It is the attempt that counts. A piece of art, on the verge of the macabre. San Bernardino alle Ossa (Saint Bernhard of the Bones) is a church in Milan, not to far from the Cathedral of Milano, by itself an inconspicuous building. This church is best known for its ossuary (a skull and bones collection) in a small side chapel.
In 1200s, the local cemetery ran out of space, I am not sure why, but one guess could be that famine struck northern Italy. A room was built next to the church to hold bones to tackle that problem. After all, you cant simply throw corpses in the river or burn them, can you? The result is a haunting, octagonal room, with hundreds of skulls stacked to the ceiling. As the church suffered from some catastrophes, and needed to be rebuild a couple of times, this work of art is in actuality much younger.
What struck me during my visit was the perfect symmetry with which the bones and skulls are stacked. The creators invested a lot of time to get it right and to make it esthetically halfway acceptable (if you go for that kind of thing). What I also wondered was how they separated the flesh from the bones. Were these people first buried, and the skeletons dug-up later? A human body may take about 1-2 years to be free of flesh, depending on its location, e.g. a body in a field will decompose much faster than a buried human (see my novel Two Journeys for more grisly details).
The skulls were all small, much smaller than the ones I saw in anatomy class. I suspect that most belonged to children, as only few seemed to be adult-size. An alternative explanation would be that these people were very small – perhaps it was indeed a famine? One or two skulls had impressive deformities; elongations at the back.
Below some of the impressions from our travels. Click on any of the pictures below to enlarge.
Arguably, Tokyo is the most populated cityin the world, with 36 million inhabitants during the day and 22 million at night. It is impressive how this city runs so smoothly with that many inhabitants. What would happen if it would come to a sudden standstill? The opening chapters of TWO JOURNEYS (my 2011 CORONA PANDEMIC novel) describe just that.
Below some pictures that I took in Tokyo during past visits and that inspired me to place my post apocalyptic work in this mega city.
Highrises in Tokyo. The sheer bulk of these buildings is overwhelming.
Alan, the hero of Two Journeys visits Tokyo around Christmas time.
Should an epidemic of the proportions described in Two Journeys strike, the lights (above) would extinguish rapidly, the trains such as the one below (famously overfilled) would halt.
View of the skyline of Doha, Qatar. On the left the Corniche, on the right the Persian Gulf. These are all business towers, in the streets there isn’t much action (as explained here).
Doha Qatar – skyline
Below: a section of the Doha souk where traders specialize in selling pets, birds, dogs, cats, tropical fish… you name it. Exotic ones too, like this parrot. Nice fluffy kittens and puppies, most very passive or sleeping. Personally I couldn’t buy anything here, I felt pity for most of the poor animals. The health of these animals is doubtful too, many cats and dogs are reared under terrible conditions, like in mass production. I am not sure the government in Qatar controls this in any way. Interestingly, few pets are actually visible in the streets: no dogs, and the cats that roam about are all obviously wild outcasts, and ignored.
Another part of the souk of Doha. Like most areas in Doha, this is a modern, new area, so not overtly exotic. The shops are interesting for tourists that like to purchase gold and jewelry, I’ve heard that it is possible to make a good deal. A few dozen restaurants line the pavement… and as a special service to the clientele, air conditioners (those big grey boxes visible in the picture) are put on the pavement (outside!) to blow cold air at the diners. Now, that’s exotic. People in Qatar have few worries about CO2 – energy is free, there are hardly any trees, and it is already hot and human, so what negative effect could climate change have in addition?
I had forgotten why I took this picture. I now remember that it wasn’t because of the building in the background, but because of the cars: all 4WD vehicles. It is rumored that the average Qatari has a 4WD for going to work, a sports car for going to dinner and a special desert car for the weekend.
This picture, taken at the corniche, shows a spa with the picture of the Qatar emir – which is shown all over. I took this photo mostly because of the full moon over the Persian Gulf.
Before Qatar struck gold with natural gas, pearl fishing was one of the main industries (referred to in Jules Verne’s “20000 leagues,” if my memory doesn’t fail me). This sculpture, with a man-high pearl, can be found in the port. There isn’t much art in the streets, not untypical for an Islamic country, although that doesn’t leave much to see and enjoy.
I had about two hours off, so I grabbed the opportunity for a walk through the city center of Cairo. Very few tourists about, but many Egyptians who used the day for shopping – this was a religious holiday, and most Egyptians had a day off.
Below: a beautiful old mosque hidden deep in the narrow streets drew many local visitors. I tried to enter as well, but the doorman shouted “tomorrow!” And banged the door shut in my face. I presume they were just calling it a day. I checked my watch and it was almost five.
Below: in the absence of a guide or guidebook, neither purpose, name or history of the sites that I passed could easily be determined – yet their beauty was unchallenged. There is satisfaction in letting a town work on you, without constantly studying facts or staring into a smartphone.
Below: a boy selling bread in the street. He had a devastatingly loud whistle to get attention – this didn’t work too well, as he wasn’t selling much.
People out for a stroll and shopping. Merchants of the same trade share the same street: one street is full with dealers of carpets, another street for electric appliances, and yet another alley for shops that focus on metal pots and pans. The city is overflowing with people, millions and millions. The pictures do not bring this across, but Cairo is all about people, people and people.
I reported before on intriguing capital. Below the lobby of the hotel where I was staying. The room was freezing cold, air ongoing full blast, but the hotel was pleasant enough. Although: the breakfast buffet had a price tag of $30 – but how much can a man eat for breakfast? I discovered that Qatari cheese is very salty and rubbery, it is regarded as a delicacy but it takes getting used to.
I learned a lot from my colleagues how the state of Qatar ticks and functions. It is intriguing how this society differs so much from ours, with strict Islam rule implemented. This in intriguing and interesting for the first few days, but stay longer than that and it will become challenging.
Below: the skyline of Doha. Skyscrapers are being built at rocket speed (like all over the world, the new pastime) but the country itself is mainly desert. With 300,000 Qataris and 2.5 million expats, the demographics are exceptional. There are a few additional cities, but they are in the desert, close to the natural gas fields and intended for the laborers. Here’s a tourist secret: Doha is the most mind-numbing boring city that I have visited (and I have visited a few). My impression is that the Qataris hide and party with their families behind the walls of their country estates; the migrants forlornly wander the boring streets trying not to think about alcohol: there isn’t any. I neither drink nor miss alcohol, but even for me Doha offered a new perspective on boredom.
Below: to defy the Saudi boycott, which was omnipresent, the Qataris have put up portraits of their Emir to show their solidarity. The Arabs had hoped that the Qataris would topple their Emir, but that turned into a “no way, Jose.”
The top photo shows a new development area with mansions being build for (upper) middle class; a social group that seems to be growing in size. However, as the picture elsewhere in my blog http://www.clemenssuter.com shows, not everybody is benefiting from economic opportunities – which aren’t really marvelous: the Egyptian pound dropped in value by half (!) in 2016. The picture at the bottom shows travelers from many different origins at Kuwait airport. The plane to Cairo suffered terrible delays, I arrived in Cairo at 2am.
Here more about Doha and Qatar. Some background first: Qatar is an emirate on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is the next door neighbor, with Qatar itself sticking out into the Persian Gulf like a thumb, bordered by the sea on three sides.
it was VERY hot and unexpectedly humid. Qatar is a desert country and I thought it would be hot and dry. Not so: the humid air sweeps in from the Persian Gulf and is unbearable on most days.
Qatar is very tidy and modern. The people ate industrious and friendly, yet a bit aloof. There’s a reason for this: if you talk with a Qatari, you are in many cases chatting with a multi-millionaire.
Some Qatar facts
2.5 million people live in Qatar, of which 10% call themselves Qatari and have the hard-to-get passport. An Emir rules the country. Large natural gas reserves drive the economy. The vast majority of people come from other countries: they want to find work with better pay than in their home country. Taxi drivers and technologists, you meet people from all kinds of backgrounds and places. Most seem to enjoy living there: one taxi driver that I met came from India and had been in Qatar for 15 years, his wife and family lived in Delhi.
A hot and humid view from the hotel.
Above: An early morning view from the hotel. Persia / Iran is on the opposite side of this body of water. Kuwait is on the left, and the Emirates are on the right.
Below: The high-rise opposite of the hotel. None of these buildings are older than 10-15 years. Qatar is booming, and constant renewal is underway.
View from the Hilton
Experience the heat
Below: All buildings are air-conditioned. I entered my hotel room, and it was stunningly cold. I put the air-conditioner up to the 27C (it was on 18C originally), and after a few hours the temperature was halfway OK. On the other hand, as I walked out of the hotel lobby, the heat and humidity hit me like a hammer, it felt like 50C. That was only on the first day, the following day was a bit better. Or did I get used to it? In any case, I wondered what the high of summer would be like. Locals said that depending on the time of year, a hot and very dusty wind blows from Africa, the Khamsin, which can cause a sense of nausia.
Leaving the hotel. The heat was excruciating.
Taken together: an intriguing country. I was glad that I visited for work, as I am not sure what sites a tourist would want to visit. Qatar is a desert country, with not much to see. A newly built island of high rises and businesses in the middle of nowhere. Anything old is replaced.
Like to read more about travel? See my novel TWO JOURNEYS at Apple.