Monday, July 21, 2014

A Novice's Guide to Israel: Part Two

It's the intensity of the light you notice most. Everything -- buildings, trees, rocks, people -- stands out in stark sculptural relief. And Goethe's observation that "where there is much light, the shadows are deepest" applies to the political landscape as much as it does the terrain. There is no gray in Israel.
(All photos by LBG, 2014.)

We stopped at a Bedouin outpost where a convoy of camels awaited us. FYI, the hardest part of riding a camel is the getting up part.  First, they lurch upwards with their forelegs so you need to clutch the saddle to keep from sliding backwards, and then when they extend their back legs you nearly get catapulted head over heels. Once you're up, though, it's relatively smooth sailing.

Contrary to reputation, our camel was a jovial fellow.

We spent two days at the Beresheet Hotel which sits perched on the edge of the three million year old Ramon Crater. It's an entirely new genre of resort: "luxury science fiction."

Colonies of minimalist architectural villas rise up out of the earth like natural rock formations. Underneath the stinging gaze of the sun, you're hard pressed to distinguish them from the landscape.

It's a strange feeling to sit in a modern hotel room and gaze at the ancient world. Do you recall in the Bible the part where the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years to get to Israel? Well, that's where they wandered. Right down there.

One morning, we hopped aboard this sturdy Lego-like contraption and traveled down into the heart of the crater.

But in the Judean wilderness even all-terrain vehicles have their limits... we left our spaceship and trekked to this ancient motel frequented by weary ancient Spice Route travelers. Squint and you can almost see the caravans of camels bearing fabled spices, perfumes, silks, gems and precious salt on their way to the port of Gaza. 

After dinner one evening we were invited into a Bedouin tent for some music and mint tea. Outside, a fierce wind whipped the tent fabric causing it to undulate in time to the drumbeats. I sipped my sticky sweet concoction and was completely caught up in the romance of taking refuge from a desert scirocco in a goat skin beyt sha'r ("house of hair"). 

In Israel, every square inch of land is an open-air museum. You realize this of course after a day or two, but it never loses its ability to shock. I was gazing out the window when our tour guide suddenly remarked, "By the way, that's the valley where David fought Goliath."

We spent an afternoon at Yad Vashem, the national memorial to the Holocaust. After touring the underground museum with all of its profoundly affecting artifacts and video testimonies, you emerge into light and air and a view of the city of Jerusalem. The message is clear: Despite the horror, what endures is hope. 

When we visited Masada, a few in our group chose to hike up to the fortress at sunrise. I wish I could tell you I was one of them. The rest of us took the five minute cable car up to the top.

From the lookout points, you can still see the remains of the Roman ramp that breached the fortress walls when it was under siege in 73 A.D. It's horrible to think of the 945 Jewish rebels watching helplessly as that ramp slowly grew higher day after day, knowing there was no escape.

If heights don't bother you, by all means take the hairpin series of wooden steps which lead down to the Northern Palace, King Herod's royal villa. Very few people seem to go down there, so photo opportunities are spectacular.

On the way out, I couldn't resist taking a photo of this adventurous-looking nun in a baseball cap.

From Masada, the Dead Sea is just a short drive away. At 1400 feet below sea level, it's the lowest spot on Earth. I knew the water was going to be salty (at 34% salinity, it's ten times saltier than the ocean), but what I didn't realize is that it would be the temperature of a hot tub in July. However, the floating part is no exaggeration. You are so supported by the buoyancy of the water that you can pretty much fall asleep. In fact, I think my son did.

At the end of the trip, we flew to Eilat and took a day trip to Petra, Jordan. 

Again and again during this trip, I found myself invigorated by the emptiness of the landscape. There's still a lot of nothingness in the world. 

You can see the city of Petra on two feet or four: camel, donkey, horse. 

We opted for two feet because it seemed much more sociable.

From the main entrance, you walk steeply down a two kilometer sky-high gorge of sandstone that in one place is only ten feet wide.

Along the way, you pass ancient tombs and statues that date from as early as the 5th century B.C.

I was familiar with the famous Treasury building from movies like "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," but even though I knew it was coming, when I turned the corner and caught my first glimpse of that ancient facade through a sliver in the rock walls, it was breathtaking.

And there it was, rose red and half as old as time, complete with camels and costumed centurions to make the illusion complete.

While the children hid from the sun underneath the lantern-bedecked awning of a souvenir shop, my friend and I did some Bedouin-style bargaining to hire donkeys to take us up a nearby mountain. 

I'm happy to say we were successful. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Novice's Guide to Israel, Part One

It's said all roads lead to Jerusalem, so that's where I'll begin. 
(Old Jerusalem, June, 2014. All photos by LBG.)

I recently spent two days exploring this ancient city on a ten day tour of Israel with a group of friends. I've travelled to many holy places in my life -- the Vatican, the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the sacred Ganges in Rishikesh -- but Jerusalem feels totally different. It's holy not in a peaceful way but in a primal way. Entering the walled gates, you are immediately swept up in the noise and clamor and dirt and magnetic energy of the place and it doesn't matter if you're affiliated with any of the religions that worship here (I'm not), you're suddenly part of it.
(Southern wall of the Temple Mount.)

Getting around is no easy feat --  the streets are laid with ancient cobblestones (wear good walking shoes!), and some alleys are so narrow you have to flatten yourself against a wall if someone pushing a cart wants to get by. 

What follows is a highly selective guide to the top sites we visited. There are so many places we unfortunately didn't have time to see -- if you have any recommendations you'd like to share, I'd love to hear them!

1. Leave a note in the Western WallIt's a remnant of the ancient wall of the Second Jewish Temple (now part of the Temple Mount) and is considered the holiest site at which Jews can pray. 

I had someone I needed to pray for so I wedged my note into the wall (it's that large one) and stood there for a minute just taking everything in. On one side of me a young girl recited Hebrew verses in a quiet voice. On the other, a woman hugged her body to the wall and closed her eyes.

2. Walk the Quarters. There are four distinct quarters to the city -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian -- and I managed to make it to three of them. 
(Muslim Quarter, Old Jerusalem.)

If you get turned around, you only have to glance at the market stalls to find out what neighborhood you're in.
(Muslim Quarter, Old Jerusalem.)

(Christian Quarter, Old Jerusalem.)

(Jewish Quarter, Old Jerusalem.)

On our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a Franciscan monk suddenly sprang out of an alley and catapulted ahead of us. It was almost super-heroish. Apologies if it's not appropriate to view religious clothing through the prism of fashion, but I love his cassock, don't you? Completely utilitarian and yet so stylish: Martin Margiela, fall/winter 1300 A.D.
(Monk on a mission.)

3. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates from 325 A.D. and is run by a status quo committee of Christian officials -- Eastern Orthodox, Ethiopian, Roman Catholic and others. According to a centuries-old pact, nothing in the church can be touched or rearranged without everyone's unanimous consent. If you're already shaking your head over the perils of decision by committee, you would be absolutely right. See that ladder under the right-hand window? Because nobody can agree on what should be done with it, it's been leaning there for over 170 years!
(Church of the Holy Sepulchre.)

Think I'm kidding? Look closely at this etching from 1834 and you can see the ladder in the exact same place!
(The Immoveable Ladder, via)

(Interior, Church of the Holy Sepulchre.)

The little building below is called the aedicule and is where Jesus' body is believed to have been buried.

4. Walk the 14 Stations of the Cross. The Via Dolorosa, or "Way of Sorrows," marks out the path Jesus is said to have walked from the courthouse to where he was crucified. 
(Sixth Station, Via Dolorosa.)

5. Trek the Underground Tunnels (not for the claustrophobic). If you don't mind hip-high water, venture through Hezekiah's Tunnel, the ancient aqueduct that fed water to old Jerusalem. If you prefer to stay dry, go for Warren's Shaft. 

I took Warren's Shaft. Our guide wasn't kidding when he said it was narrow. It was like being in an Indiana Jones movie. The man ahead of me had to angle his shoulders to get through!
(Warren's Shaft, discovered in 1867.)

My husband and son naturally took the more adventurous wet tunnel. They came prepared with water shoes, swimsuits and mini flashlights. That beam is them finally emerging from the darkness -- it took them about thirty minutes to navigate all 533 meters. My husband's reaction? "Totally amazing, but at times the ceiling was so low and the water level was so high even I was a bit apprehensive." I decided I was very glad I chose the dry tunnel.
(Hezekiah's Tunnel, built in the 8th century B.C.)

5. The American Colony Hotel. That evening, we travelled into the West Bank to have dinner at a legendary old hotel that I'd been desperate to visit. Although officially in East Jerusalem, the American Colony has always had a neutral status, being owned not by Jews or Muslims but by Americans, British and Swedes. Everyone from Lawrence of Arabia to Winston Churchill to Bob Dylan has stayed there. To me, it's Jerusalem's Chateau Marmont: old-school, elegant and a little bohemian around the edges. 

We sat in an lush open courtyard surrounded by a symphony of foliage. The atmosphere was so magical that I recorded it on my iPhone -- clinking glasses, hushed voices in a medley of foreign tongues and the rustle of palm trees overhead, all wrapped up in the deep velvety intonations of a muezzin from a nearby mosque.

We did a little exploring around the hotel and stumbled on this underground bar (only open during the winter) and were told that it was the nightly meeting place for all the foreign correspondents who used to stay here in the 1930's and 1940's. Oh, if those walls could talk.

6. The King David Hotel. If the American Colony Hotel is Jerusalem's Chateau Marmont, then the King David is definitely the Plaza Hotel in New York. A soaring Art Deco edifice with gorgeous hand-painted ceilings, it's stately in a way that the American Colony isn't. If you're a world leader, you probably stay here. 

The carpet was a wonder unto itself.

We sipped cocktails in the gardens overlooking the old city and pretended we were a coterie of important dignitaries. It was wonderful while it lasted.

Leaving the next morning, we passed by the Israeli West Bank barrier wall. 

I'm already dreaming of going back.


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