DEAD SEA, near Madaba, Jordan
We arrived at Madaba by a morning bus from Amman. Madaba was a decent sized city during the Byzantine era. Today the town is frequented by tourists enroute to the Dead Sea. There are a number of archaeological sites still under excavation in Madaba. What makes tourists (including us) to stop by Madaba is a 6th century mosaic map depicting the Holy Land of Jerusalem at the Greek Orthodox Church Saint George. We stopped by the archaeological museum briefly to see other pieces of mosaic from the Byzantine era, before heading over to Saint George. The church was packed with tourists, all crowded around the mosaic map of the Biblical World. The mosaic map centered around Jerusalem, with other towns and geographical features such as River Nile, Mediterranean Sea, and Dead Sea, in the surrounding.
After checking out the mosaic map, it was time to get a dip in the salty water of the Dead Sea to get a taste of the floating experience. After some bargaining, we hopped onto a taxi for the Jordanian Dead Sea beaches. From Madaba, our taxi sped through the rough arid landscape towards the waterfront. Along the way, the driver pointed towards the Moses Spring at Mount Nebo and Moses Memorial Church as we passed by the holy sites. At the waterfront, we entered a whole new world of luxury resort hotels. The contrast to what we have seen in other parts of Jordan and Syria was phenomenal. We knew we had arrived at the touristy Dead Sea coast. Our driver dropped us off at Amman Beach Resort. We paid 4 Jordanian Dinar admission for entering the beach. We took our turns swimming in the water. Just for fun, we grabbed a bit of mud and apply it onto our skin, tried the unique floating experience, and took a few typical Dead Sea photos. It was hot and humid at the world’s lowest point 422m below sea level.
As many researchers point out, the Dead Sea is in deep trouble, as less water from Jordan River is feeding the salty inland lake every year. Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel all rely on the area’s limited water resources, such as the Jordan River, for their growing population and agriculture usage. In matter of decades the Dead Sea may disappear altogether. We heard that the Jordanian government is planning to divert the water from the Red Sea to feed the Dead Sea. At the beach, we could clearly see traces of the old water level. Just like seeing the retreating glacier on the Swiss Alps, witnessing the gradual death of the Dead Sea made a huge impact on me. People in the developed nations may never have to worry about their water supply, and understand the alarming situation of the Dead Sea. Sustainable water management in the Dead Sea area is crucial, not only to the survival of millions, but also to the political climate of the region. Successful cooperation of water management offers the basis of peaceful co-existence of the region’s major players. If that fails, dispute fighting over water supply may not be too far away.
The magnificent 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem is the biggest draw for tourists coming to Madaba. (Image: Public Domain)
It was hard to imagine where grazing of the sheep could take place in the arid landscape near the Dead Sea.
The arid landscape at Dead Sea is actually susceptible to flash floods.
The Jordan Rift Valley is a long depression between Israel, Jordan and Palestine. The valley’s lowest spot is the lowest point in the world, located in the Dead Sea at 790m below sea level.
Despite touristy, we amused ourselves in the salty water of the Dead Sea.
GOREME OPEN AIR MUSEUM, Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey
Cappadocia is not just all about rocks. Since prehistorical times, humans had established cave dwelling and even underground communities in the area. Kingdoms rose and fell; trade routes came by and moved away; religions flourished and replaced by other religions as new settlers arrived. The Hatti community emerged in 2500 BC, then came the Hittites, Assyrians, Phrygians, and Persians. In AD 17, the Roman arrived and Cappadocia became a province of the empire. The Christians came in the 3rd century AD, and Cappadocia soon became the dominant culture in the region where uncounted chapels and churches were carved out from the rocks. In the Medieval Ages, monastic communities flourished and so as caravanserais where trade routes connected Cappadocia with the world along the Silk Road. In the late Middle Ages, invasions from Turkmenistan, Mongolians, Seljuks and finally Ottomans wrapped up the ever changing story of Cappadocia.
Only 15 minutes from the town centre of Goreme, the Open Air Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Cappadocia. Despite the crowds, the UNESCO world heritage site is the best place to understand the a part of the history of Cappadocia.
In the midst of fairy chimneys, different kingdoms and communities left their marks in Cappadocia throughout history.
All communities in Cappadocia began in one of the many valleys. As soon as the first settlers discovered the unique properties of the volcanic rocks, cave communities emerged.
Small cave dwellings and pigeon holes were carved from the rock cliffs.
Small caves led to larger rock cut spaces as the communities evolved, such as the rock cut chapels constructed in the Middle Ages.
Goreme Open Air Museum hosts a number of the rock cut chapels and cave dwellings, mainly from the Byzantine era.
Despite the caves at the Open Air Museum have been abandoned for a long time, visitors today can still imagine how these cave communities might have operated centuries ago.
Many caves are only accessible via a flight of stairs.
What lies inside the caves are the real gem. The Karanlık Kilise or Dark Church contains some of the best preserved frescoes in the museum. It presents some great examples of Byzantine art.
PERFECT SUNSET, Selcuk, Turkey
Sleepy town of Selcuk welcomes one of Turkey’s biggest concentrations of tourists. Home to the mighty Ephesus, as well as the ruined Basilica of St John (where some believed was the final resting place of St John the Apostle) and House of the Virgin Mary (a stone house where some said was the final home of the Virgin Mary), Selcuk has its unique power to attract visitors from around the world while maintaining the tranquility as a small town in the Aegean Region. After visiting Ephesus, we strolled around the town for a short while and completed the day by enjoying a glass of wine and a moment of perfect sunset on the rooftop of Homeros Pension.
Away from the Classical ruins, Selcuk is still dotted with historical buildings from the Middle Ages.
Alpaslan Mesciti is a 14th century building. Today, the building continues to serve as a mosque.
The Turkish way to chill out: to smoke Turkish tobacco with a water pipe or nargile in the front porch of their home or shop and watch the world goes by. The tradition started 500 years ago in the Ottoman Empire. Its popularity declined as cigarettes entered the Turkish market after World War II. In recent two decades, water pipes have made a solid comeback for the younger generations.
Other than smoking nargiles, some locals we met chose to play music to celebrate the last hour of sunlight.
Many of the elder generation preferred to socialize at the outdoor area of a cafe.
Near Homeros Pension, the beautiful sunset made everything to appear under a tint of orange.
Walking under the last bit of sunlight on the hill was a sublime experience.
For our short stay in Selcuk, we picked Homeros Pension, a family run guesthouse full of character.
The common areas of Homeros Pension are richly decorated.
Local handicrafts fit perfectly well with the interior.
Apart from local handicrafts, we could also find gifts left by previous travelers, such as these koalas from an Australian traveler.
The delicious food at Homeros was prepared by the experienced hands of the elderly staff.
The rooftop patio was a fantastic spot to enjoy the sunset. We were invited by the friendly staff to have a glass of wine during sunset.
With the clean air and relatively low buildings, we had no trouble watching the sun setting below the far horizon.
Watching the marvelous sunset and mingling with the other guests at the guesthouse on the rooftop patio was the perfect way to end our day.
HAGIA SOPHIA, Istanbul, Turkey
It was nice to take an early morning walk in the Sultanahmet area. To visit Hagia Sophia, one of the country’s most popular attraction, an early morning start allowed us to beat the crowds to walk around the marvelous structure and enter the museum at 9am. Hagia Sophia to Istanbul is like Colosseum to Rome, Parthenon to Athens or the Great Pyramid of Giza to Cairo. These architecture represent the architectural and engineering marvel that has defined an era in world history. The current building was built in 537 AD during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian. Back then, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world. Its great dome has a diameter of 107 feet, and remained as the largest in the world until the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was completed in the late 16th century. In fact, one of the biggest achievements for architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus was to create the gigantic dome without resting on any solid wall support, but instead, constructed triangular pendentives to transfer the force of the circular structure to a square base.
Throughout history, Hagia Sophia has gone through times of destruction and alterations due to earthquakes and regime change. From 537 to 1453 AD, Hagia Sophia served as an Eastern Orthodox church and housed the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, four minarets were added, Christian figures and decorations were destroyed while mosaic art were plastered over, and the building was converted into the city’s primary mosque, until the Blue Mosque was completed in 1616. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, converted the famous structure into a museum.
Hagia Sophia is one of the most popular tourist attraction in Turkey. We came early in the morning to avoid the tourist groups.
The 1500-year-old structure has been altered several times in history.
After almost a thousand years as an Eastern Orthodox church, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque in 1453. Then in 1935 the building was converted into a museum.
The 40 windows at the dome allow plenty of natural light to enter the interior, and reduce the overall weight of the dome structure.
The interior of Hagia Sophia contains artifacts from the Byzantine and Ottoman era.
The windows in the dome allow natural light to enter the interior.
Richly decorated with mosaics and marble pillars, Hagia Sophia is the most important example of Byzantine architecture in the world. One of the highlights for a visit to check out the mosaic work on the upper level.
Outside the building, the splendid fountain built in 1740 is an Ottoman addition after the conversion into a mosque.
Served as a social gathering pavilion outside of the Hagia Sophia, the Fountain of Ahmed III was built in 1728 during the Ottoman era. The rococo-style fountain stands right outside the gate of Topkapi Palace, the royal palace of the Ottoman Empire.
FROM BYZANTIUM TO ISTANBUL, Turkey
Our Middle East journey began from Istanbul on 29th of April, 2006.
Formerly known as Constantinople, the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire for over 1500 years, Istanbul is a city full of layers, where kingdoms came and go, and new buildings being built upon ruined ones. Occupying both sides of Bosporus Strait that separates Europe and Asia, Istanbul has always been a venue of cultural exchange between the east and west. The Sultanahmet area in Fatih District was the historical centre of Constantinople, where the emperors of the Roman Empire (330-395), Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (395-1453) and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1923) chose to establish their splendid capital. Bounded three sides by water, the Historic Area of Istanbul is an UNESCO World Heritage site with a concentration of iconic cultural heritage that are precious to human civilization, including Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, etc. Like many tourists, we specifically chose our hostel in Sultanahmet, just a stone throw away from the Blue Mosque. In Sultanahmet, we never needed to walk far to encounter the former glory of the empires.
Legends has it that in 667 BC, the Greeks came to the intersection of Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea and found the city of Byzantium at the peninsula where the current Sultanahmet area is situated.
Because of its strategic location at the sole access point of the Black Sea, Byzantium was soon developed into a trading city. After Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium in the 4th century, Byzantium became Constantinople, and its glorious time as Europe’s largest and wealthiest city officially kicked off.
Defensive walls had been erected to protect Constantinople since Constantine’s time. Walls were also constructed along the waterfront to protect the city from sea attacks. After the partitioning of the Roman Empire, Constantinople remained as the capital of Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire).
In Istanbul, hundreds of underground cisterns were constructed during the Byzantine era. Measured 138m x 65m, Basilica Cistern was constructed by thousands of slaves in the 6th century under the orders of Emperor Justinian.
Probably taken from earlier Roman buildings, two stone heads of Medusa were used as column bases in Basilica Cistern. This mysterious cistern was forgotten briefly in the Middle Ages. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, local residents knew nothing about the cistern, but soon discovered that they were able to obtain water and even fish below their home basement by just lowering a bucket through a hole in the floor. The cistern was rediscovered by scholar Petrus Gyllius in 1545.
The most prominent Byzantine icon is undoubtedly Hagia Sophia. Built in 537, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world, and housed the patriarch seat of Eastern Orthodox Church until the the 15th century.
Standing opposite to Hagia Sophia is another cultural icon of Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque. Inspired by the Byzantine icon Hagia Sophia, the Ottomans left their mark in Constantinople more than 1000 years by constructing the Blue Mosque over the former palace complex of the Byzantine emperors.
Smaller in scale than the iconic monuments, Sultanahmet also host many lesser known historical buildings in the residential neighborhoods.
Walking in Sultanahmet was like going back in time, as if every other street bend was marked by splendid timber houses and pavilions from the Ottoman era.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the Cities introduces readers his childhood Istanbul with a melancholic depiction of the Ottoman houses.
Pamuk’s writing and black and white photos showed me an unique Istanbul beyond the historical palaces, churches and mosques.
Searching for the Ottoman houses in Istanbul was not as easy as I thought, since many had been torn down in recent years.
Due to continuous urban renewal in the historical centre, many Ottoman houses were at risk for redevelopment.
Today, Sultanahmet has become a tourist hub, where many buildings have been converted into hotels and restaurants. In the time of commercialization, even the ruins of a 550-year bathhouse, the Ishak Pasa Hamam, is up for sale.
In Istanbul, we stayed at the friendly Sultan Hostel just two blocks behind the Blue Mosque.
At night, tourists would gather at restaurants in Sultanahmet to enjoy dinner and nargile or Turkish water pipe, along with live performance of the Sufi whirling dance.