Chronicles of a stone town

MARKETING TYPES and wanna-be travel writers like to write of particular destinations as ‘unique’. They’re right of course: no single place is duplicated anywhere in the world, so by definition every destination is unique.

I don’t think that’s what they’re getting at, though. Perhaps, what they’re trying to say is that certain destinations are distinctive, that is, different in subtle ways to other destinations, boasting characteristics that are unlike other places, distinguishable, perhaps even idiosyncratic.

Whatever! To my mind, Albania is one  of the more distinctive – not unique! – destinations in Europe. Its recent history saw it hermetically sealed from the rest of the Continent (as well as the Soviet realm, with which it shared at least some ideological affinity). The Albanians are thought to have descended from the Illyrians, a people who faded into the mists of history (but for a mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; well actually he writes of the Illyrian shore, not the people). And the Albanian language is unrelated to any other.

The most famous Albanian at present is probably the writer Ismail Kadare. The winner of the inaugural Man Booker Prize and several times nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kadare incorporates elements of myth, legend, allegory (designed to outmanoeuvre and skewer socialist-era censors), Balkan lore and history into his writing. One of his most well-loved – and I suspect autobiographical – novels is Chronicle in Stone, set in his birthplace of Gjirokastra during the 1940s and presented through the eyes of a young boy. The Fall of the Stone City, Kadare’s latest novel, recently translated into English, returns to Gjirokastra during WWII, and, going by reviews, is comprised of a familiarly intriguing brew of myth and history, dream and reality.

Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the idiosyncratic, despotic socialist strongman who ruled Albania from WWII until 1985. Hoxha declared his home town a “museum city”, thus it was spared the depredations of post-War socialist architects with their bevies of cement mixers; it retains the bulk of its historical building stock. Yet for all its exalted “museum” status and important place in Albanian history it has a very heavy Greek imprint. Gjirokastra, after all comes from the Greek: agyros (αργυρός, “silver”) + kastro (κάστρο, “castle”).

Gjirokastra climbs a steep hill above the Drinos River, in southern Albania not far from the Greek border. It’s easy to see why the stone motif features in Kadare’s novels about the city, and why he has a predilection for myths and legends. It’s an atmospheric settlement in a rugged, wind-whipped location, backed by calloused mountains. It’s fair to say that Gjirokastra is distinctive! From the lower, new town, steep, cobblestone streets rise to the bazaar area and residential neighbourhoods and beyond to the eponymous and fabulously gloomy kastro, which, when I visited, was framed by a constant halo of hovering crows.

Wandering the upper town is hard work. The winding cobbled streets are undeniably atmospheric, a melange of white-washed garden walls, mighty, jagged plane trees. On the verges and in garden plots grow wild fig, poppies, honeysuckle. The topography of a town straddling a hillside works against a casual stroll. Locals clearly get used to the gradient though: I noticed grandmothers dressed all in black striding purposefully up ascending paths, their sinewy calf muscles bulging in knee-high stockings.

Gjirokastra is notable for its signature, 19th-century kullë mansions (from the Turkish kule, “tower”). Sturdy and imposing they are built in three storeys, topped with weighty, limestone roof tiles. These tiles are very much of the area, elemental building materials that are drawn from the very landscape. They also feature in architecture south of the border in Greece, in Epirus, particularly in the towns of Ioannina and Metsovo.

The Gjerë Mountains form a barrier between Gjirokastra and the Ionian Sea. When I crossed the mountains the bus had to slow at the pass to allow a shepherd and his flock of fat-tailed sheep cross the highway. The shepherd’s wife led a couple of horses that were carrying large milk canisters and a young sheep dog nestled amongst woven bags. Descending to the Drinos Valley, we then turned left and headed north past villages all with Greek names.

After my stay in Gjirokastra I had to head south to Greece. I arrived in the bus station in the lower town early in the morning. I’d missed the first bus of the day to the border. Having no Albanian I found it difficult to determine when the next would leave. I tried French to no avail, and then, on a whim, Turkish – again, no dice. Finally, using my best travellers’ sign language I managed to convince a minibus driver to take me. He charged me well over the odds, I’m sure. There was no change from the note that I proffered.

We set off, heading south along the Drinos Valley. The driver whistled merrily. My fare was probably a substantial contribution to his retirement fund. He stopped for a couple of passengers, women in cardigans and headscarves. All of them looked at me, the lone traveller with a backpack, then chatted animatedly with the driver. All handed over smaller notes than I had.

Just short of the border, he took on another woman. She climbed aboard and declared, “Kαλημέρα.” Kalimera! Good morning! They were speaking Greek. Perhaps if I’d tried my best traveller’s Greek in the lower town I would’ve had a cheaper ride.

When we drew to a halt I thanked the driver: ευχαριστώ πολύ. He looked puzzled, then grinned broadly and wished me bon voyage – καλη ταξίδι – and I lined up to cross the border, leaving the stony hills of Albania for the stony hills of northern Greece.

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Tracking St George

RECENT RESEARCH suggests that Indo-European languages first arose in Anatolia some time around 8000 years ago, then gradually spread out in a ripple effect across Eurasia, through Persia, south to India and northwest into Europe. This doesn’t mean that all European languages are descended from Turkish, or that the European peoples all have Turkish blood coursing through their veins. The (Seljuk) Turks didn’t arrive in Anatolia until the 11th century, fully 7000 years after these languages began to arise.  It does however lend credence to the theory that this corner of the world has long been home to human populations that were, as one blogger nicely puts it, “fluid and frequently stirred”. Anatolia has long been a melting pot; before that, it appears, it was a launching pad.

With the people moved myths, legends. An anthology of folk tales from the Caucasus, in the same neck of the woods as Anatolia, has just been published by David Hunt, a Caucasian folk literature specialist. This compilation is yet more evidence of the fluidity and well-stirredness (!) of the region and its impact on Europe more broadly, because amid epic sagas and feats of derring do from peoples you’ve never heard of (Ubykhs, Lezgins, Kabardians, anyone?) are tales that have become familiar tropes of folkloricists, bed-time storytellers and raconteurs across Europe and beyond. This is the region that gave us the Golden Fleece; that particular tale isn’t here but David Hunt’s assortment offers several takes on the legend of Prometheus, fables of the Cyclops (a figure that crops up everywhere from Homer’s Odyssey to Slavic tales and The Book of Dede Korkut, an Oghuz Turkish epic from before the Turks arrived in Anatolia), the voyage of the Ark (which we may rightfully classify as a fable, and which everyone knows lodged on Mt Ararat, on the border between Turkey and Armenia) and St George’s almighty tussle with the dragon.

In the last few days I’ve been learning more about St George as I’ve been writing a review of an edited volume of academic papers that documents and interprets instances of religious syncretism and hybridism. (It’s called Shared Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: sounds fascinating, huh? Well, actually it is. And , especially at this time when hotheads, who claim to be religious, are running around howling for blood, it makes salutary and instructive reading.)

One of the most intriguing chapters, “St George the Anatolian”, by ethnologist Maria Couroucli, details in discrete, concise academic prose an intricate lattice work of connections, echoes and parallels between St George and a host of other notables from an incredibly diverse range of traditions. In my excitement (I looooooooooooove this stuff), the page became a blur of names instantly recognised, links only half grasped; a litany, a roll call, a wave of names and golden threads: St George, St Elias (the prophet), Hidrellez (the Turko-Anatolian  harbinger of spring; his name is a hybrid of the Arabic for greenness – Hdr – and a Turkic corruption  – Ilyas – of Elias), a mythological slayer of dragons who arose in Armenian and Persian canons, Alexander the Great, Digenis Akrites (an Orthodox hero of the Byzantine-Abbasid marches) who is descended from two races (hence: Digenis), a trope that occurs through chronicles of Shiite Persia, Greek folk songs, episodes from The Arabian Nights and legends of Sufi mystics in the Balkans. Here is a flurry of legends so ambiguous, so blurred, so overlapping, so passed-around-and-shared, so dog-eared-from-constant-use that they must belong to everyone.

On a recent trip to İstanbul, with junior Gourlays in tow, I witnessed the Turkish fascination with St George. We caught a ferry to Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands off the coast which have long been a retreat for well-heeled İstanbullus. A festive air reigned as we left Kabataş, a boatload of tourists, day-tripping locals and Iranian visitors, one of whom insisted I partake liberally of his trail mix (in which dried Persian mulberries featured prominently). Büyükada (Prinkipo in the Greek) is home to a monastery dedicated to St George. On April 23, St George’s Day, the island is swamped with Turkish visitors who come to the monastery to light candles and request the mercies of St George. Even in September, when we visited, there was evidence of the festivities: votive rags tied to cypress trees and coloured threads along the steep cobbled paths that lead to the monastery sited at the peak of the island with views across the European and Asian shores of the great metropolis. You can read a piece I wrote for Eureka Street about the monastery here. Most visitors to the monastery who we saw were Turks, but on the ferry back to the city we encountered all manner of Levantine visitors: Syrians and Lebanese. The journey was a gaggle of Arabic and Turkish and the plaintive cries of the seagulls that followed in our wake, diving for scraps of bread.

Also in Sharing Sacred Spaces, Dionigi Albera and Benoit Fliche document some of the intercommunal practices that happen at the church of St Anthony of Padua, just off İstiklal Caddesi in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood of İstanbul. Despite being written in plain academic prose, some of these struck me as quite moving (well, perhaps I’d been reading too long…): shared breaking of offerings of bread, which is then eaten by both Muslims and Christians in a “paraphrase of the Eucharist”, the case of a female visitor berating a male church attendant who extinguished votive candles before what she felt was an appropriate time (the candles had been lit by Muslim visitors; the woman made the attendant relight them). These are unorthodox practices that belong to no particular tradition, but perhaps belong to all.

I have a memory of visiting St Anthony of Padua. It was in the late afternoon of a weekday in the late autum of 1995. I was with a Turkish friend. A biting wind blew along İstiklal Caddesi, the sky was a bruised grey, lights were flickering on. We lit candles in St Anthony and paused for a while. Back on İstiklal we passed a small boy, in his blue school tunic, cross legged on the pavement beside a set of scales. A cardboard box nearby was intended for coins offered by anyone using the scales. The small boy was so intent on writing his homework in his exercise book that he didn’t even look up as I dropped some coins in the box. I weighed 76kg; Aylin was 49. We departed into the twilight of that eternal city.

Hotan: deep in the Taklamakan

LAST WEEK, my piece about Hotan appeared in the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman. Hotan was the furthest I managed to venture into the Taklamakan Desert, which dominates the Tarim Basin in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Roaring eastward along the highway from Yarkand, you get a feel for the mighty desert, seemingly unending expanses of sand rippled into undulating dunes, like the floor of the sea. In fact, as described in Christian Tyler’s thought-provoking Wild West China, the Tarim Basin was once the floor of a sea, one that was pushed upwards by the same mighty forces that threw up the Himalayas, which lie to the south of Xinjiang.

The desert has its own appeal. It has seen people come and go for millennia, notably along the Silk Road, linking east Asia with the Persian and Mediterranean worlds, but – even more intriguingly – it was the domain of the Tokharians. A historical oddity, if ever there was one, the Tokharians were a Caucasian people, professing Buddhism, dressed in a Persian fashion, with ginger hair, the remains of whom have been found mummified in many sites in the arid interior of the desert.

Until about the 10th century, the Tokharians wandered an apparently more fertile realm than the desert is currently. It was about this time that the Tocharians encountered Turkic groups who were moving westward. The Tokharians are claimed as ancestors by the modern (Turkic) Uyghurs who have comprised the majority of the population of the Taklamakan until the last century. Genetic analysis show that the Uyghurs are 50 percent Caucasian, lending credence to their claim of Tokharian descent; the other 50 percent is presumably Turkic, with some Chinese admixture.

This region has seen intense comingling of peoples over long periods of time. As well as the peripatetic Tokharians, who apparently arrived in around  2000 BC, Iranic groups entered the region around 1200 BC. Hotan became the centre of a Buddhist kingdom, Buddhism arriving from northern India. During the 8th and 9th centuries the Tibetans passed through the Tarim Basin in the process of establishing – through conquest, no less – a Central Asian kingdom. Colin Thubron, in his majestic, Shadows of the Silk Road, notes that Chinese visitors to Buddhist Hotan were horrified at the sight of Hotanese women wearing trousers and riding horses. The city became known for its silk production and for jade. A Chinese legend says that when a tiger died its eyes became jade under the desert sands.

Some time in the mid-10th century, Satuk Bughra Khan, a Turkic Karahanlı leader, converted to Islam, thus beginning the eventual Islamisation of the entire Tarim Basin. It was a slow process, taking centuries, with the Muslim Karahanlı dominating the west and Buddhist Uyghurs  in the east. Around 1000 a Sufi mystic and Muslim general, Imam Asim, conquered Hotan, bringing an end to the city’s Buddhist history.

The tomb of Imam Asim, on the fringes of the vast desert, is still a pilgrimage site for the Uyghurs of Hotan. In his book Thubron recounts local police loitering at the site, keeping a suspicious eye out for ‘Wahhabis’, a catch-all phrase for Muslim fundamentalists. But Thubron himself was told by locals that they had ‘never felt anything about Al Qaeda’, beyond which, few if any Uyghurs speak Arabic so few would have any direct exposure to radical Islamic ideas. They may recite prayers in Arabic, but without understanding the words, so that their prayers, as Thubron puts it, take on an ‘incantatory magic’.

When I made the journey out to the mazar (tomb) of Imam Asim, a family group of Uyghurs arrived with a chicken for sacrifice (and a bag of grapes: presumably for eating). An animal sacrifice at the tomb of a Sufi mystic (albeit one who was a general) is hardly a practice that would be tolerated by ‘Wahhabis’. Rather it is evidence of a melange of cultural and spiritual practices.

It is commonly thought that the very tomb of Imam Asim was established on the site of an earlier Buddhist pilgrimage site. The tomb itself, a mound topped with a mass of coloured flags rippling in the desert wind, reminded me of nothing so much as a Buddhist tomb. As I watched the Uyghurs reciting their ‘incantatory magic’, at this the most distant point of the Taklamakan that I am ever likely to reach, nothing could have made me happier.