Archive for the ‘Around the World’ Category

A Sumptuous Tour of Peru

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

681_thumbnailJames Kus recently retired after forty one years at California State University, Fresno, where he taught courses on South American geography and archaeology. He first traveled to Peru in 1966; since then he has lived in that country for more than eight years, taught at Peru’s leading university, and carried out archaeological research on ancient agriculture in the northern coastal region. Jim has led more than twenty tours to Peru and has published widely on Andean archaeology and geography, in both popular media and professional journals. Jim is particularly excited to introduce Smithsonian travelers to Andean culture and food; he notes that Peruvian cuisine has recently become very popular worldwide.

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When people hear that I’m going to Peru again, they often assume that it is to visit archaeological sites such as Machu Picchu or others in the Cuzco area.  Or perhaps it’s to see some of the spectacular scenery – snowcapped peaks, the rainforest, or Lake Titicaca.  But more and more these days, when asked why I go to Peru, my answer is “for the food.”

In recent years, Peruvian cuisine has become world famous, thanks to the work of such noted chefs as Gaston Acurio and his wife Astrid Gutsche, who have several restaurants in Lima and elsewhere around the world (several of our tour participants have been lucky enough to secure reservations for one of their Lima spots – but this takes much planning well in advance of the tour).  But every one of the hotels that we use on the Smithsonian Journeys tours have great restaurants, so it is possible to sample a wide variety of typical dishes as well as some of the new eclectic fusion plates and the local wines.

One item that surprises many first-time visitors to Peru is cuy (guinea pig) – usually served roasted, and frankly not an everyday dish for most Peruvians .

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Consumption of cuyes is most often associated with special celebrations for Peruvian families, but tourists may have a chance to sample roasted cuy at a restaurant in Cuzco.

A very typical Andean food is the potato – several hundred varieties are grown in mountain regions.  Although baked, boiled, or fried potatoes are part of many meals, a great introduction to the Peruvian potato is a dish called causa – essentially cold mashed yellow potatoes, stuffed with chicken, seafood, or vegetables.  Kus-photo-two515My favorite is a causa stuffed with mariscos (shellfish), but some restaurants, such as the dining room at the Inka Terra hotel, feature three different causas as an entrée. Kus-photo-three515 Another typical entrée is ceviche – often a white fish, shrimp, or shellfish prepared in a strong lime/onion/chili pepper mixture (the citric acid “cooks” the fish).  Usually thought of as a coastal dish, some highland restaurants now serve a ceviche done with local trout.

One of the most typical main courses found on dinner menus is lomo saltado – thin slices of meat stir-fried with french fries and vegetables and served with a side of rice.

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Photo courtesy of James Kus

Other dishes that you might find on the menu include lots of varieties of chicken (my own favorite is aji de gallina – shredded chicken in a mild spicy sauce over rice) – or try pollo a la brasa (whole chicken roasted on a spit).

Then there are desserts – a whole range of sweet treats made with local fruits –try lucuma ice cream for something distinctly different.  But my all-time favorite has to be the messy sundae at the Inka Terra restaurant.  That’s the name for it (although on the menu it’s called the “miskey sundae”) – vanilla ice cream, homemade brownies, and a fudge sauce to die for, with the serving glass dipped in the sauce to create the “messy” name.   !Kus-photo-five515

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Read more about upcoming departures of our Legendary Peru tour here.

In Search of Morocco’s Lost Jewish Heritage

Friday, November 1st, 2013

435_thumbnailDr. Moshe Gershovich is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO). A native of Israel, he earned a B.A. at Tel Aviv University and a Ph.D. in history and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University. He taught for three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before traveling to Morocco in 1998 as a Fulbright Senior Scholar to

research the oral history of Moroccan veterans of the French Army. Moshe resided in Morocco between 1998 and 2000 during which time he also taught at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane. He is the author of French Military Rule in Morocco: Colonialism and Its Consequences (Cass, 2000) as well as numerous

scholarly and popular articles related to the modern history and politics of

Morocco and French colonialism. In recent years, Moshe has taken groups of UNO students to Morocco where they were immersed in the study of Arabic and North African history and culture. He is fluent in Hebrew, French, and Moroccan Arabic.

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A Cemetery and a Synagogue, an Orphanage and a Museum

Morocco is a Muslim country as anyone visiting it today can notice right away.  Anywhere you turn you’ll see mosques, madrasas, and other signs of Islamic civilization.  Virtually 100% of the population consists of Sunni Muslims.  Whether or not they observe their faith to the fullest extent notwithstanding, the religious homogeneity of the Moroccan nation is evident.  This, however, was not always the case.  Up to two generations ago, a small yet significant portion of the population exercised the Jewish faith while sharing a common heritage with their Muslim compatriots.  Numbering more than a quarter of a million souls at the time of Morocco’s independence in 1956 (out of a population of about 10 million), the Jewish community today has shrunk to about 5,000 members.  For all intents and purpose, Jewish presence in Morocco has vanished.  The reasons for the mass and rather sudden exodus of Jews from Morocco lie beyond the scope of this piece, as does the long and rich history of Judaism there.  What concerns us here is the manner in which the memory of that history is being preserved in a variety of ways, as our tour has discovered at three distinct locations:  Fez, Sefrou, and Casablanca.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

The origins of Judaism in the extreme northwestern corner of Africa are unclear, but that presence may be traced back to ancient times, predating by at least half a millennium the arrival of Islam to that part of the world.  Jews arriving from the Eastern Mediterranean integrated among the Imazighren (Berber) tribes, some of whom may have converted to Judaism, before switching to Islam.  Andalusian Jews fleeing from the Christian Reconquista found refuge in Morocco and helped build its unique identity in later centuries.  Benefiting from their protected status as “People of the Book,” Moroccan Jews added skills and resourcefulness to the Sharifian Sultanate but remained a distinct minority group.  With the growth of European influence during the 19th century, many among them embraced the economic, cultural, and educational opportunities it provided.  By the time the French Protectorate was established in 1912, Moroccan Jews had already began to assimilate into French culture, although they remained subjects of the Sultan, whose symbolic protection helped them traverse the painful era of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during World War II.  With the advent of Morocco’s struggle for independence, however, Jews felt by and large left out, suspected of affiliation with the colonial order and with the newly formed State of Israel.  Presented with the opportunity to migrate, amid uncertain future in the independent Morocco, many Jews voted with their feet and left during the 1950s and early 1960s.  Another wave of migration came after the 1967 Six-Day War, which had intensified tension between Jews and Arabs throughout the Middle East.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

A Cemetery and a Synagogue in the Mellah of Fez

On the afternoon of its first day in Fez, our group visited the old Mellah (Jewish neighborhood). Even though Rabat is Morocco’s political capital, and Casablanca its economic hub, Fez may be said to represent the soul of the nation.  The imperial capital of the north, built more than twelve centuries ago, has served as the seat of power and religion for most of Moroccan history.  The Mellah itself, originally created during the 14th Century, as part of the Marinid construction of “New Fez,” was intentionally situated next to the royal palace, as if to signify the Sultan’s protection of “his” Jews.  The elegant balconies facing the main street of the Mellah, a tribute to the Andalusian architecture most original inhabitants of the Mellah had left behind, stand in stark contradiction to the austere and simple outward look of the old Muslim Medina.  In that section, which we had visited that same morning, a home’s beauty can only be appreciated once you pass beyond the simple, non-distinct façade.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Jews have resided in Fez since its creation twelve centuries ago and their history there includes periods of great scholarly tradition and economic prosperity, where others suffered poverty and persecutions.  The city’s most famous Jewish inhabitant was philosopher Moses ben Maimon, “Maimonides,” who escaped from Cordoba, Spain during the Almohade terror of 1165, and lived in Fez for five years, before moving to Egypt.  In modern times the local community underwent turmoil and changes.  In April 1912, a military uprising against the imposition of the French Protectorate resulted in a three-day attack on the Mellah and the killing of at least 45 of its inhabitants.  A few years later, Jews began to leave the Mellah and move to the newly built European city.  Towards the end of the Protectorate, the Jewish population reached 22,000.  Today, however, only about 60 Jews continue to live there and none reside in the Mellah.

One of these Jews, a caretaker, Monsieur Gabai, met us at the edge of the old cemetery and led us through it.  The cemetery dates back to the early 17th century and is still in use today as can be seen by recent tombstones of community members who have deceased in recent years.  All tombstones are white and most are made of simple stone.  Many tombs are unmarked, bearing victims of the Black Plague, who had to be buried hurriedly.   While dotted with the graves of notable religious scholars and communal leaders, the cemetery’s most famous figure was 17 year-old Sol Hachiel, AKA Lalla Suleika.  A native of Tangiers, this beautiful maiden had been falsely accused of conversion to Islam and then reneging on her conversion.  When she refused to abandon her Jewish faith, she was condemned to death and beheaded in 1834.  Her martyrdom propelled her to the level of popular saint, revered by both Jews and Muslims.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

From the cemetery we proceeded to visit the Ibn Denan synagogue.  This 17th century house of worship, one of the oldest and most important still in existence in North Africa, had been built by a prominent Moroccan Jewish family and renovated to its present form in the late 19th century.  It is a rare relic of a period in which the Jewish community of Fez had thrived.  Its importance comes from the fact that it contains the only complete set of Moroccan synagogue fittings in existence.  After suffering from many years of neglect and disrepair, due to the shrinking size of the Jewish community, the synagogue eventually became included in the World Monuments Watch’s list of 100 endangered monuments in need of preservation.  Its renovation involved contributions from various private and public bodies including the Moroccan government and descendants of the Ibn Danan family.  Restoration work began in the late 1980s and completed a decade later with a May 1999 dedication ceremony, patronized by the Moroccan government.

Standing inside the beautifully restored interior, facing the ornate Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) with my fellow travelers sitting on both sides of the Bimah (raised platform) was the perfect setting for me to deliver an impromptu lecture about the long history of Moroccan Jewry and its relations with the government of the Sultan.  I also talked about the reasons for the departure of most Moroccan Jews and the prospects for the future of that community.

An Orphanage in Sefrou

The following morning we left Fez and drove east to Bahlil, a charming Arab-speaking village in the midst of a Berber-speaking region, where we were treated to a tea ceremony in a cave-dwelling.  From there we continued to Sefrou, the region’s administrative center.  Located at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains, 28 km (18 miles) from Fez, this town of some 80,000 inhabitants has played an important role as a trading center on the route of caravans from the southeastern oasis of Tafilalt, birthplace of Morocco’s ruling dynasty.  Nowadays, the local economy is based mostly on agriculture and the town is known for its annual cherry festival in the month of June.

Sefrou used to be a cultural crossroads where Jews and Muslims, Berbers and Arabs peacefully coexisted for centuries.  This cultural mosaic led numerous American anthropologists, notably Clifford Geertz, to choose Sefrou for their field research.  For much of its history, Sefrou had been one of a handful Moroccan villages with a high percentage of Jewish population.  By the time of Moroccan independence in 1956, Jews still composed a third of Sefrou’s population, about 5,000 living in the small Mellah.  Only a few remain there since the mass exodus of Morocco’s Jews in the 1960s and early 1970s.  The Jewish Mellah is now inhabited by Muslims and the property left behind is taken care of by them.

Our group visited one of these places, an orphanage named Em Habanim (“Mother of the Boys”), situated just outside the Mellah in an enclosed compound.  The orphanage had been part of the Em habanim network of Jewish Moroccan schools, established in 1912 by a group of Jewish women as a counterpart to the Francophone system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle.  The first school and orphanage was established in Fez and the Sefrou school was inaugurated in 1917.  It provided elementary education to Jewish children for five decades.  Today, the place is deserted for the most part, except for groups like ours who visit it occasionally.

Our tour focused on the orphanage’s synagogue, which is well preserved and contains a small library of Hebrew prayer books (Sidurim) as well as some books in French.  The pastel colored walls and decorations hint at the identity of its original residents.  A short clip from a 1997 documentary film by director David Assulin, called  Haaretz Hamuvtahat (“The Promised Land”) contains original footing, presumably from the 1950s, depicting Jewish boys eating and praying at the school.  The clip can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SQiNNH6WOc.

A Museum in Casablanca

On the last day of our tour we reached Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca.  As we approached the city from its southern side, having arrived from Marrakech, we stopped at the plush suburb of Oasis to visit the Museum of Moroccan Judaism.  This is the only museum of its kind in any Arab-speaking country and one of only two museums in any Muslim country (the other is located in Istanbul, Turkey).   It is also the only museum in the entire city of Casablanca, the fifth largest city in Africa.

Situated behind the thick white walls of a lovely villa, which once served, just as in Sefrou, as an orphanage. The museum is surrounded by a beautiful garden, which blends well into this plush neighborhood.  There are no signs to guide the visitors to its location and only when you get there can you notice a generic plaque stating it’s a “museum” in Arabic and French.  A second sign above the inner entrance provides more proper introduction in four languages, including English and Hebrew.  Another plaque, in French only, is dedicated to the man who founded the museum and the foundation for the preservationof Moroccan Jewish culture, Simon Levy.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Widely regarded as Morocco’s foremost authority on Moroccan Jewish culture, Levy was born in Fez in 1934 and died in Rabat 77 years later. He was a professor in the Spanish Department of Mohamed V University in Rabat since 1971. A devoted activist since his youth to the cause of Moroccan independence and human rights, Simon Levy had been imprisoned numerous times during the late colonial period and again during the reign of King Hassan II.  He was a leading figure and active member of Morocco’s Communist party, in which he held key positions for more than 30 years. He was also the Secretary General of the “Foundation of Judeo-Moroccan Cultural Heritage” and the Founding Director of the Museum in Casablanca.

The museum contains a permanent display of artifacts related to the rich history and culture of Moroccan Jewry.  These range from large items, such as the restored bimah from a synagogue in Tetouan (Northern Morocco) to small dolls depicting Jewish brides in their wedding dresses.  Full-size garments are also displayed, along with stunning jewelry pieces worn by brides.  Various religious artifacts such as mezuzahs (doorposts), Hanukiah menoras, Kiddush cups, etc. can also be found in the exhibit halls.  Other than the permanent collection, the museum also organizes occasional exhibits on related topics.

Conclusion:  Judaism as a Component of Moroccan Identity

As we were about to exit the Jewish Museum, we stopped in front of a plaque in Arabic and French, containing the preamble to the newly revised Moroccan Constitution of 2011, which reads as follows:

“A sovereign Muslim State, attached to its national unity and to its territorial integrity, the Kingdom of Morocco intends to preserve, in its plentitude and its diversity, its one and indivisible national identity. Its unity, is forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamist, Berber [amazighe] and Saharan- components, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences.

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

Photo courtesy of Moshe Gershovich

 

The official inclusion of both Berber and Jewish (“Hebraic”) identities as components of Morocco’s national identity is a very meaningful act, which recognizes the contribution of both Berbers and Jews to Morocco’s history and culture.  Thus, even though very few Jews continue to reside in Morocco today, those living in other countries (notably Israel, but also in Europe and North America) are still regarded as belonging to the Moroccan nation and are encouraged to visit it and invest in its future.  While the physical presence of Jews in Morocco may have nearly ended, their impact on its character continues to be felt nearly everywhere you go.

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To learn more about our Splendors in Morocco tour click here.

Cono Sur of Patagonia

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Dr. Jeffrey A. Cole is a Latin American historian. His interest in the region was kindled at the University of Connecticut, where he completed a B.A. and M.A. in history, including a semester at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, México. At the doctoral level, Jeff focused on civil-military relations in Argentina and Chile, the archaeology of the Americas, modern Chinese history, and – primarily — colonial South American history. He won a Fulbright grant to complete his dissertation research in Perú, Bolivia, and Argentina. Upon receipt of the Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, he taught at Tulane, SUNY, Cornell, the University of Massachusetts, and Smith College. Jeff also served as Associate Director of the UMass exchange program with Argentina from 1985 to 1991, during which time he taught at the Universidad de Buenos Aires as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer. His last full-time job was as Director of International Programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. For the last twenty years, Jeff has served as a Study Leader for Smithsonian Journeys (nearly sixty in all) and as a lecturer on other academic excursions to Latin America.

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This departure of “Patagonian Explorer” was special for three very unusual reasons, all of which were unplanned and, as our Argentine Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay put it, “espontaneous.”

The first, of course, was that our group was witness to the inauguration of the first South American (and Argentine) Pope, Francisco I, and the celebration of the events of his first week in that role by the people of Buenos Aires and Argentina as a whole.  The obelisk in the middle of the “9 de Julio” avenue was draped in yellow and white (the Papal colors), the Plaza de Mayo was packed – from Monday evening to late Tuesday morning – with people following events at the Vatican on large television screens flanking the Cathedral, and the city as a whole showed symptoms of hope for the future than were absent as recent as a month ago.  No Argentinians were more proud than the fans of San Lorenzo, the new Pope’s favorite football (soccer) team; indeed, the supporters presented Francisco I with a team jersey with his name and a halo as his number!

pope

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

Photo courtesy of La Nacion

The second grand surprise was the morning of our landing on Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan, just north of Punta Arenas, Chile.  Disembarkation in zodiacs for this visit to a huge Magellanic penguin colony always comes early, as the winds tend to be lighter and the waves lower in the morning, but on this occasion we were treated to a spectacular sunrise over Tierra del Fuego to the east and a bath of golden sunshine flooding the penguins ashore and in the water.  There was no wind at all, and even the ship’s crewmembers were on deck taking pictures.  As we all sat down to breakfast later that morning, there was an enthusiastic comparison of photographs to see who had taken the best image.

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Courtesy of Gastón Mc Kay’s iPhone

Third, Easter Sunday brought a forced change of plans caused by the closure – probably because of an accident – of the Pan-American highway south of Santiago.  We were returning to town after a wonderful visit to the Haras de Pirque winery, when access to the highway was closed off.  Taking side streets to get back into town, we were destined to miss our appointed times for a visit to “La Chascona,” one of Pablo Neruda’s homes.  Tour Director Gastón Mc Kay, local guide Iván Bustamante, and I agreed to go instead to the Museum of Remembrance, which chronicles the military coup d’état of 11 September 1973, which toppled the government of Salvador Allende, through to the removal of Augusto Pinochet by the 1988 plebiscite which told him “No” to his staying in power until the end of the twentieth century.  Iván’s family had been forced into exile in Britain as a consequence of the coup, and his guiding of the Associates through this powerful museum was extremely moving.

The Patagonian trip offers Smithsonian travelers many different dimensions of two wonderful countries, Argentina and Chile, including landscapes and nature, but we never ignore the terrible moments in their recent histories, for the two peoples’ ability to recover and progress despite those events are all the more remarkable after we learn what they have suffered.

So, by the time we traveled from Valparaíso to the Santiago International Airport on 1 April, we all knew that we had been witness not only to Buenos Aires and the Argentine tango, fabulous Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia aboard Vía Australis and in Torres del Paine National Park, as well as the pleasures of the Chilean Lake District, but also to three different experiences that were unplanned and unexpected, but very special indeed.  Such surprises are often the most memorable moments of a tour.

I am sure that the 2013-14 season of “Patagonian Explorer” will bring similar “espontanous” experiences, and so am already looking forward to my return to the Southern Cone and Cape Horn.  My license plate and its frame say it all:cono sur

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To learn more about our Patagonia Explorer tour, click here.

A Multitude of People

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Robert W. Foster has been fascinated by Chinese culture since he first read a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching in high school. Since that early encounter with a strikingly unfamiliar worldview, he has spent his academic career developing a better understanding of the history of one of the world’s great civilizations. After receiving a B.A. in History from Kenyon College in Ohio, Foster pursued graduate work at Harvard University, where he earned his Master’s degree in East Asia Studies (1990) and his Ph.D. in Chinese History (1997), during which time he was an exchange student at Peking University (1990-1991). Since 1997, he has been a member of the faculty of the Department of History at Berea College, where he created the Asian Studies program. Although his courses at Berea focus on Chinese and Japanese history, Foster has also developed a broader understanding of the cultural interactions throughout East Asia and between China and Central Asia. Foster has been a participant in National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes on the Silk Road sponsored by the East-West Center in Hawaii and seminars on modern China at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria. Foster has worked to make Chinese culture more accessible to a Western audience. He has translated key Classical Chinese texts, has written on China’s relation to the Silk Road, on Confucian philosophy, and on the modern use of Confucian imagery in the PRC and Japan. Recognizing the value of directly engaging Asian cultures, he has taken student and faculty groups to the Peoples’ Republic of China and Japan. He has served as Smithsonian Lecturer in China and has led workshops on Asia with organizations as diverse as the U.S. military and secondary school educators in Kentucky.

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Smithsonian Tour on the Bund, Shanghai

Smithsonian Tour on the Bund, Shanghai

People. No matter how often I visit China, I am always struck by the number and variety of people. Standing in Tiananmen Square, outside the Forbidden City in Beijing, one finds all kinds of people at the symbolic heart of China. Foreign tourists, Beijing locals taking the air, and Chinese tourists visiting the capital all mingle in the Square. Eventually, all visitors forge ahead into the Forbidden City in a good-natured crowd funneling through the massive Gate of Heavenly Peace. We all find each other interesting. Every so often, a Chinese tourist shyly approaches me and gestures a request to take a photograph with me. When I respond positively in Chinese, we strike up a conversation about our various travels. Usually the photographer is from a part of China where foreigners are less common. After the snap, we smile, offer best wishes, and return to viewing the architectural splendors of the Forbidden City.

Artist’s studio, Beijing

Artist’s studio, Beijing

These encounters happen regularly on our trip: at the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army, in villages along the Yangtze, and on the Bund in Shanghai. Some people surreptitiously take pictures, some make polite requests. All are happy to have a memento of their travels. I imagine them going back to their hometowns, showing their photos and pointing at the one with the tall, bearded foreigner who could speak some Chinese. “Amazing!” say their friends. I, too, regale my friends and family with vignettes of the people I have met: the northeastern farmers on the Great Wall, the family of artists who welcomed us into their Beijing hutong courtyard house, the groundskeeper in the Great Mosque in Xi’an, or the elderly gentleman sketching a copy of a landscape painting in the Shanghai Museum. Each of those encounters breathes life into my visits to China. Each connects me to China’s past and present.

Copying a landscape, Shanghai Museum

Copying a landscape, Shanghai Museum

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To learn more about our Imperial China and the Yangtze tour, click here.

A Journey through the Other Europe

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013
Motyl,-Aleksander_Must-credit-Anne-Mandelbaum140

Photo Credit: Anne Mandelbaum

Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. He served as associate director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University from 1992-1998. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, he is the author of numerous books, including Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires and Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism. He is also the editor of over ten volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism. In addition to his academic career, Alexander is a poet, a visual artist, and a fiction writer. His novels include Whiskey Priest and Who Killed Andrei Warhol.

 

 

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8056_image_fileEastern Europe remains a region steeped in mystery for many.  Smithsonian Journeys’ “Old World Europe” program provides a wonderful opportunity to see firsthand and appreciate the historical and cultural richness of the region as well as its critical importance to some of the most significant political and economic developments of the twentieth century.7591_image_file

Who can fail to be impressed by Vienna’s stately Schönbrunn palace, Krakow’s Wawel Castle, Budapest’s airy Parliament building, or Prague’s magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral? At the same time, who can view an Eastern European synagogue or the displays of children’s shoes in Auschwitz without empathizing with, and more deeply understanding, the immense tragedy that befell Jews as a result of the savage Nazi pursuit of the “Final Solution”?11226_image_file

Eastern Europe has experienced some of the most debilitating shocks of the recent past. It was here that World War I devastated countries and took millions of lives. It was here that Stalin killed millions. It was here that the Holocaust raged with full force. It was here that World War II leveled cities such as Warsaw and Minsk, produced tens of millions of casualties, and experienced its strategic turning point. D-Day is often viewed as the battle that turned the tide against Hitler. But the invasion of Normandy took place a year and a half after the Soviet Army stopped the seemingly invincible German armed forces at Stalingrad and subsequently began its relentless push to the west.11217_image_file

Eastern Europe also experienced forty to seventy years of communist totalitarianism—an experience that isolated the region from the world and set it back for decades. The collapse of communism in 1989-1991, the subsequent emergence of independent nations, and their ongoing attempt to define their identities and find their place in the world have confronted the peoples of the region with challenges and opportunities that most Americans can hardly imagine. Our trip demonstrated that Eastern Europeans, whether Poles or Jews or Slovaks or Hungarians or Czechs, are resilient, tough, and determined. As we saw, they are survivors who do not give up—a character trait that bodes well for their future within the European Union and a rapidly globalizing world.

Our group came away from its visit with a fuller understanding of the complexities of Eastern European history, of the immense richness of Eastern European culture, of the importance of Eastern Europe’s many contributions to world culture in general and American culture in particular. In turn, I got to see the region and its peoples through the eyes of the group, a uniquely rewarding experience that greatly enhanced my own understanding of this part of European civilization.

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To learn more about our Old World Europe tour, click here!