by Mehreen Ahmed
Today, author Mehreen Ahmed shares an excerpt from her travel book, Snapshots.
On a trail of relics and ruins, Snapshots is a book of travels delineating my journeys of four major continents. A travel through the ancient, the medieval, the renaissance and the modern, national heritage of each of these continents has been pivotal to this book, showing an evolution of history. Primarily, palaces, mosques, churches, temples and museums, renowned forests and sea beaches have also been depicted.
Musing on peoples’ views and perceptions which they have shared with me, a stream of consciousness technique has been applied in presenting some segment in order to exhibit my internal monologue. With my rendering, these accounts have been compiled as chronicles of motley collection. On rare occasion, culinary descriptions have been noted.
Time is of essence. And on a timeline of this journey, specific dates have been drawn. As great distances have been covered, it has taken a long time for this book to be written. Snapshots started as a diary, but evolved over time into a book. Dynamic in its own right, at the end of each traverse, another begins anew and is recorded in the travelogue.
My journey begins in Europe, then to North America, Australia and ends in the sub-continent.
Europe’s beckoning is hard to resist; calls of the muses and longings of past, pull me like a star into a black hole. I can hardly wait to view the birth place of renaissance, Hungary of the Magyars’, and Andalusia of the Moors’. Europe never ceases to amaze me. Rich in heritage and artifacts, these closely knitted countries have a unique history. This was the time when "golden age" was born here.
Musings of the muse: Italy
I set off for Italy, one midsummer morning, in 2009 for three notable places, Rome, Venice and Florence. I check into Brisbane airport, Australia, through to immigration. Within the hour I board Emirates and in a few minutes, I am airborne. Watching blissfully, my plane flies through that magnificent aerial atmosphere, the clouds of which are etched in silver-ink.
Being on the plane for nearly a day, it touches down in Rome eventually. It lands on aeroporto di Fiumicino. I can hardly contain my excitement that my plane has landed in a country where the mysterious Venus and Zeus were invoked once. Immigration and luggage collection off the carousel takes some time. But, I am out, as soon as I can. It is almost unbelievable that I breathe now the very air that the Centurial Caesars’ did once.
My car waits outside with a friend who kindly invites me to stay in his residence. On my way to his house, I scan Rome. It does not appear, even close to being enchanted. Cars, buses, and the madding crowd, jostle on the concrete road, hot under the Italian sun. I am admittedly disillusioned. In my silly fantasy, perhaps I expect to see, ‘a winged chariot.’
Then again, it always takes a while for a new place to sink in. And when it does, it is a moment of unmistakable eye-opener. The next day, I jot down the infinite allurement that Rome has to offer in the way of remarkable fusion, where the past impinges upon the present, and well into the future; the enigmatic magic, which holds them together on timeline.
Undoubtedly a caveat to enliven text-books, the palpable romance of the incredible legends of the Greco-Roman worlds, created in Homer’s Illiad and the Odessey, still clings among these ruins in spellbinding tales of gods, goddesses. Their wars with the mortals come to life, as do their great battles, the epic struggles, victories and their tragic falls. The pagan spirits, which this land adheres to, runs too deeply into the psyche, which can never be forsaken.
Palatine Hills, domicile of the Roman kings, now lies in ruins of timeless mourning. The scattered brick walls, tunnels and olive groves, the stairs and palaces testify the splendor of the mighty Caesars, who once lived, ruled and died here. But time’s winged chariot propelled them hurriedly enough into history, as transition was made from ancient Roma to modern Rome.
The Roman Forum is situated just down the hills, with Saturn's temple towering over the remains, in fractured glory. This is perhaps, common knowledge that Julius Caesar, after his demise, was laid to rest in the forum, where the assassination by Brutus occurred. Ironically, this very place also belonged to a thriving population of official and public affairs.
Almost inconceivable that the forum was once the seat of all commercial, religious, political and legal activities of the city, although at present, it remains a sacred and monumental area of great antiquity.
The valley of the forum lies between the Palatine, the Capitol and the lower slopes of the Viminal and the Quirinal, three of the Seven Hills of Rome. Dating back to the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, around 7th century B.C, it received its first pavestone. Ever since, this part of the valley has been the nerve centre. Meetings of the senate were held at the Curia, a government office; and the Comitium was constructed for assemblies to take place.
Magistrates had their official seats and offices here at the Comitium, while the consuls and the senators’ held theirs at the Curia. It was from the Rostra from which magistrates and candidates harangued the crowd for a political career. Thus, magistrates were elected by the people in the Comitium and the senators met at the Curia, set aside for the purpose of meetings.
Sacrifices to gods and grand funerals both took place here. Speeches were delivered on the Rostra and one of the most famous ones was Mark Anthony's, made in honor of the departed soul of Julius Caesar. The square in larger part of the forum was the designated area for shops, markets and some of city's sanctuaries such as Vesta, Saturn, Janus and Castor.
Opposite to the Palatine hills is the great Colosseum. This is where gladiators fought animals in front of thousands of cheering crowds. It was once a lake, which Nero had built in the garden of his Domus Aurea, however, the Colosseum was built later in the middle of the broad valley between Palatine, Caelian, and Esquiline hills, known as Flavian Amphitheatre. The construction started with Vespasian in 70 AD, and opened by Titus ten years later, which was the duration it took to complete the complex.
The ceremonies and the games that were held went on for 100 days. Approximately 5000 animals were put to death, during this time and countless numbers of men. Next to the amphitheatre, stood the colossus statue of Nero, later modified to depict the sun god on his demise, after which Colosseum was named.
The circle of the amphitheatre had three superimposed sectors of steps, and an arena in the bottom of these steps, built on a bed of sand. Each step known as cavea was strictly reserved for a particular class of citizen. While the top was assigned for the least important, the middle was for the nobles. Once the Catholics came into power, the space on the amphitheatre reserved especially for the Caesars’, was replaced by a huge symbolic cross, which still stands, but in neglect. Their entrée was free, which attracted nearly 70,000 spectators to these fights.
An enormous awning would be hoisted to protect spectators from the blazing heat of the Roman sun. As the legend goes, once 100 lions were brought into the arena. Their combined roar was so loud that the noisy crowd was silenced straightaway out of sheer fright. Unbelievable cruelty happened here during the Roman times, when men fought animals and often died, with the exception of a few, whom the Caesars’ would grant taste of a good life as reward. The gladiator fighting was abolished in 438 AD and the last show was said to have been held in 538 AD, under Theodoric King of Ostrogoths.
The ruins of the Temple of Venus possibly designed and ordained by Hadrian, can be seen across one of the many open balconies of the Colosseum. It is but a skeleton now of what was a massive brick building once. Again, each of these empty balconies around the great Colosseum, was once adorned with statues of a god or a goddess, which the Christians desecrated after they came to power.
I walk outside of the grand Colosseum with a crowd of people moving to an open square. An iconic chariot is parked here, with real men dressed as Roman soldiers standing on it, holding the horses’ reins, a simulation of the most dramatic kind. These soldiers look like Romans, clad in Roman military clothing of tunic, and summer sandals.
Hot, hotdogs and springy pizzas are being sold through an outlet of a mobile restaurant on the sandy square outside of the Colosseum. Originally a student, the seller is an illegal from Indian background, employed and undoubtedly exploited by his Italian employer. I sit down with the crowd, on the dusty grounds of the Colosseum yard in the blazing Italian heat. It gradually mellows and I rise to walk slowly.
With the dying sun set on its course down the valley of the Palatine Hills, the Romans have surrendered to their nemesis. The gods have been diminished significantly. Poetic justice would be better served, if one were to believe that they are mute as their immortal status would not have it otherwise, to be dead for instance. Once a vibrant life, the days of the Caesers’ have passed into oblivion with"… nothing besides remain. Round and decay of that colossal wreck …" like Shelley's great Ozymandias.
Curiosity goads me further on to visit the birthplace of renaissance, which is the next leg of this journey. Florence is a couple of hours on Euro train from Rome. I take a taxi to the station in Rome and experience a strange encounter with the taxi driver. He haggles with me for a price to be put on each of my luggage separately. Although these are metered taxis, but the meter is turned off almost always. Charges vary depending on the size of the suitcases; more for big, less for small. Ingenious ways of making money perhaps, but I think it is a peculiar way of extracting more money from the hapless traveler. Anyway, I end up paying a charge for myself and another for my big suitcase and the small carry on cabin bag.
Any misgivings, if there are any, from this moment on, become worse. More setbacks wait on the train, I realize later. At the station, which is huge and confusing, compounded by the language barrier, I am lucky that I do not miss my train. At the ticket-counter, the helpful, but rude officers, who do not smile, tell me in broken English, which train to get on to. Upon arrival of the destined train, I board it with other passengers. The train leaves. In a while an officer comes along and stands at ease and asks to see my ticket. I am baffled at what they rant about, as they continue to look at me and my ticket; then they ask to see my passport, which I am obliged to show. At the end of this fiasco, they tell me that I must pay them a fine, because I apparently have not calibrated my ticket on the punching machines before getting on board. Well, the fifteen minutes that I spent at the ticket booth, the lady gave me no such advice. I must pay50 Euros in penalty, which cannot be waived. Bloody hell!
Without much ado, the rest of the journey passes uneventfully. From the train café window, where I am sitting at the moment, I see that the train is gradually stopping in Florence or Firenze. I quickly finish my coffee and cannot wait to get off. I start to walk unflinchingly out but before I go scouting, I put my precious luggage into a station locker.
As I walk down the pavement, Brunaleschi's magnificent duomo (Santa Maria del flore), the profile of Florence, is the first thing I glimpse. This imposing, dome has created an iconic skyline. Michelangelo so aptly had said that he could perhaps construct a dome, "bigger, yes, but not more beautiful."
The gigantic residence of the Medici family is also noticeable from this spot, but vaguely through dense bushes, tall trees and huge gardens. The residence is fully fenced. Further up is the Piazzale or “The Michelangelo Square,” on the hill. It renders a panoramic view of Florence overlooking its majestic beauty.
Flanked by historical buildings and museums, namely the Uffizi Gallery, the most notable is the Accademia Gallery which houses Michelangelo's David in nude, a masterpiece of renaissance sculpture. The marble statue stands there, cold, "quiet,” and "unravished," captured in ageless antiquity. As opposed to Keats’s uncomplicated story of the bride on the Grecian urn, this statue tells tales of his heroic deeds of greatest courage.
From the bridge of the Arno River, the city's buildings look perfectly positioned along the two sides of the river. Classical architecture at its best is how this can be viewed. Roman columns, arches, vaults and domes are embellished with flowers, animals and human faces in minute details. This exquisite art work is typically opposed to the gothic design in the middle-ages between the 11th and the 12th century. Gothic art is expressly characterised both in religious and secular buildings by stained glass and illuminated manuscripts, which generally lacks in figures , except for biblical forms of saints and Jesus Christ in churches. Secular medieval buildings have simple but accurate stone dressings devoid of any figurative trimming. Ribbed rectangular vaults are a dominant feature in the Gothic design, whereas semicircular or square vaults are prevalent in the renaissance design. Arches in renaissance are typically semi-circular; Gothic style buildings, however, have rows of pointed or ogival arches and flying buttresses, not present in renaissance architecture. Renaissance features resemble the classical style in every possible aspect.
I understand humanism now as never before. In Florence, it has not paled even to this day. Carved out of the renaissance movement between the 14th to the 16th century, Florence showcases its grandeur in classical antiquity through its rich collections in museums, libraries and architecture. Interestingly, the Muslims of Constantinople had great reverence for such antiquity as well. They preserved much of the Roman artifacts in the dark-ages, which were later presented to the world during Renaissance.
People of Florence enjoyed liberty and prosperity during the Medici era who patronized art, culture and architecture. Artists such as Michaelangelo were commissioned to produce some of the most enduring art works, David, a case in point. And the list continues. In literature, the famous Petrarch was best known to have initiated book collection, which was disallowed in the dark-ages, a concept also coined by him to describe the middle ages. He laid the foundation for sonnets, known as Petrarchian sonnets, a model still used for sonnets throughout Europe by poets of all ages.
I yearn to stay here longer. But it is almost time to move on. A long walk to the city and back, I return to the station and upon collecting my luggage, I head off for the train. The euro train is geared up for Venice this time, a city in Northern Italy, which is my next destination.
Through the carriage window, as the train pushes on, I view the pristine, breath taking beauty of the Italian outback. The natural mountain springs, the little villas on the hill top against the azure sky, the enchanted wilderness; a flock of sheep, high up on the peaks make for the most idyllic setting. Shelley's "Adonis" comes alive, which he conjured in that pastoral elegy, with allusions to 'flocks', 'streams' and 'music' resembling an Italian outback.
Praise for the Book
"The most travelled woman in the world may not be Hillary Clinton but Mehreen Ahmed. Somehow, she has managed to visit - and write lucidly about - four continents. [...] The title, Snapshots, suggests a collection of camera-eye’s impressions, but this is so much more. Open this book on almost any page to share an adventure, a discovery and a provocative reflection." ~ Weyman Jones
"This remarkable book really opened up my eyes and brought back memories of places I had visited over the years. However, it was a revelation to me because the author of this fascinating study has not only been to more places around the world than I have, she has researched and observed them in fascinating detail. I soon realized that she had discovered more interesting facts about places that I had visited but had never fully appreciated before. [...] Reading this beautifully written book, for me, soon became a moving intellectual experience. It contains so much to absorb and enjoy. I was drawn at first to dip into it and read about the places I’d visited and thought I knew well. After that I had to read more … and more, over several evenings. It became a fascinating experience and soon made me want to visit all the other places around the world that I had never seen. I probably will only manage just one or two of them, but will always be able to read about them all again in this excellent book, which I believe should be packed in with every traveller’s luggage." ~ Anthony Thorne MBE
"Ahmed has taken her travel journal and turned it into a collection of essays. It’s informative, inspiring, courageous and extremely well written. I would heavily recommend this book to anyone who loves learning about other cultures and traditions and may have just a bit of wanderlust waiting to burst." ~ Paul Landes
"I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical travels. Being able to travel along with the author to places you've never been or may never go, is a wonderful journey. This is a book that might be well to keep on the shelf to keep to go traveling when you need to get away from it all." ~ Gayle Pace
About the Author
Queensland writer Mehreen Ahmed has been publishing since 1987. Her first publications were journalistic in nature which appeared in the Sheaf, a campus newspaper for the university of Saskatchewan Canada. Later on she published fiction and academic non-fiction. Jacaranda Blues is her debut novella. A featured author for The Story Institute, she has published The Blotted Line, a collection of short stories. More recently, Snapshots, a book of travels was published by PostScript Editions.
Her academic publications include book reviews primarily and research article. They appeared in many notable, peer-reviewed journals of her area of study.
She has two MA degrees in English and Computer Assisted Language Learning (Applied Linguistics) from Dhaka university and the university of Queensland, Brisbane Australia.