There are few visuals more familiar to the Southeast Asian traveler than a line of brightly robed monks passing down a local street. This particular monk image comes to us from the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya at the Wat Niwet Thammaprawat courtesy of Flickr user Mark Fischer. I love the bright saffron/orange color of the robes and the repeated pattern of the line of men as they stroll purposefully by.
Three skeletons of children lean huddled in a group as if to comfort one another. Behind them hangs an hourglass made of pelvis bones. Above soars the skeleton of a youth bearing a scythe of clavicles and scales made of kneecaps. Dirt and gravestones cover the floor. Mummified bodies wearing the cowled robes of Capuchin friars lie, sit, or even stand in alcoves. The mummies each have a label bearing, I suppose, the name they used in life. All are illegible.
I am in the Capuchin Crypt, a few minute’s walk from the famous Spanish Steps where hundreds of tourists are laughing and eating McDonalds while enjoying a sweeping view over the sun-soaked city. I am not with them, but rather in a dank vault, crouching to stare into the eye sockets of an anonymous skull. The Sumerians called the eyes the windows of the soul, but now those windows are shattered, the glass ground up and blown away as dust.
I actually waited in line to do this. The Capuchin Crypt runs on limited hours, and when the doors finally open I and a small crowd file in past a stressed-out woman at the front desk who repeats, “No cameras, no cell phones, postcards five euros” in a harassed monotone. Beyond her are five vaults filled with bones and a sixth filled with tablets bearing inscriptions in Italian and Latin. I don’t try to puzzle them out; the message of this place is all too clear.
The bones are arranged in decorative patterns reminiscent of the Baroque interior of some 17th century stately home. Ornate chandeliers made from finger- and jawbones hang so low I almost knock my head on them. The passages are narrow, the vaults small, and the mortal remains of hundreds of Capuchin friars crowd in on me. The crypt was started in the 17th century and has been added to ever since. It now houses an estimated 4,000 friars.
So how does it make me feel? I want to be sick. I want to kiss every living girl in here. I want to tell the woman at the front counter to lock up early and take the rest of the day off. I want to hug my son knowing one day I won’t be able to. I want to know the life history, dreams, loves, and favorite jokes of every one of these poor bastards arranged so meticulously for our edification. I can’t. They are no longer individuals, simply part of the decor. All in all you’re just another skull in the wall.
Four vaults away I can still hear the attendant repeating the rules to newcomers. No photography, but you can buy an overpriced postcard. What arrogance to think they own the dead! Nobody has the least claim over the dead; it’s their one advantage over the living.
The crypt is getting crowded with the living. People linger. Many laugh to cover their discomfort. Everyone speaks in whispers, but why whisper? The dead can’t hear you, and if you’re doing it out of respect, a better way to show respect would be to learn the lesson of this place. The lesson is, of course, to think about death. Like everyone else I have a natural defense mechanism. I know I’ll die but that horrible fact doesn’t intrude on my day-to-day happiness. Well, it does today, and that’s the point. This place is also meant to make us good Catholics, to embrace an unproveable god and its improbable doctrine. That I cannot do, but I sure do think about death.
Odd thoughts come to me. I should send my son a second postcard. I need to get cracking on my next novel. I still haven’t replied to Ed’s email.
Through a row of open windows shines dim sunlight and the sounds of construction next door. The pounding of hammers and the shouts of workmen. An ambulance wails in the distance, getting closer.
A young American woman cries out, “Ewww, this is gross!”
I don’t say anything because I always try to be kind to strangers, but I say to myself, “Oh, you think they’re disgusting and you’re beautiful? Just. You. Wait.”
So don’t forget death, because it’s probably coming sooner than you think, and certainly sooner than you hope.
Life is short, my friends, live it well.
Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s sinister side.
[Photo courtesy Magnus Manske]
The Christian communities of Ethiopia have an eye for dramatic settings. From the sweeping views of Debre Libanos to the many monasteries perched atop sheer cliffs, the surroundings of a holy place are often as beautiful as the place itself.
It makes sense from a religious point of view. If you’re going to spend your life celebrating Creation, where better to do it than a place where Creation is at its most awesome or serene?
This is certainly true of the monasteries and nunneries on the islands of Lake Tana. These religious communities are set in a placid lake surrounded by green hills and fields. At 65 km (40 miles) in diameter it’s the largest lake in Ethiopia and has been a center of worship for more than 500 years.
Hiring a boat is pretty straightforward at the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, and our first stop is a peninsula a few miles along the coast where stands the 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret. The boat docks at a little pier and my wife and I take a narrow path through a dense forest. Coffee grows everywhere under the shade of the forest canopy. I’ve never seen coffee growing before. Splitting open one of the red berries I find the bean inside, a pale yellow, sticky thing that bears little resemblance to the roasted beans I’m used to. We drink Ethiopian coffee every morning at home so it’s nice to see where it comes from.
We climb a hill and pass though a simple stone gate. In the yard the monks are busy laying the foundation for a new building. All the monks have to work hard, either at farms on the mainland or helping out around the church and monastery. The church itself is deceptively simple on the outside–a large, round building topped by an elaborate cross–but when we pass through the tall wooden doors we’re stopped short by brilliantly colorful paintings reaching from floor to ceiling.
The outer wall of the church shelters an inner wall that encloses the worship area and holy of holies. Every inch of this wall is covered in paintings. Some scenes are familiar, like the Crucifixion and St. George defeating the dragon. Others are strange to us, coming from holy books that have been discarded by or lost to the Western tradition, like the Miracle of Mary and the Kebre Negast. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes many such books in their canon. The books of Enoch and Jubilees were translated into Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian language still used in church services, but were lost to the West and survive in the New Testament only in a few quotations. If it wasn’t for ancient Ethiopian translators, these books would be almost entirely unknown.
The paintings are vivid, showing scenes of miracles and worship. Mary is a popular figure and every phase of her flight to Egypt is shown in detail. There’s also a brilliant painting of all the souls in Hell being freed after the Crucifixion.
The paintings sometimes take interesting twists to familiar themes. For example, the common image of St. George killing the dragon has a unique legend attached to it in Ethiopia. There once was a village that worshiped the dragon and made human sacrifices to it every day. A maiden named Brutawit was going to be sacrificed and St. George told her that if she believed in God that she would be saved. She was, thanks to George’s skill with a lance, and she took the dead beast back to the village to show that God was more powerful than the dragon. The entire village then converted to Christianity.
A short boat ride away is the island monastery of Kibran Gabrael. Like many monasteries, it’s off-limits to women so my wife hung out in a shady grove while I went to see the monastery’s famous library of medieval manuscripts. The monastery is quiet, most of the monks being on the mainland tending crops, but the librarian is in and he leads me to a little building stuffed with books. As a dedicated bibliophile I’ve been to some of the great libraries of the world and looked through many rare illuminated manuscripts, but I was very impressed with what I saw on this peaceful little island. The level of artistry in the books is equal to any of the great works of medieval France or Italy, yet completely different in style. The librarian opens up book after book of sturdy goatskin, showing me richly colored paintings of Bible scenes. Each of the Gospels has its own book, and there’s a hefty New and Old Testament that weighs in at 17 kilos (38 pounds)! Also in the library are a selection of icons. When a monk goes off on his own to pray in solitude for a few days, the abbot gives him a book to read and an icon to meditate on. Thus the monks get some fine art to admire and think about while they are cut off from the rest of humanity.
Lake Tana has several other monasteries and churches other than the ones I mention here. Some take an entire day trip by boat to visit. Someone seriously interested in seeing them all would need about a week to do it properly. Hopefully some day I’ll go back and write about them all here.
Next stop: Gondar–Ethiopia’s Camelot!
You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.
The Burmese people are some of the most earnest people I’ve met on my travels. Despite the continued political strife in the country and the devastating cyclone that swept through the coast over a year ago, Myanmar is among the world’s unique and well-preserved places.
This photo of two young female monks comes to us from our dedicated reader, Lady Expat, who now calls southeast Asia her home. If you have some great travel shots you’d like to share, be sure to upload them to the Gadling pool on Flickr. We might just pick one as our Photo of the Day!
The television screen is a strangely natural way to view New York City. In fact, even if you’ve never visited New York, your perception of the city most likely stems from NYC TV icons like Bill Cosby, the cast of Friends or Jerry Seinfeld. In fact, television and New York tend to go hand in hand. Ever since NBC started broadcasting its signal here in the 1940’s the city has been dominated by all things related to the small screen.
Television’s presence in New York is fairly obvious. Anyone who’s ever wanted to check out a taping of The Daily Show or the Colbert Report, David Letterman or Saturday Night Live, knows where to find the tapings. But for every Jon Stewart appearance or Tony Soprano reference, there’s a world of strange TV history that lies waiting to be discovered. This is a city, after all, that has been in love with TV from the very beginning, with a history that dates back over 60 years.
Ever wanted your own private screening of a vintage TV classic from the 1940’s? Curious to discover some of the most famous facades and settings in New York City TV history? Don’t touch that dial, this week Undiscovered New York is covering all things TV. Click below to read more.
When you picture the filming of a television show, it often brings to mind a giant studio lot decked with lights. Yet many of New York’s most famous TV moments and vignettes are played out right before our eyes as we walk the city’s many side streets and avenues. Ever wanted to check out the real life homes and businesses from your favorite TV shows?
Make your first stop in New York’s West Village, where 10 Leroy Street is the site of the Cosby family’s famous facade. And who knew Bill Cosby was neighbors with Monica, Joey and Ross? The building used as the apartment building for Friends is just around the corner at the corner of Bedford and Grove. Hungry for more TV locations? Why not stop by Monk’s Diner, site of so many meals on Seinfeld? It’s located at 112th Street and Broadway.
Making TV History
Ever since NBC began the first continuous TV broadcast in 1944, New York has been hooked on the small screen. Yet for all the show’s we’ve come to know and love in recent years, there’s more than 60 years of TV history waiting to be explored. A good place to start is Manhattan’s Paley Center for Media, formerly The Museum of Television and Radio, on 52nd Street. The museum is dedicated to exploring the “cultural, creative and social significance of television.” The way they accomplish this goal is quite a feat – in addition to ongoing exhibitions on some of TV’s greatest moments, visitors are free to explore more than 120,000 archived TV shows, commercials and radio programs at their leisure using individual consoles. It’s an interesting way to explore the evolution and and history of this influential medium.
Although many of our fondest TV memories are behind us, it would be incorrect to assume television is dead. In fact, New York is also a great place to investigate the future of the medium. A good place to start would be the annual New York Television Festival, held each fall. The event was designed to showcase the work of those “creating for the small screen” and as a venue to discuss such topics as the future of advertising, sitcoms and broadcast journalism.