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99. Following Clarissa Ward through Syria via Google Earth February 20, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Geography.

When I was about 12 years old and growing up in the USA during the Cold War, my dream career was to be a spy. Spy shows on television were filled with wit, adventure, travel, and of course attractive and well-dressed actors and actresses who seldom lost their cool or even soiled their clothes as they showed up in various locations around the globe each week with a new and intriguing problem to solve. In later years, my dream career evolved just slightly as I decided that the most exciting job on earth was to be an international journalist.

Seeing Clarissa Ward a couple of weeks ago dressed in a burqa in front of a crowd in a northern Syrian town, or after nightfall with her blond hair pulled loosely back, I was reminded of the appeal (and the real danger) of my old dream careers. On top of this was the startling report of the death in Syria of Anthony Shadid, the New York Times reporter. Asthma apparently triggered by an allergy to horses felled him suddenly as he was finishing his reporting in Syria. Both reporters had taken similarly dangerous paths sneaking into Syria from Turkey to circumvent the Syrian government restrictions on international journalists and I felt compelled to follow them — virtually.

Years ago when I wanted to know more about a place that had been brought to my attention, I would pull out my old World Atlas and study the locations of cities, rivers, mountains and political boundaries. I would overlay mentally the information I could glean from the climate maps, from the population density maps, the vegetation maps, and whatever else I could find that seemed relevant so I understood the spatial layout of the place.

Now I start out with Google Maps and Google Earth, and the first place I searched was Damascus, Syria. The closest clear view is from about 3000 feet above ground, but even from that height, cars and buses are visible. Individual Google Earth contributors have created virtual 3-D models of some buildings, which can be turned off or on as you like. When I became puzzled about a landscape feature, a quick switch to the map mode provided the information that this was a cemetery. I turned on the “photos” feature and found some snapshots of some of the tombs.

The satellite views are not live images and may be months old, but changes on the landscape can sometimes be clearly seen through the history feature. Looking at the roof surfaces in any city is also not the image you get from walking around on the ground, but with the 3-D feature you can navigate to a ground level view of sorts and let the program take you on a tour.

Personally, I find there’s great advantage in zooming in and out to get a sense of the context of what I’m seeing in Google Earth. It’s important to me to know where landmarks and places are in relation to each other. The Unknown Soldier Monument is high on a hill. The city seems to have engulfed and surrounded a fairly large area of farmland just beyond of the newer development to the north of Old Damascus. New parts of town to the west are filled with diamond shaped street patterns and large star-shaped intersections like the large Umayyad Square. Following a river out south of the city, I could see irrigation canals and fields with what look like olive trees.

North of Damascus, Google shows me the highway to Homs, 160 km away with a one hour and 41 minute travel time. Idlib, where Clarissa Ward was, is another 160 km north of Homs. Idlib is off the main highway, smaller and more compact. Most streets are quite narrow — too narrow for cars. A few broad boulevards ringing the old city and in the newer sections to the south and west. Olive trees dot the outskirts of town, along with some rectangular green fields. The town is less than 30 km from the Turkish border at the nearest point, but the area is hilly and not easy to walk. Along the road closest to the Turkish border, I found photos of the border fence: concrete and steel standards with layers of strands of barbed and concertina wire. Looking west, I see a few possible places where Clarissa Ward and her photographer might have crossed into Turkey with some trees for cover and the canals she mentions having to wade through in the rain.

I can’t claim to know much about Syria have only viewed it virtually and from 3000 feet, but it does give me a sense of the spatial structures that form part of the context in which the Syrians live each day and a way to think about the relationships between the various features of the environment and the choices made by those who live there.  It also makes me aware that even in a city like Homs, some places will be more affected than others when violence erupts, and where you happen to be can be very important.



1. Kimberly Love - February 25, 2012

Hi Bettina Hansel,

I was reading your post and you sound like me when I was growing up with an adventurous mind. I am going to have to engage in google maps and google earth so that I explore other countries. I have a desire to travel abroad for education, ministry, and personal desire.


2. Bettina Hansel - February 26, 2012

Good luck, Kimberly, and thanks for commenting. If your circumstances don’t allow you to travel, you may still be able to meet and be a host to people who make the journey to wherever you live.

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