Syria, Jordan, & Israel, 2010 - 2011
It is heartbreaking for Con and me to reread our notes from our extraordinary winter 2010/2011 trip to Syria, just before the Civil War broke out. They call it a Civil War, but their beautiful country and culture has been hijacked by terrorists. When I look at the pictures and see the faces of the people we met, and remember shared moments, I cry for their lost lives and innocence. When we see the Syrians endangering their lives and their children’s lives in a desperate flight in rubber dinghies hoping for a friendly landing spot, we break a little more inside. We remember the smiling faces of the dozens of people we encountered:
* the man’s anxious face waiting for me to try a Syrian chocolate bar,
* the teenage boys who kept feeding me from their food stand while Con went to another shop for drinks, all the while laughing and excited to hear what I liked best;
* the young man who spotted us leaving a restaurant and called to us frantically leaping over boxes in his closet-sized used television shop arranging two seats for us, and inviting us for tea, and then running off to order “chai”. There was no verbal conversation because there was no common language, but communication was rich with smiles, hand motions over his heart, and the words, “Welcome”;
* the man who jumped into the back seat offering to lead us to our hotel then refusing our “thank you” money, instead offering us the words so often heard, “Welcome”;
* the eager boys following us around a small town smiling, curious, asking us to take their pictures, all the while older men telling them to go away, (smiling apologies at us) and then joining the kids in requesting pictures, making it a very fun afternoon; or
* the friendly young woman at the reception desk in our Aleppo hotel who two years after our visit (which was two years into their civil war) emailed me to say, “Your birthday cards have arrived. Where can I mail them?” Con had arranged for family members to mail birthday cards to the hotel in advance of our arrival as a surprise for me.
Middle East Adventure, starting in Syria
December 18, 2010 – Our flight touched down December 18th in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, dating back to the 6th century. Syria, with a population of twenty million people, under the authoritarian presidential regime of Bashar al-Asad, in a country where human rights advocates consider the party and leadership neither free nor fair, tourism is rare. Reports state the government security forces arrest and detain people (activists, organizers, and other regime critics) without due process.
We signaled a taxi driver at the airport and were whisked to our lovely hotel as the sun was setting. Along the way, we passed enormous mosques, with their awesome structures dominating our view. We didn’t dare blink not wanting to miss anything.
Rising early, we set off on foot, heading toward the old city – the medina and the Umayyad Great Mosque. The people we passed were warm and inviting, nodding, “Welcome.” Aleppo is a vibrant city, maybe due in part to the centuries of visitors and merchants passing through. It has sat at the crossroads of ancient trading routes since 2000 BC. Our ultimate destination was the ad-Madina souk, the largest covered market in the world. Finding our way, people couldn’t be more helpful and generous with their time and smiles. A brief stop to consult the map brought a crowd of people to help. Just walking along the sidewalks, nearly every (man and child) stopped to bow their heads, smile, and say, "Welcome to Syria,” often adding “'ow are you?" Women, however, keep their faces down rarely making eye contact. More modern dressed women were more likely to smile, but a “Hello” wasn’t offered unless you walked into their shop and they were the merchant.
We moved deeper into the old city -- the medina -- the place to go to feel the pulse of the ancient city. Every nook and cranny was filled with small shops and stalls selling everything from kitchen sinks, wires, fabrics, shoes, couches, to beautifully displayed fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Ask for it, and someone has it, or will walk you to where it can be found.
Now, fairly lost within the rich old medina, the women’s dress became more closed. Most usual was to see a woman from the age of a teenager to old age covered from head to toe. The scarf covers all their hair, and is pulled low on their foreheads. Some wore completely black burka shields covering their faces with just slits for their eyes. Fewer were the women in light blue burkas which covered every single part of the woman, including her face (eyes, nose, and mouth) with just a mesh of sorts for breathing and seeing. The cobblestone and concrete sidewalks are often cracked and uneven and how they negotiate them without full vision is astounding. In fact, one woman dressed in the blue burka missed the step up on the curb, tripping in front of us. How many recycled breaths do they take in an outing? We see other women who hold a portion of their scarf over their face closing it with their teeth and when the coast is clear, they release it. One spotted Con, and quickly replaced hers across her face and back in her mouth.
Men wear a variety of modern to caftan-styled clothes, some with head scarves and Arabic pants.
It's a common past-time for men and women to smoke the Shisha Hookah's in restaurants and cafe's. We opt out of that, since it’s not a healthy habit. It’s a way of smoking tobacco that has been mixed with fruit and sugar. You suck it up a long hose from a bowl and into your lungs. Watching them, we see some suck the hose on every breath. We read that one session is like smoking more than a pack of cigarettes.
The call for prayer echoes in the streets and alleys and reverberates throughout the city five times a day. Where are the stray cats and dogs? The streets are impeccably clean. No feces. No garbage. It appears to be an ideal, orderly way of life. So far, there is no evidence of the authoritarian government creating hardship, but one never knows what lives behind the scenes.
We reached the entrance of the al-Medina Souk. It was stunning! Our senses took in the sights, smells, and sounds. It was completely devoid of tourists, however, teeming with locals.
December 19 -- I woke this morning to lots of birthday greetings from family members, thanks! Not having filled up enough on the souk (the market), we walked there, a long journey, but delightful as we stopped to talk with locals along the way. The Syrian people are extremely friendly. Amazingly, we spotted two other tourists! There are not many foreigners here, and the hotel is filled with local Syrian business people or locals on vacation.
Once entering the market, you can imagine we stood out, and the local merchants had a lot of fun with us. A man selling men’s kaftans stopped Con pretending to dress him as a Sheik. Other merchants left their shop to watch, enjoying our responses, and laughing heartedly.
It's a curious thing walking through the souk passing so many women in burkas or just their eye's appearing. They smile at us, and sometimes usher a quiet "Hello" and turn away. When I look down at their feet, often they are in stiletto heels, sometimes runners, and sometimes boot with anklets on the outside. The market has lots of sexy clothing shops and surprisingly (to us) they are full with shoppers dressed in head-to-toe covered clothing. They’re touching the undergarments, and appear to be serious shoppers, looking for the sexiest things, like full body lace stockings, see-through sexy under garments, bras that are full of sequins, and negligees, which I thought was a thing women wore in the 60s.
At the end of the day, exhausted and hungry, we hailed a taxi and for about a quarter were dropped off near our hotel at a restaurant for dinner. We order generously so many different delicious Middle Eastern appetizers, including raw meat balls, a specialty of that area, (not something I’d eat). Afterward, we sauntered back through the neighbourhood in the darkened streets marveling at the various Christmas decorations on balconies, and lit up Christmas trees in living rooms. For a prominently Muslim country, the Christian holiday is welcomed.
December 20 -- A lazy day, as Con fights food poisoning... I told him not to eat the raw meat. We ordered dinner in the hotel that night, Con asking for broth, to soothe his beaten-up stomach. The waiter had no problem arranging the special meal for Con delivering it with an empathetic smile.
We took a leisurely stroll after dinner as the night moved in, stopping at a corner stand (closet-sized store) asking the proprietor and his father who seems to have a permanent stool in the shop, which chocolate bars were the best. The only recognizable bar was the American Snickers bar. The father became animated once he understood my question and pointed to three different ones, and we paid in Syrian pounds, the equivalent of 12 cents Canadian each. They were good, not great, and small sized compared to North American bars. The old guy wanted me to try a specific one right there in front of him so he could see my reaction. I motioned, “Delicious.” He laughed and the world seemed perfect to us all in that moment.
December 21 – Con, now on Day 2 on chicken broth will survive his food poisoning and we ventured back to the stunning-looking souk. We read that it is made up of 39 kilometers of covered shopping all tiny winding alley ways. Each day we notice how Aleppo is teeming with culture and how the Islamic and Christian religions come together peacefully. A favourite pastime for us is sitting at an outside table sipping chai (tea) and watching the many different people walk by.
December 22 – We rented a car from our Aleppo hotel and ventured off into the wild and crazy roads. Syrian-style driving is culture all its own. There are no dividing lines on the roads, and everyone squishes their car tight against the next (front, back, and sides) competing for space. The horn is a communication tool to signal: move over; thanks for moving over; crossing four lanes horizontally; driving in the opposite direction. Incredibly, people cross the streets, a street that could be an eight-lanes (four one direction and four the other direction) and contort their bodies leaning back or forward depending on the car that’s whizzing past them. By afternoon, we were out in the countryside and stopped at an old Roman Bridge, not a soul in sight. We parked off the road and ventured into the nearly dry riverbed. Unbeknownst to us, we had walked into a wild cat's den. I could hear the meowing around me, but never spotted the young. While Con was filming the countryside, he captured the large cat, however he didn’t know it at the time. Once I interrupted his filming telling him we were being stalked, he took a look and we both saw the cat sprinting toward us. By the time I looked back to Con, I saw him in a full sprint to the car. I followed like an Olympian. We jumped in the car, looked back to where we had been standing and saw the huge cat. He stood as tall as my thighs! However, it has created endless laughter for our family, teasing us about a tabby cat chasing us. I dare anyone to hang around when a thigh-high tabby cat is chasing you, especially when you’re standing near its den!
We drove on to St. Simon, a basilica, built in 490, now referred to as 'The Citadel' by the Arabs. In 459, Simon died at 69, after 37 years of standing on top of a pillar, or so the story goes. It began when he claimed to have had a revelation that he should impose a regime on himself to test his faith. He'd bury himself up to his chin in summer; wear spikes to draw blood; and chain himself to a rock. People came from all over to see him, so he looked for a higher pillar, finding one 18 meters high. That's where he lived for 37 years. Town people brought him food. (The rock is pictured in the slide show below.)
December 25 -- Merry Christmas
Driving further to Ebla, a civilization dating back to 2400 BC had been in existence that had been known for hundreds of years, but its exact location hadn’t been discovered until 1964. We found Saladin’s Castle, but had to follow our instincts, because the maps are useless and our questions to locals must have been misunderstood because we were sent in circles. Pictured beside in the slide show is the large narrow rock, all that remains in the centre of what was once a ravine that flowed through the road. An extraordinary defensive gully was cut out of the rock, leaving just the solitary pinnacle of rock 28 meters tall, which once supported a drawbridge. It is believed to be the work of the Byzantines, who ruled the area until the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, who built larger and stronger fortifications around it. The Crusaders didn't have enough manpower to hold the fortress, and it fell to the Arabs in the 12th century.
We’re now in Latakia, the beautiful northern Syrian sea area. Our hotel is on the water, in fact, if we had arrived by boat, this port and marina would have been our landing point. The hotel is beautiful and modern. (During the Civil War that followed our visit, this hotel roof was the location of terrorist snipers.) (Pictures are on slide show below.) A large gingerbread display with an edible snowman, sits in the lobby. We were invited to join the guests and staff in celebrating Christmas brunch, Syrian style. The food was displayed artistically, and the flavours were fabulous, topped off with Arabic musical entertainment.
December 26 – We drove from Latakia south toward central Syria to the pretty city of Hama, built on the banks of the Orontes River. The city is known for its norias (water wheels) dating back to 1100 BC, but today one might argue that the city is better known for housing the Muslim Brotherhood and had been raided by the Syrian Army many times in the last few decades. On the way to Hama, we stopped at the Krak des Chevaliers to tour the magnificently preserved Crusader castle. It's unchanged since the 12th and 13th century and its strength never penetrated. There weren't many knights to defend it, but the fortress structure protected it from invasion. In 1271, a sultan led Egyptian army attacked them for two days. When a letter arrived at the castle from Lebanon, then the ruling Crusader commander stating that 'the knights should surrender, as no further defenders would arrive, and to negotiate their safety,' they lay down their arms. The Arabs walked in and took control. The letter was a fake, but wasn't realized until the released knights went to Tripoli, Lebanon.
Yesterday, I saw a motorcycle with two kids in the front, and two kids behind the driver. The driver balanced two dozen eggs tied in a package by ribbons. Today, I witnessed my personal record of 'the highest number of people on a moving motorcycle at one time': Young boy in front of driver; woman holding an infant in blankets; young boy behind the woman, and on the handlebars, a five year old boy. That makes six!
December 28 -- We followed the Euphrates River to the Iraq border today. Walking around the village, we were followed by dozens of curious boys and men smiling and trying to make conversation with a few English words. (The banner picture above is from this small village.) We stopped for chai selecting a table closest to the sidewalk as it’s an all-male event (sitting in the café). Many people walked by a few times to take a good look.
After an afternoon at the market we climbed back in our rental and traveled further along the Euphrates River below from the Duro Europa site near the Iraq border. This site was destroyed in the 3rd century. It’s known as the Pompeii of the Syrian desert. It has the oldest synagogue and oldest church ever found. What an incredible feeling viewing and touching architecture that old!
December 29 -- We spent the night in the desert yesterday, having driven to the city of Palmyra and staying in a Bedouin hotel. We drove up to the fabulous Palmyra citadel and watched the sun set. (Pictures in the slide show below.) Bedouins for a price will take you around the sites on dromedaries. It's all remarkable. In the middle of the desert these ancient structures stand tall defying gravity. These Syrian sights are as old as dust itself, having survived two and three millenniums. (An incredibly sad sidebar, much of Palmyra has now been destroyed by ISIS.) Sand had blown over this site, burying it until modern archeologists began the tedious job of digging. The Bedouin (indigenous people of North Africa and Middle East) had dug up most of the gold, jewels and historic relics over the millenniums, and they're well gone. Others were shipped out to a museum in Paris.
I understand some of the practical significance of the scarves worn by men and women. They're wrapped over their heads, covering their hair and the women covering their faces as protection from the sand and strong sun. Men wear red and white checkered scarves, the women wear black. Men gather in plastic chairs along the sidewalks in front of various buildings, nearly sitting on the shoulder of the highway. Women scurry along the roads and tuck in to a mud houses, tents, or if the town is large enough, the medina. Everything is the red/brown sand colour, mostly because it’s made of mud.
December 30 – The closer we drove to the Iraq border, the more likely the locals hadn't seen a tourist ever or at least in a very long time. It was evident in the friendly stares and the hordes of people that followed us, especially the kids. They were continually scolded by older men to continue delivering their goods, piled in their wheel barrels and dollys. The boys smiled at the men, and continued to stare at us, joined by the men who had just scolded them. All the women wore black and were closed either in full burka, or scarves pulled tight across their faces by their teeth. They would sneak peeks at us, but never spoke. The men and boys were excited to hear us talk and wanted desperately to make conversation, instead gestured for us to take their pictures.
Syrian's pride themselves on their hospitality and friendliness. At the gas station, we filled up our rented car, and couldn't leave until we shared a cup of tea with the attendant. Walking in the street one evening, in a small town near the Iraq border, a television and computer screen salesman, working in a dusty shop the size of a closet, with 16 inch computer screens (the old square heavy ones) and similar televisions, pulled out a chair and an over-turned box insisting that we join him for tea. He ran off, ordered the strong sweet drink, returning with another chair for himself, and the three of us sat squished in the closet. "Shukran" I said, shaking his hand as we departed. In the desert, dust and silky sand accumulates in every orifice on the car.
On to Damascus, we stopped at the Great Umayya Mosque in the heart of the Old City in Damascus. (Pictured in the slide show above.) It's considered the fourth holiest place in the Islam. My knee length, hooded jacket and shin-high boots weren’t 'covered' enough, and I was asked to wear the brown robe. The Mosque was built on the Christian church and allegedly holds the head of St. John the Baptist. Interestingly, we’ve been to other sites that claim his head, like the Amiens Cathedral in France (Notre Dame).
Turning in our rental in Damascus, we crossed the border by taxi, buying the back seat, and a third passenger bought the front. The driver helped us at the border to check us out, filling in the papers in Arabic and translating making our exit smooth. The driver drove us into Jordan to our first stop, Amman.
January 2, 2011 – Happy New Year!
We crossed the border yesterday by taxi arriving in Amman, Jordan on a nice smooth highway. Jordan is another crossroads country with Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq Palestine, and Saudi Arabia as neighbours. The King has little governance, restricted by a constitution which means he’s not a dictator. The country was named after the Jordan River, the subject of many Biblical stories. The country came alive for us, especially because my mom had read all the Bible stories to my brothers and me when we were children. We were in awe the entire visit.
In AMMAN, excavation discovered homes and towers built during the Stone Age, 7000 BC. Biblical references to the town date it to 12000 BC. It's where the Ammonites fought wars with Saul and David. King Herod in 30 BC took control of this city. We're traveling over the same sandy soil where the main characters walked: Jesus, Noah, Lot, St. George, Abraham, Elijah, Hud, Jethro, Joshua, Moses, David, Solomon, Job, and John. Seven hundred years after Jesus' death, Mohammad walked these same trails.
JORDAN RIVER & BAPTISMAL
The Jordan River is 251 kilometres long flowing into the Dead Sea passing Israel, the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Jordan. In our rented car, we drove to the Baptismal sight where John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ in the river. We stood over the excavated steps that lead down to what has been declared the very place where the Baptismal took place which is said to be the beginning of Christianity. An Earthquake in the year 700 rerouted the river to its current location, and that’s why the baptismal location is no longer where the river runs today. Following the baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness east of the river.
All around this location, Jordanian soldiers protect the sight from an Israeli invasion. (Pictured in the slide show below.)
We drove up the desert mountain side to the top of Mt. Nebo, where Moses' tomb resides. Madaba, is on the other side of the mountain, where St. George's church holds the floor mosaic that depicts a map of the Holy Land during Jesus' time. It seems wherever we go the Greek Orthodox appear to have been the first religious group to claim holy status by constructing their churches in the best real estate locations.
We parked ourselves in a beautiful hotel on the Dead Sea for two days and it was heavenly.
The Dead Sea is 75 km long and 6 - 16 km wide, fed by the Jordan River, with no outlet. It's completely devoid of plant and animal life because of the extremely high content of salt. It's famous for restorative powers and has become an expensive spa location. And, how about this, it's the lowest point in the world, 400 meters below sea level!
In the Bible, Abraham went into the wilderness, the area from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba (near the Red Sea). It's where David slew 18,000 Edomites; Abraham and Lot divided their herds and people going separate ways after their journey from Egypt. Lot went to Salt (north of Amman).
January 3 – FLOATING IN THE DEAD SEA
It was a spa-like day in the desert. We floated in the Dead Sea most of the day, dried off in the sun, and exfoliated our skin with the liquid oily salt left behind on our skin. I used the black mud and exfoliated my legs. It’s not a place to go swimming, because it’s hard. The buoyancy of the salty water pushes you high up in the water. On my belly, I was top heavy and if I hadn't flipped over on my back, my head would have dipped in. The water, I've been told is extremely painful in your eyes. I imagine it would be like shaking a salt shaker into your open eyes. Con took his Yachting Monthly magazine into the water to read. It never suffered a drop of water. (As an after note, the magazine picked up the picture and published it.) At sunset, we drove to one of the highest points overlooking the Dead Sea. (Pictures beside in the rotation; Israel across the water.)
January 4 – Today’s journey is the King’s Highway, a must if you travel to Jordan, as we wound through the heart of the country to one of the world’s most extraordinary locations, Petra. The King's Highway is the oldest continuously used communication route, and is mentioned in the Bible in Numbers 20. Moses requests the king of Edom to "allow his people to travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory."
We stopped to take in the spectacular sight, the Wadi Mujib, a canyon over 1000 meters deep. In the Bible, it was referred to as "Arnon Gorge" or "Arnon River," Numbers 21:24; Judges 11:18.
From The Red Sea to Turkey, the Crusaders built castles as a wall of defense against the Arabs. At the top of one of the mountain ranges we drove up, sits the Castle fortress in the town of Karak, dating to the 12th century. Further south, is the Wadi Hasa, a deep gorge known in the Bible as "Zered Valley." There Moses and the Israelites ended their wanderings in the desert and camped on their journey north. Numbers 21:12; Deuteronomy 1:13-14.
January 5 – PETRA
Definitely Jordan’s most famous sight, situated just off the King's highway, south of the Dead Sea. It's a mountainous area of rose-coloured sandstone, and deep canyons, where the nomadic tribe of Nabatean-Arabs settled in the 6th century and carved a wonderland of temples, tombs, and elaborate buildings out of solid rock. For seven centuries, Petra was a heavily guarded secret, only known to the local Bedouins, until 1812. The entrance is through a deep Siq (canyon) with rock walls five meters to 200 meters wide. It is believed to be 9,000 years old. The Bedouins lived in the carved rocks until 1984, when it was declared a place to be protected. Today, the Bedouins sell rides on horse, dromedaries, and donkeys, and today continually hound you to buy their jewelry and other things they have set up throughout the beautiful landscape.
January 6 – TO AQABA
Leaving the labyrinth of caves and mountains in the tribal Petra area, dodging a dusty donkey crossing the King's Highway, we traveled 110 km along this highway. It's not unusual to come around the bend and find traffic coming at you in your lane; Bedouin desert-dwelling Arabs suddenly appearing from the sand dunes and walking in your lane of traffic; or 20 or so goats crossing the highway.
Now further south, heading to Aqaba, and more specifically, to a resort area on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba – the north gulf off of the Red Sea. Just a few hour's drive, passing nomadic lifestyles, we arrived at our five-star hotel in a modern city. Our deck opens to view four palm tree shaded pools, facing the Sea, with Israel just a sliver away, pictured beside. We lazed by the Sea, taking our pleasures in the warm sunshine and the pool's outdoor hot tub.
January 7 – GULF OF AQABA
Soaking up the sunshine at the sandy beach our eyes resting on the view down the Gulf of Aqaba. If we could see for eight kilometers, we’d be looking at Egypt and if we could see for twenty kilometers, we’d be looking at Saudi Arabia.
January 10 – It’s Epiphany Day, a Christian holiday celebrating Jesus as the son of God. Sauntering through the market in Aqaba, we wandered into a travel book store looking for a book on Israel since that was our next stop. We couldn’t find anything – not a reference – zilch on Israel. When asking the proprietor, he gave me a quick nod (in Arabic that means 'no') followed by 'la' which also means 'no' and a quick brush with the back of his hand, which means 'go.' We got it: don’t ask about Israel.
We're so close to the border, that on our walk back to the hotel, we turned right instead of left at the traffic circle, and I we saw an Israeli flag blowing in the hillside beside us. As neighbours, they're so close, yet so far.
January 11 – TO ISRAEL
Walking across the border from Jordan to Israel, we entered the country of Shekels, switching our money yet again. The price of chocolate bars for currency comparisons (CND equivalent) and not likely the best measuring tool, but what the heck: Syria 25 cents; Jordan 75 cents; Israel $2.
The map of Israel, unfortunately without name and locations shows the Palestine occupied areas (West Bank) and areas for us to avoid.
While walking over the border, dragging our suitcases, we stayed within the marked sidewalks walking toward the customs I believe in No-Man’s Land (because we’d just checked out of Jordan). I took a short cut, possibly shaving a meter off my walk by stepping out of the sidewalk lines. When I reached the Israel border, a rifle-toting guard suddenly appeared from nowhere behind me and whispered in my ear: “In Israel we stay on the marked sidewalk.”
Con said: “They profile here Barb, so don’t give them anything that makes you stand out.”
January 12 – TO MASADA
In another rented car, we drove north to Masada, an ancient fortification located 450 meters up on the top of an isolated rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea, 20 kilometres from Arad.
Masada is known as the 'last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans. In the year 73, the Roman leader Flavius Silva, laid siege to the mountain to capture and enslave the 960 Jews living as rebels. Flavius had 8,000 troops and built eight camps around the base of the mountain. The siege lasted a few months, and when they knew the time was nearing the end for them, the Jewish leaders (10 men) killed their women and children, and then each other. This is all documented on pottery urns that had been discovered up there in the 20th century.
We arrived on one of the two days in the year that the gondola undergoes maintenance and the day it was closed to hikers too. We’ll have to stop again on our return trip.
Israel takes security seriously. We spotted a goat herder with a machine gun over his shoulder; five or six tanks; military men and women carrying automatics; and barbed-wire fencing around every Jewish settlement. Once we arrived in Tel Aviv, we walked around the outdoor shopping district, and were frisked going in. It's standard to go through a scanner in every hotel.
Israel is expensive! Things are two times more than in Canada, and four times more than in Syria. We picked up a hitch hiker heading to a Kibbutz, (Israeli agricultural farms) and had a delightful chat and drove passed the West Bank areas (Palestine lands).
January 14 – ISRAEL & MILITARY
Everywhere we turn, there are Israeli military men and women with automatics and then each store has an armed security guard that frisks you before entering.
January 17 – JERUSALEM
It’s a mosaic of people and religion, where the past meets the present: historic archeological Biblical sights and modern technology. From its roots during the time of King David to the State of Israel in 1948, and today, Jerusalem has been an inspiration for Christians, Jews and Muslims.
We spent the whole day touring the Museum of Israel, traveling through the Canaanite Period, Israelite, Early Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Crucifixion of Jesus, Late Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Early Museum, Crusaders, Ottoman, and British periods, a dozen layers of history in one city. The Dead Sea scrolls are housed there, and seeing them was an extraordinary moment.
At breakfast we entered discussion with a few people around us. A female therapist visiting tried to explain the gruff nature that many view the Israeli Jews. “They are a shell-shocked hand-me-down generation of survivors of WWII, mixed with aristocrats and others hoping to build the new nation."
Another woman who'd been visiting relatives in Israel since 1964, spoke of the frank calmness as if saying, “Glad we were in the kitchen when our living room was bombed.”
Last night, we met two young men here on Biblical studies. One guy scratched his head, “At first seeing so many young military people, like kids carrying automatics, it unnerves you, but you can’t help but be reminded that you’re in Israel.”
Carrying on our Biblical tour of the area, Con and I visited the Church of Annunciation and St. Joseph's carpentry, in the town of Nazareth. This is allegedly where Jesus was conceived, where Mary lived, and where Joseph's carpentry shop was located. It was all within 150 meters! The Church of Annunciation was built over Mother Mary's house. (Pictured beside.)
We drove on to Tiberius and along the Sea of Galilee, to the Church of Multiplication of Fish and Loaves, where it is written in the Bible that Jesus fed thousands with one fish and one loaf, and he walked on the water in the Sea of Galilee.
January 18 -- We toured the old walled city of Jerusalem, one square kilometer, filling ourselves with history, and leaving us begging for more. Entering at the Jaffa Gate, we toured the four quarters of the city: Jewish, Christian, Armenians, and Muslims sites. School was just getting out in the Jewish Quarter. Archeologists are able to verify many accounts in the Bible, and at the same time, prove them incorrect. Jerusalem has 4,000 years of history, and every time they dig, more pieces of history are uncovered.
The most amazing part of our day was in The Christian Quarter, entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, located on the Hill of Golgotha (also known as Calvary) the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The three locations are within a few meters from the next. The church was built by the Crusaders. When you enter the door and walk a few paces, you can touch the Anointing Stone where Jesus' body was prepared for burial. It is said to be the exact location. Just above the stone, you climb steep steps, to the site where Jesus was crucified. It was on a hill, and the church is now built around the hill.
From the Mount of Olives, a Jewish grave site, and a place referenced many times in the Bible we could see the walled city, and just out of view on the left is the Temple Mount. The gray mosque is called Al-Aksa Mosque, the furthest point Mohammed reached from his journey from Mecca (Saudi Arabia).
In the Armenian Quarter, the church is built on the site where it is believed Jesus ate his last supper.
The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount is covered in gold, and to the right is the Wailing Wall or Western Wall.
In the Muslim Quarter, the Dome of the Rock the place where Abraham is believed to have bound his son Isaac in preparation for sacrifice to prove his belief in God. The angels stopped him from slicing him with a knife. This is also the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Like all the sites, a church or dome is built on top of the holy locations.
I went into the 'women's entrance' covered my head in the purple scarf and went to the Wailing Wall. Con went to the men's section of the Wailing Wall and had to cover his head too. The Wailing Wall is sacred to the Jewish people because it is the only remaining retaining wall from the second temple (the first temple was destroyed). The wall holds up the Temple Mount, built by King Herod.
January 19 -- Armed with a map, Con and I entered the Jaffa Gate again, into the 'Old City of Jerusalem.' With a few hours before the Temple Mount opened, Con slipped into a 750 year-old barber shop business for a haircut. The business has been passed down for generations, when the barber retires, his two sons will take over. (Pictures in the slide show beside.)
We climbed up the ramp and entered the Temple Mount through metal detectors. I lost count at 12, somewhat overwhelmed by the armed soldiers guarding the entrance. Taking pictures of them is not a good idea. The Temple Mount is the highest point in the Old City of Jerusalem, designed by King Herod, perhaps the greatest architect, at least of his time. Only Muslims are allowed inside.
It's yet another sacred location for all religious people. For Muslims, Mohammed ascended to heaven on a horse with wings from this rock. For Christians, Abraham presented his son on the rock for slaughter to test his faith in God.
January 20 – JERUSELUM TUNNELS
Controversial tunnels, led by archeologists, have been squirreled under the Muslim quarter along the full outside section of the Western Wall. The purpose is for Jews to get as close as possible to the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. The tunnels have created a 'time tunnel,' as we walked on the same rocks that Jesus had walked 2,000 years ago. At one point, we were directly in front of the portion of the Western Wall nearest to the Dome of the Rock, and deep inside the tunnels on the Muslim side. We passed frantic prayers with their faces against the wall. (Pictures in the slide show below.)
Walking through the Jerusalem market, I had a funny observation. Since Hebrew and Arabic writing is backward to English, a guy is the market called out: "Frutie Tuttie," instead of "Tuttie Frutie" -- whatever that means anyway, and "daddle dilly," instead of "Dilly Daddle."
January 22 – TO THE WEST BANK
In order to get from Israel to the West Bank, you cross the Palestinian border which we did to visit Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus (border crossing building pictured below). We wandered through the marketplace, with the Muslim crowds, enjoying their hospitality. At the end of the street, barely visible is the Basilica and Grotto of the Nativity where Jesus was born in what was once the manger. Remember the story... Joseph had to return to Bethlehem from Nazareth, for the censor (to count the people for taxes) so he and pregnant Mary traveled to Bethlehem. The manger is now a Greek Orthodox church. Pictures are in the slide show above, and looks like a fancy fire place mantle.
We stopped for lunch: Arabic Coke Zero, chicken, salad, humus, yogurt with garlic, falafels, pita bread, hot salsa and a plate of hot pickles, peppers and olives.
Our visit to the Holocaust Museum was an emotional journey through the chronological documentation of the murder of six million Jews during WWII. The museum has nine underground galleries telling the history from the Jewish perspective. It's punctuated by a look into the worlds of Jews who lived and died under the Nazis and their collaborators, told in photos, video testimonials, and monuments.
January 23 – BACK TO MASADA
Returning to the eastern fringe of the Judean Desert, we were able to visit Masada, now open. (Pictures are above.) The King of the Jews, King Herod (37 BC - 4 CE) built the fortress in the style of a palace. The site is most known for the "Great Revolt" in 73 CE when 900 Jews held back 10 - 15,000 Romans who had captured Jerusalem and enslaved the Jews. The Roman's had eight camps like this one, surrounding the plateau, hoping that in a few weeks, the Jews would come down for food and water. In fact, they had enough sustenance to last for years. The Roman's eventually built a ramp and blasted their way through the stone walls, but it took them a number of years. Just before they climbed through the walls to enslave the Jews, they all committed suicide.
From Tel Aviv we flew to Dusseldorf to attend the boat show before returning to Big Sky.