Bahai News - Mideast Tourist Sites Scarred and Deserted

Mideast Tourist Sites Scarred and Deserted

Alison Buckholtz Washington Post Service
Tuesday, October 30, 2001

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 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 Sultan - now get an armchair view during nightly news broadcasts.

Since 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.

Joseph's Tomb - near Nablus, in the West Bank - was also destroyed. 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.

Better-known West Bank sites are just as vulnerable. A local teenager leaving services at Bethlehem'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, at least temporarily: Jerusalem's Old City, housing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, Haram 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 Shean 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.

The State Department has also warned tourists away from Yemen, site of the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole.

No one climbs the Tel Sultan stairs now; no one hears the story of a people who built to unify. The excavation itself likely remains untouched. It is merely a symbol of the need to cooperate.

©Copyright 2001, the International Herald Tribune

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