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Conversations with God

Conversations with God

In August 2016 issue of JetWings International, my image from Wailing Wall, Jerusalem appeared in their regular BW section – Radar. The text was by editorial team from JetWings International.

Conversations with God

Conversations with God. Old City, Jerusalem

A holy place for Jews, the Kotel HaMa’aravi or Western Wall located in the Old City of Jerusalem is a 187-foot-high section of limestone wall— a remnant of the Temple Mount complex, built by Herod the Great, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Devotees come here to pray, lament the loss of their temple and also pour their hearts out to God; these conversations with divine powers are sometimes so heartfelt that it is often referred to as the ‘Wailing Wall’.

Conversations with God

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Dubai – The Sands of Future

Dubai – The Sands of Future

Dubai - The Sands of Future

Our safari driver pointed towards the vast desert vista through the windscreen of our safari Hummer H2 and said with typical native nonchalance –

‘This is what Dubai was about 35-40 years back.’

Dubai - The Sands of Future

We had reached the safari venue in a 4×4, gliding over a smooth 6-lane freeway, driving past many exits, interchanges and cross-roads; along the way, we had come across numerous high-rise structures, 5-star hotels and shopping malls; and upon reaching there, we were face to face with people of many nationalities. During this entire journey, never for a minute had we considered the stark reality, which our safari driver highlighted. Pondering over the brief statement made by him, we became acutely aware of both – the irony and the reality of those few words.

Dubai - A Prosperous Oasis

Dubai, which today may be replacing some of the older and traditionally more colourful cities like London, as the new shopping capital of the world, was nothing but an endless stretch of desert till about 4 decades back. Today, this Emirate boasts of having the world’s largest shopping mall (Dubai Mall), world’s tallest man-made structure (Burj Khalifa), world’s largest flower garden (Dubai Miracle Garden) and world’s largest airport terminal (Terminal 3), besides ranking 3rd in the global list of cities with highest number of skyscrapers.

Dubai - The Sands of Future

Initially built mainly on oil money, the state investments in infrastructure, healthcare and education and its tax and business related policies, have helped attract large amounts of dollar investments from all around. As a result, today, despite a real estate boom, everyday, hundreds of people pour in from all corners of the globe to settle in Dubai. Little wonder that I call Dubai – The Sands of Future.

Dubai - The Sands of Future

The Emirate offers it all – shopping, entertainment, business opportunities, sports, high-end lifestyle and 7-star hospitality. There are over 70 shopping malls, 140 skyscrapers, scores of 5-star hotels, scores of business districts, and multitude of world-class stadia playing host to some of the richest and more famous sporting events, be it in golf, or tennis or even cricket. Even the richest horse racing event ($10 Million prize money) – the Dubai World Cup – happens here.

Dubai - The Sands of Future

It also offers a wide range of entertainment to suit all age groups. There are numerous amusement parks for children and even adults who still have a child in them; if you have a craving for a specific cuisine, you can be sure to find a restaurant that suits your taste and budget; traditional entertainers like swirling dervishes, belly dancers or even raunchy dance bar performers are sprinkled all around – some of it, legal, and some, not!

Dubai - The Sands of Future
Nothing represents an oasis in a desert better than an installation of divers – Dubai Mall, Dubai

Being a tax-free state, and the petrol costing a mere AED1.92 per litre (or $0.52 per litre), little wonder that despite a population of mere 1.7 million, the number of cars is in excess of 1 million here. And, the place is replete with a veritable who’s who of cars – Bentleys, Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, Hummers, et al. Though Dubai is a stable of speedsters, what impresses most about this Emirate is the traffic discipline. With average speeds exceeding 80 kmph, the traffic functions like clockwork. The credit largely goes to the will of the law enforcers.

Dubai - The Sands of Future

The climate is hot and mostly humid, and the soil is sandy. Yet, thanks to the labour of love and liberal doses of drip irrigation, the greenery and the rainbow hues of flowers have turned it in to a beautiful city. And it is going from strength to strength!

Dubai - The Sands of Future

While there, do shop. And do visit some of the world’s largest/tallest/biggest attractions. ‘On The Top’ – the 452-metre high viewpoint in Burj Khalifa is my personal favourite. From here, while you get a bird’s eye view of this modern megapolis, you also see the truth of the safari driver’s words – wherever there’s no development, the sandy vista still fills the view.

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Dubai – A Prosperous Oasis

Dubai – A Prosperous Oasis

Dubai - A Prosperous Oasis
Dubai – A Prosperous Oasis

JetWings International, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (International), is carrying this image and write-up of mine in their February 2016 issue. It is about Dubai – Prosperous Oasis. I shot this image of divers, an installation in Dubai Mall, as a fitting symbol of the flourishing oasis in the desert of Arabia!

Dubai – A Prosperous Oasis

Over the last few decades, man-made oases have transformed the vast endless desert landscape of Arabia. Of them, Dubai is the glitziest—scores of high-rises dotting the skyline of this city-state dominate the view whether seen from land, sea or air. This installation depicting a group of divers, placed at the Dubai Mall, serves as a fitting representation of this prosperous oasis.

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Akko – A Medieval Mediterranean Gem

Akko – A Medieval Mediterranean Gem

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Bird’s Eye View of Haifa

I had won Cox & Kings’ Grab Your Dream Contest and the prize was an all-expenses paid trip to Israel. During this trip, I was also reviewing Canon 5D SR and EF 11-24mm f/4.0 USM. Here is just a small glimpse of this trip that appears in October 2015 Issue of India’s Premier Photography Magazine – Smart Photography.

Akko – A Medieval Mediterranean Gem

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Colourful local market within the precincts of Hospitaller Fortress

While we pride ourselves in having Varanasi as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities of the world, tiny Israel boasts of having one too – Akko (also called Acre). Here I am ignoring the oldest city, Jericho that has been in existing for the last 7000 years since it is in Palestine, which is technically a separate sovereign state.

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
A Detailed Standee describing the life of Crusader’s times; granite cannonballs prominently on display.

While modern day Akko is a city with a population of mere 50,000, it dates back to about 3000 BCE, also known to us as the early Bronze Age. Over these 5000 years, it has always been considered an important city for trading with the West. The old city of Akko has been accorded UNESCO World Heritage site status for multiple reasons. These include (but are not limited to):

1. Though the city changed hands from Phoenicians to Assyrians, Egyptian Ptolemids, Syrian Seleucids, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ottomans, French, British and Israelis, the ancient structures are quite well preserved even today

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Sprawling Courtyard of the Hospitaller Fortress

2. Despite an entire Muslim period township having been built on top, large parts of medieval fortress from the Crusader era both, above and beneath the street level are still almost intact

3. A fortress-like city wall facing the Mediterranean Sea dating back to about 1900 BCE still holds forth

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
View from Mount Carmel

Akko lies to the north of Tel Aviv. The drive up from Tel Aviv to Akko will take you past Mount Carmel, Caesarea Aqueduct (a raised canal) and Haifa, all of them significant in their own right, over the last 2000-year history of modern-day Israel.

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Khan al-Umdan, Akko

As an ancient city, the place is milling with structures built by many faiths and religions and its population today is a mix of Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze and Baha’is. Amongst the most notable of these structures are the City Walls, Jezzar Pasha Mosque, Hospitaller Fortress, Khan al-Umdan and Bahji Mansion (the holiest of Baha’i Shrines) that is just outside Akko.

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Jezzar Pasha Mosque, Akko

Its history has been bloody, mainly because of its significance as a port for trade. From a flourishing, buzzing city to almost a ghost town to a small fishing village to the most important pilgrim spot for Baha’is, Akko has been through the seesaw of times.

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Ancient City Sea Wall, Akko

Since it always had merchant visitors, it has many Caravanserais (inns) that were built for accommodating these business visitors; most notable was built in late 18th century CE. It has forty pillars and it is quite well preserved even now. Having so many pillars, it was rightly named Khan al-Umdan (Caravanserai of the pillars). It is so well preserved that a few years back, there was a proposal to convert it into a luxury resort for tourists.

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Crusaders’ Fortress. Akko

The Hospitaller Fortress (generally called Crusader Fortress or Citadel) has been converted into an aesthetically pleasing museum that recounts the history of this town in medieval years from around 1000CE to around 1200CE. It was named Hospitaller Fortress as this was built as a hospital during the Crusades. There is also a tunnel inside called Templar’s Tunnel (remember the secret order of Knights Templars prominently portrayed by Dan Brown in ‘Da Vinci Code’?).

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Seaside Cafes and the old lighthouse

Even to this day, Akko is a port town. It is a big draw for tourists, regardless of their faith. While walking on the sea wall, the deep blue of Mediterranean, Haifa skyline, an old lighthouse and a string of seaside cafés create a delightful mélange of ancient, medieval and modern times.

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Medieval Times being recreated by a stunningly colourful audio-visual show on the rugged fortress walls

While there, I also discovered that Akko also had its own share of adrenaline junkies. A few jet skis apart, there was a group of young men who were diving from the city wall into the sea beneath, a drop of about 20 metres or more. What made it risky was the profusion of rocks around the base of the wall and this necessitated them to come sprinting to make the jump, so as not to land on these rocks! During the few minutes I was there, I saw them gleefully repeating these jumps a few times over. They were clearly having fun doing this. And sure enough, I was clearly having fun shooting them!

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Daredevil jump into the Mediterranean

During your visit to Israel, this may not be a town where you spend a night. But, at the same time, this also should not be a town that you give a miss. Its seaside is happening; the town is replete with heritage and old architectural marvels, and it is not too crowded. Do bookmark it for your Israel travel!

Akko - A Medieval Mediterranean Gem
Templar’s Tunnel
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In the Footsteps of Jesus

In the Footsteps of Jesus

In the footsteps of Jesus
Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth

I had won Cox & Kings’ Grab Your Dream Contest and the prize was an all-expenses paid trip to Israel. Here’s an account of just one facet of this trip. This story – In The Footsteps Of Jesus – appeared in Conde Nast Traveller India. Click to read it there.

Israel. Jesus had walked this land. I know of people dropping pins on a map, but His case is a little different – over the centuries, people have dropped pins all along the path He actually trod.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, Jaffa

Though mine was an itinerary of convenience, Israel continued to make me acutely aware of His footsteps everywhere I went.

In the footsteps of Jesus
St Peter’s Basilica, Tel Aviv

My casual brush with Him started in Tel Aviv. Before entering the labyrinth of sloping lanes in Jaffa that all lead to the pre-biblical port, we found ourselves gaping at St. Peter’s – Tel Aviv’s most imposing church.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth

In the footsteps of Jesus

This engagement with His footsteps grew serious soon after. Nazareth brought us to Basilica of the Annunciation. Its biblical significance is enormous. This is where Gabriel told Virgin Mary of her conceiving baby Jesus. The entrance of a narrow street leading to the basilica has an unfinished mosque. Its construction was stopped because Vatican intervened.

In the footsteps of Jesus
1st floor of Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth

Many nations have gifted this holy site their own renditions of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in the form of paintings, illustrations, murals and installations. Some of those are adorning the walls of the basilica while many more have been displayed in the gallery on its periphery. I have seen fascination writ large on the visitors’ faces as they stand admiring these remarkable works of art.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Installation of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, gifted by USA to the Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth

Not far from here, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in and around Tabgha, some more gems are located, namely the Town of Jesus called Capharnaum, the Church of the Multiplication, the Church of the Transfiguration and the Mount of the Beatitudes. Each is inextricably linked to Him.

Capharnaum, the Town of Jesus (St. Peter's House)
Capharnaum, The Town of Jesus (St. Peter’s House)
In the footsteps of Jesus
Octagonal Capharnaum Church (No. 8 signifying Infinity)

Jesus left Nazareth when his work was not acknowledged there. He then moved on to Capharnaum, St. Peter’s mother-in-law’s village. A church has been built at a location that is believed to be St. Peter’s house. On the same scenic site, a new octagonal church has come up overlooking the deep blue Sea of Galilee.

In the footsteps of Jesus
St. Peter’s Statue

Statues of St. Francis and St. Peter have also been erected here. Excavations by archeologists around the area have also revealed ancient ruins of a synagogue built over another – the newer one is about 17 centuries old.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Fishing for St. Peter’s Fish in the Sea of Galilee

During our cruise on the Sea of Galilee, our boatman cast his fishing net to catch some St. Peter’s fish. If he had caught even one of them, we would have been considered a ‘blessed group’, but it was not to be.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Ancient Mount of the Beatitudes (Byzantine Church remains), Tabgha, Israel. It is believed to be the location where Jesus gave a famous sermon to his disciples.

Along the road that leads to Tabgha, there lies a small fenced mount that has a few excavated rocks, ostensibly from the biblical era. This is the famed Mount of the Beatitudes where Jesus had delivered his most noted sermon to His disciples (Blessed are those… who remember!).

In the footsteps of Jesus
The Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha

The Church of the Multiplication is a minimalistic modern church. It is built on the site of one of Jesus’ miracles. It is said that here He fed a crowd with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Church of Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Lower Galilee
In the footsteps of Jesus
Inside the Church of the Transfiguration

One of Jesus’ major miracles was Transfiguration. The mount of transfiguration is believed to be the site where Jesus transfigured into a luminous presence while He was with 3 of his apostles – John, James and Peter. A serene church has been built on this holy site. This is not just a revered place for Catholics, but for other sects of Christianity too. I found a group of Protestants performing their handholding ritualistic prayers here.

In the footsteps of Jesus
The Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Lower Galilee

From Tabgha, while driving towards Golan Heights, we crossed a culvert and stopped. Our guide asked us to disembark from the vehicle but refused to explain the reason. We walked into the roadside clearing and suddenly heard the sound of flowing water. Soon enough we saw a gentle stream placidly flowing through the woods. Here, our guide revealed that we were standing on the banks of River Jordan – the holy river where the baptism of Jesus had taken place!

In the footsteps of Jesus
Mock baptism in progress at River Jordan – Jesus was baptised here!

Bethlehem brought us to the spot where Jesus was born. Riveted in a small nook tucked under an arch decorated by a golden tapestry, is a fourteen-pointed silver star (Bethlehem Star) that marks the place where Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth to baby Jesus. This place was the first Palestinian site to be accorded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status and it bypassed the regular 18-month process normally followed for this honour.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Alcove where the Bethlehem Star is – Birthplace of Jesus
In the footsteps of Jesus
The Bethlehem Star – Birthplace of Jesus

Jerusalem has, by far, the most number of places linked to Jesus’ life. On Mount Zion, close to the Dormition Abbey, is the compound that houses King David’s tomb. The upper floor of this structure houses the chamber of the ‘Last Supper’.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Chamber of the Last Supper

As a city, old Jerusalem is divided into four quarters – Christian, Jewish, Armenian and Muslim. Via Dolorosa (literal translation – ‘path of suffering’) is the way on which Jesus carried the cross for his crucifixion – a pious practice still followed every Friday by hundreds of Christians. It has fourteen stations and every station is well marked. The first seven stations of Via Dolorosa meander through the Muslim Quarter, while stations eight and nine are in the Christian Quarter. The last five stations are inside the Holy Sepulchre (Sepulchre = Tomb, Mausoleum).

In the footsteps of Jesus
Cross being carried by Christian devotees in memory of Jesus’ Via Dolorosa
In the footsteps of Jesus
Armenian Catholic Patriarchate at the third station of Via Dolorosa

Station three, where Jesus stumbled and fell for the first time, has an Armenian church – Armenian Catholic Patriarchate. A Latin cross on the wall of an Orthodox Greek Monastery marks station eight, where Jesus consoled the women of the city. The path finally leads on to the Holy Sepulchre – a church that houses the location of his crucifixion and his tomb.

In the footsteps of Jesus
8th station of Via Dolorosa – Don’t cry for me, he tells the women of Jerusalem
In the footsteps of Jesus
Jesus’ tomb
In the footsteps of Jesus
Here, Jesus was crucified

Inside the Holy Sepulchre, there are also a few chapels, including St. Helena’s chapel. The dominant dome of the Holy Sepulchre has a portrayal of Jesus the Pantocrator, or sustainer almighty (Hindu equivalent of Vishnu, the preserver).

In the footsteps of Jesus
Jesus the Pantocrator, on the Big dome in the Holy Sepulchre

Just opposite the Holy Sepulchre is a mosque – the Mosque of Omar. Legend has it that Omar was asked to pray inside the Holy Sepulchre, but refused as he did not want Muslims to usurp the location as their own holy site. He signed a protection guarantee for Christians to freely pray in the Holy Sepulchre. This guarantee later became known as ‘Covenant of Omar’.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Descendant of the Nusseibeh family – the holder of the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (seated on the bench)

It was Omar who had entrusted the key of the Holy Sepulchre to his Governor, an ancestor of Nusseibeh family. Till date, this Muslim family holds the key. While entering the church, I was greeted and welcomed by the current key-holder descendant of the family.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Dormition Abbey as viewed from the terrace of King David’s Tomb

Now that Jesus was crucified, what next? Our guide led us to Mount of Olives. It lies to the east of Jerusalem. This mount has a Russian Orthodox Church dedicated to Maria Magdalene. She is believed to be the first disciple to see Jesus after his resurrection. Atop the mount is a small chapel, the Chapel of the Ascension. After the resurrection of Jesus (celebrated in the modern times as Easter Sunday), it is believed that He ascended to heaven from a revered stone in this Chapel.

In the footsteps of Jesus
Chapel of the Ascension

Jesus had a short but eventful life. While I was being guided through the path He followed through Israel and Palestine, one thing that left me in awe was the unbelievable convergence of the varied religions, faiths and nationalities around Him and His life. Visit Israel and chances are you would also end up querying the veracity of the geographic and cultural boundaries our race has created.

BTW, this entire experience enriched my travel photography journey!

 

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