Bahai News - Casualties of War

Casualties of War

For Now, the Holy Land Is Lost to Travelers

By Alison Buckholtz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 28, 2001; Page E01

At the lowest inhabited point on Earth -- the ancient city of Jericho, in the now-ragged West Bank -- one more descent beckons. Jericho's Tel al-Sultan, a 10,000-year-old excavated settlement, is home to the oldest stairway in the world. Amid the crumbling ruins, where it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between bedrock and rock dust, these 14 steps, still very much intact, usher visitors into another era.

At least, they used to. When there were visitors. When the West Bank's rebirth as a tourism destination drew adventurous travelers by the bus loads.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the past year has cut deeply into the region's tourism infrastructure. Travelers who once dreamed of stepping onto hallowed cultural and religious ground -- Bethlehem's Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, Rachel's Tomb, Joseph's Tomb, Herodion, Hisham's Palace, Tel al-Sultan -- now get an armchair view during nightly news broadcasts. And after a year of violence, one of the West Bank's prized possessions has been destroyed and the rest remain inaccessible.

In the wake of Sept. 11, travelers have been cut off from many more Middle Eastern destinations. Some trips have been deemed unwise for the moment, leaving popular sites throughout Arab and Muslim lands deserted. And while the world watches, historical icons have been lost to humanity forever -- icons as renowned as Afghanistan's giant Buddhas, destroyed last spring by the Taliban.

The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was as spectacular as it was devastating. First, soldiers sprayed bullets at the statues -- one of which, at 178 feet tall, stood higher than any other Buddha in the world. Mortally but not fatally wounded, the statues hung on as India, UNESCO and other international bodies intervened. But the Taliban has decreed all representational art haram (forbidden), and 2,000-year-old pre-Islamic artifacts were no exception. Where bullets failed, massive explosions succeeded: The Buddhas that smiled down onto part of the ancient Silk Road bless travelers no more.

Like the Buddhas, Joseph's Tomb -- near Nablus, in the West Bank -- died a similarly violent death. According to tradition, this is where the biblical Joseph's remains were carried from Egypt, and the site is holy to Jews and Muslims. But as flash points in an ongoing battle, some Palestinian travel destinations carry political overtones that outweigh history. Joseph's Tomb, which in addition to tourists attracted Jewish settlers for daily prayer, was an especially rich and accessible target. Set afire toward the beginning of the current intifada, the inside of this simple, white-domed building burned, curling the pages of holy books to ash. The structure remained, but not for long. Men and boys hacked the tomb with hammers, sticks and bare fists until chunks of walls crumbled.

Better-known West Bank sites are just as vulnerable. A local teenager leaving services at Bethelehem's fourth-century Church of the Nativity was recently shot to death in Manger Square; the bullets reportedly knocked splinters from the wooden roof and chipped the 12th-century stone floor. Manger Square, buffed and polished to a shine for millennium celebrations, was until last year a bustling post where pilgrims came to kneel at the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Now a gathering spot for protests, it has been off-limits to tourists for many months.

Few days pass without news of a terrorist incident within Israel, and the U.S. State Department warns Americans to defer travel there because of this heightened threat. Among the sites lost to us, at least temporarily: Jerusalem's Old City, housing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, Haram al-Sharif and the Dome of the Rock; the natural beauty of Old Jaffa; Nazareth's monasteries, churches and tombs; Haifa's Bahai'Shrine and Gardens; and archaeological sites in Bet She'an and Caesarea.

Anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan, and protesters' targeting of U.S. facilities there, have led to another State Department warning. If you've been dreaming of Pakistan, you'll have to settle for an Internet tour of its riches, including Karachi's Honeymoon Lodge, birthplace of the Aga Khan; Lahore's gardens and parks and Kipling references, which bump up against the city's many mosques and mausoleums; the northwest frontier's famed Khyber Pass; and Peshawar's Old City.

Yemen, site of the U.S.S. Cole bombing and the adopted home of Osama bin Laden, is not the best vacation destination right now. The State Department has warned Americans away. Archaeology aficionados can pick through the ruins of Ma'rib, a circa eighth-century village, only in textbooks. The 400-year-old houses nestled along the Old City walls and the Sultan's Palace mosque, dating from the 1930s, must go unvisited.

Of course, a pixelated Internet tour does little justice to architectural glories, and no textbook can convey what it feels like to pick up a 3,000-year-old pottery shard and imagine who held it last. As a writer who lived in Israel and visited other Middle Eastern countries in the late 1990s, I learned firsthand the inadequacy of the written word and the poverty of photographs in this region of great riches.

During my time in Israel, I spent many afternoons in Bethlehem's Manger Square and at a number of tourist sites in and out of the Lonely Planet orbit. Most often, though, I climbed the Stairway to Heaven. This was my private name for Tel al-Sultan's oldest-stairway-in-the-world. Following a year of clashes, it is unharmed. But though it still stands, it is deserted, and in tourist parlance, what's deserted is dead. So this is, I suppose, a eulogy.

The tel (Arabic and Hebrew for "hill") is 22 miles east of Jerusalem and less than one mile northwest of the center of modern Jericho. More than 23 ancient civilizations built here, adding successive layers of artifacts since the neolithic period. But archaeologists have been unable to determine the exact function of the 14 wide, uneven steps. And although the physical structure itself is notable, archaeologists especially marvel at the social sophistication of the stairs' builders. Here is ancient proof of a well-organized society, where individuals cooperated to construct a large-scale communal structure. Building would have been the only reason for them to unify.

No one climbs the stairs now; no one hears the story of a people who built to unify. Although it is disrespectful to lament a place when real people have died, I mourn the tel and the other empty sites because civilization mourns them. When these destinations are lost to us -- whether through inaccessibility or violence -- the chance to absorb the world's history, heritage and culture is lost as well.

The tel itself likely remains untouched because it boasts no military advantages and is not a logical or convenient gathering point for crowds. Deserted, it is merely a symbol of the need to cooperate to bring about community prosperity. Symbols are powerful in the Middle East, but the Stairway to Heaven now has taken on a more ominous meaning.

Alison Buckholtz writes frequently about the Middle East.

©Copyright 2001, The Washington Post

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