The ancient sites of north Africa and the Mediterranean are often overlooked, but they are a perfect antidote to our relentless winter, says John Gimletteby / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Cappadocia in central Turkey. Its fabulous landscape was forged by volcanoes—the pinnacles of ash, also called fairy chimneys, can reach up to 100 feet
For those hoping to travel in the Arab world, it’s been a difficult year. Two of my favourite cities—Damascus and Aleppo—are now off limits, and it’ll be many months before anyone ventures back to Tripoli. Even Egypt makes us jittery, until we see all those soothing adverts on the Tube.
But does this mean I’ll change my habits? No chance. For the last 25 years, my wife Jayne and I have headed off, almost every January, for the Islamic world. We’ve visited most Arab countries, staying in caves, palaces and kasbahs, and collecting a houseful of oddities (including some slave’s shackles and a pair of Ottoman binoculars, dated 1915). We even got engaged in Aswan, and—since our daughter arrived—we’ve been taking her too. No one welcomes children quite like the Arabs. This month, we’re off back to Jordan.
Old certainties may have gone, but these will always be remarkable adventures. For us, the likes of Tunisia and Turkey are not just about proximity and winter sun. Rather, it’s about total escape, slipping away into a parallel culture. Often, it feels like a fantastical version of our own past; a world that values craftsmanship and community, and is unashamed of spirituality.
There are lots of regions I’d happily go back to, but here are three.
We were not the first foreigners charmed by this ancient Moroccan port. It exudes drama. Around the city runs a mountainous, bright orange wall. Within it is a honeycomb of alleyways, and, beyond it, there’s the desert, the furious Atlantic, and a beach as far as the eye can see. The Romans loved it. After them came Berbers, Jews, Frenchmen and hippies. To Orson Welles, Essaouira was the definitive setting for Othello. All he needed to do was take off the lens cap, and set the camera rolling.
It’s the extras who steal the show. This is a city of costumes—cloaks, fancy slippers, hoods and great ropes of amber and jewels. No cars are allowed, so lives are lived on the street. Every square is like a mini film set. A group of minstrels jangles past, followed by a man with a donkey. Then comes a tinker, a boy with a goatskin drum or perhaps a fisherman, with a giant eel slung across his shoulder.
This, as Omanis often told us, is the smallest capital in the world. Yet Muscat has existed for over 8,000 years, and was once an imperial capital. Now, there are just 600 inhabitants in what remains of the old capital, only half a shop and no restaurants. Squeezed into a deep, crumbly inlet, Muscat is more a crack than a city. At the far end of the inlet is a gate, slung between two biscuity mountains. Until 1970, it was locked every night, and anyone going out had to carry a lantern.
Omanis are ambivalent about the 21st century. They enjoy iPods and cappuccinos, and yet men still wear dishdashas and embroidered caps (as in Marco Polo’s time). I’ve never come across such noble taxi drivers, or such chivalry on the roads. Progress seems to catch people unawares, driving along with a boot full of goats, or attending a telecom convention dressed up in daggers. Though ascetic, they’re tolerant of others; you can get a good daiquiri in the big hotels.
Cappadocia isn’t so much a city as a series of cities, deep underground. Situated right in the centre of Turkey, its fabulous landscape was forged by volcanoes, and is thickly covered in weird pinnacles of ash, up to 100 feet tall. Extravagantly fertile, Cappadocia had flourished. At a time when the world’s population was only 23m, it had a city of 17,000 souls. It soon attracted unsavoury visitors, including Hittites, Romans (in 17AD) and Ottomans. It’s been a skull-cracking tale. To survive, people learned to live underground.
It’s still a subterranean existence, with boutique caves, and underground wineries and cooking lessons. There are even caves big enough to store the nation’s potatoes and a supply of winter lemons. From being a cradle of civilisation, Cappadocia has now become its larder.