Friday, November 25, 2011

Top Ten Memories of My Trip To Israel


10. The satisfaction in knowing we got to Jerusalem just in time for the big 50% off sale. "Big sale! Big sale!"

9. The almost impossible choice we faced each day: Falafel or Shwarma?

8.. The confusion in knowing Israelis have developed a fence that can sense where and when a bird lands on it but do not possess the technology to make a decent napkin.

7. Not that I wanna harp on this but the napkins are the size of a post it note and the wash cloths are the size of a football field.

6. The enormous and, dare I say, out of control, feral cat population.

5. Drinking a beer while on a church trip and almost getting away with having it charged to the pastor's room.

4. Dancing the Hava Nagila without creating an international incident by putting out our tour guide's eye.

3. Carrying around 300 pounds of change but never having enough to actually pay for anything.

2. Visiting Qumran and then wondering about the sexual preference of the Essenes - a sect of deeply religious men who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and spent a lot of time in ritual baths. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

And my Number One memory of my trip to Israel . . .

Never once getting lost while wandering around the Old City. Okay, that's a lie. ALWAYS getting lost while wandering around the Old City - but going back every day for more.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Israel - Day Six



Gonna make this one shorter . . .

We hit the road at 8:00 AM and headed straight to the Mount of Olives - along with all the rest of the tourists in Jerusalem. The view from our starting point looks out over the old city and is pretty spectacular with the early sun on the golden Dome of the Rock. Beyond that we visited the Garden of Gethsemane and a few related churches along the way.

Then we went into the Old City and visited an archaeological park at the southern end of the Temple Mount. This is the spot where anyone visiting the temple would have come to enter the Temple Mount. it's one spot where we can be certain Jesus would have walked.

From there it was a trip to the outskirts of Jerusalem to visit Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the millions of Jews killed in the Holocost. It features the stories and artifacts of hose who went through it. Very powerful.

We headed back into the city to visit he City of David which is essentially the Jerusalem of David's time. This is a very controversial dig in East Jerusalem. It's controversial because Israeli's are literally digging in Palestinians back yards.

The purpose of our visit was to walk the 1,750 length of Hezekiah's Tunnel. This tunnel was dug to secretly bring water from the Gihon spring, the only source of water for the city, to the pool of Siloam on the other side of town. It guaranteed the Residents would continue to have water if their city was attacked. A pretty impressive engineering feat for its day.

We climbed down into a cavern and stepped into the entrance. The water quickly crept to our knees and then our thighs. After a few hundred feet it was only ankle deep. The tunnel is pitch dark but most of us had flashlights. It took less than half an hour but was very cool and Indiana Jones like.

After dinner A few of us made the trek to the Old City to see the Western Wall at night. It is very cool to see things at night. Shops are closed. It is dimly lit and feels even more like another world.

The Western Wall is always cool with lots of Orthodox men bobbing their heads as they pray. There is also a covered area just north of that section do the wall where even more men gather to talk and pray. We wandered into that space as well.

Our trip to and from the Old City resulted in us getting lost several times but that's all part of he fun.

Feral cat count: 13

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Israel - Day Five

We didn't have a wake up call this morning and didn't have to leave the towel until 9:30 AM. Ostensibly that was to give us a chance to go down to the Dead Sea to swim and take in the natural beauty. I spent the time sleeping and finally woke up about 8:20.

Our first stop was Masada, one of seven fortresses built by Herod the Great. It's a pretty impressive feat of engineering.

It's second claim to fame comes through a story told by Josephus, which may or may not be true. When the Romans defeated the Jews and destroyed the temple in 70 AD, a small band of 900 fled to Masada. The fortress, being on top of a mountain was isolated and fairly impregnable. The Romans came after them anyway and spent at least a year plotting how to get at the Jews. They ended up building a ramp to the top of the mountain and then rolled up a battering ram to bust through the walls. According to the story, on the night before the Romans broke through, the ledger of the rebels convinced his people it was better to take their own knives than to let the Romans kill them. So, with the exception of 5 women and 3 children who kinda hid out, they opted for the Jonestown method.

Then we tried to visit the En Gedi Nature Reserve but it was closed due to a flash flood warning. Flash floods are a big deal in the Dead Sea valley. While it doesn't rain much, when it does the water comes rushing down the adjacent hillsides pretty fast and furiously. It is such a freak phenomenon that folks drive down to the Dead Sea to see it. Kinda like driving to the Oregon coast to see a big storm roll in I guess.

We had lunch at nearby restaurant. Chicken leg and thigh, rice, corn, flatbread and a drink. I get to the check stand and she says, "$17 US." good grief! About twice what it seemed worth. On top of that, I handed her a $20 and got the equivalent of about fifty cents in change. Sheesh!

Then it was on to Qumran, the home of the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1947 a Bedouin shepherd boy chased a sheep along a hillside. When it ran into a cave, he threw a rock in to scare it out. He heard something shatter and went in to check it out. What shattered was an urn that had been in that spot for almost 2,00 years. Inside the urn was a scroll. There were other urns and other scrolls. The boy gathered them up and took them into Bethlehem to see if they we're worth anything. A local shoemaker took a look and, while he was no antiquities expert, he knew enough to realize they were extremely valuable.. He bought the, for a song and eventually became wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.

From there we climbed our way to Jerusalem, going from 1,300 feet below sea level to 2,500 feet above. Along the way we stopped at an overlook to the st. George's Monastery, which looks to be hanging on a cliff in a very steep canyon. Some day I gotta go there.

We checked into our hotel about 5:30 PM and from there the daily battle for Internet access began.

Feral cat count: 6

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Israel - Day Four

Between lack of sleep and 6:00 AM wake-up calls I may die before this trip is over.

The high point of the entire trip may very well have occurred this morning. My friend, Randy Myers, the pastor who organized this trip, asked me If I knew what my room number was. I said, "Yes, 203" to which he replied, "well apparently you charged your beer from last night's meal to my room (204) instead!" He was very gracious about it but, holy crap, I'm getting some good mileage out of having charged a beer to the pastor!

We drove up the east coast of the Sea of Galilee, which was part of Syria before the Six Day War in 1967. We traveled to Bethsaida, a town that Peter, Andrew, James and John were born and raised. More ruins and a couple of good stories.

Then we schlepped over to Kafar Nahum (Capernaum) where tradition holds there to be a home lived in by Simon Peter's mother-in-law. To commemorate this, the Catholic church built a chapel that "floats" over the ruins of the home. ( See below.)

There is also a cool 4th century synagogue built on the foundation of a meeting place dating back to the first century. As always, why build new if you can building top of something already there?

Yardenit is a site on the Jordan River where Christians often come to be baptized while in Israel. It is weird how a place with such significance for many Christians can be so commercially crass. Kinda made more fun by all the fish and nutria trying to share the water!

Lunch was at a nearby place called the Steak Shop but I'll be darned if they had any steak on the menu. They did have shwarma (kinda like falafel but with chicken) so I was in good shape. We ate outdoors but under cover, which was good since the 30 minutes or so we were there it rained hard!

Then it was on to Bet Sean which is easily the most impressive set of ruins on the trip. Although the tel here is the site of a Biblical city of the same name, at the base of the hill are the ruins of the Roman city of Scythopolis. It's huge! Roman baths, toilets, a cardo (I.e shopping mall), amphitheater and temple. It was destroyed in an earthquake in 747 AD as evidenced by the fact that all the columns of the temple, cardo and other areas toppled in the same direction.

From there it's a long drive down the Jordan River to the Dead Sea. Jordan is just a stone's throw away. On the Jordanian side it looks like one long continuous farm with crops and greenhouses stretching on and on and on.

Both sides of the border are fenced off and patrolled heavily, the Israeli side also has a kind of pressure sensitive fence that alerts them anytime something moves against it.

This route also takes us through the West Bank. Maybe it's just me but it seems noticeably poorer here. Lots of shacks and tent like dwellings.

The day ended at the resort hotel, the Leonardo Classic. Before dinner Several of us swam in the spa pool which features heated water from the Dead Sea but with the silt filtered out. Ya still float just the same and the healing properties should be just as effective as ever. In my case that means that I won't need another Botox treatment for months!

Feral cat count: 7

Israel - Day Three

After another fine breakfast of yogurt and granola (or the local equivalent) we headed out to visit the museum / tourist trap of the "Jesus Boat." it's a 2,000 year old fishing boat that was discovered in 1986 by two brothers. There's no evidence that Jesus or his disciples ever sailed in this particular boat, but there's a fair chance they used something similar.

The museum / tourist trap features a gift shop that offers every tacky bit of religious and cultural memorabilia imaginable. I managed to avoid buying a replica of the Ark of the Covenant ($214), mostly cuz I didn't want to risk having my face melt off. I also thought about buying an "I Love the IDF" bracelet ($4) but didn't wanna tick off any of my future Arab friends. (IDF = Israeli Defense Force, by the way.) I did snag a nice ($5) cappuccino, by the way.

While there we also took an hour-long cruise on the Sea of Galilee. In keeping with Disney attraction standards the boat is a classic style for this region and no doubt runs on an automated track along the north-western shoreline.

The Golan Heights was the next stop and affords one of my best chances to really create an international incident. However I refrained from yelling out threats to Hezbollah supporters in southern Lebanon as we drove through Kiryat Shimona, which is literally a stones throw from that border.

Tel Dan is another sweet archeological site that also doubles as a nature reserve. Back in the 90's a stele (a big, tall stone with a carved inscription) mentioning "David" was found. It is the only mention of David outside of the Bible. In addition it is also it's not every day you get a history lesson along with your hike.

From there we climbed to the upper reaches of the Golan Heights, passing the Nimrod Fortress, a former assassin's hideout. We drove along the Syrian border for several miles and got a good view of a couple of Syrian towns, a U.N. base and even a spot where some Syrian Palestinians had broken through the border fence, probably to escape President Assad's attempts to quash the recent rebellion. Potential International Incident #2: I quietly said, "Assad sucks!" a couple of times. Made me feel better.

An hour (and a short nap) later, we were at the Church of the Beatitudes. This is the spot that commemorates the Sermon on the Mount. The church is octagonal, representing the eight Beatitudes.

Nearby is the Church of the Multiplication which commemorates the development of mathematics. Okay, maybe not. It commemorates the whole loaves and fishes deal. I love the church here because it looks very crusader-like.

Two cool stories about this place. Well, cool for me, at least.

First, when I was here in 2001 I met a priest who had served in both Galilee and Jerusalem for many years. His name is Bargil Pixner and he wrote a couple of great books about Jesus ministry in both places. Each book is steeped in the culture and dynamics of the locale. Last time I bought his book "Jesus in Galilee" and was lucky enough to get him to autograph it. This time I bought the second book, "Jesus in Jerusalem." He wasn't around to autograph it this time though.

This trip something even cooler happened. On the altar of this church is a mosaic depicting the loaves and fishes. It dates way back to an early incarnation of the church on this site. The mosaic (see below) is a frequent subject of all the trinkets and trash you can get in Israel. Unfortunately it is situated on the floor in a spot that makes it tough to get a good picture. This time I snuck into the chapel ahead of everyone else and had the place to myself. While at the roped off area in front of the altar a nun approached me and asked, "Would you like me to take a picture?" I said, "yes please!" and handed her my iPhone. She stepped over the rope and took two nice pics of the mosaic, at a much better angle and much closer than others normally get.

One last note. Jet lag is still kicking my butt. After dinner I went straight to bed. I slept from 8:00 PM to about 1:30 and then was up for about 2 1/2 hours and then slept for a couple hours more. Hopefully I'll be back to normal soon.

Feral cat count today: 5

Friday, November 18, 2011

Three Things . . .

1. Attention feral cats of Israel: More of you should move to the Galilee region. Plenty of fish and lizards to supplement your already stellar garbage can diet.

2. My first chance to create an international incident came today when, against my better judgment, I danced the Hava Nagila. Luckily no one lost an eye and weirdly, I remembered all the words to the song that I learned in Miss Baker's 8th grade music class.

3. Food courts in Israeli malls are seriously lacking in variety. Where is an Sbarro or Panda Express when you need one?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Israeli Feral Cat Count

Day One: 8
Day Two: 9
Day Three: 1 - and counting!

Simple On The Outside . . .

Gaudy on the Inside!

Two pictures of the Crusader era St. Gabriel's Church, which is now an Eastern Orthodox church.

Israel - Day Two

Woke up at 4:00 AM and couldn't go back to sleep. It made for a leisurely morning however. Many more up identifiable items available for breakfast. A cappuccino to go with the pears, croissant, Greek yogurt and granola ( or the regional equivalents) did the trick.

From there it was a 30 minute trek to the Caesarea Archeological Park. This is a complex of amazing stuff first built by Herod the Great and then destroyed and rebuilt several times over. It includes a restored outdoor amphitheater, remnants of palace Herod built out into the Mediterranean, a hippodrome, a man-made harbor and even a crusader era citadel.

Then it was on to Mt. Carmel. This is the site where Elijah held a "contest" with the prophets of the Baal to prove which god(s) are the most powerful. Elijah won. I have a picture from our previous trip of Jake reading this story from 1 Kings.

Lunch was at a restaurant owned by a man in the nearby Druze town. (I'd tell you about Druze religion but apparently it's a secret.) this is a place I remember fondly from my previous trip in 2001 because of the delicious falafel! For $9 you get four falafel balls dropped into a pita and can fill it with an assortment of vegetables and tahini sauce. As with all our other meals, the buffet of vegetables was mostly a mystery to me. If you're ever in the region, I'd definitely recommend the falafel here! Mmmmmm good!

After a short trip we made it to Megiddo. Megiddo is an archeological site made famous in James Michener's The Source. The legendary archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, led this dig, uncovering something like 29 different eras where cities were built and destroyed on this tel. Megiddo is also famous for what Biblical prophecies say will happen in the enormous valley at its base: the battle of Armageddon. (I'm in no hurry and, well, frankly, I'll believe it when I see it.)

Nazareth is the next stop but before going into the city proper we head to a site called the Mount of Precipice. This is one of those traditional sites (Read: probably didn't happen here but it feels like the right kinda place) where a Biblical story is said to have occurred. In this case, Jesus might have ticked off a bunch of Jews and avoided getting thrown off a cliff.

From their we skipped the usual trip to the Church of the Annunciation - the biggest basilica in town - and went to the Eastern Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel. It is situated over the only known spring In in the oldest part of Nazareth. The Church of the Annunciation was built over a cave that is thought to be the childhood home of Mary. Except for the fact that it wasn't the Flintstone age and people lived in houses, not caves. As "traditional" sites go, I'm gonna put my money on St.Gabriel's.

It's 5:00 PM and dark. Time to make our way to our hotel, the Ma'agan Holiday Village.

The View From My Hotel

It's grainy and the skies are gray (but it's Israel so all the leaves are not brown) but it's not everyday you get a view of the Mediterranean from your hotel room window. First for me, anyway . . .