Travel Photos VII: Saqqara and Dahshur, Egypt

Since I just wrote something about it, I thought I’d put up a few of my pictures of the Saqqara complex and the Pyramid of Djoser. And then, since I visited both places in the same car trip and it seemed like a good idea, I thought I’d throw in a couple of pictures of nearby Dahshur. Taken together they actually tell a story about the development of Egyptian pyramid building.

Djoser was a Third Dynasty pharaoh who reigned sometime in the first half of the 27th century BCE. To the extent that anything can be known about events that far in the past, we know that Djoser pacified the Sinai Peninsula. Apart from that, we know that he commissioned the building of the pyramid that now bears his name, under the oversight of his great vizier, Imhotep. Imhotep has the distinction of being one of the few non-pharaohs in Egyptian history to be deified and worshiped as a god (though that didn’t happen until a couple of millenia after his death). In that sense his legacy actually eclipsed that of his patron, since pharaohs were worshiped as themselves after death but Imhotep seems to have been conflated with the major Egyptian god Thoth, as the god of architecture and medicine.

Prior to Djoser and Imhotep, pharaohs and other important Egyptians were buried under mastabas, flat raised rectangular structures that presumably evolved from more primitive burial mounds. Architects started experimenting with layered mastabas, but it wasn’t until Imhotep that this form reached fruition and became the pyramid. Djoser probably commissioned the site as a mastaba just like any other, but the longer his reign went on (there are two records that put his reign at 19 and 29 years respectively, but scholars think the longer figure makes more sense), he had Imhotep keep adding smaller mastabas on top of the ones that were already there, until the whole thing became the six-level “Step Pyramid” we can see today: Continue reading

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Travel Photos VI: Muscat, Oman

I wrote about my trip to Oman a while back but only covered the day trip I took to the town of Salalah in the southern part of the country. I actually spent the bulk of my time in and around Oman’s capital, the Gulf city of Muscat. Oman is really a hidden gem as far as I’m concerned. It’s a relatively sleepy place (Muscat is its largest city and clocks in at somewhere between 600,000 and 750,000 people) but boasts some spectacular scenery, plenty of opportunities to relax and soak up the sun if that’s your game, and a fair amount of interesting historical sites if that’s more your speed. The tourist scene is significant (and maybe much increased since I was there a decade ago) but you shouldn’t encounter crowds anywhere near what you’d find in other places in the region (Dubai, Egypt, Lebanon, etc.). Muscat either takes its name from the Arabic word masqat, which can mean “the place where something falls” or “birthplace,” or from an Old Persian root meaning “strong smelling”–presumably the same Indo-European root from which we get “musk” today. Given the importance of both seafaring (making it a place where anchors fall, get it?) and the incense trade to Muscat’s history, these are both reasonable theories in my humble opinion.

Muscat itself is right on the Gulf of Oman, which is itself an inlet off of the Arabian Sea, and is right outside the Strait of Hormuz that marks the entrance into the Persian/Arabian (don’t want to offend anybody!) Gulf and its harbor offers some spectacular views. The city was controlled by the Portuguese from the early 16th century through the middle of the 17th century, and in order to defend the harbor from Ottoman incursions they built a number of fortifications on high points all throughout the city, so you can be walking along, look up, and there’s a centuries-old fort overhead, just sitting there. Very view of these places are open to tourists but they’re a very cool addition to the scenery.

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Fort al-Jalali, one of the Portuguese fortifications that actually is open to the public

Fort al-Jalali, one of the Portuguese fortifications that actually is open to the public

Another major Portuguese fort

Another major Portuguese fort

Scenery just outside of Muscat

Scenery just outside of Muscat

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, built in 2001, is massive and quite impressive, probably the nicest looking mosque I saw in the Gulf:

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There are several interesting sites in the area around Muscat as well. Maybe the most important of these is the Bahla Fort, an extremely well-preserved 13th-14th century fortress built by the tribe that controlled the region at the time and was openly resistant to caliphal, then Mongolian, rule. Bahla was a center of resistance to the caliphate going back centuries before this fort was built, and the fort preserves both a pre-gunpowder style of fortification as well as traditional Arabian water infrastructure. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see any of that infrastructure because, after falling into complete disrepair, Bahla became a UNESCO Heritage Site in the late 1980s and was closed to the public until just last year while undergoing extensive renovation. I did see the outside, complete with scaffolding, though:

Bahla Fort, from a distance

Bahla Fort, from a distance

Bahla, up close

Bahla, up close

There was more great scenery around Bahla to take in:

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The Nakhal Fort, about 75 miles east of Muscat, is another centuries-old fortification and has been much better maintained than Bahla; today it houses a museum that I think is primarily focused on gunpowder weapons. I mention Nakhal for anybody thinking about visiting Oman, but I didn’t make it there myself. It was either a day trip there or a day trip to Salalah and Salalah won out.

Another historical site near Muscat is Nizwa, which used to be the capital of inland Oman and sits on the caravan route from the interior of Oman to the port at Muscat, so as you might expect it’s known for its historic marketplace and fortress:

Ruins of the Nizwa Suq, or market; the modern Suq is still there and probably the most important market in Oman outside of Muscat

Ruins of the Nizwa Suq, or market; the modern Suq is still there and probably the most important market in Oman outside of Muscat

Nizwa fortress, built in 1668

Nizwa fortress, built in 1668

The courtyard of Nizwa Fort

The courtyard of Nizwa Fort

The view from the top of the tower of Nizwa Fort

The view from the top of the tower of Nizwa Fort

Travel Photos V: Dublin, Ireland

Dublin was my last stop on a two week trek around Europe, starting in Rome, then Florence, then Paris, and winding up in Dublin. Well, technically the one day I stopped in London so I could see Stonehenge was my last stop on that trip, but that side trip was really making up for missing Stonehenge the last time I’d been there, so it felt more like taking care of unfinished business than another part of my trip. Apparently Stonehenge closes on the evening before the Summer Solstice so that druid-types can do their nature worshiping without tourists cluttering the place up. Who knew? But I loved Dublin, partly I’m sure because for the first time in a week and a half I was able to turn on my hotel TV and watch something in English. Turns out cheap hotels in Italy and France only get local channels on the tube. Who knew? That was the other thing; for what I was paying to get a bed and a shower in Rome and Paris I was able to get a pretty decent room in Dublin. This was a few years ago, though, so I don’t know what the prices are like nowadays.

Anyway, it’s been a while since I posted one of these. Life, moving, and job hunting keep getting in the way. I’ll try to be quicker with the next one.

The Spire of Dublin, which now that I look at this picture probably would have been better photographed from further away.

The Spire of Dublin, which now that I look at this picture probably would have been better photographed from further away.

Footbridge across the River Liffey

Footbridge across the River Liffey

Statue of Daniel O'Connell, an Irish nationalist leader in the 1800s

Statue of Daniel O’Connell, an Irish nationalist leader in the 1800s

Normally I wouldn’t think visiting a college campus would be a big tourist draw, but the campus of Trinity College is pretty beautiful:

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I’m fixated on old churches, so St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a must see:

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Of course, there are certain things you can’t miss in Dublin:

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I thought the Guinness Brewery tour was OK but a little over produced. Drinking a pint at the bar way up on the top floor of the building was pretty cool though. The Jameson Distillery was really very interesting and I would say the more enjoyable tour even though I’m not nearly as much a whiskey (and it’s whiskEy in Ireland) drinker as I am a Guinness drinker.

I have to say my favorite parts of my time in Dublin were the trips I took outside of the city. That’s nothing against Dublin the city, but the Irish countryside is just amazing. You’ve probably noticed the mostly gray skies in each of these pictures, right? Turns out those gray skies mean rain, and lots of rain means green stuff growing everywhere. Again, who knew?

The medieval settlement of Glendalough, which was inhabited as far back as the 6th century, combined my favorite thing, old ruins, with some spectacular scenery:

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One of my last treks was to Newgrange, the site of huge burial mounds that date all the way back to around 3200 BCE. There was plenty more great scenery in addition to the Stone Age archeology:

A burial mound

A burial mound

Another burial mound

Another burial mound

Main burial mound at Newgrange

Main burial mound at Newgrange

Stones placed near the entrance to the main burial mound

Stones placed near the entrance to the main burial mound

The stones around the main burial mound have these swirl patterns on them for some reason

The stones around the main burial mound have these swirl patterns on them for some reason

Some kind of stone emplacement

Some kind of stone emplacement

Remains of a stone circle

Remains of a stone circle

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Travel Photos IV: Delphi, Greece

I love Greece. Maybe it’s because when I was a kid I was really nuts about Greek mythology. Maybe it’s because I went on vacation there after months seeing nothing but Arabian and Egyptian deserts, so I was in desperate need of someplace a little cooler and greener. Maybe it’s because Greece was the first place I ever went on vacation with the nice lady who would, a while later, agree to marry me. Or maybe it’s a little of everything. Anyway, I love Greece.

These pictures are from Delphi, home of the world-famous Oracle where the priestess of Apollo was said to predict the future (after a nice donation, of course), and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were staying in Athens with no thought to leaving the city until our planned visit to the island of Santorini (Thira) later in our trip, but then I saw an ad for a bus tour to Delphi and we booked it the next day. Aside from the chance to walk in the ruins of a place that was once one of the focal points of Greek religion and culture, it turns out that Delphi is just really gorgeous. It was lightly raining the whole time we were there, but after you’ve spent enough time living around deserts you realize that rain is uncomfortable, but it’s also pretty irreplaceable as far as getting some damn plants to grow.  The site itself just hints at the grandeur that must have existed there once; earthquakes have taken their toll over the millenia. Also not helping preservation: in medieval times the village (known then as Kastri) was located right amidst the ruins, and residents reused the ruins and their materials to build and repair their houses. It wasn’t until the very end of the 19th century that residents were convinced to relocate to the modern town of Delphi, just west of the ruins, and then only after another earthquake had wrecked the town and they were offered free new homes if they agreed to move off of the site.

Anyway, on with the photos:

Delphi scenery

Delphi scenery

More Delphi scenery

More Delphi scenery

Delphi: scenery and ruins

Delphi: scenery and ruins

Still more lovely Delphi scenery

Still more lovely Delphi scenery

The main building on the site would have been the Temple of Apollo, where the oracle’s predictions were requested and received. Only the outline of the structure remains today, but you get a sense of its size at least:

Temple of Apollo, from the rear

Temple of Apollo, from the rear

Remaining columns of the Temple of Apollo

Remaining columns of the Temple of Apollo

Delphi is also home to a stadium and an amphitheater; the stadium is estimated to have seated 6500 and the theater is set up so that the audience would have an amazing view of the whole temple complex as the backdrop to whatever performance was happening:

Delphi's stadium

Delphi’s stadium

Delphi's theater, from the top row of seats

Delphi’s theater, from the top row of seats

Because of time considerations, or the weather, or a bad tour guide (I don’t know, and didn’t know enough to complain at the time), we did not get close to the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, but Wikipedia has a good picture of it here. Actually they might have been doing restoration or maintenance on the site; this was just before the 2004 Summer Olympics and a lot of stuff (including the national museum, ARGH) was unavailable because it was having work done in advance of the Games. This is why I also have no good photos of the Treasury of Athens, built after the Battle of Marathon and mostly restored to its former glory now, but surrounded by ugly (but necessary!) scaffolding when we were there. You can see the scaffolding (on the far left), as well as the Sybil Rock upon which the priestess sat as she offered her predictions, in this photo:

The Sybil Rock, that large natural boulder in the center-left with the ivy growing beneath it, amidst some other ruins.

The Sybil Rock, that large natural boulder in the center-left with the ivy growing beneath it, amidst some other ruins (back part of the Temple of Apollo on the right).

Travel Photos III: Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria (the one in Egypt, to be specific) was one of the greatest cities in the ancient world, but shrunk in both size and prestige after the Arab conquest of Egypt, when the Egyptian capital was moved first to Fustat and then to Cairo (which today has grown so large as to have swallowed the remains of nearby Fustat). It was rebuilt starting in the 19th century and today is one of the 50 or 100 largest cities in the world, depending on how you measure urban population. It was the first stop on my trip to Egypt, after flying into Cairo during a sandstorm and then driving all night to get to a drafty apartment in a cool, rainy city. It was January, but I was packed for Cairo and Luxor weather, so I was totally unprepared for the Alexandrian weather and had to go buy a jacket the next day, and to get a room at a decent hotel where the wind wasn’t blowing in every night.

Alexandria is incredibly unique, a Greco-Roman outpost in the middle of a country that is otherwise Arab or Pharaonic, but the Greco-Romanness of the ancient city was definitely affected by Egyptian culture. I don’t mind saying that the first mummy I saw in the Alexandrian museum, wrapped up like a mummy should be but with a painted Greek face on it where the carved Egyptian funerary mask should’ve been, weirded me out a little bit.

The mummy in question.

The mummy in question.

The first site I checked out was the amphitheater. I always dig a good amphitheater:

The Roman amphitheater, very well-preserved, wasn't rediscovered until the mid-20th century

The amphitheatre, very well-preserved, wasn’t rediscovered until the mid-20th century

More of the amphitheater complex; one of the things I like about Egypt are the scenes of ancient and medieval sites existing within a totally modern, urban space.

More of the amphitheater complex; one of the things I like about Egypt are the scenes of ancient and medieval sites existing within a totally modern, urban space.

The “Villa of the Birds” is near the amphitheater and is so named for one of the mosaics still preserved there:

Villa of the Birds, yes?

Villa of the Birds, yes?

A trip through the city’s catacombs followed, which was awesome but for which I’ve basically got zilch in the way of decent pictures. Digital camera tech was considerably more primitive back then.

Later I headed to the harbor, the geographic feature that made and still makes Alexandria such an important city. In ancient times the shore of the harbor was dominated by the great Lighthouse of Alexandria, but a series of earthquakes brought her down, and in 1477 the ruins were used by the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay to construct a massive fortress, the Citadel of Qaitbay, to defend the harbor.

Fort Qaitbey, the entrance

Fort Qaitbey, the entrance

View of the harbor from the top of the fort.

View of the harbor from the top of the fort.

View of the harbor entrance.

View of the harbor entrance.

Near the Citadel is the Mosque of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, a famous 13th century Sufi whose remains are said to be interred there. For reasons that escape me now, all these years later, I didn’t get particularly close to this mosque and just took a photo of the minarets and domes at some distance.

El-Mursi Mosque

El-Mursi Mosque

The last stop in Alexandria was the Montaza Palace and Park, built and expanded in the early 20 century by the khedives (who later styled themselves “kings”) as a summer palace and hunting lodge. It’s situated on a bay, and the whole combination of bay, gardens, and palace is very striking.

Montaza Palace

Montaza Palace

Montaza Gardens

Montaza Gardens

Montaza Bay

Montaza Bay

Travel Photos II: Salalah, Oman

Oman, I can honestly say, was one of the biggest travel surprises I’ve ever had. I went because I wanted to take a trip, but didn’t have time for anything more than a long weekend. Oman was easily accessible from Qatar, where I was living, and it seemed like there would be just enough to see to fill the weekend (particularly since it wasn’t monsoon season, but more on that later), but not so much that I’d regret not staying longer. When the trip was over, though, I realized I probably could’ve had a full week there, although I was very happy with what I’d gotten to see and didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything.

I spent I decided that, instead of spending all my time around Muscat (pictures from Muscat and its environs in a later post), I would hop a short flight to the city of Salalah, in the southern Dhofar province of the country. Salalah is best known as the center of Oman’s frankincense industry, both for the frankincense trees growing naturally in the region and its place along the Frankincense Road from central Arabia to the port cities on the coast. It is also known for being in the one area of the Arabian peninsula that gets rain during Indian monsoon season–not much rain, to be sure, but a lot by Arabian standards (the eastern tip of Yemen also gets Indian monsoon rains, and southwestern Yemen is affected by African monsoons). During the monsoon season it’s said that the mountains around Salalah turn green and lush during the monsoon season, but that’s not when I was there so, sorry, no green.

Even bare mountains were a nice change of pace from sand dunes.

Even bare mountains were a nice change of pace from sand dunes.

You can make out some tiny frankincense trees against the mountainside if you look hard enough.

You can make out some tiny frankincense trees against the mountainside if you look hard enough.

The land around Salalah, even though it wasn’t monsoon season, struck me as quite a bit greener than I’d gotten used to in Qatar.

I saw this tired critter while driving in the mountains.

I saw this tired critter while driving in the mountains.

This is Mughsayl Bay, one of the major beaches in Salalah.

This is Mughsayl Bay, one of the major beaches in Salalah.

Another shot of the bay.

Another part of the bay.

Some Salalah scenery. Note the green stuff in the foreground; for Arabia, that's almost a jungle.

Some Salalah scenery. Note the green stuff in the foreground; for Arabia, that’s almost a jungle.

I wish I’d had more time in Salalah (it was a one day thing, fly there in the morning and back to Muscat at night), I would have gone north of the city to some of the sites on the Frankincense road, but for pure scenery it was a nice trip.

Travel Photos I: Beqaa Valley and Baalbek, Lebanon

Now after that florid introduction to this tiny operation, I’m naturally going to follow up with, um, pictures of places I’ve been. Why? Because I think heritage should be seen and shared by as many people as possible (responsibly and sustainably, of course). Also? Because I don’t want this blog to be either completely serious or rarely used. Posting travel photos is fun and it keeps the blog in use even when I do most of whatever work I can give to this project on Twitter (don’t forget to follow @heritage_alert).

I’m still a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t even have a passport until I was in my late 20s, when on a bit of an impulse I took a job that involved moving overseas for at least a year (turned out to be around a year and a half). I was lucky to be working in a place that was very centrally located to a lot of places I’d always dreamed about visiting and in a job that wasn’t all that well-defined but offered generous vacation time, so as long as my work got done I could do plenty of traveling. The first place I visited was Lebanon, partly because I had some work to do there but equally for the sightseeing.

These photos are of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, located in the eastern part of the country. Beqaa is Lebanon’s chief agricultural region, home in particular to the country’s wine industry, whose history goes back to 2 millenia before Alexander the Great according to the evidence. We stopped at a high point to take some pictures of the valley:

Beqaa Valley

Beqaa Valley

Beqaa Valley 2

Beqaa Valley

The real highlight of the trip to the Beqaa Valley, for me, was the chance to see the Roman ruins at Baalbek (named Heliopolis by the Greeks and known by that name in Roman times). Three temples were located at Baalbek, to the gods Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus, who had been identified with a triad of local deities by the Romans. Today very little of the temple to Venus still stands, but a bit more of the temple to Jupiter is still up and quite a bit of the temple of Bacchus.

Baalbek: Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Altar Area from the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Altar Area from the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Mosaic from the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Mosaic from the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbek: Entrance to the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Entrance to the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Frieze from the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Frieze from the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Altar Area in the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Altar Area in the Temple of Jupiter

Baalbek: Remains of the Temple of Venus

Baalbek: Remains of the Temple of Venus