Seventeen Secrets

On our last day in Cyprus, we drove to Larnaca and saw a couple of Byzantine churches — a small one with an impressive mosaic, and a larger one with large amounts of gold trim around the icons. We returned the rental car, and were encouraged when the guy in the lot looked at the tire and said “it’s just a small hole”. This didn’t stop the people at the Sixt desk for charging 75 euros. One the one hand, I might have saved a bunch of money if I had our Airbnb host’s friend patch the tire; on the other, it was nice not spending a bunch of vacation time dealing with it.

Our official introduction to Israel was a huge mass of people at the passport line, not in several lines, not in one snaky line, but just a mass of people standing in front of five agent cubicles. Eventually, as everyone jockeyed for position and tried to pass others and avoid being passed, we reached separation walls which established an order for each of the cubicles. (It turned out that this “pushy” behavior is pretty representative of Israelis just generally, especially drivers.) When we finally reached the front of the mass about 25 minutes later, the agent’s main questions were what our relationship was and why we went to all the same places. Ray’s answer was “and all that.” We picked up the rental car. Did you know that the collision damage coverage on most US credit cards does not cover rentals in Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, and New Zealand? We didn’t. So we ended up using their coverage. They put little boxes in their cars that you have to type a code before the engine will start. Probably cuts down on thefts. We followed the instructions of the Google Maps app to get to our hotel, and parked in the underground lot at about 2 A.M.

Our hour-long experience of Tel Aviv consisted of the one corner the Rimonim Optima Hotel is on. There is a bank with an ATM, a juice place which not only squeezes oranges but juices a score of other fruits, and a bakery with excellent coffee and pastries and breads. Then it was back to Google Maps taking us out of town up to the village of Tzfat or Zefat or Safed or whichever of the many Romanizations of its name you’d like to use. Google likes Safed. We checked into the charming Safed Inn / Ruckenstein B&B, and chatted with the owner, who grew up in LA. Tzfat is pretty much the Sedona of Israel; there are many artists here expressing their Hasidic or Kaballah spirituality in painting and sculpture. Also, it’s elevated and not so boiling hot. The first gallery we found was called “Weapons and Puppies”, where the W was an upside-down golden arches. We went in, and saw the work of the owner and his wife. His work was all political and surrealistic and very Haight Street compared to the Carmel that was the rest of the town. Nothing on gallery row would offend your mother, or anybody’s. If we had a child, there were some very cute $1000 butterfly sculptures we could have decorated her room with. Riki, from the hostel, directed us to “Gan Eden” (Garden of Eden) where we filled up on appetizers: the cutest thing was that they used cinnamon sticks as the “skewers” in their fish kabobs.

Friday night is Shabbat and most Tzfat restaurants would be closed, so we thought it would be interesting to target Nazareth, which is largely Arab, as a place for dinner. After going back to Weapons and Puppies and getting a print and a t-shirt, we drove toward the Sea of Galilee and saw Tabgha, the church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, and Capernaum, home of St. Peter and scene of many miracles referenced in Luke. From there we saw a jet ski and several windsurfers on the sea. We continued to a bridge over the river Jordan, got out to take a look, and saw a dozen or so rafts paddling down the very still waters between the bulrushes. From there we drove to Nazareth, and saw the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is where Mary found out she was pregnant. The Basilica is a massive modern structure built over the historical site, with several mosaics contributed by Catholic communities from all over the world. This was the Roman Catholic Annunciation, by the way. The Greek Orthdox Annunciation took place a few hundred meters across town, and we didn’t have time to go there, though a couple of street Arabs told us how to poke our heads into the White Mosque briefly. We had early dinner at Rida Cafe, a very creative and wonderful place: Freekeh, which is a soup made from unripe wheat with spices, a smoky eggplant salad, some small tasty sausages, and a dessert they call “cream of seventeen secrets”. An hour drive back to Zefat, just like going home from Berkeley (where the roads in Nazareth are like 19th Ave with one lane at rush hour, and the other roads are like 92 going to Half Moon Bay).

Saturday we left our delightful B&B and explored two cities mentioned in the Bible but not known until recently to exist, Tel Hazor and Tel Megiddo, whose ruins are both national parks and World Heritage Sites. At Tel Hazor there was a volunteer leading a tour, who has himself participated in some of the digging, and found a cuneiform tablet, one of only 18 discovered so far at Tel Hazor. He suspected there was a huge cache buried beneath where we were talking and several meters in from the face of the current dig.

We learned that the Canaanite culture from the 18th to the 13th century BC somehow had the capability of cutting rocks with smooth edges, square corners, and round holes, including limestone and also basalt. One basalt slab standing on end made me think of 2001. Later, in the Israelite culture, they built on top of the Canaanite structure, but they hadn’t yet figured out how to make smooth slabs of rock, or even bricks, and just stacked up the rocks they find lying around. At the acropolis is evidence of destruction and a great fire, and our guy thought they did not happen at the same time. He thought that since the stones were only cracked on one side of the plaza, that indicated the other side had been destroyed previously and the rubble protected the basalt from shattering, which happens at 1100 C for basalt. Joshua might have had something to do with all this.

Tel Megiddo is the place where Armageddon will happen: it’s a larger site (at least the ruins are larger) and it boasts an impressive tunnel to bring water from a spring to the bottom of a vertical shaft about fifteen stories below ground: stairs go down the shaft, and you can walk through the tunnel. People living there could hoist water up the shaft from the inside: as the guide at Tel Hazor pointed out, having women carry water up from the bottom exposed them to attack which could threaten not only their water, but their women.

We found our hotel in East Jerusalem, then looked for dinner. As it is a Muslim area, everything is closed during the day for Ramadan, and we found a restaurant just after it opened after sunset. We walked back through a corner of the Old City.

Sunday, after some screwing around finding breakfast and narrowly avoiding a parking ticket (the machine didn’t work) we went back into the desert to the Dead Sea, where our first destination was Masada. Masada is a huge mesa where the Jewish rebellion against the Romans had its last stand in 74 A.D. The trail up the face of the mesa was closed to ascents because it was so hot: we took the cable car up. The top had many typical Roman ruins: little palaces, Roman baths. This one had a very extensive storage area for food, because it was so isolated and far off the ground. The Romans had abandoned it, the Jewish rebels moved in and fixed it up with their style of baths, and stayed as long as they could until the Romans came back and put down the rebellion for good. We could have taken the cable car back down, but decided to walk down the trail instead. Then we headed south to Mt. Sodom, and the pillar of salt known as “Lot’s Wife”, for a photo-op. We returned to Jerusalem and to the Hertz office just as it was trying to close — fortunately we didn’t have to take the car to the airport. Once again, it seemed hard to find places to eat: either it was Ramadan, or it was Sunday (just as restaurants in SF close on Monday, ones here close on Sunday, the day after the weekend) or we were in the wrong place. We finally found a neighborhood thick with them, and settled on a place which offered 10 little plates of salads, just like a Korean restaurant would. They also had merguez. Mmmm. As we walked home past the northern wall of the Old City, the streets were closed to cars, and thousands of people were streaming towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque for what we found out later was Laylat al-Qadr, a day near the end of Ramadan celebrating the revelation of the Kor’an to Muhammad by Allah. We heard there were 250,000 people praying there all night long.

And this brings us to Monday, the start of our four-day West Bank tour with Green Olive Tours. The guides are basically leftwing Israelis (for Israel, they’re pretty much the far left) who do not approve of how their government handles the population in the areas under its control. Since we don’t approve of this either, it seemed like a fun opportunity to be choir members to be preached to.