Jerusalem – Heart of the Holy Land

In February of 1998 I was invited by the UN to conduct two GIS software training classes for the Palestinian Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation (MOPIC). One of the classes would be in Gaza and the other in Ramallah, the Palestinian capitol in the West Bank. My trip began with a flight to Vienna and then on to Ben Gurion airport located halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My UN contact, Ms. Giovanna O’Donnell, a Somali national who spoke fluent Arabic, met me at the airport and soon we were in a taxi on our way to the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian section of the city. From my hotel balcony I had a beautiful view of the hills surrounding the city. (It should be noted that this was a time when the threat of a war with Iraq was very real and came to fruition a few years later in Operation Iraqi Freedom) The following morning we took a taxi south to the Gaza Strip, making a short stop at an old Trappist monastery in Latroun, famous for its vineyards and fine wines. The old monastery resembled a large Italian estate built from beautiful local yellow sandstone, sitting amid vast fields and orchards.

Latroun Monastery

We purchased a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from the winery since there would be no chance to buy any in Gaza. As we drove through many of the small Israeli towns we saw many soldiers carrying duffel bags and with machine guns slung over their shoulder, waiting for buses and to report for duty, in case of possible war with Iraq! When we reached the Israeli army checkpoint on the border with the Gaza Strip it was heavily barricaded and fortified with guard towers, high concrete walls, searchlights, and lots of barbed wire! Our passports were checked by several soldiers and permits to enter Gaza were issued, but only after many questions about our purpose for travelling to Gaza. (the week in Gaza will be another story)

At the end of the training class in Gaza, Frank, a Norwegian aid worker, along with one of the Palestinians from the class, picked us up at the hotel and took us on a wild ride through the crowded streets of Gaza City, past one of the many refugee camps and on to the heavily fortified Israeli Army border crossing. Since our Palestinian taxi was not allowed to cross the border, we had to get out of the car and haul our luggage through the 100 meter “no man’s land” to the Israeli side, where we would pick up an Israeli taxi. Our documents were checked again and our luggage searched before being allowed to exit the border post. As I passed through Israeli immigration control I felt like I was leaving prison! Meanwhile, we had to wait for our Palestinian colleague to pass through a much higher level of security. The whole process was very complicated and time-consuming, yet many Palestinians make the crossing every day to work in Israel.

Our taxi ride back to Jerusalem passed through verdant farmland and modern, neat Israeli towns. Finally, we arrived in East Jerusalem as a light rain began to fall and dusk descended upon us. Being the beginning of the Sabbath, our taxi had to take a longer route to avoid the Orthodox Jewish areas which were closed to traffic. My room at the Ambassador Hotel had a beautiful view overlooking the Mount of Olives. The next morning I took a taxi to the Ministry of Planning headquarters in Ramallah, just a few kms north of Jerusalem.

MOPIC Headquarters in Ramallah

We had to pass through an Israeli army checkpoint where the Palestinian National Authority controlled the area on the right side and the Israelis controlled the left side. I learned later that “commuters” sometimes faced very long delays in crossing into and out of Jerusalem, resulting in many people arriving late for work! (on a side note, the taxi was from the “25 Hour Taxi Company”) Upon arriving at the training classroom it became necessary to remove the large portrait of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in order for me to project my slides. I hoped that Yasser didn’t hear about it. After a long day of training, our Palestinian representative, Michael, met me at the hotel and invited me for dinner at a traditional Arabic restaurant in Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem. The restaurant was located in the middle of a 100 meter long zone between two Israeli army checkpoints! In traditional Arabic hospitality, Michael ordered lots of food, including several dishes of mezzes (Arabic appetizers). There were cold salads, hummus, olives, and hot, fresh pita bread. Then came lamb shish tawook and spiced beef kabobs, followed by a huge bowl of fresh fruit for dessert, including a large grapefruit-like fruit called Pommel. We finished dinner with a small cup of strong Arabic coffee and a glass of an Anise flavored liquor called “Arak”, which was very much like Greek “Ouzo” and Turkish “Rakni”. Michael was a very gracious host and someone I would come to know as a good friend. As we drove back to Jerusalem, the sight of the Old City wall lighted at night, shining high on the hill, with the golden stone in sharp contrast against the pitch black sky was spectacular!

Old City wall at night

After the training class the next day, which ended at 2:30pm, I changed clothes, put on hiking boots, grabbed my camera , my guidebook and headed down to the Old City. I had intended to walk along Nablus Road , which according to the map would lead me directly to Damascus Gate.

Damascus Gate

But somehow I “leaned” too much to the east and walked through an old Arabic shopping area before coming to Herod’s Gate instead. As I entered the Old City, I found myself immediately “engulfed” in a slow moving “sea of humanity”, winding its way down into the dark, narrow streets of the Arab Quarter, known as the “Souq”. At first it was a very eerie, claustrophobic feeling, but after awhile, I found myself adjusting to the “current” and began “swimming with the rest of the fish” – so to speak! Even though I had studied the map of the Old City before, and even checked it several times along the way as I “flowed” with the crowd, I found it difficult to orient myself and make my way to a particular place – so I decided to just “wander” in whatever direction that looked interesting!

Souq in the Arabic Quarter
Street in the Old City

As I looked around, the narrow streets, which were covered by tent awnings in many places, resembled “tunnels”, even on a sunny day. In some places there were small, arched doorways, barely large enough for a person to “squeeze” through, and often with steep stone steps descending into total darkness. (who knows what lurks beneath the Old City!) On either side of the narrow, dark, crowded streets were small shops selling everything from A to Z. As I passed the spice shops, the smell of exotic fragrances was often overwhelming at times. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the Arabic Souq were a real challenge to the senses – at times overpowering, and yet utterly unique and fascinating!

Arabic Quarter in the Old City
Arabic Quarter

I wandered along through the Souq until I spotted a doorway to my right which looked inviting, so I turned and followed a much less crowded street that lead me to a small square next to the “Lutheran Church of the Redeemer”.

Steps leading to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer

Surrounding the square were countless small souvenir shops with their owners standing out front hawking their wares. I declined to buy any of the cheap items by ignoring their questions – “Hello, how are you my brother. You want to see my shop?” As I wandered around the area, I suddenly found myself back where I had started! (so easy to do in the Old City) I had been trying to follow the map to find the “Church of the Holy Sepulchre”, and when I turned the corner and entered a large courtyard I suddenly found myself in front of the church!

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It was “managed” by several Christian sects from around the world, each with their own special areas and separate hours for visiting. I entered the massive main door and stepped into a dark, smoky cathedral with a narrow passageway leading to a small underground chapel, from which I could hear the faint echoes of chanting. I followed the beautiful, eerie sound and came to a place where a priest and a group of monks stood in front of an alter, chanting verses from their liturgy – reading the small hymnals by the dim light of a small candle that each of them carried. It was a beautiful and ethereal experience in which I became lost in another world – very memorable!

Alter in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Suddenly they all turned and began climbing the stone steps leading up and out of the chapel, and before I knew it, I found myself in the middle of a procession that lead to another chapel upstairs. There the priest offered lots of sweet, pungent incense in front of a richly decorated alter that had several large silver icons, and was lit by hundreds of candles and old oil lamps. It was a scene from a thousand years ago! Soon the “procession” moved on, now joined by a large group of elderly nuns from eastern Europe. They knew all the responses to chant along with the monks. Being the only one not chanting along in Latin, I began to feel conspicuously out of place, but no one seemed to notice, as they were almost in a trance-like state. Soon we all stopped in front of a large wooden structure situated under an elaborate gold and marble basilica. When the small wooden door was finally opened, we found ourselves standing at the entrance to the “Holy Sepulchre” – the site believed to be the tomb of Christ, and one of the most holy sites in the world for all Christians!

The Holy Sepulchre – Christ’s tomb

Nearby was the site where Christ was crucified, his body anointed, and then buried in the tomb (aka cave), now preserved in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Later in the afternoon, as I sat in an outdoor café in the Jewish Quarter, I had to pinch myself as I reflected back on the incredible experience I had just witnessed.

As evening approached, I walked to a terrace overlooking the eastern part of the Old City, where there was a stunning view of the Western Wall of the Old Jewish Temple, now known to all Jews as the “Wailing Wall”. And just beyond stood the brilliant golden “Dome of the Rock Mosque”, one of the holiest sites in the Muslim world.

Terrace overlooking the Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock Mosque
Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock Mosque

As I marveled at the scene, I couldn’t help feeling how truly “ironic” was the western wall of the old temple, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, but which served to divide them! It’s so amazing that the very same stone could be capable of such power. In order to approach the wall, I had to go through an Israeli army checkpoint. There were separate areas of the Wailing Wall for men and women. I stood there watching a scene of men in very traditional Orthodox Jewish dress (long black coat, large round black fur hat, black shoes) with full beard and long, braided pigtails, standing face to face with the ancient stone wall, and going through their complicated rituals. All were making emotional appeals to God on behalf of something of obvious importance in their lives. As I watched the scene unfold in front of me, it felt as if I was watching a documentary film, except it was no film – it was real life!

The Wailing Wall

Looking back, it was an incredible experience, to be standing at the center of the world for all western religions  – a moment I will never forget! As I walked from the Wailing Wall back into the Arab Quarter, I soon found myself on a narrow street named “Via Delarosa”. Walking along I saw a small shop named “Souvenirs at the 12th Station”, and it was at that point I realized I was walking the same route as Christ on his way to the crucifixion! Christians everywhere know this route as the “way of the twelve stations of the cross”, and during the time of Easter, thousands of devout Christians make the pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of Christ. By the time I reached the end of the Via Delarosa, the sun was setting and the dimly lit streets were becoming very dark. As I reached Damascus Gate, most people were leaving the Old City, madly rushing to catch taxis and mini-buses along the crowded, noisy street. Exiting the gate, I climbed the old stone steps and looked back to see the ancient stone wall illuminated by hundreds of floodlights, making the wall glow softly in the dark night. (had it been Disneyland, I’m sure there would have been fireworks and a laser lightshow to end the evening, thankfully not here!)

I walked back to the American Colony Hotel through dark, crowded streets, and went to the Cellar Bar for a drink before dinner. The bar had been converted from the estate’s original wine cellar and retained much of its ambience. It was very cozy and comfortable, and as I sat with a large, cold glass of Carlsberg, I heard the sound of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York”. Then, all of a sudden, Frank was “drowned out” by the evening call to prayer, at full volume, from the mosque next door! The “duet” was not pleasant, and the “duel” was clearly won by the caller in the mosque, not Frank! Leaving the Cellar Bar, I went upstairs to the restaurant overlooking the pool. There was a nice fire burning in the huge fireplace that took the chill out of the night.

The American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem
American Colony Hotel restaurant
Cellar Bar – American Colony Hotel
American Colony Hotel
American Colony Hotel
American Colony Hotel

Dinner was fabulous – grilled lamb tenderloin, topped with a wafer-thin slice of eggplant and covered in fresh mushrooms and garlic sauce. It was incredibly tender and delicious, accompanied very well with a half bottle of Israeli red wine. I finished dinner with a traditional Arabic dessert of creamed rice pudding, served with a small cup of strong Arabic coffee.

The next morning, and every morning for the next five days, I took a taxi to Ramallah, through the Israeli army checkpoint, conducted the training class, and then a taxi back to my hotel in East Jerusalem, once again through the checkpoint. Passing through the checkpoint could take anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour, depending on the amount of traffic, the level of “aggression” of the taxi driver, and most importantly, the “mood” of the Israeli army soldiers! What I never understood was the cost of the taxi, which was 35 shekels to Ramallah, but only 20 shekels for the return trip to Jerusalem. One afternoon, after the class, I walked down to the Old City under beautiful blue skies and once again sat at the Terrace Café in the Jewish Quarter. The café had the most spectacular view of the Old City, overlooking the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock Mosque, with its golden dome shining brilliantly in the sunshine. And just beyond, outside the wall, was the Mount of Olives , which is the site of a large Jewish cemetery and where it is believed that Jesus ascended to heaven. So much ancient history was there before my eyes – once more I had to pinch myself to really believe it wasn’t all a dream! As evening approached, I visited the Wailing Wall again and then exited the Old City through the Dung Gate to explore the ancient ruins of “David’s City”.

David’s City outside the wall of the Old City

Ironically, the Old City of Jerusalem was built upon the crumbling 3000 year old stone walls of David’s City. It appeared as if the entire area was a series of remains from several civilizations, each built upon the one before it. That makes one wonder just who was “first”? Everywhere around Jerusalem new construction was underway and everywhere it constantly encountered the remains of an older era. Perhaps it was like building on top of an “archeological waste disposal site”. In many areas of the Old City, the present level of the streets was sometimes two feet above the level of the floors in the adjacent buildings, having been raised by the accumulation of waste from many generations of residents!

After a dinner of traditional Jewish corned beef sandwich and potato salad at a small New York style deli in the Jewish Quarter, I walked through the Armenian Quarter to a very old part of the city called David’s Tower. It forms what remains of an ancient gate to the city, which at one time was surrounded by a deep moat. As I walked back to the hotel that evening, I passed a large sign for “Holy City Rent-A-Car”, if one dared to drive in the chaotic traffic! The following morning, on my daily taxi ride to Ramallah, I got quite an earful from the driver about the inequities and injustices of the current Israeli/Palestinian situation – he was very emotional, with a deep undercurrent of anger, yet he still wanted peace. (I found that was a very common and pragmatic view shared by the majority of Palestinians that I met) After class the next day, I once again walked down to the Old City and passed a lot of tour buses, one of which caught my eye, having a sign in the front window that read “Reverend Snipe’s Guiding Light Tours”. It begged the question of who was the Rev’s guide? Upon reaching the Old City, I walked to the entrance leading to the Dome of the Rock Mosque, but I was prevented from entering by Israeli army soldiers who told me it was closed to all non-Muslims until Saturday. So I wandered around the old streets and did a bit of shopping, where I found some posters of ancient Jewish prayers inscribed in beautiful Hebrew script. Returning to the hotel that evening, I met up with Frank, along with another Norwegian aid worker, and we drove to the “Al-Karawan restaurant” in Bethlehem for dinner with Michael. As usual, it was a huge table of 20 different dishes of delicious mezzes, excellent tabbouleh, and a massive plate of many grilled meats, including a very tasty lamb shish kabob. After dinner, Michael ordered a bottle of Rakni and a couple of Hookahs (water pipes). Then came a large plate of fresh fruit, with oranges, bananas, persimmons, tangerines, and a large Pommel. Finally, after being totally stuffed, as is the Arabic custom of hospitality, we were served a cup of strong Arabic coffee. Then it was time to drive back to Jerusalem, once again through an Israeli army checkpoint.

The next morning was the beginning of the weekend and Frank Frank invited me to join him and his Norwegian colleagues for a day trip to the historic town of Nablus, north of Jerusalem. After passing through several Israeli army checkpoints, we were beyond the crowded urban area and into a beautiful pastoral countryside of new green grass, wildflowers, and blossoming almond trees, all celebrating the beginning of spring. As we descended into the Shiloh Valley, the hills became lovely terraced fields built from the local white limestone, probably well over 2000 years ago. All of the fields were neatly cultivated with new crops, as well as olive and almond groves sporting new blossoms.

Shiloh Valley on the way to Nablus
Grove of Olive and Almond trees near Nablus
Sheep herders in the Shiloh Valley
Hills north of Jerusalem

Occasionally there were large fields of brilliant red poppies. As we descended from the hills of Jerusalem, we had gorgeous views of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, many thousands of feet below. On the road to Nablus we passed through the region of Samaria, the homeland of the legendary Samaritans, an ancient tribe with a rich culture thousands of years old. Nearby was the small village of Sebestaya where we found some very well preserved Roman and Greek ruins, including a large forum and amphitheater.

Ancient Greek ruins near Sebestaya
Ancient Roman amphitheater
Old church in Sebestaya

The site also had many old Roman tombs, as well as an ancient church where the body of Saint John the Baptist was buried, although his head remains buried beneath the Umayyad Mosque (Great Mosque) in Damascus. Early in the afternoon we arrived in Nablus, a very old city established over 2000 years ago. Besides the historical sites in the city, the thing I remember most was the sight of old, aging electric lines and rusting water pipes in very precarious positions. We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant run by a Palestinian refugee from Kuwait.

Having lunch in Nablus

As we enjoyed lunch outside on the street, lots of children came by, constantly asking “what’s your name?” or “how are you”, but that was pretty much the extent of their English. We finished lunch with a cup of strong Arabic coffee flavored with Cardamom, and then came a traditional dessert known as “Kanofle – a delicious dish of toasted shredded wheat, honey, pistachios, and soft cheese. On our return to Jerusalem, we stopped at “Jacob’s Well” to partake of the water from a 2500 year old spring, the same spring from which Christ also drank 2000 years ago! It was an amazing moment and we were given small bottles of the water as we left. Later in the evening, as we approached Ramallah, we passed many new Israeli “settlements”, which were always located on the highest hills and surrounded by high concrete walls topped with barbed wire, tall guard towers, and high powered searchlights! They all looked like military installations or prisons – perhaps the “residents” also felt like prisoners, especially since they needed an army escort whenever they had to leave the settlement, as all of the settlements were located in the West Bank, Palestinian territory.

After the training class the next day, I walked up the hill to the new Hyatt Regency Hotel, situated in West Jerusalem behind the large Central Police Headquarters compound. From the hotel lobby bar there was a spectacular view of Jerusalem and the Old City, beautifully lighted in the evening. From looking at the “Shabbat menu” and seeing the inhouse Synagogue, as well as the “Shabbat door” and the Kosher restaurant, it became clear the hotel was specifically designed for American Jews. As I sat down to enjoy a cold glass of local Goldstar beer, writing in my journal, I overheard many conversations in a thick New York accent. The design of the hotel was beautiful, with lots of gorgeous white limestone, as well as a stunning view of the city and surrounding hills. But in comparison to the American Colony Hotel, it seemed to be a very sterile place. So after finishing my beer, I walked back down the hill to my hotel, but as I encountered an area of road construction, I stumbled and fell head first onto the sharp edge of the asphalt pavement. I hit my head really hard, knocking out one of the lenses in my eyeglasses. Immediately I felt blood streaming down my face, but I made sure to pick up the loose lens before grabbing my handkerchief to stem the flow of blood. I picked myself up and continued on my way to the hotel, by which time, my handkerchief was soaked with blood. As I stepped up to the front desk to pick up my room key, it was a bit disconcerting to see the “anguished “ look on the face of the desk clerk. When I finally got to my room and looked in the bathroom mirror, even I was shocked! I had a deep gash in my forehead and the whole right side of my face was bruised, puffy, and swollen. It quickly became a priority to apply antiseptic ointment, and just then I noticed my right hand was deeply scarred, but not seriously bleeding. My first thoughts focused on how to cover up the wound, but I had nothing for that purpose, unlike a woman having her cosmetics. I even considered, briefly, trying to use my shoe polish to conceal the wound, but quickly rejected the idea. Finally, I had to resign myself to appearing in public with my large black and blue face, though I was concerned that people might assume I had been “mugged” in a dark alley, which couldn’t be further from the truth. My next task was to fix my eyeglasses, and having successfully reinstalled the lens, I headed for the hotel restaurant, where I enjoyed a fabulous dinner of lamb chops, pan fried in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. The hotel staff were curious about my accident and offered any help they could give. After the delicious dinner, I sat in the Cellar Bar and wrote in my journal as I sipped a cold Maccabee beer. But I couldn’t help “imagining” that everyone was staring at me, even when there was no one looking at me! I think it was a paranoiac state of “self-consciousness”. Before retiring for the night, I fashioned an “impromptu” bandage out of toilet paper, antiseptic ointment, and scotch tape!

The following evening, I decided to try the “Arabesque” fine dining restaurant in the hotel. It was richly decorated with many traditional pieces of folk art that represented several regions of the Middle East. I began dinner with a glass of Baron Rothschild Chardonnay from the Mount Hermon Vineyard in northern Israel, and it was a very nice, crisp wine with a subtle note of grapefruit. As I was perusing the menu, I read the very interesting story of the history of the “American Colony” and the hotel.

The hotel buildings were originally built by an Ottoman Pasha named Daou Amin Effendi al-Husseini in the mid-1800’s. He lived there with his harem of four wives until his death in 1895, and it was sold to a group of messianic Christians from America. In 1896 they were joined by a number of Swedish settlers, and the group became known as the “American Colony”. Then in 1902, hotelier Plato von Ustinov, the grandfather of famed British actor Peter Ustinov, turned the estate into the hotel it is today. Since 1980, it has been managed by a Swiss company and has become a preferred hotel for diplomats, politicians, and foreign correspondents. Some of its most famous guests have included Lawrence of Arabia, Bob Dylan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and author John LeCarre, who wrote one of his books while staying in the hotel. The hotel remains one of the most famous and preferred hotels in the Middle East.  

Dinner began with a sumptuous, rich “Persian Soup” of sweet rice, garbanzo beans, fresh parsley, saffron cream, and spiced lamb meatballs. The main dish was a delicious shish kabob of grilled shrimp, onions, tomatoes, and lemon, served over a bed of Persian rice and covered with a sweet, yet pungent curry sauce. The plate was topped with fresh parsley and it was absolutely fabulous! Then my server insisted that I try a traditional Arabic dessert called “Mulacabieh”, a cornflower crème custard served chilled and topped with walnuts, dates, fresh mint leaves, strawberries, and spiced sugar. It was divine, not overly sweet and very smooth, delicate and fragrant! It was like what might be the “flavor” of a woody perfume – incredible! It was a memorable culinary experience and finished with the traditional cup of thick, strong Arabic coffee.

At the end of the training class the next day, Michael picked me up at the hotel and drove to Bethlehem, passing through two Israeli army checkpoints, before stopping near the center of the ancient city to show me the historic and sacred “Church of the Nativity”.

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity

It’s here that Christians believe is the site of Christ’s birth, in the manger of a small stable. We entered the 1500 year old church through a small door meant to keep out large animals, after the church had been converted to a stable during the Ottoman period. Inside the dark interior we saw the remnants of the original tiled mosaic floor under the present-day stone surface. To the right side of the large alter was a steep, narrow stone staircase leading down to a small room directly beneath the alter, where there were two lavish golden shrines, lit only by the light from many small candles, softly glowing in the darkness. They marked the spot believed to be where the manger had been and where Christ was born. We were standing at a most holy site, revered by all Christian faiths, though at least five denominations lay claims to various parts of the church. In addition, access to the ancient stable beneath the church is restricted. For instance, Catholics can only enter from a small passageway leading from the new chapel! As I stood in front of the small, golden shrine, I tried my best to imagine what it must have been like almost 2000 years ago – a very humbling experience. As Michael and I emerged back into daylight and the present day, we were immediately thrown back into the noise, hustle and bustle of modern Bethlehem – a far cry from the time of Christ! Michael was eager to share the plans that the city had for celebrating the dawn of the new Millennium, 2000 years after the birth of Christ, with a spectacular festival. It would attract millions of people to visit the most ancient of lands. Leaving Bethlehem, we drove to Tel Aviv where I would meet with staff of our Israeli office. Along the way we passed through beautiful, pastoral countryside, with old fields surrounded by low stone fences, and cultivated today in much the same way as for hundreds of years. There were men in traditional long robes and the traditional Arabic keffiyeh on their head, plowing the fields with donkeys!

View of Jerusalem on the way to Tel Aviv
Along the road to Tel Aviv

It was as if time here had stood still. At one point, shortly after leaving Bethlehem, we could see all the way down to the Dead Sea, thousands of feet below, and far beyond to the Jordan Mountains. Soon we could see the bright lights of modern Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast, and before we knew it, we found ourselves among hundreds of cars speeding along a modern freeway, past new 30 story high steel and glass skyscrapers – a stark contrast to the Old City of Jerusalem! At last we reached the new Radisson Moria Hotel, located on a lovely beach not far from downtown Tel Aviv.

Hotel in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea

Later, as I sat on my hotel room balcony overlooking the beach and the Mediterranean Sea, I reflected upon my first visit to the Holy Land and the amazing, unforgettable experiences I had been given, and I looked forward to returning someday. (little did I know at that point, that I would be given another opportunity to experience Jerusalem and Gaza two months later – stay tuned!)

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Yemen – Land of the Queen of Sheba

In November of 1996 I made a journey to the ancient country of Yemen on a business trip, following meetings in India and Kuwait. The morning that I departed from Kuwait City I spent an hour at the airport in the Oasis Business Class Lounge, sitting under a Bedouin tent canopy in the middle of the room and being served fresh brewed Arabic coffee, orange juice, and delicious pastries from a silver trolley. Little did I know, as I boarded the Kuwait Airways First Class cabin, that I would have to spend the whole day travelling to Yemen. First was the flight from Kuwait to Bahrain, then a 3 hour layover before boarding the Gulf Airlines flight to Jeddah and another 2 hour wait for the Saudi Airlines flight to Saana, Yemen. (my 2 hours in Jeddah were spent in a small windowless room with two other foreigners, under the watchful eye of two guards from the Saudi military. We felt almost like prisoners!) Finally I began the last leg of my journey in First Class aboard the Saudi Airlines flight. Before takeoff we were served strong Arabic coffee from a beautiful traditional silver coffee pot, followed by a selection of dates. (travelling in First and Business Class really helped make the long trip a whole lot easier) As I sat in my seat, we passed over the Red Sea, beautifully highlighted by a brilliant sunset. Suddenly I realized that I had been travelling or working every day for the past two weeks, and it would continue for another week in Yemen! Upon landing at Saana airport, I was met by a young man from NATCO (National Trading Company) the Esri distributor in Yemen. It was a long drive to the hotel at night, through dark, crowded streets, and as I looked around, it became obvious that Yemen was still very much a third world country – like night and day from Kuwait! The Panorama Hotel was close to the NATCO office, but despite the new computerized elevators, it was definitely not a five star property.

Sunrise in Saana
Sunrise in Saana

I awoke early the next morning to a gorgeous sunrise over the mountains that surround the city, under clear blue skies. As I looked out my hotel window, I saw a group of soldiers marching and drilling on a dusty parade ground.

Army post next to hotel
Army post next to hotel

That’s when I realized the hotel was next to a large army post. Suddenly the hotel turned on the loudspeakers in the hallway, one of which was directly outside my door, and the “wailing” of a female singer blared out full volume! That’s when I decided it was time to head downstairs for breakfast. It consisted of one hard boiled egg, a piece of dry stale bread, a small glass of a mystery fruit drink, and a lukewarm cup of instant coffee. After breakfast I was driven to the office to begin teaching the GIS training class. (NATCO is the largest company in Yemen and sells everything from toilet paper to luxury cars!)

Typical street scene in Saana
Typical street scene in Saana
Streets of Saana
Streets of Saana

Looking at the street scene, most of the Yemeni men wore long white robes, small turbans, and a large, elaborately decorated leather belt with a long curved knife tucked into it. (I found out later that it’s the traditional dress of all Yemeni men, and the decoration of the leather belt is closely tied to each Bedouin tribe in the country) As it turned out, the training classroom was next to another army base, and around noon, after the call for prayer from the local mosque, several police cars, with sirens screaming, roared up to the gate behind the NATCO office. A large crowd gathered and a lot of “animated” discussion took place, after which several guys were loaded into the police cars. Then they roared off with sirens wailing! When I asked the students what had just happened, I got no answer – either no one knew or they didn’t want to say anything. (so it remained a mystery)

Over the next few days I observed many strange and fascinating things about Saana and the country of Yemen. Among them:

  • The city is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, dating back thousands of years. It’s also one of the highest capital cities in the world at 8,000 feet elevation.
  • Most buildings are only 2 -3 stories tall and the city is surrounded by high, barren mountains.
  • The land is very dry and barren, except for the occasional oasis.
  • There are a lot of traditional old buildings in the classical Arabic geometric style, but the streets are often very narrow and in poor condition, having many sections unpaved and full of deep potholes.
  • Streets everywhere were littered with garbage, plastic bags, rocks, stones, and even abandoned household items or broken car parts.
  • The narrow streets were lined with hundreds of small shops, and every one of them had large, heavy metal doors that opened out into the street – often dark, having no windows.
  • Traffic was chaotic and generally “unruly” – somewhat like I remembered of Cairo. Stop signs and traffic lights seemed to have no effect on driving. Whoever had the larger vehicle, louder horn, or perhaps more “balls”, had the right of way!
  • Late at night, men sat at small tables outside on the street under the dim glow of a street lamp, drinking tea and talking with each other. (I could only wonder what they discussed – world events, family affairs, local gossip, …)
  • There were a few beggars on the street near the main intersections, and young kids tried to “clean” car windows with a filthy cloth. But this paled in comparison to a scene in India.
  • The majority of vehicles were very old and dilapidated, in strong contrast to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

As I returned to the hotel later in the day, I suddenly became aware of a large stuffed hawk clutching a stuffed rabbit on display in the lobby, at the entrance to the restaurant! (it did nothing to stimulate my appetite) One afternoon, as I sat in the NATCO conference room preparing for class the next day, the sunset call to prayer suddenly blared out of the mosque next door. It was followed by a “lengthy” sermon delivered in the tone of “hell fire and brimstone”. Meanwhile, the sound of the army troops drilling on the parade ground echoed in the background. One evening, upon returning to the hotel, I had a delicious dinner of chicken escalope, deep fried and served with fresh sliced tomatoes and green peppers. But the next morning, it was another breakfast of one hard boiled egg, a piece of dry stale bread, a small glass of mystery fruit drink and a lukewarm cup of instant coffee. (obviously the breakfast menu never changed) When I arrived in the training classroom, I found an old, dusty overhead projector whose lamp was so dim that it barely illuminated anything on the screen, which was just one of the bare walls. And the floor to ceiling windows in the back of the room didn’t help the situation! As I started the class I discovered there was only one marker for the white board, and it happened to be red. (not my favorite color) Later on, I found out that two of the students had never used a computer before, and when you combine that with their very limited ability with the English language, it was an impossible situation, to say the least! When the class finished that first day at 1:30pm, I was ready for a cold beer – but there’s no alcohol allowed in Yemen! However, the general manager of NATCO invited me to join him for lunch at a very nice Lebanese restaurant where we sat outside in a beautiful courtyard and enjoyed an amazing array of traditional Arabic “mezzahs“ (appetizers) and lamb shish kabobs. Meanwhile, one of the gardeners was watering the lawn and flowers with a large “fire hose”, and huge volumes of water were gushing from the hose – drowning everything! During lunch Mazen told me some of the history of Yemen and the origin of the Arabic people. According to popular legend, Yemen was founded in ancient biblical times by Shem, the son of Noah, and was known as “Azal”. After lunch I changed to the Plaza Suites Hotel and was shown to a large apartment which had an office, living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom. It was far more space than I needed, but it was a nice gesture. Suddenly the electricity went off, but a few minutes later the backup generator switched on and all was well. Later in the evening I called room service and ordered a couple of non-alcoholic beers. A few minutes later, a loud noise, like a foghorn, boomed out – it was the doorbell, and my drinks arrived.

View from my hotel room
View from my hotel room

After a few days, I felt I was getting burned out on Yemen. My hotel was miles from any tourist sights, restaurants, or shops, and taking a walk wasn’t much of an option either. Safety wasn’t the issue, there was nothing to see or do anywhere close to the hotel. (I began to feel as if I was under “house arrest”) My students were very nice and quite curious about the world outside of Yemen, but they struggled everyday with English and were constantly making spelling errors as they typed commands on the computer. It was very frustrating, both for them and for me, but somehow we managed. The weather continued to be very pleasant, with clear blue skies, cool temperatures at night and warm days.

Trash bin surrounded by trash
Empty trash bin surrounded by trash after collection

Though, on the negative side was the overwhelming amount of trash everywhere, along the roadside, covering vacant lots, and around almost every building. Yet there were large trash bins scattered around, but they were rarely used. Instead, people either tossed their trash out the window or deposited it “next” to the trash bin, creating large piles of trash surrounding the bin! Occasionally, a brand new garbage truck would come by to empty the trash bin – two guys would jump out , pick up a few things around the bin and then proceed to dump the bin into the truck. When the truck moved on, the empty trash bin was left sitting in the middle of a large pile of trash that remained untouched. (this would usually happen twice a day) Though I failed to understand the logic of the trash collection operation, the pile of trash left around the empty bin did appear to serve a purpose.

Goats and sheep "grazing" on trash pile
Goats and sheep “grazing” on trash pile

Once or twice a day a herd of goats and sheep would come along to “graze” on the trash pile! Besides the daily trash collection routine, the call to prayer echoed from every mosque in the city through huge loudspeakers five times a day, beginning at 5 am! It became my “default” morning wake up alarm. During my training session in Yemen, I became aware that the hotel and NATCO office had new British 3 prong electrical outlets, but all of the electrical appliances and computer equipment had standard 2 prong European plugs! On another occasion, I noticed that the NATCO office had brand new toilets, but they were not always functioning properly. One had no water, but the light fixture worked, while the other one had water, but the light didn’t work.

Army post at dawn
Army post at dawn

One morning I was awakened at 4:30 am by the sound of army troops running past my bedroom window, shouting out cadence. Right after that came the 5 am call to prayer from the mosque nearby. It was definitely a sign that I should get up. On the way to the NATCO office to continue the training class, I was met at the front gate by the guard, equipped with a submachine gun. It seemed that almost every large building had an armed guard. Back at the hotel that afternoon, I noticed that the “Beauty Salon and Boutique” still had not opened its doors since the day I arrived, despite the “open” sign posted on the door. Perhaps the sign wasn’t correct or it wasn’t really a Beauty Salon or Boutique?

After the training class the next day, Mazen arranged for Mr. Najeed to take me on a personal tour of the old city. We drove through the heavy chaotic traffic at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of lanes, dodging pedestrians. (or were they dodging us?) Finally, we arrived at the old city gate, or at least what remained from the 12th century. And at once the architecture became one of very old stone buildings, each one stacked upon the other, in the geometric style of classic Arabesque design and very distinctive. The beautiful red terra cotta and brown stone contrasted brilliantly against the clear blue sky.

Old City of Saana
Old City of Saana
Old City of Saana
Old City of Saana

We parked the car and began to walk the narrow, ancient cobble stone streets – very crowded, noisy, and bustling with activity. As we entered the heart of the old souk (market), we were “jostled” by the crowd around us, very much like we were just another corpuscle moving in the bloodstream of life! Deftly, Mr. Najeed lead me through narrow, dark, winding passageways, up steep stone steps worn down by many centuries of feet. We passed many quarters dedicated to various trades, such as leather work, shoe making, and iron mongering where everything from picks and shovels were forged. One quarter was exclusively for the production of the classic curved Yemeni knife. It was absolutely fascinating to look at trades that had changed little since the 12th century! It was another “time warp” that was so characteristic of Yemen. At one point we came to a small square and Mr. Najeed pointed out an old stone building and said it used to be the public water supply before a modern water system was installed – just 20 years ago! Then we re-joined the bustling crowd in the narrow, tent-covered street, and as we turned a corner the shops suddenly changed from trades to beautiful, brilliantly colored fabrics hanging from every available spot. Further on were carpet shops with hundreds of gorgeous silk and wool carpets from throughout the Middle East. The “rainbow” of color and design was truly astounding. At last we came to the main central square, a large open area with scores of merchants selling everything from dates, raisins, nuts, and various seeds to a fascinating myriad of exotic spices and fragrances. As we walked through the open-air market, it seemed like every ten feet the smells changed – a true “collage” of sweet, pungent, spicy, and even foul sometimes! It was a delightful, though hectic, trip for my nose – a true adventure for the senses. Not far from the main square, Mr. Najeed showed me a very old mosque, over 1400 years old, and one of the first in the world.

Old Mosque
Old Mosque

Islam has been here in Yemen for an incredibly long time, and its influence on the culture and traditions is unmistakable and deeply rooted. As we walked past the old mosque, Mr. Najeed said he would call his dear friend who lived nearby to see if we could go to the top of his building for a view overlooking the old city, which sounded great to me. Suddenly Mr. Najeed stopped at the street corner, looked up and shouted loudly – “Ahmed”!! (and all along I thought he meant he would “telephone” his friend – stupid me!) After “calling” his friend, who unfortunately was not home, we walked to a beautiful green garden surrounded on all sides by very old buildings.

Community garden in the Old City
Community garden in the Old City
Community Garden
Community Garden
Community Garden
Community Garden

Apparently, each family in the neighborhood had a small plot of land for growing fresh vegetables. It was a peaceful little oasis in the middle of a densely populated area. As we walked back toward the old city gate, we were treated to a spectacular pink and orange sunset that etched a lovely pattern in the dark blue evening sky. The silhouettes of the old stone buildings and the mountains beyond framed the glowing sunset perfectly. As we neared Mr. Najeed’s car, an old homeless man living under a cardboard shelter called out his name. It turned out that Mr. Najeed knew the old man as a young man, but now the old man was suffering was Alzheimer’s – truly a sad sight. Mr. Najeed gave him some money as we left. Further on we turned a corner and immediately found ourselves being literally “sucked” into the crowd, being pushed along, not necessarily in the direction we wanted to go, but we were definitely being moved somewhere. Then something caught my eye – several men walking among the crowd carrying huge sums of money. They were obviously “money changers” and somehow they felt safe from thieves who are punished severely by Islamic law, having their right hand chopped off! As we neared the car, evening was rapidly falling over the old city and shops were lighting up old kerosene lanterns, lending a new, softer glow throughout the narrow streets. As we drove back to the hotel, Mr. Najeed told me that 20 years ago the whole city was very clean, in stark contrast to today’s huge piles of plastic trash that litter the streets. I would have loved to see this city without all the litter and trash.

Old City of Saana at dusk
Old City of Saana at dusk

The next day I finished the training class, one of the most “painful” I’ve ever done, but all the students were very appreciative and presented me with a lovely gift. Later on, Mazen invited me to join him for lunch in his home, along with several of the country’s most influential business leaders, which was quite an honor for me. His home was an enormous estate constructed entirely of brilliant white marble and surrounded by a 15 foot high stone wall. There was a large, Olympic size swimming pool “inside” the house. But all around the outside of the estate were piles of trash, so typical of Saana!Upon entering the house, we removed our shoes and joined all of the men in the huge living room where we sat in a large circle on cushions and low couches only 6 inches off the floor. Many beautiful and very expensive Persian carpets covered the floor. After some conversation, we washed our hands and headed into the large formal dining room where we sat on more gorgeous carpets. In front of us was an enormous spread of traditional Arabic and Yemeni food. As people began digging into the various bowls , only with their right hand per Islamic law, I did the same, as Mazen introduced each dish to me. The grilled, spicy ribs of lamb were particularly delicious, but there wasn’t anything that I would not have eaten. I was very surprised to see Mazen, as the General Manager of NATCO, serving all of us. But later I was told it was a very old traditional Yemeni custom, even though he was probably the richest man in the country. During the entire time, there were no women visible as they were all in the kitchen and not permitted to enter the dining room or living room where the men were present. One of the guests for lunch was the nephew of the country’s president, and I noticed straight away that he carried a pistol the whole time. Many of the other men had the traditional Yemeni curved knife tucked in their belt. At the conclusion of lunch we were served a sour yogurt soup in a small stone bowl, along with a fantastic array of luscious Lebanese sweets. This presentation was followed by hot tea served in gold rimmed cups, as we sat in the living room on the cushions and low couches. For me it was a rare glimpse of traditional Yemeni culture. After the amazing lunch, Wael brought out large branches of a local bush with lots of new sprouting green leaves and passed them around the room. He informed me that the plant is known as “Qat” (pronounced cat) and when the young leaves are chewed they release a mild narcotic both relaxes and stimulates the body and mind. (chewing Qat seemed to be endemic in the Yemeni culture – could it be a substitute for alcohol?) As everyone sat around chewing Qat, Wael served hot Arabic coffee made from the ”husks” of the coffee bean, making it a strong acidic taste. I declined the invitation to join in chewing Qat, but after constant badgering by Wael, I relented and stuffed some leaves into my mouth. I was instructed that one should stuff just the left cheek, slowly chew the leaves to extract the juice, and “not” to eat them. I never did find out why only the left cheek – surely not another Islamic law! Soon cheeks were “bulging” and the conversation mellowed out considerably. I found the taste to be quite bitter and acidic – Wael said it was an “acquired” taste. I spent the next couple of hours “slowly” trying to acquire the taste, unsuccessfully. However, I did begin to feel a mild high, as if I’d had a couple of glasses of wine. Given the choice of chewing Qat or drinking wine, I’ll take the wine. During the afternoon session of Qat chewing, there was an interesting French TV show called “Qui est Qui” (Who is Who) where three contestants tried to determine the professions of a panel of six people, given a list of six possible jobs. They had to ask questions of the people in order to figure out how to match them with the jobs. The really interesting part of the show came when the people had to “demonstrate” some aspect of the job that the contestants had “guessed” as matches – it was often hilarious! I thought back to the days of Groucho Marx and the old TV game show “What’s My Line”. Meanwhile the bushes of Qat, having been stripped of their leaves, began to pile up in front of everyone. Eventually the conversation slowed and it was time to go home. The President’s nephew picked up his pistol and everyone else tucked their knives in their belts! I was offered a ride back to my hotel by a man named Tareq, who had not been chewing Qat. He must have been something like the Yemeni equivalent of the “designated driver”, I would guess. Back at the hotel that evening I ordered a couple of non-alcoholic beers from room service, and the same “foghorn” for a doorbell announced their arrival. Then I packed my bags in preparation for my departure in the morning. Later that evening I stood on the balcony and admired the spectacular show of stars in the dark night sky above me.

The next morning I awoke early to a beautiful sunrise outside my bedroom window. As I stood on the balcony, the air was cool, the sky clear and the streets quiet. I looked around and saw a young girl on the street below having trouble herding her goats past the large pile of trash around the trash bin. Apparently the trash was very attractive to the goats. I hauled my bags downstairs to the hotel lobby to wait for my ride to the airport, which was invariably late. Meanwhile, several Landcruisers arrived and men got out to join a group already in the lobby. One of the Landcruisers was elaborately decorated with colored ribbons and flower garlands, leading me to conclude that it was part of a wedding party. As I continued to wait for my driver, more men of the wedding party arrived.

Wedding party arriving
Wedding party arriving

Most of them with submachine guns slung over their shoulder and pistols in their belt. (there were no women to be seen) All of the men greeted each other with three kisses – then many photos were taken, each guy made sure his weapon was prominently displayed! Then another Landcruiser arrived with two older men who were greeted with special reverence. By this time, the hotel lobby was crowded with gun toting Yemeni men, while the TV in the corner blared out the sights and sounds of MTV! What a stark contrast of cultures – like being in an episode of the “Twilight Zone”. About then the hotel desk clerk leaned over to me and said that the old men who had just arrived were the fathers of the bride and groom, and this was the first meeting of the families. (the wedding had taken place the night before  and the newlyweds had spent their first night together in the hotel, being an arranged marriage) Even though my ride to the airport was over two hours late, I was grateful for having another fascinating glimpse into Yemeni culture. Finally Wael arrived with the driver and on the way to the airport he presented me with a very special gift – a traditional Yemeni knife in a beautiful gold braided leather belt. It was something I had wanted to buy but hadn’t had the opportunity to do so. So it was a very nice gesture on his part. Then it was another bare knuckle drive through chaotic traffic , dodging pedestrians, with the horn blaring constantly – apparently the only way to drive in Saana! Pedestrians scattered to the side of the road as we raced to the airport – sometimes overtaking cars on the left and sometimes on the right, as well as sometimes on the wrong side of the road. (at any time the road would suddenly go from 2 lanes to 4 or 5 lanes, depending on how big the vehicles were) At one intersection traffic was halted by a cop standing in the middle of the street. But after a minute or two, the drivers became impatient and began “inching” forward into the intersection, with horns blaring. At last the policeman waved his hand and we were all off to a Monte Carlo start – drivers waved their fists at the policeman and shouted insults! Finally (and thankfully) the airport came into view, surrounded by barren fields. At first the police stopped us from driving up to the terminal building – was I supposed to drag my bags up the road I wondered? But my driver convinced them that I was an important foreign VIP and they should make an exception to the rule. As soon as we pulled up to the terminal, three guys descended upon the car, ready to load my bags on the “free” luggage trolley. It rapidly became obvious that it would be virtually impossible to avoid their “services”, even though my driver steered the trolley to the terminal entrance by himself. Quickly my bags were x-rayed as I pulled myself away from the “luggage leeches” and headed inside to check in for the flight to Dubai. I walked up to the Emirates Airlines First Class counter, only to find out that my reservation had been cancelled! (I had forgotten to reconfirm it within 72 hours) On top of that, I was told First Class was fully booked and I might be downgraded to economy. I must have had a “pitiful” look on my face at that point because the station manager came up and took mercy upon me, personally guaranteeing me a first class seat, though I might have to settle for an economy class meal as they had only 15 first class meals on board. Luckily I was given a boarding pass for a first class seat, and after filling out the departure card and passing through immigration, I was officially “stamped” out of Yemen. I had a delicious cup of Arabic coffee in the Emirates First Class lounge before the Dubai flight was announced for boarding. Going through the security checkpoint involved not only the usual metal detector, but also a very thorough body search! As I boarded the bus that would take us to the plane, a ticket agent was collecting knives from men and tagging them with the passenger’s name and seat number. Upon boarding the 767 I found my seat was in row 1 and next to a console with fresh flowers. Just as I sat down, I was offered a hot, perfumed towel, followed by a cup of strong Arabic coffee and a selection of dates. All of a sudden, to my pleasant surprise, I was handed a chilled glass of Pol Roger Champagne – so refreshing! As the plane departed Saana, we had excellent views of the surrounding mountains – ancient geologic formations, deeply eroded by centuries of wind and water.

Leaving Saana
Leaving Saana
Ancient mountains of Yemen
Ancient mountains of Yemen
Southern coast of Yemen
Southern coast of Yemen
Desert landscape of the Arabian Peninsula
Desert landscape of the Arabian Peninsula

Unexpectedly, our route of flight took us southeast to the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, then along its southern coastline, and finally north to Dubai – in effect we skirted around the Saudi border for an unknown reason. Essentially, it made a normal 1 ½ hour flight into 3 hours. However, since the first class service aboard Emirates Airlines was outstanding, I didn’t mind the extra flying time. The lunch service was superb, beginning with a selection of Arabic mezzahs (hummus, goat cheese covered with fresh cracked black pepper, pickled vegetables), followed by a fresh green salad with baby corn and a delicious lemon-olive dressing. The main course was a fabulous plate of grilled prawns in herbed butter and coriander. And for dessert there was a luscious pistachio meringue tart, as well as a selection of cheeses and fresh fruit, along with a glass of Taylor’s 20 year old Port. All of this was served from an elegant silver trolley. I finished lunch with a cup of fresh coffee and a glass of Cointreau on ice – absolutely superb food and gracious service!

Upon landing in Dubai, it was very obvious that I was now in a world far removed from Yemen, and once again I experienced a time warp. As I walked off the plane, I looked forward to spending the next few days “decompressing”. But the experience of being in Yemen was unforgettable and one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t always comfortable, but always fascinating!

(Note: As I read about the civil war in Yemen now, I can’t help wondering what the old city of Saana must be like these days. And I can’t help but believe that the centuries old traditions and culture must still persist, despite the ravages of war!)

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Istanbul – Crossroad of Continents, where East meets West

In October of 2000 I joined my colleague Tina and travelled to Istanbul to attend the Esri User Conference and conduct training classes. Dinner on board the Delta Airlines flight in Business Class was a delicious Asian beef dish served over basmati rice, followed by a tray of wonderful cheeses accompanied by a fantastic glass of Inniskillan Ice Wine from Canada. Upon arriving in Istanbul the next day I changed $40 USD and received 25 million Turkish Lira (over 625,000 Lira per dollar!). So when I ordered a glass of beer later, it “only” cost me 2,250,000 Lira – about $3.00. We were greeted at the airport by very fine weather and the staff from our local distributor office who whisked us away to the Park Hilton Hotel, which overlooks the Bosporus Straight that divides Europe and Asia. From my room I had a spectacular view of the Bosporus and the continent of Asia on the opposite shore.

Bosporus Straight
Bosporus Straight

As I sat on the balcony with a chilled glass of local Efes beer, I watched an incredible array of boat traffic constantly sailing by – scores of ferries of all sizes, huge freighters and tankers, and a various assortment of smaller craft! It was a fascinating scene and I had one of the best seats in the house. Later in the afternoon I walked down to the SwissHotel to look at the conference facilities, in preparation for the setup of our annual European and Middle Eastern User Conference. From there I made my way to Yildiz Technical University where Tina and I would conduct software training classes the next day. As we entered the centuries old building the staff showed us to the “Internet Café” where there were two large cages of birds in one corner, “squawking” loudly! Then one of the staff announced this would be the location for Tina’s class! (I could see Tina sink into a state of shock and disbelief) Fortunately her class had to be postponed for a day since the computers had not yet arrived. Over the course of the next few days Tina and I conducted our classes, with computers and without birds. Despite the fact that students always showed up over an hour late (traffic) we were treated with great hospitality, especially for the traditional lunch served in the faculty club located on the top floor, with an incredible panoramic view of the old city, the Bosporus, and Asia. At the end of the class each day Tina and I would meet up in the hotel’s rooftop bar for a couple of beers and sharing of our experiences during the day. One evening we became aware of the piano player in the corner of the bar, surrounded by a large group of elderly tourists who were singing along as he pounded out his rendition of Las Vegas lounge hits. (for a moment the vision of a “lounge lizard” flashed through my mind) Just then Tina caught his eye and it wasn’t long before she was “persuaded” to join him and sing along. (he dedicated the famous Frank Sinatra hit “New York, New York” to her, so every evening after that he played it as we entered the bar) About that time an old man seated around the piano latched on to her and gave her his business card, claiming he was a psychiatrist, but upon closer examination of his card it revealed he had a PHD in social sciences. And so ended our evening, as “sing along with Mitch” continued. Having the following day off we walked down to the old city and stopped at the “Sultan’s Pub” for a delicious lunch of traditional Shish Tawook. Meanwhile, we overheard a conversation at the next table as an American tourist kept asking his wife if she knew where the nearest McDonald’s was? (dude, you’re in Turkey – get with the program and enjoy it for the unique experience that it is!) This day also happened to be the world famous Istanbul Marathon Race across the bridge that connects Europe and Asia.

Bridge connecting Europe and Asia
Bridge connecting Europe and Asia

That afternoon we visited the Tokapi Palace, once the residence of Ottoman Sultans, and now an amazing historical museum. Within the enormous complex were housed some extremely rare and one of a kind ancient relics. Among them was a special exhibit with a tooth, strand of hair, and footprint of the Prophet Mohammed! In another room was part of the arm bone and piece of the skull from the body of John the Baptist. In the next room was a fragment of a door and rain gutter from the sacred Kabba in Mecca. Besides these ancient religious relics, was a large dagger with a solid emerald handle, among dozens of gem encrusted weapons belonging to the sultans during their reign in the Ottoman Empire.

4th Century Roman Aqueduct
4th Century Roman Aqueduct

The next day, before the start of the conference, I took some time to visit some of the most interesting, unique, and historical sites in Istanbul, and there are a lot of them in this city thousands of years old. I walked down to the old city and my first stop was the “Sirkeci Train Station” that opened in 1890 to serve as the final destination of the luxurious Orient Express. Today the station no longer receives the famous train and only functions as a domestic stop. But the charm and grandeur of the turn of the century remains well preserved in its beautiful Byzantine architecture. From the old station it was a short walk through a century’s old neighborhood to “Haghia Sophia”, a world heritage site known as the “Church of Holy Wisdom”, and it ranks among the greatest architectural achievements in the world.

Haghia Sofia
Haghia Sofia
Haghia Sofia
Haghia Sofia

Built over 1400 years ago in the 6th century when Constantinople was the capitol of the Byzantine Empire, it remains beautifully preserved. Although it was originally constructed as a Christian church, it was later converted into a Mosque by the Ottomans in the 15th century, and in the process, most of the Christian mosaics and paintings were covered over with Islamic art. In the last 100 years a restoration has been taking place to reveal some of the most beautiful and historically important Christian mosaics.

Byzantine Mosaic of Christ
Byzantine Mosaic of Christ

Exploring the church/mosque was a highlight of my time in Istanbul. Nearby was an equally famous site, the world renowned “Blue Mosque”, which takes its name from the brilliant blue “Iznik” tile that covers the entire interior of the massive building.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque

It dates from the early 1600’s during the height of the Ottoman Empire, and has classic, tall, slender minarets surrounding several large domes that seem to be stacked one on top of another. This style of mosque architecture is typical of the Ottoman period. And if all this wasn’t enough, the marble floor of the vast space inside the main prayer room was covered with an enormous oriental carpet – an incredible sight to behold. Leaving the Blue Mosque I walked a few blocks to the “Spice Bazaar”, a cavernous L-shaped building built in the 17th century to provide the citizens of Istanbul with exotic spices from all corners of the world, made possible by the city’s location on the main trade route between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Walking through the crowded market was a mind blowing experience for all my senses, not just my nose! (fascinating to watch the people haggling over the prices) Nearby was the “Suleymaniye Mosque”, an enormous complex built in the 1500’s as a memorial to its founder, Suleyman the Magnificent.

Suleymaniye Mosque
Suleymaniye Mosque

In the center was the largest dome in the city, and beneath it was the Sultan’s tomb. By this time evening was approaching, so I headed for the historic old “Pera Palas Hotel”, world famous as the favorite destination of travelers arriving on the Orient Express. (some of the passengers would stop over here before continuing their train journey to Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Cairo) Among the most famous guests of the hotel were Mata Hari, Greta Garbo, Jackie Onassis, Agatha Christie, and the father of modern Turkey, Ataturk! So as I sat in the classic old “Grand Orient Bar”, surrounded by old photos on the walls, I “soaked” up as much of the exotic and historic atmosphere as possible. It was by far the best way to finish the day before walking back to my hotel, as brilliant lights illuminated dozens of mosques in the dark night. The experiences of the day convinced me this city is one of the most beautiful, historic, and exotic cities in the world!

Ciragan Palace
Ciragan Palace

The following day was the opening of the conference, and afterwards we were invited to join the owner of our Belgian office for an amazing seven course dinner that featured five wines, three salads, spiced Asian samosa, herb crusted rack of lamb in a red wine and garlic marinade, and roasted potatoes with fennel. Dinner finished with crème broule served in a bitter orange sauce, followed by thick, strong, sweet Turkish coffee – superb! The Gala Party was designed as an “Ottoman Night” to celebrate the beautiful art and culture of ancient Turkey. It began with a lovely reception in the foyer that had been decorated with authentic replicas of old shops and stalls from a traditional bazaar. Then as dinner was announced, we all followed an Ottoman Army Band, dressed in their traditional uniforms from the 16th century, into an enormous banquet hall. Sitting in the middle of the hall was a large stage decorated as a Sultan’s throne, complete with the Sultan and his royal court, dressed in their finest Ottoman style and surrounded by huge satin pillows, small tents, and musicians. And of course there were a couple of belly dancers as well. We felt like we had just travelled back to the 16th century. The entertainment for the evening included a pair of dancers wearing large hats covering their heads and the faces of women painted on their belly. As they danced among the tables, they would “kiss” some people seated at a table by thrusting the “lips” painted on their belly against the person’s face – it was hilarious! Later on several folk dance groups from various regions of Turkey performed, dressed in their traditional native costumes. As the evening was about to wrap up, Tina said she wanted a photo with the Sultan, but then when he began to drag her up to his throne she started having second thoughts. But in the end she sat with the Sultan on a mound of pillows for the photo. It wasn’t long before a line formed to have photos taken with the Sultan. Following a fantastic dinner of delicious Turkish dishes, there was dancing to the latest hits, including some local Turkish pop music. As we left the party we all had to agree it was a tremendous success.

The following morning I met with the owner of our Lisbon office to plan next year’s conference in Portugal. (meanwhile I had to plan my upcoming business trips to Rome, Athens, Sofia, Manila, and Seoul) Then I joined a small group for a boat tour of the Bosporus and a view of an ancient 13th century Crusader castle in the shadow of the modern day bridge connecting Europe and Asia. On our return trip we passed within less than 100 yards of a massive tanker! (just “inches” in the maritime world)

Tanker on the Bosporus
Tanker on the Bosporus

On Sunday I had arranged to join a tour to the ancient Greek ruins of Efesus (Efes in Turkish), but it was also the “national census day” when virtually the entire population of Turkey was required to stay home until the census was completed. (earlier in the week when I had booked the tour I was assured that the national census day would not affect the tour, as tourists were allowed to move freely) But as our van left the hotel for the airport, the streets were deserted since the curfew was from 5:00am to 7:00pm. As we arrived at the airport there was plenty of time to board the flight to Izmir where we would meet our guide for the tour. As we travelled on the new 6 lane freeway from Izmir we came to a toll booth that was not staffed, the gates having been raised, so our driver passed through at 120kph and then continued at 150kph along the superhighway, seeing not another vehicle in sight! (very eerie – like something out of a Sci-Fi film in which everyone else in the world had suddenly vanished) Eventually we arrived at the ruins of Efesus, and from the center of the ancient city we could see a massive 12th century Crusader fortress built on the summit of a steep mountain nearby. It had been previously occupied by the Greeks and Romans centuries earlier. Also nearby on the slopes of the mountain was an old stone house where it is believed that the Virgin Mary lived, following the crucifixion of Christ. He had entrusted her care to the disciple Paul, who later returned to Efesus to preach to the Ephesians. Our guide, a professor of Greek Studies at the University of Istanbul, lead our small group down the main street of the old city, past the foundations of many houses and shops that once lined the thoroughfare, which was paved with huge blocks of granite and marble.

Main street of Efesus
Main street of Efesus
Roman Colonnade in Efesus
Roman Colonnade in Efesus
Roman Colonnade
Roman Colonnade

Along the way he stopped often to tell us the amazing history of the ancient city that dates back to 1300 BC! There were also lighter moments, such as having us sit in the well preserved remains of the public latrine as he pointed out how people back then exchanged the news of the day as they sat side by side, engaged in their daily toilet ritual. Since each seat was nothing more than a hole carved in the 2 inch thick marble stone, there was no concept of privacy! And in the cold weather, the rich masters would send one of their slaves to “warm up” a seat for them! (meanwhile, some of the folks in our group began taking photos of each other seated on the latrine – thankfully modesty prevailed and no one actually made use of the facility)

Public Latrine
Public Latrine

The latrine was designed so that a continuous flow of water flushed the waste away from the city – quite a technological advancement for the time. Further on our guide pointed out the remains of a large Roman Bath which could accommodate up to 1000 people at a time, and on the second floor had been a brothel, so as to be conveniently located for its patrons. There were also dozens of fountains throughout the city, dedicated to the countless Greek and Roman gods. But the most impressive building by far was the library, a two story marble structure that once housed the second largest collection of ancient manuscripts in the world.

Library of Efesus
Library of Efesus

(the “Great Library of Alexandria” was the world’s largest, but it was destroyed by fire centuries later) As we walked down a side street we saw it had been paved with various mosaics in front of each shop – sort of like the “advertising” of its day. As we made our way back to the main street we came to a great “colonnade”, and on either side were the remains of an ancient sewer system, still in remarkable condition after thousands of years. Suddenly our guide stopped and pointed to an old carving in one of the marble steps leading to the ruins of an old house. There in the stone was the outline of a woman’s head, a left footprint, and a heart. Then he told us it was an ancient advertisement saying “I am a beautiful woman, if you walk down the street and turn left you will find me. I will be happy to share my heart with you”. Then he said, in today’s world the carving might say “I’m a beautiful woman who wants to meet you, but if your left foot is smaller than this, go to the library, otherwise turn left and I will share my heart with you. I accept credit cards”! Who knows if either “translation” is true, but they both make a great story, and a fitting conclusion to our tour of Efesus. After a wonderful dinner with the group and our guide, who told us more fascinating stories of Greek history, I retired to my hotel room for the night.

The next morning I flew back to Istanbul to connect with my return flight to Los Angeles, carrying with me a bag filled with wonderful memories of the people I had met and the places I had visited. Istanbul remains one of my cities in the world, and I’ve been fortunate to have visited it many times since.

As a postscript, during my time in Turkey I’ve been overwhelmed by the warmth and genuine hospitality of the people wherever I went. On top of that, the food has always been fantastic, delicious and unique – a wonderful fusion of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. I look forward to more adventures in Turkey!

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Adventures with Roger and Lila in the Sultanate of Oman

In late October of 2007 I boarded a flight from Los Angeles to London to spend a few days with my old friends Jiggy and Andrew, before going on to the Sultanate of Oman to attend our Middle East User Conference in the capitol city of Muscat. The overnight flight from London to Muscat in Business Class aboard Gulf Air was superb in many ways, especially when Dom Perignon Champagne and sweet Arabic dates were served by the on board chef. Upon arrival in Muscat the next morning I was met at the airport by the driver from our local office for the short trip to the beautiful new Barr Al Jissah Resort beside a spectacular beach on the coast of the Arabian Sea just south of the city.

Barr Al-Jissah Resort in Muscat, Oman
Barr Al Jissah Resort in Muscat, Oman

The ride was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that the car was a brand new Jaguar XKE! (it had only two speeds, 20 kph or 200 kph) Over the course of the next three days I helped manage the conference, as well as presenting a couple of technical workshops. On the last evening we all enjoyed the Gala Dinner where we dined on an enormous selection of traditional Arabic mezzes and delicious Omani seafood dishes as we overlooked the ocean and the rising moon on the horizon. A traditional Omani dance group provided beautiful music and entertainment that made the evening a magical moment, not to be forgotten.

The next day I joined my old Canadian friends Roger and Lila for a three day tour through the mountains and deserts of Oman by 4WD Land Rover that included what is known in this part of the world as “dune bashing”. This “recreational activity” involves driving the vehicle up and over huge dunes as fast as possible, thus creating the feeling of being in a roller coaster ride! Our driver named Hamed picked us up at the resort and drove west over the high mountains surrounding Muscat, some of which reach heights of more than 10,000 feet and can experience periods of snow during the winter.

Muscat and surrounding mountains
Muscat and surrounding mountains

These rugged and often barren mountains, create a stunning backdrop to the deep red sand desert beyond, known as the “Al Sharqiya Sands”. On the way to the desert we drove to the edge of a deep canyon known as “Wadi Bani Khalid” where we all stood on the rim of the abyss gazing upon an amazing landscape of unique rock formations. These canyons, otherwise known as “wadis”, collect the meager rainfall in this part of the world and channel it into some fairly large rivers that empty into the Arabian Sea, along the way supporting an extensive agricultural system.

Standing on the edge of Wadi Bani Khalid
Standing on the rim of Wadi Bani Khalid
Wadi Bani Khalid
Wadi Bani Khalid

Near the entrance to the wadi Hamed stopped at a small local restaurant where we enjoyed a very traditional Bedouin meal of roasted chicken, lamb and rice, all of which was served on a large round platter in the middle of the table and eaten only with the right hand, although the owner of the place graciously provided Roger with a fork and spoon in the event he felt he needed some help.

Lunch near Wadi Bani Khalid
Lunch near Wadi Bani Khalid

After lunch we were on our way to the Al Sharqiya Sands, with Hamed driving at least 120kph skillfully following a faint track in the sand toward our destination for the night, Al Raha Desert Camp. The ride was so smooth at the high speed that it gave us all a feeling of floating over the sand. We made a short stop to visit one of the Bedouin families that inhabit this area and were treated to the gracious hospitality for which the Arabian culture is so well known.  As we sat on the beautiful woven carpets laid out on the sand to form the floor of the tent they called home, the family served us traditional strong Arabic coffee along with very sweet dates and a sort of gelatin made from local honey, cardamom, and saffron that was wonderful and a nice contrast to the bitter taste of the coffee.

Coffee and dates with Bedouin family
Coffee and dates with Bedouin family

Leaving the Bedouin family we drove for another hour deep into the beautiful red sand dunes and then suddenly Hamed turned sharply to the south and bolted up the side of a huge dune several hundred feet high. Upon reaching the summit of the dune he sped across the top of several more dunes and then stopped near the highest point to give us a splendid view. As we stepped out of the Land Rover onto the soft sand we stood among a magnificent collection of red sand dunes beneath a clear blue sky and nothing else! If anything would remind one of Lawrence of Arabia, this was it.

On top of the dunes - Wahiba Sharqiya Sands
On top of the dunes – Wahiba Sharqiya Sands

While Roger and Lila took in the sights, Hamed and I climbed a short distance up to the crest of the highest dune from where we could see beautiful red sand dunes as far as the horizon would allow. As we started to leave the dunes and head for Al Raha Desert Camp, Hamed took one last fling at the dunes and suddenly we found ourselves stuck in some very soft sand, not what we wanted to happen this late in the day and this far from camp. After about 20 minutes of very skillful maneuvering by Hamed he was able to slowly extricate us from what could have been a serious situation, especially since Roger has a heart condition that would most certainly prohibit him from walking very far in the soft sand. Finally we pulled into the camp as the desert sun was setting and we were shown to our rooms, which from the outside looked to be made of palm leaves and wood. But once inside our small rooms it was clear that the structure wasn’t built from any natural materials at all. In fact, the entire room was one giant cast of concrete, including the bed, table, and the wash basin! (at least there was a foam mattress on top of the cement bed)

Al Raha Desert Camp
Al Raha Desert Camp

That evening I joined Roger and Lila for dinner in the open-air dining hall where we enjoyed some very tasty grilled chicken, rice, and vegetables that were being cooked over an open fire outside. Roger was looking forward to having wine with dinner so he enquired if there was any wine available and was told he could purchase a bottle of French Chardonnay, which he promptly ordered. Upon tasting the wine he declared it a case of “false advertising” as it didn’t resemble any French wines that he was familiar with, and Roger is admittedly very familiar with good wine! I sampled a small glass and came to the same conclusion as Roger, whereupon I enquired whether beer was available, to which the response was “of course”. Both Roger and I had to agree that the ice cold can of beer from Hannover, Germany was the genuine article! After dinner Roger and Lila invited me back to their room for a “nip” of Scotch whiskey which they had carried from the duty free shop on their stopover in London. The three of us sat on the cement beds sharing some of our best travel stories, savoring the fine taste of the whiskey, and enjoying the company of old friends. At one point Roger offered a toast to our small band of desert adventurers and christened our group “the desert rats”! It was a perfect toast offered at the perfect time – thanks very much Roger!

I awoke very early the next morning, looking forward to a shower, but when I tried both the taps there seemed to be no difference in temperature between the Hot and Cold, so I resigned myself to a cold shower. Later I discovered that both taps were connected to the “same” water line (duh!) But at least I was reasonably clean, if a bit chilly when we met up for breakfast, which consisted of boiled eggs, hot dogs, flat bread, and lentil stew!

Breakfast at the camp
Breakfast at the camp

Before leaving the camp, Roger and Lila were among a select group of people invited to go for a short ride on a camel. I was designated as the photographer to capture this moment for posterity, as well as for the folks back in the Muscat office who were convinced there was no way Roger would consent to riding a camel. Well he certainly proved them all wrong and the photo is the proof!

Roger and Lila riding off into the desert
Roger and Lila riding off into the desert

A couple of hours later we were back on the paved road and headed for the old coastal town of Sur where we looked forward to seeing one of the last surviving places where the classic Arabian boat known as a Dhow is built. Just outside the town of Sur we stopped beside a beautiful stream to admire the contrast of the deep blue water against the bright red rock above.  The view of the old harbor in Sur was beautiful with whitewashed buildings everywhere and three old stone lighthouses still standing after hundreds of years. Fishermen were busy on the beach tossing their nets into the bay in the hopes of landing some fish for the day.

The ancient lighthouse in Sur
The ancient lighthouse in Sur

Later in the afternoon we began our return journey to Muscat via the coastal road which used to be nothing but a dirt track and now is undergoing modernization into a new 4 lane highway. However, this meant that we encountered long stretches of beautiful smooth pavement interrupted by miles of narrow, rough dirt road. There were many areas along the route where we could see new bridges and roads washed out as a result of the devastating cyclone that ravaged Oman barely 3 months earlier. One of our most pleasant stops was at “Wadi Shab”, a narrow gorge with vertical cliffs that rose several hundred feet above a beautiful river of clear blue water surrounded on both sides by an oasis of date palms.

Roger, Lila, and Hamed beside the water at Wadi Shab
Roger, Lila, and Hamed beside the water at Wadi Shab

This was supposed to be the place where Hamed intended for us to have a picnic lunch, but he had forgotten to buy some food the day before and this was now Friday, the day of prayer in the Muslim world so no shops were open! Nonetheless, we carried on and in the late afternoon we finally found a small Indian sandwich shop that was open in the coastal town of Quiraryat. Here we were presented with a menu of sandwiches that included “chicken sandwich”, “chicken cheese sandwich”, “super chicken sandwich”, and “chicken egg sandwich” – it was pretty obvious that we should order the chicken whatever! The food was actually quite tasty and served with a mountain of French fries, along with some really delicious fresh pineapple and mango juice.  Our last stop before arriving back at the hotel in Muscat was a place called “the Sinkhole”, a deep depression in the middle of the coastal plain that was apparently the result of water dissolving the limestone over thousands of years and not caused by the impact of a giant meteor as Hamed suspected!

Back at the resort that evening I shared dinner with Roger and Lila at the “Samba Restaurant” where we were treated to an enormous buffet of an incredible variety of foods, ranging from fresh Sushi and Sashimi to Malaysian curries, authentic Mexican dishes and even a full side of English roast beef with horseradish sauce. The desserts were equally amazing and delicious although it was virtually impossible to sample them all. During our dinner outside around the pool, a Mariachi Band strolled among the tables singing old Mexican folksongs. It continues to amaze me how versatile these Filipino musicians can be! It was a delightful evening with delicious food shared with wonderful friends. The next day the Jaguar XKE took us to the airport for our return flight to London. After checking in we made our way to the Gulf Air First Class Lounge for a glass of “real” French Chardonnay and some delicious hors d’oeuvres before boarding the plane. Once again the service was impeccable, and included a “sky nanny” on board to assist the families travelling with young children! As the dinner hour approached the Chief Purser came to my seat in Business Class and invited me to join Roger and Lila for dinner in the First Class cabin where we savored a delicious array of curry dishes with cardamom rice prepared and served by the on board chef. We finished the evening with a fabulous and fragrant Arabic rice pudding served with a cup of strong, traditional Arabic coffee.

After landing the next morning in a chilly damp London I bid farewell to Roger and Lila as they headed by train to a reunion with Roger’s family in Cambridge. Although we had spent just a few days together, we had shared adventures that will last a lifetime! The next day I took a train to the historic city of Ely to visit its famous cathedral and the ancestral home of Oliver Cromwell who changed the course of English history forever. That evening I returned to the airport and boarded my return flight to Los Angeles, carrying with me a bundle of great memories.

In Memorium

I dedicate this blog to my dear friend Roger who passed away a year ago this month. He was the “Father of GIS” but he was always humble about his achievements, processing of a sharp intellect, a subtle but keen sense of humor, an unfailing desire to teach the next generation, and a love of travel to far-away places. I shall miss his stories, but I carry many memories of him with me as I travel. Rest in peace Roger!

Roger on top of the dunes
Roger on top of the dunes

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Israel and Palestine – A Region Divided by Common Ground

In February of 1998 I was invited by the UN to conduct two GIS software training classes for the Palestinian Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation (MOPIC). One of the classes would be in Gaza and the other in Ramallah, the Palestinian capitol in the West Bank. My trip began with a flight to Vienna and then on to Ben Gurion airport located halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My UN contact, Ms. Giovanna O’Donnell, met me at the airport and soon we were in a taxi on our way to the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian section of the city. From my hotel balcony I had a beautiful view of the hills surrounding the city. (It should be noted that this was a time when the threat of a war with Iraq was very real and came to fruition a few years later in Operation Iraqi Freedom) The following morning we took a taxi south to the Gaza Strip, making a short stop at an old Trappist monastery in Latroun, famous for its vineyards and fine wines. The old monastery resembled a large Italian estate built from beautiful local yellow sandstone, sitting amid vast fields and orchards. We purchased a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from the winery since there would be chance to buy any wine in Gaza. As we drove through many of the small Israeli towns we saw many soldiers carrying duffel bags and with machine guns slung over their shoulder, waiting for buses to report for duty, in case of possible war with Iraq!

When we reached the Israeli checkpoint on the border with Gaza it was heavily barricaded and fortified with guard towers, high walls, searchlights, and lots of barbed wire! Our passports were checked by several soldiers and permits to enter Gaza were issued, but only after many questions about our purpose for travelling to Gaza. Then, in order to continue our journey we had to unload our luggage and carry it 500 meters through a virtual “no man’s land” to get in another taxi on the other side. Now we were officially in Palestine, and the scene abruptly changed to one of poverty, filth, and crumbling buildings – basically a crowded “refugee camp”. Finally we arrived at the “Beach Hotel”, a new small hotel where most of the UN staff were staying. In stark contrast to the refugee camp, only a couple of kms away, the hotel was located on a nice beach with beautiful views of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

View from the Beach Hotel in Gaza
View from the Beach Hotel in Gaza
Breakfast room at the Beach Hotel
Breakfast room at the Beach Hotel

In the morning I joined Giovanna for a typical Palestinian breakfast of hummus, falafel, warm pita bread, olives and a feta cheese omelet – a delicious combination. Then it was time for the first day of training class at MOPIC headquarters, located across the street from Yasser Arafat’s house, locally known as the “Presidential Palace”. Actually it was a very modest place, with the exception of a large array of satellite dishes and antennas on the roof. Every day the training class began at 9:00am and quit at 3:00pm, with two short breaks for coffee and prayers. After the first training class, Frank, a young Norwegian who was assisting the work of the Ministry, invited us to join him for a beer at the “UN Beach Club”. As we entered the austere, military like concrete building we were not prepared for the décor and atmosphere of an old English gentlemen’s club inside. It looked like it had been transported directly from the colonial days in India. Soon a local Arab waiter dressed neatly in a white coat and black tie appeared and informed us that we must become “members” for the week and buy a book of coupons that were required to purchase food and drink. (over the course of the week the club became our second home, a haven of relaxation from the chaos of activity in Gaza) I enjoyed many evenings in the company of the UN staff from Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as we sat around the table with our pints of cold Carlsberg beer discussing the world news, especially the escalation of tensions between the US and Iraq. Bets were being placed daily about the odds of when the US bombing of Iraq would begin. One day I asked the hotel staff if it was possible to send postcards from Gaza, and the response was “not really”, which was to say “you can try but probably with little chance of success”.

On another day I was in the middle of my lecture, just after the noon call to prayer, when we heard lots of shouting outside on the street as a large crowd carrying signs, flags, and banners, along with large pictures of Saddam Hussein, marched toward Yasser Arafat’s house. The demonstration was loud but peaceful and only lasted 20 minutes. But I was unclear to any of us whether the demonstration was in favor of the agreement just reached between the UN Secretary General and Saddam, or against the potential US military strike. But class resumed and afterwards I joined my UN colleagues at the club for a delicious dinner of roasted lamb, rice, potatoes, and fresh steamed vegetables as we discussed the latest developments in the situation with Iraq. So went the rest of the week with breakfast by the beach, training class during the day, and evenings with the Norwegians, Aussie’s, and Kiwi’s at the club sharing stories over pints of cold Carlsberg.

The day after the close of my training class and the start of the weekend, my Palestinian colleague, Naim, invited us to join him for a tour of the Gaza Strip. Our first stop was the busy Friday morning market in the bustling “beach refugee camp”, only a stone’s throw from the luxury of the Beach Hotel. The market had an abundance of appealing fresh fruits and vegetables for sale amidst the chaos of honking car horns, braying donkeys, and shouting voices.

On the streets of Gaza
On the streets of Gaza

Throughout the Gaza Strip buildings looked shabby and run down, the streets dirty and not maintained, and vast amounts of plastic shopping bags that littered the countryside, all of which was in stark contrast to the neat and well maintained Israeli areas beyond Gaza. Later Naim took us to the old city where we walked through narrow streets to the historic site of the Church of Saint Porphyrius, built in the 5th century AD and located adjacent to an ancient Mosque. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Porphyrius

The Church of Saint Porphyrius
The Church of Saint Porphyrius

Naim knew the Greek Orthodox Rector who gave us a fascinating tour of the old church. As we entered one of the old wooden side doors we suddenly became aware that we were now standing almost 8 feet above the floor of the ancient church. It was clear that the old city was much lower 1500 years ago. The church was filled with hundreds of gold icons, chalices, and scepters, but the Rector was especially proud of his 150 year old family bible, all of which was handwritten in Arabic script. Further along the narrow street we came to an old Turkish bath that was at least 1000 years old and still in operation. Even though the sign above the door said it was men’s day, Giovanna was also invited to join us on a tour of the historic bath house. So we made our way down a very steep, narrow stone staircase into a large domed room with a beautiful floor of marble and old tile in an intricate design. Our old guide told us the fascinating history of the ancient structure as we entered the steam and sauna room, which was very hot indeed, as one would expect. In ancient times it was heated by charcoal and wood fires under the marble floor, but today it’s heated by petrol stoves. As we were about to leave we were invited to come back later and partake in a traditional Turkish bath. Upon leaving Giovanna drew quite a few stares from the men on the street!

1000 year old Turkish bath
1000 year old Turkish bath

From the old city Naim drove us along the coastal road where we passed a large area of beautiful new marble villas, some costing well over $5 million, belonging to many of the Palestinian Ministers. (it’s both an embarrassment and travesty when you consider the appalling conditions of the refugee camp only a few miles to the north!) The locals joke about this being the “Minister’s refugee camp”. As we drove inland we came in sight of tall observation towers, and high steel walls topped with razor sharp barbed wire. These were Israeli “settlements”, surrounded by Palestinian villages. It seems that the Israeli “settlers” require a military escort whenever they need to leave their home to travel to Israel. Seeing this, my first thought was of being in a prison! (who in their right mind would choose to live this way?) It’s certainly understandable why the Palestinians are very upset by the sight and continued existence of these settlements in a region that’s supposed to be Palestine.

After passing through several Israeli military checkpoints we came to a small amusement park on the beach where lots of Palestinian families were obviously enjoying themselves, the children running up and down the beach playing tag with the waves. At one point on our tour in southern Gaza, just a couple of miles from the border with Egypt, the highway bisected a new Israeli settlement, and a high, heavily armored walkway that spanned the highway to connect the two halves of the settlement. From the highway, with its 15 foot high steel walls topped with barbed wire, electrified fences, searchlights and guard towers the settlement looked exactly like a “maximum security prison”! (it made me wonder what kind of “quality of life” its Israeli inhabitants must have? But there was no way to know for we were forbidden to enter or even take photos) About a mile further on we came to a large compound with a sign reading “Gaza European Hospital”, and as we neared the main gate we could see a huge new modern facility but with no one home, so to speak. The guard at the gate told us the hospital was fully equipped with the latest medical technology, but there was no staff to operate it! (what a tragic waste) As we left the unused facility, a herd of goats and sheep grazed in the fields surrounding it. On the main highway north Naim took a narrow, unpaved road to a large, beautifully manicured cemetery with several hundred graves arranged in long neat rows where Allied soldiers from WWI were buried. It’s been maintained by the British government ever since the end of the war. As we walked among the rows of headstones bearing the names and units of those who died in the disastrous assaults against the heavily defended Turkish defenses, we saw two important dates inscribed on most of the headstones when the young men had died – 20th of April, 1920 and 6th of November, 1920. Ironically, all three faiths were represented among the dead – Christian, Muslim, and Jew. They all fought for the liberation of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire!

WWI cemetery
WWI cemetery

Following the sobering experience of the cemetery, Naim took us to the new Gaza International Airport, and as we got closer a long convoy of black police vehicles flew by us at high speed. As we approached the main gate a TV camera crew was busy packing up their gear, so the consensus of our group was that Yasser Arafat had just returned from Geneva. Naim knew the airport manager and arranged for him to give us a tour. As we walked into the main terminal building we saw a beautiful, traditional Arabic geometric design constructed with local yellow sandstone and pink marble from Hebron by a well-known Moroccan architect. We were informed that the airport had a runway 3 km long, capable of landing a 747, but Israel has yet to grant airspace for the airport. However, the airport manager was very proud to show us the control tower which has yet to receive all of the necessary equipment required for landing commercial flights. Meanwhile, the national airline of Palestine has three airplanes ready to fly, all of which were donated by other countries. Interestingly, from the top of the control tower we could see both Israel and Egypt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasser_Arafat_International_Airport

The new Gaza International Airport
The new Gaza International Airport
Entrance to Gaza International Airport
Entrance to Gaza International Airport

Leaving the new airport, yet to open for commercial flights, (I could only wish them good luck) we drove north through many small villages and verdant farmlands to Naim’s home for a lovely dinner of grilled spiced lamb cooked over an open fire, and a salad of fresh cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, parsley and lemon. We all sat on a large carpet in the middle of a small olive grove, making fresh sandwiches with warm pita bread, hummus, and spiced lamb from large bowls in the center. It was so typical of the warm and generous Arabic hospitality I’ve encountered throughout the Middle East.

Enjoying dinner in the middle of an Olive grove
Enjoying dinner in the middle of an Olive grove

My evening ended at the UN club with the Norwegians and Aussies, but my day with Naim and his family was the memory I remember most. Such friendly and hospitable people as you’ll ever hope to meet, but in one of the most difficult of living situations you may ever encounter. The resilience and optimism of the Palestinian people I met will remain with me long after I leave Palestine. Soon I was on my way to Jerusalem and an encounter with the Holy City. Stay tuned!

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Travels Near and Far – Syria, before the Civil War

In November of 1999 I was invited to give several GIS Technology presentations in Syria. My journey began with a flight to Atlanta and on to Munich for the Esri European User Conference, after which I flew to Damascus by way of Vienna and an overnight stop in Amman. The flight from Vienna to Amman was very crowded in a small plane, and as I sat cramped in my seat I pondered the following math problem. [ 30 rows of 5 seats per row = 150 passengers. At 3 minutes per passenger to visit the toilet = 450 minutes (7 hours). With only 2 toilets on board that’s equal to 3 ½ hours of toilet time. But the flight time was only 2 ½ hours! Let’s just say that some of us never made it to the toilet. ]

After clearing customs and immigration upon arrival in Amman, I hailed a taxi for a wild ride to the city at 140 KPH (90 MPH), driven by a taxi driver who looked like an Islamic Jihad terrorist. But he delivered me safely to the Radisson SAS Hotel where I would spend the night before continuing on to Damascus the next afternoon. [ In May of 2005 a tragedy struck the hotel when a suicide bomber blew up the grand ballroom and lobby, killing over 60 people attending a wedding reception. ]

The next day I went back to the airport to check in for the Royal Jordanian Airlines flight to Damascus. All of a sudden, as I was standing in one of several very long queues, there was an announcement that the queue next to me was only for passengers to Jeddah, and everyone else in the queue would have to find another queue! A howl of anger roared out as people scrambled to join another queue. (note: there were no signs indicating the destinations) After a short 45 minute flight on a route passing over Jerusalem, I arrived in Damascus, along with a large group of Italian tourists. While they waited in long lines to clear immigration and customs, I was met by Samaan, our representative in Syria, and escorted to the VIP lounge for expedited clearance. Then it was a short taxi ride to the SemiRamas Hotel downtown where the GIS and Remote Sensing Conference would take place the next day. Samaan had arranged for dinner at his favorite restaurant near the Le Meridian Hotel.

Le Meridian Hotel, Damascus
Le Meridian Hotel, Damascus

From the outside the restaurant looked like just another large grey warehouse, which raised some apprehension in my mind at the thought of what we might find inside. But once we had passed through the large French doors, I discovered the old grey warehouse had suddenly transformed itself into a beautiful European Baroque Palace, very ornate with gold leaf trim everywhere, lots of fine Italian marble, frescos on all of the walls, statues in every corner, and elaborate Romanesque paintings decorating the ceilings. It was if we had been transported to Rome! In the center of the restaurant was a huge atrium filled with lush foliage, gorgeous tropical flowers, sparkling fountains, and exotic birds. Samaan proceeded to order a huge table of Arabic mezzes, along with dishes of roasted lamb, spiced rice, shish kabob, shish tawook, and a large tray of Arabic cream desserts smothered in honey and roasted pistachios, along with another tray of fresh fruits. (It was enough to feed an army – such is the typical Middle Eastern hospitality!)

The next day was the opening of the conference where I gave my presentation to delegates from throughout the Middle East. They were seated at tables lavishly decorated with ornate plaques, national flags, and huge bouquets of lovely fresh flowers. In addition, huge pictures of President Hafez Assad were everywhere, staring down at us. I was provided with a simultaneous translation of the Arabic presentations, but the translation slowly deteriorated into long silences, followed by short sentences as the translator struggled with the technical jargon. At one point he said “and in conclusion……(long pause)……I would like to conclude”!!

Following my presentation, also translated into Arabic, Samaan had arranged for an interview on Syrian National TV in which he “coached” me about what to say that included a very important point about mentioning the name of the President’s son, Bashar al-Assad, as much as possible for his strong support of GIS technology in the country. (apparently the interview aired on national TV that night but I never saw it)

The next morning I gave a presentation to the Housing Ministry, located in an old Russian built structure where the one and only electrical outlet in the room hung precariously from the wall, sparking occasionally. There was no projection screen, so at the last minute, Imad improvised a white sheet of cloth hung from the wall and secured by the picture of President Hafez Assad. (once again TV cameras were there to record my presentation)

Typical street in Damascus
Typical street in Damascus

Later, back at the hotel finally I finally had a chance to catch my breath and have a cold beer in the hotel lobby bar. Meanwhile, a fierce wind was blowing outside, light Jazz music was playing indoors, and the afternoon call to prayer echoed throughout the city. Sitting in the bar I had an unobstructed view of the chaotic traffic. Policemen waved their arms as if directing traffic, but drivers seemed to pay no attention to them and near misses were constant and an accepted part of driving in Damascus! Pedestrians “darted” in between fast moving cars, as if in a cat and mouse game, or perhaps more like matadors facing the bulls. Both driver and pedestrian must connect with their eyes to establish communication in a “silent” dialogue lasting only a brief second, the result of which is a mutual decision about who will yield the right-of-way! (a fascinating scene to watch for sure) Amongst all the traffic was a constant stream of very colorfully decorated old Mercedes buses, all belching large plumes of black diesel smoke!

The next day (Thanksgiving Day, at least for me) I gave a presentation to the Damascus Governorate in a very ornate assembly room with massive walls beautifully decorated with intricate geometric designs of light and dark woods. And of course, a huge picture of President Haffez Assad hung from the far wall, always staring down at everyone. To my great surprise, once again there was no projection screen in the room, so Imad did the old “white sheet” trick again! My whole presentation had to be translated – following every couple of sentences, which became difficult and frustrating, especially since it seemed to take twice as long to say the same thing in Arabic. Once more the cameras were there to capture the moment for another episode on Syrian National TV. That evening Samaan invited me to his home for dinner, and along the way we encountered several “sleeping policemen” in the road, otherwise known as “speedbumps”. (I never saw any turkey all day)

The next morning we headed north out of Damascus on the new 4 lane AutoStrade past dry, barren hills. As we approached Homs we encountered some light rain and a sudden, dramatic change in the landscape with fertile green fields and lots of trees. All of this is due to a large gap in the coastal mountain range that allows moist air from the Mediterranean Sea to make its way inland. At one point we pulled into a petrol station and were served by a “talking” pump that even bid us “Shukran” (Thank You in Arabic) at the conclusion of the sale. As we entered the city of Homs we came upon a large sign alongside the road which read “Make light speed – place full of inhabitants”. (seemed to sum it up quite nicely) Just to the west of the city atop a steep mountain is the famous 10th century crusader castle known as “Crac des Chevaliers”, that remained remarkably well preserved. (at least until the recent outbreak of civil war in the country) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krak_des_Chevaliers

Crac des Chevaliers - 10th century crusader fortress
Crac des Chevaliers – 10th century crusader fortress
Cloisters in Cracs des Chevaliers
Cloisters in Cracs des Chevaliers

As we walked through the ancient stone fortress there were beautiful examples Greek, Roman, Persian, Crusader, and Ottoman architecture everywhere. The castle commands a stunning view of the fertile valley below and what was once the main trading route from Turkey to Egypt and the Orient. Later on Samaan insisted that we visit another ancient site known as “Afamia”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apamea,_Syria

Ancient Roman Collonade in Afamia
Ancient Roman Colonade in Afamia

It is a fascinating combination of several periods of history and architecture, from Greek, Roman, and Persian empires, with the most impressive structure being a huge Roman colonnade more than 2 km (6,000 feet) in length. At one time in the past more than 30,000 people called this site home, but now it’s totally deserted, save for the huge colonnade, some beautiful stone facades, and the ancient Roman road worn down over thousands of years!

As evening came upon us we drove further north to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city near the border with Turkey and continuously inhabited since the 6th century BC.

Grand Mosque in Aleppo
Grand Mosque in Aleppo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleppo Here we checked into the luxurious Sahaba Cham Palace Hotel and prepared for the next day’s presentations, which included a meeting with the University of Aleppo President. Later the next day, after sitting in the hotel lobby for 2 hours awaiting the arrival of the Mayor, Samaan suddenly suggested that we flip a coin – heads we visit another ancient historical site or tails we continue to wait for the Mayor. I was asked to call the coin toss and I chose heads as the coin landed on the marble floor. Soon we were driving northwest of the city to “Citadel Samaan”, otherwise known in the Christian world as “San Simeon”, named for the disciple Simon.

Citadel Samaan
Citadel Samaan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites The day was perfectly clear and we were rewarded with spectacular views of the ancient yellow sandstone church with its four chapels, each facing one of the cardinal directions of the compass. Off to one side was a large broken stone pillar, much eroded by the ages.

One of four chapels
One of four chapels
Another of the four chapels - this one facing East
Another of the four chapels – this one facing East

The story is that Simon spent the last 30 years of his life atop the 15 meter high pillar meditating and leading an extremely “ascetic” life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simeon_Stylites Food and water were sent up to him by basket and rope. Periodically he would issue profound treatises to his followers gathered below.

Ancient site of San Simeon
Ancient site of San Simeon
My Syrian hosts, Imad and Samaan
My Syrian hosts, Imad and Samaan

On this day we were the only visitors to the site and it became a magical moment. The view north to the Turkish mountains under the deep blue sky was stunning.

Turkish Mountains in the distance
Turkish Mountains in the distance

As we left the citadel that evening I felt like this experience would be the crowning memory of my time in Syria. (there are now reports of major destruction of the site from the results of the civil war) Before we departed for the return trip to Aleppo, Samaan insisted on buying me a small piece of wood upon which was inscribed the ancient Syriac alphabet, one of the first of its kind and the root of many modern languages. He also bought me a beautiful marble plaque of Citadel Simeon with five different designs of the cross inscribed upon it.

Marble plaque from San Simeon
Marble plaque from San Simeon

Back in Aleppo that evening I gave a presentation to the students and faculty at the University of Aleppo, and again the TV cameras were waiting. The following morning we left very early to drive to the coastal city of Lattakia for, as you can probably guess by now, another presentation. The road was very narrow and steep as it crossed over the summit of the coastal mountains. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latakia We passed through several small villages and past lush fields and fruit orchards, touched by a light frost. As we made our way toward Lattakia we rounded a sharp curve and immediately found ourselves staring at the bumper of a massive truck. Instantly we all knew a crash was inevitable! We braced ourselves for the impact, and almost as if in slow motion, we slammed headfirst into the heavy metal frame of the truck. The sloping hood of our car plunged under the rear of the truck with an agonizing sound. It only lasted a couple of seconds but it seemed so much longer. At the same time the horrible screech of brakes and the smoke of rubber skidding on the tarmac reached us – I turned around just in time to see the massive front end of another heavy truck straining to come to a stop directly behind us! (it was a very scary moment to be sure) As we all gathered our wits about us, we got out and surveyed the damage. After much discussion among the drivers and passengers (of which I understood nothing) it was decided that we would drive on to Lattakia since there was no way to call the police at this point. (aka – this was a time before cell phones!) Our car’s front end was essentially “totaled” but luckily the radiator was not badly damaged and one headlight still worked. Imad was obviously stressed out by the experience but he kept us moving to Lattakia, where we arrived under beautiful blue skies and lots of sunshine to check into the lovely Le Meridian Hotel on the coast. (the hotel is still there but no longer a Starwood property) The view of the sea from my balcony was gorgeous, especially with the Turkish mountains in the distance.

Mediterranean Sea coast in Lattakia
Mediterranean Sea coast in Lattakia

Later that day, as I sat in the conference listening to the opening address, I understood only two words, GIS and Hafez Assad. Everyone applauded at any mention of his name, for obvious reasons. During a long break I took the opportunity to walk along the rocky seashore as huge waves crashed around me. It felt so good to be out in the clear, cool air and away from the stuffy atmosphere of the conference.

The next morning we drove back to Damascus along the coast to the city of Tartous and then inland following the border with Lebanon. The view of the snow covered peaks from a recent storm in the High Lebanon Mountains was spectacular. The conclusion of my trip to Syria came as I boarded a Syrian Arab Airlines flight to Athens by way of a short stop in Aleppo.

Aleppo International Airport (before the civil war)
Aleppo International Airport (before the civil war)

It was a very nice flight over the coast of western Turkey and the Greek islands. As I arrived in Athens to meet with Adonis, our Greek representative, I spotted a large black and white tabby cat sitting in the middle of the baggage claim carousel looking as if he were in charge. I grabbed my bags and hailed a taxi to my hotel in the northern suburb of Kiffissias. Over the next few days I conducted software training classes for the staff, and in appreciation, Adonis arranged a trip for me to the beautiful island of Santorini – thank you Adonis! (but that’s another story, so stay tuned)

The Island of Santorini
The Island of Santorini

It is with sadness that I dedicate this story to my Syrian host Samaan who died a couple of years later from cancer. He was a most kind and gentle man, the epitome of a Middle Eastern host. (rest in peace!)

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