God spoke to Noah commanding him to save his family, build an Ark and take the animals – the flood was coming, Earth needed to be cleansed. The well-known story is related in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and finding the Ark and proving the story true an eternal quest.
Noah reputedly hailed from Mesopotamia, and the last resting place of the Ark is still thought to be in the region of Ararat in Turkish Anatolia, so it’s with some irony that a few hundred kilometers to the south all the talk is of impending flood waters that will drown towns and villages along the Tigris basin, the ancient town of Hasankeyf being the most prominent.
This time the Turkish government is the one preparing to open the floodgates; the southeast Anatolian project (GAP) is an ambitious plan to develop the infrastructure of the impoverished region utilizing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers via a series of dams and hydroelectric plants. Needless to say there has to be casualties and it looks like Hasankeyf is going down with all its treasure, a chest that includes the partially standing remains of a 12th century bridge, a 15th century cylindrical mausoleum, several Mosques, hundreds of cave dwellings and the opportunity to unearth clearly much more, to say nothing of the fate of the local population who are unhappy about being re-housed.
The Silk Road and all those that traded along it kept Hasankeyf alive, the high limestone cliffs providing strategic protection. But the city the Assyrians named Castrum Kefa – the Castle of The Rock – is now facing an ignominious end, the Turkish government is moving ahead and new homes for the local inhabitants are being built. There is still a glimmer of hope in that previous protests have halted the damn and plans are also being made to save and relocate some of the antiquity, but so far it is only a glimmer.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Nabatean Place of High Sacrifice, stop me if you’ve heard this one, it’s a delicate tale and one I can’t help but share.
My journey to the beautiful caravan city of Petra sandwiched between the seas Red and Dead had started in the other great caravan city of Damascus, much of this excursion has already been related in the pages:
So here I am, slurping tea with a Bedouin women named Basma, she offered me another but I respectfully declined, it was already my third, I need to get up to the place of high sacrifice before closing time I explained, she looked disappointed, an excuse she had clearly heard before, what I mean before closing time it was my last day and the sun was going down, am pretty sure the business of sacrifice is quite flexible but the golden glow of the suns dying rays would not wait, and, as is always the case with places of high sacrifice it was located on the top of a mountain, I thanked Basma as she stoked her fire and strode off along the Wadi.
I followed the rock cut sandstone steps along an escarpment as it weaved around the base of the mountain, I picked up the pace taking long strides, every so often looking over my shoulder at the view and diminishing sun, it wasn’t steep and had I not been racing would have made a pleasant walk, I passed a few people heading down but pretty much it seemed the mountain was mine.
Hot and sweaty I reached the summit; a pair of pert obelisks were perched on the plateau a testament to long past craftsmanship and worship, curiously it would be much later I would learn of the deities being tributes to the Gods of both strength but also water and fertility, how one may go about paying tribute to those Gods I was soon to learn.
I pranced around the ancient alter for a while enjoying the solitude, then just as I was scrambling down from another somewhat perilous vantage point an old Bedouin woman appeared and offered me tea, as interesting as sacrificial ceremony maybe I much prefer a cuppa and a chat.
A blackened pot was sitting on a pile of flaming kindling, the tea was rancid and I drank while keeping an eye out for chance to tip it away, my host was perhaps not as old as I first thought, her face weather worn, she was a widow she told me and lived in a village the other side of the wadi, she rolled a cigarette and puffed happily, I asked what it was she was smoking but my Arabic was not efficient enough to identify the herbs which she told me she picked on the mountain, I took some pictures and she played me a tune on a metal flute, so far, in my world that is, all quite normal.
The sun was almost finished for the day and my genial host suggested she show me the quick way down the mountain, we kicked dust over the embers of the fire and set off, after no more than a few meters she told me to wait, she stressed I should wait where I was and she dashed behind some bushes, Juniper probably, she reappeared seconds later smoothing down her dress, no explanations necessary I thought and we moved on.
Wait, wait she said again, we had only been walking a few minutes, she ducked behind a bush but hardly out of my peripheral vision, I looked skyward to be sure as she dealt with the clearly urgent need, we continued, the route now becoming trickier, clambering over rocks and sliding down clefts in the mountainside, nimble as a goat she hopped and danced from rock to rock, I fumbled and dithered and did my best to keep up, once again she pulled up sharply and this time didn’t bother with modesty and just dropped to her haunches and peed freely, And I do mean freely, not since a mad Friday night in Piccadilly had I seen such wantonness, this is the Middle East and whilst many are hardly religious issues of modesty are rigorous, I was both bemused and amused, we continued, our pace was almost frantic, she deftly dealing with the terrain but me struggling to keep up, she had edged away from me and as I cupped my camera and slid down a gulley she was waiting for me, squatting, dress hitched up and in full flow, how, I marveled, could she produce such quantity, and, I admit, for a few brief seconds I couldn’t help myself but marvel, I mean, what the… she shot me a look, this time I had not looked away and felt for a moment as though I had been caught red handed, she just said yallah and we carried on our way, as if nothing had happened, this was the last time she performed, since that what it seemed to be, the image though is hard to shake off and one that no doubt al-Uzza, Nabatean God of water and fertility would approve, she did though have one more thing to show me.
She took my hand and lead me then into a cave hidden behind some overhanging greenery, I felt pretty sure that if things turned nasty I could handle the old girl, inside the cave she stepped away from me, she looked directly into my eyes, oh God I thought, how is my British politeness going to get me out of this, after an uncomfortable pause that may have lasted several seconds she pointed to the paintings etched into the wall, faded pastel shades of prehistoric art, was there an image of a snake, I wasn’t paying attention, lovely I declared and we exited the cave.
Not enough is written of the risks to white men traveling alone in the Middle East and I have enough stories to fill a book, My Gay Adventures in the Middle East has long been a working title, do feel free to encourage me.
Back in Wadi Farasa we said our goodbyes, just a few words and formal as you’d expect, I really do not know what just happened are probably the only words going through my mind, I slipped her a few diners for the tea anyway.
Please do visit my website, most of the images are available to purchase as prints:
Photographs really should be printed and hung on walls; I say this as someone who loves photography not as a photographer.
As I work towards launching a new website dedicated to print sales I am offering a generous discount to raise the necessary funds, buying a print will go a long way to supporting my work as well as the opportunity to own a beautifully crafted image.
The prints are made at a London lab that pride themselves in producing the highest quality Giclee prints using the latest Epson professional Ultrachrome inks on beautiful archival rag paper.
Only $75 for a 30cm x 40 cm print (+ postage) other sizes are of course available.
The images on this post are just a sample; please do search my website and Facebook page for alternatives.
(Please note a few images are not available due to lost hard-drives when I fled my house in Syria)
Have a browse and drop me a line and I will forward a detailed price list.
Istanbul has a population speeding towards 20 million, its chaotic sprawl stretching from the fringe of Europe to deep into Asian Anatolia, the tide of humanity not only ebbs and flows it grapples, struggles and despite the body blows of urban gentrification it survives and does so often with humility.
For a street photographer, and am not really comfortable with the rank but I am a photographer and the streets do provide my subjects, Istanbul is a feracious playground.
I had been asked to help run a workshop for some visiting street photographers and had set out to scout some new locations, the old Khans of Istanbul provide excellent settings, you only have to watch the movies Taken and James Bond to recognize the potential, the ancient Caravansaries once served as bed and board for traders, the horses tethered in stables around a courtyard and the traveling salesmen would relax on the upper levels with whatever the Ottomans used prior to cable television.
These days the Khans are shops and ad-hoc workshops and as I wandered the upper most level of one a man stepped out of low arched doorway, his face blackened from the grime of his blacksmith forge, with his hands on his hips his stare unnerving, there are times though when you really cannot turn down an opportunity, I stopped and asked if I can take his picture, he seemed bemused I would want to do that but accepted, I shot, thanked him and moved on, he made one parting tongue in cheek comment of being African, possibly only then realizing why I had been so interested to photograph him.
Now normally it is about now the story would end, not quite, arriving home I edited the image and pleased with the result uploaded to my Facebook page, an hour or so later checking the notifications I noticed a new follower who had commented in Turkish, the translation said, “hey that’s me in the photograph” and sure enough it was. I am still not sure exactly how he found the image so quickly and can only assume the diligent use of appropriate hash tags connected me to Murat in this teaming teapot of a city of 20 million, he was very happy with the picture and very soon shared with his family and friends, I am taking him a print although finding the same workshop in the labyrinth will be a challenge.
For more Istanbul street photography as well as commercial and editorial and portraits visit my website Istanbul Photographer
Faisal was the first Syrian friend I made on my first ever visit, he was also the first friend I lost in the war; I made many more friends and lost more too.
My first visit to Syria must be some twenty years ago now, only my diaries lost in my Mothers cavernous loft have the details, so much of my memory is draped in the dust of time but that day is still clear to me.
I walked over the old stone bridge spanning the al Assi River, the Norias grinding on the far bank, I spotted a sandwich shop, more a kiosk really, I treated the young man behind the counter to my recently learned Arabic greeting, he smiled as he replied, he prepared my sandwich and we both sat on plastic chairs and became friends, he told me some years later the reason he had taken to me was my fumbling Arabic.
Hama had been the city that first garnered my attention in Syria, I had only recently learned of its bloody history and no sooner had I arrived in Damascus I set out to visit, qualified advice being whatever you do, don’t mention the war, but obviously I am not one for following advice as regular readers of these pages will no doubt be aware.
Hama had suffered a brutal crackdown in the political unrest in the 1980s, half the city was raised and tens of thousands were killed, the city like many in Syria is multi faith but the Muslin brotherhood and conservative Islam were synonymous, prior to the uprising in 2011 most political analysts had declared the Syrian government to have crushed the Ikwan (MB).
I asked Faisal as we sipped tea where he learned his English, he told me he had learned while in prison as a child; he showed me a crumpled photograph of his house before it was destroyed, it was a matter of fact conversation, not angry or melodramatic although he sighed somewhat tiredly as he remembered the death of his horse, even my horse he said shaking his head.
I joined him and a group of his friends again that night, in fact for the next few days I would spend the nights chatting until the early hours, walking the quiet cobbled streets, empty accept shadows, under antique arches and past the Automan Hamam, on more than one occasion getting back to find my hotel locked up, I learned a lot in those few days and acquired an affection for Hama that has never left me.
Over the years I would drop by Hama and visit my friend, when we sat together late at night our conversations were always about the injustice of political power, and not just his own, elected or not the abuse of power that punished the weak or poor, when I visited with Friends then it was just his whole hearted hospitality.
Faisal was a good friend and was always there to help when I needed it, my early days in Syria especially, on one occasion I had asked his recommendation for a restaurant to entertain a visiting friend, I took his suggestion and enjoyed a beautiful Syrian meal beside the banks of the Orontes River, when the cheque was ordered the waiter said the bill had been taken care of.
We came from very different backgrounds and lead very different lives yet became very good friends, I don’t know the exact details of his death, as was very common in the early days of the Syrian uprising his death was shared on Facebook, despite the utter sadness I felt, still feel, it did not come as a shock, he was prepared to stand up for what he believed in, and for that bravery he paid with his life.
One of my enduring memories of living in Damascus will always be the early morning ritual of my neighbor’s pigeon’s swoop and circle above my house. While I sip coffee on my rooftop he would wave and whistle at his birds, even when the war started they continued to fly, they still do. The formation they rarely strayed from their flight path, much like the fighter jets that also became a morning ritual and one I wish would not endure.
Syrians know the men as Kashash al Hamam, almost every working class neighborhood has one, men of dubious character, so dubious in fact their testimony is not accepted in court, although they’re hardly pushers or pimps. I am sure most Syrians in exile reading this will feel a peck at their heart strings; looking down from Qasyun as the sun is setting and among a thousand minarets are a thousand flocks that swirl and eddy over the city.
Innocuous it may seem but their reputation as fly-by-nights has been earned through guile; kidnapping and extortion are all part of the sport – when a neighbor’s bird is lured by a feathered temptress onto the roof of the pigeon loft, a net is waiting, and then begins the harangue and haggle. Mostly it’s a game and all the contestants know the unwritten rules but from time to time blood is spilled.
Morally too there is dispute; Kashash al Hamam are deemed un-Islamic, spending too much time and money on their birds and not enough with their family, and of course the fact that the sport is carried out on rooftops that afford a voyeuristic vantage point, open courtyards where modesty can be disregarded.
In my time exploring this fascinating world I found less of the darker side, constantly being warned to stay away from the edge of the roof so as not to annoy the neighbors, for the most part the men I met just wanted a distraction from the usual stresses of everyday life, a cigarette and a cup of tea.
Now as Syria is being ripped apart by a brutal war and the Daesh virus spreads unchecked across the country, the self-styled Mullahs of the so called Islamic State have issued a Fatwa outlawing the keeping of pigeons, the reason farcical in the extreme; the sight of the birds genitals as they fly overhead being offensive to Islam. It would be funny if it were not so desperately sad.
The fabric of Syrian society is being torn to shreds, once tolerant and accepting it’s now divided and bleeding, the bearded firebrands are not welcome in Syria, perhaps it’s not the keeping of pigeons that is the problem but that the dove is a symbol of peace.
I lived in Syria for ten years including the first two and half years of the war, I ran foul of the security services and was placed under investigation, follow my Damascus Diaries for the unfolding drama.
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I photographed Syrian farmer Mohammed Darwish in late 2009 while on assignment for the Financial Times, this was three years after the worst drought for nine hundred years and two years before the beginning of the current Syrian war.
Mohammed was forced to leave his farm in Hasekeh in the north east of the country after successive crop failures, over the course of the drought hundreds of thousands of other Syrian farmers were forced to migrate south to the cities which were often already overcrowded with refugees from the war in neighboring Iraq.
How much the drought impacted the war is open to debate but there must be little doubt that socio economic factors must have contributed, the war has touched every segment of Syrian society but the poorest needless to say suffer most, millions of refugees in the camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are from the most vulnerable communities.
Mohammed was determined to continue working the harsh Syrian steppe and resist migrating to the city, we found him tending a flock of sheep on a narrow strip of land currently under Syrian government control but sandwiched between the deluded forces of the Islamic State to the east and west.
Needless to say I have no idea how or where Mohammed is now, like so many Syrians I met and photographed over the years, I do though smile when I remember him asking if I was going to take a thousand pictures and when we asked if he had anything waiting for him back in Hasakeh he replied only an old mattress, but you can’t eat a mattress he said and drew heavily on his cigarette.
My fingers were freezing as I fired off the thousandth frame but I wanted to capture the resilience etched in Mohammed’s face.