Days before we arrive in Havana, a friend is raving about the music. “On the streets, in bars, clubs, hotels… it’s everywhere,” she gushes, and on our first night, I’m raring to go. The hotel concierge knows of a Buena Vista club hidden down a dingy street with more cats than people outside. Up the stairs, we’re in a different world: a 15-piece Afro-Cuban band and suave vocalist have a room of boisterous South Americans in seventh heaven.
The next night, we’re walking along Calle Obispo, one of the city’s iconic arteries, when a five-piece combo starts up in a tiny bar. People gather to dance on the street. In a flash, so are we.
My friend is right. You can’t walk far in Havana, day or night, without hearing the infectious sounds of salsa and the joy of people swaying to the rhythm. I want to bottle this, yet a nagging voice in my head asks if it’s all just a show.
“Is all this music put on for tourists?” I ask our guide Ari. “Not at all. This is who we are,” he smiles. “Salsa is Cuba’s gift to the world.” Ari trained as an engineer, he has been to Europe and the US, but returned to live in Cuba. Ari is a patriot.
It’s a good time to be back. This year Havana celebrates its 500th anniversary and the city, like Rip Van Winkle, is waking from a long slumber. Although hardly anyone takes credit cards and Wi-Fi is a waste of time, new hotels, designer stores and restaurants are jostling with the faded glory of bygone days.
As the government dips its toe into capitalism, however, the people are proud of their communist legacy. Ari regales us with the achievements of Castro’s revolution – free education and healthcare, a high demand for Cuban doctors overseas, and even Havana’s great European buildings. The domed white capitol building on the city’s main thoroughfare, the Paseo de Marti, is modelled on the original in Washington DC, and is undergoing a lavish restoration ahead of the anniversary later this year.
We get a terrific view of the capitol on our tour of the Grand Theatre of Havana across the road. Now restored to its former glory, the theatre is a jaw-dropper, a soaring space of rich red seating and curtains, and compares favourably with similar icons in Buenos Aires and Naples. A few years ago, the theatre was renamed in honour of Cuba’s most famous dancer, Alicia Alonso, who performed all over the world despite partial blindness from the age of 19. Alonso is still alive today, aged 98, and a beautiful statue of her adorns the foyer.
Ari may be proud but he is not blind to the problems on the city streets. Most buildings are peeling like sunburnt skin, their exteriors blackened and crumbling from decades of neglect and lack of money. The government has a comprehensive plan to restore the major buildings – government offices, theatres, churches – but they can’t all be done at once. There’s just not enough money in the kitty, so choices have to be made.
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You can see what he means about priorities at the Bar Floridita just off Parque Central. Renowned as Ernest Hemingway’s favoured watering hole, this 200-year-old landmark is painted in a distinctive “shabby chic” pastel rouge exterior. Tourists flock here to order daiquiris from waiters in white coats while a trio belts out Cuban standards in the corner. It’s a glorious cliché but I am addicted, and the exuberance lingers long after you leave.
So does the sight that greets you outside. Right behind Floridita stands a crumbling four-storey apartment block, colonnaded on one side and open to the elements on another. It looks like a scene from Syria. The buildings around here appear derelict but people are living in them, in very meagre circumstances.
The locals bear the brunt of inadequate infrastructure in other ways. Trucks with large tanks rumble along the streets every morning to deliver drinking water to designated drop-off points; people bringing their containers out must negotiate deeply rutted footpaths and some have potholes so deep they are being used as de facto rubbish bins.
For the city’s 500th anniversary celebrations, the government has earmarked more than 1000 buildings and sites to be repaired. The centrepiece is the restoration of the Capitol, for which Russia is donating a gold leaf skin to wrap around the dome. Ari rolls his eyes at this decadence; he prefers the Japanese government’s gift: 100 rubbish trucks to help clean up the rubbish.
FIDEL, CHE AND THOSE CUBANS
This contrast between faded glory and decay, high culture and pop, imbues Havana with an irresistible allure. Every second shop has photos of Fidel and Che in their 1960s fatigues, bursting with military charisma. Especially Che. Like Elvis, it’s as if he never died. It’s enough to make you want to buy a T-shirt.
And what is Che doing in most of these photos? Is he fighting? Is he galvanising a crowd? No, he’s chomping on a cigar – two Cuban icons for the price of one. The smell of cigars seems so normal here that I am almost tempted to try one (you don’t inhale).
But the urge quickly disappears when Ari takes us into a cigar tasting at the Conde de Villanueva Hotel on Calle Mercaderes down near the port. There we see 20 young men and women in a courtyard, puffing on a new scent of cigar. It’s a scene I won’t see anywhere else, and it’s intoxicating, literally. After two minutes, I can’t breathe properly and head outside for fresh air.
Although Che is a magnet, nothing catches the eye like Havana’s army of 1950s American cars. These brightly coloured “Coches Americanos” cruise around the city, tempting tourists to jump in for a ride where they can look like rich Americans and overdose on selfies.
Why are there so many of them? When Castro assumed power in 1959, he placed a ban on foreign vehicle imports, which made it almost impossible to buy a new foreign-made vehicle. When the engines broke down, the locals used Japanese or whatever spare parts they could scramble. Although the cars look fabulous, they remain products of the 1950s. Ours has air-con, of sorts, but the rear suspension has the flexibility of concrete and if you happen to drive out onto the highways, the engine starts shuddering once you hit 90km/h.
Still, they are an efficient and enjoyable way to get around. Beyond the city centre lies New Havana, with its own tree-lined Fifth Avenue, home of the most beautiful homes and apartments. This 1960s development provides a strong contrast with the colonial architecture of the city centre. Standing out against the low-rise skyline is a concrete monstrosity that looks like a lego robot, but is in fact the Russian Embassy. Google it to see just how ugly.
THE VIEW FROM THE TOP
Street level gives you a close-up view of everyday life but to capture the scale and grandeur of Havana, you have to go up – to the rooftops of the city’s iconic hotels. Our hotel, the Saratoga, opposite the Capitol, is a grand old landmark that embodies 1930s wealth and elegance; five minutes away the brand new Gran Manzana Kempinski is an ode to luxury and bling. Both boast rooftop pools and restaurants with stunning vistas of the city. From the Kempinski you can look across at the Bacardi building, an Art Deco gem that was the company’s original head office in 1930.
Up here, the sky is dotted with cranes and construction sites as Fidel’s brother Raul embarks on a frenzy of five-star hotels to attract foreign visitors and currency. There’s reform at the other end of the property market, too. Last year the government completed its slow journey to recognising private property by law, allowing locals to buy and sell their homes.
Many Havana residents now have an incentive to renovate and are renting out rooms in their homes to generate extra income. A surprising number of tourists are trying this option in the name of an authentic Havana experience. The prices might be low but, as Ari reminds us, at least they are paying to stay in the city, putting much-needed currency in the hands of Cubans.
The locals are well disposed to visitors, and not just for the dollars. They see tourists, particularly American ones, as supporting them against Trump’s hostility, which is winding back the goodwill generated by Obama’s normalising of relations and hugely popular visit in 2016.
Tourist numbers are going south thanks to US policies, Ari tells us, which is the last thing Cuba needs as its government looks to tourism as the potential saviour of an economy that remains depressed. In May, the US dealt another setback by banning American cruise ships from docking in Cuba, in an effort to pressure the government to stop its support of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
Little surprise, then, that whatever Trump is for, Cubans are against. Despite the dire situation in that country – no medicine, or toilet paper, let alone food and jobs – they care more about Maduro’s defiance of the US than the economic misery he has inflicted on his people.
COLD WAR CHARISMA
When it comes to communist credentials, few can hold a candle to Cuba. Every guide book will point you to the Museum of the Revolution, which is housed in what used to be the Presidential Palace before 1959. Although it boasts an impressive entryway that exhibits numerous bullet holes when it was stormed by protesters, overall the museum tells a predictably one-eyed story of heroics by Fidel, Che and their comrades. The curation and exhibit translations are patchy at best.
However, next door the National Museum of Fine Arts demonstrates how Latins can breathe life into communism, expressing a vibrancy that has been squeezed out of Soviet-bloc stodge. It is well worth a few hours in the middle of a steaming hot day.
For those who are determined to get a Cold War fix, head for the Hotel Nacional, a 1930s Art Deco institution which was designed to lure America’s rich and famous to Havana (think of Mafia boss Meyer Lansky, and the Godfather 2). Built on a headland a 30-minute walk from the city centre, the Nacional is the grand dame of all Havana’s great hotels.
During the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1962, Fidel Castro constructed a bunker underneath the Nacional’s gardens, which has now been turned into a museum of sorts. Here you can revel in old military photos, flickering light bulbs and a maze of tunnels that sheltered volunteers who intended to fight against a US Marine assault.
When you’ve finished with the tunnels, head above ground to hotel foyer, which boasts an honour board of celebrities who have eaten there, and their food choices. Jean-Paul Sartre chose cheesecake, Marlon Brando tried filet mignon with French fries, Gabriel Garcia Marquez ordered banana tortilla. The Nacional also hosts a Parisien-style cabaret straight out of the nightclubs of Montmartre, with lurid Carmen Miranda outfits and Ziegfield follies razzamatazz. Very touristy but great fun.
At the end of a long day in the humid heat, take a leisurely sunset walk along the Malecon, Havana’s seaside corniche, all the way round to the Nacional. It only takes about 30 minutes. Wander through the foyer, order a cocktail, take a seat near the water and enjoy what Castro missed when he stayed underground.
FIVE PLACES IN HAVANA MADE FAMOUS BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY
Just off the Parque Central, this 200-year-old landmark on Calle Obispo was the writer’s favourite watering. Sip a daiquiri while listening to a band playing Cuban standards and look for the photo of the novelist and Fidel Castro shaking hands in the corner.
AMBOS MUNDOS HOTEL
Down the street from Floridita is the pink Ambos Mundos Hotel, where Hemingway regularly stayed in Room 511. It was here that he finished Death in the Afternoon (1932) and started To Have and Have Not (1937). From this room he could see the port where his boat, the Pilar, was docked, and check on the arrival of the trade winds brought perfect conditions for marlin fishing.
LA BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO
Birthplace of the mojito, La Bodeguita del Medio was patronised by several personalities including Hemingway, although he was never a regular. Look out for his framed inscription which reads ‘My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita’. At the beautiful Dos Hermanos bar near the ferry terminal, a plaque confirms visits from Ernest Hemingway, as well as other notables such as Marlon Brando and Errol Flynn.
HEMINGWAY MUSEUM AT FINCA VIGIA
A short ride out of the city centre is Hemingway’s house and grounds, where he lived for 20 years. Visitors are not allowed to go inside. But through the open windows you can see the trophy heads of the big game he loved hunting, and his bathroom wall which bears the pencil marks where he recorded his weight every day. The author’s boat, Pilar, sits on the grounds outside.
Just outside Havana is the modest fishing village of Cojimar, where the Gregorio Fuentes, the fisherman who inspired The Old Man and The Sea, fished and kept his boat. The town was the first to erect a monument to Hemingway after his suicide in 1961 at the age of 61. The author left his own boat to Fuentes when he died. His novel is taught in Cuban schools, as are his other books.
5 MORE THINGS TO SEE IN HAVANA
FUSTERLANDIA – THE CUBAN GAUDI
José Fuster is known as the Cuban Gaudi, and over the past decade he has transformed the fishing town of Jaimanitas on the outskirts of Havana, with bright playful ceramics. Fuster has now decorated over 80 houses with mosaic tiles and fabulist domes, imbuing the whole streetscape of his town, now known as Fusterlandia, with a magical, dreamlike quality, and prompting comparisons with Gaudi’s Parque Guell in Barcelona. See art-havana.com/fuster
THE CIGAR TRAIL
Even for non-smokers, it’s hard to resist the allure of Cuba’s cigar culture. There are half a dozen cigar factories in Havana alone. The Partagas factory, founded in 1845, offers a tour of its factory (which has moved from its original location) which allows you to see how the leaves are graded, then rolled, and boxed. The old factory behind the Capitol has now been converted into a museum and shop. At the Palacio O’Farrill, you can enjoy a ‘Maridaje’ ceremony: the ‘marriage’ or traditional pairing of a Cuban cigar with Cuban coffee and Cuban rum. See habanos.com/en/marcas/partagas
THE CHE INDUSTRY
There are several museums dedicated to the life of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Castro’s chief comrade. Start with the Museo de Comandancia del Che in old Havana. Located in it Guevara’s old office in Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, it tells the story of his life with pictures and a few old belongings (radios, rucksacks and guns). About 15 minutes drive from the city is La Cabana de Che Guevara, a mausoleum set on an elevated site with great views of Havana Bay. It houses the remains of Che and 29 of his fellow combatants killed in 1967 during their attempt to spur an armed uprising in Bolivia.
THE RUM MUSEUM
At the Museo del Ron Havana Club you can learn about the history and manufacture of Cuban rum, with exhibits that recapture the old sugar plantation era (and backbreaking life endured by the workers). Tours run every 15 minutes and the end of the tour, they offer you a taste of Havana Club rum. See havanaclubmuseum.com/en
Although there are some lovely beaches such as Santa Maria del Mar near Havana, most tourists who want a beach resort experience head to Varadero, about two hours drive from the capital. The water is crystal clear, development is embryonic compared to American counterparts, and the daiquiris are cheap. The resort town is so popular that it even has its own airport, allowing visitors to fly in direct.
You can fly directly to Havana from several US cities such as New York and Miami on major American airlines, as well as from nearby countries in central America, such as Mexico.
Hotel Saratoga is a five-star, Art Deco landmark, see hotel-saratoga.com
Further along, pasture gives way to stony ground studded with pale green tussock. Remnants of the war are more evident here; burnt-out trucks and tanks, toppled electricity pylons and fortified berms of rammed earth crowned with barbed wire. Near a military airbase ringed by radar stations the checkpoint is heavily guarded and businesslike.
A Russian tank transporter going our way is a reminder that IS still fights in the desert beyond Palmyra, where several Syrian troops were reportedly killed this month. While IS lost its last Syrian stronghold of Baghouz in March, small bands continue to mount guerrilla attacks. This is my first visit to Palmyra since a trip as a tourist in 2009, drawn by the mystique of its spectacular architecture beside a desert oasis. Two years later, Syria was torn apart by war. As we approach Palmyra through a gap in a low mountain range, one question is playing on my mind: has the remote and mesmerising site suffered a fatal blow, or can it rise again?
Palmyra’s Grand Colonnade suddenly emerges out of a sandy plain. It is the city’s still magnificent spine, a kilometre-long avenue of towering limestone columns that slowly turn from pale gold to burnt orange in the setting sun. We park near the ruins and set out on foot to take a closer look. At the Grand Colonnade’s eastern end, the great temple of the Mesopotamian god Bel lies in ruins – though its portico somehow survived IS’s explosives – and the ornately carved triumphal arch is a pile of massive blocks. The invaders also blew up the tetrapylon that marked the city’s crossroads and the Baalshamin temple, a richly decorated combination of Roman and indigenous building styles. The theatre’s finely chiselled facade is a pile of rubble along with several multi-storey burial towers that sat on a bare hillside.
On the crossroads of international trade, cosmopolitan Palmyra developed an unorthodox and pluralist culture reflected in its surviving art and architecture. That, along with its location between the Mediterranean coast and the Euphrates river, made it a tempting symbolic and strategic target for modern-day fundamentalists. Muslims lived at Palmyra for 13 centuries, establishing mosques in structures that earlier functioned as Byzantine churches and pagan temples, but the bigots of IS were scandalised by almost everything they found. Every act of vandalism was videoed for use in IS propaganda, its shock value aimed at attracting extremist recruits and intimidating opponents.
IS occupied Palmyra twice: between May 2015 and March 2016, and between December 2016 and March 2017. During its first takeover, Tarek escaped, but Khaled refused to leave. “I phoned my father and begged him, ‘Please leave; Palmyra has been lost to evil people and you are not safe,’ Tarek says. “He answered, ‘I’m glad you got away, but this is my home and I’m not leaving.’”
After six weeks of house arrest, Khaled was imprisoned in a hotel basement and tortured to reveal the location of hidden treasures that Tarek says never existed. After a month in the basement, the old man was beheaded with a sword in front of an assembled crowd. “He refused to kneel for the blade, so they kicked his legs out from under him,” Tarek says. An online photograph showed his corpse tied to a traffic pole and his head, spectacles in place, positioned mockingly at his feet. A placard tied to his body labelled him an apostate who served as “director of idolatry” at Palmyra and represented Assad’s government at “infidel” conferences abroad.
Before war broke out in 2011, tourism and agriculture supported more than 50,000 people in Tadmur. Only a few hundred have returned, burrowing into half-demolished buildings along streets that sprout giant weeds from bomb craters. Tarek is not among the returnees; he lives with his mother Hayat in Damascus, where he manages a cafe. Russian sappers have cleared Tadmur of IS mines and booby-traps and power and water is back on. Commerce has made a tentative recovery, with a bakery, a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy and a simple restaurant. Its owner, Ibrahim Salim, 45, grills chicken on the footpath under a banner portraying President Assad and his Russian patron Vladimir Putin. Salim says he fled Palmyra after IS killed his wife Taghreed, a 36-year-old nurse, for the crime of treating an injured government soldier. “Security is good, so I can sleep peacefully in Tadmur now,” he says. “We hope the school will reopen soon, so more families will return.”
UNESCO has extolled Palmyrene art – particularly its expressive funerary sculpture – as a unique blend of indigenous, Greco-Roman, Persian and even Indian influences. As IS battled Syrian troops for control of Tadmur in 2015, Tarek rushed to save the most valued examples in Palmyra’s two-storey museum. With him were his archaeologist brothers, Mohammed and Walid, and their brother-in-law, Khalil Hariri, who had succeeded Khaled al-Asaad as museum director. They packed sculptures, pottery and jewellery into wooden crates and were loading them into trucks when mortars exploded around them. Shrapnel hit Tarek in the back and Khalil took a bullet in the arm. They got away with hundreds of pieces, but left many more behind. UNESCO has praised Syria’s wartime evacuation of more than 300,000 exhibits from the country’s 34 museums as “an extraordinary feat”.
We walk to Palmyra’s museum. Khaled’s former workplace is a desolate shell, its walls pockmarked by bullets, windows blown out and the foyer roof holed by a missile. Galleries that showcased the accomplishments of millennia are bare save for a few statues and bas-reliefs. They are minus heads, faces and hands – desecrated by IS cadres enraged by “idolatrous” objects, Tarek says, adding: “They even pulled the embalmed mummies out of their cabinets and ran over them with a bulldozer.”
I find only one intact exhibit – a portrait of Khaled (pictured) by Sydney artist Luke Cornish, a work that I and Cornish assumed had been lost. Painted onto a steel door, the portrait is propped against a wall and covered in a protective sheet of clear plastic. Tarek doesn’t know how it survived or who put it in the museum. “Someone must have hidden it from IS, because they would have destroyed it for sure,” he says.
No fewer than 15 employees of Syria’s museum network have suffered violent deaths in the eight-year war, but only Khaled’s murder made world headlines. The news prompted Cornish to pay him a remarkable tribute. Cornish makes art by spraying aerosol paint over layers of stencils. Twice a finalist for the Archibald Prize, his award-winning work achieves a near-photographic realism and carries strong humanitarian themes. In June 2016, he went to Syria to film a group of Australian boxers on a “hope-raising mission” led by a Sydney Anglican priest, “Fighting Father” Dave Smith, known for his use of boxing to help at-risk youths. Between bouts and training, Cornish held impromptu stencil-art demonstrations for children in war-ravaged places such as Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city.
“The kids were fascinated by the immediacy of the medium,” he told me in Sydney. “Most were very poor and had never known anything but war, so it was great to see them having fun putting stuff like [cartoon character] Dora the Explorer on a schoolyard wall or along a bombed-out street. Even with soldiers around and artillery going off, we always drew a curious crowd.”
Before leaving for Syria, Cornish prepared a stencil in the hope of painting Khaled’s portrait somewhere in the country. He got the chance when the boxers went to Palmyra. They arrived more than two months after a Russian-backed offensive first expelled IS from the city, and a week after St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra played a concert there to celebrate – prematurely, as it turned out – Palmyra’s liberation. The orchestra performed Prokofiev, Bach and Shchedrin in a Roman-era theatre that IS used as a backdrop for mass executions.
Cornish chose the door of the theatre’s electrical room to paint the man he calls “a hero who sacrificed his life for what he loved”. A YouTube clip of Cornish working on the painting led Tarek to contact him. “Luke’s painting was a beautiful gesture and a very kind gift to our family. We think of him as our friend and brother,” Tarek says.
But six months later, IS retook Palmyra, dynamiting the theatre and posting a gloating video of the damage. Cornish had assumed his painting was lost, too. “I’m used to having my work destroyed on the street, but having it blown up by IS is something else,” he says.
Syria boasts six World Heritage cultural sites and all are on UNESCO’s endangered list. Normally, World Heritage funds would be released to protect the threatened properties. In Syria’s case, UN support has been limited to the restoration of a single Palmyrene statue, and training for museum staff. A UNESCO emergency appeal for $US150,000 ($222,000) to safeguard the portico of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel has failed to attract support from potential donors. At the national museum in Damascus, white-coated conservators have begun the exacting job of repairing hundreds of Palmyra’s damaged exhibits. It is an almost entirely Syrian effort, done on a tiny budget. “We hope for more international help because Palmyra belongs to the world, not just to Syria,” says Khalil Hariri, the Palmyra museum director. He says the fallen stones of the triumphal arch, theatre and tetrapylon are mostly intact and can be put back together, but the museum service can’t afford to employ workers and buy machinery. Says a Palmyra specialist at the Damascus museum, archaeologist Houmam Saad: “All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help.”
More than two dozen European and US organisations have sprung up to promote Syria’s imperilled heritage. They collect data, hold meetings and issue statements of concern. One such group spent £2.5 million ($4.1 million) to erect a two-thirds-scale model of Palmyra’s triumphal arch in London’s Trafalgar Square, then repeated the exercise in Washington, D.C. Money raised for Syrian antiquities would be better spent where the damage was done, writes Ross Burns, a former Australian ambassador to Syria and author of four books on its archaeology and history: “Putting money into faux arches and 3D models vaguely mimicking historical structures does little more than salve the consciences of outsiders whose nations have encouraged – even funded and armed, then walked away from – the conflagration that grew to overwhelm Syria.”
All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help.
Damascus museum archaeologist Houmam Saad
Syria is a nation of many faiths and ethnicities that emerged in its present boundaries only in 1945. Its rulers have popularised a shared history as a tool to promote national identity and social cohesion. In 2018, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay acknowledged this heritage as “a powerful force for reconciliation and dialogue”. She added a caveat: UNESCO would help rebuild Syria’s historic sites “when conditions allow”. That could mean a long wait.
The UN has banned its agencies from providing reconstruction aid until a “genuine and inclusive political transition negotiated by the parties” is achieved. The ban reflects the stance of the US, European Union and other nations which have imposed economic sanctions on Syria. The Australian government did the same in 2011 in response to what it called the “deeply disturbing and unacceptable use by the Syrian regime of violence against its people”. A year later, the Gillard government applied further sanctions and called for “intensified pressure on Damascus to stop its brutality”.
Luke Cornish ran up against the sanctions when he tried to send $28,000 raised for Syrian orphans to SOS Children’s Villages International last year. Sanctions have isolated Syria from global banking and payment systems, so the charity advised him to wire the money to its German bank account. However, his Australian bank declined the transfer, Cornish says, adding: “I made the mistake of using the word ‘Syria’ on the transfer description.” The UN Special Rapporteur on sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, says the restrictions have “contributed to the suffering of the Syrian people” by blocking imports ranging from anti-cancer drugs and vaccines to crop seeds and water pumps. Though not endorsed by the UN, the sanctions have had a “chilling effect” on humanitarian aid and obstruct efforts to restore schools, hospitals, clean water, housing and employment, Jazairy reported in 2018.
What, then, are the prospects for restoring Syria’s endangered antiquities, including Palmyra? Answers may lie in an ambitious Russian-funded project to rebuild Aleppo’s Great Mosque. It’s a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and symbol of the city, which lies north-west of Palmyra and lost one-third of its famed Old Quarter in fighting which ended in 2016. The mosque’s 45-metre minaret stood for more than 900 years until it collapsed during fighting in 2013. Today, it is a thousand-tonne pile of limestone blocks overlooked by a towering crane. Putting the minaret back up is the job of an all-Syrian team of architects and engineers, stonemasons and woodworkers. They must also restore the badly damaged columns, ceilings and walls of the prayer hall and arcades surrounding the mosque’s vast courtyard. Project director and architect Sakher Oulabi, who showed me around the site, says the workers feel a heavy responsibility: “We all understand we are doing something very important for the soul of our city and our country.”
Driving the rebuild is the Syria Trust for Development, chaired by Asma al-Assad, the President’s wife – so the project has considerable clout. Nevertheless, its technical challenges are almost as formidable as Palmyra’s. The minaret’s 2400 or so fallen stones must be weighed and measured, strength-tested with ultrasound and photographed from many angles so that photogrammetry – the science of making three-dimensional measurements from images – can help to determine where every stone fits. Materials and techniques must be as close as possible to the original: “An expert may notice the difference between new and old, but the public must not,” engineer Tamim Kasmo says. However, limestone that best matches the original is in a quarry outside government control, in Idlib province. As a senior US Defence Department official, Michael Mulroy, noted, Idlib harbours “the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world right now”.
Palmya’s giant stones are as white as old bones when we leave the site one evening at dusk. Tarek joins friends for iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast and begins with dates and water in line with a tradition supposedly begun by the prophet Muhammad. Our driver, Ahmad, has put aside the pistol he’s been carrying in his belt. He insists there is no prospect of an IS comeback, but says he carries the weapon because local roads can be dangerous. All the town’s hotels are destroyed, so we bed down in a private home and hear artillery fire throughout the night.
At dawn, a steady wind blows cold off the mountains. A road runs past the wreckage of a luxury hotel, where guests once dined while overlooking the ruins and below which Khaled al-Asaad was chained for his last 28 days, to the high perimeter walls of the Temple of Bel complex. From here, having sought the blessings of temple deities, ancient camel trains made the long desert crossing eastward to the Euphrates, with merchandise destined for markets as far away as China.
At the temple entrance today, a young soldier is hunkered down in a guard-post made from ammunition boxes and corrugated iron plastered with mud. “I was here all winter, but at least it didn’t snow,” he says. He apologises for having to inspect our papers and invites us to wait on plastic chairs while he clears our visit with a superior. I ask about the night’s gunfire. “It was only the army practising,” he says, pointing to a nearby mountain with a medieval citadel on its summit. A decade ago, I stood on its ramparts to take panoramic photos of Palmyra, but now it is an off-limits military zone.
Tarek and the soldier discuss welcome news: the spring that feeds Palmyra’s oasis is flowing for the first time in 27 years. The source of the city’s historic wealth, it has watered settlements here since Neolithic times. The spring’s revival has come too late for Tarek’s family orchard; its olive and pistachio trees have withered and died. But he takes it as a hopeful sign that enough of fabled Palmyra can be restored, for the prosperity of its people and the wonder of the world.
Cosatu has expressed concern over ongoing factional battles in the governing party, allegations of vote buying by the CR17 campaign going into the party’s 54th elective conference in 2017 and the rise in political killings in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.
These apprehensions were raised by the trade union’s central executive committee that sat this week.
Giving details on the resolutions reached at the meeting, deputy general secretary Solly Phetoe said that “the [executive committee] expressed concerns about the political killings in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal, and is calling on law enforcement agencies to do their work”.
At a media briefing held at the union’s Braamfontein offices on Thursday Phetoe also said that Cosatu was “worried by the ongoing factionalism in the ANC” He called on the leadership to “focus on a programme of action to rebuild the ANC and restore unity and cohesion within the movement”.
He said if the governing party heeded Cosatu’s advice, public confidence and hope would be restored among the country’s masses.
Chief among what Cosatu thought should be addressed was the matter of leaders publicly attacking each other, an occurrence that has become the norm within the party’s ranks particularly on social media platforms.
“Leaders need to stop the unconstructive public attacks on each other because they are not helping. South Africans are crying for leadership, not political theatre,” said Phetoe.
The trade union said that although it had noted “attempts to scandalise the concept of fund raising by the CR17 campaign”, its executive committee “agrees that the ANC does need to confront the culture of money and vote-buying in its conferences at all levels”.
He said people were right to be worried about the possibility of influence peddled by funders since this had been the case under the previous administration, with the Gupta family seeking to capture the state.
Phetoe said this behaviour of vote buying was creating a toxic political culture and destroying the moral fibre and political discipline expected of government.
Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi expressed her union’s frustration over its attempts to engage the governing party.
She said there were certain processes that had to be undertaken before the alliance partners could sit and discuss burning issues. However, the ANC had in recent times not honoured scheduled engagements.
ADEN (Reuters) – Southern Yemeni separatists on Thursday vowed revenge against government forces for their assault on Aden and dispatched reinforcements from elsewhere as fighting between the nominal allies in a Saudi-led coalition showed no sign of abating.
Southern separatist fighters patrol a road during clashes with government forces in Aden, Yemen August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman
Yemen’s foreign minister accused the United Arab Emirates, which backs the separatists, of carrying out air strikes on government positions in Aden. A Yemeni official said over 30 soldiers were killed by air strikes on the eastern outskirts of Aden.
Reuters could not independently confirm the report and UAE officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The separatists and the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi are supposed allies in the Saudi-led coalition in its four-year-old war against Iran-aligned Houthis, who hold Yemen’s capital Sanaa in the north and most of the country’s populated areas.
But the United Arab Emirates has fallen out with Hadi’s side because it includes a party the UAE sees as close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Gulf state has been fighting across the Middle East and North Africa.
Hadi’s government said on Wednesday it had captured Aden airport and controlled most of the southern port city, an assertion quickly disputed by the separatists.
On Thursday, the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) said some of its troops positioned on the outskirts of the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, which is under Houthi control, had returned to Aden to join the battle against Hadi’s forces.
“To whoever said the Southern Resistance has fled, I say: We are here,” Hani Ben Brik, STC’s vice-president, said in a video shared on social media showing him with dozens of his fighters outside Aden’s airport building.
The Western-backed, Sunni Muslim coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Houthis after the group ousted Hadi from power in Sanaa in late 2014. Aden is the temporary seat of Hadi’s government.
A brigade of the STC’s Giants Brigades had arrived in Aden from the Hodeidah theatre to support the fight against government forces, an STC statement said. A U.N.-brokered ceasefire has been in place in Hodeidah since December.
A Yemeni official said Saudi Arabia and the UAE had made contact with both sides to try to defuse the conflict but more fighters were seen arriving in Aden and the other southern provinces of Shabwa, Lahej and Abyan.
“COMMITTED TO REFORMS”
“The Coalition remains committed to supporting reforms in the legitimate government, tackling corruption, encouraging inclusiveness towards to all Yemeni factions, in order to ensure representation of all Yemenis in the future of the country,” said UAE National Media Council director Jaber Al Lamki.
There were sporadic clashes across Aden on Thursday with gunmen on both sides patrolling deserted streets, residents said. Shops, restaurants and businesses were closed.
Government forces recaptured Zinjibar, the capital of the neighbouring Abyan province, on Monday, after securing most of the oil-producing Shabwa region and its liquefied natural gas terminal in Balhaf.
The separatists seek to restore the South Yemen republic which merged with the north in 1990. They had clashed occasionally with government forces for several years before major new hostilities erupted this month.
Slideshow (9 Images)
Saudi Arabia has called for a summit to end the standoff, which has roiled U.N. efforts to end a war that has driven Yemen to the brink of famine and is widely seen as a proxy struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional dominance.
But Hadi’s government has said it will not participate until separatists cede control of sites they seized earlier in August.
Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Mark Heinrich