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  • Syria is a place of many cultural wonders. Inhabited for ages by many different civilizations its deserts to the border of Iraq reveal some hidden gems.
  • Near Palmyra excavated tombs dating back to the time of the Roman Empire attract many tourists. But as resources of the state are limited there lasts a vast amount of ancient structures still buried under the sands of the Syrian Desert.
  • Bedouin children see the remains of the roman temples as their playground and quite don‘t understand why all the Western tourists are so fond of taking pictures of the old rocks.
  • There‘s very few traffic on the highway connecting north and south through the desert. Due to high oil prices, very scarce public transport and few people owning a car by themselves in the region, people more often rely on their feet and their animals to get to the neighboring hamlet.
  • As soon as the tourist buses have left, the ruins remain alone in the desert as they did for thousands of years. Only the call of the muezzin from far away disturbs the silence.
  • Besides the Roman and the Greek Empire the Crusaders and their opponents have left their traces in the form of castles on the ancient trade route that used to lead through the region where the Syrian Desert lies nowadays.
  • The youngest generation of Bedouins in the region gets more and more in touch with the growing tourism in the region and learns to deal with the opportunities and dangers tourism brings to their region (left). Learning some English by himself from a tourist guide book this 15 year old shepherd earns some extra money by leading tourists through a remote ruin near his home hamlet (right).
  • Aside from the historical treasures the most precious one for the inhabitants of the desert is water. On some parts the desert seems torn apart by green lush swaths of land. Then often a majestic view is offered to those coming from the hot and dusty desert.

Project: During my visit in Syria in 2009 I travelled with a local friend through the desert. There are few settlements and even less signposts. And you have to know where to look to find hidden signs of ancient civilizations under the sand.

  • Some of the medinas (old towns) in Syria date back to the Umayyad Caliphate in 660 A.D. when Damascus used to be one of the three holy cities of Islam besides Mecca and Jerusalem (left). To this day the medinas are the center of Syrian life, providing the citizens with food and everyday goods as well as social contacts and business opportunities (right).
  • In the souks (markets) of the medinas, people from many different countries and cultures have come together since ancient times and still do so today.
  • Sunlight shines through little holes of the Souq al-Hamidiyya roof in Damascus. The holes still origin from the nationalist rebellion in 1925, when French airplanes punctured the roof with their machine-gun fire (left). The mosques in the middle of the medinas with their vast courtyards offer a possibility to relax and rest while the children run around and play (right).
  • The covered alleys in the souks of Aleppo appear to tourist as coming directly out of „1001 nights“. For most locals it‘s just part of their daily shopping and business (left). Greeks, Byzantines, Ayyubids and Mamluks already fortified the hill in the medina of Aleppo in ancient times whose citadel construction was influenced by many rulers like Alexander the Great and Nur ed-Din who fought back the crusaders (right).
  • If you leave the main paths of the medina you‘re soon entering a more private and less crowded part where the people live and the children play in the small winding alleys.

Project: Two years before the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011 I had the chance to visit this magical country with its ancient history and its enormous cultural heritage. This series puts a focus on a central element of Syrian history and daily life: the medinas.

  • Running around laughing just a minute ago he gets very serious for the picture (left). Everyday life changed for the 50 kids, partly asylum seekers, partly Swiss youngsters from the nearby village when a circus set its tent for a week in the backyard of the asylum center (right).
  • The circus is supported by international volunteers who help the kids develop and rehearse a program for their big performance in front of their parents at the end of the week.
  • The circus succeeds where public authorities fail. It brings together the local community and the asylum seekers - children and parents as well - and therefore creates solidarity and reduces prejudice.
  • Coming from all parts of the world the children of the asylum seekers soon build close friendships. If and how long they last often depends on the decision if the application for asylum is granted or not.
  • The kids wait together with their parents sometimes for years for a decision about their application for asylum in Switzerland. Living in the middle of nowhere, they are happy for every change in their daily routines.

Project: Circus Lollypop is part of a charitable organization that works with children on a non-profit basis. In cooperation with Service Civil International they offered in 2013 a circus week for the asylum seeking children in the village of Schluein, Switzerland.

  • Once a year international volunteers come to Switzerland to get training for their worldwide assignments in workcamps of Service Civil International.
  • After the preparation seminary the volunteers will be assigned from two weeks up to one year either in Switzerland or abroad.
  • Some of them receive special training to be camp coordinators. In their assignment they will be responsible for the other volunteers but work with the group as well.
  • Team building is an essential part in volunteer work in which up to twenty people from different cultural and social backgrounds try to reach a certain goal.
  • The international organization was founded in Switzerland after the First World War. The main goal was to bring former war parties together to help rebuild cities that were destroyed during the war.
  • Beside the work which is done in over 90 countries by the thousands of SCI volunteers each year fun, friendships and a better understanding of foreign cultures are among the most valuable outcomes of this form of engagement.

Project: SCI Switzerland is an international volunteer organization that supports social and ecological projects worldwide. During two days, the volunteers of this NPO are prepared for their working assignments as camp coordinators or participants in work camps all over the world.

  • As one of the many wonders of the medina (old city) of Fez the tanneries are dating back more than nine centuries being among the oldest in the world.
  • The production line from dying, drying, manufacturing and selling leather products in one place hasn‘t changed much here since the last 900 years.
  • Leather slippers, purses, coats, jackets and all kinds of bags are sold in the narrow souk-stalls around the tanneries. From here the merchants let you have a glimpse at the vast number of stone vessels which are filled each week with different dying colors. (left) Everything here is still handmade which is not an easy job for the dyers as the smell of the ammoniac and the dove dung is very intense. (right)
  • Since hundreds of years the dyed skins of goats and cattle are dried directly under the hot Moroccan sun on the rooftops surrounding the tanneries before they are processed inside the buildings.

Project: The city of Fez is a must-do-stop on the route through colorful and intense Morocco. It is visually as well as sensually a very impressive experience.

  • 90% of the people living in the Geoff-Mountain region of Morocco are Berber or Amazigh how they call themselves. They live in this harsh environment since thousands of years (left). They make a living by leading tourists to the highest peak of North Africa, the Djebel Toubkal (4167m). They often invite them for mint tea to their villages, which were used as the scenery for the movie Seven Years in Tibet (right).
  • Due to the steep mountain slopes of the valleys a lot of the transportation is still carried out on donkey-backs or by foot because there are no roads leading to the higher situated villages (left). Through the funnel-like shape of the valleys shouting from one hamlet to another is still the most efficient way to call the playing children for dinner (right).
  • During the winter months the villages are often cut off for weeks due to tons of snow. Heating is done by wood and the nights get very cold even in spring and autumn.
  • In spring time the valleys around Jebel Toubkal get naturally irrigated by the melting snow coming from the peaks and allow the growth of cherry and walnut trees.

Project: The life of the Berber in the Atlas Mountains is harsh. But many of them still call the simple stone huts in the fresh Moroccan air at an altitude of 2000 to 3000m home.

  • Chile stretches over half the South American continent – from the driest desert in the world to the glaciers of Tierra del Fuego. And with Rapa Nui (Easter Island), it calls one of the most isolated and mystic islands to its territory (left). Chuquicamata in northern Chile is the biggest copper mine in the world. Since the pollution of the mine was getting too heavy for the nearby city, its inhabitants were moved to another newly built residential zone (right).
  • The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth with an average rainfall of only 15 millimeters a year. The lakes filled up with glacier water dry up quickly under the burning sun at an altitude of 2‘500m and leave back a salty crust where flamingos flock.
  • The cones of the volcanos close to the desert range up to 6‘000 meters in height. On an area of 23‘000 sqkm (the size of half of Switzerland) reside only about 5‘600 people.
  • Even though its length, the width of Chile measures only around 180 km on average. Which means the Pacific Ocean is never far - not even from the desert.
  • In the south of Chile the Andes and the so called „volcano belt“ end in the „Land of the Fire“, named after Magellan who observed from his ship the many camp fires of the native Yaghan.
  • The weather in Tierra del Fuego is almost unpredictable and can change drastically within hours.
  • The trade with seal fur and the rush for gold led to a genocide of the native groups in the area. They had disappeared almost completely by the end of the 19th century.
  • With snowy mountains and glacier lakes the southern tip of Chile reminds us that the next land masses to the south is the Antarctic.
  • As the diversity of mainland Chile wouldn't be enough Rapa Nui counts to its territory as well. About 3‘500 km away from the coast this isolated island with its hundreds of Moai (monolithic stone figures) is a mystical experience for its own.

Project: During a month I had the chance to travel through Chile from top to bottom and to experience the incredible landscapes of this magnificent country.