Saturday, April 26, 2014

April 19th – The Historic Treasures of Kusadasi

I've been to Kusadasi and Ephesus many times, but I've never had a better introduction to its history than today. Our guide today was Dr Adrian Saunders, a British academic who's an expert in Turkish history. In addition to having an enormous amount of detailed knowledge, he also had an infectious enthusiasm for his subject – highlighting things that you'd walk straight past without even noticing, and showing us the significance of rocks or engravings that really brought the past to life.

We started off at St John's Basilica, the burial place of St John the Evangelist, and once one of the most important churches in the East, until earthquakes and the terminal decline of Ephesus led to its destruction and ruination. I've visited the Basilica quite a few times before, and found it to be a bit of a dry add-on to a tour round the magnificent ruins of Ephesus; but, Adrian really showed us the building's significance in the early Christian world, and its part in the decline of Ephesus – it was fascinating.

From exploring Turkey's early Christian side, we then moved on a few centuries forward onto the new religious power that was to succeed them, the Islamic faith of the Ottomans. Because, on the plain below the Basilica, is the impressive Isabey Mosque, that was built in the late 14th century – like the Basilica, the mosque's size and splendid architecture were out of proportion with the size of the present settlement here today. Again, he made even the smallest architectural detail seem fascinating.

Our final stop was at an ancient site that I'd never even heard of before, but again gave us a wonderful insight into the area's history – to the ruins at Claros, which were once home to one of the most important Oracles in the ancient world. To be honest, I had thought that the Oracle at Delphi was one of a kind, but apparently, there were quite a few oracles around, back then. The fame of Claros was enough to attract people from around the Ancient World to come to consult it, for advice on tricky decisions or situations – a delegation was even sent here from Britain.

Obviously, the little-visited ruins at Claros can't compete with those at Ephesus, but it was the story of their significance and on what went on here, that made the visit so interesting. The Christians had destroyed this pagan stronghold, which meant that much of it was just scattered ruins, but the size of the columns that have been discovered, gave us some idea of its significance and wealth – apparently, there was a lot of money to be made in fortune telling in the Ancient World.

During our tour, we'd been given some amazing insights into the enduring religious significance of this part of the world – for the pagan Romans, for the Christians who followed them, and for the Muslim Ottomans who took over. The area around Kusadasi has some amazing reminders of the past, and I've never had them brought to life so well before.

April 18th – Going Back to Medieval Times in Rhodes Town

The great thing about visiting Rhodes Town, is that we dock so close to the action, right in front of the huge medieval city walls that encircle this historic gem of a town. After all these ports where we've had to catch Shuttle Buses or join tours to get the most out of our time here, it was a pleasure just to do a leisurely walk into town, and sample Rhodes Town's relaxed, historic atmosphere – even a bit of rain at the start of our visit couldn't dampen the chilled out atmosphere.

We went for a tasty lunch in one of the many little squares in town, and then found out that all the museums were free today, because it was Easter Sunday – you don't mind paying to visit evocative buildings like the Grand Master's Palace, but it's even better when they're free! So, we had fun exploring the legacy of the Knights of St John, in this incredibly well-preserved town, full of medieval buildings. The Street of the Knight was full of Gothic stone buildings where those Knights would have hung out, in between their epic battles with the Turks for the mastery of the Mediterranean, while the sheer size of the Grand Master's Palace really brings home the power of the Knights in the 14th century. We also visited the excellent Archaeological Museum, housed in the Knights' Hospital – a reminder that the Knights were set up to care for the sick and pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.

With the sun coming out in the afternoon, this historic town was looking as good as ever – in spite of the number of touristy shops here, there can't be many better places in Europe that can evoke the past as strongly as Rhodes Town.

Friday, April 25, 2014

April 17th – Limassol, Larnaka and Lefkaria

After two long days touring around Israel and its highly-charged sights, it was a welcome relief to get to the relaxed holiday island of Cyprus, to enjoy its laid-back attractions. That's not to say that Cyprus is without its tensions – within a minute of us getting on the coach, our Greek Cypriot guide was telling us how he'd been born in Famagusta (in what's now Northern Cyprus), and that his family had been thrown out of their home when the Turks invaded in 1974.

However, in our day here, there weren't really any sign of those historic tensions between the Greek and Turkish communities – just a few old abandoned mosques acting as a reminder that the Turkish Ottoman Empire had governed Cyprus from the 16th century until the 19th century (when the British took over).

It's Cyprus's position in the Eastern Mediterranean that's made it such a historical, trading and strategic crossroads between East and West, which has brought it so many invaders over its history. I hadn't known that Lazarus, the man who was raised from the dead by Jesus, had ended up living in Cyprus (obviously, after he'd been re-animated!) – something I discovered when I took the ship's tour to Larnaka, north of the port. Larnaka's a pleasant enough seaside town, with a decent beach, Lazarus's church (of course), and a former Ottoman Castle overlooking the sea.

After exploring Larnaka for a while, we headed up into the green hills of the island, to the quiet lace-making village of Lefkaria. In spite of it being a village that seemed to be entirely dedicated to tourism and selling their lace to us visitors, there was a sleepy atmosphere out on its winding lanes. Seeing as I wasn't really in the market for a lace table cloth, I just wandered around soaking up the old-time Cypriot atmosphere.

After those long days, it was a relief to have a totally relaxing day here in Cyprus.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

April 16th – Masada and The Dead Sea

Ever since I was at secondary school, I've been fascinated by the story of Masada. My interest had been caught by a TV mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain and Peter O'Toole, telling the story of the Jewish Zealots who holed-up in this imposing hilltop fortress after the Jewish revolt, and were then relentlessly besieged by the mighty Roman army. After an epic struggle, defeat was eventually inevitable for the Zealots, who decided to kill themselves rather than yield to the enemy.

Looking back, the TV series probably wasn't all that great – all the "goodies" (the Jews) were played by Americans, while all the "baddies" (the Romans) were played by Brits – but, it did capture some of the drama of that titanic struggle, and it also featured the impossibly forbidding nature of that mountaintop location surrounded by the barren desert, and overlooking the Dead Sea.

But, seeing it in the flesh was even more spectacular – that forbidding cliff-top position in the barren desert seemed as impregnable as ever, although the oppressive dry heat must have been hard to endure in that months-long siege. Fortunately, we had a cable car to take us up to the top in three minutes, rather than trekking up the snaking path that led up the rocky outcrop.

Up the top, we learnt that Masada had started out as an unlikely location for a luxurious palace built by Herod The Great – he was so paranoid, that he needed to find a place where it would be virtually impossible to get to him. Even though it was in this barren location, Herod made sure that his palace had a good water supply through a complex series of aqueducts, and this ensured that the cisterns were full for the Zealots to hold out for months against the Romans.

Looking down from the fortress, you could see the outline of the huge Roman camps, and see the enormous stone ramp they constructed so they could haul up their battering ram that finally knocked down the Jewish defences, prompting the tragic outcome to the siege. The whole site was wonderfully evocative of the dramatic events played out here, while, you could see why the story of the incredible Jewish defiance against overwhelming odds has such resonance today in Israel.

By lunchtime, the heat on the top of the fortress was almost unbearable, so we headed down to a resort by the Dead Sea – the lowest place on earth, at 400 metres below sea level. Here, the star attraction was to have a float in those famous waters, and perfect the pose of lying on your back reading a newspaper – unfortunately, we'd worked out too late that no-one reads newspapers these days, and no-one was willing to take their Kindle or i-pad into the water, to give the pose a 21st century twist.

The water is so incredibly buoyant because all the salts and minerals carried by the River Jordan have all settled down in this point, which means that the water is around about one-third salt, which gives it a strange, oily characteristic that clings onto your body. It also makes the water incredibly stingy if you've cut yourself (which fortunately I hadn't), but can make parts of you tingle after a few minutes in there.

I loved our time floating about in the Dead Sea, but eventually the tingling was in danger of turning into stinging, so I gave up, and washed those fabled waters off me. The Dead Sea is a totally unique place that's given a further interest because it's in real danger of disappearing in the next few decades if water consumption continues at its current rates. We could see landscapes that were previously underwater, but were now more than 100 metres from the shore. I can only hope that the Dead Sea is still around for future generations to enjoy it as much as I did.

Ps. There's also a couple of pictures from Tracy's trip to Jerusalem.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

April 15th – Haifa and The Holy Land

The longer you spend in Israel, the more you appreciate that it consists of layers of history piled upon layers of history. This small, but hugely significant country has witnessed so much history, and is important to so many religions, that it's no wonder that it's still the scene of so much conflict and controversy today.

From Haifa, I travelled to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee to follow the route of Christ's ministry – it's constantly amazing to think that you're literally following in the footsteps of Jesus, the Holy Family and the Apostles, visiting the towns where he lived, seeing the same views that he saw, and being at the sites of some of his most famous miracles.

Being the first day of Passover, most of Israel's Jewish population were on holiday, so the roads were quiet; although things got significantly livelier by the time that we'd reached the largely Arab town of Nazareth. We were visiting the Church of the Annunciation, built over the spot where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to tell her what was going to happen to her. An imposing modern church, has been built over a Crusader church, which was built over a Byzantine church, which was built over what was reputedly Mary's home.

This being Holy Week, the church was busy with Christian tourists/pilgrims, many of whom seemed more than happy to use their elbows to push past anyone slower than them or was in the way of their photo lens. Sadly, this pushy atmosphere was enough to prompt some rather un-Christian thoughts in your head as the 7th person in a row trod on your foot, or brazenly jumped the queue in front of you. Nevertheless, the church itself was very impressive, and in the odd quiet moment, a little of the site's holiness was able to penetrate the tourist hubbub.

After a quick visit to a church over the spot of Joseph's carpentry workshop, we drove past Cana (a good place to hold a wedding reception I'm told), to go down to the River Jordan to have a paddle in its holy waters. To be honest, this is a pretty commercialised spot (that's a couple of kilometres from the place where John the Baptist actually baptised Jesus); but, the religious devotion of the people dunking themselves into the waters was real enough.

We then went to the ruins of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus started his ministry and began to recruit the Apostles from the ranks of the town's fishermen. It was interesting to see an old synagogue, and the octagonal remains of what's believed to be one of the earliest churches in the Holy Land, built of the site of St Peter's house.

It was at our final stop that I felt a holy presence most strongly – at the Church of the Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Maybe it was the peaceful bucolic setting, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, with birds tweeting in the trees, and the green countryside springing with wild flowers, but this was the first place today, where phrases like "Blessed are the Peacemakers", really found a resonance. When you're in a beautiful spot like this, you can see why this was the Promised Land for the Jews, the Holy Land for the Christians, and treasured territory for the Muslims. One day, you pray that the Peacemakers can find a way to accommodate all these interests.

As a postscript, when we got back to Haifa, we had time to have a quick catch up with our friends from Tel Aviv, Katie and Aner, who took us out to enjoy some of Haifa's cosmopolitan atmosphere at night. Haifa is considered to be the most tolerant and harmonious city in Israel, so we were able to visit that cultural highlight - a British pub (my first pub for 4 months!). As we chatted, it was good to know that daily life here isn't dominated by the Palestinian question, or the ongoing political wrangling – as in pretty much any country, people here are bothered about house prices, cost of childcare, promotion prospects, holidays etc. The fact that life goes on as normal, is Israel's best hope for the future – all anyone wants (on both sides) is to be happy and their family safe. May the Peacemakers be blessed!