Colin Thubron is the President of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of The Lost Heart of Asia, Shadow of the Silk Road, and, most recently, To a Mountain in Tibet.

 (April 2016)

A Different Vision of History

‘The Dutch delegation of Johan Josua Ketelaar to the Maharana Sangram Singh in Udaipur’; detail of a tempera painting on cotton, 1711
More than a century ago an obsessive Englishman tried to calculate the geographical heart of Asia, and erected a now-vanished monument where the Greater and Lesser Yenisei rivers meet in southern Siberia. The concept that the world, or its hugest continent, possesses a heart (or a womb or a memory) …

Pamuk: Under the Spell of Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk
Uniquely among cities, Istanbul bridges two continents. It lies on the southeast frontier of Europe, while its suburbs expand across the Bosphorus straits into Asiatic Turkey. From a European viewpoint, the city may be the site where Asia begins; from the Turkish hinterland, it is the start of Europe. For …

Mesmerized by Germany

An East German soldier looking through the Berlin Wall, 1990
There has been no more potent symbol of division than the Berlin Wall. It not only divided ideologies, but seemed to separate two incompatible eras of history. To pass through Checkpoint Charlie or Friedrichstrasse station into East Berlin was to travel back half a century, and when the Wall began …

When the Ruins Were New

Francis Bedford: The Colossi on the Plains of Thebes, March 17, 1862

In February 1862 the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, embarked on a four-and-a-half month journey through the Middle East. Among the party was the photographer Francis Bedford, who in over 190 prints produced one of the earliest photographic records of the region. The torpor of the declining Ottoman empire is palpable in his rare group photographs—unreliable Ottoman mercenaries or ragged Albanian water-carriers—as it is in the empty-looking villages of Hebron or Bethany. Even the streets of Cairo appear deserted. And there are no Jews.

Apocalypse City

The Wailing Wall at the Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock in the background at right, Jerusalem, 1993
No city is harder to chronicle than Jerusalem. Its symbolic reach so far exceeds the limits of its temporal power in any age that the city demands a particular understanding and knowledge. The sensitivities that surround its formidable tangle of archaeology, faith, and history can tempt the scholar into either partisanship or pallid tact. Above all, the author’s attitude toward the Israeli–Palestinian conflict tingles like an electric current through every account. Even the most emollient history will cause offense to somebody.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011)

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece
When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers that included the Arabian explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the controversial mystic Laurens van der Post, and the indefatigable Norman Lewis of Naples ’44. Among these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory, he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sidney.

The Last Shaman

The Chukchi people hunting walruses and whales; ivory tusk engraving from the village museum in Uelen, the easternmost settlement in Russia and Eurasia
Even among the dwindling populace of today’s Siberia, the numbers of the Chukchi people barely signify: a mere 15,000, of whom many still follow a threatened life as reindeer herders and maritime hunters. Several thousand years before Russia’s expansion in the seventeenth century, their Mongoloid ancestors spread into Siberia’s remote …

The Secrets of the Mummies

‘The Beauty of Xiaohe,’ female mummy, circa 1800–1500 BC; excavated from Xiaohe (Little River) Cemetery 5, Charqilik (Ruoqiang) County, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China
After three and a half weeks the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—a collection of some 125 astonishing artifacts from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China—continues as a ghost of its former self. Life-size photos now replace the original …

On Tibet’s Holy Mountain

Buddhist prayer flags at the base of Mount Kailas in Tibet, where pilgrims come to walk the perimeter of the mountain, and where some monks and nomads follow the practice of sky burial. ‘Especially in this propitious month of Saga Dawa,’ Colin Thubron writes, ‘people may repair to lie down and enact their own passing.’
Mount Kailas in Tibet is the epicenter of the universe for one fifth of humankind. To Hindus and Buddhists it is the source of life itself, created by cosmic waters and the mind of God, and blessed by the Buddha, who flew here with five hundred disciples. From its foot …

Madame Butterfly’s Brothel

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: The Turkish Bath, 1862
In a celebrated passage from his Carnets de Voyage, Gustave Flaubert recorded an erotic night he spent with an Egyptian courtesan. Pervaded by his characteristic conflation of the sordid with the refined, it is a complex account. In his fastidiously clinical prose, he seems to be watching himself having sex, …

The Great Battle Against Islam

Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power, from 1520 to 1566; sixteenth-century painting by a member of the Venetian school
Ever since the great historian Fernand Braudel consigned isolated human events to l’histoire événementielle, calling them mere “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs,” it has been harder to write of decisive moments in world history. The ineluctable undercurrents of geography and …

Fishing in the Dead Sea

Of all the Arab nations created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Emirate of Transjordan was the most ill-favored. A barren splinter of land tapering south to the Red Sea, its borders made no political or geographical sense. It was home to just …

Marco Polo Goes to Gorgeous Xanadu

Of all the travel sagas ever written, none is more richly astonishing than Marco Polo’s Description of the World.[^*] First published around 1300, it records a land of such fabulous difference that to enter it was like passing through a mirror; and it is this passage—from a still-provincial Europe to …

A Prince of the Road

The qualities suited to the travel writer’s trade have always been contradictory. The mental (and physical) robustness necessary for ambitious travel often excludes the sensitivity to record it, and vice versa. So there are travelers who write, and writers who travel—and they rarely converge in the same person. In Patrick Leigh Fermor, they do. The richness of his prose, his polymathic exuberance, and his cultural allusiveness render him less immediately accessible than some of his contemporaries. But his six travel books—one for each decade of his adult life—have secured him a readership drawn to a voice that is omnivorous in its tastes and curiosity, learned without condescension, cultivated but never effete, curiously innocent, occasionally swanky, infectiously joyous.

Locked in the Writer’s Room

It is an irony that the reputation of Orhan Pamuk should rest as much on his political prominence as on his books. The Turkish Nobel laureate is the most private and recondite of writers. For over thirty years he has occupied a lonely apartment in Istanbul, writing for ten hours …

The Credo of a Great Reporter

The books of Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died after a heart attack in January, have always been baffling to categorize; and now, in his last work, Travels with Herodotus, he offers a meditation on the ancient Greek historian, quoting lavishly from The Histories (the English edition uses the translation of Robin …