Friday, January 27, 2012

London, Israel, Egypt & Jordan

In 2008, Beth and I took a whirlwind tour of London, Israel, Egypt and Jordan.  Click the link to see our photos!

This map shows three of the four countries covered by this photo album. Beth and I flew into Cairo, traveled by bus to the intersection of Egypt, Israel and Jordan, and took a ferry to Jordan. Over the next week or so we traveled by car north to Amman. Then we took a bus to the Israeli border. Once across (not an easy task, as discussed later in this album), we went to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. After a few days, we traveled by bus to the southern tip of Israel and crossed the border into Egypt. Over the next couple of weeks, we traveled overland around the Sinai Peninsula, to the Egyptian cities of Luxor and Aswan (both along the Nile). Finally, we took a train back to Cairo, and then flew to Tanzania.
First up was London, where we enjoyed a three-day layover. This was Beth's first time in London, so we had a good excuse to visit all of the usual tourist destinations, such as Buckingham Palace, London Bridge, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London. Most of you were on my email list during my last trip to London, and the rest of you have already seen plenty of photos of those iconic places. Therefore, in this photo album, all of those destinations will be represented by this single photo, of Beth standing with a Yeoman Warder (aka "Beefeater") at the Tower of London.
My economizing of photos allows me to focus on the really important things, like food. This pizza, from an Italian-owned place in Covent Garden, was the best pizza we had on our trip. Now, that's picture worthy!
 Speaking of food, this uber-British Pub, The Churchill Arms (with over a thousand photos of Winston Churchill hanging on its walls!), contains a surprisingly authentic and tasty Thai restaurant tucked away in its basement.
 London isn't cheap. For instance, Londoners pay nine British Pounds for a box of Lucky Charms cereal--at the time this photo was taken, that was $18!
The British Museum (free admission!) contains an authentic crystal skull, in addition to its more famous possessions, such as the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles and a statue from Easter Island. When I saw "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull" a few months ago, I thought the whole crystal skull thing was just made up. It turns out not entirely, as the handful of known crystal skulls are often claimed to have been made by either the Aztecs, the Mayans, or aliens. Some people have even claimed to have been healed of diseases by the skulls. However, every scientist (aka, spoil-sport) to have studied them has said that they were probably constructed in the early 1900's in Germany. Here I am in front of the British Museum's skull, trying to pretend I have a whip in my hand, like Indiana Jones. As you can see, Harrison Ford doesn't have to worry about losing his job to me.
 Our best experience in London was watching a production of Shakespeare's King Lear at the Globe Theatre. The production was highly acclaimed, and this was the final show of its run; not surprisingly, the show was sold out. But I decided to stand in line, hoping to get a "return" ticket (a ticket from a ticket-holder who can't make the show). After an hour wait, I snatched up two "groundling" tickets for a mere five pounds ($10) each--one of the best bargains in London. The catch is that "groundlings" have to stand throughout the entire three-hour production; moreover, rain was scheduled, and the groundling area of the theatre is not covered by a roof. As soon as I got the tickets, we ran to another queue where groundlings wait for the gates to open. Just as Beth returned with some take-out fish and chips, the gates opened, and I dashed inside, staking out the best spots in the theatre. Not only were we touching the stage--as shown by the photo--but the roof which covered the stage protected us from the rain which hit during the second act.

Here is the view of the seats in the Globe Theatre from our standing spot next to the stage. You can see some other "groundlings", as well as the people seated further from the stage. This incarnation of the Globe is a replica of the theatre where most of Shakespeare's plays were originally produced.

We have moved on to Israel. If you look closely at the mural on the left near Bethlehem, in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank territory, you'll see the dove is wearing a bulletproof vest and has a rifle-sight trained on it. That summarizes the seemingly eternal state of the peace process.
On the right is a less artistic but more direct message, on a wall in the old city in Jerusalem. The tension in Israel was evident from the moment we arrived in the country: I was detained at the border for over an hour while humorless border agents asked me repeatedly, "Do you know what your name means?" and "What does your father do?" I tried to tell them that "Basile" is an Italian surname, but judging by their demeanor, "Basile" is Arabic for "troublemaker."
This photo summarizes Jerusalem's chaotic old city. Hordes of disoriented tourists search for religious landmarks (a marker for one of the stations of the cross is visible on the wall above the yellow-vested workers) or browse cluttered souvenir shops, while locals go about their daily lives, each group seemingly oblivious to the other. Jerusalem is sacred to the three main monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, meaning it is sacred to more than a third of the world's population. But no one seems to have informed the local authorities of this. There are few signs, maps, ATMs or any of the tourist-friendly things you would normally find in such a major tourist destination. One time, Beth and I were standing in the maze of streets which mark the old city, staring at a guidebook map like the woman pictured here. Just as we had decided we had figured out the proper direction to our destination, a child about the age of the child pictured here asked where we were heading. I told him the Damascus Gate, and he pointed in a different direction than what we had thought based on the map and said to walk straight along that street for ten minutes. Beth and I decided he knew the way better than us, so we thanked him and turned toward the direction he had pointed. He demanded $20 for pointing us in the right direction. I handed him the equivalent of $1.50. He complained until it became clear we weren't going to give him any more, and then went off in search of the next lost tourist. After walking for 15 minutes, we ran into a landmark which told us for certain that the kid had pointed us in the wrong direction. But at least we got the wrong direction for a bargain price!

We saw many church groups carrying crosses along the route Jesus is said to have walked while carrying his cross from the place of his trial and condemnation by Pontius Pilate to the site of his crucifixion and burial. The trash strewn along the route smelled as if it might have been there during Jesus' day. Seemingly every inch of Jerusalem is sacred to some group and just a place for dumping trash to another group.  At each stop along the route, the Christian groups read scripture and sing. At times, there would be multiple groups crowded into the same small space, attempting to shout scripture over each other in a variety of different languages. The scene brought to mind a different biblical story: the Tower of Babel.
Inside the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born, a member of the Armenian Apostolic church sweeps the floor near the entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity. Members of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches look on suspiciously. These three religions have shared custody of the Church of the Nativity for over a century, and none of them are happy about it. For instance, on December 29, 2007, while some Greek Orthodox priests were cleaning their area of the Church, they crossed the dividing line between the Armenian and Greek Orthodox sections of the Church. Go to the next photo to see what happened.

A brawl ensued. The priests pummeled each other with fists, brooms and iron rods for an hour until finally a dozen policemen managed to halt the melee. (The photo is from a newspaper account of the brawl.) Remember, this happened on December 29. The spirit of Christmas sure fades fast!
The craziness at the Church of the Nativity actually pales in comparison to the situation at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Here, Beth is kneeling in front of the "Stone of the Anointing," where Jesus' body was prepared for burial.) The Church is often called the holiest site in Christianity. Pope John Paul II called it "the mother of all churches." But back in 1869, Mark Twain visited and noticed the denominations chanting, sometimes simultaneously, in their own languages. He wrote: "It has been proven conclusively that they can not worship together around the grave of the Saviour of the World in peace." The tumultuous situation persists to this day. In the past few years, the Church has been the site of many brawls between Ethiopian, Coptic, Franciscan and Greek priests. One brawl alone sent a dozen priests to the hospital. Turf disputes within the Church have resulted in a wooden ladder resting on a ledge over the Church's entrance for at least 150 years. Even the sewage lines are divided between various denominations. To prevent denominational disputes, the keys to the Church have been entrusted to Muslims for almost a century.
Many Christians believe Jesus wasn't buried at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but instead was buried about a half-mile away in the "Garden Tomb." Here we are in front of the door to the Garden Tomb. The Garden Tomb is a newer discovery and is under the control of a single British charitable trust. Therefore, it is able to maintain a more cohesive and peaceful atmosphere. Regardless of its true historical significance, this was the most peaceful and meditative of the Christian sites we visited in Israel.

This is the view of Jerusalem's old city from the window of our hotel room. The dome of the Temple Mount (the site of the Second Temple and a holy site to both Jews and Muslims) is visible to the left.
This is the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall), which is all that remains of the Temple that was once the center of Jewish worship. It now functions as a vast open-air synagogue. This is the side of the Wall reserved for males; the female side is half as big and seemed to have twice as many people.
 The Chamber of the Holocaust, located on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, is the only holocaust memorial designed and maintained by holocaust survivors. It includes a tablet representing each of the over 1,000 communities now bereft of Jews because of the annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazis in World War II.
We visited with a friend of Beth's from college, who now lives in Jerusalem. You can catch of glimpse of Jerusalem's active nightlife in the background. In July of this year, Beth's friend witnessed a terrorist attack near this spot: a Palestinian hijacked a bulldozer from a nearby construction site and plowed into cars and pedestrians, knocked over two buses, and was heading for this crowded pedestrian area when he was shot by police. Four were killed and 50 were wounded.
 Jerusalem at its most crowded cannot hold a candle to Cairo, Egypt, where this photo was taken. Cairo is home to 20 million people, making it the second most populous city in the world, after Mexico City. As a Cairo taxi driver told us, with pride in his voice, "The next time you visit Cairo, it will be number one!"
 We were in Egypt during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. For an entire month, participating Muslims do not eat or drink anything from dawn to sunset. Fasting is meant to teach the person patience, sacrifice and humility. Maybe we were just imagining it, but it seemed like people moved very slowly during the daytime. After all, Egypt is a desert climate, and most people were not drinking even a sip of water during the entire day. As a tourist, we ate and drank during the day, but out of respect, we did it in our hotel room or in a restaurant aimed at tourists.
 Here is a photo of a street in Luxor, Egypt at around 6:15 p.m. on a typical day during Ramadan. The streets are literally deserted as everyone is inside eating, and then attending services at a mosque.
 Here's the same street, at around 9:00 p.m. Activity resumes, and continues at this pace for almost the entire night.
 Here is a street in Cairo a few minutes after midnight during Ramadan. Every night is like a party, as people celebrate the ability to eat and drink.
 Speaking of food, here is the unofficial national dish of Egypt: Koshari. It consists of rice, lentils, chickpeas, macaroni, caramelized onions and a spicy tomato sauce. This restaurant serves nothing but Koshari. There's no menu; your only choice is the size of the serving. The pictured serving costs less than a dollar. Call me Mr. Big Spender.
 Here we are at a different restaurant in Cairo. After our food came, I was focused on my own dish--making sure it was edible--when Beth said, "Oh no, I think I broke this can of soda." It turns out she opened the can correctly; this was her first time ever seeing a soda can with a removable "pop top." At that moment, I felt old!
 Speaking of old, it doesn't get any older than this--and I'm not talking about the car, or the dog under the car. The Step Pyramid at Saqqara (an hour south of Cairo) is the oldest known building in the world. Around 4,680 years ago, an Egyptian named Imhotep designed this structure for the glorification of King Djoser. Now, Imhotep is remembered much more than Djoser, as Imhotep is considered the world's first engineer, architect and physician known by name. His Step Pyramid is now known as the "birth of architecture." Imhotep has also been credited with the following: being the first to use columns in architecture; being "the father of medicine"; inventing papyrus; and being a deity. He must have been a busy guy!
 This is the Red Pyramid, the world's first known smooth-sided pyramid. This pyramid, located at Dashur, 30 minutes south of Cairo, was built for a Pharaoh named Snofru. I'm assuming the name "Snofru" didn't sound as funny 4,600 years ago as it sounds today. By the way, it wasn't our idea to stand on a pyramid like we are doing in this photo; a policeman carrying a rifle took my camera and ordered us to stand on the rocks at the base of the pyramid while he took our photo. Of course he then demanded a tip. And I suspected that if we didn't pay, he would have arrested us for standing on a national treasure.
Speaking of national treasures, this photo shows a nice combination of Egyptian national treasures, the "Great Pyramid of Khafre" and the "Great Sphinx of Giza," and an American national treasure, the "Great Hut of Pizza."
 Here is Beth descending into one of the Pyramids at Giza. This narrow, descending passageway travels 40 yards, before opening into a series of now-empty funeral chambers. If the designer of this place was intending to induce claustrophobia and heat strokes, then he should consider it a success.
 It was over 100 degrees in this desert on the day we visited Giza. But after spending 20 minutes in the stifling heat and humidity of the inside of the pictured Pyramid, it felt delightfully refreshing to be standing in the comparatively cool desert heat. Later rulers plundered most of the limestone outer casings of these Pyramids for use in their own monuments (you can see the casings at the top of the pictured Pyramid); otherwise, the Pyramid would probably appear as it did when it was built 4,560 years ago. The Pyramids are so old and seemingly indestructible that they have spawned this Egyptian saying: "Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids."
 Beth and I wanted a photo of the two of us in front of the Shinx and a Pyramid. We asked the guy in the picture if he would take our photo. He hesitated, looking a little annoyed. I had never had anyone refuse such a request, so I guess I just stood there staring at him while he hesitated. Finally, the guy said, "Okay," and took my camera. He then snapped his fingers, and a serious-looking man in a suit and sunglasses, who had been standing a few feet behind him, stepped up and took the camera. The pictured guy then walked over and posed with us while the man who looked like a bodyguard took our photo! Although we don't know for sure, we decided this guy was an Egyptian celebrity or politician.
 This is Hatshepsut's Temple, just outside of Luxor, Egypt. (Because of how well it meshes with the surrounding environment, this is my favorite Egyptian temple.) When Hatshepsut's husband died, his son by another wife was supposed to become the next pharaoh. However, because the son was only a teenager at the time, Hatshepsut assumed the duties of being pharaoh until the boy got old enough to handle the job. Apparently she didn't think much of the maturity of her step-son, because she held the job of pharaoh until her death, 22 years later. The step-son was not happy about having to wait so long, but Hatshepsut turned out to be such a successful pharaoh that there was nothing he could do. She established a vast trading network with other countries and became one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt. When she died and her step-son finally became pharaoh, he promptly ordered the removal of her images and name from most of the temples she built.
 I have been asked if I'm scared of being the victim of terrorist attacks while I am traveling. Perhaps I'm naive, but it never crosses my mind. I think that I face a far greater danger of losing my life in a traffic accident, or losing my money to one of these persistent and persuasive salesmen who follow every tourist from every parking lot to every temple. You can see Hatshepsut's Temple in the distance here.
 Here we are in the Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, which features 134 giant columns. This Hall, as well as many other ancient Egyptian sites were featured in the 1975 film, "Death on the Nile." During the filming of "Death on the Nile" on location at the Karnak Temple, Bette Davis remarked: "In my day, we'd have built all this at the studio--and better."
 This temple, Abu Simbel, was carved in a mountainside at the edge of the southern border of Egypt by Pharaoh Ramses II in an attempt to intimidate Egypt's southern neighbors. Beth and I were not terribly intimidated.
 Here is a close-up of some of the statues at Abu Simbel. The two giant seated figures both represent Pharaoh Ramses II. The small statues beside his legs represent some of his favorite wives and children. (He had over 200 wives and 150 children, so I guess being one of the favorites meant something!) And the two statues in the foreground (the one on the left looks like an owl) represent the two most important Egyptian deities. As you can tell by the statue sizes in proportion to each other, Ramses II was not known for his humility. Indeed, he erected more monuments to himself than all of the other Egyptian rulers combined.
 The temples on the Island of Philae in southern Egypt also had to be relocated in the 1960's due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser, the world's largest reservoir. With the original Philae Island completely submerged by Lake Nasser, the Egyptians renamed another island "Philae Island," and moved all of the ancient buildings to that island. Pictured is the Temple of Hathor on the new Philae Island. Unfortunately, the government spent far more money moving the ancient buildings than it did moving the million people who were displaced by the new dam.
 This is the Temple of Isis on Philae Island, which was built during Cleopatra's reign as ruler of Egypt. Isis, "the mother of all gods and goddess of nature," has endured the longest and spread the farthest of all the ancient Egyptian deities. Isis worship was Christianity's chief rival from the 3rd to the 5th centuries. During that time, the crafty Coptic Christians weaned converts by equating Isis with the Virgin Mary.
 I was already suspicious of the freshness of the meat in Egypt, when I saw this item on the menu: "Old meat."

 Even the bread in Egypt can be a little suspect. This photo shows how it is sold: on wooden boards lying inches from the dirty ground. However suspect it might have seemed, this bread was delicious and I ate it often.
 This is typical of our hotel rooms in Egypt: basic beds, functional bathroom, cheap price (this was $6 a night), and--most importantly--air conditioning.
 We spent a day on the Nile in a traditional Egyptian sailboat, known as a felucca.
 We moved on to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Here I am on top of Mount Sinai at sunrise. Mount Sinai is purportedly the location where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. There is so much gray in my beard that people started confusing me for Moses!
Lest you think Beth and I were all alone on Mount Sinai, here's a photo of the procession down the 3,750 Steps of Repentance, which connect the peak of Mount Sinai to St. Catherine's Monastery at the base of the mountain.
 At the base of Mount Sinai is St. Catherine's Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. It is also purportedly the home of the burning bush seen by Moses. As I reach up to touch the bush, I am hoping this will not be the moment when the bush bursts into flames again.
 We spent a few days relaxing in Dahab, Egypt, a backpacker resort town on the Red Sea. There are many restaurants lining the coast of the tiny town, but as it says on the sign of this restaurant, the food is all pretty much the same.
 Here is Beth relaxing at our hotel in Dahab, which was right on the water and quite a bargain at $15 a night.
 We spent a couple of days sitting at a Dahab restaurant, alternating between eating plates of food, such as this dish of crepes and fruit, and jumping in the water (five feet from the table) and snorkeling. Not a bad way to spend a day!
 The Red Sea is nice from above the water, but really stunning below the water.
 Here we are eating a whole fish, cooked in the style of the local Beduin people near Dahab. See all of the cats lounging around our table? They enjoy fish, and they don't care in what style it is cooked. At the end of the meal, I was about to close up the aluminum foil when one of the cats darted in and snatched the fish bones away. At least the cat was considerate enough to wait for us to finish!
 Stray cats are at every restaurant in Dahab. (It doesn't help that you sit on the pillows on the ground at most of the restaurants.) Every restaurant has bottles of water to spray the cats if they get too close. This cat knew that Beth was a pushover and wouldn't actually pull the trigger.
 Eventually, Beth became such good friends with the cats that they started helping her play cards.
 We traveled by ferry from Egypt to Jordan. Unbeknownst to us, this popular ferry had not operated for the past week and there was a huge amount of pent-up demand. I spent four hours in the intense desert sun fighting to maintain my position in "line" (aka, a crush of angry men) to buy the ferry ticket. Then Beth and I spent 10 hours sitting in this very hot room, waiting for the ferry to depart.
 This is what "baggage claim" looks like at the ferry terminal in Jordan. Those guys climbing on the baggage cart aren't porters--they're passengers hoping to unearth their bags.
 The people we encountered in Jordan were nicer than those in almost any other country I've visited. On the ferry, the guy sitting next to us told us apologetically that the crowds and delays were not normal, and bought us sodas. Another stranger, who was waiting beside us in line on the ferry, gave us a pack of gum. Our cab driver from the ferry terminal stopped at a convenience store and bought us the fruit drinks I'm holding in this photo. When we were copying our photos to CDs, the guy at the photo shop left for a minute and came back with soda for us. Many strangers struck up friendly conversations without attempting to sell us anything. It was really remarkable.
 We also enjoyed the delicious and cheap food in Jordan. Here is a serving of $0.25 hummus and pitas.
 While in Jordan, we swam in the Dead Sea. No animals can live in the Dead Sea because, at 34% salinity (8.6 times saltier than ocean water), it is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. The high salt content makes people super-buoyant (the water is over six-feet deep where I am floating in this photo); swimming in this water felt like what I imagine it would feel like to be floating in space. The high salt content also makes it inadvisable to shave your legs just before swimming; Beth learned this the hard way!
 The shore of the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the surface of the Earth on dry land. A couple of feet from the shore, it's really muddy. As you can see from the photo, my right leg sunk into the mud up to my thigh when I tried to stand. I'm wiping the mud on myself because many people believe that the mud of the Dead Sea has special healing properties. I don't know about that, but it sure did feel good to wash the stuff off!
 The rest of the photos in this album were taken in Petra, Jordan, one of my favorite places I've ever visited. We took a little-used alternate entrance into the grounds of Petra which involves hiking for almost an hour inside an amazingly narrow and beautiful slot canyon. We did not see anyone else during the hike through this canyon.
 Here is a wider portion of the slot canyon, which forms part of the main walkway to the first of the monuments of Petra. In "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the characters rode horses through this canyon, which eventually opens up to the following view....
 At the end of the canyon, this is the first glimpse of Petra's first monument, known as the Treasury.
 The canyon opens up further to reveal a bit more of the Treasury.
 And here is the Treasury in all its glory. Petra features over a thousand remarkable rock-cut "buildings". Petra recently was included in a list of the "Seven New Wonders of the World."
 Here we are from a rocky ledge above the Treasury. The Nabataean people carved these monuments from 300 BC to around 40 AD. The Nabataeans were experts in controlling the water supply, collecting all of the water which falls in occasional flash floods through an elaborate series of dams, drains and cisterns. This allowed a huge city to develop in this desert area. Why build a city here? The busy trading routes between Asia and Europe and Persia all crossed through this region. In a scheme which would make the mafia proud, the Nabataeans stopped the traders and charged a fee for "protection" while they crossed Nabataean territory. By 40 AD, most traders had taken to avoiding this area by resorting to sea-based trade routes, and the Nabataean civilization gradually declined.
 Below me is a theatre cut into the rock at Petra. I am pretending to be a gladiator.
 This momument is known as the Monastery, and it is every bit as amazing as the more famous Treasury.
 As you can see from this close-up of the Monastery, Nabataean architecture was heavily influenced by the architecture of the Greeks and Romans, whose traders who passed through the area.
 The inside of the monuments are far less elaborate than the outside. Most of them were used as tombs for the rich and powerful.
 Beth and I spent two days hiking around the large area which makes up Petra, exploring the canyons and monuments. We also were fortunate enough to meet a number of local descendants of the Nabataeans, who still live in huts in this area, herding goats and selling handicrafts to tourists. Here, Beth shares some Goldfish crackers with a couple of local kids.
 Beth and I look off into the distance and plan our next adventure!

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