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 always wanted to get to Dunhuang, and not just because half of its name is half of my given name in Chinese. This summer I finally got there.
The Mogao Grottoes of Dunhuang are located in the province of Gansu in northwestern China, once an important stop — and a wealthy town — on the Silk Road. For a thousand years starting in the 4th century, prominent local families sponsored artisans to paint and sculpt one cave after another at Mogao in Buddhist themes. Some of the painters and sculptors wound up spending half a lifetime there. So many caves were painted and sculpted that Mogao also came to be known as the place of a “A Thousand Buddha Grottoes.” Even today, 735 remain. Many caves are masterpieces of Buddhist art, and some reminded me of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Continuing the previous post’s theme of Indiana Jones and tales I should have told when I visited the relevant scenes, here is the story of how the Ark of the Covenant — yes, the one with the Ten Commandments inside — may or may not really be in northern Ethiopia.
According to Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses built the Ark with wood with gold covering. The Israelites then carried it with them during their 40 years in the desert before Joshua led them, with the Ark at the head of the column, across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.
This is a tale familiar to my fellow Yale graduates, which is why I neglected to tell it when I visited Machu Picchu some months ago. But it’s worth telling, nonetheless. It is the story of the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones.
In 1907, Yale University sought a replacement for its resident expert on Latin American history, Edward Gaylord Bourne, who would soon die an early death in his 40s. Yale wound up appointing one Hiram Bingham III. Bingham was the son of missionaries and had grown up in Hawaii, where his grandfather Hiram I founded the Punahou School, which he attended and from which both Barack Obama and Sun Yatsen, the father of modern China, also graduated.
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."