I am Anthony E. Savvides. This is my blog.

Reflections & adventures of a writer at heart, a journalist by trade and a waiter by night.

Posts Tagged ‘Wow

There isn’t enough Salt. Or, a place called Salt, part II.

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Note: this post was written on Saturday, May 19, after our group traveled to Salt, an ancient city in Jordan that was once destined to be the kingdom’s capital.

Last year, while I was studying in Jordan for two weeks, I was fortunate enough to be one of the eight members of our group of 32 to travel on a more intimate excursion to the city of Salt, about 20 km northwest of Amman.

Big Rob, our photography professor, rented a small blue van for the day and hired a driver to take us into the ancient city for the afternoon. You can read more about that trip here.

This year, since our group of about 50 is going to be in Jordan for the entirety of the five-week program, everyone went. Taking a trip with a group that size into a smaller, more conservative Jordanian city was…an interesting experience, to say the least. I’m glad that I was fortunate enough to experience Salt on a more personal level last year, because this year, we were herded around like an American zoo, in Salt for a special showing. People wore jeans that were far too tight. Others wore low-cut shirts, and summery dresses. The whole scene was very strange; there we were, an obnoxious group of 50 loud Americans at a lovely cafe under a tent, enjoying tea and Arabic coffee and ice cream and sheesha and whatnot. Someone decided to plug their iPod into the speaker system at said cafe.

I have never seen cultural imperialism first-hand before, but there we were, dancing along to terrible, awful, American pop music as locals glared with disgust. Instead of enjoying the Jordanian culture, someone felt the need to turn us into a spectacle. Well, I can’t say too many bad things, because I did nothing to change the situation. I was right there with my peers, dancing. Granted, before this happened, we were dancing to traditional Jordanian music, even a song dedicated to the city of Salt.

I won’t write much more to describe our day at the zoo, because I feel that my photographs tell a better story than my words can. Before our pitstop at the tented cafe, we visited the ancient Greek Orthodox Church of St. George (Al Khader Church), which was erected in the 17th century, which was, for me, a highlight of the excursion to Salt this year. During our time there, I was given two things from the priest: the first, a bottle of holy oil, and the second, a green cloth. I was told it was “for wishes.” You are supposed to tie it around your wrist as you make a wish, whatever that may be. And when it comes off, either naturally over time or at your own will, your wish will be granted. While most of my peers and professors tied the strips of green cloth around their wrists, I rolled mine up and placed it in my pocket. I had the feeling that, someday soon, I would need it. (I’ll let you all know when I do…)

We also sat in the city square, under the shade of many trees, sitting among locals as they played mancala. We visited one of the first schools in Jordan, a boys’ secondary school. We visited a lovely, family-run restaurant for lunch. We went to the archeological and historical museum of Salt.

After our tea and coffee break, we drove our big yellow bus up to the highest point in the city to watch the sunset. After sunset, I got to see the tomb of the prophet Elijah in a large, elegant mosque. It was quite incredible. Unfortunately, my camera had died at that point, and all the photos I took are currently being held captive on other cameras and memory sticks. Oh well. Maybe someday, they’ll be returned to me via email. (Jonathon, Caroline: if you’re reading this, I’m talking to you!!) See below for the shots I was able to get.

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Written by AESavvides

June 22, 2012 at 11:38 am

The pinnacle of our reporting from Jordan. An incredible, important story, told by two of my best friends.

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My colleagues, Matt Kauffman and Melissa Tabeek, really outdid the rest of us with their final piece from Jordan; sorry, to the rest of the gang, but it’s true. Their story, below, is so moving, so raw, so powerful, it touched me to my very core. I am close with both of the reporters, and I heard about this story throughout their reporting. Matt, my roommate, would often tell me of the people he and Melissa met in the course of a day. Melissa and I would share a cigarette break, and I could see that something was weighing on her soul; I would try to pull it out of her, but many times she would bottle it up as the tears filled her eyes. I knew that it was difficult for both of them, but I also knew that what they were doing, the story they were telling, was so important.

To Matt and Melissa: I’m so proud of both of you, and glad to be your friend and your colleague. To Carlene: thank you for guiding them and encouraging them throughout this process. I sat next to Melissa in the lobby of the Imperial Palace Hotel all those weeks ago, the morning after we arrived, when she received your email regarding the story pitch. You wanted her and Matt to report about Syria, and I think everyone can be proud of what they produced.

Journey to Jordan: By the thousands, Syrians are risking their lives to find refuge across the border

Story by Matt Kauffman and Melissa Tabeek

Photos by Matt Kauffman // Video production by Melissa Tabeek

Editor’s note: Reporters Kauffman and Tabeek put together a multi-media presentation of video and photography to show another dimension of what displaced families from Syria have been through on their journey to Jordan. 

AMMAN, Jordan – Sameer Ahmed Darraj thanks God that his family of six made it safely to Jordan after suffering a siege in his hometown of Homs. He’s also grateful he found an apartment in Madaba, a small village southwest of Amman, to shelter his wife, two young children, mother and nephew.

But the trip to their second-floor flat is a struggle for this former Syrian chef-turned-rebel fighter. His legs were blown off by a rocket in April as he fought against President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Derraj wages a battle still, but now it’s from the flat’s only bed where he recovers from the loss of his legs, severed above the knees and marred with deep, rough, vertical scars.

“When we were crossing the border, we couldn’t speak, we couldn’t make any sounds. When our daughter cried, we had to cover her mouth,” said Sammer, Derraj’s 39-year-old wife, of their escape. “We gave the other [daughter] medicine to make her sleep.”

“We try to remain strong and try to have a very strong heart,” says Sameer Ahmed Derraj. Despite the horrors they’ve witnessed, the Darraj family finds solace in each other’s company.

As Derraj talks about the four-day journey to Jordan carried by comrades across the border, about how his wife kept falling as she lugged their youngest child, about the death of his friend by that same rocket, he speaks for thousands like him. Together, he and they form a new sort of army: Syrians who have fled to fight for their safety and their lives.

Since March of last year, the number of Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan has increased at an exponential rate. What started as a trickle has turned into a flood; in the past two months the amount of “persons of concern” registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has leapt from 13,933 to about 24,000 – an increase of about 70 percent. But the real number, including Derraj’s six who came illegally, is closer to 120,000, experts say.

While Jordan has long been a safe haven for refugees throughout the Arab world – some estimates say that there are already 2 million Palestinian, Iraqi and Libyan refugees in this country of 6.5 million Jordanians – the situation with Syrians is special. The influx from the north poses a dilemma. The Jordanian government has not officially recognized them as refugees, but rather “guests” of the country.

Unlike neighboring Turkey – which is harboring Syrian refugees in traditional tented camps – Syrians in Jordan are finding safety in cities and villages scattered throughout the kingdom, stretching already limited resources in a country that depends on outside aid. Safety does not always spell decency though; Syrian families sometimes numbering in the double digits are confined to a few small rooms inside overrun apartments.

“There are many cases of two to three families in one apartment and they could have seven or eight kids each. It’s pretty dismal,” says Aoife McDonnell, an assistant external relations officer at UNHCR.

Jawad Anani, a former government official and now private economic consultant, worries about what a continuing onslaught of Syrians will do to the strained resources of this struggling country.

“Jordan’s ability to put up with Syrians is limited. The private sector is paying for it now, but soon the bills will be mounting. We will feel it in the labor market with people looking for jobs. … Time will tell elsewhere where the pressure mounts and where the shoe pinches.”

Darraj, like so many who have come here, feels that pinch. Unable to work, he relies on the generosity of Jordanian strangers to pay his rent. These sympathizers also bring him food and supplies, such as clothes and blankets. He’s clearly grateful, but still, to him, Jordan is just a safe place to heal. He will not stay here.

His mother Salma sits quietly in the corner of the tiny room, emotionless, looking over at her disfigured son. In another corner, on their mother’s lap, are his two young daughters, both in pink tank tops and leggings. They too are staring at him, waiting.

“I am against the evil Bashar,” he says. “If they fix my fingers, then I will go back,” says Darraj.

His wife looks at his mother, a glance Darraj notices. To them, to everyone, he says again: “I want to fight again with the Free Army.”


The Syrian massacres that started in March were, at the time, the latest government response to the uprisings across the Middle East. Those protests started in December 2010 with one desperate Tunisian man who set himself on fire to protest what he felt was a corrupt and unjust government. His singular act launched a movement that became known as the Arab Spring. This fire has scorched its way across the region, resulting so far in tens of thousands of lives lost and the toppling of four governments.

>>Click here to continue reading.

I’ll have my mansaf at midnight, after Jerash. Or, an ashtray full of lamb bones.

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Note: this post was written on June 1.

After I arrived back in Amman from Jerash (see photos below), I went straight to a café to use up their internet and make some phone calls. I received an update, via facebook, than unlike me, he was home on time and got to enjoy fresh mansaf with the family for lunch. I sat there with the taste of envy in my mouth as I sipped some overly sweet tea.

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Much, much later than night, I devoured the leftover mansaf. He wrote quite extensively about his mansaf experience, and after I scrapped up the leftovers, I understood why. Even though this is my second consecutive year in Jordan, this was the first time I ever tasted the national dish.

Ohhhhhh man, it was so good. Whatever word is the next level up from delicious is, I would use to describe this meal. Delectable? Scrumptious? Mouth-watering? Excellent? All of the above.

Not my usual go-to midnight snack— that’s cereal or some tea— but certainly a step above. Mohammed and Raed sat across from me in the kitchen as I tore meat off the bone with my teeth. And when I say tore, it sounds far more vicious than it was; this meat was so tender, as soon as I took even a little bite the entire chunk of meat just slid off the bone onto a bed of rice.

I don’t have a picture of this meal for my food slideshow, because I was too hungry to think of anything other than the plate of food in front of me, and my growling stomach. But, again, Matt posted about his mansaf experience, and took some sweet shots of the meal. This was funny to me because it has sort of become my thing on this trip. And he usually always gives me grief about it. But it’s all in jest; he, too, succumbed to the food’s beauty and put his camera before his appetite.

Written by AESavvides

June 9, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Jordanian cityscapes, from Badia to Aqaba.

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Over the course of three weeks living in a sprawling city built on 19 hills, you tend to take a lot too many an excessive amount of pictures. After a while, you’ll find yourself scrolling through the images wondering what part of the city is seen in each picture.

Is that near the Al Hussein Mosque? No, this must be in downtown Amman. I think this picture is of the city from the Citadel. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

I find myself in the aforementioned situation this afternoon, as we drive back from an excursion to the city of Jerash (Gerasa), where we spent the better part of the day. (More on the sites later tonight.) I’m sitting on a bus driving down a hill, and I have no idea what I’m looking at in my own photos. Shame on me. I suppose that I could have written a note each time I snapped a shot, but is that realistic? Not really. I could carry a notebook around, and I do, but I use that for things like this. It’s a notepad, and I write notes in it- sometimes those notes become blogs, but most times they stay put right there, in my notebook.

I wish my camera had some tool to record the location of an image; it can’t be too far off, can it? I mean, the only way I can at least keep track of when things happen is by referring to the timestamp of each photo. I’ll stop my rambling, and just insert my gallery. Below, please find a few of my scattered, unlabeled images of this city, as seen from some other, unknown parts of Amman.

Additionally, there are photos of Salt, the northern Badia, and Madaba, with more to be added soon of Petra and Aqaba. Be sure to check back to this gallery in the coming weeks, as I continue my travels in Jordan.

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Written by AESavvides

June 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Mmm mmm, food.

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My host mother, mama Ruwada, she’s quite the cook. From the first day Matt and I were welcomed into our new home, she has never failed to amaze me, along with my taste buds and stomach. Lunch on day one was maklouba, a traditional Jordanian delicacy that is more of an idea than a specific dish. It is often referred to as ‘upside down’ because all of the food is cooked together, I’m told, and then flipped onto a platter before it is served. So, in that way, it’s kind of like an upside down pear pie. Never had it, you say? Well, you should. It’s delicious. Believe me, I (‘d like to think I) know food.

On that first day two weeks ago, I was far too hungry to snap photos before ultimately stuffing my face full of juicy, tender chicken, carrots, onions and rice. I may have also still have been half asleep after my sleepless night and early morning.

Below are some images of the food I have been served over the course of two plus weeks living with my host family. Note: I’m usually starving, and thus dive into the meal before I pull my camera out. Some of these images may be of half-eaten food.

Also included in this slideshow gallery are other photos of meals, snacks, and munchies here in Jordan over the last two and a half weeks. Check captions for clarification on which is which, but you will probably be able to tell for yourself.

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Written by AESavvides

May 31, 2012 at 10:33 am

Uncovered mosaics at famed Hagia Sophia have art historians anxious to fully restore this national gem

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Story and photos by Anthony Savvides

ISTANBUL, Turkey – It began in 1993 – a massive effort to stabilize and restore an architectural gem dating back to the 6th century. But today, a year after the Ministry of Culture and Tourism declared the project finished, there remains concern that work on the Hagia Sophia Museum is still not complete.

“Now, the restoration process has ended, maybe [due to] money problems. There may be some political agendas, too,” said Aslihan Erkman, a professor of art history at Istanbul Technical University who believes that the efforts should have continued.

A recent discovery in the apse, uncovered during the most recent restoration of Hagia Sophia. The angel was found by restoration workers in the summer of 2009.

Before the latest restoration efforts began, a mission to Turkey by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, noted falling plaster, dirty marble facings, decorative paintings damaged by moisture and ill-maintained lead roofing. Progress was clearly made, but not enough, according to some observers.

In 2008, two years before work stopped on the space, Zeynep Ahunbay, a professor of architecture at Istanbul Technical University, talked of her frustration with the process.

“For months at a time, you don’t see anybody working,” Ahunbay told Smithsonian Magazine in 2008. “One year there is a budget, the next year there is none. We need a permanent restoration staff, conservators for the mosaics, frescoes and masonry, and we need to have them continuously at work.”

That’s one view of the project. Others watching during the nearly two decades of work – and after the scaffolding came down – talked of the somewhat complicated history of the space. Visible for miles across the city, the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of Istanbul’s history as well as its cultural and religious clashes.

The extravagant buttresses, grand dome and four brick minarets, towering toward the sky, have been a prominent feature of the city’s skyline since the 6th century, when it was completed in 537. This historic, grandiose landmark intertwines the legacies of medieval Christianity and Islam, and those of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

A view of a few of the Islamic elements within Hagia Sophia, which were installed on top of and above the altar after the Ottomon conquest of the city in 1453.

Until the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453, Hagia Sophia served as the religious heart and core of the empire. After the Ottoman conquest of the former Byzantine capital, the building was turned into a mosque, which it remained until the early 20th century. In 1931, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s first president and founder of the Republic of Turkey, closed Hagia Sophia and secularized it.

>>Click here to continue reading the story.

Written by AESavvides

June 13, 2011 at 5:11 am

Ιστανπουλ δεν είναι πια Κωνσταντινούπολη – Constantinople Ιstanbul değil

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First off, I have to share this video:

On my first morning at the Grand Yavuz Hotel, I went downstairs to the floor below the lobby, -1 in the elevator, where I ate breakfast with some of my peers.  The selection no longer consisted of hummus, sage, and pita bread.  Instead, there’s a giant glass bowl of Nutella, another filled with honey, corn flakes (among other cereal options), an entire table with baskets of bread, hard-boiled eggs and slices of pink grapefruit.  On another countertop sit four pots, two with coffee, one of tea and one of hot milk.  I ate two hard-boiled eggs and sipped a cup of tea before Denis came around to all of the tables to let us know that we would be assembling upstairs in the lobby for the tour.

We set off with Gokhan, our tour guide, up the hill to the main street.

The group marching up the street toward our first destination, Topkapi Palace.

A restaurant we walked by on the way, displaying a plethora of flags.

Our procession lead us first to Topkapi Palace that was the official and primary residence of the Ottoman Sultansfor approximately 400 years (1465-1856) of their 624-year reign.  It was massive, and reminded me of the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris.  Apparently, if the Sultan decided he was tired, silence fell upon the entire domain.  I wish my house worked like that, but I’m not a Sultan with his own palace.  Wishful thinking…

Gokhan spoke to the group about Topkapi's history before we entered.

A view of Topkapi from the atrium.

The entrance to Topkapi.

After touring through the palace with Gokhan I was able to roam around on my own for 45 minutes.  The building has a massive atrium garden in the center, lined with flowerbeds, trees and broken columns and pottery scattered across the lawn.



Inside Topkapi Palace.

I took a stroll through an art gallery filled with portraits of all the Ottoman Sultans, and then moved on to a museum filled with Muslim artifacts, including Mohammed’s footprint and a lot of his swords.  Throughout this museum, a man’s voice was echoing through the speakers as he read passages of the Quran.  When I first walked in with my camera in hand, a security guard shook his head at me and waved his hand, motioning for me to leave.  So, I walked out and back in, this time with my camera on and at my side.  I took two illegal videos, which you can view here and here.

The Sultan's bed. Modest.

In stark contrast to all of the other doorways, this tiny one reminded me of Alice in Wonderland.

A view of the Bosphorus through one of the walls surrounding Topkapi.

Elaborate Islamic wall decorations in the palace.

The domes within Topkapi. Beautiful.
























I quickly grew tired of Topkapi Palace, though, and spent the last 15 minutes of our allotted time hanging out with Cal and Carlene on the grass.  Slowly, everyone in the group gathered and we left the palace and walked down the cobble pathway to the Blue Mosque.  Since it was a Friday afternoon and prayer time, we didn’t get to go inside, but took a tour around the building.  I’ll have to go back, at some point over the next two weeks, and see it for myself.


A bird perched in the main entrance into the Blue Mosque.

Intricate stone work covers the exterior of the building. This is a small example.

A grand entrance leading into the Blue Mosque.

Men washed themselves before entering the Blue Mosque.

People were growing anxious, and we quickly departed and went to a restaurant nearby where we at lunch.  I had some lentil soup, lots of pita bread, and a lamb kebob.  The food was so fresh and bursting with flavor.  I’m excited about eating the local Turkish cuisine over the next 18 days.  Lunch was followed by two pieces of baklava, which was incredible, moist yet perfectly crunchy at the same time.  I know they say the Turks invented baklava and the Greeks perfected it, but now I’m not so sure.  I’ll have to visit the local ζαχαροπλαστείο(or zacharoplasteio, a Greek pastry shop) in Astoria when I get home.

After lunch, everyone assembled for the dreaded head count, and we headed to Hagia Sophia.  This visit did not disappoint.  Hagia Sophia (Ἁγία Σοφία, meaning Holy Wisdom) is everything I ever thought it would be and more- the structural design, the incredibly intricate and massive mosaic icons, the sky-high ceiling and even higher domes- awe-inspiring.  Here are some photos, because words can’t do it justice.

The initial site upon entering Hagia Sophia. Unfortunately, none of the dome mosaics here survived.

The massive main entrance of Hagia Sophia.





Jess and I in front of the altar and the mihrab.

Looking at them now, neither can the photographs.  You all need to come visit Hagia Sophia to see it for yourselves.

From Hagia Sophia, the plan was to go back to the Blue Mosque now that prayers had ended and then to the Grand Bazaar, but I asked Carlene for permission to stay behind and spend more time at Hagia Sophia.  After my inquiry, it became clear that many in the group felt the same way.  So, Gokhan lead the bunch back to the hotel and everyone was allowed to split off instead.  I felt bad for ending the tour abruptly, but it wasn’t just me, so I don’t feel that bad.

As people dispersed and left Hagia Sophia, both in the group and individually, I reentered the former Byzantine Greek Patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople, wandering through its many passageways.  It was incredible to be in a place of worship, which, over the years, has been shared by Muslims and Christians alike.  Why must we focus on our differences- God, Allah, Jesus, Mohammed, Bible, Quran- when the core beliefs are the same.  To love one another and be respectful of all life are virtues preached by both faiths.

Looking out from the mezzanine and seeing the Blessed Virgin with Arabic, Islamic features all around, that the world should function more seamlessly the way Hagia Sophia exists.  Maybe one day, we will learn to love one another, despite personal or religious differences.  We are all one living organism here on Earth, one human race, and should not be divided by political boundaries or national borders.

Written by AESavvides

June 8, 2011 at 3:16 am