Sailing with Jonah to Joppa – Early morning traffic to Tel Aviv, past the airport, the busy downtown and through to the marina. Our guides had surprised us (maybe just me, the one who neglected to read the itinerary in advance) and had arranged for a sail on the Mediterranean down the coast from Tel Aviv to the old port city of Joppa (current day Jaffa or Yaffa). We zippered up our jackets, it being a rather cloudy day with a brisk wind, and strode bravely to the pier. The boat was a modern 40 foot sailing sloop skippered by a grizzled Romanian who hadn’t been back to his homeland in 20 years, maybe more. He owned another boat in Greece, if I err not, and perhaps had a home there, I don’t recall the minute details (probably too busy watching the tossing waves and pondering the thin string that is life).
We backed out of the dock, exited the marina and into what I thought were rough and dangerous seas. The certified sailors among us, our guides included, looked calm and collected—I watched them closely for that wild-eyed panic-stricken we’re-sinking-soon kind of look but it never crossed their bemused faces. Instead they made cool sailer comments to each other like “nice day for a sail” and “good thing we have a little breeze” and “ease the jib there.”
We sailed south in a heaving side sea, which made for a bit of a rough passage (in my humble land-lubbing opinion). To our portside lay the modern city of Tel Aviv and 30 minutes later the ancient city of Joppa came into view. The clouds slowly began to scatter, the sun shot through here and there and the water flashed as it frothed. We all quietly took in the panorama of the city where Jonah attempted his escape from God only to experience a fateful encounter with a whale. Joppa is also the place where Peter saw the crucial vision that changed his mind and heart about accepting Gentiles into the fledgling Christian church.
Bible reference: Jonah 1:3; Acts 10:5-16.
Western Wall Tunnel Tours – We rocked and docked back in the Tel Aviv marina and then motored the hour back to Jerusalem where we joined a large group just outside the Western Wall for the underground Western Wall Tunnels Tour. This tour is a must when in Jerusalem and is a breathtaking and awe-inspiring journey to the second temple period, approximately 2000 years ago, with glimpses of the first temple period from King Solomon’s time.
Our guide was a devout young Jew, respectful and knowledgeable. He said he had lived in Brooklyn for a time and also had been a teacher. Then COVID marched into town and so he went back to school, taking the two year guide’s course. Apparently you have to be a certified guide to lead tour groups through Israel.
The western wall tunnels tour was another highlight in my opinion. So much of what we saw has only been unearthed in the last few decades or so and is still an active dig. In fact, I believe part of it was closed due to archaeological activity. The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is the visible structure that you can’t miss, open to the public and something we had experienced and walked past a few times. This tour is a continuation of that same wall, but underground and deeper, revealing an awesome array of finds that include more of the wall, cisterns, ancient roads, arches and stairways. An impressive mind-boggling discovery was an Herodian stone measuring approximately 45 feet long and weighing 570 tons! Explain the mechanics of moving that!
The tour ends in an underground synagogue facing the rock wall that is thought to be the foundation stone for the Holy of Holies. It is the closest Jews can legally come to the original temple.
After emerging from the tunnels, we spent the afternoon in the old city, shopping and eating.
Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb – This was another one of those tranquil settings just outside the old city’s Damascus Gate. Hard to say how authentic this is but apparently accepted by some scholars as the site of Jesus’ death and burial. A hundred feet from the tomb is a small overlook where you can try to find the place of a skull in the small cliff that rises off the road. Some of the rocks have broken over time but once you spot it, it’s unmistakable. Old pictures of Jerusalem from a century ago show an old dusty road going by this place. There is compelling evidence as the spot for the crucifixion here with adjacent burial in the tomb. Once again, we were essentially alone here which was lovely. Quiet time for pensive thought and consideration.
Tel Beer Sheva – The ruins of Beersheba. This is another national park and a UNESCO world heritage site. This site is mentioned in the Bible – Genesis 21 says that Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer Sheva and lived there “a long time” (also Genesis 22:19; and the well fiasco: Genesis 26:32). Here it was that Abraham sent Hagar into the desert, the Negev (means dry place) with Ishmael.
Once again, you can see the reconstruction line between what was found preserved under dirt and what was added to later. At this site was also found an altar with four horns that appeared to have been dismantled and used in a storehouse wall. This is believed to have happened during King Hezekiah’s reforms. The stones are now in the Jerusalem Museum.
Beersheba also roughly marks the southern border of Israel – stated in the Bible as “from Dan to Beersheba,” Dan being to the far north.
Ein Advat – This I will call the Canyon of a Thousand Screaming School Kids. Not its official name of course but instead of meeting tourists, we met busloads of school children, doing their required visits to the national gems. It made the hike down into this picturesque canyon all the more interesting, in my opinion. We had many conversations with the children and their guides, most of whom wanted to practice their limited English.
This canyon features numerous springs and waterfalls emptying into deep pools. It was another lovely hike but our memories of it will be overshadowed by the kids, for sure. Not only the kids, but the only way out of this canyon is a one-way trip straight up the side where stone steps and ladders have been deftly carved and placed. The ladders, of course, hosted one person at a time and thus we ended up waiting close to an hour for our turn to ascend. Ahead of us were kids, beside us were kids, behind us were kids. And some scared kids as well, very unsure about the vertical ladder climb. In some cases it took a couple of guides/teachers to coax and help students up. We all cheered at times as another fearful child made it up. It was a great and pure Israel experience.
Princess Beach, Red Sea – After the canyon experience we continued south through the border resort town of Eilat, past the resorts and play grounds, and stopped about five hundred feet short of the Egyptian border crossing. We parked, crossed the road and crawled under a sign on a pier that said “absolutely no admittance.” No worries, we were not the only ones (signs like this are considered “suggestions” in Israel) but the beach here was almost deserted. At the end of this pier you may find lovers looking into each other’s eyes or perhaps peering at their reflection in the water. You will also see brave souls snorkeling around the dock, filming like mad and watching the gorgeously multi-colored fish. Our guides, who thought of everything once again, had brought bread and we enjoyed providing a flurry of fish activity for the snorkelers. The kids would scream through their snorkels with excitement as fish, colored every hue of the rainbow, turned the water into a small vibrant maelstrom.
From this point on the beach we could see the confluence of four countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
After the beach encounter we proceeded to the Bedouin tent experience which I have chronicled elsewhere.
Night in Eilat, Red Sea – For night we climbed high up above the city of Eilat and found our quaint little inn nestled up close to the border of Egypt. We watched the carpenter’s daughters play a vicious game of ping pong in the outdoor sitting area before petting the many cats and finding our rooms.
Red Canyon – Another unforgettable early morning hike down a Wadi, or dry river bed, into a carved canyon. You can get here early and not have a worry about going around gates or crawling under barbed-wire fences—a big plus. Just come early to beat the crowds. We thought we had the canyon to ourselves only to catch up with a young lady intent on capturing the perfect Instagram photo. We waited on her numerous times as she made her way down ladders and the steep spots into the narrow-necked gorge. And it was more than Instagram-worthy – eons of water had carved an absolute work of art into the rock walls: red-ribboned, mauve lines, with subtle grays arching and curving around, dropping lower and lower, necessitating the ladders, already mentioned, in places.
As we had a full day ahead of us we did not linger long. The route back, like many here in Israel, circles up and around, so one does not have to battle crowds coming down ladders. This is a place I shall return some day—indeed I built a stone statue as a memorial to this vow.
Salt Mountain – Site of Lot’s wife and don’t look back. Mountains literally made of salt. They believe Sodom and Gomorrah are under the salt sea, that is the Dead Sea. We parked beside the road and climbed the steep, narrow and rather exposed wooden steps to the top (an exhausting ten minute hike) where we could survey the Dead Sea immediately below as well as an early salt mine camp on the shores. The rocks on either side of the trail were composed of crystalized salt, extremely hard, almost impossible to break off. We, that is I, licked one or two outcroppings to check for saltiness. Yep, salt.
Tel Arad – As I should have mentioned earlier a “tel” is a “mound” in Hebrew. Over thousands of years, settlements, towns and cities rise and fall, through natural disasters, wars, famines, whatever. Ruins develop. A new population comes and builds on what remains and the cycle continues. Over time a mound appears that hides and houses ancient ruins. Many of these have been and are being excavated in Israel.
Tel Arad is located on the eastern edge of the Negev desert and is the site of a Canaanite city from the early Bronze Age. This city is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. Joash knocked this city to the ground and destroyed the altar built on what was considered a forbidden high place. Numbers 21:1 and Joshua 12:14. It was windy here and we did not linger long. We did linger long enough, however, for Emese to make friends with two cute little puppies and one curious Canaanite cat.
Herodium – A manmade mountain, another palace, and the final resting place of Herod the Great, all within 10 miles of Jerusalem. This volcano-like ‘mountain’ dominates the skyline looking to the southeast from Bethlehem. Herod, as we already know, ruled Judea from 37 to 4 BC and was a builder on a megalomaniacal scale, responsible for constructing not only the port at Caesarea, the fortress at Masada, but also the second temple at Jerusalem. This palace was the final golden nugget in this mad genius and master builder’s jeweled crown. According to Josephus Herod actually raised this mountain by hand, or by the hands of slaves or, as some suspect, paid workers. At its base stood a small city; on top four towers gave way to a commanding view of the Judean desert, the Dead Sea, and the distant land of Moab.
This extravagance was known as a pleasure palace and it is believed that it was here the Magi, or Wisemen, came to see Herod. It was from here that Herod likely ordered the brutal massacre of the innocents and no doubt the peasant Jews looked upon this terrible hill with loathing and fear. Later, after Herod’s death and during the tumultuous years surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem, this place also housed Jewish rebels. The remains of rituals baths and a synagogue have been found that attest to Jewish occupation.
This site has been an active dig for many decades but in 2007, after 35 years of dusty labor, the archaeologist Ehud Netzer announced that he had finally discovered Herod’s long lost tomb on the mountain’s north slope. Here they uncovered a lavish two story mausoleum surrounded by a number of stone sarcophagi. One large sarcophagus was found decorated with pink limestone and exotically carved motifs – this is considered to be the final resting place of the brutal king. All the sarcophagi were found in a state considered to be systematically smashed to bits, likely by Jewish rebels who ended up hiding out here during the revolts, much like they did at Masada.
Our visit here was only slightly overshadowed by a cold wind. Again, these ruins are mindboggling in scope, history, and meaning. The scale of work archeologists have undertaken here is fantastic. They have unearthed a long outer staircase that runs up the mountain, and, as one climbs higher into the rock cut, you walk over and under classical arches that must have been magnificent in their day. There are long curving underground tunnels to explore, hideouts and ancient water cisterns—everything here gives this tingling aura of intrigue and mystery.
Bethlehem – Finally, Bet-le-hem (the “h” a guttural hash in the back of your throat). The place we’ve sang about and imagined since as far back as we can remember. Located only a stone’s throw from Jerusalem but in the West Bank and thus under Palestinian control. I think we all agreed that our visit here was rather anticlimactic. It’s hard to say why exactly. It was cold here and raining which may have affected our Christmas and nativity spirits. The shepherd’s fields are very steep, green now, flower-filled and rocky. The Church of the Nativity, another huge monstrosity of worship, is built over the place where Jesus was born. They rushed us into the grotto to stand behind a band of East Indian Christians who were filming each other in ecstasy on their knees, touching what is believed to be the rock of the cave where Jesus was laid in a manger.
It was interesting to see the shepherd’s field, for sure, but hard to connect with Jesus’ birth in this place.
I celebrated my birthday in Bethlehem at a sweet shop. We tried an amazing assortment of baclava and then had the curious and amused lads behind the counter box up a nice assortment to take back to Bristol. Perhaps we can return here one day when the weather is more favorable and slip into a pensive mood, considering more keenly the birth of Jesus.
Jordan River – This is supposedly the authentic baptism site of John and Jesus. It is also the place where Naaman dipped seven times and the Israelites crossed the Jordan. A lot of momentous history for one small unassuming slice of earth under heaven. The river here is a narrow strip, muddy brown, reeds on both sides, quite different than the lush, green, attractive spot in northern Galilee.
This place was watched attentively by two young female soldiers in full battle gear, giggling to each other and taking the odd selfies with tourists. These were girls who told me they could certainly “take” the large imposing soldier figure on the other bank – the Jordan River marks the border with the country of Jordan and there was a solider guarding that side, technically an Israeli enemy.
There were a few small church groups baptizing but overall not very busy comparable to the warmer summer months. One presumably African-American pastor kept up a solid encouraging banter from his place in the waist deep water; he finally said in exasperation to his shivering, reluctant flock: “Come on people, hurry up, I don’t wanna freeze in here!” He took one rather large lady, attempted to dunk her, and when she proved fearful and anxious, pulled her back up, looked her sternly in the eyes and said, “Now, Karen, get ahold of yourself!”
The Zacchaeus tree – We screeched to a halt in the city center of Jericho, a few feet away from a large eucalyptus tree guarding the entrance to a lovely garden. This is a symbolic spot more than authentic, obviously, but I can appreciate any place that is used as an excuse for developing such beautiful and tranquil settings . Once again, we imagine Jesus walking here and saying to Zacchaeus: “Make haste and come down, for today I must abide at thy house.”
Jericho – Widely accepted as the oldest city in the world. We took a cable car up and over the dig and on to a station built into the side of a cliff on the mountains overlooking Jericho. This is an active dig with archaeologists working on the day we were there, and thus not accessible to tons of tourists trampling. Apparently Tel El sultan (as the old Jericho site is known) has evidence of 20 civilizations, one built on top of another over eons of time. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around this. See the picture below to get a glimpse into the archaeological logistics of a dig of this caliber.
They say archaeologists have found evidence of an ash layer that corresponds to the dates that God, through Joshua, destroyed the city.
At the bottom entrance to the cable car sat a lone camel, sitting proudly (or majestically, depending how camels fit into your overall worldview) waiting for tourists to take the very short ride for their Instagram photo—literally the camel stands up, you shoot the photo, and then sits back down and continues to look proud (or majestic). As we walked by the animal glared haughtily (or majestically) at us as if he well knew that Mennonites would not be sitting on his back for pictures anytime soon.
Jericho Road and Wadi Qelt – Ok, so maybe this was the highlight of the trip? Heath and Jeanie possibly saved the best for last and knew what they were doing. This was water passage, cliffs, caves, goats, Bedouins and endless history all combined into one, like a grand finale firework explosion. Welcome to the Jericho road hike. This is a well-known route that spans the distance from Jericho to Jerusalem along a narrow canyon, through which runs an ambitious little stream. Along the upper trail, running along a dusty ridge, there follows a small aqueduct that has carried water over the eons to various villages. The current canal is a concrete structure, algae lined and leaking, but still carrying water. At one spot an ancient Byzantine bridge supports the aqueduct, crumbling, but without complaint, standing there still in broken Roman glory for our pensive pondering.
We took the upper trail downstream, hiked down a steep and rocky incline a few feet from the Roman ruins and then returned via the water route. This required a couple hours of crossing and recrossing the stream which was quite fast and turbulent at places, requiring our fellow hiker’s assistance. Flowers grew here in plethoric waves, green grasses attracting many a herd of goats. The trek was breathtaking and I, once again, made a vow to return. (These “vows to return” idea was given to me by Jeanie, one of our guides. This has been successful for her as they have returned to Israel three times now).
As the sun began its western slide, the evening began to chill and right about then, the brave little-van-that-could appeared. Some changed out of wet clothes and water shoes and we then began the next challenge: exiting the parking lot. Heath, who apparently was born in a four wheel drive, either did not realize this van was not a four wheel drive or simply did not care. We assume the latter. After a few fits and starts we managed to scramble and spin our way out of the steep potholed gravel parking lot and begin the narrow winding ascent to the top. I was already envisioning setting up a camp, procuring work as a herder, and trying to feed my family. But Heath came through in the end, once again, and eased the van back onto the blacktop and nosed towards Jerusalem.
Back to Jerusalem – One last visit to the old city. The cobblestones gleamed wet; cold, rainy, and windy with a rare forecast of snow for the next day. Just outside the Jaffa gate at a bright and shiny drugstore we stood in line a long while, waiting for the testers to come for the required pre-flight COVID swab. As it was Shabat (Sabbath) the testing center only opened one hour after the Sabbath ended and then, it seems, the testing nurses must not have got the memo. They were late and when they arrived they all looked like young Arab girls, dressed in bourkas. The whole crowd clapped and cheered when they arrived and they waved shyly and demurely as they opened their makeshift booths.
After testing we quickly ran up and back through the Jaffa gate to spend a few more shekels in the narrow alleys. One couple disappeared down into the mysterious passageways and emerged 20 minutes later with …. You guessed it! One last freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. They did not share and we have not forgotten this.
Abu Dis to Ben Gurion International – Early rising for all and departure home. Seared into my memory is a crowd of Orthodox Jewish men at the expansive international terminal in Tel Aviv. They are all standing in rows, reading from their Torahs, bobbing back and forth and lost in prayer before committing their lives to Air Canada, piloted most likely by Gentiles, or worse yet, French Samaritans. It was a full flight home, over sparsely populated Grecian islands, tracking up and over Turkey and across the Alps and Bavaria. I had the nostalgic opportunity to look down on Passau, Germany where we used to spend nights in a postcard picture-perfect town at the confluence of the Ills and the Inns Rivers. Brought back many memories of bygone missionary days and the time spent on the roads between Romania and Western Europe.
Night has come to the City of David
Street lights shine like an army of ghosts
On a rooftop a young boy watches the stars dance like angels…
Buck Storm – “Jerusalem”
And just like that ten days in Israel, a trip we’ve been planning for three years, is over. We gaze over the hills one last time, trying to get a glimpse of the Dome of the Rock, wondering again, for the umpteenth time, if we’ll make it to the airport without getting smashed to smithereens by these ‘amazing’ drivers. We dream of pomegranates and the stars dancing like angels over the City of David. We see the ghosts of the prophets and hear the footsteps of Jesus, echoing over the centuries, filled with meaning. Has this trip transformed our lives or brought us some profound spiritual insights or power? Probably not. But it has certainly brought the Bible to life and added meaning to the Scriptures. I cannot read the Old or New Testament now without thinking of the location where it happened; no longer is it some abstract place in my imagination. I am very grateful to have been able to make this trip and just as grateful to our guides for all their hard work to usher us safely through this turbulent land.
* * * * * * *
Here we are now over a month later and since we’ve departed parts of Israel have sadly erupted into chaos—rocks thrown by Palestinians met with brute Israeli force; missiles and airstrikes directed toward Hamas in the Gaza Strip; random shootings in Tel Aviv. We feel fortunate to have been spared this all but have to think of those living through this. For us it is astounding, horrific. For them, it is life and we think of some of the friends we made and hope they are well.
Ah, Israel. We shall return one day. I can already taste the fresh hummus, baclava, and pomegranate juice.
(All photographs used by permission from 123rf.com.)