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.
So World War III may start with Russian encroachment into the Baltics. That reminds me of the Battle on the Ice of 1242 A.D. This, too, had been a battle between Russia and the West. It, too, had taken place in the Baltics. And it holds lessons on how Russia sees itself, or even how Putin sees himself, even today.
The “ice” was the frozen surface of Lake Peipus, the body of water straddling the modern border between Estonia and Russia. As a part of the so-called “northern Crusade,” an army led by the Teutonic Knights attacked the Russian state of Novgorod. Whereas the more familiar Crusade had as its aim the conquest of the Holy Land, the northern Crusade was directed against the Eastern Orthodox Slavs and their pagan neighbors. Christianity having split into two halves, the Western Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, in the Great Schism of 1054, Catholic Europe now would have the Easterners convert to their version of the religion.
There was good reason that the BBC once described Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.” Last week I wrote about Robert Byron, the father of modern travel writing. But Leigh Fermor, or Paddy, as everyone called him, was the archetype that a thinking man tried to model himself after.
Born in 1915 to a father in distant India and a mother who joined her husband shortly after giving birth to her son, Paddy grew up brilliant but unruly. Finally he got expelled from boarding school for fraternizing all too successfully with local girls. But that never stopped Paddy, the quintessential autodidact, from teaching himself.
At the age of 18, Paddy decided to walk across Europe from the Netherlands to Istanbul. The journey would take him over two years to complete, after which he kept traveling in Europe. And as fate would have it, he walked into Germany in December 1933, less than a year after Hitler came to power.
I was just about sick of answering these overtures. They tend to get very excited seeing foreigners in Ethiopia. A chorus of "hello, hello," "China, China," and "how are you where do you come from" had followed me wherever I went. Just as often boys and young men physically followed me for as much as a mile.
So when one more voice asked me where I was from, I mumbled the second most acceptable answer, "Taiwan," then began heading inside. But he heard my American accent.
"But you live in America?" The guess surprised me, and I paused.
I was in Aksum, or Axum, in northern Ethiopia, an area chiefly populated by the Tigray people, an ethnic minority who dominated the Ethiopian government. According to tradition, this small, dusty town hosted not only the palace of the Queen of Sheba but also the Ark of the Covenant.
In the last few days I have had to consider, more deeply than I ever thought necessary, the utility and meaning of travel writing. What's it all good for anyway? Hopefully not just armchair tourism. Because if that's all it is, then in these troubled times, we may as well all pack up and go home.
Then I remembered Robert Byron, the founding father of modern travel writing. Travel writers until his time, including his contemporary Peter Fleming (brother of Ian, the creator of James Bond), had written in a serious and imperial tone. After all, many earlier travelers such as Alexander Burnes literally traveled while on Her Majesty’s secret service, for the good and the sake of the British Empire.
Last year I left the United States to travel. Two months ago I started this little blog. I said it would not exactly be a travel blog. Instead it would highlight all that I found interesting in this world, with an emphasis on exchanges between cultures. And because I’m a nerd, the subject matters have been quaint and obscure. The influence of Greek art on Buddhist sculptures; ancient figures from Roman and Chinese history; essays by Francis Bacon and Voltaire; archaeology in Afghanistan.
So in light of the election on Tuesday, I started thinking that I might as well stop blogging. It all seems so, well, quaint and obscure. Who cares about Buddhist art when a Fascist, racist, and sociopathic conman now has nuclear launch codes? Who still reads Bacon or Voltaire in this apparent age of anti-intellectualism?
But then a couple of thoughts occurred to me and made me decide that the one thing I couldn’t do was to stop writing.
On New Year’s Eve, 192 A.D., the tyrannical emperor Commodus, last of the Antonines, drank poison from the hand of his mistress Marcia. But he threw up the poison. So the Praetorian Guards who conspired against him brought in a wrestler named, appropriately or not, Narcissus, who strangled him in the bath.
The Praetorians invested the purple in an elder statesman named Pertinax, one of the last surviving associates of the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. But they could not abide by his attempt to reform the Roman state. So 86 days after they made him emperor, the Praetorian Guards murdered Pertinax. Edward Gibbon described the scene of the crime: “His head separated from his body, and placed on a lance, was carried in triumph to the Praetorian camp, in the sight of a mournful and indignant people, who lamented the unworthy fate of that excellent prince.”
What happened next was one of the most remarkable and repugnant (as if political assassinations weren’t bad enough) episodes of not only Roman history but the history of any government anywhere. The Praetorian Guards “ran out upon the ramparts; and, with a loud voice, proclaimed that the Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public auction.”
In March 2001, a group of uncouth men sporting thick beards walked up to two figures standing inside two niches carved into an arid, craggy stone face in the heart of Afghanistan. The men strapped dynamites to the stoic figures unmoved by the menacing men and what they were doing. The men walked away and detonated the explosives. Yellow fireballs shrouded the figures. When the dust subsided, they were no more.
No one died there in Bamiyan from the explosions on that day. But an important piece of not only Afghan but world history was lost. The uncouth men were Taliban militiamen on orders to destroy the “gods of the infidels.” The two figures were stone buddha statues. They had overlooked the Bamiyan valley since the 6th century. And now they were two sorry piles of rubbles.
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."