We started our Israel trip from Seattle via Los Angeles, where we passed security before boarding the El Al flight. Their security check is by far the toughest in the world. We were grilled for about 15 minutes answering questions from where and how we knew each other and got married to when and how our travel business started. Once we got on the plane and saw the full flight we understood the reason. Many travelers prefer to fly El Al because they feel safe. The security policy is effective, as demonstrated by the fact that El Al flights have never been hijacked or bombed.
After a solid 24 hours of travel, we arrived at Tel Aviv in the early evening and were greeted at the airport by our host. Our Guide David took the six of us (all travel agents except one) to the Sheraton Moriah Hotel on the broad beachside promenade. Early the next morning looking down from our 11th floor at 5 miles of white sand beach (photo, Tel Aviv) running alongside the heart of the city, we could not help but take a walk on the beach. After a while we turned up to the main central avenue of Dizengoff, with stores starting to open, people waiting on the bus to go to work, children walking to school with heavy backpacks. On the way, we passed an old cemetery where almost all the tomb inscriptions were in Hebrew. A few stones had a picture or carving of a tree broken at the top, with the departed's name or picture at the breaking point. Our guide later told us that the sign means the person was murdered, his or her life cut short.
Tel Aviv is a city of 1.5 million people, sometimes called the Paris of Israel. We'd love to hang out and explore Tel Aviv. However, due to our tight schedule, we boarded our little 15-seat bus and drove out of town after breakfast, heading north along the coastline.
We first went to Caesarea, an ancient town dating from the 4th century BC. This large walled city had an enormous 20,000 seat Hippodrome or race track which remains unexcavated, and a grand theater (photo, Caesarea). It was an early stronghold of Christianity. Modern Caesarea has some of Israel's wealthiest inhabitants, best housing and most secular atmosphere.
We continued to Haifa, where we visited the beautiful garden around the grounds of the Bahai shrine. Volunteers from all over the world keep the place tidy and offer welcome to visitors. A young man from Nigeria explained about their religion and their world headquarters, including a giant library, impressive chapel, meeting hall etc. A small plaza at the top of the garden commands a panoramic view of Haifa (photo, Haifa gardens).
Next stop was Megiddo, a city with long and rich history. The Tel, or archeological mound, has 27 layers of different cities that were built and destroyed over 2000 years. We walked through a long tunnel that one of the kings had made so water could be brought inside the city walls from a secret underground spring. The valley below is where practically every important battle before WWI was fought and is supposed to be where the final battle between Good and Evil will take place at the end of the world.
We stopped at a baptismal area on the Jordan River near where it flows out of the Sea of Galilee. Lots of people were singing Amazing Grace in their white robes and being baptized (photo, Jordan River). The Kibbutz that operates the site also sells a delicious sesame/date honey spread they made and we were happy to get a jar.
Finally reaching Tiberias, we sampled the St. Peter's Fish in a fun restaurant called Decks. Decks is probably the only restaurant where you can get St. Peter's Fish that is actually caught out of the Sea of Galilee. Most places offer farm-grown fish. Free-range or not, the famous fish is tasty if plenty crunchy and bony.
The next day we toured around Sea of Galilee, visiting Nazareth where Jesus spent his childhood, Capernaum with several ruin of the churches including the synagogue where Jesus began his preaching, the headwaters of the Jordan at Banyas, and the Golan Heights (photo, Golan Heights). Some of this area was part of Syria before the Six Day War of 1967, when it becomes part of Israel. Last we heard was Israel is willing to return 90% of the area with 10% mountain range remain Israeli so they could have a border at an equal altitude with their neighbor above the Sea of Galilee (photo, Galilee). It seems to be motivated by a psychological feeling that nobody is looking over your shoulder to see what you have accomplished and be jealous about it. We stopped at Ginnosar Kibbutz, their hotel just organizing a bus load of Japanese tourists to stay overnight. David, our guide explained to us the Kibbutz history and his personal experiences as a Kibbutznik. Nowadays 90% of the Kibbutzim have been privatized. The original idea of the Kibbutz and its dying off is all too familiar to Barbara, seeming somewhat a smaller version of what has been happening with Communism in China.
We were facing choice next day of either visiting Beit Shean or Masada since our time only allows one visit. We voted on Beit Shean and were really glad of our choice. Beit Shean has 5000 years history. Its excavations are among Israel's most impressive (photo, Beit Shean). The visitor sees a ruin of a major city, but it is only 10% of the original city that is being excavated. We would have enjoyed see the archeological teams working if the day happened not to be the Shabbat.
As we drove south through the occupied territories of the West Bank, we saw much more desert. In Qumran, we were introduced to the cave where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found (photo, cave #4). This vast hoard of ancient manuscripts in Hebrew and occasionally in Aramaic were rolled up and put in jars, hidden in almost inaccessible caves. They were accidentally found by a shepherd looking for a wandering goat that fell into the cave. The local shepherd, figuring out the scrolls were valuable, tore some of them into smaller pieces so he would have more of them to sell. The neighborhood of the Dead Sea is dry, dusty and hot, a nearly uninhabitable place. However, 2000-5000 years ago, it was said to be rich with forest, river and terrace of plantation. Civilization certainly has a high price environmentally. The Dead Sea (photo, Dead Sea) is at the lowest exposed spot on the earth, 13,000 feet below sea level. The water is 10 times saltier than the ocean so a swimmer cannot physically sink. We sat on the water looking funny and laughed at ourselves. Swimming on your stomach is hard because the water tends to push your legs up and tip you over, which can be a disaster to your eyes and mouth.
By early evening, we were approaching Jerusalem, the City of Peace, to spend our next three days. At sunset, the rosy light throws into the skyline of the Old City (photo, Jerusalem), the Dome of the Rock (photo, Dome).
We started our city tour the next morning from Mount Olive, which provides a bird's-eye view of Jerusalem, spectacular with all the limestone walls, churches, tombs, etc. After visiting the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, and the adjacent church built around the rock where he wept and prayed, we went through St. Stephen's Gate to the Old City. The most important site of the day is the Wailing Wall (photo, Western Wall), the most famous site and symbol of Israel where men and women are separated to offer their wishes and prayers. There is a Tunnel Tour along the foundations of the wall that took us back thousands of years back to the building stages of the Temple on the Mount. The arches built to hold the city up near the level of the temple rise up to 50 feet high, still all underground of the current Muslim quarter. Emerging from the tunnels, we came to the first station of the Via Dolorosa, the traditional route that Jesus walked with his cross. We followed the route to the place where he was crucified and laid in the tomb, now the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (photo, Church). This large structure houses six different Christian denominations, since all revere it as the most sacred place -- Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic and Abyssinian. An Orthodox service was in session while we were there with 16 boys singing beautiful prayer.
The Israel Museum is a good place to learn about this young country of 53 years' history. The original Dead Sea Scrolls are here, housed in a separate display beneath a white dome shaped to resemble the lid of an ancient jar. To us, the vivid and moving display of history is at Yad Vashem (photo, Holocaust Memorial), across the valley from the Catholic Cemetery where the grave of Oskar Schindler can be found. At the Children/s Memorial in memory of 1.5 million young children and babies killed in Nazi death camps, the entrance features a number of stark broken pillars in ranks. As we walked in the dark through a maze of mirrors reflecting the light of just five candles so they appear as a million and a half pinpoints of light like stars, a ceaseless tape reads the list of the children's names, places of birth and ages.
Before we left for home, we were let loose for half day. We walked into the Old City through Jaffa Gate, toured the citadel beneath the Tower of David (photo, Towers) and saw some of Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly's work still prominently placed within after a Year 2000 exhibition. We enjoyed haggling in the Souk (market) and bought some spices and halvah, a simple and delicious candy made of sesame and sugar.
We are really glad we had the opportunity to see Israel, an amazing country with such condensed history, such variety of religions, such diversified cultures, such freshness of food and such wonderful people. We wish we had more time so we could go to the fortress at Masada, where nowadays Israel soldiers are sworn in with the words "Masada shall not fall again." We wanted to go down to Eilat on Red Sea. The list goes on and on. Our guide, David, is superb -- a walking encyclopedia of Israel. He is also very flexible and accommodating so we did not always stick with the program, but we were able to see more. I would recommend him to anybody who needs a guide in Israel in the language of English, Hebrew, French and Spanish.
We want to go back to Israel.
-- March, 2001
-- at Amcan Travel