Half the World

The heart of Iran is Isfahan

Dave Bartruff

Photojournalist Dave Bartruff

Photo feature by Dave Bartruff

Isfahan embodies the greatness of ancient Persia. Located in virtually the middle of Iran, the city was once the capital of the Persian kingdom, a lush green oasis surrounded by vast deserts of sand and salt. It was said that Isfahan nesf-ejehan (Isfahan is half the world).

The Grand Bazaar

Welcome to the Grand Bazaar, center of the city's artistic commerce.

Isfahan’s Golden Age began in the late seventeenth century under the Safavid dynasty. The city had been an important trading center, but to establish in it as the national capital was no easy task. The first monarchs had to drive out the Mongols, and Shah Abbas the Great (r. 1588 – 1629) was Isfahan’s champion. He expelled the Ottomans and constructed the awe inspiring Imam (Prophet) Mosque, completed in 1638. His successors continued to build magnificent palaces, mosques, and schools. They established a flourishing tradition of support for the decorative arts, notably calligraphy and miniature painting, and Isfahan’s era of glory lasted into the nineteenth century.

Crafts abound in in Isfahan. An Armenian girl shows off her Nativity scene

Bisected by the Zayandeh River, Isfahan is today the showpiece of a nation slowly beginning to welcome Western visitors. A casual stroll can lead the stranger to diverse and unexpected discoveries. There are parks, historical bridges crossing the river, tea rooms where patrons smoke traditional water pipes, monuments and landmarks adorned by ubiquitous pale blue tiles and a Zoroastrian Tower Of Silence.

A dozen active churches have served the city’s large Armenian community since the seventeenth century.

The heart of the modern city is Imam Khomeini Square. Formerly a royal polo ground, it encompasses twenty acres and is second in size only to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Two magnificent mosques and madrassas (religious schools), a pavilion and a seven story palace plus the grand bazaar border the square, eloquent testimony to the former capital’s eminence in religion, culture, government and trade.

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Rose Red Petra: Jordan’s Lost World Treasure Found!

Photo feature by Dave Bartruff

Iconic view of famed Treasury from mouth of siq

Millennia ago out in the sands of the Arabian desert on the routes of ancient camel caravans, the fabled city of Petra was sculpted masterfully from the natural rose red sandstone formations and gorges of the vast wilderness.

Its builders were the Nabataeans, once desert nomads who ceased their wanderings. Petra was their capital from the 4th century B.C. until the Roman occupation beginning in AD 106. It became a religious center and an early seat of Christianity until the Muslim conquest in the 7th Century. Petra was reopened again for exploration again during the Crusades five centuries later.

By the 1500s, however, it was completely lost to the outside world and remained so for 300 years. Then in 1812, a young Swiss explorer robed as an Arab and fluent in the language, pursued local bedouin tribesmen to lead him to the site of the lost city which he longed to see.

Adventurer at Obelisk Tombs

Although he died just five years later, he had reawakened the world to the ancient wonder of the Lost Rose Red City. Today Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site and known to movie goers worldwide from the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And just forty miles away are the sands of the Wadi Rum of Lawrence of Arabia film fame. Highlight of one’s own Petra discovery experience is as you approach on foot through a narrow nearly mile-long chasm called a siq. The deep narrow gorge with its six-story high walls ends dramatically to reveal Petra’s most treasured monument, the Treasury or El Khazneh . Exquisitely carved in the 1st Century B.C. it was crafted for a Nabataean king and in classical Hellenistic style.

A vast city of sculpted monasteries, royal tombs, cave dwellings, Roman-style colonnaded streets and amphitheater are all awaiting for your discovery on foot or on camel back in legendary “lost and found” Petra.

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The Eternal Nile: Egypt’s River of Life

Photo feature by Dave Bartruff

Throughout time, the waters of the Nile River have sustained Egyptian civilization. Coursing six hundred miles northward from the Sudan border and emptying into the Mediterranean Sea, the waterway has always been Egypt’s River of Life.

First morning light on Nile bank

First morning light on Nile bank

Over centuries, alluvial deposits from annual floods built the rivers banks into the most productive farmland in the Middle East, so today the Nile’s rich shoreline is literally the nation’s breadbasket.

And cotton grown here is Egypt’s leading cash crop and the country’s fifth-ranking source of income.

The same waters on which funerary barges bore the pharaohs’ mummified remains to faraway burial sites now boast a different type of traffic: tourists by the thousands, who sail the hundreds of river cruisers that operate on the river today. Tourism now is Egypt’s third leading economic resource.

Tall masted Nile felucca under sail

Tall masted Nile felucca under sail

The daunting task of the Nile’s classic tall-masted sailing vessel, the felucca, remains unchanged: the transportation of cargo from bank to bank, upstream and down. But now they take tourists who are looking for adventure on a budget.

And the Nile’s fleet of luxury river cruisers which navigate the famed waterway like floating four-star resort hotels can open the secrets to Egypt’s fabled antiquities, many situated on the river banks in Aswan, Luxor, Kom Ombo and Esna. Tours to the three-thousand-year-old treasures operate day and night and are often accomplished on foot from the docked vessels.

Sailing aboard an ultramodern Nile cruiser in the lap of luxury, I discovered that the secret of my cruise’s success is actually insured in its wheel house. Here I met our Egyptian captain who first began sailing at age seven aboard his father’s felucca. That was more than 30 years ago, but it gave him the expertise he uses today to navigate the river with sure-eyed accuracy even in the dead of night. One thing has not changed however, his sailing attire, the traditional robes and turban of a true son of the Nile.

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Still Burning for God In Egypt’s Sinai Wilderness

Photo feature by Dave Bartruff

Bedouin shepherdess and camel mount

In the midst of the Sinai wilderness, God commanded Moses to lead the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage and into His Promised Land. God spoke from the fires of a burning bush saying, “Moses, where you now stand is holy ground.”

At the time, Moses himself was an exile and a fugitive of the pharaoh, a shepherd tending the flocks of his father-in-law. Forty years later, Moses would return to the same sacred site of his commissioning as the leader of the Hebrew Exodus, shepherding his people as they wandered in the Sinai wilderness and eventually into their Promised Land.

High above the sacred site of the Burning Bush is Mt. Sinai. Here, at its summit, Moses received the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets by the Hand of God.

The earliest Christians, too, gathered at the venerated location to observe holy days and commune together. Yearning to be closer to God and safe from Roman persecution, these ascetics chose the Sinai’s solitude and isolation to maintain their lives as lonely hermit cave dwellers.

To afford them permanent shelter and safety, in AD 330 a chapel and tower were erected on the Burning Bush site at the bidding of Helena, devout mother of Constantine the Great.

St. Catherine’s at foot of Mt. Sinai

Throughout the ages, St. Catherine’s has survived many tribulations, thanks to an odd assortment of benefactors. During the Arab conquest, which began in AD 641, a mosque and minaret were added to the monastery to placate Muslim marauders.

The Crusaders occupied the monastery from AD 1099-1270, and during the Ottoman Era, the Turkish sultans recognized the monastery’s right to exist. During the French conquest of Egypt (17997-1804), Napoleon had repairs made from his own budget.

St. Catherine’s today is a living treasure house of historical and liturgical art. Its library is second only to the Vatican’s in its scope and value.

Visitors and pilgrims are welcomed five days a week each hoping to have, as did Moses, an extraordinary experience with God at the site of the Burning Bush.

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Egypt’s Desert Monasteries of the Wadi Natroun

Photo feature by Dave Bartruff

Out in the Egyptian desert between Cairo and Alexandria is an oasis of Christianity that has existed for two millennia: the Coptic Orthodox monasteries of the Wadi Natroun. Here, millenia earlier, in the same vast wilderness, salt (natroun) was extracted from the crusty shores of a dried up lake bed for use in the embalming of Egyptian Pharaohs.

Egypt’s Christian roots date to the 8th Century BC when the Old Testament prophet Hosea was inspired to write God’s declaration that, “Out of Egypt, I will call my Son.” This was fulfilled when the Holy family fled Bethlehem to Egypt after Christ’s birth and remained until the death of Israel’s wicked King Herod.

Monk in doorway of his cloister.

In AD 43, the Evangelist Mark arrived in Egypt at the time of the Roman Emperor Nero, and Christianity quickly spread throughout the land. As Roman persecution of Christianity grew throughout the Empire into the 4th Century, Egyptian Christian (Copts) fled for refuge into their desert as the Holy Family did earlier. All the while, the Coptic Orthodox Church was developing its own 19-century-old traditions as tens of thousands of Christians found sanctuary in 5,000 desert refugees, and monastic orders were forming as well attracting monks from abroad including Armenia, Ethiopia, Syria and Italy.

The rise of militant Islam in the 7th Century added to ongoing incursions of Berber and Bedouin desert raiders, so the remote sanctuaries were consolidated and turned into secure, self-sustaining thick-walled bastions complete with store houses, workshops and bakeries.

Today, four Coptic Orthodox monasteries lie in close proximity to one another in the Wadi Natroun. All welcome visitors to tour their facilities led by multi-lingual resident monks. A day visit to two of the monasteries is sure to provide a fulfilling spiritual experience.

Coptic Egyptian Pope Shenouda III, headquartered in Cairo 65 miles from the monasteries, often retreats to work and meditate in these age-old desert Christian sanctuaries.

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Coptic Cairo

Photography and text by Dave Bartruff

Pope Shenouda

Pope Shenouda in, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, conducting the Christmas Communion at St. Mark's.

Egypt’s Christian roots reach back through the ages to the infancy of Jesus Christ. As a baby, with Mary and Joseph, he fled Palestine and the wrath of King Herod to the land of the Nile. Here the Holy Family stayed until Herod died, fulfilling Old Testament prophecy of God’s son being called out of Egypt.

Many places in Cairo and its environs are venerated as sites Jesus and his parents visited during their sojourn. The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its origins to Mark the Apostle, who is said to have arrived in Egypt in A.D.  42.   Thus, Egypt’s church might well be the oldest in Christendom. The English word Coptic, meaning   “Egyptian Christian,” derives from the Arabic qubt and Greek aigyptios, both meaning “Egyptian.” Coptic also refers to the Egyptian alphabet. Developed from the Greek letters, it replaced hieroglyphics in the fifth century.

St. George Church and Monastary

Most of the ancient Coptic land marks are found in Old Cairo. Here is the old Roman fortress called Babylon, which houses the church and monastery of St. George.

Through Saint Mark’s works, vast numbers of Egyptians embraced Christianity, but Roman persecution thinned their ranks. The Arab invasion of A.D.  639 further diminished the Christian community. Yet today, one of every ten Egyptians is Christian.

Most Coptic landmarks are found surrounding the first-century Roman fortress called Babylon. The Coptic Museum is here. Its prized possession is the Nag Hammadi Codices, a collection of more than one thousand papyri bound in leather.

Next door is the Church of the Holy Virgin, known as El Moalaqa, or the “Hanging Church,” since it was built into the Roman fortress wall between two bastion towers. Dating from the late fourth century, it is the largest and most elaborate Coptic church in Old Cairo. Its alabaster pulpit rests on thirteen pillars. One is black, symbolizing Jesus’ betrayer, Judas.

El Moalaqa

The sanctuary of the Church of the Holy Virgin, known as El Moalaqa. The alabaster pulpit is suppored by thirteen pillars, once of which is black to symbolize Jesus' betrayer, Judas

Close by, but reachable only through a twisting maze of narrow lanes, is the Church of St. Sergius. A sign indicates that it is the oldest church in Egypt. According to tradition, the Holy Family found shelter in a cave beneath the site.

St. Barbara’s, a third Coptic church in the vicinity, also dates from the fourth century. Its portal is a masterpiece of wood carving.

Across the city in Heliopolis is the site of the Virgin’s Tree. Here water sprang from the ground at Jesus’ command, according to tradition. Pilgrims still enjoy refreshment from the well.

El Moalaqa

The exterior of El Moalaqa

The Coptic Church has its own calendar, conceived in A.D. 284 and followed to this day.

It is believed to be a continuation of the ancient pharaonic solar calendar. According to the Coptic calendar, Christmas falls on January 7. The focal point of the Egyptian celebration is the service held Christmas Eve in St. Mark’s Cathedral, and conducted by the Coptic pope himself.

The ceremony begins several hours before midnight and lasts into the early hours of Christmas Day. Outside the cathedral, a myriad of colored lights illuminates a bazaar of booths selling festive foods and Coptic icons. Inside the huge sanctuary, hundreds of Oriental carpets decorate the aisles and walls as more than five thousand Coptic Christians gather to honor their Savior, who long ago found refuge in their country.

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On Top of It!


Award-winning international photojournalist Dave Bartruff likes to keep on top of things. Like climbing to the top of Mount Rushmore to shoot photos for a story on the famed monument. With special permission, he joined the daring work crew up a steep, twisting trail, then gingerly climbed out on a maintenance ladder, finally pulling himself up by rope to the crown of George Washington’s head.

Dave Bartruff at Mt. Rushmore

On Top Of It!

From atop the monument, 5,725 ft. above sea level, Dave created a spectacular portfolio of photographs.

On assignment in Egypt, he ascended Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments to produce a photo essay on fabled St. Catherine’s Monastery sequestered at the base of the “Mountain of God.”

In Tibet, he visited the highest human habitation on earth… 17,000 ft high Rongbuk Monastery beneath the “Forbidden” North Face of Mount Everest.

For more that thirty years, the California-based photographer/writer has been covering the world for travel and religious publications. He has completed over 200 international shoots in more than 90 countries.

His mountain-top experiences have resulted in such prestigious awards as Lowell Thomas prizes by the Society of American Travel Writers, the Pacific Asia Travel Association and Nikon Camera.

Bartruff maintains a worldwide photo archive of nearly a quarter of a million images, many with model releases. More than ninety percent of the images are shot on location overseas.

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