March Issue 2019

By | Bookmark | Published 6 months ago

If Stones Could Speak…Echos from the Past

Authors: Iftikhar Salahuddin and Naseem Salahuddin

Publisher: Le-Topical Printers, Lahore

340 pages

Price: Rs. 5,000.00

More than a picture book or a travelogue, the voluminous hardback, If Stones Could Speak…Echoes from the Past is a time travel into the past. The heavy tome is a kaleidoscope of beautifully captured photographs by Dr Iftikhar Salahuddin from his 40 years of travels to the four corners of the globe with his wife, Dr Naseem Salahuddin. The book is not only filled with photographs rich in detail, but each photograph is accompanied with anecdotes of their journeys to historic places.  

The hardback is divided into four sections, and each has a different theme: ‘Among the Believers,’ ‘Remains of the Past,’ ‘Footprints of History’ and ‘Splendours of the Court.’ Each section is further sub-divided into chapters, and the same thread runs through them all – stories and illustrations of stones used in the construction of structures, sculptures, monuments and edifices erected either for worship or in memoriam – or to establish now long-dead cities.

From the start, the book hooks you with its deeply engaging narrative. Each chapter begins with a verse either from the Quran, the Bible or other religious text, or quotes by famous philosophers, writers and poets, (there are several verses of Allama Iqbal). Each chapter is a concise lesson in history pertaining to almost all the legendary ruins, places of worship, burial sites, ancient cities, monuments and places where regular tourists may not venture. Numerous pictures of the couple’s journeys leap out of the pages, giving the reader a sense of the expansive courtyards of mosques, the looming ceilings of the inner halls, the towering pyramids and cliffs, and the magnificence of palaces and colossal columns.

The first chapter will take you to the ancient city of Xi’an in China, populated by ethnic Chinese Muslims called Hui, where Dr Iftikhar photographed one of the earliest mosques built in circa 740, a little over a 100 years after the Prophet (PBUH). From the details of their journey, we learn that the town of Xi’an was once an imperial city of 10 dynasties as well as the originating point of the Silk Route through which Arab-Muslims traded and flourished, as did Islam. There are now around 10 million Hui-Mandarin-speaking Muslims across China. We are warned that although the food is halal, some of it, such as the skewered seahorses, is not for the faint-hearted.

The book shares the couple’s memories of their visit inside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, from where the Prophet (PBUH) ascended the heavens on a spiritual journey; the nearby Masjid al-Aqsa on the Temple Mount stands on the very spot where Hazrat Umar erected Jerusalem’s first mosque. There is a picture of one of the 112 exquisite stained glass windows that survived some very turbulent times, including when al-Aqsa was turned into the headquarters of the Crusader army of Templars, who used the crypt as a horse stable and the prayer hall mihrab as a latrine, until Sultan Salah al Din Ayyubi freed the city from them. Only a few steps away, on the other side is the Wailing Wall in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, where on a Sabbath day the Salahuddins were a witness to how the locals observed their day of rest and worshipped amid curious tourists.  

Despite the heavy patrolling by Israeli soldiers, the couple travelled outside Jerusalem to the ancient town of Hebron to offer fateha at the Cave of the Patriarchs (Haram al Khalil) – and the tomb of Hazrat Ibrahim, who is buried deep below a cave – and the cenotaphs of his wife, Bibi Sarah, and descendants, Hazrat Yaqoob, Hazrat Ishaq, buried below. A picture shows that the tomb is divided into a mosque and a synagogue where both Muslims and Jews come to pay their respects. Their trip here felt like one to “a maximum security facility” considering the painful histories of the holy sites revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, in a country heavily patrolled by the Israeli security and with towering barbed-wire walls that divide the various communities.  

In Bethlehem, they visited The Sacred Church of Nativity – the place of Jesus Christ’s birth – which resembles a crumbling medieval castle, and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the place of Jesus’s Crucifixion. By comparison, the current capital of Christianity, the majestic Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, is a visual treat. Luckily, they also managed to get a glimpse of Pope Francis in his Popemobile and heard his Easter greetings.

In Syria, the statue of Sultan Salah ad-Din Ayyubi, the mighty Sultan of Egypt and Syria and the liberator of Jerusalem, stands tall, but his body rests in a humble chamber within a courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. We learn of a man of impeccable honesty. At his death, he did not even leave behind sufficient money to buy the clay to line his grave. However, his name is exquisitely enshrined in gold on the ceiling of the Dome of the Rock. Sultan Salah ad-Din’s story comes under the section ‘Footprints on History,’ which covers other historical figures – revolutionary leaders, heroes, warriors and villains; poets and painters and great scholars of Central Asia, as well as a companion of the Prophet.

Besides mosques, the couple’s healthy curiosity took them to places of worship of other faiths including ancient Buddhist temples in South-East Asia; the Temple of Confucius – the great 6th century BCE philosophy teacher – in communist China where religion has been discouraged since the Cultural Revolution; the ancient city of Kyoto to understand Shintoism as practiced by the Japanese and Yazd, the oldest city in Iran – home to the largest Zoroastrian community where in their Fire Temple, the sacred Flame of Victory has been kept burning for centuries. 

We learn from this chapter that Parsis are not fire-worshippers as is generally believed, but monotheists. Fire is a symbol of Ahura Mazda – the omnipotent invisible God preached by their Prophet Zoroaster in 1500 years BCE making it the oldest monotheistic faith in the world. “It was while travelling through the world of believers that we were fascinated by myriad faiths and countless rituals all in their own way searching for One God,” Dr. Iftikhar had said at the launch of their book.

In the section ‘Remains of the Past,’ the book chronicles the pair’s tours to the ancient cities, temple complexes and necropolis of Iran, Athens, Jordan, Rome, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia and even to countries that till recently were shrouded in mystery, like Cambodia and Burma. The chapter on Makli gives one of the best concise histories of the world’s largest Muslim necropolis. With its many mausoleums and tombs of conquerors, leaders, poets, mystics and preachers, the necropolis is a reflection of the glory of Thatta, that was once the Jewel of Sindh.

It is amazing to see how widely travelled the Salahuddins are, despite their hectic schedules as medical practitioners. Dr Iftikhar Salahuddin, an ENT specialist by training, helped set up the department of ENT at the Aga Khan University and Hospital while his wife, Dr Naseem, a specialist in Infectious Diseases, is now associated with the Indus Hospital, where she helped set up their post-graduate training programme in Infectious Diseases and Community Services. She is also a big supporter of education for underprivileged children and in 1980, she set up the Citizens Education Development Foundation which started homeschooling for underprivileged children in communities. In each other, the couple have found the perfect humsafar – while Dr Iftikhar took the photographs of their travels, Dr Naseem carried his photography paraphernalia and together, they chronicled their journeys in this book.

If Stones Could Speak…Echoes from the Past is a unique reference guide for history buffs and travel enthusiasts. The authors have dedicated this voluminous book to their grandchildren – an ideal way of inculcating a healthy curiosity about the world, an open-mindedness for the multiplicity of cultures and, above all, religious tolerance – especially among the young.  

The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.