February 28, 2011

Tautavel Valley, Languedoc Region of Southern France

Just to the west of the famous Provence Region of France, is an equally beautiful, but far less visited area known as Languedoc. While beautiful maquis-covered hills, extensive vineyards, and wonderful food make this a travelers paradise already, Languedoc also contains one feature most definitely worth visiting if you are interested in the ancient history of humankind.

In the village of Tautavel is a museum containing the remains of several 450,000 year old individuals, collectively dubbed "Tautavel Man". 450,000 years old you say? That's a lot older than the painted caves, paleolithic sites, and the neanderthal bones you usually hear about.

Homo erectus tautavelensis skull

In fact, you may be thinking, I didn't even know there were humans in Europe nearly half a million years ago. Well, that's because first of all, Tautavel Man was not a modern human (Homo sapiens), but a precursor species (Homo erectus) to both modern humans and Neanderthals. Secondly, he represented what was just one of the early waves of hominid colonization of Europe. These people, if you can call them that, were so ancient that they did not even have fire yet! Although Homo erectus in Africa had been using fire long before that.

The limestone ridges of this region contain numerous caves.
Arago cave is located at that structure near-top right.

In fact, as the climate fluctuated in Europe over the past 1 million years between Ice Age advances and interglacial warming periods, hominids colonized and became extinct several times on the continent.

At the excavation in Arago Cave

It really was not until the Neanderthals, physiologically adapted to arctic conditions, arrived in Europe around 160,000 years ago that hominids were on the continent to stay. Modern humans did not start colonizing Europe until around 40,000 years ago.

Some of the stone tools found at Arago Cave

The bones of Tautavel Man were discovered in Arago Cave just outside of the small village of Tautavel in 1971. These limestone ridges contain numerous caves that were shelters for people over hundreds of thousands of years of frigid Ice Age winters. Since then, several other individuals, including a woman in her 50's and several men in their 20's have been discovered at the site. Evidence from the bones and teeth indicate that the average individual during that time period had a life expectancy of 32-years old. That makes me elderly by those standards.

A reconstruction of the skeleton of the Tautavel Man

At the museum in Tautavel, you can see the timelines of human occupation in the region, plus bones and tools of the primitive hominids. There are numerous displays showing how the climate of the continent shifted back and forth between warm and cold over the 1 million years of the Pleistocene, that represents the period of the most recent Ice Ages.

There are several diaramas showing what the ecosystems looked like during these different time periods and how the people of the era dealt with their environment.

550,000 years ago, the climate of the Tautavel Valley was cold and dry. It contained expanses of grassy prairies and steppe, where herds caribou and horses mingled with argali (a type of bighorn sheep) and tahr (a type of goat) grazed on rocky outcrops.

Approximately 500,000 years ago the climate warmed, and as glaciers receded, the cold high pressure air eased back to the north. This allowed moisture to increase as storms off the Atlantic were again free to move across the region. This resulted in a temperate forested landscape of chestnut, beech, and oak, not dissimilar to those found in Central Europe today. In this era, bison and horses grazed with deer and elk in a landscape conducive to large predators like the cave lion.

During the time of Tautavel Man (about 450,000 years ago), the landscape was growing colder and drier again. The forests thinned and growing expanses of grassland allowed large herds to return to the valley. Rhinocerous were a primary food source for these people, as were caribou, horses, and bison.

By 400,000 years ago, the landscape was fully engulfed in another glacial period, resulting in a steppe tundra-like environment. Musk Ox and other arctic species predominated. It was not long before these early hominids went extinct in the region and it would be devoid of humans until the arrival of other colonizers during another interglacial period.

So, if you ever want to take a trip to beautiful Southern France, do not feel constrained to stay in popular and crowded Provence. There is so much to see and do elsewhere in the region, from 11,000 year old painted caves to half a million year old early hominid sites.. Learn something about the ancient history of humans in Europe, while sipping your fine red wine and cheese amongst beautiful vineyards and snow-capped peaks on the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

February 27, 2011

Climbing to the Summit of Mount Sinai

From Saint Catherines Monastery, you are looking up at the famous Mount Sinai, also known in Egypt as Jebel Musa (Mountain of Moses). It is the 2nd highest peak in Egypt (7,497 feet), about 1,100 feet lower than the adjacent 8,600 foot Mount Catherine. For the few of you who don't know the most basic details of the bible, Mount Sinai was the place Moses supposedly recieved the tablet with the Ten Commandments. However, most biblical scholars now believe it actually happened on a different mountain, perhaps over in nearby Saudi Arabia.

For reasons that were unclear, we were not allowed to just go up and hike to the summit on our own; we had to be led by a local guide. But, the trail to the summit is quite obvious and there is not real chance to get lost. I suspect it was just to help support the local economy with tip money. The hike from the monastery to the summit takes about 2.5 hours along the gentle contours of the camel trail. Websites claim you can also hire a camel for the trek. We didn't see that option, but we also apparently were not there during the peak season. 

At the first pass before beginning the main ascent, there is a great view of the next valley

I read that most people either leave at 3am to catch the sunrise or 3pm to catch the sunset. One of the reasons is that it is too hot in the middle of the day. But, we left around 8am and had no problems, especially since it was December and pretty cool outside. Personally, I am glad we did it in the day because then I was able to see and photgraph the entire route, rather than doing half of it in the dark.

Looking up at the mountain you still must climb

The climb is moderately strenuous for the first 70% of the way and then become strenuous in the final 1000 foot approach to the summit. That last part was a killer.
Looking back into the valley from near the summit

Prior to coming here, I just assumed I'd see something ecologically similar to what we see in the deserts of North America; that the higher we got the more vegetation there would be. But, that was not the case at all. There was no vegetation anywhere...just barren brown granitic rock. I guess when you get only 1" of rain per year, increasing elevation for condensation does not matter if there are no clouds. Even for the rain that does fall, with humidity levels under 10%, it doesn't last long before evaporating away.

Upon reaching the summit, there is a spectacular panorama of starkly barren mountains and the Red Sea faintly visible on the distant horizon. At the summit is also a small Greek Orthodox Church and a small mosque. It is cool up there, especially in winter and even more so if there is a breeze.

After enjoying the view, it was time to head down the steep-side containing 3700 rocky steps called the "Steps of Repetence". About a 1000 feet down you come into a small basin containing a water containment wall, which supports about the only plants we saw anywhere, including some grass and a few 500-year old cypress trees. This wall was built hundreds of years ago to protect the monastery from flood damage. This Elijiah's Basin, where the 70 wise men apparently waited for Moses, while he went to the top to get the Ten Commandments.
Elijiah's Basin below

After leaving the basin, you enter a narrow slot canyon with a very steep drop. Soon you will see that way down below you is Saint Catherines Monastery and you are thinking, I am going down there?

But, yes, you will make it and when you are done you can sit down to enjoy some nice Bedouin tea and it will be all the worth it to see such a spectacular site of geologic and cultural significance.

Saint Catherines Monastery way below

February 26, 2011

Saint Catherine's Monastery and the "Burning Bush"

After our long day on the road from Cairo the day before, we didn't see anything of the Sinai Mountains until we awoke the next morning. So, to our amazement, we awoke to a beautiful sunrise on the barren rocky cliffs rising 1000 feet or more above the hotel. We had a busy day ahead, so we ate an early breakfast and were off to St. Catherine's Monastery, as well as, the climb to the summit of Mount Sinai.

Our hotel at sunrise

St. Catherine's village, where all the hotels are, is located about 3 miles from St. Catherine's Monastery. We drove up the road and then parked at the tourist lot with the tour buses. From there, there was a long path that you walk to the Monastery and the base of Mount Sinai.

The trail back to the parking lot after climbing Mount Sinai

St. Catherine's Monastery is the oldest continuously occupied Monastery in the world. The first chapel was built on the site in 330 AD on the orders of Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine at the site of the famed "burning bush". In 550 AD, a larger monastery was constructed. Following the sweep of Islam across the region in the 7th century, the monastery became isolated from most of the rest of the Christian world. But, it is said that Mohammed himself personally guarunteed the protection of this monastery and it remained an isolated pocket of Christianity through the Crusades and until modern times.

While this monastery is generically of the Eastern Rites, its isolation resulted in it having its own designation as an independent diocese. It is governed by its own monks, but the Archbishop of Sinai is selected jointly by the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox church, plus those from Moscow, Alexandria, Istanbul, and Antioch. At any one time, there are usually only about 20 monks living on site, making it the smallest Christian diocese in the world.

The little wood boxes at the top of the wall are the original "entrances"

Because of its isolation and the wealth of religious artifacts inside, the monastery was always at risk for attack from theives and vandals. One way they kept outsiders out was that there were no doors at the ground level. To get in and out they had to lower a rope-bucket or ladder from the upper walls. Obviously, in the more modern era of tourism, a ground door has been installed.

The "Burning Bush"

Inside, the main thing people come to see is what is claimed to be the original "burning bush" from the Old Testament, where God spoke to Moses and told him to free the Isrealites from Egypt. In actuality, this particular bush is a species of blackberry of the rose family that lives in wadis and streamsides in the Middle East. This particular bush is thought to be about 1000 years old. It was apparently brought in by pilgrims in the 10th century during the construction of the Chapel of the Burning Bush.

A little bit creepy, but also fascinating room in the monastery is the place where the skulls of every monk who has lived here is stored. While only around 20 may be there at any time, given this monastery has been in place for 1500 or more years, the skulls add up.

Outside the monastery are the gardens. Being so isolated from society, these monks had to be self-sufficient. Luckily for them, there were natural springs for irrigation despite the extreme aridity of the region. Something tells me these springs may have played a larger role in the original construction of this monastery and religious writings than anything else and that this site being where the "burning bush" was is no accident.

Some of the monks live high up above the Monastery in simple stone dwellings. They too have small gardens. I wonder if they haul their water up to it in buckets or if there are also small springs up there.

On the next post, I will describe the hike to the summit of Mount Sinai, said to be the place where Moses recieved the Ten Commandments.

February 25, 2011

Niaux Cave in the Ariege Region of France

People familiar with the ancient paleolithic heritage of Europe are familiar with the Ice Age cave paintings of the famous Altamira Cave in Spain, or Lascaux and Chauvet in France. What is less well known is that there are some 350 caves in France and Spain alone that contain cave art. One of the best preserved and yet less well known sites is Niaux Cave.

Looking up at the Pyrenees foothills from Niaux Cave

Looking down on Tarascon from the Pyrenees foothills

Niaux Cave is located in the beautiful Ariege region of France, at the base of the Pyrenees. There is much to see in the area beyond the cave and the best home base to do so is the small town of Tarascon-sur-Ari├Ęge. It contains great restaurants, beautiful surroundings, and numerous activities.

Notice the spears in the sides of these bison

A European Lion carving on bone

The Niaux Cave Paintings date back to the period between 10,500-11,500 BC near the end of the Ice Age. It contains paintings of prehistoric animal species such as bison, ibex, horses, auroch...all of which are extinct in the region, plus red deer and other species. Many of them show signs of being hunted, such as spears in their sides. It is not clear why people ventured in so deeply into caves to make these paintings. Perhaps they were ritualistic ceremonies made by shamans to bring big game to the valleys. Perhaps they were teaching tools in the cold winter months for adults to train young hunters. Whatever the reasons, the quality of the art and the state of preservation after so many thousands of years is outstanding.


There are tours into the cave, with several French language tours per day and one English tour. But, the tours are small and often fill up fast (or needing reservations), so they have built a museum called the Prehistoric Art Park which contains an exact replica of the cave and its paintings, as well as, containing many prehistoric artifacts that were discovered in and around the cave. This museum provides visitors a great opportunity to get a feel for the cave without going in it, as well as, an introduction to the scene if you are doing the tour. We went in early April (the off season), so there was no issue getting a tour.

A museum interpreter demonstrating making fire for a school group

Since photographs are not allowed in the cave itself, the photographs you see here are from the museum. But, it really did look that way inside. The Prehistoric Art Park also contains some outdoor exhibits where interpreters demonstrate the making of stone, wood, and bone tools and how they made fire using fungi, moss, and grass.

Beyond the cave and museum, Tarascon is also a great jumping off place for exploring the nearby Pyrenees Mountains including the tiny nation of Andorra.

The Pyrenees near Tarascon in April

February 24, 2011

Heading off to the Sinai- with a slight disruption on the way

On day two in Egypt we set off for the Sinai Peninsula. At the time we booked the trip, and even after our first night in Egypt, we were still were unsure if we were going to be joined up with some other Western tourists. As it turned out, nope, it was just the three of us.
But, what made it even more surprising was who was going with us. First we had Mohammed, our English-speaking tour guide. Then we had not one, but two "drivers". But, since only one actually did any driving the entire trip, we concluded that the other was really a body guard. But, then even Mohammed was surprised to see a fourth member join the van. It was a plain clothes tourism police officer assigned specifically to us by the government because we were Americans going to the Sinai.

Since Mohammed hadn't actually taken any Americans to Sinai before, he did not expect the extra company. This police officer stood over 6 feet tall, rarely spoke, wore a blue suit and tie and large sunglasses, and carried a gun. We weren't really sure what to think of this; did it mean Sinai really was dangerous? Well, we sort of felt safer having the extra presence.

It's an amazing site to see tankers cruising across the desert
So, there we were, three tourists and four Egyptians in a van. That felt weird. After leaving Cairo, we went across some really boring low desert areas and then things got interesting when we arrived at the Suez Canal. There is a deep tunnel that goes under the canal. But, all along the road at the entrance to the tunnel were the dozens of Army soldiers on both sides with their machine guns. In addition, there were soldiers manning mortars and carrying grenade launchers!

For obvious reasons, I did not take any pictures...It was not allowed.

In the distance, you can see the ships lined up in the alkaline lakes in the center of the canal

As we drove to the otherside of the canal, the van began to sputter and we pulled over at a small run-down cafe. Our van was dead and they had to call over the Min headquarters in Cairo for a new van. Unfortunately, that was going to take 3-4 hours, so we just had to sit there and wait. Within minutes, a jeep full of about 8 soldiers with machine guns pulled up and parked next to us.

At first we just assumed they were stopping at the cafe for a break. But, they sat there and waited and waited and waited. Soon it became obvious they were there to protect us. The Egyptian government did not want anything bad to happen to American tourists and those soldiers were there to make sure these three stranded tourists were safe. Once our new van arrived, they were off.

We lost a lot of time and thus had to give up on one of our planned stops. But, we did stop at Ayun Musa. This was supposedly the spot where Moses lead the Israelites across the Red Sea and then camped out. These natural springs contain numerous palms and tamarisk, and various deep holes (mostly filled with sand) that can be dug for water.

Mohammed, Kathleen, and Linda looking into the well at Ayun Musa

Geological evidence indicates that in antiquity, the entire low-flat region around the Suez Canal was actually covered by a shallow brackish lake (like the two that still exist there today) that was perhaps even shallow enough to walk across. Thus, the Isreaelites may simply have walked across this stretch of the "Red Sea" before the story was embellished into the "parting" of the Red Sea.

Hills of the Western Sinai near sunset
After leaving Ayun Musa, we drove for a few more hours arriving at St. Catherines at the base of Mount Sinai after dark for the night. That is where we will discuss our adventures on the next post.

February 23, 2011

Arrival in Cairo and First Impressions

Our trip to Egypt was 11 days long. It included the normal 7 day stint in Cairo and Luxor, but we specifically added a 4-day extension to visit the Sinai Peninsula because I really wanted to see Mount Sinai and the Red Sea. At the time, the United States State Department had no warnings about Egypt in general, but had issued warnings in regards to the Sinai that it was not recommended for American citizens. But, we figured we were reasonably safe and decided to go for it.

Flying over Cairo on approach

We flew from Pisa to Rome and then onto Cairo. Upon disembarking the airplane, we walked up to the customs area and sat and waited for our tour guide from Min Travel to meet us. Once Mohammed arrived, he walked us up to customs where we filled out our paperwork and they stamped our passport book.

The columns and rebar are there for the family to build the next story sometime

Since it was late in the day, Mohammed and his driver Tarik, drove us to our hotel on the edge of Giza. It was a fascinating drive (almost an hour) past the massive sprawling city of Cairo. The poverty is so obvious right from the highway. Thousands of shoddy brick buildings sit half built with columns and rebar sticking out of them. Often there are tents or domiciles on the roofs and unfinished floors. It looks like people simply build their rooms one brick at a time when they find the money.

A war zone? No, just a normal neighborhood in Cairo

Clearly there are virtually no building codes. My thoughts are that when Egypt gets hit with a catastrophic earthquake, and it will given its location near a subduction zone, the devastation is going to be overwhelming and almost unlike anything any of us have ever seen. Remember, nearly 13 million people live in this substandard construction.

A early morning sunrise shot of the pyramids

From our hotel, we could see the pyramids rising above the tenaments with the sounds of chaotic activity in the streets below. There were families with their donkeys and garbage-filled canals lining the streets. The call to prayers rang out from the minarets of the mosques.  Dinner that night was not authentic Mediterranean food, but rather normal fare Westerners were used to. We were a bit disappointed, because we really wanted to try those all-time favorites of hummus, babaganoush, falafel, and cous cous.