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The Ancients

Published November 24th, 2012

In the summer of 2009 I set off to travel across Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey: mostly as single female backpacker with a camera, mostly travelling by public transport.

I was led only by my amateur love of ancient history.

A View of Sana'a

My friend Ziad led me through a maze of beautiful old houses in Old Sana'a before we finally arrived on a rooftop with this view.

The sun was setting. It was my first day in Yemen. I knew next to nothing about it. This view was unsettlingly beautiful. I felt like I was there on borrowed time: the fragility of this sort of tranquility hung over our heads.

In some ways it feels like it has been this way forever.

These Streets

Is this actually, secretly, a movie set? I found myself asking that question a lot — in my head.

So much of it was unreal to me.

I have been to many places, but the authenticity and the intensity of 'stuff this old' is unrivalled.

Walking the streets of Old Sana'a was a visual treat in every possible way. The architecture and the fashion. The traditions. There was, and that's probably still the case, nothing like it.

  • March 14th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 50mm / f/5.6 / 1/250 sec

Avoiding Titles Like Innocence, Finding None

Children. Everywhere I go, I photograph children. Perhaps because I am a cliché. Perhaps because children are so typically the truest pictures into foreign cultures. They let you in without hesitation.

Here, the children of Old Sana'a smile readily, dressed in their traditional costumes, with a decorative knife known as the jambiya, just as the adults do.

  • March 13th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 26mm / f/4.5 / 1/50 sec

Take a Picture of Me

A Sana'a woman takes a photo of her husband.

The Spectre of Saleh

Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh was the President of Yemen from 1990 until the 2011 revolution swept him, along with other Arab dictators, off the throne. Before the unification he was the President of North Yemen from 1978.

Under his authoritarian leadership the country stayed firmly in the club of the poorest countries in the world. He officially ceded power and ceased being President but he still continues to wield considerable influence.

  • March 13th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 17mm / f/4.5 / 1/40 sec

Little Girl Arwa

Here, little Arwa wears my backpack and grins happily at the camera. It was an honour to have been invited into the homes of local Sana'aites who welcomed me wholeheartedly and unreservedly despite their difficult economic situations.

Breaking Bread

Eating in the local markets was one of my favourite local experiences.

The food was at once familiar, and not: so much of the food where I come from has some kind Yemeni connection (using similar spices and techniques, owing perhaps to the Yemeni trader ancestors of present day Arab Malays). The setting, delectable.

Wheelbarrows of bread. Loud evening banter in local Sana'a dialect of Arabic. Copious amounts of tea. The evening azan.

  • March 13th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 21mm / f/4 / 1/25 sec


Women wear a traditional dress known as a balto, a close cousin of the better known burqah.

  • March 14th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 50mm / f/3.5 / 1/125 sec


Sednaya, 17 miles north of Damascus, is an ancient centre of Christian pilgrimage. Local lore holds that Abel's grave lies on this spot. Abel being the brother who Cain slew, if you were following the story in Sunday school.

Constructed in 547 AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, it is claimed that Luke the Evangelist had a role to play in painting Shaghurah, an icon of Mary and Jesus.

Through times of strife, it has remained intact; countless proclamations of miracles have occurred throughout its long history.

Today it is a holy site for both Christians and Muslims, including orthodox and Syriac Christians.

The thought that it more than survived the Crusades — and now plays witness to the Arab Spring — is almost enough to make one believe in the divine.


  • April 29th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 17mm / f/16 / 1/640 sec

Get Thee to the Nunnery

Sednaya was such an important site of religious pilgrimage, it was second only perhaps to Jerusalem.

Another interesting factoid: there is a large number of Aramaic speakers around Sednaya and the nearby towns.

  • April 29th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 26mm / f/16 / 1/800 sec


I love Damascus. It evokes all kinds of weird memories about St Paul and Damascus. When I think of Damascus, I think of this scene. This is Damascus as I remember it.

  • April 30th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 17mm / f/4 / 1/30 sec

The Temple of Ba'al

Children, again, on the grounds of the ruins of the temple of Ba'al.

  • April 25th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 24mm / f/13 / 1/400 sec

Star spotting

Found in the Old Damascus markets: a tool used to locate the stars.

  • April 30th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 40mm / f/5 / 1/100 sec

Palmyrene Sunsets

Rather took my breath away, to invoke a trite turn of phrase.

  • April 24th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 21mm / f/5.6 / 1/80 sec


Purveyors of fine booza since 1885.

Booza being great pistachio ice cream. Find it at the Al-Hamadiyah souq in the old city.

  • April 30th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 50mm / f/3.5 / 1/100 sec

Everybody Loves Booza

Everybody. I love it too. And I ate way too much of it. Pistachio FTW.

  • April 30th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 50mm / f/5 / 1/200 sec


Why don't you step right up and purchase a beautiful portrait... of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah?

  • April 30th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 40mm / f/4.5 / 1/100 sec


Portrait of the photographer enjoying a celebratory cigarette after clambering up and down some very dark, dank stairs of the Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers.

  • April 27th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 20mm / f/4 / 1/40 sec

Soldiers Outside a Large Door

Behind these doors: the head of John the Baptist, and Saladin's tomb.

Oh, just another normal place in Damascus.

  • April 30th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 17mm / f/4.5 / 1/40 sec


The Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus was formerly the Basilica of St John the Baptist. It was first a temple of the 'pagan' god of thunderstorms and rains. Then it was a Roman super-temple for Jupiter, Hadad, Ba'al Shamin and anybody worth worshipping in those days.

Then the boring one-god types came and... well, we've still got this amazing mosque.

Here a boy blows bubbles in front of the Dome of the Treasury, built in 789 AD.

  • April 30th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 40mm / f/5.6 / 1/125 sec

The Road Home

I travelled by road. And rail. Exclusively. But for the task of getting in and out of Yemen, I did the rest of it by bus, taxi and train. I started this leg in Beirut and I finished it in London, via Istanbul (I flew that leg, too).

There were so many buses and trains it was a bit of a blur to me, but for those moments when I remembered: I don't know where the hell I'm going, but this is amazing.

  • April 26th, 2009
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • 40mm / f/14 / 1/1000 sec

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Adrianna Tan  about 5 years ago
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Paulo Capiotti  about 5 years ago

absolutely love it.

Adrianna Tan  about 5 years ago