Time for Change
I was at a point in my life where I was craving change. Every day was starting to feel the same. I would get up, work a little, hike, maybe host a social gathering and repeat. I thought about going back to school, and I was left with the question of “what was I passionate enough about?” I toyed with idea of psychology, but then remembered who I was.
I applied for the anthropology program and was accepted at the local university. But, I had plenty of winter travel planned prior. During my trip to Thailand my adventurous spirit got the best of me and I questioned everything. What it would take just to jump right into the field and have fun? Why did I really want to go back? To write essays? No; to change history!
A New Mission…
I Googled volunteer archeological digs, and was prepared to see a long list of scholastic requirements. The first one that came up was on the FindADig web site and it was for Khirbet el-Mastarah. This is right outside of Jerhico on the Palestinian side of Israel. For those of you who don’t know your history, that’s where Joshua (my name) fought the Battle of Jerhico. And lo and behold, absolutely zero experience required to join – train on site. It was meant to be.
The story of Jerhico is interesting, because there has been very little archaeological evidence that can validate the story. And, as well all know, the Ark of the Covenant which undoubtedly helped them win the legendary battle still hasn’t been found to this day. A prime chance to really change history. However, for the true of faith, there is no question to its accuracy and I wanted to help prove history one way or the other.
I submitted my wordy and ecstatic application to Ralph Hawkins, the leader of the Jordan Valley Excavation Project and was euphoric when I was given approval to join! The team consisted of a few students from the university, and a plethora of volunteers from across the globe from all fields of study and careers.
Life on Site
Every day we would get up at 3am before sunrise, have a quick breakfast, and head on a long shuttle ride to the site. We propped up a canvas to protect us from the searing mid-day heat which felt like it was pushing into the 40s. I started out in my full gear, with barely any skin showing, and by the end I was in a T-Shirt and shorts allowing the sun to scorch away but to the benefit of not overheating.
The ground was hard as stone, and our delicate tools for excavation quickly felt irrelevant as we swapped out and hammered away with pickaxes. The worst part of the day? Shaking the removed dirt through sieves to uncover any smaller objects that we may have missed. The clouds of dust enveloped whoever was on rotation that day.
While there were no major historical revelations on “year one” with the dig, it is a multi-year project. We did find what we believed be corrals, some fragments of pottery, animal bones, snail shells, and a live Deathstalker scorpion – one of the most deadly in the world! They’re always looking for more volunteers, so if it’s your jam, don’t hesitate to sign up.
The dig, however, was smack-dab right in the middle of my Israel trip. I wanted to get the full experience and see the entire country!
The best way to explore Israel from major departure locations like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is with the Abraham Hostel tours. You don’t have to be staying with them to sign up, their guides were excellent, and the costs incredibly low! Car rentals, or god forbid private drivers, are insanely expensive in the country. Plus, the tour company has an amazing Judean Desert day trip.
Right along the bank of the Dead Sea, the fortress at Masada was built by Herod the Great. It was the site for a Jewish stronghold against Rome in 68 AD. Climb by foot for over an hour, or take the cable car to this mountain-top ruin! You’ll get to see giant dugouts called cisterns which held rainwater in the dry season, ancient swimming pools, and all the typical highlights.
Mar Saba, Erin Prat, Ein Gedi
Afterwards, we cruised around the desert in a jeep for a while. We popped over to the Greek Orthodox Mar Saba Monastery in the Kidron Valley, took a mid-day soak at the ancient Ein Prat water spring, but more importantly spent the afternoon exploring the Ein Gedi Reserve.
This was a popular desert gem as it has two spring-fed steams with water year-round. It’s the biggest oasis in Israel, and has waterfalls to add to its allure. It’s a welcome fresh-water sight amidst all the sand.
The water at the Dead Sea is decidedly not drinkable! Even the lightest scratch on your skin will burn with the fire of a thousand souls as you take a dip. I was skeptical when people told me that you would be virtually unsinkable. And lo and behold, as you go farther out, you become increasingly buoyant due to the high salinity content. The level of the Dead Sea is sometimes perceived as the life force of Israel, and it has been evaporating at an alarming rate. Talks of digging a canal all the way from the Red Sea in the south to refill it have been going on for years.
Eilat, Israel’s southern most city, is a calm destination right on the Red Sea. It’s famous for its Coral Beach Reserve, desert hiking, and dolphin swimming opportunities, but for most tourists it’s not worth the trek all the way south unless you’re already there from a cruise ship.
Most of the country is covered in desert, and is seemingly uninhabitable. Heading back north, the two major stops were for photos at the Ramon Crater and Timna Park.
The park was a massive hot spot for copper mining as far back as 4500 BC. The entire site is an incredible spot to see the evidence of water erosion in the sandstone: The Arches, Solomon’s Pillars and a giant Mushroom rock, just like I saw in Egypt. The park also features an artificial lake and has been a location for concerts, cliff climbing events, and movie sets.
Valley of Elah
Approaching Jerusalem, The Valley of Elah was the location where David defeated the giant Goliath. The story goes that fearless David picked up five stones from the nearby river, and using only his slingshot managed to score a lucky shot and knock him out and won the war! This is a scene I absolutely had to retrace, and it was euphoric being at the cliffside for sunrise over the valley. Even if that meant napping in my car in the dark, and getting caught by a military patrol!
Adulam Grove & Beit Guvrin
Nearby there are a number of smaller archeological sites, but the Adulam Grove Nature Reserve and Beit Guvrin Caves were personal favourites. It’s a great spot to see a dovecot! Raising doves was a significant part of the economy in the Judean lowlands. They were used for rituals, and their dung as as fertilizer. While richer citizens would sacrifice larger animals, it was the dove that most commoners would burn on the altar.
Bethlehem, known for being the Jesus’ birth location, is in the state of Palestine.
The country is divided by what is known as the Israeli West Bank barrier built along the “Green Line.” It’s a hotly contested barrier built by Israelis that is called a “terrorism prevention measure” by one, and a “racial segregation line” by others. Within the “West Bank” there are portions of Palestine controlled by the Israeli government, and also areas which are literally illegal for non-Palestinians to enter. Tourists, however, are usually permitted to travel freely at their own discretion.
Banksy, the notable graffiti artist and political activist, has done a number of murals around Bethlehem. At no point did I feel particularly unsafe, but it was deeply troubling to see the animosity first-hand.
The Church of Nativity is the spot to be in Bethlehem. It’s believed to be the exact birthplace of Jesus, and it’s possible to enter and put your hand on the magical spot! Contrary to popular belief, Jesus likely wasn’t born in a manger but in a guest room of a relatives home for the census. The truth may be permanently lost in translation of a single word.
And how suiting to take a short trip farther east to Qasr el Yahud where John baptized Jesus. But, if you’re uncomfortable being in West Bank on the border of Jordan, head farther north to Yardenit. It is the alternative site right on the Sea of Galilee. While both Protestants and Catholics get baptized, only catholics believe it is mandatory.
On the north side of the sea, the iconic Mount of Beatitudes sits overlooking the valley. This is where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. It is next to the biblical of Capernaum which once housed up to 1500 people. It is where Jesus essentially hung out, provided his teachings, and performed miracles like walking on water, providing huge catches of fish, and calming storms.
It was time to relive some biblical history. I headed to Kafar Kanna where Jesus turned water into wine, and suited up on my very own donkey just east of town at Kfar Kedem to head into Nazareth! While we didn’t get quite that far, it was still fun to dress the part and wear some traditional clothing!
Basilica of the Annunciation
Nazareth houses the Basilica of the Annunciation (built overtop of the site of Mary’s home) where Archangel Gabriel told her that she would bear the son of God. It’s known for being the town where Jesus spent his youth.
Church of the Transfiguration
Church of the Transfiguration, on Mount Tabor, is another nearby must-stop and is the spot where Jesus begins to shine with radiant light and is confirmed by a voice in the sky to indeed be God’s son – removing any doubt.
However, just south of the city is apocalyptic ruins of Megiddo. Thirty four battles were waged here, and it was an important travel and political hub throughout history. Christians believe this to be the future site where the Final Battle will be fought between good and evil.
Jerusalem is the focal point of three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Ownership of the city has been claimed by both Israel and Palestine and skirmishes aren’t unheard of to this day. While I was there, there was even an attack at the Damascus Gate. We hung out on on the roof of our hotel listening to the news unfold. As a foreigner, it’s easy to feel the tension in the air. Military service is mandatory for Israeli citizens over the age of 18!
To decompress a little bit, we took a stroll a bit farther out of town at the Machane Yehuda Market which boasts over 250 vendors flaunting everything from spices to fresh fruit. Make sure to buy some olive oil! Israeli’s consume over 2.5 kg of the stuff annually!
The religious quarters of the Old City are amazing to walk through. Vendors flaunting their goods in Aladdin-style shops, and history bursting out of every corner. For me, there were ten incredibly important things to do in the old city.
- First was walking the Via Dolorosa. This was the path that Jesus took enroute to his crucifixion.
- Second, visiting the Islamic shrine of Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount. Only Muslims are permitted to enter for political, security, and religious reasons.
- Third, throwing on a Kippah to touch the Jewish Western Wall. You’ll find countless pray papers crammed into the cracks. It was built by Herod the Great and the tunnel tours will take you to the closest spot that Jews are permitted to pray to the Holy of Holies.
- Want to see where Jesus was buried? That all depends on who’s asking. Catholics will head to the very elaborate and well decorated Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Protestants, head to the more humble and Buddhist-feeling Garden Tomb.
- Fifth, the 3,000 year old jewish graveyard at the Mount of Olives. It houses over 150,000 graves and will run you over $20,000 for your own plot.
- Sixth, the Chapel of the Ascension where Jesus is believed to have ascended to heaven after his resurrection.
- Seventh, Gethsemane where Mary was buried and where Judas betrayed Jesus by identifying him with a kiss to the authorities.
- Eighth, the City of David, Tower of David, and King David’s Tomb.
- Ninth, a Bar Mitzfa – the coming of age ceremony for a thirteen year old jewish boy.
- And tenth, for the museum side of things: the holocaust museum and then the Israel Museum which houses the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls in its Shrine of the Book. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the unadulterated copies of some of the original Jewish biblical manuscripts.
Rosh Hanikra Grottoes
It was time to end the trip with a little beauty and luxury!
I made my way to the Rosh Hanikra Grottoes on the border with Lebanon. The white chalk cliff faces and alcoves reminded me of something straight out of Peter Pan.
The Bahá’í terraces at the Hanging Gardens of Haifa looked like a resort! The Bahá’í believe in unification of the human race and our beliefs. This even includes harmony between science and religion. I felt it was a really enlightened philosophy and something that Israel desperately needs more of.
I took a short stroll up Mt. Carmel for a view of the valley, and began my beach day! The entire Mediterranean coast is littered with one gorgeous beach after the next. It felt like I had stepped into an entirely separate country! The rolling sand dunes replaced with lush green oceanside foliage.
More impressive works of Herod the Great can be found at the ruins at Caesarea. It was built around 20 BC and was once a thriving port city. If you’ve already been to Italy, it will feel a little lacklustre here.
Tel Aviv is much like any big city. Much of it modernized, including the old sea port of Jaffa. Even the Carmel Market feels nothing like Jerusalem and much more contemporary. The concept of religion in Tel Aviv feels virtually non-existent as you’ll roam the touristy streets. Notably the boutique shopping district of Neve Tzedek or when you head to the Yemenite Quarter to try some exotic meat soups.
Israel truly is a country of strong juxtapositions, and the allure of uncovering pivotal keys to our history will continue to attract adventurers for centuries. Just as it did me…