Travel . . . Passport to Our World
Nilanjana Bose is a market researcher and a bi-lingual writer. She has published a collection of short fiction, and is working on her second book. Her pieces have also been published in Anandalipi, a US based journal. She is from India, but has lived and worked in various locations in the Middle East and Africa, as well as traveling beyond.
Long journeys I’ve made over many miles and days
walked many strange lands, frittered hefty sums away
to go and see the mountains, and the oceans of deepest blue.
What’s never been noticed, with these eyes opened wide,
just two steps beyond my closed rooms, outside,
is a single
ear of grain and on it, a shimmering drop of dew.
~ R. Tagore.
Gateways to the Past
built a wall I'd ask to know
~ Robert Frost
Old city walls and castles have always fascinated me, maybe because I grew up in an ancient city the roots of which disappear into the mists of history. The romantic remnants of its past woven into its fortresses, their massive ramparts and the gateways, in the very stones. Delhi is an enticing mixture of history and legends, folding into itself several different cities, built and fallen and rebuilt again with a different slant or shift through three long millennia.
The first city there was the mythical Indraprastha of the Indian epic Mahabharata, the capital of the Pandava brothers. This was reportedly situated at the site of the Purana Qila or Old Fort, dated to around 1000 BC. Predictably enough, there is archeological evidence of a settlement here called Indrapat. This fort was built over and/or added to several times. In addition to the Purana Qila, there are remains of other, more recent fortifications/settlements at Delhi, including the resplendent Red Fort. For several years, these ruins formed the continuous backdrops against which my small life moved. And perhaps because of that, a major part of my travel is taken up poking around old walls, forts, and gateways. Exploring cities within cities.
Town walls are common to almost all civilizations, and they have been built from the earliest times. They could be wooden barriers, brick and mortar, or massive stone ramparts with huge watch towers. They delineated territories, controlled and taxed trade, and provided defensive security. The famous walls of Jericho, one of the earliest urban settlements, date back almost 12,000 years! Modern day metropolises have of course spilled over their original walls; in many places the barriers fell into disuse and crumbled away without efforts to rebuild them, at others they have been actively demolished to make way for expansion. But in many cities, certainly a good few of those that I have visited, sections of old walls and gates are still there, hints of their past history and importance hidden in a place name or the name of the gate itself.
Take the Khooni Darwaza, the Bloody Gateway, for instance. It stands in the middle of a thoroughfare in Delhi, on a road that formed my daily commute to the university from the south. The gate was an archway in the walled city built by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century. However, it acquired its gory nickname after the murder of three Mughal princes there in 1857 by a British commanding officer. It has gained a reputation for similar shocking crimes since then. Most of the old city gateways however, have names more sedate, usually called after the endpoint of the journey which begins at their portal, and so you have the Ajmeri Gate, the Lahori, the Kabuli and so on. In the 19th century, a British traveler wrote of Delhi being a city of seven castles and 52 gates. Today there remain the ruins of those fortresses and just thirteen of the gates standing. Thirteen may be lucky or unlucky depending on your degree of superstition or lack thereof, and it may be a shadow of their former glories, but it is still quite enough. Enough of a reminder, enough to fire up a hyperactive imagination. More than enough to go exploring in winter mornings of crisp sunshine, the warmth like a friendly arm lying across your shoulder blades.
Flash forward a couple of decades from Delhi, and I am on the terrace of Bab Zuweila in Cairo, the southernmost gateway in the old walled Fatimid city of Al-Qahira. This gate was built in the 11th century, with the terrace doing double duty as execution ground in addition to the viewing platform from where the sultans would flag off the annual Hajj pilgrimage eastwards to Mecca. There are two slender minarets rising from the terrace, used to scout for approaching enemies for miles around – and a steep climb up the rough stairs affords magnificent views of the city today, a tiny Alabaster Mosque standing in the distance, with its pointy pen-shaped minarets hazed out in the sunshine.
the west of the gate, there once existed a dungeon, in which Amir Al Mu’ayyad
was imprisoned. He vowed if he were
released he would destroy the dungeon and build a mosque, which he later did,
and Al Mu’ayyed Mosque stands next to the gateway to this day. The gate has its history summarized on a
plaque and a small exhibition to look through. I come down from the terrace and
cross the gate into the covered Tentmakers
Street; turning back I can see political graffiti
and election posters suspended from the parapets, the same parapets where the
severed heads of criminals used to be displayed centuries ago. The dregs of society once upon a time, and
now the faces of candidates who hope to fill the highest offices of the
continued . . . .
Gates doubling up as temporary prison cells and/or rough-and-ready execution scaffolds are not uncommon. Ludgate and Newgate in London both had prisons for example, for petty criminals and debtors respectively. None of the gates of old London survive today, plaques demarcate where once they used to be, and the names survive in buildings/locality names; but the city walls that marked out the boundaries of London from Roman times are now mostly lost. Dismantled to make way for a city that had outgrown its borders.
Unlike London, the town walls of York still stand for long stretches and so do some of its main gateways, known as “bars”. We are in York primarily because it houses the National Rail Museum of Britain, a whole series of old locomotives and antique carriages that drive the family insane with a steam-and-wheel induced orgy. But walking to and from the museum several times I can’t help but notice the medieval city walls of York. They are in a remarkable state of preservation, and prominence; and are hard to resist.
York has had defensive walls built around it from Roman times, though the original Roman defenses no longer stand intact. A low stretch of an old wall, grey bleached blocks stuck together, its top edge jaggedly uneven, stands in St Leonard’s Place - we pass it in our various walks up and down. I stop to read the plaque, and it tells me that this bit is a remnant of the walls built in 300 AD at the orders of Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great. This and the multangular tower in the Museum Gardens, are the two most well-preserved bits of the ancient Roman walls.
The Vikings conquered York in the ninth century, and the Roman walls were covered up with earthen banks and topped off with a palisade – a long and sharply-spiked wooden fence. Most of the city walls that are seen today date from 12-14th centuries. They originally had four gates and Bootham Bar was one of them. We come upon Bootham, and break our stroll on a bench opposite. There are pigeons pecking at the cobbles, and a tranquil pink ice-cream van standing diagonally from the De Grey’s. Beyond the gate, the Gothic towers of the York Minster rise, the crenellations pointed and delicate. Bootham marked the north-western entrance, and there has been a gateway here for two millennia, though the current structure dates from medieval times. Like other gates elsewhere in the world, this one too has had its share of bloodiness and war, traitors’ heads have been displayed here, most notably the heads of rebels opposing the restoration of Charles II.
A different morning, a different season of cold winter, and we are trudging past massively high and dark stone walls, in sporadic drizzles of raindrops. The Vatican City must be the ultimate example of a walled enclave, not just a city within a city, but a sovereign state within a city. The guide stops at a point and quickly summarizes their history. He tells us that Vatican is bounded by the Leonine walls to the south and west, and by the Via de Porta Angelica in north. Stretches of its boundaries are fuzzy, the borders of this tiniest country do not apparently coincide exactly with the walls. He ushers us into St Peter’s Square before I can voice any questions about the intriguing Leo and his defenses.
The overwhelming reason why I am here is not to marvel at the views from the top of St Peters, or the treasures of the Vatican Museum, which are many and delicious, both completely justifiable in themselves as raisons d’être. But I am here only to stand before the Pieta once more. Last time I saw her, I was barely more than a child myself, and this time? This time she is walled behind bullet-proof glass, the viewers cordoned off at a great distance. A little disappointing; but perhaps it’s all to the good. Now that I am a mother, perhaps it would be much harder to look at her at close quarters; at this depiction of a terrible grief – a mother cradling the body of her grown son. I am forced to avert my eyes and mind. Best get back to the walls.
Why are they called Leonine? Because Pope Leo IV built them in the 9th century. There was no enclosure before then, and the whole of the Vatican hills lay outside the city walls of Rome. The Arabs had raided and sacked the Basilica, a piece of cake for one side and a disaster waiting to happen for the other really, considering that the church and its untold riches were completely unprotected. So the Pope built the walls to encircle the entire papal properties, and the Arabs never managed to raid the basilica again. In 1083, Pope Gregory VII refused to crown Heinrich IV the German king as the holy Roman Emperor. Heinrich’s men held the Leonine City, and the Pope and Basilica within it, in a siege of several months. After they fell to Heinrich, the Pope managed to escape through a secret passageway into Castel Sant’Angelo.
That secret passage reminds me of an enticing Indian legend of walls and walling and undying love. The Mughal Prince Salim fell in love with an ordinary but breathtakingly beautiful woman, a courtesan in his father’s, Emperor Akbar’s, court; Anarkali (Pomegranate Blossom) was supposedly one of the Emperor’s own concubines. She too had the nerve to reciprocate the Prince’s passion. This incestuous relationship prompted general outrage, and father and son met on the battlefield because the Prince refused to abandon his love like a good, dutiful son.
Sadly the Prince was defeated and sentenced to death, and Anarkali pleaded with the Emperor for his pardon. That was granted on condition she forfeit her own life, to which she agreed and begged one night with the Prince before she died. So the Emperor spared his Prince, and Anarkali was walled up, entombed alive in his stead. When Prince Salim later became the Emperor Jahangir, he built a beautiful mausoleum at the spot. A twist in the tale is that Anarkali never died within the walls; with Akbar’s help and a secret tunnel, she escaped into exile.
The story is spellbinding as all love stories are, only there is no historical proof of Anarkali’s life and death. In truth Prince Salim was an unlikely candidate for a faithful one-woman man, he was reputed to be quite a young Casanova. The whole charming tale is completely fictional. But there is still the intriguing presence of a nameless, beautiful mausoleum somewhere in Lahore to explain away; and a couplet on that grave which reads “I would give thanks unto my God till the day of resurrection, could I but behold the face of my beloved just once more” signed “love-crazed Jahangir”. And an ancient market named Anarkali Bazaar nearby.
01 Barefoot on The Beach.mp3
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