Author: Samuel

Luxury Travel Guide Tour Guide of the Year Award

Guide of the Year - Luxury Travel Guide

I’m thrilled to announce that the Luxury Travel Guide has awarded me with the prestigious title of Tour Guide of the Year for Tel Aviv, Israel in 2019. I received feedback from the awards committee that a significant contributing factor in the award was feedback from people whom I’ve guided about the fact that my tours are truly personalised and that I have a unique guiding approach.

I feel truly honoured to have received this award and look forward to maintaining the same high standards moving forward!

Tour Guide of the Year Award

I’m honoured to announce that the annual Travel & Hospitality Awards just named me ‘Tour Guide of the Year for Israel’.

I’m very proud of this award and grateful to those who nominated me. However the award that meant the most to me was to receive a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor for the third year in a row. This is an award that is made based on the reviews I have received from the people I have guided and so I know it is directly as a result of people having a positive experience touring with me.

I look forward to another great year of building fantastic experiences in Israel!

Mount Ebal – The Altar of Joshua?

In order to maintain my tour guide license, I need to complete at least one Ministry of Tourism training day every year – the idea being that it ensures I keep my knowledge up to date. The Ministry offers a variety of different trips and lecture days throughout the year, many sound fascinating but unfortunately it’s difficult to go to more than one or two (and sometimes even that requires a sacrifice) when managing a busy schedule.

Today’s trip was particularly special as we were able to visit a site I have been fascinated by since being on the tour guide course: Mt Ebal. First mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy, Mt Ebal is next to Nablus (biblical Shechem) in the middle of the Samaria area of the West Bank. On the course we had been told about a remarkable archaeological find there, but given that it is located in Area B, which is largely under Palestinian control, visiting requires army approval and also an escort. Fortunately, for the purpose of this training day, this was obtained.

Part of our army escort
Part of our army escort

An aside. I always find it a little strange to go on a day out in the West Bank, particularly the area of Samaria in the north, which is more populated than desert in the east and south. Although the day was not focussed on contemporary politics, it’s impossible to ignore them. You can see the Jewish villages/settlements and the Palestinian villages and cities. One can’t help but think about the controversy associated with the area. It was a bit surreal to do a tour with an army escort, particularly as it always seems so peaceful and calm. Some may argue that joining such a tour day is innately political, I would say that I was there purely for interest in the history. And I also think it’s important to see the West Bank so that one knows what one is talking about when having to discuss it with visitors. Anyway, the point is that I don’t want this post to be seen as some sort of political statement, and I hope that it will not be responded to as such.

View over Nablus (Biblical Shechem) and Mt Gerizim from Mt Ebal
View over Nablus (Biblical Shechem) and Mt Gerizim from Mt Ebal

We started the day with a look out over the city of Nablus, the economic heart of the Palestinian Authority. Nablus sits in the valley between Mt Ebal and Mt Gerizim; our guide explained to us the way that these two large ridges effectively form an insurmountable barrier to anyone entering from the east (as the Israelites would have done, according to the bible), hence their symbolism in the text. They are a sort of gateway to the holy land. We discussed this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, where Moses gives instructions on entering the land, and details a list of curses that are to be given on Mt Ebal, and blessings on Mt Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27).

Moving away from Nablus to the other side of Mount Ebal (the peak of the Samarian hills at around 900m/2700ft above sea level), we descended through rocky and thorny terrain to reach what this day was really all about.

Starting in the 70s-80s, an archaeologist called Adam Zertal took it upon himself to conduct a huge archaeological survey of the whole (or as much as possible) of Samaria (the northern part of the West Bank). The difference between a survey and a dig is that you hike around the terrain noting areas which seem to be of archaeological significance because of limited ruins on the surface, or perhaps pottery sherds that can be found. This information is then used to prioritise where to dig.

View over the Israelite ritual site on Mt Ebal
View over the Israelite ritual site on Mt Ebal

Zertal noticed an interesting site on Mt Ebal and began to dig there. What he found was remarkable. He found an altar that completely fits the description of Israelite altars in the bible. Around it was a larger ritual site. His theory is that the site had two periods: first people came to perform various ceremonies to purify/sanctify the larger area, and then the huge altar was built.

The altar is built just as described in multiple locations in the bible (following from Exodus 20): “If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your nakedness may be exposed.’” The altar we saw was definitely built with unhewn stones, and leading up to it was a ramp and not steps. The idea was that by walking up a ramp, as opposed to stairs, the priests flowing robes were less likely to expose the more private parts of their body. Also, as described in Exodus 27, the altar is square (Canaanite altars were round).

Ramp leading up to the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal
Ramp leading up to the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal

It requires a bit of imagination to see this, particularly as the altar has partly been opened up to see what was inside, but it really does fit the biblical description, which is quite remarkable. What’s more, inside the stones they found over 1000 animal bones. Without exception they were all of kosher animals, under a year old (first-born animals were to be sacrificed according to the Bible) and all bore the sign of burning in an open fire.

Artist's rendition of the altar
Artist’s rendition of the altar

The evidence is overwhelming that this was an Israelite altar. The question then, is who built it? Dating the site is possible based on two Egyptian scarabs that were found in the excavations. The scarabs date to around 3200 BCE. Most scholars see this as the time that the Israelites entered the land (indeed we do begin to see evidence of a new culture in the archaeology at this time). Could this altar have been built by Joshua?

The book of Joshua describes how he fulfils Moses’ command, as described at the end of chapter 8:
Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, in Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the sons of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of uncut stones on which no man had wielded an iron tool; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings. He wrote there on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written, in the presence of the sons of Israel. All Israel with their elders and officers and their judges were standing on both sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, the stranger as well as the native. Half of them stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had given command at first to bless the people of Israel. Then afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel with the women and the little ones and the strangers who were living among them.”

It really seems to fit the text, and so Zertal argued that this was in fact the altar of Joshua. There’s one problem. It seems from the text, that the altar was visible from Mt Gerizim, but in this part of Mt Ebal you can’t see Mt Gerizim – it’s the other side of the peak. Zertal considered the option that Mt Gerizim has been identified incorrectly, but there are a number of reasons that this doesn’t make sense. Perhaps you could infer from the text that although the ceremony happened in view of everyone, the altar where the offerings were made may not need to have been in full view? It remains a problem and no one has a good answer – what is clear is that this is the only altar on Mt Ebal from any period.

Maybe it is the altar of Joshua, maybe it isn’t. As with many things here, it comes down to faith. However, I must admit to feeling emotional when seeing this altar, no matter who built it, as it undoubtedly would have been used by the ancient Israelites, as described in our most ancient of texts. I climbed the ramp, imagining the priests doing so over 3000 years before, in order to make their sacrifices. As I stood on the top of the altar, I enjoyed the stunning view before me, including the Tirtza Valley, which Zertal and others believe the Israelites used to enter the land after crossing the Jordan. I pictured the mixed multitudes arriving finally at this ancient gateway, having heard so much about it, and preparing to live in their promised land. And here I am, over 3000 years later, in their footsteps. For a few beautiful moments, it was possible to put all the tensions and politics aside, and drink in a remarkable atmosphere.

View over Tirtza Valley from the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal
View over Tirtza Valley from the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal

Unfortunately, our time was up – the officer who was accompanying us told us that it was time for us to leave. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Mt Ebal – it’s so complicated to do so. But I’ll never forget it.

Thrilled to receive new awards

As we come towards the end of 2017 I’m thrilled to write about some of the awards that I have received this year.

After last year’s award from the prestigious Luxury Travel Guide as being the ‘Best Bespoke Tour Operator in Tel Aviv’, I’m delighted to have won a further award from the guide this year, as the ‘Best Boutique Tour Operator for Israel’.

In addition, the annual Travel & Hospitality Awards just named me ‘Tailor Made Tour Company of the Year for Tel Aviv’.

While I am very proud of these awards and delighted to receive the industry recognition, the award that meant the most to me was to receive a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor. This is an award that is made based on the reviews I have received from the people I have guided and so I know it is directly as a result of people having a positive experience touring with me.

I look forward to another great year of building fantastic experiences in Israel for a plethora of visitors!

The Priestly Blessing (Birkat HaCohanim) at the Western Wall

Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall
Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall

The priestly blessing (birkat hacohanim) has always held a certain fascination for me. Although in Israel, and in all Sephardic communities, it is recited daily in synagogue, in Ashkenazi Diaspora communities like mine it is only recited during festivals, so it became something of a special event. I remember from a young age the priests ascending to the stage at the front of the synagogue, by the ark, in preparation for this ancient ceremony. Those who were sitting in seats that were to the side would get up and move so that they could be in front of the priests in order to receive the blessing. We would stand and my father would take me under his tallit (prayer shawl) and instruct me firmly not to look at the priests while they were blessing us – it is forbidden. This combined with the unique and haunting tune sung during the blessing made it a very special moment.

In 1967, after the Six Day War, Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time, and Jews had unrestricted access to the Western Wall. Those of you who have toured with me will be aware of the various complexities associated with that war and its results, but putting that aside for a moment, this was an event of huge importance. This was the first time in memory that Jews were free to visit and pray at this most holy of sites. Whether religious or secular, the significance was huge.

Those of you who have visited the Wall will be aware that there are normally several services happening there in parallel, but in 1970 a rabbi decided to try and create one large public service which would incorporate the priestly blessing. According to Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, an important commentator and mystic from the middle ages, there is special significance to hearing the blessing from over 300 priests, close to where the temple once stood.

Today, the special unified service takes place twice a year. Once during Pesach (Passover) in the Spring and once during Sukkot (Tabernacles) in the Autumn. These festivals are significant as they are two of the ‘Three Foot Festivals’; festivals on which a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is required, as commanded in the Torah in Deuteronomy 16:16:
Three times a year shall all your people appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose [referring presumably to the Temple in Jerusalem], on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot [Pentecost], and Sukkot. They shall not appear empty handed. Each shall bring his own gift, appropriate to the blessing which the Lord your God has given you

Often when guiding in the vicinity of what used to be the Temple, I try to help people imagine what it would have been like on these occasions – tens of thousands of pilgrims arriving from around the region in order to offer sacrifices and to be part of the service. And one of the only parts of that ceremony that we can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that would have dated back even to the time of the First Temple (from roughly 3000 years ago) is the priestly blessing. In fact, the oldest version of any part of the bible that exists was found inscribed on an amulet from the 6th century – it was the text of the priestly blessing (and in my opinion one of the highlights of the Israel Museum’s collection).

In Hebrew the word for a pilgrim is an oleh l’regel, the literal translation of which is ‘someone who goes up by foot’. One goes up to Jerusalem both physically (it is in the hills) and spiritually. This week I was due to guide a family in the Old City on the day of the priestly blessing during Pesach. As a sat by the Jaffa Gate, waiting for them to arrive, I was struck by the nature of the hordes of Jewish people thronging through the gate on their way to the Wall for this ceremony. The whole of the Jewish people were represented – ultra-orthodox, modern-orthodox, progressive and secular; elderly, middle-aged and child; man and women; Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite; speaking Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French and Russian; a flurry of different hair styles, head coverings and colours. As I looked upon this mixed multitude moving past me I was transported to the First and Second Temple Periods, 3000 and 2000 years ago, when such scenes would have been a regular occurrence.

As we descended towards the Western Wall, I could hear the beginning of the mussaf service being broadcast over a loudspeaker. The plaza was packed, as were all the viewpoints, not just with the Jewish pilgrims but the large numbers of tourists who had come to see this special occasion.

Eventually, we reached the part of the service where the cohanim gave their blessing. There was complete silence around the plaza as the descendants of the priests of the original Temple raised their prayer shawls over their heads. The way that the blessing is given is that the chazzan (cantor) recites each word of the blessing in turn, and the priests repeat after him. Although the chazzan had a microphone, the priests did not, but even far at the back of the plaza, it was possible to hear the hundreds of cohanim join together to repeat after him in unison – the power of their combined voices reached far and wide.

Participating in this most ancient of ceremonies, right next to where it would have taken place on a regular basis (the blessings would have happened on the Temple Mount – not feasible today for obvious reasons!), was a truly moving experience. It really helped give me a sense of what the ancient pilgrimage festivals would have been like, and was a remarkable connection to my heritage and tradition. From my small synagogue in South London, with a largely homogeneous community of a few hundred people, I was suddenly part of tens of thousands of Jews from a huge variety of backgrounds, sharing in common the blessing that has been passed down to us through the millennia:
May the Lord bless you and protect you;
May the Lord’s face shine light upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord raise His face unto you and give you peace.

If you are planning to come to Israel during Pesach or Sukkot, and would like build this ceremony into a guided tour of Jerusalem, I would love to help you do so! Please do be in touch.

2015: A first full year of guiding in review

Happy new year! With the advent of 2016 it seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect on what has been my first full year as a tour guide in Israel. Although I officially received my licence in July 2015, and indeed did do some voluntary bits and bobs before that, because of the Protective Edge operation and then a honeymoon trip abroad I only really began working in November 2014. And even that was reasonably light.

So, 2015 was my first full year of guiding. How did it go? Well, let’s start with the numbers, which are encouraging. I worked 163 days (not bad going at all for a newbie), guiding 1866 people from 53 countries (although always in English!). This is particularly encouraging given the drop in overall tourist numbers to Israel because of perceived security risks – although those of you who have been here with me will know that this perception does not really reflect reality.

Although the vast majority of the time the weather conditions were great for being outside, I also experienced some extremes, working in temperatures ranging from 5-40 °C (that’s 40-104 °F for my American readers), in weather ranging from dust storms to torrential rain to hail and gale force winds! As they taught us on our guiding course, we need to be prepared to work in all weather and I have built up an appropriate wardrobe to help me perform at my best even in extremes!

The majority of my work has been in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but I have had the opportunity to criss-cross the country from Merom Golan in the north to Eilat in the south, working in desert and lush greenery, from the heights of the Hermon to the depths of the Dead Sea. I have guided in museums and on hiking trails; in religious sites and archaeological excavations; in cars, trains, buses and even on a plane.

I have guided leading businessmen, journalists and politicians, religious and communal leaders, academics from the world’s leading universities. I have guided students, pensioners and young families; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs; pilgrims, historians, bird lovers and water specialists; large groups of up to 55 people to individual visitors; right-wingers and left-wingers, Zionists and anti-Zionists, religious and secular.

And, thankfully, I love it! I feel privileged to have the opportunity to show my adopted country to visitors, to try to help them understand the significance of this small place to so many people around the world whether from a religious, historical, geological or even zoological standpoint. To discuss the amazing innovation at the heart of Israel’s powerful hi-tech sector. To engage on the political challenges this country faces whether externally with its neighbours or internally with its different sectors of society. To understand how our archaeological discoveries help us to reconstruct the past. And importantly, to taste the best food and drink Israel has to offer!

I have also enjoyed the opportunity to meet such a wide range of people from all over the world. Often I feel that I learn as much from the people I guide as they do from me. Over the past year I have gained valuable insights into life and different cultures; new ideas about faith and what it means; inside information on global politics and even some free marketing and IT consulting!

I really enjoy the variety in my clients and the challenge this presents of adapting my guiding to the people in front of me. How do I ensure that young children are enjoying themselves while their parents and grandparents are getting the information that they want and need? How to discuss politics with a group with a wide range of views? How do I ensure that people with strong faith have a spiritual experience? How do I focus on giving people a meaningful, stimulating and entertaining experience instead of overloading them with information? How do I read them, to know when they need to have a break; when do I need to explain a little bit more or when do I need to back off and give them some time to reflect on their own?

Have I been successful? I think that most of the time I have. I have built up a nice collection of reviews on Tripadvisor (and if I have guided you and you have not yet written a review, please do feel free to do so via this link!) which is helping drive further business, and a few times now I have been referred to new clients by people I have previously guided over the past 12 months. This is most encouraging!

It was a big jump into this new career but I am pleased to look back on my first full year in the profession as one of great challenges, great people and most importantly, great fun. I look forward to many more years that will be as fascinating, entertaining and enriching as 2015.

Here is to a fantastic 2016!


A Return to the Northern Judean Desert

The Judean Desert. A series of undulating hills that starts just next to Jerusalem. Beautifully tranquil, it contains some of my favourite parts of Israel. Avid followers of this blog will no doubt recall that our first field trip on my tour guide course was to the Northern Judean desert. A couple of years on, it was time to return, partly to refresh my memory on some of the sites that I had not seen for a while and partly to discover some new ones. Accompanied by my friend and fellow tour guide Ori, it was time for another adventure.

Byzantine period mosaic on display at the Inn of the Good Samaritan
Byzantine period mosaic on display at the Inn of the Good Samaritan

We began our day at the site that marks the believed location of the story of the Good Samaritan. In addition to enjoying the mosaics and Byzantine ruins that we had seen on our last visit, we enjoyed the recently produced film that you can now watch while sitting in a cave that was a home to Jews in the Second Temple Period. The film was rather kitch, but still helps explain the story of the Good Samaritan fable.

While wondering around the site, we noticed some old ruins the other side of the road. The staff told us that it was ruins of a former Herodian palace. We decided to head over and take a closer look. After some rather tricky off-roading (Ori’s little Suzuki was not really built for this but it coped admirably) we passed the remains of a Crusader fortress which protected this ancient road. We then climbed a little further on foot to explore the Herodian ruins.

Remains of a Herodian bath house - in the background is Route 1 and the Inn of the Good Samaritan
Remains of a Herodian bath house – in the background is Route 1 and the Inn of the Good Samaritan

The site seemed to be in the midst of excavations, although it was unclear by whom, and when the last time was that they had been there. Still, we were able to make out pieces of 2000 year old mosaics, and part of the hypocaust that made up the hot room in the bath house. It was rather remarkable that this site was just there, almost ignored among the other archaeological treasures in the area.

Mikve (Jewish ritual bath) at Qumran
Mikve (Jewish ritual bath) at Qumran

We continued south, arriving at Qumran. After a spot of lunch we explored the ruins, and also saw the film (which is quite good) – we had unfortunately not been able to watch it during the course due to time pressures. The ruins at Qumran are a little underwhelming, given the sites importance, but the story of the Dead Sea scrolls discovered nearby is remarkable, and it is fun to see how to match what we understand about this ascetic community with the archaeological remains at the site.

Built into the cliff face of Wadi Kelt - St George's Monastery
Built into the cliff face of Wadi Kelt – St George’s Monastery

We returned north, and after a brief stop at Kalia beach, to see the facilities (it is a popular stop for Dead Sea bathers), we returned north. Our destination was the well hidden monastery of St George, built into the cliff face along Wadi Kelt and dating to the 5th century. This was certainly the highlight of the day, as we made our way along a deserted road we eventually found the cross that marked the first view of the monastery. It is a very special sight; you are in the middle of the desert but there is a burst of greenery in the wadi thanks to the year-round stream that comes from the nearby spring. And there, almost hidden in the cliff face, is the monastery. This is certainly a place that you would come for solitude.

Ancient olive tree in Wadi Kelt
Ancient olive tree in Wadi Kelt

Eventually we arrived at the monastery gate, but from there we faced a steep descent and then an even steeper climb to arrive at the actual structure. Along the way we noted the remains of a Hasmonean aqueduct that used to transport water from the spring to various cities in the area, and many beautiful, ancient trees. The monastery itself was closed (they only accept visitors in the morning) but it was enough for us to see it from the outside and marvel at its beauty. Truly one of my favourite places in Israel.

View over Jericho and its surroundings from the Dead Sea Balcony
View over Jericho and its surroundings from the Dead Sea Balcony

We returned to our car and made a final stop in the nearby Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Yericho. Here is something called the Dead Sea Balcony, a viewpoint which offers a stunning vista over the Jordan Valley, Jericho and the northern part of the Dead Sea. It was a nice way to finish off the day, before returning back north.


The Hebrew University on Mt Scopus

A good friend of mine is a guide who lives on Mt Scopus, in Jerusalem. When I was visiting him recently he offered to show me some of the hidden secrets of the main campus of the Hebrew University, which is based there, and naturally I was happy to take him up on the offer!

I was genuinely surprised at the range of things there are to see on the campus, and warmly recommend it as a stop for those who think they have seen all that Jerusalem has to offer.

We began with a stroll through the botanical gardens. Unlike in the University of Tel Aviv, the gardens meld into the rest of the campus instead of being a separate entity. I liked that they were much more accessible.

Tomb of Nicanor, Mt Scopus
Tomb of Nicanor, Mt Scopus

A short walk then took us to the Cave of Nicanor. Discovered in around 1902, this is a set of Jewish tombs from the Second Temple Period. The fascinating thing is that an inscription was discovered in one of the caves referring to Nicanor of Alexandria who donated the doors to the temple. The story of Nicanor, and his difficult journey to bring the doors to Jerusalem, is detailed in the Talmud, and so it is amazing to see the story corroborated by archaeological evidence.

Graves of Ussishkin & Pinsker, Mt Scopus
Graves of Ussishkin & Pinsker, Mt Scopus

In contrast with the ancient period, nearby it is possible to find the tombs of two major Zionists – Menachem Ussishkin and Leon Pinsker. The plan had been to create the Zionist pantheon here, on Mt Scopus – combining the link with the ancient times (the tomb of Nicanor) and celebrating the modern success of the first Hebrew University. However, after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, Mt Scopus was cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem; an island in the middle of the Jordanian East. It was still possible to access the campus, but it was with difficulty, and so the Israeli leadership decided to create a new pantheon on Mt Herzl, which remains to this day. Unfortunately it left Ussishkin and Pinsker out on a bit of a limb!

Tilted Tree Sculpture by Ran Miron
Tilted Tree Sculpture by Ran Miron

Leaving the graves behind, we continued through the campus. A sad reminder of the terrorist attack on the campus in July 2002 is present in the Tilted Tree sculpture by Ran Morin. The tree is at an angle as if impacted by the blast.

Hebrew University Amphitheatre
Hebrew University Amphitheatre

Our next stop was in the impressive amphitheater.  It was a nostalgic moment for me; the last time I was there was for a welcome ceremony when I made aliyah four years previously. This time it was a lot quieter, and we enjoyed the stunning view eastwards over the Judean desert.

We concluded with a quick visit in the main student centre, where we enjoyed some pictures of the opening ceremony of the university (quite the event back in 1925) and then popped into the beautiful synagogue, which has a lovely view over Jerusalem.

With a big thanks to Jeremy for showing me around!