Closing The Gap — New Europe Bridge: Bridging The Lower Danube (Part Two)

The first bridge crossing the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania was not completed until 1954. Known as the Friendship Bridge, it was anything but that. The Soviet Union forced the bridge on Bulgaria and Romania. When hardline Stalinism is the only solution, there is a major problem. It is also proof that fear can be a historic motivator. Friendship was an ironic name for the bridge, Bulgaria and Romania have not been on friendly terms during much of their history. By forcing the two sides to agree on a bridge, the Soviets offered a preview of how an outside entity could get these two Balkan nations to cooperate. An outside power was also instrumental in the getting the New Europe Bridge built. In this case it would be the European Union.

Making the connection – New Europe Bridge across the Danube River

Finding Their Way – Less Than Easy Access
The New Europe Bridge, which became the second bridge to span the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania in 2013, was a startling success when compared to its predecessor. It had only taken 59 years and the collapse of communism to come through with a follow up to the Friendship Bridge. That is light speed when compared to the seventeen years it took to bridge the divide between the last ancient and first modern version of a bridge crossing the lower Danube. The New Europe Bridge stretched from Vidin, Bulgaria to Calafat, Romania. First proposed in the early 20th century, getting the bridge built was no easy feat. Even after the Ceausescu and Zhivkov regimes ended in 1989, a series of obstacles stood in the way.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s was the necessary evil that inadvertently assisted in bringing the New Europe Bridge to fruition. The border between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia was closed when war began to rage in Kosovo. This was a grievous blow to the Bulgarian economy. Its neighbor’s woes effectively isolated it. Bulgaria had enjoyed ease of access through Yugoslavia because their shared border did not require bridging the Danube. This had been the proverbial easy way out. It threatened Bulgaria’s lifeline to the rest of Europe. The old plans to build a bridge from Vidin across the Danube were dredged back up.

Connecting point – New Europe Bridge (Credit: G Garitan)

Seasonal Extremes – The Rhythm of a River
A bridge across the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania would alter time tested work arounds. In a region as tradition based as these two Balkan nations, the locals, as well as those looking to cover longer distances, used ferry services which ran between the two sides of the rivers. This romantic way of crossing the mighty waters of the Danube was a timeless mode of transport. Whereas ferries from centuries before would have been on a much smaller scale, modern ones allowed for vehicles to make the crossing as well. Of course, the river’s rhythms suffered from seasonal extremes. Low water levels during periods of drought or raging floods after torrential downpours were always a worry.

During the winter months, ice on the Danube could close the crossings for months at a time. The only way to then get across would be to head 191 kilometers further downriver to the Friendship Bridge, followed by traveling a similar distance to get back into southeastern Romania or northwestern Bulgaria. The lack of a crossing due to the vagaries of weather led to a great deal of frustration. The only way to permanently alleviate this problem would be to build a bridge between the riverbanks. This meant cooperation in choosing a suitable location, followed by securing the necessary loans to fund construction. Neither would be easy.

A Long & Convoluted Process – Engineering An Agreement
Getting a second bridge built across the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania was an extremely long and convoluted process. The shortest part was the actual construction which “only” took six years, from 2007 – 2013. Considering that seventeen centuries passed between the building of Constantine’s Bridge and the Friendship Bridge, the second Danube Bridge’s construction took place at light speed. The time it took for construction was only part of the story since a full twenty years had passed since the first discussions over where to locate the bridge and its final completion. Of course, this being the Balkans choosing a location was no easy task.

The Bulgarians and Romanians were adamant in advocating for where they believed the bridge should be located. The Bulgarians wanted to revitalize the city of Vidin, stuck in a location that suffered from few trade connections. The Romanians argued for a different location that would not have included Vidin. Their preferred location would have kept vehicles in Romania for the longest possible time. A study that showed the best location was neither the Bulgarian nor Romanian preferences went nowhere. There was no emperor, a la Constantine, to make the decision by decree. Getting the bridge built was an exercise in the art of compromise. Eventually, the Bulgarian location won out.

None of this would have mattered if not for the work of outsiders. Just as the Soviet Union had played a decisive role in the Friendship Bridge, so too did the efforts of the larger European community bring the New Europe Bridge to fruition. A stability pact led to investment in an historically neglected region. The European Investment Bank, run by the European Union, helped engineer a loan. Projects such as the New Europe Bridge were win-win situations for everyone involved. The bridge facilitated trade, while bringing Bulgaria and Romania closer to Europe. It also brought a degree of normalcy and stability, which had been the exception rather than the rule for both countries in the modern era.

Way to go – New Europe Bridge across the Danube

Beyond Expectations – A Stunning Success
The New Europe Bridge turned out to be a stunning success of historic proportions. In its first year alone, over half a million vehicles passed over it. This was five times the initial yearly estimate for vehicular traffic. The bridge closed a gap in trade links between east-central Europe and the Balkans. Most importantly, the bridge helped connect Bulgaria and Romania in a joint economic enterprise. It is amazing how a single bridge can bring people closer together. It is just as amazing that it took so long to bridge what will forever be a historic divide.

The Point of Collapse – Constantine’s Bridge: Bridging The Lower Danube (Part One)

Time always moves forward, sometimes human history does not. That sounds simplistic, but when it comes to the history of human endeavors the situation is much more complex. The idea of progress has become so ingrained in modern society, especially in western countries, that people are often shocked when the opposite happens. Take for example, economic recessions. Any time a recession strikes the economy, storm clouds break over the news. Headlines make the situation sound dire. There is a sense that the natural order has been upset, when in fact the economy cannot keep growing forever. This is something everyone should keep in mind when examining the vagaries of human history.

Assuming that history has been one long litany of forward progress is a mistake. The world has grown in fits and starts, development and destruction are not mutually exclusive ideas. Instead, one leads to the other or vice versa. Progress is not a given. We should always keep this in mind when considering that not a single empire, kingdom or nation has lasted forever. With this history we can assume that the nations which exist today will eventually vanish. Most, if not all their works, will vanish right along with them. Other political entities will rise and try to recreate or surpass their predecessors. They may build upon what already exists or rebuild the same things that once existed. A fine example of the latter is the New Europe Bridge which crosses the Danube River from Bulgaria to Romania.

Crossover appeal – Reconstruction of ancient Roman bridge across the Lower Danube (Credit: Rapsak)

Crossover Appeal – The Dividing Line
We have all heard the wise saying, “that Rome wasn’t built in a day.” While that is true, neither was it destroyed in a day, but destruction is swifter than creation. The same is true for the structural remnants left behind by the Roman Empire. The destruction of these was swift and long lasting. It is not a coincidence that the Dark Ages follow the Roman Empire in history books. One of the ramifications of the Roman retreat from the lands we now know as the Balkans, was a regress in development that echoed all the way down into the 21st century. The linkage between the ancient and modern spans a divide unbridged for the longest time. There are not many things the 4th and the 21st century have in common, but bridges across the Danube are one of them.

Seventeen hundred years ago, the Roman emperor Constantine ordered a bridge constructed over the Danube to transport soldiers for the reconquest of Dacia. Upon its completion during the summer of 328 AD, Constantine’s Bridge was the longest in the ancient world. It was located on the Lower Danube between what is now Gigen, Bulgaria and Corabia, Romania. While highly effective, it did not last long. In 367, when Emperor Valens needed to make a crossing of the river to fight the Goths, his forces used a bridge of boats. That is how historians know that Constantine’s Bridge no longer existed. It had lasted less than forty years. Nonetheless, it was an incredible engineering feat for not only that time, but for all time. This can be seen by what came after Constantine’s Bridge following its destruction, in a word, nothing.

Prime real estate – Location of Constantine’s Bridge

Losing Control – The Idea of Regress
As the Roman Empire lost control of provincial regions, the infrastructure it had built in these areas ended up abandoned. There was neither the organization nor the know how to recreate such feats of engineering after the empire’s collapse. The barbarian tribes were more interested in plunder than development. Residency was short lived before another wave of invasions took place. Those left behind tried to make do with what still existed or build atop what was already there. Maintaining infrastructure was an impossible task without financial or engineering skills. Most people were just fighting to survive in a world where calamity could come at any moment. A host of political entities laid claim to the region. Political instability was a hallmark after the Roman retreat from the lower reaches of the Danube, a region where Romania and Bulgaria would later come to occupy each side of the shoreline.

It would not be until the 21st century that another bridge spanned the Danube in this region. Prior to that, connecting Bulgaria and Romania proved close to impossible. The fact that no bridge had been built between the two during the intervening period was a remarkable non-achievement. It speaks volumes about the lack of coordination between the empires and nations that occupied these lands. It is easy to look at Bulgaria and Romania as places suffering endemic backwardness. That was hardly the fault of their inhabitants.

The Ottoman Empire’s invasion and resulting occupation of these regions for hundreds of years hindered their economic and political growth. It took an inordinate length of time to catch up with the Roman Empire’s level of development on the lower Danube. The region stagnated so badly that it could not catch up with an ancient empire that vanished from the earth. Wave after wave of interlopers attempting for better or worse (often worse) led to tremendous upheaval. It was the latter that ensured economies did not become highly developed, which in turn meant that infrastructure suffered.

In the distance – New Europe Bridge between Bulgaria and Romania (Credit G Garitan)

Growth Spurts – The Potential for Problems
After the Ottoman Empire exited stage south from the scene, the Bulgars and Romanians stared down each other from across the lower Danube. In the 19th century after both become independent from the Ottoman yoke, the push to create a modern, self-sustaining state ran up against myriad problems. Both nations struggled to build a nation-state from scratch. During the first half of the 20th century, they were more likely to fight wars among themselves than build a bridge across the Danube. The two nations found cooperation difficult at the best of times. Trying to figure out how to be efficient and effective after centuries worth of barely disguised slavery under Ottoman role was a near impossible task. It would take several more calamities before the two nations would be able to bridge their divides.

Click here for: Closing The Gap — New Europe Bridge: Bridging The Lower Danube (Part Two)


Sidestepping War – Eastern Europe’s Long Peace 1945 – 1991 (From Peace To War #1)

There is no doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and continued prosecution of the war has set some very dangerous precedents. One of the most worrisome is that the taboo of large wars in Europe has been broken. This is a direct threat to Europe’s stability because it has the potential to unleash another period of violent conflict. The last time this happened, Europe came closer to complete destruction than at any time in history. It is worth remembering that Europe had a long period of peace prior to the First World War. This era was marked by great strides in economic, industrial, and cultural development.

Peace gives birth to prosperity and prosperity provides an incentive for nations to avoid wars. This does not mean that Europe completely sidestepped wars in the century between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and World War I in 1914. On the contrary, there were many wars in Europe, but none of these engulfed the entire continent. The closest they came was due to the revolutions in 1848. Compared to the two World Wars, the fighting was contained. The same could be said for the Wars of German Unification and the Balkan Wars. This period of relative peace came to an end in the most violent manner possible beginning in 1914 and did not end until 1945.

Long Peace – Preserved part of the Iron Curtain in Czech Republic (Credit: Marcin Szala)

Keeping The Peace – A Tenuous Process
Contemporary Europe is largely an outcome from the reaction to two World Wars. The long and successful unification project of the European Union was, as it still is today, an effort to ensure large wars in Europe never happen again. Whether or not that will be the case beyond the Ukraine-Russia War no one knows. What has become apparent is how remarkable the post-1945 period was in European history due to the absence of large wars. The Ukraine-Russia War makes Europeans long for the peaceful period many of them took for granted. The phrase “You don’t know what you got it until its gone” applies to the mindset of contemporary Europeans. Many are shocked by the return of large wars which had supposedly been relegated to history books. That is no longer the case. The Ukraine-Russia War has been a return to the kind of history Europe managed to avoid much longer than anyone could have imagined.

One day many years from now, historians will look back at the period from 1945 – 2014 in Europe as unusually peaceful. Save for the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the Yugoslav Wars form 1991 – 1998, Europe largely enjoyed peace almost seventy years of peace. This helped create unprecedented prosperity across the continent. Even for Eastern Europe, the period was remarkable in just how few armed conflicts occurred. Of course, this came at the cost of being under the Soviet thumb. As for the Yugoslav Wars, they are now viewed as a violent aberration. Many of the nations involved have thrived since those wars ended.

Croatia and Slovenia are now in the European Union, Montenegro is in much better shape than it was for many centuries. Kosovo won its independence and diplomatic recognition from much of the world. Even the biggest losers in the Yugoslav Wars have had a better-than-expected existence since those wars ended. Serbia has been largely stable with a decent economy. Politically, Bosnia and Herzegovina may still be a mess, but disputes have been resolved through diplomatic means. While tensions continue to threaten another conflict, cooler heads have prevailed. The Balkans is no longer a powder keg ready to explode.  Because the Yugoslav Wars are still within living memory for most of the region’s inhabitants, this has been a powerful incentive to ensure peaceful resolution of disputes.

Countries in the European Union (Credit: BBC)

Walled Off – Keeping War At A Distance
For the Balkans, the memories of the Yugoslav Wars are so horrific that either the successor states have decided to focus on economic progress in putting the past behind them or the memories of the conflicts were so horrific that those who experienced them dare not allow a repeat performance. The same could be said of Europe after the end of World War II, the apocalyptic nature of the fighting left the continent in shambles. Both western and eastern Europe focused on reconstruction, but in very different ways. Though there were times when war threatened to break out over Berlin, cooler heads prevailed due to fear of nuclear apocalypse and no one wanting to reexperience the same sort of destruction visited on Europe that had so recently occurred. The psychological trauma of World War II manifested itself to such an extent that it produced a peace dividend. The American military’s role in protecting Europe west of the Iron Curtain cannot be overlooked. There is no doubt that it helped keep the peace.

The closest Europe came to a complete combustion during the Cold War was in Berlin. Ironically, the Berlin Wall’s construction created the stability that had been lacking before then. For all its symbolism as divisive, the wall kept the two sides at a distance and delineated spheres of influence. There were no more showdowns at Checkpoint Charlie. West Berlin and West Germany were free to continue their economic development. East Germany was resigned to keeping its citizens locked inside a worker’s paradise and spying on them. The shadow of war hung over Europe, but the situation was manageable. Europeans now can look back to the Cold War with a fair amount of confidence that it might serve as a template to manage the relationship with Russia after the war in Ukraine comes to an end.

Revolution in progress – Germans crossing the Berlin Wall in 1989 (Credit: Sue Mead)

Miraculous Feat – The Curtain Falls
The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Iron Curtain were strangely peaceful. World historical events that accord a complete change in ideological, political, economic, and cultural systems for an entire region hardly ever occur without massive violence. The incredible thing was just how little conflict resulted from the upheaval. The worst violence occurred Romania where somewhere between 700 -1300 were killed and 3,200 wounded in fighting during its nine-day revolution in December 1989. Considering that Mikhail Gorbachev could have decided to use Red Army troops stationed in Eastern Europe to quell uprisings, the change of system from communist totalitarianism to democratic capitalism was nothing short of miraculous. No one could possibly have predicted the lack of a violent counterrevolution. The situation would be somewhat similar in the Soviet Union two years later, but in the decades that followed extremely different.

Click here for: Separation Anxiety – Eastern Europe & Post-Soviet Russia 1991 – 2000 (From Peace To War #2)

Conquest & Creation –Alexander & Alexandria: The Greek Influence in Egypt (Part Three)

Greece and Egypt would seem to be strange bedfellows. They are on two entirely different continents, one noted for prosperity, the other for poverty. Geographically, Greece is known more for its islands than the mainland. Egypt is known for the Nile, rather than the desert wasteland that covers most of the country.  One is a long-standing member of the European Union, the other experienced a revolution just a decade ago. While both are known for ancient history, Pharaonic Egypt and Classical Greece were constructed on contrasting political systems. One hierarchical, the other horizontal. Despite these differences, there have been times when these two places and their peoples have been connected to historic effect. Greece as a fringe territory in southeastern Europe has often looked further east. Several of its native sons have written their name into history through their exploits in Egypt. This influence is remarkable and remarkably overlooked.  

Rising from the shore – Alexandria (Credit: Argenberg)

Riding The Waves – Tides of Civilization
Southeastern Europe and North Africa were never that far apart. Before modern times, water was often easier to cross than land. The Mediterranean Sea offered one of the widest avenues available for the transport of peoples, ideas, and goods. Waterborne transport led to cross-cultural contacts. The Mediterranean was one of the world’s great highways, spreading civilization onto distant shores. One needs to look no further than the ancient Roman ruins on the coast of present-day Algeria as evidence of how civilization spread from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. Roman and Hellenistic influences in North Africa will come as a surprise to most Westerners.

Historical biases against the east, whether that be Eastern Europe, the near east or the middle east still stubbornly persist in the western world today. For instance, it is not sufficiently known that the richest part of the Roman Empire was its eastern half, particularly Egypt. One of the most glaring anti-eastern biases concerns the fall of Rome. It is still widely believed today that the Roman Empire came to an end in 476 AD. This, even though the empire’s eastern half continued for 977 more years. It lasted until the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. One of the most obvious and overlooked examples of anti-eastern bias is explicitly stated in the phrase, “History of Western Civilization” for which entire textbooks, popular histories, and countless university courses are named. These inherent and long-lasting biases have little time for tales of cultural interaction that took place along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Alexander’s vision – Plan of ancient Alexandria (Credit: Philg88)

Life Everlasting – A Wide Canvas
After Alexander died, he received the ultimate posthumous honor in Alexandria as his body laid there on display in a gold sarcophagus. Alexander and Alexandria offer the greatest evidence to support the great man theory of history. It was Alexander’s decision to found Alexandria that set all its succeeding history in motion. While Alexander died before his vision of the city would be fully realized, his achievement has outlasted him by 2,300 years. For all his greatness, Alexander could not escape mortality. He went from cradle to grave rather quickly, living a relatively short 33 years. Alexandria is very different in this regard. The city is still a cradle of civilization that despite a great deal of degeneration over the past seventy-five years managed to have staying power.

Alexandria has suffered numerous conflicts, conquests, sacks, and sieges at a steady rate throughout its history. Nonetheless, it is one of history’s great survivors. People come and go, but Alexander’s city lives on. The city has historically offered a wide canvas from which others hailing from Greece could fulfill their dreams. Modern Egypt, as it exists today, would be a very different place if not for its founder who came straight out of the Balkans by way of Greece. Muhammad Ali Pasha, an energetic ethnic Albanian who grew up in Greece and gravitated to Egypt as part of an Ottoman military contingent, is one of the most influential historical figures in Egyptian history. During the first half of the 19th century, he set about modernizing Egypt with vigor and vision. Greece, at the time an Ottoman outpost and Balkan backwater, was closer than one might imagine to Egypt and the near East. This was because both Greece and Egypt were part of the Ottoman Empire.

Staking his claim – Alexander the Great founding Alexandria (Credit: Placido Costanzi)

Empire Building – The Grecian Way
While it is now common to speak of empires as disasters for the regions and countries which they conquered, empires also allowed for the transference of capital, ideas, and talent. In the case of Egypt, without the Ottoman Empire, Muhammad Ali would never have set foot on its shores. For all the excesses of empires they also lent a veneer of stability to places where it had otherwise been lacking. Muhammad Ali’s reign and subsequent creation of a dynasty provided Egypt with enough stability that others sought it out. These emigres brought much needed skills and created communities with their own unique cultures.

This was the case with the Greeks. They started coming to Egypt in large numbers during Muhammad Ali’s reign. The dynasty he established allowed them to stay. Their skills were highly valued, as they were well educated and economically driven. Micro-cultures developed among these emigres who lived in two worlds, the Egyptian one and their own. The Greek community in Egypt developed distinctive cultural traits. They also produced individuals of distinction, the most famous of which was Constantine Cavafy, perhaps the greatest of Greek poets.

Of Human Bondage – Florence Baker: Exploring Her Later Life (Part Two)

Florence Maria von Sass went from childhood in a prosperous Transylvania family to becoming an orphan overnight. She was only four years old at the time when she lost her mother, brother, and father. At that moment, her childhood came to an abrupt halt. Circumstances forced her to grow up fast amid war and revolution. The end of one part of her life indirectly led to the beginning of another part. One where she and the love of her life – Samuel Baker – would make history. It is remarkable that the first kindling of that fabulous romance began in a slave market. The peculiar institution of human bondage brought the couple improbably together. From the point forward, they became united as explorers and lovers.

In the mid-19th century, the city of Vidin was a bustling port along the southern bank of the Lower Danube. It had 26,000 inhabitants and a sizable military garrison that added another 8,000 soldiers to the population. At the time it was still part of the Ottoman Empire (the city is now in northwestern Bulgaria). An empire that would soon enough become known as “the Sick Man of Europe” due to its perpetual decline. It also looked increasingly backwards compared to a Europe on the cusp of modernity. One of the empire’s more lamentable traits was slavery. Anyone unlucky enough to find themselves as an orphan or refugee in the Ottoman lands could just as easily be sold into slavery. This was the situation Florence faced at the age of fourteen. While her life was on the verge of taking a turn for the worst, the man she would become inextricably connected with for the rest of her life had no idea of her plight.

Passionate pursuit – Lady Florence Baker

Distress & Discovery – Favorable Circumstances
Samuel Baker was in the throes of a hunting trip across central and eastern Europe with Sir Duleep Singh. A decade earlier, Singh had been the Maharajah (Great King) of the Sikh Empire. He was only a child at the time and would later go into exile. Baker, like Singh, was born into favorable circumstances. He was the son of a wealthy merchant. This afforded him the opportunity to indulge a wide range of interests which included writing, hunting, ranching and travel. Baker and Singh arrived at Vidin on the tail end of their trip. To satisfy Singh’s curiosity, Baker agreed to accompany him to Vidin’s slave market. He had no idea that this would change his life forever. One of the slaves for sale in the market was Florence. The teenager caught the eye of Baker who was nearly thrice her age. (The age of consent in Victorian Britain at the time was twelve).

It may have been love at first sight, but “purchasing” Florence was not without difficulties. As the story goes, the Pasha (governor) of Vidin outbid Baker. A life in the cloistered, oversexed world of the harem awaited Florence unless Samuel could find a way to free her from bondage. Baker’s passionate pursuit took the form of bribes to her attendants. They allowed the Englishman to spirit her away by carriage. The couple then made their way to Romania. Some accounts state that they married there, others are more ambiguous. The couple would have a much more formal wedding in Great Britain, but that was five years into the future. For now, they settled down in Romania. Rather than a life of sexual slavery, Florence would now walk in lockstep with Samuel as they moved toward an era of their famous discoveries.

Discovery channels – Murchison Falls (Credit: Rod Waddington)

Into The Wild – Abolitionism in Africa
While the acclaim surrounding Samuel and Florence comes from their trip into the unknown wilds of the White Nile, a later journey into the same region of Africa says a great deal about their humanity. In 1869, at the invitation of Ismail Pasha (Khedive of Egypt), Samuel undertook a military expedition to end the sale of slaves there. Given administrative control over the new region and appointed to a four-year term in office, Samuel took command of 1,700 soldiers (mostly made up of former convicts). Florence was with him the entire time. They met with resistance every step of the way. The slave trade was a lucrative enterprise, but Florence and Samuel fervently believed in its abolition. Convincing those who profited from it was another matter. Their attempt to end the slave trade failed.

At the end of Samuel’s time in office they left the area. They spent the final years of their life together both at home in the English countryside and traveling the world. Their love for one another continued as strong as ever. Despite the scarcely disguised snobbery and rigid class hierarchy of Great Britain during the Victorian era, the romance of Samuel and Florence Baker would endure. The couple stayed married until Samuel’s death in 1893 at the age of seventy-two. Florence never remarried and lived until 1916. Theirs was an otherworldly romance, hers was a remarkable life.

Of human bondage – Samuel and Florence Baker

Broken Records – An Air of Mystery
A word of caution for anyone attempting to ascertain the facts of Florence’s life, especially the early years. Piecing together her childhood and teenage years is difficult at best. The records are extremely vague, to the point of non-existent. Once the massacre at Nagyenyed (Aiud in present day Romania) occurred in 1849, everything about her life becomes open to conjecture. Her time as a refugee, probable abduction, and life in Vidin prior to meeting Samuel is obscure. It is the product of hearsay and family stories passed down through the years. There was good reason for both Samuel and Florence to not divulge the truth. With Samuel knighted for his discoveries in Africa, this meant they gained the spotlight in an intensely aristocratic society.

There were those among the British elite who would look down upon the couple due to Florence’s backstory. Word eventually got to Queen Victoria about Florence’s past. She would never receive the couple, purportedly because of the way they had first come together. This is also why historians believe the couple is overlooked when compared with other explorers of that time. Livingston, Stanley, and Burton all became household names, but Samuel and Florence Baker are all but forgotten. In Florence’s case, this also has to do with the fact that she was female. That makes her exploits much more remarkable and well worth remembering.

Autonomy & Dynasty – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Four)

By the late 1830’s, Mehmet Ali (Muhammad Ali Pasha) was at the peak of his power. For an ethnic Albanian, hailing from a provincial Ottoman city on the coast of Greece, who had first set foot in Egypt with 300 men and very little military experience, Ali had succeeded beyond all expectations except his own. He had achieved the impossible by taking Egypt from a dismal backwater of the Ottoman Empire to a reformed and rejuvenated, quasi-autonomous state. This made him more powerful than the Sultan in Istanbul. With his son Ibrahim leading Egyptian forces in Syria to a crushing victory over the Ottoman Army at the Battle of Nezib in June 1839, the Ottoman throne was now within Mehmet Ali’s grasp. Ibrahim wanted to march on Istanbul and take the Ottoman capital. Mehmet hesitated. He was more interested in seeing what concessions he could get from Sultan Mahmud II (1808 -1839), including territory and complete autonomy for Egypt. Forcing the Ottoman Sultan to agree on his terms would be the crowning achievements of Ali’s three-and-a-half-decade long struggle to build Egypt into a regional power whose wishes could not be ignored.

Standing tall in Cairo – Mosque of Mehmet Ali (Credit: ezzat hisham)

Dreams Deferred – A Negotiated Settlement
Mehmet was on the verge of breaking Egypt completely free of external influences, but he also knew that the Great Powers of Europe – particularly Britain – wanted to stop him from growing more powerful than the Ottoman Sultan. Following the Battle of Nezib it looked like Mehmet Ali might get everything he wanted. The entire Ottoman fleet defected to his side and Sultan Mahmud II (1808 – 1839) died. The Ottoman Empire could either collapse or become a plaything of Mehmet Ali. From the perspective of Britain, if either of these occurred than the entire European security architecture that had existed in the post-Napoleonic era would be threatened. It was in there interests along with several Continental powers to prop up the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet Ali was forced into negotiations. This was what he had wanted, but with the Ottoman Sultan. Instead, he would have to deal with the Great Powers who would defer many of his dreams forever.

The truth was that Mehmet Ali had become too powerful for his own good. If he had been the Ottoman Sultan, then the Great Powers would have dealt with him as an equal. Instead, they felt the need to put him in his place. Ali was a danger to their interests, especially British ones, as well as the balance of power. His military could not be allowed to control Syria because it could render British plans to develop alternate access routes to India null and void. While Ali was more than the Ottoman sultan had been able to handle, he could not stand up to Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, all of whom were backing the Ottomans. When the British and Austrian navies blockaded the Nile Delta in 1840, Ali was forced into an agreement he had little choice but to accept. He would pull Ibrahim and the army out of Syria. The army would also undergo severe cutbacks. A force that had numbered up to 130,000 would be reduced to 20,000. This was enough to allow Ali to keep his grip on power in Egypt, but nothing more than that.,

Sign of the times – Flag of Mehmet Ali

Dynastic Cycle – The Long Goodbye
Despite those setbacks, he was able to win several major concessions. The Ottoman Sultan was forced to recognize Ali and his heirs as the leaders of Egypt. The province would now be an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire, enjoying virtual independence. Unfortunately for Ali, this independence had its limits. He was entangled by the British in an Ottoman-Anglo trade agreement that opened Egypt up to cheaper British imports and powerful industrial entities. There was no way Egypt could compete with British trade and industry. This would have ramifications for government revenue. Ali’s power was weakened by his agreement with the Great Powers, but his greatest achievement was still intact, Egypt now enjoyed virtual independence. His heirs would rule over it until the mid-20th century.

By the late 1840’s, Egypt was sinking into debt and Ali into senility. There were disagreements with Ibrahim and wild fits of temper, signs of a once great leader losing his mental acuity. Ali’s cognitive decline worsened to the point that Ibrahim traveled to Istanbul and received the Sultan’s blessing to take over as ruler of Egypt. Tragically, a guilt-ridden Ibrahim succumbed to despair and failing health. He soon died of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, Ali’s health continued to worsen and his grandson Abbas I became Viceroy of Egypt. In 1849, Ali died in Alexandria. Abbas, who had little use for Ali, did not even declare a period of mourning in Egypt. The man who had brought Egypt into the modern age was an afterthought. This slight did nothing to reduce Ali’s remarkable historical stature which grew with each passing decade. While Ali built up Egypt to consolidate his grip on power and out of self-interest, those actions modernized the country.

Elder stateman – Mehmet Ali in the 1840s

Lasting Monuments – Mehmet Ali & Modernity
It is hard to believe just how far Egypt came under Mehmet Ali’s leadership. Prior to Ali assuming power in 1805, Egypt was at its lowest historical point in thousands of years. The country suffered from a wide range of ills. By the time Ali died, Egypt was autonomous, administered by educated bureaucrats and contained a professional army led by a highly trained officer corps. Ali was responsible for bringing order and prosperity to Egypt. The dynasty he created would live on into the mid-20th century. It helped pave the way for independence in 1952 when the last leader of Ali’s dynasty was overthrown. Even with the rise of nationalism, Ali still held his place as the founder of modern Egypt.

Anyone who might wonder about Ali’s importance to Egyptian history should look no further than the skyline in its greatest city, Cairo. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali can be seen from most vantage points in the city. Its twin minarets rising above domes and piercing the sky. The mosque is located at the summit of Cairo’s famed Citadel, much of which was rebuilt by Ali. His mosque and the Citadel are lasting monuments that remind Egyptians of his greatness. Modern Egypt would not be the same without Mehmet Ali. As a matter of fact, it might not exist at all.  

Arsenal of Autocracy- Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Three)

One of history’s more controversial debates involves the Great man theory of History. The theory says that history can be explained by the activities of great men, those historical personages of extraordinary personalities and activities that shaped the world. This has been challenged by scholars who state that social and economic forces shape history more than any single man. The Great Man Theory of History is also blind to the contributions of women. This is one of its major failings. While there is some truth to the theory, the sheer weight of social and economic forces outweighs the activities of any single person. This is particularly true for modern history when mass movements became more pronounced due to the industrial and digital revolutions. Individual leaders are now as much at the mercy of technology as they are of events. They are shaped by these forces, rather than controlling them.

There is also the matter of historical context when judging whether economic and social forces are more powerful than an individual leader’s actions. Certain periods may lend themselves more to the activities of individuals than others. Circumstances often dictate the opportunity for a strong leader to emerge. For instance, war has a way of making historical figures into heroes or villains depending upon the outcome of their actions. The same can be true with societies that have suffered difficult times. A fine example occurred in Egypt during the 18th century. That was when a series of natural catastrophes, combined with dismal leadership, led Egypt to its lowest point in thousands of years. Fortunately, a transformative leader arrived at the beginning of the 19th century. There is no greater argument in support of the Great Man Theory of History than Mehmet Ali (also known as Mohammad Ali Pasha), an Ottoman provincial from the Balkans who improbably took control of Egypt at a time when it was in perpetual decline and made it into a modern state. Mehmet Ali’s exploits are those of a visionary leader who used his vast administrative skills to transform every aspect of Egypt’s political, economic, and military institutions.

Great man theory – Interview with Mehemet Ali in his Palace at Alexandria (Credit: David Roberts)

A Fighting Chance – Building An Army
After Mehmet Ali nationalized land ownership and agriculture in Egypt, he set about using the revenues gained from these reforms to begin the industrialization of Egypt. His immediate focus was on building a powerful military force. This meant that he needed to make Egypt self-sufficient in military technology. Ali envisioned home grown industries that would produce weapons for a modern (European style) military. He had seen how a lack of innovation had left the Ottoman Empire at the mercy of European powers. Ali was determined that the same thing would not happen to Egypt. Under his guidance, Egypt’s two biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria became hubs for a new military-industrial complex. In Cairo, weapons factories churned out close to 20,000 muskets a year. Alexandria’s position on the Mediterranean coast made it a center for shipbuilding.  No less than nine warships were constructed there.

Ali realized the most modern weapons in the world would do no good without a strong army of soldiers. This led to his most controversial reform, one which he did not enact until he had been in power for sixteen years. In 1821, the conscription of peasants into the army began. This led to a great deal of consternation in villages where families saw their sons taken away for military service. To say this was groundbreaking would be a massive understatement. No leader had tried this in Egypt for over two thousand years. This did not stop Ali. He pushed the reforms through in the face of peasant opposition. The result was a force that grew to 130,000 men and an army that struck fear in both European states and the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul.

Aggressive expansion – Egypt under Mehmet Ali’s dynasty from 1805 -1914 (Credit: Don-kun)

Power Plays – The Greater Threat
The strong, centralized military was administered by an increasingly professionalized bureaucracy. The two influenced one another and strengthened the Egyptian state. With Ali at the helm, the military achieved a string of notable successes, several of which took place before conscription. Ali put down a rebellion in what is now Saudi Arabia. When tensions flared again, he sent his son Ibrahim to lead another campaign. This brought Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, back under Ottoman rule in 1818. Ali did not stop there. His campaigning extended into the resource rich Sudan which was subdued during the first half of the 1820’s. Meanwhile, Ottoman forces were on the defensive in Europe as the Greeks rebelled in a bid for independence. Ali sent Ibrahim with an army to Greece. He would provide military assistance to Ottoman forces. In return, the Sultan made promises that Ali would be given Syria and the island of Crete.

After Ibrahim’s campaign faltered, the Sultan went back on his promises. This resulted in Ali’s army taking Syria and occupying the Ottoman heartland in central Anatolia by the early 1830’s. During this time, Great Britain and several countries in continental Europe realized that Ali was the greatest threat to the balance of power they had carefully constructed on the continent after Napoleon’s defeat twenty years earlier. Egyptian forces were threatening to topple the Sultan. This could lead to Ali as the Ottoman leader, something that nations like Britain could not allow to happen. The Ottoman Sultan, Mahmud II (1808 – 1839) had no other choice but to seek external support. He soon received it from Russia, but this upset the British who feared that Russia could use this to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean Sea. The British response was to ensnare the Ottomans in a trade agreement, which allowed them de facto control over the Ottoman economy.

Military masterminds – Muhammed Ali with his son Ibrahim

The Reckoning – Coming To Terms
None of the machinations by the great powers in the Near East and Balkans would have occurred if not for the threat Ali represented to Ottoman rule. The British continued to be fearful that Ali might eventually use his Egyptian base of power to cut them off from creating a quicker route to India. They looked with suspicion at Ali’s use of French experts in military affairs and engineering to bolster his Egyptian empire. Ironically, the greater threat to Britain had become Ali rather than the Ottoman Sultan. His leadership in making Egypt a force in great power politics was extraordinary. The British knew there would have to be reckoning with Mehmet Ali. He had become too powerful to ignore.

Click here for: Autonomy & Dynasty – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Four)

The Empire Builder – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Two)

Visitors to the city of Karvala in northeastern Greece spend most of their time enjoying the mesmerizing waters of the Bay of Karvala and the Aegean Sea. Those hankering for a bit of history can take a short stroll to the the man who made modern Egypt. Karvala was the birthplace of Mehmet Ali who grew up in the Ottoman Empire as the second son of an Albanian tobacco merchant. His childhood home is one of the most striking examples of Ottoman residential architecture to be found anywhere in the world. It is representative of a prosperous Ottoman merchant’s home in the late 18th century. At that time, the home was the largest in Karvala. Unfortunately, Mehmet Ali’s father died when he was young. Perhaps that is why he spent the rest of his life striving so hard to make a name for himself in the world. Raised by an uncle, Ali became known for his work ethic which manifested itself in the collection of taxes in the city. His outstanding service earned him a commander’s rank in an Albanian mercenary force that was sent to Egypt in 1801. No one could have known at the time that Mehmet Ali was on the verge of modernizing Egypt.

Seizing power – Mehmet Ali looks on during the Massacre of the Mamluks (Painting by Horace Vernet)

A Series of Disasters – Egypt In The 18th Century
To appreciate the Herculean task that faced Mehmet Ali (also known as Muhammad Ali Pasha) in transforming Egypt, it is important to understand what the country had suffered through prior to his arrival. The magnificence of ancient Egypt, one of the defining civilizations in human history, could not have been more distant. The 18th century was unkind to Egypt. A series of natural disasters upended any semblance of prosperity and led to a decline in the population. Egypt was relegated to a primitive backwater. As always, the Nile Valley had massive agricultural potential, but it was no longer being realized. Politically, Egypt was ruled by the Mamluks. Their administration left a lot to be desired. The Mamluks were slave soldiers from the Caucasus and Central Asia who were brought to Egypt in the Middle Ages by the Abbayid (Abbassid) Dynasty. Their grip on power was loosening.

After the Ottoman Empire took control of Egypt in the early 16th century, they were still forced to recognize Mamluk suzerainty. The Mamluks paid a tribute to the Sultan and were largely left to rule as they saw fit. By the 18th century, the Mamluks had descended into corruption and decadence. The slow decline of the Ottoman Empire affected Mamluk Egypt. Without a strong central authority, tax farming of the peasantry was out of control. Many settlements were abandoned. Coupled with plagues and floods, the population plummeted to less than four million by the end of the 18th century. This was ten million people less than lived in Egypt when the Arab conquest occurred eleven hundred years earlier. It was a demographic disaster unprecedented in Egyptian history. Adding to Egypt’s woes, a French invasion led by Napoleon took place 1798-99. The French sought to conquer Egypt as the first step in a process they hoped would result in taking India out of British control. This did not work out as planned. Napoleon’s conquest failed and he soon returned to France.

Early beginnings – Mehmet Ali’s birthplace in Karvala

Seizing Power – An Authoritarian Streak
A power vacuum now developed with French troops, the Ottomans and Mamluks all competing to gain control.  Into this maelstrom. Mehmet Ali arrived in 1801 leading a regiment of 300 Albanian troops. His forces were to assist Ottoman troops in reasserting control. Little did anyone know that Ali had ideas of his own. Through military brilliance, a series of intrigues, shadowy machinations and personal charisma, Mehmet Ali won over local leaders while undermining two Ottoman governors. He managed to convince the Sultan to promote him to viceroy. This was quite an achievement for a man who was illiterate at the time and would not learn to read until he was well into middle age. Furthermore, Ali’s mother tongue was Turkish. He was unable to speak Arabic. None of this stopped him from gaining complete control over Egypt.

Ali dealt with the Mamluks in a masterfully sinister way. In 1811, he invited all their leaders to a ceremony where his troops proceeded to murder them.* This left Ali as the ruling authority in Egypt. His ambitions did not stop after gaining the position of viceroy. If anything, power fueled Ali’s desire to separate Egypt from the Sultan’s authority. Meanwhile, the Ottoman state was suffering through major problems of its own. Egypt was not their primary focus. Ali used this to his advantage. He was distant enough from Istanbul to where rule as he pleased. This allowed him to engineer a major overhaul of the Egyptian state. The idea that underlay all of Ali’s reforms was to create sources of revenue that he could then use to build up his military forces. This would not only cement his power in Egypt, but also allow him to conduct military campaigns throughout the Middle East.

To that end, he began by focusing on land reform and agriculture. The government confiscated the holdings of large landowners and religious foundations. Tax farming was banned. The government took control of agricultural production as peasants were told what crops to cultivate. Money soon began to flow back into government coffers. Ali also brought in French engineers to create a new network of canals. This in turn led to greater productivity in agriculture. Water storage expanded to the point that peasants were able to raise three crops per year rather than one under the traditional system of agriculture which had been in place for thousands of years. This was an extraordinary historical innovation that transformed the Nile Valley.

Transformative leadership – Mehmet Ali (Painting by Auguste Couder)

Mind Boggling –The Master Planner
It is mind boggling to think that a former Albanian tax collector who grew up in Greece and served Ottoman interests throughout his early career, could transform Egypt from a fetid backwater teeming with problems into a viable economic entity using transformative technology. These innovations not only improved Ali’s grip on power, but also led to unprecedented demographic growth in Egypt. During the 19th century, the population would more than double. This would never have happened if not for the reforms instituted by Ali. The reforms introduced by Ali were the means which he would use to build a powerful military that would soon threaten the Ottoman state.

* Note: Popular legend states that the massacre took place on a street named Al-Darb Al-Ahmar situated between Islamic Cairo and the citadel where the Muhammad Ali Mosque is located. The name translated as “Red Street” named because of the “blood that flowed there”. Archives show the street had been called this well before the massacre ever took place due to the red brick used to build the homes. (Credit: gracetheglobe)

Click here for: Arsenal of Autocracy- Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Three)

The Albanian Connection – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part One)

Ancient Egypt never really interested me. It was either too popular or not nearly obscure enough. Likely both. The knowledge I acquired of ancient Egypt came from a Western Civilization class during high school. I vaguely remember taking lots of notes, paying more than the usual attention to the lectures, but then forgetting everything I learned soon thereafter. My familiarity with the subject was fleeting. Later in that same course, I learned about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I can still recall the teacher drawing a diagram of the streets in Sarajevo where the assassination occurred. He then gave a blow-by-blow account of the Archduke’s fateful ride into history.

From that point onward, I was fascinated by what had occurred that day in a provincial Yugoslav city at the hands of a shadowy Serb organization. This gave the Balkans a special meaning for me. The region was mysterious and exotic, filled with intrigue and worth a lifetime of study. Egypt and the Balkans may have appeared in the same history survey course, albeit thousands of years apart, but they had nothing in common other than that. Or not at least in the way world history was taught at a provincial high school in western North Carolina. Only later, would I discover a deeper, more modern connection between Egypt and the Balkans. One more fascinating than I could ever have imagined.

Maker of Modern Egypt – Muhammad Ali Pasha (Credit Jean-François Portaels)

A Brief History – Subject of Fascination
My lack of interest in Egypt extended into all its other historic periods. The Arab conquest and Islam in Egypt became blind spots. I knew the country suffered under colonialism, but so did many other places. Modern Egypt to me was Anwar Sadat’s assassination and that was only because I saw its aftermath on television one afternoon after coming home from school. My knowledge of Egypt was as barren as the desert wasteland found throughout the country anywhere beyond the Valley of the Nile. This held true until not long ago when I was perusing the history section of a used bookstore. That was when I came across a volume entitled, “A Brief History of Egypt” by Arthur Goldschmidt Jr. The title was something of an oxymoron since the book still had 12 chapters and 294 pages. If this was a “brief” history, I could only imagine the doorstop sized tomes which might be lurking in the dusty corners of a campus basement. The kind of books that are the opposite of accessible. The brevity of Goldschmidt’s book made it worth a read or useable as a quick source of reference.

For a handful of dollars, I decided to purchase “A Brief History of Egypt” for two reasons. Number one, it did not have a photo of the pyramids on the cover. Instead, there was a color image of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. Secondly, I had a vague yearning to learn about the Mamluks, a ruling dynasty whose name had a striking resemblance to marmalade and the cartoon dog, Marmaduke. I loved the way Mamluk sounded when it rolled off the tongue. Once I purchased the book, it sat in the trunk of my car with a pile of other unread volumes. From time to time, I would gaze curiously at the cover, but did not feel compelled to begin wading through it. Then for some unexplainable reason I picked it up one day and began reading. I finally discovered that the Mamluks were Circassian slave soldiers from the Caucasus region who were able to win control over a few Muslim states, one of which was Egypt. Satisfying this curiosity did not stop me from reading onward. Soon I came to a connection between Egypt and the Balkans that I would have scarcely believed possible. Modern Egypt was largely the creation of an Albanian soldier by the name of Mehmet Ali (also known as Muhammad Ali Pasha). His life and work are a subject of fascination. 

A brief history – Arthur Goldschmidt Jr tells the story of Egypt

Empire of Opportunity – Ottoman Tolerance
The Ottoman Empire was incredibly diverse though few people other than scholars and specialists are aware of that. The empire is known primarily in the western world for its expansionism that struck at the very heart of Europe and resulted in two famous sieges of Vienna. The Ottoman ability to incorporate diverse ethnic and religious elements into the empire for its own benefit is often overlooked. For minority groups, playing by the Ottoman’s rules meant additional taxes, but also the opportunity to earn a good livelihood and do largely as they pleased within their own proscribed communities.  While Turkish Muslims enjoyed the highest status, other groups such as Christians, Armenians and Jews had many opportunities for advancement open to them. One ethnic group that took of advantage of these opportunities to an unprecedented degree were Albanians. That will come as a surprise to many.

For much of recent history, Albania’s reputation has been terrible. A hermit communist state followed by a chaotic period of pseudo-democracy beset by insurrection has not helped matters. There was also the bankruptcy due to a pyramid scheme gone horribly wrong. Sprinkle in the fact that during the first half of the 20th century Albania had a self-styled monarch known as King Zog and his wife, Queen Gertrude, whose background included selling postcards at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. In other words, there was much to recommend Albania’s reputation as a carnival country. This obscures a deeper and much richer history of Albania and Albanians. The mountainous land that borders the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea produced some of the greatest Grand Viziers in the Ottoman Empire, along with many other powerful officials as well as thousands of soldiers who helped spread the Ottoman influence across much of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds.

Keeping the faith – Muhammed Ali Mosque in Cairo Citadel (Credit: kalerna)

The Modernizer – Lasting Legacy
Many of these men came from unique backgrounds that represent the complexity of the empire’s ethnic, geographic, and religious makeup. One of them, Mehmet Ali made a name for himself first at home and then abroad in Egypt. He was a man of extraordinary administrative and military skill who moved Egypt into the modern world. Modern Egypt is a legacy of Mehmet Ali. His extraordinary story is worth retelling.

Click here for: The Empire Builder – Muhammad Ali Pasha: Maker of Modern Egypt (Part Two)

A Book By Its Cover – Dubrovnik: Rebecca West’s Journey Through Yugoslavia (Part Two)

Dubrovnik leaves me with a range of complex and contradictory feelings. It is a town sized spectacle sculpted in stone. The quaint grandeur and sophisticated monumentalism of its historic structures are beyond compare. As blinding rays of sunlight strike the Dalmatian stone, radiance in its purest form becomes apparent. Areas in the later afternoon that become consumed by shadow are the settings of refinement and repose. Nothing could be more pleasant than the Old Town’s magical splendor in these moments, but it can also be spectacularly unnerving. There is something a little too perfect about the walled Old Town for my taste. It has reached such a level of refinement that it does not feel quite real. Dubrovnik is one of the finest examples of the impulse for historic preservation and structural restoration. Nonetheless, something about it does not feel right. Rebecca West, author of Black Lamb and Gray Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, also had misgivings about the Old Town.

Two faced – Detail in Dubrovnik

Positively Pedestrian – Staying In Gruz
In the first of two sections in her book devoted to Dubrovnik, West begins in Gruz. This outlying district was where she and her husband stayed. I could not help but feel a certain kinship with West since Gruz is where my wife and I have stayed on two different visits to Dubrovnik. Gruz offers a reminder of a much more normal world than the one found within the Old Town’s walls. Reading West’s description of Gruz brought the place back alive within me. It was fascinating to think I had unwittingly walked in West’s footsteps. We had crossed paths by traveling in the same spaces, separated by an interval of eighty years. She did not really care for Dubrovnik. West thought Gruz was much more tolerable. I would never call Gruz normal – I doubt West would either – but when compared to Dubrovnik’s Old Town it is positively pedestrian.

Like Rebecca West, I found Gruz more pleasurable than Dubrovnik. For me, this had to do with the fact that prices were nowhere near as extortionate as those in the Old Town. For West and her husband, it was not a question of affordability. The couple stayed in Gruz because they were unable to find accommodation in the Old Town and so picked this bucolic district in which to stay. When West told her husband that she did not care for Dubrovnik, he wrongly thought that it might be because they had been unable to secure accommodation in the Old Town. On the contrary, it was the Old Town which left West in a state of semi-depression. This did not surprise me. What did was that West had the courage to say it. She mentions among other things, “the appalling lack of accumulation observable in its history.”

Looking up – Old Town Dubrovnik

Splendor On Steroids – A Seductive Intensity
Dubrovnik has been prone to collapse on occasion due to natural cataclysms. This has caused a discontinuity with its past. Dubrovnik would rebuild its way back to a look of prosperity after each catastrophe. This has continued right up into contemporary times with damage from the 1991-92 siege all but swept under the marble. The Old Town does not feel like an organic development. Instead, it appears as a showpiece, a baroque display case with Renaissance and Gothic elements thrown in for good measure. One gets an overwhelming sense of wealth. Likes anything based on wealth and vanity, its character is profoundly superficial. If one cares to only judge a book by its cover than Dubrovnik’s is a gilded, beguiling. leather bound rare edition, The Old Town plays to that overweening desire for artifice that man welcomes as a corrective to the harshness of life. Dubrovnik proves that man can only stand to suffer so much of reality. The Old Town eschews the real, for a type of splendor on steroids. Its charms are showy, flagrant, and intensely seductive.

I love and hate Dubrovnik in unequal measure for its beauty and the pervasive pathos that lurks in the design of every detail in the townscape. The Old Town comes as close to attaining perfection as any place I have ever been. I find that to be terribly disturbing because in my mind, nothing could be worse than perfection. It is the end, a point of no return. Where does a person or place go after perfection? Reading West’s sections on Dubrovnik I got the sense that this bothered her as well. She does not explicitly say so, but I could sense it in her words. West admires Dubrovnik, but does not like, let alone love it. For this I can commiserate with her. The Old Town is like walking into a fairy tale, except this one is real. At times, it can seem downright ahistorical. That seems like a strange thing to say about a place that lives off its legacy.

Picturing the perfect – A photographer in Dubrovnik

Core Values – Easy On The Eyes
One would be hard pressed to find another place – other than Venice – whose present existence almost totally relies on its adherence to the past. To this end, all the main sights in the Old Town look as though they have had the past refined right out of them. I was surprised – though I should not have been – to find that even the old “medieval” walls are quite modern in places. The ramparts that afford tourists the opportunity to walk along the walls did not exist in their present form until the 1980’s. Dubrovnik is deceptive like that. Relying as much upon a restored artifice to make one believe that this was always the way it has been. In truth, Dubrovnik is one of the youngest “medieval” towns in existence today.

Besides its main attractions, the Dubrovnik that exists today is a product of the post 1667 earthquake era. The idea that the Old Town is a perfect picture of preservation turns out to be a false one, but truth and historical verisimilitude have always had an uneasy relationship. Dubrovnik is history as we want it to be. The present state of the Old Town says as much about modern historical sensibilities as it does older ones. Rebecca West saw Dubrovnik for what it was, rather than what it wanted her to believe. It may have been easy on the eyes, but that was hard for her to tolerate. I can vouch for the fact that it still is.