Trekking

High base camp

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Barafu in Swahili means “ice.” The name is given to Kilimanjaro’s high base camp where ice and snow are always possible. Barafu grips a hog’s back, exposed to weather on all sides. As viewed from above, colorful tents cluster along the trail that runs through the center of this last stop before “the roof of Africa.” Inside this scatter of gossamer fortresses, trekkers capture sleep or make preparations for an assault on Kibo’s summit.

Obstacles that stand in their way include loose scree, boulders, high winds, sub-zero cold, five kilometers of switchback and scrambles, and about 4,100 vertical feet. By themselves, these obstacles are not that difficult, but taking them on at extreme high altitude (anything over 18,000 feet) adds a new layer to the physical challenge that has carried the climbers to this point.


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Our team of four reaches Barafu Camp on a brilliant day. We nap for a few hours and wake up for a summit attempt before midnight.

If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities


Nice shot

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Karen and Bryan stand on Kibo and look toward Mawenzi. Kibo is the centerpoint of the Kilimanjaro massif and the highest peak in Africa (19,341 ft), Mawenzi, just six kilometers away is the third highest on the continent (16,893 ft). While similar dynamics created both, the two are a study in opposites (you really should read our stories here and here). Kibo rises gently to a circular flat top. Mawenzi soars abruptly and is topped by a series of crumbling pinnacles. While thousands of trekkers have a go at Kibo every year, Mawenzi is attempted by only a few technical climbers. In fact, numerous fatalities on Mawenzi have prompted authorities to close the mountain periodically.

The story of two fatalities sends shivers up the spine. It is told by John Reader in his book Kilimanjaro and repeated in many places.* After reaching the summit of Mawenzi successfully, two climbers attempted a new route down the mountain. One detached himself from the rope and fell to his death. The second, continuing, also fell and died, but because the rope snagged on an overhang, his body was left dangling midair. When the would-be rescuers found the cliff too dangerous to climb, they resorted to a rife. The dead climber was brought down by a marksmen who managed to sever the rope with a bullet.

Yikes!


* I read it on pages 100-101 in Alex Stewart’s Kilimanjaro: Ascent Preparations, Practicalities, and Trekking Routes to the ‘Roof of Africa’ (Cumbria: Cicerone, 2018).


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If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

See here for a list of future trips. I promise we will stay off of Mawenzi.

Look down at the ceiling

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The trail upslope from Karanga Camp is a slow grind. There are plenty of opportunities to look around and contemplate the great alpine desert that begins where the shrubby moorland ends. Note the clouds socking in the African hills below.

By this point all of Kilimanjaro’s popular routes (Machame, Shira, and Lemosho) are joined for a single run (metaphor! metaphor!) to the summit. All trekkers are ferried to the base camp at Barafu (15,239 feet). The trail is not particularly difficult at this stretch; the challenge is simply one of physical adaptation and altitude.

According to Wikipedia (see here), the average summit success rate across all climbers and routes on Kilimanjaro is 65%.


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Bryan catches his breath on the trail to Barafu Camp.

I play in Africa but my “real” summer work is in Israel-Palestine.

If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

See here for a list of future trips.

Swapping stories

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Raymond, a mountain guide with Kandoo Adventures, greets a mountain guide from another team. Many (most?) of the guides and porters on Kilimanjaro are young men from the Chagga tribe who have grown up on or near the mountain. They work through the ranks of trekking companies like Kandoo, gaining not just an intimate knowledge of the mountain itself—its ways and weather, rocks and animals—but a knowledge of human behavior in all of its wonder and mystery.

I learned a long time ago that controlling the information needed to be an effective guide is the easy part. Learning how to deal with individuals who can be wonderful and generous and ill-prepared and difficult and gracious and entitled is the challenge. Mix these individuals into a group of diverse strangers, throw in a dollop of adversity and discomfort, put them in an unfamiliar environment for an extended period of time and (wowzer!) you have a potent stew. What will the outcome of this recipe be? And more to the point: how can it be managed?

Bottom line: mountain guides earn their wages honestly.

Now don’t you wonder what they’re chatting about?


The photograph above was shot by Bryan, a friend and member of our 2019 Kilimanjaro Kandoo team.


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I play in Africa but my “real” summer work is in Israel-Palestine.

If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. I partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver outdoor academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

See here for a list of future trips.

Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!

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The top of the Barranco Wall is a setting for celebration. It is still far from Kilimanjaro’s true summit, but with its menacing appearance, the Wall provides a mental test for every climber. Working hard at more than 13,000 feet of elevation is also good preparation for the physical challenges ahead.

Exposures on the Wall are limited but real. Serious injury is just one slip away. According to the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), the Wall is a Class Four scramble, meaning it is a simple climb with some exposure, serious enough to require both hands and feet (Class Five is rock climbing in earnest, requiring ropes, protection, and technical moves).

At the top of this 850 foot barrier we do a little party, a little food, and a little dancing.

Photographs demonstrate that old white guys can jump, just not very high.


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The Barranco Wall is a challenge. The good news is that it looks worse than it really is. Note the true summit (Kibo) rising higher on the left.

Most of my working summers are spent in Israel-Palestine. If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. We partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

Five-star? Add a million more.

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Some hotel stays are forgettable—the location is noisy, the beds have standard sheets, the salad bar looks old, and the concierge is rude.

Others hotel stays you remember the rest of your life. They have it all: inimitable style, discreet (but sharp) service, destination restaurant-worthy food, a balcony view, and more.

You make your choice. I’ll make mine. Then we’ll compare notes.


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I spent several weeks in Africa this year but my regular work is focused on Israel-Palestine. If you are a pastor, church leader, or educator who is interested in leading a trip to the lands of the Bible, let me hear from you. We partner with faith-based groups to craft and deliver academic experiences. Leaders receive the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, and without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities.

Well-adjusted

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The mountains of East Africa (Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya, Mt Mero, etc.) are a great place to consider how plants and animals adapt to their environment. Each of these mountains have specific life-sets that are arranged vertically from bottom to top (corresponding with temperature and rainfall). They also demonstrate mutation as one moves from mountain to mountain. The broad plains between these “sky-islands” isolate these life-sets and encourage “customization.”

Our friend and guide, Ambrose, is pictured here with a giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari). The groundsel is a perfect illustration of the principle described above. At least 17 different groundsel species have been identified in East African alpine belts, and, with few exceptions, each appears on a different mountain!*

Believe it or not, the groundsel is a member of the dandelion family with a leafy terminal rosette above and a woody stem below. Unlike back-yard varieties, however, these “mutant weeds” can grow up to thirty feet tall, have a rosette that folds at night, keep their leaves as a shaggy mane for protection from extreme cold, and possess a natural anti-freeze. They also seem to grow successfully at altitudes above 14,000 feet.

All of this sounds wonderful, but keep in mind that that that giant groundsel has a seedling survival rate of less than one percent.

I wish the same were true of the dandelions in my lawn.

For more on the giant groundsel, see our post from 2017 here.


*See D.J. Mabberly, “Evolution in the Giant Groundsels,” pp. 61-96 in Kew Bulletin 28/1 (1973).


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My regular summer work with the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies (JCBS) centers on Israel-Palestine. We partner with with faith-based groups and institutions to create and deliver an academic, enjoyable, and memorable experience. JCBS offers pastors, teachers, and leader the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, but without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities. Interested? Contact me at markziese@gmail.com.

Three in one

It is alpine desert up here.

It is alpine desert up here.

I look back from the Lava Tower trail to the Shira Plateau. I stand on one volcanic cone and gape through the clouds to another. Kilimanjaro is not one volcano after all, but three: Kibo, Shira, and Mawenzi (see our stories on this stuff here and here).

All three of these stony blisters were born in different geological moments, but all three are centered on the same crustal weakness. That weakness is located about 80 kilometers to the east of Africa’s Great Rift.

Geologists tell us that this landscape began to take its current shape about 500,000 years ago. Molten lava pushed to the surface, elevating a corner of the earth’s crust. Shira was created first, and then collapsed. Mawenzi (not pictured here) followed suit. Finally, mighty Kibo topped the other two calderas and grew into the iconic outline that most folks today call Mt Kilimanjaro. Together, this volcanic trinity forms the largest freestanding mountain on the planet.

Kibo, incidentally, is still active (it fumes and puffs), although it has not erupted in the last 200 years.


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My regular summer work with the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies (JCBS) centers on Israel-Palestine. We partner with with faith-based groups and institutions to create and deliver an academic, enjoyable, and memorable experience. JCBS offers pastors, teachers, and leader the same perks that other agencies offer, at competitive prices, but without the self-serving interests that often derail pilgrim priorities. Interested? Contact me at markziese@gmail.com.

So close, so far

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It looks like an easy scramble from the Lava Tower Camp (at about 15,000 feet) to the crater at the top of Kilimanjaro. Don’t be fooled. While the trail (leading up from the little green tent) appears be the shortest hop to the top, it is also one of the steepest (approaching 45 degrees) and the deadliest on the mountain. Melting ice has released rockfalls that have killed several trekkers here in recent years.

This “bowling alley” of ice and loose rock above Lava Tower is a deathzone and an infamous feature of Kilimanjaro’s Western Breach. The Breach itself is a gigantic slump where the mountain rim has collapsed downslope and continues to do so (if you want a good scare, check out this eyewitness report from National Geographic).

Nope. Not going there.

We arrive at the base of Lava Tower for the view and for the sake of the acclimatization. Later, we descend back to 13,000 foot camp to sleep. “Climb high, sleep low” is the formula for success on the big ones. We will circle around to the other side of the rim to make for the summit. There, the slope is kinder and more stable.

Pole, pole. “Slowly, slowly.”


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At 15,000 feet, effective oxygen levels drop to around 11.8%. This is about half of what is available at sea level (21%). At the top of Everest, that number is nearly halved again, dropping to 6.9%. Some might not consider such air-sucking a vacation!

My regular summer work is focused in the area of Israel-Palestine. If you are interested in experiencing the geography, history, and culture of the Bible Lands, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

Obsidian, asphyxiation, and other fun stuff

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Obsidian litters the ground of Kilimanjaro. This brittle stone is formed by the rapid cooling of lava and disintegrates to sharp slivers (it makes good blades!). The accumulation of black lava and ash from Kibo’s repeated eruptions covers a footprint of 388,500 hectares (larger than the state of Rhode Island). It offers a striking contrast to the white ice of the summit.

I cannot think about obsidian and stratovolcanoes without thinking about Pliny the Elder. Pliny was a naturalist from the era of the Roman Empire. He wrote many volumes dedicated to geography and the natural world.

In volume 36 of his magisterial Natural History, Pliny gives attention to a volcanic glass called “Obsian.” He gives it this name because one “Obsius (or Obaidius in an older reading) discovered (it) in Æthiopia” (see more here).

Iconically, the man who handed the word “obsidian” to the modern world died in a volcanic eruption of his own. Pliny was asphyxiated when Mt Vesuvius blew its top in AD 79.


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When approaching the Western Breach of Kilimanjaro’s summit, the hiker is confronted with great flows of volcanic rock. A formation known as Lava Tower appears on the upper right side of this image.

Kilimanjaro was a break for me. My regular summer work focuses on the area of Israel-Palestine. If you are interested in experiencing the geography, history, and culture of the Bible Lands, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

Maybe a hundred

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Despite his youth, Raymond is a veteran of Kilimanjaro. He grew up in a Chaga* village within sight of the ice-capped mountain. He started early as a porter and worked his way up through the ranks. Today he is a lead guide with Kandoo Adventures, a premier trekking company based in the U.K. In alpine conditions—pleasant, adverse, and everything in between—he oversees expedition teams that sometimes number more than 50 people, counting porters, assistant guides, support staff, and clients.

During the climbing season he alternates between a week at home with his family and a week in the mountains with clients.

I asked him how many times he has summited the 19,341-foot peak. He guessed with a laugh, “maybe a hundred.”

That kind of duty can make a man cynical, arrogant, or weary. But not Raymond. He is patient, soft-spoken, and generous.

It is an honor to call him friend.


*The Chaga people migrated from elsewhere in Africa to the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro sometime in the 11th century. They are high-elevation specialists and agriculturalists who grow coffee, bananas, and millet. They are numbered among the earliest tribal groups in East Africa to convert to Christianity.

**For more on Kandoo Adventures, see their webpage here.


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I cannot say enough good things about the friendships that are born in the mountains. Facing, tackling, and overcoming challenges in the context of teams is as rewarding as any experience I have known in life.

It is a blessing to work with positive professionals like Raymond. Time and time again, my faith in the human spirit and thankfulness for divine grace is renewed.



Brisk summer morning

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During the night a heavy frost settled on the camp at Machame Hut. After the sun breaks loose from the horizon, it doesn’t take long for the world to reheat. Steam rolls from tents, breakfast, and people as we pack and prepare to continue the uphill march.

Machame Hut sits at 10,000 feet on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro.


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Our crew for this year’s Kilimanjaro climb is small but mighty. Karen and Bryan join Mohammad and myself for a hot meal in the mess tent.

Kilimanjaro was a summer break for me. My regular work is focused on the area of Israel-Palestine. If you are interested in experiencing the geography, history, and culture of the Bible Lands, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

Kilimanjaro, no trouble!

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Our second day on the way to the summit of Kilimanjaro started with an introduction of the porter team. Lead guides Raymond and Ambrose introduced us to the group that does much of the hard work on the mountain. One by one we learned their names and their supporting roles.

Following these introductions, the porter team offered us a song of encouragement. The Jambo Song is often heard on the mountain. It repeats the phrase, Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata (Kilimanjaro, no trouble!) and featured Richard, our tent specialist, who freewheeled a little along the way. Fun was had by all.

The words, sung in Swahili but translated into English, go something like this:

Hello! Hello sir!
How are you? Very well!
Guests, you are welcome!
Kilimanjaro? No trouble!

Walk slowly, slowly. No trouble!
You’ll get there safe. No trouble!
Drink plenty of water. No trouble!

Kilimanjaro! Kilimanjaro!
Kilimanjaro, such a high mountain.

Also Mawenzi, also Mawenzi!
Also Mawenzi such a high mountain.

Like a snake, like a snake!
Like a snake you wrap around me

You wrap around me, you wrap around me
Trying to eat me like a piece of meat.

And by the way, these dudes work at high and extreme elevations regularly. They are not just singers but serious athletes.


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The porters from several climb teams work to break down the camp and move it further up the mountain.

Kilimanjaro was part of a summer vacation for me. Most of my regular work is focused on the area of Israel-Palestine. If experiencing the geography, history, and culture of the Bible Lands is of interest to you, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

Mountains of the moon

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Spectacular!

Yesterday’s POTD (see here) revealed clouds creeping upslope from rainforest to the moorlands inside Kilimanjaro National Park. Here you can see these clouds cresting the jagged rim of the Shira Plateau. This plateau is the collapsed caldera of an ancient volcano adjacent to Kibo, the celebrated peak of Mt Kilimanjaro.

For stories of our encounter with the Shira back in 2017 see here and here.

For more on Africa’s “mountains of the moon” see here and here.


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A nylon tent makes a decent home for a season. If it doesn’t leak it’s even better!

We hobnobbed in Africa for the better part of July, but are home now, making plans for future study-tours in the lands of the Bible.

If experiencing the geography, history, and culture of Israel-Palestine is of interest to you, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here. I promise you won’t have to sleep in a tent!

Really tall trees

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The tallest trees in the world are often associated with the giants sequoias of the Pacific Northwest or the massive eucalyptus and gum trees of Australia. All of these species reach heights of more than 90 meters.

Late entries in this “game of the biggest” come from the rainforests of Africa; their lateness is due to inaccessibility and lack of study. In 2016 a whopping stand of Entandrophragma excelsum was discovered in a secluded gorge at the base of Mt Kilimanjaro. E. excelsum belong to the mahogany (Meliaceae) family. One specimen measured 81-meters in height.* A perfect storm of fertile soil, lack of disturbance, temperature and rainfall, made these giants possible.

One wonders how many more of these trees have been lost to illegal logging in the region.

Dominating another elevated ecosystem on of the same mountain are camphor trees (Ocotea usambarensis). Some of these, as pictured above, are also old and enormous (up to 45 meters tall). Camphorwood has a distinct smell and is harvested for local medicines and timber. Like the E. excelsum, camphor trees grow very rapidly (up to 2 meters a year when young), a requirement for overcoming the rainforest’s creeping vines.

I scan the soaring canopy with my friend Mohammad. We are looking for Colobus monkeys!


*See the article by Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, “Africa’s tallest tree measuring 81m found on Mount Kilimanjaro” in the daily newsletter of NewScientist (24 November 2016). You can read it online here.


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The earth is so amazing and diverse!

We hobnobbed in Africa for the better part of July, but are home now, getting ready for fall semester classes and making plans for future study-tours in the lands of the Bible.

If experiencing the geography, history, and culture of Israel-Palestine is of interest to you, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

Out of Africa

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I passed my camera to a stranger in the window seat to get this parting shot. She did a good job of capturing the sunrise as our aircraft climbed through the clouds above Kilimanjaro International Airport.

Visible in the center is Kibo, the tallest freestanding mountain on the planet (19,341 feet). Its profile is an African icon.

Flanking Kibo are the shells of two older volcanos. On the right is Mawenzi, a set of shattered spires that reach 16,890 feet. On the left is the Shira, the 13,000 foot high stub of a still older caldera. By Colorado standards, a 13,000 peak would be significant. Here, it is simply another place where Kibo’s shadow falls.

I wave goodbye to this “African roof” as I begin a series of flights that will return me to the United States, to family, and to regular college life.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will try to tell some of the stories and share some of the pictures from this summer’s experiences.


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I’ve been trekking African trails for the better part of July, but am always making plans for future study-tours in the lands of the Bible.

If experiencing the Biblical world is of interest to you, email me at markziese@gmail.com or check out our list of future trips here.

A wet walk in a dry place

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While our group experienced the wonder of swimming in the Dead Sea, I headed in the opposite direction. The Wadi Boqeq Nature Reserve is hidden in a narrow canyon that drains the east side of the Wilderness of Judea. I waded upstream for maybe a kilometer at sunset. It was a wet hike with lots of small waterfalls, waterholes, boulders, birds, and lush vegetation.

Apart from a group of three that exited the canyon (near the ruins of a Roman/Byzantine fortress) as I entered, it was a solitary experience. The sound of splashing water and cooing doves kept me company. The shadows lengthened in the rose-colored canyon as the sun released its grip on the day.

Ironically, the modern name of the place in Hebrew is boqeq. The term refers to wasted or empty space (see Isaiah 24:1).

Flash flooding make desert wadis a dangerous place in the winter (as Job 6:15 suggests) but in the summertime they are cool havens for life in an otherwise inhospitable desert.


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The view from our hotel window at Ein Boqeq is hardly desolate. The contrast between the swim area in the Dead Sea and the hotel spa and pool could not be stronger.

If you are interested in experiencing the desert stretches of the biblical Heartland for yourself, consider joining us in the future. We have open seats for several trips in 2020 and 2021. We are booking new groups for 2022. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com or see our full list of study-travel opportunities here.

A heavenly display

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The architecture is lovely along the Camino de Santiago in rural Spain. But every so often even the medieval stonework must take a back seat to the stunning display of the heavens. On this day, we found shelter just in time. Thunder boomed and lighting and hail fell with fury.

Buen caminó!


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The art of pilgrimage is not easily learned. It involves a journey, most certainly, but not the journey of a tourist who seeks to appease the gross senses only. The pilgrim seeks to satisfy a deeper longing, the need to find his/her place in the world. If you are interested in exploring past, present, and future in land of the Bible email me at markziese@gmail.com or consider joining an excursion listed here.

Rock concert

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Justin Sutherland strikes a pose in the rain.

The striking architecture of Caesarea-by-the-Sea was erected between 22-10 BC by Herod the Great. At the time, structures such as this theater were foreign in the Heartland. Herod accelerated the import of technology and the culture of the West and put his Eastern domain on the map. This opulence in stonework is nowhere as visible as in the Roman theater pictured here, the first of many built in the region.

The featured stone of the Caesarea is kurkar, a local sandstone.

Photo taken by Bible Land Explorer Jess Poettker.


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Jess (left) and Justin (above) are a part of the residency program of Johnson University. This program leads to a Master of Strategic Ministry degree. It involves a collaborative relationship between JU and local churches and is designed to equip students for effective, strategic Christian leadership. It includes a study-tour to Israel/Palestine.

To learn more about JU’s residencies, see the link here.

The elicitor

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Steep hairpin ahead!

The response of an organism to external stimuli varies widely. Some pray. Some curse. Some alternate between the two.

The narrow and unimproved road between the Cendere Bridge and Nemrut Dağ elicits a wide range of responses.

Put differently: the lack of guardrails means that every rocky cliff, yawning chasm, and eroded roadwash may be fully appreciated without obstruction.

Nimrut Dağ is a 7,000 foot mountain in southeastern Turkey. It is one of the highest peaks in the eastern Taurus mountains.


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Travel in Eastern Turkey is tough these days, but trips to Israel-Palestine are in full swing. We have openings right now for trip scheduled May 25 through June 4, 2019. Inclusive price out of Washington Dulles is $3,963. Other departure cities are possible. Write me at markziese@gmail.com for more information or check our full list of study-travel opportunities here.