Tuesday, January 20, 2009

TR - Israel - Part 2

1/05 – 1/15/09
Part 2

Now where did we leave off? Oh yeah! I had finished the Tiberias Marathon and we were ready to begin a one-week tour of Israel. I had always wanted to visit Israel with its many historical and biblical sites. When registering for the marathon I researched extensively on the Net for tours. The first thing I discovered was that most tours offered the same itinerary and all the tours were expensive! Another problem was that most tours started in Tel Aviv on Sun and ended there one week later. That meant going back to Tel Aviv for a few days and extending the trip? However I found a tour agency that agreed to let us join the end of one tour as it passed through Tiberias on Fri after the race and join a new tour on Sun in Tel Aviv. We waited for our tour guide to pick us up at our hotel in Tiberias on Fri morning.

But first before I begin the stories (or ‘fairy tales’) of our tour I must state this disclaimer: my stories/tales are my recollection of the stories/tales related to us by our tour guides which were supposedly based on historical facts and the bible! I accept no responsibility for the accuracy or truth of these tales! Let us begin. Also I suggest that to make it easier to understand and follow our tour that you print this report and follow the photos posted on my photo website.

Our guide, Ezra, picked us up at 8 am and we joined three English-speaking couples (Wales, NZ and Australia) for a short drive along the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. According to Christian belief the village of Capernaum was the home base of Jesus during the most influential period of his Galilean ministry. He preached at the synagogue and healed the sick including Peter’s stepmother. He stayed in St Peter’s house. Then we continued along the Sea of Galilee to the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus preached to his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount. We continued into Northern Israel to the ancient city of Safed founded in the 2nd Century BC. The labyrinth of cobbled streets is lined with medieval synagogues and an artist’s colony.

From Safed we drove through the Hula Valley and across the Jordan River into the Golan Heights. As we climbed the Golan Heights Ezra pointed out the mine fields on both sides of the road. Instead of spending time and money to clear the mines the Israeli government allows the farmers to graze their cattle in the mine fields. If a cow steps on a mine there is instant, cheap hamburger available! We stopped in Katzrin, a new Jewish settlement in the Golan Heights, for lunch. It looks much like a new American town with wide streets, bungalows, etc. The town and the locals go out of their way to provide tourists with publicity and information about how much they have accomplished in the Golan Heights and fervently state that they will not move if Israel gives the Golan Heights back to Syria in a peace accord! After lunch we continued farther north into the Golan Heights to visit a former Syrian fortification near Nimrod on the Syrian border. It was cold standing on top of that mountain looking down into Syria! We then drove west back through the Hula Valley to the Banias Nature Reserve that is one of the sources of the Jordan River. Ezra pointed out that the six-day war with Syria was all about controlling the water from the Jordan River and Israel will never give up that control! We had hoped to visit a waterfall but the guards were locking up the gate at 3 pm to make an early escape for Shabbat (sunset Fri to sunset Sat). So we drove on to Kfar Giladi near the Lebanon border where we stayed one night at a kibbutz. Ezra advised us not to leave the compound of the Kibbutz since we were so close to Lebanon. He warned us NOT to climb the mountain behind the kibbutz because Lebanon was on the other side! We obeyed and went to the bar in the kibbutz. I wanted to do a training run on Sat morning but decided my legs needed an extra day’s rest ( read – chicken or smart – but I wasn’t running that close to the border with the risk of rockets flying).

After breakfast we drove south and west along the Lebanon border to the Mediterranean Sea. This region contains a lot of orchards and vegetable farms. We stopped in the ancient city of Akko – more than 5,000 years old. It has a natural port that was captured and used by the Crusaders in the 11th Century and it has changed hands many times. There are ruins dating back before the Crusaders but fortifications built by the Crusaders are still intact and original. We visited Crusader City and Knight’s Hall and then strolled through the Arab market to the Port passing the El Jazzar Mosque and the Khan El Omdan. I really liked Akko and suggest that you allocate at least 2 days to visit the city. Our visit lasted three hours before we left and continued south to Haifa. Since it was Shabbat not much was open and we enjoyed a falafel –pita bread stuffed with spicy meat and vegetables – at a local fast food stand. It was strange but no matter where we ate lunch – at a fast food stand, restaurant or cafeteria – it always seemed to cost 100 NIS (shekels) ($25 US) and dinner cost 200 to 300 NIS? Nothing was cheap in Israel! And most of the food/meals sucked! Very little variety or taste!
After lunch we visited the Baha’i Gardens on Mt Carmel dedicated to Baha’ullah, the founder of the faith. We continued south to Caesarea that dates back to the 4th century BC. Herod built a city and his Palace there in 22 BC. And the crusaders rebuilt the city in the 11th Century. We visited the Hippodrome, Herod’s Palace and a restored Amphitheatre that is now used for concerts. We again continued south along the Sea to Tel Aviv and stopped in Old Jaffa – a port city that offers fantastic views of Tel Aviv. We visited the market and strolled along the cobbled streets of the old city and over the Wishing Bridge. It is rumored that if you touch your zodiac sign to the rail while looking towards the Sea and make a wish it will come true? Ezra then dropped us off at our hotel in Tel Aviv and we bid farewell to our fellow tourists who had finished their tour.

Sun was a free day in Tel Aviv for Nicole and me as we waited for the next tour group to arrive and the tour to start on Mon. On sun I enjoyed a pleasant 12-mile run along the Sea in Tel Aviv and discovered a network of trails/paths that allowed runners/bikers to go more than 100 Kms without having to worry about traffic. As I was running I shouted my normal “good morning” to all runners/walkers/bikers that I met. They looked at me like I was crazy? Israelis are not very friendly! There are not a lot of tourist sites in Tel Aviv so we did a self-guided walking tour through the Yemenite Quarter that took us through Carmel Market and along Rothschild Blvd past Independence Hall and the Haganah Museum. It finished along Sheinken St, one of the principal shopping areas of Tel Aviv.

On Mon morning we joined 12 new tourists and tour guide Avi for the start of the next tour. We experienced the first minor change in the itinerary caused by the war/problems in Gaza. The tour was supposed to drive south along the Sea to Ashkelon and then head west to the Dead Sea. However Ashkelon is ‘very’ close to Gaza and the tour agency considered the city and highway unsafe. Good thing because Hamas fired 15 rockets into Ashkelon that day! There were no objections or disappointment expressed by the passengers as we headed directly west from Tel Aviv via Jerusalem and Jericho to the Dead Sea. At Beit Ha’arava we turned south along the Dead Sea. We made a brief stop for an obligatory factory tour – only this was one of the few times it was welcomed. It was the Ahava factory that manufactures (expensive) cosmetics from minerals in the Dead Sea that are therapeutic for the skin. Nicole uses the product and surprisingly the factory prices were 50% less than US prices. I told her to load up because it was probably the only bargain we would find in Israel! We continued on to Masada.

Masada is a historic site that I have wanted to visit since seeing the movie twenty years ago (Peter O’Toole). Masada is a desert mesa that rises high and alone above the Dead Sea. It was fortified in 103 BC and Herod built a palace and more fortifications as a potential refuge against a Jewish revolt.
In AD 66 a small band of Jews revolted and captured Masada. The Romans sent 8000 soldiers and set up eight camps at the base of Masada. Over a period of three years the Romans built an earthen ramp up to the fortress walls and prepared to breach the fortress. Rather than allow their families to be captured and put into slavery the men burned their homes and chose 10 men by lots who killed everyone and then nine of the ten were killed by the final zealot who killed himself! It has become Israel’s symbol for a “they’ll never take us alive” attitude and the term ‘Masada complex’ is a part of modern-day Israeli parlance! We rode the cable car to the top instead of walking up the ‘snake path’. Avi toured us around the fortress including Herod’s Palace, the Synagogue , cisterns and a 2000-year old bathroom! It was very interesting and the views of the Dead Sea from Masada were awesome.

After leaving Masada we stopped for another bland cafeteria lunch (another 100 shekels) before continuing to Ein Gedi Beach for a ‘float’ on the Dead Sea (the lowest point on earth at 420 m below Sea Level). We declined since I had already enjoyed that experience after running the Dead Sea Marathon in Jordan last year. Nicole and I sat and enjoyed a beer while some of our companions floated and rolled in the Dead Sea Mud. Then we drove back across the Judean desert and mountains to Jerusalem. As the bus climbed up into Jerusalem traffic was slowed by a security checkpoint and the driver rode the clutch and almost burned it out. It was smoking and smelling badly and the bus limped through the checkpoint and pulled over to the side of the road – next to the border/wall of the West Bank! The ‘ugly’ 20-ft wall was not completed at that point. The wall/border was a chain link fence with barbed wire and on the other side a group of Palestinian youths were throwing rocks at the cars. They never bothered with our bus but it was the one time during the trip that I felt nervous and was glad when the clutch cooled down and we were able to continue to our hotel.

Our hotel was located in West Jerusalem near the Central Bus Terminal. Although there was a shopping mall next door and the bus terminal (with lots of fast food kiosks)it was not a good location. There was only one restaurant in the area other than the hotel that only had the usual bland (expensive) buffet dinner. We were quickly introduced to security measures in Jerusalem. It was necessary to pass through a security check to get into any major building – hotel, shopping mall, super market, restaurant, bus terminal, museums, public buildings and most tourist sites! The check can be as simple as a security guard with a wand and check your bags to the same security used at airports! What a pain in the ass! I don’t know how the locals can stand it - but as inconvenient and annoying as it was it helped to make us feel safer!

I had planned to run the next morning but at 6 am it was too friggin COLD (mid 30s), too dark and too hilly! But the real reason I didn’t run was because I was concerned about running into a wrong neighborhood and finding myself in trouble? I easily convinced myself that my legs would appreciate a sabbatical or rest until I returned home! In two days I only saw two people jogging in Jerusalem?
The first day of touring in Jerusalem was the least hectic. We started with a visit to the Israel Museum that included the Shrine of the Book where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. There is a huge scale model of Jerusalem as it was in AD 66 which Avi used to describe the layout of the city and what we would see the next day. Close to the Museum is the Knesset – the home of the Israeli Parliament. Next we visited the Hadassa Medical Centre to view the twelve stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall for the Synagogue. Each window depicts one of the tribes of Israel. Then it was on to Yad Vashem or Holocaust Museum.
It contained many photos, videos and artifacts from the Holocaust but we had visited the Death camps in Auschwitz, Poland that were much more graphic and shocking. However I noticed that there were many teary eyes and people crying as I walked through the museum.

After lunch we drove to the West Bank and Bethlehem. The first thing we saw was the massive, ugly 20-ft walls separating Jerusalem and Israel from the West Bank. (You have probably seen them on TV?)
We had to leave the bus , walk through an entrance in the Wall, pass security and join another bus and guide in Bethlehem since the city is in Palestinian territory and control. We drove through Bethlehem to the Church of Nativity. We entered through the Door of Humility (must have been short people?) into a Greek Orthodox Church. We were quickly educated in the hierarchy of religious sites. Three or four religions or faiths share every religious site in the Holy Land. The Greek Orthodox Church enjoys the dominant position and location (usually right over a religious site) because the Turks gave them that position/control several centuries ago when they controlled the Holy Land. The Catholic Church usually holds the second best location followed by the Armenian Orthodox and Lutheran churches. There is a lot of dispute about control and Avi explained that only a few weeks ago riots and fights broke out in Manger Square between the various factions. Anyone want to bet that it is all about the huge amounts of money spent by Pilgrims??? Anyways back to the tour. We descended steps below the Greek Orthodox Church into caves to visit the Grotto of Nativity – the spot where Jesus was born. A few feet away is the Grotto of the Manger where his crib was kept. Well blow my mind – my Sunday school teacher and Christian teachings always depict the manger as a stable with animals?
St Catherine’s Church, built next to and attached to the Church of Nativity is where the Christmas Eve broadcasts originate.

We returned to the Wall and left Bethlehem. That evening Avi offered to take us on an optional (read more money) night tour of Jerusalem to see the Old City and tourist sites lit up. It was interesting but friggin cold! We had not packed for weather that cold and had to layer several T-shirts under a light spring jacket. Each time we stopped we would get out, look, and run back to the bus to warm up. Other than seeing the main tourist/religious sites lit up the best part of the tour was a walking tour on the pedestrian mall on Ben Yehuda St in the city centre. That mall/area contained many shops, bars and restaurants- what we had been missing and looking for in the area where our hotel was located! We were definitely going back there for our last night in town!

Wed was the final day in Jerusalem and the final and most hectic day of our tour. We started by entering through security at the Dung Gate and visiting the Western or ‘Wailing’ Wall. Then we had to pass though another set of security to gain access to Haram Ash-Sharif or Temple Mount. This is one of the most religious –and disputed- sites in the world. The Jews consider the large slab of rock protruding from Mt Moriah as the foundation stone of the world. It was here that God gathered earth to form Adam , Abraham nearly sacrificed his own son Isaac and where Solomon built the First temple and placed the Ark of the Covenant. For Muslims this is the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven to join Allah and is Islam’s 3rd holiest site! Temple Mount is located in the Muslim section of Jerusalem and is controlled by the Muslims. The Dome of the Rock that is the symbol of the city covers the slab of stone sacred to both the Muslim and Jewish faiths. We exited Temple Mount through the Gate of the Cotton Merchants into the souqs of the Arab Quarter. Avi guided us through the souqs to Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows) – the route that Jesus is believed to have taken from where he was pronounced guilty to carry his cross to Calvary. There are 14 stations along the route dedicated to ‘holy’ events/places such as where was received the cross –where he fell for the first time, etc. The last five stations are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built over the sites where he was nailed to the cross, crucified and the final station is the Tomb of Jesus.
Many of the sites had churches of one or more faiths built over or on them. It became confusing by the end of Via Dolorosa what we had actually visited and seen?

We left the Old City and drove to Mt Zion to visit the Tomb of King David, the Room of the Last Supper and Dormition Abbey on the site where Virgin Mary died. By that time we were totally confused by the many, many religious sites or churches for almost any event. About the only site/church we did not see was one dedicated to where Jesus took a Holy crap??? Sorry – give me a break - but that is the way I felt! But we still weren’t finished. On to the Mount of Olives to visit the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested. The garden still contains olive trees over 2000 years old. The final stop was the Tomb of Virgin Mary. Once again I was confused because I swear we had already visited two other places where Virgin Mary was buried! I needed a drink and time to sort out this confusion! The Mount of Olives also provided fantastic views of the Old city – especially the East Wall and the Golden gate. The Muslims sealed the Golden Gate in the 7th Century to prevent the Jewish Messiah from entering Haram! Kind of makes you wonder what they were smoking back in those days?

Thankfully Avi returned us to our hotel to pack and get ready for the trip home. Since we had a very late flight we took a taxi to Ben Yehuda St to stroll along the pedestrian mall, purchase some last minute souvenirs/gifts and enjoy a farewell dinner. We ate at El Gaucho, an Argentinean restaurant that serves Argentinean beef. It was the best meal we ate in Israel!

After touring both Jordan and Israel and traveling up and down both sides of the Dead Sea and observing the barren , desolate land of that region I now understand why it is called “The Promise(d) Land”! -------- “I promise never to go back”!!!

Now that we are back home I am trying to ramp up my training miles to make up for the miles lost during my sabbatical in Jerusalem and also lose the three pounds I gained. I will use the Miami Marathon this weekend as a long training run and final tune-up for my 100th country in Tahiti in Feb.

Stay tuned!

1 comment:

Bjorn Paree said...

Nice report ! I am thinking of running this Marathon next year (2010). See some minor things that do not look good but the most of your report is happy. The course looks nice on the internet and in your report I read a nice, flat and fast course. Thanx for posting the info