Travelling through the Troad with Don McCullin
published in Cornucopia magazine, 2020
I had spent four days at the Istanbul biennale. Urban walks, the openings of brand new museums, old buildings housing lavish contemporary exhibitions were interwoven around a succession of ever more glamorous and vibrant parties beside, beyond and above the Bosphorus. I drank deeply, danced a lot and slept very little, and now really needed a rest. On my last night out, I looked at my watch as I collapsed into bed. It was well before 4 am, so I had three hours before I should be up, looking chatty and keen. I had an early breakfast date with Don McCullin, the legendary photographer. He is a busy man and this meeting had taken months to plan. We were to spend ten days on the road hunting down Roman ruins. How was I going to cope? I had travelled with Don before and know that the days would be packed, that they would start before first light and only finish when it was pitch dark.
We had originally been brought together by a shared fascination for the Roman frontier. We had had some wonderful successes in Libya and Algeria - finding the frontier fort of Bou Njem before a Saharan dawn and catching the mausolea at Ghirza casting long shadows before dusk. Don had first been set off on this quest by Bruce Chatwin, chasing a story that started with some unexplained shootings in Marseille and then led them south into Algeria. That particular Pied Noir murder mystery was never solved but it did have the side effect of introducing Don to the bewitching qualities of Roman imperial architecture. We have yet to identify the haunting lone temple which Bruce Chatwin took him to see. But this chance encounter had slowly incubated into an obsession, which eventually crystalised into Don’s book, Southern Frontiers, which covers most of the great classical sites of North Africa and the Levant. He has been very busy in recent years. There’s been a documentary film about his life, an exhibition at Tate Britain (the first ever solo retrospective given to a photo journalist), a knighthood and umpteen international honours and exhibitions. I gather that there is also a Hollywood script on the table. But whenever we met he would only want to plan more work.
Our trip to Turkey had been brewing ever since I started comparing the ruins of Roman North Africa with what can be found in Anatolia. I had been telling Don about the work of my hero, George Bean, who spent half a lifetime exploring the classical ruins of Western Turkey on the ground and mapping them out in four fat volumes of detailed scholarship. On a large map on our circular kitchen table, I had traced the best sites with my finger, using three much beloved books, Rose Macaulay and Roloff Beny’s Pleasure of Ruins, Freya Stark-Fulvio Roiter’s Turkey and Patrick Kinross’s Europa Minor as references. But Don was impressed has an uncanny knack for marrying a man to a mission. He gave me a steady look and asked what I hadn’t seen, “which would make it more interesting for you.” I then realised that what I had not seen was what George Bean had not written about, which was the Troad of north-west Turkey.
So we were off to the Troad to discover Roman ruins. Don warned me about fobbing him off with anything Hellenistic or medieval which he did not want to look at. He has a beautiful wife who is half Greek and she is all he needs of the Hellenic world. We were to focus on the Roman period, keeping a historical resonance with what we had seen elsewhere.
When I met the editor of Cornucopia, John Scott, in Istanbul he pushed a battered copy of J M Cook across the cafe table; “you might need this”. It was too thick to be stuffed in a coat pocket, but in every other way turned out to be an enchanting companion. John Manuel Cook was of that generation of British scholar who served as liaison officers to the Greek resistance during the German occupation. Cook was modest, diligent, unstuffy, independent, amused but physically and intellectually as tough as nails. He was based in Epirus (western Greece) from 1943, where he ran a secret supply base. I was delighted to discover that Cook and Bean were friends and their archaeological field walks were often a family concern, accompanied by their wives, Jane Bean and Enid Cook, and their Turkish-speaking children, tramping over the goat-grazed hills and forested mountains of the Troad between 1954 to 1969.
We also had other company: Ali Bey at the wheel and Monica Fritz on the mobile, making all sorts of flexible dates with museum curators and field archaeologists. Monica lives in Istanbul which she came from New York via the Yemen. She is a photographer, the mother of two teenage boys in Turkey’s youngest punk band and the daughter of a feminist poet. We fused as a team on our very first mission. Don McCullin might be Sir Donald McCullin on the outside of an envelope, but he remains unchanged in all things to do with getting a photograph. To call him indifferent to authority is an understatement. Fences are there to be climbed, notices are there to be ignored and uniforms (be it Algerian customs officials or a London Bobbie) are there to be confronted.
Iznik, the city of victory, has been defended by a double circuit of walls for thousands of years. They are an outstanding survivor, fortunately too extensive and too craggy to ever become a tourist monument, and retain a moody, melancholic splendour. Marching around the land frontier of the city for over three miles, they are decorated with over a hundred broken towers. To label this immense structure Roman does no justice to centuries of Byzantine and Ottoman repair and restoration. But I could assure Don that the walls were thoroughly Roman, in the sense that they had been raised against a Gothic invasion in the middle of the 3rd century AD. Claudius II Gothicus is given the credit for them, and carefully made use of pre-existing Roman triumphal arches (dated to the reigns of Hadrian and Trajan). These four classical arches survive as sunken portals within massive gatehouse defences at each of the four cardinal points of the compass. We borrowed a very rickety ladder from a sawmill to send Don up to the right elevation, after which he disappeared towards a broken tower. We were less successful breaking into the Roman theatre, where another useful restoration project is underway. I had been selling this as a highpoint, and had hoped to find the governors box, where we could be certain we were touching history. For Pliny the Younger had served as Proconsul of Bithynia and Pontus from 110AD, and his famous correspondence with the Emperor Trajan until his death, has survived. This foreign posting capped a long and successful administrative career. But we also know about a Roman Senator who came from this town, also rising to become a governor. Cassius Dio was also very close to the Roman Emperor of his day, but remained charmingly proud of his hometown, and thought of his villa outside Rome as a foreign posting. We could run our hands along the Roman arch embedded within the medieval fortress of the South Gate (Yenishir Kapisi) knowing that young Cassius Dio might have run his hands along these stones. His multi-volume history remains a prime source for the later period of the Roman Empire.
A very late lunch in Hissarlik village allowed the light to soften towards dusk, but Troy was not a great success. I had a totally enchanting time, chatting to the charming and enthusiastic Director, Professor Aslan, about his recent discovery of the bare rock floor of a brand new level - Troy Zero - dated to 3,600 BC. I couldn’t help notice, however, that Don’s camera bag remained tightly strapped – always an ominous sign - apart from a quick snap of Hector the guard dog who had his cock out. “Glad someone is enjoying himself”.
Fortunately right at the end of our walk, we met with the small Roman Odeon, bathed in dusk. By waving our hands around a lot, we tried to build up the massive terrace of the classical temple to Athena (destroyed by Schlieman’s excavations) which would once have towered above this small theatre. Whatever the true history of Bronze Age Troy was, due to the fame of Homer, the city had become a well-established cult centre. Julius Caesar came here to sacrifice in 48 BC, Emperor Hadrian in 124 AD, Emperor Septimius Severus and his son Emperor Caracalla all came to Troy following in the footsteps of Xerxes (480BC) and Alexander the Great (334BC). There is even a theory that Octavian took Vergil (who was not well travelled outside of Italy) to Troy sometime between 24-30 BC and was rewarded by hearing the poet recite the second book of the Aeneid. At this point this was a work in progress for it remained unpublished on Vergil’s death in 19 BC. The resonance of this thought was immense. The poet addressing the first Emperor of Rome at Troy, washed by Homer and his own bitter experiences of civil war. “No tears could match such agony. An ancient city was falling and the long years of her Empire were at an end” Or that terrible scene where the son of Achilles “dragged Priam, quaking and sliding in a pool of his own son’s blood, right up to the altar. He turned his left hand in Priam’s hair, with his right hand he raised his flashing sword and buried it to the hilt in his side.”
The next morning, I knocked lightly on the door of Don’s room to check he was up. It was dark and we were hoping to catch the Roman statues in the site museum in the first light of dawn. The door immediately swung open, and Don appeared, bags packed, camera case to the fore. The shadow of a grin crept across his face as he met my glance. “Up at last I see,” he said. “Only you could have slept through your mate making such a din.” Don knows of my interest in Islam, so the mate he was referring to was the muezzin, calling the dawn prayer.
Don may be the world’s most famous photographer, yet he’s always happy to bed down in this kind of simple hostel when there’s a picture to be captured. He is an artist with the internal discipline of a master craftsman. Lean and still horribly good looking, his thick mop of silver hair crowns a tanned face lit by a pair of startling blue eyes. Perhaps the easiest way to describe him is Michael Caine crossed with Steve McQueen. If you want to find out what it is like to be invisible, all you have to do is to walk into a bar beside him. He is a babe magnet of the first order. I still chuckle in delight at the memory of being pushed expertly to one side by a skilful hand, as the other popped a telephone number into Don’s top pocket, alongside a silky little whisper, ‘Call me.’
This charisma now worked in our favour. We were given the museum to ourselves, bathed in morning light, then a very chatty coffee with the elegant young Director in his office. His desk was piled high with volumes of the Iliad, the Aeneid and Herodotus in Turkish, though he dished his own reading skills by reminding us that Mehmet the Conqueror could read Homer in the original Greek.
The rest of the morning was spent in the ruins of Alexandria Troas. Early travellers understandably muddled it with Troy for the excusable reason that there are some magnificent ruins in which to picnic and it has a fine view of the island of Tenedos which both Homer and Vergil describe as being in the vicinity of Troy. Since the discovery of the real Troy at the end of the 19th-century, Alexandria Troas has become neglected and remains virtually unvisited. In the heyday of the Roman Empire it was a metropolis sprawling over a thousand acres. We were shown a superb section of Roman road, the crisply cut details of a Corinthian architrave from an unknown temple raised during the reign of Augustus, the corner terrace of the agora-forum and a vast, dark, secretive and cavernous vault within a hilltop ruin camouflaged with brushwood. On the shore, we found moody, tide-washed marble columns from the old harbour which had been twice passed through by St Paul on his missionary journeys. His letters read like a factual travel diary when you are in this region. “To Troas in five days, where we abode seven days” and from whence he “sailed into Assos”. I had a swim to blow away the last fragment of a four-day-long Istanbul hangover while, Osman Toptamis covered our table in fish at his Dalyan Koyu restaurant and then lent us his dedicated copy of the archaeological inscriptions collected from Alexandria Troas to look over while we sipped coffee. The city had been founded by Alexander the Great’s most senior general, Antigonus the One-Eyed who ordered the population of seven existing small city-states to abandon their homelands and come together in one large city.
The midday light had been much too strong for a photographer to work with any conviction, and the drive south after such a good lunch should have been soporific. But everyday life in the Turkish countryside is so fascinating. Herds of goats could be seen pushing past ancient sarcophagi, half-hidden in the brush and I was on the look out for the temple of Apollo Smitheon, some 30 km away. There it was, sitting modestly below a village bathed by the throaty music of a gurgling spring. In the 1960’s Cook describes it as being overlooked by the dairy and a working olive oil mill which belonged to a prosperous local farmer, Ali Sengoren. It was first positively identified in 1853 by midshipman (later Admiral) Spratt when it was overhung by the branches of a grove of large walnut trees. The temple has recently been given a gleaming new set of marble steps, which rather beautifully offset the craggy, time-worn columns, once capped with richly carved scenes from The Iliad. Homer tells how the priest from this temple humbly begged for the release of his beloved daughter, Chryse, but his entreaty was arrogantly spurned by King Agamemnon. Then in his grief, the old priest called upon his god. The Lord Apollo was quick to answer, shooting a flight of divine silver arrows anointed with plague from his bow of gold into the walled Greek camp. The Apollo of Delos and Delphi, surrounded by the Nine Muses, has so captured our imagination that we often forget the full range of his powers, as well as his deep Anatolian past. Homer knew that Apollo was passionately on the side of the Trojans and would have been aware of some of his ancient origins. He was Apalianus (the plague deity of the Hittites) and Aplu Enlil (the wise son of the sun of the Akkadians). At this temple Apollo was literally ‘Smintheus”, God of the Mice. Pet white mice were fed at this temple and were allowed to nest below his altar, and from elsewhere carvings of Apollo exist with a mouse in his hand, or under his chin or beneath his feet. This explains the grey plastic rats which have been thoughtfully scattered over the temple steps to entertain visitors. Elsewhere Apollo, like his sister Artemis is the protector of the wild places and he is associated with dolphins, wolves and midges.
Although we chatter away companionably in a car, once we arrive at an ancient site, Don and I completely ignore one another. I scamper about, ‘surprisingly agile for a man of your size’. Don is like a man possessed, pacing around a much tighter focus, as he battles in his mind with shifting patterns of light, shadow, clouds, perspective and composition. We seldom make a plan and never communicate by phone, for we understand that neither of us will have finished until we are finished. Occasionally I hear Don’s powerful whistle, which he makes use of for one purpose and one purpose only – ‘get out of my line of sight’.
I did just that and found some fascinating and very recent excavations below the temple where layers upon layer of occupation are currently being discovered, drawn to this site by the miracle of the fast-flowing spring. In the Roman period some of the abundant water was tapped off to supply a ritual bath complex. An almost complete series of 23 marble plinths have also been discovered in the Hall of the Winners to the west of the baths. This has thrown vivid light on the previously little known Smintheia Pauleia Games. These games were hosted for some five hundred years by the city of Alexandria Troas which was physically linked to the temple by an elaborate sacred way. At these sacred games boys competed in boxing and wrestling matches and the winner was commemorated by a bronze statue. Though the statues have not survived, the plinths found here are inscribed with the winner, his trainer, his parents and the chief priest of the temple and can conclude with a couplet of sporting praise. I could find birds but no mice depicted, and they summoned up yet another aspect of the cult of Apollo, the beardless, athletic god, the Lord of Youth, the protector of boyhood. It was a custom for boys to thank the God for his protection, when they became men, by cutting their long Apache-like skull-locks and presenting them to the temple.
We bought and consumed peaches in the village in such a messy way that we were given bowls of water and then a cup of tea by a concerned local. I could tell that Don was rather impressed by the quiet hospitality, and unhurried dignity of the villagers. He was also intrigued by the thought of local boys thrashing their way up to become a local hero. It reminded him of a scene from his childhood, when his brother and a competitor worked out who was going to date a girl they both fancied by going up a blind London alley and sorting it out with their fists. This brother would later join the Foreign Legion.
The site of Assos is astonishing. I have looked at the acropolis from a distance: from the deck of a boat and from the isle of Mytilene (Lesbos), but our approach through the rough grazing of the surrounding hills, studded with solidly built villages formed from the bare volcanic rock, presented a completely different face. Surrounded by a towering circuit of Hellenistic walls, here and there buttressed and reinforced by medieval towers, Assos also contains an old mosque overlooking the supremely elegant spans of a 14th century Ottoman bridge. All are built from the local andesite, a hard igneous stone blurring the levels of history together into one indistinguishable colour. Assos has survived the centuries so well because it was isolated and comparatively poor. There is no marble to rob or smelt into mortar, and no-one has been very interested in carting this hard stone. It’s single great advantage is that it had the best harbour for many miles around, but as St Paul’s journey demonstrates, the city was always a bit of a stop over between the busier and richer Alexandria Troas and Mytilene, which were always richer and busier. The walk from the harbour to the summit of the Acropolis is gruellingly vertical, and drew a line under the day. After an early breakfast we returned to explore the ancient theatre cascading down the natural slope of this surface. On the high land above is a well preserved and very early bouleterion (Senate house) commanding a view over the public meeting space of the agora, which had been buttressed by massive terraces of dressed stone. On a Roman-only tour we were cheating heavily by coming to ancient Assos but I justified it by explaining that the buildings constructed in the 6th and 4th century BC remained in use for thousands of years, by us and St Paul - due to the adamantine quality of the local stone.
All paths in Assos lead uphill, and however fragmented your group becomes you all eventually meet at the Acropolis, still dominated by the six of the original thirty-eight columns of the temple of Athene. First carved in 530 BC they frame an endlessly satisfying succession of views over the headlands of Lesbos. There are not many places in which you can be sure to be walking in the footsteps of Aristotle, but this temple is one of them. Assos was known as Assawa in the Hittite tribute lists and became part of the Kingdom of Lydia, after which it was on the frontline in the conflict between the Greeks and the Persian Empire. For a brief period Assos existed as a perfect Republic, funded by the banker Eubolos and ruled by his freedman Hermiusa, an old student of Plato. Between them, they invited all the great philosophers of the day to be their guests, and so for three years Aristotle lived at Assos. Another round of Greek-Persian fighting ended this civic experiment and encouraged Aristotle to take sanctuary in Macedonia where he became tutor to the young Alexander.
After dusk we moved a couple of miles west from Assos, to the hospitable table of a pair of husband and wife professors from Istanbul. We kept a watch on the eastern horizon, waiting for the moon to rise over the Acropolis while dish after hospitable dish appeared from the kitchen washed down with wine from their own vineyard. Don pointed the mountainside where his vivacious Greek mother-in-law used to camp in the summer on Lesbos, whilst our hostess pointed out the various crossing places currently used by Syrian refugees. Somewhere in the dark was the beach where I had been told all the old Ottoman gentlemen expelled from their handsome houses in Molivos had thrown their fezzes in the sea in a solemn farewell during the 1923 exchange of populations.
Only when it is dark and when the cameras have been packed away, do we talk properly. Don is a brilliant mimic and has worked with almost all my travel-writer heroes. I get to hear stories about Norman Lewis, Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin and Brigid Keenan, who first introduced us, complete with Don’s startling evocation of their voices. It is also through Don that I first met such real-life adventurers as Mark Shand and Charles Glass.
Early the following morning, we paddled in the river water which swoops under the elegant arch of the Ottoman bridge and disturbed a heron who had been fishing. We also went back to look at the monuments in a different light. The late medieval towers were now easier to spot with their thicker bedding levels of mortar and there was poetry in Assos’s different identities: the Byzantine citadel of Machram which had fallen into the possession of the Karasid Beys, then becoming the Ottoman fortress of Behram which watched over the approach to the fortress of Mytilene, first in the possession of the Genoese Dukes of Gattilusi and later the homeland of the Barbarossa brothers, one of who rose from Turkish corsair to become the Pasha of Algiers. As we tucked into a splendid, but once again very late, lunch of fish overlooking the harbour at Ayyvalik, I could understand why so many of my friends in Istanbul are drawn to this coast. We still had another massive treat in store that afternoon.
Many years ago, I had tried to visit the famous altar of Pergamon in Berlin but had unwittingly hit upon a national holiday in Communist East Germany, so the museums was closed and the only restaurant open was serving only one dish from its menu - dripping toast. So I was greatly taken by the fact that our host in Pergamon, the young director of the German archaeological institute, had grown up in East Germany. I was also surprised to discover that unlike the British, who carted off the Parthenon marbles and the lion of Cnidus quarried from their original structures, this was not so of the Germans. In the late 19th-century when they were excavating the Acropolis of Pergamon under a licence from Hamdi Bey their aim was to locate the temple of Athena. In the process , they dismantled the medieval ruins that stood over the Acropolis and discovered literally thousands of fragments from an altar – a three dimensional stone jigsaw of unbelievable complexity. It was this jumble of broken pieces - mere road rubble to most of the world - that they were given legal permission to crate up and take home to Berlin. Once there, they spent a fortune reassembling it with the assistance of skilled Italian sculptors. The end result was magnificent, like a stairway to the gates of heaven, and was labelled the Great Altar of Zeus and Athene. Arguably it is not so much a Hellenistic monument but a turn of the century romantic German confection. Its exact position on the Acropolis has never been established, nor even its dedication, and the splendid architectural framing given to it in Berlin has long been disputed. For many years it was considered to be a great celebration of national victory, a thank-offering for the military victory of Pergamon’s Attalid dynasty over the invasion of the Barbarian Gauls. It was probably just the workaday altar upon which offerings were burnt which always stood forward of the temple building, roughly in the centre of this public courtyard. Its association with the great library of Pergamon (the parchment-based rival to the papyrus library of the Ptolemy’s at Alexandria) has also started to dissolve, as has any firm idea of where this library might once have stood. The most informed guess is that it was housed within the double-height stoa that formed an enclosed courtyard around the Temple of Athena.
This was all for the good, for it allowed us to concentrate our attention on the Roman period. We adored the sculptures in the museum collection and were transfixed by the Temple to Trajan, also all patiently reassembled by Germans from fragments found re-used in medieval walls. We caught it at dusk when it was breathtakingly lovely, as were the views up into the mountains where there is an ancient cave where honoured Cybele, the Anatolian mother goddess was honoured. A craggy line of Byzantine towers had been left, untouched by the archaeologists to show what the Acropolis looked like for the last 1200 years before they began their work. It appears that the walls were very hurriedly thrown together to resist the Arab Ommayad invasion in the 7th-century after which the citadel slumbered for the next five hundred years. Beneath us, draped against the rock like a fan was the staggering extent of the theatre with a temple of Dionysios placed below fronting a wide ornamental terrace, once a fantastic stage for an urban passegiata between acts. Walking down from this height, through terrace after magnificent urban terrace, took you through the tangible remains of the ancient city - temples, tombs, towers, inscribed civic law codes and gymnasia all being patiently reassembled by the Germans – and then out through a gate in the still-extant lower city walls.
That evening in Pergamon we were invited to join the large team of archaeologists for supper in the dig house. With the odd break for wars, this has been the hub from which ancient Pergamon has been slowly rebuilt over the last 150 years. The food was impressively German, not exactly dripping toast, but the next best thing, more boiled potato and cabbage than I have ever experienced on a Turkish table. At dawn we joined them at their latest project, the vast vaulted arches of the ruin of a Roman-era amphitheatre that was constructed in the centre of a highland valley, possibly sited to make use of a natural water supply which would have turned the central stage into a lake on command. The owner of our charming Pension was used to the hard-working lifestyle of the archaeologists and told us not to worry about the early start. Breakfast would be served before his own cockerel started to crow, and included eggs laid in the courtyard of his traditional house.
After the amphitheatre, we had the whole morning in hand to explore the complexities of the sanctuary of the Asklepion – virtually a city in itself, approached on its own sacred road, with its own theatre, vast domed reception halls, sacred springs, porticos and cool underground dormitories and treatment centres. The central shrine was a ruin but would have once have stood like a domed pantheon to Zeus and all the gods. Asklepion would once have offered what we can only dream about - an integrated spiritual, intellectual, physical and psychological treatment, complete with baths, fasts, dream analysis and prescriptions.
Unwittingly, we had been sleeping on the edge of our last great Roman monument. The pansyon stood up an alley on the outer edge of the Red House, but its scale took two days to fully comprehend. The late medieval city of Bergama had grown up around this extraordinary complex. A vast Egyptian-influenced temple complex built above the river Selinus. It is situated within its own lavish 200 by 100 metre wall-enclosed courtyard-garden originally framed by an internal colonnade. One face of this garden was overlooked by a vast brick-built basilica shrine which was itself flanked by two open courtyards dominated by an exact pair of rotundae - brick-built towers with internal domes which have survived intact. Even in the heat of midday we found it endlessly fascinating; the gigantic proportions of the Egyptian marble sculptures, the spiral staircases set within the walls to allow access onto the temple roof for star-gazing. It took its inspiration from every corner of the Empire - from Syria, from Egypt, from Greece and from brick-built Rome and it has survived. In its plan (two shrines within one garden complex) it also offered interesting parallels to the shrine of Antinous recently identified in Emperor Hadrian’s garden-palace outside Rome. Antinous was the beautiful, brave boy from the hills of North-West Turkey who loved hunting. He had become the Emperor’s acknowledged lover but at the height of their relationship he had drowned in the Nile, possibly an act of self-sacrifice on behalf of his beloved Emperor, modelled on the death of Osiris.
This is just the sort of off-the-wall speculation designed to annoy archaeologists, though they agree that the Emperor Hadrian is the most likely patron of this vast structure. Hundreds of temples and shrines and statues to Antinous have been found across the length and breadth of the Empire. There is a pleasing modesty about the way he is depicted, always glancing away from making eye contact. We know very little about him, but I now believe that like Paris he was a shepherd boy on the slopes of Mount Ida who first caught the Emperor’s eye as a tough young boxer at the sacred games held beside the Temple of Apollo Smintheus. The Red House is his temple, a walled garden placed above a living river. Don liked the place, and thought Bruce Chatwin would have loved it.
A few days later, on a different leg of our journey, Don's beautiful wife Catherine joined us. I liked her input, which got us swimming in the sea and an enjoyable upgrade in the quality of hotel rooms. On our last night we ate fish in a restaurant built on wooden stilts over the sea. We had already had more than enough to drink, but ordered up another bottle of the local pink just to make absolutely sure. I turned to Don and asked him if he was running out of heroes. There was something in the rapidity and confidence of his reply, “Purcell and Bach, the conductor Daniel Barenboim, Yacoub (an Egyptian heart specialist) and Primo Levi” that reminded me of the exceptional humanity of the man I had been travelling with these last ten days.
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