Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ridin' Hard in Gaza

If any of you read my entry on the political situation here, upon reading my title you may have dropped your Krispy Kreme into your Stephen's Hot Cocoa. (It pays to know your audience:-). But no cause for alarm, we're all back, mostly in one piece, and we spent a great day cycling in the area near the Gaza Strip. Every once in a while we have a free day. No classes, no homework, "No more rulers! No more books! No more teacher's dirty looks!!" Or at least 'till tomorrow. Today most of us went to a kibbutz that's right on the Gaza border. It offered some of the most beautiful riding that I've ever seen.
I should probably give you a bit of history about Gaza. I don't know much about the modern history yet, but I can start with its biblical significance. This is one of the five cities of the Philistines that was built on the coastal plain. It was strategically placed to intercept most trade between Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. It isn't too significant in biblical texts. There are a few prophecies about Gaza, but the only story that has focus there is Samson's. Samson, before his demise with Delilah, had recently taken the gates of Gaza and carried them away. The gate is the most important part of any city's defense, and Samson basically knocked it out singlehandedly(That's embarrassing...). Well, after Delilah he was taken to Gaza and tied between two pillars, which he collapsed on the three-thousand people that were there celebrating his capture.
It was interesting to ride through beautiful countryside and see peace and serenity but know that just 2 miles south an American can't walk anywhere. The distant booming noise was either thunder on a cloudless day, or heavy weaponry. The kibbutz that we rented the bikes from has 8' high, double barbed wire fences with German Shepherds stationed every few hundred feet. Border Patrol is constantly running back and forth along the Gaza border in Hummers, and the lookout never sleeps.
We had a man from the US Consulate come and give a forum about Palestinian and Israeli security. He said that the Gaza strip, instead of really being controlled by Hamas or Fatah, it is controlled by clans. Once you know this, you'll notice in the news that those that are killed in Gaza rarely are governmental leaders, but members of families that have attacked someone else's family, so the blood feud goes on. Hopefully things can calm down, but in Gaza, peace doesn't seem to be an option.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Galilee

We have a trip to Galilee planned in about a month to visit a ton of New Testament sites, but because of our inability to visit certain places in the West Bank, Hebron, Beth-el, and Ai, we were able to go to the North for two days and visit non-New Testament sites, such as Mt. Carmel (site of the showdown between Elijah and the priests of Baal), the Castle of Nimrod, and the Golan Heights. Quite a few of the sites are near the Lebanese and Syrian borders.
I've never seen so much green! The Galilee is in the Jordan Rift Valley, just like Jericho, and while in Jericho things grew well as long as you irrigated, here you can't stop the "circle of life" from spinning. Galilee is also below sea level. Compared to the south, it is sparsely populated. It's surprising that arid areas like Be'er Sheba would be settled more rapidly than Tiberias, because there seems to be space for all. Apparently the property prices had something to do with keeping the area free from many settlements-- well, that and the fact that before the 1967 war the Syrian border used to be right on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee.
If there is one thing about Galilee, however, it's the peace. Many of the students just got off the bus, took a beach chair down to the edge of the water, and spent time with their thoughts. What's amazing is that I wouldn't doubt that Christ walked right along that very place that I was sitting and reading about the scriptures. I can see why Christ loved the Galilee.
Well, there are a lot of OT sites that we visited. One thing that some people don't know is that Armageddon actually comes from two words: Har, which means Mount, and Megiddo, which is the name of a tel that we visited. So the anglicized phrase, "The battle of Armageddon" means the battle of Mount Megiddo. In ancient times, it was said that taking Megiddo was like taking 100 cities. The Israelites themselves didn't conquer Megiddo until the reign of King David, at least 250 years after coming into the promised land. It controls all traffic going north and south through the plain area, so it makes sense that it would be the place of "the final showdown," shall we say.
Even though we saw many cool sites like the Golan Heights (two girls and a professor accidentally went into Syria, barely. For some reason the road wasn't patrolled at the time), and the tribal home of Dan, our favorite site was Nimrod's Fortress. The fortress was built by crusaders and added-onto by Muslims. It sits high on a mountain top and is everything someone would want a medieval fortress to be. We found areas that look just like a scene out of "The Swan Princess" and deep, dark stairways where the unprepared use their cellphones to light the next step and you weren't sure if the bats would be offended by your intrusion (actually, we didn't see any bats, but they're supposed to be there). The fortress would have been nearly impossible to take, but it seems to be a playground for college students now :).
BTW, the picture that I included is a panoramic shot of the Valley of Jezreel, the valley just below Mount Megiddo where the armies of the earth are supposed to gather for the battle. Be sure to click on it so you can see it bigger. If you want to see it even bigger you'll have to save it to your computer. Keep in mind that this is a 180-degree panorama. It just shows you that there really is room for all out there...
Till next time then,

Monday, February 19, 2007

Joshua fit the Battle

Jerusalem and Jericho. You wouldn't believe the difference between these two cities that are just a bit more than 20 miles from each other. The most obvious difference is the drop from the Judean Wilderness to the Jordan Rift Valley, from 2500' above to 1350' below sea level, the lowest point on earth. (Actually, Jericho is only 1200' below. The dead sea is 1350'.) Suddenly, instead of 48 degrees with wind and rain, we stepped out of the bus into 85 degree, sunny, balmy weather. You could buy bananas just off the bus or fresh-squeezed orange juice a few steps later(squoze and squozen aren't words, apparently).
A tel is an archaeological dig. The actual tel of Jericho is quite small. I would guess that it's no more than 1.5 acres. The population was a lot bigger than what would fit into 1.5 acres, but most people would have lived outside of the walls until they needed protection. The point is, the children of Israel would have had a lot of access to resources in the Jericho area once they all retreated to the city. The other point is, marching around the city would have been a mere 20-minute stroll (if that). So the common idea of a huge city with walls hundreds of feet high isn't feasible. You probably shouldn't have walls that are taller than your city is wide. There were, however, both an outer and an inner wall for additional protection. This city couldn't be taken lightly.
Jericho is considered by many to be the oldest, continuously-inhabited city on earth. Archaeologists have found the bottom of a tower that dates to Neolithic times (New Stone Age, 8000 BCE). It's still sitting there, large as life. Today there are about 19000 inhabitants.
The highlight of the day was the Greek Orthodox Monastery that overlooks Jericho(pictured above). It is literally built on the face of the cliff that hangs over the Jordan Rift Valley. Quite often, while walking along the back, you'll come to a place that you have a bedroom door on one side and a cliff wall on the other that you have to duck under, or you'll hit your head. For some reason or another the monks took a liking to us and we were the first tourist group in about 10 years to go out the back door and hike to the ancient monastery that's on the top of the mountain. Talk about a view! Wow. Some students sang "High on a Mountain Top," only to realize that this mountain top is still below sea level.
Because of the beautiful winters in Jericho, Herod frequented his wintertime palace. It's just a few miles south of Jericho and is scarcely visited. You can still see some of the pillar bases and all the roman baths. The motifs have disappeared in recent years but you can still see some on the rocky floor. Ironically, instead of Herod's palace, now it's become a place where little Palestinian kids (pictured here) play tag. They have no idea that their playground is a place rich in history.


We've been told since we got here that the Beitar Soccer fans are nuts. Well, in the soccer game that we went to, I think it would be a toss-up between the Beitar fans and the newest addition to the Jerusalem Soccer Arena: Us.
The interesting thing about soccer games here is that there are no bells and whistles. Usually if you go to a sporting event in the states you have your cheerleaders, halftime shows, and a JumboTron to see all your instant replays.
Here you have a stadium, 22 players, several thousand fans, and a ball. Well, you could probably add the guys that walk around selling coke, bread, and sunflower seeds, as well as the guys that enter with big plastic bags full of merchandise that they sell whenever stadium representatives aren't looking. I have scarf.
The fans are something else. They seem to spontaneously break out into song. There are cheers where one side shouts to the other and then they answer, like in high school football games. (We've got spirit, yes we do! We've got spirit, how 'bout you??!!). Our little group, after a failed attempt to start a wave (we got the strangest looks...), decided to contribute volume wise. Sean (totally nuts, btw) decided to yell "WE ARE, WE ARE!!" After which the rest of the group would reply "BEITAR!!" It wouldn't have been embarrassing if it weren't during that rare moment when the other fans weren't singing, but we let our unculturedness shine through.
One interesting thing is the security precautions that they take here. They're obviously accustomed to it, but every bag was searched and every person was patted down, twice. I was barely able to take in extra batteries for my camera (I never realized that the AA's are very close in size to a bullet). The good thing is that you felt very safe, even though there was violence in the Old City that day.
The picture is of Jane and Jill, two girls who have been best friends literally their whole lives (they were born one day apart in the same hospital, next door neighbors, etc.). I promised Jill she would be on the blog. She'd better say "thank you!" :)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Day in the Life

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of travelogues. In order to remedy this inevitability, a few weeks ago I wrote down several ideas for blog entries. I lost the paper. But it occurs to me that, while I may talk a lot about the different places that we go and the people that we visit, I haven't told you what the majority of our times consists of.
What many of you may not have guessed is that the Jerusalem Center supports a very challenging academic program. We take, from what I know, 2 of the only 3 - 3-credit-hour religion classes offered at BYU. We read most of the Old Testament in the time frame that would be alloted to a block class. We will do the same thing for New Testament later in the semester. My only regret is that we don't have time to even touch Isaiah. Shame. Aside from religion classes, we have an Ancient Near Eastern Studies course. It deals mainly with archaeology, geography, history, and a few other topics. This and religion are the only two classes taught by BYU faculty. History of Judaism and History of Islam are taught by native Israeli and Palestinian faculty members, as are Hebrew and Arabic. (We only take one of the two language classes.)
Because of this challenging class load, I hit the alarm clock at the bright and early hour of 5:30. My roommate, Tadd, always manages to get up five minutes before me and be getting in the shower at that time. I then justify my staying in bed until 6:00 when he's completely done. This is a daily routine. Breakfast starts at 6:30, and is therefore the least-frequented meal of the day (Food here is great, BTW). We have classes at different times throughout the day. They vary from morning to afternoon in order to let us visit areas in the city that are open at different times, so while you get used to the schedule, it's nothing like the Provo campus' scheduling.
After a day's worth of classes and sightseeing (which we get graded for in ANES), it's off to finish the huge amount of reading due for the next day. Don't tell Brother Whitchurch this, but even though we always finish it, we spend more time talking and laughing than we do studying. The main topic of conversation: Relationships. When you stick 16 boys and 28 girls into one building for a period of 3.5 months, don't allow them to leave unless they're in groups, and then impose a strict, no-dating rule on them, the most amazing thing happens: they talk about nothing else. :) There's also plenty of things to do in the center. The snack bar is open every weeknight, there are a lot of activities in the center, and the gym is open from 5am to 11pm. They even have some nice bean bags to chill on while you watch movies or DVD's. As for my principal use of time: blogging, what did you think? :)
As a final note, it occurred to me that many of you don't know my sister, nor have I included her in any pictures on here. Well, on the right is the kindest person I know, Krystina Davies. The beautiful redhead on the left is my little sister Rachel. She's even available, but you'll have to go through me first. (She's going to kill me when she reads this. Enjoy this paragraph while it lasts, it probably won't be here in a few days).


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Samson and Goliath..errr, I mean...

I wonder how many people, when they first see the title think "Hey, it should be Samson and Delilah," as compared to "Hey, it should be David and Goliath!" Well, whatever the first reaction, I'm telling you about both of them today.
Any story about either of them would have to start with the Philistines. The Philistines weren't native to Palestine, it says that they came from the sea. After a failed invasion of Egypt, they settled in five cities on the coastal plains of Canaan and the Israelites, up in the Judean Highlands, became their next potential conquest. Each of the five cities is positioned near the entrance to one of the five valleys that access the Judean Highlands. With that bit of background, we can talk about some interesting characters. . . and this is starting to sound like a geography lecture. :)
Most people don't know the whole story behind Samson and Delilah. Samson was a Nazarite, or a person who's life was dedicated to the Lord much like Samuel was. In addition to obedience to the Law of Moses, a Nazarite couldn't come in contact with a dead body, have anything to do with grape products, or cut their hair. Samson's power came from this pact that he had with God. He was married at one time, but his wife's philistine countrymen killed both her and her father in response to Samson's burning of their crops. Samson was a great support for the people of Israel until Delilah. In his hometown of Beth Shemesh, which lies in the valley that leads to Jerusalem, he was deceived into divulging the source of his strength and taken to Gaza where he died in quite the dramatic way. He's such a colorful character, and yet so indispensable to Israel, that I think he has only one "kindred spirit,"as it were: Orrin Porter Rockwell. Gnaw on that for a while. :)
The fortress of Azekah is located on a high, steep hill that offers a commanding view of the surrounding valleys, especially the valley of Elah which leads to Bethlehem. The interesting thing is that it actually lies only five miles from the city of Gath, Goliath's hometown. It was below this fortress that the famous standoff of the two armies took place. Goliath came out and challenged the Israelites for many days. When David challenged him, we have to wonder what each was thinking. I think I can offer a thought on David. He knew that if he were to fail and if the Israelite army were defeated, then there would be nothing between the Philistines and his family back home in Bethlehem. I think that offers sufficient motivation. Goliath, however, I think knew he was in trouble. He was armed with a sword and heavy javelin, neither of which were any good for long distance fighting. Even though he was many times more dangerous than David in close combat, he didn't stand a chance because David didn't offer him one. From probably a good fifty yards away David took him out with one stone, and he was gone. I'd just like everyone to know that I now have the exact stone that was used in this infinite battle, it's sitting in my desk drawer. I got it just after my epic battle with an authentic Israeli David, shown above (granted, his name wasn't David, but at least he's Israeli). I lost.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

By Popular Demand

Well, people have asked for two things, pictures of the temples and a depiction of the obelisk's construction. Here goes:
The obelisks were cut to the south of Luxor. The actual transportation, then, was easy because the Nile flows north. They were transported onto large barges and floated downstream, hopefully they don't miss the landing. :)
All around a large granite base, workers would have built huge mountains of mud bricks, creating a volcano-like structure, and filled in the cavity to the very top with sand. Off one of the sides they would build a large ramp out of the same brick, and then transport the obelisk, base first, up to the top of the mountain. With the obelisk horizontal and the base resting on the sand, they would then tunnel a hole in the side of one of the mountains and allow the sand to escape. As the sand level went down, so did the base of the obelisk, until it gradually became erect. After all was said and done, the obelisk was perfectly straight, the bricks were removed, and a beautiful obelisk was in place. The story of the pillars is just as impressive, but I have a Judaism test today :S, so I'll slide you some pictures and tell you about our good friend Samson next time.

BTW, Happy Valentines Day!


P.S., a word about the pictures. I've included at least one person in every shot. In pictures they just look like an erector set. I thought you should at least get an ides of the enormity of the place.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Boats, Alluvial Plains, and Passenger Trains

How many of you have ever slept on a passenger train? I think I've finally found a form of transportation that I can actually come out of feeling good the next morning. As a continuation of the Egypt entry, after the day's activities in Cairo and Giza, we spent the night on a train and arrived at Luxor early in the morning. Immediately after checking in at the hotel, we all piled into carriages and went down the street to the temple of Karnak.
If there is one word to describe the temple of Karnak, I'm afraid that I'm not familiar with it. It is honestly the most magnificent structure I've ever seen. I was awestruck by the enormity of the pillars, obelisks, and its sheer size (64 acres). Tell me, how does one carve a 90-foot obelisk out of one solid piece of granite, transport it 100+ miles, and then stand it up in a position that aligns perfectly with the buildings around it to within a hairbreadth? Too heavy for pulleys, too tall for manpower, too awkward to transport 150 Goliaths from Palestine. Well, I know the answer, but it would take a while to explain. If you want to know, you'll have to comment on it. :)
Something interesting about Luxor is the annual rainfall: exactly 0.00" Honestly, there are still mud brick walls standing in the exact position that they were in 2000 years ago. Our guide, Rifatt, has lived in Luxor for 55 years and he's never seen rain there. It would seem that the principal reason for this is because all weather patterns, from west to east as normal, would have to cross the Sahara. Enough said.
The temple of Luxor, while nearly as impressive as Karnak, wasn't quite as well received. This is probably because of the amount of time the group had already spent in the sun, so we weren't there as long. After some R&R at the hotel we went to the Luxor Museum (it opens at 4:00 after a little siesta). The statues, mummies, ancient chariots, and artifacts there are immaculately carved and preserved, and it's pretty fun to make up meanings for the carvings that adorn every single object. :)
After another good night's sleep we were off to the valley of the kings, the burial place of dozens of Pharoahs. Probably the most popular inhabitant of the area is Tut Ankh Amon, known in the non-Egyptian world as King Tut. His mummy has been removed from the Cairo museum and replaced in the tomb (with guards on all the surrounding hilltops), and one of the three sarcophagi (coffins) is still there. Most of the rest of the thousands of artifacts are in the Cairo museum. The interesting thing is, the most well-known citizen of the valley of the kings is probably the least influential in Egyptian History. He only ruled for ten years, died before the age of twenty, and his tomb is only one-twentieth the size of, for example, Rameses II's.
After other popular places such as Queen Hatchepsut's palace to the Sun God, Amon Ra, the Valley of the Queens, and Rameses III's Esana Temple, we wandered the streets of Luxor until evening when those who wanted to went on a feluca. A feluca is a small sailboat meant basically for tourists, but for us it was a great opportunity to see the sunset from the Nile.
Finally, after some last-minute shopping, it was back to the train station. The next day we arrived in Cairo and spent time in the Cairo museum. We actually found some great hydrocephali (aka: similar to the facsimile in the Book of Abraham), oh, and you could hardly miss the tens of thousands of priceless artifacts. The ownership and subsequent sale of any one would cause the owner to retire, plus all his great-grandchildren.
Following lunch it was off to the mosque that I mentioned in an earlier entry, and then off to the bazaar. I've never seen so many people crowded into one street before. Yet, even though there were 44 students among thousands of shoppers, we were still the most popular (US Dollars still pack a punch). The sights, sounds, and smells of a bazaar are completely indescribable, and I have no pictures to give you a correct sense, because I purposely left my camera on the bus.
Egypt is a country unlike any other, well, unlike any other country that I've visited (so three...and counting). Non-natives don't drink the water, unless they want to risk a severe case of Pharaoh's Revenge (aka. the runs). The bartering often starts at a markup of at least 800% (I had a guy try to sell me a thimble for about $20. I offended him when I laughed, hard), and you pay the porter in any public restroom. The cultural differences, however, just add to the experience. Aside from that, many of the readers of this blog (from a totally LDS perspective, sorry about that) can call this country home through Ephraim and Manasseh. Give that thought a bit of a chew while you plan your next family vacation. Until next time, then.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Trouble in River City

It is about 5:00 in the morning in the Midwestern United States, so most of you are now sleeping. When you wake up you may wake to news of further conflicts in the middle east. To be specific, in Jerusalem. Now don't you all panic, we're all perfectly fine, I just wanted to fill you in on what is happening.
One of the antecedents to this story I already wrote about. The wall that is being built between Israel and the West Bank has caused high tensions and high tempers. A new development occurred last Saturday when we were driving back from Egypt. About two years ago, during heavy snows, an earthen walkway leading to the temple mount was damaged and considered unsafe. There are several different ways to access the mount, but this is the only one that non-muslims are allowed to use. It is principally used for tourists and as a police entrance for crowd control during Friday prayers. In order to accommodate the need to access the mount, a temporary ramp was constructed. Everything that I'm talking about can be seen in the picture at the top.
The temporary ramp, however, is becoming dilapidated, and the Israeli government saw fit to create a permanent structure(for which they need to install 5 large pylons as a foundation). Last Saturday, a backhoe was rolled into the city, right near the temple mount, and violence was threatened by local Islamic leaders. The weather cooled tempers for a few days, but today, the Muslim prayer day, the spark fell into the powder keg. The 1000-strong police force, plus 2000 backups, answered hurled rocks and bottles with tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun guns. So far there have been a few injuries on either side, but no casualties.
In speaking to the Center's director, he said that this type of incident doesn't happen every day, but only time will tell if this will all just blow over, or if it will escalate. Let's hope for the former.

Sunday, February 4, 2007


I don't really know if it's supposed to be "travelog" or "travelogue." It probably depends on if you're from Britain or not. :)
Anyway, I promised I'd share some of the things that we did, and I've determined that it will have to be on multiple entries, or it won't work. There was simply too much to see.
After our first day on the road(Sunday, January 28), we spent the night at a kibbutz in the Negev Desert (I talked about kibbutzim in the "Rehovot" entry). It was amazing to see desert sands all around and have huge patches of green where they were growing potatoes, onions, dates, mangos, and hundreds of others. The ice cream shop, I'm sorry to say, puts Ben and Jerry's to open shame. It simply melts in your mouth. . .er. . .oh well. After a traditional Bedouin dinner and amazing music from the kibbutz' singing group, we played games until late with a Jewish guy about our age and then turned in.
Bright and early we got up and were on our way to the border. After passing through, we encountered the largest stretch of nothingness I've ever seen, the Sinai Desert. When we made it through (a feat achieved with plenty of singing, improvised rap, and stand-up comedy, complements of Matt Durham), We encountered exactly what we thought Egypt didn't look like. In Cecil B. DeMille's movie "The 10 Commandments," Egypt is all desert. But in reality it's green and lush wherever it's irrigated (the ancient egyptians used irrigation techniques, though).
Cairo is, in a word, indescribable. I'll try, though. The houses are principally in apartment buildings that, in our opinion, wouldn't have move-in permits yet. The roads would drive any westerner nuts. As a Mercedes flew by, 3 10-year old boys were whipping a cart and mule up to a roaring speed of 15 miles per hour. People crossing a crowded freeway don't even bat an eye, and a grand total of 5 traffic lights twinkle bright red and green. Surprisingly, this chaos is accepted and there are very few accidents. When off the major intercity roads, people rarely go faster than 30 miles per hour. We always seemed to have a police escort and at least one armed security officer on the bus.
The next day, it was off to the pyramids. We were actually able to go inside the second one. The egyptians have constructed a second entrance to the burial chamber. Even so, it wasn't made for the average 6'3" Matt Thomas. I'm sorry to say (you have to report the bad with the good) the inside wasn't all that impressive. I'm sure it would have been better had we not been on the average tourist tour, but I'm not sure how to get any other one. The sheer size, however, was astounding.
We also hit up the sphinx, rode some camels (I didn't think Danica would ever stop giggling), were shown the tour of good shopping districts, and overall, had a great time.

Saturday, February 3, 2007


I'm sure people want to hear about amazing sites that we visited like the temple of Karnak, the Great Pyramids at Giza, and the Valley of the Kings. It was absolutely incredible to be in the places that we've studied since we were children. Those topics, however, will have to wait until my next entry. I want to share with you the highlight of my trip, pardon the soapbox. :)
Whenever a person from the west, I was included in this, hears the word "Arab" they automatically think of radical fundamentalist Islam, al-Qaeda, and civil unrest in the middle east. With a slightly different perspective, I thought of pushy vendors, 5:00 am prayer calls, and young men that I keep away from my sister. But Friday, just after noon-time prayers, I had the opportunity to go to the Muhammad Ali Mosque, the principal Mosque in the Cairo area. There were thousands of Arab Muslims there and, just as every other time, I was on my guard for an inevitable pushy sales pitch or a request to marry one of the girls in the group. What I got was polar opposite. I have never felt more welcome by any group of people at any other time in my life. Random people came up to me and asked me to take pictures with them. A man wanted me to play with his little kids while he took pictures of us (That's me and Megan with Ahmed's Kids). I'm surprised that the girls in the group didn't suffocate with all the hugs they were getting. The Arab people are of the sort that will instantly be your friend, feed you dinner, and give the you the shirt off their back. Then they take down your email address and make sure to send you their wedding invitations.
I asked Sean, a member of our group that has lived in Arab Countries, if they were all that way, and he answered with a resounding yes. Whatever anyone else says, know that there's not another group of people in the world like the Arabs. I hope that when we hear the word "Arab" from now on we think of genuine hospitality, wonderful friendship, and some of the most Christlike people on earth.