June 17, 2022 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Tamerlane

When Soviet archaeologists exhumed this tomb in 1941, they allegedly found this inscription inside: “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble. Whoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.”

In a matter of hours, Hitler’s men invaded Russia resulting in millions of deaths. Stalin ordered the remains to be reinterred in 1942, and soon after, the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad. Coincidence or not, it is a remarkable story.

Two years ago, I listened to a series of podcasts about this man for whom this mausoleum was built. I found him frightening and intriguing! There aren’t enough books written about him, and eurocentric history merely dedicates one or two measly paragraphs to him!

This man, known in the West as Tamerlane, is Amir Timur, “iron” in their language. It was he who freed his people from the yoke of the Mongols and proceeded to establish the Timurid Empire in 1370 and conquered lands spanning parts of Russia, and north western India to Syria.

During his reign, he and his armies decimated 5 percent of the world’s population! On his Persian conquest, they massacred and constructed towers out of the bodies. He was as brutal as the Mongol Khans, but unlike them, he spared the intellectuals, the architects, the writers, the rug makers, the craftsmen, the artistic and the educated, and brought them to Samarkand. And thus began the flourishing of Timurid arts and architecture, well exhibited in this very mausoleum up to this day.

Where I am staying in Samarkand is a wall away from this mausoleum.

The moon was still up when I walked over this morning and the muezzin’s call to prayer accompanied my quiet footfalls.

I sat on the steps with a book thinking it would still be off limits at such an early hour, but the caretaker noticed me and offered to let me in and left me on my own!

Heart pounding and knees slightly trembling, I entered and thought I heard throat singing along with the muezzin’s call…

 © 2022 MDR
Amir Timur Mausoleum, Samarkand

June 16, 2022 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan

What is it about the rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints between a lone stringed instrument, a drum, and throat singing that fire up the blood and make you want to conquer the world? This must have been the music that ran through the veins of the formidable khans and Tamerlane. As if my heart was not already drumming wildly, the perfect soundtrack for how I felt greeted me through the train speakers — music so visceral, so empowering and liberating.

It was a day that started with a huge bowl of yogurt and honey, crisped walnuts that I did not expect to be so flavorful, plump dried apricots, raisins that had retained their blue, all these topped with crumbled cottage cheese; and a cup of coffee to further fuel an excitement that I had not felt in a long time.

I left for the train station amidst a glorious Tashkent sunrise while half of me was still in disbelief that I was finally going to a land that had achieved mythical status in my mind, a land I thought I would only be able to visit through books.

But today I walked into a poem. I found myself welcomed to a courtyard with a garden framed in abundant grapevines. My wonder must have been apparent that the owner of the guest house started pointing at each fruit-bearing tree and incanted, “Fig, apricot, orange, apple, quince, plum, persimmon, pear, peach, walnut, cherry, mulberry…”

“Mulberry? What the silkworms eat?” I asked.

“Yes.” She rummaged through the renowned leaves of silk history and held out gems of a deep magenta towards me.

As the mulberries burst into color and flavor in my mouth, I realized how perfectly symbolic this initiation was to a place that was once known to the Greeks as Maracanda — metropolis of the Sogdians, the wealthiest and most successful merchants of the silk roads.

What a most beautiful thing to finally be able to write in my journal, that today I arrived in Samarkand, the heart of the Silk Route.

June 14, 2022 – Tashkent, Uzbekistan

© 2022 MDR
Tashkent, Uzbekistan

In which city did Alexander Solzhenitsyn miraculously heal from a stomach tumor that he chose the place to be the setting of Cancer Ward? Where did Mikhail Bulgakov’s widow hide the manuscript of Master and Margarita before it was published? To where did Anna Akhmatova evacuate during the Leningrad siege? For which city did Vronsky refuse an assignment significant to his military career in favor of Anna Karenina? In which city is the oldest Quran kept? Tashkent.

It has played important roles in literary history, and literary history seems to be woven along the threads of daily life here. Three of Tashkent’s Metro Stations that I was able to pass through today are dedicated to writers: Alisher Navoi, the greatest writer in Chagatai history; Abdulla Qodiriy, the nonfictional character of the novel, The Devil’s Dance, which I read earlier this year, and writer of what is considered the first Uzbek novel; and Alexander Pushkin!

A baffled immigration officer at our international airport asked me, “Why Uzbekistan?”

This post is the first of a series of answers. 🤍

Milan Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

“‘You begin to liquidate a people,’ Hübl said, ‘by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was.’”

It was this quote from the book making the rounds on social media recently that led me to re-read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but then I found more to retrieve from the margins of memory.

“…but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it… we fight for access to the labs where we can retouch photos and rewrite biographies and history.”

“They wanted to efface hundreds of thousands of lives from memory and leave nothing but an unstained age of unstained idyll.”

“…erased from the country’s memory, like mistakes in a schoolchild’s homework.”

“The constitution did indeed guarantee freedom of speech, but the laws punished anything that could be considered an attack on state security. One never knew when the state would start screaming that this word or that was an attempt on its security.”

Fortunately and unfortunately, Kundera reminds us that we are not alone in this plight, and there are still those who remember.

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

It’s funny how this book made more sense when I read it as a younger person — the passages about music and literature I glorified, the obscenities I took as metaphors and almost everything else as literary symbols. Now that I’m older, it all seems absurd.

And it is absurd because of how real it has become.

Along with my old yellowed notes tucked between its pages lie the pretentiousness of a young reader and the confounding of an older one.

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Stefan Zweig: Genius and Discovery | Triumph and Disaster

“…in history as in human life, regret can never restore a lost moment,
and 1,000 years will not buy back what was lost
in a single hour.”

The day of the Philippine Elections has finally come! And no queue at the polling precinct is too long if you have the right books with you!

Five historical miniatures in each of these lovely books from Pushkin Press by distinguished Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig. There is nonetheless nothing “miniature” about the writing! In fact, they magnify some of history’s crucial moments and characters in such glorious and vibrant ways, you can only wish Zweig wrote more of these!

It was this line that leapt off the pages from the foreword of both books: “…a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation…”

A single vote.

Dear Philippines, tomorrow we find out how we did.

Ivo Andrić: The Bridge on the Drina

Imagine a Serbian little boy being taken away from his mother as “blood tribute,” an Ottoman practice of forcibly recruiting soldiers from Balkan Christian subjects. Imagine the screams and the cries as the mother follows them to the Drina River, until the janissaries and the child embark on a ferry where they are parted forever.

This is the agony with which the book begins, and it made me wonder if I should shelve it for later. It felt too heavy to be read amid the volatile climate of the Philippine elections. But the writing made me want to read more, and I do not regret doing so.

This boy rose through the military ranks and became known as Mehmed Paša Sokolović, and in his later years, Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. But the painful memory of separation never left him: “…he thought that he might be able to free himself from this discomfort if he could do away with that ferry on the distant Drina, around which so much misery… gathered and increased incessantly, and bridge the steep banks and the evil water between them, join the two ends of the road which was broken by the Drina and thus link safely and forever Bosnia and the East, the place of his origin and the places of his life. Thus it was he who first, in a single moment behind closed eyelids, saw the firm graceful silhouette of the great stone bridge which was to be built there.” Thus began the construction of the bridge over the Drina, at the part of the river where he last saw his mother. 

The main character in this novel is the bridge. This bridge that has withstood over four hundred years of tumultuous history.

— — —

Elif Shafak was a reading staple between November 2020 to January 2022 when I was steeped in my reading project to cover and uncover as many writings from places affected by the Silk Route; so when a friend learned that Elif Shafak had said that The Bridge on the Drina caused something in her to shift forever, this was enthusiastically recommended to me.

Of the nine books by Shafak that I read, the first one was The Architect’s Apprentice, set in sixteenth century Istanbul about a fictional apprentice working with the legendary Ottoman court architect, Sinan. The one commissioned to design the bridge on the Drina, the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, is none other than Mimar Sinan.

— — —

But authors are stories in themselves, and Ivo Andrić’s life is literally one for the books. Born to a poor family in Bosnia, he grew up playing on the very bridge he would later immortalize and earn him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. The years in between include two World Wars and an extraordinarily rich and eventful life.

The introduction to this edition claims, “No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists… no anthropologist has ever reported the process of cultural change so sensitively; no historian has entered so effectively into the minds of the persons with whom he sought to deal…” I can only agree!

Andrić arranges the perplexing layers of this region’s history from the 16th to the 20th century into an impassioned song that constantly returns to its main theme — the bridge.

“…The life and existence of every great, beautiful and useful building, as well as its relation to the place where it has been built, often bears within itself complex and mysterious drama and history… Therefore the story of the foundation and the destiny of the bridge is at the same time the story of the life of the town and of its people…”

“Life…renews itself despite everything and the bridge does not change with the years or with the centuries or with the most painful turns in human affairs. All these pass over it, even as the unquiet waters pass beneath its smooth and perfect arches.”

There is an excess of lessons to be learned from this work, and much to be said about the exceptional writing, but what made me read on was the pervading refrain of the enduring power of art and architecture, and the comforting thought that no matter the course of history, life always renews itself. 

Flowers from a Book

Augustus, John Williams

Augustus to a young Julia, on Cleopatra:

“…that was Cleopatra, she was Queen of a great country. She was an enemy to Rome; but she was a brave woman, and she loved her country as much as any Roman might love his; she gave her life so that she might not have to look upon its defeat.”

This passage is an example of the compassion with which John Williams treats his characters.

My copy of Augustus being secondhand, it was a lovely surprise to find this pressed beauty tucked between the pages featuring Cleopatra.

Link to main entry on Augustus

John Williams: Augustus

“Father, has it been worth it? Your authority, this Rome that you have saved,
this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”

To have made palpable not only history, but the scope of human nature and the heart’s confidentialities; to have justly raised some of history’s forgotten women from the footnotes of the annals; to have retrieved a legendary man from his pedestal so he could tread in our minds as a mere mortal; to have given pensive credence to a line from that famous Quartet by Durrell in that the real ruins of Europe are its great men; there is but one word for the man, this book, the writing — august.

I have not read a more majestic novel!

As much as I want to reiterate the praises heaped upon this work and repeat the passages that moved me, I wish to put emphasis on what makes it meaningful to me as a woman — the noteworthy backstory, underscored by John McGahern in this edition, about the catalyst that gave us this book. In a conversation with writer Morton Hunt, John Williams learned the story of Augustus’ daughter Julia, whom the emperor deeply loved, but whom he sent into exile because she had broken the laws on adultery that he himself had enacted. The fascination with the fact that the only child of the first emperor of the Roman Empire had been overlooked in the histories led Williams to an immersion into the Roman world, which resulted in this work in which Julia is the heart.

It is this heart that grants us a compassionate portrait of Augustus. With this work published in 1971, and with that subtle power distinctly his, John Williams penned a revolutionary and enlightening approach on how to treat history’s women alongside the men — not to raise them unreasonably into women who played bigger roles in history than they actually did, but to remind us that they existed, they lived, and that they mattered.


Greeting this month with Memoirs of Hadrian and ending it with Augustus feels like a paradox at a time in my country when “history” is crafted to suit narratives and facts are doubted because they are purportedly written by the victors.

Friends, Romans, countrymen… in this, our history differs, because we have history written not by the victors but by the victims, and by those who became victims by speaking the truth. If we have the courage to question our history, we need also the courage to question our motives, and most of all, ask ourselves what kind of people our convictions empower.


“…nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced… it was more instinct than knowledge, however, that made me understand that if it is one’s destiny to change the world, it is his necessity first to change himself.”

Literary Symmetry

“I have relinquished Rome to the mercies of Tiberius and to the accidents of time.”

Augustus, John Williams (1971)

“I accept with calm these vicissitudes of Rome Eternal.”

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)

.

“The barbarian will become the Rome he conquers; the language will smooth his rough tongue; the vision of what he destroys will flow in his blood.”

Augustus, John Williams (1971)

“If ever the barbarians gain possession of the world then will be forced to adopt some of our methods; they will end resembling us.”

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)

Marguerite Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

As subtle but as vital as breath, the passage of ideas and wonder surges with life through these pages and straight to the reader. 

Marguerite Yourcenar carves and immortalizes the many aspects of the great Roman emperor that was Hadrian, but unlike any work of history, she resuscitates his heart and offers it to us, pulsating and bleeding, as only Marguerite Yourcenar can.

Written in the form of a letter to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations endure up to this day, Memoirs of Hadrian is the introspection of a man at the end of his days, stripped away of life’s pretensions and left only with his truths. I suspect that this, too, shall endure.

“I have known men infinitely nobler and more perfect than myself… There is but one thing in which I feel superior to most men: I am freer… For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom.”

It is partly an ode to Hadrian the traveler, the only emperor in the empire’s history to have traveled to almost every part of its vast realm. Of traveling, he writes, “It disrupts all habit and endlessly jolts each prejudice.”

An ode to a man who could accept with calm the vicissitudes of Rome Eternal after his time (“If ever the barbarians gain possession of the world they will be forced to adopt some of our methods; they will end resembling us”) but could not understand a resignation to ignorance; and thus promoted Greek philosophy and culture and patronized the arts, literature, music, architecture.

A man who perceived that knowledge and literature were as important as food to a civilization, and libraries, dispensaries to the soul: “The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which by certain signs, in spite of myself, I see ahead.”

An ode to Hadrian the builder who believed in the richness of an architecture more varied than Vitruvius’ four orders would allow (“Our great stone blocks, like our tones in music, are amenable to endless regrouping”) and thus amassed inspiration even from faraway Ctesiphon, Babylon, and Egypt, drew the plans himself, and put emphasis on building from vernacular materials.

“To build is to collaborate with the earth, to put a human mark upon a landscape, modifying it forever thereby…To reconstruct is to collaborate with time gone by, penetrating or modifying its spirit, and carrying it toward a longer future… My cities were born of encounters… Each building stone was the strange concretion of a will, a memory, and sometimes a challenge. Each structure was the chart of a dream… I have wanted to live as much as possible in the midst of this music of forms.”

“In the evenings the art of building gave way to that of music, which is architecture, too, though invisible.”

And so it is also an ode to a man who applied the laws of art and governance interchangeably: “Strength was the basis, discipline without which there is no beauty, and firmness without which there is no justice. Justice was the balance of the parts, that whole so harmoniously composed which no excess should be permitted to endanger. Strength and justice together were but one instrument, well tuned… all forms of dire poverty and brutality were things to forbid as insults to the fair body of mankind, every injustice a false note to avoid in the harmony of the spheres.”

It is an ode to the man who first ventured to call Rome “eternal”; who counted desperately on the eternity of stone, as we are able to continue to witness through Hadrian’s Wall, Hadrian’s Villa, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon; a man who believed that, “Anything made by man which aspires to eternity must adapt.” And therefore it is an ode to a man who looked for and looked to eternity — and thus, he loved.

Above all, it is an ode to a man who loved. For what is eternity without it?