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On Invisible Sites

July 6, 2016

Nothing will seem surprised or sad again   

compared to those imperious, vacant frames.



The sun is out, the suitcases packed. Tickets have been issued, passports stamped. The khaki wearing, sunscreen lathering, photo taking tourists have emerged, overwhelming airport terminals all over the world. On the overhead departure screens, endless destinations are displayed, alternating by the minute, something for every taste and age.


The classics are here, ever unchanging: the Parises, Londons, and Romes. The exotics and eccentrics, a tad more creative: the Colombos and Balis, Marakeshes and Bogotás. Ibiza lures the dancers and tanners, Athens and Cairo the history buffs. But for the truly avant-garde, a road less traveled by is sought, to destinations in newspaper headlines, not polished travel magazines.


For those nonconventional voyageurs, a nonconventional experience exists; a curated tour of all the lost, invisible sites of the world. Modern day ruins, the occasional war zone, the latest target of a terror attack – a first hand experience of dysmorphic histories, vanishing cultures, and disappearing art.


The tour begins in Palmyra, in the Homs governorate, Syria. Here the Greeks, Romans, and Persians built majestic monuments, temples, shrines; this city was once the only site in the world combining Hellenistic and Eastern artistic styles. On the right, the Temple of Ba'al, Diocletian's Camp. On the left, the oldest Islamic inscriptions uncovered yet. The tourist may imagine all of this, with the help of photographs and visual aids. For this Aramaic city, born two thousand years before Christ, no longer exists today.


On to the Mosul museum next, in the city of Nimrud, Iraq. One hundred and seventy-three Assyrian sculptures and artifacts from Ninevah. A stop at the Mosul library too, for its collection of seventeenth century books, scrolls, and manuscripts. In every vacant lot in this city, where every landmark stood, the tourist may picture the civilization wiped out by the sledgehammers and flames.


Another stop in Iraq, north of Baghdad this time. To the ninth century great mosque of Samarra, and its fifty-two meter minaret. A few years ago the tourist could have feasted on the beautiful view from the top. Now the tourist is encouraged to look at the sky; the minaret is gone.


To two sandstone statues of the Buddha, in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. 1,500 years old and up to fifty-three meters high, at least they were before the dynamite.


Next a few afternoon stops in the oldest cities of the ancient world. Old Sanaa, Old Cyrene, Old Aleppo, Old Beirut, where the tourist may walk through what once were paved roads, in once colorful, vibrant neighborhoods. Imagine the music, the smell of coffee brewed, the endless games of table dice in the once elegant cafés.


The tour includes evening entertainment as well, at a nightclub in Paris, 50 Boulevard Voltaire. An 1864 cultural landmark whose café-concerts, over years, evolved into comedy shows and jam sessions for world-renowned rock bands. Recordings of the last show performed there may be played, as from the sidewalk the tourist contemplates the bullet-ridden façade.


In the early hours of the morning, the tour stops in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Where at Number 5, Road 79, a bakery once made succulent multigrain breads. The tourist may almost smell them, passing by the closed storefront, maneuvering carefully so as not to tread on the dried-up puddles of blood.


The tour is relatively peaceful, relatively safe. It is also customizable to individual taste. Additional stops may include a museum in Tunis, a metro station in Brussels, or a mosque in Medina instead. There are as many options as there is suffering in the world.


In most of these places, life has resumed; the guns have been silenced, the violence is gone. But to the attentive onlooker, the connoisseur of invisible sites, many elements appear disturbingly amiss. Murals that have been painted over, objects that have been displaced. Stories that have been rewritten, rephrased. People that have been erased.


Here there once was a city. Here a family lived. Here once stood a statue, a painting. A civilization, someone’s face. Here, as unlikely as it may be, there once was something to see. Here, before the world lost sight of its own humanity.


I had to tell them there was nothing to see

but hundreds and hundreds of frames where the paintings had hung.

- Miller Williams, The Curator


The tour ends with a stop for souvenirs, in case the tourist should forget.


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