Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Israel: Acre and Caesarea

I met a traveler from an antique land.

To be honest, I didn’t actually meet anyone in person but through the 1912 edition of Baedeker’s Palestine and Syria travel guide, a wonderful Christmas gift. I love old guides that reveal so much about conditions as seen through the eyes of whomever contributed to the text and what they thought would be important to the inexperienced traveler who had a case of wanderlust.

The red-covered Baedekers were known to be reliable and the traveler wouldn’t want to be without one – remember Lucy Honeychurch who was lost in Santa Croce without her Baedeker in “Room with a View”? I do have the very one Lucy carried (or at least a copy of Central Italy which covers Florence and Rome). Both guides were bought from the well-named Insatiables bookstore in Port Townsend, WA.

According to the flyleaf for the Palestine and Syria book, my fellow traveler was someone named D.P. Wetherald. I don’t know if it was a he or one of the intrepid British women like Gertrude Bell who tramped all over the area before World War I and drew the boundaries of the countries in the Middle East after the war. Whoever it was, bought the book in Cairo on March 7, 1914, just six months before the world turned upside down and the subsequent fall of the Ottoman empire that ruled the area. The guide covers what are now Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan.
With the exception of Lebanon and Syria, where we’d planned to go just before the uprising, we’ve had the good fortune to visit most of the major sites described in the book. Most recently, we spent time in Acre as did Mr. or Ms. Wetherald.

My ghostly fellow traveler must have had a special sentiment about Acre because I found a tiny dried wildflower pressed into the page containing a map of the area which has been settled since time immemorial.

It was Canaanite before waves of invaders moved in: the Phoenicians and Persians, the Greeks and Romans. It was in Acre that Herod received Emperor Augustus in 30 BC. The Roman Empire declined and other groups like the Seleucids, the Byzantines, and Ommayyad caliphs took over in a dizzying mash-up of history.

The port served as the gateway to the Holy Land during the Crusades where in 1104 the Knights of St. John conquered the city and built a gigantic castle for their headquarters. The city was popular with such travelers as St. Francis, a Holy Roman Emperor, and a king of France. Richard the Lion-Hearted saved the city from Saladin only to lose it again. The Crusader’s ever-shrinking kingdom finally came to an end in 1291. The castle was later occupied by assorted Ottoman pashas, but withstood Napoleon’s siege. It changed hands repeatedly again until 1948 when the Israeli’s took possession from the British who grabbed it in 1918, only four years after my traveler, Wetherald, visited.

My husband and I visited Acre in October. Wetherald visited March 26, 1914 according to a pencil notation. The guidebook considered Acre to be a minor excursion from Haifa, usually accomplished by boat because of the bad roads. According to the book, while the bazaar-market still presents a lively scene, the interior of the large mosque was “tasteless,” and the Ottoman military hospital “is said to have been once the residence of the Knights of St. John.”

That was then. Now the town, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, is bustling with tourists coming to walk the picturesque old lanes, peer into caravanserais to imagine merchants off-loading their pack animals after the long trek on the Silk Road, dine by the blue sea and venture into the restored Crusader fortress, much of which is underground, dimly lit, and definitely not for those with fear of confined spaces or the dark. Our guide led us ever deeper through beautifully-restored gigantic halls that served as refectory, hospital, a storeroom for the lucrative sugar trade, and one for unfortunate prisoners.

We emerged into the sun and modernity, blinking our eyes before moving into the shade of the souk. The narrow street was lined with shops filled with typical goods found in such busy markets in this part of the world: fresh fish, olives, fragrant spices, sweets, clothing, along with the inevitable buckets, brooms, and detergent.

A door at the end of the street was the entrance to what is called the Templar Tunnel where Crusaders once clanked along in their heavy armor on military business and laborers carted cones or loaves of sugar or supplies to and from the port to the castle. The tunnel is narrow and damp, and the knights must have been short because even I at just over five feet had to bend down in many sections.
We returned to brilliant sunlight at the Old Town, once one of the most important in the Eastern Mediterranean but now home to fishing and pleasure craft.

We lingered by the old sea walls watching the timeless scene and contemplating a sweet message daubed on a wall: a heart and Ali +Hlq.

And on the way back to the bus we saw more evidence of “sweet”:

The following day, we were presented with a graphic reminder that love doesn’t conquer all. We arrived at Caesarea to a scene combining the reality of modern times with the ancientsoldiers eyeing a display of the latest missiles.

Although the settlement was ancient, historical records begin in 22 BC, when King Herod the Great began to build up the town and port. He named it after Augustus Caesar and oversaw the construction of a temple dedicated to Augustus, a theater, a hippodrome and the famous aqueduct. The governors of Judea made it their home town when the area became a Roman province. Among the governors was the infamous Pontius Pilate. Saints Paul and Peter, among many other early Christians, resided here for various periods of time.

Arabs conquered the town but were pushed out by Crusaders five hundred years later. They, in turn, only hung on for twenty-one years before being swept away themselves. But one interesting side note remains: the town seems to be where the story of the Holy Grail began. When King Baldwin took the town on May 17th 1101, he seized an object from a ruined Byzantine cathedral. According to William of Tyre, the chronicler of the First Crusade, it was a round dish carved out of an enormous emerald used during the Last Supper. Baldwin was forced to give it to the Genoese in payment for the loan of a fleet. They took it to Genoa where it is displayed in the cathedral of San Lorenzo. Later, it was found to be Roman glass and is one of many contenders for the true chalice. Whatever the true story of the Grail is, the chronicler ignited the stories, legends, and quests that continue to this day.

The city unfortunately didn’t enjoy the same notoriety and gradually sank into the sand and sea. My traveler’s guidebook didn’t think much of it, saying it was a site that could only be reached by carriage in dry weather, and if you happened to be stuck, “Bosnians have been settled here since 1884 and can supply rough nightquarters in case of need.” The book also advised that the destruction carried out after the Crusaders left was still on-going by locals needing building materials.
We walked over ancient white marble in the blazing sun, trying to imagine the scene first in Roman times when crowds cheered chariot races as in the old film “Ben Hur.”

The heat from sky and marble forced us to retreat under a palm tree for a cool drink before we trekked through a dusty parking lot to take a close look at the aqueduct, partially buried in sand. It supplied water for 1200 years but was dry by the time the Crusaders showed up.

Now, it’s a sad remnant of a once-important city, a structure that now comes from nowhere and leads nowhere, only attractive to tourists and military activity.

Another day passed in the ever-changing, never-changing, always thought-provoking Middle East. Middle-east if you live in the West, the center of the world if you're a resident.

All photos by author except photo of “Holy Chalice” which is from Wikipedia CC, photo by Sylvain Ballet, 19 August 2009

Thursday, April 25, 2019

DESERT SONG PART III - San Andreas Fault and Dates

California is shaky: nearly 7000 quakes in the last 365 days according to an earthquake site. Years ago, when I lived in Anaheim there were constant mini-quakes. I scooted out of my apartment building even though a neighbor said “No worry, it’s earthquake season.” I worried anyway. And like most people living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been through several. But the worst was in Rome where an interior wall in our apartment split from floor to ceiling (and far more importantly caused severe damage to the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi). So the prospect of a tour to the San Andreas Fault gave me pause.

The infamous fault runs about 800 miles from northern California to the Mexican border. It’s formed where the Pacific Plate and North American Place continually scrape together as one moves in a southerly direction and the other toward the north, resulting in earthquakesmany small and some deadly large. The jeep tour was on the Metate Ranch where if you expected to see a gigantic crevasse, you’d be disappointed. But the ground is rough and rocky with narrow slot canyons created uplift from the movement of the Plates and carved over the eons by wind and water.

No one knows when the next “big one” will take place but it thankfully didn’t happen on that day.

Besides squeezing through the slot canyons, the tour featured mock-up of a Cauhilla Indian village with a pond, sweat lodge & living unit made from reeds that grow in the pond. Up a steep little hill, was a large rock with holes formerly used by the Indians to grind grains and acorns, a food staple made into a porridge.

Their diet was more varied than I'd assumed and also included pine nuts, mesquite beans, seeds and small animals such as rabbits and lizards, along with the fruit of the California Fan Palm. Native to the area, this palm doesn’t actually produce dates. Instead, it bears elliptical black "berries" about 1/2 inch in diameter. These berries have a very large, brown seed surrounded by a thin, sweet pulp. The tree was all-purpose to natives who ate the fruit fresh or dried, ground the pits into flour and wove the fronds into baskets and roofing.

Dusty from the tour but not wanting to miss out another unusual food stop and to learn all about “The Romance and Sex Life of Dates,” we stopped at the Shields Date Garden. The gimmick has pulled in tourists since 1924.

The date palms we know are native to the Middle East where they’ve been cultivated for millennia. The trees were brought to North America by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century. The palms are difficult to cultivate with precise needs for water but happily grow well in the Coachella Valley.

We started our visit with a date milkshake, a treat made with date crystals since 1936 according to their signs – they were delicious but it must have about a thousand calories. Next, we ventured into their theater to watch a movie from, I think, the 1950s  It tells the story of Shields who worked to breed new varieties of dates, and the workers who take care of the trees from pollination to harvest in his palm grove. Disappointingly, it turns out that date palms are actually quite staid and need to be encouraged to get to know each other by the workers who must perch on long ladders as they hand pollinate the female flowers with pollen from the male trees. Definitely not an R-rated movie!

Palm trees always conjure days of sun and relaxation as the fronds rustle in the breeze, so it was a pleasure to amble along the path winding around the grove of towering palms with ladders hung high up, stored until the next pollination or harvest season.

There were two clues we weren’t in some exotic oasis: Life-size concrete statues depicting Biblical scenes and the noise of nearby traffic whizzing by. Despite the distraction, it was pleasant to dream of exotic scenes from the Arabian Nights as we paused to sit on benches to listen to the chirping of birds in the foliage.

The outdoor restaurant had a menu featuring all things dates. But we weren't hungry and decided to browse the gift shop, not for the sugar or crystals but to sample some of the twelve different varieties grown in the grove to decide which ones we’d buy for gifts (and for us).

The samples were delicious, much better than those we normally bought in the local stores, but I have to admit they were still nothing like those my former Tunisian boss in Rome brought us from his trips home. They were gigantic and a transparent amber color, and came on a sprays heavy with dozens of the divine fruit for us to pick at leisure. 
Soon were were satiated with the samples that topped up the super-rich date milkshakes, feeling like like some of the packages of  dates stuffed with nuts that we’d bought as gifts and for ourselves. It was our last night in Palm Springs. We contented ourselves with snacks for dinner at our condo before packing up for the flight home. Diet to begin the next morning!

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

DESERT SONG - Part II, Pioneer Town and Joshua Trees

DESERT SONG – Part II, Pioneer Town and Joshua Trees

We’d enjoyed some of the cultural opportunities of the area and we’re ready to explore the desert (i.e. the area that hasn’t been turned into towns and golf courses.)At the top of our list was the Joshua Tree National Park which covers areas of the Mojave Desert on the western side and the Colorado Desert on the east. 

We headed out toward the town of Joshua Tree, one of the park’s entrances but instead of turning into the park, we made a detour for more “culture”not far from the town of Yucca Valley—an exploration of Pioneertown, purportedly founded by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry in the 1940s as a movie set for their shoot-em ups.

At that time about the only amenity in the area was a beat-up saloon where the stars and extras could belly-up after hours. After some 50 films, the movie business moved on but the cantina remained to serve the occasional thirsty traveler. In 1972 it morphed into an outlaw biker bar; ten years later the owners turned it over to their son-in-law and daughter: Pappy and Harriet. They built their namesake into a destination restaurant and music venue hosting such luminaries as Rufus Wainwright. Pappy and Harriet's is now worthy of entries in Wikipedia and Atlas Obscura.
Drawn by the honky-tonk atmosphere, we decided on an early lunch shared with a few gray-ponytailed old bikers and dullards like us. I couldn’t help picturing Roy and Gene ordering a salad of organic kale, vegetarian chili and a glass of Malbec after a hard day on the set while Trigger and Champion had their noses in feedbags at the hitching post outside.

Inside, the stage was set up but it was much too early for music but the quirky d├ęcor extended to the women’s restroom.

It was time to move on to Joshua Tree, a natural wonder like no other I’ve seen. Home to wildlife, pinon pines, junipers, scrub oak, yucca and cactus, the real attractions are the Joshua trees and the weathered granite boulders thrust up eons ago as a result of volcanic activity. Rock climbers and photographers are in seventh heaven.

The Joshua trees were named by Mormon settlers in the 1800s because the wild arms seemed to them to be Moses’ assistant, Joshua, raising his hands in praise to God. They aren’t mentioned in the Bible and don’t grow naturally in Israel. And they aren’t trees either but rather a variety of yucca that can grow to 40 feet. They grow slowly, an inch a year, and it is heartbreaking to see the vandalism done to the trees and other wonders by those who have taken advantage of the closure of the park in the fight over the budget.

According to rangers, it could take up to three hundred years for nature to repair the damage. I ask myself why people behave so badly, but there’s no rational answer.
The park is nearly 793,000 acres of which more than 80 percent is designated wilderness. At the entrance we noted posters of missing hikers and it was easy to imagine a tragedy from extreme heat and night chill, or a fall in some desolate canyon.

Given the time we had available we did most of our “exploring” near the road but did hike to Barker Dam and Hidden Valley used by cattle rustlers in the early days.

I was surprised how many people joined us on the path. Infants, grandparents, couples and solo walkers all determined to get in one more experience before the area closed for the day because there aren’t campgrounds there in fact our map only showed eight camps in the entire park.

The sun was low in the sky by the time we returned to our car to descend to the Coachella Valley and plan another day of food and adventure: a jeep tour on the San Andreas Fault and an investigation of the sex lives of dates (sorry: it’s about the kind that grow on palm trees.)  

All photos copyright Judith Works     

Sunday, January 6, 2019

DESERT SONG Part I - Palm Springs & Rancho Mirage

In desperate need of sun, we flew to southern California for some warmth and a change of scenery – no fir trees, no salt water, no gloom - for a week. There are nine communities clumped together in the Coachella Valley but we stuck to two: Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage for a dose of culture when we weren’t catching rays near the pool at our rented condo where hummingbirds investigated my red shoes.

The area was settled by the Cahuilla peoples thousands of years ago, calling what we know as Palm Springs: Se-Khi” or boiling waters. The local band take their name, Agua Caliente, from the hot springs and are “fortunate” that in 1876 they were granted 6,700 acres of land in what would become the city and are thus wealthy compared to the many unfortunate tribes that lost virtually everything.
The designation of the location as Palm Springs may come from early Spanish explorers who referred to the area as The Palm of God’s Hand, but as early as 1853 the word referred to the native California fan palm. Europeans showed up more permanently in 1862 when a stagecoach station was established and a wealthy attorney from San Francisco, John McCallum, brought his tubercular son to the area in hopes of curing him in the dry climate.

McCallum’s early experiment in agriculture came to an abrupt end when the area suffered an unprecedented 17 days of pouring rain, followed by an 11-year drought, ruining crops and the irrigation canals. Undaunted, other entrepreneurs established hotels touting the dry climate as ideal for those with lung problems. The 1920s brought movie stars like Valentino and Errol Flynn who could have fun (i.e. sex, golf and tennis) away from the prying eyes of gossip columnists who didn’t have money enough to travel the 110 miles from L.A.

By the mid-1940s a new architectural style perfectly attuned to the landscape, was brought to the desert by the architect Richard Neutra, to house the rich and famous. The most famous of these houses is the Kaufmann house, with its use of modern materials and extensive glass windows was the model for many other homes, some of which are open during the twice-annual Modernist Week.

The 1950s were the beginning of the louche Rat Pack era with Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Elvis and others living high (actually low). But it was also the time when miles of attached housing and mobile home enclaves attracted heat-seeking retires who thronged the golf courses. That the area is a continuing magnet is evident in the number of hospitals, urgent care centers, and consignment shops lining the major roads. We passed one major intersection with two care centers kitty-corner from each other just like Starbucks. Despite the warm sunshine, I felt a chill. 

The town sunk during the recession of 1973-75 and again in the 2008. With the latest economic revival, downtown Palm Springs is revitalizing and showcasing its modernist architecture where the angular style is a perfect complement to the stark desert hills surrounding the town and to the landscaping surrounding the buildings – cactus, agave, sparse-leafed trees, and purple bougainvillea. Some of the buildings are painted eye-popping colors, like the Saguaro Hotel.

And some of the shopping opportunities are equally colorful.

We took a walking tour around the downtown where it is evident that restoration is underway with sculptures, and new buildings in the modernist style – such a far cry from the several old buildings that form the nucleus of the original settlement like McCallum’s adobe.

For a change of scene, we spent a day in nearby Rancho Mirage, famous for the Annenberg estate nicely-named Sunnylands. The 200-acre grounds include a private golf course, 11 lakes, swimming pool, and extensive gardens filled with desert plants. We entered the complex through the impressive and new Welcome Center.

Annenberg was an enormously wealthy philanthropist who was Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to the U.K. He knew every politician from the 1930s on and the room containing his memorabilia is worth a long look. He envisioned the 25,000 square-foot house would be used as a place where solution-driven meetings could take place, and to that end the architect A. Quincy Jones (not the musician) designed a mid-Century modern mansion with its stark lines and egg-crate overhang greeting us at the home's entrance.

To my eye the interior was a strange jumble, especially the gigantic living room with a continuation of the egg-crate ceiling, clumps of furniture in the Hollywood Regency style, a walk-in fireplace, Rodin sculpture, and Chinese antiquities surrounding a central pool like a Roman villa of old. The most startling aspect of the room is the collection of paintings, Impressionist and Post-Impressionists in their gold carved frames. I did a double-take because I was sure I’d seen many of them before. It turned out I had – all the originals were donated to the Metropolitan Museum and these were digital reproductions which lent a surreal air because some of the paper on which they were printed was slightly warped - enough to catch the light.

We passed outside to view the golf course and swimming pool thinking of all the famous people who visited stayed in the guest house – a series of five color-coordinated rooms, each with a list of those who had rested there: Queen Elizabeth, Sandra Day O-Connor, eight presidents, and the current president of China.

A Trust was set up to preserve the estate and to continue fostering positive international relations after the Annenbergs died. Groups of up to twenty now come for meetings (and golf) while thousands of casual visitors enjoy a tour of the home, gardens, and Welcome Center.

After the tour we were ferried back to the Center in oversized golf-carts. We enjoyed an outdoor lunch and strolled the gardens, watching a yoga class on the Great Lawn before viewing a photographic exhibition of the many birds that make their home on the estate.

Enough culture! We retreated to our condo on one of the more than a hundred golf courses on the area to enjoy the late afternoon lengthening the shadows of the palm trees on the course. We lounged on the balcony with our chilled pinot grigio watching golfers approach a rather menacing sand trap. Several, stuck in the hole, raised their heads to look around before furtively picking up their ball and casually placing it on the putting green not far from the flag. I wondered if any of the famous people who enjoyed a round at the Annenberg estate dared do the same.


all photos copyright Judith Works.