About a year ago I went with my mom to the British Virgin Islands for her birthday. It was a sunny, relaxing week off. And there were some interesting things about being there that I didn't expect.

The first was just discovering that despite being UK owned the country uses the US dollar as its currency, heavily inflated prices included. And while getting in as a foreigner was easy, we were warned that we would have to pay an exit fee when we left. I've had to pay for visas upon arriving before, but never on my way out. And a pleasant surprise was that during our layover in Puerto Rico I still had full non-roaming cell phone service. Losing it in the BVI seemed to emphasize that we had entered another country.

We stayed at the Sugar Mill Hotel, which as the name suggests is an old sugar mill and rum distillery, neither of which are operational any longer. The main building was all stone, and each of the rooms was essentially a condo on its own floor, with many separate buildings scattered throughout the grounds. There was a pool, but the best feature was that a white sandy beach was directly across the road. There was even a covered pavilion where lunch was served right next to the beach.

Little Apple Bay Beach

The water of Little Apple Bay right in front of our hotel.

Sugar Mill Equipment

Old and rusted sugar mill equipment was still scattered randomly around the hotel.

The island of Tortola itself is extremely hilly. When looking on a map two points might appear very close, but they can take long minutes of driving because of the roads winding up and down the hills. And other than the tourist parts the water front was usually hard black obsidian, jagged and dangerous, which meant walking along the beach could never be done over great distances.

Tortola Ocean and Hill

A view of the ocean and hills seen from our hotel.

Tortola Sunset

A similar view as the above picture, but at sunset.

We took a day trip into the nearest big town at Cane Garden Bay where we of course met other Minnesotans also escaping the unexpected blizzard that had caused our cab to take two hours to get to the airport on the way out of town. While there we experienced the ebb and flow of a rush of people disembarking and then embarking again on a cruise ship. The bustle was temporarily exciting, but I was glad when things quieted down again.

Cane Garden Bay Sunset

Sunset at Cane Garden Bay after a brief but intense afternoon rain.

We didn't rent a car, but there seemed to be plenty of taxis available at the airport and our resort. Of course in the town after things started shutting down this wasn't true. There wasn't a taxi to be found anywhere. When we had Myett's - the restaurant where we had dinner - call for one it was close to an hour before he showed up, and he wasn't in any kind official looking vehicle. He was just some friend of a bartender who drove people home occasionally.

On the drive back we passed the famous Bomba Shack, built and decorated out of driftwood, broken surf boards and anything else washed up by the ocean. The driver told us about the Full Moon Parties that happen there. They sound like crazy events where anything goes. A kind of recurring spring-break atmosphere for the locals, with loud music and too many drinks and everything else you'd expect, including the special Midnight Tea, the ingredients of which are carefully kept secret. The place and those parties certainly sound intriguing.

Overall it was a pleasant, serene experience where we didn't have to do much. The perfect kind of vacation to get away and be isolated from the rest of the world for a while.

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This is the third set of extra pictures from my Israel trip. You can find the previous part here.

Dome of the Chain Ceiling

There's an open-air hexagonal gazebo-like structure next to The Dome of the Rock. It's called The Dome of the Chain, and this is its beautiful, intricately tiled and patterned ceiling. The building itself marks the center of the Temple Mount.

Dome of the Rock

This is an obverse view of The Dome of the Rock from what I previously showed. To the left you can see the exterior of the structure from the above picture. This shot emphasizes how flat and empty the surrounding area is.

Temple Mount from Mt. of Olives

This is looking back at the Temple Mount and the city from the Mt. of Olives cemetery. You'll notice on the far left that I happened to catch a bird mid-flight.

Broken Bottle Security System

This is a wall at the Mt. of Olives cemetery leading to a private area. It's secured not by barbed wire on top, but by mixing broken bottles right into the cement and having the pointed glass stick out.

Church of Gethsemane Front

This is the best exterior shot possible of this building without having to stand in the middle of a busy road. I previously called it the Church of Gethsemane - which is colloquial - the formal name is actually the Church of All Nations because the funding to build it was donated by over a dozen different countries. It is yet another church designed by the same architect we kept seeing everywhere, Antonio Barluzzi.

Stained Glass Cross

A purple stained glass cross inside the aforementioned church.

Jerusalem Old City Wall

The Jerusalem old city wall, as seen from ground level at sunset.

Church of the Nativity Chandelier and Window

A chandelier and window on the sparse half of the Church of the Nativity.

Church at Shepherd's Field

The Church at Shepherd's Field in Beit Sahour.

Thanks for checking out these extra pictures! More travel posts to come!

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This is the second part in a short series where I upload extra pictures from my Israel trip in November of 2013 and briefly explain what they show. You can find the first part here.

Sunset over Qumran

Sunset over Qumran.

Jerusalem Market

A market in the middle of Jerusalem.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre Exterior

Church of the Holy Sepulchre exterior. Extremely nondescript and easy to miss.

Gothic Cross

A cool looking Gothic cross inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre Ceiling

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre ceiling. It's one of the most impressive things about the place, but I bet some people never look up.

 Church of the Holy Sepulchre Column

This is just a column off the beaten path inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but I think it's an awesome column (all marble) and it's framed nicely by those doors.

Ancient Jerusalem Market

This is where the ancient market in Jerusalem was (contrast with the modern one above) but the canopy is entirely artistic rather than an attempt at being authentic.

Jerusalem Water Tunnel

One of the few pictures I took inside the water tunnels underneath Jerusalem. At this moment the water level was relatively low (you can see the water marks on the woman in front of me to get a sense of how high it got), the ceiling is at about average height, and it's probably six inches or so wider than average.

Pools of Bethesda Garden

The garden at the pools of Bethesda.

Update: the third part is here.

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When I go on long trips I take a lot of pictures. Coming back from Israel I had many images that didn't quite make the first cut, either because they didn't fit the narrative flow of a post or needed a little cleanup or simply because I didn't have time. Now I have the time so I'm just going to dump a bunch of pictures here that I think are notable, interesting or show something I didn't before, without much in the way of comment. Enjoy.

Tel Aviv from the North

This is an evening shot looking back at Tel Aviv from our hotel to the North. As you can see, there's lots of parkland and beach.

Caesarea Harbor

The Caesarea harbor, which was a mainstay in Mediterranean trading during ancient times.

Church of the Beatitudes

The Church of the Beatitudes, on top of the eponymous mount.

Tel Dan Nature Reserve

A wider view of the nature reserve of Tel Dan. Lots and lots of trees.

Temple of Pan, Caesarea Philippi

A closer look at the wall where the icons of gods were kept in the Temple of Pan at Caesarea Philippi.

Sea of Galilee from Capernaum

Sunset on the Sea of Galilee as seen from Capernaum.

Road in Beit She'an

Pillars lining the central road of Beit She'an.

Masada Siege Ramp

The siege ramp at Masada.

Ein Gedi

Birds flying over the oasis of Ein Gedi.

Update: you can continue on to the second part here.

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We began our final day by going into Bethany. It was immediately apparent that this was Palestinian territory thanks to the numerous flags, posters, and signs. We didn't have to cross through a security checkpoint, but the change was stark.

Poster of Yasser Arafat in Bethany

Palestinian flags and a poster of Yasser Arafat in Bethany.

In Bethany we visited the Tomb of Lazarus, another church designed by Italian Architect Antonio Barluzzi, who I mentioned in an earlier post. Despite this it was relatively plain and unremarkable. As usual there was a service going on. They seem to happen at all hours any day of the week at these tourist spots.

We then visited the Israel Museum, which has the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex on display. It was a great opportunity to be able to actually see these historic writings up close in person. So I'd recommend a stop at this museum if you get the chance.

Model of Jerusalem

This is a scale model of ancient Jerusalem in the middle of the Israel Museum. It really helped me to visualize the past version of this city.

We then moved onto Bethlehem, which is a bustling, busy city in Palestinian territory, and this time we did have to pass through a security checkpoint. It was embedded in a tall, seemingly never-ending shear concrete wall. Once inside Bethlehem we visited the Church of the Nativity. It's a really unique setting because next to the church is a 30 foot tall pine Christmas tree that stays up all year. That northern tree looks completely out of place in this dry, arid part of the world. And just past the tree there's a minaret that sounds out the call to prayer several times a day. It's a thought-provoking combination.


A view of downtown Bethlehem: the Church of the Nativity on the left, the permanent Christmas tree center, and a minaret on the right.

The church itself is also made up of disparate elements, as control of it is shared between Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolics. The interior is even split into different areas so that each denomination can care for and decorate it as they see fit. If there were ever a building that was a chimera, this is it.

Outside of the church we visited a shepherd's field, which is a collection of rocks and caves preserved to show how people might have lived thousands of years ago. Each house was quite literally a hole in the ground. Furniture like chairs and tables were carved directly from the stone. This included beds and cradles for infants, and they didn't look comfortable.

We then went shopping at a store in Bethlehem devoted entirely to olive wood. The pieces were smooth and beautiful, full of knots and whorls in the wood, but quite expensive.

Upon returning to Jerusalem we finished the day by visiting the Garden Tomb, another suggested location for Golgotha, the "place of the skull." It's owned and operated by a British group. It was fun and a mild shock to hear English from other native speakers. The garden itself was full of meandering paths and flowers, a good place for contemplation.


Do you see a skull?

And so another journey came to an end. I'm grateful to my mom for inviting me and bringing me along. I'm not sure when I would've made it to Israel by myself, and now I have a lot of memories from there that I'll never forget.

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We woke up early to beat the crowds to the Temple Mount. Despite this we still stood in line to go through security. Several of our group were turned away because of inappropriate dress - the culprit was cargo shorts. It's surprising to me that they showed up like that because we were told repeatedly - including the night before - that Muslim dress codes were enforced on the Temple Mount.

Once through security and at the top the first thing I noticed was the armed guards. They're state police meant to keep the peace between religions in this highly contested area. We talked to one and he was quite friendly, laughing and joking with us.

We turned our attention to the Al Aqsa Mosque, commonly considered the third holiest site in Islam. It's a long rectangular building with a dome of steel gray on top. It's notable, but not the oldest or most well known building on the Temple Mount.

We walked a short distance and up some stairs, emerging onto a flat, open plaza, its center dominated by the iconic Dome of the Rock. It's an impressive, beautiful landmark. And it's considered one of the oldest examples of Islamic architecture. The intricate script, mosaic tiles, and morning sun reflecting off the golden dome mesmerized me for some time.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock. If you didn't know - and I didn't - the "Rock" in its name is a reference to the Foundation Stone inside.

We continued on to the Pools of Bethesda, which translates as "The House of Mercy," a place of healing. It combines old stone ruins, including a cistern, and a contemporary church that was holding a service as we walked through. They seemed used to the tourists.

Just outside of the Old City we had a short ride to Mt. Zion, which is probably where the first human settlement was in the Jerusalem area. It also turned out to be the home of my favorite church of the entire trip, for purely aesthetic reasons. The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is covered in bright paint and flowing text telling various biblical stories. In a unique twist for the area, the words were in French. This is because the church is owned by a French order called the Assumptionist Fathers. The stained glass was amazing, second to none, and when the sun shone through the prismatic patterns were almost neon.

The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu Interior

A look at the altar inside the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. No picture I took did the swirling colors and light of this place justice.

Then we bused to a pedestrian area in the middle of the city. We walked through some twisting streets before crossing a legitimate - although unfilled - moat into a fortress. This was the Tower of David Citadel and Museum. It was probably my favorite museum of the trip (despite the out of place Chihuly ceiling sculpture in the entrance), as it had a lot of interesting exhibits, but also one of the coolest layouts for a museum I've ever encountered. Since it's set in what is essentially a castle, the exhibit halls and rooms are set in the stone walls. The only access to these disconnected rooms is through doors in the courtyard, which is exposed to the air. So it would be miserable on a rainy day, but given the local climate that wouldn't matter most of the time and it makes for a very unique and memorable museum experience.

The courtyard of the Tower of David

This is the courtyard inside the Tower of David. The exhibits are all inside doors throughout the perimeter. Finding some of the doors can feel like a discovery all on its own.

View from the Tower of David

The Tower of David had some steep stairs I climbed, which rewarded me with some rare views of Jerusalem from above the buildings.

We shopped in some of the pedestrian mall market stalls before continuing to the Mt. of Olives. The main feature on this hill just outside the city is the cemetery. It instantly reminded me of the memorial in Berlin. The influence is palpable.

Mt. of Olives Cemetery

The cemetery on the Mt. of Olives. You might be able to see stones on top of some of the graves, which is a more common Jewish tradition than laying flowers.

As the sun was setting we made it to the Garden of Gethsemane, which was home to some twisted trees and an old church, and didn't feel much like a garden at all.

Prayers inside a wall

In a wall near the Garden of Gethsemane I discovered the tradition of writing down prayers and putting them inside cracks in a wall. They were right next to garbage like popsicle sticks and used tissue.

In darkness we returned to the Tower of David for a light show. To get there we had to navigate a tightly packed crowd spread throughout several streets that was watching fire poi, live music, and some Renaissance-Fair-like performers. Jerusalem really felt alive while we worked our way through that maze of people. Finally at the citadel, we sat down to watch a projection of moving pictures and words on the walls, making for a pseudo-3D movie. When we left some of the crowds had dispersed, but the streets we walked through were buzzing with conversation and culture, rife with tangible energy.

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We started our first day in Jerusalem by going under the Western Wall into a series of tunnels still being excavated. This is another area where the layers of time are obvious: there's an entire city underneath the one on the surface. It contains a lot of history and significance, including the largest single cut stone in the entire world, a Roman cistern, and an arch considered to be the closest point to the Holy of Holies that's not on the Temple Mount. Something I had never realized before was why the Wailing Wall was where it was and why it was a place of mourning, but it became clear when I saw people praying and weeping at this arch in the middle of this dank, dark tunnel. Even though the Temple Mount is technically a part of Israel, it is still forbidden for non-Muslims to pray there, and this restriction is enforced by the state police. A few people can come to this arch instead, but it is too cramped for many, whereas the Wailing Wall and the square next to it can accommodate hundreds or thousands. Despite having heard so much about this place in the news and history, it was an epiphany for me.

Tunnel Under the Western Wall

One of the tunnels under the Western Wall. It's particularly hard to snap any good pictures underground in low light conditions.

We emerged from the tunnels onto the Via Dolorosa, a road along a series of stations marking important points in the Catholic Easter tradition. The road ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the Catholic church believes the crucifixion took place, but this is obviously highly disputed even among Christians.

The church itself is unassuming from the outside, and could easily be missed if you didn't know what you were looking for. Inside, pilgrims wait in line to touch the ground in several places around the church where it is purposefully exposed through holes in the floor. The design alternates between being dark and austere to bright and ostentatious. There are plain walls without anything on them, and others inlaid with gold tile. There are three domed ceilings, one of which has a circular hole in its center and alcoves around it, sparking an intense feeling of deja vu in me from seeing the Pantheon in Rome.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

We went back to spend some time at the Wailing Wall. The square next to it is fenced off and split in half to create separate sections for men and women. I put on a yarmulke to cover my head and went to touch the wall. It was a moment I honestly never expected to have in my life.

The Wailing Wall

The Wailing Wall.

Moving a short distance away we entered the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. It's basically a set of ruins in the middle of the city. It's funny at how it didn't feel out of place, but there's nothing like it in any city in America. We walked through an ancient marketplace, and got some great views of a cemetery and residences on an adjacent hill.

Jerusalem Archaeological Park

A view near the old Temple Mount steps in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.

Jerusalem Residences on a Hill

Residences on a hill across from us in Jerusalem.

Next was the City of David, a large-scale attempt at restoring some of the ruins to emulate old Jerusalem while educating people about it. We saw a short movie about a tunnel carved into the rock below us to bring water into the city in the event of a siege. And then we learned our next activity would be walking through it from end to end.

We were warned ahead of time that the tunnel would have ankle deep water, so I removed my shoes and socks. We were also told it would take about 30 to 40 minutes to walk through it. To get there we had to walk down winding metal staircases through a series of restoration projects in the middle of being worked on, loud saws and drills drowning out attempts at conversation.

Then we finally entered the tunnel proper. It was crazy. Imagine being barefoot on slick stone in a cramped, pitch black space barely wider than your shoulders and barely higher than your head. Had I been much bigger in any dimension - taller, fatter, or wider - I would have gotten stuck. I was shocked to realize there had been no warning or limitations on size before entering. And then I realized that because there was no one controlling the pacing of people entering the tunnel, if someone did get stuck, it would mean everyone in the tunnel would be trapped for a very long time. There was no turning around. No going back. Forward was the only option.

The tunnel was very uncomfortable. At several points it dipped and narrowed so much that I was walking bent over at an angle - hunchbacked and sideways - just to fit through. I had one hand above my head constantly scraping the ceiling just in front of me, feeling for bumps to avoid banging my head when the roof dipped unexpectedly, a lesson painfully learned early on. And the water was much higher than advertised: it was often above my knees and at its highest came up to my hips. When I could walk forward while standing straight up the tunnel was still so narrow that my pinky toes were consistently catching the edges and outcroppings of the stone on the sides. They were a bloody mess by the end. I tried not to think about the fact that others were probably bleeding in this same water.

After about 15 minutes without any light, I started hallucinating. Mostly I saw red dots or waves. Some of the others in the group near me also reported seeing red. I was thankful when we finally emerged into the white, scalding light over an hour later. The walk had taken longer than it should have due to several excruciating stops when we were not moving for 5-10 minutes at a time, the cause of which I never discovered. I was then surprised to learn that our group had been given flashlights. Because of the tunnel's twists and turns I had only caught rare, brief glimpses of artificial light ahead of me. It turns out that whoever handed out the lights just gave them to those at the front of the group, who then stayed clumped together at the front when entering. Of course there was no re-ordering once inside the tunnel - it would've been physically impossible for one person to get around another - but why someone didn't think to pass a flashlight back I'll never know. It was an idiotic situation.

The experience was something I'll never forget. The worst moments were at the beginning when I realized what I was getting myself into. But I never felt scared. All of my worries and fears were on an intellectual level, not a visceral gut one. For most of the time I just felt a sort of Zen calm. I never panicked, and I'm thankful for and proud of those in the group near me. We helped each other out by communicating about turns and sharp points. It was a definite bonding experience. And it proved to me once and for all that I am in no way claustrophobic. Not even a little. But if you are you should never go into this tunnel. It would be terrifying.

We finished the day by visiting and dining at the Ramat Rachel Kibbutz. It had a relaxed atmosphere and lots of open spaces, which was a welcome change.

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The Dead Sea is one of the most unique natural phenomenons I've ever experienced. First, it's at the lowest elevation you can get to on land on the entire planet. And at 34% salinity, it is ten times saltier than normal ocean water. This makes the water feel like oil. It slides right off your skin. And you're so buoyant that it's hard to submerge any part of your body. But any exposure to it internally burns like fire. Any scratch or razor burn that was hardly noticeable before becomes a source of pure agony. When I accidentally got some in my mouth it tasted like burnt acid. The sea also smells slightly of sulfur. If any gets in your eyes the natural inclination is to rub them or splash water in them, but either is obviously a horrible idea. So imagine trying to swim around without making any splashes so the water doesn't touch your face. It's difficult. But it was incredibly fun because you can float in all sorts of crazy positions that you never could in normal water.

Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is called that because there is no plant or animal life that can survive its intense combination of chemicals. Except tourists.

After we came out, even after a shower, my skin was incredibly smooth. Legend has it that Cleopatra used the Dead Sea as her personal salon for its cosmetic affects. After my own experience that's one legend I can believe.

Ahava is the only factory that is allowed to make products from the Dead Sea, and the amount of material that they can remove from it is regulated. And it needs to be. Because of the combination of both natural evaporation and human use, this unique body of water is in danger of disappearing. It's a great example of why we should do everything we can to preserve the environment, because there's a very real chance that the Dead Sea will stop being there within our lifetimes. I'd love for it to be there for future generations to enjoy.

After the Dead Sea, we went to Masada. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but it ended up being one of the highlights of the trip for me. It's a massive mountain fortress that has an incredible story behind it. There's even a mini-series starring Peter O'Toole. To properly tell the story would take too long, so I'll just tell you the setting: Jewish rebels under siege on top of the mountain, surrounded by a Roman army below. The amazing thing for me was that the remnants of this siege were so well preserved. The Roman camps and siege ramp they built up over months with Jewish slaves are still perfectly visible (along with great views of the Dead Sea). It made me feel like I could see history unfolding before me. That must be what archaeologists feel like when they make a new discovery. Even considering all the ruins I've seen before, it was a powerful feeling.

Masada Approach

The switchback trail that leads up one side of Masada. It's intimidating.

Masada Army Camp

The square formation in the center is one of the several clearly visible remnants of a Roman army camp. And although the sense of scale is somewhat lost, you can see that Masada is a lot higher, towering over everything in the area.

Masada Siege Ramp

The Romans smartly built their siege ramp on the approach to Masada with the smallest elevation change. You can see it here near the center climbing up towards the fortress.

We then ventured into a nearby nature reserve, the Oasis of Ein Gedi. It mostly consisted of a rocky hike through small streams and narrow cliffs, while some friendly mountain goats called ibex watched over us from impossibly vertical positions. It ended at a large waterfall in the middle of an open semi-circular cavern. It was peaceful, and quiet, except for the large number of other tourists that happened to be there that day.

Me at an Ein Gedi Waterfall

This is one of the only pictures of me taken with my own camera. This is at the waterfall in the middle of Ein Gedi, which means "Spring of the goat-kid." It's an apt title.

After that it was on to Qumran, the site of an ancient Jewish village, and most known for being where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. Thanks to our guide and some helpful signs in English it was a really insightful look at what life was like for the villagers. Perhaps the most interesting thing to me was the prevalence of the mikveh, a ceremonial bath that people would have to submerge themselves in, sometimes several times a day.

Qumran Caves

The caves just left of center are where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

We arrived at a sort of interactive show for tourists called "Abraham's Feast" where we could ride camels and eat a traditional meal. The camels were amusing, if not terribly cooperative. But the meal was amazing. We sat on the ground around circular tables and the food was brought out to us. Hyssop was everywhere. The main course was chicken in date honey and beef kebab with cardamom. Dried fruit including dates, apricots, and raisins were the dessert. And there were three choices for an after dinner drink: coffee with cardamom, mint tea boiled with sugar then poured off, and olive tea served with a cinnamon stick. Between the Dead Sea, Masada, and this meal, it was probably my favorite day of the trip.

Abraham's Feast

This tent was our eating establishment for the evening.

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We woke up early to catch a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. It was cool, with some small waves. In a word: peaceful. The boat itself was an old-style wooden boat - part of an attempt to put us in the mindset of what life would've been like just fishing out there. We even got a demonstration of how the hand-woven nets were thrown and retrieved.

Wooden Boat on the Sea of Galilee

Another boat full of tourists on the Sea of Galilee. It was almost identical to our own.

When we docked it was right next to a museum featuring a 2000 year old boat that had been recovered from the mud of the lake. The boat itself had been preserved and was on display. It was about what you would expect for an ancient canoe-like craft.

We then rendezvoused with the bus and traveled to the ruins of the city of Bet She'An. This was one of my favorite stops on the trip, as the city itself was huge (the only larger ruin I've seen personally is Pompeii), and a lot of the stone was still in fairly good condition. It would be very easy to spend hours and hours walking around just exploring and imagining what life would've been like in a city thousands of years ago.

Ruins of Bet She'An

There are many columns lining the stone streets of Bet She'An.

Bet She'An itself is notable because of the layers (notice the reoccurring theme in Israel's archaeology). It had been occupied by many different governments and civilizations, at one point Egyptian, Greek, and Roman. The Egyptian palace had been considered especially luxurious at the time because it was made out the most expensive building material possible: wood. This may sound crazy but wood used as lumber in Israel has to be imported, because none of the trees native to Israel (such as the olive) can be used for building large structures. This is for a variety of reasons, but it mostly comes down to size, porousness, and shape. So if you begin to consider the costs of hauling enough wood hundreds of miles to make a palace you begin to understand why it was something only the rich and powerful could've done.

Palace of Bet She'An

This is the palace on top of the hill of Bet She'An. It's a long hike to get up there, but the views and seeing the palace ruins are worth it.

Leaving Bet She'An we entered the West Bank. To do so we went through the first of several security checkpoints we would encounter throughout the trip. They usually consisted of a single guard just stepping on to the bus and confirming that we were a bunch of tourists. They were always armed though, and unsurprisingly, it seemed like the Uzi was the weapon of choice.

The West Bank

Most of the West Bank was uninhabited. For the most part it's a hilly, rocky, and arid region without much of a human presence.

We passed by Jericho, which in addition to the story about its walls has the distinction of claiming to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet. Though the tour guide mentioned that this claim is probably an affectation, because although there is no official list for this metric, other cities such as Damascus and Luxor probably have better claims.

Then, rounding some hilly corners, we came into sight of a massive blue-green body of water hundreds of feet below us. My ears popped several times during our continuous descent below sea-level. We had arrived at the Dead Sea.

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It turns out that the Gai Beach Hotel in Tiberius is actually on a beach. When we arrived in the darkness the night before I didn't see anything like a large body of water. But outside the back of the hotel was none other than the Sea of Galilee.

The beach wasn't really much of a beach - no white sand or sunbathers to be found. And the sea is technically a lake. You can even see the other side! Where I live Lake Michigan is just a couple blocks away, and you can never see the other side, so calling this thing a sea felt archaic and a bit silly. Still, it was a nice surprise.

Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee

The view from the back of our hotel looked East, so we watched the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee.

We breakfasted (side note: I love this salty cheese they have called Tal Haemek) and set out on the bus for a circumnavigation of Galilee, starting with the Mount of Beatitudes. It was another Catholic installation, filled with beautiful gardens of both the stone and flower varieties. The grounds centered on an eight sided church - one side for each beatitude - that was, strangely enough, funded by Mussolini. It was also designed by the famous Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi. We would see several more examples of his work before the end of our trip.

We then went the farthest North we would venture during our stay: Tel Dan. It's a nature reserve that includes the headwaters of the Jordan River. Nearby we saw the triple border between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, along with the accompanying barb wire fences and graphical warnings about land mines.

Inside the park it was peaceful, the sound of rushing water never far away. Among the stone ruins was a replica of an ancient altar: a massive, prismatic, metal box. This is the type of structure where something like a golden calf would've been erected.

Tel Dan Sinkhole Sign

Inside Tel Dan there were some friendly warning signs. I don't actually know what a sinkhole "exit" is, but it sounds better than an entrance.

We traveled through the sparsely-populated-but-heavily-militarized Golan Heights to get to our next stop, Caesarea Philippi. While it was originally just called Caesarea like the city we visited the day before, the suffix was added to help differentiate it, and is in honor of its founder, Herod's son Philip.

The most remarkable thing about the city was the Greek Temple of Pan set inside a rocky cliff. There were ancient festivals here that included dancing baby goats in honor of their patron god. Let me repeat that. Dancing. Baby. Goats. I would've loved to have seen that. I imagine it would've looked something like this.

Caesarea Philippi Temple of Pan

A full view of the Temple of Pan. The cave to the left is where sacrifices would take place. The nooks in the wall would have small idols for the deities. One featured near the center was for the Greek goddess of vengeance, Nemesis.

Next up was the city of Capernaum. It's an old city with some fascinating archaeological finds to it, including an actual olive mill and press - not a replica like we had seen the day before - this was the real thing, thousands of years old.

Capernaum Synagogue

A synagogue in Capernaum. This is a great example of how so many things in Israel are layered. You can easily see the lighter stone right on top of the darker stone, probably from buildings built hundreds of years apart.

The structure that most dominated the skyline in Capernaum was the Byzantine-era church in the center of the town. It's one of the strangest churches I've ever seen: it looks like a flying saucer UFO just landed on top of all this ancient stone.

Capernaum Church

Seriously flying saucer.

We ended the day at the Jordan River, where some of the group got baptized. Despite how touristy it was, I thought one of the coolest things about the area was that a verse had been translated into nearly every language on the planet. And I don't just mean the common ones: I saw Gaelic and Icelandic, and hundreds more. If we ever need a modern version of the Rosetta Stone, this would be a great starting point.

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