Israel: Day 18

September 21, 2023 • 9:30 am

On Wednesday I spent about four hours at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and even that wasn’t long enough to see all the interesting stuff. There are four bits to peruse: archaeology (not just in Israel, but throughout the world), things reflecting Jewish life, art (including Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting), and, in a separate building (“The Shrine of the Book”), the Dead Sea Scrolls (only a bit of the original on display) and the Aleppo Codex (fully on display). As Wikipedia notes:

The Israel Museum (Hebrew: מוזיאון ישראלMuze’on Yisrael, Arabic: متحف إسرائيل) is an art and archaeological museum in Jerusalem. It was established in 1965 as Israel’s largest and foremost cultural institution, and one of the world’s leading encyclopaedic museums. It is situated on a hill in the Givat Ram neighborhood of Jerusalem, adjacent to the Bible Lands Museum, the Knesset, the Israeli Supreme Court, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Its holdings include the world’s most comprehensive collections of the archaeology of the Holy Land, and Jewish art and life, as well as significant and extensive holdings in the fine arts, the latter encompassing eleven separate departments: Israeli Art, European Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art, Prints and Drawings, Photography, Design and Architecture, Asian Art, African Art, Oceanic Art, and Arts of the Americas.

Among the unique objects on display are the Venus of Berekhat Ram, the interior of a 1736 Zedek ve Shalom synagogue from Suriname, necklaces worn by Jewish brides in Yemen, a mosaic Islamic prayer niche from 17th-century Persia, and a nail attesting to the practice of crucifixion in Jesus’ time. An urn-shaped building on the grounds of the museum, the Shrine of the Book, houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and artifacts discovered at Masada. It is one of the largest museums in the region.

I’m surprised they don’t mention the Aleppo Codex, the oldest Hebrew Bible in existence (there are older versions in Greek), also a big draw to the Museum. But more on that later. I’ll include some labels with the object to avoid taking a lot of time simply to retype them.

The entrance to the Museum Complex, which (save the Shrine of the Book) is in several interconnected buildings, is long and spooky, and reminds me of the underground connection between the two parts of Terminal 1 in O’Hare airport:

The connecting tunnel at Terminal 1 at O’Hare in Chicago:

But there are a few mosaics on the wall to distract you (click descriptions to enlarge)

There were at least a dozen of these eerie coffins:

Here’s one:

A piece of pottery that caught my eye:

And I loved these lions from the sixth century BC. I show one below:

It doesn’t look very fierce! And it has hooves!

An Egyptian statue of the cat-shaped god Bastet:

Another Egyptian cat:

Two locks of hair found at Masada. Could they be from Jews who decided to commit suicide rather than be captured as slaves by the Romans? We don’t know, and, as I’ve noted, the “mass suicide” story of Masada may be fictional.

A big mosaic; I photographed only part of it:

The centaur is on the right.

A famous bit of cuneiform writing, which fascinates me:

On to Jewish Life. Here’s a Jewish wedding dress from Morocco:

And a carriage devoted solely to carrying coffins (Hungarian, 19th century):

A 19th-century Jewish marriage contract (“ketubah”). As one site explains:

The ketubah is a unilateral agreement drawn by witnesses in accordance with Jewish civil law, in which they testify that the husband guarantees to his wife that he will meet certain minimum human and financial conditions of marriage, “as Jewish husbands are wont to do.”

It is not a ceremonial document of scripture or prayer. That is why it is written in Aramaic, the technical legal language of Talmudic law, rather than in Hebrew, the language of the “Song of Songs.” Neither is it a state document establishing the new relationship of man and woman. It makes no mention of the confirmation of G‑d or of society. It is not an instrument of the privileged class, as in ancient societies, but one obligatory on every person. It is also not an affirmation of perpetual love. It is a statement of law that provides the framework of love.

The ketubah restates the fundamental conditions that are imposed by the Torah upon the husband, such as providing his wife with food, clothing, and conjugal rights, which are inseparable from marriage. It includes the husband’s guarantees to pay a certain sum in the event of divorce, and inheritance rights obligatory upon his heirs in case he dies before his wife.

It is not a mutual agreement; the wife agrees only to accept the husband’s proposal of marriage. It is assuredly not a bill of sale; the man does not purchase the bride. In fact, the ketubah represents the witnesses rather than husband or wife. Through this instrument they attest to the groom’s actions, promises, and statements, and to the bride’s willing acceptance of the marriage proposal.

I’m wondering whether the small letters at the lower left around the square are the signatures of the witnesses. Note both the Hebrew and the Aramaic.

NOTE: Joseph points out in the comments that the photo below is not a mezuzah but a megillah. I have crossed out what I wrote before and added what seems to be the correct information. This shows that I am not a very good Jew!

Below is a very fancy mezuzah, a container affixed to doorways in Jewish homes, each containing a klaf, a piece of parchment on which there’s verse from the Torah (see above). The scroll itself is a lot more important than the container, and, if prepared in the kosher way, can cost a lot more than the container (check Amazon).  When I owned a house in Maryland while I had my first job, there was a mezuzah attached to the front door frame, with the top pointing inward, as is the custom. That was one of my only concessions to religious Judaism, and I don’t have one now. Even secular Jews do it (see from the Wikipedia article below)

I didn’t write down the source or date of this mezuzah, but it’s very fancy, with a silver case and a very long handwritten klaf:

This is not a mezuzah, but a fancy megillah scroll in a silver case, which contains parts of the Bible read on special occasions (this one is small, about 6 inches long).  The Britttanica explains the scrolls:

Megillah, also spelled Megilla, Hebrew Megillah (“Scroll”), plural Megillot, in the Hebrew Bible, any of the five sacred books of the Ketuvim (the third division of the Old Testament), in scroll form, that are read in the synagogue in the course of certain festivals. The Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) is read on the sabbath of Passover week, the Book of Ruth on ShavuotLamentations of Jeremiah on Tisha be-AvEcclesiastes on the sabbath of the week of Sukkoth, and the Book of Esther on Purim. The reading of Esther on Purim is prescribed in the Mishna; other readings were introduced in post-Talmudic days.

The NY Public Library notes  that these are usually scrolls of the Book of Esther and are read on the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The Haggadah is a Jewish text, read on Passover, that contains the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. It is not lifted from the Old Testament but recounts a similar story of Exodus. It was written no earlier than 170 A.D.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah (below) is very famous, as it’s the oldest surviving Passover Haggadah from Ashkenazi Jews. As it says below, it was written about 1300 A.D. Wikipedia has a long article on it that gives theories for why all the humans have bird heads, as in the photo below.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah is so called because all Jewish men, women, and children depicted in the manuscript have human bodies with the faces and beaks of birds. Non-Jewish and non-human faces (such as those of angels, the sun, and the moon) are blank or blurred. Numerous theories have been advanced to explain the unusual iconography, usually tied to Jewish aniconism. The Haggadah is in the possession of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where it is on permanent exhibition.

Here’s a later Haggadah, apparently from Moravia, and written four centuries later:

The Torah is the archetypal document of Judaism, comprising the first five books of the Old Testament. It is written by hand on a scroll that is kept in the synagogue and read at least once a week. See below for more information. In the bar mitzvah ceremony of becoming a man, a Jewish boy must be able to read from the Torah. (I was never bar mitzvahed because I flunked out of Hebrew school.)

Here’s a section of a Torah from the Museum. The calligrapher has do do a good job because, as it says above, if you make a single mistake, the entire document becomes worthless and you have to start again from the beginning.

There are dozens of fancy Torah cases in the Museum; here are two.

Menorahs are Jewish “candelabras” that burn oil and there are two types. Temple Menorahs have seven branches for fuel and are rarely if ever lit. All temples have one, but it’s mostly symbolic.

Here’s one from Wikipedia with the caption, “Reconstruction of the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem, created by the Temple Institute of Israel”

The more famous menorah is the Hanukkah menorah, which has nine branches with the middle one higher than the others. From Wikipedia:

Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, is a nine-branched candelabrum lit during the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Eight of the nine branches hold lights (candles or oil lamps) that symbolize the eight nights of the holiday; on each night, one more light is lit than the previous night, until on the final night all eight branches are ignited. The ninth branch holds a candle, called the shamash (“helper” or “servant”), which is used to light the other eight.

The Hanukkah menorah commemorates, but is distinct from, the seven-branched menorah used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Along with the seven-branched menorah and the Star of David, it is among the most widely produced articles of Jewish ceremonial art.

Why the extra branches? Here’s the classic explanation:

Miracle of the cruse of oil (Hebrew: נֵס פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן), or the Miracle of Hanukkah, is an Aggadah depicted in the Babylonian Talmud as one of the reasons for Hanukkah. In the story, the miracle occurred after the liberation of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt, and it describes the finding of a jug of pure oil that was to be enough to light the lamp for one day, but that lasted for eight days.

Here’s one from with the caption “A Hanukkah lamp from Lemberg in The Jewish Museum of New York. “

The Museum has dozens of menorahs of all types from around the world: here’s a wall display (click to enlarge):

And there are a ton of paintings in the art wing. I photographed three by famous artists, though hardly their best work.

From Gauguin:

An early and rather crude van Gogh:

And a not-bad Kandinsky, who’s one of my favorite artists.

More art, this time from the New World:

There was a special and rather grim exhibit of the garb that Jews put on their dead when they’re buried.  This male garb has a hat.

I believe these are shrouds for Jewish women:

There was a detailed outdoor model, quite fascinating, of what Jerusalem looked like in the Second Temple Period (ca 516 B.C.-70 A.D.), starting when the Second Temple was built and ending when the Romans put the Jews to flight. The caption is below:

Below: the very large reconstruction, showing the city walls enclosing houses, shops, and, in the center, the Second Temple, which now remains only in the Western Wall and other stuff buried in the Temple Mount.

The structure in the middle of the Temple presumably held the “Holy of Holies“, the inner sanctum that held the Ark of the Covenant said to contain the Ten Commandment stones. Only one person could approach it, the head priest, and then only once a year. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews won’t even climb up the Temple Mount (allowed briefly a few times a week) for fear that they’d be stepping atop the Holy of Holies.

Click to enlarge:

There are two possible Western Walls here, so I took a picture of the two possibilities. Maybe a reader knows which one faced west.

Or is it this one?

The “Shrine of the Book” is famous mainly for holding the Dead Sea Scrolls, only one bit of the originals on display at once. (They’re alternated so they won’t fade.) They were written during the Second Temple Period and discovered in caves on the West Bank between 1946 and 1956. A bit about them from Wikipedia:

. . . the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be a keystone in the history of archaeology with great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the biblical canons, along with extra-biblical and deuterocanonical manuscripts that preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism. At the same time, they cast new light on the emergence of Christianity and of Rabbinic Judaism.  Almost all of the 15,000 scrolls and scroll fragments are held in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, located in the city of Jerusalem. The Israeli government’s custody of the Dead Sea Scrolls is disputed by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority on territorial, legal, and humanitarian grounds — they were mostly discovered following the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank and were acquired by Israel after Jordan lost the 1967 Arab–Israeli War — whilst Israel’s claims are primarily based on historical and religious grounds, given their significance in Jewish history and in the heritage of Judaism.

The Shrine building is striking, and is modeled to resemble the tops of the jars in which the scrolls were found. Fountains and a pool surround it.

The eerie underground entry to the exhibits:

And an original bit of a Dead Sea Scroll, many of which are in bad condition; the text was painstakingly reconstructed.  You can make out the Hebrew letters.

Below is a facsimile of the most complete scroll:

The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran in 1947. It is the largest (734 cm) and best preserved of all the biblical scrolls, and the only one that is almost complete. The 54 columns contain all 66 chapters of the Hebrew version of the biblical Book of Isaiah. Dating from ca. 125 BCE, it is also one of the oldest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some one thousand years older than the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible known to us before the scrolls’ discovery.

The Aleppo Codex, written in Israel about 920 AD, is of comparable historical interest, and sits one level below the Dead Sea Scroll display. In this case you can see the original.

As I mentioned above, it’s the oldest extant version of the Bible in Hebrew, and has been used as a benchmark for accuracy by, among others, Maimonides. Much of it has gone missing, perhaps through theft.

Here it is on display:

And a close-up of the text, 1,100 years old:

Lovely gardens surround the Museum. Here’s an olive tree in case you haven’t seen one:

For some reason there are many rubber ducks on sale in the Museum Shop. Perhaps a reader can explain them to me.

Notice the variety, including devil ducks, surgeon ducks, Viking ducks, athlete ducks, and Santa ducks. What’s going on here? Is this Judaica?

Back in town: post-Rosh-Hashanah sale: mini shofars on sale for only five bucks!

And my customary lunch: a falafel sandwich with all the trimmings. I’ve had meat only once in Israel, and haven’t touched a drop of alcohol (I lose my desire to drink when I travel). I had a delicious meat lunch today, though, and you’ll see it in my next (and last) post from Israel.

Here are two women in he falafel shop. Their covered heads and long dresses led me to believe they were Orthodox Jewish women, but their clothing was strikingly attractive and stylish. I thus sent the photo below to a friend who had lived here, along with the question:

Are these women Jews (Haredim?). They have long dresses and big headscarves, but their clothes are pretty fancy.  They are buying falafel sandwiches.

And the reply:

Yes, they are. Fancy clothes are ok, as long as they cover. You are supposed to please your man for continuous procreation.

That made me laugh out loud, though it’s probably true.

Israel: Day 17

September 19, 2023 • 9:15 am

It’s Tuesday, and I fly out just after midnight on Saturday (the Sabbath!), so after checking out of my hotel then I’ll have 12 hours to kill.

Today I decided to visit the famous Israel Museum, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls, only to find out that the place didn’t open until 4 pm on Tuesdays. It was stupid of me not to check in advance, but I now know the way by bus, and I’ll go back tomorrow when it opens at 10 a.m.

As its Wikipedia entry notes,

Its holdings include the world’s most comprehensive collections of the archaeology of the Holy Land, and Jewish art and life, as well as significant and extensive holdings in the fine arts, the latter encompassing eleven separate departments: Israeli Art, European Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art, Prints and Drawings, Photography, Design and Architecture, Asian Art, African Art, Oceanic Art, and Arts of the Americas.

Among the unique objects on display are the Venus of Berekhat Ram, the interior of a 1736 Zedek ve Shalom synagogue from Suriname, necklaces worn by Jewish brides in Yemen, a mosaic Islamic prayer niche from 17th-century Persia, and a nail attesting to the practice of crucifixion in Jesus’ time.  An urn-shaped building on the grounds of the museum, the Shrine of the Book, houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and artifacts discovered at Masada. It is one of the largest museums in the region.

Doesn’t that sound interesting? I’m especially interested in the archaeology and the Dead Sea scrolls, though I originally heard they were shown only in reproduction.  But Wikipedia says no, some on display are original:

As the fragility of the scrolls makes it impossible to display them all on a continuous basis, a system of rotation is used. After a scroll has been exhibited for 3–6 months, it is removed from its showcase and placed temporarily in a special storeroom, where it “rests” from exposure. The museum also holds other rare ancient manuscripts and displays the Aleppo Codex, which is from the 10th-century and is believed to be the oldest Bible codex in Hebrew.

The Scrolls themselves are said to be “the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the biblical canons, along with extra-biblical and deuterocanonical manuscripts that preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism. At the same time, they cast new light on the emergence of Christianity and of Rabbinic Judaism.”

We’ll see tomorrow.

Here’s a photo of one scroll from Wikipedia with the caption, “The Psalms scroll, one of the Dead Sea scrolls. Hebrew transcription included. English translation available here.”

Anyway, it wasn’t time wasted, as I walked to the new Jerusalem train station on the way, and found out how to get to the Tel Aviv airport in only half an hour, and for a pittance.

As always, I took my camera in case something interesting appeared. Here’s what I saw today.

A guy with his phone and a smoke by one of the Museum’s pools:

. . . and an old Haredi Jew, also with his phone. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews spurn cellphones as technology that could spread modern (and therefore bad) ideas. In those ways, as in others, they are like the Amish.

On the tram back, a guy was snogging with his girlfriend, either a cop or a member of the IDF. They were clearly bonded, and it was very cute. A woman in uniform!

What twisted mind conceived of this tee shirt?

And, if you’re a Jewish basketball fan and want to combine your team’s tee-shirt with a religious tallit, well, this is a unique item of clothing:

Or, if you’re a fan of the artificial potato chip Pringles, you can get it on a yarmulke from Kippa Man:

Or a kitty keychain:

I went back to Hummus Ben Sira again, but decided to try something besides hummus.

One of their specialities (second to hummus) is sabich, described by Wikipedia like this:

Sabich or sabih (Hebrew: סביח [saˈbiχ]) is a sandwich of pita or laffa bread stuffed with fried eggplants, hard boiled eggs, chopped salad, parsley, amba [mango pickle] and tahini sauce.  It is an Iraqi Jewish dish that has become a staple of Israeli cuisine, as a result of Iraqi Jewish immigration to Israel. Its ingredients are based on a traditional quick breakfast of Iraqi Jews and is traditionally made with laffa, which is nicknamed Iraqi pita. Sabich is sold in many businesses throughout Israel.

This one was made with regular pita, and it was delicious. Here’s the Wikipedia picture showing the dissected sandwich (mine was un-dissectable). And mine had all the ingredients save the samba, as I didn’t detect mango pickle.

A sabich from Wikipedia:

It was FABULOUS. The combination of hard-boiled eggs, tahini, vegetables, and a big piece of fried eggplant was wonderful. Here’s my lunch (I can’t resist the homemade lemonade.) This cost ten bucks. The pickles were dills, and I ate the sandwich with bites of ripe tomato (also in the sammy) and onion.

Dessert: pistachio halva from Halva Kingdom. Even better than plain halva:

Walking home after lunch. This is the street my hotel is on, and I can see the umbrellas from my window. They appear to be a permanent art installation of sorts:

This nearby bar (certified kosher) was apparently once the home of Ze’ev Zabotinsky, a famous politician, a dedicated Zionist, and a military leader as well as a poet and novelist. He also founded the first all-Jewish modern army unit, the Jewish Legion that fought under the British in World War I. Here’s a photo of Zabotinsky from 1935, five years before he died at sixty.

Pictures of Zabotinsky and his family are plastered all over the building. I can’t be sure he lived there or near there, but that’s a reasonable conclusion, especially when you read this (he didn’t live in Jerusalem for very long):

After a short stay at the Amdursky Hotel just inside Jaffa Gate, [Zabotinsky and his family] began residence in the Levy Building located at the corner of today’s Shimon ben Shetah and Ben Sira streets off of Shlomzion Hamalka.

Finally, The Bird of the Day: a hooded crow (Corvus cornix). Here are three ways of looking at a crow. Note the blue nictitating membrane; its eye is not damaged:

One personal note: save for my first night of jet lag, I have had NO insomnia at all since I’ve been here. I sleep like a log every night and am well rested. This seems to confirm that my sleeplessness in Chicago is created by anxieties connected with my work there (including ducks). But please don’t tell me to move to Israel! There are easier ways to deal with anxiety. . .

Israel: Day 5

September 7, 2023 • 10:30 am

Yesterday was a Road Trip: Anna, Jay, and I were driven down to Masada and the Dead Sea (two must-see destinations) by Omer, a Ph.D. student at Hebrew University and Anna’s collaborator.

To get to Masada, a famous site in ancient Hebrew/Roman history, you drive south along the long Dead Sea, which happens to be the lowest spot on Earth. First, a map. I’ve put a red star where the ruins of Masada lie atop a mesa:

A photo of the Dead Sea from Wikipedia, taken from the Israeli side. Jordan lies just across the waters. The lovely pastel colors are accurate:

Then from Wikipedia:

The Dead Sea (Arabic: اَلْبَحْرُ الْمَيْتُĀl-Baḥrū l-Maytū; Hebrew: יַם הַמֶּלַחYam hamMelaḥ), also known by other names, is a salt lake bordered by Jordan to the east and the West Bank and Israel to the west. It lies in the Jordan Rift Valley, and its main tributary is the Jordan River.

As of 2019, the lake’s surface is 430.5 metres (1,412 ft) below sea level, making its shores the lowest land-based elevation on Earth. It is 304 m (997 ft) deep, the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. With a salinity of 342 g/kg, or 34.2% (in 2011), it is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water – 9.6 times as salty as the ocean – and has a density of 1.24 kg/litre, which makes swimming similar to floating. This salinity makes for a harsh environment in which plants and animals cannot flourish, hence its name. The Dead Sea’s main, northern basin is 50 kilometres (31 mi) long and 15 kilometres (9 mi) wide at its widest point.

There are some microorganisms and algae here, but no other plants or animals; it’s just too damn salty.

And oy, is it salty! Try swimming in it! But more later. First, on to Masada.  I learned only now that what makes the site famous—the claimed mass suicide of over 900 Jews who were besieged by Roman troops—is contested by historians, for all of that information comes from the single Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, not the most reliable of sources (see the Wikipedia article).

The story, in short, and again from Wikipedia:

Masada (Hebrew: מְצָדָה məṣādā, “fortress”)[1] is an ancient fortification in the Southern District of Israel situated on top of an isolated rock plateau, akin to a mesa. It is located on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea 20 km (12 mi) east of Arad.

Herod the Great built two palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE.

According to Josephus, the siege of Masada by Roman troops from 73 to 74 CE, at the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, ended in the mass suicide of the 960 Sicarii rebels who were hiding there. However, the archaeological evidence relevant to a mass suicide event is ambiguous at best and rejected entirely by some scholars.

Now I can’t judge the historical veracity of the mass suicide, which gives the story its poignancy and historical resonance (“death rather than slavery”), but you can see two doubting references here and here, with the second a post on Bart Erman’s blog.  Here’s the story that one gets at Masada and in all the guidebooks. You almost never read about the doubts.

In 73 CE, the Roman governor of Iudaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, headed the Roman legion X Fretensis and laid siege to Masada. Another source gives the year of the siege of Masada as 73 or 74 CE. The Roman legion surrounded Masada, building a circumvallation wall and then a siege ramp against the western face of the plateau. According to Dan Gill, geological investigations in the early 1990s confirmed earlier observations that the 114 m (375 ft) high assault ramp consisted mostly of a natural spur of bedrock. The ramp was complete in the spring of 73, after probably two to three months of siege, allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress with a battering ram on April 16. The Romans employed the X Legion and a number of auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war, totaling some 15,000 (of whom an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 were fighting men), in crushing Jewish resistance at Masada. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp. According to Josephus, when Roman troops entered the fortress, they discovered that its defenders had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide or killed each other, 960 men, women, and children in total. Josephus wrote of two stirring speeches that the Sicari leader had made to convince his men to kill themselves.  Only two women and five children were found alive.

Josephus presumably based his narration upon the field commentaries of the Roman commanders that were accessible to him.

It’s all hearsay, and of course how did ANYBODY know of the “two stirring speeches that the Sicari leader made to his men? Were they transcribed in toto by the two surviving women and five children? (Those speeches are reproduced widely.) It doesn’t ring true.

The story often adds that lots were drawn to appoint ten Jewish soldiers to kill all the others, and then one of those ten, after killing the other nine, was to fall on his own sword.  The victims supposedly lay down with their families, offering their throats for slitting.

I had always taken this story for granted, as it’s presented as plain historical truth. Now I’m not so sure, given that it’s based on hearsay, including word-for-word transcriptions of speeches that simply couldn’t have been transcribed. Read around and judge for yourself.

But we’ll ignore whether the suicide story is true or false; what is true is that Herod built a remarkable fortress atop the plateau with ingenious ways to store food and water, and eventually the Jews were defeated by the Romans. On to our travels:

First of all, it was bloody hot. Below was the temperature at the Dead Sea in the early afternoon, about 100.4° F.  We were guzzling water the whole way as if there was no tomorrow, as the desert sun kept us on the brink of dehydration (iPhone screen capture by Jan Tanzman):

Approaching the site. Sea level, but with 1412 more feet to go down to the water surface:

Camels for rent at sea level. You can rent them all around Jerusalem, but I had no interest: you climb on one, get your photo taken, and then the camel lies down and you get off. Meh.

Because of the excessive heat, the long and sinuous “snake path”, the ancient way to he top, was closed. Fortunately, there’s a cable car. A panoramic view view going up, with the Dead Sea in the background.

The desert and Dead Sea from the top of Masada.  The inhabitants could not of course have drunk that water, which is so salty that if you get one drop in your mouth, as I did, the taste stays with you for hours, even if you drink a lot of good water afterwards. The architects had an ingenious system for collecting rainwater and floodwater and directing it into giant cisterns

The birds were thirsty, too, poor things. I helped give them a drink. Can anybody identify these two species? The one in front looks like a grackle.

What about this one? Juvenile grackle?

Reconstrucion of the north side of Masada:

. . . and a top view:

At the site:

Throughout the site, which is a National Park as well as a World Heritage site, a blue line shows where he original construction remains (below the line), and where reconstruction took place (above the line):

Bits of color remain:

View through a hole down to the Dead Sea:


This is said to be the remains of one of the several Roman siege camps.  Now I’m not sure. . . Photo taken from the plateau.

And the 2½-minute descent by cable car:

The mud around the Dead Sea is renowned for its use as a skin improver, and many people who visit he waters roll in the mud like walruses seeking a whole-body face mask. They wind up looking very politically incorrect, and in fact I was startled by the sight of the mud-glazed tourists (sample photo below from this source):

Or, like Anna, you can buy purified mud in fancy packages and use it at home, where you need not offend anyone.

More tchotchkes from the gift shop:

When I saw this sign, I knew there were kitties around.

And here’s one of them. Poor hot moggie, resting in the shade! I would have fed him and given him a dish of cool water.

We then immediately drove to a Dead Sea resort complex with fancy hotels, parked, changed, and two of us (Anna and I) jumped in the water. This is a must-do, for the water is so saline that you cannot sink, and the famous picture is of someone on their back reading a newspaper, like these.

We had no newspapers, so Anna and I just floated on our backs and lifted our arms and legs out of the water. Unfortunately, we were far from shore when Jay took this photo, but you get the idea:

Yes, you’re buoyant as hell, but you don’t want to swim, as if you get even a drop in your eye, it stings like hell. Plus the temperaure of the water yesterday was like that of a very hot bath, so you don’t do this to cool off. After a few minutes’ immersion, we ran over fiery hot sand (I burned he soles of my feet) to the outdoor showers and drenched ourselves with cold water.  Then we dried off, changed, and drove back to Jerusalem.

Here’s Anna and Jay posing in front of the Dead Sea.  And thanks to Omer for his hospitality and for doing all the driving.

Israel: Day 3

September 6, 2023 • 10:00 am

Today we had a four-hour visit to the old city, with our informed and genial guides Susan (a reader) and her friend Sami. We entered the city through the famous Jaffa Gate, one of the seven gates to the old city, and one that points north towards the port of Jaffa.

UPDATE: This happened just a day after our visit. Even the Old City and Jaffa Gate are not safe from terrorists (click to read; h/t Susan):

This gate is famous for an entrance of a British general taking over the city from the Ottomans. From Wikipedia:

In 1917, British general Edmund Allenby entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, giving a speech at the nearby Tower of David. Allenby entered the city on foot in a show of respect for the city and a desire to avoid comparison with the Kaiser’s entry in 1898.

You can see that scene in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia”. And here’s a photo from Wikipedia, showing Allenby at the Jaffa gate on foot (he’d defeated the Ottoman Empire, with the help of Lawrence of Arabia, of course):

Below, the “Tower of David” or citadel of the old city. From Wikipedia:

The Tower of David (Hebrew: מגדל דודromanized: Migdál Davíd), also known as the Citadel (Arabic: القلعةromanized: al-Qala’a), is an ancient citadel located near the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem.

The citadel that stands today dates to the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. It was built on the site of a series of earlier ancient fortifications of the Hasmonean, Herodian, Byzantine and Early Muslim periods, after being destroyed repeatedly during the last decades of Crusader presence in the Holy Land by their Muslim enemies. It contains important archaeological finds dating back over 2,500 years including a quarry dated to the First Temple period, and is a popular venue for benefit events, craft shows, concerts, and sound-and-light performances.

We went up on a nearby rooftop to get the “experience of the Resurrection,” and I was assured that although I didn’t believe in the Resurrection, I would if I saw the view from the top. (It didn’t work.)

Susan is a cat lover, and rescues strays. She has about 20 that live in her garden, and she feeds them twice a day and gives them warm blankets in the winter. Like me, she cannot resist petting a stray, and here are two.

A lovely ginger cat.

Believe it or not, this is an Anglican church, Christ Church of Jerusalem, the first Protestant church built in the Old City (1849), and with a congregation consisting of “Jewish Christians”. (Isn’t that an oxymoron?) There are no crosses, but Hebrew writing and a menorah on the altar!

A view from the rooftop over the old city. The golden dome on the right is The Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites of Islam—and Christianity. It’s on that spot where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac before God told him it was just a joke, and it’s also on that spot that Muhammad supposedly ascended to heaven.  But only Muslims are allowed to go inside the mosque, and Jews, while they can walk around it, are not allowed to pray—they could get arrested if they try. They must pray at the Western Wall (see below).

A panorama:

Below: The Dome of the Rock with the Mount of Olives behind it. The Mount from Wikipedia:

It is named for the olive groves that once covered its slopes. The southern part of the mount was the Silwan necropolis, attributed to the elite of the ancient Kingdom of Judah. The western slopes of the mount, those facing Jerusalem, have been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years and holds approximately 150,000 graves, making it central in the tradition of Jewish cemeteries.

Several key events in the life of Jesus, as related in the Gospels, took place on the Mount of Olives, and in the Acts of the Apostles it is described as the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven. Because of its association with both Jesus and Mary, the mount has been a site of Christian worship since ancient times and is today a major site of pilgrimage for Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants.

There’s a long market that extends from near the Jaffa gate to the Dome of the Rock and the Western wall. It’s largely tourist kitsch, but the side sreets sell staples; fruit, veg, and meat:

. . . and spices.

All the shopkeepers are Arabs; there are no Jewish shopkeepers because this is East Jerusalem, a Muslim area, and Jewish shopkeepers would cause tension. But there are plenty of Jewish shoppers.

A tee shirt. Note the kippe and the sidelocks.

Nougat and halvah:

For lunch we went to Susan’s favorite falafel joint, named—yes—”Arafat’s Falafel”. (There is no sign; you have to know about it.) Mr. Arafat, below, makes fresh hummus on the spot, and this was the best hummus we’ve had so far. Six bucks for a big plate, along with pita bread, falafal, olive oil, some whole chickpeas, and garnishes.

Grinding the chickpeas to make hummus:


I can’t imagine hummus can get any better than this:

A madrasa, or school where Muslim kids learn to read the Qur’an:

And the famous Western Wall (once known as the “wailing wall”), part of the Second (Jewish) Temple built by Herod. From Wikipedia:

The Western Wall plays an important role in Judaism due to its proximity to the Temple Mount. Because of the Temple Mount entry restrictions, the Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray outside the previous Temple Mount platform, as the presumed site of the Holy of Holies, the most sacred site in the Jewish faith, lies just behind it.

I believe the Muslims have formal control of the wall. It wasn’t too crowded yesterday because it was hot.

Below: the arrow indicates ME inspecting the Wall (photo by Anna):

There were many Orthodox Jews there, of course.

And for a nominal fee you can rent Jewish garb like the tallis (shawl) or tefillin (leather phylacteries):

An IDF soldier worshiping. I was surprised by how many soldiers are religious.

And of course you’re supposed to write a prayer on paper and stuff it into the wall to increase its chance of being fulfilled. No prayers are discarded: from time to time the ones that fall out are collected and buried with a recently deceased person on the Mount of Olives. There’s also an online site where you can write a prayer that will be printed out and put in the Wall.

The women worship separately from the men: a sore spot for religious Jewish feminists. They had comfortable chairs, though.

It’s only a matter of time before a trans man tries to worship on the male side, or vice versa.

It was bloody hot! Anna and I took a break from the heat (photo by Jay Tanzman):

The Via Dolorosa is the path supposedly taken by Jesus on the way to his crucifixion; it has nine “stations of the cross” outside (each marking an incident on the trip, like falling), and five inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was supposedly crucified. The Via is about 600 m. long, and is full of Christians retracing that path, whose course we know nothing about.

The stations aren’t clearly marked because shopkeepers claimed that the crowds were bad for business. Anna, who reads Russian, says that this is one of them

Some of the Christians carry their own crosses with them to share Jesus’s trials, but the one below isn’t a full-sized cross! (Photo by Anna). Also, about fifty times a year (see below) people on the Via suffer from “Jerusalem Syndrome,” overcome by religious psychosis. They think they’re the Messiah or they just go nuts. One of them even tried to set fire to the Al-Aqsa mosque. If you’re curious about religious phenomena, read the Wikipedia article.

The stores around the Church are full of Jesus-related knicknacks  (Photo by Anna.)

Here’s the church, with the photo taken from Wikipedia. It’s certainly the holiest site in Christianity—if you buy the narrative. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates back to the fourth century, but has been considerably reconstructed. And of course recapturing it was one of the main aims of the Crusaders. Inside are the places where Jesus was supposedly crucified, his body prepared for burial, the burial site, and where he arose from the dead.

It has Crusader graffiti in it! As Wikipedia notes, the photo below shows “Crusader graffiti in the church: crosses engraved in the staircase leading down to the Chapel of Saint Helena.”

Right where you enter is a large stone slab. Although the stone has been replaced several times, this is said to be the spot where the body of Jesus was laid out for burial. Here’s a mural showing that.  (Photo by Anna.)

People prostrate themselves on the stone, but also leave items there for a short while, including backpacks, hoping to infuse those items with something of Jesus.

I decided to leave my Chicago White Sox hat there to see if it would acquire new powers. Even if it didn’t, perhaps I could sell it on eBay as a genuine religious artifact. Only kidding!  Here I am prostrating and putting my hat on the stone. Perhaps that’s blasphemy. . .(Next three photos by Anna)

My hat on the stone. Will it make the White Sox win the pennant?

I’m not sure if this is a cleric or a religious zealot (it’s hard to tell them apart).

Below, my favorite picture of the day (taken by me): a young woman overcome by the presence of Jesus. She hasn’t gone around the bend, but I read that 50 times a year a Christian goes nuts on the Via Dolorosa and has to be taken to a psychiatric hospital before being sent home. This woman has only a very mild case of Jerusalem Syndrome.

She’s in rapture, that’s for sure! She sat there for a long time, eyes closed and staring at the ceiling.

Israel: Days 2 and 3

September 4, 2023 • 10:00 am

Note: click the photos to enlarge them.

I spent most of yesterday with a man who works with a private agency that translates documents from the Arab world (also Russia, China, and other countries) into English and Hebrew, so that we (and other government agencies) know what is being said in mosques and in Arab state media.

If you know where to look, all the stuff to be translated is online, including sermons in mosques.  Lots of horrific things have been revealed, but I’m not sure how much of what I heard is for public consumption. Suffice it to say that the day was very interesting, and I learned a lot about how Israeli security works.

On the way to meet my friend, I passed the “Kippa Man” stall, a place that sells only kippas, the Hebrew word for the Yiddish “yarmulke”. These are the skullcaps or beanies worn by observant Jews. There are many stores selling them in the center city, some (like this one) selling only kippas, while others sell them along with other souvenirs, like the tee-shirt below.

You can find a kippa to fit your style and taste. The prices below are 20-25 shekels, about 5-6 American dollars.

But you can also buy other souvenirs. Here’s one that caught my eye, but I didn’t buy it. (Wearing it on an American campus would get you demonized!)

You can get burgers at his McDonald’s but no milkshakes (or even milk). It’s kosher, Jake!

At my friend’s office, he showed me a rare document: Mahmoud Abbas‘s Ph.D. thesis, for which he paid a thousand bucks. Abbas, of course, is the president of the Palestinian Authority, apparently for life. (He was elected in 2005 for a four-year term, but extended it indefinitely, and is sill in office.} He’s also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Abbas is 87, and apparently will leave office only in a box.

Abbas doesn’t read or write Russian, so it’s weird that he has a thesis written in Russian and conferred by a Russian university (it’s about the dangers of Zionism with an addendum that denies the Holocaust).

Tablet has an article about it, saying that although a 19-page abstract is available publicly, this document isn’t:

Abbas’ dissertation has been a subject of considerable interest over the years. The thesis isn’t publicly available: By all accounts, it is kept in an IOS special storage facility requiring special authorization to access.

Well, no, because I saw it. But I can’t read Russian so I can’t shed  any light on it.  It appears to be Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda, and I don’t know who translated it into Russian, or even if Abbas even wrote it (his signature is at the bottom).

Lunch at a nearby restaurant: hummus and falafel at last! It was very good hummus, thick and creamy, mixed with hot, crispy falafel balls and served with good fresh pita bread, but my host old me that there is far better hummus to be had in Jerusalem. Ergo my search continues. He also demanded more olive oil from the waiter for me to pour atop the dish. I was still full from he huge breakfast at the hotel, so this is all I ate.

The next three photos are by Jay Tanzman, whose captions are indented.

Public toilets (read the red sign):

“Information for Shabbath [Sabbath] keepers. The toilets are activated by pressing an electric button.”

JAC: Since pressing a button seems to involve forbidden “work” on the Sabbath (which is why my hotel has a “Sabbath elevator” in which you don’t have to press buttons, as it stops on every floor), why is it not considered “work” to flush by pressing a button in a public toilet? This must have been the result of a fierce rabbinical discussion. Later, I was told that perhaps the Orthodox are being warned that they would have to press a button if they flushed, and that might deter them from doing their business.

But why not use the system they have in U.S. airports: when you stand up, the toilet automatically detects that and flushes. Standing up after using the john cannot possibly constitute work! As for urinals, they can flush sporadically without pressing buttons or pulling levers.

Jay says of the photo below: “Speaks for itself.”

[JAC: The Gazans were firing missiles at Tel Aviv just in the last two weeks. Fortunately, the Iron Dome knocks out nearly all of them. I have been told what to do if I hear the “incoming missile” siren: run, following everyone on the street.]

A group of young soldiers on their way somewhere. I surreptitiously took their picture from behind. I cold have gotten a picture from the front earlier, but I didn’t know how well that would go over.
Note that there are both men and women in the group. In Israel, everyone except the Orthodox Jews must serve two to three years in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Even Gal “Wonder Woman” Gadot did her stint. The exemption of the Orthodox from military service constitutes, in my view, an unwarranted coddling of religion, one of the things that makes Israel a partial theocracy.

This is a photo Gadot put on her Instagram showing her reporting for duty at the IDF for the first time. She served two years, from age 18-20, as a combat fitness instructor. This is after she was crowned Miss Israel in 2004.

Gadot in uniform. I love Jewish girls! (And don’t dare criticize her for doing her mandatory military service for Israel. She’s already taken a lot of heat for that from those who hate Israel, simply because she was born here.)

This afternoon we went scouting for good hummus again. On the way we saw what looked for all the world like an Orthodox Jew playing electric guiar for money in the streets. That can’t be rue (for one thing, the hat is wrong, and it’s culturally inappropriate. You be the judge:

And for lunch we went to a well known hummus joint in the center city, Hummus Ben Sira. The hummus plate came with lots of fresh pita bread, a big plate of hummus topped with whole chickpeas and olive oil, salad, and tomatoes, pickles. and sliced onions. It was a lot of food!

The hummus was creamy and delicious, beating yesterday’s selection (see above) by a long shot.

Jay had shakshouka, described by Wikipedia as

Maghrebi dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, peppers, onion, and garlic, commonly spiced with cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper. According to Joan Nathan, shakshouka originated in Ottoman North Africa in the mid-16th century after tomatoes were introduced to the region by Hernán Cortés as part of the Columbian exchange.

This spicy dish is common for breakfast in Israel; in fact, it was on this morning’s breakfast buffet:

A hungry customer waiting for his hummus:

Jay (Tanzman) and Anna (Krylov) in front of the hummus joint. If you’re in the Center City, I recommend this place, but the most famous ones in Jerusalem are in the Old City, where we’re planning to go tomorrow.

A panoramic view of the walls around the old city:

. . . and more shelters. The area near where I took the photo above is a gorgeous residential area, but houses are hideously expensive in Jerusalem:

One of the quiet and lovely streets nearby:

A house sign, which I’m told shows the family name:

And of course no matter where you are, there are always bomb shelters nearby:

Jay found a friendly and meowing tabby street cat to pet. Jay and Anna own two kitties, including a gorgeous gray British Shorthair named Mishka (see here; their other kitty is Geddi).

This has got to be the world’s fanciest YMCA: the Jerusalem International YMCA, whose construction began in 1926 and took 7 years.

Across the street is the King David Hotel, the most prestigious place to park your carcass in the city.The hotel, which partly housed British military before Israeli independence, was site of an infamous Jewish bombing in 1946, when the Brits were fighting the Jews.  From Wikipedia:

The British administrative headquarters for Mandatory Palestine, housed in the southern wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, were bombed in a terrorist attack on 22 July 1946 by the militant right-wing Zionist underground organization the Irgun during the Jewish insurgency. 91 people of various nationalities were killed, including Arabs, Britons and Jews, and 46 were injured.

The hotel was the site of the central offices of the British Mandatory authorities of Palestine, principally the Secretariat of the Government of Palestine and the Headquarters of the British Armed Forces in Palestine and Transjordan. When planned, the attack had the approval of the Haganah, the principal Jewish paramilitary group in Palestine, though, unbeknownst to the Irgun, this had been cancelled by the time the operation was carried out. The main motive of the bombing was to destroy documents incriminating the Jewish Agency in attacks against the British, which were obtained during Operation Agatha, a series of raids by mandate authorities. It was the deadliest attack directed at the British during the Mandate era (1920–1948)

The King David Hotel:

From Wikipedia, the hotel after the bombing:

A colorful kitty statue nearby:

. . . and a fancy and very expensive pottery shop, which had lovely handmade stuff:

We saw a lot of security today, with heavily armed cops stopping people on the street (we didn’t know why) and asking for their ID. Across the street from our hotel as we returned, two guys were getting badly hassled by the cops.Again, I have no idea why:

Thus endeth Day Three of the Trip to Israel.

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 24, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have part II of Athayde Tonhasca Júnior’s perambulations through the Greek city of Thessaloniki (part I is here). His captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.  I received one additional batch of photos from another reader, but if I don’t get more, tomorrow the well runs dry. Please send in your pix!

Walking the Streets of Thessaloniki, part II

A replica of one of the relief figures comprising Las Incantadas (The Enchanted Ones), a group of ancient pillars from 2nd or 3rd AD. Nobody cared much for the monument (Ottoman soldiers supposedly took pot shots at it for target practice) until the Turkish governor sold it to the French consul in 1864. The Frenchmen’s shoddy work in removing the massive monument, breaking it in several places, almost caused civil unrest: crowds of Greeks, Jews and Turks tried to prevent its embarkation, but in vain: today the restored Incantadas reside in the Louvre. Greece tried to get them back in recent times, but the French position was certainement pas. They sent this replica instead (paid by the Greeks) to the Archaeological Museum. The name Las Incantadas comes from Ladino, the old Spanish language brought to Thessaloniki by Sephardic Jews after they were booted out of Spain. Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, is sprinkled with Portuguese, French, Hebrew and other sources, and was once Thessaloniki’s main lingo: today it is basically extinct in the city – not surprising, as about 90% of its Jewish population was killed during the war – and endangered elsewhere:

A painting in the War Museum depicting a group of Greek guerrillas led by Konstantinos Kanaris, a national hero, sneaking away after one of the Greeks’ special tricks during the war of independence (1821–1829): to board a Turkish ship in the middle of the night and set it alight. The American and South American wars of independence were gentle affairs when compared to Greece’s struggle to be liberated from the Ottoman Empire. The level of atrocities, from both sides, is hard to comprehend. Decapitation, rape and enslavement were the destinies of villagers taken by the enemy´s side (for a hair-raising and excellent account of the revolution, see Mark Mazower’s The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe):

You can’t get away from history in Thessaloniki. Excavation work in the 5th-century Byzantine church of Panagia Acheiropoietos (another UNESCO site) brought to light segments of a flooring from a Roman bath used by early Christians (2nd-4th c.):

In another corner of the church of Panagia Acheiropoietos, Sultan Murat II reminded the masses who’s the boss: ‘Sultan Murat Conquered Thessaloniki in 833’ (1430 in the Christian calendar). After a 8-year siege, Thessaloniki was taken by the Ottomans and remained in their hands for the next five centuries, until it became part of the Kingdom of Greece in 1912:

The impressive wall enclosing Thessaloniki’s centre. It was built in stages by the Romans, then early Christians (4th to 5th c.). If you were caught outside at night, too bad: the gates were locked and nobody could enter or exit until next morning:

In the 5th c., a magistrate named Ormisdas was praised for his honest handling of public funds used for renovation works at the wall. This inscription reads: “With unsoiled hands Ormisdas built these impregnable walls and made the city great”. Clean-handed Ormisdas types are in short supply in Greece nowadays: Transparency International ranks the country higher than Hungary and Italy in their Corruption Index, which is quite a feat:Like many other churches in town, the Church of Saints Constantine and Helen doesn’t look impressive from the outside. Once you get in, you are overwhelmed by artistic details. St Constantine is the very same Constantine the Great, Roman emperor who is believed to have ordered the execution of his eldest son and his second wife. A character of mixed reviews in the East and West:

Loutra Paradisos (Paradise Baths), constructed by Sultan Murad Il in 1436 or 1444 at the location where there may have been a complex of imperial baths during the Roman era. There were male and female bath sections:

The Arch of Galerius, built in the years 298 and 299 AD to celebrate Galerius’ victory over the Persians, Rome’s enduring enemies:

About 1/3 of Thessaloniki was wiped out by the big fire of 1917. Out of the ashes, splendid buildings like this one replaced the old houses in the city centre:

The Daily Planet relocated to Thessaloniki:

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 23, 2023 • 8:15 am

Well, I have exactly one two-part reader contribution left, including today’s post (part I) from Athayde Tonhasca Júnior.  But beyond that, the tank is dry. Please send in your wildlife photos. (If you already have but they didn’t appear, please resend them.)  Don’t let this feature die!

So, here’s Athayde’s contribution, a portrait of a lovely city whose location in Greece I’ve put below. I spent a few happy days in Thessaloniki while hitchhiking from Athens to Istanbul (after going to the islands and before hitching up through Europe and down to Morocco) in 1973. One story I’ll never forget: my girlfriend and I were staying with an old friend who lived on a farm outside of town. We went to a local taverna and ordered dinner, and then unordered dishes started coming to our table: cucumbers, ouzo, and various foodstuffs. Where did they come from? The mustachioed locals looked at us, smiled, and we realized they were the gift-givers, who surely saw no tourists in the remote establishment.  They then put on music and smashed dishes on the floor, a Greek custom when celebrating. It was a remarkable display of friendship to foreigners.

Here’s Thessaloniki, on the route from Athens to Istanbul.


Walking the streets of Thessaloniki, part I

Thessaloniki, founded around 315 BC and named after princess Thessalonike of Macedon, the daughter of Philip II and half sister of Alexander the Great. The princess’ name in turn was a homage to a Macedonian victory in a battle somewhere in Thessaly (home of Mount Olympus) thanks to the soldiers’ choice of footwear – but some scholars suggest that the name is a composite of ‘Thessaly’ and ‘victory’ (nike). Thessaloniki is the second largest Greek city and home of one of the busiest European ports:

Thessaloniki was successively a Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Greek city, and its history oozes everywhere; you turn a corner and bump into a UNESCO site or some ancient ruins. This church, Transfiguration of the Saviour, snuggled in the busiest commercial district, was built in 1345:

Only the lorries are moving in this street: the other two rows are parked vehicles. Space is scarce, so double parking is the norm. If you have stopped legally by the kerb and want to leave, tough σκατά (skatá):

Three of Greece’s largest universities are based in Thessaloniki, which hosts over 200.000 students. Lots of cheap food options is one of the perks of a student city. As a downside, Thessaloniki is covered with graffiti, some of them proving that higher education doesn’t stop you from being foolish. When Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980) was asked what advice he would give young people, his answer was ‘grow old’:

The graffiti vandals deface monuments and historical sites with abandon, but they seem to spare religious buildings. Candle stations annexed to a church like this one are everywhere, and they are well supplied with genuine beeswax candles (Greek beekeepers must be very grateful). People of all walks of life go in, light a candle and move on:

Flags of Greece and the Greek Orthodox Church side by side at the Church of Agia Aikaterini (13th-4th c.) The Church’s power in Greek society cannot be overestimated. The whole Mount Athos peninsula is an autonomous region under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, not the Greek parliament. So the monks set their own rules, such as forbidding access to women and females of other species (cats are exempt for pragmatic reasons: they control rodents that infest the monasteries). Greeks wishing to be cremated after death will have to arrange for their carcasses to be shipped to Bulgaria or other border country, because cremation is a no-no for the Orthodox Church:

This tombstone discarded in an empty lot between two busy streets is probably a relic from the Jewish Cemetery, which once covered a huge chunk of the municipal area, housing some half a million graves. Its size reflects the fact that for a long time Thessaloniki was the only city in the world with a Jewish majority, thanks to their migration to Greece after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. The local authorities started encroaching on the cemetery after a catastrophic fire that destroyed most of the city in 1917, but the end came in 1942 in the hands of the German invaders. Thousands of headstones were used as building material all over the city, including churches (Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts is a captivating historical account of the Jews and other peoples of Thessaloniki):


The White Tower, one of Thessaloniki’s most famous landmarks. Built in the late 15th century to replace a Byzantine fortification, the White Tower was once known as the ‘Blood Tower’, as it served as a prison and a place of executions. Its current name came to be in 1890, when the tower was thoroughly whitewashed by one convict in exchange for his freedom. We can achieve remarkable things when the alternative is to have our head lopped off:

St Demetrius’s ciborium (a freestanding sanctuary), which according to reliable sources – the dreams of several of Thessaloniki’s citizens – marks the spot where the saint’s bones are interred inside St Demetrius church, a UNESCO site. Demetrius was skewered by soldiers during the Christian persecution by emperor Galerius in 306 AD. The church was ransacked by the Saracens in 904 AD, and again by the Normans in 1118. Nowadays flocks of Orthodox Christians, many of them Russians, queue to get in the ciborium, kiss the symbolic tomb and light a candle. Holy relics are a big thing for the Eastern Church, but they are small fry compared to Catholics’ sacred knickknacks. In 1100 Rome, churches offered pilgrims a peek of Jesus’ blood and flesh, remnants of the loaves and fishes he delivered, the Ark of the Covenant, heads of St Paul and St Peter, and milk from the Virgin’s breasts (Matthew Kneale: Rome: a history is seven sackings):

The Rotonda from early 4th c., another UNESCO site, is a magnificent example of Roman architectural prowess. The centre of its dome is 30 m high and its walls are 6 m thick, so no earthquake managed to bring it down. Curiously, nobody is sure why it was built:

This will be continued in part II.

Galápagos: San Cristóbal Island

August 21, 2023 • 10:15 am

The view from my cabin on Friday morning. I love those turquoise waters, and they were quite warm for this time of year (75°F or 24°C). They say it’s going to be an El Niño year.

Friday night there were drinks on the observation deck, and I sipped a Moscow Mule while watching Kicker Rock, a famous feature near San Cristóbal Island, where we anchored for the evening. We were told that this is a great place for snorkeling, but there was no time for people to snorkel. (There were lots of snorkeling opportunities, but lacking a prescription mask, I’m blind underwater and did land hiking instead.)

Two views of Kicker Rock, so called because it resembles a shoe from the north (it’s also called “Leon Dormido” because some think it looks like a sleeping lion). It’s the hard remnant of a vertical “tuff cone” formed by lava deposits.

From the north. It does look vaguely shoelike:

From the South:

As we sipped our libations and watched the rock, Magnificent Frigatebirds wheeled overhead, the males showing their red throat pouches. I guess they were hoping for a handout:

Note the red throat. This is a male:

On the last day at sea, Saturday, we landed at San Cristóbal Island, a small island ( 558 km2 or 215 mi²) which contains the administrative capital of the Galápagos province, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  It’s a small but picturesque town that huddles around a pinniped-infested harbor (see below). Here’s where the island sits:

It also has an airport, the one from which we departed on Saturday afternoon to Guayaquil.

We were greeted in the capital by dozens of seals, which have their own reserved stretch of beach, and some Ecuadorian dancing. (I have several animal videos of tortoises, frigatebirds, and the like, that I’ll post in the next few days).

Sea lions are everywhere, even blocking the entry steps (we used another landing spot):

And, beloved by the residents, they have their own fenced-off stretch of beach:

A panorama:

We were greeted by a troupe of Ecuadorian dancers. I’m not sure why they were there (they weren’t asking for money, so perhaps it was a greeting), but it was a good show.


A mural of the “whispering Darwin” (a made-up pose and photoshopped picture that you see often on the Internet), along with some finches:

And the route and timeline of our trip as produced by the expedition leader. We went to a lot of places! There’s also another trip (“itinerary 2,” as Lindblad calls it), which overlaps with this trip but also visits the other islands:

And so now I’m home, looking at cars instead of iguanas.  I leave for Israel on September 2 and will be gone about 3 weeks. I’ll do my best to keep you up to date on what I’ve seen. Hummus, come to papa!