Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

“We were deeply engaged in this improbable geology.”
– Patrick Leigh Fermor, Roumeli


I woke early to beat some of the fevered heat of the plains, the kind of humid blaze that leaves you soaked to the skin by mid-morning. The silhouettes of the Meteora were etched faintly against the night sky when a startling cry cracked the last of the darkness. As light seeped in from the east, other wolves joined the first, a chorus of mysterious howls funnelling upwards like smoke between the towering pinnacles, reflected and echoing off the encircling stone drums until it billowed into the air as if a sail. As the wolves moved off with the arriving light, sheltering from the sun that would soon burn across the sky, the stone pedestals and prominences of the Meteora took shape in the silence of their leaving, as if they’d been called into presence by those wild and plaintive songs.



Great Meteoro

The nearest anyone has come to explaining the origins of the remarkable rocks of the Meteora – meaning suspended in air in Greek – is the German geologist Alfred Philippson. In 1897, he suggested that a river once ran into an ancient lake that covered what is now the plain of Thessaly, depositing in the same place where the Meteora have risen its rippling debris of silt, gravel, mud and water-smoothed pebbles and stones. Some 60 million years ago the river’s estuary was an alluvial fan that opened and spread from its point of entry into the lake. Over the course of thousands of years the layers of the fan deepened, eventually being compressed by the immense forces of water and earth into conglomerate – a type of sedimentary rock composed of the pre-existing stones that the river had washed into the lake – that was concreted together by hardened sandstone. When a massive earthquake emptied the Thessalian lake by cleaving open a channel to the Aegean Sea, the deltaic cone at the end of the river was raised from the lake bed into the sky. Loose sandstone was rinsed away by rain and the stone pillars were further worn into their present sinuous forms, riddled and pocked with caves and fault lines, by wind, weather and subsequent movements of the earth.

Rocks from Kastraki

Stones caves

From Roussanou

The stones are beguiling in their shapes – an entrancing skyscape that lifts eyes from the surrounding plain to continually peer upwards into the vaulted air. It must have been this same numinous sensation, pleated together with a longing to be nearer the heavens, which enticed the first hermits to live precariously on the rocks. It’s impossible for me to even imagine how it might have been done, but from as early as the 9th century Orthodox hermits retreated into seclusion in the Meteora, somehow climbing these sheer towering stones to live inside the clefts and fissures of the cliffs. Like the peregrines, Egyptian vultures and black storks that still nest on the virtually inaccessible rock faces, they became sky dwellers, at home in a world of soaring stone.

By the 14th century the hermitic community at Meteora had become so large that monasteries were founded on these high pedestals and plinths. As a measure of how bewildering the ascents – let alone the construction – would have been, St. Athanasios Meteorites, the founder of the first monastery, the Transfiguration of Christ, was said to have reached the top on the back of an eagle. A conservationist I spent time with in the Meteora told me that when rock climbers – using all the modern equipment and technology available to them – finally ascended one of the highest and most demanding pillars in recent years they found tortoises roaming its grassy top. It’s believed they were placed there by monks who had somehow ascended the sheer wall of stone as potential food sources during long seasons of solitude.

Old hermitages

Inset cross

St. George

The monasteries are astonishing. Not only in the rich patina of centuries-old frescoes that adorn the churches’ walls, arches and cupolas, but in the staggering nature of their creation. They cling to the sheer cliffs as if extensions of the stone, the brickwork and masonry fitted seamlessly to the ancient, existing forms. They are a perfect example of affinity with place, built with such extraordinary and imaginative skill. Until the 1920s and 30s, when steps were eventually cut into the stone towers, the only way of gaining entrance to the monasteries was via a ladder that was raised up whenever the monks felt threatened, or to be wound upwards in a rope net by a windlass operated from the ascent tower. When an abbot was once asked how often the rope was changed, he was said to have replied: “Whenever it breaks.”

In his book Roumeli, Patrick Leigh Fermor writes of his journeys in the Meteora in the 1950s. By then he was already describing a vanishing, dying world. The great monasteries – totalling 24 at the height of their magnetic influence amongst the Orthodox – had been in decline since the 1800s, and by the time Leigh Fermor stayed at St. Varlaams, perched high on a lofty eagle’s nest of a plinth, there were only a few monks and nuns that remained cloistered in the Thessalian sky. There was no road winding between the monasteries as there is today, just paths to be walked, climbed or ridden over on horseback and donkey. Describing the incremental decline of the monastic tradition, the abbot of St. Varlaams says to Leigh Fermor that in the old days there was “a hermit in every hole in the rock, like hives full of bees.”

Agios Antonios

St. Varlaams 1

Ascent tower

Since then the fortunes of the monasteries have radically changed, though there can’t be many more monks or nuns living inside them than there were all those decades ago. Instead the Meteora has become one of Greece’s premier tourist attractions. Listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites, they draw visitors from around the world to these rocks. But after reading the chapter about the Meteora in Roumeli, I’d wondered what might still be found of the old monastic tradition. In an out-of-date guide book to the region I’d seen that a solitary monk was, at the time of publication at least, in attendance at a remote and rarely visited monastery on the far side of the soaring dark rocks and so I left the crowds for a path that swung clear across a hill of burnished grasses smouldering golden under the sun. A procession of old and knowing tortoises kept me company on the way. I walked out along piers of dark stone, tracing my fingers over the pebbled surfaces, and looked out across the distant plain shimmering in haze. I passed the ruins of earlier monasteries and hermitages, their long abandoned shells clinging to the edge of canyons. Alpine swifts, peerless in their artful swirl about the high crags, danced at the tapered edge of the sky and ant-lions flared from the grasses like blown glass, their translucent wings lifting and spinning, glittering helicopters of light.


High rocks

Agios Pnevma

I dropped down through a bone-dry oak grove into a ravine. At times the path left the earth out of necessity, continuing in a smooth groove over stone. Countless others had walked this line into place, together with its myriad tributaries that branched off like echoes of the original river across the landscape, and yet I met no one on the way, just a few far figures glimpsed high about the hills. All of the tracks were well-worn, cutting cleanly through sunblown grasses or curling tight to the curve of stone with the certainty of sure-footed mountain goats. These were ways kept groomed by regular passage, but who used them? If not now, at the height of the summer tourist season when hundreds of buses and cars spilled their passengers into each monastery, on a day when it was impossible to find anything resembling solitude in the crowded interiors, then when? I would like to think that pilgrims and parishioners make this journey out of season, keeping these paths mostly to themselves. “All the most sacred places,” as Roger Deakin once reminded us, “are secret.”

Agios Anapafsas


Lower Meteora

I climbed a long set of steps to reach the monastery wedged like a nest inside a cleft of high cliff only to find its door closed and bolted. I listened for movement or sounds from within, but heard only the constant song of cicadas that rose from the oaks below. On the lip of the door sat an envelope. Crimped and curled by the sun, it felt brittle when I picked it up, even though it had only been there for four days according to the date written on the front. It was addressed simply To the Monastery in English. The envelope had been hand-delivered by its writer, and when I turned it over I saw another message on the back: “You forgot a pen down at the cross, so I bring it back to you. So you can go on writing and studying.”

I weighed down the envelope with a stone, the tip of a black Bic pen poking from a corner. There are still some, it appeared, willing to dwell nearer the sky, at least part of the time. I descended the steps and took a last long look at the monastery, the elegant Byzantine brickwork of the church and living quarters recently restored. It inhabited the rock as if indigenous, as suited to the cliffs as vultures and eagles perched on the rim of their caves and ledges. Stone become home. I turned onto the path as dark clouds eclipsed the sun and threatened rain. It was time to cross this ancient stone estuary again, to be deeply engaged with this improbable geology.

Towards Roussanou

St. Varlaams 2

This improbable geology



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On the night of November 23rd, 1943 Allied bombers destroyed much of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church at the heart of Charlottenburg, Berlin. Built by the Kaiser at the end of the 1800s in honour of his father, the church lay largely entombed by its own fallen stone. All that remained was a shattered shell and the bell tower. The church’s priest , persecuted for his steadfastly anti-Nazi beliefs throughout the regime’s reign, conducted a Christmas service at the end of the war, the parishioners congregating beneath the barely suspended arches of an open-air ruin. Soon after, however, the church was condemned as too dangerous for continued use and a decision was made to retain what remained of it as a memorial to the futility of war and to construct a new church beside it.

Designed by Egon Eiermann, the new church was consecrated in 1962 on the same day as the new Coventry Cathedral in England – the old one having been irreparably damaged by German bombers in 1940. Hanging amongst the mosaics of the original entrance hall to the Wilhelm Memorial Church is the Cross of Nails, made from the charred and twisted pieces of iron that once held the roof timbers of Coventry’s destroyed cathedral together. The gift of the Cross of Nails speaks of the church’s guiding purpose, dedicated as it is to reconciliation – between people, faiths, races and cultures – and the fostering of mutual exchange and understanding. 

The modern church bears little resemblance to its predecessor. The bell tower stands like an obelisk beside the old, and the octagonal church is emblematic of 1960s urban architecture. But they act as ideal complements, bridging the divide in forms of design while articulating a decisive, and ultimately necessary, break from the past. While there were calls to restore the church to its original, 19th century design, a bolder vision saw how potentially empty of meaning the resurrected edifice might have been.

Inside the new church I experienced the spirit of its intended purpose. The walls are a honeycomb of blue light.  Over 21,000 pieces of glass, all blown by hand in a single French workshop and flecked with emerald, yellow and red, surrounded me. I took a seat and stared at the enveloping blue space while an organist played above me. It recalled to me the first time I’d seen a painting by Mark Rothko, the experience of being submerged in another world, a mesmeric space of purity and contemplation – a thought no doubt intensified by the fact that some of the painter’s late, meditational works are the sole exhibits of a chapel in Houston, Texas.

But the longer I sat there the more timeless the moments seemed, like waves washing endlessly ashore. I could have sat there for hours without knowing, doing nothing, caught up in the blue light, the empty space, the stillness and silence. While there I remembered a framed letter that I’d read while inside the ruins of the old church. Written by a Canadian whose father had died in the Second World War, the son spoke of the complex set of feelings he experienced when coming to Berlin on a visit for the first time. Anger, blame and grief all dwelled within his words. But while listening to the recital of a Bach cantata in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church something altered within him. Surrounded by the glimmering blue glass, the transfixing light suspended at the core of each piece and the shadowplay of the cantata, the man felt forgiveness for the first time.

The weight of place can be overwhelming. At times we focus our mourning intently, gathering up incalculable losses and letting them rest at a singular site that speaks for all – a place of collective and distilled memory. Memorials mark our world in its entirety, symbolic and actual shrines, museums, temples, cenotaphs, hillsides, graves and other sites of remembrance or atonement. Unable to contain the myriad stories of individual lives and loss they can nevertheless act as a catalyst to begin anew without forgetting the past, or to allow a process of healing to be sustained. Memorials feature across the surface of Berlin, a tideline where the memories of many wars and atrocities have come to rest – whether the markers of the Cold War dead placed at the point of their failed crossing from East to West or the standing stone memorials to the murdered Jews of Europe sited in a vast space near the Brandenburg Gate. But it was away from the city’s more conspicuous memorials that I found a place that evoked in me an enduring impression.

Designed by Daniel Libeskind as a symbolically fractured Star of David, the Jewish Museum of Berlin contains stories, photographs and artifacts spanning nearly two millenia of Jewish history in Germany, not only the terrible end of that time. It is a celebration as well as a requiem. But there was a door at one end of a corridor that rarely seemed to open, despite the hundreds of people touring the exhibits. A sign beside the door read ‘Holocaust Tower’ – and like many of our most significant moments it was the unexpectedness of its arising that helped lend it its depth. When the door closes on the sounds of the guided tours, of children running along the corridors and adults asking questions or whispering in front of an exhibit, there is a simultaneous opening. Museums rarely contain space for silence and consideration. By their very nature they draw people together, into conversation with each other around the archived objects. Some things, however, exist beyond the range of language.

Silence lowers like a sudden fall of snow inside the Holocaust Tower. There were a few of us inside the chamber, but I may as well have been alone; the place instills such solitude. It rose unhindered around me, its symbolic emptiness not eased in any way. Built of unadorned concrete the tower is neither heated nor cooled. The bare walls climb 24 metres to reach the only possibility of light – a thin slit in one high corner letting in the only light there is, that of the day and season itself. The blade of stark, October sunshine streaked through the opening to hit the opposing wall, from where it fell like pollen to the floor. We were clasped in a half-light and suspended in silence. Only it was a strange kind of silence, disconcerting because of its common, everyday quality. The high sliver in the wall where light enters allows the sounds of the city to seep in as well. Closed off from the museum – the echoes of stories and photographs of Jewish life in Germany still carried inside me – I heard sparrows and car engines, a blaring horn and the wind catching the corner of the building, a man calling a woman’s name across the street. A lament for the ordinary. The sounds were as invisible as the lives in the museum, but I was more certain than ever of their presence. The world without became the world within, remembered out of the silence.

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“Berlin is a city condemned always to become, never to be.” – Karl Scheffler, 1910


Perhaps no other city has taken up as much imaginary space over the last century as Berlin. It is a city forever in flux, not in the gradual, accumulated ways of most urban spaces, but with sudden, violent reinventions. Berlin is a place without definition, occupying a landscape unmeasured. It shifts endlessly between memory and forgetting, between future and past; it encircles the span of dreams.

In 1927 Fritz Lang made his great silent film Metropolis, an Expressionist dystopia whose cityscapes were both futuristic and fantastic. Emerging from the Golden Twenties of the Weimar Republic – an exuberant age of cultural and artistic flourishing that also gave us the architecture of Bauhaus, The Threepenny Opera by Brecht and Weill and the early Marlene Dietrich – Lang would have had little idea how equally dystopic Berlin would become in less than a decade. Like many others in the early 1930s – Jewish artists, German writers, concerned scientists, leftwing politicians – Lang emigrated with the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party and the dark night of the Third Reich fell upon Berlin.

Hitler’s Berlin became the focal point of the Cold War in the aftermath of its destruction. The idea of a divided people, sundered by a concrete wall stretching over 150 kilometres through communities, families, transport links and shared history, fastened itself to the turbulent age, embodying the stark reality of the ideological conflict. The Berlin Wall stood in the collective imagination as much as in the real city; a symbol of totalitarian oppression. Remnants remain in place, as does a memorial line of differently coloured stone embedded into the pavement along its former route.

I walked the streets of Berlin for the first time this past autumn. Stepping over that line in the brilliant October sunshine, nothing happened. Nothing physical or easily discernible at any rate. But I felt a strange emptying, a falling away from the sure things of my life towards a space that was uncertain: the haunting of a place where lives were taken. I tried to replicate in my mind what the Wall entailed – the death strip, the towers –  but could offer nothing to the scene. The emptiness of the place was its measure.

The fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of a divided Europe, as well as the healing of a broken city. Since reunification, and the return of the German capital to Berlin, a process of astonishing reinvention has again swept over the city. From the glittering excesses of Potsdamer Platz to the wondrous and soaring cupola added by the architect Norman Foster to the ruins of the Reichstag, a city is rising and reborn. A Berlin condemned always to become: a place of ash, a world divided, a city of glass.

Much of modern Berlin is constructed of glass, so that the city was being continually reflected in my direction. But each sharply lit surface revealed an unusual angle, a hidden pattern of light and cloud, an unseen perspective of buildings and streets, a man or woman standing unexpectedly by my side. The glass unveiled another world, parallel but unreachable.

In Wim Wender’s film, Wings of Desire, angels descend from the heavens as men to wander the streets of Berlin, walking amongst its people and witnessing their joys and sorrows while only being visible to children. There is a sense of something ethereal about the city, something present but unseen, in the shadowing reflections. Whether it’s the ghosts of Berlin’s past, angels from its present or an unsettled fate in its future, an essence of the city’s spirit flickers in the glass.

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Empires of any kind eventually slide, having risen within the shifting and fickle orbit of political, social, economic and religious realities. It’s in the nature of things to fade so that what once seemed eternal exists only as memory, or as a scattering of stones. The traces mark the land with ruins and clues, half-hidden or submerged, sometimes mysteriously beyond comprehension, the relics of an earlier order enacted from the same ground.

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Bulgaria, nestled in the Pirin Mountains, is a place called Melnik, regularly referred to as the smallest town in the country. The writer Yuri Trifanov went even further in his 1967 short story set there, entitling it ‘The Smallest Town on Earth.’ The appellation bears little relation to the settlement’s current state of affairs, however, instead referring to a previous grandeur discernible in the restored houses and what’s left of the monuments dating from a time when Melnik was one of the cultural and spiritual centres of the entire Balkan peninsula.

As equally curious as its fall is the landscape that Melnik rose beside, though the two are inextricably entwined. Melnik remains curtained off until the very last second when a parting in the steep palisade of sandstone towers suddenly reveals its staggered houses spanning a dry riverbed that winds through a narrow valley. It is a strange and beautiful landscape of imaginary forms: sheer pinnacles of sand; pyramids crested with bent and stubborn trees; long slopes of scree falling away to the mist-veiled valleys. During the Byzantine Empire, Melnik was naturally protected by these encircling spires and insulated from the emperor’s influence. This led to a long tradition of powerful, nearly autonomous feudal rulers epitomised by Despot Alexei Slav. From the year 1209 onwards he forged an independent mountain realm, consolidated through a series of vast fortress walls perched along the ridges, and using his considerable wealth to found monasteries, churches, and craft guilds in great numbers. His private residence, built around 1215 and still in use as a dwelling until as late as 1912, is amongst the oldest civilian buildings still standing in southeastern Europe.

Over the centuries Melnik developed as a wealthy crafts centre, specialising in the working of copper and gold and the fashioning of ornate pottery and jewellery. But its real wealth came from the cultivation of vines. The dry red wine, fermented from a type of grape particular to the region, was stored and aged in vast subterranean cellars hewn from the hillsides and traded throughout the Balkans and Adriatic provinces, then further afield to England and Austria. It was from this very town, so the story goes, that Winston Churchill ordered 500 litres of barrel wine each year.

An oak-clad ridge that overlooks the southern edge of the town reveals the eminence of Melnik in earlier centuries. Walking it when the mountain mist obscured the houses below seemed apt; the narrow stretch of sandstone ridge high above the valley belongs exclusively to another age. It holds onto the remnants of the Saint Virgin Mary Spileotisa chapel, the Saint Haralampius monastery, the Sveti Nikola basilica, and the ramparts of Aleksei Slav’s monumental fortress, all built at the turn of the 13th century. Walking the path between the ruins I was taken with the silence that accompanied the falling and moss-covered stones. The mist rolled in around me and I tried to imagine the assembly of the pious that would have climbed the steep slope through a gulley of oaks to reach these places of worship upon the peaks. A parade of parishioners walking the same earthen path that I followed.

Until the very end of the 19th century Melnik boasted 70 churches, monasteries and chapels, 1300 individual homes and 20,000 residents engaged in a labyrinthine web of trade and commerce. Throughout the long centuries of the Ottoman Empire it had remained an important Christian ecclesiastical centre. But now only a couple of churches remain in use, more than enough to meet the spiritual needs of the 250 people who live there. In the town museum there is a black and white photograph of Melnik taken in 1912 that clearly shows the tiers of closely packed houses rising in serried rows up the hillsides. But when the mist finally cleared from the ridge that I wandered I counted at most only a hundred still below.

Melnik’s decline came swiftly. The Balkan Wars of the early 20th century brought division and emigration to a pluralistic community where Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, Vlachs and Roma had lived. A virus peculiar to the Melnik vine strain devastated the grape harvests and the centuries-old wine cellars stood cavernous and empty. And while Melnik had long straddled the main trade route from the great Mediterranean port at Thessaloniki to the Balkan and Central European hinterland, the stroke of an engineer’s pen shifted the direction of the new road about to be built just far enough away to isolate Melnik yet again in its fortress of sand.

The pyramids and pinnacles that enclose the smallest town in Bulgaria are slipping, grain by grain, into the valley. Each winter storm and surging spring squall sheer a few more from the peaks. Eventually the mountains will flatten and fall, to be taken up into some new and arising geological mystery. And they’ll carry the last of Melnik’s memories and relics along with them.

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Two things were of particular interest to me when we travelled to Tetovo in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and they both concerned longevity. While one was a religious building that had withstood a devastating 17th century fire, armed ethnic conflict and the changing fortunes of shifting political borders, the other was a religious order that had endured the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Communist ban on worship and the suspicions of its co-religionists. And little held the two things together.

Tetovo sits at the foot of the Šar Mountains, an imperious range that separates Kosovo, Albania and FYROM. In the days of Yugoslavia, often recollected with great nostalgia by citizens of the region, it was a popular resort for skiing, but much of the allure has drained away over the course of conflict, coupled with the fact that Tetovo became the de-facto home of the ethnic Albanian resistance movement. Arriving in the city, I was surprised by how quiet and unassuming its character seemed, home to two enduring Ottoman relics.

The Šarena Dzamija, or Painted Mosque, was built in 1459 and paid for by two women, Hurshida and Mensure, whose graves are located within the grounds. While the 17th century fire destroyed much of the town, the mosque survived with its eccentric elegance intact. The Painted Mosque resembles a deck of ornate playing cards laid side by side over the facade. More than 30,000 eggs were used to prepare the paint and glaze that went into such elaborate decoration; it is an exquisitely rendered piece of religious art, commanding attention amidst the drab, Titoist surroundings. But it remains of practical purpose as well. The mid-morning call to prayer brings men and women streaming into the grounds, carefully setting shoes aside to step into the place of prayer, having done the same for centuries. Along with the stone bathhouse beside it, and the richly latticed woodwork that adorns the entranceway, the mosque complex is a tribute to a meticulous and enduring craft.

Not far from the mosque are the grounds of the Arabati Baba Bektaši Tekke, home of another enduring belief. The Sufi equivalent of a monastery, the tekke belongs to the Bektaši order of dervishes. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam and the dervishes are popularly known for their whirling, trance-like meditations, although in actuality only certain orders perform them and they comprise a small part of a much greater system of belief and ritual.

The Tetovo tekke was founded in the late 18th century, though the Bektaši presence in the area can be traced back to as early as the 16th, and is one of the most important remaining monasteries in the Balkans. It was the seat of the Bektaši order until 1912; until that time tekkes were a common feature of the Ottoman landscape in the Balkans. But with the collapse of the empire the Tetovo dervishes fled, no longer secure amidst the changing ethnic and religious composition of the land. Even in Turkey their demise was swift and decisive; in his drive towards a secular state, Kemal Ataturk had tekkes throughout the country, three hundred in Istanbul alone, closed as of 1924 and the Sufis’ practice of mystical rites was forbidden. Ironically, the whirling dervish performances have been revived, and are a much-touted, and often expensive, tourist attraction in contemporary Istanbul.

Many of the Tetovo dervishes fled for Albania where the Bektaši order retains a strong presence, and by the Yugoslav era the grounds and buildings of the tekke had been converted into a hotel, restaurant and disco for the ski tourists arriving in the Šar Mountains. The lodge finally returned to its original purpose in the early 1990s when a law was passed restoring property nationalised by the socialist state, and a small number of dervishes live within its walls.

The baba, or priest, of the tekke was a giant of a man, tall and gentle, with a long ginger beard tapering to his chest. He’d been working in the garden when we arrived, so we were seated at a table and brought Turkish coffee and sweets. A young man, a dervish in training, acted as the baba’s translator when he eventually joined us. The baba spoke thoughtfully of his belief in tolerance and equality, of having no barriers between faiths; he talked of how the tekke, that complex of gardens, cemetaries, meditation halls and prayer rooms, was the perfect place for him to pursue a connection with God, a divine communion. But he also spoke of unresolved problems with the more traditional Islamic communities that use the Painted Mosque, who regard the mystical element of the dervish orders suspiciously and have been trying to usurp the usage of the tekke.

The young dervish, who had chosen his vocation when still a boy, showed us around the grounds. I asked him how he saw the path of his life progressing.  “When my training is complete, I will be sent where my teacher, the baba, believes I will be best able to help others on the Sufi path.”

“Where will you go?”

“I don’t know. Turkey maybe. Albania. Maybe the Middle East.”

I then asked the young man if he would miss the place that encircled us, the enduring gardens and prayer halls, the wooden sleeping quarters that had housed his predecessors, the Ottoman fountains – simply the peace of being there.

“I love being here, but it doesn’t matter to me where I am. Here is no different from there. This place is the same as that place. They are all God’s places, so they are all one.”

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