Category Archives: Blog

Wondrous Wadi…

Wadi walk (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Wadi walk (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Joined up with some local and out of town friends this week-end for a lovely stroll in my favorite nearby wadi in the Sultanate of Oman. Imagine water rushing through this wadi when it rains! If you come to Oman, definitely plan on a wadi walk — preferably with a picturesque falaj irrigation system!

Falaj irrigation system

Falaj irrigation system

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World Cancer Day…

St. Jude's in Beirut

St. Jude’s in Beirut

On this World Cancer Day, I’m thinking of all the Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian kids with cancer at St. Jude’s in Beirut who taught me so much (about life/suffering/pain/play) every week in the playroom–you can read about them here.

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Sunset in the Sultanate…

Sultanate of Oman

Sultanate of Oman

I am back in the Sultanate of Oman to start the spring semester after a wonderful trip to speak in Berlin. Looking forward to sharing photos from the UAE and Berlin soon once I catch up with myself — for now, I’m busy running errands, prepping for my courses, and editing a few upcoming publications (but still making time for sunset beach strolls to collect shells, enjoy a dip in the sea, and practice sand dune tai chi)…

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MENA in Berlin…

Zentrum Moderner Orient  in Berlin

Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin

I am very grateful to have been invited by the Zentrum Moderner Orient and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft to present my research in Berlin at the conference “Appropriations, Representations, Productions: Engagements w. ‘Nature’ in the MENA Region from the 19th Century until Today.” It was a total honor and pleasure to present my work and dialogue on this important topic with other scholars from Europe and the Middle East.

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Gorilla Trekking in East Africa…

Gorilla babies in Uganda (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Gorilla babies in Uganda (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Sidelined on the couch this summer with a fractured foot, I was in need of a hobby to distract myself from the pain. So I gave myself an unusual challenge — to learn as much as I could about wild gorillas in Africa from the comfort of my living room. I watched countless gorilla videos from Rwanda and Uganda, and learned how to make gorilla grunts on youtube with the help of Sigourney Weaver, who played gorilla expert and preservation pioneer Dian Fossey in the film Gorillas in the Mist. The more I learned about gorillas, the more I fell in love with these close cousins of ours – who share 98% of our DNA — and daydreamed of meeting them in person.

Africa Coffee Shop in Muscat

Africa Coffee Shop in Muscat

When the Eid Al Adha break was announced earlier this fall, I realized my chance to meet gorillas face-to-face had come — but I didn’t know anything about travel to Rwanda and Uganda. So I went to my favorite coffee shop in Muscat – Africa – whose owners have ties to Rwanda and provided me with tips on how to create a grand African adventure. After booking a few hotels I found online, securing a gorilla permit ($1500 in Rwanda and $600 in Uganda), applying for an East African visa online, and downing some malaria pills, I hopped on a plane to Rwanda on Ethiopian Airlines to party with primates — chimpanzees, golden monkeys, and gorillas – in the wild.

Marriott Kigali (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Marriott Kigali (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

After landing in Kigali, I enjoyed a one night stay at the new Kigali Marriott Hotel, perfectly situated in the city centre, and was surprised by its luxurious decor — since our media exposure to modern-day Rwanda is so limited. Rejuvenated the next morning from a deep sleep in my spacious room, and a lovely breakfast on the hotel’s sunny garden terrace, I set off with my driver towards the border with Burundi to trek chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest National Park — the best rainforest in Central Africa and a basin of the Nile.

Rwanda (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Rwanda (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

As we coasted past sprawling, lush rice paddies and rolling hills of red clay, I could appreciate why Rwanda is called “land of a thousand hills.” When we arrived at Gisakura Guest House, its simple brick cottages dwarfed by towering trees filled with monkeys, I realized I was about to live out my Dian Fossey fantasy – immersed in Rwandan nature instead of separated from it in a fancy hotel. Upon opening my window curtains, I yipped with surprise at the monkey staring right back at me! After evading a mischievous monkey family patrolling the property on my way back from the shower, I fell asleep to the gentle rumble of thunder and the hypnotizing din of the crickets, pleased with the thought that there was no place else I would rather be.

Gisakura Guest House in Rwanda (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Gisakura Guest House in Rwanda (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Our chimpanzee trek the next morning began at 5:30 followed by a canopy walk in the afternoon on a narrow bridge dangling over the rainforest. A friendly porter – who used to be a poacher – carried my bag, as we followed the boisterous laughter of a rowdy group of chimpanzees (babies included) enjoying their breakfast. As their shadowy figures showed off their acrobatic tricks, they seemed, at a distance, indistinguishable from humans. Watching the little ones practice swinging from the vines and mothers caring for their newborns, I could not help but feel a kinship with them. As Jane Goodall once said, “When you meet chimps you meet individual personalities. When a baby chimp looks at you it’s just like a human baby. We have a responsibility to them.”

Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

On the drive to Volcanoes National Park the next day to trek golden monkeys, we stopped for pumpkin soup and gourmet pizza on the banks of Lake Kivu — one of the African Great Lakes which is on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Rwandan President Kagame was dining next to us at the Serena Hotel). We also took a quick stroll across the border post into the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a photo-op. When we reached Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge at dusk, the warmth of a roaring fireplace and a complimentary cappuccino were the perfect greeting. After enjoying the dinner spread (including a salad chock full of local avocadoes), I retired to my cottage to read about endangered golden monkeys and fall asleep to the comforting crackle of the fire.

Golden monkeys in Rwanda (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Golden monkeys in Rwanda (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

To find golden monkeys in Volcanoes National Park the next morning, my group and I hiked at a leisurely pace past eucalyptus trees and through a dense bamboo forest until we stopped in our tracks when we noticed rotund ginger-backed monkeys with dark amber eyes and chubby cheeks jumping above our heads from branch to branch. The manic and comical movements they made while wrestling, grooming each other, and playing games made photographing them a challenge – it was easier to just put the camera down and enjoy the show. Some intrepid hikers eager for a steep climb also hiked up to Dian Fossey’s campsite and grave (along with the graves of 25 of her gorillas), but all the buildings from her time are gone.

Rwanda's Twin Lakes (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Rwanda’s Twin Lakes (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

On our drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda the next day, we stopped to photograph Rwanda’s celestial Twin Lakes (Burera and Ruhondo) before crossing the border into Uganda. Plunged into a sea of emerald green foliage as we wound our way around freshwater Lake Mutanda, my driver and I were overwhelmed by Uganda’s natural beauty. I finally understood why Winston Churchill wrote: “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly ‘the Pearl of Africa.’” After an exhilarating and harrowing drive up unpaved, muddy roads to a mountain peak 2,000 metres above sea level, we landed in the lap of luxury at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, Uganda’s highest lodge.

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in Uganda (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in Uganda (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Feeling right at home, I sank exhausted into the plush white couch across from the fireplace and admired the lodge’s soaring wooden-beamed ceilings, eclectic African art for sale, and enormous windows with jaw-dropping views of the misty mountains below. After check-in, my personal butler Innocent invited me outside to sip some ginger tea, while Ugandan and Batwa (African pygmy) schoolkids — whose school is supported by the lodge — performed songs and dances about the Batwa coming out of the forest and into the town to receive life-changing education and medicine.

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in Uganda (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in Uganda (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge is part of a large conservation project — ten percent of the hotel rate goes towards the local community and nature conservation (if Clouds is out of your price range, you can also try other hotels like Gorilla Safari Lodge or Bwindi Backpackers Lodge). From my pumpkin ravioli candlelight dinner to the personal touches in my volcanic stone cottage (flower petals in the shape of a heart with the words “Welcome to Clouds” spelled out on my bedspread), I was gently nurtured into a state of complete relaxation to prepare me for the grand trek to meet my gorilla family the next day.

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in Uganda (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in Uganda (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

My pink hiking boots were greeted by large pellets of hail — nature’s own pearls in the “Pearl of Africa” — as I stepped outside my cottage under the cover of darkness to trek gorillas the next morning. As we drove through the bewitching beauty of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to the meeting point, the sun began to rise and the mist to lift. The rangers, who know the dynamics and movements of each gorilla family, assigned me to the Bweza gorilla family – since it has a few babies (a personal request), and they do not tend to travel too far. As our small group set off into the forest, the rangers accompanying us cut through the thick bush with their machetes to clear us a path. The trek was adventure at its best — we had to cross a broken bridge over a creek, trudge through deep mud, and climb over fallen trees while avoiding tripping on tangled vines.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Still recovering from a fractured foot, I had hired a team of porters to transport me part of the way up in a carrying chair (so if you feel too out-of-shape, elderly, or disabled to do a strenuous climb, fear not – the porters are pros and can carry you the whole way for $300 USD extra). We knew we were close to our gorilla family when we heard the adorable gurgling of toddlers laughing nearby. Out from the bushes sprang two fuzzy little heads of a pair of baby gorillas wrestling and comically throwing each another into the foliage. In between kicks, somersaults, and chest pats, they stumbled around like two drunk old men with bad knees, their immature motor control struggling to accommodate their grand gorilla ambitions.

Gorilla baby! (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Gorilla baby! (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The enormous mountain of muscle and fur resting in the corner, the rangers explained, was the family’s chief silverback Cacono — named “crippled hand” for his mangled right hand, which has been non-functional since birth. Despite being disabled, Cacono is the proud patriarch of the family, but at 40 years old he has grown tired and is eager to pass the crown to one of the two younger silverbacks fighting for his position. Watching him enjoy his post-breakfast nap, we were touched by the affectionate caresses of his partner as she groomed him. As I crept towards them for a photo, my adrenaline surged with the thought that I was standing just a few feet from two nearly 400 pound wild mountain gorillas.

Meeting my gorilla family (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Meeting my gorilla family (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

It was slapstick comedy at its finest when the gorilla baby duo raced up a tree to wrestle for the prime sunbathing real estate at the top. When one tossed the other from the tree, the fuzzball somersaulting through the leaves was still giggling right before hitting the ground with a loud thump, drawing raucous laughter from the audience. Raising his head with a befuddled expression – likely from seeing stars — he paused for only a second before racing back up the tree. To our surprise, we spent most of our time with our gorilla family belly laughing at their comedic antics — it was almost as if they were intentionally putting on a show.

Gorilla baby sunbathing (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Gorilla baby sunbathing (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

The highlight for all of us was when the smallest baby bravely broke the fourth wall, crawling towards us to touch the leather of our boots with his human-like hand. It took enormous self-control not to reach down and pick him up — we all wanted to cuddle him. After he smelled our shoes and proudly beat his tiny chest to show us he was in charge and this was his territory, he retreated to the safety of his mom, who assured us with a glance that she was watching us but trusted us not to hurt him.

Gorilla mommy (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Gorilla mommy (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I felt a strong emotional connection to our gorilla family — the physical and behavioral similarities between us were eerie and striking. Their familiar personalities, family dynamics, children’s games, and facial expressions were easily decoded by the primate recognition system embedded in my DNA. When the rangers informed us that our hour was up, we all let out a little sigh of protest that our playdate was over, but our sadness was eclipsed by a shared feeling of profound gratitude for our blissful and magical time with the welcoming Bweza family.

Heaven Restaurant (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Heaven Restaurant (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Thoughts of my gorilla family stayed with me the entire ride back to Kigali. After checking into Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Center, the hip staff helped me arrange a short taxi ride to Heaven, a popular restaurant hidden in the hills, and Hôtel des Mille Collines — the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda. Heaven lived up to its name — the fried avocado salad and moambe pumpkin mchuzi were superb. While I found myself cherishing the comforts and delicacies of modernity in Kigali, I was also longing for the simplicity and mystery of nature back in the wild.

Radisson Blu in Kigali (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Radisson Blu in Kigali (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Savoring a delightful poolside brunch at Radisson Blu before flying back to Oman, I felt elated that meeting my gorilla family was everything I had hoped it would be and more. There are only several hundred gorillas left — the population is small and fragile, even though their numbers are steadily increasing. So for a life-changing, unique experience, consider traveling to East Africa to encounter these endangered and majestic creatures who seem so very human in the wild — they are ready to welcome you into their family and home.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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Times of Oman: Gorillas Gone Wild…

Times of Oman

Times of Oman

I’m happy to share with you my new piece, Gorilla Trekking in East Africa, in the Times of Oman — which is about my grand primate adventure through Rwanda and Uganda. A total joy to share my gorilla family and love with the world!

Hanging with my Gorilla family in Uganda

Hanging with my Gorilla family in Uganda

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Happy New Year!

Walking in a winter wonderland in Harlem (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Walking in a winter wonderland in Harlem (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Happy New Year! I have been on the road back home in Harlem in New York City — where I said good-bye to 2017 and ushered in the new year by walking in a winter wonderland and hopping on a plane back to the Persian Gulf. Wishing you all a happy and healthy new year from the sunny Sultanate of Oman!

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International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women


Marking International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

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Today in the Sultanate…


Today in Oman

Happily overwhelmed with publication deadlines, I took a short break from writing today to collect seashells and practice tai chi on the beach in the sunny Sultanate of Oman. After working out in the water, I headed over to Angelina at The Wave for a luscious lunch…


Angelina in Oman

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National Adoption Day…


Image from the New York Times

Since today is National Adoption Day, here is my New York Times adoption essay on my Slavic background and Russian name…

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National Day in Oman…


Shopping for National Day (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Wishing everyone here in the Sultanate of Oman a Happy 47th National Day! As you can see in the photo above, I had fun shopping this week at the mall for festive red, green, and white gear for today’s holiday. Last night, my friend and I enjoyed a lovely sea swim at sunset followed by dinner and fireworks on the beach. As you can see below, even the bun of my friend’s burger was decked out in Oman’s national colors. This afternoon, I had the pleasure of watching the National Day military parade presided over by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos (who in my opinion — and that of many others — is the best leader in the world). His Majesty is a true man of peace — and has done more than anyone else alive to bring peace to the Middle East. It is a privilege, joy, and honor to live in the Sultanate of Oman under the wise leadership of His Majesty — Long May He Live!


Patriotic dinner in Oman

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Sultan Qaboos University

Sultan Qaboos University

I would like to wish my graduating humanities students at Sultan Qaboos University in the Sultanate of Oman a hearty congratulations on a job well-done and a degree well-earned! Mabrook / مبروك! It is a true honor and joy to teach the promising future of Oman!

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Sunset in Oman…


Beach time (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

After a late and leisurely brunch at Angelina yesterday in Muscat, my friend and I took a serene sunset swim in the stunning Sultanate of Oman…

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Loving Lebanon…


I love Beirut (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I’ve been following the resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Saudi purge closely and with concern. I had the joy of living in Beirut for three years while teaching at the American University of Beirut, and I sincerely hope that things there get resolved quickly and peacefully. Stay strong, Lebanon!

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New Publication: Sufism & the State in Central Asia…


Sufism in Central Asia (Photos: Emily O’Dell)

Since Islam in Uzbekistan has been trending in the news in the wake of the New York City terrorist attack, I thought I would share my new publication, “Subversives and Saints: Sufism and the State in Central Asia,” in the book Islam, Society and Politics in Central Asia — a wonderful resource at a time when media coverage of the region is so lacking (and often dangerously wrong). This fall, I had the honor of being the expert guest speaker for the Commonwealth Club of California (America’s oldest and largest public policy forum) in Central Asia (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, along with Azerbaijan) to share my expertise and experience on the Silk Road. I have had the rare opportunity (and pleasure!) to spend extended periods of time in all five Central Asian Republics plus Mongolia (even lived in Turkmenistan twice!). Seeing Islam in Central Asia trending in the media has brought back fond memories of my time living on the Silk Road — and of being a guest of honor in India at a conference on Sufism in India and Central Asia with Ambassadors from Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.

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Waking up in Oman…

Rise and shine...

Rise and shine…

Starting my day off in the Sultanate of Oman with a smile — with much work to do, fun to be had, friends to see…

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Dig It…


A special find (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Over the years, we’ve uncovered some amazing finds at our ancient site in Sudan. We’ve found statues, column bases, hieroglyphs, mummies and so much more…


Dig it

I have, of course, treasured every find I’ve encountered while excavating in Sudan and working at the Great Pyramids of Giza on a Brown University-Cairo University dig as Chief Epigrapher. But this little lion statue from Sudan holds a special place in my heart — can’t say why, exactly, but it just does. I adore it.


A secret from the sand (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

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مسجد جامع یزد


Exploring Yazd (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I had the opportunity to admire the brilliant mosaics decorating the Jameh Mosque of Yazd this fall while a guest speaker for Harvard University in the Islamic Republic of Iran…

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Whirling in Paradise…


Eram Garden in Iran (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Whenever I travel as a guest speaker to the Islamic Republic of Iran — as I did this fall for Harvard University — I like to whirl through Eram Garden, the template for paradise

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تخت جمشید


Exploring Iran (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Seriously come to the ruins of Persepolis in the Islamic Republic of Iran — my friendly gatekeeper friends await you!

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Communing with Nature…


Conjuring in Asia (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Looking forward to sharing more about this image and research endeavor soon in my academic work, stay tuned…

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Cyrus the Great…


Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Iran (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

Iranians gather every year on October 29th to celebrate the unofficial holiday of “Cyrus Day.” I was at his tomb last year just hours before the large gathering emerged and evolved into a protest. As a result, the authorities were fearing what might unfold there this year. According to the powers that be, they foiled an online plan yesterday to organize an “illegal gathering” at the site. All roads to leading to Pasargad were closed.

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Rossini in the Sultanate…


Last night in Oman

I had the joy of seeing Gioachino Rossini’s L’Occasione fa il Ladro (Opportunity Makes a Thief) last night at the Royal Opera House in Muscat — great show (even wore some of my new Turkmen jewelry)! If you visit the Sultanate of Oman, definitely book a ticket to see a show at the Opera House or at least take a tour of it — it’s not to be missed!

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Commonwealth Club in Central Asia…


Commonwealth Club of California on the Caspian

I was very happy and grateful to be the expert guest speaker in Central Asia for the Commonwealth Club of California, the oldest and largest public affairs forum in the United States. Some of the many notable speakers in the history of the Club have included U.S. presidents back to Teddy Roosevelt (too many to count), Hillary Clinton, Desmond Tutu, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bill Gates, Mikhail Gorbachev, Kofi Annan, Robert F. Kennedy, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The mission of The Commonwealth Club of California is to be the leading national forum open to all for the impartial discussion of important public issues. Having spent significant periods of time in all five Central Asian Republics, I was elated to have the opportunity to share my expertise and experience in situ on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Since I lived twice in Turkmenistan, I was especially delighted to share my experiences there with such an adventurous and enlightened group.


Caravanserai dinner on the Silk Road

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Harvard in Iran…


Enjoying Esfahan (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I was humbled and honored to be the expert guest speaker for Harvard University in the Islamic Republic of Iran this fall. Being with this adventurous and intelligent group brought back fond memories of my time teaching Near Eastern Studies at Harvard. It always brings me great pleasure to introduce Americans to Iranian literature, history, art, archaeology, culture, and film to increase understanding between our two nations. I’m looking forward to returning soon to Iran, inshallah…

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Stanford in Iran…

Stanford in Dubai (Photo: Emily O'Dell)

Stanford in Dubai (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I was honored to share my Iranian expertise and experience with adventurous folks from Stanford in Dubai on their way to travel through the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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گنبد جبليه


Exploring Iran (Photo: Emily O’Dell)

I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful and unique building — Gonbad-e Jabaliye — while an expert guest speaker for Harvard University in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The original purpose of this octagonal stone masterpiece in Kerman remains a mystery. I’m happy to share that I will now start posting photos more regularly (upon request!) from my far-flung travels from Mongolia to Rwanda and many places in between.

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