Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category


September 24, 2012

Where can you scratch a baby camel under its chin (until it lays its head on the ground, because it likes it); see the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans at the same time; enjoy a four, five, or maybe seven course meal for just a few euros (we lost count, as it just kept coming and coming); visit street markets with open air meat and fish; the same markets with fruit and vegetables from the Atlas mountains; see a few stars of David where you would not expect them; visit an archeological museum with local finds from the Greeks, Romans, and some more modern items; and do all of this in a day trip coming from another country? Welcome to Tangier, Morocco. From Tarifa, Spain, it’s only a 35-minute “fast ferry” ride across the straight of Gibraltar.

Berber Market

Berber Market, Tangier, Morocco.

Morocco–as with many places in Europe and the Near East which had contact with the Greeks and Romans in early times, and the Moors, Spanish, French, and English in later times–has had an interesting history of religion, change, and control.

There are Roman ruins at the city of Volubilis  (115 miles south of Tangier) which harken back to the time when Rome controlled all shores of the Mediterranean. Before that, just outside of the city of Tangier was a Phoenician colony at one of two potential sites for the ancient Pillars of Hercules. In more recent times (19th and 20th centuries), Morocco went through an interesting era as an “international city” where its ownership was shared between multiple countries and it was designated a tax-free zone. This, as you can imagine, attracted everyone from thrifty billionaires to con-men, and caused the Moroccan government to leave Tangier by the wayside. Times have now changed for the better, and in 1956, Tangier was returned to full Moroccan control. The Moroccan government is now investing in Tangier again, trying to bring back the “world-class” city status it once had (minus the con-men).

City of Tangier, Morocco.

City of Tangier, Morocco.

As mentioned, here you will find the strange mix of church, mosque, and synagogue that you might expect to find in Jerusalem. The mosque and church histories are not that hard to fit in, given the Moorish and European influence, but the synagogue is a tougher fit.  As is the case with many pockets of scattered Jewish populations, Morocco at times opened up to receive Jews. Some even came to the area in Rome times. These patterns solidified a Jewish presence here, which has declined in modern times. This helps explain the occasional Star of David you see in Tangier, as on stair rails from a popular Jewish hotel in the 50s near the port in Tangier.

Star of David Morocco Tangier Jew

Star of David on a Popular Tangier Hotel

Unfortunately, we cannot show pictures from the archeological museum, because, as with some museums, they do not allow photos. This is a pity for this museum in particular, since they do not sell books, nor do they have a website. Allowing responsible photography, as many museums have found, is a great way to promote themselves.

Last but most important, petting baby camels. They appear to have a sweet spot, just under the chin. Once you find it, you appear to have control of them. Who would have thought a camel could be so adorable?

Petting Baby Camel

The Sweet Spot on a Baby Camel Is Right under Her Chin

Gibraltar: Buses, Rocks, and Apes

September 22, 2012

The other day, we meandered from Spain into British territory by taking a turn around Gibraltar.  Gibraltar is a unique mix of British stuffiness and Spanish chaos–no one tells you where to go or how to get there, but they expect you to be there on time.

The first recorded settlement in Gibraltar was a Phoenician colony in 350 AD, but there is archaeological evidence of earlier human communities. The Rock of Gibraltar is also known as one of the pillars of Hercules from Greek mythology, in which Hercules left a pillar here and one in Morocco to mark the end of the known world. Carthaginians settled here, and then, as usual, Rome came along and kicked everyone out. Then, in 711 AD, Turiq ibn-Ziyad and his Muslim followers landed on what they called Jabal Tarik, or “Mountain of Tariq,” which eventually slurred into “Gibraltar.”

King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosqueof the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques

King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud Mosque in Gibraltar

Gibraltar eventually passed into Spanish hands during the Reconquista; but as Spain declined, Britain invaded and took Gibraltar during the War of Spanish Succession (1704). After that, Spain besieged Gibraltar fairly regularly, especially while Britain was having a bit of a kerfluffle with a savage little colony on the other side of the Pond. Britain would use the Rock as a strategic military base through several more wars and a couple of modern Spanish sieges lead by Franco, who cut off border crossings, communication methods, and water. However, with their English tenacity, the Brits have clung to their Rock.

Britain Gibraltar Airstrip

British Territory of Gibraltar

Our experience in Gibraltar involved us first getting lost in the bus system, but we did eventually make it to the top of the Rock and began our hike down. We encountered the peerless Gibraltar Apes (barbary macaques), with their serious and intelligent little faces. Rebekah had an especially close encounter with one. She was delighted.

We hiked the Mediterranean Steps trail down one side of the Rock and up the other, and were able to enjoy spectacular sea and ocean views away from the tourist crowds, including the spot where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. We explored Homer’s gate to the underworld (St. Michael’s Cave) and visited the siege tunnels built over the course of 200 years and several wars.

Mediterranean Steps Gibraltar

Mediterranean Steps Trail on the Rock of Gibraltar

In celebration of the long and rigorous hikes we took, we decided to close our excursion by negotiating the bus system again, going in two and a half circles, and then simply walking out on our own two feet.

Gibraltar Ape Barbary Macaque Family

Gibraltar Ape Family

Through the Shephelah and Beyond

September 15, 2012

On what was one of the most exciting days of the trip so far, we finished up our Israel leg by winding our way from Jerusalem down to Gath, and up to Tel Aviv through the Shephelah (or Shfela). This is the lowland area of southern Israel in Biblical Judea.

It’s interesting to note the difference between the two sides of the ridge in Judea–on the west is the Shephelah with rolling hills of fertile agricultural land, which you can see in the Sorek Valley photo. On the western side of the mountains is the wilderness of the hill country with its rugged and barren land.

We stopped at the tell of Beth-Shemesh first. This was originally in the Danites’ territory, which was abandoned when the Philistines became too aggressive for Dan’s sensibilities. God allowed their territory to be overrun because they violated His command to utterly drive out the inhabitants of the land (Judges 2:2-4). This city was at an important passage through the Shephelah and the old stomping grounds of our friend Samson. His birthplace and his wife’s hometown are both visible from this tell. The Philistines would later send the Ark of the Covenant up the Sorek Valley on a cart drawn by two very miserable milk cows.

Beth-Shemesh Samson David

View from the Tell of Beth-Shemesh into the Sorek Valley

Another stop on our way was the tell of Lachish. This was a geek-out site for us. The British Museum has a beautiful display of Sennacharib’s siege against Lachish (note the siege ramp on the right of the mound), from the beginning to the brutal end when the rebels were impaled or skinned alive as the rest of city was led into slavery. The Assyrian army was slowly moving through Judah, ravaging the land and conquering the fortified cities–cities which communicated to each other by signal fires. There’s an emotion that lands somewhere between heartrending and chilling when you read one of the final letters to the military governor saying, “…we cannot see [the signal fire of] Azekah.” Lachish was alone.


Tell at Lachish, Showing Siege Ramp

The last site was Gath (Tell es-Safi). We know this best as the mighty giant Goliath’s hometown. Ironically, the brook of Elah runs at the foot of the city, the same brook from which, further along, David likely lifted the smooth stone that would be Goliath’s bane.

Gath Goliath David Elah Brook

Tell at Gath, Goliath’s Hometown

Now, for the weird note for the day. In Tiberias, across from our hotel, we snapped this photo of a creepy bit of graffiti. Creepy, because that buck-toothed teddy just seems to stare into your soul.

Creepy Teddy Bear Stare Graffiti

The Creepy Teddy Bear, Part 1

Much to our consternation, we stepped off the bus 10 days later at a random gas station in southern Judea near Lachish, and there–staring into our souls–was Creepy Bear. Again.

Creepy Teddy Bear Stare Graffiti

Creepy Teddy Bear Stare, Part 2

This is our last post from Israel–we’re heading to Seville, Spain next. We hope you enjoy the next step in time to the Renaissance and beyond!