Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's about dead people: Part Two

Petra a city of the living and the dead.

Where the Egyptians built cities for their dead west of the Nile and away from where they lived and where we have tended, throughout American History, to prefer cemeteries apart and away from daily life (The church yard cemetery being the exception.), Nabataeans of Petra intertwined the lives of the living with the lives of the dead building houses and tombs in the same neighborhoods.




The region of Petra shows habitation going back to 9000 bc. It lay on caravan routes that would have been traveled by Abraham and Sarah. Tradition claims that Moses and the people of Israel traveled through the valley on their way to the crossing at Jericho. As a city Petra begins to flourish in the second half of the fourth century with the first dateable burial going to the beginning of the 3rd century bc. The city flourishes until the Roman period beginning toward the end of the 1st century AD when it begins a decline, that becomes a major decline with an earthquake in the mid 4th century.

The homes of the average Nabataeans were really rather modest, made of mud bricks with windows facing inner private gardens. Flat roofs supported by the scarce wooden beams. But in and around their homes were the elaborate buildings that we see today. Most of these buildings were tombs and a few were temples. It would also be most appropriate to call them building facades. They are carved right into the sandstone of the mountain. The most dramatic fa├žade is the one we first encounter after our long walk down the siq, the passage into Petra. This building is featured in Indiana Jones the last Crusade. If you remember Indiana passes three major trials to go deep into the mountain in order to find the grail. However in reality the 3 rooms of this building go only about 20 feet into the mountain and though called the treasury it too was a tomb. The standard tomb consisted of 2 or 3 rooms. One was for the dead. The other rooms were for family gatherings. We have few writings so we can only conjecture family meetings or meals with the deceased. We do know from the few unrobbed tombs that survived into modern times that the dead also watched over treasure for the family. I also believe that because there are tombs at the beginning of the siq and along the siq that maybe they guarded the way into the city.
One last note about Petra. The Nabataeans worshipped a pantheon of gods common to the pre-muslim Arabic world. Interestingly the primary gods and goddesses were not anthropomorphized in statuary but were represented by moderately adorned stone blocks. Am I the only one who sees a hint of “thou shalt make no images” in this?

When Petra was first visited by modern Europeans in the early 1800’s Bedouins were living in the tomb buildings. About 25 years ago the Bedouins were provided modern housing and the rights to work in Petra in exchange for moving out of historic Petra. Petra then became a world heritage site and the largest tourist attraction in Jordan. In our half day there we saw maybe a third of the site. Petra alone was worth the trip.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Its About Dead People: Part One

Those of you, who know me, know I have a love of megalithic stone structures. The oldest of these are found in Turkey and throughout Europe. Many are tomb structures but they also include Stonehenge, other stone circles and singular stones. In Europe this megalithic construction is found from 5000 BC until about 1200 BC. (Surprisingly it continues on some Pacific Ocean islands until the 19th century when it is interrupted by the European invasion of the world.) Interestingly the literature draws no connection between megalithic architecture and pyramid construction. They seem to me to be both drawn out of the human quest to see, ‘how big can I make it.’ That quest still goes on...

How tall a building can I build?

How big a company can I make?

How long a limousine can still make it through the drive-through?

 How big a car can still fit in the garage?

Knowing all that, you can imagine how excited I was to see the pyramids and my first, the step pyramid at Saqqara was not a disappointment. The Egyptians had a culture of honoring the dead, especially the Pharaoh and other elites. All the tombs of Egypt were located west of the Nile in the belief that the dead followed Ra the Sun god towards the sunset. Prior to the pyramid the dead were housed in a mastaba, a one-story square rectangular building that might house the dead in a chamber or might sit over and hide the entrance to a burial shaft where the dead were placed. Though mainly for one person, if children predecease their parents they are often found in the tombs. Imhotep in service of King Djoser changes the tomb business. You may remember Imhotep in the title role of the mummy movies.

He starts by building a mastaba for King Djoser. He then built a second mastaba on top of the first. He then expands the base and start building one, on top of another until he has a six step pyramid. This is the first large stone building on Earth. (c. 2620 bc) Stonehenge is dated to somewhere between 2400 – 2200 bc.

The great thing about Djoser’s pyramid at Saqqara is that you approach through a colonnade building. From the colonnade you exit out into bright sunlight in a large walled court. The walls block your view of the surrounding landscape so all you see is the pyramid against the sky.

The Zepplin Trip over the Pyramids cost Extra But we thought it was worth it.
The next few attempts at great pyramid building run into a few problems. First they try to make the sides to steep. So at one point they change the angle to move more quickly to a peak. It is speculated that there may have been indications of structural problems because the weight was so focused on the center. Based on its appearance it is called the Bent Pyramid. There is also the tower pyramid at Mediom and then there is the red pyramid whose slope is a bit gentle. So that even though it is a massive structure it just doesn't have the same impact resulting in Pyramid regret.

In the three great pyramids at Giza they finally get the angle right for structural and aesthetic purposes. It also seems that at Giza we finally get over the pyramid envy issue. That's the competition that each pyramid needs to be larger than the one before. The largest pyramid belongs to Cheops. His son builds a smaller pyramid and his grandson an even smaller one. (Yet still pretty massive.) There are nine smaller pyramids at Giza for the wives. The pyramids of Giza are amazing.

As of 2008 there have been a total the 138 pyramids identified in Egypt. We saw maybe 20 and we went into one.

Our guide, Amira, wanted to dispel several Hollywood myths about pyramids.

1. There is no evidence the pyramids were built by slaves. In fact the party line is that they were public works project provided to give money to the people during the rainy season when they could not farm. (Also remember the Hebrews of the Exodus were not doing stone work, in spite of what you saw in the movie, they were making bricks of mud and straw.)

2. There is only one person buried in each pyramid. Except in the case of the children. Masses of servants and slaves were not killed in order to serve the Pharaoh in the afterlife or to prevent them telling where the entrance was. In fact the entrance of all but one pyramid is on the north face of the pyramid. (The good news is that the servants and slaves are not there to rise up and follow the mummy into a battle for the soul of the Earth.)

Though there are a few newer pyramids in Egypt. The pyramid was replaced by entombment in the Valley of the Kings beginning in the 16th century BC.

What is striking is that the Egyptians had a concept of afterlife. They believed that the Pharaoh and others went on living. Those who served with him in his court and society built tombs near his pyramid so that they could share in the Pharaoh's afterlife. Egyptians saw at least part of the afterlife as a harmonious continuation of our current style of existence. Many of us still do the same with our image of heaven, wanting to know that we will see our love ones and our pets when we arrive in the presence of God. Human expectations don't change much over time.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Climbing Mt Sinai

Our trip from Cairo to Mount Sinai was to be about six hours. Unfortunately a State Department directive concerning travel by American tourists turned it into a 14 hour trip. The most direct route across the Sinai was considered unsecure. So we had to travel down the entire west side of the Sinai peninsula to Sharma ash Shayk and then turn north about a third of the way up the West side before heading into the interior and the area around Mount Sinai. Through most of this trip we traveled in bus caravans with armed soldiers in jeeps before and behind us. We weren't sure what the threat was, whether Bedouins were going to ride down from the hills and kidnap us or whether Ali Baba and the forty thieves had returned but it made for a very long day. We arrived at our hotel at about 11 PM.

 We were warned that accommodations at Mount Sinai left a lot to be desired, that was an understatement. The beds were so hard that your body changed shape to conform to them.  The shower lacked water pressure and hot water. The water valve to the toilet was off when we arrived but if you left it on it flooded the bathroom floor. But the best part of this adventure is that the main goal of climbing Mount Sinai is to be there at dawn to see the sunrise. This meant that getting to bed at 11 PM we were to be up at 1 AM. The majority of our tour group chose not to take advantage of this opportunity. I however having come this far could not pass it up. At 1 AM I stumbled out of bed got on the bus for the short ride over to the base of Mount Sinai. Mt Sinai is a little over 7,000 feet high but we start climbing at around 5,000. We begin near St Catherine’s Monastery. One of the most fabulous places unfortunately it was closed on the day we are there. Our climb from our starting point by St. Catherine's monastery will be 2410 feet in the dark with a half-moon with about two or 300 other people who thought that this was a great idea along with maybe three dozen camels and numerous Bedouins offering us ride on their camels.

Our tour guide insists that we stay together even though our normal walking paces are quite different. This made for laborious travel. A few of our people chose to take camels up. I have to say that this was as hard as the hardest climbs I have done in the Appalachians. The first 1800 feet are a good steep climb. Then when you are good and worn out, it really gets steep. The last 600 or so feet are a steep rough stair climb. It took the full time from 1 AM till sunrise at about 5:40 to make it to the top. At the top the sunrise is absolutely marvelous and when you think that this is the mountain (or at least millions of pilgrims throughout the ages have thought this was the mountain) on which Moses saw the burning bush the revelation of God, and at the top of which Moses received the 10 Commandments the law from God and on the side is where Elijah fleeing from Ahab seeks to hear the voice of God who is not in the great wind or the earthquake but is in the still small voice. It was a powerful experience.

On Mt Sinai This was the only sign in English andd it was only in English
Our tour guide had described this as a moderate climb. I think for people our age you needed to be in better than average shape to make the climb. Also the camels would take you up to the 1800 foot mark from which there is an excellent view. And then you could climb the last 600 feet.

Friday, May 25, 2012

And its About Boats

Modern Port Maybe Cesarea


The Christian Iconoclasts had the images
of these fishermen removed.
Cheops Solar Boat




Ship of the Desert


The hull of the Jesus Boat
If it is all about water we will need a way to get around. So let’s start with what claims to be the oldest boat at 4600 years. Archeologist knew that boats were provided with pyramids but until 1950 an undisturbed boat had not been found. In 1950 beneath 41 limestone blocks each weighing 16 tons was found a chamber 31 m long and 6 m deep. In it lay the 1224 pieces of a boat. No instructions included. Once assembled the boat would be 41 m long. Only the rope to hold the boat together did not survive and had to be replaced. Now known as the solar boat it was understood to carry Pharoah Cheops on his journey to the land of the dead and also to empower him to follow Ra the sun god. Contrary to our popular view no servants or slaves were killed nor buried with the pharaoh in the pyramid so I don’t know who was going to reassemble the boat, nor row it on the journey. The boat is displayed in an amazing building built just for it behind the great Pyramid at Giza.

Near Giza we visit the Mastaba Tomb, a rectangular one story tomb, of an official who served with the pharaoh whose pyramid is near by. This Mastaba is elaborately decorated with carvings of daily life. Pictured are boats fishing on the nile, the fish that are in the Nile and several depictions of hippopotamuses devouring alligators.

Our second night in Cairo there was an optional dinner boat cruise on the Nile. We opted for dinner at the hotel. On Day 5 we left Cairo and crossed under the Suez Canal in a dry tunnel, a cloud of diesel fumes before us and behind us. After oil this is probably the second most important reason we are invested in the peace of the Middle East. We saw a few big ships in the canal but no good views. Our next encounter with boats is in mosaics. Even in the dryness of Jordan the significant of the boat is noted.

 In Israel we will visit Cesarea. In the New Testament times this was a significant port. Actually it was the rise of sea trade on the Mediterranean that eventually made Petra which had flourished on the trade routes of the caravans less significant. It is from Caesarea that Paul is sent to Rome to have his case heard. It is also a modern port.

We will cross the sea of Galilee in a wooden tourist boat on a nice calm morning. We will dock at the Kibbutz Nof Ginosar where the Jesus Boat was discovered and is housed. Two brothers walking along the Sea of Galilee during an extremely dry and low water time start by discovering some nails and then the boat. A major effort is launched to preserve the boat and remove it. We have about 2/3 of the hull of a first century boat. Maybe Jesus and his apostles were never in this boat but it is certain they used a boat like it and it is quite probable they knew the owner of the boat. At the gift shop here we bought a shofar which I demonstrated for all to hear until my lips gave out.




Thursday, May 24, 2012

It's All About Water

Fertile Fields of the Nile Valley

Standing in the Gulf of Suez

The Siq on the way to Petra


First Glimpse of the Treassury at Petra. Me and Indiana Jones

Chapel Mosaic at The Baptismal Site in Jordan


"The Jesus Boat" A first century boat found in the mud of the Sea of Gallilee.

Purifying Mud preparing for the Dead Sea
Where ever we went in Egypt, Jordan or Israel it was about the water. The Nile is the life of Egypt. It is amazing how the green of the Nile valley abruptly changes to the desert surrounding the pyramids. In maybe less than 100 yards we go from green productive land and to barren rocky desert. The Aswan dam project of the 60’s and ‘70’s put an end to the annual flooding of the Nile and allowed for a better development of the valley. However there were numerous unforeseen consequences aided by several other geopolitical developments. The lack of annual flooding to renew the soil meant new farming techniques had to be learned. The larger consequence was that with the threat of flooding removed the lush green valley became a great place to build. So the rich luscious productive acreage of the valley began to grow suburbs instead of the crops needed to feed the people and for export.

 Our first stop in the Sinai is a group of springs Associated with the Exodu story of Marah or bitter water. Various parts of the Sinai are being irrigated and put in to use for olive, peach and citrus trees.

 The most amazing place we visited was the hidden city of Petra. We enter the city by walking down the Siq. A canyon created by the flow of water. In places the sides climb three hundred feet above us. While usually comfortably wide it sometimes narrows to only ten feet. When the rains do come they gush through here with torrential force. In a flash flood in the 90’s several dams gave way and several guides and tourists drowned. Usually though there is a lack of water so the Nabataeans who built Petra built an elaborate water channel along the siq to bring water from outside the city into the city. Our guide told a story of the Romans who when they were unable to take the city by force finally they resort to poisoning the water. With over a thousand dead the Nabataeans surrender.  I can find this story on Wikipedia or in the guide book about Petra that we bought. Most of the buildings we see in Petra are tombs.

The Jordanian site for the baptism of Jesus was discovered after the Camp David peace accord. Equipment being used to remove some of the defenses between Jordan and Israel ran into some foundation stones. Soon the foundations of Eight Churches were uncovered revealing that in the 3rd and 4th century this was viewed as the site of the Baptism. There is a beautiful stone font by the river. Our guide Remy had been here for the Baptism of his niece two weeks prior to our visit. While the water has the power to renew the spirit I discovered that if you drop your camera into the river Jordan it does not do so well. As a matter of fact after wards it does nothing. We are at this point between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. At this point the Jordan River is only about 15 feet wide. Only 20% of Jordan receives at least 7 inches annually of rain which is considered a minimum for rain fed agriculture.  The Jordan river is the other main source of water but the amount used is governed by treaty with Israel.

Water Falls at Ein Gedi above the Dead Sea
By comparison central and northern Israel is flush with water. We visited the springs of Banias Where Jesus said to Peter on this rock I will build my church. We sailed across the Sea of Galilee and ate lunch at a place famous for serving St. Peter’s Fish (I don’t recommend it.) Israel controls the entire shore. Parts of the northern Israel get as much as 28 inches of rain a year. We visited springs at Ein Gedi just above the Dead Sea. Here David is said to have hidden in a cave while fleeing Saul only to have Saul step into the cave to relieve himself. And after covering ourselves in purifying mud we floated in the Dead Sea. While in Israel our guide talks about the preciousness of water it is obviously used in abundance with apparently little restraint. Both Israel and Jordan have desalination projects and sewer systems that use gray water for irrigation.