Our Cruise of the Middle East

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Norwegian Jade at sea

We planned this cruise from Athens, Greece, to Dubai, UAE, for several years, and it got canceled or delayed because of war and Covid19. We finally got our chance to see areas of the world that were on our bucket lists.

Our initial plan was too visit the wonders of Egypt and Jordan with tours off the ship. About 9 months before the cruise we realized we wanted to have ore time so we made plans to visit Jordan and Egypt before getting on the ship. This turned out to be one of our best moves ever, we were very blessed to spend the time to really meet some of the people as well as seeing some of the most interesting areas of the countries. This is the story of the cruise, we will take you through the ports of departure during the cruise and some exciting moments and experiences during the cruise.

We flew to Athens, Greece where we were to depart on our cruise adventure. We decided to stay out near the port in Piraeus instead of the city primarily because there was a marathon that weekend and getting in and out of the city was nearly impossible.

In Piraeus the streets are lined with what looks like Orange trees, they are of a sort, but the fruit is very bitter so not edible. Greeks do use the green, unripe fruit or the peel of the mature ones for making preserves, but apparently, it takes boiling two or three times (and throwing away the water) to get rid of the excessive bitterness before adding tons of sugar to make them edible. We did not buy any to bring home!

We stayed in a cute hotel called the Port Square Hotel, it is very new and the rooms were very nice. They had a wonderful restaurant associated with the hotel. We walked through the port city and had an enjoyable two days before boarding the ship.

We boarded the ship and found our stateroom. We had been on this ship before, going through the Panama Canal. The Norweigan Cruise Line’s Jade is one of the smaller cruise ships, it can hold about 2000 passengers, we had about 1500 passengers aboard the ship. We departed early that evening on route to our first stop, Kusadasi Turkey.

Port of Kusadasi and Ephesus Turkey

Port of Kusadasi, Turkey

Our first stop was the Port of Kusadasi. We had hired an expert guide for the area, she met us at the ship, and we headed out to Meryemana Kultur Park, or “Mary’s House,” and then on to visit the ancient city of Ephesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Center.

Ephesus was once an ancient port city whose well-preserved ruins are in modern-day Turkey. The city was once considered the most important Greek city and trading center in the Mediterranean region. Ephesus has survived multiple attacks and changed hands many times between conquerors. The city was first occupied by the ancient Greeks and later the Romans. It was also a hotbed of early Christian evangelism and remains an important archaeological site and Christian pilgrimage destination.

House of the Virgin Mary, Meryem Ana Evi

We arrived at Meryemana Kultur Parki, or “Mary’s House,” fortunately before the tour buses, giving us an excellent opportunity to visit without fighting the crowds!

Many Christians believe the Blessed Virgin Mary spent her last years at this location before her death. Mary accompanied St. John to Asia Minor and settled in a small house outside Ephesus at Mt. Koressos. The house has been restored and is now a chapel. One may never know exactly where Mary is laid to rest, but stopping at this site gives one time to reflect. We walked through the old house and past the altar to the place to light a candle; it was a very special moment like our experience in Bethlehem and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We are happy we had this experience because it brings us closer to some of the most important people to Jesus.


Christian research and theory on the Virgin Mary and St John

In the Christian world, Ephesus has significant importance. The city of Ephesus had the most population density, a big harbor, and a very important trade center in the east.

Very little is mentioned in the scriptures of St John’s life from the descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) until he was exiled to Patmos Island. There is almost no information about the life of the Holy Mother.

St John the Evangelist came to Asia to spread the “Good News.” According to the gospel of John, John and Mary Mother of Jesus were standing at the cross and Jesus told his mother that John was her son and he would take care of Mary. Apostle John could not depart from Mary because Jesus entrusted her to his care when he was on the cross. It is believed he and Holy Mother Mary inhabited Ephesus or somewhere near the city.

Mary’s residence in Ephesus and her “dormition” gained recognition also from Pope Benedict XV. He interprets it as follows:

 “From that hour the disciple took her to his own home…(John 19:27) When Saint John set out to Ephesus he also took Mary there, and from here Blessed Holy Mary was taken up to heaven on wings.” (Pope Benedict XV, Good Friday homily on Sacred Mysteries)

In real terms, it can be said that the announcement of the Gospel consistently in Ephesus started when Saint Paul lived here for three years. (54-57 AD). In Ephesus, the presence of Jews was highly remarkable. Saint Paul started announcing “Good News” to Jews and continued this mission for three months.

Roman City of Ephesus

Roman ruins of Ephesus

Ephesus was an ancient port city whose well-preserved ruins are in modern-day Turkey. The city was once considered the most important Greek city and the most important trading center in the Mediterranean region. Ephesus has survived multiple attacks and changed hands many times between conquerors. It was also a hotbed of early Christian evangelism and remained an important archaeological site and pilgrimage destination.

People had been inhabiting the area since 6000 BC. The city as the ruins indicate, was built by the Romans on the river Caster and they had a large harbor out to the Mediterranean. The city was famous in its day for the nearby Temple of Artemis (completed around 550 BC), Its many monumental buildings included the Library of Celsus and a theater capable of holding 24,000 spectators.

The ruins of the city are massive after spending only about 90 minutes we walked down the main road that ran through the city not even going down the side streets or through the area where there was once a thriving market.

A funny historical story was that the Library of Celsus right across the road from the brothel. Supposedly the men would tell their wives they were going to the Library, but there was a tunnel under the road allowing entrance, unseen, to the brothel! Hard to believe a story like that!

Down the way was the theater, these are always amazing in all of the old Roman cities they always had a place for the people to gather. While many were small and only for the wealthy. The large Roman Theaters held thousands of people.

Further down were the bathrooms, quite interesting seat after seat next to each other with an interesting sewer system

We continued down the main street to view many ruins of buildings and sculptures. There were a few buildings that had been homes, but the majority were for all the people to use.

Ephesus was the largest ruins of an ancient city we had seen. It represents the importance of the city when the harbor was open. Over the years silt filled the harbor and waterway to the Mediterranian Sea, with the loss of the harbor the city lost its importance as a trading location and fell into ruin.

Here are a few exciting pictures, there are so many to show.

Temple of Artemis Built-in 6th Century BC

We headed over to what was once the Temple of Artemis, the only thing left is the single column from what was once a super famous artifact from before Christ. The worship of Artemis in Ephesus had a powerful following. During the Roman period, prominent generals and politicians would come to Ephesus to offer sacrifices to the statue of the goddess, also known as Diana. Although many other gods were worshiped at Ephesus, Artemis was the most important deity in the 1st century.

The Temple of Artemis is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Only the Great Pyramid of Giza has survived the world’s seven ancient wonders.

Artemis in Ephesus was worshiped for hundreds of years before the Greeks. The first record of a temple to Artemis at Ephesus is one that was destroyed by a flood in the 7th century BC. It was rebuilt by King Croesus of Lydia, out of marble around 550 BC, but that version was destroyed by fire in 356 BC. Local myth says that Artemis was away helping Olympias give birth to Alexander the Great when the fire broke out. Allegedly, that’s why Artemis was unable to protect her shrine from destruction.

The Temple of Artemis was rebuilt yet again, but on an even grander scale, taking 120 years to finish. Ancient historians such as Pliny and Antipater called it one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the time of Saint Paul, the Temple of Artemis was one of the largest and most impressive structures in the Mediterranean region, four times larger than the Parthenon in Rome.

According to Pliny, the Temple of Artemis was situated on a platform of about 425 by 239 feet. The temple was 342 by 163 feet, with 127 columns 60 feet tall and over 6 feet thick. 36 of these columns were sculptured and overlaid with gold. The Temple was built northeast of the city on marshy soil to protect the structure from earthquakes. At one time, the waves of the Mediterranean could come right up to one side of the temple.

Artemis’s worship dominated Ephesus until the influence of Christianity eclipsed it over the next 200 years after Paul. The Goths (a tribe from present-day Germany) destroyed the temple in 262 AD, and the worship of Artemis eventually faded into history. The temple’s ruins were reused in other building projects, and today, only foundations and one column remain of what was once considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Local Shopping at FIRCA

As is always the case, the guide takes you to a local artisan. This time we went to a pottery/ceramic store (we did not want to see any rugs, we purchased two in Istanbul in 2016). The place is named FIRCA, and they showed us how they make their pottery. The materials they use to differentiate them from others pottery makers. It was interesting, and the colors were amazing. We wanted something different rather than a bowl, vase, or dish. They showed us a pottery gramophone that is amazing. You place an iPhone in the back, and the music it produces is incredible! We have it on our fireplace mantel and it is a super way to have music and it really is amazing and it is beautiful piece of pottery.

There was so much to enjoy. The religious experiences of thinking about St. John and Saint Paul having preached in Ephesus, along with the home of the Virgin Mary, were exciting. The ruins are spectacular! We feel so blessed to have been able to experience it all and will relive those memories over the years. So happy to have visited Ephesus.

We returned to the Jade for the evening departure to Haifa, Israel.

Port of Haifa, Israel

John and I had been to Israel on previous trips, visiting many of the wonders of the country’s vast history and religious significance, but we never looked around Haifa. John’s daughter-in-law Amanda had told him not to miss the gardens and visit Rosh Hanikra.

We boarded the tour bus, we rarely do bus tours and headed to The Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa. We were looking forward to a stroll through the striking Bahai gardens and viewing the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, a hallowed place for those of the Baha’i faith. When we got there, we were told the gardens were closed. The tour company did not check for updates. Everyone was disappointed.

Our guide took us to an old Byzantine church in Shavei Tzion where beautiful mosaic floors had been discovered. It is impressive what was done with stones to create great art on the floors of the churches.  During the Byzantine period, this church was constructed on the south side of the Tel. The church was excavated in 1955,  headed by M.W. Prausnitz, who reconstructed the beautiful mosaic floors. The archaeologists determined that the church was built in two stages, the first in 485/6 AD (according to an inscription on the mosaic floor) and the second in the 6th century. According to 1999 excavations, the church was expanded during the 6th century.

Rosh Hanikra

Our next stop was a famous tourist spot, Rosh Hanikra. It has the world’s steepest cable car ride, which descends at a 60-degree angle down toward a cluster of limestone grottos. It also has a significant historical value from various wars and was once an important passage for the trains between Egypt, Israel and Lebanon and later by the British extended the tunnels to connect Istanbul and Cairo. We got in the cable car, and it happened quickly but is a very steep ride. The vistas were beautiful as we looked over the Mediteranean Sea. Since this is right on the border with Lebanon there were ships watching the border in the sea between the countries. There is also a border gate between the countries right near the cable car. Difficult to see but there is a military person behind the blinded door..Hard to imagine this kind of border control!

We walked through tunnels to view the many grottos cut from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea into the limestone walls.

It’s an exhilarating experience to ride the cable car and then behold the ancient grottos.

The Bridge and the Railway Tunnel at Rosh Hanikra

Since we had the chance to enter the Palestine Railways train tunnel, only for a short distance, we learned more about the tunnel and its history. The first tunnels werecarved through the rocks. It was used to link Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt.

In World War II the British planned a rail line between Istanbul and Cairo. South African troops were employed to blast three railway tunnels through the rock of the Rosh Hanikra cliffs.  The British and their allies also built a suspended bridge at Rosh Hanikra. The train served the British for a while including transporting Jewish concentration camp survivors to exchange for German descendants living in Palestine. 

Railway Tunnel at Rosh Hanikra
Railway Tunnel at Rosh Hanikra

The Rosh Hanikra railway bridge was bombed by Jewish resistance fighters in February 1948 to prevent Arab forces from using the route in the War of Independence. A few months later the State of Israel was established. The railway was too expensive to repair and so the tunnels were soon sealed and remained closed. 

We had planned to take the train from Haifa into Jerusalem the next morning, however, John’s leg was not looking very good and was causing a lot of pain when walking. We went to the ship’s doctor, and yes the leg was very infected. We were given antibiotics and an antibiotic cream with some bandages to take care of it. They recommended not walking much, so we stayed on the ship. Fortunately, we spent a few days in Jerusalem on an earlier trip to Israel and had wonderful memories. John was definitely on the mend as we continued the cruise.

Cruising the Suez Canal

Map of Suez Canal showing route ship would take
Map View of Suez Canal
Port Fouad Mosque Across From Port Said as viewed from Norwegian Jade
Port Fouad Mosque Across From Port Said

We entered the canal at the northern terminus of Port Said The itinerary said we would stop at Port Said for 60 minutes then enter the canal. As it turned out Janice got up around 3:30 AM and was able to watch our entry into the canal at Port Said. It was exciting and after what seemed to be a bit of winding between buoys on entry we straightened out into the canal. It appeared to Janice it was a “one-way” passage as we passed the Port Fouad Mosque on the east side of the canal across from Port Said.

At some point, Janice saw the Pilot ship (the captains that take the boat through the canal) and an Electrician launch where two men got off and boarded our ship. No idea why they were needed, but the ship kept moving.

The Suez Canal was first opened in 1869 and was a one-way canal. Ships had specific schedules for north and southbound traffic. The canal was widened in 2015. The significant expansion included the deepening of certain parts of the canal and the construction of a new 35 km-long shipping lane along part of the main waterway. The expansion allowed the canal to accommodate two-way traffic along part of the route and the transiting of larger vessels.

At some point, we made our way under the Suez Canal Bridge, also known as the Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, and the Al-Salem Bridge, amongst other names. The bridge links the continents of Africa and Asia. The bridge connects the Sinai Peninsula with the mainland of Egypt. While there are many things one could see in the Sinai, it remains one of the most dangerous places in the world, so crossing under the bridge was as close as we would ever get. The bridge was magnificent!

As we made our way down the canal, the day was long. there were Memorials and new construction. On November 5, 2017, the Suez Canal authority placed a monument on the western banks of the new canal on the occasion of the construction of the new section of the canal.

. We have now visited two of the most famous canals in the world; Panama, and the Suez Canal.

Safaga, Egypt, and Aqaba, Jordan

We stopped in Safaga, Egypt, to visit Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. We had a guide pick us up at the port and drive to Luxor for an unbelievable experience. We have made a separate post: Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.

We departed Safaga in the evening to cross the Red Sea and arrived in Aqaba, Jordan. Aqaba is the only port in Jordan and historically goes back to the “iron age.” It was part of the trade routes from Damascus south along the famous “Kings Highway,” which runs the length of Jordan. It is a pleasant city offering many water sports activities for the Jordanian people. As a cruise destination, the primary tour is to Petra. We visited Petra several weeks before. Our Petra Post.

It was fortunate that we had visited Petra on our own. Many of the friends we had met on board told us of their unfortunate experiences. The ship had arrived later than expected. By the time everyone got their transportation to Petra, they only had two hours to visit before boarding transportation back to the port. Two hours was hardly enough time to see anything. We felt terrible for them. If you ever want to visit Petra, give yourself the better part of a day. It is simply stunning!

Four days at sea

The four days at sea began as we departed Aqaba, Jordan, for the trip at sea that will take us thru the Red Sea past Saudi Arabia out into the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Somalia, the sea pirates’ paradise! The trip will continue northeast to Oman and the UAE to visit Abi Dabi and Dubai.

This was a chance to use NCL Jade’s many restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues. We would spend some time at the pool in the morning and find a small “card room” to work on our blog writing.

Each evening we would join others at one of the bars on the 6th deck called the Martini Bar; we referred to it as “our bar.” This became a 5:00 ritual. This was followed by dinner at one of the many dining rooms or special restaurants or a show at the Stardust Theater. Our bartenders got to know us, and your drink was served as you sat down! We enjoyed talking with all the employees; there was an abundance of excellent service.

Many of the employees were senior staff to NCL and had, for the most part, been laid off during the Covid shutdown of the cruise industry. The stories of their periods at home were interesting, being from so many countries worldwide. They lamented the number of friends who have not been hired back and are still without jobs.

Picture of our bartenders in the Martini Bar on the Jade

We were joined each evening by two engaging and fun couples. The couple next to John is Peter and Brenda Ackroyd; they are from Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, Yorkshire, England. The couple to the right of Janice are George and Ruth Kirkbride, from Scotland. George had such a crazy Scottish brogue; even the Brits could not understand him sometimes! We hope to keep in touch and meet again.

picture of our friends from Scotland and England on the Jade

We were having cocktails the second night as we turned into the Gulf of Aden, leading into the Indian Ocean. The excitement started! The evening before, a letter was left in our staterooms. It warned we were entering an HRA (high-risk area) to keep our balcony lights off at night due to Pirates in the area. It went on to say there was not much to worry about with the US and UK Navy monitoring as we cruised around past Somalia.

Of course, one night, while we were having cocktails in the lounge, we saw a boat come to the ship’s side, where pilots were brought on and off. People started saying, “it’s pirates” well, of course, they would not have opened the portal, but the two men on the boat were dressed in black, and the younger people were in a bit of a panic. We watched for many minutes when they were handed something, waved in appreciation, and took off back to their main ship; we were assisting another ship with some food or medical items. It did make the evening exciting!

Muscat Oman

We made several stops at ports in Oman, and we chose to get off and hire a guide to visit Muscat, the capital.

Oman is the oldest independent state in the Arab world and has the oldest-running royal family in the middle east. By the 18th century, the Omani Empire stretched from present-day Oman down the east coast of Africa. A new era began in 1970 when Sultan Qaboos bin Said changed the country’s name from the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman to simply Oman.

As the driver took us to our first stop at the huge mosque, he told us what it was like to live there. First, if your vehicle is not clean, you will get a ticket from the police. The entire roadway looks like it is in Disneyland, maintained impeccably. Most of the city is new, showing how the oil revenues have been invested.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was inaugurated by the Sultan of Oman on May 4, 2001, to celebrate 30 years of his reign. It is vast and built on over 40 acres; the main musalla (prayer area within the mosque) can hold over 6500 worshipers, while the women’s musalla can accommodate 750 worshipers. The outer paved ground can hold 8000 additional worshipers. There is extra space available in the interior courtyard and the passageways, making a total capacity of up to 20,000 worshipers. As you walk through the lavishness of the place with massive Swarovski crystal chandeliers weighing tons each, the carpet covering the prayer area took four years to weave and is one piece of carpet! The tall towers, called minarets, adjacent to the mosques contain prominent speakers that broadcast the Muslim “Call to Prayer”… Who knew!

There is also an area before you enter where the men can wash before prayer. It is required to do a purification called Wudu, which is to wash their faces, arms, hands, and feet.

They pray five times a day.

Janice asked our guide why the men and women prayed in separate areas. Without missing a beat, he joked, “if you looked up and saw a women’s butt, it would be very distracting”…ha! Of course, there was an “ugly American” that heard our conversation and stopped to tell her the religious reason, obviously no sense of humor; if even took our guide back…it is part of what they believe in, so that is the answer.

Sultan Castle

We then stopped at the Sultan’s Palace. We could not go past the gate, but it was a vast and beautiful building. The grounds were impeccably maintained, with workers everywhere cleaning up clippings of grass and bushes.

Just to the left and up in the mountains from the Sultan’s Palace is the old Al Mirani Fort, also known as Al Gharbiya Fort. Al Mirani is perched on a rocky hill at the west wall of the palace. It is one of the main structures remaining from the years of Portuguese colonization. It was taken back by Imam Sultan in 1649. Unfortunately, it was closed.

On the way back to our ship, we saw two large private ships, much larger than a yacht! We were told they were both owned by the Sultan, and one of them, Al Said, is the 6th largest private yacht in the world. It was built in Germany in 2008 for $600 million. Al Said is 508 feet long and has a concert hall inside with enough room for a 50-piece orchestra! It has guest quarters for 65 and a crew of 140!…Money…Money…Money.

Abu Dhabi

Our next port was Abu Dhabi, on the Persian Gulf. We could not find anything we wanted to visit, so we took the “Big Red Bus.” We sat in front of the upper deck. Fortunately, it had a cover to protect us from the sun, which seemed to get hotter and hotter! This city is the capital of the UAE and is very new and modern. It was established as the capital in 1971; while some relics in the area had been found from 10,000 BC, unlike Egypt and Jordan, they must be stuck away!

They keep adding to the city sections by creating islands and building new housing. We were told that some natural native land was set aside for the nomadic Bedouin families could live undisturbed by the modern world; of course, we never saw that area.

New buildings are new buildings! As the new neighborhoods were developed, the government built free housing for everyone. “Free” was not defined!

They are in the middle of building a new area on a pristine man-made island which will be the Zayed National Museum. It will be dedicated to Sheikh Zayed and what he did to make the UAE what it is today.

Here are some brand-new island buildings:

Being on the “Big Red Bus,” our tour guide was a recording! There was a point where we passed a beautiful brand-new building. It was for oil exploration research and delivery. As they told us about the building, they thanked the United States for the $30 Billion we gave them for the project…YIKES..30 billion! We could have used that for our own people!

End of Cruise at Dubai

Dubai was the last stop on the cruise. That evening we had cocktails with our British and Scottish friends at the Martini Bar and said our goodbyes to them and the great staff that had served us. We went to dinner at the specialty French restaurant, Le Bistro, and had a wonderful meal.

We originally planned to spend a few days in Dubai. The requirements to stay in Dubai before the cruise were we needed all Covid shots, including all boosters, we decided we were not taking any additional vaccines, so we changed our reservations to fly directly to Cairo. As it turned out, they removed the requirement just before the cruise, but we had already changed our trip plans. We love history, and Dubai is just another big shiny city without history!

We departed the ship and went to the airport to get our flight back to Cairo to continue our tour there and visit Alexandria.