The Western Wall

Our great Minneapolis friend Phil Freshman told us last year: when we get to Jerusalem, we have to tour the underground tunnels which uncover parts of the famed Western Wall.  He had taken part in some similar archaeology on the Southern Wall, near David’s City, uncovering 3000+ year-old Jerusalem.

A lost passport (mine) meant a morning of searching and then gathering materials to get a new one, so I missed the tour of Hebron which Lynnell is now writing about.  But after a delicious lunch, I joined a group of maybe twenty tourists to see the web of chambers whose arched ceilings hold up the Muslim Quarter.

We walked down a ramp which gradually put us twenty or thirty feet underground, which is the way these things work: cities keep building up layers so that two thousand years ago is a couple of stories down, and three thousand is buried deeper still.  Wall Tunnel Tour: Solomon's TempleKing Solomon built the first Temple around 950 BCE, on the second-highest ground in Jerusalem, a mountain believed to be Mt. Moriah (where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son) and for awhile also called Mt. Zion.  Our tour guide showed us this model.

She then pointed to a thick window built into the floor, through which we could see workers doing something down at the level of that very same first temple.

A very modest second temple was built after the Babylonian captivity in 519 BCE,.

Then she pulled up another model, showing how King Herod prepared the site for a grand expansion of the second Temple in the first century BCE.  He spent 46 years all told, and raised huge sums of money by taxing his subjects.  He also built a huge palace for himself.  Our guide wryly observed that since he had no army (puppet kings don’t get to conquer), and was obsessed with his reputation, he built large monuments with his name all over them.

Wall Tunnel Tour: Herod flattens the Temple Mount

So, atop this newly-flattened mountaintop, Herod The Great built a wonder of the world, with retaining walls all around.  Unlike a lot of walls in this part of the world, this one was all about support, rather than separation or defense.

The western wall still sits on the bedrock made from stones bigger than a 1960 Buick.  The photo below is from a model of Jerusalem, 63 CE, at Yad Vashem.  The whole plaza depends on those big stones, which neither earthquakes nor erosion nor thieves looking for building materials have budged.

Model of Jerusalem, 63 CE

About a hundred yards of the Western Wall are now visible.  It’s the holiest Jewish Place in the world.  We’ve visited it a couple of times already, as did this group of cute Orthodox boys celebrating the occasion of receiving their first prayer books at the age of six or seven:

Kids on a siddur party

The invisible part of the Western Wall is a lot bigger.  It lies half-buried below the Muslim Quarter of Old Jerusalem.  Our friend Phil and thousands of amateur and professional archaeologists have uncovered the whole length of the Wall, and the woman below took a moment to pray, perhaps 50 yards from where the Holy of Holies used to be.

Praying at the Western Wall under the Muslim Quarter

When Muslims took over Jerusalem not too long after Muhammad’s death, they restored what the Romans had destroyed.  With a massive engineering effort, they built a new neighborhood on top of hundreds of stone arches and then put the most beautiful building in Jerusalem on the plaza: The Dome of the Rock.

Wall Tunnel Tour: Dome of the Rock

The Dome of The Rock still rises above the Western Wall, where we joined hundreds of mostly-Jewish worshippers, many putting folded paper prayers into the cracks between the two thousand year-old limestone blocks.

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So we send you all our greetings from Jerusalem, known in Arabic as al-Quds, The Holy City, where Abraham, David, Mary and her son Jesus, and Muhammad all encountered God as a living presence.  Wikipedia defines Jerusalem syndrome as “a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem.”  Fortunately, we don’t seem to be obsessing, delusional, or psychotic so far.

Quite the contrary, we’ve been having a wonderful but exhausting time.  Tomorrow morning, we take a rental car north to Haifa, Acre, Capernaum, and Nazareth: the greener country of Galilee.  We’ll be looking at Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, and especially Christian places–more trees than rivers, once again–before returning to Jerusalem for the confluence of Western and Eastern Christian Holy Week and Passover.

We will be taking a course together here at St. George’s Anglican College in mostly-Arab East Jerusalem called Easter Fire, in honor of the new flame kindled on the vigil celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  We’ll be retracing his steps and those of his Apostles 2000 years ago when the Western Wall still stood as a majestic foundation of worship of the God whose Oneness seems way too hard for us mortals to imitate.  It’s a wall of support and strength, a foundation wall mostly buried underground.

Lynnell took today’s last photo a few days ago.  It’s a poster on the Palestinian side of a much less holy western wall, the separation wall in Bethlehem:

What unites human beings is huge and wonderful and what divides human beings is small and mean

Why I love being on a Muslim beach

by Lynnell Mickelsen

women on th beach

We spent our last two days in Jordan on the Red Sea, snorkeling off the beach about 8 miles south of Aqaba. I love the beach. I love to swim, but I’m an extremely pale person who sunburns easily. So I pour on the sunscreen, but still have to spend a lot of time swathed in long sleeves and pants to avoid sun poisoning while everyone else freely cavorts around in swimsuits.

So I can’t tell you how great it was to finally be on a beach where where all the women were as covered up as I am….if not more so!  Which means, for once, I wasn’t the lone freak. 

Except I still sort of was. As a person with blonde hair and blue eyes, I’ve been a novelty in Morocco, India, Egypt and Jordan. Nearly every day, for the last four months, people have stopped, stared, pulled out their cameras and insisted on taking selfies with me.

 I don’t get it. Yes, we’re independent travelers. Yes we can get a bit off the tourist track, but not that far off. So I think surely these lovely people in these lovely countries have seen plenty of blondes before. Plus, I’m almost 60, and most of the people who want to take my picture are under 30. I mean, it’s just weird.

But yet, as a traveler, I like to take photos of local people. So fair is fair. Grin and bear it.

On the Red Sea, I wanted to take pictures of Jordanian women on the beach, but I was feeling shy because many Muslim women really are modest and do not want their photos taken by any Westerners. I was trying to work up the courage to ask, but it turns out, I didn’t need it because pretty soon,  a young woman came up and asked to take a selfie of the two of us. Then another woman came up. And then another.

Taking photos with women and kids is almost always cool, but I’ve learned to be somewhat wary of taking photos with men because too often they can pull me in a little too close and hold on a little too long and a few of times, I’ve gotten groped. Of course, this is nothing compared to what younger solo women travelers put up with. But still. It’s gross.

LM on Muslim beach1

LM on Muslim beach 2

None of the women on the beach spoke English. I don’t speak Arabic. But they were all very nice and after taking photos, each of them motioned me over to meet their friends or families and drink tea.  I declined because I was feeling shy and because John was snorkeling off by himself in the ocean with high winds and a strong current, so I was walking along the beach acting as his lifeguard.

 But on other days, I’ve gotten tired of being a novelty. In India and Egypt, especially,  the photo requests could be unrelenting.  A few weeks ago, in Alexandria, Egypt, I was standing by myself along an ancient fortress wall, waiting for John to buy entry tickets to the site, when a young woman, who had been staring at me for while, came up laughing and said, in heavily accented, broken English, “My friends and I want to put you in the zoo.”

 I felt a flash of irritation. Enough, people!  I wanted to say. Yes, I look different, but hey, talking about putting me in a zoo really crosses a line. But I don’t speak Arabic and even if I did, as Minnesotan, I’ve been long-socialized to stuff my anger and channel it into passive-aggressive brooding. So instead I just scowled at her.

 She hesitated and then said the same thing, covering her mouth and giggling some more. I rolled my eyes. And then I realized she was actually saying,  “My friends and I want to take our picture with you.” And she was giggling because she felt so nervous.

 Okay, Okay, I said. So we took the these photos and by the end, they were all so sweet and happy and goofy, my irritation evaporated.  This ain’t profound,  but one of my takeaways from this year of travel is that most people around the world are actually really nice if you just relax and hang out with them.Alexandria zoo

Alexandria selfies

LM Alexandria zoo 2

Alexandria zoo 3

——Lynnell Mickelsen

Everybody Loves Petra, almost.

You’ve seen this picture, right? A Roman-ish building carved out of rose-colored sandstone?  The Nabatean city of Petra is the number one attraction in Jordan, and for good reason.

Treasury at the end of the Walkway to Petra

You walk gently downhill along what feels like a slot canyon for a half hour.  Longer if you stop and gape at the immense beauty around every bend.  Even when it rains.

Rainy walk out of Petra

The rain came late in the day, even though they’d run the desert zamboni that morning to keep the dust down.  Even at the time, it had seemed like a waste of water to us.  Your shoes are going to be beige with dust by the end of the day, anyhow.

Desert Zamboni

On our way down to the city, we stopped to have coffee in front of what locals call The Treasury, because of a rumor that money was hidden inside.  It was actually a tomb, carved–like everything in Petra–right into the mountainside.

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We love Arabic coffee!   Later we stopped at a tiny shop where a friendly coffee-artist did the temperature-sensitive brewing with very hot sand, rather than an open flame.  Like Greek and Turkish coffee, it’s made from very finely ground coffee and cardamom, and needs a bit of sugar.  We have tried to order it with milk, but That Is Wrong.

Brewing coffee with hot sand

Petra was once a city of 20,000.  The citizens mostly lived in carved caves.  This one is now more of a garage.

Petra Parking

The Nabatean builders of Petra created ingenious water systems.  After walking in through the mile-long narrow passage, which has water channels carved into the walls, you find yourself in the main, open area, where once upon a time a broad Roman road and irrigated gardens sprawled across a flat valley floor.  Temples, a theatre, and residences, all carved into the rock, face onto the center of the town.  High above, you see tiny figures of people who’ve climbed up to the three or four “High Places.”

We climbed one day to the Altar of Sacrifice, which is about an hour’s hike, and the next day climbed to the Monastery, which is a little longer.  All along the way, seemingly at the top of every carved staircase, there are friendly Bedouin folks selling souvenirs.  Since we carry everything on our backs, at least between airports, cabs, and guest houses, we don’t buy souvenirs.  About every hundred yards is another friendly Bedouin, saying:

“want to have a cup of tea?”

“come just have a look.  Looking is free.”

“scarf for you, Madame?  Only one dinar!”

“business very bad.  Why tourists no buy?”

“please, my friend, very old coins.”

The vendors are members of a single tribe, allowed to live in what’s basically a National Archaeological Park.  They number between “a few families” and “hundreds,” depending on who you ask.  But we weren’t buying, so we tried not to make eye contact or look at any of the merchandise.  I took this picture furtively, having made sure no one could see me:

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One woman put a cup of tea in Lynnell’s hands, and when she tried to say no, reminded Lynnell, quite accurately, “it’s not polite to refuse tea.”  After taking a sip, Lynnell said thank you and kept walking down the steps cut into the mountainside.

So we were nearing the end of our climb to the monastery when we met a big American man who was coming back down.  He wryly observed, “keep climbing.  It’s only about ten no, thank you’s to go.”  In fact, it was only nine.  Then we got to the monastery near the top:

Petra Monastery from donkey-cave

Back when this part of the world was Christian, young men were encouraged to spend at least a few months, if not years, in a monastery.  Learn self-control.  Develop constructive habits of cooperative work and regular prayer and meditation.  Stay away from temptations.  Monasteries were located far from distractions, and often way up in the air, closer to the heavens.  It was a lot of work to get there, and plenty of tiring exercise to schlepp supplies to the top.  The most extreme version of this monastic isolation we’ve seen was a pair of pillars in Umm Arrasas, Jordan.  The hermit lived alone on top for a long time. Food was hauled up by rope.  No one knows how toileting worked.

Lynnell walks away from Stylite Tower, Umm ar-Rass

Our climbs to the top at Petra were tiring, but the higher you get, the more the view opens up on this amazing Archaeological canyon-city.  People look like ants, walking along the Roman road or riding donkeys and camels 30 stories below.  For Lynnell, the reward near the top of the first day’s hike was not the glass of tea, but this Bedouin family’s puppy:

Puppy!

But everyone does not love Petra.  We had breakfast this morning with a woman from Europe, traveling on her own, whose travel agent had booked a bunch of tours and hotels for her.  She’s been to Egypt, too, and plenty of other places, but nothing in Jordan seemed worth the trip.  OK, so the Dead Sea is very salty and you float more.  She knew that.  OK, the Roman ruins are big, but most of the columns have fallen down.  And the food is always the same: the bus stops, and there is a tourist buffet.  Chicken and lots of salads and things to dip bread in (hummus and cheese).  And Petra, she complained, is too much walking and the animals leave piles behind them.  And yes, the Treasury is nice, and carved out of stone, but after that, it’s just more of the same.  Luxor (Egypt) was up here (hand gesture above her head) and Jordan is down here (hand gesture at table level).  And then, one time, their van dropped them off for the optional excursion by 4 x 4 into the desert.  They drove you for twenty minutes and you could climb a sand dune, and there was a gift shop.  Then another fifteen minutes to a place where there was a castle, and more things for sale.  Then some temple that was in Lawrence of Arabia, with more people selling things.  And then back to the van to find the next tourist buffet.  And the prices in Jordan….. It reminds me of Eric Idle’s genius Travel Agent sketch in Monty Python.

But the European woman was not “wrong.”

  • The temples and tombs in Egypt are more remarkable.  
  • There is a limited menu of Middle Eastern foods, but of course we don’t mind: we love them all, and she does not.
  • After a while, it’s true: if you’ve seen one great castle, others won’t measure up.
  • And there’s no doubt that Jordan is more expensive than Egypt, India, Morocco, or even Spain.
  • For that matter, here in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, where we’re savoring our last two days in Jordan, the snorkeling is not as good as it used to be, twenty years ago, in the US Virgin Islands.

But if you want to keep traveling (and we do), you have to let go of comparisons and let each temple, museum, castle, meal, and hotel be itself.  Let Jordan be Jordan.  Enjoy the smaller fish in the Red Sea.  Sometimes it’s better not to read the guidebook or placards and just look.  And smell, like the ubiquitous fragrance of Bedouin incense in Petra.

Jordanians want tourists to come.  They have welcomed refugees: millions of Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians who may never be able to go home.  They have a prosperous economy and a fine tourist infrastructure.  Enough people speak English, and smiles and gestures take care of the rest.

We leave you with a picture of Lynnell and our hotel manager, Mr. Farijat, at the Cleopetra Hotel (It’s not a pun in Arabic).  He helped us with maps, internet, directions, restaurants, laundry, translation, and travel ideas.  He believes his family-run hotel will still be going strong when it reaches its 100th anniversary.  He’s a man of faith: it’s about to celebrate its 25th.

Abdairahman Farajat at Cleopetra

 

 

 

 

 

Travels With Jesus Among Muslims

We’re still on the east side of the Jordan, in the rocky footpaths walked by Moses, Ruth, John the Baptist, and Jesus.  We spent the week discovering a half-dozen sacred sites, but spent the weekends before and after in Amman with Lynnell’s childhood friend Doug and his wife Patti at their center for Middle Eastern studies.  With their sixteen or so North American students and Jordanian guests, we got to join in some wonderful conversations.

Doug and Patti Magnuson, Lynnell, and John at MESP, Amman, Jordan

Last weekend, we got to meet Carl Medearis, a Gulf-based American business developer who started out as a somewhat bumbling missionary in Lebanon.  He talked to us about making friendships across cultures, letting religious doctrine go and focusing on our common humanity best exemplified in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  When you’re in conversation in the Middle East, he told the students, and the topic comes to religion, as it will, think of a good Jesus story to illustrate the way people ought to live.  He found himself on live TV once, asked a very one-sided question about Israel and Palestine.  He gulped and said what he always tries to say, “that reminds me of a story Jesus told.  A man had two sons and the younger one asked for his inheritance….”  The reporter and cameraman were wide-eyed at the shocking disrespect of the young man, and more so when the father agreed.  Carl proceeded to tell the Prodigal Son story, in which the father rejoices at having his son back, forgiving everything, much to the anger and dismay of the older one, who is obedient and hard-working.  Jesus taught that love is stronger than hate, and forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance.

Carl and plenty of other Christians active in the Middle East have discovered that asking Muslims or Jews to convert is like asking them to give up their families or change their gender.  But helping them to know Jesus, who in the case of Islam is a very important part of their religion anyway, is welcome.  The kind of radical love that fueled Gandhi’s anti-British campaign or the nonviolent Christian tactics of the Civil rights movement in the US, that is a part of Jesus’ genius that is not well-known.  Forgiveness rather than vengeance is rare in Islam, and I dare say in Christian America.  Shame your enemies by really loving them.

Carl reminded the group that Jesus was not a Christian.  He did not start a religion or define the Trinity or Original Sin.  He simply showed others what God is like.

The next day, we went to see where Jesus was baptized by John, beginning his public career as a wandering healer and teacher.  The traditional site has marble steps leading down to the cross-shaped place where for 2000 years pilgrims have commemorated Jesus’ baptism by John.  In those days it was really a river, with a lot of water in it.  There are remains of several churches from the early church there.  {Photo public domain from wikipedia,”Al-Maghtas”}

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We also visited a nearby, muddier, section of the Jordan River where a Russian Orthodox group in white robes was going down into the water, one by one.

Further south, we came to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth, 1300 feet below Sea Level.  In fact, it may be lower than that, because almost no water is left to flow in after Jordan and Israel take the upstream waters for irrigation.  We stayed at a hotel built on the shoreline 30 years ago, and had to walk a couple of hundred yards to get down to the shore.

Dead Sea Level 2005

Of course, even though the temperature was in the upper 60’s, we had to go for a swim, or float.  Since the Dead Sea is about 35% salts, it’s hilariously buoyant.  A sign warns you not to put your face in the water, because it would sting even your closed eyes; and not to try floating on your stomach, I think because the buoyancy would arch your spine uncomfortably.  So we just floated on our backs:

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In the first centuries after Christ, the majority of people here were Christians, though members of denominations that we don’t hear of back in the west: Ebionites, Monophysites, Nestorians, Jacobites, and many others.  Around the Mediterranean, they worshipped in Greek, and further east in Syriac or Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke).

And then the Muslims came, bringing a great empire and religious tolerance, although nonmuslims had to pay a tax to support the military which ensured peace in the region.  Gradually, however, folks converted, finding few differences in belief and very much appreciating the use of their own language, Arabic.

Returning north toward Amman, we stopped in the mosaic-rich city of Madaba, which once upon a time was visited by Moses and the Children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land.  It’s flatter and greener country than the bleak gravel hills of Moab, and during Byzantine and Umayyad Muslim times, quite a few grand houses and places of worship were built, featuring mosaics on floors and walls.  Two earthquakes and years of settlements combined to bury these ruins, which laid underground until the 1880’s, when 90 Arab Christian families moved to Madaba from farther south after a dispute with their former neighbors, and while digging foundations for their new houses, they came across some fantastic mosaics.  The most famous one is a map of Palestine from the 500’s, on the original floor of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Basilica, now known as the Map Church.  It has more than 2,000,000 pieces, and the colors are still vivid.  The squiggly Jordan River and the Dead Sea are easy to spot, as is the town of Jericho [ΙΕΡΙΧω}.

Jordan River, Jericho and Dead Sea on Floor Mosaic Map

We also visited the Shrine of the Beheading of John The Baptist, which despite the grisly name was a very welcoming place.  King Herod had a palace in the area, and imprisoned John there for daring to criticize him and his wife, who until recently had been his sister-in-law.  The original church is now about ten feet underground, and in pretty good condition.  It has four wells, including this one, which still works.  We pulled up a leather bucket full of quite drinkable water from maybe 40 feet down.  John and his jailers may have drunk from this same source.

3000 year old well below St. John The Baptist Beheading Shrine

Spectacular floor mosaics in a restored building depicted churches in Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Gaza, all towns with bishops and majority-Christian populations.

Our hosts invited us to look around the parish elementary school, see the icons and mosaics in the church, and climb the bell tower.  Here’s Lynnell about halfway up.

Lynnell in bell tower of St. John The Baptist Beheading Shrine Church

We were even invited to ring the bells for Evening Prayer, as twenty or more parishoners were already gathered, saying the rosary in Arabic…

Ya kadisa Maryam    (O Holy Mary)                                                                                                                           Ya Wahlidata Allah     (O Mother of God),                                                                                                             sahli ăzlinah nahanu ha’tah’ah       (Pray for us sinners)                                                                                ahlen wa fi sahati mahutina,  Amin        (Now and in the hour of our death, Amen).

Lynnell Ringing Bells at St. John's Beheading Shrine

The most important part of our week, though, was coming back to the Middle East Semester Abroad program in the capital city, Amman.  It was called Philadelphia in Greek times, which means City of Brotherly Love.  Our friends Patti and Doug have dedicated their professional lives to helping students from Christian colleges back home learn about Brotherly and Sisterly Love while studying the language, religions, history, food, politics, and culture of the Middle East.

The guests of honor were Safi and Iman Kaskas. Originally from Lebanon, they immigrated to the US in the late sixties, became American citizens, and went into business, raising three kids in Fairfax, VA, and later Saudi Arabia.  They now have four grandchildren and divide their time between houses in both those places.   They’re Muslims, and now travel the world helping Muslims and Christians understand each other by means of a terrific new translation of the Holy Qur’an Safi took six years of eighteen-hour days to complete.

John, Safi, Iman, and Lynnell at MESP, Amman, Jordan

Frustrated by Americans’ lack of knowledge about Islam, which is based on God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the early 600’s, and seeing biased and hostile interpretations based on slanted translations of the original Arabic into English, Safi put his consulting business aside and developed a methodology for figuring out how to express all the shades of meaning found in the Holy Book.  For example, one word for the Maker of the Universe might mean “Creator,” but a different word is better translated “Programmer,” and yet another, “Everlasting One.”

Yet they spoke lovingly of their American Christian friends, including a woman who prayed aloud for Osama bin Laden at a church service Iman was brought to on the awful evening of September 11, 2001.  She had never heard of praying for your enemy, and it led her to an intense study of the life and teachings of Jesus who, as I mentioned, is a very important prophet in Islam but not well-known.

And you can see why.  Prominent American Christians are among the leading voices seeking to exclude Muslims from our country.  Crusaders spent 200 years attacking non-Christians in the Holy Land and non-Catholics along the way.  Colonialists whitewashed their economic exploitation with pious claims of saving people from hell through Christ.  So just like any one of us, when someone brings up Jesus, we know a sales pitch is coming, and we close our minds.

Iman and Safi love Jesus, but have no intention of ever converting to Christianity.  Safi prays five times a day, and produced this fantastic translation of the Qur’an with zillions of footnotes so American Christians (and Jews) could read it for themselves and see the underlying Biblical assumptions and references.  The Qur’anic Voice assumed that Muhammad and his followers would know the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, Moses bringing the Law, Jesus the Messiah, and his mother, the Virgin Mary.  The Qur’an comments on all those stories, but does not repeat them.

I’m hoping to be able to teach a new course at Breck called The Islamic World, if enough students sign up for it.  We’re definitely going to use Safi’s translation.  

Today, we hit the road for Petra, where some of King Herod’s ancestors came from, and then down to the Gulf off Aqaba, which is a branch of the Red Sea.  Next weekend, we’ll cross the Jordan ourselves and head for Jerusalem.  To all our readers, thanks for accompanying us and drive safely…

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The Rift Valley & Its Tiny River Jordan

Tectonic Plates: they’re giant slabs of the Earth’s Crust that move maybe an inch per year.  California’s Coast, on the Pacific Plate is sliding north past the North American Plate.  The North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate are pulling apart, as I saw so dramatically in the middle of Iceland.

In this part of the world, the Arabian Plate is sliding northeast and away from the African Plate, which is pulling southwest.  The gap gives us the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the Red Sea.  Out in the Red Sea, a newer split is happening and in maybe 30 or 40 million years, a chunk of Somalia and Ethiopia will become an island.  The Persian Gulf will be no more.  The famous Great Lakes of East Africa are in the Great Rift Valley, which is part of the whole cracking rift system.  Dr. Leakey’s Olduvai Gorge is opening wider because of this rift, and the bottom of the Dead Sea, not too far from where we sit, typing away, is getting wider and deeper.

Deep River,  Michael Row The Boat Ashore,  Roll, Jordan Roll–all those great Gospel songs describe a major river like the Mississippi.  These days, the Jordan is a creek.  Israel and Jordan are taking about 90% of its water for irrigation, so rowing a boat ashore in the Jordan might take Michael one pull on the oars.  Here I am, standing on the Jordanian side of the river, while Russian pilgrims immerse themselves on the Palestine side.

John in the Jordan

The deep-and-wide feeling here is more about the Rift Valley than the Jordan River.  With all due respect to Moses, Joshua, Elijah, John The Baptist, Jesus, and anyone else Up There who know this stuff way better than I ever will.  Three days ago, we drove west from Amman, the capital of Jordan, through giant hills covered in fresh green grass and wildflowers.

We also discovered Carrot Towers:

Roadside

With no warning, the land up ahead of our car opened up. Some of you might recognize the feeling when you first see Lake Superior and Duluth Harbor driving north from The Cities on 35.  Or the first glimpse of the Front Range driving west from the Colorado Prairie.
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I wish I could describe it better than this, but the Rift Valley felt really important.  The other side is about four miles away.  You’re on a plateau on the Jordan side, maybe 1000 feet above the valley floor.  Across the haze in the valley is another set of bluffs, which looks greener, like the proverbial grass on the other side.

Down in the valley are farms.  Really intensive-looking farms with tomato plants under mesh quonset huts.

Concrete Irrigation ditches replace Roman aqueducts, and black plastic hoses snake across fields in all directions.

See that pale green band on the map, running north to south, between Israel Highway 90 on the West Bank and Jordan Highway 65 on the East Bank?  That’s the Rift Valley.  The beige on the right is Jordan, on the Arabian Plate.  The beige on the left is Israel, in the Africa Plate.

If there were a lot more water, there would be a long, skinny lake here.  There used to be one, 12,000 years ago, in rainier times.

The land to the east and west dwarfs the valley.  When Moses got there, looking down from Mount Nebo on the East Bank, he must have gasped.  They’d been walking up and down this parched land for years.  Suddenly, the ground dropped in front of them and it was really green down there, and the other side looked promising too.  But poor old Moses, he didn’t get to cross over.  He died there, in the gravelly hills of Moab.  Hundreds of years later, King David’s foreign great-grandmother Ruth would decide to follow Naomi from Moab to Israel, promising, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”

Make straight in the (Moab) desert

Our car trip down to the Valley floor was a series of switchbacks for fifteen or twenty minutes. The dashboard thermometer went from 15 degrees (59 for American readers) on top to 22 (72) on the valley floor.  Nice weather for starting tomatoes.  It should be 80 most days in April.

An hour later, we came to the Roman ruins of Umm Qays in the northwest corner where Jordan meets Israel.  A fellow flagged us down and offered to take us to some viewpoints, because, he said, the view across the Rift Valley is not as good from the ruins.  We said yes, and for the next hour, Amjad showed us one jaw-dropping view after another, and although he’s usually an Arabic-only guide, his limited English, combined with his friendliness and knowledge of the military checkpoints and unmarked gravel roads meant we saw some very cool sights.   Here’s a google earth screen shot.  The lake at the top left is the Sea of Galilee, and the brown oval in the top center is the Golan Heights.  We looked down on Hamat Gader, which has hot springs, a water park, and an alligator farm!

Google Earth Golan

Below is a view looking northwest toward the Sea of Galilee behind Lynnell.  Many of Jesus’ Disciples grew up on that lake, and were making a living there before he asked them to start fishing for people.  She’s pointing to the Golan Heights.  The road below, next to her right wrist, is the one we drove on to take the next picture (below).

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Here’s a later picture which we took from the much lower vantage point, looking in the same direction, with the sun trying to come out.

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And then we looked back east, with the Golan Heights on the left and Jordan on the right (below).  If you squint or hit command+ a few times, you might be able to make out the NATO station in the DMZ at top, left, and the bombed railroad bridge in the valley, center right.  The Israelis blew the bridge in the 1967 war.  It had been built by the Ottomans.

Golan - Jordan bridge bombed by Israel in 1967 – Version 2

It’s so amazing to be here.  We’re going to spend two weeks on the Jordanian side and then four weeks on the Israel side.  Our next stop is Jerash, a city with outstanding Roman ruins known as the “Pompeii of the East” and after that the Dead Sea, including very buoyant water, a spa with mud treatments, and the coolest mosaics we have ever seen.

Lynnell delighted, Golan in background, photo by Amjad our guide

Why you should go to the Middle East

People back home think we’re adventurous, going to Scary Places like the Middle East or India.  But we’re not.  Folks here are super-friendly and aching for tourism to bounce back after the waves of anxiety brought on by overreaction to terrorism.   In Morocco, we heard that their French hordes of tourists have started going to Portugal instead.  In Egypt, the Series of Unfortunate Events (to put it mildly) beginning in late 2010 led to a steep drop-off in foreign tourism. And boy, do they depend on those dollars and euros.  And our host here in Jerash, Jordan, told us with matter-of-fact regret that where Europeans, Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, and North Americans used to come to four or five Middle Eastern countries for a few weeks, now they just come to one, and he prays that it’s Jordan.

The playwright Syl Jones used to talk about Ice People and Sun People in Minnesota.  My tribes, coming as we do from the chilly north of Europe, spending six months a year inside houses and cars, are not especially friendly or welcoming.  Some other wise critic noticed that Minnesotans will give you directions to anywhere at all, if they can, but not to their house.  We Ice People already have enough friends, I guess.  By contrast, Sun People, whose relatives back home cook and eat and sometimes even sleep outside, and who set up shop on the sidewalk, are a lot friendlier.  We shared a cheerful, overcrowded cab ride with an Indian family last month for 30 minutes each way to a border-crossing pep rally that is probably worth a blog post in itself.  Before we bundled back into the van for the return trip, they invited us to dinner.  Sun People never have enough friends.

I think we need to get out more, fellow Icees.  And invite more new friends to dinner.  Here’s a picture of Lynnell and our dear friend Hanan, with her mom, in their home in Cairo.  Her mom just gave Lynnell a silver ring!

Lynnell gets a ring from Hanan's mom

Desert nomads are the ultimate Sun People, living in tents and traveling by camel.  We tried it briefly.

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Camels have adapted really well to the desert.  Their broad feet don’t sink as far into the sand as ours.  They use water very efficiently.  Their meat is delicious, and my favorite sport coats are camel hair.  But we rode these camels too long!  For me and horsewoman Lynnell, they got uncomfortable after a half hour, and we were out for three hours, with breaks to see an ancient Coptic monastery and its new incarnation outside Aswan.  I missed having stirrups, and my inner thigh muscles got a workout that was probably good for me, but I just wanted to lie down and wait for the Advil to kick in.

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But still: when you come to the Middle East, take a SHORT camel ride.  They kneel down so you can mount, and then they get up by tilting you way back and then un-tilting you back to horizontal.  And they are easy to steer.

Another thing you will find in the Middle East is ruins of amazing civilizations.  Back home in North America, the indigenous cities built sprawling cities like Cahokia, where present-day St. Louis sits, but they were all-organic, built of earth and wood.  The folks over here had a lot more stone to spare than earth or wood, and they cut and carved limestone, sandstone, basalt, and granite into building blocks and sculptures.  Therefore, we know more about them than we do the kings, queens, and monks of the Mississippian Civilization (600 CE – 1400 CE) later named by French Missionaries after the Cahokia tribe living there a few hundred years after they had gone.

Below is the stunning Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, rescued by UNESCO and funded, as I said in my last post, by schoolchildren and other small donors like my sister.  Engineers in the early 1960’s cut the temple and its mountainside into blocks the size of a car and moved it uphill and back from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, formed by the Aswan High Dam.  You really have to see it and walk inside, where you can’t take pictures even without a flash, but where you can feast your eyes on scenes of men and women making presentations to gods and goddesses, and depictions of great battles.

Rameses II Temple at Abu SImbel

Rameses had giant statues of himself, looking serious.  Travelers coming up the Nile from Sudan or Ethiopia were supposed to see them and tremble with fear.  The Great Empire of Pharaoh Begins Here.  It’s the opposite message of the Statue of Liberty, but I suppose Americans scare off foreigners in plenty of other ways.

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We’ve been impressed in Morocco, Egypt, India, and now Jordan at the unselfconscious religiousness of people.  They tell you they’ll see you tomorrow, “God willing,” or that they’re feeling fine today, “thanks be to God.”  They ask you to wait for a minute or two while they go pray.  They have copies of the scripture on their dashboard, and quotations from the Qur’an on their walls.  Religion is not a private matter, like politics or your love life, but a public and communal thing.  “There is no God but God,” men with microphones and loudspeakers announce five times a day, sometimes five or ten of them within your hearing.  But they young couple below, having a series of pictures taken at the Temple of the bird-headed god Horus, south of Luxor, did not mind that their background was thoroughly idolatrous.

engagement photo at Horus' Temple at Edfu

Here’s a school group of kids in Upper (South) Egypt on a field trip looking at reliefs on Temple walls.

schoolchildren, Temple of Kom Ombo

And here they are a few minutes later, looking at Lynnell:

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A lot of the carved inscriptions on the sandstone walls have lost their original colors.  But 3500 years ago, they were all brightly-colored.

THIRTY FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO!

Habu Temple, Luxor West Bank

But talk about well-preserved…  Below is a picture of the Temple of Hatshepsut, one of the few female Pharaohs.  She ascended the throne in around 1500 BC, and had this immense temple built in the Valley of the Kings, on the west side of the Nile opposite Thebes / Luxor.  The building you see has not been reconstructed with freshly-cut rectangular stones to look like a midcentury US Post Office in Arizona.  Those are the 3500 year-old stones.

3000 year old (!) Tomb of Queen Hatshepsut

People with disks over their heads are blessed by the sun-god Ra.  Each crown is a little different, signifying divine or mortal rule and denoting Upper and/or Lower Egypt.  Gods have beards that curl like a ski-jump and tight skirts, because they never have to bow to anyone.  The wider, pleated skirts make room for mortals to bend to the gods.

de-faced and still-faced figures, Edfu Temple of Horus

Inside every temple is the Holy of Holies, where the god  “lived.”  All over the ancient world, these smallest rooms were placed at the end of a series of bigger ones, and very few could ever enter.  Pharaoh, certainly, and a priest or two.The god often had a litter on which to be borne in procession.  Today, these temples are mostly empty of the hordes of tourists who, as recently as ten years ago, thronged their beautifully-preserved halls.

In the Biblical Temple in Jerusalem, only the high priest could come into the Holy Of Holies, and only on the Day of Atonement, and barefoot of course, like Moses at the Burning Bush.  On that one annual occasion, he would burn incense and offer prayers.  It was off-limits to everybody else, including the kings who built and maintained it and the priests whose sacred duties took them right up to the doorway, but no further.

When the conquering Roman commander Pompey came to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, he went in, an uncircumcised foreigner, not a priest, not even a believer, with his sandals still on.  He wanted to see the god.  But he was surprised to find nothing in that forbidden room.  He didn’t touch anything or demand a statue of Jupiter be put up.  That would be a later Roman Emperor, Hadrian, who had statues of Jupiter and himself erected in twin temples on the rubble of the Temple, destroyed at his command to end the Third Jewish Revolt, also called the Bar Kokhba Rebellion of 135 CE.  Muslims would later build the Dome of The Rock on the spot to reclaim its monotheistic sacredness.

reconstructed Holy of Holies, Edfu Temple of Horus

We are now in Jordan, traveling north to south parallel to the Jordan River, from one Biblical place to the next.  We’ll be in Israel soon, seeing the highlands we’re now driving through, but from the other side.  It is not an understatement to call our year the trip of a lifetime, and we are, as we’ve said, savoring it.  But don’t wait for a sabbatical to come to the Middle East.

Here’s the fish counter at a Greek restaurant in Alexandria.  You point to the dorado or Tilapia or whatever it is, and a half hour later it’s on your plate, next to some stuffed grape leaves and french fries.

ordering lunch at the Greek Club near the Alexandria Citadel

After lunch, we walked down to the beach, looking out into Alexandria harbor, founded by its namesake Alexander the Great.  The library of Alexandria alone is enough reason to come here, but the Sea is so beautiful and the people are so loud and friendly and welcoming.  Like Greeks, Italians, Africans, and Indians, they are Sun People.  We highly recommend, however, coming in the spring or fall, when the Sun is not so oppressive.  This morning in Amman (3000 feet altitude) it’s less than 50 degrees F!  We could use a little more Sun.

Beach view of Alexandria and some happy Egyptians

Yes, there are serious human rights problems in Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and other places.  And large parts of Syria, Turkey, the Sinai, Lebanon, Iraq, and Libya are too dangerous for tourists.  But the folks here, if they could talk to you, they really want tourists to come back, and the governments, though many of them do reprehensible things to their enemies, minorities, and dissidents, the governments are deploying a lot of very friendly soldiers to make sure we can go to the beaches, temples, palaces, and marketplaces safely. And the dollar is very strong at the moment.

Now, more than ever, Americans need to get out more.

 

 

Seeing The Desert From The Lake

Kinda makes sense, as Minnesotans, to experience the world’s largest desert by boat, on a lake.  Our state is dotted with lakes.  And the Sahara Desert, locally known as the Nubian Desert, is accessible, since the 1960’s, by an immense artificial lake.

We’d never thought about it before, but our Egyptian friend Hanan told us we really need to spend some serious time sailing the Nile.  And big cruise ships aren’t our style.  But Lynnell found African Anglers, founded by a guy from Kenya and staffed by Nubian folks based in Aswan, home of two gigantic dams in Upper Egypt.   The newer one, the Aswan High Dam, was completed in the early 1960’s and created Lake Nasser.  Here is a satellite view of Lake Nasser.

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The white horizontal line is the Sudan/Egypt border.

Our boat, Karibu, had a crew of three including guide Hani (below) and us two passengers.

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Hani showed us fifteen bird species including pelicans, Egyptian ducks, plovers, kites, vultures, cormorants, kingfishers, and a couple kinds of heron.  He showed us a half-dozen temples saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser.  He got us free fish from fishermen and cleaned them himself.  He dove under the boat with a knife to cut a net from the propellor.  He led prayers five times a day with a quiet singing voice.  He took us on walks and told us the medicinal value of plants we found along the shore.  There were no signs of plant life in the desert beyond maybe 50 yards from the lake.

Here’s a flock of pelicans we followed for awhile:

pelicans fleeing us

Every night we slept on deck, and neither of us has ever seen so many stars.  I kept wanting to text my colleague Chelen Johnson, the astronomer at Breck, and ask her questions, but we never really had any kind of phone signal, so we just had to keep saying “wow.”  I saw four shooting stars in five nights.  It was cold, being in the middle of the Sahara, but we had three big blankets and fleece hats.

Sunrise on deck, day 4

The Karibu was piloted by Hassam (below), who comes from a family of diesel mechanics and boatmen.  He took us on a couple of crocodile searches in the dinghy.  He also taught us two Nubian words, both declarations of happiness and contentment, Ishta! and Majj!

Hassam, the pilot

Egypt was one of the earliest human civilizations, with cities strung out along the length of the Nile back to the first set of cataracts, or rapids, at Aswan.  The Nile made Egypt a perfect place for permanent settlements, irrigated farms, stone quarries for giant buildings, as well as surplus food for all the non-productive types like priests, soldiers, and nobles.   As we all learned in grade school, the Nile flooded every year, bringing fertile silt with it.  With farmland under water for a month or two, farmers worked on annual infrastructure projects including the Pyramids.  I wrongly have taught that they were built by slaves.

We took a morning walk up a steep dune on the second day to see Lake Nasser (local folks prefer to call it Lake Nubia, in honor of the hundreds of villages that were drowned).

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Every day, as we motored south, we stopped at a Temple or burial site, all but one of which had been rescued from the rising waters.  The meticulous cutting into blocks, stabilizing, storing, moving, and reassembling work took years, and in the case of Abu Simbel, inspired my six-year old sisterHenry, John, and Terri – Version 2 (shown with me and our dad) to her first act of philanthropy: a donation, maybe to UNESCO, to save Rameses II and his family from the waves. It was like investing in Noah’s Ark.

JB selfie with Abu Simbel Statues

Egypt is still proud of its antiquities, despite its “recent” domination by foreigners,

  • 650 till now, Islam (from Saudi Arabia),
  • 500 years before that, Christianity (from Greece and the Near East), and
  • 300 years before that, Graeco-Roman “pagan” civilization,

and we’ve been delighted to find that our guides often have degrees in Egyptology.  The columns, walls, doors, and even ceilings of the temples we saw were all covered by pictures and writing.

Habu Temple, Luxor West Bank

Three times a day, Mr. Said, a retired hotel chef, made us and the crew delicious meals, often including Tilapia snagged just hours earlier in the nets of some of the 5,000 fishermen on Lake Nasser.  Here is Said, respectfully known to his mates as “Hajj,” because he’s made the pilgrimage to Mecca:

Said washes the cauliflower

And here’s Hani showing us the fresh catch getting iced and covered before it’s driven north to the fish market in Aswan.

Putting fish on ice at shoreline of Lake Nasser

Though we weren’t taking on a great spiritual quest like the hermits who once lived on the island below, finding silence and a reflective attitude is so much easier in the desert.  We read history and novels and wrote in journals.  We couldn’t swim (crocodiles), but applied a lot of sunscreen and wore shorts.  We went to bed early and talked about the stars.

The split island below,  Qasr Ibrim, was once a military outpost for the Pharaohs and later the Romans.  A Coptic Cathedral and monks’ cells from the late 700’s lies in ruins today, which we explored.  Muslims didn’t take over until the 1500’s, one of the last Nubian places to hold out against the Ottomans.  Bosnian soldiers quartered there for some time after that, marrying into Nubian families and building their own mosque on the ruins.  Fortunately, Qasr Ibrim was built on a very tall hill, and the Lake did not swallow it, though it cut the island in half.

Docked at Kasr Ibrim

We end this post with prayers of gratitude for our new Nubian friends:

  • Hani, Hasam, and al-Hajji Said, our three crew, and Yusef and Tim at African Angler (who ran our desert safari),
  • the people of  Eskaleh Nubian Ecolodge, especially Fiskry & Hasan Khachif and his family (where we spent a wonderful night and day in Abu Simbel)
  • and Bet el-Kerem Guesthouse especially Abdul and his sisters Nura and Inis (our hotel owner and tour-organizer in Aswan).

They all helped us find our way into and around the Sahara.

dune, lake, stick