Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The fortress at Qalat-i Gird

The British Museum has an exhibition of Georg Gerster's aerial photographs of historical sites, The Past From Above. The images that struck me initially were those with an unexpected formal beauty, like the long oval of the Stadium of Aphrodisias in Turkey, or a burial mound in the Niger inland delta (with its superficial resemblance to Smithson's Spiral Jetty), or the contrast between the ancient ruins at Ebla in Syria and the intricate and beautifully coloured field pattern that now surrounds it. Some of the photographs show landscapes that would be spectacular even without a historical trace, particularly those associated with religious sites: tombs built onto the side of Cerro de los Metates, a volcanic chimney in Mexico; or the Dabra Damo monastery, built on a table mountain in Ethiopia; or the wave-battered island of Skellig Michael, site of another monastery.

Some of the most interesting photographs show natural processes at work, like the sand dunes threatening the ancient field system visible at Kharga Oasis, Egypt. Gerster photographed another dune landscape at Sistan, Iran, where the Wind of 120 Days seems to have obliterated everything beneath the sands, except for the circular shape of Qalat-i Gird fortress. According to Dietrich Huff, this 'much-feared' wind determines the angles of trees and buildings and creates 'bizarrely beautiful and distinctly shaped shifting dunes.' The fortress probably dates from the 13th century, after the composition of Firdausi's Shahnama in which the legendary hero Rustam was depicted as the saviour of Sistan, but early enough to have witnessed the conquest of Tamburlaine and his wounding at the siege there.

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