains to the north of Beijing, which you visit on day tours from the city. I had a look myself at a place called Mutianyu where you can have ice cream, buy souvenirs and walk some kilometres of ancient wall.

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The pointlessness of walls such as these seems to me a monument over human ambition and stupidity. In the long run they do not keep people out or prevent invasions but inflict vast collective, mental damage to entire peoples by separating us and strengthen the making of mutually excluding us and others.

In Berlin, the wall may have fallen, but similar walls between people are on the rise worldwide though we should have known much better by now.

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