Bletchley Park—An Enigmatic Exploration


Bletchley Park is a modest museum which makes the visitor walk back in time to the astonishing world of espionage and code-breaking. After seeing the BBC series, “The Bletchley Circle,” and the movie “The Imitation Game,” (January 15, -2015 review) I had the opportunity to visit Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, approximately a thirty-minute train ride from London.


Once Britain’s best-kept secret, today Bletchley Park is a unique heritage site and tourist attraction, as well as an educational resource and memorial to the scientists and mathematicians of the pivotal Enigma project. Bletchley Park exemplifies the feat of organization and mobilization to tackle the difficulty of the German Enigma code as well as to guard the top-level secrecy required of their covert operation.

Members of MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) were assigned the job of cracking the Enigma code, the masterful and complex cipher system that changed at least once a day with 159 million possible settings produced by the Enigma machine.

The Bombe
The Bombe

The process of breaking Enigma was aided considerably by a complex electromechanical device, designed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, called the Bombe. Both an original Enigma and the Bombe are on display at the park. The Bombe ran through all the possible Enigma wheel configurations in order to reduce the possible number of permutations. Bombe machines were operated by Wrens (=the women codebreakers), whose work sped up the solution to breaking the Enigma.

As the project grew to over 12,000 (more than 75% women), the clandestine project had to build large pre-fabricated wooden huts set up on the lawns of the Park. Not unexpectedly, the women’s huts were crammed with twice as many lodgers in smaller rooms than the men’s. It was disturbing to see how small the rooms were (eight double-bunks to a 9’ x 9’ room) for such brutal all-night intelligence and computational sessions. It was not all grim, however. The women billeted in huts could join in the nightly concerts, lectures, dances and choirs at the adjacent Edwardian mansion.

Edwardian mansion

Much of Bletchley’s equipment and documents were destroyed at the end of the war and the secrecy imposed on the former Bletchley workforce remained a government policy until 1974. And, it wasn’t until July 2009 that the British government announced that Bletchley personnel would be recognized with a commemorative badge

 It was decades before the outside world learned anything of what went on in  a warren of dilapidated huts surrounding the Edwardian mansion in Buckinghamshire. The estate has been restored, thanks to the Bletchley Park Trust. The visitor center was built in 2011 with funds the Trust raised. Formed in 1992 to preserve the spirit of Bletchley, the Trust rescued the site from a proposed housing development. Interestingly, it was private funds that secured the future of the site and helped to restore the decaying huts in which many of the codebreakers worked. A video documents the deplorable condition of the facility before restoration.

The main museum collection focuses on the wartime code-breaking efforts, including the Bombe and the Enigma machines, as well as extensive displays related to wartime code-breaking and espionage. Some quirky features of the museum are a “pigeons of war” exhibit on the important role of the 250,000 homing pigeons used in Great Britain, and the children’s corner where hands-on displays attempt to illustrate the laws of probability in computing possible letter/number arrangements on the Enigma.


 Note: An excellent online tour can be viewed at:


Dunhuang–The Caves of A Thousand Buddhas

Two weeks ago I visited the incomparable Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, located in Gansu province, northwestern China, at the edge of the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts, directly north of Tibet.  These caves remain one of the most well-preserved, splendid sanctuaries of sacred art in the world.

Mogao Caves

From the 3rd century BCE through the 12th century AD, Dunhuang was a prosperous oasis situated at the entrance to the Silk Road, where ancient caravans of Bactrian camels, donkeys, and horses carried cargo for more than 7,000 kilometers from China and Tibet through the Middle East to the Mediterranean.  These merchants became purveyors not only of merchandise but also of ideas – religious, cultural and artistic. By the 4th century AD, the Silk Road had brought Dunhuang both commercial prosperity and a growing Buddhist community of monk-scholars and pilgrims.       

Silk Road watchtower


The artifacts (totaling over 45,000 items) include murals, paintings, sculpture and manuscripts, in more than fifteen different scripts and languages.  The history of interreligious relations in Dunhuang is a history of peaceful exchange involving Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, and folk religions.  The early communication was followed, in some cases, by conversion but the region remained one of peaceful co-existence until the nomadic invasion of Islam in the 12th century.

Dunes of Dunhuang

Aurel Stein (1862–1943), a Hungarian-British civil servant working in India, made four perilous expeditions to Central Asia, beginning in 1901, removing thousands of   manuscripts from the ‘Library Cave’ (Cave 17). French, German, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese treasure hunters and explorers also took their toll on the collection.

In graduate school I had translated a third century Buddhist sutra, The Srimaladevi Sutra, a sermon by Sakyamuni about a woman who becomes a Buddha without waiting for rebirth as a man.  I have seen the original Dunhuang manuscript of the Srimaladevi at the British Museum, where many of the manuscripts are now stored.  Seeing the cave where the manuscript was transported by Stein to London was a dream come true!

Buddhist Pilgrim

Accompanied by a specialist from the Dunhuang Research Institute, we were able to see the celebrated “Library Cave” (Cave 17) where the oldest dated printed book was discovered–The Diamond Sutra–about the Buddha’s sermon at Jetavana grove. The Diamond Sutra is now housed at the British Museum. Virtually every cave has at least one image of the Buddha, various dancers, musicians, and Bodhisattvas in heavenly realms embodying a fusion of Chinese, Persian, Tibetan, Indian, and other regional art styles.  The magnificence and grace of the Mogao Caves left me breathless.

The removal by Stein of so much cultural and archaeological material from China has caused anger in China, and there have been calls for the texts and artifacts collected by Stein from Dunhuang that are now in the British Museum and British Library to be repatriated to China. Although the Chinese government has not formally requested their return, in 2003 an official at the Chinese Embassy in London stated that all artifacts should be returned to the ancient grottoes of their origin. Currently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a visitor center and digital library of art to be completed in 2015, with the intention of preserving the fragile Mogao Caves. The Dunhuang art has been considered China’s Elgin Marbles.

A Shanghai High

Shanghai skyline
I want to thank Susie Berteaux  for being the guest blogger for the last two excellent posts,  “Fairy Tale Updated” and ” Go for Broke”, while I was having a wonderful two-week adventure in China. Shanghai, our first gateway city to China — aka “the Paris of Asia”– is renowned for its historical landmarks: the Bund, the Yuyuan classical Ming gardens, the French and British Concessions, as well as the extensive and growing skyline, the “showpiece” of the booming economy of mainland China.  
Shanghai is bisected by the Huangpu river,  a tributary of the famous Yangtze, and a wonder to behold at night. Riding on a boat with about a hundred Chinese tourists, we looked to the left to see what 19th century Shanghai looked like–Parisian in feeling–and to the right to see what the 22nd century might be.  Shanghai is “Paris meets Blade Runner”.  Words cannot describe the dazzling light show on the facades of 127-story gravity-defying skyscrapers with images projected and controlled by computer programs. They are jaw-dropping, stiff-neck inducing miracles of architectural design! These buildings are so unbelievable they looked like a movie set for “Mission Impossible”.  No wonder American action films (including the new James Bond movie) are partly filmed on location in Shanghai! Despite meteoric redevelopment, the old city still retains beautiful traditional buildings, both European and Chinese.  One of the most interesting in the Bund was the secret meeting place for the first Congress of Mao Tse-tung, carefully preserved with rare photographs of Mao and his key advisors.  Additional photographs of American and European politicians with Mao are also prominently displayed. During the Second World War  20,000 Jews fled Hitler’s regime to seek refuge in Shanghai and formed a vibrant community centered on the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which is preserved as part of  Shanghai’s complex religious past.  (There is also a Muslim Street and mosques in the area.)

Shanghai Museum foyer

From neoclassical to art deco, Shanghai’s rich collection of architectural styles are visual teasers.  Award-winning international post-modern buildings are being constructed by the hundreds per year in this thriving metropolis of 25 million people. In recent years, a large number of architecturally distinctive– even eccentric– buildings have sprung up throughout Shanghai. Among the noteworthy examples of contemporary architecture is the Shanghai Museum, designed by prominent local architect Xing Tonghe.

Shanghai Museum exterior

Designed in the shape of an ancient Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) bronze ritual vessel, the Shanghai museum has an entire floor (out of five floors) devoted to these exquisite 4000 year-old artifacts.  This is the best collection in the world. The building has a round top and a square base, symbolizing the ancient Chinese perception of the world as “round sky, square earth” and was partly designed by a French architectural team as well.

Shang Dynasty bronze


There is no way to truly communicate to anyone the splendor of this city, like no other I have ever visited.  Seeing is believing. This was a Shanghai high–a razor’s edge of fantasy and reality!