Saturday, August 11, 2007

Boston Non-Tea Party

OK, I know most of the time I'm is some exotic location posting pictures of historical or Biblical sites. This is a little different. I'm in Concord, Mass, just outside of Boston, to assist in the wedding of our own Erik Holmstrom to a delightful young woman Erik met in the Air Force, Nicole Crampton. It has been a wonderful time and the friends and family that have gathered simply couldn't be better. I've been asked for a few pictures, so here you go. Double click on a picture for a larger version.

The bride, groom, and groom's family
The lovely couple. I dare say, Erik did very well and found a young women who is beautiful, intelligent, gracious, and has a great family behind her. It doesn't get much better.
Wedding cake...yes, Erik was nice and no cake smashing.
The wedding party, You see a few Ellensburg folks in the crowd.
Erik and mom at the reception.
I may eventually post a few pics of my other travels here: Plymouth, Harvard, Boston, Concord.


Friday, March 23, 2007

When is a Cistern not a Genizah?

WARNING!!!! Obscure archaeological/historical discussion ahead! Proceed at your own risk!

Seriously, I wanted to correct a mistaken identification that occurred on our tour.

While visiting Coptic Cairo, we stopped at the Ben Ezra Synagogue. After visiting the interior, we came around the back and looked at an object in front of an smaller annex building. We were told it was the Synagogue's Genizah.


I had read about the Genizah before and, frankly, that wasn't what I expected it to look like. It looked to me to be an old cistern. Guess what? I was right - it is an old cistern, not the synagogue's Genizah.

Now for the long explanation.....

What is a Genizah?

Jews believe that when the name of God is written on a piece of paper, that paper must be treated with respect. It cannot be thrown out or simply destroyed. Just as the body is buried after it is worn out, so these writings that use God's name must also be buried with ritual when they are worn out or no longer in use. Hebrew word Genizah literally means "hiding place".

A Genizah was the place in a synagogue where such writings were stored until enough were collected for a proper burial. In practice, papers were often placed in the Genizah and forgotten about, the burial never taking place. Just look in any out of the way closet in your local church and you'll know what I mean.

Over the nearly thousand year history of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, literally hundreds of thousands of documents were stored in their genizah, some written as early as the first century AD. The dry climate in Egypt kept these documents intact and readable. It was a treasure trove of historical information.

I had seem what I thought were pictures of an old, scholarly man pouring through documents in the Ben Ezra Genizah in numerous books and websites. Apparently, some of the participants on our trip had seen it too.

I found that this picture is often misidentified. It is Dr. Solomon Schechter, a man who was responsible for retrieving some 140,000 documents from the genizah. But, he is not in Cairo. This picture is taken in a room at Cambridge University, where Schechter taught and where he studied the documents he got from the Synagogue.

So, Where Was The Genizah?

That's not easy to answer. There are lots of sources that talk about the documents and few that talk about their discovery. One major events complicates the story - the rebuilding of the Synagogue in 1892.

With the Jewish community in Egypt shrinking and those who stayed moving away from the old section, the Ben Ezra Synagogue (BES) began to fall into disrepair. In 1889, much of the roof collapsed. The Jewish community rebuilt the synagogue on the same foundations and it was completed in 1892.

Incidentally, the building we visited is the 1892 building,  but it had gone through significant renovation by an international team, beginning in 1989.

Only a few documents were obtained from the BES before the 1892 rebuilding. It appears at that time, the Genizah was in an upper attic of the building, that was accessed (this is not clear) by passing through the women's gallery and using a ladder to enter:

"...the Genizah is a small chamber on the roof of the old Synagogue. It is closed on all sides without any entrance; the roof is opened from above and from there they put in or throw down old and torn scrolls. I went up by ladder. It is full to a height of two and one half stories"      ......Jacob Saphir, describing his visit to the BES Genizah in 1864.

Only a few documents seem to have come from the Genizah before the 1889 renovation. During that renovation, the Genizah was emptied and the contents literally sat out in the open for the three years it took to build the new BES. Apparently, a number of documents were obtained by a variety of people during that time. While illegal to remove historical treasures during this time, it appears that liberal use of "baksheesh" was used to obtain the documents.

When the new BES was completed, a new genizah was built in a similar location, accessed by a ladder from somewhere in the women's gallery. Interestingly, I have yet to find any drawings, pictures, or even detailed descriptions of the Genizah itself.

In 1896, enticed by documents he had already studied from the BES Genizah, bought by two Presbyterian ladies from Scotland, Dr Solomon Schechter of Cambridge University made a trip to Cairo to look at the Genizah. He describes what he found: 

"The Genizah, which probably always formed an integral part of the synagogue, is now situated at the end of the gallery, presenting the appearance of a short windowless and doorless room of fair dimensions. The entrance is on the west side, through a big, shapless hole reached by a ladder. After showing me over the place and the neighbouring buildings, or rather ruins, the Rabbi introduced me to the beadles of the synagogue, who are at the same time the keepers of the Genizah, and authorized me to take from it what, and as much as I liked."

"The task was by no means easy, the Genizah being very dark, and emitting clouds of dust when its contents were stirred, as if protesting against the disturbance of its inmates. The protest is the less to be ignored as the dust settles in one's throat, and threatens suffocation. I was thus compelled to accept the aid offered me by the keepers of the place, who had some experience in such work from their connexion with former acquisitions (perhaps they were rather depredations) from the Genizah. Of course, they declined to be paid for their services in hard cash of so many piastres per diem. This was a vulgar way of doing business to which no self-respecting keeper of a real Genizah would degrade him- self. The keepers insisted the more on bakhshish, which, besides being a more dignified kind of remuneration, has the advantage of being expected also for services not rendered."

(read the whole story here:

Once the work of Schechter's finds got out, a floodgate opened up and for the next 20 years people searched the BES and the surrounding area for documents. Some were found in graves, many others were obtained from locals who had got their hands on them.

The Damascus Document

One important document Schechter retrieved was named the "Damascus Document". It talked about a "Teacher of Righteousness" and of a community of believers. At the time, no one had any idea of what the source of this document might have been. But, in 1948, another important series of ancient scrolls was discovered in caves near the Dead Sea.

It was soon realized that the "Damascus document" came from the Qumran community that produced the "Dead Sea Scrolls". The BES copy is better than any discovered at Qumran. How a scroll that must have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD made its way into the BES Genizah at least 1000 years later, then lasted another 900 years is a mystery we may never answer.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The People of Egypt

Those who know me, know that when I travel, I am interested not just in the historical sites or the great monuments, but in the lives of the average people around me. That’s what makes travel to very different countries so interesting to me. Little things like roadside shops and open-air butchers fascinate me.

Of course, the worst place to experience this is from a seat on a tour bus or in a luxury hotel. But, I made a great effort to take in my surroundings in Egypt and grab some pictures.
Several things struck me. First, how very materially poor parts of Egypt are. There are vast areas of Cairo that we might call slums. They are made up of both old houses and new tenements that seem unfinished and poorly maintained. To be fair, Cairo has some nice parts and many middle class apartments, but the size of these run down areas surprised me.
Second, we to see how much of the rural life outside the cities seem to have bypassed the 20th century. You see many mud brick homes, with people working in the fields with donkeys, water buffalo, and even camels as their main source of transportation. Some of these people live much of their lives just about as their ancestors did 4000 years ago.

I think this is a bakery. Notice that one window is for men, they other for women.

But then, you see a mud brick home with a satellite disk on the roof.

Egypt is a fascinating country, still facing the transformations of the modern world.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

St. Catherine's

I have wanted to go to St. Catherine’s for years, so this was a minor dream come true.

First a little history. Sometime in the early 3rd century AD Christian hermits began to live near a mountain they identified as the mountain of God that Moses met God on. They lived near a bush they identified as the “burning bush” that God used to speak to Moses through. How this site was originally identified has been lost to history.

Around 320AD, the mother of the new Christian Roman emperor, Helena, authorized the building of a church at that location. More monks went into the area, but found they were routinely attached by the pagan locals. So in 542 AD the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I built fortress-like walls around the chapel and a new basilica (church). The church was renamed after a martyred Christian woman named Catherine, who was killed for her faith in the late 3rd century.

That building exists to this day. Making it one of the oldest existing and continually occupied churches in the world. In the early Moslem period, the story goes that Mohammed himself gave them a writ of protection that allowed them to go unmolested over the centuries. Her tall granite walls helped too and until the past century, the only way in was to be raised up in a basket – there were no doors. Here is the bush. It does not seem to be on fire.

More than just the building itself, St. Catherine’s is a repository of some of the oldest copies of the Bible ever found, along with many other writings and fantastic Christian art. The collection consists of some 3,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic, Syriac, Georgian and other languages. It includes the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest copies of the Bible we have (4th century A.D.).

There is only a small cemetary, so the bones of the monks are routinely stored in a small chapel outside the monastery. Yes, this is a little bit creepy.
No pictures were allowed in the church, but here is a shot I captured through the door. This photo does not do the beautiful church justice. It is stunning.
There is no place in the world like St Catherine’s and it is one of the Christian churches greatest historical treasures.

Into the Desert

Well, I am back now, but I want to add a few posts to the blog for our last days, plus a few extra thoughts.

When we left off, we were following the Moses and the Hebrews as the fled Egypt. They crossed into the Sinai peninsula and made their way to the “Mountain of God”.

In truth, about all we know for sure is that they left Egypt, got to the mountain, then left to wander for 40 years. There are countless theories about the exact route, the true number of Hebrews, the places they stopped, and where the “mountain of God” is/was.

The path we followed is but one of the suggested routes. It is a reasonable guess (much more reasonable than many others, by my estimation), but no more than that.

Still, if it wasn’t this exact path, it must have been one that looked much the same. In fact, some parts of life in this region haven’t changed much in the past 3500 years. The area is a vast area of sand and rock, little water, few trees or vegetation. It is a harsh land at best.

We started our day at a resort by the Red Sea, south of the Suez Canal. This whole stretch of beach is being filled with hotels for Egyptians who want to escape the city and Europeans who want cheap, sunny beach holidays. We headed south along the coast, then turned east into a long canyon, knows as Wadi Ferian. Bedouins still live in this canyon and while it looks bone dry, you could see many wells that dotted the valley floor.

We stopped at an oasis that would have been a natural stopping spot. No water today, but obviously there is water near the surface and wells could have been there in Moses time.

In the Exodus account, we read that the Israelites got into a fight on the way to the mountain:

Exo 17:8-10 "The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. {9} Moses said to Joshua, "Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands." {10} So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill."

This is the traditional spot of this battle: a bottleneck in Wadi Ferian that would have been a natural place for a small group of warriors to try and stop a larger group they saw as invaders.

This is the place Moses might have stood and at one time a monastery stood on this hill.

The locals seem to appear out of nowhere when the tour busses stop. This lady was a tough bargainer.

As you climb into the canyon, the mountains rise higher, until you reach the base of Jebu Musa, the traditional Mt Sinai, at 5000 feet. More on that in the next post.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sitting At SeaTac

I hate waiting for a shuttle at SeaTac. Mostly because of the cost of food. I often find my most expensive meal on a trip is the sandwich I buy at the airport before I get the 5pm shuttle.

I’m going to put together a couple of final posts from stateside. We had no internet access for three days and the final night it was almost a $1 a minute ( a rip off anywhere). On top of that, the hotel gave up our 1:15am wake up call at 1:45am, and we needed to catch a 2am airport shuttle to get our 4am flight. It’s been a long day.

I’ll put together a post of the Red Sea and St. Catherine’s in the next few days.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Little More Goshen and On to Asia

Again… Sorry this is late. We’ve had no internet access for three days. My posts about our final days will come from the good old USA.

This has been a day of important places, but not impressive places.

We visited several likely places that would have been stops for the Hebrews in the first few days of the Exodus. In some places, there was nothing there to start, so nothing remains. Still, it was interesting to again walk in the same steps of the Hebrews fleeing Egypt and Pharaoh.

Exo 12:37 "The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children."

This is the rural village that sits at the site of Succoth. This is not on the normal tourist track. They may get 2-3 busses a year and the kids of the town turned out in force to welcome us. This mud brick structure is from a period later than then Moses was there.

We next went to a place that may be the remains of a “sea of Reeds”
Exo 13:18 "So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt armed for battle."

OK, trust me on this one, “red sea” is a mistranslation. It should be “reed sea”. A whole series of lakes and swamps were on the eastern border of Egypt and represented their boarder with Sinai. For the most part, when the Suez canal was built, these lakes and swamps were naturally drained and have dried up. You can still see them on maps over 150 years old. This is a small section of what large areas would have looked like.

Near this site, was the location of a city built in later times that sat on the Egyptian boarder. It’s called Tampahnes. This was the city that the Prophet Jeremiah was forced to go to after the fall of Jerusalem at the close of his life. Very little has been excavated there, but we‘re sure this is the spot.
Jer 43:7 "So they entered Egypt in disobedience to the LORD and went as far as Tahpanhes."

Finally, we crossed the Suez canal into the Sinai.

There we saw the Bitter lakes area…again mostly drained by the canal and not much to look at now.
Exo 15:23-24 "When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) {24} So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What are we to drink?""

Finally, we stopped at a traditional place called Moses Springs. It was an obvious place for Moses to stop, since all the Israelites could buy trinkets from the Sinai Bedouin.

We’ll pause tomorrow morning before we head to St. Catherine’s at the base of a traditional site of Mt. Sinai (Jebu Musa) deep in the southern Sinai mountains.

PS…It’s possible this may be my last post in Egypt. I don’t expect an internet connection at St. Catherine’s and the last night before we leave I may not have time (Shawn and I have a 4am flight out…so we need to be at the airport at 2am…aghhhhhhhhhhhhhh).

Two final notes:

One this has been a great trip and I’ve seem some stuff I have heard and read about for years. I looking forward to getting home, but I have had a wonderful time.

Second…I wanted to post this earlier: How about a Egypt blog contest!

Who can guess what this is? There will be a prize for the first correct answer posted in the comments.