WON­DERS NEVER CEASE

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

From Page 1 cleared, the sci­en­tists ex­plore Angkor’s ‘‘ sub­urbs’’. So too do tourists. ‘‘ Get there soon’’ is the mes­sage from re­cent vis­i­tors who’ve stayed at Siem Reap, near the mon­u­ments. The word is that it’s be­ing de­vel­oped into a tourist trap and the old build­ings and laneways will be lost. But there’s a good range of ac­com­mo­da­tion and the lo­cals are friendly and help­ful. Drop by for a visit with Pot­tier at the school. For a good read, I sug­gest Angkor by Claude Jac­ques (Kone­mann). EGYPT: Throw a dart any­where at a map of the Nile and you’ll hit an arche­o­log­i­cal won­der (or two or three). The happy com­bi­na­tion of a pen­chant for big, sturdy stone things and a hot, dry cli­mate has pre­served some of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­am­ples of hu­man in­ge­nu­ity ever con­ceived, de­signed, built and dec­o­rated.

For in­stance, the colour of wall paint­ings inside tombs built for the great and good are breath­tak­ingly vi­brant. The thought that many paint­ings inside the 64 (and count­ing) tombs in the Val­ley of the Kings were pro­duced more than 3000 years ago is noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing. And the art­work it­self? Stun­ning.

Egypt holds such a wealth of trea­sures it helps to get a feel for the place with an in­tro­duc­tory visit to Cairo’s 144-year-old Egyp­tian Mu­seum. It’s crammed with ex­quis­ite ob­jects from ev­ery pe­riod of Egyp­tian his­tory, start­ing with the so-called Narmer Pal­ette dat­ing from about 3100 BC. Roughly 120,000 items are on dis­play at any time, in­clud­ing the best of King Tut’s grave goods. Sup­pos­edly, an­other 150,000 are stored in the base­ment. It’s full on and it’s great. Also great is the, yes, Great Pyra­mid. Bus No 355 stops in front of the mu­seum and then heads over the Nile to the pyra­mids at Giza. Once there, I breath­lessly buy a ticket for about 50 cents, climb the stone steps and tra­verse the nar­row pas­sage­way to the more than 4000-year-old burial cham­ber of Khufu, aka Cheops, only to find my ex­pec­ta­tions dashed. It doesn’t smell like Khufu’s uri­nal.

The pong and rub­bish-free sta­tus of the mon­u­ments is the hand­i­work of Zahi Hawass, di­rec­tor of Egypt’s Supreme Coun­cil of An­tiq­ui­ties. He may not have clout with the de­part­ments of agri­cul­ture and wa­ter — whose de­vel­op­ment’’ projects threaten sites such as the tem­ples at Kar­nak and Luxor — but he’s ti­died up his turf mag­nif­i­cently.

The Egypt: Eye­wit­ness Travel Guide (Dor­ling Kindersley) is par­tic­u­larly good. Tip: learn to say, No thank you’’ in Ara­bic or you’ll end up with a singing camel hand­bag, just like mine. CHICHEN ITZA, Mex­ico: We are driv­ing through the Yu­catan jun­gle in air­con­di­tioned com­fort, keep­ing an eye out for jaguars and pyra­mids. Soon we’ll be at Chichen Itza where we’ll join de­scen­dants of the an­cient Mayan peo­ple for a cel­e­bra­tion of the spring equinox. We’re keen to see the shadow of the plumed ser­pent god Quet­zal­coatl de­scend the north­ern stair­case of the great stepped pyra­mid, known to­day as El Castillo, the cas­tle.

Alas, the clouds de­scend, so the god doesn’t. Quet­zal­coatl’s a no-show but the city wows us. It’s not just the ar­chi­tec­ture — from nu­mer­ous tem­ples and the ball court to the ob­ser­va­tory — that leaves us breath­less. It’s the honey wine priests gave to peo­ple be­fore toss­ing them into sa­cred wells or cut­ting out their beat­ing bits to ap­pease the blood­thirsty gods.

Af­ter all, we’re visit­ing new’’ Chichen Itza, the hy­brid Toltec-Maya cer­e­mo­nial city built about 40 years af­ter the col­lapse of the old’’ Mayan city in AD900. While the Mayan gods were hardly namby-pamby about hu­man sac­ri­fice, those wor­shipped by the tough Toltec war­riors from Mex­ico left them for, well, dead. Case in point: lowre­lief carv­ings along the great ball court that de­pict the win­ner (yes, win­ner) of a rit­ual match be­ing de­cap­i­tated.

De­spite their pen­chant for hu­man sac­ri­fice, the Maya were the only truly lit­er­ate peo­ple in the Amer­i­cas. We see their hi­ero­glyphic in­scrip­tions ev­ery­where and ex­plore the ob­ser­va­tory, the cara­col or

snail’’, that pro­vided de­tails for the com­plex Mayan cal­en­dar. Priests used the cal­en­dar to reg­u­late the vast agri­cul­tural so­ci­ety that fed the 50,000 res­i­dents of Chichen Itza. As we drive back to the coastal re­sort of Can­cun that evening we can’t help but ponder the fate of Chichen Itza. It was aban­doned about AD1200 be­cause of over-ex­pan­sion and cat­a­strophic en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion. Ap­par­ently, noth­ing’s new un­der the sun.

Can­cun was once an exclusive en­clave but nowa­days just en­dure the tourists and take in ex­quis­ite Mayan mar­vels, dot­ted through­out the Yu­catan Penin­sula. The Yu­catan Penin­sula: Rough Guide Map will point you to an­other must see : Tolum, a Mayan city over­look­ing the Caribbean, ded­i­cated to the honey bee god. BUR­RUP PENIN­SULA, Aus­tralia: An­other get-there-fast arche­o­log­i­cal won­der is lo­cated along the Dampier Ar­chi­pel­ago of West­ern Aus­tralia near Kar­ratha. More ac­cu­rately, its many lit­tle won­ders spread over an area of 45km.

The Dampier Ar­chi­pel­ago, con­tain­ing 42 is­lands and the Bur­rup Penin­sula, has one of the largest con­cen­tra­tions of en­graved rock art in the world. Ex­perts es­ti­mate it con­tains over one mil­lion mo­tifs, cov­er­ing at least 30,000 years of oc­cu­pa­tion,’’ ex­plains Peter Veth, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Cen­tre for In­dige­nous Stud­ies at Can­berra’s Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

Among the art­works are de­pic­tions of fish, kan­ga­roos and other an­i­mals, as well as some of the ear­li­est hu­man faces ever por­trayed. Clearly, this is the stuff of hu­man pre­his­tory. It’s pre­cious and it’s threat­ened by in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment. In Novem­ber the Na­tional Trust put the rock art as­sem­blage at the top of its in­au­gu­ral Our Her­itage at Risk list, and it’s al­ready cited on the World Mon­u­ments Fund list of 100 most en­dan­gered mon­u­ments.

Though most of the re­gion has been listed un­der Aus­tralian her­itage law, one lit­tle bit hasn’t. Ge­o­graph­i­cally it’s small, but the ex­cised area in­cludes land on which Wood­side Pe­tro­leum has been granted ap­proval to build a Liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity, tap­ping into the Pluto gas field.

Al­ready, carved boul­ders have been moved, de­stroy­ing the con­text ex­perts need to in­ter­pret their artis­tic and cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance. Oth­ers may be dam­aged dur­ing con­struc­tion and op­er­a­tion of the plant and even those fur­ther afield may be harmed by acrid air pol­lu­tion from the project. Apart from de­vel­op­ment, van­dal­ism has been doc­u­mented by the lobby group Friends of Aus­tralian Rock Art.

Veth rec­om­mends a visit to Hearson’s Cove on the Bur­rup Penin­sula. The art is spec­tac­u­lar,’’ he says. Four-wheel drive is a must, but Veth says the road to the cove has good sign­posts point­ing the way to val­leys — vir­tual gal­leries — con­tain­ing won­der­ful works. Walk the val­leys and take in the art, es­pe­cially in the ear­lier and later parts of the day when the en­graved sur­faces are eas­ier to see and are more dra­matic against the dark rocks of the Bur­rup,’’ he sug­gests. Also, pour­ing a lit­tle wa­ter on the en­grav­ings will help bring out the de­tail. www.standup­forthe­bur­rup.com. CATAL­HOYUK, Turkey: Ev­ery sum­mer writer Michael Bal­ter va­cates Paris and heads to Catal­hoyuk. Af­ter his first visit for the jour­nal Science , what was an as­sign­ment has be­come a pas­sion. Bal­ter’s now the of­fi­cial bi­og­ra­pher for a di­verse team of ex­perts, headed by Cal­i­for­nia’s Stan­ford Univer­sity arche­ol­o­gist Ian Hod­der, who are un­earthing and in­ter­pret­ing one of the old­est known per­ma­nent set­tle­ments in hu­man pre­his­tory. Bal­ter takes up the story:

Catal­hoyuk, which was founded about 7500BC and was home to be­tween 5000-8000 peo­ple be­fore be­ing aban­doned about 1300 years later, is one of the most im­por­tant arche­o­log­i­cal sites in the world. It’s the largest known early farm­ing vil­lage, and was es­tab­lished on the Konya Plain of what is now Turkey at the time hunter­gath­er­ers were giv­ing up the no­madic life, set­tling down in vil­lages and grow­ing crops and herd­ing an­i­mals.’’

Like Bal­ter, trav­ellers to Catal­hoyuk — about a 45-minute drive from Konya and 15 min­utes from the town of Cumra — can share the ex­cite­ment as Hod­der’s team un­rav­els the ori­gins of civil­i­sa­tion: art, re­li­gion, ar­chi­tec­ture, fam­ily sys­tems and even van­ity (the old­est mir­rors ever found come from Catal­hoyuk).

The best time to visit is June-Au­gust when Hod­der and com­pany are hard at work. But you can visit any time of the year,’’ Bal­ter says, not­ing that the guard will show you around’’. There’s also a mu­seum and an ex­ca­vated house on dis­play. Fly from Is­tan­bul to Konya then rent a car. While in Konya, Bal­ter says the

whirling dervish’’ mu­seum is a must. Its real name is the Mevlana Mu­seum and it houses the tomb of the poet Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi or­der of dervishes.

Bal­ter rec­om­mends the on­line Turkey Travel Plan­ner by Tom Bros­na­han: www.turkey­trav­elplan­ner.com. I sug­gest Bal­ter’s gos­sipy book about the ex­ca­va­tion and the site, The God­dess and the Bull (Free Press) or watch the arche­ol­o­gists in ac­tion: www.catal­hoyuk.com. Leigh Day­ton is TheAus­tralian ’ s science writer.

Wide an­gle: Tourists can take a ride on a camel or horse to visit the his­tor­i­cal site of the Giza Pyra­mids near Cairo, Egypt

Set in stone: The cast of a Ve­su­vius vic­tim

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