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Home » Middle East » JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. The Middle East, the Red Sea part 1 of 2

JEAN SHEPHERD Travel. The Middle East, the Red Sea part 1 of 2

I promised to talk about skin-diving in the Red Sea.  I’m going to find it very difficult to talk about.  Primarily because it’s an experience that in many ways is indescribable.  They talk about things you can’t describe, that you can’t put into words.  Well, this kind of experience is one of them.  Did you see that movie that Captain Cousteau made, called The Silent World?  Most of it was shot in the Red Sea in exactly the place where I was skin-diving just six days ago.

I had an incident happen to me skin diving in that area.  To begin with, you have to picture in your mind how that part of the world looks geographically.  The map of Israel looks something like a long, narrow, truncated triangle, the point of the triangle pointing downwards, the top flattened off.  The left-hand side of the triangle is on the Mediterranean Sea.  The sea slants off, and there’s a little spot, a long line of land that sticks up.  It’s a strange part of the world—a sliver of ground called the Gaza Strip.

redsea. map gif

So here’s the Gaza Strip and way down there Israel goes further on down, and at the end of this little triangle, at the narrowest tip end, is a tiny settlement called Elat.  Elat is an ancient, ancient site and right now there’s a lot of excavating going on.

About fifteen miles north of Elat is generally considered the site of King Solomon’s Mines.  He had a whole mining operation going on there, not mining gold but copper, which was the precious metal of that area, and I’ll tell you this, the area of King Solomon’s Mines looks like one of the great ravaged areas of the world.  Like a cover drawing for a science fiction story of something out of one of the more desolate planets.  The rock rises maybe five-hundred feet directly out of the sand.  Rises directly out of the flat sand of the Negev Desert.

King Solomon Pillars Timna_1

A rocky mountain range that is totally desolate, that extends for, oh—hundreds of miles into the far horizon, and right at the foot of this is this great, dusty cavern with roaring, roaring sound, billows of greenish-gray dust that’s flying up high into the air.  When you’re about ten miles away from King Solomon’s Mines you see this mushroom cloud in the sky.

The sky of the Negev Desert is about as clear and brilliant a sky as you can imagine.  It is so bright in the Negev that it’s difficult to even look at it.blue sky

This tropical world here is an arid, desert world, which means that the humidity of the countryside probably averages down around three or four percent.  It’s such cold air at night and such hot air during the day that at anytime you breathe it in you know that you’re breathing something special.  Great for the sinuses!  If you spend about ten days standing in the sun in the Negev Desert, if you’ve got sinuses left you’re lucky.  You’ll be boiled down to a little grease spot.

They are mining right now at King Solomon’s Mines, dragging all this copper ore out of the ground and there is this tremendous cloud of dust.  Standing right there are three huge pillars of stone.  They are really scary.  They are dark red color, almost cordovan-leather color and they rise directly out of the dust and go right to the sky.

I went past that place about three times, and every time, up in the sky, circling against the sun, are four or five enormous desert vultures—just circling—great big vultures, waiting for something to die, waiting for something to give up.

Continue straight on south in that country and you strike this tiny settlement called Elat, lying right on the Red Sea.  Elat is on a long, narrow tip that’s at the end of the Red Sea.  They call that area “The End of the World,” and there’s a little restaurant there called The End of the World.  I stayed in this hotel with a great name—“The Queen of Sheba Hotel.”  This is her neighborhood, this is where the Queen of Sheba came ashore when she was on a ceremonial, state visit to see King Solomon.

hilton-eilat-queen-of-sheba

As you walk into The Queen of Sheba Hotel, the one great thing you like about it is that it’s air-conditioned.  Oh, boy, let me tell you, after you’ve gone through that shimmering desert heat for about three-hundred miles, as you’ve driven down through this arid world, with the sun, with the heat, with the buzzards, with that rising grayish-green smoke-cloud of King Solomon’s Mines, when you step into that air-conditioning it is like stepping into heaven.

Directly ahead of you is a big mural that shows the Queen of Sheba getting out of her state barge, surrounded by Nubian hand-servants and giant lions on leashes and all that stuff, and greeting her is the fantastic entourage headed by King Solomon.  There is a lot of talk—I might as well be honest with you—there is a lot of terrible gossip about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  There was a lot more than state talk that went on between those two and I’m not trying to be irreverent here, but they still talk about it around here.  There’s a lot of people who don’t even discuss them, even at this time and this age in that neighborhood.  Awful scene.

About ten minutes after I get into the hotel, I am now down on the beach, which is not itself particularly imposing.  Although there is one thing about this beach that is like no other beach that I have ever been on in my life.  As you stand on the beach you can see four countries.  You cannot only see four countries, but if you’ve got a long enough reach, you can reach out and touch four countries.  You’re lying right on a bay, a long arm of the Red Sea.  Off to your left you see the hills of Jordan, the Moab Mountains run right down to the sea.  Then if you move your eyes slightly to your right, you’re looking at Saudi Arabia.  You’re standing on Israel, then as you look to the right, just past that stand over there where they’re selling the hot dogs, that is Egypt.  Directly ahead of you are these soft, low waves rolling in on this sandy beach.  The beach where the Queen of Sheba’s barge pulled up into the gravel and King Solomon stepped down and greeted her.

queen of sheba

Right down at the tip of this long, narrow, truncated triangle, lies this tiny settlement of Elat, which, a couple of years ago was a military outpost.  They were trying to guard the seaway entranceway to Elat.  This little spot on the map had a radar station and about four or five companies of infantry and a couple of tanks.  Now they’ve built this tiny city right on the edge of the sea, surrounded completely by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Egypt.

Why do they call it the Red Sea?  At a certain time of day, around six-thirty or seven o’clock, just as the sun hits the edge of these mountains, almost like magic the entire sea in front of you turns a fantastic blood-red.  It’s a combination of the kind of sun that hits down through this mountain air and the reflection of that sun off the water and back down again on the water off these red hills that rim the sea.  For maybe five or ten minutes this sea is an absolute blood-red sea.  Just like that.

Then, as the sun goes down—and like all tropical areas, there’s hardly any twilight—one minute it’s daylight, then—pow!—it’s night.  The sky over the desert is a sky like no sky you’ve ever seen.  I’ve seen the sky from the tropical jungles of Peru, I’ve seen the sky from Miami, I’ve seen the sky from Canada, I’ve seen the sky from Australia.  I’ve seen the sky from pretty nearly all around the world, but there is no sky like the sky you see in the African or the Arabian desert.  It is unbelievable, fantastic.  Primarily because the air is so clear.  There is no dust, there is no smoke, there’s no humidity to speak of.  So everything is as though it’s made out of crystal.  You have the sense that you can almost reach up and touch the sky, you can just about pick stars out of this black velvet just above you.  And you can understand why somebody like Omar Khayyam wrote about the sky and about the stars and the night.  A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me.  And you can understand this only, really, completely, when you’re there, in the area of Persia, Saudi Arabia, and that unbelievable nighttime desert sky.

As that sky begins to turn on, another peculiar thing happens.  Off to your left a long line of tiny lights begin to appear along the shoreline.  Blue and green lights like a little, horizontal Christmas tree just lying on its side.  This is Aqaba, a city that belongs to Israel’s enemy, and it lights up about fifteen-hundred feet away, and the people of Elat look over at the people in Aqaba—you have the sense that over there, they’re looking over at the lights of Elat.

You look to your right and you see a couple of other lights on the shoreline.  They’re from Egypt.  There is this little horseshoe of light.  All four countries are at sword’s point.  Very eerie feeling.

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And you walk through the night streets of Elat—they have fluorescent lights hanging over the streets and you go into this little restaurant called “The Blue Fish.”  Tiny restaurant that’s known throughout Israel as one of the very few places in Israel where you can really get a good meal.  Inside is a character who looks like an out-of-work pirate standing there, and there are five tables all around him.  They have fishnets hanging from the walls with glass balls.  It’s kind of strangely pathetic, an oddly touching attempt to create a sophisticated gaiety—that just isn’t quite gay, that isn’t quite sophisticated.

I’ll tell you one thing they do serve—the greatest seafood I’ve ever had in my life.  It comes right out of the Red Sea—tropical fish of one kind or another.  We drink the Israeli wine, we eat the fish, all done beautifully.  And there are a couple of other guys who have drifted in from the desert and everyone’s shoveling in the shrimp.

We go back out into the night and we drift down the street and here’s a Moroccan coffee shop, truly Moroccan because a lot of people who came to Israel in the early, founding days, were North-African.  A couple of swarthy Moroccans are sitting there waiting for you to come in and drink their Moroccan coffee, which is vaguely scented.  There are about ten or twenty types of Moroccan coffee, and two types that are illegal.  Flavored with stuff that if you ever drank it you would be floating around the ceiling for a week and a half.  So you sip coffee and the juke box is playing Moroccan music and outside is that velvet, strange, soft, ethereal night.  And the lights of Aqaba are stretching off into the distance.  A jeep goes by—AWAWAWAWAWAWA! with three soldiers in it with Thompson submachine guns over their soldiers—into the darkness.

5526-Thompson-2

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