Exploring the Middle East and Finding Myself off the Beaten Path…and on the Fringes

Everyone goes to the Middle East to explore the antiquities, the world class sites such as Petra, the Pyramids, the Western Wall. I had been to Israel independently 25 years ago and promised myself a return trip. Back then, I also took a day strip to the Saini from Eliat and saw only a tiny bit of Egypt on a trip ot St. Catherine’s Momentary. So, I decided to return and see Egypt in full, as well to see things I wanted to see again in Israel, and to see what had changed in the intervening years. What I hadn’t expected was to travel so close to the edges of other countries in the region.  My total trip was a grand 45 days, from March 2, 2019 to April 17, 2019. I booked with Overseas Adventure Travel on their relatively new offering, Egypt: The Eternal Nile ($3895), and also booked the Alexandria post trip ($1995). I did this back- to- back with a nice secular trip they have called Israel: The Holy Land and Timeless Cultures ($3895), which I booked along with their Jordan pre trip ($1695).  Most notably, this trip took me ot the edges of Northern Sudan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.

While I saw many excellent antiquities in Egypt, and especially appreciated those we saw in Luxor, Abu Simbel and Cairo, I also greatly appreciated my solo tour of Memphis and the pyramids of Dashner and Saqqara, a much more meaningful  desert experience than seeing the  Great Pyramids themselves and all the camel and donkey vendors, not ot mention he hordes of children.  However, as the tour progressed and we flew to Aswan to learn about that part  of Egypt and the role the damn played in helping to control the from the  raising Nile River, I was unexpectedly taken by our overnight in the Nubian village outside of Abu Simbel Village. The accommodations were Nubian style, with round domed roofs and additional Muslim stylings.  This part of Egypt used to be the Northern Sudan, which intrigued me all by itself. At dinner we met a wonderful Nubian man who told us about their culture, played the lute for us, and showed us what is considered the instrument that was the first guitar! As a former guitar player of many years, this was of great interest to me. Any musical aspect of travel automatically becomes a highlight for me, and today was no exception.

But the Nubian people had it very rough. First, they lost their language and a large part of their culture when they were forced to speak Arabic. They lost a lot to of their land when Lake Nassar rose and the water levels forced them to relocate away from any a water source. And they lost many children when water was difficult for them to get and the government wouldn’t help them. They have become a very self-reliant people. Their presence extends all the way to Kratom in North Sudan. I was in love with the geography of where we were, and the history that led this are to become part of Egypt and not Northern Sudan. The tour was of course extensive and included Luxor as well as Alexandria. But this little slice of the trip really stayed with me. Images of two men of Nubian descent playing backgammon in the village really left an impression of authenticity, and a reminder that we were lost in time.  

After the trip had ended, I flew to Amman, Jordan for the Jordan pre-trip and the Israel trip that would follow it. I had an extra day before meeting our group, so I took a Desert Castles tour that I purchased on Viator for $135. The trip was interesting, and I was treated to ne castle that had been a temporary residence of Lawrence of Arabia. But the real treat of the day? It was the road we were travelling on! It had been built by the Saudis according to my driver. At one point he slowed down and asked me if I wanted to take a photo…of what? Of a sign that indicated to turn left to go to Iraq to turn right to get to Saudi Arabia!  Of course, the beauty of modern Jordan and Amman, as well as the antiquities of Jerash, Mt. Nebo and Petra were worth the price of admission alone. But skirting around the borders of these two countries that will forever be off limits to me was a real surprise. And surely one of the best photos of the trip!

As we left Jordan and entered Israel, we were surrounded by land we could not visit, because they were part of the of the Palestinian territories. During the time of Yasar Arafat, the land was divided into Areas A, B, and C. Areas A includes Arab urban centers from which Israel has fully withdrawn.  Area B includes mostly small Arab towns and is jointly patrolled by both the PA as well as Israel. And area C is mostly highway, that can be utilized by both. As we left Jordan and drove to Haifa, we were in Are a C, as can be seen on the map here. On two occasions we were driving on a min road through the outskirts of Jerrico.

Since this tour started in the north on Haifa, a few days into the trip we were staying the Golan Heights. This area was off limits for a long time, and we were in fact on the road ot Damascus to get to the Valley of Tears, an areas the Israelis won in the 1973 Yom Kippur war against Syria, although they were vastly outnumbered, and all the odds were against them. We could see vestiges of Syria everywhere we looked, and the border fence was ever present. It was especially meaningful give current events, and the damage that has been done ot Syria and its antiquities in current fighting to control the land. I sadly referred to what we saw as, “What is left of Syria.”

The battle over territory is one that is never ending between countries. This jumps right out at you in a country like Israel, which I had expected. But to be so near other more infrequently travelled countries in the course of normal tourism was a complete surprise to me. Hopefully we learn from the cultural and even political influences of these countries, and we don’t have not agree with them to do so.  We just have  to keep our minds open to their cultures, keep just a crack of openness in our thinking as travelers often do. There have been times in the region’s history where thinking has changed, politics has changed, and borders have changed. As Leonard Cohen wrote in his fabulous song, Anthem. “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

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