No room for the bedouin

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The Independent Travel
HERE IS a message for all you bedouin goat-herders out there: I'd be cautious about grazing your flocks on historic sites in future if I were you. The Syrian government, for starters, is trying to bar you and your goats from trampling over ancient sites that could be of interest to tourists.

You may find this surprising because, as you know, we tourists love to find bedouin among our ruins. It has always been an essential part of the Middle Eastern package. The pure man of the desert contemplating the wreck of the ancient world from atop an upturned Corinthian column is a concept that has kept our artists and poets inspired for centuries. And anyway, what harm can goats or sheep do to old temples half-buried in sandy steppe? If anything, they help to keep the moss off the stonework. And their droppings help to fertilise the surrounding land.

Be this as it may, the tourist boards in your countries are heartily sick of your building makeshift homes into the structures of Byzantine churches, or carting away stones to use for your own purposes, or rubbing away mosaics under the cloven hooves of your goats. If you carry on like this there will not be anything left at all for us tourists to come and look at. Then where will we be?

You may have spent the last thousand years grazing your flocks in the ruins of early Christian settlements outside Aleppo, but tradition is no guarantee of a long future. In fact, what is happening to you is no more than what has already happened to lots of other people.

You who spent your winters sheltering in the caves of Petra in Jordan went the same way just a few short years ago. Now you live in breeze-block houses down the road. Even you hustlers who bring camels for the pleasure of tourists around the Pyramids of Egypt - even you are being excluded from your old stamping grounds, as a penalty for harassing us.

I can't help thinking that you could all use the services of an American lawyer specialising in real estate. But there is nothing particularly complex about the question of where you might prefer to base yourselves. In a squalid little shanty town with erratic electricity and leaky plumbing - or in the warm, dry caves of the rose-red city of the ancient Nabataeans? In a drafty Damascus apartment block with no room for your goats - or commanding the heights of northern Syria in the Basilica of St Simeon, which in the 5th century AD was the largest church in the world? I think we tourists can see what you mean.

I dare say you also knew what you were doing when you set your flocks to graze in the wreckage of Palmyra, city of palms, jewel of Queen Zenobia. If I had had flocks to graze, I too would have enjoyed grazing them in the Temple of Bel, or the Great Colonnade, the old road where all travelling merchants between the Mediterranean and China once watered their camels and pack-horses.

Of course you never actually bought your lands, because there was nobody to buy them from. You never thought about it in those days when there was land for everyone. And of course you know deep down in your hearts that tourism is good for you because it brings in much more cash than goat-herding ever will - assuming that you ever see any of that cash, of course.

But at least you had the vision and the good taste to occupy sites that none of us would even know about until the invention of mass tourism. And for that, you deserve our thoughts.

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