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In Israel and Jordan


Running straight out of work to Heathrow and jumping on a the BA red-eye to Tel Aviv, drifting in and out of sleep, I was a little disoriented when landing in Israel. A country I had wanted to experience for a very long time.

The first thing that struck me on the bus into Tel Aviv was the number of young soldiers, male and female, and their accompanying M16’s. It reminded me of something an Israeli friend said as we crossed into Colombia and were confronted by ever present guns. “It feels like home”.

Enter the central bus station and as will become a pattern, everything is searched, top to bottom. A frustration with a pack, but understandable. I decide to give Eliana a ring, a girl I met in Ecuador some time back. A 20 minute wait, a hug and before I know it I am heading off on my own on another bus with directions along the lines of “jump out near there… left across a field… down… up… left… down again… and through an open door”. This I did, accompanied by some beautiful views through the shroud of tiredness, stepped through the unlocked door and said hello to Tali. Before I knew it I had drifted off to sleep in the comforting Levantine sunshine.

The Moshav

I have to admit that before I went to Israel I had never heard of a moshav. From an outsider’s perspective it is in many ways similar to a kibbutz but with less centralization and more outward focus: people living together on the basis of similar values.

It was a privilege to spend time in the community and its surroundings. Coming from a place where you are lucky to know your neighbour, the warmth and togetherness were affecting. Time for the mind to breathe, lying in the winter sunshine staring at the clouds, orange trees, birds and stunning view of boulder strewn hills or walking through the scented pine forest where the light played tricks with my mind in shades of purple and effervescent green.

Looking out from the summit of a nearby hill, I could see to one side Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean, to the other the hills of the West Bank. I was struck by just how fragile the heart of Israel is. This thin, fertile, beautiful piece of land hangs on a thread. When you live on a thread, you view life differently.

I was invited to share in Sabbath. A quiet, family time was bid farewell to by some guitar accompanied celebrations outside the temple. On to the drinking of the youth in the house that Tali’s dad built. Eye opening conversations of loss, pride and passion with those home for a night from national service, juxtaposed against the light headed, ignorant chatter of some 18 year old visiting Americans.

A few days in this very special place hit me more than those around may have noticed, but Jerusalem called.

Jerusalem

From the Israeli heartland, I walked into the old city of Jerusalem (part of Jordon until 1967) and dumped my pack in an Arab hostel just beyond the Jaffa Gate. However much modernism removes spirituality and verve from life, the sheer history and meaning of Jerusalem sent a shiver down my spine as I passed inside the mighty walls.

A city split into 4 quarters. The Armenian quarter, small and quiet, people keeping themselves to themselves, many families having fled to Jerusalem some time ago from Turkish atrocities. The Jewish quarter, heavily renovated after the area was gutted by heavy fighting at the end of the 60’s, for me, the Wailing Wall aside, the least enticing of the quarters. The Christian quarter, with its monasteries and churches, merging into the largest and most interesting Islamic quarter with its ancient winding streets and bustle.

I spent a few days wandering on my own through the narrow, time trodden alleys, concentrating on the Islamic quarter. It was like being sent back in time. I found people generally welcoming, though I have to admit that once or twice, especially outside the old city into the fringes of East Jerusalem, I did get some looks of ‘what are you doing here?’. From those I chatted to, it was clear that few want violence or struggle, but an environment where their families are safe and they can do business.

The undoubted three key sites of Jerusalem are the Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock (in terms of pilgrimage only second to Mecca for Muslims), the Wailing Wall (the focal point of Judaism) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the unparalleled site of prominence for Christians).

The first two have to be explained together, for structural as well as political reasons. The Dome on the Rock in all its shining golden glory is planted on top Herod’s temple mount. The 2000 plus year old western wall of the mount is the Wailing Wall. The former sits on top of the latter, separated atop by an extension of the wall constructed to stop Muslims spitting on those below, and symbolically at the adjoining ramp by a sign that reminds Jews that it is forbidden by the Torah to set foot atop the temple mount.

To see this contrasting spectacle that mirrors so many of the problems of our world is a humbling experience. Multitudes pour out their passion and devotion so close together but in directions that can clash and lead to blood. What absurdity that here at the very focal point of monotheistic religion people can not see that what they seek is, if not the same, so similar. If there is a god and, as both these religions claim, he is just, would he promote such division and damn those who seek him by different paths?

On to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the almost darkly comic division did not end. I view the experience from two separate angles.

On the one hand… I see it as a building, a source of history, intrigue and political mirror. At a fundamental level, the site of a number of churches/shrines built over what is believed to be at one end Golgotha – the site of the crucifixion – and at the other the place of the Resurrection – the holiest shrine to over a quarter of the world’s populace. The current structure has evolved from the magnificent crusader cathedral dating back to the 11th century and I understand is arguably the first Gothic building. Quite magnificent. This, though, is overrun and overtaken by the partitioning politics of the last millennia. In some ways unbelievably, in others very tellingly, the place is literally split stone by stone, wall by wall between on the one hand Roman Catholics, on the other Greek Orthodox, Syrian Coptic, Egyptian Coptic, Russian Orthodox, and so on. So you have the absurdity of the most important world site for billions marred by a centuries old battle for space. The rule seems to be if you clean it, you own it. So beside magnificent shrines you have crumbling rocks. A sort of denominational DMZ. A shocking example is that of the ‘temporary’ walls installed due to earthquake damage. Important structurally, but what began as a short-term solution has now permanently removed the beauty of the spacious heart of the cathedral as the Greek Orthodox cleaned it, put a mosaic up and hence claim it. A hostile take-over if you like. There is little place for dispute resolution in a place with less information or guidance than a village church.

On the other… a distinctly spiritual experience. It is fashionable to go to a faraway temple and ‘find yourself’, but not to have such an experience in, heaven forbid, a church. Base hypocrisy. I am not religious, but entering the tiny golden laid tomb of Jesus put a tear in my eye. Whatever you believe in, if having the privilege to enter a place of such significance to so many does not send a shiver down the back of your spine then you may have wasted your visit. Something I will never forget.

So on I wandered around those little winding streets with their smells, colours and culture. With its history, sanctity, conflict, beauty, life and death, Jerusalem is a place unlike any other I have experienced. On the one hand a place that can teach the world so much and on the other one that so clearly needs to learn.

Masada

With only a day pack I jumped on a bus that wound its way past some desperately poor Arab areas and out into scrubland before the desert and Masada. A huge rock that juts out from the edge of the Dead Sea heralding the start of the Judean desert. Cliffs for all sides and flat on top, a natural fortress, developed as such by Herod in circa 50 BC. Magnificent as it is, one event cemented its place in history. In the second Jewish revolt against the Romans (circa AD 72) this was the last stronghold against the Roman backlash. The defenders seemingly untouchable, the Romans simply built a huge ramp up a 400m cliff-face. This immense show of human ingenuity and bloody-mindedness led to the remaining holdouts taking their own lives, man, woman and child. A tragic, startling place.

Jumping off the bus and climbing the rock was fantastic. The views breathtaking. Such a break from the sterile office to suddenly be standing atop an ancient fortress staring into the barren wilderness.

As it happened I had the good fortune to bump into a French guy called Nicolas on the way down. A refreshing encounter. At present, the average tourist in Israel is American, 19, on ‘Birthright’ (Zionist American organisation which ships over young American Jews to see the country that is their ‘birthright’ so they can go home and pay cheques in the future), Jewish and very far from independent.

So here we were, a ros-bif and a frog rambling down to the Dead Sea for the standard jovial float on its famous salt-sodden waters. I didn’t quite manage the Obelix scim, but floated much like a tennis ball and, as mad as it sounds, observed that the sea tasted saltier then salt. A word of advice. Trekking can cause chaffing. A minor affliction which goes major when in contact with the Dead Sea. Agony. Be warned.

Time for a quick beer while I waited for the bus back to Jerusalem. By the end of it all plans had changed. Soon I found myself heading south across the desert to the Red Sea port of Eilat. Some party, heated arguments with a seriously screwie South African-Israeli who equated Arabs with rodents, a quick dive in the tepid, fish-strewn waters of the Red Sea and we were plotting our excursion into Jordan.

A dip into Jordan

I can’t quell my enthusiasm for a little bit of random adventure and thus it was as we crossed into Jordan at first light with a Ukrainian and an American we had talked into coming along the night before. A slow haggle ensued until we had persuaded the first non-border guard Jordanian we met to drive us the few hundred km round trip to Petra and back for a not too unreasonable number of dinar. Up and over the snow-touched desert hills. Such harsh beauty. A couple of interesting stops, some sweet Arab tea and eventually we made it to one of the wonders of the world.

Out the car and into the canyon. We walked a mile or so at the foot of the towering walls which drop below the desert. A formidable natural defence for the ancient city. Then, framed by the dark, shaded walls to either side, a slice of Petra’s most famed building burst into sight, lit up by the morning sun. The Treasury. High and grand, carved out of and into the walls of sheer rock. An intricately carved style that hints of baroque. More than just looking like something out of Indiana Jones, this was Indiana Jones (or at least the film-set for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

The canyon breaks out and into a wider bowl of a valley. Everywhere you turn are 2,000 year old tombs, caverns, temples. Simply magnificent. Our chirpy guide lead us on some adventurous trails up and over a number of hills to startling views, but the best we found ourselves. To the end of the main valley, up, up and beyond we eventually arrived at what felt like a godly crafted terrace overlooking the world. Stretching beneath row upon row of rippling hills through the fractured winter light was the valley of the Jordan river. Perching on the highest ledge of rock, the four of us shared an inexplicable moment.

Sadly, our brief time had run out. We just made it to the border before it closed, only stopping for a Jordanian snow fight.

Time to run

The limited time I had left in Israel only allowed for a skirt back to Jerusalem to pick up my pack, an all night kibbutz party with some old friends – my word those guys know how to fiesta – some hungover humous in Haifa and a series of buses to the airport.

I tried to make some sense of what I had seen over the past 11 days. One thing for sure – this land had grabbed me like so many others and I did not want to let go. A sense of waste, utter waste that man should fight so bitterly over such a gift. A feeling of sorrow for those on all sides who showed their pain, loss and at times anger. And just a drip of hope from those who had expressed such to me.

Via a ‘very’ thorough search at Tel Aviv airport – triggered by the Jordanian stamp in the passport and my comment that, yes, I did like the Jordanians I met – I was back on the plane to London. I left a place like no other I have seen. So touching, beautiful and torn. A place I understand so little and to which I must return.

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