Lilith – a poem of ‘the Fall’ by Meniscus Diabetes

As far as we know, Meniscus Diabetes was born in Rome in 25 CE, and acquired his poetic licence during the reign of Emperor Claudius. He had an abiding interest in Rome’s eastern provinces, and one of his surviving manuscripts is this epic ballad. See Roman Holiday – The Perils of a Poet  in Nero’s Rome.

Lilith is a retelling of the “Legend of the Fall”. The style of Lilith differs markedly from that of other poems attributed to Meniscus – most notably the Hebrew Heroes cycle (again, refer to Roman Holiday), and was evidently written for a different manner of presentation. It was most likely written to be recited rather than sang (as were his other “story songs”). Recitations were a common form of entertainment in the middle Roman period, owing their popularity to the enduring reputations of the “classical” writers of the time, Ovid, Horace and the like. It was not uncommon for such recitations to last several hours. But Meniscus, mindful of the fast moving times, and also of the attention span of his audiences, appears to have honed his pieces down to between ten or fifteen minutes.

If Meniscus’ tale of Adam, Eve, Lilith and Lucifer has not been lost to literature until its very recent discovery, one wonders whether John Milton would have bothered to retell it in such lengthy and verbose detail.

Lilith, however, has been around for thousands of years. In the Talmud, she is described as a winged demoness with a human appearance. She appears in the bible, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in Hebrew folklore, and has been mentioned in black magic treatises. The apocryphal story is that Lilith was Adam’s first wife. God made Adam from dirt and clay. Adam bored, requested a companion, and God obliged with Lilith. Legend has it that her dirt was dirtier than Adam’s, but put that down to patriarchal prejudice and propaganda. More likely, she had the dirt on him! But I digress. Apparently, Lilith was not as inferior to Adam as he wanted. She wanted to be her own person, not Adam’s wife-slave. The story is that when Adam insisted on the missionary position, Lilith refused, saying “Why must I lie beneath you? We are both equal. We come from the same earth”. Adam got mad, and Lilith took off.

Because of this, she was banished from Eden and became a spirit associated with the seductive side of a woman. Eve came in her place to stand behind Adam, not beside him. Lilith became the timeless femme fatale, preying on the easily tempted weaker sex, the fabled incubus who comes at night upon men as they sleep. It is not for nothing that she has been hailed the (informal) goddess of wet dreams.

The legends are many and various. If you buy into the Lilith theory, you will see her cropping up throughout history in a variety of guises. In biblical times: Delilah, Salome, and Potophar’s wife. In fact and fable: Sheherazade, Lucrezia Borgia, Mata Hari, Evita Peron. Hollywood’s screen ‘sirens’ like Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. All of them antitheses to secular saints like Eve, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Jackie Onassis, Mother Theresa, and Princess Diana.

Long time ago In a time before time,
When man was an atom in primeval slime,
When darkness lay hard on the face of the deep,
God called for his angels to sing him to sleep.

God made these angels from the fire ‘neath his throne,
Gave them existence and thought them his own.
‘Til one fiery angel professed discontent
At the whole pointless purpose to which he’d been sent.

He expressed his dissent towards God’s Constitution,
Fomented unrest and unleashed revolution.
The shackles of God he now deigned to throw off
With his old black beret and his Kalashnikov.

So Lucifer made for celestial hills,
Preaching an end to society’s ills;
Whilst God, declaration of martial law made,
And dispatched forthwith Michael’s Archangel brigade.

They tracked down the rebels to their mountain lair,
And challenged them forth for to give battle there.
Brave Lucifer fought and at terrible cost.
God, Paradise saved; he, Paradise lost!

From fire he came and to fire he descended,
And thus the battle for Paradise ended.
And bold Lucifer from sight of God, now rejected,
Reduced down to basics a mate he selected.

Having fought hard and failed, life just wasn’t the same,
So he sought to continue the family name.
He gathered the girls of his wandering band,
To choose the best and the brightest in his new found land.

He chose Lilith the Fair, he chose Lilith the wild,
Lilith the wonderful archangel child.
The grace and the charm of this heavenly belle
Did brighten the darkness of exile in Hell.

Her beauty brought visions of Heaven so bright;
Her songs fired the furnace of Hell’s fiery night;
Her dancing filled all of the exiles’ desire,
And upstaged the flames of the infernal fire.

But Lilith, a gypsy, quite soon got the shits
With the workaday life of her husband’s hot pits.
She yearned for adventure, she longed for to run
Naked and nimble, ‘neath God’s newborn Sun.

So she ventured to Earth and quite soon did perceive
That a fellow called Adam was fed up with Eve.
He’d never forgiven, he’d let his heart harden
Since she’d let him down badly that day in the Garden.

And Lilith knew well in her womanly way
That Adam was close to going astray.
She took off her wings and right at him, she hurled,
As if he was the only man left in the world.

(Which he was, in a way, in a manner of talking –
His sons, Cain and Abel, had not started walking.
And the Daughters of Eve, were infants at best –
And none had discovered the art of incest).

So Lilith moved in with her serpentine charm.
Poor Eve was pushed out in a state of alarm.
But you don’t press the point, you don’t try to shrug off
The aim of old Lucifer’s Kalashnikov!

She bunked up with Adam for seven score years
and pandered to all of his passions and fears.
But just like a man, he took her for granted
‘Til she said, “No more”! And her cloven feet, planted.

She made his life hell, (well, she knew all about it).
Poor Adam was grieved and rushed outdoors to shout it:
“Oh God, must you let me go through this alone?”
A voice said: “This party is not on the ‘phone!”

Then one day she took off , went to live with her sister
And true to his kind, our pal, Adam, he missed her.
He prayed to the Lord for to fetch his girl back
So the Lord sent three angels to pick up her track.

Now, Lilith went wild, when she found she was followed;
Fled into the night, and in shadows was swallowed.
And from that day to this she has been on the run,
Ne’er more to gaze on the face of the Sun.

Banished forever from Lucifer’s bed,
She wanders the world seeking mortals instead.
And in darkness of night when tired mankind is sleeping,
Out of the shadows, fell Lilith comes creeping.

Taking revenge for old Adam’s conceit,
She searches the land town by town, street by street.
House by House, ’til alone in your bed, you’re discovered;
In the wink of an eyelid, by Lilith you’re covered.

You’re caressed with the touch of a cold, seizing hand;
You’re rocked by a tremor you don’t understand;
You’re fastened upon with a grip of a vice;
And her lips are like coals and her body’s like ice;

And you’re trapped in your bed with no strength to resist,
Yet you feel that this moment’s too good to be missed.
And you wake in the morning, a terrible mess,
And you know then that Lilith has found your address!

    Illustration by Gustave Doré, from Paradise Lost

What Have the Romans Done for Us?

What? Caligula didn’t really put his horse Incitatus into the Senate, order his legionaires to gather seashells for his combat with Neptune, God of the Sea, or sleep with his sister and later kill her? Nero didn’t fiddle whilst Rome burned, or attempt to drown his mother in a collapsible boat? And kicking his pregnant wife to death may have been domestic violence carried too far.

What? Julius Caesar didn’t cry “Et tu Brute?” to the leader of his assassins? Augustus’ second wife Livia was not the arch-poisoner portrayed by Robert Graves in “I Claudius”?. Tiberius wasn’t won’t to swim with naked little boys nibbling at his naughty bits? Claudius wasn’t a gentle old duffer who wouldn’t hurt a fly?

In her highly readable, popular history of Royal, Republican and Imperial Rome, acclaimed British historian Mary Beard consigns these and other popular Roman apocrypha to the Urban Legend file. Which may cause a certain degree of distress for those of who like their history garnished with a few saucy anecdotes (click on Roman Holiday in the menu above this post).

She attributes these highly entertaining stories to prurient scandal-mongering, sensationalism, and the vicarious pleasure of folks with dirty minds, and, significantly, to political spin and perception-management on the part of the kings, tyrants and emperors, and of heirs and successors responsible for creating, embellishing, and sustaining the public record. At one point, she states matter-of-factly that those who were assassinated were portrayed post-mortem as tyrants, sadists or perverts – or in a case of “the worse the better” “all of the above”! No wonder Roman emperors portrayed in “sword and sandal” movies from ‘The Robe’ and ‘Barrabas’ to ‘Gladiator’, are, like Lord Byron, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.

Caligula may or may not have been the bad lad we know so well, via Bob Guccione and John Hurt. Beard insists on calling him by his proper name, Gaius, rather than his childhood nickname, the horrorshow-sounding Caligula. The amiable, bookish Claudius was as ruthless and as brutal an autocrat as any of his predecessors and successors, dispatching scores of recalcitrant or lecherous senators to Hades (incidentally, it was Domitian who liked hurting flies). So too was Marcus Aurelius, the “philosopher king”, author of wise sayings and aphorisms, and beloved of adolescent philosophers.

Nero might not have been any worse or better than the others. Indeed, Beard argues, the fact that several Nero pretenders popped up, lyre and all, in various places after his death, demonstrates that he mightn’t have been all that unpopular, particularly in the provinces. Indeed, Beard suggests, Rome’s subjects in far-flung provinces would have had very little knowledge of or interest in the political shenanigans and sexual peccadillos of their rulers. Their only acquaintance with their emperor would have been with statues and the royal visage on the change in their pockets.

With Rome’s tabloid icons falling like flies (Domitian liked to torture them, by the way), thank Zeus Mary kept her revisionist hands of my all-time favourite classical baddie, King Herod the Great.

SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome – challenges assumptions and preconceptions about the history of Rome, about the expansion of its empire, and about its citizens. For example, the accepted belief that the Romans were more rapacious and war-like, and much better organized than their neighbours – in early days, those who lived near the city state, neighbouring lands in Italy, and after a very short time, kingdoms, states, and chiefdoms as far apart as Caledonia in the west and Armenia in the east.

Rome’s neighbours and rivals were indeed just as aggressive, territorial, and acquisitive as the early kings who expanded their territories throughout Italy, the republican consuls and imperial generals who pushed the frontiers into Western Europe, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Middle East. Rome’s rivals, peers and enemies included formidable leaders and war lords with names like early contemporaries like Alexander and Artaxerxes. Enemies like Hannibal Barca, Spartacus, Vercingetorix, Armenius, and Boudica.

But SPQR isn’t all just about personalities and geopolitics. Beard delves into the dynamics of power in the state itself. How Rome, the city state and later, the empire were actually run. How powerful and influential individuals collaborated and collided in their quest for wealth and influence. And how rewarding and also how tenuous and dangerous life at the top could be. Whilst Beard would question Robert Graves’ portrayal of the Augustine emperors, she would not quibble with his take on the tension, uncertainty and risk endured by ambitious Romans who gambled for high stakes rather than going with the flow and keeping their heads down.

Most, indeed, did choose to keep their heads down, and endeavour to live a quite normal life. A life which, for those at the top of the social and economic ladder, could be very comfortable indeed. For those further down the socio-economic staircase, all was not so pleasant and delightful. Rather, for both free man and slave it was a life of toil and hardship literally from the cradle to the grave. Child Labour, long hours, unsafe working conditions, seven days a week. No weekend rest, no retirement benefits, no insurance cover. Ordinary people worked as soon as they could hold a pick or shovel, until injury, age or infirmity rendered them unproductive and expendable. But there was time for leisure, and contrary to modern preconceptions, it was not always bread and circuses. As in our own day and age, folk were more likely to have sought solace in the bottle and good fortune in the dice.

Using the limited archeological sources available – whilst the lives of important Romans are well examined, those of ordinary people are rare indeed – Beard illuminates her narrative with snapshots of the everyday lives of regula Antonys and Antonias. Although bits and pieces have been unearthed in settlements from North Africa to the Balkans, Pompeii and Herculaneum are a particularly rich source, as are the forts along Hadrian’s Walls, on the northern edge of empire. The wonderful Vindolanda tablets have preserved a picture of the oh-so-normal lives of transplanted souls so far away from home. See my earlier post, Roman Wall Blues.

The vignettes of Pompeii and Vindolanda illustrate one of Beard’s leitmotifs – the fact that Rome and Romans were much, much more than the city founded by the wolf-raised twins Romulus and Remus. Roman-ness and Romanization were as much a state of mind as a temporal, political imperium. People of all races, tribes, nations, and faiths from Spain to Syria, from Caerleon to Carthage, adopted Roman ways, institutions, commodities, food and beverages, artifacts, and even Latin names, to a greater or lesser degree depending on their proximity to Roman camps and towns, to Roman trade routes, and ultimately, to Roman authority. And many acquired Roman citizenship. And they entered Rome’s service, as soldiers, scholars, public servants, and politicians. By the end of the second century, some fifty percent of the senators were provincials.

Other histories of Rome have ended with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 337 CE signaling the end of pagan antiquity, or with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths 410. Beard closes instead with the “culminating moment,” in 212 when the emperor Caracalla declared every free inhabitant of the empire a full Roman citizen – almost thirty million provincials became Roman overnight in one of the the biggest grants of citizenship in the history of the world. Beard comes to no definitive conclusion as to why the underwhelming Caracalla made this move, but it’s effect was momentous insofar as it eroded the distinction between the Romans and the people they had conquered, colonized, and ruled – the culmination of a process that had been going on for almost a millennium.

The final pages describe how in form, function, and faith, the Rome that departed the Third Century was not the one that Augustus built and Caracalla bequeathed to the many, short lived emperors who followed him in rapid succession during a time of political and social instability, rebellion and civil war, barbarian invasion and plague – until Constantine established his capital in the east and built the Roman world anew. And this new Rome, the Byzantine Empire, with its capital Constantinople, was to endure until it fell to the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. The Holy Roman Empire, in Central Europe, was brought down by Napoleon in 1806, but as Voltaire observed, it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”. Take that!

Unexpectedly, Beard does not conclude her thought-provoking, and entertaining survey of Rome’s first millennium with a catalogue of the many ways we have benefitted or suffered from our Roman heritage. We do not have much to learn directly from the Romans, she writes, but we have much to learn about ourselves and the past by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. “We do the Romans a disservice if heroize them, as much as we if we demonize them. But we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to take them seriously – and if we close our long conversation with them”.

On that note, concluding an invigorating walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, I will leave the last word to Monty Python.


This post is my own take-out of an entertaining and educational ride through Roman history. Every published review approaches it from different angle according to the perspectives and passions of the writer. And I have done likewise.

Some Further Reading:

And some pieces from my ‘Roman’ period:

Once in Royal David’s Citadel

During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.

The Citadel or Tower Museum at the Jaffa Gate, the westernmost entrance to the city, is all the history you can eat in a four hour sitting. It’s a four thousand year old story: from the Canaanites and the Hebrews to the end of the Mandate and the establishment of the State of Israel, via Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Hasmoneans, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatamids, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Tartars, Mogols, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, Australians, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Each left their mark on Jerusalem, and most planted their brickage upon and within the Citadel.


There is a long roll-call of famous names who may or may have not resided in the place.

King David didn’t, despite his name being given to the place and the apocryphal story that he once spied on the bathing Bathsheba from its ramparts. Nor did his son and heir, Solomon, builder of the First Temple. Conquerors Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus did not. They just wrecked the joint. Judah Maccabee might have, and those other famous Jewish rebels, the Zealots didn’t, but during Great Revolt, they retreated there and trashed the place. Herod the Great, a psycho with an serious edifice complex, resided here. As did also Procurator Pontius Pilate when he was in town (he preferred the luxuries of Caesaea Maritimus (Latin for “on Sea). Historians now believe that the Citdel was where he actually cast judgement on Jesus, and not in the Antonine Fortress which overlooked the Temple (where the Haram al Sharif now stands) throwing into question the whole basis for the existence of the Via Dolorosa.

Roman general and future emperor Titus would have taken up residence therein after he destroyed the city in 70CE, leaving only the citadel standing. His troops needed somewhere to crash. Constantine didn’t, but his mom Helena most likely did when she “discovered” The True Cross, commissioned the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and single-handedly invented the Holy Land pilgrim industry that endures to this day. The Muslim conquerors Omar Ibn Khattab, Salah ud-Din, and Baybars may have, but Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the magnificent, who built the city walls we see today, never set foot in Jerusalem, and nor did his successors.


Ottoman troops occupied it, and General Djemal Pasha would hang Arab Nationalists in the Square before it. General Allenby declared Jerusalem and Palestine liberated on the steps leading to the citadel in 1917, but most likely stayed across the square at our wonderful East New Imperial Hotel (the Kaiser stayed there too when he visited Jerusalem in 1898). British troops garrisoned it during the Mandate years – like the Roman legionaries before them, they’d’ve needed a place to lay their heads. The British-commanded Arab Legion of then Transjordan took control of it in during the the battle for Jerusalem in 1948 and defended it successfully against the new IDF. They did so again in 1967 only to lose it and the Old City.

If the stones could talk, what a tale they would tell. And indeed, the museum now does just that, in content and in form. We sit on the roof garden of our hotel, directly across the street and look across at its towers, ramparts and gardens, and sense it’s story in our souls. We watch present generations passing beneath its walls, and the young folk parade within,  just a few in a long, long parade of humanity.

For further reading, you can’t beat Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s Jerusalem : The Biography (Phoenix 2011).

See also:

History Lessons

History Lessons




Sic semper tyrannis

The phrase “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” is at once apt, correct, and yet often oversimplified to the point of disingenuous. The word “terrorist” itself describes its goal. To instill fear in the heart of the enemy. In the past, the target would have been the king, the dictator, the ruling class, and those who served them and upheld their rule. Politicians, officials, solders and policemen. Today, terrorists indiscriminately target whole societies. Irish bombers blasted communities of the rival faith, murdered shoppers, office workers, and pub patrons, as well as soldiers and policemen. Palestinian suicide bombers hit malls and pizza bars in city centres. ISIS, al Qa’ida and the Taliban detonate cars in busy city streets and publicly execute prisoners in callous and calculating “lectures in flesh” (the phrase is civil rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson’s, fro his chilling The Tyrannicide Brief.).

But targeted and random terrorism has a long historical pedigree. For centuries, it has been the desperate and nihilistic weapon of last resort of resistance and rebellion against perceived oppression and injustice, and against invaders and occupiers.

In Second Century Palestine, the Maccabees used assassination in their resistance to the Seleucid Greeks, and a century later, the Jewish zealots, the Sicarii, named for the easily concealed small daggers, paid the Romans in like coin, and ultimately in an insurrection that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE and the scattering of the Jewish race (giving history the emotive and symbolic last exit that was Masada). In an etymological irony that Mark Twain would have been proud of, the present unrest in Jerusalem, a large number of young Palestinians have perished in attempting to stab jewish soldiers and civilians. Their jaquerie is called the “Intifada Sakni-in”, the ‘knife Uprising – an echo of those long-dead Sicarii “dagger men”.

Nowadays, one would be excused for thinking that “terrorism” and “terrorist” are synonymous with Arabs and Muslims. And a historical precedent reinforces this erroneous assumption. The Hashishan or “Assassins” of Mid East fame (yes, that is where that noxious noun originated) were Muslim men and boys mesmerized and mentored by Rashid ad Din as Sina-n, the “Old Man of the Mountain” (and all this, before Osama in the caves of Tora Bora), and were Twelfth Century guns for hire contracted out to rival Muslim princes in the internecine conflicts that plagued the Levant in the wake of the Crusades and the demise of the great Arab Caliphates.

But the assassin’s knife (and in modern times, the gun and bomb, and latterly cars and trucks) predates these medieval hit-men and links the Hebrew rebels of old to the Irgun and Stern Gang who encouraged Britain and the UN to abandon Palestine in 1948, bequeathing most of it to the new state of Israel, and triggering the Palestinian diaspora. European anarchists and Irish rebels and loyalists were adept at shootings and ambushes. In Algeria, during the ‘fifties, the nationalist FLN and the “colon” OAS shot and bombed each other and those unfortunates caught in the crossfire. The IRA perfected the improvised explosive device that today has crippled thousands of American, Canadian, and Australian soldiers. Hindu Tamil separatists of Sri Lanka introduced the suicide bomber, an economical and efficient weapon against soft (civilian, that is) targets, deployed today by Islamist killers in the streets of London and Lahore, Damascus and Dar es Salaam, Jerusalem and Jakarta. Whilst Arabs – and particularly Palestinians may have given the world the hijacking of aircraft – a tactic that fell into disuse due to diminishing political returns and rapid response forces – other Arabs showed us how to fly them into public buildings as the whole world watched in horror and disbelief. The shockwaves of this one are still reverberating through the deserts of the east and the capitals of the western world.

In going up up against their occupiers, the Palestinians have an old heritage. In my old country, Boudicca and Caractacus fought a losing battle against the Romans in Britain during the First CE. The Roman historian Tacitus ascribed to a vanquished chieftain the memorable words  “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” – they make a desert and they call it peace. After Hastings, the Saxons pushed back against the Normans and brought the genocidal wrath of William the Conqueror down on their heads with the devastating “Harrying of the North”. The Green Man and Robin Hood legends are retrospective remembering of the Saxon resistance. Warrior fugitives from that failed guerilla war fled as far as Constantinple, where many joined the Emperor’s acclaimed Varangarian Guard, (see

In the streets and the countryside of Ireland, my parents’ birthplace, the United Irishmen, Fenians, Free Staters, IRA and Unionists fought against the redcoats, tommies, and black and tans of the British Army. Fought amongst themselves, fought against each other, and killed and were killed in their centuries long war of liberation. And in my adopted country, indigenous Australians fought a futile frontier war against settlers and soldiers just as native Americans did, albeit on a much smaller scale, and paid the price in hangings, massacres, poisoned wells, dispossession, marginalization, and “stolen children”. The legacy of those times lingers still. In Central America, Juarez led the Mexicans against the French, and Sandino, Nicaraguans against US marines. Spaniards rose up against Napoleon’s forces, giving the world the word “guerilla”, or “little war”. Russian partisans ambushed the Grande Armee and the Wehrmacht. Throughout occupied Europe, the very term “resistance” became synonymous with the heroic unequal struggle against tyranny. In another of history’s ironies, muqa-wamat, Arabic word for resistance, unites sectarian rivals Hamas and Hizbollah against Israel.

And not just resistance to invasion and occupation, but also against oppression by one’s own rulers. Religious tracts tie themselves in knots reconciling the obligation to obey our rulers with the right to resist and overthrow those that rule badly. The unequal struggle against tyranny – or what is perceived by the perpetrators as tyranny – is the cause that inspires men and women to desperate acts.

The most celebrated in fact, film and fiction is the death of Julius Caesar at the hands of peers who feared that he intended to usurp the ostensibly democratic Republic (ostensible because democratic it was not) and institute one-man rule. That ended badly for the conspirators, and for Rome, as it precipitated years of civil war and ultimately, half a century of empire).

In 1880 the reforming Czar Alexander II of Russia, discovered the hard way that liberating the serfs did not inoculate himself against the bomb that took his legs and his life. His fearful and unimaginative successors hardened their hearts and closed their minds against further reform. setting in train the crackdown on dissent and democratic expression that led eventually to the storming of the Winter Palace on Petrograd in 1917. Narodnaya Volya, the killers called themselves – the People’s Will. And that is what terrorists do. They appeal and owe fealty to a higher court, a greater good, a savage God.

So it was when student and Serbian nationalist Gavril Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in June 1914 and ignited the spark that lit the conflagration of World War 1 which precipitated the demise of the old European empires.

So too when John Brown and his sons brought their broadswords to bear on slavers and their sympathizers and made a date with destiny at Harpers Ferry. Their famous raid may or may not have accelerated the downward slide to the secession and civil war that erupted the following year, but it provided a moral and symbolic prelude and also, the resonating battle hymn of the republic. John Wilkes Booth bookended this bloody era with his histrionic and public murder of Abraham Lincoln, shouting “sic semper tyrannis”, “thus always to tyrants,” attributed to Brutus at Caesar’s assassination (and the Virginia state motto). Brown and Booth were quite clear in their motives. As was were the shooters who did for Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. Less so were the killers of the Kennedy brothers in the sixties.

To conclude, sometimes that savage, rebel God is one of faith, sometimes, of blood and soil. In some instances, it is revenge for wrongs real and imagined – the reasons at times lost or forgotten through the passage of time and fading memories. And often, “the cause” is corrupted by the immoral economics of illicit commerce, including contraband, kidnapping, blackmail and extortion. Sometimes all merge in an incongruous hybrid of religious passion, ethic identity, libertarian or anarchistic fervour, and protection racket. As was the case in Northern Ireland, in Lebanon, in sub-Saharan Africa, and currently so in Syria and Iraq.

But most times, terror and turmoil is simply a political weapon planned, targeted and executed as a mechanism of regime change. Rebellion, revolt and revolution. Resisting, opposing, challenging, confronting and defeating the central authority. The seizing, holding, consolidation and keeping of political power.

And one thing is for sure. The outcome is unpredictable. History does not move in straight lines, but often follows a bitter and twisted path. Cliched as it is, the phrase “be careful what you wish for” is an apt one. And when,as Bob Dylan sang, “the line it is drawn, the curse it is cast”, there is no going back. To quote WB Yeats’ famous lines, “all is changed, changed utterly”.

To conclude, if we were to stumble into the swamp of alternative histories, imagine what might of happened

If Caesar had walked home from the senate on the Ides of March
If Lincoln had been able to guide the Reconstruction
If the reforming Czar had introduced democratic government to Russia
If Gavril Princip’s shot had missed the archduke
If Kennedy had returned from Dallas
If the Twin Towers stood still

To quote “Stairway to Heaven”, a curiously apposite title given the millenarian mindset of many terrorists, “Oh, it makes you wonder!”

The Man who Saved the Wall

One of the highlights of last years’ travel in northern England was our visit to Hadrian’s Wall. In Roman Wall Blues, I wrote of the magical museum at Vindolanda, the Roman town just south of the wall, and contemplated the lives of those memorialized within. Earlier that day, we had walked through Chesters Fort, where the wall crosses the Tyne, the best preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain.


Adjacent to the fort is a small but significant museum. It was here that we learned that what we are able to walk through and and wonder at today, we owe to the dedication, foresight, and finance of one man: John Clayton, one of the great unsung saviours of Britain’s historical heritage. His monument is the Chesters Roman Fort Museum which houses the Clayton Collection of 5,500 catalogued items from many sites on the central section of the wall.

A classically educated Victorian gentleman who combined demanding roles running the family law firm and acting as town clerk for the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Clayton had a passion for archaeology and the Roman military legacy in his beloved Northumberland.

Were it not for Clayton, large parts of Hadrian’s Wall would have disappeared as the industrial revolution fuelled the demand for stone to build factories, mines and mills. His role in the preservation and survival of Chesters Roman Fort is undisputed.

During the early 19th century, Clayton lived at Chesters House in the parkland surrounding the Roman fort,  and from an early age he was fascinated by the Roman relics surrounding him. By the 1830s,  he began buying land to preserve the Wall. This was at a time when what is now a World Heritage Site was little understood, and indeed, was being unthinkingly destroyed through  the quarrying and removal of its stones for reuse in industrial and urban development.

Clayton’s enthusiasm helped preserve the central stretch of Hadrian’s Wall that includes Chesters (Cilurnum), Housesteads and Vindolanda. He carried out some of the first archaeological excavations on the Wall, carried out restoration work, and brought early tourism to the area by displaying some of the finds at Chesters. Clayton managed the estate and its farms for sixty years, generating the funds to finance to fund further preservation and restoration work on the Wall. He never married, and died in 1890.

The museum housing the Clayton Collection was opened adjacent to the fort site in 1903, 13 years after his death. Today, it is privately owned, but is curated by English Heritage on behalf of the Trustees of the Clayton Collection, and it has been refurbished to brin to contemprary standards of conservation, display, and interpretation. And yet, great care has been taken to respect its period character, and to retain the feel of a 19th century gentleman antiquarian’s collection,  with  many of the labels and original cases having been retained.

Click his name to read more about John Clayton and his museum.

see also my alternative Roman history in Roman Holiday. 

And the video, Roman Holiday in History.

John Clayon

Adele walks down to the best Roman baths in Britain

Adele walks down to the best Roman baths in Britain


That was the year that was

Its been a diverse year In That Howling Infinite. We have traveled, to quote Bob Dylan, “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” – and to many other places in between. Vikings and Roman legionaries; Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn; Britain in the ‘forties and Paris in the ‘fifties; America, the Levant, and even Wonderland. By Year’s end a million souls will have journeyed to Europe from the war-ravaged lands of the Middle East, and my final posts for the year contemplate what it might mean for refugees who find to safe haven in Australia.

Here is a retrospective.

The year began with a short piece on recent archeological discoveries in Jerusalem that strongly suggested that the Via Dolorosa that Jesus trode on his final journey to Golgotha was the wrong route, and that instead, it began just inside of the Jaffa Gate. I took a light-hearted look at the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental condition involving the presence of religiously-themed obsessive ideas, delusions and other psychoses triggered by a visit to The Holy City.


I read but one piece of fiction this year – a sad admission from a lifelong bibliophile – but this one book was probably one of the best I have read: The Incorrigible Optimists Club , winner of the prestigious Prix de Goncourt, by Jean Michel Guenassia. It is set in Paris’ Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people. It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss, a book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry.

Le Lion de Belfort

March saw the passing of my old friend Dermott Ryder, chronicler and luminary of the Folk Music revival in Sydney in the early ‘seventies. Dermott’s Last Ride is my tribute to him. And April was a month of anniversaries and remembrance. Forty years since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, and the centenary of the landings of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Pity the Nation takes its title from Robert Fisk’s tombstone of a book on the long war; and he had taken it from a poem written in 1934 by Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most celebrated poet, a poem that was both a prophetic testament and a testimony of times to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”. The Watchers of the Water is a song about Gallipoli sing by a Turkish solder.

May saw two diverse pieces of social history. The Spirit of 45  takes personal perspective of British filmmaker Ken Loach’s documentary of the excitement and optimism that followed the Labour Party’s election victory at the end of World War II. This laid the foundation stone for the British welfare state. Bob Dylan’s Americana discusses the meaning and significance of the lyrics and the imagery of Dylan’s early ‘eighties masterpiece Blind Willie McTell, a harrowing journey through America’s dark heart.

In June, we visited Yorkshire and in London, conjuring up memories and historical connections. Harald Went A Viking is a saga about the first of two kings to die on English soil in the late summer of 1066, and the adventures that took him from Norway to Constantinople and Jerusalem and finally, to Yorkshire. Roman Wall Blues takes its title from WH Auden’s poem about a homesick and grumpy legionnaire on Hadrian’s Wall, and contemplates the lives of the ethnically polyglot soldiery who defended the Empire’s borders. And June saw another famous anniversary, the Bicentennial of the momentous and bloody Battle of Waterloo. The Long Road to Waterloo prefaces a song for the men who, after twenty six long years of war, never came home.

Painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

Battle of Stamford Bridge, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

In July, controversy erupted in the Land of the Free over the flying of the Confederate Flag in states that were once part of Old Dixie. The dead hand of the Civil War reached out and touched the hearts of Americans and their friends throughout the world in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, a young man gunned down worshippers at prayer. That the victims were folk of colour, and the shooter, a young white extremist, reopened wounds that have never really healed. Rebel Yell surmises that The South will always be with us, in our thoughts, in our historical memory, in our art and literature, our books and films, and our favourite music.

September marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s timeless, fabulist masterpiece Alice In WonderlandGo Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know reproduces Australian  critic Peter Craven’s masterful celebration of Alice 150. The title belongs to the mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane who cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece.


On an infinitely sadder note, Ruins and Bones is a tribute to the memory of Syrian archeologist Khaled Muhammed al Asaad, murdered by ISIS in August 2015, and of Palmyra, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’.

Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas is a brief commentary on the extension  of American military power and the pathology of demons and demonization. Tales of Yankee Power looks at American foreign policy during the 1980s from the perspective of the songs of Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn.

November’s Children of the Revolution looks at the events that led up to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, and the early days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. Those days of hope are long gone.

A highlight of this past year has been my work as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services programme. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia. In No Going Home I endeavour to imagine the refugee journey. Hejira is a sequel of sorts and, indeed, a happy ending.

Happy New Year to these prospective New Australians, and to all my readers. May 2016 be fortunate and fulfilling.

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.
Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;
There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I’m a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky

We have marveled at Roman brickage from Syria to Cirencester, from Bath to Baalbek, but have never ventured to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumbria. WH Auden’s whimsical song, Roman Wall Blues, came to mind as we stood atop the windswept knoll that is Housesteads Roman Fort.

On the edge of empire. The Roman Empire, that is. Outposts and outcasts. Up on the hills in the wind and the rain, the snow and the sleet, and in the valley below with the baths and the brothels. This is where worlds collided. Between Roman cives and their satraps, and the barbarians. Between Britannia and Caledonia. Where solders from Rome and the Italy-yet-to-be that surrounded it, from Gaul, Batavia, Asturias and Tungria, now France, Spain and the Low Countries, from Germania and Sarmatia in Central and Eastern Europe, marched and marauded, drank and dined, foraged and fucked, lived and died.

At the height of Empire, some seven hundred soldiers manned the fort we now call Housesteads, up high on the moors, a windswept outcrop with a vista of 360 degrees and a temperature near near zero. Many more legionaries garrisoned the more sheltered Chesters Fort in the nearby-by valley where the wall crosses the Tyne. These included cavalry, drafted from Sarmatia, in present day Hungary. This was the fanciful premise of King Arthur (2004) starring Clive Owen as a handsome, tortured soul wandering through a flawed film, and Keira Knightly as a scantily clad, elfin  warrior Guinevere.


At Vindolanda, to the south, a small town grew up around a large military camp. First of wood and then of stone, constructed by the legionnaires themselves, who included in their number skilled masons and carpenters. Their settlements endure to engage our imaginations today. In times of turmoil, these soldiers fought and fell. In quieter times, they relaxed and recuperated. And the locals gathered about them, built houses and gardens, opened shops and pubs. And life went on like it does in our time.

During conflict, the Roman auxiliaries guarded the borderlands, deterring the Picts, a dark-skinned painted people who raided from the northern badlands. When peace prevailed, the locals visited, traded, and settled in the viccii or villages that grew organically to the south of the forts that were constructed at intervals along the empire’s perimeter wall. There, they traded, and provided goods, services and entertainment for themselves and for the martial strangers that had come amongst them.

In the early days, the auxiliaries were not permitted to bring wives and children to the frontier. But folks being folk, they very soon established friendly relations with their neighbours, and legionaries would keep informal wives and families in the vicus. Soviet writer and war-correspondent Vasily Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces .Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”.

Officers were allowed to bring their wives and children to their postings, and these endured their provincial, primitive exile by importing the necessities of a comfortable Roman life, including the celebrated Roman plumbing and central heating. Chesters boasts the best preserved military bathhouse in Britain. And so, the accessories of civic consumerism reached the frontier. Food and wine from the warm South were transported to the cold northlands. Fashions in clothes and jewelry, day-to-day articles and artifacts, from glass and pewter dinnerware to cutlery, tools and sundry hardware. Remnants and reports gathered in the Vindolanda museum open a window into a gone world.

The wonderful Vindolanda tablets have preserved a picture of the oh-so-normal lives of these transplanted souls so far away from home. Amidst accounts and inventories, orders and troop dispositions, a quartermaster reports that supplies of beer are running low. An officer writes to another in a neighboring fort inquiring about the availability of accommodation for visitors and the quality thereof. One tablet reveals that Roman soldiers wore underpants, which, in view of the locale and climate thereabouts, is comforting to know. And another recounts workplace harassment and bullying that would today invoke grievance procedures. The wife of an officer invites another to a birthday party at her house in Vindolanda. There is an undercurrent of “Please come, I am bored shitless”, though a polite Roman matron would not commit such sentiments to a wooden tablet. It is probably the oldest surviving document in Latin written by a woman.

So who were these folk so near to us in their needs and desires, their hopes, fears and expectations, and so far from us in time, space and purpose? What did they think and feel? It is a question oft asked by empathetic history tragics. The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past.

We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Yet, we persist nevertheless, because that is what humans do. Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote ”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”.

And in Vindolanda, up there on the wall, on the weather-beaten rim of the long-gone empire, we do  …

Here is some further reading about Vindolanda.

And some pieces from my ‘Roman’ period:  Roman Holiday: What have the Romans done for us?:  Cuddling up to Caligula. Read also about what happened when Harald Went A Viking

Postscript – The Man who saved Hadrian’s Wall

One of the great unsung saviours of the UK’s heritage is remembered in the museum housing his remarkable collection at Chesters Roman Fort Museum which houses the Clayton Collection of and 5,500 catalogued items from a variety of sites along the central section of the wall.

Few people today have heard of John Clayton, yet he is one of the single most important individuals in the history of Hadrian’s Wall.

A classically educated Victorian gentleman who combined demanding roles running the family law firm and acting as town clerk for the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Clayton had a passion for archaeology and the Roman military legacy in his beloved Northumberland.
Were it not for Clayton, large parts of Hadrian’s Wall would have disappeared as the industrial revolution fuelled the demand for stone to build factories, mines and mills. His role in the preservation and survival of Chesters Roman Fort – the best-preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain, is now undisputed.

In the early 19th century Clayton lived at Chesters House in the parkland surrounding the Roman fort and from an early age became fascinated by the Roman relics that surrounded him.

By the 1830s he began buying land to preserve the Wall, at a time when what is now a World Heritage Site was little understood,  and was being unthinkingly vandalised by quarrying and removal of stones for reuse. Clayton’s enthusiasm helped preserve the central stretch of Hadrian’s Wall that includes Chesters (Cilurnum), Housesteads and Vindolanda. He carried out some of the first archaeological excavations on the Wall and even brought early tourism to the area by displaying some of the finds at Chesters. Clayton managed the estate and its farms successfully, generating cash to fund further preservation and restoration work on the Wall. He never married, and died in 1890

The museum housing the Clayton Collection was opened next to the fort site in 1903, 13 years after his death. It is privately owned but curated by English Heritage on behalf of the Trustees of the Clayton Collection, and has been refurbished to bring it up to 21st century standards of conservation, display and interpretation. Yet, great care has been taken to respect its character and to retain the feel of a 19th century gentleman antiquarian’s collection, and many of the labels and original cases have been retained..

John Clayon

For more on Clayton and his museum, read:






Nova Via Dolorosa

In my earlier blog, The Grand Old New Imperial Hotel, I wrote:

Had the hotel been there in Biblical times, what events we might have witnessed from our balcony. King Herod, the ostensibly psychotic master builder of Bible infamy dwelt opposite as he planned his Second Temple. So did Pontius Pilate. If one accepts the narrative of Simon Sebag-Montefiore, in his Jerusaelm : The Biography, we could also have watched the last journey of Jesus of Nazareth. It was but a short distance from the Citadel where he was condemned and Golgotha where he died: across the square, right at the New Imperial, left just past the Med, and straight on to the Hill of the Skull (where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands). The present Via Dolorosa runs from the site of the Antonine Fortress, on the northern edge of the Haram ash Sharif, to The Church, its course set by custom and customers from Byzantine days.

And now it appears that this indeed might have been the case.

See also:

The Grand Old New Imperial Hotel

As I relate in my earlier post, ‘Amazing Grace – There’s Magic In The Air : “from the Jaffa Gate, we look out from our balcony in the Imperial Hotel, a late 19th Century mix of trash and treasure, five-star history, and ten-star views”.

Planning our recent visit to Jerusalem (we were there in May 2014, just two months before the recent events – in 2019, see below) I wanted to book a hotel that was both historical and conveniently close to The Old City. I also fancied the idea of staying in a pilgrim hotel so we could witness at first hand the excited comings and goings of the faithful (see my post ‘Messianic Carpet Rides‘). The New Imperial Hotel, just inside the Jaffa Gate, was just the ticket. And we struck solid gold! Stepping down from the Nesher bus on the road outside the famed Walls of Jerusalem and  the Citadel (see: Once in Royals David’s Citadel), we looked up towards the Jaffa Gate and there, right above us was the imposing facade of the New Imperial Hotel

The Jaffa Gate, in the western wall of the Old City (not to be confused with the ‘Western Wall’ or ‘Kotel’ so revered of Judaism), has traditionally been one of the busiest entrances to Jerusalem. Its Arabic name is Bab al Khalil (Gate of the Friend) a reference to Abraham, forefather of both Arabs and Jews. The wall bears the inscription in Arabic: “there is no god but Allah, and Abraham is the friend of Allah”. Topographically the Gate provided the easiest access, so it’s approaches provided a most convenient camping ground for the many invaders who sought to conquer the city. These included Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Frankish Crusaders, Turks, and finally, the British. Caliph Omar Ibn al Khatab entered through this gate after Jerusalem’s capture by the Muslims in 638AD. As did General Allenby, commander of the British forces which captured Jerusalem in December 1917.

Just inside the wall, there were fields of winter wheat until the late nineteenth century; and in summertime, the empty fields became dumping grounds for carcasses of donkeys, camels and horses. The Turkish authorities moved this ‘cemetery’ outside the wall, and what was forever the main thoroughfare, became the location for important commercial institutions, including the Banco de Roma, the Anglo-Palestine Bank, and the German bank of Johannes Frutiger, the Austrian Post Office, The Thomas Cook Tourism and Travel Company, and the studios of a number of Jerusalem’s famous photographers.

And also, several hotels catering for the growing tourist industry, including the Mediterranean Hotel (now called The Petra), and in 1884, the Grand New Hotel, built on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. According to the Thomas Cook Tourist Handbook in 1876, the Mediterranean was “the best in Jerusalem”. Travelers were however wont to damn the Med with faint praise, and soon began to write about the really new, really ‘grand’ hotel with great facilities, round arched windows, high roof pedestals topped by Grecian urns, imposing entrance staircase, and balconies looking right out over Omar Ibn al Khatab Square. See the pictures below from the end of the 19th Century,  showing the square in all variety of citizenry and costume.

Omperial 4 Imperial 2

The place comes with a history. During construction, builders uncovered what was believed to be the Pool of a Bathsheba. It was said that Uriah’s wife was bathing thereon when spied upon by a randy King David. David subsequently sent Uriah off on a suicide mission to clear the way for his own passions. The historical record is confused here. Leonard Cohen and the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme apparently got it wrong. They both placed her up on the roof. The Bible says he saw her from the roof.

The view from the rarely frequented roof terrace of the New Imperial itself, whilst not quite as picaresque as the vision that tempted the poet king, offers a splendid vista of the cupolas of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock – not to mention a fine peek at the battlements of the Citadel. On the western side, we look out over West Jerusalem and what was the old Arab neighbourhood of Mamilla, now totally rebuilt with a lux shopping mall, the rectangular bulk of the King David Hotel, once the HQ of the British military and bombed by Irgun terrorists in June 1946, and the iconic YMCA tower.

 Imperial 5

Anyhow, there is still an ancient cistern beneath the hotel. And also, part of the second wall. There are Roman tiles signifying the HQ the Roman Tenth Legion, and part a column erected by the legion, bearing a votive inscription honouring Emperor Augustus’ Legate, Marcus Julius Maximus. It stands there today as a pedestal for a street lamp, in the mews near the hotel front door and right in from of Versavee Restaurant and Bar, where the writer and his companions ate good Jerusalem fare and downed Israeli wine and Taybeh Palestinian beer.

Roman Colomn outside the New Imperial Hotel

Roman Column outside the New Imperial Hotel

Had the hotel been there in Biblical times, what events we might have witnessed from our balcony. King Herod, the ostensibly psychotic master builder of Bible infamy dwelt opposite as he planned his Second Temple (Herod might have murdered most of his nearest and dearest, but he was fitted up for the massacre of the innocents!). So did Pontius Pilate. If one accepts the narrative of Simon Sebag-Montefiore,  in his Jerusaelm : The Biography, we could also have watched the last journey of Jesus of Nazareth. It was but a short distance from the Citadel where he was condemned and Golgotha where he died: cross the square, turn right at the New Imperial, left just past the Med, and straight on to the Hill of the Skull (where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands). The present Via Dolorosa runs from the site of the Antonine Fortress, on the northern edge of the Haram ash Sharif, to The Church, its course set by custom and customers from Byzantine days. But, the wrong side of town! (See Nova Via Dolorosa).

I digress…From rom our hypothetical balcony, we could watch the comings and goings of the conquerors: the entry of the Roman Titus’ legions; Omar Ibn Al Khatab entering al Quds on foot; the arrival of the First Crusade at the Gates of Jerusalem; the exit of the crusader garrison and the Christian inhabitants when the city fell to Salahuddin (portrayed in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven).  And thence, Mamlouks, Seljuks, and Ottomans. The last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, stayed at the hotel on his visit to the Holy Land in 1898. His bust still sits in the entrance hall. This is when The Grand became the New Imperial! Kaiser Bill came in style. No walking for him. The wall between the Jaffa Gate and citadel was torn down and its moat filled in on orders from Sultan Abdel Hamid II to enable the Kaiser and his wife and their huge entourage (looked after in grand style by Thomas Cook Tourism & Travel) to motor into the Old City (again, read Sebag-Montefiore’s  amusing account).

Twenty years later, General Allenby and his British Army marched through the gate. The good general entered on foot just like old Omar. It would be fun to imagine that he made his proclamation of the liberation of Jerusalem from one of those balconies (probably the big one in the centre, which now serves the office of the present proprietor Walid Dajani); but the reality is that he marched right past the hotel, veered right, and ascending the imposing steps of Kings David’s Citadel, deliver his oration there (although he may have indeed lodged at the New Imperial during his brief sojourn). He spoke of how the Holy City had now been freed from the Turkish yoke, and that, safe in the bosom of His Majesty’s forces, the Palestinians, in all their diversity, Jews, Christians and Muslims, would enter a new era of health, wealth and happiness. If he was aware of the nefarious dealings of Messrs Sykes and Picot, and the arrangement made by Lloyd George and Chaim Weizmann, he did not let on. He left the best news for the politicians to reveal a while later, and for the world to agonize over ever since.

So we enter the Twentieth Century, with its momentous political upheavals, the hotel having several changes of management but remaining largely unchanged, with its balconies, and its grand entry staircase. Walid Dajani’s father, Mohammed, took a “protected” tenancy” of the hotel from the Greek Orthodox Church in 1949, In the 1950s and 1960s, the hotel housed a small cinema, and its elegant ballroom was a favourite Palestinian wedding venue. It was damaged during the 1948 war, and during the 1967 Six-Day War, it was used as a base by Israeli troops, then returned to the Dajani family, the tenants of the property. It is, as far as we know, still owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, a status that ten years ago gave rise to a curious controversy about its future status, and in 2019, to a High Court appeal of its sale, and that of The Petra Hotel, to a shadowy right wing Jewish group – see the link below.

And thence to the present, with Sayyid Dajani greeting us like long-lost relatives, “ahlan wa sahlan bil Quds”.

© Paul Hemphill 2014.  All rights reserved

See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

Imperial 7          


 Imperial 1