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Congo- A Traveler's review of its Brutal and Bloody History

My travels through this natural paradise in 2015...........................Ramdas A. Iyer


Growing up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan,the mysteries of Africa have always played in my mind and fantasies. Growing up in India, tales about fabulous Indian kingdoms, tigers and rope tricks written by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, were less exciting to me than that of Africa. Lee Falk, who created the 'Phantom" comic strip was also a hero of mine. Written in 1936, he culled all the interesting stories that came out of Africa from French and Belgians who were busy with the brutal enterprise of slavery, ivory trade and colonialism at that time.
My interest in Africa transcends books. Since 1992 I have collected over 100 pieces of wooden African sculptures belonging to over 25 tribes of anthropological re known like the Bambara, the Fang, The Luba, The Dogon etc to name a few. The stories attached to the usage of masks and fetishes, mostly to invoke both human and animal spirits, is a testament to these first peoples.

Last week, I was having a long conversation about the plight of Africa with my cousin Venkatram Santosh of Richmond, Virginia. Living in the capital city of the old confederate America we talked at length about Africa and slavery, until such time his surgeon's emergency button beeped. So I decided to continue that conversation by penning my thoughts here while using the framework of great writers on this subject.
During the past two decades I have managed to get a glimpse of East Africa through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, that of the North through Egypt and Ethiopia, Mali in the west and the southern countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Angola and Zimbabwe. Alas it was time to penetrate the darkest deepest jungles of Africa- the Congo Basin. While I was filled with excitement to explore I was also anxious to avoid the many conflicts and diseases that has afflicted this area . After spending 2 weeks in the Republic of Congo(ROC of Congo-Brazzaville), I both was amazed and shocked by the riches of the country along with the corruption and poverty endured by the people. This article will mostly deal with its neighbor on the other side of the river, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC -Kinshasa) but by extension includes the entire basin. I could not obtain a visa in time to the DRC-Kinshasa, but spent many an evening sipping beer at the Brazzaville- Congo river front looking at Kinshasa on the other bank just 4 km away.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is potentially one of the richest countries on earth, but colonialism, slavery and corruption have turned it into one of the poorest . The world's bloodiest conflict since World War II is still rumbling on today. It is a war in which more than five million people have died, millions more have been driven to the brink by starvation and disease and several million women and girls have been raped.
The DRC borders the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It is the second largest country in Africa by area and the eleventh largest in the world. With a population of over 75 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the most populated officially Francophone country, the fourth most populated nation in Africa.


The Great War of Africa, a conflagration that has sucked in soldiers and civilians from nine nations and countless armed rebel groups, has been fought almost entirely inside the borders of one unfortunate country - the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of the country's mining operations are connected to the waters of the mighty Congo River. It is a place seemingly blessed with every type of mineral, where even the more fortunate live in grinding poverty. It is consistently rated lowest on the UN Human Development Index,) ranking 176 out of 187 countries in 2004 .

In order to understand the reasons for this penury and suffering I did some research using the web and by reading books about its ancient history, its ethnic composition, politics, colonies, impact of slavery and corruption that has spread like blight into African society. The land of the Congo river is split between DRC-Democratic Republic of Congo (Belgian Congo) and ROC- Republic of Congo ( formerly French Equatorial Africa). The DRC is the most violent part of the world today while the ROC is a dictatorship which is poor, corrupt but stable. Two books; King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hoschild and Blood River-A Journey through Africa's Broken Heart. by Tim Butcher, enabled me to grasp the depth of suffering in these accursed nations.
The Congo River is the largest river in western Central Africa and the most powerful on the continent. Its overall length of 2,900 miles makes it the second-longest in Africa (after the Nile). It is the fifth-longest river in the world, draining a basin of nearly 1.5 million square miles. The river also has the second-largest flow in the world, with a discharge of 1.5 million cubic feet of water per second, trailing only the Amazon. The river and its tributaries flow through the second-largest rainforest in the world, the Congo Rainforest, second only to the Amazon Rainforest in South America. The dense rain forest, heavy rainfall, and poor soil of the basin that is traversed by the Congo results in sparse population, except for small settlements of hunters, farmers, and fishermen along or near the river. Since it is close to the equator, the climate is hot and humid.

The Congo Basin spans across six countries—Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. There are approximately 10, 000 species of tropical plants in the Congo Basin and 30 percent are unique to the region. Endangered wildlife, including forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lowland and mountain gorillas inhabit the lush forests. 400 other species of mammals, 1,000 species of birds and 700 species of fish can also be found here.
The Congo Basin has been inhabited by humans for more than 50,000 years and it provides food, fresh water and shelter to more than 75 million people. Nearly 150 distinct ethnic groups exist and the region’s Ba’Aka (Pygmy) people are among the most well known representatives of an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Ancient history and Ethnicity:

Most of my readers may understand Aryan, Viking, Mongol and Arabic migrations that has impacted much of China, India, Iran, Middle East and both western and Eastern Europe. Some of these migrations were gradual while others were through trade and mostly conquests. The Aryan impact happened around 2000-500BC BC, the Vikings were active around 800-1100 AD, the Arab conquests between 780-1100 AD and the Mongol/Turkic incursions around 1200 AD. However, the largest human migrations in history happened in Africa with the Bantu speaking tribes pushing south from west Africa.
The Bantu migration was one of the first formative events in African history The great southward Bantu migration in Africa took place in sub-Saharan Africa (south of the Sahara Desert), over some 2,000 years between 1000 BC and 1700 AD. With the development of the iron blade( iron age), reaping became easier for the bantu people and agriculture took on a whole new meaning. This necessitated the enlargement of territory since the foragers settled down to form communities. A linguistically related group of about 60 million gradually migrated down to the continent into southern Africa from the west and equatorial Africa.
The Bantu-speaking peoples brought agriculture to the southern half of Africa, which was mostly populated by foragers, herders, and hunter-gatherers. Bantu peoples settled land and created great empires like the Great Zimbabwe and the Zulu kingdom, and continued to expand and settle more land. Bantu refers to several similar languages, or a 'family' of languages, that can be found throughout central and south Africa.
If you look at the map showing the Bantu migration, the southern Africa was primarily peopled by the Xhosas ( San and Bushmen) while the Congo region was peopled by the Mbuti (Pygmy- Aka, Baka, Twa and Mbuti). In this migration, these people were displaced, exterminated ,marginalized and in some cases enslaved until this day.

The first sub Saharan kingdoms emerged in the early 4th century( barring the Ethiopian and Egyptian kingdoms of earlier periods). These Sahelian kingdoms were a series of kingdoms or empires that were centered on the Sahel, the area of grasslands south of the Sahara. They controlled the trade routes across the desert, and were also quite decentralized, with member cities having a great deal of autonomy. The Ghana Empire may have been an established as early as the 4th century AD. It was succeeded by the Sosso in 1230, the Mali Empire in the 13th century AD, and later by the Songhai and Sokoto Caliphate. There were also a number of forest empires and states in this time period.
Following the collapse of the Songhai Empire, a number of smaller states arose across West Africa, including the Bambara Empire of Ségou ( Mali-Ivory Coast), the lesser Bambara kingdom of Kaarta, the Fula/Malinké kingdom of Khasso (Mali)), and the Kénédougou Empire of Sikasso ( Mali-Burkina Faso) emerged. We will not go into details of the other minor kingdoms that existed during my focus on Congo.
The Kingdom of Kongo was established around 1390 in west central Africa in what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the southernmost part of Gabon.( Please see modern map attached). At its greatest extent, it reached from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Congo River( Kwango in Bantu)in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in Angola to the south. I was basically traveling that section during my recent trip, reaching almost 30 miles near the Gabon border. Since I was a bit inland and in a dense forest, I must have been about 100 miles east of the coast.
The kingdom largely existed from c. 1390 to 1891 as an independent state, and from 1891 to 1914 as a vassal state of the Kingdom of Portugal. In 1914, the titular monarchy was forcibly abolished, following Portuguese victory against a Kongo revolt. The remaining territories of the kingdom were assimilated into the colony of Angola ( which was under Portugal since 1575).

The Congo River and Slavery 17th-19th Century:

In 1482 when the Portuguese sailor Diego Cao accidentally came upon the river as it emptied into the Atlantic, he was astounded by its sheer size. Modern oceanographers have discovered more evidence of the great river's strength in its 'pitched battle with the ocean' a 100-mile-long canyon, in place 4,000 feet deep, that the river has carved out of the sea floor... It pours some 1.4 million cubic feet of water per second into the ocean; only the Amazon carries more water.
Thanks to satellite technology, the world now knows that much of the river's basin lies on a plateau which rises nearly 1,000 feet high 220 miles from the Atlantic coast. Thus the river descends to sea level in a furious 220-mile dash down the plateau.
During this tumultuous descent the river squeezes through narrow canyons, boils up in waves of 40 feet high, and tumbles over 32 separate cataracts. So great is the drop and the volume of water that these 220 miles have as much hydroelectric potential as all the lakes and rivers of the United States combined."
Diogo Cão, became the first European to visit the Congo when he reached the mouth of the Congo River and sailed a few miles upstream. Soon thereafter the Portuguese established ties with the king of Kongo, and in the early 16th cent. they established themselves on parts of the coast of modern Angola.
The Portuguese had little influence on the Congo until the late 18th cent., when the African and mulatto traders whom they backed, traveled far inland to the kingdom of Mwata Kazembe ( Katanga province of DRC in eastern Congo bordering Zambia). In the mid-19th cent. Arab, Swahili, and Nyamwezi traders from present-day Tanzania penetrated into E Congo, where they traded and raided for slaves and ivory. Some of the traders established states with considerable power. With the discovery of the Americas, slaves were in great demand in South and North America. As a result raiding villages in all of Congo took place in the entire length of this huge country from the Atlantic to its borders with Lake Tanganyika almost 3000 miles away.
From the 17th century to the early 19th century, many Congolese and Angolans were brought as slaves to the United States. The first Angolan slaves of Virginia (15 men and 17 women) were Mbundu and Bakongo, who spoke bantu based Kimbundu and Kikongo languages respectively. Many of these early slaves were literate due to their conversion to Catholicism by the Portuguese.
Later, slaves were stolen by English and Dutch pirates from the Portuguese from the Angolan port of Luanda. Many of these slaves were imported by the Dutch to New York, which, at that time, was called New Amsterdam and was under Dutch control. As a New Yorker I find it interesting that the Angolans also were the first slaves in New York City. According to Harvard university professor Jill Lepore, the slaves of Angola who arrived in New Amsterdam were also Ambundu of Angola and, to a lesser extent, Kongos, as was the case with the first slaves who arrived in Virginia. The Congolese-Angolan slavery trade in the United States reached its greatest magnitude between 1619 and 1650. In 1644, 6,900 slaves on the African coast were purchased to clear the forests, lay roads, build houses and public buildings, and grow food. During the colonial period, people from the region Congo-Angola made up 25% of the slaves in North America.
Based on the data mentioned, many slaves came from distinct ethnic groups, such as the Bakongo and the Tio and Northern Mbunbu people. However, not all slaves kept the culture of their ancestors. The Bakongo were Catholics, from the kingdom of Kongo who had voluntarily converted to Catholicism in 1491 after the Portuguese conquered this territory. Many of the Bakongo slaves who arrived in the United States in the 18th century were captured and sold as slaves by African kings to other tribes or enemies during several civil wars in Kongo.


European , Stanley and King Leopold- 18th -20th century

Until the middle of the 19th century, the Congo was at the heart of independent Africa, as European colonialists seldom entered the interior. Along with fierce local resistance, the rainforest, swamps, and attendant malaria, and other diseases such as sleeping sickness made it a difficult environment for European invasion forces. Western countries were at first reluctant to colonize the area in the absence of obvious economic benefits. Those who tried to sail upriver encountered a narrow gorge that compressed the water into a powerful opposing current. In the river's final 220 miles from the edge of the central plateau to the coast, the Congo River drops more than a thousand feet and has 32 rapids. Difficult terrain made exploration on foot also treacherous. Following Cao, more than three hundred years elapsed before serious exploration of the Congo was undertaken.
Francisco José de Lacerda, a Portuguese explorer, reached the copper-rich Katanga region from the east in 1798, as did Arab traders in the first half of the 1800s. The Arabs extended their influence over the eastern Congo River Basin, engaging in the slave and ivory trades. In 1816 a British expedition went as far as Isangila ( see map). Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone visited the Luapula and Lualaba rivers in 1871, believing them to be sources of the Nile.
Henry Morton Stanley was the first European to navigate the river's length during his search for Dr. Livingston and reported that the Lualaba was not a source of the Nile, as had been suggested. After leaving Livingstone, Stanley sailed for 1000 miles (1600 km) down the Lualaba (Upper Congo) to the large lake he named Stanley Pool, near Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Then, rather than perish in the impenetrable country of the cascades, Stanley took a wide detour overland to come within striking distance of the original Portuguese trading station at Boma on the Congo estuary. In 2004, a Daily Telegraph correspondent, Tim Butcher, was the first person to have retraced his route. -"Blood River'-A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, in under 24 hours last week. Any fan of Congo should get hold of this amazing modern day adventure book.
When Stanley returned to Europe in 1878, he had not only found Dr. Livingstone (an event remembered to this day), resolved the last great mystery of African exploration-exploring the Congo, and ruined his health: he had also opened the heart of tropical Africa up to the outside world. This was to be his most enduring legacy.
Stanley was lionized across Europe. He wrote articles, appeared at public meetings, lobbied the rich and powerful tirelessly; and always his theme was the boundless opportunity for commercial exploitation of the lands he had discovered or, in his own words, to "pour the civilization of Europe into the barbarism of Africa".
"There are 40,000,000 nude people" on the other side of the rapids, Stanley wrote, "and the cotton-spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them... Birmingham's factories are glowing with the red metal that shall presently be made into ironwork in every fashion and shape for them... and the ministers of Christ are zealous to bring them, the poor benighted heathen, into the Christian fold."
Though trade in goods was the initial impetus for the Europeans, they quickly discovered that the slave trade was much more lucrative, and the river was the means to deliver them to the coast from inland areas once the supply of slaves dwindled on the coast. As the wealth from the slave trade filtered inland, the demand for slaves grew, leading to raids by some groups and migrations by others to escape the slavers. But the increased trade and multiplication of towns along the river had the unforeseen benefit of lifestyles becoming more similar and new crops and technologies being shared.

Europe was less than keen on the idea: the great European scramble for Africa had not yet begun. Outside of the Cape of Good Hope and the Mediterranean coast, Europe had no African colonies of any significance. The focus of the great powers was still firmly on the lands that had made Europe's fortune: the Americas, the East Indies, India, China, and Australasia. There seemed no economic sense to investing energy in Africa when the returns from other colonies were likely to be both richer and more immediate. Nor was there a strong humanitarian interest in the continent now that the American slave trade had been extinguished. Stanley was applauded, admired, decorated—and ignored.
As a constitutional monarch, Leopold was charged with the usual constitutional duties of opening parliaments, greeting diplomats, and attending state funerals. He had no power to decide policy. But for over 20 years he had been agitating for Belgium to take its place among the great colonial powers of Europe. Leopold noted, "Our frontiers can never be extended into Europe." However, he added, "since history teaches that colonies are useful, that they play a great part in that which makes up the power and prosperity of states, let us strive to get one in our turn."
At various times, he launched unsuccessful schemes to buy an Argentine province, to buy Borneo from the Dutch, rent the Philippines from Spain, or establish colonies in China, Vietnam, Japan, or the Pacific islands. When the 1860s explorers focused attention on Africa, Leopold schemed to colonize Mozambique on the east coast, Senegal on the west coast, and the Congo in the centre. None of these schemes came anywhere near fruition: the government of Belgium resolutely resisted all Leopold's suggestions, seeing the acquisition of a colony as a good way to spend large amounts of money for little or no return.
Leopold's eventual response was extraordinary in its hubris and simplicity. If the government of Belgium would not take a colony, then he would simply do it himself, acting in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen.
In 1876 Leopold II sponsored an international geographical conference in Brussels, inviting delegates from scientific societies all over Europe to discuss philanthropic and scientific matters such as the best way to coordinate map making, to prevent the re-emergence of the west coast slave trade, and to investigate ways of sending medical aid to Africa. The conference was a sham: at its close, Leopold proposed that they set up an international benevolent committee to carry on, and modestly agreed to accept the chairman's role. For the look of things, he held one more meeting the following year, but from that time on, the Association Internationale Africaine was simply a front for Leopold's ambition. He created a baffling series of subsidiary shell organisations, culminating in the cunningly named Association Internationale du Congo, which had a single shareholder: Leopold himself.

Stanley returned on behalf of King Leopold of Belgium in 1876 and claimed huge swaths of land in the Conger River basin for the king, an area more than 76 times the size of Belgium. By 1885 Leopold ruled this huge area as his personal domain through his private army, the Force Publique. His legacy is one of exploitation and human rights abuses such as slavery and mutilation of the peoples. He was eventually forced to cede this land to Belgium in 1908.It is estimated that nearly 5 million perished under his brutality and is known as the second Holocaust. Other than scholars and students of Africa, this fact is little known to everyone. This is another reason that prompted me to write this blog.
Having established a beachhead on the lower Congo, in 1883 Stanley set out upriver to extend Leopold's domain, employing his usual methods: negotiations with local chiefs buying sovereignty in exchange for bolts of cloth and trinkets; playing one tribe off another; and if need be, simply shooting an obstructive chief and negotiating with his cowed successor instead. However, as he approached Stanley Falls at the junction between the Congo proper and the Lualaba (close to the general vicinity of Central Africa where he had found Livingstone six years before), it soon became clear that Stanley's men were not the only intruders.
Tippu Tip, the last and greatest of the Zanzibari slave traders of the 19th century, was well-known to Stanley, as was the social chaos and devastation that slave-hunting brought. It had only been through Tippu Tip's help that Stanley had found Livingstone (who himself had survived years on the Lualaba by virtue of Tippu Tip's friendship). Now, Stanley discovered, Tippu Tip's men had reached still further west in search of fresh populations to enslave.
Four years before, the Zanzibaris had thought the Congo deadly and impassable, and warned Stanley not to attempt to go there, but when Tippu Tip learned in Zanzibar that Stanley had survived, he was quick to act. Villages throughout the region had been burned and depopulated. Tippu Tip had raided 118 villages, killed 4,000 Africans, and, when Stanley reached his camp, had 2,300 slaves, mostly young women and children, in chains ready to transport half-way across the continent to the markets of Zanzibar.

Leopold's Rule of Congo Free State:( 1885-1908)

When Leopold finally ascended the throne in 1865, his undying desire was to own colonies. He tried everything under the sun to get a colony to no avail, including offering to buy the Philippines from Spain, buying lakes in the Nile and draining them out, or trying to lease territory on the island of Formosa.
He despised Belgium's small size. "Small country, small people" was how he described his little Belgium that had only become independent in 1830. The brutal expeditions of Stanley in Africa finally offered Leopold the chance to land his prized jewel, Congo in 1876.
The agents of King Leopold II of Belgium massacred 10 million Africans in the Congo. Cutting off hands as we see in Sierra Leone today, was very much part of Leopold's repertoire. Today, Leopold's "rubber terror" has all been swept under the carpet. Adam Hochschild calls it "the great forgetting" in his brilliant new book, King Leopold's Ghost(1999, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This is a story of greed, exploitation and brutality that Africa and the world must not forget. I learnt about this book from a British English language teacher, Eric G. with whom I played Scrabble during a boring a 2015 Xmas party in Brazzaville where many UN and Embassy workers were present.
While Stanley was staking out land for Leopold's colony( Congo Free State) in the eastern Congo, the French where greedily establishing their own on the western side of Stanley pools in Brazzaville- Republic of Congo ( ROC). It is in the ROC where I spent nearly two weeks with Brazzaville its capital, which was formally established as the French Congo in 1882. Its borders with Cabinda, Cameroons, and the Congo Free State ( Belgian Congo)were established by treaties over the next decade. The plan to develop the colony was to grant massive concessions to some thirty French companies. These were granted huge swaths of land on the promise they would be developed. This development was limited and amounted mostly to the extraction of ivory, rubber, and timber. These operations often involved great brutality and the near enslavement of the locals.
Even with these measures most of the companies lost money. Only about ten earned profits. Many of the companies' vast holdings existed only on paper with virtually no presence on the ground in Africa. The French Congo was sometimes known as Gabon-Congo.
"In France's equatorial African territories including the Republic of Congo where the region's history is best documented, the amount of rubber-bearing land was far less than what Leopold controlled in Belgian Congo, but the rape was just as brutal. Almost all exploitable land was divided among concession companies. Forced labor, hostages, slave chains, starving porters, burned villages, paramilitary company 'sentries', and the chicotte were the order of the day. [The chicotte was a vicious whip made out of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged cork-screw strip. It was applied to bare buttocks, and left permanent scars. Twenty strokes of it sent victims into unconsciousness; and a 100 or more strokes were often fatal. The chicotte was freely used by both Leopold's men and the French].
"Thousands of refugees who had fled across the Congo River to escape Leopold's regime (Congo-Leopoldville) eventually fled back to escape the French (in Congo-Brazzaville). The population loss in the rubber-rich equatorial rainforest owned by France is estimated, just as in Leopold's Congo, at roughly 50%." writes Hoschild.

Many excerpts from his book review constitute the bulk of the next few paragraphs. Adam Hoschild, a Professor of Journalism from University of California, Berkeley has done a yeoman's service in researching and exposing Belgian rule and brutality in Congo.
Leopold never set foot in "his" Congo Free State - for all the 23 years (1885-1908) he ruled what Hochschild calls "the world's only colony claimed by one man".
It was a vast territory which "if superimposed on the map of Europe", says Hochschild, "would stretch from Zurich to Moscow to central Turkey. It was bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. Although mostly rainforest and savannah, it also embraced volcanic hills and mountains covered by snow and glaciers, some of whose peaks reached higher than the Alps."
Leopold's "rubber terror" raised a lot of hairs in Britain, America and continental Europe (particularly between the years 1900-1908). But while they were condemning Leopold's barbarity, his accusers were committing much the same atrocities against Africans elsewhere on the continent. Hochschild tries to be fair here by pointing to what the Americans and the British were doing, or had done, elsewhere.

"What happened in the Congo was indeed mass murder on a vast scale, but the sad truth is that the men who carried it out for Leopold were no more murderous than many Europeans then at work or at war elsewhere in Africa. Conrad said it best (in his book, Heart of Darkness, based on the brutalities in the Congo): 'All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz'."
Kurtz is Joseph Conrad's lead character in Heart of Darkness. He is "both a murderous head collector and an intellectual, an emissary of science and progress, a painter, a poet and a journalist, and an author of a 17-page report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, at the end of which he scrawls in shaky hand: 'Exterminate all the brutes'."
Conrad had himself gone to Congo in 1890 and claimed that Kurtz was created after Leon Rom, who in real life was committing his atrocities. "The moral landscape of Heart of Darkness", writes Hochshild, "and the shadowy figure at its centre are the creations not just of a novelist but of an open-eyed observer who caught the spirit of a time and place with piercing accuracy." Rom was born in Mons in Belgium. Poorly educated, he joined the Belgian army aged 16. Nine years later, aged 25 in 1886, he found himself in the Congo in search of adventure. He became district commissioner and was later put in charge of the African troops in Leopold's murderous Force Publique army in the Congo.
Rom's brutality knew no bounds. It was such that even the white people working with him were shocked to their boots.
So, how did Leopold come to own such a vast territory, exploited it, killed its people, took away its riches and never set foot in it?
Three things stand out in this sad story - the naivety of the African kings and people; the misfits of Europe sent to subdue the Africans; and the superior weapons of war that the Europeans possessed which the Africans lacked.
When the first Europeans (the Portuguese) arrived in Congo in 1482, they met a thriving African kingdom. "Despite the contempt for Kongo culture," says Hochschild, "the Portuguese grudgingly recognized in the kingdom a sophisticated and well-developed state - the leading one on the west coast of central Africa. It was an imperial federation, of two or three million people, covering an area roughly 3,000 sq miles, some of which lie today in several countries after the Europeans had drawn arbitrary border lines across Africa in 1886."
The great fascination of the Congo at the time was its mighty 3,000-mile river, variously called Lualaba, Nzadi or Nzere by the people who lived on its banks. Nzere means "the river that swallows all rivers" because of its many tributaries. Just one tributary, the Kasai, carries as much water as Europe's longest river, the Volga in Russia and it is half as long as the Rhine. Another tributary, the Ubangi is even longer. On Portuguese tongue, Nzere became Zaire which was adopted by Mobutu when he renamed the country in 1971. Like most things African, the Europeans changed the river's name to Congo.
In all, the river (Africa's second longest) drains more than 1.3 million square miles, "an area larger than India," Hochschild testifies. "It has an estimated one-sixth of the world's hydroelectric potential... Its fan-shaped web of tributaries constitute more than seven thousand miles of interconnecting waterways, a built-in transportation grid rivaled by few places on earth."
Thus, Congo was a jewel any colonialist would kill for. And the lot fell to Henry Morton Stanley to colonize it for King Leopold II.
Stanley was Welsh but he passed himself round as an American. He had first stumbled on the river on his second trip to Africa. Because the river flowed north from this point, Stanley thought it was the Nile.
Stanley's background tells a lot about the brutality he unleashed on the Africans he met on his journeys. He had been born a "bastard" in the small Welsh market town of Denbigh on 28 January 1841. His mother, Betsy Parry (a housemaid) had recorded him on the birth register of St Hillary's Church in Denbigh as "John Rowlands, Bastard". His father was believed to be a local drunkard called John Rowlands who died of delirium tremens, a severe psychotic condition occurring in some alcoholics.
John Rowlands Bastard was the first of his mother's five illegitimate children. After an exceptionally difficult childhood spent with foster parents and in juvenile workhouses, John Rowlands Bastard moved to New Orleans (USA) in February 1859 where he changed his name several times - sometimes calling himself Morley, Morelake and Moreland. Finally he settled on Henry Morton Stanley which he claimed was the name of a rich benefactor he lived with in New Orleans.
Stanley would become a soldier, sailor, newspaperman and famous explorer feted by the high and mighty on both sides of the Atlantic. He was knighted by Britain and elected to parliament. Despite his lowly background, Stanley, I have come to believe, rose above the fray as a great explorer, author and leader. Like how racism has kept many a talented individual down in the west and around the world, Stanley was subjected to many torments by his peers. On one hand as a modern day traveler I find him to be an exalted explorer without a peer. On the other, I find his cruelty and indiscretions utterly revolting.
Stanley had made two "journalistic" trips to Africa, first in 1869 to find David Livingstone. The second was in 1874 where, starting from Zanzibar with 356 people (mostly Africans), he "attacked and destroyed 28 large towns and three or four score villages" (his own words) as he plundered his way down to Boma and the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic coast.
In 1879, Stanley was off again to Africa, this time under commission from King Leopold to colonize Congo for him. Stanley used the gun, cheap European goods and plain-faced deceit to win over 450 local chiefs and their people and take over their land.
Stanley apparently remembered how the 22-sq-mile Manhattan Island in New York Bay had been "bought" from the Native Americans by the Dutch colonial officer, Peter Minuit, with trinkets valued at just $24.
If Minuit could do it in Manhattan, Stanley could do it, too, in the Congo. Only that in his case, he just asked the Congolese chiefs to mark Xs to legal documents written in a foreign language they had not seen before. Stanley called them treaties, like this one signed on 1 April 1884 by the chiefs of Ngombi and Mafela:
"In return for "one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand, they promised to freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever...give up to the said Association [set up by Leopold] the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories...and to assist by labor or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which they said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories... All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association."
With treaties like this, Stanley set forth to colonize Congo for Leopold. But the French would not let them have all the laugh. They sent Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza on their own colonizing mission. De Brazza landed north of the Congo River, carved out an enclave for France and had a town named after him (Brazzaville). The enclave eventually became known as Congo Brazzaville, where the French too unleashed their own brutality on the local people.
Meanwhile Stanley was doing a "good" job across the river for Leopold, building a railway and a dirt road to skirt the 220-mile descent of the river. This was to facilitate the shipping of Congo's abundant ivory and other wealth to Belgium to enrich Leopold and his petit pays. In 1884, Stanley finally left for home in England, his work for Leopold done.
Leopold next sent in his hordes, including Leon Rom, to use absolute terror to rule the land and ship out the wealth. It was the brutality of Leopold's agents that would catch the eye of the world and lead to his forced sale of Congo to the Belgian government in 1908.
Ivory had been the initial prized Congo export for Leopold. Then something happened by accident in far away Ireland that dramatically changed the fate of Leopold, his Congo and its people. John Dunlop, an Irish veterinary surgeon, was tinkering with his son's bicycle in Belfast and accidentally discovered how to make an inflatable rubber tire for the bike. He set up a tire company in 1890 named after himself, Dunlop, and a new major industry was up and running. Rubber became the new gold, and Leopold was soon laughing all the way to the bank.
The huge rainforest of Congo teemed with wild rubber, and Leopold pressed his agents for more of it. This is when the genocide reached its peak. Tapping wild rubber was a difficult affair, and Leopold's agents had to use brutal force to get the people of Congo to go into the forests and gather rubber for Leopold. Any Congolese man who resisted the order, saw his wife kidnapped and put in chains to force him to go and gather rubber. Or sometimes the wife was killed in revenge.
As more villages resisted the rubber order, Leopold's agents ordered the Force Publique army to raid the rebellious villages and kill the people. To make sure that the soldiers did not waste the bullets in hunting animals, their officers demanded to see the amputated right hand of every person they killed. As Hochschild puts it, "the standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. Or occasionally not from a corpse. 'Sometimes', said one officer to a missionary, 'soldiers shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man'. In some military units, there was even a 'keeper of the hands', his job was the smoking [of them]."
Fortunately for the people, Edmund Dene Morel, a clerk of a Liverpool shipping line used by Leopold to ship out Congo's wealth, discovered on his several journeys to the Belgian port of Antwerp in the 1890s that while rubber and ivory were shipped from Congo to Antwerp, only guns and soldiers were going from Antwerp to Congo. This marked the beginning of his massive newspaper campaign to expose Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo.
Newspaper accounts of "sliced hands and penises was far more graphic and forceful than the British government had expected. In the end, the Belgian government was forced to step in and buy Congo from Leopold in 1908. Negotiations for the buy-out started in 1906. Leopold dragged his feet for two years, but finally, in March 1908, the deal was done.
"From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left for Africa was not democracy as it is practiced today in countries like England, France and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder. On the whole continent, perhaps no nation has had a harder time than the Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.
"When independence came, the country fared badly... Some Africans were being trained for that distant day; but when pressure grew and independence came in 1960, in the entire territory there were fewer than 30 African university graduates. There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists or physicians. The colony's administration had made few other steps toward a Congo run by its own people; of some 5,000 management-level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans." , writes Hochschild.
Yet on the day of independence, King Baudouin, the then monarch of Belgium, had the gall to tell the Congolese in his speech in Kinshasa: "It is now up to you, gentlemen, to show that you are worthy of our confidence".
No cheek could be bigger! And you could well imagine how mad the Congolese nationalists like Patrice Lumumba were jumping.
After Leopold and Independence from Belgium in 1960:

In May 1960, Patrice Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Belgian Congo achieved independence under the name "République du Congo" in English). Shortly after independence, the provinces of Katanga (led by Moise Tshombe and the west) and South Kasai engaged in secessionist struggles against the new leadership at the behest of the Belgian expats.
Most of the 100,000 Europeans who had remained behind after independence fled the country, opening the way for Congolese to replace the European military and administrative elite.[( Katanga Rebellion).
As the neighboring Brazzaville based French colony also chose the name "Republic of Congo" upon achieving its independence, the two countries were more commonly known as "Congo-Léopoldville" and "Congo-Brazzaville", after their capital cities.
Within 4 months, Lumumba was arrested by forces loyal to Joseph Mobutu. On 17 January 1961, he was handed over to Katangan authorities and executed by Belgian-led Katangese troops. Lumumba had previously appointed Joseph Mobutu chief of staff of the new Congo army, Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC). Taking advantage of the leadership crisis between President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, Mobutu garnered enough support within the army to create mutiny. With financial support from the United States and Belgium, Mobutu paid his soldiers privately. The aversion of Western powers to communism and leftist ideology influenced their decision to finance Mobutu's quest to maintain "order" in the new state by neutralizing Kasavubu and Lumumba in a coup by proxy. A constitutional referendum after Mobutu's coup of 1965 resulted in the country's official name being changed to the "Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1971 Mobutu changed the name again, this time to "Republic of Zaïre".
One more time we can see USA supporting the wrong guy to avert communism. The list goes on Mossadeh in Iran, Allende in Chile, Nkhruma in Ghana, Chiang Ki Shek in China, Arbenz in Guatemala, Aristede in Haiti, Saddam Hussain ( we installed him) in Iraq, Sandanistas in Nicaragua. In every country we have interfered the outcome has not been great for either parties. Our track record is as bad as the British.
Corruption became so prevalent the term "le mal Zairois" or "Zaïrean Sickness",]meaning gross corruption, theft and mismanagement, was coined, reportedly by Mobutu himself. International aid, most often in the form of loans, enriched Mobutu while he allowed national infrastructure such as roads to deteriorate to as little as one-quarter of what had existed in 1960. Zaïre became a "kleptocracy" as Mobutu and his associates embezzled government funds.
In a campaign to identify himself with African nationalism, similar to the local leaders in India who changed British given names that I am familiar with, Mobutu renamed the nation's cities: Léopoldville became Kinshasa (the country was now Democratic Republic of The Congo – Kinshasa), Stanleyville became Kisangani, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Coquilhatville became Mbandaka. This renaming campaign was completed in the 1970s.
In 1971, Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaïre, its fourth name change in 11 years and its sixth overall. The Congo River was renamed the Zaïre River.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he was invited to visit the United States on several occasions, meeting with U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union U.S. relations with Mobutu cooled, as he was no longer deemed necessary as a Cold War ally. No wonder no one trusts our foreign policy!.
Civil wars involving Rwanda and Congo (1996–present)
By 1996, following the Rwandan Civil War and genocide and the ascension of a Tutsi-led government in Rwanda, Rwandan Hutu militia forces (Interahamwe) fled to eastern Zaïre and used refugee camps as a base for incursion against Rwanda. They allied with the Zairian armed forces (FAZ) to launch a campaign against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaïre.
A brief history of the Tutsi- Hutu conflict / genocide needs to be explained here. In 1994, Rwanda’s population of seven million was composed of three ethnic groups: Hutu (approximately 85%), Tutsi (14%) and Twa (1%). The Tutsis historically were herders and therefore organized and administered their lives in a notable manner. This trait had established them as the elite in Rwanda then and as a model East African Nation today. The ruling Hutus were basically hunter gatherers and marginalized the Tutsis .
In the early 1990s, Hutu extremists within Rwanda’s political elite blamed the entire Tutsi minority population for the country’s increasing social, economic, and political pressures. Tutsi civilians were also accused of supporting a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Violence began almost immediately after that. Under the cover of war, Hutu extremists launched their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population. Political leaders who might have been able to take charge of the situation and other high profile opponents of the Hutu extremist plans were killed immediately. Tutsi and people suspected of being Tutsi were killed in their homes and as they tried to flee at roadblocks set up across the country during the genocide. Entire families were killed at a time. Women were systematically and brutally raped. It is estimated that some 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the Rwandan genocide.
In the weeks after April 6, 1994, 800,000 men, women, and children perished in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population.
Talking to Rwandan scientists in Odzala National Park in the ROC, I finally understood the reasons behind the genocide and penetration of Rwandans into Congo to kill the perpetrators of genocide. One interesting information that I garnered during several hours of conversation in the middle of an equatorial rainforest made me shudder: France, which was a peacekeeper in the Rwandan conflict allowed the fleeing Hutu criminals into Congo since they were Francophone while the Anglophone Tutsi army were watching helplessly.
A coalition of Rwandan and Ugandan armies ( Anglophone) invaded Zaïre to overthrow the government of Mobutu, and ultimately to control the mineral resources of Zaïre, launching the First Congo War. The coalition allied with some opposition figures, led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, becoming the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL). In 1997 Mobutu fled and Kabila marched into Kinshasa, naming himself president and reverting the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese Civil Wars, which began in 1996, brought about the end of Mobutu Sese Seko's 31-year reign and devastated the country. The wars ultimately involved nine African nations, multiple groups of UN peacekeepers and twenty armed groups, and resulted in the deaths of 5.4 million people
Kabila later requested that foreign military forces return to their own countries—he had concerns that the Rwandan officers running his army were plotting a coup in order to give the presidency to a Tutsi who would report directly to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Rwandan troops retreated to Goma and launched a new Tutsi-led rebel military movement called the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) to fight against Kabila, while Uganda instigated the creation of new rebel movement called the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), led by the Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba. The two rebel movements, along with Rwandan and Ugandan troops, started the Second Congo War by attacking the DRC army in 1998. Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian militaries entered on the side of the government.
Kabila was assassinated in 2001. His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him and called for multilateral peace-talks. UN peacekeepers, MONUC, now known as MONUSCO, arrived in April 2001. Talks led to the signing of a peace accord in which Kabila would share power with former rebels. By June 2003 all foreign armies except those of Rwanda had pulled out of Congo. A transitional government was set up until the election was over. A constitution was approved by voters, and on 30 July 2006 DRC held its first multi-party elections. An election-result dispute between Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba turned into an all-out battle between their supporters in the streets of Kinshasa. MONUC took control of the city. A new election took place in October 2006, which Kabila won, and on December 2006 he was sworn in as President.

The DRC today:

In 2009 people in the Congo continued to die at a rate of an estimated 45,000 per month estimates of the number who have died from the long conflict range from 900,000 to 5,400,000.The death toll is due to widespread disease and famine; reports indicate that almost half of the individuals who have died are children under five years of age. There have been frequent reports of weapon bearers killing civilians, of the destruction of property, of widespread sexual violence, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, and of other breaches of humanitarian and human rights law. One study found that more than 400,000 women are raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo every year.
One more important fact that cannot go unmentioned here is the plight of the Pygmies. In 2003, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, told the UN's Indigenous People's Forum that during the Congo Civil War, his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. ( The German Colonists did the same to the Bushmen in Namibia in 1938). In neighboring North Kivu province there has been cannibalism by a group known as Les Effaceurs ("the erasers") who wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation. Both sides of the war regarded them as "subhuman" and some say their flesh can confer magical powers.
Makelo asked the UN Security Council to recognize cannibalism as a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. According to Minority Rights Group International there is extensive evidence of mass killings, cannibalism and rape of Pygmies and they have urged the International Criminal Court to investigate a campaign of extermination against pygmies. The greatest environmental problem the Pygmies seem to be facing is the loss of their traditional homeland, the tropical forests of Central Africa. In several countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo this is due to deforestation and the desire of several governments in Central Africa to evict the Pygmies from their forest habitat in order to cash in on quick profits from the sale of hardwood and the resettlement of farmers onto the cleared land. In some cases, as in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this conflict is violent. Certain groups, such as the Hutus of the Interahamwe (of genocide fame), wish to eliminate the Pygmy and take the resources of the forest as a military conquest, using the resources of the forest for military as well as economic advancement. Since the Pygmies rely on the forest for their physical as well as cultural survival, as these forests disappear, so do the Pygmy.
Raja Sheshadri, one of my fellow Indian expatriates of fPcN-Global.org has conducted extensive research on the pygmies. This human rights organization states that as the forest has receded under logging activities, its original inhabitants have been pushed into populated areas to join the formal economy, working as casual laborers or on commercial farms and being exposed to new diseases. This shift has brought them into closer contact with neighboring ethnic communities whose HIV levels are generally higher. This has led to the spread of HIV/AIDS into the pygmy group.
Since poverty has become very prevalent in the Pygmy communities, sexual exploitation of indigenous women has become a common practice. Commercial sex has been bolstered by logging, which often places large groups of male laborers in camps which are set up in close contact with the Pygmy communities.
Human rights groups have also reported widespread sexual abuse of indigenous women in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite these risks, Pygmy populations generally have poor access to health services and information about HIV. The British medical journal, The Lancet, published a review showing that Pygmy populations often had worse access to health care than neighboring communities.[ According to the report, even where health care facilities exist, many people do not use them because they cannot pay for consultations and medicines, they do not have the documents and identity cards needed to travel or obtain hospital treatment, and they are subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment

In 2015 major protests broke out across the country and protesters demanded that Joseph Kabila step down as President. The protests began after the passage of a law by the Congolese lower house that, if also passed by the Congolese upper house, would keep Kabila in power at least until a national census was conducted (a process which would likely take several years and therefore keep him in power past the planned 2016 elections, which he is constitutionally barred from participating in).As of 2015 elections are scheduled for late 2016 and a tenuous peace holds over the Congo.

The ROC today:

Despite the military's claims that its interests are not divorced from those of the people, it is clear that the military undermines human security when it attempts to govern rather than follow the lead of the elected civilian authorities. The military barely understands the nature of its own institutions-and still less those of the democratic civilian governments. The military is undemocratic, order-oriented, and hierarchical, and does not tolerate differences of opinions. My own experiences during arrival into Brazzaville was a 2 hour ordeal. The local Government is not interested in tourism or world opinion since they are content with plundering and enriching themselves from their own people.
In ROC power is concentrated in the hands of one group. To consolidate its position, the power wielders exclude others from fully participating in national life. Violence is used to force them to cooperate with the authorities. Detention, persecution, mistreatment, and other human rights violations become a common practice. The victims of the politics of exclusion rarely achieve a fair hearing before courts, which further exacerbates their conditions. They are not allowed to become active players in the key areas of the economy, lacking access to agricultural lands, investment opportunities, or the higher positions that their counterparts enjoy. Modern African history is replete with examples of leaders enriching their own groups while paying little attention to the plight of their fellow citizens. Some leaders have even made their birthplaces into exclusive development zones.
I was traveling through the town of Edo en route to Odzala National Park in the north west of the country. The airline, airliner and the airport belonged to the daughter of the ruler Denis Sassou-Nguess. There were multiple checks on the passengers akin to traveling to Israel. Flights are only on weekends to suit his traveling needs. There are elaborate homes along the poverty stricken villages; a clear slap across the face of his citizens. In the west we are more subtle and have learned to hide them in distant places.
These powerful men live behind high walls, sun shades and automatic weapons unable to face their citizens. Internationally, Sassou's regime has been hit by corruption revelations despite attempts to censor them. One French investigation found over 110 bank accounts and dozens of lavish properties in France; Sassou denounced embezzlement investigations as "racist" and "colonial".
Around Edo new schools, colleges ,hospitals including a 4 star hotel have been built along with the nations only cattle farm to feed the elite( milk is imported from France and not affordable by most). None of these institutions have staff since the country has not developed any form of professionals other than gun toting militia.

In the Republic of Congo, where Pygmies make up 2% of the population, many Pygmies live as slaves to Bantu masters for over a millennium. The nation is deeply stratified between these two major ethnic groups. The Pygmy slaves belong from birth to their Bantu masters in a relationship that the Bantus call a time-honored tradition. Even though the Pygmies are responsible for much of the hunting, fishing and manual labor in jungle villages, Pygmies and Bantus alike say Pygmies are often paid at the master's whim; in cigarettes, used clothing, or even nothing at all. As a result of pressure from UNICEF and human-rights activists, a law that would grant special protections to the Pygmy people is awaiting a vote by the Congo parliament. Pygmies are often evicted from their land and given the lowest paying jobs. At a state level, Pygmies are not considered citizens by most African states and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling. Government policies and multinational corporations involved in massive deforestation have exacerbated this problem by forcing more Pygmies out of their traditional homelands and into villages and cities where they often are marginalized, impoverished and abused by the dominant culture.
Today there are roughly 500,000 Pygmies left in the rain-forest of Central Africa. This population is rapidly decreasing as poverty, intermarriage with Bantu peoples, Westernization, and deforestation all gradually destroy their way of life and culture along with their genetic uniqueness.
The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


King Leopold's Ghost- Adam Hoschild
Into Africa-Adventures af Livingston and Stanley by Martin Dugard
Blood River- A journey through Africa's Broken Heart- Tim Butcher
Extensive Wikipedia and Wiki Images

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 21:15 Archived in Republic of Congo Tagged park of river king french republic congo henry david stanley genocide rwanda belgian livingston leopold pygmy drc kinshasa pygmies odzala national; brazzaville kinsasha democractic mobutu Comments (0)

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)

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)

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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