Among the porcupines and camels in Israel and Jordan
A longtime Vail Valley local's journey to a world away and a world apart
Imagine you are surrounded by enemies. Although you have forged a fragile peace with some of your less aggressive adversaries, you are outnumbered by your rivals by roughly 50 to 1. To even things out — at least a little bit — you are tucked beneath a protective blanket of anti-aircraft missiles. The anti-aircraft missiles are 85% effective; one in every seven or so aimed at you sneaks through. Oops.
Welcome to the Holy Land.
The Golan Heights, spanning about 690 square miles, was captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Spools of barbed wire hung with bright yellow warning signs that state in Hebrew, Arabic and English, “Danger Mines!” spin off the roads. Here and there you see a mine just beyond the barbed fencing looking like a lonely melon that has strayed from its melon patch. It was here that we met Ofer, who would be our guide for the day.
Ofer wears a moth-gnawed ski cap on his head. A large gun is plugged in the back waistband of his well-loved jeans. He has a full dark beard, yielding to flecks of gray and reservoirs of mischief sparkle in his eyes.
Shouting to be heard above the grumbling of his ancient Jeep, which he has named Georgina in honor of George Harrison, he reminds us of Monty Python’s habitually shouting Terry Jones. When he turns off the engine, his voice retains the volume of a jet aircraft revving for takeoff.
We bounce along the rutted tracks a stone’s throw from the Syrian border when we see tanks that were simply abandoned following the war. There are also a couple of modern Israeli Merkava tanks cloistered strategically for ready access.
Ofer turns to us as we drive past an assault bunker and playfully shouts at us, “YOU WANT TO GO IN THE BUNKER?”
We say sure.
“REALLY? YOU WANT TO GO?” His caterpillar eyebrows pop up as if the ground of his brow has suddenly become hot.
“What the hell,” I say.
Ofer kills the engine. “KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR PORCUPINES. THEY LIKE TO COME DOWN HERE.”
Now it’s my turn to say “Really?”
“THEY CAN BE AGGRESSIVE.”
With that, he ducks down a shaft half again as wide as his broad shoulder, lighting his way with the glow of his cell phone.
Down we follow into the dark, musty, muddy space which is shockingly large — perhaps 8 to 10 feet underground — secure that if the next war were to suddenly spark up, we would be sorta safe here.
When we emerge, we bounce around in the Jeep some more, a wary eye across the concertina wire from the Syrian frontier.
“ONE DAY, THERE WILL BE WAR AGAIN,” Ofer tells us.
We side up to a bombed-out Syrian hospital that is now in Israeli hands and is blanketed with graffiti. Nothing has been done to restore the shell damage which outweighs the concrete that remains to support the teetery two-story building.
Ofer stops the engine. “TEA?” he asks.
It is a cold, drizzly day.
We tumble from the Jeep. Ofer grabs a small orange propane tank with a burner top, a battered kettle, a bag of herbs from his wife’s garden, and what the British, who once ruled this land, call biscuits.
Ofer settles his kit in what must once have been a ward down a long hall within the skeleton of the hospital and, before we know it, it is teatime in the Golan and time for Ofer to wax philosophic about war generally, Israel in particular, and the tilty state of the world.
Starting in Tel Aviv
Rather than the Golan, days before, we started our trip hard against the gently-lapping Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv is a large, bustling, vital city. A sense of common purpose permeates. A long wide promenade, down which endless joggers jog and electric scooters whiz, fronts the sea for half a dozen miles from the ancient port of Jaffa northward to the modern port of Tel Aviv which has been gentrified into trendy shops and bistros. Tel Aviv is like the two faces of a Janus mask, one part as old as history itself and the other as new and sparkly as a freshly minted coin.
We take a day excursion to Machon Ayalon, a kibbutz which, during the 1947 war for independence, was vital to the Haganah, the Israeli freedom fighters. There, sequestered in the earth beneath the kibbutz bakery, a munitions factory was constructed and run in secret, turning out the bullets that fueled the freedom fighters’ guns. Back to Tel Aviv and a delicious dinner at Susana in the close alleyways of Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv’s Soho.
Just beyond Tel Aviv was Caesarea, the well-preserved ancient Roman port with its beautifully restored theater, hippodrome, and aqueduct. There, among other treasures, one can see a tablet inscribed with the name Pontius Pilate.
We followed Caesarea with a climb up Mount Carmel and, looking over the famed Baha’i Gardens, enjoyed the view of Haifa Bay, then on to Akko (Acre) and its perfectly restored Middle Age Crusader’s castle.
At the center of it all
Nowhere on this earth is history as densely packed as in Israel. Slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey, it is the cradle of Judaism, the birthplace of Christianity, among the sites where Muhammad staked the claim of Islam, the center of the Baha’i and where Romans, Ottomans, Greeks, Crusaders, and the British each took their turns and left their indelible marks.
The Roman town of Tiberius is on the Sea of Galilee which is not so much a sea as a medium-sized lake.
With short drives, one can visit the Church of the Multiplication were the miracle of loaves and fishes is said to have occurred and the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus’s sermon on the Mount was delivered. Not far are the ruins of Capernaum, the Jewish fishing village, home to Peter and a center of Jesus’ preaching. Within the well-restored ruins is the modern and impressive St. Peter’s church.
Safed — one of Judaism’s holiest sites and where the Kabbala flourished in the golden age — is a windy, narrow-streeted, brightly-colored hilled town.
Everywhere one goes in Israel, one is aware of the soldiers. Military service is compulsory; two years and eight months for 19-year-old boys and two-years for the girls. Wherever go, you see soldiers in drab green. They are fit and beautiful. Whether on duty, or on leave, enjoying hummus in one for the many casual restaurants or sweet honey-drenched kanafeh, their Tavor assault rifles are with them. One gets the whiff that they are ready to be called to the front in order to defend Eretz Israel (the land of Israel) at a moment’s notice.
Nazareth is similarly chockful of history. The Basilica of the Annunciation sits atop the cave home in which Jesus, Joseph and Mary were said to have lived.
Nearby, Mary’s Well — although there is some dispute as to which well is the actually right one — is where, according to the Greek Orthodox tradition, the Angel Gabriel is believed to have “announced” to Mary that she would birth the Son of God. Modern Nazareth is a bit frayed at the edges and has the feel of former high school gridiron hero living on his fading laurels.
The holiest place
Jerusalem is, well, Jerusalem. It is the sparkling centerpiece of Israel. The Dome of the Rock located on the Temple Mount in the old walled city glitters with its vast golden cupola and stands up tall, erect and proud.
Completed in 691 CE, it is built on the site of the Roman Jupiter Capitonlinus Temple. The Roman temple, in turn, was built on the ruins of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, built by the Jews, which was destroyed during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The dome is built over a sacred stone where Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, while the Jews believe that the rock was the place where Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Surrounding the dome is the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), sacred to Jews. The wall was originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Temple begun by Herod the Great. The Western Wall is considered holy due to its connection to the Temple Mount. Because of the Temple Mount entry restrictions, the wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray, though the holiest site in the Jewish faith lies just behind it.
We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Golgotha where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, interred, and from which the devout believe, he was resurrected, then walked the Via Dolorosa, the processional route that winds through the Old City, believed to be the path that Jesus struggled on the way to his crucifixion. We visited the Dormition Abbey where the drama of the Last Supper is believed to have transpired and, one floor, below, the tomb of the Jewish King David is worshipped.
In Jerusalem, especially, there are tensions and compromises as the devout of many faiths bargain and jostle for their slice of the sacred.
The Arab quarter is a riot of small shops, eateries and aggressive sales pitches. “No charge to look!” The Jewish Quarter which looks across a narrow valley to Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives is more orderly and sedate. Everywhere are the colorful and proud in their various traditional religious dress.
But Jerusalem is modern and thriving too. Whether it be the hip Mamilla Mall, the trendy Jaffa Road, or Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem is simply alive.
No visit to Jerusalem would be complete without a prayerful visit to the moving Yad Vashem Memorial to the Holocaust. Particularly chilling is Yad LaYeled memorial to the 1.5 million children slaughtered in the Shoah.
From Jerusalem, we ventured through the West Bank where bright red signs on side roads warn “This road leads to… Area under Palestinian Authority. Entry for Israeli Citizens is Forbidden, Dangerous to Your Lives, and Forbidden Under Israeli Law.” It is also where we stopped for Arab coffee, strong enough to melt your spoon and where were saw our first camels, as common and desultory as a Jackson Pollard painting.
The West Bank leads first to Masada, the mountaintop redoubt where Jewish Zealots first held out against the Romans, and then the thousand of them committed suicide when their impending capture and enslavement was inevitable. A cable car whisks you to the top and from the impressive plateau one looks out to the remains of the Roman siege camps below and then the Dead Sea.
Eight times saltier than the ocean, the Dead Sea sports, instead of icebergs, saltbergs. It is impossible to swim. If you try, your legs simply pop up above the surface. Back floating is the way to go, although in January, the water is chilly. There were — I kid you not — salt castles instead of sandcastles — built on the shore.
Life on Mars
Flying to Eilat, we crossed the border into Jordan, and found ourselves after two hours’ drive in Wadi Rum (High Valley) where the real-life Lawrence of Arabia did his thing and where the Peter O’Toole flick was filmed. Think Moab when you think of Wadi Rum with similar rock formations, nearly bloodred sand, ancient hieroglyphs, and camels. Four-wheeling it through the wind-whipped desert with our Bedouin guide, we lunched at a Bedouin camp that had simply otherworldly views to commend it. We heard more than once that when movies strive to emulate the surface of Mars, crews come here to film.
From Wadi Rum to Petra is the drive of another two hours or so and we met snow at the higher elevations.
To envision Petra — a world heritage site and one of the seven marvels of the modern world — think of a rock walnut three miles long, two wide, and several hundred feet tall. Now imagine that when an earthquake struck several millennia ago, the walnut cracked from top to bottom leaving a long, winding slot canyon through the whole length of what was now two halves.
There, between the first century BC and the fourth AD, the Nabataeans carved an impossible city into the stone. Among the most impressive structures are the Treasury — believed to be the mausoleum of Nabataean king Aretas IV — the 6,000-seat theater where the seating is carved from the rock rather than built into it, and the remarkable water control systems. What often goes without remark in what is known as the “Rose City” is the phantasmagoric colors of the rock. Rather than rose, the rock is a calico of reds, oranges, yellows, puce, vermillion, violet and deep sable veins. It defies belief that there is nothing painted or colored.
After a day, back in Tel Aviv, the 12-hour flight to Newark, then another four to Denver. A world away and a world apart.
Perhaps what is most lasting is the abiding sense of purpose one feels in Israel, the depth of history built ruins upon ruins upon ruins, and that somehow, despite the divides and differences, it at works.
Israel. The umbilicus to our collective past. Land of creation.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Caplan & Earnest, LLC. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions; real estate and development; family law, custody, and divorce; and civil litigation. Mr. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his e-mail address: Rrobbins@CELaw.com. His novels, “How to Raise a Shark (an apocryphal tale)” and “The Stone Minder’s Daughter,” are currently available at Amazon.com.