Azerbaijan Days: Qırmızı Qəsəbə “Perhaps the only completely Jewish Settlement Outside Israel”

Mountain Jews of Guba: The school, early 1920's

“Shalom”, local people called to us, as we walked through the town. “Are you from Israel?” No we explained, America and Britain. My friends and I were in Azerbaijan, but at the time, it seemed like we had wandered through a wormhole to somewhere completely different. This was Qırmızı Qəsəbə, perhaps the only completely Jewish settlement outside of Israel.

 

Fancy tin roof of a house in Qırmızı Qəsəbə

Across the broad, stony river bed from the town of Guba in the North of Azerbaijan lies a small community of houses and shops, many of them with red-tin roofs. From a distance, it doesn’t look anything special. Maybe some of the houses have fancy sandstone frontages but all in all, it looks like just another small Azeri community. Qırmızı Qəsəbə, in English the Red Community (a prosaic name imposed in Soviet times) is however unique. Founded in 1742 as Yevreiskaya Sloboda or the Jewish Settlement, the local Khan gave permission for the Jewish community who had been living in the town of Guba from at least the 13th century to found their own village the other side of the river. This was a rare event as generally, Jews were not allowed to own land.

A Peace Corps friend of mine who lives nearby said local people believe the only reason he gave them permission to build there was because if invaders came from the North, Guba would be alerted by the Jewish community going up in flames. That may not be true but it is indicative of an ambiguous attitude towards the community by the wider population.

Many old houses line the streets

How large numbers of Jews came to live in towns and villages across the Caucuses is a story in itself.  Seemingly, their distant ancestors once lived in southwest Persia, fleeing their homeland of Israel after the destruction of the first Jewish temple in about 722BC. One of the “wandering tribes”, they adopted the Middle Persian language and finally settled in the Caucasian mountains in the 5th or 6th centuries. Some historians believe they may be descended from Jewish military colonists, settled by Parthian and Sassanid rulers as frontier guards against invading forces from the North. These days, that history is barely remembered by the residents of this unique settlement.

Tom Parfitt, a journalist writing for the Telegraph newspaper has stated that during the communist period, something like 18,000 people lived in the community but soon after the fall of the regime many left for Israel, Russian and the United States. Now, the population hovers around the 3,500 mark.

The refurbished synagogue

Parfitt points out that “before 1917, Krasnaya Sloboda was a thriving community of skilled leather workers and other tradesmen. Known as Little Jerusalem, it boasted thirteen synagogues. The Communists turned all but one of them into storehouses and carpet-weaving workshops and banished several rabbis to Siberia. It was the first blow in a long decline”.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/azerbaijan/1428516/Life-drains-away-from-lost-tribe-of-Mountain-Jews.html

Written eight years ago, the decline in numbers continues but the physical state of the community has improved greatly. Today the streets are clean, the houses smart and well kept although some have been long abandoned. The synagogue has been refurbished and looks well used but there are not so many children on the streets and old people predominate.

Mason and the dried fruit ladies

Three middle-aged ladies approached my friend Mason and tried to get him to buy some pressed semi-dried soft-fruit, used in making levangi, a regional specialty. He was willing to buy a single piece but was told it could only be purchased by the kilo. How about half a kilo? No, you can only buy it by the kilo. As he walked away, one of the ladies rushed up to him and gave him the one piece he was willing to purchase… I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, other than to say the people we met there were very friendly. Mind you, one mother shouted at her children “don’t let him take your photographs!” We would not have, without permission…

Mass grave across the river in Guba

Crossing over the river to the Guba side, we were confronted with a 20th century horror that resonates today. In 2007, an excavation beside a football field uncovered a mass grave containing the remains of some four-hundred Jews and other Azeris murdered as the Red Army advanced towards Baku in April and May 1918. Among the dead were some one-hundred women and fifty children. In all, Azeri historians claim that a total of 3,800 old men, women and children from the Guba area were killed at this time. Jews were not specifically targeted but suffered along with the rest of the population.

Today, relations between the communities are convivial as people rise to the challenge of modern day life.

As I took my leave of Qırmızı Qəsəbə , chewing my way through some of the semi-dried fruit Mason gave me, I hoped that the community would see a reversal in its fortunes and the continuation of a unique tradition and way of life.

If you would like to visit Qırmızı Qəsəbə, contact CBT AZerbaijan for details of homestays at nearby Gusar: cbtazerbaijan.com

 

 

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Azerbaijan Days: Laza – A walk on the wild side

Connie at "the Gates" of Laza

Last weekend, I went for a walk in the spectacular mountains around Laza. No, not Lhasa, Laza. Both are places of habitation high in the mountains but while Lhasa is the capital of Tibet in the Himalayas, Laza is a small, attractive village in the Caucasian mountains about an hour’s drive up good roads then over rough mountain tracks above Gusar, the ethnic Leski “capital” of Azerbaijan some 180 kilometers North of Baku. Right on the border with Russia, the locals share a common heritage with their Dagastani neighbours.

Afghan's mother and her granddaughter

Living high up in the mountains, the Leski people are an independent minded ethnic minority, with their own distinctive language (that has 54 consonants and 18 noun cases) and a way of speaking Azerbaijani that outsiders have described as “gruff” or hard. That however is the very opposite of their character which is usually warm and open towards outsiders. “Honour” however, is the word on the lips of every red-blooded male and if (in a moment of madness) you were to look at an attractive Leski woman in just the wrong way, you will be confronted with an angry Leski male. Not something you want!

They are famous for the Lezginka their vigorous local dance that is sometime performed with the aid of swords, and colourful woolen socks knitted by and for women, often coloured using natural dyestuff like pomegranate juice and onion skins. That however was not why Sandra and I plus our Peace Corps friends Mason, Jessi and Connie were there. We had met up at the marginally chaotic bus station in Baku to travel together so that we could go walking in the high Caucasus, specifically around Laza.

Afghan's mother outside their home in Laza

Elkhan, the Gusar region home-stay manager for Community Based Tourism (CBT)-Azerbaijan is a small, fashionably dressed and outwardly sophisticated Leski with sunglasses permanently perched on the top of his head. His enthusiasm is infectious and he was delighted that we were going to be trekking around his home village. He had organised a minibus to take us up the mountain from Gusar (2,000 metres) to Laza (3,000 metres) where our walk would begin.

The road is excellent at first, thanks to the construction of Azerbaijan’s first and utterly massive Shahdag (Royal Mountain) ski resort that will open next year (perhaps) at a cost of an estimated four billion dollars. In addition to the ski-runs, snow machines, chairlifts and hotels, several villages are being “relocated” to ensure uninterrupted views across the craggy mountain range for the benefit of Bakuvian and foreign visitors. Above the resort, the road becomes a track, barely passable by four-wheel drive vehicles.

The Gates of Laza

Unlike the majority of Azerbaijanis, Leski people are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims who have incorporated earlier animist beliefs into their religious observance. On our way to Laza we stopped for a while at the Gates of Laza or the Prophet Stone, two massive stone outcrops through which travelers must pass. They are just one example of the many “holy” rocks and mountains found in these parts. From there you can look down into the green, boulder-strewn pasture of the Laza valley far below, into which tumble several high waterfalls.

Trekking uphill

Before we set out on our walk, Afghan took us to his family home. Constructed in the traditional style with family accommodation above, reached by an attractive enclosed stairway, the family’s livestock used to live underneath, where the warmth from their bodies would provide a pungent form of central heating. Afghan now lives in Gusar but his parents, two brothers and their families still live in this tiny community of some 200 people.

The mosque built by Afghan's great-grandfather

Next door to the house is a small tin-covered mosque built by his great-grandfather back in 1899 and behind their home, is a shrine to another Muslim “saint” or holy-man who’s body was miraculously transported halfway up a cliff-face by birds or “angels”. Immediately below, is a shrine where local women come to pray and by the look of things, socialise and drink tea away from their menfolk!

We had brought food with us but of course, hospitality demanded that Afghan’s mother also cook, so we were ushered into the upstairs eating room and presented with tea, sweets, salad and fried potatoes with egg. Further evidence of local traditions and superstitions was evident in a horseshoe nailed into the step at the entrance to the house and teapots hung at the corners to “catch” evil spirits before they could enter the home. After lunch we set out towards the waterfalls and the high craggy cliffs where in winter the national ice-climbing championships are held.

Teapot used to keep away evil spirits

Walking through the tiny village we walked under the lea of the mountain across rough pasture, strewn with loose rocks towards the waterfall that cascaded down the cliff face. Although it was a misty day, with cloud blocking our view of the highest peaks, there were several families who had driven up the same rutted track we had to picnic under an overhang. Each family had brought wood for a fire and were busily roasting lamb on make-shift barbecues. Working our way over loose scree and slimy grass, we made it to the foot of the falls where I quickly whipped out my camera and took a hasty shot into the spray.

Laza waterfall

Interested glances followed our progress until we ventured onto higher ground and another stony track that led to an ugly stone-built collection of buildings that passed for a resort. The other side of an ornamental fishpond, stood two armed and very bored soldiers. We wondered if we were on the border and the soldiers were preventing us crossing. No Afghan said, the border was still 20 kilometers and away they were guarding the entrance to a national park where a large army base was located.

As we stood watching the clouds roll in, the temperature dropped and we became enclosed in a virtual whiteout. Not wishing to get cols, we hurried downwards to the waiting vehicle and dinner at a restaurant in Guzar.

All in all, a fine time was had by all…

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Baku Days: City Transformations – London and Baku

The dreadful Stock Exchange Tower behind the elegant Bank of England

Before I went to the University of Essex to study sociology, I was working in the City of London as a very junior member of a prestigious firm of stockbrokers during 1973 and 1974. This was a period of rapid redevelopment within the Square Mile, when gracious 19th century buildings were being torn down and replaced by brutalist constructions of concrete and glass. Some, like the Nat West building were already displaying the sleek elegance we would later see transforming Canary Wharf but regrettably, most were like the unlamented Stock Exchange tower on Broad Street, massive, dull and ugly.

Bankside Power Station from the Stock Exchange Tower in 1974

When I started work on the tenth-floor of the building in July 1973 it dominated the skyline, giving a panoramic view in all directions. Most impressive was the view across the river, to the Bankside power station (now the Tate Modern) that belched smoke into the already polluted air.

I was not cut out for working in the financial services industry which was at that time dominated by ex-Guards officers and snooty ex-public school boys who thought the world owed them a living. This was of course pre “big-bang”, when computers took over the trading floor and the “Old Boys” were ousted by computer geeks. I would long for lunchtime, when I could disappear from my desk and enjoy what I considered the biggest perk of the job, walking around the architecturally magnificent City of London.

Angel Court. A victim of 1970's redevelopment

Within spitting distance of where I worked were places with wonderful names like Austin Friars and Telegraph street. Some of these have survived redevelopment but others like Angel Court have not. Gone are the fine stone frontages with their Portland stone architraves and fluted pillars. In their stead stands yet another phallus of stone-clad concrete. What a shame.

At that time, the City of London wasn’t just a place of banks and insurance companies, there were small businesses dotted between the offices. Places like the long-gone Jon Ash Books, where I bought antiquarian books on Victorian sports and back-copies of Punch from the 1860’s, pubs down dark alleys like The Ship Tavern on Lime Street that was home of Laing and Cruickshank’s darts team.

I remember people saying that these modern developers had wrought more damage to the fabric of the city than the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. They were right as well, as I watched fine old buildings and whole city blocks crumble into dust. Now it appears I am to witness the same thing all over again.

The result of years of neglect by the old Soviet regime. With thanks to Jess Hayden

Baku is an oil-rich boom town, that is leaping in one bound from the 19th century into the 21st. Years of neglect towards the built environment meant that although there are some grand pieces of model Soviet architecture from the 1920’s until the mid 1980’s, the fabric of the city remained virtually untouched since the early years of the 20th century. Had Baku been in the so called free-west during this period, there would have been an ongoing process of urban renewal, that would have given the city center a “patchwork” feel. That was not the case here and as such, you progress from a medieval “old city” through a ring of mainly Victorian buildings to a sprawl of 1950’s and 60’s Soviet apartment blocks.

Now there is money in the kitty and Baku wants to catch up. That means the replacement of whole areas of buildings from the last oil-boom with constructions from the current oil-boom. Seemingly overnight, Victorian terraces disappear to be replaced by huge apartment blocks and fancy hotels.

Baku Flame Towers

Some like the astonishing “flame” towers and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center are at the cutting edge of technology, twisting into the air or curving back on themselves like CGI constructions seen in science fiction movies. Other however like the new Four Seasons Hotel are throwbacks to a previous time and are full of classical allusions. Indeed, some buildings are built in such a convincing vernacular style, that I think architectural historians would have difficulty telling them from original constructions built in the 1890’s.

I really like good, contemporary design and am daily astonished by the changes I see around me but am concerned that as in London during the 1970’s, we will lose an irreplaceable architectural heritage that will change the city forever.

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The Old Jewish Quarter of Baku

In writing this series of articles, I have spent most of my time traveling across Azerbaijan looking for the odd and the interesting but up to now haven’t written a single piece about the city in which I live, Baku. In addition be being the dynamic centre of a 21st Century oil industry, it is a place steeped in history that goes back at least two-and-a-half thousand years. No, I am not about to get lyrical about the İçəri Şəhər or old city, rather I’m going to take you on a stroll around one of the lesser known sights of Baku, the old Jewish quarter.

Between Fizuli Street and Fountain square is one of the most interesting areas of Baku, a place of narrow streets, full of late 19th century houses. These are not the astonishing mansions of the super-rich oil Barons, rather they are more modest homes built by the influx of European Jews from countries like Russia, Ukraine and Poland seeking to improve their lives by working either in the oil industry or providing services to the developing community of Baku. Families like that of Abraham Nussimbaum, a Georgian Jew who’s son Lev was born in Kiev before the family finally settled in Baku in the early years of the 20th century, where he invested in the growing oil industry. It was Lev, who later became a writer [using the pen-name of Mohammad Essad bey] and finally published Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli’s iconic novel Ali and Nino.

Dilara Aliyeva Street

Earlier in the century, there were just a few Jewish merchants living in the old city of Baku and it was only after 1883 when the prominent Jewish family the Rothschilds, came to establish a drilling operation in Azerbaijan that the community began to grow and flourish. As Baku expended and the population increased from 12,333 in 1867 to 112,000 in 1897, the Jewish community came to number some 2,000 by the time of the census of 1900.

In 1901, the community opened a new Synagogue and a religious school for children, at the cost of some 100,000 rubles. Not all the Jews of Baku lived in the so-called Jewish Quarter and not all of the people living there were Jews either. The famous Azerbaijani artist Azim Azimzadeh lived on what is now Dilaria Aliyeva Street in the centre of the quarter. Born in Novkhani village, just outside of the city in 1880, he was a strong supporter of the early communists and used his art to focus on the inequalities and injustices in society, poverty and women’s rights.

At its peak, some 16,000 Jews lived in Baku, although these days the dumber has declined to a few thousand thanks to emigration to Russia, Israel and the United States.

Today, the area is very run-down but charming in its way. It is a place of stone-faced family houses, full of ornate covered balconies and wooden doors with vigorously carved mouldings. There you will also find tall houses with tottering chimney pots and delicate window tracery. On Bashir Safar Oghlu street, is one house where a pair of stone lions flank the front door and the pediment topped with ornate stone earns and a pair of rams horns.

Winged creature supports a balcony in Gogol Street

Most of the buildings were erected in the 1880’s and 90’s as the key-stones remind you but one rather sad thing is that few of the names of the original builders are known today. This is because after 1920, when Azerbaijan became a Soviet dependency, all property came under the ownership of the State. It was not safe to suggest you “owned” a particular building as that would suggest you were a “land-owner” and by definition, an enemy of the people.

Each street has its own character. Judar Ibrahimov street is for example is full of very grand four and five story buildings, where on either side of windows you may find stylised Corinthian columns and open balconies with beautifully executed, delicate ironwork. Inside the entrance of a house on Gogol Street, now divided into apartments, is a wonderful series of moulded panels depicting scenes from classical mythology and on the outside, balcony supports in the shape of mythological beasts. These though are the exceptions. For the most part, the houses are not flamboyant although their building does show quality workmanship and attention to detail.

Horseshoe Sign Outside Fantasia Bathhouse

On Tabriz Khalil Rza Oghlu street stand no less than three hamams, including the astonishing Fantasia bathhouse. Built in 1887 it announces itself to the world by an old copper sign, in the shape of an upside-down horseshoe. With a lion’s head water fountain at each corner [unfortunately no longer working], the building now stands as it was when it was first constructed. The old stone wash-tubs and massage slabs are still in place and the steam rooms still hiss with damp and menacing energy. Sitting in the tea-room after a good wash and a scrub is an experience not to be missed.

Parallel to Dilaria Aliyeva is Marzagha Aliyev street, where you will find one of my favourite buildings. This rather grand town-house sports no less than three balconies. The centre balcony has windows on three sides above which is a domed roof covered in pressed, metal tiles. To my eye, it looks like it just escaped from Red Square.

If you are planning to visit this part of town, I recommend you do it sooner rather than later. In the Northern part of the site, a large area of several blocks between the Fizuli monument and the Heydar Aliyev Serai have already been demolished to make way for the new Winter Gardens development. It seems fairly likely that much of the rest of the area will be subject to redevelopment over the next couple of years.

If you would like to find out more about the old Jewish quarter of Baku or the history of the Jews in Azerbaijan, check out the following links: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Azerbaijan.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azerbaijani_Jews

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Obama Debt Crisis: Will the President ignore the House and invoke the 14th Amendment?

You've got to take it seriously, guys!

With only a couple of days to go before the US officially runs out of money to pay debt interest to the rest of the world, the international financial markets are rattled and investors are buying gold in unprecedented numbers. If President Obama can not come to some accommodation with the Republican party by Tuesday 2nd August, he is faced with only two options; allow the United states to default on debt repayment or ignore Congress and make a Presidential decision to borrow and allow the US to go into even more debt. Neither is a very pleasant option for Barak Obama who is stuck between a very hard rock and an even harder place…

The United States Constitution is an astonishing document, full of worthy sentiments and subtle meanings that have been augmented over the years by numerous “amendments”. Non Americans [like me], are acquainted with only a couple. The notorious Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to possess a firearm and the Fifth Amendment [“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury”], used by unfortunate American citizens, accused of Communism and hauled before The House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950’s. Now we are learning more about another Constitutional Amendment that could have a profound effect on everyone, both within and outside of the United States.

”]The 14th Amendment dates from 1866 and states amongst many other things that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” Some people [including ex-President Bill Clinton] consider that the clause means it is unconstitutional for Congress to refuse to raise the debt ceiling – the amount the nation is legally permitted to borrow. Furthermore, that the President is constitutionally permitted to borrow money on his own authority.

This interpretation of the Amendment has never been tested in law and it remains to be seen if, as a last desperate measure, Obama will quote Shakespeare and say “a curse on both your houses” and continue to wrack up new debt to pay for the old ones…

George W. Bush

I have some sympathy for the man who came into the Presidency after George W. Bush managed to overheat the US economy by deregulating everything in sight and allowing a financial environment to develop where false-profits could be made for a few Wall Street brokers, through the development of such financial tools as sub-prime mortgages and the purchase or sale of residual debt. Since 2008, the rest of the world has been picking up the pieces and trying to re-float the world economy.

If President Obama does the unthinkable, the notional “Triple A” credit-rating of the United States will be preserved for a while but at what cost?

"One day, all this will be yours"

You can guarantee that the Republican Party will vote to impeach the President and they will be able to do it as well, for all it needs is a majority vote by the House of Representatives. A House where they already hold a majority of seats. The Senate would of course refuse to convict him but that wouldn’t be the point. It would be an added pressure and embarrassment to the President in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election.

Personally, I am not convinced that raising US debt indefinitely will do anything more than make it more difficult for the US to pay back its loans but I do believe that a run on the dollar will cause many more financial institutions to collapse and create more unsustainable debt. If that happens, there will be a massive loss of confidence in the dollar , plunging us all down a further step, in what is already the greatest financial crisis there has been since the Black Death.

So, my advice to both the right-wing of the Republican party [who are playing pre-election games with all of our futures] and the Democrats [who today rejected U.S. Speaker John Boehner’s plan to raise the debt ceiling and slash government spending] is, sit yourselves down and come to some sort of agreement balancing increases in the debt limit with some cuts to US services, otherwise we will all suffer the consequences…

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Return to Carcassonne:

My first view of Carcassonne, since 1975

I first saw the astonishing medieval cité of Carcassonne in 1975, after having hitchhiked for two-weeks across France without a guidebook or a decent map. As I approached it for the first time, the ramparts looming up at me out of the dusk across the ancient bridge that links the ville basse [or lower town] to the towering confection of the walled city.

Within the walls, the cité is alive with shops, hotels and restaurants

I was twenty and had finished my first year at university in England. I longed for adventure but after a summer of working for a firm of builders merchants, I only had about one-hundred pounds in my pocket which wasn’t much even then. So, I bought a copy of the International Youth Hostels Handbook and a ticket to Calais then stuck out my thumb. The only map I had, was the one in the front of the YHA book and it showed only the major towns and roads. From that, I devised a circular route around the country. What I didn’t know however, was that hitch-hiking was technically illegal in France. In retrospect that explained why my lifts were on average, three-hours apart…

Site of he portcullis, Carcassonne

By the time I reached Carcassonne, I was tired but one thing I had discovered on my trip was that wherever you found a Youth Hostel in France, it was normally at the top of a hill. Such was the case here. Standing at the foot of the massive grey, stone walls of the cité, looking upwards towards the summit of the hill on which it was built, I knew I was in for a steep climb. As soon as I entered the cité however, I found a maze of cobbled narrow streets lined with stone-built shops and ancient public wells complete with pulleys for buckets. What attracted me however, were the tree-shaded cafés where groups of young people sat around drinking red wine. Suddenly, my tiredness was forgotten. I fell in love with Carcassonne and stayed a full week recovering, cooling my heels and making new friends. When I left, I vowed that one day I would return. What I didn’t expect was it would take a full thirty-six years to redeem my promise.

Between the two outer walls of the cité

The hill around which Carcassonne developed, has been a place of habitation for at least 3,500 years and became a fortified Roman camp in about 100BC.  After the fall of the Roman empire, it passed to Visigoth hands and became so well fortified that it was able to withstand attack from both the powerful Frankish knights of the North and Saracens from Barcelona. Eventually in 1067, Carcassonne became the property of Raimond Bernard Trencavel, who brought with him an age of peace when Carcassonne grew in wealth and power.

His descendant Raymond Roger Trencavel became caught up the Catholic church’s 13th Century Crusade against the so-called “Cathar” heretics, who were tolerated within the cité by the Catholic Trencavel. A sympathetic picture of the man is portrayed in Kate Mosse’s best-selling book Labyrinth, in which strands of medieval history are woven with elements from the Grail legend, within the structure of modern thriller. Like me, Kate Moss was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the place and has even gone so far as to have bought a house there.

 

View across the lower town from the cité

Carcassonne has all the elements you would expect of a fortified medieval community. Completely surrounding the town are two concentric outer walls with high towers, topped with pointed slate roofs. To gain entrance to the inner area, you have to pass over a drawbridge and through a massive portcullis. Within the walls, there is a castle with its own protective moat and drawbridge, leading to a formidable central keep. It truly is walls within walls.

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne

After Trencaval surrendered his castle to the thoroughly unlikable Simon de Montfort, leader of the French knights besieging the town, he was incarcerated and allowed to die. Then began a horrific round of inquisitions, where Cathars were identified, forced to confess and repent or be burnt at the stake. Many believers chose the latter path.

Ironically, the Cathars called themselves “good Christians”. Although they varied in their beliefs, most considered that if God was pure “good”, he could not have created “evil”. That meant that there had to be an equal and opposite God who was “bad”. If the good God was created entirely of “spirit”, then all things material were “evil” and again by definition that included the powerful of this world and the established church. The purpose of life was to transcend matter and become one with the God’s love. Unfortunately, this meant that Christ had to be a man, as he couldn’t be the pure spirit of God and a human at the same time. Therefore there had been no virgin birth and no resurrection. That combined with the Cathar’s disgust with the opulence of Catholic ritual and the wealth of the Catholic church sealed their fate.

Eugéne Viollet-le-Duc

By the mid 19th Century, the Cité of Carcassonne was no longer of military or strategic value and the French government decided to demolish it. The mayor of Carcassonne Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, was astonished and appalled and led a campaign to preserve it for future generations.  Within a year Eugéne Viollet-le-Duc was commissioned to undertake the vast restoration project. By the time of his death in 1879, the work still was not completed and was continued by his pupil Paul Boeswillwald. Although the restoration is not “authentic” by present day standards, it is quite astonishing and gives the feeling of complete immersion in a medieval environment.

In the square, challenged by a traditional cassoulle

In the square, challenged by a traditional cassoulle

My purpose in visiting Carcassonne was not just to engage on a sentimental journey and relive old memories. My partner Sandra and I had been considering buying a house in Europe for our future and after talking through some possibilities [“how about Cyprus?” – too hot, “how about Northern Spain?” – too wet? “how about England?” – not likely, too cold!], we decided that Southern France was probably “just right!”

We started looking around the Carcassonne region and after a week decided that though the countryside was beautiful and you could buy an old winegrowers house for very little in a rural area, we wanted the convenience of a town. Cities like Beziers and towns like Castelnaudary did not appeal and very soon, so decided that Carcassonne was a good place to live.

These days, it is home to an international arts festival that runs all summer, it has a new multiplex plus an old art-house cinema, there are music concerts in the old churches and free concerts outside. The restaurants are plentiful and universally good, then there is the wine. That is every bit as good as I remember! So to cut a long story short, it looks like I may be seeing quite a bit more of Carcassonne in the future…

To find out more about Carcassonne try this link:  http://www.carcassonne.org/carcassonne_en.nsf/vuetitre/docpgeintrovisiter

 

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On This Day [27th July]: “Why Don’t You Do Right” was recorded by Peggy Lee

Jessica Rabbit about to sing "Why Don't You Do Right"

Although musically Peggy Lee’s version is probably superior, the one most people remember these days is the rendition by Jessica Rabbit [voiced by Amy Irving] in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

The song was written by “Kansas” Joe McCoy, an African American blues musician and songwriter in 1936 when it was originally recorded as The Weed Smoker’s Dream by the wonderfully named jazz ensemble The Harlem Hamfats. Later, McCoy refined the tune and gave it a new set of lyrics when the revised composition was recorded by old-time blues singer Lil Green in 1941.

Peggy Lee

In a 1984 interview Peggy Lee said “I was and am a fan of Lil Green, a great old blues singer, and Lil recorded it. I used to play that record over and over in my dressing room, which was next door to Benny’s (Goodman). Finally he said, ‘You obviously like that song.’ I said ‘Oh, I love it.’ He said ‘Would you like me to have an arrangement made of it?’ I said, ‘I’d love that,’ and he did.”

Although the song sold only moderately [it got to #4 on the US Billboard charts], it became a jazz standard and has been recorded by Mel Torme, Kiri Te Kanawa, Ashley Simpson, Sinead O’Connor and the astonishingly named Carolina Chocolate Drops on their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig. Here is a link to their version on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BYvxFrDZ4M

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