The guard at the Temple of Alexander showing off some of the stray finds to me and my Bedouin driver
In my last post, I talked about the Egyptian tombs at Bahariya Oasis, some 340 km southwest of Cairo. The oasis was on the fringe of civilization in those days, but became more important during the Greco-Roman period because its well-watered soil didn’t flood like the Nile valley and thus was a good place to grow grapes to make wine, something the Greeks and Romans couldn’t live without.
The oasis became prosperous during Greek and Roman rule. It gained significance right from the start when Alexander the Great passed through here on the way to Siwa Oasis further to the west, where he had his famous meeting with the oracle of Amun at the sanctuary there, where he was proclaimed the son of the god and thus pharaoh. The temple honors his visit to the oasis and is the largest in the Western Desert, with a two-room sandstone chapel and a temple enclosure with at least 45 rooms and a surrounding wall.
An hour’s train ride from Madrid is a small medieval town that’s often overlooked by international visitors. Cuenca has been an important town since the 8th century and has heaps of historic sights as well as natural beauty.
Located in rough hills and on a spur between the deep valleys of the Júcar and Huécar rivers, it’s a naturally defensible position and was fortified by the conquering Moors in 714. There is little remaining from the Islamic era because after it was conquered in 1177 by King Alfonso VIII, the city was extensively remodeled by him and several later monarchs.
The Church of St. George, cut into the bedrock at Lalibela
Last week I discussed the unique blend of Baroque and Abyssinian styles that created the Castles of Gondar, Ethiopia. I’ve also written on the splendid ancient civilization of Axum in the same country. But Ethiopia has a lot more to offer than that. The most famous historic sites, and certainly the most impressive, are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
In the late 12th century, much of what is now northern and central Ethiopia was under the rule of the Zagwe dynasty. Ethiopia had been Christian since 330 AD and had developed its own liturgy, practices, and traditions. Like with all other Christian lands, many Ethiopians dreamed of going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. For some time this was possible, although it involved a long trek overland to catch a boat on the Red Sea, then another trek across the desert to get to the holy cities. But as the Crusades turned the Holy Land into a battleground, it turned a difficult journey into an impossible one. The rulers of the Zagwe dynasty came up with a unique solution.
Ha! I bet you were expecting another Spanish post, weren’t you? Well, I spend the summers in Oxford, so this week you’re getting something a little more northern. When I’m not researching my next book in the Bodleian Library, I set out to explore the city and surrounding countryside for sights of historical interest.
Oxford is a beautiful university town filled with fine architecture. It’s also an ancient city with roots back into prehistory. It first came into prominence in Anglo-Saxon times and a trace of this has survived. On busy Cornmarket Street, there’s a well-preserved example of a Anglo-Saxon tower. It’s part of St. Michael at the North Gate church and was built around the year 1040. This makes it Oxford’s oldest building and one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon structures anywhere.