Category Archives: Israel

Fishing from Pontius Pilate’s Palace

The gloom of a foggy, pre-winter day here on the east coast of the US has sent me back to my storehouse of Middle Eastern photos, perhaps seeking warmth, perhaps respite from academics and from brutal post-storm New Jersey traffic and congestion.

The ‘throne room’ or reception chamber of the governor’s palace at Caesarea.

I found a series of photos from a visit to the ancient Roman ruins of Caesarea in Israel.  They’re warm.  They’re balmy and quiet (I was almost alone, near closing time for the ruins, making a quick dash to see the site on my way back from a marathon tour day where I visited the entirety of the Golan Heights all the way up to Majd al-Shams, the ruins of Nimrod, the Lebanese-Israeli border, and the northern coast from Haifa down to Tel Aviv.)

Most important, these photos resonate with a sad truth about life and history: slow but steady decay, accompanied by the cheerier but still fatalistic idea that life continues, unabated, even over the most important puzzle pieces of a contentious past.

Two fishermen on a jetty that was probably, at one time, a garden courtyard overlooked by Pontius Pilate’s seaside reception chamber.

That is the mark of NQR I found at Caesarea:  the mundane littlenesses upon which the world really functions, many little examples of which seemed to be creeping — all at once — inward from the sea to reclaim such a fabulous, famous site.

For example, standing in the very spot where the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate held audience with the Apostle Paul and granted him the request to be judged, as a Roman citizen, in front of Caesar himself, I saw the ruins slipping back into the sea and a few local Arab men clambering over the shore, fishing.  Life continues.  I love that.  Despite the rocks, the ruins, the joinery, the faience tilework, the vista, these men operated on a simpler and more innocent level, plying the ruins in search of dinner.

Plaque (multi-language!) telling how the Apostle Paul sought an audience with the Emperor and was shipped to Rome from this location.

More of the world’s petty necessities creeping in toward Caesarea: a power plant just down the beach from the ruins.

A last beautiful photo of a fisherman on the sculpted but eroding shores of the ancient city.





Live Gaza War Tourism

While touring Israel I stopped at a number of battlefields along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights area and I also made a swing south along the Gaza strip.  There I visited the site of Operation Black Arrow, where — in 1955 — Israeli paratroopers attacked an Egyptian Army outpost.

Most of the information at the Black Arrow site was in Hebrew. However, this small bit of English text provides a useful synopsis of the battle.

Military sites fascinate me, both professionally and as a hobby, so I couldn’t bypass the chance to look into this location.  From the slight rise of land where the monument is located the entire area of the operation spread before me, plain to see.  More importantly, across the intervening valley I was able to catch one of the best panoramic views of the Gaza strip.  Its dense clusters of high rises showing in stark contrast to the fallow land, sandwiched between the demilitarized zone and the Mediterranean Sea.

Map of Operation Black Arrow, with the plaque and the 'arrow' pointing directly toward Gaza.

This pit-stop, nothing more than a quick inquisitive highway pull-off among all the archeological wonders of Israel, suddenly got much more interesting, much more potentially dangerous, and much more NQR, when — lone tourist that I was — I suddenly found myself in the company of an Israeli squad of soldiers.  They moved through the grounds of the monument and then dismounted from a troop-carrying vehicle to fan out in the valley in front of me.

Israeli soldiers fan out in the empty no-man's land along the Gaza border while a map of the 1955 operation points out locations of importance on the very same terrain.

While trying to take a picture of Gaza, I accidentally caught them on film.  I don’t know if they were training or conducting live operations but seeing them in the empty space between the Israeli settlements and the fenced-off area of Gaza’s high-rises drove home how much more real and immediate the war in Israel is.  When combined with the 1955 battle and its memorial, one gets a sense of perpetual and deep-rooted struggle on both sides of the wire.


Masada = Awesome

Model of how Pontius Pilate's original palace at Masada may have appeared.

If you want to plumb the depths of commitment to an ideal of religious zealotry, one of the best places to go is the ruin of the mountain fortress of Masada south of Jerusalem on the Dead Sea.  Here, a band of Jewish sicarii (or daggermen) holed themselves and their families up in order to avoid Roman oppression at the end of the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE.  In the end, when it became apparent that the huge earthen ramp the Romans built to bring seigeworks to the cliff would prevail, the sicarii men drew lots.  The ten men selected each went among a group of about 70, probably not their own kin, and performed a bloody ritual of slaughter before turning their daggers on themselves.  When the Romans at last breached the fortress they found cooking fires still burning and stores of food and water enough to withstand several more months of seige.  But they found no living rebels.  They took no slaves.  Approximately 700 people died at their own hands, free, that day.

Now, in the present age, Masada has become a national symbol of pride and independence for the state of Israel.  New recruits to the Israeli Defense Forces swear their oaths of allegiance after performing a harrowing early-morning climb up the sheer eastern face of the bluff, following a twisting path called Snake Trail.

The mountain fortress of Masada and the thin winding path of Snake Trail seen in the morning light before my climb.

With one day, actually just one morning, left during my visit to Israel, I decided to wake really early in Tel Aviv, leave the comfort of my hotel, zip through Jerusalem in the gloaming, traffic-free hours before dawn, cruise down the Dead Sea highway, and try to scale Masada in a way that would trace the footsteps of these new recruits and still give me several hours on top to snoop around among the archeological preservations and reconstructions.  I wanted to get a sense for the place and its mystique.  I wanted to maximize my last day of exploration in the Middle East.  I wanted to cap off my travels with the one spot that might be, while not as famous as the Pyramids in Egypt, most relevant to our modern world’s troubles and trials.  In the execution of this plan, I was not disappointed.

First of all, the drive and the climb went just as planned, exhausting my body in such a way that my limbs shook and my skin under my backpack foamed with sweat when I reached the summit.  This was purposeful.  It was my choice to experience the rigor of the climb, sun cresting the Jordanian mountains on the far side of the Dead Sea to bleach the bluff and burn my skin.  I could have taken a ski-lift tram to the top but I wanted to be tired.  I wanted to feel the emotional drain that the new Israeli recruits must feel, along with the euphoria of their ascent and their sacred entrance among the place of the death of those terrible, awesome martyrs from two-thousand years ago.  The view from half-way up Snake Trail shows the amazing precipice of the heights and reveals, also, the outline of one of seven militarily-square Roman encampments, a place that sheltered somewhere around 600 legonaires, and the well-preserved wall of the Roman circumvallation, far below at the start point of the trail.

View from half-way up Snake Trail, just before sunrise.

What I came away with, after relaxing and soaking up the historical information on placards scattered around the blufftop ruins, was a sense of the awesomeness and the holiness of the place, the same strange mixture of secular strength and religious fervor that colors the Israeli outlook on the world.

To talk about that sense, to really give a reader a feeling for it, is — if anything — the Not Quite Right element here.  Think of killing your own children, having those deaths link to cultural motifs like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Torah, and then tying the oath of an impressionable young soldier to that moment.  What do we, as Americans or Canadians or Australians or Europeans hold similarly dear?  What symbols make us fight for our freedoms?  What experiences lead us to rise from the comfort of our Monday Night Football- or Oprah-opiated lives to actually do something for the betterment of ourselves or our fellow men?  Do such symbols exist that might benefit the whole of mankind rather than just one group, one nationality, like the Israelis?

I fear they do not.

Ruins of the storerooms atop Masada.



Caliph Omar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One of the things that I noticed several times during visits to very different parts of the Middle East and North Africa were examples of early Muslims, Christians and Jews showing a tolerance for each other that has certainly not been the prevailing theme of more recent years, or at least not the theme of media coverage in more recent years.  One such example, in the tomb Morocco’s Moulay Ismail, I mentioned as part of an earlier post.  Yet another example I found in the very heart of the current conflict between Jews, Christians and Muslims:  Jerusalem.

The Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, across a small courtyard from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

So much has happened in Jerusalem, religiously and historically, that current discussions of Palestinian autonomy tread lightly on the subject of dividing or allowing a shared authority in the City itself.  However, people would be wise to look backwards at the actions of one of the first Caliphs, Omar, when his Rashidun Army conquered the city in the year 637 AD.  The Christian Patriarch Sophranius, upon surrendering, asked as a condition of the city’s capitulation, to be allowed to surrender to the Caliph himself rather than to a military leader.  When Omar reached the city, the Patriarch invited him to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is the site of the Cruxifiction, see my separate entry on the subject).  Muslims revere Jesus, not as the Son of God, but still as one of the major prophets in the line from Abraham to Muhammad.  Many Muslim men are named Issa or Aissa, which is the Arabic equivalent of Jesus.  This is not strange.  Just as many Muslims are named Daoud or Sulieman after David and Solomon.

Anyway . . . Omar was both sensitive about keeping the Christian Church autonomous and also didn’t want to set a precedent for Muslims to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  So he prayed, with Sophranius, just a few feet away at a spot where King David was said to have prayed.  Omar then built a mosque on the site so that future Muslims could pray near to, but not violating, the sacred Christian site.

Even more telling, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is that the church itself has been divided into seven different areas of responsibility, parceled out to seven different Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox).  But the keys to the building itself are held by a Muslim family, so as not to cause jealousy among the seven!

This is, truly, an elegant solution.  Though it might seem Not Quite Right to entrust the opening and closing of Christianity’s most important church to a non-Christian, such a solution might be best for the city as a whole.  Maybe a battalion or two of Buddhist peace keepers could be found to enforce whatever solution is finally decided upon for the Holy City.

A Wall Atop the Wailing Wall

The Wailing or Western Wall in Jerusalem is the holiest place in the Jewish religion.  It is supposedly the sole remaining portion of the First Temple.  Prayers offered near to it (or, especially, touching it) are said to be more easily heard by God.  Above the wall, on top of Temple Mount, the third and fourth holiest places in Islam are located:  the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  The Dome of the Rock contains the rock upon which Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son.  It is also the place from which Mohammad ascended to heaven on his Night Journey.

Control and/or provisions to share these locations are at the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but rarely make the list of discussion topics during peace talks, largely because of the extreme religious sensitivities involved.

Christianity’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa are not far away, either — both within the Old City Walls.  And the Crusaders once occupied the Temple Mount, making the city a well-known confluence for all three Monotheistic religions.

Men's and women's prayer areas, the newer Ottoman-era portion of the wall, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque itself are all visible in the photo.

What might not be well known is that the Western Wall itself is divided into several distinct layers and sections.  First, male and female prayer areas are separate and distinct, with women crowded into a disproportionately smaller area at the right of the wall.  Then, the stonework of the wall itself displays visibly differing ages and styles of workmanship.  Only the lowest few tiers of stone are from the First Temple.  The next few similar but more roughly-hewn layers date from King Herod’s reconstruction of the Temple (a period known as the Second Temple).  And, most interesting to me — and maybe closet to fitting with my theme of Not Quite Right — is the topmost section of the wall.  Built by the Ottomans (under the direction of Sir Moses Montefiore), its ostensible purpose was “for shade and protection from the rain for all who come to pray by the holy remnant of our Temple.”  However, its more likely purpose was to prevent Muslims who attended Friday prayers in the Al-Aqsa mosque above from tossing stones and other items on Jewish penitents at the base of the wall below!

In any case, a good look at the Wailing/Western Wall provides a tense snapshot of the forces that currently divide people in the Middle East.  It is that division, rather than symbols like walls or churches or mosques, which is truly Not Quite Right.

Glittering Jesus

Jesus' feet barely visible amid a clutter of gold, directly above the rock called "Golgotha" where the crucifixion occured.

Now, I’m not a scholar of Christianity by any means but my understanding has always been that the life of Jesus was filled with humbleness and love and a distinct abhorrence for greed and wordly possessions.   For instance — the episode where he expelled the money-lenders from the Temple.

This scene, on the other hand, which I witnessed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on that very same Temple Mount in Jerusalem (the church was actually built on the spot where Jesus is said to have been crucified) is the antithesis of such plain and unadorned beauty.  In fact, the gold, jewels, marble and incense hangs so thick around the spot that the crucifix itself can barely be seen.  Throngs of sunburned religious tourists do not help, either.

For me, personally, something simple, spare, austere and in accord with the message Jesus preached would be more fitting.  As it stands, this place, this church, with its Byzantine decor, seemed to be far from holy.  In fact, the whole experience of visiting it came off for me as Not Quite Right.