Kristoffer Tangri is a second year MIA student concentrating in International Security Policy. I asked him to share about what he did during the summer break and he wrote the following and sent along the pictures as well.
It is 86 degrees Fahrenheit with an early morning breeze and the sun is rising over an endless sea of sand and granite rocks. Wadi Rum, a vast desert valley in southwest Jordan awakes to a magnificent spectacle of colors that already captivated T. E. Lawrence. While most SIPA students are off in search of work experience, I decided to travel the Middle East instead: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey in two months. The Middle East has always fascinated me, its rich culture and history but also its current political, economic and security situation. This blog entry is too short to share all the many impressions and observations of my trip but can give a short introduction into this unique part of the world.
My first stop of the summer was Istanbul, Turkey’s grand city at the Bosporus and former capital of the Ottoman Empire. The city lives its history and at every corner you find magnificent remainders of its Roman and Ottoman eras. The Hagia Sophia, arguably Istanbul’s most superb landmark, was build as a patriarchal basilica in the 6th century and later turned into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. In the 1930s, it was made a public museum under the secular movement of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Hagia Sophia now stands in Turkey’s most modern and secular city.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque also known as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
My next stop was Amman, the capital of Jordan, a city that has been around for several thousand years but has only grown into a real metropolis over the last decades, partly due to the economic rise of Jordan but also due to the influx of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. Jordan, unlike its neighbors Lebanon and Syria, has diplomatic relations with Israel and has an important partnership with the United States. You can see American made police cars everywhere and Israeli tourist frequently come to visit one of the many historical and religious sites of the nation. Petra, the lost city, is without a doubt the highlight of the country. Tucked away in a valley hidden behind great mountains, the Western world has been unaware for centuries of the two thousand year old world heritage side’s location until it was rediscovered in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
Petra, a city mainly carved into stone, was once erected as the capital of the Nabataeans and is now Jordan’s most important source of tourist income. Other highlights in Jordan include a trip to the Red Sea at Aqaba, the Dead Sea, the Jordan river and of course Wadi Rum.
The ancient city of Petra, Jordan
The ancient city of Petra, Jordan
From Jordan I traveled onwards to Damascus, the capital of Syria. I stayed three weeks in Syria and enrolled in a summer school on Middle East politics, financed by the German and Syrian governments with German and Syrian students. Syria is a country with a highly ambivalent global reputation. Some people will think of the wonderful old town of Damascus with one of Islam’s oldest and most holy mosques, the Ummayad Mosque. They will speak of friendly people, the desert city of Palmyra, famous Crusader castles and the food in Aleppo. Other people will be reminded of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” remarks in 2002, comment on the political system in the country and speak about Syria’s involvement in Lebanon and Iraq and the fact that Syria does not accept the existence of the state of Israel.
I travelled to Syria to learn more about both sides. I had the opportunity to meet foreign diplomats and Syrian government officials and went on several field trips, for example to a Palestinian Refugee camp or Queneitra at the Golan Heights. Sentiments against Israel and to some extend the United States are still widespread but people are fairly open minded and religious tolerance is rooted deep within the countries politics and society. Syria has mainly avoided civil unrest and religious conflicts within their own territory (with the major exception of Hama in 1982), but did get involved more heavily in their neighboring countries.
Visiting the Syrian parliament and meeting the president of the parliament with a delegation of students
Israel-Syrian border at the Golan Heights in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Zone
Lebanon was the last stop of my Middle East trip and it was somewhat different than I had expected. Syria is still a more traditional society with very affordable living costs and people rarely speak English. Lebanon and especially Beirut, on the contrary, are highly modern, people speak fluent French or English and the prices in some parts of Beirut were even higher than in New York. Lebanon seemed to me like a surreal place. Only three years ago the country has been at war with Israel and less than two decades ago the bloody civil war ended.
Yet, besides the highly sectarian political system and its history and the fact that you have to pass dozens of military checkpoints with tanks while travelling through the country, Lebanon has established itself as a safe and welcoming tourist and party location. When going out to one of the endless clubs in Beirut you get checked frequently by police and when going to Baalbek, the ancient temple ruins in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, you will find a stage for Western rock concerts next to a Hezbollah exhibition.
The Martyrs’ Statue in downtown Beirut
Hezbollah exhibition in Baalbek
I had a wonderful time traveling the Middle East and have learned a lot about the region’s culture, history and politics. At SIPA I am concentrating on International Security Policy and Post-Conflict Development and my travels have helped me gain a deeper understanding of the conflicts of the Middle East region. Upon returning to Columbia I will be taking a course on Middle East history and politics and do a part time internship during my fourth semester. SIPA is very flexible with your internship requirement and many students do it part-time to replace or in addition to the summer internship.
Thank you very much, Kristoffer