Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Nectar of the Gods: The Art of Georgian Wine Making

When it comes to wine making, the French are the new kids on the block, and the New World wines are scarcely more than a glint in the milkman’s eye. We know that the Greeks and Romans, both the mortals and their gods, enjoyed an amphora of wine or two; indeed, the Greek’s earliest name for southern Italy was Oenotria (“the land of vines”). This was far from the start of the story, however, as a little to the east, in a southern corner of the Caucasus, the Georgians had been confidently making fine wines since at least the 7th millennium BC.

Some 8,000 years after the first Georgian successfully fermented his grapes, drank the proceeds and felt sufficiently generous to enlighten his neighbours about his discovery, we arrived in Tbilisi, the country’s modern capital, on an Aerosvit flight from Kiev. The official cast a cursory glance at our passport photos, wielded his stamp with a flourish and then,
la piece de resistance: we were each presented with a bottle of Georgian wine. It wasn’t an attempt to bribe the journalists; it is standard protocol. Every new arrival receives red wine. This simple gesture says that you’re warmly welcome in Georgia, and that even in the 21st century, wine remains at the very heart of Georgian hospitality and culture.
With so many vines and so little time, we needed an expert guide. Fortunately, they don’t come much more expert than Eko Glonti of Lagvinari, a Georgian wine lover and fine wine producer who has made it his mission to revive the traditional art of Georgian wine making and to share it with the world. Our palates were in for a treat.
A fine wine starts with the raw materials: the grapes. There are nearly 400 grape varieties indigenous to Georgia, though less than a tenth of these are still commercially grown. Of these, the Rkatsiteli (white) and Saperavi (red) are the two most popular. Traditionally each different variety of vine was paired with a specific terroir (the natural environment, including soil, topography and climate, in which vines are grown) to produce the highest quality of grape and also unique regional wines.
Meticulous records of these pairings, and indeed of all aspects of viticulture, were made and preserved in Georgia’s Orthodox monasteries as the tending of vines and production of both sacramental wine and wines for everyday drinking was an integral part of the monks’ work. Some of the most detailed historical wine records were kept at the 6th century Ikalto Monastery near Telavi in Kakheti, (Georgia’s dominant wine-producing region), and as you wander around the recently restored complex, the churches and other ecclesiastical buildings still lie side by side with grape presses and wine cellars, and lines of discarded kvevris (vast clay jars in which wines are traditionally fermented and stored) are propped up along dry stone walls. Only now, 20 years after Independence, are Eko and his fellow Georgian wine makers able to rediscover this wealth of ancient knowledge; what was collected and so carefully preserved for millennia was almost lost forever during the Soviet era when monasteries were destroyed, their monks killed or exiled, and mass-production without regard for quality became the focus of agricultural policy.
Georgia’s finest vines have always been grown on the mountain slopes as opposed to flat valley bottoms. Though yields on these slopes are often lower, the vines are fed by mineral-rich springs and streams, and the drainage of the soil is also better. The Caucasian Mountains have a moderate climate, with warm, moist air drifting across from the Black Sea. The winter months are relatively mild, with little if any frost at the lower altitudes, and the long, warm summers give the grapes plenty of time to ripen and become naturally very sweet.
Grapes are still harvested by hand, then pressed to release their juice in one of two ways. Deep stone troughs in the Uplistsikhe Archaeological Museum, a rock-cut monastery complex first carved out in the 10th century BC, show that the crushing of grapes was historically done under foot, the juice running out through narrow channels into a second trough below. Each trough is more than 3m long, which indicates the scale of this ancient production. More familiar to today’s artisanal winemakers, however, are the wooden presses still often found in the cellars of older houses. Some 2-3m wide, the grapes are tipped into the top, and a giant brass screw can be turned to ensure maximum juice is extracted. The skins are not to be wasted, however, for Georgian wine making requires that the skins (called the must) should be fermented along with the grape juice, giving the resulting wine its unique colour and flavour.
Wine is fermented, and later stored, in a kvevri, a vast clay pot (8,000-10,000 litre capactity is not uncommon) coated outside with lime and sealed inside with natural beeswax. The kvevri is buried beneath the ground, and it is this step that enabled Georgia’s ancient wine makers to achieve such early successes as it ensures the wine is kept at a constant temperature throughout the fermentation process. As the kvevri is pointed at the bottom, grape seeds sink to the bottom whilst the skins float to the top; no additives are required to separate the sediment from the wine.
Though kvevri making was once widespread in Georgia, it is sadly a dying art. There are now kvevri makers in only three of Georgia’s regions: Kakheti, Imereti and Guria. With the majority of wine makers using modern metal vats, purists have a second fight on their hands – saving kvevri production – if they are to be able to continue making Georgian wines in the traditional way.
The proportion of grape skins added to the kvevri and the amount of time it is fermented for depends both on regional style and whether red or white wine is being made. With Kakhetian white wines, for example, Rkatisteli grapes are fermented with 100% of their skins, and the two are left together even once fermentation is complete, the wine taking on a deep, golden colour. The liquid is completely clear as the skins and sediment naturally separate from the wine. 
If making traditional Georgian wines is an intellectual exercise and a logistical challenge, then the hard work is rewarded with that first sip. The colour is intense and the smell pure – not a single whiff of added yeast or chemicals – but these sensory delights are still secondary to the taste. The red wines explode on your tongue with rich, fruity flavours; the whites are still full-bodied but fresher, more citrusy and bright. Though they can be enjoyed alone, they’re also the perfect compliment to traditional Georgian foods: the slightly salty white cheese, a chewy, baguette-style bread dipped in nutty sunflower oil, and organic tomatoes bursting with taste.
Slowly but surely, Georgia’s natural wine makers are drawing away from the mass-produced pack and gaining recognition not only in the former Soviet Union where their reputation is already well-established, but also on the international stage. Georgian wines stole the show at the 2013 Raw Wine Fair in London, and have in the past year stormed onto the menus at the Michelin-starred Fat Duck, Hibiscus and Noma restaurants. Isabelle Legeron, France’s only female Master of Wine, has become one of the most vocal (and well-qualified) proponents of Georgian wine, bringing kvevri wines in particular to popular attention in her Travel Channel series.
Access to this nectar is still restricted by low levels of production and limited overseas distribution, but those wine lovers who are both determined and have a taste for the finer things in life should be able to track down the occasional bottle from specialist wine dealers. Lagvinari is the brand that has so far earned the greatest critical acclaim. Thankfully they sell wines by the case from their website (www.lagvinari.com) and will ship worldwide from Georgia or the UK. You should also look out for Chveni Gvino (Our Wine), Soliko Tsaishvili, Shavnabada Monastery’s Cellar, Antadze Winery, and Winery Nika. Pour a glass, take a sip, and enjoy what is, quite literally, the Daddy of all wines. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Plumbing new depths at the Poytakht

I'm typically a creature of fairly clean habits, but now and then events conspire against Me.I haven't brushed my teeth in three days. An unplanned stopover in London, a night flight over God knows where, tap water that comes with a reputable Typhoid warning, and a failure to remember to buy a bottle of water at any time other than three am have collectively booted dental hygiene out of the window.

When it comes to drinking tap water, and in particular using it for my teeth, I tend to be a little reckless. Thankfully I have guts of steel, so a mouthful of dubious murk here and there doesn't tend to phase me. Why, then, is this trip to Dushanbe any different? It's the plumbing at Hotel Poytaht.

Poytaht is a Soviet monster - a vast concrete facade, endless corridors with well-worn carpet, and a scowling babushka on every floor. The bathroom in my room is split into two parts for no immediately apparent reason: a toilet and sink, and a bath and sink. The pipes in the latter part sing through the night something that's reminiscent of whale song: a moaning, gurgling noise with the occasional whistle that makes me sure some unfortunate creature, dead or alive, must be jammed in a tube six feet up. When I turn on the taps there's a rushing of air, but whilst you'd expect it to herald a torrent of water, only a miserable dribble seeps forth. Many words spring to mind, but 'appetising' sadly isn't one of them.

I'm restricted, then, to substituting teeth brushing with a variety of ingenious (but not particularly effective) alternatives. I've dry-gargled with toothpaste, wiped my mouth round with wet wipes and drunk cup after cup of mildly antiseptic tea. I've still got that furry feeling though, only hopefully by morning it'll have reached the stage where I can't but remember to buy a damn bottle of water! 

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Every so often there is the opportunity to travel a little closer to home, and though the wilds of Asia and Africa are fascinating, dear old Blighty is not without its charms. Summer may to date have been more than a little erratic, but on the three days last week of sunshine we escaped the office for the glorious coast of Norfolk.

You can tell you are approaching 'Chelsea on Sea' when the tractors are no longer John Deere or Massey Ferguson but Porsche Cayenne and Land Rover Evoque. The narrow streets of Burnham Market are lined with Rooney-mobiles and my 4x4, held together as it is with cable ties and gaffer tape, is the only one in sight that may actually have seen some mud. The children are Henry and Isabelle, the manicured wives are half a foot taller than their husbands, and the wines and cakes are organic, biodynamic and pricey. Far from escaping the city, it seems to have been dragged along behind.

We spent a pleasant hour or so mooching around, picnicked on the green and counted ourselves lucky we're not the kind of people who think £450 is a fair price for a woolly jumper. Back in the car, we explored the picturesque villages en-route to our B&B in Docking.

Holland House (http://www.hollandhousebandb.co.uk/) was a last-minute discovery courtesy of Trip Advisor. We knew little about the village, but it appeared a convenient point from which to explore the beaches, and they weren't averse to us coming with mongrel dog in tow.

The house itself is Grade 2 listed and was built in the 1700s by a wealthy Norfolk merchant, who probably made his money from the wool trade and/or smuggling liquor from the Continent when taxes in England were too high. The house is being lovingly restored by current owners, Mel and Steve, and samples of the historic wallpapers, dated by the V&A, hang on the breakfast room wall. Steve's art work, much of which depicts the nearby coast, decorates the rooms, and the house is a haven of peace. When the weather is fine, the sheltered garden is an ideal spot for curling up with a book in one of the deck chairs, and if you're lucky you'll even get a peep inside Steve's studio, where he works and also teaches others to paint.

Within 10 minutes drive from Docking, you are at the coast. Although Well-near-the-sea is a little crowded, and the fish and chip shops and souvenir stands do not help matters, the beaches are largely empty and unspoiled. During daylight hours there were a handful of people flying kites, walking their dogs and running frigid in and out of the sea, but as soon as dusk fell we had the sands to ourselves. Sand between your toes is an oft commented upon feel, but one that I truly adore.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Georgia on my mind

Forget the US, forget Ray Charles. The only Georgia on my radar is the former Soviet republic in the south Caucasus. A happy series of events have brought us into head-long collision with this most intriguing of countries at the same time that its nearest neighbour, Azerbaijan, has burst onto the world stage as host of the Eurovision song contest. I'm deeply sceptical as to whether Azerbaijan and Georgia should be considered part of Europe, even for the world's naffest talent show, but that's a discussion for a whole other day.

Few Europeans know anything about Georgia at all. Those with a weakness for Soviet history may recall Stalin was himself a Georgian at that the USSR was awash with Georgian champagne, but that's likely to be the extent of their knowledge. We've all been missing out.

Georgia is the home of wine, and not just any wine. The ancient Greeks considered it to be the finest wine in the known world, and vastly superior to their own somewhat vinegary efforts. For 8,000 years the Georgians have understood the need for stable temperatures during the fermentation process and therefore buried their wine in vast terracotta pots known as qvevri so that come rain or shine the temperature remained almost constant. Changing methods, intensive farming and artificial fertilisers and pesticides took their toll on quality during the 20th century, but now Georgian wines are experiencing a much-deserved revival, and the results are quite remarkable.

To try the finest wines that modern Georgia has to offer, we joined the Georgian Minister of the Economy, Vera Kobalia, food critics and invited guests at Hibiscus (www.hibiscusrestaurant.co.uk), the double Michelin starred restaurant in Mayfair. Wine connoisseur Isabelle Legeron matched seven of Georgia's best wines (all on the menu at Hibiscus) with chef Claude Bosi's dishes and over the course of three or four hours we learned about the history and techniques of Georgian wine making. Other than the importance of the qvevri, we discovered how Georgian white wines are often fermented with the grape skins, giving the resulting wines a gloriously rich orange colour.

Our second Georgian encounter, just three days later, was at the Raw Wine Fair (www.rawfair.com) in a converted brewery on London's Brick Lane. More than 200 natural wine producers from around the world gathered to show their wines first to the general public and then to the press and trade. Natural wines go one stage further than organic wines in that not only are the grapes grown without the use of chemicals but also no additives are used during the wine production process.

Eight Georgian wine makers were showing their wines at the fair, including our good friend Eko Glonti (www.lagvinari.com). A Doctor-turned-Geologist-turned-Wine maker, Eko is reviving disused vineyards in Georgia and re-discovering the traditional wine making methods. Despite having only produced wines commercially for the past two or three years, both his red and white are already turning heads: they're already on the menu at Hibiscus and will shortly be impressing diners at The Fat Duck in Bray. His red wine, our particular favourite, is exceptionally fruity and will be ready to buy via his website (see above) around September time.

Alongside the Georgian wine we were able to try incredibly nutty Georgian sunflower oil with superb Georgian breads, plum sauce and meats. Often motivated by good foods, we're planning a visit to Georgia in the autumn to fully appreciate on home soil the foods, wines and, of course, teas for which Georgia should certainly become renowned. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Travel for Tea

Few things speak to a Brit abroad more than a good cup to tea, so it’s quite a surprise that not every Englishman in the Indian Subcontinent has flocked to the Makaibari tea estate in Darjeeling. Nestled amongst hectares of virgin rainforest in the foothills of the Himalayas, Makaibari was the first tea estate in the world to be given Fair Trade certification and the first in Darjeeling to become 100% organic. What is more, in 2006 Makaibari set the world record price for the most expensive tea ever sold at auction. A tea garden where it is grown, will instantly tell you why. 

Makaibari is run as a business as, inevitably, it has to make money to survive. However, it is also an experiment in environmental and social sustainability, and it is this that sets it apart. Over 30 years of innovations have clearly produced a well-oiled machine, but the estate management, a joint body of predominantly female elected representatives from the workforce, is always keen to test out new ideas. Volunteers, everyone from gap year students to environmental researchers, agriculture experts and followers of the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, are encouraged to come to Makaibari, learn, share their skills, and then to go away and spread the estate’s way of life: a belief in the inter-dependence of everything.
In the neighbouring village of Kurseong there are a number of small hotels, but the best way to get to know the estate it to live there with a family. A proportion of profits from tea sales has been put into equipping and running homestays for volunteers and tourists alike. 21 families, spread through Makaibari’s seven villages, supplement their income by hosting guests at a reasonable rate of $25 per couple per night and including all meals. Each homestay has had a western-style toilet installed, so you’re safe from having to use a squat in the garden in the middle of the night.

Volunteers can get involved with every aspect of estate life. For those with an interest in conservation, tasks range from recording sightings of snow leopards and red pandas, to assessing the extend of bio-diversity in different parts of the estate. A tail-less amphibian, believed to be extinct for over 80 years, was discovered and identified at Makaibari last year, attracting interest from both the local press and CNN. Tree planting is an ongoing activity of vital importance as tree roots hold the soil together in an area otherwise prone to landslips. The tree planting programme seems to be working as Makaibari is the only tea estate in the region that has not suffered from landslides in recent years; elsewhere, as soon as the heavy monsoon rains fall, there are insufficient numbers of deep-rooted plants to prevent the soil from being washed away, taking with it people, their homes and livelihoods.
Women’s empowerment has been at the core of Makaibari’s development strategy from the very beginning. As mentioned previously, the joint management body is dominated by women and, unusually in the tea industry, the estate also employs female supervisors. Each household has been given two cows and access to a bio-gas converter to relieve women of the burden of collecting firewood for cooking, and it also provides them with an additional source of income as they can sell the manure back to the estate as organic fertiliser. Volunteers can help by providing training for would-be entrepreneurs, many of whom already take advantage of Makaibari’s micro credit scheme. Know-how on anything from production methods to computer literacy, book keeping and marketing is invaluable, and the estate’s women are incredibly keen to learn.

Education motivates both workers and their families at Makaibari and is well-supported by the management. A regular cycle of English speaking volunteers are required to teach English in the estate’s schools; regular conversation with a native speaker gives Makaibari’s students a real head start over their peers. Education also takes place outside the classroom. Volunteers recently designed posters and other visual aids explaining the importance of good hygiene in staying healthy and took them around the estate’s villages as a mini, touring exhibition.
Makaibari is 100% organic and has been since the late 1980s. In addition to the cow dung fertiliser, a number of other biodynamic preparations are used in the fields. These include stags’ bladders, cow horns, ground quartz and other natural, if unusual, products. Rudolf Steiner, the philosopher behind biodynamic agriculture, believed that this particular combination of fertilisers, spread on the fields at the right time of the month, would channel cosmic and earthly energy into the roots of the plants, making them stronger and healthier. 
At the end of a long day’s work which, though rewarding, is inevitably tiring, a walk through the estate is a balm for the soul. Dense, lush rainforest adjoins emerald green fields, both of which cling to the mountain precariously. In picking season (approximately March to October), lines of brightly clad women spiral through the fields like flocks of tropical birds, resplendent in pink, yellow and red. In the distance you can see the land fall suddenly away as it meets the dusty plains of northern India, its hazy horizon seemingly a world away from verdant Makaibari.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Spirit healing with the Shamans of Kyrgyzstan

Russian Orthodox churches and small, silver-domed mosques may dominate the skyline in Kyrgyz towns, but the country’s religious heart goes far further back in time. Long before Christ and Muhammad walked the earth, Central Asia’s shamans served as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual worlds, connecting the people to the heavens. 

Shamanists believe that spirits, both good and evil, exist and play important roles within individual lives and wider society. The shaman can communicate with spirits, learning from them and, through gifts or threats, encourage them to change their behaviour. It is for these reasons that the shaman holds a respected position within the community: he (or she) can find solutions to problems plaguing the community, foretell the future, and rid people of the sicknesses caused by the presence of malevolent spirits. 

The deity invoked by shamanists in Central Asia is Tengri – Lord of the Eternal Blue Sky. Tengri and his consort, the mother-earth spirit Eje, together provide everything that a man requires. It is a man’s responsibility to live in harmony with his surroundings, respecting both the earth and the heavens that gave him birth and now sustain him. When his world is thrown off-balance, either through spirit interference or his own misdemeanours, a man must ask the shaman to intercede on his behalf and put his life back on track. 

It is likely Tengriism has been in existence as long as Central Asia has been populated. It evolved in Siberia and Mongolia, which even today is called Munkh Khukh Tengriin Oron (Land of the Eternal Blue Sky) in Mongolian. However, it was not until the arrival of the region’s most infamous son, Genghis Khan, in the twelfth century that shamanist ritual became institutionalized and spread across the Mongol Empire. Tengriism reached as far as Bulgaria in Eastern Europe, where the Danube Bulgars named a local mountain Tangra in his honor. The mountain kept this name as late as the 15th century. 

Tengriism was no stranger to attack, having fended off revolts and attempts at conversion from the Scythians and Dagestani Huns, as well as Christian and Muslim groups. The greatest threat to its survival, however, was not religious but a political one: communism. 

It is estimated that almost half Kyrgyzstan’s population died or were killed following the country’s take-over by the Soviet Union. Many more people fled over the eastern border to China, or south in to Tajikistan and Afghanistan, taking their traditions with them. Those who did stay were forcefully urbanised, educated according to the Russian model, and began to lose touch with their nomadic heritage. Atheism, basic state health care and the local communist party supplanted what had gone before.  

Tengriism may have gone underground for 70 years, but it certainly did not die. The two decades since independence have seen a public revival not only of the Kyrgyz language, traditional epics and sports, but also of shamanist faith and healing. Leaving the modern capital, Bishkek, behind me, I traveled 17 hours by car deep into the mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan.

A shaman must be in touch with nature and so, although its possible to live in a city, most are found in villages, covered by the shadows of 7000m plus peaks that stretch out to touch the heavens. Almajaan lives on the jailoo (summer pasture) above one such village, surrounded by the wild flowers and herbs that help her in her healing. Like many others, Almajaan did not decide to become a shaman healer: she was called. Pains in her limbs, fatigue, and violent dreams first caused her to seek out spiritual guidance over 40 years ago. Although the afflictions have never entirely gone, she has learned to control the spirits that cause them and to use her skills to help others.

Shaman healers do not advertise, and they do not charge for their services. People seek out a healer based on personal reputation, and give what they can towards their keep if they must stay with the healer for a prolonged period. Aigul, a girl of 14, has been with Almajaan for two weeks. A problem in her joints has led to muscle wastage in her legs and she is having trouble walking. It is both painful and frustrating, not to mention socially debilitating.

Almajaan begins each day with a walk. She climbs from the valley up into the mountains, looking for plants she needs. It is the only time she spends completely alone. By the time she returns to her yurt (felt tent), Aigul is up and waiting for her first of the day’s massages. She lies on the carpeted floor as the healer bends over her body, holds her hands a few inches above the skin, and lets the spirits guide the movement of her fingers. From time to time Aigul winces but Almajaan seems oblivious: she is completely focused on the task in hand. After an hour, Almajaan stops suddenly, straightens and walks outside. The session is complete. 

In the time she has spent with Almajaan, Aigul has gone from virtual paralysis to being able to walk a few steps unaided. She is growing noticeably stronger and, although Almajaan is unsure how long it will take, she is confident Aigul will walk again. The spirits have told her so and the treatment is having the desired effect.

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Creation of the Orient

Does the Orient exist? At first this may appear as stupid a question as asking if there is such a place as China or Japan. However, whereas countries are undoubtedly specific landmasses, the concept of ‘the Orient’ does not fit nearly so neatly onto one particular place. Indeed, it could even be argued that there is no physical place called the Orient at all; Edward Said, author of controversial 1978 book Orientalism, argued that the Orient was a concept held in the West’s collective imagination that helped to quantify unknown cultures and peoples in the East and, by extension, to subjugate colonial subjects. Whilst I agree the Orient exists in collective consciousness, its value is not in its capacity to subjugate but in its attempt to gain understanding, albeit it sometimes partial or misinformed, of others.

In the 18th century, ‘the Orient’ was used to refer solely to North Africa and the Middle East; India and the Far East were added later. Well into the 20th century, those who came to study the Orient did so predominantly from a background of Classics and Biblical studies. It is perhaps, therefore, of little surprise that when these early orientalists quantified, codified and described their oriental topics, they did so with reference to what they already knew. Thus, languages such as Sanskrit and Persian were studied in their most archaic forms, enabling comparison with Latin and Greek, Islamic odes were compared the Odyssey and the Iliad, and the main use of learning Arabic was believed to be in understanding biblical Hebrew.

The West’s preoccupation with Classics impacted on nascent studies of the Orient in a number of ways. Firstly, as the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome were seen to represent Europe’s pinnacles of achievement, similar ‘golden ages’ were sought in the ancient past of the Orient. Egypt of the pharaohs and the Achemenid, Assyrian and Sassanid civilizations were consequently of particular interest to early orientalists.

The problems of this approach were two-fold: firstly, study of ancient civilizations and languages was pursued in preference to study of their modern counterparts. The 19th century Arabist, Reynold Nicholson, was typical of oriental academics in that he was unable to speak either Arabic or Persian, despite teaching both.[1] Secondly, if the summit of a society’s cultural achievement was in some long-forgotten age, it made sense to orientalists that the subsequent period had been one of stagnation or decline. Since the indigenous population had never regained their former glory, or so the argument went, it was the responsibility of orientalists to educate them about their history so that they might be inspired to strive to achieve such heights once again. The exact nature of this ‘golden age’ was to be defined by western philologists, poets, theologians, archaeologists, numismatists etc., regardless of any flaws in their conclusions and, at times, extreme creative license. Colonial powers could take advantage of the orientalists’ work because, they argued, only westerners held the key to knowledge about the past. The guiding, benevolent hand of the all-knowing West was, therefore, in the best interests of the East.

Europe’s obsession with biblical study simultaneously spurred on and restricted the development of oriental studies. The learning of oriental languages, translation of texts and comparative philology certainly benefited from the financial support of the church and the interest of clergyman as, during the 17th and early 18th centuries when orientalism was in its infancy, priests were among the small minority of people who were both educated and able to gain access to manuscripts.  The orientalist ‘projects’ of these individuals were numerous but commonly related to the following topics: proving that Hebrew was the primordial language; establishing the authority of Exodus; discrediting the views of the Eastern Orthodox church; and portraying the rise of Islam as both a punishment for the sins of Christians and the downfall of once great civilizations. Pursuing these themes gave scholars exposure to diverse texts and ideas and sparked in some genuine appreciation of oriental literature and art, curiosity about religious practices and theological concepts, research into manners and customs etc.

The trouble with these orientalists’ work was the context of religious bigotry in which they worked. Reliance on church patronage and the general public’s ideas about what was acceptable both influenced which ideas gained currency; indeed, when the Arabist George Sale translated the Qu’ran into English in 1734, even his slightest praise of Islam was thought too favorable and was derided by his colleagues. Far more popular, and therefore more widely circulated, were tracts that derided Islam and portrayed the Prophet as a fraud. Writings often outlined the dichotomy between the supposedly superior, Christian West and the inferior, Islamic East. Every characteristic of the Occident had an opposite in the Orient: rationality contrasted with spirituality, liberal democracy was compared to despotism, and sexual morality was juxtaposed with the erotic sensualism believed to result from polygamy and a penchant for harems. The need to pigeon-hole ideas into this framework of opposites restricted the scope of orientalist ideas in circulation.

The value in orientalists’ ideas is not their accuracy, for they were often flawed, but the influence that they had on creating the idea of a place called ‘the Orient’ in public imagination. The concept clearly sank deep as, despite the fact that few Europeans even now have personal experience of countries considered ‘oriental’, orientalists’ ideas have been incorporated into today’s popular thinking; an association of the East with exoticism, fascination with figures such as Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo, and even a fear of Islam rising on Europe’s doorstep originated or were developed in orientalist writings. The greatest impact of orientalism, therefore, is the instantaneous way in which ‘the Orient’ conjures up a thousand images without the need for further explanation. Whether or not the Orient exists, or indeed has ever existed, as a physical place is irrelevant; ‘the Orient’ as a concept is ingrained in the minds of people across the world, influencing not only how they see others, but how they understand themselves.

[1] Irwin, R. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies (Penguin: London, 2007) p. 208