Warning: a very long read ahead.
After 4 days in Jordan (here), it was time to cross the border to Israel rounding up the whole country. Sailing on the sea of Galilee, seeing ancient Roman cities and enjoying unique lunch cuisines, everyday was a new experience for us. And aside from spending Christmas in Jerusalem, we must have covered most of all there is to see in the city!
What an interesting crossing over to Israel today! We could not drive close to Jericho but drove up to the Sea of Galilee, where we ended the day on the calm waters of a receding lake.
|In part I, it was written about the harrowing wait to get through Israeli customs. In fact one member of the tour got “detained” for a period. Perhaps it’s their way to sending a message… that they are vigilant?
Anyway, the land between both countries appears to be a barren stretch since no development can take place here. Allenbey bridge is really just an insignificant part of the crossing, for it was the Israeli side with all the plainclothes personal slinging automatic rifles that was the exciting part. But once over, we set about and drove along the Jordan valley. We did not stop at Jericho nor see Belvoir, perhaps from a distant too great to take pictures.
|This is the West Bank. But one can already observe that it is more verdant than over in Jordan. However we did not stay long, for this was just a drive through in which the coach will cross a fence into Israel proper. We are on the way to lunch (yep it took that long to get across) at a Kibbutz.|
|Kibbutzim are cooperatives set up when the Jewish settlers returned to this country. With most having little experience in farming, these equivalents of clan associations helped “upskill” the folks. Today many of these cooperatives run larger operations than can be imagined. An example of one of them include the cosmetics firm Ahava. The photos above from the Kibbutz where we had lunch. The sign in front of the horse says in Hebrew “danger, the horse may bite”… but who would know?|
|After lunch, we continued our drive northwards to Yardenite, the site where many a baptism take place. Now the actual site where Jesus was baptized could be disputed but it is here that modern day believers dunk themselves into the waters of the Jordan river in an expression of their faith.|
|We ended the day taking a boat ride on the sea of Galilee. This large lake is where the story of Jesus walking on water took place. While on board the crew played the Singapore national anthem, so we had to stand to attention. And then they made us sing Jewish songs and join in a group dance… so much for a leisurely cruise. By then worn out as we were, we headed to the hotel where we witnessed the lighting of the candles on the last day of Hanukkah (remembering the rededication of the 2nd Jewish temple).|
Souvenir menorah →
|← The children were so excited.|
|For lighting of the Menorah for Hanukkah, the leader of the ceremony chants a verse as each candle is lit, after which the entire crowd erupted into song. Donuts are then distributed next to all present, so there are benefits from being there!|
Initially we were a little disappointed at not having seen Jericho or Belvoir fortress. But then safety mattered more and it was also quite some time loss when crossing over from Jordan. Such is the vagaries of life.
That said the day was far from mundane as we made our way up the Jordan valley to the lake (or sea for some) where we would take a cruise. Plus the cultural insights into the lighting of the Menorah, this was a truly educational experience.
Today we get to the Golan where we look over to Syria and salivate over lost opportunities to ever visit now with the current state of the country. After wine tasting we had a Tilapia fish lunch. And the rest of the day was pure rush due to the setting sun!
|Today we drive out of Tiberias towards the region that Israel has occupied for a while. The Golan heights is still considered disputed territory and quite some Israeli military assets are deployed here. We are on the way to Banias, a mis-spelling of the name of the Greek god Pan of the shepherds, nature and wilds.|
|First stop was to Banias falls. Fed by the spring, the water comes to this cliff off to become Israel’s largest waterfall. There are numerous trails in the area as it is a renown nature reserve, but for today it was just the falls that we came to see and soon we made our way to the next stop – the springs itself. Winter is when the falls have the most water throughput. As we drove over to the springs we caught a glimpse of Nimrod castle, set ~800m above sea level overlooking the entire area. In days of ode, this was the major fortification guarding access through the Golan heights in the direction of Damascus.|
|The springs on the other hand is where the ruins of the temples and various courtyards are located. This location was Caesarea Philippi, a city sophisticated enough to have water piping like the pictures below.|
|Imagine having running water at home!|
|Then it was off to Mt Bental. This was the site of a large tank battle in 1973 which pitted a very much smaller Israeli force against an armada of a tank force from Syria. The valley in which this battle took place is called the ‘valley of tears’ to commemorate the conflict. And on the mountain itself there are bunkers where the troops held out. Today there is an art exhibit made with the carnage remains of twisted metal from the battle.|
|A reading tin soldier!|
|It might look funny, but back in the early 1970s this was a serious situation. Tensions remain unchanged till this day. On the mountain opposite to Mt Bental is an Israeli army base, that till today is on alert.
At more than 1100m above sea level we get a magnificent vintage point over the valley and into Syria. The greens in the distant is the actual border with Syria . Damascus is only ~40km away! Mt Bental is actually a dormant volcano, part of a chain along the northeastern part of the Golan heights. Actually Israel sits on the confluence of the African and Arabian tectonic plates. Yep.
|Today a UN observation post is still sited here to observe the armistice. Today we saw the contingent from Ireland on duty. They are normally located further towards the border, where the UN operates a humanitarian mission. But with the supposed ‘harassment’ they receive, the post was pulled back to Mt Bental.|
|But then it was time to move away from a place of former conflict, to a place of produce – of wine and dairy. Adir winery is also a goat dairy. We had this dainty plate to accompany the tasting session. Feta is the softest while the other two are firmer in texture. Only bought one red and white respectively and it ain’t cheap. We tasted 4 wines. They also gave us goat milk ice cream!|
|We returned to the sea of Galilee and specifically stopped at Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus is said to have delivered the sermon on the mount. Today a church stands on this location. It is not far from Capernaum, the fishing village home of a few apostles.|
|Got here just before dusk.|
|Cited in all four gospels, a lot happened in this little village. Today, there is a memorial constructed over a part of the site where Peter (the first apostle)’s house is reputedly sited. In the bible, it is cited as the place that Jesus lived while living in this town. But mostly, it is over a 5th century octagonal Byzantine church that was constructed over and on top of the original humble dwelling.|
|The synagogue that was excavated here (above middle picture) is said to be one of the oldest in the world. It sits over the original which was destroyed and was reconstructed around 200AD.|
|We noted the collection of column or arch capitals, with intricate carvings ranging from fruits to flower motifs. There is even one depicting the moving of the Jewish temple. Modern mosaics decorate the square where a large bronze statue of Peter is located. And that wraps up our 2nd day in Israel.|
The Golan heights has been in dispute for quite some time. While we will not delve into the politics behind it, there are strategic reasons for the Israelis to hold onto this patch of land too. So this is all so complicated.
But today our highlights were the wine tasting and getting to Capernaum.
The wines are not cheap by international standards good as they well be. But mandatory it is to buy a bottle or two to verify! Getting to Capernaum on the other hand was more of a historical and archaeological goal for us. There had been more recent discoveries of buried ships or villages, but then this is the most developed one. We as a species learn more about ourselves everyday…
Another hectic day! Including a lunch with the Druze after a drive from a sea of Galilee towards the Mediterranean. Finishing up the rest of the day, we got to the ancient town of Caesarea.
|First stop today is at Tabgha, where it is described in the bible as the place where Jesus fed a multitude of 5000 people with 2 fishes and 5 loaves of bread. The church of multiplication is where we headed to view the restored mosaics from the 5th century.
Said to be one of the earliest Christian floor mosaic art, they depict birds and plants with the Lotus given specific prominence. The mosaic seems to depict two birds holding up a branch or are they eating a centipede ↓
|Next we drove into Nazareth. The roads seem rather packed probably because it is a working / school day. We are headed to the church of annunciation. This is supposedly the home of Mary, where the archangel Gabriel appeared and announced that she would be bearing the son of God. Today the Church has mosaic depictions of Mary contributed by Roman Catholic churches from around the world. They are all characteristic of their own countries and cultures. A kaleidoscope indeed!|
See the halo over the church? Wow, that was some effect ↑
After lunch at a Druze family-run restaurant we headed down from Mt Carmel towards Haifa and the Baha’i gardens. This faith originated in Iran but the founder was exiled. Today it has ~5 million adherents around the world.
|The brainchild of King Herod the Great, Caesarea Maritime was originally a small naval station awarded by Augustus to Herod. Here a palace was built facing the sea and eventually set about constructing a port city that thrived on trade from the Mediterranean. Today the town revels in tourism and it is also where it receives oil and gas to run power stations supplying the area. Testimonial of how large it was is the Hippodrome where horse races were staged.|
|Sanitation was not lost on the ancients!||An orderly exit for theatre goers?|
|↑ Public latrines in the day for patrons of the Hippodrome. The Roman theater (middle picture above). Actually we were only at the classical site, the national park extends further and covers structures from the crusader age. Time to drive towards Tel Aviv where we made a brief stop at the Yitzhak Rabin memorial before driving through the night life of the city to Jaffa.|
|Tip: now in winter the sun sets around 4:30pm. Thus by 5pm it is literally night. Today was very rushed as we covered quite a number of places. In the summer or autumn this might be better when the days are longer.|
The sun sets quite early in winter, around 4:30pm. Thus to maximize the ‘capture’ of sites, either one start really early, or spend less time at each of the stops. We sort of had both today because we had a nice lunch at a Druze family restaurant.
The distances in Israel may not appear large, but because of the immensity of the crowds it can be daunting to try squeezing all of what we did today independently. If driving, the dilemma we believe is finding an appropriate location. By public transport, well – good luck. This really requires the luxury of time if one were able to take it at a gingerly pace.
Having gotten into Jerusalem, we started the day with the Holocaust museum before getting to see the archaeological city of David and walk through the Jewish quarter to the Cardo. We got through into West Bank to Bethlehem and what a difference it was across the wall!
|We started the morning with a two hours visit to Yad Vashem, aka the holocaust museum. No photos are allowed within the exhibits though. It is extremely crowded with religious and tourist groups, so not easy to view all the exhibits. It is an incredible set of events over the 1930s that led the genocide. One in which the average non-Jew did not seem to even notice. Perhaps they turned a blind eye to it all? The immensity of this cruelty inflicted on any particular ethnic group is unjustifiable and must never be allowed to repeat to any people.|
|Guess you all know who King David is.||Remember he slew Goliath with a slingshot?|
|Driving back into the old town, we visit the archaeological city of David. He is said to have built a city that cascades into a valley, not exactly the most strategic decision to site one’s capital as a sovereign. Either he was confident or there must be other considerations? This site extends from the southern walls of modern Jerusalem down into a valley. Our guide postulated he did this because of neutrality. King David did not want to build on lands occupied by the other tribes…|
|Anyhow, the most important to us is the network of water tunnels that extend down towards the valley. And today this is exactly where we would be exploring. Walking down the stairs, we came to a point where we have to make a decision. Walk the wet route in the Siloam tunnel? Or the dry one around it? Circle down the drain so to speak we descend into the tunnels.|
|No prizes for guessing we took the dry route. The tunnels were constructed to capture water at the Siloam pools. The reason for all this is strategic. As a city on high elevation the only weakness is lack of water. The only spring it had was on the slope on the southeast side. Hence, all these tunnels were constructed to divert water from flowing further down to the valley to supply any invading force.|
|We entered it through Zion gate,||which led us into the Jewish quarter.|
|We are here to visit the Cardo, which was the main avenue that run north-south during the Byzantine era. It is suppose to be very wide and two parallel columns run along it like street lamps today. Suan could have been one of the folks shopping along that bustling street nearly 2000 years ago ↓|
|↑ When excavations were conducted, old crusader shops were said to be found. And along that part of the Cardo, one can see the layers of old wall further beneath! Compare that to the modern day shops we now see as we walked the alleys… ↓|
|They sell everything.||And very friend too…|
|We did not continue exploring Jerusalem, but were whisked away to Bethlehem in the late afternoon. Our coach crossed through a checkpoint in the wall that segregates Bethlehem (as part of the West Bank) away and into a whole different world. This is where the Palestine Authority administrates and we are heading to the church of Nativity.|
|This church is said to be the place where the infant Jesus is said to have been born. The silver star marks the spot where the manger was allegedly located. Throngs from around the world line up to get a photo of this spot that you only get seconds…|
|After braving the crowds, we admired the mosaics and went back out to the town, which had been richly decorated for Christmas. But we were not brought back to Jerusalem until we had listened through a Diamond merchant’s siren call…|
|It was sooo busy with tourists!||Oh are they a girl’s best friend?|
|And as soon as we seemed to have been in Bethlehem, we were driven across to the other side of the wall and back to Jerusalem. It seemed so surreal. Because it FELT like a different world. Our guide could not come across with us as an Israeli, and we had a Palestinian guide for the evening.|
The challenge in getting to all of the biblical sites is getting across borders. Though we are in Israel, there remains territories that are part of the West Bank. Evident with the fencing that rings them and segregates them from Israeli state territory.
But there was no let up in crowds making that journey as might be discerned from the photos above. For religion, faith and belief transcends man-made borders.
It was such a beautiful view of the city from the Mt of Olives. And we traced the steps that the Christ took on the way to the crucifixion. From the Dung gate, we visited the western wall to see amount of devotion…
|Sanctuary of Dominus Flevit||Excellent views of the city|
|Today we start off by being dropped off at the Mount of Olives. We did not get all the way to the top, because a crowd had already formed and our guide thought it more sensible to find a more secluded spot to brief us about the view that we would take in from the Mount. This location was a Jewish burial site for thousands of years and one will see many gravestones here. It is also supposedly the location where Jesus ascended to heaven.|
|Golden gate (sealed) for the messiah →|
|The garden of Gethsemane is down the slope almost to the valley and the name is said to be derived from Greek to mean ‘oil press’. Probably because the mount is full of olives. The gospels gave different descriptions, but the overarching point is – this is where Jesus and his disciples spent the night before his crucifixion.|
|Some are 12th century trees ↓||The church of all nations|
|Leaving the garden, we walked down slope and then up again to the old city. The lion is the symbol of Jerusalem. So it should not be surprising that there is a gate that is named as such in this city. And that’s where we are headed to, where we shall embark on a ‘way of sorrow’.
Located at the eastern wall, the Lions’ gate is the start of the last walk of Jesus (via Dolorosa) to his crucifixion. There is a pair of lions above both sides of the gate’s arches. Various stories explain why, but it seems they look like Baibar’s lions.
↓ Pomegranate juice for a dollar?
|And where else do we start but from the place where Jesus was tried by the Roman Prefect of Judea. There are 14 stations along the way and this has been evolved over the centuries since routes were conducted from the 14th century! Today it is suggested that the actual trial took place at a different place. But traditions hold firm.|
|Station 8 is where Jesus met 3 pious women and gave a sermon… station 7 where Jesus is said to have fallen a second time. And at station 9 where Jesus is said to have fallen the third time. Ethiopian enclave just around station 9. Here a group of Ethiopians found refuge and have been here since ↓|
|We’ve come to an end of the outdoor part of the walk. We are now at Muristan street, a vibrant market street where we’d have lunch later. The final 5 stations of the Via Dolorosa are within the church of the holy sepulcher, which we are about to enter. Built and rebuilt over a millennia, this was a pilgrimage for crusaders too.|
|Overlooking station 13, the site ↑ where Jesus was taken down from the cross.
We eventually made our way down to the tomb area where the crowds are smaller. It was an incredibly emotional experience for some as can be seen!
|↑ Station 12, where Jesus dies on the cross.||The alleged tomb where Jesus was laid to rest ↓|
|Whether one believes if this was the true route that he took, one needs to be reminded that it is all about devotion. This route had been walked on for centuries, probably by millions upon millions of pilgrims who found spiritual enrichment and also by tourists (like us) that learned something. Walls of Jerusalem which one can walk on the ramparts. Leaving Zion gate, we head toward Mount Zion south of the old city.|
|The German Emperor bought a whole tract of land here from the Ottomans in the late 1800s and built the Dormition abbey. Land here was purchased for 120,000 German Gold marks! Also known as the Cenacle, this is where Jesus had Passover meal and washed the feet of his disciples. No pictures allowed in King David’s tomb, below the Cenacle. Today the tomb of King David is also an active synagogue, hence it was a quick look before we got out.|
|Next stop, we are headed to the Israel museum which houses the dead sea scrolls (in more than 50,000 fragmented pieces). These date back well over 2000 years ago. In addition to the scrolls, one can also muse over the 1:20 model of Jerusalem from the time around 66AD before the Jewish revolt.|
|Shortly from the museum is the Israeli Knesset – or parliament. Near it is a bronze Menorah that is 4 tons in weight. It has biblical scenes engraved on all of its 7 branches. Final stop of the day (or we say night since the sun sets at 5pm) at the western wall – also called the wailing wall.|
|Theoretically no photos… but nobody stopped us.|
|This wall is the holiest place that Jews are allowed to pray, given that the temple mount is where the respective mosques (Dome of the rock and Al-Aqsa) are located. It is open 24 hours a day whole year round. People stuff pieces of prayers into the crevices of the wall!|
It’s practically impossible to explore Jerusalem in one or even three days, if one were to even spend a decent amount of time at each site or location. At every corner there is a potential “distraction” which will probably detour one away from an original plan.
So the only tip we have for folks coming to Jerusalem is to give it enough days. Practically four full days should do much of the city, because you certainly want to leave enough time to walk the markets in each quarter. Plus have a good meal too. Because you will be surely tempted by the smells and colors.
We took the light rail from the hotel to the Mahane Yehuda market and bought lots of fruits and snacks. Manage to get a table at the Machneyuda restaurant!
|Having taken the light rail from our hotel to Mahane Yehuda station, we started our exploration of the market. It is a little like GwangJang market in Seoul with the alleys covered by with roofing. It is a local place where folks come here to do their groceries.|
|A detailed listing of the pricing of the fruits can be found at the end of the travelog, but essentially this was the place where locals actually come to shop for produce. We were to leave for lunch at the renown Machneyuda, before coming back to the market to pick up fruits to accompany the wines we bought.|
Today we had the opportunity to try to see the city on our own without the lenses put on for us by the Israeli guide. We want to know, to see and smell how life goes on in the city on a non-shabbat day.
Taking the light rail was easy. For NIS5.90pp one-way, we went to Mahane Yehuda market. Along the way Mel struck up conversation with a local on the tram, exchanging views on the challenges small nations face… intriguing conversation indeed which only ended when we had to alight.
This is by far not the most local market in our opinion, since so many tourists come throughout the day (including us). But here we went to the post office (to buy stamps and send postcards), bought fruits and snacks. And we had lunch at a joint run by celebrity chefs… Not bad for a free day out on our own.
After visiting the temple mount, we headed down to Masada where the Zealots held out against the Romans. But it was floating in the dead sea that was the highlight of the day!
|On a wet morning, we went back to Dung gate and ascended up the temple mount while overlooking the wailing wall that we’ve seen last night. This is the location of the Jewish temples, both of them. If there was ever a third, it will have to be here too, but it will be exceedingly challenging.|
|Don’t get intimate here!||It is not allowed!|
|Now the 2nd Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans around 70AD following the crushing of the revolt of the Jews against the Roman empire. The Romans had a temple dedicated to Jupiter constructed here. But for a long time it was left derelict until the Umayyad caliph built the mosque on this site around 691AD. It changed hands a few times until the Ottomans prevailed. Today no prayer or religious books, apparel can be worn or taken into this site. Non Muslims are also not allowed to pray here.|
|That was it. We are done with Jerusalem with the visit to this last site. For we are then to drive southwards to the fortress of Masada along the dead sea. As we drove along it, our guide pointed out to us the sink holes that had began to appear along the shores, taking down entire hotels with it.|
|This is the setting as we arrive at the plateau fortress. Now why would King Herod want to build his refuge palace out here is something to ponder about. What could be his considerations? At one side (north), the cliffs loom ~400m above, and we had to take the cable car up. Or it would be a snake path up the mountain and we don’t have time.|
|Windswept and chilly. Coats would be useful…|
|Archaeological evidence suggests that there were no building constructed by the Judean Kings as asserted by the Roman historian from whom most written description about the site originates. But there certainly are palaces, bath houses and storehouses. All to facilitate a Kingly life, as he gazes northwards to Jerusalem in the event enemies were to advance on him – Herod that is.|
|Wonder where the water comes from?||From cisterns hundreds of feet deep!|
|The site was also the refuge of Jewish rebels making a last stand against the Romans around 73AD. In fact the place has not been touched so much that the Roman camp above is still there. See these Tristram’s starlings? The males have a beautiful streak of Orange while the females are with a duller plumage.|
|The southern part of the dead sea suffers from low water level, given its tributary (Jordan river) is not contributing sufficiently. And in the south is where the minerals are extracted extensively too ↓|
|At 430m below sea level, it is the lowest elevation on the planet. Although it is not be saltiest lake or sea in the world, it is one place to float in. Now it is important not to ingest the water or get in one’s eyes, as our guide told us the story of one guest who had his lungs collapse and esophagus burned from inhaling too much water when he flipped over into the water. It’s that serious. The procedure is: bend your knees in waist high water, and gently lean back. The water was cold, probably because it is winter, but after a while one’s body will be accustomed to the temperature.|
|Our tour mates came to join us shortly after obtaining their luggage to change, and we helped with photo/video taking. But the sun is setting fast, and soon it will be dark. So we headed back to the hotel where there are pools with piped water from the sea. The indoor pool is heated too! Currently there are channels that flow water from the northern part of the sea to the south. And there are plans to eventually link it with the red sea. People come here to heal ailments such as psoriasis or arthritis of the bones. For us it was simply novel. For one more bucket list has been ticked ü|
Today culminates the exploration of Jerusalem. For we topped the four days with a early morning visit to the Dome of the rock, the site revered by three religious faiths. With that we left the city, for the final highlight too was coming due…
You should have heard of the dead sea. And due to its hyper salinity, one does float in the water. Now you should know that the water at the sea itself is lower in temperature. So, it takes some getting used to. But fear not. The hotels all pipe the water into their pools, and heat them. So you can float in the comfort of indoors and remain toasty…
But nothing beats actually floating and backstroke swimming in the dead sea.
Last minute shopping at Ahava which led to having to repack the luggage… Then the harrowing crossing back over to Jordan again. They dropped us at a mall for 4+ hours before having a Chinese dinner and off to the airport.
|Oh what a morning to rise to! What a sunny day it promises to be and such a waste we will be leaving for home soon. After breakfast, we made a drive along the dead sea to the factory of Ahava cosmetics company. Created by a few Kibbutzim, they developed products from the salts of the sea.|
|But soon it is time to leave Israel entirely. Thinking it would be an easy crossing back to Jordan was erroneous. The Israeli customs did not allow our guide to buy the departure tax until the Jordanian coach has arrived from Allenbey. So we waited for nearly an hour before we could clear through customs. Then it was another 1½ hours’ drive to Amman.|
|We were dropped at the City Mall for about 5 hours where we bought some lunch. Had KFC and some Quesadilla. Spent most of the remaining dinars at Zara Home before heading for dinner at a Chinese restaurant! And then it was off to the airport to pack in stuff we bought and fly to Dubai.|
|And it was not long before we got on the plane for the flight back to Singapore. Managed to capture both the Palm and Burj Al-Arab this time, though as usual the aircraft windows were not clean…|
We must rate this journey a full 10 out of 10…
Despite spending nearly 8 days in Israel, we found that there is still so much more to see and do. And we had already packed in so much! Of course the shorter winter days did not help. Most days were cloudy and it rained a little too on our last day in Jerusalem. They need that rain too, since it hadn’t for many weeks.
And if you enjoyed this, might you have also read part I on the Jordan segment here?