Sunday, 30 September 2018

Mamshit National Park

The 2018 Perseids meteor shower, which is considered to be the best meteor shower of the year, peaked overnight on 12-13th August. The shower has peak rates of over 100 meteors per hour and, since it occurs in the warm summer months, is a popular summer star gazing activity. Together with a group of friends we decided to head down to Mamshit, a national park and world heritage site in the eastern section of the Negev desert, to watch the shower and camp in the grounds of the national park.
The night was beautifully clear and dark, and because we were camping in the desert, the skies were not polluted by any light. We didn't see quite as many meteors as I had expected - and certainly not 100 meteors per hour - but the the show picked up and we sometimes saw several every few seconds. Most were short, bright bursts of light. It was a wonderful experience.

We arrived at the campsite just before dusk so we only really had time to set up our tent and get the barbeque going before it got dark. Therefore it was a pleasant surprise the following morning to crawl out of my tent and find myself right next to the wonderful remains of a Nabatean city from Roman and Byzantine times!
Mamshit National Park was awarded the status of world heritage site by UNESCO in 2005, joining the other ancient desert cities of Avdat, Halutsa and Shivta - all on the Incense Route. Mamshit was the easternmost Nabatean city in the Negev and is the smallest, but it is also the best restored, with architectural elements featured that are unknown in other Nabatean cities.
The Nabateans were a nomadic people from the Arabian Peninsula and were experts on surviving in the desert. They entered the spice trade in the area during the fourth century BCE, but Mamshit was only built in the first century BCE when they stopped being nomads. The city was a trade post, but was also based on agriculture.
In 63 BCE the Nabatean desert cities were conquered by the Romans. Under Roman occupation the residents of the city began to raise and breed horses. They bred the Arabian horse and the city became wealthy. The Nabateans were also known for their stone cutting and high quality homes which lasted for hundreds of years, and were experts in collecting water in the desert, building cisterns and dams.
In the 4th century, the Byzantines took over the city and the residents converted to Christianity. They built churches and a 900m long wall for reinforcement. The wall encompassed the entire settlement, and Mamshit became the only fortified city in the Negev.
The name Mamshit comes from the Roman name for the place - Mampsis - while the Arab name for the city - Kurnub - is apparently Nabatean.
Visitors to Mamshit can see restored streets as well as Nabatean complexes that feature rooms, courtyards and terraces made of stone and supported by strong arches. There is a city reservoir and, alongside the reservoir, a bathhouse with three main sections: the frigidarium - cold room, tepidarium - warm room, and caldarium - hot room. The pottery pipes built in the walls, through which there was a flow of hot air, can still be seen. Additional things to see include the market place with shops on both sides, and the Wealthy House which was a huge villa with stables with space for 16 horses and a manger. The House of Frescoes has frescoes with paintings from Greek mythology of Cupid and Psyche. Some 10,500 silver coins from the 3rd century were found inside the house.
There are two impressive churches at Mamshit, one featuring a stunning mosaic floor with colourful geometric patterns, birds, a fruit basket, and five dedications in Greek; the other, remnants of a pulpit. The ruins of two large complexes outside the city walls provided accommodation for the merchants' caravans.
The ancient fortress of Mamshit was built at the highest point in the city. In 1936, the British Mandate forces built a police station for its desert mounted police force, which supervised the movements of Bedouins and Jews in the Negev. It was built on an ancient Nabatean structure. From the roof of the building there is an excellent view of the remains of ancient Mamshit and Mamshit Stream.
The city gate at Mamshit was built in the late Roman period. It was part of the city's fortifications, and was protected by two watchtowers. The gate and towers are marked on the Madaba map (a mosaic map from the 6th century CE, found in a church in the town of Madaba, Jordan).
In the 7th century, following Muslim conquest, the city declined until the point at which it was completely abandoned. Before the founding of the State of Israel, Prime Minister to-be David Ben-Gurion saw Mamshit as the capital of the future country, which dovetailed with his dream of settling the Negev desert.
After a good couple of hours exploring Mamshit's restored streets, rooms, courtyards and stone terraces it was time to move on. I love the idea of camping but I don't sleep well in a tent. We had made a reservation for a cabin for the following two days at Naot Farm, a family-run farm producing goat cheese in the Negev, just a few minutes' drive from Sde Boker, the home of David Ben Gurion. I was looking forward to a dip in the plunge pool and a comfortable bed! En route (well actually it was kind of off route!) we made a stop at Mitspe Ramon, above.
Mitspe Ramon is a town in the Negev whose name Ramon comes from the Hebrew "Roma'im" meaning Romans. The town overlooks a sizable erosion crater or makhtesh known as the Ramon Crater. A landform unique to Israel's Negev and Egypt's Sinai deserts', a makhtesh is a large erosion cirque, created 220 million years ago when oceans covered the area. The Ramon Crater measures 40km in length and between 2 and 10km in width, and forms Israel's largest national park. Though we have visited it many times before, the views are always breathtaking and a stop there never gets boring.
Then we arrived at Naot Farm, our peaceful desert lodgings. Naot Farm was established in 2004 and was the fulfillment of a dream for the owners, Lea and Gadi Nahimov. After making the decision to move to the Negev, the couple started working with goats and making cheese at the Har HaRuach goat farm near Jerusalem, one of our favourite haunts. They then started with 50 young goats at their own farm, which is situated in an enclave surrounded by bare hills, and in time they got acquainted with the desert. They discovered the delights of the desert including spiny mice and rock partridges, wolves and hyenas, spectacular floods, blossom after rain, the sky's Milky Way, and the quiet - mostly the quiet.
In July 2004 the Nahimovs opened their dairy farm, along with a small shop to sell their produce. Within a year the first two guest cabins were established, which increased over time to five.
We loved our cabin, with its delightful veranda, desert views and of course the hammock and plunge pool. Breakfast was brought to us in a cool box and included fresh goat cheese, salads, and different dips, along with eggs, fresh bread, and cold orange juice.
We found plenty to do in the area, which I will tell you about in another post, but there was also time to relax and to discover the beauty and serenity of the desert. Naot Farm is a fantastic place to stay if you are looking for a different experience in the Negev. We will definitely return.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Henry and Ann

A customer asked me to make a 70th birthday card for her husband. He is an avid Hull F.C. supporter (the rugby league football club based in West Hull, England). He loves trains and has set up a model railway in the garden, and he also likes vintage forms of transport. Her husband has had his own curtain and blind business for over 40 years. She also asked me to include a picture of him on the card.
I think I got everything on there. My customer was amused by her husband's paper portrait!
Her husband's sister was turning 60. She is into crafts, particularly beading, stenciling and stamping. She loves gardens and the Yorkshire Dales, and has a black and white cat. I had fun creating the cat and hope that I got his or her appearance about right!

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Love and Marriage

This Saba (the Hebrew word for Grandfather) recently celebrated his birthday. His daughter-in-law asked me to create a card showing Saba and Safta together outside their new holiday apartment in the Mediterranean resort city of Netanya. Saba, she told me, always wears a pale blue cap. I didn't know what their new home looked like so created a white tower block, much like many of the buildings in Netanya, and added a little sign with the city's coat of arms on it.
The couple, below, recently got married. I was asked to make a card for their wedding day showing them standing under a chuppah, the canopy under which a Jewish couple stand during their wedding ceremony. I decorated the chuppah with a few flowers, as they are often decorated, added a heart and also an elephant! The groom apparently proposed to his bride while they were travelling in India, so my customer asked me to include a little elephant somewhere on the card. (Elephants in Hinduism and the Indian Culture are a symbol of intellectual strength, and sturdy earthy mental strength.) The groom is wearing a kippa (skullcap). The Hebrew greeting says "Mazal Tov Yael and Mattaniah."
Finally, this couple recently celebrated their silver wedding, their 25th wedding anniversary. Mum asked me to show them on the card. I added a big silver number 25, some hearts, two champagne glasses and finished the card off with a silver bow.

Monday, 17 September 2018

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The day after my niece's wedding the sun was shining again. I had read about the Mister Finch: The Wish Post exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and was determined to get there. I mean, how amazing was it that the largest solo exhibition of an artist I avidly follow on Facebook happened to be on when I was in the UK?
I last visited the park back in 1991 to see a Sophie Ryder exhibition. Her work left a great impression on me but I couldn't remember the park so well. It turned out to be far nicer than I had remembered!
The Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) is an open-air gallery in West Bretton near Wakefield in West Yorkshire, showing work by British and international artists including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. The park's collection of works by Moore is one of the largest open-air displays of his bronzes in Europe. The sculpture park occupies the parkland of Bretton Hall, a country house which housed Bretton Hall College until 2001 and was a campus of the University of Leeds until 2007. The park opened in 1977 and was the UK's first sculpture park to host temporary open air exhibitions rather than permanent displays. Today it hosts exhibitions both indoors and outdoors as well as permanent sculptures in the grounds.
Armed with our park leaflet highlighting just some of the 80 sculptures to see in the open air, we simply started wandering. Our first stop was at the historic Chapel courtyard to see Al Weiwei’s 'Iron Tree', top. I had seen some of his trees at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem last year and was keen to see them in a very different setting. Inspired by the wood sold by street vendors in Jingdezhen, southern China, Iron Tree comprise of 97 tree elements cast in iron and interlocked using a classic Chinese method of joining. 
Stepping inside the 18th-century Chapel a wonderful surprise awaited us. Acclaimed Japanese installation and performance artist Chiharu Shiota has created an inspiring and beautiful site-specific installation 'Beyond Time' using 2,000 balls of white thread which drifts up from floor to ceiling, twisting around and drawing you in to the spirit of the place. Photocopied pages taken from the YSP’s archives are strewn within the white webbing, like free-floating foliage. I found it hard to drag myself away from the Chapel.
Apart from the sculptures, the park is a very pleasant place to stroll around. There are various pathways and tracks to follow, a lake which is split into two by a bridge and a dam, and some gorgeous woodland. We set off in the direction of the dam, spending some fun time watching geese slide down the dam's concrete walls into the lake below. The night before we had been dancing late into the night, so we had set off late for our visit. We soon realised that there wasn't time to see the whole park. Therefore the Upper Lake, which leads to a Greek Temple and Shell Grotto, awaits a further visit. For this visit we stayed in the country park around the Lower Lake, though I soon found that sticking to any kind of route was totally beyond me. A glimpse of something through the trees and I was off!
Jaume Plensa's 'Wilsis', top, belongs to a series of portrait heads depicting young girls from around the world, with their eyes closed in a dreamlike state of contemplation. At over seven metres high, the work is extraordinary.
I was anxious to see Antony Gormley's 'One and Other' since I had seen his public sculpture, the monumental Angel of the North, up-close near the A1 in Gateshead. Gormley's work is usually based on casts of his own body, in an investigation into the body "as a place of memory and transformation". 'One and Other', perched high upon the woody remains of a dead tree, reflects Gormley's individual concerns with isolation and claustrophobia, but the figure has lost any distinct features and, as such, represents the universal.
Julian Opie's 'People 15', below, documents people walking around in the urban environment within the distinctly rural YSP landscape. Opie emerged as an influential artist in the 1980s after studying at Goldsmiths College in London.
I was delighted to find two of Sophie Ryder's wire works, 'Sitting' and 'Crawling', near the Camellia House greenhouse, which dates back to c.1817, above, top. Huge in scale, her hares are a dominant, watchful presence in the landscape.
Nearby was Barbara Hepworth's 'The Family of Man', a beautiful representation of figures in the landscape and one of the last major works Hepworth completed before her death. Hepworth (1903–75) was born and raised in Wakefield and became one of the 20th-century's most eminent international sculptors, shaped by her early years in Yorkshire. In Autumn 2016 expert conservators restored 'The Family of Man', which has been on public display at YSP since 1980.
Then it was time to step indoors to see 'The Wish Post' in the YSP Centre. Textile artist Mister Finch has brought more than 75 intricately hand sewn and constructed soft sculptures and props to the YSP. The exhibition centres around the story of The Wish Post, a magical kingdom of woodland animals whose job it is to collect and sort other creatures' wishes, which are breathed into envelopes and posted in toadstool postboxes. For one night each year, The Wish Post creatures have the chance for their own dreams to be whisked away by the wind and come true. Badgers in blue jackets, hedgehogs playing brass bells, thimble-tailed rats, elegant swans, long-eared rabbits, and dapperly-dressed moles - all life-sized - gather together to prepare the wishes for the wind, ahead of The Wish Post festival.
The exhibition was a delight to see! It showcases Mister Finch's masterful use of up-cycled and new materials, from discarded wire, steel and wood, to vintage tapestries, cross stitch samplers, tablecloths, antique silverware and rescued cloth. The self-taught artist has drawn inspiration from British folklore, the historic Bretton Estate and Yorkshire wildlife to create his textile wonders.
All the works in the exhibition were available to buy, though I believe they all sold on the opening night of the exhibition. Unfortunately they were well beyond my reach anyway, though I did treat myself to Mister Finch's self-published book, which documents his journey creating 'The Wish Post' and includes behind-the-scenes photography. I really would have loved a hand-sewn and embellished Toadstool. And, no, I hadn't overdosed on contemporary art from my visit to the YSP!
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