Saturday, September 6, 2014

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Didn't you hate having to write those essays all through K-12 school?  Me, too.

Summer vacation was a trip with our church group to Israel.  We spent 10 days on the ground there wandering sites rich in history - Biblical and regional.  I spent the entire time in a perpetual state of Mind.Blown and came away with different perspectives on so much.  For an example of mind blowing, here's a gateway into a Canaanite city near the Israeli city of Dan.  This was taken at the Tel Dan National Park historical site - northern Israel, near the Golan Heights.  During our walk into the area we heard distant thunder that was undoubtedly either shelling or bombing from the Syrian war. 
This gate is approximately 4200 years old, and is made of sun baked bricks which were covered in white plaster.  The scale is impossible to guess in the picture, but the gate is seven meters high.  Anything in your town 4200 years old?  It entirely likely that Abraham, the father of both Judaism and Islam, walked through this gate. 

We saw and walked around an ancient Roman city, Tel Bet She'An, or Scythopolis, as the Romans called it.  (Tel is a Hebrew word which indicates the place is an ancient mound or site). The city was largely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 749AD and has recently been extensively dug out. It's referred to as one of the oldest cities in this ancient land; first settled five to six thousand years ago.  (Relics from the "Crusader Era" don't even raise an eyebrow here, and those are many times older than anything you'll find in Florida - or much of the United States.) 

We visited the city of Capernaum, where Jesus' ministry was centered, and spent three days in the area of the Sea of Galilee.  We spent six days in the vicinity of Jerusalem, including side trips to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  We walked under the currently occupied portions of Jerusalem, along the base of the western wall, now famous as the "Wailing Wall" that's a revered place for modern Jews.  Why this place?  Its proximity to the far western point of the old (destroyed, second) Temple - the "Holy of Holies" in Jewish Tradition.  (In a time of "Temple Denial" even saying there was once a temple there is somehow controversial to Muslims).  This is part of an ongoing archaeological exploration in as much of Jerusalem and the nearby City of David as can be accessed.  Outside of the "Old City" of Jerusalem, a current dig is exposing much of the City of David, and we crossed underground from the City of David to Jerusalem, using ancient water ducts - a few hundred yard walk that required me to stay stooped over to avoid hitting my head on a pipe and walk almost sideways, shoulders brushing along plastic sheets that covered the limestone walls.  I guess I'm a bit taller and wider than the workers who cut these tunnels 2000 years ago! 

We walked along roads and paths that were main roads and paths in the time of Jesus; we walked through places King David and Solomon or Boaz and Jeroboam would have walked.  In the Garden at Gethsemane (literally olive oil press) we saw a living olive tree said to be two thousand years old.  At the base of the western wall, underground, we saw stones the Romans put in place that were 30 to 50 feet long and eight feet high - stones that weighed hundreds of tons, yet were cut and placed against each other so precisely that mortar wasn't used.  One of the things that started to really stand out to me was how precise and well constructed the Roman buildings were, but they were often capped with walls built by later inhabitants (Byzantines or Muslims) who invariably did a much crappier job of construction.  Even the stones the Romans knew would be underground were finished better than the more modern construction. 

As an aside, I was always one of those people who said, "how can an educated person be a Christian?", strongly influenced by the press depiction of Christians as cousin-humping rednecks draped in rattlesnakes (our media, after all, still insists the Westboro Baptist Church is a real Christian organization).  One of the things that made me drop that view was a magazine Mrs. Graybeard used to get called Biblical Archaeology Review.  The articles regularly seemed to conclude stories about a major finding that included words to the effect of "we always thought this was just Jewish folklore, but we dug where we figured, and sumbitch - there it was!" (disclaimer: they didn't say "sumbitch"). The archaeology aspects of this tour really made it come to life.  Our guide had an encyclopedic knowledge of the places we visited, and especially deep knowledge of the Jewish and Christian areas.  His translation of Latin and Hebrew place names along with their traditions really made the tour the mind-blowing experience it was.  He made a point of describing spots with a 1-3 scale of how confident archaeologists are that a location is the one described in the Bible.  A "1" was described as certain - "X marks the spot" - down to a "3" being that the authenticity is a consistent legend in the area.  He would point out where one denomination would claim a certain location while other scholars would claim another location. 

The tour was a lot of day hikes in hot weather.  The main difference between Israel and here in Florida is that when the air temperature there was 95, as it often was, the "feels like" (heat index) would be close to 95.  When it's 95 here, the "feels like" temperature is usually 105.  The time of year affects that - summer has hot days but no chance of rain; November or December offer cooler temps but with more chance of rain and snow up in Jerusalem.  Water was $1 a bottle (half liter); the old cyclist's saying "drink before you're thirsty" echoed in my consciousness all the time.  Everything else was $4, or so it seems.  Long walk in the desert?  Ice cream bar is $4.  Diet coke is $4.  Most places take dollars, with an exchange rate of about 3.25 Shekels to the dollar.   

It would take more than just some idle curiosity about this place - where the great cultures of the world collide - to justify a trip from the US.  In many ways, it was the trip of our lifetimes.  Still, I'd have to recommend a trip like this to anyone who really wants to see and understand the region.  If you're Christian, it will change your world.  Our trip was arranged through Inspired Travel and on the Israel end, it was Sar-El Tours but be advised both of them cater to groups.  Our group was 50, one bus, but at one of our overnight hotels, a group of five buses from a mega-church showed up.  Neither of these companies seem likely to help a small family or individual. 

EDIT 1200 EDT 9/7 - A couple of typo and grammar fixes that only the truly Anal Retentive will notice.


  1. Great post. I was there in the early 90's on a business trip. Fortunately we got one day to tour Jerusalem with a guide. The next day hosts took us on a flight in a small twin turboprop and we flew the length of the Dead Sea including circling Masada. Not everyone has flown more than 1000 ft below sea level. This part was work. :-)
    I second your recommendation to visit, it is truly the trip of a lifetime.

  2. We went up to Masada, too. The dead sea is an interesting place. Saltier than the Great Salt Lake. 1300 feet below sea level - the lowest spot on earth that isn't ocean bed.

    The plants there all seemed to be things that grow here - or could. Citrus, avocados, olives, along with many flowers and weeds are the same as in Florida (Lantana, for example). The date palms are apparently marginal in most of Florida, because they prefer it much drier than we are. There's several web pages devoted to growing date palms here, but most stress the need to not water them. I'd think a summer as wet as the one we've just had would kill them off.

  3. Way back when I was working on my BA I took three required religious classes that were taught by a professor who spent his entire summers in the holy land and the mid East in general. He was an amaturer archaeologist and brought home many artifacts (this was before they put controls in place to stop it). His pictures and stories were amazing. He would rent a car, usually a VW for three months and traveled alone. When guides were needed he would hire a local sheep herder or shop keepers son. He was detained during the 1967 war and believed to be a spy. He had a knack of getting into something he shouldn't and coming out of it smelling like a rose. His favorite artifact was a 4000 year old "oil lamp" he found at a dig the day before it was supposed to be filled back in. A great teacher and a reprieve from what I expected to be boring stuffy religious classes taught by some old fuddy duddy.

  4. Wow....what a great vacation you had!

  5. Glad you had a good time.

    One with the means and the inclination can privately hire an Israeli tour guide (licensed by the Ministry of Tourism) with a van, who will show you plenty of things the group tours simply don't get to. Like the firing range at Kibbutz Ayelet HaShachar, which accommodates tourists along with the usual clientele.

    You pay for your tour guide, but you do get what you pay for.

    [Now that our son lives there, we let him show us around, so we don't need the tour guides anymore. He got us some good deals with some of his friends.].

  6. I am hoping to see some future posts and pictures of the trip and places you visit. I would especially like to have your "engineer" take on the buildings and aqueducts and infrastructure of the ancient people.

  7. A wonderful experience, which I will never be able to emulate, since I refuse to fly anywhere commercially. I envy your time there.

    Did your guide happen to mention that the muslims are busy destroying thousands of years of Jewish history and archaeological artifacts in the ground below the Temple Mount, which they were given control over? It is my understanding that they are trying to do all they can to erase evidence that the muslims/Islam/Mohammed had never actually had a physical presence in Jerusalem in ancient times.

  8. Great comments here. Expatriate Owl - having a family member like your son, or even a friend who lives there, would make a big difference. Really seems like the best situation. We went with this tour group because of their reputation. Our church has been touring with them 15 years now.

    Reg; I understand the reluctance to fly. I had the opportunity to fly El Al once. They do treat you differently, and question you rather than grope you. Plus, after the screening, you get real metal cutlery. Including a steak knife. The other thing about Israel's security is that you don't take off your belt and shoes. I walked through one of those metal detectors that looks like a door frame and that's all. No one touched me.

    And they did talk about the Muslim attempts to wipe out history. I need to write some more about that, but the link to the Temple Denial page is a good start.

    We toured around Dome of the Rock on the top of the Temple Mount. It was... interesting.

  9. I've been there once, but it was business, so no time to tour. But it sounds like y'all had a GREAT one!

  10. I took a subscription to BAR for several years as a teen. That is a neat magazine to be sure.

  11. So!

    Why as a former sceptic did you chose to visit Isreal?

    Not to challenge, simply interested as many acquaintances have gone, multiple times. Their overwhelming observance was that Israel was far more debauched than SanFran - comment?

    And, have you read Innocents Abroad?


  12. itor - Why visit Israel? About a zillion reasons. It brings a lot of scripture to life: to see the places where things happened; walk the same streets, see the way the light falls on things. It's incredibly rich in history, and that was the highlight of the trip for me. I came away even more impressed with the engineering and workmanship of the Romans. I'd always heard of it, but to see it, to be immersed in it, really hammered that home. But I suppose that's all up there in the post.

    I've never read Twain's Innocents Abroad.

    I would probably describe myself as pretty hard-headed, in the sense that I'm an engineer and I like my science rock hard. For me to get a feeling about the mood or "vibe" of a place is so unusual that it may have happened a handful of times in my life. Until the trip. It happened several times over there, most notably near the Muslim Shrine (Dome of the Rock - next post). That place made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

    My hard-headed side says that's pretty meaningless, but I'm just saying what happened.