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

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