Cycling through Middle Earth

Has Graham Robb found the true site of Arthur’s court? Did Oxford have a mystic significance for the Celts?

The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe
Graham Robb
Picador, 416pp, £20
 
In 1190, the chronicler William of Newburgh was reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain with a rising sense of irritation. “Everything this man wrote,” he concluded, “was made up.”
 
Geoffrey’s account of the creation of Britain, completed in about 1136, is the principal source for the Arthurian legends and the story of King Lear. Geoffrey claimed that he had based it on a book in Welsh belonging to his friend Archdeacon Walter of Oxford. Walter’s book never emerged but the scepticism of William of Newburgh and others had no effect on Geoffrey’s success.
 
In reality, the History was not entirely made up. Some of the stones at Stonehenge were indeed brought from Wales, as Geoffrey asserted, but it is the vividness of the story that has given his book its enduring influence on poetry, drama and popular culture. Today, the knights of the Round Table attract few literal believers and professional historians have forgiven Geoffrey. Yet in the shadowy, unmapped terrain that is north European prehistory, where there are monuments but few written records, the boundaries between myth and fact are still contested. The alignment of standing stones, the patterns of Celtic decoration and the fragmentary accounts of classical authors are interpreted and fought over by archaeologists, classicists, astronomers and mystics. This is the terrain across which Graham Robb has chosen to travel, by bicycle.
 
A scholar of French culture, Robb decided that he would make a transcontinental cycling expedition along the Via Heraklea. This is the route that Hercules is said to have taken from the coast of the Iberian Peninsula, the westernmost point of the known world, up through France, where he smashed through the Alps in godlike fashion, creating the pass at Montgenèvre, and went on into Italy.
 
Planning his route, Robb joined the surviving sections of the ancient way on the map and noticed two things. First, he found that when projected in both directions, the line goes straight for 1,000 miles and ends at Montgenèvre; second, that the diagonal he had drawn corresponded to the angle of the rising sun at the summer solstice (and of the setting sun in midwinter) as it would have been at a Mediterranean latitude 2,000 years ago.
 
At this point, both author and reader pause, the author to wonder whether this is not some sort of “historical hallucination” and the reader, if at all familiar with the literature of the earth mysteries movement, to look out for certain telltale phrases. “Cosmic coincidence”, “mysterious harmony”, “a thrilling sense of hidden mechanisms” – all duly occur as maps and lines multiply to create a web of pan-European connections spun out of the years of research and bicycling that followed Robb’s initial insight.
 
He is often in at least two minds about his theories. “As soon as a geometrical pattern is imposed on the inhabited earth, significance rushes in like water into a channel dug into a damp field,” he remarks, before careering off along another line that may be an ancient solstice marker or a wild tangent.
 
It is true that the prehistoric world has become more visible in the past 100 years. It was aerial photography in the 1920s that revealed the traces of structures comprising banks and ditches for which the generic term “henge” was coined as late as 1932. Robb has relied on digital maps and mapping software. The route he traced in detail would have been invisible to users of paper maps without a team of researchers and a desk “the size of an aircraft hangar”. It is therefore impossible to assess fairly what the results amount to without repeating all of his research. Has he found the true site of Arthur’s court? Did Oxford have a mystic significance for the Celts?
 
Those attempting to weigh Robb’s argument against facts may be discouraged to find how heavily it depends on the Druids. Druids, the bane of archaeologists who have tried in vain to weed them out of the history of Stonehenge, remain controversial and compelling. Robb produces an elaborately detailed account of their society and ideas, down to a description of the “Druid school uniform”, yet among his many sources, one striking omission is the work of Ronald Hutton. Hutton has, in the past five years, produced two exhaustively researched accounts of Druidry. He points out that the primary sources would fill at most a dozen pages and are partial and contradictory, and that the only one that might be first-hand is by Caesar, who had his own axe to grind. In short, we know almost nothing for certain about the original, Iron Age Druids. Robb may not agree with Hutton – writers on the Druids rarely do – but he might have acknowledged the problems that his research poses for a theory that builds so much on so little.
 
Robb renames the Celtic world “Middle Earth” and has a chapter called “Paths of the Gods” – references to Tolkien and Erich von Däniken that do nothing to help his credibility. They seem more like attempts to have it both ways in the manner of Geoffrey of Monmouth: to be right and romantic. (Geoffrey’s History is the source for one of Robb’s rediscovered paths, the causeway of Belinus.) Those who enjoy a mixture of myth and archaeology, who admire a vivid metaphor and a fine turn of phrase, will find much in this book to enjoy. The intellectual heirs of William of Newburgh, however, will be less satisfied.
 
Rosemary Hill is the author of “Stonehenge” (Profile Books, £8.99)
Hot rocks: modern-day pagans at Stonehenge. Image: John Batdorff

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser