Saturday, May 24, 2014

#671 Old Cairo, Egypt

Of all the legendary old medinas in the Middle East, Cairo's is probably the original. Because of Egypt's central location and historical importance to Europeans, it's also likely that this was the one that was first encountered by many. The layers of civilization, from the Roman ruins of the Babylon Fortress, to some of the earliest Christian churches and Judaic synagogues, to mosques, madrasas, and hammams, with modern shops and markets being the most recent layer are interwoven and full of heritage. Founded in the 10th Century, reaching its peak in the 14th Century, it has long been the center of the Islamic and Arabic World. With no less than 600 registered historic monuments or buildings dating from the 7th to the 20th centuries, it has a wealth of urban examples from all eras such as the middle ages to the modern times.
Wandering an old Islamic city is probably one of my favorite things to do, and Cairo's old city did not disappoint. Starting with the busy tourist bazaar and ending up in random back streets with lights strung up, people's washing hanging up to dry, and cats sunning themselves on a chair, it is always exciting.
On the eastern banks of the Nile River Caliph Omar founded his enclosed city of Al-Fustat in 640 after the death of the Prophet Mohamed sent the Muslim armies conquering neighboring lands. The plain and severe mosque of the Prophet in Medina (Mosque of 'Amr ibn al-'As) was built. The later Abbasids preferred their suburb of Al-Aksar to the north, while partial independence with Governor Ahmed Ibn-Tulun (870) meant the development of Al-Qatai in the northeast, including the magnificent Mosque of Ibn-Tulun, although Abbasids destroyed much of the area when they returned. This was also a time when the Jewish population founded their Ben Ezra Synagogue (in 882). The Fatimids created the quarters of Al-Qahira and Al-Azhar from 969, and although their name and many towers, walls and gates survive, their two grand palaces do not. 1172 saw the arrival of Saladin of the Ayubbids, and the first Mameluke mosques.

While most Egyptians converted to Islam in the 12th Century, Cairo and Egypt have a 12-million-strong population of Coptic Christians (despite centuries of persecution from rulers and Crusaders), the oldest Christian denomination founded by Saint Mark the Apostle, and their base is Old Cairo.

In addition to this, there is the presence of the Greek Orthodox Church with the Church and Monastery of St. George, though the most famous church in Old Cairo is the Hanging Church, St. Virgin Mary's or 'the Staircase Church' (due to its 29 approaching steps) founded in 690, which is built over part of the walls of a Babylon Fortress gate.


Friday, May 23, 2014

#672 Tlos (Tlawa), Turkey

High above the scenic Xanthos valley lies the religiously important Lycian city, Tlos, which was known to the Lycians as Tlawa. Around 4000 years of civilization have layered together, as the area was subsequently controlled by Romans, Byzantines, and Ottoman Turks, each of which left their layer of civilization (it is one of the few Lycian cities to have been continuously inhabited up to the 19th century). It was one of the six important Lycian cities, perhaps even the most important, and in mythology, it was the home of Bellerophon and his winged horse Pegasus. Despite the layers of civilization, it was "rediscovered" by Charles Fellows in 1838, and the beautiful site was admired as appropriate of such an important city.
The most dominant feature is the acropolis and fortress, and the path leading up is dotted with Lycian sarcophagi and rock-cut tombs, such as the Tomb of Bellerophon, with an unfinished four-column facade with Bellerophon riding Pegasus (inside is a carving of a lion or a leopard). The fortress, most recently occupied by the Ottoman "Bloody Chief Ali" (Kanlı Ağı Ali).
There are two baths, adjacent to each other, one of which has an apse with seven windows (known as Yedi Kapi or Seven Gates locally). They are approximately dated to 100-150 C.E. Part of a market hall with pretty arches is behind the Hippodrome. 
The Lycian sarcophagi tombs are giant coffins with carved lids.
Roman Stadium/Hippodrome seats -- its capacity was 2,500 people.
View of the site with hippodrome in front and
amphitheater at the back as seen from the top of the hill.
Much of the site was roped off for safety, including the Roman-era amphitheater with 34 rows of seats (seen here from afar) and the Byzantine church (see below), although the church could be closed for political reasons. A portion of the stage has many inscriptions and carvings. One records donations for construction of the theatre ranging from 3000 denarii by the priests of Dionysus and Cabiria to smaller donations of 100 denarii. Opramoas (a philanthropist) had one large donation, but theatre still took around 150 years to construct.
Stone steps are faded and worn but still visible in the climb to the top of the hill. At right, you can see how a Lycian coffin lid has been repurposed as a building block by subsequent groups.

Inside the Byzantine church, which was roped off preventing entrance.