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Adventures In The Holy Land, Pt. 2; Cities, Seas, And Sacred Sites

Exploring Jerusalem and Masada, as well as floating in the Dead Sea

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In my last post, all of our time in Israel was spent in Tel Aviv, looking around Jaffa, wandering around the Sarona shopping district and the beach, and trying to figure out what we could actually do on the Sabbath. Now it was time to do and see some of the things that anyone would want to experience while in Israel. Prepare yourself for a ton of information and a bunch of photos.

Sunday, November 3, 2019
Anna was back at the hospital for her International Retinal Panel course and I had to meet her there at around 11:00am. That wasn’t a problem, I was awake early and was incredibly hungry; on our first night in Tel Aviv I threw up everything I had eaten that day due to drinking far too much pomegranate juice. The following day was Shabbat so I was limited with what I could eat during the day and then when it came to dinner, the staff at the restaurant kept forgetting our food, ultimately serving us over-fried fish scraps that weren’t particularly appetising so that had all left me a little peckish. I gave myself plenty of time to meet up with Anna and I’m not a big fan of hospitals so I found a cafe for a real coffee, not the “very weak coffee” I had received the previous day, and I also grabbed a couple of buns and kicked back in the cafe until Anna and the rest of the Retinal Panel crew were ready.
The next stop was the Ein Kerem campus hospital of the Hadassah Medical Center. The Retinal Panel would be taking a tour of the facilities while I just spent some time walking around the gardens that overlooked Jerusalem, just sitting back and admiring the city from a distance while anticipating our tour until everyone was ready to move on from being taken around the hospital. After a couple of hours it was about 3:30pm so we had less than 90 minutes of daylight remaining when we were back on the bus, headed for Jerusalem. One of the organisers of the training seminar, Tamir Weinberg, was a wealth of information on the subject of Judaism and the history of the area, providing more information than we were able to take in, a pattern that would repeat itself with all tour guides throughout this region, and answering any and all questions while we were making our extremely slow bus ride through the almost stationary afternoon traffic. Probably the best question came after he mentioned how the Mount of Olives is the most expensive place for Jews to be buried, due to the belief that it was where Christ ascended to heaven and the location where the ascension at end times will happen once again. Anna curiously asked, “How much are the grapes there?” Tamir was clearly confused, but Anna tried to clarify, pointing out that he said that it was home to the world’s most expensive grapes. Nope, he had been talking about graves, leaving Anna disappointed at not being able to purchase high-end grapes during our visit.

Now, I’ve mentioned several times in this blog that I’m not a religious or even spiritual person, however, I do believe that there was probably some guy called Jesus Christ walking around this part of the world and preaching to people that he was the son of God — You can walk through Central Park in Manhattan on any given day and encounter multiple people who will tell you that they are indeed a direct descendent of the Lord too. But I can’t buy the stories of the virgin birth, the performing of miracles, the resurrection, or even the existence of a God for that matter. On the other hand, I was extremely interested in exploring and seeing for myself this ancient city, the history of which shaping so much of humankind, causing both unity and conflict, as well as influencing so strongly the way billions of people think, speak, behave, and act toward others.
The majority of people are probably aware of the basics of Jerusalem, but here is a crash course anyway:

Jerusalem is a city in the Middle East, located on a plateau in the Judaean Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, and is considered holy to the three major Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim Jerusalem as their capital, as Israel maintains its primary governmental institutions there and the State of Palestine ultimately foresees it as its seat of power; however, neither claim is widely recognized internationally.

During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, and attacked 52 times. The part of Jerusalem called the City of David shows first signs of settlement in the 4th millennium BCE, in the shape of encampments of nomadic shepherds.

According to the Bible, King David conquered the city from the Jebusites and established it as the capital of the united kingdom of Israel, and his son, King Solomon, commissioned the building of the First Temple. Modern scholars argue that Jews branched out of the Canaanite peoples and culture through the development of a distinct monolatrous — and later monotheistic — religion centered on El/Yahweh, one of the Ancient Canaanite deities. These foundational events, straddling the dawn of the 1st millennium BCE, assumed central symbolic importance for the Jewish people. The sobriquet of holy city was probably attached to Jerusalem in post-exilic times. The holiness of Jerusalem in Christianity, conserved in the Septuagint which Christians adopted as their own authority, was reinforced by the New Testament account of Jesus’s crucifixion there. In Sunni Islam, Jerusalem is the third-holiest city, after Mecca and Medina. In Islamic tradition, in 610 CE it became the first qibla, the focal point for Muslim prayer, and Muhammad made his Night Journey there ten years later, ascending to heaven where he speaks to God, according to the Quran. As a result, despite having an area of only 0.9 square kilometres (0.35 sq mi), the Old City is home to many sites of seminal religious importance, among them the Temple Mount with its Western Wall, Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Outside the Old City stands the Garden Tomb.

Our time was going to be spent within the walls of the Old City area (highlighted, above) so once inside we had a tour guide ready to show us around, spouting endless knowledge while using a green laser pointer to draw attention to important details, even from a distance. One of the first things I encountered that I simply wasn’t expecting was a man delivering a washing machine on a hand trolley. This town may be ancient, but it’s a little more high-tech than I had anticipated. It was now getting dark and one of the organisers asked the guide to stop talking so we could enter.
To begin with we wound our way through buildings and markets stalls, most of which were selling awful tourist paraphernalia, particularly a wealth of terrible t-shirts. I even saw an overly loud American woman wearing a t-shirt which said ‘Jerusalem’, the ‘USA’ in the middle of the city’s name in the pattern of the American flag, although I still fail to see the connection. Whenever we visit foreign countries, for some reason I have a tendency to buy traditional headwear, some examples being that I have a hat that I bought at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, a traditional woollen face-mask from Colta, Ecuador, and a fez from Kuşadası, Turkey. Because of this it made perfect sense that I buy a yarmulke while we were in Israel and it turned out that it wouldn’t be a matter I’d have a whole lot of choice in. While walking through the market I saw a store with yarmulkes catering to tourists so I snapped a photo of them, instantly pissing off the store owner, who followed me for a bit and angrily insisted I buy one as sort of fee for the photo. I was planning on getting one at some stage anyway so I figured that this would be the best opportunity, he clearly needed the cash, so I randomly chose a hilariously bad Homer Simpson one and when I asked how much it was, the store owner told me 150 shekels. Somehow this made me a little confused; I had been doing fine at mentally converting in my mind Israeli shekels to Singapore dollars up until that point, but for some reason on this occasion I converted it in the way you would in many South-East Asian countries, multiplying the number by three or four and removing a zero or two. “About six bucks,” I thought to myself. “Thats Okay.” It turned out to be far from okay, because a Singaporean dollar currently equates to about 2.58 shekels so in reality my poor quality Homer Simpson yarmulke that you will see later in this post set me back S$58.00 (US$42.70)!
Anyway, here are our first views of Jerusalem:

After the market, our first real stop on the tour was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Church of the Resurrection or Church of the Anastasis by Orthodox Christians, is a church in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The church contains, according to traditions dating back to at least the fourth century, the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected. The tomb is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine called the Aedicula. The Status Quo, an understanding between religious communities dating to 1757, applies to the site.

Within the church proper are the last four (or, by some definitions, five) stations of the Via Dolorosa, representing the final episodes of the Passion of Jesus. The church has been a major Christian pilgrimage destination since its creation in the fourth century, as the traditional site of the resurrection of Christ, thus its original Greek name, Church of the Anastasis (‘Resurrection’).

Upon entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you are forced to navigate your way through throngs of people up a stairwell, past some impressive mosaics, until you reach the Calvary, which has traditionally been regarded as the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, although this has long been debated, but therefore the home to the Altar of the Crucifixion. The Rock of the Calvary, believed by many to be the exact site of the crucifixion, is directly beneath the altar, but only visible on each side where it is housed in glass cases, and it is possible to touch it from beneath through a hole in the floor under the altar.
After seeing the Calvary, we squeezed our way back down the stairs to see the Stone of Anointing (seen in the featured image for this post), allegedly where Christ’s body was prepared for burial. When we got to the stone, people were weeping and throwing themselves on it, others were pouring water over its surface, but the first thing that stood out to me was how small Jesus must’ve been. The stone wouldn’t even be 1.5 metres (5′) long so unless his head or a portion of his lower extremities were hanging over the ends while being embalmed, Jesus Christ couldn’t have been a whole lot taller than Danny DeVito!
Our last major stop inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was inside the Rotunda that contains the Aedicule. I was taken to church and Sunday School as a child and taught that Jesus’ body was placed in a cave with a boulder rolled in front of it. I understand that some details can be lost over time and that mistranslations are inevitable, or maybe the priest wasn’t using reliable sources, but Aedicule was no cave. Rather it was an ornate two-room building, the first holding the Angel’s Stone, a fragment of the stone that sealed the tomb, the other containing Christ’s alleged resting place for a few days following his death. If the cave story is factually correct and the Aedicule was built over the site afterward, I figured this would be more common knowledge, or maybe it’s just a result of my own ignorance of the topic. Either way, It was all impressive to see:

After the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we walked to another market area that mainly sold food and spices to stop off for some traditional cheesy snacks. I have no idea what we ate, but it was damn tasty. Next we were taken through another indoor area with broken columns that was once a marketplace, now resplendent with a mural of how it used to look back in the day. Once we had exited, we walked past a synagogue that overlooked the Mount of Olives and were soon at the Western Wall, more commonly referred to as the Wailing Wall, although that is considered a derogatory term:

The Western Wall, Wailing Wall, or Kotel is an ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a relatively small segment of a far longer ancient retaining wall, known also in its entirety as the “Western Wall”. The wall was originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple begun by Herod the Great, which resulted in the encasement of the natural, steep hill known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount, in a large rectangular structure topped by a huge flat platform, thus creating more space for the Temple itself and its auxiliary buildings. For Muslims, it is traditionally the site where the Islamic Prophet Muhammad tied his winged steed, al-Buraq, on his Isra and Mi’raj to Jerusalem before ascending to paradise, and constitutes the Western border of al-Haram al-Sharif.

The term Western Wall and its variations are mostly used in a narrow sense for the section traditionally used by Jews for prayer; it has also been called the “Wailing Wall”, referring to the practice of Jews weeping at the site over the destruction of the Temples. The term “Wailing Wall” is not used by Jews, and increasingly not by many others who consider it derogatory.

There is a much publicised practice of placing slips of paper containing written prayers into the crevices of the Wall. The earliest account of this practice is attributed to Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, (d. 1743). More than a million notes are placed each year and the opportunity to e-mail notes is offered by a number of organisations. It has become customary for visiting dignitaries to place notes too.

The wall has separate prayer areas for men and women, both of which have large bird’s nests jutting out, and I am unsure if this is common or not, but people praying on the men’s side were sparsely spaced out when compared to the women’s side, which would’ve been at least 20 metres (65′) deep with women waiting to pray. We’ve been attempting to sell our apartment in Singapore in order to buy a larger one with very little success so Anna wrote “Sell our house” on a piece of paper she tore off an old brochure and went down to the wall to place it in a crack while I stayed upstairs to take some photos and video. I’m unsure if it was intentional, but the layout of barriers and scaffolding makes it almost impossible to get decent access to take photos of the women’s portion of the wall.

The photos only give a rough idea of the Western Wall so I took a couple of short videos, the first from a distance to show the size and the second one closer to see the actions of those praying:

We left the Old city at around 8:30pm and went to a nearby restaurant where the organisers had made a reservation and some great food was passed around with free flow wine. I donned my $60 yarmulke, attached it to my head with Anna’s hair-clip, and this led to an interesting question — You see a lot of jews keep their yarmulkes in place with hairpins, but how do bald men do it? A suction cup? Glue, tape, or any other adhesive? Some sort of natural vacuum with the skull? I never got an exact answer, but one of the local doctors made the motion of just licking it and slapping it on his crown. We all had a great time at dinner and the next item on the agenda was to visit a decent drinking spot in a nearby market. As we entered we came to a place where some locals, as well as a couple of tourists, were just sitting around with beers, some smoking a shisha, just kicking back and listening to music. Someone thought it would be a brilliant idea just to stop off for some shots along the way, but we never ended up moving on. Initially, everyone was taking a while so I bought a beer, figuring I could just chug it when we had to leave, but then the music got cranked, everyone started dancing, and others began to get drinks as well. Next thing I knew, what was usually a small hangout in a market in Jerusalem had been turned into a party, Anna’s scarf being used for a limbo competition by some nearby Israeli guys that decided to join in. Two mind-blown Belgian tourists that were sitting nearby with a shisha asked at one point what had just happened. I had to explain to them that a bunch of eye surgeons from around the world that had barely known each other for a day or two had decided to hit the town and accidentally ended up taking over the place! I don’t dance so I at one stage got talking to the ambassador for Equatorial Guinea, his wife, and their older Israeli host who had only a few minutes prior been sitting around having a quiet drink. Anna was getting a bit thirsty so she kept coming over to have a sip out of my beer so I just eventually bought her one to make things easier, which she almost immediately spilt on me. This must’ve given the Israeli man, who had to be in his mid-60s, an idea. Anna soon came over and he introduced himself, leading to a conversation between the two of them that, although not verbatim, went very closely along the lines of this:

Older Israeli Man: “Is this your first time in Israel?”
Anna: “Yes, and I love it here!”
Older Israeli Man: “Where are you staying?”
Anna: “In Tel Aviv.”
Older Israeli Man: (Attempting to hand Anna his phone number) “Well, next time you’re in Israel I can be your private tour guide. Who are you here with?”
Anna: (Putting an arm around me) “Oh, my husband.”
Older Israeli Man: “Oh… Do you have a sister?”
Anna: “No, just three brothers.”
Older Israeli Man: “Oh, sorry…”

We both immediately cracked up laughing at how absurd it had been that a possible retiree had just assumed that Anna was some party girl who flirts with guys by randomly walking up and taking sips from their drinks and then resorted to asking if she had a sister when he found out she wasn’t available. It was a brilliant night and a sleepy bus ride back when we left at around midnight to make the one-hour trek back to our hotel.

Monday, November 4, 2019
We were leaving for Singapore that day, but that’s not the reason we were up early. Instead, we were doing a tour of Masada and then going out to float around in the Dead Sea and we had to be in the hotel lobby at 7:20am for the bus. As usual we got stuck in traffic on the way, there were some really annoying people in our tour group, and the seats on the bus weren’t made for people my size so my back got quite painful over the course of the drive. One thing I wasn’t aware of was that we would be driving through Palestine on this particular day, however, we wouldn’t need passports, because nobody can really give a clear answer on what constitutes Palestine:

480px-Historical_boundaries_of_Palestine_(plain).svg

Boundaries of the Roman province Syria Palaestina, where dashed green line shows the boundary between Byzantine Palaestina Prima and Palaestina Secunda, as well as Palaestina Salutaris 
 Borders of Mandatory Palestine
 Borders of the Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip) which are claimed by the State of Palestine as its borders

Palestine is a geographic region in Western Asia usually considered to include Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in some definitions, parts of western Jordan.

Situated at a strategic location between Egypt, Syria and Arabia, and the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity, the region has a long and tumultuous history as a crossroads for religion, culture, commerce, and politics. The region has been controlled by numerous peoples, including Ancient Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites and Judeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Achaemenids, ancient Greeks, the Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom, Romans, Parthians, Sasanians, Byzantines, the Arab Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans, the British, and modern Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians.

The boundaries of the region have changed throughout history. Today, the region comprises the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories in which the State of Palestine was declared.

Yeah, I don’t really get it and this map (above), with the different borders colour-coded, doesn’t offer a whole lot of help, either. In fact, I didn’t even realise we had been in Palestine until I saw the location on some of the photos I had taken in the middle of nowhere while we were on the bus. Whenever you hear about Palestine on the news it’s never anything good, because all of that information generally revolves around the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but apparently we were there and didn’t even know it!
Our trip took quite a while, but our driver, who was also our tour guide, was funny as hell and we ultimately made it to Masada in the end. The only problem was that not only was this another situation where there was simply too much information to take in, but he also spoke in a very monotone voice so you just kind of tuned out after a while. Never fear, here are the basics about Masada:

Masada is an ancient fortification in the Southern District of Israel situated on top of an isolated rock plateau, akin to a mesa. It is located on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea 20 km (12 mi) east of Arad.

Herod the Great built two palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BCE.

According to Josephus, the siege of Masada by Roman troops from 73 to 74 CE, at the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, ended in the mass suicide of the 960 Sicarii rebels who were hiding there.

There are two options for hiking to Masada, which is about 300m (980′) in elevation, but it is quite long and steep and it can get very hot there so we opted for the two-minute cable car ride to the top. Out one side of the car you could see the desert and the Dead Sea, out the other side, this:

Once at the summit we were taken on a rather lengthy tour beneath the desert sun and this is a sampling of what we saw of Masada, there are only descriptions for the parts I know or could find information about:

Once we had finished looking around Masada we were back in the bus to go to the Ein Gedi region by the Dead Sea. By this time the pain in my back was unbearable so I was hoping that floating on water would be able to provide some relief, but before we could go in, we went to get lunch. The restaurant we were taken to was connected to a gift shop, a place I’d need later, but first we had to eat and despite having a sign saying something to the extent of “Best Food at 430m Below Sea Level,” it was shit! Perhaps it was because it was the only food option there and when there is no other, you become the best by default. It was like going into a school canteen; there was a bain marie section with pre-cooked food, you could choose one meat, two vegetables, and one carbohydrate, essentially just a choice of pasta or rice, and an all-you-can-eat salad bar. We had our crappy lunch and then it was to the gift shop. Anna wanted to buy some presents for people, things such as Dead Sea salt and body lotions, and I needed to buy some shorts, because I had forgotten to pack anything for swimming in Israel. The choices of patterns were horrendous and although I bought an XL, they were still quite small. Anyway, I donned my hideous, newly acquired swimming attire and it was time to float around in the Dead Sea:

The Dead Sea is a salt lake bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. It lies in the Jordan Rift Valley, and its main tributary is the Jordan River.

Its surface and shores are 430.5 metres (1,412 ft) below sea level, Earth’s lowest elevation on land. It is 304 m (997 ft) deep, the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. With a salinity of 342 g/kg, or 34.2% (in 2011), it is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water – 9.6 times as salty as the ocean – and has a density of 1.24 kg/litre, which makes swimming similar to floating. This salinity makes for a harsh environment in which plants and animals cannot flourish, hence its name. The Dead Sea’s main, northern basin is 50 kilometres (31 mi) long and 15 kilometres (9 mi) wide at its widest point.

The Dead Sea has attracted visitors from around the Mediterranean Basin for thousands of years. It was one of the world’s first health resorts (for Herod the Great), and it has been the supplier of a wide variety of products, from asphalt for Egyptian mummification to potash for fertilisers.

We were given advice on what we should and shouldn’t do when in the body of water, the main points being not to roll onto your belly, because your feet will rise and increase the possibility of drowning, as well as avoiding getting the water into our nose, mouth, or ears. The smell of sulphur hung thick in the air as we waited for a tractor to take us to the shore and once there we saw people covered in mud, just laying in the sun, while others floated on their backs. Getting into the water was difficult, because the crystallised salt along the shore and on the seabed made it similar to walking across a field of Legos in order to enter, but once in it was the most peaceful I think I have ever felt, besides the fact that any cuts and scratches initially stung like you wouldn’t believe. We were with a guy called Nopasak, one of Anna’s Thai workmates from the Retina Panel, so they both also decided to get all muddy, but I was content just floating:

I also got Anna to take a video of Nopasak and myself so you can see how buoyant you become, but you’ll have to deal with random zooming, because she was still trying to figure out how to use the video function for the camera on my new phone:

When we were out of the sea I showered, but I bite my nails and it occured to me that it was going to take several more showers for my fingers to stop tasting so extremely salty. I also realised two other things:

  1. I had completely forgotten to bring a change of underwear — I had prepared a pair and put them in a bag, I just didn’t bring said bag.
  2. If I hadn’t got changed so quickly in the first place and had examined my new shorts a little closer upon purchase, this wouldn’t have even been an issue, as they had built-in underwear.

My boys need a home, but that wasn’t going to be the case on the bus ride back to the hotel. Add to this the increasingly worse lower-back pain from the indented curve in the small bus seats and it wasn’t a pleasant journey back, but at least my skin felt super soft. To further compel our problems, Anna had done some research before we came to Israel, reading that security out of the country can be tough, and had somehow come to the conclusion that we needed to be at the airport four hours before our 9:30pm flight back to Singapore. The problem with this approach was that we had left the Dead Sea at 4:30pm and, factoring in the distance we had to travel, as well as the traffic we had to make our way through, it was getting close to 7:00pm by the time we were back, Anna completely on edge. Once we arrived at the hotel I knew exactly where my spare underwear was so I had the intention of dashing into the bathroom to give myself a feeling of security again, but Anna deemed it simply not an option, due to the potential for the entire process to waste around 30 valuable seconds.
Our taxi got us to the airport with about two hours to spare and there were a few extra questions asked, such as when the guy at immigration asked our connection. “Oh, we’re flying to Istanbul, have a 90-minute layover, and then we continue on to Singapore,” was our reply. “No, I mean between the two of you.” We told him we were married, then he still wanted me to confirm I was Anna’s husband, moving on to ask me the origins of my surname, but overall it wasn’t as difficult as we had expected. The true terror, however, struck when I reached the metal detector. I took my wallet, phone, and hat, put them and my bag in the tray and walked toward the metal detector. “Are you wearing a belt?” the operator asked, not a question I was hoping to hear. I took my belt off, put it in the container with my other items, held onto my shorts, and waddled over to the detector. Once through I still had to stand with my arms outstretched for the frisk and scan, but fortunately my shorts didn’t slip down to a level that could get me arrested. Security wasn’t the nightmare Anna had anticipated so we had plenty of time to go up to the lounge, put on some undies, and have a bite to eat before our flight.

Israel was definitely a surprise; we had heard great things about Tel Aviv and how it was a party city so seeing that for ourselves was fun. I already knew that there was nothing besides physically witnessing a 100 percent indisputable act of divine intervention that could make me a believer in any form of religion, but it was still incredible to visit those holy sites in Jerusalem, and as you can probably guess, floating in the Dead Sea is a really weird, but cool feeling.

Also, yet again something terrible happened in Israel as soon as we left, a trend that is really beginning to get a little disturbing, although not surprising in this part of the world.

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