As a four-decade Certified Travel Agent, international airline employee, researcher, writer, teacher, and photographer, travel, whether for pleasure or business purposes, has always been a significant and an integral part of my life. Some 400 trips to every portion of the globe, by means of road, rail, sea, and air, entailed destinations both mundane and exotic. This article focuses on those in the Middle and Near East.
Turkey, which lies both in Europe and Asia, offered a glimpse into its rich antiquity with a tour through Ephesus, the ancient Greek city located on the Ionian coast. Constructed in the 10th century BC on the site of the previous Arzawan capital by Attic and Ionian Greek colonists, it became one of the twelve cities of the Ionian League during the Classical Greek Era and flourished under control of the Roman Republic in 129 BC.
Extensively canvased on foot, it progressively revealed the aspects of its past, including the House of the Virgin Mary, the Temple of Hadrianm, the Library of Celsus, and the Commercial Agora in its ancient section.
The Live Ephesus with the Ephesians show brought its past to life in the present.
A buffet lunch in Restaurant Le Wagon, a wooden, A-framed building with tree branch support beams, brick and wooden walls, and a red tile roof, featured potato and bean salad, eggplant, stuffed grape leaves, black olives, pickles, phyllo dough cheese rolls, grilled meatballs with tomato sauce, grilled chicken, yellow rice, and baklava.
Post-meal attractions encompassed the Ephesus Museum and the St. John Monument, and the immersion into Turkey’s ancient past was capped with a Turkish carpet making demonstration in Kusadasi.
Surrounded by Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Jordan, home country of another one of my airlines, offered an opportunity to experience and understand the history, culture, cuisine, and people behind the carrier I partially represented, initially through its modern capital, Amman, built on seven hills or “Jebels.
Mohammed, a colleague I chance-met upon arrival at Queen Alia International Airport, immediately displayed the Jordanians’ signature hospitality by volunteering to meet me at my hotel every day and escort me to the significant sights.
Offered local confectionaries in bakeries, such as delicate cookies or cream- and cheese-filled Kanafa, I walked in his shadow as we entered the Golden Souk, perusing local wares and handicrafts, and then visited Citadel Hill, located 850 meters above sea level on Jebel Al Qala’a and one of the original seven to have served as Amman’s foundation.
The Roman Amphitheater, at the foot of Jabal Al-Jofah on a hill opposite the Citadel, was a 6,000-seat, second-century Roman theater, dating back to the era when Amman was known as Philadelphia.
Other sights included the single-dome, four-minaret King Hussein Mosque, the largest in the country.
North of the city was Jerash, one of the ten cities of the Decapolis, where splendors of Rome’s frontier provinces were preserved through theaters, colonnaded streets, baths, and temples. A knife, gyrating up and down when inserted between column joints, demonstrated that no cement or other binding substance had been used at their juncture.
“Jerash is perhaps the best preserved and most complete provincial Roman cities anywhere in the world,” according to its description. “To walk through the ancient city is to step back into the world of the second century along the southeastern frontier of the Roman Empire. It is the most spectacular of these towns, ten of which were loosely allied in an association of cities called the ‘Decapolis.’
“Called ‘Gerasa’ in Roman times, it was important not only for its individual monuments, but also for its strict and well-preserved town plan, built around the colonnaded main street and several intersecting side ones. Its most noteworthy monuments included the Cardo, the South Theatre, the Temple of Zeus, the Oval Piazza, or Forum, Hadrian’s Arch, the Nymphaeum, the Artemis Temple Complex, and the smaller North Theatre, or Odeon.
“The city’s 14 churches with their fine mosaics all date from the Byzantine era, when the eastern Roman Empire looked to Constantinople for political and religious authority.”
Stone chariot wheel impressions, preserved pockets frozen in time, were visible.
Jordanian cuisine typically consisted of the always available hummus, regardless of the time of day; mensaf, its national dish made of roasted lamb with yoghurt sauce and served on a bed of rice; and honey-draped pastries.
Jordan’s rich topographical tapestry passed beneath the wing of my aircraft several days later during a short domestic flight to Aqaba, the Red Sea resort; the King’s Highway, which had been in continuous use as a trade and transit route for some 5,000 years; the semi-nomadic Bedouin tribes, which still roamed the desert with their sheep, goats, and camels, cooking in the open-air by day and sleeping in tents by night; the mysterious, eighth-century desert castles; Wadi Rum, whose moonscape topography was other-planetary; the eastern bank of the Dead Sea; and, beyond, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Reflections of the red, craggy-rock mountains on the Gulf of Aqaba were the origin of its Red Sea name, location of Aqaba, which itself offered an almost perfect climate for nine months of the year. But prevailing, northerly winds assured the water’s crystal clarity for the entire twelve-month duration. As a diver’s paradise, it offered an underworld of coral and color, as well as a surface one of swimming, snorkeling, water skiing, wind surfing, paddle boating, and kayaking.
The hypnotic sand-and-sea view, overlooking the Sinai Peninsula, served as the natural painting contemplated during outdoor breakfasts at umbrellaed tables under the warm sun, while the candlelit Aquarius Restaurant on the top floor dished up vistas of the crescent-shaped beach, which arched into Israel in the distance.
Jordanian hospitality surfaced in unexpected ways. While journeying to Petra one morning, I offered the driver a piece of fruit from the breakfast buffet and five minutes later he stopped at a local store and purchased a return-gift for me.
Protected and hidden by surrounding mountains, and accessible only by a one-kilometer-long, canyon fissure on horseback, Petra itself, the lost city of the Nabataeans carved into the red rock 2,000 years ago, was captured by the Romans in 106 AD. The Treasury, perhaps its very symbol, was the first building glimpsed as the canyon passageway terminated in the town. Its other significant sights included the Monastery, the enormous temple on a hillside; the Roman Theatre, which was carved into the hillside in the city’s center; the Royal Tombs, which still sported its row of six equally-carved monuments from the first to the fifth century AD along the inside face of Petra’s eastern mountains; and the High Place of Sacrifice, with its altar and the drains for the blood of the sacrificed animals.
United Arab Emirates:
While approaching Dubai, the city in the sovereign state at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula bordering Oman and Saudi Arabia and characterized by its ultramodern architecture and lively nightlife, I regretted that I could not spend more than the few hours allotted for the continuing flight to Malaysia.
Delhi, both New and Old, served as the gateway to the country, a reality somehow striking to my very core when the flight attendant announced shortly after landing, “We’re on the ground at Indira Gandhi International Airport, India.”
The city’s new section, marked by spacious boulevards and modern buildings that reflected its British Empire influence, offered sightseeing opportunities of the Birla Mandir Hindu Temple; the Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir Temple; the President’s House, his official residence; the Moghul architecture of the Humayun Tomb, whose double dome later served as the model for the Taj Mahal; the Qutub Minar, the tapering, five-tiered Memorial of Victory minaret; and the 42.3-meter-high India Gate, the War Memorial Arch to the soldiers of World War I.
Old Delhi, characterized by narrow streets crowded with pedicabs, bazars, mosques, temples, shops, and restaurants, offered equally interesting sightseeing opportunities, such as those of the Red Fort, which was constructed in 1648 and was located along the eastern edge of the Walled City on the west bank of the Yamuna River. The structurally imposing Jama Masjid, build between 1651 and 1656, was one of India’s largest mosques. The Chandni Chowk, or silver square, was a bustling market. And the Raj Ghat was a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi
Curious about local curries, I found them smooth, spicy, and rich, whether in vegetarian or meat dishes.
A four-hour, 233-kilometer-long obstacle course, comprised of a narrow road continually crisscrossed by pedestrians, donkey carts, and motorized traffic, was negotiated by a Sikh driver during a subsequent day trip to Agra, described as “That marble cloud anchored by a sacred river is a superb finale to so many other splendors.”
The Taj Mahal, its centerpiece, required 22 years to complete and was intended to convey the love of a Moghul emperor for his queen immortalized in marble.
The Agra, or Red Fort, the city’s very symbol, marks the citadel that was once the flourishing center of the Moghul Dynasty. A merge of Hindu and Muslin architecture, it was the main residence of its emperors until 1638 when the capital shifted to Delhi.
A carpet-making demonstration preceded the obligatory shopping spree-in this case, for marble inlay works, jewelry, and handicrafts.
Neighboring Nepal was another fascinating immersion into ancient culture, Buddhist mountain temples, and its imposing topography, introduced from the first “Namaste” after landing.
Kathmandu, whose exotic setting entailed tier-upon-tier of mountain walls above which towered mighty snowcapped peaks, afforded sightseeing opportunities of the Swayambhunath Monkey Temple, the Akash Bhairab Temple, Durbar Square, the Tempo of Kuman, the Martyrs’ Memorial Gate, and the neoclassical Singha Durbar Palace.
Hardly a mountain climber, I elected to view Nepal’s majestic peaks, the epitome of which, of course, was Mount Everest, from the comfort of an aircraft during a sightseeing flight.
“Royal Nepal’s daily Mountain Flight allows you to enjoy a unique experience to admire the breathtaking range of the eastern Himalayas from a distance of less than 14 miles, while comfortably seated on board a pressurized aircraft,” it was described in its brochure. “On the outward leg of the journey (eastbound), the mountain range will of course unravel itself on the left side of the plane. But on the return trip (westbound), it will be at the same distance and perfectly clear again, visible to the passengers seated on the right side”
It described Mount Everest, the crown jewel of the range, as “the usually black, pyramid-shaped rock,” which, rising to a 29,032-foot height, was the world’s highest point.” Nevertheless, some 20 other snow-crested peaks hovered outside of the window, including Lhotse, which was the second-highest at 27,940 feet.