Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kidnapping at Gilf Kebir

I have been watching the news, night after night, almost from the edge of my chair. Late last year I had the great good fortune and privilege to do a trip to Gilf Kebir. Then a week or so ago confusing news started to filter through. There were sixteen tourists kidnapped at Aswan. They were about to go into the desert. Then it was at a nearby oasis. Then the news said they had left Dahkla Oasis and gone into a distant area and Bob leant over my shoulder when I found that one on the internet and said "It sounds like Gilf Kebir."

He was right. I agonised in case the drivers and guides and guard were people I knew. I agonised because I could visualise the locations and the raw haunting beauty of Kharkur Tul and felt that it was like a murder in a cathedral - a violation of something special. I worried about the lack of information and the sheer impossibility of contact within any reasonable amount of time. I was so afraid that the captors might start shooting and would see the Egyptians as expendable. I worried that the only news anyone had for a long time was via one satellite phone - and what if that stopped working. When would they run out of food and water - especially water.

I am really at a loss to say why I felt this so personally.

I am now worrying that the Egyptians will simply ban trips to the region and I want Bob to get there - we had been planning to do this in 2010.

But the end is good. Like the beginning it is all mixed up and confused. Were there 35 kidnappers? Did most of them end up dead? Was there the first skirmish with the Sudanese army and was that actually the only one? Had the hostages already effectively been dumped when they were found and rescued?

I guess those things do not matter. I have stunning and amazing memories of sweeping sand dunes, high cliffs of sandstone and great granite tors, full sized acacias shaped like bonsai, areas of sand so red that it almost shimmered with intensity, scatters of stone tools and amazing cave art. Forget the Cave of the Swimmers - that is almost entirely a fiction from The English Patient and the small rock shelter of that name is nothing like the huge crevice that was shown in the movie. However, there were shelters and caves there with art so immaculate, fresh and beautiful that I will carry it for the rest of my life.

I will do more about the textile tour. In a few days.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Day 2 textile tour - Ma'aloula and the Krak de Chevaliers

This is a day spent outside Damascus. We go first to Maalula - a small Christian town in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Ranges, about one and a half hours from Damascus. High in the hills is a ridge of huge rock - it looks like the rim on a piecrust from a distance, but as you approach it get bigger and bigger until you realise that these are HUGE rocks.


The road threads through them.

On the top of the mountain is a very early Church. It has been dated to before the Nicene committee of 325 AD banned rims on altars in Christian churches - and there are rims on the altars. The towns of Maaula and Sidnaya still speak Aramaic - which was the language of Christ. I am not deeply religious though I love the mythology of Christianity. They will say the Lord's prayer for those who are interested in Aramaic - it is interesting to hear it in such an early language. The town nestles into the hills and rocks, and there is a lovely walk down through a small wadi where snow melt has cut a way to the town form the church on top of the hill.


The area is also pocked with rock cut tombs or cells of early Byzantine monasteries.




I must confess here that last year we did not get to Maalula. It was snowing as we turned off the highway and the road into the hills was too steep and slippery for the bus. This year, I hope it will be fine. We will be visiting one month later - which should also give us the beginnings of spring flowers at the Krak de Chevaliers. No promises - it all depends on the weather - but I will have my fingers crossed.



Another hour takes us to the Krak De Chevaliers which sits on top of a high hill overlooking the green fields of fertile Syria. It has to be the best of all the world's Crusader Castles. The best of Syria is that you can wander and explore here - there is no barbed wire, and few closed areas. It is just superb.



I have so many photos - but I want twenty people to come and I am so afraid that if I give you too much you will feel as if you have done the trip already.

Here endeth Day 2, weary and sleepy as the bus returns to Damascus.

Touring for Textiles - Syria and Egypt

Last year I ran a textile tour of Egypt and Syria. I absolutely loved it. This year we reverse the order. We start with Syria, which is the higher-energy end, and end with a lazy luxury Nile Cruise.

We leave from Sydney on 12th March (Americans are a day behind and need to leave earlier to meet up with us), and leave Cairo for Sydney again on the 27th March. Those who live in countries other than Australia can also join us but need to get themselves to Damascus, then to Egypt.

I love both these countries. For those who are sitting there equating Damascus with terrorism - it is one of the safest countries in the world for a tourist to travel in. The people are charming and friendly, the culture rich, the food delicious and interesting and you do not get the requests for money that are the bane of tourism sites in Egypt and many other parts of the world. Better still - it is in many ways a unique destination for anyone interested in textiles. It is so rich and fantastic, yet still so cheap compared to the western world. This is definitely a tour for an empty suitcase.

I thought I would take you step by step through our itinerary - with photos taken on the same tour this year.

Oh - and if you are interested the tour is being organised by the best in Australia - Impulse Travel - and by my dear friend Tarek Mousa at the Middle Eastern end. You can email Nina for a brochure, and pricing. We will not take more than twenty so it will be small as tours go - and of course husbands are welcome - we do all the usual tourist things as well as textiles.


Finalist - Australian Federation of Travel Agents
"Best Suburban Leisure Travel Agency"
"Best Corporate Travel Agency "

So make a cup of coffee and settle down for a read!

14th March

Damascus is an ancient City. It claims to be the oldest city in the world that has been consistently lived in. Most of our time will be spent in the old walled city, and today we walk in through the fruit and vegetable markets. It is a gentle way to start, and a feast for the eyes in any ways. We will stop from time to time to taste - fresh halva thick with pistachios, buttery knaffe, with its white cheese based and 'shredded wheat' pastry, soaked in syrup, hot from the pan and strewed with pistachios, pastries and hot bread from the bakery.

Fruit, sliced and whole

Draped pastry for sweets in the sweetshop - strange and elastic and already cooked - this is rolled around a thick and creamy filling, then sliced, with the ends dipped in fresh sliced pistachios, and the whole stack served slathered in rose water-scented syrup.

The finished product




Drying the bread before taking it home (damp bread goes mouldy and does not keep), and blood oranges

Alleys and locals


Cheeses and pickles

Meat and Bread

And quinces, often served here as a sweet after dinner, slow cooked and syrupy and gleaming ruby-coloured from the pot

After the markets we walk through Hamidyeh and visist three shops known for their textile speiciality - Faisal's for old fabrics and cloth and costumes, Stephan's for hand loomed Damascus silk - did you ever wonder where the name of Damask comes from - it is from this silk, and the form of its weaving. Damasq is actually the local name for the city of Damascus. No explanations here - just look and wish you were there!






And then to Omayed Mosque, built on the site of a Roman Temple, which the became a Christian Church before being a mosque. There is a Christian shrine inside, said to contain John the Baptist's Head.

The patterns are pure heaven for a patchworker

Mosaics, images of a Byzantine Damascus


Then on to lunch and to explore the women's souq.


The women's souq is packed with frills, furbelows and buttons and bows, and beads and trims, and laces and feathers and costume jewellery, and wedding finery and wigs.


It is dark in the covered walkways, and shops glow with invitation, in jewel colours.







I have been posting photos to Flickr (my blog-share site) and cutting and pasting and writing since two hours or more ago - and we have not even finished Day 1!

But - has that whetted your appetite?

More to come.
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