Palmyra, Syria: The End of the Roman World in the Middle East

In November 2007, I headed out into the Syrian Desert to view the ancient city of Palmyra. With ISIS now in control of that region, these are some of my most treasured images.

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The ancient City of Palmyra, Syria once ruled by Queen Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire.

 

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A Bedouin boy in the Syrian desert.

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The Roman Colonnade of Palmyra at night.

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A Syrian falconer sharing tea in the desert.

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The Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle (Palmyra Castle) is a castle within the province of Homs, Syria, believed to have been built by the Mamluks in the 13th century.

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The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, is identified by the Greeks as Zeus and as Jupiter by the Romans (master of the universe, creator of the world and leader of the gods).

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A vegetable street vendor on the main street of Palmyra, Syria.

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The outlier turrets protecting the Castle of Palmyra captured at sunset.

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The Roman colonnade of Palmyra, Syria at sunset

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An afternoon at a Bedouin camp in the Syrian desert.

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Afternoon tea with a Bedouin family in the Syrian desert.

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A Bedouin baby at a quiet moment.

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The Roman Temple of Jupiter in the central square in Damascus, Syria.

Waking in Rangoon: My Birthday in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)

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Originally Published in November 2002 (Honolulu Magazine)

I woke up in Rangoon on my birthday.  I had promised myself some time ago that I was going to be here for just this occasion.  At my age, birthdays have become private affairs.  Although I have no problem in joining in on the revelry to celebrate someone else’s birthday, I have gone to great lengths to avoid celebrating my own.  So once a year, I need a place to hideout for a while.  This time I passed anonymously into the Year of the Horse in the arms of distant, mysterious, exotic Rangoon.

I had come to the realization that at my age, I tended to like things that were at least as old as I was.  The older things were, the less old I felt.  Some years ago, I had read about the thousand year old archaeological zone of Bagan in central Burma (nka Myanmar) in a National Geographic Magazine.  Not only did this meet my age criteria but also I would have Rangoon as a present.  So off I went.

The glory days for Rangoon may be behind it.  The year round heat and pestering humidity has thrown a veil of mildew across every building in the city.  It looks more like the decadence of Venice without the romance of the canals.  This was just one obvious consequence of the abdication of control by the British Crown since 1937.  But even in its state of decay, there is a pervasive charm.

It is impossible not to be enchanted by Rangoon.  Burmese men, preoccupied in their conversations, constantly tie and retie their longyis (sarongs) as if it were a national past time.  Two young ladies sitting at a card table manage a long line of customers waiting patiently to exchange money for use of their telephone.  Crowds of people trying to cross the chaotic streets jammed with vehicles perform a ballet to the music of car horns as Burmese drivers prefer honking to braking.  And lights flicker incessantly as instantaneous and unpredictable power outages punctuate the rhythm of the day.

And where else but in Rangoon can you buy luck?  Merchants peddle good fortune near the Buddhist shrine, Sule Pagoda.   For 100 Kyats (pronounced “chats”) bird catchers will let you release a sparrow into the Myanmar skies to insure good luck.  Instead of blowing out candles on a cake, I forked over 14 cents and let one fly.

I have always loved the name of my birthday city.  “Rangoon.”  Actually, it is now called “Yangon.”  But telling people you spent your birthday in “Rangoon” has a sexy, turn-of-the-century, British colonial ring to it.  Substitute “Yangon” in the same sentence and it sounds as if you went to a Chinese restaurant.  I am not alone in this feeling as many of the Burmese refuse to call their home by any other name than the one I prefer.

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Bagan, Myanmar skyline at dawn

Burma Monk Prayer

Once the Center of the Buddhist World, monks at prayer can be witnessed at nearly every shrine.

K2 (Pakistan): The King of Mountains

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Originally Published in November 2004 (Honolulu Magazine)

 “I think it’s a leg bone and a hip joint,” I said to Rozi Ali, my Baltistani guide, while pointing at my own leg for emphasis. It was the fourth body (or parts of a body) of a dead climber that we had seen in the same number of weeks at K2 base camp. It reminded all of us that climbing the world’s second tallest mountain had consequences if things went wrong.

Even if you do everything right, you can have the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the three Korean climbers this summer who were caught in the path of an avalanche and killed. Or the three members of an international team who were trapped in the fury of an ice storm at 25,000 feet and simply disappeared. On K2, the penalty for a mistake—or just plain bad luck—was always the same. We had the body count to prove it.

This year was the 50th Anniversary of the first ascent of K2. The Italians had done it first in 1954. This summer they returned in force to prove once again that this was their mountain. I had decided years ago that I was going to be with them when they tried. I climbed my first mountain in the Swiss Alps when I was 13 years old. I knew then that I loved the adventure of alpine mountaineering and I’ve bounced around the U.S., Europe, Africa, Mexico, and now Pakistan humping gear ever since. Seeing K2 this summer with my own eyes was a dream come true.

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The face of a sherpas from the Hunza Valley reveals the harshness of life in the altitude of K2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On a day climb along the “Magic Line” route on K2 with base camp in the distance below and to the right.

Sixty Years After the Conquest of K2: The Story of Italian Explorer Ardito Desio

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Originally Published in February 2015 (Hawaii Luxury Magazine)

“In life,” suggested Ardito Desio, the Italian adventurer-scholar who led the first successful conquest of K2 in 1954, “you have to ask yourself how far can you go.” These words have proven to be the guiding star of his great-nephew and University of Hawaii Adjunct Professor of Anthropology Guido Carlo Pigliasco who also is an accomplished Pacific Island scholar, attorney, and Explorers Club Fellow.

Unlike Sir Edmund Hillary who embraced his ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953 with Sherpa Tenzin Norgay as his life’s singular achievement, Professor Desio did not see the conquest of K2 as his greatest moment. Instead Professor Desio often claimed that “Crossing the Libyan Desert by camel caravan,” was one of his most cherished memories. What he won’t tell you in the same sentence is how bandits attacked Professor Desio’s expedition and that he was nearly killed by a stray bullet in the ensuing gun battle. Professors of Geology don’t ordinarily engage in gunfights but Ardito Desio was no ordinary man.

Canoeing the Kalahari Desert: On Safari in Botswana, Africa

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Originally Published on October 1, 2006 (Honolulu Advertiser)

If the Kalahari Desert of Botswana Africa had an emotion it would be hate. It hates the color green. It hates hills and valleys. It hates water. It hates anything easy.

The name “Kalahari” comes from the Setswana word Kgalagadi, meaning “the great thirst.” The San – the Bushmen of this desert – accept this without question. For 30,000 years they have survived here according to rules dictated by the absence of water.

In every desert I have ever visited, the people who live there move slowly. Where is there to go? Let alone in a hurry. So when one of my Baeyae guides advised me while laughing, “There is no rushing in Africa!” he didn’t have to say it twice. He probably didn’t even have to say it once.

The official currency of Botswana is pula. It means, of course, “water.” In a parched world, nothing has more value. It is a curious counterpoint for a nation in which 85 percent of the country is as dry as burnt wheat toast.

Botswana is what is leftover when the borders of four other African nations are drawn around it: Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia. The 15% of Botswana that is not a desert has a name: the Okavango Delta. Fed by the river of the same name that flows from Angola, this lush region proves that in some parts of the world, you can even canoe in deserts.

The emptiness of the Kalahari spreads across an area roughly the size of France. In 1849 David Livingstone crossed this god-forsaken flatland on foot. Given the breadth and harshness of the featureless desert staring up at me at this very moment, I was grateful to both of the Wright brothers for the gift of flight. Travel between the three-dozen or so safari camps interspersed throughout this huge alluvial plain is by Cessna aircraft. The flights originate out of Maun in the south and fan out to the north to carry passengers into the heart the Kalahari watershed.

Bevan Brunton, an Australian ex-patriot pilot, flew our A2-A1W Centurion 1,500 feet or so above the leafless acacia and scrub for a little more than an hour once we left Maun. The ground below was chalky white as far as the eye could see but in the distance I saw the green of an oasis as we began to move back down to earth. Minutes from the landing strip at Xigera’ (pronounced Kéy•ger•a) Camp, I found myself sliding into a mokoro (Setswana for “dugout canoe”) with Baeti Samotanzi as my guide. He stood at the rear and polled us silently along with the skill of a Venetian gondolier. I draped one hand into the cool, pristine water as we wound our way through a channel of papyrus reeds. The contrast from Kalahari dust to Okavango lush in such a short time was dizzying. I felt like I was Dorothy waking up in the Land of Oz except Toto had become a hippo.

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Camp Mokoro at dawn

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Miss Oduetse at Mokoro Camp greeted us with hot tea, cookies and a warm “Jumela!”

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Coming face-to-face-to-face with the locals

 

 

 

 

 

 

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There’s camping and then there’s CAMPING!

Deepening the Mystery: Surreal Rapa Nui (fka Easter Island)

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Originally Published on (Hana Hou! Magazine – Hawaiian Airlines)

I stretched out my sleeping bag under his three-foot-long nose. I was bored with my anthropologist friends, who were constantly digging and sifting and measuring in and around the stone men of Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island). I was traveling with Dr. Terry Hunt, an anthropologist at the University of Hawai‘i who was directing a field school for students from across the United States. They had come here for the purpose of analyzing the moai; I just wanted to feel them. So for a couple nights, I wandered up to the rim of Rano Raraku Crater for some peace and quiet.

For me it was all about art, and art doesn’t require deconstruction. It is what it is. Surrealist painter René Magritte once proclaimed that the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery. If that is the measure of superlative art then the rapanui who carved these giants succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. From the moment Captain Roggeveen first saw them in 1722, the moai have been and remain beautifully perplexing. The fact is that all of the science for all of these years hasn’t made much of a dent in explaining these magnificent, monumental sculptures. Only the moai know the answers to all of those curious little inquiries, but they continue to be stone-faced on the subject.

So I turned to a local bar for some insight. Passing a hitching post located just outside the front door, I walked across the empty dance floor to get a better look at, of all things, an amusing knock-off Magritte’s Golconde. You know this painting: A sky full of proper English gentleman, dressed in bowlers and topcoats and suspended in the air like raindrops. The local artist’s interpretation substituted moai in place of the tiny Englishmen. Art inspires art.

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The unflinching gaze of the moai at Tongariki, Rapa Nui (fka Easter Island)

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All of the moai left standing on the rim of Ranu Raraku Crater stare at the sea … watching and waiting.

 

Marco’s Trumpet: Disaster on K2 (Pakistan)

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Originally Published on August 31, 2008 (Honolulu Advertiser)

Marco Confortola humped his trumpet up to 17,400 feet.

One night, unexpectedly, and after most of the climbers at the K2 base camp were already in their tents, he began to play.

For three months, I, like Marco and the members of his Italian expedition, had chosen to live in a tent in the shadow of the world’s second tallest mountain. At night it was -30C or -40C or -50C. The number didn’t matter then and it doesn’t now. What did matter was that on more than one occasion I heard Marco’s trumpet emerging out of the aching silence in a place rendered barren by meager oxygen and icy cold.

He played a melody I couldn’t identify but I loved it still. The song had the kind of long and somber notes that made Miles Davis a legend. It made me feel, however fleeting, as if I were home in my soft, warm bed instead of sleeping on an 11,000-year-old ice skating rink known as the K2 glacier. It was a moment Marco created for all of us who had come so far from so many different places.

I strained to hear more. But at base camp, I was living as if I were in the Pliocene ice age, the earth’s last great glacial era. I really didn’t want to unzip my sleeping bag and risk releasing my body heat. I did manage, however, to wrench my head from the hood of my bag to hear the music more clearly. Marco’s trumpet saved all of us that night. It redeemed us from the vast, frozen, emptiness of the western Himalayas perched at the intersection of Pakistan, China and India.

A Slave to Luxury: Beit al Mamlouka in Damascus, Syria

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Originally Published on May 23, 2010 (Honolulu Advertiser)

Beit al Mamlouka means The House of the Slaves,” explained May Mamarbachi, owner and visionary of the first boutique hotel in Damascus, Syria. “I named it after the Mamluks, who were the slave class of Egypt in the 13th century but then they rose to rule as kings over much of the region that is now known as Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Israel.” For May no detail is too small or insignificant. “It took me over one year to decide on the right name,” she confessed through piercing blue eyes.

Beit al Mamlouka is slavishly luxurious. It is a resplendent oasis of sublime Middle Eastern art and textiles amidst the bustle of one of the oldest cities on earth. So old in fact, that to my taxi driver this metropolis is still known as Al Sham.

May and I sat in the central courtyard of what was once a Damascene home built in the mid-1700’s. May explained, “My family is from Aleppo in the north and I love it there. But I knew I wanted to do something special here in Damascus.” Special doesn’t quite capture what she has accomplished.

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Luxury in the African Bush: On Safari in Botswana, Africa

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Originally Published in (DestinAsian Magazine)

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana Africa may not seem like a place where you might find any kind of luxury. But within the lush, Okavango alluvial plains are creature comforts only a luxe traveler could appreciate.

The name “Kalahari” comes from the Setswana word Kgalagadi, meaning “the great thirst.” The San – the Bushmen of this desert – accept this without question. For 30,000 years they have survived here according to rules dictated by the absence of water.

The official currency of Botswana is pula. It means, of course, “water.” In a parched world, nothing has more value. It is a curious counterpoint for a nation in which 85 percent of the country is as dry as burnt wheat toast.

The emptiness of the Kalahari spreads across an area roughly the size of France. But in the Okavango Delta, there are nearly three-dozen tented safari camps scattered throughout the alluvial plain. These are not “tents” in the usual sense of that word. Camps like Xigera, Duba Plains and Selinda are gorgeous retreats in canvas.

On Sacred Ground: The Turkish Baths of Amman, Jordan

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Originally Published in April 2008 (DestinAsian Magazine)

“First time?” asked Nbil with a broad smile as I walked through the doors of the Al Pasha Turkish Bath.

“Yes!” I exclaimed, delighted that even after all of my years of world travel, when you look hard enough there are still first times.

The Al Pasha is perched atop one of the oldest of the nine hills that now comprise Amman, Jordan. This thoroughly modern Middle Eastern city of 5 million residents, boasts every conceivable amenity: shopping malls and art museums; beauty parlors and Starbucks Coffee Shops; Coke-a-Cola and Burger Kings. Still, Amman has not abandoned a past that reaches back more than a thousand years before Christ was born.

Hammams like Al Pasha are living cultural treasures. The word hammam derives from the Arabic word hmm for “heat.” The public bathhouse is not an idea original to the Arabian plateau. It began with the Greeks. The Romans expanded on the concept adding libraries and gymnasia. For the Romans, the bathhouse became the center for social interaction; a place where politics, social issues and family matters might be addressed. But the Ottoman Turks took a good idea and made it better. They merged art and architecture with leisure and religion and made the Turkish bath an integral part of the Middle Eastern social order.