WOW Places – Hagia Sophia, Karnak Temple, Sahara Desert


Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) rises like a rust-colored mountain near the end of Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula, overlooking the confluence of the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus Strait. The city originated on this peninsula and Hagia Sophia has been there almost since the beginning. OK, that’s not quite true, but it has been there for a very long time. The city originated, as Byzantium, in the 7th century BCE. In the 4th century, the Roman emperor Constantine claimed Byzantium as his capital and renamed the city Constantinople. Constantine was the first Christian emperor of Rome. The building we know as Hagia Sophia was built in 537 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, on the ruins of two previous cathedrals. Hagia Sophia stood as the largest cathedral for almost 1,000 years. The dome spans over 100 feet and is 180 feet high. Upon conquering the city in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II was so impressed with the building, he made it his imperial mosque. The design of many subsequent mosques built in the city was influenced by the Hagia Sophia.

It’s very impressive from the outside but, for me, the real WOW experience happens inside. It’s just so big and wide-open, you really feel like a speck of dust in there. Continue reading

Camel Riding and Other Fun in the Sahara Dunes of Morocco

Baby camel in the Sahara Desert of Morocco.

Baby camel in the Sahara Desert of Morocco.
He’s smiling.

My favorite camel story is from a few years ago, while I was escorting a group of travel agents in Morocco. It was a group of twenty or so very experienced agents, mostly women. I have escorted quite a few fam trips in my 15 years with Ya’lla Tours and this was a particularly happy and relaxed group of intrepid professionals. Ronen (Ya’lla owner) was traveling with us for the whole trip, rather than arriving on the tail end, as usual. That took a lot of pressure off. He lives to schmooze. Me, not so much.

After quick visits to Meknes and Rabat and two days in Fez, we drove south over the Atlas Mountains and on to Merzouga at the edge of the Sahara desert. From Merzouga, we rode camels into the Erg Chebi, a vast area of wind-blown dunes, to our Berber camp. This part of the trip was the highlight for most of us and the mood in the bus was raucous and giddy as we pulled up to the herd of camels waiting placidly, mostly, for their next assignment. While the bus maneuvered into a parked position, most of the group was pressed to the camel-facing window, cooing and exclaiming. The camels sat on the sand facing back, unimpressed. Still in the bus, random group members called dibs on specific camels to whom they felt a personal connection, “The one with the red harness is mine!” “I want that one over there!” This became a trend until one of the women imagined out loud what was being said on the other side of the window, “The skinny one is mine!”  “I don’t want the one in the red t-shirt!”  “These people need to lay off the snacks.” Hilarity ensued.

Finally out of the bus, we paired off with our mounts. One camel had been complaining loudly since we drove up. I’ve never, before or since, heard a camel make such a protracted and adamant statement. He was mine. I don’t know what the fuss was about but he calmed down once we got moving. Tracy (Ya’lla operations manager) also met a memorable grumbler with a group she escorted in Morocco. They called him Chewbacca. Maybe Chewie and my camel were one in the same.

We didn’t ride far, just up and over a couple of dunes. We stopped and toasted the sunset with champagne and then carried on over a couple more dunes to our camp. From bus to camp, it was probably less than an hour. That was enough. Riding up and down sand dunes on the back of a camel is strenuous. On flat ground, it’s much easier. (If you’re considering a camel trek of more than a few hours in the Sahara, I recommend some months of Pilates beforehand for core strength and regular use of that machine at the gym that works the inner and outer thigh, the good-girl/bad-girl machine. You’ll especially need strong inner thighs so concentrate on the good-girl moves.)

The next morning, camels were available to anyone who wanted to ride out to watch the sunrise. I think most people chose to walk. I know I did. Walking up and down 300 ft sand dunes under your own power is no piece of cake either, but definitely worth the effort. You crawl more than walk on the way up and slide-sink/somersault-roll on the way down. Engage abs and quads, mind the knees.

Young “guides” from a nearby village gathered at our camp before dawn to offer their services. I followed a tweenaged boy into the cold, dark morning. We put 3 or 4 dunes behind us and at the top of number 5 he motioned for me to sit and stay and then disappeared. A few minutes later he reappeared with an arm load of a dry reedy plant that made a fine little fire to warm our hands. Now dawn was breaking and a great range of red sand mountains emerged around us.

Do you think I can find photos of any of this? No. I’m going to keep searching. In the meantime, here are a few from different fam trips to Morocco. They are illustrative even though the quality is not great. Is it better to have a post with medium quality pictures than with no pictures at all? I just don’t know.

Check out our Morocco tours here