The Middle East is in turmoil, in a timeless conflict between Jew and Arab. I had opportunities to visit both sides, and came away with very strong insights into the situation. The countries visited were Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey.
Before leaving for Saudi Arabia to give a training course at Aramco (Arabian-American Oil Company) in 1975, we were given an extensive list of do's and don'ts from our employer. Our company had dealt with Aramco over the years and had sent many people to Saudi Arabia for field service, so this was a routine procedure. The list of precautions was published by Aramco and sent to all their contractors.
The basis of the precautions is that Saudi Arabia is an Islamic kingdom, where religious laws are enforced on the public and all visitors. Women are covered in black from head to foot and protected from view as much as possible. Alcohol possession and consumption are publicly forbidden (although not in private). No religious exercises other than Islamic are allowed (although some are still conducted). Additionally, there is a deep-seated prejudice against Israel and all products of industries headed by Jews. The relief map in the Petroleum Museum in Dhahran, for example, does not show Israel, but Palestine instead. Products like Coca-Cola and Ford cars are not allowed in the country, as these organizations are, or were, headed by Jews..
We were advised against driving while there, and with good reason. Saudi drivers are wild and headstrong, not likely to yield in a dangerous situation, so that head-on collisions are common. Any driver believed to be the cause of an accident is immediately jailed, and retained there as long as any victim of the accident is hospitalized. Prisoners are not fed by their jailers, but must be helped by others outside. We heard that foreigners jailed while working for Aramco have been given an emetic by friends to sicken them, allowing their release into the custody of their employer, who then spirits them out of the country. The punishment for thievery is to cut the thief's hand off, and execution by beheading is common.
A colleague traveled there with me in 1975. Flying with me from London to Dhahran, we sat next to an Englishman returning there. While we carefully observed the warning against arriving in an intoxicated state, our traveling companion did not. He seemed intent on storing as much alcohol as possible against a dry future, and was completely stoned upon arrival. But with our own problems with emigration and customs, I did not observe his fate.
Dhahran is the principal port of entry into Saudi Arabia on the Gulf coast. Few Americans heard of the place before the Gulf war when it became a staging place for our forces and a target for scud missles. But it is the headquarters of Aramco and therefore our destination. On arrival, our luggage was opened and dumped out by the customs inspector. He poked through everything, presumably looking for alcohol or other contraband, and finally shoving it aside in a heap for us to put back together, without even a nod to show that we passed inspection. (I will have further comment on customs inspection on arrival and departure from Israel, comparing the two cultures.)
After gathering our belongings we looked for our contact, the director of training at Aramco. A man who reminded me of a chief petty officer found us and introduced himself. Then he apologized that our reservations at the Al-Gozabi, the only first-class hotel in the area, would not be honored because the king's family had arrived to occupy all the rooms. He then drove us to a compound near the refinery where we could bunk until better accommodations could be found. As it was late at night and we were tired, we didn't mind too much at the time–that was to change.
We found ourselves in a single-room building with three bunks and no windows! The air conditioner was running, too noisy to sleep, too stuffy without it. The third bunk was occupied by another American contractor, newly arrived but unrelated to us. Oh well, let's make the best of this. After finally getting to sleep, we were awakened in total darkness to a muzzein blaring the call to prayer through all loudspeakers in the area at 5 A.M.
We had no toilet facilities in our room, so I headed outside into the morning light to find the latrine. It was my first exposure to an "eastern hammam." This is a toilet designed for squatting–just a hole in the floor with places for your feet. No paper is provided–the Arabs use their left hand for wiping, and therefore never use it for eating, shaking hands, etc. The shower was a half-inch pipe coming through the wall with no shower head on it. The lavatory had only cold water, and the drain was plugged solid with a knot of black hair. We were assigned to live in the Arab compound, and as far as I was concerned, this would be our last day there. When the director of training arrived to show us around, we informed him that we intended to take the next plane home if he didn't find us better housing. By that afternoon, he had moved us to an empty bungalow in the foreigner's compound, which had just been vacated by a family and was scheduled for repainting. Though it was dirty, it was quite acceptable for our purposes, and we could clean it up.
The compound was much like a military base, surrounded by a chain-link fence, and having its own commissary, dining hall, and entertainment facilities. These are provided for Aramco employees, and (we) foreign contractors could only use them on a space-available basis. We instructors had to eat at the second shift in the dining hall, while our students ate on the first shift. The theater, swimming pool, bowling alleys, etc. were in use all the time, so that they were unavailable to us. The only time I saw the inside of the theater was for Mass on Sunday, unauthorized and performed clandestinely by an Aramco employee who happened to be a Catholic priest.
The weekend in the Middle East is on Thursday and Friday. We arrived on Tuesday night, and spent Wednesday getting oriented. Then we had two free days before our course began on Saturday. This takes some getting used to. In order to leave the compound, we had to hire a taxi, and retain it for our return. Not every taxi was allowed to drive on the base, and not all were insured, so only the base taxis could be trusted. During the course, we stayed on the base, spending our off hours walking or jogging, although it was too hot to do much of that during the day. While late October, daytime temperatures rose to 90°F or thereabouts, and at night fell to 70°F. We were close enough to the Persian Gulf to experience its humidity, but not close enough to see it from Dhahran.
On one of my walks out into the desert, I was looking for photographic opportunities. But it was disappointing, because after walking an hour or more, there was still enough trash and construction debris to spoil a picture; finally I gave up and returned to the classroom. On another occasion, I walked around the local Arab village where young boys played soccer. There were several mosques, and these are quite picturesque and were kept clean. Religious observation was very noticeable. Workers in the refinery even had shaded areas where they could spread their prayer-rugs and kneel facing Mecca.
Despite the prohibition against alcohol, plenty was available within the base–it simply could not be imported. Americans and Europeans bought quantities of sugar, yeast, raisins and other fruit, and made their own. Aramco even provided instructions on how to distill the product safely in an unofficial publication called The Blue Flame (alcohol burns with a blue flame). The skill came in making it taste different from moonshine. The bungalow we occupied had a few bottles of home brew left behind by the last residents, along with some distillate. The latter we improved by applying dates to it overnight; orange peel was also effective. What really surprised me was that some Arabs appeared at house parties where these beverages were served, and partook of them along with the rest of us.
Our last night in Dhahran in 1975 was Halowe'en. Living in the compound with many American families, we were visited by children proposing "Trick or treat!" I explained to them that we were leaving for the States in the morning and therefore had no treats in the house. "Lucky you!" one exclaimed, "We have to stay here for another year and a half!" The next morning my colleague departed for Kuwait, and I boarded a KLM jet for Athens. Heineken's beer never tasted so good!
About 40 km west of Dhahran stands an Aramco refinery at Abqaiq. The road is a straight shot across the desert, with no turns and few intersections. Traveling that road in 1975, we got the distinct impression that we were crossing a battleground. Derelict vehicles lay alongside the road everywhere. One of particular note was a burned-out Mercedes tank truck that had caught fire following a collision only a few days earlier. Two messages were received: Saudi drivers were reckless and prone to head-on collisions, and wrecks were not removed but simply pushed out of the way and left there.
We were given a tour of the refinery, and were amazed by the low technical level of the controls. Of the few controllers installed in the plant, only a small fraction were actually controlling automatically. While walking the length of the process area, we spotted a huge pipeline stenciled with the label, "60-INCH GAS TO FLARE." I asked our guide if that pipe (60 inches in diameter) really carried gas to the flare stack. He confirmed that it did, and that there was another like it on the other side of the refinery.
During that period, Aramco was increasing production of crude oil, but had no means of recovering the natural gas that was produced along with the oil. Consequently, after separating the gas from the oil leaving the wellhead, the gas was all flared. The following day we visited the Ras Tanura refinery but had no guide, so simply viewed the scene from the perimeter. The most pronounced feature of the landscape was a flare stack 300 feet high, bearing a flare another 150 feet high. Its heat was so intense that all the steam vents rising from many points around the refinery were drawn into the draft of that huge flare.
On all our travels around the countryside, one scene was inescapable–there were flares visible all across the horizon. Most were ground flares located at wellheads. Banks of burners positioned only a few feet above the ground were roaring with flame. Each unit was surrounded by a chain-link fence, but even at a distance of 50 yards the heat from the flare was intense, as well as the sound. An objective of the kingdom at that time was to recover all the gas and convert it into useful products, which ultimately created an entire petrochemical industry there, but in 1975, it was all wasted.
During our "weekend" we hired a taxi for a day trip inland to the oasis of Al-Hufuf. We visited the camel market among other sights, where I had the experience of riding a camel. The Arabian camels are dromedaries, that is they have one hump, which is where the rider sits. The rider straddles the hump while the camel is resting with folded legs. When it rises, the hind legs unfold first, placing the rider in distinct danger of falling forward from the mount. Of course, this is only temporary, for if you are able to keep from falling, the front legs will soon unfold to return your body to vertical.
Everywhere we went, little boys seemed to gather from nowhere, asking for baksheesh, which is interpreted as a gratuity. On one of these occasions, my companion took out what he had in the way of small bills (they are literally small), giving one to each of the boys. This had the effect of multiplying their number, and of course the supply was quickly exhausted. This only made them angry and us annoyed. Handing out money to groups of beggars always seems to produce the same result–it satisfies noone.
Arab men wear long robes, with a shorter cover for the head, which can be white or patterned like a tablecloth. The head cover is held in place by a double hoop which can be unfolded into a single, larger hoop. This hoop is used to hobble a camel, by placing it over the folded knee joint while the animal is on the ground. It is customary to hobble two camels together, which keeps them from wandering off. A common scene in Saudi Arabia has one or two unaccompanied camels slowly walking across the desert against a backdrop of jebels, the low stony hills arising from the desert plain. It is captured on packages of Camel cigarettes.
Dammam is the port of entry for shipping into Dhahran. When we visited, its customs yard was filled with thousands of trucks, bulldozers, tankers, etc., awaiting inventory. Next to all this modern industry, Arabs lead donkey-carts carrying the date crop, or shepherd their goats along banks of irrigation canals. Almost all of the technical work is done by Europeans and Americans, and most of the skilled labor is provided by Pakistanis and Indians. Unskilled labor is performed by Yemenis and Africans. The Arabs tend their flocks, drive taxis, and drink coffee in the markets.
Walking along the streets of Dammam, we stumbled over broken sidewalks and skirted construction debris. It was difficult to tell whether a building was going up or coming down–every one seemed to have reinforcing rods sticking out the top at odd angles, and piles of stone and mortar about. Were they half-finished, being demolished, or abandoned? Yet they all seemed occupied.
Dammam had one street where all the jewelry stores stood. Windows were literally filled with gold, mostly in the form of 18k bracelets worn by the Arab women. Occasionally in the market, one could see a woman lift her arm through her black veil to reveal several gold bracelets. This was their statement of wealth, but not for us foreigners to view. I can remember catching a glimpse through a storefront window of a woman's gilded arm, and the scowl on her husband's face looking back at me. I did buy a pair of hoop earrings for Betty in 18k gold, but they were not cheap, and there was no bargaining with the merchant.
My return to Saudi Arabia in October 1991 came six months after the end of the Gulf War. In fact, the last of the oil-well fires started by the Iraqis retreating from Kuwait was extinguished during the week I was there. My accommodations were at the Meridien hotel at Al-Kobar on the Gulf. I could walk along the shore and watch the crabs play in the shallow water.
A picnic area near the shore had been planted with grass, but few people were out during the heat of the day. However, I did notice an Arab family relaxing on the grass as I returned to the hotel. A little girl and her smaller brother approached me from behind after I had passed them, she saying something I did not understand. Expecting they were looking for baksheesh, I demurred and continued on my way, they returning to their parents. Turning over her words in my mind as I returned to the hotel, I finally realized that she was saying, "You like some tea?" This was evidently an invitation from her father to share a cup of tea with them, which I failed to recognize. Arabs are known to be very hospitable to strangers, but this was a new experience for me, and I let my previous experience with beggar boys here and elsewhere take away what might have been an interesting encounter.
On this trip, I heard of expatriate Americans actually driving to the front lines during the war carrying truckloads of Pepsi-Cola, chips, and burgers for the troops tired of MREs (meals, ready to eat). The culture had changed markedly from my last visit, but not to the extent that alcohol was available. Non-alcoholic beer was about the best drink at the hotel, or "Saudi champagne" consisting of sweet cider and soda water. What really surprised me was that U.S. television programs were aired, at least in the hotel and on the Aramco base. The Clarence Thomas hearings on sexual harassment were being held live (in the wee hours of the morning there) with testimony that had to be frowned on by the strict Saudis.
More Saudis were being trained in technical pursuits, and the petroleum university in Dhahran was expanding to fill the need. I visited there to talk with the professors in my field. However, most of the responsible technical positions at Saudi Aramco were still held by foreigners. Having no particular desire to see more of the country on this trip, I left as soon as my seminar was over. I was invited to return in late 1996, but canceled those plans after the terrorist explosion at the U.S. military base at Dhahran in June.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey...
My first trip to Israel came in December of 1980, in response to a request from my company's representative in Tel Aviv to give a series of lectures there and consult on some current projects. I flew SwissAir, changing planes in Zurich. Security was very tight, as it must be in Israel as they are surrounded by enemies; yet it seemed informal, and their agents were exceptionally courteous. You might face delays if you waited behind an Arab at customs, as their luggage was thoroughly inspected; but it was just as carefully repacked with apologies for the inconvenience and delay. I asked the immigration officer at Tel Aviv not to stamp my passport, because an Israeli stamp would deny me entry to Arab countries. In October of 1981, I returned to give a seminar, accompanied by my wife. This time, my passport was stamped as I forgot to request it not to be, but by now wasn't interested in further travel to Arab lands. Some people carry two passports to avoid this conflict.
Tel Aviv is a modern city and the center of activity in the small nation of Israel. It is strictly a Jewish city, having no mosques or churches. To find a Catholic church, I would have to go to Joppa, Bethlehem, or Jerusalem. The Plaza Hotel is located right on the beach, and is favored by visiting Americans. The weather was too cool for swimming, but I enjoyed walking along the beach and breakwaters in the early morning or at night. Occasionally, a jeep full of soldiers would come by on patrol, armed and looking about for any suspicious activity. They didn't bother me, and I didn't feel threatened at all–in fact, I felt protected more than anything–quite the opposite from my experience when armed soldiers patrolled the streets in Havana and in Cali, Colombia. In my observation, Israeli soldiers did not promote fear but rather alleviated it.
During this time, inflation of the Israeli currency was quite high, but it was handled very differently from the policies I had witnessed in Brazil and Argentina. Large transactions such as real-estate sales were conducted in U.S. dollars. We even paid in dollars for the tours we booked, so we only had to change a small amount of currency into shekels. Wage-earners were also able to save money in accounts as Swiss francs, British pounds, or U.S. dollars. In fact, interest available on U.S. dollars at the time well exceeded their inflation rate, and was far better than I could get in a savings account at home!
One of the Israelis I met was the son of the only passenger lost from the airliner hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda. The woman had been removed to a hospital because of a throat problem when the rest of the passengers were rescued at the airport by Israeli commandos, as documented in the movie, The Raid on Entebbe. She was never heard from again, and her son was at the time attempting to discover her fate.
Four miles south of Tel Aviv on the sea lies the ancient port of Jaffa. The prophet Jonah departed from here on his ill-fated voyage. And here the Apostle Peter raised a woman from the dead in Acts 9; his residence at Simon the tanner's house is still marked as a historic site. The city is all of stone, with walls, walks and buildings integrated into a solid piece. Antiquity and character emanate from the very stones.
My introduction to Jaffa began when my host and his wife took me to dinner on the waterfront. This was a secured area, so we had to pass through a guarded gate. We entered a restaurant on the dock where fishing vessels moored. It was a very simple place with simple fare–my host simply ordered some of each of the fish from the day's haul, and it was excellent. We returned next year with Betty, and sat at a picnic table on the wharf itself. The proprietor first had to dry off the table from the dew that had settled with the falling temperature. Again, we were not disappointed with the seafood. Among the offerings is St. Peter's fish, taken from the Sea of Galillee (Genesareth) where the Apostles cast their nets.
On a free day, I walked from the Plaza Hotel to Jaffa to explore further. Among other things, I found a market where I was able to buy a pair of Turkish coffee pots for $7 each. They are squat little copper pots with a narrow neck and matched stopper; every square millimeter is covered with brass filigree and studded with polished agates–classic examples of Arabesque art. It was a hot walk back to the hotel, but I was pleased with the treasure I had found.
Jerusalem may be the oldest city in the world that is still occupied. Its history goes back to at least 1300 B.C., and David made it his capital around 1000 B.C. Solomon's temple dates to about 960 B.C., and its western wall (the "wailing wall") is still a place of worship. Abraham is considered to be the father of the Jewish race through Isaac, born of his wife Sarah, and the father of the Arab race through Ishmael, born of her Egyptian maid Agar (Gen. 6). Following the capture of Jerusalem by Omar in 638 A.D., the Dome of the Rock was built on the Temple Mount to revere the rock upon which it is believed that Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22).
The city has been captured and destroyed many times throughout history, by the Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans, culminating in the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Then came more invasions, by the Persians, Egyptians, the Crusaders, and the Ottoman Turks. The British expelled the Turks in World War I, and operated Palestine as a mandate until it was partitioned by the United Nations into Israel and Arab states in 1948. Jerusalem remained divided until the 6-day war of 1967, which culminated in Israel regaining control of the city, the west bank of the Jordan river, and Gaza.
The road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was the scene of many battles between Jews and Arabs prior to partitioning, as the Jews struggled to supply their compatriots besieged in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. Following partitioning, hostilities increased until a balance of power was reached. Then this area became another battleground in 1967. Some of the relics of the 6-day war were left along the road to commemorate that great victory. It enabled Jews once again to pray at the Western Wall, and access the entire city, both within and without the walls.
The principal Christian shrines in Jerusalem are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of the old city, where Christ was entombed, and the Church of All Nations, outside the walls east across the valley of Kidron (Cedron), in the Garden of Olives. On my first visit, I was taken to the Sepulchre by my host. The following year, I attempted to find it again with my wife, with the aid of a map of the city found in National Geographic magazine. I knew right where I was on the map, but went around the block twice without finding the entrance; the high walls of the street obscured the dome of the church. Finally, I asked an Arab shopkeeper nearby for directions. He told me to take the next right while pointing to the left. We soon found the entrance in the wall and proceeded in (there were no signs). Betty was sure we were in the wrong place, but I recognized the passageway. Soon we were underneath the dome.
The church is divided into areas or responsibility: Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Syrian, and Roman Catholic. Because of this division, repair and restoration has been very difficult. When I was there, scaffolding obscured most of the rotunda, and the structure was in bad repair. Among the smoke from censers, priests and pilgrims could be heard chanting hymns and prayers in several languages, some of them ancient, like Latin. Just inside the entrance lies a large stone slab where the Body of Christ was believed to have been prepared for burial. Nearby, a low, narrow passage allows entry to the tomb itself. Inside, white-bearded Greek Orthodox priests stand perpetual watch, providing candles for the faithful to light before an icon of The Lord.
The Garden of Olives (Gethsemane from the Hebrew Gat Shemanim, meaning oil press), is the site of Christ's Agony, where He was captured by the Temple Guard. Some of the trees in the garden may still remember that night, their huge gnarled and weathered trunks revealing their age. The altar of the church is set on a flat, rocky platform revered as the place where Our Savior sweat blood. A mosaic behind the altar depicts the crowd with swords and clubs backing away as their victim says, "I told you that I am He..." (John 18:8). The windows of simple, crude, purple and gray stained glass fit the mood of the passion endured here. The church is maintained by Franciscan priests, part of the legacy of holy places given to their care since the days of the crusades. On the Mount of Olives above is perched the Russian Church of Mary Magdalen, identified by its golden onion domes, characteristic of Muscovy.
Returning through the city walls by St. Stephen's Gate, we came upon the Court of the Flagellation, where Christ was scourged. One may the follow the Via Dolorosa (The Way of the Cross), where events taking place along the way to the Crucifixion are marked at various intersections of the winding, narrow streets.
The most prominent feature of the old city, seen in all panoramic photographs, is the Dome of the Rock, maintained as a Moslem shrine. You must remove your shoes to enter. It is a huge building, empty except for the rock in the center, and the faithful kneeling in prayer. The interior of the dome and its surrounding windows are gilded in delicate Arabesque tracery. Islam forbids the use of images common to Christian churches, substituting verses from the Koran to decorate their mosques. At the end of the same mount lies Al Asqa mosque, originally built as the Church of the Holy Cross by Byzantine Empress Helena in the fourth century.
One absorbs the antiquity of this city by just strolling its streets, and a serene peace can settle in the soul with the evening twilight. But during the day it is a hubub of activity, as shopkeepers hawk their wares and children hassle tourists. Looking for gift to bring home to our children, we entered a shop on a Sunday afternoon. We were welcomed like visiting royalty: "For you, everything in my shop is at half price!" the owner lied. We were amused, but not taken by his claim; still, it is a place where bargaining is a game enjoyed by all–shop around before you buy.
Bethlehem is a Christian-Arab city only a few minutes south of Jerusalem. Its principal feature is the Church of the Nativity, built above the grotto where Christ is believed to have been born. The church is Russian Orthodox, paneled in dark wood, with a wood-beamed roof, and decorated with silver chandeliers. A Catholic church next door, by contrast, has a gleaming white interior, with a high vaulted ceiling supported by crossed Franciscan arches. This church is under the direction of the Franciscan order. Greek Orthodox and Armenian monasteries are also located in the same area.
The Dead Sea
At 1293 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest lake in the world. It stretches south 46 miles from its inlet at the Jordan River, and is 10 miles wide, separating Israel and Jordan. It has no outlet, hence all the minerals entering accumulate, becoming more concentrated toward the south. Along its shores, David hid from the pursuing Saul near Engaddi (1 Kings 24). There are now health spas, where people suffering from skin ailments can go to bathe in the healing salt water. From this half-way point, the lake is saturated with salt, crystals forming a layer an inch or more deep at the bottom. Bathers float like a cork because of the high density of the brine, and it actually feels oily. To attain immersion, wells have been dug out from the shore, with handrails set into the bottom for you to hold yourself down. It is comical to see people try to swim there, and even standing can be tricky.
Traveling south along the shore, we came to an area of cliffs made of solid salt. A pair of climbers were ascending with rope and ice-ax as we passed by. Here I stopped to collect a rock of salt to bring home for my son's collection of crystals–it would just fit inside a 2-lb coffee can, where it had to be kept during the summer months lest the humidity dissolve it. We were approaching the ancient site of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by God for their wickedness. An abandoned snack bar was the only sign of civilization, and it was appropriately named "Lot's Wife," for the woman turned to a pillar of salt for looking back at the burning cities while escaping with her family (Gen.19:26). The cities were destroyed by "sulfur and fire" (Gen.19:24), and consequently the salt cliffs in the area have a high sulfate content–not principally chloride as is sea salt.
In 1980, Israel had an experimental solar power station along the shore. A large rectangular pool was created about 3 meters deep, and lined with black rubber. Heat-transfer tubing containing ammonia liquid was arranged along the bottom. A thin layer of fresh water was placed on top of the brine, and protected from agitation by vinyl surface baffles. Solar energy absorbed by the black liner was trapped at the bottom by the dense brine, raising its temperature to 98°C (208°F), boiling the ammonia in the tubing. The vapor then drove a turbine generator to produce electric power, and was then condensed against the cooler air to repeat the cycle. The solar pond served as a heat sink, storing thermal energy through the day and releasing it when needed.
The principal limitation of the solar pond was the need to replace the fresh water floating on the brine, with which it eventually became mixed. One scheme was to use water from the Mediterranean Sea, which though salty, was still light enough to float on the brine of the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, the two are not chemically compatible. Water from the Med contains calcium, which mixed with the sulfate in the Dead Sea, caused precipitation of calcium sulfate.
At the southern end of the Dead Sea lie two chemical plants, one on the Israel side of the border, which we visited, and the other on the Jordan side. They vacuum the layer of salt crystals from the sea bottom, extracting potash, bromine, and other industrial chemicals. Introduction of calcium into the Dead Sea would have a deleterious effect on their feed source, and so the idea was abandoned.
Along the western shore of the Dead Sea, about half-way between Engaddi and Sodom, rises Herod's mountain fortress of Masada. The mountain is flat-topped, and large enough to contain a small city. Because of its inaccessibility, it made an excellent refuge in time of war. The walls of the mountain were steep enough to prevent the Romans from reaching the top during the siege of 73 A.D., until a ramp was built to raise a siege engine to the wall. Israeli soldiers now climb to the top as part of their training, but a cable-car takes tourists there.
Herod's project was immense. To sustain his company, he built diversion dams which channeled the water from winter storms in the hills to the west, directly into his fortress. There, he built twelve giant cisterns capable of containing nearly a million and a half cubic feet of water. The water had to be carried from 300 to 400 feet up to the top, but the quantity was more than enough to support a city there in the desert–it was a man-made oasis. Crops were irrigated, and there were even baths and a swimming pool!
Herod's main palace was located on the western side of the mountain top, complete with courtyard, throne room, and all the residences needed for the entire court. Another palace was built clinging to the northern cliff, with terraces at three levels. Some of the original columns and tiles remain from this palace, and may be visited by anyone willing to descend the stairway. The view is breathtaking. Other ruins on the top include a synagogue, store-rooms, soldiers quarters, and a 4th-century Byzantine church. Excavations during the 1960s unearthed many relics of the siege, and hoards of coins from that period as well as a century earlier, and some from the later Roman occupation (Yadin, Y., Masada, Random House, New York, 1966.)
The Roman siege of the Zealots is one of the most remarkable stories in history. The Jewish revolt of 66 A.D. was quelled when Titus captured Jerusalem in 70, destroying the Temple. The rebels retreated to Masada where they held out for four years, 967 against as many as 15,000 Romans and their slaves. The stone walls of the eight encircling Roman camps are still visible from above. The Zealots not only held the high ground, but had plenty of food and water, and more comfortable temperatures nearer to sea level than the oven that was the Judean Desert below. After establishing their camps, the Romans built a wall encircling the mountain to prevent anyone from escaping. Then they constructed a ramp using Hebrew slaves, up the west slope almost to the top–it is still there. When it was high enough, they pushed a siege tower to the top, where a battering ram breached the wall. The defenders then threw up a double wooden wall to fill the breach, packing earth in the center; this defeated the battering ram, but it was set afire by flaming arrows.
While the Romans waited for the fire to burn out overnight, the Zealots decided to take their own lives, rather than submit; all their possessions were heaped into a pile and burned, and ten men were chosen by lot to kill all. Two women and five children hid in a cave to escape death. When the Romans reached the top, no one was left alive, and there were no possessions to loot. The siege and its end were recounted in detail by historian Josephus Flavius.
My first visit to Masada was guided by my Israeli host and his wife. The following year, I returned with Betty, taking a tour bus; but I was able to give her a more complete tour than the guide was giving the others, including a descent to the lower terraces of the Northern Palace. It is quite a sensation to look down from these heights upon almost 2000 years of history.
In May of 1995, I had my first opportunity to visit Turkey. Pouring over a map before my trip, I was fascinated by all its ancient cities: Antioch, Beroea, Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, Laodicea, Ephesus, Pergamum, Smyrna–names familiar from the journeys of St. Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles. Much as I longed to visit these places, it would not be possible on this trip. There was only time for a one-day seminar in Istanbul and then come directly home, for Betty was recovering from an operation performed just before I left on the trip, which included seminars in Milan and Rome.
Turkey lies in both Europe and Asia, and Istanbul is itself divided between the two continents. The Bosporus flows south from the Black Sea into the Sea of Maramara, where Istanbul rests. The famous Orient Express terminated on the European side, as there was no railroad bridge to the Asian side. With the exception of a dinner at a restaurant on the Asian side, all of my time was spent on the European side. Traffic across the bridges is very slow during rush hours, and plays a major role in the location and operation of businesses.
Arriving at the airport from Rome on a Sunday afternoon, I was picked up by our business representatives, one of whom I had met the previous week in Milan. They rushed me directly to the Istanbul Hilton, in time to depart on an afternoon sightseeing tour of Topkapi Palace. There I had a chance to change my leftover Italian Lira to Turkish Lira–from the ridiculous to the absurd. Italian Lira were 1500 to the dollar, which would buy about five times as may Turkish Lira.
Topkapi Palace was the imperial residence of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to the 19th century; its name means "cannon-gate." The museum contains priceless collections of jeweled swords and daggers, silver and gold armor, imported glassware and pottery. I have never seen such large emeralds–plum sized!
The Istanbul Hilton rests on the side of a hill overlooking the Bosporus. During a day off, I plotted a course to the water which would take me past a soccer stadium and a mosque. The day was cool and breezy, and the walk quite pleasant. I felt no danger except from the traffic, where the circular pattern around the stadium made crossing difficult. The city was much cleaner than Cairo, and the people seemed to be friendly, but not solicitous or overbearing. The city is quite hilly, so that some sidewalks are actually staircases, and the streets do wind and twist, making it easy to get lost. But the situation is only temporary, because many tall buildings are visible from hilltops to allow one to get bearings.
While in Milan and Rome the week before, I had pounded the pavement looking for a chess board for my son, without any luck. It seemed hard to believe, and it looked like I would return without one. Yet in my hotel in Istanbul, the gift shop had several beautiful boards, some of wood, some onyx, with hand-carved figures–an excellent selection, and David was not disappointed in my choice. I found the food at the hotel and local restaurants excellent. Middle-eastern food has always been to my liking, and here I found more variety than in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, along with some Italian influence.
Surprisingly, no interpreter was required for my seminar in Istanbul, whereas simultaneous interpretation was used in both Milan and Rome the week before. The following morning, I took a taxi to the airport for the long flight to London and then Boston.