Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Israel has fascinated me for a long time. It's amazing that such a small country that is only 60 years old had been the center of of so much fighting and controversy - a place that flares strong emotions for both sides. The Israeli Declaration of Independence was made in May 14, 1948, an event is known as Al Nakba (The Catastrophe) in the Arab world. I don't pretend to even begin to know how the situation will eventually resolve. If you talk to Israelis it's all the Palestinians fault. If you talk to Palestinians, it's the Israelis fault. Israelis say if the Palestinians put down their weapons and recognize the state of Israel, then there will be peace. Many Palestinians fully expect to return to their old homes in Israel. They also think that is they stop the fighting, then Israel will try to take more land and build more settlements. They think many want to see Israel inhabit and settle all the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River (and truth be told, they probably do).

On June 3 I arrived at the Israeli border crossing. The Israelis don't mess around when it comes to security. At the first station they opened my backpack and went through every single article I had. I felt bad for them because I had been doing some serious hiking the last few days and my socks were pretty funky. They were all pretty young and probably carrying out their military service. All Israeli men and women must serve in the military for three years. The next station was an interview with a cute girl probably also carrying out her military service. She asked me a lot of questions. She asked the standard questions like why I was entering Israel, where I was going, where I was staying, how long I was staying, how I was leaving, did I know anyone in Israel. Many countries state they require proof of onward transport, but this was the only place I've been asked for it. She seemed really interested in my trip. She flipped through my passport and asked me what I did and where I went in Malaysia, Egypt, and Jordan. She asked me what my religion was. I thought, "Woo, slow down baby, that's kind of personal, we just met." The whole process took about 30 minutes. I walked out of the border station and into the land of milk and honey. I then realized I didn't have any New Shekels. I had to go back into the border station, I had to check in with the guard, who had to check with her boss, who then came out and escorted me back in to the exchange counter so I could exchange my Egyptian pounds.

Because I have an Israeli stamp on my passport, I am forbidden from visiting Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen (Kuwait? After all we did for those guys back in 1991?) All these countries consider Israel to be enemy-occupied territory. Even if you can convince an Israeli border guard not to stamp your passport, they will look for other evidence such as an exit stamp from Egypt or Jordan. I don't plan on visiting any of these places any time soon, maybe ever. But if I do, I'll have to get a new passport.

I took a cab to the Eliat bus station to catch a bus to Tel Aviv. The next bus wasn't leaving for another two hours, so I had lunch and walked around a bit. Eliat is a resort town on the Red Sea. Taba (Egypt), Aqaba (Jordan), and Eliat are all very close, I would guess only a few miles, but traveling between the tow would take a very long time due to the border crossings. It was a really hot day and I grew tired of walking around and went back to the bus station to wait on my bus. There were a lot of soldiers at the bus station and on the bus, many with big rifles strapped across their backs. I'd gotten used to seeing police and military personnel with large guns, but in Israel, it's often women. There's something kind of sexy about a girl in an army uniform with big rifle.

It was about a five hour bus ride to Tel Aviv. Southern Israel is a dry, hot, barren desert. I got into the bus station about 10:00pm and took a cab to the hostel. Tel Aviv is a modern city on the Mediterranean reminiscent of Miami. I didn't do too much the next day other than walking around taking some photos and doing some much needed laundry.

I was taken by how normal everything seemed. If you take away the Jewish aspect and it's rocky history, it is basically a European country located smack dab in the middle of the Middle East. It is a very wealthy country with a large middle class. In most Middle Eastern countries it is either difficult or impossible to find a drink. In Israel, that is definitely not a problem.

I met Arielle and Dena, two Americans from New Jersey and we decided to go out that night to see the nightlife in Tel Aviv. We went first to a beach bar - basically lawn chairs on the beach mixed with illuminated orange cones. Then we went to a blues bar. Then to an Irish pub. There are a lot of bars in Tel Aviv. Then we went to a club that was only open to men over 25 and women over 21. I was the youngest guy there by at least ten years. There were a lot of older guys with young women. It was a little creepy. I realize that I'm not too many years away from being the creepy old guy, but this place had a strange vibe. We left and went to a dance club. They played good music. We were dancing and having a good time when I got challenged to a dance-off. I don't know what I was thinking getting sucked into this because the guy was a much better dancer than me. Several people in the club were watching and I heard at least one "Oh no you didn't!".

There weren't many historical or cultural sites in Tel Aviv. I thought about going to the Diaspora Museum the next day, but I went to the beach instead. There would be plenty of that kind of stuff in Jerusalem.

Tel Aviv was a lot of fun. God's chosen people like to have a good time. There were a lot of really beautiful women in Tel Aviv. I'm kind of surprised there aren't more Israeli supermodels. It makes me a little sad though. It's not impossible to date an Israeli girl, but you start with two strikes against you for not speaking Hebrew and for being a Gentile.

On June 6 I went on a tour of Nazareth and the Sea of Gallalee. I was a little surprised that I could get a tour that day with it being the Shabbat. I'd heard that Israel really shuts down from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, but that was really more true in Jerusalem than in Tel Aviv, with Tel Aviv being more secular and Jerusalem being more Orthodox. The first stop of the tour was in Nazareth, the boyhood home of Jesus. Modern Nazareth is a city of about 60,000 people, but back in Jesus's time, it was a small Jewish village of about 500 people, most of whom lived in caves.

For most Christian holy sites, churches are built over them. The name of the church usually relates to the site it covers. Also, most of the churches are at least the third built on the site. Churches are destroyed and rebuilt by Byzantine, Persian, and Crusader invaders.

The first stop was the Basilica of the Annunciation. This Basilica was built over the cave where Mary received word from the Angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus.

The next stop was a short walk to the St. Joseph church. It is built over the cave containing the carpenter workshop of Joseph and the home of the Holy Family.

Next we went from Nazareth to Capernaum. The Israeli countryside is really pretty. Orchards, vines, and green fields light, fed by irrigation from the Jordan River light up the hillsides.

Unfortunately, this comes at a price in that the Dead Sea is evaporating at an alarming rate.

We drove by, but didn't stop at the Wedding Church where Jesus performed the water into wine miracle. It is obviously not the actual church, mind you, but one built on the site of the wedding where the wine was needed.

The well where the servants drew the water that was to become wine.

Capernaum was a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus lived, taught, and performed most of his miracles. St Peter, as well as other Apostles also lived here.

The Church of the House of Peter.

House of Peter, underneath the church.

Remains of the synagogue where Jesus taught.

Sea of Galilee.

Next was a short drive to Tabgha to the Church of the Multiplication. As it's name suggests, this is the site where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 people with two fishes and five loaves of bread.

The rock upon which the loaves and fishes were multiplied.

The last stop of the tour before heading back was to the Jordan River. This spot was directly south of the Sea of Galilee (which is dammed). The river is wider at this point and the scenery is much nicer that the site I visited in Jordan. There were signs indicating that the site of Jesus' baptism occurred a few meters from this site. So which is the real site? Well, as with pretty much all biblical places, the actual locations are subject to a certain amount of speculation and guesswork, since the Bible doesn't give exact coordinates. However, from what I've read, most biblical scholars believe the site in Jordan to be the actual site. But if I was filming a movie about the baptism of Jesus, I would probably use this location as it is more scenic.

There were quite a few people getting baptized that day.

That was the end of quite a long day. We headed back to Tel Aviv and then to Jerusalem.

Since it was the Shabbat, some streets were closed down. They take the Shabbat pretty seriously in Jerusalem. In the Old Town, ATM's do not even work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. I checked into my hostel, which was in a 700 year old building in the Old City. I liked staying in the Old City because that's where all the sights are, but it really shut down after dark, requiring a 15-20 minute walk to central Jerusalem for dinner or a drink.

Jerusalem is old. The current city walls were built around 1500, and are a relatively new addition to the city. It is also a holy city for three of the world's major religions.

I went on a free walking tour of the city that covered most of the major sites. The Via Dolorosa is the route leading from the Lion's Gate into the heart of the city. It is famous for being the route taken by Jesus to carry the cross to his crucifixion and includes markers for the 14 stations, the last five of which are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built over the sight of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.

Below is the altar over the rock of Calvary, the site of Jesus' crucifixion. The process is to get in line to the right of the area. Then you get down on your knees and knee-walk to a spot under the table. There is a gold plate with a hole in it signifying where the cross was mounted. People kiss the hole and lay objects on it they want to have blessed. Having objects blessed was kind of an unfamiliar concept to me. Most people were blessing necklaces and crosses on the gold plate. I had my passport blessed.

The Stone of the Anointing. Where Jesus' body was prepared for burial.

The Rotunda contains a piece of the round stone used to close the tomb and the tomb itself. For the tomb, the process was the same as with the crucifixion spot. You had to get on your knees and walk to a spot underneath a table. There was an loud and curt Orthodox priest making sure the line kept moving.

The gold dome so central to most photographs of Jerusalem is the Dome of the Rock. It is built on a larger area called the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount is a holy place for Jews in that it is built over the biblical Mt. Moriah, the location of the foundation stone of the world. It is the place where Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice. It is holy for Muslims in that it is the spot where Mohammed ascended into heaven to confer with Allah and the prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. This meeting established, among other things, the Islamic tenet of praying five times a day. This makes Jerusalem the third holiest city in Islam, behind Mecca and Medina. The dome is actually controlled by Muslims as part of a deal. People of all faiths (except Orthodox Jews) can enter the Temple Mount and walk around the grounds, but only Muslims can enter the Dome of the Rock.

The Western Wall of the Temple mount is considered the most holy Jewish Shrine. It was built 2,000 years ago as a retaining wall for the Temple Mount, which contained the Second Temple. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. It is also known as the Wailing Wall because the Jews gather to express sorrow over the temple's destruction. Visitors to the wall must dress conservatively, and there are separate sections for men and women.

Men must cover their heads. Paper kippahs are provided for people without their own. Mine kept blowing off my head.

The tradition is for visitors to write their prayers down on a piece of paper and stuff it into one of the cracks in the wall. Prayers written by famous people, for example the Pope (who had visited the previous month) and President Obama (the previous year), will invariably be retrieved by someone and sold to the media. So if you are famous and visit the wall, you may not want to write anything too personal on your note.

The next day, June, 8, I went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is located in the West Bank. The West Bank was captured by Israel in the 1967 war and occupies a grey area somewhere between being occupied by Israel and being run by the Palestinians. I got a tip from a Canadian couple that a bus could be taken from the Damascus Gate in Old Town into Bethlehem for about $1.25. So I took the bus, passing the infamous security wall, into Bethlehem. I took a cab with an older Australian couple from the bus stop to Manger Square.

The Church of the Nativity, as the name implies, is built over the cave where Jesus was born. It includes three chapels, one Orthodox, one Catholic, and one Armenian.

The main door to the church is only about four feet high, signifying the humility one must exercise as one walks in.

The Orthodox chapel.

The Catholic Chapel.

The Grotto. The silver star marks the spot where Jesus was born. The process here was the same as at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The main street through Bethlehem. It really wasn't a bad place. You get a different view of the Israel/Palestinian conflict here. The people here are very restricted. Most of them cannot enter Israel and find it easier to get to other countries. They are basically trapped there. They were quick to tell me they were occupied.

That afternoon I took a tour of the Mount of Olives by the same company that gave the free tour the day before. The Mount of Olives is directly east of Old Town Jerusalem.

We took a car to the top of the hill. Starting at the top was an easier tour, since were walking downhill, but it presented the sights in reverse chronological order. We started at the top of the hill at the Chapel of the Ascension, a small chapel built on the site where Jesus ascended into heaven.

Footprint of Christ in the Chapel.

The next stop was the Church of the Pater Noster, where Jesus taught his disciples to pray (The Lord's Prayer).

The interior and exterior walls are filled with translations of the Lord's prayer in every conceivable language.

The large Jewish cemetery covers a large part of the Mount of Olives.

The next stop was the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. The Garden of Gethsemane is the place where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his execution and where he was arrested. The Church of All Nations is built over the sight where Jesus wept and sweated blood. The oldest olive trees in the garden are believed to be about 500-600 years old. The olives produced by these trees are for the Pope. Every year the olives are harvested, pressed into oil, and shipped to the Vatican.

The Church of All Nations includes the bedrock where Jesus prayed the night before his arrest.

This was the second day of intense touring. I was knackered.

On June 9, I wrapped up a few loose ends I wanted to see in Jerusalem. I had a flight booked on June 10 from Tel Aviv to Munich at 1:15. I asked the hostel manager about buses to the airport, telling him I had a 1:15 flight. He asked AM or PM. I booked the ticket a month ago and the whole time assumed it was 1:15 PM. I looked it up and it was, in fact 1:15 AM! I had plenty of time to get a bus to the airport, but I'm really glad I checked. So I would be leaving the night of the 9th to catch my flight and would get into Munich in the early morning hours of the 10th.

I found Israelis to be very friendly people. Many really went out to their way to meet and talk to me. They are really appreciative that I was visiting their country. They were understandably very opinionated on Israel issues.

One thing I didn't find in Israel was a Jewish deli. Israeli food is very Mediterranean, with Pitas, hummus, and fresh salads with fresh tomatoes. The food was really, really good, but I really had my heart set on a pastrami on rye with mustard and a Dr. Brown's Creme Soda.

Flying out of Tel Aviv is about what I expected. Passengers are recommended to get to the airport three hours ahead of time. First is an interview. It was similar to the interview I had getting in to the country. It was another lovely lady who seemed really interested in my trip. She looked through my passport and asked what I did in Malaysia, Jordan, and Egypt. I went through baggage security next. They x-rayed my bags and still opened and thoroughly examined the contents. Then I went to the check in counter. Then through emigration, then through gate security. All in all it took a little under one and a half hours to get from the airport entrance to my gate.

I was looking forward to getting to Europe. I was looking forward to eating pork again.


Ozzy Nelson said...

sounds like a breath of fresh air after Egypt.

toomuchcountry said...

I read "The Hope" by Herman Wouk several years ago. Its a fictional novel - but its set around the events of the establishment of the Jewish state and the subsequent wars thru early 1970s. I learned more from reading it than a lifetime of watching the nightly news. Recommended.