Travel Photos III: Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria (the one in Egypt, to be specific) was one of the greatest cities in the ancient world, but shrunk in both size and prestige after the Arab conquest of Egypt, when the Egyptian capital was moved first to Fustat and then to Cairo (which today has grown so large as to have swallowed the remains of nearby Fustat). It was rebuilt starting in the 19th century and today is one of the 50 or 100 largest cities in the world, depending on how you measure urban population. It was the first stop on my trip to Egypt, after flying into Cairo during a sandstorm and then driving all night to get to a drafty apartment in a cool, rainy city. It was January, but I was packed for Cairo and Luxor weather, so I was totally unprepared for the Alexandrian weather and had to go buy a jacket the next day, and to get a room at a decent hotel where the wind wasn’t blowing in every night.

Alexandria is incredibly unique, a Greco-Roman outpost in the middle of a country that is otherwise Arab or Pharaonic, but the Greco-Romanness of the ancient city was definitely affected by Egyptian culture. I don’t mind saying that the first mummy I saw in the Alexandrian museum, wrapped up like a mummy should be but with a painted Greek face on it where the carved Egyptian funerary mask should’ve been, weirded me out a little bit.

The mummy in question.

The mummy in question.

The first site I checked out was the amphitheater. I always dig a good amphitheater:

The Roman amphitheater, very well-preserved, wasn't rediscovered until the mid-20th century

The amphitheatre, very well-preserved, wasn’t rediscovered until the mid-20th century

More of the amphitheater complex; one of the things I like about Egypt are the scenes of ancient and medieval sites existing within a totally modern, urban space.

More of the amphitheater complex; one of the things I like about Egypt are the scenes of ancient and medieval sites existing within a totally modern, urban space.

The “Villa of the Birds” is near the amphitheater and is so named for one of the mosaics still preserved there:

Villa of the Birds, yes?

Villa of the Birds, yes?

A trip through the city’s catacombs followed, which was awesome but for which I’ve basically got zilch in the way of decent pictures. Digital camera tech was considerably more primitive back then.

Later I headed to the harbor, the geographic feature that made and still makes Alexandria such an important city. In ancient times the shore of the harbor was dominated by the great Lighthouse of Alexandria, but a series of earthquakes brought her down, and in 1477 the ruins were used by the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay to construct a massive fortress, the Citadel of Qaitbay, to defend the harbor.

Fort Qaitbey, the entrance

Fort Qaitbey, the entrance

View of the harbor from the top of the fort.

View of the harbor from the top of the fort.

View of the harbor entrance.

View of the harbor entrance.

Near the Citadel is the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, a famous 13th century Sufi whose remains are said to be interred there. For reasons that escape me now, all these years later, I didn’t get particularly close to this mosque and just took a photo of the minarets and domes at some distance.

El-Mursi Mosque

El-Mursi Mosque

The last stop in Alexandria was the Montaza Palace and Park, built and expanded in the early 20 century by the khedives (who later styled themselves “kings”) as a summer palace and hunting lodge. It’s situated on a bay, and the whole combination of bay, gardens, and palace is very striking.

Montaza Palace

Montaza Palace

Montaza Gardens

Montaza Gardens

Montaza Bay

Montaza Bay

Advertisements

Travel Photos II: Salalah, Oman

Oman, I can honestly say, was one of the biggest travel surprises I’ve ever had. I went because I wanted to take a trip, but didn’t have time for anything more than a long weekend. Oman was easily accessible from Qatar, where I was living, and it seemed like there would be just enough to see to fill the weekend (particularly since it wasn’t monsoon season, but more on that later), but not so much that I’d regret not staying longer. When the trip was over, though, I realized I probably could’ve had a full week there, although I was very happy with what I’d gotten to see and didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything.

I spent I decided that, instead of spending all my time around Muscat (pictures from Muscat and its environs in a later post), I would hop a short flight to the city of Salalah, in the southern Dhofar province of the country. Salalah is best known as the center of Oman’s frankincense industry, both for the frankincense trees growing naturally in the region and its place along the Frankincense Road from central Arabia to the port cities on the coast. It is also known for being in the one area of the Arabian peninsula that gets rain during Indian monsoon season–not much rain, to be sure, but a lot by Arabian standards (the eastern tip of Yemen also gets Indian monsoon rains, and southwestern Yemen is affected by African monsoons). During the monsoon season it’s said that the mountains around Salalah turn green and lush during the monsoon season, but that’s not when I was there so, sorry, no green.

Even bare mountains were a nice change of pace from sand dunes.

Even bare mountains were a nice change of pace from sand dunes.

You can make out some tiny frankincense trees against the mountainside if you look hard enough.

You can make out some tiny frankincense trees against the mountainside if you look hard enough.

The land around Salalah, even though it wasn’t monsoon season, struck me as quite a bit greener than I’d gotten used to in Qatar.

I saw this tired critter while driving in the mountains.

I saw this tired critter while driving in the mountains.

This is Mughsayl Bay, one of the major beaches in Salalah.

This is Mughsayl Bay, one of the major beaches in Salalah.

Another shot of the bay.

Another part of the bay.

Some Salalah scenery. Note the green stuff in the foreground; for Arabia, that's almost a jungle.

Some Salalah scenery. Note the green stuff in the foreground; for Arabia, that’s almost a jungle.

I wish I’d had more time in Salalah (it was a one day thing, fly there in the morning and back to Muscat at night), I would have gone north of the city to some of the sites on the Frankincense road, but for pure scenery it was a nice trip.

Destruction in Syria

News came today (via) that the oldest surviving part of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, a minaret that was built in 1090 and survived a fire that destroyed parts of the mosque in 1159 and survived even the Mongols in 1260, was destroyed in fighting between the Syrian rebels and government forces. The government is claiming that the rebels blew it up, for what purpose is anybody’s guess, and the rebels are claiming that a shell from a government tank did the deed. Either way, a precious bit of Syrian heritage is gone forever, and I would argue that, whatever your feelings about the Syrian rebellion, there is no justification for something like this. It goes without saying that the massive loss of life in this conflict is sickening and astonishing, but the wanton destruction of centuries-old, irreplaceable pieces of cultural heritage is also sickening.

Why are Sufi shrines being targeted?

Sufi shrine in Libya being bulldozed, credit: BBC.com

Sufi shrine in Libya being bulldozed, credit: BBC.com

We are seeing a great deal of violence being done to cultural heritage sites across the Islamic World by relatively small orthodox Islamic groups, most particularly in North and West Africa, for example in Mali, in Libya, and in Egypt. There has been some outcry from the international community and a bit of coverage in the Western media, but I’m not sure that enough attention has been given to why these attacks are happening. To us, this kind of thing makes no sense. Imagine some kind of hardline fundamentalist movement taking a bulldozer to the Lincoln Memorial or to a venerable old basilica in Europe. It’s hard to get that image in your head, isn’t it? What could any group hope to gain from an act like that? In my view, it’s important to understand the motives behind groups that want to rob us of our heritage, because the way to stop them lies in defeating their arguments and rendering them unable to win support from the public and/or government of the country in which they act. In this case, what we have are radical militant Islamic groups, such as Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib, that seek to demolish sites of popular religious devotion in the service of their rigidly regressive understanding of Islam. Basically, it has to do with the long tension between two different Islamic communities: Sufis and Salafis.

I think people have a basic idea of what Sufism is; for this piece, it’s enough to know that it is a more mystical movement within Islam, historically centered around particular mystical paths led by one mystical teacher or another, whose teachings would be passed on to successive generations over time. Some of these teachers, as well as other important religious and scholarly figures, came to be venerated by Muslims almost in the way that some branches of Christianity revere saints. It is primarily the shrines to these figures that are under attack. I think we know less about their attackers, and that’s what I wanted to focus on. Continue reading

Travel Photos I: Beqaa Valley and Baalbek, Lebanon

Now after that florid introduction to this tiny operation, I’m naturally going to follow up with, um, pictures of places I’ve been. Why? Because I think heritage should be seen and shared by as many people as possible (responsibly and sustainably, of course). Also? Because I don’t want this blog to be either completely serious or rarely used. Posting travel photos is fun and it keeps the blog in use even when I do most of whatever work I can give to this project on Twitter (don’t forget to follow @heritage_alert).

I’m still a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t even have a passport until I was in my late 20s, when on a bit of an impulse I took a job that involved moving overseas for at least a year (turned out to be around a year and a half). I was lucky to be working in a place that was very centrally located to a lot of places I’d always dreamed about visiting and in a job that wasn’t all that well-defined but offered generous vacation time, so as long as my work got done I could do plenty of traveling. The first place I visited was Lebanon, partly because I had some work to do there but equally for the sightseeing.

These photos are of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, located in the eastern part of the country. Beqaa is Lebanon’s chief agricultural region, home in particular to the country’s wine industry, whose history goes back to 2 millenia before Alexander the Great according to the evidence. We stopped at a high point to take some pictures of the valley:

Beqaa Valley

Beqaa Valley

Beqaa Valley 2

Beqaa Valley

The real highlight of the trip to the Beqaa Valley, for me, was the chance to see the Roman ruins at Baalbek (named Heliopolis by the Greeks and known by that name in Roman times). Three temples were located at Baalbek, to the gods Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus, who had been identified with a triad of local deities by the Romans. Today very little of the temple to Venus still stands, but a bit more of the temple to Jupiter is still up and quite a bit of the temple of Bacchus.

Baalbek: Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Altar Area from the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Altar Area from the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Mosaic from the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Mosaic from the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Entrance to the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Entrance to the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Frieze from the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Frieze from the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Altar Area in the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Altar Area in the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Remains of the Temple of Venus

Baalbek: Remains of the Temple of Venus

What this site is about

I decided to start World Heritage Alert first as a Twitter feed, which is primarily what it will continue to be. With whatever time I am able to devote to this small avocation I want to aggregate and highlight stories from around the world that deal with the preservation of our (meaning “humanity’s”) cultural and historical heritage, and the seemingly constant threats to that heritage. I have come to realize that I care deeply about the degradation of historical sites and the loss of those unique places and things that tie all of us to the past and help us to understand where we’ve been. I was always the annoying person who went on vacation and wore everybody else out with my need to see as many “old buildings” as possible instead of spending time on the beach or by the pool. I studied history through several graduate degrees, primarily with a Middle Eastern focus but with interests far beyond that. But it wasn’t until very recently, with the attacks on Sufi shrines and irreplaceable manuscripts in Mali and elsewhere, and the terrible risk to vital archaeological sites brought on by the ongoing Syrian Civil War, that I really woke up to the challenges we face if we want to preserve our heritage.

These threats are not all violent. We, or at least I, tend to get caught up in the large-scale risks, like the violence in Mali and Syria, the loss of Iraqi heritage brought about by the Iraq War, and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. But so many other kinds of threats loom. In Egypt, for example, the chaos brought on by its recent revolution has led to increased looting and unchecked development that threatens to encroach on important historical sites. Peru’s Incan sites, including the spectacular Machu Picchu, are under intense environmental stress due to high levels of tourist activity. Poor management is to blame for parts of Pompeii decaying. Natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, storms) are an ongoing threat.

I’m sure plenty of people would wonder why any of this matters. The past is the past, and putting precious resources into protecting what’s left of it may strike some as frivolous. On some level I suppose it’s hard to argue with that. When living people all around the world struggle to find clean water to drink or enough food to eat, or to get proper medical care when they need it, it’s hard to see why preserving even the Great Pyramids is all that important. But if we don’t protect what we have left of the past then in my view we lose something fundamental about humanity. Remembering, studying, cherishing our history is one of the truly unique aspects of humankind. The artifacts and sites that illuminate the past for us help to bind us to those who came before and teach us about who we were, and therefore who we are. Moreover, many of these sites–churches, shrines, monuments–are still treasured parts of people’s daily lives in many places. But that’s all high-minded. Practically speaking, there is much to be gained by making good, sound, sustainable use of our heritage to improve lives globally. Mali has one of the lowest human development rankings in the world, but there is a wealth of history there that can be tapped not just for scholarship, but (if it’s well-managed) for tourism and economic benefit. When Salafis destroy Mali’s centuries-old shrines, irreplaceable sites, they not only profoundly damage the spiritual and cultural richness of the Malian people, they also prevent those resources from ever being used to make the lives of Malians better. When looters take treasures out of archaeological sites and funnel them into the illegal antiquities trade, they do lasting harm to the people whose heritage is being robbed while transferring that wealth to those who frankly would still be just fine without it. Finally, and maybe this isn’t as practical, but it seems to me that we can learn a great deal about a government or a movement from how it treats the national heritage with which it’s been entrusted. Before 9/11, the senseless demolition of the almost 1500-year old Bamiyan Buddhas should have told us that the Taliban government in Afghanistan was up to no good; their intolerance of their own nation’s history, their willingness to overwrite and erase that history, ought to have been a sign of a government that was corrupt, repressive, and poisonous, just as the use of history as propaganda in the Soviet Union was a sign, I believe, of the internal weakness and corruption of its Communist government. The new Egyptian government’s inability or unwillingness to protect Egypt’s heritage ought to be of great concern in terms of its ability and/or willingness to govern Egypt in an effective and beneficial manner. That’s not to say that we can simply condemn those groups or governments that can’t or won’t protect their national heritage, or that go out of their way to destroy it. Understanding why these threats exist and what motivates them is crucial to putting an end to them.

So that’s sort of where I’m coming from. I don’t know how much I can put into this effort, but I will do what I can. Most of what I do will happen on Twitter, @heritage_alert, where I collect and tweet stories of threats to our heritage as well as efforts to preserve it. Those who see or know of stories that deserve whatever small amount of coverage I can provide can comment here at the blog, email me at worldheritagealert at gmail dot com, or tweet them to me using #HeritageAlert. I will write here less frequently, when something moves me to write at length, and maybe to share some of my own experiences enjoying sites, museums, and artifacts, with photos of course. I thank you for reading and following me.