A Travellerspoint blog

Of Mines and Men in the Alaskan Wilderness, Alaska

Kennecott Mines inside the Wrangel-St.Elias National Park ..........Ramdas A. Iyer

sunny 48 °F


All these years I had dismissed mining and prospecting as a dirty business constituting the back end of a shining industrial society. My recent trip to Alaska opened my eyes to the history of mining in remote regions where men either toiled for a fortune or just to pay for their next meal. As a traveler who primarily highlighted the natural history and geography of a region, I feel pressed this time to celebrate the industriousness and challenges undertaken by Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries that ultimately turned USA as a "golden city on the hill" for the rest of the world to admire.My training as a Chemical Engineer gave me additional insight and fascination with this plant. Also due to the presence of limestone in the nearby rocks, the sulfuric acid effluent was readily neutralized thereby avoiding acid leaching into a pristine environment.

In addition to my photographs, I have introduced some archival material to reflect the times when the mine was active.

Arriving at Kennecott, Alaska famous for the copper mine and processing plant, deep inside the glacier lands of today's Wrangel-St.Elias National Park, I was astounded by mans innovativeness and determination to accomplish the impossible in a very harsh and intemperate corner of Alaska. The prospecting, mining, processing and shipping a very valuable metal prior to the outbreak of World War I is described here. As an amateur historian, I have culled information from various sources to tell you a wonderful story that I believe my readers will find fascinating.

Alaska, it seemed, was the scene of a continuing gold rush that started in the 1860s and extended into the early 1900s. The indigenous peoples in north-west America had traded in copper nuggets prior to European expansion. Most of the tribes were aware that gold existed in region but the metal was not valued by them. The Russians and the Hudson's Bay Company had both explored the Yukon in the first half of the 19th century, but ignored the rumors of gold in favor of fur trading, which offered more immediate profits - indeed, some of the first prospectors had to supplement their income with fur trading in order to survive.
In the second half of the 19th century, American prospectors began to spread into the peninsula. Making deals with the Native Tlingit and Tagish tribes, the early prospectors succeeded in opening up the important routes of Chilkoot and White Pass to reach the Yukon valley between 1870–90. Here, they encountered the Hän people, semi-nomadic hunters and fishermen who lived along the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. The Hän did not appear to know about the extent of the gold deposits in the region.



Following discoveries in western British Columbia, prospectors found gold in the Fortymile River drainage and at Birch Creek in the upper Yukon River area. The world heard in 1897 of the Klondike gold fields in western Canada. Two years later, discoveries were made on the Seward Peninsula, more in Interior Alaska, in Western Alaska along the Innoko River and in the Kuskokwim River drainage, and in northern Alaska in the Chandalar River area. Gold seemed to be everywhere in Alaska.
The Klondike stampede was an attempt by an estimated 100,000 people to reach the Klondike goldfields, of whom only around 30,000 to 40,000 eventually did. Migrants from over 40 nations were represented, mostly drawn from recent migrants to North America. It formed the height of the Klondike gold rush from the summer of 1897 until the summer of 1898. The migration of prospectors caught so much attention that it was joined by outfitters, writers and photographers Various factors lay behind this sudden mass response. Economically, the news had reached the US at the height of a series of financial recessions and bank failures in the 1890s. The gold standard of the time tied paper money to the production of gold and shortages towards the end of the 19th century meant that gold dollars were rapidly increasing in value ahead of paper currencies and being hoarded.[38] This had contributed to the financial panics of 1893 and 1896, which caused unemployment and financial uncertainty. There was a huge, unresolved demand for gold across the developed world that the Klondike offered to fulfill and, for individuals, the region promised higher wages or financial security. The Klondike rush lasted till 1903 when most of the gold was mined out. The events of the Klondike gold rush rapidly became embedded in North American culture, being captured in poems, stories, photographs and promotional campaigns long after the end of the stampede.
Alaska's mineral wealth was not just gold. Copper, coal, tin, platinum, mercury, and molybdenum were also found in Alaska.


In the summer of 1900, prospectors Clarence Warner and Jack Smith were exploring the east edge of the Kennecott Glacier. As they drew closer to the limestone-greenstone contact, along which US Geological Survey geologist Oscar Rohn who had predicted copper would be found, they were amazed by the magnificent green cliffs of exposed copper. Samples from their discovery, the “Bonanza Mine Outcrop,” revealed up to 70% pure chalcocite, one of the richest copper deposits ever found.
Mining engineer Stephen Birch, went to Alaska to look for investment opportunities for the wealthy Havemayer family of New York whose interest he represented and began buying up shares of the Bonanza claim. However, without a way to transport the copper to market, it was worthless. Some said building a railroad from the coast, across mountains, powerful rivers and moving glaciers would be impossible. Others offered a glimmer of hope. The Havemayers collaborated with J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheim family, forming the Alaska Syndicate, to build a railroad 196 miles long and develop the mines. In the fall of 1907 the Alaska Syndicate hired Michael J.Heney, builder of the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. For the next four years his crews worked relentlessly, building rail bed and bridges through difficult terrain at temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero. At the same time, Stephen Birch was in Kennecott developing the mining claims. By hauling an entire steamship, piece by piece, over the mountains from Valdez to be reassembled on the Copper River, he was able to bring equipment in by dog sled, horse and steamship to begin mining ore even before the railroad was finished.

The first train left Kennecott in 1911 just ten days after the railroad was completed, filled with $250,000 worth of copper. Kennecott was a place of long hours and hard, dangerous work. At the height of operation, about six hundred men worked in the mines and mill town. Paying salaries higher than those found in the lower-48, Kennecott was able to attract men willing to live and work in this remote Alaskan mining camp. Miners often worked seven days a week, coming down only for the rare holiday or to leave Kennecott. Mill workers and miners came to Kennecott only to work, living in bunkhouses with little time off, often sending money home to their families around the world. Despite the dangers and grueling work, the Kennecott workers mined and concentrated at least $200 million worth of ore. Especially during World War I and the early 1920s, copper prices soared (to as high as 38 cents per pound) and so did profits. Underground, extensive tunnels connected the five mines; above ground, buckets of copper traveled via aerial tramways downhill from the mines several miles above to the concentration mill below, where the ore was crushed and sorted before being packed in burlap bags that were then piled in the open railcars bound for Cordova on the Prince William Sound. The ore was then sent to Tacoma,Washington for smelting.


Reaping profits fueled by America’s high demand for copper, Kennecott Copper Corporation invested in mines in Chile and the lower-48. By the time the Kennecott mines closed in 1938 the
corporation had grown into one of the largest minerals companies in the world, due to the perseverance and ingenuity of its founders and engineers.

The Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark includes the land and mining claims that formed the foundation for the Kennecott Copper Corporation, later the Kennecott Minerals Company. The operation had two components: the mines where ore was extracted from the mountains, and the mill town where the ore was processed. At the peak of operation, approximately 300 people worked in the mill town and 200-300 in the mines. Kennecott was a self-contained company town that included a hospital, general store, school, skating rink, tennis court, recreation hall, and dairy. The processing plant had nice facilities but the miners who mined 5 separate mines lived 3 miles away. Winter temperatures at the mine sites can plunge to 50-below—so cold that miners were said to find it warmer to sleep in the mine tunnels during the long nights of that long season than to bed down in their minimally heated dormitories.

The Kennecott mill town and mines are an extraordinary relic from America's past. The impressive structures and artifacts that remain represent an ambitious time of exploration, discovery, and technological innovation. They tell stories of westward expansion, World War I politics and economy, the lives of men, women, and children who lived there, and the rise of a multinational corporation. Each link in the historical chain connects to another until we realize that this remote Alaska mining venture was intricately connected to the world around it.
By the late 1920s, the supply of high-grade ore was diminishing, and Kennecott Copper Corporation was diversifying into other North American and Chilean mines. Declining profits and increasing costs of railroad repairs led to the eventual closure of the Kennecott operation by 1938. By that time, the corporation was well on the way to becoming a multinational giant. Today it is part of the the multinational Rio Tinto Kennecott Mining Company.
While reading up on the Klondike Gold Rush, I have been deeply drawn into the adventure aspect of this American experience. Stories of the Klondike and Kennecott experience affords the reader a glimpse into the low and high points of human morality in the quest for fortune and survival.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Sources: Alaskahistorycourse.com, National Park Service, Wikipedia


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 11:41 Archived in USA Tagged alaska glacier mines mining copper root klondike mccarthy kennecott chitina syndicate Comments (3)

Kazan: Legendary city of Genghis Khan's Golden Horde

Traveling in Tatarstan along the Volga River in Russia............................Ramdas Iyer, 2013


As the train was getting cold, our conductor was shoveling coal into the furnace that kept our carriage warm. Since this coach was cut off to be picked up by another train, a coal furnace was provided for each carriage. This was a non-elite passenger train that connected Yekaterinburg to Kazan, the capital of Tartarstan. My fellow passengers was a young family of Tartar Muslims coming home to Kazan for the winter holidays from the oil fields Of Northern Siberia. Traveling on the Trans-Mongolian and the Transiberian, I was living the modern version of Genghis Khan and his assault of Europe in the year 1252.
The Mongol Empire emerged from the unification of nomadic tribes in the Mongolia homeland under the leadership of Genghis Khan, who was proclaimed ruler of all Mongols in 1206. The Mongol Empire which existed during the 13th and 14th centuries, was the largest contiguous land empire in history. Originating in the steppes of Central Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia, eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, and the Iranian plateau, and westwards as far as the Levant and Arabia.
By the time of the great Kublai Khan's death ( grandson of Genghis, Emperor of Mongolia and China under the banner of the Yuan Dynasty ) in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate Khanates or empires, each pursuing its own separate interests and objectives: the Golden Horde Khanate in the northwest; the Chagatai Khanate in the west; the Ilkhanate in the southwest; and the Yuan dynasty based in modern-day Beijing.
The history of the Mongol Empire has always fascinated me and in my travels I have seen many of their conquered lands and read about the history of different Khanates: Khiva( Uzbekistan and Khoresm), Ilkhanate (Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan), Mamaluk( Egypt and Turkey) and the Chagtai Khanates( Kazakhstan, and Russian Steppes of Central Asia).
This article is about Kazan, the focus of my journey that belonged to the Golden Horde Khanate. It was ruled by Juchi Khan, son of Genghis and expanded by his son Batu Khan. At its peak the Golden Horde’s territory extended from the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe to the steppes of Siberia( See Map). On the south, the Horde’s lands bordered on the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Iranian territories of the Mongol dynasty known as the Il-Khans.

That December morning of 2013 was quite chilly on arrival at the Kazan station, a very ornate building built in 1896. I soon arrived at my hotel on the grand boulevard Kremlivskya, a walking distance to the World Heritage Kremlin which I had primarily come to visit. The population of Kazan is equally divided between mild practitioners of Sunni Islam and orthodox Christianity. The old city has some beautiful churches including the Cathedral of Peter and Paul, which is one of its most valuable architectural monuments. Built on an elevated site it is built on the Russian Baroque style of the 17th century. I caught my first site of the mighty Volga river from its steps in its frozen splendor just a few miles away.

Having arrived around 4:00 AM on that cold winter morning , my anticipation and excitement kept me from falling asleep. Leaving my hotel at day break, I took a quick look around the Kremlin and was excited at the prospect of spending more time visiting the palaces, mosque and churches inside. The Kremlin dominates the city. Built on an ancient site near the Volga, the Kazan Kremlin dates from the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate. Archeological excavations on the territory of Kazan Kremlin provided evidence that the first fortress of Kazan was founded at the turn of 9th-10th centuries by Volga Bulgars. In 1438 Kazan became the capital of Khanate of Kazan, in 1552 the city was conquered by Ivan IV and became a significant and integral part of the Russian state.
The Tartars (or Tatars) controlled the trade routes between Scandinavia and the Caspian Sea and extracted tributes from Russian rulers and other Christian enclaves that was in their vicinity. Tired of Muslim aggression and the demands for tributes over the Eastern Orthodox Empire, Ivan the Terrible amassed an army of 150,000 soldiers and launched an attack that would permanently weaken the Islamic/Mongol-Turkic dominance of the Volga region. Muslims were massacred, converted or exiled to Siberia. This ethnic cleansing was one of the most severe in Russia only to be paled in comparison by the deeds of Stalin in the 1930s.

The Kazan Kremlin was built after the siege of Kazan on the ruins of the former Bulgar/Mongol castle. Ivan built many churches in Kazan and it became the Christian See of the Volga Land. Today, the only surviving Tartar fortress in Russia the Kazan Kremlin consists of an outstanding group of historic buildings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, integrating remains of earlier structures of the 10th to 16th centuries. The site and its key monuments represent an outstanding example of a synthesis of Tartar and Russian influences in architecture, integrating different cultures (Bulgar, Golden Horde, Tatar, Italian, and Russian), as well as showing the impact of Islam and Christianity.

Lyudmila, an English tutor in the University of Kazan moonlights as a guide. She arrived at my hotel around 8:00 AM and we were off to explore the city by foot. Within 1/2 a kilometer I came across a campus of ornate buildings with post modern Soviet buildings ringing its outer perimeter. I had arrived at the well known Kazan University, that began over 210 years ago. Lenin and Tolstoy attended classes while scientific research yielded new discoveries such as Ruthenium, popular methods for petroleum extraction and above all the science of magnetic resonance. Since Lyudmila had access to the buildings I chose to visit all the historic buildings from 200 years ago. This was not a part of my tour and it turned out to be very enriching. Moments such as these are only possible when traveling alone. The administration building had a museum showing the dresses of royalty, military personnel and professors over the years. They had curated a fine collection of scientific and literary dioramas showing the University's achievements. Despite visiting several prestigious schools in the USA, I had not seen something even close.

The Chemistry department was thrilled to note that I was a Chemical Engineer and gave me several publications in Russian, to take back with me. The University administrator personally showed me the halls where lectures, sometimes attended by the Tsars and nobility, were conducted. I even got to sit in the classrooms of Tolstoy and Lenin(expelled from the University of Kazan for revolutionary activities).
Another mile from the University was the historic Kazansky street with a large pedestrian shopping street that one would encounter in western Europe. This part of Kazan had been destroyed and rebuilt to showcase this city that has a future. There were many Tatar restaurants serving spicy lamb, dumplings and all kinds of Turkic foods that reminded me of my time in Kashgar in Xinxiang Province. We had a delicious meal costing no more than $5 for the two of us. I visited the magnificent Cathedral of Epiphany of Our Lord, the seat of the Russian Orthodox church. However, it became the gymnasium of the Universe of Kazan University in the 1950s during the peak of the revolution.


It seems to me that many ideological philosophies such as Communism and fundamental Islam have one thing in common. A penchant for destruction of civilization and preventing the evolution into arts, architecture and the sciences. In Russia, China and now in the Middle East, the silent victims of such creeds are some of the historic monuments once built by great conquerors and rulers whom the world remembers as game changers. I have shed many a tear for the number of monasteries burnt in Tibet, Buddha images desecrated in Xinjiang and Shaanxi provinces and magnificent churches reassigned to the common man for mundane purposes as in the Soviet Union and above all the execution and debasement of scientists and scholars everywhere. This does not include many Shamanic and Tribal cultures whict stood against their oppressors.

The Mongols under Genghiz Khan destroyed 500 years of learning in Central Asia in the 14th century, the Uzbeks under Timor cleaned up where the Mongols left. The raids into India, first by the Afghans then by Turks and the Mongol-Turkic Mughals destroyed many parts of an ancient land from the 12th to the 19th centuries. The Greeks and the Spartans and the Romans and the Persians were no better. The Jews were persecuted as long as there has been history. Yet despite all these wanton destruction, now in the 21 st century, we have still not learned from our past mistakes and crimes. Yet mankind has a penchant to survive these calamities with grit, guile and perseverance to allow someone like me to visit and review our past history in all these previously ravaged areas from China to Russia to Central Asia to the Middle-East and India.

With such thoughts in my mind I walked along the banks of a tributary of the Volga that cuts Kazan city into two; the old Islamic section and the European section. My first stop was the Islamic center established in the 1700s to understand the severity of Islam followed there. Islam in Russia has been clobbered into submission and at this point it is in synch with other religions of that nation. I fanned through the neighborhood of beautiful old houses, some in poor repair while many were being rebuilt to the specifications of their original splendor. When compared to the European side, it felt like being in the bad sections of Istanbul. After sampling some street foods I took a local bus to visit the banks of the mighty Volga; Europe's longest River. Its banks have played a major role in history including being the home to 11 of Russia's largest cities located in its watershed. This river was home to the Proto-Indo Europeans- land to the early Aryans; Iranians, Scythians, Parthians, Kushans , Mongol-Turkic tribes, Huns and the later settlers like the Tatars and other Turko- Finnic Tribes.
The Volga in winter has an ice thickness of 8 to 12inches. Every winter, a highway is cut across the river to avoid a longer route to gain access to bridges. This was a common sight I saw all over Russia especially on Lake Baikal were trucks of all kinds were seen navigating through frozen lakes with large surface areas
Reserving most of the following day for the Kremlin (Russian for fortress), I set off to see the magnificent fortress, only 500 meters from my hotel. Built on an ancient site, the Kazan Kremlin dates from the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate (13-15th centuries)


From the 10th to 13th centuries Kazan was a pre-Mongol Bulgar town. For the uninitiated reader, the Bulgars were a semi-nomadic warrior tribe from present day Kazakhstan steppes. They are a group such as the Aryans, Scythians and Huns who left the eastern Steppes of Siberia and moved westward around the 7th century AD( due to Chinese aggression). The Bulgars eventually split into two groups; one moved along the Volga river( Volga Bulgaria) while the other took refuge along the Danube river ( today's Bulgaria). The Kazan Kremlin hill consisted then of a fortified trading settlement surrounded by moats, embankments, and a stockade. A stone fortress was built in the 12th century and the town developed as an outpost on the northern border of Volga Bulgaria. They practiced a pagan religion with strong influences from Christianity and Islam .
The fortress was demolished on the instructions of the Mongols in the 13th century. A citadel was then built as the seat of the Prince of Kazan, including the town's administrative and religious institutions. By the first half of the 15th century, the town had become the capital of the Muslim Tatar Principality of Bulgaria, with administrative, military, and trading functions.
Having survived repeated destruction first by the Mongols in the 13th century, and the Tsarist Russia in the 15th century Kazan's modern desecration came at the hands of Stalin in 1922. The ensemble of historic buildings lost many of its compositional dominants, which were pulled down on by the communist fanatics-the belfries of the Annunciation and Savior- Transfiguration Cathedrals, the church of Cyprian and Justinia, the Savior-Transfiguration Monastery complex, the dome of Bishop's House, and the domes of the Annunciation Cathedral. The Kremlin however retained its status as a centre of Soviet state power and as garrison.

Well maintained, this masterpiece of Russian architecture is yet another achievement by Postnik Yakovlev most famous as one of the architects and builders of Saint Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow (built between 1555 and 1560). According to legend, Ivan the Terrible blinded Yakovlev so that he could never build anything so beautiful again. However, this is probably a myth, as Yakovlev, in cooperation with another master, Ivan ShirIai, designed the walls of the Kazan Kremlin and the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Kazan in 1561 and 1562, just after the completion of St. Basil's.
Spending time inside one of the many beautiful churches, especially the Church of Annunciation, I could not help but realize that I was also walking over the fallen remains of the Khanate's army. Eight Christian churches were built over the remains of thousands of Muslim warriors by Ivan the Terrible..Many unearthed tombstones are displayed inside the Kremlin. Visiting places such as Kazan, one tends to reflect on imperialism and its effects the world over. The Museum of Islamic Culture and The History of Statehood of Tatarstan within its confines helped me understand the gradual reemergence of Tatarstan in the 450 years past the wake of its destruction.
After forcibly converted or relocated to Siberia in the 1500s, the Tatars got their first foothold under Imperial Russia when they were given increased rights as citizens in the 1700s during the liberal reign of Catherine the Great. By the 1860s a Tatar language newspaper was circulated in Kazan and other Muslim areas of Russia.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917, during when Russia was in a civil war, forced the Tatars to join the Bolsheviks. Under the new Soviet rule the state of Tatarstan was ruled under TSSR ( Tatar Socialist Republic), where they were repressed again due to religion conflicting with communism. With the ultimate fall of USSR, Tatarstan liberated itself as an independent entity in 1990. But not wanting to face the problems of Chechnya in the Caucuses region which came under the weight of Russian aggression under Putin, Tatarstan decided to be an autonomous region within Russia and in 1994 became the Republic of Tatarstan.

The spiritual mosque of the Tatars, Qol Sharif, which was razed to the ground by the armies of Ivan the terrible was rebuilt in 1996, mostly funded by Saudi Arabia and UAE. Today it is the largest mosque in Europe located adjacent to the historic Church of the Annunciation, inside the Kremlin. Tatarstan is an unusual example of a Russian region where the majority of the population is Muslim, but where interethnic and interfaith strife is rare. According to the latest census, 52.9 percent of Tatarstan's 3.8 million inhabitants are predominantly Muslim Tatars; 39.5 percent are predominantly Orthodox Christian Russians.

On Kazan, Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, believes "
"This is a brand of Europeanized Islam, westernized Islam, that is Islamic yet functions in a Western society. As part of the ongoing engagement of the Muslim world, there could be benefits there.".
In conclusion, I must confess my fascination with the history of the Eastern and Western Steppes region with my readers. It is one of the most neglected portions in history text books of western learning, but in my opinion one that has shaped mankind. This history starts with Genghis Khan and the Chinese states, Mongolia, Indo-Europeans, Turkic peoples, Scythians , Parthians, Huns and Kushans It also includes the history of the Silk Road, Ottoman Empire and that of Persia until the conquest of Asia Minor by Alexander.


After witnessing ancient sites as a companion to reading written history, I boarded my train to Moscow 500 miles to the west. Staying a walking distance from the Red Square on the old Arbat street, my first foray was to see St.Basil's church built by Postnik Yakovlev who also rebuilt the Kazan Kremlin.

The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


UNESCO web site
Foriegn Affairs" Russia's Muslim Reality"- Vasily Rudich


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:03 Archived in Russia Tagged kremlin church the of golden university russia state khan kazan ivan horde volga mongols tatarstan tartar tatar terrible bolgars ukazan genghiz tartarstan qol sharif annunciation chagtai Comments (2)

Searching for Oriental carpets along the Silk Routes of Iran

Visiting ancient bazaars on a journey across Iran.........Ramdas Iyer ( 2014)


I asked the owner of Kashmir Emporium in Madras, India, the home of my youth, about Kashan and the origin of the design of my very first oriental carpet bought from him. This was in 1986, when Kashmir was one of India's leading producer of fine carpets, honed from the traditions of Safavid era Persia and improved upon by the artisans of the Mughal court. As a young man living in the United States heaven was listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash with a cold beer at hand. As refinements entered life it lead to sipping wine while perched around an oriental carpet, but with the music remaining the same.


The Kashan carpet, a silk and woolen gem still ranks amongst one of my finest acquisitions. But Kashan has always been on my mind. I read up on oriental carpets, their classifications including Persian, Turkic, Turkoman, and Caucasian masterpieces: kelims, carpets, weaves, knots, warps and all. After nearly 30 years of falling in love with carpets, I finally stood in the desert light of Kashan, Iran. A silk route gem, it was one of the leisure spots of the Safavi kings, Shah Abbas I who created the Bagh-e-fin, a World heritage garden reminiscent of the classical Persian version of paradise. There was production of Persian carpets at Royal workshops in the 17th and early 18th century. The Persian carpet workshops ceased production in about 1722 after the Afghan invasion. But its designs endure and are made in other parts of Iran and the Khoresan region encompassing north east Iran near Mashad and parts of Turkmenistan.

I scoured the city that is visited by less than a thousand tourists a year these days, only to find a handful of large shops where the merchants were so indifferent to commerce and the carpets so large that I suspected that only the mullahs could afford and fit them inside one of the many new mosques being built all over Iran since the revolution. Disappointed, I went to visit the Sialk Teppe, one of the oldest Zigguarts in the world with a history from 5500 BC . It is possible that they too wove carpets, but the fragile nature of the materials used could not last the test of time.

Another interesting legend in Kashan was that of the origin of the three wise men who followed the star that guided them to Bethlehem to witness the nativity of Jesus, as recounted in the Bible. Whatever the historical validity of this story, the attribution of Kashan as their original home testifies to the city's prestige at the time the story was set down. The small tomb/mosque of the Three Wise Men, covered with fine carpets from Kashan, was also another highlight of my time spent there.

From being simple articles of need, floor and entrance coverings to protect the nomadic tribesmen from the cold and damp, the increasing beauty of the carpets found them new owners. - kings and noblemen, art lovers and energetic immigrants like myself, who looked upon them as signs of wealth, prestige and a thing of beauty with distinction.

Historical evidence points to carpet weaving being prevalent during the reign of Cyrus the Great in 529 B.C. They were made in villages for personal use with designs and weavings identifiable of the specific village or tribe. The artistic design and quality of Persian rugs reached its pinnacle during the Safavid Dynasty (1499-1722), because the reigns of Shah Tahmasp and Shah Abbas created a weaving industry that focused on "large-scale artistic and commercial enterprise revolving around highly skilled and organized weaving workshops." During this time, trade was established with Europe with Persian rugs as one of the threads that spurred economic exchange, and Persia reached its golden age.

The word Oriental carpet is bestowed on carpets from Persia, Turkey, Turkestan and the Caucasian regions of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the splendor of carpets is normally attributed to Islamic artistry, it also thrived in the Christian Caucasian regions mentioned above. While on a trip to the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad in 1989, during the final years of the Soviet empire, I was drawn to a small ragged display of a carpet . Russian archaeologists Rudenko and Griaznov in 1949 discovered the oldest known "knotted" carpet in the Pazyryk valley, about 5000 feet up on the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Dating back to the fifth century BCE . The Pazyryk carpet is of rare beauty and woven with great technical skill. It was found preserved in the frozen tombs of Scythian chiefs, which were 2400 to 2500 years old.

My arrival in Teheran during the Iranian spring of 2014 was not without excitement and wonderment , but along with a strange discomfort caused by three decades of isolation from the western worlds. It is a land once ruled by the Persians of Fars province ( Shiraz) but now contains a republic of many tribal and ethnic groups. Representing 35% of the population they include Azeris(Turks), Baluchis(western Afghan and Pakistan), Kurds and Turkmen. I spent two days of visiting the major sites, including the US Embassy building ravaged by students of the Khomeini led Islamic revolution of 1979. Late evenings were spent in the many carpet shops near hotels to get a flavor of what I expected to see over the next three weeks. The prospect of a carpet hunt after seeing the variety and workmanship energized me for the rest of my wonderful travels from Kerman Province in the South East to the Azerbaijan province in the North west. All the legendary silk road cities and carpet weaving centers lie near the mountainous deserts of this ancient land.The Zagros mountains run across the country while the Alburus mountains form a northern chain.


Leaving Teheran, I landed in Shiraz; capital of Fars province, home of the legendary Cyrus and Darius founders of the Persian Empire and a city of refinement and culture .The bazaar of Shiraz ranks as one of the greatest in Iran second only to the World heritage bazaar of Tabriz, in the Azerbaijan province. While in Teheran I had only visited air-conditioned shops, here I finally arrived in a real bazaar. In fact I had no time to visit the great carpet bazaar of Teheran.The vaulted ceilings and the many carpet shops with almost no customers was one big rug paradise of wool and silk in resplendent colors and classic motifs. After a couple of hours of walking around I focused on one shop who had a couple of small woolen rugs that caught my attention. I fell in love with both of them but was quite shocked by prices which still are only a third of that sold in the famous ABC Carpet shops in New York City.

It was a small carpet slightly bigger than a prayer rug but had all the qualities of a silk rug with very intricate non repeating patterns, displaying a menagerie of animal motifs possibly making it a one of a kind masterpiece for my collection. It was a Qashqai Nomadic carpet also known as Shirazi. The Qashqai nomads are a conglomeration of clans of different ethnic origins, mostly Turkic, but also Arab, Kurdish, and Luri. Majority of Qashqai people were originally nomadic pastoralists and some remain so today. The traditional nomadic Qashqai travelled with their flocks each year from the summer highland pastures north of Shiraz roughly 480 km or 300 miles south to the winter pastures on lower (and warmer) lands near the Persian Gulf, to the southwest of Shiraz. They are referred as "Shirazi" because Shiraz was the major marketplace for them in the past. The wool produced in the mountains and valleys near Shiraz is exceptionally soft and beautiful and takes a deeper color than wool from other parts of Iran.


"No wool in all Persia takes such a rich and deep color as the Shiraz wool. The deep blue and the dark ruby red are equally extraordinary, and that is due to the brilliancy of the wool, which is firmer and, so to say, more transparent than silk, and makes one think of translucent enamel".(Hawley, Walter A. (1913) Oriental Rugs Antique & Modern)]

Qashqai carpets have been said to be "probably the most famous of all Persian tribal weavings".( Bennett, Ian (1978) "Later Persian Weaving." In: Rugs & Carpets of the World, edited by Ian Bennett.

Prices were agreed upon but I had no clue as to the transportation of the rug to the United States. The Baazari merchant had no international experience and was at a loss to assist me. I left town for a couple of days to visit Persepolis and other sites before returning to my new love that I had left hanging at the front of his shop. Other neighboring shop keepers offered help including one of them calling a relative in Los Angeles ( place with the largest Iranian diaspora in the US) for help with the credit card transaction. Alas the shopkeeper found a courier to hand carry it to Dubai, usually by Arab Dhow, that plies the waters of the Straits of Hormuz near Bandar Abbas to Dubai, a distance of only 300 miles. These waters are the life blood of Iranian commerce that enables the smuggling of western merchandise into Iran.
I immediately contacted my brother in law in Dubai who was glad to pay cash for the merchandise and hold on to my Qashqai treasure until it was safe to bring it into the USA. The Shirazi Baazari trusted me to act in good faith and concluded his perhaps first international transaction since the embargo.

Leaving Shiraz for Kerman, the road was carved out of the Dasht-e-Lut Desert, one of the 10 hottest places on earth. Being spring time, patches of small green sprouts were quickly devoured by the Qashqai black Tibetan sheep, renowned for fine carpet quality wool and succulent meats. Groups of nomads could be seen herding the animals as far as the desert horizon.
While I did not have the time nor opportunity to visit their traditional homes, I was able to photograph some of them on the range.

The city of Kerman today has a pleasant atmosphere with mosques, blocks with bazaars and tea houses. The carpet manufacturing has long been an important industry and carpets from Kerman are easily recognized. The ground color is often red, and the pattern is dominated by a centrally placed medallion together with a wide border filled with flowers. When Nadir Shah finally wrested control of Persians from the Afghans around1746, whose insurgency cost Kashan its place as a royal workshop, Kerman became the recipient of royal patronage. However for modern consumption these carpets are not very popular and found mainly in mosques and Islamic assembly halls. I could not locate a single shop in Kerman Bazaar since perhaps like the rest of Iran, carpet making has moved from their traditional homes to concentrated workshops in Esfahan and Meshad.

From Kerman I went further south to the famous Bam citadel, which was destroyed by an earthquake, much to the sorrow of adobe architecture lovers. The road from Bam to Baluchistan province of Pakistan is less than 100 miles from Bam and is rampant in banditry. However near Bam one can find many dark skinned Baluch nomads and merchants who straddle both sides of the border. I stopped to photograph a Baluch nomad on a donkey. He spoke fluent Hindi and had tended sheep near the Indian border a few years beforehand. Before my experience of buying a Baluch nomadic carpet, I wish to give some history of the production of non Persian rugs that form the family of Oriental carpets.

Great oriental carpets, I must reiterate do not belong to Persians alone. In 1219 Genghis Khan went to war against the Khwarezm (Khoresan)Empire ( Aryan-Persian rulers) in present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The sultan there had agreed to a trade treaty, but when the first caravan arrived its goods were stolen and its merchants were killed. The sultan then murdered some of Genghis Khan’s ambassadors. Despite once again being outnumbered, the Mongol horde swept through one Khwarezm city after another, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgench. Skilled workers such as carpenters and jewelers were usually saved, while aristocrats and resisting soldiers were killed. As the Mongols ruled a predominantly Turkic population in central Asia a cultural synthesis( Turco-Mongol era) that arose. During the early 1300s among the ruling elites of Mongol Empire successor states such as the Chagatai Khanate and Golden Horde were notable. These elites adopted Turkic languages and local religions such as Islam and Buddhism, while retaining Mongol political and legal institutions. Many later Central Asian states drew heavily on this tradition, including the Timurid dynasty, the Khanate of Kazan, the Nogai Khanate, the Crimean Khanate, and the Mughal Empire.

I bring up this important history because this conquest gave rise to the fine tradition of carpet making in non Persian areas ;Afghanistan-notably Herat, Samarkand, Bokhara, Anatolia and the caucuses regions. Baluchistan being a neighbor of Iran has produced some amazing tribal tugs. While in Esfahan, I purchased a relatively inexpensive Boluch Yakub khani rug( see photograph). The story of Yacub Kahni rugs is as rich as the history of carpet making itself and falls outside the focus of this article.

Turning back and heading north towards Esfahan, I had the opportunity to stop in the storied silk route city of Nain. Close to the western edge of the great desert Dasht-e-Kavir, it has one of the oldest Islamic mosques in Iran built in the 9th century soon after Islamic incursions from Arabia. The semi adobe architecture with classic Persian and Arab elements was a unique site.
Outside the mosque I happened to make eye contact with a person who introduced himself as the Director of the Museum of Ethnology which was housed in a classical Qajar era house from the 18th century. After my brief tour, the gentleman inquired if I would be interested in seeing a Nain carpet woven by his family members. Carpets from the city have a high reputation and were very popular. The material in the more exclusive carpets consists of wool on a silk warp or silk in the warp as well as in the weft and pile.( The terms warp and weft are used in reference to textiles that are woven. They are the technical terms for the two types of thread used to create a finished woven product. The warp is the tightly stretched lengthwise core of a fabric, while the weft is woven between the warp threads to create various patterns.). I had him display the rug next to my car but did not find it visually appealing despite the very attractive price quoted.

I finally arrived in Esfahan (Isfahan), the magnificent capital city of the Safavids and a city over 2500 years old. Such is Esfahan’s grandeur that it is easy to agree with the famous 16th-century half-rhyme ‘Esfahan nesf-e jahan’ (Esfahan is half the world). Robert Byron, author of the 1937 travelogue The Road to Oxiana, was slightly more geographically specific when he ranked ‘Isfahan among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity’.
The architecture, history and the classic elements of Persian society were on display for the world to consume. Despite the severe embargo, the shops were filled with handicrafts, foods and fabric of a superior quality. It has become both the production and trade center for carpets representing the diversity of designs from the entire country. Carpets from Isfahan have high class especially when it comes to the composition of the patterns, materials and designs. They are characterized by thin, often carpets with extremely high knot density (Senneh knots) that sometimes are made on silk warp. The motifs often consists of medallions with palmettes and arabesques (Shah Abbas pattern), but figural motifs also occur.
I spent perhaps the most amount of money on any purchase ever other than buying a car, in Isfahan. After dedicating an entire afternoon to studying the various offerings I settled on a store where the buyers seemed to have an eye for rugs that suited mine. I purchased a fine Qashqai Nomad silk carpet( see photograph) with animal motifs, a Qom made silk Bakhtiari carpet( see photographs); a timeless classic and the Baluch Yakub khani mentioned above.


All the carpets were shipped to Dubai or India for safe keeping until the embargo with Iran is lifted. Many Bakhtiari rugs, especially the one I purchased, are in fact tribal pieces that rely upon a repertoire of abstract geometric and animal motives. But Bakhtiari weavers are also acclaimed for their ability to produce sophisticated medallion all over, and garden designs of classical Persian inspiration, with an added vitality and boldness.
As with any mighty dynasty the decline of the Isfahan based Safavid dynasty happened around 1722, due to neglect by rulers who failed to share the wisdom of their forebears. The Mughal court of India which maintained great relations with the Safavid court became a natural choice for mass migration of talent to India as the Safavid era faded. Its great poets, architects, weavers and statesmen found employment in India. Sufi Islam, monument building, carpet weaving and other handicrafts flourished in Mughal India. Oriental carpets reached international standards first in Kashmir, the winter retreat of the Mughal emperors and also in Agra, capital city of the Mughal king Shah Jahan, famous for being the builder of Taj Mahal( with an architect from Shiraz). With today Kashmir in severe religious turmoil this industry has moved to Jaipur. The Indian woolen carpets are inspired by the classical Persian motifs transformed to the most contemporary style. Bright glowing colors, hand-knotting technique allowing high number of knots per square inch and exquisite design sense have made Indian hand-knotted woolen carpets, cherished products in home decor. The Iranians need to wake up to this fact.
My own collections from India include the silk and cotton Kashan from Kashmir, a large Isfahan in robust colors from Jaipur (purchased at ABC carpets, New York), and an antique Turkoman Tekke carpet ( from Agra).

The Esfahan experience left me elated about my new acquisitions and yet was a nagging source of concern for their eventual transportation to the USA. Leaving Esfahan and traveling to many ancient centers including Hamadan, Kermanshah and Qazvin, another capital of the Safavids, I reached the legendary carpet city of Tabriz. Tabriz has been a place of cultural exchange since antiquity. Its historic bazaar complex is one of the most important commercial centers on the Silk Road. Tabriz was a gateway to the West, since it lay on one of the principal trade routes from Iran to Anatolia and then onwards to Europe. The city of Tabriz was also the terminus of the Silk Route from China. The most prosperous time of Tabriz and its bazaar was in the 16th century when the town became the capital city of the Safavid kingdom. The inhabitants are primarily Azeris from nearby Azerbaijan which was a Persian province until the Ottoman Empire carved out most of it from Persia. One can see many Turkish and Kurdish inhabitants in this town. I have never seen so many carpets in one place in my life. The style of the carpets are predominantly of Ardebil and Tabriz designs; "Tabriz", "Heris", "Lachak-turanj", "Afshan", "Agajaly", "Dord Fasil", "Sardorud". Ardabil", "Sheikh Safi", "Sarabi", "Shah Abbasi" and "Mir".

The carpet section of the bazaar with must have at least 300 stores each stacked with large carpets ranging from 12 X 16ft to 36 x 48 ft. There were very few customers and most of the shop keepers were quietly reading the morning papers or chatting over tea with the neighbors. None of them were interested in selling anything. Unlike in Turkey or Morocco where touts will constantly harass one to visit their shop, this was a pleasant surprise. I understood that their main customers were Arabs especially from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Tabriz designs though very likeable, belonged in another era. The prices of large woolen carpets of similar quality were half the prize of those Isfahan. If one is keen on Ardabil carpets, Tabriz is the place to acquire. I was burnt out both financially and emotionally for any further carpet buying expeditions.

I finally flew back to Teheran from Tabriz on a very old DC-8 aircraft wishing that I could have done better on a flying carpet. Back in Teheran and reunited with my wonderful guide, I visited the famous Carpet Museum of Iran, built under the patronage of Shahbanu Farrah, the wife of the Late Shah of Iran, in an architecturally amazing building. Staring dumbfounded at the quality, designs, colors and intricacy of those carpets, made me realize that the art of carpet weaving ranks amongst one of the greatest expressions of art; both tribal and royal.
Inspired by this museum visit, I returned to the original carpet store in Teheran to look at my early selections. One more time I was floored by the tribal motifs of the Qashqai and purchased a woolen carpet with cotton waft produced in the great carpet making area of Mashad. That too found its way to Dubai.


The Iranians were among the pioneer carpet weavers of the ancient civilizations, having achieved a superlative degree of perfection through centuries of creativity and ingenuity. The skill of carpet weaving has been handed down by fathers to their sons, who built upon those skills and in turn handed them down to their offspring as a closely guarded family secret. To trace the history of Persian carpet is to follow a path of cultural growth of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen.

Having covered the silk route from Luoyang in China though Xinjiang, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenstan,parts of Khazakhstan, Iran and to Azerbaijan and Anatolia, my other great oriental carpet shopping experiences were in Samarkand, Bokhara and Khiva/Urgench in the remote Khoresm region. While in Shanghai I came across a lot of carpet making facilities and are producing quality silk carpets using fine Chinese silk yarn, synthetic dyes with old designs from Persia. The Kerman design silk carpet that I purchased there more than a dozen years ago has all the qualities of a fine oriental carpet in my living room. The classic Turkmen Yomut and Tekke designs purchased in Bukhara and Samarkhand are also some of my favorites.The Koneh and Anatolian carpets purchased in Istanbul add a different dimension to that of the Persian ones in my home.

It is sad to see Iran losing its place as a premier carpet producer. Before the 1987 embargo, the total wholesale value of Oriental hand-knotted rugs imported to the United States was about $750 million in current dollars. Iran had the biggest share of that market, 28 percent, followed by China and India. Today they are probably place fourth or fifth -- about where they have been all along during the embargo. Both now and in the long term, industry experts agree, Iran faces tough competition. Iranian weavers will have to adjust their designs and colors for a share of the American market. India, Pakistan, China and Turkey may not be easy to push to the background again.

Carpet dealers in Iran have also had to improvise. Their products have been getting to the lucrative American market via Pakistan, or Mexico, where they are mixed with shipments of local carpets. Money is channeled to Iran via middlemen in the Gulf. Some of the bazaar’s larger dealers have contacts in Dubai who help with bank accounts and offer chip-and-pin services for foreign buyers and tourists, whose cards are otherwise, owing to sanctions, useless in Iran. “We have to trust the middlemen with thousands of dollars,” explains a dealer, who says he pays up to 3% on transactions to get paid from abroad. “Many of us have been cheated. The weak have left the business. Only the strong dealers with good foreign connections have survived.”
Iran has an amazing history of rug production and I sincerely hope that the past 3 decades of embargo has not permanently damaged the industry. Of the 2 million weavers in the 1980s only half of them are in the trade. The weavers are very poor and need advance cash and materials to start a new rug. Youngsters find other professions that are less difficult, such as selling clothing in the bazaars more appealing. Carpet making is in the Iranian DNA and I am eagerly awaiting its chance to dominate the oriental carpet industry.

In conclusion, I just gathered that the most expensive carpet ever sold was a Kerman carpet that was auctioned by Southeby's of London for $43.5 million dollar in 2013!
While I still have a lot of room in me for oriental carpets, I have literally run out of space.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

A brief history of Persian Carpet and its patterns-Iran Chamber of Commerce, June 28, 2015
The Economist Iran’s carpet trade-A magic comeback? Oct 2013
New York Times- No More 'Pssst!' For Iranian Rugs, But Who Cares? March 23, 2000
Wikipedia- a wide variety of information
Lonely Planet-Esfahan













Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:51 Archived in Iran Tagged route iran kerman persia azerbaijan oriental nomad kashmir silk tehran mashad kashan qom carpet safavid carpets tabriz baluchistan ramdas iyer nain hamadan qashqai qahqai ardebil Comments (0)

Traversing the Pamir-Alai High mountain range in Tajikistan

In the shadows of Alexander the Great.....by Ramdas Iyer


In the spring of 329 BC, Alexander the Great's conquests brought him to the river Oxus, which today forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan at the city of Termez( in Uzbekistan) He was on his way to India and beyond. Having crossed the Oxus and captured Bessus ( murderer of Emperor Darius of Persia), Alexander took fresh horses and set off for the royal capital of Sogdiana, Marakanda (Samarkand). From Marakanda, Alexander marched north to the river Jaxartes (Syr Darya) where the Macedonians were attacked by Scythian tribesmen who were also defeated. The victorious Alexander founded a city on this site, Alexandria Eschate “Alexandria the Farthest” today's Khujand, in northern Tajikistan.
My story here retraces the path of Alexander from Termez( Uzbekistan) to Dushanbe( capital of Tajikistan) and over the Alai-Pamir ranges to Penjakant (Tajikistan), a great Sogdian city( of Zoroastrian faith) and onto Samarkand, the magnificent silk road city. The route traversed the 18000 ft Anzob peak and the magnificent Karakul Lake, a place visited by Alexander when he landed there in search of his beloved horse Bucepahlus, that got lost in the mountains.

These routes and cities are very common in history books and have been discussed at length by the Greek historian Arian including the instructors at West Point Military Academy. My travels along the Central Asian silk route in the winter months of 2009 intersected with that of the campaign trails of Alexander in Termez (southern Uzbekistan/Afghan border), Penjakant( Tajikistan) and Samarkand (Central Uzbekistan)in this trip taken in 2009 and also in Persepolis, Hamadan(Ecbatana) and Teheran while in Iran in 2014.Leaving Termez, I spent the worst harassment by Uzbek border police while I tried to make the land crossing into Tajikistan. Short of a strip search they tried to match my declared currency value against what I really carried on my person and luggage. After 2 hours of questioning, and dictating a confession letter stating my unintended currency carriage violation, I was finally released. In line with expected "democractic" norms I was offered a lawyer to take my case to court that was recessed for the weekend ( 200 miles from any population), so I had to give up close to $400 in cash . But I still had money stashed in other areas that they did not search because a reasonably decent officer stopped an impending strip search. As a US Passport holder they did not harm me but put pressure on me similar to our own US border guards who use intimidation, harassment and the "law". The other reason for this unfortunate event was propagated by the closure of this crossing to commercial traffic due to a brief war between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over an ill defined border in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union . This closure prevented kickback money from flowing to the guards from truck drivers.
Crossing the Uzbek border and arriving into Tajikistan, the mood was entirely different. The border post was laid back and my guide and driver were waiting for me with great concern for my welfare.

A little Tajik history will help the article to movie forward smoothly; The entire Asia Minor landmass including current day Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Northern Egypt, Iraq, Iran,Syria, Afghanistan till the,western border of India was a part of the Persian Empire for 700 years. The Tajiks speak a dialect of modern Persian, unlike the Uzbeks who speak a Turkic-Mongol dialect as a result of Genghis and Timor's dominance. The Tajiks are a beautiful and graceful people as opposed to the Uzbeks who take pride in the villainous ancestry of its heroes. In 1996, when in Ladakh, once an independent Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, I learnt that over 50% of the population were Muslim. Ladakh, now a part of Kashmir State of India, was a part of the sub silk route that moved goods to and from Srinagar in Kashmir to China, and Central Asia. When India was partitioned in 1947, an entire historic trade route connecting Samarkand, Dushanbe, Kabul, Kathmandu and Lhasa was blocked overnight. This left a huge population of Tajiks, Hunza-the Indo Europeans of the Swat valley and Tibetans to be stuck forever in India. This along with the polygamist and polyandrous practices of the mountain Muslims have transformed an ancient Buddhist community into a minority.


Crossing the border I arrived at the capital city of Dushanbe. It was well laid out with a strong presence of Soviet Union done right in its early days of socialism that was built on optimism and hope. The following day we left the beautiful city of Dushanbe and started hitting the slopes of the mountains that form the backdrop of this beautiful city. Tajikistan is home to some of the highest mountains in the world, including the Pamir and Alay ranges. 93% of Tajikistan is mountainous with altitudes ranging from 300 m (980 ft) to almost 7,500 m (24,600 ft), and nearly 50% of Tajikistan's territory is above 3,000 m (9,800 ft).
The massive mountain ranges are cut by hundreds of canyons and gorges at the bottom of which run streams that flow into larger river valleys where the majority of the country's population lives and works. The Pamirs in particular are heavily glaciated, and Tajikistan is home to the largest non-polar glacier in the world, the Fedchenko Glacier.
Due to heavy snowfall expected that day, we took on an additional driver to aid Mehrzad my driver who was highly experienced working the mountainous roads while a driver in the Soviet army during their occupation years in Afghanistan. My guide, the beautiful Yassaman, hailed from the town of Khojand- famous for beautiful women and the hometown of Roxanne, wife of Alexander the Great. Within reaching 8000 ft all the vehicles on the road were stuck in ice and snow. With skills not seen before by me, my drivers managed to free the Land Cruiser from its icy anchorarge using chains and planks while Yassaman and I trekked the amazing snow packed mountain scenery for over an hour. The road to the Anzob pass was carved through a glacier and I was quite surprised at the speed of road crews that arrived to rescue a host of vehicles, mostly Russian made, from the pack snow. The Anzob Pass 56 mi north of Dushanbe at roughly 11,000 feet (3,400 m), is one of the most treacherous mountain passes of Central Asia. On October 23, 1997, an avalanche killed 46 people, burying 15 trucks and cars. The avalanche was so large that it took two weeks for the would-be rescuers to reach the victims. Due to the importance of the route connecting the north to south and its level of danger, the 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) Anzob Tunnel was built, completed in 2006.
After crossing the pass I noticed the marked difference of entering a land unchanged for millenia, a land of ancient villages and a people trapped in unchanging customs and practices. This is what makes travel to these areas very special. We stopped in a road side tea shop whose owners agreed to cook us a meal. During winter nothing is open except for hot tea sold in small eateries. Much to our excitement delicious meat dumplings, Afghani bread and copious amounts of sheep yogurt was served. The atmosphere was something to die for. With a steep ravine exposing itself outside the fogged window, we all sat in an elevated platform (typical Persian influence) laid with a multitude of faded rugs with the meal served in common dishes where everyone picks from their quadrants.
We traveled past beautiful villages set amidst poplar and willow trees, which almost seemed integral to the landscape. I was shooting so many photographs that my guide informed me that we might not reach our night lodging- a Shepherd's house, vacated for foreign travelers passing through that village. Around 10:00PM we reached the house set near a bubbling icy brook far enough from the road that we could not take our vehicle there. The sky was like a planetarium with all the constellations and the milky way showing themselves in an explosion of star dust and celestial light. Till date, other than in the Sahel Desert in Mali, I have not seen such a sky, almost similar to that seen by the ancient Greek and Indian astronomers. The house consisted of the main room and two little rooms on the perimeter. The focus of the house was the main room which had the coal stove which also served as the room heater, on which tea is always ready to be served. The Sheppard, Malyik, was a nice young man whose wife had prepared a magnificent meal of dumplings, lamb chops, soup and over 15 other items for snacking. We opened the Vodka bottle that I had my driver procure in Dushanbe and toasted each other with tales from USA, Russia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. My sleeping quarter was a private room with no heat. Over 10 blankets were layered on top of me until I couldn't move anymore. Visiting the distant toilet was a challenge but having to walk in the icy starlit night was certainly welcome.

The next morning, I was paraded around the village and shook hands with over a dozen bearded men who seemed very pleased to meet me. The name Shahrukh Khan, India's super movie star, was a universal name known to one and all in Tajikistan. Everyone whom I met would ask if I had met Sharukh Khan and I would answer that I was planning on it. Sharukh is a Muslim and widely revered in that Hindu country, a fact well noted by Islamic countries surrounding India, giving it a truly secular status.

Each time we crossed a small mountain village, introductions had to be made to the village chief. A kind of request for permission that only applies to the villagers who still adhere to an ancient custom. What was really scary is that Tajikistan has become a transit hub for heroin from Afghanistan. With a 1300Km porous border between the two countries, almost not policed, it is a major source of opiates shipped to Russia, Europe and China. At any given time I was never more than a few hundred kilometers from the Afghanistan border; an area ripe for transportation and distribution by all the major terrorist organizations including Taliban and Al Qaeda . Tajikistan went through a horrible civil war between 1992 and 1997 with atrocities that involved dumping people from cliffs, en masse.
However, the villages I saw were poor where people lived a dignified life, proud to be dressed in native clothing and not averse to display Islamic hospitality to strangers at every opportunity. While I can write many sentences on my trip through the mountains, I believe my accompanying photographs can show the mountain environment in greater depth.

Two photographs published in this article may peek your interest. In one, a dozen young ladies look at my car with curiosity. In the following picture, all of them turn away simultaneously upon seeing a man inside. In another amazing set of two pictures, you may notice a truck loaded with 30 plus men driving along the road. In the following photograph you will notice a young girl who was walking on the road dive for cover to hide her face from all the men in that truck.

These two events were an eye opener for me showing me that in places like rural Tajikistan, it would take eons for women to be truly liberated. However in Dushanbe I could see a very Russian oriented workplace where women played an equal role in all professions. In retrospect one of the positive outcomes from the occupation of USSR of the lands of Central Asia, is that women are more liberated than in other Islamic countries.
After 3 days of an amazing fairy tale journey through the mountains, I arrived in Penjakent the border town with Uzbekistan. Alexander the great defeated the Sogdian king in Penjakent on the way to Samarkand. There is another important snippet about this town that is very important to Zoroastrians. Islam finally conquered the Iranian plateau, a full 100 years ( 920 AD) after Muhammad challenged all the neighboring countries to follow Islam or perish under his sword. The last of the Zoroastrian kings, Devaschtich ruled from Panjakent until his kingdom capitulated to the" violence" or as some say "message" of Islam.
Panjakant is home to Aryan/Zoroastrian ruins from 2nd century BC and that of Bunjikanth, capital of the Sogdian kingdom (5th century AD -pre Islam). I visited these sites along with other Sogdian sites in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. It is simply amazing to see the vastness of the Persian Empire and its vassal states even today. These locales are in the tentative list of future World Heritage sites.

On my last day in Penjakant I was in a home stay with a family who host foreigners. The lady of the house was traditional Tajik, who understood some english and had converted 22 of her good teeth to gold caps. Her makeup included conjoining the eyebrows to form a contiguous ridge over her eyes. Their young daughter of 17 was so lively and had all the aspirations of any modern young girl but it looked like she would ultimately succumb to her mother's wish of an early marriage to a local boy and continue life as a second class citizen,
That last day, prior to my reentering Uzbekistan, just like Alexander the Great did, we dined, drank, laughed and danced a lot, except of course to the movie music of Sharukh Khan. The End

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:30 Archived in Tajikistan Tagged the great alexander tajikistan termez Comments (2)

In Search of the Tomb of Songtsang Gompa, Tsetang, Tibet

In Search of the Tomb of Tsongsang Gompa, Founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsetang, Tibet..........................................by Ramdas Iyer

sunny 28 °F

The spread of Buddhism in Asia, first through the Silk Route to China and Japan and by Buddhist Emperors of India to SE Asia, who sent missionaries by trading ships, are fascinating subjects that lay the foundation of early religious and political history of Asia. Having visited almost all the great centers of Buddhism in Asia I wish to discuss two areas, Tibet and Mongolia, that came into the fold of Buddhism only after the 7th century, almost 800 years after its initial impact in Central Asia.
There were two reasons for this. Firstly, Tibet and Mongolia lay off the main caravan routes along which merchants and pilgrims travelled between India and China. Secondly, the Tibetan and Mongolian people who were nomads and warlike, were generally indifferent to the Teaching of the Buddha and the higher level of culture that came with it.
In Tibet, however, all this changed in the seventh century. The Tibetans, who had long been divided among many warring clans, were united under the rule of a great king, Srong-tsangam-po( also known as Songtsang Gampo). His success in uniting the Tibetans brought him and Tibet newfound prestige in Asia. As a result, he was able to wed both a Chinese (daughter of Tang Emperor Zhang-Zung) and a Nepalese princess(daughter of King Bikrut). His Chinese and Nepalese queens were both Buddhists and before long he, too, became interested in Buddhism.
Srong-tsan-gam-po sent representatives to India and China to study the Teaching of the Buddha and to bring back Buddhist texts. The result of these missions strengthened the king's faith in the Buddhist religion. He had many Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan and encouraged the people to practice the Buddhist teachings. He also constructed many temples throughout Tibet. Thus Srong-tsan-gam-po was the first patron of Buddhism in Tibet.
The thirteenth century saw the rise of Mongolian power in Central Asia. Under Genghis Khan, an ambitious and brilliant chieftain, the Mongols soon made their influence felt throughout the region. By the middle of the century, links had been established between the Mongol court and Tibetan Buddhist masters.
During the reign of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, China was conquered and as a result the Mongol court came increasingly under the influence of Buddhist and Tibetan cultures. Thereafter, a succession of Mongol Khans continued to look to Tibet for religious inspiration.
In 1578 the Mongol ruler Altan Khan gave the title Dalai Lama to Sonyam Gyatso, third in a line of reborn lamas of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The title means "ocean of wisdom" .In the eighteenth century, the Manchus intervened to end a long period of political strife in Tibet. They appointed the then Dalai Lama as the ruler of Tibet. In this way, the Dalai Lamas became political as well as religious leaders. This situation lasted until the People's Republic of China assumed control of Tibet in the middle of this century.

Like the Tibetans before them, Buddhism transformed the Mongols from a primitive people to a nation respected for its learning and wisdom. From the thirteenth to the twentieth century, Mongolia remained a stronghold of Buddhism. There, the Teaching of the Buddha was preserved in many monasteries as well as in the homes of the people. Although Mongolia today came under Communist rule, Buddhism survives in the hearts and minds of the Mongolians.( I will write about it in a future article)

Upon arriving in Lhasa I was eager to visit the great Jhokahang Temple ( my very first article in the blogosphere can be read in Travellerspoint). This temple was built by King Songtsang Gampo in 642. For most Tibetans it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. It is in some regards pan-sectarian(Black and yellow hat sects have conflicting philosophies), but is controlled by the Gelug school(yellow hats). The temple's architectural style is a mixture of Indian vihara design, Chinese Tang Dynasty design, and Nepalese design.
According to tradition, the temple was built for the two brides of the king, Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Both wives are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal to Tibet as part of their dowries, and they were housed here.
The more one travelled in Tibet one begins to see the importance of this person who transformed a medieval warlike nomadic people who practiced a pagan religion called Bon. When I planned our trip to Tibet (2011) ,I made sure that I visited the valley of Kings where the tomb of Songtsang Gampo and his successors are buried in mounds, as was the practice in Tibet and China then. The Valley of the Kings or Chongye Valley branches off the Yarlung Valley to the southwest and contains a series of graveyard tumuli, approximately 27 kilometers south of Tsetang, Tibet, near the town of Qonggyai ,Shannan Prefecture.
The site possesses eight large mounds of earth resembling natural hills that are believed to contain at least eight to ten buried Tibetan kings.
One gets a classic flavor for Tibetan village culture as one travels through this interesting valley of the Tsang Po river ( Brahmaputra in India), one of the largest river systems in the world.
Traveling in Tibet requires police registration in each province who may change itineraries depending on the unrest in the region. During our travel, my wife Pushpa and I, only missed one obscure monastery in which a monk had immolated himself in protest the previous day. However, we decided to take an excursion off the main road to visit a small village guarded by huge decrepit walls of a monastery destroyed by the communists in the 1950s. We visited several homes, played with young kids and met several pilgrims who were making their round to many monasteries by foot, often covering hundreds of miles. We met a young nun who proudly displayed her pendent image of the Dalai lama. A punishable offence that could land her in prison. My photographs are self explanatory and show life in a typical village in the countryside.

Similar to the great mound in Xian, China where the Tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Do is still unearthed, the tombs of the Tibetan kings are undisturbed in the mounds. However due to the great reverence the Tibetans had for Songtsang Gampo they built a temple on top of the mound credited with his burial. When the Tang emperor Gaozong(650-683)came to the throne, that made Songtsang Gampo the emperor's brother-in-law, he was awarded the title Prince of the Western Sea and was promoted to the position of Prince of Bin. Upon his death, emperor Gaozong held a mourning ceremony and sent an envoy to express his condolences. We visited this small temple and was enamored by its simplicity. A great man who transformed a nation is still worshiped daily after 1600 years.
The End.
email me @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Information Sources:

China Tibetology Magazine. tanjia-Hong
BDEA/Buddhanet-2008/ Buddhisn across the Himalayas

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:07 Archived in China Tagged temple buddhism tibet mongolia lama tang hats dynasty khan dalai songtsang gampo yello jhokahang tsetang kublai srong-tsan-gam-po Comments (1)

Funeral Traditions of Zoroastrians In Iran and India

The Towers of Silence of Yazd, Iran...................................................................Ramdas Iyer

In my earlier blogs, I had written about funeral practices in Mali and Indonesia. These articles had more than 16000 visitors each. Therefore I decided to present here yet another interesting funeral practice of Persian Zoroastrians of Iran and India( Parsis) .I have always been fascinated with Persian culture, especially the age of Aryan migration from the central Asian steppes region into India and Iran. Despite the perceived difficulties of travelling in Iran in 2014, I applied for a visa and made a private tour of most of the country. While traveling , I was treated with respect, kindness and hospitality,and also given that my face betrayed my Indian extraction.
Zoroastrianism was the main religion across the Iranian plateau from 6th century BC to the Arab conquest in the 9th century AD. Founded by the Iranian prophet and reformer Zoroaster in the 6th century BC, Zoroastrianism contains both monotheistic and dualistic features. Its concepts of one God, judgment, heaven and hell likely influenced the major Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also credited with being the oldest monotheistic religion.

Starting my working life as an engineer in Bombay in 1979, I was exposed to Parsis ( a community of Zoroastrians that fled Iran in the 10th century to avoid Islamic incursions in Persia and its aftermath), who are today mainstream Indians but still practice the Zoroastrian traditions. They number 70000 in India out of a World population of 200000. I lived in Andheri, in the street that housed the largest Parsi colony in Bombay.

One of the most striking facets of their religion is the disposal of the body after death in Towers of Silence; a special place on a hill where the body is returned to nature without polluting land, water or fire, by committing the body to putrefaction by sunlight and to be consumed by birds of prey.
As a young man I was fascinated to see these structures around the Malabar Hill area of Bombay where even today these rites are performed. Now, 35 years later while in Yazd and Kerman provinces in Iran I visited some historic Towers of Silence. I wanted to share with you the knowledge I acquired along with a few photographs of the Yazd monuments in this article.

First, I need to discuss the commonality shared by the ancient Persians and ancient Indians. The source of the English word Aryan comes from the Sanskrit word ārya, which is the self-designation used by the Vedic Indic people who migrated into the Indian subcontinent from the European Steppes about 1500 BCE. The religious scripture of Zoroastrians, The Avesta and that of the Hindus, The Vedas, were more or less composed around 1000BC. The languages of the two scriptures, the Zoroastrian Avesta (old Persian) and Hindu Rig Veda (Sanskrit), are similar(50% common words) but not identical, indicating that at the time of their composition, the people of the Avesta and the Rig Veda were related and close neighbors.

It is said that the similarity of the cultures over millennia that enabled the Parsis to settle in India under the protection of Gujarati and Sind kings in the 10th century.

A guiding principle in Zoroastrian funerary practices, is to prevent rotting flesh from coming into contact with the soil, water, and fire. In Zoroastrian dakhmas or towers of silence, the majority of the flesh of the dead is consumed by birds and the rest disintegrates through the action of sunlight and heat. The bleached and dried bones are then placed in an ossuary. The ossuary is either a central pit in the dakhma - a communal way of disposing of the bones - or a container, tomb, pit or cave - a private method for disposing of the bones.

Private, container ossuaries were subsequently placed in the home in a niche, on a special site in a family's property, in a mausoleum as part of a necropolis, or buried. The grand example of these rock-face ossuaries were the Achaemenian royal tombs in Pars, which I visited while in Iran.

Orthodox and egalitarian communities such as Yazd and Kerman appear to have opted for communal disposal where rich and poor were united in death. Other communities seem to have used the optional private ossuary method for those who could afford the choice or where families had hereditary ossuaries, say caves carved out of rock hill faces.

While in Bombay, I could only look at these interesting monuments from afar but while in Yazd, Iran, I had the opportunity to visit these monuments.

The Towers of Silence ( Dakhma in Persian, Cheel Ghar in Hindi) where this ritual is performed is often on a hilltop in the outskirts of town. In Yazd, Iran I visited the two massive towers built nearly a 1000 years ago when Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia and practiced from present day Iraq (Babylon) to the Indo-Pakistan Border near Tajikistan (Sogdiana).
Yazd is one of the highlights of any trip to Iran. A UNESCO World Heritage city, it is wedged between the two great deserts of Iran, Dasht-e-Kavir and Dasht-e-Lut. It is a silk road town of historic streets and lanes with over 2000 mud brick homes and unique wind towers, badgirs, that keeps the homes cool. Yazd has been known for its silks and other products long before Marco Polo stopped here in the 12th century.
The city was definitely a Zoroastrian centre during Sassanid times (225-650 AD-post Alexander). After the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia, many Zoroastrians migrated to Yazd from neighboring provinces. By paying a levy, Yazd was allowed to remain Zoroastrian even after its conquest, and Islam only gradually became the dominant religion in the city. It is home to the second largest population of Zoroastrians in Iran (20000 out of 90,000) and home to the sacred fire burning since 470AD.

It was a hot afternoon as I made my way past ritual buildings, ossiuaries, and the the water reservoir before ascending the ramp to the top of the massive tower. Each Yazd city neighborhood (formerly villages around Yazd city) had a mortuary where the body of the deceased was bathed and wrapped in a shroud. When the body was brought to the dakhma, sixteen individuals (presumably men) carried the body to the top in teams of four individuals (taking turns). At the door of the dakhma, the body was placed on a platform after which the priest prayed for the departed's soul. Two salars ,traditional pallbearers and care takers of pollutants as the name signifies, took the body into the dakhma where the laid the body at its appointed place and removed the shrouds, leaving the body naked.
After thirty or forty bodies were consumed by birds of prey, the bones were gathered and placed in the central ossuary pit.When there is adequate population of birds, the body is completely stripped of its flesh within a couple of hours (often sooner). The bones are allowed to dry and bleach in the sun.

Once the bones are completely stripped of their flesh either by birds or by rain and sun, the dried bleached bones are gathered by the salars and placed in the central well where they reduce to a powder, a process sometimes aided with the addition of lime. As stated above, the disintegration of the bones is so complete, that after forty years, one tower's central well had only five feet of accumulated residue.

The central well goes down in depth to the base of the tower. At the base of the well are filter layers of sandstone, sand and charcoal. Fluids and rain water that collects in the well are filtered by these layers and drain through grates on the well's side into four underground channels, each sloping towards underground pits at four corners of the tower - just outside the its walls. The bottom of these pits also have a thick layer of sand covered with layers of sandstone and charcoal, which are replaced from time to time. The filtered water leaving the pits is clear and free or any contamination. In wet climates, gardens surrounding the towers absorb the filtered water.

These towers were last used in Yazd in the early 1970s. The pressure from the Islamic communities brought a gradual end to this practice. The Zoroastrian dead are now buried under stone and concrete layers as an alternative to sky burial. It should not be forgotten that the sky burial was also a last act of charity to donate ones physical self to birds of prey.

For the interested readers, I have shown illustrations of the Bombay Tower of Silence (Cheel Ghar). The funeral process is elaborate and has changed little over thousands of years. First, the Parsis wash and then wrap the body in a shroud. The family then pays its last respects and a dog, regarded as faithful and loyal, visits the body to confirm death. In ancient times bodies were fed to the dogs, but now a token piece of bread is given to the dog that follows the corpse. The body is then taken to the Dakhma by an even number of bearers dressed in pure white, carrying the body on a metal slab with curved side edges. The family follows behind, turning back when they reach the tower, heading for the prayer house. Inside the tower, the bearers then place the body in the designated section according to their age and sex. The inner ring is for the children, the middle ring for women and the outer ring for men.

While the tower of silence method of laying to rest the body of the deceased and the disposal of the body draws the attention of non-Zoroastrians, it is the fate of the soul and remembrance of those who have passed away, that occupies the minds of Zoroastrians.

Those who have passed away are not memorialized by monuments, but in the prayers of Zoroastrians. Memorial prayers are recited both at the home of the deceased's family and at the fire temple on the tenth day after death, after a month, and then annually on the death anniversary of the deceased. The prayers are seen as an essential part of keeping the memory of the individual alive. This method is very similar to the Hindu tradition, including lack of permanent memorials, a 10th day ceremony followed by annual rituals and prayers.

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that we are all born alike: in a manger, a hospital, a hut or even in a police car. We call it the miracle of life. But when we die we celebrate our time on earth through a range of rituals and funeral practices that are affected by religious traditions, geographic locations where burial is impossible in winter like Tibet or philosophical considerations much like the Zoroastrians. The disposal of one's remains to the birds (sky burial) is seemingly macabre.These rituals are practiced only in India and certain parts of Pakistan where secularism is alive and well. The Parsis are an upstanding community of India and I wish they can maintain this tradition as long as they desire. In a Nov 2012 article in NY Times by Gardiner Harris " Giving New Life to Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death"( w.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/world/asia/cultivating-vultures-to-restore-a-mumbai-ritual.html?_r=0), reveals the desire and efforts of the Bombay Parsi leaders to repopulate vultures so that their ancient funeral practice lasts forever. The End

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Towers of Silence: JC Atkinson and Molly Russell
Zorostrian Heritage by K.E. Edujee
Wikipedia, Lonely Planet Iran.
Photos: heritage Institute.com/ bulletinasiainstitute.org/ truthcliff.com
Ramdas Iyer Travels- 2014

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:23 Archived in Iran Tagged sky of towers burial iran yazd silence avesta ramdas iyer zoroastrians parsis aryans parsees Comments (0)

In search of the Great Apes-Gorilla, Chimpanzee & Orangutan

Travels through Borneo, Uganda and Tanzania............................Ramdas Iyer

In the next few weeks I will be on a journey to Galapagos where Charles Darwin laid rest to his Theory of Evolution. As a son of a Zoologist, evolution was a much discussed subject around me. Before discussing my travels in search of the great apes, I wish to dedicate a few paragraphs to Louis Leakey, the father of Paleoanthropology. The first hominid ( Apes and Humans) skeleton was discovered in 1913 by a German scientist Hans Reck in German East Africa. With the end WWI (1914-1918), the Leage of Nations mandated that German East Africa needs to be transferred to Britain and regained its original name, Tanganyika. Louis Leakey, who was born in British East Africa (Kenya) was a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist whose work was important in establishing human evolutionary development in Africa, particularly through his discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

He continued the work of Hans Resk whom he met in Berlin in 1929 and started his expedition in 1931 and subsequently unearthed several early human fossils ; Homo habilis (1.9 million years ago), Homo erectus (1.2 million-700,000 years ago) and Homo sapiens( 17000 years ago), in 3 decades of work at Olduvai Gorge. I visited Olduvai Gorge in 2013 while on a photographic Safari to Tanzania.
It was indeed a pilgrimage of sorts for me since I have been following the work of the Leakeys ( his wife Mary and son Richard are also renowned scientists) for quite a few years. Their son Richard Leakey is credited with the discovery of a 160000 year fossil of a Homo sapiens in Kenya. It was the oldest of the species found at that time and was the first contemporaneous with Homo neanderthalensis, found in Europe. This find confirmed that these two species of Hominids lived at the same time.

Richard Leakey had an illustrious career culminating as the Director of Kenyan Wildlife. He was lauded world over for saving the elephant in 1980s by issuing a shoot at sight order on poachers. I had the privilege of attending his lecture in The Smithsonian Institution in DC in 1986.
One of Louis's greatest legacies stems from his role in fostering field research of primates in their natural habitats, which he understood as key to unraveling the mysteries of human evolution. He personally chose three female researchers, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, calling them The Trimates. Each went on to become an important scholar in the field of primatology. Leakey also encouraged and supported many other Ph.D. candidates, most notably from Cambridge University.
The introduction of Louis Leakey in this article is critical to my travels. His prescience on the evolution of humans ultimately resulted in my seeing all the great apes.


In the past few years, no time and expense was spared by me to see the great Apes. I have always been interested in Primates and in the course of my travels through Asia and Africa these past couple of years, I not only marvelled at our distant cousins but also visited sites that were critical in the understanding of the emergence of man from Apes.
Apes live in the green equatorial belt that straddles Africa and Asia. The Gorillas primarily live in three countries on either side of the Congo River; Uganda and Rwanda are home to the Highland Gorilla while Congo is home to the Lowland Gorilla. It was in the volcanic mountains of Virunga, bordering Rwanda and the then Belgian Congo, where Dian Fossey,the American primatologist studied the mountain gorilla for 17 years beginning in 1967. Her life is depicted in the movie" Gorillas in the mist", a moving and fascinating film starring Sigourney Weaver.
Fossey made discoveries about gorillas including how females transfer from group to group over the decades, gorilla vocalization, hierarchies and social relationships among groups, rare infanticide, gorilla diet, and how gorillas recycle nutrients.
Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals in the world today. Scientists estimate that there are about 600 Mountain gorillas, living in two populations of about 300 individuals each and separated by about 20 miles. There is only 285 square miles of high-elevation rain forest in the whole world, which is in east-central Africa, and the gorillas’ natural habitat. These gorillas are highly endangered due to habitat loss, but also to poaching and war. There are no mountain gorillas in captivity. In the 1960s and 1970s, mountain gorillas were captured in order to begin a population of them in captive facilities. They have never survived in captivity.

I visited the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (a World Heritage Site) in 2014. It is located in southwestern Uganda in East Africa. The park is situated in Uganda near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and next to the Virunga National Park on the edge of the Albertine Rift. It comprises 331 square kilometers (128 sq mi) of jungle forests and contains both montane and lowland forest and is accessible only on foot. Advance permits are needed at the cost of $700 per day. At this park there are 7 groups of habituated gorillas that are approachable by humans each with populations ranging from 8 to 16 individuals. The permits allow a maximum of 12 people per group to trek through the park. The 12 people in our group were supported by 12 porters, 2 advanced trackers and 2 armed forest rangers. The park's elevation ranges from 300o ft to 5400 ft with no trails. One has to penetrate by hacking through vines in an undulating terrain, where reasonable physical fitness is expected of visitors.
After 3.5 hours of trekking, through thick vines and vegetation sometimes at 30 degree inclines we spotted two females, an infant and three siblings waiting nervously for their Silver backed alpha male leader, who had gone away to fight another male. In such instances, the male can get killed followed by the group being taken over by a new younger male that has left its group to start one of its own. While this is a natural process amongst gorillas, it nevertheless leaves the group traumatized. Our trackers finally located the male in a steep area of the forest which we reached under great effort. It must be noted that only one hour of contact and observation with after the first sighting is allowed . The sight of the 350 lb alpha male in his majesty and gentleness is a moment one cannot easily forget. The rest of its family joined in but the vegetation was too thick to see them all together. The entire trek took 7.5 hours; heavy rain or our inability to locate them would have been a great loss for me.

Jane Goodall's pioneering work on the behavior of chimpanzees have enabled us to appreciate the human like qualities of our closest DNA relative with 99% similarity. Goodall’s work was in the Gombe stream area of western Tanzania, even today a remote corner bordering Uganda. As an ardent follower of Jane Goodall’s work, I desperately wanted to visit Gombe during my trip to Tanzania in 2013. But one had to take a chartered plane which only flew twice a week making it both very expensive and time consuming.. Instead I chose to visit Kibale in 2014 in Uganda which is a vast tropical rainforest over 700 sq.km in area at an altitude ranging from 3000-4500 ft. which runs into Queen Elizabeth National park, Uganda ( creating a 180 Km long Wildlife corridor) a much celebrated but much poached national park.
Kibale National Forest has one of the highest diversity and concentration of primates in Africa. It is home to a large number of endangered chimpanzees, as well as the red colobus monkey and the rare L'Hoest’s monkey. The park is also home to over 325 species of birds, 13 species of primates, a total of at least 60 other species of mammals, and over 250 tree species. The predominant ecosystem in Kibale is moist evergreen and semi-deciduous forest.


Since the 1960s a team of Japanese scientists have been habituating chimpanzees to human presence at Kibale national park. In Serengeti, the animals are used to the safari vehicles and are as such “habituated” to their presence. In the tropical rain forest it is not possible. So scientists spend time and in the case of Kibale, up to 6 years to make some of the chimpanzee groups get accustomed to the presence of human beings. Jane Goodall was the first to do so in Gombe stream and DianFossey with the Gorillas in Volcanoes Park, Rwanda. Akin to the gorillas in Bwindi, one can track chimpanzees in their natural habitat. For 600 USD per day one can spend 12 hrs.with them : from the time they wake up till the time they build new nests and sleep. For $150 one can insert himself into the forest and catch them for an hour, either at 8:00AM or 2:00PM. Since chimps can be found in 19 African countries, they are not as exclusive as the gorillas. But this is the only place that I know of where there is a formal wildlife tracking program available, in a classical moist hardwood equatorial rainforest.
Kibale is 325 KM/ 6 hrs. from Kampala with the last hour on dirt roads leading to one of the most lush and beautiful forests in central Uganda. The community, Batooroo and Balinga tribes surrounding the park were once notorious for killing chimps for bush meat, but today
readily endorse international Eco tourism that supports local infrastructure. I arrived at Chimps nest lodge by 6:00 pm and heard loud chattering noises from chimpanzees in the forest around us along with the sounds of grey cheeked Mangabeys and red Colobus monkeys. The air was cool, the surroundings forested and the noises classical Africa. Each cottage had solar lights, Eco toilets and a wood burning stove for hot water. We did night walks to spot Bush babies and Ganet cats and day walks around the camp for photographing primates. This gave me a chance to photograph non chimpanzee primates which I would otherwise not be doing once inside the national park.

The trip to Uganda was successful and fulfilling but left in me a yearning to see the Orangutan. I ventured into Tanjung Puting National park, in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in December 2014 to see them in their natural habitat. Tanjung Puting National Park is the largest and most diverse protected example of the extensive coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest, which used to cover much of southern Borneo. The area was originally declared as a game reserve in 1935 and it became a national park in 1982. The park has over 800 different species of plants, over 220 bird species and nine primate species including the endangered orangutan and endangered proboscis monkey.
The park is home to more than 4,000 orangutans making it one of the largest populations in Borneo. Birute Galdikas pioneered the study of the orangutan, an intelligent great ape with long arms and spectacular red hair, native to parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. Determined to enter and open wide the world of the elusive red ape, Galdikas convinced Leakey to help orchestrate her endeavor, despite his initial reservations. In 1971, Galdikas arrived in Tanjung Puting Reserve, in Indonesian Borneo. Galdikas thus become the third of a trio of women hand-picked by Leakey to study mankind's nearest relatives, the other great apes, in their natural habitat. Leakey and the National Geographic Society helped Galdikas initially set up her research camp to conduct field study on orangutans in Borneo. Before Leakey's fortuitous decision to appoint Galdikas as the third Trimate, the orangutan was much less understood than the African great apes. Galdikas went on to further burnish Leakey's legacy by greatly expanding scientific knowledge of orangutan behavior, habitat and diet.


When she arrived in Borneo, Galdikas settled into a primitive bark and thatch hut, at a site she dubbed Camp Leakey, near the edge of the Java Sea. Once there, she encountered numerous poachers, legions of leeches, and swarms of carnivorous insects. Yet she persevered through many travails, remaining there for over 30 years while becoming an outspoken advocate for orangutans and the preservation of their rainforest habitat, which is rapidly being devastated by loggers, palm oil plantations, gold miners, and unnatural conflagrations.
Unlike in Africa, the coastal swamp forests of Borneo are often flooded and one needs to go by boat to reach the Orangutans. Camp Leakey is 25 km by boat from the nearest town. While it possible to do a day trip into the Camp, travelers such as myself live on a houseboat with basic facilities. It is almost impossible to spot an Orangutan unless many days are spent along the riverbanks where the animals come to drink water. Thanks to Camp Leakey which was operated as a release station for captive orangutans until 1985, three generations of wild and semi wild animals are present in its environs throughout the year. While all the animals near camp Leakey live a wild existence, they are however fed a nutritional supplement of fruits during the lean fruit bearing months to ensure that the babies get enough nutrition. Around 10 different animals arrive each day at the three different feeding stations along the river. This program may be stopped in a few years as efforts to make Tanjung Puting fully wild are underway.
The jungle is full of Proboscis monkeys, which is endemic to Borneo. Hundreds of them can be observed along the waterways. One can see an occasional orangutan through the woods but it is almost impossible to photograph them given the density of the forest. My luck prevailed when a mother with its young was approaching the river in a relatively open spot. The time spent observing them and photographing them was a special moment in my annals of wild life photography.
Orangutans are solitary animals. However mothers nurse their young till they are 6 and the young females will always be near the mother for 20 years. Spending three days near Camp Leakey, I observed various individuals, young males and females, and many mothers with their young. Unfortunately the two alpha males that hold the territory near Camp Leakey were foraging inside the forest and not to be seen.
I was also fortunate to see the magnificent Mueller' Gibbon near the Camp. There are five types of ape. Four are considered "great." The fifth is the gibbon. Greatness in apes is largely a matter of size, and the gibbon, maxing out at 30 pounds, doesn't make the cut. To primatologists, it is known instead as the "lesser ape". Gibbons may be small, but they bear all the requisites of ape hood: large brains, no tail, and rotary shoulder blades. Like orangutans, they populate Southeast Asia.

Gibbons are masters of their primary mode of locomotion, brachiation, swinging from branch to branch for distances of up to 15 m (50 ft), at speeds as high as 55 km/h (34 mph). The gibbons' ball-and-socket joints allow them unmatched speed and accuracy when swinging through trees. Nonetheless, their mode of transportation can lead to hazards when a branch breaks or a hand slips, and researchers estimate that the majority of gibbons suffer bone fractures one or more times during their lifetimes. They are the fastest and most agile of all tree-dwelling, non-flying mammals. The IUCN currently recognizes fifteen gibbon species, all but one listed as either endangered or critically endangered. Habitat loss from logging and fires place the most stress on current population levels.
In 2014 between my travels through Borneo and Uganda, I was able to see the Great Apes and the lesser ape. It is interesting to note that there are only two species of each of the great apes( except man Homo sapiens),eastern Gorilla (gorilla.gorilla) and western Gorilla (gorilla.berengui), Chimpanzee(pan troglodytes) and Bonobos( pan paniscus), the Bornean Orangutan (pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran Orangutan (pongo abilii). The Gibbons consist of 15 species and is the only lesser ape.
While on a trip to Addis Ababa in 2007, I ensured that I visited the National Museum where the oldest and most famous skeletal fossil 'Lucy' (Australopithecus afrensis) is displayed.
I also had the good fortune to visit the Sterkfontien caves near Johannesburg in 2012, where the Australopithecus africanus was discovered. This is a much celebrated species since it was tree dwelling with ape like limbs but with a much larger cranial capacity as seen in homo erectus and other future species.

While in Indonesia in Dec 2014, I visited Flores Island home to Homo floresiensis, a new hominid discovered in 2004. The remains were discovered by an Australian-Indonesian team of archaeologists in Liang Bua caves, who were looking for evidence of the original human migration of H. sapiens from Asia to Australia. They were not expecting to find a new species. They were surprised at the discovery of a nearly complete skeleton of a hominin. Excavations done after that found seven more skeletons, dating from 38,000 to 13,000 years ago.
It was my bad luck that while just 14 km away from the Liang Bua, severe rains caused a mudslide that prevented vehicular movement. It will be interesting to note that the H.floresiensis lived as a contemporary of modern man and the Neanderthal man thus having three human species inhabit earth at the same time about 20,000 years ago.

In conclusion, I would like to reflect on my journey in seeking knowledge about human evolution. The various fields of Primatology, Archeology and Paleo-anthropology come together in providing a picture of how we evolved from non-ape primates to Great apes and branched out into other species of hominids. The study of non human primate behavior has helped us understand our own species behavior. The joy derived from watching them in their natural habitat is something everyone who has as interest in this field must pursue. The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Scientific sources:
Univ. of California, Berkeley/ Sumatran Orangutan Society/Orangutan.org/Wikipedia
@Ramdas Iyer

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:00 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia mountain borneo gibbon orangutan gorilla fossey uganda bwindi tanjung chimpanzee goodall kibale puting galadakis Comments (2)

Where the Elephants Rule in the Botswananian Bush

Close encounters in the African bush at Elephant Sands Campsite, Botswana by Ramdas Iyer


The African bush is never quiet at night. The growls of lions and the laughing cries of the hyenas are commonplace. But to hear elephants outside your humble chalet, chomp and tear barks all night is certainly an exhilarating experience . On the large tract of land between Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and the world famous Chobe National Park, Botswana lies Elephant Sands, an open camp site on 16000 hectares of private land with absolutely no fences. It is a wild life corridor connecting these national parks.
I arrived at dusk at the very sandy campsite, impassible without a 4X4 in the rainy season. Two large tuskers were blocking the entrance to the campsite. We waited until they moved away, but this was just the harbinger of things to come. No sooner we arrived, excited to see a small herd by the water hole I ran straight to set up my equipment to capture the incredible animals at such close proximity. In the process I had failed to register which could have almost turned me into a "open-air"khakhi tented camper instead of being inside the confines of a thatched hut like a registered guest.


Four hours later, I was still watching these creatures, having missed my call for the communal dinner. It was getting dark and my photographic quality was suffering, with the constantly moving animals in the dark. Sipping wine with my guide on a fabulous moonlit night, I figured out a way to take some decent snaps with my Lumix X-5 by setting the timer at 2 secs . Once the excitement of photography had abated, I simply enjoyed the comings and goings of different herds. They would arrive as a big group, have a brief stand-off with another group at the hole, after "introductions" they would mingle and depart quietly. Occasionally there would be skirmishes amongst the young bachelor males resulting in prolonged gentle jousting.
Elephant Sands was opened by Oom Ben, who converted his private lands for eco-tourism in 2008. Botswana has done a great job of managing its wildlife and improving tourism. In fact it is Africa's destination for high end safaris. Elephant Sands is located in the fringe of the sandy desert of Nata area, where the great Nxai pan and the Makadgadi pans form a contiguous natural habitat. The pans themselves are salty desert whose only plant life is a thin layer of blue-green algae. However the fringes of the pan are circled by grassland and then shrubby savanna.
The water in the camp is so brackish that sweet water is transported from 30 km away to quench the visitors and the elephants. Every day over 6 truckloads are brought in during summer months. Many ecologists do not like the idea of attracting wildlife with unnatural water sources, since they are on a collision course with human safety. There have been many instances where the elephants simply walk into the lodge and sip from the pool while startled guests cower on one end of the pool.


Jeffrey Barbee, South African photojournalist writes in his blog about Oom Ben, the elephant loving owner: "A small injury from an angry and confused female elephant has done nothing to deter him. Earlier this year a baby elephant fell into his swimming pool. The mother jumped in after it, but the pool was too small for her to turn around. In the resulting chaos, Ben jumped into the pool and helped the baby elephant to safety at considerable risk to his own life. The mother made it out but not before damaging the pool and getting very worked up. Later in the evening she came to the bar, cornered Ben, and charged him -lifting him up off the ground with the force of her impact and sending him flying across the bar floor. Only the solid roof of the structure prevented her from trampling him. In response, Ben widened the pool and made big elephant-sized steps for the beasts to safely get out. He also grudgingly made a small fence around the bar area to protect clients from what he calls "the possibility of future confusion". He does not regret the attack, and feels that people and elephants can get along with mutual respect and understanding. He blames himself for not making sure his trunked guests were as catered for as him two legged ones"
You should see this URL from YouTube " http://www.wimp.com/elephantpool/".

When I arrived at Elephant sands in June of 2013, the pool had already been widened and a small wall no higher than 18 inches erected around the fire pit to separate wilderness from humanity.
This lodge has been trampled upon , ripped apart and made treeless by the elephants that surround it on a daily basis. Many guest complain about its rudimentary offerings not realizing that they are in an absolute wilderness area where the elephants rule.
I used this new berm for some interesting shots on a moonlit night with the seven sisters appearing in the sky on many shots. There was a moment when I had a close call. My constant presence near the berm had irritated one of the larger males as he had raised his trunk to sniff my presence. My driver/guide Coleen warned me to back off a bit after the big male took a couple of quick steps in my direction.
Elephants are very dangerous animals. They may not appear aggressive on first sight but may react to their environment in a very unpredictable manner. Having travelled in the African bush for 7 weeks in the last 18 months, I could see minor differences in elephant populations in different parts of the continent. Despite being the same species, their environment must have an effect on their appearance. The Etosha , Namibia elephants were large and stocky, theHwange, Zimbabwe elephants were tall, the Tanzanian and Ugandan elephants were thinner and of medium size while the Botswana variety looked very healthy. This is my personal assessment and may be factors such as poaching, nutrition and disease could be the reason for these perceived differences. Coleen mentioned that the Hwange elephants due to rampant poaching in Zimbabwe are always more aggressive in the presence of human beings. Something I noticed while driving through the park there.


After several hours of enjoying these wonderful animals, I wanted to get some sleep but was unable to retrieve my luggage from our car. There was a big guy standing right next to the car. Elephant sands has its share of lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs walk through its facilities. Recently a pack of 16 wild dogs chased one another while guests were scurrying for safety. In fact a black backed Jackal was skulking around the kitchen area.

After a brief night's sleep, I was up at sunrise to see these beautiful creatures in daylight. Once again they arrived like clockwork to get a 200 liter drink each from the man made waterhole . I saw beautiful birds and a mother and baby Kudo coming to the hole to drink water. The moonlit night was magic and so special that a future visit may not grant me that same joy .Reluctant to leave on one hand but excited on the other on the prospect of visiting Hwange ,I made my way through the Pandamatanga gate into Hwange and Zimbabwe.

Earlier this year, I read that Oom Ben was hospitalized after taking a fall from a ladder while trying to fix a radio antennae that the elephants had ripped apart. In July 2013, The Daily Telegraph, UK reported that 325 elephants were poisoned in water holes by poachers in Zimbabwe along with a host of Lions, antelopes and hyenas. I hope that one of the hundred odd pachyderms that arrived from Zimbabwe which I saw that moonlit evening was not a victim of this disaster which happened only a month after my departure. The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:08 Archived in Botswana Tagged elephants safari african botswana chobe ramdas iyer hwange Comments (1)

In the trail of the Persian Empire Darius the Great, Iran

Visiting the legendary site of Bisotun, Kermanshah.................................Ramdas Iyer


Current day Iran and a part of ancient Persia sits in the cradle of civilization and a traveler may find himself deficit with time if at least 6 weeks are not budgeted to cover all its great historical sites. Persia was consolidated into one of the greatest empires man had known in antiquity between 550BC and 330 BC. In those two hundred years the statecraft employed by the Achaemenid kings ( after founder Achaemenan) is still taught in political science classes universally.
My journey to Bisotun began in Hamadan. This present day city was built on the ruins of Ecbatana, the great capital of the Median Empire and the first capital of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids, prior to the construction of Persepolis by Cyrus the great, circa 480 BC. Alexander the great sacked the fabled city of Ecbatana in 331 BC. It is said that Alexander's army employed 10000 mules to carry the treasures of this great city. When I stood on its ruins. which was already in poor condition I felt great sorrow for this city.
Before I proceed any further I wish to inform my readers that there may be a lot of historical references in this article that may either confuse or confound someone who is not versed in Greek/ Persian history. While it is not my intent to confuse you, I believe that this story might lose its significance if these appropriate historic markers are not inserted.
During my recent trip to Iran in May of 2014, I had the privilege to obtain a visa and conduct independent travel with a driver/guide all over the country. Being an American or a British citizen has many disadvantages as the representatives of the Great Satan may be subjected to harassment in short notice. This is not true for many European nationals like the French or the Italians, who seem to visit Iran and can travel independently by domestic transport without an escort.

Like any seasoned traveler I put forth a plan through an agency which was then approved by the Ministry of Tourism and a tour number issued to the agency on my behalf. One has to conform to this itinerary including staying in the stated hotels and not straying anywhere independently. While seeming constrained, it was never monitored but was a Damocles sword over the head. My wife who accompanied me to pick up my visa was given a head cover when we visited the Iranian desk of the Pakistani Embassy in DC in order to collect my visa. It was amusing to see the American Iranian women at the Embassy who were wearing their head cover like they were ready to walk down a runway at the Milan fashion show; subtle and sexy.
Most Americans travel to Iran in a group. As an independent traveler I was subjected to questioning by a bunch of officers at the airport. It was more like a high school hazing. One guy asked me that if I had an Indian passport on me which will make it easy for me to exit. The real problem that prevented the immigration officials from making my entry easy was a new directive to fingerprint independent travelers from the US on entry. But since the only device at the airport was not working they had a "moral' struggle about letting me off easily.. Once inside the country everything was fine and all the check points routinely verified my US passport or just waved me through after seeing my Indian face. Iran and India have a relationship at a very core level stemming from their Aryan and Mughal histories spanning several thousand years. The Achaemenids secured their eastern border with ancient Indian kingdoms through treaties while they were busy expanding their western provinces.

The main subject of this essay is my visit to the great World Heritage site of Bisotun. Even though I got there ultimately, I had fallen in love with another location instead with little time to spare for Bisotun. I forced my well meaning guide to change my plans and go to Qazvin and Alamut mountains, home of the legendary Assassins of the Shiite religion. I thought that this trip will be more spectacular than just reading famous inscriptions. A quandary that affects many who have a large travel list but with limited time. So I had my travel agent alter my plan trepidation to spent the night in Qazvin (former capital of Persia) in order to visit the Alamut mountains. As a matter of procedure the police were notified accordingly.


(For almost two centuries, from 1090 until 1273, the Order of Assassins operating out of the Alamut mountains played a singular and sinister role in the Middle East. A small Shiite sect known as Ismailis, tamed more powerful enemies using shocking means: Murder. Even the most powerful and carefully guarded rulers of the age—the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs, the sultans and viziers of the Great Seljuk and Ayyubid empires, the princes of the Crusader states, and emirs who ruled important cities like Damascus, Homs, and Mosul—lived in dread of the chameleon like Assassin agents. Source: http://www.historynet.com/holy-terror-the-rise-of-the-order-of-assassins.htm). ISIS today is not too different.

As I was visiting the sites of Hamadan, I suddenly realized that they could be covered in one day, leaving us a full day to go to Bisotun despite my scrapping the original itineraray. I argued with my guide that we had filed two plans; the original Bisotun plan and the latter Alamut mountains plan. My guide pleaded with me that he could lose his license if plans were changed and also insisted that I could be in danger of being detained. I bet on the fact that we were approved for Bisotun earlier so it was a security risk worth taking after seeing the dismal state of the immigration computers on arrival in Tehran.
Kermanshah where Bisotun is located is barely 50 miles from the Iraq border. The route was peppered with roadblocks that it was quite a risk to undertake this visit. It was a city that was destroyed by the Iraqi army with US weapons given to the Shah in 1980 after Ayatollah Khomeini had one of the greatest revolutions of modern human history. Over a million Iranians had died in and around the Kermanshah province. That war left a nation that still obsesses about their "Martyrs" with photos of dead persons all over the country. (See Plate)

Bisotun is home to Darius I inscriptions and bas reliefs (circa 500 BC )that left a written history of the Persians high above a rock bluff at 1000 ft from the road below. The raod from Hamadan to Kermanshah is an important road link to Iraq since it is where the great Shiite pilgrimage sites of Mosul, Najaf, and Karbala are located. The British without much thought put Shiasms holiest sites into the newly created Arabic country of Iraq, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire( 1918) .They did the same thoughtless deeds all over the Arabian Peninsula, during the creation of Israel and the partition of India in 1947. Colonial imperialism is still resented the world over and many countries in the middle east and Africa have never recovered from it.

The drive from Hamadan to Kermanshah was beautiful with green fields, mountains and four lane highways. Remember that it is a pilgrimage route. Iraq is where Islam's 4th Prophet and the founder of Shiism, Imam Ali, is buried in Najaf. Najaf is the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The hoardings on the roadside were extremely militaristic. Sign boards showing Iranian might, photos of martyrs from the Iraqi war etc. An interesting contrast with the USA, home to the greatest war machines in the world,is that one does not see military presence anywhere.

I soon arrived in Bisotun unmolested. The Kermanshah province is mostly populated by the Kurds. An Aryan race as old as Persia itself. They are some of the most hard working and friendly people one can encounter in the middle-east. I had the same feeling about Kurds whilst in Turkey a few years earlier. These are a people trapped between Iran, Iraq and Turkey who survived over millennia through tribal alliances with the great powers of Persia and Greece, and converted to Islam after the Arab conquest of 780 AD and tolerated the Ottoman Empire. The middle east was divided under the auspices of the League of Nations (1918-22)mandate after the collapse of the Ottomans. The Kurds ,Assyrians and Turkmen the major tribes in the region were left out while carving different nations, creating several problems in Iraq, Syria and Turkey that we are aware of today. The land of Kurdistan encompassing the three countries mentioned above remains a major thorn on the side of each government not willing to offer territory for an independent Kurdistan. Perhaps this short lesson serves as a backdrop of what is happening in the middle east with ISIS, Syria and Turkey. As of today Turkey is not getting involved with a much needed war with ISIS since they are unwilling to compromise their rigid position regarding an independent Kurdistan.


Given this modern and ancient backdrop, I wish to celebrate the great site of Bisotun and the inscriptions which indeed a was a hair raising experience. The Achaemenid or First Persian Empire, was founded in the 6th century BC by Cyrus the Great. The dynasty draws its name from king Achaemenes, who ruled Persis between 705 BC and 675 BC. The empire expanded to eventually rule over significant portions of the ancient world, which at around 500 BC stretched from parts of the Balkans and Thrace-Macedonia in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen . The Achaemenid Empire would eventually control Egypt as well. At the height of its power after the conquest of ancient Egypt, the empire encompassed approximately 8 million square kilometers spanning three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa. At its greatest extent, the empire included the modern territories of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, all significant population centers of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya, Thrace and the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, much of Central Asia, Afghanistan, China, northern Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and parts of Oman and the UAE. Hindustan was always an ally going back 2600 years!. Hence its affinity to India and vice versa.
In 480 BC, it is estimated that 50 million people lived in the Achaemenid Empire. According to Guinness World Records, the empire at its peak ruled over 44% of the world's population, the highest such figure for any empire in history. The Bisotun inscriptions(480 BC) are a powerful statement of a literate ,imperial and progressive society never before seen by man. What is more important is its location 1000 ft above the main highway connecting the Levant region consisting of Palestine and the pre Arab kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon and Lydia. It was also the land connector for future penetrations of Alexander and his army.

Darius I(550BC-486BC), the greatest of the Persian kings had subjugated most of the middle-east as described earlier. Furthermore, he wanted to leave a legacy behind for humanity to understand his achievements. In my own theory, it was also the highway connecting the ancient axial religions of Buddhism in the east, Zoroastrianism in the center and Judaism to its west. It was also a highway connecting many well known pagan religions born in Babylon (Marduk), Greece(Zeus) and Egypt (Osiris)

The greatness of the Achaemenids was in their capacity to tolerate other religions since 4 million Persian ruled 50 million subjects. I suspect the British in India did not tamper with religion for 200 odd years for the same reason and when they did so, it gave rise to a mutiny. Another folly of history typically never followed by imperialists.(read Barbara Tuchman's -March of Folly).
In the 3 languages that these inscriptions were carved; Babylonian, old Persian and Elamite, Darius I begins by stating the following powerful sample of the inscriptions:
• I am Darius the great king, king of kings, the king of Persia the king of countries, the son of Hystaspes, the grandson of Arsames, the Achaemenid.
• My father is Hystaspes [Vištâspa]; the father of Hystaspes was Arsames [Aršâma]; the father of Arsames was Ariaramnes [Ariyâramna]; the father of Ariaramnes was Teispes [Cišpiš]; the father of Teispes was Achaemenes [Haxâmaniš].
• That is why we are called Achaemenids; from antiquity we have been noble; from antiquity has our dynasty been royal.
• Eight of my dynasty were kings before me; I am the ninth. Nine in succession we have been kings.
• By the grace of Ahuramazda am I king; Ahuramazda has granted me the kingdom.
• These are the countries which are subject unto me, and by the grace of Ahuramazda I became king of them: Persia [Pârsa], Elam [Ûvja], Babylonia [Bâbiruš], Assyria [Athurâ], Arabia [Arabâya], Egypt [Mudrâya], the countries by the Sea, Lydia [Sparda], the Greeks [Yauna], Media [Mâda], Armenia [Armina], Cappadocia [Katpatuka], Parthia [Parthava], Drangiana [Zraka], Aria [Haraiva], Chorasmia [Uvârazmîy], Bactria [Bâxtriš], Sogdia [Suguda], Gandhara [Gadâra], Scythia [Saka] Sattagydia [Thataguš], Arachosia [Harauvatiš] and Maka [Maka]; twenty-three lands in all.


These inscriptions go on for 1200 lines, in three languages with a life size bas relief of the king in front of his 9 subjugated emperors with the Zoroastrian angel/god Ahuramazda hovering over him. Note: Ahura=Light and Mazda= wisdom.
While there are many ancient carvings and inscriptions stretching over 1000 years at this site, the Bisotun inscription is a clear historic record from 2500 years ago. The greatness of Darius even reflects in the way these were inscribed in 3 languages at a great height for posterity to appreciate his achievement. While I can be verbose on this subject, by the grace of Ahuramazda, I wish to stop my main article here. I felt privileged, and fortunate for being in this great historic outpost.
In conclusion I wish to make the following personal observations on Iran:
Iran was a great country in antiquity and still has some great minds. Bisotun is a testament to that thought. Persia is not to be confused with Iran. Persians are people of the Shiraz region, home of the Achaemenids. Iran is a nation of several tribes of which the Persians are a sizable political majority. Turkmen, Bakhtiari, Baluchis, Kurds, Pashtuns, Lurs and Tajiks to name a few, constitute this historic land.
Because of their history, they believe that they should have the upper hand in the middle-east as they are a great people. I personally sense that they may be the brightest people in the middle- east outside of Palestine. But Iran is not what it used to be ; its government is a petty theocracy which wills itself to eliminate other countries. I feel sorry for its people who are very similar to Indians in mentality. They are not religious and even the religious ones are put off by the hypocrisy of the ruling Mullahs.
They have been taken advantage by the Americans and the British ever since oil was first struck in Iran in the 1800s,first by the British and then the Americans who were their last puppet masters. The revolution in Iran was indeed one of the people without any coercion by anyone. We must salute their revolution against the west. But unfortunately it did not redeem the country. It turned to be a failed revolution of hypocrisy, selfishness, meaningless theocracy, theft and usurpation of a beautiful land by the Mullahs. the End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Venkat Santosh for editing the material for relevancy of content.
Wikipedia : Translation of the inscriptions
Prof. John Lee "The Persian Empire" in Teaching Company lecture DVD

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:44 Archived in Iran Tagged world heritage site iran persia darius kermanshah ramdas iyer bisotun bisttun hamadan Comments (2)

Crossing the legendary 80th Parallel in the High Arctic

Circumnavigation of the Svalbard Archipelago ..by Ramdas Iyer


I had just put aside the compelling and thrilling book about the first US expedition of the Arctic in 1870 on the USS Jeanette written by Hampton Sides; a detailed narration of a failed expedition to the North pole that had the attention of the entire nation. Understanding the history of polar expeditions is very important so I have made an attempt here to condense several articles into a few lines. Polar regions were little understood by scientists during the Victorian era when major geographic explorations was a strategy to expand the Empire .Even though attempting to reach the North pole was fraught with danger many explorers repeatedly risked their lives to reach the lands of the frigid unknown. Interest in the northern polar regions started when the Turks conquered Constantinople around 1450 making it hard for Europeans to trade with the east. This event set about a string of explorations including those of Columbus( 1492) and Vasco De Gama (1497) to seek alternate routes to the east. During the Elizabethan era in Britain, the possibility of a northern passage to Asia was considered and since the early 1700s until the ultimate navigation of the Northwest passage in 1903 by Raold Amundsen( Norway) many attempts were made to discover the northern expanses. I could feel the frustration of pseudo scientists and brave explorers who tried to fathom this unmapped area, while reading the book mentioned above named "Into the Kingdom of Ice". Great explorers including Francis Drake, Captain James cook and Henry Hudson attempted to find this 900 mile passageway that sits a few hundred miles above the arctic circle, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific oceans. Once this was finally accomplished, the search for the North pole began by land based expeditions after crossing the 80th parallel. Robert Peary(USA) achieved this in 1909 setting out from Ellesmere Island in Canada.

As a recent traveler to the High arctic and a veteran of a previous Antarctic trip, I had been bitten again the polar bug. For a person raised in the tropics in Madras, India(13°00'23" N) my first experience with ice and snow was a blizzard that hit Minneapolis(44° 58' 48" N) in 1981, dumping over 30 inches of snow in the Twin Cities. Spending a weekend in the Twin Cities this early autumn(2014), I went into some serious conversations about global warming, rising oceans, interruptions in food production etc. which could culminate into a global crisis within this century with family members. What started as a blame game on burning fossil fuels ended with concern and doubt with the acceptance of the existence of periodic warming trends and mini ice-ages as evidenced by paleoclimatologists. These polar conversations naturally made me reflect on my recent crossing of the 80th parallel .It is the circle of latitude that is 80 degrees north of the Earth's equatorial plane, in the Arctic. It crosses the Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Asia, the Arctic Ocean and North America. Its importance is relevant to this article since crossing it by a passenger ship was impossible until 20 years ago (see last photograph of ice cap satellite imagery). The rapid melting of the arctic ice cap made this crossing possible during my recent circumnavigation of Spitsbergen island and the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway on the Russian vessel. Akademik Sergei Vavilov. The 80th was first crossed in 1596 by Dutch explorer William Barents, after whom the sea is named after.


As a geography and maps buff, I am a big fan of imaginary lines drawn on the globe. Having crossed the equator in Uganda and Ecuador, the tropic of Cancer in India, the Tropic of Capricorn in Australia, Namibia, Brazil and Botswana, the arctic circle in Alaska and Norway and of course the Antarctic circle in the Bellingshausen sea, reaching the next big imaginary line was the 80th Parallel.


The arctic oceans huge frozen landmass and sea ice extends 8.82 million sq miles in winter and drops down to 3.0 million sq miles in summer. There has been increasing evidence that this size is getting smaller during the past few years. As the ice cap melts, it remains as floating ice which shifts along with the currents and the winds. In oceanic travel the vagaries of shifting ice cannot be taken lightly . Our captain had indicated on the day of embarkation that circumnavigation may not be a possibility, due to sea ice blocking the meeting point of the Greenland Sea with the Arctic ocean around 78 deg N thus preventing access to the Barents Sea to complete our circumnavigation. The 60 odd passengers on board including myself were extremely disappointed for two reasons. First, a missed opportunity to cross the legendary latitude and second to miss the beautiful site of the permanent arctic ice cap about 50 feet thick, that extends all the way to the North pole about 550 miles away and beyond.


On the 7th day of our voyage, we were given the news that ice floes had shifted westwards and there was a two day window of opportunity to negotiate Moffen Island located at 80 Deg N. On July 21, 2014 at 10:10 PM I made this historic crossing. The expedition members served Bailey's on ice and all the passengers rejoiced to the blaring horns of the mighty ship. With a GPS locator on an Ipad placed on the bow of the ship, we took pictures of ourselves crossing a landmark only a few thousand have ever attempted.


Within a few minutes of reaching the apogee of our polar transit, the magnificent polar ice cap was visible a good 5 km away. To the uninitiated, it looked like a distant glacier, but a view from the bridge and as seen in my photographs, one could see the limitless expanse of ice that I am afraid will be nonexistent in summer over the next 50 years. With the possibility of the Northwest passage being open year round perhaps with three decades, one can imagine the industrial development around the polar regions which we all know ultimately leads to mining, pollution and blight.


Born in the rain forested region of Southern India(10.77 deg N) I had made it a point to visit some of the major rain forest eco systems in the world during the past 25 years. Little did I realize that the stark and majestic beauty of the polar regions would ultimately overwhelm my senses. My polar bug has indeed bitten me deep. In 2015, I am planning a trip from Nunavut/ Baffin Island area of the Canadian Arctic to the west coast of Greenland. The Davis strait that separates Canada from Greenland has some of the largest icebergs in the northern hemisphere. Another trip in the oven is to visit the distant south Georgia Islands in the Antarctic convergence while making another stab at Antarctica.
The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:11 Archived in Norway Tagged sea ice high norway svalbard arctic cap vavilov spitsbergen parallel 80th akademik sergei barents circumnavigation Comments (3)

Trans-Siberian Journeys: The Buryat of Ulan Ude, Siberia

Visiting the modern descendents of Mongol and Siberian Tribes

sunny -25 °F


After my goodbyes to Ulan Bator, Mongolia I embarked on the Trans Mongolian to hook up with the Trans-Siberian train that would arrive from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude, Siberian Russia. The train ride was an adventure in itself since it was a local train heated by hot water with the conductor shoveling coal into the furnace of each compartment. Most of the travelers were ethnic Mongolian Buryat who were either living in Mongolia or in Russian Mongolia. Since Mongolia was under the Soviet sphere, families were spread between the two lands.
The rickety train was packed with heavy set people and I was in the company of 3 Vodka drinking Buryat women with additional visitors coming into the third class coach to share sausage and Vodka with a very popular lady travellng with me who spoke good English. One of the women was selling soaps and toiletries from South Korea to her other buddies probably from the seized bounty of her customs officer son who came to wish her good bye at the border. The first Buryat tradition I learnt on this trip was to dip ones ring finger in Vodka and spray it in three directions to say cheers and as a thanks. It was Vodka shower all night.

The trains going from China to Mongolia have to change track gauges. The complete retrofit of each coach, wherein the entire coach is lifted hydraulically 10 feet from the ground and the wheels removed and replaced with a new set. This transforms the narrow gauge Chinese Railroad to the broad Gauge Mongolian/Russian Railroads ; an unforgettable experience that merits an entire article on its own.

This exchange happened in the border town of Zamyn-Üüd/Erenhot at temperatures sinking to -20 F. The Mongolian customs and immigration officers collected all our passports and returned them two hours later after the train’s tracks were changed over and the entire train relocated to the Trans-Siberian tracks of Ernhot. On the Russian side customs and immigration were managed efficiently by smartly dressed female officers who used electronic scanners to get the job done instantaneously; this was helpful since we could disembark and wait and stroll about for the Trans-siberian Train to arrive from Vladivostok an hour later. The Russian side looked like the first world after traveling through Mongolia. The Station was clean, there were pay toilets with attendants (since I did not have rubles the Slavic lady kindly winked me in) and small food items sold were being hawked by Babushka clad women from the border town of Naushki; mainly Periogies and homemade sausages. My heavyset Buriyat friends purchased them for me.

I have been interested in native peoples for a long time and was always aware that Stalin had destroyed the Shamanistic cultures of Mongolia. Colin Thubron’s “Siberia” which I was reading on Kindle en route was informative. From Shamans to Stalin’s Gulags to modern research labs of the Soviet Union this book exposed the tumultous history of Siberia. If one sees old pictures of the ancient Sioux and the Dakota Plains Indians, one can see the similarity of cultures that was spread to the North America by the natives of Siberia through the Bering Strait. Ironically the Russians ended the Shamanistic culture around 1930 while we had eliminated it much earlier.


The Buryat people are descended from various Siberian and Mongolic peoples that inhabited the Lake Baikal Region. It is believed that , Jochi, eldest son of Genghis Khan, marched north to subjugate the Buryats in 1207. The territory of current Buryat Republic was part of the Mongolic Xianbei state (93-234), Rouran Khaganate( Turkic –Mongol /330-555), Mongol Empire (Genghis Khan and his descendants/1206-1368) and Northern Yuan (1368-1691) until 1691. Yuan Dynasty was the Chinese Dynasty whose famous emperor Kublai Khan another Mongolian welcomed Marco Polo into his court and saw his grandmother convert to Christianity. My travels through these areas revealed the superiority of medieval Mongolians in the areas of warfare, craftsmanship and statecraft.
The Buryats lived along the Angara River near modern day Irkutsk and its tributaries in the 1500s. When the Tsarist Russians expanded into Transbaikalia (eastern Siberia) in 1609 in search of fur and minerals, the Cossacks( Outcast /bandit horsemen of the Steppes who challenged the rule of Tsars but were subsequently used by the Tsars to explore and brutalize new colonies) found only a small core of tribal groups speaking a Mongol dialect called Buryat and paying tribute to the Mongolian Khalkhas- descendents of Genghis Khan. The ancestors of most modern Buryats were speaking a variety of Turkic-Tungusic dialects at that time. Eventually with the help of Buryat translators the territory and several local peoples like Samoyed, Kan and Kalymk were formally annexed to the Russian state by treaties in 1689 and 1727.


After Buryatia was incorporated into Russia, it was exposed to two traditions – Buddhist and Christian. Buryats west of Lake Baikal and Olkhon (Irkut Buryats), are more "russified", and they soon abandoned nomadism for agriculture, whereas the eastern (Transbaikal) Buryats are closer to the Khalkha(Mongols), may live in yurts and are mostly Buddhists. In 1741, the Tibetan branch of Buddhism was recognized as one of the official religions in Russia, and the first Buryat datsan (Buddhist monastery) was built. This article mainly. deals with the Buddhist Buryats east of Lake Baikal, where Ulan Ude is located.
The arrival of the Trans-Siberian train was received with great joy since our rail coach had been removed from the main track and shunted to a siding. We were attached and we were off to Ulan Ude.

On a cold Siberian evening, I was received by my guide and I was off to another new adventure tried only twice before in Tajikistan; Homestay. I was taken to a soviet style block apartment where I stayed with a fine couple Sergei and Elena. Sergei was a truck mechanic who has lately been driving a tourist taxi between Ulan Ude and Lake Baikal. Elena was a speech therapist in a local school.They had packed off their 8 year old son to Grandmas to house me in their kid’s room which was also the living room of the apartment. Since they receive foriegn guests such as I , the room was clean, warm and adequate despite the Russian looking Mickey Mouse and Donald Ducks that adorned the room. After a hot shower , dinner and small talk I slept soundly after a noisy train ride with 3 women.

The next morning we were off to visit the oldest Buddhist monastery in Buritya built in 1945, The Ivoginski Datsan. Located 30 km outside the city, the tranquility and spirituality found there was a truly Asian experience 3500 miles east of Moscow. The locals were dressed in traditional Buryat costumes and were excited to see an Indian, a symbolic progenitor of Buddhism from India. A group of 16 pilgrims traveling from various parts of Buritya was very excited to see me and to be photographed with me. After seeing the complex I met some of them in the compound, who through my interpreter expressed their desire to invite me for lunch and asking me to give a congratulatory speech on the auspicious occasion of Sagaalgan, their New Year ’s Day. Since I’ve never experienced anything like this I readily agreed. Toasts after toasts with Vodka were followed by their leader respecting me by adorning me with a silken scarf. I spoke about our great countries, our people bounded by similar religion and values even though I was not quite sure where the similarity began. I was like a living representative of Buddha that afternoon. Steamed dumplings were brought to my table while everyone videotaped and photographed me like I had just emerged after 500 years of mediation. It was certainly Nirvana to me!


Setting Buddha aside, I wish to report that Ulan Ude has the largest Lenin’s head in the World. Every year the locals build beautiful ice sculptures and caves in front of the plaza with Lenin staring down rather benevolently these days. That evening I bought some local Vodka and partied with my local hosts.
The next day my program consisted of visiting an Old Believers village. Old Believers are descendants of a group that rejected Russian Orthodox Church reforms enacted in 1654 to reconcile differences between Russian and Greek Orthodox texts. They broke away from the Orthodox Church because it objected to changes in Russian Orthodox traditions, such as ceremonies, icon painting, and book writing. Shortly after the schism, the Old Believers were persecuted; some were imprisoned and others were burned alive. Many Old Believers fled to remote villages in northern Russia or to Siberian wastelands and established tiny settlements.
Since I am focusing on the Burayats, I will try to elaborate about this amazing community in a future article. It was the Burayats who helped the hungry Europeans who fled from all over Poland, Baltic States and European Russia. Siberia was a waste land of no interest at that time. The two communities lived not too far from each other and even to this day the relationship has been synergistic.


The second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was a time of growth for the Buryat Buddhist church (48 datsans in Buryatia in 1914). Because of their skills in horsemanship and mounted combat, many were enlisted into the Tsar's Amur Cossacks brigade. During the Russian Civil War most of the Buryats sided with the White forces against the Bolshevik Red army of Lenin. After the Revolution, most of the lamas became loyal to the Soviet power. In 1925, a battle against religion and church in Buryatia began during Stalin’s period. Datsans were gradually closed down and the activity of the church was curtailed. Consequently, in the late 1930s the Buddhist church ceased to exist and thousands of cultural treasures were destroyed.
In 1923, the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed and included Baikal province with Russian population. The Buryats rebelled against the communist rule and collectivization of their herds in 1929. The rebellion was quickly crushed by the Red Army with loss of 35,000 Buryats.[ The Buryat refugees fled to Mongolia and resettled there. Fearing Buryat nationalism, Joseph Stalin had more than 10,000 Buryats killed. Moreover, Stalinist purge of Buryats spread into Mongolia, known as the incident of Lhumbee.

Later that afternoon after visiting yet another Buddhist monastery, I visited a nearby spirit shrine built on a hill where Shamans over the millennium had offered their prayers to the elements. It was a powerful moment. En route I climbed onto a snowy bluff to see the panoramic view of the Selenga river valley, a 900 mile river that feeds into Lake Baikal. As a part of my “Homestay” program put together by Monkey Shrine Tour Operators of Beijing ( but run by Aussies and Belgians), I spent a few hours with a farmer and his wife. Sergei and Lyudmila were wonderful hosts who were well in their 70s. She was the local school Librarian and a part time seamstress. He served in the army and drove a milk truck for several years.
She made us tea and some sweet bread with berry jams that her husband had canned in summer. It was a traditional home showing the lifestyle of a traditional Buryat family. They had several grandchildren in town that dropped by and played video games in a very old computer. The reader must understand that visitors like me have added to their comfort level. I played a “board” game with the family and the game tokens were vertebras of goats. The house was very traditional with the 75 year old man chopping wood to feed the furnace on a regular basis.


I concluded the wonderful visit to Ulan Ude by spending a lovely and fortunate evening at sunset on Mount Lysaya which offers a spectacular view of the city. On the ground where Buryat tribes once held their pagan Sabbaths, there now stands the Rimpoche Baghsha Buddhist Center. Here for Sagaalgan, Festival of the white month, harbinger of spring and the Buryat New year a magic ritual of an evening bonfire “Dugzhuba” was held. It is a ritual of purification from bad thoughts and diseases. Believers and their family members after wiping their bodies with pieces of fabric or paper, pieces of dough take them to Dugzhuba and burn in the fire to get rid of past year's disease, problems, sins, and offenses and to gather inspiration to perform good deeds in the coming year.


With great thoughts, happy moments, improved knowledge and new friendships I left this wonderful land to reach the western reaches of Lake Baikal by train later that night. The End
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:04 Archived in Russia Tagged buddhism trans-siberian trans-mongolian siberia ulan mongol ude buryat salgaalgan Comments (4)

Kashgar, Crossroads of the Silk Road, Xinjiang, China

Pictorial essay and record of a historic City slated for destruction..........Ramdas Iyer

sunny 34 °F


The joy of a traveler looking for historic sites is the reward of seeing wonderful monuments and learning interesting stories of a bygone history. With an internal revolt on hand the Chinese Government has kept a tight rein on Kashgar, the spiritual home of the Islamic Turkic-Mongol Uighur people who populate Xinjiang Province of Northwestern China. In 2006 when I made this trip it was clear that the Chinese were intent on destroying the ancient city and slowly moving its population to concrete communist style dwellings. The problems for Kashgar were further excercebated when the Chinese refused to give it a UNESCO World heritage status. They believed that the dismantling of Kashgar would break the spirit of the Uyghur. So I went to see and photograph Kashgar. Here I wish to offer the reader a comprehensive history and visual record of a place condemned to the abyss of Silk Road history.

The Silk Road has always held an allure in my heart. The more I read about its history the more I felt the desire to travel it. You may have read from my previous blogs about sections of my travels through this fabled route in Central Asia and China. Kashgar however is very special. For two millenniums or more, Kashgar was the greatest market city on one of the major trade routes of ancient times. Caravans of a thousand camels each traveled along it, transporting silk, spices, gold and gemstones between Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and the central Chinese city of Xian, then the capital. Kashgar—where the bone-dry Taklimakan Desert meets the Tian Shan Mountains was a key city along the Silk Road, the 7,000-mile trade route that connected cultures of the China’s Yellow River Valley with India and the Mediterranean. In the ninth century, Uighur forebears, traders traveling from Mongolia in camel caravans, settled in oasis towns around the desert. Originally Buddhists, they began converting to Islam about 300 years later. For the past 1,000 years, Kashgar has thrived, languished—and been ruthlessly suppressed by occupiers. The Italian adventurer Marco Polo reported passing through around 1273, about 70 years after it was seized by Genghis Khan. He called it “the largest and most important” city in “a province of many towns and castles.” Tamerlane the Great, the despot from what is now Uzbekistan, sacked the city in 1390. Three imperial Chinese dynasties conquered and reconquered Kashgar and its environs.Still, its mosques and madrassahs drew scholars from all over Central Asia. Its caravansaries, or inns, provided refuge to traders bearing glass, gold, silver, spices and gems from the West along with silks and porcelain from the East. Its labyrinthine alleys teemed with blacksmiths, cotton-spinners, book-binders and other craftsmen.


In the mid-19th century, Kashgar again became prominent when Britain and Russia struggled for influence over Central Asia in the intrigues and espionage known as the "Great Game”. (A book written in the same name by Peter Hopkirk has been my inspiration for these travels). Peter Hopkirk in a related book “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road” writes at length about the visitors to the Russian consulate in Kashgar which then regularly hosted British adversaries as fellow European diplomats in a both climatically and politically hostile area of Central Asia, then know as the Sinkiang Province of China. At that time the Peking based Qing Dynasty had a very loose grip on this area allowing Britain and Russia to meddle in the affairs of this area.
This once famous Russian consulate now became my home during my three days stay in the area. Today it is a hotel, considered the best, yet somewhere between a two star and three star rated hotel. I was perhaps the only guest at the hotel in December, 2006 when very few travelers reach Xinjiang Province. During my first night there prostitutes drummed on my door almost every 10 minutes seeking patronage. It was scary, given the location of my room in a remote corner of this dark hotel which turns off all lights in the absence of guests and I had no way of communicating with the Chinese speaking desk clerk of my travails, while trapped inside my room. Upon the intervention of my guide the following day everything settled down.

Today, Kashgar -- now officially called Kashi -- has less the texture of Chinese cities like Shanghai than of old Central Asian cities like Samarkand, Uzbekistan, or even of Arab cities like Fez, Morocco. Almost 80 percent of Kashgar's population of 300,000 is non-Chinese, the overwhelming majority constituted by Islamic Turkic Uighar. Its closest borders are with the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and it also has close links with nearby Pakistan. But for its entire Arabian Nights atmosphere, Kashgar also contains such 20th-century Chinese Communist emblems as gray socialist concrete buildings and a 55-foot-high statue of Chairman Mao.
Surrounded by the Tian Shan Mountains, the Pamir range and the vast Taklimakan Desert, Kashgar has never been easy to get to. Kashgar was the northerly route for traders headed to Xian from Kabul while skirting the Taklimakan. Other daring merchants took the shorter but dangerous southern route through Hotan to Urumqi further east of Kashgar where the two routes converge to form another fabled city. From Beijing, I flew to Urumqi (6hrs), the capital of Xinjiang, the "autonomous region" and another 1.5 hours to Kashgar.


Expressions like "Silk Road" suggest luxury and comfort, so it's important to remember that the route could just as well have been called the Pothole Road. Kashgar today has few luxuries to offer visitors, for taxis are mostly donkey carts, restaurants are longer on grime than service, and none of the hotels comes close to meeting international standards. Hot water occasionally emerges from the taps, but so do cockroaches, and the interesting pattern on the wallpaper turns out, on closer examination, to be the result of accumulated stains.
Yet what a magical place it is! The city is an oasis, and water gushes through canals that run along the main streets and nourish the trees that provide a pleasant canopy. Even in the broiling summer heat, the lakes and canals keep Kashgar relatively green and cool. Delightful alleys wind between mud-walled houses, little boys fish in tree-lined lakes, and traffic on main boulevards is slowed by herdsmen driving flocks of fat-tailed sheep in the canals as the donkey carts rolled by.

The population of Kashgar consists 80% of Turkic-Mongolian Uyghur. They are being diluted by a huge influx of Han Chinese similar to that of Tibet to quell frequent bursts of violence while demanding independence from China.The Uyghur’s have experienced tastes of independence. In 1933, they declared the East Turkestan Republic, from the Tian Shan Mountains south to the Kunlun Mountains, which lasted until a Chinese warlord came to power the next year. Then, in 1944, as the nationalist Chinese government neared collapse during World War II, the Uyghur established the Second East Turkestan Republic, which ended in 1949, after Mao Zedong took over China. Six years after Mao’s victory, China created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, similar to a province but with greater local control; the Uighur Muslims are its largest ethnic group.
It was early morning and I was exploring the back streets of Kashgar, with my guide who was a young Muslim from the neighboring province of Qinghai which lies east of the Tibetan plateau.

The two of us followed narrow passageways bathed in sunlight or obscured by shadows. We encountered faces that testified to Kashgar’s role as a crossroads of Central Asia on the route linking China, India and the Mediterranean. Narrow-eyed, white-bearded elders wearing embroidered skullcaps chatted in front of a 500-year-old mosque. We passed pale-complexioned men in black felt hats; broad-faced, olive-skinned men who could have passed for Bengalis; green-eyed women draped in head scarves and chadors; and the occasional burqa-clad figure who might have come straight from Afghanistan. It was a scene witnessed in the early 1900s by Catherine Theodora Macartney, wife of the British consul in Kashgar when it was a listening post in the Great Game, the strategic Russia-Britain conflict for control of Central Asia. “One could hardly say what the real Kashgar type was,” she wrote in a 1931 memoir, An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan, “for it has become so mixed by the invasion of other people in the past.”
We walked deep into the alleys of this historical mud built city, now repaired in places. Many wealthy families have bigger homes in town but yet keep their tradition by coming back to the smaller ancestral homes on weekends. The alleys were bustling with economic activity similar to that seen in small villages. Vendors manufacturing and hawking small tools, roadside butcheries, vegetable sellers, hat makers to name a few. I took particular joy in eating the oven baked “samosa” filled with lamb meat and melon. Sumptuous meat dumplings available for less than a dollar more than sufficed for lunch. The locals were very pleasant and welcoming. The kids were playing in the streets inside the old quarter without worrying about safety or traffic. The hamam method of communal bathing was very much evident inside the old town.


In some corners of the town young men were playing billiards under trees while a washing machine repair stall doubled as a game parlor. Taxis inside the town were nonexistent but the roads outside the old town were bustling with buses, cars, motorcycles and motorbike drawn taxis. Horse carts were not uncommon which until the 80s were the main source of local transportation.
The Aidkah Mosque dominates the central square. Originally built in 1442 but renovated many times since then, the mosque is as much a public garden as a place to pray. A yellow-tiled building with square lines that give way to a dome, the mosque contains an area the size of a large city block -- filled with trees, ponds and walking paths. I was told that the entire area outside the mosque was a large city park with beautiful poplar trees which the Chinese cleared for “security reasons” leaving behind a cobblestoned plaza which can still accommodate 20000 worshipers. I saw a similar clearing of space in front of the great Jhokang Temple (617-650 CE) in Lhasa complete with police in riot gear. Since my visit to Kashgar a lot of major uprisings have happened in Urumqi and Kashgar. I recommend reading “ Resentment and Rebellion Fester on the Silk Road, by Terry MacCarthy for Time Inc.(http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2054438,00.html)


There were plenty of handcrafted souvenirs surrounding the mosque. Of particular interest to me were the finely handcrafted Yingsar daggers with bejeweled handles. This purchase would have been in jeopardy had I not known about the serious security checks one encounters in Xinjiang Railway stations since I intended to back track the 4000 km distance from Kashgar to Beijing by rail. Intending to stop in several Silk Road towns along the way, a pair of daggers in my possession was a serious concern. The merchant put my concern at ease by shutting down his shop and giving me a ride in his motorbike to the Post office. It was a very efficient operation; there was a packaging counter that would wrap items for a small fee and international mailing facilities which for under $10 shipped my daggers to the USA. It arrived still neatly packed after 60 days complete with beautiful postage stamps.

Another famous site, the Mausoleum of Abak Hoja, 5 km from Kashgar is perhaps the finest example of Islamic architecture in Xinjiang. A large dome of 56 ft is at the center surrounded by four corner minarets with stripes and arabesque floral patterns. The tomb contains the remains of Abak Hoja, a 17th-century ruler of Kashgar and a Naksbandhi Sufi saint. 72 relatives of Abak Hoja are interred in the burial ground adjacent to the mosque. The locals visit these tombs on a regular basis which is typical of Sufi saint worship. The Chinese have been threatening to move the cemetery to a different part of town claiming eminent domain, to build a road.

There are more than 20 large scale bazaars in Kashgar, of which the one located at the East Gate of Kashgar City is the largest. This bazaar also named 'International Trade Market of Central and Western Asia' is the largest international trade market in Northwest China, It is the largest garden aggregate market of Kashgar City and in Xinjiang Province, taking up an area of 41 acres composed of 21 specialized markets including over 4,000 fixed booths and a food street. It was noted as 'the Largest Fair in Asia' in ancient times. As early as in 128 BC, when Zhang Qian ( Huang tseng , as we learnt in school,before the 1949 PIinyin transliteration methodology)was dispatched to the Western Regions by Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220), he was surprised to see the prosperous market here, full of dazzling goods and merchants coming from different countries. Unfortunately due to my winter travel schedule, I could only see it in a much reduced size.

There were merchants selling live snakes as health remedies complete with a booklet on how to utilize different parts, house cat skins stitched together to make shawls, apothecaries stuffed with dried snakes, lizards, turtles and a variety of herbs along with an attending physician. Uyghur medicine was alive and well! There was a plethora of dried fruits and nuts vendors, mountains of sweet pomegranates, carpet shops, and jewelers. One can also buy various things including general merchandise, handicrafts, livestock, local specialties, vegetables, coat, and second hand items as well as many other kinds of things from cattle and horses to needle and thread. Street barbers were busy attending to clients a scene that has not changed much since the invention of the chair. It had all the elements and characters befitting the experience of travelers on the ancient Silk road; not too dissimilar to travels on the the Grand Trunk Road from Dacca to Peshawar, both during the Raj and until the 1970s in India
The Karakoram highway, built by the Chinese from Xinjiang to Islamabad, Pakistan in the 1970s passes outside Kashgar. This road was built as a possible route for an Indian invasion by the People Liberation Army. I rode this beautiful highway cutting through the Karakoram ranges reaching the Khunjerab pass at 15000 ft altitude in the Pakistan border. Since the Khunjerab Pass was opened, a large number of foreign merchants have come with a great deal of goods. Thus, arts and crafts of Pakistan, scarves of Turkey, dry fruits of Saudi Arabia all can be bought at a reasonable price here. The Kashgar markets are loaded with Pakistani goods often with the faces of Bollywood actresses. I saw a 5 liter can of vegetable oil with the Indian starlet Aishwarya Rai adorned in Islamic outfit straight from the Arabian Nights. The prevalence of prostitution that I had mentioned earlier is primarily because of the international truck drivers and the Chinese officials who come to visit the area who are attracted to the Eurasian features of this Turkic people. Brothels advertise their trade as “Foot washing Stations”.

In the 1990s, the Chinese government built a railway to Kashgar and made cheap land available to Han Chinese, the nation’s majority. Between one million and two million Han settled in Xinjiang during the past two decades, though Kashgar and other towns on the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert are still predominately Uighur. “Xinjiang has always been a source of anxiety for the central power in Beijing, as is Tibet and Taiwan,” Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based Uighur expert at Human Rights Watch told me. “Historically the response to that is to assimilate the territory, particularly through the immigration of Han Chinese.” The Han influx stirs resentment. “All construction and factory jobs around Kashgar have been taken by Han Chinese,” says British journalist Christian Tyler, author of “Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang.” “The people in charge are Han, and they recruit Han. Natural resources—oil and gases, precious metals—are being siphoned off for benefit of the Han.”
Now the Chinese government is doing to Kashgar’s Old City what a succession of conquerors failed to accomplish: leveling it. Early in 2009 the Chinese government announced a $500 million “Kashgar Dangerous House Reform” program: over the next several years, China plans to knock down mosques, markets and centuries-old houses—85 percent of the Old City. The 2007 movie “Kite Runner” based on a story in Kabul was actually shot in Kashgar, drawing parallels to two legendary Silk Road Towns.
Residents will be compensated, then moved—some temporarily, others permanently—to new cookie-cutter, concrete-block buildings now rising elsewhere in the city. In place of the ancient mud-brick houses will come modern apartment blocks and office complexes, some adorned with Islamic-style domes, arches and other flourishes meant to conjure up Kashgar’s glory days. The government plans to keep a small section of the Old City intact, to preserve “a museumized version of a living culture.
The destruction, some say, is business-as-usual for a government that values development over preservation of traditional architecture and culture.
In writing this piece, I have utilized several lines from an excellent early article, “Kashgar, on the Silk Road” written by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times (1994) and by a detailed article” Demolishing Kashgar’s History” in the Smithsonian Magazine by Joshua Hammer in 2010. Their observations in 1994 and 2010 , laced with my comments from 2006 offers the reader a timeline of the destructive path that the city is undergoing.
The End

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:25 Archived in China Tagged china highway road silk xinjiang uighur karakoram uyghur sinkiang Comments (1)

Tracking Chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda

Observing our nearest relatives in close proximity........................Ramdas Iyer

Chimpanzees, our nearest primate relatives have been a fascination for most of us. These amazing creatures were studied by Jane Goodall in the 60's at the insistence of Louis Leakey, who had unearthed the first hominid fossils, as a path to understanding the development and evolution of man. I had recently visited the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the first erect hominids, Homo habilis (1.9 million years ago) were unearthed by the Leakeys, Mary and Richard in the 1930s. Her pioneering work on the behaviour of chimpanzees have enabled us to appreciate the human like qualities of our closest DNA relative at 99% similarity. Goodall’s work was in the Gombe stream area of western Tanzania, even today a remote corner bordering Uganda. As a National Geographic subscriber since 1971 and a follower of Jane Goodall’s work, I desperately wanted to visit Gombe during my trip to TZ in 2013. But one had to take a chartered plane which only flew twice a week making it both very expensive and time consuming.

Instead I chose Kibale in Uganda which is a vast tropical rainforest over 700 sq.km in area at an altitude ranging from 3000-4500 ft. which runs into Queen Elizabeth National park, Uganda ( creating a 180 Km long Wildlife corridor) a much celebrated but much poached national park. Why Kibale?
Kibale National Forest has one of the highest diversity and concentration of primates in Africa. It is home to a large number of endangered chimpanzees, as well as the red colobus monkey and the rare L'Hoest’s monkey. The park is also home to over 325 species of birds, 13 species of primates, a total of a[/left]t least 60 other species of mammals, and over 250 tree species. The predominant ecosystem in Kibale is moist evergreen and semi-deciduous forest.)
Since the 1960s a team of Japanese scientists have been habituating chimpanzees to human presence at Kibale national park. In Serengeti, the animals are used to the safari vehicles and are as such “habituated” to their presence. In the tropical rain forest it is not possible. So scientists spend time and in the case of Kibale, up to 6 years to make some of the chimpanzee groups get accustomed to the presence of human beings. Jane Goodall was the first to do so (except if you think Tarzan was real) in Gombe stream and Diane Fossey with the Gorillas in Volcanoes Park, Rwanda. Akin to the gorillas in Bwindi, one can track chimpanzees in their natural habitat. For 600usd per day one can spend 12 hrs. : From the time they wake up till the time they build new nests and sleep. For $150 one can insert himself into the forest and catch them for an hour, either at 8:00AM or 2:00PM. Since chimps can be found in 19 African countries, they are not as exclusive as the gorillas. But this is the only place that I know of where there is a formal wildlife tracking program available, in a classical moist hardwood equatorial rainforest.


Kibale is 325 KM/ 6 hrs. from Kampala with the last hour on dirt roads leading to one of the most lush and beautiful forests in central Uganda. The community, Batooroo and Balinga tribes surrounding the park were once notorious for killing chimps for bush meat, but today
readily endorse international Eco tourism that supports local infrastructure. We, Pushpa and I, arrived at Chimps nest lodge by 6:00 pm and heard loud chattering noises from chimpanzees in the forest around us along with the sounds of grey cheeked Mangabeys and red Colobus monkeys. The air was cool, the surroundings forested and the noises classical Africa. Each cottage had solar lights, Eco toilets and a wood burning stove for hot water.We did night walks to spot Bush babies and Ganet cats and day walks around the camp for photographing primates. This gave me a chance to photograph non chimpanzee primates which I would otherwise not be doing once inside the national park.


Chimpanzees are members of the family Hominidae, along with gorillas, humans, and orangutans. Chimpanzees split from the human branch of the family about four to six million years ago. Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans, being members of the tribe Hominini (along with extinct species of subtribe Hominina). The male common chimp stands up to 5.6 ft high and weighs as much as 150lbs; the female is somewhat smaller.They typically live 40 years in the wild and about 60 in captivity. The common chimp’s long arms, when extended, span one and a half times the body’s height. A chimpanzee's arms are longer than its legs. Chimpanzees usually knuckle-walk, or walk on all fours, clenching their fists and supporting themselves on the knuckles thereof. Both the common chimpanzee and bonobo can walk upright on two legs when carrying objects with their hands and arms. The coat is dark; the face, fingers, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet, hairless; the chimp, tailless. The exposed skin of the face, hands and feet varies from pink to very dark in both species but is generally lighter in younger individuals, darkening as maturity is reached. Chimpanzee testicles are unusually large for their body size, with a combined weight of about 4 oz. (110 g) compared to a gorilla's 1 oz. (28 g) or a human's 1.5 ounces (43 g). This relatively great size is generally attributed to sperm competition due to the polyandrous nature of their mating behavior.

Our group of 4, led by an UWA( Ugandan Wildlife Authority) tracker started trekking into the forest crossing small streams, gigantic root systems, thick shrubbery and enormous old growth trees with moss on them. Within 45 min of trekking we came upon a large group of chimps, about 16 in all scattered in high branches on several trees. They are not calm animals, but constantly swing, jump, chatter and create a pandemonium especially after spotting us. The photographer in me was completely flabbergasted by multiple imagery, obstructions by foliage, poor lighting, loud sounds and fast movements. While my eyes caught them all around finding them in my scope was impossible. The chimps started moving and our tracker led us further into the forest where finally some of the members had settled on the ground. I soon determined that the only way to photograph them in such low light is to focus on just one animal at a time. As you can see in my images soon to be presented, they were squatting like humans looking at the sky , pondering over their next meal, sometime arms folded in deep reservation and at other times seriously concentrating on chewing fig fruits and other hard seeds. This group according to our tracker had over 150 members which broke up at day break into 5 or 6 extended troops in order to avoid competition for food. Occasionally these groups intersect with other foraging groups often resulting in loud attacks, scare tactics and sometimes maiming and killing rival members.


After an exciting first day (one hour of observation only) we asked to enroll in the next day’s trek. With great difficulty we arranged for an overflow trek at noon, just the two of us with a tracker. This day the offerings were fantastic. By now skilled at low light Chimpanzee photography, I found opportunities to approach them at very close quarters. 25 feet is recommended, 6 feet was all that separated an adult chimpanzee and us, which could easily maim and injure an onlooker in a horrible fashion. In one situation we observed a 30 year old male chewing fruit and leaves, spitting the pulp in its palms and rubbing it on a deep cut in its leg. Several minutes later we were blessed with a scene that even our tracker claimed to be rare. A serene looking young mother holding her 2 month old baby in its arms was sitting on a log with the right amount of light streaking on her. I snapped 20 plus pictures with every movement of the baby in its arms with the session culminating with with the mother and baby directly at me. It was a Hallelujah! moment.

After spending slightly more than an hour with these magnificent animals and while on the way out of the forest we were treated by a chimpanzee drumming the buttress of a strangler fig tree. Chimpanzees are extremely expressive in their communications with each other. They use hand gestures, facial expressions, they touch, hold hands and kiss. They drum on trees, make pant-hoots and loud calls often heard 3km away to indicate their presence and inform of ample food sources.


In conclusion, I wish to discuss the future of these lovely animals. There are thought to be about 175,000 chimpanzees remaining in the wild. Even though this sounds like a large number, many of these animals live in fragmented remnant populations that are separated from other chimpanzees by areas that are heavily cultivated. The chimpanzee is officially classified as an endangered species and protected by international law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Habitat loss and commercial hunting for bush meat has become the most significant immediate threat to the future of chimpanzees in the wild. The demand from consumers in wealthy countries for tropical hardwoods means the west and central African forest habitat, that is home to wild chimpanzees is being destroyed at an alarming rate. Often whole chimpanzee families are butchered, leaving behind infants that are later exported to zoos and medical institutions or sold as exotic pets. Heavily traumatized, these infants are occasionally intercepted in transit by government authorities, whereupon sanctuaries are called upon to provide refuge. It is estimated that only one in four chimpanzees survive being taken from the wild as most die from disease, malnutrition and dehydration.
The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Sources: The Godall Institute, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Wikipedia, National Geographic Society

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:12 Archived in Uganda Tagged park africa national endangered species uganda chimpanzees goodall kibale Comments (1)

With the Maasai People of Tanzania


The Maasai: A Great people trapped in a changing world.

If one thinks of Tanzania or Kenya, two things come to mind; safari and the Maasai people. Anywhere you go in towns or countryside in the above mentioned countries you will meet the Maasai people. In northern Tanzania where I was traveling recently, the Maasai people can be seen everywhere. These famous warriors and herders of East-central Africa who once dominated the plains of East Africa are now confined to a fraction of their former land and their total population is estimated between 900,000 and 1,000,000 both in Tanzania and Kenya. It is believed that the Maasai population is in decline. While still a pastoral nomadic people they have increasingly been forced to settle, and many take jobs in towns. So you would find them working in the safari lodges as guards or porters.


In the nineteenth century, the Masaai dominated East Africa, controlling a broad swath of territory that extended 500 miles from the Laikipia Plateau in northern Kenya to the Masaai Steppe in Tanzania. They were cattle rustlers and warriors, and their raids, "which spread from Lake Victoria to the Indian Coast, were feared by Bantu, Arab, and European alike," Peter Matthiessen wrote in The Tree Where Man Was Born, his classic account of his 1960s odyssey through the Serengeti wilderness of Tanzania
After 3 weeks in Tanzania I became very curious about the real history and background of these people who originally migrated from Southern Sudan. The Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers of Africa (people of the Nile valleys) and their homeland includes the range lands of the Boma Plateau of South Sudan (near the infamous Darfur region). The reason for my curiosity and fascination for these people is because of several factors including 1. They have managed to preserve their traditional ways despite the impact of western civilization. They have continued to practice their ancient customs and ceremonies including the retention of their age-set structure with its warrior ranks of proud and brave warriors. 2. Their presence on the savannahs of East Africa has either protected the open wildlife filled range lands that is and has been their domain as pastoral guardians of the natural estate (an alternate view taken by wild life conservationists is quite the contrary blaming them for living amidst the last great mammalian assemblages of the East African Pleistocene.) 3. Their fierce presence prevented slavery amongst related pastoral tribes from the Arab slavers, along the Sahel coastline of 1000 km from current day Northern Kenya to Southern Tanzania.


Cattle keepers in Africa had fully specialized pastoral cultures along the Upper Nile in Egypt and Sudan for more than 6000 years at a time when the savannahs in what is now the Sahara had just begun their trend towards extreme desiccation. The greatest survival tool and adaptation of all cattle keeping people is the high mobility of the human population and the cattle on which they depend. While they might lay claim to and defend range lands with great ferocity against non allied pastoralists, successful pastoral people must also be masters at keeping the peace that their livestock needs to grow and prosper.
The desertification of the vast Saharan ranges along the length of the Nile has pushed the ancient cattle keepers south into both Ethiopia and the southern Sudan as well as into northern Uganda and Kenya. We know from scenes on the dynastic carvings of ancient Egyptian monuments that cattle keepers of southern Sudan were amongst those people whose involuntary labor was used to move and work these monumental stones.
The Maasai (meaning speakers of the Nilotic Maa language) do not recall just when they left their Nilotic homeland in the Sudan. This suggests that their exodus was not a single event but a very long process of north to south movement that took place over more than 2000 years. Once they arrived into the Kenyan Highlands where they pushed aside other pastoralists, they also cultivated long lasting exchange relationships with neighboring agricultural people. This rescued them to a great extent from the periodic famines that are such a very great challenge to cattle keepers without reliable agricultural neighbors.
In exchange, all of these agricultural neighbors were insulated and protected by the Maasai from repeated attacks by Swahili and Arab slavers in the thousand kilometer coastal Sahel that extended in a long chain of at least a dozen independent trading city states from Lamu in the north through to Zanzibar. Thus during the height of the Swahili and Omani city states, a vast area of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, the populations adjacent to Maasailand in central Kenya through to northern Tanzania were protected from the scourge of slavery by the Maasai who had fled from the ravages of slavery in the Sudan and forged their very culture in that prolonged escape.


The Maasai people are two distinguished groups and both groups speak one language known as Maa. The first group is identified as "pastoral Maasai" who are basically headers and keepers of livestock. It should be clear that Maasai have a deep love for their livestock because to them cattle are not only food and source of income, but also a religious symbol of God's favor. When the Maasai people pray they always ask for two things namely children and cattle. The Maasai prayer runs as follows: May God (Enkai the"Creator) give us children and cattle." In short, for the Maasai "a cow is life." Raised as a Hindu, this sacrosanct concept of the importance of cow as a life giver is very similar to me. Unlike the Maasai pastoralists, the Agrarian Hindus used milk and butter as our main source of protein. The bullocks helped in ploughing the fields and later moving the grain to the markets on carts. The cow was also a non-violent grass eater and fitted nicely with the mostly vegetarian Hindu culture. The Vedic Hindus were nomadic cow herding Aryans who settled in India around 1500. Readers who are familiar with Krishna, one of the main Hindu gods was an avatar in the form of a cow herd. The second group is the "agricultural Maasai" known as Ilarusa or Warusha. The Ilarusa occupy the southern slopes of Mount Meru in Arusha region where the land is fertile and the rainfall is sufficient for raising maize, bananas, beans, coffee, and other crops.
The Maasai have no chiefs, although each clan has a spiritual leader who also plays the role of a political leader. As spiritual leaders, the Maasai diviners are consulted whenever misfortunes arise in the community. They also served as physicians, dispensing their herbal remedies to treat diseases and absolve social and moral transgressions. As political leaders their role includes settling disputes on land issues, to resolve conflicts between Maasai communities and other tribal groups, and the government.


Circumcision for the Maasai is the most significant event. It is a sacred ritual through which the warrior groups of the Maasai are designated. The four age groups are junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders, and senior elders. The junior warriors do not engage in any political affairs or cultural rituals. Their main responsibility at this stage is to learn warfare under the tutelage of their senior warriors. They also learn their customs and traditions and are not allowed to marry. The senior warriors assume a tremendous responsibility to defend the land from all sorts of enemies such as lions who come and invade livestock etc. The senior warriors, therefore, are equivalent to military commandos who serve to protect the welfare of the people and to stabilize and maintain peace. Each of these age groups serves a twenty-year term, after which another age group is circumcised and takes over the duty of defending the land.
Maasai marriage is a bit unique. When a man loves a girl he gives her a beaded chain. He then sends milk and honey through his clanswomen to the girl’s parents (from another clan). This honey is brewed into beer. The father invites his relatives and other distinguished elders of his age-group to drink the beer. At this point, the man who had declared to marry the girl is summoned and their decision regarding the marriage meted out. If the union is not agreeable, the man is never to talk to the girl.
Maasai women play a significant role in the community. Women's roles include collecting firewood, drawing water, taking care of children, and building huts. Since it is the woman who builds the house, she also becomes the owner and the manager of the household. When a Maasai man takes delight to introduce his wife, he would say honorably, "This is the woman (wife) who shelters me in her house." Women have a strong voice in their culture. They function as educators and religious leaders. In short, they are the keepers and sustainers of the Maasai community. On the other hand, Masaai women are minors in their culture and have to be always represented by their father or husband in sensitive matters and in decision making on those issues. A Maasai woman is by birth a member of her father's family line, which means she cannot own land etc. It is one of Women’s affairs projects taken on by NGOs.

Throughout Masailand, which covers some 8,000 square miles in northern Tanzania, Masaai pastoralists are under siege, their future endangered by three powerful forces: the Tanzanian government, the safari industry, and wildlife advocates, who often have both the cash and the political clout to make their voices heard over the Masaai. "The Masaai always come in third, behind tourism and conservation," said Damian Bell, the head of the Honeyguide Foundation in Tanzania, which is trying to help indigenous people gain an equitable share of tourism profits while preserving their traditional culture.

There are three critical problems faced by the Maasai people today. First, the Maasai people are facing the reduction of land. For example, since 1959, part of Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority which was formerly occupied by the Maasai people has been taken away from them for wildlife parks. The second is drought which is intensified by the fact that they live in arid parts of the land where rain is insufficient for grazing. Third, the Maasai people face another crucial problem, that is, illiteracy. Some Masaai have managed to straddle the traditional and modern worlds, working, for instance, as guides at safari camps, where they use their salaries to buy cows and procure additional wives. And many of the rituals and customs—the morani circumcisions, arranged marriages, elaborate wedding ceremonies—have survived. But growing numbers of Masaai have taken up farming or moved to towns and cities, where they have become estranged from pastoral life.

Having traveled to many countries with ancient cultures, I have found that “modernity” has destroyed and impoverished traditional peoples. Such traditional cultures have long been destroyed in the west due to illiteracy, greed and wars during the past 300 years. Today such cultures only remain in the “third world” countries where corruption and poverty is rampant. The traditional peoples much like us are attracted to modern amenities. A rapid change in their lifestyles does not sustain their cultures since illiteracy never gets eradicated for at least two generations. First goes the beautiful village houses replaced by a concrete base and a tin roof, next comes litter and sewage strewn around and lastly the sale of traditional lands for a few dollars, which destroys many future generations ability to maintain the old ways. As an amateur anthropologist I painfully observe every day the wars and oppressive regimes of South Sudan, Central African Republic, Congo, Ecuadorian Amazon, Syria, Xinjiang province, Tibet, northern Burma etc destroy indigenous cultures, languages and unique ways of life with a great sense of loss.


There is no simple solution to this problem. Tourism helps in stemming some of the decay. The Maasai in the Ngorongoro area refuse to modernize which is a great contribution to the survival of their culture. The question remains if one tribe should hold out against the survival of many animal species which cannot adapt as easily as humans to changes in their environment. The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Material from Joshua Hammer of Conde Naste magazine, UNESCO .org, Mbango expeditions and Mike Rainy’s MasaiMara.com have been incorporated herein.
Posted by Ramdas Iyer 11:38 Archived in Tanzania Tagged culture africa tanzania kenya crater maasai mara nomads serengeti ngorongoro boma samburu maasai. Comments (5)

Suzdal- A spectacular Russian town in winter's splendor

Tracing the history of eastern Russia from the Vikings to Vladamir(Putin) by Ramdas Iyer

sunny 23 °F

I am often asked the question “What is your favorite place that you’ve visited?” It is almost akin to inquiring about the ranking of my affection for our children. My answer is to always deflect the question back by asking for more details especially with respect to seasons and their impact on sea sides, mountain-scapes, cultural experiences, historical locales and sweeping landscapes.
In that vein I believe that my favorite historical winterscape is Suzdal, the quaint city of medieval Russia. Dating back to 990 AD, Suzdal is one of the oldest towns in Russia and the 'jewel' of Russia's famous Golden Ring of ancient villages. In its heyday, Suzdal's Kremlin and monasteries held untold riches and its leaders fought with the princes of Moscow to make Suzdal the most important principality in Ancient Rus.


Until my recent visit to post Soviet Russia (my first trip was in 1989)I only had a very faint knowledge of Russian history. Since I am fascinated by it, I will attempt to give you a primer for the understanding of ancient Russian history
The ancestors of the Russians were the Slavic tribes, whose original home is thought to have been the wooded areas along the Pripyat River( near Chernobyl). Relatively little is known about East Slavs prior to approximately the 9th century AD. Upon reading on this subject I was amazed at the influence of Vikings for the populating and subjugation of the area of what we call Ukraine, Russia and Belarus today. The Scandinavian Varingians also known as Vikings or Norsemen engaging in trade, piracy, and mercenary activities, roamed the river systems and portages of areas north of the Black sea( See map). According to Norse legends and Kievan Primary Chronicle(850-1110) the first settlement was near present day Novgorod in 882 AD under the leadership of Rurik, a legendary ancestor to proud Russians today. These settlers were called Rus and the state they established by subjugating the eastern Slavs between the 9th and 12th centuries was known as the Kievan Rus. It was ruled by Rurik’s descendents from present day Kiev.( Hence Russia’s constant problem with Ukraine whose capital is Kiev, home to Mother Russia).


The Kievan Rus controlled the Volga trade route connecting the Baltic to the Caspian Sea, and the Dnieper trade route leading to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Those were the critically important trade links at that time, connecting Dark Age Europe with wealthy and developed Arab Caliphates and the Byzantine Empire.. Attracted by the riches of Constantinople, the Varangian Rus' initiated a number of Rus'-Byzantine Wars, some of which resulted in advantageous trade treaties. At least from the early 10th century many Varangians served as mercenaries in the Byzantine Army, comprising the elite Varangian Guard (the personal bodyguards of Byzantine Emperors). During the first decade of Vladimir's reign( the man who converted to Christianity and founded the Russian Orthodox Church), pagan reaction set in. Perun was chosen as the supreme deity of the Slavic pantheon and his idol was placed on the hill by the royal palace. Although Vladimir seems to have gone further than other Scandinavian kings (even human sacrifices were reported in Kiev), his religious reform failed. By the late 980s he had found it necessary to adopt monotheism from abroad.

The Primary Chronicle reports that, in the year 986, Vladimir met with representatives from several religions. The result is amusingly described in the following apocryphal anecdote. Upon the meeting with Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga, Vladimir found their religion unsuitable due to its requirement to circumcise and taboos against alcoholic beverages and pork; supposedly, Vladimir said on that occasion: "Drinking is the joy of the Rus', we can't go without it." He also consulted with Jewish envoys (who may or may not have been Khazars), questioned them about their religion but ultimately rejected it, saying that their loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God.

In the year 987, as the result of a consultation with his knights Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the various neighboring nations whose representatives had been urging him to embrace their respective faiths. Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga the envoys reported there is no joy among them; only sorrow and a great stench. In the gloomy churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Hagia Sophia, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported, "nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it."

Eventually most of them, both in Byzantium and in Eastern Europe, were converted from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, culminating in the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in 988. The Ottoman Emperors until their decline in the 18th century continued to use Christians as their bodyguards. From amongst that elite group rose Sinan, the famous Christian architect of the Blue Mosque and 100 other buildings. My travels from Istanbul to the Black Sea, to Ukraine and to Kazan and Nizhniy Novgorod on the Volga over the past two decades have helped me understand the rich history of the Kievan Rus.


After a thrilling journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad and visiting many Siberian towns in February 2013 , I arrived in Moscow. I had always wanted to visit the Golden Ring cities of Sergiev Posad, Suzdal, Vladimir and Rostov. Being the premier tour circuit of Russia , I was disappointed to find a lack of organized tours in February, in the thick of winter. Involving great expense, I hired a taxi to take me to all the three locations in two days.
My ride from Moscow took me through the 1980 Olympic arena, the impressive alley of Cosmonauts and finally through the ICBM alley protecting Moscow during the cold war, consisting of silos holding the RS-36( SS-18 Satan), which only opened recently for road passage. From the impressive and tear inducing solemnity of the great Sergiev Posad Monastery( photo blog sent earlier), I reached Suzdal at dusk. Suzdal is situated on a sharp bend in the Kamenka River. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the turrets of 40 odd churches in a post card like setting with people travelling by horse drawn sleds on snow covered and unpaved roads. The town was set in the country side with sweeping vistas of snow-fields, which would turn to golden meadows in summer, as can be seen in Google images.

I quickly donned all my winter layers and headed for an extremely slippery walk towards the World heritage Kremlin. All along there were kids sliding, sleighing, skating and slipping on snowy mounds with a brilliant back drop of the famous Church of the Nativity circa 1022 AD. Being a Friday evening there were weekenders from Moscow, 220 Km away, enjoying themselves. Tipple included. I walked until the golden hues of the sun kissed all the monuments before darkness set in around 9:00 PM.

As I was settling down for some dinner I was invited by a group of ten Muscovites to their table. They were childhood friends; lawyers, cooks, teachers, gays (banned by the state by Putin recently; we talked about it) and a broken hearted immigration officer whose former girlfriend was paying more attention to me than him!.I found the Russians to be very philosophical and the educated ones were very spiritually inclined; often clinging on to solace providers like Sri Sri Ravishanker of the Art of Living. Not wanting to sound cliché ,our wonderful gathering for over 4 hours ended up in drunken bawdiness much to my disappointment. Vodka is the bane of Russia.


The next bright morning I set about visiting the ancient Kremlin Complex. Right across the street was the weekend market with over 50 vendors selling pickled gherkins, woolen sweaters, hats, handicrafts, and church paraphernalia. My pictures should illustrate the beauty of the town, markets that surround the monuments. The ancient cathedral of the Assumption was constructed in the Kremlin by the craftsmen of Prince Vladimir Monomahk of Kiev at the end of the 11th century. It was at the same period that the first Suzdalian monastery of St. Demetrius was founded to the west of the Kremlin. To the east of the Kremlin the posad inhabited by craftsmen and traders began to grow. The posad was also fortified with ramparts and walls. All the main parts of the old town (the Kremlin, the posad, the monasteries) are well preserved in Suzdal. Suzdal is one of those rare towns in Russia, which could preserve their old lay-out.
I particularly enjoyed my visit to an outdoor museum holding a collection of ancient wooden churches, houses, wind-mills, barns and assorted structures. It brought sweet memories of a trip made to Soviet Rumania in 1989. While very disappointed with Bucharest the most redeeming features was a similar collection of Rumanian/Romani houses and structures in a vast outdoor park. The Soviets to their credit preserved a lot of historic structures including conducting massive archeological works all over central Asia.


The flourishing of art and culture in the North-Eastern Russia at the beginning of the 13th century was interrupted by the Mongol-Tartar invasion. In winter of 1238 Suzdal was seized and burnt down by the tartars ( Descendents of Genghiz Khan who controlled the eastern part of todays’s Russia until Peter the Great conquered them in 1698). Tatarstan, whose capital ,Kazan is a great city on the Volga was also home to Lenin. My visit to Kazan was also a highlight of my recent trip.
One of the greatest experiences I had was listening to an all male choir inside the 13th century frescoed church inside the World Heritage St. Eusthemius Monastery. I also had a wonderful lunch inside the monastery café.




Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:39 Archived in Russia Tagged winter church in of world sites heritage russia russian nativity rus stave suzdal vladimir kievan kremile vatangians Comments (3)

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