Monday, September 28, 2009

Cairo. The real deal.

The next day was our first day in the country of Egypt.

It was pretty exciting to get up in the morning and rush on to the bus to drive across the Sinai. I was excited not only to get to the actual, traditional part of Egypt, but to cross the famed Sinai. Yeh, I’ve crossed the desert on my way to Utah, and the day before had driven through the Negev, but this was my first HUGE desert, so inhospitable that the only real population by the Red Sea are nomads. But first came the border crossing.

Talk about a long wait. When we came to the Gulf of Aqaba, we had to grab all our stuff and disembark into the hot sun -- the beautiful view of the pristinely blue sea was helpful, I must say. It seemed to take forever to get through the line and out of the bureaucracy of Israeli checkpoints just to enter the Egyptian side. I paused at the sign which said "Welcome to Egypt!" in English and "Marhaba bukra Misr" in Arabic (which I was stoked that I could read, btw) and took pictures. Then we rushed across the line and into Egypt.

Realizing that I was suddenly in one of the oldest kingdoms on the entire planet was dumbfounding. Were it not for my exhaustion and general heat stroke, I would likely have been bouncing up and down like the Energizer Bunny. The Egyptian policemen wear antiquated uniforms--all white with a leather belt which has an extra leather strap that wraps over the shoulder. It was like a last vestige of the colonial period of the Middle East, or of the Ottoman Empire. For some blasted reason, Egyptians never quite adopted the air conditioner. That means in almost every building we went (other than our hotels) it was just as hot as outside and frequently more stuffy.

People had warned me about the Middle Eastern tendency to cut into lines but I'd forgotten. As I stood there in the line, I got progressively farther and farther back due to the nonchalant groups of other people who would stride up to somewhere in the middle of the line and slyly integrate themselves into it. Thankfully we were saved from being in the line for the next week because the Egyptian checkpoint passport-people realized we were just a huge group of extremely harmless Americans, so they called us to come to our own separate line so we could get through it.

Once we were on the other side, we had the fabulous opportunity to experience our first Egyptian bathroom -- meaning, no toilet paper ever (they generally have someone standing outside who, for a few Egyptian pounds --about 5 to a dollar -- will give you two or three squares of paper), toilets which actually operate only half the time, and typically no soap or paper towels. We never encountered a bathroom without running sinks though, thankfully. Because of the numerous warnings we'd received, we used hand sanitizer obsessively. I became very paranoid about touching anything after going into that bathroom. It was not pleasant.

After that little adventure, we trundled onto the bus which was as colorfully decorated as a fiesta, and started off into the Sinai. The water of the Red Sea is transfixingly beautiful -- it’s this shade of blue you can hardly believe is real because it’s dark but clear and bright at the same time. Sort of like the night sky just before the first stars appear, but more brilliant. Soon though, we had passed into the mountains which were just as starkly empty of plants as the mountains in the Negev.

When we emerged from the mountains, we spent the next five hours driving through flat land where the only trees were telephone poles and the only life was old men running dirty way stations, that is, except for the checkpoints. I couldn't quite figure out why there were so many of them. You would think they would only need to check you a couple times to make sure you weren't Israeli terrorists or smugglers, not to mention there was only one road you could drive through most of the desert anyway. Yet this was the scene of several recent major wars, from the Suez war with France and England on one side and Egypt on the other, to the 1967 War where Israel conquered all of the Sinai and kept it until the Camp David peace accords.

At the check points, they'd have us stop for a minute and they'd talk to our bus driver for a moment in hypersonic Arabic. Several other soldiers, either in their distinctive camo or the white police uniforms, would unabashedly stare at us until the engine revved and we were off again.

I listened to my iPod for a while, unfortunately, I only have exercise music on it so my ears were full of Linkin Park and Green Day. The music did make it easy to imagine the soldiers of so many generations who'd traversed this wasteland on their way to Israel or to Egypt. Soon though, I became absorbed in a conversation with one of my favorite people on the trip, Yassir from Cairo. He’s one of our tour assistants who has been coming with BYU students on this excursion for years. He spoke with me in Arabic as frequently as I could understand him, and he taught me about Islam, Egypt and his life in Cairo. It was fascinating to see it from the perspective of a native Muslim, and I found him to be amiable and intelligent. As I had been warned by my Arabic professor, he soon pulled out his cell phone to show me his beautiful family: twins, a little boy and girl. In turn I showed him what pictures I have of my family on my camera. The trip seemed a lot shorter with him for company, though he did have a habit of speaking so softly that I had to strain to understand him. Like most middle-aged Muslim men, he had a calloused bruise on his forehead from his daily prayers. I became very accustomed to seeing it all over Egypt.

In the late afternoon, we passed under the Suez Canal which we weren't able to see except for the huge ocean liners passing over it. Someone in our group held her breath the entire time we were passing under the canal in the large, curving tunnel. It was extremely impressive. I tried on the way back and failed miserably. When we emerged, we had left the Sinai and were officially, indisputably in Africa.

I have now been on four different continents. It was a very cool thought.

At first, Egypt was almost exactly like the Sinai, but then the city of Cairo began to emerge. It holds 14 million people and is the biggest city in all of Africa as well as the 16th biggest city in the world. And, as Egypt is a third world country, it is extremely poor for the most part.

This may help you imagine what it looks like: You know those games where you can construct a building? It starts with just the outside, the walls, roof and floor, in only brick or cement. In Cairo, there was a lot of brick. So imagine a high rise apartment building with nothing but the shell of the walls, roof and floor. Then hang laundry out of the windows, break off a few pieces, put a rusty bike on the balcony and makeshift shutters on the window. Put hundreds upon hundreds of these buildings next to each other, of slightly varying heights and levels of dilapidation, Middle Eastern people in traditional Arab clothing, headscarves and out-of-date western clothing, cars which squeal around corners, bicycles and carriages, a Mosque or ruin every few hundred yards, lots of smells -- most unpleasant, and a strange film of grime over everything, and you have greater Cairo. This was essentially what I saw of it while there. This may sound mostly negative, and it was difficult to see people living in such squalor, but I did not get the impression that along with the poverty the people were unhappy. On the contrary, they seemed to be contented with their lives and happy with the communities surrounding them. Yet no one deserves to live in streets full of filth. I can see why people devote their whole lives to charities employed in aiding these countries. But in all this, I'm forgetting a major part of Cairo -- the Nile.

The first time we drove over it on a large, freeway bridge, I clapped my hands in joy and gasped. It is everything it should be, wide, meandering, blue (at least from the surface) and edged by bright green papyrus and tiny houses made of straw. The delta together with the Nile is the most stunning combination of color. Dark, dark brown, every shade of green thinkable, yellow from the shacks of papyrus, and the blue Nile. It was almost shocking to look from such verdancy to the cement, metal and brick of the city. On the Nile sailed feluccas (one-masted, triangular sailed boats, one of the oldest vessels in the world), tour boats and dinghies. And way far in the distance, almost dwarfing the buildings of Cairo, the three pyramids of Giza waved in the heat, pale with the atmosphere between us and them, and an even more shocking contrast between the old and new. Something that crossed my mind several times as we drove towards our hotel was how much Egypt had changed. From a civilization who four thousand years ago built the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, to the country that had so little power in the current world... that was astounding.

Finally, we got to the hotel. When we disembarked, I was exhausted and absolutely ready for bed. But first, we had the “Pyramids Light and Sound” program to attend. If that sounds cool, believe me, it is. The sun had set while we had dinner at the hotel, (skipping over the fresh fruits and vegetables--no one wanted Pharaoh's revenge), so we drove through dark, winding streets of Cairo. It was one of the last days of Ramadan and, accordingly, there were few people on the streets. I watched the hundreds of souvenir shops shoot past, carrying the same wares as the next, and the men in their traditional garb sitting in sidewalk cafes smoking on hookahs. When we arrived, for the millionth time that day, I could hardly stand to stay still. Grabbing the arm of my friend Lindsay, we rushed over to seats as close as we could get to the front. We sat directly in front of the temple of the Pharaoh of the second pyramid. The Sphinx sat only a little off to the side, and the three giant pyramids of Giza rose monolithically in front of us. Against the orange light pollution of Cairo, they were giant black triangles that gobbled up a significant portion of the sky.
The light show began slowly with the first pyramid, Mycerinus', the smallest of the three, as it was lit in blue. Then the most famous, with the portion on the top still covered in limestone as they had been originally, Chephren's pyramid was lit green. Lastly, the largest of the three: Cheops’s pyramid, the father and grandfather of the other two, lit up yellow. Then the light show began. Green lasers, projected pictures onto the temple, various colored pyramids and a loud British narrator told the story of the pyramids and the Sphinx from their beginning through Alexander, Napoleon and the Ottomans until now. It was spectacular to say the least, though perhaps slightly too extravagant in its praise and descriptions. The term purple prose comes to mind. I took pictures of the show, some of which actually aren't blurry, and I hope to post them as soon as I can.

Unfortunately, sleep is a nastily controlling thing and I found myself drooping during the performance. When we finally got back to the hotel, I fell asleep almost immediately after I went to bed.

Coming next: the Pharoah's tomb in the pyramid (I actually laid down in the original sarchophogus inside the tomb), the sphinx, memphis and exploring Cairo.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Negev.... dun dun dun….

I would call this the first day in Egypt, but really, it’s just the first day driving to Egypt. Left really early in the morning, 6:00 to be exact, which I guess I shouldn't say is so early seeing as Dad always had us get up at 4:00 a.m. for our adventures into the wilderness. But it wasn't long until we were heading down the road which led us south out of Jerusalem and into the fields of central Israel.

Though I tried valiantly not to, I spent a large part of this drive sleeping uncomfortably in our oversized bus with undersized seats. Fortunately, it was only about two hours before we arrived at our first stop, Beersheba.

If the name doesn't sound familiar to you, you're a poor Old Testament scriptorian. This is not only the place where Abraham lived, naming it Beer-sheba because it means both "seven wells" and "oath" (he took an oath with the local king that assured him the right to that land), but it is also the place where Jacob lived when Joseph was taken into Egypt, and where Jacob left from when he was called to come to Egypt by Joseph who was by this time the second in command.

On top of all this ancient patriarchal stuff, this was a major city during the divided monarchy (when there was the state of Israel and the separate state of Judah--this is just before the fall of the kingdom of Israel in the north). They had a temple there, whether pagan or not I'm not sure, but which was dismantled by King Josiah. From stones archeologists found throughout the site, they reconstructed the altar which was built there and a replica sits in the entrance to Beersheba. It’s a beautiful alter made of white stone with the famous stone horns on the four corners representing a bull who is the symbol of strength.

I took several pictures with me holding the horns of the altar in the manner that people seeking sanctuary in ancient days did. That's actually what the pretended king at the time of Jeremiah did trying to preserve his life after a failed coup of the kingdom. He was eventually killed at the altar. So basically, it was pretty much rad. Oh, also, Beersheba is the traditional southern end of the kingdom of Israel, with Dan at the northern end.

As soon as we left, we were no longer in the land of milk and honey but in the wilderness which Elijah famously wandered through: the Negev. That drive was fascinating because it was immediately apparent that we were leaving the fertile plain and entering what they call here the "steppe," or basically, slightly hilly land which is essentially desert except for some plants that are enough to support animals but not agriculture.

The Bedouin are the people of this land. They are in a very strange situation because the state of Israel is determined to find something to do with them. It is very difficult for a first world, highly bureaucratic country to figure out what to do with nomads. If they're not on the same land all the time, how can they be controlled, taxed and how can the government be assured that they're acting lawfully and not intruding on other people's land? This conundrum has led to a strange half citizen status for the local Bedouins, where the government builds settlements for them which allow for their children to attend a permanent school, but they don't have access to running water and (frequently) electricity. The water question is the biggest though, and has created a great deal of strife between the peoples.

As we drove, I looked out of the window to the desert in the east, and watched the Bedouin tents flash past. There were a surprising amount of them, as well as random dogs, children and sheep. Their tents are no longer made out of hardy, homespun fabrics, but largely of plastic and highly degenerative tarps. It’s a very strange clash of the old and new to see such a fabric formed into a structure as ancient as the Bedouin form of a tent--basically poles holding up a high roof, sides which are rolled up and down as doors and only two or three sheets falling through the center roof to create flimsy rooms. From what I could see of the tents with their walls rolled up, there is little furniture other than decorative rugs.

I'm not quite sure if we had a stop between Beersheba and Avdat, but since I don't remember it, it mustn’t have been very memorable. I'll therefore skip to Avdat which was by far one of the coolest sites we've been to.

Now we were definitely in the desert. Greenery had all but disappeared and everything was a monochromatic orangish-tan. This mostly flat, rocky desert shot off flat on both sides of us, rocketing up to mountains of the same make in the distance. On the bus, people were passing through phases of fitful slumber, quiet conversation and irritatingly raucous group discussions mostly centered at the back of the bus. Occasionally, someone would stand up to do a "spotlight" where they read information from a form we all filled out about ourselves, and then had a question and answer period about the person being spotlighted. Those moments were occasionally entertaining, but I preferred the reverie the monotonous landscape drew me into.
Avdat soon came into sight as an extremely impressive, gigantic, fortress-like city on a hilltop, built in the same stone as the surrounding land. I stared at it as we passed, wondering if this was one of the places they were planning on taking us and, to my joy, the bus took one of its preposterously wide turns onto a thin road that lead up the mountain to the city. When we disembarked, I ran around gleefully in the remarkably well-preserved city. Quite a bit of it had been reconstructed, but most of it was in its natural, degenerated state. It amazed me that some of the things which were most preserved were the arches. While the walls they supported had fallen, the single row of blocks of the arch would stand as solidly as ever-- a testament to the power of combining compression and tension. It also reminded me of the keystone analogy of the church. Not only is the keystone necessary for the existence of the arch, but with it in a completed arch, it was stronger than all the thick, high walls surrounding it.

This city had been mostly built by a people called the Nabeteans (I think I may have spoken of them before) but they are pretty much one of the most awesome people ever to live. They were based in Petra, Jordan; in fact, they were the creators of the city of Petra which we're going to visit in about a month. Accordingly, this huge complex not only had buildings above ground, but houses carved into the mountainside which I, unfortunately (due to time constraints) only had a couple minutes to glance at. But up at the top of the hill, I walked through a fortress made by the Romans who took over after the Nabeteans left, and from the top was able to see the entirety of Avdat as well as the valley.

From the fortress, we ran down to the “keep,” or castle-like area on the opposite side of the hill (which I can't recall who built it. I'll look it up later, but it was either the Romans or the Byzantines or both.) The Byzantines certainly built part of it because they had their church in one corner, with the cross shaped baptistry still intact.

We wandered around for quite some time, taking some stunning pictures in the gorgeous light which reflected off of the stone walls and using the arches as frames for the desert.
Unfortunately, before I was able to see the Roman tombs and wine presses, we had to leave. It was quite disappointing to go. I really hope I get the opportunity to go back there someday. As far as tels go, that was by far the best I've seen.

When we left Avdat, our next stop was at a National Park building where we watched a video in an extremely hot and stuffy theater about a massive, tectonic plate-made crater which we were about to enter. From there, we ran up to the top of the museum which explained more about the creation of the crater and came to the overlook of the valley. Though it was spectacular, it wasn't as stunning as some of the views I'd seen earlier in the day.

Which reminds me of what it was we did between Beersheba and Avdat, and, to my chagrin, it actually was an important event.

We went to the grave of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. It overlooks the Negev desert in one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen in my life. We talked for a while about Ben-Gurion's part in the creation of Israel, and after we were finished, I got into a really interesting conversation with one of our tour agents who was on the trip with us about Israel. She was born in Holland, but she moved to Israel to live in a kibbutz even though she isn't Jewish, and through a period of years, became fluent in Arabic, married an Arab and converted to Islam. She was very interesting because she said that he had a really hard time being at the grave of the man she considered to be the culprit for the destruction of her adopted country. Her husband, who was with her, agreed.

Anyway, after we left the crater, we went to tour a kibbutz before we went to a different kibbutz to spend the night. This first kibbutz is much more commercial than kibbutz's traditionally are, but our guide explained why later. She came onto the bus in one of the most immodest outfits I've seen in Israel-- it was really rather shocking after becoming so accustomed to people being more modest than I in my daily clothing. It was quickly apparent that the reason for this kibbutz is the culture of Judaism and not the religion. She rode on the bus with us as we toured their farms and housing areas. They grow dates and things like corn and yams, but according to her, the ground has more salt than wanted so their crop output is much less than it should be. About 20 or 30 years ago, they added a dairy aspect to their kibbutz, which was a big deal because it is not easy to have cows in the desert for milking purposes. But they did it, after much persuasion of the Ministry of Commerce, and now their industry is thriving.

Our tour guide was fluent in English and Hebrew, as her parents had emigrated to the kibbutz from the U.S. before she was born. She discussed life on a kibbutz in length, and let me tell you, the idea of never having to pay bills or buy food or clothing or anything is mighty appealing when you are just starting life on your own. We discussed the upsides and downsides of this system in length and she explained that the system works mostly because they're able to pick the people who live at the kibbutz, so they can almost assure that the person isn't simply going to leach from the system. People can volunteer at a kibbutz for up to three months with everything paid for them. Just saying.

We had a delicious dinner there and then traveled to another kibbutz twenty minutes up the road which had the ability to house us. The room was spartan and comfortable, but we got there too early to go to bed but too late to really do anything (as it was dark everywhere). After unsuccessfully trying to play a game of soccer with the kibbutz kids (they were reluctant to allow girls in their game) and talking to people about random things for almost an hour, I went to bed.

We had an eight hour drive across the Sinai in the morning and an evening in our hotel in Cairo.

Coming Next: the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, Memphis and something-or-other-else which I have to look up.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The tale of the Western wall and the Garden Tomb

Hey, I'm back after a while of not blogging. Why? Basically because I'm phenomenally lazy and I have this strange idea that if I THINK about blogging, I've done it. Or something of the sort. Anyway, for those who read this incredible blog, be excited... you're about to hear about my ventures into two of the most religiously revered places in the world not to mention the story of a harrowing shooting and the hill of the scull--Golgotha.

But first, let me keep good on my word to speak quickly of the burial place of Samuel the Prophet. It is on this hill top of the freeway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the valley Paul was taken through when he was captured by the Romans and carted away. From the road it looks like an ancient, limestone crusaders castle (which it essentially is) with a large steeple which seems like it may now be used as a minaret. We parked and walked up a boardwalk which rises over some ancient excavations of something we never found out what, then into the ancient church. It has a fascinating history.

Since all three major religions in the area revere Samuel as a prophet, each of them has or has had a presence in the building. As I alluded before, it was originally built by the crusaders--in fact, it was on that hill or a hill near there that Richard the Lionhearted on the last crusade stood as he looked out over Jerusalem. The Muslim forces arrayed against him were too great, and, even though he could see the city he dreamed of conquering from the hill top there, he had to turn back and return to England. This is, by the way, the same Richard the Lionhearted that is king during the time of the legendary Robin Hood.

But getting back to the point. Since the crusaders were beaten by Saladin the Magnificent, the church was taken over and turned into a mosque of sorts with a cenotaph for Samuel on the top floor (a cenotaph is a thing which is created to represent a person though they may not actually be buried in or under the thing). The inside of the church is old and in disrepair--I don't think anyone has bothered to repaint it for hundreds of years, and, as a consequence, the entire place looks an awful lot like somewhere Indiana Jones would venture, deep in the heart of the middle east. Unfortunately for me, no 1930's era men on motorcycles flew in through the window, and I didn't find a giant key which was sure to unlock the treasure trove of Ali Baba and the Fourty Thieves.

While I was there, I didn't see the Muslim cenotaph, but I certainly saw the Jewish one in the basement. That was by far the coolest thing. We weren't quite sure if we could go down there, but with the guidence of our Professors, the women went down the right staircase and the men the left. The woman's room was dominated by half of the blue silk covered cenotaph, leaving only enough room to walk parallel to it to the tiny bookshelf at the far end. Women there were reading books in hebrew and rocking back and forth as is their habit. Someone told me it has something to do with the biblical injunction to worship the Lord with all your might, mind and STRENGTH, hense the rocking.

But I'm spending far too much time on this. We left pretty soon, done with our day long geography fieldtrip (basically meaning that we went to every good lookout spot with 15 miles of Jerusalem and had a lecture on the important places within view--including a view of the mountain from which David fought Golith as well as Bethlahem and the wall which leads into the West Bank, which we were technically in anyway. It's confusing), and went back to the center. I really enjoyed the Samuel's tomb thing mostly because it felt SO foreign and old, which is, of course, a funny thing to say when I'm living in one of the most historically significant and foreign places in the world....

Now, what you've been waiting for. The Western Wall. We left from the center on foot, passing through the valley where Joel says the last Judgement is going to take place, and walking along Saladin's wall on the East of Jerusalem--including past the Golden Gate where Jesus made his triumphal entry (it is now permanently sealed and there is a Muslim Graveyard in front of it. It is the only gate of Jerusalem we can't go through at all anymore.) From there, we joined the small groups of people heading up through Dung Gate to go to the Western Wall.

As a side note, Dung gate is called such for a reason. It is where they historically through out all the garbage of the city. As a reminder of this, the entire area around there still smells like it. It also opens right from the old city to the actual old city--the City of David. Unsurprisingly, it is where David built his Jerusalem. But the city of david will figure more later in the story.

Returning to the main narrative. From Dung Gate, we walked up to the large security entrance of the huge Western Wall plaza. They hardly glanced at me as I passed through--at first they checked our bags, but I think when they realized we were just the Mormons, they didn't bother anymore. As soon as we got inside, we were distracted by the group of soldiers and civilians dancing in circles with a guy with the Israeli flag running around in the middle. As he ran, they yelled in a continuous stream, and when he stopped, they would dance one direction, holding each others shoulders, and then turn and dance the other way. It wasn't long before we realized there was a women's circle right next to theirs, and we ran over there. They danced in circles like the men, but more quickly, and everyone was singing some patriotic song I'd never heard. An Israeli girl pulled me into the circle and we danced and twirled around.

I was anxious to actually walk over to the wall, so, taking my good friend Lindsay with me, we slipped through the crowded woman's section (the woman's section is one third the size of the mens, though the men's section was markedly more crowded) and finally got to where we were standing right in front of the wall, but still to far to touch it. Everyone around us was holding a holy book, reading and praying. Every once in a while, someone right up at the wall would put their faces to it and cup their hands around their face, then whisper something I, of course, could not comprehend. Sometimes someone would push forward with a folded slip of paper in their hands and a prayer written on it, then push it into a part of one of the cracks in the wall that was not completely packed with prayers. Lindsay and I were able to push forward enough eventually to touch the wall-- it is smooth and light with thousands of hands, faces and lips over the years. It was not long until the sun had set, and, since this was Friday, Shabbot had begun. An old women not taller than 4'5" walked up to Lindsay and I and said something in Hebrew, holding out a paper for us to take. I nodded, and she gave one to each of us, then walked away. It was a quarter sheet prayer in Hebrew of which I could only read the five letters they've taught us so far in Hebrew class. When we had our fill of standing at the wall and thinking of Herod, Solomon, the Jews and Jesus, we walked backwards as far as we could.

It is tradition there to never turn your back to the wall. To the Jews, though the spirit of God left the Holy of Holies when the temple was destroyed, it never left this wall. And as it is a sign of disrespect to show someone your back, everyone walks backward away from the wall. It does make for a good deal of tripping and running into people.

For maybe an hour, she and I stood at the fence that guards the Men's side and watched with dozens of other people as the men prayed, danced and sang. They are more entertaining to watch because they're more numerous and lively than the women, as well as because they have more tables to sit and pray at, and they partake in elaborate prayers and chants which involve several different movements. It was sort of like watching the water in a pool--in one corner, there would be whirlpool of people dancing, several feet away was another, towards the back the men waved back and forth as they prayed, and those closest to us were mostly sedantary except for when they would turn to face us, say something in Hebrew, and turn back to the wall. The ultra-orthodox wore their beautiful silk robes and fedoras or fur hats (unfortunately, I don't know their offical names) each hat representing a different "sect," if you will, of orthodoxy.

It wasn't long before it was time for us to walk back to the center, but as we began to leave, another dance party started up in the middle of the square away from the western wall. This one had both men and women in it, and they were louder and less organized than before. We danced with them--they're incredibly welcome towards gawking tourists--and finally, reluctantly, gathered outside the gate with the rest of our group.

That is when the news of the shootings in the city of David was broken to us. Just as we had gotten there that evening, a 20 year old Israeli had shot two Palastinians, reportedly 16 and 40 years old, in the leg. The shooter claims he did it in reponse to an assault by 6 Palastinians and that it was out of self-defense. The tension of the situation was compounded because it happened in a neighborhood, Silwan, which has been in the news recently because it recently evicted two Palastinian familes. There are many people who claim it was done because they were Palastinian and not for other reasons. As a consequence of this, and because the city of David is literally right down the street, there were police and soldiers literally everywhere. The center, always diligent as they are, got two busses and parked them just up a different street in the Jewish quarter which we were to take back to the center. One boy didn't make it. Don't worry though, he had been in the bathroom when we left, and seeing we were all gone, he took a taxi back to the center. But we were sitting in the busses for a while with the professors and security trying to find out where he was.

Something remarkable I must mention about the center is the level of security they provide. It is phenomenal. I don't know if the guards are full time or not, but I've counted at least 5 seperate people whose job it is to keep the 90 odd of us safe. When we go on large fieldtrips, there'll be one of them walking along in the middle or the back of our group, and two in a car that follows us as we go. It is very comforting to know that they are there. But this doesn't mean our freedom is impeded. We can go to Tel Aviv if we want to pay the money, and we can go into the city almost any time as long as we have two other people with us.

But that is beside the point. I sure do digress a lot.

That was last night. Today was something totally different, and utterly incredible. For the first time I went to the Garden tomb. No one knows for sure if this is the place that Christ was resurrected--many people will tell you it was at the Church of the Holy Seplechre-- but it certainly seems like the place and President Lee even said he felt the spirit every strongly there.

Alright, i have to go to a fireside, so I'll post this and write more about this later...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pilgrims, Pools and Priests

Before I launch into my latest rendition of our travels, I'd like to complain about the fact that here in israel is in Hebrew. Now I completely understand why it'd be that way, yet, there is the inevitable problem of me being unable to change the language to English because I can't read the Hebrew which would tell me where to go to make the change. But that is neither here nor there.

What is here is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That is one heck of a building. I know you've heard about it before, everyone has, but I want you to forget everything everyone has ever told you about it so I can tell you all over again.

Basically, this is the main battle ground of the different sects of Christianity. If you thought that the four corner churches in in Palmyra was bad, you should come here. We entered the building through the roof, strangely enough. Up a short flight of stairs in the christain quarter, we walked by several extraodinarially trashfilled allyways to a little courtyard which led into the heart of the first of the six churches which occupies this single building--the Coptic church. Theirs is I think the smallest of the lot. The chapel was dark and ancient, with icons of Jesus in gold on the wall of the narrow room and two coptic priests in the back. Coptic basically means that this is Egyptian Christianity. It's a pretty small religion, so it is impressive that they've got a piece of the building at all. When you go down a flight of stairs, you reach the courtyard outside the building which has the famous ladder at the window. If you haven't heard, this ladder was put here forever ago and never taken down because no one actually knows which church owns that part of the building and therefore who has the right to remove the ladder. So it just sits there as the perfect example of their odd quarrels over territory in the building. previous to the Emporer of the Ottomans saying that there would be no more changes to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the priests of the different faiths were constantly fighting, to the point of punching each other in the nose over who got to be where.

Anyway, knowing this, when you enter the building, it is unsurprising to see that the upstairs area looks exactly like something out of byzantium, down at the front like something you'd see pre-gothic europe and in the middle it smacks of gold. It really is like six different buildings slammed into one. Off to the side sort of in the middlish area is the tomb where the Emporess Justina decided officially that Christ was ressurrected. When we were there yesterday, it was positively brimming with Pilgrims. But that is unsurprising as it was Sunday afterall. The tomb has been so decorated over the years that it looks absolutely nothing like the original. That doesn't stop people from making pilgrimage there though. They also have the place where Christ was Cruxified, but I didn't see it.

Still taken aback by that incredible structure, we had a very Israeli lunch (courtesy of the Jerusalem Center) next to the coptic church and then headed to the Citadel across the street. I won't bore you with the details of it--there are a lot of details, but it is an incredible fortress which has pieces of literally every period of Jerusalem exposed. We toured the entire thing, going through exhibits which proceeded chronologically from the Canaanite period to 1948 and then, after some deliberation, went to the mall in West (or Jewish) Jerusalem for a lunch.

But now we're back to an exciting part. The tour of the ramparts of the City. this may sound like I went around looking at walls, but in reality, we were able to walk on TOP of the walls of the old city, looking down onto the roofs of the Christian and Muslim quarters. The first, most noticable thing about the roofs is the black water barrels that are everywhere. For some reason, especially in palastinian neighborhoods, a family's water is stored in a smallish black hold on the roof, presumibaly carried up there by the plumbing. They are everywhere, sort of like a forest of blackened stumps. These roofs are rarely flat--typically they undulate strangely because below the ceiling may be vaulted or domed. I occasionally worry that a roof I'm standing on may be dipping in the center due to a lack of support. Inshallah, i'll never fall through one but with my luck...

Now that you have the structure of the roofs in mind, add strings of colorful laundry hanging everywhere, blankets hung to hide a backyard from the wandering eye, broken glass and rusty barbed wire, people in religious and western attire wandering below and the occasional impish teenager loaping around on a building top, and you've got old Jerusalem from above. The ramparts we walked have been there since the 1500's, and will probably stand until the end of time with the way their built. We were convinced at one point that the little area which jutted out of the side and the hole in the corner was for pouring boiling oil on your enemies below.

Something especially peculiar about Jerusalem and probably the middle east in general, is the children. They're abnormally outgoing.
"Hello, how are you?" they'll say as they walk by with their hands out so you can shake it.
As you reply, they've already walked past to the next person while the child behind them has his hand out to shake yours. Or they'll be standing on their porch and call out, asking for your name, then after you've called back and forth for a minute, blow you a kiss as you walk by. These kids are maybe only 5 or 6 years old. It surprises me especially that they have so much free reign in a city which could be dangerous for little children, as all cities are.

The ramparts that you can walk on end at the temple mount, or, as the Muslims call it, the Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). That is pretty much the walled area around the Dome of the rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque where they worship. We walked as far as we could, until some of the guards started yelling at us, then we got off at Lions Gate (the gate that Jesus likely used the most often because it was on the path to where he lived with Mary and Martha) and, on our way to the Wailing wall, saw the pool of Bethesda to our right and the traditional birthplace of mary. Only in Jerusalem would you accidentally come upon a site as holy and important as the pool of bethesda.

Though these pools were public in the past, now the entrance fee has risen to 7 sheckles, or about a dollar and a half. Not bad at all. The pools are now empty walls that stretch 50 feet down into a hole with the remnants of columns at the bottom. I probably would have gotten much more from it had I been with a guide. There was one part which was particularly interesting--at the edge of one pool that had been built in the 3rd centry bc, there was a dark hole in the ground and a sign which said "Dangerous Descent" in about 5 languages. Walking very carefully, we descended into the moist darkness on slippery, steep steps until we reached the pit of a medieval cistern which, amazingly still had water (and smell) in it. We came back up quickly--anything metal was pretty rusty and it creaked as you walked, but I at least felt like I knew what it was like to be a rat at the time of the crusaders. On our way out, I happened to ask my companions if they wanted to see the inside of the church of St. Anne with me and we went in.

First of all, let me say that this is one of my most favorite churches I've ever seen. It is the utter opposite of ornate. There was only maybe one or two decorations in the entire Cathedral, including the simple gold cross at the front. But the walls were made out of a beautiful light gray stone which vaulted up several stories until it met in several pointed arches in the cross shaped chapel. The windows were only decoratively cut holes in the rocks, but with the added electical, and tastefully hid, lighting of the building, the church seemed surpringly bright and open. Better than that was the acoustics. If you think you've ever been somewhere with wonderful acoustics, come to the Church of St. Anne's and see what the real deal is. We sat down on a bench towards the front and the tiny movement of the chairleg rippled through the entire church. They were just beginning a mass and upon invitation from the Priest, we joined the people sitting up in the apse. The mass seemed much longer than I am used to (I've been to several masses because my father's family is catholic) but that is probably only because I didn't understand a word of it. Perhaps I should have taken German instead of Spanish in high school... when they sang, everything in the entire building sang, and somehow the way the voices echoed, there seemed to be an extra note which floated above the others in a perfect harmony.

If you ever choose to go to a mass, be prepared to stand on a floor which will likely be stone for some period of time. They stand a lot. It especially seems like a lot when you've spent the entire day on your feet. I was certain that someone had added spikes to the floor which were going right through my shoes, and then maliciously put several hundred pound weights on my shoulders to push me down into them. I was extremely thankful for those brief interludes that we sat.

After the mass, we went down into the cave like area that Mary is said to have been born. There we ran into the Father of the church.
"Where are you from?" He asked.
"California" (by lucky chance, we were all Californians), I answered.
"We're students, we're studying at the Mormon University," a girl who was with me added.
The Father and a priest next to him immediately took a step back.
"God bless you," he said, clapping his hands together.
When he left, it seemed he had wings to his feet. We had a rather good time chiding the girl for her remark, though really, we hoped that seeing how quitely and respectfully we behaved at the mass, the father might change his opinion of our church.

By the time we left, the evening was falling into night. Carefully following a Muslim women who seemed to know how to navigate going through Lions gate (which is so narrow, only two cars going either direction can get through, with both of them pulling their side mirrors in so they do not stick out of the car), we headed back up to the center.

That evening, I ushered a concert we held at the Jerusalem Center. I could hardly stay awake for most of it, though it was beautiful American Gospel music, amusingly being sung by very religious Jews.

Today was another great day which I am too worn out to write on at the moment. But look forward to my post on the geography field trip. Basically, we went to every good look out point in the entirety of Jerusalem and surrounding area, and talked about the numerous things that happened within sight. The best part was seeing Samuel's tomb and the Jews who worshipped there. But to here the rest of the story, stay tuned.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Old City for the first time

Leaving for the old city from the Jerusalem Center was so exciting that I practically leapt up and down with it. Actually, I probably did leap up and down, which would explain why people looked at me strangely...

Just exiting the gate and walking down the street was fascinating becuase the houses are so different here, they really aren't houses at all, mostly apartments in really old looking, very middle eastern buildings with laundry hanging out the window, dogs barking and old grocery stores smattered around. Every building in the entirety of Jerusalem is faced with rough cut Jerusalem limestone. It is a very beautiful, yellow creamy color which gives the city a look as though it had not changed for thousands of years.

Lest you be confused, the word village is used here in the middle east to basically mean a neighborhood that has a name. So don't picture a tiny basin with little shacks seated next to each other like the villages in Africa--these villages are made up of tall but frequently old apartment complexes just like the ones you see in those video games placed in the Middle East.

After exiting the valley, we walked through the Kebron valley where Joel said the final judgement would occur (it is really shallow, more like a small dip between hills than a real valley) and then up into the old city, walking by the wall of Soluman the Magnificent which he built after he reconquered the old city from the crusadors. From there we were in part of East Jerusalem which is the Arab part of town, and they showed us where the money changers are and who we should go to for what. We met several people who have sent their kids to byu or have been there to sell their things to Mormons in salt lake (like olivewood carvings of certain things) then we actually went into the city via Damascus gate.

I was astounded by how much the old city looks exactly how it should. Layers was my first thought. Layers of people, of history and of haphazardly placed buildings from almost every nameable period of time. It was so much fun to walk through the old, windy streets and see all of the merchants selling Muslim, Jewish and Christian merchandise as well as some really delicious looking desserts and completely random stuff. While walking, we passed some of the 14 stations of the cross and went up to the roof of an Austrian Hostel so that we could see a really incredible view of the old city.

Jerusalem is something they call a tel, or a city which has been destroyed and built up again so many times that it creates a man made hill where the more you dig, the older the city is beneath. There are some things which stick up from generations that have long been buried otherwise, things like the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepluchre. Because of this building up, the tiny valley that the old city is built in has become shallower over time, and the things on the tops of the taller hills tend to be older than the things at the bottom of the valley because it is harder to build on top of buildings on hills instead of valleys. We wandered around for a while in the old city, some streets are covered on the top completely by tin or blankets to keep the sun off, so it is like walking thorugh a dark, highly populated alley. Other places are more open and less crowded.

There are some parts of the streets which they've found from the time of the Romans and raised up so that we can walk on them, basically meaning that the stones we walk on are the ones Christ would have walked on. We didn't eat or drink anything while in the Muslim quarter because of Ramadan, but the moment we got into the Christian quarter, we had some really good Middle Eastern bread with zatar or thyme (dried) that you sprinkle in the middle. I bought some pomegranate juice which the guy made right in front of me by squishing five pomegranates with this really nifty machine. It was awesome food... we then went to western jerusalem which is a lot more like europe than the middle east because it is more modern and primarily jewish. I was amazed how different it is that close to the old city.

We thankfully took a bus back (we'd walked 7 miles) and spent the rest of the day doing MORE orientation, if that is possible. After our classes today (which were Old Testament and Ancient Near East) I wanted to go into the old city with everyone else, but unfortunately, I had to go to the airport in Tel Aviv to see if i could find my large knee brace which I had checked onto the plane on Thursday and never picked up. They didn't have it so I'll just have to be extra careful that I don't redislocate my knee. I'm still wearing the small brace all the time though, don't worry.

Today was fast Sabbath and I went to Gethsemane in the morning with a few people from the center. We walked through the Orson Hyde park which the Church actually built on the mount of Olives (the government of Jerusalem wanted to preserve it as a green zone so the Church offered to design the park) but unfortunately, now the park is a hang out for druggies, forcing us to go there in groups of 5 with at least one guy. It was a beautiful park though, full of olive trees and terraces. From there, we walked down an extremely narrow street with stone walls on either side and on which the local people seem to love to drive down or up extremely quickly. Needless to say, it was a little precarious, but all worth it when we saw the arch in a wall which led to the garden. Unfortunately, the actual olive trees, each about 3000 years old, where they think that Christ knelt are off limits. We can walk around their peremater, and that is certainly enough to feel the incredible spirit of the place. I was amazed again by the love of Christ for me that he would do something like that. The church they've built over the location is quite stunning, it had been destroyed three times, the latest rendition is built after the model of the old Byzantine church which had stood there and it is controlled by Italian speaking, Fransiscan monks. After Gethsemane, on our way back through the Orson Hyde garden, we ran into a minister from a church in DC and his camera crew which was getting ready to film him doing a bible study about the final judgement day. We stayed to watch him discuss Jesus' teachings at the temple, and to see a man who had been born in Jerusalem but had converted to their church, give the geographical background for the occurances there. That was great fun, and church at the center was wonderful as well. I was greatly pleased with the members of the branch. As it was fast and testimony meeting, I bore mine quite happily. The rest of the day was fine, we returned to the Orson Hyde garden this evening in a large group, and now I'm sitting in the computer room staring at the screen while everyone else plays signs in another room. Maybe this is my hint to get up and go play...

Stay tuned.

Plane trip

Hey, so the first real blog of the trip. This is mostly about the plane ride, which was an adventure all of its own. Read and enjoy.

Amelia and I left Provo at four in the morning to get there, and I was panicking about getting there on time. Thankfully, we made it before the check lines even opened, so I actually spent a while just standing there waiting for them to check our baggage. I was so tired, I had gotten up at 2:45--nothing at all seemed like it was actually happening. The plane to Denver was tiny and I wasn't able to sit next to the window so I just tried to sleep. It was a short ride, a little over an hour, as we flew, the sun rose over the mountains but it was shadowed by some clouds in the East. I've still never driven further east than Utah, so it was wonderful to see this part of the country even if only from the aisle seat of a tiny airplane.... When we landed haze completely hid the sky, so all I could see the tundra that stretches out all 360 degrees around the airport.

Denver turned out to be very interesting.
The moment we got off the plane, we all had to rush down about 30 gates to get to our next flight which was bording in ten minutes. But, for some reason unbeknownst to me, my ticket was for a flight that left 2 hours later than everyone elses.That meant that I had to walk almost a mile around the airport (it seemed like that, the Denver airport is monsterously huge) and then find somewhere to sit at my terminal and try not to die from exhaustion. I thought I was going alone, but God is good, and when I opened my eyes after napping for a moment, another girl from the program was sitting in front of me. It seemed she had a halo shining around her bright red hair. Her situation was identical to mine. It turned out that we were the only Jerusalem Center people on the plane, but that fortunately, we would be on the same plane as everyone else in DC. In affect, instead of waiting for two hours longer in Washington, we waited in Denver.

It turns out that this God sent redhead, Hilary, spent last summer in India. The way she talked about it, it was like she left half of her heart there. Just hearing about a really foreign country and someone who was obviously in love with it made me ridiculously impatient to get here. To my dismay, her ticket placed her across the aisle from me on the flight. My seat mate was a girl from San Diego on her way to a study abroad program in France for a semester. She seemed pretty surprised that my study abroad program was to the Holy land, because, who does that really?

Washington was exactly like it should have been. Forested, pleasant, and what I could see from the plane, full of those nice white houses and picket fences. iIwas eager to see the actual city but I didn't get a glimpse of it. There were several very large quarries which were dug straight down from the middle of the golf park like meadows-- the rock was stratified, reds, whites and yellows. It sort of reminded me of Jupiter. Who would have thought DC would be like Jupiter.

But anyway, we'd flown United on both of the first flights, and the next two were Austrian airlines which, except for their choice in upholstry (forest green seats with bright red, yellow and white head rests), was a rather nice airline: they gave use two meals on our way to Vienna, several beverages, not to mention the Flight attendants were several notches less choleric than the ones from the flights before. I had planned to spend this entire flight sleeping, hopefully with the aid of some benevolant student's tylonal pm, but the alternate was better. I was the only person in our group not seated next to a student, instead I sat next to an extremely pleasant, 30 somethings, woman from Tel Aviv who was going on the same flight we were from Vienna to her city. She had been living in Washington for the past year because her husband was working on his Post doc in Georgetown. We spent the entire flight, except for an hour and a half reprive, discussing the situation in Israel, what it is really like to serve in the military, my dad's job (she ADORES NCIS, particularly Ziva David), and various random psychologies. She was fascinating.

Apparently, if you are an Israeli, you are essentially shut of from the ENTIRE Middle Eastern world. She said it was unwise to go to any country in the Middle East... I asked her specifically if an Israeli could go to Egypt, and she gave me the example of a tiny resort town on the borders of the Red Sea which was the only exception to this general rule of no entrance. It astounded me, like living in california and never being allowed to go to any of the rest of North America, not even to Nevada.

Something else she said that was fascinating to me was how what she really loves about the US. It wasn't the prosperity--Tel Aviv is a very affluent city-- but the way that all of these extremely different cultures are able to live amicably with each other. She had never experienced that in depth before. DC is particularly diverse, and while it may have a high crime rate, the hate that she had grown up just isn't there.

Another thing she couldn't get over about the US is the affect of not being at war. We have the luxury to invest in universities, to spend a lot of our inventing energy on things which aren't military related, and to go for a walk in the park and say hi and smile to the person walking by you. That was something she mentioned a lot--that we say hi to everyone we pass by. Aparently, they don't do that really in Tel Aviv.

One of the hardest things was not letting on to my religion. I wasn't sure if the agreement not to preach in Israel could be extended to talking to an Israeli on the way to Israel.

She seemed a lot younger than she was, and we felt completely comfortable with each other. If the people of Israel are like her, I am going to make of lot of friends. In Vienna, we hung out for a while, watching a Ukranian, deaf men's group across from us and talking more about languages. After going through a second set of security, we sat in the waiting room before getting onto the final plane. A handsome Israeli started talking to us quite forthrightly there... pretty soon he was asking us about the exact theology of Mormonism. I had no clue what I could or couldn't tell him, but someone had suggested that we stay on the safe side, so we told him about the agreement with Israel and said that we couldn't say anything else. I really didn't want to be responsible for the down fall of the Jerusalem Center or anything. Thinking about it now, I realize that we probably could have talked to him about it since we were in Vienna Austria, but I can't change it now. He was not very happy with this arrangment--actually, I think he was rather mad. But it wasn't at us, he just kept going on and on about the Israeli government and how ridiculous they were. He is from Jerusalem and he considers himself to be a citizen of Jerusalem instead of a citizen of Israel, even though he is Jewish. It was a very odd experience, but worthwhile. It is always interesting to meet new people.

It already began to feel like the Middle East on the plane. The people who got on with us were obviously very Jewish, Muslim or tourists. I fell asleep several times on that plane flight, mostly because where I was sitting I couldn't see out the window, even though I would have loved to watch us fly over Greece and Turkey. By this time, we had been traveling for 18 hours straight. Getting off the plane, it wasn't nearly as hot as I had expected it to be. My first thought was that though Tel Aviv had a lot less windows in its skyscrapers than the ones in the US, it was still a lot like LA. This idea changed pretty rapidly when I realized that we really were somewhere else. every other person was dressed in really religious or militaristic clothing. If they weren't one of those two, they were more modern Middle Eastern peoples or tourists. The airport is beautiful by the way, if you get the chance, you should look at some pictures of it. It has an incredible waterfall which descends in a column from a cut out circle at the base of an inverted dome in the ceiling. Like everything else, it is limestone.

Customs was easier than I expected.
"Where are you going to school"
"BYU, but I'm going to the Jerusalem Center"
"Do you have any proof of your acceptance?"
"No, but I do have this name tag!" (Smiles hopefully)
I don't know if i was just imagining it, but I think the lady may have just been irritated by my excitment and she shooed me on. In my eternal idiocy, I left the larger of my two knee braces at the airport. They're working on getting it here.

The drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem really was like going back in time. From utter modernity, we went to the hills where in 1948 the convoys trying to get to the beseiged Jerusalem were attacked by the neighboring Arab villiages (I was particularly excited to see this, I had read quite a bit about it in "O Jerusalem"), to some abandoned Arab villages, to seeing the edge of western, Jewish jerusalem on the top of the far hill and finally, to driving along the South of the city and gazing in utter awe at the hugeness and uniqueness of it. The dome of the rock is the most immediately obvious site, then there are the dozens of other domes, steeples, minerets and hotels that carve the skyline. The Jerusalem Center is just as beautiful in real life as it is in the pictures, and it is extremely comfortable and well kept. They say, and they're right, that it is temple quality.

I recognized some of the plants since this is a mediterranian area like California, but there are some birds and bushes which are completely foreign to me. I'm excited to learn to recognize them. My favorite part of yesterday though was the evening after I got to my beautiful, open, and for now, completely clean room (you would not believe how nice our accomidations are. I love them, and our porches are HUGE! with an incredible view, my bed doesn't squeak and the showers are heaven.) and (to continue this overly long sentence) standing on the porch as the sun set over western Jerusalem and hearing the calls to prayer. The loudest was coming from the loud speakers of a palestinian village on the hill right next to us (the mount of olives fyi) but when it would pause, you could here the higher or lower tones of the other Minerets across the city. It was as though the city itself was singing. The air was thick with it.

Because it is ramadan, the city is full of lights--they light up their houses in celebration just like we do for Christmas. After the sun set, some fire works (which sounded like bombs, and sort of looked like them) went off and the partying began. I'm really lucky to be here now, Ramadan is a very unique time of year. After dinner (all middle eastern food in our cafeteria, really good food) we had a tour of the center and some orientation. I feel like I've been oriented to something or other a hundred times in the past week. Finally getting into bed was like heaven. I woke to the call for prayer at 4:30 and got up at 4:45 to go do my homework, which we already have a lot of. I hope to do most of my homework at the beginning of each week so I can have more time to spend in the city.

Next coming... the first trip into the Old City.