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Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

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View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As he dropped us off at the hotel last night, or rather early this morning, Meylis (our guide for the trip) suggested meeting at 11:00 today, allowing us time to catch up on a little sleep. We are therefore rather surprised when we get a call from reception at 08:30: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. Reception sends the bellboy up to collect the passports, which is great as we then don't have to get dressed yet.

Five minutes later there is another call from reception: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. David tries to explain that we have already dealt with this and that the bellboy has our passports. They don't understand and after a few minutes of trying to explain in every different way possible, David ends up having to go down to talk to them in person. By the time he gets down there, it is all sorted, of course. So much for sleeping in!

This is what we were woken so early for – several copies of a 'Entry Travel Pass'. Ironically we were never asked for copies of this during our two week tour.

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This was our first sight of the capital city of Ashgabat in daylight, the view from our hotel window.

We later ask the guide what the amazing monument is. "Oh, that is just a roundabout" he said. As the trip goes on, we find that every large roundabout in the major cities has such beautiful white marble and gilded monuments in the centre. Quite surreal.

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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The 8-pointed star seen on the aerial view of the roundabout is found everywhere in Turkmenistan. And I mean EVERYWHERE: railing, lifts, walls, lamp posts, the country's flag, trash cans, emblems.... you name it, it probably has a star on it! Apparently it signifies the Muslims' belief that there are eight steps to heaven.

White Marble Buildings

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, the former president of Turkmenistan had a thing for white marble, a tradition that his successor has carried on. Today Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the most marble buildings in any city, with 80% of public buildings covered, using 5 million cubic metres of marble.

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It certainly makes for a bright and clean look for the city, something that is further enhanced by the total lack of advertising hoardings, graffiti, litter and traffic. Ashgabat has to compete with Pyongyang in North Korea as the capital city with the least amount of cars on the road.

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We see a few of the many gleaming buildings as we drive through the empty streets this morning.

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Owadan Tourism

Our first stop this morning is at the office of our local agent, where we are introduced to the General Director.

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They have created a small one-room ethnographic museum where tourists can learn about the history and culture of the various aspects of Turkmen life.

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Here we see two different types of carpets – the white one, made from felt, symbolising spring; while the red carpet, coloured by pomegranate, indicates autumn.

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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I love these colourful boots. On the shelf above you can see the traditional skull
caps many of the local men wear.

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

The Silk Road Map on the carpet is prepared according to the map from Seyahatname 'Book of Travels' written by the well known 17th century Turkish traveller Evliya Chelebi (1611-1684), who travelled for more than 40 years, mostly on the western part of the Silk Road.

UNESCO considered Chelebi 'Man of the Year' in 2011 on the 400th anniversary of his death.

The carpet was woven by the General Director's family in 1999.

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Before we leave we are encouraged to have a cup of tea, and are given a box of chocolates to take away, as well as a couple of traditional wallets.

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Nisa

By the time we arrive at the ruins of this 3rd century capital of the Parthian Empire, which are reached via a long staircase, I am very hot, my back is hurting, the two blisters on my feet are painful, and the jet lag is catching up with me. It all seems too much trouble.

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Known as Midridatkert city in ancient times, the fortress of Old Nisa had walls that were nine metres thick with 43 rectangular towers and has now been given a UNESCO Heritage status.

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The so-called Round Hall, with a diameter of 17 m. The Old Nisa architecture is unique, original and is unprecedented in whole Central Asia, merging architectural traditions of antique Greece, Rome and the East.

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Old Nisa's walls protected the royal palace, Zoroastrian temples and the power and prestige of successive ruling dynasties until its eventual destruction at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century.

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Old bricks and shards. I am utterly disgusted to see some Australian tourists picking up bits to take home as souvenirs, boasting about the age and historical importance of the fragments. Shame on them! I really regret not saying anything at the time.

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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The necropolis. Only about 30% of the site at Old Nisa has been excavated.

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The Red Hall; so called because remains of red walls have been found underneath the mud.

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Looking out over New Nisa in the distance. It has not been excavated as yet, so does not feature on our itinerary.

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Lunch

Returning to Ashgabat, we stop for lunch at a tourist restaurant where seating is offered in private yurts with no furniture where you sit on a carpet on the floor; or at 'proper' seating areas in the leafy gardens.

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The waitress brings over a menu in tablet form, with photos of each dish and a clickable caption in English which brings up more information about the dish. Love this idea, especially when you don't speak the language.

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For starters we choose a dish called Dograma, consisting of lamb, bread, green onion, fresh tomatoes, water, salt and pepper. It is very tasty, and extremely filling.

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Main course is Manty, which is delightful little dumplings, a very traditional Turkmen dish. They are usually filled with a choice of meat, pumpkin or spinach. We decide on the meat variety. They are served with a small dish of smetana (a type of soured cream).

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The choice of salads in Turkmenistan really impresses me. Each and every restaurant has a huge selection of interesting salads, not at all what I am used to from the UK. Today we choose a concoction called Men's salad: green leaves, boiled beef, gherkins, mayonnaise, white cheese, salt and pepper.

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Independence Square

The Independence Monument is an extravagant affair, covering an area of more than 80,000 m². The entire structure is 118m high, with the minaret-like tower standing at 91m.

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The monument is surrounded by statues of 27 of the most prominent Turkmen heroes.

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Quite by accident we manage to time our visit to coincide with the changing of the guards; which takes place every two hours.

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The square is also home to a number of spectacular fountains.

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The founder emperor of the Seljuc Empire that reigned in this region prior to the Mongolian invasion in 1037.

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Statue to the first Turkmen leader. In his hand he holds three arrows. Legend has it that he demonstrated the power of team work by breaking an arrow in two, quite easily. Then, holding all three arrows in his hand, breaking them was not so easy; and when he had six halves together, it was impossible to break them – proving that alone you are weak, together you become strong.

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The five heads of the eagle on this symbol represent the five states of Turkmenistan, protecting both internal and external enemies (the two-headed snake)

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Everything in Ashgabat is ornate, include the street lamps; here decorated with the crescent (symbolising the new moon = new country) with five stars representing the five states, and the ubiquitous eight-pointed star denoting the eight steps to heaven.

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One of the numerous gold-plated statues to the former president Saparmurat Niyazov. As the self-declared 'President for Life', Niyazov gilded the country with his own image in a cult of personality that makes Kim il Jong look like an amateur.

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National Museum

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As with nearly all museums and archaeological sites in Turkmenistan, we have to pay a 'camera fee' in order to be able to take photos inside. Mostly the price is 50 manat as here, around US$14 according to the official exchange rate of 3.5 manat to the dollar.

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Like so many of the places we visit on this trip, the museum is housed in a grand building, with lots of gold and marble.

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

The museum covers several sections, from prehistorical man to more recent finds.

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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Model of how Gonur Depe - which we shall be visiting later on during our trip - would have looked in its heyday in the 3rd millennium BC

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Bronze Tools from Gonur Depe, dating back to the 3rd - 2nd millennium BC

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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Terracotta fragments of Ossuary found at Munun Depe, from 1st century AD

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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The campaign of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC

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A much more recent ceremonial sword, set with 98 precious stones

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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Turkmenistan has been very much a crossroads of cultures over the years, including being part of the famed Silk Road.

Flag

Everything is grand in Turkmenistan, including this flag pole, complete with a jet engine at the bottom to ensure the flag billows even on windless days. There is no need for it today.

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After independence from the USSR in 1991, a new flag was designed for the independent Turkmenistan, and it is the only country in the world that has carpet designs on its flag. The red stripe on the left with the five patterns, shows the various traditional design of carpet from the five different states in the country. These five motifs, like the eight-point star, feature in so many places within the country: boxes of chocolates, hotel door frames, posters, building decorations, the airport etc. The crescent moon, as well as being a traditional Islamic symbol, also represents the rising of a new country, and the five stars its separate states.

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Arch of Neutrality

While countries like Switzerland and Sweden have neutral foreign policies, Turkmenistan in the only country which is officially recognised by the United Nations as truly neutral. This has been recognised by the addition of a wreath below the carpet symbols on the country's flag.

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Note the five carpet designs on the plaque, as well as the eight-pointed star decorations.

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On top of the 75 metre high monument stands a 12 metre high gold statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, the infamous previous leader. His statue was designed so that it would rotate in order for the great leader to always be facing the sun. Upon his death in 2006, it was agreed that the statue should 'die' with him, and the rotations were turned off.

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Wedding Palace

On a small hill outside the otherwise very flat capital city, sits the bizarre and eccentric Wedding palace – also known as the Palace of Happiness. Built in 2011, the Wedding Palace is created of a number of star shaped floors topped with a 'disco ball' featuring a map of Turkmenistan in gold. Note the eight-pointed stars around the globe and the carpet pattern decorations on the sides of the stars.

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As well as six halls for wedding ceremonies, there are banquet halls for parties and receptions, shops, hair dressers, beauty salons and photography studios, and a small hotel with 22 rooms for newly-weds, Apparently, you can get a divorce here as well, as it is said that divorce can bring some people happiness too! There is also a huge portrait of the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and one of the conditions for being granted a marriage licence is to have your photograph taken in front of his picture.

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The (white, obviously) wedding cars in the country are always lavishly decorated.

Further up the hill stands the equally offbeat building that houses Yildez Hotel. The roads, like elsewhere in the capital, are totally empty for cars, and the numerous street lamps sport unusual, and elegant shapes.

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Being just slightly higher than the main part of town, we do get a bit of an overview of the White City below.

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

When we get back to the hotel, we notice a couple of little things that we later realise will come to be standard in most the places we are staying on this trip: just one set of towels and no spare toilet paper.

The view from the balcony is pretty darn good though, with changing coloured lights on the monuments.

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Considering this is supposed to be a four star hotel there are a few other annoyances too: the bedside table and the glasses in the bathroom have not been cleaned when they made the room up today; one of the bedside lamps do not work; neither does the standard lamp next to the TV, and there are no spare sockets for charging our phones, so we have to unplug one of the bedside lights. I suppose as it is not working anyway, it doesn't really matter.

We are too tired to even contemplate going out for dinner tonight, and settle for a glass or two of Duty Free rum and some nibbles. My back is hurting, and I now have two more blisters on my feet!

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:11 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged fountains ruins monuments flag museum necropolis lunch unesco carpets turkmenistan ashgabat nisa silk_road united_nations central_asia national_museum manty undiscovered_destinations wedding_car smetana ethnographic_museum lamp_posts guinness_world_record neutrality dutar grand_turkmen_hotel ex-ussr entry_travel_pass eight_pointed_star white_marble empty_streets owadan_tours turkmenistan_national_museum old_nisa parthian_empire parthian tablet_menu dograma independence_square changing_of_the_guards seljuc saparmurat_niyazov arch_of_neutrality neutral_country wedding_palace gurbanguly_berdimuhamedow yildez_hotel Comments (11)

Salalah: Taqa, Derbat, Sumharum, Bin Ali's Tomb, Mirbat - UK

Last day in Oman


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Taqa Open Air Museum

A small collection of replica dwellings shows how local people lived in the Dhofar mountains in the old days. The hut on the left would have housed the family, while the building on the right was for the animals.

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Taqa Castle

Built in the 19th century as a private residence for the Sheikh and his family, the castle was restored some 15 years ago.

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Barza – the vestibule where visitors would wait to see the governor.

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Issa shows us the type of bowl used when milking camels. Camels are majorly fidgety animals and have to be milked quickly as they won't stand still for long. Stones from the fire are then added to the bowl to 'sterilise' the milk.

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The responsibility for the camels is usually the men's domain, while the women look after the sheep and goats.

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This room was used as a store for household items and as a workroom for grinding wheat, pounding spices, churning milk, and grating coconut.

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Tannur Oven

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The prison

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They seem to have left behind a prisoner in the cell.

Wadi Dirbat

As we make our way towards Wadi Dirbat, we see a number of camels in the road; creating the quintessential Middle Eastern scene of my imagination.

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There are camels everywhere and they are all heading the same direction.

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This is what they have come for: the water. And this is what we have come for: to see them in the water.

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Sumhuram Archaeological Park

The ancient site of Sumhuram dates back to the 3rd century AD and is the most important pre-Islamic settlement in this area.

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Built near the harbour of Khor Rori, it was once a wealthy port situated on the trading route between the Mediterranean and Asia.

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The city gate of Sumhuram was an imposing defensive structure. The access was tortuous, steep and blocked by three successive wooden doors.

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The fort was protected on all sides and almost impregnable.

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Khor Rori Port - the approach to the fort from the sea - the walls on this side did not have any openings, thus making it very secure.

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Flamingos in the bay

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The fascinating and informative Audio Visual show in the Visitors' Centre brings the whole place to life.

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Bin Ali's Tomb

Originally from Tarim in Yemen, Bin Ali came to this region in the beginning of the 12th century to teach Islam and build schools. A mosque has been built over his tomb, which is still used for prayer and mourning and this is now one of the most important Islamic sites in the region, partly because Bin Ali is said to be a descendant of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

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The tomb and mosque are surrounded by a large traditional cemetery.

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Issa explains how the female graves have three headstones and those containing the remains of a man have two.

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Mirbat

Once the capital of Dhofar, Mirbat is now primarily a fishing village with many old decaying merchant houses.

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I find the crumbling old buildings quite charming despite some being in a badly dilapidated state.

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We take a little wander around the old town, and again I am drawn to the ornate doors and windows, some of which are in a better state of repair than others; but all of which could tell a story or two about the people who once lived and worked here.

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The Old Town is deserted, and the busy working port is not exactly bustling either.

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When we get back to the hotel, we are informed that our flight this afternoon has changed and is now 5½ hours later. We manage to secure a late check out and have a snooze followed by something to eat and then listening to piano music in the lobby before trying to check in on line for our flights. When we get an error message stating “Flight Cancelled” we panic ever so slightly, and email Undiscovered Destinations (who arranged our trip) to see if they can find out for us what the situation is. They quickly come back to us to confirm that the flight is indeed running, so we assume the error message is just a computer glitch.

Homeward Bound

Salalah Airport is a joy. There is no queue for check in, and I chat up the guy on the counter who gives us window and aisle seats and blocks out the middle seat so that we can spread out. Success.

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At Muscat Airport we have to collect our bags, but again there is no queue to check in. Just like we did on the way to Salalah, we are made to wait in the bus while they finish off getting the plane ready to board.

The flight back to the UK via Istanbul is uneventful and at Heathrow we get plenty of exercise walking from the gate to the main terminal building – I swear it is at least half a mile!

And so ends another successful tour with Undiscovered Destinations. If you are interested in travelling to some of the more little-known places off the beaten path, check them out. They can arrange group or private tours and have a huge selection of destinations to choose from.

As for Oman: we absolutely loved it! The country as a whole has moved directly into our Top Three list of favourite countries, with its friendly people, cleanliness (including a number of fabulous public toilets), good food, nice hotels, stunning scenery, and a host of interesting historical and cultural sites. Go now before everyone else discovers it.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:34 Archived in Oman Tagged history travel fort cemetery tomb museum port castle necropolis old deserted asia camels ancient mediterranean oman archaeology wadi trade middle_east frankincense salalah taqa taqa_castle camel_milk wadi_dirbat sumhuram sumharam_archaeological_park frankincense_trade impregnable khor_rori bin_ali mirbat dhofar Comments (1)

Port au Prince: Fet Gede / Day of the Dead

Party in the cemetery, believers possessed by their dead ancestors and sacrificed goats - it is all happening today!

36 °C
View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Fet Gede

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Today we are setting out to see, experience and photograph the Fet Gede – the reason we made this return journey to Haiti.

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As a photographer, I have never perfected the art of travelling light.

Fet Gede, the 'Feast of the Ancestors', is a traditional Vodou festival which celebrates the Lwa (spirits) of death and fertility; a time when believers honour the ancestral dead who they regard as walking with us all our lives. Gede (the sacred ancestors) is considered an important part of every living person as we will all join them eventually.

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Fet Gede can be described as the Vodou equivalent of Mardi Gras, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and Halloween, all rolled into one incredible ritual with enough drumming, singing, alcohol and laughter to quite literally raise the dead. The Fet Gede celebrations are unique to Haiti, a blend of traditions brought over from Africa during the slave trade, mixed with colonial Christianity and a dash of ritual from the original Taino inhabitants of the island.

Haitians believe that the frisky Vodou spirits helped them win independence and become the world's first black republic. Tradition marks the beginning of the revolution at a vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman, where the call to arms was issued by a Houngan (Vodou priest), and within hours, the northern plantations were in flames. The rebellion spread through the entire colony and the rest is history as they say.

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Grand Cimetiére

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We start the day with a visit to the main cemetery. As you do. The Grand Cimetiére in Port au Prince is like a city for the dead within the living city. Like many cemeteries, it mirrors real life in its layout. Here you find various 'neighbourhoods': crowded slums with rotting tombs and muddy graves; stately communities with fabulous mausoleums, middle class suburbs and even a main boulevard.

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We can't get anywhere near the cemetery by car due to the enormous crowds of people. After a lot of hassle, Wilson (today's driver) manages to find a spot where he can stop long enough for us all to get out. We are joined today by Sam from New York and a group of five international architect student who are here to learn the art of building bamboo houses. After shuffling our way through the crowds, we enter the necropolis through the main gate which reads “Souviens-Toi Que Tu Es Poussiere” (remember you are dust).

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The cemetery is teeming with life and people thronging through the narrow alleyways. We make our way along the main boulevard, along with thousands of others. The atmosphere is convivial and friendly, with not a hint of sinister or threatening undertones.

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Kwa Baron (Cross of Baron)

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Vodouists come in a spiritual pilgrimage to the cemetery to pay their respect to the dead, but first, permission of passage has to be obtained. The grave of the Papa Gede, the first man who ever died. Ancestral services are held at this 'crossroad', considered to be the bridge between life and death. Kwa Baron is the Lwa guardian of the cemetery and head of the Gedes.

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So, who is Papa Gede?
The corpse of the 'first man' can in many ways be compared to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier who is revered at memorials throughout the world - he may not necessarily be Haitian - just like the Baron is not Haitian nor African, he may be 'other' (foreign). Papa Gede is a psychopomp who waits at the crossroads to take departed souls into the afterlife, although he does not take a life before its time. Papa Gede has a very crude sense of humour, and a cunning ability to read people's minds, knowing everything that happens in the worlds of the living and the dead.

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Skulls and bones are removed from the crypts and turned into a makeshift shrine

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Pimam

Making an offering of Pimam (a mixture of raw rum known as clairin and 21 habareno chillies) is said to help the Gede (ancestral spirits) become warm and passionate again. Having been 'sleeping in the cold', the rum and chillies helps to 'heat them up' so that they can offer advice on such things as job hunting, love and marriage.

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The floor is awash with rum (and also coffee, which has been offered by the cup-full too). The smell is quite overpowering, and the bottom of my jeans are soaked in the stuff. I guess I'd better wash those before going on the flight back to the UK. We brave the crowds to venture further into the maze of alleyways in the cemetery.

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Baron Kriminel ('Baron of Criminals') is the enforcer of the Gede. As the first person to commit murder, he is Gede of murderers and perpetrators of violence against others; thus victims' relatives pray to him for revenge. His 'chevals' (possessed followers) are said to have an insatiable appetite for food, biting and chewing on anything and anyone (even themselves), they will attack those around them until they get fed. Thankfully none of the chevals present today seem to be possessed, as I don't fancy becpming breakfast.

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There is nothing formal about any of the celebrations here, people push and shove, stand on the graves to get a better view, and even put their feet on the altar.

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All this, and the enormous crowds everywhere, makes photography a real challenge! I am impressed, however, at how the sea of people seems to magically open up as I try to get closer to the action – spectators actively move aside and even encourage others to do so in order for me to see what is going on. Lots of locals are photographing the event too, and even the TV and radio stations are out in force.

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The occult has always fascinated me, and voodoo is no exception. In reality, voodoo is one of the most misunderstood religions in the world, something I became more and more aware of as I did my research some ten years ago before our trip to West Africa. The word 'Voodoo' is in fact a bastardisation by Hollywood of 'vodoun', the original West African religion (also known as vodun). (One interesting observation here is that ‘voodoo’ passes the spellchecker in Word, ‘vodoun’, ‘vodun’ or the Haitian version of the religion, known as vodou, do not.) Hollywood also gave the world the idea that vodoun (or voodoo) is an evil black magic cult setting out to spread death and destruction. Films like the James Bond ‘Live and let Die’ also fuelled this misapprehension with its violence and bizarre rituals. Ask an average member of the public what they first think about when they hear the word ‘voodoo’ and they are most likely to answer something along the lines of ‘black magic’, ‘zombies’, ‘human sacrifice’ or ‘sticking pins in dolls’. I would love to be able to say “nothing is further from the truth”, but of course there are some associations to all of these within the vodoun religion, but there is so much more to it.

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Vodoun is a religion that can trace its roots back at least 6,000 years; some sources claim 10,000. It is freely practised in West Africa, and was in fact accepted as the state religion of Benin in 1996 where 80% of the population is followers. It is believed that over 60 million people practise vodoun worldwide, 30 million of which are thought to be in West Africa. Vodoun is widespread throughout the Caribbean, notably on Haiti where vodou was proclaimed the state religion in 2003 where is is popularly stated that the people are 80% Catholics and 110% vodouists. It is also found in Brazil, the Guianas, Dominican Republic and parts of USA, introduced by the slaves.

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Vodou in Haiti

There are also an awful lot of misconceptions that vodou originated in Haiti. Yes, it is the state religion in Haiti, but it was brought here by the slaves from West Africa during the French colonial time, when it mixed with local Taino religious beliefs and European mysticism, taking on a camouflage veneer of Roman Catholicism after it was outlawed by the slave masters.

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Vodou (a derivation of the West African Vodun and the New Orleans Voodoo) is mysterious and complicated, inherently mistrusted, frequently maligned and often misunderstood religion. Its reputation was badly tarnished by the 1960s dictator Papa Doc, who encouraged his people to believe he was Baron Samedi, the vodou spirit of darkness and dead. Most westerner's exposure to Haitian Vodou is through Hollywood portrayals such as the 1973 James Bond's Live and Let Die blockbuster (in which Baron Samedi featured as a villain), something that has created further suspicion and discredit in Vodou as a serious religion.

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Having witnessed a Vodun ceremony first hand in Benin in West Africa a few years ago, I was keen to find out a little more about how this enigmatic, cabbalistic doctrine plays out for the Haitians.

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Vodou ceremony in Benin 2006

I have tried to gain some sort of understanding of Vodou, and here I will try and give you a very brief synopsis of what I have gleaned from talking to our guide and other Haitians, as well as various websites.

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Lwa

Their top dog – the Supreme Creator – is called Bondye but doesn't really want to have anything much to do with mere mortals, so the people direct their worship towards one or more of the many spirits, known as Lwa. Each Lwa has a particular aspect of life which they are responsible for – much in the same way as Christian saints, Hindu deities and Greek gods. Voduists create altars, participate in ritual ceremonies involving music and dance; and make offerings to appease their chosen Lwa.

There is no one definitive form of Vodouism, each priest has a different style of worship, depending on the Lwas his 'house' honours. Priests can be either male (houngan) or female (mambo) and are said to have supernatural power to hurt or kill people in addition to doing good by helping and protecting others from spells of course. A Haitian Vodou temple is called an Hounfour or Peristyle.

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The Lwa and the humans belong to each other and are interdependent – the humans supply food, the Lwa provides protection from evil spirits, health and good fortune.

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In Vodouism, your soul is said to take the form of two parts – the Big Good Angel (gros bon ange) or Little Good Angel (ti bon ange). Big Angel is in charge of the more physical aspects of your life, such as breathing and the flow of blood; whereas Little Angel is the ruler of your personality, nature and willpower – basically, the Big Angel decides what to do and the Little Angel works out how to do it.

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Unlike the evil portrayed by popular media, Vodou moral code of conduct focusses on the vices of dishonour and greed, on love and support within the family, respecting your elders and giving alms to the poor. Much like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and most other religions.

Baron Samedi

The ruler of the graveyard and the Lwa of the Dead and is known for disruption, obscenity, debauchery, and having a particular fondness for tobacco and rum. Sounds like my kinda guy.

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Baron Samedi is a very sexualised Lwa, frequently represented by phallic symbols such as this skeletal hand between his legs.

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Fet Gede celebrations are huge here in Haiti and everywhere we go in the cemetery there are people taking photos and videos; plus all the TV and radio stations. Here Baron Samedi is interviewed for the daily TV news.

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While most devotees are merely here at the cemetery out of curiosity, some come to worship, and a small number of believers actually become possessed by the Lwa (spirits). As this guy goes in to a trance, he loses control of his senses, flails his arms and legs around and staggers about as if he has been given a hefty push in a drunken stupor. As we are all on top of a crypt at this stage, with steep steps and a throng of people, there are a few hairy moments as he tumbles down through the crowds and onto the ground below. Fortunately no-one is hurt on this occasion and he is helped by a number of bystanders as he recovers from his bewildering state of possession.

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Erzulie

This tree represents Erzulie, the Haitian African Lwa (spirit) of love and passion. She is fond of money and clothes, but especially of doll, and she enjoys receiving them as gifts.

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Devotees come here to attach dolls to the tree, in order to send messages to their dead loved ones and ancestors; which in turn will then ensure that Erzulie brings them luck. This practice is thought to have been the base of the misunderstanding and misinformation (perpetuated by popular media) that Vodouists stick pins in dolls to cause harm to their enemies.

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Peristyle - The Vodou Temple

From the cemetery we continue (via the supermarket for water and toilet stop) up into the hill towards Petionville to attend a vodou service to commemorate Fet Gede, the Feast of the Ancestors (or Day of the Dead).

Wilson drives the minibus as far as he can up roads that become narrower and more uneven as we climb higher. Eventually we reach a point where the road has been washed away (possibly by the recent hurricane?) and the surface is down to the bedrock. We scramble up further on foot and enter a series of tight alleyways occupied by children and goats. There is no sign of the Vodou Temple until we are right upon it and even then it is unrecognisable as a place of worship as we know it.

The immediate area outside the temple is full of people hanging around, smoking, drinking and chatting. There is an 'off-licence' by the entrance where worshippers can buy their rum for offering and personal consumption.

The temple itself can best be described as a small wooden shack, the inside of which is beautifully adorned with white and purple balloons, Halloween-style decorations and an altar awash with offerings - people bring with them food or drink particularly enjoyed by their ancestors when they were alive.

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Music

A group of special people, known as houn'torguiers, provide the music in the form of shaking rattles, playing drums and blowing a trumpet. Three drums, covered with ox-hide, provide the rhythm. They represent the three atmospheres of the sun: the largest represents the chromospheres, the middle one the photosphere, and the smallest one the solar nucleus. The instruments have to be purified prior to the ceremony.

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Everyone seems to be taking photos or recording video, and the TV crew are in attendance with their huge camera and microphone. As was the case in the cemetery, we are the only white people here.

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Maman Brigitte

Soon after we arrive, the ritual reaches a crescendo as (a devotee possessed by) Maman Brigitte (Baron Samedi's wife), frees the souls of the followers. She is a colourful character, both in appearance and speech, and is known as the guardian of the dead. As a psychopomp, she leads the dead to the afterlife.

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Dancing

Dancing is an expression of spirituality, and is seen as a connection with divinity and the spirit world. The dancing and drumming intensifies repeatedly and repetitively until the dancer is possessed by their Lwa, by which stage they appear to completely lose control of their body and some even appear to lose consciousness. Their limbs go stiff, they appear to fall backwards of they flail their arms and legs about, thrashing anyone and everyone in their way. This is the Lwa’s way of having a bit of fun with the devotee.

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Vodou devotees believe that everyone has a soul which is made up of two parts: a gros bon ange or 'big guardian angel', and a ti bon ange ('little guardian angel'). The ‘little angel’ is the one that leaves the body when the Lwa possess the dancers during a ritual, and it can be quite scary at times to watch. The Lwa will take over every movement of that person, they become the spirit and are no longer themselves, and the spirit will talk through the possessed – sometimes in a language they do not understand or even knew before they were possessed. The Lwa will convey – through the possessed – advice, desires and warnings.

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During the Vodou service, prayers are offered to the Lwa, followed by songs for the Lwa accompanied by shaking a calabash rattle (asson) filled with rattlesnake bones, as well as hypnotic drumming. Like many Hindu devotees, most Haitians have a 'favourite' Lwa, and as 'their' song is played, they believe that the spirit takes possession of their body and is thereby able to speak and act through them. They trust that by following the directives and taboos imposed by their particular Lwa, the Lwa will help them in life, enabling them to discard any toxic influences from the past as well as offering thanks to the ancestors and accepting beneficial help for the future. Fet Gede is a celebration for reconnecting with the past, and preparing for the future. By offering insight into the past, Fet Gede frees people from any futile or unacceptable patterns and habits that they may inadvertently repeat, thus preparing them for a better future where greater happiness can be achieved. Conversely, by ignoring the advice of the Lwa, all sorts of misfortunes will befall the worshipper.

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Other worshippers help the Houngan (Vodou priest) to stay cool (if that is at all possible in the stifling heat inside the Peristyle) while he is possessed.

The Gédé spirits are lewd and raucous, and those possessed by them during ceremonies can be wildly provocative and sexually charged – like this guy tying a goat to his belt by a rope, and simulating sex with it on the dance floor.

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Chanting

Chanting is also an integral part of the Vodou ceremony. The chorus is made up of a group of people, led by a strong spiritual devotee. The idea of the chanting is to attract the Lwa on the astral plane in order to draw them down to earth.

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Pimam

Pimam is an 'altar wine' made from klarin (Haitian moonshine) with habareno peppers – it can quite literally be described as 'fire water.' Once a worshipper is 'possessed', he (or she) drinks or rubs themselves with the pimam as a signal that they are really a Gede (spiritual ancestor), in other words: dead and need warming up.

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Devotees also sprinkle alcohol on the ground to attract the spirits.

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Sacrifice

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Fet Gede celebrations nearly always involve an animal sacrifice (never virgins I am assured!). Since the earthquake in 2010 goats and chickens are favoured over cows.

Unble to bear the heat inside any longer, we leave the temple for some fresh air (not that it is much cooler outside), and almost immediately Serge beckons me to come down a set of stairs with him.

There, without much pomp and circumstance, is a goat with his throat being slit.

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The blood is drained into a bowl as the head is severed off completely.

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The rest of the body is slung aside (still kicking) while the next goat is fetched.

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The goat is hit over the head with a mallet to stun it, then stabbed in the skull with a sharp knife.

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The blood from the bowl is smeared on the forehead and tongue of believers (who have paid 50 gourdes for the privilege). By drinking the blood whilst possessed by the Lwa, it is believed that the Lwa’s hunger is satisfied and the devotee will receive forgiveness for any wrongdoings.

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After the sacrifice has taken place, the animal is cooked and shared out amongst the villagers. This way, nothing goes to waste. The killing of an animal is believed to release life, which the Lwa receive to rejuvenate themselves during the rapture of the ceremony.

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Still overwhelmed and buzzing from the powerful experiences today, we return to our hotel to get ready for a night out with Jacqui from Voyages Lumiere.

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Jacqui brings along her friend Kelli from the US who has just adopted an adorable little Haitian girl called Vanedjina.

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We have a lovely relaxing evening with good food and great company – the perfect way to end a frantic but captivating day.

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Thank you Voyage Lumiere for making this happen.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:17 Archived in Haiti Tagged altar temple travel vacation skeleton cemetery halloween crowds holiday necropolis tv dancing drums photography coffee killing candles spirits graves bones goat skulls ancestors rum sacrifice crypt celebration voodoo dolls mardi_gras haiti offerings crossroads trance day_of_the_dead chanting peristil port_au_prince baron_samedi vodou possessed fet_gede fete_guede fet_guede fete_gede gede feast_of_the_ancestors lwa loa vodum vodoun grand_cimetiere kwa_baron cross_of_baron papa_gede tomb_of_the_unknown_soldiers pimam clairin clarin klarin maman_brigitte habarenos baron_criminal occult peristyle erzulie zonbiw erzulie_mayang vodou_temple voodoo_temple houn'torguiers psychopomp houngan mambo vodou_ceremony voodoo_ceremony Comments (0)

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