Over the centuries, Umple suffered more than its share. The documented history of the city is fraught with disaster: earthquake, famine, plague, and war. The tourist in the motorbus looks up from the guidebook surprised to see that anything still stands.
Located in the mountainous region of the Caucasus, amid a tangle of international borders and ethnic groups, Umple derives from the Greek omphalos or Latin umbilicus, meaning “navel,” as Gibbon explains in a footnote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The name suggests a relation to Delphi and its oracle stone, or an origin myth in which people emerged from the bowels of the earth.
Dr. Delahanty’s archaeological investigation reveals a past that stretches back to the Neolithic Age. Stone substructures in the crypt of the cathedral, tunnels and vaults formed by massive slabs, resemble dolmens in Brittany and megalithic tombs of the western British Isles. Were the vaults erected by a pan-continental prehistoric civilization? This theory is debatable. Until Dr. Delahanty publishes his work in a format open to scholarly review, we have only his notes and rough field sketches.
In the fifth century, the Byzantine monk Euphemius mentions a fort or walled village, a primitive outpost on the distant frontier, peopled by barbarians of doubtful loyalty, and certainly not orthodox. As Gibbon relates, chronicles in Greek of the eastern empire are a horrid series of sieges, cruelties, brutal slaughter, lightning raids, forced conversion, conflagration, oppressive taxation, and denial of basic human rights. The list of attackers and bloodthirsty hordes includes Gauls, Persians, Scythians, Huns, proto-Germanic and Slavic tribes, Vikings, Tartars, and Mongols. Moslem warriors mounted on horseback and armed with flashing swords joined the battered city to their vast world empire. More recently, the Russians gobbled it up, only to disgorge it when their empire collapsed.
This tumultuous history of conquest and cultural disarray has left its mark. The architecture of Umple is a palimpsest of erasure, insertion, overlay, whitewash, and ambiguity. Is the city Western Asian or Eastern European? Old buildings that withstood the ravages of time are solid stone with minimal hints of ornament and style. They look like blocks of masonry anywhere, gray and mute, with casement windows like bright little eyes, peaked tile roofs like indomitable hats, and chimneys like fingers that stubbornly point upward. A stone arcade surrounds the marketplace in the center, ponderously vaulted to shelter buyers and sellers from the weather, and formerly from arrows and flying rocks. The carved fountain is a restoration of the medieval one. The heroic statue of St. Durans is modern, based on a grainy heliograph.
Parts of the city wall survive, especially where later buildings engulfed them. They show a variety of building techniques from several centuries, with obvious signs of rebuilding, repair, and reused material. Of special interest are the stones taken from houses destroyed one way or another. The Round Tower undoubtedly enhanced the defensive circuit, and the Gate of Martyrs may be the one mentioned by Euphemius.
Armed with a guidebook and a pair of sturdy shoes, the tourist will have to search for these landmarks. The Umpali do not bother about the past. They dispense with bronze plaques and interpretive signs. Few historic artifacts or works of art remain from all the carnage. There is no museum as such. The city is a memorial, they say.
The Caucasus was once considered the source of white skin, freckles, and flaxen hair, but racial theories clash with facts on the ground. Did each invader leave a memento? Whatever their complexion, the Umpali are light-hearted and grounded, nimble on their feet, and quick to tell you what they think in a dozen languages. Not because you will spend money, but out of the goodness of their hearts, they welcome you with open arms. They shower you with kisses, and they escort you to lodging, dining, and shops that feature curious handicrafts. After all they have endured, they maintain a cheerful outlook. They have gone through the worst, and the best is yet to come. In this, they resemble the Hyperboreans:
Beyond the ice and the north wind,
Beyond death, they have won
The exit from the labyrinth
To everlasting sun.
Nominal adherents of several religions, they believe in themselves more than anything else. Each home has a shrine of family portraits, framed and assembled on a fireplace mantel or the lid of a piano. Among the ancestors and children are objects—a lock of hair, a gold watch, a clutch of baby teeth. A mother places a bit of food from the family meal in a saucer there. She may light a candle.
If you ask her about this, she is wary and evasive. These are her loved ones, living and dead. They do not consume the food. She blinks away a tear. She begs you to accept another cup of the fragrant tea grown only here, on the rugged mountain slopes.
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Porridge Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.
He can be found on Twitter at @rboucheron