Al-Mina, Tyre, Lebanon, 2018

Tyre, situated on the sea 83 km south of Beirut, Lebanon, is emblematic of what today’s traveler will find when following the routes of temples and ancient ruins across the Mediterranean and New East.  Tyre is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and in the times of the Phoenicians and the Romans was a pulsing center of trade and military might.  Now, Tyre is poor, consigned to oblivion, and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al-Mina stands forgotten in a region confronting continued military threat, civil unrest, and a refugee crisis.  The Roman ruins look out upon the sea from fields empty of visitors.

Feeding Pigeons, Port of Tyre, Lebanon, 2018

On the other side of the Tyre headland from Al-Mina is the sleepy Tyre Port.  At the sea wall, a man suns himself, feeding pigeons in the comfort of his bricolage palace, assembled from seaside debris and crushed soda cans.

Flaming Towers, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2018

Vibrant cities like Petra and Kyzyl Kala turn into ancient, abandoned ruins.  Other once-important cities descend the commerce scale to become sleepy ports of call, like Tyre and Bukhara.  Meanwhile, new cities rise as powerful points on the energy and commercial maps of the New East.  The Flaming Towers of Baku proclaims with architectural audacity the new order status of Azerbaijan on the international stage.  Provider of oil to countries around the Mediterranean and Black Sea, Azerbaijan takes on the traditional energy Goliaths of Russia and the Middle East.  Azerbaijan rebuilds its capital city of Baku accordingly, transforming its long history of religious fire worship into an architectural statement visible from every vantage point across the city.

Flower Seller, Baku-Shamakhi-Yevlakh Highway, Azerbaijan, 2018

These roadside pitstops take all manner of forms.  At the top of a mountain pass in Azerbaijan, on a long-ago route connecting Persia and Central Asia, a man sells bouquets of spring’s first flowers.  One costs around a dollar, but as I dig out my wallet, he gives me a bouquet for free.  I buy from him a large jar of honey, one of the staples of the roadside market economy in the Caucasus Mountains.

Ushguli, Georgia, 2018

The sun breaks through the colossal clouds towering over the four villages of Ushguli, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Located at an altitude of 2100 meters near the foot of Shkhara, one of the highest summits of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, Ushguli is one of the highest continuously inhabited cities in the world.  It is reachable by car, along a dangerously pitted road, only two or three months out of the year.  Georgians make their pilgrimage here to celebrate the Svaneti defensive towers found throughout and to drink cha cha, a homemade alcohol, to the memory of Colchis and the “Golden Fleece,” thought to have been produced here in the streams of these hills.

Lunapark, Batumi, Georgia, 2019

Batumi, Georgia, is a port city on the Black Sea reborn through tourism and gambling.  Its history goes back millennium when it was a Greek colony in the land of Colchis.  Famously known for its mythical “golden fleece,” Colchis was the destination of avarice Jason and his Argonauts, which the Batumi memorialize with their own golden statue of Medea in the middle of town.  Here on the edge of town, in a tiny amusement park, a comic combination of mythic female power and invader greed prepares to assault the rash of condominiums catering to the newly rich of “The Last Vegas of the Black Sea.”

Qasr Al-Kharanah, Jordan, 2018

Qasr Al-Kharanah might have been an inn serving traders and travelers during the time of the Umayyad Caliphate, an empire stretching from Central Asia to the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, all the way to Spain and Portugal, by 750 AD.  Today, known as a “Desert Castle,” Qasr Al-Kharanah rises out of the dry, hot sands like a mirage, the earth flat to the horizon and the heavily guarded borders of Iraq and Syria beyond.  Its solidity is balanced by almost sumptuous curves at the corners.  The entrance hints at the arcing curves to be found within, a refuge from the unrelenting, sweltering sky spanning the Arabian desert.

Fortress of Machaerus, Dead Sea–Ma’in Highway, Jordan, 2018

On the old routes of pilgrimage and commerce, some of the important ancient sites have all but vanished.  Such is the case for the Fortress of Machaerus, where Saint John the Baptist was imprisoned before his beheading.  Two Roman columns alone remain of the fort.  Aside from a shepherd’s flock of goats below, the landscape is emptier of life than it ever was in historic times.

Cowboys, Petra, Jordan, 2018

The traveler cannot move through Petra without awareness of the workers.  The Bedouin appear on every path with their pack animals, taking both people and goods up to the high places, like the Monastery.  They are who make the “Rose City” an international transit point, like the nomadic Nabateaens before them.  These Bedouin have the honor of living inside the tightly guarded landscape of Petra and its surrounding wadis, free to roam the mountainous terrain after tourists decamp and the security gates close.

Monastery, Petra, Jordan, 2018

Petra, the crown jewel amongst Jordan’s great archeological treasures, was once the flourishing capital of the Nabateaens, a kingdom made up of great nomadic traders.  They built vibrant trade routes connecting the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas, engineered water conduit systems in a desert landscape, and developed the singular rock-cut architecture that is now heralded one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  Then calamity struck—an earthquake—and the Romans Empire took over.  The Nabateaen kingdom faded and Petra disappeared.  Rediscovered in 1812, Petra has been described by UNESCO as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.”  The so-called Monastery is one of its highest architectural achievements.  To reach it, the pilgrim must climb over eight hundred rock-cut steps up a mountain.  In the earliest hours of morning, it glows in the reflection of soft light hitting the rose-colored sand.  No one is present.  Even the wind has vanished.

Highway Food Stop, Uzbekistan, 2018

Roadside carts maintain the tradition of the caravanserai up and down the spine of the New East.  You pull off the highway, roll down your window, and call out for a chocolate bar.  You get out of the car, stretch your legs, and decide between an apple or a jar of the Uzbek cheese balls called kurt.  Made of milk and salt and dried out in the sun for days, kurt can last for years (yes, years).  An essential staple for nomads, it is as traditional as the Uzbek patterns and colors of the clothes worn by the women who make and sell it.

Muyi Muborak Madrasah, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 2018

Two women walk intimately together across the square before the Muyi Muborak Madrasah, part of the cultural heart of Islam in Uzbekistan.  These are the spaces that experienced a cultural resurgence after the fall of the USSR when people had the freedom to practice Islam openly again in Central Asia.

Early Morning at the Kalon Minaret, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, 2018

In the golden light of a morning’s early hours, a man walks purposefully at work in front of Bukhara’s Kalon Minaret.  For a brief second, the traveler can feel privy to the rhythm of particular city, wherein daily duties exist nonchalantly side-by-side grandiose history.

Highway Marker, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, 2018

The best way to see either the New East or the ancient Silk Road is by car or by foot, rather than air or train.  It is the only way to experience the sublime distance between points of interest and the big skies dominating the earth.  Here, in the middle of nowhere, amidst the barren plains of the Karakalpakstan deserts in the far west of Uzbekistan, rises up a Soviet-era decorative arch, marking the way to Samarkand.  It is the only thing to see for miles.

Lakeside, Balykchy, Issky-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, 2018

The ruins of a children’s amusement park becomes grazing ground for a farmer’s modest herd of horses in Balykchy, set on the gritty north side of Issky-Kul, the great lake in northeastern Kyrgyzstan.

Abandoned Kyrgyz Cultural Heritage Park, Issky-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, 2018

Built in the post-USSR era, when the nomad peoples of Kyrgyzstan could once again celebrate their cultural and religious roots, this park devoted to Kyrgyz heritage now stands abandoned on the south side of Issky-Kul, the northeastern great lake of the country.

High Waters of Pik Seminonova Tien-Shanskogo, Kyrgyzstan, 2018

In the earliest days of spring, when the roads into the mountains still remain unpassable, the first glacier melt of the season races down from a mountain range standing 4530–4895 meters high.  These are the waters that will bring, in coming months, colors to match the intensity of the clear mountain sky.

Cemetery, Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, 2018

The Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, being a nation of nomads, holds few archeological ruins.  Ties to the past are displayed in its modern cemeteries, the ceremonial headstones of its graves evoking the ancient tombs of long ago.

Field of Ancient Bal-Bals, Lost City of Balasagun, Kyrgyzstan, 2018

North of Grigorievka, looking out on Kolsaiskie Lakes National Park, A Site of World Nomad Games; Kyrgyzstan, 2018

Garden Shop, Highway A365, Kyrgyzstan, 2018

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