May 18-20: Israel. Another day, another country, last stop in the middle east. I spend three days in Israel, touring this thoroughly modern country with a thoroughly ancient history. Lots of holy sites, biblical significance, and ruins of past empires. Yet very modern, advanced technology, vibrant culture, democratic, strong economy. Population is almost 8 million, land mass slightly less than New Hampshire. Much of the land is desert, though they have turned it into very productive agriculture, pioneering efficient irrigation systems. Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages, though English is widely spoken, taught in grade school, and written on many signs. Twenty percent of the population is Arab, the rest are mostly what they call cultural Jewish, while some are very religious orthodox Jews.
Like all places that have been continuously inhabited by agrarian cultures for at least several thousand years, the layers of history are vast. On tour we see a few selected highlights, hear a few selected stories. As visitors we are interested in trying to understand the current politics, but that is beyond the expertise of our tour guide, beyond the scope of our brief visit. I hear a story that back in the early 1970’s, a senior U.S. state department official thought he figured out the solution to conflict between Israel/Palestine. He went to Henry Kissenger, the then U.S. Secretary of State, excited to share his idea. Kissenger immediately corrected the senior official by telling him that there is no solution to this conflict, and that the job of diplomats in that part of the world was not to solve these problems, but to manage them.
Our first day we visit the modern business city of Tel Aviv, its older neighbor Jaffa, and the ancient city of Caesarea a few hours north. Tel Aviv is on the coast and has a very nice beach and a modern skyline. Lots of construction going on. Streets are clean, lots of people walking, sidewalk cafes are busy. Nearly half of the population of Israel lives in this metropolitan area. Plenty of high-tech industry.
In Caesarea we view ancient ruins of buildings and a harbor built under the rule of Herod the Great during the decades before Christ. This pro-Roman general also expanded the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Unfortunately his tradition of great accomplishments ended when he died. He was succeeded by his son, Archelaus the Not-So-Great.
On our second day we drive south, through the Negev desert. We see vast expanses of farms, drive on a well-paved highway. We arrive at the lowest point on Earth – the Dead Sea, 1,300 feet below sea level. Previously known as the salty sea, this body of water is now named ‘Dead’ either because the water that drains into it from the Jordan river has no place to go but up (lowest point on Earth), or because nothing can live in this highly concentrated mineral water. This sea is shrinking by about one meter per year, so it may not be around much longer.
Some people go to the Dead Sea for therapeutic reasons, to bathe in the mineral waters or mud baths. Others just go for the novelty of floating in water in which one cannot sink. It’s a weird feeling, being so buoyant that you cannot even force an arm or leg down into the water without another limb popping up into the air for counter-balance. Some say that at such a low elevation, the atmosphere is too thick for the sun’s UV rays to penetrate, thus removing the need for sunblock. After the Dead Sea, we visit the nearby hilltop fortress of Masada. There we learn of the heroism and tragedy of the Jews who fled the Roman army and escaped to this location in around 70 A.D.
On our third day, we visit Jerusalem. It serves as the political capital of Israel and together with Bethlehem and Nazareth has many of the world’s holiest sites. Jerusalem is divided into four sections – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Armenian. It is an attractive city with low-rise buildings, generously landscaped and set among rolling hills. All of the buildings by law must use the same Jerusalem limestone, which creates a visually pleasing homogeneous effect. It is a vibrant place, lots going on, lots of people walking in the neighborhoods.
Because of its many holy sites, Jerusalem receives many visitors. Nazareth and Bethlehem are the most popular as thousands try to trace the presumed footsteps of Jesus. The iconic Dome of the Rock is in the old city of Jerusalem, marking both the spot where the prophet Mohammed ascended, and the location of the destroyed Jewish temple. The western wall of the old city is known as the ‘wailing wall’, a place where Jews have prayed since destruction of their second temple long ago. We visit the Holocaust museum, which is an extremely well-researched and well-designed facility that carefully conveys the story of those tragic events from 70 years ago, during WWII. It is a heart-wrenching, yet important stop on this tour and helps to explain why the state of Israel was created in 1948.
On our drive back to our ship, we pass through the northern seaside town of Haifa. Far from the political capital and without notable ruins, it is an attractive, modern city, with diverse people, known for getting along, not getting caught up in cultural conflicts. Wish we had more time here, but like so many stops in interesting places, our visit ends too early. We leave Israel, impressed with their ability to thrive in a challenging environment, interested in their everyday realities, curious about the future of this complicated place.
Ruins in Caesarea
Tram cables to Masada
View from Masada
Location where Dead Sea Scrolls were found
Local visitors to Wailing Wall
Wailing Wall has separate entrances for men & women
Street Festival in Jerusalem
Soldier carrying unloaded weapon home for weekend
Baha’i Garden in Haifa
Street in Haifa