How Could An Ancient City Survive In The Desert?

ancient city, Palmyra, Syra
The drive through the Syrian desert to the ancient city of Palmyra makes you wonder how anyone lived out here 2000 years ago. For hours you speed east from Damascus along a dusty desert road, the only sights being a few dull concrete buildings, Bedouin with their herds and a thick black telephone line snaking along the ground next to the highway.

Once you get to Palmyra, you find a lush little oasis with splendid ruins nearby. It was here that a thriving civilization acted as the center of trade from east to west. But how did this city, which some scholars estimate had a population of 100,000, support itself? The oasis is nowhere near big enough, and the rocky, barren desert doesn’t look capable of supporting more than a few skinny goats.

Now a team of Syrian and Norwegian archaeologists has found the answer. With a combination of satellite imagery and boots on the ground, they’ve explored the region around the ancient city and discovered several ancient villages to the north. Through the clever use of dams and cisterns, the villagers were able to collect the uncommon but not rare rainfall in the region and put it to best use.

Also, tough grass lies just below the surface, its web of roots ready to capture any rain and immediately burst forth with shoots. The Bedouin would graze their flocks there, fertilizing the fields and trading with the locals.

So through an understanding of nature, an efficient use of resources and cooperating with their neighbors, the Palmyrenes brought forth a thriving civilization in the middle of the desert.

Looks like we could learn something from them.

[Photo courtesy Arian Zwegers]

Destruction, Looting Of Syria’s Ancient Heritage Continues, Report Says

Syria
The upheaval in Syria has been going on for more than a year now, and in that time thousands of people have been killed, including many civilians and children. Syria’s many ancient sites are also getting damaged. Previously, we’ve talked about how the Syrian army has shelled the ancient city of Palmyra and the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers. Both of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which there are six in the country.

A report by the Global Heritage Fund states that these and many other sites and museums, are getting damaged and looted in the chaos. Sites like Tell Sheikh Hamad, pictured above in this Wikimedia Commons image. This Assyrian town was inhabited for several centuries and archaeologists have found numerous cuneiform inscriptions there. Recently it became a battleground between the Syrian army and deserters. An Assyrian temple reportedly collapsed when it got hit by shellfire and the rest of the site likely suffered serious damage as well.

The medieval citadel of Hama has also been shelled, as can be seen in the video below.

Besides the fighting, historic sites are getting damaged by troops digging trenches, tanks rolling over fragile areas, and snipers building positions atop historic homes. Not even mosques have been safe, with several historic mosques suffering damage.

Looting is also a serious problem since members of museum staff are often not around to guard their collections due to the fighting. In Crac des Chevaliers, looters kicked out the staff at gunpoint and started digging.

With no end in sight for the Syrian Civil War, it’s certain that more of the nation’s previous heritage will be destroyed or stolen.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Meet An Intrepid Diplomat

photo of american diplomatIn our ongoing attempt to demystify the Foreign Service, we’re going to occasionally introduce you to diplomats living in various parts of the world. Amy Tachco is a 36-year-old Foreign Service Officer (FSO) originally from Southern California and Central Ohio who joined the Foreign Service just over ten years ago.

Amy and I joined the Foreign Service at the same time and were part of the same A-100 class, which is essentially a two month long intro to the Foreign Service. As I described in December, at least one of our classmates shed tears over an assignment to Jamaica, but Amy was unfazed when she was sent to Karachi, Pakistan, her 19th choice.

Over the last ten years, she’s also served in Casablanca, Madrid, Beirut and Damascus. She arrived in Karachi just days after a suicide bomber struck the embassy, flew into Beirut on a helicopter during the height of the 2006 conflict and recently had a Bashar Assad thug pelt her with a tomato. She was evacuated from Syria in mid-January as the conflict there intensified and recently returned from a brief stint in Istanbul, where she continued to report on the situation in Syria.

Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I did my junior year overseas as an economics and French major and then went to Geneva for grad school. It’s an international city and I worked at the World Economic Forum for a while. The lifestyle of the Foreign Service appealed to me – you have a job, but you get to move all the time and constantly do something different. After I graduated I worked for a company that did asset management and then I worked for a hedge fund. I was earning more than my initial salary in the Foreign Service.

Your first assignment was Karachi – your 19th choice. But you took it like a champ. Were you disappointed to be sent to Pakistan right out of the gate?

No. I wasn’t upset. Jerusalem was my first choice – it’s been my first choice many times but it’s never happened.

And the day you were set to leave for post the consulate in Karachi was bombed?

It was a car bomb, a suicide bomber. A car pulled up right in front of the building and blew a 30-foot hole in the front wall. Thirteen people were killed. My parents called and said, ‘Turn on CNN, it’s your consulate.’ I made the executive decision not to call anyone at the State Department, because I was afraid they’d tell me not to go.marines with weapons cocked and loadedWhat was it like to arrive at post in the wake of that incident?

We had a Marine expeditionary unit in the consular section. They had their guns pointed out the upstairs windows to keep people from entering the big hole in the wall. There was a bathroom with a shower right next to my office, so these Marines would come by my office just draped in their bath towels. They had been on a ship for the last six months, so they liked to stop by my office to say hi on the way back from their showers. They hadn’t seen women in a really long time.

Did your parents worry about you being in Pakistan?

My mom was worried the entire time I was there. She’s never been a worrywart but she was scared the whole time. I tried to tell her, ‘mom, here’s my day. I get up, I have breakfast and I go to work.’ Granted, I’d get picked up in an armored car with an escort vehicle with guys carrying AK-47’s and we’d take different routes to the consulate every day even though I could see the place from my house. You get used to weirdness.

You were supposed to be there a year but got pulled out after 9 months?

The Ambassador had been trying to reduce staff there for a long time (due to the security situation) and at a certain point I got a call from Washington and they told me I needed to find a new job. That’s how I ended up in Casablanca.

moroccan musicianYou were in Morocco and then Madrid for your next tour. Did you have much time for travel opportunities?

I did. I was a public affairs officer in Morocco so I traveled a lot there. I went to the The Marrakesh Film Festival, The Gnaoua World Music Festival, the Festival of Sacred Music in Fes, and lots of other places too. I also liked visiting this American style university there called Al Akhawayn, it’s in a town called Ifrane. You feel like you’re in Switzerland there, and the same in Spain. I tried to make it to all the provinces. I think I made it to half of them.

Did you find that the best places to visit as a traveler aren’t always the best places to live?

I haven’t had a bad post but there are places I’m not sure of. I just spent a month in Istanbul. Traffic is hideous and if you’re forced to deal with more of the city than just the tourist areas it can be a little unwieldy. Whereas I did my last tour in Damascus and that’s an easy place to live. In Beirut, we had extreme security restrictions but still a great city to live in. Madrid was obviously great. Living in Karachi presented challenges, but going there to work for the U.S. Government is the best deal you’re going to get. I loved it.

So you’ve never been stuck a post you couldn’t wait to leave?

Never.

How was the situation in Beirut when you were there?

The embassy had gone on evacuation status during the 2006 war, and then in May 2008, before I arrived in Beirut, there was street fighting in the city and clashes in the mountains, which made people think war was once again not far off. I got there a couple months later and it was relatively quiet for my two years there. But I had been there during the 2006 war as well. I traveled there with the Assistant Secretary who was trying to mediate the conflict with the Israelis.


What was that like?

It was creepy. There was no traffic – everyone was inside. The fighting was nearby, but not smack in the middle of Beirut. When the war broke out, Secretary Rice told my boss to get over there and we sort of took off without even knowing how we were going to get there. We went to Rome for a conference and then I had to figure out how to get us a helicopter into Beirut despite the fact that the airport was closed. So I did.

When you live in a place like Karachi, Beirut or Damascus, are you supposed to have a suitcase ready in case of emergency?

We were supposed to in Damascus but I never did. We were lucky though; we got all our stuff out before I left Damascus in January. I know that a lot of FSO’s in Tripoli lost all their stuff when they were evacuated last year. We had a couple of suicide bombings in December and we’d already had a series of evacuations last year, first in April and then again in August and December.

So some people got to leave but you had to stay until January?

Got to leave? No one wanted to leave Syria.

damascus mosqueNo one wanted to get out of Dodge?

No. Syria’s a beautiful place. I knew for probably six weeks or so before we were finally evacuated out that the decision was coming. But strangely enough, when it came, I felt like my whole universe just crashed. I cried big time because I felt like I was abandoning the people.

The local staff and your friends there?

Them but also the opposition. I was responsible for dealing with the Syrian opposition. On my last day there, I sat with one of the leaders in his office for about 2 hours and two weeks later the regime raided their office and arrested them all. It wasn’t because we left, I don’t think, but there was definitely that feeling. That’s why I asked to be sent to Istanbul, so I could continue doing my job from there. When you work in a country where people are fighting for their lives, you get emotionally involved.

Were you concerned for your safety in Syria?

The violence wasn’t in the middle of Damascus. The thing that was weird about Damascus is that you could walk the streets and see people drinking coffee and smoking nargiles in the cafés. Bizarre knowing that three kilometers away people were getting shot.

I took the Ambassador to a few meetings where we were sort of assaulted by regime thugs. On one occasion, we went into a meeting with a member of the opposition and a big group of regime loyalists started chanting at us and they followed us in and were banging on the door. And I got hit with a tomato.

Did it splatter all over you?

It didn’t and I was wearing a red dress anyways. They were trying to pelt us though. We ended up getting trapped in the building for more than two hours. We had to call our RSO’s (Regional Security Officers) to get us out of there in some armored cars. They got attacked with rocks and concrete through their windows.

madridWhat’s the hardest part about life in the Foreign Service, other than occasionally being pelted with tomatoes?

I’m headed to Madrid again now and I’ll be there for three years, which for the Foreign Service, is considered a nice long time. The hardest part of the lifestyle is the transitions between posts. I thought they’d get easier over time but it actually gets harder.

Arriving at a new post and starting fresh is the hardest part?

Both ends. Leaving one place and then having to live out a suitcase when you’re in between posts and then finally arriving at a new place but not having all your stuff. It’s really hard to leave a post and then you might live out of your suitcase for months and months, because you have training and home leave and then your stuff has to be shipped. And if you’re single, like me, it’s particularly hard. If you have your family with you, at least you’re not alone.
Every time I do these transitions, I ask myself why I’m doing this but then a year later I say, ‘wow, I have the best job in the world.’

A lot of people who like to travel consider joining the Foreign Service. What questions should people ask themselves before they decide to pursue this line of work?

It’s hard to say because you can make so many different types of careers in the Foreign Service. I know FSO’s who prefer to serve in more “cushy” locations. When I think about spending a career in places like that, I just can’t imagine it. But there are people who are into that. You wrote an article about this, it is easier for guys in the Foreign Service to move to a Third World country and find a lovely bride. Well, as a woman you can meet a lovely man too, but he’s not likely to follow you around the world.

So it’s harder for single women?

Yeah. For example, I was dating a Lebanese guy in Beirut and he told me before it was time for me to move – I can’t leave. And I could have stayed there, but I would have been miserable. So there’s the relationship element, there’s how you deal with transition.

The career itself, the lifestyle, it’s very much what you make of it. You can find yourself doing things you could never possibly imagine in rural areas of strange countries you never dreamed of going to. I’ve been on yachts of rich Lebanese businessmen or you can find yourself careening across the West Bank to visit settlements or you can be the cultural attaché in a cushy European post. I’ve met Bashar Al-Assad five times (before the conflict started) but that’s not something I’m terribly proud of.

Did you shake his hand?

Of course. You get to meet with presidents and ministers and heads of state – people you’d never expect to meet. I gave visas to the Real Madrid soccer team. The stuff that can happen to you in the Foreign Service is 100 billion times better than what you do in 99% of jobs you’d find. It is really, really cool and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Photos by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, Ahron de Leeuw, and Man@Che on Flickr.

Ancient city of Palmyra under threat from Syrian army

Palmyra

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra may become the latest victim of the ongoing violence in Syria, according to a Global Heritage Fund report.

Palmyra, an ancient oasis city in the desert northeast of Damascus, remained untouched by the conflict until last month, when the Syrian army moved in. According to several reports by refugees since then, units from the army have taken up position at the medieval citadel overlooking ancient and modern Palmyra and have been shooting at anything that moves. Both machine guns and tanks are being used. One can imagine what a few tank shells can do to a 2000-year-old city.

Little is known about damage to this or other historic sites in Syria. Given the government’s eagerness to level modern cities such as Homs, it’s doubtful they’re showing any care for their national heritage. Sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have all suffered irreparable damage during recent conflicts.Palmyra is one of the most impressive of Syria’s archaeological treasures. I visited it back in 1994 and the memories of wandering the Roman streets and temples, the sandy outskirts with their distinctive pre-Roman tower-tombs, and climbing up to the Arab citadel remain vivid. I also remember a local hotel owner who sat with me watching Syrian music videos and discussing the relative, um, “merits” of the female singers. I also remember the cheesy hustler who tried to sell me a “real Roman coin” made out of aluminum. He had the good grace, when I laughed in his face, to laugh along with me.

Are those two guys still alive? Is the hotel still there? Is every single one of my memories of a month’s travel going to be blackened by an evil dictator while world leaders dither and make sympathetic noises?

Yeah, probably.

Palmyra

[Photo of citadel courtesy Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Photo of Roman ruins courtesy Franco Pecchio.]

St. Bride’s Church in London: a place to honor fallen journalists

St. Bride'sI am not a Christian. I have read the Bible twice and have attended the services of several denominations and remain unconvinced. Despite this, any time I’m in London I go to an old church off of Fleet Street to pay my respects.

Fleet Street used to be the center of London’s journalism industry and St. Bride’s was the journalists’ church. The newspapers have since moved away to less expensive neighborhoods but St. Bride’s still maintains its connections to the journalistic profession.

At this point I would usually launch into my historical song-and-dance and tell you how St. Bride’s was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, how its steeple may have inspired the shape of wedding cakes, and how there’s a Roman building in the crypt. None of that makes me go there. I go there because to the left of the altar is a memorial to journalists killed in the line of duty. A few candles illuminate photos and cards and a list of names. Yesterday two more names were added.

Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed yesterday in the besieged city of Homs, Syria, when the house they were staying in got shelled. They were both seasoned war correspondents. Colvin had lost the use of an eye while covering the Sri Lankan civil war in 2001. Both knew the dangers and both went to Syria anyway.

I was familiar with their work because I’ve been watching the carnage in Syria closely. I spent a wonderful month there back in 1994 enjoying Arab hospitality and seeing the country’s many historic sights. I was there when the dictator’s heir apparent Bassel al-Assad died in a car crash and the nation pretended to mourn. His younger brother Bashar now rules Syria and is ruthlessly suppressing his local version of the Arab Spring.

When I visited Hama, I learned how the al-Assad family leveled the city to quash resistance there back in 1982. Once the fighting started in 2011, I feared Hama would be leveled again. I was right about the massacre and wrong about the city. It’s Homs this time, or at least it’s Homs for the moment. Syria’s dictatorship would level every city it owns in order to stay in power.I never had the honor to meet Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. From their work I bet they were like the war correspondents I actually have met, with a deep love of humanity and a firm commitment to the truth. It would be presumptuous of me to put my job on a level with theirs, but it has taught me the same valuable lesson–that the majority of people around the world are good. Lots of folks believe that, but I know it to be true. I’ve had it proven to me over and over again in places my friends think I’m crazy to visit. Somaliland. Kurdistan. Palestine. Iran.

And Syria. The fighting and oppression and state-sponsored terrorism that Colvin and Ochlik gave their lives to reveal to the world do not diminish my estimation of the Syrian people one iota. The majority of Syrians are good, just as the majority of all people are good. And if you disagree don’t argue with me, argue with Anne Frank, who wrote the same thing in her diary while hiding out from the Nazis.

The news is so often negative that it’s easy for us to develop a negative view of the world and its many peoples. It’s important to remember, though, that those who travel the world for a living don’t share that view. Their travels have taught them better.

So when I’m back in London next month, this agnostic is going to St. Bride’s Church, not for a dogma I don’t believe in, but for an idea I do.

Photo courtesy St. Bride’s.