In some parts of Blogistan, it is fashionable to post random pictures of cute cats to waste time on a Friday afternoon. Not that I make a regular thing of it, but you really can't go wrong with animal pictures. (Okay, I take that back. This is seriously wrong.) Anyway, I ran across this in the digital shoebox-o-photos today.
A slight amendation: I correctly stated that Bethlehem is Beit Lechem (בית לחם) in Hebrew, which means "House of Bread." But I incorrectly implied that it means the same in Arabic. Close, though. To the Arabs it's Bêt lahm (بيت لحم), which means "House of Meat." So there's a neat example of linguistic radiation for you.
More BLAST: hijinx ensued when the ground team's internet connection went down not once, but twice, due to problems on two different continents. Since grad students don't need sleep and are completely immune to stress, this obviously inconvenienced nobody. Anyhow, I hear things are looking good for landing in 36 hours or so.
Finally, I will be arriving back in the U.S.A. on the 21st of June. Summer solstice, wouldn't you know? In my case, the longest day of the year is going to last 32 hours. Even if I just take civil dawn in Israel to civil dusk in Minnesota I get 24 hours, 40 minutes of daylight. So, hey, I've even got those kids in Kiruna with their midnight sun beat.
Bethlehem: Beit Lechem in Hebrew, and very similar in Arabic, means House of Bread. While no doubt the area can yield a fertile olive crop, I have trouble picturing amber waves of grain on these dusty carapaces.
I decided that it was time to visit Bethlehem, as my final few weeks here were approaching, and I'd have kicked myself if I'd failed entirely to go. Because it's there. Because it's Jerusalem's other half in this Christian Mecca. And because it's as far into the West Bank as, realistically, I'm likely to get on this trip.
Only about eight kilometers of road separate the West Bank town from East Jerusalem, so I decided to walk. Best way there is to see the land.
As I set off down Derech Hevron -- Hebron Road -- I wondered if this highway runs clear down the spine of Israel-Palestine to that particularly troubled town. Judging by the maps, my best guess is that it does, not that you could drive the whole way in any one vehicle.
Once upon a time, the road would have quickly opened up into empty countryside. Now, almost half the distance is spent overtaking the swift wave of construction spreading low-rises and good pavement ever farther afield. It's as though half the population of the city is fleeing outward just as fast as possible to escape the unrelenting tension and self-importance, while the other half rushes to settle any unoccupied hill lest some future government be tempted to offer it to the Arabs.
The transitional zone is abrupt. In the space of a couple of what will eventually be blocks, residences give way to a jumble of partial foundations and half-installed sidewalks. A few hundred meters further on, and it's over. Land they haven't yet gotten to. It's quite refreshing.
It's downhill all the way to Bethlehem, and for a considerable ways beyond that, too. After all, the Negev and Jordan basins are largely at or below sea level. Although the total descent is only a couple hundred meters, that coupled with progression towards the arid country further south leads to a noticeable ecological change. Mountain sage and conifers give way to broadleaf sage and olive trees. The rapidity of these transitions never fails to delight me; in most parts of my old stomping grounds in the American Southwest you'd have to walk all day to see such a change.
Time to place your final bets, for those of you playing along at home.
There's been speculation, there's been rumour. But now it's official, reservation in hand: I'm moving back to the States.
And because I'm just that big a tease, I'll tell you all when ... tomorrow. But be assured, it's soon.
While in Bethlehem I counted no less than three "Field(s) of the Apparition to the Sheperds" -- all separated by a considerable distance. I don't know what the geographic extent of a Heavenly Host of Angels is supposed to be, although I'm certain that theologians have debated the point somewhere along the line. Guess that would be more or less the inverse of the "how many angels on the head of a pin" query.
One of the fields is run by the (Roman Catholic) Franciscans, the other by a Greek Orthodox order. This is a fairly standard dualism, after all. A third is run by the local YMCA, as well. This is less traditional, I suppose. I'm not really certain why Khalid, my guide, insisted on taking me to all three of these sites, but he seemed pretty into them. But I wasn't paying him by the mile or by the site, so my only complaint is the tremendous number of flies infesting the cave grottoes at the two I ventured into.
Khalid was most excided about the Greek Orthodox field, I think because the monks there would be able to show me which olive trees dated back to the the Roman era and thus might have been exposed to the Heavenly Glory. Given that the planet has been flooded with olivewood carvings from Bethlehem since Byzantine days, I'd be exceedingly suprised if any tree in the area is that old, even though olive trees can in principle live that long. But I didn't tell Khalid that.
Anyway, the Latin Field appears to be associated with the oldest set of (Byzantine) ruins, so you'd think they'd have the best shot at having preserved some of the radiatively blessed trees. No such claim was made, to my knowledge. Then again, if you're trying to preserve a particular tree for thousands of years, not telling anybody might be a good strategy.
Anyhow, the Greek Field was impenetrable, so there was no ogling of supposedly-ancient branches. So off we went, to the YMCA Field. This was decidedly more tasteful than the Latin one, and the grotto was rather less fly-swarmed, too. Not an olive tree in sight, either, as the crown of this particular hill has apparently been overrun by a conifer stand.
This field also had an excellent view across a valley of the surrounding hills. Very pretty terrain. Would be nicer, though, if settlements weren't spreading like some invasive creeper across the hilltops. Besides the obvious human problem they pose, they're just too hastily erected to have a chance not to be butt-ugly.
So it turns out that Monday was a curious day to pick to be in Jerusalem. The 6th of June was Jerusalem Day, the 38th anniversary of Israeli control of the entire city. It appears that the holiday was originally "Jerusalem Liberation Day" until someone astutely noticed that a third of the city's population regarded it as a calamity. Despite the bland name, the day is still a cause for jubilation on the part of the more stridently Zionist elements in Israeli society, and yeshivas, Jewish youth groups, and settler organizations come out in force. (A few more pictures are here.)
You could tell from the orange ribbons everywhere. The anti-disengagement activists have appropriated the color orange as their symbol. Hoping to invoke Kiev, perhaps?
There was some violence to mark the occasion, but nothing too serious. I was well out of the city by the time that happened, though. As the festivities sprawled into the evening, though, the heightened security did make getting back into Jerusalem from the West Bank an interesting experience.
Sorry for not posting yesterday ... and what's going to be a fairly perfunctory post today. Long day of not working followed by long day of catching up on stuff. It happens.
Especially when you decide it's a nice day for a long stroll through the West Bank.
Took the bus into Jerusalem yesterday, from where I walked to Bethlehem. A wonderful excursion, on which details will follow when I've sorted through the photos and notes I took a bit. First impressions include: more sunscreen wouldn't have hurt; there sure ain't much oversight of who enters the West Bank; the Field of the Apparition to the Sheperds run by the Franciscan monks is less convincing than the one run by the local YMCA.
First of all, a correction is in order. Yesterday I went on at some length about my uncertainty over the relative arrangement of Jebel Katarina and Jebel Musa, and which one we were actually on. I've done some additional research on that point. Now, none of the sources I've found has a straightforward map that shows both peaks, so I've been doing as the cartographers of old, trying to piece together geography from scattered fragments of the written accounts of travelers. One of the clearest such accounts is here, although some of the dimensions cited are at variance with the otherwise commonly given values. To compare, the closest thing I've found to a map of the area is this.
The upshot is that I am now fairly certain that we were never on Jebel Katarina at all, and that the entire trail we used, and all the photos I've been displaying, are on Jebel Musa. In fact, you can see Jebel Katarina from Musa, and it appears to be a kilometer or two distant. And partially off-limits due to unexploded ordinance, to boot, from what I've read.
Moving right along, though. After having some breakfast and poking around for a bit on the summit of Jebel Musa, it was time to be moseying on down. The monastery of Santa Katerina is open to tourists starting at 9 am, so we wanted to get down by then. Once again, the Steps of Repentance awaited.
There is a traditional practice by which a Bedouin can leave a message in the desert for another encoded in the arrangement of a seemingly random pile of rocks, or rujum. On the way down, we speculated that the Steps must have been built by someone who had observed this practice, and decided to announce that "This Is the Way Down" encoded into what, to the untrained eye, appears to be a jumble of boulders.
Since some members of our party were complaining about their knees, we did not descend via the entire Steps route, but took the switchbacky camel path most of the way down. Supposedly this is in large portion the same route by which we had ascended earlier that morning, but I noticed very little of any familiarity. As different as night and day, in fact.
While doing some background research, I stumbled across this Robert Wernick essay written after he had spent some time hanging about the monastary. The location has two notable claims to fame. The monastary is named after Saint Katherine, a Roman-era martyr whose body is said to have been divinely transported to the summit of what is now called Jebel Katarina. Thence her fingers made their way to Europe and were credited for numerous miraculous healings, making her a very popular saint in those parts. Among the monastary's most prized posessions are several relics of Saint Katherine, which is saying something given the vast collection of icons and other priceless books and artwork the place has accumulated over the bast 1600 years. I'd have given a lot to have a peek in their library, but sadly that is most firmly closed to casual tourists.
The other -- and probably far more significant to most pilgrims here -- attraction of the monastary is the fact that it encloses the second claimed location of the Burning Bush. Except that theirs is rather more impressive, since the plant in question is still alive and well.
According to that Wernick essay:
The monks also maintain that it is an absolutely unique plant specimen, unlike any other on earth. Scientists contradict them on this point, they say it is a very rare plant, Rubus Sanctus, a non-fruit-bearing relative of the blackberry bramble. . Professor Joseph Hobbs, who has written the most readable and up-to-date account of the Sinai and its various forms of life (Mount Sinai, the University of Texas Press), reports that he has found six other specimens in clefts of rock in his years of rambling over the waste spaces of Arabia. But he also points out that rubus sanctus is an extremely hardy growth which can last thousands of years...
Yeah, I'm still around.
After working out the transit times and getting a late start this morning, I've postponed my planned outing to later this week. The agenda outlined in my previous post turned out to involve a non-trivial chance of winding up stranded in Bethlehem overnight. So, back to the drawing board.
On the plus side, that means I was at my computer to see a wonderfully-titled article go by on the astro-ph archive: Evolution of a Network of Vortex Loops in HeII.
So naturally I popped it open and discovered that, when viewed in a serif font, that was HeII (in astrophysics that would refer to a singly ionized helium plasma, but in a condensed matter paper it means helium in its superfluid phase). Which makes a bit more sense. Although now, I'm a bit curious as to what Infernal vortex loops would consist of.
Light blogging this weekend is a possibility. My goal is to use Jerusalem as a base of operations to explore Bethlehem and Jericho, examine the Separation Fence up close, and maybe get in some hiking in the West Bank.
This is a bit ambitious, so I'll be sure to let you all know when I get back how much of that got done.
The geology of the Sinai betrays an exciting history as the intersection point of the Syrian Arc and the Great African Rift. Both sandstone and granite formations are found in abundance, since the area has been subject both to extreme volcanic building as well as oceanic flooding and sedimentation. At one time, this whole area was an archepelago of volcanic islands in the Cretacious Tethys Ocean, of which Jebel Musa (the Mountain of Moses, or Mount Sinai) is now the second tallest.
But then, Africa ran into Eurasia, lifting up the Syrian Arc. And a while later, the African-Arabian plate decided to begin splitting in two, and the resulting valley nearly swallowed the whole region. The outcome is the abruptly transitioning ecologies of the Levant, and these stark peaks not 50 kilometers from blooming reefs.
[Update: I have since resolved the Jebel Musa / Jebel Katarina confusion. See the next post in this series.]
Getting up the steps to the summit is a bit of a bother, especially against the torrent of sightseers that pours down the mountain once they've seen their sunrise. Some of these merely started earlier or climbed faster than I did, but there's apparently a substantial number of people who climb in the evening, spend the night on the summit, and watch the sun rise. Sounds pleasant.
All bother aside, we did eventually make it up to the summit. The manager back at Habiba had been kind enough to prepare breakfast boxes for us to bring along, which were greatly appreciated at this juncture. While the trail to the peak only comes out to about seven kilometers, it rises over 1500 meters in that space, which left us a bit winded. Technically, there are two summits: Jebel Musa rises to 2286 m (7500 ft.) and Jebel Katarina at 2637 m (8651 ft.). It's actually not entirely clear to me which peak we were on, but the balance of sources I've seen put this shrine on Katarina. Since I haven't found a good trail map it's hard to say, but I think we passed over the summit of Musa on the way down from here.
Some say this shrine marks the spot where Moses spoke with God. Others claim it was built over the location of the Burning Bush -- which strikes me as odd, since the monks claim to have the original bush down in the (rather older) monastary. Both claims are a bit far-fetched. To my knowledge, there's little reason to believe the Hebrews would have passed anywhere near here on their way out of Egypt, and it positively strains credibility to propose that Moses would have been herding anything way out here when he ran across the flaming shrubbery. Nevertheless, Moses and numerous other Biblical incidents have been associated with this mountain since at least the 4th century AD.
It takes only the rumour of a Biblical connection, especially if coupled with the promise of a particularly fine sunrise, to draw tourists in droves. And even if those droves wander to the ends of the earth, it's a sure bet that someone will find a way to attend to their more materialistic impulses. I was quite impressed the first time I hiked down to the lowest chamber of the Carlsbad caverns in New Mexico, and found that a snack bar and gift shop had been installed there. Impressive feat of engineering though it may represent (primarily in the form of the elevator that whisks tourists and supplies through thousands of feet of solid rock, connecting chamber to visitors' center), it does not improve the cave. Here I found that the Bedouin have accomplished much the same feat, although with determination and donkeys instead of engineering. No doubt the hot drinks are appreciated by some, as it does get cold up there, and somebody must even buy the trinkets. But the mountain is not improved.
Earlier this week France voted Non! on the proposed EU constitution. Today the Netherlands did the same (but probably in Dutch). The Euro is tumbling, although it's still at historically high levels against the dollar. What does all this mean?
Don't ask me; I'm not the expert. But over at A Fistful of Euros, they are.
At the close of yesterday's post, dawn was breaking as we tromped along about halfway up the flank of Mt. Sinai. At this point, I suppose we'd been climbing for about an hour and a half, and only now were our eyes becoming noticably useful to navigation. Except for finding Bedouin tea houses. As I noted in this post, those shine like bonfires on the mountainside. At least to well dark-adapted eyes. While none of them is really more than a hut with shelves of drinks -- I'm really not certain how they get electricity up there, but I didn't notice any generators -- the second-largest is at the top of the camel-navigable trail, in the middle of this parking lot. For camels.
Up one goes past the camel-lot and through the narrow pass, and as I chugged along upwards seeing only sky through the gap, I briefly entertained the notion that we must be near the top. Thankfully, the path does level out for a ways, and intersects with the path to the first-aid center (another primitive-looking hut) and a few pay-toilets (largely indistinguishable from the medical hut). There's also an alternate way down from here, a stairway carved into the rock that leads back to the monastary. 3000 steps down. It's called the Steps of Repentance, for good reason I should think, especially if one headed up by that route. I thought of Frodo.
There's something I found out afterwards, though. The Steps of Repentance are actually 3750 steps.
It's interesting, actually, that Frodo's climb into the Ephel Dúath is one of my major literary points of departure for the experience of mountain hiking. There are lots of much prettier mountains in literature, after all, and even in other parts of Tolkien's work. And I quite like the things, after all. On the other hand, it's the stark mountains of the desert southwest (United States) that I'm truly closest to, which don't figure as prominently in most writing as do the snow-capped peaks of more Alpine climes. It was actually a thoroughly unusual experience for me last summer to ride a train up into the mountains from Durango, Colorado, and see snow in the high craigs. All of my snowy winters have been spent in the annoyingly flat Midwest.
So, yes, the level space in the path was altogether deceptive. Up the stairs it was for us, and now it became clear why the camels didn't venture higher. There are small donkeys that can manage the steps, and a few passed us ferrying stuff up and down, but I doubt they could manage anybody larger than a child. So I'm going to have to declare the summit of Mt. Sinai not handicapped-accessible.
We were about halfway up the Steps when the sun rose.
The Minnesota crew is busy this week hosting the spring meeting of the American Astronomical Society. It's a fair bet that gamma ray bursts will crash the party, but besides that I expect the usual scuttlebutt about NASA's funding adventures and where oh where is that second-year WMAP data? Let them be advised that juicy astronomy gossip is always welcome in the comments.
Since I've got nothing so exciting going down this week, it's a good time to rummage through the photo archive. This will be the first of a series of such posts covering the trip to Mt. Sinai last month.
The traditional way to see Mt. Sinai is as a predawn climb, so as to experience sunrise from the summit. For $20 a piece a local fellow (who I gather does mostly this) picked up the lot of us at Habiba around 1 AM. By "the lot of us" I mean myself, my dorm-mate Olivia, postdoc from her lab Tau, and an Israeli couple also staying on the beach there. And by 1 AM I mean 1 o'clock Sinai Standard Time, about 1:30 or so. Not a problem, as the drive is long and uneventful. For a couple of hours we variously dozed and watched the stars as we sped up into the mountains by moonlight.
After passing various Egyptian checkpoints where our visas were inspected, our entry fees paid, and our driver generally hassled, we were dropped rather unceremoniously at a trailhead. Not being able to, precisely speaking, see the trail, we hired a young Bedouin to guide us up. Waste of money. His guidance consisted of walking in our general vicinity, and once our eyes adapted to the dark the trail is well marked, if rather easy to stumble on. I wouldn't want to try this hike on a moonless night, though.
The reason our night vision hadn't yet kicked in is that the trail begins at the feet of the fortresslike Santa Katarina monastary, which appears to have recently redone the ancient battlement lights in a tasteful sodium vapour glare. They can't actually be that bright, since the light doesn't diffuse much past the immediate vicinity, but when setting off down a rocky path two hours before dawn, it's enough. Passing it under these conditions leaves a fragmentary impression of towering walls and dark bulk looming somewhere above. It could have been the size of a brownstone or of the Old City for all we could make out.
Visually, the hike begins as a moonscape, then, as the stars slide by above and the moon casts the barren mountainscapes in marbled gray. Otherwise it is an aural experience. The shuffling and snorting of camels carries on the breeze whistling lightly over bare rocks. The breath in my throat and my boots on the gravel as we clomped up and up and up. The murmur and rumour in the air reminded me that the solitude was illusory, that the mountainside was brimming with the hushed voices of other travelers making the same trek.
Then the sunrise begins.
I'm noticing a pattern. I'm not saying they're out to get me or anything, but the camels are definitely keeping an eye on me.
Yes, yes, the beaches of the Sinai are camel infested. Nothing suprising about finding 'em there. And on the whole, I'd have to say that the mountains and much-needed exposure to sunshine made up for the fact that three or four would amble by an something like an hourly basis. Some of them were being driven by kids clearly trying to interest ... well, anyone ... in a camel ride. You learned to avoid making eye contact after a while. Others were on some obscure camel-y mission of their own, that seemed also to involve a lot of ambling up and down the beach, but with less of the persistent ride-hawking.
And sometimes, they'd just sit around. I think they figured they could just wait us out. That, or they were operating as some sort of fixed base camp for the kids.
But check this out.
That's right, they found me in Chicago, too.
Yes, I was at the zoo. But it's not like I asked to go visit the African quadruped pens, or the zoo for that matter. In fact, I was as suprised as anyone else on the bus when we wound up there. Some people blame the Scavhunt judges. I suspect a deeper, humpbacked, agency at work here.
Just a quick astrophotography post today, continuing my creeping efforts to go through the pictures from the Sinai weekend.
The full moon fell on our last night in Habiba that weekend, which actually rather annoyed me, since that meant we'd had a nearly-full moon in the evening sky every night we'd been there. Hence no tasty dark skies to enjoy. But the moon is also photogenic, so I made do.
Even the detailed map of the Sinai doesn't show anything on the Saudi coast of the Red Sea opposite Nuweiba, but those lights at the waterline were definitely some kind of settlement. Looking northeast, we could easily make out the port towns of Haql and Al-Humayda further up the coastline, although dust or mist reduced Eilat and Aqaba to fuzzy lights on the northern horizon. Still, a solid 40-kilometer clear line of sight at sea level over water is pretty good. The mountaintops outlined by the rising moon are, at a best guesstimate, about 20-25 kilometers distant.
Back in Rehovot today, it's about 24 hours after I set out from Minneapolis, but my biological clock is supposed to believe that it's more like 32. Gave John a bit of a run-around on the way to the airport when I forgot my passport, but it's been an uneventful transit since then. So for want of anything more timely to report, I give you ... coastal invertibrates of the Red Sea.
Recall if you will, that I spent a weekend in the Sinai last month, hanging out on the beach and hiking in the mountains. I have a rather large backlog of photographs to sort through, which will make good filler material for the blog every now and then. On a good day I might even string them together into an interesting and analytic narrative, but today I'm just going for passably coherent filler, since I'm jet lagged and still a bit under the weather.
On any reasonably healthy beach, a fascinating tidal pool ecosystem develops with each low tide, during which smaller fauna colonize the standing bodies of water left behind in depressions on the beach. Since these areas are re-submerged with each high tide, a diverse array of aquatic flora can thrive there as well. They are similar in many ways to a reef in miniature: abundant solid attachment points and shelter from predators; plenty of sunlight to drive photosynthesis; periodically strong currents replenish the oxygen and nutrients in the water. However, life in a tidal pool is much easier to photograph, since all this takes place in water only a few centimeters deep!
Going out a little further, this beach turns moderately rocky before giving way to sandy seabed. In some areas, this develops into full-blown coral reef, but not here. However, plenty of interesting life inhabits this zone as well. The challenge is to photograph it, since without a submergable camera waves will interfere with any attempt to take pictures from above. In the Red Sea, though, this problem occasionally solves itself. Since the Red Sea is only tenuously connected to the larger oceans, very little wave energy makes it in through the Strait of Tiran, meaning that on a day when the air is sufficiently still the waves can die away completely for a time. The resulting silence is quite eerie for a beach, but this temporary lull allows for wonderful photographic opportunities.
I spent a long weekend on the Sinai peninsula in Egypt with Olivia, a student from my dorm, and Tau, a postdoc from her lab. I'll get around to all the fiddly details in good time, but at the moment I'm pretty busy catching up on this and that. So I'll summarize, and fill in the gaps later.
Last Thursday night was spent on the midnight bus to Eilat, about a five hour trip. Still shorter than the bus ride from Minneapolis to Chicago. Eilat is the city at the very southern tip of Israel, occupying a narrow chunk of coastline at the northern point of the Gulf of Aqaba. Jordan is five kilometers to the east; Egypt is about as far west. We arrived circa 5 am, napped on the beach until we could find breakfast, and took off for the Egyptian border.
The border crossing was crowded but uneventful, and once across we walked into the town of Taba to catch a bus to Nuweiba. Supposedly there's a big port there somewhere, but from where we were, it appears to be little more than a long row of beach hotels, resorts, camps, and diving clubs. Most of which aren't open, or even finished. Quiet place, on the whole. We stayed in a cute little cluster of cabins and huts called Camp Habiba.
Besides the usual sort of beach stuff, we got out into the desert twice. One trip was a short hike -- more like a scramble, in places -- through the so-called Colored Canyon, a twisting wind-eroded wadi that cuts through the low-lying sandstone strata. The other was a more serious expedition, a climb up Mount Sinai by moonlight to watch the sunrise from the top, after which we descended to the Santa Katerina monastary. Finally, my boots look like they've seen some action.
Back to the Taba crossing Tuesday morning, I caught an early afternoon bus to Tel Aviv from Eilat. Olivia and Tau stayed on to do some more snorkelling, but I have work to do, since I'm only here for a couple of days before heading out again.
Well, I'm back from Egypt. A lovely time was had by all, with minimal hassle at border checkpoints. I have a pile of email to get to, which I'll hopefully get around to in the next 24 hours or so. After which, I'll start posting details of the trip.
There's lots of work to do before I leave for the States Thursday night, so I don't actually have time to catch up on five days of happenings in the next two-and-a-half. Do me a favor. If you think I'm missing something crucial in the world, post a comment about it. Links make my life even better.
Heading to Sinai for the weekend with some compadres from the dorm, this seems a fair opportunity for another map post. After all, some of you have expressed an interest in keeping up with my whereabouts.
The Sinai is cut off from Egypt proper to the west, and Saudi Arabia to the east, by the two branches of the Red Sea, the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, respectively. To get there, I will take a five-hour bus ride from Rehovot down to Elat (this is about half the length of the ride from Minneapolis to Chicago) on Israel's few-kilometer-long strip of Red Sea beach squeezed in between Egypt and Jordan. From there it's a short taxi ride to the Taba crossing.
A hotel in Taba was the target of the large bombing in the Sinai last fall, so there's a big debate whether that will suppress the crowds heading south this season. The general feelings is that it probably won't, since almost nobody (myself included) actually stays in the big resort hotels. Like most everyone else, I will be staying in a small cabin in a little beach town.
If you're only going to the Sinai, Egypt will automatically give you a tourist visa at the border crossing. It's much more of a hassle to get a visa to, say, visit the pyramids. From there we'll catch a shared taxi down to Nuweiba (Nuway'bi') where we're staying. In addition to lounging and snorkeling in the reef, we definitely plan to hike in the Colored Canyon. If it looks reasonable, a trip to St. Catherine's Monastary would also be in order. Pictures and further discussion to follow, obviously, when I get back.
At the rate I'm going, I'm going to run out of pages in my passport within the year. Should have gotten the extended version.
Some of my excursions are fascinating for opening a new place to explore. Others are no less interesting purely because I get to interact with people who aren't grad students in the hard sciences at the Institute. Good folks here, but it can be very insular. This weekend was of the latter type.
Thursday was Lynn's birthday, and since she's befriended us Americans adrift in the dorm, the pack of us tromped up to Herzliyya to attend the celebrations. She was staying with a childhood friend of hers (she discovered, many years after the fact) in what used to be the small town where she grew up, and which is now a quaint northern suburb of Tel Aviv.
There were adventures on mass transit. There was multilingual chatting over pizza, which I followed to varying degrees. There was serial delegation of the music selection, chased by serial mocking of each attendee's musical tastes. And since Lynn got her degree and cute accent in the UK, there was scotch, tea, and Irish cream, not intended for simultaneous consumption.
A lovely time was had by all, until we crashed en masse in the spare room, the floor of which had been completely tesselated with those foam mattresses you had naptime on in kindergarten.
[Update: Edited to use what is evidently the accepted transliteration of Herzliyya. I still think "Hertziliya" better reflects how it is pronounced.]
Lynn's friend lives in a delightfully rambling house, along with his older sister who runs a daycare out of the back yard, various acquaintances who rent rooms, and a golden retriever large and active enough to count as an inhabitant and a half. The daycare was gracious enough to provide numerous kid-sized mattresses, which seems to come in handy for sleepovers. The dog was gracious enough not to burst in and trample us all in our sleep, or beat us to death with his tail. And since the coast was in easy walking distance, it was declared that breakfast would be taken on the beach. The Mediterranean is still pretty chilly, but the sandstone cliffs are fairly made of perfect skipping stones. Rough life, these kids have.
"Here, you just want a normal life, everyone feels he has to fight for every little thing. ... It's not the Arabs. It is between us," said Tom(?) while giving us a lift to the train station. Among at least some of the younger Israelis, there is a gnawing feeling that Israel can't last as it is. The Palestianians aren't seen as likely to ever get their act together enough to be a threat. The problem is Israelis. Too contentious; the place won't hold together. Every young Israeli I've talked to agrees on one thing -- they all want out.
There's a selection effect at work here. There aren't a whole lot of hilltop youth or ultra-Orthodox types in my immediate circle. Clearly, they would take a divergent view.
Back in Rehovot now. We ate Shabbat dinner up on the roof, and I briefly waxed pedagogical as the stars came out. Some of you would recognize bits of my standard public night shpiel.
Last night while buying nuts, I was approached by one of the servers at the cafe next door. He asked if he'd seen me at the Disengagement demonstration. I said that he had; I recognized him from the Rehovot bus. He said that it's good to know there's people like me in Rehovot.
That made my night. As promised, pictures from the demo.
Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) organized this demonstration as a counterweight to the regular protests held by the Yesha Council and other right-wing, pro-settler Zionist groups opposed to the Disengagement. As such, it put everyone there is the rather odd circumstance of demonstrating in favor of a government policy. This is being blamed for the notably low turnout relative to expectations -- most Israeli liberals (or whatever you care to call that large Israeli majority that generally wants nothing more to do with Gaza), it is thought, simply couldn't bring themselves to come out in favor of the hated Sharon.
And there's also the fact that, even before the demonstration, the withdrawal from Gaza was pretty much a done deal -- and now it's done, signed, and funded. So its supporters could be forgiven for not quite seeing the point of rallying for it. Nevertheless, it was getting absurd to have these gigantic weekly anti-disengagement protests in Jerusalem going entirely unanswered.
There were only three or four major sign designs present at the rally; very few people had brought their own. I, like most people, just picked one up from the giant piles in Rabin Square. Shalom Achshav is an old and experienced organization, which clearly understands that the modern protest is primarily a media event. Message discipline is essential to be effective. American protests aren't very good at this.
The slogans are pretty straightforward. The big blue signs read "Israel is getting out of Gaza" -- punchier in Hebrew. The squatting stick figure is captioned, "You know when you have to go," which I think would be a tad scatalogical for an American media event. Many were carrying simple placards in big bold red and black that read "Peace Now."
The crowd was enthusiastic and the speakers had some fire, but in the end I don't know that this march accomplished a whole lot. Of course, as far as the greater narrative goes, the Disengagement was never very likely to be derailed, and unless a huge number of people had come out this event couldn't reasonably be expected to make it even less likely. If it had been better managed, the Israeli Left could have used the present state of affairs to reenergize its base. But it hasn't done that, and Ha'aretz continues to print a daily litany of bitter op-eds about Labor's failure to even try to steer the unity government.
A couple of weeks ago I spent a weekend in Jerusalem, mostly poking around the Old City with my roommates. I've previously posted about that trip here and here. One thing I'm especially pleased we managed to do, given the season, was to join in the Friday Via Crucis.
Each Friday afternoon the Franciscan monks process down the Via Dolorosa, visiting each of the Stations of the Cross -- the Via Crucis (See my post with a map of the Old City. The first nine Stations are marked with circled Roman numerals; the last few are inside the Holy Sepulchre). While this is generally a low-key affair drawing the odd handful of pilgrims, during Lent this swells into a major event drawing hundreds.
As it'll be Easter in a few minutes, my time, this'll be my tip of the hat to the departing Lenten season1.
The Franciscan Order has always been big on outreach, so I suppose it makes sense that for the past seven hundred years they've been the designated Custodians of the Holy Places here. Thus I don't make any attempt to obsessively photodocument the Via Crucis, because the Franciscans have already done so -- feel free to skip past the rather over-wrought narrative to the photos. (And, might I add, with surprisingly high quality web design compared to most religious outfits.)
The pilgrims gather at the first Station, on the site of the Roman fortress where Jesus is thought to have been sentenced. It's now the courtyard of an Islamic college adjoining the Temple Mount. Judging by the doodles on the bulletin board by the entrance, they've also got some elementary school programs. The above web site describes el-Omariye college as "of little architectural interest" due to its rather low age, only a couple of hundred years.
It's worth noting that, while the sites along the Via Dolorosa vary widely in age, almost nothing there is remotely contemporary to the Roman era. The whole thing's been knocked down and rebuilt umpteen times since then, as you'd expect in a functioning city. Under the Ecce Homo convent (the third station) is apparently an excavated section of Roman cobblestone roadway, which they like to claim are the actual stones Jesus would have walked on2. However, most of the markers and shrines are post-Crusader constructions located on the basis of tradition and speculation. For instance, one building wall along the route sports an engraving claiming that Jesus leaned against one of its blocks as He passed; the stone in question is worn smooth and black, with a recognizable handprint depression to boot. Judging by the rest of the stones in that wall, I'd be very suprised if it's over two or three hundred years old.
An acoustically and linguistically delightful moment results from the fact that both the Franciscans and the Imams operate on exact Jerusalem solar time. At the very moment the Franciscans begin chanting the opening prayers of the procession -- five friars, taking turns, each in a different language -- the Muslim call to Friday prayers begins. From a loudspeaker atop the minnaret of every mosque in Jerusalem, including the one immediately above our heads, a muezzin sings the Adhan, which is moving even if you don't know any Arabic. The combination is completely unintelligible, but quite beautiful.
The procession isn't, and shouldn't be thought of as, a parade. For one thing, there's no attempt to clear the streets for us, although at the height of Lent, the throng accomplishes that by sheer mass. In fact, on many occasions the municipal police had to prod the crowd aside to ensure that some kind of path remained open, especially when we were on the main thoroughfares of the Suk. This, incidentally, is one of the better ways to window shop in the Old City, since among such great numbers one can admire the goods openly without the risk of being summarily whisked into a shop by a merchant who has noticed your interest.
I'm pretty sure there was one or more people carrying big crosses towards the front of the procession, and of course there was the gaggle of Franciscan monks, but for the most part it was a gigantic blob of tourists, pilgrims, and locals oozing its way through the Old City. I should really do the procession again sometime when there won't be a couple thousand people crowding around me, to get a better sense for the actual sites.
The Via Dolorosa dead-ends at the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, as seen here. Afterwards the Via Crucis dives through several interconnected buildings before spilling out into the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre. Unlike the sites at street level, some of these subterranean passageways and chapels clearly are a thousand years old or more. One quick way to tell: the graffiti is carved into the stones, is almost as blackened as the surrounding rock, and includes the coat of arms of the carver. Sounds like Crusaders to me.
The Sepulchre itself is sometimes called the most-destroyed building in the world, since there has been some kind of church there since 335 CE. The Holy Sepulchre article in Wikipedia gives a nice overview of the place's tumultuous history. The impression I took from it is that the oldest large structures probably date from the eleventh century, although bits and pieces are older still.
1 No fair getting all pedantic and pointing out that Lent actually ended on Thursday.
2 That might even be true.
Astro-Tiyul continued on from Pura to Kibbutz Be'eri and the nearby nature reserve.
An excerpt from the notes I took on the road back home illustrates my impressions:
...fields dotted with raised berms, abandoned ammunition dumps of the British army. The roads also clearly dated back to the Mandate, too. Even older, Byzantine cisterns poked from one hill, near an improbable -- if very small -- waterfall.
I could see Gaza in the distance, faint through dust-bleached sky. I could probably have walked up to the fence.
The Gaza Strip is hardly Mordor, but sometimes it might as well be, spoken of as it is, as a bogeyman land of danger and foes. So this verdant land between the road and the fence, littered with the detrius of old rulers and past wars, has a distinctly Ithilien quality.
Even during the supposed "greening" of the desert, the Negev around Gaza is still desolate country. While we found a good deal of grass and flowering near the seasonal streams, the fields in between are a dusty, dry affair. This is an ecologically curious observation, since the Strip is beachfront property. My understanding is that the prevailing winds tend to blow either due east or due west. Farther north, such as around Tel Aviv and Haifa, this means that dry mountain air alternates with Mediterranean moisture, and the ecology is appropriately subtropical. Here in the Negev, though, the changing weather merely switches between Arabian and Sahara dessication. (See here for a map of the wider region.)
The combination of lots of Egyptian tanks and a large Palestinian city kept Israel from conquering Gaza in '48, but it and the Sinai Peninsula fell in the war of '67. Egypt eventually agreed to make nice with Israel in exchange for the peninsula, which was fine by Sharon and company since that had never really been considered part of the Land of Israel. Even so, the howls of protest over uprooting the Sinai settlements apparently bore striking resemblance to today's state of affairs.
Sometimes I do something worthwhile with my weekends. This was one of them.
If the photo was much larger, you might be able to see me over on the left. Later, I'll post my own photos and observations.
Yishrael yiotzat me'azza!
St. Patrick's Day is yet another fond holiday that is sadly lacking in Israel. Tempting as it is to go around pinching people for not wearing green (this would be everyone, actually), I think I'd just be getting strange looks.
They're kickin' back green margaritas in San Antonio. Connor's got your coverage of the festivities in Chicago. As for myself, there's an Irish-ish pub down the road a way, so I'll have to pop down after work and grab me a Guiness. Perhaps while affecting a ludicrous Irish accent. (By the by, this post is much funnier if you read it with one.)
For those of you far enough north that green is not yet a widespread color, here's a wee reminder of what it's like. Despair not, me laddies and lasses. Spring'll be around before you know it.
A couple of weekends a year, generally in mid- to late-February, half of Israel takes to the highways and strikes out for the desert. This time around, I was one of them. On the heels of the brief annual desert monsoon, all manner of magnoliophyta are desperately at work generating a fresh year's supply of dormant seed. For a couple of weeks, the desert was in bloom, and no good Israeli was going to miss their chance to gawk and trample.
A native-born Israeli is sometimes called a sabra, after the sabra cactus, a close cousin of the prickly pear cactus common back home in the drier parts of America. Supposedly they're prickly and tough, but sweet inside. I think so far I've only had dealings with the outside parts. While this is a sort of cactus given to stands of respectable size, this bush is certainly one of the larger that I've run across. I should have thrown someone in so the picture would have some scale. Suffice to say, the upper bits are four or five meters high.
At the height of the great flower outings, my officemate declared the first Astro-Tiyul for our department. (Tiyul is a Hebrew word for, as best I can translate, a nature walk.) On a Saturday morning in late February we piled into cars and sped south. Until we ran into all the other cars, crawling south as well. A popular Israeli website had evidently announced the very park we were heading for as the top destination for the weekend, and it would seem the advice was widely heeded. So, upon arriving at the Pura Nature Reserve we, along with several thousand others, tromped off over the suprisingly verdant hills to experience the greenery. Thankfully most of them had the sense to keep mainly to the paths, so there was still some left for us.
The most famous and sought-after flower of this season is Anemone coronaria. It's common name is the poppy anemone, but I much prefer what you get if you translate the Greek and Latin roots of its name: the crowned windflower. A striking flower singly, the Israeli Negev is supposedly one of the few places where it ever blooms in large numbers.
Walls can be some of the most enduring traces of settled civilization. The smallest, most primitive village may leave only the foundations of building walls for archeologists to find. They also become symbols of ancient power -- the Chinese emperors walled out Mongolia, Hadrian cut Britain in two, and in the end we gawk at the boundaries centuries after their usefullness has faded.
Small wonder then, that the Palestinians doubt Israel's claim that the Separation Fence is a strictly temporary security measure.
I spent Saturday morning walking along the ramparts of the wall surrounding Jerusalem's Old City. Although built only about 500 years ago by Suleyman the Magnificent, Jerusalem has been surrounded by some kind of wall in much the same location for most of the past 3000 years. Until modern times the wall existed, like most city walls, to keep invading armies at bay. Jerusalem doesn't seem to have had notable success with this tactic, though. Nowadays, though, I get the sense it's seen more as keeping Old Jerusalem in, preventing the antiqueness, the religious orthodoxy and ancient grudges, from spilling out and overwhelming the nice, modern New Jerusalem.
This is a land of walls.
Saturday the weather was lovely. Sunny and warm, but with just enough moisture in the air to keep dust from obscuring the view. For most of the walk, there's not a great deal to see on the inside, because the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate rises above eye level just across the road from the wall. This tends to be the case, since the wall isn't very tall on the inside -- only a couple of stories. I can only surmise that there's a great deal of fill and rubble underneath, because the outer face of the wall drops at least five or six stories to the hillside below. Although I've seen a number of doors and gratings at street level, always mounted low on a building wall, that lead to a lower passageway or corridor. This makes me think that the city goes farther down than it lets on to the casual tourist.
The dominating division in the Old City isn't Jewish versus Muslim or old against new. It's inside as opposed to out. On the streets and walkways, I am always hemmed in by building walls, but it's never an obstacle. The roads interconnect freely, and structures routinely vault overhead rather than obstruct the flow of pedestrians. And given how often the buildings are joined by bridges, archways, and other joints, I tend to suspect that commerce among the residents is also easy. The view from above suggests there are lots of shared, enclosed courtyards, too.
However, with the exception of public places like churches and restaurants, there's never an obvious way in.
The boundaries are less obvious elsewhere in Israel. The Weizmann Institute is surrounded only by a dense hedge -- until more intrepid probing reveals a barbed wire fence hiding within. Israeli villages aren't walled off, but I do get my bags searched on the way into the bus station, and a more thorough screening awaits when we disembark in Jerusalem. On the other hand, it's apparently not uncommon in the occupied Territories to pass through multiple checkpoints while walking to work.
At eight meters high and made of solid concrete, the Fence sure looks permanent to me. Yes, the Berlin Wall also came down. But first the people on both sides had to want that. So far, it doesn't look good.
It was discovered that my Ukranian roommate had never visited Jerusalem in his several months here. My Jewish American roommate was already planning to spend the weekend there with friends, and suggested we tag along. Thus early Friday morning -- but not quite as early as we'd planned -- it was off with us to the bus station.
Early was a necessity since Shabbat begins an hour before sunset Friday afternoon. Jerusalem (and Israel in general) being the sort of place it is, with the arrival of Shabbat the buses stop running and most Jewish-operated businesses shut down. While cabs can still be caught during Shabbat, they get scarcer and more expensive. This made the Old City a logical base camp for our wanderings, since it's dense with interesting things to do and see. After all, there's just not that many genuine walled cities left in the world.
It's a quick bus ride from the central bus station to the Old City, but we'd gotten a late start and there had been some nastry traffic getting out of the Tel Aviv area, so it was pushing well into afternoon by the time we arrived at the Jaffa Gate. Falafel was in order. It should be noted that, like everything else near the Jaffa Gate, the falafel is overpriced and subpar. Still better than any meal you can have in Rehovot for 10 shekels.
Having a couple of days to kill, I took quite a few photos on this trip. In the interest of length and presentation, I'll post a selection of them over the next few days. Below, the narrative overview of my weekend.
The first order of business was to wander generally in the direction of the Temple Mount, since Sam (American roomie) was told by a fellow on the bus that the tunnels under the Mount might still be open. This involved threading our way through the Armenian and Jewish quarters (by all means, refer to the map of the Old City). While many bits of the Old City look pretty much the same, it's still easy to navigate thanks to its size. Just pick a direction and keep heading that way at intersections. Even so, there is no point at which you can see very far, which means that the major sights tend to come up at you rather suddenly.
So it was with the above picture. One minute we're wending through closely packed cafes and gift shops, when we abruptly come out onto a terrace overlooking this scene.
Down some stairs and through an airport-grade security checkpoint, we came to a big open plaza bounded on one side by the Western Wall. Probably the largest open space in the Old City not on the Temple Mount. Wearing a head cover (preferably a yalmuke, unless you're a member of one of the Orthodox sects that mandates a specific gigantic hat) is obligatory to approach the wall; there's a bucket of cardboard skullcap affairs for the likes of myself, which meant I spent the entire time using one hand to keep the thing from blowing off my head.
The tunnels weren't open after all, so I suggested we instead check out the Via Crucies. Every Friday afternoon the Franciscan monks lead a procession down the Via Dolorosa, along which are the original Stations of the Cross, ending at the Church of the Sepulchre. During Lent this is a serious affair, drawing perhaps a thousand pilgrims. More on this in its own post.
Afterwards we wandered a bit in the Arab market, centered around Suq El-Bazaar road, until Alexi (the Ukranian) suggested we find food. Specifically falafel. Since most Arab shops shut down at sunset, this meant heading back to the Christian Quarter and lots of asking around. Falafel was had, at the correct price this time, if still a bit lacking in construction. Alexi had two. He would later get hungry again, which prompted us to try a Chinese restaurant we found still open.
We spent the night in the dorm apartment of some of Sam's friends at Hebrew University, which was largely deserted since most of his friends were camping in Jordan at the time. They're packed in pretty tight, and are not tidy people. I now have a much enhanced appreciation for the dorm here at Weizmann. Given two empty beds and three of us, I opted to sleep on the floor in Sam's sleeping bag, because a glance at the sheets convinced me that it would probably be the most hygenic option.
Saturday Sam was scheduled to eat the Shabbat meal with a family he knows in Jerusalem, so we took a cab back to the city center and Alexi and I set off on our own. He wanted more falafel, so I took him to a place in East Jerusalem that has the best (and cheapest) that I've found so far. My guide book suggested walking around the Old City atop the city wall, which seemed appealing since the weather had turned beautiful overnight. Only the southern section was open (the northern section adjoins the Muslim Quarter and East Jerusalem, so I suppose it was considered dangerous or some such), which runs from the Jaffa Gate around the Armernian Quarter almost to the Western Wall plaza. Many good photos were taken, which deserve their own post.
Our quest to find Alexi a restroom led us to the Armenian Museum, which has about three rooms in what I think is a wing of the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate. I should post on the Armenians some time, being as they are yet another people in the region with a long and tragic history.
Then it was time to meet up with Sam, and Alexi suggested (more!) falafel. He claims that he doesn't even particularly like falafel -- this was the first time he'd had it -- but that he simply can't turn down a meal that cheap. I'm not quite sure I buy that. Five falafel pitas in two days is quite a lot. Then we hung out in a nearby park for a bit, but as the temperature dropped precipitously upon sunset, we opted to start moving again. With nothing open yet, Alexi couldn't be bothered to wait for the buses to start running again, so we set out to walk back to the bus station. It's at least a couple of miles, mostly uphill since the city center is in a valley.
Resting my feet on the ride home was a real treat.