Sunday, 27 April 2014

Uncensored version: Ten places of myth and legend

Because of censorship laws in the Sultanate of Oman, I've been forced to censor articles that I write for publications.

This is an uncensored version of a travel article I’ve written, which includes the religious significance of the places I’ve written on. The promotion of religion is banned in the Sultanate, which is why I've chosen to post an uncensored version here.

Ten places of myth and legend

Travel is fun. Travelling to different places means you get to soak up the culture and traditions of cities very different to your own.

Culture was a big part of what made the ancient civilisations that make up many of the stories of myth and legend that we hear today.

Here are ten places of myth and legend that are definitely worth a visit.

Delphi and Mount Parnassus, Greece

Before making any major decision, the rulers of ancient Greece’s city-states would consult with the oracles, individuals who were said to be blessed with the divine ability to predict the future. The most potent of these oracles - the Oracle of the Greek god Apollo, the god of the sun, truth and prophecies - resided in the city-state of Delphi.

The oracles served Greece for nearly 1200 years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, and have been mentioned in the works of Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle and many other scholars.

Modern-day Delphi still contains a multitude of ruins that speak of one of the most advanced civilisations of the ancient world.

The town is built on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where Pegasus, the mythical winged horse was born. Sacred to both farmers and shepherds, it was on this mountain that the Greek leader Odysseus hunted boar. The mountain was revered by devotees of both Apollo and Dionysus, the Greek god of winemaking and the harvest.

Delphi faces the forested valley of Cithaeron, where Oedipus is rumoured to have killed his father.

The ancient city of Delphi was also a pan-Hellenic sanctuary, where every four years, athletes from across Ancient Greece would compete in the Pan-Hellenic games. The Ancient Greeks considered the city to be located at the middle of the entire earth, and ancient maps and charts often depict this.

The city’s importance was reflected in the foundation stones that Greece’s explorers constructed in Delphi whenever they established a new colony. This was because Greece’s first colony was established by colonists from Delphi.

Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico’s capital has been the site of two great civilisations that have shaped Latin America as we know it.

Founded on an island in the centre of Lake Texcoco in the 15th century, the city of Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec Empire which stood for close to a hundred years.

For its time, Tenochtitlan was a very advanced city. Its terracotta aqueducts fed the city with water from the lake and supplied its and saunas and public baths with mountain spring water. At the centre of the city was the Templo Mayor, which was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli the chief Aztec deity, Tlaloc the Rain God and Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent, who was considered the embodiment of the sky.

Because some of the water in Lake Texcoco was brackish, the Aztecs constructed levees to separate the fresh water from the brackish, ensuring a constant source of fresh water for the city-state’s inhabitants.

With the collapse of the empire at the hands of a Spanish invasion led by Hernan Cortez during the Age of Discovery, Tenochtitlan became a seat of Spanish government in the New World, with several new buildings including a magnificent cathedral, marketplace and palace constructed by them. The reconstruction of the city under Cortez’s Spanish rule was marked by a proliferation of Catholic churches built to honour the Spanish conquistadors.

Today, Mexico City’s Plaza de la Constitucion is built where Tenochtitlan’s centre once stood and many of its streets correspond with those the Aztecs built centuries ago.

Ruins of both the Aztec empire and those which marked the heyday of European colonisation are still found in Mexico’s capital.  

Port Royal, Jamaica

Spanish galleons filled to the gunwales with gold, silk, spices and other exotic goods were a common site at Port Royal, which soon became the busiest and richest port in the Caribbean during the 15th century.

With commanding views of the sea and vast expanses of sandy beaches laced with palm fronds, Port Royal became a favourite for sailors and privateers who sailed the Atlantics dangerous waters.

After an earthquake 1692, subsequent tsunami and a spate of fires, Port Royal was considered dangerous and trade was moved to the larger port of Kingston.

Port Royal soon became a base for pirates, some of whom came from as far as Madagascar, who rebuilt it to suit their own needs.

These swashbuckling brigands, who are the stuff of romance, adventure and bravery on the high seas that inspired Pirates of the Caribbean, soon made the city their home port.

Today, Port Royal is primarily a fishing settlement and the Jamaican government is now developing Port Royal as a tourist destination with many of the old city’s ruins and underwater shipwrecks still intact.

Thanks to an underwater nautical architecture programme, many of these shipwrecks have now been removed from the seabed and have been restored, along with a reconstruction of the buildings that made up Port Royal during its heyday so that tourists can get a glimpse of what colonial life in the Caribbean looked like.

Hornstrandir, Iceland

Legend has it that Hornstrandir, the northernmost tip of Iceland, was the birthplace of Viking leader Erik the Red and his son Leif Eriksson. Ruins of the Viking settlement that was built there, including Erik’s very own farm, can be found.

Also found across Hornstrandir are pagan altars where the Vikings worshipped their gods, chief among them being Odin the Allfather of Gods, Thor the God of Thunder and Loki the shape shifter. The Vikings venerated their deities during festivals called blots, where fruit, vegetables and meat were sacrificed as offering to the gods.

Pagan ceremonies are still practiced in Iceland, and tourists are often welcome to join in.

It is from Hornstrandir that Erik and his Vikings set out to discover Greenland and launched raids on much of Europe, regularly plundering Scandinavia while also sailing as far as Britain and France in search of plunder.

Hornstrandir is known for its tranquillity, as it is an area with few human settlements. It is only, however, accessible by road and boat. Because of the adverse weather conditions, it is best that those who wish to travel to Iceland do so in the summer.

It is a must for adventurers, which offers beautiful views of Iceland’s harsh but gorgeous landscape which features rolling fields of cornflowers interspersed with patches of snow, only to end abruptly at the feet of Iceland’s craggy mountains on one side and the vast, frigid expanse of the Arctic Ocean on the other.

It is also home to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. On its cliffs can be seen an abundance of exotic birds including fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins, razorbills and the extremely rare white-tailed eagle.

For those who can brave the frigid waters of the Arctic Circle, kayaking expeditions among the fjords from where the Vikings launched their longboats are also on offer.

Transylvania, Romania

This region of Western Romania was made the home of the infamous vampire Count Dracula in Irish novelist Bram Stoker’s book.

Although a work of fiction, the novel is based on King Vlad Dracula, who went to extraordinary measures to defend Transylvania from the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century. Today, his castle, Bran Castle, is one of Romania’s most visited landmarks.

The region contains several prominent cities including Sibiu, which was named the European Capital of Culture in 2007 and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sighisoara, the alleged birthplace of Dracula. Several Saxon-fortified churches in the area have also been designated UNESCO landmarks.
With close to 120 castles that were built by the Romans, Hungarians and Saxons and several medieval towns that are bursting to the seams with historical heritage, Stoker’s novel saw this regionbecome instantly synonymous with vampires.

Transylvania is also home to Scarisoara cave, one of the world’s biggest ice caves, the Bear Cave with more than 140 bear skeletons and the Merry Cemetery, which features joyous paintings depicting the lives of those who were interned there.

Today, the Romanian Tourism Board has several Dracula-themed holiday packages with special experiences on offer around Halloween.

Valley of the Kings, Egypt

Located on the west bank of the River Nile, opposite the great city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor), the Valley of the Kings is the final resting place of several of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs.

As the Kingdom of Ancient Egypt grew in size and stature, her Pharaohs decided to construct massive tombs that reflected their influence and power.

This Valley was chosen because it was obscured to the outside world by the majestic peak of Al-Qurn, which itself resembled a pyramid. Because of this, the region had isolated access, allowing it to be guarded by the Medjay (tomb police) for many generations.

For more than 500 years, Egypt’s workers ferried blocks of limestone down the Nile as temples with exquisitely designed burial chambers for the Pharaoh, intricately carved chambers for the rest of his family and an assortment of gilded paraphernalia to help him travel to the afterlife.

On the interiors of these walls were inscribed religious texts to guide the Pharaoh through his journey. These texts narrated the descent of Ra, the sun god, with the rising and setting of the sun being symbolic of life, death and rebirth. The most common of these inscribed texts was the Litany of Re, a lengthy hymn to the sun god.

Excavation of this great necropolis began in 1799, during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and so far, the tombs of Pharaohs such as Rameses, Tutankhamun, Thutmose, Amunhotep, Akhenaten and Seti have been discovered and are among some of those open to the public.

Many pyramids, rock-cut tombs and mastabas are at ground level and some of them date back to the time of the Old Kingdom, which was established more than 5000 years ago.

Also known as Ta-Sekhet-Ma’at (the Great Field), the Valley can be reached by both road and via ferries on the Nile.

Petra, Jordan
Built in the third century BC by a tribe called the Nabateans, Petra is one of the Arabian world’s most splendid sights.

During its time, it was watered by a perennial stream and was a meeting point for trade caravans that crisscrossed Arabia, with commercial routes passing through Petra to Gaza in the west, Damascus and Bosra in the North, Aqaba and Leuce Come by the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf in the east.  

Built into the red sandstone mountains in the south of Jordan, the ancient city of Petra contained several magnificent buildings including theatres, a marketplace, a temple and several monasteries.

The city was capital to the Nabatean Empire, which spanned an area three times the size of modern-day Jordan. With its aesthetically pleasing but sturdy Greek-style construction, the city’s natural mountainous fortifications kept it hidden from Western eyes until the year 1812.

According to Arab tradition, Petra is where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth. Jebel Haroun (Mount Aaron), located in Petra, is where Moses’ brother Aaron is said to be buried. Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses) is the Arab name for the narrow entrance to the city of Petra.

Home to more than 30,000 people during its heyday, Petra has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site and is an architectural marvel truly worth visiting, with Smithsonian Magazine naming it one of ‘28 places to visit before you die’

Timbuktu, Mali

Originally built as a rest stop for trade caravans that used to brave the harsh heat of the fierce African Sahara and overcome its stinging sandstorms for months at a time, Timbuktu developed into one of West Africa’s most prosperous cities and was known as a place of great wealth and learning.

Known for its foundation-less mud-brick architecture, from as early as the 12th century onwards, Merchants carrying gold, incense, salt and ivory on their way to faraway, exotic lands stopped at Timbuktu for a brief respite from the perils of the desert.

By 1375, Timbuktu had become a centre of North African trade and maps of the time discovered in Europe showed that it had trade links to most of mainland Europe.

Today, it is still part of the nexus that links pan-African trade and some of its ancient structures that have been destroyed over time are being painstakingly restored by Malian architects. 

Zanzibar, Tanzania

While Timbuktu was one of western Africa’s great trade cities, Zanzibar occupied that position in the continent’s east.

Persian traders first built a harbour on the verdant archipelago. With the arrival of colonialism, the Portuguese, British and Germans all frequented the port as caravels laden with gold, incense, spice and ivory made its way from the Orient to Europe.

With time, Zanzibar became a great trading empire and quickly gained renown for its spice, incense and clove crops which were traded the world over. Zanzibar was also known for its slave trade. During its heyday, the port saw more than 50,000 slaves pass through it annually.

In 1698, Zanzibar came under Oman, who continued to develop it as a port. It then became part of the British Empire before gaining independence in 1963 and merging with Tanganyika to form modern-day Tanzania.

For its time, Zanzibar was an especially advanced region. It consisted of many autonomous merchant cities from which trade flowed to China, Persia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest of Africa.

All of these cultures influenced the local Swahili way of life that was in Zanzibar, making it a veritable melting pot of various people from all corners of the world.

Carthage, Tunisia

While Rome was considered by many to be the jewel of the Ancient World, in Africa, Carthage shone just as bright.

Established in 650 BC, the Carthaginian Empire spread across much of northern Africa and even spilled over into Spain, France and Italy.

With its massive merchant fleet, it supplied much of the known world with precious metals such as brass, tin and silver. In time, Carthage became the sole distributor of tin in the Mediterranean and went to great efforts to keep the location of Carthaginian tin mines secret.

Carthage grew to rival Rome in splendour and prosperity as it became famous for its fine silks, incense, perfumes, linen, glassware, precious stones, cash crops and even furniture. It traded in almost every agricultural product found in the region and became famous for Tyrian purple, a dye which was used by high-ranking Romans to dye their togas to show their exclusivity.

In fact, Carthage traded nearly every commodity the ancient world sought. Today, Carthage is a district of the city of Tunis. The city’s ruins can still be found on the outskirts of Tunisia’s capital.


Thimphu, Bhutan

Those who have been to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan call it Shangri-La on Earth.

And they have good reason to: more than three-fourths of the country is covered in virgin forests, rolling plains, deep valleys and steppe-covered mountains, this paradise of nature is one that is home to the some of the happiest people on earth.

In fact, so tranquil is Bhutan and so friendly are its people that when the country’s first set of traffic lights were installed, it was considered impersonal and soon taken down.

Bhutan’s culture is intricately connected to Buddhism, the most widely practiced religion in the kingdom. Several of Thimphu’s most prominent buildings were constructed as religious centres and as resting places for Buddhist lamas.

Examples of these would be the Taschichhoe monastery, a place of religious learning and quiet contemplation, the Simtokha monastery where Buddhist monks kept their sacred texts which contained Buddhist mantras and the Dechen Phodrang monastery, a monastic school where student monks were enrolled.

During ancient times, Bhutan went down in legend as a great centre of learning, culture and medicine. Today, its mountain monasteries (known as dzongs), weekend bazaar, herbal plantations and spectacular landscape make the Land of the Thunder Dragon a place worth visiting.

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Mexico was home to the legendary Mayan civilisation, who built one of their most prestigious cities at Chichen Itza.

It was the Mayan empire’s gateway to the world, trading in much-sought gold, copper, jade, pottery and obsidian from 600 to 1250 AD.

Chichen Itza is famed for its pyramids which are built in two distinct styles of architecture: the Puuc, which features detailed veneers and fine mosaics and the Chenes, which is characterised by ornate facades and masked doorways.

Dominating the northern section of the town is the step pyramid of El Castillo, which stands to this day. Standing 30 metres high, it is a temple to Kukulkan, the Mayan plumed serpent deity. Legend has it that during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the pyramid casts triangular shadows on its north western approach, giving the appearance of a snake wriggling down its steps.

Home to two sites dedicated to the jaguar, an animal held in high regard, Chichen Itza also contained 13 ball courts, where the Mesoamerican ball game of Ollamaliztli was played.

Today known as Ciudad Real, the city is visited by over 1.2 million tourists annually.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu is widely known as one of the world’s greatest archaeological discoveries of legend, but few have visited it.

Hidden from the known world until the year 1912, Machu Picchu was constructed as a tribute to the sun, over Urubumba, the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Historians consider the city to be a dedication to the Incan Sun God. The city is surrounded by mountains the Incas considered religiously significant. To pay homage to the sun god, the Incas made offerings of food and drink at the Altar of the Condor.

Several of the mountains that surround the city have religious platforms constructed on them. These platforms were characterised by stonework that was used exclusively in places of religion. Buried underneath these platforms were the remnants of offerings to the gods. 

Known for buildings such as the Hitching Post of the Sun, the Sun Temple and the Temple of the Three Windows, the Incan architecture here was years ahead of its time.

To counteract earthquakes, L-shaped blocks anchored corners together, doors and windows tilted inward, and no mortar was used between stones so that, if shaken, they could move and resettle without collapsing.

Located nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, those who wish to seek out Machu Picchu embark on a four-day trek up the Inca Trail. One of the few fully intact Incan sites in the world, its architectural marvels which were well ahead of its time and its splendid panoramic views is well worth the trek.

Work to restore the city is currently ongoing.

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