In Search of the Promised Land

“Aren’t you guys worried about going to places like Israel and Jordan?” concerned family and friends asked. “They’re always having wars and trouble over there.”
“Not really,” my wife Margaret and I replied while packing our bags, “we’re going to look for the Promised Land.”

Their words of warning came to mind while standing in line outside the El Al Airline counter at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, on the afternoon of Sunday May 10th. That’s where every passenger was subjected to stringent security interviews and clearance before being checked in.

Waiting alongside were some members of our group - ‘Seekers / STS Canada,’- comprising sixteen Canadians and three Americans from Michigan, whom we dubbed our honorary Canadians. Warm hugs and kisses followed, before boarding our white Boeing 767 jetliner with the blue ‘Star of David’ insignia emblazoned on its tail. Bolstered by a heightened sense of security, we took to our seats, fastened our seatbelts, and before long took off on our much anticipated eleven and a half hour non-stop flight to Tel Aviv.

We were only a couple hours into the flight, when I looked out beyond our left wing to see long shadows like giant fingers crawling across the jagged North American shoreline; changing its face from crimson to rusty brown in the sunset’s waning embers. Continuing in a south, south-easterly direction, twinkling stars peeped out from darkening skies guiding us across the vast mid-Atlantic Ocean, now snuggled under a cloudy blanket of pink.

Settling in for the long haul, I watched as busy flight attendants dressed in blue, hustled up and down the narrow isles providing service with a smile. To my surprise, every so often a number of orthodox Jewish men with prayer books in hand, got up and went to the rear of the plane to perform their obligatory religious rights. A few times though, they were sent scurrying back to their seats because of turbulence.

Apart from me, most were asleep, enabling me to catch up on my reading, check the starry skies and chart our course. Despite my eagerness, time took its inevitable time, until at long last through thinning clouds a sprinkling of white lights appeared way ahead. Realising we were now approaching the north-western coast of Spain; I thanked God for our safe crossing and kept a steady look out. More lights crept by, some clustering around the boot of Italy, whereas others in crooked lines traced the shores of the Greek isles.

On we roared into the darkness, with long ghostly vapour trails hanging in our wake. Then before long, I spotted a faint orange glow emerging over the Mediterranean Sea and smiled knowing yesterday’s sunset was fast becoming today’s sunrise on the other side. That was when Margaret awoke to join me in a tasty kosher breakfast, and together we greeted the new day.

We’d no sooner started our descent when I caught my first glimpse of Tel Aviv nestled under the haze of a Monday dawn, with whitecap waves splashing against her far-reaching shores. Nearing the airport, I looked down at a network of highways clogged with rush hour traffic fanning across crowded brown-stone communities all the way out to the city centre. And just when I was reaching for my camera to take in the full scene, it all vanished behind swaying palm trees as we touched down.

Concerned voices came to mind again as we stepped out of the airport heading to our bus with luggage in tow. This time we noticed a tourist information booth on the side manned by two young soldiers with Uzi semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. “Welcome to Israel,” the sign over their heads proclaimed; setting in place a sense of safety and security, which from then on became quite a familiar sight throughout our travels.

‘Hotel Metropolitan Tel Aviv,’ is located in the heart of the tourist area, a short two block walk to the seashore. With the remainder of the day at our leisure, after checking in and exchanging our money for local shekels, we joined a small party and wandered down to the busy ‘Shuk HaCarmel Market’ district.

On the way there, we sat for lunch at a shady sidewalk café and watched the parade of Israel’s multi-racial / multi-cultural faces go by. Many were Hassidic Jews dressed in black with curls dangling from their wide-brimmed hats. A few Ethiopian Jews wandered by, some in military uniforms wearing yarmulkes. There were also a sprinkling of Arabs, a few Orientals, and lots of other tourists. Adding to our enjoyment was our Mediterranean style salad and spicy mouth-watering chicken shwarmas nestled in pita bread. For me, an additional cold glass of passion fruit juice was a fitting compliment to our first of many hearty Israeli meals.

Later that afternoon, despite the heat and our tiredness, we couldn’t resist a stroll along the city’s picturesque tiled boardwalk. It would’ve been nice to join the bathers frolicking in the crashing waves, or even those sheltering under colourful umbrellas, but we needed to get back to our hotel for some long overdue rest. It was a bit confusing at first trying to find our hotel among the many modern high-rises overlooking the turquoise sea, but the invigorating walk against the brisk sea breeze was refreshing.

Sleep came early and sweet, followed by a hearty breakfast in preparation for our much awaited city tour of Tel Aviv. Under the guidance of our tour guide Boaz, - a jovial short-statured man in his mid thirties, - we embarked on a brief drive along the sunny shoreline to the quaint but ancient port city of Jaffa.

According to biblical history, it was off these shores that Jonah had his frightening encounter with the whale. Here also Solomon’s imported cedars from Lebanon were offloaded, and used in building his temple in Jerusalem. As a group, we sauntered through its ancient streets and public squares, admiring St. Peter’s Catholic Church and other remnants of earlier conquering civilizations, still evident in its architecture. Before leaving we gathered for our first of many group photo sessions under a prominent white-marbled monument in a lovely garden setting.

We learned from Boaz, that in1909 a group of Jewish settlers left Jaffa to found today’s dynamic city of Tel Aviv; now considered the second largest city in Israel after amalgamating with Jaffa in 1950. Little could they have imagined it would at present number 391,300 in population, and be the home of the country’s financial centre, as well as the headquarters of a number of international industrial and technological establishments.

Known as “The Hill of Spring” in Hebrew, I was amazed at its immensity, spanning an area of 53.8 sq. kilometres. On our drive across town, we passed a number of flourishing parks with billowing fountains where children played, joggers ran the trails and families strolled. With our cameras clicking away we captured patient fishermen waiting alongside quiet streams, while in many neighbourhoods, pedestrian malls and shopping centres teemed with restaurants and bars. And towering above it all, remarkable skyscrapers gleamed in the morning sun.

We made our first stop at the University of Tel Aviv, where the notable ‘Diaspora Museum’ is located in the Bet Hatefutsot wing. Walking through various rooms, we encountered startling pictures and monuments depicting the rich but troubled history of the Jewish people and their struggles from ancient times to the present. What impressed me the most were replicas of miniature synagogues the world over. Some to my surprise had their origin in the Caribbean.

On the bus again, this time en route to Old Tel Aviv. There we made a brief photo stop at the memorial site where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4th. 1995.

Returning to the Carmel Market for a quick lunch, we had to go through a security check before entering, since it was ‘Artist Day.’ Our chicken shish kebab and falafel went down well, amid the lively tunes of street musicians, and colourful art displays. Hopping on the bus again, we crawled across town in heavy traffic to the ‘Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange.’ It was in its opulent confines we toured their diamond museum, much to the delight of the ladies and endurance of us anxious husbands guarding our wallets.

It was a sunny Wednesday morning, when we embarked on our second city tour of Tel Aviv, by first visiting the renowned ‘Haganah Museum.’ On entering, I had the distinct feeling we were somehow encroaching on the sanctity of the founder General Eliahu Golomb, and his Haganah Society of the 1920’s. In the ‘war room,’ we encountered furnishings such as his favourite couch, writing desk and even mementos like the ancient ice box; leaving me with the impression they were kept in place as if to safeguard the secrets of yesteryear.

We climbed the stairs to the second floor where numerous exhibits were displayed in quite graphic detail. Among them was a dramatic audio-visual show depicting the history of Israel’s first resistance fighters and their struggles with and against the British forces during World War One.

With heavy hearts, we escaped hours later into sunny Sderot Rothschild Boulevard. It was here Boaz pointed out a number of restored Bauhaus designed buildings lining the street; some since designated UNESCO Heritage Sites. As our guide continued his commentary, we strolled through the community’s narrow cobbled streets, dodging on-coming traffic while photographing its quaint buildings, flowered courtyards, and cottage industry shops, some tucked away in blind alleys.

Early afternoon found us speeding along Ayalon Highway #20 alongside the Ayalon Riverbed and its commuter trains tracks. Several kilometres past Ben Gurion International Airport we turned off onto a secondary highway leading to Latrun, and from there entered the site of ‘Mini Israel.’

It was a bit of a shock stepping off the air conditioned bus into unrelenting sunshine, but we were lucky since umbrellas were provided nearby. Viewing some of the 350 exact-replica models of Israel’s major sites and monuments only wetted our appetite for things to come. We were relieved though when the show ended and we found shelter with ice cream bars and bottles of water to cool us down.

Thursday morning came too soon, since it was time to leave beautiful Tel Aviv and drive north to Haifa. About an hour along the busy highway we made our first stop at the ancient Roman city of Caesarea. Named after Caesar Augustus, it was here King Herod erected a great temple in dedication to the Divine Augustus.

Judging from the numerous buses in the parking lot, we were not surprised to encounter an army of tourists already assembled at the crowded Roman Theatre. Finding our seats required manoeuvring around numerous international pilgrims occupying many of the stone slabs on the various levels. Even as our guide Boaz lectured us, some brave Oriental pilgrims, to the delight of the crowd, stood up and sang hymns on stage proving how excellent the acoustics still are at concerts and other performances there.

The crowd later thinned out, allowing us to climb on stage for another group photo. Following that, we walked through the ruins, arriving at the remains of Herod’s private swimming pool bordering the Mediterranean coast. North of there, we came upon vestiges of the hippodrome’s track and stadium, which still stands as grim reminders of the death-defying chariot races and savage blood sports which, while satisfying the appetites of ferocious lions, provided entertainment for the Greco-Roman nobility of the day.

We slowed down to take quick photos of an enduring Roman aqueduct alongside the beach, then it was back onto highway #2, where we drove through among other places, the valley of Armageddon. Looking around at the peacefulness of this vast greenery, it troubled me that as predicted in the bible, the armies of the world would some day gather here to fight that final battle of mankind.

Never at a loss for words, in his running commentary Boaz would customarily point out places of interest and its significant events. It was with great emotion that he described in detail some locations where Palestinian suicide bombers had concealed weapons around their waists, in order to make the ultimate sacrifice for them and their innocent victims. One such place was a restaurant we had just passed at the foot of the steep winding slopes of Mount Carmel.

Nestled above a bustling harbour on the summit of this mountain lays Haifa, Israel’s third largest city with a population of 250,000. Its landscape is dominated by the magnificent golden-domed Baha’i Temple, set in formal Persian tiered gardens.

The founders of the Baha’i movement believed in the unity of all faiths, and therefore ascribed the leaders of all religions as messengers of God. Pity we couldn’t stay longer and feast our eyes on the peaceful and magnificent panorama, but we were only able to descend from the street level to the upper gardens veranda, to take some awesome photos.

Taking in all that scenic beauty and fresh air couldn’t stop our hungry bellies from rumbling. We were fortunate though, since a few kilometres down the coast a buffet lunch at a crowded restaurant awaited us. There I was sitting munching on my now favourite chicken in a pita bread sandwich, when every few minutes twin F16 fighter jets came zooming overhead from a nearby air force base. Dishes rattled as they passed, making me quite nervous wondering whether we were witnessing just another practice run, or as we were warned, perhaps a real skirmish with Israel’s enemy neighbours.

We learned too late, that Pope Benedict XVI was visiting Nazareth later that afternoon, after driving the meandering mountain road leading into town. Heavy security forces had by then blocked off all major streets, leaving us no other choice than to exit our bus and walk for blocks around police barriers. Dodging traffic crossing congested streets, we attempted to reach the ‘Church of the Annunciation,’ but kept running into priests and nuns of different orders, mingling with hundreds of other pilgrims and security personnel in great anticipation of the event. Undaunted, we forged ahead, only to be turned away by armed soldiers and police, due to the Pope’s soon arrival.

Seeing the Pope would have been a bonus, but we all agreed it was pointless sticking around, since we had some ways yet to go before day’s end. So off we went, with the intention of returning another day if possible. Getting out of town was easier, and no sooner were we on the outskirts, when Boaz informed us we were passing through the town of Canaan. This is the place where Jesus while attending a wedding, performed one of his many miracles by turning six stone jars of water into wine for the thirsty guests.

A few hours later, we arrived in the port city of Tiberius; founded on the shores of the Sea of Galilee around 20 A.D. by Herod Antipas. Thinking we were just going down to view the seashore, we followed Boaz to the nearby waterfront, where to our surprise a covered ‘Pilgrim Boat’ was docked and waiting exclusively for our group.

We’d no sooner entered the mid-sized wooden vessel when the crew extended a hearty welcome by hoisting the Canadian, American and Israeli flags onto the ship's mast. The engine started up and after pushing off from shore, they began playing our three national anthems in succession. Feeling quite special and filled with patriotic pride, we all sprang to attention and started singing our anthems, as our boat sailed out onto the biblical sea.

After settling down, I sat off to the side watching streams of brown water drifting by, and thought of Jesus and his terrified disciples caught in the midst of that violent storm. With this sea spanning just 6 mile wide by 13 miles long, I tried imagining him calming the tempest before walking upon its surface, and the look of astonishment on the faces of his disciples. My thoughts were soon interrupted though when some of the ladies in our group, led by a crew member, held hands and started dancing to lively Israeli folk songs. It didn’t take long for the rest of us to join in, clapping, singing, and cheering them on.

Returning to shore under a hazy sunset an hour and a half later, our group checked into ‘Hotel Ron Beach Tiberius,’ where Margaret and I were fortunate to get a room overlooking the swimming pool with the Sea of Galilee a few steps away. Dinner that evening was plentiful and delicious, but no charity there; since one had to be quick at the buffet table in order to compete with some of those ravenous pilgrim diners.

The sun cast misty shadows across the Sea of Galilee at breakfast that Friday morning. Yet by the time we boarded our bus and drove fifteen minutes down the coast to the ‘kibbutz Ginnosar,’ the mist was beginning to lift. Situated there was the ‘Man in the Galilee Museum,’ where the ‘Ancient Galilee Boat’ is on display. This boat, measuring 9 metres long, 2.5 metres wide and 1.25 metres high, was discovered in 1986 mired in the mud near Magdala on Galilee’s south-west shore. Assumed to be a fishing vessel, it dates back to the first century CE, during the times of Jesus and the great revolt of the Jews against the Romans.

Even I got excited buying souvenirs in their on-site gift shop, before heading out again in the brilliant sunshine. This time we traversed the scenic Golan Heights, where the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Syria was fought. Along the way, we saw a number of bullet-scarred walls, and bombed-out buildings now partly covered in vegetation, still bearing witness to its ferocity.

Leaving the fields, we descended a mountain road which crossed a bridge spanning the River Jordan. Our driver slowed down enough for us to take photos of what looked to me more like a large green-coloured trench. A few miles further, we pulled into the parking lot of the ‘Golan Heights Winery,’ where with a spring in their steps, the wine connoisseurs among us lead by Margaret, were more than ready for ‘happy hour.’

Some of us too sated with wine, had a brief after-lunch siesta while our bus climbed 3,000 feet above sea level to the mountain-top holy city of Safed, the capital of Upper Galilee. Walking through its narrow streets and laneways, we stopped to take photos among the remnants of the ‘War of Independence,’ and enjoy its breath-taking scenery. Looking towards the southern desert valley, one could just make out plumes of brown sand twirling like mini tornadoes in the wind. Coming to the other side of the city some of the brave among us, bent down on trembling knees to peek over sheer precipices plunging far below, where enduring bits of green shrubbery still clung from its crevasses.

Safed is the home of mysticism (Kabbala) developed in the 16th. century, and recently embraced by singing superstar Madonna. It’s also a popular holiday venue and art colony, crammed with interesting novelty shops and eateries. As it happened, it was Friday afternoon and the shops were closing early for the Jewish Sabbath. To his credit, Boaz still managed to organize a quick tour of the ‘Joseph Caro Synagogue’ for us, where we learned of the traditional religious rituals in the confines of its quaint ornately blue interior.

Our last stop was at Capernaum, the town where Jesus preached, healed the sick and performed a number of miracles during his ministry in Galilee. Among the ruins, we came upon an octagonal church from the fifth century, built over what is believed to be the house of the disciple Peter. Standing not far off in the background and just as impressive is the prominent Greek-Orthodox monastery of Capernaum, with its red-domed roofs and white crosses reaching for the heavens.

Early Saturday morning May 16th we left hazy Tiberias to journey south along the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee. There was a ghost town feeling passing through its empty streets, making it all the more evident how strict the Sabbath is observed here. Before long, we crossed the River Jordan again, this time within sight of the Jordanian border.

For miles along the border, Boaz pointed out posted signs identifying still active mine fields. It marked a stark reminder of the state of war readiness this country maintains, and the need for its citizens to be armed and ready at all times. Despite that, the occasional kibbutz we passed sported vegetable green houses as well as commercial farms bearing tall date palms, mango trees, bananas and grape orchards. Although for the most part barren, every now and then off in the distance we’d come across a few cattle grazing on tufts of grass, or camels tied up near nomadic Bedouin camps.

We had travelled about an hour down this desolate highway, when we came to a stop at a heavily guarded Army checkpoint. Thinking we might all have to get out for individual inspection, it was a relief when they only asked our driver and Boaz to show their I.Ds, as well as to verify we were legitimate tourists.

Under the blinding glare of the blazing sun, we made a brief pit stop at a roadside oasis with a resting camel outside, waiting for tourists to ride. There, a refreshing glass of my favourite passion fruit juice made it worth the while. For miles on, all we could see were white sandy cliffs on one side, and the northern tip of the hazy blue Dead Sea on the other. We were now entering the Judean desert through which the Great Rift Valley - a massive geologic fault - passes through. Seen from outer space, it runs from Lebanon in the north, down through Israel, and all the way south to Mozambique in Africa.

On occasion, in the middle of nowhere green patches looking like giant fungi would appear in the sand. Coming closer, they’d turn out to be thriving farming areas with irrigation sprinklers at full spray. With the harshness of this barren terrain, one has to marvel at the agricultural accomplishments of the Israelis through the years, giving credence to their resourceful greening of the desert.

We drove for another half hour, passing the occasional car, jeep and cargo-laden truck, when our driver turned off in the direction of a massive mountain range, housing on the summit the ancient fortress city of Masada. It was built by Herod the Great, and stands 1,440 feet above the western side of the Dead Sea. It became prominent in the spring of 73 A.D., when 960 Jewish Zealots comprising of men, women and children held out for as long as they could against the mighty Roman armies surrounding them in the valley. When defeat was inevitable, rather than surrender as slaves to their enemy, they committed mass suicide instead.

We took a cable car to the top of this remarkable bastion, now considered a great symbol of Jewish resistance; a place where some of Israel’s elite armoured units are today sworn in with the words, “Masada shall not fall again.” While touring the ruins, despite the oppressive heat and distant haze, we could still see the Dead Sea across miles of desert. It got so hot my feet burned at times, causing us to seek shelter in the many ornate bath houses and temples, replete with tiled mosaics and sunken saunas.

Leaving Masada, we drove north for a short distance for lunch at the Ruins of Qumran. It was here in 1947 a Bedouin shepherd boy wandering in nearby caves came upon several hidden jars containing a large number of Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls were written on goat skin by a radical sect of Jewish priests known as ‘Essenes,’ who came here in 150 B.C. to codify the Old Testament. Considered a most significant find, today the scrolls are on display worldwide, including Toronto at present.

Masada and Qumran represented epic events in the history of this fascinating country. But enough of this antiquity, we were looking forward to a swim in the famous Dead Sea. It’s considered the lowest spot on earth at 1,290 feet below sea level, and with a salt content of 33%, compared to 3% of the average sea; nothing grows in the immediate area. Nonetheless, through the years, its abundant mud, salt and other minerals have spawned a health and beauty industry of world renown.

To many, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and with temperatures hovering in the 90’s, we were anxious to take a dip, but this was no ordinary swim. At the crowded beach we were taken to, I took one look at the briny soup but couldn’t see the bottom for all the mud. Margaret and others had already gone ahead, and in order to catch up, I started navigating around a horde of timid bathers at the water’s edge. As soon as I stepped into the mucky water, to my horror, I felt my feet go out from under me and then I started slipping and sliding, splishing and splashing with mud climbing all the way up to my knees as if sucked into a slimy vortex.

Having nothing to hold on to and afraid to move too fast, every time I raised my legs, I’d go sprawling into the goo, ending up with a salty face and burning eyes. But I was still determined to reach Margaret and friends, and continued flailing my arms as if walking a tightrope to keep my balance. The more I tried the more tired and frustrated I became. This was no fun; in fact it was downright embarrassing. That’s when I looked around with a sheepish grin to find many others struggling as well, and couldn’t help laughing seeing I wasn’t the only one in trouble.

The fun part is that in such salty water even an elephant could float with ease. So all one has to do is lay on one’s back and enjoy. That’s until I tried walking out, caked in black mud from head to toe with my skin stinging in the hot sun. It was then I also realized in my confusion I had even forgotten to take my glasses off before going in. Soon after, Margaret came slipping and sliding to join me at the nearby showers, where standing under the spray we laughed our heads off as the mud and salt slid from our bodies.

A forty five minute drive along the super highway, through mountain passes and alongside camel-grazing Bedouin villages, brought us to the outskirts of the holy city. Like many on our bus I had my camera ready and aimed rounding the wide bend in the expressway leading into town. We only had another hundred feet or so to go in heavy traffic with all eyes glued to the landscape, when coming up on the left in the sparkling sunset was the golden Dome of the Rock welcoming us to Jerusalem. There we were clicking away like mad until it was out of sight, before arriving on the other side of town to check into the ‘Hotel Grand Court.’ After freshening up, we enjoyed a splendid buffet dinner and a good night’s rest.

Sunday May 17th, after breakfast Boaz guided us on a city tour, starting at the lookout point across from Old Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. Apart from local Arab venders, there weren’t too many other tourists around at that early hour, leaving us with the magnificent landscape all to ourselves. For minutes I stood to the side lost in a moment of prayerful thought, when from a distance the sound of chiming church bells came drifting through the air, calling faithful Christians to worship. It almost took my breath away, remembering when Sundays of old used to be the holiest day of the week.

Jerusalem, - the largest city in Israel with some 600,000 inhabitants, - has its roots embodied in three main religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Through the ages, this city enclosed by nine gates, had been invaded, captured and governed by some twenty different nations. For Jews, its importance lies within its ancient temple first built by Solomon. For Christians, it’s the place where Jesus Christ was crucified on Calvary, then rose from his tomb. And for Muslims, El Aksa - the Dome of the Rock- signifies the place where Mohammed the prophet ascended into seventh heaven.

Following our professional group photo, we descended a steep walkway, pass a Jewish cemetery on the left leading to the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus while praying, was betrayed by his disciples. Still standing are a number of robust olive trees, one of which is presumed to have witnessed the sufferings of Jesus Christ.

We made a brief visit to the nearby ‘Church of the Agony,’ followed by a stop at a religious gift shop. Then it was a short drive across town to see the ‘St. John the Baptist Church.’ It’s erected on the location of his birth, where we read his ‘Proclamation’ on the churchyard walls transcribed in several languages.

Lunch today was in the cafeteria of an up-scale kibbutz, before venturing across town to the vicinity of Bethlehem. For political and security reasons some four years ago the Israeli government erected a 40 ft. plus concrete wall, to control the passage of potential suicide bombers and others. As a result, Boaz had to arrange for a Palestinian guide to meet us on the other side of the wall, in order to visit the Church of the Nativity, the site where Jesus was born.

Passing through those turnstile gates into Palestine felt as though we were entering some sort of a reservation. However, under the friendly direction of our new local guide, we climbed aboard a smaller bus for the short drive through several run-down streets on the way to the church. There was a long line up to enter the grotto to view Jesus’ crèche, but by the time we inched our way down the narrow worn stairway, the sacred moment was lost for me, when a local policeman began arguing with a rather haughty priest over his group’s loud behaviour. There were two services taking place in the crowded church as we left; a Ukrainian mass in the main church, and a Catholic one in an adjacent wing.

To re-enter Israel, we walked single file alongside the oppressive wall before going through the turnstile again. A female soldier of Ethiopian descent was on duty at the guardhouse, with whom we checked our passports in passing. As if that wasn’t enough, after rejoining Boaz on our waiting bus, two unsmiling male Israeli soldiers came on board with semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, and as they walked down the isle from front to rear we had to show our passports yet again.

Monday May 18th, was primarily a day of walking the streets and laneways of Old Jerusalem, but first we made a necessary visit to the ‘Holocaust Museum’ at Yad Vashem. Left to wander the teeming halls, long-silenced voices screamed out to us from anguished Nazi death camp faces; all now gone, but never forgotten. Most visitors spoke in hushed tones. Some even cried, while others remained stoic witnessing the atrocities of World War Two and the aftermath - on Jews in particular- the world over. It was a very sobering experience for us, but more so for Boaz who appeared quite shaken describing the Children’s Memorial Museum.

Bearing the horrific images of those Nazi war victims in mind, our lunch at Mount Zion was nothing but a perfunctory affair. Afterwards we followed our guide past a glass-cased ‘Golden Menorah,’ down a flight of stairs leading into the main square. Everywhere I looked, soldiers in brown uniforms were either on guard or intermingling with the hundreds of tourists milling about. Strange enough, there was less of a crowd at the Western or Wailing Wall, where the faithful could be seen worshipping at its massive grey-stones.

This 200 foot long by 90 feet high wall is all that remains after the original temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Known as ‘The Synagogue of the Wall,’ the present ground level descends a further 63 feet to bedrock, demonstrating how deep the original wall of the temple was.

Donning the black yarmulke I bought in Tel Aviv, I approached the sacred wall with some trepidation, but reached with outstretched arms to place my note in a high enough crevice in the fashion of millions before me. Afterwards I said a short prayer and stepped back in reverence, feeling quite fulfilled.

According to cultural religious norms, while we men got the lion’s share, the women in our group were required to join others in worship in the smaller area towards the right side of the wall. To my surprise I also learned that one didn’t necessarily have to be Jewish to pay homage here. Before leaving I entered an alcove to the left of the wall, to find in the darkened chamber numerous black-suited Hassidic worshipers facing the wall in deep prayer. Some among them were even rocking their heads back and forth as if in a trance, while chanting in low voices.

Emerging into the harsh sunshine, I rejoined our group in the square where we talked with pride about being in this most holy of places, and more importantly, being able to participate in such a meaningful way.

Leaving the square, we followed our guide through a gateway tunnel leading into the ‘Arab Market.’ From there, avoiding on-coming pedestrians along narrow laneways, we soon came upon the famous ‘Via Dolorosa’ route. From there, along uneven stone pavements we walked in the footsteps of Jesus, where Arab merchants standing behind cluttered shop counters called out to us, offering attractive bargains.

Jesus didn’t fare as well when he passed this way over two millennia ago, for he was bearing not only the weight of his cross but also those of the sins of mankind. They didn’t call out for him to buy their carpets, brass utensils, lamb carcasses hanging on hooks, nor pungent spices and confectionaries as they did us. Instead, the only stops he was forced to make were at the fourteen ‘Stations of the Cross’ on the way to his crucifixion on Calvary.

Trying to keep up with the hurried Boaz was quite a task, but we persevered through a maze of laneways, until exiting into a small square fronting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the site where Jesus was buried, but owing to the crush of the crowd, we were unable to enter his tomb. We did witness however ‘The Stone of Uncion,’ near the entrance, where his body was placed in preparation for burial. Our tour of the old town couldn’t be complete without a brief visit to the tombs of ‘Mary’ and ‘King David’ on Mount Zion. Being in close proximity, we also visited the ‘Upper Room’ where Jesus and his twelve disciples ate their Passover meal.

****

We left Jerusalem in brilliant sunshine on Tuesday May 19th, heading south-east against rush-hour traffic towards the Jordanian border. The biblical city of Jerico lay not far off in the distance, as we approached the Allenby Bridge spanning the River Jordan. From there we entered a few border checkpoints festooned with large posters of the late King Hussein and his son, the present King Abdullah, before entering Jordan proper. Accompanied by ‘Naim,’ our middle-aged Jordanian Bedouin guide and a young blue-uniformed Jordanian tourist police, we made a brief clearance stop at their Customs and Immigration Office for our luggage to be x-rayed, while some shopped at Duty Free, and before long, headed back onto the highway bound for Amman the capital.

Grazing sheep on rolling hills dotted the landscape for miles on end, with olive groves and date palm trees shading the odd family farms in between. Jerash, was our first stop; a well preserved Roman city with archaeological finds dating back to the Neolithic period, some 6,000 years ago. Like Caesarea in Israel, Jerash also sported a Hippodrome, which we saw on entering the south gate known as the ‘Arch of Triumph.’

It was quite a task wandering through this ancient city in the blazing noonday sun, with me having to mop my brow every minute. Our reward though was seeing such magnificent sites as the ‘Forum’ with its oval piazza; the ‘Temple of Zeus;’ the 3,000 seat ‘South Theatre,’ and the main artery of the city flanked by more than 500 remaining columns named the ‘Cardo Maximus.’ As we walked, the unexpected sounds of bagpipes drifted from the South Theatre area, and out of curiosity we hurried over. Entering the arena, we found three Jordanian minstrels dressed in ankle-length khaki uniforms and chequered red and white head gear, entertaining an enthusiastic crowd with their beautiful music resonating through the excellent acoustics.

Our first Jordanian lunch was a sumptuous affair at a crowded restaurant; all that was missing were voluptuous belly dancers. Before resuming our voyage towards Amman, we next stopped at the ‘Citadel,’ the former acropolis of the ancient city. From this hilltop, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the capital with its splendid Roman Theatre in the foreground, and in the distance the Jordanian flag - reputed to be the largest in the world - flapping in the breeze.

With a tour of the ruins over, we entered the ‘Jordanian Archaeological Museum’ close by. They had a number of splendid artefacts to admire, but when trying to view a few of the treasured Dead Sea Scrolls, we had to jostle our way through the enthusiastic crowds. Descending the hill, one could hear over loud speakers the Muezzin calling Muslims to prayer across this jam-packed city. This brought to mind the fact we were now in a Muslim country, where the customs and religion were quite different from that of Israel.

It was getting late, and we still hadn’t reached our ‘Hotel Al Fanar Palace Amman,’ located on the other side of this bustling city of a million inhabitants. On the way there, we drove through many neighbourhoods comprised mainly of compact low rise buildings, all uniform in style and colour. Lively markets and sacred mosques proliferated every neighbourhood, but standing downtown in stark contrast were two tall dark coloured buildings known as the ‘Twin Towers,’ which are still under construction.

Going pass the American Embassy in the better part of town, our guide warned against us taking any photos or videos. He didn’t have to tell us twice, seeing how guarded this flamboyant fortress was, with military personnel sitting in jeeps behind loaded anti-aircraft guns on every corner. Naim also showed us the ritzy side of town, and what a distinction those gated communities made. On every street all we saw were gilded mansions standing on manicured lawns with security guards as deterrents.

Leaving Amman after breakfast the next morning, we drove south on the King’s Highway towards the ancient city of Petra. Following a meandering ribbon of black highway through vast expanses of oatmeal-coloured desert, the occasional brown sugar loaf hill served to break the monotony. This was a busy highway with transport trucks and buses whizzing along at a good clip. Mindful of being spotted by the police, our driver tried to keep to the speed limit, but was later pulled over for a spot check by the highway patrol stationed every couple of miles.

We were several hours on the road now before making our first stop at the small city of Madaba, the home of the famous 6th century Byzantine and Umayyad Mosaics. A short walk through its picturesque streets brought us to the Greek-Orthodox Church of St. George. In its hushed confines, Naim sat us down and explained the now broken but colourful mosaic maps which directed ancient pilgrims on the road to Palestine.

‘Mount Nebo,’ is situated some ten kilometres from Madaba, and stands at an altitude of 800 metres, with a sweeping view of the vast valley of the Jordan as far away as the Dead Sea. According to the Bible this is the very mountain that Yahveh told Moses to climb before he died, in order to see the ‘Promised Land’. It’s also the place where Moses is buried, and a cross is erected on the spot commemorating his death.

On the road again, and before long at Naim’s request we stopped at a roadside mosque for him to say his obligatory prayers. Leaving our shoes at the door, we entered and were right away taken aback by the ornately decorated walls and green domed-roof from where a huge golden chandelier was suspended. While Naim laid prostrate on the carpet in prayer, we took photos and made our discreet exit. From there it was a quick lunch at an oasis restaurant, and with vast vistas, valleys and hills changing along the way, we continued on to Petra.

A few miles outside of the city, we made another brief stop to photograph a still standing thousand year old pistachio tree. Then with a few twists and turns on the local winding road we ended up in the parking lot of ‘Hotel Golden Tulip Petra.’

Like the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, and the Parthenon of Athens, the ‘Stone City’ of Petra has as well been considered worthy to be counted among these ancient world wonders. On May 21st after breakfast, our group took a drive through the hilly streets of this mountain town to feast our eyes on this fantastic city.

Realizing it was about seven kilometres from the main entrance to the centre of the city, while others in our group walked; Margaret and I chose to travel by horseback along the dusty red trail. We first passed the Djinn Blocks - three square towers hewn out of the rock - which the Bedouins considered to be cisterns. Then came the Obelisk Tomb and Bab As-Siq Triclinium, comprising just a few of the many tombs, temples, caves and theatres that make up this fascinating city of the ancient Nabataeans. Our ride ended at As Siq - the main entrance to Petra proper - and from there we dismounted and joined our group to walk the 1200 metre long, deep and narrow gorge filled with stunning natural beauty.

Petra is a geologist’s heaven, abounding with lofty sandstone cliffs and deep mysterious caves. But it also has much to offer historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and naturalists. Following Naim through its narrow canyons, he related the rich history of the industrious Nabataeans who in earlier times traded with neighbouring Egypt, Syria and far away China. Nevertheless, with the spread of the imperialistic Roman Empire, in time, Petra began to lose its lustre and was later abandoned in the 14th century. Being completely lost to the Western World, it wasn’t until 1812 that a Swiss traveller named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered it. Ever since, its treasures could no longer be kept secret, certainly not after its depiction in Harrison Ford’s blockbuster movie “Indiana Jones” causing the world to again beat a steady path to its illustrious door.

During our long winding walk through impressive narrow gorges, we had to watch out for a steady surge of tourists on donkeys, camels and horse-drawn buggies, especially those rumbling past at breakneck speed and scattering everyone in their dust. Once we brushed ourselves off, we continued walking, taking photos and admiring its many beautiful but bizarre-looking geological formations.

Everywhere we looked colourful rocks, agricultural terraces, water channels cut into the cliffs, and dams with votive-niches carved into the rock caught our attention. Just when we thought we had seen enough dazzling sites, we only had to walk a few steps more, and around the bend through a crack in the canyon, there stood the red brick façade of Al-Khazneh (The Treasury), known the world over as the symbol of Petra.

It was near impossible to get a clear shot of the monument, for the many tourists in the way. But after satisfying ourselves, our group moved on to other parts of this vast and intriguing complex, including the Necropolis, Royal Tombs and the Roman Theatre. On our way out with the oppressive heat becoming unbearable and realizing the distance ahead to our bus; Margaret decided to take a donkey ride instead.

Following such a wonderful day of hiking, horseback and donkey riding the dusty trails of Petra, Margaret and I joined seven other ladies from our group for an afternoon session at a local spa. None of the men wanted to accompany us for a sauna, scrub and rub, so it was left up to me to take good care of our ladies. Thinking I would be sent to the men’s section, was I surprised to be included with the ladies. Discretion won’t allow me to go into too many details, but all I can say is sitting in the heat of that sauna with the steam rising among hot sweaty bodies wrapped in skimpy towels; I don’t know how I managed to survive. But as they say, “What happens in Petra, stays in Petra.”

We left Petra early after breakfast that Friday morning bound for the desert at Wadi Rum, an hour away. Driving through changing scenery, we came upon narrow mountain passes with Bedouin settlements in the valleys, then onto the main highway busy with cars, transport trucks and the occasional police car at check points. A short u-turn off the highway brought us to the main road leading in, and soon after crossing the railway tracks, there before us lay the enormous desert.

Wadi Rum is breathtaking in its immensity and infinite beauty. Each sandstone mountain commanded out attention with its majestic rock face sculpted by the winds and baked in the sun for millennia. Depending on the light, some appeared rust red, while others looked like giant chunks of chocolate brown fudge sitting on beds of cherry-red sand.

Accompanied by Niam and our Jordanian tourist police officer, we left our bus and hopped into three off-road vehicles, better suited for the desert. With our lead jeep spewing clouds of red dust at our following companions, we held on for dear life in the back as our driver navigated the dips and bumps in the sand. Apart from the odd camel along the trail, I looked out at infinite nothingness and marvelled at the abundant life forms that thrived for centuries in such a harsh environment.

Naim, who is Bedouin, spoke with pride of the many happy years spent living under a tent in the desert with his family. To prove his point, he showed us a particular desert shrub they used as soap by rubbing the leaves vigorously in their hands. In other locations, he interpreted pre-historic rock graffiti left by ancient nomads and hunters, depicting the animals and symbols of their day. It was in this desert location he also pointed out, that the epic Peter O’Toole movie, “Lawrence of Arabia,” was filmed.

Although I had experienced the Sahara desert in Egypt before, I found Wadi Rum much more intriguing; more alive and imbued with extraordinary spirituality. It’s a place I would have loved to spend the night under the stars, admiring God’s diamonds strewn across the heavens, but had to leave, envying Naim for having been so privileged.

Before leaving, Naim took us into a Bedouin tent, where the hospitable occupant and his young son served us small glasses of hot sweetened herbal tea. Needless to say, in the heat of the desert we welcomed that drink to cool us down, and as a gesture of appreciation many of us even purchased with our Jordanian Dinars some of his tea as well as artefacts and souvenirs.

After lunch at an open air restaurant watched by resting camels, we returned to the highway heading west, south-west towards Aqaba. This city of 95,000 inhabitants is situated on the shores of the Red Sea, which Moses parted in biblical times. In sweltering 34ºC heat, we toured the ancient ‘Aqaba Castle,’ with its archaeological museum housed within. Later on, some of us took a walk along its flag-draped waterfront with a clear view of Israel on the other side.

Driving along the busy coastal road in the direction of the Saudi Arabian border, a number of cargo ships lay anchored offshore watched by bathers frolicking on the beaches and crystal clear water. Before long, we ended up at a local aquarium where varied and colourful aquatic creatures were on display.

Fatigue was getting the better of us in that heat, making us long to get to our rooms at the downtown ‘Captain’s Hotel’ for a rest. Dinner was served buffet-style overlooking a balcony and the attractive cityscape. In the cool of the evening a small party of us ventured out to take in the sights and sounds of this bustling city. There was a beehive of activity with families strolling in the parks, old men sitting at roadside cafés smoking water pipes and reminiscing, while burka-clad women browsed and shopped in well stacked stores.

Aqaba, the only port city in Jordan, is energetic, flourishing and abounding with palm-fringed streets and friendly people. Off its pristine shores, beautiful flora and fauna make scuba diving and glass-bottom boating popular activities. It’s a place I wished we could have stayed longer than overnight, but time didn’t permit, since it was our last stop in Jordan before crossing the border back into Israel at Eilat.

Saturday May 23rd was our last and longest day of travel. After exchanging hugs and kisses with Naim and our driver at the border, we exited our bus with luggage in hand, to be handed over to a Jordanian agent who took all our passports into Customs and Immigration for clearance. From there we were instructed to walk the two block stretch of ‘no man’s land’ between guarded borders at the mouth of the Red Sea, before being received into Israeli custody with x-rayed baggage checks and interviews.

Our Israeli tour guide this time was a silver-haired middle-aged woman named Varda. She was most helpful in facilitating our re-entry to Eilat, before boarding our bus for a tour of this picturesque sea-side resort city comprised of 65,000 inhabitants.

Now a major holiday resort city for Israelis as well as international jetsetters, the beaches were crowded as we walked along its Red Sea shores. Being in such a historic place, some of our members even took photos dipping their feet in the biblical waters, after which we browsed the many shops doing a brisk trade even though it was Sabbath.

For the jewellery shoppers among us, Varda next took us to the ‘Eilat Stone Jewellery Store,’ where purchases were made of their green precious stone only found in these parts.

Before leaving Eilat, we drove south on the coastal road with a view of Aqaba across the sea with its giant flag swaying in the brilliant sunshine. Further along, families staked out their camp sites on the beaches, snorkelers bobbed on the surface, speed boats raced along the shore and Para gliders soared. Before long we came upon the Egyptian border at Taba, before making a u-turn and heading north along the main highway, branching off through the mountainous Negev desert.

Around every bend in the winding road was another breathtaking scene, some with massive boulders tilting menacingly on the side of cliffs, while off in some valleys dust clouds swirled like mini-tornadoes. All along, our guide carried on an interesting narrative of the history and significance of the passing scene, bringing the desert to life in many ways.

We made a brief stop at a natural crater called the ‘Carpenters,’ where some of us climbed the steep wooden stairway several hundred metres above sea level to the top. From there we enjoyed an endless panoramic view of the immense desert in the late afternoon sun, and on closer examination, admired the interesting rock formation in the shape of neat blocks piled in rows.

Lunch was at a highway cafeteria, where we tried the wholesome cow’s milk from a nearby kibbutz. This was one of the first kibbutzim established in Israel, and the former home of Varda’s, who took us on a quick drive through.

Another four hours on the road, going pass notable cities such as Beer Sheba and Hebron, we at long last arrived back at the seaside city of Jaffa in the waning sunshine for our farewell dinner. Joined by our guide and bus driver, amid hearty laughter, our table overflowed with spicy Mediterranean dishes comprising of fish, chicken and lamb, with all the salads, and pita bread one could eat.

The drinks flowed, and the waiters continued piling our plates with even more food. And after a while, a mellow glow soon set in with us revellers, as we sat watching the orange brilliance of a Mediterranean sunset. It was also time for quiet reflection on the historic places we had been, the adventures we experienced and the wonders seen.

I thought of how privileged we were to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as well as witness the place of Mohammed’s ascension in Jerusalem. Of Moses parting the Red Sea, and Jesus calming the stormy Sea of Galilee; though these historic events are somewhat relegated to antiquity, they still resonate in the hearts and minds of today’s generation.

The boundless natural beauty of Petra as well as the magic of Wadi Rum were uppermost in my mind, when our plane took off from Tel Aviv for our non-stop flight home. And as we rose above the clouds with the twinkling lights of the city edging away, I looked back convinced we had indeed seen a glimpse of the ‘Promised Land.’ A land where future generations will in time abandon the long-held fears and mistrusts of their forefathers, and realize that despite their religious and cultural differences, they share much more in common for the benefit of peace and harmony among their respective nations.

Ray Williams - Ray's Space

Dimitris - Is That You?

“That can’t be him.” - I said out loud looking over at the three bus drivers chatting away in the parking lot as I walked by. “No, the odds were too great for it to be him, … never in a million years could I be so lucky to run into him again, nah! -- I’d better run on.” I thought... full story