Images of Al Qasr

Some places in the world are so imbued with a sense of history that you seem to have walked backwards to have arrived there. The old caravan town of Al Qasr in Egypt’s Western Desert is one of them. Just a short journey from the fly-blown town of Mut (which lives up to its uninspiring name) in Dakhla Oasis, is this creaky time warp of mud-brick bordered by immense sand dunes. Thought to be the oldest town in the oasis, Al Qasr first rose to prominence in the 12th Century and became one of the most important centres of the Western Desert under Ottoman rule. Most of its remaining, though crumbling, architecture of covered alleyways, decorated brickwork and intricately inscribed acacia beam lintels dates from this period.

Visit during the early afternoon when the narrow high-walled lanes here provide some relief from the scorching desert heat.

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Images of Algiers

The Algiers kasbah is all white-and-blue loveliness that tumbles down the hill towards the shore. It’s a winding labyrinth of alleyways, rimmed by tall, narrow buildings, that lead you on a merry maze of a stroll. Don’t bother with a map, they said. And they were right. Just head down. You’ll get out eventually.

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Beautiful Beiteddine

Abu Nasser pulled the taxi into the empty car park and made a theatrical swerve across the concrete. “Busy, isn’t it.” He joked. There were only two other tourists strolling around Beiteddine Palace when I visited. In any other country a tourist site like this would be swarming with camera-clickers. But Beiteddine is in Lebanon. And with no end in sight to the conflict across the border in Syria,  the glorious caramel and honey tinged stone and marble architecture of this peacock pile in the Chouf Mountains sits empty of admirers.

Beiteddine was built by the Ottoman governor Emir Bashir Shihab II in the 19th century. Today it positively drips with the memory of opulence that defined the interiors and architecture of that era. Walking around pompous rooms of grand mansions and palaces always make me feel uneasy. With the building devoid of tour groups this feeling was magnified. My shoes squeaked on the polished floors. A guard lounged in a doorway frame watching me set up a photo. My shoes scuffed again with a loud nails-on-chalkboard trill. I frowned in embarrassment and silently apologised to the house. The guard walked towards me and I wondered if I was about to be told off for having squeaky sneakers. But no. He just wanted to make me climb over the ropes into the ‘do-not-access’ side of the room so he could take a photo of me reclining on the sofa.

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Images of Petra

Who were the Nabataeans?

Imagine what would happen if a bunch of wheeler-dealer nomads, with some seriously incredible ideas about hydraulics, decided to create a capital city amid a hidden canyon to protect and run their spice trading empire from.

Think about the work it must have taken to chisel 40m-high facades into sheer stone and the engineering wizardry of the channel system of terracotta pipes that brought water into the city.

Remember that what you see today is just the monuments, temples and tombs that have withstood 2000 years. This was once a living, breathing empire’s capital that managed to maintain its independence even as the might of the Roman Empire gobbled up the Middle East.

That was who the Nabataeans were.

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For more information on visiting Petra you can read my recent story on hiking Petra’s Bedouin back trails for BBC Travel.

Romeo is dead in the town of tantric bliss

I called them The John Travoltas. The skinny boys with greased down and perfectly centre-parted hair, dressed in hip-hugging flares and carefully tucked-in, ironed polyester wide-lapelled shirts. They were always hanging around the guesthouse reception and knocking on my door.

“Jas-see-car, you come motorbike ride?”

“Jas-see-car, come drink whiskey with me.”

“Jas-see-car, why you no liking us?”

“Jas-see-car, you making me ca-razy not talking to me!”

I’d come to Khajuraho to see its temples, famously adorned with graphic sexual depictions. But if the local boys had it their way I’d be starring in their own epic Bollywood Kama Sutra blockbuster before I left.

On the guesthouse rooftop I watched the daylight fade and the weak yellow illumination of the street lamps stamp their flickering glow across the alleyway below. I smelled him before I heard him. The cheap cologne radiated off his pores in a fruity chemical fug. He propped himself up next to me on the cement wall and invited me to a party. “A very merry party,” he explained. “Where, Jas-see-car, we will dance and dance until you are falling in love with me.” Then he launched himself off the wall and shimmied across the rooftop like a reed-thin Fred Astaire who, denied a dame, had developed a major hip-thrusting tick.

The light bulb in my room flickered and died just after 10pm as I was reading in bed. I scrambled for the candle and matches in my pack, cursing under my breath when I stubbed my toe on the edge of the bed frame. Just as I lit the candle there was a knock at the door. “Jas-see-car,” a sing-song voice said softly. “Maybe you are no liking the dark and need some company?”

Khajuraho was the first capital and then the cultural base of the Chandela Rajput Dynasty who ruled over a large swath of central India between the 10th and 12th centuries. Under the rule of King Dhangdev, King Gand and then King Vidyadhar, the town became a flourishing centre of Chandela artistry. Its ornately-decorated temple architecture was its crowning glory.

India has no shortage of temples to visit but Khajuraho’s are something special. Carved into every inch of temple exterior are thousands of exquisitely detailed scenes. Gods, Goddesses, musicians and maidens are all preserved, finely crafted, into stone. What have captured visitors’ imaginations though are the many facade scenes which depict sexual acts.

I stood craning my head upwards at the vast temple walls, staring at the open-air gallery of Medieval pornography. A local tour guide marched past jabbing his walking stick towards the temple. Following behind, was a straggling group of silver-haired tourists, flabby-skinned white knees poking out below billowing walking shorts, laden down with guidebooks and cameras. He turned towards them and raised the walking stick up into the air to rally his troops yelling “This way everybody, for the bestiality scenes.” The group quickened their pace to a shuffle. A few starchy-perm haired ladies tittered behind their hands.

When the British engineer T.S Burt thrashed through the jungle here in 1838, led to the Khajuraho temple complex by his local guides, he was scandalised by the artistic endeavours of the Chandela kings. In a typical display of buttoned-up Victorian hubris he vented his feelings about the discovery in the Journal of the Asiatic Society.

“I found in the ruins of Khajrao seven large diwallas, or Hindoo temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow rather warmer than there was any absolute  necessity for his doing; indeed, some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive…”

Archaeologist Alexander Cunningham brought the Khajuraho temple complex to the attention of the wider world after his survey of the complex carried out between 1852 and 1885. Intrepid Victorian travellers then purposely set off to see the temples with the intention to be outraged and titillated by the Chandela sculptures.

Not much seems to have changed in our view of the sexual content upon the temple walls. A male traveller would later confide to me that when visiting he’d kept looking over his shoulder, afraid to be caught staring too long at the displays of sexual antics. He explained he had felt like a teenager sneaking a furtive peek at his dad’s Playboy collection.

Nobody knows why the artisans here chose to create such a mind-boggling array of erotica. On the exterior of Khandariya-Mahadev Temple lustful groupings of wanton women are entangled with sensuous men in an orgy of positions. Known as mithuna, these scenes of love-making human couples were thought to ward off evil but scholars have been unable to answer why so many were portrayed. The sexual subject matter of the temple carvings has been the stimulus for many theories. One of the more plausible is that as the whole menagerie of daily life has been portrayed on the temple walls, sex, which leads to the creation of life itself, should be celebrated as well.  Whatever the Chandela architects’ reasoning, these are beautifully shaped scenes chiselled into stone with extraordinary skill, and it was all accomplished over a 100 year period of dazzling creativity that ended in AD 1050.

A soundtrack of birdsong and the soft staccato put-put of ceaseless water spray hoses followed me as I strolled between the temples. The western temple complex was a tranquil, green bubble complete with preening peacocks. Lush, manicured gardens were tended by a squadron of sweepers and grass cutters.  On exiting, I was tipped back out onto the drab, dusty streets of reality.

Touts besieged me as I wandered by their shops, shoving cheap plastic trinkets and ratty-edged Kama Sutra postcards under my nose. I headed back to the guesthouse where the John Travolta disciples were lounging around the lobby blasting Hindi Pop from the stereo. The rooms fizzed with unspent teenage energy. “Jas-see-car!” They yelled. “Now you are here we can dance.” A boy proudly showing off the first fluff of a moustache on his upper lip wiggled his way across the scuffed linoleum floor towards me wobbling his eyebrows and head up and down simultaneously. “Jas-see-car! Beautiful Jas-see-car!” The guy behind the reception desk cried while clapping his hands to the beat.

I escaped back outside and wandered out of town along the quiet back lanes. Sedate old lady cows joined me on their afternoon stroll. Two children whizzed by on an ancient bicycle, trilling the bike’s old fashioned bell as they passed. At the Jain temple enclosure the vivid sculptures decorating the Parsvanath Temple depicted snapshots of life’s mundane little moments yet still seemed endowed with a scent of sensuality. A young girl removed a thorn from her foot in one scene. Another hour-glassed ancient babe applied her kohl makeup. Big breasted and nubile apsara (female nymph figures of Buddhist and Hindu mythology) danced across the temple facade and wrapped their arms protectively around strong warrior men, looking longingly into their eyes. The long-gone artisans and inhabitants of Khajuraho seemed as obsessed with romance as my modern-day John Travolta wannabes.

As I paid my room bill that evening the guesthouse gang surrounded me in a circle at the reception table sporting pouting lips and slapstick jilted-lover looks. When I handed over the money, one rolled his eyes and fell back on the old sagging sofa stabbing at his chest with an imaginary dagger in his hand while plumes of dust rose up from the chair.

The parrots were the only other things awake when I left the next morning. Their squawking cacophony accompanied me as I crept out of the guesthouse, winding my way over the snoring bodies of John Travoltas wrapped up in blankets on the reception floor. On the alley corner I woke up a rickshaw driver snoozing in his cab and set off for the bus station. As we passed by the western enclosure the soft buttery-yellow sandstone of the temples seemed to glow in the early morning light.

I was about to board the bus when he turned up. One of the John Travoltas riding a battered motorbike came screeching to a halt right beside the bus door. “Jas-see-car!” he said. “You didn’t say goodbye.” Leaning on the bus, we smoked a cigarette together until the other passengers had all boarded and the bus driver beckoned me inside. When I got to my seat, I pushed open the window and waved. Sitting on his bike, with his hair still ruffled from sleep and not yet fought into that slick centre-part, he looked like an abandoned child.

As the engine rumbled into action he kicked the bike up to the side of the bus under my window and grabbed at his shirt with his fist. “Jas-see-car, my heart is being brokens into many little pieces.” I rolled my eyes and laughed as we rolled out of Khajuraho bus station and onto the road. In this town of ancient tantric temples, the modern day Romeos weren’t having much luck.

Before; images of Syria

“When we cross the border can you guarantee my safety?” The American said.

I rolled my eyes. “What do you mean?”

“When we get to Syria. Am I going to be safe?”

“Why wouldn’t you be safe?”

“I’m an American. Don’t they want to kill me?”

“The only thing they’ll fucking kill you with is kindness.” I said.

I fanned myself with my passport. We were stuck in a queue on Jordan’s Ramtha border. Tendrils of sweat raced their way down my back.

At the time I just wished he’d shut up and sit down while I did my job and got the group’s passports exit-stamped. Now I just wish the clocks could be turned back. That I could have those same annoying border conversations again and show people the Syria I know.

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A week on from that conversation, that same American had performed a hip hop dance for a bunch of very amused (and bemused) kids in the back streets of Damascus, been stunned by Palmyra’s columned ruins marching across the eastern desert, walked on top of the ramparts at Krak des Chevaliers, and been convinced by me to have a traditional barber shop shave in an Aleppo old city alleyway.

He came back to the hotel, slick with oil and reeking of the barber shop’s cheap cologne.

“He didn’t kill me!” He said. “And I told him I was American and everything. All he wanted to do was make me drink too much tea.”

Jekyll and Hyde: snapshots of Beirut’s two sides

I love the juxtaposition of Beirut. All battle-scarred and weary on the one hand and flash-the-cash gaudy on the other. It’s a city where soldiers, slouching against tanks, still occupy street corners watching high-heel clad shoppers, clack-clack-clacking down the pavement, swinging designer-label bags. Old Beirut may be no more but it will take the developers a while yet to wipe out the last crumbling, derelict reminders of a city that was once hailed as the Paris of the East and then nearly destroyed itself with war.

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The quiet side of Cairo

In my last post I talked about Cairo’s unending din; the constant roaring soundtrack that frays nerves and results in your normal voice becoming a shout. There are peaceful corners to the city known as Umm al-Dunya (the mother of the world) though. When the traffic chaos began to wear me down I’d escape to the city’s mosques and madrassas. They were places of quiet, calm refuge where I could sit without a backdrop of car horns, pop music, and non-stop yelling.

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