Crossing from Israel into Jordan in a crowded “vintage” van was the stuff of cinema. Picture miles of barren mountains, beautiful stone outcrops, baked ochre and umber, eroded canyons with neither a town or a structure on the long curving single lane road. Add driving rain, arrive at the border filled with concrete block buildings and men with guns everywhere, barbed wire, perhaps a city block long no man’s land where we waited an hour, our passports having been taken by the van driver–dismal, boring.
Once into Jordan the landscape stayed the same but the road devolved into potholes, cracks and floods of muddy water. At long last we came to Amman where the traffic crawled and where there was a fortress to visit and some very unique sculptures to be found
A white marble slab maybe 12″ x 18″” had an exquisite abstract relief of a delicate feminine face. Another sculpture featured a larger than life sized abstracted torso with two featureless heads. I’d never seen anything like these sculptures, wondered what they meant, where they were from–some, I discovered, were Nabataean–a culture I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of.
My short stay in Jordan included a Roman fortress in Amman and the stunning Roman city of JERASH with a huge well-preserved temple, a three story Nymphaeum (fountain) and a unique oval forum –huge and surrounded by a splendid colonnade–
that welcomed the caravansari that passed through this city and made it rich.
Nothing prepared me, however, for the utter magnificence of PETRA, a city lost for many centuries and hidden from exploration by the locals. Simply described, it is a canyon as deep and brilliantly colored as Zion National Park in the US, and it begins mildly enough with a dry river bed. I rode a horse down to where the excitement begins, where, for instance, the dam and water reservoir and water tunnels of the amazing water system really begin and where the canyon gets steep rapidly.
Here in the narrow sand pathway between steep sandstone cliffs one walks past caves, huge dressed cubes of rock, a facade with four Egyptian pyramids above a Corinthian columned Greco-Roman entrance and many niches carved into the cliff walls that have cubes to venerate. No one really knows the meaning of the worship of these rectilinear forms but they are evocative of ancient enigmas.
Some archeologists have claimed that the cubes represent the Nabataean gods
Dushara (God of the mountain ) and al-Uzza
( goddess of the evening star, a pre-Ishtar/ Aphrodite goddess) and perhaps the white sculpture I saw in Amman was al-Uzza.
These early structures were but prelude to the awesome vision presented by the Tomb Facades that fill the main site of Petra. Innumerable, multi-storied, some as tall as 120 feet and carved into the rock face from above, the tomb facades look like Greek and Roman buildings with multiple arched entrances like those at the Library of Ephesus. In the Treasury at Petra dancing Amazons flank sculptures of Isis/Tyche (Egyptian fertility/good fortune goddesses) while in the lower archways the Roman twins Castor and Pollux grace the aediculas (the name of the “small houses” that are on the facades of Greek and Roman temples). Seemingly innumerable facades are everywhere you look as the canyon widens into the site of an ancient city complete with homes, temples and even a Byzantine church ruin with excellent mosaic floors.
Beyond the main city and high up the far end of the canyon you can hike or ride a donkey up to another large facade, called the Monastery, and here I climbed to the very top of the mountain that overlooked Israel and where I met a lean and stern Bedouin reputed to be my young guide’s uncle.
The day in this stunning place ended by galloping up and out of the canyon with perhaps 30 Bedouins all on donkeys and laughing and asking if i’d like to marry a Bedouin today.
A trip I couldn’t replace for anything in the world…
Rented a Peugeot in Izmir so that I could see many sites not accessible easily by public transport. And what an experience!! Unlike Italy where the signage is infuriatingly useless, the signs in Turkey are easy to follow and available in plenty of time before a turn. Plus the roads are good. So what’s the problem? Well, picture a four lane highway between villages with a 90 km speed limit. Sweet. But then you share the road with
2. Motorbikes puttering along about 20 kph
3. An occasional horse-drawn cart–no lie
4. Drivers who absolutely LOVE to tailgate
5. Pedestrians who skitter across the road in bold hopes of survival
6. Impatient drivers who pass on the right if their tailgating hasn’t worked.
7. Cars doing a steady 40 km per hour in the middle or fast lane blithely unaware of anyone else on the road
And my favorite–
8. Cars that fly by doing at least 140km an hour, horns honking and lights flashing in ecstatic abandon.
Amazingly though I never came even close to danger or to an accident the whole four days I was on the road. The only thing that challenged me was the very narrow nearly vertical cobbled street out of Sirince that devolved into a jumble of broken boulders and two foot deep holes left by their displacement. I realized I wasn’t on my way to the local church, was able to manage a 180 and carefully bumped my way back into town, where shops and people abounded just as they do in Beyoglu in Istanbul where I usually stay. It’s amazing how the literally hundreds of people walk all over the streets and somehow cars and motorbikes run right through the masses with no mishaps. A few scares maybe.
WALKING actually is the modus operandi of most folks in Turkey so day and night all the streets seem jammed with pedestrians–slow doodlebugs wandering in and out of shops, gangs of young men all dark haired with beards and mustaches, all handsome, all looking very much alike, swaggering down the center of the one lane two way cobbled streets, families with strollers, peddlers with churro and pretzel carts, women in Muslim scarves and long skirts.
People crowd every kind of street from 19th century very steep staired sidewalk streets to the broad new Istabal–a 4 kilometer pedestrian street of posh shops and thousands of shoppers–teenagers, women in chadors, romantic couples, families, guys with cool London haircuts (shaved sides, bouffant tops), the odd illegal motor bike–streaming people all day and past midnightevery day of the week.
As you walk the streets you begin to see tradition everywhere. The tea shops, the candy and spice stores, the pomegranate juice bars all look the same as do the pretzel and chestnut carts with their red and white awnings, and the shoeshine stands with big surrounds of stepped brass decorated with a mountain of spheres on each side of the platform for one’s foot. You are a sultan for sure perched on a Turkish rug covered high chair before such elaborate stands. And most restaurants have a rainbow array of shredded fresh vegetables, assorted hot dishes and fresh paper thin bread cooked on a 30″ diameter hot grill by a woman in a chador kneading stretching and rolling fresh dough into pizza-like circles and cooking them with feta or spinach or mushrooms– your pleasure.
Start on the street where for about a dollar you can find fresh squeezed pomegranate juice–mmmm–tasty zesty healthy. Add a kind of New York pretzel flavored with poppy seeds; roasted corn and the favorite flavor of the week, roasted chestnuts served fresh, hot and artfully arranged in pyramids or rosette patterns or pretty lines like petit fours on circus style carts.
In “Turkish Delight” shops, a rainbow of jellies called “lokum” in Turkish, come in flavors from kiwi to date, watermelon to pistachio and baklava of every shape beckon even more enticingly. Here too are binfulls of spices, dried apricots, candied pineapple, scrumptious color everywhere even on the carpeted walls and glass lamps suspended in myriads from the ceiling.
Tea shops with low tables and stools are always filled with older men and newer trendy cafes in the old Beyoglu neighborhood serve tea and coffee in traditional ways: tea comes in an hour-glass shaped glass served on a saucer. Turkish coffee, thick as molasses, is served in a small cup on a wooden platter with lokum in a fluted pastry cup and a glass of water.
If you are lucky a Turkish friend may read the coffee slurry that sticks to your cup if you do an elaborate ritual of sloshing it around and turning it upside down in your saucer. When my coffee grounds were read there was an unmistakeable image of a tree left in my cup telling me I was to have wealth coming my way soon. But a couple of lumps in the grounds warned me about evil eyes ready to prey upon me. Whew
Breakfast here, as in Israel and Jordan, always includes tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese plus bread, jam, maybe eggs, usually yoghurt and any other assortment of healthy fare–the better the hostel or hotel the more the breakfast which could include anything from fava beans to halvah, pancakes to frittatas. I love it all and find myself craving tomatoes and cucumbers at every meal thanks to months over here.
CATS are everywhere and every breed. They patrol the streets like Lotharios, curl up three to a chair in the posh museum shop, slink around your legs as you eat, hang asleep on the heater vent at our hostel and leap up to swipe a half loaf of bread right off my plate with a single claw and an attitude of privilege. They are usually friendly enough, accepting human fondling with a measure of grace and endurance if not pleasure. But no matter where you are –from the holiest of sites like Hagia Sophia to the cobbled gutter –there will be cats–tabbies, Tuxedos, or scrambled mixes–and I’m delighted by their glorious and stealthy presence.
Oh and of course I came here to see the sites…
Visiting the Asian side to see the
three story high murals in the
surreal robots; military vehicles
cramming the land and being either
purged out of or sucked into a
space ship; disjointed women paddling
a boat filled with teddy bears and
heaps of broken toys and animal skeletons
“Resistencia” stenciled across a poignant
image of a Muslim woman. All the
murals were professional in quality,
and covertly political.
Discovering the TOMBS of the SULTANS
right next to Hagia Sophia but not
mentioned in my guide book
Such lovely tile work outside and in!
as if carpets were facing the entry
and elegant domes were poised over
somber groups of coffins
each in the form of a simple house,
each with a white knotted form on top
and each covered in green–because
the Quran says that people who
abide in paradise wear green.
Marveling at the opulence of the HAREM in
TOPKAPI palace. The flowery tile
patterns, the lovely copper fireplaces,
the elaborate fountains, the pavilions–
domed, stained glass windowed, golden,
the over the top Baroque magnificence
is indescribable and intoxicating. And I
was thrilled to see sacred relics of the
Prophet as well as emeralds and
diamonds displayed in abundance in the
Visiting MOSQUES, humble to huge, each
carpeted, filled with tile decoration,
silent, a sense of the presence of God.
I was drawn to them by the call to
prayer that fills Istanbul with
compelling chants five times a day.
And in the HINTERLANDS:
PRIENE–a Roman city on a hill overgrown with grasses and pines, absolutely isolate and abandoned–here was a lovely small theater, a square bouleterion (council chamber), and a few marble columns from a temple to Athena that stood eloquently against a stormy sky and steep granitic cliffs. Ah what a delight to be there alone with the ancient stones.
PERGAMUM –offered me another day alone with a Greco-Roman city because the day I went was cold and stormy and filled with bursts of rain and threatening thunder. This city was far grander than Priene; its Acropolis rivals Athens yet it is not often visited. It has a huge theater clinging precipitously to the edge of a steep slope, many cult temples and a 1500 square meter house with glorious floors with portraits and lions and leopards in mosaic tesserae. A huge temple to Emperor Trajan stands on the top of the mountain site with many columns intact and supported by a three story complexly engineered terrace. I wandered among the ruins for hours finding treasures like a bit of dressed marble and a piece of a red painted wall and the views were stunning. I’m ready to sign up to excavate next summer!!
Another treasure in BERGAMA (the village name today) is the remains of the Temple to the Egyptian Gods– a tall domed tower and high walls in the process of restoration. The roofs were originally supported by 28 foot high caryatid columns that were made up of a God and a Goddess back to back and sculpted in sections with different colored marbles. The one restored figure was of Sekmet, my favorite Egyptian Goddess–a lion headed power goddess.
CAPPADOCIA is one of my Seven Wonders for sure–and although I’d heard about it, the place still amazed and thrilled me–it’s a moonscape developed by wind and floods eroding the ancient lava flows of three now dormant volcanoes and I went on my first hot air balloon ride to see it at dawn –“Fairy castles” these formations are called–tall white skinny spindly peaks of sandstone many capped by dark basalt and many many of them have both natural and man made caves within them that people have lived in for generations. Being here is like magically climbing into a children’s book of dreams, complete with homes for trolls and Minions.
What surprised me the most was the exquisite Early Christian cave churches clustered all over the hills and canyons of Cappadocia. Some of churches were densely packed together, but each was really the church for a small monastery, each built into a mini mountain and each included not only a perfectly carved domed or barrel vaulted church but also stone rectory tables, kitchens, wineries, storerooms and monastic bedrooms.
So 1500 years ago we have these monks carving perfect classical columns, perfect arches and vaults and sweet little niches into the rock and then painting them with absolutely gorgeous Biblical scenes with designs and figures on every square inch of the interior spaces. And these churches are not only clustered in the main town of the region–Goreme–but they are scattered all over the hills and up the perpendicular walls of the gloriously beautiful Ihlara Canyon filled with Autumnal yellowing trees, intense green grass and a fast running clear water river.
Here in Cappadocia too are underground cities dating far back to Hittite times (1600 BC) and we climbed down to the 7th or 8th city below the surface to find a rudimentary Christian church with arches and columns and a cemetery.
Now that I’ve started to see the wonders of Turkey I can’t wait to return. There are so many places waiting for a visit–like Gobekli Tepe, the oldest ritual site in the world–and Catalhoyuk, the world’s first city and Hattusha, the Hittite capital.the ruins at Aphrodesias..and …..and….
Just two hours train ride south of Rome but worlds apart, Naples was a five day wonder for me starting with the Hostel of the Sun, a gathering place for many nations–people from Brasil, Poland, Canada, Israel, Italy, the U.K., even a Roma Druid sat around on pillows in the evenings and shared in the Aperitif Night (lots of free hors d’oevres) and in the free dinner. Energy here was surely created by Marica–a beautiful dark eyed sexy girl whose smile laughter and joy welcomed everybody.
The Centro Historico then offered my first surprise. Street after cobble stoned street still called by their Roman names–Decumanus–was jammed with families strolling by an endless number of shops and stalls selling miniature terra cotta sculptures. Originally a Neopolitan tradition of craftsmen making figures for the Christmas crèche the figures now depict every kind of life. Old ceramic storage jars and found tree trunks now provide stages for amazing scenes complete with flickering lights and moving figures. A rollicking bunch of rotund peasants dive rapaciously into mountains of food; a butcher chops up a side of pork, hind quarters of lamb hanging behind him and heaps of meat stacked on the counter before him; a baker throws pizza dough in the air while a seamstress bends carefully over her sewing machine.
Many of the artists sit in their shops molding clay and building vignettes. They proudly tell you how many generations of their men have been making these figurines. Literally thousands are on offer in every shop and the tiny baskets of fruit, the Marys, the Baby Jesuses nestled in straw in glass Christmas ornaments, the lambs, the tables and chairs, the zucchini and the bananas, every accoutrement of life are joined in some shops by hordes of Santas, crews of Punchinellos in white dress and black masks, and the strangest of good luck creatures–a gross wart-faced old man in a top hat covered in garlic and phallic red peppers. His belly bursting the buttons on his rag tag shirt, he swills a pint of beer and laughs his blackened and tooth missing grin.
Above the thronging masses LEDs light up line drawings of shepherds with lambs, herders with camels, water-bearers, and madonnas while in the center of the district larger than life size line sculptures of Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and lambs and donkeys surround the Christ Child–just lovely.
Another magical experience in Naples is encountering so many fine antiquities. The Nazionale Museu has the gigantic Hercules and many other sculptures from the Baths of Caracalla; hundreds of mythological wall paintings from Pompeii; stunningly detailed mosaic floors and hundreds of sculptures, full round, in relief and as portraiture. Interesting that only Venus/Aphrodite is nude–all other women seem to be covered up like Vestal Virgins while the men strut and battle, compete and recline all in the nude.
Of course I went into the field to see the miraculously preserved POMPEII and HERCULANEUM, each city destroyed in moments when Vesuvius erupted in 79 BC.
Pompeii is huge and filled with everything a Roman town should have–baths, theaters, an amphitheater, villas, a Forum, a Basilica (law court whose structure lent itself to Christians who later transformed them into churches). I loved seeing its water system, its column construction, its beautiful baths, its lovely floor mosaics and wall paintings (Dionysos reclining nearly drunk accompanied by satyrs and his sleazy old mentor Silenus and served by his Bacchai all painted in brilliant realism on intense cadmium red grounds) although I found Herculaneum easier to negotiate.
The surprise around Naples for me though was PAESTUM– a Greek and Roman ruin south of Naples. Spread out in a grassy plain, nearly empty of visitors, it had a huge Forum, a swimming pool with water slides inside of a fancy villa, two circular meeting sites that resembled theaters but were governmental gathering places–one Greek and one Roman. But what was astonishing and so very beautiful were the three Greek temples on site, each with massive Doric columns and each intact and standing many stories high in monumental glory.
On a less grand scale but another wonderful magical surprise was Linea Uno of the Naples Metro. It’s a new line and millions may have funded the contemporary art that fills several of the new stations, each one of which has its own unique paving, lighting system, wall designs, even escalator siding. I spent hours traveling up and down escalators (the line is deep deep into the bowels of Naples and has initiated many archeological digs ), in and out of entrances to find all the art hidden in every nook and cranny of six stations.
I found lenticular 3-D pink and lime green wall images wherein organic and strange digitally generated objects moved as one walked by; saw a row of burned out Fiats between platforms in another station; found several beautiful abstract mosaic paintings, a photomontage of working men, and a 3-d sculptural painting in a station with some serious portraits of screaming women looming out of a completely black platform way off in a corner of a station. In another there were two block-long photomontages of thousands of Neopolitanos of all ages, shapes and ethnicities that was extremely moving.
My favorite station was Toledo where William Kentridge created a block long mural in black white and gray tesserae documenting the history of Naples with its musicians, scientists, heroes and Patron Saint Gennaro. In the nether regions of the station there is a corridor of moving water en video and farther down are curvilinear walls and ceilings that are tiled in blues, greens, and violets with a skylight that rises to the surface like a mystical tunnel up from the deep sea up to the sky .
A day in Sorrento and Positano, both built on astoundingly perpendicular cliffs, the roads indeed cantilevered over the Mediterranean, were spectacular as well. I left the Hostel with kisses and hugs and came upon an older man playing piano in the train station surrounded by loudly and joyously singing cohorts grouped around him. Magic…no other word for Napoli.
As I write I am hearing the waves of the Sea of Galilee breaking on the rocky shores beneath my hotel room in Tiberius, a city in the north of Israel which I am visiting with an Archeological Tour group. All of this country seems to have the Bible writing its history; at least I find myself hearing names and places I heard as a child in Methodist Sunday School…Nazareth is just over that hill; Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac in this mosaic; Jesus was said to have been crucified on the rock inside the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem; these caves in Qumran held the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in the 50s but jealously held to the breasts of scholars until 1994 when an “illegal” copy was released on the Internet.
Fascinating to witness history in the flesh, or rather, in the rocks that we scramble over, under, and over again all day every day we have been here.
Jerusalem of course supplied many days of exploration—from the many ruined homes of the City of David, to climbing into underground cisterns, ancient home foundations, ritual baths and the foundations of the Western Wall that lie many meters below the present Wall, because Jerusalem, like nearly every Tel in Israel, is a city built on top of many other cities—Roman, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Crusader, Muslim.
What I imagine most intensely from our travels around Jerusalem, though, is the ancient Roman Cardo (the main North South street of all Roman towns). Here we walked on real Roman stone roads grooved by the carts that once frequented this market street and bordered by elegant Corinthian columns that once lined the porticos to shops in the time of Jesus.
Beyond the restored archeological Cardo a live Cardo thrives—it is an Arab market like souks in Morocco selling rainbows of scarfs, spices, fresh pomegranate and carrot juice, jewelry and harem pants, color everywhere. I was entranced by Bedouin coffee pots and haggled my way into buying two lovely examples. Are they authentic? Who knows? I found myself sequestered amidst piles of carpets and velvet kaftans, having Turkish coffee and looking at supposedly antique earrings and being hard-selled into a purchase I was unsure of. When the vendor failed to persuade me he harried me down the cobblestones.
Some of these shops are under makeshift covers, cardboard, reused corrugated panels and line a Cardo that at this point is barely wide enough for three people not to mention the hand carts that are run down the paths. In some places above the market, we walked on the roofs that housed yeshivas (rabbinical schools) and a warren of homes—some are Muslim apartments often with the red and green spray painted designs that signify that the family has gone on the Hajj to Mecca. And many rooms and spaces are the homes of conservative Hasidic Jewish families.
Jerusalem is filled with Hasidic ultra orthodox scholars who have huge families (10-15 children) and who are fully supported by the State. Their work is to study the Hebrew texts and to keep Judaism alive…a task the State deemed absolutely worthy after the Holocaust. Now, though, these families have multiplied and State sponsorship has become a political controversy.
Meanwhile Jerusalem seems filled with Hasidic men in big beards, traditional wringlets at the ears, big black hats worn well back on the head. They are formally dressed in suits under which the fringes of their prayer shawls hang. The streets are filled too with men wearing yamulkas. There are far fewer women than men and many women carry children and wear traditional head scarfs.
Of course the city has many Muslims as well although we have not spent much time in the Islamic Quarter; we have, though, been privileged to go up to see the beautiful Islamic tiled octagonal structure known as the Dome of the Rock, a holy site for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike as it is believed to be where Mohammed ascended to heaven on his Night Journey, where Abraham sacrificed Isaac and where the Temple of Solomon (First Temple of the Jews) stood.
What astonished me is that beyond the ancient city walls Jerusalem is a very large modern city built on many many hills—Somehow I pictured it as a tiny ancient village.
Once into the countryside Israel is a dry dry desert, a land of olive trees, wild pomegranates, vineyards and badlands. It is starkly beautiful and barren, a place where water is scarce and precious, a place so desolate one wonders why it is so desirable. We learn it is because it lies in the center of all the trade routes between Africa and Mesopotamia, between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf so whomever controls this slender strip of desert more or less controls the Middle East.
As we explore archeological sites, we are constantly bombarded by the fact that war war war has been the life of this land, no matter who has been in control and keeping track of all the tribes and rulers is mind-boggling.
Even the Church of the Holy Sepulchre bears witness to the prevalence of warh as it is a warren of chapels and altars that many different Christian sects squabble over and refuse to let each other step into. For example Greek Orthodox and Franciscan Catholics claim half of the main aisle of the main church. Meanwhile the often discriminated against Ethiopians are exiled to the roof.
It is war, of course, that builds fortresses, city walls, siege ramps and other defensive or offensive structures all over Isreal and all of the ancient world for that matter. The layout of the Roman castrum–a military base–is used throughout the Roman Empire As the basic grid layout of all Roman cities.
Visits in the south and north of Israel have included many Roman sites, filled with exquisite floor mosaics, some geometric, some with elaborate scenes like Dionysian rites, Amazon battles, and the people, fishes, Nilometer and waves of the Nile. At Bet She’an we visited a fine example of a classical Roman city complete with a theater, a forum, an elaborate bath house, a cult area (for Mithras?), a Cardo lined with Corinthian columns and a high hill (a Tel in fact) where a Temple to Zeus stood and where an earlier Egyptian temple still stands in ruins, its column drums inscribed in hieroglyphs.
There are Jewish homes and villas that have mosaics as well and a synagogue in Zippori that has the most amazing calendar mosaic with zodiac figures, the four seasons, and Helios the Sun God riding his chariot in the center medallion.
I have learned to look for evidence of the Jewish presence here in the Roman days—mitzveh ritual baths, menorahs, and images of the “Holy of Holies,” a shell roofed niche where the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament=the sacred text of the Hebrews) is kept behind a curtain.
Two sites are amazing—Herodium where Herod build a private three level residence and fortress on the prow of a cliff and Masada, a large fortress again on a steep cliff faced promontory that Herod built and that Hebrew zealots later used as a refuge in one of their revolts against the Romans.
My favorite Roman city though is Caesarea. It lies on the splendid aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean and is a port that Herod sited on a shore with no natural landing place. He and his amazing engineers created huge breakwaters by floating barges filled with concrete out from land and then adding more concrete to sink them and thus create a massive and entirely man-made harbor. Then he built palaces on the shore, the largest of which he equipped with a large sweet water swimming pool within a Corinthian colonnade , a basilica, temples, houses, a chariot racing “circus”, a theater, mosaics everywhere and an elegant aqueduct.
Besides studying ruins and learning about the complex history of Israel Palestine and Judea, I’ve eaten trout fresh from the clearest stream I’ve ever seen, been into the warm and beautiful Mediterranean in TelAviv and listened to the waves of the Sea of Galilee at a restaurant serving fresh tilapia (called St Peter’s fish after the Biblical story wherein Jesus performs a miracle by having His deciple Peter catch a fish in whose mouth would be a coin to pay a tax). But the strangest water experience was swimming or rather bobbing around crazily like an inflatable rubber duckie in the super salty Dead Sea.
My last day in Israel I spent riding a bicycle through a wild rain storm and then ending in a gloriously sunny afternoon. I rode the entire length of Tel Aviv’s beach front up to the Yarkon River park and then east for miles until I came upon a most magical sight: right in the grass by the bike trail was a big healthy jackal !!! I was astonished, thrilled to see such a beautiful wild creature within the city limits. I rode on, then doubled back hoping to see him again and was rewarded by four or five more jackals bounding through the reeds by the river.
What a splendid finale to my trip to Israel. I felt privileged and very blessed.
VENICE began for me in the front row of the Basilica Cathedral of San Marco where I sat beneath stunning gold and rainbow colored mosaics depicting Jesus and his Apostles, the life of Mary, the four Evangelists and innumerable other subjects al framed in glass mosaic tesserae. Biblical figures carved in marble, angels everywhere, and marble mosaic patterns on the floor were but prelude to hearing High Mass chanted in Latin by an operatic-voiced cleric in white laced robes over maroon velvet who sometimes even led us, the congregation, in choral prayer. A coir of women or were they angels? sang hymns as wel. I’d not come to Venice for inspiration but here it was…a wondrous surprise.
I’d come here actually for the VENICE BIENNALE which was another surprise and delight. Instead of being 95% vapid video and inscrutable installation, this year’s exhibition with the theme “All the World’s Futures”, included many meaningful art works that commented on humanity’s future in telling ways. Roumania’s Adrian Gheni created intense passionate abstractions that evoked the potential disaster of the future in brutal brilliant paintings. Australia’s Pavillion was filled with vitrines of hundreds of objects and prints that together told of ecological and political disaster—the artist, Fiona Hall, transformed clocks of every kind from grandfather to cuckoo into warnings, into pallettes for seeing that our time is up. The artist worked with indigenous women to make found material sculptures of endangered species; she placed plant leaves on world currencies to remind us that rainforests are being destroyed to feed the global economy and the center of her installation held African-like masks from which hung shreds of work clothes, an ominous reminder that Africa, more than any other continent, stands to suffer in the future. Chiharu Shiota from Japan filled a room with a maze of red yard holding keys that draped into and over worn boats used in migration attempts the world over in the hope that flight to the “First World” will solve the world’s and one’s personal problems. And Qiu Zhijie created a mind-boggling installation called “Jingling Chronicle Theater Project” that juxtaposed traditional Chinese imagery and art works with strange grating machinery, traditional Chinese ink painting with the machines he’d made and let loose on the space. Cuba’s Ricardo Brey was represented by his many finely crafted books in gold black and white that seemed more like sculptures hauntingly evoking the Catholic past of Castro’s Embargo-stressed nation. Three days of art was thrilling, and exhausting…inspiring and sad.
So I moved on to the glories of RAVENNA, a less visited Italian city on the Adriatic coast. Here is where the finest in Byzantine mosaics exist in nearly every church in town with San Vitale being its precious best. I never tire of mosaics with portraits and scenery depicted with tiny pieces of stone—tesserae—laid into some kind of concrete. Eyes bold, figures standing in still postures haloes around their heads, many backgrounded in gold glass squares, symmetry the design principle of the style. The churches in Ravenna are basilicas—a Roman term that describes the layout of the original Roman law court architecture—a nave with two side aisles. Early Christian churches co-opted Roman structures and have a plain brick exterior with a pitched roof and a tall square bell tower—this somber simple facade never prepares you for the golden mosaic masterworks within.
Following peaceful days in Ravenna I hazarded a road trip through Tuscany and Umbria and was delighted by hillsides sectioned into vineyards, olive groves, small farms, vegetable gardens. Every turn in the road presented classic picture-postcard views. Then I found myself in the wilderness, in a national park full of pine trees and Autumn maroon and golden deciduous forests on my way to Fiesole, a mountain village outside of Florence with a wonderfully preserved Roman theater and baths. The next day gave me one of the major delights of my stay in Italy—CHIUSI is a town I’d never heard of but which I happened into on one of my many trips down an unintended road. Chiusi was chock full of Etruscan everything—a fabulous museum, a display of Medieval manuscripts, an Etruscan military cave and tunnel structure, an underground tour through tombs with sarcophagi topped with sculptures of big bellied deceased individuals holding plates with coins to pay for good afterlives. In the two underground state-supported tours it was just me led by vibrant young students for two hour long tours and since I have much to learn about the Etruscan culture—they were the early Romans—I was in academic pig heaven. A couple of days more touring gave me wonderful walks through Spoleto, Olvieto and Assisi, all ancient villages of stone clinging to mountainsides, and all with mosaic-filled churches and in Assisi with Giotto painted frescoes—just lovely.
ROME offered the usual magnificence that everyone knows about—the many Roman Forums, the mosaic floors and amazing multi-storied concrete structures like the Pantheon, Trajan’s market and the Colisseum—all stunning, impressive…..What thrilled me the most, however, was a visit to OSTIA, the original port of Rome long since silted up and abandoned. But what’s left is an entire city in ruins—Maybe three kilometers long with a cemetery, a beautifully preserved classical Roman Temple, and many villas with mosaic floors, one with a sweet sculpture of Cupid and Psyche embracing. The ancient road inscriptions were on the walls and the main bath complex had beautiful mosaics of Neptune driving a chariot led by horses and surrounded by all kinds of sea creatures—real and imagined. A large garden area was also filled with black and white mosaics representing various sea-related guilds so there were ships, lighthouses, fish and even an elephant on well preserved floors. TThere was a live dig going on by students from the University of Bologna There were temples scattered around the city too, the most exciting of which was hard to find, unmarked and really a secret to most visitors—At the end of a tunnel under a bath house was off in the outskirts of Ostia was an underground mystery cult shrine to the god Mithras who was represented by a nearly intact marble sculpture of him with his bull. So exciting to discover and touch this magnificent slightly larger than life god.
I’m returning to Rome next month and will visit Naples, Capri and Pompeii so another Italy report will be forthcoming…but now I am in Israel with a whole new story unfurling……
It’s been a little stressful here in Italy. The Airbnb apartment I rented in Venice that cost a fortune was a dump and I nearly slept under a canal bridge because the landlady didn’t answer the phone when I arrived at night in the rain without my suitcase because Iberia lost my luggage. The place was so ugly I’d stay out late just to avoid being there. Venice itself is beautiful at every turn, every canal, every piazza—all of which were enchanting– but I was perpetually lost and discouraged therefrom, thinking senility must be setting in. But in fact everyone is lost all the time in Venice and have maps clutched tightly in their hands.. The maps don’t really match the streets and anyway each street has at least two different names; compound this confusion with the addition of a district name and a piazza name to every wall. The map to the Venice Biennale was the worst of all because it had no street names at all so finding an art venue involved standing in the wind with two maps open trying to locate an exhibition.
My next adventure was taking a road trip through the back roads of Umbria and Tuscany. The idea was to take a leisurely sojourn through beautiful landscapes filled with vineyards and olive groves, Etruscan and Roman ruins and Byzantine churches in mountain villages perched like fortresses on mountainsides. But the driving part turned out to be stress central.
Signage in Italy could be a text for comedia del arte or more accurately, from Dante’s Inferno. Unfortunately you have to rely on signs every mile or so because Italy believes in rotundas—roundabouts—each one full of signs– rather than stop signs, lights and intersections. So while you careen around a roundabout you have to read signs to determine where you’ll go next.
It’s crazy difficult trying to find a village name on a sign post that has 25 or more arrow signs that MAY have the town you’re looking for or may not but it WILL have all of the following on the sign posts as well: library, police station, post office, five or six local hotels, a couple of restaurants, seven or eight Agriturismos, the cyclodromo, Iglesias Maria somebody, Monumento Antigua, etc all in a random stack with arrows pointing straight left or right. And as you’re a rolling vehicle at these rotundas you are trying to find the town you’re headed to while still moving. I often missed the right turn because the village I was looking for wasn’t listed or the town sign I was following—Firenze for instance– all of a sudden vanished on the next rotunda sign. I got so lost so often that it took me 12 hours to manage a four hour trip on my first day out. I was in such a melt down by the time I got near Siena that I managed to roll my brand new Fiat 500 rent-a-car into an Alfa Romeo as I was trying to read a sign.
The next two days were better—no accidents, only six or seven wrong roads…then I got to Rome where the Forum’s Audioguide blissfully rambles on about structures that are not in front of you. Hadrian’s Villa, however, took the signage prize by being first of all four miles from the bus drop off and then down many roads without any signs at all—except one at an intersection where the arrow pointed BETWEEN two roads and then another pointed on a road marked “Do Not Enter” After another mile the entrance was obscured by a big sign for a pizza joint named Villa something and Villa Adriana signs were nowhere to be found. Once into the Villa there were heaps of stones and remnants of huge structures but no maps, no signs and a rare description that was usually illegible or irrelevant. So much for signage in Italy.
Even as I left Rome I was a crying mess because the train to the airport had so many misdirection signs that I was trapped in an underground moving walkway under my departure gate and only got to my train by a fluke of realizing I was on some strange underground passage going God knows where without anyone else down in the Inferno. I ran to catch the train and made it to the airport only to find that Alitalia had overbooked my flight and I didn’t have a seat. I was directed here and there until literally five minutes before departure time when I finally get a seat on my booked flight to Israel….getting the seat only because a family was a No Show. I was more than grateful and whoopee got a seat in Business class which was a total pleasure…Mimosas before take-off, linen napkins, a wonderful meal and the utmost ministrations of a beautiful Italian crew.
Following my joyful two weeks of harvesting tomatoes and planting cauliflower at Tamera in the hot dry hills of southern Portugal I set off for southern Spain to discover Islamic architecture first hand. I’d seen picures of course but nothing prepared me for the magic of the architecture and gardens of Al-Andaluz, the Musim kingdom of the southern portion of the Iberian Peninsula.
Seville, a tangle of narrow streets and terrific tapas bars has a grand combination of Muslim and Christian structures, the Christians having coopted every Muslim mosque but kept the basic Islamic style so church after church afrer cathedral has Islamic towers that Muezzim used to call men to prayer five times a day and these brick monuments rose eloquently all over Seville. I climbed a couple and marvelled at the difficulty. Seville also lays claim to Flamenco and seeng a performance live in a tiny venue is almost shocking as the singer’ s mournful notes tear your heart out, the guitar keeps the dancers moving and the dancers passionately slam their sadness into brutal stomping that makes you know life for the gypsies who first made this dance and music live suffered greatly
The prize Muslim building in Seville is the Alacazar, a walled garden and many structures that Sultans and their harems luxuriated in The gardens are orderly fragrant filled with flowers and symmetrically laid out hedges and are filled with fountains…the Muslims having been brilliant engineers who watered the same dry hilly land that Tamera struggles to water but the Muslim had it down in spades–reservoirs aqueducts, pumping systems They watered the desert and made it a paradise for Allah who name is inscribed in plaster bas relief in room after room of the exquisitely decorated Alcazar Islamic design cnsists of geometric and floral designs of endless variety carved in wood on doors and on ceilings, laid in blue green ochre and white tile patterns on walls and carved in intricate detail in white plaster The interplay of these three materials in symmetrically designed rooms is beyond description, so beautiful. The only thing that kept me wondering was how the rooms were furnished…I can certainly imagine the caliphs strolling past pools and orange trees, roses and rivulets in their manicured gardens but how actually did their daily lives look like? More research to be done here no doubt before next semester’s Ancient Architecture course takes place
Next on the grand tour of southern Spain was Cordoba, a much more intimate city than Seville, all its streets barely wide enough for pedestrians not to mention little Fiats careening into plazas and around corners one foot away from a table where you are having wine or brushing right into a pair of harem pants in a souk full of Moroccan scarfs Every turn or two of a narrow cobbled street seemed to open into an open space filled with tables and umbrellas and people eating tapas and drinking wine or at least taking a stiff copa of rich strong coffee. Here I visited an ancient synogue and marvelled at an ancient Roman bridge across a lovely marsh bordered river, Here in Cordoba was a lesser Alcazar with finer gardens and many big reflecting pools than those at Seville, and here I came unexpectedly in the middle of a downtown street full of posh shops, a many columned Roman temple–a total surprize–something that has happened to me often on this adventure because I persist in not really consulting guidebooks with care. I prefer to turn a corner and voila there’s magic…and this temple certainly qualified. Best in show in Cordoba, however is the Mezquita–a walled Islamic structure with an anti garden court full of fruiting orange trees and fountains but whose interior is absolutely breathtaking–Inside is the largest open interior space Ive ever been in It is a veritable somnewhat dim liighted forest of matble columns topped with filigree capitals and red and white brick horseshow arches Everywhere you look the building seems to go on forever, to literally have no end and it was here that thousands prayed daily five times a day And here too is where Christian conquerors put images of Jesus and Mary and the Saints in chapels all around the walls of the building although they almost disappear for all their elaborate gold embellishments in the face of the slender marble feast of Islamic columns that surround and subsume them
Astonishingly to me is that the Christians chose to construct an enture white marble cathedral right in the center of the vast Mezquita mosque. It is a beautiful cathedral with mosaic flooring, an elaborate choir with two organs and a beautiful altar under a brilliant Romanesque dome full of light…and yet the low steady forest of Islamic columns is more vast, more compelling in the end for all the glory of the Christian Cathedral at its heart
And all of this prepared me for the grandest Islamic monument of all–the Alhambra in Granada…But before I share the experience of this treasure… let me lead you a bit around Granada itself.
Granada is splendid–in the mountains and often with snow capped peaks in the background. Every destination is up or down steep streets or often stairs and the streets often are paved in black and white stones in geometric designs–very lovely I visited the gypsy hillside where people started to live in caves ages ago and where the Flamenco began–now there are still caves but they have nice front walls and interior accoutrements–Sacromonte is the area and it looks over at the many buildings of the Alhambra
The other wonderful district of Granada is the Albaicin–which used to be mainly Muslim and Moroccan and which still has streets that look like Marakkesh souks. I stayed here is the Oasis Backpackers Hostel which is lovely–a terrace looking at the town, a central patio foyer with cascading philodendron and beautiful tiled floors and walls–It was probably someone°s mansion once. Here too I visited an amazing Hamman–a traditonal Moorish bath but far more luxurious that the people°s bath in the Medina at Fez—Here were hot, tepid and cold pools, tea, a steam room, relaxing areas and all tiled in traditional Islamic patterns–after an hour and a half of lazing from pool to pool to pool I had a Moroccan massage rough rubbing alternated with buckets of hot water splashed all over me and best of all some knd of magical soap foam that made me feel like a splendid dessert for the gods..
Of course Granada°s treasure is the Alhambra—way up a mountainside through a lovely forest that wasnt there at the time of the Caliphs
The Alhambra has many sections–the ancient fortess at the prow of the mountain and a pleasure palace –the Generalife Palace–with splendid gardens up another flank of the mountain. But the Nazrid Palaces are the most amazing structures. Room after room after patio after passageway after room is decorated with elaborate geometric designs–all different but rhythmical all in three media–carved wood, brilliant relief carved white plaster high on all walls and blue ochre white and green tile work on the lower walls I°d seen pictures but the experience of the art here is breathtaking and is often complemented by reflecting pools and fountains while outside there are beautiful gardens as in Cordoba and Seville.
Before I left Spain I decided on a decadent side trip to Ibiza where I had dreams of all night techno dance clubs and hours of dancing….well all this stops in September and I even missed the so-called Closing Parties at all the big venues…But I had a room overlooking the Mediterranean that was huge and splendid and I was delightfully surprized to find Ibiza has some amazing ancient architecture–old tombs from the pre-Christian and pre-Roman eras and a mighty fortress with Roman, Muslim and Christian structures So I°d come to play and wound up doing a little research even here in paradise. Plus I met a quirky dance music deejay producer–50, cooler than Tiesto and looking like David Guetta so wherever we went people treated him like a star–who shepherded me around the town in the evenings and with whom I finally danced to some house music and went to the last of the last Closing Party where we watched the sunset as the deejay played my favorite aria from Aida–Nessun d°essa It brought tears — the music, the sunset, the island all so very beautiful I even managed a beach day–a bit chilly and foggy but the water was clear and warm
So southern Spain–a feast
I am living and working in a very remote part of southern Portugal–in the interior of the country where the residents of an intentional community called TAMERA have created a 100% sustainable garden out of a semi desert They use permaculture, recycle all water, have 27 ponds that comprise the water system for 150 hectares and 160 permanent residents as well as many guests–some of whom work in the kitchen or the garden or the solar village and some take courses like the Love Course and the Horse course where people learn open communication by contact with horses. .
I’m a guest worker paying 25 Euros a day that includes food and a bed in a sweet new cabin with the scent of cedar and a lovely view. We eat rice and beans, raw veggies of all kinds we harvest on the day we eat them and everyone here is into simple living in community and caring for each other and the land. It’s a lot like ZEGG in Berlin but on a much bigger scale
My garden job starts before dawn when I walk to the greenhouse for a group warm up and inspirational reading and then I go where assigned–usually a mile or more down to the South Valley to harvest tomatoes, peppers, basil, chard, potatoes. My first day out was very beautiful because the day before it had rained so every leaf, every corn tassel, every zucchini flower was covered in crystalline raindrops and dew and in the backlight many glittered in rainbows. Between the tomato rows were tall eggplants now fruiting bright red, some brilliant orange pumpkins and big fat green peppers as well. Bordering the mixed vegetable rows was corn °as high as an elephant’s thigh°–really.
Days start cold so I wear layers which get completely soaked and often full of mud as I rout around the tomato plants’ full of sweet smelling heirlooms. Afterwards I pick basil which turns up in the yummy pesto we have for dinner some nights We even have had apfel kucken for desert on rare occasions.
My favorite harvest, bar none, is potatoes. First our resident leader Jorge guides a hand plow behind a big John Deere tractor (one of the very few motor vehicles here as people mostly walk miles around the property or drive little electric carts) He turns up the rich dark earth and then we hand dig into the loosened soil feeling for potatoes Often they are in clusters of 8-10 potatoes and finding them is like finding the colored Easter Eggs my Mom used to help us dye and my Dad used to hide in the yard amidst the flowers and shrubs in my childhood home–a very sweet memory as Easter was a time when we all went to church together and I sang in the choir and the Easter Bunny brought us (my sister and I) big cellophane wrapped baskets full of candy. So here I am in Tamera living a happy memory.
I also plant vegetables which I’ve learned a good deal about. We plant cauliflower next to red cabbage with beets nestled in the middle. Each seedling goes into the earth with a blessing. I have fallen in love with cauliflower shoots–they have magenta heart shaped leaflets at the base and then sprout sage colored leaves with serrated edges and magenta veins–just glorious. And a great experience this afternoon was when four of us composted, mixed the soil with pitchforks and then planted a zigzagged row of lacy leafed fennel bordered by two kinds of lettuce and finally surrounded by fully grown rows of giant leafed brocoli-cauliflower hydrids
My crew consists of mainly young ( 20-35) people in transition:
— Michael from Brussels deeply interested in ancient stone circles and travelling around right now. He took me and an urban design student–Karl from Germany–way out to Evora where we explored the 6000 year old stone oval made of rounded granite stone about 6-7 feet high, and also went to town and saw the 1st century ruins of a Corinthian columned Roman Temple.
–Eden, a beautiful tall Israel girl who returns to her studies in psychotherapy in Tel Aviv in two weeks
–Martino, an Italian literature teacher—now an itinerant knife sharpener, and documentary filmmaker travelling around on his BMW motorbike after having left an 8 year relationship. His recent documentary will be shown at a Film Festival in Trento Italy but what he’ll do next is a mystery at the moment: He’s quite a dramatic looking man with a huge smile, a generous Roman nose and big brown eyes behind his black uber trendy eye glasses
–Dania–a Portuguese girl -19– and so poised and beautiful and loving that half the farm has fallen in love with her. She’s a former model and a beautiful mix of African and Portuguese parents and is from a farm that used to have horses and cows and sheep as well as a garden but whose father died and now the farm has only her mother and brother to care for it while she goes back to school soon
–Andre, from Lisbon, young, sweet–son of a developer interested in starting a green development-communal condominium He’ amazingly generous always lending his car and driving hordes of us to the beach or a river gorge in the afternoons when we’re free. We are very close
–Merle–a beautiful German girl with massive amounts of gorgeous blonde hair nearly to her waist. She’s been a caregiver for a number of years and is a very sweet friend to me. She’s on her way to at least a year’s adventure in Australia and has many boyfriends here at Tamera.
–Marcos–a tanned and handsome professional kick-boxer and bus driver with amazing tatooes that cover both his arms. He’s kind of a wild man always laughing and ready for a party
–Yuri– a serious Israeli who brought the Tamera message of love to a gathering with Palestinians.
And this is just some of my garden-ecology work crew–there is a kitchen crew, a crew doing vegetable canning and drying for the winter; and a whole group of professional experts in alternative energies who work in the Solar Village…And then there are lots of people attending courses like an Art course, another communicating with horses and a Love course ( a 10 day intensive for 900 Euros room and board wherein people are learning to love each other unconditionally). It feels like Living Love Center and so many California programs all rolled into one jolly program with vegan food and a landscape that is being healed as well as the people
They call Tamera a “Peace Biotope” and there’s inspirational concepts all over the place in words, in billboards, and in daily discussions…It all feels very California to me so I feel right at home.Even the weather has been lovely– cool nights warm days, brilliantly clear cobalt blue skies with cumulus clouds and a sparse dry shrubby landscape that resembles Sonoma– filled with tangled cork oak trees amidst gentle golden hills, canyon riverine streams and and a delicious marsh with deep red violet reeds and apple green and lemon yellow daisy-like flowers
We work for 4-5 hours a day and have communal sharing at many times Today for instance after 2 hours in the field we had the most beautiful rainbow of vegetables laid out for our mid morning breakfast beets, squash, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce…as well as watermelon oranges apples and pears plus fresh bread and olive oil We sat in a circle under some trees and said thanks in our many languages before eating There were people from Israel, Portugal, Brussels, England, Spain, Italy, Germany I was the only American. The we shared what we’d like to learn–from water management, to living in community, to trying to articulate what Tamera is all about in a brief way. Then we ate a long and peaceful breakfast in the cool morning sunshine.
My life here is so close to the earth and so basic that I wonder how I can return to the cities of Europe. Right now life here seems perfect, and peaceful, and a model of good living..