O mnie

Jestem jak droga polna, niczyja,  którą się mija,

Co nigdzie wiodła i wieść nie będzie, choć idzie wszędzie.

Dzieli mnie zawsze, tak jak tę drogę,
miedza od nieba,
a poco jestem pojąć nie mogę, bo mnie nie trzeba!

Nie byłem nigdy sobie, czy komu,
drogą do domu –
i dobrze życzę każdej godzinie
kiedy już minie.

Contact me

Ryszard Antolak

antolak@antolak.co.uk

 

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Vulnerable Bodies

 

Bodies are vulnerable. But the physical environment that surrounds them, is dangerous with hard objects, hostile to soft flesh and bone. Instead of transforming the environment to suit our flesh-and-blood bodies, we have opted to make ourselves hard and machine-like (both physically and psychologically): armoured from reality like hermit crabs.

In a few years time, it will be possible to replace every single part of the human body (with the exception perhaps of the brain) with synthetic substitutes.  Much of this can already be done. We have mechanical limbs operated by computers, ceramic hip-joints, steel bones , plastic hearts, plastic corneas, cochlea implants etc etc. As this continues, our humanity will become  melded with machine, and ‘man’ himself, whatever we mean by this term, will soon become merely a metaphor, a hypothetical ‘ghost in the machine’.

Twenty years ago, we imagined machines (robots in the image of men and woman), taking over our jobs and livelihoods. But our fears were ill-founded. Instead, the movement came from the other direction. Men became increasingly robotic, impersonal and  machine-like, both in their character and in their relations with one another. Many in the western world already act (at least in part) as if they were machines:  they are dispassionate, perfunctory with little empathy for anyone. Their attention and care is directed towards electronic devices. They are increasingly ruthless in their daily affairs, while conforming to a belief that “real life” is only lived at home (or perhaps on holiday). In supermarkets as well as in business, they treat one another in a functional , instrumental manner, almost completely as objects. Their relations with  others are diplomatic, institutionalized. Their desires and opinions are directed by the dictates of the media, informed by disembodied voices on the radio that drown out the songs of the angels and reduce sacred speech to the level of barter or games  or economics. Enclosing themselves in man-made environments, they shelter behind iphones and computer screens..

Yes. You can hide yourself in rock pools like a crab, but the mighty ocean will always find you.

A man is only free if he can release his imagination from the cage of its domesticity. So it is good to be a little mad: to loosen the straps of the straight-jackets we have worn since childhood.. We have too long been domesticated. We have forgotten the wild sacredness of our original existence. Why were we not brave enough to have lived life more wildly, madly, like the dancing gnats blown away by an evening wind or the  geese with their long necks stretched out into the future, above the clouds?

The wild stallions of the night will not be stopped. Listen, already you can hear them chewing at their bits, whinneying in impatience, stamping their hooves, opening their nostrils to the distant scents of freedom. Risk everything and run with them! Yes, it will be dangerous. But if you must be cut by Life, die by the sharpened sickle of a crescent moon.

And remember to hold onto the sky. Trust it with all your heart. For the earth will always betray you.

 

 

Of Men & Geese & Starry Nights

I am used to the sight of geese passing over my house at night.  Sometimes the mournful music of their voices is all that records their voyage across the star-lit sky. It thrills me to the core every time I hear them, and my imagination is lit up afterwards for hours, and sometimes weeks at the magic of it.

This morning however, as I sat by an open fire in my garden during the last hours of the night, a great glowing meteorite passed unhurriedly overhead: a great red burning globe with a long red tail, flying eastward towards the crescent moon.  When I saw it, I shrieked out with joy: It was such a beautiful sight.

Even before it had disappeared behind the neighbouring roofs, I was asking myself: “What does this mean? Why have I seen this? Why today?

Our ancestors, who lived closer to Nature than we do (and were therefore wiser as a result), often believed that a meteorite was a sign of a gift about to be bestowed from the spiritual realm, or from the furthest corners of our imagination. It was a sign of good luck. Get ready: something is about to change in a major way.

I hope so! I am waiting for change. I am like one of those geese cackling in some field, restless and excited at the prospect of a long migration into the unknown.

And then the words of an old friend come and settle next to me: “Don’t ask yourself what it is. Ask yourself who it is?

So, then I ask, “Who is it, this meteorite”? What does he/she want from me?

And immediately my imagination glows, ignites and takes flight with the geese into a cackling night sky.

 

The Princess of Cherry Pie.

There was once a great king who had a beautiful daughter whom he loved above all his other children. He called her his little Princess of Cherry Pie. He gave her everything she desired, including her own castle and servants to do with as she wished. And in return, the princess was a dutiful and obedient daughter.

The great king visited his daughter only rarely, for he had important business ruling his vast empire. But when he did visit her, he would bring her gifts and presents from the corners of his kingdom, jewels and furs and exotic fruits. On these rare visits, he would bring her whatever she desired because she was his youngest daughter and she deserved it all, he told her.

And then one day the king died. His daughter mourned him to such a degree that she lay down on her bed and remained there for weeks refusing to move. She would rise only during the night, when everyone else was asleep and would spin incessantly until morning. How could her father have died and left her alone, she asked herself constantly? How could she bear to live without him?

As the weeks grew into months, and the months into years, she became ever more bitter and resentful at the world, until her heart became surrounded by a forest of hurts. Around her palace there grew acres of nettles, thorny hawthorns and matted brambles. Soon no-one could penetrate that wilderness to reach her heart. No-one could reach her without enduring the stings barbs and cruel thorns of her tongue.

Until one day, a young man did manage to beat a path to her gate. Bruised, stung and punctured by thorns and nettles he fought his way to her castle and pledged the princess his service of everlasting love. She returned his love. And many a night by the light of the moon, they would sit gazing into each other’s eyes and making plans,

The princess of Cherry Pie promised to make her suitor a jacket studded with precious jewels, like the one her father had worn, stitched with golden threads she had spun with her own white hands. He would look so handsome in it! He promised her that he would clear the forests of harsh hawthorn and plough over the wilderness of nettles. She would have garden of roses and an orchard filled with every exotic fruit on earth. But the princess told him that she had grown fond of her wilderness. It protected her solitude. The weeds and the matted brambles must stay. They reminded her of her father and of the many years she been compelled to suffer in the world without him. They were now in keeping with the tradition of the castle. She did not require them to be removed.

And so, every time the prince came to visit his beloved princess, he was stung and cut and hurt. Nursing his bruises, he began to come less often, and the path he had beaten to her door became narrower and narrower. Slowly the wilderness began to reclaim its former property. The prince, weary of the struggle, wrote her lengthy letters explaining his absences. But the princess, angry at him, replied in shorter epistles declaring: “I love you with all my heart. But you no longer love me. How can you be so cruel! Why are you abandoning me?”

He could not make her understand. The road to her palace became impassable with weeds and thickets of barbed hawthorn. And there was no-one brave enough to venture through it.

The princess became older, and returned to her midnight spinning, sewing together a suit studded with the most expensive jewels from her father’s treasures. In the evenings, when the moon was full, she would stare out over the vast wilderness she had allowed to grow around her hoping to see her lover fighting his way through the undergrowth to reach her. But she was never bothered by outside suitors again.

© Rysiek Antolak

Phantom Pains

There is nothing imaginary about” phantom pain”. It not an imaginary discomfort. Indeed, it can be more severe than a pain that can be located on the body, one that can be held, or rubbed, warmed or soothed. From the affliction of a phantom pain there is no escape, not even into narcotics.

Phantom pains occur in individuals who have had limbs amputated, sometimes decades earlier. Although the arm or leg may have been removed, its nerve-endings to the brain remain relatively. And the body remembers its absent limb. The amputee can feel the pain of a knee, or a calf, or a toe that he no longer has. The sensation can feel as if one is being tickled, or it can be a pain that is truly indescribable in its ferocity. Very little can be done to soothe that pain. You cannot hold the place where you feel it, for that place no longer exists.

I know all this, because my father suffered phantom pains for almost 40 years. A Polish soldier during World War Two, he lost his leg fighting the Germans at Ancona, in northern Italy. His left leg was amputated  above the knee. He had only 5 inches of limb remaining.

It was difficult enough being a displaced ex- Polish soldier stranded in Britain after WW2.  unable to return home for fear of deportation to Siberia, or else imprisonment and death at the hands of the Communist government. He had no family, no property, no Homeland and little prospect of work. He lived on his pension which was meagre and basic.. Xenophobia was common in our neighbourhood, racial prejudice ubiquitous. “Bloody Poles” was how soldiers who had served the UK and helped free Europe from the Nazis were commonly referred to. But being disabled and suffering from phantom pains was an added personal Hell he had to deal with.

I remember many times in my childhood feeling my bedroom vibrating uncontrollably as my father suffered unpredictable attacks of phantom pains in a neighbouring room. It was as if an electric motor had been turned on. The vibrations could be heard over the whole house. Afterwards, perhaps hours later, we (children) would rush into his room to find him lying exhausted on the bed and trying his best  to smile for our benefit.

This is better limb than my father’s one.

He was issued with an artificial limb that was the most primitive imaginable. A child could have built a better one. I look in amazement at the prosthetic limbs available today and compare them sorrowfully with the one he had to battle with. It was a Kelly No. 1: basically a heavy metal tube perforated with holes and shaped in the form of a human leg. It was a truly devilish contraption guaranteed to make the wearer regret he had ever attempted to put it on. It also looked hideous: truly an instrument of high torture.

It was held onto the body by a stiff semi-circular belt of steel and leather that went around the waist. There was also a strap that went over the shoulder to the back. This strap would cut deeply into the flesh of the shoulder, producing sores and lesions. The belt had to be adjusted every few moments to ease the pressure on the shoulder. On the stump of the leg , a special thick woollen sock would be worn, that stung and sweated and creased, causing sores. At its knee, the two parts of the artificial limb were connected by various chords and screws. The knee bent when climbing stairs, but remained stiff when descending, forcing him to twist his body from side to side in a rocking motion to make any progress. Even with a stick to support him, walking was a painful and exhausting experience. He slipped on icy roads. He fell from the open doors of buses. He suffered the jeers of children and adults in the town. And no-one could help him.

The metal limb broke periodically of course, and when this happened, one of my sister (or I) would transport it the 30 miles or so by train to the limb fitting centre in Glasgow to be repaired. Despite complaining of pain and great discomfort to doctors and specialists,, nothing was ever done for my father. He wore this type of limb until he died in 1981.  No newer models were ever offered to him.

Perhaps because he was just another “bloody Pole”.

Please look carefully at the artificial limb in the photo above. It is a better model than the one my father was compelled to wear (I couldn’t find a photo of the Kelly No1). This is what was still being issued to some soldiers in 1981, and perhaps beyond! Disgrace!

Shelley, Revolution and the Emasculation of English Poetry

Two hundred years ago, the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley was comprehensively censored and banned by the English establishment. Anyone who dared to publish him (like the radical publisher William Clark or Richard Carlile) was prosecuted and imprisoned for sedition.

The reason? Shelley’s poetry was a call to the poor and disadvantaged to rise up against the powers that used and oppressed them. An enemy of all irresponsible authority, a revolutionary, an atheist, a vegetarian, a fierce fighter for women’s rights, a champion of the working classes, he attempted to liberate the imagination of the poor and disadvantaged from the control of the rich and powerful who exercised their authority to manipulate their thoughts and inform their desires. His poetry still has power to stir the spirit today:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many. They are few.’

For Shelley the distinction between the social classes, between men and women, between animals and humans, were false realities constructed by the rich and powerful to perpetuate their rule. In his Defence of Poetry, he distinguishes (like William Blake) between Reason, the organ which perceives differences and categories (which analyzes and dissects) and Imagination, which sees connections between things and unites. When we think rationally we see divisions. When we think imaginatively we see connections. ”Reason respects the differences, the imagination the similitudes of things”. Shelley was a fierce champion of the unbound Imagination, and of its organ, Poetry.

Poetry, Shelley argued, exercises and expands the imagination, and the imagination is the source of all sympathy, compassion, and love, (because they rest on the ability of an individual to project himself into the position of another person). In the Defence of Poetry he writes, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb”.

No other English poet of the early nineteenth century so emphasized the connection between beauty and goodness, or believed so avidly in the power of art’s sensual pleasures to improve society. Byron’s prose was one of amoral sensuousness, or of controversial rebelliousness; Keats believed in beauty and aesthetics for their own sake. But Shelley was able to believe that poetry makes people and society better; his poetry is suffused with this kind of inspired moral optimism, which he hoped would affect his readers sensuously, spiritually, and morally, all at the same time.

Two hundred years ago, English Poetry still had power to shock and to change minds, and hence to challenge the political and social powers that ruled in England. And so, that power had to crushed. This was shortly after the French Revolution when Britain expected the masses to rise up in a similar fashion as they had in France and remove the landed and aristocratic classes from power. It was a real fear.

At first, the establishment’s tactic was to attack the poet himself. He was expelled from Oxford University and hounded out of Devon by the Home Office (after writing a seditious pamphlet on Ireland). He was the subject of two assassination attempts by Tory landowner Captain Pilfold. After the suicide of his first wife, Harriet, he was refused custody of his own children on grounds of (supposed) immorality. Conditions in England forced him to flee to Europe. In 1821 when the radical publisher William Clark attempted to sell his poem Queen Mab on the street bookstalls, he was immediately prosecuted. Richard Carile published other editions shortly afterwards and was sent to prison for sedition. The preface to Hellas, in which he proposed arguments for an English Revolution, was erased from all editions of his works for over seventy years. His Philosophical View of Reform was suppressed until the 1920s (and even then, only circulated privately). When he died, the London Courier thundered: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned. Now he knows whether there is a God or no”. Hated and ridiculed by reviewers, his works were completely censored by the authorities for years after his death.

Even today, almost 200 tears after his death, Shelley is still mistrusted and often omitted from syllabuses in universities. My English professor at university detested and ridiculed his poetry. A few years ago, a Channel 4 TV programme spent a whole hour attempting to prove the poet’s work was mostly gobbledy-gook nonsense and made no logical sense.

While they could attack the poet’s reputation, the English Establishment could not suppress the poetry which, seductive and dangerous, found its way secretly into the hands of potential revolutionaries to fire their imaginations. The Chartists and other social reformers seized upon and devoured them. Karl Marx read Shelley avidly and his works profoundly influenced his own ideas. .

Since Shelley’s Poetry itself was seen as dangerous to the ruling classes, able to communicate great ideas to the masses with brevity, concentration, imagination and emotive power, Poetry itself (in general) became the next target. A deliberate policy was initiated by the establishment to emasculate Poetry, to reduce its content to inoffensive rhyme and lyric, to confine its scope to the purely personal, or to descriptions of Nature. At the same time his enemies perpetrated the myth that Shelley was an aesthete, an ethereal poet, delicate and frail, guided by vague innocuous notions of Love, instead of a poet of dangerous, political ideas.The phenomenal success of this offensive can be seen today where the poetry section is invariably the quietest and most genteel corner of any English bookstore.

This great change in the public perception of Poetry was the result of a need to silence the revolutionary power of one man’s poetry: that of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet who believed that poetry teaches people to love, and that love reforms both the mental and the physical universes and so is capable of bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. It is something for which many generations of visionaries have strived and will continue to strive.

Ryszard Antolak

The Cobra Mountain of Jebel Barkal

Drawing of Jebel Barkal by Ernst Weidenbach, 1845.

In the desert landscape of Sudan, in the ancient territory once known as Kush and Nubia, is a group of colossal statues carved into the side of an isolated mountain. Almost twice as high as the Statue of Liberty, the four figures stand guard over the River Nile in a haze of mystery and neglect. No one knows how old they are, or who created them. Centuries of wind have erased their finer details, so that  visitors are sometimes tempted to believe the statues were carved by the winds themselves (which would be remarkable indeed). One of the figures, unmistakeably feminine in shape, was said by a Turkish traveller in the 1600s to weep rivulets of tears, which collected in a ceramic pool at the foot of the mountain. The holy waters were used for healing.

Although the figures are badly weathered, one giant statue remains almost intact, thanks to its sheltered position at the corner of the mountain. It is a three-dimensional statue of an erect cobra, 200 feet high, projecting from the side of the mountain. On its head, the serpent wears a giant crown, the symbol of Egyptian kingship.

The Mountain of Jebel Barkal was once the most sacred place in ancient Egypt, as well as being the most remote. It was the birthplace of the God Amun, the mysterious ram-headed spirit immanent in all creation.  Clustered together at the foot of the mountain (and indeed within it) are found the remains of 13 Egyptian temples, the largest of which is dedicated to the God Amun. Palaces, royal residences and other buildings have also recently been uncovered nearby. One of them housed the famous oracle of Amun. The great Nubian Pharaoh, Taharka, had a small chamber built high up in the cobra’s head, where he placed a statue of himself. Beside it he had made a commemorative inscription in gold that reflected the rays of the sun like a lighthouse across the desert. This has been a very special place for countless centuries.

Be assured, the mountain is not dead. All the djinn of the Nubian desert have retreated here, ruled over by their queen Nasira (bint el-Jebel) daughter of the mountain. Legend says that she left her hiding place once, looking for food for her subjects. A young farmer found her in a sad state and cared for her. She married him and gave  birth to a daughter and a son. The couple had a stormy relationship and after several years, Nasira returned to the mountain and her own people, It is said that her children were the founders of the Omerab tribe, who live around the mountain. Even today, women come here secretly by night in small groups. They sit astride the statues of the rams at the great temple of Amun, hoping by such means to become pregnant by the grace of the ancient God.

When the Pharaoh Thutmoses III arrived in the 15th century BC at the head of his conquering army, the God Amun appeared to him in a vision uttering the words: “My spirit is here”.  In response, Thutmoses ceased his invasion and went no further south. He meditated in solitude on the mountain with the spirit of Amun and built the first of many temples here. Centuries later, when the Egyptian Pharaohs abandoned Nubia (together with its remote holy mountain) and retreated northwards, the priests of Amun questioned the legitimacy of the Pharaohs to rule, and successfully removed them from power.

View towards the Nile from summit of Jebel Barkal. Dawn.                                         © Ryszard. Antolak.

You do not need the history of this place, however, to know that it was special. You can feel it without knowing the archaeological facts. Climb up on to the summit just before dawn and wait for the sun to emerge from the Underworld as pure as a snowdrop from manure. The planets circle around your head like storm birds. Below you is an almost infinite plain where the scarab beetle navigates by the light of the Milky Way. Deserts surround you from horizon to horizon: deserts of soft sand you can sink your hand into like butter, deserts of grit, deserts of black fossilized trees and deserts of boulders large as dinosaur eggs.

The cobra mountain of Jebel Barkal is the Primordial Mound that existed before Time. It was believed to be the womb from which Amun (first of the Gods) was born, “the Hidden One”, who moves in the wind. From his tears were formed the first human beings.  Egyptian God of the common man, he is the one “who listens to the voice of the poor”. The course of the Nile flows southwards here, and Amun, god of Life and Fertility, bends back the course of the mighty river a great tortured loop to flow northwards again, bringing life to the desert landscapes of Sudan and Egypt.

Amun of Jebel Barkal.                                     © Ryszard. Antolak.

Carved into the pregnant belly of Jebel Barkal is an ancient Egyptian temple. On its walls can be seen beautiful images of the ram-headed god together with his consort Mut. She stands with her hand placed gently on her partner’s shoulder in a gesture of warm intimacy.

An even older, pre-Egyptian, temple is said to be hidden within the mountain: a temple with Golden pillars where statues of Amun can be found sitting with other deities in splendour. Its entrance is half way up the Face of the mountain. The large triangular doorway is blocked by a massive landfall of rock. No one has managed to gain entrance.

Laugh if you must. Be rational and clever. Dismiss all this from your mind as nonsense. But Amun will still be there when you return. If you are ever fortunate enough to stand upon his mountain at dawn, be certain you will feel him trembling beneath your feet, breathing over your skin and echoing in the spaces of your skull. And you will feel free and alive, as you never have been before.

Amun is not God in some distant Heaven far from mankind. He is here in creation, with us. When our lives become domesticated, tame, insipid, he appears in a dream with stars in his hair and crescent moon on his head. Behind his shoulders are infinite spaces of endless desert.  You can stay safe here, he seems to say, and chirp meekly in your shells like unborn chicks.  Or you can take a risk, and soar into an endless sky so vast, your fledgeling imaginations cannot fathom it.

© Ryszard. Antolak.

Impossible Dreams

why was I not admitted as an equal to these flowers?

If you pick a poppy and take it home, it will die. It does not survive being cut and placed into a vase. Transient and ethereal, it symbolises all that is free and wild. It will not tolerate domesticity.  It will not be tamed.

Its slender, twisted stems are pellucid, almost invisible. The flowers hover like animate visions above the earth. They are blood stains on sky. Their colour bleeds into our domesticity, too hauntingly hallucinatory to be real, too ethereal be grasped by the hand.

The opium poppy bestows imaginative power and possesses the most powerful compounds known to soothe the pains of fleshy beings.

In his brief descriptive chapter on poppies, the 19th century essayist Edward Thomas writes:

“They propose impossible dreams of strength, health, wisdom and beauty, passion — could I not relate myself to them more closely than my words….. Had I offended against the Commonwealth of living things that I was not admitted as an equal to these flowers?

Ryszard Antolak

The Lost Kingdom of Makuria.

St Anna, grandmother of Christ, using the gesture of Harpocrates. Makuria

That area of Northern Sudan where the mighty River Nile twists and contorts in great serpentine coils (as if threatening to turn its waters back to their source), was for centuries the territory of the ancient Christian kingdom of Makuria.

Little is known for certain about it. Landlocked and isolated from the rest of the world by desert sands and hostile neighbours, its history is shrouded in silence and mystery. Now, however, thanks to the work of Polish archaeologists, we can gain a glimpse into the life of this lost kingdom.

Converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries in the 6th century AD, Makuria was a rich and powerful state, its people the inheritors of the fabulous cultures of Kush, Kerma, Nubia and Meroe. Its elites were learned, literate and sophisticated. The country’s institutions were modelled upon the political system of Constantinople and it was ruled over by a basilikos or king. (1)

After Egypt fell to the invading armies of Islam in the 640s AD, the Muslim conquerors turned their sights upon Makuria, and an army was dispatched down the Nile to besiege the kingdom’s capital, Dongola.

The Arabs soon discovered they had underestimated the military might of their opponents and were repulsed with great ferocity. At the core of Makurian army were the Nubian archers, famous for their deadly accuracy even as far back as Ancient Egyptian times. The Arabs came to refer to these archers as “eye-piercers”, because they aimed for the eyes of their opponents with unerring accuracy. They could also let loose arrows equally effectively from horseback using stone thumb rings to increase the force and impact of their shots.

The Fortress of Dongola, Makuria                                                                                                                                      © Ryszard.Antolak

The Arab loss of life was greater than expected, so the invaders signed a peace treaty with their Christian neighbours and returned north to Egypt. This treaty, (the baqt) which was unparalleled in Islamic history, was to last for over 600 years (2).

Old Dongola.

Today, the desert sands have all but reclaimed Dongola, ancient capital of Makuria. The powerful fortress on its elevated bluff (now a mosque) is the only building to survive in its entirety. Almost everything else, churches, palaces, homes and monasteries have been reduced to to the kind of rubble upon which you can tread without knowing. The public buildings have long since been stripped of their dressed stones. The mud brick structures have decayed to grit and sand. In their place has arisen a vast graveyard of large, spaced out, beehive-like domes: tombs (qubbas) of Sufi holy men from a later age who settled here from the North.  It was the influence of Islamic saints such as these that converted Makuria slowly from Christianity to the religion of Islam.

I make my way through the various silences of the city with my Sufi companion, Omran. The earth is littered with millions of tiny pieces of pottery, of every shape and colour imaginable. Omran stops now and again to pick one up, announcing its date and probable use. But he might as well be talking to himself, for I am entangled in thoughts about the impermanence of things.

Pillars of church, Dongola.             © Ryszard.Antolak

What words can give justice to the glory and the tragedy of this place, I wonder?

The remains of the most important buildings, the palaces, basilica and administrative building are to be found on a sandy embankment at the extreme edge of the city, overlooking the Nile. We make our way up and are immediately confronted by the unmistakable shell of a large church, or perhaps a cathedral. It is in the shape of a crucifix. The agony of its white granite pillars upholding nothing now but the sky, casts a melancholy shadow on our mood.. Everything here is chaotic and messy, untidy and illogical, as Life often is.

Part of a fresco in the National Museum of Sudan.

In the National museum in Khartoum, I had seen images of Christian saints and giant winged angels rescued from the walls of churches like this one in Makuria. Artistically beautiful (and sometimes enigmatic), these wall paintings and frescoes hint at the existence of a long religious artistic culture. They are hypnotic dream catchers woven in paint. Where could the angels from these frescoes find refuge, in our age, I wondered? Was I still alive enough to nurture them in me?

Over seven centuries, men and women shaped this space with their spiritual revelations and their dreams. Angels with dragonfly wings wrestled together in the morning light. Palm trees held hands as they sang to the aurora of an ancient silence stretching back in time to the Ancient Egyptians and the Cushites. In this place by the Nile, they found rapture, ecstasy – the feeling that life was grander than bones or flesh. Their minds possessed a freedom that flowed in rivers of creativity, But that ceativity ultimately dried up in the aridity of the desert.

From our Age of Desecration, we can smile at these things. How quaint, we think, that they believed such things. How ridiculous that they were willing to die for them.

River Nile at Old Dongola                                                                                  © Ryszard.Antolak

For a long time, my friend and I stand gazing at the waters of the Nile below us. The strips of vegetation on either side are virulent with life,  intensely lush and green. This is a good place to be, I think to myself. In Sudan, the imagination drifts on the current of this mighty river until it reaches a cataract in the mind.

Omran tells me the story of a tunnel from Dongola to the sacred Nubian mountain of Jebel Barkal, over a hundred miles away. Its entrance is in the great fortress which dominates the city. A few years ago someone sent a cow down the tunnel. It came out days later at the other end, with its skin scratched and torn, he said. The tunnel is very narrow in places.

He expands his thoughts in his characteristic way. “You know”, he says. “Sudan is really an underground country. We have cities under the earth, under the sand. They were built to hide from invaders. And from the hot sun.”

Dongola pillars.                    © Ryszard.Antolak

I had heard stories like this before from others, in Ethiopia as well as in Sudan. As always, I suspend disbelief, neither believing nor disbelieving them. You have to reason surrealistically if you want to make yourself at home in the desert (in the city, too). You cannot dismiss angels, djinn, prophets and underground cities just because they lie outside the straightjacket of your reasoning. These ideas shine, dazzle and seduce the imagination with their Life.  The horizon beyond Logic is a freedom to walk naked into the moonlight, or to sink your feet into the mud of the Nile without asking for a reason. Life is a mystery, not a question.

The end of Makuria, when it finally came in the 14th century, was slow and almost imperceptible. There was no invasion, no forced conversion. Rather, being an open and practical people, they allowed influences from the Islamic North to flow down to them like rivers into a sea. The names of the kings become ever more frequently Arabic-sounding. There was intermarriage between the two populations. Out of that mingling of cultures emerged the Sudan we have today.

A 3D reconstruction of Makurian church of Banganarti. courtesy of Bogdan Żurawski

Had the people become weary of their Christian theologians, just as earlier they had become wearied of hieroglyphs  and endless images of Pharaohs kneeling before multi-faceted gods? Maybe the theological arguments had become too technical, too clever, too rational and calculating, ending with the dissection of the original spiritual message? Did they long for some other relationship with God, one that was more personal and immediate, one they saw exemplified in the lives of the Sufi brotherhoods who were settling in the country?

Omran takes me to visit one of the many Sufi tombs (qubbas), whose large pointed shapes dominate the landscape. Constructed of mud bricks and standing over thirty feet tall, they are solid, impressive constructions. Omran knows the names of many of those interred in. them

We take off our sandals and squeeze through the doorless entrance into the interior.

Entrance to a Qubba, Old Dongola. © Ryszard.Antolak

Every visitor has no choice but to bow his head before entering, because the arched doorway is narrow and low. Omran explains later: “If you want to drink from a carafe, you take it by the neck and press it to your lips. But if you want to drink from a spring, you get down on your knees and drink.  It is like that here”, he says.

Standing in the penumbra of the interior, I can just make out two large rectangular tombs in the centre, covered in faded (torn) green linen.  Their framework is probably wooden. The ground around is intensely black and I am nauseated by an acrid smell that is almost overwhelming. I look up above me to the conical roof and catch sight of something stirring. The walls are alive with movement:  creatures tightly pressed together head to head, quivering like a milky way of black stars, restless, always changing They are thousands upon thousands of silent bats.

Outside again in the hot sun, we put on our sandals and breathe freer again.

What was it they believed in, these Sufis? It is difficult to say. It was a teaching contained less in what was said than in the silences, in patterns on desert sand, leaves flickering on poplar trees. It was a movement away from ritual and scholarship towards a personal relationship with God, a direct experience of Him that was always new, spontaneous, alive. Their theology was more akin to Poetry and Dance than to prose theorizing. They did not convert by argument or discourse. They seduced. Just as all great Art seduces.

St Anna. Religious Art of Makuria

I liked the idea of Religion as seduction, as music.  If you want to argue, I thought to myself, do it with song. Do it in paint, do it to the sound of a drum. And don’t exorcise the answer you receive.

We walk back slowly to car. It is late. The shadows are long. The crane flies on the water’s edge are drunk on the light, and begin to dance in the last rays of the setting sun.

I turn to my Sufi companion:” Maybe we ought to take lessons from the crane flies” I say to him. “Why are we walking to the car? Shouldn’t we be dancing and spinning with the Life in us, like those flies? And does it matter if the music is Christian or Moslem , so long as it seduces us, as long as it is music to dance to?

Omran looks at me strangely and smiles. “We will do it”, he says. “Come. Let us do it”

© Ryszard.Antolak

Notes

  1. The status of women in Nubian society had been high throughout its history. Female rulers (Candaces) were extremely common here before the adoption of Christianity. No queens are mentioned, however, in the list of Makaurian rulers who succeeded them. We have, however, no sources of evidence relating to the status of women in Makuria after Christianity was adopted.
  2.  In 748 king Kyriakos of Makuria was strong enough conquer Upper Egypt and marched his army  to the outskirts of Cairo to demand the release of Michael, Patriarch of Alexandria who had been imprisoned by the Umayyad Egyptian governor. .

 

Sufi Tombs.
© Ryszard.Antolak

Woda i Literatura

Był kiedyś pewien perski mistyk (zapomniałem jak nazywał się ), który opuścił wiadro do studni, by wyciągnąć wodę do picia.

Wciągnął wiadro i zabaczył, że jest wypełnione złotem. Więc opróżnił je, opuścił wiadro i na nowo wyciągnął je. Tym razem było wypełnione srebrem. Więc opróżnił go jeszcze raz.

“Wiem, że jesteś pełen skarbów”, powiedział, “ale na miłość Boską, po prostu daj mi trochę wody do picia. Jestem spragniony! “Znowu opuścił wiadro, i tym razem podniósł wodę. I pił.

Tak też powinna być Literatura, – bez ozdób.

 

© Ryszard Antolak

 

Kresy: Utracone Dzieciństwo

 Utracone dzieciństwo

Film o losach Polaków na Kresach.

Tadeusz Kołtowski mieszkał ze swoją rodziną pod lasem we wsi Ozierna pow. Zborów, woj. Tarnopolskie. To była kolonia polska, gdzie było parę domów polskich.

Mieszkały tam także rodziny ukraińskie.

Rodzice Pana Tadeusza to Wincenty i Franciszka Kołtowscy, Męczennicy ukochanej Ziemi Tarnopolskiej.

 Utracone dzieciństwo  Kliknij