Culross Abbey

I happened on Culross by chance, I was heading further along into Fife and I saw the sign. I am happy I chose to go for the detour because Culross Abbey is an interesting site. There’s a new church next to the old ruins, and the ruins are magnificent.

The day I had chosen was not the sunniest of possible ones (the grey cloud cover often comes through as endless sunlight in my pictures). Typically to Fife, there was some rain. These conditions made the site stand out as much as the random bits of masonry do everywhere — indeed, the state of deconstruction is possibly the most worthy thing to see here.

It brings to mind ‘Ruin’:

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age.

Culross Abbey

Tallinn Old Town

Reflecting on my trip to the Estonian capital last month, I can say I noticed some things I have not previously been aware of even though that may have more come about from my own previous ignorance.

Firstly, it is important to know that the history of Tallinn–of Reval, of Koluvan, of Lindanise–spans firstly many centuries and secondly many cultures, of whom nearly all have left some mark. A wandering around the capital can lead you on streets financed by German merchants that gave birth to Danish legends and which were partially uprooted by Swedish axes or Soviet bombs.

One of these items I thought of going to investigate up close, but did not, was the famous Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke that I think I have seen once before. The thought behind it–of everyone’s equality–is probably more to my liking now than fifteen years ago. However, the motivation to spend an exorbitant sum to go into a museum for a few tens of minutes did not exist. Clearly, one can become too comfortable with the free museums offered in some other places…

Tallinn’s depth of history also means that one needs to know where they are going or what they are doing if they are looking for something specific. For me, this time round, I was not looking for anything else than an opportunity to see what was there.

The Danish gardens by the Old Town, the city perimeter, the abandoned modern fortifications… and the list goes on–what do you want to see? A Soviet-style prison? Also there. A Hansaetic guild house? Go and take a look…

A lot of these places, naturally, carry their own local myths and legends, and even if I was more able to differentiate between their varying history; I had also forgotten some, if not most, of the legends that accompanied these sights.

A medieval atmosphere definitely existed though I have previously laughed at some writers who have mentioned Tallinn as the ‘medieval’ city of Europe; of course, this atmosphere won’t be found on the Town Hall Square at bars charging €5.50 for a beer while grumpily acknowledging your presence. Instead, one needs to know which places are worth going to, or at least be willing to experiment outside of the traditional options (probably best defined as the ones which are easily signposted). The advice of Mr Cowen to look for places (especially for food) out of the way and frequented by locals won’t go amiss.

A final surprise which was pleasant at least to my mind was the plurality of street musicians. The good weather naturally helped, but it was an absolute delight to stroll down a street while decent (folkish) music played aloud. It was even possible for me to leisurely listen to these tunes–something which might be less true for the tourist of the cruise ship who is sailing out again in four hours’ time…

Lindisfarne Priory

The Priory was close to the Castle. Apparently, it was out of use and being slowly dismantled by the time construction started on the castle, which is why it is in such a state of disrepair. Although, the one thing I noted was that the main object standing is a massive arch even though it had barely any support. The monks (and masons and assisting people) built those arches well, or rather, figured out clever geometry for the arches to support themselves well!

Though this priory carries very little in itself of the original 7th century centre of all Christian learning (or, well, most of it in the former Western Empire), I can sense why this place was chosen for the monastery.

Well, of course, let’s step back — firstly, one of the reasons was the proximity to the seat of the kings of Northumbria (Bernicia / Deira) across the water in Bebbanburgh. But, more than that, I think if St Aidan had to have chosen after coming wondering around Northumbria, the sheer beauty of the island would have made him want to make this place it. The beauty, but also the tranquillity. It must count as one of the more peaceful places I have experienced.

I think the present-day islanders follow the wish for peace, firstly, by still being secluded from the mainland by the tides, but also by preventing too many mainlanders coming across at any one time (same tides, limited accommodation, defined parking areas for outsiders, restricted access to some places, etc).

Lastly, I was particularly gifted in visiting the place during a day which was dry and sunny. I also heard that, similarly to every other region and county, Lindisfarne is meant to be the driest place in the British Isles (version Northumbria).

I’d like to go back.

Lindisfarne Priory

Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne)

Ireland has grown on me since 2015. Every time I go there, I discover something new and something beautiful. The last time this discovery was Newgrange, or more accurately, the Bend of the Boyne — Brú na Bóinne — which stands for a larger area than Newgrange alone (including approximately 40 passage tombs).

What is Newgrange? Who built it? What do we know about it?

The short answer is that we know nothing definitively, and have a lot of guesses. We know it’s old — older indeed than most man-made structures in the world. We know that the present layout for both Newgrange and Knowth (a second major structure in the same area) is a reconstruction based on the best guesses of the archaeologists who uncovered these places in the ’60s.

Knowth: one of the three major passage tombs at Brú na Bóinne

The what can also be answered by the generic term “passage tomb”, built by the “passage tomb builders”. How innovative. In reality, this reflects what we don’t know. We cannot possibly imagine after fifty-two (!!!) centuries have passed (and at least thirty-three of those without essentially any written legacy!) that we can know or understand the mind of those neolithic architects. What motivated the people to come together to construct such magnificent buildings…

What we do know is that they line up with astral events: Knowth with the spring and autumn equinoxes; Dowth (the third, smallest, and least well preserved of the major passage tombs) with the setting winter solstice sun; and Newgrange with the rising winter solstice sun. What an amazing experience it could have been, in a world without technology, in a world where even the furthest explorers and traders had perhaps not seen the waters beyond the Celtic Sea, to stand on the right day and see the life-giving sun warm the carefully placed central stones in the middle of the life’s work of their preceding generations.

Who were their gods? Who were their lords? Who were they? What were their names?

We shall never know, lest ‘The Light of Other Days’ comes true (and with a minor sadness I see I have not reviewed this book), but what we can know is our feelings after the remoteness of five millennia. What we can imagine is what we would be like if we were there and then. And what we can have a guess at is how alike those people are to us. But we shall never know.

Newgrange

Newstead Abbey & Gardens

A few weekends back I had the chance to visit Newstead Abbey. Or, rather, I should say I happened upon that place by chance on the way somewhere else. The Abbey and the Gardens around it looked so wonderful though, that I took the time to look around and discover that new terrain. Apparently, I learned later, it is a relatively well known place in England, and there definitely were many visitors when I was there. I suppose that its central location between Nottingham and Mansfield would guarantee that it is relatively close to a few population centres…

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Anyways, the more important bit than the Abbey itself was the Abbey Gardens. These were a truly magnificent site, and I would very much enjoy a return visit. What was maybe most interesting about that was how it had been organised — the entire site operated based on a plan, and the sections were all styled differently. The gardens were also appropriately named; thus there existed a Japense Garden, an American Garden, a French Garden, a Spanish Garden, and so forth. One of my favourites, most assuredly, was the Japanese Garden — it did make me think of a more typical Japanese garden, and it was very well styled.

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The lake that made up half of the property border was also most considerable. I can imagine many Lords, still while the entire House and Garden were in process of construction, walking by it and trying to visualise the result that was so clear in their minds. There are a few more pictures, I would add, some of which show the House (Abbey, as it stands now) and others the gardens behind it, designed quite separate from the rest of the domain.

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Also, it is worth mentioning that this house has its position in the literary history of Britain, for it was the ancestral home of the poet to become Lord Byron. The place never looked as good when he was there, from what I was made to believe, but soon afterwards (early 19th century) it was restored and built back on a far grander scale. The place also seems to have been open to public from an early day (mid-19th century) when people could enter and take a look around for a small sum.

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I am looking forward to when I can visit the place again.

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Of Greece, and of People

In a similar line to my earlier post on Scotland, I have now returned (well, a week ago it was) from a good twelve days in Greece (the locations: Korinthia and Thera) which were not only very educative in the traditional higher educational sense (of geology and volcanology), but also of people — including myself.

While the locations I saw were not numerous, the time in Korinthia was well spent. Unfortunately, Akrokorinth is something I missed even though my hotel was only fifteen minutes away. Oh the times!.. Yet, there was one ancient settlement that I did get to visit in the region, and that was Heraion/Iraio (Ηραίο). It is difficult to describe the feelings that take hold when I look upon the work of people from two-and-a-half millenia away — what stays from that moment with me though is the consideration that to have their work survive for this long is representative of the great care and skill with which those stones were laid down once upon a time.

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Ηραίο

The Thera part of the trip brought to my mind a lot of interesting problems, the majority of them related to history. For example, outside of Fira itself is a small cape and on that cape used to be a settlement-fortress. But as a fortress, the location was not all that useful. So, was the purpose to guard the people or to be guarded from them?

The old city of Akrotiri was quite spectacular (not even to mention that there was a house in that city called The Admiral’s House — what a beauty!) if somewhat lacking in the explanatory side. I dare say the evolution of that side of the island when looked at from a both human and volcanological point of view makes for an interesting story that probably deserves a fair bit of thought. I guess, however, that the one thing that is difficult to figure out is where indeed could there be other old settlements under the meters-thick layer of Minoan eruption sediments.

The Admiral's House
The Admiral’s House

One thought stayed with me the entire time from landing on Thera to leaving the place — it is immensely spectacular to see a place so naturally endowed for being a harbour. If it was in any way more strategically placed, it would be quite easy to lament the Admiral who chooses some other island/town for his flag-station. Looking down at the caldera — there were few fleets that I could think of which would not fit into this amazing enclosure. Sure, by the present day the eruptions have opened nearly a quarter of the bay to marine breezes, but even so one could have hidden and guarded a fleet here for some time. The one impulsive wish I did get was to travel to Truk, to Scapa Flow, to other renown harbours to see what sort of an impact they make. Do they look as good ports as Thera?..

And the people… let’s just say that there was plenty of opportunity for reflection on a variety of topics. The Mediterranean Sea always does seem like a very good place to go to for thinking — the combination of warm air, a sea breeze, the gleaming moon, waves breaking against the coast, the dark skies, and potentially a glass of the local quality drink make for a very beautiful moment. Pensiveness is certainly enhanced by this atmosphere. And it makes one wonder…

DSC_0054Also, over the course of this trip I could see that Dutch music is becoming more and more to my liking. I am not entirely certain why, but De Dijk’s line ‘Swalkend op de oceaan’ is a part of the cause.

On How Mr Asimov Was Correct

I am sure that Isaac Asimov was right about a number of things, and not the least amongst these is his portrayal of General Bel Riose. Previously, it has been widely know that it can find proof in Belisarius but I saw a similar instance in the Chinese histories. Namely, while reading ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ I found note of a Ming General, Yuan Chonghuan.

This Yuan Chonghuan was executed by the Ming Emperor when the Jurchen enemies started rumours of how the General would betray the Emperor. While none of his previous actions had done anything to substantiate these rumours, the Emperor feared for his life and position — and that fear quickly allowed General Yuan to see the last sunrise of his life.

Belisarius, as we well know, was not executed but rather retired from public life after becoming too prominent for Justinianus to like him. In any case, the situation is practically the same.

There are certainly a number of other commanders who can fit into this category, but rather than look for more of the same, I’ll present a metaphor that I found in the chapter in ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’:

“Since antiquity, have there been instances in which military men have been able to perform meritorious service while there have been powerful officials at court?”
— Ryotaro Shiba, ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’, p. 443

How close and similar is this to Mr Asimov’s in-universe explanation to why the Empire’s Bel Riose would not defeat the Foundation:

“Look at the situation. A weak general could never have endangered us, obviously. A strong general during the time of a weak Emperor would never have endangered us, either; for he would have turned his arms towards a much more fruitful target. … It was the success of Riose that was suspicious. So he was recalled, and accused, condemned, murdered. ”
— I. Asimov, ‘Foundation and Empire’, p. 85

In other words, what Mr Asimov wrote in the ‘Foundation and Empire’ has a number of parallels in history, and they all substantiate what he thought of. Surely, that was the case before I knew of Yuan Chenghuan, but I was personally rather pleased at finding another example of the same.

The logic behind the actions has clearly stayed the same, but the feeling that I had when I read that part in ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ was… of literature making its way into life. And I knew well that General Yuan had lived a three centuries before Mr Asimov. Yet, it all was more alive: Bel Riose and Yuan Chenghuan breathed anew, if only for a second in my mind.

Those two could probably talk of so many things…

Of the Nazca

Thirty years of rain followed by thirty years of drought…

That must be one of the worst ways for a civilization to go extinct.

The poor Nazca.

And to think that lines on the ground could have helped. Now, if they had had a Chinese civil engineer building channels, then maybe… all that work would have helped them with something more than an interesting landmark for us

 

Histories of the World

Recently, there has been quite a bit of general conversation about on history, and especially on histories of the world.

I, speaking on the most basic level, am quite against any attempt to put together a history of the world. The most basic reason for this is that no matter how it is done, a large portion of what should be in it will be left out. (And, in all likelihood, a lot of what won’t be necessary to include will be included).

I guess I’ll just have to take a look and see what Mr Andrew Marr has built with his new show. But, until that time I can throw a few ideas of my own around…

Say, what I would most certainly not include.

That is by itself a very difficult question to answer since first it would be necessary to decide on a balance between culture and politics. I would probably aim for a more political-military approach because that is the one I personally prefer. Even so, I would probably cut out a large part that usually concerns itself with Napoleon and Alexander. Mind you, I am not saying that is not an important area but I find that far often Alexander is covered in reasonable detail and no mention is made of his successors. [Indeed, the fact that I don’t have to specify even Alexander of Macedon or Alexander III, expecting people to realize, is a sufficient example of how well-known he is.] I find that the Diadochi who came after are a far more worthy subject of discussion in detail, especially considering them determining the fate of the region for the next few hundred years.

Why get rid of Napoleon? Again, maybe just crop him… but thoroughly. With respect to him two less mentioned things which are of greater importance would be the selling of Louisiana and the Congress of Vienna. Overall, all of his military victories combined only to make for one large defeat — so that would be noteworthy, but very much dependent on how much space and time there is to attribute to cases.

Anything else that comes to mind immediately?

Probably the idea of trying to explain the way Southern Africa developed would be a reasonable idea due to it being an often ignored part of the world.

Less time in medieval Europe, more in the Asian lands. Discussing the actual role of companies such as the East India Company (Dutch/British/Portuguese) in colonizing new lands. How Southern America developed and splintered. The failure of the Ottoman Empire. Existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (oh yes it does annoy me how often this is overlooked and marginalized or simply mentioned as an introductory sentence to the partitionings of Poland).

Probably a decision would also have to be made with the political-military approach whether to take up random stories or related to certain people, and how to introduce things from there. I would think the people based approach is the one I’d prefer to use, very much because of the ability to then introduce relatively little known figures like Alcibiades or Vauban or any number of people most history-people can name in instants. Suvorov. Yep, just proved the case once again…

Permanence

Is it a paradox that when one thinks of oneself as permanent, it is not difficult to do things placing the same person into the greatest of dangers? And when it is clear that there is no permanence, that end will be there, then preservation of self gains importance.

What do I mean by permanence here? Certainly not the actual body of flesh, that fades quickest. Instead of that, it might be the name that one leaves behind, the ideals that were believed in…

Maybe, but how can we know without actually feeling the same? Is it possible to reproduce any feelings as they might have been in that, that instant?

“For the samurai to learn 
There’s only one thing,
One last thing –
To face death unflinchingly.”
— Tsukahara Bokuden