Sunday, 27 April 2014

My experiences on working with the media industry in the Sultanate of Oman

 I’ve always wanted to analyse the problems faced by journalists who work for organisations that are based in the Middle East, because doing so provides a challenge seldom found in the West.

This report lists the work I had been assigned by the publications, how the press laws in Oman played a hand in shaping my articles, how they are detrimental to society, how I was able to work around them and what I learned from this experience.

Overview: Omani media industry

Like most of the other Arab nations, (Fenton, 2009), the press in Oman has strict limits on freedom of free speech and expression. Global freedom watchdog Freedom House categorises Oman’s press as ‘Not Free’ (Freedom House, 2012).

Issued in 1984, Oman’s press laws are highly restrictive (Freedom House, 2012). Omani publications are heavily censored and criticism of the government is banned (O'Rourke, 2011), even if it is found guilty of shirking its duties.

For example, three years ago, two Omani journalists were jailed for exposing a corruption racket inside the Ministry of Justice (Al-Shaibany, 2011). This is because the government views the press as a tool for ‘nation building and reinforcing social integration’. (Hetherington & Najem, 2013).

This blanket ban also restricts the media from criticising governmental policies across all walks of life.

For example, financial magazine Oman Economic Review recently conducted a survey of banks in Oman and reported positively on all of them. The magazine had to, because Omani banks are partly owned by the government (Bologna & Prasad, 2010).

These included interviews with the banks’ top brass and didn’t question their long-term sustainability and growth. How these banks were going to continue to function once the nation’s fleeting oil reserves had dried up wasn’t mentioned, since it is known that most Arab states have oil-based economies (Winckler, 2005).

This is very dangerous, as it means people can lose their savings overnight without being forewarned. 

The government uses publications to pass information to people. Readers’ feedback is rarely entertained. (Rugh, 2004)

Attempting to bypass this censorship, several online discussion forums have sprung up, chief among them being Sablat Oman, with close to 100,000 registered users (Reality in Oman, 2009). Topics here range from international discussions such as Iran’s nuclear programme to domestic ones such as forced marriage.

But even these sites aren’t wholly free. Although Oman only experienced minor protests during the Arab Spring three years ago, the call to protest against the government was instigated by sites such as Sablat Oman (Worrall, 2012), just as social media was (and still is) being used throughout the rest of the Arab world to coordinate action (Lindsey, 2013) during the Arab Spring.

As a consequence, Sablat Oman was temporarily blocked (Freedom House, 2012).

The changing Omani labour market

One of a journalist’s most important tools is his list of contacts because they provide information that is vital to stories (Keeble, 2007). These lists take years to develop – like mine did – and are constantly added to and subtracted from (Stephenson, 1998).

It is because of these contacts that I was able to get a foothold into Omani media market.

My father knew Mr. Sandeep Sehgal, CEO of media house United Media Services (UMS), who required freelancers.

Journalists in Oman require a license to practise their profession (Ministry of Information, 2002), and at news conferences, must carry ID. Because of a lack of skilled locals, companies hire expatriates to fill vacancies.
As the country developed, the government continued to invite foreigners to fill jobs in an expanding labour market.

Since 2003, the government has introduced Omanisation, where locals are given preference over expatriates. Ergo, the government has been reducing the number of work visas for expatriates (Vaidya, 2013).

This is because of a recent population boom in Arabia. In 2006, there was a 42% increase in the number of people who were below the age of 15 years in the Arab world, compared to 20% in the developed world and 35% in the developing world (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 2006). This increased labour pool would therefore need to be given preference when it comes to employment. Correspondingly, 40% of all Omanis are between 20 and 44 years old (Watfa, 2009).

Unfortunately, there is a lack of skilled Omanis across the media (Josephi, 2010) and other sectors. Training the next generation of Omanis is time consuming (Oxford Business Group, 2013).
Here, freelancers like me come in. Although technically not allowed under law (Freedom House, 2012), there are no listed work restrictions on those who come to Oman on visit or resident visas as listed on UK visas.

Freelancers are allowed to write articles and conduct interviews.

My work

During this assignment, I’d done two articles. The first was a piece on travel titled “10 Tourist Destinations of Myth and Legend” for Signature magazine, a lifestyle magazine run by UMS.

The second was an exclusive interview with former Arsenal winger Fredrik Ljungberg.

In addition, I went for a week-long internship with the editorial department at UMS, to get a feel of how those who are responsible for the content of publications in Oman do so within the framework of the law.

My first article

How the law shaped its construction

The article was about ten relatively unheard-of tourist destinations. Five of these were set in the Middle East, the other five were from the rest of the world.

The first instruction I was given was that there were to be no destinations which were located in nations that had poor diplomatic relations with the Sultanate of Oman.  The second was that there were to be no tourist places that had a direct connection to religion.

That first directive meant that I could not mention places that were located in Israel, because Oman is one of 31 nations to not recognise the sovereignty of the Jewish State (U.S. Congress, 2008).

I had initially wanted to write about visiting the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Held in great reverence by Muslims, Jews and Christians (Ring, et al., 1996), it was also supposed to be the original resting place of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (Loud, 2010).

The second instruction meant that I couldn’t write about places that were primarily famous for religious reasons. In Oman, many laws are based on Islamic law. Publications must cover articles of culture, religion and tradition without criticism and promoting religion via media is prohibited (Josephi, 2010).

Islam is the dominant religion here and is central to life (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 2006) and there are still disagreements among Arabs regarding religious practice. Promoting religion might therefore lead to popular dissent (Figenschou, 2014 ).

For example, seven months ago, local magazine The Week published an interview with a gay expatriate living in Oman who said that the nation was quite tolerant to homosexuals. The magazine later had to apologise for this article (AFP, 2013), despite speaking about Oman positively, since Islam forbids homosexuality (Al-Haqq Kugle, 2010) and is punished in Oman via imprisonment (AFP, 2013).

I couldn’t therefore write about Easter Island, which is famous for its massive monolithic head constructs called Moai, which were constructed by its former inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, between 1250 and 1500 AD (Fischer, 2005).

These heads were considered by the Rapa Nui to be deified versions of their ancestors, which are why this island is famous (Hunt & Lipo, 2011). To mention them would therefore be promoting religion. 

My workaround

Some of the other areas I described did have religious significance, but were also famous otherwise. I therefore omitted their religious significance.

Delphi was where the most powerful Ancient Greek Oracles resided, and it was believed that they could foretell the future because they were blessed by the gods (Kofsky, 2000). Similarly, the Egyptians constructed pyramids were constructed to honour the gods, besides serving as their Pharaohs’ tombs (Munt, 2013).

I therefore mentioned that the oracles were blessed with the ability to predict the future, but didn’t mention a divine connection. The Egyptians however believed that mummification was a cultural, not a religious belief (Rockwood, 2014) and so that could be mentioned.

Tenochtitlan and Chichen Itza involved the Aztec and Mayan civilisations, which practiced religiously-motivated human sacrifice (Palmer-Fernandez, 2004) to please the gods in exchange for plentiful harvests and rainfall (Page, 2010).

Most interesting here was that they waged war to capture people to sacrifice (Perl, 2008), which draws parallels with the Islamic concept of jihad or war for the sake of religion (Habeck, 2006).

I therefore described these cities as architectural marvels and made sure my piece spoke about Aztec and Mayan society, not religious acts.

I’d written on Petra, a UN Heritage Site that was only discovered by the West in the early 19th century (Walker, 2009). But it had long been a place of great significance for the Arabs even during Biblical times.

Petra was where Moses ‘raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.’ (Wantang, 2013). That could therefore not be mentioned and I focused on Petra from an archaeological perspective.

I’d also mentioned Hornstrandir in Iceland, where Viking leader Erik the Red reportedly settled before sailing for Greenland (Agnarsdóttir, 2001). The Vikings practised paganism as a form of religion (Strmiska, 2005), which couldn’t be mentioned.

I’d added three alternative locations in case one of the ten were unacceptable. Machu Picchu was one. Even here, I’d only mentioned the names of temples because they were architectural marvels that were years ahead of its time in terms of construction, (Peterson, 2006) with no mention of religious practices.

But while writing about Zanzibar, which was once part of Oman’s empire, I couldn’t mention the thriving slave trade in that region (Dumper & Stanley, 2007), because it goes against Oman’s current establishment. I therefore completely excluded the slave trade while describing Zanzibar’s trade.

However, guided tours of Petra (Walker, 2009), Machu Picchu, Zanzibar and Iceland all involve the above as part of the tour.

My second article

While freelancing for UMS, I received the opportunity to interview Arsenal legend Fredrik Ljungberg, who’d come to visit Oman’s Arsenal Soccer School.

A meet and greet had been organised for the press, after which he would take part in training sessions with the children at the School. That was only open to the school’s children and their parents.

Because my editor knew Mr Mihir Khimji, the director at the School, he could arrange for an exclusive interview. The visit of a footballer of Mr. Ljungberg’s calibre is quite a prestigious event and the publication that has his interview would certainly have a competitive edge in the media market.

Timing was of the essence here as this interview would have to be included in his itinerary. I was informed of the interview a good two days before Mr. Ljungberg arrived. Mr. Ljungberg was in Oman for less than a day and he had a packed schedule. Someone who’d not known Mr. Khimji would’ve had to make the request to interview him through the official channels at the Soccer School. They might have been rejected because his time was extremely limited.

Meeting Mr. Ljungberg was a great experience as it taught me not to get carried away while interviewing celebrities. As a football journalist, there will be many personages I will interview during my career and I have to remember to behave professionally.

Psychological and social consequences of these press laws
Because I had to censor my travel article, it might provide a skewed perspective of these locations. People therefore become unaware and ignorant (de Baets, 2002) of the great histories of these places.
For example, it is widely believed (Raj & Morpeth, 2007) that Machu Picchu was a pagan centre of spiritual energy around the world, similar to Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids that made people more spiritually aware. To learn about these places would greatly add to the cultural and spiritual education of people.

Similarly, people are missing out on learning about Christian history because informing them about Biblical sites in Petra isn’t allowed. Learning about these places makes people religiously tolerant (Knauth, 2013). Religion has long been a source of conflict and learning about other religions could lead to conflict resolution (Garfinkel, 2008).

I believe that for a society to advance properly, it must be provided with uncensored information. People can then make informed opinions based on the complete set of facts to allow for social pluralism and an open discussion of ideas (Council of Europe, 1982).

Despite the light tone of my work, I was scared of even accidentally breaking these laws. I was therefore forced to self-censor my work, thereby foregoing my freedom of expression, a cornerstone of creative and artistic freedom (Cuny & Polacek, 2012), which is essential for human development (Short, 2009).

This lack of freedom of free speech stunts mental growth and robs humans of the tools required to develop their minds. It prevents people from using their minds to form and then ask questions against the system, making society backward (Baggini & Southwell, 2012).

Most articles I wrote during my internship were leisure pieces, with little political investigative journalism happening. Ergo, there was no application of the mind, leading to little creative journalistic development 

While there a little investigative journalism, that centres on social events which uplift society. A majority of pieces in magazines are leisure articles. It is the same with editorial columns.

That Freedom of Expression was included in the Rights of Man (Brett, 1998) shows how important it is for human development. When governments enforce absolute censorship, it is quite likely that this lack of forming questions will spread to other aspects of life, thereby further stunting mental growth and society can never develop.

Qatar is one Middle East nation that has realised this. The Al-Jazeera Network was the first to introduce free speech to the Arab world and went so far as to criticise the Saudi Arabian, Bahraini and even Qatari governments (Falk, 2008).

But other Arab nations do not seem to agree with this line of thought. In 2008, they signed a restrictive media charter which instructed broadcasters ‘not to not damage social harmony, public unity, national order or traditional virtues’ (Zweiri & Murphy, 2011)

Qatar was the only nation that refused to sign this document because it realised that unrestricted media was necessary for the country’s social development (Miles, 2005).

This aside, the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community development hosts the Doha Debates which are televised on BBC World and are viewed as a forum of dialogue and free speech. They are no holds barred discussions where controversial topics are argued for and against by a live audience and a panel of experts (Oxford Business Group, 2007).

Also, in 2006, an Arabic programme named Lakoom Al Karaar (The Decision is Yours) began broadcasting on Qatar National TV. This programme offered children the opportunity to question decision-makers on issues that mattered to them, encouraging them to talk to their government from an early age (Oxford Business Group, 2009).

What this does is promote free speech and will surely benefit future generations of Qataris.

What I learned

There is much that I’ve learned here. I was able to think out of the box. As journalists, we are trained to strike at the heart of the matter and flesh out the story from there (Iorio, 2004). But because there were some things I had to overlook, it taught me to look change the heart of the matter and construct a story around that.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution says that there should be creative freedom for self-determination (Corey, 1994) and these restrictions actually helped me realise that it was possible to create informative pieces that people would want to read even with all these censors in place and that ability to form a story with only limited information at your disposal is I think a very handy talent to have.

For example, during my internship, I wrote a piece on Five Inspirational TED Talks by Women. One of them was delivered by Liberian Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee. She empowered women to vote against corrupt officials, but centring the story on that meant it would be considered against the government. I therefore centred it around her providing education to African women so that they could remain self-sufficient, which meant it was still thought-provoking journalism.

A version of the travel article I would’ve written has been posted on my blog: Also on the blog is the write-up on Leymah Gbowee’s talk that. I’d initially planned on writing

I also learnt that having access to people in power helps bypass administrative ‘gatekeepers’ (Randall, 2007) such as secretaries who might control access to potential interviewees. This can help provide the competitive edge for your publication to stand out from the rest.

But the negatives here dwarf the positive lessons. The government claims that these restrictions have been placed for positive social construction, but society cannot be positively constructed without unrestricted access to free media (Miles, 2005).

What I’ve also experienced here is that journalists and editors are under constant pressure to censor their work, because even an accidental slip-up might mean breaking the law.

This constant pressure is extremely detrimental to one’s mental and physical wellbeing (Cooper & Burnham, 2009). That makes the pursuing of a career involving in-depth investigative and political journalism highly for most Middle Eastern publications extremely unfeasible.

Unless, therefore, these sanctions are lifted or eased forthwith, not only will skilled journalists seek out other countries for employment, but more importantly, it’ll be extremely difficult for a broad-minded society to be formed in Oman and by extension, other places that have such draconian press laws.


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Uncensored version: Five inspiring TED talks delivered by women

Because of censorship laws in the Sultanate of Oman, I've been forced to censor articles that I write for publications.

This is a version of the article on Five inspiring TED talks delivered by women that I would’ve wanted to write. Only the write-up on the last talk has been modified.

Five inspiring TED talks delivered by women

Psychologist Amy Cuddy spoke about how humans could manipulate their brains to tackle stressful situations.

She says that confident people have high testosterone levels, while stress generates cortisol. She adds that it is possible to programme your brain to excel when it comes to stressful situations.

“Before you go into the next stressful evaluative situation, for two minutes, try doing this, in the elevator, in a bathroom stall, at your desk behind closed doors,” she explains. ”Configure your brain to cope the best in that situation. Get your testosterone up. Get your cortisol down.

“Don't leave that situation feeling like, oh, I didn't show them who I am. Leave that situation feeling like, oh, I really feel like I got to say who I am and show who I am”.

Amy Cuddy was named TED’s Global Speaker of 2012.

In 1996, neuroscientist Jill Taylor suffered a stroke to the left hemisphere of her brain. Through her experiences while she was suffering, she was healed herself through self-realisation.

The brain’s left hemisphere is “that little voice that says to me, ‘I am. I am.’ I become a single solid individual,” explains Dr. Taylor.

Dr. Taylor experienced her body shutting down. “I essentially became an infant in a woman's body”.

“Because I could not identify the position of my body in space [sic] my spirit soared free, like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria,” she recalls. “Nirvana. I found Nirvana.”

“If I have found Nirvana and I'm still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana,” she realised.

“The more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love says that people should manage their creativity and not panic when envision the right idea at the wrong moment because creative ideas always come to people.

Her inspiration for this is musician Tom Waits, whom she once interviewed.

“He was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles. He's speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, you know, it's gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it,” she recalls.

“He just looked up at the sky, and he said, ‘Excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today’.”

She advises people to not be overwhelmed by the creative process.

“What I have to keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that, is, don't be afraid,” she finishes.
“Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be.

Amy Purdy’s life changed forever at the age of 19, when she lost her legs to meningitis.

She vividly remembers the first time she wore her prosthetic legs. “They were so painful and so confining that all I could think was how am I ever going to travel the world in these things?

To heal, she envisioned the life she’d wanted to live. “My leg maker and I put random parts together and we made a pair of feet that I could snowboard in,” she recalls.

“I started snowboarding, then I went back to work, and back to school. Then in 2005 I co-founded a non-profit organization for youth and young adults with physical disabilities.”

“My legs haven't disabled me, if anything they've enabled me,” she says. “They forced me to rely on my imagination and to believe in the possibilities. It is believing in those dreams and facing our fears head on that allows us to live our lives beyond our limits.”

Today, she is a professional snowboarder and a three-time World Cup gold medalist.

Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee is transforming her homeland of Liberia by empowering its women.

“My wish is to be educated. And if I can't be educated, when I see some of my sisters being educated, my wish has been fulfilled. I wish for a better life. I wish for food for my children. I wish that sexual abuse and exploitation in schools would stop." That is the wish of the African girl, says Leymah.

“I'm now on a journey to fulfil the wish, in my tiny capacity, of little African girls,” she says. “We set up a foundation. We're giving full four-year scholarships to girls from villages that we see with potential.

“All of these great innovators and inventors that we've talked to and seen over the last few days are also sitting in tiny corners in different parts of the world,” she adds.

“All they're asking us to do is create that space to unlock the intelligence, unlock the passion, unlock all of the great things that they hold within themselves. Let's journey together.”

Empowered by the teachings of Mrs. Gbowee, the girls in a Liberian village launched a campaign for voter registration. They were able to mobilise young women.

“They went to those who were running for seats to ask them, what is it that you will give the girls of this community when you win,” she recalls.

Liberia has one of the strongest rape laws and one man who had a seat was fighting to overturn that law because he called it barbaric. “Rape is not barbaric, but the law, he said, was barbaric,” she explains. “And when the girls started engaging him, he was very hostile towards them. These little girls turned to him and said, we will vote you out of office.

“He's out of office today.”

Uncensored version: Ten places of myth and legend

Because of censorship laws in the Sultanate of Oman, I've been forced to censor articles that I write for publications.

This is an uncensored version of a travel article I’ve written, which includes the religious significance of the places I’ve written on. The promotion of religion is banned in the Sultanate, which is why I've chosen to post an uncensored version here.

Ten places of myth and legend

Travel is fun. Travelling to different places means you get to soak up the culture and traditions of cities very different to your own.

Culture was a big part of what made the ancient civilisations that make up many of the stories of myth and legend that we hear today.

Here are ten places of myth and legend that are definitely worth a visit.

Delphi and Mount Parnassus, Greece

Before making any major decision, the rulers of ancient Greece’s city-states would consult with the oracles, individuals who were said to be blessed with the divine ability to predict the future. The most potent of these oracles - the Oracle of the Greek god Apollo, the god of the sun, truth and prophecies - resided in the city-state of Delphi.

The oracles served Greece for nearly 1200 years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, and have been mentioned in the works of Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle and many other scholars.

Modern-day Delphi still contains a multitude of ruins that speak of one of the most advanced civilisations of the ancient world.

The town is built on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where Pegasus, the mythical winged horse was born. Sacred to both farmers and shepherds, it was on this mountain that the Greek leader Odysseus hunted boar. The mountain was revered by devotees of both Apollo and Dionysus, the Greek god of winemaking and the harvest.

Delphi faces the forested valley of Cithaeron, where Oedipus is rumoured to have killed his father.

The ancient city of Delphi was also a pan-Hellenic sanctuary, where every four years, athletes from across Ancient Greece would compete in the Pan-Hellenic games. The Ancient Greeks considered the city to be located at the middle of the entire earth, and ancient maps and charts often depict this.

The city’s importance was reflected in the foundation stones that Greece’s explorers constructed in Delphi whenever they established a new colony. This was because Greece’s first colony was established by colonists from Delphi.

Mexico City, Mexico

Mexico’s capital has been the site of two great civilisations that have shaped Latin America as we know it.

Founded on an island in the centre of Lake Texcoco in the 15th century, the city of Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec Empire which stood for close to a hundred years.

For its time, Tenochtitlan was a very advanced city. Its terracotta aqueducts fed the city with water from the lake and supplied its and saunas and public baths with mountain spring water. At the centre of the city was the Templo Mayor, which was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli the chief Aztec deity, Tlaloc the Rain God and Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent, who was considered the embodiment of the sky.

Because some of the water in Lake Texcoco was brackish, the Aztecs constructed levees to separate the fresh water from the brackish, ensuring a constant source of fresh water for the city-state’s inhabitants.

With the collapse of the empire at the hands of a Spanish invasion led by Hernan Cortez during the Age of Discovery, Tenochtitlan became a seat of Spanish government in the New World, with several new buildings including a magnificent cathedral, marketplace and palace constructed by them. The reconstruction of the city under Cortez’s Spanish rule was marked by a proliferation of Catholic churches built to honour the Spanish conquistadors.

Today, Mexico City’s Plaza de la Constitucion is built where Tenochtitlan’s centre once stood and many of its streets correspond with those the Aztecs built centuries ago.

Ruins of both the Aztec empire and those which marked the heyday of European colonisation are still found in Mexico’s capital.  

Port Royal, Jamaica

Spanish galleons filled to the gunwales with gold, silk, spices and other exotic goods were a common site at Port Royal, which soon became the busiest and richest port in the Caribbean during the 15th century.

With commanding views of the sea and vast expanses of sandy beaches laced with palm fronds, Port Royal became a favourite for sailors and privateers who sailed the Atlantics dangerous waters.

After an earthquake 1692, subsequent tsunami and a spate of fires, Port Royal was considered dangerous and trade was moved to the larger port of Kingston.

Port Royal soon became a base for pirates, some of whom came from as far as Madagascar, who rebuilt it to suit their own needs.

These swashbuckling brigands, who are the stuff of romance, adventure and bravery on the high seas that inspired Pirates of the Caribbean, soon made the city their home port.

Today, Port Royal is primarily a fishing settlement and the Jamaican government is now developing Port Royal as a tourist destination with many of the old city’s ruins and underwater shipwrecks still intact.

Thanks to an underwater nautical architecture programme, many of these shipwrecks have now been removed from the seabed and have been restored, along with a reconstruction of the buildings that made up Port Royal during its heyday so that tourists can get a glimpse of what colonial life in the Caribbean looked like.

Hornstrandir, Iceland

Legend has it that Hornstrandir, the northernmost tip of Iceland, was the birthplace of Viking leader Erik the Red and his son Leif Eriksson. Ruins of the Viking settlement that was built there, including Erik’s very own farm, can be found.

Also found across Hornstrandir are pagan altars where the Vikings worshipped their gods, chief among them being Odin the Allfather of Gods, Thor the God of Thunder and Loki the shape shifter. The Vikings venerated their deities during festivals called blots, where fruit, vegetables and meat were sacrificed as offering to the gods.

Pagan ceremonies are still practiced in Iceland, and tourists are often welcome to join in.

It is from Hornstrandir that Erik and his Vikings set out to discover Greenland and launched raids on much of Europe, regularly plundering Scandinavia while also sailing as far as Britain and France in search of plunder.

Hornstrandir is known for its tranquillity, as it is an area with few human settlements. It is only, however, accessible by road and boat. Because of the adverse weather conditions, it is best that those who wish to travel to Iceland do so in the summer.

It is a must for adventurers, which offers beautiful views of Iceland’s harsh but gorgeous landscape which features rolling fields of cornflowers interspersed with patches of snow, only to end abruptly at the feet of Iceland’s craggy mountains on one side and the vast, frigid expanse of the Arctic Ocean on the other.

It is also home to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. On its cliffs can be seen an abundance of exotic birds including fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins, razorbills and the extremely rare white-tailed eagle.

For those who can brave the frigid waters of the Arctic Circle, kayaking expeditions among the fjords from where the Vikings launched their longboats are also on offer.

Transylvania, Romania

This region of Western Romania was made the home of the infamous vampire Count Dracula in Irish novelist Bram Stoker’s book.

Although a work of fiction, the novel is based on King Vlad Dracula, who went to extraordinary measures to defend Transylvania from the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century. Today, his castle, Bran Castle, is one of Romania’s most visited landmarks.

The region contains several prominent cities including Sibiu, which was named the European Capital of Culture in 2007 and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sighisoara, the alleged birthplace of Dracula. Several Saxon-fortified churches in the area have also been designated UNESCO landmarks.
With close to 120 castles that were built by the Romans, Hungarians and Saxons and several medieval towns that are bursting to the seams with historical heritage, Stoker’s novel saw this regionbecome instantly synonymous with vampires.

Transylvania is also home to Scarisoara cave, one of the world’s biggest ice caves, the Bear Cave with more than 140 bear skeletons and the Merry Cemetery, which features joyous paintings depicting the lives of those who were interned there.

Today, the Romanian Tourism Board has several Dracula-themed holiday packages with special experiences on offer around Halloween.

Valley of the Kings, Egypt

Located on the west bank of the River Nile, opposite the great city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor), the Valley of the Kings is the final resting place of several of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs.

As the Kingdom of Ancient Egypt grew in size and stature, her Pharaohs decided to construct massive tombs that reflected their influence and power.

This Valley was chosen because it was obscured to the outside world by the majestic peak of Al-Qurn, which itself resembled a pyramid. Because of this, the region had isolated access, allowing it to be guarded by the Medjay (tomb police) for many generations.

For more than 500 years, Egypt’s workers ferried blocks of limestone down the Nile as temples with exquisitely designed burial chambers for the Pharaoh, intricately carved chambers for the rest of his family and an assortment of gilded paraphernalia to help him travel to the afterlife.

On the interiors of these walls were inscribed religious texts to guide the Pharaoh through his journey. These texts narrated the descent of Ra, the sun god, with the rising and setting of the sun being symbolic of life, death and rebirth. The most common of these inscribed texts was the Litany of Re, a lengthy hymn to the sun god.

Excavation of this great necropolis began in 1799, during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and so far, the tombs of Pharaohs such as Rameses, Tutankhamun, Thutmose, Amunhotep, Akhenaten and Seti have been discovered and are among some of those open to the public.

Many pyramids, rock-cut tombs and mastabas are at ground level and some of them date back to the time of the Old Kingdom, which was established more than 5000 years ago.

Also known as Ta-Sekhet-Ma’at (the Great Field), the Valley can be reached by both road and via ferries on the Nile.

Petra, Jordan
Built in the third century BC by a tribe called the Nabateans, Petra is one of the Arabian world’s most splendid sights.

During its time, it was watered by a perennial stream and was a meeting point for trade caravans that crisscrossed Arabia, with commercial routes passing through Petra to Gaza in the west, Damascus and Bosra in the North, Aqaba and Leuce Come by the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf in the east.  

Built into the red sandstone mountains in the south of Jordan, the ancient city of Petra contained several magnificent buildings including theatres, a marketplace, a temple and several monasteries.

The city was capital to the Nabatean Empire, which spanned an area three times the size of modern-day Jordan. With its aesthetically pleasing but sturdy Greek-style construction, the city’s natural mountainous fortifications kept it hidden from Western eyes until the year 1812.

According to Arab tradition, Petra is where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth. Jebel Haroun (Mount Aaron), located in Petra, is where Moses’ brother Aaron is said to be buried. Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses) is the Arab name for the narrow entrance to the city of Petra.

Home to more than 30,000 people during its heyday, Petra has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site and is an architectural marvel truly worth visiting, with Smithsonian Magazine naming it one of ‘28 places to visit before you die’

Timbuktu, Mali

Originally built as a rest stop for trade caravans that used to brave the harsh heat of the fierce African Sahara and overcome its stinging sandstorms for months at a time, Timbuktu developed into one of West Africa’s most prosperous cities and was known as a place of great wealth and learning.

Known for its foundation-less mud-brick architecture, from as early as the 12th century onwards, Merchants carrying gold, incense, salt and ivory on their way to faraway, exotic lands stopped at Timbuktu for a brief respite from the perils of the desert.

By 1375, Timbuktu had become a centre of North African trade and maps of the time discovered in Europe showed that it had trade links to most of mainland Europe.

Today, it is still part of the nexus that links pan-African trade and some of its ancient structures that have been destroyed over time are being painstakingly restored by Malian architects. 

Zanzibar, Tanzania

While Timbuktu was one of western Africa’s great trade cities, Zanzibar occupied that position in the continent’s east.

Persian traders first built a harbour on the verdant archipelago. With the arrival of colonialism, the Portuguese, British and Germans all frequented the port as caravels laden with gold, incense, spice and ivory made its way from the Orient to Europe.

With time, Zanzibar became a great trading empire and quickly gained renown for its spice, incense and clove crops which were traded the world over. Zanzibar was also known for its slave trade. During its heyday, the port saw more than 50,000 slaves pass through it annually.

In 1698, Zanzibar came under Oman, who continued to develop it as a port. It then became part of the British Empire before gaining independence in 1963 and merging with Tanganyika to form modern-day Tanzania.

For its time, Zanzibar was an especially advanced region. It consisted of many autonomous merchant cities from which trade flowed to China, Persia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest of Africa.

All of these cultures influenced the local Swahili way of life that was in Zanzibar, making it a veritable melting pot of various people from all corners of the world.

Carthage, Tunisia

While Rome was considered by many to be the jewel of the Ancient World, in Africa, Carthage shone just as bright.

Established in 650 BC, the Carthaginian Empire spread across much of northern Africa and even spilled over into Spain, France and Italy.

With its massive merchant fleet, it supplied much of the known world with precious metals such as brass, tin and silver. In time, Carthage became the sole distributor of tin in the Mediterranean and went to great efforts to keep the location of Carthaginian tin mines secret.

Carthage grew to rival Rome in splendour and prosperity as it became famous for its fine silks, incense, perfumes, linen, glassware, precious stones, cash crops and even furniture. It traded in almost every agricultural product found in the region and became famous for Tyrian purple, a dye which was used by high-ranking Romans to dye their togas to show their exclusivity.

In fact, Carthage traded nearly every commodity the ancient world sought. Today, Carthage is a district of the city of Tunis. The city’s ruins can still be found on the outskirts of Tunisia’s capital.


Thimphu, Bhutan

Those who have been to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan call it Shangri-La on Earth.

And they have good reason to: more than three-fourths of the country is covered in virgin forests, rolling plains, deep valleys and steppe-covered mountains, this paradise of nature is one that is home to the some of the happiest people on earth.

In fact, so tranquil is Bhutan and so friendly are its people that when the country’s first set of traffic lights were installed, it was considered impersonal and soon taken down.

Bhutan’s culture is intricately connected to Buddhism, the most widely practiced religion in the kingdom. Several of Thimphu’s most prominent buildings were constructed as religious centres and as resting places for Buddhist lamas.

Examples of these would be the Taschichhoe monastery, a place of religious learning and quiet contemplation, the Simtokha monastery where Buddhist monks kept their sacred texts which contained Buddhist mantras and the Dechen Phodrang monastery, a monastic school where student monks were enrolled.

During ancient times, Bhutan went down in legend as a great centre of learning, culture and medicine. Today, its mountain monasteries (known as dzongs), weekend bazaar, herbal plantations and spectacular landscape make the Land of the Thunder Dragon a place worth visiting.

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Mexico was home to the legendary Mayan civilisation, who built one of their most prestigious cities at Chichen Itza.

It was the Mayan empire’s gateway to the world, trading in much-sought gold, copper, jade, pottery and obsidian from 600 to 1250 AD.

Chichen Itza is famed for its pyramids which are built in two distinct styles of architecture: the Puuc, which features detailed veneers and fine mosaics and the Chenes, which is characterised by ornate facades and masked doorways.

Dominating the northern section of the town is the step pyramid of El Castillo, which stands to this day. Standing 30 metres high, it is a temple to Kukulkan, the Mayan plumed serpent deity. Legend has it that during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the pyramid casts triangular shadows on its north western approach, giving the appearance of a snake wriggling down its steps.

Home to two sites dedicated to the jaguar, an animal held in high regard, Chichen Itza also contained 13 ball courts, where the Mesoamerican ball game of Ollamaliztli was played.

Today known as Ciudad Real, the city is visited by over 1.2 million tourists annually.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu is widely known as one of the world’s greatest archaeological discoveries of legend, but few have visited it.

Hidden from the known world until the year 1912, Machu Picchu was constructed as a tribute to the sun, over Urubumba, the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Historians consider the city to be a dedication to the Incan Sun God. The city is surrounded by mountains the Incas considered religiously significant. To pay homage to the sun god, the Incas made offerings of food and drink at the Altar of the Condor.

Several of the mountains that surround the city have religious platforms constructed on them. These platforms were characterised by stonework that was used exclusively in places of religion. Buried underneath these platforms were the remnants of offerings to the gods. 

Known for buildings such as the Hitching Post of the Sun, the Sun Temple and the Temple of the Three Windows, the Incan architecture here was years ahead of its time.

To counteract earthquakes, L-shaped blocks anchored corners together, doors and windows tilted inward, and no mortar was used between stones so that, if shaken, they could move and resettle without collapsing.

Located nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, those who wish to seek out Machu Picchu embark on a four-day trek up the Inca Trail. One of the few fully intact Incan sites in the world, its architectural marvels which were well ahead of its time and its splendid panoramic views is well worth the trek.

Work to restore the city is currently ongoing.