This is a bit long, but then so was the flight.
You know it will be a good day when your first stop is sunrise over Armageddon. I woke Friday while Tel Aviv was still asleep, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then headed north-east towards Israel’s heartland. I planned to skirt the West Bank until I reach the River Jordon, follow it north into the Galilee, turn eastward at Nimrod’s Fortress along the border with Lebanon—you can’t actually go further without getting shot and hence becoming a bit of a Nimrod yourself—and finally circle back around south across the Golan Heights along the DMZ with Syria. This would take me past some of the oldest cities in the world, through the Greco-Roman world of Herod, biblical sites along the coast of the Sea of Galilee, beneath Crusader fortresses on the high bluffs, and finally see the result of the region’s most recent wars. All this in one day with only the map provided by Avis. What could go wrong?
For a place that’s meant to host the end of the world, Armageddon is a rather sleepy ruin that required the custodian to use his broom handle to reach up and turn on the lights. By the time I was done walking about he’d managed to light a cigarette. If Armageddon is coming, it’s going to have to get used to waiting. The one notable feature, aside from hosting the end of the world, is the ancient city’s water-works, a massive pit dug straight down into the bedrock. It descends over 100 feet before leveling out into a long tunnel that leads to a spring outside the city walls. It’s a precarious trip down even now; I can’t imagine how they did it before the invention of public safety.
After a brief stop at a bus stop to buy a simit like round from an Arab kid who spent most of his time texting, I arrived at Scythopolis. Utterly destroyed in an earthquake during the 8th century, Scythopolis is a massive Greco-Roman excavation with everything you’d expect from a proper Roman city including 2000 year old public toilets. This was the first place that had foreigners in any number, and must be one of the big sites for tours coming out of Jerusalem. Amidst the ruins there’s an ancient Tel that’s been inhabited since before written history. Although it’s a bit of a hike, from the top the view is pretty spectacular, but what caught my eye were the remains of an ancient bridge on the other side of the Tel, the side without the marble Agora, well-kept theater, or busloads of tourists from New York. I climbed down, headed down a deserted path, trudge through a bit of underbrush and finally got down to the water’s edge. It looked like something from an 18th century pastoral painting. All that was missing were the scantily clad Rubenesque women who had the unfortunate habit of slipping out of their tops every time an Italian painter happened by. There was a shepherd and his flock atop a nearby hill, thick Egyptian grasses swaying in the breeze at water’s edge, and above it all the ancient bridge reached over, its arch half collapsed, letting light filter down to the gurgling water. Pretty damn impressive and the photos I took won’t even begin to do it justice.
I won’t bother mentioning my time in the city of Tsfat. Frommer’s mentions it. Frommer’s is the reason I went to it. Frommer’s is stupid. The hour long side trip I took to get there is an hour I want back. The Crusader Castle of Belvoir, however, was easily worth the damage I did to the rental car engine while climbing the twisting path to the promontory on which it sits. Commanding the Jordon valley below, Belvoir was the last castle still held by the Crusader’s when Saladin’s forces finally took back the region. And unlike the others which fell to his siege, Belvoir never did. The Hospitallers inside finally surrendering when they realized the only land the Latin Kingdom of Israel still had under its control was roughly the distance they could piss from their castle walls. For fear of it being re-occupied one day, Saladin had the castle mostly torn down, but it remains impressive.
Winding my way further north I crossed the Jordon river a number of times, but if there hadn’t been a sign, I wouldn’t have noticed. We would call it an irrigation ditch.
The Vatican has a small church on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, reputedly built atop the rock where Christ performed his miracle of feeding thousands with a single loaf of bread. All sharp angles, it looked to be a terribly uncomfortable place to stand about making bread, especially in sandals, but then I’m not the Messiah, so what do I know? There’s another rock nearby where he appeared after his death. In a region that’s full of exposed rocks, it’s impressive someone had the wherewithal to record both spots and never lost track of which was which, not even once, but did manage to lose the nearby Roman city of Scythopolis.
I had come to the area for two reasons. My daugher’s teacher had asked if I could take some religious pictures for the class and I was also curious to get a flavor for a region that’s been such a major part of western culture. I’m not sure what I was expecting, something a little more serene I suppose, perhaps with an old wooden boat bobbing along the shoreline, fishermen casting out their nets, maybe even a donkey or two. Something. Good luck with that. Instead, seeing the biblical sites of the Galilee doesn’t require faith, it requires you to close your eyes and pretend you’re somewhere else. Instead of anything even vaguely evocative, what I got was Tiberius, a massive sprawl of resorts and holiday go-ers who flock to the region in the summer for its beaches. It’s brash, and loud, and the sort of city where they serve fries with everything. The whole place smells like Piña colada scented sunscreen. After taking a few pictures of the church, and picking up a pamphlet for my daughter’s teacher, I stopped at the Church’s bathroom where I paid my Shekel to the attendant outside, one of the monks, went in, and then heard his voice, much closer this time, slightly off to my right now, and asking where I was from, if I was alone, and generally making small talk while I stood in front of the urinal doing my business. The Roman Catholic Church should seriously look at its hiring policies.
Why all Israelis aren’t bi-polar I’ll never know. They live in a strange netherworld between war and peace. The day before, while in a meeting with the company I had come to see, I heard a major event was happening near the borders with Lebanon and Syria atop Mt. Hermon. The Syrians and Israelis have fought over the mountain a number of times, the last during the Yom Kippur War when Syrian commandos overwhelmed the small Israeli listening post. It was that same listening post that had noticed the massive Syrian army buildup the day before, but been ignored by their command hierarchy. Arab armies were not capable of attacking Israel, so had gone the thinking on October 5th. On October 6th Israel was invaded on two fronts. I arrived late in the afternoon, the colour of the land slipping into gold as the sun sunk towards the horizon. Nimrod’s fortress was to my left, perched on an impenetrable spar of rock. A steady stream of cars was coming down from the mountains to my right. As I climbed up through the winding passes, the thermometer in the car was slowly sinking towards zero. And then, after rounding a bend, there is was, the reason tens of thousands were streaming past. Snow. Israelis were grabbing great handfuls, throwing it onto their car hoods and heading back down into the Galilee and beyond. I suppose they were hoping the stuff would survive the trip. I don’t really know. Local Druze stood on the side of the road selling fruit, bread, and hand knit touques. It was getting late so I snapped off a few photos and then headed the other direction towards the Golan Heights. And here’s the thing. Within two minutes of heading towards the Golan Heights, a rusting old fence was running along both sides of the road with yellow warning signs plastered ever fifty meters warning of landmines. The place was absolutely littered with them and explained the general advice to never stray off the road. To my left, towards Lebanon, a razor wire fence snaked through the hills. Hezbollah were just a few hundred meters away and yet only a short distance behind me Israelis were happily skiing down slopes, careful to stay on the well-marked paths so as not to explode. Odd.
Israel will never give up the Golan Heights, that’s clear to me now having driven through it. It’s simply too close to their population centers to cede to a foreign power, especially one they have a tendency of getting into wars with. Amidst the mine fields, I drove past abandoned villages where buildings had blown out walls and farm equipment was slowly rusting back into the earth. The Golan Heights is an area expecting another war. There are massive stone tank traps intersecting roads leading towards Syria which forces you to slow to a crawl as you navigate through, no doubt providing future Israeli tanks ample opportunity to destroy anything coming the other way. There are hilltop forts brisling with all manner of listening equipment focused on the Syrian plains below. There are small memorials to particular tank brigades that were called up from the population in their desperate attempt to hold back the Syrians. And there are Shelter signs everywhere, pointing to culverts or bunkers beneath the roads. In-between vineyards and mine fields, small Israeli settlements have sprung up. Unlike the well-built suburbs of Jerusalem that push into the West Bank, these have a more militaristic feel. There’s little else here besides these news settlements and remains of the last war. I stumbled across the turret of a Challenger tank from ’76, its gun still pointing eastward, and another area where a Syrian bunker had overlooked the Israeli towns in the valley below. Barb wire and trenches have been left where they were when the last war ended, no doubt as a reminder why Israel won’t be leaving any time soon. Standing amidst the ruined Syrian fortification I could see the entire Israeli plain below. They say gunners here used to take pot-shots as Israelis working their fields below. I wanted to spend more time, but the sun had set, and without GPS or a descent map I figured it was time to go. I turned westward and began the descent back into the Galilee.
You don’t take a sign that says Danger, Tank Crossing seriously until you happen across an Israeli tank brigade crossing. Just past, along the side of the highway, there were at least thirty tanks plus various smaller support vehicles pulling into a field for the night. It’s a powerful reminder of just how serious the whole thing really is up there. I pulled over and approached one of the guards. His assault rifle was slung low down across his chest the way they carry their weapons here. I asked if I could take a few photos. One, maybe two, he said sternly. I took one. You just don’t argue with a guy who’s just climbed out of tank.
The last time I was here, when I asked for local food, the Israelis wondered if I meant Eastern European, and then joked that I probably meant Middle Eastern. Nothing has changed. Tel Aviv is a wonderful place if you’re looking for Sushi, or Thai, or a great steak house, but anything Arabic, forget it. Earlier in the week I had spent half an hour researching where I could go out to eat, finally settling on a place run by Jews from Eastern Turkey who’d brought their skills and culinary heritage with them to Israel. No one mentioned they’d run the local school cafeteria back in Turkey. When I saw long tables looking ready to take in bus tour groups I should have run away. But it was late, I hadn’t slept in two days, and I just wanted some food. That was a mistake. This cycles repeated itself nightly until finally on Thursday I ended up at a place in Jaffa, the old Muslim quarter of Tel Aviv. The restaurant hadn’t been listed anywhere, but what a feast. The mixed salad plate included 14 separate dishes, and when I inquired if I would be getting pita, the waiter looked at me as though I were an idiot and said, of course, we’re making it now. It’s rare that I’ll gorge myself in a restaurant, but I had to. It was simply one of the best meals of my life. I sat their eating for an hour, a pitcher of freshly pressed pomegranate on the table. There were dishes with tangy apples, an amazing cauliflower, pickled cumquat, olives, eggplant, and bits I couldn’t recognize but tasted wonderful. It was the perfect bento box if the Japanese were Muslim and had a habit of eating goats. My main course was a lamb kebab in a rich tomato broth, baked within a pillow of sesame encrusted flat bread. Who needs the 40 virgins when you have that sort of meal?
My only real disappointment was a lack of baklava. Last time I was in Israel, I found the most amazing variety in East Jerusalem. The one guy I found selling something similar was in the covered market in the old part of Tel Aviv. I asked for one piece, he put three into a container. I told him no, I only want one. He took one out, and tried to give me two. Whatever, I gave in, remember that last time I’d gone back for seconds, and asked how much? He told me 20 Shekels, which is roughly five dollars, or about 3 times the price in Canada. I frowned and said too expensive, so he quickly dropped down to 10 Shekels, at which point he was just plain annoying me. I don’t mind a bit of haggling, but if you start off by trying to rip me off, I’m going somewhere else. So I did. Of course I never did get my Baklava.
One last thing. Last Wednesday morning I headed out to Akre, an ancient city that once served as the Latin Kingdom of Israel’s capital until it fell to the Arabs sometime in the 13 century. It’s a wonderful old city, fully of crooked alleyways, dark tunnels that snake beneath the fortifications and a beautiful old Ottoman bath where I was forced to watch a 15 minute long video reenactment of what it’s like for a small thin man to massage a large fat man. I could have gone back to the Church in the Galilee if I’d wanted that.
Setting aside the politics, Israel remains an amazing place to explore.