*Photo: The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Photo by Carol Santora
We almost did not go….
Trying to visit Israel, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries has been a challenge with the amount of unrest over the past few years.
We decided to just go for it and to take a Regent Seven Seas Cruise with my sister and her husband. The Cruise was lengthy, 21 days, but we loved the itinerary – from Doha, Qatar to Barcelona, Spain. “Days at Sea” were fun because there were sanctioned bridge tournaments and other games and events.
Doha is growing like Dubai into a business/pleasure center with spectacular skyscrapers alongside souks, falcons and Muslim art. The Museum of Islamic Art was exciting, the building an architectural delight with fascinating exhibits on Qajar Women and “Marvelous Creatures” picturing Animal Fables in Islamic Art. The Souk Waqif and the Falcon Market were also unique, educational visits. We embarked upon the cruise ship in Dubai. You have heard about this city, “Disney World on Steroids,” but it presents some interesting sites like the Mall of the Emirates with an actual ski slope and the Burj Khalifa ascending to 828 meters! We reserved the sunset time for this and witnessed unparalleled views!
Initial cruise stops included Fujairah (one of the seven United Arab Emirates), and Muscat and Salalah, Oman. The discussions on religious beliefs, garments (Dishdashah and Abayas), political views, food choices and souk visits were so informative, reminding us that travel is truly the way to expand your mind and your attitudes. We even learned where Frankincense comes from – scraping the hardened sap from the Frankincense tree! This is a major product of Oman. We also started our multiple sightings of camels, much like deer populations here at home! As many of you know, the sunsets captured on the ocean are truly breathtaking. My camera was getting hot.
One unexpected occurrence early on in the voyage was the holding of a “pirate drill”. Different color codes demanded actions like entering the interior of the ship and lying down flat on the floor. In addition we had an amusing sighting of dolphins playing tag in the water alongside the ship. The Persian Gulf/ Indian Ocean with passage through the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden was beautiful and quiet with warm breezes and emerald seas.
We experienced a smooth entry into the Red Sea. We had been to Luxor before but my sister did take the drive with an armored vehicle (there had recently been a terrorist attack there). We snorkeled in the Red Sea of Safaga instead.
We were picked up by a private guide in Aqaba, Jordan. Zaid was a most patient, gentle and knowledgeable person. Petra and Wadi Rum, two UNESCO World Heritage sites that must be protected with care, were beyond incredible. Petra is a vast, unique city carved into sheer rock by the Nabataens 2000 years ago. We were fortunate to hike through the “siq” or cavernous path, alone. Zaid had us close our eyes just before the end to view the most famous monument, The Treasury. This was so stunning that they used that same view in the final sequence of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”!
Wadi Rum fame has natural and cultural significance: First, the monolithic rockscapes that rise from the desert floor with serene elegance and unique color hues; second, it was the headquarters in real life for T.E. Lawrence of Arabia and Sharif Faisal Bin Hussein in their revolt against the Ottomans in World War I and the filming site of the epic 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia. Watching the sunset here was truly memorable.
We then traveled through the Suez Canal, a single lane, 120 mile canal built in 1869. There are no locks. It took us 14 hours to traverse. Port Said greeted us at around 8AM as we entered the Mediterranean on our way to Haifa, Israel.
Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Masada are three places that were of paramount importance to us to experience. Again, we were met at the ship by a private Israeli guide named Nimrod. We drove 1.5 hours to Jerusalem, viewing the city from the Mount of Olives before heading into the Old City past the Garden of Gethsemane and the Golden Gate. The area also serves as one of the city’s main cemeteries with around 150,000 graves.
It was a Saturday when we visited Jerusalem. Therefore, it was Shabbat, the Holy Day of Rest. Jewish residents were dressed in traditional garb. We entered through the Jaffa Gate. The street was frenetic and bustling with activity, much like the souks we previously had visited. Palestinian merchants were selling their wares as we followed the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus followed carrying the cross to his crucifixion. The winding road is marked by fourteen Stations of the Cross, nine on the road and five within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This church is also called the Church of the Resurrection as it marks the sites where Jesus was crucified, purified, buried and resurrected. It is a magnificent, sobering and holy place.
The Old City is roughly divided into four quarters: the Muslim, the Christian, the Jewish and the Armenian. It, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We were awed by the overwhelming sense that this was the place of origin to every important religion of the world. It is also a place of tumult and controversy. The day after our visit was the celebration of “Jerusalem Day,” an Israeli national holiday commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of control after the June 1967 Six-Day War. The feeling of animosity was in the air. Our last view was of the Western Wall or “Wailing Wall, ” a most sacred place for Jews to pray.
After this exploration, our guide took us to the border of Bethlehem, which is in Palestine. We picked up a new guide who took us to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. It was exceptionally emotional to stand within and imagine Jesus of Nazareth being born in the cave or Grotto of this basilica. The church is administered jointly by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities.
After spending the night at The David Citadel Hotel, we took off for Masada, an ancient majestic fortress built by King Herod the Great atop a rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Around 73 CE the Roman troops laid siege to Masada to rout a group of rebellious Jews. It took several years and about 1000 defenders composed of men, women and children to hold off the Romans, but they finally breached the walls using battering rams, catapults and a circumvallation wall. Rather than become prisoners and slaves of the Roman Empire, the leaders decided that the defenders must all commit suicide. They burnt down the fortress and killed each other. This heroic story is dramatically retold in an excellent book named The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman.
Our circuitous route back to Haifa and the ship included a stop to float in the Dead Sea, viewings of Jordan and the Golan Heights from afar and a stop to gather Holy Water at the sacred River Jordan where we witnessed some pilgrims getting baptized.
The last piece of our trip contained visits to three islands: Cyprus, Rhodes and Malta.
Cyprus is part Greek and part Turkish and known for archaeological sites like Kourion and those relating to Aphrodite as well as beaches in the South near Limassol where we stopped.
Rhodes is a beautiful Greek island known also for beaches and its Crusade-era occupation by the Knights of St. John. We enjoyed viewing the medieval Street of the Knights and the Palace of the Grand Masters.
The last island was Malta, and it was quite enchanting in Valetta where we stopped. Malta has a rich history from ancient times until the present due to its strategic position in the Maltese archipelago. The harbor views are stunning. The famous Knights of Malta, dedicated to fighting infidels, were also dedicated to hospital work; we viewed Europe’s Longest Hospital Ward. The ornate St. John’s Co-Cathedral built in 1577 is full of works of art and Baroque splendor highlighting the Knights’ chivalry and valor. There is a movie you can view in the round near the wharf describing Malta’s amazing history. Malta is a little gem of medieval opulence that is movie-set-friendly.
The Regent Seven Seas Voyager provided an excellent vehicle to explore this part of the world. There were movies and lectures, bridge, games and entertainment. The staff and crew were thoughtful, courteous and friendly. As well, the cuisine proved to be very good with care to cater to each individual’s needs.
Barcelona, Spain came soon enough with a bit of rough sea that slightly delayed our arrival. This journey was a fascinating overview of the Middle East combining education and relaxation and yes, a number of check-offs on our Bucket List!
Carol M. Santora – www.cmsantora.com June 2015
Additional travel plans, guides and expertise were provided by Dukie Baxter at Travel Concepts, 914.769.7265.