War and peace

11th February 2000 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Photograph by: Bruno Barbey The empty courtyards with high, bare yellow walls exude peace and tranquility. But they lead to the tomb of one of the 18th century's most fearsome warriors, Moulay Ismail of Meknes, Morocco.

It's a paradox of this tourist attraction cum place of contemplation, made possible by the principles of Islamic architecture - vaulting spaces and walls and floors decorated with geometric motifs to suggest the infinite vastness and variety of the nature of God.

Moulay Ismail ruled much of Morocco from 1672-1727, waging well-nigh ceaseless war with the previous Sharifian dynasty. He is also believed to have ordered the execution of 30,000 people, not counting those who died in battle, because, as he put it: "My subjects are like rats in a basket, and if I don't shake the basket, they will gnaw their way out."

Yet he tried to rebuild the city of Meknes, which he made his capital, in grand style. The city walls are exceptionally high, 25 kilometres of triple fortifications pierced by great doors. But the ambitious scheme for a royal palace was never completed, even though what was built is vast enough, and Meknes has a strange feeling of emptiness, even today.

Mausoleums like this and the celebrated Taj Mahal in India contradict Muslim prescriptions on death. Washed and wrapped in a simple shroud, the body is supposed to be buried soon after death. The wrapped body is to be laid directly at the bottom of the dug grave, on its right side facing the direction of Mecca. The grave is traditionally marked by raising the earth slightly above ground. A stonewith no inscription is permitted, but no structures are allowed on top of the grave. Visiting graves is recommended, to remind pilgrims of the inevitable day of death and final judgment.

Although the Egyptians built huge complexes to house their dead, mausoleums take their name from the tomb erected at Halicarnassus (now Bodrum, Turkey) for King Mausolus of Caria, who lived in the 4th century BC. That was known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The urge to create monuments, to make a stone structure that outlives flesh and blood, crosses all cultures and times, from the army of terracotta warriors found in China in the tomb of the first Qin emperor (who died in 210 BC), to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Mostly, such structures have commemorated kings or, in the case of the Taj Mahal, their spouses. It seems giving up power may be more difficult than giving up life itself.

The poet Shelley, in his sardonic sonnet "Ozymandias", conjured up some such ruler. In that poem, a mere couple of stone stumps remain to mock the inscription: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Perhaps a more fitting comment might come from the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, a Muslim who wrote: "Think, in this battered caravanserai, whose doorways are alternate night and day, How sultan after sultan, with his pomp, abode his hour or two and went his way."

WEB LINKS.

for religious views of death: re-xs.ucsm.ac.uk. brief history and pictures: www.unesco.orgwhcsites. Information and posters on Islam:www.discoverislam.com.


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