Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fez, Morocco: An Afternoon Navigating the Medina - February 2017

In many North African cities the "old town" is referred to as a medina. Medinas are typically surrounded by a wall and characterized by narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. Having spent hours lost in the medinas of Tunis and Marrakech, we wised up on our visit to Fez, Morocco and hired a local to guide us through the maze.

Inside the medina it's dark. The light of day is blocked by towering walls, shop awnings and smoke billowing from open fires. The alleys are lined with stalls and crowded by donkeys carrying heavy packs, chickens clucking and hoards of people.

Some people are scurrying through, others are resting with a smoke or a tin cup of tea, and yet more are grabbing you by the hand to escort you into their shops to have a look "for free." Fortunately, inside the Fez medina, the locals are not as aggressive, and touching and shouting is not commonplace.

Within the walls of the Fez medina car traffic is prohibited, and it's actually the largest car-free urban area in the world. Surrounding the mosques and near the decorated communal fountains, stalls sell everything from camel meat by the kilo and shovelfuls of snails, to leather goods and copper pots.

On our way through we grabbed a pita stuffed with cow's tongue and splashed with hot sauce and tried our best to keep up with the guide as he darted uphill through the crowds. The heart of the city, the medina is exploding with life and has a culture of its own that's undeniably engulfing.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Jerusalem, Israel: 10 Days in the Middle East - January 2017

The Middle East. Just uttering the phrase causes some to lament on the conflict and instability that has tormented the region throughout history. Others think to the setting of religious stories they've held close throughout their lives. And yet, tens of millions of people call this turbulent area of the world home.

After years of sidestepping the region due to fear, we decided the time was right. With the goal of having a more historical and cultural experience rather than to embark on a religious pilgrimage, we set out to make the most of our short time.

Day 1: Arrival/ Tel Aviv, Israel
In planning our trip and not knowing what to expect, we elected to arrange for an airport transfer service offered through the hotel. Upon arrival into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion international airport, we were met planeside by an airport employee who immediately whisked us off the tarmac and into a sedan. We were driven directly to the entrance of the border control area and escorted to the front of the line. Within moments of touchdown we were met by our hotel car. It was definitely easier than we anticipated without any heightened security delay. That afternoon we spent relaxing and getting acquainted with the area. 

Day 2-3: Petra and Wadi Rum, Jordan
After an early start to the day, we took a bus south to the Eliat crossing near the Red Sea. We were able to obtain a visa at the border and met a Jordanian guide on the other side. For the next two days we explored the lost city of Petra, camped in the desert under the stars and ran with the Bedouins along the dunes in Wadi Rum. Currently Jordan is one of the safest Arab nations in the Middle East. Not only was it exciting to experience the culture and see the country's most well-known treasures, but it was the perfect timing to escape Israel while the country was observing Shabbat.

Day 4: Tel Aviv, Israel
Our only full day in Tel Aviv, we began by walking south on the beach promenade towards Jaffa. Towards the city we saw incredibly-unique architecture and significant construction along the way. Even though we were wearing jackets, the beaches were filled with families sunbathing and crowds watching volleyball. At the Jaffa Market we grabbed a falafel and fruit juice and walked the stalls selling fruits and vegetables, home goods and souvenirs. We could have easily stayed longer in Tel Aviv with its host of international offerings and laid-back vibe.

Day 5: Jerusalem, Israel
A short drive from Tel Aviv, we reached Jerusalem in late morning and were anxious to explore inside the walls of the Old City. After entering through the New Gate and passing by the Tower of David, we wandered the city's quarters through markets and down winding cobblestone alleys. We spent time admiring the Western Wall and parted crowds to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After following the path of the Via Dolorosa, we took an elevator to the top of the Austrian hospice to enjoy a spectacular view of the ancient city.

Day 6: Masada and the Dead Sea, Israel
On our sixth day we decided to get out of the city and see the surrounding area. Two of the top tourist attractions in Israel are the hilltop fortress of Masada and the Dead Sea. We spent the morning walking the ruins and had lunch at a traditional Jewish kibbutz, or communal settlement. We walked off our meal in the desert oasis of Ein Gedi where according to biblical story King David hid from King Saul and wrote the majority of the Book of Psalms. After hiking through the waterfalls, we stopped off at a beach resort to spend a few hours floating in the Dead Sea and covering our faces in silky gray mud.

Day 7: Bethlehem, Palestine/ Jerusalem, Israel
With help from an Israeli friend, that morning we ventured into Palestinian territory. On the other side of the wall was the Church of the Nativity which is believed to be built over the birthplace of Jesus Christ. While in Bethlehem our Christian Palestinian guide shared with us the difficulties of being a Christian in a Muslim-led and majority country. In the afternoon we returned to Jerusalem to see some of the sights outside of the Old City including the Mount of Olives.

Day 8-10: Cyprus/ Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
After a fast-paced week spent seeing as much as we could of Israel and the surrounding lands, it was time to relax. We hopped a short flight to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. During our stay at a Limassol beach resort we were able to visit the birthplace and temple of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, witness the locals celebrate Epiphany Day and even mustered the courage to venture into the area of the island occupied by the Turkish Army.

Our visit to the Middle East was unforgettable. In ten days I learned more about western religion than I had over the course of my life. During our many adventures, there were moments when we were fearful and times when we were humbled, but we came away from the experience with a greater appreciation for the region's rich history and culture, and a hope that somehow its people can find enduring peace.

Jerusalem, Israel: The Collision of Religion - January 2017

The ancient city of Jerusalem is one of the most contested places on the planet. A volatile epicenter of the three Abrahamic religions, its history dates back the fourth millennium B.C. and the controversy that surrounds the land is beyond measure.

Referred to as the Holy City, Jerusalem is of great historical significance in Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Jewish people consider Jerusalem the central symbol of importance due to biblical tradition which tells that King David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and established it as the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel, and that his son, King Solomon, commissioned the building of the First Temple.

In Sunni Islam, and according to the Quran, Jerusalem is prized as the third-holiest city behind Mecca and Medina because of the belief that Muhammad, the Holy Prophet, made his Night Journey to the city and ten years later ascended to heaven where he spoke to God. Jerusalem was also the first Qiblah, or focal point direction used for Muslim prayer.

Also a pilgrimage site for Christians, Jerusalem is where Jesus, the Christ, was arrested, tried and sentenced by Pontius Pilate. He walked the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion and, according to the New Testament, was resurrected.

In large part due to its religious importance, the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and captured and recaptured 44 times. Despite it's storied history, there remain numerous sites to visit of historical, cultural and religious importance:

The Old City. Believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world, Old City Jerusalem is contained within stone walls and divided into quarters belonging to the Armenians, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Each quarter has its own distinct flavor and several notable sites. The entrance gates to the city and numerous markets contained inside are also worthy of a look.

Temple Mount. The hill located in the Old City is one of the most important religious sites in the world. Presently the site contains three monumental structures: the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain. The site can be reached through eleven gates, of which ten are currently reserved for Muslims and one can be accessed by non-Muslims only during specific hours.

The Kotel. Also referred to as the Western or Wailing Wall, this section of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount is Judaism’s holiest site and for 2,000 years was the closest Jews wanting to pray at the place where the Holy Temple once stood, were permitted to approach.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The holiest site in Christianity and currently controlled by six Christian denominations: the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians, Coptics, Syriacs and Ethiopians, the church was built in 330 on and around Golgotha, the hill of crucifixion or Calvary, and the tomb of Jesus' burial. The original church was destroyed twice and the structure which stands today dates back the 12th century.  

Mount of Olives. A mountain ridge east of the Old City houses Jewish graves dating back 3,000 years and is also believed to be the site of several key events in the life of Jesus. According to the Acts of the Apostles, it is also where Jesus ascended to heaven.

David's Tomb. Located on Mount Zion, the area is viewed as the burial place of David, King of Israel.

Via Dolorosa. Latin for "Way of Grief," the Via Dolorosa is a street within the Old City believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. The 2,000-foot route from the Antonia Fortress west to the Church of Holy Sepulcher is marked by nine Stations of the Cross.

Whether you are visiting the city on a religious pilgrimage or to learn more about the culture and history of the area, you will not be disappointed.

Today in Jerusalem amid the tension, all three of the dominant religious groups appear to be co-existing harmoniously. For the sake of the Holy Land and the world, let's hope that continues and somehow a peaceful, sustainable resolution is reached.

Masada, Israel: Climbing a Jewish Stronghold & Floating in the Dead Sea - January 2017

While visiting Israel, Masada and the Dead Sea are destinations not far from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that are well worth the stop.

Towering over the Judean desert on a rock plateau, Masada is a spectacular fortress built by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 B.C. Home to several magnificent palaces, Masada earned notoriety after the First Jewish-Roman War.

According to the biblical story, Jewish rebels who escaped war-torn Jerusalem found refuge on the rock mountain and formed the last stronghold against the Romans. The zealots survived for some time in the fortress before Roman General Flavius Silva led a siege by amassing a 375-foot rock ramp up the western face of the plateau in 73 A.D. Upon reaching the top and breaching the fortress of Masada, the Roman troops discovered the mass suicide of 960 Jewish men, women and children.

Accessible today by both foot path and cable car, the remains of the fortress are well-preserved and in many cases have been reconstructed. The most impressive structure on Masada is King Herod’s northern palace built on three rock terraces overlooking the gorge below. There are many other places of interest, such as the luxurious western palace, several Jewish ritual baths, storerooms, cisterns, watchtowers and a synagogue built into the casemate wall.

After walking through the ruins of Masada and learning of its tragic history, it seemed appropriate to spend some quiet time reflecting. Fortunately, fewer than 12 miles from the base of the plateau is the Dead Sea which provides the ideal setting for relaxation. Well-known for being one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, the Dead Sea is ten times as salty as the ocean. It is also the deepest sea in the world with surface waters being 1,400 feet below sea level and its banks the earth's lowest elevation on land. The salinity of the waters create such an inhospitable environment that no plant or animal-life is able to flourish, hence its name.

Tourists flock to the Dead Sea to float in the waters and also to test the medicinal benefits of the salt and minerals found in the water and mud. To cater to the crowds, health spas and resorts line the beaches and countless stores sell products touting miracles.

Bethlehem, Palestine: Three Christmases and a Broken Tree - January 2017

Despite the ever-present tension and sporadic violence recently, we were so close to Palestine territory already being in Jerusalem that we felt we needed to see what life was like on the other side of the heavily-armed wall.

Knowing that it may be too complicated and dangerous to do on our own, we contacted an Israeli for help. Our friend Charles said that he could pick us up from our hotel and drive us to a checkpoint into the Palestinian Authority, but that is as far as he was allowed to go; he would arrange for others to meet up with us and show us around the town of Bethlehem.

With passports in hand, we jumped into his Israeli white-plated jeep and hoped for the best. The checkpoint hand-off could easily be compared, or mistaken for a sketchy drug deal. At the unmarked crossing we pulled in next to an old sedan with a green license plate and the letter P in the corner; unlike Charles' license plate, the green plate permitted vehicles to travel both in Israeli and Palestinian jurisdiction.

We were shuffled from one car to another in an empty, barbed-wire enclosed parking lot. Our new driver didn't speak much English but sped through the town past the run-down block houses and litter-filled streets. Due to the license plate and most likely the way we looked through the car's backseat windows, there was no formal security check and no need to present our documents.

After a few minutes the driver abruptly pulled over and a man in an oversized black coat slid into the passenger's seat. The man glanced over his shoulder and said, "so you want to see the church? My husband and I both nodded and exchanged hesitant glances. "So it's under construction right now," he explained. "So you won't see much but I'll take you there anyway."

"The church" was Bethlehem's most notable attraction and more accurately referred to as the Church of the Nativity. In 327 Constantine the Great commissioned the church to be built on the site traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Today a large basilica is housed on the site along with a smaller church and several chapels. Beneath the basilica is an underground cave referred to as the Grotto of the Nativity where Jesus' birthplace is marked by a 14-pointed silver star underneath an alter. Not far from the grotto is the underground Chapel of the Innocents, commemorating the children murdered by King Herod, which is believed to be on the site of the two to three-bedroom inn in which Mary and Joseph paid a visit.

The basilica is currently under construction and much of it is hidden by scaffolding. Our Christian Palestinian guide explained that under Muslim law whoever fixes the roof of a structure owns it. Therefore for a long time the Church of the Nativity lay in disrepair while the leaders of the area's Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities debated how to best handle the situation.

Fortunately, in 2010 with the help of U.S. aid dollars, a plan to restore the basilica was agreed upon by all parties. Now all three Christian religious communities share the Church of the Nativity and stagger services to accommodate all parishioners. Upon our visit we learned that Christmas would be celebrated on three separate occasions at the church: December 25th for the Catholics, January 7th for the Greek Orthodox and January 17th for the Armenians.

After touring several buildings on the church grounds, we got back into the car and headed towards the de facto border. Watching the depressed town pass by, I asked our guide what it was like to be a Christian living in Bethlehem today. "It's hard," he replied with a long face. "Just last week before our Christmas celebration the main Christmas tree in the public square was broken in half. It made us all very sad. Please don't tell anyone in Jerusalem though; I don't want to start any trouble."

He went on to explain that only twenty to thirty percent of the Christian Palestinian community remain in Bethlehem. Most have fled to more-welcoming communities in Chicago, Chile or El Salvador because they felt that they were losing their identity in the Muslim-led Palestinian territory. As he spoke I stared out the window at the cement-paneled wall which divided the contested land. Covering the graffiti that has collected over the years, mounted placards quote residents still hopeful for change and hopeful that peace will someday blanket the land.