Meeting the Sultan at Topkapi

by John Mole

Editor’s note: The following is by the oldest blogger we have ever published. Actually, he is more than 400 years old. Contributor, John Mole, was so taken by the diary of Thomas Dallam, who, at age 25 was charged with delivering the gift of a self-playing organ and clock from Queen Elizabeth to Sultan Mehmet III of Turkey, that he translated the work into modern English. This post, originally titled ‘The Sultan’s Organ” was written in 1599. It includes what is probably the first ever recoreded glimpse inside the Sultan’s harem by a foreigner. 


I set up the organ in the grandest pavilion of Topkapi palace. Inside was a little apartment. I have never seen the like for carving, gilding, paintwork and varnish. The Sultan had nineteen brothers put to death in there. It was built for the sole purpose of strangling them.

The main hall has two rows of marble pillars. The pedestals are made of brass and double gilt. The walls on three sides only go up to the eaves and the rest is open. But if there is a storm or a gale they can quickly lower cotton hangings that will keep out any kind of weather and just as quickly open them again. The fourth wall is made of porphyry so polished you can see yourself in it. On the floor are rich silk carpets. There are no chairs or tables or benches, only one royal divan. On one side is a pond full of different-coloured fish. 


The Sultan came over the water in his golden barge. I was ushered out of the room and the door locked behind me. I heard the Sultan arrive and the loud noise of his retinue. He sat down on his great throne and commanded silence. The Organ began to salute him.  First the clock struck the hour. Then a chime of sixteen bells played a four part melody. Two figures raised silver trumpets to their lips and blew a fanfare. Then the music started with a five part song played twice. At the top of the organ a holly bush full of blackbirds and thrushes sang and flapped their wings. Various other movements amazed the Sultan. He sat down in front of the keyboard and asked the Chief White Eunuch, the Kapi Aga, if he knew anyone who could play it. He said the man who brought it was outside the door. 

“Fetch him here,” said the Sultan.

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Visiting Ferdinand Marcos

by B.J. Stolbov


Ferdinand Marcos died in 1989, except in Batac.  Here, in this small town, in his home province of Ilocos Norte in the Philippines, the memory (and more) of former President Ferdinand Marcos is preserved.  His house is preserved, just as he left it.  Next door to it, now, is the Ferdinand Marcos Museum, where his portraits, photographs, press clippings, clothes, shoes, furniture, and other memorabilia are preserved.  And down a hallway, behind a locked door, opened only by a uniformed guard, in a starkly painted black room, coldly refrigerated, with a single spotlight shining down on a glass coffin, most creepily, is preserved ― Ferdinand Marcos.

Ferdinand Marcos, the son of a local politician, was born on September 11, 1917.  From early on, he was a brilliant student, public speaker, handsome, charismatic, controversial, and larger than life.  He scored a near perfect grade in his Law Board Examinations while in prison on charges of assassinating one of his father’s political rivals.  He argued his own case before the Supreme Court and had himself acquitted, on a technicality.  He was, by his own accounts, the leader of a guerilla group that fought the Japanese in World War II, maybe.  (More on that later.)

Always a man in a hurry, he met, courted, and married, in eleven days, Imelda Romualdez, a tall beauty, 13 years younger than he, from a powerful political family.  A successful lawyer, rich from his law practice and other unknown sources, Marcos was the youngest elected Representative in 1949, the youngest elected Senator in 1959, and the youngest elected President in 1965, and, in 1969, became the first President to be re-elected.

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Black Jesus, Grilled Guinea Pig and the Damned Spanish

by Adam Jones-Kelley 


Spain is Earth’s version of The Biggest Loser.

It’s hard to believe that Spain, a country that today is smaller than the state of Texas, once ruled an empire covering all of Central America, much of the US and South America, parts of the Caribbean, bits of Europe and even some outposts in Asia.

That’s a lot of empire to lose.


Remnants of the former empire are everywhere evident in Latin America, however, where Spanish remains the dominant language, where the culture and food retain heavy Spanish influence and where Roman Catholicism, the religion imposed on native civilizations at the often bloody point of a sword, remains the overwhelmingly dominant religion.

Even Cusco, a small city today but once the capital of the mighty Incan Empire, boasts 17 cathedrals for its 350,000 residents.

A couple of them are particularly fascinating, and a little funny.

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Conspiracy on Malta?

by Elyn Aviva

We were on Malta, a tiny island at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, within sight on a clear day of Sicily and Mount Etna, and we were confused.

Since our first day on the island, Gary (my husband) and I had been experiencing generalized confusion. For example, we had been told that everyone spoke English—after all, Malta had been an English colony for over 150 years—but street signs were unpronounceable, and our taxi driver didn’t seem to understand a word we said. He replied to our frantic queries in something that sounded like a mixture of Arabic and Italian. And it turns out it was. Sort of. Maltese is a Semitic language, brought by Phoenician settlers 3000+ years ago, so it sounds vaguely Arabic. And because Italy has had such a pervasive influence on Malta—in part because of proximity, and in part because for decades the only television channels available were Italian—Italian words and cuisine are prevalent.

But our linguistic confusion was superficial. Much more confusing were the temples, the fat ladies, and the cart ruts. We had come to Malta to see the massive Neolithic stone temples, recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Some of them date back 5,500 years—or maybe 10,000 or 12,000 years, depending on whom you believe. Ggantija, on Malta’s tiny neighbor island Gozo, is thought to be the second oldest temple in the world, after Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. It predates the pyramids by millennia. Some writers believe the Maltese temples are oriented to astrological alignments that existed 12,000 years ago, not 5,500—and might even have been built by extraterrestrials.

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Horny at the Taj

by Adams Jones-Kelley 


Love can make you do many things.

It can make you laugh.

It can make you cry.

It can make you build the Taj Mahal.

The epic tale surrounding the construction of the Taj has all the trappings of a Hollywood fiction – tragedy, romance, betrayal, murder – but this fable is true, and is one of history’s great tragic love stories.

The story goes that at the ripe old age of 15, Prince Khurram, who would later become Shah Jahan, fifth Emperor of the Mughal Empire, married 14-year-old Arjumand Banu Begum, and fell desperately in love. He gave his beloved the name Mumtaz Mahal (Jewel of the Palace,) and over the next seventeen years they had fourteen children, six of which survived past childhood.

The seventeenth child died during birth, taking her mother with her.

The Shah was so devastated by the death of his wife that he locked himself away for eight days with no food or water. Legend has it that during this time the image of the Taj Mahal came to him in his dreams, so he emerged from isolation, organized a board of architects, and within a year construction commenced.

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In My Father's Footsteps

by Connie Hand

The sun was bright under a clear azure sky. The birds were merrily singing on that beautiful Summer morning. As I stood by the country road and stared at the house in front of me, my heart was pounding. I was in Nariz, Portugal standing in front of a house that was typical of the area. But this house was special to me because it was the one in which my father was born. Immediately I thought of the stories he used to tell about his childhood in Portugal and his journey to America.

I always loved to hear about far away places and thought that one day I would travel to Portugal to visit those little towns and big cities that Dad talked about in such a vivid way.

The story of my father, Augusto Silva began on June 8, 1911 in Nariz in the district of Aveiro. He was the second of five children born to Maria and Luis Silva, and it was not an easy life. The family farmed their lands  and tried to make ends meet. In 1927, Dad decided to emigrate to the United States, and it was a life-altering decision. He researched what was necessary for his journey. It must have been very hard on both of them when his widowed mother gave him her approval to leave. He told me he vowed to go back to visit this sweet woman, and he did keep that vow. He described that visit with tears in his eyes.

He traveled to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, and worked there for several months until he discovered that Portugal’s emigration quotas were filled for the next several years. He was advised to travel to France to take up residency in Paris. He told me that he worked in Paris doing odd jobs. I remember Dad telling me that Paris was a huge, beautiful city. He said he saw as many sights as he could, but he really couldn’t wait to get to America.

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What's Up with South Dakota?

story and photos by Paul Ross

It was my first foray from Santa Fe, New Mexico, up South Dakota way and one my few experiences in the Midwest, “America’s heartland,” which is derisively included by bicoastal media under the broad heading of “flyover country.” Almost immediately, I sensed something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was an element missing. I didn’t need my urban-honed 360 hyper-awareness ...’cause, generally, I wasn’t in any big city in South Dakota; I was just surrounded by miles and miles of flat agriculture: corn, soybeans, hogs –NYSE commodities literally on the hoof. I didn’t have a problem with it, because it was what I’d expected. It was with the people. They smiled and audibly said “Hi” on the street –to a stranger -for no discernible reason!

At an annual charity affair –the McCrossen Boys’ Ranch Extreme Event Challenge Rodeo-- the best place from which to shoot photos was secured behind doubled fences. So I tried a big city ploy and walked in like I belonged. It worked, until Cindy Menning, THE woman in charge, approached. I mentally prepared a barrage of important credentials with which to snow, or at least impress, her. But, instead of a challenge, she offered access to an even better vantage point –right atop the chutes where professional bull riders dropped down onto their ¾ ton mounts.

No questions were asked, just friendly help extended.

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Sardinia’s Coastal Towers: The silent watchers

by Silvia Pe


We were all children once. Childhood is the time of dreams and fantasies, when our imagination craves great adventures. I wonder if there’s a child who has never dreamt of becoming the king of an enchanted, beautiful castle? It was my dream when I was six.

I grew up in Sardinia, listening to the legends of the proud guardians of the Sardinian coastline. My favourite locations were the coastal towers: They’re scattered along the edges of the whole island, from Cagliari to Alghero, from Oristano to Siniscola, placed to form a big protective circle. My Sardinian history teacher was my grandfather, an old fashioned sailor.

He was a charming middle-aged man. His broad shoulders and rather serious demeanor gave him an authoritarian look, but he had kind eyes. He loved to enchant me by gesturing with his knotty hands, telling me about the Sardinian silent watchers… Built to resist the pirate’s incursions, the towers were managed, equipped and defended by the Royal Tower Administration, a proto-agency based in Cagliari. A stone in Uras dating back to 1546 stands as a witness of one of the incursions by the infamous Red Beard, or Barbarossa as we call him (his real name being Khayr al-Din).

The towers were placed in a way that allowed the watchers to communicate using visuals and sounds, without leaving their stations… a little bit like when I was in front of my grandpa and my thoughts started running as if into a dream world.

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In Wales, Nothing is Quite What it Seems

by Elyn Aviva

We were savoring our after-dinner espressos at Llys Meddyg, a “restaurant with rooms,” in Newport, Pembrokeshire, Wales, when my cell phone rang. I looked at it suspiciously.

During the week we had stayed at Llys Meddyg the cell phone had never functioned inside the hotel. There simply wasn’t any signal. To make a phone call, I had to walk down the street waving it in the air until gradually the bars started showing up.

The phone kept ringing. I answered it and heard a woman’s voice, speaking rapidly. “Hi, this is Winifred. I hear you’re going to write about my land. If you write about my land, you’d better get it right!”

“Hello,” I replied. “How’d you hear about us?”

“My friend David told me. When can we meet?”

The phone suddenly cut out. I ran outside the restaurant and down the street, looking for a signal. One bar, two bars, three. I tried to return the call. It rang once and Winifred answered.

“Sorry, we lost the connection.” I said.

“It’s because of all the volcanic rock in the Preselis. It interferes with cell phone transmissions.”

“So that’s why!” I exclaimed. “I wondered.”

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Returning to Leyte Landing, For the First Time

by B.J. Stolbov


Battle of Leyte Gulf, USS Princeton via Wikipedia commons.If you were to go across the Pacific Ocean by ship to the southern Philippines, Leyte would be the one of the first places that you could land.  In October 1944, General Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. Army knew that, the Imperial Japanese Army and General Tomoyuki Yamashita knew that, and Captain Morton S. Stolbov, D.D.S., a U.S. Army Field Surgeon, also knew that.

Leyte Gulf is the biggest gulf in the southern Philippines that opens into the Pacific Ocean. Ships, hundreds of ships steamed in, then turned north into San Pedro Bay, then turned west, toward the town of Palo, then finally turned onto a long expanse of beach that the U.S. Army called Red Beach. Here, on October 20, 1944, the largest landing in the Pacific Theater took place.

One of the first to come ashore that morning was Captain Morton S. Stolbov. He didn’t have to be there. He didn’t have to go to war. He had graduated from Temple University Dental School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1939. He returned to his parents and his home, Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, a small town in the coal regions, and opened a dental practice. He was doing well in his hometown, his career, and his life. A short man with thick glasses and a receding hairline, he was already 27 years old, too old to be drafted, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But, in one of the few spontaneous acts of his life, he volunteered to go to war.

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Honoring America's Fallen Soldiers in Normandy

by Roy Stevenson


American Military Cemetery, Colleville, Normandy, FranceThe view from the top of the high, soft, sand dunes next to the American Military Cemetery at Colleville, Normandy, is great today. It’s a bright clear blue sky and I can see for miles. French fishing trawlers churn through the choppy, deep blue water, miles out to sea, leaving wide foaming wakes behind them. Gazing down across the long, deserted flat white expanse of Omaha Beach, I can see where the olive uniformed American soldiers debarked their landing craft, to shelter behind steel tetrahedrons, or sprint up the beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Descending the sand dunes, I walk the long 500 meters down the gently sloping beach to the water’s edge. It’s dead low tide. I turn around, looking back up towards the dunes. I’m amazed at how far away they are. They would seem like they were miles away, especially to a young soldier armed to the teeth and heavily weighed down with equipment.

It must have been terrifying trying to sprint up the beach into the teeth of a hailstorm of machine gun, rifle, and mortar fire. Of the soldiers in the first few D-Day landing craft, 90% didn’t even make it up the beach. In my mind’s eye I fleetingly see chaos, patches of red blood-drenched sand, and a flickering image of a young soldier in a soaked green uniform. “I must have seen “Saving Private Ryan” once too many times”, I think self-consciously.

Deep in thought, I trudge back up the steep, uneven sand dunes to the American Military Cemetery and walk along row upon row of perfectly aligned white crosses, on the vast 172-acre, smooth, emerald green-grassed plateau. The 9,387 crosses are a stupefying sight. They radiate outwards in perfectly straight lines no matter what angle they are viewed from.

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Searching for Sunrise in a Megalithic Cemetery, Ireland

by Elyn Aviva

Cautiously, my husband Gary, our friend Michael, and I followed a nearly invisible path through the fog and up the side of Loughcrew hill, just before sunrise. A huge crow—perhaps a raven—flew by, its wings flapping loudly in semi-darkness. We were heading to the ridge top to see a twice-a-year spectacle: the rays of the equinox sunrise penetrating the passageway of Cairn T, a 5,500-year-old megalithic tomb situated 52 miles northwest of Dublin. The equinoxes, which occur around March 21 and September 21, are the two times of year when the days and nights are of equal length.

Distant drumming drifted through the swirling mist, along with the faint sound of voices. Others had reached the site before us. Soon we arrived at the top. A large mound of mist-sparkled green grass and rocks, Cairn T looked like an immense, squat mushroom, partly encircled with huge kerbstones. A number of ruined, exposed stone chambers and tumbled stones were scattered over the hillside. Clumps of people milled around, seeking shelter, chanting, or sharing mugs of steaming coffee and pieces of cake. The event had the mixed flavor of a class reunion and a revival meeting.

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Hunting Higdens in Newfoundland

by Jane Spencer

With no documentation or living family left to question, it seemed a long shot to trace my grandmother’s roots in Newfoundland. My father used to say his mother was from Harbour Grace, that she worked ‘in service’ there. My aunt said no, she was from Salmon Cove or perhaps Trinity.  My internet search was proving futile. Without my grandmothers’s birth certificate, birth date, baptism records (which apparently burned in a church fire) or even childhood photos, I didn’t have much to go on. I would have to travel to Newfoundland & Labrador to see what I could dig up, and I would take along my favourite chauffeur, my husband John.

My ancestors emigrated to Ontario from Newfoundland about a hundred years ago. My grandparents George Spencer and Elfreda Higden were both Newfoundlanders, as were their parents and grandparents before them.  George died at age 50, but Alfreda lived on to age 83, spending her final days living with us in her ‘granny suite’.  I decided to focus my genealogical search on her.

Here’s what I was told about my grandmother. She was a staunch Methodist, she loved the monarchy, and her deafness was caused by a childhood case of diphtheria. This instilled in her a suspicion and a fear that others were always talking against her, and it gave her a crabby edge. She fought with her husband incessantly.

Here’s what I remember about my grandmother. Into her eighties she weighed about 100 pounds and kept her grey hair curled up in bobby pins day and night.  She could lipread from across the room, and she squinted her eyes and shook her cane if she didn’t like what she saw.  She had these strange expressions like “Stay where yer at, and I’ll come where yer to” and “Mind yer mouth.”

One day, I was deadly embarrassed to catch Elfreda in her raggedy fur coat hitchhiking near our house in the suburbs down to the mall.  I ran in to tell my father, but all he said was: “You know she’s from Newfoundland” as if that explained everything. I supposed that Newfoundland was like another country, where they did things differently.

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My Day as a Pilgrim

by Susanna Starr

It started out with a scant breakfast (have you ever tried a one egg omelet?) and miles of walking around the city streets of Quito in Ecuador wearing wedged sandals instead of sneakers. Wedged sandals are not the shoes of choice when traveling. My feet, already aching, were really in a state of extreme protest, a not too subtle indication of the agony to come. We were on our way to visit the art exhibit we’d been anticipating all day, but hadn’t quite left any time out for either lunch or water.

The Guayasamin Museum was our destination and surpassed all our expectations. The paintings and sculpture were impressive and the house in which they were displayed, splendidly representative of the Ecuadorian painter’s era (1919-1999). The original house had an extensive collection of pre-Columbian art he had acquired over decades. The only downside was that there was no place to eat! Our dilemma was if we were to start searching for a restaurant, there wouldn’t be time to get to Guayasamin’s Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), which was a “must.” By now it was a toss-up as to which was worse, my overwhelming hunger or my throbbing feet.

We decided to skip the restaurant search and walk to the Capilla which, we were assured, was just a short distance away. We simply couldn’t take a chance on missing the experience of visiting this most amazing structure, Oswaldo Guayasamin’s final dream, completed three years after his death as a tribute to the 500-year struggle of indigenous people of the continent. 

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Whispers From The Past

words + photos by Jolandi Steven


In the pursuit of progress, the past is often overlooked, neglected, discarded or forgotten. 

But to me, it holds an allure that is enticing, charming, mesmerizing and utterly seductive. Not so for everyone: When I first mentioned the abandoned village of Al Jazirah Al Hamra on the outskirts of Ras-al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates to my husband, he evinced his non-committal with a shrug of his shoulders.

Thanks to Google, I learned that Al Jazirah Al Hamra means “Red Island,” and before the discovery of oil and subsequent land reclamation that linked the old town permanently to the mainland, it was on a peninsula that, with high tide, became an island. The questions puzzling me were: “Why did the people abandon their homes?” “Where did they go?” 

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Quebec City and the Ghosts of my Parents

story and photos by Rachel Dickinson

A week before what would have been my parents sixtieth wedding anniversary I found myself heading to Quebec City and the Fairmont le Chateau Frontenac, the very hotel my parents stayed in on their honeymoon. I believed, at the time, that this was strictly coincidental, for I had no desire to recreate the beginning of a failed marriage, but a part of me also strongly suspected that there was no such thing as pure coincidence.

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CHIAPAS, MEXICO: Maya, Mother Nature, and More.

3 Ways to Discover Chiapas, Mexico

From a Maya immersion tour deep in the Lacondon jungle to a hacienda-hopping equestrian adventure in the Cintalapa ranchland, discover one of Mexico's most magical and least-known regions with three insiders: editorJudith Fein, photographer Paul Ross, and publisher Ellen Barone.


by Judith Fein

Searching for Maya history, archeology, cosmology and contemporary life, travel journalist Judith Fein explores Chiapas with archeologist and tour guide Yolanda Ruanova.

© Paul Ross.What lured me to Chiapas? Maya ruins, living Maya and San Cristobal de las Casas. I wanted to be transported back to the Classic Maya period, which began in 200 C.E. and lasted until the empire collapsed six to seven hundred years later. I longed to walk through vast, abandoned cities that were hacked out of the jungle, and gaze up at monumental pyramids, stone palaces, temples, tombs and brilliantly-carved stone stelae.  I wanted to walk along paths once reserved for royalty, and contemplate the cosmology and science of a highly sophisticated, pre-Colombian society. 

Palenque was as huge, impressive and complex as I had imagined.  The murals at Bonampak looked as though they had recently been painted, and the nobility, slaves and priests depicted were still alive. The approach to Yaxchilan was by boat, and, in the high-altitude palaces, I could almost hear the squealing of kids playing and smell the flowers in the gardens. 

I longed to know more about the ancient Maya: what did they eat, how did they dress when they were not attending or performing rituals, what was their magic, what did it feel like to go to a ball game, and did they accept or bristle when they were subjected to their leaders’ rigid hierarchical rule? 

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Traveling Back Through Time in Taos

by Susanna Starr


Although Starr Interiors, the gallery that I’ve had for decades, has been housed in what was once the home of one of the founding artists of Taos, New Mexico, E.I. Couse, only recently have I gotten entranced with the history of the building. I’ve known about it, but it’s always been in the abstract. My deed was signed under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, but the building which was originally constructed as a private home, existed long before that. I’d never given much thought to the previous owners and the part they played in the colorful history of Taos.

Since making a connection with Virginia Couse and her husband, Ernie Levitt, who have the Couse Foundation, I’ve become inspired to do some of my own research into this historic building. They’ve been good enough to provide us with some photos when Virginia’s grandfather and his wife, the first Virginia, lived in the house, from 1906-1909, calling it Las Golondrinas. It was there that her grandfather built his studio by opening up the roof and adding on what looked like a greenhouse to provide him with the northern light he needed to paint by.

He also often painted in the courtyard. This courtyard was beautiful then, as now, and a photograph caoturs Couse sitting in the doorway at his easel with a handsome young model from the Pueblo standing in front of him. In another, we see him sitting in the courtyard on one of the rocking chairs with his wife stretched out on the grass, hollyhocks and Virginia creepers lining the sides of the courtyard.

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I'm A Citizen Of ...

by Eric Lucas


“So, how does it feel to be in your homeland?”

My wife, Leslie, looks at me inquisitively.

Tindari by Leslie ForsbergWe’re visiting Tindari, Sicily, where the Black Madonna of Tindari hangs in a cool-stone basilica on an olive-scrub headland overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Beside the Madonna is an equally ebony Christ hanging on a crucifix. Up the road is a theater used by Greeks and Romans; stone seats persist on a rocky hillside, 2,000 years after they were first set down.

“She is known as the ‘Black Madonna of the Orient’,” our Sicilian guide, Lita, explains about the sepia-hued sculpture in the basilica’s huge bronze altar. “That means ‘from the east.’ In this case, Byzantium. So many, many people have come through Sicily over the centuries.”

And many have left.

“I’m Sicilian,” I tell Lita. She raises her eyebrows, looks me up and down. I hope I pass inspection: oxhide skin; walnut eyes; bones like the old olive trees nearby. She nods.

“One quarter Sicilian,” I clarify. “My great-grandparents came from a village above Palermo.

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On the German Relic Trail

words + photos by Rachel Dickinson

This summer while on a pilgrimage of sorts to Germany to see several Women’s World Cup soccer matches, I stumbled across something that kept me dipping into every cathedral in every town I visited. I discovered the appeal of the relic.

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