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Published: April 5th 2017
A relatively short drive east of Akko took us across to the Sea of Galilee and the city of Tiberias. While Tiberias looked pretty run down in comparison with other Israeli cities, its main attraction for us was that its piers were the departure points for the famed 'Jesus cruises' that a number of us were keen to sample. For the uninitiated, these comprise a short journey around the lake, sailing on a wooden boat that was supposedly an exact replica of the famous boats that played a key role in Jesus' life in the Galilee. In the brochures, we were invited to "meditate, pray, explore and relive the life of Jesus Christ" and to "feel the power of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus miraculously walked on water". Unfortunately, we were unable to make a prior booking, and by the time we arrived in Tiberias, there was only one sunset cruise left for the day. This had already been hired out by a Korean tour group who very generously allowed a couple of us to join them, and in fact somewhat embarrassingly treated us like VIPs. While there was clearly a prayers theme amongst the various Koreans that spoke out,
it all went over our heads so we missed out on the "meditate, pray and explore" bit, and I'm not sure that we "felt the power" either, but it was an enjoyable cruise and an interesting experience.
With the accommodation options at Tiberias not looking very attractive, we ducked 'down the road' to Nazareth, where we stayed the night in a very modern hotel. The main attraction in Nazareth was the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is a modern Catholic church built over the remains of Byzantine and Crusader churches. For those of you not totally familiar with 'annunciations', this was the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God, marking his Incarnation. While relatively modern on the outside, it had all the internal features of a traditional church, including incorporating the cave in which Mary received the news that she would give birth to Jesus. Needless to say, there was the usual crowd lined up to check out this important section of the basilica.
Next stop on the schedule was Masada, situated close to the Dead Sea, but to get there by
the most direct route, we had to drive through the West Bank, which is Palestine territory. All indications were that despite having Israeli number plates, there would be no problems provided we did not deviate from Route 90, the main highway south. Sure enough, there were a couple of check points where we were inspected by young, bored-looking soldiers who gave us a scant look and then told us to proceed. It was actually quite an attractive drive, with considerable agriculture in places, which was in sharp contrast to the total lack of vegetation once we reached the Dead Sea and beyond. The Dead Sea, as you all know, is the lowest place on the face of the earth at over 400 metres below sea level, and the name could equally be applied to the surrounding countryside.
Masada of course has a significant history. It was built in 30 BC by King Herod and around AD 70 was used as a last stronghold against the conquering Romans by almost a thousand Jews, who eventually chose suicide over potential enslavement. The remains of the fortress of Masada are well-preserved and have been reconstructed in an effort to pay homage to
the site and its heroic inhabitants. This represented a bit of a nostalgia trip for me personally, because I can remember being here in the mid 70s and climbing both up and down the 'snake path' leading to the site in 40+ degC temperatures, that being the only option in those days. It was much cooler this time, and there is now a cable car in place which got us up there and back in 3 minutes each way!
One of the things most firstcomers to the Dead Sea region do is to take a 'float' in this extremely salty body of water. I can still remember doing this all those years ago, and I can distinctly remember that immediately I left the water, my body dried off in the extreme heat and before I even got near a towel, I had this cake of salt all over my body - most uncomfortable. So I decided to forgo the pleasure this time round, but since I don't want you to also forgo the pleasure, I have copied into the pics here, a shot of me from 1974 floating in the Dead Sea reading a book. Actually the main reason
for showing you this pic was that I wanted to show you how much hair I had in those days!
Our final stop in Israel was Eilat, which is right at the southern tip of the country, wedged between Egypt and Jordan, and bordering the Red Sea. This makes it a very attractive resort area for locals, given its favourable temperatures, the turquoise waters of the Red Sea, offering snorkelling, diving and swimming, and its proximity to desert mountains and canyons. For us, it was mainly a convenient location for us to cross into Jordan, but we did take the opportunity to visit the Underwater Observatory Marine Park beforehand. As well as the standard features like the shark and sea-turtle pools, there are two glassed-in observation halls in the Oceanarium, situated well below the surface of the water, offering a range of tropical fish with coral backdrops. My favourite item was the turtle who kept trying to jump the partition between two separate turtle pools but was never able to make it the full way (see pic).
So that's it for Israel. Anything out of the ordinary observed? Probably not, as in many ways it is not hugely
different from most other Westernised countries. One thing a number of us commented on was the number of feral cats wandering around in most locations - so we went from goats wandering everywhere in Oman to cats wandering everywhere in Israel. I wonder what we will see in Jordan. Stay tuned.
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