Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Göbekli Tepe - Graham Hancock

Graham Hancock, a journalist and specialist in ancient civilisations details his experiences and reflections at Göbekli Tepe, the world’s first temple.

I have spent the past week exploring the mysterious 12,000 year-old megalithic site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, the world’s first temple, predating Stonehenge by 8,000 years. With its extraordinary, haunting energy, it’s obvious that something special unfolded here, something that is linked to the birth, or more likely the rebirth, of monumental architecture. This site, with its massive, perfectly-crafted megaliths can only be the work of a culture that was already ancient and deeply experienced with large-scale architectural projects. Archaeologists agree that the origins of the site must be much older than even the oldest of the enclosures they have excavated up until now; however the background, the evolution, the trial and error and the learning processes that must lie behind Göbekli Tepe are all missing. Could we be looking at a project of the survivors of a lost civilisation brought to ruin in the chaos that surrounded the end of the last Ice Age?

This photograph shows me interviewing Professor Klaus Schmidt, German archaeologist and discoverer of the site. Professor Schmidt revealed that his site surveys, including ground-penetrating radar, have indicated that the areas excavated so far represent only a small fraction of the total. It is believed that at least a further twenty enclosures of similar size, and possibly as many as fifty, still remain underground. What secrets about the lost past of humanity will the excavation of those enclosures reveal?

This photograph shows an unfinished pillar still lying in the quarry where it was left by the builders 12,000 years ago after they discovered a fault in the rock. It is T-shaped, like the majority of the finished pillars in the main enclosures, and estimated to weigh 50 tonnes. It is intriguing, and indeed paradigm-shattering that our ancestors, supposedly hunter-gatherers, were able to contemplate moving stones of such weight. My strong intuition is that Göbekli Tepe is much more than a centre of unprecedented innovation by hunter-gatherers, as Professor Schmidt believes.

After our week exploring Göbekli Tepe, I flew to Ankara and spent five days driving with the Megalithomania ‘Origins of Civilisation’ study tour specially organised by Travel The Unknown. Thirty eight inquiring, open-minded people participated, and I had the privilege of giving four full-length lectures on various aspects of my work, which ultimately led us back to Göbekli Tepe. We agreed that more than 12,000 years ago, something powerful and astonishing took shape at this site, with its roots in an even earlier time and with branches that continue to overshadow us today. We are a species with amnesia, but Göbekli Tepe holds precious clues that will help us to reopen the locked doors, and shed light into the darkest, forgotten corners of our collective past. The Pandora's Box of prehistory has been opened, and the past will never look the same again.

Graham Hancock is a writer and journalist specialising in unconventional theories of ancient civilisations. www.grahamhancock.com

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Building a Day of the Dead altar - Sarah Gilbert

Sarah Gilbert celebrates the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca with an altar-building

Despite its name, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is far from a macabre festival. Combining pre-Hispanic traditions with Spanish Catholic influence, the Zapotec Indians believed that the spirits of the dead visit the living once a year to eat, drink and be merry. The spirits of children are thought to return on November 1 (All Saints’ Day), with adult spirits following on November 2 (All Souls’ Day).

In the beautiful city of Oaxaca, the ancient Zapotec capital, the festival involves more ceremony and ritual than in any other part of the country. At the market, women with coloured ribbons woven into their long black plaits sell bunches of sweet-smelling orange marigolds, or cempasúchil. Brightly coloured papel picado – tissue paper cut into intricate designs – is festooned across the walls.

The market aisles are stuffed with skeletons engaged in everyday activities: eating, drinking, working. Stalls are piled high with elaborately decorated sugar skulls and special bread called pan de muerte (bread of the dead), a sweet-tasting roll with a little wooden effigy baked into the dough. In fact, everything that you need to build an altar in honour of the deceased.

The altar is an invitation to the spirits to return and join the celebrations. Most families build an altar in their home; they can range from a simple decorated table, to a towering five-tiered affair, but all have the same basic elements.

First, sugar cane is entwined with cempasúchil and bent into a colourful arch, representing the passage between life and death. The table is covered in a white cloth and banners of papel picado are stuck to its edges.

A picture of Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is put on the table-turned-altar, which is loaded with more flowers and gifts, or ofrendas, of food and drink for the family spirits. The food is a feast for the dead to savour, although as spirits only consume the essence of the food, the living get to eat it later.

Every altar has to have a glass of water. Not only because it represents purity but also because the spirits are thirsty after their long journey. And not just for water. Coca-cola, beer and tequila also feature, cigarettes and cigars too. The spirits clearly continue their bad habits beyond the grave.

Finally, flowers are torn up to create a pathway of petals to the altar, candles and fragrant copal incense are lit – the light and scent helps to guide the spirits home – and photographs of the deceased are put in pride of place.

As the Oaxacan saying goes, “We are not here for a long time, we are here for a good time.”

Sarah Gilbert is a freelance travel writer based in London with a love of offbeat and up-and-coming destinations. She has written for Wanderlust, the Sunday Times and the 
Guardian amongst others. Her work has taken her to around 60 countries and she is always on the lookout for the next undiscovered treasure. www.sarah-gilbert.com

Monday, 4 August 2014

CWA travels to Glorious Ethiopia - World Archaeology

Exploring the rich heritage of an African empire

Oliver Gilkes travelled to the land of the Grand Negus, or king of kings, to explore this vast country’s unique archaeological heritage

Ethiopia must be one of the most misunderstood countries on the planet. More than twice the size of Germany and France combined, with soaring mountains, wide freshwater lakes, endless plains, and a history that traces a direct lineage to King Solomon, it includes a multiplicity of peoples, languages (over 80), and faiths. Once a grand empire, today Ethiopia is a proud republic – and a developing land.
The modern capital Addis Ababa is the culmination of its imperial history. It was founded by the conquering emperor Menelik II in 1886, and has seemed to be in the throes of permanent rebuilding ever since: vast new buildings, highways, and boulevards are laid out among the shacks and shanties of an older Africa.
To see Ethiopia's historic North through your own eyes visit www.traveltheunknown.com/ehn.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Ark of the Covenant - Stuart Butler (Lonely Planet)

Stuart Butler ponders the mysteries surrounding the Ark of the Covenant.

Overshadowed on one side by the modern skyline blotting Church of St Mary of Zion and on the other by the fortified old Church of St Mary of Zion, it would be easy to walk right past the small, squat chapel without ever realising its significance. In fact, it’s only the presence of the clustered groups of white robed pilgrims that give away the fact that this is no ordinary place of worship. Hidden from view within the chapels forbidden interior is an object that many would say is a lynchpin of Christian, Jewish and Islamic belief. And yet nobody knows if it really exists. I’m in the town of Axum in northern Ethiopia and the object I talk of is nothing less than the Ark of the Covenant; the ‘chest’ described so vividly in the Old Testament as containing the stone tablets on which are inscribed the Ten Commandments. One of the key stories of Ethiopian culture is the tale of how the Ark was taken from Jerusalem to Ethiopia in the 1st millennium BC by Menelik 1st (who was himself the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba). This story forms the basis of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and proves the legitimacy of every Ethiopian Emperor from Menelik 1st right up to the late Haile Selassie.

Even among non-believers such an object causes intense interest and of all the treasures in Ethiopia it’s the Ark of the Covenant that everyone wants to see. But yet it’s the one thing that nobody is allowed to look at. The chapel is closed to all comers and the Ark is watched over day and night by a priest guardian who, once he has entered the chapel grounds, is never allowed to leave them again.

During one of my earlier visits to Axum my translator and I fell into conversation with a local priest. I had asked if it would be possible to speak to the guardian. “If you were Zenawi (the then Prime Minister of Ethiopia) he wouldn’t talk to you. If you were the President of America he wouldn’t meet you”. Taking that as a no I tried to ask him what he knew about the Ark. His answers were nothing if not contradictory, hazy and confusing. He told me how the Ark had led Ethiopia to victory in its recent wars with Eritrea. He explained how over time many people had seen the Ark, but then in the next breath described how anyone, other than the guardian, who saw it would burst into flames.

Frustrating as these closed doors and near fairy-tale like stories must be for historians for me they represent the real joy of travelling in Ethiopia. This is a country like no other. A place where it’s taken as fact that the words of God are written on stones, where churches are built by angels and where Christian Crusaders searched for Prestor John.

Stuart Butler is one of the authors of Lonely Planet’s Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland book and has been a frequent visitor to the country since the fall of the Derg in the early 1990s. He has contributed numerous Ethiopian-based articles and photographs to the international media.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Inside Iran – The Glories of Persia

Dawn light streams into Nasir al-Molk mosque, illuminating the meditative dusty air with a vibrant palette, enriched in intensity by the stained-glass windows. The reflections cast onto a deep-pile Persian rug snuggling my toes and inviting me to stay a while. The mosque is empty at first light; a privilege which is a rarity in Shiraz, the city of poetry, literature, flowers and wine; the vineyards of old no longer exist since Iran became the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Shiraz is one highlight amidst a handful of enchanting cities on my cross-country voyage. Unearthing turquoise-tiled minarets and domes dotting Esfahan’s Naqsh e-Jahan Square, the immense power of the Achaemenid’s ancient capital Persepolis, staggering beauty of Elamite ziggurat temples at Choqa Zanbil and roaming the parched mud-brick lanes and crumbling rooftops in Yazd, is a vivid journey through history.
Travelling by road through the frontier, renowned moreso internationally for it’s nuclear ambitions than as a travel destination, I realize it is as spectacularly beautiful as the people are hospitable. Nestling a staggering 16 Unesco world heritage sites; architectural marvels and treasured remnants of powerful early empires, Iran is the vanguard of emerging travel destinations. Whilst the leadership may be a regime, the majestic landscapes lapping the land scream freedom. Iridescent mythic mountains ring-fence plateaus and basins, serrated peaks glint in the hazy heat as I cut gravel for days. Beguiling backdrops belie bodies of water; the Caspian Sea, Gulf of Oman and Persian Gulf, popular holiday spots for Iranians.

Read more of Anisha Shah's article in The Address Magazine.
Visit www.traveltheunknown.com/iran to see the glories of Persia for yourself.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

How Syria's ancient treasures are being smashed

Syria, graced with thousands of historic sites, is seeing its cultural heritage vandalised, looted and destroyed by war - but volunteers are doing what they can to document the damage and save the country's cultural identity from obliteration.
They have taken many of the photographs below.
In March the Syrian air force bombed the world's best preserved Crusader Castle, the 12th Century Krak des Chevaliers (above) in Homs province.
Its strategic location - guarding the only corridor from Syria's interior to the coast as well as the entrance to Lebanon's Bekaa valley - guaranteed that it would be a fiercely contested stronghold in this war, just as it was for the Knights Hospitaller in Crusader times.

The elegant Crusader cloister inside the castle bore an inscription carved in Latin: "Grace, wisdom and beauty you may enjoy but beware pride which alone can tarnish all the rest.

The loggia became a ruined shell after MiG fighter jets were used to dislodge rebel fighters who had based themselves there. The Latin inscription has been blown to smithereens.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Alam Kuh & Mount Damavand

Lake en route to Rudbarak
We drove west from Tehran on Sunday morning having arrived in the very early hours of Sunday morning.  My group consisted of my two brothers, Stephen and Niall and a friend of Niall’s, also called David, “David C” for this trip. We were picked up from our hotel by our mountain guide, Moghadam, our driver (and also a mountain guide) Jafar, and en route in Tehran we picked up our cultural guide, and translator - as Moghadam and Jafar spoke very limited English - Shole.

River fish
We passed through the Central Alborz range on our way to the staging post of Rudbarak in the Western Alborz, stopping for a delicious lunch on the banks of the azure waters of Carag dam reservoir. The drive took about 5 hours, gradually climbing up to about 2200m, the temperature dropping to a more comfortable range after the heat of Tehran. After a tasty dinner of river fish and a selection of meats, vegetable and, of course, rice, as well as some local specialities we returned to the hiking lodge where we watched one of the duller World Cup finals at the expense of a full night's sleep. The match didn’t really warrant it and our wish of a decisive outcome in ninety minutes was not to be.

The starting point
The next morning after an early breakfast we left behind Jafar’s minibus and were instead collected by a blue pick-up for the bumpy ride up to Tang-e-Galu at about 3200m. The windy road passed through a stunning landscape of lush green - as the early morning mist burned off - revealing a valley strewn with boulders and dotted with azure glacial lakes. As the road climbed the vegetation thinned and the houses grew less frequent until there were no more. Here there were only occasional shepherds with their flocks, goats and sheep. On arrival at Tang-e-Galu, Moghadam and Jafar strapped the camping equipment up to mules and a local farmer ascended with them ahead of us.

Lunch at camp
We started our climb. We crossed gushing rivers that ducked in and under vast glacial sheets, on either side of a stunning valley that wound slowly north. After almost four hours we reached our camping spot, Herascal, at around 3800m, a spectacular sheltered spot surrounded by high mountains on all sides, and set up our tents. Moghadam prepared lunch while we took a short nap in the sun. After lunch we climbed up to Lashgarak Lake, a beautiful glacial lake, just shy of 4000m by way of acclimatisation, negotiating some snow, some tricky scree and a little ice. Niall and David C were feeling the effects of the altitude when we came back to camp and so lay out in the tent for a while. After a wholesome but cosy dinner in the biggest tent (as it was getting pretty cold now) we saw the moon rise above the mountains and light up the whole sky. We retired to our tents to sleep around ten.

View from Alam Kuh summit
The next morning we woke at 5.30 after a somewhat fitful sleep and after breakfast and tea we started up Alam Kuh, Iran's 2nd highest peak after Mount Damavand. David C, who had not been at altitude previously, was still feeling the altitude and decided to sleep it off instead of taking any chances so myself and my brothers set off with Moghadam and Jafar. Shole, who was also feeling the altitude a bit stayed behind with David C. Stephen and Niall suddenly started feeling the altitude at around 4400m and decided to turn back, so Jafar accompanied them back down. For Niall this was far higher than what he had been previously and Stephen had been higher but by vehicle, not on foot. Another day to acclimatise would have been prudent in retrospect.

Me at the summit
I continued on with Moghadam to Alam Kuh peak at 4850m. The 360 degree view from the peak was sublime. A group of three Austrians, the only others we saw climbing Alam Kuh, arrived at the peak just after us and we shared some celebratory snacks. Given the perfect conditions I was surprised there were not more people on the mountain. As we walked down Moghadam was in victorious humour and his smile lasted all the way back to camp. He even showed me various bumps he had sustained on a 20 metre fall he had had climbing when one of his students had not sufficiently secured his rope. He seemed proud nonetheless. Battle scars.

When arrived back, Stephen and David C were doing well but Niall was still suffering a little. We had lunch and rested for a while. Niall was doing a bit better when we were ready to continue back down but we decided to send his bag down with a mule as a precaution and we walked slowly back down to Tang-e-Galu and caught our bumpy blue pick-up back to Rudbarak, where we had an early dinner and turned in.

After a dip in the Caspian
Wednesday was a driving day, heading east along the Caspian coast to the Eastern Alborz. We stopped for a short dip in the Caspian Sea en route. Shole joined us, though she wasn’t supposed to, but in full clothing. She was a bit of an independent spirit and clearly didn’t like playing by the rules of the regime. She was a little like our Iranian mother on this trip and even started calling us “her sons”.  The Caspian water certainly felt like the sea with its waves and salty water and Moghadam and Jafar waved us back to the vehicle after about twenty minutes. I couldn’t make out if their nervousness was of us being in the water or of Shole’s behaviour.

Climbing up to Bolemun caves
We had not had any difficulty due to it being Ramadan, until now, as our guides had been catering for us, but it did take us a while to find somewhere open in the Caspian towns but after a few disappointments we found a place with a courtyard hidden from the street where they were happy to accommodate us. Shortly before Rineh, our stop for the night, we stopped at Bolemun caves, multi-story man-made caves believed to date back to Sasanian times, when they were used as hideouts from various invaders. In Rineh we treated ourselves to ice-creams and Niall and David C, having decided to only climb as far as Bargah-e-Sevom, Damavand's equivalent of a base-camp, picked up a cheap badminton and chess set to amuse themselves with while myself and Stephen attempted the summit. We had a quick look in at the unusual-looking mosque before going back to our lodge for dinner and bed.

Mount Damavand peak (in the distance)
As it was Thursday, the first day of the Iranian weekend, in this particular instance a long 3-day weekend, we decided to start early to ensure we got a dorm bed at Bargah-e-Sevom. A pick-up brought us from Rineh at 2020m to Gusfand, the starting point, at 3020m, in 45 minutes. To be extra sure of beds Jafar set off alone up to the camp, moving significantly faster than he could have with us in tow. We had a lentil dish for breakfast - something people have done here for centuries before going up into the mountains - and set off. The climb was steady, through a rocky terrain punctuated with red poppies, the spectacle of Damavand peak looming above us right from the off. There were lots more people on this route than Alam Kuh but the vibe was very friendly, communal even. I was surprised that it was almost all Iranians. I had expected to see some other foreigners.

The lovely Shole
I chatted to Shole who was in her sixties but looked younger. She told me about her divorce 15 years previously, when her husband had left her for a younger woman, leaving her with nothing. Women under the Islamic Republic are true second class citizens and her story was quite tragic but she was not the type to feel sorry for herself, and preferred to concentrate on the positives. “My migraines vanished from the first day I was free of him” she smiled. I had been reading Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening and much of what she said rang true from what I had read in that book. Ms Ebadi was a judge in pre-revolution Iran and had first supported the revolution as a means to overthrow an unjust Shah but quickly realised what the clerics had in store when she was barred from practicing law, and had spent the rest of her life supporting and defending women’s rights and those of the downtrodden generally. She won the Nobel prize for her efforts and I would strongly recommend her book to anyone with an interest in life in the Islamic Republic. Shole explained the difficulties of finding another man, and when she found someone she was loath to get married again knowing how vulnerable it left her. Anyway men her age wanted younger women, and older men could not handle her energy. She preferred to spend time with her daughters. She taught me the lyrics of some songs they had sung on the streets when Ahmadinejad had been “elected” for the second time.  She asked mountain rescue if she needed to wear the headscarf as we passed them and they said she didn’t as she was Irish. Now she was “our Mammy” we started to call her “Síle”. She loved it.

First snack stop
After about 4 hours we reached Bargah-e-Sevom at 4200m, where Jafar had secured us all beds in a large dorm where snorers were an inevitability but we preferred this to camping. I would recommend earplugs for this place. It turned out Jafar had been the first up, climbing to the camp in only two hours. He was some machine!

After lunch Stephen went with Jafar for an acclimatisation walk to about 4600m. Moghadam decided as I had already reached Alam Kuh peak I could sit this out, which I was happy about as I was tired and had found the last half hour hard enough. I felt my energy levels low - perhaps I hadn't eaten enough. I would be sure to for the summit attempt. We had a fairly early night but, to be honest, didn’t get a lot of sleep.

Moghadam, our mountain guide
After a breakfast of honey, marmalade, bread, tea and calorie-laden helva we started towards the peak just before 6am. Our pace was slow but steady, stopping about every hour for a 5 minute rest and to stuff our faces with nuts, biscuits, fruit, sweets and chocolate. As we had also noticed the previous day the strict Islamic dress was relaxed up here. Headscarves were mostly packed away. The morality police do not patrol Damavand's slopes.

Coming up the snow
As we got higher the views became even more spectacular and our pace slowed but less than most others it seemed as we passed more and more people. The atmosphere was very encouraging, everyone spurring each other on. For some, however, it wasn't to be. Many were forced to turn back. A girl I had spoken with the night before - who had climbed to the summit on 16 previous occasions - nonetheless started feeling heart palpitations and was forced to turn back about 600m off the summit. You can never take Damavand for granted.

At the summit (smiles all around)
We hit the snow in earnest a few hundred metres short of the summit but there was nothing too difficult to contend with other than the altitude. And suddenly we were there. The summit of Damavand. We had made it! The atmosphere was distinctly party-like. Moghadam beamed widely. "I am very heppy". He hadn't expected us both to reach the peak and he was visibly chuffed. Our time getting up there was even good. We were pretty chuffed too. We wandered around the snow-filled crater, drinking in the vibe. A nylon banner remembering some who has lost their lives on the mountain served as a reminder that this was not a mountain to be trifled with. Speaking with Iranians at the top and throughout the trip we had figured out who the two most famous Irishmen in Iran were, and it was certainly not who you expect. First was certainly Bobby Sands, whose death prompted the Iranian president of the time to send his condolences to his family and to rename Winston Churchill Boulevard, where the British Embassy was located (and will be when it reopens again soon) Bobby Sands Street.  The second most common name we heard was Robbie Keane, who they knew as he scored against Iran in a 2002 World Cup qualifying match, and from the Premier League, which is closely followed in Iran. I’m not sure either of those “facts” will ever help in a pub quiz!

After about 40 minutes around the peak and lots of back-clapping we started back down. We were suddenly engulfed in a sulphur cloud which stung our eyes and throat as we scrambled as quickly as we could to escape it. We had something similar to surgical masks which had helped against the drifts of sulphur we experienced on the way up but it was useless against this. When we were at safe distance and had regained our composure we stopped and Moghadam gave us strong, bitter lemon juice to counteract the sulphur. There were no lasting effects but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. We continued back down to Bargah-e-Sevom, had lunch and, after a short rest, we continued down to Gusfand, where we had tea, before being dropped off to Rineh and the ultimate pleasures of a hot shower and a real toilet! We had covered a total of 1400m up and over 2400m down in a single day. We slept well that night!

Back in Tehran
It was Saturday and our schedule was light so we slept in a little, read on the balcony and had breakfast before heading to a hot springs village where we gave our muscles a little TLC. Shole mentioned that she sometimes stayed there with groups. It is a three star hotel she told me before clarifying. “But not like your three star hotels. Our stars are empty!”. We then drove the couple of hours back to a seemingly empty Tehran, it being the final day of the long weekend and the commemoration of the death of Ali, Shia Islam's first prophet. After lunch we said warm goodbyes to Moghadam and Jafar, both great guys who had looked after us so well for the whole week. After resting for a few hours in the hotel we checked out and headed to Shole's for one last dinner, prepared by her daughter, Sarah. Shole and Sarah were supremely gracious, generous and entertaining hosts and we left for the airport a few hours later, fit to burst, but with a warm fuzzy feeling as well.

Iran had won me over some time ago but I could see it had added three more to its growing ranks of admirers.

- David

PS you can watch the short video I put together of the trip here.