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.

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.