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Ancient Gadara was a Decapolis city, one of ten Greco-Roman city-states on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire. Matthew 8:28-34 in the New Testament tells that Jesus cast demons from two men into a heard of pigs at Gadara, sending them running down the hill and into the Sea of Galilee. Today the Sea of Galilee is just across a national border from Gadara.

 

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The blue men of the Sahara get their name from the blue robes and scarves that they traditionally wear. They are Tuareg, an ethnic group of the native Amazigh or Berber. About 2 million Tuareg live in the Sahara region today. The largest populations are in Niger and Mali, with a relatively small number in our mystery country.

The Tuareg are traditionally semi-nomadic traders, moving goods across the Sahara Desert to Mediterranean and Atlantic ports. They also carried enslaved people from West Africa to coastal markets and kept slaves themselves well into the 20th century. Slavery is still practiced in some communities.

Tuareg society is matrilineal and women generally have more autonomy and power relative to other Arab communities. Traditionally, Tuareg men veil their faces and women do not.

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This is the so-called Avenue of Rams or Ram-headed sphinxes leading to the 1st pylon (monumental gateway) of the sprawling Karnak Temple in Luxor. Like the famous sphinx at Giza in the north of the country, these sphinxes have the body of a lion. The figures between their legs represent Ramesses II, one of the country’s most influential ancient kings.

 

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This is Phaistos, remains of a Minoan city on the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Phaistos is one of five Minoan palatial centers on the island, the best-known of which is the flashy Knossos. The Minoan civilization dominated the eastern Mediterranean for several hundred years in the 2nd millennium BCE and their sophisticated culture significantly influenced Western Civilization.

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Built in the 6th century, this building stood as the largest Christian cathedral for 1,000 years and set the standard for Byzantine architecture. For students of architecture and art history, this place alone is worth a trip to our mystery country. It was dedicated to Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia in Greek. In the 15th century, it was converted to a mosque, hence the Arabic inscriptions in the dome and hanging medallions and the minarets outside. The building has been a museum since 1935. As of this writing, it is the 2nd most visited museum in our mystery country.

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Al-Ayn, in the northwest of our mystery country, is one of several places to see the Bronze Age beehive tombs. Although they are frequently referred to as tombs, no human remains have been found, leaving the purpose of these monuments in question. Over 100 of these structures are scattered around 3 different sites within about a 30 minute drive, as well as the remains of houses and other evidence of human settlement. At al-Ayn, Jebel Misht makes a dramatic backdrop to 21 tombs.

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Angeles del Futuro is a community service project and labor of love created by Odelmis Hernández to teach young people the circus arts, such as dancing, acting, acrobatics and trapeze.

In the 1990s, Odelmis was a student at the National Circus School but was unable to finish his studies after the economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union, a major economic, military and political benefactor of this mystery country.

In 2006, Odelmis revived his dream with the Angeles del Futuro project and today trains more than 85 students ranging in age from 9 to 17 years.

 

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A predominantly Muslim country today, our mystery country had a large Christian population throughout the Byzantine period and beyond. The city of Madaba on the Kings Highway had its own bishop as early as the 5th century and still has a significant Christian community today. The remains of numerous ancient Christian churches have been discovered, mostly in the northern part of town, with much more excavation yet to be done. So many mosaics have been discovered in the ruins, of homes as well as churches, that Madaba is known as the City of Mosaics. The Muslim Umayyad dynasty took control of the area in the middle of the 7th century and many Umayyad mosaics have been discovered as well.

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The Draa River in the south of our mystery country is the country’s longest river, originating in the High Atlas Mountains and emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, although much of the year the river runs dry along 2/3rds or more of its length. The scenic river valley is punctuated with dense palm groves and historically was a major trading route for merchant caravans traveling from sub-Saharan Africa to the markets of Marrakech and Fez. To control this important passage, fortified towns or kasbahs were established along the route, some of which are still populated today.

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As our guide Jacob will tell you, Beit She’an (aka Scythopolis) is one of the world’s most extensively excavated Greco-Roman sites. Blessed with fertile land and abundant water, this strategic location at the convergence of the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys has been occupied at least since the 5th millennium BCE and holds remains from Canaanites, Egyptians, Philistines, Israelites, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines in 18 distinct layers. At its peak, as the main Roman Decapolis city, Beit She’an had a population of 40,000.

 

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