Tuesday, April 23, 2013

3000 Years of History in Under 3000 Words

As the title suggests, we've tried to fit a heaping spoonful of material into one blog entry.  We blame the Middle East.  Having one of the longest, richest, and most complicated histories on Earth was not particularly helpful to our plan for a short and simple blog entry.


 The Beach in Tel Aviv on the Night of our Arrival

Arriving in Tel Aviv, the culinary and entertainment capital of Israel, we spent a night and a day admiring the food, the views, and the Jewish Diaspora Museum before heading for Jerusalem, where we had rented a flat for the week.  

Friday Night Shabbat Dinner Together at our Flat in Jerusalem

We arrived just in time to buy some groceries and discover the best-tasting rugalach --Jewish chocolate mini-croissant-- either of us had ever experienced before the Sabbath settled over Jerusalem, closing every store and restaurant in sight.  

What Happens During Shabbat in Jerusalem when the
Futon Breaks but Adam Refuses to Stop Reading

Checking our e-mail just before the sunset, we learned in a message from Adam's mother that Rabbi Seed, the Rabbi who had sponsored Aislinn's conversion and performed our wedding, was in town for a conference and a visit with his son, Joshua.  A few days later we were able to meet for a visit together at the Israel Museum.  As an added bonus, the Israel Museum houses one of the greatest collections of archaeological and cultural artifacts anywhere on Earth.   

At the Jeruslaem Museum 
with Rabbi Seed and his Son, Joshua

To put the scale of this place in perspective, when they need to show a synagogue they don't build a model replica, they import and reconstruct the whole thing.  The photo below is taken from inside a centuries old synagogue imported from India.  It was one of several on display from around the world.
Transplanted Synagogue from Cochin, India

Located near to the shrine of the book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are on permanent display, is a scale model of the whole city of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple, approximately two thousand years ago.  Included in the model is a scale replica of the Temple itself, the holiest site in Judaism.  The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.  Later, after the advent of Islam, the temple mount, the huge elevated plaza on which the temple had been built, became the site of both the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. 

The Temple Mount Prior to its Destruction in 70 AD

South of the Temple Mount is the original City of David, whose origins date back to nearly 1000 years before the Second Temple.  By the time of the Second Temple, the original city of Jerusalem mentioned in the bible under King David was a fraction of the size of the city that had grown around it.  Today, even this city is engulfed by the current one. 

Don't worry, all of this will be helpful in understanding the pictures that follow and in showing how in Jerusalem you can’t throw a rock without hitting something both historic and religiously significant, then realising that the rock was too.   
 The City of David, the Quarter Moon Shaped Enclosure Extending
from the Bottom Right Corner of the Photo to Below the Temple Mount

Visiting the archaeological excavations in the City of David, we were able to see sights from over 2500 years ago that had been mentioned directly in the bible, particularly the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.  For instance, the Gihon Spring, the city's main source of water is mentioned in 1 King's 1:32 as the site at which King Solomon, David's son, was anointed king.  As the spring was outside the original city walls, later the bible mentions King Hezekiah building a tunnel from the city to the spring to protect the water supply during times of siege.  (2 Chronicles 32:30)

Underground, Walking Towards the Gihon Spring
in the City of David

Walking Through the Gihon Spring Tunnel with
Water up to above our Knees 

Even from King Solomon's time at the start of the First Temple period, Jews were forbidden except in very special and specific circumstances to enter certain parts of the Temple.  Though there was no visible mark to indicate where the forbidden areas had been after the temple’s destruction, those spots still remained forbidden.

With the adoption of the Temple Mount itself for Muslim and Christian religious sites over the centuries, and unable to know for certain where the forbidden portions of the original temple stood, Jews tended to avoid the plaza on the Temple Mount.  Instead they began to pray at the Western Wall.  As the support wall closest to the temple's original location on the plaza above, it became the holiest accessible site at which Jews could pray without risking entering a forbidden area.  The wall is visible on the left side of the Temple Mount in the picture of the City of David above.  This is the reason the dome of the rock is visible on the plaza above it

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

Hot Fresh Bread While on our Religions of Jerusalem Tour (Nom Nom)

Of course, in the annals of world history and religion, there was also a rather important gentleman of some note named Jesus who lived in Israel and died in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago.

Church of the Holy Sephulchre:
Altar Over the Site of Jesus' Crucifixion

Church of the Holy Sephulchre:
Altar Over the Site of Jesus' Tomb and Resurrection

For us, visiting Jerusalem was a great opportunity to gain an appreciation of the history and depth of all three of the world's great monotheistic religions.  We were able to tour the public portions of all of the sites above in a single afternoon.  This coincided with the start of the Jewish holiday of Chanukkah.

Chanukkah Candle-Lighting at the Plaza of the Western Wall

Chanukkah Candle-Lighting at our Jerusalem Flat
with our Stuffed Friends, Benjy and Smiley 

In the modern day, the plaza beside the Western Wall is already far above where it was two thousand years ago.  At one point in the city's history, a large scale construction, raising the street level of the surrounding city on a series of arches built on other arches to support a new higher ground level was undertaken.  If memory serves, this was done to make the climb to prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock easier for those living in the neighbourhoods around the Temple Mount.  (Anyone with greater historical knowledge, please feel free to correct this in the comments or by e-mail).

Prayer at the Western Wall Beneath Ground Level

Today about two-thirds of the wall is actually below ground level, some of which can be seen in a complex known as the Western Wall Tunnels. 

Travelling on to Haifa, we were able to spend a delightful three day visit with my father's cousin Haim, his wife Yael, their children and grandchildren.  We couldn't have imagined a warmer reception or a friendlier visit! 

Shabbat Dinner with Haim and Yael, Tal, Kfir and Mazy and their Children 

Weekend Trip to Rosh Ha'Nikrah with Haim, Yael and Tal

We even had a chance to visit the grottoes and seascape at Rosh Ha Nikrah near the Lebanese border, and see hyraxes bathing on the beach. Seriously, hyraxes.  This animal is not made up.  It exists.

A Hyrax at Rosh Ha'Nikrah

Outside of Jerusalem, there is still no lack of holy sites.  Members of the Baha'i faith often refrain from building places to congregate for worship.  They believe that prayer can occur anywhere one comes to commune with God. Despite this, their shrine with surrounding gardens in honour of the Bab, the prophet who proclaimed the coming of their religion's founder, Baha'u'llah, has become iconic of the city of Haifa.  The gardens themselves are not sacred but designed only to accentuate the beauty of the site.  They do that in spades.

Gardens and Shrine of the Bab in Haifa

Outside the Shrine of the Bab

Travelling inland we came to the Kineret, the modern term for the region around the Sea of Galilea, where Jesus held his ministry.  The view below is from the mount on which Jesus is believed to have recited his most famous sermon known as The Beatitudes

View from the Mount of the Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee

Church of the Beatitudes at the Top of the Mount

We also took the time while in Israel to visit the sights of several ancient battles and sieges.  The photo below is for all the engineers in our audience, a diagram from a re-created Roman siege engine at Gamla.  The elastic force to fire a huge crossbow bolt came from winding inch thick ropes around two pegs.  The sleek sophistication of this design seems ironically centuries ahead of the cluttering monstrosities used by Europeans during the middle ages. 

Diagram for a Roman Siege Catapult

We also visited Masada, an abandoned palace on the top of a lone massive flat-topped hill in the Judean desert, and the site of the last Jewish resistance to Roman rule after the fall of Jerusalem.  The site is remarkably well-preserved.  The Roman siege camps below have never been removed, the paint in the palace above is still intact.  Also, it’s very windy. 

Herod's Palace at Masada

The Desert View and Winds at the top of Masada

A half-hour drive from Masada is the Dead Sea, famous for having the lowest altitude of any landlocked area on Earth, and for its salt content so high that huge crystals form on the surrounding rocks, bathers float effortlessly in its waters, and exposing your mouth or eyes can sting worse than pouring lemon juice on them.  Also, peeing in it is ill-advised. 

We opted for the public beach with its cheaper entrance fee, rather than the more expensive less rocky ones nearby.  The result was that we cut our hands and feet on the crystals formed on the rocky beach as we entered and exited the water. 

Due to our concern about the salt water damaging our cameras, even our waterproof one, we instead provide the following substitute photos.

Benjy and Smiley Help us to Demonstrate Just How Much Salt
Crystallises on the Rocks on the Beaches of the Dead Sea

Bathers who are not us Floating in the Dead Sea


Arriving in Jordan, we spent a night with a Bedouin family in the desert of Wadi Rum, the area from which Lawrence of Arabia helped organise the Arab uprising against the Turks during World War I.  Also, the site of some of the most beautiful desert scenery on Earth. 
Bedouin Camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan

The Jordanian Desert Extends behind our 4x4

Aislinn Doing her Best Zoolander Impersonation

Climbing the Rocks at Wadi Rum

Next we visited the ancient city of Petra.  Built by the Nabateans, a civilization that successfully avoided Roman rule for several centuries by giving them frequent gifts, adopting their cultural mores, and avoiding becoming even remotely involved in any of their many civil wars, Petra is famous for its tombs carved directly out of the cliffs that encompass the city. 

Also the Holy Grail was kept there for several centuries by an immortal crusader knight until George Lucas, Harrison Ford, and Sean Connery blew his cover.

The Treasury at Petra, Jordan

Ancient Nabatean Road Map or Cartoon
about a Camel Named Humpy? You Decide.
 Another Section of the City at Petra

Section of a Greek Mosaic in Petra


Unexpectedly, with the Egyptian constitutional referendum only days away, all flights from Jordan to our first African stop in Dar Es Salaam seemed to route through Cairo.  Given the recent historical tendency of Egyptians to riot during times like this, we were faced with a difficult dilemma. 

Where others would have seen a crisis though, we saw an opportunity, a ‘Crisitunity’ if you will.  We booked a stay at the swankiest hotel available within a fifteen minute drive of the airport, the better to flee the country if needed.  We even used Adam’s many CAIR-related pre-trip stays with Fairmont to upgrade for free to a deluxe Executive suite.  This assured us that we could continue to live in luxury while awaiting the possible chaotic collapse of the Egyptian social order.

We then made a day-trip to the pyramids and the Egyptian museum where we were accosted by countless local Egyptians, mostly trying to sell us guide services and “I visited the pyramids” related knick-knacks.  

Later, the constitution passed without too much noticeable grumble.

Several weeks after that the riots briefly restarted for other reasons.  By this point, we had changed continents.   
The Classic Pyramids and Sphinx Shot

Adam Provides Scale to a Single Block of the Great Pyramid of Khufu

The Oldest Boat on Earth: Funerary Bark Unearthed
from in front of the Great Pyramid of Khufu

Coming next Time:

Safaris, Falls, and Indian Food: An African Experience

Monday, March 25, 2013

Byzantine Baklava

Surprisingly, Turkey is actually the 6th most visited to country in the world.  Most people are shocked to hear this.  Many have thought to indicate to us other European countries that they think of when they consider “most visited.”   Responding to those critics, we say, technically only a small portion of the country is in Europe, maybe 1/20th.  Turkey is mostly Asian.  (If you look at this map, the area north of the Sea of Marmara is the European side http://www.infoplease.com/atlas/country/turkey.html).  Questions of how European it is aside, here are the reasons this place is so awesome:

Number 1:  Baklava.  Ok, so we’ve tried baklava at home in all of its flaky, honey, nutty glory, but did you know there is more than one kind?  We went to the flagship store in Istanbul.  It’s been serving homemade baklava for over 150 years.  There are only two things on the menu:  baklava and Turkish coffee.  They offer serious competition with Baskin Robbins for the number of flavours a store can advertise. How does one choose?  Well, of course you have to try a variety, and then run a couple of back-to-back marathons to burn off the calories.  Not an issue after you have had the coffee:  you can almost stand your spoon in it.

Karakoy Gulluoglu Baklava = Nom Nom
Number 2:  The Ceilings.  As a person who has a penchant for decorating, Aislinn has always enjoyed putting together a room.  A lot of effort goes into colours, fabrics, furniture, layout, etc. but never the design of the ceiling.  It’s a good thing, because the Turks have it down to a fine science.  Even the hookah cafes (think caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland) have intricately decorated ceilings.
Suliemaniye Mosque

Topkapi Palace Harem

Hookah Café near Grand Bazaar

The Blue Mosque

Number 3:  The Grand Bazaar.  Think the One of a Kind Craft Show meets Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, only with the insistence of the squeegeers on Spadina.   We’ve never seen such a variety of items for sale:  carpets, pashminas, hookahs, bedazzled hookahs, hookah attachments, chandeliers, mother of pearl inlay boxes, t-shirts, fabrics,  cooking supplies, pottery, coffee, baklava, jewellery, Turkish delight, evil eye amulets, antiques, the list goes on and on.  Here are a few pictures of some of our favourite finds:

 Turkish Lamps
 Turkish Textiles
 Turkish Mother of Pearl Inlay Boxes
Turkish Hookahs

The Grand Bazaar
Please note the decorated ceiling  (see Number 2).

Number 4:  The Food.  We were dropped off by our airport shuttle at a square that is an assault on the senses.  Buses, cars, motorcycles, and vans honk at each other from every angle, as you try not to step on the cats that entwine themselves in your legs, and avoid tripping on the steep cobblestone streets.  En route to our hotel, we started to get worried about the vegetarian food options as we passed the 50th Doner Kebap stand.  Were we wrong!  Turkey has some of the most delicious vegetarian foods we have tried.  So much so, that Aislinn decided to go to a Turkish cooking class to learn how to make some of these dishes at home:  lentil soup, rose borek with spinach and cheese, leeks in olive oil, split belly eggplant, carrots with garlicky yogurt, purslane salad with pomegranate molasses dressing, and revani (cornbread sugar syrup cakes).   You’re all invited for dinner when we get back.  Adam will need the help.
Turkish Flavours Cooking Class

 Purslane Salad with Pomegranate Molasses Dressing

Lentil Soup 

 Rose Borek with Spinach and Cheese

Number 5:  Incredible mosques.  The 5 a.m. call to prayer is romantic and enticing but very difficult to sleep through.  When you go into the mosques and look at the architecture, you realize after several minutes that your mouth is starting dry from the jaw-dropping.   Then when you realize that the artwork is made out of individual tiles and not painted, you can hear Adam utter his favourite word:  “guffaw”?!? 
Several Famous Istanbul Mosques

The Call to Prayer
Number 6:  The Religious History.  Nothing sums this up better than the Hagia Sofia.  This museum was originally the equivalent of the Vatican for the Eastern Roman Empire (Orthodox Church).  When the Turks took over Constantinople including the Hagia Sofia, it along with the renamed city of Istanbul experienced an Islamic “makeover”.  The new mosque had everything you would expect in a cathedral in terms of layout and architecture, but instead of holy trinity frescoes, there was Arabic calligraphy in its place.  Since then, the mosque has been reclaimed as a museum and many of the Orthodox frescoes have been uncovered and restored side by side with much of the later Islamic art.  It’s quite the juxtaposition to see Arabic writing alongside Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  

 Awesome Juxtaposition
Uncovered Mosaic
Number 7:  The Star Wars Set Landscape.  One of our favourite things to learn while traveling is the myths that have been created by tour guides who are bored of the same old stories trying to ‘spice it up’.  One of those is the fallacy that Cappadocia, although Star Wars-esque in its landscape, was one of the sets from Episode III.  The soft volcanic rock landscape is dotted with ‘fairy chimneys’ which have been carved into churches and homes.  It looks like a settlement on the moon.  If Lucasfilm does do a postquel, this would definitely fit the bill.  We know this because we did some film set reconnaissance work for Mr. Lucas via hot air balloon.
View from our Cave Hotel

Reconnaissance Work for George Lucas 

Snow-Covered Cappadocia

Ballooning Over Cappadocia

Celebratory Champagne Toasting
Number 8:  The Non-Snow Covered Mountain.  As a Canadian who has avoided a full season of winter, the sight of a mountain entirely covered with the white stuff was eerily reassuring.  Upon closer inspection, we saw people walking on this white wonder with their bare feet; like some sort of reverse fire walking exercise.  The white stuff we learned was calcium deposits from the hot springs that were used for many years by the Greeks for their healing properties.  When you reach the summit of this mountain of solid white, you see the remnants of a spa town for the ancient rich and famous, including a massive cemetery for all the unfortunate souls who didn’t recover from the illnesses that brought them there.  Fortunately for tourists they have actually recreated this hot spring spa experience, complete with fallen pillars from the original town…I mean, what else are you going to do with an excess of ancient relics?
Just Swimming Next to an Ancient Pillar

Hard to Believe this is not Snow 

Enjoying the Cold-Looking Hot Springs

The View at the Top
Number 9:  Genuine Fakes.  The amount of products you can purchase in Turkey is mind-boggling.  And, everything is of course ‘genuine’:  "Miss, feel this genuine silk."  "Notice this genuine double-knotted wool."  "Yes, this is genuine Turkish pashmina."  "Sir, this is genuine handmade porcelain," etc.   When we came across a retailer who advertised exactly what he was selling, we felt he deserved to have his honesty commended publicly. 
Tells It Like It Is

Number 10: One of the original Seven Wonders of the World: Admittedly, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus has seen better days but it was here.  We swear.  Also, the coliseum where the apostle Paul got the ancient equivalent of booed off the stage while preaching to the pagan Ephesians is nearby (See the Bible for more details).  Muslim conquests aside, he probably got the last laugh.  

Extensive Ephesus

The Coliseum at Ephesus

The Library at Ephesus

The Once Wonderful Wonder of the World - The Temple of Artemis

Other favourite photos:
The Basilica Cistern

Market at the Pier of the Golden Horn

 Buying Turkish Carpets

 Fisherman Along the Golden Horn Bridge 
This Man Loved Having His Picture Taken

Recently Discovered Underground City