Travel Series: My Night on Mt. Sinai

This story took place in April of 2007, on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Although I understand that it is not the safest place to travel at the present, 5 years ago it was a popular destination. The main tourist hub was around the boardwalk town of Dahab on the gulf of Aqaba. While there most people chose to climb nearby Mt. Sinai; the mountain scaled by Moses in the Old Testament.

The View from the top of Mt. Sinai

It was suggested to us that we choose to climb the mountain at night, as it was much cooler than the day. And so, after procuring the necessary flashlights,  we did.

………………………………

“Only 750 steps to go,” my Bedouin guide informs me, as I stare up the seemingly vertical surface of Mount Sinai. This morning the idea of making this legendary climb seemed like a fun idea. I figured it would be nothing more than a nocturnal hike up a mountain to watch the sunrise, what could be nicer? A trail and stairs have been added since Moses made this climb, so how hard could it be?

At 11:00pm my friends and I catch the bus that will take us to meet our guide at the base of Mount Sinai and start the two and a half hour climb.

Excitement level – high.

‘This was not the leisurely hike that I had anticipated;’ I think, an hour into my climb, as I trudge up the mountain. I am turning down the constant offers of “Camel? Camel?” In my basic knowledge of Arabic I answer, “La, Shukran.” – “No, Thank You”

Excitement level – waning.

“Only 750 steps to go.” I look up. ‘These are not steps!’ I’m slightly panicky. ‘These are boulders arranged by giants to vaguely resemble what we mere mortals refer to as steps.’  I groan; it’s roughly 3:00 in the morning.

Excitement level – gone. 

About 400 ‘steps’ up I narrowly avoid being knocked back down the mountain by a rampaging donkey.

Excitement level – In pain.

I made it! I’m at the top, the sunrise is beautiful, but I’m freezing cold, wrapped in a heavy wool blanket; my Bedouin guide answers my complaints with, “Cold is a state of mind.” I look him in the eye and reply, “I’m from Canada, No it’s not.”

It was worth it.

Bundled up in my blanket watching the sun rise over the mountains.
– Photo credit: Diana Ziegler

………………………………

I had written this narrative of my climb a few years ago, but it is missing the best part. When we arrived at the top, our bedouin guide led us to his spot – the place on the mountain he has claimed exclusively for his climbers to rest and wait for the sun to rise. His spot was circular, approx. 8 feet in diameter and completely convex, with nothing between you and a 2285 metre drop to the jagged rocks below. So, of course, he tells us to have a nap… better not roll in your sleep.

We met up again with the donkey on the way back down the mountain.
– Photo credit: Diana Ziegler


Book Review: The Beacon at Alexandria

I first read The Beacon at Alexandria, by Gillian bradshaw in 1999 when I was in Grade 11; it had been leant to me by my latin teacher as ‘a book that I should like’ – I didn’t just like it – I loved it!  It istantly became my favourite book, and it has remained my favourite book ever since. Twelve years ago I reviewed the Beacon at Alexandria on Chapters.ca when I finally purchased my very own copy.

“I will start off by saying that If I could rank this book higher than five I would! I loved this book so much! The characters are incredibly real, so much so that you begin to feel like you know them. There problems become your problems. I found myself loathing Festinus and cheering for young Charis. I guarantee that anyone who picks up this book will enjoy it as much as I did!”

My review remains the only one on this site, but there are many more favourable reviews on goodreads.com.

I think it is safe to say that The Beacon at Alexandria, which is about a head strong and independent thinking girl living in the late Roman Empire, likely inspired some of my early choices in life. – Latin in class in general certainly solidified my desire to study Classics – but The Beacon at Alexandria was about a girl near my own age (at the time, lol) doing what she wanted to do and being successful despite the time, place and political atmosphere she found herself in. I think she inspired me to take risks and every time I read it, which I do every 3 or 4 years, I am inspired anew. Perhaps it is time to pick it up again!

If you love historical fiction, roman history, ancient medicine, women’s literature, religious/political history or just the ancient world in general, I am pretty sure you will love this book too.

Book Review: Ladies of the Field

Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search For Adventure, by Amanda Adams.

Recently I have needed something to remind me of why I love archaeology and why I do what do.  This book has done that for me and more.

Ladies of the Field, by Amanda Adams tells the story of seven of archaeology’s early women trail blazers. Women who broke down gender lines and stood out in what was then very much a man’s world. She examines how each of these amazing women got into archaeology and why they loved it so much.

The women in the book span about 70 years from the earliest days of archaeology in the 1870s with Amelia Edwards to Dorothy Garrod, working in the 1930s & 40s; but they are all wildly influential and inspiring. Their lust for adventure, travel and archaeology so often mimics my own. I see myself in their shoes, and I know that they, unlike so many people in my life, would actually understand me.

Adams suggests; “Perhaps a certain type of personality is attracted to archaeology – an adventurous one to be sure. A little headstrong. Passionate and willing to take risks.”

As an archaeologist myself, I know many women archaeologists and many of us fit this description, but I have also found that most of my lasting friendships have been with other archaeologists. – Even many of the friends I have met and worked with in the museums field are often archaeologists first. It just seems to be how things work.

In 1968 Dorothy Garrod was awarded the Grand Gold medal for her work in archaeology by the Society of Antiquaries of London – which up until that point had been an entirely male institution. During her acceptance speech she commented on the growing number of women in archaeology – She hinted that the flood gates were opening, it was just the beginning.

However, while reading Ladies in the Field it became very apparent that even though these women were some of the most important players in the development of archaeology as we know it today, I was largely learning about them for the first time.

Gertrude Bell set up the Baghdad Museum in Iraq (then Mesopotamia) and was single handedly responsible for drafting legislation that would keep Mesopotamian artefacts in the country – at a time when artefacts were whisked away to the West faster then the soil they came from could settle.

Dorothy Garrod worked tirelessly organizing data on prehistoric settlements throughout the old world, basically developing a chronology of the prehistoric world allowing for us to study the prehistoric world as a cohesive whole.

These feats are astounding! I have to wonder why I did not know these women’s names? Why have all the early archaeologists I have learned about in school been men? When these women clearly deserve to be counted in the ranks of Flinders Petrie and Leonard Woolley, etc..

It is some comfort that today archaeology programmes all over the world are dominated by women, so maybe Garrod was right – the flood gates have opened.  So let’s change the male domination of the history of archaeology and talk about these women with undergrads, write about them, as Amanda Adams has done, and allow them to take their rightful spots in history.

I will leave you with another quote from Ladies of the Field: 

“Archaeology has never been work for the faint of heart. It takes some daring. Its reward is the process (never the treasure alone): the experience of excavation and the little things you find along the way.”

Ignite Culture: Saying a lot in just 5 minutes!

I recently participated in the first ever Ignite Culture, which was held in Toronto at the ING Direct Cafe.

A big thank you to Jenn Nelson (@unmuseum) for organizing the event!

This wasn’t my first experience with Ignite, but it was the first time I presented in the format; I have to say that I really liked it.

What is Ignite? A series of 5-minute presentations; each presenter gets 20 slides, auto-advancing at 15 second intervals. 

This type of presentation is quick and to the point, allowing you to get a lot of varied content into a short period of time. It also makes for a very lively, enlightening and energetic atmosphere.

Putting the presentation together

Because of previous commitments I only had a couple of days to prepare my slides for the presentation. I had naively thought that this would be easy. It’s was not!

I realized not long after I started that I could not develop a 5-minute presentation the way I normally do – I have winged every presentation I have ever given, at least to some extent. I usually have an outline and points that I want to make, but I never write out a script, nor do I practice. My approach is that if I know the material well enough, and I know what I want to say, than I will be able to present it well.

However, in a 5-minute Ignite presentation you do not have the time to ‘talk about’ anything – with the time limit you only have time to ‘say it.’

I also determined very early on that because the slides are auto-advancing, I was going to have to write the script first and then choose the images/content of the slides to match the script – not the other way around. This meant that each slide had to fit 15 full seconds of content (or 30 seconds if you double-up a slide – which is perfectly fair).  I had never realized the number of times I would input a slide that I would skip past in just a few seconds – which can’t be very impactful.

Presenting

I found that during the presentation itself I began reading the paper with my script – using it a bit like a crutch, and then gradually as I became more comfortable with the pace I was able to abandon the paper and ease back into the more natural style that I normally have.

Overall, I think the experience of designing and presenting in the 5-minute Ignite format has improved my presentation skills.  It has made me more aware of the micro components involved and it has helped me to hone my ability to be concise and to the point. I am looking forward to having another chance to present an Ignite presentation soon! Next time with no script at all – I’m far more comfortable that way!

To see how my session went, you can watch the video on Ignite Culture’s YouTube Channel; How Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia helped shape 1920s and 30s Culture and click through to the other videos after and enjoy some more great presentations!

Photo Credit: Jenn Nelson

Travel Series: My First Camel Ride

This travel series will be made up of stories from the places I have been lucky enough to visit over the years. I am starting with this tale of my first camel ride, which happened in Cairo back in 2004. This was the first trip I had taken outside of North America, and we had stopped off in Egypt for a week on our way to our archaeological field school in Jordan.

The camel ride we took was organised by our hostel and turned out to be less then legal, but provided me with that pivotal experience that gave me my perpetually itchy feet. I wrote this account a couple of years ago, but have never published it anywhere; its a bit cheesy, but I hope you will enjoy it.

My First Camel Ride: Cairo, June 2004

It was my first day in Egypt, my first time outside of North America and my first time riding a camel. I was ecstatically excited about the first two and I was decidedly terrified of the third.

I was perched atop this massive beast, trying to grip the basketball sized horn on the otherwise restraint-free saddle, when it started to run across the wide open desert of the Giza plateau. ‘This is it,’ I thought, ‘this is how I am going to die; falling head first off a camel in the shadow of the pyramids.’

Though I will never know how, I managed to stay upright as we pulled up to the back of the largest of the pyramids. It is an almost indescribable feeling watching your own hand reach out and touch the ancient stone; as an archaeologist I was in heaven, forgetting all about the near death experience which took me there; it was worth it.

As we turned to leave, I took one look at my earlier transportation and froze. I was hesitant to climb back up to what would undoubtedly be certain death.  As a twist of fate, my travel companion, who had made the earlier trip by horse, offered to switch mounts; it seems she wanted to ride the camel. Well, I wanted to ride the horse; the tiny, minuscule horse with stirrups and reins. The deal was made.

We made our way back toward the Cairo skyline, with me following up at the back of the group on my unhurried steed. I watched as those ahead of me crested a hill in the sand and disappeared down the other side.  I looked back at the pyramids behind me; it was at this moment I realized I was alone, surrounded by desert sand and dwarfed by the immense ancient structures at my back. It was quiet, none of the sounds from the city penetrated out through the sand.  I could have been at any point in time;  at any point in the vast history of these Wonders. As if continuing my trek over the hill wouldn’t find my friends, but would instead find some intrepid team of 1920s archaeologists or Napoleon’s army
camped out under the head of the Sphinx.

It was at this point I discovered my love for travel. All dangers and discomforts are paled by the feeling I felt sitting alone in that Egyptian desert. It is a feeling I will chase for the rest of my life.

Our camels at Giza

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