Photos for the poem "Synthesis"

piero scaruffi's visual poetry
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Sun Temple, Konark, Orissa, India

Built in 1278 CE by the Ganga king Narasimha Deva, the "Sun Temple" at Konark in the Indian state of Orissa is the biggest stone chariot ever built. Like in all great Hindu art, the quantity and quality of details is mind-boggling. Proceeding from the east, one first enters the Naata Mandir, a four-pillared hall sitting on a layered five-meter high platform decorated with dancing girls and fronted by two lions killing elephants. This leads to the platform (also five-meter high) of the temple proper (pitha) that supports both the viman (the temple proper) and the jagamohan (the entrance porch). The most stunning element of the platform are the 24 wheels, each 3-meter high, that are "attached" to it. Coupled with the seven life-size horses, the wheels create the impression of a giant chariot. Each wheel is in itself a marvel of sculpture. Even the spokes and the joints contain miniature sculptures. Not a centimeter of stone is wasted. The porch (jagamohan) of the temple, the highest extant structure (40 meters), is a colossus with a multi-layered roof (notably the four-headed statues of Shiva). The viman of the temple is mostly collapsed but used to be the tallest building in India (70 meters). Three sun deities have survived, each kept inside a crypt. The southern gate (guarded by horses) and northern gate (guarded by elephants) create an axis orthogonal to the pitha-mandir axis. The temple was destroyed by Muslim invaders in 1568, and never fully restored to its grandeur.

Zaha Hadid's Performing Arts Center and Jean Nouvel's Louvre in Abu Dhabi

The city-state of Abu Dhabi (one of the seven United Arab Emirates) hired some of the greatest living architects in the world to design a new "Cultural District" in the island of Saadiyat. Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel are emblematic of the role that curves and irregular geometric shapes will play in 21st century architecture.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 12th centuries ("angkor" actually simply means "capital"). Today the archeological site covers about 400 square kilometers. King Suryavarman II (in the early 12th century) had this temple ("wat") erected in it. Originally dedicated to Vishnu, the temple was meant to represent Mt Meru, the cosmological center of Hinduism. Three rectangular galleries encircle five towers that represent the five peaks of Mt Meru. These galleries are decorated with bas-relief friezes that represent lotus fowers, female and male dancers, episodes from the Hindu epics (the "Ramayana" and the "Mahabharata"), and a famous battle between asuras and devas (in Hindu mythology the asuras/demons are opposed to the devas/angels). Unusually for Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat faces west. Hindu temples in India are an experience of sensory overload. Angkor Wat, on the other hand, expresses a sense of harmony and elegance that is more Greek in nature while retaining the spiritual magniloquence of the southern Indian temple.

Bam, Iran

About 200 kilometers southeast of Kerman in the middle of the desert lies a citadel (Arg-e Bam to contemporary Iranians). Founded in ancient times, it was an important outpost on the Silk Road from the Sassanid era (224-636) to the Safavid era (1501-1722). But another reason for people to come to Bam was its Zoroastrian fire temple, which we can only imagine (it was destroyed by the Muslims, who built a mosque on its site). The city was abandoned after the Afghan invasion of 1722 that terminated the Safavid dynasty. At its peak the citadel was probably the largest structure of mud bricks in the world. Restoration only began in 1953. When i visited it (at the peak of the USA-Iran confrontation) there was not a single soul in town. The only sound was the wind. I have never felt so alone inside a city.

Marble Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The "Summer Palace" (or, better, "Yiheyuan", which means "Garden of Harmonious Unity") is a vast complex of gardens, pavilions, temples, bridges and lakes that was used by the Qing dynasty as a summer retreat to escape the heat of the "Forbidden City". Originally built in 1153 by the Jin dynasty, it was expanded over the centuries. In 1860 the European powers raided it. In 1888 the dowager empress Cixi rebuilt it. One pavilion was first erected in 1755 by the Qianlong Emperor in the shape of a traditional Chinese boat at the edge of Kunming Lake. She rebuilt it in 1893 in the shape of a Mississippi-style steamboat. The 36-meter long base is made of stone, but the two upper stories are made of wood although painted white to look like marble. The "Marble Boat" (or, better, "Qingyangfang", which means "Boat of Purity and Ease") was perhaps meant as an allegory for China, the unsinkable boat.

Achilles Rizzoli's "Grace Popich Symbolically Sketched" (1938)

A humble and solitary San Francisco architect (and a life-time virgin), Achilles Rizzoli (1896-1982) died a modest and irrelevant man after a rather uneventful life. His drawings were discovered after his death. Many of them depict imaginary buildings. Many of them were meant as symbolic representations of real people, notably little girls. All of them are grandiose architectural fantasies. This detailed drawing of an inexistent palace was dedicated to a girl. In 1958 Rizzoli created a new vision of art, that he called "Architecture Made To Entertain" (or AMTE), and set out to implement it in a series of multi-media works (titled "AMTE's Celestial Extravaganza") that contained poetry, essays and quotations as well as drawings. Unbeknownst to everybody else, he was literally living a second life in a literally different world. Never a utopia had been visually documented in such detail. That this utopia was also a sexual nightmare of which his own mother and underage virgins were the protagonists makes his whole secret life a cryptic metaphor. An illustrated novel that he wrote over the course of several years has never been recovered.

Borobudur, Java, Indonesia

In 778 the Sailendra king Dharmatunga began construction of the Buddhist temple at Borobudur in the island of Java (today part of Indonesia). The temple is the largest mandala ever built (1.6 million stone blocks), a cosmic mountain with a base of 122 square meters and a height of 35 meters. The temple is also a museum of Buddhist art, given its five kilometers of friezes (more than 1,400 panels for a total of 8,000 square meters) and its 500 statues. It is also a gigantic encyclopedia of Buddhist knowledge, encoded both in the friezes and in the relative proportions of its parts. Three circular terraces support three rows of stupas that contain Buddha images. Each terrace corresponds to a realm of the Buddhist "trilokya": Kamadhatu (the realm of desire and suffering), Rupadhatu (the realm of form) and Arupyadhatu (the formless realm). The terraces are topped by the biggest stupa. Walking around and ascending the terraces, one gets the impression of watching the longest film ever made. It must have taken a multi-disciplinary team of engineers, astronomers and mathematicians (not to mention sculptors) to guide architect Gunadharma through his manic vision. The monument looks intimidating as one approaches it from the causeway. It offers little of the serenity that most Buddhist monuments exude. Its massive shape looks somewhat bleak against its natural background. The cold, colossal, endless symmetry of the building has a double effect on the pilgrim. On one hand she feels that she is traversing the history of humankind. On the other hand she feels that she is traversing her own individual existence. The arrangement of symbols lends it the austere quality of a mathematical theorem. The sheer size evokes the infinite. Borobudur is a metaphor for both the individual soul and the cosmic soul. There is something inherently not human about it: unlike Christian cathedrals, that were built to impress from the square, Borodupur can be appreciated only from the sky.

Tyge Brahe's Castle Uraniborg (1580)

(Huntington Library, San Marino, California, USA). The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was the thinker who started the revolution that is usually credited to his more famous colleagues Galileo and Newton. After observing the birth of a new star (1572) and of a comet (1577), Brahe became the first influential person to argue that the heavens were not immutable. The Aristotelian and Christian view of the universe was that the world below the moon is imperfect and dynamic, while the world above the moon is perfect and static. Brahe introduced the modern view that the world below the moon is not as imperfect as we think and the world above the moon is not as perfect as we think. The king granted him the tiny island of Hven near Copenhagen, and there Brahe built a small castle (after 1576 and before 1581), that he named Uraniborg after the Greek goddess Urania. In the basement he built his observatory, that he named Stjaerneborg ("castle of the stars"). It was the most sophisticated astronomical center ever built in Europe. In fact, it marked the very first time that the establishment recognized the need to "observe" the universe before deciding what it is like. For that purpose Brahe had to personally build a whole generation of new instruments. Brahe abandoned the old view that celestial bodies move on crystalline spheres, and ushered in the view that celestial bodies move freely in space. It was Brahe who focused on the "orbit" and not the "position" of a planet, as it had traditionally been done. He realized that there is no "position" of a planet: there is an orbit that the planet follows. One of the young assistants who helped Brahe calculate planetary orbits was Johannes Kepler, who went on to discover that those orbits are elliptical, another conceptual revolution for a society that still believed the circle to be the dominant pattern in the sky. Brahe is nonetheless an example of how observation alone does not always lead to truth. He rejected Nicholas Copernicus' heliocentric theory of 1543. Based on his own observations, Brahe accepted that Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn indeed revolve around the Sun, but concluded that the Moon and the Sun revolve around the Earth, and that the stars occupy a spherical universe that is centered on the Earth.

Kalyan mosque and minaret, Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Bukhara lies on the Silk Road, west of Samarkand. It was an important city from 850, when it was chosen as the capital of the Samanid Empire, until the Mongol destroyed it in 1220. The "Kalyan" (or "Great") mosque that was built in the 13th century in Bukhara has been destroyed and rebuilt, but its 46-meter tall minaret, erected in 1127, is still standing. Unlike the minarets of the Arab world, this one looks like the tower of a fort, topped by a large round room with 16 arched windows. The geometric patterns of the bricks create 14 horizontal stripes. The unusual style of the minaret may be the result of Bukhara's unique religious melting pot of Manicheanism, Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism and Islam.

Mrauk U, Myanmar

Two of the largest abandoned cities in the world lie in Myanmar/Burma. Bagan was the ancient capital of the kingdom and is dotted with hundreds of temples. Accessible only by boat and built over a series of small hills, Mrak U is more remote and desolate. In 1431 it became the capital of the Arakanese king Min Saw Mon and flourished for two centuries. Arakan, whose legendary chronicles extend as far back as 2666 BC, was a rich kingdom, squeezes between Bengal and Burma, that disappeared in 1785 when it was finally conquered by the Burmese. The Sakkyar Man Aung pagoda was built by King Sri Suddhamma Raja in 1693. The platform, the niches, the terraces, the bulbous higher levels and the umbrella-like top create one of the most singular geometries of Buddhist architecture. In fact, one can guess the influence of extraneous beliefs. Entering the compound (that includes twelve smaller pagodas), one is welcomed by four statues. Two are demons and two are "nats". The nats were spirits worshipped by the original people of Bagan. These spirits, whose sacred mountain was Mount Popa, had the function of defending the peace of nature (if necessary, through ferocious violence). There were 36 main nats, later subjugated to the Buddha. The orgiastic ceremonies in their honor somehow coexisted with the ascetic cult of Buddha.

Mauk Escher: "Hand with Reflecting Sphere" (1935)

Mostly famous for optical illusions, the art of Mauk Escher (1898-1971) is often self-referential. In cases like this one, the self-reference is explicit and results in an expansion of both self-awareness and awareness of the environment. The artist's left hand (Escher was left-handed) lifts a glass globe that reflects the image of the artist himself and of his surroundings. The metaphor is that the artist can see his world better by looking at his own art (the globe gives him a complete view of the entire room). At the same time we (the viewers) do not know if the environment depicted in that globe is the real room or an imaginary room. Thus the artist is creating the world that we experience. To emphasize this point, the artist's eyes are located in the exact center of the scene.

Town Hall, Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn`s late Gothic two-storey limestone building for the Town Hall in the cobbled Raekoja Square dates from 1404. The main facade is actually on the left side, standing on a vaulted arcade and facing the square, but from this angle one can best admire the oblong structure, the steep gables and the slim 64-meter octagonal tower. And the way it seems to puncture the sky.

Design for the European Central Bank, Frankfurt, Germany

This, a proposal submitted in 2004 by United Architects (apparently from an idea by Ben van Berkel of UN Studio), was meant to be a colossal warped sphere. The project was not approved, but it remains one of the most striking sights in early 21st century architecture. It was meant to represent a euro coin, but it brings to mind forms from the organic world (sponges), from the world of minerals (limestone formations) and from the outer space (meteors).

The Bayon at Angkor Thom, Cambodia

After Angkor was raided by an enemy army in 1177, king Jayavarman VII built a new capital, Angkor Thom, not far from Angkor, and in it a new temple, the Bayon. Originally a Mahayana Buddhist temple, the Bayon boasts over 200 colossal faces adorning 54 towers. Like its predecessor Angkor Wat, the Bayon relies on galleries and friezes to deliver its meaning. At sunrise the faces seem to reflect into the sky and into each other. If Borobudur is an encyclopedia and Angkor a cosmic map, then the Bayon is a Freudian nightmare.

"La Citta` Ideale"

There are three known paintings titled "La Citta` Ideale" ("the ideal city"): in Urbino (Italy), in Berlin (Germany) and in Baltimore (USA). Painted at the end of the 15th century, they have been attributed to different artists, with Piero della Francesca's name coming up every other generation and Luciano Laurana (a Dalmatian who had become court architect of the Duke of Urbino) being the most likely candidate. The three paintings follow quite naturally from the drawings that can be found in Piero della Francesca's treatises "De Prospectiva Pingendi" and "De Corporibus Regularibus", both devoted to the new science of perspective that he had just invented. However, it was not perspective that Piero was after. The focus of these paintings is on geometric elegance. Perspective was one of the means, not the end. The painter also carefully chose the colors (none too bright, almost different shades of white). The distribution of masses is perhaps the key element in creating the sense of harmony and peace. The time of the day (just before or after noon), the lightly overcast sky and, last but not least, the absence of crowds all contribute to the definition of "ideal". In a sense the painter of the "Ideal City" expanded on ideas that were being developed by contemporary composers (and would ultimately lead to Bach's supreme creations) and represented an extension of Pythagoras' philosophy that the beauty of the universe is, ultimately, mathematical. Ironically, this science of peace and harmony was born amid the chronic warfare of 15th century fragmented Italy.

Belur, Karnataka, India

The Hindu temples in south India probably represent the zenith of sculptural art anywhere in the world. The Hoysala dynasty reigned over Karnataka (a state located on the west coast of India) between the 11th and the 14th centuries. There are three main Hoysala ruins: Somnatpur, Belur and Halebid. The Hoysala temples are among the most intricate structures ever crafted by humans, and quite different from the more popular Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu: they are star-shaped; they sit on jagged platforms; they mix the curving towers (shikharas) typical of northern India and the column halls (mandapas) typical of southern India. The statues are so complex that they look like they are made of metal. But it is all stone (soapstone). They defy the laws of Physics. The Chennakeshava temple (1117) in the small village of Belur has perhaps the most complicated compound. It is totally asymmetric; it mixes different types of buildings; it does not seem to have a center or an axis. The interior is perhaps the most sophisticated of India: every corner, every pillar, every part of the ceiling, and every bracket is covered with sculptures and reliefs. It is the ultimate form of sensory overload. This is a typical example: a bracket between a pillar and a beam becomes an opportunity to sculpt a complex image, surrounded by a frame of smaller images and decorative patterns.

Pechersk Lavra, Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev/Kyiv's Pechersk Lavra ("monastery of the caves") is one of the holiest shrines of Orthodox Christianity. The monastery was originally founded by two monks, St Anthony of the Caves and St Theodosius of the Caves, in 1051. Its name derives from the maze of caves that runs underneath the compound. Originally built in 1078, the Dormition/Uspensky Cathedral is the most splendid sight inside the compound. Its seven golden domes soar above a symphony of circular shapes. This is a view of the "back" of the cathedral that is even more graceful and solemn than its facade precisely because it emphasizes the curve over the line. Byzantine architecture viewed from Slavic eyes acquired a unique sense of graceful humility.

Fraser's Spiral

Among optical illusions Fraser's spiral (named after British psychologist James Fraser who first studied it in 1908) is one of the most artistically attractive. We see a spiral where there are only concentric circles.

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbeck is located 85 kilometers from Beirut above the Bekaa valley, at the intersection of two trade routes of the ancient world, one connecting the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia, and the other connecting Syria and Palestine. These two routes were used for centures to move both goods and armies. The ancient Greeks called this city "Heliopolis" (city of the Sun) The Romans conquered it in 15 B.C. and set out to build a temple to their supreme god Jupiter. Nobody knows why, but it was the largest they ever built. The temple to Jupiter was probably completed by 62 A.D., but work continued on other structures of the sanctuary (Trajan added the Great Court, Antoninus Pius added the temple of Bacchus, Septimius Severus added the temple of Venus, and Marcus Julius Philippus added the hexagonal court, which was probably the last addition). Each of the deities worshipped here had both a Roman and a local referent. The Roman newcomers worshipped Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus but the locals probably still worshipped the pre-existing deities of Hadad (the Sun god), his wife Atargatis and the Anatolian Dionysus. The sanctuary was not dedicated until the reign of Lucius Septimius Severus, i.e. between 193 and 211. The vast Great Court, that measures 135 meters by 113 meters and contained several altars, was surrounded by more than one hundred massive 20-meter tall granite columns, of which only six are still standing. The whole colossal temple was placed on a raised platform, the Grand Terrace. The foundations of this platform were massive stones, weighing as much as 500 tons each (which is not clear where they were quarried, how they were transported uphill and how they were placed with such precision). The biggest of these stones (probably weighing more than 1,000 tons each) are the three stones of the "trilithon", located on the western side, which may have been there before the Romans arrived (a fact that would only deepen the mystery). When the Romans converted to Christianity (in 313), parts of the temple were demolished to provide material for basilicas. What had made Baalbek a prosperous city also caused its demise. Being at the crossroad of so many civilizations, it was also the victim of countless wars, each of which took a toll on its structures: the Arab invasion of 637, the wars between the Egyptian and Syrian calyphs (when it was turned into a al-qala`, i.e. "fortress") culminating with the massacre of 748, the Byzantine raid of 975, the Seljuk invasion of 1090, the Crusade of 1171, Saladin's reconquest of 1175, and finally the Mongol raid of 1260. By that time the great temple had been mostly dismantled.

Floating Market of Banjarmasin, Borneo, Indonesia

Banjarmasin is a town of the Kalimantan Timur province of Indonesia, located on the island of Borneo. There are many cities built on water, from Venezia in Italy to Ganvie` in Benin, but no other has spellbound me like Banjarmasin did. It lies at the confluence of two main rivers and several smaller creeks. The traditional life was entirely dependent on the waterways. The maze of canals was lined with floating houses and houses on stilts. Early morning before sunrise the floating market attracts both traders and shoppers. I was there on a night with no moon. It was a surreal scene to hear the voices and noises of the market without actually seeing it.

Minakshi Sundareshvara, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

Most of the Hindu temples and shrines of southern India are stunning because of the amount and quality of details, but usually not because of size. In a sense, the Minakshi Sundareshvara complex at Madurai (dedicated to Parvati as Minakshi and to Shiva as Sundareshvara) fuses the Hindu sensory overload with the Western idea of artistic grandeur. The area covered by the compound measures about 60,000 square meters. Twelve gopuras (towers) rise from its walled enclosure. They are plastered with layers of intricate stories. Each gopura is a cacophony of stucco figures of animals and monsters painted in vivid colours and in dynamic poses. No attention was paid to perspective: the figures are just piled one on top of the other. Each is carefully sculpted and radiates a strong emotion, as if competing with the others for the pilgrim's attention. The four outer gopuras (one per cardinal point) are the most intricate. Three of them (east, south and west) have more than one thousand stucco figures each (the southern one has a staggering 1511 and is also the tallest one at about 50 meters). The other major display of sculptures is in the thousand-pillar hall. The columns (actually 985) are basically excuses for sculpting all sorts of life-size mythological figures. While wondering into the dark naves of the hall, one feels like having entered an otherworldly realm inhabited by these supernatural creatures. Muslim invaders destroyed the original temple in 1310. Eventually the Vijayanagar Empire regained control of the area and ceded it to the Nayak dynasty, that ruled Madurai from the 16th to the 18th century. Restoration of the temple was basically over by 1659.

Sultanahmet Camii, Istanbul, Turkey

The Sultanahmet Mosque (popularly known as the "Blue Mosque") shares the stage of Istanbul's most charming square (and one of the most amazing squares in the world) with the older Christian church of Hagia Sophia. The mosque was founded by Sultan Ahmet I and erected by his trusted architect Mehmed Aga by 1616. The contrast is intriguing. Hagia Sophia is topped by an immense dome that lends it an unnatural, awe-inspiring quality. The mosque, instead, is covered with a cascade of domes and semi-domes that radiate a more benevolent atmosphere onto the surrounding square. At night the Hagia Sophia looks like a science-fiction monster, whereas the mosque looks like a friendly, serene village. Nonetheless the main dome is 23-meters in diameter and 43-meters high, which makes it one of the greatest engineering feats of that era. Perhaps to compensate for the smaller size of the main dome, the architect surrounded the mosque with six minarets (only the Mecca mosque had six at the time). They are so sharp that they look like pencils to write on the clouds. Istanbul had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire (and made its capital) in 1453, i.e. one century and a half earlier. While Christianity had already given up any hope of rescuing the old Christian capital of Byzantium (now renamed Istanbul), the Ottomans still had to satisfy their pride, especially after they had been defeated (1606) in their attempt to conquer the Austrian Empire, a major event that marked the end of Islam's relentless expansion into former Christian areas. The mosque was, in fact, built on the site of the palace of the old Byzantine emperors, where Justinian had reigned (the Byzantine emperor who had commissioned the Hagia Sophia). Ironically, the sultan died the year after the mosque was completed (he was only 27 years old). The mosque is obviously not blue outside, but the interior is plastered with 20,000 blue tiles depicting flowers, trees and abstract patterns. The other striking features of the interiot are the four massive granite colums that support the ceiling, the 30 small domes supported by 22 columns, and the 260 stained-glass windows. Both inside and outside the feeling is rather homey and cozy for a structure that was meant to project a sense of power.

Jain Diagram of the Realm of the Mortals, Manushyaloka (18th c)

(Sam Fogg Collection, London, ink and color on cloth, 36x36 cm)

This diagram from India dates from the 18th century, but Jainism dates back to several centuries B.C. Jainism is the most peaceful ideology of all times. Every form of life is sacred to Jains. On a scale from "no respect of life" to "absolute respect for life", the monotheistic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) rank very low. Hinduism and Buddhism rank higher, and Jainism ranks the highest. It is not a coincidence that the frequency of wars in the various regions of the world is proportional to these rankings. Jainism is also one of the most complex philosophies in history. Jain diagrams simplified complex rules about the journey of the soul towards salvation ("moksha"). Cosmological diagrams like this one were drawn to help Jains on the way to attaining salvation. The Jain universe is eternal, and it has neither creator nor destroyer. The Jain universe is divided into two worlds: Lokakash, which is finite and contains all things (such as us), and Alokakash, which is infinite pure space and completely surrounds Lokakash. Things come in six substances, or "dravyas", four of which are immaterial, including akasha (space) and kala (time). There is no time in Alokakasha. There is only space in Alokakasha. Akasha is curved. Things are made of a substance called "pudgala", which is matter and energy. Lokakash is in turn divided into three regions: upper, middle and lower. The "Trashnali", represented as a horizontal band, joins all three regions. That is the place that living beings inhabit. The Trashnali is about 28,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers long, which is about 3,000 light years. The Trashnali is the part of the universe that is "inhabited". Since it contains many stars, planets and moons, Jains believe that life is not an exclusive of our planet. In fact, life is a fundamental property of the entire Trashnali. Liberated souls live in the upper region of the universe, the Siddhashila. Damned souls live in the lower region of the universe. We and billions of other animals and plants live in the middle region, Manushyaloka, which is where the journey towards salvation takes place. Manushyaloka, in turn, consists of two and half continents, centered around Mt Meru, represented as a circle in the center of Jain diagrams. All around the circle are parallel straight lines representing mountains that divide nations identified by rivers. The region where humans reside is Jambudvipa. It is encircled by a blue ring: Lavanasamudra, a sea.

Jim Mao Tower, Shanghai, China (1998)

Designed by architect Adrian Smith, this Shanghai landmark is reminiscent of several traditional Chinese "forms" (the pagoda, the mandala), but, mostly, it is influenced by "Feng Shui". Feng Shui, first codified during the Tang Dynasty by Yang Yun Song and later during the Song dynasty by Chu Hsi, is the art of arranging space to achieve harmony with the environment, according to a set of philosophical, psychological, aesthetic, mathematical, astrological and geographical factors. The fundamental principle is that buildings, objects and gardens should be somehow attuned with the flow of the all-pervading energy Qi, a flow determined by the complementary forces of Yin (quiescence) and Yang (movement). The "I Ching/ Book of Changes" employs 64 symbolic hexagrams, each hexagram consisting of a pair of trigrams chosen from a family of 8 basic trigrams, each named for a natural phenomenon. The 8 trigrams represent the possible combinations of Yang and Yin (usually represented as, respectively, unbroken and broken lines). From the I Ching the Bagua was derived: an octagonal diagram that accomodates the 8 I Ching trigrams, each relating to an aspect of life. The Bagua is used as a map to guide in the layout of things so that they are aligned with the flow of Qi. The key number in all of this is 8. Accordingly, the Jim Mao tower, which is the biggest "object" that the Chinese ever tried to lay out, is supported by two sets of 8 pillars and has 88 stories.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

The Ichan-Kala (old town) of Khiva, located in a desolate part of Uzbekistan, far from any of the main modern arteries, looks like it just came out of a fairy tale. While its buildings mostly date from the 18th and 19th century, their architecture strikinly belongs to another era. The agile ramparts, the massive circular towers, the slender minarets, the graceful mosques, the austere madrasas, almost all of them drenched in blue tiles and facing each other in the narrow alleys, constitute a living encyclopedia of the architecture of the Silk Road, where Chinese and Islamic influences met and merged. Ancient caravan roads led from Khiva to Mongolia and to Russia. The caravans never came back but Khiva continued to live its spellbinding existence in a parallel world. The tall cylindrical structure is the Kaita Minar minaret of the 19th century.

Gol Gumbaz, Bijapur, Karnataka, India

The Gol ("round") Gumbaz ("dome") is the mausoleum of sultan Mohammed Adil Shah of the 17th century, a member of the Muslim dynasty that had ruled the city of Bijapur since 1489. This massive cube is topped by the second largest dome in the world (after the dome of St Peter's Basilica in Roma), 44 meters in diameter, 3.5 meters thick and 27 meters high. The floor (1693 square meters) is slightly bigger than the most famous of Western mausolea, the Pantheon in Roma (1,393 square meters). The dome does not rest on any pillar. An elegant but sophisticated system of geometric lines supports its enormous weight without any need for pillars, projecting the square floor into the round dome. The four seven-storey minarets, lower than the dome, contain the staircases to the dome, and each minaret is topped by its own mini-dome (a concept that is more Chinese than Islamic in nature). The gallery around the dome is an acoustic amplifier: a whisper can be heard at the other side of the gallery, 44 meters away. The basalt and plaster structure looks white from the gardens that surround it. Each exterior facade has three blind arches, the middle one appearing black because of its wooden panels. Islamic, Buddhist and Christian architectural motifs are subtly blended to create a sense of supernatural harmony.

Drawing from Athanasius Kircher's "Ars Combinatoria" (1669)

(Huntington Library, San Marino, California, USA) Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) was a German scientist who could compete with Leonardo da Vinci in terms of eclectic genius. A Jesuit living in Italy, he published 39 books on all sorts of subjects, each of which blended different viewpoints: observations, speculations, folk myths and original inventions. They were simultaneously encyclopedias, manuals and essays. For example, "Musurgia Universalis" (1646), a treatise on music, established a correlation between the harmony of music and the proportions of the universe, reproduced birdsongs in musical notation, explained how musical instruments work, and described how to build a water-powered automatic organ. He tried to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphics in "Lingua Aegyptiaca Restituta" (1643), surveyed Chinese culture in "China Monumentis" (1667), and pioneered geophysics in "Mundus subterraneus" (1665). He realized that magnetism and gravity were similar phenomena. He believed in the evolution of animals. He studied the 1656 bubonic plague, correctly predicting that the disease was due to creatures that could be seen only with a microscope, as well as the 1630 eruption of a Sicilian volcano, correctly predicting that the core of the Earth contained fire. Many of his books described his own inventions: a calculating machine in "Specula Melitensis Encyclica" (1638), the magic lantern in "Ars Magna Lucis Et Umbrae" (1646), a geometric calculator in "Pantometrum Kircherianum" (1669), the megaphone in "Phonurgia Nova" (1673), etc. Kircher's lifetime obsession was the problem of encoding and decoding. In 1651 he founded the first public museum, located in the vast, labyrinthine edifice of the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, where he had been working since 1933. Some of the books were decorated with intricate drawings. In the "Ars Magna Sciendi" (1669) Kircher introduced a kind of symbolic logic that could be used to prove the truth of any statement. The fourth chapter, "Ars Combinatoria", uses this diagram (popularized by Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum") to explain the mathematical properties of his machine. But Kircher must have been aware that this diagram also shows the power of straight lines to create the optical illusion of curvature. Incidentally, Kircher's "Ars Magna Sciendi" continued a project originally started around 1275 by the medieval Spanish mystic and alchemist Ramon Llull (1232-1316), who spent his life developing a combinatorial system of letters and revolving wheels that would allow missionaries to prove systematically the truth of the Christian faith to the Jews and the Muslims who doubted them. Basically, Llull (perhaps inspired by the "zairja" used by Arab astrologers) had pioneered the mechanical production of truth. Llull's "Ars Magna" (1305) influenced Gottfried Leibniz's "ars combinatoria", which in turn influenced the development of symbolic logic that in turn influenced the birth of computer science.

Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Centuries ago the small rural town of Lalibela in Ethiopia (one of the first countries to convert to Christianity) not only was one of the most pious Christian centers in the world (about 20% of its male population is priests) but also developed a unique architectural style. The town sits on a granite bed and its eleven churches were carved into the granite. Basically, this is a rare case of inverse sculpting: they did not sculpt the church, rather they escavated the empty space around it (the Kailasa temple of the Hindus at Ellora is another example). Each church has an underground entrance. The eleven churches are connect by a network of tunnels. The "roofs" of the churches are level with the streets of Lalibela (named after the 12th-century king who commissioned the churches, possibly inspired by a trip to Jerusalem). Instead of walking up the magnificent staircases of the Italian churches, the Lalibela faithfuls walk down narrow ladders to their churches. This is hardly the way to present the glory of God that the Popes had in mind. Obviously, a different thinking (that came from the hermits of the desert rather than from the bishops of the cities) was at work here. King Lalibela himself ended his life as a hermit in a nearby cave. The town compares with Varanasi in India and Jerusalem in Palestine in terms of spirituality. There is hardly a day without a procession of sorts rolling through the unpaved roads of the town and heading for one or another of the churches. Crowds dressed in white approach the site singing and dancing. Bete Giyorgis (St George's church), built by Lalibela's widow after his death (1220s) is the crowning jewel. Viewed from above, it has the shape of a square cross. It is interesting that this style has no precedents anywhere in the Christian world, but it has a precedent in the Buddhist caves of India and China.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang, Laos

The Wat Xieng Thong ("temple of the golden city"), built around 1560 by Laos' king Setthathirat in the capital Luang Prabang by the Mekong river, is a Buddhist temple that also served as royal palace. The interior has been heavily restored in the 1960s, but the roof and the general configuration are typical of Laotian architecture. A secluded nation that did not exist until 1345, when Upon Fa Ngum carved his own kingdom out of Thai and Khmer kingdoms, named it Lan Xang and then converted it to Buddhism, Laos never quite achieved a cultural identity, except in the roofs of its sacred buildings. The typical temple has a three-tiered curved roof that hides most of the structure. The facade is actually lavishly decorated. The rest of the building, though, is dwarfed by the roof, that, from an aesthetic viewpoint, acts as the real exterior.

Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India

Mamallapuram was a rich and important city of the Pallava empire in the 7th century. Pallava art is scattered all over town. The Panch Rathas (630 AD), in particular, begun during the reign of King Mahendravarman I, are majestic temples/sculptures carved in the living granite rock. It takes a while, as you walk around the five structures, to realize that these are not sculptures assembled from a number of stones but carved whole from large granite boulders of the site. Each temple is shaped in the form of a humble adobe, and therefore represents an unusual case of vernacular architecture. One feels more like being in the main square of a village than like being in a holy site (in fact, the complex was never consecrated).

Carpet page of the "Lichfield Gospels/ Gospels of Saint Chad" (8th century)

Roughly modeled after the carpet page of the Lindisfarne Gospels, this book of the Lichfield Cathedral in England is lavishly decorated. The intricate design of this page yields a cross. The cross contains six squares, each of which contains the same pattern but with different color arrangements. The six squares create four areas outside the cross. Just like the squares, these four areas are filled with patterns that incorporate animals.

Thambodday, Moniwa, Myanmar

The giant temple of Mohnyin Thambuddhei Paya, situated just outside the town of Monywa in Myanmar/Burma, was erected between 1939 and 1952 for Sayadaw, abbot of the Moe Hnyin monastery, over the site of a sanctuary that dated from 1303. The compound is a jungle of buildings, each a bright, colorful, intricate accretion of forms. The main pagoda/stupa is surrounded by 845 smaller pagodas/stupas. Each pagoda is lavishly decorated outside and populated inside by a multitude of sculptures. The whole compound contains 582,257 Buddha images, possibly the largest collection of Buddha statues in the world. The walls of the main pagoda are plastered with row after row of small Buddha images. If there ever was a definition of "devotion", this is it.

Empty Quarter, United Arab Emirates

From the vast and highly-developed Liwa Oasis south of Abu Dhabi (one of the seven United Arab Emirates) roads lead to the end of civilization. Sand dunes spread as far as the eye can see, eventually blending with the Rub al Khali (better known as the "Empty Quarter") of Saudi Arabia. It is my favorite definition of "emptiness": infinite nameless elegance of lifeless shapes.

Winsor McCay: "Little Nemo in Slumberland" (1905)

Winsor McCay (1867-1934) created this comic strip that legitimized comics as an art. Set in the magic world of Slumberland, "Little Nemo" recast Art Nouveau as a vehicle for childish fantasies. He was clearly not interested in telling a story. His art was about the costumes, not the psychology of the characters; about the landscape, and not the plot. Even the visual aspect of the comic strip is rather superficial: McCay indulged in facades more than in anything else. His world was fundamentally flat, two-dimensional and uneventful. His cities look frigid. His palaces look empty. His characters look naive. The excitement comes from the visual distortions and the symphony of colors. Few painters or film-makers have been capable of imagining such impossible cities through the eyes of a child.

El-Deir, Petra, Jordan

The Nabataeans, traditionally nomadic people who lived in tents and had emigrated in the sixth century B.C. from the Arabian peninsula to southern Jordan, founded Petra at the crossroad of the trade routes that linked China, India, Iran and the booming Roman Empire. In 63 A.D. it was first occupied by the Romans and from 106 A.D. it was annexed by their empire. For a while Petra continued to prosper, but powerful earthquakes and the Arab invasion sealed its fate. It was abandoned and became a ghost town. Aramaic was the lingua franca of the region, but the Nabateans were writing in a script that was the prototype of Arabic. Originally, Petra was probably not a city, but only a sanctuary and necropolis. There are over three thousand tombs in Petra. While so big that it contained temples, a theater, baths, gardens and other meeting places, its inhabitants were merely the staff that took care of these functions. From around 60 BC to 200 AD it underwent a massive construction project. The ancient Nabataeans had chosen a valley surrounded and hidden by mountains, the Wadi Musa ("the valley of Moses"), accessible through a narrow canyon (the Siq), and later generations shaped the sandstone cliffs of the valley into a city. Approaching Petra from the Siq, one follows its crooked route as it shrinks to a width of five meters. Then a massive structure appears: the "Khazneh" ("treasury"), carved into the mountain, 40-meter high. The influence of Greek architecture is evident, but these are not free-standing structures. They are fake Greek temples. Beyond the "Khazneh" lies the old center of town. All around on the walls of the valley the inhabitants carved more temples/tombs, some of them as imposing as the "Khazneh". The path continues up the hill via an ancient staircase to another Greek-style construction almost at the very top, "El-Deir" ("the monastery"). This is an even more colossal building, with a 50-meter wide and 55-meter tall facade and an eight-meter tall doorway (in the photograph there is a man approaching the door, if you can see him). Nobody knows why the Nabateans built these structures for giants, except that they seem to occupy as much space as the mountain allowed. It feels like the architects wanted to magnify ordinary life to make it look as grand as Nature.

Giambattista Piranesi: "Il Ponte Levatoio/ The Drawbridge" (1761)

Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778) made a living with etchings of ancient Roman monuments. After a few years in Venezia (Venice), Piranesi moved to Roma (Rome), where he opened his own workshop and produced the "vedute" (views) that established his reputation. Few people were as knowledgeable as him about ancient Roman ruins, and he published a book that was a veritable catalogue of them. However, in his spare time he also liked to draw imaginary buildings that he called "Carceri d'Invenzione ("imaginary prisons"). They were eventually published in 1761 as a series of 16 prints. Each looks like a nightmare: colossal and gloomy caves filled with machines and stairs. They were his own version of monumental art. The seventh is conventionally known as "Il Ponte Levatoio/ The Drawbridge", and describes a multi-storey space within a vault with a drawbridge at its center.

Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Samarkand lies on the old Silk Road between China and Europe. Over the centuries it was controlled by Persian, Greek, Arab, Mongol and Turkish empires. In 1370 Timur/ Tamerlane chose Samarkand as the capital of his empire, which extended from India to the Middle East. He brought artists and craftsmen from all regions of the empire to help rebuild his dream city. In 1505 Muhammad Shaybani expelled the heirs of Timur from Samarkand (as well as Bukhara and Herat) and created his own dynasty, the Shaybanids, but Samarkand never regained its artistic and political power. In 1868 another empire, the Russians, took control of the city. Finally, in 1991 Uzbekistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Samarkand is one of the few cities in the world that has been controlled, at one point or another, by five religions (Zoroastrian, Greek, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian). For example, Bukhara's mosque Magok-I-Attari was erected on the site of a Zoroastrian temple that in turn was built on a Buddhist monastery. The artistic and religious melting pot of Samarkand accounts for the magnificent harmony of its Registan Square. One side of the square is open, thus constituting a sort of amphitheater. The other three sides are occupied by three massive marvels of Islamic architecture and decoration: the Ulugh Beg madrasa of 1422, built by Timur's peace-loving grandson Muhammad Taragay (better known as "Ulug Beg"), a patron of the arts as well as an astronomer and mathematician, the Sher-Dor (or "lion") madrasa of 1636 and the Tilla-Kori (or "golden") madrasa of 1660. The last two were added by the Uzbek governor of the time, Yalangtush Bakhadur, who had become extremely wealthy through warfare. His first madrasa was meant as a copy of Ulug Beg's, and constructed across the square from it. His second madrasa, that was also used as a mosque, took center place and is now the most visible element of the ensemble. The Soviet restoration, concluded in 1987, recreated the original colors and atmosphere. The most striking aspect of the square for me was the various degrees of geometric symmetry, that enhance each other and create an overall effect of exhuberant order. Each of the three rectangular buildings is entered via a similar archway and is flanked by two minarets. Another level of symmetry is found in the decorations of the facades, the minarets, the archways, the internal rooms. The symmetry is broken by the mosque of the golden madrasa. The mosque's turquoise dome rises to the west of the central archway like a supernatural external observer looming over the square. The lower minarets of this building seem to imply humility, as opposed to the other two that exude the pride of human learning.

Sonya Rapoport: "(in)AUTHENTIC" (2008)

(Copyright Robert Edgar and Sonya Rapoport)
"Il Teatro della Memoria" ("the memory theater") was devised in the 16th century by Giulio Camillo Delminio (1480-1544). The idea was to store in the rooms of the theater the entire body of human knowledge and to provide connections among the concepts via allegorical images and combinatorial techniques. The goal of the Memory Theater was to allow anybody to speak of philosophical or scientific subjects like an expert. The theater was a seven-tiered auditorium (each tier representing a level of knowlege). The "user" was not a spectator sitting on the steps, but the protagonist, standing on the stage. The show, on the other hand, was not on stage but on the tiers of the auditorium. Tiziano's "Allegoria del Tempo" (Allegory of Time), painted in 1565, was possibly originally conceived as one of the images of Camillo's Memory Theater. Camillo implemented two theaters, one in Venezia (Venice) and one in Paris (1530), and left a short instruction manual, "L'idea del Teatro" (published posthumously in 1550). The Memory Theater was, in many ways, a predecessor of the World-wide Web: a storage of all knowledge with links and cues to navigate through it. The way Camillo organized the knowledge base also reflected a cosmic-spiritual vision, as he blended Astrology, Mythology, Art and Science. Since medieval times Italians had produced works of encyclopedic knowledge that, given the state of science at the time, incorporated everything from Alchemy to Magic. Dante's "Commedia" itself (the "Divine Comedy") was, after all, such a compendium of universal knowledge. Camillo's theater, though, pushed the boundaries towards something that resembled an automaton and embraced architecture. His ideas were largely forgotten until the British historian Francis Yates rediscovered him in his 1966 book "The Art of Memory" and 20th century semiologists such as Umberto Eco found affinities with Camillo's "theater".
Robert Edgar, who at the time was a humble software engineer, created the first computer implementation of a memory theatre in 1985 on an Apple II personal computer (with just 64K of RAM and a monochrome monitor). It was designed like a sort of videogame in which the "user" was able to move from room to room and "interact" with the texts of a library. It was, per se, an interesting adaptation of the encyclopedic utopia of the Renaissance to the computer age. (It was also a pioneering work of computer art).
Sonya Rapoport (1923), an interdisciplinary visual artist who turned to electronics in 1976 and to interactive audio/visual installations with "Objects on my Dresser" (1980), and later created pioneering works for the medium of the World-wide Web such as "Digital Mudra" (1998) and "Redeeming the Gene" (2001), used Robert Edgar's implementation for her "(in)AUTHENTIC" (2008), a Memory Theater of sorts, representing her own psychological and historical cosmos. The accompanying audio is an imaginary dialogue among feminist Luce Irigaray, psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Jetawanarama, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has four main historic sites, all located within the "historic triangle": the 2,000 year-old capital of Anuradhapura, the 12th-century capital of Polonnaruva, the 2nd-century cave temple of Dambula, and the 5th-century royal palace of Sigiriya. Sri Lanka is Buddhist, not Hindu. That is the main difference with India, where Buddhists are instead a small minority. Coincidence or not, the behavior of people is strikingly different. Compared with India, this is a silent country. There is very little noise, even in cities. The streets are clean. Traffic is relatively orderly. There are no apocalyptic crowds. Sri Lanka was one of the first places to convert to Buddhism, and remains one of the most authentic Buddhist places in the world. Sri Lanka prides itself as the oldest continually Buddhist country, a record that would be hard to beat since Buddhism was introduced in the second century B.C. by Arahat Mahinda, the son of the emperor Ashoka of India (who was the first major patron of Buddhism and sent missionaries to all known nations). In fact, it was in Sri Lanka (in Aloka-Vihara) that the Buddhist monks gathered to compile the "Tripitaka" (also known as the "Pali canon") in the first century A.D. Sri Lanka is one of the few places where Buddhism is still of the "old school", or Theravada, which is much more particular about achieving nirvana than the most common Mahayana Buddhism. Stupas in Sri Lanka are circular drums on a square base, topped by a spire. Stupas are not tombs but memorials: they contain a relic of the Buddha. It is odd that the people of Sri Lanka felt that they had to build these memorials on such a colossal scale. The fact is that the Jetavana, build in the then capital Anuradhapura during the reign of Mahasena (269-296 A.D.) was at the time the third tallest structure in the world (surpassed only by two of the Giza pyramids) and is still today the largest brick structure in the world. It originally was 122 meters tall (today its height is about 70 meters from the platform because the spire collapsed) and 113 meters in diameter. Its volume is 233,000 cubic meters. Jetavana is a massive red-brick cone, topped by a cube and a spire, sitting on a three-tier circular wall on an elevated square platform with an entrance staircase at each cardinal point. The best of the four entrances is the southern one that is guarded by elephant heads and cobras. However, the decoration that survives is minimal. The power of the building lies entirely in its perfect dome of 93 million bricks, looming over the plain.

Sphinz, Giza, Egypt

The "Sphinx" is probably the most famous of the colossal monuments of Giza, 10 kilometers from Cairo (the other are the nearby pyramids, that remained the tallest structures in the world for centuries). The Sphinx is not much of a creative feat: it simply represents a lion with a human head (or a human with a lion's body). The fact that has fascinated the world over the centuries is its colossal proportions (72 meters long and 20 meters tall), which make it one of the most massive "portraits" ever. It was carved out of the local limestone, into the quarry itself. Because it lies in front of the pyramid of Khafre/Chephren, son of Khufu/Cheops, it has always been assumed that the face is the face of that pharaoh. Therefore its age is estimated to be the same: 2,500 B.C. Facing east, it would represent the guardian to the royal necropolis. There were other sphinxes in Giza, but this one may have been the first one. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans nor the Arabs paid much attention to the Sphinx (the Greek historian Herodotus never mentioned it). By the time that Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the Sphinx was buried into the sand except for the head. Exposed to the elements (as it is today), the limestone would have melted away long ago. The Sphinx survives precisely because it was forgotten.

Traditional house, Lingga, Sumatra, Indonesia

The Karo Batik villages of North Sumatra, near the city of Medan, have maintained their ethnic identity. These tribes (that used to be, famously, cannibals but today adopt an odd mixture of Christianity, Islam and animism) used to share "longhouses". The structure of the longhouse evolved into the large stilt houses that can be seen today in the villages around Berastagi, such as Lingga, Dokan and Cingkes. These houses are enterely made of timber. Their foundations are elevated above ground and consist of logs that have been treated to last a long time. The house is supported by massive pillars and beams. Families live in separate quarters but share some of the rooms, e.g. the kitchen. What makes the bulk of the house look oblong is the roof, by far the most challenging part of the house from an engineering viewpoint. It is as if two giant fingers stretched it horizontally and vertically, leaving the gables to protrude into the sky. The big triangular gables on both sides of the building dwarf the doors and windows. The crest of the roof is bent like a quarter moon, forcing each half of the roof to curve. It feels like a four-dimensional structure.

Haruko Sasaki's "Healing Temple of Light #1" (2001)

(Copyright )
Haruko Sasaki (1969) is a Japanese artist who specializes in cosmic/spiritual drawings created by geometric lines and figures (and usually only the simplest ones, such as lines and circles). They evoke both Buddhist mandalas, science fiction and the Feinman diagrams of Quantum Mechanics, an unlikely combination and one that has few precedents.

Water Wheel, Hama, Syria

Hama is a town in Syria that lies on the Orontes river. It is one of the last places where one can admire the ancient wooden water wheels ("nouria") that were used extensively for centuries in this part of the world to irrigate the surrounding fields. These colossal wheels (up to 22 meters in diameter) tower over the nearby buildings and emit a whining, grinding sort of sound as they slowly turn around, propelled by the power of water, and in turn push water into aqueducts that carry it to the fields. The ones that are visible today date from the 14th century, but the technology was invented during Roman times, and the Romans may have learned it from the native people. For a long time they were the largest machines in the world.

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

Agra was the capital of the Mughal empire of India from 1526 to 1637 (before the capital was moved to Delhi). The "Mughals" (which simply means "Mongols") were established by Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur, who started his conquests in 1504 and who in 1526 defeated the Delhi Sultan, thus becoming lord of India. Islamic art had already been imported into India by three centuries of Muslim sultans who had ruled in northern India since 1192, but Babur also brought a strong Iranian influence. Islamic art was very different from Hindu art. In fact it was almost its opposite. Hindu temples relished intricate sculptures, chaotic arrangements, vivid colors and hyper-realistic depictions of living beings, whereas Islamic art abhorred all of this and preferred simple geometric patterns and unperturbed symmetry. Hindu art screams, Islamic art whispers. Where Hindu art is pure sensory overload, Islamic art is quiet contemplation. No wonder that both idealogically and artistically the Muslims did not respect the Hindus: they destroyed countless temples. One of the first Muslim monuments of India, the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque (begun in 1198, completed in 1316) was built by recycling the stones of 27 dismantled Hindu and Jain temples, a clear insult to the "pagan" religion, and the massive 72-meter high Qutb Minar tower (to this day the tallest brick minaret in the world), lavishly engraved with verses from the Quran, was begun in 1206 by the first sultan (a former Turkish slave called Qutb-ud-din) to celebrate the establishment of the Sultanate over the Hindu subjects. Given their distaste for Hindu art, it is no surprise that the Muslims had introduced in India the dome and the pointed arch of the Greek, Arab and Persian world. (In fact, the greatest domes of the Islamic world would be built in India). However, Islamic architecture in India did not flourish until the age of Babur. It was his Persian genes that fueled the rapid growth of Islamic architecture in India. While not as famous as his predecessor Akbar or his successor Aurangzeb, Babur's great-grandson Shahab-ud-din, better known as Shah Jahan (who ruled from 1628 till 1658), was the Mughal emperor who (in 1648) dedicated the most noble of all Islamic monuments in India: the "Taj Mahal" (or "crown palace"), on the bank of the river Yamuna in Agra. An immense mausoleum of white marble for his favourite wife Arjumand Banu (a Persian princess nicknamed Mumtaz Mahal), it was designed by the Iranian architect Ustad Isa who clearly intended to create a universal tribute to eternal love. The tomb sits on a platform and is topped by the purest dome in the world, 18 meters in diameter, accompanied by four smaller domes at each corner. The four minarets were respectfully laid at a distance from the tomb. The green rectangular garden in front of the archway as well as the "empty" blue landscape in the background contribute to the ethereal sense of detachment, and their contrast with the white marble of the building reflected in the pond of the garden completes the system of hypnosis. The decoration of florid flowers (in particular a lotus motif) and graceful calligraphy (the work of Amanat Khan), all made with precious gems, adds meaning to it. Finally, the central chamber is octagonal, and so are the four smaller corner rooms. The emperor (influenced by Sufi philosophy like his predecessors) also conceived this majestic complex as an allegory of the Resurrection. The gardens and gates represent Paradise, with four bodies of water standing for the four rivers of Paradise, and the central gateway representing the route followed by Mohammed during the Miraj. A facade of the main gateway is devoted to the sura 89 of the Quran about Allah's final judgment, which concludes with a "Welcome into My Paradise":

Potala, Lhasa, Tibet

Lhasa is the capital of Tibet (now a province of China called Xizang, that does not comprise the whole of ethnic Tibet, or Zangqu). At an altitude of 3,700 meters and thousands of kilometers from the nearest metropolis, Lhasa has always thrived in isolatation (until the opening in 2006 of a railway connection). The Potrang Karpo ("white palace") was built in 1648 by the fifth Dalai Lama on the site where in 637 the emperor Songtsen Gampo had built the original hilltop palace. Given that the Songtsen Gampo was believed to be the reincarnation of bodhisattva Chenresi and that Chenresi lived on the mythological mountain Potala, the palace came to be called Potala too. The "Potrang Marpo" ("red palace") was added in 1694. The resulting 13-storey, 117-meter high Potala compound was for centuries the winter residence of the Dalai Lama (nearby Norbulingka being the summer palace). It was one of the few Tibetan structures to survive the Maoist invasion of 1949, the insurrection of 1959 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966. Tibet under the Dalai Lamas was a theocracies. Therefore the vast Potala (400 metres by 350 metres, and 130,000 square meters of overall space) served as both a religious and a civilian building. The Red Palace contains the stupas of the past Dalai Lamas and several shrines. The highest hall (and the latest addition, dating from 1936), "Sasum Namgyal" ("the best of the three realms"), contains the eleven-face silver statue of Avalokitesvare. Besides self-glorification by the Dalai Lamas, the Potala served also as an encyclopedia of Tibetan arts and crafts, with its hundreds of stupas, thousands of statues and thangkas (paintings) and the 2,500 meters of murals. The chromatic contrast of white, red and yellow (the golden domes), as well as the dark grey of the mountains behind it and the vivid blue of the Tibetan sky, is almost cacophonous.

Temple II, Tikal, Guatemala

The Maya "empire" extended from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico to Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. It wasn't really an empire, but more like a federation of city-states. Tikal was the largest of these Maya city-states, covering about 60 square kilometers with a population of at least 100,000. The oldest buildings date from the 4th century B.C., but the six big step-pyramids are from the "classic age", i.e. 200-900 A.D., after which time Tikal was abandoned (for reasons that are not clear). Tokal has mostly been swallowed by the El Peten jungle. As imposing as it is, what is visible today is only a fraction of the entire city. The 20-storey Temple I (built in 695) and Temple II (702) face each other in the Plaza Mayor. The second tallest pyramid ever built in the Americas was Tikal's 70-meter tall Temple IV (741), the tallest being "La Danta" at El Mirador, further into the jungle. The other three pyramids at Tikal are a bit younger: Temple V (750), Temple VI (766), Temple III (810). They all contain a tomb (except Temple V) and are topped by a temple. The 30-meter tall "Lost World Pyramid" (that may have been built 1,000 years before the others) lies in the oldest part of Tikal. The technique and purpose of the Maya pyramids was significantly different from the technique and purpose of the Egyptian ones that preceded them by 3,000 years. The Tikal pyramids were also much lower, with the tallest in Tikal being half the height of the tallest in Giza. The Tikal pyramids were simply a way to elevate temples above the jungle, so they could be visible from afar (and possibly bring them closer to the sky). And today the most interesting feature of Tikal is precisely the discord between jungle and city, and between trees and pyramids, on such a vast scale. Tikal is a massive dissonance.

Nuut, Dendera, Egypt

The Temple of Hathor at Dendera (60 kilometers north of Luxor on the West bank of the Nile) dates from the Graeco-Roman period (begun in the second century B.C. before the reign of the Macedonian king Ptolemy Physcon, who de facto invited the Romans to interfere in the politics of Egypt). Like all Egyptian temples of that age, it clearly prefigures the Christian churches of a few centuries later (with its naves, chapels and main sanctuary). To the right of the sanctuary is a small kiosk dedicated to the sky-goddess Nuut. Nuut is usually depicted on the ceiling of temples because she was believed to swallow the stars and give birth to the sun, and, alternatively, to swallow the sun and give birth to the stars. She is depicted as a naked woman whose body is bent to encircle three sides of the roof, with her legs and arms stretched downwards to represent the four pillars of the cosmos. Nuut was married to her brother, the Earth god Geb (the mythological first ruler of Egypt), and their oldest son was Osiris, god of the underworld. Already mentioned in the "Pyramid Texts", she became popular during the Graeco-Roman period and absorbed the attributes of a number of older goddesses. Just about every nation in the world thought that the cycle of day and night was caused by the motion of the Sun around the Earth. The fact that the Egyptians, instead, used a human body, and a female one, bent in a specific position, as a metaphor for the cycle of day and night tells us how "analogical" their thinking was. In fact, different gods were associated with different phases of the Sun (Horus for sunrise, Ra for noon, Atum for twilight, Osiris for sunset), as if those suns in different positions of the sky weren't all the same object but instead manifestations of different forces.

Amphitheater, El Jem, Tunisia

Italy has great amphitheaters but none is as well preserved as the one at Thysdrus (today's El Jem) in Tunisia. Built in 238 A.D., it was the third largest amphitheater in the Roman empire (after Roma's Colosseum and the one in Capua). It is a manual of Roman engineering: the rows of seats, the galleries, the arches, the pillars, the tunnels... It projects a sense of majesty and tranquillity. One can sense how secure the Romans felt in those days. Parts of the Roman empire had not seen a war in ages, and its citizens probably felt that the empire would last forever.

Temple of Neminath, Palitana, Gujarat, India

The sacred hill of Shatrunjaya near the town of Palitana is the site of a huge complex of Jain temples built in the 16th century (it existed much earlier but all the original temples were destroyed by Muslim invaders in the 15th century). It takes a while to climb to the top. There are numbers painted on the 3,572 steps to tell you how far you are. There are porters who carry old (or lazy) people to the top on their "doli" (rope chairs hanging from wooden poles). There are water vendors along the way. And there are thousands of pilgrims of all ages. The landscape is not the idyllic landscape that one expects for a holy site: most of the vegetation is cacti, huge bushes of cacti (also the only shade along the trail). At the very base of the hill there are two temples. The temple on the left is dedicated to Adinath (the first tirthankar of Jainism, a tirthankar being someone who has attained enlightenment, which in Jainism means perfect knowledge). The temple on the right, dedicated to Neminath (the only tirthankar who did not achieve enlightenment here because he achieved it on Girmar Hills), is unlike any other in Jain architecture: it is a three-storey circular temple. Only at the top does one realize where the sanctuary really is. Around step 2,500 one begins to see the spires of the sanctuary. The sanctuary is a city of temples that stretches over three relatively flat ridges overlooking a river on one side and the town of Palitana on the other side. (Technically, there are several "tonks" or small hills, and construction is still going on). The ridge that faces the river ascends through countless temples to the highest one, the Adishwaraji. The middle ridge basically consists of two walled enclosures, Sheth Motishaw Tonk (that looks like a walled village) and Bala Vasahi Tonk (that looks like a medieval fort). More stairs lead to the ridge facing the town, which, being the highest point (the Chaumukhji Tonk), affords great views of the other ridges. Overall there are almost one thousand temples on the hill. While not as elaborate at the Jain temples at Mt Abu, the sanctuary as a whole has to be seen to be believed. The opulence of the hill contrasts starkly with the simple geometry of the temple of Neminath at its base.

Dar-al-Hajar, Wadi Dahr, Yemen

The Wadi Dahr is located 14km from Yemen's capital of Sana. As one drives down Sana into the valley, the ridge of the opposite side reveals villages, towers and palaces. At the bottom of the valley is the "Dar-al-Hajar" ("rock palace"), a five-storey building perched on top of a fist-shaped boulder, built in 1933 by Imam Yahya. The palace seems to defy the laws of Physics (and, for that matter, the laws of common sense). However, it is also one of the few cases in which the human additions to the natural landscape positively enhance it (and this is true of most of traditional Yemeni vernacular architecture).

Rothenburg, Germany

There are many towns in Europe that maintain their medieval layout. Rothenburg in Bavaria is one of the most charming.

Dusy Remix

Finally, a sample of my own art

The Nature in the Far West of the USA

Art, like all cognitive systems, is ultimately a reflection of and a reaction to the surrounding environment, just like a living being's behavior is ultimately determined by the natural environment in which it evolved. Of course, the "environment" for an artist involves more than the natural environment, but the natural environment is a good place to start. These are pictures of some significant places of my surroundings. They are not the greatest or the most epic. They are places that somehow represent "me" in my habitat. or my habitat in me.

Sea anemones and starfish in tide pools in Point Reyes

Arch Rock in Point Reyes

A fallen tree is a creek in Big Basin that yields the optical illusion of a monster and that turned into an ecosystem (there are plants growing on its back)

One of the monoliths that guard the trail on the northern rim of the Grand Canyon.

Cathedral Lake, Yosemite

El Capitan from Half Dome, Yosemite

Hungry Packer Lake

Mt Langley

Sculptured Beach, Pt Reyes

Split Mt

The highest sierras from Mt Keith (4,260m): Mt Williamson (4,380m) to the left and Mt Tyndall (4,273m) to the right, and behind them Mt Whitney (4,421m) and Mt Langley (4,275m).

Owens Valley

The Cottonwood Basin from Mt Langley

The "Playa" in Death Valley where stones are said to move by themselves

View from Tenaya Canyon to Half Dome in Yosemite Park

Dusy Basin from Bishop Pass

Darwin Canyon from Lamarck Col

Ribbon Falls, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Buckskin Gulch is the longest and narrowest "slot canyon" in Arizona

Union Falls, Yellowstone, Wyoming

This is the chute that leads from the Williamson Bowl (a paradisiac crater with four lakes) to the summit of Mt Williamson (via an almost vertical ascent). Mt Williamson is the second highest mountain in California (4390 m)

This is a Yucca in Ventana Wilderness, southern California, my favorite plant

Yucca flower in Big Bend National Park, Texas

Cactus from Big Bend National Park, Texas

Cactus flowers in Big Bend National Park, Texas

Bryce Canyon, Utah. The park is mainly famous for the "hoodoos", but i was more amazed by the fact that some structures reminded me of the layout and the spires of the Hindu temples of Southern India.

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

Arches, Utah: post-modern sculptures created by wind and rain over millions of years.

Read the poem | Read the accompanying essays