The Holy Land Part 2 – Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem


 The Holy Land

Part Two:  Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem, Israel


February 25, 2010

Dateline Tiberius, Israel

Latitude at Tiberias, 32.47 Degrees North, Longitude 35.31 Degrees East


Today when we awoke, the sun was shining and from the grounds of our kibbutz, we could see golden wheat fields with Sea of Galilee in the distance.  Our plan was to explore northern Israel and around the Sea of Galilee, which is sometimes referred to as Kinneret in the Bible and the Talmud. It is 700 feet below sea level and getting lower, as the lake continues to shrink. Today it is approximately 13 miles long by 8 miles wide and yields 1500 tons of fish per year, primarily tilapia, also known as St. Peter’s fish.

Our first stop was right at our kibbutz at the Ancient Boat Museum. Due to the continued drought, the Sea of Galilee water levels have continued to drop, which enabled the discovery of an ancient wooden fishing   boat, preserved over the centuries in the muck. No one claims that this boat was used by Jesus, but it dates from the time of Jesus and is built in a style known to be utilized back then. All that is left are the ribs and keel, blackened and petrified, but you can get the general idea.

The Church of the Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee

The Church of the Beatitudes on the Sea of Galilee

From there we drove up the northeastern perimeter road to the gentle slopes above the Sea of Galilee to what has become known as the Church of the Beatitudes on the Mount of the Beatitudes, built close to the place where Jesus is believed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount, unless of course you are Greek Orthodox and then the sacred spot is about a mile away marked by a Greek Orthodox Church.   The good news is they agree that it was this “mount” (mountain is too grand a word to describe it) and they agree essentially on the text of the sermon. The Church of the Beatitudes is built on the top of the hill, although the sermon was given somewhere below on the hillside versus the hilltop. The church is quite modest -gray stone trimmed in white with a dome with six sided angled walls supporting it. It sort of had a Victorian feel strangely enough (must be the white trim) with arched porticos framing the Sea of Galilee below. It was a beautiful setting with silhouettes of date palms, interspersed with roses and oleander. The Sermon on the Mount, you may recall, was a radical departure from the hellfire and brimstone of the Old Testament which was laden with “thou shalt nots” and often gruesome punishments when a “thou” actually did what was forbidden. You could be turned into a pillar of salt for example, or perhaps be swallowed whole by a whale. The focus of Jesus’ sermon was on goodness an included nine Beatitudes such as “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek and so forth. The complete quote can be found in the New Testament, Matthew 5, Verses 3-12.

From the Mount of the Beatitudes, we went to the village of Tabgha,  (pronounced Tab-gah with the accent on “Tab”)which was originally a Greek name, later mangled by the Arabs  to its present form, which originally meant Seven Springs. In Jesus’ time there were indeed seven springs, but they are no more and the area has gone a little dusty except for where there is irrigation. The Byzantines built a monastery and chapel here to commemorate the place where Jesus fed 5,000 people by multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish which was all that was on hand at the time. The church is called The Church of the Multiplication and there is an ancient mosaic with symbols of a fish and a loaf of bread which was found in the ruins of the original church on the site. Inside it is very plain with a vaulted stone ceiling, metal chandelier and straight backed pews. There is part of the original mosaic showing a loaf of bread and a fish, along with a piece of bedrock under the altar, which is said to be the rock upon which this miracle occurred. This structure was built in the 1980’s on the remains of a Fifth Century basilica. The old church was destroyed in the 6th Century and it lay in ruins in the intervening centuries. The new construction was kept very simple, a squared off structure made of dark gray native stone. We were struck by how plain the churches are here compared with the extravagance of those in Europe.

Tabgha is also the home of the Franciscan Church of the Primacy, built on the spot where Jesus is said to have identified Peter as the leader of the disciples. It is across from Kursi on the opposite shore, the site of the ruins of a former Byzantine Christian monastery, where Jesus is said to have exorcised demons from a local man and they (the demons) entered a herd of swine grazing nearby , prompting them (the swine) to run off a cliff and drown in the lake.  This story is related in the books of  both Matthew and Luke.

Ruins of the  House of St. Peter at Capernaum

Ruins of the House of St. Peter at Capernaum

Our next stop was Capernaum (pronounced Kah-purr-nah-em with the accent on “purr”), a village originally built by the Romans on the road to Damascus on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. It was a place where Jesus spent much of his adult life and at that time, it was a port on the Sea of Galilee, although today it is quite a distance from the shoreline.  It was also the hometown of Peter, who became a disciple, and who made his livelihood fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus told him that he would teach him to be a Fisher of Men as in order that he may bring people to believe in the teachings of Jesus as the Son of God.  Jesus gave many sermons and performed a number of miracles here and in the surrounding area that are described in the gospels of the New Testament. These miracles include walking on water to rescue his disciples, who had set out for Capernaum in a storm. According to the story from the New Testament, Peter got out of the boat as Jesus beckoned him to walk toward him, but his faith waivered and he started to sink. Jesus reached out a hand to rescue him and made the “O ye of little faith, why did you doubt me” comment – the lesson being, you will sink without faith. Today in Capernaum, there are the ruins of two synagogues, one built on top of the ruins of the other with the older one dating to Jesus’ time and it is believed that he taught there. The newer synagogue was destroyed by the Persians in 637 when all Jewish temples were leveled. There is also an octagonal Byzantine Church built above the ruins of houses dating back to that same time, and one of which is believed to be the home of Peter. There is today a modern glass and steel structure erected above these ruins to protect them from further weathering and you can see excavations of the wall fragments of the structure from Jesus’ time through the glass floor.

The Jordan River as it exits the Sea of Galilee

The Jordan River as it exits the Sea of Galilee

Leaving Capernaum we came to the River Jordan and took a quick walk across (in the usual way – on a bridge). It is narrow here just above the Sea of Galilee, more of a Chattahoochee than a Mississippi, and was covered in reeds on both banks. We would see more of the Jordan later in its more impressive version later on in the day.

From the Jordan Valley we ascended to the Golan Heights, the subject of a lot of warfare (or unrest as the guide books like to call it) over the centuries.  It is a high fertile plateau which borders Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Beyond it we can see peaks in the distance with snow on them, including he highest peak in Israel , Mt.  Hermon, at over 8,000 feet.  The hillsides were a vivid green and were covered with yellow wildflowers. We did not expect a war zone to be so scenic, nor so peaceful.  The persistence of the natural world in the wake of people killing one another is good to see.

A View of Lebanon from the Golan Heights

A View of Lebanon from the Golan Heights

As expected there were many Army bases en route and we traveled on roads used by tanks not so long ago (and will likely be used again). Today Israel occupies the Golan Heights for several miles inside the Lebanese border with observation posts on every major mountain top. We stopped at one that was active during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, so called because the Israelis were attacked on Yom Kippur, but today, the Israelis have taken up positions further inside Lebanon and this is now a tourist stop. There are life-size metal cutouts of silhouettes of soldiers on the sandbags, and in the bunkers to give the general


A former Israeli Outpost on the Golan Heights

A former Israeli Outpost on the Golan Heights

idea of what it looked like.  It was wet, cold and foggy, but we got occasional glimpses of both Syria and Lebanon in the distance. Israel originally took the Golan Heights in the 6 Day War in 1967. Eilon told us that they came very close to losing the Yom Kippur War and they have moved the observation posts forward to ensure they don’t get caught unaware again. While their presence there is a bone of contention with Lebanon and Syria, it is likely they will continue to hold it, since without their occupation,  all of northern Israel would again be vulnerable to rocket attacks and shelling.

We then drove by the ruins of Nimrod’s Palace, just below Golan Heights. Nimrod was the great grandson of Noah. He was known as a hunter and builder of cities, with some projects more successful than others. Many believe that he took on the very ambitious project of building the Tower of Babel, with the idea that if he built it tall enough, he could reach heaven. God of course probably got a huge chuckle out of this lame idea. As the story goes, this activity displeased God and he consequently confused them by not allowing them to understand each other’s words (and thus the word “babble” ). What was not detailed in the Bible comes to us from a Roman historian, Flavius Joseph, who may or may not have known what he was writing about.  Not much of Nimrod’s décor was left after a Mameluke sultan built his fortress there on top of Nimrod’s digs, and thus the real story of Nimrod remains untold.

For lunch we stopped in a small village called Masada (not to be confused with Masada near the Dead Sea).  The village’s name is pronounced with accent on last syllable, the mountain is pronounced with the accent on the middle syllable. Masada is another Druze village which seems to be where a lot of the good food is found. Eilon took us to the Nedal Restaurant, where we had shwarma sandwiches which are similar to the Greek gyros.  They make large spool looking chunks of meat (no beef, no pork, but just about everything else is okay) packed tightly together and roasted as a single piece. Then they shave off thin slices and serve it with a sauce and veggies wrapped in pita bread.  We had our choice of lamb or chicken. It was absolutely delicious. We met Mr. Nedal the proprietor who served up some wonderful falafel  (pronounced fah-laff-el with the accent on “laff”),  which I found to be very much like hush puppies. I tried to explain hush puppies to Eilon, but there was way too much lost in translation so I gave that up.  Food that I always turned my nose up back at home is good here – hummus, tahini, falafel – I loved it all.

Banias  National Park

Banias National Park

After lunch we drove north to Banias National Park to see the headwaters of the Jordan River. We were surprised to see waterfalls and lush vegetation – not at all what we expected. We took a short hike down to the falls and got very wet from the mist as well as the rain. The falls are not high, but very beautiful spilling over large boulders and splashing into a series of shallow pools. The Jordan at this point is also called Hermon Stream since it originates in the foothills of Mt. Hermon. Trees are tall and plentiful here and include oriental plane, willow, Syrian ash. Ferns and wildflowers were sprouting everywhere. On leaving the park we drove by Caesarea Phillipi, so called in the time of Jesus, but today it is also called Banias.  It was here in the foothills of Mt. Hermon, that Jesus identified Peter as the rock upon which he would build the church. He also told his disciples of his imminent death in Jerusalem and his plans to go there to fulfill God’s plan for him.

From Banias we drove to Safed  (which is the English name),  but the locals call it Sfatz (pronounced Sss-Fotz) . It sits high up in the mountains, originally built on the cone shaped Mt. Canaan, north of the Sea of Galilee, but today it covers several hilltops. The acropolis of Mt. Canaan was the site of a Knights Templar fortress, and the scene of fierce fighting in War for Independence in 1948. At the time of this war, the city was 90% Arab , and only 10% Jewish, and these were ultra Orthodox Jews, better at praying than fighting, and thus the Jewish victory here was hailed as a miracle from God by many. Others give credit to the Haganah, a clandestine military group who banded together against the British when they held the mandate and later formed an army to fight the Arabs in the War for Independence.

From the acropolis on a clear day (which we did not have,) you can see the Sea of Galilee to the south and all the surrounding hills and valleys with the Jordan winding through it.  On this acropolis, in ancient times, Hebrews would come once a year to light a fire to indicate the start of Holy Days. Since no one had calendars back then, the chief rabbis determined exactly what day this would be. Then others would light fires on other hills to get the word out to the other calendar-challenged folks across the land and as far away as Babylon (current day Iraq), where many Jews were enslaved. Safed is one of the 4 holy cities of the Talmud. Whereas the Torah is the holy scripture of Judaism, the Talmud is a collection of writings by rabbis interpreting laws outlined in the Torah. In Safed a sect of Judaism called the Kabbalists flourished. The Kabbala is a discipline and a school of thought intended to explain the mystical relationship between the Creator and His creations. The name means Light of God” and their mission is to study and learn holy secrets (and apparently they keep them too since they are very secretive).  The other 3 most holy cities in Judaism are Hebron, Jerusalem and Tiberias.  Safed and Tiberias are Jewish strong holds, but Hebron is in the heart of West Bank Palestinian turf and East Jerusalem is Palestinian, so this situation is always ripe for a few skirmishes.

We visited a series of galleries built along the narrow streets of an old part of the city, now called the Artist’s Quarter, its exterior walls riddled with bullet holes from the Yom Kippur War and the War for Independence.  The Artist’s Quarter was formerly known as the Arab Quarter until 1948 when the Arabs were kicked out after the Israelis defeated them. Inside the buildings

Tevya and the mezusah at Safed

Tevya and the mezuzah at Safed

were a number of one of a kind jewelry stores, artisan’s shops and art galleries- many sponsored by wealthy Jewish Americans. We bought a mezuzah case carved from olive wood. A mezuzah is a quote from a religious text rolled up in parchment and placed in a case outside the doorframe of a Jewish home. We met the artisan who created it, a gentleman who is a dead ringer for Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof. We are non-compliant however, since we have only the case and not the text, and it hangs in our library and not on the doorframe.

There is a large community of Ultra Orthodox Jews here, with the traditional ear curls, prayer shawls, black suits, and stove-pipe hats, even worn by small boys, although attire varies based on sects and regions of origin.  Safed has changed hands a number of times and the Jews here were persecuted ruthlessly over the years by everyone from the Arab muftis (men who interpret Islamic Law) to the Crusaders – always in the name of religion. The Ultra Orthodox Jews returned to Safed after the Crusaders banished all the Jews they failed to kill and have managed to remain here ever since. They believe that if you are buried in Safed, you will go straight to Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) when you die. Ultra orthodox Jews spend their lives in prayer and thus have traditionally been poor, but today they are supported by the government and do not work or pay taxes, and typically isolate themselves from the community. There are 18 different Jewish “movements”, some more secular than others, some more evangelical, e.g the Hassidic Jews. They once believed that the Messiah would come when the Jews finally had a homeland, but now have modified it to the Messiah will come when all Jews observe Jewish law, which leaves a lot more wiggle room.

We headed back to Tiberias and our second night at the kibbutz through the beautiful Hula Valley (this names has various spellings). It was a swamp in Biblical times, but it was reclaimed in the Twentieth Century to make it into  a fertile agricultural area. We also drove by the tel at Hazor, a Canaanite city rebuilt by King Solomon to control the Golan Heights.  Unfortunately we had no time to explore, but it is said to be the richest and largest known archaeological site in Israel. There was a Canaanite city here in Biblical times which Joshua is said to have burned to the ground and archaeologists have found evidence of such a catastrophic fire dating back to that period.  There were many battles fought here chronicled in the Bible including those led by the legendary military hero, Barak. The afternoon turned chilly and rainy as we reached the kibbutz and so we had a nap and the predictable hotel buffet, our heads spinning from all the history that came alive for us today.

February 26, 2010

Dateline: Dead Sea, Israel

Dipping a Toe in the Jordan River at Yardinet

Dipping a Toe in the Jordan River at Yardinet

We left our kibbutz/hotel on the Sea of Galilee this morning to see some places around the area before heading south to the Dead Sea. It was raining again so we bundled up in our hoods and ponchos and set out. Our first stop was at Yardinet on the Jordan River, a place the Israelis have set aside for Christian pilgrims who want to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan. And despite the early hour, there were already pilgrims by the busload ready to take the plunge, so to speak. There are references to the River Jordan found throughout the Bible, perhaps most famously in the story of the life of John the Baptist, whose mother was actually a cousin of the Virgin Mary.  John the Baptist called upon the wandering people of the desert to become purified of their sins by bathing in the waters.

You may recall from the Bible that he met a very unfortunate end by criticizing the marriage of Herod Antipas, who had dumped his wife and married his sister-in-law, Herodias, (who also happened to be his niece).  Herod Antipas had imprisoned John for his comments on his adultery and incestuous  family tree issues, but had not ordered him killed, fearing it would cause an uprising. However on Herod Antipas’ birthday, Herodias had her daughter Salome (who was both his step-daughter and also a niece) dance for him. He was pleased and offered her anything she wanted. At her mother’s prompting, she is said to have requested that the head of John the Baptist be brought to her on a platter and Herod Antipas ordered it done. John’s baptisms took place close to Jericho, but nowadays, that area, deep in Palestinian territory, is thought to have too much “unrest” to have a bunch of tourists and their buses. It is unfortunate because the Palestinians could really use the revenue, but they don’t have any say in the matter.  We had hoped to see something of Jericho, but apparently there is not much left standing from the time when the walls came tumbling down.

Yardinet is believed to be the spot where the prophet Elijah made many of his prophecies, but today it has a lot of concrete and asphalt, so it’s sort of hard to really feel the spirit here. Ministers from all over the world bring their congregations here. Today there were groups form Cracow, Poland and Costa Mesa, CA.  There is a large building with a gift shop where you can buy or rent a white robe for your baptism and large changing rooms where you can put it on.  The gowns have a logo and photo on the front, and look a lot like hospital gowns, but with no opening  in the back. They become translucent  when wet, which is a very good reason to have the rule that you must have some sort of swimwear or clothing on under the gown. Eilon tells us there were some pretty shocking sights prior to the enactment of the rule and seeing the crowds of pilgrims, we could easily envision the horror.  We just dabbled our toes in the water and decided to forego the robes, charming though they were. Besides it was raining so hard we were every bit as wet as the newly baptized.

We did a drive by of Mount Tabor, which is considered to be the place of the transfiguration of Christ. Per the New Testament, Jesus went to the top of the mountain with disciples Peter, James and John and God spoke to them and said Jesus was his son and “Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his robes were as white as light”. On a more secular note, it was the site of a number of fortresses over the centuries, as far back as the Third Century BC. It is this mountain that is referenced in Judges  in the Old Testament as the place where Deborah tells  Barak, that same Israelite military leader, to go out and engage the enemy du jour on this spot. Deborah was sort of the Joan of Arc of those days and she and Barak became Jewish legends.

We visited a village called Beth Alpha, where the ruins of a 6th Century synagogue were found in 1928 by colonists of a nearby kibbutz. Its most remarkable feature was a mosaic showing the 12 signs of the Zodiac, along with scenes from the Old Testament including the Ark of the Covenant and the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Eilon told us this mosaic is an example of Judaism trying to accommodate non-believers by incorporating pagan beliefs into their own religious art. From there we traveled a short distance east to Bet She’an, the best preserved Roman-Byzantine city in Israel. There are two main places of historical interest at Bet She’an.  There is the very obvious mesa-like tel and the vast expanse of Roman ruins. The State of Israel has created a national  park  of over  400 acres which is at present  only 10 per cent excavated.

At the tel, the first settlement found at the bottommost layer dates back to 5000 BC. The tel has 27 strata of civilization with evidence of 16 different cities. Up several layers dating to around 1600 BC, was the site of a Canaanite city that was under Egyptian rule. King Saul and his Israelites tried, but never took this city and in fact, Saul was defeated  and killed in battle at Mt. Gilboa and the Philistines of Bet She’an displayed the bodies of King Saul and his son on the city walls, which was quite the thing to do in those days – the thinking was that this strong message might discourage others inclined to mess with the people of Bet She’an.  Later King David did take the city despite the dire warnings and it became a regional capital during  his reign.

Then the Assyrians destroyed the city in 732 BC and it lay in ruins until first the Greeks came and built a Hellenistic City, followed by the Hasmoneans who were Jewish  and they kicked out the gentiles. Then the Romans came along and made it one of the 10 Cities of the Decapolis and named it Nysa-Scythe. The Decapolis represented the easternmost front of the Roman Empire. They were a semi-autonomous group of 10 city-states with a large degree of self rule in the current day countries of Israel, Jordan and Syria.

Palladius Street at the Roman Ruins - Bet She'an

Palladius Street at the Roman Ruins – Bet She’an

It was common to slaughter people who were defeated so there was a  lot of killing going on with the perpetual to-and -fro of conquest here at Bet  She’an,  but when the Romans came and built their city (the ruins we see today) for a while people of different religions actually lived together peacefully ( a novel concept for these parts). Roman people who were pagans, lived alongside Jews, Samaritans (who had a religion similar to Jews) and Christians in relative peace during the greatest period of Bet She’an. This all came to an end after the Jewish Revolt in 66 AD when the Roman slaughtered the Jews in retribution. The Byzantines came in and the Christians were on top for a while, but then the Arabs took over. Then in 749 AD it was as if God decided enough with the killing already because a major earthquake in devastated the city and it never recovered. The ruins of  today are essentially as the earthquake left them.

Despite the city being in ruins, you can easily envision the size and splendor of the place in its heyday. One of the most intact places is the Theater, where dramatic performances were staged with 7,000 seats in three tiers in a half circle, with intricately carved columns and statuary in granite and marble. There were several bathhouses, the largest of which was about 9 dunams in size (a dunam =over 10,000 square feet). They had hot and tepid baths, decorative plaster walls, marble and mosaic floors and a heating system.  Equally grand was Palladius Street, a colonnaded street close to 500 feet long, lined with shops.  (Palladius was governor of the province at that time.) The street was paved with hand hewn stones with grooves etched in them from hundreds of chariots and hollows scooped out from thousands of footsteps over the years. There were also temples to various Roman deities, including a fountain and a nymphaeum (a structure dedicated to nymphs,which were minor forest-dwelling Greek goddesses in the form of fairy-like nubile young women, which seemed to be all the rage in Roman times). There was a central market (agora) added by the Byzantines, an amphitheater for gladiator contests, and a hippodrome for chariot races with seating for 6,000. Of course, the seating capacity became considerably less once the Crusaders arrived and pillaged the hand carved stone seats to build a fortress.  And did I mention the indoor plumbing? Those Romans just continue to impress. You have to wonder what happened to these guys – they were fabulous designers, artisans and engineers, but then you’d have to admit that their people management skills were pretty poor.

We had lunch in the town of Bet She’an and noticed that many of the inhabitants did not look like the Jews we had met to date. Eilon told us that many Moroccan Jews have settled here and thus the diversity in appearances. There is also a large Arabic population here and they look very much like the Moroccans so it’s a little hard to tell who is who, which is not altogether a bad thing if you want people to get along. Whoever they were, they were very hospitable people.  Lunch again was delicious shwarma (chicken and lamb) and here they put your French fries into the sandwich. The restaurant was at a little place very similar to an American deli, minus the pork selections of course. A local guy asked us to pick his lottery numbers for him since his theory is that Americans are very lucky. We also bought some lottery tickets, but so far have not heard if the Grand Prize is ours. A note on luck: Eilon says in Israel, people do not say they are lucky, they say they are blessed. I was wondering if when they happen to be unlucky if they say they are cursed. Eilon seemed to be stumped by this one, but it could be the language thing. Some things (especially jokes and puns) just don’t translate well.

From Bet She’an we continued to drive south along the banks of the Jordan River, which used to empty into the Gulf of Aqaba, which opens onto the Red Sea. However there is not much emptying going on nowadays since all the water is drawn out for irrigation and human consumption. We continued southward to the western bank of the Dead Sea. The border with Jordan at this point is in the middle of the “Sea”.  We drove along on a patrol road used to guard the border where they have an electric fence with sensors. Eilon told us that one of his jobs in the military was to track down intruders, and we could imagine him encouraging them to “make his day” in a Clint Eastwood moment. Since 85% of Jordan is made up of Palestinians, many dislocated from current day Israel, the Israelis stay vigilant. Relations are good between the two countries, but there are always the wackos to watch out for. On the Israeli side two HumVees patrol inside a double fence. We didn’t see any Jordanian patrol so, we surmised that Israeli wackos attacking Jordan are not an issue. The saying here is that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim so they do racial profiling as a matter of policy. This probably does not hold true since there are a growing number of radical Jews who are bent on mayhem (e.g.,the assassin of Yitzak Rabin), but then who are we gentiles to disprove Jewish adages while in their country.

We saw the Moab Mountains in the distance, including Mt. Nebo which we would visit later in Jordan. This is the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for 40 years. There were hundreds and hundreds of green houses growing vegetables, fruit and flowers for both internal sale and export on the Jordanian side of the border. We also passed rows and rows of date palms, clustered together in groves to facilitate irrigation.

We were driving through hyena country – more so during Biblical times than now – it’s pretty slim pickings for hyenas now days.  Eilon told us that they do have wild ibex here, which is a wild goat sort of animal with scimitar-like  horns, although this goat can weigh up to 200 pounds. The horns on males form a semicircle with little ridges every few inches, and measure up to 56 inches, although the females only have about 15 inch horns.  A long scruffy beard sort of detracts from the regal bearing of the animal – sort of like seeing a man in a tuxedo wearing white sox. They also have wild boar here and we imagine a hyena versus wild boar grudge match to be quite an interesting dance indeed. The landscape got more and more desert-like as we drove south.  On the Israeli side it is called the Judean Desert and on the Jordanian side it is called the Moab Desert. Rising to our right we saw a series of caramel colored limestone Flash Floods at the Dead Sea smmesa-topped cliffs with gushing chocolate milk hued waterfalls formed by rain run-off. There were some torrential rains earlier in the day and there were flash flood warnings, not of Biblical proportions, but enough to wash a vehicle off the road, or failing that, enough to smash a boulder into the side of a car. Or a car could always run over a submerged rock and rip the bottom out of the vehicle. Or there was also the option that the road could be washed out, invisible under the churning brown water which could easily sink a vehicle.  We saw many rubberneckers along the route. They have flood hunters here (sort of like tornado chasers in the US) and they actually lose a few when there is an exceptional rain. We had to stop and splash through newly formed creeks several times and so this turned out to be an Adventure with a capital “A”. We later learned that the road was closed only an hour after we passed through. Continuing south, Eilon pointed out the Qumran Mountains, home for centuries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and we can actually see some of the caves from the road. We would visit this site later in our trip.

We got our first look at Masada, the ancient fortress atop what we would call a mesa in the American West, and in fact the landscape is very Arizona-like. The fortress was originally built by Herod the Great and later occupied by the Jewish Zealots who were besieged by the Romans.  We would also visit this site later. The area is not totally devoid of vegetation, for there are many acacia bushes– trees would be a misnomer – growing  in many of the draws, also called wadis. The word “wadi” can describe anything from a ditch to a canyon, some more impressive than others. The size of the acacia would lead you to speculate that giraffes would never have evolved with those long necks here. It looks like a close relative of West Texas mesquite. Scholars believe that the Crown of Thorns that Jesus was forced to wear at his crucifixion was from the acacia.

We had to stop at a check point at Wadi Darga –which was also flooded. Wadi Darga falls into the lesser category in the world of wadis, but we were to see the more impressive wadis later in the trip. The guns at the checkpoint, however, were quite impressive, and as we passed through, we resolved to keep wisecracks to a bare minimum.  After a short ride, we arrived at a tourist area called Ein Bokek and the Hotel Prima Oasis. Eilon left us at the hotel and drove back to Tel Aviv (an hour and a half drive) to spend Shabbat (the Sabbath) with this family. Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday and lasts until sundown on Saturday. We will spend Shabbat having a day of R&R. After checking in, we took a walk down to the shore of the Dead Sea, envisioning some charming little picturesque bars along the shoreline where we could have cocktails and marvel at being at the lowest spot on earth, 1400 feet below sea level and getting lower every year, due to the ongoing drought and the extensive irrigation from the Jordan River. The waterline retreats one meter (3 feet) per year. The hotels  also contribute to dropping levels of the Dead Sea, utilizing canals to channel water into their spas. Engineers are working on the problem, but have to contend with maintaining the level of salinity. No picturesque bars were found, just some cabanas, changing rooms and outdoor showers and a lone McDonalds. We get the impression that the nightlife on the Dead Sea is well – dead. We did find a hotel that was serving wine outside so we settled for that.

Ein Gedi smIt was striking how much color there is in the desert here when the sun is out. The Dead Sea was a turquoise blue in the shallows and blue-green where it is deeper. The hills visible across the water in Jordan were cream colored limestone with purple highlights as sun set. On the Israeli side the sandy beaches were a khaki tan, with occasional scrub foliage, a sage green. The sky was a mix of pale blue, going to dark blue over the hills of Jordan as the storm moved east. One of the primary minerals of the Dead Sea is sulfur, and there was a strong smell of it in the air. I’m thinking this may be where the early Biblical scribes got the idea for the way Hell smells.  There is an abundance of Dead Sea Mud – world renowned for its mineral properties for health and cosmetic uses, but more on this later.

We returned to the hotel and took a tour of the spa and then settled in for our routine hotel buffet dinner and met the only obnoxious people of the entire trip. Unfortunately, yes, they were Ugly Americans, and as much as I hate to promote any stereotypes, I must say that they were a tour group from New York. Here are quote of a few things overheard to give you the flavor of the evening: “Leonard, this meat has too much fat. Why did you get me a piece with so much fat?” and “ Murray, what’s with the cold soup? Get the waiter over here. What do you mean they don’t have waiters? I’m paying a fortune for this hotel and they don’t have waiters?” Fortunately we had another group of American tourists to offset the obnoxious one, who were African American Baptists from South Carolina who were real party animals considering there was no liquor involved. We could only imagine what they would be like with a few margaritas.

That night we had a big thunderstorm (this time it did seem to be of Biblical proportions) which we wished had come sooner to drown out the whining of the spouses of Leonard and Murray, but then again you can’t be lucky (or blessed) all the time.

February 27, 2010

Dateline: Dead Sea, Israel

The Dead Sea , 47 miles long and 10 miles across, is not only the lowest place on earth,  it is the saltiest sea on earth, and is so mineral laden that it is 26% solid, 74% liquid.  . There are no boats on the lake and no fish in it due to the salinity.  The Dead Sea is fed only by rainwater nowadays. The water from the Jordan never gets here since it is dammed in an effort to conserve every drop of fresh water possible.

A Dip in the Dead Sea and a Sampling of its Famous Mud

A Dip in the Dead Sea and a Sampling of its Famous Mud

The day dawned chilly and rainy, not that we were awake to see the dawn, but we deduced that it was so, and the leaden skies were overcast.  All the fabulous colors from yesterday had gone a soft dove grey. Despite the weather and the chill in the air, we took a dip in Dead Sea just to say we did, but found you really can’t dip much. One issue is that you are way too buoyant and you sort of bob on the surface like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon. The other issue is that the water is very shallow, like only knee deep even fifty yards or so from the shore.  The water does make your skin feel good – very slick, but not slimy, and soft. The bottom is quite mucky, but not in an unpleasant way. It is very silky – like more of a spa feel than a sinkhole-suck you down in quicksand sort of feel. Despite the rain we were able to see a few of what I will call salt bergs (as opposed to icebergs), most prevalent along the shoreline where water has evaporated, leaving chunks of salt sculpted into free form pillars and mounds. I was thinking perhaps this is what inspired the pillar of salt in the Bible story of Lot’s wife. Did people of the time wonder “whatever happened to that nice Mrs. Lot from across the street?” Anyway, the drizzle morphed into a pelting rain which was indeed getting unpleasant and so we resolved to check a “Swim in the Dead Sea” off our To Do List and move on.

The hotel spa had a heated pool with water pumped directly from the Dead Sea, so we went there and had a much more relaxing dip. They also had steam rooms (vault like rooms with big stone slabs like the Turkish hammams) and saunas so you could have your choice of wet or dry heat. We considered massages, but could not get an appointment until late afternoon so we decided to explore Ein Bokek, which was not much of an expedition, since it is only a cluster of hotels and a few restaurants, but by this time the rain and dreary skies had moved on and we decided to walk back to a place we had seen earlier for lunch.

We believed  that the place was called Mohammed’s Taj Mahal, if the sign outside was correct, but then there were some other indications that it might be called the Peace and Love Restaurant, given the logo on the cocktail napkins. (no connection to Sidney’s Peace and Love on Jost Van Dyke that we know of). The napkins have a peace symbol on them and then have a slogan about quenching thirst in the Sinai. Of course the nearest desert is the Negev and the Sinai is actually in Egypt, but then the Taj Mahal is in India too, so we decided the vibe here is intended to be that of a cultural melting pot and we should not over think it too much. The structure was a vast Bedouin tent like thing with big tasseled cushions for chairs and tables,

Two of Mohammed's Waiters

Two of Mohammed’s Waiters

perhaps a foot off the floor in front of the cushions. We opted to have some wine and look at the menu out back by a swimming pool where there were real tables and chairs with a view of the cliffs above the Dead Sea. The staff rushed about bringing cushions from inside to replace the rain soaked ones to keep our bottoms dry, which we certainly appreciated.

We did notice soldiers on the cliff tops with rifles and remembered we were in a tourist enclave within the West Bank after all, but it is amazing how quickly you get used to such things. And of course, we had some more wine to calm our nerves, and of course we were fresh out of the spa, so we were nothing, if not relaxed. The owner came out to meet us and we called him Mohammed given the signage out front, although his name may have been Habib or Mustafa for all we knew, but he was much too gracious to correct us. Mohammed and his staff were Arabic speaking Palestinians and they brought us an array of complimentary and tasty

Our Feast at Mohammed's

Our Feast at Mohammed’s

Arabic snacks  comprised of hummus, tahini, baba-ghanoush, pita bread, olives, goat cheese and of course more wine – all wonderfully fresh and delicious. And everything was delivered with the utmost warmth and hospitality, and so we decided to have more wine and stay for lunch – which, as it turned out,  could probably tie the Guinness World Record for the longest lunch ever since it was well past dark-thirty when we finally left. We ordered the mixed grill – chicken, lamb, beef and maybe goat (not really sure what it was, but it was all excellent) and also kebabs (lamb sausage) There were many vegetable side dishes including cous cous – I counted 12 different dishes on the table at one point with no two alike.

Mohammed came out and pulled up a chair to visit with us. We found his English was good and thought  perhaps our eating all that Arabic food made him easier for us to understand, but then he told us he had lived in the US for several years.  We found the Palestinians we met to be very affectionate people although the hugging  and kissing is between men and men or women and women– not men and women. Public displays of affection between the sexes are not kosher in Muslim society (to really mix a metaphor). This affection in no way seems gay, but rather like the European custom. Homophobes can relax – the men are not interested, just expressing friendship.

Mohammed and the Shisha

Mohammed and the Shisha

Then Mohammed offered a little after lunch treat called the “shisha” or water pipe, also called a hookah. (not to be confused with water pipes that contain hashish or opium – same device – different content). The shisha is typically used with charred apple wood that is lit (similar to charcoal) and is passed from person to person and smoked. There was some initial choking, sputtering and giggling going on before we got the hang of it. There were some mixed reviews in our group about how good the shisha smoking actually was. As one of the coughers and hackers, I passed on further indulgence. We had admired the T shirts that the waiters had on (courtesy of Smirnoff Vodka) and Mohammed came up with two of them for us – both very small, but then the waiters weren’t exactly Plus sizes.  We thanked him profusely and took them. I wear mine frequently, and launder it carefully and remember the day fondly.

As the afternoon wore on (we found it wears much more quickly when wine is involved), Mohammed invited us inside to join a Bar Mitzvah Party he was hosting (no this is not a “typo” – the Arab Muslim restaurateur was actually hosting a major Jewish celebration) There was to be music and belly dancing and feasting. We had already done the feasting part, so we removed our shoes and settled into our cushions for some cocktail hour wine, although we couldn’t help but notice that the couple next to us did have some really good looking and good smelling French fries. And so, despite our gluttonous lunch, the next thing we knew, we had French fries too and we were wolfing them down as if we were starved. They don’t actually call them French fries – their name in Arabic is something that sounds like “blank loot”, but they were delicious.

A Would-Be Sultan Enjoys the Delights of Mohammed's

A Would-Be Sultan Enjoys the Delights of Mohammed’s

As it turned out, we did have the belly dance music, but did not have the actual dancer. Mohammed’s wife (whose name we did not learn – we just called her Mrs. Mohammed among ourselves) advised us that the young lady’s brother had died recently and she was not able to get into the belly dancing mood. The show did not go on, but the wine drinking and the tinny belly dance music did. A bit later, Gary needed to avail himself of the facilities and tried to get up from the cushions without turning over our table. He said he believed these Bedouin furnishings to be designed for people far more dainty than he. He was almost successful, but right at the last critical second, he caught his foot on a tassel and turned a glass of wine over into his own shoe. This was followed by a perilous dive toward the people with the French fries at the next table, but he managed to regain his footing just in time to avoid a face-plant in their entrees. We took this as a sign that it was time to go. But then “Mrs. Mohammed” insisted we have some sort of lemoncello-like after dinner drink so, of course, we could not be discourteous. Instead of climbing back into the nest of cushions,(we were afraid if we ventured in, we would be spending the night there), we sort of stood around the exit and admired the hookah collection while we polished off our nightcaps.

All the wine was from the Golan Heights and was very smooth and went down well with the Arabian feast, and even better, was hangover free. We hope Mohammed can get the wine truck down here to restock his cellar (if his tent had a cellar that is) for tomorrow’s customers. We feel it is probably a good thing that we will not be among those customers tomorrow since we will be heading out early for Jerusalem.

February 28, 2010

Dateline:  Dead Sea, Israel

After another non-carnivore kosher breakfast we drove north to Masada. Bulldozers were working away trying to clear the detritus from the road left by the floods two days earlier and level the washouts. We saw many signs warning of quicksand, admonishing those who felt compelled to hop out of their vehicles and wade into the Dead Sea to reconsider.

The View from the Top of Masada

The View from the Top of Masada

To reach the top of Masada, our options were the cable car or a 60 minute hike on the Snake Trail – the same one used by the donkeys and the people in the olden days. Eilon assured it was named for its many curves, not its reptiles, but we opted for the cable car anyway.  It was a hazy day and quite windy. The top of Masada is 180 feet above sea level. Its base is 1300 feet below so the mountain itself is almost 1,500 feet from top to bottom. It is somewhat flat on top, but it is solid rock

There were fortifications here as early as the first or second century BC.  On top of Masada, there is a synagogue with the stone seats still in place, which is thought to be the oldest in the world. However, most of the ruins visible today are those of a palace fortress built by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BC.  He had two wives and wisely had two palaces atop Masada, which was sort of his personal country club. In addition to the wives’ palaces, he also built the Hanging Palace as his private residence. It was built on 3 levels, clinging to the side of the cliff, where if you would pardon the pun, he would hang out. The middle terrace had a circular hall used to entertain guests, and the lower terrace housed a bath house.   However the major bathhouse was the Calidarium atop the mountain, adjacent to the palace. The floor was raised on columns (still there today) so that hot air from wood fires below the floor could be circulated underneath to heat the room. Water came from huge cisterns dug into the rock. Seasonal rainfall was collected in a series of canals and cisterns which Herod had built at the foot of the mountain and carried by donkey to the cisterns on top. Herod the Great actually tried to get along with the Jews, adopted many of their customs, and actually tried to please them Jews.  It was his son, Herod Antipas  who was the villain from the time of Jesus when he became king in 4 BC.

A Zealot's View at Masada

A Zealot’s View at Masada

Masada is most famous as the site of a siege at the time of the Jewish Revolt, where the Romans trapped the Zealots atop Masada in 70 AD. The Zealots had retreated there to make a final stand after losing the Temple in Jerusalem to the Romans.  The Israelites had revolted in hopes of gaining independence from the Roman Empire.  Many other Jewish sects favored passivity, believing that if God wanted the Romans out and Israel to be ruled by the Jews, then God would make the arrangements. Of course history tells us that plan didn’t work too well. The Zealots were strictly hands on and chose direct confrontation with the enemy, which is the working model for the State of Israel today.

There were approximately 900 to 1,000 Zealots surrounded by 10,000 to 15,000 Romans. When the Zealots went there, there were still stores of water, grain and dates from Herod’s time. Back then food was provided by farmers sworn to secrecy in oases on the Negev desert and hauled up to Masada. The Romans were led by the emperor’s son Titus (played in the movie by Peter O’Toole) who did not realize how well supplied the Zealots were. The Zealots were led by Eliazan (not sure who played him).

The Zealots did not attack the Romans – not only were they seriously outnumbered, but very few were trained soldiers, plus many of their number were women and children.  The Romans built 8 camps around the base of the mountain, linked by siege walls, including one for women slaves, kept for the personal pleasure of the soldiers. The Romans built the walls to keep slaves and deserters from slipping away into the desert at night, and of course Roman engineering being what it was, the walls are still standing over 2000 years later. And speaking of engineering, it is what actually enabled the Romans to conquer Masada.  They decided to build a ramp to get access to the gates of Masada, 1500 feet above their position. It took them 8 weeks to complete it, using thousands of slaves hauling rock and dirt around the clock.  On top of the ramp, they built a tower, from which they were able to assault the gates with a battering ram. The tower was made of wood and it is long gone, but the ramp is still there too. Historians estimated that the Jews held them off for somewhere between two and three months.

The Romans won, if you call taking a fortress where your enemies have staged a mass suicide winning, that is. The Zealots had watched them build the ramp day by day and knew the end was coming and developed a suicide pact. Each man was to kill his own family and then himself. Eliazan ordered that the stores of grain and dates not be burned. He wanted the Romans to see them to mess with their heads and to deliver the message that the Jews committed suicide rather than be enslaved. They chose to die free.  There were 3 cultures that were the perpetual thorns in the sides of the Romans – the Jews, Germanic tribes and Celts, all of whom contributed largely to the fact that Latin is no longer the mother tongue of anyone.

Eilon says that all of the Israeli elite military units – their equivalent of Delta Force, Green Berets and SEALS – have their graduation ceremonies on Masada where they pledge loyalty to the State of Israel. Their motto and part of their swearing in is “Masada shall not fall again”.

We stopped at the Ein Gedi Spa and the Ahava factory outlet for some cosmetic shopping. The Ein Gedi oasis dates back to Biblical times and is mentioned by name in the Bible in Songs of Songs and in the book of Samuel as a refuge for David when he was fleeing from King Saul. Two gorges converge here and there is a waterfall about an hour’s walk from the road that we did not have time to see. There is also a synagogue nearby dating from the 5th century BC. At the Ahava (which means “love”) outlet we found great mud, great lotions and potions to make us beautiful. The factory is owned by a kibbutz  (like a cooperative) as are many of the surrounding date groves, which is  biggest industry in the Dead Sea area. We went up the road a few miles to the Mineral Spa where Sharon and I had massages and the guys had lunch. Gary asked for a slice of cheese for his chicken sandwich and almost caused an international incident at this, a kosher restaurant.  And speaking of incidents, we saw evidence of a large brush fire 2 years ago, but it was much more dramatic that a tourist trying to break kosher laws. Israeli soldiers were looking for two “potential terrorists” who had set off motion detectors when they crossed into Israeli controlled territory from Palestinian controlled territory. It was at night and the soldiers used flares to try to spot them and accidentally set the brush on fire.  The fugitives were caught, but no word on whether they were Hezbollah or just a couple of guys looking for work – that’s probably “classified”.

A Cave at Qumran

A Cave at Qumran

We next stopped to see the village of Qumran and the Qumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The first was discovered in 1947 by a young shepherd looking for missing goat. As it turned out, there were several caves and hundreds of scrolls, most of which were sold to antiquities dealers, since in 1947, Israel was somewhat preoccupied with a war with all of the neighbors. Israel has purchased several back and they are housed at the Shrine of the Book museum Jerusalem. The scrolls are copies of the Torah and other religious writings written on parchment, although one scroll is in copper. They were wrapped in linen and placed inside clay jars. One cave alone had 300 scrolls in it. It was found by hole in its ceiling worn by weather, since the entrance was still concealed. The dry desert climate has helped to preserve the scrolls over the centuries.

Qumran was a small village of about 500 people in Biblical times, believed to be populated by ascetic and reclusive Essenes, who unlike the  zealots who believed that it was God’s will that they submit rather than fight. (i.e. if God wanted them saved, they would be).There job was to keep the holy laws of the Torah and keep themselves pure. It is believed that they are responsible for writing and hiding the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were dispersed by the Romans who set up a garrison there and Qumran has been deserted ever since. The scrolls contain Books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha (14 books of the Bible that are not part of Christian or Jewish versions, although certain Eastern religions believe them to be true), as well as some of the Essenes’ own writing. We walked through the rain, dodging West-Texas sized tumbleweeds to the ruins. There were a number of “mikvehs” which were the baths used in purity rituals. They had two sets of steps that go down to a pool of water that divided the mikveh in half. The idea was that you go down one set of steps dirty and come up the other side cleansed and ready to pray. The practice of keeping the clean apart from the unclean is the foundation of the kosher laws as well. The ruins of the village also included a Scriptorium where the scrolls are believed to have been written, with desks and inkwells still intact.

There is an archaeologist who has conducted many “digs” in the Middle East named Vendyl Jones and he reportedly claims to be the source for the character of Indiana Jones, although producer/director George Lucas says the character’s name came from his dog, Indiana. It is suspected by cynics that Endy Jones may have only taken up the nickname after seeing Indy Jones on the Silver Screen, but it makes a good story anyway. Vendyl, it seems has a lot of wild claims, e.g., that a substance he found was actually Holy Incense and anointing oil from the Second Temple in Jerusalem, whereas, scientists said it’s just dirt. Like Indy Jones, Vendyl Jones has spent a lot of time looking for the lost Ark of the Covenant (the ark being the chest that held the two tablets of the 10 Commandments, which are God’s “covenant” or agreement with man on how he should behave).  One of Vendyl Jones assertions as a result of his research, is that Jews are to follow the laws according to Moses and gentiles are to follow the laws according to Noah.  Noah, according to Vendyl, had 7 laws, similar to the 10 Commandments, except for this one – my personal favorite and one I always try to live by:  Thou shalt not eat the flesh of an animal while it is still alive.  (I am not making this up). Most of Vendyl’s body of work is challenged by scholars, but this reportedly does not bother him in the slightest

We again went by Jericho which was still as hazy and dusty as it was two days earlier so we still didn’t get a good look at it. According to the Book of Joshua, it was here that the first battle of the Israelites against the Canaanites took place and God gave Joshua a recipe for taking the city that goes like this: March your troops around the walls of the city every day for 6 days carrying the Ark (of the Covenant, not the boat along with your shofars (a “trumpet” made from the horns of the ibex). Then on the 7th day, walk around 7 times and have everyone blow their shofars and shout. Joshua followed orders, the walls fell, and they walked right in and destroyed the city. This was to have happened around 1440 BC, although without finding any forensic evidence, archaeologists and scientists think the story may be more parable than history.  In more recent events, relatively speaking, Jericho is also the place where Jesus had dinner with Zacchias as he was passing through Jericho after the Resurrection. You may recall the Bible story that Zacchias, a tax collector in Jericho, had climbed up in a sycamore tree to try to get a better look at Jesus, since he was euphemistically described as “small in stature”.  Jesus saw him and called to him to come down to talk to him. Zacchias later became the 13th disciple known at St. Matthias, and traveled widely spreading the gospel. We also drove past Bethany where Jesus performed the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus spent the night in Bethany before proceeding on his final journey to Jerusalem.

Driving west toward Jerusalem, we saw a number of Bedouin encampments in the ravines and hillsides.  These people are extremely poor with no education and live primarily in the Palestinian controlled West Bank. There were signs of flooding here from the recent rains and we saw acres and acres of olive groves which were cut down with only stumps left. Eilon says the army did it because snipers hid there and shot at cars on Jericho-Jerusalem road, which of course further exacerbates the poverty of the Palestinian farmers since the olives represented their livelihood.

We also saw a number of new settlements coming into Jerusalem (Jewish homes built in Palestinian territory). On this particular day, further construction was on hold, although before we left Israel there was an announcement about a development proceeding in East Jerusalem that made headlines all over the world. It is hard to say how this will ever get sorted out, but I always think that Rodney King  Diplomacy (Rodney King of L.A. Riot fame) might work, i.e.” Can’t we all just get along?” It works for me.

Approaching from the east, we ascended increasingly steeper hills up to city of Jerusalem and were able to see it shining in the distance quite a ways before we reached it. About the same time, we also saw a double rainbow which made it seem even more ethereal. Jerusalem is pronounced in Hebrew as “Yeh ruh sha lime”, with emphasis on “ruh” and “lime” . The name means, ironically enough, the Place of Peace. We all should pray that it becomes that place. We felt it would be a fabulous city and during the next few days, it did not at all disappoint.