Pergamum in Turkey

Temple of Trajan, Pergamum, Turkey

Temple of Trajan, Pergamum, Turkey

Pergamum is an ancient Greco-Roman city in western Turkey, about 15 miles from the Aegean coast, 60 miles from Izmir, the closest airport, 110 miles from Ephesus, and about 320 miles from Istanbul. The modern town on the site is Bergama.

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Abu Dhabi: from Sandy Village to Manhattan-Skyline in 40 Years

Only forty years ago, the gleaming metropolis of Abu Dhabi that we know today was a hungry, mud-brick speck on the edge of the desert. Most people lived as their ancestors had done, scrapping a meager living from the sea and inland oases.

In 1761, a hunting party of Bedouins followed a gazelle out of the desert to a pool of fresh water near the coast, a miraculous find in that place. (Abu Dhabi means “a place with lots of gazelles.”) They built a well and a watch tower out of coral, sea stone and crushed sea shells to protect and control the water, at that time the greatest form of wealth they knew. The ruling sheikh moved into the fort and Qasr al-Hosn (which means “palace fort”)  remained the residence of the local rulers for 200 years there after. Today, Qasr al-Hosn still stands, the cornerstone of Abu Dhabi, now in the shadow of glass and steel skyscrapers, watch towers of another kind built by liquid wealth of another kind.

A settlement grew up around the fort and pearling, fishing and trading industries developed. Piracy also developed and the coast around Abu Dhabi became known as the Pirate Coast by the British, who were passing by regularly on their way to and from India. In the 19th century, the pirate problem led to a series of treaties or truces between the British and area sheikhs. Hence the next British name for the area – Trucial Coast. British influence lasted until 1971. Some contend that the British used piracy as a pretext to get a foothold in the Arabian Gulf ahead of other European powers.

The pearl harvest and trade made Abu Dhabi economically vital through the 19th century and into the 20th. The development of cultured pearls in the 1920s and the global depression of the 1930s all but ended the natural pearl industry, leaving Abu Dhabi pretty much destitute. They fished, grew dates and herded camels and got by, barely. Then came oil.

Oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958 and exports began in 1962. In 1966, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan sent his older brother Shakhbut into exile and took control. Shakhbut was stuck in the past and making no real effort to put his new wealth to good use. It was a bloodless coup. Sheikh Zayed began right away to invest the new oil wealth in Abu Dhabi and to share it with his neighbors. He built roads, an airport, schools, hospitals, all the infrastructure that a society needs to prosper and progress.

In December 1971, Abu Dhabi joined with five other emirates – Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain – to form the United Arab Emirates. The seventh emirate, Ras al-Khaimah, joined in February of 1972. Abu Dhabi became the capital of the UAE and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan its first president.

Since independence, and oil, Abu Dhabi has become an economic powerhouse, with a per capita GDP in line with countries like Germany, France and the UK. Besides crude oil, natural gas contributes significantly to Abu Dhabi’s wealth and the emirate is actively working to diversify its economy, with steady growth in real estate, banking, tourism and manufacturing. The UAE as a whole is listed in the Very High category of the Human Development Index, which tracks life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living and quality of life.

Click to see tours of Abu Dhabi on our web site.

Maison de la Photographie, Marrakech

The Maison de la Photographie is a little gem of a museum, which captures a range of Moroccan life through photographs taken 1870-1950, as well as a fascinating 1957 documentary film.

The collection is arranged by region over three levels of a lovely riad in the Marrakech medina. An hour or so spent in the serene galleries and rooftop terrace makes a nice contrast to the intensity of the old city outside. From the café, you have a 360-degree view across the medina to the Atlas Mountains. If you time your café visit to catch the sunset, with the evening call to prayer ringing out over the city, it’s especially magical.

Reasonably priced prints are for sale in the museum shop.

The Maison de la Photographie can be tricky to locate in the medina maze.
A Ya’lla guide will lead you right there.

Click to see Ya’lla tours to Morocco.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem

Bethlehem

Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities, now about 40% of the population, but once around 85%. It’s a small city of about 25,000, with tourism as the main industry.

Besides being the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the site of the tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s tomb, on the edge of town, attracts Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, but Bethlehem’s star attraction, by far, is the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, in the center of town.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The original church was built upon orders from the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena around the year 327. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church a couple hundred years later, and that church still stands, the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Beneath the church is a cave believed to be the actual spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The earliest written accounts of Jesus being born in a cave date from the 2nd century, but the oral tradition is likely much older. Many houses in the area are built up against caves, which were used for storage and animal shelter.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Most scholars think not. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, place the nativity in Bethlehem, although the details differ. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, don’t address Jesus’ birth at all. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would be descended from King David, and David was born and raised in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It could be that the writers of Matthew and Luke symbolically placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in reference to that prophecy. Journalistic accuracy was not intended or expected.

Personally, I don’t think it matters where exactly Jesus was born, but I do find it interesting to think about the context in which the Gospels were written and their intended audiences. Although they carry an eternal message, the form that message takes tells us a lot about the world of the first Christians. Matthew cites the genealogy of Jesus back through David and ultimately to Abraham. That would have been meaningful to a Jewish audience. Luke’s genealogy goes right back to Adam to encompass all of humanity and he exults the newborn Jesus as savior of the whole world, not only of the Jews. Luke was writing for a Greek, gentile audience.

Getting to Bethlehem is easy, just a short drive from Jerusalem. Tourists pass through an Israeli check-point from Israel to the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Israelis are not allowed to enter, so if you’re on a guided tour, a Palestinian guide will meet you on the other side.

Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is held on December 24-25 at the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s, next door to the Church of Nativity. Tickets (no charge) are required to attend the service. Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6-7 for the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Othodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.

El Taller Experimental de Gráfica

Global Studies: Cuba

In old Havana, on the same block as the famous Bodeguita del Medio, one can find El Taller Experimental de Gráfica—The Experimental Graphics Studio. Founded in 1962 by mural artist Orlando Suarez with the support of Che Guevara, who was the minister of industry at the time, this studio/workshop is still thriving today.

Printmaker - Havana - 2013 A printmaker pulling a “grabado” off the press at Taller Experimental de Gráfica. (Credit: © Scott Loftesness)

This is one of the most important graphic arts establishments, preserving the old printmaking techniques and churning out some of the most significant works of graphic art in Havana. Many visual artists, poets, writers, and musicians are attracted to the TEG for the flavor of art that is produced there as well as the unique gathering of artists who work and study there. There is also a small gallery—Galería del Grabado—upstairs which is a good place to buy art. It…

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Safed

the view from Safed, looking out over the Sea of Galilee, photo courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

the view from Safed, looking out over the Sea of Galilee, photo courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Safed (also spelled Tsfat, Tzfat, and a number of other ways) is a town in the Upper Galilee region in the far north of Israel. It’s one of the few cities in Israel that has been continuously inhabited by a Jewish community for over 2,000 years. At an elevation of 3,000 feet, it’s the highest town in the country, with views out across the Galilee, the Golan Heights and Mt. Meron.

Safed is one of the 4 holy cities in Judaism (along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tiberias). According to legend, the Messiah will come through Safed on the way to Jerusalem and the great Kabbalist Yitzhak Luria taught that the divine presence of the Lord will reside in Safed until the building of the 3rd Temple. Legend also tells that the sons of Noah settled in Safed and established a religious school, where Jacob later studied.

In the 16th century, after the Jews were expelled from Spain, Safed became a center of Kabbalah (mystical Judaism) and Jewish learning. Yitzhak Luria, known as Ha ARI (the Lion) studied with renowned rabbis there and went on to develop his own interpretations of sacred texts and pass them on to his own students. His mostly oral teachings were written down by students and went on to have immense influence on the practice of Medieval Judaism and are the basis for the study and practice of most Kabbalah still today.

Safed, Israel

Safed, Israel

Safed, Israel

Safed, Israel

In Safed you’ll find a charming, labyrinthine old town to stroll about, Medieval synagogues, lots and lots of art galleries and artists’ workshops, and stellar views in all directions. In particular, look for the beautiful Abuhav Synagogue and the Sephardic Ha ARI Synagogue, where the Lion himself spent many hours studying and teaching.

Abuhav Synagogue, Safed, Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of IMOT

Abuhav Synagogue, Safed, Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of IMOT

art gallery, Safed, Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of IMOT

art gallery, Safed, Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of IMOT

kabbalist artist, Safed, Israel

kabbalist artist, Safed, Israel

The annual Safed Klezmer Festival is held in August. Performers from all over Israel and the world play venues around town, many open-air, galleries set up shop in the streets and the whole place parties for three days. Klezmer music is a genre of celebratory, secular music, which originated with Eastern European Jews. Check it out below.

Driving time from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to Safed is about 2-2.5 hours, from Tiberias it’s about 40 minutes.

See tours that include Safed here.