Chapter 64: First Middle East Tour
My time was almost completely absorbed, after our return to the United States, with the coast-to-coast broadcasting over the abc network, the television scare, and intensive preparations to leap from radio over to television.
Our original telecasting experience lasted 27 weeks. By January 1956, we had become satisfied that radio was far from dead. Radio had been forced to change its format—true! Radio had adapted itself to a different type of programming. But it had survived! People were actually buying more radio sets than ever!
Planning Our First Middle East Tour
I had used a great deal of “film stock”—that is, motion-picture footage—to illustrate whatever I was talking about on television. I felt we needed some very special motion-picture film of Palestine, the ancient area of Babylon, such places as Tyre and Sidon. Also I had for some time felt the need of a personal visit to those lands, to obtain material for articles and broadcasts. I knew that if I visited the ancient Bible lands, got the “feel” and experienced the very atmosphere of these lands, my preaching, lecturing, broadcasting and writing would be far more effective. The places I would be speaking about would be far more
We were now well along on our new road of daily radio. I was no longer tied down with the furious night-and-day grind of intensive television production. And I really needed a change of scenery.
So we began making plans for a tour of the Middle East, and an every-night evangelistic campaign in London.
Our son Dick, with George Meeker, an Ambassador graduate and ordained minister, had sailed back to Britain and Europe on June 29, 1955. A considerable mail response was coming from the broadcasts on Radio Luxembourg, and the broadcasts on Radio Ceylon, and into South Africa. Those men were needed in London to handle much of the response, although the general mailing list was still maintained at Pasadena headquarters.
But it was becoming impossible to process, answer and handle this increasing volume of mail from Pasadena. We needed an office in London.
Late in August, 1955, Dick obtained occupancy of a small suite of offices he had located on Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square, in the very heart of downtown London. He had returned to Pasadena for some three weeks in October 1955, speaking on the television program while here.
Once it was decided that Mrs. Armstrong and I would take the Middle East trip, to be followed by the nightly evangelistic campaign in London, Dick began planning the itinerary through American Express in London. He was to accompany us.
But at that time the Middle East began to sizzle as the world’s trouble spot. Nasser was soon to seize the Suez Canal. Trouble was brewing between Jews and Arabs. War seemed imminent. Russia had been supplying Nasser with arms and planes. The Suez crisis might result in British intervention. That might result in Russian intervention against Britain. World War iii could suddenly flare up out of this crisis.
Then, suddenly, the crisis quieted down along about February. The way was opened for us to proceed with plans for the trip. The war scare remained quiet until our tour was finished. Then, on our return to America, the crisis boiled hot again. Nasser did take over the Suez Canal on July 26. I wrote an article on it for the September Plain Truth, immediately on our return.
That article said: “The war clouds that have hovered over the Middle East were cleared just long enough to permit Mrs. Armstrong, our son Richard, and me to visit Cairo, and the capitals of the Middle East—Baghdad, Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv …. Now that we have returned to America, our mission accomplished, the crisis explodes all over again—this time over the seizure of the Suez Canal! It was quieted just long enough to allow God’s emissaries to complete their visit.”
Mrs. Armstrong and I left Pasadena during the latter half of March 1956. We stopped off a few days at what is now the site of the third Ambassador College campus (opened September 1964) near Big Sandy, Texas. We traveled by train to New York. One of our Ambassador graduates drove our car to New York, loaded with the entire mailing list for Britain, Europe, Africa—which we were then transferring to the new London office.
We boarded the Queen Mary, sailing for Southampton, England, on April 11, 1956.
Mrs. Armstrong kept a diary of this trip. Her comments, written on the spot at the moment, are far more accurate than anything I could now write from memory.
Mrs. Armstrong’s diary was published in the Plain Truth in three installments, in the October, November and December 1956 issues of the Plain Truth. They evoked a tremendous interest among our readers. Many exciting and interesting things happened. I feel that her diary belongs as a part of this record, so I shall reprint it here—breaking in, as I may, from time to time, with comments of my own.
Part One by Loma D. Armstrong
We arrived in New York after our train ride from Longview, Texas. We encountered varied weather conditions on the trip: dust storms in Texas, Missouri and Illinois; rains, of almost cloudburst intensities, in Indiana and Ohio; and heavy fog in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
The weekend, in New York, was very windy and today (April 8) we awakened to see several inches of snow on the ground. It is still snowing. We hope that the weather will clear soon and allow the sun to come out.
Arriving in Europe
We arrived in Southampton on Monday, April 16, at 2:45 p.m. Our son Dick and George Meeker were on the dock to meet us. Dick was so glad to see us that he whirled me around until I was almost dizzy. When our car was unloaded at the dock it had three flat tires, but they held air when inflated. George Meeker drove Dick’s car to London and Dick drove our car, with us.
The drive from Southampton to London, in the bright English sunshine, was beautiful. Our drive was interrupted with a stop at a quaint little tea room for tea. We arrived in London after dark. Dick took us first to the apartment where he and George live; then we went to our hotel. After our baths we enjoyed a good night’s rest.
Tuesday, April 17
We had to completely repack our trunk and pack our suitcases as lightly as possible for our trip by airplane to Zürich, Switzerland, on our first lap to the Middle East.
Wednesday, April 18
We arrived in Zürich, Wednesday afternoon. It was a cold, rainy day—rain mixed with snow. In places the ground was white with snow.
In London, we were told that we would not need coats, and that it would be very hot over the whole area in which we would be traveling; so, before leaving London, at the airport, we gave our coats to George to take to their apartment until we returned. As a result we were damp, soggy and shivering before we were in Zürich many minutes. Mr. Armstrong bought a Bolex movie camera for our motion pictures.
We left Zürich by train for Rome, having to sit up until midnight. When we arrived in Milano, we changed trains for the remainder of the trip. Mr. Armstrong left his hat on the first train, so we arrived in Rome with him bareheaded. He remedied that soon after we arrived, however, by buying a new hat.
We were in Rome only a few hours. The nearer the time came to fly across the Mediterranean Sea the more tense I felt. I do not like to fly.
Our flight was in the bright sunshine and the sea was beautiful. We flew along the Italian coast over the Bay of Naples—near Mount Vesuvius, over the Isle of Capri, across the boot of Italy, over Stromboli, then out to sea. In the middle of the Mediterranean we saw an American aircraft carrier and several cruisers.
Though trouble had quieted down between the Arab Egyptians and Israel for a while, military ships were in evidence—standing by—in a number of places.
It was dark when we reached the shores of Africa. We flew over Alexandria and the delta of the Nile.
We arrived in Cairo at 9:30 p.m., April 18, to a strange and different world. At the airport, an Arab and a Nubian checked our passports. Because we were Americans, we were held up until our names were checked against a list they had of spies or political undesirables.
The friendliness of the personnel at the English and Swiss airports was sadly missing here. We were looked upon as sympathizers of the British, who are hated in Egypt.
We were taken to our hotel in a bus driven by an Arab dressed in robes—in fact, all people here dress in robes. It was a long drive and so surprising. We saw block after block—mile after mile—of large, modern apartment buildings, four to 12 stories high.
After arriving at the Semiramis Hotel, we had baths and brushed our teeth in water from the Nile (along its banks, Moses was hidden in the bulrushes when he was a baby). It flows deep and wide, just outside our window and across the street. Ex-King Farouk’s yacht is anchored just below and is used as an annex to this hotel. A young lady from Long Beach, California, a school teacher, was on our plane and has a room on the yacht.
It was 1:40 a.m. when I finally got to bed.
Friday Morning, April 20
A guide from the American Express office—a young Arab named Sayed, who speaks English very well, dressed in a red robe and red fez—came to the hotel after us. He had a nice car—a Chrysler—and an Arab driver who could not speak English.
What Egypt Is Like
We drove all through the native quarters where we saw the narrow streets filled with donkeys pulling carts of hay or vegetables; donkeys being ridden by men who were like giants on them (the men were so long-legged that their feet almost dragged on the streets); cars, mostly American, being driven by Arabs; and people wearing dirty and so often ragged robes. In the midst of it all there were children and dogs. Our driver used the horn on the car to drive through. All other cars were doing the same. Horns honking incessantly. The drivers of the donkey carts were yelling; people chattering; dogs barking; and the smell was awful. The motion pictures we took could not bring back with us the sounds or the smells. Actually, no one paid any attention to the honking of the horns. We had to wind our way slowly though the whole mess. The streets were as filthy as the people.
Some of the shops are crude holes in the wall where different craftsmen are plying their trades. We saw one man carving large copper and brass trays by hand. These trays were intricate with beautiful designs—very beautifully done.
We were taken to the “City of the Dead.” It is a place outside, or in the outskirts of the city. It is the place where the poor are buried. When we arrived, a pickup truck was unloading a body, merely wrapped in cloth, to be put in a hole which they dig in the clay banks and afterwards close up.
There were many caves in the hillsides. We found many people living in some of these dirt caves, sitting on the ground outside their openings in the dirty, dusty streets, even though they were in the midst of the “City of the Dead.”
We were then taken to a large mosque. We were told that it is the largest in the world. When we entered the courtyard of the mosque, we had to don canvas slippers over our shoes. No one is allowed inside in shoes. All Arabs remove their shoes and go in either barefooted or in socks. In the center of the courtyard is a large fountain, around which the Arabs sit and wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque.
As we entered, we were surprised at the beauty of the place. Its only furniture was a high altar reached by an ornate stairway from which the Koran is read. The floor was completely covered by a beautiful red carpet on which a number of Arabs were sitting or lying down. They were scattered over the large room, not in groups. We tried to take pictures inside the mosque but the lighting was too dim.
We have never in all our lives seen so many diseased eyes. Many people are blind and deformed—especially with twisted feet.
After seeing Cairo, we left in the evening by train for ancient Thebes, now called Luxor—450 miles south, up the Nile.
As the train pulled slowly through the city, we saw how the people live. There were mud or adobe apartments—just a conglomeration of rooms placed anywhere, one on top of the other. There was no plan, but they were placed as if they had been blown together by a strong wind and stuck just as they happened to light. The Arab women and children sit on the ground wherever they take the notion. It makes no difference what surrounds them.
After we were no longer able to see the country through which we were traveling, we went to bed in our tiny compartments only to awaken in the night choking with dust. The only way a person could breathe was by holding the sheet over the face. The dust was thick in the air.
Daylight came very early so we were able to see the country through which we were passing. A canal, beside the track, seemed to provide water for use in their homes and huts as well as for irrigation. The black-robed women were dipping the water in huge pitchers or bottles which they always carried on their heads.
We would also see people in water up to their waists and water buffalo wading. A highway ran along the opposite side of the canal, and, early as it was, early dawn, we could see many men and women walking briskly along. Some of the men rode small donkeys—with their feet almost touching the ground, while the women carried baskets or jars on their heads. Others rode camels. Children were driving goats or water buffalo. There were people scattered over the fields working with their hands in the soil. A few had crude hoes. Once in a while we saw a donkey and camel yoked together pulling a crooked stick or a plow. Their agricultural methods were primitive. But the soil appeared rich.
Ancient Egypt’s Grandeur
We arrived in the early morning at Luxor and were taken to our hotel in an antiquated motor-driven hack. There was no room for Dick, so he was driven in a horse-drawn buggy.
This was Luxor, built on the site of the ancient city of Thebes, capital of the ancient Egyptian domain when Egypt was at the zenith of its splendor. Luxor, today, includes also the village of Karnak, six miles from the main village.
All the wealth of war, the booty and the shipments of goods from other countries were once hoarded in Thebes, the capital. Today, we saw the remains, only a number of rich monuments, and supporting columns of temples and tombs. Once they were overlaid with gold, silver, alabaster or marble; now there is nothing but timeworn stone. The temples had been connected with one another by courtyards and lobbies. Now, however, the massive columns are all that remain of the former splendor.
Our guide, an elderly and scholarly Egyptian, walked over the ruins hour after hour with us, explaining the history and the religion of the people who worshiped at the temples. It was all worship of the sun god, Ra.
We were there during the Muslim fast called Ramadan. Although our guide was in his 70s, he carried on all day through the hot sun, with no food. The fast lasts a month and no food can be eaten from sunrise until sunset; however, they eat during the night.
After a long day we sat on the large veranda of the hotel overlooking the Nile. The moon was full and the stars seemed so near and so very bright. It was a beautiful evening.
Our beds in the hotel were covered with high canopies with curtains of mosquito netting. We did not pull the netting over us when we went to bed, but we soon found it was impossible to sleep without it, after being bitten a number of times by mosquitoes.
The food was terrible. I could not eat any breakfast, so I drank some hot tea. At least the water had been boiled.
King Tutankhamen’s Tomb
This morning we crossed the Nile River in a felucca or sailboat built as they used to build them thousands of years ago. A driver with an old Ford car met us on the other side and we rode over hot dusty roads to the tomb of King Tutankhamen. His tomb was discovered in 1922. He is said to have died at the age of 18. His tomb was the last of the pharaohs’ tombs to be found.
The tomb is deep underground, down a tiled and decorated passageway, past a false entrance, and thence to the real entrance where the inner coffin lies. In the room were images of the history of some part of his life. These images were in the tile on the walls.
The contents of the tomb filled one whole wing of the museum at Cairo. It took several years to move all the contents from the tomb. The mummy is in a museum. The wealth buried or stored in the different treasure rooms of the tomb was fantastic.
After leaving the king’s tomb, we entered the tomb of Ramses vi. I did not go to the end of the passageway down into the tomb, but Dick and Mr. Armstrong did. I felt that the long climb back up was more than I wanted to try. I did, however, go into the tomb of Seti.
After our visit to those tombs we were taken to the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which was carved out of a mountainside. She is said to have ruled Egypt from 1503 to 1483 b.c. She reigned like a king and the large figures or statues at her temple have been made with false beards. She claimed she was the daughter of the sun god himself. The story of her birth and of her reign is depicted on one of the terraces of the temple ruins.
After returning to our hotel we packed our bags for our return through the night to Cairo. Once more a dusty trip.
When we reached Cairo our guide who had previously taken us over the city was at the station to meet us with the same Chrysler car and chauffeur. He had planned a trip to the pyramids and a campout in the Sahara Desert.
Our next visit was to the site of the ancient city of Memphis, where Moses and Aaron pleaded with the pharaoh to let the children of Israel go. Only a few ruins which have been excavated remain now of the ancient city.
We drove from there to the pyramids at Saqqara which, we were told, were the oldest of the pyramids. There were also, in this area, a number of tombs over 2,500 years old.
We then drove through the city of Giza, out into the Sahara Desert past the Great Pyramid where we found our camp.
We were quite surprised to find it really just our camp. We expected to find others there, but the four tents were just for us.
Mr. Armstrong’s and my tent was quite large. It was white on the outside but very colorful on the inside with each panel of the tent a different design. The sand had been smoothed out level and covered with oriental rugs. There were two cots nicely made up with sheets and wool blankets (it is very cold in the desert at night). There were also a table, large pitcher of water, wash bowl and soap; and hung on the center pole were towels and a mirror. A large bouquet of flowers adorned the table. Dick’s tent was like ours but smaller. Another large tent we found was our dining room. It also had a rug over the sand. In it was a large table with a centerpiece of flowers. There was a table for serving, and chairs with cushions. A short distance away was another tent—the cooks’ tent. Here was a cook, an assistant cook and a waiter.
Sayed had brought his little 7-year-old son, Mohammed, out to spend the day and the night. They slept out under the stars on cots.
We arrived at the camp before lunchtime.
After lunch, three camels with their leaders were outside our tent. We were helped aboard and had our first camel ride. We really enjoyed our camel ride to the Great Pyramid of Giza.
We went into the pyramid through its long, low passageway to the King’s Chamber. It is a marvelous building, and although the King’s Chamber is in the center of the huge pile of stone, it is ventilated by built-in shafts.
I waited while Mr. Armstrong and Dick walked stooped over in the shorter low passageway to the Queen’s Chamber.
When we once more mounted our camels, we rode back across the desert to our camp, where the cooks had prepared a huge dinner which none of us could eat, because of the size of the lunch they had served before we left for the pyramids. Our guide told us that he had asked some Arab entertainers from the village to come out that evening to put on a show for us.
We saw them coming by foot across the dunes in the moonlight. Then the dining tent was made ready for the entertainment. Although it was bright and beautiful out in the moonlight, the wind was cold.
There were six entertainers, all men, in their Arab robes. Four with strange musical instruments which they played with rhythm and not much music. The other two were dancers, and the dances were weird imitations of animals. Finally, one danced the dance of a demon. Our guide stopped him before he danced himself into a frenzy because he noticed that I was shocked by it.
After they left we tried to eat some of the huge meal that had been prepared for us. Then we went to our tents for a night out on the Sahara Desert. The air was so clear we could hear the Koran being read over the loud speakers from the minarets of the mosques of Cairo.
When we awoke and had had our breakfast, the car came to take us back to Cairo. We first visited the sphinx again, then on in to Cairo.
We then went to the museum where we saw room after room of the fabulous furniture, vases, jewelry and other material taken from Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Sheikh Hafiz Wabba
During the afternoon, we returned to the hotel to pick up our bags that we had checked there while we were on our trek to the desert. We found that Sheikh Hafiz Wabba had called and had left us his telephone number.
He and his wife and three daughters came later in the afternoon to see us. While Mr. Armstrong and Dick talked to the sheikh (whom Mr. Armstrong had met in San Francisco at the first meeting of the United Nations and later in London, England), I had an interesting visit with his wife. They had lived in London while the sheikh was the Ambassador Extraordinary from Saudi Arabia to Britain for 25 years. His wife was very irked to have had to dress in the black robe and veil of the women of the Middle East, and to be forced to walk several paces behind her husband. She was quite well educated and her daughters had been educated in London. All were dressed in Western clothes when they came to see us.
After our visit with them we went to bed early and were called at 3 a.m. to go to the airport for our flight over the Dead Sea and the Jordan River to Jerusalem, our first stop.
The airport at Jerusalem was so far from the city that we could see nothing of it. After a 30-minute stop we flew to Amman. That was a rough flight and for the first time on the trip, I became airsick, or perhaps it was “flight sick.”
When we arrived at Amman airport, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane was there. He was sent by the United Nations to quiet matters.
Now to Babylon!
We were delayed in Amman about an hour while some repairs were made on our plane. Then we flew on to Baghdad, where we arrived in the early afternoon. For some three or four hours we flew over nothing but desolate, waste, desert land. Our American Express guide met us at the airport and took us to our hotel. The hotel was a modern, air-conditioned building, opened only five months before. It is surprising to find, all over the Middle East, very new, modern apartment buildings and hotels. Our hotel was on a narrow side street just a half block off the main street of Baghdad.
I was too tired to look at Baghdad but Mr. Armstrong and Dick walked a mile or so through the main street but came back to get away from the swarms of beggars. Everywhere children and grown-ups besiege one every few steps begging and blocking one’s way, following along determined not to leave until they are given money.
We went to bed early and were called at 6 in the morning. After a breakfast of tea, toast and orange juice, our guide met us and we drove 65 miles by car over the roughest, dirtiest roads to the site of ancient Babylon.
A very small part of Babylon was excavated by the Germans prior to World War i. We saw the Ishtar gate with the dragons and bulls in the brick walls. There was also the lion’s den into which Daniel had been thrown. A picture, or rather a brick form of a lion, is still on the wall (den). The inscriptions identifying this very pit as the lion’s den into which Daniel was thrown were taken to Berlin by the Germans.
The “Processional Way” from the Ishtar gate to the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace have been excavated. The paving stones are just as they were when Daniel and the three Hebrew children were there, but the palace is in ruins and a stork had built its nest on top of one of the ruins. The owls were there just as is prophesied in the Bible. We also saw the ruins of the hanging gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Miles of the ancient city is still under 15 or 20 feet of sand, soil and rubble.
It was so strange to realize we were walking over the same paved street that the Prophet Daniel, with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, walked over. To be in the place where Daniel had been thrown into the lion’s den and the other three into the fiery furnace and to realize that one “like the Son of God” had been there too, and delivered them all from death, was awesome. All of those events seemed so real to us even though the proud old city is now in ruins.
On our way to Baghdad we passed through two villages. How any of the babies there ever grow up is a mystery to me. The villages are very unsanitary.
We were covered with dust when we returned to our hotel and after a good bath had naps until dinnertime.
Although it was only April 26, the heat was terrible and our air-conditioned room was such a relief.
On the next day our guide took us all over the city of Baghdad. Our first trip was through the streets to the Gold Mosque. None but Muslims are allowed in the mosque.
There Are Dangers, Too
As we took movies of the open door of the mosque, a crowd began gathering around us. Their manner plainly told us we had better move from there fast! Our guide took us through the crowd and into a building where we climbed three flights of narrow, very steep stairs to the roof and had a good view of the Golden Dome. We took movies from that vantage point unmolested.
After leaving the mosque we were taken to the market, or bazaar (as they are called there). There were narrow streets packed with people—in discolored robes. There were open shops on both sides of the streets. A number of times in the crowd we were separated from our guide and from Dick. There were many square blocks of these shops—mostly filled with sandals, cloth goods, Arab headdress materials, or copper and brass wares. We finally came to a wider street or passageway where men and boys were pounding out pans and other vessels from copper. It was a regular bedlam, but we stayed long enough to take movies of them and their handiwork.
We were so surprised to see on the main street of Baghdad men selling their wares outside the buildings. Along the curbs there were men with trousers or jackets for sale—with tape measure over their shoulder to measure the prospective customer. There were baskets of bread for sale, put upon the dirty sidewalks, covered with flies and dust.
Many of the people are diseased and blind and crippled or deformed. It is a miserable existence, but they know of nothing better.
We drove out of the city several miles to the southeast to the great Arch of Ctesiphon, built by King Kisra of ancient Persia, long after the days of Alexander the Great. It was an immense arch! We also saw a part of the king’s palace. This palace of King Kisra had been excavated by the Germans. We took pictures of the storks on the ruins.
When we were returning from the arch, we passed a tribe of gypsies—some of them riding on donkeys. One woman was nursing her baby as she walked along. All their tents and equipment were carried on donkeys.
At Baghdad we were 11 hours sun-time from home—almost halfway around the Earth.
Our flight back west to Damascus from Baghdad over the Euphrates River and the desert took several hours.
We saw the green trees surrounding Damascus from the air and they were a welcome sight after the wasteland of the desert.