Monthly Archives: July 2008

Phase One Complete

I’ve completed the Hebrew ulpan and now have a few days off.  Classes begin in the Arabic ulpan on Monday.  I think I learned rather a lot, all things considered.  I have a good enough foundation that I can build on over the next year working from home.  The Arabic course promises to be harder, but the motivation level is probably a little higher, and I’ve learnt a few studying tricks for the format which might help me get more out of it.  Had I done in the first three weeks of the Hebrew what I was doing in the fourth, I’d have gotten much further still.

I’m debating what to do to-morrow.  I can either take a bus up to Jerusalem and have another aggravating day with the jihadis, or I can cruise down to Caesarea and Netantya for a relaxing day on the coast.  I’m leaning toward the former, just to get it done while my navigational memories are still really fresh.  Jerusalem is a big city and it’s no place I want to get lost in.  Besides, if I get up early enough, maybe I can do the other half of Caesarea the way I did the first half–on a Friday with the shabbat deadline looming.  The possibility of being stranded far from home when public transport shuts down makes things just a little bit more exciting.  *grin*

I’ve now got pictures posted from most of my first eleven days in country, and I have comments on most of the first seven days.  Within a few days I should have the rest of my Haifa photos up, as well as those from the trip to Nazareth.  It will probably still take me a couple of weeks to get the ones from Caesarea, Akko, and Jerusalem up, but I know that exactly nobody is keeping up with the number I already have on there, so who cares how long it takes me?!   *laugh*  I’ve posted a lot of stuff, sure, but the best is definitely still to come.  I think most of y’all will get more enjoyment out of the historical sights than from my beloved shots of random street scenes.

Lunatics And Tunnel-Crawls

Following on from my recent anti-missionary ranting, I’ll give a few tidbits on yesterday’s day-trip up to Jerusalem.  I’ve just spent eleven hours on homework and my brain is fried, so details will have to await a more appropriate moment…

First, it’s worth noting that the capital was everything I had thought it might be: crowded, tense, chaotic, beautiful, and filled with lunatics.  Taking the top prize for stupidity are the endless streams of Haredim in their penguin suits.  Why does it never strike these people as odd that they’re wearing heavy black coats and hats in sweltering summer heat?  I cannot understand the need to wear several layers of clothing, often with wool or fur components, in a country like Israel.  Now, I understand that they hold to this “uniform”, which varies slightly from one school or sect to another, in the name of tradition, and as a way to prevent their accidentally (*gasp*!) assimilating into the country in which they live.  I think it’s fucking stupid, but I can understand it.

What I don’t get is why they don’t revise the costume in a way that suits the environment.  I mean, it’s not as though the tradition they are upholding goes back countless generations; the oldest elements of it only go back to the eighteenth century, and mostly they dress as though it were the nineteenth.  When you’re clinging to traditions that are six or twenty times older than that, why not admit a little revision on a subject of such immense practical value?  Obviously someone came up with the idea of wearing a black coat and growing long strings of hair in front of your ears…  So why can’t someone else come up with a suitable replacement?  I almost want to wish sunstroke on these guys, because they sure do seem to be begging for a Darwin award…

Gods, I could really get going here!  There’s so much to rant and rave about on this one topic.  What about the hundreds of vagrants and bums, begging for spare shekels so they can feed their families, but too stupid to stop praying and get a real job.  I was constantly accosted by people too pious to work for a living.  Why do we support these people?  Do we think their constant prayers actually make the world a better place?  Do we even want what they’re praying for to come true, when it usually involves an apocalypse and/or the return of animal sacrifices?!  I just don’t get why someone thinks that their god (or the G-d, if we must grant them as much) just wants them to spend all day bobbing, and praying, and studying ancient texts, and making sure that they have all the little details in place (like the tzitzit and the tefillin and the other arcane silliness that occupies such a prominent place in Orthodox tradition).  If G-d is really so concerned with the details of the observance of such a tiny minority of the population of this universe, he deserves these guys: they really do seem devoted to the details.  I can’t understand what the point of such a god is, of why we’d want one to exist, but that’s another matter entirely.

As long as I’m ranting about the Haredi, let’s point out the religious nationalism which I found so distasteful.  Street signs in Israel are all in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  The first is for the majority population, the second for the largest minority (at twenty percent of the total), and third is for the tourists who can’t read either of the other alphabets.  All over the Old City I kept seeing stickers placed over the Arabic portion of the signs, which said “No Arabs” (“ehn aravim”).  This kind of constant reminder that such an unhealthy proportion of the Israeli population is barking mad did tend to make the day go by a little more slowly.  I can’t abide the fact that people can be so blind and hateful, and it’s hard to deal with when the signs of that hatred are everywhere you look.  What’s the point of all this devotion to tribal instincts?  Can’t we grow up and learn to get along?

Aside from making me nauseous at times, the day was quite interesting and often very exciting.  The best part has to be the walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel.  This is a 500 metre passageway chiselled through solid rock about 2700 years ago, in order to bring the water from Jerusalem’s only spring into the then-existing city walls.  There was an inscription on the wall in the ancient form of Hebrew dedicating the tunnel, which is one of the few absolutely undeniable evidences for the existence of a person from the Bible, which is a pretty big deal when you think about it.  More interesting by far is the accomplishment itself.  The tunnel is completely dark and invariably filled with running water, which will be at various times from about a foot deep to over a metre deep.  You walk (or wade) the length of this thing, using a torch if you thought to bring one, and the experience is indescribable.

If you couldn’t tell from the above ranting, I did stop in at the Western Wall, and I also went through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Of the former I shan’t make any more comments, but I did take lots of photos and walked down the side passage that women are barred from.  It was nifty, to be sure, but not much different from looking at photos of it.  I think I was probably just too angry at the Haredim by that point, and whatever magic the location held just flew over my head.

The latter site–the church–was astonishingly garish, with far too many ornaments and artefacts in some of the chapels, but the confused jumble of styles from different sects and different eras was quite marvelous overall.  There are still a few stone elements from the fourth century church built by Constantine’s mother, but most of the present structure was built by the Crusaders.  In case you’re unfamiliar with it, this church purports to contain the exact spots where Jesus was stripped of his clothes, crucified, died, was prepared for burial, and laid to rest (briefly) in a donated tomb.  The slab where the corpse was dressed is right up front, and pilgrims kept rubbing their hands or pieces of clothing on it.  Predictably, it’s very smooth to the touch.  The place where Jesus was buried is now encased in a marble chapel of its own, with little other than a slab of stone left from the original tomb; I didn’t get inside it myself, because the line of pilgrims was just too long to stand through (I’d have missed my bus).  But I did wander through the rest of it, and took photos of just about everything but the Coptic chapel (the priest there objected).

Y’know, this was just supposed to be a quick note and then off to sleep, but I guess I got started ranting and one thing led to another…  Maybe I’ll add some details later, like about my almost having a heart attack from the dreadfully long climb back up one of the hills; or maybe I won’t.  There will (eventually) be pictures posted of what I’ve seen, and I’ll go back to the capital at least one or two more times before I leave the country.  That means there will be more stories about things I do in Jerusalem, sure, but probably also more ranting.  So much of this country is blessedly normal, but Jerusalem is positively suffused with violence and religion (with the former inevitably following on from the latter).  It has such a distasteful aura about it that you almost lose sight of the gorgeous surroundings, like the crumbling walls built by Suleyman the Magnificent, or the off-photographed golden dome on the Haram al-Sharif, or the crowded market place (with its awful stench), or the picturesque winding streets, or the remaining Roman columns, or the excavatings from the First and Second Temple periods, or…  Honestly, there is a lot to take in, and a lot to process, on wandering in the Old City.  But I keep coming back to those bad vibes…

As a fitting cap to the day, I met a bus not far from the Zion Gate, and as I took one last look across the way at the Palestinian city clinging to the side of the Mount of Olives, I saw my first piece of the Apartheid Wall.  As my recent comments make plain, I am avowedly secular and post-nationalist in orientation, but don’t think for a minute that I condone the use of violence by anyone.  I understand the culture of fear that has been fostered by suicide bombs.  But I also understand the legitimate grievances that drive desperate people to believe that such a death is warranted.  If Israel is really concerned with achieving peace, it needs to come to terms with the fact that it is by right (both of history and of demographics) as much an Arab country as a Jewish country–one land, two nations.  Building a barrier like this awful eyesore only underscores the rule of force in Israeli society.  (Well, that and the cute young lady with the submachine gun in her hands…)

On that highly-opinionated and not particularly friendly note, I’ll sign off and get some sleep.  May all our lives be free from war and terror (thus prays the atheist).

The World That Atheism Created

Okay, I know that this is two posts in one day, but I started scribbling the following thoughts in the same document as the post on Akko, and I decided I might as well put it up.  If this is too much Liam-ish babbling for one day, just come back to this post another time.  And if you’re at all wary of my anti-religious and polemical inclinations, it’s probably best for you to skip this post entirely…

I was reading an article the other day about increasing religious strife in western Papua, a province of Indonesia that has nothing much in common (culturally or historically) with the rest of that nation.  The indigenous Papuans are dark-skinned Melanesians, closely related to the Australian aborigines and (of course) the inhabitants of the other half of their island, and quite unlike the Indonesians they are mostly Christian.  There has been a tremendous amount of migration into the region in recent years, mostly to relieve the overcrowding on Java.  The newcomers are, like most Indonesians, Sunni Muslims.  This fact alone would hardly be worrying, as the groups have gotten along in the region for centuries.

What has changed is largely the result of a more insidious kind of invasion: that of missionaries from the Western and Islamic worlds, both preaching fundamentalist strains of their respective faiths.  The Islamists and the Evangelicals share a thorough-going ignorance of basic scientific and historical facts.  Both deny evolution by ignoring the incontrovertible evidence that lies before their tightly-shut eyes.  They both deny the basic tenets of multiculturalism by insisting on the universal verities of their exclusive vision of the universe, with an explicit threat of damnation for all who dare to follow another path.  And they both appeal to the most base elements of the human genetic inheritance: that is, our penchant for tribalism and kinship bias, and the ease with which we can be turned towards fear and hatred of the unknown other.

There are understandable reasons for radical Islam’s appeal, such as the (often justifiable) feeling of powerlessness in a world dominated by Western culture and capital.  The simplistic tale of an Islamic world under attack by infidel secularists is an easy (though erroneous) explanation for the economic disparities in the present global system.  And it is fairly easy to see, even in the Islamic nations—where religion is far more a lifestyle than an excuse for a weekend social, as in much of the West—that as living standards rise the appeal of extremism wanes.

The pull of fundamentalist Christianity in the global South seems of a rather different sort to me.  As with the case during the colonial period, my guess would be that people associate the religious persuasion of their American visitors with the inescapable power of the Western world, and of America in particular.  As in the colonial era, indigenous peoples are drawn to missionary Christianity because they think it will help them to enter the "modern" world, and accrue some of the material and cultural benefits that transition should (in this view) entail.

The problem is that exactly the opposite is true.  The technological and cultural advantages possessed by the West are largely the result of three hundred years of strenuous effort by assorted heretics and atheists, whose pursuit of science and theory have either ignored, or actively denigrated, the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition.  This is obvious to even the most cursory student of the Enlightenment, whose participants were locked in a dialectical struggle between their cultural inheritance (i.e., Christianity) and their desire to assimilate themselves into the values of an idealised pagan antiquity.  In Peter Gay’s memorable formulation, these thinkers were "modern pagans", carving out for themselves a new approach to living—one which consciously repudiated dogmatic religion, and which celebrated in its place philosophy, science, and the Stoic virtues.

Although the cultural battlefield is much circumscribed in the contemporary age, mostly on account of a media diversification that obscures many interesting cultural currents, the picture has changed little in the centuries since.  Of the top American scientists (those affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences) barely seven per cent believe in a personal god.  The number drops to less than three per cent among biologists—those who are at the forefront of innovation in this new age of biotechnology and astonishing genetic breakthroughs.  The numbers are only raised as high as they are because of the mathematicians, about ten per cent or so of whom are religious.  The extent to which mathematics is a science like the others is debatable, in my opinion, since it is largely focussed on patterns and eschews the accumulation of detailed knowledge of the world.

The numbers and the general situation are not much different in academia as a whole, and it is a well known fact that there is an inverse correlation between religiosity and educational level.  That is, the more you develop your mind and your knowledge of the world, the less likely you are to cling to superstition and myth.  They are so vastly outnumbered in the academy that conservative and religious types often claim to be persecuted by zealous and dogmatic atheists who are afraid of their "truths"!  Ben Stein’s recent "documentary" film is a good example of this.

Which brings me back to my original observation, about Western missionaries being our cultural ambassadors to the developing world.  Why do we (by which I mean the more educated, and consequently more emancipated) tolerate this kind of missionary activity?  Or, since I am not in favour of suppressing of anyone’s opinion, however repugnant, why at the least are we not actively seeking to counteract their influence?  If the true power of the West lies in the activities of its open-minded academics and scientists—those hard-working atheists whose ideas are appropriated by countless morons in Washington and beyond—why is it not worth our time to make this contribution clearer to the developing world?  Christianity is spreading of late through Asia and Africa like proverbial wildfire, and everywhere that Christianity has achieved a foothold is experiencing a rise in fundamentalism and ignorant creationism.  Yet the secularists back in Europe and the United States seem content to stay in the safety of their hard-won academic freedom while the rest of the world grows progressively more backward and ignorant.

I have heard over and over again the academic defence of cultural pluralism, and seen it misused to defend the most primitive religiosity of peoples the world over.  Given that religiosity of the type we are seeing to-day will directly undermine everything that we secularists love about living in a free society, why do we waste so much time defending it?  Much ink is spilt decrying the crimes of the Enlightenment era, pointing to the misuses of technologies and ideologies, and the myopia that so easily accompanies the explicit universalism championed by many of the great minds of that age.  But how often do we take the time to thank that very universalism for making our multicultural world even possible, by rolling back the tribalism and dogmatic absolutism that preceded it?

We do not need to agree with every application of Enlightenment ideals.  We do not have to ignore or suppress the manifold defects and injustices of the world created by the scientific and technological revolutions.  But we dismiss those accomplishments at great peril, for the ideals we so often fight to see preserved and defended against Western cultural and economic imperialism may contain the seeds of an anti-scientific and anti-intellectual world to come.  Bear in mind that those parts of the world whose populations are growing the fastest are also among its most religious, and often its most reactionary and poorly educated.

(To those who might call me a racist for this observation I can have no sensible response, because I cannot understand—or agree with—the accusation.  I mention this only because there are some of us on the academic left who like to shout down anyone, even those with whom we might largely agree in both policies and in analysis, who threaten (post?) modern myths with an unwelcome dose of the obvious.)

In the end, if we in the West fail to carry forward the true legacy of the Enlightenment—i.e., the secular campaign against superstition in all its forms, and against patent absurdities like the Biblical Flood—we may find ourselves betraying everything that we hold most dear.  Ideals like democracy, pluralism, and peace are the products of the atheist imagination.  Why must we be so shy about admitting that?  Why pander to the religious, both here in the West where we let the religious guide far too much public policy to everyone’s detriment, but more importantly in the developing world, whose people may honestly have no idea how those ideals came about?

Now, I am not going to suggest that religion itself can (or even should) be defeated, and am certainly not pretending it might happen by merely pointing to the material benefits of atheism!  If that argument worked at all the evangelical, fundamentalist Christians would not have recovered from their near-collapse earlier in the twentieth century.  No, the desire for and experience of religious ‘truth’ is a natural and fundamental part of the human condition.  It is demonstrably a function of neurological structure, and is doubtless a necessary side-effect of the quantitative leap in creativity that accompanied the evolution of our out-sized brains.  By any definition, religion is a good part of what makes us human.

What I will suggest, though, is that religion as a human institution need not wallow forever in ignorance and superstition.  The illuminating examples of Joseph Campbell or Karen Armstrong, who have called for new myths that better reflect contemporary conditions than the ancient nonsense that people cling to in the mainstream, come constantly to mind.  The Wiccans, and the (LaVeyan) "Satanists", and the various New Age movements seem to have this figured out, each in their own way.  The creation of modern myth can be as self-conscious as the Nietzschean overtures of LaVey, or as natural and innocent as the belief in spiritualism that is so much on display in America’s self-help industry.  Add to all of this the less dogmatic potential of more ancient faiths like animism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism,  and even some forms of Hinduism, and the possibilities become endless.

Judaism, for example, has managed a spectacular reinvention (in at least a large part of its adherents) where cultural values have come to the forefront and the definition of G-d has become ever more abstract—going so far in the Reconstructionist branch of American Judaism as to disappear entirely.  (For the record, that’s where my own sympathies lie, as an avowedly atheistic Jew.)  Not every faith and not every view of the transcendent can so easily be adapted to the needs of the present world.  But surely there is enough raw material in those that can, and in the collective imaginations and common spiritual yearnings of countless fellow humans, that we need not tolerate the indefinite perpetuation of stupidities like evangelical Christianity.

I say, if the religious can send out missionaries to preach for a 6,000 year old world and the promise of damnation to anyone who disagrees, we should send out missionaries that talk about the true source of Western power—our tolerance for and common exploitation of the intellectual fruits of an unremitting secularism.  It’s bad enough that the average citizen of the West can make use of the benefits of science while maintaining the most arse-backward and pig-ignorant ideas about the universe.  Why should we allow those same fools to poison the entire world and drag us all down the road towards self-inflicted armageddon?

A Few Thoughts On Visiting Akko

Akko was, in a word, magnificent to see.  I came in on a bus from Haifa and started at a small museum that’s near the city walls.  The larger, outer wall dates only to the nineteenth century, despite being HUGE and mediaeval-looking.  It was built in the wake of Napoleon’s failed bid to take the city during his Palestine campaign.  (For those who don’t know, Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 in the first modern contact between a European power and the cultures of what became known as the Middle East.  French control of Egypt lasted only three years and Napoleon was unable to extend his domains into the Levant, but the contact was to have profound and lasting effects on both Europe and the eastern Mediterranean nations.  Anyway…)

The much smaller, inner wall held off Napoleon, but little of it remains to-day.  The whole area around the small museum is a bizarre conglomerations of styles and building materials, but the first things you see are all from the Ottoman period or later.  Akko, however, has been inhabited continuously for about 5,000 years, and the deeper you dig the further you travel back in time (so to speak).  Those familiar with Christian history may know the city better by its Crusader name, Acre.  It was, for the second half of the Crusader period, the capital of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem.  Anyroad, after wandering along the walls for a bit I returned to the museum area, and started to pass through one excavated section after another.  I was, of course, positively surrounded by tour groups speaking a good number of different languages.  I did my best to ignore all of them, and they usually returned the favour.

The Mamlukes had destroyed the main Crusader-era fortifications and living spaces, but they simply built atop the bottom layers (and some of it they doubtless had no knowledge of, as some places remained unknown until the digging began in earnest in the 1950s and (especially) after the 1960s.  I spoke with a pleasant fellow named Abdu, who comes from a Greek Orthodox Arab community, and he pointed out some of the doors that he knew as a child.  With all of the digging, those doors are now often far, far above your head, and were visibly cut into much older walls from mostly-buried structures.

The most spectacular rooms size-wise are some lower halls from the Crusader castle, one of which has gargantuan columns in it you’d have to see to believe.  Below all this are a series of perfectly preserved tunnels, which had been dug by several different groups in order to evade taxes above.  The longest stretch follows on top of an underground river (which has, unfortunately, now been irreparably polluted with seawater, but which was once fresh).  I started in the Pisa tunnel, dug by merchants from the Italian city-state of the same name, and from this to a connected tunnel built by the Templars.  There were plenty of side passages and partly-opened holes that, had I been alone, I might have been dumb enough to sneak into.

Coming up from the tunnels you find yourself among some of the oldest surviving buildings in the city.  All around you are buildings that may go back as far as six hundred years, though most are between 150 and 350.  I very contentedly wandered the streets snapping countless photographs.  The old harbour was gorgeous, and I was deeply envious of the boys splashing in the rocks below.  Much of the destroyed Crusader city now stretches out before you as a shallow basin filled with stone and rubble, and some of the old walls now serve as breakwaters for convenient fishing.  There is a restaurant hugging the side of the old walls that has one of the most perfect views you could imagine for a night out dining with a loved one.

Back near the museum, or along the roads winding toward it anyway, lies the modern suq.  The former Ottoman market areas are no longer functional; one of them is a massive near-vacant structure that you can wander through and marvel at, and the other is in partial use as a sitting and storage area.  The former main street of the old city now serves as the market, and this is truly an astonishing thing to experience.  Street after street is crowded with vendors, most all of them Arab, selling just about anything you could wish for—from water pipes to bottled water, from cheap toys and electronics to gold and silver menorahs, from ibriks to ice cream, from fresh fruits to warm pastries, from the latest Italian fashions to the most conservative in Islamic female costuming.  It was a perfectly absorbing display of capitalism from the ancient and modern worlds.  I almost had dinner at one of the many little restaurants around, and heard everyone and his uncle claim to have "the best" hummus in Akko, but decided instead to just keep walking until I had to get back to my bus and return to Haifa.

I did not in any way want to leave, but at least—unlike in Caesarea, for example—I felt that I had seen enough of Akko for this trip.  But wait until you see the photos I’ll eventually post of this city; it is absolutely beautiful—well, that is, if you’re into ancient, squalid, urban, ‘oriental’ cities built along a perfectly picturesque coastline.  Even if you aren’t, I’m guessing you’ll still be impressed… 😉

Off To Visit Akko…

I’m off right now for a brief visit to Akko, aka Acre, the old Crusader city just north of here.  I shan’t have time to write anything about it to-night, since I’ll get back with barely time to do my homework.   But rest assured I’ll blather on about it when I next have a chance to get onto the computer…

Simple Pleasures

A few days ago I finally found a shop that carries some of the more highbrow foreign press, and was delighted to see that week’s Economist.  I had been pining for my periodicals and feeling chronically news-starved for over a week by then!  And just now, on returning from the store to pick up lettuce and catfood and wotnot, I stopped in again and there was this week’s issue, hot off the press!  Ah, bliss!  It’s the simple pleasures that do it for me.  Now I can sip my coffee and get caught up on the week’s happenings.

I wonder, given the number of subscriptions I carry, just how big the pile of mail will be that greets me back at home?  Let’s see… I get four weeklies, one biweekly, two monthlies, two bimonthlies, and four quarterlies.  I know at least two of the latter will be due during the coming month, so that might leave me… hmm… about 53 or more magazines and journals!  Good gods!  I shan’t even try to catch up with that; I’ll just have to cherry-pick the best goodies and archive the rest.  *sigh*

Anyroad, I need to get back to homework.  To-day’s test seemed to go all right.  I know several places where I goofed, but I also got a lot of things right, and my grade shan’t be too shabby methinks.  And y’know, I’m taking to Hebrew better than I did to German or French, and am getting it as quickly as I once did Latin.  If I can stick with this (as I did not with the Latin) I think I’ll do all right over the next year.  It’s a nice feeling, being able to go out on the streets without my map and have no trouble negotiating the streets and the stores and everything else.  I can now make pretty specific food orders, f’r example, and have far less trouble dealing with questions.  All deeply encouraging developments, and no doubt.

Reflexions On Caesarea

First off, I was taking a big risk by leaving the city on a shabbat eve, since missing the last bus back would have stranded me far from home.  But I’d done a little research on the timing and decided it was well worth the risk.  Besides, I could always hitch-hike back if I got stuck, eh?

I took bus 46 down to the Merkazit Hof HaCarmel bus station, which is the main intra-city transit hub in Haifa.  I then hopped onto bus 921 headed south to Tel Aviv (though I’d be jumping off long before then).  The ride was uneventful, but interesting given the pleasure to be had in taking in a scenic drive.  My bus driver said that the best way into Caesarea was to hop out at Or Aqiva, and not having any kind of idea where the right intersection was I took his advice.

From what I understood, there was either a short bus line (the 43) that would take me from the appropriate intersection down to the main Caesarea site, or I could take a 4 km. hike and skip the bus.  Well, it’s a good thing I was already inclined to the hike, because I could find no sign of a bus stop that would take me in.

As it turns out, the walk was considerably longer than 4 km.  I walked all the way through Aqiva, which is some kind of suburban community built around some light industrial and commercial operations.  In my broken Hebrew I got an approximate direction from a kind librarian, and headed due west towards the sea.

As I got closer in signs began to appear along the roadside.  I was apparently at the extreme northern end of the site, which is exactly the opposite of my original intention.  This would end up quite a beneficial mistake, but it did put me pretty far from the national park itself.  Nevertheless, I decided to veer slightly further north still, in order to take in the aqueduct.

How can I summarize the experience of being in front of something like that?  Honestly, despite the beach bums and holiday sunbathers, it was an utterly amazing thing to behold.  Springing from a hillside was the longer stretch of a classic Roman aqueduct—actually two side-by-side aqueducts—and it went on and on before breaking near the point at which I arrived.

This being Israel there was trash all around the beach, no public authorities present, and no fences to protect the sites.  All it takes is a suitably attractive historical treasure and the very faint echoes I have of my father’s daredevil persona surface.  I began immediately to look for ways to climb on top of this beast and see what it was like from up close.  I chose a spot some distance down where a sand dune was butting up against the western side, as this reduced the amount of scaling necessary.

Once on top I was astounded at what I could find.  There were remnants in one of the channels of what might have been a ceramic pipe; and it looked as though this half of the aqueduct had carried pipes on at least two levels.  On the other side you could find exposed segments of a larger channel with a smooth surface and—in places—some of the original covering stones that protected the water.  I have always had immense respect for the engineering skill that had gone into these monstrous projects, and was suitably humbled at seeing and touching an artefact from an extraordinary age.

From atop it you could see that potentially vast lengths of it remained buried in the far hill, and after the break (as I would soon discover) you can find other sections of it emerging from the dunes and hills, like half-buried treasures.  In the space between sections and all along the beach headed south were innumerable fragments of building material—columns, fitted stones, decorative pieces, paving stones, and so forth.  Just the sight of the waves cresting over these fragments was enough to give me pause for a time.

I decided against heading back up the road, and instead followed the coast south towards the main site.  This turned out to be a strenuous hike, but well worth it given the priceless experience of exploring pieces of the city still buried and half-buried in the hillsides.  As noted above there were other sections of the aqueduct, but also the outlines of rooms and walls, and at one point a large section that had been exposed, and which included several buildings and a circular citadel of some kind.  A homeless person with impeccable taste had hung a tarpaulin over an archway and made a suitable encampment.

The only portion of these open sections of city that had any protection was the ruins of the ancient synagogue, which had a fence encircling it.  But I passed by so many areas that had still to be properly dug out and explored, I wondered that no-one had put up the cash to dig further.  In fact, just a few kilometres from the beach was a modern community of Caesarea, which looked like nothing so much as an exclusive Orange County neighbourhood.  I can understand the desire to live so close to such natural and historical beauty, but the proximity of modern roads and construction to the still-buried wonders was disturbing to me, almost as though a religious site were being desecrated by heathen…

Anyroad, after a long hike through neglected ruins I came upon the main site, from the outside.  The first thing I could see were the outer walls of Crusader-era fortifications: a high, sloped wall surmounted by the ruin of defensive buildings and suchlike.  I walked all along the outer walls, east and then south toward the park entrance.  The place was huge, and with all the earlier walking I had by now exhausted my water supply and was really beat.  At the entrance I bought a (rather too dear) cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, then my ticket to enter the park.

Stepping inside, I was almost able to forget how tired and thirsty I was; and, as my wonderment kept my going irrespective of exhaustion, it would be more than an hour before I finally stopped to rest and drink.

Everywhere you looked were elements of the original Roman-era work: slabs of marble, fallen columns, a well-built road.  Superimposed on this was a set of Romanesque buildings put up by the Crusaders.  Most of their work, however, had long since collapsed or been destroyed—the place exchanged hands several times between Christian and Muslim armies, and was finally destroyed by the Mamlukes in the thirteenth century.  Since the late nineteenth century occasional digs on the site have recovered statues and other artefacts, and many of the major buildings have been revealed.  More recent work by American and Israeli teams have taken some parts down to the Byzantine and Roman levels, showing the precious remnants of antiquity preserved beneath later construction.

Again, there was no restriction to what you could do or where you could wander.  I started climbing around again like a clumsy ape, and was aghast at some of the places I could get into.  In the ruined foundations of one house you could see remnants of the Roman plumbing system, which brought fresh water from many miles away and piped it into central fountains and directly into the houses of the wealthy.  What can you say about standing inside the indoor plumbing of a 2,000 year old city except, "wow!"  I mean, I literally have no words to describe what I was seeing.  Most people have no sense of scale and simply cannot comprehend the vastness of time that separate this city’s first inhabitants from the day-tripping sight-seers of the modern national park.

Finally, exhausted and parched, I wandered down into the harbour.  Used by several succeeding generations, this harbour hosted Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamlukes, Turks, and finally the several modern occupiers of ancient Palestine.  Large parts of what survive date from the partial reconstruction during the Crusader period, and many of the present harbour’s foundations are built from various secondary-use materials found on the site, like fallen columns and Roman building stones.  Human beings, as a rule, have little or no respect for the past, and the remains of an ancient site meant nothing to the Crusaders, nor to the Arabs, or even the Turks, who in the nineteenth century tried to establish a colony of Bosnian refugees here.

I insisted on walking the entire harbour area before I chose a café and sat down to rest and eat.  My server was very gracious and sympathetic to my stupidity-induced plight.  She brought me five glasses of water in rapid succession as my order was prepared.  I then enjoyed a leisurely meal and basked in the welcome shade of a patio umbrella.  Enjoyed, that is, until two arseholes lit up cigars at a table two away from mine.  I spent the next ten minutes coughing before I could finally get the cheque and prepare to leave.

By this time, however, I was not only going to have to skip the larger part of the national park—including the forum, two theatres, and the promontory palace—but it was doubtful I could make the long walk back to the highway in time to catch the bus to Haifa.  We tried to call a cab but none were available for at least half an hour.  But one of the men working there kindly offered me a ride to the highway, as he was getting off work in about twenty minutes.  Turn out he’d been to the San Francisco area and loved it, and had tried—though unsuccessfully—to get into UC Berkeley that year as a sociology major.  He was still hopeful about getting into a good American school in another year or two.

Then, sitting at the bus stop on the highway, I had great cause for concern as about an hour and a half elapsed with no bus in sight!  I came close to jumping into one of the passing sheruts (a sherut is a shared taxi with consequently reasonable rates), but as I’d already paid for my return trip on the bus I wanted to wait it out and see if one came in time for the ride back.

One did, and the bus ride back was extremely crowded with people desperate to get back home to cities all along the way to Haifa before public transit shut down for shabbat.  I ended up sitting next to a blonde teenager whose mobile ‘phone conversation mixed American curses in with the Hebrew.  Just across from me was an IDF soldier (carrying, as they always seem to, an assault rifle in his lap).  His facial features and startlingly blue eyes betrayed an obvious Russian ancestry, and it was doubtful he had a great deal of Jewish blood in his family.  Still, here he was, kippah on his head, serving in the IDF.  Have I mentioned that Israel is amazingly diverse in its ethnic make-up?

The bus got back to Haifa after the Merkazit terminal had closed and bus service ended for shabbat, which meant I had no way of getting back up Mount Carmel to the university.  The bus driver drove everyone to a nearby centre where they could try to arrange for someone to get them, but I was unable to follow the negotiations and was left confused as to my options.  He had no English but I was able to work out what was going on once we started talking.  There were no more taxis working in the area (a lot of them stop running for the sabbath as well), so he took off like a maniac, with me the only passenger on the bus, plunging into the downtown area of Haifa (which is, incidentally, in exactly the opposite direction as I’d need to go to reach the university).

He was finally able to flag down a cab who was just letting off his last fare, and the driver was convinced to take me up the hill before calling it quits for the night.  He had to clear it over the ‘phone with an angry wife, too, which was fun to follow.  We then chatted about Haifa’s more appealing restaurants and bars, and about how he pays 50 shekels a month in order to watch all of the L.A. Lakers’ basketball games, as we wound our way up the hill to the university.  My round-trip bus fare to Caesarea had cost me only about $12, but this taxi ride was almost $20 itself.  But given how tired and sunburnt I was, it was surely better than taking that long walk up Mount Carmel!

I guess that’s enough about my little adventure.  As I said, there is still quite a bit of the site left to explore, so I’ll take another run down there in a week or so.  But since the buses run fairly late on normal days, I think I’ll do it on an evening when I have a light(er) homework load.  And, with any luck, next time I’ll get off at the right intersection and can catch a bus into Caesarea, saving me time and energy to hit the rest of the sights before sundown.  Those ruins are some of the most hauntingly beautiful things I have ever seen, so there’s no chance I’m going to skip out on the rest of it.

And now, since I have a test to-morrow that I am really stressing about, I need to get back to studying.  I needed this break in order to keep from exploding, but I’m really worried about how this will turn out.  The vocabulary list is huge, I need to deal with it all in two different Hebrew scripts, and I have to keep all of the grammar straight when I deploy said vocabulary…  I feel vastly under prepared for a test at this point…  But oh well, sink or swim, as they say…

A Long Day In Caesarea

I am dog tired after an amazing amount of walking to-day, so no updates until I take a break in my mid-term studying to-morrow.  The short-short is that I started my walk from the higway, began exploring way north of the main site, and then moved south along the coast to the national park that holds most of the excavated ruins.  A lot of stuff outside the park is still buried or partially buried, and you can see quite a bit of nifty things.  And, as with so many things in Israel, there are no real rules on what you can do; so, I climbed up on top of a Roman aquaduct!

I climbed all over the place to-day, actually.  But if I don’t stop now, I’ll start telling stories about it and I’ll never get any sleep.  My first test is on Sunday and I have to get some rest so I can spend the day drilling vocabulary and grammar.  So…  good night, world.

More Jaffa Photos Posted

Just a quick FYI: I’ve now gotten five out of seven gallery sections I’m devoting to Jaffa uploaded, but I’ve only done comments on the first three.  The last two will follow in a day or so, and then we can finished up in Tel Aviv and start to post my photos of Haifa and the Galilee.

Now I must be off for groceries and laundry.  I’d like to catch a ride down to Caesarea to-morrow, which means I’ll need an early start in order to get back before the shabbat transport blackout.  You can probably look forward to seeing photos from the ruins of Herod the Great’s little slice of urban Roman glory.  Until next time…

On Nazareth And Other Things

For those paying attention, you’ll note that yesterday I was in Nazareth, Jesus’s old home town.  As I’m sure you might have guessed, he wouldn’t recognize it–though I’m sure the changes are all for the better.  Of all the towns in the Galilee that made it into Flavius Josephus’s history, Nazareth is conspicuously absent.  This has led some to speculate that it did not even exist in Jesus’s day, though it is more likely that it was such a tiny and insignificant village that no-one had bothered to notice it until its most famous son got hung up on a chunk of wood and turned into a god.

Jesus’s distance relatives seem a pleasant enough folk, and the city is much like the other parts of Israel I’ve seen, except that most signs are in Arabic and not Hebrew.  The population of the old city is predominantly Arab, two-thirds of which are Muslim and the rest Christian.  There are also plenty of Christians from points beyond, helping to staff the many churches that dot the streets.  I did stop in to see a few of these, and was mildly impressed by the design work in some (though active services prevented photographs in most).  There is also a newer section of town called "Upper Nazareth" that is majority Jewish, but I didn’t bother going to see it (as there’s little there of historical interest to me at present).

I took the bus out with another group from the university, and stayed with them through the first site: the Church of the Annunciation.  This is the principal Catholic presence in the city, and the present structure dates from 1969.  It is, however, built on the ruins of nearly half a dozen older churches, and they have preserved chunks of these in the centre of the lower church level.  After crossing a lovely Byzantine mosaic floor you can stand in front of a small cave, protected by a ring of iron bars.  This is, ostensibly, the place where Mary lived at the time the angel Gabriel appeared to her, and annouced that she was to be knocked up by Jevovah.  There is, of course, no way of knowing where such a place was, but the tradition placing this as the site is quite old, and its veracity in largely irrelevant in the matter of its spiritual power for believers.

The upper church, as well as the portico outside, are decorated with an eclectic collection of art works contributed by churches all around the world.  This is a cute touch, but like the rest of the church it just seems a bit post-modern and anarchronistic.  Somehow the beautiful ruins upon which this church’s fame rests are a bit diminished by the steel and concrete of the newer work.

Mother, I dropped a shekel in the donation box for you, and took a lot of photos.  I’ll post some of the better ones in a week or two (when I get caught up with the rest of my photo albums).

Speaking of minor blasphemies, I got a great shot near the Greek Orthodox church.  The Orthodox do not believe that Jesus’s conception was announced when Mary was at home, but rather in passing as she visited the village well for water.  They have consequently built their church on top of Nazareth’s only natural water source: a spring which is still producing fresh water to this day.  I say "fresh" only in the most literal sense, as in not briny, because this water is far from potable.  As I sat and rested my feet, I saw an Arab gentleman walk up to the grate protecting the other main access point (also called Mary’s Well), whip out his cock, and take a long piss.  I found this unbelievably amusing, and I surreptitiously snapped a photo of the event…

Anyroad, after that first church I "accidentally" lost my group and spent the rest of the day wandering the streets by meself, in blessed silence and free of annoying tour guides with awful accents and worse anecdotes.  Because the vast majority of tourists are Christian or Jewish, they tend to hire fairly speterotypically Zionist guides, which when visiting an Arab city is kind of a waste.  Walking the streets and chatting with people in broken Hebrew and Arabic fragments was far more rewarding, and I got a lot of good exercise walking up a veeeery long hill.

Along the way I passed a wall with grafitti proclaiming the immortal names of legendary folk heroes… the hip-hop artists 2pac and Eminem!  A suitable example of globalization doing its thing, bringing American rap to the Palestinians.  Near the summit of the hill a group of pre-teen Arab girls passed me in the street, giggling as girls do.  When they got close enough the bravest of them called out, "cheers!", a phrase possibly learned from British television.  I answered in kind, which they found terribly amusing.  *grin*  Needless to say, so did I.

Shortly before tracking down my group for the bus ride home I stopped into an ice cream shop, and had to pick out a flavour without Hebrew or English….  Hand gestures work as well as one might expect.  I could see none of the typical flavours one expects in the ‘States, though this is hardly a function of the Arab location as Israeli ice cream and gelato shoppes have an often perplexing and intriguing selection of unidentifiable goodies.  The one I managed to order had a strange additive that I just could not place and have been trying to figure out since.  It tasted familiar, but not as anything I’d ever have expected in an ice cream, or ever eat for that matter.  Still, it was cold, inexpensive, and pretty good for all that.

I guess that gives enough of the "flavour" of my Nazareth trip.  If anyone has a question please save them ’til the end.  😉

I’m sitting right now at a table in the courtyard of the dorms, and a group of Arab students have just joined me.  The Arabs here run the gamut from extremely conservative, hijab and all, to extremely Western in style and manner.  A couple of the gals at my table are really cute, actually, and dressed like they belong in Orange County.  Not that anyone cares.  *grin*  In totally unrelated news there was to-day a big election on campus for the Muslim students, and I kept getting turned away from buildings I wanted to pass through.  Apparently, all of the campus parties are affiliated with parties in the Knesset, which would have a politicizing effect on the student body that is very realistic given the political structure of the country.  The diversity must make teaching here very interesting and challenging.

Hmm, have I mentioned yet my little cat?  Haifa is filled with cats, and they are sprinkled across the dorms in very specific territories (cats are good at dividing space and resources).  Given that I get along better with cats than people, I introduced myself immediately and made a friend.  The cats all around here are pretty wild and always run from people, and I’ve never yet seen anyone pay the slightest heed to one.  I’ve got this one, however, turned ino a perfectly sociable domestic cat, who greets me in the courtyard near my flat, and stop by for food and attention two or three times a day (depending on my availability more than anything else).

She’s a poor sickly beast, terribly thin (almost emaciated when I met her), occasionally carrying ants in her scruffy fur, and with a nasty mucous problem.  She also can’t purr, though she tries constantly for me; her purr sounds like a rasping wheeze, and it’s so pathetic that it’s almost cute.  She really is a horrible looking beast, but she’s got a good personality and is very affectionate and communicative.  This total stray, who’se lived from scavenging garbage all her life, now curls up in my lap whenever I’m willing to sit down outside my flat.  I’m being too good to her, considering she’ll have to fend for herself again once I’m gone, but maybe I can fatten her up a little before then,  And it’s nice to have someone to talk to.

I had a few things I wanted to say to-day, but I forgot a while ago what they were and I still can’t think of them.  I guess I’ll just check my messages and get to sleep.  The mid-term in my Hebrew ulpan is on Sunday, and we have a lot to cover still to-morrow.  I don’t have any conceptual hurdles to get through, I just need to memorize a tonne of words so that I can recognize them and think of them quickly enough.  Conversationally, I’m doing probably a bit worse than average, but in terms of overall comprehension I think I’m in good shape.