A time of rejoicing, fasting and prayer
Today, 29 June 2014, marks the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is the most important time of the year for Muslims worldwide.
This is my third year to join in the celebration of Ramadan in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, having moved to Jeddah in December 2011.
Ramadan is viewed by children as a wonderfully magical time. Neighborhood houses and businesses are often adorned with strings of colored, lighted lanterns. During Ramadan lanterns and lamps of various kinds, hues and degrees of brightness are often strung in homes and businesses. Many stories of their origins have been told. One legend has it that the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Illah wanted to light the streets of Cairo during Ramadan nights, so he ordered all the sheikhs of mosques to hang Fawanees that could be illuminated by candles. As a result, the Fanoos became a custom that has never been abandoned.
Homes seem to be perfumed constantly with the mixed smells of food and burning incense—all serving as a constant reminder that this month is a very special time of the year.
The uninterrupted chanting of Qur’an verses emanating from nearby mosques indicate the absolute solemnity of Ramadan.
It is an intrinsically sacred time for all Muslims. It was during the month of Ramadan that the first revelations of the holy Qur’an were first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel.
The Qur’an is the holy book of Muslims, being recited daily year-round through prayers and worship. It is the basis for reflection in guiding the lives of Muslim men, women and children.
A time of renewal, drawing closer to God
During Ramadan, Muslims will fast and engage in extra prayers and worship, as a means of drawing nearer to God.
Ramadan is the ninth Islamic month. The Islamic calendar is based on a lunar calendar, and the lunar calendar which is 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. It, therefore, takes 30 years for the calendar to rotate full cycle.
Fasting and prayer are from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, which presents greater challenges to Muslims living in the far northern regions where they are expected to stick to the rules, no matter how long the fasting period may be. Fasting in northern Canada or the Nordic states of Norway, Sweden, and Finland is especially difficult, but the blessings of fulfilling the fast are even greater.
The Prophet Muhammad taught that “whoever does not give up lying or cursing during Ramadan, God has no need for that person to give up his food or drink” – which emphasizes that Ramadan is not just about avoiding food or drink, but also working on who one purports to be as a person.
As a spiritual support to achieve one’s goal, Muslims will attend their mosques more often. In the evenings there will be a special extended prayer time.
A month of empathy and gratitude
Ramadan is known as the “month of empathy.” Ramadan is an exercise in empathy for the more than 2 billion people in the world who live in poverty, but it’s also a lesson in gratitude.
During this 30-day period Muslims put themselves in the shoes of people who are in dire straits—people who are suffering deprivation of all kinds: thirst, hunger, homelessness, sickness, pain, etc.
This month at Tuqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as in all mosques around the world, the brothers and sisters gather five times a day for prayer, fellowship and encouragement while reflecting on the needs of others in their community and worldwide.
Collections are made for the poor. Individuals are encouraged to carry out distributions to the poor. It is common to find men, women and children on street corners distributing dates and water to passersby at sundown for the breaking of the fast.
The ultimate “anger management” course
Along with learning and practicing empathy towards others, one is to learn patience.
For 30 consecutive days the faithful are put into a situation where they will face are going to be hungry, sugar levels are low, and the chances are that one is going to get a bit edgy and agitated, so either one develops a rather foul mood for the month of Ramadan or one deals with it successfully for 30 days.
Ramadan is likened by Dr Mansur Ali Jameel, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Center for the Study of Islam at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, as “the best possible anger management course.”
Muslims are advised to control and deny anger. If one feels anger rising within, one is encouraged to take refuge in God.
The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said, “If a man gets angry and says, ‘I seek refuge with God from the accursed Satan,’ his anger will go away.” Saying this, Muslims believe, will make it easier to control your anger, as it will remind you that it’s being increased by Satan’s whisperings and that he is rubbing his hands with glee at your rising temper!
Standing makes one feel strong, agressive and powerful and ready for fight. So if one gets angry while standing one is directed to follow the Prophet’s advice: “When one of you becomes angry while standing, he should sit down. If the anger leaves him, well and good; otherwise he should lie down” (Abu Dawud and Al Tirmidhi).
Remembering God and the coming judgment
All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) teach that there will most definitely be a final day when all humankind will stand before God in Judgment. Jesus spoke of the Judgment Day when he walked among men. He said “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of’ Judgment” (Matthew 12:36). We’re told in Hadith Jibra’il, that one is: “…to worship God as though you are seeing Him, and while you see Him not yet—truly He sees you” (Al-Bukhari).
Such God-consciousness (tuqwa) is a good practice for all who claim to believe in the God of Abraham!
One should strive to live each moment, fully aware of God’s presence, living in the knowledge that He is watching everything done by humankind—that someday there will be an accounting for one’s behavior here on earth.
Ramadan is a great time to demonstrate repentance, seeking renewal in one’s relationship with God, to gain forgiveness and peace through increased reverence and worship and to prepare oneself for that final, great Judgment Day.
A firm faith in God is the beginning of that journey—but it must be proved that it is a genuine faith that leads to changed behavior while reflecting on the needs of others and exercising self-restraint; engendering greater love, dedication and service to our almighty God.
Eid al Fitr celebrations
Ramadan ends with the festival Eid al Fitr, which in 2014 occurs on July 28. Literally the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” Eid al Fitr is one of the two most important Islamic celebrations (the other occurs after the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca). At Eid al Fitr people dress in their finest clothes, adorn their homes with lights and decorations, give treats to children, and enjoy visits with friends and family.
A sense of generosity and gratitude colors these festivities. Although charity and good deeds are always important in Islam, they have special significance at the end of Ramadan. As the month draws to a close, Muslims are obligated to share their blessings by feeding the poor and making contributions to mosques and community nonprofit organizations.
In many parts of the world Ramadan is celebrated with spiritual music. Enjoy this Ramadan song by contemporary Muslim recording artist Maher Zain:
Sources: Arab News, Saudi Gazette, ramadan2014.net, The Windsor Star, Time Magazine
History of our solar system
The oldest matter found on earth originates from outer space. This debris from far away worlds falls from the dark depths of space onto the ever-changing surface of planet Earth. These meteorites provide valuable information about the early history of our solar system.
Scientists are now investigating unusual surface areas of the Arabian Peninsula where meteorites are found, often in dense concentrations. In these black stones one learns about the early beginnings of the birth and death of celestial bodies. Today, in almost every country there are scientists who work on decoding the hidden messages of this space debris.
Most meteorites are fragments of asteroids, some containing organic matter. Some preserve information on the chemical make-up of the solar system before the formation of planets. Other meteorites found in the Arabian Desert are known to be impact debris from the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. Martian and lunar meteorites, which are rare, are often fragments from the past, having been knocked off into space millions or even billions of years ago.
Mars literally in our hands
Meteorites provide the only samples from Mars that we have in hand to analyze in a laboratory. However, we do have material collected by astronauts from the Moon. Lunar meteorites provide clues to early processes in the Earth-Moon system, such as the a period known as the “late heavy bombardment.” That’s the period when huge numbers of meteorites pelted the Earth and Moon some 3.9 billion years ago, just when life may have started on our planet.
“Searching for meteorites is of paramount importance for astrobiology and planetary science,” according to Dr. Beda Hofmann, head of Earth Science at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland. Hofmann and Edwin Gnos of the Natural History Museum in Geneva, Switzerland are leaders in meteorite hunts taking place in Oman.
Antarctica and desert hunting grounds
For 30 years, the frozen desert of Antarctica has been one of the richest sources of pristine meteorites. The black stones are easy to pick out from the white snow, and there are no rivers or other natural processes to carry the meteorites away.
More recently, the hot deserts of Africa and Australia also have produced new meteorite discoveries. The dry conditions in deserts tend to preserve stones, and the lack of rain means they are less likely to become eroded or be covered over by sediment.
In 1999, an incredible number of meteorites appeared on the market due to activity by private collectors and dealers.
Oman a big source of space rocks
Within the last ten years Oman has yielded almost one-fifth of the world’s meteorites, a huge cash of more than 5,000 fragments weighing greater than four tons. The Oman finds include one-third of all known lunar meteorites, and a handful of specimens from Mars.
Amateur collectors are cautioned to accurately document their finds, which will make life a bit easier for the scientists who might want to study the rocks. Amateurs found the first Mars meteorites in Oman; in fact it was the appearance (and sale) of those rocks and lunar meteorites that caught the attention of a group of Swiss researchers. They enlisted the support of the government of Oman, and on their first mission in 2001, the team recovered a Mars sample.
Dr. Beda Hofmann is proud that his team’s meteorite collection is conducted in collaboration with the Omani government. “So far we have obtained permission to take all samples necessary to Switzerland,” he says, “but the samples remain the property of the Sultanate of Oman.” Eventually representative samples will be displayed in the Natural History Museum of Muscat, the Omani capital.
Fossils from outerspace
Meteorites are the fossils from which geologists recover the history of our solar system, but most of the meteorites found in Oman did not fall on Earth recently. They have been lying in the desert for several thousand years. A major thrust of the Swiss research is to learn how the environment contaminates meteorites, and see how a meteorite might change its appearance and composition prior to discovery and conservation.
The deserts of Oman seem to be a rich source of unique meteorites, and the precious fragments can tell planetary scientists about conditions in the early solar system when stony objects first formed. These fragments subsequently were glued together by gravitational attraction to construct planets, moons and asteroids. By helping us reconstruct the early history of our solar system and our planet, meteorites bring us a step closer to understanding what conditions were necessary for the origin of life on our world.
Our past, present, future
While meteorites are important because they reveal the very source of life on Earth, they have also contributed to the development of our life-sustaining environment.
Meteorites provide not only a glimpse into the past but also a window to the future. They represent, in a very real sense, both birth and death; creation and destruction.
Today, they are being studied because of their significant threat to life on our planet. With increasing regularity, we are discovering asteroids and comets with unusual orbits — ones that take them dangerously close to Earth and the Sun.
Though just a very few of these bodies are potential hazards to Earth, by understanding more about these “near earth objects” early on, we are better prepared to take appropriate measures to head off a collision with our planet in the future.
For sure, I am joining the hunt for these fascinating interplanetary objects. I have marked carefully the coordinates of where I found my meteorite and hope to return there in the near future.
The following brief video helps us better understand meteorites and to easily distinguish them from meteoroids and meteors.
Sources: NASA, wikipedia.com, Science Magazine, National Geographic, University of Bern archives, astrobio.net, Hossam Malallah
Leaders come to Al Makkiyah
One of the most interesting private residences in Saudi Arabia is the home of well-known architect and historian Dr. Sami Angawi. Al Makkiyah mansion attracts leaders and visitors from around the world.
Angawi is an expert in Islamic architecture and is also outspoken about his faith, Islam. The house serves as a meeting place for individuals and groups seeking to communicate Middle Eastern culture to peoples and groups on other continents. He believes, however, that extremists are attempting hijack Islam. He and other Muslim leaders hope to maintain Islam’s core roots—balanced and moderate and more tolerant of people’s differences.
Angawi is known for his activism–especially his strong views about historic preservation in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Many significant sites of Islam have been destroyed under direct orders from radical religious leaders in an effort, they claim, to prevent idolatry or because of what they consider to be,the veneration of gravesites or relics. (See my story “Grandmother Eve’s grave.”)
Public lectures and concerts
The Angawi house is a cultural haven in Jeddah where his family and friends regularly host lectures, concerts and timely discussions, often on a weekly basis.
The design of this residence combines modern construction techniques with traditional crafts such as Turkish mosaic and Moroccan zillij. Red Sea coral reef stone, desert sandstone, marbles and granite are utilized throughout the exterior and interior.
Old-style natural ventilation techniques minimize the need for air-conditioning even at the peak of hot Arabian summers. A computerized drip-watering system feeds thousands of hanging plants that are an integral feature of both the central internal courtyard and the exterior ground and roof gardens.
The Islamic principle of sitr (ensuring privacy for neighbors as well as inhabitants of the house) is accomplished by using traditional rawasheen bay windows and intricate hand-carved Hijazi woodwork over the openings.
Bridging nations and faiths
For decades Saudi Arabia has been generally considered a somewhat closed society, eager to protect its own traditions from external cultural influences.
While preservation of traditions is of great concern to Dr. Sami Angawi, his desire is balanced with a passion for building bridges between nations, cultures and faiths.
His architectural designs assert the importance of his HIjazi heritage with the common cultural heritage shared by both western and Islamic societies; believing that a “clash of civilizations” need not lead to misunderstanding, but rather friendship, trust and peace.
This concept of balance, known in Arabic as mizan, is the essence of Islamic tradition and of many of the world’s religious beliefs. The aspiration of Angawi to reflect this historic principle in his life and work is important. It has made him a leader in building bridges between the Middle East and the rest of the world. “More balance can be achieved through respect for the past,” Angawi says. “In our Al Makkiyah mansion, modernity and tradition, privacy and openness, stability and dynamism are equally represented to generate harmony.”
Hijazi culture influences the modern world
Angawi is the founder of the renowned Hajj Research Center in Mecca and also the Amar Center for Architectural Heritage. He has dedicated his life to preserving the history and architecture of Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina; encouraging dialogue about Islam and cross-cultural collaboration and understanding between institutions and universities worldwide.
Angawi’s Hijaz ancestry can be traced back to the Mecca region along the central Red Sea coast. It is his lineage, dating back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed, that has formed his religious thought. “The Hijaz,” he says, “is the site of Islam’s holy places and the melting pot of the Muslim world. Millions of pilgrims from all over the world have traveled annually for centuries to the region, enriching it with their traditions and ideas.”
Respect and compassion
Angawi believes that respect, solidarity and compassion are human values and inspiring principles for every culture and all faiths. “Being aware of these intrinsic similarities and stressing them is the only antidote to fear, bigotry and ignorance.”
In a 2011 interview with Arab News, Angawi said, “Al Makkiah represents a seed. I wish that one day we could have thousands Al Makkiyahs and establish a ‘United Nations of people,’ regardless of their race, color or beliefs.”
When Arab News challenged his concept as being Utopian, Angawi said he finds inspiration in water. “It is a powerful element, stronger than rocks, steel and diamonds. If it doesn’t reach the sea, water changes its status and comes back in other forms to achieve the goal.”
Al Makkiyah/Al Mediniyah Institute
Dr. Sami Angawi is now gathering an international board of intellectuals, activists and businessmen to create his legacy–an international institute offering degrees in Islamic history and science, the Al Makkiyah / Al Mediniyah Institute will provide courses in Islamic history, architecture and science.
The institute at Al Makkiyah will house Angawi’s more than 100 thousand photographs, drawings and writings about Islam and the two holy cities Mecca and Medina. The school will be a collaborative educational experience, providing American, Canadian and European students the opportunity to research Islam on location in the Hijaz–right where the faith has advanced over the past 1400 years.
Here’s a short video describing the Al Makkiyah mansion:
Sources: Arab News, wikipedia.com, Saudi Airlines, CNN, History of Architecture, BBC, Harun Yahya TV
My visit to the pyramids of Giza
I recently fulfilled a lifetime dream of visiting the famous Pyramids of Giza, just to the south of Cairo, Egypt. These celebrated pyramids are among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the oldest built more than 4500 years ago! Modern scholars and archaeologists have long been curious about these ancient tombs of the pharaohs. Out of the three pyramids, the most famous is the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), which was built by Pharaoh Khufu around 2560 BC.
The Great Pyramid stands 137 meters (449 feet) high. Each side is oriented with one of the cardinal directions of the compass (north, south, east, and west). The Great Pyramid of Khufu is made up of two million blocks of limestone. Granite lines the entrances, the shafts and the chambers. The thousands of smooth white casing stones that beautified the sides of this pyramid, have long since been unfortunately removed, being used in other building projects.
I was pleasantly surprised when my Egyptian friends actually got permission for me to climb through the inner shafts of the Great Pyramid. This pyramid is equal in height to a modern 50-story skyscraper! For the better part of an hour, I was led upward through the narrow connecting shafts some 200 meters (656 feet) to the upper chamber of Khufu. Due to low ceilings in most of the shafts, one is forced to lean over while walking, literally crawling, in places, on hands and knees. It was a difficult climb, and I was drenched in sweat when I finally stood in the burial chamber of Pharaoh Khufu.
The Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren) is situated to the southwest of the Pyramid of Khufu. Although it appears to be taller than the Great Pyramid, as it stands on higher ground, this pyramid is actually smaller than that of Khufu. This pyramid was built by Khufu’s son Khafre.
The third pyramid, the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus), which stands some 67m (220ft) high, was started by Khafre’s son Menkaure.
In front of the Great Pyramid stands the Sphinx, a statue of a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man. The Sphinx, which stands 20 meters (66 feet) high, and measuring about 73.5 meters (241 feet) long, was carved over 4500 years ago out of sandstone.
Archaeologists and historians marvel
Can you imagine one of our modern skyscrapers weathering 4500 years of harsh climatic conditions? Just how were these pyramids built? How have they stood the test of time?
Today’s scientists, historians and civil engineers stand in awe of the pyramids. They are continually developing theories as to just how the ancient Egyptian peoples could have carved and moved these millions of huge stones hundreds of miles from the far south to their Giza location and then haven assembled them into the pyramids.
When I was in graduate school, I remember reading the 1970 best-selling book by Erich von Däniken‘s titled Chariots of the Gods. The book theorized extraterrestrials interacting with early human life, passing on high-tech scientific information to undeveloped human civilizations in various parts of the world—one being the ancient kingdoms of the Egyptian pharaohs. (This theory was subsequently debunked by University of South Carolina professor Dr. Clifford Wilson in his 1972 sequel entitled Crash Go the Chariots.)
One of the best construction explanations I’ve found was published in the March 2008 issue of Science Daily.
The legendary curse of the pharaohs
Just two days after climbing through the Great Pyramid’s inner, narrow shafts leading to Khufu’s burial chamber, I ended up in a Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, hospital with a high temperature, swollen glands diagnosed with some mysterious, unknown virus. I was mainlined with some pretty powerful antibiotics for five days and then released to continue my recuperation at home. I have now fully recovered, but I couldn’t help but wonder about all the extraordinary rumors of pyramid curses that have circulated for centuries.
Movies and sensational Hollywood science fiction movies abound, encouraging the rumors—the classic being the 1944 horror film The Mummy’s Curse.
The idea of a mummy coming back to life from the dead, an essential part of many mummy curse legends, was developed in The Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, an early work combining science fiction and horror, written by Jane C. Loudon and published in 1827.
Two other stories subsequently discovered by S. J. Wolfe, Robert Singerman and Jasmine Day–The Mummy’s Soul (Anonymous 1862) and After Three Thousand Years by Jane G. Austin in 1868–have similar plots. In both, a female mummy takes supernatural revenge upon her male counterpart.
The belief in a curse was brought to many people’s attention due to the mysterious deaths of several members of archaeologist Howard Carter‘s team while they were excavating the tomb of Tutankhamun (more commonly known as King Tut). The tomb was located far to the south in the Valley of the Kings and was opened by Carter and George Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon (Lord Carnarvon) in 1922.
The famous Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, working with Carter soon after the first opening of the tomb, reported how Carter had sent a messenger on an errand to his house. When the man came near to Carter’s home he thought he heard a “faint, almost human cry.” On reaching the entrance he saw a cobra in a bird cage. (The cobra was the symbol of Egyptian monarchy.) Carter’s canary had died in the cobra’s mouth, and this fueled local rumors of a curse. An account of the incident was reported by the New York Times on 22 December 1922. The first of the “mysterious” deaths was that of Lord Carnarvon. Carnarvon had been bitten by a mosquito, and later cut the bite accidentally while shaving. It became infected and blood poisoning resulted.
Two weeks before Carnarvon died, Marie Corelli wrote an imaginative letter that was published in the New York World magazine, in which she quoted an obscure book that confidently asserted that “dire punishment” would follow any intrusion into a sealed tomb. A media frenzy followed, with reports that a curse had been found in the King’s tomb, though this was untrue.
The curse rumors were further fanned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. In a film he suggested that Lord Carnarvon’s death had been caused by “elementals” created by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the royal tomb, and this further fueled public curse frenzy. .
A newspaper report printed following Carnarvon’s death is also believed to have been responsible for the wording of the curse most frequently associated with Tutankhamun – “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King.”
There is, though, a possible reasonable explanation for illness and even death resulting from noxious gases that are released when ancient tombs are opened. When Archaeologist Sami Gabra was working in tombs in the ibis-necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel, both he and his workers were seized by violent
headaches and shortness of breath. At first the workers feared of the ibis-headed god, Thoth. In reality, it was discovered that the cause was toxic vapors. When the tomb was fumigated, the crew returned to work..
Russians scale the Great Pyramid
A few months ago, Russian photographer Vadim Makhorov caused quite a stir when he published a set of stunning images captured from atop Egypt’s Great Pyramid. The photos, posted to Makhorov’s LiveJournal page, provide a rare view of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, though they’ve fueled a fair bit of controversy, as well.
Once the pyramid complex had closed to tourists, Makhorov and his two friends, Vitaliy Raskalov and Marat Dupri, staked out for nearly five hours, hiding themselves from Egypt’s armed guards. (Now if only I had been there to scale the pyramid with these guys!)
When they were certain the coast was clear, they embarked on the 481-foot climb to the top of the pyramids, where they captured incredible panoramic shots of the Giza Necropolis,. They were able to keep totally out of sight of the guards below.
According to Raskalov, the trio would have faced between one and three years in jail, had they been caught. Said Makhorov, “We didn’t want to insult anyone. We were just following our dream.”
Below are some of the photos Makhorov and his friends took.
Here’s an incredible video about the Great Pyramid of Giza:
Sources: Science Daily, The New York Times, New York World, Archaeology, The Pyramids of Egypt, BBC, The Verge, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic Magazine, galactic-server.net, en.wikipedia.org