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See the Pyramids Along the Nile

18 February 2005

Over the past two years, I have had the great privilege of traveling around the Arab Middle East.  I spent ten months in Iraq before being assigned to my current post in Jordan.  Since then I have been back to Mesopotamia on several occasions.  I have traveled to all points in the Hashemite Kingdom many times over.  I have been to Egypt and Kuwait three times, Syria and the United Arab Emirates twice, and Qatar once.  I’ve seen Israel/Palestine six times.  Though not Arab, I have also had the chance to travel to the large Muslim countries of Turkey and Pakistan.  The place names read like poetry to me.  Baghdad and Babylon, Cairo and Luxor, Jerusalem and Damascus, Istanbul and Aqaba.  In all of these places I have seen remnants of Golden Ages past; architectural marvels that have acquired legendary status.   

Symbols, specifically architectural ones, help define a people’s sense of identity.  In America we celebrate the biggest, the newest, the most efficient and technically refined.  Beyond the now ubiquitous mega-churches and Super Wal-Marts, our architectural icons include the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, and, until recently, the World Trade Center.  We are constantly building and rebuilding.  Tear down a stadium, put up better one.  Lose the Twin Towers, immediately set to work building a taller structure in their place. 

This fits with the idea that each new generation of Americans is presented with a blank canvas of a country.  We can meet any challenge, make real every dream.  The United States has made a 229-year habit out of constantly innovating, constantly improving, and constantly reinventing itself.   

This is not the case in the Middle East.  The people of this region live not in the shining light of modern possibilities, but in the shadows of great accomplishments made by others long ago.  The wonders at which I have marveled--The Pyramids of Giza, the Temples of Karnac and Luxor in the Nile Valley, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the coliseums in Jerash, the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, the rose red city of Petra--were all built, at a minimum, over a thousand years ago.  Yet they remain the most impressive works of architectural and cultural accomplishment in their respective locations.  (Their tourist value means that ministries of antiquities throughout the region receive money on par with ministries of education.) 

There is a lot of old architecture in Europe, too, of course.  The residents of Rome drive past the Coliseum.  Londoners can survey 1000 years of British history in a half hour stroll through Westminster Abbey.  French couples still get married in the 800-year-old cathedral in Rheims.  The difference between the European connection to the past and the Middle Eastern one is that the monuments on the Continent serve as historical milestones reminding current residents of just how far their nations have progressed, while in the Middle East, these ancient assemblages of rock represent the high water mark of progress in the area.  

Even the heroes of the Arab/Muslim world are ancient.  Harun Al-Rashid, the Caliph of the Abbasid Empire that stretched from Western China to the Iberian Peninsula ruled more than 1200 years ago.  Abu Abd-Allah al’Khwarizmi, to whom the world owes a debt of thanks for inventing Algebra (Al Jabr), thus making everything from microwave ovens to space flight possible, did his best work at about the same time.  The youngster in the Arab pantheon of heroes is Salah al-Din (known as Saladin in the West), remembered for both skillfully leading the army that defeated the devilish Christian Crusaders and for being magnanimous in his victory over them.  This giant of his age fell asleep in the arms of the Lord 812 years ago. 

Since then, with the notable exception of the UAE, the Middle East has been a scientific, cultural, industrial, and civic backwater.  No scientific discoveries are made here.  The best (wealthiest) students go outside of the region for university.  It imports finished goods, rather than produces them.  Egomaniacal dictators with a penchant for arms purchases and posters of themselves stifle any chance of public expression and institutional development.  Sadly, the world looks to the Middle East for oil and little else.  Even more tragic is the not implausible notion that if the countries stretching between Morocco and Oman disappeared tomorrow, it is quite possible that no one would notice; provided they left their black gold behind. 

In many ways, time has stood still in the Arab homeland for a millennium.  An analogy can be taken from this dry, barren land itself.  At some point, the vibrant river of civilization and progress changed course, leaving lifeless wadis behind.  Every day, the average person native to this part of the world is reminded by the crumbling architecture of the past that glory and achievement are subjects of historical study, not contemporary ambition.  Unlike in Amerca, the best is not yet to come; the best came and went.  

What a shame this is.  Some 250 million people live in the Arab homeland.  The majority of these people are young—some 65% under the age of 24 according to a CIA study.  We in the West view these youth without hope as potential threats to us.  On the other side of the equation, imagine the positive change that could be affected in the region if the creative potential of all these people was realized.  Peace and good governance are prerequisites for this type of development.  This is what we are working on every day in Iraq, with our eyes on the future and our feet unchained from the past.  To be sure, the Ministry of Antiquities will and should remain, but we are more interested in creating architects of a New Babylon than in archaeologists of the old one.