The mystery of Anji Bridge

Anji Bridge, in a pictures from

I read in The Economist recently about the Anji Bridge in China. Some online research says it was built from 595-605. It’s the oldest arch bridge in the world. And it’s fascinating.

I should at this point state that I have never been to China, apart from Hong Kong. The bridge in question is in the province of Hebei, which apparently is in the north of the country. I’m taking all this information off other websites because I don’t know much about China but I know that the country is vast.

But here’s what I know about architecture in the Western world: the Egyptians and the Greeks built some impressive buildings and had other impressive cultural achievements, but their surviving above-ground monuments were constructed using basic stone-upon-stone. It wasn’t until the Romans that arches and domes were constructed. Even then, the Romans limited themselves to the classic semicircular arch.

Not that semicircular arches are anything to be sneezed at, as anyone who has seen the aqueduct at Segovia in Spain can attest. But the Romans don’t seem to have evolved to other arch-shapes.

I had long thought that the next big step in building design was the invention of the gothic arch, as used for example in various European cathedrals. However on a trip to Jordan several years ago I noted gothic-style arches in the foundations of Ajloun Castle, which was built in the 12th century and thus predates anything in Europe. I realised then that my knowledge of historic architecture was far from complete.

There are some impressive European single-span arch bridges from the 13th and 14th centuries, and years ago I saw a documentary that covered Grosvenor Bridge in Chester in England, which dates from the 19th century and has a span of about 60m. That was quite an engineering feat for the time.

Which gets me to the Anji Bridge in China. I’ll repeat the dates in which it was built: 595 to 605. The main arch spans 37 metres.

That’s pretty impressive but I’ll admit to profound scepticism. The issue is that the design looks remarkably modern and it just radically predates everything else built anywhere else. I am reminded of the Guinness Book of Record’s comment about the mental calculation feats of the Indian mathematician Shakuntala Devi: “Some experts on calculating prodigies refuse to give credence to Mrs Devi on the grounds that her achievements are so vastly superior to the calculating feats of any other investigated prodigy that the authentication must have been defective.” Amen to that. Mrs Devi’s remarkable accomplishment was not so much the absolutely incredible feat of multiplying two 13-digit numbers in her head, as the fact that she did so in only 28 seconds.

Which gets me to the Anji Bridge. How on earth was such a technically sophisticated bridge built in China, so long ago? Or more to the point, is it really as old as it is said to be? I have no idea.

The Melancholy Roman

A campaign that isn’t working

On 21 October the Age newspaper gave up its front page (see above). Like its Sydney-based stablemate the Sydney Morning Herald, and rival News Corp dailies the Herald Sun (Melbourne) and the Daily Telegraph (Sydney), it instead published a censored-looking front page. The newspapers were all protesting against government censorship laws.

The Australian did the same thing and the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) likewise supported the protest. It was a rare, unified campaign by some of Australia’s most powerful media organisations, against the government. It is very unusual for any media campaign to unite both the public and private sectors, and publishers from the political left and right.

It was reminiscent, in its way, of the campaign earlier this year by the three Russian newspapers RBK, Kommersant and Vedomosti, which published identical front pages to protest against the obvious framing on drugs charges of Ivan Golunov, a Russian journalist.

As it happens, the Russian campaign met with some success. Golunov was released soon afterwards.

In Australia the results of the media campaign have so far been muted. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, seems to have remained unmoved. He and other politicians have emphasised that whether they like it or not, the press is bound by the law.

Not for Australia a decision like the US Supreme Court’s ruling on the Pentagon Papers. That was a sensational case in 1971 when highly classified documents had been leaked to the press. The Supreme Court ruled that the press was not bound by laws not to publish. The freedom of the press is written into America’s constitution. Alas, the same cannot be said of Australia.

It’s possible that if Malcolm Turnbull were still prime minister he might have taken a different view of things. It was Turnbull, after all, who successfully opposed the British government’s attempt to stop publication of the book Spycatcher in 1987. However Turnbull was succeeded by Scott Morrison and if Morrison is a far more astute politician than Turnbull was, there is no evidence that he really cares about a free press.

Having said all the above, I’m not convinced that this campaign for press freedom will come to anything. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the press simply doesn’t have as much power as it used to. It’s no secret that Google and Facebook now take a lot of the advertising dollars that used to sustain the mainstream media. Newspaper circulations are declining as fewer and fewer people read them. Before I was 30 I was the youngest person I knew who bought a newspaper. I’m now 40 and I still am.

But there’s another reason, which is the fact that the campaign itself is nearly invisible.

The image above is of the front page of the Age from 21 June. It’s actually from a screenshot from my iPad. I have a subscription to the Age and it’s true that the newspaper gave up its front page for the campaign on that date.

But the fact is that I didn’t notice. I assumed it was an advertisement, and skipped it.

That wasn’t unreasonable. Here is the front page of the Age from 24 June:

And here is the front page from 14 June:

Notice a pattern? The Age often gives up its front page. I assume the same is true of the other newspapers and there must have been many other people who also skipped straight past it.

It’s going to take a better campaign than that to defend press freedom.

The Melancholy Roman

Brexit doesn’t matter

Image taken from

Whisper it, but Brexit doesn’t matter.

I know it seems like it does. For a lot of people it’s a critical political issue and perhaps the defining one of the age. Indeed, at one level the importance can’t be overstated. If a referendum result is not honoured when the result is not the desired one, what about elections themselves? Democracy itself is at stake.

For the record, I was living in the UK at the time and I voted Remain. I should add that a lot of people I know voted Leave. They didn’t do it because they were stupid, bigoted or ignorant. No, they did exactly what I did, voting according to their conscience and what they thought would be the best for the UK. They simply came to a different conclusion.

But like I said, it probably doesn’t matter.

I’ve come to this conclusion based on my reading of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In his account of the conflict, Thucydides covers the Mytilenian Debate, presents the Melian Dialogue and details dozens more actions and events that are mostly forgotten. Because of his geopolitical commentary in his description of the conflict his work is recognised as a classic and is still being read 2500 years later. The parallels between the Athens-Sparta rivalry and modern tensions are evident and indeed, his most famous quote seems apt for any era:

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

It’s in line with the work’s applicability to modern times that I conclude that Brexit doesn’t matter.

The Mytilenian Debate was about the democratic decision of the people of Athens to send a military force to Mytilene. The city had rebelled against the Athenian empire and Athens decided to kill its men and enslave its women and children. However Athenian moderates objected to the decision and after a lengthy debate the Athenians voted again. They decided to rescind the earlier decision and a second boat was dispatched to Mytilene to try to prevent the first one initiating the massacre. The second boat arrived just in time and the city was spared.

The parallels with the Brexit decision have not escaped observers and indeed, cannot have escaped the classically educated Boris Johnson.

But it’s interesting to note just how important the Mytilenian revolt and the subsequent debate were, in determining the outcome of the Peloponnesian War. And an honest conclusion has to be that they weren’t, really.

Later activities such as the Sicilian Expedition were far more important to the outcome. More to the point, the Peloponnesian War was soon followed by the Corinthian War, which was in turn followed by the Theban-Spartan War. The most important collective result of these three consecutive conflicts wasn’t any individual act, but that they weakened the Greek city-states. Fifty years after the last of the wars Alexander the Great was able to rise to power and prominence. As a historical event his rise was far more important, as would be the eventual rise of Rome. And yes, I’ve swept a lot of history into a few short statements.

Think now of the Suez Crisis of 1956, widely seen as a moment of national humiliation for Britain. The British, French and Israeli governments tried to seize control of the Suez canal from Egypt. Washington refused to support the attempt and the British in particular were forced to retreat. It was widely seen as the moment that Britain lost her power.

But now? Suez is still seen as a foreign policy blunder but not as a turning point, because it’s now clear that Britain was already in decline. It’s simply the moment when the decline became visible. In other words, it didn’t matter as much as everyone thought at the time.

I think Brexit will be the same. Much heat and light remains to be generated but I don’t think it will ultimately turn out to matter much at all.

The Melancholy Roman

My own 7 Wonders

The ancient Greek writer Herodotus wrote the original list of the Seven Wonders of the World, based on travellers’ accounts. That’s why the original list comprised purely things that could be seen around or close to the Mediterranean and ignored the far off lands of India and China. It’s not even certain that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon actually existed.

I decided to put together my own list, and limit it (a) to things I’ve actually seen myself, and (b) to things that are manmade. I’m well aware that there are plenty of awesome sights that fail those two criteria; heck the only place I’ve been to in China is Hong Kong, and in the United States, New York.

Nonetheless, here is my list – and some not-quites.

The Pyramids of Giza

The only one of the original seven wonders left standing, the pyramids have the curious aspect of being unphotogenic. Yes, you’ve seen pictures of them, but somehow they seem to shrink in photographs. When you see them in the flesh the sheer amount of work that must have been involved in constructing them nearly blows the mind.

The Grand Mosque in Esfahan

I’m going to quote what I wrote for my own benefit about the mosque: “I am not a religious man. I do not put much stock in the gods of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. And yet, as I looked through the entrance portal to get my first glimpse of the south iwan and the main sanctuary, my jaw dropped and I felt what is probably the closest thing to reverence that I will ever experience in my life. The mosque, quite simply, is one of the most amazing and astonishing buildings in the world.”

The Taj Mahal

Let’s get some statistics in place. According to the website How Many Are There, there are 125 million houses in the USA alone. Throughout the whole of human history the total number of buildings constructed could be several multiples of that. The total number might even reach a billion.

And yet the Taj Mahal still stands out as the most beautiful building ever constructed. That is quite something.

Luxor – the hypostyle hall at Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings

A double entry here. The Hypostyle Hall at Karnak is a giant forest of pillars and has lost none of its power to awe after thousands of years. The Valley of the Kings, on the other hand, not only houses remarkably preserved tombs with fantastic paintings, it is also has the coolest name of any tourist attraction, ever.

Meteora Valley

In a remote part of Greece, the rock pinnacles of the valley would be an attraction in their own right, carved as they have been by the winds into smooth forms. But atop some of these rock pinnacles sit monasteries, a strange and surreal site.

Casa Batlló

Not Antonio Gaudi’s most famous building – La Sagrada Familia and Casa Milà are both better known – but this is his best. The melted-wax front is matched by a luscious interior. Several of the floors are private an not accessible to visitors – how I envy whoever owns them.


The only place I’ve even been that seemed magically hypnotic, like a day dream, even while I was there. Clearly a dying city, but what a dowager.

Not quites:

Setenil de los Bodegas: an extraordinary Spanish town where house are built beneath rock overhangs along the gorge of the river, resulting in a remarkable aesthetic where it looks like the earth is consuming the town. The picture at the top of this post was taken in Setenil

Il Duomo, Florence: soaring and magnificent, Il Duomo remains a stunning feat of engineering, art and architecture.

The Melancholy Roman

Those detained travellers

There has been a lot of publicity recently about an Australian couple who have been detained in Iran. They are said to have flown a drone close to a military base on the outskirts of Tehran.

Before their identities and the details of the offence were released, press reports merely said that two dual Australian-British women and one Australian man had been detained. The Australian government was taking the lead in all cases. There’d been some high profile detainees of Westerners in recent years, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but she was actually a dual British-Iranian citizen. These three new detainees did not have Iranian citizenship at all and it was the first time non-Iranians had been detained in years.

One explanation put forward was that it was hostage-taking by the Iranian government to put pressure on the governments of other countries. It is no secret that at the moment the United States is trying to pressurise Iran.

But then the details of the drone flight came out and I must admit that my own reaction was probably the same as everyone else’s. How could they be so stupid?

I’ll qualify that. Unlike most people who’ve been following the case, I have actually been to Iran.

I went there as a tourist in May 2009, about a month before the elections. And just writing that makes me sound like a CIA spy. I should hasten to add that I’m not, of course.

And here’s my take on the country: like most people in the West, my own impressions of Iran were formed by the news reports I saw for much of my life. Those impressions lasted until about a week after the 9/11 attacks in America. On the BBC news one night I saw a report about a candlelit vigil in Tehran for the victims of the attacks. When I saw that report I realised that everything I’d seen or read about the country could not be the full story.

Years later my work brought me into occasional contact with Iranians. They would ask what I thought of their country and would urge me to investigate further because media impressions were inaccurate. “It’s not how you think,” more than one person said.

I did my research and realised that Iran had the Bisotun Inscription which I’d read about and wanted to see. I also have a fascination for classical Islamic architecture. And so I secured a visa and went to Iran for two weeks in May 2009. I spent two weeks backpacking around the country.

If you ask me which is the most beautiful country I’ve been to, Switzerland is my answer. If you ask me which country is the easiest one to be a tourist in, Switzerland is once again my answer. But if you ask me which is the friendliest country I’ve ever visited, the answer is Iran. No question.

But here’s the thing. Everyone knows the refrain “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But more than that, you should avoid doing anything that seems obviously unwise. And if in doubt, ask. That’s just common sense.

If you go to the site of the former American embassy in Tehran, there is a long wall of anti-American and anti-Western graffiti. A lot of it is quite well done but I couldn’t tell you what most of the writing accompanying the pictures says, because it’s in Farsi. However, some of the graffiti comes complete with translations in English for the benefit of tourists like myself.

You can find pictures of this graffiti online pretty easily. Nonetheless, while I was there I didn’t take any pictures myself.

Why? It’s quite simple. I didn’t think it was a wise thing to do. I am an almost stereotypically obvious Westerner.

Which gets me back to that couple and their drone-flying. Maybe it simply didn’t occur to them that their drone-flying was illegal, but consider:

  • The Lonely Planet guide to Iran specifically tells you not to get caught taking photographs near sensitive military installations; moreover
  • They’d previously travelled through India, so they would have been familiar with the need in some places to buy a ticket for the right to film things.

All of which suggests that they weren’t really thinking. There’s no way I would’ve tried it.

The good news is that the Australian government’s Smart Traveller advice for travelling to Iran has been updated. Not about the overall danger of going there – it has for years recommended people to reconsider their need to travel, and warned against travelling close to the borders with Iraq and Afghanistan. But there’s now an additional bit of guidance: “The unauthorised use of drones is illegal. You’ll need permission to bring in electronic equipment including satellite phones, GPS trackers and walkie talkies.”

The Melancholy Roman