Gold Hill is a community formed around the first gold strike in Colorado, a strike that precipitated the 1859 Colorado gold rush. Earlier this year the Four Mile Canyon wildfire destroyed many surrounding homes, and swept across the historic Gold Hill cemetery. I visited last weekend while I was hanging out with my folks. I’m generally ambivalent about taking photos in cemeteries, but I liked the few that I managed to take in the misty rain.
Three old Greek ladies with gold cross necklaces, swimming and smoking, smoking and swimming. They wash their feet off in the little beach shower and join their friends at a larger table.
It’s windy and the shirtless boy that serves the dakos and souvlaki and raki puts the napkins under the bread baskets, a bracelet guarding against the evil eye sliding down his wrist.
On the west side the stand is bordered by a buttressed Ottoman building that everyone pees inside of. East is the beach, a small shower head mounted in concrete by the shore, a Byzantine wall eroding out of the sand, more beach, then the site at the far end. I could probably see people working there from the stand, but I’m always the one working, and I wonder if they watch us hopping on walls and scratching the dirt during the day. Mountains rise above the shore, craggy and cloudy in a very Greek there-could-be-gods-here sort of way.
The sunsets are always lovely, but not spectacular with gaudy colors. I’m watching another one, alone, drinking my second big Mythos out of a small cup and eating some salty peanuts. I hunt through the shredded pile of skins, find another one, and pop it into my mouth.
There are grape vines everywhere, and trees shade the diners. Two old men shout across my table at each other, discussing their day or the weather or I don’t know. An ice cream cooler is next to the beer cooler, so it’s a popular spot for the archaeologists after we finish our day. The plunge into the ocean after a brutally hot day on site is too sweet for words. So we come by and swim, and chat about our day, dripping salty water into the dust under the trees at the souvlaki stand.
The souvlaki stand has a puppy out back, and just yesterday I noticed that there is a low wall behind him that is built into the bedrock that eats through the shore. The bedrock has been rounded off on top, and a few flower pots are placed in the crevices. We have been uncovering rocks just like it on site, with obsidian blades tucked in between them, the neolithic less than a meter underneath the Byzantine.
I’ve finished my beer and my peanuts, the sun has gone down and the tables full of greek families are emptying, one by one, to go eat dinner and tend to the large olive groves that line every road. We are lucky, archaeologists, for being able to stay in one place for this long, and we tend to find things like the souvlaki stand to make us comfortable, so far from home.
The permit arrived on Friday just after breakfast, so we spent a bit of time tidying up the site and finalizing area assignments before the long (Saturday AND Sunday) weekend. On Saturday I realized that I hadn’t had a day off in two weeks, and one day I had before that I spent hiking up three waterfalls inside of Wadi Mujib, a gorgeous canyon in Jordan. So, needless to say, I was tired and spent the day mooching around site, resting, and swimming.
On Sunday I was feeling restless and while I was still tired, it was time to travel. All of the ferries in Ayios Nikolaos had gone for the day, so we caught a ferry in Elounda to Spinalonga, a small island fortress. Spinalonga was built in 1579 to guard against the Ottoman threat. There are some nice ruined Ottoman houses on the island. During the early 20th century it was used as a leper colony, and seeing as I’ve already excavated at one leper colony in Hawaii, I thought I’d visit another island leposarium. Besides, who wants to see another classical site? Yeesh, not me.
It was a blindingly hot day, so the hike around the island was a little tedious, but there were some nice details in the architecture and reuse of the early fortress ashlars that made it worth it. I was also worried that it would be completely overrun by tourists, but it seemed like it was mostly Greek families who came for the nice swimming off of the battlements. The ruins of the leposarium were unsurprisingly grim, even in the lovely setting.
So, I got a bit of touring in. I’m not sure where I’ll go next weekend and I suppose I’ll try to fit Knossos in at some point, but I think I’ve gone into archaeological site freefall, where one pile of stones starts to look a whole lot like the next. Speaking of piles of stones, progress in my part of the trench is a bit slow, but we’ve started to move a bit today, getting rubble cleared and walls disambiguated. I’m working in a part of the trench that has been actively avoided until now, so that maybe says something.
More about the archaeology when I actually find something, I suppose.
The music downstairs shakes the windows and my tongue is still numb from drinking boiling hot coffee. Yes, it’s wedding season in Dhiban. As seasonal visitors to this large town we inevitably become enmeshed in the local social scene and attend at few weddings each season. After slinging a pickaxe all day the absolutely last thing I want to do is go to a wedding, but they are socially awkward to avoid.
It seems that a lot of people liked the post Haram at the Beach, so I thought I’d open up another tiny little window into Jordan–the local wedding parties. The definitive work on this subject has been done by Jennifer Jacobs, and I can only provide a faint ghost of her analysis, based mostly on what she’s told me and what I’ve been able to pick up on my own.
As an ajanibia athar (foreign woman archaeologist – probably misspelled) I always feel scruffy when I attend a wedding, especially since the unmarried women there are out of their burqas and dressed to the nines in tight-fitting club gear and blingin’ high heels. The married women are still dressed up, but are covered, and the old ladies are mostly in full black. There aren’t any men–they have their own party, ostensibly guarding the house by drinking coffee in a tent nearby. After greeting the bride (more about her later) we are served several rounds of flaming hot coffee to start–it’s a special green bedouin coffee that tastes like a strong herbal tea and is served by the hostess out of a thermos into one or two cups. She stands over you as you drink it, and you are expected to drink it in a single gulp. It is bad form to serve cold coffee, so it’s always scalding. After you burn the entire interior of your mouth, you shake the cup, indicating that she can move on to serve/burn the next person. Then there are rounds of tea and sweets and I usually try to sit next to a really old lady so that we can pretend to understand one another while we engage in small talk. My Arabic is still completely awful, but I can at least exchange pleasantries.
After sitting and drinking tea for a while, the Persian pop starts thumping and the unmarried women dance with each other. There is some circle dancing and ululation, but it is club-like dancing for the most part. The dancing can get mildly risque, which can be strange with women you don’t really know and hardly ever see out of their veils. The bride sits on a big, overstuffed chair on a platform several feet above the action. At the couple I’ve been to she often looks bored and mildly distressed and is dressed in the most unbelievable sequin-Barbie concoction with sky-high heels and intense make-up. We dance for her, and sometimes she comes down to dance with us. An interesting side note–I was wearing a big scarf to make one of my short-sleeve shirts less “risque” but the scarf was triumphantly torn off of me, not once but twice now. The comfort and security of being around all women and being able to show bare arms and legs was an extraordinary feeling.
Anyway, after some dancing and awkward chit-chat with older ladies, the groom’s female relations come in, chanting their acceptance of the bride into the family. It’s a very moving scene and the chanting is interspersed with ululation. This chanting happens off and on throughout the night, and is accompanied by fantastic drumming. I’m told that the chants are customized for each occasion with specific references to the bride and her circumstances.
Throughout all of this, there are some great intergenerational interactions going on. There are always hoards of little kids around, getting in the way and begging for attention, but generally just running around in a big pack and enjoying themselves. The younger married women sit inside the diwwan (receiving room) and frown. If you talk to any one of them, they’ll instantly break into a smile and be chatty, but the default is a look of general disapproval. The old ladies are all outside of the hot diwwan, sitting in chairs in long rows and hectoring the small children and chatting with each other. They are my favorite, and before I sit down with one of the ladies I’ll exchange several kisses on alternate cheeks with them. I used to be confused with the whole cheek kissing thing in Turkey and England, with one, two, or three kisses given, but this is just a long series of kisses until either party seems to want to stop. There’s probably some order to it, but I generally lose count after five. Quite a few of the older ladies have facial tattoos, and a few of them have gone through a curious set of motions with me, touching each of their tattoos and touching the corresponding place on my face, like they are transferring them to me. They also quite like holding my hand and pinching my cheeks. After the relentless negative attention from men we ajanib attar get while walking down the street, it can be quite comforting to be with the women in their own environment.
So the night winds down, and the next day the bride is taken to the groom’s house for a small, informal marriage ceremony. After living in this world of women’s world of sisters and grandmothers it seems like it might be scary to move into a man’s household, but I’ve never asked. I just go to the women’s parties, drink hot tea, dance, and watch the summer wedding fireworks that dot the horizon.
Last night I watched the sun set over four countries. Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all visible from the beach on the Red Sea south of Aqaba and I had plenty of time to contemplate geopolitical vagaries as I dug my toes into the sand. A hot wind was blowing in from the Jordanian desert and I watched the various families settle in around me. The beach is a liminal zone in Muslim countries, where negotiations of culture, politics, and religion come into high relief.
The public beaches at the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, and the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean all have their own particular local mores and acceptable configurations of the highly contested terrain of women’s bodies. Haram is a very rough equivalent of the word “sinful” in Arabic. As a Western lady working in the Middle East, I hear it a lot. Pork is haram, chicken is not haram, exposing one’s hands may or may not be haram. At first I tried fairly hard to figure out how to behave and dress respectfully, but it is contingent on so many factors that it is incredibly difficult–probably impossible since I am foreign anyway. Even my most conservative mosque-going wear was rejected at the Great Mosque in Damascus and I had to put on an Orko-like cloak to enter. So now I just do what I can in most situations to not draw too much attention to myself, with one notable exception: The Beach. I wear a regular swimsuit and get stared at, but there are usually enough other scantily-clad foreigners to soften the impact. My tattoos also attract attention, perhaps only slightly more than on Western beaches where people pretend not to notice.
Anyway, I will always remember the first time I saw a conservative young couple come to the beach. She was dressed in a full burqa and niqab (face-veil) and he was in short swim trunks. She sat down under and umbrella and fanned herself as he went splashing off into the sea. He occasionally came back to check on her, but otherwise she just sat there, sweating in the 50 C heat.
Since then I have seen this same scenario played out several times, with different age-ranges in different states of dress. I’ve only seen the vaunted burkhini twice, both times on pre-teens who were passing through another liminal state, becoming a sexually mature (and therefore covered) woman.
So it was a familiar scene last night, a woman with her husband and four children, she completely covered and the rest of the family ready for the beach. She sat in the sand while her husband played with the children and splashed around. A scholar that was more sympathetic would probably say that she was still the nucleus of the family, that she guarded with the rest of the beach gear, but she seemed very much forgotten in all of the fun. So, to my surprise, she started playfully throwing rocks at her family and they giggled and dodged the rocks. This continued until after sunset, when she finally hiked up her burqa and waded into the surf up to her knees. I looked around and saw that many women were doing this semi-covert dusk activity and that couples were drawing closer together in the dim light of shisha coals. There’s been daytime swimming as well, women being held tight by their husbands while their burqa swirls around them. I guess it might not be so different than when I wore a t-shirt to the pool as a self-conscious little kid.
I think I will continue to find beaches in Muslim countries fascinating for both the changing ideas of how women should dress and how foreigners are integrated into the social scene.
We emerged from the Syrian/Jordan border crossing in the white haze of a dust storm. I had my headphones in and the music changed the tenor of the landscape from majestic, mysterious beauty to morbid post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The crossing had gone smoothly, and my passport is beyond full, so they’ve started stamping in strange places, on the top and in the margins. What I remember most about this whole process is looking out the window at one of the guards that had sidled up to the car and checking out his well-worn, pearl-inlay sidearm. He would run his thumb up and down one side of it, absently, lovingly. So very Texas.
Our driver stopped at the Duty Free shop in the middle and picked up a bunch of cigarettes, which he then delivered to a small shop on the Jordanian side. A little side business never hurt anyone.
A little while over the border (these are Middle East distances, which are farther than, say, Europe distances, but don’t touch the vastness of the highways stretching across the great American West) turned a corner and Amman emerged through the dust storm, rolling hills made geometrical by the blocky, concrete houses covering every possible surface. Traffic intensified to a proper Middle Eastern fever pitch, but it is a highly organic mess, with its own internal structure and rules. Once you know these rules and devoid yourself of driver-related ego (hey, that’s my lane!) then it makes more sense than driving in the States. In fact, driving back home becomes stultifying and other drivers seem dangerously oblivious.
I headed to Jerash and hung out with Alan Walmsley’s team at their deluxe dig house. They’re unearthing some really interesting classical and Islamic archaeology over there and they were happy to let me bother them with methodology questions. I’ll be headed down to Madaba in the next couple of days, to familiar stomping grounds, but for now I’m hanging out in downtown Amman, trying to finish up some work. I added a bunch of photos to my Flickr stream from Syria, etc: