Monday, February 25, 2008

A Future History of the Middle East

“They made a desert and called it peace.”

Jerusalem, 2015

The early morning light of Jerusalem is a divine gift. It shelters the holy city in its hollow.

The early morning light on April 12, 2015 was shattered by a roar in the sky and a great blinding light.

It was 5:00 a.m. As the sun began its rise above the Judean Desert beyond the Mount of Olives, the rocket soared, interrupting the sound of the rising birds. Its roar increased and all who were up at that hour looked up to see its tail of flame - until it stopped flickering orange, and fell directly to earth.

All those awake looked up to witness the event without knowing what it meant. Seconds later, the rocket spoke its tale: a great white flash blinded all onlookers. A blast knocked people to their feet, reverberating into the walls of the Old City and shattering the glass of the parked cars wide open.

All that was fragile, the vegetable stall, the ornate stained glass window, the human body, all of them shattered like a cookie in one’s hand. The crumbs of living beings were strewn about in trees and by curbs - their atomic shadows left on the kitchen walls.

The blast was quick and dirty. The air was sucked back in with the vengeance of a millennium of pain and suffering, all the way back to ground zero somewhere above the Via Dolorosa, in the Muslim Quarter. It took everything with it - walls, vehicles, lampposts and crushed them all together like dust in the bag of a vacuum cleaner.

As the grey cloud of radioactive tinsel settled on the city, no one was steady enough to think about what had just happened. The shock, the impossibility, caused whatever few survivors there were to just walk around and around, not caring where they were going, not knowing why they were still alive. A great suffering came upon the earth, and very many, close and intimate, fell in its wake.

Somewhere between the appearance of a red heifer, an architectural plan for a new Temple, the destruction of Iraq, the massacre of Nablus of 2010, and the chemical-terror fire in Tel Aviv three years after, the decision percolated in the minds of some leaders to send the rocket forward.

It came in the early morning light - that hour of greatest human frailty, of silent and lonely deaths in the hospital while those who cared had finally dozed off, when the darkest and most arid thoughts ran amok in the minds of the sleeping. And it came, in the push of a button, a "why not?" in the minds of leaders who understood well the consequences: total annihilation, the obliteration of the region in a series of nuclear spasms and an encroaching chemical soup. A mass suicide implicitly agreed to by the hundreds of millions living in the Middle East, committed by their leaders, after the pain and confusion of over sixty years of suffering, oppression and fear.

Jerusalem, the sacrificial lamb for Jew and Arab, would be no more. By noon that day, April 12, 2015, there would not be much left of the rest of the Middle East: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Aleppo, Haifa, Tel Aviv – all destroyed in a frenzied exchange of weapons of mass destruction.

A few corners of the Ottoman wall of the Old City were left standing against all odds. The graves on Mount Scopus were engraved into the ground by the blast, and the creaking tower of the Holy Sepulchre was still hanging against gravity by a concrete thread. Mount Moriah remained, the Dome of the Rock blasted out of its octagonal foundation, its blue tiles strewn about the valleys around the city, including Ga-Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom, a word that signifies "Hell" in Arabic and Hebrew. The small bones of children now lay buried besides the old corpses. The grey dust of the living dead: the citizens of modern Jerusalem, Jew, Arab, Armenian and pilgrim, annihilated by a rocket from distant quarters. The messenger of a battle gone wrong, of men whose priorities had become the function of their fears.

The City on the Hill would be remembered in lore and legend. Its destroyers, dark pawns of a strange evil that visited man in the early 21st century, and its old occupiers and past courtiers, greedy nations who valued their tribal ways more than the ways of men - these now live on in the children growing up around the cypresses and Mediterranean oaks of the few lands untouched by the Great Cataclysm.

Text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Middle East Institutions - Le Chef

Gouraud Street, Gemayze, Beirut, 961 1 446769 - 961 1 445373

Sunday, February 24, 2008

In Arabian Nights

Review: In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams
By Tahir Shah, 388 Pages. Bantam Books

Just over a year ago British travel writer Tahir Shah released his bestselling book The Caliph’s House in which he recounts a year spent with his family in a Casablanca shantytown renovating an old Moroccan estate attended to by a host of disruptive servants. In his latest travelogue, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, Shah continues the story, but makes as his focus the timeless oral traditions of the North African kingdom.

Inspired by one of his servants who rebukes him for not really knowing Morocco and by his coffee-shop acquaintances who suggest that he ameliorate this situation by seeking out the raconteurs of Morocco’s traditional tales, Shah embarks on a personal quest to uncover and then unlock the heritage of storytelling that lies at the soul of Moroccan society and culture.

By following a string of mysterious leads, Shah ventures forth from his newly adopted Casablanca and into the Moroccan hinterland in search of wizened bards and their yarns, encountering a strange concoction of characters who help him in his quest to “find the story in his heart.” The author’s own upbringing in this same tradition of storytelling by way of his father, the late Afghan writer and savant, Idries Shah, infuses his quest with deeper meaning and provides a wider context to which the younger Shah places his discoveries.

The result is an interesting, if highly unusual, travelogue of interwoven narratives combining anecdote, personal reminiscences, cross-cultural observations, and traditional tales, whose warp and weft resemble the story within a story format of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

Unlike some other travel books which overload their readers with daring escapades, and expositions of the ultra-bizarre, In Arabian Nights avoids such obvious showmanship. Demonstrating that “real travel is not about the highlights with which you dazzle your friends once you’re home” Shah imbibes his readers, as though through osmosis, with the subtle but surreal nuances of life deep within the bosom of Morocco.

The inquisitive reader is rewarded with direct, almost voyeuristic, access into the complex human relationships and events unfolding behind the walls of Dar Khalifa or “The Caliph’s House” - the name of Shah’s renovated estate.

Here pitched battles unfold between Shah’s two female nannies vying for the attention of his children; his gardener mysteriously quits out of shame for having been caught staring at one of Shah’s female workers; and his entire staff of caretakers become obsessed with the possibility that Dar Khalifa is possessed by jinn - troublesome spirit-beings said to inhabit the recesses of abandoned places.

More central to Shah’s journey are his discoveries, made while trawling the souqs and medinas of Fes and Marrakesh, about the role of traditional storytelling in the Middle East as a method of passing down knowledge.

In contrast to the predominant view in the West that stories and tales exist at best only to entertain and stir the imaginations of children, Shah tells us that stories are seen in the East as being for everyone, embodying important truths and containing narrative patterns designed to nurture wisdom and cultivate the human mind. Drawing upon the verbiage of the Sufi tradition of which his father was a part, Shah asserts that such stories act as “a kind of key, a catalyst, a device to help humanity think in a certain way, to help us wake up from the sleep” in which humankind finds itself.

This same oral storytelling tradition, Shah tells us, has entirely disappeared in the West. This is largely owing to what the author claims is our current obsession with book learning. It is a particularly poignant indictment. Believing that knowledge and wisdom come only with volume, the people of the western world, he tells us, simply read too many books, and are constantly demanding new material. “Much of the time it’s the same old stuff packaged in a fresh way” Shah says. “The result is wordage for the sake of wordage.” This is in contrast, the author claims, to the situation in the East, whose denizens value the same narratives that have been in circulation for millennia and which have been “tried and tested” as vessels of knowledge.

In Arabian Nights reads like a fairy tale, moving between moments of sobering reality and a surrealism generated from an unusual mix of dream sequences, fictional storytelling, and metaphysics. There is little here for those readers seeking the outlandish characters and drug-induced exploits of the expatriate Morocco of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, although Shah does throw in one such character for good measure -- an eccentric Italian book collector in Tangier obsessed with phalluses and who sells Shah the complete first edition of Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights.

Shah’s chronicle at first appears puerile and the tales which he collects and recounts, sometimes in succession, come across as slightly overwhelming and oppressive. But as the author implies throughout the book, this reaction stems from our rejection of such modes of communication inculcated by a culture bereft of the knowledge of what a story can actually do.

Although Shah does not explicitly reveal what these stories in fact do to those who read them, by the end of the book the yarns have somehow seeped into you.

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Not the Iran We Imagine

Review: Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran
By Jason Elliot
416 pages. Picador.

Travel writing may often entertain and sometimes astonish, but seldom does it take the reader past a constellation of anecdotal experiences into the true essence of a place beyond all preconception.

Jason Elliot’s Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran takes aim at the blunting assumptions and false perceptions of this little understood country, slipping past the usual suspects of our myopic obsession with the Islamic Republic – mullahs, ayatollahs, and their agitated underlings – and into the other rarified Iran, which almost never sees the light of day in the mainstream media.

Coming several years after his New York Times’ bestselling travelogue An Unexpected Light about his journeys in Afghanistan, Elliot’s second book seamlessly collates a series of trips to Iran made over a period of three years and which follows faintly in the footsteps of Robert Byron's 1930s travel classic, The Road to Oxiana.

Using the congested megalopolis of Tehran as an embarkation point and periodic way-station, Elliot goes forth in all directions to uncover a complex mosaic of landscapes, characters and architecture that underscores Iran's palpable soul. Elliot’s travelogue however goes further than Byron’s in its intent to uncover a hidden world so vastly different from that which most people think they can see: both in the concealed reality of a country and its people, and in its heritage of art and architecture.

At every step of his journey Elliot is confronted by situations and experiences that shatter his own admitted preconceptions of Iranian life and culture. Elliot’s expectations of a trip plagued by hostility and imminent threat are again and again dispelled by the openness, hospitality, and humour of his forthcoming and generous hosts. Reader's expecting a travelogue peppered with the grating disruptions of government minders and suspicious locals will find instead an account of a journey as free and unopposed as any imaginable. Elliot finds that he has unfettered access to the remotest corners of the country.

At every turn of the page, the anticipated barbarisms of a country thought to be foaming at the mouth give way to moments of normality, even civility: an Iranian Interior Ministry official repeatedly telling an incredulous Elliot that he is free to travel anywhere in Iran that he wants; the wife of a friend taking Elliot on a car-tour of the capital; travels on horseback through forested Elburz mountain villages where people live simple and idyllic lives; a martyrdom celebration in Kashan which is peaceful and friendly and free of self-immolation. Here is the Iran that constantly flies beneath the radar of the foreign correspondents and policy analysts. Elliot pulls aside the curtain to show the Wizard in all of his benevolent glory.

The way in which Elliot weaves his tale leaves the reader with the experience of having his or her own assumptions trounced along with the author’s. In a memorable instance Elliot and an Iranian friend watch a mob of violent protesters clash with police on a television newscast. We along with Elliot assume the scene to be taking place in Tehran and feel a slight bit of embarrassment for Elliot’s host. That is, until we discover that the child of Elliot’s friend has just asked his father in Farsi “whether everywhere in England is always as bad as that, or just that place called Brad-ford.”

Elliot’s subsequent meeting on a plane with an Iranian forensic pathologist, returning with his wife to Tehran from a conference in Stockholm sums up poignantly the morass of misunderstanding in which West today finds itself vis-a-vis Eastern cultures. Bewildered and appalled by the strange comments and questions that the pathologist and his wife received from their European colleagues regarding fictional barbaric medical practices in Iran, the doctor asks Elliot in a fit of desperation, “Where is the Iran these people imagine?”

More than highlighting our own misperceptions through his personal encounters with everyday Iranians, Elliot embarks on a journey-within-a-journey to expose and unlock one of the least appreciated of Iran’s contributions to human thought and expression – it’s heritage of Islamic art and architecture. Here Elliot continues the work begun, but left unfinished, by Byron.

According to Elliot, Islamic art has been misunderstood and misconstrued by western academics and historians. The flowery motifs, abstract geometry and ornate calligraphy which typify the interior and exterior designs of many of Iran’s historical and religious buildings - such as those at Isfahan, Shiraz, Kerman and Mashhad - are considered by the West to be, at best, aesthetically appealing expressions of exoticism devoid of any real meaning or symbolism. For the academic who can only see through academic eyes, it is an aesthetic that reflected once former religious and political mores, and which was designed to be pretty and clever – but nothing more.

Elliot suggests on the contrary that much Islamic art was designed to express a hidden reality, an ineffable cosmic order. The perfection of symmetry, rhythm and beauty seen in much of Iranian architecture was intended in part to act upon the human mind, guiding the observer’s perception non-linearly and non-rationally towards the divine – a destination where neither logic nor reason may arrive on its own. Islamic art, the author suggests, should be seen as the earthly manifestation, the terrestrial mirror-image, of the unseen world of the beyond. And hence we have the title of Elliot’s book.

Much like the culture he is describing, Elliot’s travelogue is both subtle and powerful. His prose is magnificent and human, flowing with candor and humility. He includes just the right mix of politics and history, anecdote and personal musings to keep the narrative constantly fresh and moving. Intensity of experience is interspersed with the periodic comic relief of cab drivers and hotel owners pitting their wits against Elliot in their attempts to constantly overcharge him.

And despite the generally positive take on Iranian society and culture, we are still reminded of the dark brooding forces of irrationality that lurk in the background, by way of a few marginal characters that cross Elliot’s path: including a thuggish cleric and his armed-to-the-teeth bodyguards at the horse races in Gombad-e-Qabus, and a brutish police checkpoint official who manhandles the author’s driver on a rural highway south of Isfahan.

The lack of relevance that Elliot assigns these people is one of the true hallmarks of Mirrors of the Unseen. Pay them little heed, Elliot suggests. It is part of the implicit message directed towards western civilization, it's policymakers and leaders, who, from their continued misperceptions seem to be plotting yet another course of confrontation with a country which they think they know by way of their convoluted imaginings.

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Sheikh Abbad Hill

In the year 2000, I was working with the United Nations as the political advisor to the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Representative for southern Lebanon. Among our problems was a special spot on the Lebanese-Israeli border. There stands there a hill with a panoramic view of the Israeli panhandle and Lebanon’s rolling southern hill.

The Muslims call the site ‘Sheikh Abbad” after the Sufi saint they believe is buried in a tomb located at the top of the hill. According to tradition, he lived as a hermit in the area about 500 years ago and he had religious followers, makers of mattresses, who sold their goods near the Sea of Galilee.

The Israelis, on the other hand, believe Rabbi Ashi, a Jewish sage, is interred on the same spot. Rabbi Ashi lived about 1,600 years ago and assembled the Babylonian Talmud, an interpretation of Jewish oral law.

In 1978, Israel occupied southern Lebanon and also gained control of Sheikh Abbad hill. Twenty two years later, Israel withdrew from Lebanon and the UN was left with the dubious responsibility of drawing a line of withdrawal between Lebanon and Israel.

The UN cartographers used sophisticated GPS systems to mirror the armistice line that existed between British Mandate Palestine and French Mandate Lebanon in the early 20th century. This ‘Blue Line’ that the UN drew between Israel and Lebanon was accurate within metres… and happened to pass right through the small tomb (1 x 2 metres) on Sheikh Abbad Hill. This effectively left the tomb one-half in Lebanon, one-half in Israel. The photos included here are from the Lebanese side of the border.

After the withdrawal, Hizballah, the Lebanese Shiite group that had fought the Israeli occupation, sent busloads of its followers to the Lebanese side of the tomb to visit the site of the Sufi saint, but also to harass the Israeli soldiers on the other side of the tomb. Young Lebanese who detest the Israelis, would come and spit and throw rocks at them. Once, two teenagers lobbed firecrackers at the young Israelis hunkered down with M-16s on their side of the tomb and occasionally the soldiers would get angry enough to fire at their Lebanese harassers - one boy was shot in the leg due to his misbehaviour.

Matters got bad enough that the Israelis finally put up a fence over and around the tomb, physically cutting it in half. Israel had also put up a plaque in Hebrew to commemorate the presence of Rabbi Ashi, but this was also cut in half by the Blue Line and the new fence. The Lebanese scratched out the Hebrew words left on their territory.

No one knows who, if anyone, lies in the tomb. It’s an old legend. As one clever diplomat said, “Knowing the Middle East, it’s probably a Christian monk in there…”.

Text and photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008


The Cedars of Lebanon stand solitary on a mountain top. What little remains of these majestic trees is a silent testament to the health, or lack of it, of Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East.

The Cedars are the most powerful symbol of Lebanon, with the Lebanese flag sporting an image of one of the remaining trees. They have lasted millennia. They stand witness to the dozens of armies that marched up and down the coast of Lebanon, to and from battle, and to the tenacity of Phoenicians, Canaanites and Maronites that conquered the mountains to harvest the Cedar wood.

They stand in the lore of the Middle East: in the wood of the Solar Boat buried beside the Great Pyramid of Giza, in the cedar chest that Osiris was sealed in to die, and in the boats that plied the Mediterranean in search of trade, plunder and treasure. Yet, what stands now is a small grove, some dozens of trees, where once there were mountainsides. The disappearance of the Cedars of Lebanon is due to deforestation and soil erosion - a classic tale of humans blindly using up their resources for short-term interest.

Some of the trees in the Cedar grove above the village of Bsharre are now also ill. They have a disease that requires their pruning and a diminishing of their majesty and longevity. The Cedars are a symbol of where the Middle East has come to: a state of disregard for nature, its resources, and above all for humans' place in the great play. The mountains above Beirut are now paved with concrete.

That city, despite flashes of architectural beauty, suffers from rampant grey construction, the fumes of diesel and automotive congestion, and a seaside littered with garbage. Cairo, Damascus, Alexandria all suffer the same fate. Demographics are a key driver of this unfortunate circumstance. Large populations blindly living out technological and industrial habits will mean pollution and concrete - a new kind of deforestation.

There are activists who are attempting to reclaim the Lebanese mountains. Their efforts are commendable and indeed one can see the dark saplings on the slopes of Jaj or the Chouf in the Lebanese mountains. However, their efforts must expand in scope and kind - it is not enough to replant hundreds of trees. Hundred of thousands must be sown, and this effort must also be reflected in the clean-up state of cities and politics.

The Cedars are today a symbol of past glory, but they are also a symbol of deadwood, reflecting the essential need for renewal. The road ahead for the Middle East, like any society, can only be in renewal. This can take place in projects of reforestation, or a clean-up of the environment, or in urban renewal - not just through words, but also through activities requiring human planning, devotion of time, money and in resources which are currently allocated to less productive activities: political infighting and corruption, ideological wishes, or a comforting sense of victimization.

The latter produce barren mountains and the bare remnants of a forest - an ailing grove whose majesty is fading fast. The former is an act that reflects the imperatives of nature: renew or die. Admission of this state of affairs may be harsh, and a sting to pride, but it is a rule of nature to renew for the sake of one's children - for survival.

This rule applies to people's relationship to their environment, as well as to their religion, politics and their relation with their neighbour. This rule stands not only for Arab societies but for the Arab-Israeli conflict as well. The most famous appointment of the woods of the Cedars of Lebanon was with Solomon's Temple.

The hard and scented cedar beams were the basis of that spiritual monument. The memory of that place, the Temple Mount, is now the symbol of the toughest conflict between peoples on this planet.

The wood of the Temple building has rotted away, but the spirit behind it - a relationship with the divine that means inclusion and not intolerance - must be now renewed, and renewed again - or the region will perish as the old wood has.

All text and photos in this post copyright 2008 John Zada and John Bell

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Syrian Villa

In the autumn of 1975, Syria dispatched a regiment of army special-forces soldiers to Lebanon. The deployment was in response to a request for assistance from the Lebanese government which was then facing a civil insurrection. Rather than stabilizing the situation and then leaving, the Syrians remained in situ, becoming entangled in the dizzying tribal frenzy that became Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

Fearing a state of anarchy on its western border, and seeing an opportunity to seize upon a lengthy historical claim to Lebanon, Damascus dug-in its heels for the duration of the civil-war and beyond - eventually becoming overlord to this tiny and once sovereign country in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Some 40,000 Syrian troops and countless intelligence personnel eventually made Lebanon their home. In the process, Lebanon’s society and landscape were transformed through the creation of an infrastructure designed to funnel information and booty to the political godfathers in Damascus.

All across Lebanon, and around the environs of Beirut, this vast informer network of soldiers and spies took up ad-hoc lodgings often in villas or homes which they had confiscated from their owners as far back as the beginning of the civil-war. Many of these garrisons, set on strategic points that punctuated the capital and its hillside suburbs, acted not only as shelter for Syrian soldiers, but as stopover points for the movement of drugs, weapons, money, and political prisoners.

For the Lebanese, these impromptu lodgings were considered no-go areas where the disheveled and heavily moustachio’d underlings of the omniscient Big Brother of the Arab hinterland resided.

The Alay region of Lebanon is the sight of several such former army garrisons. The hilltop outposts in-and-around the towns of Damour, Aramoun, Choueifat, Doha and Khaldeh, which overlook the southern approaches to the Lebanese capital, were originally established as a defense against an invasion by Israel.

In the fall of 2004, after almost 30 years, the Syrian army began to partially vacate these areas as Damascus started scaling back its military presence from Beirut. The remaining outposts were entirely emptied in April 2005 during the retreat of the Syrian army from Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri. It was a hit for which the Syrians are now largely blamed. These army villas are now left abandoned, awaiting reclamation by their original owners. It is here that the physical legacy of the Syrian presence in Lebanon is still most visible.

I traveled to the town of Aramoun to visit the former Syrian army lodgings, many of which remain until today uninhabited. Four or five of the buildings can be seen sticking out like sore thumbs along the main road that loops through the hilly, verdant community of quaint homes and low-rise apartment blocks. Each is an enormous ruin stripped bare, replete with missing panes of glass, collapsed walls and bullet holes. Forests of protective weeds can usually be found adorning the perimeter of these properties.

Braving the incredulous stares of the locals, I managed to find my way inside a few of these buildings. Their dilapidated exteriors and associations with an occupying army made them very much taboo. It was impossible not to be seen entering these buildings during daylight, so I kept a swift pace.

From the inside, the buildings were almost entirely gutted, though the residues of lives lived were everywhere to be felt. The imagination spikes amidst these scenes of abandon: empty, dirt-smeared hallways teeming with ghosts; car tires set in a semi-circle to create a makeshift living room; beams of sunlight given form in the dust-laden air. Odd objects left behind, too worthless or too burdensome to be carried away, littered the floors: an army jacket, a padlocked wooden crate, a termite-eaten desk, charred cushions used for indoor campfires, a sofa shredded to pieces…

A colorful legacy of political wall art - including graffiti, political poetry, and collages of magazine cut-outs - still adorn the villas mixing with the rubbish and pock-marked concrete to create a sort of Arabic post-apocalyptic mood. Catalogues of names of Syrian soldiers can be found scribbled upon every wall, reflecting anguished moments of solitude. Political slogans and quotes from deified Damascene rulers - drilled into the warrior consciousness - greet the wanderer at every doorway. In one hallway: “The human being attains his humanity as he walks towards martyrdom.” Completing the entire picture was a silence and smell of decay that mimicked death in its finality and coldness.

How would the former occupants of these buildings, if they were still to be found today, begin the process of reclaiming and reabsorbing these places? How would they reacquaint with their old living spaces that have been transformed – irrevocably - beyond both physical and psychic recognition?
Who exactly lived here, and what went on in these homes for the better part of three decades will surely never be known.

Text and photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

By Way of the Kingdom of Kush

All text and photos in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Many years ago, i came across an old image in a book. It was an early 20th century black-and-white photograph of what appeared to be a cluster of Egyptian-style pyramids located somewhere in Sudan.

The haunting photo showed a group of relatively small but steep pyramids jutting defiantly out of a sandy plateau in some fantastic desert venue of the imagination. Photographed by an American archeologist, they seemed very different from their superstar cousins far to the north at Giza. Instead, they looked like a collection of broken fangs pointing into a Martian sky.

Many years later, I found myself huddled atop an aging Bedford truck with more than a dozen Sudanese villagers, heading straight for that entrancing desrt locale, the ancient city of Meroe.

Meroe, on the east shore of the Nile, served as the late capital of the Kingdom of Kush, a Nubian civilization at the southern fringes of ancient Egypt, in what is today northern Sudan. The Kushite kingdom is considered one of the oldest civilizations in the interior of Africa, dating to the third millennium B.C.

Shielded by its obscurity and by the vagaries of war and pestilence, the kingdom and its pyramids have managed to escape the worst of the frenetic tourist activity that has befallen its Egyptian relatives downstream.

I was travelling overland from Cairo to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital - a route that would traverse the very heart of the ancient kingdom. To reach the ruins of Meroe, and ultimately Khartoum, would require a harrowing trip several hundred kilometres through the Nubian Desert.

The journey began in earnest at the port of Wadi Halfa - the desolate and sleepy Sudanese border town located on the southern shores of Lake Nubia, the Sudanese portion of Lake Nasser. Leaving this isolated outpost required choosing between one of two equally daunting modes of transportation: a weekly train, notorious for its slowness and numerous breakdowns, or Bedford trucks used to ferry both people and goods to a constellation of towns by way of unpaved desert tracks. Both trips promised to be multi-day affairs. I opted for the truck and found a driver who asked a reasonable fare.

Joining me atop bags of cement in the open bed of the truck were a collection of villagers and vagabonds. After what turned out to be a four-day ordeal, which included flat tires, fist-fights, sandstorms and starry nights, I arrived at Meroe fatigued, aching and covered from head to toe in dust. I was abandoned by the side of the road to a crushing stillness made more awesome by the sight of the pyramids. My arrival in the early morning helped to ensure a solitary viewing of the site. For hours, I waded across small dunes, moving unobstructed between the various pyramids. Later, taking in the whole view from a distance, I couldn't help but feel a sense of achievement: I had secured a private audience with the deceased kings of Kush.

By late morning, however, the scene began to change in painful increments. Several white SUVs filled with tourists appeared, a few hustlers arrived to push camel rides, and a guide made his way across the dunes. As i headed toward the site's exit, the proverbial horse-drawn carriage truly turned into a pumpkin.

At the entrance to the site, a group of Ababda tribal people were waiting in ambush to hawk fake antiquities. "Meestar! Meestar! You want old coin? Look, Nubian knife!"

The package tourists had found Kush, and a fledgling economy had begun to take shape around them.

Later, as i stood waiting by the roadside for the next truck bound for Khartoum, I continued to gaze from a distance at those pyramids and marvel at how close I had come to another time and place.