Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

Evocative Ephesus

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Karen Britt is Professor of Byzantine Art at the University of Louisville and has excavated in Turkey, Greece, and Israel. Here, she shares her thoughts on exploring Ephesus with Smithsonian Travelers, which she did on our recent tour through Turkey.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus. Photo: Amy Kotkin.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus. Photo: Amy Kotkin.

Each time I visit Ephesus, I am surrounded by people: those visiting the spectacular site today and those who lived in this bustling metropolis centuries ago. Undoubtedly, a vivid imagination—something I have had since childhood—led me to archaeology. As a young girl and later, as a teen, I read a lot and almost exclusively books about people who lived in the past (think: Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Laura Ingalls Wilder and biographies for kids). Consequently, the people who lived in the past were real to me, so real that I thought of them as my friends and their enemies were mine. Although older, the past remains real to me; historical figures still seem like friends and enemies except now they sometimes switch sides! As an archaeologist, I am fortunate to be able to dwell in and on the past a good deal of the time and to have acquired the tools necessary to reconstruct past cultures.

Smithsonian Travelers enjoy Ephesus

Smithsonian Travelers at Ephesus, Turkey. Photo: Karen Britt.

As a specialist in Late Antique and Byzantine archaeology, when I walk through the streets of Ephesus today, it is not difficult to envision the past: it is a remarkably well-preserved site. As I stroll down the colonnaded Curetes Street with its mosaic-paved sidewalks, I enjoy the breezes from the harbor and imagine the cooling sounds of water splashing in fountains (nymphaea) adjacent to the street. I can picture the upper and lower markets (agoras) full of shoppers bargaining for supplies with vendors. When I close my eyes, against a backdrop of temples, mansions, the Library of Celsus and countless public statues, I see men moving along bustling streets as they make their way to the theater and women rushing to take advantage of their limited hours in the baths.

Walking toward the Double Church of the Virgin, I am transported back to the important ecumenical Church Council of 431 that occurred here.  I envision robed bishops, from near and far, heatedly debating, for months, the nature of Christ. Was he truly man and truly God simultaneously? And if so, how should the Virgin Mary’s relationship to Christ be defined? Weighty matters, indeed, were decided in this place, matters of enormous consequence for the future development of the Church.

On a glorious spring morning, as I sit on a fallen column in the atrium of the church and gaze toward the well-preserved apse of the sanctuary, I cannot imagine ever tiring of Ephesus. Each and every time I visit, the stones speak to me.

If you’re ready to see Ephesus for yourself, click for more on our Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast tour. Karen Britt will be traveling with you next to Anatolia, and click here for more information on this tour.

Legendary Turkey and Pergamon

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Janet Jones is Chair and Professor of Classics at Bucknell University, and an active field archaeologist specializing in Greek and Roman art and architecture, ancient urbanization, ancient technology. She’s also one of our favorite Smithsonian Study Leaders. Here, she reflects on the ancient Greek city of Pergamon, in what is now Turkey. Click here to learn more about Janet and here for more on traveling to Turkey.

The first time I visited Pergamon (or Pergamum), I was 16. I was in Turkey as a high school exchange student and visiting some of the ancient sites along the west coast of Turkey with my host family. I remember sitting at the top of the theater, gazing out over the modern city of Bergama, hawks soaring below me, and thinking that I couldn’t imagine a more magical landscape. Perched there, at the top the world, I felt weightless, like I could fly out into space if I didn’t hold on. I looked to the terraces above me and, dizzy, I looked down to the orchestra of the theater far below and felt it anchor me to the hill.

The Greek theater of Pergamon

The Greek theater of Pergamon could seat up to 10,000 people and had the steepest seating of theaters in the ancient world.

There was so much I didn’t know about Pergamon when I was 16. But that visceral experience of the city was something I have never forgotten, even as I have learned about the city in great detail. I didn’t know then that the designers of the city had planned that very experience — that they had sited the theater with its unforgettable view to serve as the linchpin for a radical departure in city planning. I didn’t know that Pergamon had an experimental design, a radial plan playing off the shape of the theater. No plodding rectangular grid plan for the innovative rulers of this feisty Hellenistic kingdom. And I didn’t know that Pergamon had a high tech aqueduct system with pressure pipes and secure underground tunnels to bring water from mountain springs up to the city on the ridge. The monumental center of Pergamon along the ridge top was high value real estate, visible for miles, and it sent out clear messages of power and wonder. This powerful little kingdom could handle all comers. Just ask the Gauls!

I sat there that day on my vertiginous perch wondering how anyone could watch a play from such a height. I had just read the Oresteia in English class that spring. I tried to imagine figures cloaked in white dancing and singing the choruses of the tragedy down in the orchestra of the theater and other figures in great masks with dramatic expressions, mouth openings functioning as megaphones, casting the words of Aeschylus upward on the wind to the seats at the top. How could one concentrate on a play in such a place?

I recall one more thing about that day so long ago. That was the day that I decided to be an archaeologist. Many years and many journeys and much thinking about cultural landscape later, that sense of awe remains. My heart still races when the ridge top site of Pergamon comes into view and I get a catch in my throat when I climb to the top of the theater and look down at the hawks flying in the clear blue skies over the Caicus River valley far below.

 See Pergamon for yourself – join our Study Leaders along the Turkish coast this summer and fall.

 Or, check out our other options for travel to Turkey.

Dispatches from Africa, Part 3: São Tomé

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Francisco Dallmeier has been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 24 years. Dr. Dallmeier is the director of Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES), part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). CCES provides research and conservation approaches for sustainable development and world-class professional and academic programs for conservation practitioners. Here, he shares some more dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana. Read the other dispatches from this journey.

Monday March 7, 2011. São Tomé

We arrived in São Tomé around 6:00 and with an early rain. Several dolphins welcomed the ship and a beautiful mist and clouds covered the island. The archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe comprises the two main islands and dozens of tiny islets scattered about 180 miles off the west coast of Gabon. The islet of Rolas straddles the Equator. After disembarking via Zodiacs, we traveled through the densely vegetated slopes of the island’s mountain. The volcanic island has a very fertile soil and altitudinal gradient that makes it very favorable to all kind of tropical plants including coffee and cocoa. The steep slopes have extensive coffee plantations shaded with very tall trees. The São Nicolao waterfall is a beautiful sight surrounded with a large variety of ferns, mosses and many other plant species thriving in the humid environment. Buffet lunch at the “Pestana Hotel” was excellent with a variety of tropical fruits.

At the Mote Café plantation, once a prolific colonial agricultural state, we visited the complex building and machinery to transport, dry and grind the coffee beans. Several local people performed colorful local dances with music from traditional instruments. In the afternoon we visited the cathedral while a musical funeral drove by.

The national museum has a wealth of colonial artifacts from the colonial times including European furniture and weapons used during that time. The fort that hosts the museum has a magnificent view of the bay and contains several old cannons. From the museum we continued our visit to the fishing village of Panfuto where dozens of large dugout canoes in all conditions filled the shore line. Many fishermen were preparing the nets for the night fishing and others played cards while waiting for the right time for departure. On the way back from the fishing village we enjoyed the “Danza Congo” at the “Plaza of Independence.” Men and women dressed with masks and colorful costumes performed an artistic and complex carnival dance.

Tuesday March 8, 2011. Príncipe

Príncipe is the smaller of the two major islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. It has an area of 136 square kilometers and a population of around 5000 people. Its highest peak is the Pico de Príncipe that rises to 948m in a dense forest area that is part of the Obo National Park. The northern and center part of the island were formerly coffee and cocoa plantations and have now reverted to forest. The town of Santo Antonio is the capital of Príncipe with an estimated population of 1500 people.

We arrived in Príncipe very early in the morning and soon after several fishing dugout canoes began to arrive after night fishing. Several of the villagers installed their canoes by the M/V Corinthian IIwith loads of fresh fish, coconuts, bananas, and many other fruits.  Disembarkation was by Zodiacs and we had the opportunity to observe all different lava formations partially eroded over years from the ocean. We arrived at the beautiful Bom Bom island resort and large beach to drive to Santo Antonio. The town has colorful houses from the colonial times and a lively market with fresh fish and vegetables. This day was the last day of carnival and also International Women’s Day  and celebrated with colorful dances, food and drinks. We also visited the once magnificent colonial housing and coffee processing building that supported the economy of that time. The buildings have been abandoned and overgrown by vegetation.

In the evening I presented the lecture on “Smithsonian’s Ten Years of Biodiversity Research and Conservation Program in Gabon”.


Splendors of Morocco

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

What comes to mind when someone mentions Morocco? Bogart and Bacall? Colorful street markets? The Sahara Desert? Here’s a few things you might not know about this fascinating area of the world.

A Moroccan textile market.

1) Morocco’s population of donkeys is key to its economy. Appalled by the condition of these animals, in 1927 a wealthy American woman donated money to found a free veterinary clinic that still operates in Fez today, which is called the American Fondouk.

2) People love to journey to Morocco for the food, a mix of European, Middle Eastern, native Berber, and other African cuisines. Pastilla, a meat pie encased in a phyllo-like dough, is a popular national dish. Click here to learn how to make your own.

3) Marrakech’s Koutoubia Mosque is also home to the first book bazaar in world history. Almohad Caliph Yaqub Al-Mansur, a great lover of books, built the mosque during his reign between 1184 and 1199. The books and manuscripts the Caliph collected, from the bazaar at the mosque and from other sources, eventually became the collection for Morocco’s first public library.

4) Morocco spends 20% of its national budget on education. Children aged 7 to 13 must attend school, and there are a variety of trade schools and public universities available for further education.

5) Morocco is world-famous for its intricately embroidered textiles. Click for an interactive online exhibition on Moroccan textiles from Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

Now is a great time to visit Morocco. Click here for more on travel to Morocco with Smithsonian.

What inspires you to travel? Please share.

A Feminine Perspective of Ancient Egypt

Thursday, August 19th, 2010
Smithsonian traveler enjoys one of many special experiences in Egypt.

A Smithsonian traveler enjoys one of many special experiences in Egypt.

There are many rites of passage for women that only women can truly understand.  Throughout history, and around the world, the female experience has often been misrepresented and misunderstood. That’s one of the many reasons we have our Egyptian Odyssey for Women Only.

What’s notable about Ancient Egypt was that women received equal standing in land ownership and had legal rights. There were several female pharaohs or acting regents including the most well-known—Queen Hatshepsut—as well as the lesser known Nimaethap and Sobeknefru. These women were sometimes wives, mothers, or sisters of male pharaohs who could not fully rule – sometimes due to their young age, but also for other reasons.

Being a woman in Ancient Egypt often involved the identity and role of mother in the family and community. Life expectancy was only 40 years, so most women married and started families in their teens. With the dangers pregnancy and childbirth, as well as diseases and infections, there were many risks for women and their young children. With little medical knowledge, mothers would keep statues of Bastet—the cat goddess of fertility—and wear amulets with the Eye of Horus, who warded off evil spirits, close by in the hopes that their families would be safe.

The average family would have five or six children, who nursed until age three. Wealthy families might hire wet nurses for these purposes, but most mothers carried their babies in slings while going about their normal chores and responsibilities. When these children grew up, it was expected they would care for their mothers to show their devotion and appreciation for the hard work and sacrifices the mothers made for children.

Do you think there is a big difference between being a woman today and being one in Ancient Egypt?

Explore the realm of womanhood, both modern and ancient, as you explore archaeological sites, speak with women living in modern Egypt, and take in the beauty of the fertile Nile River on our Egyptian Odyssey for Women Only.