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Great Migrations I Have Known (11 December)



One cold November afternoon in the British Museum, a swarm of schoolchildren suddenly filled Room 41, the Sutton Hoo burial ship treasure and Europe 300-1100; the Great Migrations.  Kids in school plaids circled among the glass cases holding the ship’s treasures—swords and halberds, croziers and chalices, Byzantine silverware, golden brooches, and the famous iron helmet.ps269107_l


Unlike most tribes sweeping through Roman Europe in those early centuries, the schoolchildren seemed peaceable and even modestly respectful of the cultural artifacts at hand.

The Sutton Hoo ship-burial dates from the early 600s, the era of Beowulf, that noble Anglo-Saxon saga read mainly in Sparknotes—at least until its luminous translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Seamus Heaney came to dinner one night in Berkeley.  He was tall and solid,  chatting amiably in our crowded front parlor.  As it happened, he found himself standing back to back with one of the patrons of his Berkeley lecture chair, who was at that moment confiding to me that she simply couldn’t understand “one word” of his poetry.  With one eye on the poetic back, I asked what she was planning to read next.  After a pensive pause, she reminded me politely how much she had enjoyed my novel. Now, she guessed that she should read that new Harry Potter thing that everyone was talking about, written by some single mother on welfare.


The Irish potato famine, and the shocking British government policy surrounding it, starved at least a million Irish and forced another million to emigrate. By 1900 New York City was 60% Irish. Seamus Heaney’s family stayed in County Derry and survived, and he himself wouldn’t be commuting to Berkeley, Harvard, and Oxford until the 1970s.

Apposite quotes from Heaney’s Beowulf appear backlit above the Sutton Hoo treasures, in the handsome new display underwritten by the very attractive and extremely rich Sir Paul and Jill Ruddock. The Ruddocks’ funding, and the database of the new Google Cultural Institute, have made Room 41 accessible to anyone on foot in Bloomsbury or anyone anywhere with an internet connection.

These days, opportunities seldom arise to add splendid new works to the world’s great museums, so the new philanthropy often concentrates on rearranging what already exists.  And after all, the British Museum has more than 8 million objects, most from former British imperial colonies and territories on every continent and archipelago. International conventions now prohibit the wartime looting that has been common for millennia, as well as theft and resale of cultural artifacts, but those agreements don’t apply to items exported before national or global laws were in force.

A large literature and legal domain has developed around ownership of cultural property .  In the most outstanding example, the Parthenon marbles were removed (hacked off the temple) by Lord Elgin during Ottoman rule, decades before the existence of the beleaguered Greek state that now wants them back on their Acropolis._81489257_4980qfe1


The riches of the British museum do also serve to highlight Britain’s ongoing population of immigrants.  Julius Caesar in 55 A.D. arrived to spearhead, so to speak, four centuries of Roman rule, whose hegemony was eventually challenged in irregular bursts by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and others.

We don’t know much about the reception of migrants in the various Roman provinces. Presumably when the Saxons or Vikings or Avars or Normans had burned the crops, crushed the cities and raped the women, there was little talk of making them citizens. It’s only in recent history that the “Barbarian Invasions” have morphed into the sanitized “Migration Period”.

Now ISIS looting, its extent, intention, and execution, are much discussed.  From outside, it appears that they only destroy what cannot be carried off and sold, such as the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, which I was so lucky to see in October 2010, gilded by a sunset, while munching on dates picked from a roadside plantation by our driver.


Abu Hani was a Palestinian exile who was able to make a life for himself and his family in Damascus.  I asked him once, rather idly, what Syrian city he liked best, and he said “Perhaps Homs”. Tonight I heard that Homs, or what is left of it, has been recaptured by government forces, but I haven’t known for four years the whereabouts of Abu Hani.



The Syrians’ migration, and the others—economic, political, whatever, will continue whether or not various peace negotiations among Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, U.S. & Europe, and the (irreconcilable) Syrian factions are successful. These tens of  thousands of Syrians clearly have lost hope in raising their children and making a life for themselves on their arid land amid the contending powers.  Not many of them are likely to be welcomed in the United States of America, once known as “The Immigrant Nation.”



Syria, Now

Syrians marching from Budapest to Austria

Syrians marching from Budapest to Austria in September 2015

At the end of September 2015, in the fifth year of the relentlessly ruinous Syrian civil war, all the world has been forced to take account of some two million refugees from that conflict, along with those from other ruined countries, seeking asylum in Western Europe–or as close to the West as they can manage.  What did we expect?

In the spring of 2011, at the tail end of the Arab Uprisings, Syria suddenly began to implode. Bashar al-Assad’s regime reacted brutally, heavily documented by viral cellphone videos, against the localized rebellions. Very soon there were more rebel groups than could be sorted out.  Later, amid the widening conflict,  Barack Obama threatened retaliation for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. It was a nasty confrontation, since the Syrian regime was backed by Iran and by Russia.

When the chaos began, the regime of Bashar, an English-educated opthalmologist and his pretty banker wife, with their ideas of social reform and their inherited autocracy, had been holding the fragmented country together– Sunni, Alawite, Shia,  Kurdish, Christian–for more than ten years, in conditions of severe drought with ongoing factional disputes.

Meeting at the monastery

Chavez  & daughter, Assad and wife Asma, in  the monastery at Maloula

Naturally  this neo-colonial construct fell apart in an instant, the cities and archaeological sites collapsing in slow motion over the next four years. Various Sunni-majority states, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, along with the U.S., Britain and France, continued to support, sporadically and covertly, the discordant rebel factions.

Now we’re waiting hopefully for the U.S. to acknowledge that peace in Syria can only be achieved by including the country’s only legitimate government, which is still Assad’s. It may not have been a perfectly democratic election, but whose is?  At this point, there should be meaningful negotiation with all parties agreeing to fight the common enemy, ISIS–and to stem the flow of refugees with massive foreign aid.  How long will it take?

Rebuilding Syria’s economy, heavily dependent on tourism, will no doubt include reconstruction of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back six thousand years.  Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, a prize among imperial conquests long before Alexander the Great. Much still remains of massive crusader castles and even of Roman Palmyra.  Mosques, markets, madrasas, and oil fields have all been damaged in the crossfire between the Syrian army and rebel militias.


Back Story: 

Damascus, Umayyad Mosque -- Bernard Gagnon

Damascus, Umayyad Mosque
— Bernard Gagnon

In October 2010 We were staying in Damascus in a quiet guesthouse near Bab Sharqi, when the poor Tunisian fruit seller sparked the series of uprisings first known as the Arab Spring.  Syria took longest to ignite, but every place where we stopped then would soon be ravaged by the rising  fury of young men without work, of impending famine after a four-year drought, of Shia, Sunni, Alawites turned against the regime and each other.

That October, a Palestinian exile, our driver, and the Iraqi Christian who gave us breakfast, were still safe under a firmly non-sectarian regime.

On a day trip from Damascus to the Roman ruins at Bosra, we stopped for water in the dusty little city of Deraa.

Bosra, Roman theater -

Bosra, Roman theater

Daraa protests --globalpost

Daraa protests

Deraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had always been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus.  That October it was crowded with refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, and with others from across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Not surprising that it would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings.

A few weeks after we passed through, some bored Deraa youngsters posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested.  The locals massed to demand their release, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones.  When one of the protesters died, sympathetic rebellions broke out in other settlements to the north and east, and were brutally repressed.


Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a town on the Euphrates which had once been an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India.  Near Deir, in 2006, the Israelis had bombed a nascent nuclear development plant, acting on intelligence from both the C.I.A. and an Iranian general.  But only four years later, we Americans seemed to be welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses.  The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.

In a 2012 news photo of the main street of Deir, every facade has been shattered, leaving cross-cut views of the crumbled interiors.


Deir ez Zor 2014

Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.

Bridge across Euphrates from Syria to Iraq

Moon over the Euphrates.

Note:  Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syria:  Deraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.


Syria’s northeast regions, including Deir ez Zor and Rakka, hold most of the Syrian oil reserves.  There the  land and the oil have been controlled by tribal warlords, with the regime looking the other way as long as they received a share.  Now the new Islamic State is taking over, with an effective combination of intimidation and nutrition.  They have established an effective network to produce and distribute bread at a low cost,  and free to the poor.


Aleppo Citadel —Memorino

In the far north,  Aleppo, the largest and most historically important Syrian city, was bombarded by both the government and successive rebel factions.  When the seventeenth-century Souk Madina went up in flames, we tried to make out, on some video footage, the smoky corridor that led through the market to the old house hotel where we had stayed.  We did remember lovers trysting in the shadows of the citadel.

Inside Aleppo's citadel

Inside Aleppo’s citadel

North of Aleppo are the ruins of the monastery church of St. Simeon Stylites, where the saint was alleged to have lived atop a pillar for thirty years, its height increasing with his growing distaste for the mob below.  A stub of the pillar where he preached his angry fundamentalist sermons sits there in the middle of the Byzantine ruins, but we were more interested in the activity on the slope below.  Two women in headscarves were laying cloths on the ground while small children scampered among the olive trees.  Not a picnic, said our driver–an olive harvest.  Olive oil is Syria’s number one export, he said, adding that the women were Kurds, and shrugging when we asked him how he knew.

St. Simeon Stylite's Pillar --Frances Starn

St. Simeon Stylites


Olive Harvest near St. Simeon Stylites

Kurdistan was part of the area sometimes called the Levant, which also included the coastal Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and part of Jordan.  After the First World War, the victorious Allies–in a series of agreements, some public and some secret, all self-serving and conflicting–carved the lands of the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence.  With desultory attention to tribal religious and linguistic questions, the new borders were in complete accord with colonial interests.  Russia’s share included most of the former Ottoman Empire, Britain held the Palestinian mandate, and the remainder of Syria, much diminished, became a French protectorate.  The boundaries set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 form the main western carapace now targeted  by the newly-formed Islamic State.

Sykes-Picot map


Southwest of Aleppo is the desert town of Ma’aret al Nouman.  On a hot, dusty morning, we parked in the crowded market square by the old mosque.  In the courtyard, two teachers came out to meet us, and we glimpsed a few boys’ faces pressed curiously against the schoolroom windows.  The girls, of course, were in another school.

Ma’aret’s museum was a former caravansary carpeted with late Roman mosaics, mainly lively animal and vegetal fantasies, improbably well-preserved. Following us through the rooms ringing the central courtyard, an emaciated guard with kohl-ringed eyes turned on lights and offered cups of tea.


In Ma’aret in 1098, when the bloodiest of the Crusaders’ battles were raging, a pack of famished Franks fell upon a heap of recently slain townspeople, cooked and devoured them.  The babies, it was said, were spit-roasted.  More than one contemporary chronicler recorded this tale of Western brutality, which of course survives in the Arab world even after a millennium.  Crusaders slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims, but during the colonial decades, western schoolchildren were taught mainly about the barbarism of the infidels occupying the Holy Land.

The Ma’aret museum was shelled in October 2012 and at last report was serving as a rebel stronghold.  A video from an archaeology site showed a young soldier in the courtyard, trying to fit a jagged mosaic fragment into a larger design.  Months later came reports of a truckload of Roman carpet mosaics being stopped at the Lebanon border.

The soil of the Roman ruins at Apamea is now densely pocked with looters’ exploratory holes.  There are those who hold that looting has at least the potential for saving precious artifacts from destruction.

Apamea in 2011

Apamea in 2011

As we traveled west from Ma’aret and into the mountain passages  that led to the eastern Mediterranean coast, our driver pointed out that most of the towns were mainly Christian; women were moving about freely with uncovered heads. However, our next stop was  Ugarit, whose cuneiform alphabet made it the center of the literate world in 1300 B.C.E. At the excavation site we were served  refreshments  by two women who were the wives of the cafe’s owner.

Down the coast we stopped briefly in Latakia, formerly the capital of the Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of the Shia faith and counts the Assads as members. Latakia’s ancient history seemed mostly concealed under thriving commercial development; the port facilities had been modernized during the French mandate, and the city was later  given to Syria, whose other ports had been lost to Turkey in 1939 . (In 2015, Latakia is the site of a Russian military build-up of uncertain, probably exaggerated, extent.)

Especially in Alawite country, Bashar al-Assad’s mild, unprepossessing image was everywhere, on awnings and kiosks and windshields, fluttering on banners.  Our well-connected driver said that Bashar and his wife often went out of an evening without guards.  He had been introduced to them in a restaurant and confessed himself impressed that Assad stood up from the table to shake hands.


A thousand years after the Franks had abandoned their last forts along the eastern Mediterranean coast and in the mountains,  Christian settlements still endure where the Crusaders first invaded, constructed forts and castles—and deposited their genes and their religion.  We stopped in the little port of Tartus.

Ibrahim ibn Yakub at-Turtushi was a well-traveled Jewish trader whose tenth-century description of the city of Prague begins many Czech histories, including one I edited.  I had  never expected to see Ibrahim’s hometown of Turtushi (Tartus).  Originally a Phoenician colony, it became a marginally prosperous port, with an inhabited crusader fort on the embarcadero festooned with citizens’ laundry.

Intermittent attempts have been made to depict Tartus as a powerful Russian naval base, supporting the flow of arms to the Assad regime.  Yet reportedly only four men ran the Russian port facility and one of its two floating piers was inoperative because of storm damage.

From the port we progressed to a very plain Gothic church, once an early Marian chapel, later a mosque, later still a billet for Ottoman soldiers, then restored by the French and eventually turned into a museum of musty Crusader tombs.

Tartus church museum

Outside, at the gate, a door labeled “Museum Director” sported a poster of Bashar al-Assad.IMG_0280

Tartus, largely loyal to the regime, has remained relatively unscathed during the war, and a sizable number of its youth try to avoid serving in either the army or the rebel militias.  Both Alawites and  Christians live in increasing fear of the rising power of  the new Islamic State.


From the coast, we  turned back east and drove out of the marine heat up into mountains, across pine-strewn ravines and around rocky hairpins, arriving finally at a hotel on a promontory just across a deep gorge from Qualat Salah es din, Saladin’s castle. Looking across the gorge in the gathering coolness, we decided to take the last hours of light to wend our way up its precarious access road.  From the fortifications, the marauders’ sea was a distant blue through the pines. The site seemed impregnable, but Saladin and his forces drove out the Crusaders before the mortar was dry in the walls.  On the way out of the castle, we stopped in the entry hall, where our driver was having tea with the guardian, an old friend who was keeping the site open late for us.  But neither of them could explain to us how the immense stones of the wall had been dragged up the mountainside and fit into place a millennium ago.

At our hotel across from the castle was a more modest construction site—adding a new floor for the anticipated tourist rush. The work stopped only after we returned from  a nearby hostelry, where we we had enjoyed our grilled fish and near beer entire alone in the establishment. In the morning our driver handed us water bottles for our coming trek through the mountains and across the Al Ghab plain to Homs.


 Homs was Syria’s third-largest city, but its population as well as its buildings have been decimated by repeated shellings by the government and the insurgents.

In 2011 it seemed a very prosperous place.  We stayed for only a day  in a large, comfortable hotel liberally lined with oriental rugs and potted palms.  In the hotel restaurant we were approached by a voluble young woman with a French accent who declared herself delighted–in a curiously proprietary way–to find that Americans were visiting Syria.


Homs 2013

We stood on the edge of the Homs  tell at sunset, listening to the calls of the muezzin across the city.  A countertenor from a minaret on the left horizon rose above the others. One deep layer of the tell mound had been dated back to the biblical David and Solomon.

Later, as we circled the darkening citadel playground, small sheep-eyed kids shouted “Hello, hello!” and a few were brave enough to answer when asked their names.

We had taken a side trip that afternoon to Hama, half an hour away. The youths in the Hama souk had been far from friendly.

In the markets and mosques of Damascus or Aleppo, in any public space, our driver,  tall, dark, and broad-shouldered, usually marched slowly a few paces before us, looking directly ahead, running interference.  In Hama’s souk, we strolled through a dark gallery during the slow period of the afternoon when markets were often closed.  Dour young men in kaftans lined up to watch us pass.  Nobody tried to sell us anything.

Hama was the home of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, where in 1982 Bashar’s father, the Lion of Damascus, brutally quashed a rebellion by leveling the old town and killing tens of thousands of citizens. The silent hostility in the tunnel of the Hama souk was just a shadow of that catastrophe. To some extent, Bashar al-Assad’s hope of saving Syria from chaos may rest, for better and for worse, on his people’s memories of the sectarian violence leading to the terrible  Hama massacre, as well as the regime’s violence in crushing it.

Krak des chevaliers

Krak des chevaliers

To the east of Homs was the Krac des Chevaliers (Qal’at Hosn), said by some to be the most perfect crusader castle in the world.

Our hotel that night was another one under construction, in a big way.  The manager had been to hotel school in Damascus and had learned to tell customers what they want to hear…in our case that the hammering would end in half an hour.

After we went to our rooms, our guide and the manager began a long-running backgammon match on the terrace. Meanwhile the racket continued.

During the backgammon match, we went for a walk around the road to the hotel,  past a scatter of ugly new buildings, followed by a very orderly Bedouin camp oddly close to the roadbed. Farther on, scorched olive trees spilled down a burnt slope in an old quarry.  In the valley, plumes of smoke rose from the fires of stubble preceding winter planting, and a few lights glimmered on the slopes across from the castle.  The landscape reminded us of one on the other side of the Mediterranean, in postwar Italy. It seemed possible just then that Syria, with its ancient treasures, might indeed attract hordes of  tourists. Meanwhile, it was a very long night, with acrid smoke from the day’s burning in the valley filling our room.




On our trek back to Damascus from the coast, we detoured to visit Maloula, an old village of yellow and blue houses layered pueblo-style down a slope of the rugged Kalamun mountains.  Biblical Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was still spoken there, and pilgrims visited its ancient monasteries—before the war of course.

To enter a fifth-century chapel in the lower monastery, we had to pass through a police cordon, which seemed odd.  Our guide pressed rapidly ahead into the small crowd, mostly in western dress, clustering around two smiling couples.


The tall man in jeans and a blazer was Bashar al-Assad, with his wife Asma.  With them were the late Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and his young daughter, as well as another man in Arab dress, unknown to us.  Assad and Chavez had just signed oil agreements in Damascus, probably with the Arab as well.

Shortly before this meeting, Chavez, in a cheeky press blitz of countries not allied with the U.S. or Israel, had exchanged vows of loyalty and affection with the late Moammar Khaddafi of Libya.  Assad, the mild-mannered opthalmologist,  is the only survivor of this trio of strong men.

In November 2012, Maloula, still mainly loyal to the Assad regime, was struggling to stay out of the conflict, which one of its citizens said was the beginning of World War III.  This was hardly an exaggeration, given the increasing part played by countries from Iran and Russia to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.  More and more this was becoming a proxy war.   By 2014, loyalists in Maloula had fled to Damascus, where Bashar al-Assad planned to stay on as president of Syria, whatever is left of it.

Azaz, 2012

Azaz, 2012

This is what remains of the small town of Azaz in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border.  In 1125 it was the scene of a famous victory of Crusaders against the Seljuk Turks.  A thousand years later, during the Syrian civil war,  it was captured by insurgents and then leveled by government forces.  We didn’t see Azaz in 2010;  this is a file photo.




*Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by the author or taken from open sources.

Art Can’t Really Take You There

Ritually in August, Europeans repair to their mountains or beaches while tourists throng their cities. But by early July, the 2015 Venice Biennale, already darkly apocalyptic, was also featuring the 110-degree afternoons of global warming. Completely flattened, we fled to the Dolomites, whose snowy peaks are still visible from Venice on very clear days.


The Dolomites are seen in the background of paintings by Venetian masters, and by northern painters whose horizons lacked mountains.

da Vinci, Virgin and Child with St. Anne

Da Vinci’s, Virgin and Child with St. Anne with Dolomites



Titian, raised in the Dolomites, painted a portrait of Catarina Cornaro, queen of Cyprus (and, some say, of Armenia). Catarina was forced to abdicate and cede her country to the Republic of Venice. She was allowed to keep her title and given a castled court in Asolo, safely removed from the circles of power. Titian decks her out in the Turkish-style brocade coat which complimented the generous curves of so many Venetian ladies. Any soprano in Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro would be likely to wear it, but since the opera was booed at its 1844 opening in Naples, it has seldom been staged.

Unfortunate placement near da Vinci's Virgin

Catarina Cornaro, Titian

A pair of smoky-skinned youths, toting racks of colored beads, took a table next to us in a café next to the bus stop in Corvara. Here we were, merely escaping a heat wave. How had they made their way so far up into these mountains?  Had it occurred to them that a resort town might have less competition and wealthier customers than a crowded city?  What to make of the lush green valleys and flowing waterfalls of this alpine paradise? Probably they were en route to Germany, more or less as the crow flies—or according to a Google map.

Germany we are told, expects to receive 800,000 refugees next year.

Meanwhile, the presidents of the Veneto and Lombardy had just ordered towns in their regions to stop accepting migrants altogether.  Six thousand refugees had been rescued from the Mediterranean in the previous weekend, and many thousands more waited to embark from Libya and Turkey.  Renzi and his government in Rome counseled Italians to be humane and accept the migrants across the board.

No way, said Luca Zaia, regional president of the Veneto.The situation “is like a bomb ready to go off.”  Roberto Maroni, president of Lombardy and former leader of the conservative Lega Nord,  threatened to cut the funding of any compassionate municipalities who encouraged refugees to settle.

One morning we took a local bus from Corvara that wound through the mountains toward a small town known as Ortisei in Italian, St. Ulrich in German, and Urtijei in Ladin, an ancient alpine survival of Latin, spoken by most of the townspeople.  (Place signs are in all three languages.)

Climbing the steep main street of Ortisei, we came upon a very large heap of white plaster bananas, not far from a cannon made of wood.  Public art, we noted shrewdly. The artists, we read on a placard, intended an ironic message about climate change with reference to the past winter in Ortisei, when the only snow available to skiers came from strategically placed “snow guns”

Further on, the street opened onto a large , quite affecting monument by Armin Grunt (umlaut u) depicting the miseries of migration.IMG_2167 (1).JPGMIGRANTS



Woodworking was and remains the major art and craft in these forested mountains.  But tourism became the mainstay of their economy in the last century, increasing after the famous Winter Olympics of 1956 took place in Cortina d’Ampezzo.

This year, the 56th Venice Biennale, the world’s most famous art event, manages to condemn not only climate change, capitalist exploitation of labor and industrial pollution, but global starvation, planetary degradation, and the arms trade—in just two gulps, one at the Arsenale site and the other at the Giardini.

Actually, the Golden Lion prize for the best national exhibit went to Armenia, outliers on the monastery island of San Lazzaro, marking the centennial of their genocide and diaspora. We happened to go to the island on a Sunday afternoon, and found ourselves caught in a line moving relentlessly into the church for the Orthodox mass, nearly two hours long.

It is sometimes said that art  art can take you anywhere, and this year’s Biennale does compel you to visit unlikely places, from the assembly line of a cultivated pearl factory to gay brothels in Chile. Many of the heavily didactic exhibits are of videos and photos, with displays of significant documents, such as international agreements repeatedly dishonored, or newspaper clips with false information, or contracts you make with yourself.

The Australian Fiona Hall is more direct.

Fiona Hall

Fiona Hall

Her imaginative work fills the whole pavilion and includes a 3-D map of the southern Mediterranean scattered with tiny figures, indicating the migrants who drowned in one week between Africa and Italy.

Other artworks have related  messages.

The End of Carrying All

The End of Carrying All by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu

Although there is plenty of irony, subtlety and ambivalence are not qualities that many of these artists value.  They are desperately concerned for the future of their own countries and the world at large. Still, their Biennale appearances are financed by capitalist networks that certainly include artists’ galleries, and most of the work, in case you were wondering, is for sale.

Alongside the galleries in the Dolomites that show woodworking artists, are regional museums focusing on alpinism (mountaineering) and local history, including that of the so-called White War.

At almost eleven thousand feet, Marmolada is one of the highest peaks in the Dolomites.  During World War I, as one military front shifted into South Tyrol, Austrian troops tunneled into Marmolada’s northern glacier and the Italians into its rocky southern face. Somehow they made it possible–building roads, dormitories, and gun emplacements–f0r thousands of soldiers to exist, and to fight, in the brutal cold at altitudes where only mountaineers and shepherds had ever ventured.

Italian front, First World War, inside the glacier of Marmolada

1916, Italian front, First World War, inside the glacier of Marmolada

A hundred years later, in our warming world, the icy slopes are melting to reveal grim relics—soldiers’ corpses and rusted armaments.  Some 150,000 men died in the White War, only a third of them in battle, the majority from avalanches, frostbite, and other effects of the extreme cold.  Likely, in warmer decades to come, spring skiers will continue to make grisly discoveries in the Dolomites.

Partly as a result of the White War, in 1919 South Tyrol was given to Italy, and those 150,000 Austrian and Italian soldiers died in a struggle over national/imperial hegemony that their sons and grandsons have mostly disavowed. In the mountains, what they worry about now is climate change, whether they will have snow for the ski crowds, or whether they will have to depend on the snow cannons.  Down on the flatlands, they are worried about new waves of migrants, most of whom have paid their last thousand euros to find asylum or at least work and food in the West.

Few saw just how fragile and flammable the Middle East would prove,  how quickly the drying up of the Sahara, the continuation of brutal governments, the series of drought years, and the internal wars would displace millions. The tens of thousands of refugees spilling into Germany, Italy, and France from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa are economic and sometimes political refugees.  Their lives and their families’ lives are on the line when the cost of passage on a leaky raft or rusty ship.  They’re fleeing, most often they know not where.

In America the flaming issue of next year’s presidential election has become immigration, from Mexico. In Hungary a far-right government constructs a fence to stop the influx of refugees arriving from Serbia, Macedonia, Greece. A Hungarian friend says that the brutally anti-migrant stance of his government is secretly admired by leaders of the European union.  Whatever the case, Germany is in ever in a bind to show that its past inhumanity was an aberration. But Germany by itself cannot absorb these millions.

A year ago I tried to chart some of the tragedy of Syria since the civil war began.  The latest chapters include demolition of another temple in Palmyra, and the changing route of Syrian refugees:  they are now travelling north to the Arctic Circle and heading for the Norwegian border, to the little town of Kirkenes, 2500 miles from Damascus.  Norway has nothing to prove about its humanitarian history, and welcomes them.





“On Prague,” from Threepenny Review’s new anthology


Prague Castle above Charles Bridge


[Winter 1991]

From Prague friends write in their uneven English, always better than my clubfooted Czech, “Here we live now a little in a madhouse.  I hope only that we shall be saved before too great idiocy.  To teach and to learn the democracy is the most hard work in the world,” reports one, a professor who was purged from Charles University twenty years ago.  Later she joined the Magic Lantern Theater, long before it became the headquarters of the Velvet Revolution.

Toward the beginning of last summer I was standing in the third courtyard of Prague Castle, watching Havel on the ceremonial balconyHavel_t136055678_620x350, a wet wind stirring his pale unpresidential curls as he surveyed the fond crowd.  Havel’s appearance was the centerpiece of a post-election “Carnival of Democracy.”  Giant witches and harlequins loped about on stilts, not one tendentiously identified with clownish old-regime ogres, and opposite the cathedral a military orchestra rendered, not too strenuously, Czech folk melodies.  None of the citizens of the Velvet Revolution shoved for position, and strangers shared umbrellas in the intermittent drizzle: natives claim that Czechoslovakia’s climate is changing as quickly as the politics.

There followed another month of moody Prague weather, from a heat wave of Mediterranean intensity to storm clouds piling in a Baltic chill.  Every day new hordes of tourists beat the canonical cobbles from the Clock Tower over the Charles Bridge and up to the Castle.  At the base of the long slope of Wenceslas Square, a horse market before it was a political forum, tourists were mixed with punk flaneurs and black-market moneychangers.  Across from the Powder Tower, the Czech history exhibit, which had spilled from a huge hall onto streetside kiosks, had been dismantled.  Praguers had been effectively reminded of people and events long suppressed—starting with philosopher Tomas Masaryk, founder of the First Czech Republic, a non-person under the Communists, and including full accounts of the brutal Stalinist show trials and the 1968 invasion.  At the back of the dark exhibition hall, near a film of the recent revolution, a row of the transparent plastic armor of Husak’s riot police had an eerie immanence.

But already in July controversies were piling around the new government—Havel’s freighted encounter with Kurt Waldheim, and the ever-present Slovak nationalism, embodied in a new memorial plaque at the birthplace of World War II Slovakian fascist leader Josef Tiso.  Grumbling was general about price rises, a pre-Kuwait gasoline shortage, and the slow pace of legal and economic reform.  For example, how were the courts, still operating in the old legal frame with many of the old personnel, to deal with thousands of petitions for return of private property?  Meanwhile, some wondered aloud or in print whether secret police operations had truly been suspended.  Obviously the carnival was over and the hard part beginning.

Maybe we wish Havel well not just because of his singular displays of wisdom and humor, courage and humility—qualities now rare among western leaders—but because of our fantasies fulfilled in his cabinet of writers and professors, architects and artists.  They are people we can, so to speak, identify with, and they know each other as well as, say, the faculty of a small American college. But after losing twenty or more years of their productive lives under Communism, they now have not just personal and artistic freedom, but the heavy weight of making democracy and free enterprise work beyond that first revolutionary exhilaration.


Eda Kriseova, early Havel biographer

Limp in a plush wing chair in a huge empty salon in Prague Castle, one of Havel’s closest advisors, a writer I had met at a PEN meeting in Berkeley gave me a wan smile.  “Exciting, yes,” she said.  “Too  exciting.”  Of course she has no time for her own work, not even for the biography of Havel that she has contracted to finish by the end of the year.  And she has to live with the hourly awareness that, as she succinctly put it, “Everything could fall apart at any time.”


Dr. Milena Honzikova, d. 2001, professor of literature, later dramaturge of Magic Lantern Theater

Still, as the summer passed, crowds were clustering happily around sidewalk tables set up as ad hoc markets for fresh piles of novels and essays by formerly banned writers like Josef Skvorecky and Havel himself.  Despite an ongoing paper shortage they were usually priced at less than a dollar.  One noon I walked, loading my bag en route with new books, to meet a friend for lunch at U Zlaty Had.  The Golden Serpent is where coffee was first introduced in Prague, and the booths are probably more uncomfortable than they were in the eighteenth century, but they give a certain illusion of privacy.  Yet because in Prague everyone seems to know everybody, one tends to lower one’s voice when talking politics, even these days.  Ironically enough, after examining my booty my friend went on to confirm something I’d heard:  that Czech publishers, without government subsidies, will be printing mainly moneymaking bestsellers, native and foreign, along with the technical books now in demand for the retooling of antiquated Czech industry.  The latest publishers’ lists, especially of scholarly books, poetry, and serious fiction, were already showing drastic cuts.  Moreover, artists were complaining about inflated rents for work space.  Even theaters, Prague’s particular pride, were in trouble without governments subsidies.

“What if,” my friend said roguishly, “the Golden Age of Czech arts turns out to have been under the Communists?”

After the initial honeymoon of Czech democracy—Masaryk’s enlightened First Republic, squeezed between the Hapsburgs and the Nazis—the Communists took over in 1948.  Then came forty years of the most completely nationalized economy in Eastern Europe.  And although totalitarianism killed personal freedom, polluted the environment, and destroyed Czech craftsmanship and individualism in countless ways, there was full employment and enough beer, pork, and dumplings to go around.  Everyone had a job, whether or not everyone worked.  Often I saw a half-dozen silver-haired women supervising a matinee movie audience of four or five.  But the bankruptcies and layoffs of a free market economy were beginning.  Already there were homeless in parks and at the railroad stations.

“Our revolution has not failed,” said Havel to the crowd in Wenceslas Square marking the August anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion.  “Proste, simply, it is not finished.”


—–Frances Starn

Winter 1991






Czechoslovakia split in 1993, into the Czech Republic and Slovakia; Vaclav Havel died in 2011. While no anniversary is looming,  reconsiderations seem to be clustering around some of the main actors and actions in post-communist states, the Czechs in particular.  Maybe the focus is connected with interest in the dynamics of revolutionary and post-revolutionary states in the news every day, from Ukraine to the Middle East and Africa.

In this week’s New Yorker Magazine, Milan Kundera, still the most famous Czech-born writer, publishes a new short story, “The Apologizer,” which reads as if  translated from the French, which of course it was. Kundera has lived in Paris since 1975, has been a French citizen since 1981;  in a recent New York Review of Books, Paul Wilson genially reviews a new biography of Vaclav Havel, by Michael Zantovsky; Elzbieta Matynia has  done the considerable service of translating and editing two decades of conversations between Vaclav Havel and Polish intellectual Adam Michnik.

In  the original Threepenny Review version, the apposite Czech diacritical marks appeared, and there were no photos. The version anthologized in TABLE TALK FROM THE THREEPENNY REVIEW is surrounded by a plethora of  notable “pithy, literary” pieces. 

Dinner in a Time of Drought



Given a bootless succession of balmy, deep blue evenings in drought-stricken California, we invited some friends for an al fresco dinner—two Italians, one Romanian, a Scot, a Moroccan, and three of their boys. The transcontinental jumble only occurred to me later, when I was lying awake, regretting my clumsy vinous Italian, and the surplus of food I usually prepare, especially when there are vegetarians.

S. and  I were in the kitchen sorting the berries she had brought. She said that her husband had just returned from a long stay in Fez, where he had to look after his sick mother and two eccentric sisters.  This reminded me of Abu Hani, our wise, kind driver in the months before Syria’s war; his wife and two unmarried daughters had seemed shielded and restricted in the Muslim manner. Since he had fled Safed in 1948 to settle in the Palestinian quarter of Damascus, now devastated, probably his family are now Syrian refugees.  There must be a term for repeat (recidivist?) refugees,  like the Armenians, just marking their first century of diaspora.

Nina Khatchadourian’s video, called, cunningly, “Armenities,” is a telling exploration of her parents’ layered languages learned in serial homelands. “Armenities” will be at the 2015 Venice Biennale—in the island monastery of San Lazzaro, where lepers were the original refugees.




The bay fog had blown in while R was grilling sausages, and suddenly it was cold and damp, drought or not–the downside of our famous marine climate. Everyone helped shift all the food into the kitchen, filled their plates and reconfigured  at the dining table. Someone  sought common ground, so to speak, talking sports with the three boys.

That’s when I turned to our Moroccan friend.  F.  speaks softly with a heavy French-Moroccan accent, but I think that he told me that his father left school at age seven to help support the family, and eventually became a successful merchant who sent nine children to college—the middle one, our friend, to Harvard. Writers admired by F. include Borges, Calvino, and Marquez; he is now writing stories himself, based on centuries-old tales that he had found in the souk in Fez.  He has a shy flash of a smile, winsomely conspiratorial.

Early in this century, R and I flew to North Africa, after a conference in Florence, where R talked about the Laocoon (and I nursed a fractured wrist). We went to Morocco, which was for us entirely otherwhere.  There was a bright, almost hallucinogenic light across the sandy plain, not unlike the light we have now in drought-parched California.  Along the highway was a sparse strewing of people on foot and pieces of litter, mostly plastic. William Kentridge makes dark kinetic profiles of people who might have been moving along such a highway in South Africa.

In Rabat, after dining on a fine pastilla, with music, we wandered off in the moonlight toward a mysterious truncated tower sharing a site with hundreds of stubby marble columns. We didn’t find out what it was until the next day.


Hassan Tower, minaret and mosque, columns left unfinished in 1199.

Sad to say, returning to our hotel, we lost our way and were maliciously re-directed in loops through the city.  Next morning, on the train to Fez we shared a compartment with a Moroccan lawyer who expressed confidence that the new boy monarch would be guided by his enlightened sister, within the limits of sharia law, of course.

When F. had mentioned the old story collections he had found in the souk, I had to tell him about our son’s graduate student, a Turkish Kurd, who was cashiered at the airport in Yerevan for stowing old books from the market in his baggage.  Our son had bought his first business suit and travelled to Armenia to spring his student.

After more wine, and the stealthy withdrawal of the kids into the living room with their pads and phones, new topics arose at the table. Nothing heavy:  for example, where had the motley couples first met?  One pair in Grenoble; another in London; another in L.A.; and (much earlier), R and I in Vienna.

Vienna in 1958 was still what you may remember as the shadowy postwar background of “The Third Man”.  I lived with the family of an impoverished old baron in a palace on a corner near the Opera.  Each morning, the baron’s young frau measured out very carefully the butter and jam for our breakfast kaiser rolls. My roommate, who befriended her, said that the frau’s true love had been killed in the war.  One day the baron called me quite literally on the carpet, in the dark, high-ceilinged hall, to scold me for blocking the street entrance late at night while necking with R.

Italy was also  grimly postwar when we first saw it.  On the other hand, our caro amico M. says that he doesn’t want to live in today’s Italy, which is not the country that he knew growing up. I lived in Florence during some of those years, but Italy seems to me still much like itself, each region colorful and/or and corrupt in its own way, Florence possibly less than most. (Matteo Renzi, the youngest prime minister ever, was mayor of Florence and advocates reforms that  alienate both the left and the right.) As for me, I am now immersed, so to speak, in Venice, where corruption is endemic and close to entertaining.

What M. loves is California. After a detour of a few years on the East Coast, he returned to California just in time for the drought. While the rest of us were saving shower water to dribble on our flowerbeds, M. planted exotic succulents in large pots–also a very good plan since he needs to spend a great deal of time elsewhere, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Reno, Nevada, for example.

M. had brought a big raspberry tart, which I put on the table, with S’s berries.  Having just finished one of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I wondered what S. thought of her.  She didn’t know her work, which surprised me, although her own field is Middle Eastern culture. I thought that she had said earlier that she was from Rome, but when I brought out my copy of L’Amica Geniale, she pointed out, in the cover photograph of the bay of Naples, the very school she had attended as a girl.

Why isn’t S. considered a refugee, from Naples (or Rome)?   Is  M. a Tuscan exile?  It’s all in the element of choice, I suppose, which usually comes with education and a dependable income.

The Armenian genocide was the first of the twentieth century. In 1915  Dr. Clarence Ussher, a medical missionary.working in  the Van Province, bore witness to the massacres of the Ottoman Turks. Dr. Ussher was ancestor of a valued friend, the remarkable writer Nicholson Baker, a committed pacifist and author of the revisionist war history, Human Smoke.



An important center of Armenian culture is the Venetian island of San Lazzaro, which was resettled in 1717 by a dozen Armenian Catholic monks who arrived in Venice from Morea in the Peloponnesus, following the Ottoman invasion. They renovated the church of St. Lazarus and constructed gardens, a seminary, and other buildings. Napoleon left them alone after he conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797.  Some say this was because of an important Armenian member of Napoleon’s staff.


Little-known fact: Lord Byron lived on San Lazzaro from late 1816 to early 1817. In short order, he seems to have learned enough Armenian to translate passages from classical Armenian into English, and even to co-author grammars of English and Armenian.

Aside from tending their huge library, the Armenian monks produce 5,000 jars of rose petal jam per annum,  a number of them eaten by the monks themselves, and the others sold in the San Lazzaro gift shoppe.

In the world outside the island, the questions of Armenian genocide and property restitution continue fraught. Solutions have been suggested:  Armenian churches and monasteries currently used as storage facilities by the armed forces could be handed back to the Armenians. Beyond that, collective compensation might be modeled on German compensation to Jews. Turkey could also take in Armenian refugees from Syria and Iraq, could offer Turkish citizenship to Armenians who want it, could remove the names of perpetrators of the genocide from Turkish streets signs and places.

Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian, famous for being famous, and by far the best known Armenian in the world, says, “I am saddened that still 100 years later not everyone has recognized that 1.5 million people were murdered.  But proud of the fact that I see change and am happy many people have started to recognize this genocide!”

Here she is with her husband, rapper Kanye West, one of Time‘s 100 most influential men in the world.


In Syria as well, one of the main rebel groups is welcoming the attention from Kardashian.“We are glad Kim Kardashian is taking an interest in this issue, as we too are concerned about extremist groups’ persecution of minorities,” Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast. “The Free Syrian Army has put out a statement committed to protecting of citizens of Armenian descent and to maintaining the integrity of their religious sites…”

Question:  shouldn’t Kardashian be coordinating with Angelina Jolie, who has been earnestly trying to raise international consciousness about the Syrian crisis for several years?

Some doubt that Kardashian could find Armenia or Syria on a map, but this is petty carping. How often can beauty could speak to power and be heard?  If only I had brought this question to the dinner table.


Dinner in the last Armenian village in Turkey today

Dinner in the last Armenian village in Turkey today


From Raqqa to Istanbul, and counting

Suleymaniye mosque photo by Winstanza

Suleymaniye mosque
photo by Winstanza


How long would it take an Islamic State purification patrol to reach Istanbul?  From Raqqa, Syria, the current Daesh capital, it’s only 870 miles, a fifteen-hour drive northwest through Aleppo and Adana, with possible traffic delays around Ankara.  However, road conditions on the Syrian leg may have deteriorated recently, and then you can’t always trust Google maps.

Sinan, the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire, worked in Istanbul for the better part of the sixteenth century, more or less like Michelangelo in Rome.  Sinan, too, was born a Christian, probably an Armenian Christian.  Some speculate that he was Albanian, as others have claimed that Barack Obama is Hawaiian—but the operative word here is Christian.  Later, after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, he converted to Islam in order to become a Janissary soldier in the service of the sultan.

During a winter visit to the Topkapi Palace, while Bush 43 was still in office, I was waylaid by one of the many A Janissary  actually Roumanian)Janissary guards.  He advanced, with turban, staff, and mustache, across a vast hall, giving me plenty of time to reflect on my possible infractions, before I saw that he was grinning.  He pointed to my broad-brimmed felt hat.  “Texas?” he asked. His own headgear was much more remarkable than mine, and it was frigid just then, next to the Bosphorus, but I blushed and stuffed the hat into my bag.







Although Sinan had worked with his father, a stonemason, he learned more about architecture and structural engineering by destroying bridges and fortresses in various military campaigns from Baghdad

Interior, Suleyman mosque

Interior, Suleyman mosque

to Apulia.  Eventually, when he had risen to the rank of Architect of the Empire, he could delegate the extensive military construction and maintenance projects.  He could focus on the building of splendid mosques, baths, madrasas, mausoleums, and even soup kitchens, sometimes in  combination, like that built for Sultan Suleyman the Magnifcent atop the third of Istanbul’s seven hills (Rome again.)  In his buildings, the surfaces of domes, half domes, minarets, arches, and walls, of stone, marble, ivory, brick—still glisten with vividly colored, gold-enriched mosaics and tiles.



Selimiye mosque

Selimiye mosque

Sinan saw the Selimiye mosque in Edirne, with its four needle minarets, as his masterpiece, and he designed its dome to surpass any the Turks had seen for a thousand years—even that of the Hagia Sofia. Originally an Eastern Orthodox basilica-cathedral, Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. The brilliant, idolatrous Christian mosaics were blanketed with plaster until 1931, when Kamal Ataturk secularized the cathedral/mosque and proclaimed it a museum.  Many, not all, of the glorious mosaics were uncovered, revealing scenes of the Christian messiah, his mother, and the doctors of the church. (Off in the upstairs gallery, the personal favorite of some visitors, including my young grandson:  a fragment of the melancholy face of the Virgin Mary, and a bit more of John the Baptist, together beseech Jesus to save the wicked world.)

Mosaic detail, Jesus with Mary and John the Baptist

Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist mosaic



Sinan reigns as the greatest figure in classical Ottoman architecture, the counterpart of Michelangelo in the western Renaissance. But what was happening in the Renaissance was not unknown in Istanbul.  Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were invited to submit plans for a bridge across the Golden Horn of the Bosphorus. Michelangelo declined, probably ungraciously, but Leonardo, as was his wont, offered a grand project that would never be built.



Bridges were important in the watery surround of Istanbul, and throughout the Ottoman Empire. The famous Stari Most (Old Bridge) was in 1566 the oldest elliptical-arch span in the world, tied with Ponte Santa Trinita’ in Florence, completed three years later. According to a 17th century traveller,the Stari Most was “a wonder in its own time, thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.” After 427 years it was destroyed by the Croats during the Bosnia-Hercegovina War in 1993. Sarajevo newspapers reported that it took more than 60 shells to demolish the bridge. Reconstruction in 2004 recycled some of the original stones found in the river below.  Sustainable destruction?




Ponte Santa Trinita

Ponte Santa Trinita

The most elegant of Florentine bridges is the Ponte Santa Trinita’, designed by one Bartolomeo Ammannati, perhaps with Michelangelo’ s emendations.  Poor Ammannati was the subject of a spiteful Florentine couplet still found even in 21st century guidebooks.  “Ammannato, Ammannato, che bel marmo hai rovinato,” referring  not to the bridge but to his oddly goofy statue of Neptune in the fountain on Piazza Signoria.In August 1944, all the Florentine bridges were blown up by retreating German troops, except for Hitler’s personal favorite, the Ponte Vecchio.  The three elliptical arches of the Ponte Santa Trinita’ were reconstructed in 1958 with stones recovered from the river and from the old quarry, like the Stari Most over the Drina River. More “sustainable destruction.”


No bodies of water obstruct passage from Aleppo to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which would take about twelve hours, given good toll roads all the way from the Turkish border.  A cultural cleansing patrol might want to make a detour to level Sinan’s mosque in Aleppo, a work of his youth, although the minaret was already taken down by the rebels or the regime, or both, last summer.  At the border crossing there might be a bit of a fuss if IS/Daesh tanks are involved.

Also located near the border between Syria and Turkey is the settlement of Dabiq, site of a major battle in 1516. The Islamic State cites a Prophetic narration that foretells yet another portentous battle at Dabiq, against an enemy identified in the prophecy as the “Army of Rome.” What “Rome” is now, since the good Papa Francesco has no army, remains a matter for conjecture. Some suggest that it means the Christians, but could mean any infidel army, certainly not excluding the Americans.

Dabiq village

Dabiq village

After winning the battle of Dabiq, some prophesy that the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul, and perhaps move beyond.  Eventually the victors will witness the descent and return of Jesus, and here it gets a little confusing.  One should perhaps remember that Jesus is the second-favorite prophet in the Qu’ran. Which is also a bit confusing. In any event, Dabiq was chosen for obvious reasons as the title of the official magazine of the Islamic State, very glossy. The latest issue begins with a declaration of war against Japan. You can browse through the seven issues online.



Disciples of Sinan went far and wide, some, it is said, to work on the Taj Mahal.  From Raqqa–or Mosul, to the Taj Mahal is quite a stretch.  To Tokyo, it’s 8,585 kilometers, or 5,334 miles.

Doomsday Clock and Related Last Things

January 2015

January 2015


The Doomsday Clock, a simplistic concept created by a posse of guilt-riddled scientists, now allows just three minutes until midnight and the end of the world as we know it.

The apocalyptic clock first appeared on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, established by men who regretted their role in the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   With catastrophic climate change and the current conflict in Ukraine, the Last Midnight looms.

A ray of hope penetrates the gloom, if you close one eye and squint slightly:  the Doomsday Clock was designed by Martyl Langdorf, an artist married to one of the remorseful physicists of the Manhattan Project–a sort of conjugal alliance of art and science. Martyl (her professional name) lived to be 96.  In her spirited oral history at the Chicago Art Institute, she comments tartly on the ineptness and waste of the so-called intelligence community’s awkward efforts to keep track of her lengthy career as a left-leaning artist. Here empathy served me.  Having friends in Eastern Europe and a Berkeley zip code, I found my phone tapped primitively, as in an old Czech movie.

Communism, I hope that I can now safely observe,  lacks monitory images of spiritual apocalypse.  The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, feature a Last Judgement at the end of the world.  In Islam, the road to salvation is rocky unless one dies in a holy war. In Christianity and Judaism, sinners have at least a fighting chance, so to speak, at redemption.

Estimating the numbers slaughtered through the ages in the service of these three great monotheistic faiths is truly daunting.  Not to mention the butcheries among their competing subgroups…Catholics versus Protestants, Protestants versus other Protestants, Shi’ia versus Sunni…  Historians are inclined to give the most numbers to the Christians, especially if the count includes the Second World War and the Holocaust.

But the Apocalypse does play well.  The Catholic Church in its wisdom programs illustrations of The Last Judgement for the exit walls of churches and chapels.  In the basilica on the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon is a transfixing twelfth-century mosaic.

Torcello  Hell

(Follow your contemplation of the Torcello mosaics with an al fresco lunch at the Ponte al Diavolo.)


Detail Last Judgement

Detail Last Judgement



In neighboring Padua,  Giotto was hired for a large sum to create a magnificent Last Judgement that would better position the Scrovegni family of usurers (bankers) for possible salvation, despite Dante’s condemnation.


Interesting that Giotto himself was said to have exacted an outrageous fee for use of his looms by poor Florentine weavers.


A mere two centuries later came Michelangelo’s version in the Sistine Chapel. A Resurrection scene had first been proposed for this wall, but it seemed to Paul III in 1530 that the times demanded a stronger statement.


In the 1990s a major restoration effort transformed the Sistine Chapel. At one point I was lucky enough to find myself on the scaffolding watching workers uncovering the vivid colors under the grime of centuries of candle smoke.  I saw a master restorer swabbing at the wall with one hand, the other holding a smoking cigarette. Alas, no photo is available.


Armageddon also echoes in music.  In 1984, as the atomic scientists’ clock was closing in on midnight, Stephen Sondheim was shaping our high anxiety and fear of doomsday into the angry giantess of “Into the Woods.”  The musical opened in 1986 in San Diego, not on Broadway. Bernadette Peters’ thrilling announcement of “The Last Midnight” came later.


Is it significant that a scientist also presented the 2015 Doomsday Clock there in San Diego, where the catastrophic California drought is still hovering? I suppose not.

“Into the Woods” has recently, like “Porgy and Bess”, slipped into the opera category. Almost thirty years after its premiere, “Into the Woods” has a lovely revival in Manhattan by a small repertory group, the Fiasco Theater, some Brown MFAs who got together to do what they wanted to do.



A full scale nuclear-powered opera, “Dr. Atomic” premiered in San Francisco, California in 2005, with the collaboration of John Adams and Peter Sellars– and Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller as the troubled scientists.

Probably there is a category for apocalyptic musical works?  Faust, Don Giovanni, the Ring, for starters.  Surely someone is working on an opera about Edward Snowden, and maybe his proud mother as well.  Peter Sellars also has a lovely, proud mother.


In the Qur’an, Allah asks Jesus whether or not he claimed that he and his mother were two gods besides Allah, to which Jesus replies that he would never have said such a thing (5:115-117).  Emphasis on the “said”.









In any event, we mustn’t forget the Rapture, still to come, last trumpeted  for May of 2011.  At some future time, not too distant, at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, believers will be raised from the earth to meet Him in midair.

However, some believe that a select group will remain behind on earth for an extended tribulation period that might be confused—by me at least—with Purgatory.  But Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, and Reformed Christians view the Rapture as an all-inclusive final resurrection, when Christ returns–and does not leave us slackers and skeptics behind.







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