Wednesday, November 29, 2006


While visiting Syria we drove up to Ma'aloula and Sidnaya - two small towns in the hills that ridge right along Syria just before the serious mountains of the Anti-Lebanon Range. I have always heard this term spoken and had never been sure if it was neant to be Ante-Lebanon as 'before' Lebanon or Anti as in 'against'. Even the internet seems uncertain - I have just checked and found credible sites using both. Perhaps in the last few years Anti is better.


The car wound its way out and up from Damascus, heading steadily north. The rocks that ridged the hill seemed a long way away at first but slowly we seemed to get closer to them - a long scree-covered range of hills (can you have a range of hills?)with a heavy vertically ridged outcrop that crusted the top. Obvious rock falls from time to time showed as long trails of very large rocks on the slopes. Now and again an obvious overhang had my fingers itching to go and search for worked flints - Syria has a lot of caves where early man could shelter, and there is often evidence of tool making in the area.


Ma'aloula settles tightly into the mountains. There is a story that one of the early saints of the Christian Church was a young girl whose name was Tekla, or Tecla or Taqla. She was pursued and persecuted for her Christian faith (this seemed to happen so often that it is a wonder there are not a lot more saints) and chased into these hills. In prayer she asked for a refuge and a part of the rocks in the hill opened into a cave to hide her.



On top of the hill is a church of St Sergius and this is really interesting. It dates back to the time before Christianity was fomalised with the Nicaean council and creed in 325. At this time it was decreed that no sacrifices were to be made in Christian churches and from this point altars in churches had a smooth flat top. There are two altars in St Sergius, and both have high rims to prevent the spilling of blood in a sacrifice. The original entrance to the church must be a door all of about four feet high - to guarantee that you bowed your head towards the altar as you entered.


In both Ma'aloula and Sidnaya the language of the time of Christ - Aramaic - is still spoken. I often wonder if Mel Gibson wandered around here conferring with older locals to brush up his language for The Passion of Christ.

I suspect that the use of Aramaic is not as widespread now as the locals would like you to think. However there was one point where the lovely young woman who was the guide for the church stood and said the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic and it was hard for even the toughest cynic to stay unmoved. I have it on video as this was permitted but do not think my Flickr website that shares images for the blog will support video.

In Sidnaya the Monastery sits heavily on a rocky hill and looks more like a fortress than a Christain site. Carved straight into rock as you drive around the hill on the encircling road is a series of beautiful niches - almost door-sized and topped with a scallop shell arch. No photos I am afraid - we were being monstered by a bus and could not stop.

My mother looked a bit horrified at the four flights of steep steps that zigzagged up the front of the monastery. I could almost hear the words "I'll stay in the car" shaping in her mind, when the driver pointed out a lift.

This monastery was the most popular site for Pilgrammage other than Jerusalem in early Christianity. for those interested in this period William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain is wonderful. It also connects early Christian Syria with the Dead Cities of the north which I may write about soon - the photos are waiting.

We climbed up through narrow stone cut alleys and passages once inside. It was dark and cool, almost chilled. The church does not actually feel all that old. There has been pleanty of money for refurbishing and repainting. The ceiling arches overhead ultramarine blue and an impression of clouds and stars. There are a lot of icons, like in St Sergius and some of these look very old. I took two steps inside and the music stopped and held me in thrall. There was a breathtaking moment when I was not even sure I was really hearing it, then I wondered where the choir was. There was no obvious choir so I assumed a tape.

I moved in and sat in a pew.

Then I realised that the group of young people on the other side of the central aisle were singing. They were all Arab, and the young women were not veiled. Many women in the church were veiled and looked very Moslem - then I later found that this church has the local reputation of giving pregnancies to those having trouble conceiving so many Moslems come in hope.

It is hard to describe how wonderful the singing was. Young men in the front seemed to be leading and one had a string instrument of some sort - possibly a guitar or oud. I could not see it without drawing too much attention to myself and I did not want to break the spell. I sat through about five songs until I could ammost feel Bob getting restless at the back of the church. The voices were all good buyt obviously not particularly trained - but mellow and soft and not in any way competing with each other. It was obviously sacred music and in Arabic, but shared some quality with Gregorian chants - a narrow range perhaps, which made it singable for most voices. Either way it was melodic and beautiful and I now have a phone number for the leader who said they are in the process of making a CD.

We had stopped between the two towns to clamber through an unlocked gate. Does a twist of wire count as a lock? On the hill against Ma'aloula were rock cut tombs - some graffitied but still really interesting.


We had seen a lot of others all around and above the main town. Some looked as if they might have doubled as dwellings for the ascetics who were in such fashion in the early days of the church. It always seemed to me to be really odd that St Simeon put himself onto a tall column of rock in the North of Syria to get away from people and startd a whole cathedral complex with supoorting monastries that climbed the hills for miles as people surged out of the region and Europe to be close to him.



In one sheer rock face a wonderful ladder was proped against a half-closed tomb. The ladder was made in the local way - one long piece of wood - probably a straightish trunk from the length of it was split lengthwise. Then smaller branches were inserted at intervals to create the steps. It looked so difficult to climb that I could not believe that anyone would bother to brick in the cave - but then, I don't much like heights. Then the others questions started - why would you brick it in unless you wanted to live here, or to store something that might be damaged if it got wet. Could it be to keep goats in the cave or tomb? Can a goat climb a ladder?


We ate a superlative lunch. Syria must have the best food in the world and we were groaning when we left. It is THE thing to do on a Friday - to leave the city and drive into the hills and eat lunch at a truly superb restaurant. The profits of a good Friday are so lucrative that restaurants of the region vie with each other for the best and freshest food. We came back along different ridges through Bloudan and Zebdaneh and hit heavy traffic.

We might have started the day with a search for the sacred sites, but it definitely ended with the secular!

Snippets from the Nile

I loved our Nile Cruise. We traveled on a new boat run by the same group as the Sonesta Hotels - the Sonesta Star Goddess. We had a suite - a twin bedroom, walk in wardrobe, bathroom and lounge with a small alcove for a study - and a balcony. The balcony allowed us to sit in armchairs overlooking the Nile as the boat moved slowly and silently past the riverbanks and the life on and around them.

At first I photographed features - until I looked through the photographs and realised I had nothing but boats. So then I took a lot of vistas. I could have watched the world go by all day. Sometimes one bank had the barest smattering of green and then huge rocky hills reared up behind. On the other side of the boat was the lushness of acres of date palms with undergrowth and other crops - wheat and khakadeh and cotton and great flat expanses of mud, usually well studded with cows.

Two incidents for you.

Day two on the boat and we headed for the breakfast buffet. My mother likes a good breakfast, but is used to a breakfast of the 'cereal, fruit and toast or pastries' variety.

The only cereals were rice bubbles in tall dispensers complete with a tap. Standing slightly to the side I could see that the tap controlled a horizontal cylinder that was filled from above by gravity, and emptied from below by gravity. THe cylinder has a cross wise division so only one quarter of what it held could empty itself into you bowl - as long as you only turned the tap a little.

My mother turned it a little - then tried to turn it off by going the other way. Each turn delivered a bowlful of rice bubbles onto he single bowl, which started to overflow. In panic she twisted the tap back and forth and managed to give herself two more bowls-worth - this time delivered even further by gravity onto the table, her feet and the floor. Then she finally stopped turning the tap when it was midway between two sides of the divider - two more bowls of cereal.

It was hilarious but it took her four days to be willing to attempt it again.

On Day 3 we arrived at the Isna Lock. There was a long long queue of massive boats waiting to go through the lock, and we had to tie up in the middle of one of the more uninteresting bits of river. Within minutes of docking the shouting started.

"Hello. Hello!!"

We were surrounded by small boats - a flotilla of frantically rocking dinghies with two or three boys balanced on the boats and waving large fabric objects. Most were galabayehs. These are the long garments worn by men in the streets in some communities, and by women for casual dressing in the homes or at family parties. the ships all have galabayeh nights, and all of us knew that that was the next day. If a passenger appeared looking over the edge of the top deck, or on their balcony, the boys started hurling up the bags. Many people did buy - intrigued as much by the payment and delivery systems as by the objects theselves.



If you didn't want the contents you threw the bag back. There were a few desperate lunges to catch them as throws went wide of the small boats, but the plastic bags, on the whole, kept out the water and helped the bags to float until they were retrieved.


Some boys were sitting on the bank nearby.


We had watched for a while, had lunch, and watched boys at almost our level - the dining room was half below the water line. One held up a large scarf for sale and blocked the light for a few minutes.


We decided that we would head for our room. We had had a very early morning start with a dawn visit to the temples as Luxor and Karnak and my mother was weary.

She lay down to read and was asleep in seconds. I picked up my book and went onto the balcony. You could still hear the boys calling to other boats nearby and so that they would not wake her I closed the door behind me.

It slid very quietly then went 'Snick'.

It was definitely an OhNosecond. Tentatively and with trepidition I tried the door.

Very very locked. It was not going to budge.

I sat down in a corner chair and started to read. It was all fine. The weather was perfect and I had a plan. I would wait an hour while she slept then knock on the door and she would wake up and let me in.

Three minutes later one of the boys on a boat spotted me and they swarmed over. Three boats bobbed beneath our second storey deck and the bags started to fly through the air.

"Where are you from" - attempted in about seven languages until I relented and told them I was Australian. I lobbed a few bags back - and most landed in the boats. Some came straight back while others tried other products. At one stage about four flew at me simultaneously and I decided that I was not having fun.

I told them to go away as I wanted to read and I was not going to buy but it didn't seem to get through. I looked along the boat towards the bedroom window where my mother slept. I tried to reach along the boat to the window to tap on it. No way - my arm was about one hand too short.

I tipped up my head to the upper decks as I could hear people moving around. "Hello" I called, very loudly.

"No" - said someone somewhat curtly, "We don't want to buy anything."

I belted open handed on the glass door. My mother is somewhat deaf and had been resisting wearing the hated hearing aids. I belted for what seemed a long time before she heard me. I saw her emerge, slightly staggery, in that 'just woken from a deep sleep' mode and head towards the wrong door - the front door of the suite. For a wild moment I thought she was going to leave through that one - with her locked out in the corridor and me locked out on the balcony.

But - she realised and rescued me.

Enjoy some photos.

Just cruising......


Boys in a mini-felucca with a load of fodder


Cows on the mudflats


The rocks and sand behind


Washing up


Villages and mudflats


Fishermen in the evening


Almost dark, and an appropriate time to sign off!


Wednesday, November 22, 2006


A car went past us on the way to Carrefour this morning.

On the back in a huge and obviously custom made sticker was one word.


On the way back from a coffee shop where I had joined a friend to drink a luxurious cappucino in a cup big enough to float a fair sized model boat I saw a very old man who had been going through garbage bags left for collection as I came past. He had a small pile of food in front of him and was picking and discarding bits and eating. Every second piece was given to the very very pregnant tabbi cat beside him.

There are times when I am forced to relinquish my deeply affectionate view of Cairo. The garbage in the Khan reached horrible levels today. One pile we passed was almost shoulder high. It was covered with flies in great black clouds and had a large selection of cats working their way through it. Many were obviously starving and sick and worst of all - one dead cat was curled and slumped like a discarded strip of fur on the pile.

I met a very famous Egyptian actress last night. No names for obvious reasons. I was telling my friend Ibrahim that she had been there this morning and he could not understand the way I was saying her name.

"How old was she?" he said.

I thought for a second, considered forty and decided to be kind.

"Maybe 35" I said.

He appealed to our chef for his version of who she was and Ahmed's face lit up and he said the name - almost as I had said it - and light dawned.

Ibrahim protested in Arabic and both burst out laughing. Apparently she was not 35 but in her sixties.

I want her doctor's name!

In Edfu on the Nile cruise we were rushed out of the boat almost in the act of docking. We had been held up at the lock at Isna and had only an hour left before the Temple closed for the night.

A line of horses and buggies were fretting and pawing at the curbside.

The guide was allocating people in the order they had come off the boat into buggies. We hoiked Mum into one and I clambered in beside her - it was extremely high and I had trouble getting my foot from the step to the higher level so the driver lifted my leg by the trousers.

Then the next couple arrived - and both were large people, like me, and while the buggy had opposing seats there was minimal space between them. Four left-out legs stuck out at very awkward angles and we were all laughing so hard as the poor horse staggered along that it was hard to work out who owned the legs. Any closer and we would have had to marry.

It was fine on the way there. We moved at a furious rate down the main hill and I wondered for a second if we were so out of control that the buggy might actually overtake the horse.

Coming back was different. The hill was shorter coming down and long and slow going up and the horse just couldn't do it. At one stage his head twisted over his shoulder as if to say 'what is back there anyway?'. His feet were scrabbling and slipping on the bitumen and he started to turn back to go back down the hill.

A shout from the driver alerted a couple of police and pedestrians to the problem. There was a somewhat derisory look for the large pink and white passengers with legs still draped over the hubs, and they started to push. Two shoved the buggy and two tried pushing the horse from the rump.

My mother still gets the giggles when she thinks of the indignation on the horses face. I can only feel sorry for the poor animal.

We had a large cocktail party last night. In Egypt it is almost impossible to say how many might turn up, so we catered for two hundred. In fact about one hundred and forty came. Finger food two hundred is a lot of food and waiters circulated continually with big trays.

One older man sat outside at a round table covered with a white on white embroided Damascus cloth. In front of him he had a large plate of chicken wings roasted in soy and sesame seeds. Obviously he had requested them as all the trays were of mixed hot hors d'oevres. Someone in the kitchen had arranged them for him as a radiating wheel with a curl of fresh coriander in the centre and a small dipping bowl of sauce. He tucked a napkin into his collar and went to work on them, sucking and dragging the meat off the bones, then replacing the bones neatly in the position of the original wings so they radiated out from the centre.

A women plonked herself on a chair opposite. Clearly they did not know each other from the look she got.

Moving the vase of flowers out of the way in the centre she reached across and removed the plate from him and proceeded to his obvious annoyance to scoff the rest.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Back in Cairo

My mother is in town - and despite being my mother is fit and well and still going strong. I think she is getting used to immediate questions about her age, but I am starting to feel a bit testy about perpetual comments that she looks like my sister. Or worse - my daughter.

We have done so much. We have seen pyramids - she even attended a performance of Peer Gynt at the Pyramids at Giza with Queen Sonja in attendance. We have bumped around the Western Desert in a four-wheel-drive with a good looking bedouin at the wheel. She has had a ride on a felluca with Ron Barassi who helped her to cross another felucca to get to the dock when we returned. She wished there had been more feluccas. We have had a cruise from Luxor to Aswan in the total luxury of the Sonesta Star Goddess. More on that later.

We are now just back from Syria.

Centamin, an Australian gold-mining company opening the first gold mine in Egypt since the days of the Pharoahs - no - they were still operating in Roman times - have agreed to sponsor the planned exhibition of work from the Tentmakers' Khan in Cairo. Expertise Events had arranged sponsorship to cover the space allocated for the exhibition, and now I have funds available for two men to travel with me so people can watch the work as it is done. I am so thrilled and grateful. Quilters coming to the Australasian Quilt Convention in Melbourne in February will now be able to see something formerly only seen in Egypt.

On my way to break the news to the men I had an unusual taxi ride.

My mother had decided to come with me. We got into an old Lada with a Mercedes crest firmly mounted on the front. I always have trouble getting local drivers to understand where I want to go. The area I always think of as Bab Zuweilah has never worked - somehow the old gates of the city are just not known to local cabbies. Khan Khayamyeh is the Arabic name for the Tentmakers' Khan - but that does not usually work either. I had started getting them to take me to King Farouk's old headquarters - and then I direct them from there, but that leads to a lot of annoyance - usually with cabbies twisting around to tell me that Abdeen Palace was 'back there' with lots of hand waving. Egyptians look at you when they speak to you. That is fine when you are face to face across a desk or a cocktail party - but a bit worrying when you are sitting in the back of a cab with a driver who insists on facing you as he speaks.

One of the Embassy drivers told me to ask for the Police Headquarters and Gaol. It gets me some odd looks but it works and I do get to where I am going.

This time we got into the cab and the driver told me he loved England. I said I was not English.

"I love America," he said.

"I am Australian."

"Ahhh - Ozzzzie Ozzie Ozzie."

However - he actually knew Bab Zuwelah - so we got in.

The driving got more erratic as we approached Port Said Street - a huge road intended to be three lanes on each side but usually running at least twelve lanes of traffic. You have to take a deep breathe and just push your way through this, and he did. We turned left and then he started to get impatient. Traffic was banked solidly in front of us and we had at least three blocks to go. I would have got out and walked but my mother is 83 and squeezing between large trucks and buses is not my favourite occupation at the best of times.

The driver muttered something and swing hard across all the traffic to dive into a very very narrow lane. He just missed the feet of a man being shaved in the street, and from the imprecations hurled at us he obviously upset the barber too. Then the ride was like something out of a video game. We met a lot of cars, all going the opposite way and apparently thinking that we were wrong. We probably were.

We dodged and scraped and all the time the driver kept up a stream of swearing - very loudly and at everyone within sight. I did not know exactly where we were and decided that the only way to get my mother out of an extremely local area was by staying in the car. At one stage we squeezed through a large flock of sheep and goats obviously waiting out their time to be slaughtered for the Eid.

Finally we belted with increasing speed around vegetable stalls and a drink seller, and swung out in to the open area in front of Bab Zuweilah and the Tentmakers.

We staggered out of the cab and gratefully accepted the offered tea from my freinds in the Khan. I love this area. It is one of the gentler areas of Cairo, and I leave every time feeling recharged and serene. Usually.

Our friends laughed at my imitation of the taxi driver and walked us back to the gate. A taxi was standing in a parking area and Ayman woke up the driver to tell him to take us to Zamalek. He didn't want to - and entreaties got more noisy and voluble. I heard Aymen telling the driver that my mother was very old and he should be ashamed to make her walk further. He very very grudgingly agreed to take us, and Ayman insisted on prepaying.

I started to get into the back so that my mother could follow without the awkwardness of that shuffle across the seat - a woman does not sit next to a driver in Cairo. The driver shouted a warning and our friends immediately insisted that only my mother should sit in the back - the other side of the seat was not attached and it would tip over. Mum sat down - gingerly.

I got into the front and as I sat I realised that what looked like a car seat was nothing of the sort. It must have been about six separate cubes of foam rubber with an old and somewhat smelly rug on top. It was very soft foam rubber and as my nether regions descended they touched the rubber - and unnervingly kept descending. As I went down - and down - the rubber cubes separated. I hit metal at one point - not nice smooth floor but what must have been the support metal strips for the seat. I am still dented.

We took off with a lurch and a puff of smoke and with every lurch the bonnet flew up, momentarily blinding the driver. He didn't seem to care. He wasn't very happy about taking us and other than a question about the exact location of the house he was silent. We swerved - often late enough to frighten me - around several pedestrians.

Then in the middle of peak hour Downtown he pulled in to the side of the road and left the car double parked. "One minute," he shouted in Arabic while he ran down an alley into an office.

I could see it was a specialty eye surgeon and was wondering to myself whether he intended to come back when he did.

He was positively loquacious and explained to me that he had to have an operation in two days so he could see again.

Then he drove us the rest of the way home through rapidly moving and overcrowded Cairo traffic.
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