Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled when They Discovered North America (Canadian Edition)

Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled when They Discovered North America (Canadian Edition)

by Paul Chiasson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679314561
Publisher: Random House of Canada, Limited
Publication date: 03/13/2007
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Paul Chiasson is a Yale-educated architect whose expertise is the history and theory of religious architecture. He was born on Cape Breton Island and is a direct descendent of the Acadians who were among the first European settlers in the New World. He has taught at Yale, at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and at the University of Toronto. Chiasson’s discovery of the remains of an ancient Chinese settlement on Cape Breton Island is a direct result of his ancestral interest in the island’s history and of his unique ability to understand the unusual architectural forms that the ruins represented – remains that had been previously misunderstood or overlooked.

Read an Excerpt

chapter ­one

Cut Stones in the Wilderness
From my chair in the front row, I looked around the Mumford Room of the Library of Congress in Washington at an assembly of people who were about to sit in judgment of me. It was May 16, 2005, and the library was hosting an international symposium on the early naval voyages of the Chinese, with a special emphasis on China’s mapping of the globe before the European age of discovery had even begun. This notion had once seemed extremely controversial, but throughout the morning one speaker after another drew on genetic profiles, methods for determining latitude, original documents and ­centuries-­old maps to present ideas that clearly had the power to reconfigure our history of the New World. The atmosphere was electric, as if all of us could see a window opening on the past and begin to make out something astonishing on the ­horizon.

Unlike the men and women around me, I was neither an archaeologist nor a historian. I was an architect from Toronto and had never imagined myself in this context–an accidental discoverer at ­best. But two years earlier I had stumbled on previously uninvestigated – and ­long-­forgotten – ruins on a mountaintop on a small island in the North Atlantic, an island that happened to be the place where I was born and raised.

Waiting for my introduction, and a little anxious about speaking in front of such an audience, I cast my mind back to the stillness of the ruins, isolated on their abandoned mountaintop. I was only too aware that as soon as my presentation was over the arguments would begin about the various elements of this once vast settlement, the reasons for its construction and its demise, and the consequences of its forgotten history. For a last moment, I concentrated on the cut stones I’d discovered in the wilderness, the magnificence and the mystery of a site that until I stood to speak had been mine alone to experience.

At the end of my very first climb to the ruins, I’d sat gazing down over the open Atlantic, a vista that stretched farther and wider than my eye could take in. The ruined site below me, gently sloping towards the sea, held the marks of an ancient design. Its rectangular geometry had been cut sharply into the hillside, but was now softened on its edges by dense spruce forest. The ruined terraces and stone platforms stepping down the mountainside had been conceived and built with this panorama in mind. The stones had been untouched for centuries, and were covered in layers of lichen and mosses that still held the morning dew. Faint traces of mist lay in the hollows amid the ruins. It was a place of great beauty, approached by a long difficult road, and it struck me that it had been designed to ease the frightened spirits of people a long way from home.

Even in those first moments, I had known that these were not the remnants of a humble fishing outpost or farm or fortification, but of a lost settlement that had been inhabited by hundreds or thousands of people for decades–long before Columbus ever dreamed of sailing. After two years of historical investigation I had concluded that the settlement was Chinese. I was here to announce and describe this discovery for the first time in public. If the academics in this room believed me–if my years of intense work proved sound–then the vision we had been glimpsing on the horizon all day would suddenly come into ­view.

The session moderator called my name. The elderly couple who sat next to me leaned over and wished me good luck. I clutched my notes and walked to the ­podium.

The path that led me to that mountaintop began in 1993, when I discovered I was ­HIV-­positive. At the time I believed I could lick the disease. I sat my family down and told them what it meant, but I told myself that I come from tenacious Acadian and Scots stock, pioneer blood that had helped build the communities of Cape Breton Island. I had moved from Washington two years earlier–giving up my teaching position at the Catholic University there – to Toronto. When I tested positive I met Dr. Anne Philips, an HIV specialist. She was the mother of three daughters and was married to another doctor, and her kindness and intelligence won my trust. In the ­mid-­nineties, when drugs were just becoming an option and I was debating their pros and cons, she told me I would be dead in six months if I didn’t start them immediately. I did and, as a result, was able to settle into a fulfilling career in Toronto as an architect and designer. I didn’t look sick, after all. Someday, I believed, I would get better; someday this affliction would just go ­away.

By the end of the decade that sense of invincibility had dissipated. The virus had mutated to meet the onslaught of medications, and my strength was in decline. Yet perhaps as a consequence of HIV – and though I was not prone to romantic notions of death – I developed an increasing passion for the architecture of the past. Architecture was the discipline in which I had been trained, but now I found comfort in the evidence that ruins provided: nature will destroy even the most magnificent of human plans. I had limited time left to me, but there were still places that fascinated me and buildings I had never seen. I was hungry for ruins. I knew the architecture of the West: I’d taught it to university freshmen in one form or another for years, and I’d lived and studied in France and Italy. But the Middle East – Egypt’s pyramids and the markets and mosques of Damascus – were still foreign to me. In the early spring of 2000 I’d persuaded my friend Beth to drive a rented car with me through the back roads of the region. With a suitcase full of guidebooks, we travelled from the Krak des Chavaliers in northern Syria to Petra in southern Jordan, then on to Egypt, the Sinai Desert, the Nile temples and the monuments of Karnak. We billed it as my last great ­adventure.

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