Monday, December 24, 2012

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Trip to Austria, Slovakia and Hungary 10/7/12 to 10/11/12

Cumil "The Peeper"
Waiting in the Frankfurt airport lounge for our flight to Seattle we made some notes on our visit to Slovakia and Hungary.  We were up early this morning (3:15am) for our flight from Vienna to Frankfurt so both of us are a little groggy.  We enjoyed Bratislava and Budapest, both formerly communist controlled cities/countries but now look like bustling capitalist cities.  They were definitely worth the visit (even if I hadn't been able to drive the Autobahn) and the time we spent at each was about right - half day in Bratislava and two days in Budapest.  Joni had a solo adventure at the "Hospital in the Rock" while I checked out of our hotel.  Hopefully, she will share her story with you. 
Schoner Naci the town greeter
Bratislava sits on the Danube river about 30 minutes downstream from Vienna, Austria.  It is the capital of Slovakia and its largest city.  While now a very modern city, there are clear evidences of Communist planner impact remaining in the city.  They have a bridge over the Danube designed by the Communists which looks like the bridge of the starship Enterprise, they have a highway through the middle of town which takes traffic just a few feet from St. Martin's cathedral, and a rather drab restoration of the Bratislava castle, a National Cultural Monument.  However, the old town center is quite interesting and the citizens have added some whimsical statues which make the exploration more fun.  The city gave us a good return on our four hour investment so on to Budapest!
A portion of the Danube Bend view from Visegrad Castle
We drove through the Slovakia countryside to the Danube Bend area of Hungary and eventually Budapest.  A very enjoyable drive through a highly agricultural area dotted with small towns which seem to have retained more of the drab, shabbily constructed Communist era housing and factory structures.

Alterpiece in the Basilica of Esztergom

Close-up of the Assumption
Just as we crossed back over the Danube river into Hungary, we were stunned by a huge palace overlooking the river from the Hungary side.  It was the Basilica of Esztergom, the largest building in Hungary and the seat of the Catholic Church in Hungary.  The altarpiece depicting the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by Michelangelo Grigoletti is the largest painting in the world painted on a single piece of canvas.  The building of the present church took place on the foundation of several earlier churches (the first in the 11th century was burned down at the end of the 12th century then rebuilt before being sacked in 1304 - it was repaired in the following years).

The Parliament building at night
As you descend from the Matra hills onto the Hungarian plain along the Danube River, the city of Budapest looms impressively on both sides of the river (about 3/4 mile wide here).  The road brought us down the Buda (west) side of the river and the huge, neo-gothic/neo-renaissance styled Parliament building across on the Pest (east) side is a stunning sight.  Our hotel (Hilton Budapest) was in the Castle Hill district of Buda built on top of the remains of an ancient castle.  The views from Castle Hill, especially at night, were absolutely beautiful.

Matthias Church

Memorial to Jews murdered in Budapest
A statue honoring Ronald Reagan in Budapest
Budapest is a very pretty, comfortable city with a lot to explore.  We walked most of the city following Rick Steves' recommended walking tours.  While the citizens here also enjoy their statues, the roofs of churches standout as very unique in their patterns and colors.  We also cruised the Danube for another perspective on the city.

We drove the Autobahn back to Vienna - it fulfills my need for speed!  In Vienna, we stayed at one of our favorite hotels - the Imperial Riding School Renaissance Vienna Hotel.  A fun end to a great trip!

Thanks to Joni!
Can't resist a man in uniform

Trip to the Holy Land - Jordan 10/4/12 to 10/7/12

Jordan - 10/05/2012
The buses took us to the Jaffa Gate and, while most of the group walked to the Temple Institute, Joni and I veered off to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  We walked down a nearly deserted Christian Quarter street to the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter.  Before the shops open, the streets are dark and quiet - a stark contrast to the crowded, noisy streets we saw yesterday. 
Joni was nervous about walking the streets, and even more so as we missed the turn and had to ask directions to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  This is a large church built by the Greek Orthodox Church over the area where they believe the purification, crucifixion and burial of Christ occurred. As we entered the church there were people kneeling down to kiss and pray over the lid of a sarcophagus in the floor (it is The Stone of Anointing which tradition claims to be the spot where Jesus' body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. However, this tradition is only attested since the crusader era, and the present stone was only added in the 1810 reconstruction).  Around the corner in the nave there was a chapel called The Edicule, which contains the Holy Sepulchre itself. The Edicule has two rooms. The first one holds The Angel's Stone, a fragment of the stone believed to have sealed the tomb after Jesus' burial. The second one is the tomb itself. 
Our final activity in Israel was a drive-by the BYU Jerusalem Center, which was closed for renovation, for a quick picture.  Then the bus took us down through the Judean wilderness/desert passed Jericho to the border crossing for Jordan.  Getting out of Israel was a more lengthy process than getting into Jordan.  The passport clearing process for Jordan was done while we sat on the bus - our guide collected our passports, took them into the border crossing office, and returned them to us when the process was complete.  Along the highways in Jordan the Bedouin encampments were frequent, maybe more frequent even than Egypt.  The Bedouins in Jordan seemed to have a higher standard of living as evidenced by their portable satellite dishes and flat screen TVs in their tents.
Overlooking the "crossing site" on River Jordan
Upon entering Jordan we drove directly to the spot on the Jordan River where tradition places the baptism of Christ.  Is is in the middle of nowhere in a place where the Jordan River winds its way through the desert.  The west side of the river is controlled by Israel and the east side by Jordan.  There are several churches around the site and on both sides of the river there are steps down to the river for pilgrims to enter the water.  While we were there a couple of pilgrim groups were baptizing themselves in the water while singing hymns.  Brother Madsen shared the story of Christ's baptism at this place where the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River into their promised land on dry ground.
We ate at Jordanian restaurant where the set menu was served family style.  Four couples sat at each table and we dipped torn flatbread into various dishes of meat, hummus, yogurt, salads, etc.  The food was OK but the experience was very fun and enjoyable.  I ate too much!

Petra - 10/06/2012
The Treasury
Our last morning of tour activities was dedicated to Petra.  It is a 3.5 hour drive from Amman to Petra so we got an early start (7:30 am departure).  We drove south through Amman and I was very impressed with the city.  It seemed quite modern, clean and in many cases upscale - the cars were new and often European and some of the homes were very large and impressive.  Many multinational companies have a presence here like KFC, Carl's Jr, Safeway, GM, etc.  However, once on the edges of the city Bedouin encampments, unfinished buildings, old dusty run-down cars all increased to Egyptian levels.  As we dropped down from the city elevations the terrain quickly changed to stark
The Petra site was nothing short of amazing.  More about this later.

Amman - 10/07/2012
The tour company here in Amman arranged for our transportation to the airport (most of the tour group departed this morning) and we were greeted in the lobby by a sharp dressed young gentleman named Achmed. I assumed he was our driver but he corrected me claiming instead that he was the "helper". He guided us to the car, watched the driver load the luggage, and then climbed in the front passenger seat to accompany us to the airport. The driver was more talkative than Achmed and he
shared a few things about the area (the Jordanian schools administer 6 years of English) and few jokes (when we drove by a huge mansion he declared that it was his house and the next mansion was his driver's house). When we arrived at the airport, Achmed watched the driver unload the luggage and then escorted us into the airport. He escorted us through security, watched us check in with the
airline and then told us how to get through immigration. I still don't know if he was just going the second mile or if he was assigned to be our bodyguard. Anyway, thanks to Achmed we made it to the airport. On to Vienna!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Trip to the Holy Land - Israel 10/3/12 to 10/4/12

Jerusalem - 10/03/2012

Street where Christ walk to the cross may have started
The bus took us back to the old city via Stephen's gate (aka Lion's Gate) and we walked through the Muslim Quarter on the Via Dolorosa or the "Street of Sorrows". Tradition holds that this was the path that Christ took on His final walk to Calvary.  There were Christian pilgrims walking the path and stopping to pray at each "Station of the Cross" marked at churches built along the way at points where significant events are believed to have happened (for example, where Joseph carried the cross for Christ).  Most of the Via Dolorosa is in the Muslim quarter and it is a noisy, dirty, narrow street through souvenir shops.  We walked the path to the Damascus gate through which Christ would have walked to His crucifixion.
Golgotha the sign of the skull
The Garden Tomb
The Catholic Church owns the property which contains the Garden Tomb.  They provided a tour guide who gave a correct, if uninspiring recitation of the Savior's crucifixion and resurrection.  She pointed out Golgotha, the sign of the skull and described where Jesus was likely raised on the cross - the spot is below the hill Golgotha, not on top of it, in an old quarry virtually on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus.  By the way, they believe that this is the place where Stephen would have been stoned also.  She showed us the Garden Tomb and shared the story of how it was found and obtained (identified by a British soldier and purchased from a Greek who had unsuccessfully seeking water on the property).  The garden has a number of separate theater seating areas, is lovely and peaceful, except when a group of Evangelicals are boisterously praying, chanting and singing.  Their loud worship made it difficult to focus on the Spirit and the message of the site.
Brother Madsen delivered a touching discourse on the Savior's crucifixion and resurrection.  He offered Harold B Lee's opinion that the Garden Tomb is the place where the Savior's body was laid to rest.  All the biblical description seems to fit this location - however, there are other Christians who believe that the Church of the Holy Seplucre is where his body was laid.  The group concluded by singing "I Know That My Redeemer Lives".  It was a moving experience.

Israel - 10/04/2012
The weather was a little warmer to but still quite nice. This is our last night in Jerusalem. We drive to the Jordanian border tomorrow morning and will stay in Amman the next two nights. When I checked email this morning there was a notice from the US State Department informing me that they are expecting Muslim demonstrations on Friday in Amman. I think most of the sites we plan to see are
outside the city.
We drove out to the Bit Lehi archaeological site about 35 miles south of Jerusalem this morning.  It was interesting to see an active archaeological dig but I only saw two possible connections to Lehi in the Book of Mormon.  First, he could have been born in this place and thus he could have been named after the community.  Second, there was some graffiti in a cave that appears to have been written by a "holy man" around the conquering of Jerusalem by the Assyrians.
On the return trip we stopped by the Valley of Elah where David slew Goliath. Brother Madsen took us to the brook where David selected his five smooth stones to use in his sling for his battle with Goliath. He spoke about David's anointing to be king by the prophet Samuel and related it to the first
calling of a stake president in which he participated. Boyd K Packer presided and taught Brother Madsen, who was participating as the mission president over the area, that they were not selecting a stake president, they were there to discover who the Lord had called and prepared to be the next stake president. He also spoke of David's faith and courage to take on the Goliath challenge and how we likewise need faith and courage to overcome the Goliath challenges we will face.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Trip to the Holy Land - Israel 10/2/12 to 10/3/12

Jerusalem - 10/02/2012
Today was probably the peak of the trip as we spent the day following the last week of Christ's mortal ministry.  It cooled off nicely today so eventhough we walked as much as yesterday we ended the day with much more energy.  We have one day around Jerusalem and then we go to Amman
Jordan for our final two nights with the tour group.
We started out early this morning in order to visit the Temple Mount.  In the buses by 7:00 am and the city was already busy.  This week is the Feast of the Tabernacles so the expectation was that the Temple Mount would be very crowded with worshipping Jews.  The expectation was correct as we waited in line for about 1.5 hours to get through security for entry onto the Temple Mount.  Joseph warned us to stay close together, forget our courtesy and not let anyone cut in front of us.  Sure enough, soon a man and his two sons attempted to cut in front of Joseph at the front of our group.  He argued with him and finally security came over to quell the disturbance and ushered the man away.  Not too much later, a man with his family of five (including a strollered toddler) attempted to cut in a few people behind us.  Members of our group refused to let him in and he immediately became violent, shoving the stroller into the people in line and screaming that it was their fault that he had to wait.  Security eventually escorted him out.  A couple of stark examples (unfortunately out of many we have witnessed) of an unfavorable aspect of their culture.

On the Temple Mount with Dome of the Rock behind
Once through security we entered the Temple Mount which is controlled by the Muslims.  Probably because it was a Jewish high holiday and Jews were praying at the Western Wall in large numbers, there were large numbers of Muslims in prayer circles on the Temple Mount esplanade.  Heavily armed (semi-automatic weapons, bulletproof vests, tear gas canisters, etc.) security was present and on high alert.  Joseph was a little nervous about us gathering in a large group but Brother Madsen spoke to us about the source of the Jewish-Moslem conflict, the history of the Temple Mount, and Abraham's call to sacrifice Isaac (my favorite quote: "Abraham had to learn something about Abraham", Hugh B Brown) as we sat under the shade of the trees.  It is hard for me to imagine living so close to a group of people who are committed to your destruction.  The tension must be high all the time - a part of everyday life for Jews in Israel, but especially Jerusalem because the Temple Mount seems to be the focal point of the conflict.
Graves on the Mt of Olives - Prime spot for resurrection?
From the eastern side of the Temple Mount we were introduced to the surrounding area and its significance.  The Kidron Valley between Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount and where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac) and the Mount of Olives.  There is a Catholic Church on the Mount of Olives which we will see tomorrow but interestingly, most of the hillside on the Mount of Olives is covered by the largest Jewish graveyard in the world because they believe that the resurrection will start there.  Reportedly, it costs $25,000 per gravesite for a front row seat for the resurrection.  However, the cheap seats (any place else in Israel) is free.
We walked/waded through Hezekiah's tunnel. The water from Gion Spring was not very deep as it filled the tunnel, 1,600 feet long, but it was quite cool which was a welcome respite from heat of the day.  Brother Madsen reminded us of the story of King Hezekiah who built the tunnel to protect the source of Jerusalem's water from any sieging enemies.  185,000 Assyrians were camped outside Jerusalem's walls and Hezekiah went to the Prophet Isaiah for counsel on what to do.  Isaiah told Hezekiah not to worry that the Assyrians would not attack the city because they had mocked God so He would take care of them.  That night the entire Assyrian army died.  The Lord fought His people's battles when they were righteous but when they were not, they had no protection from their enemies.
Prayers offered at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount
The Western Wall was crowded with Jews who came to pray in celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles.  There were many Orthodox and Hassidic Jews in the crowd. They brought their palm leaves and their fruit to the wall.  Their bodies rocked and their heads shook as they read or said their prayers at the wall which has become sacred to them as the place where they can get the closest to
the location of the ancient temple.  Many pressed pieces of paper containing prayers into the cracks of the wall.  Their devotion is impressive but it is sad to consider to what end their devotion leads - they are focused on a temple which offers no saving ordinances.  Joseph Smith emphasized the critical importance of the temple but it is about the saving ordinances that we can receive therein rather than the edifice itself.
Room on the site of Christ's Last Supper
We visited the location of Christ's Last Supper where He introduced the Sacrament and the ordinance of washing the feet.  Brother Madsen reported that biblical scholars and archaeologists, both LDS and non-LDS agree that the room, while not the same room where Christ and His apostles met is in the location where they met.  As Brother Madsen shared the story and the significance of what happened there the thought occurred to me, "why did Christ include Judas Iscariot in on the ordinances of the Sacrament and Washing of Feet when He knew what Judas was about to do?"  It highlights how complex the Judgment is/will be and how grateful we should be that an omniscient God who has experienced the challenges of mortality and the frailties of men.

Jerusalem - 10/03/2012
In the Garden of Gethsemane
Started off the day with a visit to the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was pleasantly cool (77 degrees I believe) and in the shade of a private portion of the Garden we heard from Brother Madsen.  He referred often to Elder Bruce R. McConkie's final conference address in 1985.  As he talked about Christ's suffering in the Garden he mentioned the modern revelation that Michael (aka Adam) was the angel who attended to Christ during his most intense suffering.  It impressed me that in the three events (the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement) which make up the "pillars of eternity", Christ and Michael were the primary actors.  The garden is very nice with olive trees and bougainvillea.  There is a portion with limited access on the north side and it has newer trees.  The public access south garden has much older trees which invoke the image of the garden at the time of Christ.  In spite of car horns honking (which they do a lot in Jerusalem) all around, the garden had a peaceful spirit which enabled contemplation of the great sacrifice which Christ offered there.
View of Jerusalem from the Mt of Olives
From the Garden of Gethsemane we drove to the the top of the Mount of Olives where there is a spectacular view of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the old city.  This is certainly the view which Christ had of the city when he lamented the wickedness of the people in the city and prophesied of its destruction which occurred in 70 AD.  There was a small sitting area facing the city where the group sat while Brother Madsen talked about Christ's last ride from Bethany to Jerusalem over the Mount of Olives and the time that He will return in glory to the Mount of Olives.

Trip to the Holy Land - Israel 9/30/12 to 10/1/12

Galilee - 9/30/2012
On the Mount of Beatitudes
There is a Catholic church, garden and small visitor center on the traditional Mount of Beatitudes.  We sat in a private outdoor theater where Brother Madsen shared his thoughts on the teachings of the Savior on the attitudes we should nurture and live with.  There is a beautiful view of the Sea of Galilee and surrounding country from the church grounds.
Ruins of 4th century synagogue built on 1st century synagogue
At Capernaum there are ruins of the ancient city including a 4th century synagogue and what archaeologists have confirmed is the home of Peter's mother.  The Catholic Church has built a massive visitor center over the ruins of Peter's mother's home which has obstructed the view of the ruins.  On the grounds there is a statue of the apostle Peter holding a staff and large key.  At the base of the statue is an inscription "upon this rock will I build my church".  I marvel at the huge difference in belief in the foundation and organization of Christ's true church that has emerged from interpretation of the meaning of these eight words.  Recognizing that the Savior was referring to revelation is so empowering for both the ongoing church and for individuals whereas a belief that the Savior was talking about Peter as the rock makes the church organization dependent on a man deceased  for 2,000 years and leaves the individual with no customized divine guidance for their lives.he synagogue is much larger than the replica in Nazareth and has Roman influence in the architecture.  It was built over the foundation of a 1st century synagogue.
One of the three sources of the Jordan River
We drove to Caesarea Philipi and then on to the city of Dan in northern Israel where we walked to two of the three springs which source the Jordan River.  When we drove by the Jordan river in the valley it was a slow moving narrow river but amazingly at the first spring it was a raging river.  We hiked along the ancient trail of Dan which followed the spring flow for a while.  There were many locals hiking the trail with their children.  At one of the pools there was a large gathering of families wading in the water, which was quite cold in spite of the hot air temperature.  The hiking trail took us to the ruins of a Canaanite city (like one conquered by the tribe of Dan when they took the land for their inheritance).  The walls were built of uncut stones with chinks to hold them in place.  There were altars for sacrifice and the foundation of a temple.  From the temple we could see outposts for Lebanon.
We drove east through northern Israel to the Golan Heights where we stopped at a roadside park for a view of Lebanon, Syria, and the ancient Road to Damascus.  The wind blew hard and combined with the elevation provided welcome "air conditioning" as a relief to the heat and humidity we endured for much of the day.  Our Jewish guide, Joseph Goldman, described his experiences as a tank commander in the 1967 and 1973 war with Syria and how 40 Israeli tanks manned by young Israeli men (19 - 25 years of age) repulsed 800 Syrian tanks.  We were able to see the ancient road to Damascus as Brother Madsen spoke about Paul's conversion.

Galilee and Bethlehem - 10/01/2012
View of Galilee from Mt Arbel
View of the Galilee from Mt Arbel.  Brother Madsen shared the story of Jesus' calling of the twelve apostles.  He retired to a high mountain to contemplate the calling of His apostles and Mt Arbel is at least one alternative spot.  He spoke about the definition of a "special witness for Christ" and he
related the story of the resurrected Christ's appearance to his disciples with Thomas.  He postulated that this experience describes the conditions of a "special witness for Christ" both ancient and modern.
Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea.  Remains of an aqueduct which was built in Herod's time to bring water from Mt Carmel to Caesarea communities by the sea.  We also walked through the Caesarea National Park which contains the ruins of Herod's summer palace with a hippodrome and theatre.  Joseph our Jewish guide, explained that Herod built many buildings, roads and other infrastructure in his quest to create a Roman city that would rival any Roman city.  in spite of the good things he did for the infrastructure of the country he was hated by the people.  Brother Madsen explained that this place was near Joppa which was the port city from which Jonah would have departed in his attempt to escape his calling to Assyria.  It is also the port from which the Apostle Paul would have departed on his missions and where he was heard by Felix, Festus and Agrippa.  He spoke about Paul's courageous testimony (enabled by his calling as a special witness of Jesus Christ) throughout the Mediterranean and especially before kings, rulers and Jerusalem - for which the Jews sought his life requiring him to exercise his right as a citizen of Rome to appeal to Caesar.  This precipitated his third and final "mission".
We arrived in Jerusalem this afternoon and drove straight to Bethlehem. It is in the Palestinian controlled portion of the city and this area has more in common with Egypt than with Israel
(remember my earlier observations on the economic and social comparisons between
Egypt and Israel).  Jerusalem with a population of about 700,000 is a modern looking city built on the hills.  We drove through it quickly on our way to Bethlehem but will get to explore the Temple Mount tomorrow.  Unfortunately, the BYU Jerusalem Center was being renovated this week so we were not be able to do any more than drive by it.
We cleared the gates/checkpoint at the border of the Palestinian controlled portion of Jerusalem and moved to the Church of the Nativity as quickly as possible.  There was a palpable tension in the streets (probably encouraged by our guide repeatedly reminding us to stay together and be very careful) as we walked a couple of blocks to the church.  The church complex built over the traditional site of Jesus' birth has divided ownership between the Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Catholic Churches and their architectural and religious tradition differences are evident in the complex.  Our guide led us to the stairway which descends to the cave where tradition suggests Christ was born.  A
few feet away from the cave is a 14 point star on the floor marking the exact spot where he was born in the stable/cave.  There are countless lamps, icons and baubles all over the place which I think detract from the spirit of the place.  Brother Madsen shared with us that Harold B. Lee declared "this is a holy place" when he visited the stable/cave.  That doesn't necessarily tell me that it is the place where Jesus Christ was born into the world but at a minimum it is a "holy place" because it is a memorial to His birth.  As we sat in a cloister of the Catholic Church portion of the complex, Brother Madsen shared the biblical Christmas story and the group sang several Christmas songs.  You know Joni loved that.  It was a good spirit.

Trip to the Holy Land - Israel 9/28/12 to 9/29/12

Masada - 28 September 2012
Egypt - Israel Border crossing on the Red Sea
Crossed the Egypt-Israel border this morning.  Our passports were checked four times departing Egypt and another four times entering Israel.  Security on both sides of the border was cautious (a little surprising on the Egypt side to me since we were leaving) and thorough but Israel seemed a bit more welcoming.  Their border checkpoint facilities were air conditioned (Egypt's were not), the agents were young and clean looking, and the technology they used was much more current.  Joni and I cruised through the process pretty easily but several in our group were detained for further questioning by the Israelis.  They were definitely profiling as they primarily detained young single men, people traveling alone and those with suspicious baggage.  There was about a 100 yard unescorted walk between the border crossing stations and I imagined myself crossing from East Berlin to freedom in West Berlin in the Cold War era.  An over dramatization I know but the process looked very similar to what you see in the movies and documentaries.
Israelis vacationing on the Red Sea at Egyptian border
As I mentioned, there was an immediately obvious economic difference between Israel and Egypt when we reached the border crossing.  Right up against the border crossing is an Israeli resort community.  People were camped in tents along the rocky beach and there were very modern hotels along the streets as we drove through town.  In contrast to Egypt, have not seen any horse-, mule- or
ox-driven vehicles and the cars are modern, if small. As we continued our drive north through the Dead Sea valley the signs of economic success were many (quality of roads, buildings, cars, people's activities, manufacturing, etc.)

The Dead Sea valley terrain was very similar to the desert on the Sinai peninsula - hot, rocky, arid and virtually without life.  As we drove north the mountains around the valley became higher (or the valley became lower) and very rugged with frequent occurrences of caves and holes in the cliffs.  The presence of shittim trees increased gradually as we drove north along the Dead Sea which left a whhite salt deposit around the shore like a bathtub ring.  It is hard for me to imagine anyone carving out an existence from this desert - I have more empathy for Laman and Lemuel's grumbling - at least about following their father out into this wilderness.
From top of Masada fortress looking on the Dead Sea Valley
We visited Masada where King Herod had built a protective palace retreat up on an isolated plateau.  In 70 AD a group of Zealots retreated to Masada to resist Roman subjugation and persecution.  Masada had been built with a clever system for collecting water runoff from a neighboring mountain and storing it in cisterns.  These Zealots were able to hold out against the Roman siege for three years until the Romans completed an earthen ramp up to the top of the plateau where there was a wooden door which they burnt down.  On the eve of the Romans penetrating their defenses, the 300+ Zealots committed suicide rather than subject themselves to slavery or torture.  This experience is an example of Jewish independence and resistance to "Gentile rule" and has become a rallying cry for the nation, "Masada will never fall again!"

Nazareth - 29 September 2012
Man plowing field in 1st century fashion
An olive oil press like those used in 1st century A.D.
Visited Nazareth walking the "old Village" which is operated by the YMCA.  It is a visitor center demonstrating several aspects of first century life (growing and processing olives and grapes, carpentry, making wool thread, the synagogue in life, etc.).  It certainly highlighted the challenging life that people led in the first century AD - most of their time required just to provide the necessities of life.  In the restored synagogue we sat and heard from John Madsen on Christ's announcement to His Nazareth neighbors that the messianic prophecies of Isaiah were fulfilled that day by Him.  Other than this small outdoor "old Village" there is nothing remaining of Biblical Nazareth.  It is a modern city built on the sides of a steep valley.
Drove us to high viewpoint in the city of Nazareth called "Leaping Ridge" because the early Christians believed that was where Christ "leapt" to escape the mob.  From the viewpoint we were able to see Mt Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration.  It fits the scriptural definition of a "high mountain set apart" as it stands separate from the other mountains in the range.  Before Mt Tabor lies the valley of Armaggedon where the final battle between good and evil will take place.  it is a beautiful, fertile valley but has seen many tragic battles over the centuries and it has at least one more before it.  Brother Madsen related the scriptural prophecies of the battle of Armaggedon from the viewpoint and shared the story of Christ walking through the midst of the mob of Nazarene neighbors angered by His declaration of His messianic mission.
View from "Leaping Mountain" to Mt Tabor in background
Visited the spring where Gideon selected his army to drive the Midianites from the land.  This spring is at the base of Mount Gilgal where King Saul and his three sons were killed in battle enabling David to rise to the throne.  It certainly helps bring these stories to life or at least make them more memorable to review the story at the actual site, hear Brother Madsen's sharing of the principles taught by the stories, and hear his testimony.

Trip to the Holy Land - Egypt 9/23/12 to 9/27/12

Cairo - 23 September 2012
Security was tight throughout the tour today.  We had a semi-automatic weapon toting security escort on each bus and at each stop several members of the Tourism Police with rifles and/or pistols met us.  I am sure the coverage "en force" was intended to reassure us but it was also a bit unnerving to think
that they thought it might be necessary.  Fortunately, nothing happened which required them to unleash their weapons but we could have used their help with the vendors!
The memorabilia vendors were the most aggressive I have experienced since Jamaica.  They were plentiful at every site and would confront tourists with their wares and pursue them even after several polite "no thank you"s.  Several members of our group were belligerently accosted by a couple of these vendors.  It left them very upset.  Repeated discomfiting encounters with the memorabilia vendors wiped away much of the excitement we should have felt in visiting these wonders of the ancient world.

Joni and Mick of Arabia
Joni in Giza with Sphinx and Pyramids
Egypt has, of course, some of the world's great extant antiquities.  We saw some of them today, the Giza pyramids.  They are certainly engineering marvels constructed over 4,000 years ago with a precision and skill enviable even in a time of more sophisticated tools like today?  However, similar to Greece, the sites are not well maintained.  It is more than that they are several thousand years old but the areas around the sites are unkempt, the sites are disorganized with materials strewn around the grounds and there is little explanation of the site and it's historical significance.  I suppose the tour guide guild works hard to keep it that way.
Common view of Egyptian housing
As we drove around Cairo (about 17 million inhabitants), unfinished and dilapidated buildings were plentiful on all sides of the road.  Some multi-story buildings had pylons protruding from the last finished story suggesting plans to add another story.  Other apartment buildings had no windows, holes in the walls, bricks or mortar missing in significant quantities.  Few structures were painted so they were all a dusty brown.  It looked as if poverty was as extreme as Jamaica.  Our guide suggested it was not as bad as it seemed because Egyptian tax laws motivated building owners to leave the building unfinished.  Our waiter for dinner at Fuddrucker's also explained that many families leave the top of the building unfinished so children can add another apartment when they come of age.

Cairo - 24 September 2012
Breakfast at the Intercontinental City Stars hotel is a large, diverse buffet.  This morning I asked the maitre de how to make a typical Egyptian breakfast.  He seemed to take great pleasure in helping me prepare my plate with traditional Egyptian breakfast foods.  He mixed up some Fava Beans (faoul with garlic) with spices and cream, prepared fatiere (pancakes) with honey, Egyptian flat bread, halawa (a sweet cake with nuts or chocolate mixed in) and Egyptian oatmeal with milk and cinnammon. It was quite good and very filling.  He brought the chef over to introduce us.  The chef turned out to be Swiss, married to a Korean and living in Egypt - quite international.
The Egyptian museum was another example of poor preservation and presentation of great ntiquities.  The museum building itself was in disrepair, dark and dirty.  The artifacts were stunning in their own right but poorly organized and presented.  The treasures of King Tutankhamen's tomb were very
impressive. The mind's eye can imagine a glorious, grand spectacle of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs' temples, palaces and cities at the pinnacle of their wealth and power.
Security continued to be tight during our last day in Cairo.  Our semi-automatic weapon toting friend was with us on the bus and as we drove through the city we had a two police car escort. Our guide joked that the police escort with sirens was a gift from their President.
We flew to Aswan (about 1.25 hour flight) and arrived at about 6:30pm.  It was very dark and there were few city lights.  Aswan is reportedly a city with one million inhabitants so much smaller and less congested than Cairo.  The road to the city ran across the Aswan dam which was quite long due to the width of the Nile river here.  They took us to a river cruise boat which they repeatedly
claimed was "5 star luxury Nile cruise".  The boat accommodations are comfortable but assigning them a 5 Star rating is a stretch.  Interestingly, they dock the boats parallel to the shore and stacked three deep.  Ours was the third boat so we had to walk through the lobbies of two other boats to reach the Alyssa.

Nile Cruise - 25 September 2012
Up at 5:30am this morning in preparation for an early morning tour of the Temple at Philae Island.  Even here in Aswan we have an armed security escort and the Tourism Police meet us at each stop.  Of course, the vendors are there to greet us at each stop too.
At the Temple on Philae Island
The vendors at Philae Island were primarily Nubians (more African than Arab).  It seemed that these people were more gentle and kind by the way they approached the tour group.  However, these vendors also seemed to be more impoverished than there Arab counterparts.  We rode in boats piloted by Nubians over to the island and when we returned to the dock, the pilot actually forced his boat in between two already docked boats.  There surely would be violence at any U.S. dock if that happened, but it was clearly very accepted by all the other pilots.
In addition to the Temple of Philae we visited the Temples of Koohmbo and Edfu.  All were striking in their own ways.  The size and extent of the stonework and the ubiquity of the sculpture reliefs amazed me.  The investment of labor and craftsmanship required to construct these temples with 2500 B.C. technology had to be extraordinary.  It struck me that visiting these temples is like walking a top flight museum - it requires either a lengthy, highly detailed review of each carved story and nook of the temple or a quick, casual drive by with little interest in understanding the purposes (what it was intended to do for the people or its benefactors) and motivations (why was it built) behind the
temple.  Something in the middle will not work.
Riding the calash to Edfu Temple
Here in Edfu we rode in calashes from the boat to the temple.  It was about a 30 minute ride through the city in a questionably roadworthy calash.  Again, the poverty was obvious and saddening.  With their spectacular history I did not expect Egypt to be a third world country but the city sights belie exactly that.
We had dinner tonight with Ken and Marlene Astle (Sacramento) and John and Diane Madsen (Provo).  Brother Madsen is a General Authority Emeritis (former member of the Seventy), and the "LDS host" for the tour.  We had some good discussion on the ways the ancient Egyptians, and thereby their temples imitated priesthood principles, the decline of Egypt (once one of the greatest civilizations in the world), the sorry state of the U.S., Mitt Romney's candidacy for president, and other topics.  An enjoyable evening.

Nile Cruise - 26 September 2012
Visited the Valley of the Kings, Temple of Rameses III, Temple of Karnak, Temple of Luxor and an alabaster sculpture studio.  We were up at 4:45am, it was very warm (even very early in the Valley of the Kings) and we did quit a bit of walking so many people in the group are dragging today.  Add to that, several people have been struck with stomach problems likely resulting from exposure to
Egyptian tap water.  Joni has felt a little puny this afternoon but hopefully it is just a minor infection and passes quickly.
At the Luxor Temple
After seeing the magnificent temple structures built by Egyptians 3,000 to 5,000 years ago it sharpens the contrast between the extraordinary architecture of the Pharaohs (built in such grand design and with such precision) and the poor quality of the unfinished homes of today (built many times with poorly laid crude bricks, finished crudely with widows and doors, and left in an unfinished state).  A sad loss of skill and pride over the centuries as the people have been subjected to foreign conquerors and spiritual decline.
Struck by evidences in the temples of imitations of the order of the Priesthood (e.g., garments on the priests, robes on the right shoulder changing to the left shoulder, washings, anointings, having to answer several questions before reaching a helper at a veil, questioned at a veil before passing through into God's kingdom) by the pharoaronic Egyptians.

Taba, Egypt - 27 September 2012
We flew from Luxor to Taba this morning on a turbo prop plane (2 planes for the group).  I sat by the window with the plan to observe the land and people from 14,000 feet.  I kept a pretty persistent eye on things and all I saw was rock and sand for the entire 1.5 hour flight across the Sinai peninsula.  I have a better understanding of the resistant attitude of the children of Israel when Moses led them out of Egypt.  I have never seen such an immense expanse of absolute desolation anywhere else.  I believe I would have been one of the lead whiners if I had been there!  They could have survived only by divine intervention (manna, water from the rock, etc.).

Around Taba (and later throughout Jordan) there are Bedouins who raise their temporary housing in open areas and tend their flocks of goats, sheep and camels.  Below is one of the Bedouin encampments we drove by on our way to the Marriott resort.  Our extreme good fortune in enjoying Marriott accomodations as compared to the quality of the Bedouin lifestyle was not lost on me.
One of many Bedouin encampments
The drive from the Taba airport to the Taba Marriott on the Red Sea was about 45 minutes down a twisted broken rock canyon.  We did not see a tree or even any significant vegetation until about 5 minutes from the Red Sea.  The resort is just what you would expect from a Marriott resort property - a stark contrast to what the rest of the buildings in Egypt look like.  The tour company had already checked us in and given us our keys before we arrived but I introduced myself at the front desk and presented them my Platinum card.  Just after we arrived in our small but comfortable room, but before the air conditioner had a chance to cool it down, we received a call from the front desk

Balcony view at the Taba Marriott Resort to the Red Sea
apologizing for not knowing our status at arrival and telling me that they "must" upgrade us to a "beautiful suite" as soon as we were ready.  Three gentlemen came to our room helped us load our luggage onto a cart, took our request for two welcome gifts, and drove us to our bi-level full oceanfront suite.  Oh, the blessings of frequent stayer status!

Trip to the Holy Land - Cairo 9/22/2012

Streetside in Cairo
After a long flight (SEA - ORD - FRA - CAI) we arrived in Cairo, Egypt about 8pm local time.  The tour group arrived two hours earlier so they had long departed for the hotel leaving us to find our own way to the Intercontinental Star City.  My own unfamiliarity with the people, language and city in addition to the scurry of activity gave me the feeling of widespread confusion.  For example, Cairo is certainly not the only city in the world where cars careen down the road with no regard for lanes, pedestrians or safety margins but when added to the illegible street signs (all written in Farsi), the very bumpy streets (surely caused by the extreme heat softening the asphalt in the summers), the large number of people milling about on street sides, the Arabic chanting on the taxi's radio and my jet lag mental fog, it left me with a sense of confusion. The crescent moon was shining over the city - how appropriate for Cairo.

Crescent moon over Cairo

On our cab ride to the hotel, we stopped no fewer than 3 times at booths leaving the airport to exchange tickets for tolls.  Our cab driver, who spoke few English words, was cynical about all of the money various agencies were collecting for entering and exiting the airport.

By the way, the taxi man who solicited us drove a beat up Toyota Yaris with no taxi markings or meter.  When we got to the car and I saw this I was a bit nervous about potential dangers.  I remarked, "This doesn't look like a taxi!"  He quickly responded, "Its not, its a limo."  While he seemed like an honest man trying to earn some money, that did not entirely relieve my concerns - especially in the often congested traffic where cars were so close you could not see taillights in front
of you but you could smell the results of the personal hygiene practiced by the people in the car next to you.  I watched his every move and the surroundings we were driving into for any signs of potential trouble.  He deposited us at the door of the Intercontinental City Stars Hotel and I was so relieved to arrive safely that I gave him a 50% tip ($10).  He seemed very appreciative of the gesture and it was well worth it to me for our safe arrival.

At the street front of the hotel we were stopped by two policemen with a bomb-sniffing dog who inspected the undercarriage and trunk of the taxi.  Our bags were also x-rayed at the hotel entrance and we walked through scanners.  After all the security preliminaries, the hotel was very nice and there is an adjoining shopping mall which looks like a galleria with all the top luxury stores.