Monday, 8 July 2019

Historical Middle East, six: Civic and commercial buildings

This is the sixth in a (third) series of blogposts based on my ME trip. The first post in the series was on orientalist art, the second was on funerary customs, the third was on ritual objects, the fourth was on applied and decorative arts, and the fifth was on sacred buildings.

I am getting near to the end of this series but it seems as though I have just started. How many memories are captured here! The current post – not the longest in the series but the one that has the most photos (43) – will be about buildings that did not have a sacred purpose and, as with the previous post, it will start in Jerusalem because that is where the oldest civic and commercial structures we saw are located.

I couldn’t find a definitive etymology for the name of the city. Suffice to say it has stood in its present location for a very long time and so the walls that surround its core – the old city, or old town, which is filled with narrow alleyways and religious buildings and shops selling tourist tat – are doubtless very old as well. The town that stood where the core of modern-day Jerusalem stands would always have had walls as a protective barrier. Jericho, which is one of the oldest settlements in the world, had walls and any child who has gone to Sunday school will be able to talk about them.

The old city of Jerusalem has a number of gates to allow people to get in and out of the town, and there are tens of thousands of visitors who enter the place every day. The gates are dotted around the place and the one we used most often during our visit to the city was the Jaffa Gate, which is on the western side of the old town and which leads to Mamilla Avenue, an upmarket pedestrian mall that is closed to cars and that is lined by restaurants and shops. The first photo below shows another gate, called Zion Gate. The second photo below shows a gate that is located just east of it called Dung Gate.

Dung Gate is situated in the wall at a place very close to where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall are located, and it provides vehicular access to the city. Not all of the gates of the old city do. The only way to use some of them is to walk in. At Jaffa Gate you can catch a taxi and Zion Gate allows cars to exit while Dung Gate allows cars to go both in and out. 

The following photo shows the walls of the old town from a point just west of it. This photo was taken on day three of our stay when we had walked down the hill from the hotel to find a restaurant. The restaurant only served vegetarian food and the meal was very filling. It is located in a park and before entering the park I turned around and snapped this photo, looking east. The cypresses that you see in Jerusalem, like the limestone used for buildings, is mirrored by what you see in Amman, the capital of Jordan.

The photo below shows a tunnel in Jerusalem. The old city is full of funny little laneways like this and there are often shops leading off them, as you can see in this photo. The shop here is an art gallery. It’s difficult to know when such structures were built and who built them.

Now to Amman in Jordan. The following four photos show the Roman amphitheatre there. It is made from limestone (naturally) and it sits on Hashemi Street, a busy thoroughfare that leads in and out of the old town. Our hotel was located right opposite the theatre and to get back home at the end of the day if we had been out we just had to tell taxi drivers “Roman theatre” and they immediately understood where to go. 

The photo below shows Hashemi Plaza in front of the theatre. People use this space to gather and talk and socialise.

The following photo shows one of the limestone column capitals that is on the ground in the space. The place is not very well looked after by the authorities and although there is a gate with a turnstile at the entrance it was never manned when we visited the plaza.

The photo below shows me with some of the columns that are still partially standing.

The following photo shows a sign erected on the theatre site by the civic authorities. It dates the theatre to the second century AD at the time of Antoninus Pius; not sure where they got the spelling of this emperor’s name from but it’s different from what you find online. The sign also asks people not to smoke, which seemed odd as the site is in the open air. Perhaps the invocation was for people going into the area inside the building. The sign was situated next to a gate that we never saw open, unlike the turnstile at the entrance, which people just walked through to get into the plaza.

The following two photos show me in Petra, 250km south of Amman, standing in front of the amphitheatre located in the lost city of the Nabataeans. The kingdom became a client state of the Romans in about 100AD, at the same time that Amman (then called Philadelphia) was taken over by the Romans. No doubt theatre formed part of the Romans’ PR apparatus, keeping people loyal and quiet.

The photo below is also of the theatre in Petra, and it shows the stage entranceway (the black hole in the centre of the frame) and the walls of the theatre facing the thoroughfare that people would have used to move from one part of the settlement to another.

The photo below shows the remains of a wall that made up part of the fabric of the theatre. You can see the rubble inside the wall and its smooth, dressed facing stone.

The following photo shows the nymphaeum (a water source) built by the Romans in Amman. The US embassy and scholars at the University of Jordan are restoring this structure. Currently, there is a kind of keeper who lives on-side and he lets you into the enclosure, which is hard by the produce market in the downtown area. Before you leave the place he will ask you for a tip. I gave him, I think, one Jordanian dinar (about A$2).

Having touched on Jerusalem, Amman and Petra we must now go to Istanbul. Here we visited what is called the Basilica Cistern (see photos below), which was a water supply constructed by the Byzantines when the city was still called Constantinople. 

At 3.50pm in the afternoon on day three in the city we entered the site and paid for two tickets (20 Turkish lira, or A$5, each). Downstairs, the cavern the Romans built in the time of Justinian I (about 500AD according to online sources) is pretty spectacular and the Turks heighten the drama by piping in a kind of ancient music so that you feel as though you are in a Fellini movie. Both locals and tourists use the place. We wandered around along the concrete walkway that has been constructed to support visitors, and took photos, then at 4.20pm we came back out onto the street via the exit, which took us to a street different from the one we had used to enter the cavern.

Still in Istanbul, my next stop is the Topkapi Palace, which was established as the sultan’s home and as the centre of government for the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the 15th century. The place is a museum now. The tickets were 60 Turkish lira (A$15) each for the palace and 35 lira (A$9) each for the harem, where the sultan and his family dwelled. The following two photos show scale models of the palace that are located inside the compound, for the benefit of tourists. The first model shows the palace on the headland with the Bosporus marked in blue.

The following photo shows the imperial hall inside one of the buildings in the compound, which contains a large, well-tended garden.

The following photo shows the imperial council hall with a group of visitors in it. The decoration in the place is pretty remarkable and it combines (as I noted in the post about applied and decorative arts) Western and Eastern influences.

The following photo was on the wall in this part of the palace compound. This map shows the official Turkish version of the various extents of the Ottoman Empire at different times in its history. 

The two photos below show arcades of buildings in the palace compound. Note the different coloured stone used on alternate columns, a feature that mimics what you find in Hagia Sophia.

The following photo was taken inside the sultan’s library.

The photo below shows the floor in the part of the palace where guards lived. The hexagonal flagstones reminded me of the flagstones that are found in the great temple in Petra.

The photo below shows the bathhouse in the harem.

Not far from the palace is the Grand Bazaar (see photo below), which also has its roots in the period immediately following the Turks’ 15th century conquest of Constantinople. Originally designed to enable the trading of cloth and jewellery, it is still today full of jewellers and gold merchants.

Still in Istanbul, the next port of call is the Dolmabahce Palace, which one of the sultans built in the middle of the 19th century to serve as the centre of government as well as his personal dwelling. As with the Topkapi Palace there is a harem where the sultan’s mother, wives, and children, as well as the sultan himself, lived. We took photos of the exterior but you’re not allowed to take photos inside any of the buildings, which are grand in design and which mimic European models. The third photo below shows the harem’s exterior.

The photo below shows Sirkeci Railway Station, which was built in Istanbul in 1890 on the south bank of the Golden Horn to serve as the eastern terminus of the Orient Express.

The photo below shows Istiklal Street (Independence Street), which has a tram running down its centre at various times during the day. At the north end of this pedestrian mall is Taksim Square and at its south end is what is called the Tunel, an old subway station (the second-oldest in Europe, according to online sources).

The photo below shows a residential building. In the distance is the Golden Horn.

The photo below shows a building in the tourist area of Istanbul, near Sultanahmet Plaza and Hagia Sophia.

The photo below shows the hotel where we stayed in Jerusalem for the first three days. It is called the YMCA Three Arches Hotel and it was originally opened in the 1933. The building has both a civic and a commercial purpose. 

The land purchase and construction were funded by American and British philanthropists. The interior is very gorgeous and is in a style that reflects the historical importance of the city. “The neo-Byzantine-style complex was designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, architect of the Empire State Building,” says the hotel’s website. The ethos behind the hotel is animated by ideas close to the heart of the Jerusalem YMCA’s 19th century founders, who wanted the place to celebrate pluralism and peaceful cooperation. The vaulted ceiling of the lobby is very fine and the exterior is made from local limestone. The more luxurious King David Hotel is located just across the road from it. 

The photo below shows Boulevard Abdeli Mall in Amman. This is a modern, upmarket shopping centre in the western part of the city.

The photo below shows a woven wall hanging depicting the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. The object was in the souk set up for Ramadan in Boulevard Abdeli Mall.

The following series of photos were taken at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi, another city in the UAE. It is a very grand, air-conditioned edifice that tourists have access to. It was reported in 2011 that it would cost US$490 million to construct and it was completed earlier this year. The size of the structure and the quality of the workmanship involved in its fabrication are remarkable. 

I didn’t note down on my phone how much it cost to get inside but it’s not a lot. They can set up a tour for you as well but when we were there this would have meant waiting a while before it started so we declined the offer. You get on a bus to get from the ticket office to the palace itself, then there are more staff who can guide you from point to point. There is a shop near the exit, after which you get on another bus to take you back to where you can catch a taxi.

The following photo shows the skyline of Abu Dhabi. This photo was taken from the hotel we stayed in. This photo embodies a vision of the future of the Middle East, and is a sincere expression of the ethos of the UAE, one that sets this country apart from its neighbours. Rather than looking back to the past, the UAE determinedly looks to the future and it attracts workers from throughout the Muslim world to work and live.

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