A Few Words About Las Vegas

Sin City. Gambling Capital of the World. The city that never sleeps. These are some of the nicknames that are often used when referring to Las Vegas. And not without a reason.  With its seemingly endless chain of casinos and options for adult entertainment, there seems to be no better way to describe this place. Yet there is so much more to Las Vegas than the classical stereotype of a party town with bleeping lights and all. The city holds a special place in my heart.

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Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden

My husband and I visited the Las Vegas twice. Back in the days, it was just two of us and a tiny suitcase. No toys or strollers and certainly no oversize baggage.  Both times, we were amazed by the beautiful desert landscape, local history, and vibrant art scene on the Strip and beyond. In fact, we became so fascinated with the region that we wanted to show it our daughter many years later when new responsibilities came into picture, but memories of good, old, carefree days were still fresh in our minds. This last winter, we had a few Las Vegas hotels in mind for our upcoming spring vacation (off-Strip, family friendly, and with a kitchen of course). We had plans to visit Sigfried & Roy’s Secret Garden, a dolphin/big cat sanctuary located a walking distance from Mandala Bay. I was also considering taking our little one to the DISCOVERY Children’s Museum, the Springs Preserve, and a few other less-known attractions in the city. Although we ended up travelling elsewhere, the hope to visit Las Vegas as a family remained.

There is no need to mention that reading the news this Monday  broke my heart. Violence seems to be everywhere nowadays, but you still don’t expect something that horrible to happen in a place like the Strip. After recalling all the positive memories associated with Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, I felt compelled to write this post. I wanted to tell the truth about travelling to Nevada. Hopefully, it will help the readers look at Las Vegas in a new light and rediscover the true colors of the city and the region.

Arts Scene

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Ne-Yo performing at the Grammy nominations concert

As most of us probably already know, Las Vegas is famous for a vibrant art scene. In fact, its entertainment scene is so rich and diverse that the “Sin City” image emblazoned in our minds from movies and media is only a tiny fraction of what the city actually represents. Every month, countless artists from all backgrounds and walks of life flock to Las Vegas in hopes of creating memorable experience for locals and visitors . Rock, pop, R&B, ethnic, country music, circus, theater—you name it!  In fact it was by reading about the deadly mass shooting that I got to learn about Jason Aldean. I ended up looking him on YouTube and was blown away by his music. I would totally go to his concert.

The state of Nevada itself is a home place to many artists of varying genres, including rock, punk, gospel, and folk. The Fremont District, which is located just north of the Strip, is a hub for independent artists and bands.[i]  Some of the local bands, including Panic! at the Disco and Ne-Yo have reached billboard charts, but even those who didn’t top charts deserve credit for bringing diversity into the music scene.

downloadAdditionally, the region is rich in visual arts and photography. The unique landscape and the local Native American culture draw in artists and photographers worldwide. Famous for its picturesque geological structures, the Red Rock Canyon, which is located in the suburbs of Las Vegas, offers Arts in Residence programs for artists to help them “reflect on scenic beauty, cultural history, and community engagement.”[ii] Some of the works created by these artists are truly incredible.

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A busy street during the First Friday Art Walk

The arts of all sorts are actively encouraged by the city. The 18b Art District is home to numerous galleries, boutique, and vintage stores.[iii]  The First Friday Art Walk, which takes place on the first Friday of every month, celebrates talents of all sorts, including local bands, acrobatic performers, break dancers, and fire breathers.[iv] The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which features theater, featuring orchestral, opera, ballet, choral, jazz, and dance performances, is comparable to New York’s Broadway .

 History and Culture

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Puebloan petroglyphs at the Valley of Fire State Park

Like most things from the North American continent, the Sin City phenomenon is relatively new. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the region was occupied by various Native-American tribes, including the Ancient Pueblo/Anasazi Peoples who left cultural footprints in various sites of Nevada and surrounding states.[v]  Their enigmatic petroglyphs can be viewed at the Valley of Fire State Park located only one hour drive from Las Vegas.

If you’re willing to take longer road trips from the city, you’ll be amazed to discover the staggering number of Native American ruins in the states like Arizona and Utah. From the authentic Puebloan ruins in Dark Canyon Wilderness to the Hopi-inspired Mary Colter’s building in Grand Canyon’s Southern Rim, there are myriads of landmarks waiting to be discovered by adventurous travelers. Native jewelry can be found in small souvenir stores standing on the roads the lead to the major national parks.

lostcitymuseumA number of museums have been established in Las Vegas and the surrounding cities to celebrate local history, from both colonial ancient and pre-colonial époques. Known as Nevada’s first archaeological museum, the Lost City Museum displays countless artifacts unearthed at various archaeological sites along the Muddy River Valley in southern Nevada.[vi] As the name implies, the Nevada State Railroad Museum was established to preserve the state’s railroad heritage. Every year, it hosts numerous lectures, symposiums, and temporary exhibits dedication to the locomotives. [vii] Thanks to the Las Vegas Historical Society, the online gallery viewers can look at the city’s development throughout the centuries and learn a bit more about its fascinating history.[viii]

Landscape

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Arch Rock at the Valley of Fire State Park

Finally, it is virtually impossible to talk about Nevada without mentioning its colorful landscape.  Las Vegas is located in the Mojave Desert, which encompasses parts of Nevada, California, Utah, and Arizona. Its landscape is characterized by mountain ranges, valleys, basins, plateaus, canyons, and lakes. The area also belongs to the Great Basin which had been formed millions of years ago and which comprises several more states, including Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho.[ix]  The bright red and yellow colors, the winding roads leading to the major parks, the wildlife, and the local geology turn Nevada into an unforgettable destination for travelers of all ages and backgrounds.

Last Words

In a conclusion, all I can say is that I’m still heartbroken over the mass shooting, and I cannnot imagine the nightmare the victims’ families are currently going through. No one deserves to experience the horror of such unspeakable violence. However, this awful event won’t stop from visiting the city again and possibly going on a concert. I must admit I’m not too big on Las Vegas nightlife and shows, but if one of my favorite artists came to the city and the tickets were on sale, I would consider going.

As much as we want to be careful with everything going on, too much worrying would mean foregoing travel altogether, and for me travelling means being alive. I hope that someday, there’ll be laws to regulate gun violence and terrorism, so that we’ll be able to walk the streets without fear. For now, all we can really do is pray for the ones who died in the shooting and hope for better times.

References

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_Nevada#Indie

[ii] http://www.redrockcanyonlv.org/artist-in-residence/

[iii] http://www.fodors.com/world/north-america/usa/nevada/las-vegas/things-to-do/sights/reviews/downtown-arts-district-178016

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Vegas_Valley#Culture_and_the_arts

[v] http://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/pueblo-grande-de-nevada-lost-city

[vi] ttp://nvculture.org/lostcitymuseum/about-the-museum/

[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nevada_State_Railroad_Museum

[viii] http://lasvegashistoricalsociety.org/

[ix] https://www.desertusa.com/mojave-desert.html

 

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Limestone Genre Expo, 2017

20170603_135856.jpgThe Limestone Genre Expo, which brought together Canadian authors of genre fiction, took place in Kingston Ontario, from June 3 to 4, 2017. The event involved panel discussions, workshops, readings, pitch sessions, and a large sales event on books written by both indie and traditionally published authors. Among guests and presenters were Alyssa Cooper, Nancy Kilpatrik, Laura Baumbach, Kris Jacen, Kim McDougal, and Eve Langlais. Attendees included some of my colleagues from the editing industry, whom I met back in Toronto through various professional membership events.

Most panels focused on specific literary genres, such as fantasy, mystery, horror, and romance. Authors, editors, and other industry professionals shared their insight on what it takes to be a successful writer. Nowadays, writing high-quality fiction is only half the battle. In order to be discovered by the readers, a book needs to have an outstanding cover (and yes, people do judge books by their covers) and be available through various social media platforms for discovery. Building readership was one of the workshops offered during the Expo. Other workshops included story development, world building, self editing, and writing in a particular genre.

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Murney Tower

I greatly benefited from this event. Not only did I get to learn about some of the latest trends and developments in the industry, but also I got to enjoy the beautiful town of Kingston together with my husband. Founded in 1838, Kingston is known for a number of historical sites, including Fort Frontenac, Fort Henry, Murney Tower, Kingston City Hall and Market Square, and the infamous Kingston Penitentiary. 1000 islands is a famous sightseeing destination that attracts visitors from across Canada and, broadly speaking, from across the globe.

Although we didn’t have the time to see all the points of interest, we were still able to take a short walk in the downtown, take photos of the historic architecture, and enjoy the breeze of St. Lawrence River. On the first evening of the Expo, our group dined at the Merchant Tap House, a downtown pub that offers a finest selection of food and drink items. It was nice to sit together, discuss our recent and upcoming works, and pass along occasional jokes.

I am grateful to the organizing team for the opportunity to attend the Limestone Genre Expo as one of the authors. It was truly a fun and educational event!

The AIA Annual Meeting in Toronto

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) is the oldest organization in North America devoted to the studying and disseminating knowledge about archaeology. In many ways, it’s similar to the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) and American School of Oriental Research (ASOR). All three pursue relatively similar goals, release beautiful magazines, and organize annual meetings that include poster sessions and book sales. The major difference between the three organizations is that ASOR and BAS tend to focus mainly on the archaeology of ancient Near East, whereas AIA is inclusive of all times and regions from around the world. Articles on modern sites from Europe and the US aren’t uncommon for the AIA’s popular Archaeology magazine.

I first learned about AIA back in grad school, which was roughly five years ago. I was researching different conference opportunities when I accidentally came across the name and found out that it would have the annual meeting in Toronto in 2017. Back then, it seemed so far away, only that the time went by so quickly.

Like most people, I wanted to start off this year on the right foot. One of my new year’s resolutions was to start attending more lectures and cultural events. There was no better way for me to begin 2017 than by attending the AIA Annual Meeting that was held at Sheraton Center Toronto Hotel between January 5 and 8.

Naturally, I couldn’t attend all the lectures, as many of them ran simultaneously.  However, I was fortunate  hear talks about the sites of Omri and Huqoq in northern Israel, a few Persian and Mesopotamian sites, and the site of Tel Tayinat in southern Turkey.  I also met Dr. Jodi Magness, a distinguished professor specializing in early Judaism who is also the principal director of the Huqoq Excavation Project.  She had published a number of articles and books on archaeology of the Holy Land.

The book sale and poster session that ran throughout the meeting were awesome. Even though I didn’t end up buying too many items, it felt nice to just walk through rows and rows of beautifully designed books published by the world’s leading academic presses like Oxford, Princeton, and Cambridge. While roaming through the hall, I ran into Dr. Andrew Vaughan, the director of the ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI), an organization where I currently volunteer as an indexer.  He was very happy to see me, and after a brief conversation, I was allowed to take sample journals from the ASOR.  Now I have a pile of articles to read on topics, ranging from archaeology of Cyprus to issues surrounding heritage preservation.  I’m hoping to start reading them soon.

On the very last day of the meeting, I attended a pottery drawing workshop by Tina Ross, a Canadian archaeology illustrator. Although I don’t plan to pursue archaeology any time soon, I found the session fun and informative. Sometimes, you just have to allow yourself immerse yourself into things you enjoy the most. For me it’s the study of our past with all its discoveries and enigmas that I find inspiring. I use archaeology in my writing extensively, and as a member of the CHI, I’ll never stop believing in a brighter future for the field.

Don’t Forget to Slow Down this Holiday Season!

This Christmas eve, while I was doing some last-minute gift wrapping, my phone buzzed. It was an editing opportunity through one of the companies for which I work. The rate wasn’t bad, but the problem was, the assignment would be due at six a.m. in the next morning. I decided to turn it down. After spending the last few months working on several big projects simultaneously, I realized that I cannot live in a racing mode forever. And so shouldn’t you. Sometimes, slowing down is the best thing you can do for yourself.

The holiday season can conjure a variety of emotions. In the ideal world, it should be the time of pure joy and happiness. For many, however, it’s a very stressful time. Searching for the perfect gifts, juggling family gatherings, and even spending hours in a traffic jam just to get to some major mall during Boxing Week can easily leave you feeling overwhelmed. For students, freelancers, and, broadly speaking, people of many occupations/life paths, the time before the holiday week is often the busiest time of the year, when deadlines, exams, and other commitments can take toll on one’s health and emotional well being. No wonder that the feeling of depletion often sets in once the initial hustle and bustle of holiday preparations is over. The good news is that this feeling is fully preventable.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or any other religious/secular holiday, most likely, you’re spending lots of time with your family members and friends. And this is great! Connecting with people you care about the most is vital. No matter how busy we are, we all strive to make time for those who matter to us the most. However, it’s equally important to make time for yourself. So don’t feel guilty about picking your favorite book, taking a solo walk, or just chilling down on the couch.

Barring some world events and celebrity deaths, 2016 has been a great year for me. After several years of doing gigs on a side, I finally launched my editing business. The journey to freelancing was far from an easy one. I had to learn the ins and outs of web design, social media management, and self-marketing. I also ran into a lot of projects that led nowhere and even had to deal with a few clients who refused to pay. When something isn’t working quite right, it’s easy to allow self-doubt to take over. In the end, I found courage to continue trying, and my efforts paid off. I found lots of wonderful clients, both in my local community and outside. In addition to freelancing, I also published my first book and began working on another (More details are coming soon!).

Wherever you are in your life journey, I’m sure you’ve had some ups and downs as well.  If you fulfilled all your resolutions for 2016, it’s awesome! If you didn’t, don’t be hard on yourself. There’s always another year and another opportunity for growth waiting for you around the corner. Remember to slow down and simply enjoy this special time of the year.

This year’s holiday season is particularly special because two major religious holidays, Christmas and Hanukah, fall on the same date. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the history behind these festivities, I highly recommend an article by James Tabor, a renowned Biblical scholar. You can read it here.

Wishing everyone a happy 2017!

A Few Words about My Book

A young happily-married woman who is stuck with a boring job travels to Israel to participate in an archaeological dig. As time passes by, she learns more about the world around her, develops a new crush, and discovers her true calling in academia while toiling for hours under the sun, organizing shards of ancient pottery, and translating an article on the Neanderthals. When tensions in her marriage rise, she must decide if she’s ready to sacrifice the comfortable and familiar path for the sake of her dream. In the end, she’ll learn that it is possible to have the best of both worlds, but not until she’ll nearly lose everything. That’s the short summary of my newly-released novel. Although written in a light style, this piece of chick lit explores many important themes, including self-discovery, sacrifice, loyalty, and quest for personal happiness.

The Background Story

The idea of writing a full-length novel came to me back in grad school. Many things happened that year, and winning a scholarship to travel to Ashkelon for a dig was one of them. I applied for a bursary through Biblical Archaeology Review—a magazine that gets mentioned in the novel several times—in hopes of gaining fieldwork experience for my master’s program. Well, I ended up turning it down because of a huge renovation project that was meant to happen during the weeks of my purported travel.

So instead of chasing adventures on the other side of the globe, I ended up scrubbing the old paint from the walls of our newly-bought condo and priming them for a new layer of paint. And although learning the ins and outs of a successful home renovation was fun (no pun intended), I often felt bouts of regret about having missed this opportunity. That’s how the idea for my novel was born.

It took me two years to produce the first draft. A lot of changes happened during this period. I enrolled in a teachers’ college but dropped out after realizing that managing a group of thirty teenagers was making me miserable, got a new job, traveled to Bethsaida the following summer (also on a grant but this time from the ASOR), enrolled in a Publishing program, lost my job, and stepped on the path to motherhood. Sometime around July of 2014, when the Operation Protective Edge was raging through that very part of the world where my story was meant to take place, I got the first draft jotted down.

The story of My Journey revolves around the inner world of Rebecca O’Connor-Smith, a married twenty-six year old, who travels through various parts of Israel, struggles with an illicit crush, and ultimately discovers that her true passion lies in studying ancient civilizations. Although the book is heavily-based on my travels to Israel, especially on my experience in Bethsaida, the story is by no means autobiographical. The parts about the protagonist’s marital woes are pure fiction and were used merely to illustrate the challenges one may face when making major life choices.

Why Self-Publishing?

I chose this option for a variety of reasons, and sometimes, I did doubt my decision. Up to today, I wonder if I should’ve gone through two hundred rejections first when I chose to stop at nine. During the submissions process, however, I realized that my novel is somewhat different from the mainstream chick lit.

As I said, most of the story takes place in several parts of Israel, some of which are awe-inspiring and others are wrought with conflict. The characters often engage in scholarly debates about different topics surrounding archaeology of Southern Levant. Various artifacts and sightseeing destinations are described with the same zeal as shoes and bags are described in the Shopaholic series. So the story I wrote is hardly the right material for mass-market fiction.

However, it didn’t stop me from taking the chance, and I hope it won’t stop potential readers either. If you’re a traveler at heart, an archaeology geek, or simply a twenty-something-year-old who is still figuring out the future, I strongly recommend My Journey to you. It will take you through thousands of years of human history, make you fall in love with the colorful sceneries of Israel, and, hopefully, inspire you to go after something you love the most in your life.

An Afternoon with Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim

Last Sunday, which happened to be October 16, the next day after the International Archaeology Day, I was honored to meet an extraordinary man, Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, the chief of the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) of Syria. It was also the same day when a new exhibition, “Syria: a Living History,” opened at the Aga Khan Museum.

I’d known about this upcoming exhibit for quite a while and had been really looking forward to it. My level of enthusiasm for seeing this gallery has been pretty high partly because of my involvement with the Cultural Heritage Initiatives and partly because of life-long passion for all things Near East. During the weeks preceding the gallery opening, new event ads started popping on social media. A few concerts came up, and so did a couple of archaeology-related events. As soon as I found out about the lecture by Dr. Abdulkarim, I knew it would become part of my weekend plans.

On Sunday morning, I dropped off my daughter at my parents’ place and set off on a mission to meet one of the most important people in Near Eastern archaeology. The road was quite long, as I had to drive all the way from the west end to the Don Mills area. Moreover, the rain wouldn’t stop falling. A few panoramic scenes later, my car was parked safely in the Aga Khan Museum’s underground lot, and I was out, walking through a long tunnel towards the main elevator.

The atmosphere inside the museum was charged with anticipation. Visitors kept coming from all directions, and a huge lineup in front of the coffee booth was a clear evidence for willingness of many to be part of this new gallery opening.

The lecture began with welcoming messages by Henry Kim, CEO of the museum, and Christina Cameron, President of Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Then we got to see a video of a brief but very powerful message by Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General. She spoke on how cultural heritage represents achievements of the entire humanity and how its tragic demise can affect all of us. At last, he was on the stage.

Maamoun Abdulkarim briefly touched upon the dark events of the last five years and his difficult decision to stay in Damascus. The tone of his voice was very emotional, and yet he sounded determined. The Power Point images included those of the key sites, such as the Aleppo Citadel, Crac des Chevaliers, and several mosques throughout the country. Issues of looting, combat damage, and deliberate destruction for ideological reasons were raised. When he mentioned the large number of statues his team was able relocate from Palmyra to safer areas, the entire auditorium clapped. I was relieved to find out that, contrary to what most of the sources state, the statue of Al-Lat from Palmyra was not completely destroyed, but was simply damaged and can be restored. The fact that the restoration has already began for some areas gave me and many others sitting in the auditorium a glimmer of hope for a better future.

After the end of the lecture, the audience had a chance to meet Dr. Abdulkarim in the lobby. When my turn came, we exchanged a few words on the current situation and the role of the global effort in combating heritage destruction. In the end, shook hands and wished each other to meet in Damascus on day when there’ll be peace.

Afterwards, I proceeded upstairs to the exhibit, where I got to see artifacts from different historical and archaeological periods, ranging from Sumerian and Hittite to late Islamic and contemporary. Among them, I recognized a few pieces from the ROM and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many others were from famous European museums, such as Louvre and Museum of Berlin.

“Syria: a Living History” evokes a whole range of feelings, from awe for thousands years of cultural and artistic diversity, to the feeling of sadness and regret over the current situation. It’s amazing that despite anything, there are still people who are willing to risk their lives to help the humanity in saving our collective heritage.

 

The Aga Khan Museum of Art, Toronto’s Gem

If you live in Toronto and are passionate about Middle Eastern culture, you should definitely visit the Aga Khan Museum. Located in the city’s east end, it houses some of the finest artifacts representing Islamic art. Such include manuscripts, architectural pieces, metalwork, glass work, and pottery from various regions, including North African and Middle Eastern countries, as well as India and China.

Despite the unifying conventions of Islamic art that usually favors geometric and floral forms over human representation, differences between different regions are still noticeable. Calligraphic works from China look very different from those of Spain and Arabic countries and are closer to local art. Indian rugs are very different from the Persian ones. Certain things are hard to describe and can only be experienced. Once inside the building, a visitor feels overbearing presence of harmony and orderliness in everything, from the building’s design to minuscule details in calligraphy that is a part of so many pieces displayed inside the galleries.

History

The museum’s history goes all the way back to 2002, when Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of non-denominational development agencies related to the Ismaili Islam, announced the establishment of the museum, the Ismaili Center, and a park in the area of Don Mills and Eglinton. However, it was not until 2010 that the cornerstone had been laid by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. After several years of hard work by multiple award-winning designers, the museum opened in September of 2014.[1]

I had first visited the museum back in 2015 in hopes of getting my then ten-month-old interested in world cultures. Although my attempts weren’t terribly successful (as my little one was more interested in her rattle than anything else), we had fun as a family. I later came back on my own to spend more time exploring the artifacts in a greater detail (and to take advantage of the free Wednesdays). Someday, I’ll bring my kids to the museum again, when they’re a bit older.

Galleries

Qar’an, Indonesia, 1804

The permanent gallery of the first level is organized geographically, according to various regions including North Africa, Near Eastern countries, India, Afghanistan, and Far East. At the very entrance to the gallery is a gigantic wall map depicting all the major Islamic regions and explaining historic periods, such early Islamic, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, and others. Across from the map are stands with illuminated Qur’ans, scientific manuscripts written by world-famous sages, including Ibn-Sina, manuscripts of Mathnavi and Rumi, and numerous manuscripts depicting daily life in the Islamic world through the ages (courts, bazaars, sailing expeditions, etc.). The most memorable architecture pieces include a beautiful fountain from Egypt, a few items from the Medieval Spain, and the Mihrab panel from Syria.

The upper floor houses temporary collections. The two most recent ones are dedicated to depictions of animals in Islam and to drawings and photographs of Alhambra by Álvaro Siza, a Portuguese architect. “Marvelous Creatures: Animals in Islamic Art” explores fables, myths, and legends involving real and mythical animals. Among such, one can find stories of aquatic monsters threatening sailors; heroes defeating dragons; and stories involving mighty creatures, such as horses, gazelles, foxes, and lions. The reconstruction of Al Buraq skeleton and anatomy of chimera, along with a few texts on and engravings of animals with malformations, conclude the “Marvelous Creatures” gallery.

“Álvaro Siza: Gateway to Alhambra” explores art and architecture of the World Heritage Site through sketches, models, and photographs. Although I haven’t visited this particular gallery yet, I’m looking forward it, as Alhambra is one of the places I’d visited in the past.

Prior to this exhibit, photos of Istanbul showing how the city has changed over the years used to occupy the space. Many of them depicted landmarks, including Haggia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Hyppodrome, the Byzantine walls, and the Galata tower. A few palace albums and portraits of historical figures were also included into the collection. The exhibit was concluded with modern photography and included a couple of colorful panoramic photos of modern Istanbul.

The upcoming exhibits will focus on Syria’s cultural legacy and works of Canadian-Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli, “a pioneer of the Saqqakhaneh movement of the 1960s.” [2] Throughout the next few months, various sculpture works including Horizontal Lovers and Poet in Love will be on display. Starting on October 15, 2016, “Syria: A Living History “will bring together artwork and artifacts that will tell a story of “cultural diversity, historical continuity, resourcefulness, and resilience.”[3]

Exploring artworks from the some of the world’s most troubled countries always conjures up a mixture of different emotions—awe and admiration for art in itself; relief that artifacts from places like Raqqa had made it safely (and legally) to the North American continent; and sadness over the current situation in the Middle Eastern region.

With so many conflicts and security threats being replayed by the media, it’s easy to develop negative stereotypes about the Islamic religion and its people. There is no better way to counter these not-so-positive associations than through art, architecture, and music.  According to His Highness the Aga Khan, the museum was founded with a purpose to “act as a catalyst for mutual understanding and tolerance.”[4] I think the gallery curators, together with visiting music bands and academics, are doing a great job at educating the public about the true face of the Islamic civilizations.

Archaeology Digs as a Form of Travel

Lately, I’ve been feeling very nostalgic. As it’s now summer time, most archaeological digs in Israel and elsewhere in the world are underway. It seems that every time I log into Facebook or Twitter, I learn about yet another fascinating discovery that had occurred either spontaneously or thanks to an organized dig.

For anyone interested in travelling to one of history-rich countries, I strongly recommend signing up for an archaeological dig. The benefits are endless. You’ll get to  travel around the country of your stay, meet interesting people, and possibly, get a chance hold a tiny, two-thousand-year-old shard of pottery. Just make sure you have realistic expectations because if you think you’ll find gold on the first day, you might end up becoming disappointed.

In most cases, your room and board will be covered, so you won’t have to worry about finding a place to sleep or eat. Most dig sessions last somewhere between two-to-six weeks and are quite flexible with the duration of their participants’ stay. Whether you’ve got a whole month  or just a couple of weeks available for a learning vacation, you’ve got a plenty of choice.

My participation in the Bethsaida Excavation Project from three years ago was one the most rewarding travel experiences of my life. I got to be part of the project’s team and to meet many wonderful people, with whom I still stay in touch. To those who know little about the site, Bethsaida is located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and has a prominent role in the Bible. During the tenth century BC, it was the capital of Geshur, a kingdom that encompassed sites from present-day northern Israel and parts of Syria.[1] According to the New Testament tradition, it was a hometown of at least three apostles and a place for one of the healing miracles.[2]

Some of the daily activities at the site included digging and sifting, taking levels, cleaning finds, and reading pottery. On Fridays, the site directors would take us to a small storage room located at the basement of the Igael Aalon Centre in Kibbutz Ginosar, where we were staying, and show us all the findings from past years. Such included storage jugs, bowls, Greek amphorae, and many others.

During the weekend of the dig, our group had a chance to tour the Golan Heights and discover many historic sites, including Gamla, the Nimrod Fortress, Katzrin, and Banias. At the end of the dig, I stayed in Israel for one more week with my husband. Together, we chose to travel a bit more and discover more places around the country.

Many countries, including Israel, Greece, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, and even the United States, have archaeological projects that are actively recruiting volunteer participants. For anyone interested in signing up for this adventure, I compiled a list of some facts about archaeology digs.

Digging in the field can be hard.

If you prefer lying on a beach to hiking, then an archaeological dig might not be for you. You’ll be expected to get up in the wee hours of the morning and work in the field until the afternoon. Surely, you’ll have a few breaks in between, but you might still find the level of work challenging. The Bethsaida Excavations Project had a pottery cleaning for those who weren’t up to digging, but not all digs are the same. Some even require medical assessment to ensure all participants are in a good physical shape. So before signing for a dig, be honest with yourself and determine if that’s what you really want.

In many ways, archaeological digs are similar to hostelling/backpacking experience.

While some digs do offer the solo option, the most popular type of accommodation is a dorm with rooms meant to be shared by three-to-four participants. When digging at Bethsaida, we stayed in a small village known as Kibbutz Ginosar that offered accommodations in both luxury and backpacking styles. I chose the second option because 1) I couldn’t afford to stay in a regular hotel room and 2) I wanted to experience backpacking before having kids.  And I didn’t regret it the least. I got to meet many people from around the world, chat with Bedouin maids in Hebrew, and experience the real life on the dig. For me, staying in the dorm was the way to go.

The big difference between an archaeological dig and a backpacking trip lies in the amount of stuff you’ll need to pack.

While it’s technically possible to travel around Europe with nothing but a backpack, packing lightly for a dig will present some challenges. First and foremost, a water flask, which can take up a lot of space in your suitcase, is mandatory. Working for long hours in a hot weather can be taxing on your system, so you’ll have to remember to stay hydrated.  Since buying water bottles every day can be costly, it’s best to bring your own flask and fill it up with water. Another necessity is a sun hat and closed-toe boots. If you decide to stay longer than two weeks, consider packing extra clothes and toiletries to avoid doing too much laundry or running for a toothpaste to the closest convenience store at midnight. Although these items would be useful on a regular trip too, they are essentially for surviving on an archaeological dig.

Dig participants are incredibly diverse.

Volunteers who sign up for archaeological digs come from varying age groups and backgrounds. During my stay at Bethsaida, I got to mingle with students from the Truman State University who were taking a credit course, independent travelers in their twenties and thirties, and retired participants who had time and resource to feed their passion for archaeology. Most people from the “mature” group were well-seasoned professionals from fields, such as medicine, law, engineering, and higher education. No matter with whom I would end up sitting during lunch or dinner, we would always find something in common. We would talk about our favorite books, artists, and past trips. Even after three years, I still keep up with many of the former volunteers and staff.

Some Final Thoughts

The idea of spending a holiday slaving under the sun can appear daunting to some people. However, it’s important to keep in mind all the benefits of participating in an archaeological dig. Not only will you save money on food and accommodation but will also get a proper exposure to the culture of the country where you’ll stay. When travelling to a particular place, we often chose to focus on the tourist sites only. As a result, we often miss out on experiencing the true essence of that place. The best way to experience the real Israel, Spain, or Italy is to stay in a small village for a few weeks. Barring the Temple Mount Project and a couple of projects in Rome, most digs happen far away from the busy capitals, where it’s much easier to become acquainted with the real culture of the area.  So do at least consider becoming part of a dig!

Israel, My Love

It’s around eleven in the evening. My daughter has been sleeping peacefully for several hours. However, I’m still up, working on yet another freelance project. Suddenly, I hear the unmistakable playback from the morning news on the Radio Lev Hamedina and realize it’s getting late. The Toronto clock has hit past midnight.

Many of my friends wonder why I had decided to learn Hebrew or what on earth is the Kol Israel app doing on my cell phone. I’m not Jewish and have no plans of converting to Judaism. In fact, I’m perfectly happy with my Russian Orthodox heritage and plan on raising my kids this way. I simply find all things related to Israel, both ancient and modern, exciting.

I’ve been fascinated with Jewish/Israeli culture since thirteen and had even received a master’s degree in Ancient Israel. Now that I’m no longer in a grad school, I still keep on reading everything about the topic, from Bethsaida‘s annual field reports to books and articles written by Hershel Shanks. Most of my favorite music artists and talk shows are of Israeli origins. Some may find such fascination a bit strange, as Hebrew doesn’t have the same role in the popular culture as Spanish or French. Well, if a white person can enjoy Luis Armstrong’s jazz songs, there no reason why I can’t enjoy Boaz Sharabi’s ballads.

Before I continue, let me mention that Israel is VERY controversial. News, media, and differences in political opinions can easily turn a simple Mediterranean country into a hot topic. When discussing my last visit from three years ago with Pakistani coworkers over a cup of coffee, I wasn’t sure how to call the Golan Heights. Should I call the region Syria or Palestine? I thought to myself. I didn’t want to offend anyone. Many people, especially from the Eastern Hemisphere, don’t agree with the results of the Six Day War, and I fully respect that. Yet I can’t help myself but feel relieved that the world still has Banias, Katzrin, and Gamla secluded from the Syria’s conflict. Controversies aside, Israel is an amazing country for a variety of reasons.

#1 Israel makes a great tourist destination.

No matter what your interests are, you’ll always find something special to enjoy. Love nature? Try hiking in Ein Gedi or the Timna Valley Park. Are you an archaeology enthusiast? Consider signing up for an archaeologcal dig. Most digs are quite flexible with the duration of stay and can be easily fit into personal vacation plans. By becoming part of a dig, you’ll meet many interesting people from around the world and make an invaluable contribution to the archaeological research.  A thematic tour is another great option. Depending on your religious background and personal preferences, you can sign up for a Holy Land tour, which will focus heavily on sites from the New Testament, a Jewish heritage tour, which will include famous synagogues and historic centers, or even an ecological tour, which will mostly likely take place in the Arava or the Negev desert.  Even if you’re one of those overworked people, who want nothing more than spending an entire holiday on a beach, you can still benefit from a week-long getaway in Tel Aviv or Eilat. Both cities are famous for dining and nightlife, so rest assured you won’t get bored during your stay.

#2 Israel has an amazing entertainment scene.

Neither Sarit Hadad nor Miri Messika is topping the world charts. In fact, most people have no clue about who they are. However, it doesn’t mean these singers aren’t awesome.

Israeli music is quite diverse, as it bears influences of several cultures, including Eastern
European, Yemenite, Mediterranean, and, of course, British/ American. It’s not untypical to hear a rock song with Middle Eastern melody or a nostalgic ballad reminiscent of Russian music from the 90s. One can also hear Mediterranean songs infused with an addictive dance beat, clearly influenced by current trends in the music industry.

Israeli music scene is also very inclusive. Not all Israeli artists are of Jewish origins. Nasrin Kadri who had won a popular talent show two years ago is an Arab from Haifa, while Sharif, a famous mizrahi singer is Druze. Sameh Zakout (AKA Saz), who was born in an Arab town of Ramlah, was presented an opportunity to travel to Los Angeles and participate in the second season of Chai Be La La Land, a reality show that aimed at exposing Israeli singers to the international music. Let this be a mental note to those who believe in the “apartheid state” propaganda.

#3 Israel has made a great contribution to the world technology.

In spite of being relatively young (only 68 years), Israel has become one of the world leaders in science and technology. Many of its inventions, such as Intel, are being used all over the world. You can find the complete list of the technological inventions here.

#4 Israel is rich in history and culture.

This point needs no further explaining. The world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran, the prehistoric megaliths from the north, and the
Greco-Roman temples from various sites across the
country are a product of thousands years of history. Israel is one of the few countries in the Middle East where archaeological research is actively encouraged by the government and where it’s possible to experience both Egypt and Mesopotamia in a relatively safe environment.

How Educators Can Incorporate Heritage Conservation into School Curricula

The first time I walked into my daughter’s playgroup, I saw a model of St. Peter’s Cathedral from Rome placed on one of the classroom’s shelves. Having walked around, I also noticed the model of St. Basil’s Cathedral from Moscow in another room along with models of a few other landmarks from around the world. These were obviously built by older kids, who attend math and history classes in the same school. Just as we were driving back home, the idea hit me.  Why don’t these students build a model of one of the Palmyra’s temples or the Northwest Palace from Nimrud? Then I thought, Why not make heritage conservation part of school curricula?

As I had mentioned in my other post, heritage destruction is one of the biggest tragedies of our age. It’s almost impossible to talk about Mesopotamia without mentioning the issue. With Syria’s Civil War getting out of control and political instability in other adjacent countries being present, the number of important heritage sites is diminishing rapidly. Neglect, illegal construction, militarization, as well as deliberate destruction—all of these contribute to the dwindling of Syria’s and Iraq’s cultural heritages.

The question is how do we reach out to the general public? After all, the biggest percentage of our population consists of non-scholars with little-to-no background in heritage conservation.  I believe there is no better place to start educating lay people about the topic than schools, where future generations are developing.

My experience with public education is somewhat limited. I had enrolled in a teachers’ college right after finishing my master’s program because that was what everyone with a humanities background was doing (assuming that a law school or a Ph.D. program wasn’t part of the agenda).  After barely surviving the first two weeks of the practicum, I quit. The program’s structure and the school noise simply weren’t for me. However, I’d learned a few things about education in Canada during that month and a half of coursework that had preceded the practicum.

  1. Ontario curriculum is big on social justice. As a teacher, or at least as a practicum student from a teachers’ college, you’ll be expected to incorporate social justice into pretty much everything, be it a geometry lesson or a science class. Which can often be next to impossible.
  2. In the ideal world, all subjects should be interrelated. Math, science, history, and even physical education—all have to have some form of connection. The fancy term for this idea is cross-curricular/interdisciplinary learning.

In Ontario, ancient civilizations are being taught in Grade 5 Social Studies class and later in Grade 11 and Grade 12 history courses. It would make sense to include recent events into the curriculum. Please note that I’m using the plural form in my title because I’m also referring to curricula of other provinces and states. I believe it should be a global effort.  By incorporating heritage destruction into their curricula, educators would not only link courses on ancient history with modern issues but also raise greater awareness about the problem. Some activities teachers could plan for their students include the following:

  • Have students construct a model of the Northwest Palace as a group project during the study of Mesopotamia in Grade 5 Social Studies class. This cross-curricular activity would help students to bridge connections between Match and Social Studies and develop teambuilding skills, as it would be done in a group. This project could be readjusted for older/younger groups.
  • Encourage high school students to obtain volunteer hours, which are mandatory in Ontario, by participating in one of the global initiatives against heritage destruction, such as the ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives or Project Mosul. In an exchange for their hours, students would gain valuable experience and obtain a letter of recommendation from one of the leaders in heritage conservation.
  • Invite archaeology professionals to schools to host special workshops on heritage conservation.
  • Organize discussion groups about the importance of fighting heritage destruction.

In spite of overwhelming presence of popular archaeology magazines and free information on the Internet, there is still a big gap between the scholarly world and the general public. In the times like these, it’s important for different communities to come together and collaborate. The more people become aware of the issue, the more empowered our society will become in dealing with the crisis.