Friday, September 12, 2014

Travelogue 579 – September 12
Panizzi in London

More than two hundred years after Ashurnasirpal, his empire was still pre-eminent in the region. The capital of the empire was now in Nineveh. His throne had been inherited by one Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal was not his father’s first son, and so he was not raised as heir to the throne. He had been raised as gentleman and courtier. He was taught to read. When he succeeded to the throne, ahead of even a surviving elder brother, he became the first – according to legend – Assyrian king who was able to read. Being literate at that time meant reading the cuneiform scripts of Akkadian and Sumerian. It so happened the young scholar was also a leader of some skill, popular with his people and effective as a military man, and extraordinarily cruel with enemies, it seems. He ruled for almost fifty years, and was the last great king of the Assyrians, perhaps being all too effective and too cruel as a conqueror, reducing his enemies to a state in which they had little left for tribute or tax. Within a generation of the great king’s death, the empire teetered and fell, over-extended, broke, and victim of an alliance among the many harshly-treated subject races, close to home, including Babylonians and Medes and Chaldeans. Is this the consequence of knowledge from books? Perhaps it’s the hubris of the third brother, smarter than the rest, given the world?

More lasting than empire was perhaps the great library founded by Ashurbanipal, who was proud of his scholarship as he was of his conquests. It was the first systematically collected royal library in history, the great king having devoted himself to owning all great tracts of history and legend and science. The library might have survived for centuries. Alexander is rumored to have seen it and been inspired. He had a vision of an Alexandrian library. The vision was taken up by one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, who would become king of a revived Egypt, centered in the new city of Alexandria. The library of Ashurbanipal was re-discovered in 1849 by young Henry Layard. About thirty thousand texts were dug from the ruins.

The Reading Room at the British Museum is closed for repair and inspection when I visit. That’s a great disappointment. My first visits to the great library remain vividly in my memory, like visits to a holy place, and I want to see it again. There is something magnificent about the great libraries of the world, a sense of arrival when one walks in. Even when one allows how much has been written and catalogued that might have been better forgotten, the prospect of encountering all surviving recorded thought in one place is awe-inspiring. And the circular space was been designed with suitable reverence by the architect Sydney Smirke and the librarian Antonio Panizzi, opening in 1857, its walls lined with books under a dome painted sky blue, sober brown reading desks radiating like spokes around the room’s center. The room served for 150 years, serving such luminaries as Marx and Gandhi, Woolf and Wilde.

Panizzi was librarian for the British Museum from 1831-1866. He was a controversial figure, vain and strong-willed, but extraordinarily committed to the task of administering the library. He is thought by some to have been the greatest in this occupation in history. He wrote a set of ninety-one rules for cataloguing that have formed the basis for all subsequent systems.

Panizzi had started as a lawyer in northern Italy, and as a supporter of Italian unification and democracy. His politics won him few friends among the powerful, and eventually he had been forced to flee. Arriving at last in London, he survived as a language teacher until he won the friendship of the future Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham. Brougham was able to find placement for Panizzi at the University of London and then the British Museum.

The British Museum itself began life as a collection, a collection without a home, a collection that included more than forty thousand texts. This was the collection of one Dr, Hans Sloane, physician and happy eccentric, who willed his collection to King George II. The king okayed the creation of the British Museum, and Sloane’s library was joined with several other venerable collections, including, in 1757, the Royal Library. The Museum was settled in the Montagu House by Russell Square, bought by the government for twenty thousand pounds, and opened to the public in 1759.

One of the rights granted to the Royal Library, and transferred to the British Library, was the right of legal deposit. Newly published books were to be deposited into the national collection. Panizzi revived this principle during his tenure, and pursued the library’s right to books relentlessly, building the collection to become the world’s largest, at more than half a million volumes.

The website of the British Museum tells us, rather starkly, that ‘the Museum is now consulting widely about the future use of the Reading Room.’ Obviously the library survives, having been transferred to its new site at St. Pancras. And the world’s knowledge seems more secure than ever, stored in dozens of great libraries around the world that would make Ashurbanipal’s jaw drop, stored electronically, deeply among the circuits and cables strung across the surface of the planet, and backed up in drive after drive. So secure that we are led to question the purpose of the Reading Room.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Travelogue 578 – September 11
Ozymandias and the Law Clerk

Even mighty Ashurnasirpal must be dug from under the sands of unforgiving earth. And the dig is a story in itself.

It’s the time of Britain’s supremacy. Only a few decades earlier, Lord Elgin has arranged to rescue the marbles of the Parthenon from the Turks. (Read ‘rescue’ where there might be pages of controversy. Be grateful.)

In the 1840s a young man named Henry Layard is bumming around the Middle East. He had been on his way to Ceylon, a young man with promise, born into a family of civil servants, lawyers, and physicians. He had spent six years in his uncle’s London law office, and now he was breaking away, looking to follow in his father’s footsteps in the Ceylon civil service. But he never makes it past Mesopotamia and Persia, where he wanders and explores, at one point coming upon the excavations of one Paul-Émile Botta, French consul at Mosul, appointed to the post in order to carry on the explorations for Nineveh for the French crown, at one point coming across the ruins of Nimrud, which Botta didn’t think much of.

He returns to Istanbul, and works a few years for the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, one Stratford Canning, trading his knowledge of the Middle East for work that keeps him traveling around Turkey and the Middle East. Eventually, he persuades Canning to support an expedition to dig at Kuyunjik and Nimrud. He spends several years there, living in camps, directing the massive digs. There is no budget to finish, to do everything, collect everything.

He returns to London and publishes his findings. He leverages his preliminary discoveries into a commitment from the British Museum to support a new dig. It will be this trip, in the early 1850s, that produces much of the work that we see in the museum today, the work from Ashurnasirpal’s capital, the great winged guardians and the wall sculptures in relief.

Again, Mr. Layard devotes several years of his life to the desert, to the work, to his little ad hoc town he raises near the Tigris River, dedicated to digging. There are sketches and paintings that survive from Layard’s expeditions. There was an artist assigned to him to document, and Layard himself produced many drawings. One sees in the drawings the mechanics of excavation, the tunnels dug among the ruins, the local laborers standing beside statues, and even Layard himself, posing in costume or sitting and sketching. There are hopeful reconstructions of Nimrud and Nineveh, Roman cities with Oriental detail.

This time, sculptures are carried away. The winged guardians, each nearly ten tons, are loaded onto a wheeled cart towed by 300 men. They are loaded onto a barge, padded with 600 goatskins and sheepskins to keep it afloat, and sent down the River Tigris.

By 1855, Botta and Layard had found all they were going to find. Layard returned to England, where he launched a political career, serving as member of Parliament and Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Botta went on to serve in Jerusalem and Tripoli, only returning to France at the end of life. There have been no Assyrian discoveries on that scale since.

For 150 years, the winged guardians have stood sentry in the halls of the museum, perhaps as long as they watched over Ashurnasirpal and his family. IN 722 BC, Sargon II moved the capital away from Kalhu. A generation later, another king moved it to Nineveh, where one of the last kings, one Ashurbanipal, would build a great library.

History moved on, leaving the guardians with little to protect but the reputation of one bearded conqueror.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Travelogue 577 – September 10
Ashurnasirpal in London

The street market is in in full bloom by the time Jonathan is escorting me away from Angel. The cafes along White Conduit Street pump bits of music out onto the street to accompany us in our progress.

Jonathan knows all the crooked ways of North London. We are going to bypass King’s Cross; we are going to stop beside Russell Square and part ways. The next time we see each other, it may be in Ethiopia. From Russell Square, I’m going to make my own way to the British Museum.

The South Entrance of the museum inspires me in exactly the way it was designed to, grandly drawn in Greek Revival, drawn almost two hundred years ago by Sir Robert Smirke. It also inspires in a more prosaic way, stirring a nostalgia for London and for the peregrinations of my early Tesfa years. The last time I visited the British Museum, I was little more than a homeless wanderer, camping out at the Tsegereda school in Ethiopia, camping out on Thomas’s floor when I stopped through London.

I enter. I wander around the Grand Court a while, browsing among the shops and the people, reading directions and looking at museum maps. I find out the Reading Room is closed for inspection and repairs. That’s a disappointment.

I set out for the Elgin Marbles. Just like the last time I visited, I am waylaid by the mighty Assyrians. There is something so arresting in the sight of the huge guardians of the gates, human-headed and winged creatures, one with the body of a lion, one with the body of a bull. I am drawn into the Assyrian exhibit again, all of it sculpture from the walls of palaces. Much of it dates to the reign of one Ashurnasirpal II. Much of it, according to the little museum cards, dates to the years 865-860 BC. That is a prodigious amount of work in five years, the type of work that only a conquering monarch can order.

Assyria was ascendant during the reign of Ashurnasirpal. Ascendant again. Even by Ashurnasirpal’s time the Assyrians had been around long enough to have been through a few cycles of expansion and contraction. This cycle is destined to be their greatest, though. In the coming two centuries, the Assyrians will overrun much of the Middle East, including Egypt. And then, 250 years after Ashurnasirpal, it will all crumble very suddenly, the empire falling before the Medes, who will sweep the board for young Cyrus.

The sculpture speaks with the confidence of empire. The stylistic formulae had been worked out centuries earlier, and it’s clear from later examples in the museum they persisted until the end of Assyria’s dominance. But there’s a vitality in the work from Ashurnasirpal’s reign that mesmerizes. It’s all carved in relief, as nearly all surviving Assyrian sculpture is, but the outlines are so sure, the lines cut into the gypsum so deep, that the work strikes with more force than most relief sculpture. The guardians, in particular, have more dimension because they are curved into two surfaces of a corner stone. Interestingly, one of the front legs standing firm in the front view is portrayed in motion on the side. This works out to five legs carved out for the same beast.

The best of ancient and medieval figure work has a way of rising just above the tenuous line of cartoon and into dignity. It’s a fascinating trick, and one that occupies a lot of my museum musings. How is that effect achieved? It has something to do with the calculated combination of realism and the stylized. See how the musculature of the lions in the hunt, or the lion and bull bodies of the guardians, combine and contrast with the huge staring eyes of the human figures, the precise rows of curls in the men’s beards, the interchangeability of all human figures, who can be identified only by clothing and the weapons or instruments they carry. And, except for the chaos of a few battle scenes -- in which fallen soldiers float in the sky and the king stands with his guardian angels towering over the rest of the rabble, good Renaissance perspective being left for the fastidious barbarians beyond the civilized shores of the Levant, -- the composition of their sculpted scenes always suggest the pageantry of procession, procession through territory, geographic and temporal.

Everything is power and conquest. Boasting is a royal duty, almost a diplomatic duty, as a tactic to keep the peace, perhaps something like all the American films portraying infallible CIA agents and Special Forces supermen.

Portraits of the king are inscribed with long lines of cuneiform, scrolling right across the middle of the stone, describing in standard form his titles and conquests – many battles, many peoples subjugated, not too many orphanages.

Seeing the dates for the artwork, seeing that it was produced in five years, makes me think of the artists themselves. I want to picture one maestro supervising the work in massive workshops somewhere in Ashurnasirpal’s new capital of Kalhu (dubbed ‘Nimrud’ some time later, conflating the god of the temple and the city). The consistency of style over the course of centuries and the sheer amount of work produced don’t really support the vision of one person’s guiding genius. But there is something identifiable about the work from Kalhu, the slightest touch that is unique.

There are plenty of examples in history of genius bringing an idiosyncratic touch to the art of its day, still bound by exacting strictures. Donatello casts one more bronze of David. Buonarroti carves one more statue of David. Here at the British Museum, I’m confronted by work executed by human hands removed at more than five times the distance than Buonarroti’s time. There is no artist’s stamp or signature. I can’t help wishing I knew just one small thing about the sculptors. But whose name do we know beyond the king’s? It’s a society of radical anonymity. Even the portraits of the king reveal little personal character. The sculptors were likely to be considered as part of the priestly caste, trained to serve the state cult. I suppose one might say, with only some exaggeration, that the same applies to the apprentices of Renaissance Italy, detailing the Virgin’s blue robe over and over. But the free-lance model guiding their work eventually made for dangerous eccentricities.

In another four hundred years, after Ashurnasirpal is a forgotten legend, it will be the turn of the Greeks. If the Assyrian king is even aware of the Greeks, I’m guessing it is as an annoying bunch of hillbillies at the fringes of the known world. But in the following century, the poet or poets we call Homer, will compose or record one of the foundational texts of world literature. The Persians certainly became aware of the Greeks, and it could be said that their several expeditions to bring the Greeks to heel were the defining acts of their time, the trigger that freed forces of history, that launched what we used to like to call Western Civilization.

Something will be different with the Greeks. There will still be memorials to battle. The palaces and the temples and will still be tributes to violence. The Elgin Marbles lined the temple of the Parthenon. They featured more processions, more battles. But now there is an artist with a name, Phidias. There is movement, and the figures seem to breathe.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Travelogue 576 – September 9
Wake the Angel

Angel is awakening. Along White Conduit Street, an early riser is making his way to the Tube. He is wearing a blue suit. He hangs his head pensively. He has a man-bag slung over one shoulder. The same shoulder’s hand is holding up a paper cup of coffee. It looks to be from one of tiny local cafes. White Conduit Street is a street of tiny shops, most of them still closed, the steel drawn down over their windows. The storefronts project from the tan and old, three-storey brick all the way down the little street. The McDonald’s is open. It’s open twenty-four hours. And so is the Euphorium Bakery across the street. They play soul in the Euphorium Bakery on Tuesday mornings.

I’m enjoying the Euphorium Bakery. It has an old but clean wooden floor, set in small planks in herring-bone pattern. There is a one long table of thick wood in the center, and few flimsy circular tables set around it. The display case is lit. The goods inside are unreasonably appetizing.

The morning papers are carrying on with yesterday’s cants: polls are showing the Scots ready to split, and the Princess is pregnant with a second heir to the throne. The Scottish poll has inspired pages of analysis, how the economy will reel, what manner of responses the politicians are dreaming up. And further news has it that I am in England just as Angel is awakening. That is time’s uncanny power, to place you suddenly in spots like the Euphorium Bakery. And even as you say, ‘I am here,’ you realize how little reason there is for it.

I’m the worst house guest. I was not able to lie still once I had seen the blue of the sky through the shutters. I needed the chilly and fresh air of the morning. I tapped on Jonathan and Olivia’s bedroom door, timidly, and there is nothing worse than a timid house guest. ‘Sorry, guys.’ I am abashed, but I didn’t want to leave without being able to turn the lock behind me.

A bearded man in sandals is pushing a tall wheeled cart filled with rolled up Turkish –style carpets. They are stood on end in the cart, so that what he is pushing is twice as tall as he is. There is a man whose sparse deadlocks are gathered in a small pony tail. He is slamming the trunk of his black car as I pass. He sets boxes of wares upon his sturdy table on wheels. He has rolled the table to the side of White Conduit Street, placing it the white lines that designate slots for the stalls in the daily street market. He is selling plastic kitchen ware, little bins and buckets and trays. The carpet vendor and the man with the plastics seem to have the jump on the rest of the vendors.

Next to McDonald’s is a tiny optician’s shop. Next to that a Subway, and next to that a chemist. He has a sign set between the two windows on the top floor, a sign that reads, ‘Prescriptions’. The foot traffic has picked up. They head south, they head north, their heads down in what looks like a kind of meditation.

‘Looks like another love TKO’ is coming across the speakers here at the Euphorium. I’m about halfway through my pain au raisin. It could be that Jonathan and Olivia are up by now. I’m thinking they’re not. And I’m about to lose all power on my netbook. I remembered to pack the charger for the computer, but I forgot to pack the adapter. Yesterday I had to search the shops of the

I ask the ginger-haired Polish girl behind the counter if there are any plugs at the Euphorium. She sadly points back to one sad set behind the counter, set into the wall above her back counter.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Travelogue 575 – September 2
The Never Waiting

Here the river turns south, and so does the bike path beside it, and one has for the space of five minutes a privileged perspective of the city. The river Maas itself is very wide here, and the surface placid. A boat or two will be plying the waters, ferrying goods or ferrying tourists. Scanning west, one sees the buildings of downtown on either side of the river. One sees the tower and strings of the Erasmus Bridge. Looking south, the city continues along the banks, on the far bank down to the tall minarets of the Essalam Mosque and the lights of the Feyenoord Stadion. On the north bank, there is the green grass of a park beside the river. And there is the Woudestein campus of Erasmus University.

During the summer the campus was a peaceful place, warm stone set around a reflecting pool. The streets nearby were shaded by rows of full trees. There was a feeling of space and air.

But this is a week of terrible consequence. Vacations are over. Workers have streamed back into town. Students are back. They have gathered in lively crowds at schools and university buildings all over town. The streets are crowded. The bike paths are dangerous.

This evening, the Erasmus campus is full of heat and noise. A temporary stage has been erected on the terrace above the pool, and anonymous bands are covering pulsing pop songs. Crowds are concentrated in formations in front of booths set up to vend food and beer. I have to thread a slow progress through these crowds to reach my appointed place.

I am meeting with the theatre group. We are working on a play. Many of the actors are instructors at Erasmus or next door, at the Hogeschool. I’m directing the play. It’s a silly farce by an American, about a disastrous production of Macbeth. We started rehearsals in the spring, and now we pick them up again. We have two months until show time.

We retire to one of the two student bars on campus after rehearsal. The chaos has not abated. The music acts are still pounding out their beats on the temporary stage. The bar is full, mobbed by young people devoting the evening to drink. They are on a mission to blot out the native intelligence that brought them to this prestigious university. They bring a commendable singe-mindedness to the task. I’m reminded of many of my own performances during university days. I had a talent for this activity myself, back in the day. The kids are shouting and singing songs and laughing. None of it is remotely original. And that is the beauty of ritual: to the participants it all feels new.

I am going to have a dream later. In this dream, I travel in time, back to my freshman year in college. I’m attending a meeting, but I’m far too distracted to participate. Traveling in time is much like traveling in space. One is far too engaged by the sights, sounds, and smells of, say, Rome, to attend to the everyday. In the dream, I’m aware that I’ve traveled in time, so I’m hypnotized by the familiarity of everything, and I’m marveling at the possibilities.

The dream arises from my visit to the university campus during the students’ revels, during the start-up of the school year. But it will also be encouraged by the movie before bedtime. Menna and I watch Terminator II, Arnold returning to the 90s as the redeemed and redeeming hero, Linda Hamilton all buff and muscling her way out of a mental hospital to save her son. The three of them are chased by a new class of Terminator, the melting man who runs like a machine.

Time as a pliable medium, a substance we swim through, perhaps with some individual volition: it doesn’t seem to have been a concept general to the human imagination. Time travel as a device seems, but for a few strange early exceptions, a nineteenth-century invention. Maybe it required a more mobile society. Shakespeare, model of social mobility in his era, had nothing to say about time machines. The frame of a time machine provides unique opportunities for satire and edification. It can warn us (Wells & Dickens), lampoon the past or the present (Twain).

But modern narratives tend to focus on the power dynamic in time travel. Owning time is owning an advantage, at least if the hero/villain has traveled backward, (as opposed to the lonely prospect of traveling forward into the unknown.) Power seems to be the keynote to nearly every production of pop culture these days. Is that because America more or less owns pop culture, just at a time when America suffers a crisis of faith in its own power?

In my own static and unyielding time, I set out for home from the Erasmus campus. Now the city along the river is outlined in lights against the night sky. It’s a new city, a night city. The same lights are dancing among the waters of the river, like reflections in a dream. Returning students are roaming in packs. I have to dodge the front wheel of one zealous novitiate, who is impressing the ladies in his group by riding only on his back wheel. Theirs is the power of timelessness. They have burst free from anxious chronologies. They trample pasts and futures underneath the tires of their vrijwielen.