A ‘Fantastic’ Trip through Turkey

Last weekend in Mumbai, I visited the exhibition ‘Celebrating Mimar Sinan’, displaying the architectural works of the Turkish Master, Sinan. While I was earlier not very familiar with his designs, I recently read & thoroughly enjoyed Elif Safak’s book ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ which chronicles the fictional journey of the protagonist Jahan, who apprentices under the great Master.  This made me curious to visit this exhibition which covered his portfolio of mosques, bridges & aqueducts through models, drawings as well as sumptuous interior & exterior photographs. Another outstanding feature of the exhibition was the superb calligraphy panels, artistically drawn by a local Turkish architect, which highlighted quotes by Sinan himself.

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Sehzade Mosque

The comparison between Sinan’s works as well as with other Turkish buildings helped the viewer well understand the scale & detailing of his projects. This collaboration between Ranchana Sansad’s Academy of Architecture and the Turkish Consulate General in Mumbai is an attempt to familiarise Indian architectural students & professionals alike, with the range of this Master Architect, as our architectural education mostly tends to lean heavily towards the West. His attention to details, ability to showcase structure without compromising on the aesthetics, & fascination with materiality & geometry are some aspects which the exhibits successfully bring forth.

The venue of the exhibition was the ground floor of the Rajabhai Clock Tower & Library Building, which in itself lend an added level of charm to the exhibits, thanks to the University’s Colonial architectural features. One wishes that such a similar exhibition could be curated with ancient Indian Master Architects as its focus, as they remain mostly unknown entities, even among practicing professionals today. The Turkish exhibition, though not very large, was well- mounted & simple to grasp, which also helps attract a non-core design audience, but at the same time evoked the sense of place, space, setting & time when these structures were constructed.

A visit to an exhibition such as this has definitely whetted in me an appetite to visit Turkey sometime soon & experience these buildings in person.

Istanbul skyline from Bosphorus

All images of the Mumbai exhibition (c) Ajay Nayak. All images of the Turkish buildings & skyline (c) Sahil Latheef, a fellow Flaneur of this site, taken during his recent trip to Sinan’s land.

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Collecting space

London… a thriving, bustling metropolis, with endless opportunities for recreation for its denizens. Besides open air attractions, like Hyde Park, there is a plethora of museums that are vibrant, activated and above all, free.

It was not always like this though; by the end of the 20th century, the same-old exhibits and the tired info-graphics had ensured that at least for locals, museum hopping would not be their first choice when it came to whiling away a few hours of their free time. The been-there, done-that feeling was what needed to be gotten rid of, and the much needed impetus for growth/ regeneration came from an unlikely source – the National Lottery. From the late 1990s, funds raised from lottery ticket buyers were pumped into the Arts sector. The moneys collected and injected into the system were unprecedented. The Millennium Fund supported two major Arts projects in London: t he ‘Great Court’ at the British Museum (by Norman Foster) and the Tate Modern at Bankside (by Herzog & de Meuron)

The Great Court was essentially a project whose aim was to cover the courtyard of the British Museum with a glass & steel roof, while maximizing the space freed up when the British Library’s collection shifted to a dedicated new building at St. Pancras.

This covering of an open air space enabled the possibilities of programmes that enlivened and energized the public space. The Tate Modern also did this, not only at a building level, but also at an urban level. The number of visitors to the entire South Bank area of London experienced an exponential increase post- the Millennium.

Inside the Turbine Hall, interactive exhibitions (such as the ones photographed above), made the contemporary art displays more approachable to the general viewer.

In 2000, both these buildings opened to the public, and it was not just the building or the interior that was noticeable, but the well-thought out circulation routes and the fresh graphics and signage. The renewed public interest in these museums was sustained through programmatic innovations – temporary exhibitions, evening/ night events (Late Fridays or Nights at the Museum).

On the other hand, the V&A is unique in that there are few paintings on display – it is largely a museum of objects. So from the 5m tall David in the Cast Courts to the designer contemporary everyday items such as scooters and kettles to architectural models of renowned buildings, everything falls under its umbrella.

It managed to sustain itself and grow in popularity purely on the basis of these non-design based interventions, successfully attracting large groups of students, professionals and tourists.

But the process started a few years earlier, when in 1991 the hallowed National Gallery opened the new adjoining Sainsbury Wing, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. This playful post-modernist take on one of the most ‘British’ of institutions, situated bang on Trafalgar Square, evoked many polarizing reactions.

But it ensured that the building remained firmly in the public eye and visitors came in droves. The new building, while evoking the memory of the main wing, pared down its elements and created fuss-free spaces whose scale was suited to the smaller scale of paintings displayed there.

While infrastructure projects such as the Millennium Bridge, the Millennium Dome and the London Eye helped invigorate London at an urban level, these institutions got down to the brass tacks and made a difference at a human scale and humane level. As a student, I have fond memories of spending many a pleasant weekend afternoon, aimlessly wandering through the numerous ‘rooms’ of the National Gallery or the V&A, happily drinking in the atmosphere and gazing admiringly at the endless Classics, which one had hereto only seen in books. Personally, these visits help cement a lifelong love of Impressionism, and though it was unknown to me at that time, helped in providing an inspiration for many a future project. When the weather outside is cold, the pocket is light and the mind curious, there’s little more a young person can ask for from life,  than a few hours spent at one of these wonderful repositories of Art.

All photos © Sahil Latheef | excluding the ones from Creative Commons

On a high!

A few years back on a half day transit stop in New York city I calculated that I have just about enough time to visit one place in the city before I had to dash back to the airport in time for my onward journey. Although I had been to NYC a few times before there was one project that I really had to revisit – so I headed west to the meat-packing district to see a landscape project, a kind of newly evolved species among urban gardens.

 

Like with any other cultural product (art, literature, architecture etc.), landscape too is a constantly changing field and with time it is possible to identify one exemplary example which best expresses the aspirations of an era.

 

In a lot of ways the High Line park, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSRNY), together with landscape architect James Corner and garden designer Piet Oudolf, is ‘the perfect garden’ of our times! The design was the winner of an open design competition that contemplated how the abandoned elevated railway line running through the meat packing district could be reused to benefit NYC. DSRNY designed the entire length of the High line as a series of simple landscapes strips that bring back the joy of walking through wild meadows to the heart of Manhattan.

 

The garden weaves it’s way between, through and above a series of buildings creating pockets for different programmes but above all creates an opportunity for New Yorkers to de-congest. In an interview a few years back Liz Diller, one of the key designers behind this project, explained beautiful “The high line, if it’s about anything, it’s about nothing, about doing nothing.” The high line offers a very different experience of New York City from plus 30 feet and is an amazing place to while away time watching people doing all sorts of things – walking, snacking, reading, exercising, relaxing and also doing nothing. 🙂

 

This is one of those amazing and rare projects which is meticulously detailed, yet it doesn’t lose focus of the larger picture. The success of the High Line, it is today one of most visited sights in Manhattan, has spawned countless similar regeneration efforts that mix infrastructure and landscape in innovative ways across the world (a few of the interesting ones being – the Hofbogen in Rotterdam designed by Doepel Strijkers, the Garden Bridge in London designed by Heatherwick Studio, Lines of Life in Singapore designed by Nikken Sekkei Architects, the 11th Street Bridge in Washington DC designed by OMA and the recently opened Skygarden in Seoul designed by MVRDV).

While I stroll on the High Line pondering about all this a rude alarm on my phone reminds me of my waiting flight! On the flight home, I wondered why every urban walkway couldn’t be like this? Imagine if the monstrous sky walks being built around the world (like the ones in our large cities – Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru) were treated with this sort of passion, overgrown with greenery waiting for garden lizards and butterflies to recapture their cities. Wouldn’t that be amazing!?!

 

P.S. I would recommend combining a trip to the High Line with at least half a day exploring it’s immediate context – Chelsea (with some great Art Galleries, the Chelsea market and lots of interesting eateries), seeing some of the great architecture that has come along the graden (including projects by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel) and a visit to the new Whitney Museum of American Art.

All photos © Sahil Latheef

A Tale of Two Oceans

This summer, I grabbed the opportunity to go snorkeling off the coast of Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. It brought back many memories of my first snorkeling experience as a teenager, in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, amid the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

This time around we were onboard a large cruise ship on board which we prepared ourselves for the snorkeling part of our trip. Changing into the gear provided and listening to the instructions only served to heighten the sense of anticipation that literally anything was possible once we took the plunge.

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Once our ship docked, a few hundred metres from a beach, the ocean was ours to explore. Along with the common spottings like the clown anemone fish (popularly called Nemo) and sharks we were also fortunate to see some giant clams and starfish as well. Luckily we had been forewarned to stay away from the spiky sea urchins in shallow waters since contact with them can cause serious injury. Being a writer, putting down my thoughts is not something I usually struggle with, but both my undersea experiences have left me short of words. I can only highlight some words that flash: Colours. Movement. Surfaces.

One can only come away from such an experience with a feeling of wonder; of being gently reminded of how tiny a part you play in the workings of this great Universe and also a sense of regret that somewhere the human race has contributed greatly to the degradation of the Earth’s natural resources. It has been widely acknowledged that in the last 20 years, constant proximity to humans due to unchecked tourism, has discoloured large sections of these natural wonders all over the Asia Pacific region.

While it is an often said that that the emotions of the first time can never be replicated, I found that was not true in my case. This dip into the Andaman Sea carried with it the same sensation of silently, weightlessly floating and the sheer joy of being surrounded by nature in its glory. The thrill of having a whole school of fish swim past my face, unconsciously reminded me of something so similar happening many years previously. The vivid corals form an entire universe that exists below the water’s surface, and being engulfed by the expanse of it all adds up to an exciting experience, the memories of which are not dulled by distance, by space or by time.

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PS: While on both occasions, I have wished that I owned an underwater camera, I hope that the absence of one will goad my mind to keep these images alive.

All photos (c)  Sangeetha Solanki

From the trenches of the Indigenous Terra Madre 2015

04 Indigenous communities from Nagaland at the conference
A delegation from Nagaland in their indigenous attire

Love makes the world go round, as the saying goes. But Food is what sustains us. And a meal cooked with love is like the proverbial cherry on the cake – nourishment of not merely the stomach but of the soul. In November 2015, Shillong in Meghalaya, North East India, hosted a mega-event that recognized and celebrated the traditional food ways of the global indigenous peoples.
The Indigenous Terra Madre 2015 (ITM) consisted of various programmes revolving around food to bring people from varied backgrounds together: to knowledge-share, to taste; most of all to rejoice. The global and the local, the village cook and the restaurant chef, the rural and the urban rubbed shoulders, experienced one another’s foods & flavours, learned, exchanged and emerged richer from it.
On the first three days, a closed door World Indigenous Conclave saw various experts on agro-biodiversity, farming, ecology and traditional food ways discuss the issues of the day. On the sidelines, Taste workshops exposed the audience to various food groups indigenous to the Northeast and beyond. These included Honey, Wild Edibles, Fermented Foods and Insects which some of the gathered delegates sampled with trepidation but found them to be rather palatable.

03 Northeastern communities putting up a cultural performance at the opening ceremony
Northeastern communities perform at the opening ceremony
01 Shillong Chamber Choir performance at the opening ceremony
Shillong Chamber Choir performing at the opening ceremony
02 Shillong Chamber Choir performing with dancer Astad Deboo at the opening ceremony
Shillong Chamber Choir performs with dancer Astad Deboo
13 Variety of honeys served at the Taste Workshop
Taste workshop- honeys
08 Insects platter at the taste workshop
Taste workshop- insect platter
06 Panel discussion
Snapshot from one of the many panel discussions
09 Red ant chutney with millet pancake served at the Insects Taste Workshop
Taste workshop- red ant chutney
05 Indigenous communities from the Phillipines at the conference
The delegation from Philippines is all smiles
10 Silkworm platter
Taste workshop- silkworms
12 Selection of wild edibles at the taste workshop
Taste workshop- wild edibles
11 Silkworm preparation with millet pancake served at the Taste Workshop
Taste workshop- silkworm paste with millet pancake

In fact, the spirit of the event lay in the knowledge sharing between the delegates coming from 50+ countries and the 40+ local host villages. On the fourth day of the event, the delegates travelled into rural Meghalaya for a day trip to experience firsthand the food ways, culture and heritage of the host communities. The villagers enthusiastically prepared traditional menus and performed cultural programmes for delegates from all over the world.
The closing day was marked by a Food Festival, open to the public, which over 70,000 people attended. Without a doubt, the centerpiece of the festival were the 40+ Mei-Ramew (Mother Earth) Food stalls, a celebration of local foods, that served as platforms for agro-biodiversity and cultural representation. These stalls not only served food but gave voice to the expression of traditional food and agriculture and brought conviviality and multiculturalism into play by bringing people together to discuss, exchange ideas and highlight issues related to the challenges that indigenous people face hence rendering a sense of ownership. These food stalls glamorized indigenous food preparations through innovative, creative and attractive presentations.

15 Food being enjoyed at the Mei Ramew food festival
Visitors enjoying the fare at the Food Festival
14 Array of stalls at the food festival
Array of food stalls at the festival

The cultural exchange, transcending the barriers of language and backgrounds between these disparate worlds, is what the heartbeat of such an event is – proving that when communities that are closely bound to Mother Earth, they can never be too far from each other.

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Northeastern musicians in the spotlight
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Impromptu performance by musicians from different nationalities

All photos © Amrita Ravimohan, Ajay Nayak & NESFAS

Milan World Expo 2015-Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life

In continuation to the previous post on the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, here’s a photo-story on some of the interesting pavilion designs from the latest World Expo that took place in Milan, Italy in 2015.
As Milan is a well-known global design hub it was no surprise that here too as in previous editions of this global event architecture took center stage, with some really interesting pavilion designs. However, unlike in Shanghai, a majority of pavilions seemed to embody the spirit of the overall theme of the Expo (which was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life“) more closely, leading to many modest projects with strong connections to the landscaped areas and outdoor spaces with many of them structured around tiny enclosed gardens.
Click on the images to read captions on each of the pavilions.
See you guys at the next World Expo in Dubai in 2020 🙂
All photos © Sahil Latheef

Khweng- A village in the abode of clouds

 
The name of the village Khweng comes from the local Khasi term ‘Khongweng’ which means curved around. When one takes the road to enter the village, it’s so curved around that one can see the whole village. Over time, ‘Khongweng’ was shortened for ease to ‘Khweng’. A village of 100 households, the first thing that struck me on entering Khweng is how well-kept & clean the streets are. With the verdant mountains as a backdrop, the streets were lined with a series of traditional cane & modern tin cans that act as waste bins. I was happy to note that they were moderately full, showing that the villagers actively used them & that they weren’t just for display.

Khweng is an active weaving village, so a must-do on a trip there is a visit to the weavers’ quarters where I was able to  see silk weaving on the frame looms in progress. Meghalaya produces three out of the four varieties of silk available in the world. They are – Eri; locally known as Ryndia, Muga and Mulberry. The type of Eri silk woven in Khweng is often called Ahimsa silk because the worm is not killed during the production process. The  coarser Eri silk is quite different in look & feel to the silk we are familiar with, but it has the useful quality of keeping the wearer cool in summers & warm in winters & are most commonly fashioned into scarves.

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Weaver working at her frame loom

The village has rearers, spinners & few weavers of silk but they often do not do this exclusively; they are involved in agriculture & use their spare time for Eri related activities. However, they are slowly coming to understand that keeping these fading traditions alive is an important investment for the future – an activity which through continuous practice they can keep doing long after they have lost their strength to contribute on the fields. For instance, one of the elderly weavers I met said: “I am a very old lady living a simple life… but now I only rear and spin to provide for my two disabled sons & my four grandchildren. I am poor, but I have enough food for a day. Eri silk is a blessing from our heavenly fathers.”

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Close up of the frame loom

A highlight of my visit was a meal at the Mei-Ramew café (Mother Earth cafe) run by Kong Plantina Mujai who has been in the business since 30 years. It is a small establishment, serving simple traditional food with local ingredients, but the care taken in preparing it & the generous, affectionate manner in which it was served won my heart over. Though I could not develop a taste for the traditional Kwai, the local variety of betel nut that is much loved & consumed faithfully after every meal. At the cafe, one can even enjoy some of the fresh seasonal produce such as pineapples. Kong Plantina also grows her own mushrooms, in a room specially dedicated to this activity. One of my favourite dishes had the speciality fish, that is bred in the freshwater streams of the paddy fields & caught by the villagers, as the main ingredient.


The love & respect that the community has for each other is the foundation which brings unity among them – “We are living in peace & harmony”, said the villagers. This is not merely lip service but is directly linked to the “we feeling” of working together which is practiced till today in Khasi villages, via concepts such as Ka rep Bara, which means working together particularly for agricultural activities. There is a strong tendency to refer to a connection with the past and tradition when thinking about well-being – for themselves & the community.
If one has prior experience of visiting rural areas in India (or anywhere in the world for that matter), one will know that generally men are dominant & women are kept in the shadows. Visiting Khweng showed me that this part of the country is an exception. The men & women were both equally forthcoming & greeted me immediately with a handshake. The women actively lead & conduct the Eri silk production as well. In fact, in group discussions the women lead the conversation & are as adept at reading & writing as their counterparts.

Communicating with the villagers has to be through an interpreter, as they only speak the native Khasi language, but taking in the unique sights, smells & sounds of Khweng, truly proved to me that language is not a barrier when it comes to understanding local culture & the experience was all in all a hugely enriching & memorable one.

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Village women chatting under the shade of tree. In the foreground is a hand made waste bin.

All photos © Amrita Ravimohan

The writer visited Khweng village in Ri-Bhoi district Meghalaya during her stint in Shillong, North East India. As part of the Communications team of the Indigenous Terra Madre 2015, various such visits were undertaken by the team in the run-up to the event.

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Around the world – Shanghai World Expo 2010

The year 2010 gave me an ideal opportunity to undertake a much awaited trip to China. As an architect who was bitten by wanderlust long ago, I found the ideal amalgam of both passions in the Shanghai World Expo of 2010. This event comes around every five years, hosted by a chosen city, and while the main focus behind the event is to promote urban development and allow a kind of {re}branding by the city, it has actually become more valuable as a testing ground for architectural ideas. Expos or world fairs are a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, when large fairs were put up for the benefit of regular folk and to display the latest technological and radical concepts being explored in architecture. Every expo has a theme and one can see over 200 countries manifest their interpretations and identities in their representative pavilions.

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The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851 | Public Domain

The Crystal Palace, built in the London expo of 1858 was one such experiment embodying a radical shift from traditional load bearing technology to steel and glass balloon frame structure. The Paris expo of 1889 gave us probably the most iconic structure ever to be identified with a city – The Eiffel Tower.

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General view of the Exposition Universelle, 1889 | Public Domain

Reams have been written about the paradigm shift in architecture caused by the German pavilion, in the Barcelona world expo of 1929, designed by Mies Van Der Rohe. It at once cemented Mies as a master of Modernism and continues to be studied by every architectural student and scholar, finding new interpretations in every new reading.

More recently two pavilions have captured the imagination of contemporary architects. Moshe Safdie’s Habitat -67 was considered the landmark building of the Montreal expo of 1967 (the same expo also showcased the famous geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller). The pavilion radically re-conceived dense urban living within the Modernist apartment building typology, by exploring precast construction.

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Habitat 67, as seen from street level by Taxiarchos228 | Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The second being the Dutch pavilion by MvRdV built for the Hanover World Expo of 2000. This project explored my personal favorite conceptual idea in architecture – the programmatic stack. The architects created a six storied high pavilion with a different aspect of the Dutch natural landscape on every floor. People ascended to the top floor and gradually ambled their way down through every landscape. The lines to enter they say were endless.

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‘Expo 2000 Hanover, Netherlands Pavilion’ by   Benutzer JuergenG |Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Every city that hosts the World Expo has a chance to situate the event in a new part of the city and develop the urban infrastructure and amenities for the area. Several tourists flock to see the World Expos, case in point Montreal ’67 which received 50 million visitors at a time when the population of Canada was only 20 million people. Design practitioners at the forefront of their discipline are engaged to design pavilions that best represent the participating country. Many a career has been catapulted into the limelight from this opportunity.  Ideation and execution are seen as issues of prestige and the best homage to the success of an idea is visible in the long lines of visitors snaking outside the most popular pavilions.

The most iconic pavilion of the Shanghai World Expo, was unequivocally the British Pavilion by Thomas Heatherwick. Conceived as a gift from Britain to China, the pavilion named- the Seed Cathedral, appears as a jewel that sits within its original wrapping (embodied in the modulated landscape around the pavilion). Brilliantly crafted and formed of millions of acrylic tubes that embalmed a seed at its end, the cathedral signified the importance of the seed which is the earth’s innate symbol of promise for the future. The light inside the pavilion changed subtly with the sun’s position in the sky but from the outside the structure was visually complex and dramatic, simultaneously beautiful and grotesque.

The Pavilion lit up inside by sunlight getting refracted by the tubes.

The Danish pavilion by the now renowned BIG architects had been developed as a helical cycle ramp surrounding a waterbody that the visitors could bike down,  indicative of the culture of cycling prevalent in Denmark. Categorical of BIG’s tongue in cheek approach, the Little Mermaid (one of the most visited tourist attractions in Copenhagen) was transported to the center of the pool for the entire duration of the event. The pavilion allowed the visitor to engage with it in an almost irreverent manner, not taking itself or the event seriously.

The Spanish Pavilion explored the modularity of a skin using low tech bamboo material. The interactive art displays inside were perhaps more engaging than the ad-hoc put together skin.

The Mexican pavilion – an extremely simple but engaging idea of an undulating landscape with a series of umbrella like structures creating shade,  at once reminded one of the familiar neighborhood park.

The Chilean pavilion was a well crafted experiment in the architectural use of wood for facades.

The Canadian Pavilion appeared to explore a kind of juxtapositions of textures- wooden clad exteriors enveloping a reflective interior with intermittent panels of greenery.

The Dutch pavilion was a rather simple but sadly quite ill executed experience of an urban Dutch street.

The Korean Pavilion was a statement on the newly emerging digital technology, manifest in both design and execution. The entire pavilion was constructed of laser cut metal panels and where the interiors of the pavilion were exposed, the pixel contained Korean typography. When lit up at night the pavilion was visually stunning.

The UAE pavilion formally mimicked the structure of sand dunes while modestly exploring architectural ideas of smooth form construction.

Almost at the end we came upon where the two Asian behemoths of China and India stood warily eyeing one another, as always. Each pavilion appeared to be drawing inspiration from traditionally iconic forms found in their country.  The Chinese pavilion drew inspiration from the wooden temples seen in the forbidden city in Beijing. The Indian pavilion was fashioned after the Sanchi Stupa – perhaps reminding one of Buddhism – the most significant export to come out of India.

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We ended our short but intense trip around the world at the India pavilion. After standing in lines for two long days the scents of Indian food being served inside seemed familiar and comforting.  Ironically, seeing several Chinese folks sampling tandoori delicacies albeit with chopsticks, made me realize that despite our many differences, in effect the world is indeed one family or as the saying goes – vasudev kuttumbakkam.

All photos © Sahil Latheef | excluding the ones from Creative Commons

Frozen in time

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As someone who grew up in Dubai,  I’m constantly asked ‘What happened to all the old buildings in the city?

While a lot of the interesting vernacular built-form, that originally existed all along the coast of the Arabian Gulf,  disappeared quickly in the accelerated urbanization since the discovery of oil in this region, it is also true that in reality there were only very few village-like settlements that actually existed here a mere half a century ago! In light of this it always gives me great pleasure to visit a structure that has managed to survive the onslaught of all the recent developmental madness. So imagine the sheer joy I experienced recently when I was able to see not just a couple of structures but an entire village that has remained almost unchanged since its inhabitants abandoned it in 1968!

The erstwhile pearling village of Jazirat al Hamra in the nearby emirate of Ras Al Khaimah was a coastal settlement that is today considered one of the region’s best example of a pre-oil village, displaying three distinct types of early- and mid-20th century Gulf architecture. The village whose name literally means ‘the red island’, was named for the sand it was built on. Most inhabitants in the village were from the Zaabi tribe, but not exclusively, as seen elsewhere in the Gulf.  Many prominent citizens were of Arab, Iranian, African and Baluchi descent.

A renowned pearling center not long ago, Jazirat Al Hamra was a coastal town of great importance, given it’s strategic location towards the entrance of the Gulf.  As it attracted wealth, it also attracted foreign powers. (Interestingly, most of the major cities in the region today – Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai, Doha – were once important centres of the pearl trade.) For the people of Al Hamra, life was not only the sea, as they were Hadhr – coastal Bedouin. When the men journeyed to the pearling beds in the southern Gulf during the summer, women led families inland to date gardens in Khatt at the Jiri Plain. It was a journey of more than 20 kilometers, as the crow flies.

However everything changed when the Pearling industry collapsed (after the Japanese started to mass-produce cultured pearl almost a century ago) and in addition, other outside events also changed Al Hamra when wealth from the Gulf’s oil revenue began to trickle in after the 1950s. Men left for years at a time as migrant workers in Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. They returned with savings to marry and to start businesses once again. By 1968, the Zaabi tribesmen of Ras Al Khaimah numbered less than 2,500. At this time, mostly due to conflicts with the local ruler, the people of the village left to settle in Abu Dhabi, on the Batinah Coast in Oman and in other parts of Ras Al Khaimah.

After it was abandoned in 1968, the village has stood almost untouched for decades. Other old Gulf towns grew up with their cities and were renewed, rebuilt and replaced. Jazirat Al Hamra was overlooked and has remained unchanged. Today it offers a fascinating insight into the past of the region that is one of the most rapidly changing regions in the world.

Although not a popularly visited sight Jazirat Al Hamra is relatively easy to get to. It’s an hour and half drive from Dubai along the main highway (E11) that cuts across the cities of Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain. The abandoned village is just north of the recently opened suburban resort development with the same name. It best visited early in the morning during weekends to avoid both the heat and the grueling traffic all along the route (the E11 is notorious for its traffic during peak hours). Although currently there is nothing available within the village – there are a few small convenience stores along the fringe of the old settlement and plans for a heritage village in the pipeline. Get there before they clean it all up for the tourists! 

All photos © Sahil Latheef | including the aerial photos shot using a DJI Mavic Pro drone camera

High Flying in Cappadocia

Cappadocia is an experience that instantly promises to transport you out of this world. Situated in the region of Central Anatolia in Turkey, it can be reached by taking a two hour flight out of Istanbul or for the more relaxed or on-a-budget-traveller private buses ply from Istanbul and reach you there in approximately ten hours.

We reached Kayseri airport just as the sun was coming up and the effect of seeing the rays break across the Moon-like landscape of Cappadocia was breath-taking. In fact Cappadocia will leave you spell bound at every turn. It is where fantasy and science fiction novels are dreamt up. The entire region is a plateau dotted by volcanic mountains and the geological terrain is made up of the soft sedimentary and ignimbrite deposits from three to nine million year old volcanoes.

A short taxi ride took us to our hotel in Urgup, which is one of the more important and well connected towns in Nevshehir. Almost every hotel in Cappadocia is carved into the terrain and its pretty common to have cave- like rooms within the striated sedimentary stone. A small hike along the winding town- roads led us to a small Turkish wine factory where we took a wine tour, finishing it with a glass of the local wine. Famished after the exploits of the day, we later stopped for lunch at a small wayside restaurant, that served us glasses of chilled Ayran -a yogurt based drink – along with the Kayseri Manti – tiny meat dumplings served in a yogurt based sauce. The flavours of Anatolian cuisine, with the stuffed breads, cheeses, tomato and lentil based sauces were very friendly to the Indian palate. After another short stroll we retired early in the evening to enjoy the spoils of the hotel and in eager anticipation of the next morning.

The next morning we woke while it was still pitch dark and bundled into the taxi waiting outside. A short drive took us to the site where hundreds of hot air balloons take flight every morning. As we reach the gathering point we found ourselves in the midst of several other people waiting and sipping cups of delicious Turkish tea. Suddenly in the pitch black one could see sporadic flashes of light as if fireflies were dancing in the distance. As the silhouettes of balloons started to become apparent gradually, the excitement of the group became equally palpable. The sky changed hues and one could see hundreds of balloons start to ascend simultaneously. The whole pink and blue sky looked like it was the backdrop to a seamlessly synchronized choreography.

As we ascended in one such balloon bit by bit the entire landscape started to become really clear. The birds’ eye view is definitely the best way to take in the Anatolian landscape at one glance. All at once we had a 360 degree vantage of the arid but beautiful landscape with its the wind denuded fairy chimneys and the red, green and yellow valleys. Even the slightest colour stood out in stark relief against the unending sand coloured canvas.

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Suspended up in the sky one’s sense of sight is completely overwhelmed and if you can concentrate on the other senses then the unsettling silence of being thousands of feet above ground is punctuated by the periodically deafening bursts from the gas cylinders of the balloon.

After an hours flight the balloon gradually descended and the pilot and his team celebrated by popping bottles of non alcoholic champagne.

Back at the hotel we gorged on a well deserved breakfast of cheeses, olives, stuffed breads and dried fruit and headed on to trek the valleys that we had just witnessed from many feet above. The rest of the day we trekked through the wondrous Ihlara valley, discovered the ancient wonders hidden in the completely underground city of Kaymakli and sampled more of Kayseri’s delectable cuisine.

Ihlara Valley

Kaymakli underground city

Thoroughly enthralled and exhausted from the adventures of the day we got back to the hotel to thank our wonderful host, gather up our bags and get on the night bus back to Istanbul. Turkey had many more treasures for us to discover in the days to come….

All photos © Ekta Idnany

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