Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Playing Catch-up

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Peace [and Quiet] in Our Time

A much needed sea day allowed us to do as little as possible. Other than Trivia [don’t ask], we had nothing to do and nowhere to go, so we did nothing and went nowhere. MA caught up on sleep and D began writing the journal entries for our frantic four days in the desert.

Sunday, April 24, 2011
Bodrum Bargain

The four of us had another tour scheduled for this morning in Bodrum [BO-drum] and Ḉemlik [CHEM-lik], Turkey. The last e-mail from the tour operator said that someone from the agency would be outside waiting for us beginning at 8:30, so we foolishly left the ship at 8:30. Our pickup had been arranged for 9:00, but it was worth leaving early to avoid the HAL buses. We waited until 9:00 without seeing anyone with our names on a sign. By 9:15 we were getting angry and D went inside to get his cell phone and the number for the agency. Since he had not printed it with the other information, it was more expedient to turn on the 3-G on his Kindle and go through past e-mail to find it. He was able to retrieve the right message – including the 8:30 time – by the time he arrived back at the meeting point. Just as he got there, Ed spotted the sign in a man’s folder; this person was making no effort to show the sign or find us. It was 9:30.

D showed him the e-mail and a mild argument ensued during which the driver called his office and gave D the cell phone. D told his version of what had happened and was told by the boss that he knew his driver was there on time and D said the driver was lying. We finally got into the van we were going to use and D realized that he had seen this vehicle arrive well before 9:00. The driver simply hadn’t cared.

We drove to the “inner harbor” of Bodrum and picked up our guide, Mehmet, who had been waiting since 9:00. He was unhappy, too, since we were starting late. Bodrum has an ancient castle which Ed wanted to see, so he and Mehmet trooped off to the castle while Roxanne, MA and D sat at a café and nursed Turkish tea for an hour. The happy warriors returned at 11:00. We had been outside 2-1/2 hours and all we had to show for it was a glass of tea.

The castle they had visited had been made from the stones from Mausoleus’ mausoleum which we keep hearing was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Although it was huge when it was built, there is only rubble on the site now and Mehmet said it wasn’t worth stopping for. Likewise, we drove past but did not go into the Greek theater. We saw it from across the street and it looked like a Greek theater. Seen one, seen ’em all.

We did stop so the boys could get out at the ancient gate to Bodrum which used to be known as Halikarnasos. We walked around and took pictures, as always. There were several HAL buses there waiting to disgorge their passengers as we pulled out. Our last stop in Bodrum was a scenic overlook which offered views of Bodrum and its harbor as well as the abandoned bases of old windmills. More pictures, but we were hoping for more.

We drove out of town toward Ḉemlik. The road was rough and got rougher as we left the main highway and started up a pot-holed washboard hill. At some points, the road almost disappeared, especially when we drove through [yes, through] the rock quarry. Steep hills, poorly maintained roads and hairpin turns made the drive exciting.

The scenery, however, was beautiful. As we climbed, we got an occasional peek at the valley now far below. The right side of the van often overlooked a steep cliff and there were stone fences marking off fields. It was pretty and rustic.

We arrived at Ḉemlik and climbed down. Directly in front of us was a convenience store cum café where we sat while Mehmet told us about the village. He was accompanied here by a young man also named Mehmet, so it had the potential for confusion. After tea, part of the Turkish ritual, we wandered up a path and observed the variety of fruit and nut trees which grew in the town. We also ate almonds fresh from the tree, fuzzy green seed coverings and all. Mehmet the Guide told us that the almond seeds and honey would make for happy nights, but we had no honey with us.

We saw and smelled the camel barn as well as the cows, sheep and chickens. Small town life in Turkey. We were supposed to visit a tobacco farm and an olive oil facility, but these were sort of ignored by our guide who led us to THE CARPET DEMONSTRATION which was his sister-in-law working like a magician on a carpet in the backyard.

We watched her for a while as young Mehmet explained about the process of making carpets; the difference between carpets; and the carpet cooperative for the area which just happened to be right in front of us. It wouldn’t hurt, would it, to see some examples of the local women’s work? So we sat down for the show as Mehmet unfurled carpet after carpet for us to see. The selection was nothing like the store in Istanbul where both we and the Pettuses had bought carpets on earlier trips to Turkey.

There were carpets and killims in every color possible and in silk, cotton and wool. There carpets in sizes ranging from 1x1.5 feet up to 18 feet long. It was dazzling. There were new carpets and old carpets. And then it happened – a carpet caught MA’s fancy and the dance began.

There were offers and counter-offers; complaints that the rug was already discounted compared to its price in Istanbul; that the seller could not afford to let it go for as little as we were offering. We countered that we had a budget to maintain; that we didn’t really need or want another carpet. We made a lowball bid; Mehmet countered. We held firm. They said no. D thought MA really wanted this rug, so he raised the offer a little. They came down more and he went up a little. And suddenly we owned the thing for about one-third less than the original price. A good deal? Maybe. Time will tell.

The last part of the haggling came while we ate lunch on the porch outside the showroom. Mehmet the Younger wisely brought the carpet outside so we could continue to see it. Lunch was made by Mehmet’s mother and was strictly local. It included assorted salads,stuffed grape leaves and potatoes and chicken and was not so different from what we ate in Israel and Egypt.

The deal concluded, we drove back to town by a shorter, smoother route and were back in time to lose again in Trivia.

Tomorrow – Kusadasi, Turkey

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cotton and Cookies

We moved up the Turkish coast last night, but not very far. The same buses and drivers who worked the HAL tours in Bodrum were here this morning to ferry them again. Today we are docked in Kusadasi [KOOSH-uh-DAH-shi], the gateway to more ruins.

Most first time visitors to Kusadasi travel up the road to see Ephesus, one of the most magnificent ancient towns found and at least partially restored. We were there two years ago and wanted something different this year, so we arranged to see different ruins in Priene and Miletos.

MA’s cold got the better of her and she chose to stay in bed today. D met Ed and Roxanne at the regular place and left the ship in search of the guide. We missed connections by only 15 minutes this time and we suspect she was there the whole time and that we were just looking in the wrong place. We had a 15-passenger van and lots of room, a pleasant surprise. Our guide was Begum [BEG-oom], a bright, attractive young women of 32 who spoke perfect English.

We drove to Priene [PREE-en] by way of Sὅke [SHAH-kay]. Sὅke is an agricultural area which specializes in producing cotton. The town itself is nothing to write about except that Begum says that the rich people in the area -- the cotton barons – live here. We saw no evidence of wealth in Sὅke. It was obvious that the land was rich. Centuries ago, this area was underwater because it was an inlet of the Aegean Sea. Over many years, though, the harbor became filled with silt from the Meander River, the twin of the river which silted the harbor at Ephesus. [Once a port city, Ephesus is now six miles from water.] The delta became an alluvial plain, the water level dropped, and rich arable soil was left behind. The twin Meander Rivers are still here, but work has been done to divert them so the remaining harbors stay safe.

Priene once overlooked the long-gone Aegean. Situated high on a hill, it still commands breathtaking views of the valley below; it must have been magnificent when the view included the Aegean and the trade ships which plied the area.

We drove up a steep hill, left the van and climbed more of the steep hill. The path was rocky and the footing unsure. Where there were marble steps, they were uneven and slippery. The going was rough for everyone but Begum. Priene still contains the remains of the government center including offices and a small auditorium where the town leaders made all of the important decisions. The agora, or market area, was clearly visible and was being used as a sheep path while we were there; a shepherd and his flock wandered through, bells tinkling, while Begum talked about the area.

Priene was one of the earliest cities laid out in a right-angle grid pattern. Corners were still discernible as were the terra cotta pipes used to distribute water from a spring higher on the mountain. Junctions in the water pipes were made of marble because the terra cotta could not withstand the pressure of the water hitting it. There was also a very obvious waste water system which is now opened to the sky but which was covered when the town was still active. Paved gutters ran from each house or shop to a larger gutter which ran down to hill, presumably to the Aegean.

On the far side of the town, and down the other side of the hill, was the ruin of a house where Alexander the Great spent one winter. It did not have a sign reading, “Alexander slept here.” There was a temple at the top of the hill and, of course, a Greek theater which was in pretty good condition. Like all such theaters, it was built into a natural amphitheater, had good acoustics and would have offered a stunning view of the Sea in the distance.

We had arrived at Priene early in the day and were ahead of the HAL buses. The parking lot was completely empty when we first approached Priene. By the time we left, the lot was full and the little old people were huffing and puffing their way up. Begum paid our entry fee on the way out since the ticket office had not opened when we arrived and we set sail, figuratively, for Miletos.

Miletos [MEE-li-tos] is in the middle of what was once an arm of the Aegean Sea and had been right on the water. The Meander River silted this area over, too, providing great soil but eventually marooning the port just like Ephesus. Some high spots still exist, but some of Miletos is still partially submerged. The best news was that most of it was at ground level, sort of.

Once Begum had purchased our tickets, we walked directly to the theater. We still had to walk up a slight grade to enter, but it was nothing compared to Priene. We entered the theater almost at the orchestra level at the bottom of the theater.

The Miletos theater is a Greco-Roman theater and the differences were apparent to the group especially because Begum had told us there would be a quiz. The most obvious difference was seen in the sunken orchestra. The seating area was a good 2 meters [6+ feet] higher than the floor of the theater. With the addition of temporary walls, which were not present, the arena could be used for gladiatorial competitions. The sunken floor and extra wall would prevent wild beasts and losing gladiators from escaping into the audience.

While this theater was built into a hill, it had interior corridors at the top and tunnels half-way up the seating bowl. The altar was in the middle of the orchestra instead of directly in front of the seats and there were provisions made for awnings to be erected over the front rows of seats to keep the sun or rain off of the dignitaries. The acoustics, of course, were wonderful.

We walked up to the top of the auditorium and through a tunnel to reach the back side of the hill. A short walk brought us to an overlook where we could see the remains of Miletos. This city was to first to be laid out in a grid and the streets’ edges were still visible as perfectly straight with sharp right angles at the corners. The remains of the town, however, were at the bottom of the hill in a swamp; the water level here never got low enough for it to dry completely. Begum said that during the rainy season, most of the ruins were at least partially under water. Individual buildings were still discernible and there was a drawing posted at the lookout illustrating which buildings and areas were which. Mostly, though, we listened to the frogs who now live in Miletos; their croaking rose and fell like the worshippers at the Wailing Wall.

After we had had our fill of photos and frogs, we moved to the Roman bath. It had the usual three chambers: hot water and steam in the calderium; warm water in the tepidarium; and cold water in the fridgidarium. There were changing rooms large enough to accommodate six people and a “rec plex” next door. Work up a sweat, take a schvitz. The area with the cold water featured a double arch, one atop the other, but no one knows why.

Roman baths were not just for getting clean. They were often the social, business and political center of the city. Here, men came not only to “take the waters” but also to conduct business or political affairs. Open to all citizens [hence, men], it was more like a private club in today’s world.
Our lunch, included in the cost of the tour, was at a café near Priene which was on the way back to the ship anyway. We sat outdoors next to an artificial duck pond. The ducks played and got a little frisky while we watched and there may be more ducks by this time next year.

Lunch consisted of individual green salads with cucumber, tomato, green onion and chile peppers; a communal plate of local hors d’ouevres; and a choice of fish, chicken or lamb kabob. We all chose the kabob which was unlike any we had seen. Instead of being a skewer of meat and vegetables, it was a long thin piece of processed meat like that used in a gyro. It was really spicy and Roxanne could not eat hers; Ed ate about a third of his and D ate half; Begum finished hers, of course. The salads helped fill us up and no one went hungry. Begum recommended the local drink and Ed and D agreed to try it. It was a mixture of yogurt, water and salt. Ed drank his but D found it too salty, so Begum drank both hers and his; Roxanne wisely had a Coke. There was no dessert but Begum treated us to coffee and tea before we started back to Kusadasi.

On the way, we convinced her that we needed to stop for cookies. We did not try to explain the Trivia competition or the fact that ours is the best fed team, but we did say that we wanted somegthing unique to the area. She had the driver take us to her favorite bakery where we sampled one of the local pastries. We were convinced that this was an excellent choice and purchased two kilos worth of sweets to take to Trivia. We also treated Begum to some for herself. Later, as we walked through the shopping arcade by the ship, one of the locals came running from his store to ask where we had gotten the bag we were carrying. Had we gone to that bakery? Had we walked, he asked, because it was a long way away and so on. He said it was his favorite bakery, too, and he stopped there most mornings on his motorcycle and bought breakfast. He was impressed that we had bought our cookies there. We took this as a good sign.

The pastries were truly the best part of our Trivia game today and we have plenty left for the future. Ed and Roxanne sampled the apple ones before the game and we all had some before we started to play. With another port tomorrow, we hope they are still fresh enough when we play again.

Dinner was special tonight. Our Trivia partner Sandra and her husband Alan celebrated their 54th anniversary today and hosted a small dinner party in the MDR. There were nine of us all together including their regular dinner companions, us and another man. We had a good time since the conversation rarely lagged and the people were mostly interesting. We felt honored to be included in what became our second wedding celebration in one cruise.

Tomorrow – Athens, Greece

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ruins, Ruins and More Ruins

Neither MA nor Ed made it off the ship today. MA’s cold has not abated and now Ed seems to have it; there is nothing worse than a man who thinks he’s sick. Roxanne and D persevered without them and left the ship at 7:30 in search of our driver and a new adventure.

Nick is a taxi driver, but a classy one. His father’s firm is called Athens Taxi and consists of the father and his two sons. We first used them two years ago and were able to have the same son, Nick, as our driver today. Like Fabrizio, Nick is not a licensed guide, but he knows enough to make up for it. On the way to the various sites, he was able to give us more than enough background for us to have at least some idea of what we were seeing; this was even more important last time because we were seeing the classic Greek monuments. Today, we were taking the road less traveled by going to Corinth, Mycenae, Naflion [or Naphthlion] and Epidaurus. Since this a drive, not a tour, we are on our own, economically, for lunch.

We had heard just yesterday that one of the things we had to see in Corinth was the Canal. We thought that the canal would be more marble in the ruins of Corinth, but it is an ancient working canal which happens to be in modern Corinth. Begun centuries ago, the canal was a V-shaped slash going straight through a narrow strip of the Peloponnesian peninsula. The 7 km canal saves ships hours of sailing time since they no longer have to circumnavigate the entire region.

We were told by Nick that there were 6000 workers needed to make the original canal. It has only a 12-foot clearance below water level and is a mere 35 feet wide, so only small ships can traverse it. We were lucky enough to see a small cruise vessel making its way through the 80-foot high walls. It was so close to the sides that we were reminded of a river boat going through a lock.

The ruins of Corinth were better preserved than those in many other towns. Some of the columns of the Temple of Apollo are still standing at the high point of ancient Corinth. We could easily identify the shops, the agora, odeon and amphitheater once we saw the schematic drawing of the town. In the center of the agora stood a surprise – there was a bima. In synagogues, the bima is the pulpit where the rabbi conducts services and preaches. In Corinth, the bema [their spelling] was the altar on which Paul of Tarsus [later, St. Paul] preached. He is also known for writing letters to the Corinthians. Busy, busy, busy.

Outside the city walls were the odeon and theater. Roxanne and D saw these before buying their tickets. The amphitheater was pretty much destroyed by an earthquake and was just a pile of rubble, but the odeon was still recognizable for what it was, a small amphitheater which was used for musical presentations.

Above the town, on the ridge of the mountains, was a Byzantine fortress. It was stark against the sky but we did not take the time to drive up. Nick did not encourage a visit. Since Nick was driving, we went where he went. Mycenae was another ancient Greek town set on top of a hill. We understood the defensive reason that the towns were built on mountain tops, but that understanding did not make the climb any easier.

Mycenae [my-SEE-nuh] was a different kettle of fish. We drove partway up the hill to the parking lot and ticket booth. The climb did not look bad as it zigged and zagged to the top. There were lots of people already climbing up, so Roxanne and D thought the ascent would be a piece of baklava. Not. After one course in each direction, Roxanne planted herself on a wall and D continued to climb to the top. There were several rest stops on the way, but he finally huffed to the summit only to discover that there wasn’t much left of the town. The view of the valley below was nice but not really worth a potential coronary. He took pictures to prove he had made it and then retreated to the bottom of the hill, collecting Roxanne on the way.

A very short drive brought us to the Treasury of Atreus [A-tree-us]. A very long open-roofed antechamber brought us to a tremendous pseudo-pyramid carved into the hillside. From inside, it looked like the interior of a tepee with walls that rose smoothly at an angle to come together directly over the center; Roxanne compared it to the Pantheon in Rome without the open oculus. There was a completely dark room attached to it which we could see only briefly as people took flash photographs. The treasury was supposed to be Atreus’ tomb, but like the Greek treasury, it was empty.

Nick took us to Naflion, a quaint little village. There was another Byzantine fortress on top the mountain here, too, but we chose not to climb the 990 steps up the cliff [and over a bridge] to reach it. There had been a second fort on another, lower peak next to it, but this hill had literally dropped straight to the sea during an earthquake. The fortress is still intact and now sits in the harbor like a small island. Like a junior version of Robben Island in Capetown, Nick said that is sometimes used as a prison. Nick climbed out on a cliff to take a picture of it since he didn’t trust us to do it safely.

And then there was Epidaurus [EH-pi-DAR-us]. The classic Greek theater is embodied in Epidaurus. Pictures of the theater have filled textbooks and postcards for decades. It is almost perfectly preserved despite earthquake activity over the millennia and is an engineering marvel.

That the Greeks could build these theaters into hillsides would have been amazing [Dayenu]; that the acoustics were better than any modern theater would have been amazing enough [Dayenu]; but to find the human-comfort level we saw was unbelieveable.

Granted, the seats at Miletos had lion’s feet on the legs of the benches and even had the seats projecting in front of the base so theater-goers could move their feet back a little. At Epidaurus, there were no lion’s feet but there was space behind the bench seat to put one’s legs and the floor had been lowered in front of the seats to allow more vertical leg room. Lowering the foot area in front of the seats, rather than just making them higher, meant that more rows of seats could be built in the same space without sacrificing comfort.

Of course, the front rows near the orchestra had backs to the seats because the dignitaries sat there. However, the last row of the orchestra and the first row of the mezzanine, separated by a walkway, also had backs suggesting a second or even third layer in the social structure. These upper seats actually offered a better perspective on the plays and on the countryside [or sea] beyond. Of the 10,000 seats in the auditorium, none was bad.

Those who sat in the upper reaches of the theater at Epidaurus had no fear of missing any of the dialogue because the acoustics were spectacular. While Roxanne and D were there, a tour guide stood in the center of the orchestra by what we assumed had been the altar and crinkled a 5 euro note. Not surprisingly, Roxanne could hear it in the front row, but D could hear it distinctly at the top of the seating bowl. When someone else dropped a few coins, it was clear as a bell, and when some man started reading Antigone in German, it was almost too loud. Of course that may have been his fault, not the theater’s.

Nick was under the impression we just wanted a snack on the way back to the ship, rather than a real lunch, but he was mistaken. We wanted what we considered Greek food. As it turns out, Greek food is now waffles with ice cream, cheeseburgers and club sandwiches. He stopped at a place which sold “snacks” like these, much to our disappointment, so we settled for bruschetta which were more like pizzas on good bread. Roxanne had a Pepsi and D had a Frediccino which was more chocolate milkshake than coffee drink. Still, it was quite satisfying. As the only non-Greek customers in a restaurant where even the help spoke no English, we had to assume that this is now Greek food because it is what the Greeks were eating. It was disheartening.

When we were ready to leave, we waited for someone to bring a bill. David finally tracked down the waiter and made the universal sign for the check only to have the waiter walk to the table and show us where it had been all the time. When he brought the plates of food, he had also brought what looked like a large thimble. Curled around the inner curve was a cash register slip with the bill. Roxanne then remembered that that was the system but it was too late to save us from a little embarrassment.

We practically flew back to the port of Piraeus [puh-RAY-us] with Nick continuing to drive like a demon; there were times today when he topped 150 kph [90 mph] while negotiating the twisting hills outside Athens. Like the drivers in Egypt, he often made his own lane. The roads were good and the Mercedes steady, so we were only nervous when he answered his cell phone, a too-frequent occurrence.

We arrived home around 3:45, much too late for Trivia. Independently, we found both Ed and MA in bed “resting.” D took off his shoes and luxuriated in stretching out after a long day of mountain climbing. Ed didn’t make it dinner, but MA did. After dinner we checked the mail and Facebook and then read. MA went to sleep while D played catch-up with the journal.

Tomorrow – Monemvasia, Greece

Wednesday, April27, 2011

Monemvasia, Maybe

Nick told us yesterday that there wasn’t much to Monemvasia [MO-nem-VAY-zhuh] except some nice cafes by the water. There is also an old castle on a hill overlooking the harbor but he said it wasn’t worth the climb, so we were hoping to tender to town and get lunch. At last we could sleep in.

The captain had other ideas and at 8:00 or so blasted us out of bed with the announcement that we would bypass this tiny port because there was no safe way to anchor the ship or provide tender service; the winds were simply too strong and he refused to endanger the passengers or the ship. Welcome to Split redux.

Our shore day had become a sea day! Hurrah! We played at Trivia where we have gone from bridesmaids to flower girl [although we did better today]. We tend to stick around after the game and chat, so, once the group had dispersed, we went to the MDR for lunch. After eating with some total strangers who swore they got on in Ft. Lauderdale, we returned to the room where MA read and rested while D finished the journal. We will go to hear Arthur Starr give a presentation this afternoon and rest again before dinner. And now we are up-to-date.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Wandering in the Desert

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Old Cairo and Recent History

By the time we were able to exit the ship, our guide and driver were ready and waiting for us. Muhammad and Fred [for lack of a better name] would be with us for two action-packed days. As soon as everyone was settled comfortably in the minivan, we started to drive from Alexandria to Cairo.

Alexandria was a lot like Lisbon in that it could have used a fresh coat of paint. It has a downtrodden feeling with lots of apartment blocks most of which had chipped or missing stucco. The streets were crowded with cars and trucks and the sidewalks were crowded with merchants. Like so many developing countries, Egypt has an infrastructure in need of repair. The streets of Alexandria were dotted with construction zones and there were armored personnel carriers in front of government buildings, especially police stations.

The Revolution of January 25 has had a profound effect on the people of Egypt. Muhammad was proud to be part of the uprising even though he was nowhere near Cairo; he was in his home town of Rosetta, famous for the Rosetta Stone, guarding his house and neighborhood from any government reprisals. Granted, he had only a stick for protection, but he was as involved as anyone else. He pointed out that the Revolution was successful because it was national, not just confined to Tarir Square in Cairo.

Our three-hour drive to Cairo was filled with the history of the various Egyptian periods as well as with visual aids in the form of maps to show the development of Egypt into one unified country. The areas of the Upper [i.e., southern] Nile and the Lower [northern] Nile operated independently for centuries but were brought together through the use of force by the kings of Lower Egypt. This is often seen in sculptures and pictures of the pharaohs – the “red” and “white” headdresses indicated whether they controlled one or the other. Some had headdresses which encompassed both showing they were kings of the entire country.

Most of the ancient cities and settlements were on the eastern side of the Nile river, the source of all life in Egypt. Cemeteries were built on the western side. The burial area or necropolis [city of the dead] held better housing for those who could afford it than their houses in the city. Death was not something to be feared but just a gateway to better things. How better to enter the afterlife than in a large house stocked with food, furniture and jewelry? For this reason, the statues of the pharaohs often showed them with their left foot forward as if they were walking north on the Nile. That left foot was in the City of the Dead showing they were old enough to contemplate their deaths; young people had their feet held parallel. Living pharaohs were represented with straight beards; dead ones had their beards curling up at the ends.

Back to the drive to Cairo: We stopped for a bathroom break and discovered, with Muhammad’s help, that the rest-stop contained a small zoo. We saw assorted livestock in small pens and a new kind of pigeon coop. We had seen these on the drive but not realized what they were. They were tall and conical and looked like large, upside down bee hives. There were what at a distance looked like vent holes for a smoker of some sort but which turned out to be places for the pigeons to roost. Pigeons are raised as a food crop in the rural areas and the birds are served at weddings and other celebrations.

Although we were on the main road from Alexandria to Cairo, the road was anything but smooth. Our driver had to steer around bumps, holes and construction sites. He was careful not to exceed the posted limit – at least not too often – but still drove like Mario Andretti. Not only did he have to contend with cars, trucks, motorcycles and buses of various sizes, but in the cities there were donkey carts, push carts and tuk-tuks. The variety was dizzying and indicative of the country as a whole with one foot in the 21st Century and one in the 20th or even 19th Century.

Our first stop was the Old City of Cairo. This is mostly a pedestrian area now bound by walls and a vibrant Metro station. There is an irony there but the country is filled with irony. We noticed that there were not many street vendors trying to hawk their wares. Muhammad said that tourism is off by as much as 95 per cent since the Revolution and the vendors simply have no one to sell to. This proved to be in sharp contrast to the crowded shopping areas we saw in downtown Cairo later in the day where merchants catering to the local populace were extremely busy. To illustrate his point about the tourist trade, Muhammad said that we were his first group since the January Revolution and that his next scheduled tours were not for another month. Before, Royal Caribbean was sending two large ships each week; now, we were the first ship since the Revolution started [and we are a small ship].

In the Old City, we went first to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, reportedly the oldest extant synagogue in Egypt. Although it has benefactors to help maintain it, Ben Ezra appears to be a museum piece now without an active congregation. In an earlier day, it had been used as a church. The style incorporated everything we had seen in Ravenna – elements of Byzantine, Islamic and Christian architecture – with adaptations for its eventual use as a synagogue. The bima was in the center of the first floor with a torah still open upright on the altar. The ark holding the rest of the torah scrolls [if there are any anymore] was on the far wall directly in front of the bima. No photos were allowed and the little book we bought had no recent pictures of the interior.

We passed several churches on the twisting path to Ben Ezra but did not enter any. They represented an assortment of saints and denominations. Instead, we went to Al-Muallaga, the Hanging Church. This church got its nickname because it is built over Roman ruins and in some spots literally hangs over those ruins. There is even a viewing section in the floor where visitors can look down more than thirty feet to the ruins below. There was a service in progress but we were told we could take non-flash photographs, but we tried not to be a distraction to the worshippers. We saw some familiar elements, of course, such as an interior colonnade and seating for women on the second floor, elements we had seen in both Ravenna and Ben Ezra. Outside, there were modern mosaics on the courtyard walls leading to the entry steps. Déjà vu all over again.

We went back to the van so we could complete the religious trifecta with a visit to the Mohammed Ali Mosque, often called the Alabaster Mosque because it was faced with alabaster over stone. And, yes, it really was Mohammed Ali. It features a courtyard on the outside of the mosque itself and is styled after the famous Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in Istanbul. In the center of the courtyard is a large fountain designed for worshippers to wash their hands before entering the sanctuary.

The Mosque eventually became surrounded by a twenty acre citadel built by Saladin, the general, which overlooks Cairo. At one time, its dome was visible from anywhere in the city, but that was before high-rise buildings and smog. Through the polluted air, we could dimly discern two of the pyramids on the other side of the city. The Alabaster Mosque is mostly a tourist attraction now although weddings and occasional services are held here. By custom, we removed our shoes and carried them with us while we were inside.

We had been up since way-too-early and were ready for lunch which was included in the tour. Muhammad had a restaurant picked out and lunch arranged, but we got lost trying to find it. He and Mario Andretti had to stop several times for directions; he said it had been a long time since he had been at this particular eatery. We were all glad for his choice. We began a four-day feast of Middle Eastern specialties, foods we would have for lunch both days in Egypt and both days in Israel although we did not know it at the time. To make it more ironic, lunch repeated most of what we had had at Gam Gam in Venice.

We literally stuffed ourselves on hummus, baba ghanoush, tahini, tzadiki, cole slaw, garbanzo beans and white beans, all served family style with fresh, hot pita bread. There were individual plates for each of us with meatballs, stuffed grape leaves, falafel and, surprisingly, French fries. What a lunch! And then they brought each of us a plate with a half of a roast chicken and rice. Add in the $3 Cokes and we were stuffed like sausages, a good thing as it turned out.

We found the Egyptian Museum without difficulty; Muhammed even joked about how easy it was to leave the restaurant after the difficulty they had in finding it. Even so, it took us an hour to get to the center of Cairo. The closer were got to the center of town, the worse the traffic became. Standing still seemed the order for the day. We managed to squeeze past Tarir Square, Ground Zero for the Revolution, but could see only construction equipment sitting there. It was much more impressive when it was filled by the tens of thousands and seen from a helicopter. We were glad we saw it – and Muhammed was proud as we circled it – but there wasn’t much to see.

It was after 4:00 when we arrived and the Museum was set to close at 6:00. The late close was the reason Muhammed held it until last today. The Museum has a permanent display of over 125,000 objects with twice that number in storage. Only the best items are on display. We saw large stone statues of assorted pharaohs, each statue carved from a single block of stone and some dating back to 2500 BC or earlier. Muhammed showed us their cartouches, their names or nicknames in hieroglyphics encased in an oval. [Earlier in the car, he had explained a little about the hieroglyphics and given each of the four of us slips of paper with our names written in them. He explained that his graduate work had been done in hieroglyphics. More on that later].

The Museum was almost deserted, further proof of the decline of tourism. At one point he was explaining about a statue in the center of a large room and told us that normally he would have given his speech in the hallway because of the crowds and noise; today we were literally the only people in the room. When we finished as much of the first floor as he thought we could handle, he started to lead us to the second floor which houses only the Ramses II material. Roxanne was tired and not feeling good, so she stayed on the first floor while we climbed the steps.

We were confronted by a series of large gold boxes. The first may have been 12x12x10; the numbers are not important – it was BIG. Behind is, hidden in its shadow so to speak, were another half dozen gold boxes, each one smaller than the one before it so that we were reminded of the matrioshka or grandmother dolls of Russia, the ones where you keep opening them and finding another smaller one inside. The smallest was perhaps 4x4x10 and was the actual burial vault for Tutankamen, the Boy King. Tut died when he was 20 or 21, yet he had planned his pyramid and had it built so that it was ready when he died so young. His death must have been a surprise, though, because all of his possessions had been thrown in helter-skelter indicating that the servants responsible didn’t have much time to do it. Had Tut’s death been anticipated, they would have started sooner. As custom dictated, they had forty days to do all of the work, the same forty days it took to prepare a mummy.

After seeing the nesting burial chambers, we entered a separate room to see Tut’s gold, and there was plenty. The most striking piece was a gold bust of the pharaoh which was probably made for him rather than being a death mask. It is the best known image we have, just as there is the iconic bust of Nefertiti [now housed in Germany]. We saw his coffin and even the gold and silver nails used to seal the coffin. It was overwhelming.

By now, we were a little worried about Roxanne who had not joined us after her trip to the loo, so MA went to find her and Ed, D and Muhammad continued to look at Tut’s toys. When it was closing in on 6:00, we went down the stairs we had climbed earlier and found MA and Roxanne waiting for us. After some back-and-forth, we decided to forego both the included felluca [boat] ride and the dinner cruise on the Nile since we needed to get Roxanne to the hotel on the other side of down during rush hour. There wasn’t time to go to the hotel and then return. As we were leaving, we were stopped and our bags were searched to be sure we hadn’t stolen anything. We witnessed an exchange between a civilian and the armed security force at the gate. Shouting and gesturing gave way to pushing and shoving. D was almost knocked over as the security hustled the civilian away from the gate and we were all unceremoniously pushed outside the Museum grounds.

By 7:00, we were at the hotel. Muhammad assisted with the check-in; the bell boy put us in the wrong rooms again [this had happened in Bangkok in 2008]; and we had a chance to stretch out. Then we discovered that the A/C wasn’t working so called the front desk. Someone came to fix it while D was downstairs finding out about dinner options. None looked good, so we got the minibar special consisting of two really large bottles of water, two not-as-large 7-Ups plus chips and peanuts. Combined with cereal bars and a huge lunch, we were okay.

D went to the restaurant to take advantage of the free wi-fi and caught up on e-mail, mostly ads which he deleted. We watched CNN for a while and MA had her light out around 9:00. D wrote notes for the journal until 10:00 when he, too, turned his light out and tried to get to sleep.

Tomorrow – More of ancient Egypt

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Pyramids and Sphinxes and Pharaohs, Oh My!

The phrase from last night was “tried to get to sleep,” but that was easier to say than do. Our room faced busy Pyramids Avenue in Giza and car horns and sirens blasted us all night. The highlight, though, occurred when the television turned itself on at 3:00 a.m. like some Ramadan warning to start cooking. Shades of Jakarta!

Since the room service menu and the restaurant menu seemed to be the same, we called for room service to deliver the American Breakfast. Little did we know that there really was a coffee shop of sorts and no one had told us about it. The orange juice seemed to be Tang and, not trusting the local water, D emptied in the sink lest he was tempted to drink more than that first swallow. The eggs may have been powdered – how else to explain their watery appearance? He drained them and ate about half. MA’s fruit yogurt was plain, not fruit, and the beef bacon to accompany the eggs became a plate of sausages with sautéed onions and peppers. The plastic wrap never came off of them. However, the breads were wonderful. The three Danish we expected were simply to crown in a basket of local breads and rolls. MA’s tea was tea and, once again, no one starved.

Today was the big day for us, visits to the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. We saw the three major Pyramids as we drove into Cairo yesterday. It is an awesome sight to see the Pyramids spring up out of nowhere surrounded by apartment blocks. Muhammad pointed out that when you see them every day, they aren’t such a big deal. Romans probably feel the same way about the Colisseum and St. Peter’s. But for the first time visitor, it is overwhelming.

From our hotel window, we could see a typical Cairo cityscape. We are technically in Giza on the west side of the Nile, the side where the dead reside [left foot, right foot, remember?], but it’s all one metropolis. Most of the newer buildings are red brick exteriors broken only by concrete floors and stairs visible from the outside. This is not “facing brick,” it is real brick construction. Many, perhaps most, look like warehouses because there are no windows. Muhammad says that the owners/builders do not put in the windows until the apartment is sold or rented. [Our Israeli guide told us later that it is a matter of avoiding taxes and we remembered Bath, England, where there are few windows because they were the basis of taxes, too.] The buildings which are not brick are made of local stone. At any rate, it is a depressing sight because it makes the city look unfinished [which it is] with re-bar pointing skyward like accusing fingers. Every roof is covered with satellite tv dishes.

The streets are busy all day. In the morning we could see traditionally-clad mothers walking their children to bus stops so they could go to school. As often as not, the children climbed into crowded minivans, often with their mothers but no always. There was no way to determine if these were gypsy cabs or licensed or whether the kids rode in the same minivan every day. Many of the minivans are VWs driven with the engine hatch raised to increase cooling capacity and with the side or cargo door in the open position. There was an old man outside the hotel sweeping the street with a straw broom. It is a city of contradictions surrounding magnificent treasures.

Our hotel was only fifteen minutes from the Pyramids even in Cairo/Giza traffic. Essentially we turned a corner and there they were, popping into view out of nowhere. The Great Pyramid, the best known, is the Pyramid of Cheops [KEE-ops]. It stands with the Pyramids of Chefren [KEH-fren] and Mycerinus [my-sir-EE-nus]. Cheops’ pyramid stands over 400 feet tall, hence its being the Great Pyramid, but even the shortest is several hundred feet tall.

Each is made of individual blocks of stone which are taller than a man and weigh over 5,000 pounds apiece. Muhammad may have said that the ones in the base, which bear all of the weight, are more than 30,000 pounds. Regardless, these things are big. No one is sure how they were built, other than with slave labor, but one theory is that the sand was raised around them and each layer was the added at “ground level” to avoid having to push them up ramps. Under this theory, the sand was then removed so the pyramid then towered over the surrounding plateau.

Each pharaoh was responsible for completing his father’s pyramid if necessary. Because of the expense involved in building and outfitting the pyramids, a successor pharaoh may have had a smaller pyramid; he wasn’t less important, just impoverished. King Tut did not have a pyramid but was buried nonetheless in between two of the Great ones. His burial chamber was 35 meters below ground level compared to 35 feet for the others.

Despite their size, these pyramids were not the earliest or the only ones in the area. Over 180 pyramids have been discovered so far although only 52 have been explored. Some are just pointy piles of rubble now. Many are accompanied by three little pyramids for the pharaoh’s three principal wives. Whether these accompanying pyramids are part of the 180-plus was not explained. During the day, we were able to see over a dozen either up close or in the dusty distance.

By now, the pyramids are just empty labyrinths. Their maze like interiors were designed to protect the king and his possessions from intruders and thieves but that didn’t work out so well. Tut’s may have been the only one discovered by scholars before it had been looted. Ed actually paid to enter the smallest of the Big Three and he said there was nothing to see inside. It was also low-ceilinged and often difficult to maneuver in. The Big Three were once covered with plaster giving them a smooth exterior. Only one has a bit of the plaster left at the top as evidence of this. Accounts have led scholars to surmise that they were colored so that the general public, seeing these from miles away, would think they were solid gold. They are atop a plateau and would have been visible for miles in the days before high-rises and smog.

The triangular shape of the pyramids is important because it appears often in Egyptian art. It could be interpreted as the rays of the sun shining down. Since the sun god [Aton?] was an important figure to the Egyptians, this visual connection between the pharaohs and the god would make the dead kings even more god-like.

Sitting in front of the Pyramids is the 240-foot long Great Sphinx. Just as the Great Pyramids are not the only pyramids, the Great Sphinx is simply the largest and best known. We actually saw one later in the day which still had his nose. The Sphinx has the head of a man and the body of a lion and was considered god-like. Just in front and below the Sphinx was a temple, an indication that he/it was worshipped by the people of the time. Up close, or as close as we could get, it was not as imposing as it is in photographs, and compared to the Pyramids, it is actually small. Like all of these monuments, the Sphinx has suffered from erosion and its front legs have been restored using local stone and the old techniques. It’s quite noticeable, of course, and serves as a reminder of both its permanence and impermanence.

A short ride up a dusty hill on which the paved road just disappeared brought us to a lookout from which we could see all three of the Pyramids in a row. Muhammad took our pictures both as couples and as a quartet with the Pyramids in the background. We were also able to see a dozen or so smaller pyramids in the distance as well as a large sandy desert area and tourists riding camels; the entire area was lousy with camels for hire. The joke is that you can get on for free but have to pay to get off the camel. They are big, smelly, nasty brutes.

We had a long ride to our next stop in Sakkara, the Imhotep Museum. Imhotep was an architect who is best remembered for the design and construction of the first stone pyramid more than 5000 years ago. The pyramid is still standing. The museum is light and humidity controlled [i.e., air-conditioned unlike the Egyptian Museum] and houses artifacts that are 5000 years old. One item was Imhoteps’ coffin which D photographed surreptitiously. There was also a mummy on display although no one knows who he is. Our money was on Jimmy Hoffa. We did not spend much time here but soon were back in the minivan with Speed Racer, Muhammad and our new friend Ahmed, an armed escort supplied by the government. Ahmed proved his worth by stopping traffic for us and shooing away vendors at the Pyramids and Sphinx.

After a very short drive, we were at the Step Pyramid designed by Imhotep. This is the earliest stone pyramid and is built in tiers like a wedding cake, each layer smaller than the one below. It, too, sits on a plateau albeit 25 km from the Giza site. It, too, would have been visible for miles. It, too, was looted long before scholars could get to it. Each tier on the pyramid was many layers high where as the Great Pyramids receded with each course of stone. The Step Pyramid could not have been coated in plaster to give a solid appearance but it does resemble Mayan pyramids.

Lunch was in a local place five minutes away. Once again, we had pita, hummus, baba ghanoush, etc. Today we had a choice of chicken or “shish kabob” and we all opted for a combination. The do-it-yourself Middle East salad bar was as good as yesterday’s and the falafel even better. Our meat came on a little hibachi was was lamb and chicken although the chicken was small enough that we suspect it was really pigeon.

Sakkara is near Memphis, home of Elvis Presley. Actually, the original Memphis was once the capital of Lower Egypt but is now a little town of maybe 4000. It resembles villages we saw in Indonesia and Cambodia. Our stop here was at the Ramses II museum. This was his capital city and many of his artifacts were discovered by accident in a field. The prize possession is a large statue which was carved from a single piece of rock and must be at least forty feet long. It is resting on its back, so visitors must climb to a second floor to really see the statue. It reminded us of the Reclining Buddha we saw in Bangkok in 2008.

Muhammad had explained while we were in the Egyptian Museum yesterday that the ancient statues were all backed by pillars so that the artists could leave messages or identifying information on the back of the stone. It is because of these notes that scholars have been able to place the pharaohs in some sequence, know is related to whom and have some idea of the history of ancient Egypt. In contrast, the Greeks made their statues free-standing complete with tushes and little written information. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Muhammad’s home town gave the clue to deciphering hieroglyphics. Even though he has his Master’s in hieroglyphics, he has seen only pictures of the Stone since it is in the British Museum. It is a pity, and probably a crime, that so much of Egypt’s history has been stolen and put on display elsewhere.

Towards the end, we passed under the Mubarak Bridge [Will they rename it?] which connects Africa and Asia. An aside: another tour group drove over it and came entangled in a horrific traffic jam. They didn’t get back to the ship until after 7:00 for a scheduled 8:00 departure. Whew!] Shortly after passing the bridge, we realized that we were driving next to the Suez Canal. We took pictures of assorted ships as we sped along, marveling that the Canal seemed to be higher than the surrounding ground.

We got to the ship around 6:00, exhausted. We had little time to shower and dress for dinner. After dinner we checked the internet and collapsed so we could be ready for the next adventure.

Tomorrow – Highs and Lows

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Continental and Other Divides

An overnight sail brought us to Ashdod the jumping off point for our two days in Israel. We are now officially in Asia, our third continent on this trip not counting North America.

We were met promptly by Anot, our driver/guide for the next two days. We crammed ourselves into her Kia minivan and drove south. With her stuff and our baggage, we were unable to use the third row of seats, so we squeezed three of us in the back seat and let Ed have the leg room in the front seat. For the rest of the trip we played Chinese Fire Drill in the back, alternating seat assignments so we were all equally uncomfortable.

Israel could not have been any more different than Egypt. The roads were well-paved and well-maintained. There was no trash blowing around or piled in the roads. The countryside showed evidence of organized agriculture. Even though the growing season is almost over, the fields we passed were well-tended. It was a green drive for quite a while. As we drove, we passed Israeli Bedouins who were tending their flocks. Unlike the Arab Bedouins we saw later, the Israelis have settled down and built communities rather than continuing their historic nomadic practices. More on the Arab Bedouins later.

We continued to drive south in order to go to Masada which is south and east of Ashdod. Ashdod has little to recommend it other than its being a port city. At one point, Anot pointed out the “suburbs” of Gaza, the Palestinian hot spot from which rockets were fired at Ashdod two weeks ago. All of a sudden, the headlines we had read were becoming real.

When we turned east, the landscape began to change. Green gave way to brown and tan as we entered the desert area to the west of the Dead Sea. Slowly, we climbed from sea level to about 600 meters above sea level, more than 1800 feet high. Our ears popped as we drove and our eyes were wide. We were in the middle of a mountainous desert which looked like the American southwest done in sepia. There were formations which just like the Grand Canyon without the color or size. Ancient rivers had cut deep chasms in the rocks making the land look most inhospitable.

We finally came to an overlook and were able to see not only just how deep these canyons were but also how near they were to the Dead Sea which was clearly visible below us. We started down the mountain and hit flat land right by the Dead Sea, 400 meters below sea level, about 1300 feet. In a short span, we had dropped 2800 feet. We were near the lowest spot on Earth.

The Dead Sea has such a high salt content that it is impossible to sink. Tourists come from all over the world to “take the waters” and to benefit from the minerals in the water. Several companies now market cosmetics using these minerals, the best-known being Ahava. Like the glaciers of Alaska and the snows of Kilimanjaro, the waters of the Dead Sea are receding. Unfortunately for Israel, they are shrinking from the Israeli side of the sea which is the more shallow. The water level on the Jordanian side may be getting lower, but the shore is not expanding. The border between Israel and Jordan runs down the center of the Dead Sea. It is so close [how close is it?] that we were able to see the suburbs of Damascus from the car as we drove.

We arrived at Masada tired from the drive and glad to get out of the car. What faced us was an almost-sheer bluff 1700 feet high. In other words, it began 1300 feet below sea level but end up 400 feet above it. That’s some cliff. At the top was a three-level garrison which had been built by King Herod. It was in an almost impenetrable position because it provided 360 degrees of visibility in a hostile environment. Herod used this garrison as one of his homes.

It contained living quarters, storage facilities, baths and even mikvahs. Around 70 AD, when the Romans were really trying to suppress the Jews, a group of rebels took refuge at Masada choosing to fight rather than become enslaved. They were able to withstand the Roman assaults for three years [and may have been there for as long as seven altogether]. Eventually, though, the Romans built a long earthen ramp toward one wall of the fortress. The Jews were able to reinforce that section with wood in an attempt to thwart Roman battering rams. The Romans, for their part, built a rolling boom up the ramp; the boom was apparently fifty feet high, enough to let them assault the wooden structure with flaming arrows. The wood caught fire, the stone wall behind it collapsed and the wall was breached. Since there was no fighting in the dark, the Romans withdrew to their camp knowing that victory was in their hands.

The Jewish rebels also knew that the game was over. That night, the men met in the Masada synagogue to discuss their futures and to make plans. They decided that death was preferable to slavery and vowed to kill their wives and children. At the end, there were ten men left, and they drew lots to determine which one or ones would kill the others. The last man, of course, had to commit suicide, probably by falling on his sword. When the Romans entered Masada the next day, all they found were the bodies of the dead Jews. We learned that two women and several small children somehow escaped with their lives and it is probably their testimony that the historian Josephus used to write his account of the events on Masada.

Centuries later, a group of monks used the fortress as their escape from the world, but they disappeared after two hundred years and Masada lay undiscovered for quite some time. Now, it is a major tourist site, comparable to the Western or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. For a Jew, going to Masada is like a Muslim’s going on the haj to Mecca – you hope to do it before you die.

There is now a gondola that takes visitors to the top although the young, fit or stupid can climb the trail which has been improved with stairs in the steep places. Walking up and down could be an all-day affair.

We walked and climbed around the top level of Masada. It was filled with tourists, of course, most of whom appeared to be Israeli. We crowded around Anot as she explained the structure using a three-dimensional model of the fortress. Then we walked some more so we could see the cisterns, the baths, the mikvah, the synagogue and the store rooms. We stopped to feed some birds unique to the area, birds which are fearless when interacting with humans, before our visit to the synagogue.

Herod included the synagogue and mikvahs in the complex to try to satisfy Jews who opposed him as not being Jewish enough. Although he was a Roman general, he married a Jewish woman for political reasons and then had her killed. The synagogue was a large open area with bench seats built into the walls several rows high. It is here, scholars presume, that the Jewish men met the night the wall was breached. They would have been able to face each other as they debated the merits of one plan or another. Of course, everyone now knows what their decision was. In one corner of the synagogue, there was a closed room with a wooden door. Not part of the original complex, it is used by scribes who are copying the Torah. No scribe was there when we were, but the writings were clearly visible [and photographable] through the window in the door.

Roxanne and MA did not want to climb stairs to see another building, so they headed back to the entry near the cable car. Anot led Ed and D to this last building where they were able to see mosaics still intact in the floor after 2000 years. Pictures taken, we all rode down on the cable car to the base of the cliff.

Lunch in the Masada cafeteria was our current staple – hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel, etc. This time we added Slurpees instead of Cokes and we were on our way to Ein Geden.

Ein Geden is a modern kibbutz just north of Masada. The soil and climate have joined to make this a literal garden spot. Anot said that just about anything will grow here and the kibbutz makes much of its money from the sale of flowers and ornamentals as well as date palms. There is also a botanical garden open to the public and a small children’s zoo. We bypassed the animal park and botanical garden and drove through the residential section just to see it. Not only were there houses, but there were also guest houses and a small hotel. However, we did not stay very long and were soon driving north again.

The next stop was a field school. Despite its name, it had nothing to do with agriculture. Scatter around Israel are “think tanks” called field schools apparently because the part-time residents represent a variety of academic fields. The study and do research on their own and at their own pace but meet to discuss a single topic and try to come to some agreement on interpretation or proposed action. We could only hear the men singing in the dining hall and saw only children playing as we walked through. Mostly, we saw ibexes eating the leaves from trees and playing. The ibex looks like a small deer with the horns of a big horn sheep. The little ones jumped onto and off of walls and all of the ones we saw stood on their hind legs so they could reach more leaves. We also saw a few horexes which looked like prairie dogs on steroids. Back to the car.

In the 1950s, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by accident when a Palestinian herder was looking for a stray. Thinking the sheep might be in a cave, he tossed in a rock hoping to hear the animal bleat. Instead, he heard the stone hit pottery and found a fraction of what became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although they had been torn in pieces by a Roman soldier but were reconstructed by scholars after their discovery.

Not only did they tell of life in the Essene community where they were found, they contained what are undoubtedly the earliest original copies of the Old Testament. For years, scholars have compared the DSS with other documents in an effort to understand just what was written and what was meant by what was written.

The authors of the DSS were the Essenes, a breakaway group of hard-right Jewish zealots who thought that there would eventually be a war between the factions of Judaism and Rome. They were trying to prepare themselves for this last battle by isolating themselves and devoting their non-work time to prayer and study. We heard no mention of women as part of the group, so it might be compared to a monastery. The members farmed, cooked, tended to the animals and whatever other jobs were appropriate to providing for the needs of a group of men in the middle of the wilderness. There was an open drying floor which may have been for dates so they could make honey giving rise to speculation that the “land of milk and honey” referred to date honey, not bee honey. They were in full operation at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion; one report in the DSS was that a member speculated that John [later John the Baptist] might have been a trainee who left before accepting full brotherhood.

They disappeared without a trace except for the ruins at Qumram. Once again, we had a deserted, walled enclosure filled with store rooms, baths, dining hall and mikvahs, lots of mikvahs. Even without women, there was a lot of ceremonial washing and bathing going on. Meals were communal and apparently silent. No one knows where the Essenes went, but one theory is that they joined the rebels at Masada. The timing is right even if there is no proof.

We could see one of the caves from the “town,” but there was more than one where the pieces of scroll were found. The original cave was out of sight.

The drive from Qumram to Jerusalem was uneventful. This time we rose from the level of the Dead Sea, crested the mountains and descended toward sea level. We could see the suburbs of Damascus before we turned west to the mountains and at one point passed the old Allenby Bridge, renamed the Hussein Bridge, which connects Israel and Jordan. Of course, when the bridge was built the whole area was Palestine and there was no Israel. Anot was very pointed in her comment that we could cross but she, as an Israeli, could not.

As we drove, we passed hovels of corrugated steel – many with satellite dishes – belonging to the Palestinian Bedouins. Unlike the Israeli Bedouins we had seen in the morning, these were still semi-nomadic and cling to the way of life their ancestors lived; they would probably accuse their Israeli counterparts of selling out. Regardless, living conditions are much worse for the Palestinians who are treated like second-class citizens. Even the license plates on their cars have a letter “P” to indicate that they live in Palestinian-controlled sections of Israel. There is a certain irony in the labeling of a minority by the Israelis.

We passed Jericho which is no longer walled [thanks to Joshua] but is now part of the Palestinian section. Once again, we could have visited but Anot could not. We also passed cities which were practically side-by-side which were either Israeli/Jewish or Palestinian/Moslem. It is no wonder that there has been no real solution to the tensions – there are no clear borders to discuss.

Once in Jerusalem, which is built on hills, we stopped for a scenic look at the Old City. We were on an overlook in front of the Russian Orthodox church with its golden onion domes and the Church of Gethsemane. We drove on to see it all better from the Mount of Olives but had to stop so Ed could get out to take pictures. From the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem spread out before us like a television report. We could easily see the Dome of the Rock, Absalom’s tomb, the City of David and the old walled city of Jerusalem.

It was late and we were tired so we tried to get to the hotel. Anot ran into gridlocked traffic and called her boss, a Jerusalem resident, for an alternate route. We were exhausted when we finally got to the Crown Plaza. We were too tired, even, to go out to dinner. After trading text messages with several of MA’s former students and checking e-mail for messages from our children, we went down to the lobby and had a mediocre dinner. Since several of the girls were coming to visit. We set up camp in the lobby until they arrived, then sat and talked there until they started home at 10:30. As soon as they left, we went to the room and collapsed into bed.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Of Peeps and Pilgrims

Today was the busiest, most hectic, most frustrating and most satisfying day of the entire cruise.

Anot picked us up at the hotel at 8:30, probably later than she wanted, and whisked us to Mt. Zion, one of the hills surrounding Jerusalem. Once she parked the car in a tour-guide-only lot, we started walking and did not stop. We began with the Zion Gate itself, one of the entrances in the wall of the old city. It leads directly to one of the border streets between the ethnic sections of Jerusalem, in this case the Armenian and Jewish quarters. We stopped in an Armenian pottery shop but did not see anything of interest, so we continued on to the putative tomb of King David.

No one really knows who is in the casket in David’s Tomb, but it is a revered spot. All of us were able to approach the coffin, but there was a mekitzah [a barrier] separating the men from the women. Just as the mosques and synagogues we have visited have separated the genders by forcing the women to use the second floor to worship, so here there was a barrier so the women would not distract the men while they prayed.

The coffin was draped with a wine-red velvet cover which had Hebrew lettering on it. There were no pamphlets available and we did not ask Anot what the writing was. On the men’s side, there were 3 or 4 worshippers deep in prayer, chanting aloud as they sheckled or rocked back and forth. D asked the attendant outside the shrine if pictures were allowed and was given a positive nod of the head; the attendant was also monitoring a basket of cardboard yarmulkes so that no man would enter bare-headed.

Nearby was the Upper Room. So named because it is literally on the second floor of a building, it is allegedly the place where Jesus hosted the Last Supper. The room is now pretty bare, but it is a sizeable space which has served both Christians and Muslims off and on over the centuries. Evidence of both is present in the room, especially in a few stained glass windows. Once again, we took pictures to prove we had been there and continued on our ecumenical pilgrimage.

We were already in the Jewish Quarter on our way to the Western Wall. Merchants, residents and tourists alike were crowding the streets when we reached the Cardo. The Cardo was the shopping district in ancient times. It is now about fifteen feet below the current street level. It was originally several blocks long with a colonnade in which the columns help delineate the stores. There is now a modern Cardo using part of the original space; it is filled with art and souvenir stores without too many tchotchkes.

As we continued to walk through the Jewish Quarter, we passed the Burnt House, a remnant of the Hadrian’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Note that 70 AD is also the approximate date for the final stand at Masada and the disappearance of the Essenes. The Burnt House now provides a look at practical life at the time of its destruction and offers a glimpse at a 2000-year-old street.

We were getting closer to the Western Wall, climbing down to the bottom of the hill. We stopped very briefly at a large gold menorah on display [behind Plexiglas], a recreation of one lost during the destruction of the Second Temple. [ASIDE: at one point on our journey we passed a store selling miniature reproductions of the Second Temple with the admonition that customers should buy one now before there is a Third Temple and prices go up.]

Finally, we were at the Western Wall, often called the Wailing Wall. It is one of the most recognizable monuments in the world. Its importance stems from the fact that the Temple was built just above and on the other side of the wall around the oldest part of the city. The Temple is long gone, and the Wall is now the closest that people can get to the Second Temple. On the other side of the wall – at the new “street level” – is the Muslim quarter with the Dome of the Rock mosques situated where the Temple used to be.

Once again, we had to split up by gender for there is a mekitzah here, too, separating the men from the women. The women’s side was not nearly as big as the men’s and seemed less crowded, so MA took individual slips of paper with her name, D’s and Bahtiar’s to slip into the space between the rocks which comprise the Wall. D was not sure he and Ed would be able to get through the crowd at the Wall, so this approach seemed the most practical. [We brought Bahtiar’s slip because most of the Indonesian crew were unable to leave the ship. Politics prevails again.]

As it was, we had no trouble getting through the noisy crowd and to the Wall. D took a picture of his hand on the Wall as well as one of Ed touching it when Ed’s camera batteries started to play hard-to-get. Our actions did not disturb the men who were chanting and rocking, deep in their prayers.

There were folding chairs set up in front of the Wall and prayer books on tables; it looked like separate congregations or groups had held their own services before approaching the Wall. There were still a great number of individuals reading and praying in the large courtyard. While there were many individuals praying, there were also several groups whose chanting would reach a crescendo and then subside. They put the Wailing in Wailing Wall. On the way out, after getting our fill of zealotry and photographs, D picked up a souvenir yarmulke which he wore all day under his HAL 9000 baseball cap; at MA’s suggestion, we gave the yarmulke to Bahtiar who, of course, had no idea what it was until we explained it.

From the Western Wall, we began an odyssey in the interconnected markets of Jerusalem. The markets are like the souks in other countries, a series of stalls in a labyrinth with wares displayed and hawkers trying to lure customers. Some parts are roofed and others not, but the stores are so close together that it is often hard to tell the difference. The markets for the four Quarters interconnect, so we went from the Jewish Quarter to the Muslim Quarter without realizing it until Anot pointed out that the signs were in Arabic and that bread products were being sold. We were visiting during Passover, a time when only unleavened matzoh is permitted in the Jewish Quarter [and in most of Jerusalem, as well]. Here, we could see pitas and Jerusalem bagels.

We tried to get to the Dome of the Rock by going up a side street in the Muslim Market but were blocked by security forces. D and Ed were allowed to take photos of it from the top step at the exit but we could get no closer. Security was tight because it is a very busy religious period with today being Good Friday in the middle of Passover. This was not the ideal time to visit, but HAL has a tradition of stupidity when it comes to scheduling the Grand Med cruise.

Rebuffed in our attempt to see the Dome of the Rock, we tried for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest places in Christendom. Along the way, we entered the Christian Quarter and passed onto the Via Dolorosa which is the traditional path walked by Jesus on his way to his crucifixion; part of the Via Dolorosa is in the Muslim section. We saw several of the Stations of the Cross [numbers 5, 6 and 7]. We tried and we tried and we tried to find a way to Holy Sepulcher but were blocked repeatedly by security officers. We did manage to see a bit of the recreation of Jesus’ walk [a bit of the Cross was visible above the crowd for a split second], but the Via Dolorosa and the church were no longer accessible. Maybe if we had come here first…we would have been soaked by the rains which started as we gave up on getting to the church.

The rain was a sign to us that it was time for lunch [just as it had in Tallinn last summer]. Anot found a good spot in the Armenian section [we think] and we feasted on [what else?] falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, chicken & lamb schwarma and salads. The owner threw in baklava for dessert and we all had local coffee or mint tea. Yummo!

When we left the restaurant to continue our walking tour of Jerusalem, we were practically pushed to the sides of the street as a procession of Armenian clerics came marching down the street escorted by laymen banging walking sticks rhythmically on the pavement. Jerusalem is usually filled with pilgrims of every stripe and Holy Week just adds to the confusion.

Ed and D managed to get some pictures of the domes of Holy Sepulcher but that was the best we could do. As we started back toward Zion Gate and the car, we got caught in a rain shower which included some hail. Hmm…rain, hail, lightning, thunder. All we needed were an earthquake and eclipse to have a perfect recreation of the original Good Friday. We avoided the worst of the rain by ducking into doorways but eventually had to accept our fate and just got wet as we walked to the car. What a day! And there was more to come.

Once uncomfortably stuffed [or “stoofed” in captain-speak] into Anot’s van, we drove off to see Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum. On the way, we passed the Knesset, Israel’s version of Parliament; the Israeli Supreme Court; and a military cemetery which also contains the graves of former government officials such as Yitzah Rabin.

The Yah Vashem campus is tremendous. It is home to both the old museum and the new one which we came to visit. There are also a children’s museum, a research library for scholars and lots of green space so visitors can walk and meditate. Of course, there are other facilities as well, but these were pointed out to us. The new museum has only been open for a few years. In appearance, it is a very long pup tent. A white peaked canopy runs for several hundred yards and is supposed to look like a tent. Mission accomplished.
Inside, visitors are moved along a trail which zigzags from one side of the tent to the other. It is not exactly a maze, but there is a beginning, and ending and only one way out. Anot thought the museum would be open until 3:00 and was dismayed to discover that she was wrong. She tried to talk us into the museum from the front but was rebuffed. Shades of Jerusalem! Then she got creative. We went to the exit and told the guard there that our unspecified sister had been separated from us and that she was a little “confused.” The guard waved us in.
Our troubles were not over, of course, because we could not get to the beginning of the exhibits. Uniformed guards blocked our way and told us politely but firmly to walk in the direction of the exit. If we tarried too long in an exhibit, we were again prodded to move more quickly, as were the others who were in the room with us. As a result, our planned ninety-minute tour of Yad Vashem was only twenty minutes and we had to race to stay ahead of the guards who really wanted to close the doors.
IRONY ALERT: Here we were, a large, mostly Jewish group of visitors at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. Here were uniformed guards hurrying us almost in a line from the front of the museum to the only exit in the back. Here we were, going along with this meekly. It reminded us of the Nazis herding the Jews from their homes onto trains for the trip to the death camps. It would have been perfect if we had boarded windowless buses for the short ride to the museum entrance.
We were breathless from our exit at Yad Vashem and returned to the car for the drive from Jerusalem to Haifa where the Prinsendam was waiting. Anot promised us a treat when we took our next bathroom break [we took a lot of them during our time with her]. She was true to her word for we stopped at the Elvis Diner, a tribute to the King of Rock and Roll in which everything from the statues outside to the mugs inside screamed and pictured Elvis. We sat at a table with a statue of a seated Elvis who was wearing a chai, the Hebrew word for life. Roxanne pretended to fondle Elvis and we all got drinks before using the facilities. Ed and Roxanne got to keep their Elvis Diner coffee mugs and Anot conned the counter man into giving us one, too. It was a hoot!
Our drive to Haifa to meet the ship took another two hours. At one point, and for reasons long forgotten, we started to discuss Peeps, the marshmallow candies shaped like little chicks. They are popular in the US especially at Easter which is fast approaching. Peeps last forever and have been called the cockroach of the candy world because they never seem to spoil. One thing led to another and suddenly we were all giggling over the effects on the ship’s vacuum toilet system if we flushed Peeps down the toilets. All we could imagine was giant Peeps rising out of toilets all over the ship and terrorizing the passengers. You had to be there.
As we approached Haifa, we saw a beautiful rainbow on the Jordanian side of the road, a perfect end to Good Friday. We noticed that the hills on that side were covered with trees up to a point. Anot explained that the Israelis had planted trees up to the border but that the Jordanians had cleared their side. She said this was the original “green line” an expression which is used to denote the border of a safe area.
The Mediterranean was clearly visible on our left and Jordan was likewise visible on the right and we were in tiny Israel in the middle. It gave us another perspective on the precarious nature of the entire area. Later on in Haifa, Anot pointed out Lebanon in the distance. Is it any wonder that Israel needs a strong military?
Once in Haifa, we drove up Mt. Carmel which hovers above the city. We chose not to visit the church of the Carmelite Order of monks who have been a part of life in Haifa for centuries. Anot told us their history but no one was very interested.
Instead, we went to the world headquarters of the Bahi’a [bu-HI] faith. This is an exiled offshoot of Islam which began in the 1800s and preaches peace and calmness. The founder was eventually murdered for his beliefs which included the assertion that another prophet of God had yet to appear. Muslims took a dim view of this since they believe that Mohammed is the last prophet, the prophet of Allah. The founder’s successor was soon considered the new prophet and he was jailed and shuffled around for years, spending some years in jail in Haifa. Long story short, Bahi’a is now a permanent part of Haifa even if its adherents are not. Because Bahi’a is a proselytizing religion, the theocracy of Jewish Israel will allow individuals only limited residence, so there are no permanent believers in the country.
Our visit was limited, but we saw enough. Anot’s goal was for us to see the formal gardens on the hillside facing the harbor. She said that 2.5 million dollars was spent in creating the terraced landscaping. Every blade of grass was perfect and all of the ornamental bushes had been pruned to exacting standards. There was a long explanation by Anot of the significance of the various elements of the garden, but we were too overwhelmed by its beauty to absorb what she said. The only booklets available were in French and German, so they were not much help, either.
At the bottom of the hill was a gold-domed shrine to the first Bahi’a prophet which was flanked by the executive offices of this pacifist religion. The whole complex was very relaxing to us, tired as we were.
And then we were home, our four-day sojourn in the desert at an end. What an experience this has been!
Tomorrow – A day of rest

Monday, April 18, 2011

Heading for the Continental Divide

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sea Day, Carnival Night

It was a typically lazy sea day interrupted only by a losing Trivia effort and a long nap. The night was different, though.

This was the fifth[?] formal night of the cruise. There will be nine eventually, an average of one per week. Tonight’s was special because it was also a theme night. Passengers were encouraged to get masks in the Venetian style as if we were celebrating Carnival. Many wore or brought their masks to dinner and several were in costume in the MDR. We got into the spirit of the evening in our limited fashion.

When we were in Venice, we made a point of purchasing masks. We did not want anything too expensive since this is a one-shot usage and eventually bought masks at a kiosk in a string of similar establishments on the promenade facing Grand Canal near San Marco. MA wanted a full-face mask on a stick so she could hold it up without actually putting it on; she wanted a red mask to match her outfit for dinner. We found one for only 10€ which we thought was reasonable. D’s was also a full-face mask but it tied on rather than being mounted on a stick. His was a jester’s mask complete with bells on the cap [for the love of God, Montressor!]. His mask being blue, he coordinated his tux by wearing a bright blue bow tie and cummerbund. We were indeed a lovely couple.

The problem with D’s mask was that if he tied the mask on, he could barely breathe and could neither eat nor drink. The mask kept slipping so he could hardly see even though it did fit over his glasses. Perhaps without the glasses the mask would have fit better but then he would not have been able to see either. As a result, the mask sat on a chair at the next table during dinner and was held in place in the Ocean Bar during cocktail time.

After dinner we surprised ourselves by going to the International Ball. Most of the attendees had masks of some sort, even the officers. Indeed, the Captain had a lovely Phantom-of-the-Opera type of mask he wore throughout the evening’s festivities. There were “officers’ dances” during which the officers of both genders danced with passengers; after each dance, one lucky passenger won a prize. When one lady one a prize after dancing with the captain, she was unable to identify him – she didn’t know with whom she was dancing!

Between dances there were raffle questions. Names were drawn from slips submitted by the guests and if their names were called, they won prizes if they could answer questions about international destinations. Alas, our names were not called so we received no cheap ship’s champagne. What a relief!

There was also a parade of costumes during which those passengers who wanted to could walk through the showroom and show off their masks or costumes. We chose not to but did enjoy looking at the creativity and/or courage of those who did. Some should have known better, but it was all in good fun. The winners got more cheap ship stuff but no free drinks. Overall, Thom worked hard to get everyone excited but it reminded us of a Mary Richards party – the heroine of the old Mary Tyler Moore show never had a party which wasn’t a dud.

We left after about an hour, eager to escape the heat of the showroom. Tomorrow looks to be a busy day and we wanted to get to bed.

Tomorrow – a busy sea day.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Even Paul Revere Could Not Have Kept Up With Us

“Listen my children and you shall hear/of the midnight ride of Paul Revere/ On the 18th of April in ‘75/ hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year.”

Yes, today is the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride through the Boston countryside. We were racing around, too, and he would have been hard pressed to catch us.

We had an early breakfast because we had a Cruise Critic meet-and-greet scheduled for 10:00. As unofficial group leaders, we feel an obligation to arrive early. Even so, when D entered the Crow’s Nest at 9:20, Bob & Judy [who had made the name tags] were already there. MA wasn’t far behind and people straggled in even after we began the unorganized [as compared to disorganized] meeting. By the time everyone showed up, we probably had upwards of 60 people, but that’s just a guess. The cookies, pastries, fruit and vegetables were put out just in case there were people who hadn’t gotten enough to eat yet on the ship. Actually, some people find 10:00 to early on a sea day, so we were really providing them with breakfast.

D began with a few announcements about trips and signing in which most people politely ignored. After that, they broke into their own groups to finalize plans for shore excursions or just to schmooze. Some folks announced openings in their tours and others pointed out that they had no more room. At least one tour leader’s husband was loud and abrasive in his dealings with the group which did not endear him to anyone. Overall, we get along quite well despite some good-natured kidding [Who else other than D would belly-bump with Ken?]

The meeting dwindled down to a precious few and we proceeded to schlep the leftovers down to the Ocean Bar to share with the Trivials. We placed everything including plates and napkins on the bar and let anyone who was interested help themselves. Many did. Kevin even announced the presence of the food and its origins and was met with resounding silence broken only by the sounds of people eating. By the end of Trivia, most of the food was gone; we took some fruit and pastries back to room for breakfast tomorrow, our way of avoiding an early arrival of the room service tray.

Trivia was another losing effort. Maybe we need to wear our team hats backwards. Samples –

-- Who wrote The Inferno?
-- Which US Supreme Court Justice once belonged to the KKK?

-- What was the one animal which was allowed into Roman temples?

-- To the nearest pound, how much is 9 kg?

-- Name the actor who played Napoleon Solo on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

MA had a 2:00 nail appointment, so we ate lunch earlier than usual. So far we have raced from breakfast to Cruise Critic to Trivia to Lunch to the Salon. Whew! We finally got a bit of rest between 3 and 4:30 when we had to get dressed for this evening’s Seder service which began at 5:30. Busy! Busy! Busy!

When we arrived at the Lido restaurant at 5:25, we fund that there were almost no seats left. Luckily, Ed and Roxanne had come earlier and had claimed a table for four. We were so far away from the center of the action that we could barely see the rabbi. We had no trouble hearing, however, since one of the seats was less than a foot from a loudspeaker. Ed and Roxanne said the place was packed when they got there at 5:15 [for the 5:30 Seder] and presumed that people began arriving well before 5:00.

The rabbi, Arthur Starr, traveled with us to Rabat a while back, so we know him and his wife. They eat dinner at eh table next to ours and Arthur now plays Trivia with Ken and Lois’s team. We are not strangers, in other words. Still, D was surprised when Arthur asked him to read a portion of the service aloud. Perhaps a half-dozen participants had been chosen to read aloud. We could barely hear the ones from the other end of the Lido and we are sure that they had trouble hearing D. It’s been a long time since he had to speak loudly in a cafeteria.

The service moved smoothly. Arthur explained things as he went along because a number of those in attendance had never been to a Seder before. Even the captain and Lesley were there along with Thom and Tina. The Protestant minister and Roman Catholic priest were also there along with a number of non-Jews including our friend Louise Flanagan. It is a holiday in which Jews are encouraged to include gentiles, so this was a definite success.

Considering the unexpectedly large crowd, the kitchen staff did well. We had [commercial] gefilte fish, salty matzoh ball soup and roast chicken. There was fresh fruit for dessert and some tables had macaroons but ours was left out. Poor us!

We were finished by 8:00 and many folks rushed out to see the comedian. We returned to the cabin to pack for our overnight in Cairo. It struck everyone including Arthur as ironic that we were celebrating the Exodus from Egypt on the night before we entered Egypt. We are all hoping for a safe deliverance on Wednesday so we can then enter Israel. When the service included the line, “Next year in Jerusalem,” we all changed it to “Thursday in Jerusalem.”

Tomorrow – Wandering for Forty Hours in the Desert, More or Less