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It is hard to imagine a color most beautiful than the color green. It is the color of fertility, of mystery, of life itself (which, unless you are an undersea tubeworm, depends on photosynthesis). Green is also the color of Islam. Today is June 8th and I have a short post about a long and complicated subject. June 8th of the year 632 (common era) was the day that the Prophet Muhammad died in Medina in his wife Aisha’s house. Other principle figures of major world religion died in the distant past, or ascended bodily into heaven, or underwent other mysterious supernatural transformations. Muhammad’s end was not like that. He died at a real date and in a real place and he was buried where he expired—in Aisha’s house next to a mosque. Islam subsequently became a mighty force in the world, and the al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina grew into an enormous edifice swallowing up the original house and grave. Muhammad’s final resting place, however is only marked by a somewhat austere green dome (which was built by the Ottoman Turks, many centuries after the time of the Prophet).
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Somewhat shamefully, my feelings about Islam fluctuate greatly based on extraneous circumstances, however I have always liked the green dome enormously on aesthetic grounds (indeed it has become a symbol of Medina and of Islam itself). It is a lovely shape and captivating color. The dome’s touching mixture of subdued grandeur and human scale has protected it from those who have wished to replace it with a grander edifice, and from those who wish to replace it with austere nothingness. The Wahhabi version of Islam, which is ascendant in Saudi Arabia right now, inclines towards the latter view, and some Wahhabi religious scholars have called for the razing of the green dome (an act which would infuriate other Islamic sects). The kings of Saudi Arabia love gaudy finery but they detest antiquities (which speak of a more cosmopolitan and permissive Arabia which existed before their absolutism and their oil-soaked personal opulence). Throughout Saudi Arabia, elegant old buildings have vanished to be replaced with monstrous modern travesties. I wonder if the double-edged sword of Wahhabi asceticism/Saudi decadence will claim the green mosque in the same way it has hollowed out the revelations of Muhammad.
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Today we have an AMAZING post which comes to us thanks to good fortune (and the tireless work of archaeologists).  Datong is an ancient city in Shanxi, a province in north-central China. The Datong Municipal Institute of Archaeology has been excavating 31 tombs from throughout the city’s long history.  One of the tombs was a circular “well” tomb from the Liao dynasty.  The circular tomb featured four fresco murals painted on fine clay (and separated by painted columns of red).  These paintings show servants going about the business of everyday life a thousand years ago:  laying out fine clothes and setting the table.  One panel just shows stylized cranes perched at a window/porch.  The cremated remains of the dead upper class couple who (presumably) commissioned the grave were found in an urn in the center of the tomb.

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The tomb dates from the Liao Dynasty, which flourished between the 10th and 12th centuries.  Attentive readers, will note that this is the same timeframe as the Song Dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD), which Ferrebeekeeper is forever extolling as a cultural and artistic zenith for China (although sadly, I can never seem to decide whether to call it “Song” or “Sung”).  Well the Song dynasty was a time of immense cultural achievement, but the Song emperors did not unify China as fully as other empires.  The Liao Dynasty was a non-Han dynasty established by the Khitan people in northern China, Mongolia, and northern Korea.  To what extent the Liao dynasty was “Chinese” (even the exact nature of whom the Khitan people were) is the subject of much scholarly argument.  But look at these amazing paintings!  Clearly the Khitan were just as creatively inspired as their neighbors to the south—but in different ways.

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The cranes have a freshness and verve which is completely different from the naturalism of Song animal painting and yet wholly enchanting and wonderful in its own right.  The beautiful colors and personality-filled faces of the servants bring a bygone-era back to life.  Look at the efficient artistic finesse evident in the bold colorful lines.  If you told me that these images were made last week by China’s most admired graphic novelist, I would believe you.

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These murals are masterpieces in their own right, but they are also a reminder that Ferrebeekeeper needs to look beyond the most famous parts of Chinese history in order to more fully appreciate the never-ending beauty and depth of Chinese art.

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Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

I was a bit hard on China in yesterday’s post about toxic sludge left over from refining rare earth elements (I was actually angry at myself for not being a natural businessman, not at the Chinese for ruining the Earth with industrial poisons). Today, therefore, let’s cleanse our palettes by looking at some exquisite treasures which were found in a medieval Chinese tomb! The grave was discovered by construction workers in Nanjing in 2008, but is just now being showcased to the world. It belonged to “Lady Mei” a noblewoman who died in 1474—just 18 years before Columbus discovered the new world. Lady Mei was 45 when she died. Her epitaph reveals that she was a concubine who was married off to the Duke of Yunnan when she was an “unwashed and unkempt” maiden of 15. Lady Mei outshone the Duke’s two senior wives by bearing a son, but her biography also indicates she had a lively mind and no small share of strategic and political genius. Reading between the lines, it seems like she ran the Duke’s vast household (and possibly Yunnan) for twenty years (during the strife and court turmoil of the feuding Zhengtong and Jingtai Emperors and the mad incompetence of the Chenghua Emperor no less).

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

You can read what is known about Lady Mei’s fascinating life here, but for today’s purposes let’s look at some of the otherworldly jewelry found in the tomb.

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Ming dynasty art is my favorite Chinese art! The artists of the Song dynasty were more inventive (and perhaps had greater raw talent). The artists of the Ching dynasty had a more eye-popping palette and crafted designs with more ornate flourishes. The artists of the Tang dynasty were more cosmopolitan and outward looking. The artists of today certainly know how to make ugly wretched junk which celebrates the dark magic of marketing. But the artists and artisans of the Ming era were unsurpassed at finding perfect proportions and color combinations. They blended the diverse regional and international elements from around all of China into a perfect lavish synthesis of styles which is instantly and indelibly Chinese.

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (“lotus petal” decorations and Sanskrit in gold with sapphires, rubies, and one turquoise. (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Look at how Central Asian decorative motifs mix with Southern Asian religious designs all within a rubric of ancient patterns from the Yangzi heartland! The bold yellow of the jewels is perfectly matched by the equally rich colors of carved rubies, sapphires, cats’ eyes, and turquoises.

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei's Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei’s Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Each of the pieces of jewelry looks like something the queen of heaven could be wearing in a Chinese myth. These pieces are hairpins, bracelets, and a perfume box, but they have the splendor and unrivaled workmanship of crowns. Indeed, Lady Mei might as well have been a sovereign. Contemporary Yunnan has approximately the same population as contemporary Spain. The Yunnan of Lady Mei’s day was likewise probably about the same size as Spain just before it unified and took over the Americas.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

It is astonishing that these treasures have been lying in the earth, waiting for some developer to build a supermarket or condominium. Lady Wei’s opulent grave goods are exquisite—the undying glory of Ming craftsmanship still dazzles like nothing else.

Tomb of the Leopards (ca. 450 BC)

Tomb of the Leopards (ca. 450 BC)

The Etruscans might be my favorite painters of the ancient Mediterranean world: their frescoes are filled with animals, feasting, music, fruit tress, dancing, and magic. Every gesture and brushstroke of their ancient paintings still conveys unique vivacity and joie de vivre. Even the scenes of death and violence have a sensuous and winsome beauty. When one looks at their tomb paintings from more than two millennia ago, the air seems to fill with the strange music of shepherd’s pipes and long-gone lyres. Perfumes fill the tombs and the classic world comes to life. In the days before Rome rose to power, the unknown artists of Etruria laid out an epic banquet and anyone who loves splendor, pleasure, and loveliness may still sit down at their feast.

Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, (ca. 480-470 BCE)

Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, (ca. 480-470 BCE)

The dancing musicians at the top of the post and the mixed company of men reclining at a great funeral banquet are from the tomb of the leopards in Tarquinia (which is found in the great Necropolis of Monterozzi). The guests dine al fresco among flowering vines and fruiting trees. They wear wreaths and drink deep in memory of their friend. At the right corner, one of the diners holds up an egg—the timeless symbol of resurrection and regeneration.

Three headed serpent from "the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot" (Necropolis of Pianacce)

Three headed serpent from “the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot” (Necropolis of Pianacce)

Here is a chthonic serpent monster from the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot. Look at how much personality the stylized snake heads have as they contemplate the dark god driving a chariot through the underworld (which is on the opposite wall). The purple color, red crests, and un-snakelike beards are all inventions of the artist.  For all of its and technical beauty, Greek art—even during the Hellenistic period has a kind of stiff formalism. Art historians are fond of attributing western art to the Greeks, yet I think that Giotto, Titian, and the masters of the Italian Renaissance may owe a greater debt to the Romans, who in turn took their painting and their concept of beauty and pleasure from the Etruscans. We are still sitting at their feast.

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

Khonso Em Heb, his wife, and offspring are shown in ritualistic paintings with underworld deities (ca. 1100-1200 BC)

It is thirsty work being a deity of the underworld (what with all of the legions of the dead, the dark serpent gods, and whatnot)!  That is why today we are celebrating the Ancient Egyptian brewer for the gods of the afterworld.  The eminently respectable Mr. Khonso Im-Heb who lived (and died) during the Ramesside period of Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1,292–1,069 BC) was the head of granaries and chief of brewing for the vulture goddess Mut.   We know all of this because a team of Japanese archaeologists working in the Thebes necropolis (in the Egyptian city of Luxor) just discovered the beautifully preserved tomb of Khonso Im-Heb as they were working on the tomb of an 18th-dynasty royal official.

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offeings from their son

Khonso Em Heb and his wife receive offerings from their son

An article on CNN described the excitement the tomb’s discovery has engendered among archaeologists and officials:

Egypt’s antiquities minister Mohamed Ibrahim described Khonso Em Heb as the chief “maker of beer for gods of the dead” adding that the tomb’s chambers contain “fabulous designs and colors, reflecting details of daily life… along with their religious rituals.”

The antiquities ministry has put tight security on the tomb (political tumult in Egypt has proven dangerous for the country’s cultural heritage) so archaeologists are looking forward to carefully and methodically studying the beautifully preserved site and discovering more about the life and times of Khonso Im-Heb.  So far, only photographs of the tomb’s painted walls have been released to the public, but the vibrant paintings of daily life are astonishing.

The Goddess Mut

The Goddess Mut

It should be mentioned that in Ancient Egypt, beer was immensely popular with all classes of people, but it was not exactly the crisp tasty concoction of today.  Ancient Egyptian beer was a crude barley or millet-based fermented beverage which was drunk with a long straw (in order to bypass the dense scum which floated to the top of the beverage).  Presumably the vulture goddess liked it that way!  It seems like Khonso Em Heb died as a very successful man.

 

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)
Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Today we have a special treat: a painting of six geese from the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat at Meidum.  Nefermaat was the eldest son of the first wife of the pharaoh Sneferu (who founded the fourth dynasty– the greatest dynasty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom).  As the pharaoh’s oldest son, Nefermaat acted as vizier of Egypt, the prophet of the goddess Bastet, and the bearer of the royal seal.  Nefermaat’s own son Hemiunu was the architect of the great pyramids of Egypt!

Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

canvasThis extremely beautiful painting was crafted somewhere between 2600 and 2550 BC by an unknown artist or team of artists who carved out the shapes of the geese in a wall and then filled in the hollow outlines with colored paste.  For four and a half thousand years, the group of geese has kept its lifelike vibrancy. Discovered by the great French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette in 1871, the masterpiece is now in the Cairo museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a reproduction of the painting and their website explains the original context of the piece:

The geese were depicted below a scene showing men trapping birds in a clap net and offering them to the tomb’s owner. While it is not uncommon to find scenes of fowling in the marshes in Old Kingdom tombs, this example is one of the earliest and is notable for the extraordinary quality of the painting. The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.

The geese in the painting are commonly known as Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) which are members of the Tadorninae–the shelduck-sheldgoose subfamily (which means they are not exactly geese, taxonomically speaking).  Egyptian Geese are 63–73 cm long (25-29 inches) and they range through most of sub-Saharan Africa and up the Nile valley.  Domesticated by the ancient Egyptians in the depths of antiquity, the birds were also kept by the Greeks and Romans.  There are feral populations in England and the United States (where Egyptophiles keep the fowl as ornamental birds!).

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat's tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

Detail of Geese in Frieze from Nefermaat’s tomb (ca. 2600-2550 BC)

The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

Here is one of my favorite disturbing religious paintings.  The work was completed in 1864 by the not-easily-classified 19th century French master Édouard Manet.  At first glimpse the canvas seems like a conventional devotional painting of Christ just after he has been crucified and laid out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but, upon closer examination the multifold unsettling elements of the painting become manifest.  The figures are painted in Manet’s trademark front-lit style which flattens the figures out and gives them a hint of monstrous unearthliness.  This is particularly problematic since we are located at Jesus’ feet and his body is already foreshortened.  The effect is of an ill-shaped Jesus with dwarf’s legs looming above us.  Also, from his half-closed eyes it is unclear whether Christ is dead or not.  Is he artlessly deceased with his eyes partially opened?  Has he been resurrected already but is somehow still woozy?  Are the angels resurrecting him?  Here we get to the biggest problem of the painting:  when is this happening?  This scene is certainly not in the gospels (at least I don’t remember any episodes where weird angels with cobalt and ash wings move Jesus around like a prop).   Did Manet just make up his own disquieting interpretation of the fundamental mystery at the heart of Christianity?  It certainly seems like it!  In the foreground of the work, empty snail shells further suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning.  An adder slithers out from beneath a rock as if to suggest the poison in our doubts.  Painting this kind of problematic religious work did not win Manet any friends in the middle of the nineteenth century, however it is unquestionably a magnificent painting about faith…and about doubt.

Different pictures of grave side devotions which characterize the Qingming festival

Happy Tomb Sweeping Day!  The 104th day after the winter solstice is celebrated in China as the Qingming festival. Throughout China, People go outside to tend to the graves of deceased loved ones and to enjoy the beauty of springtime.

As the English name implies, the holiday is also an occasion to carefully tend and restore revered grave sites because, above all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion for ancestor worship. Celebrants visit graves and tombs with offerings for the dead.  Traditional offerings include roosters, flowers, paper decorations, pastries, tea, incense, chopsticks, wine and/or liquor.

In addition to being a day to show respect for the dead, Tomb Sweeping Day is a celebration of the changing seasons.  People go on family outings together to enjoy blossoms or fly kites (these kites are usually shaped like animals or heroes from Chinese opera). Some people carry flowers or willow branches with them throughout the day or decorate their houses with willow branches–which are believed to ward off the wandering dead.

Qingming kite making in Yinchuan, capital of northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region

The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient.  If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization.  But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence!  Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).

The Headdress of Puabi (ca. 2600 BC, gold)

It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses.  Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects.  Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic).  She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth. 

A picture of Puabi's crown/headdress as it was probably worn (i.e. over a thick wig)

The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”).  The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.

A reconstruction of the lyre (made with original pieces) from the British Museum

Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”).  The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers.  The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:

Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments

The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.”  I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.

Woolley's Diagram of the Tomb of Puabi

Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall.  Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time.  Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade.  At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.

An artist's reconstruction of the city-state of Ur

This past weekend was Open House New York.  For a weekend the whole city was an elementary school field trip as cultural, architectural, and industrial institutions throughout the burroughs opened their doors to the public for a sneak peek behind the scenes.  There were a lot of tempting choices, but, in keeping with ferrebeekeeper’s long obsession with all things gothic, some friends and I visited Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery to look inside the catacombs and palatial mausoleums of nineteenth century elite. Green-Wood cemetery consists of 478 acres of lovingly tended forests and gardens where more than 600,000 individuals are buried. The cemetery is sprawled over the terminal moraine left by the Wisconsin ice sheet when it retreated back to Canada about 18,000 years ago.  As the thousand foot tall wall of ice melted it dropped its burden of pebbles, boulders, and topsoil into rolling hills which now form the bulk of Long Island.  The tallest hill on Brooklyn is Battle Hill in Green-Wood where one can stand in the middle of a field of obelisks and look down at the harbor, the Narrows, and lower Manhattan.

 

The Main Gate of Green-Wood Cemetery

A Monk Parakeet at Greenwood

The main gates of Greenwood are a gothic revival masterpiece created by Richard M. Upjohn in 1861 (the cemetery itself dates back to 1838).  Back in the 1960s a shipment of monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) being flown from Argentina to Idlewild somehow escaped and the renegade birds set up nesting sites first in the cemetery gate.  Later, as the colony expanded, the birds also occupied the coEdison transformer station next to the cemetery.  So, as you walk into the park, you are greeted by raucous screeches and streaks of chartreuse among the trees.  And what trees!  Since the cemetery is old and is protected by a spiked fence, armed guards, and fierce dogs (along with who knows what sort of malevolent chthonic agencies), the trees have grown to maturity unmolested and the grounds feature numerous huge field oaks, mighty beeches, giant metasequoias and every other ornamental or native specimen which grows in these parts.

It is difficult to convey the scope of the cemetery. Visitors wander through different landscapes going up and down hills, into dark forests, across garden glades, and beside lakes—and everywhere there are tombs of every sort.  There are thin limestone headstones where the text is fading, tall granite plinths with statues, squat obsidian cubes, Egyptian pyramids, and elegant urns.  Sometimes you also pass huge haunting circles of graves which evoke feelings of barrows and ancient standing stones. During the open house my friends and I visited the spooky Greek revival mausoleums of a heartless railroad baron and of a rich tobacconist who turned to spiritualism after the mysterious death of one of his (demi-mondaine?) female employees. We also visited the underground catacombs where workers installed a creepy underground network of burial chambers in the excavation left over from a pebble mine.

Inside the catacombs (lit by bore holes drilled from above)

The princely grave of the stingy Whitney

The largest mausoleum inhumes the remains of Stephen Whitney, one of the richest and most parsimonious merchants of the nineteenth century who eschewed philanthropy. As one might imagine he was not well loved and when he died, the famous social commentator George Templeton Strong remarked that “his last act was characteristic and fitting.  He locked up his checkbook and died.” Although Whitney’s grave was magnificent and the cemetery’s great mourning chapel (pictured below) was even more so, to me the most interesting mausoleums and graves were the smaller gothic ones which I have pictured throughout this post.  We’re getting closer to Halloween (and to peak foliage)—why not take a constitutional through a nearby cemetery and contemplate the ephemeral nature of things amidst a beautiful vista?

The Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery

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