A strange and personal tale of Qumran. Our final visit in Israel was to the…
2. The Maid
3. The Soldier
7. Who’s Who
8. Street Kids
10. The Bank
12. The White Gecko
15. Israel Part 1
16. Israel Part 2
17. Israel Part 3
In the previous post, you read Rick’s impressions on his first visit to Israel in 1970. In January 1999, we journeyed to Israel together. In this account, you’ll get my impressions almost three decades on from Rick’s first visit.
The highway from Alexandria to Cairo cuts straight and flat through uninteresting desert. The monotony was interrupted, rather than relieved, by a series of giant billboards looming from both sides of the road. The products they advertised were aimed at the small sector of the populous who could afford to drive or be driven, in a private car. Featuring photographs of the more pale-faced Egyptians, they reeked of luxury and comfort way out of reach of the sandal-clad majority. As the billboards gave way to long stretches of flat barren desert, we occasionally passed the more charming sight of isolated, well-kept properties. High white walls that wrapped the dwellings in privacy were decorous with colourful flowers standing out against the white. A couple of these properties were homes to horse studs and riding schools. When we were lucky enough to see them, their well-fed and well-trained horses were a stark contrast to the scrawny donkeys that pulled carts of produce or many of the carriage horses offered to city tourists.
Eventually, the desert gives way to views of the massive city of Cairo with its well kept main thoroughfares and upper class suburbs. Beyond is the overwhelming expanse of jumbled, crowded, poorly built apartments. Three storied or higher, they leave scant room for narrow streets below where cars and trucks crawl their way past each other and pedestrians weave in and out between them. The population of Cairo at that time (January 1999) was 13.3 million. By 2022, it had reached 21.75 million. But before we reach that dark morass of city, the great pyramids appear on the Western side of the road, a sight that has never failed to thrill me.
Our driver dropped us at the expensive, but very pleasant Movenpick Heliopolis Hotel close to the airport, well positioned for an early start the next morning to catch our flight to Tel Aviv. The official procedure at Cairo airport was mind-blowing. Just when we were lulled, in this case by a swish hotel, into thinking we were indeed in the 1990’s, Egypt plunged us back to the 1950’s at alarming speed. Yet somehow, we ended up on the right plane and leaving at approximately the right time.
I am always charmed by clouds and the flight treated us to some wonderful cloud-lands of billowing cumulus. The journey to Tel Aviv took only an hour, a fact that struck me strongly. We come from a country of isolated islands in the southern regions of the Pacific Ocean, a three hour flight from the nearest large land mass, Australia. In this northern half of the planet I always become acutely aware of being very close to so many countries and cultures of long history and legend, butting up against each other.
We quickly discovered that the strict security at Israel’s borders was predominantly enforced by highly efficient and very serious young women. Apparently, a sense of humour was unnecessary for the job but that’s not unusual at borders. Being almost fifty myself, at that time, they all looked to me like fifteen year olds. They asked endless questions about why we had come to Israel, whether we had any guns or ammunition on us, or anything that could be construed as a weapon. Having scored favourably on all counts we were eventually allowed to enter the Jewish State of Israel.
That Jewishness had hit me as soon as we stepped off the plane. Men were wearing the obligatory, small brimless cap, usually made of cloth and worn by Jewish males to fulfil the customary requirement that their head be covered. It’s called a Kippah, yarmulke or koppel. In contrast, Hassidic Jewish men were dressed all in black with long frock coats and black hats that perched on the tops of their heads like a cross between a bowler and a Stetson. Their hair may be quite short but they don’t cut their sideburns, which are worn in long ringlets. They often have a rather bushy beard as well so I felt rather like I was on the set of ‘Fiddler On The Roof’.
Above: The Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem where prayers and pleas are made to the Almighty, by putting a written note into the cracks and gaps of the wall or by more modern means it would appear, like the telephone! There’s a smaller, separately fenced off area for women.
Rick, apart from not wearing a head covering, didn’t look out of place at the Western Wall!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. From the airport there was a thirty-five minute minibus ride through interesting country, the way often winding and hilly as we approached Jerusalem. The land around ‘The Holy City’ was as I imagined it would be, pale, almost white. Rocky hills poked through sparse vegetation. Huge forestation projects had been underway in Israel for many years and everyone, including tourists, were encouraged to donate a tree and participate in the planting if possible. Giving in silence and anonymity is an Islamic precept, which is obviously not shared by Judaism. Here the donors of money to hospitals, forests, monuments etc. are well advertised on plaques at every opportunity.
Our hotel was modest and appropriately priced and right in the heart of Jerusalem. We spent our first afternoon acquainting ourselves with the local streets; cobbled, quaint and clean. In marked contrast to Alexandria, we enjoyed such civilised things as traffic that drives in its own lane, pedestrians who use the crossings, everyone obeying traffic lights, and all the other orderly behaviours of a modern road code.
Jerusalem from the Old City walls.
We frequented one cafe Rimon, which had a pleasant and lively pavement seating area warmed by gas heaters on tall poles, like those we’d seen when we lived in Australia. The heat is deflected down to the tables most effectively by a metal ‘shade’ at the top, above the burner. Here in Israel, the cool temperatures came as a surprise to me. For some childhood reason, I’d always thought of this part of the world as perpetually warm, if not hot but this was mid-winter and it can actually snow in Israel! A large planter box on the pavement filled with red cyclamen was a welcome and uplifting burst of colour on a grey day. The cafe was kosher, which meant it conformed to the Jewish dietary rules, which are dizzyingly complex. They include a prohibition on mixing meat and dairy products and a total ban on shellfish and pork. So Chicken Kiev with bacon, lettuce and tomatoes were all off the menu. Rick said he’d need a Rabbinical opinion on a New York ‘Hot Ruben Sandwich’ which contains corned beef and Swiss cheese! It just goes to show that being kosher is not a necessary condition of being Jewish. My personal suspicion is that such dietary rules made great sense in a hot climate when there was no refrigeration but over the centuries it became a religious rule rather than a practical preventative against the nasty consequences of food poisoning.
A classical sight – the Church of Mary Magdalene, Jerusalem.
At one point there was this view (above) across a road to a small hill. It was covered in shrubby vegetation and gravestones with a background of statuesque cedars; the Garden of Gethsemane. As with other classic scenes in Israel, I stared at it with a strange mix of detachment and confusion. As a child I sat through years of Sunday school and church both in New Zealand and Western Samoa. As a teenager in Bible Class, I often challenged our earnest young tutor with questions, by which he was sometimes amused and at others, perplexed that I should even ask them. Standing before this scene of such Christian importance, I experienced a strange disconnect, as if I was standing on a movie set. This place of legend laid out before me had nothing to do with me. Intriguing as it was, it wasn’t my story and I couldn’t identify with it.
In this photo we had found ourselves in the Moslem quarter, suddenly looking down on a market with men dressed, as they often are in Egypt, in what to Westerners look like nightgowns, known in Egypt as ‘Galabya’. The women, also like those in Egypt, covered their heads and wore loose, ankle length garments. They were selling fruit and vegetables, fabric items and the inevitable array of cheap non-compostable plastic items such as can be found in tourist spots all over the planet. That stunning golden-domed building in the background is known as ‘The Dome of the Rock’. Revered by Muslims, it is said to be be the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven.
We could only walk about half the perimeter along the ramparts before coming down steps into the area known as the Via Delarosa, which is said to be the route taken by Jesus on the way to the crucifixion. If indeed the Master once trod those ways, they are long since buried under buildings of various religions, arches, streets and monuments of all kinds, and I guess you would have to dig quite a way down to find any soil on which he might have trodden. Such likely facts don’t deter an endless stream of far more dedicated pilgrims than I. There were many fascinating little alleys with the inevitable shops selling souvenirs of several religious persuasions, except Buddhism of course. One could spend weeks exploring all that the old city has to offer, so we had but a cursory look. Of course Rick knew his way around. His memory, when it comes to work, travel or history, never fails to astound me and even though he hadn’t been in Israel for 29 years, he seemed to know exactly where everything was.
Saint John the Baptist Church, Jerusalem.
I fell in love with the way the walls were left to grow their decorative additions of wild plants.
Crypt of the church of Saint John the Baptist Church, Jerusalem
Unfortunately, the weather turned nasty late that second day, and I was ill equipped for the wind, rain and 6 degree temperatures that plagued our next few days. I ended up in bed with a nasty chest cold; a continuation of the one I had a few months earlier in NZ, which had never completely gone away. I slept off a fever and coughing fits and a constantly runny and bleeding nose for a couple of days while Rick valiantly put up with his moody wife and continued his own sightseeing. I did manage to join him for a tour to various sites of interest, including the stained glass windows made by the artist Marc Chagall for the synagogue at Jerusalem’s Hadassa Hospital. These glorious windows depict the twelve tribes of Israel along with the symbols associated with each one. Though it was a wet day, the sun came out for a few minutes while we were there, just long enough to see how stunning the windows were intended to be when the light shines through them.
We moved to Tel Aviv for a couple of days, where I found the atmosphere quite different, as if we had stepped back into the 20th century again and all that biblical history was just a dream. That’s because Tel Aviv is a new city, founded in 1909, not a medieval one that had been taken over. Hence its famed Bauhaus architecture and now, more modern styles as well.
A view of Tel Aviv from Jaffa
In Tel Aviv, we had dinner one evening with Svi, Rick’s Israeli employer, his delightful wife and another couple. I was sitting next to Svi and at one point in our conversation he looked me in the eye and said, “I gave you two weeks.” He didn’t think I would be able to tolerate Egypt, life at the villa or any of it! The following evening we went to a Libyan restaurant with Rick’s other Israeli employer, Yanni and his wife. That too was a most interesting evening in a more rustic setting and like the Italian one the previous night, we enjoyed delicious food and good company. (Both Yanni and Svi star in an episode of ‘Egyptian Tales’ called ‘The White Gecko’.) Later that year, Svi and Yanni came to the villa in Alexandria for a couple of days, accompanied this time by their wives, one of whom protested mightily at this ‘command performance’. She was deeply shocked at the general decrepitude including the condition of Egyptian streets, buildings and the endemic rubbish.
From Tel Aviv we enjoyed a tour to Haifa and Acre, which included visits to old crusader forts. Haifa was particularly striking and in Acra it was great to be so close to the sea – a most pleasant and interesting visit all round. The weather was a little better, so we were able to walk along the beautifully clean (and raked) beach to the old port of Yafo/Jaffa. It was Saturday, which of course is the Jewish Sabbath when not even the buses run. Yafo is a town walled in stone. It sits on a strategically valuable point of land and in its topography, reminded us a little of The Rocks area of Sydney.
Above: The stunning Bahai Temple at Haifa
Ruins of the old Crusader forts
Art Nouveau at the old port of Jaffa
Old Port of Jaffa
Above and Below:
The coast at Rosh-HaNikra-grottoes
Back in Jerusalem, we took a bus to Qumran close to the Dead Sea where we spent a long day on our own, keeping away from the tourist buses and exploring on our own. For me Qumran was a very special place. It’s an account too long to cover here but hopefully, I will do so in a later post.
The landscape of Israel was, as I have said, pretty much as I imagined it, even down to the palm groves and olive trees. Socially, it was not as affluent as I expected, probably because I had allowed our own Jewish friends and acquaintances to colour my expectations. I had forgotten that Israel is a nation of refugees, hence it has received enormous financial assistance from its friends and relatives in the West, particularly the USA. The people were generally more Middle Eastern than the Jewish people we knew at home in New Zealand or in Australia. Rick felt there had been a marked change since his first visit when the Israeli State was only 22 years old and there was a strong pioneering and socialist spirit. Now, in 1999, Jerusalem was full of young American tourists revelling in their Jewishness and their cell phones and in Tel Aviv, the recent influx of 600,000 immigrants to Israel from Russia was obvious.
Rick observed that half a dozen Jerusalem bus drivers would clean up the driving
problems of Alexandria in no time. They handled their huge articulated buses as if they
were former tank drivers, which they probably were. It’s no wonder people only
crossed at the lights and the crossings. Young soldiers, males and females, were
everywhere in their olive green fatigues, catching buses home or to their next work station.
All 18-21 year olds spent those three years in the army. Myopic young American tourists and pale faced Russians aside, Israel is a complex mix of cultures, with diverse origins, languages and traditions, with a commonality of shared Jewishness that itself comes in many forms and colours. Some families have been there for many hundreds of years but most are there through the human tendency to shun those who are different or who have chosen to set themselves apart in what becomes a Catch 22 that too often ends in catastrophe. It’s a theme humanity has grappled with for thousands of years in its many guises. This is just one of them. To paraphrase a well known song, “When will we ever learn?”