Category Archives: Israel

Stories about traveling in Israel.

building ruins in Israel

A Plea to Caesar, from Caesarea, Israel

“If I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Acts 25:11.

The apostle Paul had been arrested and was in prison for two years in Caesarea. Festus, the new Roman governor, wishing to do the Jews a favor, asked Paul if he wanted to go to Jerusalem for trial. Paul replied that he should be tried before Caesar’s tribunal. Festus replied “To Caesar you have appealed, to Caesar you shall go.”

Caesarea, Israel

A view of Caesarea from the harbor.

I was standing at the site of the Roman governor’s palace on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in Caesarea, Israel. I was in the ruins of the outer courtyard. This was the place where official business was carried on by Festus and the other governors. This was likely the very ground where almost 2,000 years ago Paul appeared before Festus.

Caesarea was built by Herod the Great in 25-13 BCE upon the ruins of earlier Phoenician settlements begun in 586 BCE during the Persian era. It was the administrative center for Judea in Roman times. It was a planned city with a network of crisscrossing roads, a temple, hippodrome, amphitheater, markets, and residential quarters.

Caesarea, Israel villa

The excavated floor of an ancient villa.

Some of the villas must have been magnificent, with mighty columns and a view to the Mediterranean Sea.

building ruins in Israel

Still work to be done on this site.

Even today fancy floor mosaics are still visible among the foundations of the excavated building ruins.

floor mosaic in Israel

Excavated floor mosaic in a villa in Caesarea, Israel.

Floor mosaic in Caesaera

Fancy patterns for the floor!

Every five years the city hosted major sports competitions and gladiator games in the hippodrome, and theatrical productions in the amphitheater overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Caesarea Amphitheater

Seats for 12,000 spectators in this stadium.

As I walked around the U-shaped hippodrome, I imagined what it must have been like back then. Twelve thousand spectators found their seats in the stands while the rich and powerful people sat on the special viewing platform at the finish line. The chariots lined up at the starting line for the race to the tight U-turn where fortunes could be won or lost in a heartbeat.

The city flourished from Roman times into the Byzantine period of 324-638 CE, but Caesarea lost its political and economic significance after the Arab conquest in 640 CE. It was conquered by the Crusaders in 1101 and fortified with massive walls and a dry moat by King Louis IX of France in 1251. Conquered again by the Mamelukes in 1265, Caesarea was destroyed and deserted. Its ruins became a source of lime and building stones for the region over the centuries.

Theater in Caesarea, Israel

Rock on Israel!

Despite the destruction, the 4,000 seat theater is still standing. The day I visited, preparations were being made for a concert by one of Israel’s top singers. The stone ledges looked like uncomfortable seats for a long show. Do you think they had stadium cushions in Roman times?

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Western Wall with square

The Old City of Jerusalem and Yad Vashem

I stepped into the darkness from the bright sunshine. I could not see a thing.  I slowly shuffled my feet forward, inching along into the void, afraid of bumping my big toes or my nose into something solid.  My eyes started to adjust and I began to see a myriad of lit candles surrounding me. I heard a solemn voice reading names, ages, and place names aloud.

This was the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.  It is a tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish children killed during the Holocaust.  The memorial was hollowed out from an underground cavern on Mount Herzl.  While walking through the memorial, the visitor hears the names of murdered children.

While I was in the memorial I felt transported to another world. It was a disorienting experience but utterly absorbing.

Yad Vashem includes an excellent museum commemorating the six million Jews and other people murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.  It explains events of the 1920s-1940s in sobering and informative exhibits.  I’ve always had an interest in history and I found this museum wholly engrossing.

mosaic

A mosaic in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, Israel.

Jerusalem street

A backstreet in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

I visited Jerusalem with my Israeli friend Moshe. After our tour of Yad Vashem we drove to the old city in Jerusalem and parked by the Jaffa Gate.  Jerusalem is built on a hill, with the Temple Mount as the highest place.  The Temple Mount was where the first and second temples were sited.  The old city was accessed in ancient times by one of four gates in the city walls.  The current walls, built by the Turks in the 16th century, have 11 gates, only seven of which are now open. We passed through the Jaffa Gate and wandered the narrow and winding lanes of the Jewish Quarter.

At one location in the Jewish Quarter archeologists have excavated a base section of the original town wall. Only rubble remains of the base, with a sign on the wall indicating the original height of the wall.  I couldn’t read the sign, but it looked like it was about 30 feet high.  The base was about 15 feet wide.  The wall must have been quite impressive in those times and very useful as part of the defense of the town.

wall base

The destroyed wall in the Jewish Quarter.

In another spot there is the excavated main road of Jerusalem built by the Romans.  This road, called the Cardo, was situated on the north/south axis and was lined with tall columns with carved bases and tops.  Only a few of the columns remain.  Part of the Cardo is now covered by buildings but the original road level is a lane filled with fancy shops.  Along this road is a well-like structure where one can look down to see the remains of two earlier structures, one from Roman times and the other from the time of Nehemiah (approximately 440 BCE).

Roman cardo

A portion of the Roman cardo.

After lunch in a small café hidden away among the back streets of the neighborhood, we made our way to an overlook of the Western Wall Plaza.  From our vantage point we had a fantastic view of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.  The base of the Western Wall is made up of large stone blocks that were part of Solomon’s Temple (the second temple).  The Temple Mount today is where the two mosques are located – the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.  The Dome of the Rock mosque is the one with the golden dome.

Western Wall with square

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

We walked down to the square and entered the area in front of the Western Wall.  Moshe and I covered out heads with paper yarmulkes provided to us.  The wind was blowing and I had a hard time keeping mine on my head!   With one hand on my yarmulke we approached the Wall.  The area is divided up into two segregated sections, a men’s section and a women’s section.  For reasons unknown to me the men’s section is twice as large as the women’s section.  Did the authorities think more women than men want to pray to God at the wall?

Worshippers write their prayers on pieces of paper, stick the papers in cracks of the wall, and pray at the spot.  The wind was blowing some of the prayer papers onto the ground.  I wondered if a cleaning crew came out at night to clean up the papers, including the ones still stuck in the cracks so that the next day’s worshippers would have empty cracks to fill.

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Many of the worshippers were Orthodox Jews in black clothes, with black hats and the sides of their heads sporting ringlets.  Moshe and I walked to the side of the wall where there is a cavern dug into the hill.  This opening is a prayer, library, and study room for Orthodox Jewish men.  As we were walking out a couple of Orthodox Jews approached us for a handout and said something in Hebrew to us.  As we got out of earshot I asked Moshe what they were saying.  He replied that they were trying to convert him to become Orthodox.

Moshe told me that he was in Jerusalem right after the end of the Six Day War in 1967 and the site looked very different.  Prior to this time the Arabs had control of Jerusalem.  The Arabs over the centuries had built houses at that spot (which was called the Moroccan Quarter). The base of the Western Wall was covered up, and higher parts of the wall were visible only in a small space behind some buildings.  The Israelis tore down the houses, excavated the base of the wall to expose the temple wall and provide better access, and built the plaza.

After a stroll down the market street it was time to go.  It was very interesting to visit Yad Vashem and Jerusalem with an Israeli.  It was experience to remember.  Thanks Moshe!

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Tel Aviv view

The Old and the New, Jaffa and Tel Aviv

MEOW!

The cat stared up at me with huge eyes.  She sat still like a statue with an intent look on her face.  She wanted something from me.

You picked the wrong man to beg from, furry feline.  The world is divided into two parts – dog lovers and cat lovers. I’m a dog lover and I typically push cats away from me with my foot (I would never admit to kicking a cat).  I made our cats sleep on the porch or in the barn.  I never let them in the house, because they are cats….

Tel Aviv view

The Mediterranean Sea and Tel Aviv, Israel.

I was having dinner at an elegant seafood restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel.  The restaurant, called Manta Ray, sits only a few feet from the Mediterranean Sea.  Cloud cover had ruined the sunset, but the weather was warm and a light breeze blew.  I was sitting outside on the deck when this cat appeared and picked me out from the other diners.  How odd.

I had just finished a delicious dinner of shrimp, scallops, and fish.  I had a small pile of shrimp fins, and a fish skin.  The cat meowed again.  Hey, buddy, can you spare a fin?  Ok, you win.  I must be getting soft in my advancing age.

I scanned the restaurant for the waiters and waitresses.  When no one was looking I fed shrimp fins one by one to the cat.  She loved it.  For each shrimp, one second it was there, the next it was gone.  She remained by my side, patiently waiting.  She was giving me those big cat eyes of love. When the shrimp was gone, she devoured the fish skin.

Old Jaffa sign

The entrance to Old Jaffa.

Earlier in the day I walked down the promenade to the old port town of Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew).  Jaffa is just south of Tel Aviv along the coast.  It is built onto a hill jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea.  It is one of the oldest ports in the world.  In Old Testament times it was called Joppa.  The Bible tells us that this is where Jonah embarked on his voyage where he ended up in the belly of the big fish.  It is also where cedar logs from Lebanon were unloaded from ships and transported overland and up the hill to Jerusalem to be used in building Solomon’s temple.

Old Jaffa street.

A narrow lane in Old Jaffa.

The town is small and crowded. The buildings overshadow the narrow lanes and provide much needed shade in the summer.  They are made of buff colored stone.  A small stairway across from the wharf appearing as a hole in the building leads up into the old town. Coming from the New World, it was amazing to me to walk streets that were first built upon over three thousand years ago.  There is so much recorded history in the Mideast that it is hard for me to comprehend.

Wall in Old Jaffa.

An ancient wall in Old Jaffa.

The ancient streets of Jaffa are one extreme.   The other extreme is a short taxi ride back into Tel Aviv. In a few minutes one is back to the modern world.  Giant new condo towers are being erected for Israel’s rich and famous citizens to live in style with a view over the beach to the Mediterranean Sea.  Five star hotels overlook the Promenade while inline skaters and joggers use the paved trails in the park.

Tel Aviv condos and beach

Condo towers along the beach in Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv was started in 1909 by Jewish settlers fleeing the crowded living conditions in Jaffa.  In the 1920s and 1930s it grew into a small city.  As a result of the persecution of the Jews in Europe in the 1930s, its population exploded as many people came to Tel Aviv to start a new life.  Many of those people were artists and architects.  The architects were prominent proponents of the International school of design, called “Bauhaus.”  Their white buildings soon dominated the Tel Aviv neighborhoods.  Hence the city became known as the “White City.”

More recently, Tel Aviv has arrived as a hot spot for its fine restaurants, all night club scene, and sunny beaches.  I’m not much for the club scene, and I’m trying to move away from the meat and potatoes diet, but I never pass up a beach opportunity.

I hit the beach on a Saturday and it was filled with families picnicking, playing paddleball games, and relaxing at the many beach cafes.  It was a glorious late winter afternoon.  The sun was shining and it was a nice change from the winter weather in Germany.  I found an empty chair in the crowd, pulled my sandals off, and stuck my feet in the sand.

beach cafe in Tel Aviv

Beach cafe in Tel Aviv.

The water was too cold at this time of year for swimming, yet that didn’t stop several surfers in wetsuits from riding the small waves in sea.  I pulled out my book but was snoozing in no time…

The cat meowed again.  Hey man, don’t forget about me.  I’m still hungry!

You’ve got a good gig here, cat.  Eating scraps from a top notch restaurant in a city renowned around the world as a foodie capital.  Who said cats aren’t smart?  Shalom!

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Masada ruins

The Fortress of Masada

I can’t imagine a more inhospitable place to build a palace than Masada in Israel.  It is on a butte hundreds of feet above the Judean Desert.  Sheer cliff walls surround the top of the butte.  A narrow path called the Snake Path winds its way up the cliff’s side.  There is a nice view of the Dead Sea from the top, but the heat is unbearable in summer.  How did they get water up here?  What were they thinking?  Surely, a palace along the Mediterranean Sea would be better.

view from Masada in Israel

A view from Masada

Herod the Great had the palace built in 37 B.C. as a redoubt in case of trouble in Judea.  If he had to flee Jerusalem, at least he could still live in style in this palace in the sky.  In fact there were four palaces on the site, so that four of his wives could live separately.  Maybe the plan wasn’t so bad after all…

He never visited the place.  Instead, the last remnant of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, approximately 1,200 men, women and children, fled there in 70 A.D.  It was the perfect stronghold.  It was easy to defend from attackers trying to scamper up the Snake Path one or two at a time.  Herod had stored water in large cisterns and there was plenty of Spam and baked beans in the cellar (or whatever food could be stored in those times).

Another Masada view

Another Masada view

The Romans were too proud to allow the remaining rebels to stay there so they marshaled their forces and laid siege.  Three Roman legions (about 48,000 men) set up camp in the valley below. They tried everything in their bag of siege tricks to capture the fortress, as shown in the 1970s movie called Masada.

The Jews held out for three years.  Eventually, after a moving speech by their leader, they chose to commit suicide rather than live as Roman slaves.  Each man killed his wife and children.  Only two women and two children survived.

Masada ruins

Ruins of Herod's Palaces in Masada, Israel

The Romans destroyed the place.  Almost 2,000 years later, not much remains of Herod’s palaces except for a few walls and cisterns.  Yet the dramatic story of the rebels lives on.  It is passed down through the generations of Israelis with the phrase “Sheynit Masada lo tipul,” which means “Masada shall not fall again.”

Visitors no longer have to hike up the Snake Path to the top of Masada.  A cable car whisks you to the top in a couple of minutes.  Even so, when visiting in the summer bring sun screen and lots of water!

desert landscape

Desert landscape surrounding Masada

Our tour guide to Masada was excellent.  His name is Shraga Rosensaft.  If you are visiting Israel and would like a personable, interesting, and expert guide, please contact him at shragaia@aim.com or www.tiyul.weebly.com

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floating

Floating in the Dead Sea

The feeling is ethereal.  You don’t notice anything different as you walk into the water.  Go in past your knees as you could be in any lake in the world.  But take a few more steps, until the water is up to your waist, and then sit back like you are in a chair.  Relax.  Let your arms go out to your sides.  You’re floating in the Dead Sea, at the lowest place on Earth.

floating

Relaxing in the Dead Sea

The Israelis call this lake the Salt Sea.  It’s known everywhere else as the Dead Sea because of the belief that it is so salty that nothing can live in the water.  Scientists have proven that that’s not true because there are some microorganisms that have adapted to this extreme environment.  Ocean water is approximately 4% salt.  The water of the Dead Sea is approximately 38% salt.  This change in chemistry affects the buoyancy of anything floating in it.

Salt from the Dead Sea in Israel

The salt washes up on shore at the Dead Sea

Like me.  Sitting in the chair position without moving is easy and very relaxing.  I can also tilt back and extend my body to lie flat on my back without effort.  I am hesitant to put head back in the water because the guide told us not to get any water splashed into our eyes.  At such a high salt content, the water would badly sting your eyes.  I can’t comfortably open my eyes under sea water, so I am taking no chances.  I keep my sunglasses on.  As I move my body to lie flat on my stomach, I quickly realize that’s a bad idea without goggles.

I paddle out a little farther into deeper water.  I can’t touch the bottom.  I try to stand up straight like a pole without moving, my arms at my side.  I hang there like a clothespin on a line, gently swaying with the breeze.  I tilt back and forth a little with the slight waves.

Resorts on the Dead Sea

A resort on the shore of the Dead Sea

Having approximate neutral buoyancy to your body is a strange feeling.  I have taken scuba diving lessons and have gone diving about 15 times.   With scuba diving equipment called a BCD (buoyancy compensation device), while underwater you can either add air to your vest or let air out of your vest to control buoyancy.  If you add too much you start to rise in the water, too little and you start to sink.  Getting to neutral buoyancy is a skill that divers work on.  It can be hard to get it exactly right.

The feeling is the same when floating in the Dead Sea, but you’re not underwater and no equipment is required.  Just walk in to the water and relax…

Camel in Israel

A camel at sea level in Israel

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