Israel – final week and reflections

We’ve made it back to Jerusalem.  Can’t really believe the journey we have been on and the rich experiences we have had.  Certainly we have seen some amazing places especially for me the Biblical sites.  I have read about these places so often and I have found it hard to believe I’m actually here.  Although, while it’s been great to be in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Capernaum etc I haven’t really got into all the stuff about this is the place the angel appeared to Mary or this is the place that Jesus ascended etc.  Anyway, what has struck me most is the people we have been able to meet.  Our guides, people Gem has befriended and people we have just met on the street who have invited us for coffee or tea.  Their warmth continues to challenge my prejudices.  It seems people really do want to share their stories and hear others if you have an open mind and spirit.  When praying the other night I was thanking God so much for the opportunities he is always giving us and that I can stay open to them.  It’s such a complicated place and of course I still do not have any answers to age old conflicts but I least feel I have more understanding than I did when I first came.

Anyway, here’s where we have been since I last wrote:

Day 16 North Coast (Haifa and Akko) – After we left our little apartment on the Sea of Galilee we headed west to the port town of Akko.  This was also the crusader capital and was full of crusader ruins.  They were pretty cool especially the underground tunnels and I was excited to get a crusader tunnel for the Scav Hunt.  From there we headed down to Haifa where we spent the night in a Stella Maris convent.  We watched a beautiful sunset over the water, which is always exciting as doesn’t happen on east coast of Australia.  Haifa is mostly famous for it’s Bahai Gardens.  Blocks and blocks of the most pristine lawns and flowers you’ll ever see.  It seems Israel is Holy even for the Bahai’s.

Day 17 Ne’ve Shalom:  After the gardens we traveled south again to a place called Ne’ve Shalom.  Just west of Jerusalem there is a community of Jews and Muslims (and a small number of Christians too) living together.  The community truly is peaceful.  Gem has been trying to volunteer there (they actually have a place in May so still might happen) and because she has met some people while visiting previously we were lucky enough to spend a few hours talking to some community members about their experiences there.  While I have only been here for such for a short time I still am very much aware of the conflict and the hostility that exists here and so it was really helpful to hear stories of people living together.  It’s not perfect and of course there are still issues but people are trying.  We hear a lot in Australia about  two state solution for Israel and in some ways that does seem more viable but people we have spoken to here seem to be saying they actually want one Israel in which all its citizens, Jewish and Palestinians have equal rights and opportunities.  Who knows how they could happen or what it could look like but I sure am inspired to really pray for this for the people we’ve met and are trying to hold onto hope.

Day 18 – 19 Jerusalem: After spending the night at Ne’ve Shalom’s hostel we headed back into bustling Jerusalem.  We stopped on the way to see 12 stained glass windows designed by Jewish artist Marc Chagall.  He is a favourite of mums and she was determined to see them.  Despite mum’s love of art I often find it hard to fully appreciate it but these windows were truly breathtaking.  One each depicting the 12 tribes of Israel.  The colour of these windows and the light pouring through them, I can’t really describe the beauty.  It was a spiritual experience as well.

Back in Jerusalem we visited the Shrine of the Book where the Dead Sea scrolls are now kept, as well as other more recent Biblical scrolls are kept.  Gemma loves scrolls and seeing them I can see why.  In the evening we met up with a Jewish couple who mum started chatting to on the bus on our way in here.  They have some accommodation they rent to students so we managed to line some up for Gem.  Another grace from God.  We are leaving in 3 days and she had no idea where or what she was doing next unto May when she can go to Ne’ve Shalom.

Today we spent the more relaxing in our convent hostel in the old city.  It has the best views over the old city from the roof top balcony.  I could have sat there all day but the Dome of the Rock is a must see  so off we went.  It’s open for two hours but we waited in line for an hour to get through the checkpoint and then they shut half an hour early so we only really got fifteen minutes there but it was pretty memorable.  A holy place for Muslims (where they believe Mohammed ascended) and also a holy place for Jews as it is on the site of the original temples where the Ark of the covenant was placed  so it is another place of conflict and it’s hard to know what to do with all that but is very spectacular that’s for sure and so huge.

Day 20 Tel Aviv:  Tomorrow we are off to to Tel Aviv for a night and then home sweet home.  Well after another epic day and half flight.  I am very much looking forward to being home on Saturday and seeing my family again.  Cannot even begin to describe how hard it’s been to be away from them.  Also looking forward to being a place whose customs I understand and whose language I speak.  Traveling sure can be exhausting and I think Israel especially so.  So many customs, religions and holy places to look out for and certainly we have had to deal with a lot of hassling from me on the street.  I have been trying to challenge some of my stereotypes, I hope one day the stereotype about Western women will be challenged.  it sure will make travelling easier for us all.


Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

I have been wanting to write this post since we got here but limited internet has been taken up with Skyping my family (who I miss desperately), Scav Hunt and responding to emails and facebook.  Anyway, I finally have some time.  Mum and Gem have gone for yummy felafals and a little walk and swim in a national park but the contemplative in me is desperate for some time alone and to reflect a little so I have opted to stay home.  I’m also hoping to have a quiet chat with my lovely husband who is working tirelessly at home to make this possible for me.

Israel would have to be one the most fascinating places on earth, not to mention spectacularly beautiful.  The “Holy Land” for Jews, Muslims and Christians one really is constantly aware of religion, as well as, unfortunately all the conflict and divide this has caused.  Anyway, I have written our itinerary so that I can remember it.  It’s long but if you are interested read on.

Day 1 – 3: Jerusalem and West Bank – We arrived here at 6am after a 30 hour journey so we had to spend first morning sleeping but ventured out at lunch time for our first in a long run of truly delicious hummus, felafel etc.  The food here makes me not want to eat anything else again.  After we sat at Western Wall for a bit.  The Wall is the one part left after the destruction of the temple and the most holy sight for Jews. It was a cool day but we had a sunny spot so we sat for ages enjoying the sun and watching people praying prayers and reading their Holy Scriptures.  While I have had an ever present awareness of the division and conflict places such as these seem to cause and thus often a discomfort at them  I was moved. We then walked the “Via Dolorosa”, a trail marking the 12 stations of the cross culminating at the church of Holy Sepulchre where Jesus is said to have been crucified.  It was very crowded and chaotic but I kept having to pinch myself none the less that I was actually here, walking in places that Jesus have may walked.

Our second day in Jerusalem we took a tour to the West Bank.   In the 90’s Israeli’s and Palestinians signed the Oslo agreement that was supposed to give Palestinian people sovereignty of the West Bank but still today walled Israeli settlements are being built there which is the cause of much of the continued conflict.  We visited a place called Hebron.    In Hebron there are 500 Israeli settlers and 3000 Israeli troops there to protect them.  The town is divided into areas for Palestinians and areas for Israelis.  As Israelis want to be able to get around they have control of much of the main roads making it very difficult for Palestinians to get around.  People who lived and worked in these areas were forced to leave their homes and business making these streets feel like ghost towns with the occasional person walking down it.  We were allowed to walk down some of these streets as “internationals” but as we walked the Israeli settlers became quite aggressive asking us to leave.  It was a very bizarre experience. Hebron is the resting place of Abraham.  Seen as the father of Jews, Muslims and Christians it is a contested area.  Around his tomb there is a mosque and a synagogue, Jewish people and Muslims used to worship there together but since 94 when an American Jew massacred 29 Muslims during prayer in Ramadan it has been divided into two.  Both have a view of the tomb but there is a bullet proof shield blocking one from the other.  Muslims wishing to enter their Mosque must undergo lengthy, security checks.  I felt very sad there and couldn’t help but wonder what Abraham would think of it all.  We had lunch in the home of a Palestinian family who made a truly delicious meal.  Their story of losing their land and olive trees and thus their livelyhood is tragic as well as their daily humiliations and difficulties of living in occupied land. They do however remain hopeful and peaceful and this was very inspiring. I apologise if all this sounds a little bias, I really do wish to remain nuetral.  Firstly, I’m a little unsure if all this is my business to comment but also I do believe if we want to be peacemakers we have to remain nuetral.  In saying that I have been deeply moved by the stories of the truly amazing Palestinian people we met juxtaposed with the aggression we experienced from the Israeli settlers.  And the one thing that was asked of me by the people was to hear their stories, believe they are not all terrorists and share these stories.  Of course I am just talking about the situation on the West Bank not Israel as whole.  We have met some really good Israeli people too and I am told two thirds of them also disagree with the settlements.

Anyway, day 3 we were back to being everyday tourists.  We visited the Garden of Gethsemane, with it’s ancient olive trees and beautiful basilica.  Despite what happened there I found it a very peaceful place, a place to pray.  How I would love to pray as Jesus did, “not my will but your will be done.  Gem also took us to her church in the old city and again the people were enormously welcoming to us.  In the afternoon we braved the public transport system and visited the Holocaust museum.  Our family obviously enjoys intense experiences and as said I do wish to hear all the stories.  It is a complicated place and there really are no easy solutions but that’s stating the obvious.

Day 4 – 5: Dead Sea (Qumran and Ein Gedi): We left Jerusalem on day 4 and headed south to Ein Gedi, a town on dead sea.  On the way we stopped at Qumran where the dead sea scrolls were found.  The dead sea scrolls are the oldest biblical texts and Gem’s been studying them for a few years now.  It was a fascinating place as well as beautiful and good to be there with Gem, even if she struggled with the inaccuracies of the info given.

We spent 2 nights at Ein Gedi exploring the national park, a spectacular oasis in the desert where David was said to have hidden.  We also floated in the dead sea and covered ourselves with mud as we tourists in this area do.

Day 6: Eilat and Masada – Our sixth day we travelled to Eilat, stopping at Masada.  Masada was a castle fort built by Herod to protect himself from many enemies.  It ended up being taken over by Jewish poeple and was the last stand of their rebellion around 70CE.  It’s built on top of mountain so you have to take a cable car to get there.  The views at the top are one of the most breathtaking I’ve seen and the ruins and stories really interesting.

We spent the next morning in Eilat at a place called Dolphin Reef.  A friend of mine’s sister lives in Eilat so we contacted her for breakfast.  Turns out she worked at this Dolphin Reef so she got us in and we had a lovely breakfast with her on the Red Sea watching dolphins jump around.  Good to hear more stories from her.  We then snorkeled around watching dolphins swim and the coral was pretty nice too.

Day 7 – 8 Jordan (Petra and Wadi Rum)  At Eilat there is a border crossing into Jordan where we spent the next two nights.  We visited the ancient city of Petra.  It was wet and freezing, even snowed a little but didn’t stop this city taking our breaths away.  It also meant we enjoyed the Turkish bath we indulged in even more.  We hired a guide who showed us around who was one of the warmest people I’ve ever met and he organised for his cousin who is also a guide to drive us back to the border the next day via Wadi Rum.  I had never heard of this place so it was a total unexpected blessing to drive through this incredible desert valley.  We got bogged for awhile and we were all a bit worried our guide may have tipped his car onto a rock which was bit precarious but it all worked out in the end. The guide was also so warm and generous.  It made me aware of some unconscious prejudice I have held about Arab people and I am so glad to have my prejudices challenged by these wonderful people.

Day 9: Mitzpe Ramon: Back in Israel we began the trip North spending the night in a Negev desert town called Mitzpe Ramon.  There is crater there known as a maktesh that is pretty amazing.  To be exact, 38 km long, 6 km wide and 450 meters deep

Day 10 – now: Galilee area (Sea of Galilee, Nazareth and Safed) Day 10 we traveled almost the length of the country which surprisingly to us Australians only takes about 5 hours.  We have been staying in a little place with views of the Sea of Galilee since.  It’s been amazing to just stop for 5 nights and take things slow, I was getting tired.  We have visited the Mt of Beattitudes where Jesus is said to have made the Sermon on the Mount.  One of my favourite parts of the Bible and also one of my favourite places on this trip.  A truly beautiful and peaceful place.  We also visited Caperneum and Nazareth, as you can imagine there are lots of churches there and places for the Christian pilgrims to visit.  I have read so much about these places it was hard to believe I was really there.  I have really appreciated this trip for helping me understand my Biblical geography.  Something I realise I was pretty ignorant of really.  In saying that I have not had some sense that this place is any more “Holy” than anywhere else or that God is more present to me.  I have been more aware of Him and that is good but he, I believe, is everywhere equally.

Yesterday, we visited the Golan Heights National Park right on the border with Babylon.  Some people say this may have been where the garden of Eden was.  I find it hard to believe they could know that but I can understand why they may think it.  With is running streams and waterfalls, endless natural fruit trees, flowers of all colours and a clearer green than you could imagine it sure is beautiful enough to be.  There is also an archeological site there said to be from the time of the divided Kingdom, definitely the oldest ruins I’ve seen.

There you go.  Travelling sure can be hard work, constantly dealing with the language issues and cultural issues that you are never fully sure if you are getting right.  Particularly hard here as such different things are expected of you depending where you are.  I have also found been away from my family very hard and I cannot wait to see them but I do  feel so blessed to be having such a rich experience here and to be sharing it with mum and Gem.  Thanks be to God.