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Published: March 9th 2016
For those of you who have been holding off on coming to Israel because you are world travelers and still have some Muslim countries you want to visit, we can let you know that you don’t have to wait any longer.
Israel has stopped stamping passports.
When you arrive they print a small sticker the size of many visas we’ve had and hand it to you. They do not affix it to your passport pages; they do not stamp your book. We believe they realized their political and religious issues had negatively impacted tourism or circumstances and they were impacting people’s ability to travel to other countries. So – problem solved. They are not stamping the passports.
The amazing thing about having the wonderful opportunity to travel is being exposed to the differences in nations and cultures. All are terrifically unique and that within itself brings a certain beauty to the whole experience. We’ve certainly been fortunate in that we’ve visited more than a few countries on different continents.
But we must begin with a confession…. we’ve never really considered what it would be like to travel to Israel. So..…we are over in the Middle East to
Jewish Quarter Old City
begin with and logically it would follow that you would consider coming to the “land of milk and honey,” which is the nickname of Israel because they say their cows give the best milk in the world and their date trees make the best honey. Dave was raised in the Catholic faith and MJ was not exposed to a tremendous amount of religion growing up. Clearly we are in the birthplace of Christianity, but it is so much more……
In our younger days, we were somewhat aware that this part of the world was involved in armed conflict, but in our youth and innocence, we heard more about the “Vietnam conflict” than all the turmoil taking place in Israel, what is perhaps better known as the cradle of civilization (although there more places that can lay claim to this moniker). The original borders carved out in 1948 have changed over the years and are still somewhat in flux; perhaps attributable to a segment of the population that is not Israeli, but Palestinian.
Nonetheless, this tiny nation was carved over 65 years ago after World War II, much to the consternation of the neighboring nations and it has been
in conflict with the Arab world as a whole since then. It’s serious business here, illustrated by the fact that not that many years ago, fifty percent of the annual government budget went towards “security.” That figure has dropped down to around twenty percent now, but that’s a whole lot of money. As you move around the country you will see armed military at various checkpoints and learn that they really are not kidding around. They take their country’s safety quite seriously. To that end, with some exceptions, all men and women are required conscription in the army, as well as reservist duty thereafter. A nation of soldiers in an incredibly religious place, to us, this results in confusion. We are constantly and consistently amazed at the amount of violence in the world that can be attributed to differences in religion.
To add even more confusion to our understanding is the city of Jerusalem, which the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths all consider an extremely holy city. But there is more…the Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their capital. Israel’s parliament is in Jerusalem. Most of the rest of the world however, does not recognize any of this….
This city has been sacked, attacked and captured so many times in history that you would need a scorecard to keep track of it all. As a matter of fact, as recently as 1948, the Israeli’s captured the west part of the city while Jordan annexed East Jerusalem, which is where the Old City is located. It was divided, not unlike Berlin of old. But in 1967, it was taken by the Israelis along with some additional land…..our heads are spinning trying to keep up with all this history.
But who are we to judge? We’re in no position to be judgmental about all of this, but here we are, taking it all in, hoping to understand, but knowing we never really will be able to do so. We are, after all, only travelers….hoping to grab a glimpse and some history of this part of the world. Jerusalem: The Old City
Truly a unique place, as it is surrounded by walls built well over 500 years ago and is now divided into four quarters; Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Within these walls lie the path that Jesus took, better known perhaps as the “Stations of the
Cross,” along with shops, places of worship and other historical places in an area that is perhaps one square kilometer in size. Packed into these tight quarters, you can find tourists from many nations wandering about, along with Hasidic Jews headed for the Western Wall, Muslims, Orthodox Catholics, Palestinians and so much more. A regular religious stew of almost all beliefs.
As we wandered the old city moving from one quarter to the next we could see, hear and feel the difference. When you enter the Jewish quarter you go through metal detectors and get a visual inspection by guards. Not true when entering the other three quarters.
We tried to focus on the religious and historical sites within each section. In the Christian quarter we explored the Church of the Holy Sepulcher also known as the Church of the Resurrection. We stood in the room where we are told Jesus was crucified and stood next to his tomb. We walked along the path of the Stations of the Cross. We actually saw so many of the sites that we can’t list them. We visited the room where the Last Supper was held. All of these experiences leave
Electric fences & landmines
On the road outside Jericho
an impact with us.
The old city is a combination of residential housing, churches, mosques and other religious sites and a big market. It is hard to concentrate on the more serious aspects of this city because it seems to be an endless, winding path of shops and vendors wanting you to purchase their wares to include rugs, beads, spices, souvenirs, leather goods and so many trinkets they cannot be listed. Many people are drawn to the old city because of the vibrant market but we were trying to understand a deeper side of this city, this country and all the turmoil so we found it a bit of a distraction….but this is Jerusalem and so we embraced it the best we could.
A unique view just outside these walls is the Mount of Olives. There you’ll find an American Jewish cemetery where many Americans have paid a lot of money to be buried. They’ve made this choice to be near the Messiah when He returns. Other interesting notes…..
There are not many American fast food restaurants in Israel. We did see two kosher McDonald’s, which mean they have no dairy products—so no cheese,
shake’s and only black coffee. This of course could potentially cause quite a bit of consternation among Americans, looking to this conglomerate to feed them in a foreign land.
Economic issues are worldwide these days and many are struggling. As with many large cities around the world we learned the cost of living in Israel is high. We know for example, that the Hasidic Jews do not work and are the only people in the country exempt from military service. They spend their days studying Jewish law and in prayer. We are told they have become quite a burden on the country because they do not work and get paid a fair monthly salary. We say this not in an attempt to pass judgment, but we found this fascinating. Here you are in a land where it can be a struggle to get by economically, but you formed this country as a bastion of faith, but end up with a segment of the population who will certainly pray for a military victory and success for Israel, but they are not contributing in a concrete way…..interesting. Jericho, The River Jordan & St. George’s Monastery
Withstanding the test of time.
a taxi to take us to the River Jordan, which is a storied and sacred body of water in Biblical verse. To get there, we turned off on a road that had tall wire fences on both sides and land mines. The reason, our driver explained was that in conflicts past, this area had been laden with land mines by the Israelis, as it was so close to the Jordanian border. In recent years they dug up several of the land mines and built the road so people could go on a pilgrimage to the River Jordan to be baptized or re-baptized, depending upon your religious upbringing.
The reason for fenced roads and land mines leading to a very religious place……security. We passed a checkpoint, which would prove to be a common occurrence in this land. Along side the road were some buildings that clearly had been shot at and bombed at one point during past conflicts, namely the 1967 war. Our driver pointed out the bullet holes….. We parked and headed for the famous river. What we found was a rather brown and narrow river where three distinct religious groups had gathered with the explicit purpose to be
View of Jerusalem
From Mount of Olives
baptized. We surmised that they were groups from Thailand, the States and Russia.
Now the river is divided by what appeared to be lanes, as it was pointed out that the other side of this river was in fact, Jordan. Any attempt to swim across the river would probably not turn out well, as both sides had armed guards watching over the ceremonies. The participants were almost in a state of rapture, as this is a very special religious place. Although we must admit that in this Israeli location, the tourists were busy getting their photos taken with the young military conscripts holding big guns.
We passed to Jericho, which is known as “the oldest city in the world.” On this trip we’ve now been to several cities all claiming to be the oldest city in the world. Although you can see the crumbling walls of Jericho….there’s not much else. On the drive back, we stopped and were treated to a stunning view of St. George’s Monastery. Whereas most of these religious enclaves can be found high atop some mountain, this one was down in a valley. It was an amazing structure. Well worth the effort. Bethlehem- Church of the Nativity
Our visit to Bethlehem was nice but the town didn’t look the way we wanted it to. We had this fairly tale vision that it would be a quaint little picturesque town and that’s not the case. It’s just another town with a famous church….but what a church it was!
The Church of the Nativity is where Jesus was said to be born. This alone makes the visit a very heady experience. Whether you are a Christian or not, this is a World Heritage Site with a tremendous aura about it. We were disappointed because the entire church is undergoing restoration, which takes away from the general ambiance. It is great that so many wonderful sites around the world are being maintained but it does impact your ability to appreciate this church.
We entered a long hallway with several yards of scaffolding high and wide, plus multiple tarps and finally made our way to a small tunnel that lead us to the alter. It was lovely. Interesting lights hanging from the ceiling and magnificent artwork hanging on the walls sets the tone for an interesting walk. It is really three
churches in one, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian.
As we worked our way through this impressive architecture we were taken into the basement to the crypt below. The room was too small for the number of visitors jammed in wanting to glance at the birthplace of Jesus. Certainly our pictures won’t do it justice but it was ornate stone and marble and decorated with religious drapes and tapestry. They also pointed out the manger where he was placed after birth. While standing around looking, absorbing and taking photos we were instructed to sing Silent Night. Some participated and some didn’t but it was interesting to look into the eyes of those in the room to look at the intensity of their faces and try to determine what they were thinking and feeling. It was obvious some were having overwhelming emotion. We continue to walk the grounds of the church and hear about key historical information from various periods of time. Masada & The Dead Sea
Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is popular site south and east of Jerusalem. Built high on a butte, it appears impenetrable from ground level, but that
The Dead Sea
Has shrunk 100 meters since 1980
certainly wasn’t the case, as it was sacked more than once. The views are stunning from here and we felt lucky to be there before the weather gets too warm, as it is located in the middle of a desert area. It can be considered as somewhat like the Alamo in that there weren’t any survivors of the last overwhelming attack. The ensuing battle wiped out the Jewish garrison and is important in that it would be some 1900 years before another Jewish state would come into being.
Our way back to the City of David (Jerusalem) included a stop at the Dead Sea, where we sat and relaxed on a beautiful afternoon. As we looked across the sea, we were able to recognize the hotel we stayed at less than a week before when we were in Jordan. Just a short way away, but it could take up to 5 hours to drive there as we are told the border crossing between Israel and Jordan is unpredictable in length. The Holocaust Museum
The next day saw us dealing with our emotions as we visited the Holocaust Museum. While it is the only “free” museum
in Israel, the raw emotions that one experiences from visiting exacts quite a toll. We’ve been to a concentration camp in Germany and the Killing Fields in Cambodia and you leave mentally exhausted from all the evil that you see right in front of you. Man’s inhumanity to man certainly has no bounds when you see the exhibits and hear the tales of the innocent families who lost so much, including many times, their lives at the hands of ruthless invaders. But it is so important to go….so you never forget.
To raise our spirits a bit, we went to the Israel Museum where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed. A very interesting experience to be sure, along with a quick pop into the “Nano Bible,” where the entire old testament is on a chip the size of the end of your finger. No, you can’t actually read it, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We perused other parts of the museum as well and concluded it was well done, but we’d spent enough time there. We both have this innate feeling that comes across us when we know we’ve spent enough time at a certain museum…..and then it’s
St. George's Monastery
Outside Jericho, Israel
time leave…. But wait….there’s more…..
But Israel holds even more religious history as we discovered when we visited more archeological sites, including Capernaum, a town on the Sea of Galilee, a fishing village that Jesus used more or less as a home base for a time. This is also where he met most of the men that became his Apostles. It is also home to St. Peter’s house, which was discovered by archeologists. The significance of all these religious places is quite fascinating and illuminating. Many flock to these places and truly enjoy being in the same place where Jesus once lived. Again, groups from various parts of the world came together in song.
The Sea of Galilee is a beautiful lake with vibrant green colors in the sun.
Close by to all of this is the city of Tiberias, which is better known to Dave as the middle name of James Kirk, Captain of the Spaceship Enterprise. It is home to even more Christian and Jewish pilgrimage sites that date back many centuries. We spent two nights there at a hotel that is actually part of a kibbutz. More on that in a
It is a constant state of amazement how much this small country contains. The northwest part of Israel where we spent just a few days allowed us the opportunity to visit an artist’s colony and the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights were occupied by Syria before the 1967 war. The Syrians used to lob shells down into the valley where many kibbutzes were located, until the Israelis utilized a spy who ended up in the position of Undersecretary of Syrian Military Defense to cripple weapon positions, allowing the Israeli to take control of the Golan Heights, which later became home to some wineries, whose products we really cannot endorse.
The Golan Heights were part of Israel then part of Syria and now part of Israel, possibly this land changed hands a few more times historically. We went to a viewpoint a half-mile from Syria. The U.N. center was pointed out, we could see fences and check points and Syrian towns in the distance. While standing there we heard a loud noise, when asked about it he calmly said it was gunfire in the distance. The guide then began to discuss the war in Syria and explained the
Sunni’s and the Shiites’. So many wars begin over religious difference. Long story short there is a lot of trouble going on in Syria and it is likely to be for many years to come. It is seemingly a never-ending conflict with no end in sight. For now, there is for us, the visitor, an uneasy peace. We confess that we don’t understand very well, we remain almost as confused as when we arrived over one week ago about a conflict that arose from religious differences, post-war British mandates that affixed borders that have shifted almost every decade in response to…..wow….we’re still confused.
Again as we traveled we sign the yellow signs posted on many fences warning not to enter that area because of land mines. The ownership of the tracks of land have changed multiple times over the years and no one really knows where all of the land mines are located. It is a slow and costly process to remove them. It may take decades. The Kibbutz
A kibbutz is a commune. At first we envisioned a 60’s free –love community but that could not be further from the truth. The kibbutz is
Tower of David
Old City Jerusalem
an organized group of working people living together for a common purpose. They also run businesses on the property and this is very different from the ones we were familiar in the 60’s of California. The one we visited on our tour had a plastics manufacturing company and a large agricultural concern. They attempt to grow many of the things they will need. They earn additional money providing lunch and a glimpse inside the fence. All for one and one for all. The houses are the same size for the most part. Each year, they vote on who will do what jobs. It may be your year to work in the kitchen or in the fields. Others can apply to join the kibbutz; they make application and work for a year and then the group votes. You must pass by a 2/3 majority. One of the hotels we stayed at was a business for a kibbutz community but it didn’t have the same feel as the one we visited along the Syrian boarder. Nazareth
The Church of Annunciation was marvelous. Spartan compared to some churches but tastefully done and it took your breath away. Simplistic in
Golan Winery Tour
So....would you like like some red or white?
its beauty. The mosaics were outstanding. Each country around the world donated a plaque to celebrate Jesus and provide a representation of their local people. These were extremely interesting and it symbolized a unity among nations around the world.
If you go to Israel please do not miss this stop.
Before we came to Israel we were aware that in recent weeks there had been several stabbings among the locals. This area always has tension but nothing had been aimed at tourists. The morning before leaving Israel we read in the newspaper about an attack in Tel Aviv where an ex-military tourist was stabbed by a Palestinian. Certainly more to the story…. We learned a great deal, but left more confused than when we arrived, due to the complexity of the region….oh well…Next time you hear from us we will be practicing our yodeling.
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