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A Brief History of the Decline of the Ottoman Empire or, The Baghdad Road Archives, Part 1

Updated on December 18, 2016

We Left the Old Orient Express Behind in Constantinople and Found Ourselves . . . Stranded in Aleppo, Home of the Famous Baron Hotel

"Worming our way inch by inch Down to the Persian Gulf" -- Bernhard Prince von Bulow
"Worming our way inch by inch Down to the Persian Gulf" -- Bernhard Prince von Bulow

Stranded in Aleppo

Truly, love, this is the way it was. We were sitting in a café in one of the souqs in the "Old City" in Aleppo discussing, as usual, the themes of work and play. You, with your pale-blue Hanoverian eyes and that quiet, Freudian non-guile, appeased me with your sexy dichotomy between pleasure and pain, between the death force and the life instinct, or the life force and the death wish, id and ego, one of those dichotomies we loved to play about with over a good cup of Arabica coffee. It was something like ten in the morning, and the Prophet's thermometer on a nearby petrol stand read over 110 degrees. We were stranded there, on the "Baghdad Road," having come some five-hundred or so miles from Constantinople since Tuesday's moonrise. You took out your map of the line, astonished at our having breached the Anatolian Plateau. You were talking about the dervishes again, in that heat, reminiscing about that Duncan women . . . you know, Isadora this and Isadora that. When you'd talked enough, you sat up on the edge of your chair, pointing, stabbing really, at Aleppo's place in the bend in the illusory geography of the Levant (

You called it the Road Bearing Photoelectric Jesus Dancing Into the Avenue of Zoroasterian Oil. You called it Our Surrealistic Umbrella-On-An-Operating-Table Highway. But love, we each knew better. This torturous route was the Berlin to Baghdad Railway, made possible by our nemises at the Deustche Bank, and we surmised it to have been, now that we had traveled a good part of it, one of the causes of the Great War. A crazy-ass idea of a railroad--being paid for and built by the profiteering banks and the money-grubbers of the Wilhelmine regime--that would cover the 2000 miles between Berlin and Baghdad and bring Germany a Persian Gulf port, albeit at the expense of moderating relations with the English and the Russians.

The German dream of a colonial empire had never really caught up with the reality of its Mittlëeuropa politics and its (virtually) landlocked history, nor with the passions, perverse as so many of them are, of British and French colonial experiments. Poor Germany, you said (quite ironically, I will add), turning to face me, your sweet German nose and your angelic, round face so erotic in the dreadful heat. You were pointing to the paper you held, a French paper from Beirut. There were daily stories about him now. Daily stories about him and the railroad. Some American reporter was on the scene, some bravura-soaked Midwesterner, a Hemingway-like figure, you chuckled, apparently without the need for Parisian diversions. The reporter was doing his job well, however. That man is everywhere, I exclaimed! That man . . . that Lawrence, our fellow countryman and near neighbor.

We had heard explosions in the night, from inside the silken netting of our canopy bed in the classy Baron Hotel (Photos of Baron Hotel, Aleppo - Hotel Images - TripAdvisor). The flies were dreadful that summer, a real surprise we remarked--and you had whispered roughly, in the throes of your passion, "It must be him. It must be Lawrence." Sure enough, the French Daily you were reading told the tale: "Turkish Troop Train Terrorized: Englishman in Flowing Robes and Scarlet-drenched Scimitar Prevails."

And only from our waiter, a dreamer who looked at clouds, who kept a pocket edition of Baudelaire in his apron, did we learn that Mr. T. E. Lawrence had stayed at the hotel only a mere week before our arrival!

You picked up your book when I returned to contemplation of the meaning of your dreams. You were reading, at the time Jarry's The Supermale, I recall. Here, look, I will show you a page. We had unconsciously conscripted ourselves into the service of surrealism, you and I. We'd each had enough of the Oedipal family. We were fleeing the expansive mood of empire, seeking spiritual solace in the ruins of this beautiful desert. All of our friends were aghast we had left our nice little flat in Kensington, not to mention our Border Collie Dora and the three fine English Manx cats, to the nefarious eye of your Uncle Charles, the saboteur. How odd that we heard those explosions in the night and you said it must be him, it must be that character, it must be Lawrence. I was thinking you were going to say, "It's him. It's my Uncle Charles, I'm sure." That is, Charles Jahooty, arch anarchist and the Queen's preeminent saboteur.

Tower of Halvah: Impenetrable to All Crusaders

Halvah Tower: Aleppo falls to Arab conquest in 638 and to Mongols in 1346, but no Crusader ever entered Aleppo, home to the Tower of Halvah
Halvah Tower: Aleppo falls to Arab conquest in 638 and to Mongols in 1346, but no Crusader ever entered Aleppo, home to the Tower of Halvah

The heat drove us out of the souq and back into the cozy confines of the Baron's grotto-like bar. Hungry as two lovers can be, we were soon sampling spoonfuls of the luxurious local halvah. A grand Syrian halvah made by a madly creative Jewish sous chef at the hotel. You loved the sesame seeds. You loved the almond paste. You loved the concoction's phallic pride. You mentioned it reminded you of the Tower of Babel. I took a snapshot of it with the tiny spy camera that your Uncle had lent me for the trip. Here, remember this confection?

You wanted the recipe and got it when you flashed that coy smile of yours to our waiter. We ordered more halvah, more coffee, and we stared out bay windows at the dust, billowing up outside in the street, from the arrival of two Arab traders and their small contingent of heavily loaded camels. Had you not seen something like these two in your dream, dream of the Endless Oriental Caravan, of the night before? Your dreams, remember, had been our private cinema for the better part of our journey here. You specifically dreamt the content of your most loving desires and brought them to me like the reddest of roses falling through a blue-black desert night. You were that perfect acolyte of Isadora's, a woman with flawless skin, with thighs like milk, a woman who had fled the Junker terror for the threshold of wild travel. You returned to your newspaper, there in the Baron Hotel bar, after the halvah and the coffee and the fine Turkish cigarettes, and I returned to my reveries of the sweetness of your almond-scented thighs.

The Map: the Kaiser's Dream Come True of a Greater Germany

  Belgium: A Tributary State in the West -- Poland: 'Fontier Strip' and Protectorate -- Lithuania-Courland: the 'New Germany' in the North-East -- France: A Separate Peace with France, or Not
Belgium: A Tributary State in the West -- Poland: 'Fontier Strip' and Protectorate -- Lithuania-Courland: the 'New Germany' in the North-East -- France: A Separate Peace with France, or Not

From the depths of that Beirut paper--we were devouring it, carrying it, now, everywhere--we read that the Turkish army, a simple klop-klop of idealistic conscripts, was having no luck at all. It's failures had put to rout the lofty, one could easily say ego-maniacal, designs of the Central Powers. The Baghdad Railway was a part of this pipe dream. And there! What is that? As you folded the Beirut French-language daily, left serendipitously at the cafe by some unknown traveller, as you folded it neatly in the manner taught to you by your lawyering father, so that the paper became like a fan that you then read by unfolding the 'vents' it contained, you left me staring at the strangest of maps, there, making up one of the broad tines of the fan. Reproduced in this gleena, was a fantastic map of Europe, a German industrialist's testament to the audacity of the Kaiser's twisted spirit. It was a strange map--and I was now reading the accompanying details--printed in Berlin not too long ago and reproduced as a joke, it seems, in this French-language paper, a 'what-if' map of the way Europe would look after Germany's victory.


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