Travel in Tunisia: Tunis, Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said, Blue and White houses in Tunisia

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

I recently had the opportunity to explore a fascinating in the country of Tunisia.  Despite the news from the outside looking in, the other way around from those who are local have a very different perspective on the events these past few years.  Tunisia is being reborn with new found freedoms, but also is trying to find moderation that serves both the religious and the secular.

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Panorama of Lunch with my Tunisian friends.  I pray for the religious freedoms and the rights and freedoms of those who wish to be secular.  Tunisia represents the hopes of a new democracy built from a nation willing to rise up and demand for change.

hijab with headphones

This photo above captures the essence of modern and traditional.  The head scarves have been a fascinating debate throughout the middle east.  Great heated debates continue in many arab countries about whether the hijab should be worn to cover the head.  Should it be legislated.  Most now in Tunisia no longer wear it, but it also should be a choice for those that would choose to wear it.  It’s not for me to say, but I’ve found a lot of people in Tunisia are willing to share their opinions about freedom.

In my time in the country with local friends I met through my technical connections in the SharePoint community.  Tunisia is a very modern country with very strong ties to France.  A lot of my technical contacts have frequent visits from technical folks in France and visa versa with Tunisia.

Tunisia is a beautiful place.  While there I spent time across three main areas.  Tunis the capital, the ruins of ancient Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said.

Here are 7 MUST SEE Places in Northern Tunisia: Tunis, Carthage, and Sidi Bou Said

1. Tunis Bardo Museum

Bardo Museum

Old Door in the Bardo Museum

Tunisian Muslim Girls

Beautiful Ancient Doorway Nailwork

Stones found with religious art…

Adam and Eve Ancient stoneDaniel and the Lions Den Ancient

L: Adam and Eve  R: Daniel and the Lions

2. Sidi Bou Said – Amazing city of blue and white… very beautifully preserved

Sidi Bou Said

Lots of things for tourists in the beautiful sea side city of Sid Bou Said.  Incredible place to walk around and many shops will show you inside to see the interior of their homes and shops.

Sidi Bou Said

Sidi Bou Said

3. Carthage Cathedral

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

St Louis Cathedral in Carthage

The days of Christianity are remembered by the large cathedral, but there aren’t many Christians left in Tunis.

St Louis Statue in Carthage

4. The Ruins of Carthage including many columns, statues and museum(s)

Acropolium

Acropolium

I have a lot to learn about Carthage, the Punic Wars, Hannibal… I think it was 5th grade and this part of history didn’t stick very well.  Here’s a quote from Wikipedia on Carthage.

“A city of the Pheonician and Punic periods from the 6th BC it was the base of a powerful trading empire spanning the entire south Mediterranean and home to a population of the order of half a million people. Its most famous general was Hannibal who crossed the Alps to battle with the Romans. Hannibal suffered his first significant defeat at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, which ended the 2nd Punic War. After over 50 years of being watched closely by Rome, they were eventually attacked in the 3rd Punic War. The citizens defended the city against the Republic of Rome in 146BC yet lost, and Punic Carthage was completely destroyed by the order of the Senate. The site was redeveloped by the Romans a century later and Carthage became the capital of the Roman province of Africa. A UNESCO World Heritage List site.”

Carthage Museum Statues

Carthage MuseumCarthage Museum

5. Medina in Tunis

La MedinaLa Medina Markets

Narrow walkways of the old Medina in Tunis

Doors of Tunis Doors of Tunis

Old doorways that tell the story of time…

While I can’t compare the medina of Tunis with the medina of Rabat or Marrakech, there are major differences in the fact that as you exit the Medina and walk a few blocks you run into this large cathedral.  Tunis has had a fascinating history that is captured in the museums and architecture of the old city.  Looking at the doors on the right you can see how the archways have been filled in, many times over.

6. National Cathedral in Tunis

National Cathedral

Tunisian National Catherdal across the street from French Embassy – I took this photo with a juxtaposition of the razor wire around the embassy.  This was to keep the people from protesting too closely outside the walls of the embassy.  Within a couple of blocks as well, you’ll find the fresh market.

7. Tunis Fresh Food Market      

Fresh Market

Open Air Fresh Foods Market in downtown Tunis

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre

Tunis Theatre – Very Ornate Theatre

Christian Cave Churches and Monasteries in Cappadocia Turkey


Iconic Early 5th Century Christian Cross

As a traveler one of the thing that really stands out in digging in to understand a people is how much of culture is influenced by faith and religion.  In Europe you must visit the cathedrals because it was the center of the universe for the people.  In Istanbul you must visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia or you haven’t seen Istanbul. I have found Israel, Jerusalem, Bethehem, and Jordan to be quite amazing.  Even Cairo had places that reminded me of Moses and the red sea.  I have found the cathedrals across Europe to be quite amazing, even Ireland had some amazing history as it relates to early Christianity.  Rome and the catacombs.  Early Christians in Ireland, or Monserrat in Spain… incredible.  These early Christians driven into caves and into the mountains the hermits of Bulgaria and Macedonia are fascinating and must see.  The monasteries in the cliffs of Meteora where they survived from decimation for more than 500 years.  I love thinking about Thessaloniki or the Thessalonians.  My visit to Armenia and connecting with locals and making friends the thoughts and attitudes of the people cannot be separated from their faith as a people.  Mount Arrarat and Noah’s Ark and God’s dealing with the Armenian people is so deeply ingrained in their art, their life and spirit.

A One trying to understand the mind of the pre-Nicean church can do much study the rich art and paintings captured on the walls of the hundreds if not thousands of painted caves now abandoned art work of Cappadocia.  The cave paintings while much has been destroyed have preserved a lot of history and messages through the images.  I find it quite inspiring and very peaceful.  In some of the churches that you pay to see one with no cameras allowed.  I could easily spend an hour staring at the ceiling and unweaving the thoughts in the heads of these early christians.  Their faith, their perspectivies, their stories.  Much of the tradition has been preserved, but a lot has been lost as well.  Lots of contemplation are required to understand not just the story, but the perceptions of the artist.

Cave homeMary the mother of Jesus

This photo is not a direct photo, but actually a photo of what I saw, but photographed from a book at the gift shop, or a post card.  You can see how much color is still in the images.   The color alone is quite the story as the paint was made from pigeon poo.

My travels took me to Goreme, in central Turkey.  These natural occuring ferry chimneys are amazing.  I’ve only been in a few places in the world where they have these, Utah’s Goblin Valley, and Bryce Canyon, but what those places don’t have are the primitive Christian churches and the underground cities.  The Tuff left from the volcanic ash turned rock helped provide a substance that was very easy to carve, but also very strong, like a more dense pumice.

Goreme Open Air Museum Entrance

There are multiple locations in Cappadocia where you can find these cave churches.  First the largest collection in a small area is the Goreme Open Air Museum.  There are lots of great cave hotels in Goreme.  I recommend staying in a cave at least one night.  It’s a unique experience and it’s quite affordable.

Unfortunately nearly all of the churches would not allow photography or video cameras at the Open air musuem.  You could take pictures outside, but definitely not as  compelling.

high cave churchThe Snake Church

There were a few select churches that they allowed photography in.  The names of the churches come from the art work inside.  Apple church, snake church, etc…

Christian Column Inside the cave church

While these may look impressive, the reality is these were pretty bare.

On a walk through the various churches you’d mostly get directed at the various figures and stories from the bible, but it was stories like the animal below that represents paganism that really caught my interest.  I was interested in the explanations of what was different and how they lived and what they believed.  Like can you believe that most of the well preserved cave paintings have the eyes of the people carved out.

Pagans

I was told the local muslim people felt threatened and the eyes alone could convert.  So you have these scary pictures where the eyes are carved out.

Greek Influece on Caves in Turkey The Hive of Caves

Not only were the churches carved into the stone, the people as well lived in caves in stone where archways could be fancied up.  On the left you have the homes of displaced Greeks in Turkey.  Most of them moved back to Greece.

Next we travel to the Ihlara Valley were over a dozen caves were turned into churches.  One of the most amazing hikes… Combines peaceful walk along a stream with basalt canyon walls like the snake river valley in Idaho or, and pillars of the Giants Causeway in Ireland.

Ihlara Valley Map

As you can see by the little yellow dots along the slides of the river in the Ihlara valley, for miles along the river, caves were turned into places of worship.  If you were simply walking along the river, you would have really No idea this was happening.  It’s Fantastic!!

Ihlara valley cave churchesPainted Cave

Do these caves above look like they might contain this… image to the right.

Beautiful art still remains on the walls.  Much has been destroyed or defaced.  Eyes of the saints in the pictures are scratched out.  One guide told us that the people were worried about how the beautiful icononic art might convert them.  The watching eyes were just too powerful.  So much so that for much of what you see there are few eyes you’ll find.

The Three Magi

Below the three magi or wisemen and their gifts for the birth of the savior minus their eyes.  If you look near the hat you can see names in Greek.  It looks like the names of the magi were added afterward. The shape of their hats is interesting.  It brings a historical understanding.  Studying this brings much more understanding of the early 6th century church.

Mary on a donkey

Mary on the Donkey… Did you know the reference to Mary riding a donkey is actually not found in the bible, but in apocryphal writings in the text the Infancy Gospel of James?  This may be one of the earliest paintings that exists showing Mary on a Donkey.

The dome in pigeon poo

It is very incredible to think of the condition that these paintings were made.  These were painted many many years prior to the crusades, and the spread of the ottoman empire.  These were made at time when the Christians were hiding in caves.  The paint was made from pigeon droppings.  To think about that part of it it’s really very remarkable much remains at all.

Open Air churchesGoreme

When in Goreme and surrounding you’ll find that you need at least 2 to 3 days to simply race through everything.  4 days to a week will allow you to take a slower pace to really enjoy the valleys and take more in.  The tours are very inexpensive, and they are organized into the blue tour, the red tour and so on, and they really are packed with places to see and visit.  One morning you need to do the balloon ride for the adventuresome.  If you are thinking about the balloon, don’t wait till the last day because they are frequently cancelled due to weather conditions.

Goreme from above

View of Goreme from the top of the hills.

Abandoned fairy homes

The Fairy chimneys… turned home and now abandoned. A honeycomb of mystery and intrigue.

The Messiah scratched out

The Messiah, with a scratched out face…

Selime Cathedral

For more adventure… On one end of the Ihlara valley is the Selime Cathedral.  Walking to simply get to this Cathedral makes you feel like you’re rock climbing.  It isn’t for little old ladies or old men.  This requires a little bit of skill to navigate across the rocks, through tunnels and a bit of scrambling…

Selime Cathedral

But the payoff is big.  Huge rooms with archways and columns still remain while much of the artwork is destroyed and soot covers the ceilings.

Selime Cathedral

If you look closely you can still see remains, of what was once majestic.

Cappadocia Central Turkey Valleys and the all seeing eye

If there was any doubt that this valley wasn’t backed with mystery, intrigue and wonder… I hope a few of these picture have opened your mind.  Goreme and Cappadocia still remains one of my favorite destinations and the my appreciation for the early church and their cave dwelling days has shaped what we think of even as a catheral or church.  We have much to share in appreciation for these devoted follower of central Turkey.

Road Less Traveled: Top 5 Travel Destinations of Armenia

Crazy Foot bridge

Rickety Old Foot bridge

Armenia view Mt. Ararat, the site where Noah’s Ark landed, according to Genesis 8:4. In addition, Armenia has the distinction of being the first country to adopt the Christian faith (301 A.D.) and being evangelized by two of Jesus’ apostles (Bartholomew and Thaddeus). The landscape is dotted with ancient churches and monasteries.

Armenia may not currently be a top of tourist destination due to the challenge of getting there, but my experience is there is a lot of hidden gems and may be one of the top emerging religious tourist destination yet to be discovered, it’s off the radar for most.  It’s definitely an ancient kingdom that has been passed from empire to empire until it gained it’s independence from the Soviet Union.  Since that time it’s had a hard time with a couple of it’s neighbors.  There’s some disputed Territory that was a gift from Stalin to Azerbaijan and another to Turkey.  The Turkish relationship isn’t as strained it appears, but the Azerbaijani relationship is still strained with land disputes.

Khor Virap Monestary

(Above: Khor Virap Monestary)

There are some amazing destinations in Armenia.  The history of Armenia is fascinating.  I do think it’s worth visiting and not one to overlook in your visit to the former soviet union and in your visit to the Caucuses.  You really have to plan your routes through this region of the world.  For example simply flying into Armenia is a challenge.  We found getting from Georgia to Armenia was a great way of seeing the region and there were many more flight options into Tbilisi such as through Istanbul (one of my favorite cities for extended layovers).  Both Georgia and Armenia are Christian nations.

1. Where Noah landed the Ark – Mt Ararat viewing from Khor Virap Monastery – The Khor Virap Monastery is a 17th century Church provides a spectacular and majestic view of Mount Ararat and one of the most visited church and tourist spot of Armenia.  Saint Gregory was imprisoned in a pit for 13 years and as the story goes came out and the miracle of surviving this pit resulted in a conversion of the King and further prostylting led to the country converting to Christianity in 301 AD.

Khor Virap - The pit

The Pit – Climbing down these steps is a freaky experience.  It feels like the latter isn’t straight up and down.  It feels like you’re leaning backward.

Khor Virap in the shadows of Mt Ararat

Khor Virap Monestary with the Bible famous Mt Ararat in the Background.  There were some farmers burning their fields that day, so the mountain isn’t as looming in this photo.

2. Garni Temple – The oldest and best preserved Pagan temple in the world.  This building plays a significant role in the establishment of Armenia as a country and hence has been preserved where a lot of pagan temples around the world were destroyed with the rise of Islam and Christianity.

Garni Pagan Temple in Armenia

The nearly 2000 year old temple has some older structures around it including some interesting mosaics and likely one of the most incredible views of river valley which remind me of the Ihlara Valley in Turkey and have similar looking basalt columns of the Giants causeway of Ireland.

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(View inside of the Garni temple)

While we were there, some pagans were holding a ritual for one of their members who was off to join the military.

3. Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world.  While meditating in the old capital city of Vagharshapat, Gregory had a vision of Christ’s coming to the earth to strike it with a hammer. From the spot rose a great Christian temple with a huge cross. He was convinced that God intended him to build the main Armenian church there. The Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world. The original vaulted basilica was built in 301-303 by Saint Gregory the Illuminator with the Kings help when Armenia became the first officially Christian country in the world.He renamed the city Etchmiadzin, which means “the place of the descent of the only-begotten.”  This UNESCO herritage site is a 4th Century church with a rich history of the Christian nation of Armenia.

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Courtesy Wikipedia

There was construction going on on the turrets while I was there so my photo didn’t turn out this great.  The church is part of a greater complex of religious buildings including religious seminaries.

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Above: Seminary Students and Armenian Priests in the greater complex

4. Armenian Genocide Complex – Memorial Complex of Tsitsernakaberd

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Right near the national stadium is the Genocide memorial with an eternal flame and a pillar pointing toward heaven.  My friend Marvel told us stories of his families making the experience very personal.  The Government of the Ottoman Empire ordered the  destruction of Armenians in Anatolia (Eastern Turkey) in an organized expulsion and extermination of Armenians. Women, children and elderly were from February 1915 sent on death marches towards the Syrian desert.  Some 1 million to 1.5 million died.

Apparently there is controversy in the use of the term “genocide” as Turkey and Azerbaijan choose to say these events were part of the war.  It’s very sad.

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Armenian Genocide Memorial 1915-1922, the flowers pile up in a circle around the flame.  Online there’s a 3-D video of the Armenian Genocide complex including the ability to place flowers.

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5. Yerevan Republic Square – The Republic Square is the place where ceremonies and meetings are held. The statue of Lenin used to be located in the southern forehead of the square, but when Armenia regained its independence, the statue was brought down.  Now you’ll find dancing fountains in the summer.

The square is surrounded with seven major buildings:

  • The National Gallery and the History Museum building (north).
  • The Ministry of Territorial Administration (north-east).
  • The Government House: holds the main offices of the Government of Armenia (north-east).
  • The Central post-office of the Republic of Armenia (south-east).
  • The “Mariott Armenia” hotel (south-west).
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (north-west).
  • The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (north-west).

Republic Square Yerevan

Republic Square Yerevan

Christmas in central republic square

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan Armenia

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan, this is a must see on the weekends.  Lots of fun things for travelers.  Lots of crafts involving Noah and the local landscapes.

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This is the Old Yerevan Restaurant Band.  There were tons of fun.  Lots of great food to eat.  The food was one of my favorite things about Armenia.  Lots of great food.

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Empires and Castles of Ethiopia

Ethiopian Castle

When you think of Ethiopia you think of impoverished people where 3/4ths of the country live on less than $1 a day.  When I first came across the fact that not only there were castles Ethiopia, but a vast Kingdom that rivals the Kingdoms of Europe and was larger than the greatest kingdoms of the world, I was blown away.  Ethiopia has quickly become one of my favorite places in Africa.  In fact what I’d discover was wild stories of King Solomon of Jerusalem of the famous Temple of Solomon and his many wife’s including the Queen Sheba whose  kingdom is believed to have been in modern Ethiopia and Yemen.  The more Kebra Nagast I read the more I was fascinated and even becoming convinced of the connection between Ethiopia and the old Judean kingdom.  In Ethiopia you can’t separate religion and these vast kingdoms.  As a Kingdom there are strong Judean traditions and Christian influences and is the first Christian Kingdom.  If you read the Ethiopian scriptures you’ll find the marriage and first born son of Solomon and the connection to Sheba and her son Menelik.

Aksumite Empire and Kingdom

The Aksumite Obelisks marked the reign of the old kingdoms.  One of them was taken by Italy and then returned in 2005.  Imagine if England and France returned the obelisks from Egypt?  I know the Paris one was for a trade for a clock that never really worked.

The Empire of Aksum at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia.  It was known as one of the four great powers of his time along with Persia, Rome, and China.

Right: St. Mary’s church which contains the Arc of the Covenant behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies according to the Ethiopian Coptic church.  They wouldn’t let us go back there. Instead they wanted to show us their old colorful Holy Book or Bible.

The Aksum empire achieved prominence by the 1st century AD, and was a major player in the commerce between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.

Aksum’s capital is found in northern Ethiopia in modern Axum which is now smaller than it once was. The Kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th century. It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba.

Abyssinia (Ethiopian) Empire – Solomonic Dynasty

The Solomonic Dynamisty claim direct male line descent from the old Axumite royal house. Menelik II, and later his daughter Zewditu, claim direct male descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  The importance of this is very significant for Rastafarians and much of Ethopia.  The last emperor of Ethiopia born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, known as Haile Selassie I was Emperor of Ethopia from 1930 to 1974. He was the heir to a dynasty that traced its origins by tradition from King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Empress of Axum known in the Abrahamic tradition as the Queen of Sheba.

I took this picture of Emperor Fasilides (1603-1667) Castle in Gondar, which was one of the best preserved of the many castles in a small area in the city of Gondar.

Here Paul and I were messing around amongst the castles.

Above: Emperor Yohannes I Castle in Gondar – 1667-1682

We were a little surprised to find a heard of donkeys running down the road.  The castles are on the other side of the rock wall.

These cool Banyan roots remind me of Cambodia.

Below: Coffee Ceremony.  Coffee is originated in Ethiopia.  If you love coffee I highly recommend the personal roasted coffee bean ceremonial experience.  I’m not much for coffee being LDS, but my friend Paul must have tried it a half dozen times and loved every one of them.

Fasiladas’ bath – created by Fasilidas back in the 16h century.  It’s a beautiful place where they perform baptisms.

Timket – Once a year the Ethiopian church celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river on January 19 (or 20 on Leap Year), corresponding to the 10th day of Terr following the Ethiopian calendar.

Below: This blue house appears made of dung and this fabulous blue color.

Below the ancient kingdom of Yeha even older than Axum as the capital for Ethiopia and has the oldest building in Ethiopia dated to somewhere around 700 BC.  We were definitely out of place in this little village.  If you really want to see people who rarely see outsiders this is a great place.

The Monastery of Debre Damo is on a flat-topped mountain with and contains a 6th century monastery available only to men. While on top of this plateau you can see hills and landscape in Sudan and Eritrea.  It’s a real treat for multiple reasons. The only entry is via a rope made of animal hides that’s dropped.  You tie one it around you and start climbing up the other animal rope.  It’s an incredible experience climbing up 100 foot cliff straight up.

If you visit Axum Ethiopia it’s a short 2-3 hours through an amazing countryside ride.  Yeha is less than a half hour away.  We were able to see much of Axum in the morning and make it out to the amazing unique monastery.

O Little Town of Bethlehem: Touring Palestinian Territories


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With all this talk about air raids in Palestine and rockets in Israel makes you think it must be pure chaos.  It’s far from the truth.  The people I’ve met are use to the rockets coming from Gaza into southern Israel and haven’t been really concerned until as of late, but the latest special rockets with targets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem bring in a whole new dynamic.  That’s serious when random rockets can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv! I probably won’t be taking my family to Jerusalem for a couple of years, but it is one of my favorite cities in the whole world.  I love hearing the stories in church and thinking about the places I’ve been.  I’ll tell you more about Bethlehem as well.  There’s nothing like it. Seeing the struggle in person is unreal. Tours can be organized to go to areas in the West Bank from Jerusalem. My first encounter with Palestinians was in Jordan, a real must in the middle east and required on your collection of the 7 wonders of the world to see Petra the amazing place made famous by Indiana Jones. Later I met a friend of a friend in Qatar who took me around Doha and discovered this national Judo champ was Palestinian.

Also make sure to pull out a map of the middle east.  There’s still a big difference between the West Bank and Gaza.  Here are some clips from the BBC maps that show the complication.

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The two governments (3 if you count Hamas, but lets focus on the West Bank) while attempting to be united are still not there.  I’ve even had friends who have visited Gaza while rockets were going off, and felt unaffected.  It’s wild.

I’ve visited Israel and the West Bank three different times, and outside of security and check points…  I really enjoyed my time.  I do have friends in the technical community in the Israel Office/SharePoint User Group and in Palestine SharePoint Users Group.  In fact I randomly came across SharePoint training on the streets of Bethlehem! If you don’t know what SharePoint is, don’t worry.  For me it’s what gets me around the world.  It’s the technology that I speak about and cover on my technical blog at http://sharepointjoel.com

On your holiday you must go to the dead sea.  Believe me, the mud that is shipped all over the world is amazing.  You must cover yourself from head to toe and then take a dip.  The worlds lowest bar in the world (Kalia –418 meters) is next to the dead sea.  There are rumors that Sodom and Gomorrah from the Old Testament is the same location as the dead sea.  Avoid your eyes and ears from the salt water, but do lay back and float.  It’s amazing.  I’ve tried it in the Salt Lake in Utah, and it works, but the salt content isn’t as dense and it sure stinks in Utah because of the brine.

Dead Sea Mud Bath

Must see places in Palestine

1. Bethlehem – Church of the Nativity (in the West Bank)

O little town of Bethlehem.  I sing about it every Christmas season.  You may too.  I will now never have a Christmas come and go where I won’t be thinking about the little town and what I experienced.  There are pilgrims that visit all the time.  I’m sure the numbers will be less this season than last, but it should be bucket list item for all Christians if not Muslims and Jews as well.

Bethlehem Nativity Entrance

Go through a small opening, then venture through some amazing columns then wind yourself behind the alter and back under and down some stairs to a small little area where you’ll find a star.  This star marks the place where the Christ child was born.

Bethlehem Star

Holy Church of Nativity Rules

Jesus is special to both the Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  So while he may not be the Son of God to all faiths, you can have conversations about Jesus in all circles and they know where he was supposedly born.  Many assume that Palestine is nearly all Muslims.  This is also not the case.  There are a lot of Palestinian Christians and many Israelis that may or may not be Jews referred to as settlers, and Bedouins that may or may not be Muslim.

2. The Tomb of the Patriarchs and Mosque in Hebron (in the West Bank)

Tomb of the Patriarchs and Mosque Hebron

The burial place for Abraham, Sariah, Isaac, Rebeccah, Jacob (Israel) and Leah.  Built by King Herod King of Judea about 2000 years ago.  Sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  2nd holiest site for Jews after the Western Wall.

Another fascinating part of Hebron is the fact it’s divided in two.  As is the Tomb and caves.  You’ll find 10 days where the Jews have the whole thing, and that’s the day we happened to have been visiting, so we didn’t get inside, but we did get to experience what it was like peering in from the Palestinian side into the Jewish settlement side.

3. Dome of the Rock – Jerusalem and nearby Al-Aqsa mosque (silver dome)

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock is located at the visual center of a platform known as the Temple Mount.  For Muslims this was where Muhammad’s night journey took place.  Many believe it was the site of the Solomons Temple.  In 2006, the Temple Mount was reopened to non-Muslim visitors between the hours of 7:30–11:30 am and 1:30–2:30 pm during summer and 7:30–10:30 am and 1:30–2:30 pm during winter. Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering after 2:30 pm and may not enter on Fridays, Saturdays, or Muslim holidays.  In the few times I’ve tried to visit, I keep missing the cutoff.  You really do have to plan ahead for this one.  I’ve seen the guards do a quick test to determine the faith of Muslim believers in off hours.  The nearby Al Aqsa mosque is believed to be the location where Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Note: Many Orthodox rabbis regard entry to the compound to be a violation of Jewish law. This is based on the belief that since the time the Temple was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the precise location of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary entered only by the High Priest, is not known. Hence a restriction applies to the entire compound.  I’ve heard religious Jews should not plan on visiting for this or other reasons.

Jews have traditionally regarded the location of the stone as the holiest spot on Earth, the site of the Holy of Holies during the Temple Period.  According to Jewish tradition, the stone is the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac; Muslims believe it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was to be sacrificed.

4. Arafat’s Tomb in Ramallah

Tomb of Arafat

Yasser Arafat who for years represented the Palestinian Liberation Organization for years and years is buried in this tomb. 

Abbas’s palace or equivalent to the white house is nearby

Growing up and seeing Arafat on the television is still fascinating.  Now there’s a mystery surrounding his death.  Was he poisoned?  He body is going to be Exhumed on November 26th to determine the cause of death according to China Daily News and Aljazeera.  Also just outside where the compound was you’ll find the flags of the nations that recognize Palestine as a nation.

While the UN doesn’t yet officially recognize it, UNESCO has joined the ranks, and has sacrificed US support as a result.  It will be fascinating to watch to see if there’s a two state solution in the works.

5. Jericho and the Mount of Temptation

It’s a beautiful view, and there is even a gondola ride.  This is the supposed place where Christ was tempted by Satan and told to jump and have the angels save him.  Great views, and old monasteries.  We walked it on a beautiful night followed by some gelato.  As I walked the roads of Jericho, I thought of my Sunday school stories of Joshua and marching around the city.  “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve, but as for me in my house, we will serve the Lord…” this is still a very powerful statement and one I use with my kids.

Jericho at Night

Getting from place to place between Israel and Palestine, and even getting to places like Bethlehem require passing through checkpoints that become bottlenecks.  As well, large walls divide the settlers from the Palestinian people.  These walls fashioned after the ones formerly in Berlin are huge, and tower above the people.  It does restrict travel and movement for sure.

There are some political prisoners that are often touted in political prisoner exchanges.

the Wall dividing Israel and West Bank

I was pointed to this map of Israel and Palestine while in Bethlehem.  While controversial it shows a perspective of the Palestinian people and their concerns of over land.  It’s not my point to say who’s right or who’s wrong.  Visit Israel and Palestine.  You’ll get both perspectives.  The people, the governing, depending on political alignment, and depending on where the person lives and the color of their card all may tell you different stories.  Keep an open mind.

Palestine Map

To the Garden TombBelow: Damascus gate is near the Garden tomb, another of my favorites and one that has a very peaceful spirit.  Watch the hours… it’s closed on Sunday and closed for lunch and not open late.  Be sure to get some awesome food, and enjoy the Muslim quarter in East Jerusalem, considered the capital of Palestine while.

In a traditional Palestinian scarf with some traditional Muslim women with head scarves. Just because they wear the scarf does not mean they are Muslim though.  Some women in Palestine will wear it for fashion.  As well, some Muslim women may decide not to wear it.

Palestinian Scarf

Palestinian food is good food.  They love their savory meats, stewed veggies, mezze, mixed grills and deserts.  Lots of lamb, goat, but hold the pork.  No pork for Muslims or Jews.

Palestinian Beef

Let me leave you with a final caution.  The situation between Israel and Palestine is complex and goes back for many generations, not just since 1967.  I don’t pretend to understand the full complexity of it, but I do appreciate the desires of the people on both sides to have freedom and peace.  I appreciate the desire of a two state solution, and even the one state solution with full citizenship, but there are people on both sides that aren’t happy with anything on the table.  It’s incredible to me that there really isn’t anything that will make the radicals on either side happy without horrible repercussions.

While I posted this blog with the intention of showing those that travel that there are some really interesting places to visit, I hope as well that those that visit will get to know the amazing people that have had some really rough times and a very bad rap.

I also hope the Israeli security will give me a break and allow me to visit every once in a while without interrogating me for 3+ hours.  By the way if you are visiting Palestine, make sure you focus on your trip in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but any time spent in the west bank be prepared for a few hours in interrogation.  You’ll likely end up getting my treatment involving many trips through the scanners and someone going through all your socks and underwear with their wand.  So far I’ve never missed a flight.  Ironically the interrogation is always on the way out.

Israeli’s, don’t be offended by this post.  I love you guys too.  Tel Aviv is amazing, great beaches, love the Golan heights and I’m happy to attend a bar-mitzvah any time!

Lalibela Ethiopia and the Famous Rock Hewn Churches

St Georges Cross

8th wonder of the world Unesco Rock Hewn Churches

In our world there are few places shrouded with as much mystery, culture, and history as Lalibela the second holiest place in Ethiopia.  Designated as the 8th wonder of the world, and a UNESCO world heritage site.  These rock hewn churches made in the 16th century are an ancient treasure built by Angels.

St George in Lalibella Ethiopia

Lalibela starts with the story of a King that as a baby was shrouded in bees.  The bees weren’t bees at all, but angels.  The angels took him up to heaven and showed him how to make tools and how to carve churches from rock.

Megalithic Rock Hewn Church

The story doesn’t end there.  King Lalibela shared the ideas of the tools that were ahead of their time, and the humans took the day shift and the angels took the night shift and together they built amazing churches that are built with deep symbols of early Christianity.  Rather than pilgrimage to Jerusalem at a time when the Christians had been kept from safely visiting Jerusalem and the other holy sites of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the life of Jesus.

Narrow valleys carved into the rock can take you from church to church, each with it’s own story.  The largest megalithic church in the world is found among the 11 rock hewn churches in Lalibela.  All of them are within a couple of miles, and easy walking distance.  You can easily spend a day or two.  Loyal Christian orthodox priests act as guides for a negotiated price.  I was trying to explain that these churches were a lot like the church caves in Cappadocia, but our guide wouldn’t have it.  These were literally carved by Angels.  It was great to have a guide who was so loyal.

Coptic Priest

At lunch we stopped at a little place.  We were told it was Friday and so we couldn’t order the lamb.  It’s fasting day.  So we ordered the fasting food.

Injera

The Ethiopian fasting food is made up of various veggies. The food is designed to be eaten with your hands and is designed to be a social family experience.  Beets, potatoes, lentils, cabbage, tomatoes, amazing food.  It’s served on a traditional injera which is not only edible, but is how you eat the food.  Rip off some injera and wrap it around whatever you’d like.  Sometimes it comes in a roll so you can rip off a little and have plenty to eat a nice big pile of food.  There really is a lot of variety in the food, served on large platters.  Ethopian food really grew on me.  I had some in Zanzibar and a few years ago in Capetown.  It’s really a fun food.

Tukul Village

Ahead of time I did a little research and came across the Tukul village hotel.  I *really* enjoyed it.  They were cheap enough, around $50-60 that both Paul and I got our own rooms.  The nicest rooms in town.  We had hot water 24×7, plenty of power, and free wifi and it almost reached to our room.  I say 24×7 cause some say they have hot water, but it’s only on in the morning.  One also said they had wifi, but it was a hard wire in a room behind reception.  Across Ethiopia this was our favorite city and favorite hotel.

The rock churches were about a mile or two walk from the hotel.  When we’d walk around, a group of kids that would grow as we’d walk would tell us stories about their lives.  They were from the countryside.  In a sort of boarding type situation.  Groups of kids put together sharing a room.  Most, basically all, don’t have money.  Part of the story you hear from the kids is that they are going to school and need supplies.  Notebook, dictionary, and more.  If you’re around long enough you hear about how they are months back in rent and will get kicked out of their place.  Some don’t have shoes.  In some places I wouldn’t believe the stories, but I was convinced.

Lalibela Festival

After a day of walking through the rock churches, I overheard some amazing traditional music and as we got closer found what looked like the whole of the 15,000 of the village gathered to watch the dancing in a festival.  I was offered a prime seat, but instead found a spot next to some young kids.  One of the children was a blind boy, and his faithful friends who he held onto, one behind and one in front.  They filled me into what was going on.  None of them had parents around… they too were from the countryside and were here in Lalibela for school.  They told me about their need for notebooks and that they would struggle without them.  After hearing the price and seeing the sincerity I walked with the boys to the little store and purchased a pack of 10 notebooks which they shared.  Word got around, and we saw some kids that we’d seen earlier in the day, so we went back and decided we’d buy them out.  70 more notebooks, but this time the story was more sincere.  The 3 of us will share.  Ok.  I’ll get a notebook for all the children, there can’t be more than 70 around here.  I was warned by one of the older children that the kids will fight over the books.  Paul and I weren’t sure how to take the advice we were given of giving him all the books and have him distribute them.  Images of him running off, or only giving books to the older kids concerned me.  We gave him a pack of 10 and committed him to promising to share.  Then another and another and then Paul and I each took 10 or 20 to distribute to the growing crowd of children.  To my surprise, it was as if we were handing out food to a starving crowd who hadn’t seen food in ages.  Fights broke out, emotions ran high, as older kids pushed and little kids tried to find a way to get close to us.  I was nearly in tears as I saw the thirst.  As I saw one notebook ripped to shreds I put the rest under my shirt and said no!  I wasn’t going to waste these.  The needs were too great.  We were beyond sincerity.  This meant their ability to learn.  One child then explained to me that 3 kids could share one book.  I appreciated his willingness to share and gave him a book.  Another tried to line up and smile.  Those that were surrounding me reminded me of what I had seen earlier in the evening before all the amazing cultural dancing.  It totally reminds me of chickens fighting.

Ethiopian children dancing

At the beginning of the festival a sort of sacrament or communion moment was happening.  It was loaves and fishes Ethiopian style.  A large platter with a large loaf of bread was split among the elders of the group, then to the guests like myself and other adults.  I shared my ripped off piece with the blind child and his friends, really felt the spirit of what was going on, that is until it never made it’s way to the children, and others were chastised for grabbing at the loaf of bread.  I needed to find a way to distribute the books in a way that wouldn’t result in ripped up pages.  As I walked away to see how Paul was doing I secretly pulled out a book at a time with no one looking and gave it to the children who seemed heart broken.  It really lit them up.  Paul had given out his books and had a similar experience of kids fighting over them.  We were both really shaken by the experience and knew we’d never forget it.  Paul vowed to buy a dictionary, which he did, and ended up giving away wads of local currency to the children we walked with.  Hoping that they could buy some shoes for the boy with no shoes.  We don’t know how it worked out, and if the dictionary purchase was a ploy.  That one to me did seem that way me, but we both hope that it ultimately would be used for good.

Lalibela is in my top places of the world.  It has has special place in my heart.  I was only there for a couple of days, but it did change me.  It also makes me consider the wonders of our modern world and make me wonder what we’re contributing to our future.  How will they judge us based on our megalithic buildings propped up around economics.  These walls will fall much sooner than those in this little town of Lalibela, Ethiopia and they won’t mean as much as these either.

Cappadocia Turkey: Underground Cities and Cave Churches

Cave Houses and Ferry Chimneys

Cave Houses and Ferry Chimneys
Cave Houses and Ferry Chimneys

When I first learned about Cappadocia, I was up late watching a late night Sci Fi show on Ancient Alien God theory.  The spokey of underground cities where 20,000 people could live in caves.  The spoke cave cities of 13 levels deep and how for thousands of years these caves had lasted time.  No one really knows how old these caves are… you can’t carbon date a cave.  They think they are at least 1700-2000 years old.  These caves helped save Christianity at a time where it was illegal and the Romans were looking to wipe it out!  How do we know?  There are hundreds of early 3rd and 4th century cathedrals built by these Christians.  IMG_6663They went on to say there are 36 such cities that could support a hundreds of thousands of people…. underground!  Some cities are connected by 9 KM tunnels.  Only 10% of the caves had even been excavated.  What!!?  Seems to me like we’d learn more about ourselves and where we came from if we knew more about these caves.  Why have I not heard of such an incredible place before?  I immediately added it to my list.  About 6 months later, when I was planning a trip to Sofia, Bulgaria I remembered these incredible stories and decided… I must go.  I priced it out and for less than $200 I could visit this place.  You can fly to within an hour of the place.  I decided I needed to see how much of this was real.  Much to my surprise, these crazy facts were real!  I read as much as I could and gasped at the amazing pictures on any image search.  I dare you to look.  If you’re a world traveller, you’ll immediately add this to your list, and if not it will be a bucket list item.  Don’t wait till you’re too old for this one.  Remember there’s hiking and walking in caves.  You don’t want to hurt your back.

How this destination of underground city supports a population larger than most civilizations at the time still boggles my mind.  No way.  Too incredible.  Who wiped out these ancient people?  Who were they, what did they believe?  Was it an attempt to escape an alien overlord?  Doesn’t matter.  Despite whether you believe aliens built the multiple thousand year old tunnels or believe it was the Hittites an ancient civilization that’s no longer around, the mystery of these crazy tunnels and underground cities are no less of a wonder.  There’s a lot you can read about Derinkuyu, the largest underground city in the world, less than 30 minute drive from Goreme.  562343_10150787036148783_613898782_11776192_940521962_n[1]It’s only been available for tours since 1969.  There are plenty of tours that take you on organized tours or you can rent a car and take it at your pace.  The tunnels are excavated.  I went 8 levels deep on my tour and there were at least 4 or 5 tunnels that went off into the dark, one such tunnel my guide explained went to the next city.  In the underground city you’ll find a winery, church, animal stalls, wells, ancient phone system, ventilation shafts,  and a morgue.  I visited all of these places on my tour.

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