Portraits of a Nation: The Devastating Beauty of Yemen

Challenged by the unknown and unfamiliar, we often turn away. Can our curiosity help us to become better, kinder people?

This is the first post of a series exploring foreign cultures. We begin with Yemen, focusing not on the bloodshed and the destruction wreaked upon her, but the humanity and beauty that make her both vulnerable and resilient. I’ll be posting more about the culture and arts of Yemen later this week.

 

The images that follow were graciously shared online by Rod Waddington, yeowatzup and Valerian Guillot, who have made most of their illuminating and risky work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. Please follow their magnificent output on Flickr.

As I curated these sets of people, places and animals, which date from 2010 to 2016, I could not help but wonder what has been lost in these few years. Are these buildings still standing? What has become of these people, especially these bright, playful children? I had to stop several times in my gathering to mourn the innocence and beauty that has surely been changed, if not destroyed. The human and cultural price in Yemen is very high.

Travel to Yemen is not suggested nor is it easily feasible, as the Yemeni Civil War and the presence of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as airstrikes (Saudi and American), make it a dangerous place for anyone, particularly Westerners, who have been detained and kidnapped. Mismanaged from within and exploited from without, it is a place that is lost to the outside world. Some might think that the poorest country in the region, a desert nation without an oil industry, doesn’t hold much. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a beautiful country, with fantastic architecture and a long, proud history.

 

Faces of Yemen

Yemen lies on the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, near the crossroad of three continents, along trade routes that cross both land and sea. This has made Yemenis a very diverse group. Some trace their roots to Africa, especially the northern Sahara, some to Persia, ancient Israel or other nations, ancient or modern, on the Arabian Peninsula, while others hail from India and South Asia. There also Yemeni of European descent, particularly Russian and eastern European.

Images © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

The vast majority are Muslim, but Christians, Jews and others have a place in the culture, although the advent of more extreme fundamentalism has strained that somewhat. You will notice that women’s faces are under-represented. All women are encouraged to cover up, regardless of faith, in order to avoid negative attention. Photographing women in Yemen can be risky and is discouraged. This is an uncomfortable truth for a nation that counts two prominent Queens in its history, the biblical Queen of Sheba and the beloved Queen Arwa, who ruled from her early twenties until she died at the age of 92.

Note the gentleman below wearing the jambiya, a ceremonial curved dagger that is a symbol of male honor and status in many Arab countries. They are worn on expensive belts and many of the hilts are made from precious substances such as jade or ivory.

Images © yeowatzup with CCLicense

The favored pet in Muslim households is the cat, admired for its cleanliness and beloved by the Prophet. Cats are commonly considered indoor animals while dogs are kept outdoors. It is said that Muhammad once cut a sleeve off of his robe rather than awaken his cat Muezza, who had fallen asleep on it while he prayed. It is good to know that cats have remained constant throughout time and across cultures!

 

Sana’a

Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen, and until recently the capital, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet. It has been a seat of power for much of that time, presided over by Sabaean (from Sheba) rulers, Himyarite Kings (who converted from polytheism to Judaism), Ethiopian Viceroys, Muslim Caliphs, local Imams of the Zaydi tribe and Ottoman Turks, who took the city twice over the span of a few centuries. Yemen includes four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the old city of Sana’a. Some of the buildings in Old Sana’a, including the Grand Mosque, are over 1,400 years old. There are more than 100 mosques, 12 bath houses and around 6,500 residences. These homes are several stories tall with flat roofs and elaborate decorative elements. The architecture is unique and lovely.

Images © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

 

Jabal Haraz

The Romans called Yemen Arabia Felix, “Happy Arabia”, because the country has a great deal of fertile ground. For centuries, much of the food for the Arabian Peninsula was grown in Yemen, which was also world-renowned for growing coffee. If you are a coffee drinker, you may enjoy coffee mocha, named for the fabled medieval port that distributed it to the world. Mocha, or Mokha, isn’t much to look at now, as it was upstaged by other Yemeni ports long ago. Recent damage has plunged Mokha even deeper into poverty, but coffee is still grown in the Haraz Mountain region of Yemen, known as Jabal Haraz. Terraced farms are visible on the mountainsides and fortified villages cling to rocky mountaintops. Long ago, in order to break the Yemeni  monopoly on coffee, Westerners stole plants from this region and transplanted them into their own countries.

Images © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

 

 

Socotra

Away from the mainland lies Socotra Island and the tiny islands of Abd al Kuri, Samhah and Darsa. Together with a few rocky outcrops that support seabirds, these islands make up the Socotran Archipelago, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a tough, isolated life for those who live out here, but it is probably safer than any of the mainland cities.

Images © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

Approximately one third of the plant life here is endemic, occurring naturally nowhere else on the globe. The Dragon’s Blood Tree, Dracaena cinnabari, and the Bottle Tree, Adenium obesum, are the most striking of these plants. Socotra was occupied by some of the earliest humans during the Lower Paleolithic Period (1.7  to 2.6 million years ago) when it was attached to the mainland.

 

Images © Valerian Guillot with CCLicense

There are many inscriptions in the rocks of the island, most in Brāhmī script, which was used across south Asia and India, while others are in South Arabian, Ethiopic, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian. Socotra was once an important landmark and stopover for boats moving from the Arabian Sea into the Indian Ocean and vice versa.

In addition to mountains and beautiful white sand beaches, Socotra features a karst region with stunning limestone caves.

Here we will stop, although there are many more wonderful places in Yemen, including stunning Taiz with its walls and gardens and lovely Jibla, where “Little Sheba”, the powerful Muslim Queen Arwa ruled for more than seventy years. Her story is a story for a different post.

It is humbling to realize that Yemen was a sophisticated place in better days, a reminder that poverty and lawlessness are never as distant from the human experience as we would like them to be. May this terrible conflict end before more is lost.

 

 

 

 

Quote for Today: Doris Lessing

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Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

Image © frwl with CCLicense

 

Quote for Today: Rebecca Solnit

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Her name was Asia. His was Europe. Her name was silence. His was power. Her name was poverty. His was wealth. Her name was Her, but what was hers? His name was His, and he presumed everything was his, including her, and he thought he could take her without asking and without consequences. It was a very old story, though its outcome had been changing a little in recent decades. And this time around the consequences are shaking a lot of foundations, all of which clearly needed shaking.
Who would ever write a fable as obvious, as heavy-handed as the story we’ve been given?
***
His name was privilege, but hers was possibility. His was the same old story, but hers was a new one about the possibility of changing a story that remains unfinished, that includes all of us, that matters so much, that we will watch but also make and tell in the weeks, months, years, decades to come.
Rebecca Solnit, “Men Explain Things to Me”
Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Wistful Moments: Rebecca Bathory’s Presence of Absence

During our lifetime, places that are special to us either change or become abandoned, decay and disappear. Visiting places that we used to inhabit is disorienting, as feelings of absence and loss mix with poignant memories, both happy and sad.

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Dust From Your Eyes © Rebecca Bathory

Photographer Rebecca Bathory, née Litchfield, seeks out neglected places, capturing a sense of this disorientation on a communal scale and documenting what remains of the memories of forgotten people and defunct communities. Her work is often identified as dark tourism photography. Some of her images have a romantic element that borders on the mythological, a power equal to those of more famous buildings in ruin, but much more unique. Many of these places will not survive the ravages of time much longer and there is no one who cares to preserve them. They are structures humanity passes everyday without much thought, their windows boarded shut, languishing and rotting behind tall fences and locked gates, marked only by signs that warn us to keep out. We are conditioned not to see them, but they have stories to tell. Rebecca has gained entry to them for us, bringing back surreal images that stir up buried emotion. These images not only have much to say about our ancestors and the world in which they lived, they also help us comprehend and come to terms with our own future.

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The Show Must Go On

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Kasarylia

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Symphony of Silence

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All That Remains

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Thy Kingdom Come

These powerful photographs are from a collection called Presence of Absence. Although the places pictured are empty, the memory of their inhabitants lingers, slipping away slowly in dark corners, fading from our world. What a precious thing, to catch a piece of human history before it is forgotten!
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The Cavern of Lost Souls

Rebecca, who holds degrees in photography and graphic design, is currently pursuing a PHD in visual anthropology, linking her images with those of a century of documentary photographers and expanding her reach into new media and visual forms. Please spend some time on her website, where you can also order prints or a copy of her book, Soviet Ghosts.
All images are © Rebecca Bathory, used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational and critical purposes.

Beneath the Garden: Il Giardino di Ninfa, Part 1

Forty miles from Rome, the ancient city of Ninfa has been overtaken by a lush garden. What stories hide here?

In the Latina province of the Lazio region of central Italy there lies a garden. No ordinary garden, but a place considered by connoisseurs to be one of the most romantic in the world. Twenty acres of landscaped beauty comprises Il Giardino di Ninfa, part of a larger Italian Natural Monument, Il Parco Naturale Pantanello. Ancient and medieval ruins are embroidered with greenery and roses make tenacious toeholds between crumbling stones weathered by centuries. Grassy meadows give way to stands of oak, cypress and poplar, while plants imported from all over the globe take advantage of an abundance of water. Beneath all of this extreme beauty, there is the story of Ninfa, a community lost and regained several times over the course of history.

Ninfa means Nymph and the original settlement (as well as the river) was named for a nymphaeum, or temple dedicated to nymphs, that once stood on a island in the small lake. The earliest known reference to this structure is found in the letters of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113), a famous Roman lawyer, magistrate and writer. Pliny was a survivor of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which took the life of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. He tells us the temple was dedicated to water nymphs;  water is key to Ninfa’s identity and value. Early residents knew it was wise to keep the nymphs happy, as floods and waterborne illnesses were unpredictable and could quickly overwhelm a community.

Those first residents were probably the Volsci, who were driven from the Liris river Valley in the northeast to the marshy regions near Rome after 600 BC. These were water people who worshiped water gods and made their living from fertile soil watered by so many rivers and streams. They were also, at times, fierce enemies of the Romans. In 304 BC, they were defeated for good and subsequently assimilated. Famous Romans of Volscian descent included Cicero and Caesar Augustus himself.

Over centuries, Ninfa grew from a prosperous agricultural community into a more worldly town, benefiting from its location on the Via Pedemontana near Rome. This was the high road at the feet of the mountains, which proved useful whenever the marshes flooded. The Appian Way was also nearby. It should have allowed local farmers to sell their produce far to the south and brought in other merchants and artisans, but it was prone to flooding. Ninfa was situated along the most important detour in central Italy and became rich off of tolls and customs trade.

By AD 1159, Ninfa was important enough that Pope Alexander III was crowned here in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, following a disputed election that would have repercussions throughout Europe and result in decades of violence. This association with Papal politics proved deadly. A dozen years later, Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, would burn the city, in an attempt to flush out Pope Alexander, who was hiding here. Ninfa had the resources to rebuild- this time, thanks to the Caetani family with their money and Papal connections.

At her height, she was  a cluster of more than 150 homes, with churches, mills, two hospitals, a castle (built near the lake where the nymphaeum had once stood) and a town hall. Recognizing what was coming, the Caetanis encircled the city with a 1500 yard defensive wall and guard towers. In the 14th century, those wonderful Papal connections were to embroil Ninfa in a Civil War that would cripple the city and make agriculture and commerce impossible. Importance brought intrigue and intrigue brought corruption and violence. The city dwindled.

In the 16th century, Cardinal Nicolò III Caetani gave Ninfa its last gasp, repopulating the city and commanding architect Francesco Perugino to build a lavish garden there. The respite was short lived, as the Cardinal died in 1585 and disasters continued to mount. The marshes began to flooding again and malaria broke out. Ninfa proved too weak to face the wrath of the water spirits. She did not survive the 17th century.

The land remained in the hands of the Caetani family, unused and forgotten until the early 20th century. We’ll explore the reinvention of Ninfa next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quote for Today: Ray Bradbury

It was a pleasure to burn.
 

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451

 

Quote for Today: Madeline Miller

Odysseus inclines his head. “True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.” He spread his broad hands. “We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?” He smiles. “Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”
Madeline MillerThe Song of Achilles

Quote for Today: Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata (Calcutta) © Abhijit Kar Gupta with CCLicense

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata (Calcutta)
© Abhijit Kar Gupta with CCLicense

Those places where sadness and misery abound are favoured settings for stories of ghosts and apparitions. Calcutta has countless such stories hidden in its darkness, stories that nobody wants to admit they believe but which nevertheless survive in the memory of generations as the only chronicle of the past. It is as if the people who inhabit the streets, inspired by some mysterious wisdom, relalise that the true history of Calcutta has always been written in the invisible tales of its spirits and unspoken curses.

Carlos Ruiz ZafónThe Midnight Palace

Quote for Today: Ben Okri

Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into the flowers of discovery. Even if you lose, or are defeated by things, your triumph will always be exemplary. And if no one knows it, then there are places that do. People like you enrich the dreams of the worlds, and it is dreams that create history. People like you are unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairy-tale, by love.

Ben Okri

Dawn without Memory: ISIS in Palmyra

Last May, the Islamic State took the ancient city of Palmyra. Why should we care that it is being destroyed?

© Julian Love/Corbis Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Julian Love/Corbis
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

ISIS doesn’t have a good track record with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nimrud, Nineveh, and now Palmyra have been destroyed under its rule, creating a storm of publicity and engendering hate and fear. Explosives and sledgehammers have met irreplaceable works of art and left them dust, on the grounds that they are idolatrous. Yes, many of these buildings were sacred to ancient gods, gods who are largely forgotten. So why should modern humanity mourn the loss? We believe in completely different gods. Some of us believe in no gods at all.

Tadmor Village within the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, early 20th Century Public Domain Image

Tadmor Village within the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, early 20th Century
Public Domain Image

Suppose that we were to go back in time and systematically destroy any people that worshipped or thought differently than we do. As we go further and further back, we encounter people that are more and more different from us. We find ancestors before they lost or found faith, we find brothers before they took different paths and became the patriarchs of different cultures. To destroy them would mean that we were never born.

To single out groups for obliteration is to deny part of the human story, to remove the memory of nations and their people from the tapestry of history. The human family is all connected. Believer or nonbeliever, we would not be who we are without the influence of many different peoples and faiths. We have always needed one another and continue to do so. Denying this feeds the absolute worst in our already tribal understanding of the world: that we, and people like us, contain the only viable understanding, and anyone else is worth less than we are. This lies behind every type of racism on the globe.

The scariest thing about ISIS is that they take destruction to a new level. This is not a group that will keep the art and riches of the defeated, but one that will destroy every trace of the enemy, even if the “enemy” has been dead for centuries. The destruction of Palmyra is a warning to civilizations living today that practice life differently than ISIS. A warning that they would like to kill you and then remove any trace that you have ever lived from our world. There was a culture in Europe once that had a similar dream. Thank God it is not yet within our grasp as human beings.

© Martin Schmoda Temple of Bel Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Manfred Schmoda
Temple of Bel, now destroyed
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra © Jerry Strzelecki with CCLicense

Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra, now destroyed
© Jerry Strzelecki with CCLicense

© AFP used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© AFP used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Want to know more about Palmyra? Check out the UNESCO entry here.