Ross School

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ras Mohammed


Today, we had a wonderful experience in the natural world of the middle east. We visited Ras Mohammed National Park. Ras means ‘head’ in Arabic, so the park’s name basically means The Head of Mohammed. Apparently, when you look at the area on a map it resembles the head of a man.
There are seven protected areas here in the Sinai, though this 450 square kilometers is exceptional for its size and terrain. Dozens of towering mountains filled with desert sand lead directly to the water’s edge. From the desert to the water! There isn’t even a strip of greenery, we were surprised. In addition to the coral reefs one can see when diving, snorkeling and swimming, there are osprey, storks, foxes, falcons and eagles occupying the land.
Our first stop in the National Park was a Mangrove Canal. The trees literally grow in the water, which is salty. When you look closely at the leaves on the tree, you notice that they have crystallized salt on them! The tree absorbed the water through its roots and basically sweated out the salt content through its leaves. There were dozens of bright blue crabs with an extremely large and bright orange claw.
Next, we visited a Shark Observatory, which is a little piece of land that juts out into the intersection of three bodies of water: the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Acaba. Many of us agree that this place has one of the best coral reefs we have ever seen. The reef is shallow but drops suddenly into the darkness. “It feels like I am flying!” I heard someone say about the experience afterwards. He was right, as our eyes adjusted to the patterns of light we were suddenly overwhelmed with the plethora of fish and coral followed by darkness.
After enjoying this incredible coral cliff, we ventured over to another more secluded beach, Marsa Breaka Camping Site. There was one Italian group there but they promptly departed. We had the place to ourselves! There was much more of a beach here, which several students used to build various objects with the desert/beach sand. Other students and teachers went out into the water with our snorkeling equipment. We found a completely different type of coral here. It was shaped more like a table than a cliff. It was great though, we were able to swim above the reefs and have a birds-eye view of the life under the sea.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Burning Bush


Today we went to St. Catherine's Monastery, three hours from Sharm El Sheikh. It is easy to see how such a remote and cinematic place was so conducive to scholastic thought and monasticism. Their library has thousands of manuscripts and books. They used to have one of the oldest bibles. However, the Russians were loaned the Codex in 1859 and never returned it.

It is pretty amazing that this monastery has existed for over a thousand years. Perhaps one of the few things Muhammad and Napoleon have in common (unless Muhammad's height matched Napoleon's diminutive stature) is that they both promised, in writing, to protect the Monastery. Muhammad's agreement even has his handprint on it.

Monday, March 8, 2010



We visited just one archeological site today, and that was enough to keep us thinking and reflecting for an entire day. Karnak is the largest religious complex from ancient times, period. It was dedicated to Egypt’s imperial god, Amun, his consort, Mut, and their son Khonsu, the moon god. Located in the capital of the Middle and New Kingdoms, Thebes, the complex had pride of place among all temples in Egypt. Due to this, it was used and expanded over an extraordinarily long period, stretching from about 1900 BC to just before the year 0. During that time, many incredible structures were appended onto what was once a small shrine.
The entrance to the building is flanked by a long succession of sphinxes with the heads of rams, the sacred animal of Amun. The hypostyle hall of Ramses II was a forest of columns, reminiscent of the Mesquita in Cordoba.
In the columns and walls are beautiful carvings, cut very deep so successors could not deface them. Our guide pointed out what he called “the most beautiful carving of a lotus ever,” and I am not sure I would disagree with that label.

The Festival Hall of Thutmose III translated the architecture of a simple tent shrine into elaborate stonework echoing tent poles and awnings. The same Thutmose walled up an obelisk erected by his stepmother, the pharaoh who preceeded him, Queen Hapshepsut. Inadvertently preserved, it can be seen towering over the crumbling wall. Although elsewhere he outright defaced the works of the woman who kept him off the throne for decades, the obelisk was dedicated to Amun and couldn’t be touched; he simply hid it instead.
There were also some traces of what would have once been brilliant coloring on the walls. In other temples we have visited, small fragments still possessing their original paint makes me wish I could have see these places in their full, colorful glory. Then again, we should feel fortunate for what we have; how often does any quantity of paint last 3000+ years? For that matter, how often does any structure last that long? The ancient Egyptians would be proud. Their main aim in architecture, as epitomized by the Pyramids, was permanence. By and large, they’ve succeeded in spectacular fashion…lucky us.

Sunday, March 7, 2010



The Temple of Hetshepsut was built in the 18th dynasty, in the 15th century BC. Hetshepsut is a very well known pharaoh, partially because she was a woman and reigned for 22 years, partially because she was a prolific builder, and partially because she represented herself as a man at court, in temple depictions, and in her statuary. This particular temple was designed by Senemut, Hetshepsut’s favorite architect. Statues of Hetshepsut’s sarcophagus are positioned in front of every column on the second floor, showing her arms crossed in the typical male pharaonic pose.

First thing in the morning, we rolled up to the foot of this magnificent palace, emerging from the surrounding sheer limestone cliffs. Even in the morning, the sun was hot, and the air completely dry. It was staggering to imagine the manpower necessary to assemble such a structure. I found it difficult to imagine that a temple that immense could have been organized in such a brutally hot climate. As we ascended the central stair, we began to make out the colors on the temple walls, faded, but extant, even after some 3000 years. It was interesting to see a great deal of scenes of daily life depicted on the walls of the temple, especially in places like Punt (modern day Somalia), where Hetshepsut had established strong trade routes during her reign. Appearing next to the offering tables were ‘living’ representations of wildlife of the Red Sea--fish, birds. The wartime scenes depicted on so many temples we’ve seen were nearly absent from Hetshepsut’s temple walls.
When her husband, Pharaoh Tuthmoses II died while in power, Hetshepsut proclaimed herself pharaoh, so as not to allow young Tuthmoses III to ascend to the throne. To legitimize this action, Hetshepsut declared herself the daughter of the god Amun, and reiterated this theme throughout many of her construction projects. However, when she died, and vengeful Tuthmoses III took power, he had every representation of his stepmother carved into the temple walls defaced, leaving either blank silhouettes of her figure or his own image superimposed in her place.

After this visit to the temple, we headed to the fabled Valley of the Kings, where Zahi Hawass, the Head of Antiquities in Egypt, told us he had made some fantastic discoveries recently, to plumb the depths of some incredibly ornate (and some surprisingly bare) underground tombs. This was a very interesting exploration; the colorful walls portrayed especially dreamlike scenes in the tomb of Ramses III.

Finally, we visited the Luxor temple, which I found astonishingly beautiful. The entire temple, built around 1280 B.C., exhibited the influence of Egyptian architecture on both plaza and even mosque design so clearly and potently I couldn’t believe it. Especially in the way it was lit, the entire atmosphere was enthralling and lovely even though it was swarming with tourists. It was a graceful, fluid system of structures and portrayed the different column capitals—palm, lotus and papyrus--developed throughout the Middle Kingdom.

Saturday, March 6, 2010



Although I had been awaiting our cruise down the Nile with great expectation, I hadn’t really anticipated what a magical experience it would be. I am not sure if I can really convey in words how spectacular the setting was. Sitting at the bow, flanked on two sides by small farms and great stretches of reeds, I could almost imagine myself in ancient Egypt. Then there was the great river itself—broad, deep, of an almost imperial majesty defying its polluted condition. The timelessness of the landscape deeply moved me.
Though the journey was fantastic, the destinations were also fascinating. We hit the highlights of ancient Egyptian temple architecture, starting with the island of Philae and culminating in the masterpieces of Karnak and Luxor. The sheer massiveness and resilience of these places boggles the mind. More incredible was how the Egyptians managed to use stone blocks, normally a heavy element in buildings, to create places of remarkable lightness and airiness. They are not only impressive, but actually aesthetically stimulating to be in. Like the landscape surrounding them, the temples of Egypt have an aura of eternality.

I woke up in the morning. Through my window I saw the Nile. I looked from the water to the dock. Watching people trying to sell various pamphlets on the gods and goddesses of Egypt. I realized what an economic divide there is in this country where poverty is so predominant and the main source of revenue is tourism. These vendors depend upon tourists for their survival.

The first temple we visited was beautiful. It was the goddess Isis's temple at Philae on an island called Agilka. It was crowded with people, some seeking spiritual guidance, others looking for knowledge. Everyone has something in common; we're all searching for meaning. Its hard to find meaning in the midst of herding tourists.
We returned to pass the people begging for some sort of munificence and returned to our boat which proceeded down the Nile. I laid on the top deck gathering sunlight. he fine line between fertile land and desert became clear; it is the battle between the two brother gods Set of the desert and Osiris of the Nile. It's interesting to see the landscape that gave birth to a culture, a religion, a faith. Inspiration comes from an amalgamation of previous events. History brings us closer to the present and in this way this trip is a sort of journey. It is a journey towards understanding who we are in order to help. "Know thyself in order to serve".
We proceeded to our second temple on the Nile, the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god. We saw a sacred pit where crocodiles were kept in ancient times. I didn't see any on the Nile but had hoped to. Our guide explained that the High Damn and the locks prevent the ones prowling around Lake Nasser from making it further down the Nile. We also came to understand that hieroglyphics and symbols were a sacred language used to communicate with the gods.
Our last temple of the day was the one to the great god Horus at Edfu. It was nighttime and everything was lit up. Seeing the massive structures lit with shadows has a really lasting impact. The ceiling was filled with black residue left from the burning fires of the homeless people who inhabited the temple in its transitory period between being a sacred space and a homage to the new tourism. Inside the temple we saw Alexander the Great depicted as the son of the Egyptian god Amun. In this depiction, we see the Greek and Egyptian cultures next to each other, sharing the same myths and practices. The Macedonian king was directly integrated into the ancient Egyptian pantheon. A new period of Greek scholasticism combined with ancient Egyptian tradition spread a fusion of culture and ideas across the wide stretches of Alexander's empire.


The Nile is truly the thoroughfare and breadbasket of Egypt. Over 90% of Egypt lives along the Nile. Without it, Egypt would be another Libya or Algeria and not home to several advanced civilizations. The banks of the Nile are very inhabited. Of the 120 miles we cruised between Aswan and Luxor, there was not a single patch of land not occupied by homes or farms. Especially farms. The Nile provides nourishment in the middle of the desert. This is why so much of Egyptian mythology revolves around fertility and the Nile.
Unfortunately, the Nile is no longer what it used to be. For millennia, the annual flood dictated the schedule of all Egypt. However, the construction of the Aswan High Dam ended the flood cycle. As a guide put it, Egypt was no longer responsible to the fluctuations of the Nile, but to the world economy. Also, the Nile is dirty. Very dirty.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Today we left Alexandria bright and early to fly to Abu Simbel, just 20 km from the Sudanese border. After leaving the breezy Mediterranean, the heat was a shock. Abu Simbel is known as the location where Ramses II built his greatest monument. The four seated statues that guard the entrance to his temple are enormous. Inside the temple were very detailed carvings. At the end of the temple stood another 4 statues of the gods and Ramses, which are perfectly lit by the sun two times per year, on the 22nd of June and December. It wasn't always that way, however. The alignment used to occur one day earlier because the whole temple was once situated at a different site. In the 1960s, the temple was relocated 600 feet away because of the rising waters of the artificial Lake Nasser. A large concrete dome was erected and covered with sandstone. The temple was then moved piece by piece into the dome. The project cost $30 million and was primarily paid for by UNESCO.

After Abu Simbel, we flew to Aswan. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to visit the Aswan High Dam. The dam was constructed by Nasser with the aid of the Soviet Union. The dam changed the history of Egypt because it ended the yearly flood. Instead of the dam, we went to the Unfinished Obelisk. It was a granite quarry where workers had begun to dig out what would have been the largest obelisk known to us, at 134 feet tall. The method the workers used involved scraping a small piece of diorite against the granite.

Upon the site's closing, we went to the Aswan Bazaar. We were all fitted for galabiyas (shhh! its supposed to be a surprise). At the bazaar we saw the same kind of things found in Cairo, but at better prices.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Library at Alexandria


I always find it fascinating to see how a country tackles its past. One can reject it, avoid it, be ambivalent to it or, like the Egyptians, embrace it wholeheartedly. The Library at Alexandria, which we visited this Thursday, is a testament to how pride in national heritage can be channeled into productive endeavors rather than narrow-minded nationalism. More than a millennium and a half after the first one faded into history, a great library once again stands vigil over Alexandria’s harbor. Inside its walls is a dizzying array of exhibits and artifacts as well as, naturally, an impressively sizable book collection. It does not now, nor will it likely ever, come close to its predecessor’s goal of collecting all the books in the world. However, the second library has found a niche for itself by attempting to become the foremost repository of the digital, rather than paper, age. A huge bank of super computers in the building houses the only mirror of the Internet Archive, digital records of every webpage ever to exist. In collaboration with other major libraries, it actively supports digitization of books and information, helping to maintain online copies of thousands of manuscripts and disseminating info on Egypt-specific topics to a global audience.

Library of Alexandria from Ross Institute on Vimeo.

It is often lamented by lovers of history that the Great Lighthouse, Alexandria’s other wonder, no longer looms on its shoreline. Though I too wish I could have seen that pinnacle of ancient engineering for myself, it would serve little practical purpose in the modern world. The Great Library, on the other hand, is a beacon that is still needed, even more so now than during the time of the Ptolemies. This land’s temples and tombs are all marvelous places that deserve to be celebrated, but a glorious past alone does not secure a glorious future. Education is the key. The restoration of the library is not the end of the struggle, not even close. It is, however, a promising new beginning.

On the site of the Pharos lighthouse I saw a lot of birds. Looking out into the water, I realized that so much has changed. The landscape, the people, but not the spirit. The birds flew over the water. The wide expanses of open space, so refreshing. Throughout all we have seen there is a sort of mirror present. A reflection of nature into the artificial, the constructed. After seeing all these depictions of nature actually standing on the site of what once inspired so much awe was incredible.

The book binding on a translation of Euclid's Data was a pattern of flowers overlapping. It made me think of the importance of this repetition. Pattern appears both in nature and in the constructed. It emphasizes the small moments where the chaos of the world comes together and thus pattern is born. In this small pattern I see the correlation between math and nature, and therefore, art.

Today we traveled from Caro to Alexandria. We visited the site of the ancient Pharos lighthouse, which now holds a citadel. The citadel looked like a sandcastle; it was white, made of sandstone. Looking out at the Mediterranean from the window, the turquoise water peeked through to contrast with the sandy beige of the walls. This is the first time I've seen the Mediterranean, and I was captivated by the bright colors of Alexandria for the entire day.
The citadel was older than the walls of Constantinople that we walked while in Istanbul, and in much better shape, or at least more thoroughly restored. The climate here is perfect for ancient monuments to survive for thousands of years, especially since there is nearly no rain

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Panel Discussion - Palestinian/Israeli Conflict

On Wednesday March 3rd, in Cairo, Mrs. Ross hosted a panel discussion about the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict. Mrs. Ross and eight Ross students are traveling in Turkey and Egypt to study the "Golden Matrix:" the transfer of knowledge from classical Greece through medieval Baghdad, al-Andalus, and Byzantium to the Renaissance. The panel consisted of: Dr. Ahmed Tibi; an Israeli Arab Member of Knesset; Ambassador Avi Gil, former Director-General of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Dr. Mostafa El Feki, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Egyptian Parliament; and Ambassador Juergen Chrobog, Former German Ambassador to the United States and former Deputy Foreign Minister. The distinguished panelists first introduced the students to the conflict and its history. The conflict finds its origins in the 1947 UN partition plan. According to Dr. El Feki, the conflict has been "a series of missed opportunities," especially the Camp David Summit in 2000.

The panel occurred on an opportune day: just that day in Cairo, the Arab League decided to accept the United States' invitation to help bring all parties to the negotiating table. With the participation of all interested parties and the support of strong US diplomacy, the panelists believe that negotiations can seriously progress. According to the panelists, productive negotiations would need the involvement of The Quartet (The US, EU, UN, and Russia), including and increased role of the EU and Russia. Russian Ambassador MIkhail Bogdanov later spoke about Russia's role in future negotiations. The panelists conveyed a strong sense of urgency. They believe that the deadlock must be broken within the next four months, or else motivation may be lost. After the discussion segment of the event, the panel opened up to student questions. One student asked whether the seemingly perpetual conflict is fueled by nationalist sentiments among the youth in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The panelists said it was exactly that. Another student asked whether the domestic political situations within Israel and the Palestinian Territories are conducive to negotiations. The panelists stressed that an accord must "come from within," and not be forced upon the parties. However, the panelist acknowledged at the same time that the United States is needed to move negotiations along. The event certainly made all participants aware of what the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian people each need to commit in order to create fruitful negotiations and of the potential solutions to the conflict.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sultan Hassan Mosque

We have seen many mosques in Istanbul, but none of them come close to
being nearly as moving as the Sultan Hassan Mosque we visited today.
The building is unimaginably enormous, and makes one feel humble. We
had the pleasure of hearing a live call to prayer by the imam. His singing was
very moving and beautiful.

For the past few days we have had many interesting speakers coming to
lecture. Today we had Tarek Swelim, an art historian and lecturer,
teach us about Islamic Egyptian history. His presentation was loaded
with a ton of interesting information about the main caliphates that ruled Egypt. Egypt is an
amazing country; I’m looking forward to what awaits us in the next days.

Today we visited places of worship of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. To be more specific, we saw four churches, one synagogue, two mosques, and a museum. The churches were all of the Coptic variety. The crosses they displayed were an evolution of the ankh symbol. This was done out of practicality and to disguise their religion (during the early days of Christianity). The synagogue was originally a Coptic Church but the Copts were forced to sell it to the Jews when their taxes were raised. The first mosque, Sultan Hassan, was an amazing place. We were fortunate enough to hear the imam sing a hymn. It was incredible. The day was a great mix of religions and a culture. When we returned to the hotel, we were given a lecture by Dr. Tarek Sweilam about the history of Islamic Cairo. His talk really tied what we saw today together in the context of the history of Islamic Egypt.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Dr. Hawass and the Archeology Museum


Inside of a plastic bag in my pocket is a bronze statuette of a camel. I bought it from a man whose face has now begun to fade away into the annals of my memory.
We started out the day with a lecture from Dr. Hawass. He was very outspoken and energetic. He was animated in both face and character. Zahi Hawass is Indiana Jones.

The archeology museum was packed. Its hard to catch everything. I looked at a wooden sculpture. It was a man sitting down. The eyes were piercing. Trying to fathom that something in front of oneself was made more than 4000 years ago is almost impossible. I thought of the people of that time. Today the world is, in some ways, getting smaller and smaller. Technology brings us together and we see some issues as global issues. We think about the world and our place in the chaos of the social structures which we, ourselves, have constructed.
In ancient Egypt, I wondered what people thought about. How did they see themselves in the world? Were they conscious of who they were in relation to other cultures? Religion defined their social structures and identities. Everything had a purpose. Everything was placed in the right position in order to further the pursuit of religion and spirituality.
We then went to the recently renovated Dar el-Kotob‎ (National Library and Archives). We were met with great hospitality. The man who spoke to us did not speak english so he was translated. I got guava juice which was served to us from a silver platter. It was interesting. The facilities are very modern and I bought four postcards from a younger man who stood behind a desk.
In the Khan el Khalili Bazaar the sun set pretty fast. As we walked the streets got narrower and narrower. I was called a cheeky boy while I was looking at head scarves. I quickly left after this comment was made.
In the bazaar there was a shop with lanterns. The lanterns held lights. Light is a very powerful thing. The sun symbolizes creation and permanence. It is permanently rising and setting, trapped in this cycle. Through these lanterns humans have found a way to harness this power. We have found a way to create our own permanence. This is the human struggle. It is represented by every light that has ever been lit. Every ray of artificial light which has battled with the harsh, cold, permanence of night, of nature, of the cosmos.
Today we don't share a belief in a sun god or a god of night or of water or earth. But we do share the belief of those golden arches shining brilliantly across all 7 continents. We believe in a much more artificial deity. One which we have fabricated. We believe, above all, in ourselves.

Our morning lecture with Mr. Hawass was absolutely fantastic! He is an extremely passionate man with a vision for archeology like I have never seen before. Listening to him explain ancient history was great. However, the aspects of his lecture that most interested me were hearing the findings he and his team have made, and understanding how each new artifact can completely alter our understanding of history. It was great fun to walk through the Cairo Museum and notice several pieces of information printed for the public next to artifacts, information that he has recently proven to be incorrect. Mr. Hawass' discoveries have not been released to the public yet though, so we cannot discuss it with you!

Our trip to the museum was unforgettable. The broken down feeling of the building made the artifacts seem like every day objects; the simple glass and wood boxes holding priceless ancient treasures made them seem more real. We spent three times longer in the museum than most tour groups do, and I could have spent at least another four hours inside. Learning what King Tutankhamen's name looks like in heiroglyphs and hearing Dr. Hawass speak about his archeological digs, I have become engrossed once again with Egyptology.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Great Pyramids at Giza

After a day of travel and rest, we finally got out to explore Egypt today. Cairo couldn't be more dissimilar from Istanbul; While the areas we spent most of our time in Istanbul consisted of twisting cobblestone streets surrounded by outcropping historical marvels, perfectly preserved but not detached from daily life, Cairo is rushing cars on four lane highways, hurrying pedestrians, and smog. From my room in Turkey I could see quaint shops and the Hagia Sofia, but here, on the sixteenth floor of our skyscraper hotel, I see a never-ending expanse of sandy colored structures cleaved by the muddy Nile. I'm not trying to suggest that this isn't a stunning, magnificent city, it merely functions at a different speed and in a different manner than we have become accustomed to.

Rejuvenated by the day before, we began with a breakfast dappled with traditional Egyptian foods, and then attended a morning lecture by Dr Ali Radwan, a professor of Egyptology at Cairo University. He instructed us on the power of women in ancient Egyptian society, both in religion and in royalty.

Afterwards, we set out to see the epitome of Egyptian sightseeing, the pyramids. The first set we saw contained the first pyramid ever built, and put the antiquity of our previous city to shame. The Necropolis of Sakkara contained one remaining step pyramid built for the Pharaoh Djoser, and the remains of other buildings for the containment of his artifacts after his death, the worship of the gods, and changing his royal clothing during ceremonies.

Our guide then directed us to a carpet school, where students learn the trade of handmade carpet making in the morning and have regular school in the afternoon. The tour seemed more geared at getting us to purchase their tapestries ("No pressure! No pressure!") than showing us the school, but it was nonetheless thought provoking to see this portion of the Egyptian school system.

To conclude our adventures, we moved to the Great Pyramids at Giza. They did not disappoint in the slightest: they were innumerably more massive, dense, and heavy looking than could have ever expected. Three pyramids, built by the Pharaohs Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus, were situated alongside the Sphinx, unexpectedly close to downtown Cairo. These monuments were around 4500 years old and the only remaining components of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When we were in Istanbul, I was surprised with the cavalier attitude towards their nation's ancient sites. Standing atop the Walls of Theodosius, I could see cars on the highway, houses leaning against the wall, and businesses set up only a hundred yards away, but here the familiarity extends almost to disrespect. The wonderful, majestic pyramids were clouded with the stench of garbage and camel waste from the locals trying to make a profit off the gawking tourist. It would be a great misfortune if the Ministry of Antiquities did not sort out how to treat these famous locations before they are ruined beyond repair.

We ended our day with some academy time and a sumptuous late dinner. Ms. McCall gave us an overview of Egyptian mythology, explaining the stories of the gods and the role those beliefs played in Egyptian culture, which helped give us more background in preparation for this morning's lecture.

When you picture Egypt, one geometric shape pops into mind. Pyramids. Nothing can really prepare you for the awe-inspiring feeling the pyramids have. They are unimaginably huge. Seeing them and being able to walk around them was an awesome and unforgettable experience. Something that was a little bit disappointing was how close modern civilization has encroached upon the Pyramids we visited. There was a Pizza Hut less than a few kilometers from the pyramid. Tourism also seemed to defile this place that was intended to be very sacred.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sailing to the Black Sea - Last Day in Istanbul

We slept in a bit today after our late and wonderful evening with friends at Bahçeşehir Üniversitesi We departed our hotel at 10:45 am, arriving at our boat to set sail on the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea. We learned that the Bosphorus flows into the Black Sea, constantly contributing copious amounts of fresh water to the giant salt-water mass. Sunlight has difficulty reaching the depths of the seawater, causing the sea to appear dark. Thus, we learned how the Black Sea got its name.

We rode northeast for approximately 50 km to a small town known as Poyraz. On the way, we nibbled on cheese, crackers, and olives while sipping Cay, Turkish tea, and/or pomegrante juice. When we docked, there was a slight drizzle falling. We walked past dozens of fishing boats to the steep steps that led to the town. We climbed up to what essentially serves as the town's center, finding just a few storefronts with fantastic views of the Bosphorus. Some students continued the climb up to where there should have been a lighthouse. We didn't find one, but we did come across several strange graffiti-covered buildings and a fabulous view. Even through the haze, one was able to look back the way we came, down past the village to the Bosphorus as it leads South. The view North looked down a steep cliff to the water of the Black Sea lapping at the rocks. Some of us ventured down the steps of one of the bunker-like buildings. After feeling through the darkness for a while, students and teachers found themselves on the front tip of the land mass, facing East, at a radar device which they figure probably helps guide vessels around the landmass from the Black Sea into the Bosphorus.

After exploring this little town, we returned to our boat for lunch. Apparently, the boat is owned by a restaurateur in Istanbul. His chefs cooked us an amazing multi-course, 3 hour feast. We had mezze to start, consisting of many variations of eggplant, peppers, grilled vegetables, raw vegetables, and salad. Then the carnivores were served beef with mashed potatoes and lamb with orzo, while the vegetarians dined on spaghetti and extraordinarily sweet cooked carrots. We ate most of our food while docked, but the desert portion was consumed back on the open waters. Desert was a rich warm molten chocolate cake with fresh fruit (strawberries, bananas, apples, and peaches). A highlight of my day was chatting in broken English and Turkish with the captain of our boat, who permitted me to take the wheel for a little while. Our communication was shoddy, but he guided me as I piloted us under the first bridge back towards Istanbul. At the point where the Black Sea waters meet the Bosphorus waters, we were told there is always a bit of a rough water. Marie, Emre and Barış were on the bow filming when suddenly the boat began rocking severely. Marie and company heroically gripped our impressive camera equipment, including a tripod at full extension. They were flung to and fro while those of us inside were being showered with various foods and beverages. Miraculously, everyone managed to stay aboard and everything stayed dry, even Marie and her tripod. Once we were within the natural harbor, we experienced safe and easy sailing back to the dock. Our last day in Turkey proved to be a great adventure, filled with scrumptious edibles, fun company, and beautiful views.

Today, we cruised the Bosphorus for the second time on the trip. Since the first time was on the first day, the experience has bookended our time in Istanbul. It was neat to stare in amazement at all of these foreign sites on the first day and then take to the Bosporus after visiting much of what was visible. We also stopped at a small town on the Black Sea that had an awesome view of the sea and the Bosporus. Exploring the dilapidated cold war military installation there was a lot of fun. We went down some creepy pitch black staircases to find an old radar emplacement. It was a good experience for ending our Istanbul journey.


Today, we were on a boat which went through the Bosporus into the Black Sea. We stopped in a small fishing village at the entrance to the sea. When translated, the name of the village means North Wind. The north wind is very important to Istanbul. It is the main wind which hits the Bosporus and causes the strong currents.

In the village I saw a group of men who were preparing a net to go fishing. They were working hard; I saw in their faces they had worked hard before. Their faces had weathered with the salt and their concentration. As I looked at one fisherman, our eyes met, and I could see that for generations he has been doing this. He seemed trapped in time. In his eyes I saw no strive for salvation. There was no hope for escape. In his eyes I saw the many eyes that came before him. His father, his father's father, and so on.

We saw a sign that "Forbidden Zone." I agree with this sign, in more ways than one.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Galata Tower


Our morning began with a tour of the Galata, the commercial section in the northern part of the city. We better understand the city's layout each time we visit a new section. We stopped at a building that claimed to have been built in the year 717. That year, however, was the building date of the first structure ever to inhabit that piece of land, not the date of the building that currently stands there. It was a church-turned-mosque; a common description for buildings here. When converting a building from a church to a mosque in Istanbul, the minbar is usually situated slightly at an angle to the building, in order to point towards Mecca. This mosque, however, had neglected to make this few degrees change. The people simply pray directly east in that mosque. The only explanation we were given is that it may have been too difficult to change the direction.

Our first visit today was meeting the Hakham Bashi or Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Isaac Haleva. He shared his insights on the relationship between education and religion in Turkey. The current situation for training rabbis in the Jewish religion here is similar to that of training priests that we had heard about when meeting with His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch. There was a school in Istanbul until the year 1965 that taught theology, however there were not enough students to keep this school open. The rabbi school closed by choice, not by force of law, which was the case for training of priests for the Eastern Orthodox Church. If Jewish students are interested in a career in religion, they are often sent out of the country to further their studies. Rabbi Haleva's son studied in the United States. In closing, the Chief Rabbi expressed an opinion very much against any type of violence, stating that, "War isn't good for anyone. No one ever wins a war." Finally, Rabbi Halevi made a few calls to assist Noah in looking up members of his family who had lived in Istanbul in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

We walked from the Rabbi's office to the main synagogue of Istanbul. There have been two terrorist attacks in that synagogue, and so we had to go through multiple security checks. This was followed by lunch in the Galata Tower, which has a panoramic view of Istanbul. The tower was built by the Genovese in order to oversee and control trade to and from the city. The view was nothing short of magnificent.
We continued our day with a short trip to the Jewish Museum of Istanbul. One of my favorite parts of this museum was the downstairs section, filled with tapestries and clothing. The museum also included a letter written from Einstein to Ataturk in 1933, requesting permission for German scientists to continue their work in Turkey.
Our busy day was followed by a dinner meeting with the Chairman of the Board of Bahçesehir University, Mr. Enver Yücel. We spoke about the mission of their school and the curriculum and mission of Ross School and how we work toward the same goals. Two professors spoke to us during dinner. Dr. Bekir Kaliga, a professor of theology and Islamic history, spoke of a curricular project he has been working on to organize study of world civilizations from ancient Mesopotamian to the present, similar to Ross School. Dr. Binnaz Toprak, a political science professor (who had spent time working in East Hampton in the sixties) spoke of contemporary Turkey, especially the political structure, education, and its westernization. We gained insight into the university's structure and mission, and will maintain contact with them for future collaborations.
We discovered how difficult rush hour traffic is here in Istanbul. On our way to dinner, the bus ride took an hour and forty minutes. On the way back it took eight minutes. The distance was four miles. This is NOT an exaggeration. That is the reason for the construction of an extensive underground rail system in Istanbul at present.

Today we visited with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey. After making our way through extensive security, we found a very warm man welcoming us into his office. He encouraged us to ask questions and gave thoughtful answers. We spoke a bit after the big group conversation; as I was leaving I said "Shalom" to him which made him smile and reply the same to me. I think he appreciated that. We continued our tour of Istanbul's Jewish history with a visit to a Jewish synagogue that was built in the early 1990's.

We ate lunch atop the Galata Tower, a restored lighthouse which affords visitors tremendous 360 views. I think it is important to see cities from above; it helps me understand the lay of the land. After I have seen the city from above, I feel I can understand it at the street level. After lunch, we stopped in at the only Jewish Museum in Turkey, located in a converted synagogue. We stopped by in our hotel for a few minutes before venturing to a university for dinner and two lectures by local professors. The first was a professor of Islamic Religion and Philosophy, the second, a professor of political science. Both professors were interesting, but I found the latter to be especially engaging and interesting. Asking her questions about the contemporary regime was quite fun!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Golden Gate and Port Theodosius Excavation Site


Today we visited two sites that were both entrances to Constantinople and therefore nodes within the Golden Matrix node of Constantinople. The ideas that we have been studying in the Golden Matrix passed through either the Golden Gate or through the Port of Theodosius. The Golden Gate was once a decorative arch outside the city, but was later transformed into a gate as the city grew. The gate was monumental. It was easy to imagine Justinian coming into the city triumphant after a conquest. The Gate was built as a key part of the Theodosian walls in 408. These walls stood undefeated for over one thousand years. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the invading Ottomans could not find the body of Constantine XI, the last Emperor.

 There was a legend that eventually Constantine XI would return through the Golden Gate and recapture the city.  To thwart this, or at least the defeated Byzantines, Sultan Mehmet II blocked the gate and added three towers to the four existing towers at the Gate. Thus it is also called the “Fortress of the Seven Towers.” The Fortress later also served as a dungeon, and is known to many as the “Dark Dungeon.” The Gate and subsequent Fortress have played a pivotal role in the history of this city. Our group went to the site to examine the glory of early Byzantium as well as the transition between Byzantine and Ottoman rule of Constantinople/Istanbul. The site was well preserved yet au naturale; it was private and therefore off the beaten path. We walked on the walls and explored the many passages inside the towers. I was very impressed by the scale of the site as well as the well-preserved state of it compared to other Byzantine structures in the city.

- Photograph Source - All Rights Reserved By The Original Owner:
'Yenikapi 11." =

After our visit to the Golden Gate, we went to the Port of Theodosius Excavation Site. It is the future home of two subway stations: one to the Asian side of the city across the Bosphorus, and the other as an extension of the city metro. However, before the project can be completed, the archaeologists need to do their due diligence. They have been doing this due diligence since 2004. In their excavations, they have uncovered thirty-five shipwrecks and countless pieces of ceramics. It is a tremendous undertaking: not only is the site very large, but there are tens of layers of history to uncover. Just six inches under the 6th century there was another layer of artifacts from the 5th century. Texts of Aristotle, Plato, Galen, and others were brought in and out of the port along with the goods being traded around the Mediterranean world. Trade was the lifeblood of the Golden Matrix; it facilitated the transfer of knowledge from Greece to Italy by way of Constantinople, Alexandria, Baghdad, and Cordoba. The manager of the excavation led us around the site. He had a particular interest in prehistory, and told us of several prehistoric cultures and their burial rituals. We ended our tour by stopping in their processing area. There workers sorted, washed, and catalogued artifacts. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph or film at the site. Getting permission to even go was hard enough; we obtained the necessary permission just a few hours before our arrival. Nevertheless, the site was amazing and pertained very closely to our mission.

The man who toured us around the archeological site was wearing a grey coat. The sun shone brightly for the first ten minutes, then clouds covered the light. A dark tone vibrated over the site. We saw the process of uncovering years of soil. They were left with the garbage, the remnants of once so sophisticated civilizations. Time and history become diluted into small ceramic pieces. Like a puzzle we put them together and make inferences. We see similarities and differences. We base these inferences on our civilization because we have nothing else to base it on.
Beautiful boat. Submerged under rock and soil. Covered by time and sediments. Uncovered by archeologists.
Amazing to see the process of history. How we find out so much about who we are and what we are. One could say the early Byzantines are a pile of old ceramic pieces. The early Ottomans now only a few examples of architecture. And the city, Istanbul, a combination of all of this. The years and years of dust and sediment. All encompassing people, culture, traditions, philosophy, mathematics, science, technology, rhetoric, and above all the most powerful and complicated thing, human thought and emotion.

Both of today’s visits were incredible. The dark dungeon was one of the most massive structures I’ve ever been in. Though the bricks literally were crumbling beneath my hands, there was still a sense of power and grandiosity that surely would have been even more impressive to visitors approaching the city five hundred years ago.
The Port of Theodosius excavation was a very special treat. We were walking across what had been the sea floor in the 5th century! It was littered with pot shards and shells of creatures that had died 1500 years ago. Somehow, I resisted the temptation to take a piece of amphora with me. Most impressive of all were the shipwrecks, miraculously preserved in the mud since the time of the Byzantines, filled with critical clues to classical trade and daily life. There’s so much more of the site to excavate; surely, whole books-worth of fascinating information are waiting to be discovered.

The Seven Towers of Istanbul, which we visited today, was one of the most impressive sites we’ve visited so far. Many different rulers built the walls at different time periods; some parts were up to 1600 years old. A slight touch makes the wall crumble; you can feel the history. This piece of land is not a normal tourist attraction, which means that there is no glass, no railings, nothing stopping you from connecting with the energy that is in that space.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mosque of the Rose, the Iron Church and Asia

Today was a relatively lightly-scheduled one. We started out by walking to a mosque known as the “Mosque of the Rose” in Turkish. There are a few stories explaining the name, the most beautiful of which is that, since the church was named Hagia Theodosia, churchgoers would fill it with flowers on St. Theodosia’s feast day. As it would happen, St. Theodosia’s day in 1453 was the day before the Turks took the city. When the Turks entered the church, they found it bedecked in fresh flowers and thus converted it to a mosque and gave it its unusual name.
The mosque itself was, to be honest, a little underwhelming. It had neither the soaring architecture nor the elaborate decoration of many of the other places of worship we have visited over the last few days. The sole point of interest was a small tomb up a winding set of stairs, supposedly belonging to either the last Emperor of Constantinople (the Christian believe) or one of Christ’s apostles (the Muslim belief). Since Christ and his apostles are recognized as holy men in Islam, the tomb was not removed, as was usually the case when churches were converted to mosques.
The most interesting part of the visit was the disagreement between our Turkish guides and the Imam guiding us. Although he did not make any mention of it when we arrived, about twenty minutes into our visit he started to complain to the guides that we were being disrespectful since (A) a member of our group was using a cane, which touches the ground and is therefore unclean, and (B) the women were not wearing headscarves. When our guides explained to him (in Turkish) that we would have gladly complied with these requests had he made them before, he started shouting that they didn’t understand Islam. At this point, we left. I think the disagreement hit a nerve with both the Imam and our guides. There is a very sharp divide in this country between religious and secular people, one that becomes apparent whenever politics is discussed. It is worth noting that the discussion at the breakfast table this morning was about the arrest yesterday of about 50 current and former military officials accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the government, currently run by a democratically elected Islamic party. The military is the traditional defender of secularism in Turkey, and secularists here worry about the current government's attempts to move Turkey away from its stridently secular republican history, established by Atatürk in 1923.
We then visited the Bulgarian St. Stephen Church, otherwise known as the Iron Church. It is a typical orthodox church on the inside, but its structure is extraordinary. The church was manufactured out of prefabricated iron sections in Vienna and then shipped all the way to Istanbul! Apparently, this was a bit of a fad in the 19th century, but today it is one of the few surviving metal churches.

Our other major sight of the morning, a church, turned out to be closed. Thankfully, the restaurant we were having lunch in was next door, so we settled in. The restaurant was on a beautiful hilltop location, looking down on Istanbul’s Golden Horn, an astounding patchwork of buildings, bridges and water. I don’t think this landscape will ever start boring me; it’s just too rich.
After lunch, we had a free afternoon. Except for Krzysztof, who decided to return to the hotel, we all went down to the waterfront to catch a ferry to check out the Asian side of the city. The Anatolian part of Istanbul turned out to be very busy, dynamic and fun. Nathaniel and I took a heritage trolley (complete with dated informational plaques in German) from the harbor inland one stop and then wandered around. Something I like about this city is the large number of pedestrian streets to wander, which make for a relaxed environment and bring this huge metropolis down to a human scale. After a few hours of shopping, café-sitting and people watching, it was time to return to the hotel. We crossed back on the ferry as the sun set on another day in this magical place astride two continents.

The panoramic view of the Istanbul skyline, from the deck of the ferry to Asia, was indescribable. Seagulls were flying, encircling our boat, hoping for fish. Sunset fog blurred the lines between island and the lavender blue sky. Silhouettes of minarets rose above the architecture on the first hill. The wind whipping at the red Turkish flag, over the waves, through my hair.
I say this every day, but this was perhaps the most beautiful thing I have experienced so far here. Being able to sit and survey the city in its entirety was stunning.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Meeting His All Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople


This morning, we made the acquaintance of His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople at the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate. Patriarch Bartholomew is, perhaps, the most genuinely warm, positive person I have ever met. That any of us have ever met, in fact. What can only be described as pure good will seemed to radiate from him from the moment he entered the meeting room, where we had been neatly ranged on two parallel rows of cushy red chairs. Marie set up her tripod with Olgu, who was acting as our temporary production assistant even though he owns his own production company. We had been instructed to have our legs uncrossed and our collars buttoned, and Krzysztof had a box of Turkish chocolates on his lap, a gift for the Patriarch, and was anxiously rehearsing a brief missive of thanks. We waited for about 20 minutes before being informed that a meeting with diplomats had run longer than expected, and we would have to rearrange the schedule to explore the Patriarchal library and cathedral before our meeting rather than after.

Environmental Consciousness via Patriarch from Ross Institute on Vimeo.

This wasn't the worst thing to happen, we were all nearly breathless with anticipation, having only ever seen this leader of 300,000,000 orthodox Christians worldwide before in a 60 Minutes interview filmed last December during His All Holiness’s visit to the United States.
An orthodox priest and deacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Father Nephon gave us a tour of the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George the Tropiophoros in Constantinople, somberly explaining that few relics remained after the 4th Crusade. A native Chicagoan, Father Nephon’s accent disguised his English enough to prompt us to question which part of Turkey he hailed from. He laughed and told us he had family in Gary, Indiana and had gone to College of the Holy Cross before moving (permanently) to Istanbul.

We were allowed to explore the library which was filled with priceless manuscripts and books preserved carefully in boxes. The archivist selected a 12th century manuscript, The Lives of Saints, to show us. By coincidence, it just happened to be what Father Nephon had just finished reading, in its modern form.

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew welcomed us warmly around noon reading a warm and congratulatory letter to our delegation and Mrs. Ross about her contribution to the field of education. He told us he was happy to meet with ambassadors of the Ross School and expressed admiration for our mission, to promote global awareness and tolerance across faiths and cultures.

The following is the basic script for my podcast, about Patriarch Bartholomew’s environmental activism:
His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, or Bartholomew, as he prefers to be called, was dubbed “The Green Patriarch” in 1996. This title is well deserved, as Patriarch Bartholomew has worked extensively with environmentalists, climatologists, and religious leaders in efforts to overcome differences and unite people in cooperative environmental action. From the Amazon to the Baltic Sea, His All Holiness has held symposiums for religious leaders and preeminent scientists, providing them a venue to discuss issues of climate change, deforestation, overfishing, and toxic waste management and to formulate potential solutions to these problems.

He is the first religious leader of his stature to have made environmental issues a central issue in his campaigns. It is a sin, Patriarch Bartholomew says, to harm God’s creation; every living thing and ecosystem is sacred and must not be abused or destroyed. The issue of global warming…

His efforts are based in a vision of a scientific and theological communities coming together over a common reverence for nature. His symposia become an arena for both communities to give each other the time of day: for the scientists to voice their empirical data and propose a course of action, and for the religious leaders to voice philosophical ideas about the way such science should be conducted. Patriarch Bartholomew hoped the fragile state of the environment would help to reconcile the two communities who have long been at odds over issues such as the creation theory, stem cell research, and human cloning. Because there is no separation between nature and religion, just as there is none in nature and science, the natural world is common ground over which politics, religion, and science might unite to face threats that affect the entire human community.

Following this meeting, we went on a walking tour, and then to lunch at a restaurant that felt like it went three miles into the building. The lobby was filled with preserves marked with dates, carrots from 1976, figs from 1984… The food was great, as usual, and there was lots of it. We finished with five kinds of dessert, several of which were infused with rosewater, and Turkish tea and coffee.

The remainder of the afternoon we were free to explore the Taksim, regarded by locals as the city center, with chain stores as well as small shops and restaurants. In the evening we went to see a performance of Whirling Dervishes at a venue for ethnic dance concerts that, personally, I thought was fantastic. It was really beautiful to see the dancers in such profound meditation, spinning and spinning and then stopping short and moving back into formation with no dizziness (evident) at all. Their dance expresses the mourning of the death of Rumi while the spinning allows these Sufis to release from this existence into a mystical state of ecstasy and union with the divine.

The second best part of today in my eyes, after meeting the spiritual leader of more than 300 million people, was a little snack Sylvia and I enjoyed in the Taksim neighborhood. While walking down a side alley we became entranced with a woman rolling out and cooking flatbread. We decided to share a taste at the restaurant. We ate a cheese, spinach and onion filled crepe of sorts. It was so delicious! No single component overwhelmed any other, the blend was superb. It was a nice taste of Istanbul from the street!
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