Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

Life with 4,000 Roommates

Monday, June 14th, 2010

The Topkapi Palace Complex, Instanbul. Photo: BjørnChristianTørrissen.

Sultan Mehmed II began construction of Topkapi Palace in 1459. Having recently conquered Byzantine Constantinople for the Ottomans, he needed a nice place to stay. The perfect location, he decided, was on the Seraglio Point, which provided commanding views of the Golden Horn, Bosphorous Strait, and the Sea of Marmara, providing a security advantage. Here’s a few good things to know about Topkapi:

— The palace is really a complex—a city within a city comprised of myriad low buildings connected by streets, passageways, and paths, with gardens, courtyards, and fountains in between. In its heyday, more than 4,000 people lived there.

— Topkapi not only served as the sultan’s residence; it was also the seat of the Ottoman government. Courtly behavior was regulated by a strict code of conduct, including the observation of total silence in the inner courtyards.

Apartments at Topkapi. Photo: Serhinho

Apartments window. Photo: Serhinho

— Security was of top priority to the Ottomans, and the palace was designed with its own water supply, kitchens, stables, libraries, gardens, art galleries, bath houses, schools, and mosque. Residents rarely left the complex.

— The Imperial Harem, once home to the Sultan’s mother, wives, concubines, and other family members, has 400 rooms. The harem is actually a complex of its own, with each major group  having its own living quarters and courtyard. Few residents of the harem were allowed outside its doors.

— Ottoman sultans lived at Topkapi from 1465 to 1856, when Sultan Abdul Mecid I moved the court from Topkapi to the newly built European-style Dolambache Palace.

— In 1924, Topkapi was transformed into a museum, which continues to hold collections of Muslim relics, decorative items, military weapons and armor, artwork, jewelry, textiles, and more.

What’s the most intriguing place you’ve ever visited? Please share.

See Topkapi, and much, much more of Turkey on our Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast tour, with four departures this fall.

How the Red Sea Got its Name

Monday, May 17th, 2010
On the shores of the Red Sea. Photo: Leah Ibraheem

On the shores of the Red Sea. Photo: Leah Ibraheem

The first people known to explore the Red Sea were the Ancient Egyptians, who explored the area c. 2500 BC while looking for commercial routes southward. So how did the Red Sea get its name? Theories abound, but no one knows for sure.

It could be from the red-hued “sea sawdust,” a type of bacteria that grows near the water’s surface. Some historians believe the Red Sea is named for the Himyarites, a group who once lived along it’s shores.  Others believe that the “red” in Red Sea is actually a designator of the Sea’s location relative to the ancient Mediterranean world – to the South. In ancient languages, the colors black, red, green, and white referred to North, South, East, and West, respectively.

Wherever the name comes from, visitors to the Red Sea today can take advantage of fantastic snorkeling – more than 1200 species of fish have  been found in the coral reef ecosystem of the Red Sea; more than 100 of these have not been located in any other body of water.

If this sounds good to you, join Smithsonian on our Ancient Civilizations of the Red Sea  program for a chance to go snorkeling in Ras Mohammed National Park.

What’s your favorite place to go snorkeling? Share your story.

Five Things You Might Not Know About Petra

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

The Treasury at Petra is not a treasury at all.

Petra, in Jordan, is on almost everyone’s lifelist. The ancient city carved by the Nabateans has entranced travelers for years. Here are five things you might not know about the so-called “rose-red city.”

1)  The Treasury is not a treasury. Al Khazneh, as the locals call the Treasury, is a tomb. Its masons carved into the mountain directly, starting at the top, making footholds for themselves as they worked their way down.

2)  Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, “discovered” Petra in 1812. Since the local people were loathe to give away its location to foreigners, Burckhardt assumed the look, persona, and language of a Bedouin and traveled the area under the name Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah.

3) Through a complicated system of cisterns, dams, and aqueducts, the Nabateans were able to save water for times of drought and minimize the impacts of surprise floods. The city prospered due in part to the sale of water, which the Nabateans were able to store effectively. Much of their work can still be seen today on a visit to Petra.

4) Petra’s amphitheatre originally sat more than 6,000 spectators for rituals, plays, speeches, music, dance, and all manner of public gatherings and spectacles.

5) It’s not over yet. Digging still goes on at Petra today, where archaeologists continue to unearth more of the city.

Ready to see it for yourself? Click here to find Smithsonian Journeys tours that visit Petra.

The Great Pyramid of Giza

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest of all the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and is the only one still intact. As the burial chamber for the fourth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu, it took an estimated 20,000-30,000 workers to build over a 20 year period.

Here are a few more facts about the iconic architectural marvel:

1. The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure for over 3,800 years, until Lincoln Cathedral’s spire surpassed it around 1300AD in England.

2. It is estimated the Great Pyramid consists of more than 2.3 million limestone rocks, unless it was built on top of a substantial core of rock. While this is possible, scientists still aren’t certain.

3. Contrary to popular belief, the pyramids were not built by slaves. They were actually built by workers who lived in the surrounding villages. While no ancient artwork already discovered depicts female workers, archaeologists have found the skeletal remains of women which show evidence of heavy lifting of stone. Therefore, it has been concluded that women may have had a part in the building of these massive structures.

4. You can enter the tomb of the Great Pyramid, but you’ll have to the use Robbers’ Tunnel dug by workmen employed by Caliph al-Ma’mun around AD 820. Recently, the entrance to the Pyramid has been restricted to groups of 100 morning and afternoon. The reason for this involves the moisture in our breath. When we exhale, the moisture creates salt within pyramids and tombs resulting in damaging cracks.

5. Under the leadership of Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquties, photography inside the pyramid is now strictly forbidden.

Do you think the amount of visitors to the Pyramids in should be limited in order to preserve them?

Witness the sheer magnitude of the Great Pyramid with your own eyes on our Egyptian Odyssey tour.

Video: Sunrise on the Bosphorus

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

The Bosphorus is a strait connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, on which sits the city of Istanbul. As one of the key routes from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, the Bosphorus and its surrounds have been enormously important in world history since ancient times. In fact, one of the reasons that Emperor Constantine located his capital on the shores of the Bosphorus was its strategic importance.

The area is also uniquely beautiful. Stop a moment and take in a sunrise on the Bosphorus.

Where’s your favorite place to see the sunrise? Please share!

See the Bosphorus and its surroundings on our Black Sea tour.