In ISIS Holes


A few months ago, I was able to go into one of the cities held by ISIS for two years in the Nineveh Plains outside Mosul.


It took a complex set of negotiations to get in and pass through about five checkpoints held by different groups. There was an Iraqi Army checkpoint. There was a Peshmerga checkpoint. Then there were three various Christian militia checkpoints, including the militia who held the town.


Once in the city, the devastation left behind by the ISIS fighters was clear.


Crumpled buildings, charred roofs, broken glass.


But mostly, decimated ancient Chaldean churches.


The Christian communities in this part of Iraq have histories dating back to the first century. Many of the Chaldeans speak Syriac, an ancient language similar to Aramaic.


Now their churches, formerly filled with marble and glass, are in ruins.


Every cross was torn from every roof or steeple.


Ceilings were blackened, saints defaced.


The sanctuaries are filled with trash and rubble.


The ISIS fighters apparently used this church courtyard for target practice. Its floor was littered with bullet casings and store mannequins stood in as targets.


On the way out, we stopped at a monastery. It caught our eye because ISIS had removed the ornate wrought iron cross from the dome of the monastery and dragged it up the hill behind.


When Christian militia retook the monastery earlier this year, they put up a simple wooden cross on the hill overlooking the site.


Inside the monastery, the militia soldiers now guarding the building showed us the escape tunnels ISIS fighter had dug into the building and its grounds.


One of the men motioned me into the tunnel, and I followed him in the winding darkness along the tunnel floor.


We came up to a metal door, which led into the monastery. Then we turned and went another way, and we popped out on the other side of the hill, looking toward Mosul itself. We could hear the sound of the bomber jets overhead, as the Iraqi army battled ISIS for control of the city.


Today, ISIS is nearly driven out of Mosul, and some of those who were driven out of their homes are planning to return. There’s little to return to, though. No water or electricity. No businesses or schools. Empty husks of homes, stripped of anything of value.

I don’t know how this story ends. But I hope that it some day comes to restoration.


Harissa and Its Lady


During my first visit to Lebanon in 2012, I stayed in Beirut.


This time, I stayed in Harissa, another town about 30 minutes north.


You simply follow the highway along the coast and turn east in Jounieh to wind up the mountain.


The city is important to the region’s historic Christian population and hosts a shrine to Our Lady of Lebanon.


My hotel was right next to the lady, and I couldn’t help but think of this lady from my childhood:

Virgen de Quito Panecillo 03.jpg
Virgen de Quito Panecillo 03” by CayambeOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It was pretty crazy how much traffic there was up to the shrine, especially on the weekend. Cars literally wound around the mountain at a full stop as people filed in to the shrine area.


Curiously, the shrine was connected to a gondola area and children’s play park. The gondola takes tourists down to another recreation area in Jounieh.


On a free afternoon, I wandered down to check out the gondola. I tried to hop on, but lacked a ticket and could never find where to buy one. I found myself crammed in a lift with about 15 Arabic-speaking teenage boys. (Awkward!)

The lift operator spent his free moments in between gondola arrivals praying through his prayer beads.

On the way out, I made my way through the crowd and headed to the shrine’s entrance/exit. I heard someone calling out behind me, but as it was in Arabic, I ignored it, and continued on my way. I was suddenly yanked to a stop by a Lebanese solider, who wanted to search my backpack. Apparently, I looked like a potential terrorist. Backpack reviewed, I was free to take in the views from the top.


Making Arabic Bread


As you know, food is a highly critical element of any successful adventure. And after a day hiking in the cedars, lunch is essential. So when one finds to urge, one asks the taxi driver to pull over in front of someone’s house, where the lady of the house and her mother are making Arabic bread-khebez aarabeh-on the side of the road over a curious type of griddle.

Which, of course, I had to document. For the sake of science. And food, and stuff.



The sandwiches created with this bread were amazing. She had a bunch of different kinds of fillings with mostly all included labneh, the thick yogurt-like spread so common in Lebanese cooking. I wish I would have taken pictures of the finished sandwich, but nope. Was too busy eating.


I inquired about the dough used for the bread, and the lady told me it was just regular dough like you would use for pizza. so there’s that. It shouldn’t be too hard to replicate, save for the ocular griddle, right?

I took video of the process, and I’m so sorry for the screeching of the woman in the background. (But they paid for lunch! No complaining here.) I had a hard enough time just getting the video to upload, let alone any editing.

There you go: knead, pat, stretch, rest, cook, fill and serve. How to make a sandwich with Arabic bread in Lebanon.

You Should Go: Lebanon’s Cedars


I don’t know what I expected from Lebanon’s cedars, but I don’t think it was a thin slice of forest covering the foothills of the mountains with breath-taking views on the way up.


Tall, and reminiscent of California’s redwoods, these majestic trees apparently used to cover the land.


Today, due to lack of regulation and protection, these beautiful trees are now limited to two shrinking forests.




I visited the northern cedars (125 km from Beirut), where, though already May, the snow was still visible on the nearby mountain peaks.



My plans for the day fell through, so I ended up hitching a ride with some other North Americans (they paid for the taxi!), with my friend May as our tour guide and translator.


The entrance to the park is a bit of a tourist trap, but the park itself is well-maintained and peaceful.


The entrance fee was a suggested donation of something around $5.


One of the best parts of the journey was the trek up the mountains, where I annoyed the taxi driver by calling for him to pull over every few minutes to take a few more photos.


This meant I had to wait for everyone else to unload so I could crawl from my snug spot in the third row of the station wagon.


At least the driver took advantage of the smoke break.


And I’m thinking I need to take lessons from the Lebanese on rug cleaning.


Everyone was doing it.



Vineyards, waterfalls, sweet red-roofed villages and poppies made up the scenery.


Of course, the taxi driver got pulled over at a checkpoint for having 6 people in the car instead of the allowed 5, but with a little bit of arguing and a handshake, the soldier let us go. (Sorry for being your plus-one, random tour group that I joined!)

The weather was amazing, the trees beautiful, and the drive incredible. And it was all topped off by the most perfect lunch… but then, you’ll have to wait for tomorrow for that.

Until then, remember: Lebanon’s Cedars: you should go.

Crocodiles in the Nile

Oh she sailed away, on a sunny summer day, on the back of a crocodile. “You see,” said she, “He’s as tame as he can be, I’ll ride him down the Nile…”

Ten points to the first person who can name that song. (I’m looking at YOU, Kelley.)

So here’s your Nile river:

Uninteresting except for the fact that, 1) it’s the Nile, and if you are a dork, 2) that’s papyrus! Paper growing in the water! Rad!

Oh look:

Cheesy Egyptians acting out the Moses in the Reeds story.

Let’s stop for some coffee, to wake up the jet-lagged among us.

And how about some more Egyptian cheesiness:

Try the dinner cruise, because that could be awkward:

Spinning man in a skirt?

Let’s get away from all that weirdness and check out Cairo by night. Oh, but not until after you accidentally take the belly dancer’s stall in the bathroom and have a really awkward conversation apologizing about it afterward.

Escape to the roof!

Watch as the sun goes down, spreading rays over the monotone apartment buildings lining the river bank.

And then watch as the city lights up, rivaling any Las Vegas strip.

The City

So this is Amman.

I think we picked the perfect time of year to visit: spring. Everything was amazingly (and unexpectedly) green. The weather was perfect, warm during the day and fairly chilly at night. I even bought a sweater.

These photos are taken in the old city. Though very modern, Jordan is still an Islamic country.

Not everyone prayed at the prayer times, but some did. Some women were covered, and some weren’t. I don’t know if that’s a sign of how progressive their version of Islam is or what. Maybe they aren’t practicing.

The city is really picturesque, with the white stone covering all surfaces. I read on the Jordan Ministry of Tourism  website that stone is a municipal building code requirement. Smart move, city planners.

The taxi driver told us the flag is where the palace of the king and queen are. Sadly, I didn’t catch sight of them while there. You can see that the older parts of the city are a slightly different color than the rest of the buildings.

We visited some ruins in the center of the old city called the Citadel. They were interesting in that they were old Roman ruins from the Roman empire, but the best part was the view the area afforded of the city around. It was a beautiful day, too, of course.

In the museum, they claimed to have part of the dead sea scroll. 1967? Was that when they discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls? I thought it was earlier than that. Maybe these are OTHER Dead Sea Scrolls. [According to The Great Source, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956.]

Wait, I forgot. I didn’t get a shot of the Dead Sea Scrolls because of some annoying tourists who were standing in my way. I took this shot because it references the story of Balaam, the guy in the Bible who spoke with a donkey. Apparently, this scroll shows he was a real person in history.

Thus ends your tour of the old city in Amman, Jordan.

And yes, people seriously do wear these around, not just in stereotypical pictures.