Lesson #136: Fire Beacons and Crusader Castles

One of my very favourite parts of the Lord of the Rings is the part where the beacons of Gondor are lit. And that was all fun in my imagination, but Peter Jackson made it beautiful. The way that sequence was filmed was probably my favourite part of the movies, which is sort of ridiculous because it’s such a minute detail (that looked very beautiful).

Anyway, today, we drove from Amman to Petra on the King’s Highway (mostly) and checked out Madaba, Herod’s Palace at Machaerus and Kerak Castle. Kerak was occupied by many, many different people including the Moabites, the Assyrians, the Nabateans, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans and the crusaders. Mostly, Kerak Castle is famous for being a crusader fort.

My travel companion is a. a teacher, b. intellectually curious and c. has lived in Jordan for four years, so has been to many of these sites on more than one occasion when she has friends and family visit, so she has thrown more information at me in the last four days than I could ever hope to remember on command, but today, she came out with this gem…

The crusader castles used fire beacons to signal Jerusalem that they were safe. And other occupants of Jordanian castles, especially along the King’s highway were built at specific intervals so that they could transmit information by way of fire beacons from Cairo all the way to the Euphrates.

I geeked out really hard over that. Internally mostly, but it still happened.

Also, we saw the most awesome thing ever tonight. We got in to Petra this evening and decided that since we had the opportunity, we would do Petra by Night — wherein they put out a trail of lights all through the Siq all the way to the Treasury. Anyway, it was a beautiful clear night out…and Orion (who in every place I’ve ever lived, is already gone for the summer by this time of year) was bright as day standing guard over the entrance to the Siq. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen!

Lesson #135: The Morning Call to Prayer

I am pretty excited by the Muslim call to prayer. It just sounds cool and before Monday, I’d never heard it in real life. Anyway, last night, as we were going to bed, my travel companion here in Jordan suggested that because the windows were open and there’s a mosque a block away from her flat, I would likely be woken up by the dawn call to prayer. I suggested that I was so tired I would probably sleep through it. I was wrong. It was loud. And there were three of them all going on about a 1.5 second delay. That aspect of it was strange to hear that early in the morning.

Anyway, this morning we were sitting around getting ready to head out to get the bus to Jerash and she informs me that the first prayer of the morning (the Fajr) starts with two repetitions of “prayer is better than sleep.”

Essentially, the first call to prayer is an Arabic language alarm clock.

I imagine that if I were woken up by this every morning I would find it less endearing than I did this morning. Especially since I’m about the furthest one will ever find from a morning person. No matter how much sleep I’ve gotten, I am not someone you want to be around first thing in the morning. I am so very okay with my being so westernized that I believe I should be sleeping at this time of day.*

But here, it’s a totally novel thing, so I’m still on board with it. That opinion may have changed come Sunday.

*And I really do mean I in that sentence. If you believe that you should be awake and praying, that’s your business and I have no right to judge that. But sleep is what should be happening for me at that time of day.

Lesson #134: Decapolis Cities

The colonnaded street in Beit She'an

We took a trip up to Beit She’an today on our way to the Jordan River Crossing. My friend in Tel Aviv told me it was a must see and then my friend in Jerusalem said the same thing completely independently, so off we went. After an incident 10 miles south of Beit She’an in which we got yanked off the bus at a security checkpoint by people with very large guns on account of my friend in Amman’s Jordanian visas and a very nice man whose name means “luck” in Hebrew picking us up and giving us a ride the rest of the way, we got to the ruins in time for lunch.

Beit She’an is actually the first of our two planned Decapolis stops (unless you count Amman*). Jerash, the largest Decapolis city, is on the agenda for tomorrow, but since I won’t write about a second one, this will just be an overview of Decapolis cities, not necessarily specific to either.**

The Decapolis cities were a group of ten*** cities on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire in Judea and Syria. Only one of the cities (Beit She’an) lies east of the Jordan River. They were built up after Pompey the Great’s conquest of the area around 64-63 BCE and were key trading and defensive centres along the eastern part of Judea. The cities were already in existence, having been built between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the Roman conquest of Judea, they were just further developed after Pompey ascended to power in the region. The Romans, in order for the cities to flourish, allowed some margin of autonomy; all of the Decapolis cities functioned as city-states under the umbrella of Rome and minted their own coins.

The Decapolis region is mentioned by name in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and flourished until the rule of the Emperor Trajan in the second century CE. Many of the cities were taken over and continued to be used by the Byzantines, during which time the cities served as the seats of bishops. Later, the Muslims also made use of the some of the Decapolis cities while others were abandoned after the Umayyad Caliphate conquest of Palestine in 641.****

*Which I don’t even though technically speaking it was one of the Decapolis cities…it’s just that most of its ruins aren’t available to be seen anymore so the effect is somewhat lost.

**Except for the part where we learned that philosophizing was done in the bathhouses in Beit Shean, which made us laugh pretty hard. I love that the men of the city would go to the baths for lessons. Then again, it was REALLY hot there (and it’s just April) so I can’t say I blame them.

***One would think this would be self-evident if you have any understanding of language at all, but when I look up what the ten cities are, I get Pliny the Elder’s list of 9 first, followed by a list of 10, a list of 12 and finally the acknowledgment that Ptolemy enumerated 18 cities, so take that as you will.

****More about the Decapolis Cities here, here and here.

Lesson #133: How to Behave at the Western Wall

I had been warned, by an old friend who happens to be a Jew, that I should be prepared to tour the Old City in long pants and sleeves that covered my elbows. For the sake of modesty, he told me, especially since I was going to be visiting the Western Wall, which is THE most sacred place in modern Judaism. I had been prepared for that aspect since my friend in Jerusalem is, for all her being a graduate of our college, more on the conservative end of Judaism than not, especially as regards her dress.

I was, therefore, unprepared to see tourists in short skirts and tank tops. There is actually a security gate through which you must pass where all your stuff gets x-rayed and you are sent through a metal detector — which happens pretty much every time you go anywhere where there are large numbers of people in an enclosed space — where there’s a sign posted with the basic rules of attendance. I find that somewhat odd. One would think that anyone making the effort to go somewhere that’s particularly holy, said people would know how to behave, whether or not they subscribe to that religion or not. I’m no more likely to play football at the Western Wall than I am to do it in a cathedral somewhere.

Anyway, where I was really going with this was that I learned that when you are finished with your prayers (or in my case, delivering a message to the wall for the aforementioned old friend), you’re supposed to back away from it. It’s something you catch quickly from observation and then just repeat. Once we had backed ourselves up, I asked my friend why that’s the approach and the answer is actually quite simple. You back away because you’re not supposed to turn your back on God.

Lesson #130: 10-20 Minutes

This is apropos today since as of right now, I ‘ve been awake for 33 hours (by design).*

It takes the average person 10-20 minutes to fall asleep, according to pretty much the entire internet. I’m a freak, it seems. In reality, I am about 99% sure I have a condition called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome.

*It’s a concerted effort to get a good night’s sleep tonight so I won’t be a disaster flying tomorrow like I usually am because I end up staying up all night and trying to sleep on the plane (always a failed effort).

Off for two weeks in the Middle East tomorrow. No new posts until May 9th at the earliest, but not likely until May 10th.

Lesson #129: Pilate’s Written Evidence

I’m off to spend two weeks visiting some friends in Israel and Jordan on Saturday, which I’m pretty excited about. There’s even a more-or-less solid plan to get in as much as we can in the time we have. It’s going to be kind of intense, but there’s a lot of general and religious history for me to geek out over. Wailing Wall? Check. Decapolis cities? Check. Ancient revolutionary camps at Masada? Check.  Petra? Double check (!). And there will be lots of hiking with amazing views. Sunrise at Masada looking out over the Dead Sea? Check. Other places my friends know? Check.  And there will be markets and falafel and floating in the Dead Sea (!) and lunch with a bona fide national team footballer.*

Anyway, completely independently of my friends in country and the ridiculous number of my Jewish friends who have been to Israel giving me suggestions, I stumbled on a website today about 10 interesting 20th century religious finds in the Middle East. One of these things is evidence, quite literally in stone, of Pontius Pilate.

Historically speaking, there’s not much evidence for Pilate. There’s the Bible (which is not considered a reliable historical source), the gnostic texts (also not considered reliable sources), two of Josephus’ works (Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War), Tacitus’ Annals and Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium. There are no definite details about his life before or after his service to Rome. Where he came from and what happened to him after the military debacle in Samaria is the subject of conflicting legend.

However…it is generally agreed, based on the above sources that Pilate’s rule in Judea was violent, disrespectful of the Jewish tradition and corrupt.** And, while primary sources credited Pilate as Procurator of Judea, there was no physical evidence of this until 1961 when a limestone dedication of the temple built in honour of the Emperor Tiberius was discovered in a Roman theatre in Caesaria and dated between 26-37 AD. The dedication reads: Tiberium, (Pon)tius Pilatus, (Praef)ectus Iuda(eae). The “Pilate Inscription” is housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.*** It has been added to my list of things to see.

*That last one’s kind of a cheat. She and I are friends from our Texas days. But she really does play for the national team.

**More on Pilate here, here and here.

***More on the Pilate Inscription here.

Lesson #128: Ginger

My maternal grandmother makes the world’s best ginger snap cookies. I don’t care who you are, you will never give me a cookie as good as my grandmother’s ginger snaps. And part of that, I have no doubt, is 30 years of associating them with my grandmother.

Ginger is a tuber in the same family as turmeric*, cardamom and something called galangal. It is native to southeast Asia, but the cultivation of it has spread to East Africa and the Caribbean. The name ginger comes from the Old English word gingifer by way of: Medieval Latin, Old Latin, Greek, Pankrit and finally Sanskrit. It is used in cooking and medicine and has a sialagogic property.

In the east, ginger is often used in savoury dishes — usually chicken or fish — while in the west, it is often made into sweet dishes (like my grandmother’s ginger snaps). It is used in tea pretty much everywhere. As a medicinal herb, it is a powerful agent against nausea, which explains why ginger ale seems to be a popular choice when one is ill, and apparently seasickness.

India leads the world in ginger production turning out almost twice as much (420,000 tons) as China (285,000 tons), which is the second-largest producer.**

*Do not, under any circumstances, snort turmeric. It does not feel awesome. A lesson I learned at the age of about 17 while following my mother’s suggestion that I smell the various spices. Turmeric, it turns out, is a very fine powder that is easily accidentally inhaled.

**More information can be found here and here.