Author: Samuel

Just Testing….

I hate exams. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who claims to enjoy them, but I hate them with a passion. It’s not the actual exams I hate; rather it is the preparation. The mind-numbing boredom of revision, the stress and tension. Doing the exam is normally fine – I enter, deal with what is in front of me and exit. But I don’t like the build-up. For this reason, when I graduated, I promised myself that I would never again sit another exam.

So much for that promise. I have probably sat more exams and tests during this tour guiding course than I did throughout my time at university! As I mentioned in my post about what we learn in the classroom, we learn a huge amount of subjects. At the end of each subject, whether a historical period or a type of architecture, we face an exam. And if we fail the exam, we need to keep taking it until we pass, or we will not be allowed to sit the mid-term, or indeed the final exam.

Speaking of which, there are of course the mid-term and the final exams. At the moment I am just talking about exams that are within the School of Tourism, where I was studying. No national exams yet. The Ministry of Tourism has a rule that in order to be able to sit its final exams as a tour guide, you need to have passed a mid-term and also a final exam in your college.

Our mid-term was held, appropriately, just over half-way through the course. The written paper consisted of a series of multiple choice questions. The oral involved facing a panel of three very experienced tour guides, answering any questions they may throw at you.

The stress for the mid-term was high; as you can imagine there was a vast amount of information to absorb. Although there was a possibility to retake it, and eventually everyone passed.

Then, at the end of the course, came the final exams. These are an exact replica of what we were to face in the national Ministry of Tourism exams.

First, came the written exam. It is built in two parts. In Part A there are a series of multiple choice questions (which are far from easy). Part B, three hours long, involves you choosing from a list of three groups and having to build a two day itinerary, within quite tight restrictions in terms of geography or sites to visit. After building the itinerary, you need to fill in the main points of your guiding, together with logistical points (toilets, lunch, payment for sites etc). And then there is the ‘expansion point’, one page of A4 where you choose a site on your itinerary and write a full page of your guiding, exactly as you would deliver it to the tourists. It is tough, gruelling, and many people do not manage to even finish it in the time given.

Quite a few of my classmates sadly did not pass this final written exam, so were unable to take the real, national exams in Jerusalem.

After the written exam, comes the oral, which we take after sitting the national written exam. Here, you have to submit a day itinerary for a group of your choice and choose one part of the tour on which to give a 10 minute presentation to the examiners. After this, they can ask you anything they like for 20 minutes. Anything. Assuming you pass this one, you are allowed to take the national oral exam.

With all this, perhaps you can understand why the pass-rates for the course are so low!

In the Classroom

Although this blog has been focused on the field trips I have been going on over the past year and a half on my guiding course, I have made only limited reference to the large amount of time we spent in the classroom.

Many people have asked me what we study on the course, so I thought I would explain a little for the avid readers!

In addition to our weekly field trips (leaving Tel Aviv at 6.30am and returning anywhere between 7-9pm) we had class twice a week: Tuesday evenings from 5.30-8.45pm and Friday mornings from 8am-2pm. The Friday morning class was a real killer – Thursday night is a big night out in Israel and Friday is the main day off to do various fun activities (on Saturday many things are closed because of the Sabbath). So the course severely curtailed my social life!

While we used our time in the field to mainly concentrate on the sites we were visiting and the actual things we were seeing, our classroom time was used to give us general background on key topics. Most people realise that to be a guide you need to have a good understanding of history in Israel, but they still don’t realise what that entails.

History goes a long way back here, including the earliest human remains in the world. In addition to the sheer amount of the period of time to study, there is also the fact that this is a country that has been invaded by a large amount of civilisations. There are the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Israelites, the Greeks, the Romans, the various Arab dynasties, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the British and of course the modern Israeli state. It is not just enough to know what these great empires did here; in many cases we had to study some broader background about their activities outside of Israel to understand some of the events that took place here.

Of course in addition we needed to understand the cultures of these different societies – their values, their art and architectural styles, their religions, their laws. As a large part of the history here is based on archaeological finds and research, we also had a crash course in basic archaeology.

Apart from the history, we also had to understand the geography, geology and geomorphology of Israel, which again in many cases is connected to the broader region, and is also remarkably complex for a country of such a small size. This led onto understanding the natural phenomena here – the climate and weather patterns, the different types of flora and fauna (again highly varied).

Moving onto the people living in Israel today, we had to study in reasonable depth the three main religions of the country: Judaism, Islam and Christianity; additionally we had to study and understand several minor religions or ethnic groups found here: the Druze, the Bahai, the Circassians, the Bedouin.

We also needed to understand contemporary Israel. We had classes on the Israeli economy and political system; the water issues and the Israeli-Arab conflict. Which of course led to plenty of lively debate.

An element of the course was more practical. We had a few classes on the methodology of guiding, a class on topography and map reading, and a first-aid course. We also had a class with a tour agent which was more focused on the logistics of planning and running a trip.

I very much enjoyed the studies, but also found them very challenging. There is a huge amount of information to absorb, across a wide range of academic disciplines. In many ways, the course (combined with the field trips) was harder than my degree!

Still, I now feel that I have a very good basis from which to hopefully launch my guiding career. And I am sure that I will continue to learn even more over the coming years.

Bethlehem

Last week, I made my first visit to Bethlehem. We don’t go there on the tour guide course, as Bethlehem is part of what is known as Area A of the West Bank, i.e. under full Palestinian control, and Israeli tour guides are not allowed to guide there without special permission from the Palestinian Authority, which is only granted for a short and limited time in any event.

I was surprised quite how close it was to Jerusalem – I was aware that it was close – but in fact our journey seemed more like driving into a Jerusalem suburb than a new city. In ancient times of course it would have been further from the Old City of Jerusalem to the Old City of Bethlehem, but not a great deal more.

Armenian chapel in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Armenian chapel in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

We were met at the border by a Palestinian Christian guide, who led us towards the Church of the Nativity, originally constructed by St Helena, who also was responsible for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As with the church in Jerusalem, it is divided, this time between Greek Orthodox and Armenian groups. The Catholics do not run part of the church but do have a sizeable area at the back.

Original Byzantine mosaic in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Original Byzantine mosaic in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Refurbishment work was taking place in the main basilica but it was possible to get some idea of the impressive nature of the church and also to see down to some remains of an original Byzantine mosaic.

The site of Jesus' birth in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
The site of Jesus’ birth in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

After waiting what seemed to be an interminably long time, we were able to descend into the crypt, which is believed to house the site of Jesus’ birth (marked by a star) and where his crib would have been situated. The theft of the star was actually the pretext for the Crimean War in the mid-19th century; it was cause for reflection that 150 odd years later the Crimea was again in turmoil, although for different reasons.

Catholic area, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Catholic area, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Our time in Bethlehem was brief, but it was interesting to have this insight into this holy city, and to have the opportunity to see its main holy site. Although we do not visit it on the course, we are taught about what we should expect to see there (also in Jericho), so as to be able to answer any questions from tourists who have visited or about to do so. Still, nothing beats seeing it for oneself!

 

Looking back – the video

With the studies concluded, and the exam period upon us, we gathered as a group for a mesibat siyum, or final party. After the obligatory munching, thank yous to our course coordinator and loyal driver, and a couple of small speeches from members of the course, it was time for a treat. One of the members of our course had painstakingly searched through various photos taken over the past year and a half and arranged them into a touching and amusing slide show.

Feel free to have a look – it gives a sense of our experience – although non-Hebrew speakers will miss out on a large chunk of the humour! With thanks to Olinka 🙂

Jerusalem: a summary and a conclusion

An emotional day, as we began our final field trip of the course. If I think back to my last days of school, university, various jobs, it has always seemed a bit surreal. It’s very difficult to internalise that this is in fact the end. But, to borrow a cliché, all good things must come to an end, and as our field trips have certainly been very good things, it is only natural that they should also come to a conclusion.

Today’s tour was entitled Jerusalem: a conclusion. It basically featured two main sites: Nabi Samuel and the Tower of David – both of which offer fantastic 360° viewpoints; both of which enable us to run through all the periods of history from the biblical period until the modern day, thereby acting as a great way to sum up the course and help refresh the brain a little ahead of our final exams. In addition were a few other sites which for various reasons we had not managed to fit in to our previous trips to Jerusalem, and so we found the time today.

Samuel's Tomb (Nabi Samwill)
Samuel’s Tomb (Nabi Samwill)

Our day began at Nabi Samuel, believed to be the tomb of the prophet Samuel, my namesake. As with many religious sites in Israel it is a little confusing – the same structure contains a site the Jews consider to be the tomb and another that the Muslims believe is the tomb. There is some historical basis for this being the site of Samuel’s internment; excavations have uncovered a Jewish settlement here in the biblical period (albeit some time after Samuel would have been around). However, the majority of the remains visible today are from the Crusader fortress built here in the middle ages that was later converted into a mosque by the Mamluks.

View south to Jerusalem from Nabi Samuel
View south to Jerusalem from Nabi Samuel

As well as the history, the site offers a spectacular panorama of the Judean Mountains, south to Jerusalem and north to Ramallah (and on a clear day, all the way into Gush Dan).

Valedictory breakfast!
Valedictory breakfast!

Having metaphorically feasted on this most delightful of sites, it was time for a more literal feast with a valedictory breakfast. I have mentioned previously that our class has a va’ad (committee) responsible for social events; we had all received commands with regard what consumables to bring, and in true Jewish style, there was far too much food. Getting back on the bus afterwards required quite some effort. I am pleased to say that all of my finely boiled eggs were consumed, as of all the purveyors of boiled eggs (and there were several of us) I was the only one who had taken the trouble to shell them in advance. Which was jolly nice of me, I suppose.

Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem
Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem

Our bellies over-filled, we travelled to the Jaffa Gate to the Old City. We must have passed through this gate umpteen times during the course, but now we took the time to hear about the construction of the current walls in the 16th century, their possible purpose and indeed the construction of the Jaffa Gate. Entering, and pointing out various sites of import en route, we arrived at our next destination, the Tower of David.

Excavations inside the Tower of David
Excavations inside the Tower of David

The Tower of David is an archaeological tour de force with significant remains dating to the Hasmonean fortification of the site over 2000 years ago. After an examination of the walls (one of the main subjects of the course has been the location of the walls of Jerusalem throughout different periods of history), we ascended to a fabulous panorama over the Old City, and then turned to enjoy a great view over modern Jerusalem.

View over the Old City of Jerusalem from the Tower of David
View over the Old City of Jerusalem from the Tower of David

The Tower of David also contains a museum that takes the visitor briefly through the key events of the city’s history. It provided a useful summary for us at this stage in the course and is nicely done although I fear it is looking a little bit dated compared with some of Israel’s more modern museums.

Model of the Dome of the Rock inside the Tower of David Museum
Model of the Dome of the Rock inside the Tower of David Museum

An interesting experience awaited us at our next stop: the Christ Church. Located opposite the Tower of David, it is the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East. These days it is part of the Church’s Ministry among Jewish people (CMJ for short) who are keen to proselytise among Jews – this can create some tension. One of the staff took us around, introducing himself as a Jew, but one who had accepted Jesus as messiah. On entering the church, a menorah stood atop the altar in place of the usual cross. It is certainly an unusual group.

Christ Church, Jerusalem
Christ Church, Jerusalem

Of special interest was the museum which contains some fantastic models by the famed Conrad Schick (avid readers will recall I played him when visiting his home, Beit Tavor, several months ago). He is one of the few people to have been allowed to excavate on the Temple Mount, which makes his scale model so interesting.

Walking the Old City ramparts in Jerusalem
Walking the Old City ramparts in Jerusalem

It was time to bid farewell to the Old City of Jerusalem, and we did so by taking a relaxed walk along the ramparts, accompanied by various songs in praise of Jerusalem. It is possible to walk nearly all the way around the walls (albeit this requires occasional ascents and descents) but we just walked a reasonably short distance to the Zion Gate. Still, the walk offers a different and interesting perspective into what goes on behind the closed doors of the buildings of the Old City, and was a nice way to pay our final respects to a place which we shall no doubt be visiting on many an occasion in the future, in a professional context.

Original house in Nachlaot
Original house in Nachlaot

Our final journey was to the Nachlaot neighbourhood, a charming part of the city which is very popular with the young and hip. Our guide entertained us with colourful stories of the area’s past as we wandered its narrow streets and enjoyed its charming old buildings. We concluded our day by crossing Aggripas street into the Machane Yehuda market; a few culinary treats later and we were on our way home.

On the journey back, I reflected on the transformation I have gone through over the past year and a half. I remembered the first field trip, when I returned home exhilarated but exhausted; bewildered by the vast amount of information that I had to begin to absorb. It is remarkable to feel how far I have come, how much I have developed my understanding of this country in all its aspects: geography, geology, nature, history, culture, religion.

From the stunning landscapes of the Upper Galilee, the Golan and the Negev to the incredible ancient ruins dating back over 3500 years, to the inspiring stories of the builders of the modern state, it is been an extraordinary journey. We have covered the country from north to south, east to west; we have driven its roads, hiked its trails and crawled through its tunnels. The amazing thing is that we still have not seen all that this tiny piece of land has to offer; something to which to aspire for the future, I suppose.

I hope you have enjoyed joining me on this virtual journey. I now go into the crucial period of exams and then hopefully will be awarded my license sooner rather than later. I shall continue to update this blog with details of my adventures and travels around the country, so don’t worry, you have not heard the last of me yet!

Settlement of the Jordan Valley

A strange atmosphere today, a sense of nearing the end, as we began our penultimate tour of the course. Today’s trip was dedicated to the settlement of the Jordan Valley (or specifically the area around the Sea of Galilee), with a diversion via the Harod spring which we had not managed to visit previously.

On the one hand, a palpable sense of relief in the air – we have nearly made it! On the other, tension and concern as the final exams approach. And a mix of nostalgia – we have gone through a lot together.

Our day began, as mentioned, at the Harod Spring, located on the slopes of the Gilboa mountain. We visited the house built by Yehoshua Hankin, who was responsible for purchasing a great deal of the land that eventually became part of Israel – around 1000 square kilometres (that’s around 250 000 acres), including the majority of the Jezreel and Harod valleys. The house has recently been restored and has a short film about the life of Hankin – the film is a bit dated but the story is very impressive.

The Harod Spring
The Harod Spring

We then descended to the Harod spring itself, the site of the biblical story where Gideon selected his warriors based on their drinking style, before going out to vanquish the marauding Midianites.

Leaving the biblical period behind us, we drove east to the site of ‘Old Gesher’, which until 1948 was the Gesher kibbutz. Gesher means bridge and here are three bridges over the Jordan river, with one dating to the Roman period (with Mamluk repairs on top). The border with Jordan runs right down the middle of the river and we descended to the river (under the watchful eye of the nearby Jordanian border position) to check out the bridges and hear about the battle for the site in 1948.

Roman / Mamluk bridge over the Jordan at Old Gesher (currently under restoration)
Roman / Mamluk bridge over the Jordan at Old Gesher (currently under restoration)

Nearby are the ruins of the Naharayim hydroelectric plant, the first such structure in the Middle East and a remarkable feat of engineering for the time. Built across the border of what was then the Mandate of Palestine and Transjordan, it was an example of the cooperation between the early Zionists and King Abdullah of Jordan; sadly this did not last past the 1948 war and ever since it has been lying in ruins. The electricity company have built a small interactive museum about the plant; I had low expectations but it really was rather good.

Kinneret Courtyard
Kinneret Courtyard

From Gesher, we headed north to the Kinneret ‘courtyard’. Here the World Zionist Organisation established a training farm at the beginning of the 20th century, to help all the young and eager pioneers learn how to farm the land before going out to set up for themselves. The passionate and ideological young socialists who arrived here formed the backbone of what was to be the future state; indeed it was here that institutions such as the kibbutz; institutions such as the Hagana, Hamashbir and the Labour Union first sprouted.

One of the most famous inhabitants is Rachel Bluwstein (normally just referred to as Rachel or Rachel the Poet), a young pioneer who led a short and tragic life, leaving behind here a large amount of beautiful poems, many of which have become part of the Israeli literary and indeed musical canon.

The first building at Umm Juni
The first building at Umm Juni

Speaking of the kibbutz, our next stop was slightly further south at Umm Juni. In 1910 a small group of socialist ideologues arrived here, having been offered the land by the WZO. Remarkably, through their revolutionary communal living model, they were able to make a profit in the first year. And so the first kibbutz was born, established just next to the area called Umm Juni, and named Deganya.

The Motor House of Kinneret
The Motor House of Kinneret

We headed back north, to the site known as the Motor House. The building housed a pump that irrigated the surrounding fields, but of more interest was the story of the Yemenite immigrants who were housed here after moving to Israel in around 1912. They were eventually moved on in order to allow graduates of the Kinneret farm to establish a new communal settlement on the land, and a significant proportion of the group were not happy to leave. The story only became public knowledge in the past 15 years or so and caused quite a big deal of controversy in Israel.

Grave of Naomi Shemer in the Kinneret Cemetery
Grave of Naomi Shemer in the Kinneret Cemetery

We walked from the Motor House to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and our final site for the day, the Kinneret Cemetery. In a beautiful shaded setting next to Israel’s largest freshwater lake is housed the pantheon of Labour Zionists, the graves of Berl Katznelson, Rachel, Moses Hess, Nachman Syrkin, to name just a few. Together with these are some tragic stories associated with the struggle of the pioneers to adjust to their new environment; or on a completely different note, the grave of Naomi Shemer, the singer of ‘Jerusalem of Gold’, who was born at Kinneret.

We began our drive home to Tel Aviv, and in addition to the other emotions of the morning, we all began to feel a certain amount of nostalgia. Just one more tour remains, and it should be quite a fun one. What is the destination? You will have to wait until next week to find out!

Caesarea

Caesarea is perhaps one of Israel’s most famous attractions. The remains of what was once the grandest port in the Roman empire, the Christian connections with stories of Peter and Paul, the Jewish associations of the deaths of the 10 martyrs, the beautiful coastal location. There are many reasons for its popularity and this helps explain the huge numbers of tourists who visit every year.

Unfortunately I missed our trip to Caesarea due to my glandular fever last year, and although I have managed to catch up every other trip from the 3 months I was bed-ridden, Caesarea was frustratingly impossible to arrange. Given the importance of the site, and the approaching exams, a friend from the course kindly agreed to accompany me on a visit as we explored the site together and he was able to recount to me the highlights of the trip that I had missed.

Restored Byzantine flour mill at Nachal Taninim
Restored Byzantine flour mill at Nachal Taninim

We began our day north of Caesarea, at the national park of Nachal Taninim (Crocodiles’ River). One of the most impressive things about the establishment of Caesarea is that there were no local water sources. This eventually required the construction of impressive aqueducts bringing water to the city, one of which originated in the area of Nachal Taninim, although this was later, in the Byzantine period. We wandered around the aqueduct and noted the restored flour mills dating to the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

Hadrian inscription & insignia of the 10th legion at Beit Hanania
Hadrian inscription & insignia of the 10th legion at Beit Hanania

We then drove a short distance to the moshav of Beit Hanania. Right at the entrance of the moshav it is possible to see part of the grand aqueducts that led to Caesarea from the plentiful springs not far from Zichron Yaakov. There is evidence of three separate aqueducts; the dates of their construction and the exact springs from which they sourced water are subject to great dispute among archaeologists, still at this site there is a clear piece of evidence about the provenance of one of the aqueducts – an inscription dating it to the reign of Hadrian.

Finally, it was time to head to the Caesarea national park. After a most pleasant brunch by the remains of the port, and taking in an introductory film, it was time to begin our visit in earnest.

Caesarea Harbour
Caesarea Harbour

It is not really possible to see the remains of Herod’s port today, but it really must have been quite impressive, based on the ruins that have been discovered underwater. Still, it is possible to explore many of the public and private buildings that were located around it.

Caesarea Hippodrome
Caesarea Hippodrome

Herod realised that providing entertainment would give him an advantage in pulling in trade, and as we walked through the grand hippodrome which would have hosted violent chariot races (think Ben Hur). It was later converted into an ampitheatre, the location of even more violent gladiatorial contests. It is possible to see the entrance from which the gladiators would have come into the arena, in most cases to meet their end.

Pontius Pilate inscription at Caesarea
Pontius Pilate inscription at Caesarea

Herod needed to look after himself, of course, and to this end built a grand palace stretching out to sea. Here was discovered an inscription about the governor Pontius Pilate who would have inherited the palace; from here he would have travelled to Jerusalem to pass judgement on Jesus.

Roman theatre at Caesarea
Roman theatre at Caesarea

In the northernmost part of the site is the famous theatre. Now largely reconstructed, it is seen as one of Israel’s most prestigious concert venues. I’m not sure what the ancient Romans would have made of Shlomo Artzi & Sarit Hadad, but there is something remarkable in the idea that 2000 years apart it is possible to sit with the same beautiful Mediterranean as a backdrop, enjoying the greatest entertainments in the region.

Grandiose bathhouse at Caesarea
Grandiose bathhouse at Caesarea

After a quick stop in the grand bathhouse, resplendent with expensively imported marble, we concluded our visit in the area of the town that was settled by the Crusaders. Here, in the area of the port, was the imposing temple to Augustus that would have greeted all new arrivals. As the years passed it was converted into an impressive Byzantine church, and then later into a mosque once the Ummayids conquered the area.

The 'birds' mosaic at Caesarea
The ‘birds’ mosaic at Caesarea

We left the national park, but our visit to Caesarea was not yet complete. A short drive north lies the ‘birds mosaic’, ruins of an impressive Byzantine villa with a beautiful mosaic floor decorated with a plethora of different birds.

Remains of the Caesarea aqueducts
Remains of the Caesarea aqueducts

Now part of a pretty little park, it is possible to wander down from the mosaic to the beach, where one is greeted with the final sections of the aqueducts that brought water to the city. A beautiful setting, and a lovely piece of symmetry with which to conclude the day.

Beer Sheva and the Southern Coastal Plain

Today’s tour was dedicated to various sites along the southern coastal plain, culminating in a jump into the capital of the Negev desert, Beersheva. A long day, as we move forward in a final push towards the final exams and ensure that we fit in all the necessary sites in the time we have remaining.

Mazkeret Batya Cemetery
Mazkeret Batya Cemetery

Our day began at the quaint town of Mazkeret Batya, founded in the late 19th century by Baron Rothschild and named for his mother. We began our visit in the cemetery which also houses the reinterred remains of the great Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, one of the forerunners of the Zionist movement (and who pre-dates Herzl in his work for a Jewish state).

We continued into the centre of the old town, stopping at the museum, viewing some of the old buildings and hearing the stories of their residents, culminating at a visit to the Shmuel Mohilever museum. The museum is small but does a good job of recounting the story of a very impressive man, and was the highlight of our trip to Mazkeret Batya.

Philistine altar found at Tel Tzafit, believed to be biblical Gath
Philistine altar found at Tel Tzafit, believed to be biblical Gath

We then headed south to the coast, and to the city of Ashdod. Here we began our visit at the ironically named Museum of Philistine Culture. But we quickly discovered that the modern association with the word Philistine is most inappropriate – these were a most cultured people who brought many interesting customs and craftwork to the region, with Ashdod being one of their biggest cities.

The museum is small but extremely well done. We enjoyed the opportunity to reenact Samson’s destruction of the Philistine temple, and various other interactive exhibits. We concluded the visit with some tasting of ‘Philistine food’ and dressing up in ‘Philistine costumes’. The latter activities are targeted at children but I can assure you that adults are equally able to enjoy themselves!

Ummayid fortress of Ashdod Yam
Ummayid fortress of Ashdod Yam

We headed further out towards the coast, to the impressive remains of the Ashdod Yam fortress. Dated to the Ummayid period in the 7th century, it seems that it was constructed to help protect local residents from sea pirates who would launch raids in order to kidnap people for the slave trade.

Ashdod Port
Ashdod Port

Our final stop in Ashdod was at the visitors’ centre at the port. Built in the 60s, and rendering the ports at Tel Aviv and Jaffa irrelevant, Ashdod port is now a key part of Israel’s economy. The visitors’ centre was quite fun with all sorts of interactive quizzes, and we were then driven around the port area to marvel at the huge ships and their accompanying machinery.

Rutenberg Power Station, Ashkelon
Rutenberg Power Station, Ashkelon

We drove south to Asheklon, and a visit to the Rutenberg Power Station. This huge facility provides about 20% of the electricity for Israel and the Palestinian territories. We drove around the site and learned also about the history of electricity in Israel – Rutenberg (after whom the site is named) had the vision to electrify the country and succeeded in doing so – a hugely impressive feat that helped drag the area into the 20th century.

Abraham's Well (?), Beer Sheva
Abraham’s Well (?), Beer Sheva

We then traveled south to Beer Sheva, the capital of the Negev desert and actually the geographical centre of the country. We first visited the relatively recently opened Abraham’s Well site, where a 3D film that tells the story of Abraham (who first settled in the area of Beer Sheva, according to the Bible); on the film’s completion it is possible to visit an ancient well which may perhaps be connected to the one Abraham dug on arrival.

British Military Cemetery, Beer Sheva
British Military Cemetery, Beer Sheva

We continued with a wonder through the historical centre of the city (although it is not so old – the city was only reestablished in 1900 under the Ottomans). We heard the stories of the difficult battle for the city between the British and the Turks in 1917, and visited both the British military cemetery and the memorial for the Turkish fallen, together with a quite magnificent mosque which was constructed early in the 20th century.

Monument to the Negev Brigade
Monument to the Negev Brigade

With the setting sun, we finished the day at the Monument to the Negev Brigade, a unit of the Palmach who were instrumental in protecting the vital water pipeline that supplied the southern Jewish settlements in the 1940s, and also in securing the Negev all the way down to Eilat in 1948.

The monument commands an impressive view over the Negev and the southern parts of the Shfela, and Mt Hebron. The symbolism employed is both impressive and meaningful, the brutalist architecture jutting out from the peaceful countryside as a reminder of the losses in the battles for this area. A moving conclusion to a long but as always fascinating day.

Modern Tel Aviv

Today was the second of our tours of Tel Aviv. The first dealt largely with the establishment of the city; this second trip was more focused on its ensuing development.

Tel Aviv Art Museum
Tel Aviv Art Museum

Our day began by the Tel Aviv Art Museum, in an area with many key cultural buildings (the opera, the Kamari theatre, the court house and the library, to name but a few). We learned about the development of these cultural institutions and the rationale for their current location.

The German Colony of Sarona
The German Colony of Sarona

While in the area, we popped south into the area of Sarona, a former German Templer colony much like the ones in Haifa and Jerusalem. The area is currently being refurbished and should be opened in within the next year – expect restaurants and cafes in quaint old buildings.

The Old Train Station, Tel Aviv
The Old Train Station, Tel Aviv

We then visited the old train station of Jaffa, known as the Tachana. Refurbished and reopened a few years ago, replete with designer boutiques, fancy cafes and swanky bars, it is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. So much so, that the other end of the line in Jerusalem recently underwent a similar overhaul and is likewise proving extremely popular.

The memorial to the maapilim - illegal immigration - Tel Aviv
The memorial to the maapilim – illegal immigration – Tel Aviv

From the train station, we travelled north along the coast to the memorial to the illegal immigration to Israel (known as the ha’apala) during the British mandate, located at the end of Bograshov street in an area called London Park. I must have walked down past it over a hundred times and never noticed it, yet another example of how it is possible to walk around one’s home city with one’s eyes almost shut! The memorial, built in the shape of a boat, tells the story of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe who tried to move to Israel despite the British prohibition on doing so.

Memorial to Yitzchak Rabin at Rabin Square
Memorial to Yitzchak Rabin at Rabin Square

From here, we headed into town and to Rabin Square. Stopping at the memorial to Yitzchak Rabin, we talked about his assassination in 1995 and the impact on Israeli society. Our guide offered us a few ideas as to how to present the site and its story to visitors, which gave some useful food for thought.

Tel Aviv Port
Tel Aviv Port

Continuing north, we headed to the old Tel Aviv port for a well-earned lunch break. After hearing the story of the development of the port in the 1930s and 40s, we walked north, crossing the Yarkon River and finding ourselves at Tel Kudadi, remains of a Canaanite settlement just next to the old lighthouse. Once more it seems that wherever you go in this country you are walking amidst ancient history!

Memorial at the Yitzchak Rabin Centre / Israeli Museum
Memorial at the Yitzchak Rabin Centre / Israeli Museum

Our final stop was at the relatively recently opened Israeli Museum also known as the Yitzchak Rabin Centre. The centre cleverly uses the life story of Yitzchak Rabin in parallel to the State of Israel in order to take the visitor through the history of the state. Since his youth as a young pioneer, Rabin was integrally involved in the state’s history, and was a major influence on its destiny, so the way the museum is built seems appropriate, and is a moving memorial to one of Israel’s greatest figures.

A moving conclusion to a great day in and around my home city. I look forward to showing people around Tel Aviv and telling its stories!

The Ayalon Valley

As we come towards the conclusion of our studies our course coordinator seems to have built our timetable with the exams in mind – a series of tours that touch on a variety of geographical areas and historical periods in order to refresh our memories in advance of the tests that await us shortly.

Today’s tour was in the area known as the Ayalon valley, which lies on the way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, so it was reasonably close to home. Unfortunately the weather forecast was not great, and we did indeed get reasonably wet at various points of the day. Still, this is all part of the job!

Israelite gate at Tel Gezer
Israelite gate at Tel Gezer

Our day began at the ancient ruins of Tel Gezer. There are impressive ruins from the Canaanite period, but for those looking for archaeological confirmation of the bible, the remains of a gate in the Israelite style would seem to corroborate the description of King Solomon building such structures at Gezer, Meggido and Hazor – at all three sites similar gates have been unearthed by eager archaeologists.

Mini Jerusalem at Mini Israel
Mini Jerusalem at Mini Israel

We drove a short distance from Gezer to the cheesily fun attraction of Mini Israel. The park contains miniature models of Israel’s key tourist attractions within a handily confined space. It is rather cute, and is a nice place to come perhaps at the conclusion of a trip as a reminder of what one has seen; it also moonlights as a concert venue and I can imagine that hearing live music there must be rather lovely.

Inside le Toron des Chevalliers
Inside le Toron des Chevalliers

An even shorter distance away was the ruins of the old Crusader fortress of Toron des Chevalliers. Not much remains of what was once an impressive fortification, but we were able to hike from the top of the remains (in the pouring rain!) down to the modern monastery of Latrun. One theory is that the name of the area (Latrun) comes from that of the castle (Le Toron).

The Trappist Church at Latrun
The Trappist Church at Latrun

The monastery is run by Trappist Monks, known in Israel as the silent monks due to their aversion to speaking unless it is absolutely necessary. The building is beautiful and it was difficult to resist the temptation to try some of the monks homemade produce – wine, oil, honey etc.

Byzantine period baptistery at ancient Emmaus
Byzantine period baptistery at ancient Emmaus

Another short drive took us to the site identified with ancient Emmaus. According to the New Testament, here Jesus appeared for the first time following his resurrection. There is great dispute about the location of Emmaus (and at least three if not more sites that claim to be the site of this ancient city) but it is clear that the identification of the site is ancient, as testified by the ruins of a 5th century Byzantine church.

Second Temple Period tomb in the Ayalon-Canada Park
Second Temple Period tomb in the Ayalon-Canada Park

Continuing our journey eastwards, we stopped for a short hike in the Ayalon-Canada Park along the ancient aqueducts which served the city we believe was Emmaus. The air was fresh, the greenery lush, and it was enough to take our minds of the fact that we were a little damp. Along the route were remains of ancient tombs and wine presses, to ensure that we kept our archaeological minds sharp as we walked.

The Tombs of the Maccabees - burial site of Mattisyahu himself?
The Tombs of the Maccabees – burial site of Mattisyahu himself?

After a brief stop in Modiin for lunch, we visited the site known as the Tombs of the Maccabees. According to Jewish tradition, this ancient dynasty rebelled against the oppression of the Greek rulers of the land in the 2nd century BCE, and restored a brief period of Jewish sovereignty. Their tombs are described as a grand mausoleum and many have searched for them without success. The site near Modiin, signposted from the 443 road was considered to have been their tombs, although this theory was later debunked. Still, it has not stopped a small group of religious Jews installing a proper tombstone to Mattisyahu, the father of the Hasmonean dynasty. Indeed, our guide left us with some doubt – more recent research may suggest that the site may actually be the burial plot of these ancient kings.

View over the biblical landscape of Neot Keduim
View over the biblical landscape of Neot Keduim

Our final stop of the day was at Neot Kedumim, a large nature reserve in which an attempt has been made to recreate a biblical landscape and atmosphere. Plants from the bible and animals from the bible can be found in the park, and it is possible to participate in biblical activities such as shepherding and writing a parchment scroll. I have found memories of a biblical meal at the site including fresh yoghurt, honey and dried fruits, but unfortunately it seems that the budget of our course did not extend this far on this occasion! A good enough reason to return, it would seem…