Middle East & North Africa, uncategorized

Looking Back: A Trip to Israel

A friend of mine recently started planning a trip to Israel and knowing I had been several times, asked what she should see and do other than the obvious. I asked how long she planned to be there and she said a week. I suggested that there was an awful lot of ‘obvious’ in Israel and a week might be juuuuuust about enough to cover it.

But it got me thinking – it’s true I’ve been to Israel several times but it has been along time since I was there last. 10 years in fact. And yet, 10 years on, a whole slew of things stick in my mind vividly and clearly:

The welcome bag on the carousel at Ben Gurion airport (an uplifting sight after the LONG HAUL from gate to baggage claim). Best part of baggage claim is this “welcome” bag on each carousel. 🙂

The view from my hotel room in Haifa. Haifa is first and foremost a harbor town so views are part of the deal but right smack in the middle of it is the Bahai Gardens which look almost like someone opened up a can of lush green paint and spilled it down the mountainside. About half the group I was traveling with went off to tour the Bahai Gardens but I passed on it. They are lovely but 700 steps are not my idea of fun in general and certainly not when all I want to do it unpack and have a bit of a nap. So off they went and once I had a half and hour snooze, I wandered down to the top to look upon them on my own. And you know what, the view from the top of the Bahai is just as lovely as the view from the bottom.

A day with the Druze. I was quite keen when I saw this on the schedule as I knew next to NOTHING about the Druze. I don’t know all that much now (it’s quite a private religion) but I am ever so slightly more informed. There are two basic groups in the Druze religion – the elders, called the Knowing and everybody else, called the Unknowing. Oh and part of their belief mythos says the Messiah will come back after being born – suddenly – to a man. Hence, hammer pants on the heavily moustached Knowing.

Beit Shean. Fantastic. I am without words at how happy it made me to get here. It is a massive excavation site that they – whoever they are at any given time – have spent decades working on. The result is a complex containing a decent-sized amphitheatre, a Byzantine era colonnade, ritual baths, a pottery workshop, a basilica, a Roman temple and more columns than you could shake a stick at. And all in such good shape, you practically expect that Romans will be along any moment, togas fluttering in the wind. Oh, remember how I didn’t much care to do the massive staircase at the Bahai Gardens – well, karma came back and bit me on the butt because off I went up the massive, steep staircase to the earliest site on top of the tel. But WHAT a view – gorgeous weather meant we could see across the Jordan Valley and well beyond.

The Golan Heights. We went up to the Mitzpe-Ophir observation point where we gaze across Lake Tiberias out to appreciate the beauty (and strategic importance) of the whole area. Now, I am no military strategist but even I can see why one would need to control this area to feel secure. Even I could probably lob a rocket or two into the centre of town given the right equipment and my aim is lousy.

Yad Vashem. I’d been previously but in between the time before and this last visit, the underlying narrative of the museum had shifted slightly from a community focus to a focus on individuals. It was decided that now faces needed to be put on this story as later generations are more and more removed from it. It was thought that in this way, the messages, lessons and stories would be more accessible. They succeeded in creating an even more effective experience than before. The objects that they’ve been given or collected, the footage of testimonies, the displays and the route you are driven along to see them all come together seamlessly and make Yad Vashem not only a museum but a journey.

A walking tour of Neve Tzedek, the first neighborhood of Tel Aviv. It’s amazing what an Italian villa feel so many of the buildings have here. And almost all of them have a round window to commemorate the boat rides that the first people took to get here.

Zion gate. This stuck in my mind because on previous trips, I tended to go through the Jaffa Gate which was always closer to the hotel). The Zion Gate is even more peppered with bullet holes than some of the others and I presume it’s because it’s a much more straight shot into the city itself just inside the gate and would have been a more logical breach point than the others which have right angle turns as you come in. Again, I’m no strategist but if I were looking to take over the old city, I’d have started with this gate as well.

Wandering around the Old City – lost most of the time but not worried about it. After all, it’s a walled city. How lost could we get?

The time I actually broke down and went shopping. We’d loitered by a corner in the Arab market and this was a sign to the shopkeepers to start their patter. If you like tea, go to the market and drink your fill. They ALL want to feed you and sell you things. They guy we chatted with also recommended a few MUST see things in his area – including a stroll across the rooftops of the Arab Quarter. It was well worth it – rickety staircase notwithstanding. So I came down and engaged in a bit of commerce that resulted in my acquiring not only a camel saddle (think handwoven saddle bags in sort of Navajo colors) that I intend to use as a wall hanging in the new house but a free pair of earrings made by Neil, a young man who had “Don’t Mess With Texas” stickers all over the doorframe of his shop. It was either a clever lure for all the Southern Baptists wander through or – as Neil explained, his uncle live in Texas for a while and loved UT (he made the “Hook’em horns” gesture). Very entertaining.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, eventually finding it tucked away in a corner we’d passed four times during the afternoon. Wow, it is dark in there and whoever has the incense concession is making a KILLING. The place is an endless series of corridors, people moving in clumps from station to station. What really caught my attention was the people at the stone where it is alleged Jesus was laid out after his crucifixion. Lots of people were laying objects in the stone, running their hands over it – once presumes to gain the blessing of the spot. I thought about taking a picture of this whole thing but it seemed – sort of like an intrusion. As much as I may not have understood such actions myself, the people at the stone were involved in something THEY clearly believed in strongly so while I stared, I didn’t quite feel like turning them into a photo op.

There were lots of other moments, sights seen, encounters had – but 10 years on, those are what come to mind most clearly off the top of my head. I am certainly long overdue a return visit.

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