The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

This was my first visit to the Hagia Sophia since it was converted from a  Museum back back into a Mosque in July 2020. It turns out the conversion wasn’t merely some kind of symbolic gesture, but a full conversion to a normal working mosque. (But tourists, both Muslim and others, are still very welcome.)

Like any other mosque, you take your shoes off before entering the now carpeted interior. Both men and women are allowed on the main floor, but the side areas are reserved for women.

One piece of good news is that the restoration scaffolding which had cluttered up the interior for decades is finally gone.  So it’s possible to fully appreciate the vast, uncluttered, interior space under the great dome.  It must have been truly awe inspiring to walk into this immense space in the 6th century, when it was both the greatest Church in Christendom and the largest enclosed space in the world.

The main church axis is slightly misaligned with the direction to Mecca, by roughly 15 degrees. As a result, in the Ottoman era the mihrab was placed off-center in the apse and as part of the new conversion the carpet design contains discreet alignment lines to help the faithful point themselves correctly. (At the moment there are also temporary stickers to mark out social distancing during prayer.)

Fortunately, the Omphalion, the coronation spot of the Emperors, has been left uncarpeted and is protected by guard ropes. So innocent tourists don’t have to worry about accidentally standing on it and committing High Treason. (Although it’s a while since anyone has actually been executed for this. Not even richly deserving small children.)
The Mary and Child mosaic over the apse seems to have been problematic. So, perhaps to avoid any impression that the faithful are praying “to” it, it has been carefully obscured with drapes. You can still see all of it if you move from side to side, but apparently it is sufficiently masked to satisfy religious sensibilities.  (Other religious mosaics on the ground floor have been left undisturbed.)

Right now the upper galleries, which contain some fine mosaics, are closed off for restoration. I hope they reopen soon.

A Botanical Road Trip

I’m on an all-electric road trip through California into Arizona and back. The trip has ended up having a distinctly botanical flavor, including visits to:


Joshua Tree Forest


Scotsman at Joshua Tree NP


Palm Canyon: Green palm trees in the desert

Tahquitz Canyon: 6 ft red barrel cactus



“The Worlds Largest Tree”


Desert Botanical Garden


Saguaro Forest, North of Phoenix

Yuma Territorial Prison

I’m doing an all-electric road trip across California into Arizona.

I’ve got delayed a little in Yuma, Arizona, at the Yuma Territorial Prison – apparently there was a problem with my paperwork when I bought my admission ticket. I’m sure it will all be fixed soon, but if someone could bake me a cake in the meantime that would be great.

The Yuma Territorial Prison operated from 1876-1909. It was relatively progressive for its day, with a library and even a prison band. But it had a fearsome reputation because of its two rows of granite high-security cells that became miserably hot in the Arizona summer.

High-Security Cell Block

Fellow Inmates

Yuma High School Wrestling Team

 

A few years after the prison was closed, the Yuma High School burned down and school classes were temporarily moved into the former prison while a new school was built.   This earned the school sports teams the sarcastic nickname “the Criminals”.  A name which they then seized as their own and still use today.

 

 

Iceland: Puffins!

I’m up near Borgarfjorour Eystri in North-East Iceland visiting puffins.

At Hafnarhólmi, visitors are allowed to walk right up to a puffin nesting area. There is a wooden walkway and a “hide” right in among the puffins.  There are many, many puffins!  They are slightly nervous of humans but only slightly.  Some nests are right beside the walkway.  You can easily get to within 2 meters of the puffins.

It was great fun to see the puffins close up.  But this is Iceland and today was a rainy day, so both I and the puffins got thoroughly soaked!

Update August 7th.  Back in Reykjavik I was enjoying the fine local cuisine, including the excellent Nói Síríus Icelandic Milk Chocolate.  But then Mike emailed me and asked if I had tried a cheese-and-puffin sandwich.  Well, no, but it did sound like a really great idea.  And all the ingredients were readily available…

Disclaimer: No puffins were harmed in the making of this post. All sandwich scenes were performed by daring stunt-puffin, Lundi Lundison, who was fishily rewarded.  And it was all Mike’s idea anyway.  🙂

Iceland: Geysir

The sleeping geyser Geysir

I’m in Iceland, travelling the Ring Road around the island.  I arrived this afternoon at the Hotel Geysir, which is in Geysir, a short walk from the geyser Geysir.

Geysir (from whom all other geysers are named) is taking a rest this decade, but his nearby buddy the geyser Strokkur is spouting regularly, every 5-8 minutes, up to about 15-20 meters. It’s good fun to watch!

I’m enjoying Iceland.  Right now the COVID-19 rate is extremely low, so everything is operating almost normally, with only minimal reminders of the need for social distancing.  It’s very pleasant to be able to do quaint old-fashioned things like sit down in a coffee shop and sip a mocha.  🙂

The very active geyser Strokkur

Martinique: St Pierre

Preserved Ruins, St Pierre

On 8th May 1902, the thriving town of St Pierre, Martinique, was abruptly destroyed by a pyroclastic surge from the Mount Pelée volcano.  Around 25,000 people died within minutes.

Sadly, the authorities had been fully aware of the many warning signs of an eruption at Mount Pelée.  They had carefully determined that various intervening hills would prevent lava flows from reaching St Pierre.  Farmers from near the volcano had been evacuated into the imagined safety of the town.  To reassure the populace, the Governor of Martinique himself had arrived.  Tragically, the authorities were quite correct about the lava flows, but unfortunately science at that time did not understand the risk of a pyroclastic flow, where clouds of hot ashes and toxic gases can be expelled very abruptly at speeds over 100 km/hr. It was just such a flow that engulfed the town.

Survivor’s Prison Cell

Over the following century, the town has slowly been repopulated.  Various sections of the ruins have been preserved as tourist attractions, most notably the old theater and the former prison.  One of the handful of survivors of the disaster was a prisoner held in a strongly built stone cell at the rear of the prison.  He was found days later by rescuers with severe burns and went on to make a career recounting his ordeal at Barnum & Baileys traveling circus.

There is a small, but interesting, Memorial Museum describing life in the town before the eruption and then the abrupt events of the day itself.

Earth Sciences Research Center

A little North of the town is the modern, stylish and earthquake-proof Earth Sciences Research Center.  This keeps a careful watch on the current status and mood of Mount Pelée.  There are many other volcanoes scattered in the Eastern Caribbean, but fortunately, the signs and risks are better understood nowadays and the museum shows several example of where towns have been successfully evacuated in the face of imminent eruptions.

Postscript: I was stopping off in Martinique as part of a planned trip to the European Space Center in French Guiana.  But the day after my visit to St Pierre, I got email that the Center was being closed to visitors due to increasing spread of COVID-19.  So I cut my trip short and started heading home.  It may be a while before I can travel again…