April 5: Ashdod (Jerusalem).
This morning the ship docked at the Port of Ashdod in Israel. We had to be up and ready to go by 7:15 in time for Israeli immigration procedures, which was quite early for us. After that, we picked up our excursion bus number and made our way through the cruise terminal to our bus. It was a dry and sunny day, somewhat cooler than what we’ve been having in our previous ports. Ashdod is a major commercial port for Israel, with hundreds of containers and parking lots filled with new cars, and our bus took a while to get out to the highway. Our destinations today were to be Yad Vashem (the holocaust museum), the Israel Museum, and a walk through old Jerusalem to the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall). Our guide David was knowledgeable and competent, but he told us practically nothing about himself, unlike some of our other guides. But he knew what we needed to know about our destinations, and he did his best to help us deal with the city traffic, which was a headache all day. (We do have one reservation about him, which I’ve explained below.) The city was full of people observing both Passover and Easter, so we were there on an unusual kind of day.
The drive through the countryside on the 3,000 year old road towards Jerusalem was interesting for us because it provided such a contrast to the countries we’ve been traveling through lately. Both Jordan and Oman had desert landscape with very dry conditions everywhere. Israel is in the desert also, but irrigation and thoughtful agricultural practices have “made the desert bloom,” as they say. Orange groves, vineyards, many other crops, and pine forests give Israel an entirely different aspect, at least in the areas that we drove through today. As we made our way through Jerusalem towards our first stop, we could see that it’s a city of hills, white stone buildings, forested areas, and traffic. Traveling along city streets, we often had lovely views of the hills and valleys, some areas with green trees and others with closely spaced apartment houses. The guide told us that the overgrown terraced hillsides seen around the city are evidence of earlier farming practices which are no longer being used. He also pointed out the Hadassah Hospital, a big complex of buildings on top of a mountain that dominates the area. People from all over the Middle East come here for medical treatment.
Our first stop was at Yad Vashem Museum, which has been dedicated to the millions of Jews who died during the holocaust. This facility is on top of a hill and includes a number of buildings other than the museum itself, such as a children’s memorial, research facilities, and gardens of trees planted to honor righteous gentiles. The museum has a long and narrow shape, with rooms branching out on each side. The material is arranged chronologically, and the layout of the building makes it easy to follow the progression of events. In addition to displays of normal museum-type artifacts, such as items of clothing, children’s playthings, and family heirlooms, this collection is a media powerhouse. Printed and handwritten paper documents, art work, photographs, slide presentations, motion pictures, and individual interviews are all employed to impart a human face to this inhuman period of world history. The far end of the long building is an open window which overlooks Jerusalem and the surrounding area, as if emerging from the horrors of the holocaust the viewer can see the safe haven which was denied to the victims.
We then returned to the bus for a short drive to the Israel Museum. A visit to the museum itself was not on the itinerary, but we did see outdoors a model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period (in preparation for our visit to the Old City) and the Shrine of the Book, a round building which holds fragments of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a reproduction of the book of Isaiah. Our next stop was to be for lunch, and our drive took us through several more neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Most of the buildings and apartments have flat roofs and are made of a yellowish-white stone. Traffic was heavy, on this holiday weekend, but also orderly – few motorbikes and no tuk-tuks here. Highway and traffic signage is provided in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, but most signs for businesses and public announcements are in Hebrew only. In what has become a familiar theme to us, our guide spent some time as we were driving explaining to us how well the different ethnic groups in the state of Israel get along with each other. It’s like this: Palestinians live in one neighborhood; Jews live in a different neighborhood; and everyone is happy with this arrangement. And they all get along just fine.
Our lunch buffet was in a Jerusalem hotel which is owned and operated by a local farming and tourism kibbutz. The food was good and plentiful, although some people complained because only matzo was offered as bread (duh!). However, we felt rushed through the meal. According to our guide (we question his motives), the itinerary required that we visit a diamond and jewelry store during the afternoon. This shopping stop was not mentioned in our excursion description, and we think this time should have been allocated for the museums and a more leisurely lunch instead. We, and most others on our bus, left without buying anything, considerably annoyed at having had to make this stop. Next, we drove up to Mt. Scopus for a panoramic view of the Old City. Our guide pointed out to us the major landmarks and explained the route of our upcoming walking tour.
As the afternoon wore on and the foot and vehicular traffic became increasingly heavy, we were deposited at Zion Gate to commence our stroll through the Jewish Quarter, our goal being the Western Wall and the Dung Gate exit. We proceeded very slowly through the crowds of people of all ages. Perhaps because they looked so unusual to us, the orthodox families drew our attention and seemed to predominate, especially as they tried to corral their many children and maneuver their baby carriages over the large and very uneven stones which pave the streets and sidewalks. Intense socializing was going on, and everyone seemed to be enjoying the experience of the crowds and (what seemed to me) confusion of the afternoon. There was an additional element to the crowds which surprised us. Groups of young Israeli soldiers were also making their way through the masses of people. We had seen similar groups at Yad Vashem, and our guide told us that one aspect of a soldier’s initial training is to tour Israel’s historical and cultural sites as a way of teaching them why they have to be soldiers in the first place. It seems like a great idea to me. As for the city itself, there seems to be little to say except that everything is old, old, old. That’s not necessarily bad – just old. As we left the city to return to the ship, we passed buses and bus stops that were jammed with people and overflowing parks where barbeque cookers and revelers gathered together every few feet.
April 6: Haifa (Caesarea).
This morning we sailed into Haifa, a 3,000 year old city and our second port in Israel. The day started out cloudy but later was sunny and warm, almost hot in the sun. This is another large commercial port, with the normal cranes, containers, and parking lots full of new cars; there was even a train station nearby. Aside from the usual boring tan buildings which we could see from the ship, one tall structure with a distinctive pointy top caught our attention. The locals say it looks like a sail, and that’s where they have to go to pay taxes.
Our excursion today was to Caesarea, which is a coastal town and national park several miles south of Haifa. Our guide Sharon was one of the best and most passionate guides we’ve had so far. She loves history, her country, and Caesarea, and in her enthusiasm made us do the same. Before we left Haifa, however, we visited a site important to the Baha’i faith, a shrine situated within a series of beautifully maintained terraced gardens. Sharon’s commentary explained the origins of this monotheistic faith and its main tenets. It seems to focus on peace, which we could all use more of. As we continued on our way, she told us about Haifa, a city of 300,000 inhabitants. She thinks it’s a perfect city: religious tolerance is promoted and practiced, it’s clean, has great weather, is not crowded, has many parks and museums, and is the home of Israel’s premier technological university. She may be right about all this, but it’s also a very hilly town and probably not suitable for biking, if anyone cares particularly about that sort of thing. Aside from that, I would agree that it looks like a very attractive place.
Leaving the city, we drove along the completely undeveloped coastline directly to Caesarea, which has been populated almost continuously since the Phoenicians first settled here around 400 B.C.E. Roman general Herod, who ruled in the Roman colony of Palestine between 37 and 4 B.C.E., named the city for his patron Octavian Augustus Caesar. Herod was able to realize his grandiose plans for the city, and it became the headquarters of the Roman government in Palestine. The fortunes of the city changed over the years as it was ruled by Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, and Ottomans. The ruins that we can see today are the remnants of those earlier civilizations: a theater for 4,000 spectators, a racetrack, a harbor, a temple platform, and aqueducts. Our guide Sharon, who admitted to a special fondness for the site, was largely successful in helping us to visualize the magnificence of Caesarea at the height of its power.
Denise was moved by the experience of being in Israel, and we look forward to going there again in the next couple of years.