Friday, 20 June 2014

From a deadly siege to a sea that's dead (TBS06)

Our first weekend's tour was, I confess, something of a mystery to me which proved to be almost magical. I knew that we were to be heading to southern Israel and were planning to visit the Dead Sea, but I had not expected the sheer delight of what was to be our first stop - Lachish!

Detail of Assyrian archers from wall panels from palace
of Sennacherib at Nineveh depicting the Siege of Lachish
For many years I have taken private or personal groups on tours of the British Museum, paying particular attention to artefacts relating to or shedding light on the Biblical narrative. Of all the exhibits in the museum, my personal favourite is the series of wall panels from the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh depicting the Siege of Lachish.

Having spent many hours studying this series of wall panels, and having tried on numerous occasions to share something of the drama and significance of this event, the prospect of actually visiting the site at which this siege took place and on which these scenes were based was really a very special teat. As the coach approached the tel, the excitement grew, and then the city gate came into view ...

Looking north east at the remains of the Assyrian siege ramp
built over 2,700 years ago. The main double gate is to the left
Standing to the south west of the tel, facing the remains of an Assyrian siege ramp, it was not terribly difficult to match the scenes with which I have become so familiar with the view that lay before me now. There are several things particularly unique about this site, not least this being the only Assyrian siege ramp in the Near East known to have survived the ravages of time.

As tempting as it might be to say much more of this site, to recount the strategies of the Assyrians, their subsequent tragic losses preventing them from taking the capital city, the incursions of the Babylonians over a century later and the associated 'Lachish Letters,' I will refrain from doing so for fear of this becoming too much of an exhilarating history lesson. But I will briefly describe what we saw.

The main double gate on the western side is currently being excavated and so was only really observable from above. It being a double gate, the Assyrians must have considered the siege ramp to be more conducive to their ultimate victory, despite the length of time it must have taken to construct.

Standing atop Tel Lachish - absolutely incredible!!
Walking in an anticlockwise direction, we traversed the perimeter of the tel about half way around until we came to a path that led the way to the top. We traversed the higher ground and made our way to a point above where we had first stood, near to the head of the Assyrian siege ramp. Looking from this vantage point, we were able to see clearly where the enemy must have encamped in preparation for the siege whilst also appreciating the terrain as seen by the defenders.

Returning across the tel top towards the palace structure, we passed above the double gate to the west in which area the Lachish Letters were discovered in 1935. Passing some later, Persian ruins, we descended the northern side of the tel, arriving at the well. Water supply has always been a significant factor in the lives of humans, for apart from being a necessary ingredient for making tea, it also helps stave off terminal dehydration (to say nothing of having a jolly good bath). Locating a water supply on any site is critical to understanding the lives of those who lived there - but more of this later.

The upper city Iron Age fortress at Tel Arad
Reluctantly I said farewell to Lakhish (it was spelt like that on the sign) and we headed further south to the Negev Desert, past Be'er Sheva .. to Arad. It would be a fair comment to say that Arad was arid - in fact it was verging on becoming oppressively hot.

Founded in the third millennium B.C., Arad is Israel's best example of an Early Bronze Age city. The site is in two parts, one lower than the other. The lower city ruins are extensive and preserve well laid out streets. The houses are mostly of similar structure to each other and there is also evidence of a marketplace and temples. There is little evidence of Middle or Late Bronze Age occupancy, though we do know that the city was conquered by Joshua (as also had been Lachish).

The Tel Arad temple with the Holy of Holies in foreground
The upper city is a fortress and dates from Israelite occupation in the early Iron Age (1200 B.C.). Most interestingly, there is a temple structure here which resembles the layout of the temple in Jerusalem - including an altar of identical dimensions to that of the tabernacle and a room serving as the Holy of Holies.

The intense heat and aridity of Arad were taking their toll and luncheon was most gratefully received. Falafel was the order of the day, a deep fried mash of chickpeas served in pita bread with sauce and whatever other stuff happens to be at hand. It was most palatable and though a cup of tea would have hit the spot, it was enough to keep us going for the next leg of the trip.

In the Holy of Holies at Tel Arad!
It wasn't long before we found ourselves descending through some spectacular scenery towards the lowest point on earth - the Dead Sea. This was a hot, dry and deserted landscape with barely any sign of life at all. Passing a sign that read 'Dangerous Curves' reminded me of a series of signs I had once encountered on a road in Ireland and here also seemed to state the obvious as we wound our way lower and lower to the depths of the earth. Another sign had indicated 'Sea Level' but we were well past that now as indicators revealed increasing negative hundreds of metres along the way.

We drove north along the western shore of the Dead Sea, disembarking at a suitable spot for a dip. The sign actually read 'SWIMMING DANGEROUS!!! NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY' but we went ahead - after all, this was the Dead Sea in which nothing lives anyway. Further instructions did make it clear that one was not to immerse one's head or drink seawater, so the odds of drowning did seem minimal. Having changed, we made our way to the shore where, after removing shoes, we tentatively negotiated the rocks before entering the water.

Doing what one does in the Dead Sea
It would be true to say that the experience of bathing in the Dead Sea is a unique experience. Of course, that could also be said of bathing in the Caspian Sea, I am sure, but this is sort of uniquely unique, in a unique sort of way. I'm not sure that I would describe it as being a particularly pleasurable experience, though there were bits that were jolly exhilarating, but submerging oneself in hot, somewhat oily water, having been splashed in the face with a concentrated saline solution that not only tasted rather disgusting but which also stung one's eyes which were already blinded by the sun in the intense heat is not the way I would want to spend many Friday afternoons. Playing croquet on a sunny English lawn in summer, drinking tea and eating scones with clotted cream - these are pleasurable activities, though one would admit neither provides the degree of buoyancy afforded by the Dead Sea.

Sumptuous fish dinner on Shabbat
And it is this degree of buoyancy for which this sea is renowned, and the experience must be experienced to be believed. Once at a certain depth it becomes almost impossible to stand as one's feet are virtually swept from underneath oneself. It was simply impossible to sink, no matter how I tried. Temporarily acquiring a local newspaper, I lay back in relative comfort and pretended to read - well, it's what one's supposed to do in such a situation.

The showers above the shore added a further degree of exhilaration. Relatively cool and rather forceful, they were a welcome treat in the late afternoon heat. A quick change and back on the coach for the short trip to the En Gedi Field Centre which was to be our accommodation for the night. Shabbat began, we dined on fish and all was well in the depths of the earth.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Droning on and on and on ... (TBS05)

Though it seems odd for Thursday to be the end of one's working week, the prospect of taking a couple of days visiting other sites (whilst hopefully being able to sleep in past four o'clock) does seem most welcome.

The drone hovering over A23 - looking west
Today began with another drone session, during which excavation must temporarily be put on hold to provide undisturbed views of each square. Once back in the square we continued lowering and levelling the south baulk until desired height was achieved. In order to facilitate passage to the east, we had to construct a sort of stairway of sandbags leading to the higher baulk to the south of E23. Something ought to be said of our eastern neighbours, but that might best wait till a later date!

We left the site today leaving our square in a properly excavatable state for the start of our second week. The south baulk looked jolly good, baulk walls had been trimmed and everything generally looked in ship-shape and Bristol fashion. The last task of each day has been to sweep the entire square in an endeavour to remove all traces of dust and to provide a good view of the actual surface.
The drone hovering in action ...
This is certainly one of the most frustrating tasks I have even had to do and might be compared with trying to dry off the surface of Antarctica or simply sweeping clean the Sahara. My suggestion of employing an industrial-sized hoover was not as well received as it ought to have been, whilst another suggested a leaf-blower. Perhaps the drone could be flown over the entire area at VLA thus causing a significant downdraft ...

Returning to the kibbutz, pottery was washed following which we enjoyed our first proper pottery reading session with Shlomo. The idea of reading pottery is fairly straightforward, but a slight explanation might be in order. The routine employed is that pottery sherds brought back from the site are first soaked overnight in water. The following afternoon they are washed and then laid out to dry in the sun (of which there is an abundance). Then the following afternoon, after the washing of the next day's pottery, the previous day's pottery is read. Today we read the pottery extracted on Tuesday.

The baulk being lowered - looking south
Reading involves separating the diagnostic pieces, such as bases, rim fragments and handles, from less distinguishing sherds. These are then arranged on tables according to the squares from whence they came before Shlomo makes his rounds, accompanied by the respective teams and any others who care to observe. I confess I found the whole experience most illuminating, and though I have familiarised myself with much to do with pottery from the Levant over the years, there was much yet to be learned from an expert such as this!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The daily sketch and a decent pot of char (TBS04)

What better way is there to celebrate the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo than by being granted an extra 15 minutes in bed and a personal pot of tea?! It was officially decreed that as from this morning the coach would not be leaving the kibbutz until 04.45 each morning as the outbound journey was not taking as long as anticipated. Hoorah! Another 15 minutes of shut eye each day would potentially add up to an additional four and a half hours sleep over the remaining three and a half weeks. One should be thankful for every small mercy!

Photographic image of D23 taken from the
south baulk, looking north
This morning began on site, as will each morning from henceforth, with a daily sketch of one's square. The purpose of this exercise is both to familiarise oneself with one's domain whilst also making a detailed record of the features, layer numbers and any other useful information that has been observed. In addition, I also plan to capture photographic images each morning which should help serve as an ongoing reminder of progress.

Our main task for the day was to lower and level the south baulk. These baulks, of which we essentially have three, are the strips of land or side walls that separate us from neighbouring squares. They also assist with stratigraphic analysis of the square. The north side of our square is open as the adjacent square in that direction has already been excavated to a lower level. Indeed, immediately to our north and about six feet lower are remains of what is understood to have been a Late Bronze Age palace. The lower we are able to dig in our square, the closer we will get to whatever lies immediately to the south of what has already been uncovered.

The sickle blade showing clearly where it has been worked
Our south baulk also serves as a means of passage between the east edge of the site and all squares from E23 to B23. As such it can get rather busy at times with conveyors of buckets and other passers by. We were to lower the baulk by about one foot and ensure it was level and safe for use as a thoroughfare. At the same time we needed to shore up with sandbags the south-eastern corner as it had partially collapsed over the previous two winters. Here, the baulk wall had partially revealed the rim of a large storage jar which, though most tempting to excavate further, had to be left in place.

However, in the process of lowering, levelling and shoring we did discover a sickle blade - a flint tool from around 3000 years ago though with little sign of use. These were made locally and would have been used in the harvesting of crops in the valley, reminiscent of the time when the Philistines returned the ark to Israel:

Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. (1 Samuel 6:13)
Enjoying my pot of tea, courtesy of Zvi
I also had reason to rejoice at breakfast this morning when I was greeted with a teapot of boiling water with which to make my tea. I was delighted. Those who know me will understand just how important it is to get a decent cup of tea as frequently as possible. To this end one should never travel beyond home shores without a more than sufficient supply of PG Tips. And to this end also did Zvi most graciously furnish the aforementioned tea pot, complete with boiling water. And though my rejoicing may not have been of quite the same stature as that of the ancient Beth-Shemeshites on seeing the return of the ark of the covenant, my official breakfast was now complete.

Enjoying a glass of Bedouin tea, with the Iron Age
temple in the background
Some two hours following official breakfast this morning we noticed a degree of excitement coming from the eastern edge of the site. It transpired that the Bedouin shepherd who lived at the foot of the tel had made some tea. This was now being distributed among the team in small glasses and certainly demanded closer attention. As one would expect, it was a local Bedouin concoction of black tea mixed with what seemed to be thyme, sage and goodness knows what else. It had been sweetened with honey, I suspect, but rumours of it also containing goat pee were likely unfounded. I sampled, then resampled, and though it was a pleasant distraction for occasional enjoyment, I will be sticking with the you know what.

The remainder of the working day at the tel went well. I was amused on our return to the kibbutz for lunch by a sign's translation which read: "Pleas move to the back of the bus" - particularly as I not noticed any get on board. Following another sumptuous luncheon we returned to our main living compound to wash pottery.

Our six o'clock lecture, Canaanites, Philistines and Judahites: Cultural dynamics in Iron Age I Shephelah, was given by Zvi and focused on the people who occupied the area in the late second and early first millennium B.C. This is proving to be a most educational experience.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Delta Two Three at TBS (TBS03)

I have not yet been able to convince my body that the idea of waking before four o'clock in the morning is a noble venture, and I suspect that I am fighting a lost battle. The coach ride to the dig provides insufficient time for any significant snoozing, so one spends the few minutes admiring the darkened scenery whilst hoping that the coach driver has had more sleep than those on board. Seat belts are optional but personally recommended.

Zvi and Omer preparing to
launch the drone
After arriving at the tel, tools and barrows are unloaded from the storage container and carried or wheeled to the excavation site. Though the sun does not rise for another hour or so after our arrival, there is sufficient light to get to work. One of the reasons for such an early start, apart from enabling us to avoid having to work in some of the hottest part of the day, is so that photographs might be taken when there are no harsh shadows to obscure details of soil patterns, etc.

However, before we were able to get to work this morning we were introduced to the new technology of archaeology - the drone. Zvi, the other of the excavation's directors from Tel Aviv, seemed quite in his element directing the flight operations as the quadrocopter made its way over the site, taking pictures of the freshly cleaned areas where we were to be digging. This new weapon in the Tel Beth-Shemesh excavational armoury certainly introduces an interesting dimension to the process and looks likely to be a most useful addition.

Sifting extracted soil for making sandbags,
overlooking the Sorek Valley
Once preliminary aerial photography and videography were accomplished, we were assigned to our specific squares where we were to spend the next four weeks. The site is divided into five metre squares, each identified by a letter and a number. I was assigned to D23 along with our square supervisor, Omer (aka Roger, etc.) - a more local chap from Tel Aviv University - and Canadians: Eric, Jessica and Nicole. Together, for some strange reason, we became known as the Thunder Lions Alliance or simply the TLA at Delta Two Three on TBS (live from the BBC - sorry, but you'd need to have been there to make any sense of that).

Accumulating sandbags
Having been assigned our teams and squares, we were temporarily seconded to other tasks, initially to the removal of a jolly stubborn iron stake and then to the filling of sandbags for later use. The arts of picking, lifting, bucketing, sifting and filling were mastered and, together with Charlotte, an English girl from E23 (actually, she was about to graduate from Manchester) we formed a formidable sand-bagging team.

The shade appears and is being put in place
Shortly after our official breakfast, a shade was erected over the site which covered most of the squares, providing some much needed relief from the scorching sun. Returning to our square we spent the remainder of the working day making a start on cleaning out two years' worth of winter-washed debris in preparation for some more serious stuff on the morrow perhaps ..

Monday, 16 June 2014

Cleansing the temple (TBS02)

The idea of getting up at 03.45 seemed preposterous before going to sleep last night and, after becoming a reality this morning, it appeared also to be unethical. Still, if that's what it took to be an archaeologist then I was up for it - and being up for it was what it was all about at that time of the morning. On board the coach at 04.30, we set off for Tel Beth-Shemesh when most sensible people were still fast asleep in their beds.

The sun rising (long after we
had done the same)
After arriving at the tel just before five o'clock and following a brief introduction to the proper use of ladders, picks, trenching hoes and wheelbarrows, we set off from the 'breakfast shade' down the slope towards the excavation site. This current excavation has been ongoing since 1990. Two previous excavations had taken place here, one from 1911 to 1912, and another from 1928 to 1933. The current dig has generally taken place on an annual basis for a four week period each season, though it had been two years since the last pick had been wielded on the tel.

The site as we found it, overlooking the Sorek Valley
The first job at hand was to remove the weeds and other accumulations of the past two years. This would enable us to see more clearly the immediate context of our excavations whilst also prevent contamination from unrelated debris. I found myself cleaning out the east end of an Iron Age I temple that had been excavated the previous season. The story of this temple is most interesting, but will need to be told another time.

The process of cleaning up also revealed a number of pottery sherds which were later washed and briefly examined before being discarded. As these were all coming from the debris being cleaned up from the past two winters - the 'winter wash' - they were of little value to the archaeological process. For pieces to have significance, they must generally be found within the context in which they have lain undisturbed throughout the centuries.

At around half past the hour of eight, everyone stopped work and made their way back up to the breakfast shade where we were to eat ... breakfast. Technically speaking my fast had already been broken by the two slices of bread and Marmite I had consumed along with a cup of tea before leaving the kibbutz four hours earlier. The idea of a second breakfast seems as obsolete as the notion of secondary first aid, but it was more welcome.

The Iron Age I seal
During this 'official' breakfast Dale Manor, one of the directors of the dig, presented the 'find of the day' which, technically speaking again, was the 'find of yesterday' as it had been happened upon by two of the young ladies from the Canadian university whilst enjoying a preliminary stroll around the tel on Sunday. Though discovered somewhat out of context among the winter-wash debris, the seal was a splendid discovery from the Iron Age I period - (c. 1200-1000 B.C.).

At about one o'clock, eight hours after arriving on site, we departed to the kibbutz, in the same manner whence we had come, and to luncheon. If I had had concerns about the quality or quantity of food to be provided during our stay, all fears were allayed. Both were more than ample and a real treat to consume. The afternoon was relatively quiet, though I was warned that this would not be the norm from the morrow on.

A light supper
At about five o'clock (at the more civilised end of the day) we had our first evening lecture - several were planned for the weeks ahead. This evening Shlomo spoke on Tel Beth-Shemesh: A Tale of Three Expeditions in which he outlined a hundred years of archaeology at Beth-Shemesh, discussed the site's geographical and historical setting, and told the story of the Middle Bronze Age city wall and gate. Splendid!

Supper followed - a more simple spread than we had earlier, but quite sufficient - and was served outside in the pleasant evening sun. As unaccustomed as I am to retiring for night before midnight, it did seem appropriate to do so in light of the impending alarm!

Sunday, 15 June 2014

On once holy land (TBS01)

For some strange reason, it seemed like a good idea to get the 16.01 train to King's Cross and arrive at Terminal Five of Heathrow aerodrome almost four hours before my flight to Tel Aviv was due to depart ... but one just never knows when unseasonal leaves might fall on the line.

The lady at the check-in desk was most helpful in "nicking a seat" for me (presumably a technical term employed by British Airways staff) enabling me to have a window seat on my first flight to Israel - a move which was much appreciated as the once holy land came into view through my starboard window. I confess that the sight of the coastline was rather evocative.

Approaching Tel Aviv
As a child I had particularly enjoyed looking at maps of Palestine and other Biblical lands - they were, after all, the only coloured pages in my Bible. There are many names of places with which I have become very familiar over the years, and now I was finally about to step forth on this land. And though no longer holy, as once it had been, this was the land in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had walked, the land over which David, Hezekiah and Josiah had ruled, and, of course, the land in which Jesus lived most of his life.

Landing at Tel Aviv early on a Sunday morning was a joy, and the four hours wait for my lift was exceeded only by the length of my flight. Once Dale and Frank arrived to collect me, we began driving east through the Coastal Plain in the direction of Jerusalem, towards the Shephelah. We passed a few places of Biblical significance, but before we reached the Judean hills, we arrived in the area of Beit Shemesh.

Up to this point I knew relatively little of what was to be our daily schedule. That was about to change. On entering a supermarket type of shop in something of a shopping centre, I was advised to purchase a few snacks to eat before leaving each morning. I was then informed that the working day was to begin at five o'clock each day and that it would be expedient to have some sort of 'first breakfast' before the 'official breakfast' was served sometime after half past eight. There was plenty of choice, but with most products labeled in Hebrew it was not as straightforward as it might have been.

Putting up the breakfast tent
Supplies procured, we proceeded to the kibbutz which would be home for the next four weeks. Netiv HaLamed He Kibbutz is situated in the valley of Elah - the site of David's encounter with Goliath. Here we met a number of others involved on the excavation and ate some lunch before heading to the dig site a few miles away where we spent the hot afternoon putting up a shelter under which the official breakfast would be eaten over the next four weeks.

I travelled back with Shlomo, one of the directors of the excavation, who explained the significance of the name of the kibbutz as referring to 35 soldiers killed in the area just prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. Lamed He being the Hebrew numerals for 35. Though still called a kibbutz, like most it no longer functions as once they did but has become much more commercial in nature.

The expedition had begun!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Comrades, this is the real Russia (7)

The overnight train was pleasant enough and brought us into Moscow on time. We shared this stretch of the journey in a four-berth compartment with a couple of Russians who, though they spoke almost no English, were no bother (and I trust we were none to them either!). I'll say more about the trains in a later post, but one slight concern here was seeing the stretcher in the toilet cubicle. At least they were prepared.

Somehow St Petersburg hadn't quite felt like Russia, but Moscow certainly did. It's not that I'd ever felt Russia before, but one gets notions of a place and St Petersburg had not coincided with my particular notions of Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, was different.

The train arrived in Moscow at a slightly unethical hour of the morning, but our driver met us at the station as planned and whisked us through the city to our hotel, pointing out a couple of places on the way. The hotel seemed at first to be in a rather obscure location as he had to ask a gatekeeper to let us into what looked like a run-down compound area, but it transpired that the front of the hotel was actually next door to a Metro station - jolly handy.

All change for the Kremlin guard
Lena, our walking-tour guide, met us and introduced us to the Moscow Metro, taking us to the city centre. Similar to the St Petersburg system, each journey cost a standard amount purchased here through a sort of swipe card which could hold multiple journeys for future use. Whilst Lena held our place in the queue for the mausoleum, we popped off to see the changing of the Kremlin guard. This was a relatively simple affair, though the goose-step does always look rather amusing and it was impossible not to be mindful of the Ministry of Silly Walks, from which these soldiers would need no grant. The idea of standing in the Kremlin was itself rather strange, considering that for years during my youth this had essentially been the very heart  of 'enemy' territory. Anyway, we’re all friends now, all differences forgotten and … well, actually, there are still a lot of differences not to be forgotten - and that’s quite ok. That’s one of the delights of travelling.

The Kremlin from the Moskva River
The guard having been changed, we rejoined the queue that was now slowly moving towards the mausoleum. Passing by the graves of Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, I knew that this was going to be another strange experience and eventually we entered the building and joined the hundreds of admirers, or voyeurs, that pass by the dead body of Vladimir Lenin each day. From 1918 until his death in 1924, Lenin was the first leader of the Soviet Union and now virtually worshipped by many as the father of Soviet communism.

One wonders how much longer can this spectacle continue. A body that has been dead for nearly ninety years requires a good deal of attention to keep it looking as it does, attention that consists of wiping it down every few days and then, every 18 months, submerging it in a tub of chemicals, including paraffin wax. The fact that Lenin himself wanted to be buried beside his mother in St Petersburg seems to be of little concern, though occasional voices suggesting that his wishes should be fulfilled are soon silenced by the political left and thought inexpedient by the tour operators. As for his brain, well it was removed after his death and spent the next forty years being dissected and analysed by scientists trying to discover secrets of his hidden genius. I would love to share these with you, but they are secret.

If standing in the Kremlin made me feel strangely as if I really ought not to have been there, staring at the dead body of Lenin was plainly bizarre. He may well have led the Russians in their godless revolution, but he is no longer there - and I suspect he knows much better now. And the irony of such a man being religiously revered by so many, so long after his death, did not escape me.

The Main Department Store (GUM)
A tour of the Kremlin would wait until the morrow, for we next headed across Red Square and towards a rather upmarket shopping centre which, ironically, stands opposite Lenin's mausoleum. Red Square, so named because the Russian word ‘red’ used also to mean ‘beautiful’ and has nothing to do with the colour of nearby buildings nor any allusion to communism. The real beauty here is St Basil’s Cathedral which lies just to the south east of the square, though the shopping centre was also impressive.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Vladimir Shukhov, a Russian engineer, was responsible for building the glass roof of a covered trading area that during Soviet times was known as State Department Store (GUM is the Russian acronym). Now privatised, it is known as Main Department Store (still GUM) and most of the stuff is rather pricey. Well the place is an architectural delight, with over 20,000 panes of glass in the roof its three arcades are each on three levels linked by walkways. And there is even a very pretty fountain.

The Dining Room of the Hotel Metropol
We would revisit the shopping centre later to enjoy lunch at Stolovaya Number 57, a retro Soviet canteen. First we had more of the city to explore with Lena who showed us the Hotel Metropol, an extremely posh hotel built at the beginning of the 20th century that is really a masterpiece of art nouveau. The stained-glass dining room ceiling really is a must to see, and many a well-known name has dined here.

We saw the ex-KGB headquarters which, appropriately, was under cover in the process of renovation. And then we walked past the Moscow Operetta Theatre where, in July 1918, Vladimir Lenin gave a speech at a Joint Session of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, the Moscow Soviet, Factory Committees and Trade Unions of Moscow encouraging his comrades at a crucial time in their “struggle against the onslaught of the whole imperialist world.”

The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre
Across the street from a statue of Anton Chekhov is the Moscow Art Theatre which produced Chekhov’s four major works including premieres of his Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. From here, looking west, it was rather interesting to note the architecture of various decades and of particular interest were the seven impressive, gothic-style skyscrapers, or the 'Seven Sisters', which Stalin had built in the mid-20th century.

Lunch at Stolovaya No. 57
Lunch at Stolovaya No. 57 is a must for all visitors to Moscow. I can't say I would whole-heartedly recommend the food, though it was quite edible, but the experience was worth any lack of palatability. I'm not sure that Shanae fully appreciated the significance of the rather plain cuisine of the set lunch, having never experienced the reality of the Soviet Union, but that diners were addressed as 'comrades' in a rhyming sign on the table asking us to clean our table after eating was most fitting.

One of Stalin's seven sky-scrapers from the river
The afternoon continued to be most sunny so we took to the river and enjoyed an hour and a half's boat ride that took us past a number of notable sites. We met a couple of English visitors who were over to cheer on the British athletes at the World Championships that were being held in Moscow. I asked them to do a bit of cheering on my behalf too - just so as not to appear totally unpatriotic. I'm sure it helped.