Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kite surfing

In early May my friend, her sons ad I packed a picnic lunch and drove across the peninsula to a beach with shallow water on the west coast. About and hour and a half drive. There we found good winds and a large assortment of kite surfers. The slide show below shows some of them.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

China, Iran and Qatar

I was reading today's edition of the Herald Tribune and found a half-page article on the sale of Chinese art with a 'whiff of mystery.' Reading the full article told me about its collection by a Swedish businessman, his gift to his daughters, and the final sale to buyers outside of Sweden, at Sotheby's. The article related that Sheik Saud al Thani of Qatar had never before 'publicly stepped into this field.' He outspent most of the bidders paying close to $20 million. As the attached slide show relates,

"And with the 99 pieces he now owns, Sheikh Saud is in a position to set up the finest museum of early Chinese silver and gold should he choose to do so." From the Herald-Tribune we learn that "Sweden's loss is the gain of the Middle East, where the Chinese hoard makes far better sense - Tang silver came about as a result of an upsurge of Iranian influence over China in the 7th and 8th centuries. " O, the world is small and we have much to learn.

The title of this post links to a slide show that shows 6 of the pieces with a brief discussion of each; I reproduce 3 here. Perhaps Sheik Saud will plan an exhibit in Doha. For now, link to the site and enjoy the six images and brief commentary. And consider every place the Qataris are now in - the very recently signed Doha Accord for Lebanon, now Chinese art, and a major bid for the 2016 Olympics. For such a small dusty peninsula, enormous activity.


Saturday, May 3, 2008

Jerusalem and Environs

Recently I had occasion to visit Jerusalem. A long-time friend and college classmate was there on business and since I seemed so close here in Qatar it seemed a chance to travel together a bit. So close but so far since there are no direct flights from the Gulf to Israel. Many folks from here have made the trip by flying to Amman, having a driver take them to the bridge, cross the bridge and have a driver on the other side. So I set up such plans and found that travel was fine from Qatar. Fly to Amman, car to north bridge 2 hours away, although very lovely landscape as the sunset and dusk fell (more sensuous mountains); 1 hour to go across 500 meters to Israel and then another car south to Jerusalem directly across the border from Amman. The Allenby Bridge essentially between Amman and Jerusalem is regularly closed or perhaps only available for the right people and backshish. The crossing entailed going through customs and requesting that the passport not be stamped (although I was in Jordan, a stamp from that site would make clear where I was headed), getting on a bus. Then after 30 minutes, tickets were collected. We drove 100 meters and our passports were checked. Another 100 meters and the bomb sniffing dogs circled the bus and the luggage and on to the Israeli customs on the other side of the Jordan River barely another 100 meters.

I had very nice four days, meeting friends of my friend and joining a Shabbat dinner with white tablecloths, good dishes and candles, wine and challah loaves, to perform Sabbath religious rituals. Judith and I had a bit of an adventure getting to the dinner since we walked from our hotel, following directions the hotel provided. The directions headed us in the right direction but on a parallel road and turned us left when we should have turned right. We reconnoitered with some people on the street who tried to assist but our street was unknown. So we headed in the other direction and found totally deserted streets but an open Domino’s Pizza. Since they deliver I figured they’d be apt to know where we were trying to get. They did but their directions were not perfect and we still wandered until a lone car came by. We flagged it down and discovered that they were going to the same street. Since their car was full of kids and the address wasn’t far we watched where they drove and soon caught up with them, thanking them profusely. We got a ride back to the hotel from one of the dinner guests.

I spent a wonderful day at Masada, taking the public bus and wandering around by myself and visiting the museum. The public bus leaves people at the base of the tourist site so there is a healthy walk up hill with plenty of landscape to admire. From the tourist site you purchase tickets to the tram up to Masada as well as to the museum. There is of course a gift shop, and food and drink options.
I have long wanted to go to Masada: the site, the remains, the setting and the story are all compelling. Masada, Herod’s royal citadel and later the last outpost of zealots during the Jewish Revolt, was a site of the most dramatic and symbolic act in Jewish history, where rebels chose mass suicide rather than submit to Roman capture. To set the geography in place, consider that the cliffs on the east edge of Masada are about 1,300 feet (400 m) high and the cliffs on the west are about 300 feet (90 m) high; the natural approaches to the cliff top are very difficult and it is isolated from its surroundings by deep gorges on all sides. This position forms a natural fortification, and the place is natural to build a fortress. Aerial view of the site courtesy of Wikipedia.

The access in ancient times was by a steep "Snake Path" from the east (Dead Sea side), "the White Rock" from the west, and two approaches from north and south, all of them rather difficult to climb. Today there is an easy 10-minute ascent from the west, and the cable-car from the east. The "Snake Path" is still open for tourists wishing to use this ancient trail and some can be seen in one of the photos. Most tourists elect to walk down not up.

The tram ride afforded some wonderful views of the landscape itself and the site was wonderful for wandering. I had a headset which helped orient in the various remains, providing a good backdrop for the history. On one of my photos of the remains of the Roman camp, I was fortunate to catch a bird wheeling across the heights.

The museum back at the tourist base was newly opened and quite high tech. Individual houses were recreated with appropriate artifacts and the headset dialogue changed as you moved from room to room. Unfortunately you could physically step back but the dialogue ceased; still very impressive. After touring the ruins above, the museum offered an impressive way to visualize the site as it once was.

Another half day was spent wandering the Old City with a guide – walking the ramparts and visiting the various quarters. I went back on my own another morning. [photos] The Old City is a 0.9 square kilometre (0.35 square mile) area within the modern city. Until the 1860s this area constituted the entire city of Jerusalem and is home to several sites of key religious importance: the Temple Mount and its Western Wall for Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians, and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims. Traditionally, the Old City has been divided into four quarters, although the current designations were introduced only in the 19th century. Today, the Old City is roughly divided into the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter. The map below is courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although not apparent to all tourists, it is possible to walk the rampart walls and get different perspectives of the city, as shown in a couple photos.

All in all, I felt very comfortable in Jerusalem, it seemed quite familiar and I may have insulted a number of Israelis when I said I enjoyed the city because it reminded me of Rome - hilly, lots of antiquity and different pockets of ethnicity... I was struck by a number of folks’ fascination with the 10th bce remains, exclaiming how old they were. Since I have long worked with material from the 2nd and 3rd millennium bce, these remains seemed almost modern.

The chance to visit two museums rounded out the brief trip very nicely. The Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, located near Herod's Gate, and named for John D. Rockefeller, who financed its construction with a gift of $2 million in 1927, is a treasury of regional archaeological finds ranging from the Stone Age to the 18th century. According the Sacred Destinations Travel Guide, the museum's eclectic 1930s design is a Jerusalem landmark that combines elements of Byzantine, Islamic, and art deco, and includes a beautiful cloister garden set around a reflecting pool. The building was damaged during the Six-Day War, but thankfully the museum's displays were barely affected. Much of the collection was excavated in Acre and Galilee by American and English archaeologists during the first half of this century. Pottery, tools, and household effects are arranged by periods: Iron Age, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine. The displays, while interesting, point to the museum display sensibilities of the later 19th century and need some serious upgrading. There are few explanatory materials and the cases are packed with materials with little attempt at context. There seems a major disconnect between the building and the displays. We also visited the Israel Museum with the Billy Rose Art Garden which was a real treat.

The last day three of us visited the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. From their web site we see that
The rich history of the American Colony dates back to the late nineteenth century, following a series of tragic events that led Horatio and Anna Spafford, a devoutly Christian family, to leave their hometown of Chicago in 1881 in order to find peace in the holy city of Jerusalem and offer aid to families in distress. ... The American Colony Hotel has a unique place in Israel’s history, having endured countless challenges and damage resulting from the area’s involvement in a series of wars. It was the venue from which a ‘white flag,’—made from a bed sheet from one of the Colony’s hospitals that is currently displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London—was draped at the end of World War I to initiate the truce that freed Jerusalem from three centuries of Ottoman rule.

The Colony has always been known as a neutral island, remaining outside the turbulent politics of the land. Owned neither by Arabs or Jews, but by Americans, British and Swedes, it has always had friends from all sectors of Jerusalem’s mixed society. An ‘oasis’ where Jews and Arabs comfortably meet, it is also a favorite haven for international journalists, high-ranking officers of the United Nations and diplomats from across the world.

In a predominantly Jewish and Muslim country, this oasis defiantly serves ham sandwiches. Lunch there was a wonderful conclusion to a lovely visit.

While arrival may not have been adventurous, leaving was a problem – I got to the bridge crossing and got across and then was stalled while the taxi drivers refused to take me to the gate where my driver was supposed to be - they claimed he wasn't there but they would drive me to the airport for a price, of course. Finally it worked only because I had one phone number to Jerusalem where the man at that end - with no responsibility for me - kept reaching out to the folks at the gate who for some reason couldn't get through on my phone. They finally called the military police who verified I was there and let the driver through to pick me up. Thank heavens! - and it was broad daylight. Not my idea of adventure although I knew I had time to get to the airport and $300 which should have sufficed. The trip from there on was fine and since it was early afternoon I got to see many of the Jordan villages we passed through bustling with daily life.