Tag Archives: syria

Palmyra: A Lamentation








I could write about the strange aesthetics of annihilation, iconoclasm, nationalism, symbolism, weaponized cultural heritage and the murder of people, a place, an archaeologist. I am supposed to be an expert in this, after all. Intimate of the ancient.

Or, on a more personal level–how Palmyra blushed toward the blue desert sky. How I was ragged sick so I didn’t take very many photos, but dragged around the site anyway, sitting in the shade of columns. Picking out details. Petting the friendly cats in the ruins. Now every time I hear about something else being destroyed I go back over the same photos. How it was the same when I found out about the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, the Al-Madina Souq, Crac de Chevalier, Bosra, the Dead Cities–a UNESCO listing is a death sentence. These are only the big, well-known sites, there is extensive looting, destroying sites beyond all recovery.

It is easy to be glib (oh, now we can get to everything underneath! they were recorded anyway!) or post-modern (it’s only my white, western, colonialist/orientalist thinking that makes me care about old stacked stones), or relativistic (concrete houses & Greco-roman art, it’s all the same) and I’ve struggled through and re-written these scant 267 words. Yes, I care about people, I care about places, I care about things.

But I’m supposed to be an expert in caring about heritage and I still can’t find any fucking words. (though these help tremendously)

So I have my photos. And I give what I can when I can. And wait to study the new ruins caused by murderous men.

Hama, Syria

A little over a year ago, I spent a night in Hama. That day, Dan, Melissa and I were checking out sites in western Syria for potential projects and had gotten ridiculously lost in the mountains. The mountain towns were lovely, friendly and felt refreshingly relaxed. But it was late, and we were all tired, starving, and indecisive – a potentially lethal travel combination. We crashed in our hostel and then went out to get felafel. It ended up being the best felafel I’ve had in my life. Then we wandered the streets. It was the beginning of June and dead hot during the day, so most folks came out at night to socialize. At first it seemed like it was a shibab-dominated scene–boys were everywhere. But there were women around as well, enjoying the night air. We walked by the famous waterwheels – great, groaning, wooden dinosaurs that are monumental in scale and lit up like a carnival. The splashing water cooled the sweltering night, a miracle of relief in the desert breeze.

I hadn’t expected much out of Hama; it was a way-point in a misshapen quadrangle between Damascus, the coast, and Aleppo. But more than the groaning waterwheels, or the dark, cobblestone maze of the old city — the people of the city. The women. Or, one woman. There were a group of ladies on the street just wearing hijabs without a full veil, only slightly older than me, chatting and eating ice cream. I smiled at them, well, because I don’t generally see a lot of women while travelling in the Middle East and I miss their company, if only on the street. It’s a strange and lonely feeling when you recognize it.

The women hesitated, smiled back, and then one lady grabbed my arm. I wasn’t actually all that surprised by it, as I’ve become accustomed to displays of sisterly affection and warmth from a wide swath of amazing Middle Eastern women, but what came next did surprise me–she wanted me to have a bite of her ice cream. I didn’t really get it at first, but even after several demurrals, she insisted. We shared a melting bite of ice cream, laughed, hugged, and went on our way into the night.

So tonight, as the protests in Hama rage on, I’m thinking of her.

Solidarity with people who are yearning, aching, struggling to be free. Always.

Notes on being hopelessly lost in the Syrian Desert

* No matter what, Homs will be signposted. This will not be helpful.

* Maps vary wildly in accuracy.  There are no accurate maps.

* These maps mean nothing to locals. That said, always ask directions from the dudes sitting down in front of the local stores. They know what’s up.

* There are no gas stations. If you find a gas station, it won’t have any gas.

* If you don’t bring a compass, you will not know what direction you are headed for 2-3 hours in the middle of the day.

* If you see Bedouin settlement camps, you’ve probably gone the wrong way.

* If these camps are abandoned, start to panic.

* If you ask for directions to Damascus, half of the time the person will ask to go with you. The other half of the time they will invite you for tea.

* You probably will not find the archaeological site. Sorry.

* Never follow a wadi.

Life lessons, y’all.