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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

The Evolution of Rabat

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

295_thumbnailKenneth Perkins received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from Princeton University. He is a Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, where he has served on the faculty since 1974 and teaches courses on Islamic civilization, the history of North Africa and the Middle East in the Islamic Era, and U.S. relations with the Middle East. A frequent traveler to the Middle East and North Africa, Dr. Perkins has conducted scholarly research in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, and Sudan. He is the author of Qaids, Captains, and Colons: French Military Administration in the Colonial Maghrib, 1844-1934; Port Sudan: The Evolution of a Colonial City; Tunisia: Crossroads of the Islamic and European Worlds; and A History of Modern Tunisia; as well as numerous articles, book chapters, book reviews, and encyclopedia and other reference entries. He is currently working on a book examining the social, economic, and political impact of Western travelers in North Africa from 1870 to 1939.


In a country where almost half the population lives in rural areas, it is Morocco’s cities which attract the most attention from international visitors. Fez and Marrakesh are certainly the best known, and the most dramatic in putting forward living images of Moroccan traditional life. No visit to the country would be complete without spending some time in each of them.  But fabulous as they are, neither is my favorite Moroccan urban center. That is Rabat. The modern part of the city was conceived by the first French resident general, Hubert Lyautey, but constructed in consultation with the architect and urban planner Henri Prost.  The intent was to shift the political focus from the traditional capitals of the interior (Fez, Marrakesh, and Meknes) to the Atlantic coast, thus making the center of Moroccan government more accessible to the West and its ideas and less prone to disruption by the tribal forces of the interior. Rabat’s compact downtown, with its early twentieth century building designs, could just as well be anywhere in the south of France or elsewhere in southern Europe. Lyautey and Prost insisted on a distinct separation between this modern city and the old traditional medina, thereby enshrining a pattern apparent in all Moroccan urban centers of the traditional walled city physically separated from the modern European one. The resident general justified his decision on the grounds that it would preserve traditional arts, crafts, and practices, which it did, but at the cost of creating two distinct worlds which later critics interpreted as the imposition of a colonial apartheid.  Similar thinking led the fiercely Roman Catholic Lyaytey to ban Christians from entering mosques – a prohibition later adopted by independent Morocco and honored (with the colossal Hassan II mosque in Casablanca the sole exception) to the present day.

As the national capital, Rabat has always hosted a diverse diplomatic community which has contributed to its cosmopolitan flavor. Today, the currents of globalization have underscored that characteristic.  One example can be seen in the Catholic Cathedral dating to the 1920s. The mix of diplomats from all over the world at a Sunday morning Mass are now joined by large numbers of sub-Saharan African migrants from former French colonies who have come to Morocco in search of employment, or perhaps as a stopping off point in their anticipated journeys to Europe.

Rabat’s link with Europe is by no means new and evidence of it abounds in the city, whose signature landmark, the Tour Hassan, was built by a twelfth century ruler who presided over a domain that included Andalucía and much of North Africa all the way south to the Sahara and beyond. The tower stands guard over the mausoleum of Sultan Mohammed V, widely seen by Moroccans as the father of the independent nation. Every time I visit this site, I am struck by at the number of Moroccans, and especially Moroccan families, who come there. The monarchy enjoys a position of respect in the country similar to the situation in Great Britain and this burial place, not only of Mohammed V, but of his son, Hassan II, who ruled the country from his father’s death in the 1960s until his own in the 1990s, is a vivid reminder of the ongoing prestige (and power) the institution enjoys.

Both the tower and the mausoleum stand on a plateau overlooking the river Bou Regreg, recently the focal point of a tremendous revival. A decade ago, the most direct way to visit Rabat’s sister city of Salé was to be rowed across by one of a fleet of boatman who plied the river. They are gone; their former bailiwick now a marina for pleasure boats. Less than a mile further downstream, the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean near a cluster of sandbars that once served to protect its banks from European naval vessels pursuing the swift and elusive corsair ships of the so-called Salé Rovers whose victims included Daniel Defoe. Hardly any tourist visits Salé these days, but one of the highlights of this trip was a luncheon in a private home in that city as guests of its owners, descendants of the government official who built it as the first structure outside the city walls,  in the 1930s.  Driving back across the river on the bridge carries not only vehicular traffic, but also the carriages of the light railway that now serves Rabat and its suburbs, including Salé  – another recent addition to the cityscape – serves as a reminder of Rabat’s constant evolution, which values heritage, history, and progress in equal measures.


To learn more about our Splendors of Morocco tour, click here.

Sailing into the History of Turkey’s Beautiful Coast

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Stephanie Larson is an associate professor of classics at Bucknell University who received her Ph.D. in classics from the University of Texas at Austin. She has great interest in the modern histories of both Greece and Turkey.

In April, Stephanie led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a voyage around Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast


As the Smithsonian Study Leader on the April 2012 Legendary Turkey program, I was thrilled to meet another fascinating group of Smithsonian travelers who had worked in such varied fields as nursing, education, medicine, law, geology, physics, neuropsychology, computer science and epidemiology. It is not every day that I have the opportunity to travel around the ancient Aegean and Mediterranean coasts with people who are so interesting in their own rights and also who are so interested in learning more about the history, archaeology and modern culture of the region. The variety in the Smithsonian travelers’ experience lent itself to stimulating questions and really deep and fascinating discussions, both on-site and during afternoons we spent relaxing on the gulets, beautiful Turkish wooden boats.

Turkey Coast

The western coast of Turkey. Photo courtesy of Flickr user audi_insperation

For example, as one travels down the western coast of Turkey and learns more about Greco-Roman antiquity, one cannot help but think of all the influential people that have come from this region who have influenced the later development of fields like philosophy, art, religion, history, and medicine. As a group, we talked and learned about Heracleitus, St. Paul, Galen and the Pergamene School of ancient sculpture. But as we considered all the great strands of these movements that either started or were influenced by ancient people from the west coast of the Aegean, we found ourselves concentrating on Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History,” who came from ancient Halicarnassos, now modern Bodrum, on the southwestern Turkish coast.  Having just visited the site of ancient Troy, our group was particularly fascinated by how Herodotus explains the origins of the Trojan War and why the Greeks sent a huge fleet against Troy in the second millennium BCE.


Ephesus, ancient ruins on the west coast of Turkey. Photo courtesy of Flickr user eleephotography

In the opening section of his History, Herodotus gives a different version of the war’s beginning than the usual story of the Judgment of Paris. For Herodotus, there are no goddesses involved; Aphrodite is not an anthropomorphized deity descending to earth from Olympus to make trouble with the humans. In Herodotus’ version, Paris, the prince of Troy, steals Helen from Sparta because other men had been stealing women throughout the Aegean and had not been punished for it. So, Paris figured that he too could get away with stealing himself a wife, and so he went to Sparta and carried Helen away. At least this is how Herodotus explains it. Our group talked about this story for quite some time, and we concluded that by taking the gods out of the narrative, Herodotus could indeed be rightly called the “Father of History,” as he attempted to reconcile a mythical story with a war that was thought to have happened seven-hundred years before his time. One of the best parts: We were having this discussion about Herodotus on the deck of a beautiful gulet, over a glass of wine and with the warm Aegean sun on our backs!


The traditional Turkey gulet. Photo by Matanya, via Wikimedia Commons


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast tour here

An Unforgettable Snapshot on the Euphrates River

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Jodi Magness holds a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her B.A. in archaeology and history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and her Ph.D. in Classical archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania.

In May, Jodi lead a group of Smithsonian Journey travelers around the Ancient Worlds of Anatolia.


The Euphrates River: The name evokes images of the earliest civilizations, mighty ancient powers such as Assyria and Babylonia, and modern Middle Eastern conflicts. And here we were, driving from the town of Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey to the Euphrates River for a boat ride! I had the good fortune of accompanying The Ancient World of Anatolia, a tour of southeastern and central Turkey. As we drove, I craned my head for my first glimpse of the fabled river. Finally, we reached the river, driving along its banks until stopping at a spot where we all boarded a boat. I chose to sit with about half of the group on the boat’s roof, for the best view of the river as we made our way upstream.

I thought about how this river provided not only vital drinking water in this arid region, but also served as a main transportation artery for all of the peoples along the hundreds of miles alongside its banks. And I thought about how millennia ago, humans began to utilize the river to irrigate agricultural fields. Thanks to irrigation, farmers were able to produce surplus crops, which led to the rise of specialized crafts and industries, as not everyone had to grow food just to survive. As a result, hierarchical or stratified societies developed—that is, centralized forms of government—and with them, the need for writing to keep official records. All of these thoughts swirled through my mind as we glided along the Euphrates River. Suddenly, I realized this was a “Kodak moment.” Everyone agreed, quickly assembling on the roof of the boat for a group photo.

Smithsonian group on Euphrates River

Smithsonian Journeys group exploring the Euphrates River. Photo by author

After about an hour, we returned to the dock and disembarked.  I stepped down to the river bank and dipped my hand in, so I could say that I have touched the waters of the Euphrates River. We drove back along the river bank the way we had come, stopping for a delicious Turkish lunch at a restaurant overlooking the water. The meal began with bread served hot out of a traditional oven, followed by a delicious salad of fresh, locally grown vegetables. For the main course, I enjoyed fresh grilled trout; other members of the group chose lamb kebabs or Euphrates fish kebabs. This was one of the many highlights of our tour of southeastern and central Turkey.

Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Ancient Worlds of Anatolia tour here.

Turkey’s Loggerhead Turtles

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Janet Jones, Smithsonian Journeys Study Leader

Janet Jones is Professor of Classics at Bucknell University. Janet is an active field archaeologist specializing in Greek and Roman art and architecture, ancient urbanization, ancient technology with a focus on ancient glass production, and ancient environmental issues. She has published widely on the history of technology and is a frequent lecturer at universities and museums. This summer, she led a Smithsonian group around some of Turkey’s landmark classical sites and remarkable coastline. See her post from the trip below:

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A loggerhead turtle in Dalyon in the Mugla province of southwestern Turkey

A loggerhead turtle gets a morning meal. (Photo by author.)

Visits to Turkey always include astonishing cultural treasures, impressive archaeological sites, extraordinary landscapes, delectable meals, and friendly people. But loggerhead turtles? I hadn’t expected them. But there they were, four of them the morning we visited, getting a morning meal as we watched from the flat bottomed boat that had brought us down through the marshes from Dalyon to the platforms of the blue crab fisherman who share some of their catch with the local turtles to the delight of visitors.

Dalyon, in the Mugla province of southwestern Turkey, is named for the fishing weirs that guarantee a steady supply of bass, mullet, and sea bream to local markets. It’s a comfortable little town with a big statue of sea turtles in the main square and a beautiful park running along the Dalyan Cayi, the small river that flows down through the marshes to the sea. In ancient times, this river was known as the Calbys and marked the boundary between the ancient kingdoms of Lycia and Caria.

On a day trip from our four day cruise on gulets in the Bay of Fethiye, our group arrived at the Dalyan riverside to the sight of a flotilla of gaily decorated and Turkish-carpeted flat bottomed boats, waiting to take groups of visitors on a tour of the local marshes. Our boat passed alluring riverside cafes on the way to our first photo-stop, a cliff with imposing rock-cut tombs. Our boat then wound past the beautiful ruins of the ancient seaport of Kaunos. As we neared the mouth of the river, our boat passed through a gate in one of the fishing weirs (lowered for passing boats by an attendant) and emerged into an open lagoon in the lee of the barrier island. This island, Iztuzu Beach, serves both as protected nesting area and as an award-winning eco-friendly beach. The island is home to a research, rescue, and rehabilitation center that studies the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and cares for injured turtles from the entire coast region.

The founding of this protected area is a heartening story of the victory of conservation over what had been minimally controlled development along this coast. In 1986, when plans for a resort hotel complex on Iztuzu Beach surfaced, the international outcry together with the request of Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, who was then President of the World Wildlife Fund, resulted not only in the suspension of the hotel project, but in the prohibition of construction and the establishment of a Special Environmental Protection Area (SEPA) covering 461 square meters in the region. This was the first protected area of its kind in Turkey, and it has since been joined by 13 other such protected areas. The wider Köyceğiz-Dalyan SEPA provides safe haven not only for loggerhead turtles but for, among others, the Nile turtle, a variety of herons and egrets, the European glass lizard, the rock nuthatch, the blue rock-thrush, the European roller, the Eurasian reed warbler, and sections of Turkish sweetgum and pine forests.

That day in the marshes was a bounty for the senses as we gazed at the enormous loggerheads gliding around our boat, breathed in the fragrance of the salt marsh, and listened to the wind in the reeds and the roar of the ocean beyond the narrow strip of sand.

A Smithsonian Journeys Group at the fishing weirs in Dalyon, Turkey

Life in the marshes. At the fishing weirs in Dalyon. (Photo by author.)

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Learn more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast trip here, and check out Janet Jones’ upcoming trips.

Book: We’re Sailing Down the Nile

Friday, October 14th, 2011

We're Sailing Down the Nile cover imageTravel is a unique way to bring the entire family together like never before. Children who travel have the chance to engage with the world in a whole new way, indulge their interests and develop new ones, and learn about new people, places, and concepts firsthand.

We’ve worked with our partner Longitude Books, to find some of the best books for families getting ready to travel together. Authors Laurie Krebs and Anne Wilson bring us the colorful We’re Sailing Down the Nile, taking readers young and old to the land of the Pharaohs, mummies and Great Pyramids.

If you’d like to take your family to Egypt, now is a great time to experience the country at a unique time in history. Click here to learn more about our Egyptian Family Odyssey. Our next departure is this December.