“The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed.” So muses the desert explorer László de Almásy, the title character of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel, The English Patient. “Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember.” Almásy is thinking of the vast and volatile sands between Middle Eastern cities, a terrain that quickened the pulse of cartographers and enthralled adventurers such as T. E. Lawrence.
But the trade hubs that were carved in stone, the ancient cities that were vibrantly multicultural crossroads between East and West, these were not all swallowed by sandstorms. Rose-red Petra in Jordan, since the 19th century a major stop on Holy Land tours, sees one million visitors a year. Palmyra in Syria, one of the most cosmopolitan of all crossroads, deeply loved for its empyrean architecture, existed in ghostly glory until 2015, when it was mercilessly bombed by ISIS extremists, who also pillaged ancient Assyrian sites and monuments. Enter Hegra.