Thursday, 7 December 2017

Have some Greek travellers adventured as far as deep high Himalayas in the Middle Ages ? It looks like they did.

We all admire so much Marco Polo and his travel to the Far East that we resist to admit that much before him many other Europeans adventured as far as Canada, like the Vikigs, or the Himalayas, like these levantine Greek : some bones were found there which are dated from the 8th-9th centuries, and its ADN revealed an hellenic origin!

Nobody writes or talks about medieval Greece: by the 8th century, it went through a semi-barbarian period, under the fear of Slavic and Ottoman invasion. Maybe the best descendants of  Pytheas, the Arctic navigator praised and honoured here at Ultima Thule, decided to escape an ungrateful destination and left the falling motherland under the Byzantine Empire to colonize lands farther east, Siria and Lebanon on the levantine coast of the Mediterranean. There are still thousands of ethnic Greeks in Aleppo, for instance.

The Byzantine Empire under Theodora comprised Syria and Lebanon.


The Roopkund lake, known by the locals as the lake of skeletons, is a tiny remote glacial lake over 5000 meters high on the Indian Hymalaias, accessible by a long slow uneasy pedestrian trail. It has been long uninhabited but misteriously it contains hundreds of human bones, as discovered in 1942 by a british forest guard.

The reason for so many victims is a violent hailstorm throwing down giant hail balls in the 9th century; that's an evidence shown by several contusions by hard round objects on the back of the skulls and shoulders. Legends and old songs among local peoples refer a tempest flinging hailstones "hard as iron".

A team from National Geographic started studying 30 of these remains since 2004; they had still bits of flesh and hair preserved by the dry cold air. The first results indicated that most of them were of persian/assyrian origin, the others were locals probably serving as porters or guides. Datation was around 850 AD. But more recently one small goup revealed an ADN particularly coherent with Greek population that by that time habitated Syria or Liban.

What were those people from greek Assyria looking for, during the last breath of Byzantium under the great Empress Theodora, before the arab conquest ? Were they byzantine emissaries far astray from their silk road ? Or maybe merchants making an adventurous deviation to escape road tolls ?

This was a fascinating era. Empires in convulsion, new powers arising, people parting to discover the world !...


Saturday, 25 November 2017

Harstad and the medieval Historical Center and Church of Trondenes, an Arctic treasure

The norwegian arctic town of Harstad, on the coastal island of Hinnøya, is not specially remarkable for ant feature except being close to Trondenes historic site. But as some possible Ultima Thule routes pass close by, Harstad deserves a short notice to start this trip.

Harstad, Norway

Coordinates: 68° 48′ N, 16° 32′ E
           (over 400km above the Arctic Circle)
Population:  ~25 000

The city sits by the Vågsfjorden, on the largest of the norwegian coastal islands, Hinnøya; Harstad grew up at the end of the 1800s as a traffic hub - North Norway's first dam ship's expedition was brought here in 1888.

The harbour area has been restored for leisure as well as a work and business area.

The recently renovated fast boat terminal, Hurtigbåtkaia.

The old building Havnebygget now hosts offices, a café, shops and the waiting room for the fast boat shuttle.

Bark, a fine restaurant and bar by the port

Hogskole (College), Havnegata.

A house in St. Olavsgate, the main street in Harstad.

A swiss-style house from 1930, St. Olavsgate 54.

Harstad has a pleasant city center; for some, it's even the 'Vågsfjord's gem'.

Harstad Sparebank's building, right in the center, was built in 1906 in Art Nouveau style.

Now let's have a short trip by the coastal road:

Just 4 km northwards, a Museum close to an early medieval 13th century church: Trondenes Historiske Senter.

Trondenes Church is the northernmost medieval stone church in Europe, north of the Arctic Circle. For ages it was the northernmost church in Christendom.

Trondenes Church

Location: 68° 49 N, 16° 33′ E

The church dates back to the 13th century, and was built over the ruins of two older viking "stave churches" ( 11-12th cent.), after the vikings lost the battle against the unification of Norway. It was completed around 1440.

The church is well preserved and the exterior is close to the original state. The plan is of the ancient type, with a choir narrower than the nave, rectangular and fortified, with narrow doors and windows. An external wall and towers used to add protection in case of assault.

It displays both romanic and gothic styles: arched doorways and thick walls, against attack from the Russians.

Main door
Side door

In the 1400s and 1500s, the population of Trondenes could harvest huge amounts of dried fish and collect export income on the international markets. Their wealth could sustain distinct church art and expensive maintenance.  That's whar the interior shows.

The larger nave is separated from the narrower altar nave by a wooden structure added in the 18th century, together with the baroque pulpit.

This is what was called a collegiate church - a church where several priesthoods prayed and worked together as in a college.

The baroque 'rococo' pulpit from 1792 is equipped with an hourglass to allow the minister to time long sermons.

The choir in the Trondenes church with its three altar cabinets.

The church is especially known for its rich decorations, including three gothic triptychs of hanseatic origin, probably from artisan masters in Lübeck, all beautifully decorated.

The three altar cabinets are dated to the period 1460-1500.

The small side-altar presents the sacred family. The cabinet is dated to the 1460s.

This hoist polichrome altarpiece was made in 1765.


The high altar:

Detail from the main altarpiece: veneration of Mary.

In the late Medieval period, Trondenes served as the main church centre of northern Norway. Together with Trondheim´s magnificent Nidaros cathedral, they make the most valuable legacy of medieval architecture in Norway.

They also testimony Norway's economic importance in late Middle Age, for the skills and means their building demanded. The fish trade between the Hanseatic towns in the North and Baltic Seas is the major origin of that norwegian wealth.

The Historic Center Museum

The museum displays more than 2,000 years of history in the region, which was once a Viking power centre. Paintings, artifacts and statues depict that rich History, the main focus being on the Medieval age period.

A magnificent tapestry depicting the Viking Era.

Trondenes Chuch in an old painting at the Historic Center. The fortified large complex, close to the busy fjord waters, must have been quite a religious as well as a business hub.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Inuit Arts, updated

A new updated version of my presentaion of Inuit Arts - a choice of prints, stone carvings, baskets and tapestry from several locations and native peoples in the Arctic.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Norwegian Island of Peter I - a gloomy nobody's land in Antarctica

Peter I Island (Norwegian: Peter I Øy) is an uninhabited volcanic island in the Bellingshausen Sea, 450 kilometres from Antarctica. Along with Queen Maud Land and Bouvet Island, Peter I comprises one of the three Norwegian dependent territories in the Antarctic.

The island was first sighted by Russian sailor von Bellingshausen in 1821 and was named for Peter I (Peter First) of Russia. Drift ice made it impossible for Bellinghausen to come close to the island's coast.

Nearly all of the island is covered by a glacier and surrounded by pack ice, making it inaccessible almost all year round. There is little life on the island apart from seabirds and seals.

The volcanic island is dominated by Lars Christensen Peak.

Coordinates : 68° 51′ S, 90° 35′ W
                - south of the Antarctic Circle
Population :  0
Dimensions: 19 km long, 11 km wide

In the Arctic, at this latitude North, you can find several inhabitated settlements, even small towns. Not in Antarctica. Here there is only barren, rugged glacial coastline surrounded by ice cliffs and bergs; even the volcano that once formed the island, and is its central core, is covered by a thick ice-cap that slides steeply down to the sea.

Auststupet, mountain cliffs along the steeper eastern side.

The ice edges fall vertically into the surf waves crashing down with huge force.

The North tip is gentlier sloped.

Cape Ingrid, a rocky peninsula on the west side. Narrow strips of beach suitable for landing surround the cape.

Simonovbreen glacier, on the northeast side.

In the surf, large blocks of ice floe.

After Bellinghausen sighting no one set foot on the island until 1929; the first landing happened when an expedition led by Nils Larsen and Ola Olstad, financed by whale-ship owner Lars Christensen, succeeded in getting ashore. They claimed it for Norway, who annexed it in 1931 by a royal proclamation declaring the island under Norwegian sovereignty.

Since then there have been several landings on the island by various nations for scientific investigations.

The automatic station, with the Lars Christensen peak in background.

In 1987, the Norwegian Polar Institute sent five scientists to spend eleven days on the island. The main focuses were aerial photography and topographical measurements to allow for an accurate map of the island. The second important area was marine biological investigations. The team also installed an automated meteorological station on the island.

But usually the few who come here measure their stay in the hours.

The best access is provided by helicopter capable of landing on the low ice cap near the northern tip of the island.

The Base Camp of DXpedition 2006 on the glacier

Radiosletta plateau, provides the best landing site for helicopters, except under the frequent katabatic winds.

On the only beach where you can go ashore - the bay of Sandefjordbukta - great surf waves usually break violently.

The tallest peak is the Lars Christensen Peak at 1 640 meters. This summit is a 100-metre wide circular crater. It's a shield volcano, wide and low. Dated samples range from 0.35 to 0.1 million years old.

The scarce island's vegetation consists exclusively of mosses and lichens which have adapted to the extreme Antarctic climate. Strong freezing winds, steady snowfall keep vegetation to a minimum.

The island is a breeding ground for a few seabirds, particularly southern fulmars, but also petrels and Antarctic terns. There are numerous seals

Southern giant Petrel

Antarctic Fulmar

Lars Christensen peak in the low Sun.

Light is often magic at this latitude

Austral lights in Bellinghausen.