The following is a thumbnail sketch of our expedition with National Geographic to Israel and Jordan.
We missed by a couple of weeks the chaos in Israel by the announced movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Canton to NYC from CLE to Newark. Then a train to the train to Penn station. Worst trip ever. Stayed at the Belvedere at 48 and 9th Avenue. Nice.
Quick stop in Brooklyn to see Emily and Guy for lunch and pick up my replacement boutique sunglasses.
NYC to Zurich
Overnight flight to Zurich. Seven hours. Pastry and coffee in the airport on layover. $25 US. The lady says, “welcome to Zurich”. Oh well, it’s vacation.
Zurich to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and American Colony Hotel
On arrival at the airport we were whisked away by a Nat Geo driver along with two other travelers with our expedition. Great experience…we avoided the “cattle car” bus from the tarmac to the terminal with our driver. Then, we zipped through customs and immigration ahead for the national football team (soccer) that was arriving as we were.
The American Colony Hotel (our home base for the next six days) a 19th century mansion converted into a luxury boutique hotel with all the modern amenities including a courtyard and its own cat. We arrived just in time to hear the “call to prayer” from one of the mosques nearby. More surprises at the restaurant. In a Jewish Muslim country, the biggest surprise is porkchops on the menu. Did not try them but had a light dinner and dessert with coffee. The waiter should have said, “welcome to Jerusalem” like the lady in Zurich because the shock was the bill $$$. Oh well, it’s vacation.
Walked Nablus road to the Damascus gate of the old city where we saw our first “Check Point”. Walked the souk in the old city. Observed a procession of Christians carrying a large cross (as walking the way of the cross) singing in Spanish.
The souk was crowded with shoppers of all size, shape, and religious background. Most of the walk was uphill. Many branches but finally made it back to the wall of the City and left through the New gate. It was a 3 plus mile walk combined with the time change resulting in a long nap before dinner.
We met our guides at dinner that night. Aziz Sarah and Alex Stein along with Juliana Otalvaro. We met the rest of our expedition companions. Many of these travelers joined Nat Geo on many prior expeditions even the “around the world on a private jet” journey to many destinations. More about them later.
Up early for a packed schedule.
On the bus with Mustafa our driver, Aziz, Alex, Simer Siam (local guide, a former OSU grad) and Juliana. Headed for the Temple Mount.
Security at the entrance of the Temple Mount was extremely tight. The line to enter lasted for 2 hours and luckily, we made it before there was a pause at the entrance. Glad we made it. Alex kept us entertained and provided some advice for us while we were on the site.
We got to meet the Imam of Al Aqsu Abu Sneineh mosque who gave us a rundown of challenges Palestinians face living in the West Bank. The Imam accompanied the one and only Muslim traveler in the group to enter the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
We were surrounded by ancient architectural monuments in every direction. The monuments have survived centuries. Some have been destroyed, conquered then rebuilt and preserved.
Then we found access to the Western Wall aka the Wailing Wall where pilgrims come to offer a prayer and to leave the prayer in a crack in the wall for God to answer in due time. This is not a coed wall. Men and women are separated at the wall. Furthermore, men are required to cover their heads with a kippah or yarmulke. A hat would do but the kippah was available to all in need.
There is no time limit on the stay at the wall. Some come and spend as much time as needed. The wall extends for a great distance. The wall was built by Herod the Great and is quite expansive. The wall has an enclosure next to it for a more private prayer location. There are no restrictions and guns are allowed by the military or police. All are welcome.
The separate but equal side of the wall dedicated to women acces is the same wall except it is cordoned off to avoid mixing men and women. Recent protests have been held demanding the separation be eliminated but there was none on the day we were there. All women are welcome.
We proceeded to the Via Dolorosa the Way of the Cross now incorporated into a souk but the stations are marked. I touched a rock said to have been preserved with the touch of Jesus at the station no. 5 where Simon helped Jesus carry the cross.
We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepluchre which contain two of Christianity’s holiest sites, the place of the crucifiction and the empty tomb where Jesus’s body was lain. Both of those site have been surrounded by construction by the crusaders and by other sects over the ages. The stairways are narrow and the day we visited, it was packed with pilgrims and tourists. But we did get to see the holy sites following the Via Dolorosa. An interesting tid bit is that the keys to the Church are kept and maintained by a descendant of the Muslim faith for over 1400 years. This is part of the status quo.
We then head to a restaurant nearby where we hear from a Rabbi about his communitie’s existance in Jerusalem. Each leader of a religious faith has a different take on the complexity of life in Jerusalem.
We proceeded to the Mount of Olives for an overview of the Old City. Below is an ancient Jewish Cemetary dating back 3000 years.
Later in the evening at the hotel we heard from a Lutheran pastor, a woman no less and learn of the next side of coexistance in the holy city.
We are up early to hear from a former Israeli intelligence officer colonel Gillad Eisin (on the left, Xavier on the right) on what it is like to be Israeli in Israel. The explanation of peace in Israel is the protection of Israelis is by Israelis and no one else. Israeli intelligence is two part, collection and analysis. The Israelis are good at both.
Then it is on to the city of David. At the City of David we met our passionate expert about the site, Franny Weisman. She spoke of the development thousands of years age of King David’s palace on the hill where we were viewing. She used biblical references in support of the location and the timeline. Many times she read in hebrew the passages then translated them into english for us to appreciate. As many locations in Israel/Palestine water is the key to success. He/they controlling the water declare ownership and control. Until recent excavations, much of the site was a parking lot. Now, it is revealing many secrets from the past.
We proceeded by bus into the West Bank to Ramallah and the seat of the Palestinian Authority. There we met with the ambassador in the Ministry of European Affairs. This is a different take on the state of Israeli/Palestinian relations. Hear we learned so much about the way Israel is an apartheid state. Palestinians are treated unequally by Israel. According to the ambassador, she is Palestinian and cannot leave Israel through the Tel Aviv airport but must travel to the airport in Amman Jordan. Palestinians do not have passports, only travel documents. There are checkpoints throughout Israel but there are separate checkpoints for Palestinians. Detention and delay is a part of the harassment that Palestinians are subjected to every day.
Lunch followed at a lovely restaurant. Then we had the treat of seeing Yassar Arafat’s Tomb since we were in Ramallah.
Left the hotel after breakfast as usual where bacon and sausage were served and headed to the Holocost Museum in Jerusalem. As the Holocost Museum in Washington is a sobering experience, so too is the one in Jerusalem. Visiting the Museum is a reminder of what a small number of radicals can to to a targeted ethnic group. Horrifying!
We were alotted two hours to visit inside the museum. Then we were to listen to a Holocost survivor speak of her journey after surving and being liberated. All of our group made it in time for the survivor lecture or talk except one that mistook the rendevous time and had to be rescued by our guide Alex. The courtyard around the museum is large with an absence of direction signs. So, being lost was easy to do but, we were all reunited. In addition to that episode of lost traveler there was the chant “Where is Howard?”
The terrain in and around Jerusalem is arrid and rocky and the hillisdes have been terraced to stabilze them to allow for agriculltural activity.
We traveled to Ein Kerem folowing the experience at the Holocost Museum. The main agriculture in this area is largely olive groves and vinyards. We enjoyed lunch in Ein Kerem and then proceeded to the site of Mary’s visitation with the family of John the Baptist. A spring there is said to have been where Mary drank while visiting the family.
We continued from Mary’s spring to the church of Saint John the Baptist. Inside there is a mosaic and cave where it is said John the Baptist was born. Along the way we found a convenient iceream store and enjoyed the universal after lunch treat.
We returned to Jeruslem and went to the old city through the Jaffa Gate. Some went to the coin store to buy antique coins to add to their collections. We spent time at the Armenian store in the Armenian section buying some artwork for home then trudged back Neblus Road to the hotel.
It was dark by the time we got back then it was time to head to the restaurant where we heard from Aziz and a friend, one Palestinian and one Jewish both of whom had lost a close family member to the conflict betweeen the two sides. Their answer is reconcilliation between people and nations and free negotiations between the leadership on both sides.
Up early again and headed for one of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the occupied terrirtory. The settlement is a new modern city inside a depressed area of the west bank. The mayor was very upbeat about the settlement and told of efforts to be a part with the community Palestinian residents in the area after all it is the West bank, occupied territory. Not all efforts have resulted in relaxed tensions but he seemed to be receptive of efforts and positive about the outcome.
Following the visit with the Mayor we stopped at a refugee camp south of Bethlehem that had been set up for those who fled following the 1948 Arab Israeli war. The camp is not modern like the settlement. There are tributes to palestinians that have been martyerd in the ongoing struggle for justice.
On the way we encountered something unusual. Many things are unusual but a recognized trademark was replaced with a local one. We did not stop to compare but found the sign remarkable.
We continued to Bethlehem and the church of the Nativity. The chruch is under reconstruction but still viewable in its entirity. The church is a combination of Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian. Saw the cave of the birth. Much of the church is construction around 325 CE. Mosaics from the crusade period from Saint Helena era.
Across the square from the church of the nativity is the Mosque of Omar, a recent (1860) addition.
We went to lunch at a restaurant called the Tent because it was like a tent. Some of the crew were smoking the hookah pipe which was common in these parts.
We did some shopping in a “fair trade” store. No bargaining but discounts were offered. We purchased some mementos.
We had a choice, go to Herodyon or return to the hotel. I went to Herodyon and Patty went to the hotel. It was quite a hike but worth it for the view of its security by being able to have 360-degree surveillance and a look at the history of the mountain top palace built in honor of the Herod the great. Roman ruins remain. The scale model presents a better idea of what it was like long ago.
A little rest at the hotel then it was on to Aziz’s parents’ house for dinner, Palestinian style. His mother and father and family members prepared the meal and greeted us like family. A picture of Aziz’s brother who had been killed by Israelis hung over the dining room where we were seated. We were entertained following dinner by a musical ensemble and the dinner table and chairs were set aside for dancing. Alex’s wife and daughter joined us, so there was a houseful.
This was a happy day. The sad part of this day is that Aziz’s parents must leave the house in the west bank and return to Jerusalem. They are not allowed to sleep in their home in the occupied territory. If they do stay overnight in the west bank they will relinquish their right to live in Jerusalem. These are the realities of the Palestinian plight in Israel.
We checked out of the hotel in Jerusalem on our way to more historical sites. We learned of efforts by environmental groups to preserve and purify the waters of Israel. Water is a crucial feature of the land from ancient times till today. Too bad there was no effort like this to clean up the countryside of the trash. It had such a resemblance to third world. Trash was of no concern it seemed. Lots of trash.
We went to the Israel museum and learned more of the history of the land. We saw the Dead Sea scrolls. There are exhibits of all era. Civilizations came and went in this part of the world. The scale model of Jerusalem helped understand all aspects of the geography of the old city.
We had a box lunch on our way to Jericho, the oldest city in the world. The trip to Jericho was interesting because we descended from an elevation of nearly 2,500 feet above sea level to nearly 900 feet below sea level. The difference in elevations produced similar conditions as that in an airplane. My ears popped like ascending or descending. Jericho was on the trade routes of the silk road and became a significant historical center at the time.
So, descending further, we arrived at the dead sea. There the elevation is 1,400 feet below sea level. On the way we saw so much agriculture. Date plantations were abundant as well as olive groves and vineyards. The area is such a rich and fertile area.
The dead sea is amazing. It is below sea level, the lowest place on earth. It is salty, really salty. The dead sea salts are said to have benefits for your skin. Most of our group wanted to give it a try so we changed into our bathing suits and proceeded to rub the seaside mud containing the salts on our bodies. I did so and did not realize that the mud was gritty and abrasive, but I managed to cover most of my skin with the black stuff like all the others. When I got in the water to float my body went on fire. The salty water on the abraded skin was an alarming combination, like a fire alarm.
Floating in the dead sea was something I practiced for in the Gulf of Mexico at Long Boat Key in September. I was afraid that it would be too cold for us since we would be visiting in November. Two things. One, it was hot at the dead sea. Two, no practicing required to float in the dead sea. You cannot sink! You become so buoyant that it is difficult to change from floating to standing. Like being on the innertube or air mattress trying to get up. Difficult, but doable.
Luckily there were showers where we could rinse off and change back to our traveling clothes. We changed and away we went to the next destination. More agriculture along the way to Ein Gedi kibbutz.
Ein Gedi a kibbutz unlike anything understood to this point. Fortunately, a secular rabbi gave us the story. The kibbutz is 61 years old. It is an oasis. It is on the site of a spring in the dessert. Settlers arrived shortly after the establishment of the state of Israel. The beginnings were for the good of all members and is so today. The kibbutz transition from strictly farming to select farming and hospitality. The kibbutz became a “luxury” spa. The surroundings are remarkably like my hometown, Phoenix. The mountains had a similar look and feel. The surrounding desert looked familiar but most of all was the plantings. There were palm trees and cacti. There was ground cover like home. I sent my sister a picture telling her “it could be Phoenix, but it’s not”. It was nice there, but we stayed only one night then it was on to Masada.
The desert formations on the way to Masada are incredible. A mix of the badlands of the US west and the Arizona dessert. Nevertheless, it is dessert. Masada sits high on a table top mountain. The scale model gives a Birdseye view of it. It is hard to believe that it is accessible at all, but it is. Then, it is hard to believe that it is indefensible. But it was. Luckily for us it was accessible via a gondola from the base to the top. We were reminded over and over to keep our admission ticket. If it was lost while we were on top, we would have to hike down. The tickets we held tightly, and no one had to walk down.
Herod built palaces there BCE. There were roman ruins including a roman bath and mosaic floor panels. It was later inhabited by Jewish rebels then in the CE Roman legions attacked the top to find the all the inhabitants had killed themselves rather than be captured by the Roman army. We learned a lot from Alex about Masada from the writings of Titus Flavius Josephus. The writings have allowed a look into the past and were so well presented in the present by Alex.
I’m still puzzled about water. There is no spring nearby nevertheless hundreds of Jews and Romans lived there in one time or another.
Now it is on to the Jordan River. We are going from the arid dessert to the banks of the Jordan with lush greenery there. Pilgrims were being baptized by full immersion where Saint John the Baptist baptized. Even though I didn’t go for full immersion in the river I did wash my hands in the Jordan like our partner, Juliana.
The remarkable thing about this site as with so many others in this country are the fenced areas with the yellow signs. The yellow signs are reminders of the past that could still be lethal to the unaware today and tomorrow.
Between the River Jordan and Beit She’an we were stopped at a checkpoint like so many other but, this time officers came on the bus unbeknown to me. I thought it would be a great time to take a picture of the soldiers stationed there with their long guns. Just as I was about to frame a shot out the window, I was tapped and scolded to “no pictures”. I didn’t try again. I almost got it. Not quick enough on the trigger, me not her.
Now on to Beit She‘an a site of historic importance due to its location in the northern part of the country. But, the site has many iterations from prehistory to Egyptian to Biblical to Hellenistic to Roman, to Byzantine to Arab to crusader to Ottoman to British to present day. Nevertheless, many relics remain for us to wonder about. This amphitheater left from Roman times served as a stage for Howard who did a wonderful job of performing for us all. We all tried for a “walk-on” part. And we discovered the solution to the bathrooms during intermission invented early but not so well recreated. The roads and walkways remain well preserved and well taken care of in this national park.
We leave the park and head for Tiberius and the Scots Hotel. Patty reserved a massage in the spa there before we meet for dinner. The Scots Hotel is a former maternity hospital. In 1999, the Church of Scotland decided to convert it to a unique hotel which would serve as a center of culture. It is a lovely boutique hotel with a great view.
I woke up early before sunrise then watched the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee and watched until it was fully daylight. Then we were off to the next adventure which was Capernaum the city of Jesus.
Capernaum is on the sea of Galilee in the north of the country. To be fully respectful, all visitors were required to cover themselves properly. That is to cover exposed skin like the knees. So, Aziz was ready for it. Three of the visitors wore shorts that day even after being advised to wear long pants. The solution was to offer the offenders a “dress”. It became a photo op and I think the guys liked wearing a dress because, they were in no hurry to take them off. Maybe it was because of staying in a Scottish hotel.
Capernaum where Jesus lived has been inhabited by many civilizations over the ages but is said to be the location where Jesus said to Peter, “upon this rock, I build my church”. The location of Peter’s house has been overbuilt at least twice since biblical times and now has a modern museum over it.
We left Capernaum traveling farther north to Banias in the Golan Heights. Group had a choice to hike to the waterfall or to hike to a more accesible site. I chose the Banias waterfall and Patty chose Tel Dan, the road less traveled along with some of the other members. We were so far north in the country that we were able to see Syria to the East and Lebanon to the north. The spring that produced the waterfall is a tributary of the Jordan river.
Banias is mentioned in the gospel of Matthew and Mark as Cesarea Philippi. There are ruins along with niches carved into the sandstone cliffs. The trail to the waterfall was rigorous. A lot of up and down. Here again, we saw the yellow sign warning of land mines.
We concluded the hikes and went to a restaurant near the spring water for a luncheon of fish and the ever-present Mediterranean spread of small plates. Some were happier than others that fish was the main course.
Following lunch, we drove to Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee for a sail and to raise the Nat Geo flag over our expedition. There was dancing on the boat but no walking on water.
We returned to the Scots Hotel to get ready for dinner with the group but beforehand, Aziz gave us a summary of his activities in Syria. Aziz had traveled to Syria refugee camps and started a school in Jordan for the kids of the camps that went to Lebanon and Aleppo. Thousands of refugees
Up early and off to Nazareth and the Basilica of the Annunciation.
Then we had lunch with a Druze family in Beit Jann. The hospitality of our hosts was offered freely at every instance. The Druze family had a sad and poinent story about the struggle and conflict. Our host was unable to join the Israeli army because a family member had been killed in the struggle. He went on to become a prison guard then a lawyer now a lawyer defending prisioners in Israeli prisons. His son now refuses to join the Israeli army and will spent one year in prison instead. Such rules in Israel are hard to take from ones of the outside, like us.
We proceeded to Jaffa following lunch for a quick tour and got to see Saint Peter’s church there. Jaffa is a seaside city near Tel Aviv.
Then to Tel Aviv, the “youngest” city we’ve seen so far in Israel. Young people biking walking enjoying the favorable weather on the shore of the Mediterranian sea. The hotel in Tel Aviv is luxury! We joined with the group in the King David lounge for snacks. None of us wanted to go out to find a restaurant.
Up early and off to Cesarea, an ancient Roman city built by Herod the Great. Like so many other cities of ancient times, it was occupied by following civilizations and preserved for us to see. We arrived at the beach and remnants of the aqueduct. There we met our Nat Geo archeologist expert, Beverly Goodman. She took us through the history of the sea port, the aqueduct and the area.
Tom Bauer and I were dropped off on the way back to Tel Aviv for a round of golf at the #2 rated golf course in all of Israel. Nice track. Rented clubs and played in sneakers. I played there as well as at home with my own equipment. Distance markers were in meters instead of yards. I always came up short, but 150 meters is 164 yards. But, I recoverd from the sand nicely. The $40 cab ride back to the hotel was luxurious, a Mercedes taxi, kind of an Uber thing.
I waded into the Mediterranean and watched the sun go down before heading to our farewell dinner. Part of our travel partners would be leaving us and not joining on our extension to Jordan.
Off to Eilat on the Red Sea. Quite a hassle at the airport but it is Israel after all and security is of utmost priority. The flight saved us waiting to cross into Jordan via the Allenby bridge. Delays of five hours are not uncommon. The flight down south and the ride back was shorter and besides we got to see the Gulf of Aqaba. It was sunny and warm, almost hot. Loved seeing the vacationers on the beach. All in all, Eilat is a modern city much like anywhere in the western world.
Then we experienced passing into Jordan. Passports and trael documents and fees and more hassle. There is a place known as no man’s land. It is the imaginary line between the two countries. And off to the desert headed for Wadi Rum.
Wadi Rum is a desolate location on earth that could be a movie set for a Martian based movie or a movie based on Lawrence of Arabia.
Oh snap, it is for both, the” Martian” and “Lawrence of Arabia” among othes. There are encampments for the strong willed but we stayed only for lunch and a spot of tea on to Petra.
Then we are ready for the trek to Petra after staying in the Petra hotel. Three and ¾ miles in and one way out. The way we came in, all 3 ¾ miles. Carts and horses were options but we opted for the safest way, on foot.
Jaber, our archeologist guide was our naturalist and interpreter. He helped us get there. It would have been hard to get lost but some have done so. None of our group though.
After a long walk in and out it was time to clean up for dinner at the hotel. There was so much dust on our clothes that we took them off and turned them inside out. Happy to have made the hike. We were sharing the hotel with another Nat Geo expedition. That expedition was one of the “around the world on a private jet” expeditions.
We checked out and headed for Amman Jordan. We are closing in on this journey but there is more to see. We visited the city of Jerash about 30 miles from Amman. Significant ruins from roman times remain there. Another Hadrian gate in honor of the roman emporer Hadrian and column lined streets. As in most roman cities there is the remnant of an ampitheatre. Entertainment is an essential part of life.
Now off to our farewell dinner at a traditional place. I would have preferred to stay at the hotel, the Four Seasons….luxurious. But, Jaber had made arrangements for a special Jordanian dinner with you guessed it, mediterranean small plates and chicken and lamb. We lost weight with walking and eating sensibly.
Off to the airport in Amman. One of our companions with a fairly early flight left the hotel before we did. She called from the airport to say that she lost her passport, perhaps in the van ride when checking through security entering the airport property. We were riding on the round trip van and found her passport and tossed it to her on our arrival. Her next destination was to be London. She was thankful for small miracles.
We had a short layover in London’s Heathrow airport. Not too much on concessions but a whole rack of vending machines. Kind of a food dessert. But we were treated well on the continuation of the flight to JFK where Emily met us and took us to a great hotel in Brooklyn.
We were on our way overlooking the Brookly Navy Yard. We had breakfast with Guy and Emily at Juniors in Brooklyn then to LaGuardia, Cleveland and home.
We learned a lot because there was a lot to learn. Now to get ready for Thanksgiving. There is so much to give thanks for.