Tag Archives: history

Bang for the buck: U.S. aid to South Africa

Out of $4 trillion dollars in the U.S. federal budget, how much is spent on foreign aid?  While most people in a recent poll thought it was around a quarter of the annual budget, the true answer is around one percent.  In this post, I want to explain two key programs that have impacted my new home country: PEPFAR and AGOA.  The United States plays a substantial role in making the future of South Africa brighter!

PEPFAR: Curtailing the epidemic of HIV/AIDS


During the first eight years of the millennium, I rarely had anything positive to say about the President of the United States.  President George W. Bush, though, signed into law the “U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003,” which transformed medical care in southern Africa.  His name is still respected in South Africa because of this law; it yielded the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  This program has been renewed twice by bipartisan vote, in 2008 and 2014.  In the thirteenth year of the program, PEPFAR supported anti-retroviral treatment (ART) for 11.5 million people living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), with that number having climbed by 50% since 2014.  Some two million babies have been born without HIV from mothers who carry the virus.  This is an amazing accomplishment, and it couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

The HIV crisis in South Africa began as it did in the United States, with AIDS appearing in the community of gay men during the early 1980s.  Cases were documented in the heterosexual community in 1987.  By 1990, the crisis had begun to grow rapidly.  It is worth noting that South Africa was coping with tremendous changes during this period as the Apartheid government was compelled to cede power; Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February of 1990.  When he became President in 1994, however, the new government was unable to do much about the growing epidemic.  1996 was a watershed year for HIV as ART was announced, and the first drugs became publicly available (though expensive).  In 1999, Thabo Mbeki was elected President, and the public thought that HIV prevention and treatment might become a priority under his leadership.  His Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel, however, was dominated by HIV denialists / “AIDS dissidents” who claimed the virus had nothing to do with AIDS.  Not only were ART drugs not made available widely, but ART was withheld from pregnant women carrying the virus.  Nelson Mandela re-entered the debate in 2000 by a powerful closing speech at a Durban international conference on AIDS.  The topic became even more personal to him when his son died of AIDS in 2005.  Against this complex historical background, the prevalence of heterosexually transmitted HIV-AIDS was surging.  “By 1994, this had risen to 7.6%, and by 2005 was 30.2%, with an estimated 5.5 million of South Africa’s 47 million people infected.  An estimated 1000 new HIV infections and 900 AIDS deaths occurred each day” [Giliomee and Mbenga, p. 418].

PEPFAR has a tremendous role to play in today’s South Africa.  The program currently estimates that 7,000,000 people in the country are living with HIV, with approximately half protected by ART.  180,000 people die of AIDS each year in South Africa. “South Africa now has the largest number of patients on anti-retroviral drugs in the world, and South African life expectancy has increased by more than a decade.” [Bekker et al.]  Just imagine the impact if PEPFAR were no longer paying for HIV treatment!

Please be aware that there have been changes in the Trump Administration that suggest this program may be in trouble.  It is no exaggeration to say that real people will die without PEPFAR.

AGOA: “Trade, not Aid!”


Debate may never end over the best way for wealthy nations to support the growth of poor nations.  When wealthy countries give food aid to poor nations, those efforts can undermine the economic growth of agriculture in those countries.  The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was enacted in 2000, the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency.  You may be thinking, “gosh, another economic treaty I need to know about!”  In fact, AGOA is not a treaty.  AGOA is a unilateral decision by the United States to drop taxes and quotas on imports of particular goods from countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  The program began by including 34 countries and soon expanded to 40.  After the first fifteen-year run of the program, the U.S. Congress decided to renew AGOA for an additional ten years in 2015.  Each year, the President decides exactly which countries will be extended these benefits.

The metrics for AGOA success paint a somewhat equivocal picture.  The 2016 biennial report shows $23.5 billion in exports from Sub-Saharan Africa in the year 2000.  This number grew to $86.1 billion in the year 2008 before falling back to $18.5 billion in 2015.  This might seem an abject failure, but much of the decline reflects reduced oil exports to the United States and the worldwide recession of 2009.  Most Sub-Saharan countries, of course, would like to export to the world’s biggest economy!  America, in turn, uses this desire to requiring development toward “a market-based economy; the rule of law, political pluralism, and the right to due process; the elimination of barriers to U.S. trade and investment; economic policies to reduce poverty; a system to combat corruption and bribery; and the protection of internationally recognized worker rights” [2016 biennial report, p. 8].  Essentially, the United States waives taxes on imports from countries that behave as the United States would like to see.

South Africa has had an interesting story within the framework of AGOA.  As the continent’s most advanced and diversified economy, South Africa was a bit of a question mark for inclusion in the 2015 renewal of the law.  Did it make sense to give these trade benefits to an economy that was already moving rapidly?  South Africa made itself a less attractive trade partner by raising trade barriers against American farmers exporting meat to South Africa, which caused them to violate the “elimination of barriers to U.S. trade” rule above.  At the start of 2016, the situation had deteriorated enough that Barack Obama suspended AGOA benefits for South Africa.  This action was enough to convince the foot-dragging South African government to drop its trade barriers, and so South Africa is once again an AGOA beneficiary in good standing.

What will happen to AGOA under the Trump Administration? Although President Trump has been ambivalent on the subject of free trade, he has not signaled that he will seek to end AGOA either by unlisting all participant countries or seeking the repeal of AGOA through the Congress.  Africans do not expect great things from President Trump, though.  His Tweets about South Africa have had a generally negative tone.

In the end, South Africa is proud of its ability to take care of its own problems.  If AGOA comes to an end, the country will lose one of its best customers for fruits and vegetables, and the automobile industry growing in the Eastern Cape would suffer.  The loss of PEPFAR, on the other hand, would devastate health care in South Africa.  The economy of South Africa is not strong enough to bear the cost of supporting ART on this scale.  The country already relies on the permissive, pro-public health intellectual property laws of India to have access to generic ART.  We can all hope that the PEPFAR and AGOA relationships between South Africa and the United States continue under President Trump!

Prague: off the beaten track in Vyšehrad

An index to the Prague series appears on the first post.

For my final full day in Prague, I opted for a hike to the top of Vyšehrad, a hill castle guarding the south river approach to Prague.  This area is considerably less visited by tourists than is true of the Old Town or the castle (Pražský hrad).  I was unsure what to expect, but I felt sure that my legs would appreciate one last stretch before the train and flight back home to South Africa!


I loved these bright colors.

My stroll took me through some of the key historical buildings of the New Town.  I have already shared a photo of the New Town Hall, but I am sure I have not mentioned the delightful orange and white building next door to the Saint Stephen (Svatý Štěpán) church (built when New Town was new).  Just to the west, I encountered the large public park in front of New Town Hall.  I headed south to encounter the substantial Church of St. Ignatius (Kostel svatého Ignáce).  As I stepped into the vestibule, I encountered a homeless person, asking for change.  Since I had no Czech currency left other than some minor change, he was disappointed, and he responded with a phrase I recognized from reading spy novels (loosely translated “oh my god!”).  In the image below, I have shown the interior of St. Ignatius at the left.


Two Prague churches: St. Igantius (left) and the Benedictine Emmaus Monastery (right)


Who doesn’t need stillness from time to time?

It is plain that the church on the right places a much lower value on decoration!  As you might have anticipated from the photo caption, the next site I visited was the Emmaus Monastery.  I had not seen any tourist literature directing me to the place, but a helpful sign directed me to the entrance.  The friendly docent refused to let me pay the full adult admission and insisted on student admission instead (which was handy, since I only had a little pocket change).

I walked through the door into nearly total silence.  The square cloister was very peaceful, receiving only indirect light from the enclosed courtyard.  The pamphlet I had received at the entrance gave a helpful map explaining the art in each alcove.  The images were very old, dating from the creation of the abbey by Charles the IV in 1347, and the monastery had suffered bomb damage during World War II.  Restoration on the art has not yet returned its former glory.

I was strongly moved by the peace of the cloister.  After a quick look at the nave I included in the comparison above, I paused at the corner of the cloister for just a moment.  I sang a song for my friends back in Nashville.  The reverberations were very comforting.  I continued on to a small chapel that I had missed on my initial walk.  I was astonished to see the image of a spear head that I had last seen in Warsaw!  This chapel had once featured sacred relics believed to be from the Crucifixion, specifically nails from the cross and the spear that had pierced Jesus.  The art in this small chapel has been restored to a much greater extent than in the cloister outside.


A refurbished chapel in the Emmaus Monastery


This massive gateway dates from 1841.

Having spent some time with the transcendent, I was ready for a bit of a slog.  I trudged south along the evocatively named “Na Slupi” in the cold wind.  It seemed to be picking up speed, and a few snow flurries came my way.  I came to a rail underpass that was my route to the Vyšehrad access.  The roads led steeply uphill.  Soon I encountered the massive brick gate (cihelná brána) of the rooftop fortress.  I nearly fell on my backside trying to get a photo; once I stepped away from the roadbed, I was slipping and sliding on ice.

I should explain that Vyšehrad was prominent in the ancient history of Prague and regained standing in medieval times.  The castle atop Vyšehrad was the ducal seat of the Přemyslid dynasty during the 10th century, before Prague Castle was constructed on the opposite side of the Vltava River.  The area’s rebirth came about after the New Town extended to the south in the 1350s.  After the ancient fortress fell into ruin, a new Baroque fortress atop Vyšehrad was established after the Thirty Years’ War, in 1654.


The church looks pretty great for being nearly a millennium old!

My first stop inside the walls was a visit to the Rotunda of St. Martin.  The rotunda represents an ancient type of church architecture that pre-dates Gothic cathedrals by half a millennium.  St. Martin was constructed during the reign of Vratislaus II, who died in 1092.  The building has been decommissioned and renovated a few times over.  Its walls still contain a Prussian cannon ball from 1757!

I wandered south to the most external gate of the walls, Tabor Gate, originally built in 1655.  The information center was closed when I walked past, and most signs that I observed were in Czech, so I felt somewhat unsure of what I was seeing.  As I followed the walk back north on a bluff to the east side of the Vltava River, though, I was treated to some really lovely views of today’s Prague.  I saw a private boat harbor to the east side of the river, and ice had covered the entirety of its surface.  Soon, though, I came across some ruins.


Libušina lázeň was a medieval Gothic lookout tower.


The St. Peter and Paul Basilica

Legends surround this place, as well.  After the warrior Čech settled in this area, his son Krok produced three daughters.  The youngest daughter, Libuše, was famed for her wisdom and prophecies.  She was selected as leader for the land, as a result (and gave her name to the tower shown above).  When people complained that a woman should not lead by herself, she prophesied that her white horse would lead her servants to Prince Přemyslid, who would become her husband.  Soon thereafter, the happy couple launched the first dynasty that ruled Bohemia from Prague.

Even before the creation of the New Town, a church had stood at the crest of Vyšehrad.  The 11th century church was remodeled in the second half of the 14th century and again at the end of the 19th.  St. Peter and Paul has been an important part of Prague history as the political leadership shifted between Vyšehrad and Prague Castle and as religious leadership has shifted among the three principal churches of the city (the others being St. Vitus and Our Lady before Týn).


Final resting place of one of my favorite composers

The graveyard adjoining St. Peter and Paul came into vogue during the 19th century, and a quick walk through the grounds will show any number of beautiful memorials and tombs.  The classical composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana are both interred there, and I recognized Jan Neruda, a writer and poet, as well.  It seemed strange that this place at the edge of the city would have regained this prominence at such a late date.


King Wenceslaus looks out on a magnificent view of his city.

I was glad, though, that I could finish my visit to Prague at Vyšehrad.  My final moments of tourism saw me slipping and sliding across the icy hill top.  At last I reached a lovely equestrian statue of St. Wenceslaus.  It dates from 1680, when it was crafted by Bendl for the Prague Horse Market.  This area was subsequently renamed “Wenceslaus Square;” the statue currently standing outside the National Museum was a later replacement.  I think that the dukes, kings, and emperors who have ruled Prague would be delighted if they could see it today.  I know I was!

Prague: Old Town, New Town, and Revolution!

An index to the Prague series appears on the first post.

A walk in Staré Město, the Old Town, of Prague is essential for anyone enjoying the city for the first time.  The Gothic rooftops, narrow passageways, and hidden churches are all delights for the tourist.  The twenty-three years that have passed since my 1994 visit, though, have transformed this district to fill it with swanky restaurants and souvenir shops and boutiques catering to both well-heeled tourists and backpackers.  Knowing just a little bit of history helps to bring this city back to life!


The monument to Jan Hus stands guard before Týn Church


The Horologe, last refurbished after WW II

The image above shows the northeast side of the Old Town Square.  I tell the part of the story of Jan Hus below; his statue forms a substantial island in the square, and the Church of our Lady before Týn is one of the images that has lingered in my mind for the twenty years since I last saw Prague.  A great cluster of tourists, however, may frequently be found at the south corner of the square, especially as the top of the hour draws near.  They come in order to see the mechanical show from the Horologe, a beautiful clock that was first constructed in 1410 by a collaboration between clockmaker Nicholas of Kadaň and astronomer Jan Šindel.  A local legend tells the story that the town council was concerned that the clockmaker would build such a clock for another city.  The legend relates that one of the council members sent men to the maker’s home and blinded him!  He apparently had his revenge, however, by crushing part of its mechanism.

Old Town sits inside a bend in the Vltava River, opposite Prague Castle.  The oldest construction has been dated to the ninth century.  The Town was once surrounded by a moat, but this ditch has been covered by an arc of major streets: Revoluční, Na Příkopě, and Národní (Revolutionary, “On the Moat,” and National).  Starting in the tenth century, the Old Town became home to a substantial Jewish community.  Eventually, their district became a ghetto in the northwestern part of the old town.


The Charles Bridge is a very cold and windy place to eat your pain au chocolate.

As I mentioned in the prior post, Charles IV (1316-1378) transformed Prague.  The Charles Bridge (Karlův most) was built to connect Old Town to the castle district across the Vltava, replacing the twelfth century Judith Bridge.  Since the bridge connects the castle and city, it has played a key role in combat in this area.  The Swedes were defeated on this bridge at the close of the Thirty Years’ War, and the Prussians were defeated there in 1744.  The bridge was hardly the only addition, though.  A greatly expanded city area was surveyed for construction, quadrupling the city’s area.  By the fifteenth century, it was the third most expansive city in Europe.


At left, the Old Town Hall (1338), looking at the side opposite the Horologe; At right the much later extension of the New Town Hall (the original tower stands to the right of this yellow wing).


Weapons from the Hussite Wars

The New Town gained a new city hall (Novoměstská radnice) in the 15th century.  This city hall played a strange role in the drama playing out among the king (Wenceslas IV, who drowned John of Nepomuk), the Pope (Alexander V), and Master Jan Hus, a preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague.  Jan Hus had encountered the writings of John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian who argued that scripture was the key source of authority for Christians.  The resulting Hus sermons led to complaints from German scholars at Prague University to the Pope, but the king sided with Hus.  The German scholars left Prague for other countries.  When Alexander V became Pope, he announced an interdict against Prague while Hus lived there, but the city shrugged it off.  When he railed against the sale of indulgences, though, the king stopped supporting him (since the king received some of the funds).  Hus was eventually drawn to the Council of Constance under a safe passage, but he was immediately arrested and eventually sentenced to a fiery death at the stake.  Since he was a much-beloved figure throughout Bohemia, many rose in rebellion.  The Hussite Wars were the result.  In 1419, Hussite radicals threw the seven members of the town council from the high window of the New Town Hall, to die atop Hussite pikes.  This became known as the “First Defenstration” of Prague (the first of three).


Church of our Lady before Týn, as seen from the East end of the Prague Castle

These wars led to the ascension of George of Poděbrady as king of Bohemia.  He had some rather forward ideas for the time, such as the unity of Europe.  I appreciate him most for his celebration of the Church of our Lady before Týn, making it the principal church of Prague rather than St. Vitus (sequestered inside the castle).  I simply love the building, and for me it is the symbol of Prague.  I was very unhappy to discover that it had been closed to visitors, due to the cold.  I came back to the Old Town Square at 9PM to catch its Sunday night service because I wanted to see its insides so badly!  The church interior is dominated by black and gold.  A sixteenth century carving of the baptism of Jesus was close to my seat, and I gave it a closer inspection after the service.  While I could not take photographs, I have captured some memories that I hope to retain until my next visit.


The Powder Gate feels almost menacing.

Certainly, Prague has enough towers and statues to go for days.  I enjoyed the ghost of Don Giovanni outside the opera house where Mozart premiered this piece.  The eleventh century Powder Gate once protected one of the entrances to the city of Prague.  Now it stands astride the main road leading from the original moat to the Old Town square.  In the “City of a Thousand Spires,” one can hardly walk any distance without finding a new marvel.


St. Wenceslaus looks down from the National Museum toward Old Town.

Prague: Castles, Cathedrals, and Communists

Index to Prague series

  1. Castles, Cathedrals, and Communists
  2. Old Town, New Town, and Revolution!
  3. A Millennium of Jewish Community
  4. Off the Beaten Track in Vyšehrad

With three days padded onto my Austria trip, I could take the train east for three hours to Budapest or north and west for five hours to Prague.  As you may already know, Hungary is now governed by Viktor Orbán, whose right-wing populist government has undermined democratic norms in that nation.  I decided to go to the Czech Republic, instead!  My train ride there was perfectly lovely, cutting through mountain valleys laden with snow, with more arriving as I passed.  The railway deserves its standing as a World Heritage Site!


The train traveled at 60 kph through the mountains and then accelerated up to 160 kph in the plains.  The train to Prague cost only 54 Euros!

For my four nights in Prague, I stayed at the Hotel Prague Star.  Located in the New Town (Nové Město) area just five minutes’ walk from the National Museum, the hotel offered affordable rates.  It shared a street with several night clubs of a shady nature (the type that spams the tourist district with images of under-dressed women with the word “censored” appearing in strategic locations).  The flashing neon lights ensured I found the correct street when I slogged home after a long day of tourism.


Prague Castle is massive, stretching the width of this panoramic photo (4 images combined with Hugin).

My first full day in Prague took me to the massive Prague Castle, perched atop a hill to the northwest of the Prague Old Town and across the Vltava River.  The castle dates from 880, when it was constructed by the first historically attested Duke of Bohemia Bořivoj I, from the Přemyslid family.  One of the first structures one sees when entering the castle is the magnificent basilica of St. Vitus.


The box at the right contains a saint.

The castle contains the final resting place of multiple saints, but St. Vitus may be most known for its chapel commemorating the great-grandson of the castle builder: Saint Wenceslaus!  As Duke of Bohemia from 921-935 (he began his reign at age 14), Wenceslaus controversially favored the adoption of Christianity in Bohemia.  His younger brother conspired to assassinate him, driving a lance through the Duke in the killing blow.  He then succeeded Wenceslaus as Boleslaus I the Cruel.


St. John of Nepomuk was important in establishing the seal of the confessional.

The most magnificent memorial in St. Vitus’ Cathedral is devoted to Saint John Nepomucene.  As a vicar-general, he heard the confession of the queen.  King Wenceslaus IV (who ruled several generations after Saint Wenceslaus) wanted to know what the queen had been confessing to her priest.  The vicar-general was unwilling to divulge that information.  He was subsequently tortured, and eventually the king drowned Saint John Nopmucene in the Vltava River.  I was quite surprised to discover that the lineal descendant of one saint had martyred another!


St. Vitus Cathedral was finally finished in 1929, 600 years after it was begun!

To visit Prague is to see the hand of Charles IV (1316-1378).  His father headed the House of Luxembourg, and his mother was the last member of the House of Přemyslid.  In 1346 and 1347, he inherited the county of Luxembourg, was elected king of Bohemia, and was elected king of the Romans (though it didn’t “take” until he was re-elected in 1349).  By 1355 he was king of Italy and the Holy Roman Emperor.  Ten years later, his coronation as King of Burgundy united the Holy Roman Empire under his leadership.  Charles IV selected Prague as his capital, and he expanded the city to include the “New Town” (where my hotel was located) and founded what became Charles University.  Because of Charles IV, one frequently learns that Prague buildings were first constructed in the 14th century.

I had opted for “Circuit A” tickets to the castle, which also included a tour of the oldest hall of the castle, a museum celebrating its long history, the Basilica of St. George, the Golden Lane, and the Powder Tower museum for the castle guard service.  The Old Royal Palace was a bit confusing.  The chamber, its chapel, and the stone steps that were made for horseback arrivals were largely empty, and few signs explained what I saw.  It was clear, however, that the Palace had been remodeled so many times over the years that the structure was a bit of a pastiche of styles.  I would love to have a photo of its beautifully decorated ceiling, but no photographs were allowed in the Old Royal Palace or in the castle museum.


The Basilica of St. George sits directly behind St. Vitus.

The facade of the Basilica of St. George was probably its nicest aspect.  The Romanesque church contributes the two towers that one can see to the right of the Gothic St. Vitus in the skyline panorama above.  The walls are much thicker than one sees in Gothic cathedrals, and the windows are much smaller and higher up.


A church has stood here since 920.

The Golden Lane is down slope from the royal part of the castle.  The small houses line the inner side of the outer wall, almost like the artisan homes that lined the walls of the Tower of London.  Local legend has it that the most promising alchemists of the 16th century worked in this area.  Today the buildings have been collected by a running hall on the upper floor, and galleries line the sides to sell replica weapons, showcase suits of armor, remind visitors of the horrors of medieval torture, or reveal updated uses of the buildings.  For one, Franz Kafka kept residence here for two years to write in peace.


Housing a family in such a small dwelling would be a challenge!

I was delighted at the view from the eastern end of the castle, and yet I was ravenously hungry.  I descended the hill and stopped at Tom’s Burger.  That burger and fries entirely hit the spot!  Based on a recommendation by my server, I tried the “Czech version of Coca-Cola,” called Kofola.  I was smitten!  The closest parallel in my experience is the amazing taste of sasparilla.  For the remainder of my time in Prague, I sought out the beverage.

On my walk, the advertisements for the Museum of Communism had repeatedly caught my eye.  My favorite was a teddy bear clutching an AK-47.  Happily, the museum was quite easy to find, at the intersection where Wenceslaus Square touches the Old Town (above a McDonald’s actually).  I appreciated their large Communist-era statues and could not resist a photo with that old scamp V.I. Lenin.


I think the scarf really complements this look.

The museum documents another statue on a scale that is hard to credit.  Around 1950, the government of Czechoslovakia began construction of a sculpted group of people standing behind Joseph Stalin that soared almost 16 meters high.  It was unveiled on May 1st, 1955 (the sculptor committed suicide the day before).  On February 25, 1956, however, Khrushchev gave a key speech decrying Stalin’s “cult of personality” as incompatible with communism (Stalin had died in 1953).  In the aftermath, monuments celebrating Stalin were considered distasteful.  Only seven years after its construction, the Prague Stalin Memorial was blasted apart by 800 kg of explosives!

The movie room for the Museum of Communism was a useful overview of the resistance to communism in this country.  The Prague Spring (1968) seemed to suggest that some freedoms could be possible in Czechoslovakia until a Soviet invasion ended those hopes.  Civilian protests were broken up with considerable violence from the police and troops.  The video showed a representative of the government being interviewed on state TV.  He claimed that “mild means” were used to disperse the crowd.  “They are our citizens, and we treat them as such.”  The juxtaposition of onscreen violence with “mild means” was jarring.  The video also introduced me to the Plastic People of the Universe, whose music exhibited much greater freedom than the official style of “Soviet Realism.”  The group members were arrested in 1976.  The artists of Charter 77 (including Vaclav Havel), however, generated some significant pressure for their release.  The Charter 77 artists, of course, were under vigilant attention from the government thereafter.  The fall of communism came rather suddenly to Czechoslovakia in the Velvet Revolution.  As a 1989 saying had it, Communism took ten years to fall in Poland, ten months in Hungary, ten weeks in east Germany, and ten days in Czechoslovakia!


I visited the memorial of Jan Palach on the anniversary of his death.

On my final full day in Prague, I decided to follow a lead I had found during my visit to the Museum of Communism.  I had read the story of Jan Palach, a young idealist who had become so distraught at the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 that he decided to burn himself to death at the head of Wenceslaus Square.  The memorial to him is in two parts.  A plaque below the equestrian statue of Wenceslaus I bears his name as well as that of Jan Zajíc, who chose the same death for himself a year later.  Just outside the National Museum, a cross has been embedded in the pavement, with the surface rippled by several inches.  I was surprised to discover that the cross was covered in flowers and lit candles.  By happenstance, I had arrived at the cross on January 19th, the anniversary of Jan Palach’s death.  I saw two delegations from government ministries arrive with fresh loads of flowers, and a gentleman took considerable pains, despite his limited English abilities, to convey to me that this memorial was one of special importance.  I could only pause for several moments’ quiet at the memorial.

Robben Island, sun-blasted and separate

December 13, 2016

If I were planning only a week in Cape Town, I would have visited Robben Island much sooner.  After my first year in Cape Town had passed, I was glad that at last I could set foot on the island that Nelson Mandela made famous.  What can this island show to a visitor from a different nation?

First, it is worth noting that Robben Island is one of only eight World Heritage Sites in all of South Africa, and it is one of only two in the Western Cape (the other is the Cape Floral Region, extending into the Eastern Cape).  Its history has reflected the many resources the island can provide, ranging from port to post office to hospital to military outpost and to prison.  An excellent timeline showing its uses throughout history was produced by the Robben Island Museum.  Its name derives from the Dutch for “seal island.”  One of the last creatures a visitor is likely to see when boarding the boat for the island, in fact, is a seal.  A colony of seals occupies an area near the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront.


A photo of the V&A Waterfront from May, 2015

The ride to the island does not take long, only about 35 minutes on one of the modern, fast ferries.  My friends and I stayed below deck since I don’t deal well with direct summer sunlight.  The crew were pretty efficient in ensuring that the passengers knew about life vests and about having too many people on the bow or stern viewing areas.  In no time at all, we pulled abreast of the island.  The island covers an area just over five square kilometers, and its shoreline is dotted with low structures around the old medium-security prison where the guards (and now the museum docents) live.  The crossing to the island may have been short for us, but winter storms can make it quite perilous.  In the past children moving between the island and mainland for school frequently missed days of classes because the ferries could not run.


The Cape of Storms did not defeat us!

Once we left the boat, we all boarded buses to get our tour of the island.  I would suggest that you open a separate tab in your browser to view a free map of the island from Slingsby Maps.  In driving southeast along the coast road, we soon passed a sizeable, crumbling cemetery.  Our guide explained that in 1845, a leper colony near Caledon was moved en masse to Robben Island.  The Moravian missionaries who had cared for the ill moved with the 70 people in their care.  Many mentally ill patients were also shipped to the island.  Today, the only building standing from that period is the beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd, designed by the architect Sir Herbert Baker but built by the community living on the island.


The Robert Sobukwe house is at the left. The rest of the buildings housed dogs.

Our introduction to the island’s significance in Apartheid history began as we arrived at the Robert Sobukwe complex.  I first learned his name in driving to the University of the Western Cape; the institution is on the well-traveled Robert Sobukwe Road (the M10 highway).  He was a graduate of Fort Hare University and completed Honours at U-Wits, becoming a compelling intellectual in favor of the Defiance Campaign.  He is remembered for founding the Pan-Africanist Congress in 1958 as a breakaway group from the African National Congress.  At the age of 35, he was put in prison because of his resistance to the pass laws.  The Apartheid government then passed a law with a clause making it possible for them to incarcerate him in prison indefinitely without reference to a particular crime.  Mr. Sobukwe was kept in isolation from human conversation for almost all of the remaining years of his life, six of which took place at Robben Island.  As the tour guide explained the harshness of his detention, I heard a series of little gasps from the bus passengers around me.


The limestone quarry is very bright, even at a distance.

The limestone quarry is a site that appeared in the movie “Long Walk To Freedom” because of its significance in the life of Nelson Mandela.  As a prisoner, he was forced to toil here for thirteen years.  The point was to keep prisoners busy since the limestone was not particularly useful.  The other quarry on the island, however, produced blue stones from which many of the buildings were constructed (including the prison and the church).  In practice, the limestone quarry became a place of education, where prisoners read and conversed.  The harsh lighting, however, took a toll on Nelson Mandela’s vision.


The Kramat is the building with the green dome. The structure at the left is a guard tower.

Our visit to the maximum security prison started with a reminder that the island had served as a prison much further back in history.  The Moturu Kramat remembers the life of Sayed Adurohman Moturu (d. 1754), one of the first imams in Cape Town.  He was exiled to Robben Island for the last fourteen years of his life.  The Kramat remains an important point of pilgrimage for the Muslim community.


Our host regales us with tales of this prison from the 1980s.

Being inside the maximum security prison was unsettling.  We were led into a long narrow room, with a bunk bed at one end.  Our host explained that he had been a prisoner in the maximum security prison from 1983 to 1990.  He had been incarcerated for sabotage and other crimes associated with his work in the armed resistance to Apartheid.  The room we were in had once housed around 50 prisoners.  He showed a menu for people from the Indian or Cape Coloured populations and another for the black prisoners, demonstrating that the government had ensured the black prisoners were fed worse than others (and he had personal knowledge, since he had served as part of the kitchen crew during his prison term).

I found myself distracted by this man’s history.  He had acknowledged that he had taken up arms against the government of his country.  How could a person change from insurgent to museum docent in one lifetime?  He related that he had been terrified of public speaking when he was invited to become a guide to the museum (he had been unemployed at the time).  At his first tour, he had frozen with stage fright until some of the elderly people on the tour had begun asking questions.  Ten years later, he knew just how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand.  I admired his skill.


The leadership wing of the prison. The black pole held up one end of the tennis net.

In the last phase of the tour, we moved to the wing for high-level political prisoners.  We gathered in what had been a tennis court lined with blue stone walls.  On just the other side of the wall, a line of small cells had held leading figures of the ANC as well as other resistance organizations.  The cell itself is unremarkable, other than being smaller than what many of us would consider a bathroom of acceptable size.  How could a place like this have been the training ground of the future leaders of South Africa?

Robben Island discharged its final prisoner from the maximum security prison in 1991.  In 1994, its most famous former prisoner was elected president of South Africa.  By 1996, no prisoners remained on the island, and in the following year the Museum was opened.  In 1999, the Island was named a World Heritage Site.  Two decades after the prisons were emptied, this American could stroll around, trying to make sense of it all.  For my part, I think I will need to keep contemplating this remarkable place in which I find myself if I ever hope to understand it!

Berlin: Finding the old in the Neues Museum

October 15, 2016

Some museums are good, and others can be disappointing. Berlin, on the other hand, offers some of the finest museums on Earth, all within a 1 km radius. Museum Island offers five world-class museums and was listed in 1999 as a World Heritage Site.  This site lies right at the heart of Berlin, next door to the cathedral and a short walk from the red city hall.  The museums are distinctive both for their architecture (dating from 1824 to 1930) and their amazing collections.


The Alte Nationalgalerie stairs reminded me of the ones from the Tower of Fragrance of Buddha.

I wasn’t sure which museum I should visit, at first.  Then I thought back to my youth, when I would feel real excitement in entering the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The galleries of ancient art always stirred me. People who lived in an impossibly remote time and place had created these powerful objects! I saw that the Neues Museum had a special emphasis on Egyptian art, and I immediately felt compelled to visit.  In retrospect, I learned that the Pergamon draws the largest crowds year after year; its website shows displays that would have knocked my socks off!  The Neues (new) Museum, by the way, is no spring chicken.  It opened its doors in 1855, while the Altes (old) Museum was open to the public in 1830.


The central stairwell of the rebuilt Neues Museum

Like much of Berlin, the museum suffered horribly in World War II, with bombardments incinerating the central stairway along with several frescoes.  Bombs destroyed the northwest wing and damaged the southwest.  For decades, the building languished in that condition, with undamaged parts used only for storage by other museums.  After the reunification of Germany, however, the museum reconstruction planning began in 1997, with the project completed in 2009.  The new entry hall to the museum was postponed due to its 60 million Euro cost.  As a consequence, I needed to purchase my 12 Euro ticket for entry at a shipping container (!) across the plaza from its entry door.


This beautiful vault was as impressive as its contents.

After dropping off my backpack and jacket, I headed upstairs to the Berlin Papyrus Collection.  I’m a bit of a sucker for ancient documents, probably stemming from when I read George Ifrah’s From One to Zero.  The collection (which allows no photographs) presents its documents in sliding trays within a glass case.  Readers can select which set of thematically-grouped objects they want to see.  The display builds some suspense, because the trays do not move very quickly into view.  I gasped to see a bit of Gilgamesh from cuneiform on a tablet.  It was enlightening to see just how many languages have been used broadly in Egypt from ancient to modern times (such as hieratic and demotic types).

As I walked through the museum, I was frequently reminded of the destruction from which it was rescued.  The ceiling of one hall, for example, was a grid of domes, originally with a mosaic at the center of each.  Only some of the mosaics were in place, though, since the original art had been destroyed.  When I looked down from one floor to the one below, though, I could see beautiful frescoes that had survived the mid-20th century destruction.


Some nineteenth century art lives on!


That’s a full-sized human on the other side!

The Time Machine exhibit really drew me into the ancient world.  The box was essentially a very large-screen video player that portrayed typical lives of humans during the paleolithic I through bronze ages.  One of the most dramatic artifacts housed in the museum figured into that progression.  The Gold Hat is a really astounding sight.  It is believed to date from around 1000 B.C.  Naturally, the layer of gold is pretty thin, but one still shudders to think how difficult it would have been to assemble this much gold in one place in the ancient world!  The pattern of circles on the hat is not just ornamental; the patterns of dots is useful in predicting holidays based on both lunar and solar years (Easter / Passover is an example of a holiday that is based in the lunar year; that is why the date changes on the Gregorian calendar each year).  The other displays of bronze-age artifacts were pretty shocking to me.  I had no idea that so many weapons from this era existed in the whole world, let alone a single museum.  I also liked the display of the “Lurs” horns.  The sound recording of a modern trumpeter playing a replica was deeply unsettling!


This kingly figure caught my eye.

Of course, the museum is most well known for its Egyptian relics.  I would love, at this point, to show you the famed bust of Nefertiti housed at the museum, but no photos of her were allowed.  I did shoot a photo of the smaller replica that had been made for the blind, though!  Instead, I will show you a snapshot of either Akhenaten or Tutankhamen, dating from the New Kingdom, 18th dynasty.  I loved the detail that the artist carved in this shape.  What lovely work with paints and gilding!

Like many others, I found the mummy exhibits really interesting.  At the same time, I felt quite awkward staring at them.  One casing had a painting of the deceased person from her life.  It was hard not to feel somewhat ghoulish in gawking at the box that had held her body as an object of art.


Why take a brick when you can take the wall?

I think of the Pergamon Museum as being home to gargantuan displays, but the Neues Museum can hold its own.  What became clear to me was that archaeologists had imported entire sites from Egypt to Berlin.  The burial chamber of Methen (Old Kingdom, Fourth Dynasty ~2575 BC) is a fine example of this practice.  I was several feet back from this wall to get it all in shot.  The person to the left of the shot was around twenty feet away from me.

The peculiar irony of this swiping of ancient artifacts is that several exhibits throughout the museum noted the absence of key relics.  At the end of World War II, after all, the Russians had taken several objects home with them that had originally resided in the museum.  In effect, the Germans expropriated historical objects from Egypt only to have them expropriated by Russians.


One of these is a showman, and the other is a scientist. Wait, did I get that reversed?

As the time for closing arrived at the museum, I encountered one final surprise.  I had seen a show on American public broadcasting about Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy man who had made fantastic claims about having located Priam’s Troy from the Iliad.  The Neues Museum displays many of those artifacts in their galleries (in some cases they were replicas– see the note above about the Russians).  I lingered by his bust until I spotted a tourist willing to capture a photo of the two of us.

The Neues Museum may not have been the most famous site on Museum Island, but it was a perfect fit for how I wanted to spend my first afternoon in Berlin.  What a nice surprise!

China: Inner and outer spaces at the Forbidden City

An index to the China series appears at the first post.

September 22, 2016

With lunch complete, Chao Liu, graduate student Xiu-Nan Niu, and I all hopped in a taxi for Tian An Men Square, which is just south of the Forbidden City. Because a flood of tourists pour through the site every day, the government has set the southern gate as the entrance and the northern gate as the exit. Liu had invited his friend Amy to join our group as she is training for her Master’s degree in interpretation (she has spent several months in Chicago, gaining experience).


Keep in mind that this structure is merely the outermost gate.

In visiting the Forbidden City, it is useful to remember that stagecraft is a vital element of politics. The massive painting of Mao Zedong on the front of the “Front Door” gate is an example. It faces Tian An Men Square, the heart of the new China, with its massive government buildings designed to house the meetings of ministers from all over Asia (these buildings frame the mausoleum of Mao).


I think this fellow would look great in front of Turtle House!

The Ming Dynasty emperor who built the Forbidden City starting in 1406 intended to send clear messages to his rivals, both foreign and domestic. The first is his power, conveyed by the massive, carefully designed courtyards, the intricately carved stairs, and the truly vast chambers in which his public meeting thrones could be seen.


Even an emperor likes a soft seat from time to time.

The second is the delicate appreciation of status that his halls reflect. If you were a high courtier, you might occasionally see the emperor in a merely fantastic meeting room near the private apartments, the emperor appearing a mere three steps higher than his guests. If you were a provincial bureaucrat, you would get nowhere near that meeting room; instead you would see the emperor in a far more massive, echoing space, though perhaps on his yellow couch. Others might see him seated in the gold chair atop a massive dais in the largest of the halls. A common soldier might not have made it past the persimmon trees outside that hall.


The Hall of Union is a far more intimate space.

The spaces behind these formal halls tell a somewhat different story of the emperor’s daily life. The Hall of Union is certainly glorious enough, celebrating “wu wei,” the principle of non-action that is central in Taoism (and which can serve as a warning that the emperor’s actions are his prerogative). The Palace of Earthly Tranquility, directly behind, served as a residence for the empress. Other women who had become pregnant by the emperor would not have experienced anything close to tranquility in a summons to this hall. Sadly, the enclosed private gardens of the empress have been transformed into a beer garden for tourists.


The extensive gardens within the Forbidden City are a far more comfortable place than the formal palaces.

Through the gate behind these halls, however, one finds a true delight: the Imperial gardens. Trees, rocks, pools, statues, pavilions, and libraries fill every nook and cranny. It is a truly delightful place to visit, despite the crowds. The Pavilion of Crimson Snow, dating from 1420, has been transformed into a gift shop, but the woodwork that ornamented this space is still there to be seen.


Our Forbidden City team!


Who knew Chinese Emperors liked rock-climbing?

I particularly liked the Mountain of Accumulated Elegance, dating from 1583. The massive rocks look like they would have been an awful temptation for a young boy who would later become emperor.

Just a few steps more, and one has passed through two massive gates to return to the outside world. As a maudlin touch, the exit directs one’s sight directly at a hill top crowned by a tower. This site marks the location where the last emperor of the Ming dynasty committed suicide as rebel forces converged on the city.

As we walked to a nearby historic district, our interpreter revealed that she had been born after the 1989 protests that occupied Tian An Men Square. She felt confused about why people bring it up; what could possibly have happened that would mark it so indelibly in people’s minds? I was reminded of the comment by a researcher, earlier in the week, who said that China was much more like the United States today than it was like Russia or the Soviet Union. I tried to describe what those Tian An Men protests meant to me. I said that they marked a time that the people of this nation had arisen in order to say that the corruption and mismanagement of China in the 1980s would not continue in their name. Many of them paid a terrible price for making that statement. Perhaps many Westerners thought that nothing would change after the government clamp-down. There is plenty of reason, though, to say that the China of today is a rather different place than it was in the 1980s. Might the 1989 protests have been a turning point in that process?


These buildings, under renovation, show the architecture of the hutong.

We closed our day in the hutong village of Yuan Da Du along South Luogu Lane. This historic district was originally constructed in 1267, representing an area where skilled artisans could work and live adjoining the imperial government. Today, it is an extremely high-priced district of real estate, filled with businesses that attract shoppers and pleasure-seekers until late night. We stopped at a place for churros in ice cream and fruit syrup, and we examined shops with jewelry, stationery, clothes, porcelain, beads, and any number of other goods. Happily, many consecutive blocks were pedestrian-only, so we did not have to face the aggressive and hooting cars.


Business hums among the restaurants and gift shops of the hutong.

As we prepared to leave the district, we came across two historic buildings. The first was the home of Mao Dun, a writer and cultural commentator who lived in the area from 1974 to 1981. Just a short distance down the street was the field headquarters of Chiang Kai-Shek, a large complex with a massive gate that had served the general in the aftermath of World War II. History in China, both modern and ancient, is quite alive!