Medieval pilgrims journeyed deep into Africa, archaeologists discover

medieval
The Kingdom of Makuria is the quintessential forgotten civilization. Very few people have even heard of it, yet it ruled southern Sudan for hundreds of years and was one of the few kingdoms to defeat the Arabs during their initial expansion in the 7th century AD. Makuria was a Christian kingdom, born out of the collapse of the earlier Christian kingdom of Axum. Makuria survived as a bulwark of Christianity in medieval Africa until it finally collapsed in 1312.

Now excavations of some of its churches at Banganarti and Selib have revealed that this kingdom was a center of pilgrimage, attracting people from as far away as Catalonia, in modern Spain. The 2,300 mile journey from Spain to southern Sudan is a long one even today, but imagine when it had to be done on horseback, walking, and boats powered only by sails and oars. Yet an inscription records that one Catalan named Benesec made the journey almost a thousand years ago, probably to pray for a cure to an illness. “Benesec” was a popular Catalan name in the 13th and 14th centuries.

MedievalAnother inscription with an accompanying painting shows a Muslim man, Deif Ali, making a pilgrimage to the church to pray for a cure to his blindness. This isn’t as unusual as it might sound. In regions where religions mingle, some people will go to holy places of the other religion. When I covered the Hindu pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela for Reuters back in 2001, I met Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs all coming to be a part of the religious festival.

Makurian artists produced some amazing religious frescoes, like this image of the birth of Jesus, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, and this closeup of St. Anne, also courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Both come from the cathedral of Faras, an important Makurian city.

The churches are in southern Sudan, not the new Republic of South Sudan. The nation of Sudan (the northern one) has many sites of archaeological and historical interest and is a popular destination for adventure travel.

Useful foreign phrases, Part 2: how to say, “Can you write this down for me?” in 10 languages

useful foreign phrasesA post written by Chris on Tuesday reminded me of this little language series I started in March. In “Ten things Ugly Americans need to know before visiting a foreign land,” Chris recommended brushing up on the local language. He joked about dashing around Venice clutching his concierge’s handwritten note, “Do you have 220/110 plug converters for this stupid American who left his at home?”

Thanks, Chris, because I’ve had this post sitting in my queue for awhile, as I debated whether or not my phrase of choice would appear useful to readers. It’s saved my butt many a time, when a generous concierge or empathetic English-speaker would jot down crucial directions to provide to a cab driver. It’s also helped me out when I’ve embarked on long-distance journeys that require me to get off at an unscheduled stop.

I have a recurring nightmare in which I board the wrong bus or train in a developing nation, and end up in some godforsaken, f—ed up place in the wee hours. Actually, that’s happened to me more than once, except I was actually in my intended destination. So the other piece of advice I’d like to impart is: do some research ahead of time on accommodations and how to reach them as safely as possible if you’re arriving anywhere in the wee hours–especially if you’re alone, regardless of your gender.

I digress. Before your next trip to a foreign land, take the time to scribble the words, “Can you (please) write this down for me?” in your guidebook or dog-ear it in your phrasebook (you’re bringing one, right? Right?). It will serve you well, I promise you. Below, how to make this useful request in ten languages.

P.S. It bears repeating that I’m far from a polylinguist; I’m relying on phrases based on past experience or research. If I inadvertently offend anyone’s native tongue, please provide a correction in the “Comments” section.

1. Spanish (Catalan): ?Puedes escribirlo, por favor?

2. Italian: Può ripeterlo, per favore?

useful foreign phrases3. French: Pourriez-vous, l’écrire, s’il vous plait?

4. German: Könnten Sie das bitte aufschreiben?

5. Czech: Můžete prosím napsat to pro mě?

6. Portuguese: Escreva, se faz favor.

As I noted in my Part 1, many languages, including those spoken throughout Asia and the Middle East, use written characters. For that reason, transliteration will vary, which is why the spelling or phonetics may differ. These languages are also tonal in nature, which makes them notoriously intimidating to Westerner travelers. Just smile, do your best, and have your pen and paper handy.

7. Chinese (Cantonese): Ng goi nei bong ngo se dai.

8. Japanese: Anata ga shite kudasai watashi no tame ni sore o kakikomu koto ga dekimasu ka?

9. Vietnamese: Có thể bạn hãy viết ra cho tôi?

10. Moroccan Arabic: Ktebha līya.

What useful phrases have helped you on your travels? Please tell us!

[Photo credits: pencil, Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography; tourist, Flickr user Esteban Manchado]

Human castles may make UNESCO World Heritage list

You gotta love Spain. Not only do they like having giant tomato fights and getting chased through the streets by bulls, but they build giant castles out of people.

That’s right. Not content with having some of the best castles in Europe, the Spaniards like constructing living towers up to ten people high. Called a castell, the tradition originated in the region of Catalonia in the 18th century.

A bunch of strong, big castellars make up the pinya (base) and support their teammates as they create level upon level with progressively fewer (and lighter) people. Once a level is complete, the people who make up the next one climb up the backs of the others and take their place. Then the top person, called an enxaneta (rider) climbs all the way to the very top and, supported by only two people, raises a hand with four fingers up to symbolize the Catalan flag. The enxaneta and the very top levels are often made up of children to lighten the load on the bottom levels. Then the castell disassembles itself from the top down by each level climbing back to the ground. Only when everyone is safely back on the ground is the castell considered a success.

It’s an unusual tradition and now the castellars are applying to get their art on UNESCO’s list of “intangible world heritage”. The list includes examples of rare cultural practices that are relatively unknown and unpracticed outside a certain region. Check out the website for more bizarre and amazing practices around the world.

The beginning of the end for bullfighting?


The parliament of Catalonia, the eastern region of Spain, has voted to ban bullfighting.

The move comes after anti-bullfighting activists presented the government with a petition bearing 180,000 signatures calling for bullfights to be abolished. Bullfighting has become increasingly divisive in Spain, where some Spaniards say it’s part of the country’s heritage and others see it as a national embarrassment. I’ve lived part time in Madrid for six years now and most Spaniards I know have never been to a bullfight, although I also know an active minority who go every season.

A ban in Catalonia is significant because not only is it the first in Spain, but the region’s main city of Barcelona has one of the leading bullfight rings in the world. A ban there is a serious blow to bullfighting worldwide. It is expected to cost thousands of jobs and millions of euros in income for the city, including a sizeable amount from tourism.

The ban takes effect in January 2012. The vote was 68 in favor, 55 against, with nine abstentions.

Do you think bullfights are right or wrong, and why? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

Image of the painting “Dead Bullfighter” by Édouard Manet courtesy The Yorck Project. Painted c. 1864.

Word for the Travel Wise (12/31/06)

FireworksAs promised I’m taking this one full year of language from across the globe and from the teeny tiny villages found in the Congo out with an explosive big bang! Okay, so you saw right through my attempt to hype it up, but really this is an exciting time. 2007 is only hours away for us and this completes a full year first year for the “Word for the Travel Wise” feature. I hope that the lessons have not only been helpful, but a little memorable. For the last time this year I just want to relay that while I do not have a degree as a linguist or speak fluently the mother tongue of several far more exotic places than my home digs in Florida, I appreciate the feedback and minor corrections that have been given and look forward to building a better world language feature in the new year.

Here is Happy New Year in various languages:

  • Yiddish – A git yor
  • Portuguese – Feliz ano novo
  • French – Bonne année
  • Italian – Buon anno
  • Persian – sal-e no mobarak
  • Japanese – Akemashite omedeto
  • Turkish – Mutlu yibasi
  • Catalan – Feliç any nou

Happy New Year everyone!