Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I have wanted to visit Baalbek since high school. And it wasn’t even because of the alien spaceships.
Mr. Hamel, my classics and art history teacher back in New Zealand, showed us photos of Baalbek as an example of Roman temple architecture. Mr. Hamel’s lessons, including on Baalbek, form a cornerstone of my education.
And now I have finally seen it for myself.
In my travels through many countries where I am ignorant of the local languages, there is one thing I almost always know how to say: orange.
From Western Europe to India, there are basically four ways to say “orange.” Three, really.
First, obviously, there is just “orange” along with its variants. In French it’s still just “orange,” but of course you have to say it like it’s French. In Finnish it’s “oranssi.” In Italian it’s “arancia.” Other variants retain the initial consonant from the source language. So in Spanish it’s “naranja.” In Portuguese it’s “laranja.” In Hindi it’s “naarangee.” In Hungarian it’s “narancs.” In Bosnian it’s “narandza.” And so on. All of these come from the Sanskrit word “naranga” of ancient India, which in turn was loaned from a root in Dravidian, that family of languages likely native to the Indian subcontinent.
Wen Tianxiang has been on my mind from time to time since the November 2016 election.
If you’ve never heard of him, that’s okay, I didn’t expect that you have. But like Chinese school children in the seven hundred years before me, I grew up reading about him as the paragon loyalty and patriotism, virtues that today’s Americans can use. To me, he was a Chinese Boethius.
So imagine the frown on my face when I came across this description of him: “[H]e was too inflexible to be a great politician — passionate, intolerant, arrogant and a complete pain to work with,” whose refusal to surrender to the Mongols even after all was lost, even when he languished in prison, was “masochistic.”
This is an old tale, and many of you may have heard it already. But as it is Hanukkah, I can be forgiven for repeating an otherwise well-known story about the Chinese Jews.
Jews might have migrated into China over the Silk Road since as early as the height of the Roman Empire. One tradition states that the first of them left Jerusalem after the Roman emperor Titus conquered the holy city, arriving in China eventually via Persia.
Ethnographers have also previously identified a population in China that they thought might be of Jewish descent. And because they did not observe Hanukkah, it was inferred that they left the Holy Land before the Maccabean Revolt. But this theory has turned out to be questionable.
One thing my late professor of art and architecture Vincent Scully taught me is this: Just as music is the silence between the notes, so architecture is the dialogue among the buildings and the landscape.
Professor Scully’s deeper scholarship is beyond my ability to engage with intelligently. But being in Budapest makes me mindful of a more obvious level of dialogue among buildings and monuments, the representation of a nation’s history.
Much of Hungary’s difficult modern history is told along a 700-meter stretch of Budapest from Szabadsag ter (Liberty Square) to the parliament building. At the center of the semi-circular northern portion of Liberty Square stands a obelisk-like monument with a Cyrillic inscription dedicated to “Soviet heroes” who liberated Hungary from Nazi occupation. It is a testament to Hungarians’ historical memory that they chose not to demolish this monument after the Cold War.
So Disney is filming a live-action remake of the 1998 animated Mulan, actually casting an Asian woman in the role of an Asian woman (because you never know with Hollywood).
This news prompts me to revisit the ancient source of the story of Mulan. Certain aspects of the source material now seem surprising in light of departures made in the Disney version, and I don’t just mean the little dragon Mushu that works as a cartoon character but in fact does not exist in the original.
The 1998 film sets the action during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the invading enemies are said to be the Huns. The Han Dynasty did fight protracted wars against the Huns. But these battles took place centuries before the figure of Mulan first appeared in Chinese literature.
Being in Budapest again right now allows me to indulge in one of my pet obsessions: John Hunyadi, or Hunyadi Janos in Hungarian, or Ioan de Hunedoara in Romanian.
His is not a name widely remembered today outside of Hungary and Romania. And yet his role in history was such that Europe, and Western civilization as a whole, would likely look very different today had he never lived or taken a different path.
Both Hungarians and Romanians claim him as one of their own. John’s father Voyk was born in Wallachia, today’s southern Romania, perhaps of Wallachian aristocracy. King Sigismund of Hungary granted him a demesne in Hunyad in Transylvania. In his lifetime, John, though a member of the Hungarian nobility, was often referred to as a “Vlach” or Wallachian or Romanian.
Jana, my guide on the walking tour of Bratislava’s old town, had a way of movement that reminded me of a great blue heron. She also reminded me that right around here was once the western extremity of the Mongol Empire.
We were standing at the foot of the hill atop of which stood Bratislava’s white-washed castle and its four towers. Jana pointed at it. “This castle withstood the Mongols, the Ottomans, and Napoleon’s army. But in 1811, a group of Italian soldiers garrisoned there decided to cook pasta. They started a fire, the fire got out of control, and the castle burned down. We didn’t start reconstructing it until 1953. So, in Slovakia, we like to joke — it’s kind of sad — that our castle withstood the Mongols and the Turks and Napoleon but couldn’t handle an Italian dinner.”
Yes, of course. Bratislava is only an hour’s drive from Vienna. And Prince Batu’s siege of Vienna marked the high-water mark of the Mongol Empire’s western expansion.
Thor (the Norse god, not the Marvel character) is remarkably similar to its Chinese counterpart, Leigong, so much so that I intuit a long-lost cultural connection, even though I am unaware of any scholarship establishing it. If the distance between Scandinavia and the Far East makes you skeptical of this possibility, I’ll note that the Hellenistic inspiration for Asian Buddhist sculptural art is well-established.
Leigong, literally “Lord of Thunder,” is an important figure in the Taoist pantheon. He is, like Thor, depicted as a strong warrior type who wields a magic hammer with which he can send thunderbolts. He is a positive but blunt character, broadly on the side of right but sometimes blunders in rushing to judgment. Much as Thor stands opposed to Loki, Leigong is opposed to characters of mischief such as the Monkey King (who, incidentally, has been shown to be derived from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman).
To the uninitiated, Namibia sounds impossibly distant. Where is it anyway? The President of the United States recently called it “Nambia.” And I doubt everyone realized right away that he’d made a gaff.
But actually, as Lonely Planet puts it, Namibia is “Africa for beginners.” A German colony until it was taken over by British South Africa in 1915, and not actually independent from South Africa until 1990, Namibia often feels like a misplaced corner of Germany with its Lutheran churches and streets with names like Bahnhofstrasse and Luderitzstrasse, and especially in its relative orderliness.
This Germanic orderliness, I learned on a trip to Sossusvlei, extends to Namibia’s wilderness areas.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."