One sultry night in Luxor I got into a conversation with a group of Australians outside a hole in the wall cafe. I still recall the thick heat of the air and the walk a few hours earlier through the majestic ruins of the Temple of Luxor.
The pretext of the conversation was to borrow a roll of toilet paper. My partner of the time was having issued and inevitably there was no paper in the rest room of the cafe. Toilet paper is something of a must-have in Egypt. Even if you jettison the other basics of living. Fortunately, the Australians were well equipped hardened travelers.
The girl told me that had backpacked trough Syria and Lebanon and visited the lands of the Bible and the great temples of antiquity. She had seen the great ruins of Palmyra rise from the desert in Syria. This great city was built in the 1st and 2nd centuries, combining the influences of ancient Greece and Rome with that of Persia.
Although the Middle East has never been stable, I was fascinated by the girl's comments and decided I wanted to see Palmyra myself. Of course I never did. I got back on the Nile cruiser and drank some more cocktails. Even so the notions of these ancient civilizations continued to fascinate me. I visited Ephesus in Turkey, Caeseria in Israel and Dougga in Tunisia.
Such places seemed to defy the notion of the past as a place of darkness and barbarism. There was romance and the thrilling sweep of history in these cities in the sand.
I haven't thought about Palmyra much until this week. I never made it there and probably never will. Today the savage armies of ISIS are in Palmyra and it will probably be leveled by the end of the week. A city that had withstood 2,000 years of conflict including two World Wars in the last century may soon be no more.
I'm not sure who visits Luxor anymore but Egypt is governed by a regime so paranoid that you can be arrested for photographing certain places and the country's first democratically elected president in many decades has been sentenced to death.
On one side are the despots and on the other the maniacs. Egypt's new rulers may be frightening but at least nobody is dismantling the pyramids.
It's hard not to feel a lingering sadness at the death of civilization and the darkness that is descending on the desert. That sense of decay, ruin and the loss of glory the was described by Shelley in Ozymandias as as relevant today as ever.
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.