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.
Being in Lebanon has put in my mind once again the legend of Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, of Syria and Lebanon, or as she styled herself, “Queen of the East.”
I first came across Zenobia in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. He introduces her as follows — and once you get past the prejudices unsurprising in an 18th century Englishman, you can sense Gibbon’s admiration for Zenobia in the striking portrait he paints of her:
Modern Europe has produced several illustrious women who have sustained with glory the weight of empire. . . . But. . . Zenobia is perhaps the only female whose superior genius broke through the servile indolence imposed on her sex by the climate and manners of Asia. She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour. Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of a dark complexion (for in speaking of a lady these trifles become important). Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness, and her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness. Her voice was strong and harmonious. Her manly understanding was strengthened and adorned by study. She was not ignorant of the Latin tongue, but possessed in equal perfection the Greek, the Syriac, and the Egyptian languages.
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.
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.
John and Tom’s Excellent Adventure: On John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Travel, and the Meaning of an Education
On April 4, 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson set off on a road trip together.
Both in England from which their America had freshly won its independence, the object of their tour was — as dull as it sounds to me — a series of English gardens. Instead of Lonely Planet or even a Baedeker, their guide book was Jefferson’s copy of Observations on Modern Gardening by one Thomas Whately.
As David McCullough recounts in his excellent John Adams, the road trip had no great historical significance. But it was “the one and the only time” when the famous frenemies, the "North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” would spend “off on their own together.” And, perhaps given my circumstances on the road, I can’t help dwelling on this image of the two Great Men driving around the English countryside, John and Tom, just a couple of dudes, a couple of American tourists.
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
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."