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Discovering Jewish Connections in Sardinia

Cagliari

View on Cagliari, the capital city of Sardinia, an island famed for its unearthly beauty.

Sardinia is an island famed for its unearthly beauty. Sardinia is second only to Sicily in its size among the Mediterranean islands. Like Sicily, Sardinia attracted numerous waves of invaders: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, the Italian city-states of Pisa and Genoa, and the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon—all succeeded one another in dominating the island. The Northern Italians came last, with Garibaldi himself falling in love with the island. He chose to live the last years of his life in Carpera, Sardinia.

Renowned for its great beaches and luxury resorts overflowing with tourists from all over the world, Sardinia tightly guards its ancient secrets, but for the persistent Jewish history pilgrims, these secrets reveal themselves, one story at a time.

The beginning of the Sardinian Jewish story

The first facts about the Jews in Sardinia came to us from Flavius Josephus, born Joseph ben Matityahu. This first-century Roman-Jewish scholar recorded in his study Antiquities that in 19 AD, four thousand Jews were deported to Sardinia from Rome by the Emperor Tiberius. Flavius noted with sadness that the emperor “punished so many” for the “crimes of the few.” These “few” were four crooks who persuaded a senator’s wife, a convert to Judaism, to invest large sums of money in a non-existent synagogue, which these liars claimed to represent. The Emperor hoped that the Jews would perish in Sardinia. Instead, the numerous descendants of the exiles built a prosperous life for themselves and became indispensable for the island’s rulers in trade, finance, money-lending, crafts, and medicine. In  the city of Alghero during the Aragonese (Spanish) rule, the Jews were exempt from paying customs duties and were even allowed to display the royal coat of arms on the synagogue as a sign of their importance to the Crown. While the island’s largest Jewish community was in Alghero, thriving communities existed in a number of other Sardinian cities, like Sinai, Nora, and Cagliari, the island’s capital.

As recorded inJewish Encyclopedia, archeologists note that Sardinia is one of the few places in Italy with catacombs containing Jewish inscriptions written in “ebraico-latino” or Hebrew with Latin. Even today, the Sardinian language contains what linguists call “a hint at a Jewish presence,” a few words that might represent an influential Jewish presence. For example, the word caputannifor September is a literal translation of Rosh Hashanah as “head of the year.”

Walking through Jewish Cagliari

In Cagliari, our first stop was the Il Castello district of the island’s capital. Named after the medieval hilltop castle, Il Castelo or Su Castedu in Sardinian is one of the most photographed iconic images of Cagliari. Built first by the Pizans and then by the Aragonese, this city within the city with its gothic and baroque palazzi of Italian and Spanish aristocrats was also a home to a prosperous Jewish community. Even today, 500 years after the expulsion and total annihilation of the Sardinian Jewry, the area of Il Castelo called Ghetto degli Ebrei is one of the most attractive places in Sardinia for Jewish history pilgrims. The former Jewish Ghetto is located north of the medieval Torre del’Elefante, built by the Pizans as a defensive structure against the Aragonese. In the late 1400s, all Cagliari Jews were forced to move into this small area located between the streets Via Santa Croce and Via Stretta and to wear special identifying clothes. In the years preceding the infamous Edict of Expulsion, the ominous influence of the “Most Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was painfully felt in Cagliari.

Walking though the winding narrow streets of Ghetto degli Ebrei, we found the Church of Santa Croce.  During this trip we learned that in both Sicily and Sardinia, the churches’ names like St. Giovanni (John the Baptist) or Santa Croce (Holy Cross) served often as an indication that they were built on the foundation of a demolished or reconsecrated synagogue. As a 2006 restoration confirmed, Cagliari Santa Croce was indeed built using the main synagogue’s structure. Only the neighborhood’s name “Ghetto degli Ebrei” points at the historical Jewish presence, while the former military barracks built on the foundation of the old Jewish houses display the sign “Centro Comunale d’Arte e Cultura il Ghetto.” But this is an exhibition place now, with no connection to Sardinian Jewish history.

Garbage dump on the site of a Jewish cemetery

Rabbi Barbara told me that the Cagliari Jewish community, though not the largest in Sardinia, created an important center of Jewish life in the island’s capital. In the late 1990s, Rabbi Barbara’s friend, a Sardinian engineer named Giacomo Sandri, helped to discover an early medieval Jewish site in Cagliari. The site represented a complex world centered on the synagogue with a mikveh and a garden for a sukkah around it. The entire archaeological site was soon covered up to make way for new construction, and today, a garbage dump covers the ancient Jewish cemetery. Discovered artifacts were sent to the Cagliari Museum. However, when we visited the museum in September 2014, none were on display; instead, the Jewish artifacts were kept in storage for preservation. One artifact that I was interested in was shipped, as the curator on duty explained, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for their show “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age.” It was the famous Nora Stone, the oldest existing example of the first alphabet, also called Proto-Canaanite or early Hebrew alphabet.

Little-known connections: the city of Nora and early Hebrews

Our next stop was the city of Nora situated on the south coast of Sardinia. Believed to be the first city founded in this island, Nora dates to the 11th century BC. This ancient city, most of which is said to be underwater, is of high interest to archaeologists. Nora was one of the most important centers of Phoenician expansion in the Mediterranean. Enterprising maritime traders, the Phoenicians were a Semitic people who spoke a language similar to Hebrew and were the first group to colonize both Sicily and Sardinia, attracted by Sardinia’s strategic location near important sea routes linking the Mediterranean with the Near East. The area was also rich with metal deposits, such as copper, iron, lead, and silver. The Phoenicians established their stronghold on the island; archaeological findings in Israel prove they imported silver during biblical times.

For me personally, Nora with its famous Nora Stone is placed forever at the roots of all recorded history and written literature of Western civilization. The Nora Stone, dating to the 9th century BC, was found at Nora in the late 1700s. The stone’s incised writing is considered to be the first alphabet. Unlike cuneiform script, one of the earliest known systems of writing that relied on multiple pictorial symbols, the Nora alphabet used less than thirty letters, one for each sound, and was written like Hebrew, from right to left. This Phoenician invention—alphabetic writing—spread across the world they colonized. By the first millennium BC, the people of the Levant, including the Phoenicians and Arameans, or Hebrews, were using a standardized alphabet, which was soon transformed to create other written languages such as Greek, Etruscan, and Latin. The very word “alphabet” comes from “aleph” and “bet,” the first two letters of the Phoenician writing system.

In Nora, not much is left from the Phoenicians. What visitors see today is mostly from the Roman period. The sunken city of Nora, as it is called, seems suspended between the sea and the sky, and walking through its ruins was almost a mythical experience. I could not help but think that, like the Phoenicians, who disappeared from history by being absorbed into much stronger civilizations of the Carthaginians and the Hebrews, the Jews of Sardinia were also pushed into historic oblivion, by forces of anti-Semitism and religious intolerance.

Jewish Sardinia today

Only a few Sardinian Jewish families returned to their ancestral island after the establishment of the unified state of Italy in the 1880s. Tragically, most of their descendants were killed during the Holocaust. Today there are very few Jews living in Sardinia, and there is no formal Jewish community on the island. However, just like in Sicily, an increasing number of people who suspect that they have Jewish roots are rediscovering these roots through the study of Judaism. Giacomo Sandri, an engineer from Cagliari, who assisted in discovering the ancient Jewish site there, wrote a book on Sardinian Jewish history and made an Orthodox-style conversion to Judaism. Since 1992, Rabbi Barbara has been officiating at conversions of the Sardinian Anousim, descendants of those who were forced to give up their Jewish identity over 500 years ago.

Today, Sardinia seeks to demonstrate the island’s resolve to remember its Jewish history and to preserve the evidence of Jewish civilization in Sardinia. On September 22, 2013, a square in Alghero was renamed Plaça de la Juharia(the Square of the Jews), recalling the fact that the square was once the center of the city’s Jewish quarter and the place where the main synagogue was located. This event, which was attended by hundreds of people, opened with the song “Avinu Malkeinu” performed by a local band. Taking part in the inauguration were Alghero’s mayor as well as the Israeli ambassador to Italy, who said: “This is a historic and symbolic gesture.” The mayor then delivered a speech and said that he would like to rectify the injustice caused to the town’s Jews in the past. He concluded by calling on Jews to return to Alghero. “Welcome home,” he said (Israel Jewish Scene, September 30, 2013).

The Anousim: what we learned from the “Children of the Forced Ones” in Sicily and Sardinia

In the contemporary European context of increasing anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli attitudes sometimes escalating to violence, Sicily and Sardinia present a new and unusually optimistic chapter in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Our own journey in search of Jewish stories on these two islands brought our understanding of both Jewish history and Jewish identity to a new level.

The destruction of synagogues and the burning of “Judaizers” five centuries ago failed to extinguish the Jewish spirit. Rabbi Barbara told numerous stories, some from her own family, of traditions whose meaning was often forgotten but that survived in their homes’ secret cellars and in people’s hearts. Cooking continued to conform to kosher dietary laws. Family burials were done outside the church with bodies rapped in simple shrouds. Special marriage blessings were recited in a “strange language” at home under a crocheted canopy.  Deathbed confessions of Jewish ancestry to the families were common. The Anousim descendants, whose heritage was so cruelly stolen, hidden, and ignored, sustained their history in their flesh and blood. And perhaps it is the call of blood that drives a continuously growing number of B’nei Anousimto search for their historical legacy and reclaim it.

Most Anousim have no records to prove their Jewishness, they just know that this is who they are. Traditional Judaism does not recognize their claim. It took over twenty years for Conservative Judaism to pass a resolution recognizing the Anousim and creating a welcoming space for those who want to return to the Jewish people. In the early 1990s, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the first reform Rabbi in Italy, became a leader of the southern Italian B’nei Anousim movement. For over 25 years, Rabbi Barbara has been performing numerous conversions, Bar Mitzvahs, and weddings, and organizing educational events for Jews and non-Jews alike. In Sicily and Sardinia, a Jewish cultural and religious renaissance is on the rise, with events centered on Jewish history taking a prominent place in the intellectual environment of the south of Italy.

While working on my Sicilian-Sardinian study, I came across Steven Spielberg’s speech addressing the audience during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation. “If you are a Jew today,” said the founder of the Shoah Foundation, “you know that we’re once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance. Anti-Semites, radical extremists and religious fanatics that provoke hate crimes — these people want to, all over again, strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity … causing Jews to again leave Europe.” (World Jewry Digest, January 2015). It seems, I thought, that southern Italy and especially my beloved Sicily, prove to be different, once again trying to recreate the once and future world of acceptance and multiculturalism. Sheh Elohim Yevarech Othca—may this be blessed.

Selected Sources

Dyson, S. Archeology and History in Sardinia from the Stone Age to Middle Ages: Shepherds, Sailors, and Conquerors. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Sorge, A. Legacy of Violence: History, Society, and the State in Sardinia. University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Torre del’Elefante in Il Castello

Torre del’Elefante in Il Castello district of Cagliari. The former Jewish Ghetto was located north of this medieval tower.

Via Santa Croce, the main street in Cagliari’s Jewish Ghetto

Via Santa Croce, the main street in Cagliari’s Ghetto degli Ebrei (Jewish Ghetto).

Church of Santa Croce, Cagliari

The Church of Santa Croce was built on the site of the destroyed synagogue of Cagliari.

Excavations of Nora Sardinia

View of Nora, the first city in Sardinia built by the Phoenicians in the 11th century BC.

nora stone

The Nora Stone (9th century BC) was found at Nora in the 1700s. The Stone’s incised writing is considered to be the first alphabet.

Read other little known stories of Jewish communities around the world in Irene Shaland’s book “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories”

 

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Review of Suburbanites on Safari by Marcia Polevoi

giraffe against a blue sky and book name

After reading my recently released book, Suburbanites on Safari: Chasing Lions and Giraffes in South Africa and Zimbabwe, Marcia Polevoi wrote a wonderful and insightful review that follows.

“I have always wanted to go to Africa to see all the wildlife. However, we are of an age that now prevents us from going on a Safari. But reading Alex’s book took me right there and I met lions, and elephants and big cats and more. I felt like I was right there riding in the jeep and seeing the animals up close. Each chapter was about a particular animal and Alex gave detailed and informative information about each one. He also writes in an very humorous way and had me chuckling all through the book. Anyone thinking about going on Safari should read this book, and even, like me, you cannot get there, this gives you a real feeling for being there. –Marcia Plevoi, Beachwood, Ohio.

Click on the book image below to learn more about “Suburbanites on Safari”

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African Safari 101 Presentation

Visible Voice Books presents

African  Safari 101:

Alex Shaland and his new book

Suburbanites on Safari

Saturday  May 18th 2019   7:30 PM

Limited seating.  Available on a first-come, first-served basis.

“An amazing real life perspective on African safari that has been delightfully shared. Funny and witty. Footsteps well worth following.” – Philip Coetzee, South Africa, Advanced Nature Guide, author of Birds for Beginners.

In an entertaining and informative slide presentation “African Safari 101” Alex Shaland talks about his first-hand experience of meeting the wild animals of Africa face to face. Having gone on safaris in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal, and Madagascar, Shaland definitely has lots of practical information and fascinating stories to share.

Starting with various options of locations and accommodations and tips for preparing for a safari trip, the lecture answers such frequently-asked questions as “How does it feel to be only a few feet away from a pride of lions devouring their kill, a herd of suspicious elephants, an intimidating Cape buffalo, or an unpredictable rhinoceros?”

Click on the book image below to find out more about the book:

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Barbara Miller’s Review of Suburbanites on Safari

Book: “Suburbanites on Safari” by Alex Shaland,

Publisher: GTA Books

“Are you ready for a wildlife adventure in southern Africa? Not sure where to start? What a wonderful travel guide “Suburbanites on Safari” is! Indispensable. Incredible photography and written in an engaging manner. Even if you’re not going on safari and want to look through a window (safely from your armchair) into the amazing animal world of lions, giraffes etc, this book will have you riveted. Ever wonder why the king of the jungle will let you get up close and personal in a car without attacking you? Or will they pounce at half a chance? Read this book and find out.”

Barbara Miller, author of  5 books: “William Cooper, Gentle Warrior: Standing Up for Australian Aborigines and Persecuted Jews,” “The European Quest to Find Terra Australis Incognita: Quiros, Torres and Janszoon,” “White Woman Black Heart: Journey Home to Old Mapoon, a Memoir,” “ The Dying Days of Segregation in Australia: Case Study Yarrabah,” and “If I Survive: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 100-year-old Lena Goldstein’s Miracle Story.”

Click the book image below to find out more about Alex Shaland’s book “Suburbanites on Safari”

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About the Author of Suburbanites on Safari

Alex Shaland at the desk with a computer and books in the background

Many who followed my wife Irene Shaland’s books, magazine articles, and lectures know me as a photographer who’s photos appeared in Irene’s publications and slide presentations. But only few know that I am also a writer myself. Now, that my first book Suburbanites on Safariis in print and sold in several countries, I felt it appropriate to say a few words about my writing career.

I started my writing almost against my will. In 1990, when I was a young engineer, my friend, John was hired as an Editor of one of the Penton Publishing magazines and asked me if I wanted to contribute a small article. I initially declined, but John was persistent. Finally, I took a deep breath and stepped on the thin ice of creative writing. Little did John know that he had awakened a sleeping writer in me and gave an outlet to my creative energy. I have been writing ever since.

In addition to writing my own magazine articles published by Penton Publishing and other journals, I contributed as an editor and photographer to the success of my wife Irene Shaland’s books and articles that appeared in various magazines in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and East Africa.

My photographs have appeared in over 20 publications and online sources including Holiday Magazine (France/U.K.), The Boston Forward, Tikkun, ZEEK, Diarna Digital Heritage Mapping, Hackwriters (U.K.), IMAGE Magazine, ROMAR Travel, Design World Magazine and other publications printed in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Washington D.C., London (U.K.), Nairobi (Kenya), Seoul (Korea), and Toronto (Canada).

I had several solo photography shows and participated in exhibitions at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, Opus Gallery, Leesa’s, Jacky Ray’s, Whimzy Gifts, and various public venues in Cleveland, Fort Lee (NJ), New City (NY), and Detroit (MI).

My first book, Suburbanites on Safari, has started as a collection of memories from our South Africa and Zimbabwe trip and captions for my photo exhibitions. Public interest in one of my photography shows, “Face-to-Face with African Wildlife,” that traveled to several venues around the country, encouraged me to start working on arranging my notes and photos into this book. And now that the work on this book is done, it is time to start the next one. Travel, see the world, capture your adventures in photos, and write about them… What’s there not to like?

Click the link below to find out more about the book:

 

 

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Elephant in Amboseli National Park, Kenya

elephant walking under dark clouds

Photo by Alex Shaland.
Photo Title: Elephant walking while a storm is brewing over Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

The photo of this elephant is my entry for the 2019 AAWR Members Annual Exhibition. I took this photo during our 2013 Great Migration trip to Kenya and Tanzania in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The sun was setting down, and dark clouds were rapidly moving in. On the way to the lodge, we passed this majestic animal rapidly walking along the side of the road. The plains, the dark clouds, and the walking giants were too dramatic not to snap a photo.

We came to Amboseli while racing across the Serengeti Plains following thousands of wildebeests and zebras on their 900-mile long Great Migration route. Situated at the foot of Kilimanjaro, Amboseli is one of the largest reserves in Kenya and is specifically dedicated to preservation of elephants. With the area of approximately 150 square miles, the park has plenty of open space for almost a thousand African elephants. They are all larger species–the bush African elephant. The smaller forest African elephant is almost half the size of its larger brother.

In addition to elephants, there were plenty of opportunities to spot cape buffalos, giraffes, hyenas, lions, monkeys, and wildebeests, not counting a great variety of birds. And as a bonus, on a clear day you can see the magnificent Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest free-standing mountain.

Amboseli National Park is easy to drive to. Located on the border with Tanzania, it is only 150 miles southeast of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. You can also hop on a small airplane and fly to the Amboseli Airport.

Read more wildlife stories from Africa in Alex Shaland’s latest book “Suburbanites on Safari”.  Just click the book image:

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Suburbanites on Safari Ranks #1 New Release on Amazon

Fantastic News from Amazon!

Recently, Amazon ranked Alex Shaland’s upcoming book ” Suburbanites on Safari ” as Amazon #1 New Release.

Following is a description of Alex Shaland’s new book:

“An amazing real life perspective on African safari that has been delightfully shared. Funny and witty. Footsteps well worth following.” –Philip Coetzee, South Africa, Advanced Nature Guide, author of Birds for Beginners.

Four friends, all big-city dwellers, embark on their first African safari. An internationally published travel writer and her husband, an award-winning travel photographer, are joined by their life-long friends on a journey to South Africa and Zimbabwe. Previously, their exploration of over 60 countries took them to big cities and historical monuments around the globe. But this trip is different.

Traveling around Kruger National Park and Victoria Falls, they crisscross the bush and meet African wildlife in its natural habitat. Which predators, grass eaters, branch nibblers, and birds of prey did they find? What did the animals do in the presence of people? How did it feel to be only a few feet away from a pride of lions devouring their kill, a herd of suspicious elephants, an intimidating Cape buffalo, or an unpredictable rhinoceros?

In an easy to read, conversational style, the author, Alex Shaland, delivers a fair mix of wildlife photography, animal and bird factual data, and practical information. Shaland shares his experiences as a first-time safari explorer and sprinkles the narrative with a good dose of humor and personal stories.

If a trip to Africa is in your plans, this entertaining and informative book, jam-packed with photos of animals and birds, will help you make the first step on the way to your dream. If you are interested in wildlife, nature, and animal protection, the story will enrich your knowledge of the animal kingdom. At the very least, it is just fun to read.

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Jews of the Jungles and cities in Brazil – Free Lecture in New City NY

theater in Manaus, Brazil

The Opera House in the heart of the Amazonian Jungle, Manaus, Brazil

Free Lecture: Jews of the Jungles and Cities in Brazil

Lecture presented by IRENE SHALAND  on Sunday April 14th, 2019   at 2:00 PM

Join Irene Shaland, an internationally-published travel writer and author of several books for a captivating journey through 500 years of Jewish history in Brazil. Encounter little-known stories of Brazil discovery in the context a twisted world of the 15thcentury politics, deceptions, and intrigues. Learn about the key role the  Crypto-Jews played in this country’s exploration and development. Find out why Anna Novinsky, a renowned expert in Jewish history residing in Sao Paolo, claimed that “Brazil was built by the Jews!”

Journey from the 15thto the 21stcentury of Brazilian history and visit Salvador Bahia, Manaus, the Amazon, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, and the Iguassu Falls to uncover fascinating Jewish narratives of this unique country and to meet the Brazilian Jews who dwell in its cities and in the jungle.

Lecture is free, but Reservations is Required: Call 845-634-4997, ext. 139. 

Address: New City Library  220 N. Main Street, New City, New York 10956

Inside the Grand Temple sanctuary

The Grand Temple in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

 

Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Sugar Loaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro

Read more Jewish stories from all corners of the world in Irene Shaland’s latest book “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories”

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In Search of a Jewish Story in Cuba

Cuban flag against blue sky

 

Cuyahoga County Public Library — Orange Branch — PRESENTS Irene Shaland’s Lecture

An Island within an Island: In Search of a Jewish Story through 500 Years of Cuban History

 Thursday          March 7th2019                      7:00 PM

Lecture is FREE, but advance registration is recommended. Call 216.832.4282 to register.

The Cuban Jewish storyreflects a struggle for survival through assimilation and acculturation.  It is also based on a narrative depicting not a single community but rather a mosaic of several communities that varied greatly in their languages and cultures, and which was built by five distinctly different waves of Crypto-Jewish and Jewish immigrants.

The contemporary Cuban Jewish narrativedepicts a fascinating trajectory. First, a descent from vibrancy and prosperity to almost oblivion after the mass exodus of the 1960s and direct efforts to destroy the Jewishness during the years of revolutionary atheism. Then, a recent phenomenon: a sudden ascent to becoming a Celebrity of Tropical Diaspora, turning into, arguably, the most visited and photographed of the world’s Jewish communities.

The extraordinary characteristic of the Jewish experience in Cuba one finds todayisthe fundamental sense of community that survived an almost complete dissolution after Castro’s revolution, followed by decades of a totalitarian regime with its poverty, deprivation, and strong anti-Israeli attitudes.

 Take a journey with internationally published art and travel writer Irene Shaland to rediscover this unique island and to learn how Cuba is finding its way back to the future.

 Orange Library Branch, Cuyahoga County Public Library

31975 Chagrin Blvd, Pepper Pike, OH 44124

Synagogue in Havana Cuba

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Irene Shaland’s Lecture: India as a Personal Journey 

Taj Mahal with its reflection in the pool

The Artists Archives of the Western Reserve Presents 

 Irene Shaland’s Lecture: India as a Personal Journey 

 February 16th 2019 Saturday 1:00 PM   The lecture is followed by the tasting of Indian cuisine.

Reservations Required. Please call 216-721-9020. Lecture is free, tasting is optional $10.

Join internationally published art and travel writer Irene Shaland, as she invites you to “grow into India.” Crisscross with Irene the subcontinent of India, the country unique among the world civilizations with its seven thousand years of uninterrupted traditions. Discover – like “peeling the onion,” layer after layer – India’s most refined beauty and the deepest spirituality. Travel through historic periods, cultural traditions, artistic and architectural styles, stopping in Deli, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur, Udaipur, Aurangabad, Ellora and Ajanta caves, Cochin, and finally – Mumbai.

Irene will share her own personal journey of discovery.

The Artists Archives of the Western Reserve. 1834 E. 123rd Street, Cleveland, Ohio 44106. Tel. 216-721-9020

mausoleum in India

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