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Published: November 16th 2009
Church of the Nativity (the birthplace of Jesus)
I am already starting to fall behind on my updates. I got back from Israel two weeks ago, still need to write two blogs about my various adventures in the Holy Land, and just got back from a weekend in Grenoble. I will attempt to update as soon as possible!
Anyway, back to Israel.
Jerusalem has a ton of tour groups that will take you just about anywhere in Israel on day trips (the country is so tiny that you can drive from north to south in just a few hours). I shelled out some shekels and signed up for a day trip offered through my hostel along with some of the people I had met there (one of whom, it turns out, is quite well-known for a series of commercials he made in New Zealand...other tourists recognized him immediately. Just think, I was sleeping next to a celebrity and didn't even know it!)
We met up early, piled into a van, and drove to Qumran. This is the where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves, which had been written and placed there by a very religious sect who it seems did little more than
study scripture and take ritual baths. You can wander through the ruins of their community and if you have lots of time (and lots of water!), you can hike up and see some of the caves. We had neither time nor excessive amounts of water, so we only stayed for a short while.
We went to Masada next, which is a fortress on top of a mountain/plateau. Herod built a palace there at one point, and it was later taken over by a group of Jewish zealots during a revolt. They held off the conquering Roman forces for ages, but ended up committing mass suicide instead of becoming prisoners. The only survivors were two women and a few children, who were able to tell the tale of what happened to historians. Although the death of one thousand men, women, and children is awful, it is seen as a great act of Jewish courage.
The ruins on top of Masada look out over the Dead Sea and gorgeous Israeli desert. You can walk up Masada, but that's really only a feasible option before dawn (it was already 90-95 degrees at 9:30am). We took the cable car, explored the ruins,
saw a French kid having his bar mitzvah, then walked down. Even walking down was probably not the best idea...we were magenta, sweaty, and thirsty after the half hour jaunt down the mountain.
Fortunately, we were able to take a dip in the Dead Sea immediately afterwards. Too bad the Dead Sea is not a clean, refreshing body of water. It's about 30% salt, which makes floating easy (the posted instructions: walk in until you can squat. squat.) It also means that you are really itchy, and just pray that you don't get any of the water in your mouth or your eyes! We thought we'd test the water because 30% salt doesn't sound that bad, right? Just the tiny drop I licked off my finger was worse than I had imagined or can describe. The Dead Sea is also known for it's therapeutic mud, so of course, we slathered that all over ourselves. I'm not sure if it worked its therapeutic magic or not, but it certainly was fun!
After attempting to wash the salt off (it didn't work...my hair was weird and salty for days afterwards), we drove up to Jericho. Jericho is in Palestine, actually,
but we were waved through the checkpoint without even being stopped. Oh, the power of being a tourist. Jericho is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (10,000 years!) However, over the course of those ten thousand years, it has been destroyed numerous times, so it really just looks like a typical Palestinian town. We ate falafel and climbed the six or seven floors up to the restaurant's roof for a fabulous view of the city. The Mount of Temptation was on a mountain in the distance, but the sun was already setting so we skipped the cable car ride up there. I bought some sandals made from camel leather, saw a peacock in a parking lot, and we finished up by viewing the ruins of a Muslim palace as the sun was setting. We stopped by the Mount of Olives on the way back to Jerusalem and were able to the see the city at night. It's absolutely beautiful, and I wish I had had more time to spend there.
I had wanted to go to Bethlehem, but I didn't think it would work out. Bethlehem is in Palestine and everyone makes a big deal
about Palestine, safety, crossing the checkpoint, etc. and I let them psyche me out a little bit. I was lucky enough to run into two Irish women I had met on the walking tour, and they mentioned they were going to Bethlehem the next day. Since they didn't mind me tagging along, we met up very early so that we could cross the checkpoint back into Israel before lunch. We paid 6 shekels, climbed in a bus, and took off towards Bethlehem. We were dropped off about 15 minutes from the main square and saw the Milk Grotto (where they say Mary stopped to feed baby Jesus and a drop of milk fell and turned the red rocks completely white...women trying to get pregnant often swallow small pieces of the rock) and the Church of the Nativity (marking the location where Jesus was born) before 9am.
It's hard to imagine that people actually live in Bethlehem because it just seems like the little village should be preserved exactly as it was when Jesus was born there. Instead, there are markets, tea shops, and everything else you'd expect to find in a normal town. The Irish women didn't want to
stick around after seeing the major sights, so we found the bus back to Jerusalem. This time, we actually had to get out of the bus to go through the checkpoint. I just flashed my passport and was allowed to pass. The Irish women had left their passports in their hotel, and things could have ended very badly. The guards were feeling nice, though, and let them through with just a warning to bring passports the next time. Other than that small hitch, we made it back to Jerusalem with enough time for me to find some falafel for lunch.
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