Nicholas Schmidle, who lives in Washington, D.C., spent nearly two years in Pakistan as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, which funds overseas writing fellowships. An article Schmidle published earlier this year in the New York Times Magazine about a resurgent Taliban got him in hot water with the authorities, and he left Pakistan precipitately. But the country nagged at him. "I just felt that mainstream Islam in Pakistan was so sorely overlooked," he says. It was mystical, peaceful Sufism, in particular, that held his attention. "While the Taliban were grabbing all the headlines and wielding the big guns, the Sufis had the numbers and represented the true mainstream."
On assignment in Pakistan for Smithsonian, Schmidle and photographer Aaron Huey went to a Sufi festival called an urs, at which devotees abandon themselves to spirited dancing and worshipful revelry. "I was absolutely stunned at the scale of it and the passion and intensity," says Schmidle, who joined in. "To find myself dancing and totally lost in the intensity of the whole thing was a pretty overwhelming experience. I had to shake myself and say, wow, I now understand why people go to such great lengths and make great sacrifices to come to this thing." His story, "Faith & Ecstasy," begins on page 36.
Fergus M. Bordewich wrote two of the feature stories in this issue. The first documents efforts to save one of the world's most beautiful and important structures, Istanbul's Hagia Sophia (see "Fading Glory," p. 54). "I think it is the greatest building that survives from the ancient world," says Bordewich. "There was virtually nothing that even remotely approached it until modern times. It's just an amazing building."
Bordewich's second story also has to do with an amazing building, the U.S. Capitol, whose $621 million visitor center opens this month. In researching his latest book, Washington: The Making of the American Capital, Bordewich found himself intrigued by the Capitol's original architect, William Thornton, a British native of Tortola, in the Caribbean. "He was a Renaissance man. He was an inventor. He helped finance a steamboat. He was a linguist. But more than anything, he was a passionate, inspired abolitionist. And when he heard of the design competition for the U.S. Capitol, he drew plans, and he won. He's a remarkable individual." "Capitol Fellow" begins on page 78.