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So who was Timor (and other questions)?

Two generations after Genghis Khan created the Mongol Empire it split into separate Khanates. Samarkand fell under the Chagatai Khanate. But in the 14th century local forces began to overthrow the Khanates. For example: in China Kublai Khan's Yuan Dynasty fell to a local uprising by the Han in 1368, establishing the Ming Dynasty. In the west with the help of the ‘Black Death’ in Anatolia (the western part of modern Turkey south of the black sea) previous vassals of the Ilkhanate were also shaking themselves free. Among these was the small kingdom of Osman, the first Ottoman Sultan, who would consolidate Anatolia and give birth to the great Ottoman Empire.

Another of these upstart warlords was Amir Timur also known as Tamerlane (Timur the Lame). He was a local lad, born in city of Kesh 80 kilometres south of Samarkand, into a Mongolian tribe that had been Turkified. As a child or young adult he was shot with arrows in both his right hand and right leg and acquired the description ‘lame’. Nevertheless he was successful as a mercenary soldier, gathering warriors around him until by 1370 he was at the head of a thousand horsemen. Although minor nobility, his family was not descended from Genghis Khan so he was not in the royal line of succession. Initially he and his brother captured territory together but fell out and Timur prevailed through popular support. In order to rule the Chagatai Khanate he installed a puppet Khan on the throne.

In 1370 he married a descendent of Genghis Khan giving him credibility as the new ruler and the right to call himself Temur Gurgan, or 'son-in-law of the Great Khan' and began the reconquest of the old Mongol Empire. He was said to be highly intelligent and an excellent strategist and he spoke three languages but not Arabic – favouring the Persians. He was fond of ideas and surrounded himself with scholars, poets and Islamic teachers.  At that time Islam was not the universal religion of the region and was still developing its intellectual underpinnings. 

In other ways, especially his propensity to slaughter, he surpassed Alexander and Genghis before him.  Both too had retreated when confronted by war elephants.  So when Timur confronted the Sultan of Delhi, in India in 1398, the Sultan's army was spearheaded by war elephants,  protected with chainmail and armed with poisoned tusks.  But by then elephants were nothing new in Central Asia and Timur both expected elephants and had studied their weaknesses.   In a painting dated 1595–1600: Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi, Nasir Al-Din Mahmud Tughluq, in the winter of 1397–1398 the most prominent graphic elements are three war elephants. His troops built trenches to constrain their progress and sent 'fire camels' against them that caused the elephants to panic, turning against their own army.

 

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Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi,
Nasir Al-Din Mahmud Tughluq, in the winter of 1397–1398

 

Timur slaughtered 100,000 captives before laying waste to the city. Attempts by the local population in Delhi to resist led to such slaughter that the city ran with blood and took a century to recover. 

In due course the Timurid Dynasty would establish the Mughal Empire in India, that ruled, latterly under British patronage, until the sepoy rebellion (Indian Mutiny) in 1857. It's most popularly remembered today because of the Red Fort in Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra. See our visits to India and Myanmar (Burma), where the last Mughal Emperor lies buried.  

 

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Bahadur Shah Zafar's mausoleum in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar)
 

Timur re-captured and re-united much of the old Mongol Empire from Persia in the south to the Golden Horde on the Volga and the Black Sea all the way east to Mongolia and parts of modern China.  At this time Samarkand flourished and 'Tamerlane' is remembered here with a deal of respect and pride.

 

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Timur (the admired) in both Samarkand and Tashkent

 

In 1402 Timur's forces came up against those of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I (Bajazet) at the Battle of Ankara.  Tamerlane, as Timur was known in Europe, was victorious and this led to a period of crisis for the Ottoman Empire when elements deserted it and joined with the Timurids.  Interestingly, in the light of the discussion about forts (above), at this time Timur's army included over 100,000 horse archers (cavalry) and 32 war elephants (note: Elephants). But yet again he also used superior tactics, luring the enemy to advance from their superior positions and taking the better ground for his own troops before the battle.  He also diverted the enemy's water supply so they were soon weakened by thirst.  As a result in the West Tamerlane was admired as an almost invincible strategist and was lauded for a time as the saviour of Constantinople.  But it was just a temporary reprieve for the Byzantine Empire.  The Ottomans soon recovered to take Constantinople in 1453.  And from there on the Ottoman Empire grew into a great power, on which the sun did not set for over two centuries, successfully confronting the Holy Roman Empire in Europe, until its demise. But partial defeat by the Russians in 1878 heralded the final dénouement, that came as a result of the First World War. And on we go today. Trouble and strife all the way from Turkey to Algeria.

Christopher (Kip) Marlow’s 1588 play Tamburlaine the Great revived him in the European consciousness. It’s regarded as the first of the revolutionary Elizabethan historical plays - leading from Marlow to Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. In turn Marlow's play inspired numerous Baroque period masterpieces like Vivaldi's Bajazet,  Handle's Tamerlane and ten contemporary operas. Timur also appears in Puccini's often performed Turandot.

But the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend.  Tamerlane also had a reputation, reflected in Marlow's play, for slaughter because in 1403, he’d gone straight on from Ankara to defeat the Knights Hospitaller, a Christian bastion at Smyrna (now in modern Turkey) putting everyone to the sword. But this was the tip of the iceberg, in total he is thought to have slaughtered upwards of 17 million people in various campaigns, most of them fellow Muslims.

Today Tamburlaine the Great is a difficult play to present without enraging Muslim fundamentalists. Marlow has his anti-hero taking fellow Muslim Bajazet into slavery in Samarkand to be used as a footstool.  He frequently appeals to Mars, the Roman God of war, as he slaughters his way across Egypt to Morocco. In his final hubris, he proclaims himself immortal after burning a copy of the Qur'an on stage and ordering the burning of: ‘all the heaps of superstitious books found in the temples of that Mahomet’.

Timur died in 1405 of an illness contracted during a winter campaign against China, attempting to restore the Khanate that had been lost to the Han Chinese and their Ming Dynasty.

Of course by 1588 insulting a Muslim hero and committing a sacrilegious act that offends Muslims concerned Englishmen not one iota.

In Russia, Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of All Rus', spurred on by Russian Orthodox Christian zeal, had already defeated the first of Khanates in 1552. Thereafter it was all downhill for the Timurid Empire. In addition, the relevance of Central Asia and even the Levant had diminished and England was entering its own ‘Golden Age’. The discovery of the Americas and the Portuguese pioneering a sea route to India; China; the Spice Islands; and Japan had rendered the Silk Road redundant and the most visible of the Khanates: the Golden Horde, that had once taken much of Russia and Eastern Europe, was in retreat.

By 1792 Catherine the Great (of Russia) had defeated the great Turkish Navy and ‘liberated’ most of the remaining Khanates north of the Black Sea. But the peasants were anything but free. They were no longer owned as slaves by a Mongol overlord but now owned by a Russian aristocrats as serfs, no change there. Yet from now on they would be encouraged to see their one true God as a Trinity, represented by angels in orthodox icons as the Holy Spirit can't be imaged, who'd anointed their rulers to rule in His name. 

 

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Catherine the Great (Catherine II) in St Petersburg

 

Meanwhile the Ottomans were the new power in the Muslim world and by the 19th century much of Central Asia had become part of the Ottoman Empire.

Three and a half decades later, as a result of the Russo-Persian War, Alexander II of Russia ‘liberated’ the territories between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea the from the Ottoman yoke' but in doing so would alarm the British East India Company.

Was enormously rich India, the Jewel of the British Empire, his next target?

During the reign of Queen Victoria  'Travels into Bokhara' (being the account of a journey from India to Cabool, Tartary, and Persia; also, Narrative of a voyage on the Indus, from the sea to Lahore, with presents from the king of Great Britain; performed under the orders of the supreme government of India, in the years 1831, 1832, and 1833) by Sir Alexander Burnes became a bestseller.  Burnes was one of the first Europeans to voluntarily venture into Central Asia and return to tell the tale.  He was famous as a British spy in the 'Great Game' the rivalry between the British and the Russians for the control of India.  The term 'Great Game' was coined by another Victorian bestselling author: Rudyard Kipling in his novel 'Kim'.

In the 1830's it was believed in Calcutta and London that the expansion of Russia across Central Asia could lead to an attempted invasion of India. To forestall this Burnes was sent to scout the places of strategic interest and to learn what he could of local politics.  His report led to the first British incursion into Afghanistan, where he was later killed in the jihad of 1841.  He'd lived in and was a acclimatised to India. A considerable intellect, he spoke several languages fluently including Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Urdu and Latin.  He understood Islam and its rules of behaviour and could go undercover as a native.

While in Bukhara he made a side trip to Samarkand and describes the city in the 1830's and Timur's mausoleum (see the images above):

Samarcand (sic)... is only 120 miles from Bokhara... that ancient city (Samarkand), the existence of which may be traced to the time of Alexander. It was the capital of Timour, and the princes of his house passed their winters at it. "In the whole habitable world," says Baber, " there are few cities so pleasantly situated as Samarcand."
The city has now declined from its grandeur to a provincial town of 8000, or at most 10,000, inhabitants, and gardens and fields occupy the place of its streets and mosques; but it is still regarded with high veneration by the people.
Till a king of Bokhara has annexed it to his rule, he is not viewed as a legitimate sovereign. Its possession becomes the first object on the demise of one ruler and the accession of another. Some of its buildings remain, to proclaim its former glory.
Three of its colleges are perfect, and one of these, which formed the observatory of the celebrated Ulug Beg, is most handsome. It is ornamented with bronze, and its bricks are enamelled or painted... There is another college, called Sheredar, of beautiful architecture.
The tomb of Timour and his family still remains; and the ashes of the emperor rest beneath a lofty dome, the walls of which are beautifully ornamented with agate (yusbm).
The situation of Samarcand has been deservedly praised by Asiatics; since it stands near low hills, in a country which is every where else plain and level.

Travels into Bokhara Sir Alexander Burnes 1832

 

As tensions with Russia grew the British decided to put a garrison in Kabul and for good measure replaced the Emir with his deposed predecessor. But British troops were aliens in the city and failed to respect local customs, particularly the women. The deposed Emir in exile called for a jihad and the garrison was besieged.

The British East India Company lost an entire army of 4,500 troops, along with about 12,000 civilians leaving in Kabul in 1842.  They'd made the mistake of surrendering to the jihadists after being offered safe passage for men women and children up the Kabul River valley to the next at British garrison at Jalalabad.  This was mid-winter and the valley was filled with snow.  As a result many froze to death and some resorted to cannibalism. The outraged British sent another army and destroyed the central markets in Kabul in reprisal.  The British then withdrew back to India.

For their part the Russians avoided direct conflict with Britain yet steadily advanced into Central Asia.  When the trouble began in Kabul the Russian border had been on the other side of the Aral Sea from Afghanistan; but with the British gone the Tsar's outposts moved steadily up the Amu Darya.  At that time the river still flowed strongly, down from the mountains of Tajikistan, into the very large Aryl sea.

In 1853 Russian territorial expansion finally came head-to-head with the British when a shooting war broke out in the Crimea.  For the first time troops from the fast developing Australian colonies would embark to lend a hand to the motherland:

Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…

Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1854

 

And so in Sydney Harbour fortifications appeared to discourage a Russian naval attack on the British Pacific Fleet. Only one of these remains more or less intact: Fort Denison (actually begun earlier against the Americans and their ‘Manifold Destiny’ to rule the world). Disappeared forts include Fort Macquarie that now boasts an opera house and Dawes Point Battery that now hosts one end of a Bridge and is only remembered in a group of Victorian bronze cannon and in a name: Fort Street.

 

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Fort Denison  - the small island  top-left in the harbour - still fires the one-o'clock gun
Fort Macquarie is replaced with the Opera House - where occasionally the 1812 Overture can be heard
But in case the Russians think again, several of Sydney's harbour-side parks still host cannon - watch out Ruskies!

 

When the fighting ceased, and a treaty reached, Russia had a free hand. A decade later Tashkent was formally annexed, followed by Samarkand three years later. 

A particular concern of the Russians was the kidnapping and sale into slavery in the kingdoms of Bukhara and Khiva of Russian nationals. So in 1820 M Negri led a Russian mission to Bukhara with the goal of freeing Russians sold into slavery. He had no luck in repatriating the Russians and while the Emir in Bukhara showed some caution in continuing the practice, the Kahn in Khiva redoubled the trade in Russian slaves, in addition to supporting banditry against Russian caravans, 'cocking a snoot' at Moscow.

Burnes had remarked on slavery and even visited the slave market in Bukhara and talked to some of the slaves.  But while he condemned slavery he also listened to the defenders of the practice:

The Mahommedans are not sensible of any offence in enslaving the Russians, since they state that Russia herself exhibits the example of a whole country of slaves, particularly in the despotic government of her soldiery. " If we purchase Russians," say they, " the Russian: buy the Kuzzaks on our frontier, who are Mahommedans, and they tamper with these people by threats, bribery, and hopes, to make them forsake their creed, and become idolaters.
Look, on the other hand, at the Russians in Bokhara, at their life, liberty, and comfort, and compare it with the black bread and unrelenting tyranny which they experience in their native country.
Last, not least, they referred to their cruel banishment to Siberia (as they called it Sibere), which they spoke of with shuddering horror, and stated that it had on some occasions driven Russians voluntarily to betake themselves to Bokhara.
We shall not attempt to decide between the parties; but it is a melancholy reflection on the liberties of Russia, that they admit of a comparison with the institutions of a Tartar kingdom, whose pity, it is proverbially said, is only upon a par with the tyranny of the Afghan.

Travels into Bokhara Sir Alexander Burnes 1832

 

It should be remembered that in Russia serfs were bought and sold, as were slaves in the United States.  A good serf was valuable asset, like a good horse, particularly if 'it' had special skills. In Russia some were trained from children to be ballerinas, craftsmen or opera singers. An owner who'd paid a lot of money for a slave or raised a serf from childhood regarded 'its' kidnapping as property theft.  As in the US, a landowner's serfs could easily exceed the value of the land they worked. In the US in Charleston's Old Slave Market we learned that prior to 1865 a good working age male slave would fetch upwards of $1,500 - equivalent to about $35,000 in 1970 dollars - the price of a luxury car in 1970. So it was freeing the slaves without compensation, as much as the physical devastation of the Civil War, that ruined the economy of the South.  In Russia compensation was paid but the landholders remained unhappy.

Travels into Bokhara became a bestseller and the British too were appalled at the thought of Christians enslaved to Muslims.  So in 1838 Colonel Charles Stoddart was sent on a mission to persuade Emir Nasrullah Khan of Bukhara to free the Russian slaves and sign a treaty of friendship with Britain.  He had none of Burnes' diplomatic skills or local sympathies and was arrested and held in the dungeons of the Arc in appalling circumstances. Three years later Captain Arthur Conolly arrived in an attempt to secure Stoddart's release and was promptly thrown in with him. Both men were executed, on 24 June 1842, charged with spying for the British Empire.

 

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The Arc of Bukhara - Photographed by Paul Nadar in 1890
48 years after the execution of the British 'spies': Colonel Charles Stoddart & Captain Arthur Conolly

 

In 1855 Nicholas I of Russia, who had overseen the disastrous Crimean War, died and Alexander II ascended the throne.

One of his first acts was to emancipate the serfs, allowing them the full right of free citizens, able to change employers; to move freely without being arrested; and for the first time to own land or a business and to marry whom they liked, without the permission of their master. As the 'Mahommedans' had told Burnes, they had indeed been slaves in their own land.

Alexander had inherited a huge and increasingly unmanageable territory, extending all the way to Alaska and resolved to restore order.  His next big plan was to stop the British taking thinly populated Alaska and threatening his Eastern borders.  That was simple: sell it to the United States for US$7.2 m.

Soon the Russian army advanced up the rivers from the Aral Sea, leading to the establishment of General Governorate of Turkestan, initially on the Syr Darya river. In 1868 this series of battles resulted in a Russian victory when Emir Alim Khan, the ruler of Bukhara, was forced to accept vassal status, extending Russian control to the northern bank of the Amu Darya river (the Oxus).  In 1873 the same fate befell the obdurate Khan of Khiva who fell to the Russian military onslaught. So by the 1870's most of central Asia had become part of the Russian Empire (within the General Governorate of Turkestan) and new borders appeared on the map.

As a result of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) Russia wrested most of the Balkans from the Ottomans.  Alexander II immediately followed this success by placing an uninvited diplomatic mission in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The British perceived this desire to consolidate Russian power in Central Asia as a direct threat to India and responded with a new incursion into Afghanistan (the Second Afghan War 1878-1880) expelling the Russian presence there. A treaty was signed under which local tribes would be allowed to continue to live according to their custom but under British oversight, creating a buffer between Russia and British India.  This treaty together with their military experiences in the mountain passes of Afghanistan, led them to a strategic analysis that Russia no longer posed a military threat to India. Henceforth the British would take their bat and ball and go home, leaving the central Asian pitch to the Russians. 

To facilitate control and pacification of the region and to establish the infant cotton industry the building the Trans-Caspian railway began in 1879 under military management, again alarming the British.  Alexander would not live to see his railway reach Samarkand (via Bukhara) in 1888 or then on to Tashkent and Kokand.  Despite his reforming zeal in freeing slaves and the serfs and the pacification of Central Asia (excluding Afghanistan) Alexander was assassinated in 1881. He'd become unpopular with both German and Jewish families his father had mistreated, so that they plotted revolution, and with the aristocracy who's human assets he'd devalued. 

 

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The Church of Spilled Blood in St Petersburg marks the place where Alexander II was assassinated
There's more detail about the Tsars in my report on our visit to Russia  Read More...

 

In addition to the introduction of railways and some industrial machinery, the first automobiles appeared.  But while this brought Russian officials and occasional royalty, Central Asia remained exotic, mysterious to most Europeans.

So in 1890 French photographer Paul Nadar with a modern camera and a good supply of 3.5-inch film, drove to the "Orient Express" in Istanbul taking him to Transcaucasia, then to Central Asia where he travelled along the new Trans-Caspian railway, visiting the ancient cities and capturing them on film before returning to Paris to present them in an exhibition.

 

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Tashkent Railway Station soon after services began - Photographed by Paul Nadar in 1890

 

They can now be seen on line Click Here...

Fast forward to 1914 when some in Khujand refused to be conscripted to fight the Germans against whom they had no argument. This led to riots and a number of deaths.

Similar opposition to the unpopular 'Bloody' Tsar was mounting across Russia, as tens of thousands were slaughtered by the Germans at the front. In February 1917 Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and a Republic was proclaimed, yet the Russians fought on.

To put an end to this the Germans had a secret weapon: Vladimir Lenin. They smuggled Lenin and his wife together with 30 revolutionary comrades in a 'sealed' train carriage through Germany to neutral Finland, where they could catch a train to Moscow. The second, Bolshevik, revolution of October 1917 was thus put in train (pun intended).

The Soviet Union (USSR) was proclaimed and for Russia that fight was over. But many more sons of Khujand mothers would die in the lingering civil war that lasted here into the 1920's as Muslims saw an opportunity for independence. Finally 1924, with Bolshevik victory secure, the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed. Henceforth the Russians would take steps to constrain the excesses of the Muslim religion including, it is rumoured, permitting one madrasah to operate because it facilitated placing Soviet agents among the Muslim clerics.  This is quite probable as it was around the same time that the 'Cambridge Five' spies were recruited for Russia while still at university in England, successfully moving into highly sensitive positions, in which they remained until discovered in the 1960's.

In 1939 World War II began when Germany and Russia together invaded Poland. Believing that they were allies, Stalin (the Soviet leader who'd come to power after Lenin's death) was taken by surprise when Germany suddenly attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. Stalin quickly sought help from Germany’s enemies: first Churchill, leading the British Empire, including Australia; then the Americans; and the Free French (in exile); and we all became allies.

Despite this newfound comradery, fears of continued Russian appetite for territorial expansion, now under a Communist banner, soon led to the lingering 'Cold War’.

But we need not have feared. Despite its enormous natural, agricultural and intellectual resources, the huge Soviet Union failed to live up to its potential.  As if demonstrating Marx’s ‘historical inevitably’ reversed, the Soviet Union collapsed 1991 when multiple adverse factors converged.  But it had been slowly failing due to excessive central planning and faulty Marxist economic doctrines for decades. So in the old Soviets, as in China, Vietnam, Laos and even Cuba (see our travels on this website) capitalism and market economics have ‘inevitably’ reasserted themselves.

Thus in 1991, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, indeed all the Soviet ‘Stans’, ceased to be part of the Soviet Union and in turn, more or less, cast off Russian hegemony after a century and a quarter. They revelled in their new found freedoms. Names changed. Leninabad reverted to its original name of Khujand. Yet somehow social unrest grew as for many people things got a lot worse.

It’s popular to attribute personal repression and a great number of other sins to the Soviet Union. Yet in both Tajikistan and in Uzbekistan civilisation progressed from primitive mud brick towns, ruled by medieval tyrants, where as many as two thirds of inhabitants were slaves, surrounded by lawless countryside in which life was cheap (as described by Alexander Burnes and photographed by Paul Nadar), into a sophisticated and very European modernity that often surprised us. Paul Nadar's photos show us just how much things changed for the better when the old Imperial vassals ceased to be ruled by medieval Khans and became Republics of the Soviet Union after 1917. 

 

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Around modern Samarkand 

 

One of the first initiatives was the liberation and education of women.  These countries with universal education; independent women; and cities that, save for the signage, could be in a modern western country or China are in sharp contrast to still tribal Afghanistan, across the border, and even to most of India.

 

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Uzbek women in 2018 (gathering for wedding photos below the first President)
And as they were once obliged to dress - photographed by Paul Nadar in 1890
There are more images in the Uzbekistan Album - Click Here...

 

I was frequently reminded of the Monty Python skit in the Life of Brian:

 

What have the Romans ever done for us?

They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers… And from our fathers' fathers' fathers… And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers...

Yeah. All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?!

At which point various ‘commandos’ make suggestions - each of which is conceded:
The aqueduct.
And the sanitation.
And the roads.
Irrigation.
Medicine.
Education.
And the wine… that's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.
Public baths.
And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.

Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it. They're the only ones who could in a place like this.

All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Brought peace.
Peace? Oh. Shut up!

 

 

 

 

Comments  

# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50
Richard

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.



A very interesting part of the world.



Richard Walker
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