Friday, July 29, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Eilat for a Day

As I mentioned yesterday, Eilat is a resort at the southernmost tip of Israel on the Red Sea. It has beautiful water and beaches and the beachfront is filled with luxury hotels. I got this photo off the web:

We had a free day in Eilat before our flight the next day to Tel Aviv and then home. El Jefe was intrigued with the idea that you can see Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the Red Sea, so we hopped on a glass bottomed boat that went far enough out from shore to get that view. This is the Egyptian shoreline as seen from the boat.

We were the only Americans on the boat, and the skipper was nice enough to come let us know when it was time to go down and see the coral reef through the glass since all the announcements were in Hebrew.

I nearly passed out from the heat as we walked back from lunch! No wonder our travel coordinators told us that they did not bring groups any later than this because of the heat. The tour was also catching up with us so we had a nice nap and then joined our group for dinner in a fine seafood restaurant before going back to pack up and prepare to go home.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Petra

We arrived in Eilat late in the afternoon and checked into our hotel which reminded me of resort hotels in Mexico. In fact Eilat is a popular resort town on the Red Sea, filled with tourists and elaborate beach-side hotels.

Bright and early the next morning we went to the border to cross into Jordan at Aqaba. It took us about 45 minutes to be cleared by the Jordanian border guards. They took our passports, which made me more than a little bit nervous. 

Once we were cleared, we walked a few yards to the bus that had been arranged to take us to Petra. There we were joined by our Jordanian guide, Ziad, and a member of the Jordanian Tourism Police complete with sidearm. 

Ziad gave us some background on Jordan and explained that 70% of the country is desert. It was a very bleak landscape, indeed. We saw Bedouin settlements in the caves like this:

Ziad said the Jordanian government was trying to extend education to the Bedouin children but could not get teachers to go to these settlements, so soldiers were ordered to go and teach for a year at a time. Wonder how that is working out?

Petra does not have any religious or Biblical significance. It is a magnificent city carved into the desert rocks by the Nabateans more than 2,000 years ago and was an important trading center. The Romans conquered it in 106 AD and built administrative offices in the steep mountainside, but abandoned it because of devastating earthquakes. Petra is one of the wonders of the world and the most important tourist attraction in Jordan.

Perched on the tops and sides of the mountains is the modern city of Petra:

Once the bus dropped us off at the entrance to the site, we walked more than a mile through a deep gorge called the Siq:

This path reminded me of the many Biblical admonitions about straying from the narrow path! There were many slick spots and uneven ground to navigate, so I found myself looking down most of the time we were walking.

As you get to the end of the Siq, there is a dramatic view of the most important structure in the site--the Roman Treasury:

There was so much glare from the high desert sun that I got that reflection in the photo. Across from the Treasury was this building which I believe the Romans used for other government functions:

It was HOT there! Even the camels seemed to be feeling the heat:

Most of us--including El Jefe and me--took advantage of the horse-drawn buggies to bring us back up to the entrance to the ancient city. It was a teeth-rattling ride!

Some of the intrepid travelers in the group opted to spend the night at a nearby hotel so they could see the light show in the evening at the ancient city and then climb up early in the morning to the top of the mountain to see the remains of an old monastery. El Jefe and I were not in that group, but went back to Eilat that evening. However, I can share this stunning photo of Petra at night, with thanks to Sam Gainer who took it:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Independence Hall

After lunch in a nice cafe in Tel Aviv, we toured Independence Hall. As the name suggests, this is the place where the Israeli Declaration of Independence was signed. Once a private home, the building is now a museum with exhibits related to the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration was announced by Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948 to the members of the Jewish National Council  just a few hours before the expiration of the British Mandate over the area. We viewed a brief video explaining this history and then went into the assembly hall where it all took place.

The hall itself is rather spare and not very large and reminded me of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, minus the Greek Revival architecture.

There were a couple of striking murals in the hall as well:

Two buses waited for us on the busy Tel-Aviv street as we left Independence Hall. One took those returning to Houston back to the hotel in Tel-Aviv and then to the airport. El Jefe and I boarded the other one bound for Eilat, at the southernmost tip of Israel. Our wonderful guide, Lee Glassman, did not go with us to Eilat, and we hated to part with him! The rest of the day we drove once again through the punishing desert country to the Red Sea.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Holy Land Tour: The Bullet Factory

It was Day 10 of our tour and before our group split up--some to return to Houston that evening and the rest of us to travel to Eilat and Petra--we made a couple of visits to sites important to the recent history of the state of Israel.

The first one was at Rehovot, a kibbutz where a secret bullet factory was hidden underground beneath the communal bakery and laundry.

During the time of the British Mandate in Palestine, and before independence, Jews were forbidden to have weapons as British forces tried to stop the movement for independence. Weapons were smugged in but ammunition was not available. The penalty for being caught with weapons or ammo was death by hanging.

An underground resistance group formed among the residents of this kibbutz. They set up their secret bullet factory right across the street from a British police station and told the British they were making a refrigeration plant as a cover story for the supplies they brought in to make the bullets.

Most residents of the kibbutz were not aware of the factory and the few who were took great care not to give away the secret. The site is now a national historic property and has displays re-enacting the work of the Bullet Factory.

Here are photos of the entrance and the laundry:

The atmosphere underground was stifling and the machines used to make the bullets were antiquated, but the secret factory successfully produced munitions for the independence effort and was never discovered by the British.

Here are a couple of photos showing re-enactments of the factory in action:

Afterwards we gathered in a grove of trees outside the Bullet Factory and said farewell to those who were leaving to return home. Although we had one more stop to make before splitting up, there wouldn't be another good opportunity to do that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Beit Guvrin Dig

It was our very own Indiana Jones moment--a chance to play archaeologist at an Israeli dig! El Jefe had been very excited about this stop since he heard we would be making it.

The bus took us from the IDF base to Beit Guvrin and a nearby national archaeological site where the ruins of the ancient Judean city of Maresha are being excavated.  Maresha was originally settled by Edomites, who are traditionally said to be the descendants of Esau. Maresha is mentioned in Joshua and later in Chronicles as a fortification. Later the Edomites migrated to the area and became a major city. 

Our guide, Lee Glassman, told us that because of budgetary cuts the project didn't have enough people to work on the excavation so they welcomed amateurs like us. Our assignment was to climb down into this cave, which was more than a little bit scary:

And begin filling buckets with the debris on the ground. The story of this area was that the Edomites abandoned this site when the Jews in the area told them to convert or leave. The caves were made by the Edomites and used like basements for storage. Therefore we could expect to find lots of pottery shards, and if we were lucky, maybe we would find some large pieces. Here are our buckets after a couple of hours' work:

When the project organizers called a halt to filling the buckets, the next step was to get those buckets out of the underground cave and up onto the surface. So we formed a bucket brigade and hoisted the debris up the rickety ladder.

I got to be on the ground floor:

But El Jefe bravely took his position near the top of the ladder:

It was a relief to get out of the dusty cave--made more dusty by all that scooping of earth--and outside where we sifted the dirt and collected several buckets of pottery shards. The staff took the shards and they actually work on trying to put the pieces back together again like the world's most impossible jigsaw puzzle.

The biggest thrill of the day was finding this:

It is the top of a large amphora used for storing wine and even though it is just the top we were told it was "museum quality."

What became of the Edomites? Our guide told us that they eventually became Christians. I did a little internet research and while I cannot confirm that story, I like it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Holy Land Tour: IDF Military Base

The afternoon after our last full day in Jerusalem we met for a worship service in a lovely outdoor arena next to the Inbal Hotel where we were staying. Dave preached on the Exhibition of the Kingdom of God to Humanity and we shared communion together. At his request, I led the group in singing " Blest Be the Tie That Binds" and the Doxology.

At dinner that evening everyone shared their experiences and what they found most meaningful about the trip. We were going to travel back to Tel Aviv the next day as about half of the group were departing for home the day after.

However, our trusty tour bus had scheduled stops along the way. The first stop was at an Israeli Defense Force Signal Training Facility and brought the reality of modern Israeli life in the Midde East back to our attention.

The tour of the base was arranged by Friends of the IDF. Since returning home, I have learned that a stop at one of the IDF bases is often included in tours. The Israelis, with good reason, are eager to improve and strengthen their relationship with the United States by reaching out to American tourists. We were warmly greeted and encouraged to visit with a group of the young IDF soldiers and one of their commanders who said they hadn't had visitors in quite a while -- no doubt because the Arab Spring conflicts discouraged travelers.

You can see by this photo that most of the soldiers at this base are young women. We were told that is because women are not put into combat roles, but trained for support roles and this base was a training facility for computer technology. All Jewish Israelis must serve in the IDF. Women serve for two years and men for three years after graduation from high school. Israelis who are not Jewish may volunteer to serve and the soldiers told us that some of them do. 

We had seen IDF soldiers serving in different contexts on our tour but this was the first time we talked with any of them. They made a presentation about their training and answered questions. A few times their commander responded "I can't tell you that."

Apparently you can't leave the base without having your picture taken in front of a tank. Must be a law or something. El Jefe has his Friends of the IDF cap on and we both are dressed for the archaelogical dig which was our next stop of the day.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Museum

The day continued on a somber note as we traveled by bus to Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Museum, located several miles away from the old city on top of one of the Jerusalem hills. The name of the museum comes from a verse in Isaiah:

"And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a "yad vashem")... that shall not be cut off." Isaiah 56:5

 After entering the reception area of the museum we passed through the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations which honors Gentiles who risked -- and sometimes lost-- their own lives trying to rescue Jews from the Nazi's "final solution."  For example, Oscar Schindler of "Oscar's List" is honored with a tree and a plaque on the avenue.

Photography is not permitted inside the museum, so I don't have any interior photos to share. The architecture is very effective: you enter into a wide corridor that opens into rooms on either side for the exhibits and as you walk through the museum the pathway narrows until it brings you out into the light. Our guide explained that it was meant to replicate the passageways Holocaust victims walked on their way to the gas chambers. A chilling thought.

One of the most inspiring stories in the museum involved a bicycle that was suspended from the ceiling. Since I couldn't take a picture of it, our guide Lee Glassman kindly sent me a picture he had of the bicycle just before it was taken to the museum for display.

This bicycle belonged to Marie Rose Gineste, a young woman who was the secretary of a Catholic church in Montauban, France. The bishop of the area--who is also honored among the Righteous Among the Nations--prepared a letter of protest begging his flock to "go forth and protect Jews from deportation" by the Nazis who now controlled the country. 

Marie Rose persuaded the bishop not to mail the letters because the post was no longer secure. She volunteered to deliver the letters in person and rode this bike more than 62 miles, distributing copies of the letter to all priests in the diocese. She continued to shelter Jews throughout the war.

Rose Marie kept the bicycle and continued to use it until she was 89 when she shipped it to Jerusalem for the museum. She said she kept it because it reminded her that at one time in her life she had done something really important. This photo is from a website.

Marie Rose- Gineste and her bicycle

A separate building on the grounds is a memorial to the children who lost their lives in the Holocaust. It was a moving and beautiful symbolic display inside a room with  a very high ceiling. Hundreds of tiny lights swirled around thedarkened room. These unfinished pillars are just outside the memorial, symbolizing the thousands of young lives cut short.

Tears welled up in my eyes as we left this place and others in our group were sobbing as well. It was an emotional morning, but a very important stop on our tour.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Holy Land Tour: The Western "Wailing" Wall

We moved on to the Western Wall, where signs reminded us that this is a sacred place.

We had a tour of the archaelogical excavations of the underground area. Squeezing through some very tight spaces we made our way through the tunnel that had been constructed, coming upon a group of women crying and praying in a small area. Our guide told us they came there to pray because it was the area believed to be closest to where the Holy of Holies had once rested. I didn't take any photos here because it seemed too intrusive. Here is one photo I took that did come out that shows the entrance to the underground tunnel.

Finishing the underground tour, we took a few minutes to approach the Western Wall area known as the "Wailing Wall." It is divided into two different spaces: one for men and one for women, following Orthodox Jewish custom. Slips of paper are available for those wishing to leave the names of deceased loved ones as a prayer in the niches between the stones.

El Jefe left the names of his late partner, John Heard,  who was a great friend of Israel and of Helen Rosenbaum, a Holocaust survivor and the late mother of another partner and friend. I left the names of my niece, M.E., our nephew Patrick Nicosia, and our beloved friend Diana Adams. May light eternal shine them.

As we were leaving in a somber mood, we passed a group of young schoolboys with their teachers, wearing paper crowns, skipping and running exuberantly.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Southern Steps

Bright and early the next morning we returned to the old City of Jerusalem and went to the Southern Steps of the Second Temple which is now a national park.

Our group gathered on the Southern Steps while Dave led us in a devotion based on one of the Great Ends of the Church (all the devotions were based on one of the Great Ends): The Preservation of the Truth. He closed with a quote from Robert Frost, " You don't abandon truth because it is no longer in fashion. Wait a while and it wil come back."

These are the ruins of the steps that Jesus walked on to go up into the temple. From these steps you can see the Mount of Olives where the Garden of Gethsemane and the place of Jesus' ascension to heaven are located. I was impressed by the close proximity of these important places in Jerusalem.

On the western side of the Southern Steps you can walk down to see the excavation of the wall which reveals the stones thrown down by the Roman soldiers when the Temple was destroyed.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Holy Land Tour: The Dead Sea

The Judean desert and the Dead Sea are the most desolate places I have ever seen. The Old Testament says that that God's judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah changed the area around the Dead Sea from being lush and fertile to desolation.
The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulpher, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zebolim which the LORD overthrew in fierce anger. Deut. 29:23
It was amazing to us to see the Bedouin camps along the way. We wondered how anyone could live in this wilderness without running water, electricity or ready access to food and medicine. Our Israeli guide told us that the Israeli government had built free homes for the Bedouin and tried to get them to move in, but some of them clung to their traditional way of life. He said that most Bedouin were not nomads anymore but stayed in permanent or semi-permanent encampments like this one.

We stopped at a "spa" near the Dead Sea and of course we had to change into our bathing suits so we could say we swam
in that famous place. The water is really buoyant and slimy--sort of oily. However if you have any small cuts on your skin it stings like the devil! I'm glad we did it, but not sure it is something I need to do again. Here is our group displaying their finesse with a Dead Sea water ballet:

There are a couple of Old Testament prophecies about the Dead Sea again becoming fresh and life-giving (Ezekiel 47: 8-11 and Zechariah 4:8). Because water from the Jordan river is being diverted by both Jordan and Israel for irrigation, there is less water going into the Dead Sea and it is shrinking at an alarming rate according to our guide. I'm fortunate to have seen it.

As we got back on the bus to return to Jerusalem after a long day in the desert, El Jefe was gratified to see he had Blackberry service in the Judean desert.

And so it goes....

Friday, July 15, 2011

Holy Land Tour: Masada

On the seventh day of our tour we did not rest. Instead, we hopped on our trusty bus and headed out into the desert to see Masada and the Dead Sea.

You don't have to go far out of Jerusalem to find the Desert and sea level. We drove through very desolate country on our way to Masada, but occasionally there were groves of date palms which are cultivated with an efficient irrigation system devised by the Israelis.

The old fortress of Masada is impressive: steep and forbidding, surrounded by wasteland. Although there are walking trails you can use to get to the summit, we were happy to take the cable car.

From the ruins of Masada, you have a spectacular view of the Dead Sea, which sparkled in the intense sunshine.

King Herod the Great (he pops up everywhere!) built his Winter Palace at the top of Masada which is a flat plateau about 1300 feet above the desert. Because it is strategic military site he thought it would be a fortification that would protect him against possible revolts. Here you can see the ruins of the wall he built around the top of the plateau to protect the fortress.


Herod's palace and fortress had many amenities, including a luxurious bathhouse. The photo below shows remains of the elaborate tilework in the bathhouse.

After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, a group of Jewish rebels and their families fled Jerusalem and used the fortress at Masada as a base for attacking the Romans. In response, the Romans surrounded the area, built an embankment and a ramp in preparation for laying seige to the area. When they finally got into Masada, they found evidence of mass suicide and the storehouses had been burned.  In the 1980's a TV mini-series the seige of Masada was made starring Peter O'Toole as the Roman commander, which you may remember.

Today Masada is a national park. We saw a large stage set up for a production of the opera Aida, complete with a giant Pharoah's head, on the desert floor near the park. That would really be a spectacular setting for that opera. Maybe The Diva will sing the part of Amneris in that opera there one day and we will get to return to hear her!