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THURSDAY OCTOBER 1 – Jerusalem
Our ship arrived in Ashdod, on time – 9:30am. Because of this late arrival we had a leisurely breakfast in the main dining room. While eating we watched as the Israeli “authorities” (a contingent of about a dozen men and women with badges in blue uniforms) boarded the ship. Prior to leaving the ship we had to “clear” a face-to-face interview with Israeli Customs Police. This was a most efficient process. The cruise line had taken all our passports from us upon boarding in Athens. EACH passport had been “reviewed” by someone prior to our face-to-face. We reclaimed our passport in the theater, proceeded to a long table where the authorities looked at us and our passport. We where then handed a “landing card”. Still NO CLUE what this was or why. We just KNEW we had to keep our passport and landing card on us at all times while in Israel. As we were overnighting in Jerusalem we gathered out suitcase and exited the ship.
Ashdod is a LARGE, modern, cargo port. Our passenger ship was docked at the far end of a long industrial pier where cargo containers created a fenced area for passengers, busses, and taxi’s. We had made arrangements in advance for a guide for the day. After a couple phone calls, and a short ride to the port gate, we rendezvoused with our guide:
Name – Sam Eli Salem
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Phone – +972-544-828207
After getting into his nice, clean, modern van we headed towards Jerusalem – about an hour drive from the port of Ashdod. After getting on the interstate, Sam broke the bad news to us. There had been “an incident” in the old city, and the Old City was closed to cars, there were blockades around the Old City, AND… the Temple Mount was closed. Meaning we were NOT going to get inside (or even outside) The Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock. Instead we adapted, and in the Spirit of Traveling Like an Architect, decided that a fair compromise would be to head towards the Dead Sea by way of the City of Jericho.
After an hour of chit-chat, while driving on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, we became comfortable with each other. While passing thru Abu Gosh, we noticed a beautiful modern mosque. Sam asked if we were interested in seeing it – we were, and off we went up the hill. We parked right outside the gates to the courtyard of the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque. Completed in 2014, this is the largest mosque in Israel. It was built with money donated by the Chechen government. Sam directed Lynn to walk up the sidewalk and stairs to a second level woman’s balcony. Rob and Sam headed right in the front door.
It was ALMOST prayer time. Sam spoke with the Imam who said we could look around – he did not mind, but the others did, so we needed to be quick and quiet, and be gone by the time the prayer started. Rob got some NICE photos of the inside. Lynn was confronted with a locked door. Sam did walk up and attempt to help Lynn, but NO luck. We were surprised that no women were arriving at prayer time….
On our drive along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway we saw “settlements”. These are LARGE areas in Palestinian Territory that the Israeli’s have built housing for up to 40,000 people. We were unable to figure out how you move 40,000 people onto someone else’s land. We saw the “wall” that is intended to separate Israel from Palestine. We were told you can pay for the “service” of a ladder. The person brings two ladders, puts one on each side of the wall, after you are over, they remove both ladders. Some people scale the wall on a weekly basis to go to work. At the base of one of the settlements were some older looking “ruins”. These were 1950’s military buildings that the Israeli military bombed to prevent people from living in them – particularly the Bedouins.
A bit further out from Jerusalem we saw squatter settlements. These were not nice, new and modern like the ones the Israeli’s built. These were shacks made from scavenged materials and junk. They all had herds of small animals around them. These small squatter settlements are occupied by the Bedouins, nomadic sheepherder tribes. They still wander, using others land to feed their goats and sheep. OUR feeling is THESE are true landowner/occupants of this area – not the Jewish or Palestinian tribes. Unfortunately, as they were nomadic (much like our Native Americans) they had no legal/paper claims to land they were occupying. In other words their culture is not centered on the ownership of land and buildings. We were told “make no mistake – they are NOT poor, that is just their lifestyle”.
We continued on Highway 1 until we turned on a dirt road that led to Jericho and past St. George’s Orthodox Monastery at Wadi Qelt. We stopped for photos of St. George’s Monastery, where there was a guy selling fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, jewelry, and scarves.
We fell in LOVE with the Pomegranate Juice! It was SO good that we purchased some everywhere we saw it. When we got back to Rockford we ordered a pomegranate squeezer, and have now purchased two cases of pomegranates. It was nice to have our Guide Sam with us…. he gave us simple advice all day like when the guy started tying the scarves on our heads Sam said – it was “OK”, and we could purchase if we wanted, or maybe just take a picture and give the guy a dollar. Lynn purchased the scarf, and it remained around her head most of the day. I gave mine back after our photo.
The drive out of Wadi Qelt, and down into the valley, was treacherous…. the dirt road was only a single lane and Sam told us that cars go off the cliff on occasion… When we got into town we stopped at the ruins of King Herod’s Summer Palace. Not much to see, and could easily be mistaken for a garbage dump.
And onto, and into the City of Jericho we went. A dozen blocks into the City and Sam pulled over outside The Greek Orthodox Monastery of the prophet Elisha. We got out of the car and went inside the gate where there were the remains of the base of an old, dried tree – in a GLASS BOX!!! This, Sam said, was the “REAL” Zacchaeus Tree. It is one of three spots in the town where the “real” tree is purportedly to be. Sam did point out a second location, near the Holy Land Museum, where a VERY old, still growing fig is located. We did not stop at the Catholic Convent-location number three. We did go into the BEAUTIFUL Orthodox Church where this tree is located. And it seems likely to us that we did see the “real” tree. We’ve all heard these Bible stories – – – so it was fun to actually get a grip on the reality of it all…
On our way out of the courtyard we learned WHY Jericho is called the The City of Palms. We purchased a box of Dates from a local vendor. We should have purchased two. About $3 for the most DELICIOUS dates ever. Sam got some too, and he remarked that they were the BEST dates he has ever had (and he lives in Date country).
AND…. Lunch Time. Sam suggested the WONDERFUL Abu Omar restaurant, where our server, Ahmad, brought us at least a dozen plates of different local foods. It was UNBELIEVABLE. And we each had a Coke (America is everywhere).
After eating we headed to the spring of Jericho where we parked adjacent to the spring fed from Elisha’s spring, and just outside the original Jericho gate. Unfortunately we don’t remember all these stories…. so we are doing a little research as we go. But every time I delve into something – – I feel like what I was taught may be a mis-interpretation of what I feel was meant. Could religion be evolving in an unfavorable way? We have both been well exposed to Christianity, but neither of us ever bought in…… Hint: We are both deep thinkers! We need to connect the dots, and we need to feel something….. and we never did. I am guessing we are not alone… but many die before the are willing to admit it. Anyway, this is also the boarding area for the Cable car that whisks visitors up to the Deir Al-Quruntul Monastery, better known as the Monastery of the Temptation.
The existing structures were built in 1845 around some of the major caves. As the monastery is on the side of a cliff, we elected to pay a couple dollars and ride the Swiss cable car up. It was a beautiful drive that went over the original Jericho gate and lush farm land. We then walked a number of steps to the monastery entrance. Inside we went into a number of caves, looked into the rooms dangling over the cliff, and visited the main alter area. It is a beautiful place with fantastic views. After our visit we took the cable car down to Sam’s car, and onto our next adventure. Jericho is a special place, definitely worth visiting. It is the lowest city in the world at 755 feet below the sea level; and the oldest at around 10,000 years.
The Deir Al-Quruntul Monastery is very unique. It is under the full jurisdiction of the Palestinian National Authority, but owned and managed by the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. It is also one of the few open to both men and women. Original occupation of the site consisted of caves, hollowed out in the face of the cliff, where a monk would sit all by himself. These caves were above the cave traditionally said to be where Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting and meditating during the temptation of Satan. WHAT??? Meditation??? They didn’t teach us that in church!!
We left here with plenty to ponder… was Christ ushered out of Jerusalem in the night, taken to this Monastery where he left the earth in a UFO? How open is your mind? Maybe there is universal public transportation for those who qualify…..
Our next stop, and the other main attraction we had retained Sam for, was a visit, and swim in, the Dead Sea. Sam took us to Kalia beach, managed by The Kibbutz Kalia nearby. (We learned a Kibbutz is a communal, usually agrarian, settlement. If we had more time we could have gone to Biakini where they have fresh water pools and cottages to spend the night. We entered the beach compound, where you pay a couple dollars for use of changing rooms and showers, and headed straight to the changing rooms. Sam “bartered” with them on the entrance fee, as it was quite late in the day. We went straight into the water. Entering is difficult as the bank is rocky, and very slippery with wet clay, and once in the water there are deep mud holes. People were soaking, and covering themselves with the therapeutic mud. We joined in.
We have Sam to thank for the photos of both of us floating in the water. The lake’s surface and shore are 1,407 feet below sea level – earth’s lowest elevation! At 997 feet deep, the Dead Sea is the deepest, and at 34.2% salinity, one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water. Once you floated on your back it was almost impossible to push your feet into the water to stand upright. After about an hour we were thoroughly “cleansed” and went to shower up. Sam saved the day. We had NOT brought ANY towels – even though the ship does provide them. Sam had towels, and even a little shampoo for us to clean up. We did feel revitalized from the salt and other minerals too!
By now it was getting late and we headed back to Jerusalem. By the time we entered Jerusalem is was dark.
Sam had quite a challenge getting us to our hotel. Sam had recommended St. Andrew’s Scottish Guest house. It is beautiful Church with attached guestrooms overlooking the Hinnom Valley and walking distance to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. Unfortunately being CLOSE made it quite difficult to get to our hotel. Israeli police had closed ALL roads around the Old City – and the road to our hotel. We rolled our window down at one of the barricades, and I held our hotel reservation out the window and begged to be allowed to bypass the blockade – we were allowed to pass. On our drive around on the road around the Old City we were entertained by groups of Jewish Pilgrims parading and singing as they walked around the outer wall. Sam eventually got us to our hotel after a LONG day of sight seeing. Before we parted, Sam was able to recommend a taxi driver who could get us back to the port tomorrow afternoon.
After arriving at St. Andrew’s The Scot’s Guesthouse We checked into our room, changed clothes, and cleaned up. This hotel, like Athens, also had a device that turned all lights and cooling on/off with your room key. This time we left one key in the device, turned out all the lights, and left our cooling running. We asked for eating suggestions at the front desk before leaving the hotel. We were told the Train Depot, or the German Colony where there were “coffee and sandwich” shops. We chose the German Colony area, and headed down Emek Refa’im St. It was NOT a Chicago “Restaurant Row”. There were Churches, Homes, Retail, and of course places to eat. Because it was the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot all the eating places had temporary tents set up so the Jewish people could eat outside (required for Sukkot). We looked at menus at a couple nice looking sit-down restaurants. Really more food and a longer wait than we were looking for. We really were looking for a “sandwich” shop. Between fine dining we found a place that appeared to be selling Gyros. Perfect we thought. Thru the tent, up the steps – no door – and up to a counter we went. Above the counter was a menu board, all in Hebrew. No pictures. No English. So we left. After a bit we came upon another Gyro type restaurant. The proprietor here was giving away samples of Falafel. We discovered this is common. He had a tray of fresh, ready to go balls on the corner of his order counter. Upon seeing us, he picked a few up, with his bare fingers, and handed us each one. DELICIOUS. And we were quite hungry by then. We looked up, and again, his menu was in Hebrew. He was a motivated business person however. He gestured in a manner that invited us to EAT.
We shook our heads up and down and a “deal” was cut. He held up a large tortilla and a pita. We selected the pita. He then pointed at the falafel, and we said “MEAT” while pointing at the rotating meat behind him. He smiled, cut off some, and then proceeded to point at 6-8 bins of “toppings”. We said “OK” and Lynn said “Make it good”, to which he responded by just putting this and that in the pita. We took our pita, and a cup of pomegranate juice, outside to a table where we added something in a bottle on the table to our pita. We later learned this is called a shawurma. As we relaxed, and ate, we noticed a sign-board on the side walk, all in English, advertising “Gluten Free Falafel”. Guess there is no translation.
After a DELICIOUS meal we headed back towards our motel. As we got close to our motel we noticed an area with lights, music, and even an amusement ride, so we took a detour. When you Travel Like an Architect™ you take A LOT of detours. We found ourselves at the Train Depot. It was NOT, however an active depot, but rather a large outdoor night life area. There were restaurants, booths with vendors, and live entertainment. Actually amazing for a Thursday night. We walked up and back. Listened to the singer for a while. Got an ice cream for desert. Looked at all the vendors stalls. And…. eventually decided to call it an evening.
It was a short walk back to our hotel. When we returned our room was cool, and we enjoyed the view of the Old Jerusalem out our window. We went to bed ready for a full day exploring the Old City.
We did find one compromise in Jerusalem, they managed to strike a compromise over the language on the signs……
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