***Some of my historical explanations are admittedly very simplified. Follow the links or delve into some research on your own if you wish to learn more. Also, if you’ve read any other posts, you will know that nothing is sacred when Jill & Mike travel. No offense is intended.***
Arranging travel on our own is always a leap of faith but sometimes it’s a bigger leap than others. We are nearing the end of our trip through Egypt (please see “Fond Memories of the Middle East – Egypt”) and Jordan (please see “Jordan: The Country, The People, The Movie Set (Not the River)”) and have just two and a half days left to tour Israel. We are hoping the guide we arranged for a couple of weeks ago will be waiting for us once we cross from Jordan to Eilat, Israel.
Because we are not part of a tour group, going on foot is the only way for us to cross at this checkpoint. The only vehicle we are allowed to take is a luggage trolley that looks similar to a shopping cart for lumber at a home improvement store. The whole process takes us about 45 minutes.
After finally passing through the tight and somber Israeli security checkpoint, a smile crosses our lips as we see our guide, Zvi Keren waiting for us on the other side of the gate. He briskly escorts us to his car and in no time, we are headed north on Highway 90. The Red Sea is at our back and the Jordanian border is to the right.
From Eilat, it’s 194 miles (313 km) to Jerusalem, our final destination for the day, but we have a lot to pack in before we get there.
The first part of the trip takes us through the Arava Desert. Going north from the Red Sea, this stretch of highway is pretty standard desert scenery with not much variety. We take a break at what we are told is a kibbutz called the “101st km“. The name comes from it being 101 kilometers from the Israeli/Egyptian border on Highway 90.
At first glance we decide it’s part oasis, part hippie commune. Our choices here include viewing animals in the small zoo, browsing the kitschy souvenirs and food. No surprise to regular readers. It’s snack time.
Refreshed, we plunge further into the Holy Land. I realize how much I have forgotten or just plain don’t know when it comes to biblical stories. For Mike and me, this is not a religious pilgrimage. I’m here to soak up the history and get a feel for the country. As a newsperson at heart, I want to go behind the stories and see the real Israel, not the made-for-TV-edited version.
And this place is dripping with history. On the way north, we pass Mt. Sodom. The mountain is made of rock salt. This is where the city of Sodom was supposed to have been. One rock is said to be Lot’s wife after she was turned into a pillar of salt for taking looking back at the destruction of her hometown.
Speaking of salt, our next stop is a dive into the Dead Sea. We are at Mineral Beach, a public beach that is away from the big resort hotels and spas. Here there are changing rooms with not much privacy. We rent towels and lockers for a few shekels.
First we slather on a thick coating of black mud from the mud pit near the shoreline. It’s so soft and silky on our skin.
Because the area is so rich in salt and minerals, the beach is not sandy but more like sharp jagged crystals on which we could easily slice our feet. We walk gingerly to the water and slip in.
Yup, it’s true. We really do float effortlessly. But it’s not an ‘I’m at the beach resort in the tropics’ kind of feel. There are so many mineral and so much salt that the water tingles, dare I say, stings in a slightly masochistic but not totally unpleasant way. We have also been warned: do NOT drink this water.
Once we’ve gotten over the giggly thrill of lying around on top of the bed of water we carefully tiptoe to the thermal pool fed by sulphur springs. Wow! Another severe prickly sensation when we first get in! However, once the initial sensation subsides, we are rejuvenated. Not only does this water sting, it stinks of sulphur. There’s no lingering for too long. The rotten egg smell drives us out of the pool.
It takes a long rinse at the outdoor shower to wash away most of the sulphuric stench from our skin. I slip on my extremely comfortable new Egyptian cotton shirt and am feeling as relaxed and refreshed as if I have spent the day at an expensive spa.
Once I get home, I use the creams but do not try the mud. Why? Because I don’t want to clog my shower drain and pipes with mud. Nor do I want to hose myself off in my backyard. A bag of mud still lives under my bathroom sink to this day!
Our trek continues north where a wealth of historical sites awaits us. Atop the plateau on the left we spy Masada, the spot where Jews captured the Roman garrison and then later staged a mass suicide/killing. The clock is ticking, so we don’t take the cable car up to the site.
Another 30 miles (51 km) up the road are the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. These writings are a couple thousand years old. With so many ancient sites being uncovered, there’s no telling what else is buried here.
It’s too late in the day to ride the cable car to the monastery but not too late to be tempted. Obviously we are not like Jesus. We can’t resist some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bars at the Mt. of Temptation Restaurant, Coffee Shop & Ice Cream Bar.
It’s time to head off into the sunset and make our way west to Jerusalem. In the hills along the way, Bedouin tents dot the road. We’re hoping to see the full glory of this city before it gets dark.
We have just enough time to race up to the terraced roof and be enthralled by the last bit of daylight over the city just before dark storm clouds roll in. The weather makes the decision easy to stay put and have dinner in the hotel.
Downstairs at Valentino’s Restaurant, we wine snobs tentatively sip a bottle of Israeli wine with our well-prepared and served Italian dinner. Though located in the cradle of ancient history, there’s no doubt we’re enjoying fine dining in the civilized 21st century.
The next day is our last full day in Israel and there is a lot on the agenda. We start in Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives overlooking the Golden Gate. There we tour Gethsemane where many believe that Jesus was betrayed by Judas.
We enter the Old City of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate. There’s a man with a camel just inside the entrance. The camel is sipping on water from a Coke bottle. We are amused.
Our first stop is in the Christian Quarter.
We make our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church contains several sacred places. This is where many believe Jesus was crucified and buried.
The Rock of Calvary, where Christ’s cross was supposed to have been placed, can be seen enclosed in glass in the Greek Orthodox portion of the church. While it’s said to be the place where His body was prepared for burial, this Stone of Anointing was installed in an 1810 renovation.
Control of the church is shared by the Franciscan, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian sects. A Muslim family holds the keys because no one group can be trusted. The battle over control of this church is somewhat astonishing.
For such a revered place, there is no question, it’s in pretty bad shape. The pettiness kicked into high gear in 1853 when something called the “status quo” was established.
Because of status quo, changing anything here requires agreement between all sects, a nearly impossible feat. Any work that is done claims ownership. As a result, no one is willing to give up a perceived crumb of their slice of the church’s pie. God forbid, these people work together to change a light bulb or work to preserve what many believe is the tomb of Jesus.
Then there’s the immovable wooden ladder that has been left on a ledge above the entrance since before 1852. We are told that someone might have been washing someone else’s window and was told to get down immediately. They did and left the ladder behind. It has not been moved since.
In 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair from its designated spot into the shade. Eleven people were hurt in the resulting melee. If these were 2-year-olds, they would probably get a swat on their behinds but this is no playground and this ridiculousness has serious consequences. So much for the brotherhood of man.
This attitude is prevalent throughout the area no matter who the players are. Archeological digs are similar to said 2-year-olds fighting for toys. Mine! No mine!
One group makes a discovery. Invariably, this discovery proves that group owns the historical right to live on that parcel. The other side digs deeper and finds something that proves that they in fact are the rightful owners. And so it continues until who knows what? Maybe until someone hits magma and can’t go any further.
While I am making light of it here with my simplistic explanations, there are serious consequences for challenging any of these deep-seated beliefs. People feel that any movement in their position will make them, literally, lose ground. Peace here will take a miracle.
After getting our fill of the brotherly love in the church, we walk past a wall where the devout believers re-live Jesus’ walk to his crucifixion by renting a giant wooden cross to drag through the Stations of the Cross. We follow his final walk along the Via Dolorosa in reverse order of the Stations of the Cross through the Christian Quarter.
In the Muslim Quarter, we check out the Arab souk. Here we find an interesting juxtaposition of junky souvenirs for tourists and everyday items for locals. As I always do when I’m traveling, I wish I had a kitchen handy so I could try cooking with some of the local fresh and interesting-looking foods.
Crossing back into the Jewish Quarter, the Western or Wailing Wall comes into view and it’s an impressive sight. Again we witness the historical layers: This retaining wall is part of the ancient Temple Mount from Judaism’s Second Temple period, while the Muslim Dome of the Rock Mosque, erected centuries later, sits on top.
The Wall is divided with a side for men and a side for women. We respectfully watch as believers tuck their notes to God in the cracks of the wall.
Security is present but not obtrusive. There is no missing them standing guard, machine guns at the ready. Things have happened here.
Food beckons again so we go to a place called Tony’s Between the Arches Cafe. This is no ordinary setting for a bite to eat. This restaurant is in an excavated Crusader’s cavern with wood floors, stone walls and transparent glass tables and acrylic chairs. The floor dates back a couple thousand years. The ceiling is comparatively brand spanking new from the 14th century.
As is pretty typical in Israel, the menu includes Dairy, Kosher and Lemehadrin. Lemehadrin is a term we are not familiar with but we find out it means that everything is prepared to the very highest rabbinical standards. A step above Kosher? Who knew?
Another example of the layers of civilization can also be seen in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The Cardo is the remnants of a colonnaded Roman city thoroughfare from the Byzantine era. The excavated upscale shops are once again thriving, selling expensive luxury items.
With the ancient dust still on our feet, we decide to move on to Bethlehem. We cross into the Palestinian controlled West Bank territory through a checkpoint. We go directly to Manger Square and the Basilica of the Nativity, thought to be the oldest continually used church in the world.
Constantine built this church after his mother, Helena, came to town 300 years after the death of Christ in search of the holy birthplace and other sites, and was pointed to this spot.
The way into the church is through the Door of Humility. The proper way to enter is to kneel then cross the threshold. As a safety precaution in medieval times, the main entrance was blocked. This small door was installed to prevent Muslims from coming in on horseback.
Inside, a portion of the original mosaic floor from Constantine’s time is preserved. There are decorated columns, but, the artwork is worn off from the ground to about six feet up: A result of throngs of believers who must also believe in a hands-on experience. The walls are covered with gold mosaics.
A few steps down is where we enter the Grotto of the Nativity, better known as the manger where believers say Christ was born. It looks nothing like the nativity scenes that pop up at Christmas.
This revered spot looks more like a marble fireplace with a silver, 14-pointed star signifying the Stations of the Via Dolorosa.
Attached next door is St. Catherine’s Catholic Church. This bright church boasts a baby Jesus that is promenaded around the church for midnight mass.
My cousin has a collection of religious artifacts so we figure what better place to buy her something. Zvi takes us to a nearby shop run by a friend of his where there is an array of nativity scenes to choose from. We opt for a baby Jesus made from local olive wood. We sacrilegiously dub him Buff Baby Jesus because of his 6-pack abs.
Our last stop of this packed day is the sobering Yad Va-Shem Holocaust Museum. While the whole experience is very powerful, it is the Children’s Memorial that disturbs me to this day. Mirrors reflect countless tiny candle flames while names and ages of the young victims are read.
As we leave the museum we are struck by the appearance of the guards. These are just kids really, probably around 18 years old, standing around, flirting with each other, machine guns slung over their shoulders. It’s all very natural for them but we leave wondering how well guns and hormones mix.
That night we head down an alley in a Hasidic neighborhood of Jerusalem to a hip, new restaurant. People are staring at us. We are definitely outsiders as evidenced by our appearance. Dinner was well worth the disapproving looks.
Friday morning we have one tiny parcel of tourist time before we need to be at the airport in Tel Aviv for our flight to Cairo. We start with a bite to eat at The Elvis Inn in Jerusalem before starting our 44 mile (71 km) trip to Tel Aviv.
Along the way, we pass through the Forest of the Martyrs where eventually there will be six million trees to represent the Jews killed in the Holocaust. We are amazed how a forest has flourished in the desert.
Time is just so much dust in the wind now, as we do a quick driving tour of Tel Aviv including a stop at St. Peter’s Church in Old Jaffa. This church from the 1600s was built over a medieval fortress from the 1200s. The layers of history keep showing up.
Before we really do need to go to the airport, we walk over to the Hapisgah Garden for a look at the modern Mediterranean coastline. In the garden, newlyweds are having wedding pictures taken.
Post September 11th American airport security measures are a piffle compared what goes on in Israel. And we were there before that fateful day changed airport security measures.
Once inside the door to the airport we are subjected to heavy interrogation. Because I would never want to give away security tactics, let me just say that I have never been grilled like that before or since.
Telling the truth makes it easier, but under pressure I was definitely nervous. It’s seems like it was 20 minutes to a half hour before we are allowed to pass the checkpoint and go to the El Al ticket counter to check in but I think it was less than that. If that’s what it takes for us to have a safe flight, I’m all for it.
Mike and I have really enjoyed our time here and for a moment even consider what it would be like to live here. Of course reality sinks in and I remember how much I loathe hot weather. This is only February and I can already feel the heat. Still, we are sorry to be leaving and are trying to gear up for massively long journey home.
Contrary to all of the Egypt Air flights we have taken during our Middle Eastern journey, our El Al flight is on time and appears to be in perfect working order. Unlike our previous flights into Cairo, this plane is not taken to a gate so we have to wait for a bus to come get us out on the tarmac.
Inside the airport, we decide we must be in a really old part of the terminal. It’s something out of the 1940s. Instead of the immigration area we went through at the start of our trip, this is a gate area with two men in military-looking uniforms handwriting everyone’s passport information into a giant accounting ledger. It’s a massive leather-looking bound book with teeny lines in which this guy is meticulously writing. It’s very time consuming to document a planeload of people.
On his desk is one of those giant, metal rotary telephones from the Iron Age. The poor lighting also adds to the 40s ambiance. It feels like something out of Casablanca or some other black and white movie.
We have a few hours layover before the second half of our $20.13 flight home to San Francisco and there’s not much to do while we wait. I’ve read that the airport has been modernized since we’ve been there, but this is one memory that lives on.
As we lift off and fly one more time over the Nile River Valley we reflect on this trip and the people we have met. By far, the Egyptians are the loveliest people we have encountered on any of our trips so far. They genuinely wanted to make sure we had a great time and they certainly were a good part of the reason we did.
Jordan, especially Jerash and Petra are absolutely magnificent. Petra is one of my most favorite places on the planet and should be a must-see on every world traveler’s list. The variety of natural beauty in this country was a pleasant surprise.
Israel is a hotbed of history. No matter what, if anything, you believe, there’s no arguing that some pretty interesting people have passed through this land. The variety of languages and customs and the opposing viewpoints are what make it such a lively, fascinating if not somewhat frightening destination.
In all of these places, layers of ancient and modern times seem to delicately co-exist in a fragile balance. Strong opinions, the will to fight for what they believe and the retention of every real and perceived slight over centuries hangs as a real threat to that peace.
I am so privileged to have been able to travel to this part of the world. To be able to see what day-to-day life is like makes it so much more real. After nearly a lifetime of watching horrible events unfold in news reports about these countries, I now know that those are just snippets of reality. There is so much good that doesn’t snag the headlines.
Bad things can happen anywhere. Americans, with short memories, forget about the Oklahoma City and the Atlanta Olympics bombings, Ted Kaczynski, the anthrax attacks and a whole lot of other home-grown criminals but that doesn’t stop us from traveling within our country.
I’m thrilled that any perceived dangers did not keep us at home. We were deeply touched by the people who willingly embraced us. What we learned from our new-found Middle Eastern friends is to be cautious, yes, but don’t be too afraid to travel, or worse, too afraid to live.