WONDERS NEVER CEASE
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