Archive | January, 2012

Jericho, Qumran and the Dead Sea

28 Jan

We took a guided tour to Jericho and some nearby sites. We didn’t really get to see much of Jericho proper; our bus driver drove straight through the town to the ruins of Hisham’s Palace, 5 km north of Jericho. The palace, built in 743, had been quite a magnificent structure covered in mosiacs and stucco but not much remains today. The loveliest feature, a mosaic of the tree of life from the floor of the bath house, was barely visible from an upstairs window.

Hisham's Palace Window

One of the few remaining architectural details left of Hisham's Palace

From Hisham’s Palace we drove a bit further south to the Mount of Temptation where we visited a Greek Orthodox Monastery that was built atop a cliff in 1895. Access to the monastery was via cable car. We had a stunning view from atop the Mount of Temptation. The monastery was an architectural wonder…with a chapel filled with lovely painted icons. Alas, no pics allowed inside the chapel. From the monastery balcony we were looking into the sun, making photography a bit of a challenge.

Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Temptation

Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Temptation

There was a little cafe situated between the monastery and the cable car station where I had a most delicious freshly squeezed glass of pomegranate/orange juice. I wished the group would have stayed there for lunch but the tour guide took us to this horrible little souvenir/cafeteria complex where we had a rather unappetizing lunch.

Continuing south, we made our way to Qumran, an archaeological site with the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We watched a film about the Essenes, the sect that wrote the text on the Scrolls then visited some of the remains of structures from the time of the Essenes. You can go hiking in the area, which I think would be a lovely day out as the scenery is stark but stunning. The best part of our day was when I turned around while viewing the caves at Qumran and saw a rainbow forming over the Dead Sea. The light was magical.

Dead Sea Rainbow

Dead Sea Rainbow

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Jaffa Jaunt

25 Jan

For nearly a year a good friend and I have talked about taking the free walking tour of Jaffa offered by the Tel Aviv-Yafo Association for Tourism. Well, we finally did. And even though we’ve both explored Jaffa a few times on our own, we thoroughly enjoyed the tour.

We started off in front of the Tourist Center, about a half-block away from the iconic Clock Tower, and right away we began learning things we never knew about Jaffa. For example, there is a decent public toilet right around the corner from the Tourism Center! Who knew? We walked past bits of pieces of the old city wall that still remain in the world’s oldest continuously inhabited port city. We wound our way through the Flea Market area, past some interesting shops and cafes and up to the Ilana Goor museum.

Cafe in Old Jaffa

We passed this nifty-looking cafe on the walking tour...I hope I can find my way back there someday.

I have passed this museum many a time and I cannot now fathom why I never even thought of venturing inside. We got in free with the walking tour and what a treat that turned out to be! The building is itself an attraction. It was built 250 years ago as a hostel for pilgrims entering the holy land. The artist Ilana Goor renovated the building which now serves both as her home and a museum. Ilana’s eclectic art is displayed in the museum as well as works she has collected by other artists. Our visit was free but time was limited. I will definitely make my way back there another day when I can linger about at my own pace.

Fanciful Chairs by Ilana Goor

Fanciful Chairs designed and fabricated by Ilana Goor

From the museum we made our way to Old Jaffa and crossed over the Wishing Bridge for a spectacular view of the Tel Aviv shoreline. The tour continued on down to Jaffa Port but we were both tired and hungry and decided to go off on our own at this point.

We had lunch at Aladin, a restaurant housed in a 600-year-old building with a terrace overlooking a mosque and with a great view of  the Tel Aviv shoreline. After lunch we stopped off at Ben Zion David, a fantastic Yemenite craft center where we spent some time admiring the silver filigree work and we each purchased a handcrafted silver chain.

Then back to the Flea Market for dessert at my fave cafe in Jaffa, Cafe Puaa and a stop at the shop across the street that sells delightfully designed clothing and baby items made from repurposed fabric.

It was a delightful day out. Is it any wonder I’m in love with Jaffa?

Ein Gedi Nature Reserve

16 Jan

Before heading back home on Monday we stopped off at Ein Gedi Nature Reserve to hike the Wadi David trail. We saw a young Nubian Ibex at the entrance to the Reserve, several rock hyraxes at the head of the trail and a few bird species along the trail. It was an invigorating walk. The trail took us up and up many stone steps hewn out of a hillside in the Judean desert. We were following the course of Nahal (river) David and as we went up we passed several waterfalls. Nothing huge like Niagara, by any means, but incredibly beautiful, nonetheless.

Young Nubian Ibex

This Young Nubian Ibex greeted us at the entrance to the Nature Reserve

Rock Hyrax in a tree

Rock Hyrax in a tree.

Waterfall in Wadi David

Waterfall in Wadi David

The Incomparable Dead Sea

15 Jan

The visit to Masada took up most of the day. With what time remained before sundown we decided to make our way to the shore of the Dead Sea for a closer look at this fascinating body of water. By the time we got to the Ein Gedi Spa it was too late to go to the shore. The Spa used to be right at the shore but the Sea has been depleted so much due to lack of rain that one must now take a shuttle from the Spa to the shore. We hastened to the public beach a bit further down the road. Ah, we were in luck. It was still open. And there were even a few bathers there.

The Dead Sea is actually a salt lake. At 1,388 feet below sea level its shores are at the world’s lowest elevation. It is also one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water. You can’t really swim in the Dead Sea – if you go into the water you can’t help but float. I was struck by the lack of vessels on such a huge expanse of water. I was also incredibly impressed with the Dead Sea’s astounding beauty.

The Dead Sea

Salt encrusted rocks in the foreground, Jordan and the mountains of Moab in the distance.

Salt-encrusted Rocks at the Shoreline

Salt-encrusted Rocks at the Shoreline

Dead Sea Bather

Dead Sea Bather

To the Top of Masada

15 Jan

A visit to Masada was on the agenda for the second day of our long weekend getaway. In case you were snoozing during history class or missed out on the made-for-TV miniseries starring the two Peters (O’Toole and Strauss), Masada is a fortress/palace/spa built by Herod the Great atop a plateau in the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea. This grandiose monument was only one of Herod’s many constructions in the Holy Land. Walking through the site I kept thinking this guy really embodied the idea of chutzpah. After Herod died, Masada became the refuge of some Israeli rebels who held this last stronghold during the first Jewish-Roman war. The now-disputed story goes that the entire Israeli population at Masada committed suicide after a long siege by the Romans who inevitably surrounded the site and broke through the wall atop the plateau.

Me and Masada

Me and Masada

Masada Cable Car

We took the cable car up to the top of the plateau. Other stauncher souls wound their way up by foot along the Snake Path.

Remains of the Northern Palace

Remains of the Northern Palace

View of the Dead Sea from Masada

View of the Dead Sea from Masada with remains of one of the Roman camps in the foreground.

Enroute to Ein Gedi

14 Jan

The long weekend for Martin Luther King Jr.s birthday provided the perfect opportunity to head south for a two-night stay in Ein Gedi, situated near the Dead Sea and just north of Masada. There’s not much in Ein Gedi save the Ein Gedi Kibbutz Resort Hotel, where we stayed, and the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the Ein Gedi Spa run by the Kibbutz Hotel and the public beaches on the shores of the Dead Sea. The Ein Gedi Kibbutz, founded in the mid-195os, is a sprawling complex comprising a variety of accommodations, residences and facilities for the kibbutzniks, a swimming pool, a cactus garden, a couple of dining facilities, and, making the most of its situation in the proverbial oasis in the desert, a botanical garden featuring plants and trees from all over the world.

It was an interesting journey from Tel Aviv, west through Jerusalem and then south along the Dead Sea and through the West Bank. The scenery changed dramatically as we approached our destination and we passed many interesting sights along the way. Our accommodations in the “deluxe” rooms were clean and comfy, though not as luxurious as you would expect from a European deluxe hotel room. The food at the dining facilities was quite good and we enjoyed exploring the botanical garden and the views from different areas of the kibbutz.

Caravan of Camels

We spotted a caravan of camels along the Dead Sea.

Ein Gedi Nature Reserve

Ein Gedi Nature Reserve as viewed from our patio.

Nubian Ibex

A Nubian Ibex from the nature reserve next door has come for some nibbles in the kibbutz botanical garden.

Cacti at Dusk

Cacti at Dusk

Catacomb Delight

8 Jan

Exiting the Cave of the Ascents at Beit She'arim

Exiting the Cave of the Ascents at Beit She'arim. Click image to view more photos of Beit She'arim.

I’ve always enjoyed a touch of the macabre while visiting historic sites. I’m happy to stroll through historic cemeteries, reading tombstone inscriptions. One of my favorite sites in Rome is the Capuchin Crypt. Today we took a day trip to Beit She’arim National Park for an exploration of some ancient Israeli catacombs. While it would be difficult for any site to rival the grotesque nature of the Capuchin Crypt, I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this Israeli necropolis.

The park features a series of catacombs carved out of chalk hills below the site of the ancient city of Beit She’arim, founded in the 1st century BCE. Some of the catacombs, or caves as the Park refers to them, were rather large with several chambers inside. Most of the caves were ransacked by robbers who entered by digging an opening in the rock above the solid stone doors placed at the entrances. Even so, many of the sarcophagi remain and were displayed in what is now referred to as the Cave of the Coffins. The decorations on the sarcophagi are primitive yet impressive and many depict synbols from Greek mythology. One of the largest catacombs was the burial site of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (Judah the Prince). Since he had been the leader of the Sanhedrin, the highest judicial and ecclesiastical council of Jews in Eretz Israel, it was considered desirable to be buried near him, making the site at Beit She’arim the main cemetery for Jews in late antiquity.