Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In the footsteps of [insert name here]

In his introduction to the latest edition of Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana, Rory Stewart writes of walking through Herat and then sitting to describe the city on paper: the image of the European-uniformed traffic officers seemed the perfect vignette, if somehow too familiar. He recalled cracking open Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and finding a description of exactly these traffic police, and yet the language felt unfamiliar. Opening Byron's text, he found that someone else had indeed already put in print exactly what he had hoped to say.

Kabul feels this way some days - each of us who comes here indulges a sense of novelty, of seeking the exotic and pioneering the unfamiliar in a place that even today feels very far from home. And yet, even preparatory reading for such a journey reveals this adventurer's path to be quite well-trodden indeed. There is nothing new under the sun for the would-be wanderer: wherever you go, some young Brit probably got there more than a century before, caught some exotic disease doing so, and got a Geographic Society medal for his efforts. What fun is it to repeat the trek with modern vaccines and easy air travel? As Rory found, they probably documented it more eloquently, to boot.

The colonialists of the Great Game weren't even the first to beat me here, despite the unusual flair with which they did so. Last summer, I visited an exhibition of Afghan National Museum pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first room displayed relics from Ay Khanum - a Greek city built by Alexander the Great on the Oxus River. The Oxus is now the Amu Darya, but somehow the idea of a pagan temple in Afghanistan seems even more incredible thing from contemporary Kabul than when I marveled at its ruins in New York. Other exhibits offered scraps of Silk Road riches - Venetian glass, Indian furnishings, Egyptian idols. I write as one seeing something new and yet undiscovered, and still try to remember that all I see is familiar to many others. I have much to see for myself, but what I write here is but a pale imitation of the many who have already told this tale.

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