War and other things

Talk of war is everywhere here in Israel.  Front page articles proclaim the military is battling against Bibi and his desire to blow stuff up, Iranian stuff mostly.  Not to be left out, the lifestyles section of Haaretz got into the act yesterday publishing the important piece, Eat, pray, eat some more; How to stomach the impending war.  “With all the talk of warfare, we mustn’t ignore one of the most vital issues we may soon face: What to eat in bomb shelters?”  Important stuff, that. Perhaps this ever present threat of war explains why the beaches here are still full and no one seems much worried about getting skin cancer.   Israelis still honk impatiently in anticipation of the green, cafes are full, and there’s canned tuna on store shelves. Daily life continues without interruption.

Having spent yesterday in the Negev, today I was going north to the Golan and Galilee. The Golan and Galilee aren’t at all the same as the Negev and might as well be in an entirely different country.  These are the breadbasket of Israel and are rich with green fields, forested hills, and a gas station attendant who sat me down with a thick black cup of coffee while we waited for my car’s tank to fill.  I really don’t like coffee, but he was an incredibly friendly man and I couldn’t refuse his offer. Sipping the coffee slowly, and contorting my tongue to avoid the flavor, I couldn’t believe how much gas the car’s tank held.  I should have rented a hybrid.

Before setting out I thought back to just how quiet the Negev desert had been. I’ve never heard such utter silence before.  This wasn’t just the silence that says, listen, I can hear crickets.  It’s as the sort of silence that make you wonder what killed all the crickets. It’s the sort of silence you’d hear after asking if Tom Cruise is gay during Scientology cocktail party.  You see where I’m going with this. The desert is quiet. Early in the morning, when the air was still, without birds, insects, or kids asking for breakfast, I had stood there and listened to the sun rise over the Negev’s Martian landscape.  Pretty amazing actually. I hoped today went as well.

After a cold breakfast, Sabbath you see, I started Saturday morning at Hamat Gader, the ancient Roman spa complex built by members of the Roman 10th Legion and considered one of the finest Baths in the ancient world.  Perhaps there are two Hamat Gaders, and I found the other one.  Modern Hamat Gader abuts Jordon and is only accessible by driving along the heavily fortified border, strung with barbed wire, multilayered fences, and minefields.  Across a steep ravine I could see the Jordanian watch towers looking across at what until the 1960s was part of Syria.  I paid the ridiculously high entrance fee comforted by the knowledge that I was about to see the second biggest Roman bath complex in the world after all. I ignored the signs for the Middle East’s largest alligator farm and got my camera ready.  I should have come for the alligators.  What little of the bath complex has been excavated is furlong and off-limits behind a rusted chain-link fence.  No one comes to see the baths, it seems.  They come to see alligators. Nearby, heavily armed paratroopers patrolled within the modern spa complex, on the watch for any Islamic terrorists who had jumped the nearby border fence and come for a mud and sulfur treatment. I didn’t stay long.

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After the disappointment of Hamat Gadar I headed north along the Golan Height’s DMZ, keeping beside the border as much as possible as I searched for the Valley of Tears.  Caught by surprise during Yom Kippur, it was there that some two hundred Israeli tanks held off five times that number of Syrian tanks which were sweeping westward across the Golan Heights.  Israel tank crews, celebrating Yom Kippur at home, had rushed to their marshaling areas as the front lines began to collapse.  There was no time for a coordinated response; as each tank had enough men, regardless if the crews even knew one another, they were sent east into the fight.  The fight was brutal. Today a few Syrian tanks remain abandoned in the valley, rusting quietly, gaping holes where Israeli shells found their mark.  It’s a rather somber place and certainly offers a more compelling narrative than Canada’s Laura Secord and her cow.

Standing alone on a ridge above the valley, I pressed play on a small speaker box and listened to the recordings of the Israeli tanks crews shouting to one another over their combat radios.  At one point only a handful of Israeli tanks were still operational. The rest were burning along the ridge.  A local named Moshe told me the story of his uncle who’d fought in that battle.  Standing exposed in his tank hatch, he’d yelled down to his driver to fire, but the driver yelled back that the couldn’t see anything to fire at, his portal was blocked.  Fire now, his uncle had yelled again.  The portal wasn’t blocked.  A Syrian tank was so close it filled the entire view.  Regardless of how you feel about Israel, the Palestinians, or the wider Arab word, it’s a somber place worthy of respect. I stood there quietly for some time before moving on.

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The remains of a Syrian tank. Doubtful it’s crew survived the strike.

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An Israel tank left as a reminder of war past in the Golan Heights.

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Israeli trenches looking out over what was once part of Syria.

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Graffiti and war.

Further north I stopped at Nimrod’s fortress which once commanded the ancient road to Damascus.  It’s massive, hot, and looks like someone picked it up and shook it to see what would happen.   Earthquakes are not subtle things.

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Before heading south back to Tel Aviv I stopped for a few hours at Banias, an ancient temple to Pan, tucked away by the side of a cliff, and overlooking a cold mountain spring.  It is everything the Negev wasn’t.  Noisy, wet, and lush.  A path follows the quickly running spring for some distance, finally ending at a rather beautiful waterfall that drops into a dark and moody pool. The air is cool and full of scent.  Along the path I stopped next to the remains of a Roman mill and ate wild figs picked from a nearby tree.  There are worse ways to spend a day.

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Camel Dung and water Bottles

In Tel Aviv the Israel’s have managed something quite remarkable for such a young city.  They’ve made it look old.  It strikes me every time I’m here.  The city itself is alive and full of energy; I can hear the beach parties going on as I type this and they’ll continue into the early morning.  Walking home from dinner at ten-thirty a few nights ago young kids hovered around ice-cream trucks, multi-generational families cooked on portable grills, and a young Hasidic man danced with traditional foot stomps and claps to techno house music coming out of portable CD-player.  A little surreal actually.  But with all that life, there’s an ever present level of decay that reminds me of southern Italy.  No one cares about the exterior, unless it’s wearing a bikini.  Must be the heat.

I have two free days this trip and want to finish exploring the bits of Israel I haven’t gotten to before.  Today that meant heading south into the Negev, a desert region that covers more than half the country’s territory, and the name of which apparently means dry.  In Antiquity, the Negev was known as the final leg of the journey of incense, brought overland by camel caravans from Arabia and then shipped out to the Mediterranean world from the port at Gaza.  What fascinates me is that the route is still visible in the form of ruined way stations and Caravanserai built by the Nabataeans, the folks who gave us Petra.  If you’re so inclined you can even walk the old route, starting at the Jordanian border, nearly dying in the blistering heat as you cross the desert, and finally getting shot at as you finish up by climbing the Gaza security fence.  I rented a car.

I left the hotel at five A.M. with hopes of avoiding the worst of the heat.  I stopped first at Shivta, one of the four major Nabataean towns that housed, cared for, and taxed the hell out of the incense caravans.  When I arrived at seven it was utterly empty, possibly due to its spot wedged between the Egyptian border and an Israel Defense Force live fire range.  It may also have been because it didn’t open until eight.  Either way the site’s staff wasn’t there yet so I missed the sign that said it was closed and wandered the streets that were lit by the golden morning light.  They say the Nabataean’s were masters of collecting and storing water.  They had to be.  It’s hard to imagine building a town in a more desolate location, at least until you visit their other sites deeper in the Negev.

Over the course of the day I stopped at Avdat, En Saharonim, and the curiously named Mamshit.  The pattern with each site was the same; functional, brutally inhospitable, and devoid of any life but that which I brought with me.  It’s a shame really; as with just a bit of imagination you can easily smell the stench of a courtyard full of snorting camels, flee infested drivers, and local prostitutes helping spread disease up and down the route for an obol or two.  But the Negev isn’t only about broken down ruins and Israeli nuclear weapons program. It’s also about the environment.

It started with En Avdat, a stunning oasis set amidst the most barren terrain imaginable.  There water flows from three separate springs and has carved out a deep canyon with horizontal lines of jet black flint breaking up the canyon’s otherwise white walls.  Within the canyon, the year-round flow supports waterfowl, turtles, and a small population of Nubian Ibex.  You’re meant to see them springing across the cliff face with utter disregard for gravity.  Instead I found them sitting under a 350 year old terebinth tree, the sort of plant from which you get turpentine.  I think the heat had gotten to them too.

Following En Avdat was Makhtesh Ramon, a massive 40 kilometer long, 10 kilometer wide hole in the ground, nearly half a kilometer deep.  The thing is immense, and although they call it a crater, it was actually formed by a rather complex series of processes that really amount to an ocean that got lifted up and dumped out.  There’s 200 million years of geology there and everywhere you look there’s something unique, from black mountains, to red rocks, and yellow hills.  And if you listened closely enough on that day you could even hear a Canadian cursing that the caravanserai which Frommer’s said was just 2000 meters off the main road, was really more like ten kilometers down a rocky path that threatened to rip apart the rental car’s suspension.  Next time I rent a 4×4. I do not like Frommer’s. Not one bit.

Amidst all of this wonder are Israel’s remaining Bedouin, the vast majority having fled, or been forcibly removed, during the war in ’48.  Now they cluster around Be’er Sheva where their mad-max like villages cling to the otherwise barren hillsides.  They are neglected, jobless, and unless I’m underestimating the value of second-hand corrugated steel building materials, dirt poor.

Tomorrow I go north.