Trip to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan
June-July 2008

(click the pictures for more pages of photos)

I had a fabulous trip to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. I was originally scheduled to leave on June 21, but due to work constraints I had to stay in Michigan until the 25th. So by the time I arrived, my friend Vandana had been there for four days already, touring around the Mediterranean coast by herself. We had arranged to meet in Nazareth at the Fauzi Azar Inn, a beautifully-restored old palace, and the plan went off without a hitch. I dropped my bags and we walked down for dinner in another old palace, then directly to sleep.

In the morning we walked around Nazareth, through the old market areas, and visited the Basilica of the Annunciation -- marking the spot where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. Around mid-day, we took the bus to Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee (more like a small lake), and checked into our hotel.

We then headed back to the bus station to go to Safad, a nearby town about 30 minutes away by bus. We were cutting it close, since it was Friday, and the buses would stop running in the late afternoon for the sabbath (shabbat). The guidebook said that the last bus back was at 4pm, and so we took the 1:30pm bus up there, thinking we'd have almost 2 hours to look around before coming back. Unfortunately, the bus broke down on the way (on a big hill in the heat), and so we waited by the side of the road for a new bus to come. By the time we got to Safad it was already 3pm, and the last bus back was at 3:30pm, so we didn't see anything of the town except the bus station. When the same bus driver took us back, he probably thought we were crazy. Safad will have to wait for the next time...

Most things in Tiberias had closed down when we returned, but we found a restaurant that was open and had some dinner. We took a walk along the Sea of Galilee -- there is a nice sidewalk promenade, and the weather was cool enough in the evening to be comfortable (although still quite humid). Then we went to the Papaya Bar for a drink, and met up with a bunch of US soldiers who were on a whirlwind tour of the Holy Land. They had taken a leave from their peacekeeping mission in the Sinai, and had an adventure as their bus driver (from Uruguay) got horribly lost. They filled us in on what sites were worth seeing around the Galilee region, and recommended the Mount of Beatitudes as the most impressive.

On Saturday morning we slept in, since there would be no buses going anywhere until later in the afternoon. We hung out at the hotel for awhile, checking bus schedules, and surfing the internet (free wifi in the lobby). We took a taxi down to the Hammat Tiberias, where there are ruins of an ancient synagogue, but of course that was closed for shabbat too. We did look around the outside, and then walked back along the lake, stopping at the beach to put our toes in the Sea of Galilee. The water was warm and clear, although the air was foggy (it was very humid).

We found another taxi to take us up to the Mount of the Beatitudes. Although the driver spoke English, he had no idea where we wanted to go, and had to stop and ask directions (good thing I had a map with English and Hebrew names). We finally got there -- it was a beautiful church and a lovely view of the lake. But while we were admiring the scenery, Vandana got a call from her family. Her father was going to have surgery and she had to go home (he is doing fine now). So we headed back to the hotel to rebook her flight, then she was off to the airport, and I was off to Jerusalem.

Nazareth and the Galilee

Views of Jerusalem

Mount of Olives

The hotel in Jerusalem was in a restored palace in the old city. No elevator, but beautiful marble floors and a fabulous view from the rooftop deck. I dropped my luggage and walked around the markets, but the shops were starting to close up around 8:30pm. So I went to sleep, then got up early and headed to the Mount of Olives. I hiked all the way up to the top, got some great views of the city, then stopped on the way down at the Church of Dominus Flevit (where Jesus may have ascended to Heaven) and the Church of All Nations and Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus may have prayed after the last supper). I wanted to go to the Russian Church of Mary Magdalene with the fabulous golden onion domes, but it is only open for a couple of hours on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

On the way back across the Valley of Jehoshaphat, separating the Mount of Olives from the city of Jerusalem, I met an Armenian priest who had said mass that morning at Mary's Tomb. He accompanied me back to the old city, patiently waiting while I took dozens of photos of the Mount of Olives from different vantage points, and told me about the book he is writing on the resurrection (you can check out his web site at

Back in the old city, I went up to the Dome on the Rock. Supposedly it covers the rock which is the foundation stone of the world, on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, and from which Muhammed ascended into Heaven. The dome is quite photogenic and I tried to capture it from multiple vantage points. From the Temple Mount I could also see back to the Mount of Olives and around the old city. The Al-Aqsa mosque is less imposing but also an important religious site. Non-muslims are not allowed to enter either, but it was interesting to walk around the platform, and see people going in and out of the mosque, mothers running after their children, and small groups of men or women sitting down in the shade to gossip and picnic.

In the afternoon, I went to the Citadel, the fortress next to the Jaffa gate. There were some exhibits about the history of the city, but the fortress itself was the best museum, with its towers and lookouts and walls. I also walked around the old city and tried to go in and out of as many gates as I could -- each has its own character.

The following morning I headed out to Bethlehem with David, a British guy I had met at the hotel. We took a bus from near the Damascus gate. Shortly after we left the bus station, a policeman came on the bus and checked everybody's papers, and one passenger was escorted off. We thought that might mean we wouldn't have to stop at the border, but most people got off the bus before we arrived at the wall. The bus let us off on one side of the wall, and we walked through security, waving our passports (nobody even opened them). On the other side of the wall there were dozens of taxis lined up, so we were able to negotiate a good rate to get to Bethlehem.

The Church of the Nativity was impressive, with a silver star marking Jesus' birthplace, the huge Manger Square out front, a pleasant cloister, and a small door to prohibit entry on horseback. We chatted briefly with the women at the tourist office, they both had relatives in Michigan. We walked around the old city and to the nearby village of Beit Sahour (where the Shepherd's Fields were located). Things seemed quiet in the West Bank, there was not a lot of traffic or activity on the streets. We could see a large Jewish settlement on top of a nearby hill.

Back at the checkpoint, the security system beeped when I went through, so I took my belt off and went through again (it never beeps at the airport). As I was getting it out of the bin, I called to the guy ahead of me that he had lost some money. He came back to pick up the coin and remarked, "We lost everything... what's 5 shekels?" (about $1.60)

Temple Mount


Streets of Jerusalem

When we got back to Jerusalem, I wanted to go back up to the Temple Mount, since I hadn't gotten all the way around the day before. We hung out there until closing time, then had a nice lunch in a restaurant in the old city. After lunch, we walked along the top city walls for some great views of the area. We ended up at the Western ("Wailing") Wall and took a tour of the tunnels near the wall. The current street level is several stories above the original; it has been filled in by generations of building and destruction. At one point, large arches were built to systematically raise the ground level so that people wouldn't have to walk so far up to the Temple Mount. These areas are currently being excavated, and in the tour you can stand on a marble street that was built in the time of King David. The tour guide also pointed out the large stones that were used in the original walls of the Temple Mount, and the smaller stones that were added later. His religious fervor shone through in his descriptions of life in Jerusalem at the time of King David.

I left Jerusalem early the next morning, heading to the Dead Sea. I tried to take the city bus to the bus station, but when three buses went by totally full and didn't stop, I decided to find a taxi. It was a desolate bus ride through the desert. Following the map, it was interesting to note that we drove straight through the West Bank, whereas the bus from Nazareth to Jerusalem took the long way around (via Tel Aviv) avoiding the West Bank. The area didn't look very populated. We drove by Qumran, where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I didn't get off to look around.

The area around the Dead Sea was beautiful, with mountains on both sides. I went to the spa at Ein Gedi, since there was a place to leave my luggage. The swim (or float) in the Dead Sea was very cool (although the weather was hot!) Just like they say, you really do float, for a weightless feeling. The water felt greasy, and the bottom was rough chunks of salt, quite tough on the feet. I could have spent all afternoon in the water but was afraid of ending up like a lobster.

I caught another bus down to Masada, the fortress on top of the mountain overlooking the Dead Sea. I had booked a room at the hostel at the base, it was clean and air-conditioned, but no wifi. It was deserted when I arrived, I felt like the only person around. I went up to the Masada visitors center to get something to eat, and then relaxed in my room. I would have liked to see the sound and light show, but it was on the other side of the mountain, about 1.5 hrs drive away (according to the desk clerk). I did meet up with some other tourists (Alison from Australia and Luigi from Italy) and we made a plan to climb the mountain before sunrise the next day.

We set off at 4:30am, winding up the snake path (the cable car doesn't start running until 8am). Although we had expected relative calm at that hour, we were joined by two busloads of American college students chattering away. It was already hot and we were sweating before too long. The views of the sun rising over the mountains and reflecting in the Dead Sea were worth the discomfort. The site itself was also amazing -- an isolated city, well-protected by the mountains all around. The Romans succeeded in conquering the last outpost of the Jews by building a ramp up one side. Quite the engineering feat!

The early start meant we were back at the hotel before breakfast was over. We had a leisurely meal, probably the best breakfast I had on the trip. My camera batteries had died shortly after sunrise on Masada, but Alison was kind enough to share her digital pictures with me. On the bus ride to Eilat, I used my computer to help her transfer photos from her camera to her portable hard drive.

I didn't stay long in Eilat, but headed to the border for Jordan. I met two guys who were working on a kibbutz for the summer and were also headed to Petra, and we shared a taxi from the border. It was quite the adventure. We negotiated with one guy, he drove us to driver #2 who took us into a neighborhood where we switched cars (to a smaller one with better mileage). After about 30 minutes on the highway, we pulled over to the side of the road, and driver #3 came running across 4 lanes of traffic -- the two drivers switched cars so they would end up in the right places at the end of the day. It's amazing what you can coordinate with cell phones. All the drivers were very friendly and spoke English. We stopped for Arabic coffee at a roadside stand -- the best coffee I had on the whole trip (in Israel the hotels mostly serve instant coffee). The views out the window were interesting -- you could see Bedouins living in tents, and herds of goats running around. It was clear that you had crossed a border, and there was a sense of going back in time.

I got up early to head into Petra, one of the seven modern wonders of the world, built by the Nabateans in the 3rd century BC. The entrance to the site is down a canyon called the Siq; the inhabitants had carved gutters into the sides for their plumbing system. At the end of the Siq, the "Treasury" appears (as seen in Indiana Jones). All of the "buildings" carved into the stone were just tombs, there is more facade than interior. I spent all day hiking around Petra, going up to the "Monastery" and through all of the temples that are being excavated on the colonnaded street. The mosaic floor in the Byzantine church was amazing.

When I stopped for a snack, I noticed that one of my purse straps was broken -- I had been carrying my guidebook, water bottle, camera -- all sorts of heavy stuff. The shopkeeper put a pin through it, and when I got back to town, I asked if somebody could fix it. At a travel agency, a guy wrote out the address for me on a piece of paper, and told me it would cost 1 dinar to take a taxi there. When I got out of the taxi, I looked around the streets, and then saw the tailor -- a small shop with a man, his son, and a sewing machine. He was working on something else, but he rethreaded his machine and sewed up my strap. It took a couple of tries, but he did a good job. I tried to pay him, but he wouldn't take any money -- he just said I was welcome.

In the evening, I went to "Petra by Night" with two American women I had met earlier. We walked in silence down through the Siq, lit by thousands of luminaries, and drank tea and listened to Bedouin music in front of the Treasury. It was quite magical. After, we wanted to go the Cave Bar, written up in the guide book as a place where you can sit and have a drink in the 2000-year-old Nabatean tombs. Too bad it was closed!

The next morning I reversed my journey -- taxi to the border, walk across, taxi to the bus station, bus to Jerusalem. It had been a fabulous (but long) detour. I arrived in Jerusalem in the mid-afternoon (before shabbat started), and checked back into the Hashimi Hotel. While I was gone from Jerusalem, a terrorist had hijacked a bulldozer near the bus stop and driven over a few people and cars. I noticed that the police and military presence in Jerusalem had increased significantly, I wasn't sure if it was because of the attack or because it is always higher on shabbat.

Dead Sea and Masada

Petra, Jordan

Via Dolorosa

At 4pm, I joined the Franciscan monks for their Friday afternoon walk along the Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross). There was a large crowd of tourists and pilgrims, and the monks said a short prayer at each station in Latin, English, and Spanish. The Israeli police escort helped the monks keep the crowd out of the main pathways on the narrow streets.

After finishing at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking the spot where Jesus was crucified, I followed the crowds down to the Western Wall for the shabbat celebrations. Everybody was dressed up -- crowds of teenagers with ties and skirts, even a few beaver fur hats! At the Western Wall plaza, attendants were passing out sheets to cover up the legs and shoulders of scantily-clad tourists. The area in front of the wall was packed, with the men on one side and the women on the other. Large groups were singing and dancing in among the crowds. Back away from the wall, mothers gossiped and chased toddlers. No photos were allowed on shabbat, but I hung out and soaked up the atmosphere.

The next morning I got up early to revisit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before the crowds arrived. It was Saturday, so nothing would be open (in the Jewish part of town at least) and the first bus to Haifa wouldn't leave until 9pm. I did some shopping in the old city, and climbed to the top of the tower of the Lutheran church for some amazing views. Then I headed to the Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where the shops were all open. I checked out the Episcopal cathedral of St. George, and the Garden Tomb -- another possible site for Jesus' crucifixion and burial. Most of the important sites from Jesus' life were marked by Emperor Constantine's mother Helena in the 4th century AD, when she made a pilgrimage to the holy land, so the exact location is still open to interpretation in most cases. I also revisited some of the Stations of the Cross, and the Crusader-area church of St. Anne (located over Mary's mother's house) with the ruins of the Pool of Bethesda.

At the end of the day, I took a taxi to the bus station, and after negotiating a price, the driver told me the station wouldn't open until 8:30pm. There was nothing to do but wait anyway, and I was in good company -- there was a large and growing crowd waiting outside the gates of the station. I was lucky to get on the 9pm bus, although there were several others leaving at 9:15, 9:30, etc. Everybody was ready to get out of town. It was about 2.5 hrs to Haifa, the site of the conference.

On Sunday, I got up early and went to Akko, an old fortress of a town on the Mediterranean Sea. I walked around the narrow streets, enjoyed the views of the sea, toured the ruins of the Crusader castles, and walked along the walls that had been attacked (unsuccessfully) by Napoleon. In the bathhouse, they had set up a multi-media video show recounting the historical highlights of the town, with the last attendant telling the stories from his father and grandfathers who had been attendants before him. Then it was back to the hotel to work on my presentation.

Jerusalem Sights


Haifa and Caesarea

The conference ran Monday-Wednesday, and took place on campus at the Technion (Israel's technical university). I gave presentations on Monday afternoon and Wednesday morning; both went well. The reception on Monday night was at the Science Museum, the original home of the Technion. The mayor of Haifa welcomed us and explained that everyone in Haifa gets along so well because the city was never visited by any of the three local celebrities -- Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad -- so there are no arguments. The banquet dinner on Tuesday night was at Caesarea, the ruins of a Roman town on the Mediterranean Sea. I walked around and saw the chariot race track and the hippodrome, but couldn't find the famous theater (turns out it was hosting a concert and was closed to the general public).

I learned a lot about Israel and the Middle East from the things that I saw, the books that I read, and the people that I met. The Palestinian Question is always in the background. The guidebooks were variously titled "Israel" (Frommers and Fodors), "Jerusalem and the Holy Land" (DK), or "Israel and the Palestinian Territories" (Lonely Planet, my choice). Looking at the maps in the guidebook and from the tourist office, it seems that the Palestinian areas are getting smaller and smaller. Some of the things I read reminded me of the settlement of the American West, and not just because of the term "settlers". God granted the land to the settlers, and it was a manifest destiny that the country should extend from sea to shining sea (or the river to the sea). The current inhabitants were of no importance, and it would be best if they just dispersed or disappeared. There are no easy answers -- it is impossible to go backwards, but serious compromises must be made in order to move forwards towards peace.

Overall it was an wonderful trip.

Map from the US State Dept. web site

Map from the Israel Tourist Office

Map of the Wall from the Lonely Planet
dmt 9/7/08