In Holy Land — Part One

Traveling Israel in summer 2018, visiting and studying historic sites. First part of two posts.


Dome of The Rock is third holiest site for Muslims (after Mecca and Medina). Its not a mosque, but a shrine built on an ancient Jewish temple site. Nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque is also from the same period, when Muslims had first conquered the Palestine, late AD600.


Current walls around Jerusalem old town were rebuilt around 1535, when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire. History of east Jerusalem (old city) dates back least 3 millennia.

Zion Gate, scarred by riffle fire from 1948 Israeli Independence War.


Old port of Jaffa as a backdrop for easy going beach life. For centuries Jaffa was gateway to Palestine. Jerusalem is inland, and road from Jaffa gate leads all the way into this port. Nowadays Jaffa is historic neighbourhood and part of city of Tel Aviv.

Traveling in Israel is easy. Everything from transport to finding a way and getting around is convenient. Public transport is efficient, automated, and runs often (excluding during the Sabbath). Also because the area of Israel is so small, it doesn’t take long to travel across the country. Israelis embrace the digital to the fullest. Once I couldn’t even walk into a pizzeria and place my order, without needing get mobile app to my phone for it. People are skilled in languages. Besides domestic Hebrew and obvious English, they often master third or more languages.


Beersheba downtown. City is modern, although it has few historic sights to see.

Beersheba. Arrived to town in Negev desert after an hour bus drive from Jerusalem. Beersheba itself, is an hour drive from Dead Sea resorts such as Ein Bolek and Ein Gedi. Temperature there rises to tormenting heights, saw 45 Celcius in mid summer mid day sun. Sea is 350meters bellow the normal sea level. Swimming is interesting experience, water is very warm and because the salienation, human body is actually lighter than the water. It would be impossible to dive under, if someone would be crazy enough to try. Salty water in eyes is painful experience!


Dead Sea seen from Ein Bolek, two hour drive from Beersheba. Opposite coast belongs to Jordania.

Sabbath. Was caught off guard by Israeli weekend. I knew “everything will be closed” but didn’t expect it to be so thoroughly like-Christmas-night closed. Friday is day of rest and prayer for both Jews and Muslims. Everything from small kiosks to shops, restaurants and cafes are closed. Sabbath is family occasion above everything else, and streets are almost void of traffic.


Shrine of Baha faith in city of Haifa.


Old Akko (Acre). Like port of Jaffa, Akko was gateway to Palestine for centuries. It was important port during the time of Crusaders. 1799 Napoleon also tried to muscle his way in, but was stopped by local Ottoman forces helped by British navy. Today old Akko is popular tourist destination, while modern part of city can be seen as part of Haifa metropolitan area.


In West Jerusalem. This part of city started to grow in 19th century, outside the confines of over crowded East Jerusalem.


Dusk at Kidron Valley, seen from Jerusalem old town.

Israeli Defense Force Soldiers. Having strained relations with its neighbors, Israel is in constant state of military readiness. IDF soldiers can be seen everywhere and most seem around 19 or so. It’s strange to see kind youthful face, almost a child still, lugging an automatic weapon in public places. And, how normal this is considered by everyone. Soldiers usually wear green/brown uniforms and boots, but it’s not rare to see soldier on a holiday, wearing shorts, t-shirt, slippers, and carrying a weapon. Or a young lady, with a chic handbag slung over one shoulder, and assault riffle over another. After 2-3 year long military service, it’s a tradition to take a long vacation abroad. Southeast Asia, South America… Somewhere away from stressful army life.


West Bank Wall separating the Jewish and Palestinian neighbourhoods.


Graffitis in West Bank wall, tradition that has continued since 2005 by artist Banksy.

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Book Review: Psalmist With A Camera

Psalmist With A Camera — Photographs of a Biblical Safari, by Gail Rubin. While on trip to Israel, I studied the history of the country. One curious incident of March 1978 caught my eye. Palestinian terrorists using motorboats had landed nearby the coastal road that goes from Tel Aviv to Haifa. Their first victim was an American photographer, who by accident had been taking photos in that very place where terrorists decided to land. Her name was Gail Rubin and she was 39 years old at the time. She had worked as a photo journalists in her earlier life, but had since been focusing the nature of Israel and photographing it. For some reason, the tragedy of her murder, combined with the fact that she had been there trying to take photos of birds made me stop. It made me try find more about her, and especially what her photos had looked like. There isn’t much to be found online, apart from Wikipedia entry of the incident, and couple news paper articles about her funeral. Besides, there’s another online persona of the same name, and most of the results point to that person. But Gail had produced photography books in her last years, so managed to buy used one from the net. Photos in the book didn’t seen very impressive at first, but I involuntarily view them with the eyes used to different era of media consumption. And as someone used to results of whole different level of technical capabilities. But still, once in right mood to put things into right perspective, the book is enjoyable to view and read. It offers a view what Gail had seen in her last years, while traveling around Israel in 1970’s. Because I couldn’t find any of her work online, heres couple snaps from the book.


One of Gail’s favourite photos. “Family portrait” of group of addax.


Conies.


Sinai agama.


Persian onagers.


Storks.

Sonnar Winter

Snow from winter 17-18 is quickly melting away under April sun. Here are couple photos taken in Helsinki, when spring was still a distant dream. Photos were taken with an old pre-war Sonnar lens, adapted to modern Sony camera. Lens was originally designed for Tenax II film cameras. These cameras were half frame type, so from standard 36 exposure film roll you got about 50 frames with square 24x24mm format. My Sonnar is converted to Leica thread mount, and then adapted to Sony, so its in quite different environment than its designers originally intended it for.


Central railway station.

The 40mm focal length of Sonnar on an APS-C body becomes equivalent of 60mm, about the same as original half frame film. Judging the comments of Sonnar affectionados of www, Sonnar lenses, especially the older ones, had a distinct “Sonnar look” that is something to sought for.


Another angle of three blacksmiths statue (ref. first shot).


Central cathedral. Helsinki was often used as a backdrop in Hollywood spy movies, back when iron curtain curtailed any filming in places such as Moscow and Leningrad.


Sanoma building, my workplace during the winter.


Uncoated lens flares easily e.g. from car head lights.


Hotelli Torni is famous old hotel in Helsinki center.


Sonnar wide open at f2, edge sharpness of this 80+ year old lens is not the best.


Porvoo is idyllic old wooden town, an hour drive to east from Helsinki.


Few shots are from Seinäjoki town in western Finland.


Sonnar 40mm lens optical block. None of the photos here were cropped (couple were straightened). B&W conversion was made with SilverEfex Pro 2 software. Read more about Tenax II cameras, link here and here.

South India: Kerala, Cape Comorin, Madurai

Journal entry of traveling southern India in winter ’11-12 (Reblog with more images).

January — Crossed border of Tamil Nandu state, and arrived to Cape Comorin. Kanyakumari, as locals call the cape, is the most southern tip of Indian subcontinent. There are couple of temples and large statue of Thiruvalluvar, a celebrated Tamil poet, is standing on an island. This is the only place in India to see both sun rise from sea, and landing back there at dusk. Lot of tourists visit it also for this special feat.


Statue of Thiruvalluvar was built 1999.

Kerala was an interesting experience. One of the curiosities that caught my eye was the Communist posters and ads everywhere. Arriving north, I stopped first in Kannur, then Calicut, neither didn’t offer much to see. After arriving Kochi thought its the same story, but it turned out to be best visit in Kerala.


Gone fishing. Chinese fishing nets in background in Kochi.

Kochi is complex of islands, archipelagos and backwaters. Town in continent side is called Ernakulam, that’s also where bus and train stations are. Old Fort Kochi is next to the beach and Chinese fishing nets and provide interesting sights to explore and photograph.


Munnar, a picturesque hill region is famous for tea plantations.


Exploring Kochi backwaters.

Kathakali is dance performance particular to Kerala. It is storytelling by dance and gestures. Actors are men only, and do roles of women as well. They are covered in strong makeup and elaborate costumes, careful preparations before performances is part of show. Stories are ancient Kerala’s and south Indian folklore, mixed with legends from Hinduism. Shows are arranged frequently in Kochi for travellers to see. @ Kanyakumari


Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum. Read fascinating history about this place: link.

February — Arrived to Madurai couple days ago to see its famous temples. Minakshi Sundareshvara Temple is in the center of the city. The complex is just as ancient as it is enormous. Spirituality and sounds from rites pulse through the thick stone walls. Temple itself is inside the several high walled perimeters, and there are numerous side shrines for various Hindu deities. Visitor can come across big elephant, or small mouse running at sides of corridor. And anything in between! @ Madurai


Photos from Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.

India in Miniature: Varanasi

Journal entry of visit to Varanasi, spring 2012. (Reblog with more images)

Varanasi is said to be first places on earth where light-bulb of human civilisation lit up. It is contemporary with cities such as Babylon, Niniveh and Thebes. While these civilisations have long since disappeared, Varanasi has been continuously inhabited during all this time, 3-4000 years. Travel guides describe Varanasi as India in miniature. Its good and not so good features, all compressed into one place. Colourful pilgrimages from all around the vast country, worshipping and purifying themselves in the holy river Ganges. But also, herds of tourists, touts, beggars and drug dealers. And not forgetting numerous cows, buffaloes, dogs, monkeys, and other tail-waggers.

March 17 — First day in Varanasi has been incredible, the place overwhelms even after several months in India and its hard to spare superlatives describing it. After dusty sweaty day; dusk surrounds the river, old town, ghats (washing and purification platforms), and all the life that goes on. As orange disk descends behind the buildings, sparrows race lower air, haze blurs the purplish horizon. Another day in the eternal city has come to an end, night ceremonies are awaiting to be started.

My night train from Siliguri (at foothill of Himalayas and Darjeeling) arrived well ahead of schedule. I was lucky to wake up around 1.15am when train motion stopped. Stepped outside my cabin to ask how many stations still to go for Varanasi, and thats actually where my train was standing! A miracle that didn’t forget anything in my cabin, while rushing out of train half asleep and unprepared. Finding accommodation at that time is another story, waiting morning at the station simply wasn’t an option. Local travelers had already camped the floor space, benches and everything. I was also surrounded by hotel touts and tuk-tuk driveres that seem to wait in the station at all hours. Circling around the station for a while, finally gave up to one of drivers who took me to hostel owned by his pal. Anyway, even just one day here, easy to see this is going to be one of highlights of my trip! @ Varanasi


OMG.

March 21 — Varanasi is an ancient maze of buildings, labyrinth of corridors, usually not more than 2-meters wide, full of people, scooters, cows, dogs, chicken, monkeys… After leaving the river front, it can reveal nice surprises like restaurants and shops. Knowing that river is never far away helps with fear of getting lost. Found a nice restaurant that serves personal South Indian favorite, Masala Dosa. Here in North its not so common, been missing it!

Varanasi is for Hindus what Mecca is for Muslims. Legends say it was found by Shiva, supreme God of Hinduism. One should visit least once in a lifetime, and to die here, will release a devout Hindu from the cycle of rebirth. Funerals are taking place in two cremation ghats by the river. Body of deceased and his/her relatives arrive to funeral from all around India. Carrying bodies (wrapped in cloth) to cremation site is yet another surprise unaware traveller can come across here. When cremation fires have burned, ashes are spread to Ganges. Not everyone needs purifying fire in their funeral though. Bodies of children and pregnant women are considered pure and can be buried to river without cremation! Praying and purifying rituals are ongoing by the river throughout the day, but main event is the sunrise around 6-7am.

Ganges water isn’t warm, noticed it last night when washing my feet and sandal after stepping in a darkness to a “mine” dropped by a passing cow. This morning, woke up at early to see sunrise, and while walking to ghats, cheerful young dog joined me. Spotting nice view by the river, left my camera bag on ground and started taking photos. When finished, saw my camera bag was promptly “marked”, and dog disappeared. So another wash at the cool waters was needed. Hindu’s consider every drop of Ganges holy. Pilgrimers fill bottles from the river before starting journey back home. Saw often people washing themselves, including washing their teeth in it. @ Varanasi


Prayer rituals at night time are spectacle of their own.


Ganges makes a long curve, and ghats are situated so that pilgrims face directly towards east where sun is coming at morning. Its easy to see why location was chosen for the prayer site all those millennias ago.

Rajasthan — India’s West

Visiting Golden and Blue City in Thar Desert, spring 2012. (Reblog with more images and information)

April 8 — Rajasthan sun is merciless. Hot dry breath of wind blows over the dunes and through the ancient desert town. Am in India’s western border. Jaisalmer used to be trade post between east and west, until sea trade replaced camel caravans. After independence and partitioning of India, 1947, Indian-Pakistani border closed much of the regional trade as well. Name Golden City comes from yellow sand stone that is building material for majority of buildings.


Jaisalmer Fort.

My guesthouse arrange camel safaris to the desert. Decided to go with a traveling pal I met in the train. Seemed then like a great idea then. Now am wondering how on earth am going to survive, when even the shade of town seems too much. After washing, clothes are dry after two hours of hanging. @ Jaisalmer


Visit to desert.

April 10 — Back from desert! Air is exhausting from 9am to 5pm and temperature hangs over and under 40 Celsius. At evening winds get cooler and night air is almost chilling. I slept outside in open desert. Its exhilarating feeling, lying in bed and gazing up to bottomless silent night sky. Stars shine as bright as they possibly can. All sounds are natures own: camel munching grass, fire rattling in campfire, night bird cocooing somewhere in darkness. At first its hard to catch a sleep, but eventually the inevitable happens… @ Jaisalmer


Mehrangarh fort.

April 14 — Continued my journey to Jodhpur, the Blue City. Weather here has been nice relief after Jaisalmer. It has rained every afternoon. Yesterday night winds were strong and thunderstorms did show of drum and light over the Mehrangarh fort. Fortification stands on a cliff, and city has grown around it. Houses are colorful and have more variety than in Jaisalmer. Areas in old town are painted blue, from which city has gotten its name. Tradition originates from cast divisions that dictated who were living where.


Rich merchants used to show off their wealth, by building their homes extravagantly. They are called Havelis in Jaisalmer.


Zenana Deodi. The inner courtyard of Mehrangarh fort was once guarded by eunuchs. This is where the Maharaja’s wives lived.

Fort is definitely worth visiting. Audio guides were excellent, and place is fascinating adventure to history both in and outside. Marwars of Jodhpur had semi-autonomous status during reign of Mughal centuries (1526–1857). Wild desert region and proud warriors living here proved too much for even mighty Mughals to repress entirely.

Sati and Jauhar Traditions of Rajasthan

While walking by the big entrance gate of Jodhpur castle, I noticed curious hand insignia’s carved by the gate wall. They were painted in red and had decoration of fresh flowers on them. This is a shrine for widows of Maharajahs that had committed a Sati (seti, suttee), a self immolation.

Sati was practiced among aristocrats, and was at the time accepted practice in Hindu religion. Michael Edwards, British India 1772-1947:

… In 1780, the deceased Raja of Marwar was joined in death by sixty-four wives. A Sikh prince of the Punjab took with him ten wives and no less than three hundred concubines

Jauhar had to do with harsh reality of desert life: isolated communities living where marauding armies could (and did) appear out of nowhere and without warning. Jauhar, for men meant fighting and dying a certain death in hands of enemy. These events repeated several times during the history of Rajasthan. British banned immolations in 1829 and later independent India continued the work. Sati Prevention Act from 1987 makes it criminal to aiding, abetting, and even glorifying the act of Sati.

Coincidentally, years later learned another angle about the topic. This time in a museum in Iran:

Paintings … include the scene of a banquet in Persian and Indian style in which the wedding ceremony of Reza Qoli Mirza, son of Nader Shah and an Indian princess is shown. Another part of the picture is “Seti” ritual in which some Indian princesses commit suicide by being burnt with the corpse of their deceased husbands and this is regarded as a sign of their intense love.

Aside the fact that such ritual was also known in Iran, during the rule of Shah Abbas the second an event happened which connected this ritual with Kandahar conquest episode. Probably the significance of the event for the Safavid culture system caused its illustration upon a Chehelsotoon wall.

One of the most important historical events during the reign of Shah Abbas the second was re-conquest of Kandahar by Iranian army from Indian Gurkanis (Mughals) in 1655 AD. As a story goes twenty days after the beginning of Kandahar siege by Iranian troops, one of the high ranked Rajas of Indian Gurkanis by the name of Matrodas … passed away suddenly. His distressed wife decided to observe the Seti ritual according to her ancient religion. Therefore, she adorned herself with various jewellery and got ready to set herself on fire. Afterwards she took her husbands body and went toward the fire accompanied by her relatives. At this time, Dolat Khan, governor of Kandahar tried to change her mind by giving advice but she remained silent and reluctant. When Dolat Khan and his attendants found out that she is very determined in her cause, they allowed her to go on. At this time the woman began taking off her jewellery on her way and throwing them toward the crowd. After reaching the destination she sat down and embraced the head of her husband. By this time, her relatives had brought a pile of firewood and after putting it around the dead man and the bereaved woman, had set it on fire. Rajput Hindus of the time believed that the words of anybody who was committing suicide in this way was trustworthy and would come true doubtlessly. Therefore, Dolat Khan sent a man to ask the dying woman whether the kind of India would dispatch any reinforcements to break Kandahar siege and whether the Qezelbash army would return to Iranian court empty handed?

The woman answered: “No reinforcement is on its way from Indian king, therefore the victorious Iranian army will conquer the castle in forty days. But about India it must be said that after eleven years a great languor will occur all over the land.”

At this point the woman was not able to talk anymore because the flames consumed her entirely. After this event the messenger of Dolat Khan told him what he had heard which made the governor and his attendants quite disappointed. After forty days her forecast came true and the Iranian army entered Kandahar.

Shah Abbas the second became very impressed by this story so he ordered the depication of it on the walls of Chehelsotoon in order to pay his respects to that courageous woman.


Cannon in Mehrangarh fort museum.

Tazara Railway and Victoria Falls

Tazara stands for Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority, originally this 1800 km track was built by Chinese in 1970’s. This journal entry is from my trip from Dar es Salaam to Victoria Falls in autumn 2010. (Reblog with more images)


On the journey somewhere in Tanzania.

September 26 — First day in Dar es Salaam, or “Dar” as locals call it. City is by the sea, there are few restaurants and hotels, but not as much as one could expect from the size of it. This was once center of German East African colony. British annexed it during First World War. Some buildings e.g churches are from that period, although most seem newer. Population is mix of Muslims (city was found by them, and has easy access from Middle East), Christians that came during colonial period, and Indians, also relatively close. Nowadays Chinese seem to grow their presence in this part of world. New cars and motorbikes are Chinese, infrastructure projects also done by them. Dar is biggest city and main port of Tanzania. It’s also industrial center of this otherwise rural country. There are also tourist attractions near by, Zanzibar for example. @ Dar es Salaam, Tanzania


Views from Dar es Salaam harbor and fish market.

September 27 — Managed to find myself way forward from Dar. Solution is Tazara train from Dar to Capiri-Mposhi, near Lusaka in Zambia. From there Victoria Falls should be relatively close. @ Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

October 2 — Tazara is around 1800km track built by Chinese in 1970’s. Chinese letters come by everywhere, in buildings, machines. 40 years ago during cold war, Africa was divided into two sides like rest of the world. Zambia had copper available for world trade, but difficulties delivering it abroad. Mao’s China stepped in to help with African comrades, Tazara railway was largest single foreign-aid project undertaken by China at the time.

Our train left 12 hours late from schedule! At night, we thought there was riot breaking out at the station. People were protesting delays, everyone exhausted and angry of waiting. Heard two possible causes for the ordeal: technical problems with the old train, and politics of two jointly operated railway, between Tanzanians and Zambians. Eventually train got rolling, and has been going steadily ever since. Train is nice way to enjoy views of African countryside, relax, read and just hangout more freely than in sardine can of a bus. @ Train from Dar es Salaam to Capiri-Mposhi


Views along the route.

On every station people were selling fruits and food for the passengers.

October 4 — Our trip has progressed nicely, two full days in train from coast to inland. Irony of long delay in the beginning, was that train could have not arrived better time in early morning. From Lusaka I got nice impression, and would not mind to stay there a while, unless transit didn’t arrange so conveniently. Bus to Livinstone started interestingly, preacher marching in our bus back and forth and waving his bible. He shouted to us about dangers of AIDS, poverty and other things people dislike. Finally after couple hallelujahs he collected alms, thanked and left. Blessed trip indeed! Least from quick glance from bus, Zambia seems more industrious than Tanzania did. Roads are better, houses in good paint and modern equipment in agriculture, machines instead of human and animal labor. Been meeting interesting travelers from USA, Australia, Japan and of course Africa. @ Bus from Lusaka to Livingstone


In Livinstone.

October 5 — Livingstone is small Zambian town at the Victoria Falls, and has managed to turn its tourism revenues in favor for local community. Main street can be seen in 10 mins, but there is basically everything one can ask for: markets, banks, post office, few bars, restaurants etc. Streets are good, road was excellent all the way from Lusaka, town is clean.


Zambian-Zimbabwean border.

Falls themselves are just as stunning as one might expect. Peak of rain season is in April, thats when water masses coming down from cliffs are in their biggest. Rocks are reverberating due to falling water. Now in October it wasn’t bad either, one can go walking to rocky upstream, go swimming in natural pools that river has carved. Some pools are only few steps away from two hundred meter fall, it’s surreal feeling to go swim in them. Falls are by the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, both sides have great views. At the entrance there is statue of Dr.Livingstone, founder of the falls and African explorer, big hero of his time. He eventually died in this town because of Malaria, and buried in England in 1870’s. @ Livingstone