Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What the Election's About

DemFromCT knows what the election is about for him/her:
"But somewhere between the NIE, Woodward's book, and the violence in Iraq, American voters realized the price our children are paying for Republican loyalty to Bush's pigheaded policies. it's not that others aren't dying at astounding rates, but in one week, the voters are going to be thinking about their kids, their neighbor's kids and the kids down the block.

"They're going to consider the meaning of waiting until after the election to unveil the Iraq Study Group recommendations (like the House Ethics Committee report, we can't let facts influence the election - that's far too political). They're going to think about how many lives are wasted because politics trump everything. And when they consider the facts, the circumstance, and what little they can do about it, they are going to show up at the polls. And when they do, they are not going to vote Republican."

That's fine, but let's also note something else people will remember in the long run of American history. As Josh Marshall notes:
"Let's not mince words: President Bush is a profound threat to the US constitution...His contempt for the rule of law needs to be ended.

The quote goes with an October 6 post about another incident in which our own Iblis Ginjo announces he will ignore a law even as he signs it. No wonder he never vetoes anything except stem cell research.

Administrative Detention

In the wake of the passage of the Military Commissions Act, I became curious about how the new American policy toward detainees compares with that of Israel. Here's what I found:
"In the West Bank, administrative detentions are currently carried out on the basis of Military Order Number 1229, of 1988. This Order empowers military commanders in the West Bank to detain an individual for up to six months if they have 'reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention.' Commanders can extend detentions for additional periods of up to six months. The Order does not define a maximum cumulative period of administrative detention, and, consequently, the detention can be extended indefinitely. The terms 'security of the area' and 'public security' are not defined, their interpretation being left to the military commanders.

"The Order directs that the detainee be brought before a judge within eight days (the time period differs from time to time). The judge may approve, shorten, or cancel the order. In most cases, the judge approves the order as written. The hearing is not open to the public, and the judge makes his decision based on confidential material pursuant to which the order was issued. The confidential material is not provided to the detainee or his attorney. In the past, the orders required that the order be reviewed three months after the judge made his ruling approving the detention. This requirement was eliminated in April 2002. The detainee has the right to appeal the judge's decision. The appeal is heard by a military appeals court judge. Like the previous hearing, the appeal is held behind closed doors and the decision is based on confidential material.

"Administrative detention of individuals located inside Israel and individuals in southern Lebanon is made pursuant to the Israeli Emergency Powers Law (Detentions), 1979, which allows the Minister of Defense to order detention for six-month periods, which the minister can extend indefinitely. Several safeguards which exist in the Israeli law are absent from the system of administrative detention in the Occupied Territories. For example, the Israeli law requires that the detainee be brought before a judge within forty-eight hours and for periodic review every three months by the president of a District Court."

I'm not a legal expert, but if I read understand everything, the new system put in place by the Bush administration and Republican Congress is almost the same as that Israel uses only in the Occupied Territories. As noted here, system has also been subject to abuse. To this, one might add the recent case of Ghazi Falah, who because he was in Israel was able to see independent judges.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Learning Hebrew

If anyone wants to pick up some Hebrew, including the alphabet, Hebrew University has a great web site for the purpose.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Geghard Monastery

This is Geghard Monastery in Armenia.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Palestinian Students Barred

Here's a problem. Effective this month, Palestinian students are barred from entering Israel to study:
"The new blanket ban on Palestinian students entering Israel dates from this October - the start of the academic year.

"Previously Palestinian students saw their cases judged on an individual basis but that is no longer the case, says Lieutenant Adam Avidan, a spokesman for the civil administration in the West Bank.

"In support of Ms Salameh and others like her, seven Israeli universities have called for an end to the sweeping ban and demanded that Palestinian students who get security clearance should be admitted into the country.

"With none of the Palestinian universities offering PhD programmes, students from the West Bank and Gaza either study in Israel or go abroad.

"But access to Israeli universities for Palestinian students from Gaza and the West Bank is almost non-existent, with only 14 students enrolled in Israeli universities, according to the Israel authorities.

"Ms Salameh says that studying in Israel is her only chance to get a PhD as she must remain at home.

"Her father died last year and she provides for her mother and her sister."

Tajikistan's Election

Sometimes I get bored enough to read about Tajikistan's Presidential election. Right now, the nation's four non-viable opposition candidates are undertaking a joint tour of the country. Perhaps fearing the growth of low-level discussions as a result of all this, the government of President Imamoli Rahmonov is working to block web sites and otherwise suppress expression as Election Day approaches. Most people interviewed by IWPR say they favor Rahmonov, crediting him with bringing stability and an end to the civil war which embroiled the country shortly after independence. This seems to correlate with Dana Abizaid's observations that many Tajiks care more about a stable environment in which to make a living than democracy.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Pollution in Cairo

Middle East Online reports that Cairo is still polluted:
"For the seventh year running, a mysterious black cloud has appeared over Cairo, triggering serious health concerns for the polluted city's 16 million residents.

"Emissions of nitrogen dioxide, which cause serious health risks above certain levels, have reached record heights in the city, from the banks of the Nile, past the industrial suburbs of the delta and even in the desert areas...

"Experts agree that in addition to an explosive urban population, Cairo suffers from an unfavourable natural environment which reinforces the harm caused by the polluting factors.

"Very high temperatures, no rain, little wind and sand blowing in from the desert all contribute to turning the overcrowded megalopolis into an urban inferno, something the authorities are increasingly desperate to fight."

Yemeni Jews and Arab Tribes

Those curious about the relationships between communities of Jews and Muslims in history might be interested in a small portion of Paul Dresch's Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen. The book is an ethnography of Arab tribes in the mountains of the former North Yemen, and contains an extensive discussion of the tribal honor system. Among the groups who existed within the space of this system without actually being part of it were the Jewish communities, who were considered neighbors, and hence under the protection of the tribe whose neighbors they were. To explain further:
"'Weak' people...do not have the tribesman's ability to intervene in affairs between other tribesmen by taking someone into their peace and providing protection. In the game of tribal honour and standing, they are not recognized as players. For a tribesman to offend against a weak person is a disgrace, although in practice the offence must be recognized as such by other tribesmen; that is, by men who themselves have honour and are capable of demanding and exacting amends."

Dresch also mentions a specific example:
"Hayyim Habshush relates a late nineteenth-century case where a Jew was killed by a tribesman, and an assembly of shaykhs from Hashid and Bakil judged that the killer's people should pay four times the blood-money. The possibility that the killer himself should be killed was waived on the grounds that he was mad, which may or may not have been so, and the compensation was divided: half to the dead Jew's kin and half to the tribesmen 'on whose honour' he had lived."

Other people who fell into the weak category were barbers, sellers of qat, coffeehouse owners, and sellers of vegetables.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Democrats for Congress

This will be the first election for federal and state-level offices in which I haven't voted. I hate the thought of that, as I'm someone who even votes in local elections in my college town, but I was moving overseas and then travelling during most of September and October, and by now I figure it's too late to vote absentee. However, I will take this opportunity to encourage everyone to support a Democratic takeover of Congress, regardless of the candidates in their races.

I have exactly one reason for this, a reason which blots out every other issue I normally care about. It is the Military Commissions Act of 2006. I grew up hearing about the "Evil Empire," where the government could come and take people away and you'd never hear from them again. This legislation gives the President the power to do just that, with no possibility of review. As Juan Cole says:
"In other words, we have to be confident that George W. Bush is so competent, all-knowing, and inherently just that we can just trust him. If he says someone is an enemy combatant, then he or she is. No need to check with a judge about why he or she is being held. And then Bush can have the suspect tortured to make him confess, and can convict him on the basis of the coerced confession, all in secret.

"Basically, Bush can issue them what the French kings used to call lettres de cachet.:

"'In French history, lettres de cachet were letters signed by the king of France, countersigned by one of his ministers, and closed with the royal seal, or cachet. They contained orders directly from the king, often to enforce arbitrary actions and judgements that could not be appealed. . .'

"We Americans made a revolution against such arbitrary practices of the French and other Empires."

I can think of words better than "interesting" to put in this Ed Furey quote:
"It is interesting that the current administration and Congress are descending into barbarities so ancient and so grotesque that most Americans have never heard of them. They reside banned in obscure corners of the Constitution because the Founding Fathers knew them well enough to forbid them. Nevertheless, they are there, and as Casey Stengel liked to say: You could look it up.

Let us assume that President Bush's intentions are good. Can we say that of every future President who will have this right to disappear people? Part of the American Revolution was about setting up a government of laws, not of people, yet now we as a nation seem complacent about tossing that overboard and taking a significant step along the road to tyranny, which often begins with popular demagogues who abuse their powers in the name of some emergency to the thunderous applause of their supporters.

A line must be drawn, and this is the time to do it, or we'll eventually be in for something that makes the Palmer raids look like the actions of an overzealous traffic cop at a speeding checkpoint.

UPDATE: Maybe I'll get to vote after all.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Health Stories

For two inspiring stories of people dealing with serious health conditions, read the latest on Robert Jordan's battle with amyloidosis and Scott Adams's victory of will over spasmodic dysphonia.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Religious Freedom in Tajikistan

Erica Marat reports for the Jamestown Foundation on new curbs on religious freedom in Tajikistan:
"Tajikistan’s new bill on religious freedoms threatens to become the most rigid and illiberal regulation of its type in Central Asia. Developed in January 2006, “On Freedoms of Confessions and Religious Organizations” restricts religious education for children, curbs women’s rights to practice religious traditions, and increases the required number of congregants for registration of mosques. The bill also hints at an increasingly authoritarian style of politics practiced by Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov, who, for all practical purposes, has already secured his victory in the presidential elections scheduled for November 6. Finally, the bill would allow the Rahmonov government to rely more on local law-enforcement agencies in controlling religious leaders...

"One possible reason for Rahmonov’s wish to limit religious practices among the population is his fear of a new generation of religiously extremist youth who have little memory of the civil war between the secular government and the Islamic opposition in 1992-97. According to Tajik Minister of Education Abdujabbor Rahmonov, today Tajikistan faces a shortage of approximately 700 schools and 9,000 teachers (Asia-Plus, October 4). Lacking education and employment prospects, the younger generations represent a potential breeding ground for aggressive popular demands and could one day lead to a revolt against Rahmonov’s regime."

As Marat suggests later in the article, a key target of this legislation may be the Islamic Renaissance Party, Tajikistan's Islamist party which the government accuses of being influence by Hizb ut-Tahrir. The IRP is currently Central Asia'a only legal Islamist party, a legacy of the 1990's civil war between rival clan and ethnic networks which often deployed religious ideologies in ways a specialist would have to explain. However, Rahmonov is clearly an autocrat would would like to curtail all the opposition he can, and this move can easily be justified within the region as an attempt to prevent the kinds of instability which have occurred elsewhere in the Ferghana Valley and been blamed on Islamist militants.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Saudi Succession Law

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has promulgated a new succession law, but it sounds even less revolutionary than the usual Saudi reforms. Under the new plan, crown princes, and hence kings, will be elected by a body of certain members of the royal family. This will, in theory, lessen power struggles within the House of Saud, though I'm not sure how. Incidentally, not only will it not choose the crown prince for Abdullah - Sultan gets to keep that role - but it won't choose his heir either. In other words, the latest change in the Saudi political system is that a clique of princes will get to choose who comes after the next two kings. Many of the people named to the body could be dead by then.

Enter Lieberman

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Road to Laza

The traditional pictorial evidence of my recent trip, this is me along the road to Laza in the Greater Caucasus of northern Azerbaijan.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Caucasus/Turkey: Where Once Was Colchis

While in Georgia, I must have read a thousand times of how in eastern Georgia, known to the ancient Greeks as Colchis, people used to sift for gold in the mountain streams using fleeces, a practice which ultimately gave rise to the legend of the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. After deciding not to head for Karabakh and then Ani, I went back to Tbilisi with the idea of stopping at Kutaisi on my way out of the country, and from there taking half a day to head over to Vani, an archaeological site which may be the ruins of ancient Colchis's capital.

The weather, however, persuaded me otherwise. Although I'd had great weather for most of my trip, the Caucasus do get a lot of rain, and when I checked in Tbilisi, rain was forecast throughout all of Georgia for the next several days. I decided to cut my losses and head west to better weather in Turkey, stopping for the night at the Black Sea port of Batumi, traditionally Georgia's second city, and now the capital of Ajaria, a culturally (not very observant, it would seem) Muslim region with a Russian-backed successionist movement under Aslan Abashidze, whose main claim to fame is probably destroying the bridges leading into the region to prevent the Georgians from coming in about the time of the Rose Revolution.

Unfortunately, I really don't know the current status of all this, except that it's supposedly been resolved. I only learn about it from R. Robert Hentzel, who hasn't brought it up in awhile. When we crossed into the region, the marshrutka stopped at some police station, but I don't know if that was some sort of checkpoint. Plaques on official buildings read "Autonomous Republic of Ajaria," but I don't know if that was leftover from the conflict or reflected the new conditions. I even happened to wander by what Lonely Planet informed me was Abashidze's house, where the street seemed to be blocked off, which surprised me because I thought he had wound up fleeing to Moscow. Maybe his successor had moved in.

In the end, I hardly explored any of Batumi, which was probably not more than a half-day city to begin with. The night I arrived, rain was coming down in buckets - it was two days before my shoes were again mostly dry. The rain continued with varying levels of intensity all through the next day, causing me to do something people have been suggesting since my QU days: buy an umbrella. The cheap blue contraption I purchased from a Batumi shop proved quite remarkable - when I opened it and held it over my head, the rain hit the umbrella instead of me, and either soaked in or ran down the sides, allowing me to remain mostly dry. I now keep it in my apartment, and may use it in future downpours, one of the many things I've been able to learn about thanks to the generous support of the Mosse Program.

The next day I headed down to Sarpi, where I crossed into Turkey. I was sad to leave Georgia behind. Where else can you not only feel comfortable that the drivers of the unmetered taxis will give you fair change, but may even park the taxi and walk with you a bit to point you to the right part of the bus station? Georgians seem to have the attitude that because you are in their country, they have the obligation to act as your hosts at all times, and will be perpetually offering you fruits, wine, or whatever else happens to be handy. As someone commented to me, if Vladimir Putin - probably the most hated man in Georgia - were to show up at a Tbilisi home, the family would press upon him all manner of food and drink even while giving him a piece of their mind. It occurred to me that if its bid to host the Winter Olympics is successful - admittedly highly unlikely - the entire country could go bankrupt because of all the visitors the people would be trying to show hospitality to.

Sarpi, on the other hand, was a rude introduction to a different world. Since the fall of the Soviet Union it has come to fall on a major shipping route, and semis and long-distance busses were well backed up at the border. There was also a smattering of tourists presumably sampling Georgia's Black Sea resorts. All this contributed to making Sarpi perhaps the wildest border crossing I've ever made. On the Turkish side of the border, your only options for getting to the nearby city of Hopa are a marhsrutka - which the Turks call a dolmus - which isn't going anywhere until full, perhaps in a few hours if you're lucky, or a horde of taxi drivers all of whom seemed like they were hustlers. If you set down your luggage, these guys will grab it and try to coerce you into going with them, and if you're already in a taxi, they will break into the trunk and your driver will have to go fight them to get it back. The place could really benefit from some police presence, or even an organization among the taxi drivers so you can at least just deal with whomever is up next in line.

When I got to Hopa, I got hosed on the bus ticket to Trabzon, because my driver took me to some odd place where the bus conductor insisted on twice the normal rate so as to give the taxi driver a commission, and I didn't know anything about the city to risk striking out on my own - for all I knew, I might be hiking to an otogar five kilometers away. Once on the bus, however, life picked up dramatically, for the Turkish bus system is excellent, with fast, comfortable vehicles on which even on short runs you will be offered drinks much like on an airplane. I later took a 19-hour bus trip from Trabzon to Istanbul, and it was a pleasant as a 19-hour overnight bus trip could possibly be. The road was also scenic, an extension of Georgia's Black Sea coast, with sheer cliffs showing signs of having been blasted to build the highway frequently spilling the waters of the countless mountain streams of ancient Colchis down into the ocean. Some of these were so small they didn't even bother to build bridges, but just let them splash over the roadway like moving puddles of a tiny but torrential rainstorm.

The main attraction I wanted to see near Trabzon was the Sumela Monastery, nestled high against a sheer rock face in the Kachkar Range of mountains. First built in the 4th century, it gained prominence after the Crusaders took Jerusalem during the 4th Crusade, after which the Byzantine rulers fled to this region and set up the Eastern Orthodox Kingdom of Trebizond. Under the Ottomans it gained even more prominance, but it was finally abandoned in 1923 after a Russian/Soviet occupation and the founding of the Republic of Turkey. Although many of the frescoes were nice, the main reason you go is for the location, set where the barren tops of mountains are clearly visible and where the streams that will eventually find their way to the Black Sea weave through the valleys in turbulent whitewater rushes often captured in the tanks of commercial fisheries. If you go, I recommend walking at least some of the way up just to experience the countryside. The only reason I didn't was because of the rain.

That, for all intents and purposes, was the finale of my trip to the Caucasus, though I also spent two days in Istanbul and have plenty to say about that. It was a trip I undertook without really knowing what to expect. In looking back, however, I'm glad I went when I did, even as I'm a little afraid to go back if I want too long to do it.

Permit me to explain. The main places to stay for budget travellers in the region are homestays, an evolution of traditional Caucasian hospitality in which you pay someone to sleep in extra beds they keep in their house. In Yerevan, for example, I stayed with one Anahit Stepanyan and her two sons just across from the Opera House at 25/5 Sayat-Nova Poghota, one unit of an entire apartment building where people seem to do them. The reception you get at places like this is far more personal than most hotels would be - Anahit saved me both time and money by calling a laundry service out in the suburbs that would pick up and return and still cost less than anywhere I could walk to, and when I and two other guests left to head back to Tbilisi, she even sent along some muffins for the road.

Another person staying there was an Israeli girl who knew of it thanks to a web site which I like to cast as a sort of Israeli backpacker version of the old yishuv support system, in which Israelis are all recommending travel destinations to each other, as well as good places to stay there, many of which aren't in the guidebooks. The Caucasus was actually relatively awash with Israelis who claimed to have gotten the idea from previous good reviews on this web site. Unanimously they directed us to a place in Tbilisi which was reputedly the best place to stay there. I can still repeat the directions like a mantra: "From the Marjanashvili Metro stop, go north along Marjanashvilis Kucha until the first street past the first church. There, turn left. On the right side of the street are gates, and through one of the first is a doorway guarded by two stone lions. Go inside, and on the top floor you will find Hebrew Heaven."

We did this, and when we got there it was actually pretty funny. The place was so packed with Israelis (the woman has 30 beds) that I felt like I'd come back already. The one non-Israeli was as exuberant about seeing people whose first language wasn't Hebrew as Israelis usually are to meet someone whose is. It also lived up to its billing, as it was cheap, she had several showers, good heating, and you could even use the internet, which I don't think many Georgians have in their homes. I really wonder how people discover these things for the first time, but the woman - I think her name was Irene - knew how business came to be booming, as she commented that a couple of years ago two Israelis had stayed with her, then the next year there were more who had followed their recommendation, and then this year she had hosted celebrations of every major Jewish holiday.

I mention all this in part because it is part of a growing trend: Tourism is growing in the region. In Irene's, a few of us wound up sitting around a table talking about the effects that would ultimately have. For one thing, right now the Caucasus attracted certain sorts of people, what you might call travellers rather than tourists. This gives people unused to lots of foreigners passing through a different experience of them than they might get from people who expect everything to be perfectly set up for them to go touring? More importantly, perhaps, is how the sheer volume of people will change Georgia, perhaps much like Baku had changed between the time my Lonely Planet was researched and when I visited. How long will the warm homestay culture last when people start opening quality budget hotels and hostels? How long will people continue to reach out to foreigners when there get to be many more of them, a constant separate body moving through the streets and on treks out in the mountains? When will some of the more corruptible people start becoming hustlers like those at the Sarpi border, and will it reach the point it has in many places where everyone has to behave that way to make a living?

Change comes, and as the region continues to stabilize, the Caucasus will prosper. As someone who remembers Georgia in particular as a place to visit rather than live, however, some changes that are almost certain to go with that are hard for me to welcome. A lot of Egyptians are also really nice, but as an outsider it takes a lot of patient searching and drilling through society to find that core. Just as kingdoms and empires come and go, cultures also change, and the culture of the mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian perhaps has more change in its future than some living there can now imagine.


Muslim Integration

In the UK, the University of Lancaster decided to actually study attitudes of different communities in the UK with an eye toward the problems of Muslim integration. Here's what they came up with:
"The Lancaster University study, commissioned by the Home Office, examined the attitudes of 435 15-year-olds on race, religion and integration. It also gives an insight into the attitudes they are getting from their parents and other influences such as religion. It found that nearly a third of pupils at a predominantly white school believed one race was superior to another, compared with a tenth from a majority Asian Muslim school and fewer than a fifth at a mixed school.

"The students surveyed were at a predominantly white school in Burnley, a predominantly Asian Muslim school in Blackburn, and a mixed school in Blackburn. The study concludes: 'It might be reasonable ... to suggest that it is the Asian-Muslim students in both the mixed and monocultural schools of Burnley and Blackburn who are in fact the most tolerant of all.' At the all-white school half felt it unimportant to respect people regardless of gender or religion, and a quarter felt there was no need to show tolerance to those with different views. Burnley was hit by riots in 2001 and the far-right British National party is strong in the town. Blackburn is the constituency of Mr Straw, who has said the wearing by Muslim women of a face veil damages community relations.

"The study found that about one in 10 of white students had any interest in learning about other religions, compared with four in 10 Muslims. Andrew Holden, of the University of Lancaster, said: 'White children seem to benefit more from mixed schooling in encouraging positive attitudes to other ethnic groups.'"

I don't find this that surprising, actually. Exposure is usually a key to breaking down cultural barriers, and minority communities are generally immersed in the dominant culture despite a few islands dedicated to their own way of life. The question this study raises, of course, is whether European Christians can adapt to a multicultural world.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)

Back in Jerusalem

As the title indicates, I'm now back in Jerusalem, and ready to begin regular blogging. Just in case anyone hasn't seen it yet, though, check out Marc Lynch's new project, Qahwa Sada. The manifesto is here:
"Qahwa Sada will do a number of different kinds of things. First, it will post original medium-length essays on interesting things happening in the Arab or Islamic world. Second, it will organize on-line symposiums about new books in the field, with the authors taking part (for models, see The Valve and the TPM Cafe's Book Club). Third, it will host roundtable discussions centered upon either an article published elsewhere or else a question posed by the editor. Finally, I'll reprint appropriate contributions published elsewhere.

"Who can contribute? Middle East experts, defined broadly, whether in the academic or policy communities. What should they write? Whatever they want, as long as it's directly about the region and offers something substantive and interesting (so nothing directly about American politics, or posts which just link an article with a brief comment). I'm looking especially for insights from people in the field who see things happening that aren't showing up, or are being misunderstood, by the media. The sorts of politically relevant, important things which are not enough for an academic article, not timely enough for an op-ed, but definitely worth bringing to public attention. Have Kuwaiti or Bahraini political acitivists developed new protest techniques? Have you noticed new trends in mosque attendance in Jordan? Have you seen a new wave of politically-themed music videos? The ideal is empirically rich, analytically sharp pieces which are theoretically informed but don't dwell on the theory or use a lot of jargon. Accessible to the informed general reader, without sacrificing either empirical detail or analytical sophistication."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Caucasus: Stone in the Ashes

Those who love to travel in Europe should consider adding Yerevan to their itinerary. Armenia's capital is a planned city, meant as the capital of the new republic after the genocide, is almost like the average of a European city, as if the distinctive highlights of each were removed, leaving only a wealth of cafes, museums, and pigeons. The heart of the city is the huge opera house, where you can see performances for under $5. To its north is the Cascade, gorgeous when lit up at night, leading up to a monument of the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia. On the other side is a vast park filled with cafes and bars open until the wee hours of the morning and where the beverage known in the rest of the world as Turkish coffee is called anything but, as well as a large fountain-pond with benches.

Both here and other areas around the city, about 20% of the people you see are making out, but unlike in Georgia, they are making out with other people rather than religious objects; Armenian spirituality, while probably as deep as Georgian, is not as physically demonstrative. In fact, when not locked in passionate embraces with each other, Armenians seem to be easily the most subdued people in the region. This is not to say they are unfriendly, however, for they have much the same sense of hospitality as the Georgians and Azeris, they simply don't talk as much, and when they do, the tone is much less loud and jovial.

Yerevan does have its attractions. At the other end of a main street from the Opera House is Republic Square, formerly Lenin Square, but the name changed with the fall of the statue of its former eponym. Its centerpiece is a huge fountain, and along it are attractive buildings such as the Economy and Finance Ministry with its clocktower and the Marriott Armenia with its outdoor cafe. The key one for most visitors, however, will be that which houses both the State Museum of Armenian History and the National Art Gallery. The former features displays of Armenian history going back to ancient times and the kingdom of the early first millennium BC known as Urartu, while the latter includes not only great Armenian artists, but the works of European masters such as Botticelli, Van Dyck, and Rubens. When I was there they also had an exchange with a French museum, and so two of the seven floors were filled with the works of French artists, including an entire gallery dedicated to the cubist Georges Braques.

Another interesting museum is found at the Matenadaran, Armenia's national library, whih outside features a statue of St. Mesrop Mashtots teaching someone his new invention: the Armenian alphabet, which is still used today. Inside is a gallery of Armenian manuscripts through the ages, and the collection demonstrates the vibrancy of medieval Armenia's intellectual culture, including as it does several medical texts the concontions from which you can buy at the gift shop, a seventh century geography, and a 15th century account of Tamerlane, as well as the predictable copies of the gospels and Psalms.

What people come to Armenia to see, however, is not Yerevan, but rather the surrounding area, where you find the great bulk of Armenian heritage sites still inside Armenian territory. Most of these are churches and monasteries, and one person we talked to found great significance in the fact that those structures happened to survive when so much was destroyed over the centuries. Armenian churches have a unique aesthetic. They are usually cross-shaped, with polygon-shaped domes and the altar in one branch of the cross while the others feature side chapels and the entrance. They have a few icons, but the theology of them is not at all like that of the Eastern Orthodox churches. They are also sparsely decorated, as Armenians believe that artwork in churches serves as unnecessary opulence that distracts the believer from worship, something in which they are akin to many Protestant denominations.

The center of the Armenian Apostolic Church is at Echmiadzin, home to Catholicos Grigarin II, and the place where according to tradition, St. Gregory the Illuminator saw fall to earth a beam of light in the vision which led to his conversion of Armenia to Christianity in the early 4th century. The entrance today features a giant outdoor chapel and a monument to Pope John Paul II, who visited in 2001 to help celebrate the church's 1700th anniversary. The main church is unusual in that it has pews and large religious paintings, perhaps a sign of the Catholic influence in Armenia over the years. There is also a small gallery where relics are dislayed. These inlude some from Sts. Thaddeus and Bartholemew, credited with being the first to evangelize in Armenia, the obligatory piece of the True Cross, vestments from previous Armenian prelates, and a presumed piece of Noah's Ark found on Mt. Ararat.

Another relic on display was originally brought from a monastery to which it lent its name, the Surp Geghard, or the holy lance used to pierce Christ's side during the Crucifixion. This lance was allegedly brought to the mountains near modern Yerevan, where today Geghard Monastery sits nestled on the slopes of a mountain affording brilliant views of the surrounding countryside. Inside is a network of chapels mostly not built, but rather carved out of the rocks as expansions of the original caves inhabited by Christian hermits in ancient times. The ecoustics are amazing - when we were there, a choir was singing in one of the chapels above, and could be heard throughout the complex as clear, beautiful voices coming from heaven.

From the outside, some of the oldest chapels are hidden, with only a row of khatchkars, the Armenian crosses carved into rectangular pieces of stone with decorated borders, tipping people off to the fact something might lie within. This was so that outsiders wouldn't know there was a church there, and those inclined to either rob or persecute would pass on by. This heritage of hiding churches was continued into the Soviet period, for the USSR sought to eliminate the Armenian church completely, and one catholicos even died in a Siberian gulag. Many churches were destroyed, so the Armenians began building apartment complexes and other buildings to cover them, making it challenging even today for visitors to find churches like the 12th-century Katoghike, which hidden in an apartment complex's back courtyard is so small that the congregation has to stand outside during services.

In all of this, one notes that Armenia has entered the 21st century with a strong sense of nationalism. I only saw one map of Armenia posted on a wall that did not include Karabakh a part of the country, and many also claimed all of "historic Armenia," including much of eastern Turkey and a chunk of northwestwern Iran, the totality of which was part of Armenia only for a few decades in the 1st century BCE. Nonetheless tour guides (the organized tours were so affordable even I went on a few) routinely referred to the territory of the modern country as "eastern Armenia" and to eastern Turkey as "the lost provinces of western Armenia." The historiography of a long-persecuted nation finally free and asserting itself is very strong in museum exhibits, as well, particularly those dealing with the Ottoman period.

This really only scratches the country's surface, and you shouldn't be surprised if I put in another appearance some day. In addition to the above we saw the Garni Temple, the only pagan temple in Armenia which is still standing, and on its outside were carved the names of medieval Islamic conquerors who had occupied the site. It was interesting to see the development in Arabic script over the centuries, and since such inscriptions are apparently common in Armenia I wondered if any epigraphy specialists had catalogued them. There was also a lot of great scenery, such as in the north in the Debed River valley through which I entered the country, as well as reportedly on the eastern bottom slopes of Mt. Ararat where there is an Armenian monastery. I had also originally thought of going to the ruins of Ani, the historical Armenian capital now in Turkey which has only an "Ani Viewpoint" in Armenia where people go to contemplate what was lost, but was running low on time, and decided to take a couple of days in Istanbul instead. Thus, I bid farewell to Armenia and headed back to Tbilisi to begin my road west.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Caucasus: Flames and Embers

The f?rst place many travellers to Yerevan visit is the Armen?an Genoc?de Memor?al atop Ts?tsernakaberd, a large h?ll just west of central Yerevan. The layout ?s actually quite simple, with most of the grounds taken up by a gray platform beneath which lies an underground museum. At the far end of the platform from the entrance, past a hectometer-long wall with the names of massacred communities, is a tall spire, which up close is revealed to be a smaller spire hunched beneath a larger one of which it is a piece, perhaps representing the twin peaks of Mt. Ararat, the traditional symbol of Armenia which is quite visible from the memorial even though it lies a few kilometers within Turkish territory. Near th?s spire is an eternal flame enclosed by twelve basalt slabs hunched over like refugees surrounding a campfire. Their number is symbolic of what Armenians consider the 12 lost provinces of historic Armenia, now part of Turkey. The ground of the memorial also include an avenue of trees planted by visiting dignitaries which seems like it was begun around the year 2000. One wanders among them to a melancholy Armenian melody piped over loudspeakers. Further along there are statues representing aspects of the genocide.

The events memorialized by all of this are explained by the museum. Their controversial nature is revealed by the foyer, which on one wall quotes ?n large red letters the Geneva Conventions definition of genocide, and on the other a case that the Turkish government is the direct successor state of the Ottoman Empire, and hence bears responsibility for its actions. Turkey, of course, denies that the events were a genocide, and insists that they should be seen in the context of the Ottoman Empire's military concerns during World War I, as well as general ethnic and religious-based warfare at the time, such as the ethnic cleansing of Muslims beyond the collapsing Ottoman frontiers which goes largely unremarked by Western historians. Novelist Orhan Pamuk was even charged with 'insulting Turkishness' for once referring to the events, which I presume is why his being awarded the Nobel Prize made the front page of the Yerevan News.

The Armenians have a different story to tell, one which begins with all the common complaints of post-Ottoman nationalists against the Ottomans, such as the draft of young people for the Janissary corps, and proceeds to massacres of Armenians in the late 19th century. Where it reaches the stage of genocide, however, is with the coming to power of an extremist group of Young Turks roughly coinciding with the start of World War I. It preserves quotes from some of these leaders before they came to power claiming that the presence of Armenians in Turkey was a threat to the establishment of a Turkish nation or a potential fifth column for Turkeys enemies, and suggesting that the large non-Turkish Christian ethnic group be eliminated from Turkish territory. Illustrated by haunt?ng photographs and paintings, it proceeds to chronicle the manner in which these leaders, once they held the reins, began to implement their preferred solution to the 'Armenian Question,' which involved the mass deportation of Armenians accompanied by massacres.

The extent to which this was centrally coordinated is difficult to determine, though it definitely fulfilled the policy aims of the Ottoman government, and after the war became the main legal weapon used by the Republican Turks against those leaders. When it was over, an unknown number of Armenians had been killed - estimates range as high as 1.5 million - and the Armenian population of modern Turkey was reduced to almost nothing. The American ambassador, Henry Morganthau, chronicled many atrocities in letters back to the U.S. The Germans, wartime allies of the Ottomans, also knew, though except for a few people of conscience they kept it to themselves for diplomatic reasons. (The Nazi use of boxcars to deport the Jews in World War II may have been derived from the Ottoman use of them to move Armenians.) A few other world leaders also knew, including the Arabs, who took ?n many refugees from the Syrian desert. Husayn, the Sharif of Mecca who led the Arab Revolt, wrote a letter of concern to the Ottoman sultan. The global Armenian diaspora dates to this time. I suspect it saw the founding of Aleppo's Armenian Quarter; it was clearly when the Jerusalem Armenian Quarter gained significant population.

The modern Armenian state was thus born in blood, not only through genocide, but also battle. Several kilometers outside Yerevan is Sardarapat, the city where in May 1918 an Armenian army composed largely of irregulars assembled by the continuous ringing of church bells by a bishop turned back a larger Turkish army intent on incorporating the area ?nto a Greater Turkey. The anniversary of this battle is one of the country's two independence days, with the other, of course, being ?ndependence from the Soviet Union. The former, however, seems to be the one emphasized, as without it the Armenian nation might not have survived. A memorial also commemorates this battle, featuring bells continually tolling to announce the victory, as well as two bulls in front symbolizing bravery and eagles symbolizing freedom.

Not all Armenia's conflicts are in the past, however, and those who know the region will now be expecting a brief return to Azerbaijan. The two countries are divided by the issue of Karabakh. When Armenia became part of the Soviet Union, the government carved out two swathes of territory, Karabakh and Naxc?van, and made them part of Azerbaijan. In the last years of the USSR, Armenian fedayeen in the latter began fighting for unification with Armenia, and after the Soviet Union's dissolution, they together with the Armenian army defeated Azerbaijan in the Karabakh War, which resulted in nearly a million refugees in Azerbaijan and a newly created Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh recognized only by Armenia.

I had meant to travel to Karabakh to have a look around, but decided I didn't have time. The psychological impact of the war, however, was quite evident in Azerbaijan. Several Azeris angrily brought it up of their own accord as an inexcusable act of Armenian aggression, and those who curiously glanced at my Lonely Planet were offended by the fact it was given its own chapter rather than included with Azerbaijan.

Probably more significant, however, is the toll in lives taken by the conflict, and how Azeris represent it as an important part of their own formation as an independent state. Atop one of the largest hills in Baku is an area known as Shehidler Xiabani, or 'Martyrs' Lane.' While in Azerbaijan, I often communicated with people by showing them the pictures I had taken, and from young people in Baku to the friendly people of Krasnaya Sloboda and Qusar, they said the name of that place with discernable respect. An eternal flame burns at the entrance next to the Azeri flag. The monument is divided into many sections, with the oldest portions dedicated to victims of the Soviets, who throughout the Caucasus are represented as occupiers. On one side is a mosque, there are also scattered individual momuments, the significance of which I don't know. By far the largest area, however, is filled w?th flat meter-high black tombstones featuring pictures of the dead in the style common to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Almost all those buried here died in the Karabakh War, and even though some parts of the area have the aura of a picnic ground, grieving families still come here dressed up to lay fresh flowers on the graves of loved ones.

Armenians didn't mention it the entire time I was there, perhaps because they won the war and so weren't as angry about it as Azeris. Because I wanted to learn, however, I f?nally asked one woman what she thought of the ongoing dispute. The response was so emotionally volcanic that an Israeli girl with whom I took up in Yerevan insisted I never bring it up again. The woman felt that it was clearly Armenian territory even ?f the Soviets gave it to Azerbaijan, and in a broader sense that Armenia had played nice a lot in history and gotten bullied around, and now saw nothing wrong with using force to take what was rightfully theirs.

This was a nationalist perspective to be sure, though for reasons I'll go into later was probably widely shared. It was interesting to me, however, that Azeris and Armenians still expressed respect for each other as neighbors, suggesting that if the conflict ever gets resolved, the Caucasus could become one big happy family. However, the depths of emotion are pretty clear, and historical memories of the last hundred years often very intensely felt that solving those problems may be harder than it seems.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Caucasus: People of the Virgin

Georgia is a Christian country. To see just how much, go to the Museum of Money near the Georgian National Bank just off Tavisupebis Moedan, one of the many wide open spaces in Tbilisi, the nation's scenic capital. Therein is a collection of coins and paper currency from all over the world, plus all periods in Georgian history, from ancient times through the caliphate and medieval Kingdom of Georgia, a couple dozen Ilkhanid coins and on through the days of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union up to the present. The first two coins you see, however, proudly displayed by the entrance, are two commemorative issues from the year 2000, one marking 3000 years of Georgian history; the other 2000 years since the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Georgian Orthodox Church, the national branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church which dominates Russia and the Balkans, is a crucial aspect of the country, a pillar of people's identity and aspect of their heritage which they have fought to maintain over the centuries of Russian and Soviet domination. Churches are all over the landscape - someone told me there was one for every twenty people in the country - and many of them are centuries old. Because of the heritage aspect, expressions of faith are evident even among the non-religious. People will cross themselves even walking or driving by a church, and I don't think I rode in a single vehicle which lacked a cross and at least one icons. These expressions of faith are more intense than I've seen elsewhere, as well. It's a common practice in Orthodoxy to kiss icons. Many Georgians, however, practically make out not only with the icons, but with the church buildings themselves, whether the doorways, interior, or outside walls. The culture is also conservative with regards to proper religious practice, and modesty codes are enforced at church doors, involving sleeves of decent length for men and headscarves for women.

Like other peoples of the region, Georgians have long claimed Christianity was first brought to their land by the apostles, with St. Andrew and Simon the Canaanite being commonly cited. The most coherent official story, however, claims that the apostles and others close to Jesus drew lots for where they would go, and the lot for the region of modern Georgia went to the Virgin Mary. However, she was told not to undertake the journey, and that another would eventually go in her place. That person was St. Nino, the daughter of a Roman slave in the 4th century who developed a fascination with Jesus's robe. One night she had a dream in which Mary appeared and told her to go convert the people of Iveria (modern eastern Georgia), where the robe was buried. When she awoke, Nino was holding a cross.

The holiest city in Georgia is the small town of Mtskheta, about 20 km north of Tbilisi and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This city, located at the junction of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, is overlooked by a number of large hills at the top of one of which stands the 6th century Jvari Church, built at the spot where Nino planted her cross at the start of her mission to convert the Georgians. Like other Georgian churches, it is designed in the traditional Orthodox style, meaning there are no pews, and people stand or sit on the floor, at home in their Father's house. The building is very small, manned by a single bearded priest who sells candles and icons.

Two other churches of note at Mtskheta are the Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, the alleged site of Christ's burial robe, as well as a replica of the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Sadly, the main church building was closed for renovation, and I couldn't check out its accuracy. I did, however, enter the Samtavro Church, today the home to a bunch of black-robed Orthodox nuns. Built on the spot where Iveria's pagan kings once lived, it is also a former home to St. Nino, who prayed on the spot of a small side chapel.

There are also plenty of churches in Tbilisi, such as Sioni Cathedral, home to the Georgian Orthodox Patriarch and the cross of St. Nino. More accessible are Metekhi Church, a modern building on a promontory overlooking the river where there has been a church almost continuously since the 5th century. Another is the Kashveti Church, associated with an early leader named Davit Garejeli. One story associated with him is that he went to Jerusalem and took three stones that were associated with the city's peace. He escaped with one, which is today among the relics kept in Sioni, while without it Jerusalem can have only 2/3 of peace.

There's more to Georgia than just Christianity, though. Tbilisi is overlooked by a huge ruined fortress, an Ateshgah fire temple, and a white statue of Mother Georgia, holding a sword in one hand a a container of wine in another. Georgians claims to have invented wine, and it is sold at street stands in Tbilisi and elsewhere, as well as taking up a huge portion of the local grocery stores. I should also note that this is the first place I've been where everyone is crazy about George W. Bush. They even named a street for him, and one guy told me I must be very happy to have such a great leader for my country.

Before Republicans in the crowd get too excited, however, I should mention Gori, a city a little over an hour west of Tbilisi where there is a huge statue of Georgia's modern national hero, who also lends his name to the main street and has a huge museum dedicated to him. This hero is - wait for it - Josef Dzhugashvili, who would take the surname Stalin and go on to lead the Soviet Union. The Stalin Museum is almost a shrine, with a side building preserving inside the small house where Stalin grew up. Inside, you can through the chain of exhibits follow Stalin throughout his life. Paintings depict him entering and being thrown out of an Orthodox seminary in Tbilisi, then rallying workers in Georgia to the communist cause. Through photographs, preserved correspondence, and other such relics you can follow his association with Lenin, rise to leadership, life as a family man, crucial role in defeating the Nazis in World War II, after which the exhibits sort of peter out. One of the last chambers features a mural of him lying in his coffin, which his death mask lies under a gentle spotlight surrounded by white pillars; silence is expected.

You would be wrong, however, to think that Georgians long for the days of the Soviet Union. In fact, quite the opposite is the case, and they are quite proud of the 2003 Rose Revolution, perceived as being largely an uprising against Russian influence as well as on behalf of democracy. They're also resentful of the Russian role in supporting separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The new President, Micha'el Saakashvili, has placed Georgia on a firmly pro-Western footing, taking advantage of the BTC pipeline to break free of Russian influence, hosting American military personnel who help train the Georgian army, and even aspiring to join NATO.

I was there for part of the Russia-Georgia espionage crisis, and in fact one of the other people in my homestay was a New York Times reporter covering the crisis who got to interview Saakashvili himself. It wasn't the sort of thing you see signs of on the streets, but people did seem to be keeping an eye on the news, wondering in particular about the fate of Georgians working in Russia and the remittances they send back which are important to the Georgian economy - Russia has now begun cracking down on both of these. I even accidentally got close to Russia itself when leaving Gori I got on the wrong marshrutka and instead of going back to Tbilisi, wound up headed past a rebel checkpoint into South Ossetia, where Cyrillic gradually replaced Latin as the second alphabet on signs, and on to the Russian border, where I had to explain my presence to a Georgian military guy with the aid of someone who knew German.

Sadly, I'm not exploring Georgia very much, though I will go out through Adjara. Parts of the country are unstable, and not only are there bandits in the northern mountains, but Lonely Planet itself recommended that those who plan to travel extensively there should make sure their insurance has something called hostage coverage, which apparently usually pays ransoms up to $5 million. I have no idea if the Mosse Fellowship includes that or not, having never heard of hostage insurance, but now that I know it exists, I've decided to make it my policy never to travel on any itinerary for which it is recommended. Call me a coward if you like =)


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Caucasus: Into the Mountains

The people of the southern Greater Caucasus have rocketed to the top of my friendliness chart, trumping even the Arabs. A few days ago, I went north from Baku by bus about three hours to the northern city of Quba. The trip wsn't tha exciting, as much of the Azerbaijani countryside is fairly bleak or non-descript, with the area not ruined by the Soviet energy industry largely taken up with farming. The main crops of the area are maize and various legumes, especially chick-peas. During Soviet times, they were all collective farms, but with independence and privatization came mechanization, and the old field hands are either unemployed or dispersed to other sectors of the economy.

Quba itself was perhaps 30 Fahrenheit degrees colder than Baku, foggy, and drizzly. In fact, it was so chilly I wound up buying a new winter coat there for about $15. As noted above, the people were ridiculously friendly. Cafe culture - that's ahwas, for you Egypt types - was easier to break into than in the Arab world even though I didn't speak any of the local languages. The people were mainly Lezgins, one of Azerbaijan's many ethnic minorities. There was a bit more traditional dress than in Baku, though nothing radical, with the men mainly sporting black felt coats and felt hats similar to a golf hat, while the women had on dresses and colorful hair nets. Some of the young girls had white bonnets or ribbons in their hair as they quickly ran around dancing and playing.

People in the Caucasus use restaurants mainly for large group celebratons, so th restaurants are usually divided into a number of small private dining rooms. After dinner, I wandered the streets of the town for a bit, making a zig-zag pattern down a steep slope until I arrived at a pedestrian bridge lined with red lampposts that led across a wide, gravelly and muddyvalley containing a narrow but fast river to the neighboring town to the brightly colored neighboring town of Krasnaya Sloboda. This was the home of a Tat community, the main concentration of Azerbaijan's remaining Mountain Jews. I had arrived on Yom Kippur, and thought that was the reason I saw so few people on the streets and so many closed shops while a few men wearing kippahs drifted into the newer of the two functioning synagogues.

I was apparently wrong, however, for while I was sitting near the bridge after wandering around, a couple of local young people wandered over to me, and in the course of the ensuing conversation they insisted it was Rosh Hoshanah, not Yom Kippur. I wound up wishing them a l'shana tova, which they accepted. A crowd gathered around us, because I guess there wasn't much to do on Yom Kippur, err, Rosh Hoshanah, except talk to the tourist. The numbers didn't really improve communication, though. I'd hoped that since Tat was an offshoot of Persian my Farsi would be of use, but they hardly understood a thing, and the only thing people said to me in their own language that I understood was "shalom," as a greeting, or when walking by quickly, "shalom, shalom."

Naturally, we got into some of the issues about which I was intellectually curious. The Jewish population of the region had shrunk a great deal in recent years, due mainly to emigration to Israel nd the Unitd States. Remittances from these countries are now an important part of the local economy. Although I knew they were of Tat origin, they denied the label, and would claim only Jewishness as their identity within Azerbaijan's mosaic of cultures. They also said relations with people in neighboring Quba were good - the young man who spoke some English and was my main channel of communication said the two towns were "like family." (Most of Azerbaijan is Shi'ite Muslim.) In fact, convinced my hotel was terrible, one guy started getting on his cell phone before I persuaded him I was fine with the intention of setting me up with a homestay in Quba.

Their political attitudes also paralleled the rest of what I picked up in Azerbaijan. Most people I ran into had issues with Iran, ranging from distaste for its politics to prejudice against its people. (Baku even had anti-Iranian protests in the spring.) Shockingly, many were also interested in or sympathetic to Israel. When crossing borders, my Israeli visa doesn't get me grimaces, but rather indications that they think it's pretty cool. The same extends to members of the general public who learn that I am based in Israel for the year. In fact, while I was in Quba, Israel was some people's first guess for where I was from, and one guy near the internet cafe there was so sure of it he replied "shalom" when I greeted him "salaam," the traditional Islamic greeting which extends to Azeri. Naturally, however, everyone still hates George Bush.

The next day I went up to Qusar, taking a mashrutka, the minibus which is Azerbaijan's main short-range form of public transportation. The trip brought me higher up into the mountains, though I was intent on going further still. This part of Azerbaijan is home to numerous resorts aimed at Baku's wealthy, who retreat from the hot summers on the Caspian into the brilliant scenery of the mountains. My goal was to hire a taxi to go to Laza, the drive to which is supposedly the best scenery in the region. I had to bargain for this with one of the mob of taxi drivers who greeted me on arrival, and the spectacle of bargaining was one which apparently attracts a large crowd to witness the proceedings. This was especially dramatic because due to language barriers the numbers were exchanged by taking out bills, which lent a certain suspense of wondering what would happen next. Finally, after an episode in which I went in a cafe to have tea while he stayed out in the rain looking for customers, we settled on using his initial offering for a two-way trip, since he would be unlikely to get another passenger in Laza anyway.

I actually wound up travelling with another driver whose turn in apparently was, and with whom I could communicate in Persian, though he was used to a more colloquial speech than I offered and my vowels are still apparently somewhat unclear. The ascent into the mountains, however, was spectacular, with lush green slopes and rocky outcrops hosting paths along which Caucasians herded sheep, goats, and other livestock on horses while carrying large poles and wearing winter coats and stocking caps. We also got out of the rain rather quickly, and the weather was perfect. This is what travelling th world ws meant to be like. There was a road, but its quality declined steadily, and in places mountains streams were forded rather than bridged. Other traffic was sparse, and aside from a few delivery trucks the most frequently seen vehicles were those of the Russian army, doing whatever it is they do in northern Azerbaijan these days.

Once back in Qusar I ordered some tea before beginning the trip back to Baku, and had as company about eight or nine other people with nothing to do as the bus station's business slowed down on a rainy late afternoon. We, err, communicated for awhile , and the general social environment ws as comforable as I've ever seen. There was even a local cop hanging out who asked to see my passport, and I didn't mind showing him despite the corruption which wracks the police force in Baku. (Suffice it to say that recently added to the list of things I've done that I never expected to was getting into a physical scuffle with a police officer and breaking out of a police station.)

After that, it was back into a bus and back to Baku, from whence I would begin my journey west and out of the country.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Caucasus: Black Gold Glittering

During the Middle Ages, Muslim geographers described the area around Baku as a place where countless flames burned continually of their own accord. The reason for this was the natural gas just below the surface, which drifted up through vents and when lit continued to burn until the flames went out. (At least one Yanar Dagh, is still going, and I plan to visit it tomorrow.) It is these natural resources which made the city famous, and today have earned Azerbaijan a place in the national spotlight.

Among the oldest ruins on the Absheron Peninsula on which Baku is located is an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple called Ateshgah. The enclosure is built around a small shrine in the center, where today a small flame burns powered by a gas line since the original natural supply ran out during the 20th century. In early times, fire also blazed from four chimneys, as well as a small pit off to one side. A museum features displays of life at the temple, to which people from as far away as India would come to perform ascetic feats involving hot coals, heated stones, or chains. (The professor part of me was happy to get pictures of all this to use in future discussions of Zoroastrianism in classes.)

During the medieval period, the natural harbor of Baku Bay was more important than the energy resources, though even then oil was scraped off the surface and exported. The real wealth of Baku and its succession of rulers, however, was as the main trading entrepot connecting Russia with the worlds of Islam and the Indian ocean. During this period, the walled city known as the Icheri Sheher, recognized today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built, and during the 15th century became the home of the Shirvan Shahs, whose small palace is one of the main tourist attractions.

The city's biggest growth, however, came during the Industrial Revolution, when increased energy needs made its resources even more valuable. Much of central Baku is dominated by mansions from that period, usually built by Russians of whose empire Azerbaijan was by then a part. The city came to dominate the early oil trade, producing 50% of the world's supply in 1900. The oil business also led to important social and intellectual developments in the country. It was here that the first formulations of Turkish nationalism were made, creating an ideology of Turkism that would later spread to the Ottoman Empire and help give rise to modern Turkey. It was also here that oil workers formed the first recognized union in the Russian Empire over a decade before the Russian Revolution.

Here I must step back for a bit and describe my own arrival in the city. It was actually more exciting than I had anticipated, as I was called out of the passport control line by Azeri airport security, whose officials, dressed in an alarming ensemble of ocean blue suitcoats, yellow shirts, and bright pink ties, had apparently received a FAX from Istanbul, where I made my connection, indicating that I might represent a security threat. They quickly dismissed the idea and concluded that "they must have sent us the wrong Ulrich," but made a copy of my passport and ticket to show their superiors.

The place I wound up staying my first night was a legacy from the power which ruled Azerbaijan in the 20th century, the Soviet Union. If you ever want to see what the crumbling superpower was like, stay in one of its old hotels, most of which seem to have crumbling wallpaper, dysfunctional bathrooms, and staff that can't seem to handle much of anything. Given all this, the Hotel Azerbaijan was surprisingly busy, albeit mostly with a crowd that looked straight out of the Brezhnev era, walking around stiffly wearing tieless suits and often conversing in Russian. There was also an odd incident when the first morning I was told by the floor manager, a superfluous position I assume dates to the U.S.S.R., that I had a message at the front desk. That seemed unlikely, and when I checked they told me someone else had taken care of it. Umm, okay then.

Alas, the legacy of the Soviets was not only in bad if cheap hotels and the surprisingly interestingly built Dom Soviet, the seat of the ASSR government along the waterfront. The Soviets, too, took advantage of the land's oil and natural gas wealth, and the country continues to pay the price. Much of the landscape near the Caspian Sea is a complete wasteland of rusted oil wells, battered pipelines, and other huge, rusty pieces of equipment which when in use spewed pollution all over the peninsula and much of the coastline. The sheer scale of ecological devastation is staggering, and even includes splotches of oil spill that were never cleaned up. On the road north, you pass through a region called Arit which is still poverty-stricken largely due to the way the land was abused during the 20th century. In addition, the Soviets made the city of Sumqayit on the other side of the peninsula north of Baku their main chemical processing center, and as a result many of the beaches along the Caspian are unsafe due to pollution. (There's also apparently a cemetery with monuments to infants born deformed due to the chemical pollution, but I didn't go there to see it.)

Today, however, Azerbaijan is making a comeback, thanks again to its oil wealth. Eventually the Soviets abandoned the region and began to explore Siberia instead. This meant that, after the end of the Karabakh War in 1994 in which Armenia and allied fedayeen took control of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, British Petroleum with its superior technology came in and with its superior technology was able to begin milking oil out of the Caspian Sea itself. This oil, like that of Central Asia, has given rise to the new "Great Game" for influence in the region, as well as constant wrangling over how best to get it out.

Azerbaijan's good fortune in all this is to not be Iran, since the United States goes to great lengths to prevent pipeline routes from crossing that country, and to not have the instability problems of the Russian Caucasus. In terms of a western route, this left the Western powers with Azerbaijan as their main alley. The result was the BTC pipeline, which opened for business in 2005. In addition to allowing for more crude oil to leave the region, this route is also important because it doesn't pass through Russia, freeing Azerbaijan from Moscow's dominance of its oil exports and weakening its influence over the global oil supply, and by cutting through the Caucasus to the port of Ceyhan in southern Turkey avoids the Black Sea and Istanbul, where people have long feared an oil spill could ruin the environment or a terrorist attack could easily close the straits leading to the Mediterranean.

Everyone I've talked to in Azerbaijan loves the pipeline, which is managed by a consortium still led by BP whose expat employees are a visible part of Baku's current population. It's seen as a vehicle for even greater prosperity by everyone from restaurant owners up north far from oil country to miscellaneous businessmen in Baku. Even a scientist I talked to on the bus who was very aware of environmental issues in the country saw it was clearly a good thing.

Baku today is booming, though it doesn't quite have an identity. Downtown you see everything from neon signs al a Las Vegas to casinos and clubs clearly marked "private" and "exclusive" often managed by Russian expats I find myself stereotyping as mafiosos. The shoreline boasts lots of glittering rides and a huge red-lit clock tower that I think is probably actually a Soviet remnant but still fits the current zeitgeist. The bad news for me in all this is that the city is largely geared toward the wealthy, and the cheapest level of hotel prices has gone up 3 or 4 times since my trusty Lonely Planet guide was published in 2003. (Fortunately the rooms have also been renovated, except for ye olde Hotel Azerbaijan.)

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