Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Shalom Israel! Part 5: Masada & Beit She'an



After our wonderful Dead Sea getaway, we headed south to Masada, a historic fortress in the Judean Desert. Masada is important because it was the last Jewish holdout that lost out to Rome and the Jewish people were exiled from their holy land. Rather than be killed by the Romans, the Jews decided to commit mass suicide here, however, there is lack of evidence supporting this.










King Herod constructed this fortress which consisted of many luxurious areas such as baths and spas.  The fortress is set atop a massive rock plateau surrounded by steep cliffs. Although many tourists choose to hike all the way up, the easiest way to get to the top is by the cable car. As Masada is not far from Ein Gedi, we just drove there in the morning and took the cable car up. There are guided tours available and the ticket also includes a museum visit at the end. There is a large cafetaria which offers local and fast food and a huge selection of ice-creams, perfect for the hot, hot weather!

When I reflect back on my trip overall, Masada was actually my least favorite bit. Although the views from the top were pretty nice, I was not that impressed with the actual fortress itself. Maybe it was just that by this point, I couldn't take the heat and just wanted to be indoors!
Photos were not allowed inside the museum, but it was well worth the visit. But the best part for me was when I could finally eat my ice-cream!

As we left the Dead Sea region, we headed north towards Nazareth, an important place in Christianity. On the way, we stopped at Beit She'an, a town in the Galilee region. Many Biblical events took place in this town and there are several archaelogical ruins, including an amphi-theatre in the vast area. The place was well maintained and we had a nice walk in the national park, admiring the ruins. 





Next up, I'll share my experience in Nazareth with you all!


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Shalom Israel! Part 4: The Dead Sea


After a history/culture packed 4 days in Jerusalem, it was time to head south to the Dead Sea! We rented a car for the remainder of our trip and headed towards Ein Gedi, an oasis in the Judaean Desert, close to the Dead Sea. Accommodation options are quite limited and the most popular place to stay is the Ein Gedi Kibbutz. The kibbutz offers three meals a day and as there are no other restaurants in the area, you have no other choice but to eat here. Luckily the food was great!It took about 2 hours to drive from Jerusalem to Ein Gedi and it was great to drive through the desert. It brought back fond memories of our trip to Jordan in 2008 and although the Israeli part of the desert is nice, I found the Jordanian one a lot more beautiful and scenic.


As part of our accommodation package, we were given passes to the Ein Gedi Kibbutz's private beach where we could cover ourselves in the dark mud full of minerals and float in the Dead Sea. It was incredibly hot (about 42 degrees celsius!) and so the idea of "chilling" at the beach was very enticing! So we quickly packed our towels, a sarong, swimwear, beach slippers and sun block lotion and drove to the private beach (about 3km from the hotel).  

At 423 metres below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. It is not actually a sea but is a salt lake that is bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. With 33.7% salinity, it is one of the saltiest water bodies on earth. Just imagine, it is 8 times saltier than the ocean! Due to its high salinity, it is impossible for any fish or aquatic plants to survive and hence it is named the Dead Sea. 




The Dead Sea is known worldwide for its health benefits due to the minerals present in its water and mud. Therefore many people who seek relaxation or are recovering from an illness come here to enjoy natural therapeutic treatments. 

We had heard so many stories of people floating in the Dead Sea and we wanted to test and try it out ourselves! The high concentration of salt and other minerals cause the Dead Sea to have high density and therefore even if you try to swim, you just can't! You'll end up floating almost immediately! 

Once we got to the Dead Sea, we were dying to cool off from the scorching sun and couldn't wait to get into the water! My, how wrong we were! Surrounding the water was solidified salt crystals, making it a very hard and rough surface to walk on. We were grateful that we had our beach slippers on as walking barefoot can be extremely uncomfortable and painful. What a shock we had when we first set foot into the water! It was not cool and refreshing! It was boiling hot! From the moment we got in, I felt my body starting to itch and burn everywhere! It was so painful to be in there the first few minutes, almost unbearable. But it truly was amazing when our bodies just started to float and we had no control over them! It's impossible to stay in the Dead Sea for more than 15 minutes so we got out pretty soon. We did go back again the following day and fun again!




After our unique Dead Sea experience, we went to the mud spa. It is so smelly with the sulphur smell but we didn't really care and covered ourselves in the dark green mud. We let it dry for 15 minutes and then washed it all off! It was pretty fun!


We had a great time in Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea - a truly unique experience! We bought a few bath products for home and have been enjoying the great mineral soaps and shampoos! It was a nice way to relax after walking so much in Jerusalem so, if you do plan a trip to Israel, finish the hectic stuff first before coming here!

Next up, Masada!



Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shalom Israel! Part 3: Beautiful Bethlehem


Bethlehem...the name itself evokes a sense of mystery! This ancient little city mostly known as the birthplace of Jesus!

Bethlehem is a small city located about 10km away from Jerusalem. This historical city is part of the West Bank in the area administered by the Palestinian Authority. What this means is that it is not in Israeli territory but is in proper Palestine. Getting in to Bethlehem is easier if you take a taxi or bus with a local guide as most car rental companies do not authorize you to drive in Palestinian territory. So, we found a local guide in Jerusalem the day before and he agreed to take us to Bethlehem by bus the following morning.

Within 15 minutes, we got to the Jerusalem - Bethlehem border where there was an Israeli security and immigration checkpoint. They don't really check when you enter Bethlehem but they do check when you return to Jerusalem. The reason being, by Israeli law, it is illegal for Israelis to enter Bethlehem and anyone caught doing so will be sent to jail. For foreigners like us, there's usually no problem to enter Bethlehem and return to Jerusalem.

The first thing we noticed as we set foot on Palestinian soil was the huge wall that Israel has been constructing to separate Palestine from them. This wall has caused much worldwide controversy as it is believed to bring more harm to the people than anything else. Israeli authorities feel that this wall is a defensive measure and is constructed to prevent terrorist attacks. Palestinians, especially those living in Bethlehem, feel that the wall restricts their freedom and movement. There are petitions made to bring down the wall and the wall has art work and messages on it to express the Palestinians' opinions about it. Messages like "Make hummus, not walls" can be seen. It definitely felt strange to have this huge wall and not know what was going on on  the other side.


Our guide had arranged a taxi to take us to the main sites in Bethlehem and our first stop was the Milk Grotto. According to Biblical records, one day three wise men paid a visit to Herod the Great who was appointed by the Romans as the King of Jews. They asked Herod about "the one was being born as the King of the Jews" as they had seen a bright star and wanted to pay him homage. Taken aback by this news, Herod consulted his chief priests and learned that the new King of the Jews was born in Bethlehem. He conveyed this to the three wise men and told them to come back to him after they found the baby so that he too could worship him. Herod's real intention however was to kill this baby who was to take over as the King of Jews. He thus ordered the killings of all male newborns in the Bethlehem area, an event known as the Massacre of the Innocents

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, Joseph had a dream which warned him that Herod was coming to kill baby Jesus. The three wise men found the baby and adorned it with gifts and just as they were about to head back to Herod, they too were warned in a dream not to go back. Sensing the danger that Jesus was in, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with baby Jesus and stayed there until Herod's death. While they were escaping, Mary was nursing baby Jesus and they sought temporary refuge in a cave. A drop of her milk fell on the ground in the cave and it immediately became white. 

Today, many couples who are trying to conceive or have a smooth delivery come to the Milk Grotto to pray for Mary's blessings. People believe that the grotto has special healing powers and brings fertility to couples who wish to have a child. In fact, the grotto staff apparently grind the white stone into a powder which is then sold to couples. There is a belief that if the couple mixes this powder in a drink for 9 days consecutively, they will conceive. 

The grotto itself was very serene and beautiful. Dimly lit with candles, it was very peaceful being there.




After the Milk Grotto, we headed to the nearby Church of Nativity, the actual birthplace of Jesus. This is the oldest continuously operating church in the world. We were quickly rushed in as the church was going to be closed to the public for mass prayers and so we were very lucky to go in and see everything. We first went to a place in the church known as the Star of Nativity. This is apparently the exact spot where Jesus was born. There were just 4 other people there so we could actually touch the star and offer prayers. It was an incredibly special moment! How blessed we are to actually experience this! I would have thought that being Jesus' birthplace, the church would be very crowded but in fact, it was practically empty! It seems that security concerns over the Israel-Palestine conflict have drastically reduced the number of visitors other than at Christmas when the place is packed. 

We also got to see the manger before being asked to move along. We learnt that the church is jointly operated by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian authorities, each holding their own prayer sessions. 


We then visited a little shop where we purchased a few souvenirs. I got a little bell with the Jerusalem cross and some incense to burn at home. 

Bethlehem was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I loved every minute of it - it felt so special to see and just imagine all these historical events taking place there. It truly was a privilege and a blessing to be in a holy place like that. I don't usually get this feeling of a supreme power taking over me when I visit most other religious sites (I've only ever felt it in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, our Tirupati pilgrimage and some other Hindu temples) but I felt that in Bethlehem too. A definite must-see for anyone who visits Israel!

Next up, my adventures at the Dead Sea!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Shalom Israel! - Part 2: Historic Jerusalem


As the birthplace of some of the world's major religions, Jerusalem has plenty to offer to tourists. As we thought it would be the highlight of our trip, we planned to spend four full days there to make sure we had enough time to cover every single thing without having to rush.

As soon as we reached Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, we decided to take a shared taxi to Jerusalem. It took about an hour to get there and we were dropped off at the Arab part of the city as that was where our hotel's located. It is quite expensive to travel in Israel and hotels especially charge a lot. Our hotel in Jerusalem is not worth mentioning at all as it was terrible and very expensive. The only good thing about it was that it is located close to the old walled city and as we spent much of our time outdoors, the hotel quality didn't really matter.

Jerusalem is split roughly into two parts - the old walled city and the rest of the city which is modern. The old walled city is where all the historical sites are located. These 16th century Ottoman walls almost feel like they are protecting the treasures of Jerusalem's rich history, cultures and religions. The old city is divided into four quarters: Arab quarter, Jewish quarter, Christian quarter and the Armenian quarter.  There are several gates for the different quarters through which you can enter the old city. The Arab quarter is the largest by size and population and this is where the famous Al-Aqsa Mosque is situated.






My first impression of Jerusalem's old city was that I felt like I was in a whole different country each time we went from one quarter to another. When we first entered the Arab quarter, it seemed like a very typical Arab city with the souks and bazaars, people bargaining, the aroma of freshly made felafels, people covered in veils and other head gear, and the sounds of the Islamic call for prayer. Other than tourists, we hardly saw people of other communities there. As we made our way through the labyrinth of souks, we ended up at a security check point - to enter the Western Wall Plaza of the Jewish quarter. That's right! Within just one city, there are security checks to enter and leave this place! 


Once we got to the Jewish quarter, the first place we headed to was the Western Wall. It is the holiest place of worship for Jewish people as it is the closest they can get to the Temple Mount (also known as Dome of the Rock). The Temple Mount is where the foundation stone is set, the point at which Jews believe the world was created. It is also the place where many significant Biblical events took place. The temple was destroyed by the Crusaders and the Jews were exiled from 70 A.D. 


Jews have since not been able to enter the Temple Mount and as a result the western wall surrounding the temple compound has become the most important site in Judaism. Devotees come to the wall to mourn the destruction of the temple and leave prayer notes or messages in the cracks between the stones. They cry out of sorrow for the fate of the Jews and it is for this reason that this wall is also known as the Wailing Wall.




Men and women pray separately and the area is divided into two sections. Anyone can enter as long as they are properly attired and men should cover their heads (kirpas are available to borrow). During Sabbath (Friday night to Saturday after sunset), large groups of Jews come to pray, sing, dance and eat together. During this time, no photography is allowed. 


I was truly intrigued by the Jewish quarter. It is so distinct from the rest of the old city - there were barely any Arabs in sight, devout Jews walked around in their black suits, hats, kirpas, beards and long sideburns, families with as many as 6 children gathered together to pray and sing. And during Sabbath, not many people ere out in the streets and all restaurants and cafes in the quarter were closed. But we could hear people from their homes, enjoying their day of relaxation. The Jewish quarter also had a lot of Americanized cafes, probably because of the large American Jewish population. 


I got to talk to Hava, one of the caretakers of the Western Wall and it was fun learning more about Judaism from her. I even slipped in a prayer note into the wall!

Just as how the Temple Mount is important to the Jews, it is known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque to Muslims and is revered as the third holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Muslims believe that this is where Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven and received the Quranic verses from Angel Gabriel. Although non-Muslims can enter the compound, only Muslims may enter the mosque. 



Finally, Jerusalem is also an extremely important site for Christians. This is where Jesus spent his last days and was crucified. Via Dolorosa, meaning the Way of Grief or Suffering, is a path within the old city where Jesus carried his cross on the way to his crucifixion. There are a total of 14 stations along this path, nine of which are outside and the remaining five are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Each station relates to an important event that occurred during Jesus' journey. Via Dolorosa is filled with Christian pilgrims from all over the world and it is very common to hear them sing Christian hymns in groups. We also wanted to follow Jesus' footsteps and stopped at each station to learn more about what had happened. We finally got to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - a beautiful place filled with lots of emotions from the pilgrims.








These are the major attractions in Jerusalem and it does take time to go around and learn about the different religions and cultures. When we went to the modern part of the city, it seemed like any other city, bustling with music, people, cafes and restaurants. We also visited the City of David, which is not far from the Jewish quarter. The main attraction there is to walk through the underground water tunnels just as the residents of Jerusalem did when the city was conquered. It was quite a thrilling experience to walk 45 minutes through the freezing cold water! We also visited the Mount of Olives and saw the Russian church and also had a nice stroll to Mount Zion.


















 All in all, discovering Jerusalem was a fantastic experience and I thoroughly enjoyed every second of my time there! I learnt so much about the different cultures and religions of each community and find the place so diverse. I did feel that each community kept to themselves and it almost seemed like there was a rule for them not to be in another group's quarter. The way I saw it, it seemed like there was a lack of trust and people seemed guarded about their own identity. Even if it is a place that often faces tension, Jerusalem is truly a city worth visiting and exploring!

Watch my video of Historic Jerusalem here!




Next up, Bethlehem!



Sunday, September 30, 2012

Shalom Israel! - Part 1: A Glimpse of Israel


Shalom everyone!

Although Israel has been in the spotlight for its religious significance and political climate, it was only when I worked at a travel company that I got interested in the country. The numerous brochures that contained tours to Israel showed amazing photos and the itineraries contained several amazing sites and experiences. The more I looked at the brochures, the more I felt the urge to visit this unique country. I never knew much about Judaism or Christianity and with Israel being the birthplace of these religions, I thought that traveling there would be a great way to learn about these different faiths and the distinct cultures of the country.

It was a last minute decision to go there and David and I bought our tickets merely a few days before departure. We were warned by friends and many websites that the security procedures at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv would be excessive and sometimes not very pleasant. And we had to make sure we planned every single detail of the trip to show the authorities we knew what we were doing. So this was our 12-day itinerary:

Tel Aviv - Jerusalem - Ein Gedi - Masada - Nazareth - Zefat - Haifa - Tel Aviv

We skipped the desert and Eilat as we'd already done a desert trek in neighboring Jordan and felt it wouldn't be necessary this time.

Entering Israel was actually quite a breeze! We were just asked basic questions and could then finally start our adventure! Although we landed in Tel Aviv, we headed straight to Jerusalem with a shared taxi that we booked at the airport directly.

There's a lot to cover about Israel in different segments so for now, here's a video that gives you a quick glimpse of the country! Up next, historic Jerusalem!

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