Lakeside Senior Reporter Pam Keene and her husband Rick Fulgham spent three weeks in the Middle East recently. They visited Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Here is the second of her two reports.
The lure of our trip to the Middle East was enhanced by the opportunity to spend time in Egypt. I had traveled there about 20 years ago, but wasn’t able to spend more than a day in Cairo.
Our travel company, Overseas Adventure Travel, is known for immersing its travelers in local culture; we found there was much to learn about Egypt. Transporting us from the Mediterranean through the 120-mile canal gave us a close-up view of the sandy land that flanks it. Occasional monuments and bits of low-growing plants, along with a few glimpses of military tanks, broke up the otherwise desolate landscape.
As we traversed the Suez Canal, we learned that America’s symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty, was first offered to the Egyptians for the Suez that connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. According to diaries kept by Lady Liberty’s creator Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, he was inspired by the Sphinx and the pyramids; he envisioned the statute to stand at the mouth of the Suez Canal. Egypt rejected the statue saying it was too old-fashioned.
Our motor coach journey into Cairo provided more insight into the Egyptian culture. In 2011, tourism drastically fell off in this part of the world, but particularly in Egypt. As a result, the country now works hard to promote safety and security for visitors.
Plain-clothes tourism police rode in the front seats of each coach. We traveled on superhighways in a four-coach caravan, protected by a lead truck, four side trucks and a follow-up truck with armed guards. While it may have been unsettling, we were grateful to know that our host country was serious about our safety.
Our day included plenty of time to roam the pyramids and venture down into their narrow passages and learn about these ancient burial sites. Nearby we had access to the Sphinx, surprisingly much smaller than photographs depict. As with many tourism spots around the world, the area was filled with vendor tents and wandering hawkers selling trinkets.
After a short flight, we spent the next two days in Luxor along the Nile. Known for The Valley of the Kings, a cluster of mountainside tombs of some of Egypt’s greatest rulers, the setting was misleading. No pyramids, just openings dotting the sides of the hills along a sandy road.
What we found beyond the concrete openings was eye-popping: long passageways ornamented with ancient paintings and hieroglyphics with colors as bright and clear as the day they were completed. Some opened up to massive rooms, again adorned on the ceiling and walls with colorful lettering and images. Non-flash photos were allowed with a special pass.
The Valley of the Kings is home to King Tutankhamun’s Tomb, discovered in 1922 by British Egyptologist Howard Carter. Recently restored, the interior took our breath away. The colorfully painted slightly descending passageway took us into to the burial chamber where a gold sarcophagus of the young king was on display. Here, no photos were allowed.
About two weeks after we arrived home, we found out why. The formal event to showcase the restoration to the media happened 10 days after we left. Photographs flooded the internet, and I was proud that we had been there just before the unveiling.
Our time in Luxor included visits to Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple, both tributes to Egypt’s great rulers. Never have I seen such massive monuments and structures, many still standing from those ancient times. From Egypt, our journey took us to Jordan for three highlights: The Dead Sea, the River Jordan, and Petra.
Yes, you really do float in the Dead Sea. Because of the high salt content of the water, floating on your back is the only way to enjoy it. Helpers line the rocky shore to assist tourists in taking the plunge, but by the time you’re waist-deep, your feet are floating up. You have no choice but to lay back and enjoy.
We visited the River Jordan on the Jordanian side, but directly across the water the Israelis have built a complex that attracts people from around the world to be self-baptized in the same place that John baptized Jesus at the start of his ministry. The area is peaceful, but crowded, with Christians and Muslims separated by only a narrow strip of water.
From the photos, you’d think that the 140-foot tall Petra Treasury carved into the side of a sandstone mountain was a short walk from the modern town. It’s really about 2.5 miles through tall sandstone canyons along a narrow, where you’re tantalized along the way with remains of other carvings, caves and monuments.
When the Treasury came into sight, we rushed to see it, spending more than an hour gazing at the marvel that has survived more than 2,000 years. Rick hiked to the monastery at the top of the mountain, even more ornate and well-preserved than the Treasury.
The final part of our Middle Eastern journey took us to Jerusalem and visits to the Old City. The Western Wall, formerly known as the Wailing Wall, was crowded, even on a cold winter day. Men gathered to pray on the left side; women faced the wall on the right side. Many held worn copies of the Torah, deep in prayer. Others came just to reflect for a reverent moment, some placing scraps of paper into the cracks of the centuries-old blocks.
We toured the old city, divided into four quarters: Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish. In the Christian quarter, we visited the Via Dolorosa, which retraces the steps of Jesus the day of his crucifixion on Golgotha. Several groups of pilgrims passed through, chanting and carrying wooden crosses.
The Muslim and Jewish quarters of the old city sharply contrast each other. Shops and vendors lined the streets in the Muslim quarter, selling foods, spices, clothing, and other typical items. The Jewish quarter’s clean streets and reserved shopkeepers signaled a different environment where residents go about their daily lives.
We reflected on our three weeks once we settled into our seats for our flights home from Tel Aviv. Some of our friends back home urged us not to go because of the conflicts in this part of the world, but I’m glad that we took the time to see for ourselves.
Although we didn’t meet as many people along the way – the language barrier proved difficult for sustaining conversations – no matter where we were, we were most often greeted with smiles and friendly faces.
And now that we’ve had a taste of Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Jordan, I’m ready to go back and learn even more about the meeting place of three of the world’s most prominent religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity.