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.

 

 

Published by

John.bellaimey@breckschool.org

I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on amazon.com. I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

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