Friday, July 24, 2009

Visit to Israel (continued)

It is a fortnight since I returned from Israel and I have been too busy to put anything more down regarding it! So I know that if I don't do it NOW, it won't get done at all!

At this time of year, Israel is of course extremely hot. 43 degrees on the Golan Heights, 37 in Haifa (where we were based). Even in Haifa, and at the top of Carmel, it was so hot that I, in spite of being Indian, could only sleep because of the sea breeze which is quite strong at night.

On our drive around to Lake Galilee, I am told (and see) that the water level is 8 or possibly even 10 metres below what it should be - and it is the main source of water for the whole land! We discuss why the level has dropped. It occurs to me that the expansion of the human population around the lake may be at least one factor. The population of Israel has gone up from 800,000 at the time the country was established, to some 8 million today. All around the Lake, there is evidence of new building, mostly by expansion of old settlements, some of it along the lake but a surprising amount up the hills aorund.

However, our guide mentions that Israel has the number one position in the world for recycled water. "Guess how much of the water in the country is recycled?", he asks. I have no idea so make a wild guess: 30%? The correct answer is 85%, says our guide. "And which country has the 2nd highest amount of recycled water?", he continues. Again, no idea. This time I am so totally stumped that I cannot even offer a wild guess. The correct answer is apparently: Spain. But our guide is not satisfied by how much of my ignorance he has already exposed. "How much of the water in Spain is recylced?", he asks. Again, no idea. "Fifteen per cent", he says. I am astonished. "Only 15%?!", I ask. That is incredibly huge gap betwen the number one country at 85% and the number two country at 15%. I must check the background to that out some time....

At the beautifully preserved and maintained Orthodox Monastry in Capernaum to which he takes us, I see in the fenced-off garden, a donkey and a variety of hens, ducks, geese, peacocks and peahen - even though only one monk lives here (as far as we were told).

By contrast, when we drive a couple of minutes to the nearby Roman Catholic occupied site of the town of Capernaum, it seems very established and prosperous but not nearly so well kept. It is prosperous because of the hordes of tourists who are brought to visit it, as it has a sort of church built in such a way as to more or levitate over the supposed site of the home of Peter - you can peer down on what is left of the town. However, the simple explanation why it "must" be Peter's house don't add up: that is the largest of the structures (presumably a dwelling, though there is no evidence of that!) but we have no indication from the records that Peter was anything other than an ordinary fisherman from a human point of view.

The "white synagogue" nearby (also much visited and within the "occupied site") is only from the 4th century, and my guess is that the myth regarding which is Peter's house originated then, with the need for the newly-converted Emperor's folk to dignify the history as much as possible. The "white synagogue" is built literally on top of the synagogue which existed in the time of Jesus and to which Jesus may have gone (one can peer down to the original at one or two places, though you see hardly anything). So what you have in the splendid ruins of the white synagogue is a moden (4th century) ruin on top of the old ruin - really, nothing worth seeing for the pilgrims who come here. But, I guess, as pilgrims, they don't really come to SEE anything, they come because they acquire some sort of satisfaction from having visited the site

At the entrance to the Roman Catholic occupied territory, the bronze and larger than life size statue of Peter by some pious sculptor makes him look rather gormless.

On our way around the lake, we stop to see if there is anything at Magdala but there is only a sort of banner by the side of the road informing us that the tiny ruins (three quarters surrounded by a sort of holiday hotel site, and one quarter bounded by the road) are all that are left of a once-prosperous fishing village. However, just up the hill is the "modern" village of Migdal (which we do not see as the possible connection between the two only dawns on me some time later, when I opine that the ancient village probably went much higher up the hill - the lower part was ruined in some battle or other, while the uphill part survived and was built up again later....Again, something to be checked out when one has the time....

A bit further around the lake, I ask our guide/ driver to kindly take us off his scheduled route to follow a sign advertising "The museum of the ancient boat". The museum itself is much like most museums, but the boat takes the cake for the best thing seen on the entire tour. It is 10 metres long, and I wonder why I am moved to see it. Possibly because it is a real thing from the time of Jesus, not merely some interpretation of some ruin that you can hardly make out. The story of the finding of the boat, and its extraction from the mud of the lake, and the years and effort and money that were required to get it to a state in which it can be seen by the public - all that is very well told in the video show which is offered, and I suppose is part of the reason I am so impressed. Was this one of the boats in which Peter fished, or any of the others who are mentioned in the historical records? Was this a boat in which Jesus himself travelled on one of his many recorded and unrecorded journeys across the lake? These are among the questions that the museum poses in written form near the exhibit. The questions are interesting, but not as interesting as the exhibit itself, though another of the signs there shows all the different kinds of wood that went into the boat, from which it can be deduced that the boat was used over a long time, and (as it was repaired again and again by employing different kinds of wood) was used by relatively poor people, at least at some point in time - presumably as the entire region went from prosperity at the time of Jesus to poverty following the destructio of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.

I observe that the northern end of the lake is stony and arid, but the middle starts being more hospitable nad the southern valley of the Jordan seems quIite productive and almost green.

We start driving up the Golan Heights, which I mentioned earlier, though we visited it almost at the end of our day-long tour. It is not only extremely hot, even the air is hot. In north India, we call the hot summer wind that blows the "loo". The Heights are what may be described as a single strip of hills, between 1000 and 1300 metres high between the river Jordan on one side, and the plain with the Sea of Galilee on the other. From the Heights, one can see right across the whole plain of Galilee (Israel is a tiny country, and relatively thin). I had not realised it quite so starkly earlier: whoever controls the Heigts controls the water supply for at least the whole of the northern part of the country. From the viewpoint of their national defence, it would not just be extremely stupid for Israelis to give up the Golan Heights, it would be tantamount to national suicide.

On the heights, there are several disused bunkers originally built by the British to keep an eye on what is today Syria and Jordan. I have never actually visited the site of a bunker earlier. All around there are signs warning visitors to keep to the market paths as mines were laid down all around and there are still many unexploded ones that may still be live. However, the bunkers could be a good tourist attraction - specially for children - and it would not take that much money to get them cleared and cleaned....

The Golab heights seem to have both Arab and Jewish settlements but both seem relatively new - or at least not ancient.

I know a bit about Judaism but had not realised the distinction between those Jews who are secular, those who are "merely" observant of the religious lawas, versus the "religioius" do no work nor serve in the army and have to be maintained out of the taxes of those who do work! It appears, however that the religious seem very well organised and have been able to defend their benefits successfully so far.

It is a pleasant and unevetful drive back to Haifa. On the outskirts, a former dump is being beautified _ there are aertistically shaped margins that have been bricked out and various flora planted. However, cows are wandering the area freely as we drive past on our last evening here - reminding me of India once again.

In Haifa, I am startled to see a sign announcing "George Eliot Street". Why does Haifa name a road after George Eliot, I ask my guide. This time it is his turn to appear ignorant. Another thing I must check out some time.

Truth to tell, I have seen hardly anything in the week or so I have spent in Israel. But I too feel a curious sense of satisfaction at having been here and seeing whatever little I could see.

BTW, I did not see a single tank in my entire week there (though my wife tells me that she saw one). I did see soldiers with guns, but they were either manning security check points for tourists in Jerusalem (I will post something on our few hours in Jerusalem, when possible) or they were on trains riding to and from their training. Each Israeli, man or woman, has to give THREE YEARS of life to the military. That is extraordinary, but not so extraordinary as how little the normal rhythm of life is impacted by security considerations compared to the portrayal of Israel in the media. When we mentioned to a few friends and relatives that we were going to Israel, the instant and universal reaction was: "Dangerous!". Actually, except for the soldiers with guns on the trains, the land was entirely normal. The hotels were nearly fully booked, whether those top of the range or those that are youth hostels.... No we didn't stay in either. Sphere: Related Content

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