PAST RUINS, TO MODERNITY
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.
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.
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.
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.