Because I Like Cemeteries

For the State Department Round Up this week "Small Bits" has asked for submissions of our favorite pictures.  This picture is of a cemetery on the Mount of Olives that overlooks Jerusalem. If you look close you can see little birds flying over the graves.  There are many "end of days" prophecies in Judaism and Christianity regarding these cemeteries - I'm not sure about Islam.   I started researching some of them, but then it occurred to me that I could harness the power of the internet and crowd source it.  So feel free to enlighten all of us if you know the Mount of Olives prophecies from any religion.   


On Touching Stuff

I read this today on National Geographic's "Intelligent Travel Blog"regarding the top 10 archeological discoveries of 2010:

"The magazine also listed their threatened sites of the year, which include prehistoric Native American geoglyphs in southeast California, and the neolithic rock art in Egypt's Cave of the Swimmers. The rock art, which was popularized in the film The English Patient, is being "admired to death by tourists who feel compelled to touch the 10,000-year-old paintings," the magazine reports. But Egypt's council on antiquities is working on an outreach effort aiming to educate drivers who transport tourists to these sites. Their hope is that the drivers will encourage good behavior and teach tourists how to behave appropriately when viewing the art."

This touched on a pet peeve of mine and at this juncture of good will and holiday hope, I'd like to snark about it for a minute or two.  Isn't that what people keep blogs for anyway?

It's summer 2008.  Max and I are getting pretty good at the get-on-the-bus-get-off-the-bus migration that constitutes an inordinate amount of time on our Jordan study abroad program's detour in Egypt.  We have just uniformly shuffled off the bus in front of The Pyramids in the Giza Necropolis.  The Great Pyramid of Giza, or Pyramid of Cheops, specifically is the oldest of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the world.  It is enormous and mysterious and marvelous.

Along with a pack of students we wind our way through grimy teethed Egyptians trying to relieve us of as many Egyptian Pounds as they think we'll be tricked into giving away.

"I was in that picture you just took.  Bakshish (tips)" they say with hands extended and smiles which quickly turn into grimaces if you refuse.  It's tricky to get to the Great Pyramid's entrance without getting harassed or fleeced (and most endure a combination of both) but we do finally arrive at a dusty booth where a woman sells tickets through a small slit in a dirty window.

"No cameras inside.  No cameras" she says, "You can leave them here."  And she points to a woven basket full of expensive cameras.

Dutifully I drop my camera in the bucket and hope that I will see it again in 40 minutes when the tour is finished.  A group of us descend into the Pyramid and at first I'm groovin, Egypt style.  Its' amazing, really, I'm going to walk deep into the heart of an Ancient Pyramid!  But then the floor slopes into a sharp decline and I have to bend over at the waist to fit, the ancient stones scraping the sides of my shoulders.  I start to feel claustrophobic and the only thing I can think of to stop me from turning around and making everyone get out so I can breath again is singing church hymns.  A bit of an odd juxtaposition, Christian worship music in the heart of a burial temple for a polytheistic pharaoh, but if it works, it works.  And it does.  When we stand up straight at the end of a cramped tunnel and find ourselves in an actual burial chamber I am awestruck.  In April of 2008 I wrote in my journal

"Everything has been stripped in the burial room except for a giant stone box that the sarcophagus used to be in.  They had one small light backlighting the stone box and it was absolutely beautiful.  Despite the 120 + muggy temperature inside (and all of it 4000 year old air)  it was such a surreal experience.  Knowing that this was the final resting place for one of the pharaohs, but more than that, knowing the sacred processes that when on in this room and how important it was to the Ancient Egyptians.  It had the stillness of a regular cemetery, but the religious implications of a temple in some ways.  Amazing."

But my much enjoyed orientalist awe is interrupted by the click, click, clicking of little cameras and obnoxious flashes illuminating the chamber with garish light.  Several of the students had decided that their experiences were so much more important that the rest of ours, and CERTAINLY more than those yet to visit the pyramid, that they snuck their camera in and ran around from corner to corner touching things, trying to climb up the walls, and taking pictures.  I could have died.

So here's my beef.  When people say "Don't take pictures" "Don't Touch"  - they mean it.  These artifacts are remarkable and irreplaceable shrines to our history and our planet.  If you think that your experience is more important than anyone else's and you just have to touch something - it's not and you shouldn't.  Consider this a big fat digital tsk tsk.  

Anthony Bourdain, Food and Travel Writer, frequently edits the "The Best American Travel Writing" series.  In the 2008 edition he said something like "Travel writers ultimately destroy the things they love."  They write about an off the beaten path Mom and Pop restaurant and the next year it is swarming with customers - it's charm given way to sweaty tourist in Hawaiian shirts.  A tucked away meadow becomes trampled after being written about for its solitude and beauty.  It's a reality of travel.  But people, for Heaven's sake, if an official says "Don't Touch"  - don't touch it.  If they tell you not to take pictures of the Sistene Chapel - don't do if.  If someone says "Do not remove anything from this sight"- don't do it.  And even if they don't say that - don't do it.*  

If travel is about what you can  post on your facebook profile the next day or what you can say you've touched or have displayed on your mantle - you are missing the spirit of the thing entirely.  So please, for all of you touchers and takers out there - ease up.  I want my kids to be able to see the amazing things of the world decades from now, and it will be a shame if we gobble up all the treasures in our traveler's greed and carelessness.  

*As a photographer I am certainly not advocating that you put your camera on the shelf.  Just don't take pictures inside 10,000 year old caves when someone tells you not to.  Ok?  



Merry Christmas

Consider this an early Christmas Present.

Fillipo was one of my favorite/most horrible students at English Camp in Italy this summer.  He has no front teeth.  Now just imagine him wolfing down bowl after bowl of spaghetti with the hair-netted lunch ladies pinching his cheeks - red sauce from ear to ear.


Rick Steves on My Birthday?

After a good sleep in, a documentary about an Afghan American Idol, a nice long read,  a fine dinner out, and a renaissance Christmas performance by the Tallis Scholars, we came home to find a Rick Steves Marathon on our local public radio station.

Could this be the best birthday ever?


The National Cathedral

Just because of how things worked out, I experienced the big cities of Europe and the Middle east before I visited them in my own country.  I pretty much went straight from my little town in Utah to the Middle East - stopping on the East Coast only to switch planes and take a pre-Atlantic potty brake.  It has been really fascinating to encounter my own "National" things with something to compare them to - a perspective about how other countries perceive their national identity and how they translate that into their buildings or parks.

Jordan, for example, doesn't really embrace the idea of the "public park".   I recall a stroll through what was basically a manicured gravel pit with benches one Sunday after church.  Israel's national library has the goal of obtaining all things Jewish and/or Hebrew throughout time and the world.  If that doesn't speak to Israel's national Identity of sanctuary for and steward over all things Jewish, I don't what would.

The first time I went to the National Mall with Max and walked through its green grass I was struck with such pride in the way American architects and public officials have conceptualized our national spaces.  The mall is green, it's open, and people wander over it freely*.  All people have equal access to it, and it speaks to the nature found in the area - replete with forest service protected wildlife.  (Squirrels)  The buildings are beautiful, but not gaudy; grand but not unapproachable.

Anyway, Max and I have been able to see several public performances at the National Cathedral.  It's a stunning building that at once says "old world craftsmanship" and "new world values".  I don't know a lot about building construction, but evidently, it was built in such a way as to adhere to all of the traditional masonic rules and practices - real old school.  It is the 6th largest cathedral in the world and the 2nd largest in America.

The melding of old and new can be seen in the stained glass windows.  The nave is filled with beautiful, very colorful, stained glass windows  - like traditional late Gothic churches.  BUT instead of religious images alone, the stained glass windows also depict scenes from American life and history.  There are windows depicting farmers, the industrial revolution, and my favorite, a window depicting the space program with a REAL MOON ROCK at its center.  This website has some beautiful pictures of the windows.

The boss stones (decorative sculpture knobs at the intersection of ceiling ribs or walls) have traditional things like flowers, but there is also one of Alaskan Inuits with a dogsled and another of a fisherman.  Somewhere there is a gargoyle fashioned after Darth Vader, but I have yet to spot it.

The church is officially Episcopalian and funded entirely by donations - nobody need get their Church and State panties in a twist.  Below you'll notice the state flag of Arizona.  Inside the cathedral they fly the flag of every state in the union.  Each week they pray for one of the states at Sunday Services.  On the 51st week they pray for the district and on the 52nd they pray for the nation.  Isn't that a sweet thing?     

It's a lovely building.  

 *If you want to think about American public spaces and their relationship to American values check out Ken Burn's National Parks series.  I'm really not a sierra club kinda gal, but he touches on some fascinating aspects of our national character by exploring our public parks history.  Very dear.