Last year, one of the stops on my vacation was Israel. Israel was lower on my bucket list, and
the fact that our trip stopped there for a couple days wasn’t a big selling point to me. I was interested in Istanbul, and in Athens (which turned out to be somewhat of a bust, as I described here). As it turned out, the Israel trip was a highlight.
The first stop was in the port city of Haifa, in present-day northern Israel. Evidence shows that Haifa has been occupied for over 3,000 years; in the past 70 years it has frequently been a scene of turmoil between Arabs and Israelis. Haifa is also the location of the famous Bahá’í Gardens. However, we spent no time in Haifa itself. We contracted for a private tour guide who would concentrate on the archeology and history of the area, without reference to a “Holy Land” tour. Our guide was Pittsburgh-turned-Israeli, rabbi-turned-secular, well-versed in history and perfect for our group. We made a circle around the Sea of Galilee, bypassing the Palestinian-controlled areas due to the difficulty of going through security.
One of the first places we stopped exists solely as a tourist attraction of sorts.
It’s a place on the Jordan River, although you can tell from the pictures that it’s not a river at this location, and the water is a funky blue-green normally associated with water rides at Six Flags theme parks. The water was also very nasty, smelly, full of minnows, fish eggs, and nutria (aka “giant water rats with orange teeth”). The government has built an area for pilgrims, marketing it as the site where Jesus was baptized, although there is slim evidence that this is the actual site. Of course, you exit through the gift shop where you can buy bottles of (cleaner looking) water, t-shirts, carvings, jewelry,
candles, soap, plastic key chains, bumper stickers, and all other normal gift shop items. Although there were many signs warning people not to go into the water, there was also an area built with steps, where tour buses of people were standing in line to be baptized here. I actually saw one woman scoop up a handful of water and rub into her eyes, while saying a prayer.
The entire place had a very Disney-esque quality, from the concession stands and gift shop, to the lines, to the rows of small trees planted with plaques indicating who had paid for or planted the trees: one was for John Hagee, a televangelist who urges Americans to support Israel in order to hasten the end of days.
We stopped in a small town and had lunch at a place known by our tour guide (of course), which was the fourth style of shawarma I’d eaten this week (the others being Turkish, Greek, and Armenian). This was a modern place, as they used electric shears to cut the chicken/turkey blend, and then added fries and felafel to the pita pocket. Yum.
Next, we stopped at a site in Capernaum. This was a strange experience. The place has been dated to around 200 BCE, and was abandoned sometime around 1100 ACE, according archeology evidence. It was not rediscovered until the 19th century. There is evidence that first century Christians had a church here, and one of the oldest known synagogues has been uncovered. At one time a Byzantium church existed on the site, but it is now owned by the Catholic church. Our guide, as I mentioned early, was American-Jewish, and the ticket taker was Palestinian. We noticed a rather heated discussion going on between them, and discovered that there had been some attacks the week before. The ticket taker refused to let anyone, male or female, enter the site if their knees were showing.
About half of us made a quick tour of the place, which has Roman artifacts, the remains of the ancient synagogue, and a Catholic church with a Plexiglas floor, which allowed you to view a dugout below.
The Catholic church claims this is the original home of St Peter and one of the first Christian home churches. (Note: I noticed the Wikipedia page for Capernaum assumes that all of the Gospel accounts of Capernaum are fact. YMMV)
On our way back to Haifa that afternoon, driving through the Golan Heights, our guide and driver got into a animated discussion, then suddenly turned down a dirt side road. The driver was a veteran of the Israeli army, and took us to see Soviet-built Syrian bunkers that he had helped capture during the Six-Day War. We also stopped on a hill, and overlooked the intersection of Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Lebanon.
From this distance, the land all looks the same.
- From the Hebrides to Haifa (annestormont.wordpress.com)
- Haifa (lauritasplace.wordpress.com)
- Israel Vacation – Tel Aviv, Israel (travelpod.com)