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Assassin Tourism

The thing about the assassins is, they are fascinating at a distance. In their own time, they were surely a violent, nasty bunch. But add a few centuries of history to the Ismailis and the rosy tint of the Arabian Nights, and suddenly they're pretty sexy, as games like Assassin's Creed seem to prove.

Yet it still strikes me as profoundly odd that the current-day descendant of the Old Man of the Mountain, the Aga Khan, is spending money on restoring Ismaili castles in Syria and touting them as tourist attractions.

Uh, what? Assassins as a tourist draw? This seems unlikely. Or rather, I don't think a lot of Westerners are likely to visit Syria; someplace like the Alhambra in Spain or Topkapi in Istanbul is likely to be a much bigger draw for someone like me who wants to see the high points of Muslim architecture. And I'm fairly sure the Ismaili are viewed as heretics in the Arab world. So who's the audience for this, exactly? Jihadis looking for inspiration?



( 12 sutras — Your wisdom )
Jul. 19th, 2007 04:10 pm (UTC)
Have you read Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell? Presidential assassination tourism right here in the US!

Jul. 19th, 2007 11:01 pm (UTC)
That name sounds familiar... I'll check it out.
Jul. 19th, 2007 05:37 pm (UTC)
I'd go, but I suppose that's no surprise.
Jul. 19th, 2007 07:01 pm (UTC)
After our first holiday to Egypt when we also visited Petra in Jordan, we thought it would be interesting to go to Syria to visit some of the crusader forts and other sites. That was when Clinton was in the White House and the Middle East was relatively stable. Since then, we've had 9/11, the Iraq war and the 7/7 bombings which has kind of put us off. However, we are planning to go back to Egypt this autumn to visit Aswan and Abu Simbel.
Earlier this year we went to India and did the "Golden Triangle": Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. The Taj Mahal knocks both the Alhambra and the Topkapi Palace into a cocked hat - it really does live up to all the hype. Oh, and we saw two little owls sitting in a tree in the garden too!
Jul. 19th, 2007 11:03 pm (UTC)
Well, yeah, the Taj FTW!

I was limiting myself to the Arab world. Wasn't the Taj built by Persians or... Actually I have no idea who built the Taj. Mughals, maybe?

Jul. 20th, 2007 06:17 am (UTC)
Yes, the Mughals built the Taj - they were originally Central Asian nomads, supposdedly descended from Genghis Khan and the Mongols. They were Muslims though and their buildings are very much in the Islamic style as well as having other influences. The garden tombs including the Taj are meant to represent the gardens of Paradise.
Jul. 19th, 2007 09:15 pm (UTC)
I went through Syria in mid-2005 and had a great time. There is a very well-trafficked tourist trail for Europeans, particularly the French (unsurprising given their historic association with the country) and Germans, mostly in guided groups. Also Euro and Antipodean backpackers. The country hasn't made any concessions to this - it certainly hasn't become any sort of Disneyland - but there were plenty of tourists in Damascus. And for the record, the American girl I knew living in Damascus had a great time and lots of friends, although she was frequently followed by (very polite) secret policemen.

Near Palmyra I stopped in a cafe where the owner made a point of learning languages from everyone who came through. He floored me when, after I said he was a New Zealander, he spieled off more Maori than I knew.
Jul. 19th, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC)
Very cool. I toured Poland and East Germany in the bad old days, and while I wouldn't describe it as a "great time", it was still interesting. I always wound up pitying the folks who were stuck there, and that's just depressing.

As a result, I don't know that I will visit dictatorships for tourist reasons. Havana, Damascus, Pyongyang, and Tehran are surely all interesting, but... there's so many other places to see. Morocco and Jordan I'd see in a minute. Maybe Egypt.

Now I want to book a ticket. :)
Jul. 20th, 2007 12:06 am (UTC)
Yeah, there are ethical concerns for sure. For me, though, the benefits of gaining some first-hand experiences of cultures that are frequently feared and misrepresented in the West was more than worthwhile. I don't think there's one proper answer here - we each have to weigh up our personal concerns and the pros and cons as we see them.

(I should add, too, that Syria wasn't depressing. There's some fascinating stuff going on there, and a real political engagement; it was weird to see Bashar's face all over the place, but it didn't feel like an oppressed environment at all. I think the new regime has really improved the situation for the locals. The American friend who was my local guide was doing her Anthropology doctorate on the ground-level politics of young men in Syria, so this may have coloured my perspective...)

On the other hand, Egypt often depressed me. The massive disparities between the tourists and the locals, the heavy militarisation, etc., especially outside of Cairo. (And Israel/Palestine is a whole 'nother conversation.)

Now I'm rambling :-) Here are my travel emails from the time, should you have more interest!
Jul. 20th, 2007 04:36 am (UTC)
The Ismaili are most definitely not heretics in the Muslim world (not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs).

Unlike the Sunni, the Shia community is made of many many sects. The Twelvers are the most populous (so-named for their "waiting" for the Hidden Imam, the 12th one since Ali). The second most populous Shia sect are the Ismaili. They'd only be seen as heretics by anyone who would see any Shia branch as heretics.
Jul. 20th, 2007 01:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Ismaili
I suspected that, but since the sources I read about the Ismaili were all discussing the early years, it wasn't clear. Thanks for clarifying.

The Ismaili in the medieval period, though, did fight against fellow Muslims as well as against the Crusaders. The view of them was not entirely favorable; the current Aga Khan and the current state of that branch of Islam is quite removed from the Ismaili founders, no? Maybe I did read too many Sunni histories...

I'm not sure I understand "Unlike the Sunni,". Aren't the Wahhabi, Sufi, and others all Sunni sects? Or are there just *less* sects among the Sunni than among the Shia?
Jul. 23rd, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Ismaili
That was my anonymous comment previously--I had forgotten to sign in.

It's been a bit since my Middle East history classes and some of my reading, but there were a lot of factions of Islam during the medieval period (most periods, really) with all the caliphates and dynasties based on descendant from important people. While the main Shia sect are Twelvers, there are Fivers, Seveners, etc., all based on when they split off counting Imams (with a capital I).

The Fatimid dynasty which ruled much of Egypt, North Africa, and Palestine in the 10th-12th centuries were also Ismaili. So I feel that it's hard to state that the Ismaili were significant one way or another in terms of fighting people. Islam has not really been a united entity since the 7th-8th centuries.

You're right in that Sunni does have sects of its own, but while you could (crudely) compare Sunni to Catholicism, the Shia would be the infinite number of Protectant denominations. I don't have enough fingers and toes to name all the Shia sects that I know. Besides, I never got the impression that Wahhabism/Salifism was really a *denomination* of Sunni Islam, like Twelvers and Ismaili are of Shia.

Anyway, I'm only a student who has taken a few classes on the history and geography of the Middle East, plus a reader of a bunch of history books about Islam and the Arabic world, so I may have gotten some of the above wrong. I hope it helps, though.
( 12 sutras — Your wisdom )

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