Antiquities Under Attack: After the Tunis Museum Shooting

When I heard about the March 18, 2015, terror attacks on tourists at Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, I was saddened and horrified that people died while appreciating the history and magnificent art of the ancient world. Then it sank in: I visited that museum on my first-ever trip abroad.

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.    Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

Back in my teens, my high school Spanish club journeyed to Spain and Italy—with a stop in Tunisia to tour the ancient ruins of Carthage and wander through Tunis’ vibrant and colorful Arab souk (market), which made quite an impression. However, the highlight of my first foray into North Africa was a visit to the Bardo Museum where the mosaics and statues from the ancient world were protected and displayed.

At 16, I’d never seen ancient art in anything but a book; in person, it was dazzling. I could hardly believe I was seeing the genius of talented artists thousands of years before. In fact, the Roman-era mosaics and sculptures I gazed at—and that survived the shootings—are among the best-preserved works of their kind in the world.

Thirty years ago, the Bardo Museum was not as sleek and sophisticated as it looked in the post-shooting photos. Indeed, the museum was remodeled and redesigned in 2012 to be the cornerstone of Tunisian heritage that would help attract millions of tourists. Although damage to the artwork was minimal, the loss of human life was tragic. And the aftershocks of the attacks will be felt for years.

Tourism is an important part of Tunisia’s economy; on a recent NPR report I heard that people in the streets begged international journalists to tell people to please come visit their country. Even though the Bardo Museum has reopened—and presumably has heavy security—attendance is sure to suffer for several years.

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

Annihilation of Cultural Treasures

In the past 15 years, wars and terrorism have taken an appalling toll on ancient art in the Middle East, including the region often called the “cradle of civilization.” in 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, sixth-century figures carved into the sandstone cliffs in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the National Museum was shelled and plundered, resulting in many antiquities destroyed or stolen. In 2014 and early 2015, Islamic State terrorists have been bulldozing and sledgehammering works of art across Iraq, annihilating the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria.

The loss of human life in terrorist attacks is horrible. And, for me, a museum lover and Egyptology fanatic, the loss of antiquities is inconsolable. Watching videos of thousands-year-old Assyrian statues being toppled off pedestals and broken is as heart-breaking to me as seeing footage of a person being killed. During WWII, the Monuments Men, a special unit of art experts from the Allied Forces, risked their lives to rescue looted artwork of Europe from the Nazis. I’m hoping UNESCO, which has spoken out against the destruction of antiquities in the Islamic world,  can create some kind of similar unit or special forces to help protect ancient treasures against future attacks. Their decimation is rightfully being called “war crimes” and “cultural cleansing.”

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was destroyed by Islamic State terrorists.

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was attacked in March of 2015  by Islamic State terrorists. Photo courtesy UNESCO.

What can we do? After the September 11 attacks on New York and the Boston Marathon bombing, these cities asked visitors to return—to show solidarity and support through tourism. New Yorkers and Bostonians exhibited great pride and resilience in the wake of those disasters. I hope, too, that the people of Tunisia, of Iraq, of Syria, and of Afghanistan feel great pride in their cultural heritage.

All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Egypt to see the antiquities I’ve adored since I was a kid—but honestly, concerns about political upheaval in the country have prevented me from going. Yet, I believe that when travel lovers experience the wonders of the world—past and present—they reinforce the pride of the descendants of those cultures.

Yes, travel is an act of bravery; it’s also an act of peace and solidarity with the world. It’s time for me to be brave and start planning a trip to Egypt—and back to Tunis. There are treasures there I want to see and welcoming people I want to meet.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Would you consider traveling in north Africa or the Middle East? Why or why not?

For information on traveling in Tunis, visit Come to Tunisia.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.



Photo of the Week: Castle Mountain, Banff National Park

Castle Mountain, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada ©Laurel Kallenbach

Driving on the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise, my husband and I were treated to several miles of spectacular views of Castle Mountain, located within Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies.  A well-positioned pullover gave us the chance to stretch our legs and view this section of the scenic Bow Valley.

Read my posts about the Canadian Rockies:

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

Cold Weather & Warm Memories at Canada’s Lake Louise

We sat at the center window of the Lakeview Lounge at Chateau Lake Louise. Photo courtesy Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

It’s a triple-treat kind of day in the Canadian Rockies. Feeling like royalty, my husband and I dine on an early lunch at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s Lakeview Lounge, where we’re seated at the picture-window table overlooking one of the most beautiful views on the planet. On the other side of the glass, steep mountains plunge into iced-over Lake Louise. The pines are flocked in white; a light snowfall whispers down over the scene.

Iconic landscape, iconic hotel, iconic window-seat on nature’s spectacle.

Though it’s barely 15 degrees outside, we’re lapping up epic beauty while slurping spoonfuls of steaming roasted butternut squash soup and biting into a savory pulled-pork barbecue sandwich (me) and veggie quiche (Ken).

It’s difficult to know what to focus on: tasty lunch or the view—especially for Ken, who has just returned from a brisk nordic ski through the surrounding woods. Back and forth we go, one minute exclaiming over the cuisine, the next marveling over the wintry wonderland outside. All the while, we can hardly believe we’re staying at the Chateau, a luxury Fairmont property located in Banff National Park.

The Fairmont Chateau perches on Lake Louise, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located within Banff National Park. Photo courtesy Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

We ask the waitress to take our picture; she snaps one, and then the camera battery goes dead. Ken and I have only scant photographic evidence of our good fortune, but the majority of our memories from this lunch-to-remember will be preserved on our human memory cards forever.

He Skis; She Doesn’t

Our trip to the Canadian Rocky Mountains in winter is a consolation trip in replacement for a June birthday vacation that was canceled because of my urgent hip surgery. What we needed was a wintertime getaway that allowed Ken to ski while I enjoyed the scenery from a non-slippery vantage point. We couldn’t have chosen a better locale than Lake Louise: for sunrise-to-sunset views of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, there’s no better place to stay than the historic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

(We chose to stay in a less-pricey forest-view room. Although our bedroom window didn’t overlook the lake, we watched the sun set on the snow-covered peaks and the full moon rise behind them without leaving the comfort of our well-appointed accommodations. The room was small, but well laid out so that we weren’t tripping over each other. And having a tea kettle and coffeemaker was convenient too.)

In the hotel’s posh indoors, we rubbed elbows with well-heeled folks on ski holiday, attendees of a spectrometry conference, and Olympic skiers (our trip coincided with the 2014 Women’s World Cup). The Fairmont Chateau was the perfect place to sigh over nature’s grandeur without donning thermal underwear and a parka.

The Walliser Stube restaurant at the Chateau also has a divine view of Lake Louise. Photo courtesy Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

I did venture outside with Ken on the Lake Louise trail, which had been plowed and packed down for easier walking. Thanks to ice-traction devices called Stabl-Icers (strap-on cleats for boots) and a couple of hiking poles, I strolled around part of the lake without fear of falling.

A shot of us during a winter walk around Lake Louise.

The rest of our two-night stay, I swam in the indoor pool and soaked in the warm whirlpool—and was overjoyed to spend a couple of idle hours (how often does that happen?) sipping hot tea in the Lakeview Lounge. I gazed out at icy Victoria Glacier spilling into the frozen lake and hummed along to classy 1940s and ’50s-era tunes piped through the sound system—and felt deeply content.

When Margaret Whiting crooned “If it’s a crime, then I’m guilty… guilty of dreaming of you,” I knew that was the theme song of our stay here. I’ll never hear that song without thinking of our dreamy vacation in the snow at Lake Louise.

Green, Even in Winter

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts embraces environmentally sustainable business and operations practices and takes proactive steps to reduce carbon output and help mitigate the effects of global warming by:

  • conserving water by installating low-flow showerheads, low-flush toilets, and tap aerators. All properties participate in sheet and towel exchange programs to reduce frequency of laundering guest linens.
  • using alternative energy. Fifty percent of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s electricity is provided by a blend of wind and run-of-river electricity generation.
  • minimizing waste produced and diverting waste from landfills through recycling
  • sourcing local organic produce and focusing on farm-to-table cuisine in its restaurants
  • supporting sustainable seafood by purchasing only non-endangered fish species harvested in ways that limit damage to marine or aquatic habitats.
  • valuing the natural and cultural heritage of its properties
  • building local partnerships in the communities where it does business

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Wild Dolphins Ahoy in California’s Channel Islands!

(Originally posted: November 2, 2010)

I’ve seen dolphins in the wild for the first time in my life! On an Island Packers catamaran trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park, I experienced the long-awaited pleasure of seeing a pod of common dolphins leap through the waves toward the boat. Over and over, they crested and dove beside us.

These are spotted dolphins, not the same type as the common dolphins I saw. Photo: Oceanic Society

I was standing at the boat’s prow, keeping watch for them, reveling in the sunshine and ocean spray—and hoping that my dolphin jinx would be broken during my stay in the town of Ventura, Calif.

You see, I’ve been to islands, coastal areas and oceans all over the world, and yet I have never spotted a dolphin in the wild. From the waters of British Columbia to Belize; from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean; from Alaska to Florida; from the Galápagos to Singapore to Fiji. No dolphins.

I’ve stayed at beach resorts where the staff tells me, “There are usually dozens of dolphins just off-shore.” But when I was present, the marine mammals were noticeably absent.

For years, I’ve sung “I-I-I-I am calling you. Oh, can’t you hear me?” from every ship, dingy, beach, and cliff overlook, to no avail. (The lyrics are from the Jevetta Steele song in the movie, Bagdad Café.)

Yes, I literally sing to dolphins, and at last they answered.

The Magic of the Sea

Bounding and zipping through the Pacific, these Santa Barbara Channel dolphins played with our boat for about 10 minutes. I hung over the rail to see their silvery backs streak through the water and watch them leap out of the waves. They seemed to be racing our boat, zipping beside, in front of and under us. Sometimes they were no more than 10 feet from my outstretched hand!

I didn’t run to get my camera—that would have required that I take my eyes off the dolphins for too long. Instead, I laughed and cried in wonderment. I don’t really need a photo, because I’ll never forget this moment, this place.

The National Park Service says that groups of dolphins often come to a boat and ride the bow wave for long distances. Why? Simply for fun—or maybe to allow them to conserve energy. No one really knows, but I like to think they were saying hello to me, and inviting me to play.

A Gift for the Dolphins

You can "adopt" Sunflower for a $40 donation to the Oceanic Society.

In honor of the dolphins, I’m suggesting a gift idea: “Adopt” a dolphin in the name of someone you love (including yourself). Several nonprofit organizations such as the Oceanic Society and the World Wildlife Fund offer such a program. For a donation, you receive a photo of the dolphin you’ve adopted—plus the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped support research and protection of these sea mammals.

P.S. One of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is set on the Channel Islands during the mid-1800s. I feel like fiction and life have come full-circle.

Laurel Kallenbach, dolphin watcher

What’s been your most significant wildlife siting? Or, what species do you dream of witnessing in the wild? A rare bird? A mountain lion? Howler monkey? Tropical fish? Leave a comment below if you wish.

For more on California’s Channel Islands, read: “Sea Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park”