'When the days of rejoicing are over,
When the flags are stowed safely away,
They will dream of another wild "War to End Wars"
And another wild Armistice day.
But the boys who were killed in the trenches,
Who fought with no rage and no rant,
We left them stretched out on their pallets of mud
Low down with the worm and the ant.'
- Excerpt from 'Armistice Day' (1918) by Robert Graves
As part of school tradition we used to walk for fifty miles (80 km) in the English countryside - which would have taken a staggering 24 hours of almost non-stop walking to complete. It may be a hard walk, but it was hard to imagine if I was born eighty years earlier, I would have gone straight to war having completed that. The walk, originally created as a test of endurance for students about to enlist in WWI is today the rite of passage before we all leave school.
‘Men wanted for hazardous journey:
Small wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness,
Constant danger, safe return doubtful.
Honour and recognition in event of success.’
- Hiring advertisement of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917)
This expedition was to be the last of its kind in the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’ - a time before machines would start to play an important role in expeditions. With the HMS Endurance stuck and later altogether crushed by pack ice, Shackleton had no doubt his expedition was going to fail. Yet just as the ship's name suggest - 'Fortitudine Vincimus' (Latin meaning 'By Endurance We Conquer', taken from Shackleton's own family motto) - Shackleton would pluck triumph from this disaster and turn it into one of the most extraordinary story of determination and survival.
'He had thought that the Lascars were a tribe or nation, like the Cherokee or Sioux:
He discovered now that they came from places that were far apart, and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean; among them were Chinese and East Africans, Arabs and Malays, Bengalis and Goans, Tamils and Arakanese.'
-Excerpt from 'Sea of Poppies' (2008) by Amitav Ghosh
For generations, the sea has provided the livelihood of my family: since time immemorial my ancestors had intermarried with the Tanka people, the ‘boat people’ or ‘sea gypsies’ who have traditionally lived on junks and fished along the southern China. In my grandfather’s time, they had been for three generations marine surveyors and witnessed first-hand how Hong Kong turned into one of the busiest trading ports of the world. My uncle who later joined the navy would become the first of my family to settle in Britain.
And it was the connection to the sea that brought the first Chinese to Britain - who were seamen serving onboard European ships. Since I have always have an interest in knowing more about my predecessors - the first Chinese migrants in Britain, I took a walk around the site of London’s first Chinatown.
'The inhabitants cultivate figs, pomegranates and plums in large quantities but they do not sow their fields. They purchase their wheat from Karak, which their women grind: and at the passage of the Hadj they sell the flour as well as the fruits to the pilgrims.’
- Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (Swiss traveller and orientalist, 1784-1817)
on Ma'an in his book 'Travels in Syria and Arabia Deserta' (1882)
A man came into my hotel room, uninvited, he sat down and turned on the TV. Not that I really mind anyway. I am in Ma'an, a deeply conservative but a closely knitted community situated in remote southern Jordan.
Ma’an has in recent years been known as a town of instability and unrest. With a high proportion of Bedouin tribes who might prefer tribal rules to national laws - Ma’anis were often being stereotyped as an uneducated people from the backwater of Jordan. This feeling of humiliation, coupled with economic distress and isolation from the national mainstream, Ma’an has for the past few decades become the launching pad of several nationwide riots.
To add to the humiliation, in recent years Ma’an has attracted international media’s attention as the ‘hotbed of extremism’. The signs are not entirely visible today, the ISIS flag hoisted at the traffic circle was long gone – but the moment I arrived at the bus station, the now defaced graffiti and slogan by ISIS sympathisers were all rather visible with a little attention.
It’s must be even more humiliating to the locals once you looked deeper into history. For centuries, Ma’an was a thriving oasis town and known as the 'Gateway of Arabia'. It was the major stop on the historical Syrian Hajj Road between Damascus to Mecca and Medina, Arabia's own Silk Road of pilgrimage and trade.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she.
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
- Excerpt from 'The New Colossus' (1883), by Emma Lazarus (American poet, 1849-1887)
As a tourist I was often reminded by my guidebooks about the Christian holy sites in Jordan: there is the river where Jesus was baptised; or the hill where God showed Moses the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’. Jordan itself formed part of the Biblical Promised Land. But in modern times, Jordan seemed more like the place where they banished those forsaken by God. In our own time, we have heard about the plights of the Syrians and Iraqis, who make up for at least 30% of Jordan’s population today.
By the turn of the 20th century it was the Promised Land of yet another people: the Armenians who faced a genocide went on their ‘death march’ to here, and perhaps the least remembered were the North Caucasians who were facing a genocide a thousand miles away. Back then the poor arable land in today’s southern Syria and northern Jordan was the least populated areas within the country, making it an ideal place for the Ottomans to implant the unwanted people who would help to develop this stretch of empire backwater.
I had taken the bus to Zarqa, 15 miles northeast of the capital Amman. The uninspiring industrial town is today slowly becoming part of the sprawling capital. There is not much that catches the eye here. The only local inhabitant who had ever made it to international spotlight was reportedly a quiet but uncompromising young man here. Later in his life, this high school dropout, and later petty criminal would form a militant group called Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. This would gradually evolve into the ISIS as we know it.
But I didn’t come here to follow the story of a world renowned terrorist. I have come to find a people who are now part of Jordan’s fascinating multi-ethnic population, a people whose homeland in the snowy mountains I have visited – but yet I would never thought about meeting again in the semi-desert towns of Jordan.
Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, is the mandatory religious duty a Muslim must perform at least once in their lifetime. For centuries, the Attabukiyah, the 1,300 km long Syrian Hajj Road linking Damascus to Mecca was the main thoroughfare.
In the old days Hajj didn’t only have a religious implication; it also expanded the possibilities of science, commerce and politics in the Islamic world. Hajj pilgrims would have carried with them the exotic goods from home to pay their way, others bore the latest concepts and ideas - the essentials of the intellectual life of the Islamic World. This would in turn inspire Muslim advances in mathematics, optics, astronomy, navigation, transportation, geography, education, medicine, finance, culture and even politics.
The Attabukiyah was by and large Arabia’s own ‘Silk Road’.
'Pilgrims going to Mecca' (1861) by French painter Léon Belly (1827-1877). It depicts the column of pilgrims' caravan on Hajj towards Mecca. Notice the different clothings, including a pilgrim in his white Chokha, the long cloak with front-breasted pockets for bullets, native to the Caucasian mountains.
In the 16th century, Arabia became part of the Ottoman Empire’s possession, and so did the organisation of Hajj. Under the leadership of the Emir al-Hajj, the ‘Commander of the Pilgrims’, caravan of Muslim pilgrims once stretched across miles of hostile desert, following the very road that Mohammed would have used in his early years as a merchant.
Back then, to have earned the honorific title ‘Haji’, meaning someone who has successfully completed their Hajj, was not an easy task. This stretch of desert was notorious for Bedouin raiding and was extremely dangerous. In response the Ottomans constructed a series of Hajj forts along the way, protecting the pilgrims and traders on their long journey to the Holy Cities.
'Would you like to travel to Arabia?' asked Professor Kastner.
'Why not,' replied Niebuhr, 'if someone defrayed the expense?'
- Between Carsten Niebuhr (18th century German explorer) - the sole survivor of the first scientific expedition to Arabia, and his professor at the Gottingen Academy.
I only knew I wanted to get to Jordan.
After a brief search online, the only affordable way was to fly to Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai and travel overland to Jordan. There is a reason why the flight to the Sinai was so cheap: an attack at a Sufi mosque rocked the town of Arish in Sinai a week before I booked my flight. Although the North Sinai had long been known for its lawlessness, attack of such scale was rare. With more than 200 dead and 100 injured, it was the deadliest attack in Egyptian history.
Despite the rock bottom ticket prices there were few tourists on-board my flight. Until a few years ago Russian tourists were still flocking to the Sinai for an affordable package holiday away from the cold winter at home. All that changed in 2015. In October a bomb exploded on the Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 217 mostly-Russian passengers on-board. Around me today were mostly Egyptian migrants looking for a cheap way to get home.
Situated between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, the Sinai was where ancient Egyptians came to mine for copper and turquoise - much in contrast to its rather colourful modern history. In 1956, Britain and France invaded the Suez Canal at the Sinai in order to topple the Egyptian president and to halt his attempt at nationalising the canal. The subsequent failure had shown the world that Britain could no longer dictate their own interests in far-off places. It was here that Britain's role as a world superpower came to an end - but it wouldn't be the last time that Britain goes to war under a false pretence in Arabia.
A decade later, Israel would occupy the Sinai - a region three times the size of Israel itself. Wars would continue to haunt the peninsula for years to come, making it one of the deadliest frontiers in the world: in 1973, 1,200 tanks gathered here in what was to be one of the biggest tank battles in history. It was only in 1982 that fifteen years of Israeli occupation finally came to an end.
‘I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites [Arabs] the foundation on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts.’
- Excerpt from ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ (1926) by T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935)
'We are obviously only meant as red herrings [...] to give an archaeological colour to a political job.'
- Excerpt from a letter by T.E. Lawrence to his parents (1914)
'He turned his back on his native borders
And flew off to a far-away land,
Alongside the merry ghost of freedom.'
- 'Captive of the Caucasus' (1822), by Alexander Pushkin
When I first started toying with the idea of crossing the North Caucasus, my Georgian colleague was keen to remind me that it is a region of violence, inhabited by the gortsy (the Russian word for 'highlanders' - but usually with a pejorative sting of the uncivilised and barbaric mountain natives). Since then I have been reading the various travelogues written on the region throughout the centuries.
One aspect was consistent in these accounts: travellers were always surprised to find how little have changed since the time of their predecessors. An 18th century traveller in the Caucasus once wrote that 'the mountains are much in the same state as they were in the time of Herodotus or Strabo'. Similarly, journalists covering the 1990s Chechen War were surprised by how easily they could make connections with the past.
'The Caucasus may be likened to a mighty fortress: Marvelously strong by nature, artificially protected by military works, and defended by a numerous garrison.
Only thoughtless men would attempt to escalade such a stronghold.
A wise commander would [...] advance by sap and mine, and so master the place.'
- Alexi Velyaminov, 19th century Russian general
The end of the 18th century signalled the start of an era in which Russia and other European powers would race to conquer and colonise previously unknown territories. Coinciding with this was the collapse of the Nogais Horde, a regional power by the descendants of the Mongols which traditionally act as the buffer between the Russians in the north and the Caucasians in the south. Both events would serve as the catalysts behind which the two great people were destined to meet.
These garrisons would gradually evolve into the major cities of the North Caucasus today, and they all bear names that explain the intention of their founding: Neotstupny Stan (meaning 'No Retreat'), Burnaya (meaning 'Stormy'), and the most well-known of them all is perhaps Grozny (meaning 'menacing' or 'Terrible'), the capital of Chechnya today. Ossetia's capital Vladikavkaz, its name meaning 'the master of the Caucasus', was one of them too.
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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