Monthly Archives: September 2007

The Amazing Senyor Llull

ramonllull.jpg

I was musing about dinosaurs yesterday in a metaphorical way.

Well, there is another metaphorical dinosaur today: Ramón Llull. He is long since dead, but his thoughts are still very influential in many of our ways of thinking, not least of which, in the way we use computers and the Internet.

Ramón Llull (Raimundus Lullus) is without doubt a most important 13th Century Catalán philosopher and mystic as well as the first writer to ever write books in the Catalán language. Some argue that Senyor Llull should be considered the greatest man ever born in Mallorca.

As I do live in Mallora, Spain, and have been for 20 years now, I must declare myself partial to this man.

Llull was born in Palma de Mallorca at the time of the Reconquista. Jaume I, King of the newly united Aragón and Catalunya, had just conquered the Balearic Islands in 1229, ending 300 years of rule of the Moors. However, it took about another 3 years until the last of the Arab resistance was crushed on the island.

Llull was brought up at the Royal Court of Mallorca. He learnt Arabic from the Moorish population that still remained after their defeat. He was well educated, and became the tutor of Jaume II of Aragon. Llull wrote in Latin, Catalán and Arabic.

In 1265, aged 32, he had a religious epiphany, and became a Franciscan monk. In 1273, he founded a Franciscan missionary school in Miramar, near Deià, Mallora, which today is a museum for Ramón Llull, as well as for the Archeduque Luis Salvador. Miramar is well worthy of your visit. Talk to the gardener there if you have a chance.

Llull’s first major work ‘Art Abreujada d’Atrobar Veritat’ (The Art of Finding Truth) was written in Catalán and then translated into Latin. He wrote treatises on alchemy and botany, ‘Ars Magna’, and ‘Llibre de Meravelles’. He wrote a romantic novel, ‘Blanquerna’, the first major work of literature written in Catalán, and thought to be the first European novel ever.

 

All this happened some 350 years before Cervantes or Shakespeare, and 30 years before Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’.

 

llull_01.jpg


Llull pressed for the study of the Arabic language in Spain, then insufficiently studied here, for the purpose of the conversion of Muslims to Christianity.

About 1272, after another mystical experience on Mallorca’s Randa mountain in which Ramón Llull related seeing the whole universe reflecting the divine attributes, he conceived of reducing all knowledge to first principles and determining their common point of unity.

Ramón Llull designed a method, which he first published in full in his ‘Ars Generalis Ultima’ or ‘Ars Magna’, of combining attributes selected from a number of lists. He also invented numerous devices for the purpose, each of which consisted of two or more cardboard discs inscribed with alphabet letters or numbers that referred to lists of attributes. These discs could be rotated individually to generate a large number of combinations of ideas. This method was an early attempt to use logical means to produce knowledge.

 

Some computer gurus have adopted Llull as a sort of founding father, claiming that his system of logic was the true beginning of Computation Theory.

Llull hoped to show that Christian doctrines could be obtained artificially from a fixed set of preliminary ideas. For example, one of the tables listed the attributes of God: goodness, greatness, eternity, power, wisdom, virtue, truth and glory.

Llull knew that all believers in the monotheistic religions – whether Jews, Muslims or Christians – would agree with these attributes, giving him a firm platform from which to argue.

 

llull_2.jpg

 

In 1285, Ramón Llull visited Rome and from there embarked on a mission to convert the infidels of Tunis to Christianity. He was violently expelled from Tunis, in an incident which was wrongly magnified by some later historians into a stoning to death, and therefore a martyrdom. On his return, Llull began to preach for a unification of the three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which, together, he hoped, would be able to defeat the Asian invaders then threatening Europe and the Middle East.

Llull reduced Christianity to rational discussion, thereby attempting to prove the dogmas of the Church by logical argument. But in 1376, Pope Gregorio XI charged Llull with confusing faith with reason and condemned his teachings. The Roman Catholic church did, however, pardon Ramón Llull more quickly than they did Galileo Galilei, venerating Llull during the 19th century.

In all, Ramón Llull is said to have written over 265 books and treaties, making him the most prolific Catalán author ever. Another 135 works are doubtfully or spuriously attributed to him.

The amazing Senyor Llull has a statue in his honour in Palma de Mallorca, just as one turns right from the Paseo Sagrera towards Plaza Reina and the Borne.

 

I salute him every time I drive past.

 

Kenji Nagai and the Dinosaurs of Burma

burma_1.jpg

One of the defining characteristics of dinosaurs is not to know when time is up. An oversight that can have fatal consequences.

Senior General Than Shwe, 74, may have pushed his luck when after 15 years in command as the head of Burma’s military junta, he allowed and possibly instructed his soldiers to open fire on foreign journalist, Kenji Nagai, who was shot and executed in front of cameras three days ago.

Kenji Nagai, a 50 years old Japanese photojournalist, was killed whilst taking photos of the recent, largely peaceful anti-government protests.

Dinosaurs are extinct because they did not absorb the changes that had occurred in their habitat. The Burmese generals repeat the dinosaurs’ costly mistake of not understanding that it was one thing, in 1988, to kill 30,000 Burmese citizens, when the country was closed off from the eyes of the rest of the world, and quite another circumstance once the digital century had spread throughout the world. Digital eyes are everywhere now.

Twenty years on, Burmese military brutality can not possibly happen without being noticed by the rest of the world. Only hours after the death of Kenji Nagai, the outside world could witness how the photographer was pushed to the ground, shot and killed.

 

burma_2.jpg

 

The Internet, YouTube, Internet blogs, mobile phones, and digital video cameras manage to instantly expose the brutal offensive against their own people, blatantly carried out by the military regime of so-called Myanmar, in a way that is quite unprecedented. The goalposts have changed since 8888, as the last Burmese uprising was called, and it won’t take long before the generals realize their current offside position.

Monks in Burma have historically been at the forefront of protests – first against the colonialism of the British and later against military dictatorship. Monks also played a prominent part in the failed 1988 pro-democracy rebellion. Monks are being killed, threatened and imprisoned at this very moment but the blatant actions of Than Shwe’s clique of generals look like no more than a desperate last effort to hide their impotence in the face of the inevitable.

If my understanding of the situation in Burma is correct, Kenji Nagai’s death may well have served a purpose.

Peace, Kenji-san.

 

Paul Andreu and the National Grand Theatre in Beijing

beijing_andreu.jpg

If you are interested in architecture, there is no doubt that you are impressed by the work of Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect who gave the world the singular Sydney Opera House, in Australia, inaugurated after much delay in 1973, and now declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We all saw Sydney Opera House pictures last week when the APEC Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation met there for their 2007 summit.

sydney_utzon.jpg

In his pursuit for immortality, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava surprised us all with a splendid Auditorium concert hall in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, in 2003. Not so many delays in that case. No summits there, as yet, either.

tenerife_calatrava.jpg

Now, we can be in awe of the new National Grand Theatre in Beijing, unofficially put to use a few days ago by former Chinese leader and opera enthusiast, Jiang Zemin. Admittedly, I wasn’t there when comrade Jiang Zemin, 81, sang his bits of Peking Opera to an intrigued audience, but I am more than impressed by French architect, Paul Andreu’s work that continues a formidable tradition of great 20th century opera and concert house architecture in China’s capital city.

The retired president and Communist Party chief sang parts of a Western opera and also, of a Peking opera for theatre staff when he visited last Friday, a Hong Kong newspaper reported.

The controversial National Theatre, a shiny half sphere, sits in stark contrast next to the Soviet-style Great Hall of the People in downtown Beijing, perhaps 500 m from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was due to open in 2005, then 2006, and is now expected to open at the end of this year.

The National Grand Theatre of China in Beijing was designed by French architect Paul Andreu. You may know Monsieur Andreu for his Maritime Museum in Osaka, Japan, or his Grande Arche in La Defense, Paris, France, amongst others. His Beijing theatre must be one of the most talked-about architectural projects for years, both because of Andreu’s bold and innovative design, and for the grand scope of the project itself.

Once opened, it surely will become Beijing’s foremost cultural centre, situated in the heart of the capital, symbolizing all that is exciting about the new China, and no doubt will convert into one of the visual icons of the upcoming Beijing Olympics 2008, together with Herzog & de Meuron’s as yet unfinished Olympic Stadium (see photo below). And any number of summits will be held there, too, for sure.

beijing_herzog_meuron.jpg

It’s lucky, isn’t it, that UNESCO will not be short of candidates for future World Heritage Site considerations?

Wine Festivals, Grape Treading and Merriment

The heavy rain that fell in Mallorca, Spain, last weekend could not stop the merriment of the Binissalem populace when the annual Verbena de la Vermada, the Grape Harvest Festival, was about to be celebrated. Binissalem, you should know, is the Mallorcan wine producing capital.

As the name suggests, the village of Binissalem has its origins in the period of the Moorish settlement in the Balearic Isles some 1,000 years ago. And yes, believe it or not, the Arabs were known then for the production of some fine wines. I cannot vouch that they actually drank the stuff because I was not around at the time, but they are reported to have been very knowledgeable in the fermentation of grapes in many ways.

Part of the festivities last weekend was the Battle of the Uvas. 4,000 kg of grapes were supposedly used to fight, battle, attack and compete in the friendly skirmish that got everybody soaked, stained and muddied. The rain helped along in the general saturation.

The following day, it was time for a bit of grape treading.

Grape treading is an ancient method already used by the Romans and the Greeks in their respective ancient empires and has since been practiced by the French, the Italians, the Portuguese and the Spanish, here in Mallorca and elsewhere on the Iberian peninsula. The Book of Hours illustration shown below hails from Paris, France. This exquisitely illustrated work was written and decorated by hand on vellum in Paris in about 1490. Among its brilliantly coloured miniatures is one for September, which shows a person treading grapes.

The human foot is considered to be far more gentle than any form of mechanical grape pressing. Although there are now automated alternatives, grapes for the highest quality wines are still routinely pressed by the foot, which still results in the best juice and colour extraction.

The grape treading competition was introduced into the Binissalem festival nine years ago, and is now one of the most popular events in the Vermada programme. This year, 30 teams took part, 10 of them of children, made up of girls and boys of between 12 and 16, taking part for the first time. The teams consisted of four people, two of whom tread the grapes first, then the other two, grasping each other by the shoulders as they do so. In the children’s category the winning team extracted 8 litres of juice in the five minutes allowed. Their prize was 120 Euros. The winners in the adult category managed to extract 10.5 litres in the time allowed. During the competition 1,280 kg of grapes were trod.

To avoid misunderstandings: in general, wine in Mallorca does not get produced nowadays by treading. It is a tradition that is celebrated at festival times, once a year. There are not enough little feet around in Binissalem to tread all the grapes for all the wine that is produced in Mallorca, every year.

September is the month when the Mallorcan wine is harvested. The grape harvest is traditionally related to the cycles of the moon, hence, the wine festival moves along in the calendar. Another highlight of the Binissalem festivities, apart from the Battle of the Uvas and the grape treading, was an open air dinner where locals as well as visitors sat down at the longest arrangement of dining tables that I have ever seen. Thousands of portions of seafood paella were served, together with the red wine that was trod here last year. There were also other events, such as dance exhibitions and sport contests, as well as a concert held in the parish church, to be followed ultimately by fireworks displays.

Whilst I like the wine festival of Binissalem, my personal tastes in Mallorcan wine go for some other areas of the island, such as the Pla i Levant region.

In case you are interested, my favourite vino tintos of the Mallorcan denomination are wines from Son Sureda Ric, Ànima Negra, Toni Gelabert, Miquel Gelabert, Miquel Oliver, Jaume Mesquida, and Armero i Adrover, probably in this order of descent. Of course that varies to some extent, as not every year can possibly result in exactly the same vintage quality or taste.

 

There are other grape harvest festivals throughout Spain, at this time of the year. Of course there are other great Spanish wines as well, outside of Mallorca, but that would be too long a story for now. Perhaps in a future blog entry I shall tell you all about wines from the Rioja, the Ribera del Duero and the Toro, my secret favourite. Unless you prefer to follow Robert Parker’s musings.

Salut.

 

The ‘Príncipe de Asturias’ Award for Yad Vashem

We all know that most noble award of all, the Nobel Prize. Each year, scientists are awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, Physics, or Chemistry, as are authors and writers, for Literature.

 

The crown of all that is the Nobel Prize for Peace; never mind that Mr. Nobel was the inventor of dynamite, a product  that has had its fair share in bringing down peace more often than enhancing it.

Not everyone knows that Spain has created the poor man’s Nobel Prize.

Well, that is not quite doing it justice. Spain has set up something similar, with perhaps a slightly more contemporary and more popular angle, and without the prize money that is attached to the Nobel Prize. And without any dynamite or other applications with sinister possibilities associated with it. It is called Premios Príncipe de Asturias, and is awarded annually to outstanding achievers from the world of theatre, literature, art, music, film, architecture, politics, sports and the world of science.

 

Stephen Hawking, Woody Allen, Daniel Baremboim, Günter Grass, Arthur Miller have all been awarded the ‘Premio Príncipe de Asturias’ in the past, as have Doris Lessing, J. K. Rowling, Susan Sontag, Yaser Arafat, Jane Goodall, Yehudi Menuhin, plus many others, as well as the Camino de Santiago, in case you should want to know.

 

Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Nelson Mandela are laureates of both, the Nobel Prize as well as the Premio Príncipe de Asturias.

The Prince of Asturias award was first bestowed in 1981 and now celebrates its 26th anniversary (quite a way from the 106 year old Nobel Prize). But Spanish Prince Felipe after whom the award giving Foundation is named, has the slight advantage of still being alive and kicking, something that Mr. Alfred Nobel, sadly for him, can no longer claim.

Quite why the Prize giving scheme was conceived is anyone’s guess. I suspect that the Premios Príncipe de Asturias have to be seen in the historical context.

After a dictatorship of 40 years, Spain has been a Parlimentary System with a Constitutional Monarchy only since 1978. It is a system similar to the one in Great Britain. The Monarch is the head of the State and as such, represents Spain internationally. Prince Felipe is the 3rd child of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophía. He was born in 1968; he will be 40 years old next January. His full name is Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos de Borbón y Grecia. His Royal title is Prince of Asturias. He is also Prince of Girona and Prince of Viana. He is the Spanish Crown Prince, i. e. the future King of Spain, if things don’t change any time soon.

With a bit of maths you can work out that the prince was a mere 13 years old when the Premios Príncipe de Asturias were set up. I believe that the Spanish Royal family was then looking for a niche in the international scene. Spain also wanted to give itself an image of being democratic, pro-Western, open, liberal, dignified and humanitarian, attributes that this country had forgone during the dark years of Franco. Plus the young Prince also had to be given a role on the world stage with some prestige attached.

26  years on, Spain is a respected member of the world community, both in Europe and in the world. The Premios Príncipe de Asturias were certainly not fundamentally instrumental in getting Spain to this position, but they have hardly done any harm on the way there.

The Premios Príncipe de Asturias command prestige and respect already. They have not quite yet achieved the flair that the Nobel Prize evokes, but wait another 78 years, before we can take stock. They are in a close second position now and that is not bad going for such a young scheme.

The 2007 prize winners have already been named:

Writer, Amos Oz has won the ‘Premio Príncipe de Asturia de las Letras 2007’. Michael Schumacher won the award for Sports. Arts, Bob Dylan. German born British Lord Dahrendorf has won the ‘Premio Príncipe de Asturias’ for Social Sciences. Al Gore has won the ‘Premio Príncipe de Asturias’ for International Cooperation. Peter Lawrence and Ginés Morata have been chosen for Scientific and Technical Research.

 

And just a week ago or two, the ‘Premio Príncipe de Asturias de la Concordia’, was announced. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel, has been awarded the coveted prize.

 


The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, an international institution in memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, aims to transmit to future generations the need for preserving human rights and, essentially, the respect for life. It is the only one of its kind in the world to also honour people who risked their own lives to save Jewish victims of the Shoah. Yad Vashem has become an important centre of information, research and education of one the largest genocides in the history of Mankind.

I just wish Israel would not only take good care of the memory of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but would also begin to preserve human rights and respect for life in their own territory and in the immediate neighborhood in the present day, i. e. in Gaza, the Lebanon and also in Jerusalem. Too many victims and too much death, destruction, misery and hardship are caused on a daily basis in the vicinity of Yad Vashem.

If not, perhaps our children will visit an Intifada Museum in Gaza, one day, which the Premio Príncipe de Asturia might also choose to award some Concordia award to, in years to come. 


The Japanese ‘Camino de Santiago’

japan_temple.jpg

Let me invite you to a virtual visit of Japan.

Just off the eastern coast of the Japanese mainland, the island of Shikoku is only ten kilometres away from the nightlife of Osaka, but in all other ways it is worlds apart. Shikoku is the smallest of the four islands that make up Japan, for a moment leaving aside the much smaller, and in my opinion not truly Japanese archipelago of Ryūkyū, probably better known by most as Okinawa. But that would be a different story, some other day.

The island of Shikoku is famous for its 88 Sacred Sites which connect on a pilgrimage trail. The route of the 88 temples of Shikoku is the classic Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage. For over a thousand years, only the Japanese followed the path to the remote places of Shikoku island, but over the last thirty years or so, anybody can visit and walk and follow the trail. The walk around the perimeter of the island is said to take somewhere between 50 and 60 days to complete if done in the traditional manner, with a total distance of some 1,400 kms. If one should feel so inclined, one could call the Shikoku trail the Japanese Camino de Santiago.

You might be aghast at the idea of a 60 day lone walk, but when I said earlier on this blog that the Spanish Camino de Santiago walk took me 35 days, that did not include the six weeks of a preparatory warming-up period, when I covered some 500 kms on Mallorca, the island where I live. Without that breaking-in, I would not have been physically able to bring my Spanish Camino to its conclusion. All together, I was walking for eleven weeks and covered some 1,350 kms, or so I think.

Before we settled in Mallorca, my wife and I had planned a prolonged trip to Kyūshū in Japan which never materialized, due to the birth of our first, and then, our second daughter. Fittingly, we have given our second daughter the Japanese name of Onna, in lieu of the journey to Nippon that never happened. Since  then, I have been to Japan once, but only for five days, and not on a walking tour.

 

I am looking forward to going back there for an extended period next time and to return to Japan, though with a mission.

I understand that the temples on Shikoku island are spread around the circumference of the isle. In some areas, especially in and around the larger cities, the temples are very close together and one can visit several temples a day. In other areas the temples are much more spread out and it can take three days or so to travel by foot from one to the other.

Of the 88 temples, 66 are located in the mountains and 27 are on the plain and near the coast. Of the mountain temples, 25 seem located at or near the top of their mountain with the highest situated at an elevation of over 900 m.

shikoku_map.jpg


First records of the pilgrimage’s existence in any form similar to today’s didn’t appear until a few guidebooks were written in the 1680s. If and when I go, I shall probably rely on a more recent guide book, perhaps Echoes of Incense, by Don Weiss, even though I believe that that one seems to be out of print. I have also been recommended A Henro Pilgrimage Guide to the 88 Temples of Shikoku Island, Japan, published by Buddhist Bishop Taisen Miyata, in Los Angeles, California. Some more research will have to be done before I set off.

 

Apparently, one Buddhist theory says that the number 88 is the sum of the unlucky ages (yakudoshi) of men, women, and children. Japanese folklore supposedly claims that there are a number of ages which are particularly unlucky for people. When one reaches one of these special years, certain special religious practices need to be performed to guard against bad luck and other potential misfortunes. Of the several unlucky ages, though, the most dangerous are 42 for men, 33 for women, and 13 for children of both sexes. The total of these ages is 88. Hence, as the theory goes, this is an especially unlucky number. As I am well past the age of 42, and still a long way off the age of 88, I am quite hopeful that my future Shikoku pilgrimage attempt will be a lucky one.

 

As I am writing this I notice that my ARXXIDUC blog has just had its 8,888th visitor (or hit; I know it’s not the same). I take that as a rather good omen for my planned 88 temples trip, even though that journey might still be some time away.

 

To make it all a bit more complicated, it seems that there are 108 temples, if one were to include the twenty unnumbered Bangai temples as well. For the moment though, I shall concentrate on the Pilgrimage of the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku, if and when it all comes to fruition.

 

First of all I have to learn the Japanese word for Ultreia.

 

The Beauty of the Pyrenees Mountains

pyrenees_3.jpg

 

Welcome to the Autumn season.

 

Autumn is a perfect time to travel, in my opinion, and that is certainly true for a country like Spain. Today, I do not attempt to lure you into Spain, if not lure you to the threshold that marks the boundaries between Europe and Spain – the Pyrenees.

 

The best way, in my mind, to travel to Spain from Europe is by land. Whilst I am not adverse to air travel (I travel by air quite frequently) I often prefer to make an exception in the case of Spain. There is no better welcome to the Iberian Peninsula than across the mountain range that separates Hispaña from the rest of Europe.

The Pyrenees are a range of mountains in southwest Europe that form a natural border between France and Spain. They separate the Iberian Peninsula from France, and extent for about 450 km from the Atlantic Ocean (Bay of Biscay) to the Mediterranean Sea (Golf de Lyon). The highest Pyrenean summit is said to be the Pico d’Aneto with 3,404 m, even though Mont Perdu with 3,355 m might be slightly better known. The Pyrenees seem to be older than the Alps with about 100 to 150 million years since their formation, but that is neither here nor there. They are both intriguing; I personally prefer the Pyrenees.

I have crossed the Pyrenees mountains by car on at least a half a dozen occasions, each time choosing a different route, and always being amazed about the sheer beauty of the mountainous landscape, the warmth of the Pyreneans, be they French, Basque, Andorran, Aquitanian or Spanish, and by the stark contrast between the Europe that one leaves behind and the Iberian otherness that one enters.

 

pyrenees_1914.jpg 

Of course I have crossed the Pyrenees by aeroplane as well, dozens of times, and whilst I prefer to travel by land I must admit that the beauty from above the clouds is unbeatable, especially in the snowy season.

If you travel to the Pyrenees instead of through them you are a very lucky person. The Pyrenees have now in a sense been discovered by hikers and backpackers, outdoor activists and walkers, skiers and mountaineers, Camino pilgrims and individualist travellers, and that has led to an increase in popularity to such an extend that the Pyrenees are becoming an alternative to the much better explored Alps.

I can only recommend a trip to and a journey through the Pyrenees. If you do not live in Spain as I do, but come from the north and thus, France, you could make your entry into the Pyrenean wonderland from Bordeaux, possibly via Pau and Lourdes. Or you could come down from Biarritz and make your way to Donostia (San Sebastián) via Irún. In both cases your voyage might continue to Pamplona, depending on your final destination.

Further east, you could make your way right up to the Principality of Andorra, one of the smallest European countries which shares its money, its stamps and its defense with both, France and Spain, without belonging to either. In this case you might well have come down from Toulouse, passing the charming French provincial town of Foix before you ascend to Andorra. 

 

pyrenees.jpg

 

If you have come down the Autoroutes du Sud de la France and Perpignan, I would urge you to leave the motorway and make your way up into the Pyrénées Orientales, heading for Prades and Puigcerdà. From there you could continue to Vic and eventually Barcelona.

 

Do not fail to allow for plenty of time whilst in the Pyrenees, either for some walking or some outdoor activities, and some sampling of the gastronomic delights, food and beverage wise, that this region has to offer. 

 

I would be very surprised if you would ever regret a visit.