When we thing about the Middle East how often do we merely think of the violence and the bloodshed?
A while ago I had the fortune of seeing the amazing Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul exibition. You learn in school, of course, that ancient “mesopotamia” and all the other places that sound to the student more like fairy tales than actual locations were the cradde of civilisation during a time when Europeans were basically still living in caves. But it is easy to forget that all these marvels, Assur and Sumer and the Persian Empire, are the very geographic places we still see in the TV news all the time. I, too, forgot. Until some years ago I was at a UNESCO / Blue Shield conference and upon the long stream of presenters was an archaeologist almost in tears about the fashion in which Allied troops would trample throgh the very ruins of Babylon without even realising. Ulitmately she had a deck of playing cards, similar to the one featuring the US’ most wanted terrorists, printed showing the most important heritage sites of Iraq hoping someone would remember to thread lightly in these ancient lands.
These days I have been considering travel destinations for later this year and to my own surprise I found myself lay eyes on places I knew I cannot go: The ancient sites of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan; the cradle of civilisation where every rock tells a story or two or three. I want to see how the ancient Silk Road winds through the ranges of northern Afghanistan and Iran; I want to see the marvellous Persian gardens and the ruins of all those places we learnt about in history class much like they were from another world. But of course I cannot go there for they are drenched in blood and chaos that can re-errupt at any moment. There are still, and that is for a reason, travel warnings for Iraq and Afghanistan and the boycott of Iran means you cannot even withdraw money from an ATM or use a credit card there – leaving you stranded without cash in an emergency.
So as I looked longingly upon those fairy tale places it dawned on me with new strength how much more there is to the Middle East than terrorism and war and IEDs blowing up everyone that comes too close. I wonder how long it will take until I can travel there and feel welcome and secure and all of a sudden I just cannot wait for the time when the conflict is nothing but a memory and heritage sites are being given a new lease of life.
Five years ago I went on an extended field trip to Croatia. I had been there as a child, before the civil war, and I still remembered the place nobody ever thought would descend into chaos; a place with people much as we were where we would go to unwind and enjoy the sea and the hospitality and great cuisine of her people. And then the war came and all we ever got to see again of Croatia were endless streams of traumatised refugees. For ten or so years Croatia, too, was one of these places you just could not go.
So going there again after the debris had been cleared and an emancipated Croatia was on its way of becomming an European Union member had something magic. Visiting Dubrovnik, that medieval gem that was almost destroyed by the ferocity of civil war but had been rebuilt to its fully glory was special. Yes, there were still the traces of shelled houses never rebuilt as soon as you left the main road; a reminder of just how little time had passed; but seeing Croatia again after the war was a pointer how there is always a time after. Eventually.
And now looking upon the Mesopotamian high cultures I wonder and hope whether in another ten years these, too, might just awake from their uncomfortable rest and once again become sites to be marvelled at by generations to come with the war but a chapter of a very, very long and glorious history.