This latest collaboration by Iftikhar Salahuddin and his wife Naseem, titled If Stones Could Speak: Echoes from the Past, is more than a coffee-table book. It has the richer flavour of a chocolate mint one enjoys after a mellow cup of coffee.
At first glance, this sumptuously produced volume is too sophisticated to be a mere album of holiday snaps taken by the Salahuddins on their numerous journeys throughout the world. The photographs are of stunning quality. They were obviously composed in situ (often under hurried conditions) and later winnowed at leisure for their aesthetic content as much as for their historical contribution to this dazzling photo-tapestry of civilisation.
The text accompanying each monument acts as a support to the four pillars of the book: ‘Among the Believers’,’ Remains of the Past’, ‘Footprints on History’ and ‘Splendours of the Court’. The text is kept necessarily brief so as not to distract from the images. Sensibly, the authors have encouraged the stones to speak for themselves, introduced by an appropriate quotation that compresses into a verse or couplet the spirit of the building.
A sumptuously produced book of photographs is an ode to world civilisations and the known and anonymous ancient individuals who constructed gems of buildings
What is it about stones, though, that has given Man over the ages such an inferiority complex? Is it their overbearing presence in the geography that surrounds us? Is it because even though we can master shapes from stone, we cannot overcome its dominance in our lives? Or is it because stones by their very durability seem to mock Man’s quest for immortality?
Religions have made a business out of stones. Stones became altars; a black stone is the cornerstone of the Holy Kaaba; the stone pillow said to have been used by the prophet Jacob (now known as the Stone of Scone) lies beneath the British monarch during the coronation ceremony; the rock symbolised by St Peter — his name is derived from the Latin word petra (“And upon this rock I will build my church”); the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; and generations of Egyptian pharaohs commanded — to use the words of John Milton as he wrote in the poem ‘On Shakespeare’ — the “labour of an age in piled stones”, stacked into pyramids pointing towards heaven.
Civilisations hoped to achieve posterity through stones — Persepolis (Iran), Pasargadae (Iran), Luxor (Egypt), Athens (Greece), Rome (Italy), Angkor Wat (Cambodia) and Borobudur (Indonesia) to name but a few. The Salahuddins have visited and photographed them all. This book is their homage to a past that knew no borders, to places that survived time and to history orphaned by neglect. In it, they have documented the monuments of Europe, the Middle and the Far East. They have yet to survey South America with the same assiduousness. Perhaps their next book will examine the Mayans, the Aztecs and the moai stone effigies stranded on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.
The Salahuddins’ present book is a good example of 21st century travel writing. It is not quite in the league of that earlier tradition which the British made peculiarly their own. In the 19th century — before photography became a third eye — writers had to rely upon their powers of description. Who has not read and re-read Sir Richard Burton’s fascinating accounts of his travels in Sindh, Arabia and Africa? Or the narrative of the trek made in 1924 to Lhasa — the forbidden Tibetan eyrie — by the intrepid Alexandra David-Néel? And more recently, the travelogues by Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar) and Michael Wood’s explorations (In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: A Journey from Greece to Asia) which became adjuncts to journeys relived for television channels?
Today’s world has shrunk from the exotic to the familiar to the cliché. Armchair tourists can recognise at once two-dimensional facades of the portal at Petra in Jordan or the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut in the necropolis at Luxor or the Caves of Cappadocia in Anatolia (Turkey) — all hewn out of the living stone. But few have the time or the inquisitiveness of the Salahuddins to explore within and beyond.
They have included 64 separate buildings or locations. Each is more than a gem in the diadem of human civilisation. Each of them is a tribute to the talent, effort, enterprise and skill of millions of craftsmen who died unsung so that their patrons could have their voices heard by history. Could there have been more poignant a plea than this, found engraved on a column in the city founded by Cyrus the Great (600-530BC) at Pasargadae: “Passer-by, I am Cyrus who gave Persians an empire, so grudge me not therefore this bit of earth that covers my bones.”
No one leafing through this magnificent book by the Salahuddins will begrudge praise for all those individuals who throughout known history conceived, constructed and adorned these glorious monuments. Ralph W. Emerson had in mind all those — some named, thousands more anonymous — when he wrote in his poem ‘The Problem’: “He builded better than he knew — the conscious stone to beauty grew.”
The reviewer is an art historian
If Stones Could Speak:
Echoes from the Past
By Iftikhar Salahuddin and
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 21st, 2019