Ever since I discovered the long lost Archimedes Codex I have been fascinated by Byzantium and felt it was high time I went to Constantinople to see what was left of the joint. People rave about Istanbul and they tell you it’s a fantastic place but frankly Istanbul was a bit dull even though we still had a great time because I conned my cousin Will Milne (local home builder here in Woodside) and his son Gary as well as my son Tyler to accompany me. A retinue, just like in old Byzantium.
Will found us a great hotel with a commanding view of the Bosporus and I was in awe of so many ships going back and forth. Coal barges, freighters,lumber ships, container vessels, ferries, tugs, fishing boats and tanker after tanker. At times I could count over a 125 large ships at once.
Turkey is surprisingly expensive and let me tell you the food is on a par with San Francisco in cost and Russia in execution. Fortunately our hotel had a spectacular breakfast and convivial staff with fun guests even if several turned out to be Buck’s customers so it was like being here but with more hummus.
The thing about Istanbul is that it is paved with mosques. I have seen plenty of mosques but the original big dog, Hagia Sophia, from the 6th century is impressive. People profess to love it but it does have a heavy, dumped from the sky appearance though it is cheered up a bit by Minute Man Missile looking minarets. It was originally a Byzantine Church and was later converted to a mosque. It set the domed style you see all over the Moslem world. In fact, it was copied several times full size in Istanbul such as Blue Mosque right next door from the 11th century which is almost identical. Several others just as big and countless smaller ones fill the town for the five times daily battle of the bands, or more properly the singing of prayers which seems to be a calling back and forth from tower to tower. The Hagia Sophia is now desanctified and is a museum. We were going in and the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel was coming out. She seemed nice if in a bit of hurry with a few dozen security and about bazillion press folks mobbing her. I had always wanted to see the Golden Horn. Did you know that John C. Freemont named the Golden Gate after Constantinople’s Gold Horn? This inlet was famously the port of the eastern Roman Empire’s fleet. It was protected by an iron chain that stretched across the mouth. The dynamics of chain sag make this difficult to imagine but at one Ottoman castle they had what was purported to be a piece of it. I tried to buy it but they would not sell. Tyler located MiniTurk a village of miniatures of the great buildings in Turkey which we accessed by boat across the Horn.
At one point we were crossing the Horn in a small open boat, ably skippered by a man unaccountably named Murray. or His face was wrapped in a cheerful smile if not exactly backed by an excess of teeth. Murray might have been Charon’s brother piloting us over the River Styx to Hell as in Greek mythology for all the condoms and cow heads in the water. The luster of gold had definitely moved to another part of town. Later we went out on the much larger and cleaner Bosporus for a cruise along the shore. Here we saw the mansions of the super rich. It seems that Istanbul has the 4th most billionaires of any major city, somewhat behind greater Palo Alto but still, Istanbul. They don’t seem to value privacy much because the pools and yards were there for all the tourists to see. They have some fine yachts too. One was the Savarona a 408 footer from the U.S. built in 1931 by the granddaughter of the guy who built the Brooklyn Bridge. The yacht was bought by Turkey and given to Kermal Ataturk the revered founder who brought Turkey into the modern world.
We were repeatedly advised not to make fun of the revered founder. He kicked the clerics out of government and made the people adopt western dress, science and education. He got rid of the cumbersome Arabic alphabet and he gave women rights. He basically remade the entire place after kicking out the Europeans and the Ottomans. The man dated Zsa Zsa Gabor. Not the wizened old cop-slapper but the hot international 1930s Zsa Zsa. He had the world’s largest palace, the largest yacht and everyone’s respect. He died of excess partying. Why we would think of making fun of him is beyond me. Of course since they mentioned it I was always just an inch away from screaming some pretty coarse indictment of the man but I didn’t want to end up in a Turkish prison.
Did someone say Turkish prison? Well, who doesn’t recall the delightful travelogue The Midnight Express the semi accurate tale of a young American who was smuggling hash and got tossed in prison in Istanbul. He was not pleased with the prison experience, especially after serving many years and then having his sentence extended to life. “Hey, this is America you can’t do…oh right.” Anywho, this book and movie really made the Turk’s heads explode and this was another thing we were asked not to bring up. In fact we were warned about not stealing towels and to avoid earthquakes. The prison in the story was a few steps from our hotel and is now a Four Seasons so at least the food there is better.
I love all the odd stuff about a country. Down on the waterfront we found a brisk trade in fish sandwiches. Hundreds of folks simply crazy for these fresh looking sandwiches. Tyler and Gary gamely shorted a couple of them, bite by bite. They were made of mackerel and smelled like cat food. It was right by these fishwives that we found about a dozen nightclubs devoted to colorful beanbag chairs. These clubs were located on a bridge across the Horn and each had hundreds of vinyl beanbags. It is exceedingly difficult to look elegant in a contraption like this especially with the thousands of fishing lines overhead as fishermen with huge piles of bait try their luck from the bridge. As far as I could see none had caught a dern thing but they sure had a pantload of bait. No, it seems the fish they were catching were 4” sardines. In that same area was a fellow doing a brisk trade in weighing people on a bathroom scale for about a dime. Will was a little amazed and had himself weighed and insisted I do it even though the scale was clearly broken.
Sure we saw classy things in the berg like the archeological museum.The Greek and Roman marble was better than any collection I have ever seen. They had on loan The Discus Thrower from The Louvre. This is famous as being both exquisite and for the fact that that an ancient head repairer got the head on backwards. The marble sarcophagi of the ancient Romans were the finest marble works imaginable. I wish I could be a dead Roman sometimes as they made it look so much fun.
Of course the main highlight in Istanbul was the Obama cat. This is cat that lives in the Hagia Sophi. When Obama came a couple of years back he was photographed with this cat and ever since it has been preening for photo opps. One final thing is that everyone smokes. Kids, old ladies and every man. But on TV they can’t show smoking. We watched the movie Dick Tracy in the hotel and they put little animated birds, dolphins and cats over the cigarettes and these little animations remade the film in the best way and really made us want to smoke.
Of course we could be in Turkistan. There you are only allowed to smoke inside building so the restaurants are full of smoke but the streets are clear. The great leader there is definitely nuts. He has prohibited seatbelts as encouraging reckless driving. I have got to go there.
Gary and Will had to return home so Tyler and I flew to Beirut in Lebanon. They call this pile the Paris of the Mediterranean but I’ve been to Paris and they must be thinking of a different Paris. It looked great from the air but on the ground you can see they have a management problem. I have some suggestions. Stop letting open sewers run onto the beach where you want folks to swim. Patch the bullet holes. I know it looks macho but really the war is over and 50 million machine gun holes makes they place look a little unkempt. The whole country is actually on high alert. Many street corners have tanks with real cannons and a guy sitting at the ready. Tens of thousands of soldiers infect the streets, all with machine guns and more sitting at 50 calibers hunkered behind sandbags in blown out buildings.
Here’s the amazing thing. They are completely ignored. The place is also clogged with Ferrari dealers, Gucci stores and more Mercedes dealers then anywhere else in the world. I saw as many as two Benz stores in one block and this was out in the country. There are four jobs in Lebanon. Cab driver, soldier, car dealer and plastic surgeon. The place is quite prosperous but it hasn’t translated to elegance. The hills are crammed with a skelter of apartment buildings as high as 12 stories on the tops of the overbuilt hills. The beaches are where the poor folks or even squatters live.
Tyler and I rolled into our beachfront hotel. I asked for a room with a view of the ocean. “No we can’t, high season.” Later we discovered there were about 3 of 100 rooms occupied and we got a view of the construction site. Well, I guess it was high season. We walked all over the city. It is one massive block of concrete. The citizens love to brag about the vibrant nightlife. This means drinking, sex and waving your Rolex in the air. I checked this out with some locals and after feigning insult they agreed. This doesn’t mean that the people are unpleasant. Far from it. The Lebanese are very hospitable (except at our hotel where they told Tyler he couldn’t play the grand piano in the lobby but to their credit they were right. He couldn’t, because it was a fake) The Lebanese will admit that there are a lot of bejeweled posers showing off. But they will insist on putting you up in their home, buying you dinner and probably giving you the Rolex. A generous and warm people while being self absorbed and wildly proud of their concrete playground.
Outside of town we went to Grotte de Jeita.
This is a cavern of such heartbreaking beauty that their campaign to have it listed as one of the 7 natural wonders of the world is an effort we will support. Our cab driver, Michael, had suggested we go there and he was so right to tell us. Later we asked him why he was taking us in the wrong direction. In halting English (they speak Arabic and French with a good deal of English) that he said we should come to home and meet his wife over tea. Snap, Michael, another good call and there we were on his veranda looking at pictures of his kids and eating baklava. “Hey Mike, can I have your watch?”
Our preferred mode of travel was the people’s bus. Cheap, and you meet great folks. One ride was with an entire bus of soldiers. All stern faced until Tyler loosed then up with a Beatles song. We drove through Biblos (where the alphabet was invented) to Tripoli. I liked this seaside city. Crazy with bullet holes but no tourists except us and a vibrant market with funny, happy store keepers. From there we took a white knuckler into the mountains to Bcharre. This looks almost like an Italian town with its terraces and olive groves. It’s a ski resort though the snow was nearly gone. This is the birthplace and grave of Kahil Gibran. To some hippies from the 60s this is a big deal. Like Pirsig and Castaneda, Gibran was a minor writer appealing to drug addled hedonists.
In fact many people in the Middle East are hedonists in the best possible sense. A young man in Jordon was lamenting how much he hated his country. He said the people have no ambition, no imagination. “All they want to do is make love to their wives and eat.” Ha! This struck us as highly evolved.
So with a great sushi dinner in Beirut (our last American food for a while) we headed to the old part of the country, the Bekka Valley and the city of Baalbek a Roman stronghold and religious center.
The ruins of the temples are among the finest from ancient Rome. Some of the columns are 60 feet tall and have never fallen. These granite columns came from Egypt across the sea, over the mountains and through the desert and the biggest temple took about 200 years to erect. This take-your-time attitude is still the way they build all over this region. Houses now are of cast concrete and are one to four stories with the rebar projecting from the roof. The upper floors are usually unfinished waiting for the next generation to complete. This gives much of the Middle East a tentative look when it’s just that they are in no hurry.
It was in Baalbek where we had a superb meal, maybe the best of our trip at a tourist place in front of the ruins. It was Good Friday and as we were served dinner outside a procession of Roman soldiers came down the street whipping a guy dressed as Christ carrying a cross. True dinner theater. We ate with the troubled son of the owner. He was about 22 and with impeccable English told how he crashed his car and got busted for driving on drugs but his father paid the cops and got him off. He was dressed as a hip-hop American but he was local lad in the middle of nowhere except his town happens to be the Hezbollah stronghold. At one point they took a few rockets in the village and the kid told us he took a handful of Xanex and ran through the streets yelling that life was a joke as they were under fire. He also informed us that Tom and Jerry cartoons are very popular in the Middle East. When I asked him why, he said that Hanna or was it Barbarra, the creators, was Lebanese. You really do see Tom and Jerry a lot on TV there and you can buy the comics in any small town. I looked them up: Irish and Italian. But hey, let them dream.
People advise you everywhere not to discuss religion and politics just before they lay into these issues. They are all experts but with very biased points of view. I am well versed on the Mexican-American War and the conquest of California and so I will stick to that. If you want my opinion on religion and politics in the Middle East I plead ignorance. I wish all sides peace and good health.
Now Syria is not a country most folks just stroll on into. We had to send to the embassy in DC to get a visa and swear we had never been to “occupied Palestine.” Where the heck is that?…oh Israel. But when we got to the border the lines were 8 hours long so we ditched our cab and walked behind buses and vans through 4 checkpoints without being stopped. We figured that we had a visa and the worst case was several years in prison but they never actually saw us so there we were on the road to Damascus.
Ahhh, Damascus at Easter. We knew some Christians in the old city and they told us that Easter was a huge deal and the place was full with revelers. Hum… well, there are a few Christians. Very few, and the city was bustling, but Easter is not a big Moslem holiday. From a hilltop at night we could see the city the mosques lit up in green and the churches in blue. Very little blue.
The women in Syria and Jordan have to keep their heads covered except for tourists and the few Christians. Many have to wear long robes and then there are all the variations. Some women are completely covered in black with a little fly screen to see out. I don’t think the bug problem is really that bad. To us it seems a kind of insanity to punish a woman by putting her in a black body tent in the desert. Arabs make all sorts of excuses, like the women have really sexy clothes underneath but there is no question that this is geared to reducing a woman’s humanity.
We soon discovered why they are not big drinkers in the Arab world. The drinkers have all been killed crossing the street. It is truly a life threatening adventure to do this. It was the only time we felt at all unsafe.
The old marketplace, the Souk, is the stuff of legends. Roman gates flank the market which has been in the same place for at least 3,500 years and possibly twice that long. Here you see heaps of spices and gadgets, vegetables, meat, and clothes from the full black burqa to rhinestone underwear worn by hookers or hooker wannabes. This place is fully authentic.
We hung out with some locals and their hospitality was lavish and generous. We went to one restaurant billed as the best in the city and it was indeed grand. It was a rooftop garden with trays overflowing with Arabic food. Three of us ate like caliphs and the bill was about $35. Syria is a bargain.
We took a three-hour drive to Palmyra, a city as remote in Roman times as now. It consists of a mile long paved road flanked by temples, theaters and endless rows of columns (Romans were simply nuts for columns). This place made its fortune as a trading center but we were hard pressed to imagine how such wealth could accumulate in the desert. I guess we have Vegas but back then it was so hard move stuff. Before ships went to the orient the trade route was surging with camel trains bringing the wealth of the east in trade for the gold of the west. Palmyra was basically a port of call in this sea of sand. The Roman ruins in the East are far more complete than in Italy because of they are so remote.
One of our goals was to go to the Damascus Gate restaurant billed as the largest in the world. 6014 seats, staff of 1800, 40 million dollars, 400,000 sq ft. We got there and a real nice fellow took us on the grand tour. It looked like a stage set from a Bollywood film but built by inept children. Bad stucco and colored lights, plastic chairs and a few palm trees. In the whole place there might have been 2,500 seats and there were only about 30 customers. To us the joint next door looked far bigger and a lot nicer. There were huge billboards proclaiming its Guinness recordness but it had obviously been tarted up for the pictures and all the good furniture had been repossessed. The center piece of the restaurant is a meteorite about the size of toaster. We absolutely loved this place.
South of Damascus was Bosra a Roman stronghold featuring the finest intact amphitheater from ancient times. It looked exactly like a stadium of today with nearly every stone block is still in place. The town surrounding it is so complete that people continue to occupy the Roman buildings.
Then it was time to bid this friendly country adios and cross the boarder to Jordan. We found a cabman who promised to take us over for $8 for 15 miles which was expensive but we did pass through 4 checkpoints in Syria, to get out, and 9 in Jordan to enter. The Jordanians took our pictures, taped our voices, made us fill out papers and fingerprinted us. The main grilling was transacted over a counter which came up to our chests. The agents at the desks behind could not see over it when seated and the shorter people could not see them so business was conducted with a screaming pantomime of hands waving over across this counterproductive installation. We were about to roll up our sleeves for a blood test when a guy with a gun called us into his office. “Sit,” he insisted darkly as he waved us onto a battered couch. He perused at our papers glumly and glared over his glasses at us. He was looking for sweating drug mules (possible) or perhaps American terrorists (unlikely). Seeing no sweat or bulges he broke into a big smile and said “Welcome to Jordan! Obama good!” This was so typical of many places we went. In many countries the common folk are friendly enough but the guys with pistolays are a bit dickish. In the Middle East you learn to not mind a guy in a uniform even when he waves an AK47 in your face with one hand and shakes one of yours with another. In Mexico I have been robbed by uniformed police twice but in Jordan the cops hold open the door for you.
Crossing the border everything looked different. The sexy underwear in the shops windows was even nastier and the homes were more prosperous with sloping roofs indicating they were actually finished. We passed lush fields and the crazy driving ceased (except for the curious habit of spending a good deal of time on the wrong side of the road). We went through speed traps every 5 miles or so and police roadblocks every 10 so it looked like there had either been a major prison break or it was just business as usual in the Middle East.
It isn’t old at all. This place sprung up in the last 100 years and most in the last 30 so the city crawls over steep hills and looks much like San Francisco Amman’s newest sister city. The ancients didn’t build up steep hills but cars changed all that. We first went to the Russian embassy where they were their typically hostile selves. I love Russia; the rudest damn people on earth. Anyway Tyler wanted to go see a friend in Moscow but they wouldn’t give him a visa. Just before going there we were making copies for the visa and found ourselves in the 250 foot long lobby in a schmancy hotel featuring a 40-foot shark tank with 12, we counted em, 12 large sharks and about 2 million bucks in couches and knickknacks. This is where the diplomats stay. They wanted about $800 a night so we found a nice hotel a few blocks away with no sharks but included a very nice lobby cat for about $40.
That night in Amman we met street vendors who musically yell out in Arabic “we got fressssh fish here, we got riiiiipe tomatoes!” All singing out at once which is quite something. We liked Amman; modern, but not fancy. Friendly and fast without the feeling of being hustled. There are pictures of the king everywhere and he is smiling while dressed in the desert camo, with bands of bullets and the ever present curved knife. In the morning we snagged a bus to Petra in the south. We just loved the busses. 2 or 3 dollars for up to two hours with working people. On-off, on-off, a continual parade. In Petra we met the first high density of tourists on the trip. There is town next to this ancient city which it is all hotels and restaurants. A good many day trippers come by bus but leave in the early afternoon making the place eerily quiet.
The ancient city is known to many as the one depicted in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is a city built in the depths of a red sandstone canyon miles from any vegetation. It was a famous place for tombs and once again a trading center. The unbelievable part is that most of what is left is carved from living rock. This means that many of the structures, some 140 feet high, are carved in place. To enter the city you walk down a natural stone canyon past carvings of camel caravans and gods of all sorts. The canyon is at times only 15 feet wide and becomes ever deeper until the cliffs are couple of hundred feet high. After about a half a mile you emerge to face an immense ceremonial building and as you walk ever lower into the valley it widens out and the tombs cut in the hills become more numerous. The carvings are primarily Roman but other cultures left their marks including the Aramaic speaking Nabateans. You can almost hear the faint voices of Cleopatra, Herod and Trajan in this desolate outpost.
After about 2 miles and dropping perhaps 1,200 feet we found a mile long flight of stairs to the very top of the ridge. The Bedouins call this place The End of The World and we could see for miles all round. There we found Bedouins in traditional bandoleer and dagger festooned outfits selling tea and cokes. Like all the other locals we met they were not at all weary of visitors and were unfailingly gracious. The Bedouins live all over this region and are the desert nomads still living in black goat hair tents in the searing dessert or on impossible mountain redoubts.
Petra is the single most interesting place, ancient or modern, I have ever seen. We simply could not leave. They tell you to be out of the ancient city before sunset but there were no patrols and we were there well after dark.
That night after an excellent dinner we were awakened to the sound of the prayers resonating between the stone walls of the valley…at 4am. I came to like this plaintive wailing. I liked it just a bit less when they started up just 30 minutes later for another full set. Still Petra, with its echoing prayers and high speed internet seriously rocks! As we left town we met four intrepid Dutch fellows driving from Europe to South Africa for the World Cup. They had their names and blood types stenciled on the truck’s body. “You never know,” said one grimly.
And on we pushed to the Wadi Rum,
an even more desolate desert region yet further south. OK the whole place is a desert but this is where Lawrence in both the movie and in the fact worked his magic. The real and the Peter O’Toole Lawrence are held in high regard in the Wadi and we stood right where much of the movie was made and the trains real and cinematic were blown up in the war with the Turks.
We took a jeep out to an oasis and as we crossed the sand saw a man sitting in the middle of a pile of rocks laughing and waving a sandwich at us. On our way back he was still there and still laughing and shaking his sandwich. Just another man driven mad by the desert no doubt.
We caught a cab (and keep in mind we are now 40 miles from a town and cabs jsimply spring up from nowhere) and drove to Aqaba. This is the town that Lawrence surprised by crossing the Nafud Desert in summer. It locals said this was impossible at that time of year. We found ourselves on the spot called the Sun’s Anvil but it wasn’t so bad. Of course it was 65 outside and we went by car.
From Aqaba we went to the Dead Sea and man it is a most desolate place. Tyler had booked us online into a resort for $150 and we passed through the iron-gated security into the lavish lobby. Field weary and Petra-dusted we inquired about our room accompanied by a stunning woman at the grand piano. A Savile Row suited manager was distressed when he couldn’t find our reservation. Meanwhile the help plied us with fruit drinks and nut trays while Savile Row hoped we wouldn’t freak out as seemed common there judging by the Russian heavies snorting and bulging all over the lobby. One guy was paying his bill with stack of hundreds the size of a small dog.
I thought we were getting a heck of deal and went looking for the shark tank.
Eventually it emerged that were at the wrong hotel. The sign on the hotel next door sure looked like it was in front of this one and the now relieved and apologizing manager gave us a driver to take us next door. You could see that he was used to some pretty tough customers. Our driver told us rooms started around $600 and went up to $15,000 a night (plus minibar no doubt). Now our hotel would have been great but it looked like a dump after going to the Kampinski. Dern and dreck! The next day we tootled on down to the famous shore where people float around holding magazines showing how dry they are staying.
The Dead Sea is far niftier than I would have guessed. First, it separates Israel from Jordan and there are no boats on the perfect sailing venue. Ahhh… well, they discourage boating as it generally ends up in gunplay. It really is salty. 8 times more than the ocean and you float like the dickens. It takes no effort to stay on the surface and you could swim to the Israeli side except your skin would fall off and you would probably be shot.
Finally back to Amman and to the airport. Our last hotel was like a prison in an open field surrounded by a fence with sentries at the gate. We decided to go for a walk and see the sunset. The hotel guard wanted to see our passports and check our visas before we could walk off the compound. Tyler soothed him by singing Happy Birthday in Arabic and he lets us free.
As the sun set over the ancient hills we agreed that we would miss these happy people with their mixed up currencies, taxis patched with plywood and high-fiving school children. Connecting out of Heathrow our plane flew over Iceland. Do I smell smoke? A few hours later they closed Europe.