Harriet Tubman – A Fine Choice For The $20 Bill

Harriet_Tubman_Civil_War_Woodcut-300px-wideI must admit, until this week I had never heard of Harriet Tubman. I am not an American so have a bit of an excuse about not previously knowing anything about the first African American women to appear on a US bank note.

She was born into slavery but after escaping, perhaps motivated by her strong Christian faith, devoted her life to helping others escape and build meaningful lives for themselves. She was later involved in the campaign for women’s sufferage.

I think she is a worthy choice for commemoration on the $20 bill. It is not because she is a woman or that she is an African American, it is because what she did was right. She stood up to tyranny, took personal risks for the sake of others and was unwavering in her cause. Her place on the banknote was earned on pure merit. She is an inspiration to all those who stand up to current vested interests who use their power oppress others.

As a campaigner for women’s suffrgage she is very relevant to the present day where democracy is gradually being subverted under the pressures of globalisation. In America and in countries around the world large corporations can buy politicians via the lobbying process and manipulate opinion via their control of the media. We live in a world of backroom deals and legislation by treaty, a world where the simple vote has become a debased currency. It is a world where currency itself is debased due to the hidden machinations of our system of central banks which often amount to organised officially sanctioned theft (her presence on the $20 bill in this sense is rather ironic).

We live in a world where cherished freedoms are being eroded, the kind of basic freedoms that were hard won by people like Harriet Tubman. Her presence on the $20 bill will be an ever present reminder of the idea that the only antidote to tyranny is eternal vigilance.

Harriet Tubman provides a lesson on how a person from humble origins and limited, or even non-existent means, can achieve great things. She also reminds us that freedom isn’t free and that to be free often requires real effort and sometimes even personal sacrifice.

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Touristic Wanderings in the Judaean Wilderness

View from Masada
Above: View from Masada looking back towards the oaisis of Ein Gedi (dark patch on top right) which can be made out in the distance. The Qumran Caves are to be found in the steep cliffs.

Ever since I saw the TV miniseries  staring Peter O’Toole I have been interested in the ancient fortress of Masada. This is the location where Jewish freedom fighters fought bravely though unsuccessfully to reestablish an independent state of Israel.

Their attempt for renewed statehood, well documented by the historian Josephus, was always going to be a Quixotic quest – after all they were going up against a Roman Empire at the peak of its power. The dreams of the Jewish people were of course eventually realised only when another empire, that of the British, finally withdrew from the region.

It was therefore to Masada that my eyes turned when given the opportunity to travel round this ancient and fascinating country during my trip to Jerusalem in December 2008. When the question arose as to where to visit first the answer was clear – Masada. I opted for a trip that took in Masada while also allowing a dip in the Dead Sea.

The Judaean Desert

It was to the harsh crucible of the Judaean wilderness that Christ turned as his destination for meditation and contemplation before he embarked on the final and most critical mission of his life. It was here where he successfully resisted the temptations of the Devil!

This environment was not hostile to me, but it was hauntingly beautiful. After all, I was travelling through this challenging environment in the luxury of an air conditioned coach. If having a great time was to be tempted then I failed the Biblical test! My wanderings in this wilderness were a comfortable and highly enjoyable experience.

You can actually see the unique topography of the Judaean desert from Jerusalem itself as shown at the upper left in the photo below.

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Above: Jerusalem with the Judaean Desert in the background

Our journey took us across the Kidron Valley, out of Jerusalem and into the Judaean Hills. From here you began your descent below sea level to the lowest land point on earth – the Dead Sea Plain. As you watch the landscape go by your mind takes you back to Biblical times.

Before dropping to the lowest level our journey stopped for a comfort break at a factory shop for Dead Sea products. Christmas was a couple of weeks later so it was an opportunity to get some Christmas presents.

Our route, parallel to the Dead Sea, took us past the Oasis of Ein Gedi. It would have been great to have stopped there to explore but it was not on the itinerary. I would have preferred to have missed the factory shop and used the time at Ein Gedi but it was not to be.

The cliffs above Ein Gedi were where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the
Qumran Caves. These gave us new insights into Jewish history in the Israel of Biblical times.

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Above: A glimpse of Ein Gedi

Masada – Redoubt of The Ancient Jewish State

This was where Roman General Lucius Flavius Silva faced off against Elazar Ben-Yair who was leading a Jewish war of independence against the Roman occupation. As the bus turned left to approach Masada you can imagine what was going through the general’s mind in AD 73 as he contemplated what was, to all intents and purposes, an impossible task.

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Above: Approaching Masada

To get to the top you either walk or you take the cable car – we took the cable car! When you reach the flat summit you turn right from the cable car to enter the remains of the fortified royal palace built between 37-31 BC by the great builder King Herod the Great. It had all the mod cons of the age as the remains of the hypocaust attests.

Masada Ruins
Above: Remains of the Herodian palace (left) and hypocaust (right)

The views out across the Dead Sea are spectacular. You can also see the square outlines of the Roman forts that were used to enforce their siege.

Views from Masada
Above: View towards the Dead Sea (left) and Roman Remains (right)

The impressive ramp created by the Romans to bring up their siege engines and troops is also still visible. You have to take your hat off to the genius of the Roman engineers. It was this ramp that made the impossible possible and finally brought the stand off to a victorious conclusion for Rome.

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Above: The Ramp That Was Built by Roman Military Engineers During the Siege of Masada

Above: A Documentary About Masada

The Dead Sea – Rest and Recuperation (and wallowing in a mud pit!)

On our return back up the coastal road we made a right turn into a resort on the Dead Sea. Here everyone had the opportunity to do the floating trick and soak up the health enhancing properties of the water. There was also the attraction of the Dead Sea mud.

I don’t usually go for the new man and moisturiser approach to life. However, wallowing in a pit of runny mud looked like it had to makings of a good laugh.

I got really absorbed in the activity, to such an extent that other tourists were taking pictures of me as if I was an employee of the Israel Tourist Board there for their entertainment. It was great fun! After enjoying a second childhood playing in the mud it was time to wash it off by going for a swim and a float. All this amazingly left my skin soft and smooth for weeks.

Wallowing in the Dead Sea Mud 2008
Above: Wallowing in the Mud

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Above: Floating in the Dead Sea with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Obscured by Pinkish Haze rising from the water in the Background

As the sun began to go down, earlier than usual due to the shade from the cliffs of this rift valley, we began our journey across the desert back to Jerusalem.

Tales From the Venetian Lagoon

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Last time I visited Venice I went on a tour that encompassed three of the lagoon’s more interesting outer islands. These are the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.

I got a ticket for a tour that took you round these three Islands. This lagoon cruise cast off from the pier adjacent to Rio dei Giardinetti, the gardens next to St Mark’s Square.

Didn’t get much time on each island but did gain a flavour of the lagoon’s huge variety. In this account I will try to convey some of this rich flavour.

Murano – Workers of Glass

Years ago I used to play a computer game called Machiavelli: The Prince. In this game you represented one of the illustrious families of old Venice. You engaged in intrigue and traded, like Marco Polo, with the pre Columbian world. The cargo of choice at the beginning of your path to trading empire fame and fortune was always Venetian glass.

The island of Murano was therefore a priority destination in my expedition across the lagoon. This is where Venetian (Murano) glass is actually made and this was the first island on the tour.

When you disembark in Murano, you are guided to one of the glass making factories only a few steps away from the quay. Here you see the glass being made, feel the heat from the furnaces and look on in wonder at this ancient art.

Murano Glass

You can then buy something at the factory shop and take a short stroll to see a bit of the Island. You can’t see much as the boat will soon leave for the next island. You do get an impression of the place and have laid the foundations for a future more detailed visit.

Murano

Burano – Vivid Colour and Lace

The first thing that strikes you about Burano is the vibrant almost surreal colour. It is a real feast for the eyes and a great place to walk around.

There was an opportunity to be guided round a lace making operation – Burano is famous for its lace. I gave this a miss and concentrated on the place rather than its commercial activities. I don’t have much interest in lace anyway! Managed to see quite a bit of the place before moving on.

Burano

Torcello – Land that Time Forgot

Torcello could almost be described as rural Venice due to its green and unspoiled landscape. It is more like a nature reserve than anything else. It’s hard to grasp this island’s historic significance.

Nevertheless, it was from this humble location that the Serene Republic of Venice began its march to commercial greatness. The refugees who founded Venice settled here to escape the ravages of Atilla the Hun and his hordes who were rampaging down the mainland. These horsemen were effective warriors on dry land but they couldn’t walk on water. The islands of the lagoon provided the perfect refuge where people could escape their wrath.

You disembark on the western side of the island and you are immediately in the Venetian countryside. You follow the canal on its eastward course and enjoy a peaceful stroll. You may be interrupted by the posh tourists who occasionally glide up the canal in their expensive water taxis.

You arrive at the eastern side of the island where the last remnants of the civilisation of old Torcello are located. If you wanted pyramids and hanging gardens then you have come to the wrong place. All that remains is a rather charming Byzantine church, but it is a lovely area to explore.

Torcello

After your visit here you return to the pier and enjoy a relaxing cruise back to Saint Mark’s Square while dreaming about the romance and drama of old Venice.