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Caribbean Notes


Caribbean Notes

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


San Juan après la deluge

We arrived in San Juan a year after Hurricane Maria with a mixture of trepidation and shameful curiosity. Gawker tourists, we looked for damages caused by the last great storm, worried that there would be a repeat while we were there. Strangely, we felt disappointed when the cab driver who took us from the airport to our hotel said “Nothing much was done by Maria to the areas of San Juan you will see.” The Condado and the Old Town seemed practically untouched. “Tourists are coming back, but still mostly on weekends.”

The next day, June 22nd, began with a torrential rain that drenched me as I went looking for morning pastry. The sunset, however, was a ball of fire mushrooming through the sky In between, the strong wind caused a few kites to hit us at the Morro Fort. where kids in a riot of colorful T-shirts were spending their field trip from the summer camps.

The campers went to the Priagua stand on the margin of the Fort for shaved ice. We headed to Barrachina Restaurant in the Old Town San Juan which claims its bartender Ramon “Monchito” Marrero, in 1963, made the first Pena Colada, Puerto Rico’s National Drink. Next to our table, a better informed fellow-tourist challenged that claim. “In fact, Pena Colada was invented in the Caribe Hotel here.” We opted out of the controversy and ordered Mojito , which seemed more refreshing and appropriate for the hot day, even though it owed its provenance to another Caribbean island, Cuba.

Walking down the cobble-stoned street of picturesque Old San Juan, I met a “legislators’ aid” at the square where their chamber, as well as the mayor’s office are located. “Nothing much,” the aide said when I asked what was on the agenda that day. Her husband’s schedule seemed more eventful: “I am retired and have come down for my weekly lunch in town with her,” he said smiling.

The “Presidential Suite” next to our room in the hotel seemed to have been just occupied. This we noted upon our return from the resort’s glorious “infinity pool,” on the cliff at the edge of the sea, where we left five women in various degrees of obesity eating drumsticks from a bag that said KFC!

“We all go to the beach this evening, “the man said. “We go in the water and walk backward. Then we throw a piece of our old clothing into the ocean.” He was describing the rituals of the “Night of San Juan.” That is “John, the Disciple,” he pointed out for clarification. “The celebration takes place here in San Juan, but also in all of Puerto Rico as it is our national tradition.” This was June 23.  My interlocutor was our Uber driver. “There are now 1500 Ubers in Puerto Rico, half of them in San Juan,” he said. We took them often as they were reasonably priced, clean and readily available. But the scooters had already arrived too, we observed.

Slouching toward 80

I never met him but his presence was announced at the beginning. A few doors before I reached my room on the cruise ship, I noticed the many stickers on his door. “Happy 80th Birthday,” one said. A picture of a balloon was monogrammed “80”. He protested in another sticker: “I am not 80, I am $79.99+tax,” and in another, “79-ish.” Resigned to reality, he rationalized in the next sticker, “80 years in the making.” Pleased with himself, he now boasted, “I am not 80 … I’m 21 with 59 years of experience.” Alas, he ran out of space on the door.

I sympathized, empathized, with the man, but to no avail. The excursion I was interested in had an upper age limit for passengers: 80.

I did not see anyone on the ship who looked 80 or older, although the woman sitting next to me once, near the pool, may have been one. She was still, looking toward the light grey of the overcast sky that was almost seamless with the ocean water it had made its own color. There was a wheelchair next to her and a cane.

There were a few other persons with disabilities on the ship but many more on the edge of infirmity by sheer overweight. You found them often in the cafeteria with plates piled up with foods. The aforesaid excursion also disqualified people weighing more than 250 pounds.

The crew

There are 1, 985,” Sue said. “That includes everyone in the crew, the 2000?” She corrected me, “No, 1985.” Chastened by the young server, I asked exactly how many of those worked in the restaurants. She stumbled and said, merely, “The food and beverage department is by far the largest.” We shared a pre-assigned big table with another couple every night, in the sit-down dining room. Four seats remained unoccupied the whole time. The rest of the cavernous restaurant and the two other restaurants in the balconies above it, however, were jam-packed.

Three people attended to us. The man from India who took our orders and brought the food was too busy, but the other two made up for him in chatting us up. The drinks man was from Colombia and brought me the news of the World Cup, unsolicited. Orlando, as I came to call him accordingly, did not care that my limited knowledge of the details of the game equaled my lack of serious interest. When, one night, a band played Colombian music in the restaurant, Orlando came wiggling in the narrow isle next to us, inviting us to join him in “Waka Waka,” which he called the “national dance” of his home land. Far from me to refuse. There we were, the two of us, I following the movements of his arms and limbs. He complimented me, but more to the point, he flaunted his credentials: “I teach dance in Miami, where I live.”  The third man, a Jamaican who served as the floor manager for our area, nodded as though to verify.

The members of the crew sign up for an 8 month contract. “I love this job,” Orlando said. “We have parties every night; we have computers, movies, food, drinks, everything we need.” They even had their own dedicated Wi-Fi.

“There are only 5 from the U.S.,” Orlando said, counting himself as one since he lived in Miami. “The rest of the crew come from many countries. The biggest group is from India,” he nodded his head toward our food server. Then, he continued, “from the Philippines, and Indonesia, and recently, more from China.”

The Teen scene

On the other side of the Jacuzzi from me, I noticed a young blonde girl and a boy. He was listening to her in what seemed as seduction in an American teens’ game, his bright smile matching the allure of her soft skin. As she talked, his long arm smoothly moved behind her shoulder to touch the top of her arm. Presently, however, she waived to a lad just a few years older who was approaching from the right. He was wearing red-rimmed sun glasses and his short hair was tinged blonde. His smile was mischievous. He sat at the edge of the water. The three knew each other and the couple listened for a few minutes to what the newcomer said. Then they came out of the Jacuzzi. The girl went to the other side but still close enough for me to notice her taking a puff. “Juul,” the lady next to me nudged my side, knowingly.

Hitched and Unhitched

The couple we shared a meal with was here to celebrate their “First Anniversary,” by which they meant it was a year after they met. He was 74 and she around 60. They were both widowed some time ago and they met through on-line dating sites. They seemed fitted for each other. At the very outset she said she was “shopping,” and sure enough, soon she was wearing a diamond ring on her finger which he bought at the first island we stopped at.

We went to the beach, instead, on an open-sided jitney with all- you-can-drink booze — local beer and a rum punch. When appropriately buzzed, the boisterous guide asked if anyone was here to celebrate a birthday, wedding anniversary or, as an afterthought, a divorce. The hands of two young women sitting in front of us went up. One of them said “We are here to celebrate my friend’s divorce.”  Indeed, they looked but happy in their large sun glasses. We only cheered as no one volunteered an alternative salutation.

The young woman with a well-mannered young son sitting at the next table to us in the restaurant one evening was the picture of brave but poignant single-motherhood. Their limited conversion was supplemented with her reading about the next day’s excursion options.

In a bar we visited afterwards, we alternated looking at the masterful dancing of a young couple to the live jazz music, on the one hand, and the stoic look on the face of an older African American man sitting by himself, on the other hand. We had seen him in the same place with the same posture the night before. The young dancers were presently replaced by another couple who chose to dance with their toddler in their arms as he sucked on his milk bottle. A dignified, sad-looking, bearded Indian man stood stirring at the spectacle. I had noticed him before, forlorn and lonely, in other corners of the ship.

A handsome woman in a one-piece swim suit occupied a chaise in the same corner of the pool area, reading, every time I passed by. A couple in their forties chose to spend all of the days on the ship just by themselves, declining to step onto any of the Islands at which the ship stopped.

On the night before last of the cruise, once again, ladies dressed up and some men put on Tuxedos. The African American man was in the bar in a nice suit and tie, distinguished. He now shared a long sofa with a couple as he had done with us before. When the music began the couple went onto the floor. She was as good as a professional dancer and he was also good enough. When the tune ended, we all applauded. For the next number, the woman asked the African American man for a dance.  He was her match! We were all delighted with the performance, except perhaps the woman’s date. In his white Tuxedo, he looked pensive.

Union and reunion

“We planned it for months and as soon as the schools were out we came,” the cheerful mom told me about her big group from Massachusetts. “We are just neighbors from this small town 10 miles north of Boston; some of us have kids in the same schools.” She pointed to several teenagers on the jet-skis in the waters of Sint Maarten before us. The Chinese-American man with a backpack who walked along with me in Barbados was from Dallas, but “my cousins and others in our group are all from California,” he said, “there are 14 of us.” The Chicago man  I met in the Jacuzzi, had come with friends and relatives from “all over the country, some 22 of us.” The African-American woman who joined our conversation told us about the mud bath she had taken on the island of Antigua that day. “You should have seen my sister who is 72, climbing those rough roads. She loved it.” Her group, from southern California, was 12 strong. “We made this cruise a reunion of family members.”  There were several Spanish-speaking Latino groups, some included multi-generational family members.

Cruising and its discontent

The Jacuzzi served as our prime conversation nook, as it was in the open air area on the top deck. We soaked since the cruise allowed us a lot of time to do nothing. There were some evening “activities” but they were all past our bedtime. We peeked into one show. It was boring.

The overcast sky hid the famous vivid Caribbean colors for most of the trip. Even the sunset eluded us. The islands seemed all alike:  almost totally dependent on the tourist industry. The parts we ventured onto were often tunnels of shops and stands catering to the gullible cruise passengers. We walked ourselves free in Antigua and visited the most prominent structure of the town of St. John’s, the 19th century Anglican Church on the hill, where its bishops have the exclusive right to be interred. Down by the wharf we saw the big sitting statue of “the father of the nation,” the man who rose as a labor leader to obtain independence from Britain in 1980’s.

In Sint Maarten, the Dutch part of the small island shared with the French Saint-Martin, we were pitched its “unique” folk liqueur of Guavaberry rum, as well as Desperado, which is a mixing of beer and rum, but ended up buying a bucket of 3 common Caribbean beers and a couple of diet cokes. This was part of a package a shrewd woman negotiated with us as we asked only to rent two beach chairs for an hour.

Small’s Island

“He took a liking to me when he heard that I read a lot,” said the man who asked to be called Small. “I was only 12 then, but I remember that day well.” He continued “and then, later, whenever he came back from England to visit, he would give me more of his books.” The author he was talking about was Sir Derek Walcott, the winner of the 1992 Noble Prize for Literature. We were standing in a park named after him in Castries, St. Lucia.

I had asked Small to tell me his own stories of Walcott. “He was very nice. He was born in this town and when he left to live in England he gave a big party in his house. I was too young, but my cousin went and he said ‘what a party!’” Walcott went to St. Mary’s College here and even though he continued at the West Indies University, Small said, “he is buried up there in the grounds of St. Mary’s College,” pointing to the green hill on our left.

The lush green St. Lucia island nation with “some 131 beaches” has “130,000 people,” according to Small. The surprise is not that it has produced a Noble Prize winner, but that it has two Noble Laureates to claim as native sons!

Small took me to see the bust of both in that park as he said excitedly, “both were born on the same day and month!” For him, obviously, this was just as important a surprise. Indeed, the signs on the busts indicated that William Arthur Lewis was born on January 23, as was Walcott a few years later. Lewis also won his Noble prize, in Economics, a few years earlier, in 1979. Notwithstanding, the pride of the town was the “500 year old” Mimosa tree which stood in the center of the park, Small said.

As we left, we had a man take our picture. The local dialect is distinct. I asked Small how to say “thank you” to the man. “Mercie,” Small said. This is an Island which has changed hands between the British and the French numerous times. It revels in its mixed culture. Even Lewis’s “notable saying” under his bust had nothing do with economics; it said that a nation without culture is a “desert .” Now that would be an insult to the people whose island grows jungles of bananas and mangos .

Across the street in this English dominated town, stood its main temple: a Catholic Cathedral of colonial French architecture, with the capacity for some 2,000 parishioners.

Hurricane was not on Small’s mind, even though the wind had now picked up and we felt a few drops. “My favorite Walcott book is his ‘A City’s Death By Fire’,” he said. St. Lucia, with its wood buildings has survived too many of them.





Morocco: Sahara Desert 

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

          abstract: Morocco is exotic enough, but going to its Sahara Desert? Wow!  It must be “amazing,” you would say. For once, the adjective may be  appropriate.  The traveler does not need to traverse vast fields of sand on “camel-back,” although he can ride the beast once there. The dunes are “awesome,” but in the conventional aesthetic sense of color and design. There are “breathtaking” views, and the images I brought back would catch your breath. The solitude is “divine,” which I define as the chance to meditate on the sublime in the undisturbed void of things. And the Bedouins? I called on them and other denizens of the place, going back millions of  years, and have stories to tell. The music of the quiet land? Ah yes, the songs of chained slaves. Come, hear!


Northeast Passage

She paused, looked at me and waived her hand to say “No!” Then she resumed whistling, as she walked through the intersection, directing the traffic. I stopped taking picture with my camera. Perhaps it was not unusual for her to see another tourist seeking the exotic in the normal. However, I did not remember seeing a traffic cop in Morocco and, certainly, it now surprised me to see women traffic police.

But thinking it over, this was not out of the ordinary for this town, Ifrane [1]. We were sitting in the restaurant of Hotel le Chamonix  with a large group of visitors from France. We could have been in a French ski resort. The streets of Ifrane were neat, un-crowded and orderly. The leaves of the trees in the city park sparkled in the sun.  The French rulers of Morocco, in the late 1920s, established this town, which is located at 5500 feet on the Middle Atlas mountain range, as a resort town for relief from the summer heat. It has since become both a summer resort, and a premier ski resort of Morocco: “Over 60% of the houses are vacation homes,” we were told by our local guide. It is also the seat of the Al Akhawayn University, an English-language, American-curriculum school where “80% of professors are from the U.S and U.K.”  The school is considered Morocco’s best university. “Students are nearly guaranteed good jobs here and also abroad.” The “women traffic police” fit fine in this exceptionally “worldly” place in Morocco which was, now, our point of departure for the most “isolated” place in the country, the Sahara (Arabic sahra [2], meaning desert) Desert.

We bid goodbye to the iconic sculpture of a lion in Ifrane’s city park, which commemorates the last wild Atlas lion, shot nearby in the early 1920s. We were soon on Road N 13 that crosses the Middle Atlas [3], the northernmost of the three Atlas Mountains chain which form a large plateau extending east toward Algeria. Our destination was Rissani, some 200 miles south.

We did not see the “Berber apes,” Barbary macaque, an Old-World monkey, unique for its vestigial tail and an endangered primate known to live in the Middle Atlas. Instead, we ran into a flock of sheep on the side of the road. I talked to the shepherd with the help of our guide. The sheep belonged to the local villagers from the Berber tribe. They were raised for their meat. In the higher mountains, there was a special breed raised for their wool.

The Middle Atlas is a mountainous mass with varied geologic zones, but its attractive rocky coast is not very hospitable. We encountered few other inhabitants; the vehicles on the road were going to distant destinations . The mostly arid land around us gave way at higher elevations to forests of cedar and oak trees. But this was the exception.  Although we could now see the snow on the High Atlas Mountains in the distance, closer to us the landscape changed again to vast empty spaces which we, occasionally, shared with a few trucks .  The monotony was broken by rare small buttes . The only settlements were truck stops, like the village of Zeida .

Military Outposts

Considerably bigger was the nearby town of Midlet [4]. Its population of some 45,000 has come from the villages in the fertile surroundings, irrigated by the Moulouya River.  At nearly 5,000 feet, the area is known as ideal for growing apples. Midlet is equally important for its strategic location. It sits on the high plains between the Middle and High Atlas mountain ranges. Its name means center in the local Berber language, Tamazight. “Historically, it was a crucial link in the old slave trade route,” our guide said.  “Berbers of this area could not be easily controlled by the French colonial rulers. They made Midlet a French military base in the 1920s.” Midlet’s growth followed. The colorful Hotel Kasbah Asmaa has become many long-distance travelers’ destination for lunch.

Driving further south, we came to the Ziz Gorges, which are called “Morocco’s Grand Canyon.” The Ziz river has cut its way through the Jurassic valley of the Middle Atlas Mountains here, creating dramatic sceneries in rocks which changes color as the day progresses.  In the parking area at the edge of the gorges where we stopped, vendors came up to us offering rocks with fossils

Back on our bus, we soon noticed a few drops of rain on the windshield which rapidly increased so as to blur our view .  “This weather is typical for October,” our guide said. The dried stream beds (wadi [5]) now looked wet.  The Middle Atlas contributes regular flows to its rivers. Dams have been built for flood control, and constructing reservoirs to support the agricultural industry of the region. The late King Hassan II had decreed that “All streams be dammed; and no drop to go to the sea,” our guide said.  On the left, we saw an example of the results of his directive. It was the huge lake created by the Barrage (dam) Hassan-Addakhil which was completed in 1972. The dam itself has a length of 30.86 kilometers. It was named after the ancestor of the King who, in the 13th century, was brought from the Arabian Peninsula to this area around the Ziz River, Tafilalet [6], by the inhabitants to be their Imam. They hoped that because he was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, his barakah (divine charisma) would “help improve their date palm crops,” we were told.

In our time, the Hassan-Addakhil Dam, indeed, has helped turn an arid area, where inhabitants had depended on subsistence farming and nomadic herding, into an impressive irrigated oasis of date, fig, and olive trees. The small fort-market town of Ksar Es Souk, another military outpost of the French, has grown into the biggest town in the region with 95,000 people. It was renamed Al-Rachidia [7] in 1972 to honor King Hassan II’s new-born second son.

On the other side of the town we saw the vast Ziz Oasis which is the biggest in this part of Morocco, going for several kilometers. An oasis (waheh [8]) is created by “date palm trees grown beside any body of water,” our guide said. “You grow layers of trees and vegetables in the shade of the palm tree. The canopy shade reduces the temperature by more than 10 degrees, allowing other plants to grow under its protection.”  An oasis needs “sweat”, in addition to water. It does not just naturally exist; it requires hard work. The guide emphasized: “It has to be date palm trees, not other kinds, like coconut palm, because the date palms tree alone can resist the hot temperature.”


Al-Rachidia at 3,310 feet was still on the Atlas Mountains but we were descending some 700 feet toward the town known as the “Gate to the Sahara Desert” because it is near Erg Chebbi Dunes. This was Erfoud [9]. A market town of 23,000 people, Erfoud is Morocco’s date palm capital. It carries that badge proudly in an annual palm dates festival . We missed the festival. But we had a more authentic experience as we walked in Erfoud’s market among the many date sellers who had spread their carts of goods on the ground, and were haggling over the price with the wholesalers from the cities . The freshly- picked dates had come from the nearby villages on vehicles pulled by horses or donkeys . We negotiated for a basket of sweet Medjool (Mejahul) at 8 U.S. dollars! The “pricy” Medjool was the best both in taste and nutritional value, we were told. Among the competition, we noted the Boufegouse and Nejda . “Twenty varieties of dates are grown in south- east Morocco, compared with about 100 in all of Arabia,” we were informed.

The area just south of Erfoud was the most important place of departure for caravans that crossed the Sahara in Medieval times. From the old town of Sijilmassa, a few miles away, they would leave for Ghana and Timbuktu (Tombouctou) in Mali.  The kasrs (fortress-citadels) from that era still stand. Typified by the one we toured, their thick walls provided protection, and in the inside, there was a spacious courtyard , with a mosque and hammam (public bathhouse).

The transition to modern times was rather dramatic, we noticed as we visited a home in the neighboring town of Rissani. The main construction material was the same, the adobe of mud and lime which remains ideal for the hot days and cool nights of the region. But the satellite dish on the outside brought the world of television into the house. Our hostess was an illiterate woman, but on her small television set she watched “first” the news, and “second,” dubbed Mexican and Brazilian tele-novellas. The furnishing style of her room was what I had seen in the modern houses of Fez’s Ville Nouvelle: wall to wall cushioned hard bench . Her son, Towfiq, told me that he wanted to be a teacher when he grew up. Her daughter was at a college in Al-Rachidia, studying English literature. My puzzled look prompted an explanation. “Many English-language films are made here, like Spectre, the 2015 James Bond edition,” our guide said.

In the yard outside the house, we encountered our first “camels,” except that they were not camels but dromedaries with one bump.  A dromedary tolerates the heat better. Camels, who have two humps, tolerate cold better, as in China. To compound the confusion, our guide said that, nevertheless, in Morocco a male camel is called jemel (Arabic pronunciation of the same word). “The female is naqa, however.” He added: “Furthermore, there are at least 100 words, in Arabic, for different types of camel.” I decided to resume referring to the animal, hereafter, simply by the familiar, albeit unschooled, “camel”.

By whatever name, the beast was the traditional way to travel across the desert. Not so for the Germans I now met while in line at the cafeteria of the Chergui Kasbah hotel in Erfoud. They had come in some 25 special cars from Hamburg and other cities for a month-long trip. One of them told me, “Germans like to spend winter vacation here.”  As for us, we boarded rugged 4×4 vehicles for the journey.

Sand Dunes

Just east of Rissani, we entered Erg Chebbi [10], Morocco’s largest sand desert, an area extending 3 to 6 miles west from the Algerian border and 31 miles southward. An erg is also called a sand sea as it contains a huge amount of sand in the basin of a former river. It is a dynamic space with shifting dunes. The dunes in Erg Chebbi reach a height of up to 500 feet. Our destination was a tented campsite, near the village of Merzouga, some 20 miles away.

The Erg’s sand is difficult to cross because it is loose, not packed. When the firm dirt road ended, we had to deflate the tires of our vehicle to drive on the sand, making our own undulating paths among the dunes.  We felt the remoteness of the environment of the Sahara. There was no person to be seen. The total silence was paired with the bareness of the vista. A gentle wind had been here as it had left delicate patterns on the sand. All was sand except the lonely tamarisk  which provided a hint of shade.

Our campsite was circled with six tall trees in the shadow of the highest dune around. The shape of this dune was exquisite and the pink color of its mass of sand incomparable . There were dunes of other shapes and sands of other hues which would have equally amazed any creative artist. Camel caravans that quietly sailed before us dotted the sand with their marks. These marks contrasted with the straight tracks made by our 4x4s. At dusk the sky turned into a pallet of unworldly paints . It turned the sand dunes below it into a brown and grey abstract painting.

I woke up early not to miss the drama at sunrise. We climbed the dunes to the east and watched the sun peak through their dark outline. Then the sun burst through like a ball of fire from behind the mountains that formed the border with Algeria “Those mountains are guarded; Algerians are not our friends,” our local guide said. He followed with this narrative which summarized a big part of Morocco’s foreign relations, involving the very sands we were looking at:

Morocco’s relations with Algeria have been stormy from the beginning of Algeria’s independence in 1962.  Morocco never liked the borders drawn between it and Algeria by the colonial power, France. In October 1963, Morocco’s claim to portions of Algeria’s two neighboring provinces led to a short war called Sands War (ḥarb ar-rimal:[11]). In 1994, Morocco’s accusations, that Algeria was responsible for a violent bombing incident in Marrakesh, led to the closure of the border between the two countries. The borders are still closed, costing Morocco $2 billion a year. Furthermore, Algeria has been opposed to Morocco’s absorption of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1973, and has provided active support to the Polisario Front guerrilla movement there which has been fighting for independence.

There was too much there to absorb in a short conversation. What jumped out immediately was the fact of conflict between two neighbors that shared so much, in ethnicity, language, religion and history. Clearly, the end of foreign colonial rule, the evil which both liked to blame for much of their problems, did not end the problems.

Reflecting on war in the utterly peaceful surrounding that was before me was disorienting. As I gazed aimlessly, in the distance, I noticed a fellow-traveler from New York on a solitary walk. There was no person to disturb him. I imagined him being serenely absorbed in carefree thoughts, far from the maddening crowd of his usual habitat, a near perfect picture of meditation. I did not get the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts. We were all called now to go for the camel ride,

Camels and Fossils

This was virtually a mandatory ritual of the western visitors’ trip to the Moroccan Sahara Desert. The “camel drivers,” who were today in the tourist-service business, had several camels ready for us. The short fur of these Arabian- type camels came in shades of brown from almost white to nearly black. They were kneeling on the leathery skin pad of their legs. We were helped to sit, each on one camel. As the camels got up, I noticed them straightening their hind legs and then jerking up the front legs. The resulting jolt for me was a reminder that this was not going to be an ordinary ride. My camel was about 6.5 feet tall at the shoulders, but it looked huge as it must have weighed over 800 pounds. As it walked on feet cushioned by the broad pad which connects camels’ two long toes, it made almost no sound.  The pace was slow, with both legs on the same side rising and falling together. This action of the legs produced a swaying, rocking motion. I held on to its hump, a lump of fat above its backbone. “This is where the camel holds most of its fat,” our guide had told me about the hump’s real function. “It provides energy for the animal when food is hard to find.”

Our group went in a row, as our camels were tied together.  The camel-driver walked along and obliged us with taking our pictures with our cell phones . We climbed a few low dunes and came down near a place called Yasmine Oasis. The camels bent their front legs and dropped their knees. They then folded their hind legs and sank to the ground, coming to a stop in a kneeling position. My legs had been stretched afar too long to get off comfortably by myself. The camel-driver obliged again with giving a hand. The camel’s large eyes on the side of his head were covered with thick eyebrows to shield them from the desert sun. I put my sunglasses back on.

Camel-drivers were not the only group benefitting from our visit. That afternoon, we drove in our 4x4s looking for rocks with fossils in the desert. Spotting a collection, we stopped. Before we got out of our vehicles, however, a group of four little girls, accompanied with an adult woman appeared out of nowhere, and spread their trinkets to sell right on the sand before us. Among their offerings were whimsical camel dolls which proved to be ideal souvenirs for the aficionados who could not bring back the real animal.

The animal we now turned our attention to was a squid- type creature, long dead. It lived in an ocean which was formed here half-a-billion years ago. As the sea water disappeared, the marine animals died and sank to the bottom.  Their fossils were preserved in sedimentary rocks like the limestone under our feet, the Moroccan Sahara having eventually taken the place of that pre-historic ocean [12].   We noted that the currents of the water had lined up the straight shells of the animals in rows.

These squids (Orthoceras) lived approximately 400 million years ago. The rich fossil beds discovered in this part of Morocco since 1960, has yielded many other types of animals and created a small industry of their fossils. The road between Erfoud and Rissani was lined with several shops catering to the tourists. The job of cleaning big rocks to bring out the fossils requires expertise. Artisans process fossil layers into large items such as tables, bathtubs and floor paneling. On a smaller scale, there were soap dishes and plates with fossils of squids and ammonites which lived 240 million years ago. My favorite was a free standing Tribolite (three lobes) which dated back to 521 million years ago.  It looked like E.T., the Extra Terrestrial made famous by the 1982 Movie.


We did not buy anything from the nomads we visited in the Sahara. They only had goats to sell which they raised themselves. The routes in this area were once known only to the camel and goat-herding Tuareg nomads. Now only 4,000 Moroccans live the nomadic life, according to official records. The nomads’ tent , made of camel and goat hair, was distinct. We were welcomed by a smiling turbaned man who wore a blue robe, over a shirt with Latin lettering on it . Inside the tent, we sat down on a red nomadic rug and listened to him tell us about the life of the nomads. He had 20 goats and 4 camels. He sold goats to earn money which he would spend in the market, to which he travelled on his motor bike. Their water was supplied by a well close to the tent.

All along as the nomad talked, his wife sat on the bare sand in another tent, spinning sheep wool to make a blanket. She was barefoot, but otherwise covered with a face veil , a shirt, a skirt and pants, each in a different attractive color and design. I asked where he had met his wife. “In another household,” he said. There were three households living in this location. His own household included his brother and mother, in addition to his wife and children. In summertime, they lived in the buildings which were a few yards away from the tent. They had built those adobe structures by themselves, he said. They left the buildings here after the summer when they migrated, for use after their return.

In death, as in life, the nomads were simple. I visited their cemetery. It was just dirt, adorned only with rough, uncut stones which marked where the deceased were buried, undifferentiated by any sign. According to their creed, they were all returned, indiscriminately, to dust from which they had been made, in graves with rows of stick stones pointing toward Mecca.


Ali was not migratory. He had developed a thriving produce farm in the middle of the desert and already had one of his two sons committed to continue his work. This was subsistence farming and not of interest to the agri-business which concentrated on Morocco’s fertile northern plains.  However, Ali was happy with a wide grin as he welcomed us, holding his little granddaughter in his arms. A white turban on the head, he was wearing a checkered button-down shirt under his djellaba. A shiny motorcycle stood at the entrance to his adobe house, with a television dish on one side. Two solar panels could be seen on the next structure .

This was an oasis. There was a water well. The water table was about 10 feet below the ground. “Well water is everywhere in the Sahara of Morocco,” Ali said as our guide translated.  In fact, “Merzouga is said to have the largest natural underground body of water in Morocco.”  For drinking, Ali used a donkey to fetch water from a “better well” one kilometer away.

The key to Ali’s success was the date palm tree. Indeed, exactly one male palm tree, Ali said, as he proudly took us toward it. He climbed the robust green, healthy tree all the way up and picked a frond. Back on the ground, he now collected a bunch of fronds from a female palm tree. Then, Ali put the male frond in the midst of the female fronds and tied them together. This was the way to reproduce palm trees, he said, but the pollination has to take place in March. One male palm tree is enough, Ali emphasized, the rest here are female palm trees. He now grinned: “I call this male tree Moulay Ismail.” His reference was to the Moroccan Sultan (1672-1727) who is proverbial for having sired hundreds of children.

He said there were 5 varieties of date palm trees in this area. He showed us a 7-year-old date tree. “This tree gives fruit but it is not good enough for people. We use its fruit for animals, until it is 10 years old. The tree has to be taller for the date to be fleshy.”  Bayout was the only disease that afflicted palm trees. It has destroyed about 10 million trees in Morocco, according to some sources [13]. Ali said the remedy was “to burn the tree down to the lowest part of the trunk and then water it a lot.”

Ali’s produce and fruit farm was made possible by his date palm trees which provided the needed mitigating shade, in the otherwise unbearable heat of the desert. Under the date trees he planted fruit trees such as pomegranate, and vegetables such as corn , kale , eggplant, carrot and cucumber.  Ali showed us an underground irrigation network he had built in the farm. There was even a shrub of cotton here; Ali impishly said the plant, native to tropical and subtropical regions, had grown here “by accident”.

I was curious to know what Ali used as fertilizer. “Sand mixed with the manure of my animals, sheep and goats,” he said. The rest of the world depends heavily on phosphate as fertilizer. Morocco is said to have almost three-quarters of the world’s phosphate reserves, and the additional fact that its best phosphate lies in the disputed Western Sahara makes the subject, both politically and economically, the focus of much interest.  Morocco’s output is 20% of global production of phosphate. “Morocco exports 90% of its production,” our guide said. “Of the rest, it uses 8.5% as fertilizer.” The phosphate’s other uses have been in making detergents and food additives, while the demand for it as a component of lithium-ion batteries has been increasing recently.


Ali only sold his dates; he kept the other products of the farm for his own use. There were 13 farms like his in the area. They formed a cooperative at the suggestion of the government to get its assistance, such as “new breed of dates,” our guide said. Those farms probably supplied some of the ingredients for the food served in our tent camp.

Hosted by the American company Overseas Adventure Trips, the camp had a well-equipped kitchen with a staff that set a dining table worthy of a city restaurant, in the middle of the desert. We were served the traditional breakfast of the local Berbers, bread and tea, and the regular American fare. For dinner, we had the Berbers’ couscous, but also what they ate for lunch, “vegetables and pieces of meat cooked in an oil sauce with many spices added” –as I read in a museum a few miles away.  On our dining table, there was always the hot sauce harissa [14], which is made from several chili peppers, spices, herbs, garlic, and olive oil. One evening we had bstila, the meat pie with many layers of flaky dough, but with shredded chicken instead of the traditional squab. The highlight of our dining experience here was the class given by the chef in preparing her specialty in the tagine, the clay pot with the conical lid.

The chef placed on a table before her a tagine, and a round wooden tray with small plates of spices, including cumin powder, coriander powder, and turmeric, tomatoes, olives, and chickpeas.  On two bigger plates, she had chicken pieces and sliced onions, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, and squash. The chef began by laying the chickpeas at the bottom of the deeper part of the tagine, with the chicken pieces above them and, finally, the vegetables on the top. She garnished the pile, sprinkling the spices by a spoon .  While the domed lid of the tagine pot trapped the steam and returned the condensed liquid to the pot, the chef’s slow-cooked stew turned into a delicious dinner for us. We ate it with bread as is customary is the Moroccan desert.

The use of tagine began in the north of the Atlas Mountains; in the desert, ordinary clay pots were commonly used.  This came up in the conversation I had at dinner with an erudite Berber who had come to talk to us about the religion of the people of the desert. He mentioned that there were several theories about the etymology of the word. He knew that some thought it was the Persian tah-chin [15], meaning “laid at the bottom (of the pan),” referring to the way it is cooked. He said that may be true about the Tunisian dish which is similar to the Persian food tahchin , made with rice and meat, but the Moroccan word probably has another Persian word as its root. He had read that the Persian tayan [16], meaning a large pan, was Arabicized as ṭajin [17].

Sunni or Shiite

The Berber’s lecture on Islam was no less nuanced. He had a hazardous shoal to navigate, in presenting “the Five Pillars of Islam” to an audience which he assumed to be at best skeptic. The Pillars, considered as the foundation of Muslim life, he said, constituted a program for actions: prayer, helping the needy, self-purification, and pilgrimage to Mecca. In following these commands, a believer could not possibly harm others. Not only in theology, but in current affairs, Moroccans as good Muslims were peace-loving, he said. In particular, they had no ill intention toward the Jews and no interest in defending bad practices of the Palestinians. What was more, the Berber said, Muslim Moroccans did not condone violence by the Sunnis any less than by the Shiites against each other.

The last point had special significance for Morocco’s place among its quarreling neighbors. I was surprised to hear the Berber tell me what it meant personally for him as well. “Sometimes I wonder where the Berbers came from,” he began. “Maybe we are related to the Kurds,” he reflected loudly. The Berbers, of course, were here before the Arabs arrived and made them Muslims. Yet even the Arabs in Morocco have been divided: most are Sunnis, but like some Moroccan rulers, many can trace their history to a Shiite root.

“How about us?  Have the Berbers been Sunni all the time?”  I had a suggestion for him. I asked him if he was familiar with Rumi’s poems about the Shiites and Sunnis. In his Masnavi, the 13th century Sunni poet laments that in some cities of Islamdom all inhabitants are Shiites, as one can tell by their names, to the extent that no person with names popular among the Sunnis is found there. The Berber was listening,  and I continued,  “Maybe you can apply Rumi’s test.” I asked: “What are the names prevalent among the Berbers?” He became pensive. “Let me see.  We have Omar but not Abu Bakr and Othman.” These were Sunni Caliphs. “On the other hand, we have Hassan, Hossein, and Reda.” These were Shiite Imams. Then there were “Berber names which could be either Shiite or Sunni: Mohammad, Mustafa and Ibrahim.”  Our test was not conclusive, and our data was not exhaustive enough. He said he would look into doing further work on the subject.

Gnawa Music

A power generator, augmented with solar panels, lighted the rooms in our camp, and worn-out flat-weave Berber rugs covered its grounds to keep the sand off. Tonight, however, the glow of a camp-fire in the darkened sand a few yards away, beckoned. When we arrived, two local musicians had come to play. One was wearing a white turban, different in shape from the ones we had seen worn by the farmer Ali or the nomad. The color of his skin was black. The musicians were warming the skins of their several drums of different sizes . When they began to play, their music was exotic yet familiar to our ears. They invited us to join, passing two drums around. I found it possible to beat out some sounds that did not conflict with their music.

I asked what music they liked the best. “The Gnawa,” they said.  Our guide explained “Gnawa is the traditional desert music, loved by most Moroccans.” One of the musicians who, with his spectacles, looked like a music historian, elaborated further. “It is the music of the Gnawa tribe that was brought to Morocco during slavery times and bought and sold by Arabs and Berbers,” he said. The tribe’s original home was in the South Sahara. Gnawa is the Arabic pronunciation of kanawa [18], the residents of Kano which was the capital of the ancient Hausa-Fulani Emirate, our guide explained. The musician added: “As they were forced to cross the desert on foot, hands chained, the Gnawa sang to soothe their suffering.” If you pay close attention, he said, “in their music the sounds of instruments imitate the sound of chains.”

Our guide said: “Every year the Gnawa, who are dispersed throughout Morocco, come to Khamlia to celebrate their heritage at a festival which is attended by thousands of people.”  The village of Khamlia was about 4 miles from our camp. The next morning, we drove there. The festival was several months away, in June. The adobe house where we heard the music, however, was crowded with tourists. One from northern Europe told me “You know, this music had a great influence on the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.” We were sitting on the benches that circled the rooms. One of our hosts poured us tea into the glasses which were set a foot down on a tray.

The music began with five musicians who had positioned themselves on the floor, barefoot. They were all men, black-skinned, and wore all white: a robe and a turban like that of the musician we had seen at the camp-fire. The one at the center was playing a string instrument the size of a guitar, the man next to him played a large drum. The three others joined with clapping their hands. This was part of “Pigeons du Sable, Groupe Zaid,” or the musical Group Zaid of the Sand Pigeons. The instruments were the sintir [19], a three-stringed bass plucked lute, covered on the playing side with camel skin -which is an ancestor of the banjo- and the drum tbel [20] -which is one of the oldest percussion instruments. The group had one more characteristic instrument, the large iron castanet, krakeb [21]. We saw them playing the krakeb in another ensemble when the five of them played standing up. As they swayed gently, they evoked the image of walking across the desert by the enslaved Gnawa, with the castanets producing the sound of their chains.

The dominant sound, however, was that of the big drum. It was the sound that led the Gnawa’s rituals which combined music with poetry and dancing. Our hosts invited us to take a few steps with them and we followed enthusiastically in a circle. Aside from the “danceable” tunes, the group played two other types of music. The nostalgic numbers were exemplified by a tune called soudani, which recalled the Gnawa’s origin in an area then called “Sudan,” in Central and Western Africa -not today’s country of Sudan. Then there was the “healing” music, exemplified by the tune “lailaha ella allah.” That name is the phrase (there is no God but Allah) which is a part of the Islamic creed. This phrase was chanted by a vocalist, over and over for the length of the tune, as the instruments accompanied him.

The Groupe Zaid offered their recorded music in CDs for the equivalent of $10 each. Music presumably does not provide enough income for them, as the musicians have second jobs as well. Khamlia had three small shops, a coffeehouse, and 150 residents, the majority of them black. Barriers to marriage with members of other groups in Morocco have kept the Gnawa’s physical features intact over centuries. This was evident in the very place their future integration in Moroccan society could be expedited, Khamlia’s only School [22].

This was a coed institution (Ecole Mixte). The four Gnawa were easy to distinguish in the class we visited. Two of the boys were sitting together on a two-person bench, but the third was sitting with a Berber girl on another bench, while the only Gnawa girl in the room was left sitting alone by herself on a different bench.  This was the French language class, taught by Amal who had grades 3 and 4 students together here –due to “shortage of teacher.”

These students were also taught that they had more in common by what were hung on the walls of the class.  There was a framed copy of the Moroccan National Anthem (alnnashid alwatani [23]) with the flags of the country on the top, an outline of the map of the country in the middle, and, at the bottom, the Morocco’s motto (sha`ar [24]): “God, Homeland (Country), King” (alllah, alwatan, almalik [25]). A portrait of the King, on the next wall, looked down paternally on the students.


The uncommon environment of the Sahara Desert induces a persistent sense of detachment. The infinite fields of sand and the sublime curvatures of the dunes insist on the majesty of nature. The more it is so, however, the harder it becomes for you to find your place in this scheme of things. Technology facilitates the observation of the elements of the Sahara, but engaging with them remains elusive. They are solid but your contact is ephemeral. You come away only with impressions, still longing for comprehension. It is the feeling of a transient travelling in his own bubble.



  1. يفرن
  2.  صحرا . (In North Africa, صحرا  is also a word used to mean الصحراء الكبرى , aṣ-ṣaḥraʾ al-kubra , or  “the Greatest Desert'”.
  3.    الأطلس  المتوسط
  4. ميدلت
  5. وادي
  6. تافيلالت
  7. الرشيدية‎‎
  8. واحه
  9. أرفود‎‎
  10. عرق الشبي‎‎
  11. الرمال‎‎ حرب.
  12. “The Sahara sits atop the African Shield, which is composed of heavily folded and denuded Precambrian rocks…. The age of the Sahara has been a matter of some dispute. Several studies of the rocks in the region indicate that the Sahara became established as a climatic desert approximately 2–3 million years ago.”
  14. هريسة
  15. ته چین
  16. تیان,
  17. طاجن or طجين
  18. كناوة
  19. سنتير‎‎
  20. طبل
  21. قراقب

This recording of the Les pigeons du sable’smusic was on the following YouTube site, accessed on March 23, 2017:

  1. مدرسةالخميله
  2. النشيد الوطني
  3. شعار
  4. الله، الوطن، الملك

Fez, Morocco


Fez, Morocco

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

abstract: Fez has the reputation of being one of the oldest well-preserved cities in the world, with the largest shopping center of the medieval Islamic world still mostly intact. This attracts visitors from all over. They are promised exotic scenes of ancient souqs where craftsmen hand make goods not found elsewhere. In that pursuit, the visitor loses his way in the thousand narrow alleys that crisscross the 540-acre Old Medina, cramped with people, donkeys, motorcycles and pushcarts in what is the largest pedestrianized urban space ever created. Such confusion is expected, but Fez has much more to discover. It has also been renowned as an exceptionally influential religious and intellectual center. I went inquisitively.

Lay of the Land

From the South Tower [1] in Fez one had a commanding view of the Medina. This was, indeed, the purpose of this Borj (Tower), as well as the other one, the North Tower [2], on the opposite hills . They were built in the late 16th century by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour, of Morocco’s Saadi Dynasty, who was himself born and died (1549-1603) in Fez, in order to monitor the populace of his hometown whose loyalty he could not trust.  My purpose today in the overlook of the South Tower was to connect in the panoramic view of Fez spread below me, the history and geography of the town which had grown to be the home to nearly 200,000 people. This was, after all, the most important city in Morocco. At age 1228 years, Fez is the oldest city in the country; it has also been its political capital all along, with a few short exceptions. It is Morocco’s most venerable religious center; and it has also had the most influence in the intellectual and artistic life of the country.

Amidst the jumble of buildings below, I could detect the path of the Fez River running through the heart of the Medina. The river twisted in the fertile valley which is irrigated by water from the High Atlas Mountains. It was on the east bank of this river, prized as Jawhar (Jewel) River, that in 789 CE Idriss I, the first king of Morocco, founded Madinat Fas (the town of Fez).   Fa’s [3] is Arabic for pick axe, a gold and silver version of which, according to the legends, Idriss used to draw the lines of the city. Two years later, his son, Idriss II, built another settlement on the opposite bank of the river which he named Al-‘Aliya.

These settlements grew into two autonomous walled sites. Al-‘Aliya became the capital of the Idrisids in 808.  Refugees expelled from Andalusia in 817-818 settled in Madinat Fas; while (following a rebellion in 824) Arab families banned from al-Qayrawan [4] a town in present-day Tunisia, settled in al-‘Aliya. They would eventually give their names, respectively, to the districts of ‘Adwat Al-Andalus and ‘Adwat al-Qarawiyyin in today’s Fez. The minaret of the Al-Anadlus mosque which I could now see from the South Tower in the foreground marked the area of Madinat Fas. In the background, I found the green pyramidal roof and minaret of the ‘Adwat al-Qarawiyyin’s Mosque and University.

Al-Aliya was the far more widely used name for Fez until 1070 when it was combined with the area previously known as Fas. Henceforth, Fas was used for the combined two urban sites. This is the Medina of Fez which was designated by UNESCO in 1981 as a world heritage site. It is called Fes el Bali [[Note 5], meaning Old Fes as it dates to the 9th century.  To this Medina, a smaller extension was added beginning in 1276 by the Marinid rulers of Morocco which is called Fes el-Jdid (New Fes). In addition to these two parts of the Medina, Fez has a third main district, named Ville Nouvelle (New Town), which was created by the French beginning in 1916 [6].

Ville Nouvelle is the reason Fez’s Medina (Fes el-Bali and Fes el-Jdid) has been preserved. Located in the southwest of the Medina, this is where urban growth has been concentrated because it was easier and cheaper than destroying the old city.  The residents of Fez have considered Ville Nouvelle a much more desirable place to live. Of the 1.1 million inhabitants of this second largest city in Morocco, only about 110,000 live in the Medina.

This is, indeed, a drastic reduction from the estimated 200,000 population of Fes el-Bali alone in its heyday, between 1170 and 1180, when it was the largest city in the world under the Almohad Dynasty. Large sections of the walls which the Almohads built around that city, to replace the ones destroyed in 1154 by the fleeing Almoravid Dynasty, still stand. Access to Fes el-Bali is possible only through its walls’ 12 gates. We took the gate  which was close to the Royal Palace.

The 80 hectare grounds of the Royal Palace (dar el-makhzen) cover nearly half of the area of Fes el-Jdid. They were not open to the public. The “monumental” entrance to the Palace , however, indicated the “splendor” inside, as a sign said. Built in the 1960s during the reign of Hassan II, who took pride as a connoisseur and patron of Moroccan art, it meant to reveal “all the magnificence of Fassi craftsmanship.” The sign called attention especially to “the carved decorative arches… the white marble columns with stylized capitals, bronze gilded frames, and elegant composition of Zellige [mosaic].”

The Palace is a favorite of Hassan II’s successor, the current king, Mohammad VI, whose wife Selma is a commoner from Fez. Ironically, an earlier king of this same Alaouite Dynasty, Moulay Ismail, changed Morocco’s capital from Fez to Meknes in the 17th century because he did not trust the loyalty of the population.  Such mistrust was not unprecedented; it was the reason for building Fes el-Jdid by Merenid sultan Yusuf Yaqoub in the 13th century. To further isolate himself from his subjects, the sultan surrounded himself with Syrian mercenary guards.


Yusuf Yaqoub was also especially kind to the Jewish population of Fez, personally intervening to save them when attacked by fanatic mobs in 1275. In fact, most Merinids rulers (1244-1465) were friendly toward the Jews. Some even appointed them to such high positions as the steward of the household and counselor.  In the 14th century Fes el-Jdid became a refuge for Jews who fled Spain due to persecution following the Spanish Reconquista. They created a Jewish quarter on a site known as al-mallah  [7], meaning the saline area. In return for the protection from the Merinid rulers, they supported them during conflict.

When the last ruler of the Marinid dynasty appointed too many Jews to high offices, he angered the Muslims in Fez who staged the 1465 revolt in which many from the Jewish community were killed.  A group of Jews fled to Spain. They returned, however, after the Edict of the Expulsion (of Ferdinand and Isabella) drove the Jews out. These became a unique bridge between the natives of Fez and the new Jewish arrivals from Spain (“Sephardim”). The Ibn Danan family was an outstanding representative of that returnee group. They had long been among the financial and intellectual elite of Fez; they even had their own synagogue.

Our local guide said there were about 200 Jews or 70 families still remaining in Fez, but none lived in the Mellah. “They are all in the Ville Nouvelle. They are very rich, own McDonalds, etc.” Some of the old houses of the Mellah’s Jews were still there. With open balconies overlooking the streets, they were easily distinguishable from buildings in Muslim styles.

There is still also an Ibn Danan Synagogue [8], established in the 17th century by a wealthy merchant from the famous family. A reminder of several Jewish temples that once existed in Fez, this was one was a modest synagogue. The building showed the influence of Islamic Moroccan design. There was a carved wood ark holding scrolls, known as a tevah, framed in stucco decorations with patterned tiled borders. Four visitors were holding the scrolls. A visibly happy woman told me that she was a Jew who used to live in Casablanca. Most visitors were from abroad. The local guide said there were “800,000 Moroccan Jews living abroad, most of them in Israel.” In our times, the Jews emigrated from Morocco in three waves, he explained: “in1948, after Israel was established; in 1958, after the French left; and in1967, after the Six Day War between Israel and Arab countries.”   There are “some 3,000 Jews left and most of them are in Casablanca and Marrakesh.” He added that Fez, and Morocco in general, are favorite places for those Moroccan Jews to visit, “especially, as the number of places the Israeli tourists can go is declining.”

The government of Morocco welcomes the return of Moroccan Jews, and not just as tourists. “Our kings have used their expertise even in the most sensitive positions,” Saeed told me. He was a Moroccan lawyer I befriended in Fez. “In many ways, they are as Moroccan as they are Jewish; and common culture is important.” As though to emphasize, Saeed asked: “Did you notice that the seats in the Synagogue are painted with geometric patterns common in Islamic art?”  He then pointed: “Look at this.” We were now standing just outside the Synagogue before a metallic Hand of Fatima. “This is also an example of what we share with Jews,” Saeed said. “We believe that sign, Hand of Fatima, provides a defense against the evil eye.” Many cultures throughout history have used that image as sign of protection but, according to Saeed “its path into the Sephardic Jewish culture went through its use in Islam.” The sign is equally commonly known as the Hamsa, literally meaning five, both in Arabic [9] and Hebrew [10]. Saeed said “in Islam it refers to five persons – the Prophet Mohammad, his daughter Fatima, her husband and their two sons- and draws its aura of protective value from a Hadith or binding tradition. For the Jews, as hamesh, it came to represent the five books of the Torah.” Saeed paused and reflected for a few seconds and now said: “Don’t get me wrong. Islam owes quite a lot to Judaism. Do you know that Moses is mentioned in the Koran 71 times and Mohammad only 4 times?”


Postcards, hanging haphazardly on a shop’s rusting metal display case, were among today’s offerings in the most ancient market of Fez. This, Qissariat  [11] el Kifah, was founded in 809 almost immediately after Al-‘Aliya (Fes el Bali) was built. Over time, other markets, souqs [12], emerged around it. By the 16th century they constituted the largest shopping center in the Muslim world of the Middle Ages. Shops were arranged around patios with trees and fountains.  Each souq specialized in a different product: women’s robes (Souq El Haik), burnous or djellaba (Souq Selham), torbouch fez and chochia (Souq Tribaa), second hand products (Souq El Bali) and wool bags (Souk Tellis). Auctions (dlala) of goods in bulk took place daily. Early in the 20th century, there were 700 auctioneers, organized into guilds based on their souqs. An amin (trusted man) settled disputes.

We could still find a bewildering array of goods around Qissariat el Kifah: traditional clothing and embroidered shoes, gold and silver jewelry, silk fabric and bobbins of multicolored silk. There were much more elsewhere in Fes el Bali, which has some 72,000 shops. As I also learned, some 20,000 people worked in the Medina. There were two main groups of markets here.  Food markets are usually staffed by farmers from the surrounding rural areas and operate during daylight hours; non-food markets sell goods made by artisans in town. The latter usually made and offered their products in their place of residence. The old guild system has survived. Each type of craft mostly congregated into one or a few souqs, which were courtyards on the narrow streets.

Fes el Bali has two main streets, running parallel to each other and named according to their slope, Talaa Al-Kabira (Big Hill) and Talaa Al-Saqhira (Small Hill). They are crisscrossed with smaller streets, often without names, collectively known as qissaria. It is estimated that there are about 9,400 such alleys in Fes el-Bali, an area of less than two square kilometers.  Food stalls, storerooms and artisan studios line these streets. We wandered on these crowded roads, sharing them with donkeys , motorcycles and wheel-barrels which constituted means of transport.

We passed Souq Attarine (Perfumers) and Souq Najjarine (Woodworkers) and came to Souq Seffarine (Metalworkers). From the balcony of a café here, as we sipped the traditional mint tea drink of Fez, we looked down and noted the rhythmic hammer- music of copper beaters, shaping pots and pans. Craft in Fez is usually learned through apprenticeship with a maalem (master). Often both the tools and the techniques and the tools are handed down from father to son. While most artisans in the Medina are men, in some fields women are engaged even as masters. This was especially noticeable, for example, in making embroideries on fabric used for clothing. Indeed, many masters (maalems) of Moroccan textiles are women. They too mostly work in small stores, but we also visited a rather spacious showroom where women and men produced silk from the agave plant and offered their exquisite designs on varied merchandise from scarves to bed covers.

The congestion in Medina hampers the introduction of new technology even if it was desired. One industry, pottery, recently moved to the outskirts to allow the use of modern technology. Traditionally, the apprenticeship to become a ceramic master took 10 years. In a new pottery factory, I spotted the sign of efforts to increase productivity with the help of a U.S. Government agency, The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). In one workshop, a framed “Certificate of Participation” on the wall indicated attendance of the workers in an MCC program to that end.

Traditions established in handicraft works permeate even manufacturing in Fez. It too is labor intensive. The example I examined was the manufacturing of leather in the tanneries. We were told that there were about 70 tanneries in Fez.  Many are in the Chaouwara Tanneries. They each have a terrace which overlooks the tanning pits constructed to traditional designs.  Our host on the terrace was one of the owners who said his shop had been in his family for generations.  Tanning leather in Morocco goes back several millennia,” he said, “and little has changed.” Tanneries are still organized according to ancient guild principles, he continued, “with workers typically born into the job.” He offered us sprigs of mint to hold to our nose so as to take the edge off the rank odor arising from the pits. “Pigeon waste is the source of smell,” our host said.  That and cow urine and ash are the major components in processing the skins. He said “indigo, saffron and poppy are added later for color.”

The showroom below the terrace was stuffed with of all types of leather products in a variety of colors: handbags; ottomans, gloves, slippers, jackets. Our host picked out a jacket and with his lighter showed us how “fire does not burn this leather because it had no chemical.” He added “it is water proof because the skin is so tight that pores are filled, and it is soft because it is treated with baby oil.”  His somewhat theatrical presentation persuaded more than one in our group to buy.

I was impressed by his command of English. He waived his hand, “We need to in this business.” Then he volunteered that, in addition, he spoke French, Arabic, German, and was now learning Japanese and Chinese to serve other international customers. I asked where he learned these languages. “In classes offered in the city,” he replied.  Indeed, some walls in the Medina, I noticed, were plastered with advertisement for these classes.


The boy who skipped his school today looked at me with an impish smile. He was wearing a Nike T-shirt and a baseball cap that said “New York.” He told me that he wanted to be a police man when he grew up. We were in the courtyard of the Souq Seffarine. Behind us was the Medersa Seffarine, the oldest (religious) school (Madrasah) [13] in Morocco. It was founded in 1271 by the Merinid rulers who re-established Fez as capital in 1250.

This and six other Madrasahs which were founded by 1357 were means for the Merenid Dynasty to impose teachings which confirmed their claim of legitimacy. As such they were an organ of power used by the Merinids in Morocco.  They symbolized the Merinids’ attachment to Islamic Sunni orthodoxy. Indeed, the respect for the theologians who taught in these institutions is reflected in the name given to the largest Merinid Madrasah in Fez, the Misbahiya, in honor of it first teacher, Mesbah El Yaslouti.

The buildings of Madrasahs in Fez are the hallmark of the Merinid architecture, a blending of Andalusian and Almohad traditions. They are adorned with elaborate tilework (zellij) [14] and carved plaster, cedar  mashrabiyyas (lattice screen) and massive brass doors, best exemplified in Fez’s Madrasah Bou Inania, named after the Sultan who established it. The Seffarine Madrasah is an example of the design of the Madrasahs: rooms for students are arranged around a lavishly decorated courtyard with a pool in the middle; a wooden dome covers the prayer room which houses the prayer niche (mihrab) [15]. It has a minaret with a green ceramic band at the top.

The mosque in the Madrasahs often served as the main mosque for the residents of their district and also as a setting for official ceremonies. With the addition of associated charitable services like a guesthouse, and administering trusts of endowed properties (waqf) [16] which supported the Madrasah’s upkeep, to their primary role as religious schools, the Madrasahs functioned as important centers of community life. Equally important, with their fine libraries and their connection to Fez’s venerable university of al-Qarawiyyin [ 17] [18], the Marinid Madrasahs made Fez a renowned intellectual center.

The evidence was visible even today. This corner of Fez bounded by the Seffarine and Misbahiya Madrasahs and the Qarawiyyin Library boasts several bookstores. On the counter of one I noted general and text books on Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Electrical Sciences and Spanish Language. In addition to these volumes in Arabic, there were several books in French: Prende Informatique (Learn Computer Sciences); Victor Hugo’s novel Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné (The last day of a prisoner), Jean Anouilh’s play Antigone, a marked, used copy of the novel by contemporary Moroccan writer Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, Il Etait Une Fois Un Vieux Couple Heureux (Translated in English as Once Upon A Time A Happy Old Couple) .

Another bookstore displayed some paperback books, including guide books to Casablanca and Meknes, and The New English Verbs Conjugations, All Levels, but it billed itself as the “Authentic Arabic Heritage Library,” and as such it had several shelves full of well-bound hardcover books in Arabic. The serious salesperson behind the counter frowned when I asked if he had the Muqaddimah (Prolegomena) by the 14th century Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, before he produced a brand new volume in Arabic from behind his counter. The sign in the hotel next door where the Moroccan visitors stayed advertised that the Heritage Library would “buy” as well as “sell” books.


The real repository of the documentary heritage of Morocco stood just a few steps away. The Qarawiyyin Library [19] is one of oldest public libraries in the country. It too was founded by the Merenid Sultan Abou ‘Inane in the 14th century; and it was further enriched by the Saadian Sultans with rare manuscripts in the 16th century. Among its exceptional collections are manuscripts of works by Ibn Khaldoun and the 12 century Andalusian polymath Ibn Rushd (Averroes), as well as the earliest collection of hadith which are narratives of traditions traced to the Prophet and as such a source of law and moral guidance in Islam, second only to the Qur’an.

The intellectual and religious heart of Fez has always been the complex of mosque and university called al-Qarawiyyin. UNESCO and Guinness World Records recognize it as the world’s oldest continually operating educational institution in the world. Its name refers to the people from al-Qayrawan  [20], a city in present- day Tunisia, who following a rebellion took refuge in Fez during the reign of Idriss II.

Thirty-five years later, a woman among them funded the establishment of the mosque which was named after their community, as was customary. It was also common for a major mosque to become a center for teaching Islamic knowledge. We now stood at al-Qarawiyyin mosque’s old Bab al-Ward (Rose Gate) –named after the Prophet’s favorite  flower- and read, on a crude sign , that woman’s name, Fatima Al-Fihria [21] , and the year she established the mosque, 245 Hijri (859 CE).

“Her sister, Mariam, established the Al-Andalus mosque in Fez,” our local guide said. Both were following a precedent set by wealthy Muslim women before them. The sisters were daughters of a rich merchant and when he died, they used their inheritance for pious work that would benefit the community so as to receive the blessings of God.

From the 10th century, al- Qarawiyyin mosque developed into a university as well. As the sign at its main entrance said, from a rather small mosque, al- Qarawiyyin has been “consolidated, restored, expanded, and decorated many times” by the different dynasties that have ruled Morocco. I could see the mosque’s white minaret from the outside, as I followed Saeed into its spacious courtyard with arches and an ablution pool at one corner. Another visitor was taking pictures of his children as they made funny faces .

In its prime, this place hosted the greatest scholars. It boasts a list of those who studied and taught here that includes giants of the Middle Ages: “philosophers like Avempace and Averroes, historians like Ibn Khaldoun, doctors-philosophers like Maimonides, geographers like Al Idrissi, and mystics like Ibn Hirzihim, Abou Madyane, and Abdeslam Ben Machich, among others.” Al- Qarawiyyin is still a center of Islamic spirituality. As well as being the “first multidisciplinary university in the world,” al-Qaraouiyine has been the home of the ulema (scholars of Islam) who were especially influential throughout history as they were “respected and consulted by the rulers of Morocco.”

It was this dual role that I was curious to explore, as I stood on the hallowed grounds of al-Qaraouiyine. The prayer hall of the mosque served two purposes. This carpeted spacious room can accommodate up to 20,000 people at prayer. There was a raised platform of carved wood in the front area with a short staircase leading to the seat at the top which is covered by a small dome. This was the minbar [22], the platform from which sermons or speeches are given. It was located on the right of the mihrab, a semicircular niche in the wall which marked the direction of the qiblah [23], in Mecca, which the prayer should face. There was a stack of the Qur’ans on one corner of the hall.

A few feet from the minbar, I noticed a wooden chair, elevated by three steps. Its seat was worn out. This is where the teachers at the university sit to lecture, Saeed said. The students sit on the floor around the teacher’s dais in a halqah (semicircle). There was another such dais, this one with a blackboard still next to it. I examined the writing on the board. It was the text of a business letter in French. That was the topic of the lesson, as indicated on the top. Above it, in Arabic, was the invocation of God’s name which is common to beginning any action in Islam.

Saeed said the teaching method here is “traditional.” The teacher gives exercises, asks questions and explains difficult points. Students range between the ages of 13 and 30, and study towards high school-level diplomas and university-level bachelor’s degree. In 1963, Qaraouiyine was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system. Now lessons in non-Islamic subjects are offered but education here still concentrates on the Islamic religious and legal sciences, especially the Maliki version, Saeed told me.  One of the four major schools of religious laws within Sunni Islam, the Maliki is distinguished because it considers the consensus of the people of the city of Medina in ancient Arabia to be a valid source of Islamic law, in addition to the Qur’an and hadith.

As we were leaving the prayer hall of al-Qaraouiyine, I noticed a bulletin board on which several sheets in Arabic were posted. On one, the schedule of classes for the academic year 2016/2017 was announced. Many of the subjects were in Islamic studies: fiqh (Law), tafsir (Jurisprudence), hadith (Narratives of Tradition). But there were also classes in History, French, English, Introduction to Humanities. On another paper on the bulletin board, the full names of 29 students, their fields of concentration, and their principal teachers were listed .  Saeed commented that students at al-Qaraouiyine come from all over Morocco and West Africa; all are male and Muslim.

Those notices were on the stationary of the Moroccan Ministry of Charitable Trust and Islamic Affairs, the office of education at Qaraouiyine.  It was the same Ministry that announced an opening of several positions on the same bulletin board. One such announcement (`elan), by the Ministry’s department of Religious Affairs, was about the employment opportunity as the Imam of the Fez’s Tareq ibn Ziad Mosque. It enumerated the required qualifications of the applicants. They had to be not older than 45, a Moroccan protector of the Book of God, entitled to civil rights, with good physical conditions and moral reputation and adequate education. Another notice was for the position of Al-Khitaba (Speaker) [24] in Al-Ziqah Mosque, requiring all of the same qualifications except the Moroccan protector of the Book of God.

By controlling the appointment of imams and speakers of the mosques, the Moroccan government curbs Islamic dissidents, Saeed told me later, as we passed by the local office of the Ministry of Charitable Trust and Islamic Affairs. I had asked to see the house of a product of al-Qaraouiyine who virtually wrote the book on instability in Muslim lands, while setting the standards for scholars as participant-observers: Ibn Khaldun [25]. In 1352, after the fall of the Tunisian ruler in whose Chancellery he began his political career, Ibn Khaldun followed his teacher, Al-Abili of Tlemcen, to Fez.  There he joined the circle of scholars gathered by the Merenid Sultan Abu ‘Inan. As Ibn Khaldun wrote later: “I devoted myself to reflection and to study, and to sitting at the feet of the great teachers, those of the Maghrib as well as those of Spain who were residing temporarily in Fez, and I benefited greatly from their teaching” [26]. The Sultan appointed him to a position in his court, but Ibn Khaldun schemed against him and, when caught, he was put in prison. Released upon Abu ‘Inan’s death, and reinstated in his office, Ibn Khaldun schemed against his new ruler.  The success of that plot earned Ibn Khaldun his first ministerial position in the new administration. This was just the first phase of Ibn Khaldun’s adventurous life which he continued to unfurl with equal drama for years, involving rulers of several different countries of North Africa.


Saeed promised to have a guide take me to Ibn Khaldun’s residence in Fez later. For now, he accommodated my other request which was to see the Mausoleum of Idriss II.

Credited with having re-founded the city of Fez, twenty years after his father had done so, Idriss II has gained in the lore of the Moroccans the image of a person with almost magical attributes.  He is said to have been an amazing learner: “At the age of four, Idris apparently could read, at five write, at eight he knew the Koran by heart, and by then is said to have mastered the wisdom of all the outstanding savants [27].”

His reputed great physical strength and profound Islamic faith enhanced the veneration for Idriss II. He is like the patron saint of the city of Fez. In Morocco they establish a shrine (Zawiya ) [28] to saints who are called marabout [29]. Being near a marabout is believed to confer barak (a state of grace). Accordingly, visiting the Mausoleum of Idriss II, which is a shrine to him, was considered beneficial for a stranger.

More significant, this shrine was said to bestow favors to women wishing to facilitate childbirth. So it was that when I entered the Mausoleum, I found women sitting on the edge of its beautifully tiled courtyard with a fountain in the center of it. This was in contrast to the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque where no woman was present. The air of calm generally found in a zawiya was accentuated in the Mausoleum by men walking quietly in white djellaba [30], the casual yet formal Moroccan attire.  Saeed was uncharacteristically reticent when I raised the subject of intercession by the marabout in this shrine.  His quiet was broken, however, when a man approached us with a pitcher to offer us “blessed water.” Saeed protested, and then turned to me: “That is just tap water. Such things are superstitions.” His faith in the supernatural did not extend to accepting the possibility of intercession by saints. As in Christianity where the North African St. Augustine first articulated the doctrine, intercession by saints is controversial in Islam. The Prophet Mohammad is, of course, called the Messenger (rasul) of Allah. Was there a role for saints in contact with God? Saeed changed the subject. Rather than theology, he spoke now of history.  “You know,” he said, “Idriss II died in the year 828, probably in Volubilis, and in 1308, a corpse was found on this spot in Fez which people said was his.” Around that putative tomb a shrine was built. In its current form, the Mausoleum dates from the 18th century. The refurbishing of it has continued, at least until 2014 as the sign outside indicates.


When I told Jack where I had been, he was excited. He had just arrived in Fez as the leader of a Sufi group from Los Angeles. In Arab countries, zawiya was the word used for a Sufi lodge. Jack was not clear about what his group intended to do in Fez, but he said that in his circle of Sufi friends Fez was a major pilgrimage destination. We were in a riad (guesthouse) which we shared as our residence. According to the owner, this was originally a 17th century mansion of a royal court official which had been refurbished. The refurbishing, which began in 2003, took nine years. The result was splendors of painted cedar ceilings, ironwork balconies and archways dripping with stucco. The main arcaded courtyard garden, paved with zellij and filled with songbirds twittering in fruit trees had a pool in the center, large enough for the two bold women fellow- guests from New York to take a dip at night. My bedroom was “the best,” the owner said confidentially so as not “to cause complaints by others.” Indeed, for a night I felt like a royalty .

I liked the inner courtyard with a fountain surrounded by bhou (seating nooks). It was here that several centuries ago, the original owner, I was told, would sit with his guests and while away idle hours, gossiping. As I looked up the inscriptions on the top of the opposite wall caught my attention. In Arabic, it seemed to be couplets in rhyme. I wondered if they were from a classic Arabic ode, qasida [31]. Jack volunteered that it was a poem by Rumi, but the Persian poet who has been hugely popularized in the U.S., rarely wrote in Arabic and his influence in the Arab world was never extensive. I found Saeed’s suggestion more persuasive. “It may be from Kalilah wa Dimnah [32],” he said. The book he was referring to, was indeed very popular in the Arab lands at  the time of the construction of this mansion. It is based on a translation into Arabic in 750 CE, by Persian scholar Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa,  of a work that began as the Panchatantra, a 3rd century  Indian collection of interrelated animal fables in verse and prose. Coincidentally, the stories of that book were used extensively by Rumi, in his masterwork, Masnavi.

The Guide

Mr. Madani, the guide Saeed had sent, asked why I wanted to see Ibn Khaldun’s residence. I told him about the link that Ibn Khaldun created between the eastern and western parts of the Muslim world in 1401. He was with the Egyptian ruler, Faraj in a military campaign against the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, Tamerlane [33] , who had besieged Damascus. As Ibn Khaldun later wrote in his autobiography, for seven weeks he went over the city walls and negotiated with Timur. In the process, Timur asked him in details about the conditions in the Maghreb (Western Islamic lands) and received a long-written report.  On his return to Egypt [34], Ibn Khaldun, composed and sent an equally detailed report on the history of the Mongols and a character study of Timur to the Merenid rulers in Fez.

Mr. Madani, whose name was related to the word medina, was famous as a guide who knew where everything was in the Medina. “I have not had any tourists interested in Ibn Khaldun’s residence, for some time,” he warned, “but we will find it.”  He took me to Talaa Al-Kabira Street. We looked around for a while. Mr. Madani said he “did not know exactly which house” it was. We stopped and asked a shopkeeper who pointed to a house a few doors away. We came to a small house which had no identifying sign .  “The new owner does not want any tourist to visit,” Mr. Madani said, as I poked inside the short dark hall that led to the entrance door.

As we went back, less than two blocks away on the same street, I noticed a sign which said: “Chez Maimonides – La Cuisine Marocaine Restaurant”.  I entered into the alley next to it and saw another sign on the wall. It was in French, “Maimounite Moise BenMaimoune,” and in Arabic “Dar (house)” of Musa bin Maymun.”  The guide confirmed that, this was said to be where Moses Maimonides once lived.

Considered the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period, Maimonides died in Cairo where he had served many years in the service of the Muslim Sultan of Egypt, like Ibn Khaldun some two hundred years after him. Similarly, the University of al-Qarawiyyin also claims him as one of its illustrious attendees.  Maimonides, born in Cordoba, was probably in Fez for six years in the 1160s, and studied the disciplines of the time, among them medicine which became his main profession in Egypt.

I asked Mr. Madani why there was a marker for Maimonides’ house and not for Ibn Khaldun’s. The guide said because of “800,000 Moroccan Jews in Israel!”   A minute later, Mr. Madani asked me: “What do you think of the riad you are staying at?”  When I told him it was fine and glittering, he said “You should see the riad a few doors from yours.” From our roof-top patio, I had noticed the glamorous restaurant on the top floor of that riad which boasted even one more star than ours from guidebooks. Mr. Madani said: “The owner of that riad was my neighbor; they lived in the same building. Then he went to Haifa for several years. He has a car rental business. He now owns two riads, and lives in the Ville Nouvelle.” Mr. Madani added, “And I am still in the same position.” He followed up, reflectively, “But I hate business.”

His tone had grown grave. I asked if he liked the tourist business. He said he was a guide for five months out of the year, which is the “tourist season.” The rest of the time, he taught “economic subjects” in a private high school, where the language of instruction was French.  “I know several languages,” he said, not boasting so much as to protest his fate. I looked at him more attentively. He appeared older. The many wrinkles in his face seemed to have multiplied.  The eyebrows looked sagging. Even his djellaba did not seem neat and crisp now. To me, he looked not so much resentful as trapped.

The Time of Tangerine

Her arms were long and expressive as she talked.  “We still go to the Medina to visit relatives and to shop,” she said to guests in the Ville Nouvelle house which was now her residence.  If the exaggerated movement of her arms looked to me as a metaphor for flight out of the Medina of Fez, I was still thinking about Mr. Madani. Was the car business a metaphor for escape from the Medina which is the largest pedestrianized urban space in the world?

Only seventeen and still in school, our host acted as a joyfully liberated person. Her mother, who did not speak English but understood some, let her be the spokesperson for the family. “He is a baby,” the girl referred to her brother who was responsible for her father’s absence. “My brother broke his leg in an accident and called my father. At 32, he is old enough to be engaged to marry soon but could not take care of himself.”  She laughed as her mother smiled tolerantly.

This was my chance to see a Fez family at home. The father’s business, they explained, was selling antique Moroccan furniture in France, and bringing back French goods. We sat on the soft sofa chair that extended, uninterruptedly, from one end to the other end of the large living room. The mother wore a djellaba as an over-robe. The daughter wore western clothes. To her the traditional djellaba was like the Hijab. Indeed, some believe the now unisex djellaba is the same as jilbab (mentioned in the Qur’an), the name given to women’s religious dress in Islam. “My mom complains about many things I do,” she said “but at least I keep my room ‘sort of’ clean.” We moved to the dining room which was furnished with the same kind of extended sofa chair. The mother served a dinner of soup and lamb tajine, over ripe white grapes.

In the front yard of the house before the large gate to the street, there were two parked cars and a dog, but the attraction was a tangerine tree with brilliant green leaves. This was the time of tangerine in Fez, with the sweet citrus fruit in abundance. In the pleasant twilight of the October evening, the men of Fez were in the coffee houses whiling away the time, and the women sat on the edge of the old town’s walls observing the Ville Nouvelle before them.


Fez did not disappoint us. The fellow-traveler who playfully “cat walked” her new red leather jacket in our riad testified to the joy of shopping in Fez. The vibrant mosaics, intricate ironworks, and dripping stuccos that adorned the refurbished riad were proof of the masterful craftsmanship of the artisans of Fez. Still, they were mere introduction to the authentic original treasures that lay outside in the venerable buildings of the Medina, such as the Madrasahs. Those schools, in turn, were reminders of the great institutions of learning which have long existed in Fez. That they were located in mosques punctuated the importance of Fez in the development of the religion which has played a dominant a role in politics and history of North Africa. In these so many ways, Fez is, indeed, a unique place to discover Morocco itself.



  1. الجنوب برج
  2. الشمال برج
  3. فأس

4- القيروان‎‎

  1. البالي فاس
  3. ملاح, מלאח
  4. معبد ابن دنان‎; בית הכנסת אבן דאנן‎‎
  5. خمسة‎‎ or khamsah
  6. חַמְסָה or hamesh
  7. قيساريه
  8. سوق
  9. مدرسة. Also spelled Medersa, Madrasa
  10. الزليج
  11. محراب
  12. وقف
  13. القرويين
  14. Also spelled Al Quaraouiyine, Al-Karaouine
  15. خزانة
  16. The word al-Qayrawan (القيروان‎‎) is the Arabic corruption of the Persian karvan (کاروان) or “caravan”, meaning “military/civilian camp,” which it was originally, when founded in 670 by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi during his campaign for the conquest of the North Africa [“Location and origin of the name of Kairouan”. Retrieved 2010-04-12; قيروان” “. Dehkhoda Dictionary; شماره 219. ص 75 بطه دو سویه زبان فارسی–عربی». ماهنامه کیهان فرهنگی. دی 1383، را >> , all as  cited in <;
  17. فاطمة الفهرية
  18. منبر
  19. قبلة‎‎‎
  20. الخطابه
  21. ابن خلدون
  22. Al-ta’rif bi Ibn Khaldun. p. 59, quoted in <;
  23. Historian Rom Landau, quoted in <;
  24. زاوية
  25. مَربوط‎‎
  26. جلابة
  27. قصيدة
  28. كليلة ودمنة
  29. تيمور لنگ
  30. He spent the next five years in Cairo completing his autobiography and his history of the world and acting as teacher and judge, dying there in 1406.


Volubilis, Morocco



Volubilis, Morocco

From Roman Colony to Birthplace of a New Islamic State

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: As a uniquely significant development in the history of the Islamic world empire, the independent state we call Morocco was created around 788 CE in Volubilis. This is now a long-abandoned small town in the northwestern corner of the country. Today it attracts visitors because of the ruins of the Roman colony, which Volubilis was from around 40 to 285 CE. Before that, it had been settled since the 3rd century BCE by the semi-nomadic Imazighen, the people commonly referred to as Berbers, who still constitute the majority of Moroccans. Volubilis was their name for the place, Oualili, which in their language, Tamazight, means oleander. How could one miss exploring so much of Morocco in a truly historic site?


Roman Colony

On October 22, 2016, I stood on the “Decumanus Maximus,” which was the main street of the “Republic of Volubilitans” in 217 CE. Facing southwest, I focused on The Arch of Caracalla, built in that year by the governor of the city of Volubilis, which is in today’s state of Morocco, to honor the Roman emperor Caracalla and his mother Julia Domna. Behind me was the Tingis Gate, the north-eastern entrance to Volubilis, constructed in 168 CE, according to a coin that had been intentionally placed in its stonework by the builders.

The dedicatory inscription on the top of the Arch in Latin, gave a flavor of the time:

“For the emperor Caesar, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus [Caracalla], the pious, fortunate Augustus, greatest victor in Parthia, greatest victor in Britain, greatest victor in Germany, Pontifex Maximus, holding tribunician power for the twentieth time, Emperor for the fourth time, Consul for the fourth time, Father of the Country, Proconsul, and for Julia Augusta [Julia Domna], the pious, fortunate mother of the camp and the Senate and the country, because of his exceptional and new kindness towards all, which is greater than that of the principes that came before, the Republic of the Volubilitans took care to have this arch made from the ground up, including a chariot drawn by six horses and all the ornaments, with Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, procurator, who is most deeply devoted to the divinity of Augustus, initiating and dedicating it [Note 1].”

Caracalla, himself a North African, had recently extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces, including Volubilis. By the time this Arch was finished, however, both Caracalla and Julia had been murdered by a usurper. The Arch itself, as well as other buildings in Volubilis, all came to lie in ruins in the course of time. The city was deserted by the 14th century. Even its name was forgotten eventually and it was now referred to by the Arabic speaking people of the region as Ksar Faraoun (Pharaoh’s Castle), a legend that imagined it was built by the ancient Egyptians. The building materials still left on the site were used in the 17th century to construct, in nearby Meknes, the capital of a different Empire, the Moroccan Alaouite Dynasty. Whatever was left was further destroyed by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

It is a tribute to archeology that the site, which was definitively identified as that of the ancient Volubilis in the late 19th century, is now considered as “an exceptionally well preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire,” as UNESCO describes it on its World Heritage Sites [Note 2]. The lack of urban development in the surrounding areas makes the site a good representation of what the ancient Romans saw. The abandonment of the town for several centuries after them, ironically, helped ensure that its ruins remain in a good state of conservation.

Archaeological excavations have uncovered about half of the site. French archaeologists had begun their work as early as 1887, before the project was officially commissioned by the French military governor of Morocco in 1915.  During the regime of The French Protectorate in Morocco (1912-1955), Moroccans generally associated these archaeological efforts with French colonialism. The French dismissed such protests by blaming it on “the Islamic sense of history and architecture” which “found the concept of setting off monuments entirely foreign [Note 3].”  After Morocco regained its independence from France in 1956, however, the Moroccan authorities joined the archaeological excavations of Volubilis; since 2000 they have conducted the work in collaboration with the University College London.

What I was seeing, of course, was largely a reconstruction. A comparison with a picture of the Arch of Caracalla taken in 1887  made this clear. Only small portions of the two sides of the Arch, no more than a third of their heights, were standing. The top was missing; several broken stones that bore the dedicatory inscription were lying in the dirt underneath. I accompanied a fellow visitor from the U.S. who became my guide in reviewing the restoration of the landmark buildings of the site, an art which had been his life-long profession. He pointed out the many areas where restoration was done by bricks to distinguish them from the original. This was best shown in the reconstructed column of the Basilica.

The Judiciary Basilica which was the seat of the magistrates and housed the court of law was an imposing monument. Its interior was divided into three parts, framed by Corinthian columns. Excavations suggest that it may have been built as early as the second half of the 1st century CE.

The Basilica is located to the east of the Forum. The trapezium-shaped Forum was the center of the “political, administrative and economic life” of Volubilis, a sign told us. This was an area of 1300 square meters (14,000 sq ft), located at the heart of the town. The Forum was once graced with statues dedicated to emperors, magistrates and other elite men and women of Volubilis. Of these statues, only the pedestals have remained in situ. Also now in ruins are the shops that once lined the western side of the Forum.

On the east side, however, south of the Basilica, the Capitoline Temple still stands.   This is a monumental temple dedicated to the Roman Capitoline triad, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. It has a single Corinthian-columned cella, housing the hidden cult images, reached by thirteen steps . According to an inscription found on the site, the temple was reconstructed in 218 CE, but most of what we were seeing today is the result of restoration since the middle of 20th century.

In the monumental sector of Roman Volubilis the urban design is clearly a Hippodamian system. This is a relatively flat sloping area, in the north-eastern part of the city, thus allowing the application of the grid plan which Hippodamus of Miletus, “the father of European urban planning,” had recommended five centuries before Christ. For the rougher hilly area covering the southern and western parts of Volubilis, the Romans adopted a terraced plan.

The Baths of Gallienus, named after the emperor Gallienus according to an inscription found on the site, was one of the four large public baths in Volubilis, which, as in other Roman towns, were an essential part of the social life. The Gallienus baths -redecorated by that emperor in mosaic to become the city’s most lavish- covered 330 square meters (3552 sq ft) and were composed of the bathing rooms , an exercise room, a changing room and latrines.

The hot rooms in the interior of the largest public baths, the northern baths, showed stone seats in the round and were heated “by ovens from which hot air passed underneath the pavements and up through the walls through pipes made of hollow bricks. Brick pillars supported the floors of the hot rooms, creating spaces (hypocaust) for the circulation of the air [Note 4].”

These are the only baths of that era in North Africa. The earliest Volubilis baths were fed by an aqueduct which brought water from a large spring to the northeast. Later, secondary channels supplied water for the larger houses, the baths and the public fountains. The aqueduct terminated at the largest fountain in the city center, bordered by the public latrine. A series of drains carried sewage and waste away and flushed it in the river.

Two rivers provided the larger amount of water: the Fertessa River crossed Volubilis from the east and Khoumane River bordered it from the south and the west.  Abundance of water helped to create a vast fertile plain around Volubilis. The grains which grew here supplied some 16 bakery shops and 20 mills discovered in the city. This and the existence of 58 olive oil-pressing complexes in Volubilis, as well as some 105 other shops which have been discovered, attest to a thriving economy. The oil presses and the shops were often joined with the houses, as well as lining up the sides of Decumanus and the Forum.

Olive oil was clearly one of the major sources of wealth for the town. In addition to being a foodstuff, it was used for bathing, in lamps and medicines.  The pressed olives were fed to animals or dried out and burned as fuel for baths. There were separate buildings for olive pressing, and some of the houses had their own olive presses. The production of transport amphorae (a jar with two handles and a narrow neck), from the end of the 2nd century BCE, facilitated the early growth of the oil trade.

As other Roman towns, Volubilis was circled with a wall for security. Built in 168-169 CE, the 1.6 mile (2.6 km) circuit of walls had numerous semicircular towers. There is no evidence, however, that Roman Volubilis experienced any actual security threat. The main gate of the wall, at the Decumanus Maximus, indeed, functioned unlike the usual Roman Porta Praetoria which faced the suspected enemy; Volubilis’s gate, instead, was the entrance to the road which apparently served more to facilitate commerce with Tingis (today’s Tangier) at Gibraltar, the most significant city in the region, 144 Roman miles (213 km) away.

Among other items, the large number of bronze artworks discovered in Volubilis especially suggests that it produced enough of them to export. The prosperity which was derived from such trade as well as olive and grains growing, and safeguarded by security, resulted in the construction of many large houses in Volubilis. These were behind the Decumanus Maximus, and of a type different from the pre-Roman houses of Volubilis. They were the domus, the type occupied by the upper classes in Rome, adapted to Africa: instead of the atrium, there was a peristyle with columns circling it, and the private rooms grouped together around that courtyard.

Some of those grand houses have been partially restored or reconstructed. In one, a bronze statue was discovered. Named after the statue, the “house of the rider,” it covered 1,700 square meters (18,000 sq ft) . Still another house is called “the house of the bronze bust.” Indeed, many bronze sculptures have been found in Volubilis.  A collection of them in Morocco’s Rabat Archaeological Museum is considered among the best of the ancient Mediterranean world, marked by an aesthetic particularly representative of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean arts.

The sculptures in marble, as well as bronze, used to adorn gardens and fountains showed the refinement of Roman Volubilis’s homes. The merchants and other settlers who lived in them also decorated their reception rooms with sumptuous mosaics. The mosaics, especially on the floors, have survived the ravages of time much better. Roman Mosaics, which existed throughout the Roman empire since the 2nd century BCE, were constructed from geometrical blocks of tiles (tesserae) placed together to create the shapes of figures and patterns. Materials for tesserae came from natural stone, with cut brick and pottery adding colors. Romans used mosaics to depict mythological scenes and divine characters as well as portraits, geometric patterns and designs. Volubilis houses contained many examples.

One is called the house of the acrobat  “in reference to its mosaic representing the parody of a horseman riding a donkey backward ,” while holding a cup in his outstretched hand.  It is a humorous mosaic, but it is called a possible representation of Silenus who was also known as Bacchus or the wine God Dionysus. Bacchus is represented in the mosaic of another house, the house of the ephebe with a cupid, encountering the sleeping Ariadne, the immortal wife of the wine-god Dionysus.

The twelve labors of Hercules, among the most popular myths of ancient Greece, are depicted in the mosaic of the next house, including the slaying of the Nemean Lion, and the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra . The dining room of another villa on the edge of the town, looking out across the fertile plains, showcases a floor with the mosaic of Orpheus playing a lute in the center. He is surrounded with wild African animals. Fish and sea animals are the subjects of another house’s floor mosaic. In still another villa a fisherman is portrayed in the mosaic .

One plate of mosaics displays symbols with mythological and historical significance for the Romans. These include the Gordian knot and Swastika. In the Roman mythology, borrowed from the Greeks, the Gordian knot symbolized a difficult problem that could be solved only by a bold action, based on the story of the knot tied by Goridus, the king of Phrygia in Asia Minor [Note 5]. Roman Swastika, on the other hand, might have been rooted in Mithraism, the religion practiced in Rome from the 1st century to the 4th century.  In some legends associated with Mithraism, Swastika is the four-horse chariot of Mithra turning the cosmos around a fixed center on clockwise direction.

The influence of Greek architecture was notable in Volubilis’s columns and their capitals. In the House of Columns, so called because of the diversity of columns (fluted, plain and spiral) forming its peristyle , a full spiral column with a Corinthian capital was still standing . Many other columns were decapitated. Some of those capitals are collected in a Volubilis museum which is on the site. If the artisans who made these artistic crowns and columns had been imported, the stones for them were local, from quarries nearby. The grounds in Volubilis were still covered with broken stones of the many structures which had been erected there, although the marble is long gone – most used in the lime kilns of the Arabs who came several centuries later.

On cold days, the Romans sent their slaves to warm up their stone latrine before their use, our local guide said, “and that is the origin of the expression ‘bench-warmers’.” This was the sort of comment that caught the attention of even those tourists who by now seemed to have seen enough “ruins”. Indeed, who were the peoples who occupied the Roman Volubilis? The guide did not specify who the “slaves” were, but offered that “at its peak, by the 2nd century, Volubilis had approximately 20,000 inhabitants.”

The archaeological vestiges of the site, much of it now in the Rabat Museum, bear witness to several civilizations. Epigraphic evidence, combined with the ruins of structures, indicate the influence of Mediterranean, Libyan Punic and African as well as Roman cultures in Volubilis. A chapel dedicated to the goddess Venus had existed in here: the goddess who shares significant attributes with its earlier models, the Greek Aphrodite, the Phoenician Astarte, the Babylonian Ishtar and even Egyptian Goddess Isis. In Volubilis’s many shrines, apparently, all the traditional Roman gods were once represented, as were Mithras, Isis, and the other Eastern and divinities, and the Judaic tradition.

Berbers (Imazighen, Moors)

The Volubilitans who were not from Rome, as noted before, were made Roman citizens in 217.  They were mostly members of a tribe that had ruled the area as part of the kingdom of Mauretania from the 3rd century BCE . Their affiliated mauretanian tribes of Baquates and Macenites occupied the territories to the east and the south of the city up to the Middle Atlas Mountains, and another mauretanian Bavares tribe lived in today’s Moroccan- Algerian frontier zones at the Mediterranean. These tribes, ruled by kings, often formed confederations.

Their descendants still populate the area today. The world refers to them collectively as Berbers. Despite the disparaging connotation of “the absence of culture,” my Berber Moroccan interlocutor told me, “we don’t mind that name.” Hashim, who was associated with the Volubilis’s Visitor Centre & Museum, added “but we prefer to call ourselves Amazigh which means free or noble man.” Amazigh (plural Imazighen), he explained, is related to the words tizzit, meaning bravery and aze, meaning strong. It is also a cognate of the Tuareg word for noble, amajegh. All of Northwestern Africa has been inhabited by Berbers from at least 10,000 BCE, and some of them, in other countries, use different terms such as Kabyle or Chaoui.

As we continued our conversation, Hashim reminded me that the word Berber was derived from Greek barbarous, meaning non-Greek-speaking, but also with the connotation of foreign and barbaric. He added that the related Latin barbarus or barbaria was used by the Romans only in the Byzantine times; it seems to have become current only in the 10th century through the works of Arab writers. (It has been used in English since the 19th century as a replacement for the earlier Barbary.) During the Arab conquest of Hispania, Arab Chroniclers of the mid-8th century referred to the same people as the Mauri (from Mauretanian). Since the 11th century, this term, becoming Moros in Spanish and Moors in English, has been used to refer, variously, to the Berbers and Arabs of Andalusia, the North Africans, and the Muslims in general.

The semi-nomadic (and pastoralist) Imazighen’s settlement in Volubilis began in the 3rd century BCE -the site had been inhabited from at least 5000 years earlier, as indicated by the pottery found there. The Imazighen named their town Oualili after the Berber word for oleander, a plant which, our guide reported, grows in abundance near Khoumane River. Over the next century, Oualili came to be influenced by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians who had also settled nearby along the coast of the Mediterranean since the 6th century BCE. Pottery and stones inscribed in the Phoenician language have been found in Volubilis as well as a temple to the Punic god Baal.

From the late 2nd century BCE, the independent kings of Mauretania, which included Volubilis, became Roman vassals. Rome’s involvement was perhaps a part of its strategic plans for control of the Mediterranean.  In 25 BCE, Rome appointed Juba II the ruler of Mauretania. Juba II’s reign, (25 BCE – 23 CE) was an especially flourishing period for the town of Volubilis. In 40 CE the Romans, crushed the revolt that followed the assassination of Mauretanian king Ptolemy, and brought an end to the kingdom of Mauretania, dividing it into two Roman provinces . Volubilis, apparently awarded for having aided the Roman side, was elevated to the rank of a municipality, governed by annual magistrates.

The only ruins of significance from this period of Volubilis is a large tumulus over the ruins of the city wall, which might have been a funerary monument commemorating the Roman victory. The town quickly grew in the first century from 15 hectares in size to 42 hectares (100 acres). Civic buildings, temples and baths as well as house were built.  An aqueduct to provide water was constructed between 60 and 70 CE. The new city walls were completed in 168-169.  The Capitoline temple was finished by 218 along with a new monumental center. The Basilica and the reorganized Forum, and Caracalla’s Arch of Triumph, and the stately homes with peristyles and pools and the great mosaics all date to the same period, 193-235 CE. From then on, only minor changes were made in the Roman Volubilis. Around 285 CE, Emperor Diocletes ordered the Roman administration and the army to vacate Volubilis  in a reorganization that abandoned the southern region in favor of the northern coastal posts of Sale, Mogador and Loukos.

Volubilis fell to local tribes. It was never retaken by Rome which now deemed it too remote and indefensible on the border of the Empire. The inhabitants gradually moved to the west of Caracalla’s Arch, perhaps constrained to use water from the Khoumane River after the aqueduct broke down, apparently due to an earthquake in the 4th century that caused extensive damage. They erected a new protective wall around the 5th century, separating the old city center which eventually became cemeteries.

Three Christian funerary inscriptions have been discovered there, covering the period between 599 and 655 CE. They indicate the Christianization of the Romano-Berber population, as well as the continuing use of the Latin language. Next to the old basilica, we saw a ditch which apparently had been a place for the ritual of baptism in that era . Christianity had spread rapidly in this region in the 4th and 5th centuries but it was extinguished when the Arabs conquered it in the 7th century.

Arab Conquest

In 670, Oqba Ibn Nafi [Note 6] led an Arab army of the Damascus-based Muslim Umayyad Caliph, Muawiyah I, into North Africa. “According to medieval tradition,” he continued on to Volubilis where he fought the local Berber tribes [Note 7].

In 698, the reigning Umayyad Caliph (Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan) appointed Musa bin Nusayr [Note 8] the governor of Ifriqiya (Arabic for Africa, the area previously included in the Africa Province of the Roman Empire). Bin Nusayr was assigned the goal of completing the Islamic conquest of North Africa. The son of a Christian Persian captive of the Arabs from Syria, bin Nusayr did not use force to impose Islam; he honored the local Berber traditions and used diplomacy to successfully convert them. Many joined his army as soldiers, including Tariq bin Ziyad [Note 9] , who was dispatched to take the Iberian Peninsula in 711.  The following year bin Nusayr himself led a mixed army of Arabs and Berbers to secure the rule of the Umayyad caliph (Abd ar-Rahman I) in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain or Islamic Iberia).

The arrival of the Muslims to live in Volubilis has been traced to 708. Islamic coins dating to the 8th century struck with the word Walila (Arabic for Volubilis) have been found on the site. Because these were mostly outside the city walls, the Arab settlement was probably a distinct district from that of the Berbers, who lived inside the walls. It was here that Moulay Idriss [Note 10] arrived in 788 and soon established the first dynasty of Morocco, the Idrisid.


The ruins of that Arabic settlement, in the south of Volubilis, which was expanded by Idriss, indicate a series of interlocking courtyard buildings, the largest containing a hammam (bath). The plan of large courtyards and narrow rooms is markedly different from the one or two-roomed structures inside the walls which were inhabited by the Berbers of the Awraba tribe. Coins and pottery date the ruins to the reign of Idris I, who died in 791.

This was his headquarters. It had been an Abbasid ribat (frontier fortification to house military volunteers), but the Baghdad Abbasid Caliphate’s control was hardly secure. Idris who had fled here after losing the decisive Battle of Fakhkh (near Mecca) in 787 to the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur was welcomed by the (Muslim) Awraba tribe and proclaimed “Imam” in Volubilis which had served as the capital of the region in the Islamic period.

The consequences were enormous as this led to the creation of the first Muslim state, independent from the central Muslim rule, under the Caliphate. (Al-Andalus became independent a short time before but it did not last long as a Muslim state.) The consequences were also crucial in the schism among that part of the Muslim community which had held that Al Muhammad (the Family of Prophet) were his rightful successors. In that group Idriss was a leader of the Alids who, further, claimed the exclusive right to lead all Muslims as the descendants of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. They fought the Abbasids who had overthrown the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) and who claimed membership in Al Muhammad through Muhammad’s uncle Abbas. Idris’s rule as Imam thus established the efficacy of what became the Shiite doctrine of legitimacy based on descent from Ali.

Soon after his arrival, Idriss married Kenza, the daughter of chief of Volubilis’ Awraba tribe [Note 11]. Their son was born two months after Idriss’s death in 791. Called Idriss II, he was raised among his mother’s tribe in Volubilis. These facts further punctuate the Imazighen’s role in the creation of the state of Morocco.

Idriss I had brought most of today’s northern Morocco under his control and founded the city of Fes, before being assassinated on the order of the reigning Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid. On reaching majority, Idriss II moved to Fes which became his capital. He did not forget Volubilis; he died here in 828. Meanwhile, in 818, his Volubilis – now the capital of the principality of Al awdiya- again welcomed another Muslim group of rebels, this time the Rabedis who were refugees from Cordoba. The settlement in Volubilis lasted at least for another two centuries, until the time of Morocco’s Almoravid dynasty (1040-1147).


Gradually abandoned, Volubilis faded into history. By the 14th century it was forgotten. Its visible marks of crumbling stone columns became part of the legend, as remnants of an imaginary Pharaoh’s Castle. This lasted for centuries, until archeologists paid attention and identified those marks, in the 19th century, as the ruins of the ancient Roman colony mentioned in old chronicles.

Volubilis now lives in its ruins. Many buildings have been restored and reconstructed, and a great number of artifacts collected and sifted. Physical evidence is evocative. Reflection follows observation. Shreds of history need to be restored and reconstructed, as well, to arrive at the full story of Volubilis. This is a task no less tedious than archeology -especially for the uninitiated. However, it turns out that the whole is much larger than the total of the pieces visible. Intriguing as the ancient Roman legacy is, the importance of Volubilis in the history of the Islamic empire of the Middle Ages deserves as much notice. Here is where one can glance at the expansion of the spread of Islam to North Africa and Spain. More concretely, Volubilis was the incubator of the first Islamic state that declared independence from the empire of the Caliphate and has survived. What is more, that independence also heralded the emergence of an Alid government, claiming legitimacy on the basis of direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. This was a precursor of the Shiite challenge to the hegemony of the Sunni rulers of Islamic lands, a phenomenon that is still reverberating.

Our knowledge about Volubilis is incomplete. As archeological work continues, it reveals more structures and artifacts. Understanding their historical contexts is a parallel work that needs to be as rigorously pursued. What has been offered in this report is limited and tentative as the purpose was only to sketch the broad outline of the proposed scholarly study.


  1. English translation in:
  2. 1997 Advisory Body Evaluation (ICOMOS):
  5. The Macedonian king Alexander visited Phrygia and unsuccessfully tried to find the hidden ends of the Gordian knot. Frustrated he drew his sword and cut through the knot.)
  6. Arabic: عقبة بن نافع‎‎, also referred to as Oqba ibn Nafi, Uqba bin Nafe, Uqba ibn al Nafia, or Akbah (622–683)
  8. Arabic: موسى بن نصير‎‎, also referred to as Mūsá bin Nuṣayr (640–716)
  9. Arabic: طارق بن زياد (diedc.720)
  10. Arabic: مولاي إدريس
  11. Ishaq ben Mohammed




Yinchuan:  A trip of serendipitous discovery



Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: It was the news in the American media about the exciting wineries of China that attracted my small group of fellow-travelers to Yinchuan, a place we had never heard of before. We explored the surprising wineries. Some of us ended up having more fun, however, drinking beer in the equally unexpected Oktoberfest, celebrated in mid-September in our German-run hotel. The Brewmeister himself served us, joined by the chef at the restaurant.  Even the chief winemaker in town came to mingle, and we got a rare glimpse of the life-style of the rich and famous Chinese who were the other guests at the hotel.

All this paled compared to what I found in yet another fortunate happenstance:  the unfurling of China’s grand strategy for the world, which is President Xi Jinping’s newly announced initiative called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.” Its early manifestation in the form of the “China-Arab States Expo” in Yinchuan coincided with our arrival. The “Maritime” part of the initiative will be the subject of anther report. The present paper is about navigating the meaning of all that the other part, “Silk Road Economic Belt,” evoked.

In that pursuit, I also learned about China’s economic plans for developing its “wild west” and dealing with its Muslim minorities, while it nurtures critical relations with many countries west of its borders. Equally valuable was the opportunity to glance at how China perceives its past. The part of its history that comes to focus here is also of special interest to students of world history. In 1273 Genghis Khan led the Mongol army that defeated the Chinese Kingdom at Yinchuan which was then its capital. The Great Khan died here but his army went on to establish the first foreign dynasty, under his grandson Kublai Khan, which dominated all of China. Genghis’s other grandsons, meanwhile, were establishing their own dominion over lands that constituted the western side of the ancient “Silk Road”, thus creating another historic first: the political control of most of the civilized world by a single family – which was, furthermore, foreign to both sides.

With this tapestry of diverse subjects to review, this report will struggle to draw a cohesive picture of Yinchuan. Far from being conclusive, it will be content to reveal the need for further study and better answers to the questions it raises.


China-Arab States Expo

After a two- hour flight west from Beijing, when I arrived at the Yinchuan airport the first sign that faced me said الوصول (al-vusul). This was the Arabic word for “Arrival” – also included in the sign both in English and Chinese. In the lobby of the Arrival terminal, the sign for a restaurant that served “Islamic Foods” was only in Arabic and Chinese, with no English . I knew that Yinchuan was the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which had nearly 40% Hui Muslims, in its population. The Hui, however, were said to be the only Sinophone group among the ten predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China; the others’ mother-tongues were languages other than Chinese. I started a conversation with a young couple as we waited at the carousel for our luggage. They were returning home from a trip to Australia. They were Hui and when I asked if they spoke Arabic, they said “No, we can only read the Qur’an.” That is the Islamic holy book which is commonly read by non-Arab Muslims in its original Arabic.

The Arabic in the airport signs were occasioned by the “China-Arab States Expo,” held in Yinchuan from September 10 to 13, 2015, just before my arrival. A big sign still standing in the airport, in Arabic, Chinese and English, announced the Expo’s goal,  “Uphold Silk Road Spirit, Deepen China-Arab States Cooperation,” with its logo shining in multi-colors  {1}

As I would find out later in the official publications {2}, the Expo included a “University Presidents Forum,” and another forum on “Global Smart City,” one symposium on sustainable development in agriculture, a “Green Expo” in Yinchuan’s “Green Garden” and it featured a “Cloud Computing Technology and Applications Exhibition ” which was at the Yinchuan International Conference Hall{3}. Representatives from 26 Arab countries participated, at least, in the University Presidents Forum in Yinchuan. When we left the airport, I noted that the wide boulevard leading to the center of town was still festooned with flags of many of those Arab countries.

Our tour guide kept assuring us that the Yinchuan Muslims were “very friendly.” They were “not like Middle Easterners.” He wore a dark suit and a tie, had studied international relations in the Big Island of Hawaii and had wanted to become a diplomat but, he said, “I do not have connections” which were necessary. Surprisingly, he did not have much to say about the Expo or the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping which underpinned it. Those subjects were important but apparently not thought to be of great interest to casual tourists.

Silk Road Economic Belt

My reading of current reports in the Chinese media, and other literature on the subject, indicated that the initiative, announced by President Xi in 2003, soon after he became China’s leader, was now at the heart of this country’s economic plans and geopolitical strategy.  Officially called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st -century Maritime Silk Road,” the President’s proposal consists of two main components, the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt,” and “The Maritime Silk Road”. The latter aims at “investing and fostering collaboration in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and North Africa, through several contiguous bodies of water – the South China Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, and the wider Indian Ocean area.” The Belt part covers “countries situated on the original Silk Road through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.” It “calls for the integration of the region into a cohesive economic area through building infrastructure, increasing cultural exchanges, and broadening trade.” South Asia and Southeast Asia will be added in the future as the extension of this “belt.” Also later, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will link the two original components, the land-based Belt and the Maritime Road {4}.

There are compelling geopolitical reasons for China “to push forward with its One Belt, One Road plans at a time when its trading partners are potentially excluding it from strategic agreements,” such as Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the EU-Japan. In China’s alternative strategic agreements with the new partners it now wishes to woo by this initiative, President Xi Jinping has been mindful to ease political concerns by pointedly emphasizing “Three Nos”. These consist of “no interference in the internal affairs” of other nations, “no seeking” to increase the “sphere of influence” and not striving for “hegemony or dominance {5}.”

There is also a strong urgent economic incentive, specifically, for the land- based Belt part of Xi’s initiative.  After thirty years of unprecedented growth, China is now faced with a slowing economy. Its leadership is looking for new ways to sustain growth, while its developing neighbors to the west are experiencing rapidly rising demand. The Belt initiative can serve as a project to redirect China’s domestic overcapacity and capital for regional development. Eventually, China’s growing domestic market would provide the chance for the region to capitalize by providing goods and services. Accordingly, the Silk Road Economic Belt features prominently in China’s 13th   Five-Year Plan, which will run from 2016 to 2020 {6}.

Yinchuan Showcase

Trial area. In 2014, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) which had been established ten years earlier decided to focus on the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt. While in the past it had been meeting as a ministerial conference in Beijing, CASCF chose to have its 2015 China-Arab States Expo in Yinchuan, deeming it as important for Sino-Arab cooperation in the province of Ningxia, and “a trial area for inland-foreign-oriented trade in China, with its eye on opportunities in Arab countries and the Muslim world.” As evidence of Yinchuan’s qualification, at the Expo the mayor of the city boasted of “its projects in recent years such as the Yue Hai Wan Central Business District, Binhe New Area, and Bonded Area”. He added that he hoped the Expo would help the city “to advertise its beautiful landscape, history, cultural heritage, and good ecology.” The officials of Ningxia Autonomous Region told the Expo about the province’s  “work on modernizing its agriculture for more cost-effective results using local characteristics,” pointing out that “Ningxia has climate and geographic conditions similar to Arab countries,” and therefore, there was “great potential for cooperation in such fields as dry land farming, water-saving agriculture, desertification control, and soil improvement {7} .”

Transitional times.  As we drove toward our hotel in Yinchuan we could see the impressive landscape of modern tall buildings in the part of town where new offices  and hotels  were located . Just outside of this area, however, we turned onto a bumpy road for an hour ride to another attraction of Yinchuan, its farmland. The farms on the one side were separated from the dusty road by an irrigation canal which was built on a berm. “We get very little rain here,” our guide said. “The Yellow River is practically the sole source of our water with its dams and canals,” he continued.  (Indeed, Yinchuan means “Silver River” which, I thought, might point out the city’s original raison d’être.) “The River comes from Tibet, and it is called Yellow because it is murky due to the silt,” the guide said.

The other side of the road we were on was lined with Poplar trees. A very dirty bus  covered with the dust of the desert and crowded with passengers, passed us. The women we saw among the passengers were wearing headscarves. Old Hui Moslem women usually wear headscarves but, our guide said, “other women also wear them for protection against the dust.”  On the drive back to the city, we approached a traffic jam and soon our van came to a standstill on the narrow road of the farmland just before we reached the wide new boulevard that served this modern part of Yinchuan. Two passenger cars blocked most of the entrance to the boulevard. When we were finally able to pass them, a half an hour later, our guide explained that those two cars, involved in an accident, were waiting for the insurance adjusters as neither driver was willing to accept fault.

It has been suggested that urbanization is a more promising way to deal with China’s surplus of capital and production problem than the Belt initiative. The country’s current urbanization rate of 52 percent is low given its level of development. A lot of the young rural population has come to cities as migrant workers, but they cannot bring families or truly become citizens of the cities due, in part, to the lack of sufficient housing. As we drove around Yinchuan, we noticed a considerable number of newly- built apartment blocks, presumably to address the housing shortages. We could not be sure that they were fully occupied.

Unused infrastructure. China’s current new kind of surplus, that of unused infrastructure, was evident in the miles of brand new freeways we saw in Ningxia as we later drove from Yinchuan to Shapotou, one of its major “ecological attractions,” some 200 kilometers southwest. The toll road G6 was an excellent four-lane divided road with an island in the middle which had trimmed bushes almost like topiaries in the middle . There were guard rails on both sides. Exits were numbered. There were signs in Chinese and English with icons for gas and food. We stopped at a “Servicer Area.” A sign in its urinal in Chinese, Arabic and English urged: “A small step forward. A big step in civilization .” On the road another sign said in English: “Waste discarding prohibited.”  Yet another sign read: “Please No Weary Driving.”

Traffic was very light, with only a few buses and several trucks and cars.  A Police car passed us with its lighting siren on without any visible reason. We noted ten road workers in orange vests, but no accompanying vehicle. Two women workers were picking up trash.  Coal burning power plants could be seen in the countryside. They were still in use also in the city of Yinchuan. Our guide explained:  “we have a lot of coal here.” He also said: “where we are driving was a desert 20 years ago.”  He amplified: “Yinchuan is surrounded by three deserts.”  Shapotou Desert tourist area is located in the southeast of the Tenggeli Desert.

Street scene. Notwithstanding all the signs in Arabic and English, I did not run into any Arab or Westerner (not counting the Americans in my small tour group). Their absence was especially conspicuous in the downtown area, called Xing Qing. I walked in this section of town which was by far its busiest. The Drum Tower  was a reminder of how Yinchuan looked before its recent “modernization.”  Like those in other cities of China, the Drum Tower, as its name indicated, was originally constructed for musical purposes. Now it faced a Western style plaza with its Burger King restaurant and a stage being set up for a karaoke- type participatory music event . At another corner of the street facing the Tower, however, was a lone Chinese musician sitting at the Gehu, the Chinese version of Cello, playing old Chinese melodies, with a basket for tips in front of him . There were more musicians in the long and wide pedestrian street, XinHua . However, they attracted attention more as curiosities. One was a singer propped up by a crutch under his arm . Another was interesting for his unusually small body and big head . Still a third was a paraplegic who played harmonica as he sat on a customized motorcycle . By far the largest crowd, however, gathered around another man with missing limbs who painted calligraphy on papers spread on the ground, holding the brush by his teeth.

The shops that surrounded this non-modern ensemble of entertainers were strikingly modern. However, they lacked any non-Chinese name signs. Not only English but even Arabic writings were missing. Only around the corner, I saw a food vendor who had the Islamic creed calligraphed on his cart . Here also there was a sign for a فندق (funduq), Arabic for hotel, on a building . This was apparently in anticipation of receiving Arab tourists from abroad which Ningxia hoped to “lure,” according to local newspapers.


A parallel campaign was to attract Western visitors, especially by the lure of Yinchuan’s wineries. My American companions had specifically come to visit them. Two days before the opening of the China-Arab States Expo, Yinchuan hosted another one, the East Helan Mountain Area International Wine Expo, in which seven wines from this surrounding area were given gold medals. So it was that our guide had lost no time in taking us directly from the airport to Chateau Bacchus on the outskirts of the city. As we drove through a rather dry farmland, he explained, “hot days and cold nights here are ideal for growing grapes and, therefore, for wineries.”  He added:  “this is the fruit season,” pointing to the vendors we saw selling watermelons on the side of the road.

“Chateau Bacchus began by a man who made his money in the south of China 20 years ago,” our guide continued. “He came and fixed the desert and asked the French for help. Then others came too.”  As we arrived through an imposing gate, a marching tune blared on the loudspeakers and a water fountain jetted water to cool the desert air.  This was to welcome us as the winery knew of our coming. As we approached the entrance to the winery’s main building, a group of men appeared on the steps . Taking them as the manager and his staff, we eagerly shook their stretched hands. But then they said goodbye and walked toward the exit. It turned out that they were the “Head of Tourism Office” and aides, on an inspection visit there. Chateau Bacchus had proudly posted on its gate an “AAA” ranking sign by the National Tourist Evaluation Committee . Alas, we remained the only visitors the whole time we were there.

A young woman was our host .  In a small “tasting” room, we sat at a plain table as she served us Grenache and Shiraz wines.  She poured from a glass which was used as a decanter , filled by another glass directly from the barrel . The grapes were from their own vineyards. Our host said “the winemaker is Chinese but the standards come from the French.” There were framed certificates of awards given to the winery, mostly from China, on the walls of the room . There was also a painting of galloping horses which were “the symbols of fast success,” we were told.

The winery had a “restaurant” but it would be opened “only with a prior reservation.”  Its wine was also sold only from barrels located at different branches for “club members.” Our host was the only staff we saw. She now led us to a cellar which was exclusively for the club members. This was a dark underground cave, with barrels of wine. The signs here, and in the garden of the winery were in Arabic, as well as Chinese and English .  A two-story building on the other side of the garden was called the Business Center. A sign at its entrance described it:  “The Business Center is a high-end Club, which sets catering, entertainment and accommodation as a whole. The dreams of Romance and Luxury can be come true, as if we enter the ancient European castle of Middle Ages.” Regarding the “romance,” inside the building were a lobby furnished with a white piano and a stairway leading upstairs to two bedrooms with two beds each. In another room, there were a basin, a washer and a dryer.

Winery Chateau Moser XV

As we left Chateau Bacchus we picked a branch from a grapevine in the vineyard just outside the gate and tasted its black Merlot.  The size of this vineyard was minuscule compared to the vineyard we saw in the next winery we visited in Yinchuan: Winery Chateau Moser XV . The biggest in Ningxia, the building area of the Chateau is nearly 140,000 square feet. With many fountains and turrets, the winery calls itself Changyu International Wine City . The name Changyu is a reminder that this is actually a subsidiary of a more venerable winery by that name in China’s northeastern Shandong province which is “the most comprehensive” winery, while the Yinchuan branch specializes in “high end” wines.

When we entered the “wine tasting center” building of Changyu, which was about 54,000 square feet, an electric people mover  carried us to a large auditorium at the other end, where we were shown a short film about the history of the winery. The Changyu winery was founded in the 1890s by Chang Bishi . He was the first Chinese Consul in Penang Pulau (today’s Malaysia). He was a philanthropist , and also provided financial aid to the 1911 Chinese Revolution. He was called by the revolutionary party the “Financier of Revolution .”

The winery presented itself as a part of “Changyu Pioneer International Chateau Alliance” in a “Chateau Alliance Map” showing branches in several places in China, including “Chateau Changyu Castle Yantai, as well as in Austria, France, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Moldova.”  The walls of the wine tasting center showcased pictures of famous world leaders with glasses of its wines before them:  Presidents Obama, Putin and Holland and Chancellor Merkel among them, as well as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates .

Our guide said that the winery received some 300 foreign visitors a year.  A guest book had recorded what previous visitors had said about their visits. The sign above it said, in English: “God has given to human good and valuable things, than wine.”  A page from the book featured comments which were equally unclear, such as: “I am the resveratral (sic), hug me will bring the blessing of health to you!.” We were now at the winery’s 38,000 square foot “mysterious underground cellars” which boasted a storage area for over 2000 oak barrels and 260,000 bottles for aging. There was a picture of a famous Chinese movie star of the 1920s, advertizing for this winery . We were given a gift of a 6-year old brandy, bottled in front of us from the barrel. Each bottle was closed with a cork that was literally hammered in .

A few wine bottles were on display. One was priced at about 50 dollars . The sales revenue of Changyu Group in 2007, reportedly, reached 695 million U.S. dollars, making it one of the top ten grape wine enterprises of the world, the first Asian enterprise to appear on that list. By 2012, its ranking on the list rose up to No. 4.  We were told that the grapes for the winery’s vineyard originally came from France‘s Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. The chief wine maker was from the Austrian Moser family:  Lenz Moser, the heir to “fifteen generations” of European wine planting and brewing technologies , looked at us from a framed picture on the wall of the winery. He has declared that this was one of the most potential production areas of best wine grape in the world because of its soil, dry air, number of days of sunshine and temperature differences between day and night.  Lenz Moser has succeeded in substantially increasing the sale of Changyu wines in Europe and was eyeing bigger expansion to even include the American market.

Affluent Chinese

According to Western reporters, for sometime the Chinese government officials and executives at state-owned companies buying expensive vintages for banquets and gifts were the major cause for an explosion in China’s domestic wine consumption. The government’s tough anticorruption campaign of the last couple of years has closed down that market. This has forced the winemakers to focus on the “real buyers,” those “who drink wine because they like it, not because of the status or favors it brings.” Prime among these are the middle- and upper-class Chinese, especially the young ones who “acquired a taste for wine while studying abroad.”

Chateau Changyu Moser XV, additionally, saw itself as “a wine estate” making “high-end chateau wine,” and aiming at “wine culture tourism” as a “high-end club of wine theme.” It boasted of the Byzantine style of its principle structure,  its “magnificent” domed castle . It expected soon to receive as many as 80,000 visitors a year. It hoped to draw them from wealthy Chinese who have begun to enjoy western-style vacations.  The promise of such a market is reflected in the nascent business of dividing big acres of land, which could be vineyards, into large parcels to create “mini chateaus” for the wealthy, as our guide told us. One such entrepreneur has reported that he has already sold two parcels around Yinchuan.

On the day I was in Chateau Changyu, virtually the only visitors I saw in the tasting center were Chinese school children . However, just outside, in the garden of the winery facing the Chateau’s castle, we noticed a crowd. They were attending a wedding in progress . This signified yet another aspect of the business of this winery, as an event venue. Our guide said the venue’s price exceeded 50,000 dollars. The Chinese wedding couple  and their guests  wore western clothes although the ceremony was conducted in Chinese, broadcast on loud speakers. Curiously, the wedding vows were engraved on glass in English at the altar . The ceremony was being filmed by a drone flying overhead.

That evening we pondered whether the guests at the wedding were responsible for our pricey hotel telling us that it had no room because it was full. We had advance confirmed reservations and the Kempinski hotel upgraded us to suites. “Germans honor their promises,” the German managers of the hotel told us. Now we were sitting in a festively decorated restaurant bar, celebrating Oktoberfest. The place was crowded with many Chinese guests. It advertised the traditional Paulaner beer, but we were exchanging “Prost!”  with the Brewmeister himself over his beer, made by the elaborate apparatus right here . This I owed to my German fellow-traveler who earlier had met the Chef of this restaurant, on his break, in the bar of the hotel lounge. The next morning, in the breakfast room of the hotel, also crowded with affluent Chinese guests, I was told by the Austrian woman who was the “Supervisor” of the room that Lenz Moser, the chief winemaker at Changyu was also among those attending the previous night’s Oktoberfest. She left me to communicate by sign language with her Chinese staff. Behind the counter, five cooks with aprons and tall chefs’ hats were struggling to fry eggs the western style.

When I walked out into the lobby of the hotel, I noticed some commotions at the elevator. There were guards watching its door as it opened. Presently, a young man and his small entourage came out and walked toward the exit from the hotel. I followed them at a distance. There were reporters with cameras tailing the man. Outside, at the entrance to the hotel, people had gathered around five young girls in red skirts and white tops and shoes, who were singing. Behind them was a black SUV with three escorting cars and a few more guards.  Soon the girls lined up in front of the SUV, smiling and holding thumps up as they faced the young man in his light yellow jacket .  As his cars eventually pulled out, I noticed a uniformed hotel staff, beaming as she looked on. I asked what was going on. She said “the Chinese super star is there.” I asked her to write his name. She wrote some Chinese characters. I said “in English.” She wrote “1401 Han Geng.” I asked “what is that number?”  She said “his room number” in the hotel. Han Geng is a Chinese Mandopop (Mandarin popular music) singer and actor, in demand by numerous TV shows, commercials and movies. He was in Yinchuan to make movies.

Xixia Kingdom Ruins

Yinchuan is famous for its West Movie Studio of Zhenbei Forts. The Studio is nicknamed “Oriental Hollywood” because it has supplied the background scenes resembling ancient northern small towns of China for nearly one hundred movies. The Studio was built around the ruins of two old forts from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. We went to see the even more ancient and historically far more significant ruins of Yinchuan on its last days as the capital of the Xixia (Western Xia) Kingdom. The city was destroyed in 1273 by the conquering Mongol army that came under the command of Genghis Khan. It is believed that the great Khan himself died of “uncertain causes,” a month before the conquest of Yinchuan was consummated. What was left in ruins, 30 kilometers west of today’s Yinchuan, is a cemetery with mausoleums of 9 Emperors of Xixia and 255 subordinate tombs. Together, they spread over 53 kilometers. They are dubbed the “Oriental Pyramids”.

I stood before one of the mausoleums which are called Tomb Towers. As a sign referred to it:“The Tomb Tower is the main architecture in the cemetery. It has a shape of octagonal cone, 23 meters high. Each side of the bottom is 13 meters. Various building components scattered around the tower is very dense. Including Chiwen, beast, ridge ornaments and so on.”  Each Tomb Tower was “an independent architectural complex with a garden above the ground and an underground palace.” The mausoleums were made of yellow-colored earth, and spread “in lines following ancient rites.” Some of the mausoleums had lost their top .

Another sign nearby described the cemetery, called the Outer City: “Outer City in a layout of rectangular, 340 meters long, 220 meters wide. At the central provision of south wall was a door: the door is the only remaining site. doorway with 7 meters remaining. Due to severe damage, outer city now full of collapsed, remaining site of bottom.”

The “Inner City” was where the people lived. Their “mysterious history and culture” is little known because of Genghis Khan’s policy calling for their complete eradication. As one expert has said:  “There is a case to be made that this was the first ever recorded example of attempted genocide. It was certainly very successful ethnocide {8}.” My further reading of the works of various historians was rewarding in revealing much about the “mysterious history” of Xixia, and the conduct of the Mongol invaders who, at this same time in history, quickly took over virtually the whole known world!

Still called by his birth name Temujin, the soon to be Genghis Khan launched a raid against Xixia in 1205 in pursuit of his rival Mongol Nilga Senggum. In 1207, now having been proclaimed Genghis Khan, ruler of all the Mongols at the official start of the Mongol Empire, he launched another raid into Xixia, advancing to the Yellow River, before withdrawing in 1208. The following year, Genghis undertook a larger campaign to secure the submission of Western Xia. He besieged the capital, Yinchuan, and forced the Emperor of Xixia to agree to submit to Mongol rule. Genghiz then turned west and, in his invasion of Khwarezmia and Eastern Iran, asked Xixia for military aid. He was refused and Genghis swore vengeance. After defeating the Khwarazms in 1221, Genghis prepared to punish Xixia and in 1225, he attacked. Steadily advancing from city to city, “Genghis engaged the countryside in annihilative warfare and ordered his generals to systematically destroy cities and garrisons as they went.” He reached Yinchuan in 1227 and laid siege to the city. His death in August was kept a secret in order not to jeopardize the ongoing campaign. A month later, Emperor Mozhu of Xixia surrendered and was immediately executed. “The Mongols then mercilessly pillaged Yinchuan, slaughtered the city’s population, plundered the imperial tombs west of the city, and completed the effective annihilation of the Western Xia state {9}.”

Xixia Museum

Some of what has been discovered about Xixia is on display in a museum. We walked on a new paved road through the vast plain with the tombs and Mount Helan in the distance, to the Xixia Museum. Just outside was a map showing China’s trade roads with the world of the time, covering all of the Middle East, to the Black Sea and North Africa. The foreign land routes were in red, the regional land routes in black, and the sea routes in blue. At the entrance to the Museum, a sign introduced Xixia: “The Western Xia Kingdom was a local ethnic minority kingdom founded mainly by the nation of Dan Xiang people during 11-13 century.  The Western Xia Kingdom was characterized by the absorption of cultures from the Central Plains and other northern nationalities. It is one of splendid pearls in the great treasure-house of Chinese history and culture.”

The sign went on to describe the Museum’s collection: “Western Xia Museum… has collected the works of Western Xia Kingdom history and culture. The exhibits are divided into six parts: the movement westward of the Dang Xiang people and the rise of the Western Xia Kingdom; politics, law and military affairs; socio-economy; culture; religion of the Western Xia Kingdom. The history and culture of the Western Xia Kingdom is revealed through a rich collection of objects, charts, drawings, photographs, models and audio-visual presentations, making it a scientific, educational and interesting experience.”

The collection consisted of old artifacts, pictures, frescoes and paintings. Among Xixia relics were a stone horse, Xixia tablet inscriptions, Buddhists scriptures, Buddhist drawings, the official seal, Xixia paintings which blended Uighur and Tibetan Buddhism elements and Xixia ethnic customs. Of special significance was a display of Buddhist scripture in Xixia Characters. These characters were created in 1036, on the basis of Tangut language, in imitation of Chinese characters. Tangut was the nomadic ethnic group that established Xixia.

As a sign at the Museum summarized Xixia’s cultural heritage, “The culture of Xixia was diverse, though dominated by Dangxiang culture. The murals and painted sculptures, inheriting and developing the artistic achievements of the Tang and Song dynasties, also mixed Dangxiang, Tibetan and Uighur cultures, enriching the treasure house of Chinese culture. The creation and use of Xixia characters to spread and interpret Buddhism not only followed the developments of the Tang and Song dynasties, but also developed a unique Xixia culture.”

The mission of the Museum was expressed in another sign:  “It is an educational base for patriotism and the unity of nationalities, as well as a favorite tourist destination for foreign and domestic guests.”  On this day, a handful of us were the only foreign visitors in Xixia, joined by a similarly small group of Chinese tourists .

Shapotou Desert

We found many more Chinese tourists in another attraction of Ningxia, the desert.  When we arrived in the huge parking lot of the Shapotou Desert tourist area, a little over two hours south of Yinchuan, the place was jammed with tourist buses. “They are over a hundred,” as one among us said, with only a bit of exaggeration. The Chinese tourists who had just stepped down from the buses were lining up at the ticket windows ; those who had received their tickets were smiling as they contemplated the map posted nearby showing the sites of the attractions in the area . The desert and river were shown prominently on the map.  As the tour companies publicized: “In the area the desert, Yellow River, high mountains and oasis merge into an integral and peculiar scene. Shapotou is listed as one of the Top 50 Destinations Must-see in China.”

We took the tram to the top of a sand hill where there was a picture “shooting place,” as the sign said in English, Chinese and Arabic.  We saw what was called the “First Bay of the Yellow River” below us. In the peninsula the river had carved, the sand had been pushed to the edge of the mountains. Next to us, tourists were sliding down the sand . Behind us was the “largest natural field of sliding sand in China,” dubbed “the Shapotou singing bell”.  The sound emission, we were told, was caused by wind or by walking on the sand. The tourists were putting on special footwear to walk on the sand. When ready with full appropriate attire, including hats, they waited for the special vehicles to drive them to the right place on the sand. Some chose to go camel-riding. The line of camel riders was long, and with the desert and the mountains in the distance, they created a scenery not generally associated with China.

The attractiveness of the desert belied the truth that living in its harsh environment was difficult. Our guide said that fact was the reason the Hui people had ended up here.  “They were near Xian and there they had an uprising about 200 years ago. As a solution, a Chinese general forced them to move here near the desert, saying fighting nature would make them too weak to stage uprisings.” This was perhaps the guide’s version of history recorded in more scholarly sources as the First Dungan Revolt, which began in 1862 by the Hui community in Ningxia and the neighboring Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, and suppressed some ten years later by a Qing Dynasty general, leading to thousands of Hui Muslims being then exiled to different parts of China.

Silk Road’s Children

What was puzzling, however, was the tour guide’s tale of the origin of the Hui people: “They are from the Muslim soldiers who came with Genghiz and the Chinese women they married.”  Genghiz did have some Uyghur Turks in his army in 1219 when he attacked the city of Otrar (Farab) in today’s Kazakhstan which quickly led to his conquest of Muslim Central Asia. He also forcibly recruited local Turks to fight other Turks in the region, but then he ended up slaughtering them {10}. There is, however, no indication that there were Turks in the army that Genghiz led to Yinchuan in 1227.

Indeed, the Hui look different from the Uyghur and other Turks who have Eurasian features, and trace their community in China to some 1,200 years ago, long before the arrival of the Mongols. The Hui are descendants of traders who settled along the Silk Road and took Chinese wives. Most likely, their paternal ancestors were Iranian-speaking people. Among them, were the Sogdians, an ancient Iranian people of Central Asia {11}.  Chinese general Al Lushan was the son of a Sogdian immigrant to China (his Chinese name means “the Bukharan,” from Bukhara, another Iranian-speaking city not far from Samarkand) and a Turkish mother. It was Al Lushan’s rebellion in755 that finally forced the Tang emperor to withdraw his entire army from Central Asia {12}.

After Central Asian Iranians converted to Islam, in China they left their marks in Arabic script which they had now adopted {13}. The word for Muslims used in the Yuan Dynasty (which Kublai Khan – a grandson of Genghis Khan- established in 1271) was Pusuman, likely a corruption of Musalman (the Persian word for Muslim); it was also used as a name for Persians, and Pusuman Kuo (Pusuman Guo) referred to the country where they came from. Indeed, the Arabic script they (Musalman) used was called Pusuman zi (pusuman script).

In 1941 the Chinese Communist Party in its conclusive treatise entitled “On the question of Huihui Ethnicity,” defined the Hui nationality as an ethnic group descended primarily from Muslims who migrated to China during the Mongol-founded Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) {14}. Today, many in Ningxia believe that four common Hui surnames—Na, Su, La and Ding— “originated with the descendants of Nasruddin, a son of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, who ‘divided’ the ancestor’s name (Nasulading, in Chinese) among themselves{15}.”  Sayyid Ajjal was an aristocrat from Bukhara who rose in the administration of the Yuan dynasty to become the governor of the major province of Yunnan. As nomads, China’s new Mongol rulers, had to rely on the administrative skills of Central Asians, as well as other foreigners (together forming the Samu, meaning “assorted categories,” class), since they could not rely on the loyalty of the Chinese.

Another example of such Samu administrators was Kublai Khan’s vizier, Ahmad from the Iranian-speaking Tashkent (in today’s Uzbekistan) who had gained so much control over China that it amazed the visiting Marco Polo. Indeed, one of Kublai Khan’s achievements was to reopen the great east-west caravan routes with the Iranian-speaking world that had been closed since the Karakhitai (1124-1218) had severed them. Marco Polo was only one of the beneficiaries of the flourishing of trade. Ahmad’s jealous Chinese rivals seized upon his reputation as a womanizer to brand him as “villainous” and finally assassinate him. That land-route trade continued to thrive for another three centuries before being supplanted by the more efficient maritime exchange on sea routes found by navigators {16}.

Hui of Yinchuan

I found it hard to distinguish the Hui from their non-Muslim neighbors in Yinchuan. In the downtown, I ran into a Hui street vendor, and asked three young Hui girls direction to the Nanguan Mosque. The vendor wore a white cap, nicely embroidered, but the girls did not have headscarves. These items of clothing are considered distinctive to the Hui. In the mosque, I saw only two members of staff, both with white caps. There was only one visitor other than me. He soon joined a woman who was already in conversation with the staff. They were not wearing cap or headscarf. Their conversation was in Chinese.

The Nanguan Mosque lacked grandeur. Its main building was a simple two- story structure. Stairs led to a spacious prayer hall on the second floor which could accommodate a few hundred worshipers at a time. Next to the mosque was the Musilin Qingzhen (Muslim Mosque) Supermarket. Most of the other shops on the street were not marked as Muslim enterprises. The area was not especially crowded. Our tour guide ignored the “Muslim cultural Center” in this neighborhood as “just a small place for them to learn some things.”

We were told that the Hui were so thoroughly assimilated in Yinchuan that virtually their only connection to Islam was an aversion to pork. Muslim restaurants were distinguished for serving kosher halal mutton food. In the town of Zhongwei, some 18 kilometers from Shapotou, we had a lunch of that food [92], served in small private rooms of the restaurant. It was different from typical foods of the Chinese cuisine.

The Hui constitute about 26.3 percent of the population of Yinchuan and 33.88 percent of the total population of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Yet, both the mayor of Yinchuan and the Chairwoman (Governor) of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region are Hui. In some towns of that Region which has a population of 6.1 million, about half of the senior officials are ethnic Hui. All these are, in effect, appointed offices, although the governor is formally “elected by the Ningxia People’s Congress.”

Our guide said those positions are reserved for the Hui “by law”. The central Chinese government, indeed, has favored the Hui among China’s 10 different Muslim nationalities. As reported by various foreign journalists, the treatment of the Hui, who are the second largest such Muslim group, especially contrasts with that of the largest, the Uyghur.  For one thing, the Hui in Ningxia and the adjacent Gansu Province are allowed to practice Islam in the open. They operate Islamic schools and ignore the old policy which barred people under 18 from entering mosques.  In some cities there are mosques on practically every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils. As one of their elders has recently told a Western reporter: “Muslims from other parts of China who come here, especially from Xinjiang, can’t believe how free we are.” The unrest of the Uyghur in the further west Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is well-known. That kind of strife is almost nonexistent in Ningxia, as are the restrictions on religion that fuel the Uighur discontent.

The Hui generally subscribe to a moderate brand of Islam. They avoid proselytizing to non-Muslims and also, more important, avoid contact with Islamic organizations outside China. The Chinese government, worried about the spread of Islamic extremism, has shown concern that foreigners with ulterior motives might incite trouble among Chinese Muslims. The Hui people’s demonstration of the capacity to coexist with the Communist Party has been rewarded not only with government posts but also with allowing them to obtain passports for foreign travel. In Xinjiang, by contrast, “most important government posts go to the Han, and young Uighurs find it hard to get passports to travel abroad. Government workers in Xinjiang who go to mosques or fast during the holy month of Ramadan often find themselves unemployed.”

The Hui leaders have told Western reporters: “We want to show the world that Islam is a tolerant, peace-loving religion, not the religion of burqas and bomb-throwing that people see on the news…. We also want to show that … we fully enjoy the lenient ethnic policies of the government.” The Chinese government is seeking to leverage this posture by positioning the Hui as “mercantile emissaries to the Muslim world, a role that has been bolstered by President Xi Jinping’s national initiative for a new Silk Road.”  Special “Muslim products” industrial parks have been established where the Hui live with the help of inexpensive land and low taxes. An example of the enterprises that have benefited is the Yijia Ethnic Clothing. Its three factories now produce “50 million hats a year and provide more than two-thirds of the world’s low-priced Islamic headwear {17}.”

Hui Culture Park

In the last few hours of our stay in Yinchuan, out tour guide took us to the Hui Culture Park in Ningxia. As he had shown scant interest in telling us about the Hui, this visit seemed almost obligatory for him. The Chinese media call the Park “the best place to experience China’s Muslim culture.” The man in charge of the Park explained why it was established, in 2005: “There was no place that exhibited the history and culture of the ethnic Hui. So the government of Ningxia built this Hui Culture Park and Ethnic Hui Museum to fill this tourism and culture vacuum {18}.”

The Park is located not in the Yinchuan city proper but in Yongning County, one of the two counties included in Yinchuan.  We drove on a wide modern boulevard, with a number of new high-rise buildings on one side, in the otherwise largely vacant land.  About 165 acres (1000 mu) have been allocated to the Hui Culture Park. Nearly one third of this has been opened as the first phase in the form of an ethnic Hui theme park with a museum, a mosque, an “ethnic customs” village, a catering and performance center, a restaurant and an art and craft shopping street. The officials of the Park have said: “It’s the only place in China where you can see every aspect of the Hui culture {19}.”

We were among the first to arrive in the early morning in the large empty plaza at the main entrance to the Park which could hold some 20,000 people and, we were told, “during festivals … turns into a sea of song and dance.” This plaza led to a magnificent white building which had an arched entrance with a dome on the top, several smaller domes and minarets in the back, and long arched corridors, on the two sides. This structure was clearly meant to be a Chinese near replica of India’s Taj Mahal, built by the Muslim Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, which I had seen in Agra. The Taj Mahal was in ivory-white marble; the Park entrance building was in plaster, its columns covered with intricate bas-reliefs carvings (gachbori) of Islamic calligraphy and decorative designs.

A man with a white cap and a woman with a headscarf entered the building with us. Inside the lobby we were met by another woman with a headscarf, who was a member of staff [97]. Scaffolding on the other face of the building was indicative that the Park was still a work in progress, more than a decade after it opened.  In a courtyard, a long reflection pool, another reminder of the Taj Majal model, directed us toward the “Aisha Palace (Temporary Museum) .” This Qasr (Palace) was not as ostentatious. Yet, with 7,000 square meters, it was the largest Hui museum in China.

As Park officials described it: “The museum is divided into five halls and has 1,000 relics and books on the Hui people and Islamism. The exhibits point to the historical and cultural origins of the ethnic Hui people, the development of Islamic civilization, the distinctive culture and customs of the Chinese Hui people, the Hui people’s contributions to Chinese culture and the establishment, development and changes of the Hui people in Ningxia{20} .”

I found much of this to be only aspirational goals. The Park director claimed that it “has attracted many foreign tourists with its rich exhibits.”  Some signs outside the Museum were in English and Arabic as well as Chinese, but there was no English writing in most of the signs inside, no English brochure and no good explanations by our own guide. One area was called, in an English sign: “park customs and culture of chinese hui people” with no further explanation in English, although there was a logo of allowing scanning with the picture of the Park in the middle . As I walked around here, I found on the walls a few pictures of people from centuries ago in Islamic garbs and on some of them there were a few lines in Arabic . There was no indication on how these were related to the Hui. In one corner, there was a map of China, with color-coded areas and a table showing the increase in the population of 33 parts, each from 1960 to 2010, indicating that the total population of all increased in that period from 3,934,336 to 10,586,087 . Other than the numbers, all the writings were in Chinese. This hardly made any sense to a visitor who did not understand Chinese. I only guessed by the numbers that the map perhaps was about the Hui population in China. Next I saw on another wall a picture of 9 men, some in military uniforms of the Imperial, Nationalist and Communist eras, as well a few in traditional Chinese clothes, with no explanation in any language but Chinese. Elsewhere, there was a series of Arabic calligraphy of the names of Allah and Mohammad [106], again with no explanation as to their specific connection with the Hui.

Among its collection of “relics,” the Museum claims “a Koran as small as a finger nail and an ancient golden bell as large as a human.”  Its most highly treasured items include “the oldest and best preserved Ningxia-discovered Koran from the Ming Dynasty between the 14th  and 17th  centuries, two ancient Arabic ship models and 12 sets of Islamic apparel which were donated by Abdullah Maatouk, the Kuweit (sic) judicial minister.” The Kuwaiti connection to the Hui culture was a mystery to me, until I noticed at one entrance to the Museum a display of pictures from Kuwait. A sign in Arabic said:  “The Opening of the Kuwaiti Wing.” This part of the sign was also in Chinese but not English. In another part of the same sign which was in English as well, two of the four pictures in the display collage were identified: “The Grand Mosque in the State of Kuwait” and a Kuwait Boom Ship. The signs for two other pictures were not in English.

Museum officials have said that its “variety of historical relics provide valuable materials for people to study Islamic culture,” adding that “We are working with Islamic associations and institutes.” They have reported that “ambassadors and scholars from Kuwait, Yemen, Iran {21}, Pakistan, Egypt and other Islamic countries all came to visit,” and have “ proposed to cooperate with the museum and have donated more relics to further enrich the museum.”  They have maintained that “The purpose for building this culture park is to offer a place for tourists from home and abroad to appreciate the Hui people’s history and culture, including Hui folk culture, dances, songs and movies. Our next plan is to expand the park.” They have added:  “We are planning to set up an Islamic cultural exchange center and an Arabic language school. We want to establish a platform for friendly exchanges with the world’s Islamic countries. I think this will also help Ningxia to open up to the outside world {22}.”

The Museum was connected by a courtyard to what was referred to as “a ritual palace”. There were tent- like structures in this courtyard, perhaps invoking the tents of the Bedouin Muslims. Two golden domes and four Minarets beyond the tents were, indeed, those of a mosque –which in the Chinese Communist parlance was referred to as a ritual palace.

In the huge grand hall of the mosque nine men and one woman were sitting on the floor listening to a woman guide . She and the woman in the group were both wearing long red headscarves, and pants and tops that covered the rest of their bodies. The mosque’s columns and walls were ornately decorated with traditional Islamic designs and the calligraphic Arabic profession of creed “There is no God but Allah; Mohammad is the Prophet of God.”  The semicircular niche in the wall, the Mihrab, indicated the direction that Muslims should face when praying.

Outside the Mosque we noticed that a few more tourists had now arrived in the Park. A few steps away, a white-capped man was pointing out something to a woman clad in the Hui traditional custom . They were at the door of a replica of what was called a typical house of the rich Hui in the countryside. We entered the courtyard which was covered with an overhang of grapevines . In the rooms inside the building, the furniture was of wood. Next door there was another house which featured, as the sign said, “The Hui’s feast .” We opted to see the restaurant of the Park which was in a modern looking building called Mansu’er Palace . A man with a big old- style straw broom was sweeping the steps in front of it. The restaurant was closed.

A man worshiping another god later drove us to the airport. He had a small bust of Mao Zedong on the dashboard of his van. “Some people here think that bust is a blessing, good luck, will protect you,” our local guide explained.




{1} As I read in Chinese sources: “The logo is meant to resemble an open gate, indicating that China welcomes overseas guests while the lights symbolize a bright future for Sino-Arab communications in culture and trade. The dome, composed of colored blocks to the left is a Muslim symbol to highlight its unique culture, and the concept of equality and cooperation with winning results. The red blocks represent China’s passion, energy and prosperity, while the green ones represent the Arab states, and life, hope and peace < 09/02/content_21776016.htm> (Accessed 5/19/2016) .”

{2} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{3} This was the 4th year the Exop had been held in Ningxia. According to the Chinese, it had “exerted a great deal of influence in China and abroad,” and resulted in “636 project agreements, amounting to 355.8 billion yuan ($55.4 billion), and vastly improving Ningxia’s foreign trade.”

{4} <,_One_Road>  References [2][3][4]  and[5][6] (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{5} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)}

{6} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{7} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)}.

{8} Man, John (2004). Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection, pp. 116–117

{9} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{10 } Starr, S. Frederick (2013). Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, pp.  448-449

{11} Ten years ago, while visiting Samarkand’s Afrosiob History Museum (in today’s Uzbekistan), I had seen a series of 7th Century Sogdian murals in one of which the ruler was depicted receiving gifts of silk from China, while in another panel a Chinese beauty was shown sailing in a boat.

{12} Starr, p. 122

{13} Accordingly, even in the Turkish Uygur areas of China, I had noticed, Kashgar’s largest Mosque is called Idkah (Persian for “a place for festivities”) and Turpan’s best hotel is called Boostan Mehmankhaneh (Persian for “The Garden Hotel”).

{14} In the long- gone Tang Dynasty, when Muslims first appeared in China in the 750’s, Islam was originally called Dashi Jiao (“Law of the Arabs”). Early European explorers speculated that the Hui originated from the Iranian-speaking Khorezmians who were transported to China by the Mongols.  In Xian (Chang’an), which was the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and continued thereafter as a commercial center on the Silk Road in the later dynasties, I was told by the assistant to the Imam, the leader of its 60,000 strong Muslim community, in 2005, that key Persian words were still current among the Xian Muslims. They included: bamdad (morning), and sham (evening) -used especially in reference to the times of Muslim prayer-, doosti (friendship), doshman (enemy), and khoda hafez (goodbye).

{15} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{16} Starr, pp. 450- 451

{17} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{18} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{19} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{20} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{21}  Iran was conspicuously absent in the Yinchuan Expo. China was a part of a group of world powers (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council–the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China- plus Germany) that negotiated and , on 14 July 2015, signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, regarding restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting the sanctions on that country imposed in 2006 by the UN Security Council with China’s concurrence. Accordingly, China was expected to begin making “necessary arrangements and preparations,” in October of 2015, to implement its commitments under the JCPOA.  President Xi Jinping was the first major world leader to visit Tehran, almost immediately, after the sanctions were lifted. In January 2016 he went to plant “a flag for Chinese business and cast his country as a more accommodating alternative to the West.”  He pointedly stressed that China and Iran were “natural partners” in implementing China’s proposed Belt and Road Initiative. < > (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{22} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)


TAIWAN; Forming a Nation in Exile



Forming a Nation in Exile

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


Table of Contents

Introduction; Lay of the land; Religion; Taiwanese and Mainlanders;  The Kuomintang Narrative  (Memorializing Sun Yat-sen, Showcasing Chiang Kai-shek, National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine);  Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (Falun Dafa); Liberty Square; National Palace Museum; Economic Tiger; Sunflower Movement; Culture; Food (Night Market, Dumpling); People (Doctor, Working Women, Men in Business, Students); Conclusion



For most people, Taiwan brings to mind,  by word association, Chiang Kai-shek, Quemoy and Matsu, two-China policy and Asian economic Tiger. The more politically interested might think of the Sunflower Movement, and the culturally-attuned of the Palace Museum, Ang Lee and Stan Lai. All of these, however, are the present. The future is as important, and that is firmly rooted in the past of Taiwan, as I learned from my investigation during a visit in September of 2015.

Lay of the land

On the bus that took me from the airport to my hotel in Taipei, a young woman sat next to me. She was coming home from California to look after her mother in-law who had recently taken ill. Her husband was too busy at work. “It is Chinese culture,” she said in her perfect American accent, “family is so important.” Ordinarily, this would not have “exemplified” a culture, but as I would find out, to understand Taiwan you need to pay attention to hints and and symbols.

When I, later, looked down from the pool atop my hotel, the Taipei 101 building dominated the skyline. As the city’s signature building, it is meant to make a statement. It towers over other . structures . The next tallest building in Taipei has only 85 floors and the others hardly exceed 50 floors. When finished in 2004, Taipei 101, named after the number of its floors, boasted that it was the world’s tallest building. It remained that until another more pointedly boastful building, Burj Khalifa, was built in Dubai six years later.

At least the Taipei 101 is not in the desert. Far from it; all  around  me there were multi-story buildings in this part of Taipei. This is the new section of the city that has extended eastward recently. “Taipei” is now used to refer to both the Taipei City proper and the metropolitan area which includes the nearby cities of New Taipei and Keelung.  That metropolice with more than 7 million people or nearly one-third  the population of Taiwan is truly the “Center” of the country: its political, economic and cultural capital.

I took the elegant Dun Hua South Road in the eastern Da’an District to walk toward the old western core of Taipei, still considered the town’s cultural heart. The special attention paid to the development of eastern districts was noticeable in the graceful, broad boulevards with islands of trees . Along the way, however, I could see structures from the previous generations of development, multi-story residential units that now looked tired and in need of serious refurbishing . When I turned left onto Zhongxiao East Road, the face of the city changed. Chic stores gave way to shops where the everyday business of the town was carried out. Here was where people could find clothing, along with home wares and electronics. Mixed with smaller establishments were big department stores such as SOGO and Ming Yao. Several lanes of busy traffic replaced the green islands in the middle.

Gradually, the sidewalks narrowed; closer to the crowded center of  town, they were occupied by parked motorcycles. Small eateries with hardly any seatings inside but serving freshly cooked street foods proliferated. Most offered Chinese fare, a few Japanese. When I reached the campus of the National Taipei University there were also some others. I stepped into one called Nolo. It displayed on its wall a large saying attributed to Mark Twain about the kind of food it served: “New Orleans’s food is a crime more delicious than other minor sins.”

The crime that the government feared the students could commit was signified by the barbed wires a couple of blocks away. The wires were coiled, ready for deployment, in the parking lot of the Ministry of Education. This property was stormed by students and other “Anti Black Box Movement” protesters on July 23, 2015. Among the targets of their discontent were the proposed changes in the high school history curriculum, especially the removal in textbooks of Japanese contributions to Taiwan and the “whitewashing past atrocities” in Taipei by the ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT).  The decisions regarding those changes were allegedly made by politicians in the “back rooms,” or Black Box.

This area, where the major government buildings are located, is called the Zhongzheng District, named after the man better known to the world as Chiang Kai-shek, the late leader of KMT. His rule here (1950- 1975) bean after he fled mainland China in 1949, upon defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists in the Civil War. It followed the Japanese 50-year colonization of Taiwan which ended in 1945 by their defeat in World War Two. Many of the current government buildings in this district are from that Japanese era, including the prominent seat of the Legislative Yuan.

There are several other famous buildings in Taipei which were constructed during the Japanese occupation. Particularly striking was the Presbyterian Church which I was now looking at, in its own modest garden, on Jinan Street. This is a neo-gothic red brick structure with multiple arched windows, designed in 1916 by the man who is considered the father of modern architecture in Taiwan, Ide Kaoru. Today, right next to the Church on Zhongshan street (named after Sun Yat-sen, the founder of both the Republic of China and KMT), there were tents with large signs protesting that Taiwan was an independent country. They were manned by a few who had made the tents home for the duration. These were dissidents in the KMT who were opposed to the party’s policy of closer relationship with the People’s Republic of China.


I did not see anyone going into the Presbyterian Church. About 4.5% of Taiwanese are adherents of Christianity, including Protestants, Catholics, and non-denominational groups. Taiwanese “aborigines” constitute a notable subgroup among them. Nearly 65% of the aborigines profess Christianity.  The aborigines, however, comprise only 2% of the population of Taiwan. They are even less significant in Taipei where they constitute a mere 0.5% of the residents and mostly live in the suburbs. Of Austronesian stock, sharing the same language with the Tagalog of the Philippines and Malay and Indonesian of Malaysia and Indonesia, Taiwanese aborigines were the only inhabitants of the land prior to the 17th century. Since then, and especially after the early 18th century, Han Chinese immigrants have been arriving in dramatically increasing number. They now constitute over 95% of the population. The majority of them are the descendants of the early immigrants: 84% are these “Taiwanese,” while the rest of the Hans are recent “mainland” Chinese.

The different areas of China from which these two groups came are significant not only in determining their language but also their culture. The Hoklo people who constitute 70% of the “Taiwanese,” speak Taiwanese Hokkien, a variant of the speech of the southern Fujian province where they originated; and the Hakka who are 14% of the “Taiwanese,” came from Guangdong (Canton), and speak Hakka. These languages are not mutually intelligible with Mandarin which is the language used by the descendants of the 2 million “mainland” Nationalists who fled to Taiwan following the communist victory on the mainland in 1949.

Many of the principal leaders of the Nationalists had converted to Christianity. Not only Chiang Kai-shek was baptized in the Methodist church of the influential Soong family as a pre-condition for marrying their daughter Mei-ling, but before him, Sun Yat-sen, the first Nationalist President of China had converted . His later marriage to Mei-ling’s older sister did not require it; Yat-sen’s conversion to Christianity was premised on his conviction that China should seek new ways and modernize like the West (Westernize). He thus implicitly rejected the retarding aspects of Confucianism. Chiang Kai-shek who became a faithful Christian, on the other hand, felt that Christianity reinforced Confucian moral teachings.

I had a glimpse of the impact of religion and traditional culture on the life of Taipei in the Lungshan Temple. Located in the southeastern part of Taippei , it is “the center of the town’s spirituality,” according to my guide. Lungshan is the oldest temple in the city, built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian, as a branch of the original Lungshan Temple in that province of China . It was to be both a place of worship and a gathering place. The temple has been destroyed either in full or in part, but has been rebuilt. It is still considered a prime example of Taiwanese classical architecture with Southern Chinese influences, especially from Fujian. The Temple has three main halls of worship, one behind the other as you go back from its main entrance on the street which faces south. All of the halls are surrounded by “protective” dragons, notably on the roof . Additionally, the front hall  has two dragons pillars and the central hall has four  . Inside the halls, the exquisitely crafted wood carving is remarkable , as are the columns and inscriptions.

Lungshan typifies most temples in Taiwan in that “a mixture of deities from Buddhism and Chinese folk religions such as Guanyin, Mazu and Guan Yu are worshipped here,” my guide said.  “There are Buddhist, Tao and Confucian elements, all combined there,” he continued. “People don’t know and don’t care about their different origins; they are there for their own prayers. Two places in the Temple are most popular, one to pray for ancestors and the other to pray for passing exams.”  I saw rows of worshippers at Lungshan. They seemed to comprise a cross-section of Taipei’s residents. There were older people but also young ones , folks in work clothes but also stylish women . They bowed at the entrance, put their hands together in reverential greetings and lighted the candles which they had bought here.

Lungshan is in Wanhua District. Called Bangka in Taiwanese Hokkien, this is Taipei’s oldest area. It is a place which has largely escaped the city’s architectural modernization. Right next to the Temple, I walked through a narrow alley  still called Spice Alley .  Four women were squatting on the floor and cleaning herbs, clad in black T-shirts. In the late Qing era, around the middle of the 19th century, Bangka was the center of trade in Taiwan. It was the largest and most important city of northern Formosa, as the island was called at the time.  I crossed the street from Spice Alley into the Bo-Pi-Liao area  which has survived from the   Qing Dynasty part of the old Bangka district. In the period of Japanese occupation, this area was largely subjected to benign neglect  . Taipei has recently undertaken a project for its renovation . Its revived old curved alleys   were attractive . In the empty room of a restored house, this day I noticed a hairdresser working on a bride in full wedding dress while the husband- to- be was patiently observing the grooming .

On the other side of Lungshan Temple was a street with blocks of stores which sold busts and statutes of Taipei worshippers’ many deities.  Some were familiar, like the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy , called Guanyin, along with other Buddha representations . One statue was of Mazu . She is the much revered sea goddess, protector of  fishermen and sailors, said to have been born in Fujian in the year 960 and ascended to heavens at the age of 26. There were several statues of Guan Yu, also called Guan Gong, a general who died in 220 and was deified in the late 6th century. He looked fierce with his red face and long beards . There were other, less famous, frightening deity figures with black beard  , red beard  or masks ; they were counter-balanced by some benign looking  and even happy deities .

As I walked up the street in this neighborhood, I found small  shrines  to local deities so common in all of Taipei. In front, the shrines had many red lanterns and yellow ones with red inscriptions, strung from side to side. This was in accordance with the Taoist tradition which says that the “Official of Heaven” enjoys bright and joyful objects.  Presently, I came to a storefront which had a table covered with oranges, kiwis and wild lilies at its doorstep. There were several women in saffron color robes sitting around a table inside . Outside, there was a cauldron of burning fire. I asked a man what this was about. He said “Bye-bye.” I was later told that this was a ceremony for a recently deceased person. The fire was to burn in it brown “Joss” papers to render them as money bills available for the departed loved ones.

A few steps away, I noticed another store- front gathering. Outside, there was a small crowd surrounding a table laid with cakes and other foods , while inside, a man was addressing another group seated at a long rectangular table. There was an election soon to be held, as I was told, and the speaker was campaigning for a candidate. Politicians of all Taiwanese parties use temples for political gatherings, appearing at them, especially, during campaigns. The Kuomintang has long used traditional Chinese religious ceremonies. Chiang Kai-shek believed that the deceased witnessed events from heaven. When the party’s founder, Sun Yat-sen, died, Chiang led Kuomintang Generals to pay tribute to Sun’s soul in heaven with a sacrificial ceremony at a Beijing temple in 1928.

There are no reliable counts of the number of gods and goddesses in the Taiwanese pantheon; there have been estimates of up to 36,000. Some of the worshiped supernatural entities may more accurately be described as saints, demons or even ghosts. Many were once mortals on Earth; in a temple or two, sacrifices are made even to icons of Chiang Kai-shek. There are three major categories of folk deities: protective gods of land and town and a group of spirits who would cause harm if not given offerings.

Taiwanese folk religion is an umbrella covering various elements from Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Confucianism is more a philosophy dealing with ethics underpinning the Taiwanese culture. Most Taiwanese combine its teachings with whatever religions they associate with. There is a Confucius Temple in Taipei, with elements of southern Fujian-style architecture, which was established in 1879. The main Buddhist Temple I found was in Keelung, with a prominent statue of Avalokitesvara in front of it . That bodhisattva, and a few others, are often also worshipped along with various Taoist deities in Taipei’s Taoist temples, which are far more numerous. Although 35% of Taiwanese are counted as Buddhist, while only 33% are Taoist, more than 78% of all registered temples are Taoist temples. Taiwanese Taoism, of the Zhengyi school, is different from northern Chinese Quanzhen Taoism as it lacks “a contemplative, ascetic and monastic tradition.” It is thoroughly entwined with folk religion, with the priest functioning as the ritual minister of local community’s cult.

The constitution of the Republic of China explicitly provides for freedom of religion. The government now recognizes 26 religions. There is a street in Taipei, Xinsheng South Road, which is known as the “Road to Heaven” because of its concentration of temples, shrines, churches, and even mosques. Noteably, Chiang Kai-shek was attentive to Chinese Muslims. His government provided the financial support for building the Taipei Grand Mosque. Chiang deemed all the minority peoples as well as the Han Chinese as the “Five Races under One Union.” That was the principle upon which the Republic of China was originally founded in 1911. Accordingly, the five-colored official flag represented the Hans, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Hui Muslim Chinese. Chiang Kai-shek considered all the minority peoples and the Han Chinese as the descendants of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, the semi- mythical founder of the Chinese nation. There were other considerations as well. In his rise to power before coming to Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek developed close relationships with several Muslim Generals who supported him. He became a sworn brother of one whom he appointed to high ranking position. Later, he even appointed another, General Bai Chongxi, to be the Minister of National Defence of the Republic of China.

Taiwanese and Mainlanders

The Republic of China’s relationship with the Chinese who had lived in Taiwan (Taiwanese) was far less cordial. Their unhappy fate under mainland rulers who in 1945 replaced the Japanese occupiers of Taiwan, is recorded in the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum . The museum in on the site of a radio station, originally established by the Japanese authorities in 1930 as an arm of their propaganda organization. In 1945 the radio station became the broadcast organ of the Kuomintang government. In 1998, soon after Taiwan entered its modern democracy period, the building was dedicated as the current museum.

The choice of the site was directly related to the fact that in 1947, a group of protesters, aroused by brutal police action, temporarily occupied the station and employed it to broadcast charges against the Kuomintang government. This was part of a series of events which have come to be referred to as the 228 (February 28) Incident which was firmly suppressed by the government. Quickly regaining control of the radio station, the Kuomintang ushered in a period described as White Terror, to indicate the toll it took on the Taiwanese. Tens of thousands lost their lives in the months following the Incident.

Many of the displays I saw in the museum were accompanied by signs describing them in English as well as Chinese.  They reflected the free discussion of the Incident which was encouraged by the authorities following President Lee Teng-hui’s official apology in 1995.  A particularly plaintiff sign depicted the intense cultural pressures that the Taiwanese felt just before the Incident:

“During the 10 year of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937and the 228 Incident 1947, Taiwanese people experienced critical historical changes. The intention of the Kominga Movement (Japanization) was to completely trying (sic) to uproot Han culture in Taiwan, while the “crackdown on traitors” by the National Government in 1946 was aimed at eliminating any remnant of Japanese culture and influence in Taiwan. Most people who experienced the 228 Incident lived through two different eras, learning two different languages, swearing loyalty to two different flags, and holding two different identities.

How were the Taiwanese people supposed to deal with the fast identity switch as they moved from one regime and culture to another, going from relative self government before the war, colonization during the war, and tyranny after? How to adjust themselves of (sic) successive regimes that were equally violent, my Taiwanese people ?”

The reference to “relative self government before the war” was amplified by comments about the “The First Political Party in Taiwan-Taiwanese People’s Party” in 1927  and a picture of a group of well-dressed men and women representing the Taiwanese Communist Party, which dated back to 1917 . There were pictures showing aspects of “Kominga Movement (Japanization)”  ; and others depicting “Autonomy in the Political Vacuum Period,” “Learning Mandarin Chinese …from Japanese to Chinese,” and “Homecoming to build a new Taiwan  .”

A display explained in some details the reason for 228 Incident:

“What caused Taiwanese people who were welcoming the motherland country from the joy to dissipate so rapidly that after just one year later the 228 Incident broke out?

Taiwanese people were excluded from the political power. Among the 21 key positions in the Provincial Administrative Executive Officers, only one was held by a Taiwanese, and out of the 17 county and city mayors, only 3 were Taiwanese.

Economically, the National government continued the Japanese monopolistic system of controlling high-profit enterprises such as alcohol, tobacco and sugar …etc, leaving nothing for private businesses. Oppressive economic control, plus rampant corruption amongst government officials, soon made the people refer to the National government’s arrival at Taiwan as something of a hostile takeover and a form of plundering.

The illegal, disorderly, and outrageous behavior of soldiers and policemen was an insult and humiliation for the Taiwanese people. Furthermore, the cultural difference and language barriers, contributed to the collective buildup of resentment against the Nationalist government .”

The rather fortuitous cause of the February 27 event that led to the Incident was described as follows:

“People suffered from corrupt politics. Unemployment worsened everyday, so some people had no choice but to sell smuggled cigarettes to make a living, yet the police and investigators from the Monopoly Bureau continued to relentlessly crack down on them. On February 27, 1947, a citizen was shot dead accidentally by the authorities while contraband cigarettes were being seized, and this led to the outbreak of the 228 Incident. The long-suppressed resentment of the people against the administration of Chen Yi was ignited, and like wildfire spread through the island, resulting in the voices of Taiwan uniting and clamoring for political reform .”

For emphasis, another display pointed out that “The 227 Incident Bloodshed (was) amid the Crackdown on Smuggled Cigarettes,” and that it was due to “Problems Derived from the Monopoly System  .”

The Taipei 228 Memorial Museum is in the southern corner of Taiwan’s oldest urban public park, established in 1908, which has been rededicated as The 228 Peace Memorial Park . At the center of the park stands the 228 Massacre Monuments , erected on the 50th anniversary of the Incident, in 1997. It was designed by the Taiwanese architect Cheng Tsu-tsai who had submitted his plan from prison. He had been put in jail for a 1970 assassination attempt on Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s  son and eventual successor. After finishing that sentence he was kept in jail for illegal entry to Taiwan.   At the Monument this plea for peace and unity is inscribed:

“Mistrust between Taiwanese and mainlanders, and the argument on whether Taiwan should declare independence or be united with China, have become hot issues with potentially worrisome implications. … [T]he task of healing a serious trauma in a society must depend on the whole-hearted collaborative effort by all its people. … Henceforward, we must be one, no matter which communal group we belong….”

The Kuomintang Narrative

It is doubtful that such wish can be easily achieved in Taiwan, even by the greatest “unifier” in modern Chinese history, Dr. Sun Yat-sen. He is referred to as the “Father of the Nation” by the Kuomintang and the “forerunner of democratic revolution” by the People’s Republic of China. When the Democratic Progressive Party ruled Taiwan (2000-2008), however, its Ministry of Education declared, in November of 2004, that Sun Yat-sen was not the father of the independent country of Taiwan; instead, Sun was just a “foreigner” from China. In the furor that this decaration caused among other citizens of Taiwan, eggs were thrown at the Education Minister in protest and a retired 70-year-old soldier mainlander slit his own throat.

Memorializing Sun Yat-sen

The loyalists like that soldier are still commanded to “Salute, please” before the immense sitting statue of Sun Yat-sen  in the Memorial to the great man in Taipei. Completed in 1972, the building is literally called the “National Father of the Nation Memorial Hall.” It is a place to retell the history of Sun’s life and, especially, the complex and complicated story of the 1911 Chinese Revolution which he led. That was the revolution that culminated in the overthrow of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911. The summary of Sun’s life is presented in big banners in the Hall with significant numbers in bold: Born in 1866 in a village in Guangdong Province; graduated from Hong Kong’s College of Medicine for Chinese in 1892; founded the first revolutionary organization – Hsing Chung Hui (Society for the Revival of China)-  in 1894; provisional president of the Republic of China in 1912; died in Beijing in 1925; the National Government issued an order to all to address him as the “Father of the Nation” in 1940 . Another banner summed up his revolutionary accomplishments:  led 11 “revolutions” over a 17 year period before establishing the Republic of China, devoting 40 years to revolution .

Dramatic occasions of Sun’s revolutionary activities were recorded in several massive framed reliefs with descriptions under them. They were numbered chronologically. No. 1 was “Organizing the Hsing Chung Hui  and Advocating Revolution”  which said: Dr. Sun Yat-sen, on November 24, 1894 established the Hsing Chung Hui at Honolulu with the solemn pledge of “expelling traitors, restoring the Chinese , and establishing the republican government.” On February 21, 1895, the Hsing Chung Hui in Hong Kong was founded. The revolutionary Army Flag with a white sun set against blue sky was approved at the meeting held on March 16. Dr. Sun then launched the first uprising at Kwangchow in October  . Relief No. 5 was titled “Toppling the Manchu Government and Founding the Republic .”  No. 8 was about “Building the Armed forces, Passing on the Revolution .”  It read: “Under the instruction of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek (established) the Huangpu (Wharmpoa) Military Academy on January 24, 1924… and was appointed as the Commander of the Academy. On June 16, Dr. Sun presided over the dedication ceremony … and gave a speech on the profound knowledge of the revolution. He encouraged all cadets to develop the spirit … and to fulfill their assigned mission of defending the nation. Dr. Sun also determined that the school motto for the Academy should be its esprit de corp .”

A sign in red summed up Sun’s efforts toward the 1911 Revolution: “After 10 failed attempts and revolution over 17 years Sun finally succeeded after the Wuchang Uprising and the Xinhai [the Chinese year equal to 1911] Revolution that followed … .”  The turning point was the Wuchang Uprising on October 10, 1911 (now commemorated as the Double Ten Day). The irony was that Sun Yat-sen had no direct involvement in the Wuchang Uprising -in Hubei province, in the easternmost part of Central China- as he was in one of his frequent foreign exiles (which placed him in a variety of places such as Japan, London, Canada and the United States). The uprising was led by Huang Xing. He was a revolutionary with military training and experience who had joined Sun Yat-sen in 1905 to found the Tongmenghui (United League) -a group of revolutionary Chinese students which sponsored uprisings to overthrow the Qing Dynasty- and became Tongmenghui’s second most important leader, after Sun.

Sun learned of the Wuchang Uprising’s success from press reports and immediately returned to Hong Kong from the United States in December of 1911 .   On 29 December 1911, some 44 representatives from various “Recovered Provinces” which had “separated” from the Qing government’s control met in Nanking (Nanjing) and elected Sun Yat-sen as the “Provisional President” of a new central government, the Republic of China .  Huang Xing was appointed the minister of the army. The 1911 Revolution culminated in the abdication of the six-year-old Puyi, Qing’s “Last Emperor” on February 12, 1912, which symbolized the end of 2,000 years of imperial rule in China and the beginning of the country’s early republican era (1912–16).

This narrative of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial building in Taipei needed explanation and completion. From other accounts of the history which I read, success in the last mentioned phase, ending in the abdication, was typically the result of Sun Yat-sen’s achieving the cooperation of yet another powerful person. In response to the dire situation created by the growing power of the new Republic of China, in 1911 the Qing government had brought back General Yuan Shikai, who had been dismissed in 1909 from his position as the commander of Qing’s most effective military force, the Beiyang (literary “North Ocean Army”) Army. Yuan Shikai, with the loyalty of the Beiyang Army, soon came to dominate Qing politics. He now reasoned that going to war with the increasingly powerful government of the Republic of China would be unreasonable and costly. Yuan Shikai began negotiating with Sun Yat-sen, who decided that he could allow Yuan to step into the position of President of the Republic of China as a condition to bringing about the abdication of the child emperor Puyi, on 12 February 1912.

Sun Yat-sen is credited for the funding of the Revolution, largely by contributions from overseas Chinese, and for keeping the spirit of the revolutionaries up in the face of numerous failures of uprisings. His political genius was in successfully merging minor revolutionary groups in a single front of those who shared the same goals. He also articulated those goals in ideals to which those diverse groups could agree: what he called the Three Principles of the People, independence from imperialist domination, democracy and the people’s welfare.

When Yuan Shikai’s ambitions clashed with Sun’s ideas, his Tongmenghu group merged with a number of new small parties to form a new political party called the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party, commonly abbreviated as KMT) on 25 August 1912. Losing an armed conflict with Yuan’s forces in 1913, Sun sought asylum in Japan.  In 1915 Yuan Shikai proclaimed the Empire of China (1915–1916) with himself as Emperor of China.

China had now become divided between different military leaders without a proper central government. Sun returned to China in 1917 to advocate Chinese reunification. Soon he became convinced that the only hope for a unified China was in a military conquest from his base in the south which, he hoped, would usher a period of political tutelage to pave the way for democracy. Characteristically, to hasten such conquest, Sun Yat-sen adopted a policy of active cooperation with the Communist Party of China (CPC).  He accepted the communists as members of his KMT. He sought and received help from the Soviet Union which enabled him to develop the military power needed for the Northern Expedition against the military foes in the north of China.

Showcasing Chiang Kai-shek

Sun Yat-sen directly involved himself to “supervise the Northern Expedition”, as a framed picture in his Memorial, dated April 20, 1923,  showed him with “his chief of staff, Chiang Kai-Shek .”  Chiang had returned in 1911 from Japan  where he was a student for 4 years at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy, serving in the Imperial Japanese Army in the last two. In 1908 he had joined the Tongmenghui.  In June 1924 Sun Yat-sen inaugurated the Huangpu (Whampoa ) Military Academy  -on Changzhou Island offshore from the Whampoa (Huangpu) dock in Guangzhou.  He took the honorary title of the  “Premier of the academy” himself  but appointed Chiang Kai-shek the first commandant of the academy. The Soviet Union provided the money for the construction and support of the Academy in 1924-1925.  When Chiang also became the commander of the First Corps of the newly formed National Revolutionary Army’s (NRA), which was led by Whampoa graduates, he personally appointed the already prominent Communist Zhou Enali director of the Corps’ Political Department.  This full collaboration, called the First United Front, did not last long.

Sun Yat-sen died in March 1925.  In June 1926 Chiang became Commander-in-Chief of the NRA. In July he addressed 100,000 soldiers of the Army in a ceremony which was the official commencement of the Northern Expedition. Within months, half of China was under the NRA control.  In the ruling Kuomintang party, however, the growing division between the Communist bloc and the other factions surfaced.  In early 1927 the split in the revolutionary ranks resulted in the Communists and the left wing of the Kuomintang moving the seat of the Nationalist government from Guangzhou to Wuhan. Chiang, in turn, used his successful Northern Expedition forces to “massacre” the Communists in Shanghai and establish an anti-Communist government at Nanjing. China now had three capitals, as foreign powers continued to still recognize the warlord regime in Beijing. Chiang’s forces occupied Beijing (restoring its old name which means “Northern Capital”) in 1928, but kept Nanjing as their capital until 1937.  The Japanese who invaded China in 1937, made Beijing the capital of their puppet regime in China. That invasion which led to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 to 1945) suspended the Chinese Civil War from 1937 to 1941 and created a brief alliance between the Chinese Nationalists Kuomintang and the Communist Party called the Second United Front to resist the Japanese.

All that drama documented in the Father of the Nation Memorial Hall largely bypassed Taiwan, as it was under unshakable Japanese occupation, indeed a Japanese colony, all this time. The two exhibits relating to Taiwan which I saw in the Memorial Hall punctuated this point. One was a relief  about Sun Yat-sen’s “Sojourn in Taiwan to Lay Plans for the Huichow Uprising” in October 1900. He came to ask for the support from Taiwan’s “Japanese Governor-General Kodama Gentar.” He was not successful .  The other exhibit was about a Taiwanese general, Lee Yui-Hang and his wife.  A picture shows them at a party in August 1945, after “China defeated Japan,” with “friends on the mainland gathered to give the couple a sendoff on their return to Taiwan .” Next to this is another picture of the couple  with a caption that said his wife, Madam Yen Hsiu Fang “was arrested and imprisoned for the crime of joining the communist organization” after this photo was taken .

National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine.

It was not surprising that I did not find many visitors in the Sun Yat-sen Memorial. The Taiwanese were even less interested in what their city’s National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine had to offer. This was a memorial dedicated to the war dead of the Republic of China, built in 1969, even before the Memorial to Sun Yet-sen.  It has incorporated modern technology by offering a computerized Searching System of Martyrs . Among the earliest martyrs noted in its many framed remembrance of the various “Revolutionary Wars,” are “the 72 martyrs of Huanghuakang” who died in one of failed uprisings about six months before the celebrated Wuchang uprising . Those martyrs were mostly youths with all kinds of social backgrounds and their uprising is now observed in Taiwan on March 29, as the Youth Day.

I observed some youths of Taipei in the town’s celebrated modern subway on my way to the Martyrs’ Shrine. It was hard to engage them in conversation as most had their eyes glued to their cell phones , or their faces covered with masks against airborne viruses . A couple got off with me at the same station which was near the Shrine. I asked them for direction. They were helpful but said that they never had gone to the Martyrs’ Shrine themselves. They were typical of many youths in that they had studied in American colleges in the 1980s, one in North Carolina and the other in Georgia –long and far away from the Martyrs.

In the Shrine one martyr was specially honored by a rare bust, Yang Kuang-Sheng, “an American PhD holder,: killed in 1942 for his anti-Japanese activities Two Chinese-speaking guides who saw me reading the English inscription on this unique item, immediately called in Tiger. He was their English-speaking colleague. Tourists from America were welcome but also unique in the Shrine as Tiger spent quite some time just with me, introducing the Shrine.

The American Ph.D. holder was among the latest martyrs remembered. Another unique martyr, the only woman I found here, was among the earliest. The inscription under her bust said: “Chu Chin…  full of national conviction and renowned for… her poetries,” died upon a failed attempt against the Manchu Dynasty  in 1907. “She was nabbed and simply wrote ‘wind and rain in autumn season made me sorrowful .’” The other references in the Shrine were to the events in between these two dates, mostly to the years of Chiang Kai-shek’s activities, 1924-1949.

The mention of Sun Yat-sen was exceptional here. His 1899 ordering of the earliest of the uprisings in Hueichow is recalled, which failed because “the Japanese government did not support the revolution in China by prohibiting the export of weapons from Taiwan to the revolutionaries in the mainland .”  As in the Sun Yat-sen memorial’s reference to the Huichow (Hueichow), in the Martyrs’ Shrine this is the only time Taiwan’s involvement in the revolutionary history is mentioned. Sun Yat-sen is mentioned once more in connection with ordering the attack on Canton in 1911 which eventually led to the successful uprising in Wuchang . He is recalled as instructing “Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek” to “establish” the Whampoa Military Academy  (WMA) in 1924 . Henceforth, it is the Generalissimo who is the dominant figure of Chinese history as told in the Martyrs’ Shrine.

In February 1925 Chiang personally led the Eastern Expedition, by 3000 students of WMA, twice defeating two warlords . On June 5, 1926, the Executive Committee of Kuomintang appointed Chiang as the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary forces. On July 9 Chiang ordered the start of the Northern Expedition to unify the whole of China. In less than two years the mission was completed and the whole of China was unified . However, in May 1927 the Chinese Communists “created (a) government situation” in Wuhan which they controlled and another in Nanking where “the KMT had driven them out of the party.” Chiang “retired… for the sake of national unity… and the situation became worse immediately”

The ensuing “Suppression Campaign against Chinese Communist Rebellion” was described as follows:  From 1927 the Chinese Communists began “several riots” which were all “suppressed by the Nationalist Army.” Then they fled to the border areas in Hunan, Hupei, Anhuei and Kiangsi Provinces and “established the so-called ‘Soviet’ regimes.” In less than two years the Communists expanded their influence widely. The Central Government decided to “extirpate” the Communist “rebels.” From December 1930 the Nationalist Army launched 5 “suppression campaigns but failed 4 times.” In the 5th, it conducted an economic blockade as well.  Suffering setbacks, the Communist troops fled to southwest China into northern Shensi Province. The Government was stopped from pursuing them because of “the sian incident and the Japanese invasion of China .”

The “sian incident” referred to the arrest of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Xi’an on December 12, 1936 by Marshal Zhang Xueliang, a former warlord who had been assigned by Chiang to suppress the Communists. The Marshal’s army suffered great losses and did not receive the support he expected from Chiang, hence he came to believe that Chiang was taking advantage of  the Communists’ resistance to eliminate his army which was not of Chiang’s own “Whampoa Clique.” He contacted the Chinese Communist Party secretly, reached an agreement with it for temporary peace, and covertly opposed Chiang’s leadership.  Meanwhile, Japan had invaded northeast China in 1931 and now more of northern China was at the risk of conquest by the Japanese, something which was to happen  in 1937 with the Second Sino-Japanese War. Chinese nationalism had been roused by the Japanese invasion, and the desire to strengthen potential Chinese resistance turned the Xi’an Incident from Chiang’s arrest into his release and a mutually beneficial pact for the Second United Front of Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party. The Communist Party benefitted as Chiang’s campaign had damaged them immensely, forcing them on the Long March to retreat and set up base in Yan’an, Shaanxi.

The defection of Marshal Zhang was not the only one that confronted Chiang in this period. The Martyrs’ Shrine also remembers Chen Mingshu who was sent to suppress the Communists but, instead, broke with Chiang and negotiated peace with the rebels and in November 1933, proclaimed a new government, “People’s Revolutionary Government of the Chinese Republic” in Fukien. Chiang destroyed that regime in 1934  The Eight-Year War with Japan (1937-1945) was an entirely different story. As the Martyrs’ Shrine tells it, it comprised of “more than 40,000 battles… with casualty of more than 3 million soldiers and 20 million citizens on the Chinese side.” China, however, survived and, according to the Shrines, became “one of the four major powers of the world .”

Chiang’s leadership in this “victory” over Japan is depicted at the Shrine in a painting of him mounted on a white horse with this inscription: “In Oct 1944, the late president Chiang Kai-shek summoned his fellow countrymen with a call of ‘an inch of land, an inch of blood; one hundred thousand youths, one hundred thousand soldiers.” As a result of this calling “intellectual youths” joined the Army and the war against Japan and the efforts for “national reconstruction .” The Shrine skips details of Chiang’s resumed Civil War with the Communists which immediately ensued and ended with Mao Zedong’s proclaiming the People’s Republic of China with its capital at Beijing in December of 1949, forecing Chiang Kai-shek and approximately two million Nationalist Chinese to depart for Taiwan in December.

The biggest memorial in the Shrine is called Victory over Kuningtou. It is a freeze with heroic figures of soldiers in action . The inscription below reads: “On October 25, 1949, the Chinese Communist [attempted]… a forced landing … on Kimen,” better known as Quemoy. “Our armed forces bravely repelled the invasion … and destroyed all the aggressors in the following day. This … crashed the Chinese Communists’ attempt to take Taiwan and Pescadores, and this laid a firm foundation for our National recovery and the ultimate triumph .”

That freeze is on the side of the central building of the Shrine. On the opposite wall of the building is another big freeze commemorating Chiang’s first major victory a quarter of century before . It depicts his “Victory over Meinhu” on March 13, 1925 when he personally led 3000 Wahmpao cadets in a victory which lay “the firm foundation for our later success of the northward expedition .”

The Shrine is an impressive structure with its Chinese palace style architecture .  It is in a garden with a green hill as a background . Two carved marble lions stand in front of it, the male with a foot on a ball and the female embracing a lionet. It is also guarded by two soldiers at formal pose . There is a periodic changing of these guards. My guide, Tiger, said enthusiastically that the Shrine and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall were “the only two places outside of England” where there is a formal changing of the guard ceremony. While he might have been exaggerating the uniqueness of the ceremony, undoubtedly it attracted crowds. The group I noticed here was small , compared to what I saw at a much more impressive Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Beyond the rope that separated them, some 300 people stood and watched as three honor guards in shiny boots and helmets, and carrying rifles, smartly marched  across the marble floor of the immense Chiang Memorial Hall. They were relieving and replacing three  of the five guards  attending the much bigger than life sitting statue of Chiang Kai-shek, clad in traditional Chinese clothing . The visitors were a combination of local students  and tourists . The ceremony, my guide said, was repeated every hour; the honor guards alternated among the three services. These were from the air force as their blue uniform indicated. The flag of Republic of China was on the poles to the sides of Chiang; its blue background and white sun also graced the ceiling of the hall .

The Hall is on the second floor of a building; the ground level houses a museum about Chiang’s life and career. To reach the Hall one had to take 89 steps, representing the number of years he lived. This Memorial was almost immediately planned upon Chiang’s death in April 1975 and was inaugurated five years later.  The design incorporates many elements of traditional Chinese architecture to recall the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing. Symbolism abounds. The octagonal shape of the roof recalls the number 8, traditionally associated with good fortune. The Hall is on three foundations with a square platform, representing the idea of upright and honest, my guide said, “which is the literally meaning of Chiang Kai-shek’s name.” The Memorial Hall is located on the east end of what was named the Memorial Hall Square, with three gates:  the Gate of Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness, the Gate of Great Loyalty, and the gate of Great Piety. Like uprightness, loyalty (for the country) and filial piety (to the nation) were attributes of Chiang Kai-shek, my guide continued.

Falun Dafa

At the gate named for uprightness and honesty, which is the main entrance to the Square, I saw a woman earnestly discussing a newspaper she had in her hand with two young visitors . When she moved a few steps away, I spotted her umbrella stand with a banner that said “Falun Dafa is Good .” Presently, a younger colleague of her engaged in a conversation with me I asked her if Falun Dafa was a religion. She said “No, it is an exercise.” She pointed to the pictures on the board set up before her to illustrate. The pictures on the other side of the board, however, told another story. They showed what appeared to be people being tortured. She explained: “They are killing people in China.” When she gave me the English version of the newspaper which the first woman had in her hand, Epoch Times, it became clear that this was the organization also known as Falun Gong.  In 2014 Taipei was host to the organization’s Experience Sharing Conference that was attended by “7,500 practitioners… from Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, America, and Europe,” as well  as Taiwan.  In the conference, they shared their experiences of living according to Falun Gong’s “physical exercises and a moral foundation” based on “truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.”  Additionally, they “spoke about how they went about telling people about the ongoing persecution of people from all walks of life in China who practice Falun Dafa.”

According to Epoch Times, Falun Gong “appeared” in 1992 as a “spiritual practice” encompassing “the the essence of Chinese culture and gives the Chinese people an opportunity for rebirth.” Initially the Chinese Communist Party  “supported Falun Dafa…but in 1999 the then head of the CCP, Jiang Zemin, launched a campaign to eradicate this practice.” He thus made “enemies of an estimated 100 million Chinese people and their families… in essence Jiang sought the extinction of the Chinese people, to end their best chance for reviving China’s culture.”  The current President of China, Xi Jinping, after assuming power has shown “strong determination and careful political judgment… with the deliberate and systematic dismantling of Jiang’s vast network.”  Xi was commended by Epoch Times for his speeches that show “he disapproves of not including classic poems in elementary textbooks. He refers to this as ‘de-sinification,’ recognizing that it is China’s traditional culture that makes the Chinese a people.” But that is “not sufficient, the newspaper said, “ Xi and the Chinese people must abandon the CCP.”

Taipei’s Falun Dafa is doing its part for that goal. One of its members is quoted by Epoch Times as saying “It would be wrong if no one goes to clarify the facts of the persecution to the Chinese tourists.”  He claims that as a result of his efforts “15 to 16 mainland Chinese people quit the Chinese communist party (CCP).” To find such responsive candidates, he travels every day to Cihu, another place associated with Chiang Kai-shek, where he is buried. Falun Gong’s “movement” (called Tuidang) to make the Chinese quit the CCP began in 2004.  It claims that as a result “over 180 million Chinese” renounced their ties to the CCP “with public or online statements.”

The young woman from Falun Dafa was vague in her response to my question about the source of funding for its activities.  Epoch Times approvingly mentions the New York based non-profit company Shen Yun “that has traveled to over 20 countries and 100 cities since it embarked on world tour beginning in 2006, with a mission to revive traditional Chinese culture.”  An audit of the revenues of that cultural instrument of Falun Gong does not reveal much more to its critics. It just shows that Shen Yun has been “using the man-power of all followers” of Falun Gong to sell its tickets “voluntarily,” and receiving huge amounts of donations from Falun Gong members. The marketing brochure for Shen Yun I receive at home is sent by San Francisco Falun Buddha Study Association.

Liberty Square

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Square, which is located close to Taiwan’s Presidential Building in Taipei’s Zhongzheng District, soon became the city’s venue of choice for mass gatherings. In the early 1990s, the square was the center of events that brought Taiwan into its “era of democracy.”  For that reason it came to be dedicated as Liberty Square in 2007, by President Chen Shui-bian.  Opposition by the Kuomintang party prevented the intended changing of the name of the Memorial Hall as well, but the inscription on the main gate of the compound now carries the Liberty Square designation

One gathering here was truly transformative for Taiwan’s politics. On March 16, 1990, students from the National Taiwan University began a sit-in at the Memorial Square. Within six days 22,000 more people joined them. The demonstrators’ demands were direct election of Taiwan’s president and popular elections for all representatives of the National Assembly. A new president was set to begin his six-year term, having won an election in which only the 671 members of the National Assembly had the right to vote.  The original members of the National Assembly, elected in 1947 to represent mainland China constituencies had held the seats without re-election since then. They had re-elected Chiang Kai-shek President every six years until his death, and thereafter elected as President the only candidate nominated by the only recognized party, the Kuomintang.

The 1990 protesters wore white Formosan lilies, evoking a long tradition native to Taiwan. Taiwanese poets had employed this flower as a symbol of grace and resilience. For the student demonstrators “Wild Lilly” became the icon of struggle for Taiwanese autonomy.  On March 21, the first day of his term, President Lee Teng-Hui received a delegation of students and promised full democracy beginning with initial reforms that summer. Six years later, he became Taiwan’s first popularly elected President. In 2006, the National Assembly voted to disband itself. Multiple political parties have since become legal in Taiwan.

The liberalization of the political system in Taiwan owes much to Chiang Kai-shek’s son,  Chiang Ching-kuo,  who became his successor both as the leader of the Kuomintang party and the ruler of  the ROC .  In 1986, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed as the first opposition party. The following year martial law was lifted. Chiang Ching-kuo, who died in 1988, is mentioned more than his father in current political discourse in Taiwan.  Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy, however, lingers in other spheres of life.

National Palace Museum

In the lobby of Taipei’s National Palace Museum I must have appeared lost to a middle-aged woman who pulled me away from the midst of a crowd of visitors  “Come,” she said, “I have some free time, otherwise was going to the library.” She took over as my guide. “Our Generalissimo brought with him 30% of the Forbidden City Palace Museum, but these are the masterpieces,” she began.  A plaque next to a large statue of Sun Yat-sen furthered this narrative:

“The National Palace Museum was inaugurated in 1925…by Dr. Sun Yat-    sen. With the take-over by the Chinese Government of the art collection of the Ch’ing court successfully administered, untold numbers of precious treasures that had been locked away from the common souls and kept to the imperial family came at last before the eyes of the world, to be shared and appreciated by the public. In the aftermath of the incursion by Japan…of 1931, the late President Chiang Kai-shek resolved to protect China’s cultural heritage represented in the Museum’s holdings by relocating them       southward to safe haven…. [T]he collections were again forced to move to Taiwan in the wake of the Chinese civil war. On November 12, 1965… the National Palace Museum was reinstated  in…Taiwan, and the new facility was named Sun Yat-sen Museum… to affirm Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s ideal of  ‘the world is a commonwealth shared by all’ as the guidepost for the National Palace Museum .”

In its many galleries, Taipei’s National Palace Museum now displays other arts, but the main attraction for the visitors is still those ancient Chinese artifacts. “There is too much to see here,” my guide said, “but there are three things which everybody wants to see.” She rushed me through the crowd, first to “the jade grasshoppers, male and female for fertility,” then to “the 3rd century cauldron and bell in bronze,” and finally to the ceramic collection.

The Museum described the importance of each genre.  “Jade more than anything else holds the deep feeling and profound [knowledge] of the Chinese people.”  Its section on Bronze spoke of “The Mystery of the Bronze,” while also boasting that its ancient Chinese bronze pieces were “The first signs of the application of high technology.” The ceramics evoked this in their curator: “Ceramic: Dialogue between humanity and earth.” The most evocative, however, was the collection of Chinese paintings, introduced by this rhapsodic sign: “The history of Chinese painting can be compared to a symphony. The styles and traditions in figures, landscape and bird-and-flower painting have formed themes that continue to blend to this day into a single piece of music. Painters through the ages have made up this ‘orchestra,’ composing and performing many movements and variations within this tradition.”  The Museum Guide Map featured “Peacock Spreading Its Tails” by Lang Shining, from Qing dynasty.

The part of what Chiang moved from the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1933 which was later transferred to Taiwan constitutes one of the world’s largest collections of artifacts from ancient China. The original Palace Museum in Beijing still retains an equally impressive collection. Relations regarding these cultural artifacts have improved recently. The Beijing Museum now refers to both collections as “China’s cultural heritage jointly owned by people across the Taiwan Strait.” According to my guide, most visitors to the Taipei Palace Museum’s collection of some 650,000 pieces of ancient arts are from mainland China.

Economic Tiger

Arts from the Beijing Palace Museum were not the only treasures that Chiang Kai-shek brought with him to Taiwan.  As his side was losing in the Chinese Civil War, many of the intellectual and business elites of China came along with him, as well as much of China’s gold reserves and foreign currency reserves.  The KMT government was thus able to stabilize prices and reduce hyperinflation, and institute many laws and reforms such as import-substitution. It was further helped by public works development during the Japanese rule which had enabled rapid communications and facilitated transport throughout much of Taiwan. The Japanese also had improved education, and made it compulsory for all residents.

In 1950 as a result of the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States, which had  initially abandoned the KMT and expected that Taiwan would fall to the Communists, intervened militarily to prevent the conquest of Taiwan by mainland China and began an aid program.  American funds and the demand for Taiwanese products, as another consequence of the Korean War, helped in the rapid economic growth of the island. In the 1952-1959, agricultural production increased substantially. In the 1960s and 1970s the economy became increasingly industrialized and technology oriented. In the 1970’s Taiwan’s economy was growing faster than any other state in Asia with the exception of Japan.  Following this period of “Taiwan Miracle,” Taiwan became one of the ”Four Asian Tigers,” along with South Koran, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Chiang Ching-kuo’s “Ten Major Construction Projects” of 1974 is credited with laying the foundations for transforming Taiwan into its current export driven economy.  Beginning in the 1990s, a number of Taiwan-based technology firms have expanded their operations in other countries. Taiwan now ranks as the 21st largest economy in the world.  In 1962, Taiwan’s GNP (per-capita gross national product) was 170 (U.S.) dollars, comparable to that of countries such as Congo. By 2011, it had risen to 37,000 dollars, on par with developed countries.

In the meantime, economic ties between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China have been growing sharply. By 2008, Taiwanese companies had invested over 150 billion dollars in the PRC; they employed most of the over 10% of the Taiwanese labor force that worked there. This development has given rise to a major political controversy in Taiwan. In the opinion of some, the island has become too dependent on the mainland, while others see close economic relations as making a military intervention by the PRC costly and thus less likely.  The prominence of the issue was manifested in the 2004 presidential election. The context was the impact of the economic relationship with mainland in the form of causing unprecedented unemployment in Taiwan. A decade later, however, the Sunflower Movement made clear that the impact was much wider.

Sunflower Movement

The crowd of students, academics and members of civic organizations that occupied the Legislative Yuan on March 18, 2014, was protesting against a pending trade agreement with the PRC, called the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. In fact, the issue was broader, as the fast evolving full expression of their Movement showed.  It was ultimately about Taiwan’s independence vs. its unification with the mainland.  Based on my reading, it seems most of the Movement’s followers are not so much opposed to interaction and trade with China as they are concerned that moving too close to China would threaten their “identity.”  They consider Taiwan as their home with a culture and lifestyles unique to them. A part of their perceived identity is civic: being a supporter of “Taiwanese democracy,” with the core elements of accountability and transparency in governance. The adoption of sunflower as the symbol has come to illustrate their passion for the heliotropic nature of that flower, a metaphor for requiring continuous sunshine on decision-making by the rulers.

In this, the Sunflower Movement has come into conflict with both major parties, the KMT and the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), as they prefer to cut deals behind the doors. The conflict underlies the clash about tactics. The Sunflower followers justify theirs as protest against the “Black Box” where politicians make decisions, while the latter condemn the occupation of government offices as against the rule of law and corruption of democracy. President Ma expressed the sentiment of both parties when he asked on March 23, 2015:  “Is this the sort of democracy we want? Must the rule of law be sacrificed in such a manner?”

At the root, this dialogue might well be about the philosophical problem of the limits that participatory democracy might impose on effective representative government. Such abstract conversation, however, yields to the facts of the real world, even in a polity as relatively small as Taiwan. For one thing, captains of Taiwan’s industries virtually ignore the debate. Many have already voted for joining the mainland with their feet, moving their operation there. They are thus, in effect, treating as mute the foundational issue of independent “identity.” Indeed, there may not be an alternative but to look to mainland China for economic development in the foreseeable future. It alone offers a big enough market for Taiwan’s exports and investments.


Similar logic has been moving Taiwan’s cultural icons to mainland China.  “Stan Lai’s place in Taipei is an administrative office now; the workshop will move to Shanghai with a new play directed by Lai,” the concierge of my hotel reported the results of his looking into my request to visit Stan Lai’s workshop in Taiwan. I had heard much about the Performance Workshop which Lai and his wife had founded in 1984. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival which staged Stan Lai’s play, Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, translated from Chinese into English and directed by the playwright himself, in the summer of 2015, heaped praise on both Lai and the play. As Lai explained in the program materials, the play, written in 1986, had been repeatedly produced and improved upon in the Performance Workshop. On the occasion of the play’s first authorized performance in mainland China, in January 2007, The New York Times called it “an iconic play in contemporary Chinese theater … [which] has been performed hundreds of times.” As to this authorized performance, “The response has been a bit overwhelming,” Lai had said, “And, I may sound arrogant, but kind of to be expected.”

A well-dressed Taiwanese man, waiting to talk to the concierge, who heard our conversation, volunteered that he knew Stan Lai. “Stan is for the Chinese name Sheng Chuan,” he said, “meaning River Song.”  He said “Lai has written some 30 plays, has revitalized theatre in Taiwan, and has received Taiwan’s highest award for the arts.” He added, for most Taiwanese Lai’s Secret Love is his best “because it speaks to them.”

Some American critics of the production at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival did not have the same positive reaction.  Indeed, to one of them, from the Portlad Theatre Scene, the play was “Unwatchably dull … feels like a thrown together improv of extremely gentle, old-fashioned (and boring) commentary.”  Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land combines two unrelated plays on the same stage. “One of the stories (Secret Love) follows a young couple about to be torn apart by the communist revolution in 1949 Shanghai, and the aftermath 40 years later as the man lies dying in a hospital bed in Taiwan, remembering his young love. The other (Peach Blossom Land) is a traditional fairy tale about a fisherman whose wife is unfaithful.” To this American critic “the entire framing conceit of the play… with slight and inconsequential script.… makes little sense.”  To the Chinese, however, the mixing of a tragedy and a comedy on the same stage allows a pleasing combination of seriousness with banters in the form of bits of silliness.

At first glance, Stan Lai’s background seems promising for bridging these two conflicting sensibilities. He was born in 1954 in Washington D.C. where his father was serving in Chiang Kai-shek’s Embassy. He came to Taiwan 12 years later and graduated from a Catholic university there in 1976, before returning to the United Stated to attend the University of California, Berkeley and receiving a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art in 1983. He came back to Taiwan and founded the Performance Workshop in 1984. The exilic experience that underpins his story of the Secret Love was thus not so much firsthand as it was reflective of similar personal tales often recounted by the mainland émigrés who constituted his segment of Taiwan’s population.  Among them, Chinese classical opera also was the standard fare.  Peach Blossom Land came to Lai, similarly, from that source. A fable written in 421, during the time of political instability and national disunity, it inspired many later poems, eventually turning into a well- known period comedy called The Peach Blossom Spring about a lost fisherman who stumbles into a utopian land where all people live in harmony because they have no historical memory.

Trying to traverse and reflect on these two stories – with their multiple themes of exile and longing for home, love and loss- in order to create a play was not easy, and Lai should be commended for honesty in projecting his confused state of mind. He still grappled with the problems of connecting the two unrelated stories, until he found the solution in the conceit of playing them simultaneously on the same stage due to a scheduling mistake.  That solution he had learned as used by the work in progress of a fellow director while at Berkeley. The workshop format then gave Lai also the opportunity for improving on his own evolving play.

Lai has complained that too few plays are written in mainland China and that creativity is often lacking. He criticizes the timidity of those who argue that “We’re waiting for the Communist Party to die.” He boasts that “Our play was very taboo in Taiwan when we made it. The stage is a place where anything goes.” This is rather disingenuous. While Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land was, indeed, first performed in Taiwan when the island was still under martial law, its stories and messages were favored by those who had established and maintained the martial law. It drew upon the memories, stories and mores of that group which came to exile in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek.

Lai condemns the mainland Chinese artists’ current preference for the “jazzy show.” Alas, that kind now sells in China. In Beijing, a few days later, I saw one such show, called The Golden Mask Dynasty. The huge theater was full; people had lined up for a long time to buy tickets. The show was billed as “an original Chinese drama play,” featuring “Chinese dances, acrobatics, costumes, and lighting and acoustics.” It was “sponsored” by Overseas Chinese Town, which had invested over 50 million dollars to build the theater. There were many foreign visitors as well as Chinese in the audience. The show has been running for several years now. On the, Golden Mask was receiving over 70% Excellent from reviews. As one British reviewer described the show: “The story is a simple love story but each scene is an explosion of colour and beauty and typical Chinese dance and acrobatics at its very best. The music is beautiful and you will not have a problem understanding the story, there are a few amazing scenes but the flood scene is unbelievable, WOW IT IS AMAZING!!!”

The appeal of the Golden Mask Dynasty reminded me of the success of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That film by director Ang Lee won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2000. Stan Lai’s adoption of his play into a film, The Peach Blossom Land in 1992, was rejected as a nominee for the same award. Ang Lee is a contemporary of Lai whose background is very similar to Lai. He was born in Taiwan from parents who left mainland after the Nationalists defeat in 1949, studied in American universities. Unlike Lai, however, Lee considers himself an “outsider” in Taiwan, as well as in China and in the United States. His many movies, in addition to Crouching Tiger, have all been widely successful outside the Chinese-speaking world. Lai also has been commissioned to create new works outside of Taiwan, but in Chinese communities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Beijing. It is far more rewarding to probe for the culture of Taiwan in Stan Lai’s work than in Ang Lee’s.

In his famous play, Lai turns the fisherman hero of the classic Peach Blossom into a hapless, cuckolded husband, thus allowing the addition of elements of slapstick comedy which is popular with his Chinese audience. This, however, perverts the old opera style. I was reminded of this change at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green show which preceded his play’s performance, on the lawn before the playhouse.  The Green show was a Beijing Opera program of the Monkey King, the classic that symbolized the genre; it was Chairman Mao Zedong ’s favorite. On a visit 10 years ago, I had gone to the old Beijing Opera house where I enjoyed the traditional performance of two short operas. Colorful customs and a cast of characters made the experience enjoyable while the super-titles in English made the story comprehensible. Back in Beijing now, I tried the new Opera House.

The room was much bigger with rows of seats. The front rows also had tables in the form of boxes. I sat virtually alone in front where I was served tea, candies, cookies and tomatoes on the table . The rest of the audience sat several rows back.  Almost all were Westerners . They had come in their tour buses. In the lobby, the Opera House featured an old picture of Steven Hawkins sitting in his own chair . The program was also posted in the lobby. It consisted of three short operas for the one-hour performance: “Killing the Clam; Autumn River; Female Kill four.”  There were virtually no props on the stage, only actors. In most scenes there were one  or two who sang   or talked , but in a few they were accompanies by several extras .  In one scene a group of warriors, in colorful costumes, with drawn swords staged a battle, while a couple of musicians at the end of the stage provided the accompanying music . There were surtitles in English as well as Chinese.  They said thing like “I have left the nunnery secretly in a hurry,” and “Oh, there is a boatman. I have to call him .” I stopped looking at them as they did not help much in understanding what was going on. I did not notice any signs that the others in the audience felt joy or sorrow or any particular emotion in reaction to these operas.  Evidently, the new Opera House’s production was not successful with its intended foreign customers; having already forsaken the Chinese audience.


Night Market

Taipei has a National Theater  and a National Concert Hall , with imposing buildings facing each other in the Liberty Square. The Concert Hall was featuring the program “Jazz 2015,” and publicizing yet another western program for the fall as “Dancing in Autumn; I’m moving, I’m moved .”  When I asked what one does for fun in Taipei, however, often I was told: “Try the night market.”  There are several night markets spread over Taipei. The one I was directed to was “the most famous” of them in the Shilin District.  It opens in the late afternoon and operates well past midnight. When I arrived early in the evening, the surrounding area was teaming with people. Small stores selling clothing and consumer goods encroached onto the streets which had narrow sidewalks. The main attraction, however, were food stalls and game counters. I walked into a cavernous warehouse with many of these crowding the isles. The game  counters were doing a brisk business . There were several poker tables as well.

The food court was on the floor below. Seafood  dominated the offerings but there were dim sum and vegetable dishes , steaks and sausages too. Cooking was done right before you. There were simple tables set for dining , but the experience would not have been complete unless one sat on a metal stool at a counter and felt the heat of the large, flat cooking pan. It was hard to make a decision among many choices of such eateries; I made mine on the basis of the framed picture for prize  “NO. 1” hanging over the pan of a certain stall . The winner was eating his own bowl of rice, with his legs stretched on a stool ; one of his two sons who had helped him was cooking now, assisted by a middle age woman from the team in the picture . It was his girlfriend, however, with adequate English, who took my order . The menu was in Chinese but with illustrations.  I followed her advice and had some of the best sea scallops I ever tasted, with a verity of vegetables, some served on the plate and some on an aluminum foil spread on my edge of the cooking pan . You had to ask for fork and water, but tea and soup were served at no charge. Watermelon juice was available, but I had local beer in a plastic cup.


Most customers of the Shilin food court were local residents; a few were western tourists.  One, an Australian who was attending a Hewlett Packard Company’s regional meeting, insisted that I should also try a dumpling place he had discovered in the Taipei 101 building. It is a contrast, he said. Indeed, it was. Taipei 101 had its own food court for the city’s stylish who shop at its chic boutiques. The dumpling place was a highly organized operation. You took a number  and waited in a long line with other eager customers, while an electronic sign updated the minutes before you would be seated . Remarkably close to the promised time, a uniformed waiter took me to my pre-assigned table in the dining room. There were actually several dining rooms, all in modern architectural design with clean lines Recognizing me as a foreigner, presently two English-speaking “interns” came to attend to me. They were meant to provide me with information, as companions. Maria was indeed “a language interpreter to foreigners” from Barcelona. I asked her how she was learning Chinese, especially the writing script. She gave me a professional’s answer: “I treat the characters as music notes.” Beatriz from Brazil offered her Portuguese expertise: “Young people here don’t know that Taiwan was called Formosa, which means ‘beautiful bay.’”

My food was served with a written step by step instruction called “Guide to enjoy the dumpling (XiaoLongBao).” Mine was in three languages, English, “TC” (Taiwanese Chinese) and Korean. There was another version in French and Japanese  . As I was executing “Step 3” of the guide which directed: “Place XiaoLongBao in the spoon and poke a small hole to release the broth,” Maria asked if I wanted the “chef to show how to make dumpling?” After finishing my tasks and washing down the exquisite dumpling with the traditional oolong tea, which is produced “by a unique process,” I approached the open kitchen with Maria and Beatrice. The chef and his assistant cooks, all wearing white uniform and mask, looked more like surgeons in an operating room. We stood at the marked “photo spot” in front of the kitchen  and had our picture taken  by another intern, from Norway. The sign at the exit from the restaurant boasted of its expanding global reach in listing its many branches all over the world .



That restaurant was called Din Tai Fung. “It literally means ‘Old Gold Wine cup,’” the Doctor told me. “The young don’t know the exact meaning of this saying because that would need traditional cultural understanding,” he added. We were in the whirlpool bathtub of the spa on the top of my hotel. This was a club open to membership of those who were not guests at the hotel. My interlocutor was one such member. Our conversation began about the temperature of the water we were soaking in. His English was halting. “My patients and their families only speak Chinese,” he explained. But the physician was friendly and, warming up, his comments about Taiwan allowed me a perspective for reflecting on some of my own observations during this brief visit.

The Doctor was born in Taipei 62 years ago, spent some time in Toronto, Canada on a pediatrics fellowship. He was married to his second wife; “it is important to have company,” he said. They lived in Keelung, the far western corner of the Taipei metropolitan area, and he worked there at a hospital. He wanted to retire in the fashionable area of Taipei but doubted that he could afford it. “Small, 100 square meter condos here sell for one million in US dollars.” His salary was 6,000 per month, compared with young college graduates who made 850 dollars.  “Physicians at one time were at the economic pinnacle, now that position is occupied by the entrepreneurs.”  He said “they are the real estate owners, bankers.” People in the high tech are no longer in this group; “they were ten years ago,” he said. But he included “hospital owners, and the owner of the toll- taking machines.”

Personal experience, similarly, influenced the Doctor’s comments on the general subject of economic gap which he said was “the big issue” in the May 2014 Sunflower Movement. “The upcoming January 2016 election for president will be around this issue: oil prices have not declined as much as the drop in the crude oil, government is blamed because it has oil monopoly.” Therefore, he predicted, “the opposition will win.”

The Doctor was quite familiar with the current trends in the U.S. presidential race. He was also sophisticated culturally. He had seen plays directed by Stan Lai who was “famous” in his milieu.  When I asked about Taiwan’s incumbent president’s policy of “friendly relations” with China, he corrected me by emphasizing the nuance:  “closer ties.” Then he added emphatically: “this election will not be political or ideological but economic.”

Working Women

After the physician left, I had a chance to measure an aspect of the “economic gap” in a brief conversation with a Taiwanese from the other end of the spectrum. The 24 year Judy was the pool attendant. She came from a “small town” south of Taipei “five hours by car.” She said her hometown was “smaller than Taipei, half its size.” She liked her life in Taipei. She lived with two others in a rented house, had her own room but shared kitchen and bathroom. She biked to work. The bicycle which she picked up and left in the rental stations cost her 5 Taiwanese dollars (30 U.S. cents) for half an hour.  I asked her if she had been to Din Tai Fung and knew what the name meant. It just means “a place to eat,” she said. “What do you do for fun?” She said: “Nothing, movies, riding my motorbike.” She was a life-guard and had no “plans” for the future.

In comparison, Tina had shown ambitions. She had also come from outside of Taipei, but in four years she had risen from being a waitress to managing the main bar in the hotel. She was an unusually active hands-on manager. With only a novice waiter, she did almost everything herself: welcoming guests, taking orders, being in constant contact with the cooks by phone and, occasionally, running to the kitchen. Tina knew most of the regular customers at this bar which had a piano player and a woman who sang American songs but took many breaks to resume absorption in her cell phone. Tina filled in for her too and carried on conversations with new visitors. She told me that she had just been appointed the manager of the hotel’s main restaurant as well.

Men in Business

I shared my impressions from these chance encounters with my fellow passenger on a tour of the northern coast of Taiwan. He had several years of experience in dealing with the Taiwanese workforce. A businessman from Sweden whose company sold heating systems for single family homes, he came often to maintain and promote relations with Taiwanese distributors. I asked him what he thought of them. This could help me in understanding Taiwan’s economy which is dominated by small and medium-sized businesses.  The Swede gave a deliberate answer: “They are good to work with, trustworthy, but have to be shown the tasks step by step.”  We discussed the connection of this problem with Taiwan’s educational system which has been blamed for eschewing creativity in favor of rote memorization.


That system has also been criticized for putting excessive pressures on students. The ones we were about to see presently,  however, were on a fun trip  to Yehilu Geopark . This was a major seaside attraction of the Metropolitan Taipei. It receives many foreign tourists  as well; they are “50% from China and Hong Kong, 15% from Japan, the rest from U.S., France and other countries,” as our guide said. Yehilu is a long cape stretching into the ocean on which geological forces have created many rock formations. Some are shaped like familiar objects such as mushroom, candle, ginger and a queen’s head, and are called by those names for the visitors .  I caught up with one group of Taiwanese students as they were finishing their tour. They told me that they were from Lukung Junior High School. I stood for a picture with them  at the end of my trip as they were the future of Taiwan.


Taiwan’s history has made it a place worthy of special attention for students of international relations, democracy and economic development. This is a place to find the story of the Chinese civil war as the Nationalist side wished it to be remembered and to examine its impact on a diasporic society. It is also a place to observe the emergence of a nation with distinct culture , economy  and politics in the face of uncommon foreign threats and opportunities. The future of the Taiwanese promises to be no less a subject of interest as the differences among them remain unsettled.




An Image of China

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: Penglai, a city with less than half-a-million population in northeastern   Shandong Province of China, is unique, yet in many ways it typifies China for an outside  observer. It has roots in distinct legends and history but that past is a heritage shared by  all Chinese. It has had special encounters with foreign nations which have influenced other parts of China as well. It showcases the results of the contemporary rapid  developments of the county as a whole. Its future is a promise also planned for all of China. All of this made Penglai an ideal case for an investigation, albeit brief. This is my report.


Table of Contents




            Naval base


            Tengchow College




            Planning the Future






Every year, more than two million tourists come to Penglai. Most of them are Chinese and for most Penglai Pavilion is the most important site. Their long-held beliefs are reflected in the legends of the place, as I learned in September of 2015.

I followed the millenniums-old footsteps of the First Emperor to Danya Mountain, just north of Penglai city in the Shandong Province of China.  The Emperor had proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang, after establishing the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first centralized empire in Chinese history. Then he traveled here from his capital Xian, looking for the elixir of life. As legends tell it, the Emperor had first sent the Taoist alchemist Xu Fu with 500 young men and 500 young women to the eastern seas to find the elixir, but Xu Fu never came back; instead, he landed in Japan and became the founder of Shintoism. The Emperor brought three times as many young girls and boys along with himself, but none of them ever returned either. His sailors blamed their failure to obtain the elixir on vicious sharks. The poor Emperor wandered up and down the coastline shooting at sharks with a crossbow in revenge. There were also dolphins seen from the cliffs above, at which the mighty King cast an impotent spear only to realize that his own days were numbered.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang did not achieve immortality (he is buried in the famous Xian tomb guarded by an army of terra cotta soldiers, horses, and chariots), but his trip contributed to the legend that grew ever more complex, all around what is today called the Penglai Pavilion, on Danya Mountain. It is here that the Eight Immortals are said to have crossed the sea using their special powers after they got drunk. The Eight Immortals are worshiped by Taoists and are, furthermore, an important element in the secular Chinese folklore of today. In Chinese mythology, they are a group of xian (transcendent saints), all men except for one woman, each with the power that can grant life and destroy evil. According to legends they were born in the 7th to 13th centuries and lived on the islands of the Bohai Sea where Penglai is located. They were first mentioned during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); they are probably named after the Han people’s folkloric Eight Immortal Scholars. Taoism adopted this ancient tradition of depicting humans as becoming immortal. The Eight Immortals became widely known through the works of the Taoists. They have been the subject of many artistic creations, even in modern China.

If the legend of elixir connected the Eight Immortals to Penglai, another seemingly miraculous phenomenon has added its own legend to the place. Because of its rare geographic, climatic and maritime conditions, nearly every seven years, mirages, big and small and in different shapes appear at the sea facing Penglai City. They are more frequent in May and June. The last one happened on May 7, 2005. Thousands of tourists and local residents witnessed this mirage which lasted for four hours.  Off the shore, it reflected an image of the City, with its buildings, streets and crowds of people.  It had rained for two days before, causing the rising mist that created this image. To the believers, the mirage confirmed Penglai’s reputation as a dwelling place of the gods.  To the scientists, it confirmed Penglai’s reputation as a place of often- occurring “fata morgana,” an optical illusion in which layers of mist at varying temperatures refract light in such a way that distant objects are projected on the horizon.

The legends of Penglai entered into the creative imagination of Chinese scholars who came to call it renjian xianjing, meaning “the place of immortals among humans” or, more accessibly, “the fairyland of the world”. According to Chinese mythology, Penglai (Danya) Mountain, together with two other mountains, Fangzhang and Yingzhou, formed Sanxianshan (the Fairy Mountains). The Fairy Mountains were credited for having attracted not only Emperor Qin Shi Huang but later, the Han Dynasty’s Emperor Wudi (141–87 BC) who came “in search of God.” Famed Qing Dynasty painters, Yuan Jiang and Yuan Yao brought the imagined fairyland of Penglai on their canvases in the 1830s. Their works have been recreated by architects and landscapers in Penglai City’s Fairy Mountains Park  . The Park aims at depicting that “ideal realm of romanticism of Chinese ancient scholars into reality” by a number of graceful lakes, gardens and buildings in the style of Chinese classical architecture.


Fairy Mountains Park’s “reality” is not what you see today on the actual site of the legendary Penglai. Perched on the cliff of Penglai Mountain, there is a castle-like assortment of parapets, pathways, and buildings called Penglai Pavilion.  There is no lake and hardly any garden here. One tree, however, catches your attention because of its historical significance. Called the Tang Pagoda Tree, this “1000-year” survivor dates from when the Penglai Pavilion was initially built. The construction of buildings began during the Northern Song Dynasty, and the Song Dynasty complex soon came to rank among the “Four Great Towers” of China in the country’s literary tradition, joining Yellow Crane Tower, Yueyang Tower and Tengwang Pavilion which, unlike Penglai, are all in the south.

Some of the original structures of Penglai Pavilion still remain. Much has been restored, rebuilt and extended over time; recently, millions of dollars have been invested into developing the Pavilion. Although there are some “palaces” here, most of the buildings are in reality temples. The prominent ones are Sanqing Palace, Lvzu Palace, Sugong Temple, Thean Hou Temple, Long Palace, Mituo Temple and Penglai Pagoda. The last one is the main building of the Pavilion. Built in 1061, the Pagoda is a double-layer wooden construction surrounded by corridors with the best view of the mirages. A plaque with bold and golden letters Penglai Ge (Penglai Pagoda) written by Tie Bao, the famous calligrapher of the Qing Dynasty who lived in the 1830s, is hung at the Pagoda . Inscriptions of celebrities and well-known scholars are engraved on the interior walls. The main attractions inside, however, are the sculptures of eight drunken Immortals placed in the center around a square table and chairs, an arrangement of room just as described in the legend of Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea. It is said, the Eight (Lu Dongbin, Tie Guaili, Zhang Guolao, Han Zhongli, Cao Guojiu,  Lan Caihe, Han Xiangzi and the woman He Xiangu ), got drunk at Penglai Pavilion  and crossed the sea by different tricks of their own without using any boats. Nearby, a red rock marks the Red (Dan) Cliffs from which they set out floating over the ocean.

A thousand years later, the great poet, politician and calligrapher Su Dongpo sought immortality when he saw a man on the streets of Penglai who, he believed, was the Immortal Lü Dongbin. Su followed him, disguised as a beggar to the top of the Pavilion where the Eight Immortals were again enjoying a drunken feast before setting off on a journey across the ocean, wielding their magical powers. At Su’s insistence they agreed to take him along as the ninth immortal, but he was ultimately found lacking in the courage to leap out onto the water. Instead, the Pavilion is now adorned with the poems and calligraphy of Su Dongpo (1031-1101) who signed his name as Su Shi.  The Pavilion also features the works of other great calligraphers such as Dong Qichang (1555–1636).  There is calligraphy in Pavilion, now in red, in protest against the Japanese attack in the war of 1592–1598, which failed to damage the Pavilion, anyway, according to our guide. She added that there was even calligraphy by Chairman Mao, done when he visited in 1964, reminding us that “no art form is  more favored in China than calligraphy.”

Our guide also said that there was only one Buddhist temple in the Penglai Pavilion. The rest were Taoist. In addition to the Penglai Pagoda, these included the Dragon King Temple which dates to at least the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It was dedicated to the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, whose statue was flanked by eight  officers  standing on his two sides. In the capacity of the ruler of one of the Four Seas corresponding to the four cardinal directions, the Dragon was depicted as a humanoid, dressed in a king’s costume, but with a dragon head. Even older than this temple, was the Sea Goddess Temple, constructed in 1122.  It was dedicated to a local sea Goddess “who died young saving people from drowning,” our guide said. The Goddess’ golden sculpture was in the middle of the temple; there, she also had eight officers attending her.  In Penglai city, this Sea Goddess is also called Thean Hou, and her birthday is celebrated in a major festival in January.

While we were in the Pavilion, worshipers were engaged in burning some brown papers. These were “joss paper,” which are fake or ghost money. The practice of burning them is widespread in China. It is long-standing, a tradition traced back to about 1000 BC. The paper money burned is believed to be thus deposited in an afterlife “bank” for use by the deceased ancestors. The ritual is a mix of Taoism and folklore; Buddhists discourage the practice of burning, saying that the deceased would have no interest in worldly items. In our guide’s opinion, there was another difference: “Taoism does not believe in re-incarnation; Buddhism does.” She added, however, that ordinary Chinese worshipers do not distinguish the origins of their ritual practices which are often a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and folklore. This was a position also espoused in the Harmony Palace of the Fairy Mountains Park, presumably as reflecting the views of ancient Chinese scholars. Here, Taoism of Laozi (571-531 BC), Buddhism of Sakyamuni Buddha (563-480 BC) and the teaching of Confucius (551-479 BC) were all honored, as each of those sages contributed a different part to an integrated harmony. Laozi’s part is the harmony between human and nature, Buddha’s is the harmony between human and ego, and Confucius’s contribution is the harmony between human and society. Not forgotten in this complex were the folkloric patron saints of the east side (the four supreme commanders) and the patron saints of the west side (four heavenly kings).


Naval base

The history of Penglai is a crucial part of the history of China. From the southern edge of Penglai Pavilion I could see the remnants of the fortified walls that once surrounded Dengzhou. That was the old town which in 1990 was renamed Penglai City.  Dengzhou was located on the northeastern corner of Shandong at the point where the Bohai Sea (Bay) begins in the Yellow Sea, which is itself a part of the East China Sea of the Pacific Ocean. Built in 1376 as a water fortress, Dengzhou was one of China’s oldest military ports. It was the harbor for the imperial war fleet and the town for its garrison.  As a naval base it defended China against foreign sea attacks. It proved useless against the Europeans, however, when they invaded the port soon after the Second Opium War in 1858.  At this same time, the replacement of sail-powered boats by steamships moved most commercial marine activity from Dengzhou to the deep-water port of Yantai, 55 miles to the east.

In its heyday, Dengzhou boasted gray protecting walls crowned by gate towers of three stories instead of the usual two, because the uncle of the first Emperor of the Sui dynasty (589-618 A.D.) was once the “prince” of this territory. The southern section of the city, its center around the harbor was completely razed in 2006 to make room for buildings with modern architecture. The northern part that hugs the sea has been preserved. Here, in the Seaside Square there is a massive new sculpture of the Eight Immortals which is a favorite photo spot for tourists. On the poles , called totem, surrounding it the history of the town is inscribed.

The Ancient Ship Museum nearby displays five ships from 800 years ago. Having been found since 1984 in the Bay of Penglai Sea Castle, these are evidence of the area’s trade, transportation and shipbuilding technology.  In particular, they demonstrate the Chinese invention of crossbeams bracing “ribs” which strengthened the ship and enabled it to better resist wind and waves. A couple of the vessels were Korean. They, too, had ribs, but the Chinese ships were the only ones that, additionally, had the “spine”  and, therefore, were better for battle as cruisers. The Koreans were treated as friends in the Museum displays. The Museum featured a statue of Menzhou Zheng, said to be the man who brought Confucianism to Korea. Before that, a sign said, Koreans did not have “ethical principles.” The Japanese, in contrast, were portrayed as old enemies in Penglai. The restored residence of the favorite local “patriotic” general Qi Jiguang is a tourist attraction, not far from the Ancient Ship Museum. He was a 16th century naval officer from Penglai who made his reputation by battling Japanese pirate ships in the Jiajing-wokou raids of 1547-1567.


 Penglai was the first port on China’s Shandong peninsula which was opened to foreigners upon the defeat in the Opium War. Among the first Westerners to come were American missionaries. In 1861, Jesse Boardman Hartwell arrived and set up Northern China’s first church of Southern Baptist Convention at a Guanyin Temple -Guanyin was the patron goddess of the seafarers. Today, close to Qi Jiguang’s old residence, still stands the Penglai Christian Church . On the day I visited, its bible- school class was nearly full . A Church official told me that it had a congregation of some 700 members and the membership was increasing. An early woman missionary is fondly remembered here. Called Lady Lottie Moon, she was the American Charlotte Digges who came in 1873 and stayed for nearly forty years. She followed local customs, saying that “she would be like the Chinese and wanted to die here.” A stone monument to her is erected next to the church.

Penglai also bestows especial honors on two other American missionaries. Presbyterian Calvin Wilson Mateer and his wife, Julia Brown Mateer, are remembered as “sincere Christians who wanted to help.”  This accolade accompanies their pictures, singled out to hang on the wall of the entrance to a hall which serves in Penglai as a museum of Tengchow College. Tengchow was the Romanized version of the Chinese name Dengzhou in the late 19th century. The museum we were shown, in a modern building in the new part of Penglai, consisted simply of a number of panels in Chinese that told the history of the College. A young woman, standing erect in a formal pose, explained the story on the panels for us, but also in Chinese. Another young woman, an instructor in English at the College, translated.

Tengchow College

Mateer transformed what began as the Tengchow Boys Boarding School into Tengchow College in 1882. He had established the Boys School with six “poor” students in1864, soon after arriving in Tengchow a year earlier. They were offered free board and lodging as well as paper and other study materials. In 1876, the school was renamed Tengchow College which was, at the time, actually a secondary school. Mateer himself compiled the textbooks and taught classes in mathematics, physics, chemistry as well as the Bible, Chinese and English. His wife taught history, geography and music. Some of the “poor boys” from the school graduated to become the school’s executives.

The Mateers had help from other American Presbyterian missionaries.  Among them as shown on the panels in the Tengchow museum, were John Livingston Nevius and Henry Luce Sr. Nevius collaborated with Mateer and Hunter Corbett to develop a method of spreading Christianity that made Shandong the strongest Presbyterian mission in China. Corbett is also credited with establishing in 1864 the Yi Wen Boys Academy at Tengchow which was eventually converted into an institution of higher education as Cheeloo University in 1928, becoming “the first university in China.”  In 1882, however, Tengchow College was the first modern institution of higher learning in China.

Henry Winter Luce and his wife came to Penglai in 1897 and their son, the future publisher of Time magazine, Henry Luce, was born here in 1898.  Henry Luce, Sr. gave up his job as a lawyer in the United States. to convert the “heathen hordes” because he saw China as a laboratory to establish the virtues of America’s “sentimental imperialism.” Some Chinese in Shandong had other plans.  Between 1899 and 1901 China was gripped with the Boxer Uprising, the movement of the militia united in Yihetuan (Righteousness). These were the well-trained, athletic young men whom the American missionaries referred to as “boxers” because of the martial arts and calisthenics they practiced.  The Uprising was fueled by nationalist sentiments and opposition to foreign imperialism and its associated Christian missionary activity.

The Eight-Nation Alliance of foreign powers, after being initially turned back, brought some 20,000 armed troops to China, defeated the Chinese Imperial Army (which had come to side with the Boxer Uprising), captured Beijing and suppressed the Boxers.  In the heyday of that Yihetuan Movement, Tengchow College suffered attacks and damages. Later, the school was moved to Weixian County in the Shandong Province, was renamed Guangwen College and eventually developed into Qilu (Cheeloo) University. The map in the museum showed this progression from Tengchow College to Shantung (Shandong) Protestant University, then to Shantung University, Christian University and, finally, to Cheeloo (Qilu) University. The multiple merges and restructuring of these and a dozen other academic institutions have resulted in today’s Shandong University.

If Tengchow College still exists independently, it was not listed among Penglai’s institutions of higher learning, in a Google search.  Yet our host at the museum said Tengchow was “today the only Christian school in Penglai.” He presented himself as the “Dean of the International Exchange Office” of Tengchow. He said the school had over 7,000 students from all over China, “because of its reputation.” A map in the museum showed how its students had indeed come from all over the country, a measure of Tengchow’s contribution to China’s elite. The Dean’s command of the English language indicated that he had “taught English for 10 years before” his current position. At the luncheon in the museum’s dining room, I sat next to a current instructor of English at the school. She told me that it offered all undergraduate degrees in “communications, management, technology and mechanical engineering.” There were no classes in Christianity. I asked if there were “any missionaries here now?” She replied: “We don’t encourage it but anyone can have his opinion.”


On the walls of this dining room there was only one framed picture . I asked the Dean if that was Confucius. He said “Well, yes, but he lived so long ago, nobody can be sure what Confucius looked like.” In another school building across from the museum, where the Dean first welcomed us, a massive statue of Confucius dominated the lobby. I now asked the Dean: “What principles of Confucius do you consciously follow in the teaching here?” He gave a deflecting response: “Very good question but very hard to answer.” He did not amplify. Instead, he glanced at the person who could have been taken for an old style “minder” from the government and  Communist party, as though seeking approval.

My question was not an idle inquiry. Based on what I had been reading, China has been experiencing a revival of Confucian teaching. This was ignited in part by President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” which he proposed as a program of national rejuvenation upon taking office in 2011. “To solve China’s problem,” he has argued, “we can only search in the land of China for the ways and means to suit it.” He aims to establish China not just as a strong power, but also as a civilization with its own core values equal to the West’s. He foresees a long-term contest of values and ideologies in which Western political ideas of individual freedom and democracy are rejected by China’s distinct “cultural genes,” manifested in the traditional teachings of Confucius, and his contemporary sage Mencius: commanding respect for elders, filial piety and moral rectitude. This revivalism comes at a time when not only Communist dogma but also Chinese-style capitalism have lost their appeal. The Communists upon taking power in 1949 banned Confucian rituals as “feudal practices” and Mao’s 1966 -1976 Cultural Revolution was also an anti-Confucian campaign. But even before that, the New Cultural Movement of 1915 which was espoused by Christian missionary-educated Chinese, indeed led by Christians such as Dr. Sun Yat-sen, had concluded that China’s weakness was largely due to its conservative Confucian culture. It had sought to build a modern nation based on Western political and scientific thought.

The Mao age’s iconoclasm was only followed by unbridled materialism that, some believe, has led to moral collapse and corruption. President Xi, aware of the lingering strong influence of the Communists, wants to merge Marxist and Maoist ideas with elements of China’s ancient culture to forge a new ideology. Accordingly, under him, the education ministry has decreed that traditional culture and literature, deleted from the curriculum for nearly a hundred years, be taught at all levels of schools in China. They are to be especially a prominent feature of university entrance exams. Textbooks are being revised and teachers retrained to that end. University students are instructed to study “important books of ancient Chinese thought and culture.” Confucius occupies a central place in this plan. He is also a native son in Penglai, having been born in the Shandong Province.



Like President Xi’s China, Penglai appeared to straddle the recent past and a planned future. Nowhere was this more visible than at Haishixi Road/ Haishixi Lu . From the traditional window  of my room at Sanxianshan Hotel, I could see the contrasting Internazionale Hotel of Penglai under construction on the other side of the Road. My hotel was built in a classic Chinese royal style with ancient architecture and decor. It had a lobby gilded with golden decorations and sculptures made of precious woods such as rosewood, scented camphor wood, pear  wood  and jade . Its 150 rooms were furnished with heavy chairs of rosewood and Yangzhou lacquer, and Jingdezhen porcelain. It catered to the wealthy Chinese guests. Yet, it was modest in comparison with the “super luxury” promised by the modern Internazionale Hotel. Sanxianshan Hotel’s own vast size and 150 rooms were dwarfed by the immense edifice of the latter establishment which was expected to have 2,500 guest rooms.

When I stepped out of Sanxianshan Hotel, I had a glimpse of the complex of European-looking buildings on the other side of Haishixi Road. Called Europark, they were Penglai’s answer to Disneyland. For the Internazionale Hotel which they faced, this was the counterpart of Fairy Mountains Park which was just behind Sanxianshan Hotel. Like the Internazionale, the Europark was still an unfinished project. Even the shops of its front part which had apparently opened for business needed much work. The foods it advertised were all Western dishes: pizza, hamburgers and coffee, and the faces of the happy customers in the advertisements were all Western, but it offered slashed admission prices in Chinese-language signs.

Next to the Europark, closer to the Haishixi Road, were rows and rows of multi-story modern buildings, residential but still seemingly unoccupied. City officials claimed they were “70% occupied.”  I crossed the Road and took an alley just behind Sanxianshan Hotel. This was, in contrast, the inhabited part of Penglai. Modest hotels were advertising their rooms  for Chinese guests on signs with pictures. The open stairway in a building looked in urgent need of painting. Breakfast was cooked and served on the sidewalks.  Signs, all in Chinese, were courtesy of “Tsingtao Beer,” spelled in English. A woman carried a bag of groceries on the street with sidewalks of uneven heights. Several passengers were ferried in a make-shift cart rigged on top of a motorcycle. Laundry was strung to dry in front of stores. A neighborhood of small one-story homes indicated an older generation of housing construction from the multi-story buildings across the street. When I completed the loop back to Haishixi Road, the striking orderliness of its wide sidewalks, with the trimmed green shrubberies on their two sides, matched the neat red uniforms of two students striding on their way to school. The happy students at the primary school here, which I visited during their play time, posed for a picture with the inevitable “V” sign. Their narrow eyes and long-shaped face, in this town so close to Manchuria, were distinguished from the more familiar rounded Han Chinese features.

In this new part of town, you could see people jog or do a variety of kung fu . Sanxianshan Hotel was only a few hundred yards away from the beach. I took Haishixi Road just before the sunrise the next morning and stood on the shore of the Yellow Sea, which takes its name from the silt deposited by the sand of the far away Gobi Desert in the rivers that fed the sea. The sky and the sea were a canvas on which the rising sun played a symphony of glorious   colors . I tried not to be distracted by a man behind me who made a loud noise, spitting. I held onto the image of the little boat calmly moving near the shore. A man who was digging in the scraggy edge of the water caught my attention. When I got closer, I saw him shovelling and, every so often, putting something he found into a straw basket that sat next to him. When I looked into the basket I saw worms mixed in with the sand. I learned later that the worms were valuable to the fishermen as they were scarce in the Penglai market.

Planning the Future

I was told that the Bohai Sea that hugs the other side of Penglai had “some of the best sea food” in northern China. This was at a dinner given by the Mayor of Penglai for a group of visiting Americans which had invited me to join. Numerous dishes served on the round turning-table, indeed, testified that Penglai was blessed with plenitude in meat and produce as well. By some estimates, over 80% of the population of Penglai are employed in agriculture. Agricultural products constitute the largest industry in the province of Shandong. For Penglai officials, however, tourism is deemed the primary industry and wine-making the second. The American group was from Sonoma, California, sharing interest in both wine and tourism with Penglai as a “Sister City”.

Penglai Pavilion is classified as a “5A” tourist site by the China National Tourism Administration. That is the highest ranking, reserved for the likes of Mutianyu section of the Great Wall near Beijing. The beaches are also attractions; the visitors I saw at the shores, however, were strolling rather than swimming. Substantial sums have already been invested to develop the Penglai Pavilion’s tourism potentials. The absence of the desired non-Chinese tourists is noticeable. Now efforts are made to exploit the scenic hilly landscape on the outskirts of the urban center. Penglai encourages the extensive project undertaken by the privately-owned Hesheng Agricultural Technology Development Co. to promote “leisure tourism.” We went to see it.

We were received by the manager on the site. In his simple barn-type office, we munched on cucumbers and apples which were among the first products of this farm of “integrated ecological agriculture and ecological tourism.” Self-assured, the manager told us that he was developing “100, 000 Chinese acres” (about 16,500 American acres) of land at this area of rolling hills. We followed him for a brief tour of the headquarters section. A modest inn to our left was all ready to receive the first “leisure tourists” in the near future, as the manager said. Next to it was a simple horse-riding arena. Presently, two horses were produced. The manager mounted one and a horse enthusiast from our group climbed onto the other animal. Equestrians were a type of tourists the farm hoped to attract. The manager now took us to a stable with several horses. The protection of those “national Bohai original breed” horses was one of the goals of the farm. The manager was proud of his “star stud,” a German “warmblooded horse,” which the Hesheng farm had just acquired. “It cost us 5 million euros,” he said as we admired the stud which he had ordered brought out of his stable. “We expect to make 300 babies” by hybrid optimization of the thoroughbred with the Bohai horses, the manager said.


We were told that Hesheng is a Chinese company, “owned by a man who made his money in highway construction.”  From his farm, we drove down a few miles on a dusty road to a building under construction which would be the future home of Chateau Lafite. Its wine was expected to come to market in 2016.  “The foundation of Baron de Rothschild (Lafite) CITIC Winery (Lafite)” in 2012 was billed as a landmark since it “transformed” Penglai into a “hot spot for high-end” wineries. It is said that Lafite chose Penglai because “it is the only coastal wine-producing region in Asia” with the soil, sunshine, and temperature to produce high-quality wines.

The decision to establish “the grape and wine industry” as Penglai’s “core industry” was made by its “municipal party committee and municipal government.” Accordingly, in 2005, the Penglai Grape and Wine Bureau was founded. In Penglai’s middle schools, fifteen-year old students are taught wine-making.  Penglai now boasts “the largest number of grape and wine businesses in China.”  It has 12 “boutique chateaux” and another 11 new chateaux under construction.  We visited one of those completed chateaux (wineries). Called Scottish Castle, it indeed resembled a castle in design and was built into the rocky hills. From its patio you could see some of the vineyards where it grew several vintages of grapes. Inside the Castle we saw what was, in effect, the sometimes residence of the owners, a hedge fund manager from Yorkshire, England and his Taiwanese wife. The Castle also serves as a six-room hotel for guests from around the world. There is, furthermore, a great hall for events like weddings. We examined the antique furniture and climbed the spiral staircase where a colorful mural depicted the old tales of a Scottish explorer who experienced shipwreck on the Penglai shore but was welcomed by the Chinese officials.  On the main floor, around a wooden table, we noticed a few non-Chinese guests sipping the Castle’s wine. In 2005, the winery had its first 35,000 grape vine plants air-freighted from France and planted here. It has since grown a wide variety of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and Viognier. “We just didn’t know what types would work,” the owner has said.  In 2010, the winery started selling in the Chinese market it first 5,500 bottles, a Marsalan/Merlot blend called Treaty Port. The name came from the fact that the vineyard is situated near the coastal treaty ports, set up in 1842 by the British for foreign trade after the First Opium War.

That evening we visited a different style of winery-guesthouse establishment. Chateau State Guest served us dinner in the style of the guests of an Emperor of Tang Dynasty (618-907). According to legends the Emperor once visited Penglai and bestowed gifts of wine on his soldiers and civilians alike. Henceforth, the local residents started planting grapes. Chateau State Guest is a splendid Tang Dynasty palace. The award winning wines at our dinner were from Grand Tang Emperor Valley of Penglai. At that dinner, I learned a more plausible version of the Penglai’s wine-grape growing history. The grape from abroad was introduced here by the American missionary Samuel Wells Williams in 1873.  In that year, he happened to serve also as the U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Beijing; later, Williams would become the first American Professor of Chinese studies at Yale University.  The main current varieties of grapes in Penglai today were Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Gemischt, Chardonnay and Merlot.

There are 76 wineries in Penglai. Wealthy Chinese who have made money in other businesses are becoming major players in the wine industry. An example is Wu Feng and his wife Mei Ling who run a Chinese oil company. They are co-owners of Chateau Reifeng-Auzias. Another Chinese family has a much longer history in the area’s wine industry. Chateau Changyu in nearby Yantai traces its background to the Changyu Wine Company established in 1892 by Zhang Bishi. Also known as Cheong Fatt-Tze, a Cantonese businessman, he came to reside in Penang, Malaysia. He built such a huge trading empire there, extending it to China and Indonesia, that the New York Times called him “China’s Rockefeller” just before he died in 1915. By then Changyu was China’s largest wine producer. Its wines won gold medals in that year’s San Francisco’s Pacific Panama Fair of Nations, the first international awards for Chinese wines. Grapes for those wines originally came from France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux regions. The winery has kept its distinction to the present day and has become one of the top 500 industrial enterprises in China. In 1949 the Winery was nationalized.  Built in 2002, Chateau Changyu is now run by China’s bestselling winemaker, Changyu Pioneer Wine of Yantai.

The Chinese are still a nation of beer drinkers. In Penglai’s streets the signs for Tsingtao were everywhere. From 2002 China has been the world’s largest beer market, but only since 2011 it has been the world’s 5th largest wine market. To be a bigger player in the world’s wine market, it needs to export more. This explains the need for promoting participation in its wine industry by fine winemakers from abroad. Major foreign wine companies such as Lafite bring not just expertise but, equally important, they also have established access to foreign markets.


It would be audacious for a first time visitor to draw conclusions about Penglai from limited observations during a short trip. First hand contact, on the other hand, can provide some insight which might serve in understanding, and perhaps assessing, the current conventional generalizations about Penglai and even China. In Penglai I have found enough evidence not to dismiss offhand the following propositions. Tradition, legends, folklore, Taoism and Confucianism, all in an undifferentiated mix, still hold an important place in Chinese imagination and beliefs. Order and safety and the absence of signs of unrest indicate a stable environment.  Big projects are undertaken with the approval of governing bodies, indeed sometimes at their direction. The entrepreneurial motto of “build them they will come” was followed in the recent period of phenomenal growth. There has been overbuilding of infrastructures which are now underused. The phase of development emphasizing investment is giving way to the phase where emphasis has to be on expanding consumption. The need for contact and trade with the outside world is felt while generating pride in indigenous values has become another focus of attention. In all of these, Penglai presents a reflection of what is said also of China as a whole. In that sense, Penglai is a “mirage” of China.