“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.

In January 2018, I set off on a four-month odyssey along tributaries of the Silk Road.  By this point, I was very ill and physically on my way to ruin.  Idiopathic gastroparesis, a lack of motility of the stomach for which there is no cure, made it close to impossible to eat.  I lived my days faint and frightened to walk outside my apartment in New York City.  This had gone on for a year.  I feared my photographic equipment and my life as traveler, artist, and art historian were all laid to rest.  I was forty-five and the walls were closing in.

Ruin, however, can be a gift.  Ruin is the road to transformation, as centuries of art and culture have shown.  I therefore set off on a pilgrimage to transform how I experienced my isolation from the world.  I called this pilgrimage “Past Ruins, To Modernity.”  The travel would be hard on me, certainly, but transformation into a new way of being or a new world order is a long and challenging road for all.  I headed to the Silk Road because it embodies this complex saga.  Not only do ruins mark the many routes of trade—ruins which the artist and art historian in me needed to see before I no longer could—but an entity called “The New East” is on the rise.  From the Levant to the Caucasus to Central Asia, old networks and connections are quietly being restored, financed through natural resources, tourism expansion, and a prescient China.  I wondered what all this would look like, from the grandeur of old empires to the still-humble lives in the mountains.   Moreover, I had a connection to the arts of the Silk Road.  When I was at university, I fell into a job designing oriental rugs.  The Tabriz, the Isfahan, the Quba, the Bukhara—I absorbed and reinterpreted these design traditions for a number of years.  This might be my last chance to see the environments from which these arts were born.

"Feeding Pigeons at the Port, 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.

“Large Court, Baalbek, Lebanon, 2018”

The ruins of Baalbek stand a few miles from Syria in the hills of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.  Travelers are warned off from visiting this archeological site since Hezbollah controls the region.  The ruins, empty of people, are quiet except for the wind blowing down from the mountains.  Although one of the largest archeological complexes of the Roman era, Baalbek seems almost delicate and toy-like under the big, open sky of the Levant.

I bought a one-way ticket to Beirut, Lebanon.  Traveling alone, without any connections to rely on, I did not have any set plan when I landed.  I also tried to have no set expectations—to be open to surprise, sadness, and wonder.  I just knew to follow my body’s requirements, my instincts about people and thought-provoking places, and a general route from the Levant to Central Asia.  I began in Lebanon because the prime minister had recently been kidnapped by Saudi Arabia and I worried political instability could break out again at any moment.  Americans have long been warned to avoid Lebanon, but since those Hezbollah-controlled regions are also home to the grand classical ruins of Baalbek and the Al-Mina of Tyre, I could not stay away.  Finding a driver to take me there proved difficult, however.  No one I met in Beirut had advice, perhaps not wanting to risk the responsibility if something went wrong.  Randomly met George, a taxi driver, and maybe this is the moment my pilgrimage really began.

Georges’s WhatsApp profile sported the icon of St. Charbel Makhlouf, the patron saint of miraculous healing, whom George claimed saved his life.  I took this as a sign—I needed miraculous healing, Lebanon needed miraculous healing, and the world, in many ways, needed miraculous healing.  I hired George to drive me north, south, and east out of Beirut.  Some days we traveled to where he recommended, like the St. Charbel monastery, where I cried alongside other pilgrims, George sitting silent beside me.  Other days we meandered toward destinations of archeological interest: the old fort of Tripoli, the broken Roman columns of Al-Mina in Tyre, and the windswept expanse that is the great Greek Baalbek.  Nothing bad ever happened, other than me getting repeatedly carsick.  In fact, both the long journeys and the great ruins were otherworldly quiet, Lebanon’s beautiful landscapes keenly at odds with war-blighted buildings.  As if in a dream, I explored Baalbek’s Temple of Bacchus without another soul around.  I clambered freely over the broken stones once comprising Baalbek’s Temple of Jupiter to take pictures of the Large Court below.  There were no guards telling me not to climb the ruins.  There were no safety barriers to keep me from falling off into ditches below.  I felt both radically alone and wondrously at one with the body-pounding wind that rolled down the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and hit me flat in the chest.  That experience of the sublime power of nature and the majestic resonance of ancient architecture, facilitated by the kindness of a man named George, became my clarion call.

“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.”

A kindred wind hit me on my first days in Jordan.  As I explored the barren hilltop of the Fortress of Macaerus, I was pushed to all fours by a fierce Levant wind.  When I raised my hands, the wind sung scales off my fingers and arms.  All of my body became music, became alive, amidst a landscape where nothing stirred.  This felt like a metaphor to hold onto—a caged body turned into song, catalyzed by ancient points of power and spirit.  A driver named Issa drove me from there to deep within the Arabian desert to view Silk Road caravanserai stations beneath piercing blue skies.  He talked to me of working at a college where he could visit the King’s thoroughbreds, but only tourism provided the income to feed his family.  In Petra, I explored the wadis and Nabateaen ruins; I took portraits of Bedouin workers.  Then Issa took me to his friend’s Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum, where I wandered the pink hills and Issa downloaded a Arabic Koran app onto my phone.  “You don’t need to understand,” he said.  “You need only to hear the words.  The words themselves heal.”

In the Caucasus nations of Georgia and Azerbaijan, I began to see ever-starker contrasts between the boom of The New East economy and the everyday lives of most people both inside and outside the capitals.  Stunning bridges and skyscrapers commanded attention in Tbilisi and Baku, yet not far away, people lived in rooms with outdoor plumbing in courtyards.  For every person able to tap into the tourism industry through apartment rentals and giving tours, many more others sold honey, fruits, and hand-picked flowers for income.  Here, transformation seemed the most embattled, and perhaps that was understandable due to the continued strife that has plagued the Caucasus nations.  Georgia, always a land made up of many warrior tribes, showed evidence everywhere of both recent civil war and renewed hostilities with Russia.  Sitting inside the ancient cave fortress of Queen Tamar, where she planned her defeats of Turkish and Persian invaders, my driver Irakli described the years of protesting Soviet rule and watching friends die or flee.  Irakli and I pressed ever deeper into Lower and Upper Caucasus Mountains, searching out the old traditions, including the plague crypts at the border with Chechnya where harsh winters are nine months long.  Then in Azerbaijan, a man named Timur drove me again into the mountains where the life felt particularly harsh.  Even so, I felt a strange stirring.  The small tea stands and children’s parks immediately recalled my childhood summers in rural Kentucky, where I grew up, a land of its own beauty and hardships.  The connection was unexpected.  More unexpected was when Timur invited me to see his family’s carpet collection—I hadn’t told him of my years designing oriental rugs.  It was more unexpected still when I stood before the most exquisite Quba carpet, my favorite of all carpet designs.  The rush of joy was as intense as the rush of wonder I experienced in Baalbek.

“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.

Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Issky-Kul—these mythic Central Asian places had long flooded my daydreams.  Even before landing in Uzbekistan, I knew I headed into a museum playground.  In Kyrgyzstan, I knew to expect a winter landscape as tenacious and formidable as the nomadic peoples themselves.  What astounded me, then, was the weight of the sky, expansive and blue, over endless miles of unbroken desert or mountain crags.  The ruins that moved me most, both ancient and contemporary, were surprisingly found outside those fabled cities of Silk Road lore.  In the semi-autonomous state of Karakalpakstan, the remains of the Iranian Khorezm city-forts, even when worn away by weather and time, hinted at structures so large they escaped the scale of human.  My own body felt weightless in the face of their graduer.  And along the raw southern shore of Issky-Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan, the solidity of my body returned to me, in all its fragility, as I stood before an abandoned Kyrgyz Cultural Heritage Park, built in post-USSR celebration but quickly lost to time in this remote place in the world.  These, and everything I experienced while moving “Past Ruins, To Modernity”—the cities, the ruins, the landscapes, the people I grew to know—continue to flood inside me.  I offer these photographs as a visual meditation on civilization, and as evidence of the strong pull of the body to experience the fullness of the world.

“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 little 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; Krygyzstan, 2018”

“Garden Shop, Highway A365, Kyrgyzstan, 2018”

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