Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Snow Day

This morning we woke up to an almost white Jerusalem. It seems the weather report was accurate because the snow they predicted definitely came. Not that were was much snow – it was rather slushy actually – but it still snowed none the less. Yesterday we were warned that even the lightest snowfall shuts down the city because it is such a rare occurrence in Jerusalem, and they are unprepared for it. As a result we had a snow day today.

For all students (elementary through college) snow days are extremely exciting, exciting except when you live in the same building as your teachers of course. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it) Arabic and our Palestinian studies classes were cancelled because those teachers couldn’t make it but our Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies classes were not.

Some people were very excited to see snow, but I could have done without it. It certainly is a novel experience to see snow in Israel, but it is cold and wet and as close to miserable as it can get in the Holy Land. Unfortunately we have to walk through outdoor corridors to get to our rooms and so I have to splash through puddles and get dripped on if I want to go back and forth. However, it gave me a good excuse to stay inside and catch up on things that need catching up such as my homework and my blog of course.

I did make it out beyond the walls of the Jerusalem Center yesterday though. In the morning I went with three other people to see some Bar Mitzvahs at the Western Wall, which we found out from our Hebrew teacher happen every Monday and Wednesday morning. We had to be back for class at 9:30 a.m. so we left early and got there just after 8 a.m. A Bar Mitzvah is a coming of age ceremony that indicates boys (or girls) are now responsible for their actions especially in regards to keeping the commandments.

At the wall, James was the only one who could go to where the Bar Mitzvahs were, however by going down to the women’s side of the wall and looking through the fence we could see most of what was going on. There were some boys, I assume they were 13, who were at a table tying on their tefillin and then they started praying or reading Torah with the Rabbis who were wearing prayer shawls. There was a woman next to me also trying to look through the fence and she said it was her son’s Bar Mitzvah. She was from Las Angeles and it sounded like they had traveled to Jerusalem with the Bar Mitzvah in mind, which I thought must have been quite special for the boy. We couldn’t stay for long because we had to get back for class but it was nice to witness and I always like visiting the Western Wall.

I woke up this morning to find Jerusalem snow outside on my patio.

I wasn't very happy about having to walk outside in the slush to get to class.

Prayers at the Western Wall.

A boy is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"And the walls came a tumblin' down"

I’ve been thinking about it, and I think that our educational experience here at the Jerusalem Center is very much like a “Magic School Bus” experience. It’s been a very long time since I watched that show, but I remember each episode the students got to experience firsthand whatever subject they were learning.

It is something unique to be sitting in class discussing how King David established his capital in Jerusalem, which Solomon expanded to include the temple and then to look out of the window to my left and be able to see the Old City of Jerusalem and Temple Mount. Granted of course the city has been rebuilt several times, but the general landscape is the same, and if you know where to look (or have archaeologist professors to point things out for you) you can still find remnants of the past.

But my studies have not been confined to the classroom. Last week for instance we boarded our “mobile classrooms” as Brother Draper likes to call our buses, and went on two different fieldtrips to places that corresponded to what we are learning.

On Wednesday we visited the ancient tell of Jericho. (A tell is a hill or I suppose an archaeological mound.) Among other things we studied the story of when Joshua’s army surrounded the city and the walls came tumbling down. There wasn’t much left to the untrained eye, but once again we were lucky to have professors who helped us “feel the magic of the tell” and showed us remnants of buildings from various civilizations that were visible in the layers of the trenches. We even got to see what may have been the remnants of the wall that fell during Joshua’s time. In any case we got to blow the rams horn and sing “Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho” which was fun. (By the way, as a side note, Jericho is both the oldest city in the world and the lowest city on the earth.)

On Friday we went on a Judges/Philistines fieldtrip and visited the five valleys in the south western hill country of Judea. The highlight of these would have to be the Elah Valley where David fought Goliath. Once again we discussed the biblical account and then we had a re-enactment. The two Jordans in our class were Goliath (one sat on the other’s shoulders) and Davey was David. It was fun to be there in the field right next to the creek where David found the stones, and to watch Davey defeat Goliath (and with an authentic David sling). After that we all got to try our hand at the slingshot, although forty students with bad aim all slinging rocks at the same time sounded a bit risky to me. As far as I know, only one person actually got hit.

And so there you have it. The only way to improve this experience would be to travel back in time and actually watch the events take place. As it is, thanks to our magic school buses we’re experiencing the Bible as close to firsthand as possible.

Emily and I at tell Jericho. If you look closely behind us you might find some stone remnants of the wall from Joshua's time.

Our David and Goliath battle in the Valley of Elah.

Bethany is sacrificing me at Tel Lachish. Lachish was one of the Israelite strongholds that was defeated by the Assyrians.

James and I entering the ark two by two. This was not from our fieldtrips, but on an outing at the zoo.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Into the Mummy’s Tomb (and Other Egyptian Adventures)

I remember one summer just after we moved to Canada when almost every book I took out of the library was about Ancient Egypt. My fascination with this ancient civilization continued throughout elementary school, middle school and high school. My particular favourite was the story of Tutankhamen and Howard Carter’s discovery of his tomb. I even dressed up at Tutankhamen’s wife for Halloween when I was in grade five (unfortunately most people confused me with Cleopatra). Since that time, visiting Egypt was very near the top of my list of places to visit before I die, and last week I crossed it off my list. We spent eight glorious days in Egypt including Cairo, Luxor and Sinai, and I was able to cross many more things off my subcategory list of “things to do in Egypt before I die.” Here are the highlights:

1. Looked upon the face of Tutankhamen. While we were in Luxor one of the places we visited was the Valley of the Kings where many of the ancient pharaohs were buried. The valley lies on the west bank of the Nile which was symbolic to the ancient Egyptians since the sun rose in the east and set in the west each day. The Valley of the Kings was especially exciting to me because it was here that the tomb of Tutankhamen lay hidden for thousands of years until Howard Carter’s water boy discovered the first stone step, and now finally I was able to descend those steps myself. The tomb looked a little bit different from what I expected only because in the pictures it was still full of treasure and now it is empty except for a class case containing the mummy and one of his gold coffins. Apparently we were very lucky to be able to see Tutankhamen himself since it was only just recently that they moved him back into his tomb. He was such a little guy (compared to the other pharaohs such as Ramses II who I saw in Cairo) and yet the discovery of his treasure was perhaps the greatest archaeological find of all time. I also got to see all of his treasure including his famous gold death mask at the Cairo museum and it was even more beautiful to see it in person. It is probably because of this chance to see Tutankhamen and all his glory that I can now die happy.

2. Stood beside the Great Pyramids of Giza. When we first arrived in Cairo it was evening and the sun was just setting. I remember at one point I looked up and I thought “oh, there are the pyramids.” Then I realized that the great pyramids were actually in front of me and I got very excited. It was beautiful and quite fitting to watch the sun set behind the pyramids on my first night in Cairo. The next morning we actually went to see the pyramids and we got to go inside one of them. As I was hunched over descending the dark tunnel of the pyramid, I stopped to quickly kiss the wall, so now I can say that I kissed the pyramids! I also touched the ancient stones on the outside of the pyramid. Before I came to Egypt there were people who told me the pyramids were a bit of a disappointment but I wholeheartedly disagree.

3. Got caught in an Egyptian sandstorm. First let me start by saying that it only rains in Cairo about twice a year. So naturally it rained on one of the days that I was there. When it wasn’t raining that day it was as windy as anything, which of course means a sandstorm in the desert. It was particularly windy when we were visiting the step pyramid at Saqqara, which is why I was wearing a headscarf and sunglasses to keep the sand out of my eyes. Even so I managed to get sand absolutely EVERYWHERE. I won’t go into details, but that night as I was getting ready for bed I was still finding dessert sand in my clothes.

4. Rode a felucca down the Nile. While we were in Luxor we got to take a lovely boat ride on the Nile. The Nile River itself is not quite as clean as it once was and we were expressly warned not to jump in not matter how badly we wanted to tell people back home that we had swam in the Nile (one professor told us to think of our first born child and refrain). I did however lean over and touch the Nile (for the same reason I kissed the pyramid) but I made sure to use hand sanitizer afterwards.

5. Rode a camel in Egypt. I actually rode two camels in Egypt. The first one was at the pyramids and was a very short ride. The guide walked the camel a few steps, took some pictures for me and then glared at me when I only tipped him a dollar. Those guys can be pretty tricksy. I have a few photos of me with an Egyptian guy who jumped in the photo, posed and then had the nerve to ask me for a “baksheesh” or tip. Anyways, the second camel ride in Luxor was a lot more enjoyable. Madison and I rode a camel named Bob Marley and we were led by a kid named Ahmet or something like that. The ride took us through the more rural areas of Luxor which was very interesting to see. My favourite was greeting all the little kids who and come to the roadside to see the “Americans” ride by. I was a little sore the next day though.

6. Climbed Mount Sinai. On our last day in Egypt we followed the path of the Exodus back to Jerusalem and we stopped overnight in Sinai. We then woke up at 2 in the morning in order to hike Mount Sinai in time to see the sunrise from the top. It really was an amazing experience. We hiked in the dark and the stars above us were absolutely brilliant – probably the brightest I’ve seen in my entire life. We also visibly watched the moon rise over the crest of the mountain. And I can’t adequately describe the sunrise from the top, but it was gorgeous. As we waited for the sun to rise completely we sang some hymns and were joined by some Korean tourists who sang along in Korean. (I loved the fact that there were Asian tourists even at the top of Mount Sinai.) I had lots of favourite experiences in Egypt but Sinai was probably my most spiritual experience.

I'm actually a descendant of the Sphinx. Can you tell?

A lovely camel ride past the pyramids.

Caught in a sandstorm by the step pyramid. See how windy it is?

Admiring the Karnak Temple.

Trying to fall into the Nile.