The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Tbilisi AteshgahThe Tbilisi Ateshgah (aka Atashgah or Fire Temple) was under restoration when I visited it in 2007.  That work is now complete and, mercifully, the restorers have been gentle.  The old brickwork has been cleaned, and in a few places discreetly repaired, but has largely been left “as is”, without any gross tampering.  A perspex roof has been added to protect the site from the elements.

Authentic Zoroastrian fire temples are extremely rare, especially outside Iran.  (The Atashgah at Baku is an 18th century Parsi construction.)  According to the sign outside the Tbilisi temple, it is believed that it was built between the 5th and 7th centuries, and later spend a while as a mosque, while retaining its old name as “Ateshgah”.  This seems reasonably plausible as Tbilisi was under Persian occupation and influence for a while.  Zoroastrianism (like Christianity) was loosely tolerated under Islam, so the Ateshgah might easily have survived in active use for several centuries after the 7th c. Arab invasion.Tbilisi Ateshgah Sign

Tbilisi Ateshgah InteriorThe Ateshgah exterior is a largely featureless brick cuboid, perhaps 20 feet on a side.  There are steps leading up to a pair of stout wooden doors just to the left of the Ateshgah.  These open into what at first looks like a private family courtyard, but if you turn right actually leads into the Ateshgah interior.  There is a new wooden floor, but they have left parts of the original floor exposed.  There are no windows, but instead there are blank arches on each face.

Back in the day, a sacred flame would have burned here and there would likely have been a matching pool of clean water nearby.  A small hollow is visible in one corner, but it isn’t clear what purpose (if any) that served.

The Ateshgah is at GPS = 41.68885,44.80559 around 100 meters East of the Betlemi Church, on the Old Town slopes NE of the Mother Georgia statue.   You can find it by first heading South from Freedom Square,  then heading east along Asatiani Kucha, then take the first right (South) onto a short road that leads up to the Betlemi stairs, then take the 135 steps up to the Upper Betlemi Church, and then head East, past the Betlemi Bell Tower.  Look for the ancient brick building with the protective curved perspex roof!

Batumi's Stalin Museum

Batumi's Stalin Museum

The Stalin Museum in Batumi is much more modest than the imposing Gori Stalin Museum.  It comprises three mid-sized rooms, in a former worker’s hostel which housed the young Stalin when he was organizing workers in Batumi.   However, the Batumi museum provides a much more personal and enthusiastic touch than in Gori.  Your 3 Lari admittance fee includes a guided tour (in slightly halting but workable English) from the Museum’s curator. It quickly becomes clear he has true enthusiasm for his work and he believes Stalin was, on the whole, a positive force.  He uses the familiar arguments: without the crash industrialization program of the 1930s the USSR (and the West) would have lost WWII and, without Stalin, the crash industrialization program would never have happened.

Curator + Stalin

Stalin ‘s stay in Batumi was reasonably brief.  He was arrested and imprisoned after organizing a workers protest where a number of workers died in a confrontation with the authorities.  (See Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Young Stalin” for details.)  The museum includes the room where Stalin stayed and supposedly the actual bed he slept on.  Other than that, it includes a modest collection of idealized Stalin paintings and sculptures, and reproductions of various stock photographs of the young revolutionary, including his classic police mugshot.

Since I seemed interested and polite, the curator was kind enough to take my picture with a flag of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, beside an idealized statue of the young Stalin.

If you are in Batumi, it is definitely worth visiting, if for nothing else, as a glimpse into an entire alternative world view.

Curator's Office

"Stalin's Bed"

Stalin's Mugshot

Scotsman + Georgian SSR Flag

The Oracle at Siwa

The stunningly green Siwa oasis is in the outer Sahara, in Western Egypt.  I got there after about 470 miles and ten hours by bus from Cairo, with a change of buses at Marsa Matruh on the Mediterranean coast. The first sign of Siwa was hills off in the distance and then an abrupt terrain transition from Saharan sand to tall wild grass.  Then we entered the oasis proper, with its many acres of lush green palm trees.

The oasis has a population of around 10,000, with much local agriculture and a good scattering of tourists.  At the bus stop I was ambushed by some local kids, who carefully declined to give me directions to my hotel, but instead sold me a ride there on their fine donkey cart, for a whole 5 Egyptian Pounds (about a  dollar).

Now palm trees and donkey carts are all very charming, but Siwa’s main claim to fame is that it was the site of the great Oracle of Amun.  Among many other visitors, Big Alex came by here in 331 BC.  We don’t know what question he asked, but we know the gist of the wise answer he received: “Alexander is the son of Amun and destined for Great Things!”

The Temple of the Oracle is about 2km East of the modern town area.  It is easy to spot, as it is inside a ruined mudbrick town on a prominent hilltop.  The Temple is fairly modest, and has suffered from some aggressive modern reinforcement of the ancient structure.  But yes, it is the original structure, built in the 6th c. BC and visited by Alexander himself.  The inner sanctuary is blocked off by a modern iron gate, but that was open when I was there, so I could stroll into the heart of the ancient Oracle.

I had arrived early, so I had the site to myself.  After traveling so far, how could I resist asking the Oracle for guidance?  A long pause and then the exasperated braying of donkeys in the distance.  A fine and fitting answer.

From the hilltop there is a fine view over the oasis, with its many square miles of green palms, and its two large (salty) lakes to East and West.

The ruined Temple of Umm Ubayd is about 500 meters SSE of the Oracle.  (Note that the map in Lonely Planet Egypt 2008 seems to have mixed up the locations for the two temples and is quite misleading on this point).   The humble road between the two temples is decorated by giant green lamp posts.  Follow the lamp posts through the various forks and you’re on the right route.  Unfortunately there isn’t much to see at Umm Ubayad: a lot of large collapsed blocks and a restored wall with a few faded ancient Egyptian inscriptions.

If you follow the green lamp posts about another 700 meters SE, you’ll find a large modern bathing pool, allegedly fed  by the ancient “Cleopatra’s Spring”.  A little further on, there is an older, but still modern, circular deep pool, with a little water bubbling up, which also claims the “Cleopatra’s Spring” title.

Damascus Encounters

Damascus’s Old City is very tourist friendly and it’s a pleasant place to wander.  It’s mostly pedestrian-only and while the souks are fairly busy, the streets are mostly wide and it doesn’t feel too crowded.  People  say “welcome!” a lot.   Mercifully, the many souvenir shop owners are only slightly pushy.

Umayyad Mosque CrowdsThere are two large contingents of foreigners in the Damascus Old City.  First, there are many European tour groups, diligently photographing everything in sight. Second, there are flocks of Iranian pilgrims, with women in black chadors, towing their favourite mullah, come to visit important Shiite shrines.  These two contingents briefly cross paths in the courtyard of the giant Umayyad Mosque, where they look somewhat baffled by each other (what are these strange people doing here?) before continuing their respective rituals.

Sayyda Ruqayya Shrine

Sayyda Ruqayya Shrine, with Dome and Chandelier

I followed the Iranians to the nearby Sayyda Ruqayya Mosque, which contains the burial shrine of a grand-daughter of Ali.  Her shrine seems to be particularly beloved by Iranian women. The mosque has been (re)built fairly recently, with Iranian money, and the interior is very splendid, ornately decorated with a glittering mirrored dome and giant crystal chandelier. The tomb itself is surrounded by a metal grill and many of the pious were dropping cash donations through the grill.  These seemed to be almost entirely Iranian Rials, with the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s visage showing prominently on many of the banknotes.

The Umayyad Mosque itself is large and extremely interesting.  It is one of the first of the great mosques, built in the early 8th century.  It is thoroughly unlike the main mosques of Istanbul or Iran.  There is no large dome.  Rather there is large courtyard facing on to an extremely large prayer hall (restored after a 19th c. fire).  The exterior of the prayer hall looks much more like a large church than a normal mosque, although inside it is oriented so the congregation is arrayed facing the long Southern wall (facing Mecca) rather than facing down the long axis, as in a church.  To my great surprise, the courtyard and prayer hall exterior have many fine mosaics using a striking mixture of lush green and gold tones, depicting leafy plants and lush townscapes.  This is (apparently) original. There are no humans or animals, but is much more naturalistic and representational than I have seen in any other mosques.   Excellent.

Umayyad Mosque Mosaic

Umayyad Mosque Mosaic

Umayyad Treasury

Umayyad Treasury

The courtyard contains a strange little building (heavily mosaiced with greenery) perched atop eight tall pillars.  Apparently this was the old public treasury.  Rather than being hidden away, it obtains security by being very inaccessible yet in a very public place.  Any additions or removals of money would require someone to bring both keys and a ladder and be very visible!


(More Damascus Photos.)

The Chouf Mountains

I arranged a car and driver for a trip from Beirut up into the Chouf mountains.  The road from the coast quickly entered low, but steep, mountains, heavily wooded and very green.  Higher up, the hills became more mixed, sometime still green and wooded, sometimes rocky and barren.

Chouf Cedar Reserve

At the Chouf Cedar Reserve at Maaser ech-Chouf, I spent 40 minutes wandering through an old Lebanese Cedar forest.  The overall reserve is apparently quite large, but this particular section is quite small, although it contains quite a number of large old trees.  The largest single trunks seemed to be around 3ft diameter.  The largest “trunks” seemed to be aggregates of multiple trees grown together.  Some of these were 6ft or more across.  A park sign claimed that one such aggregate was 3000 years old, but I’m afraid I’m a little dubious.

The young trees are straight and tall and thin, like firs.  The older trees develop the horizontal growth in elegant stratified green layers that is so distinctive.  Walking through the forest was very peaceful and calm, especially after the noise and bustle of Beirut.

Jumblatt Palace

Moukhtara is the home of the Jumblatt family and thus the unofficial capital of the Druze and the Chouf.  I had been planning to stop near the Jumblatt family palace and maybe take a few discreet photos from the roadside.  But no.  My driver took me up to the front security gate and indicated I should go ahead.  Um, OK.  The security staff were in civilian clothes and while they weren’t overtly waving any big weapons around, they were also distinctly watchful.  However they seemed reasonably amiable towards a random wandering Scotsman.  After the main gate, I had my bag taken to be searched and it was then indicated I should continue without it.  I retrieved my camera and was given a slightly reluctant nod.  It was indicated I should turn it on.  Having my lens open out got an approving nod.  Then one gentleman was delegated to take me up to the main house.  I got as far as the main outer courtyard, with a good view of the quite majestic grand manor building.  It seemed very pleasant, with grand sweeping exterior staircases and a fine view of the Chouf.  It was actually unclear how much further I was allowed or expected to go, but I decided that I should consider myself fortunate to take some pictures here and not push my luck.  So after only a couple of minutes, I trotted out again.

Beiteddine: Middle Courtyard

The Beiteddine Palace was the large, sprawling, graceful palace of a semi-independent regional governor.  It was built around 1800, mostly in a classical Arab style, but also using some modern elements.  There are three courtyards, ranging from one very large and very public to a semi-private small inner court with a charming fountain, to the (unfortunately closed) private inner court.  [Or so says Lonely Planet.  There is also a common Syrian pattern where the middle court is for family and the rear court is for servants, which actually seems to fit the layout better.]  There are large stables in arched stone galleries beneath the last two.  The palace is well worth visiting for itself, but the advertised highlight is the collection of 5th to 6th c AD mosaics in the stables.  Although the collection is large, the quality is generally much lower than at Antakya.  There are some good geometric pieces, many weaker animals ones, and only a few humans.  There is no real attempt at the full painting style seen at Antakya.

Baalbek: Roman Grandeur

I took a shared taxi over the border from Homs to Baalbek. There was some minor confusion at Syrian passport control: I hadn’t been issued an Entry Card when I entered Syria from Turkey and the Syrian immigration officer was duly aggrieved. But I mumbled some confused apologies, my taxi driver protested on my behalf (probably something along the lines of “he’s only a fool of a tourist”), there was some tapping on the computer, and I was duly sent onwards.

The land from the border to Baalbek looked relatively dry and dusty. There were no Hezbollah or militia checkpoints. I saw some Hezbollah billboards, but those were outnumbered by billboards of elegant young ladies advertising shampoo. (Hurrah!)

What is most striking about the great Roman Temple site at Baalbek is the sheer size of the remains. There are only six columns left of the great Temple of Jupiter, but these are over 60ft tall, supporting an equally gigantic architrave, and make a stunning impression. The original temple had around 50 columns and was the largest temple of the Roman world. Temple of Jupiter

+ Scotsman

The Temple of Bacchus is much better preserved and still enormous. Most of the structure, including most of the external pillars and internal supports, is still standing. The main gateway has the famous “dropped keystone” at the top.

Temple of Bacchus

The site had a steady trickle of visitors, but no large tour groups. There is a good site museum, which among much else explains how the largest stones were cut and moved. (One of the Roman tricks was inserting dry wooden wedges into a crack and then wetting them.)

Finally, I checked in to the distinctly eccentric Hotel Palmyra. I appeared to be the only guest. Following LonelyPlanet’s advice, I stayed in the supposedly better quality “extension”.   However, this was unheated, was vaguely damp, had peeling paint, and no hot water.  Sigh.  I also had to collect the caretaker from the main entrance to open the annex door for me whenever I wanted in.  But it was fine for one night.