Haifa, Northern Israel
14-18 June 2009
After another long night at sea motoring south in a huge flotilla, we all had to announce our arrival in Israeli waters (25 miles out) to the Israeli navy on channel 16. At first they don't answer, but you can be sure you are being tracked as you approach. You have to make a call every 5 miles, and closer to the shore they call you up to check you out and verify the number of people on board. We're led to believe that some sort of heat or infra-red cameras allow them to 'see' how many people are on board, and this has to match the details given of all the rally yachts in advance (boats with dogs or small children on a shared passport seemed to trigger an enquiry). As we approached Haifa in the morning light we saw a couple of gunboats and a submarine. The Israeli navy boat came close to us and we had to put our passports into a proffered fishing net for them to peruse, then we were allowed into the port. As soon as we were parked the security officials came on board to check us out for weapons and stowaways. They were very polite and courteous and formalities were wrapped up very quickly. It is no problem to request that your passport is not stamped on entry and exit. The Israelis are used to being asked this, and it is essential if you plan to visit Syria or Lebanon with the same passport.
We were hosted by the Carmel Yacht Club in the municipal fishing harbour. The warm welcome and friendship of the yacht club members somewhat made up for the dark brown polluted harbour and stink from the nearby industrial plants which shed black grit and dust over our decks. I'd wake up in the night unable to inhale for the vile fumes ( and it wasn't Stuart this time!)
It's a real shame that Carmel YC has not been relocated to a new marina, as they are really friendly and hard-working, organising all trips for us, and inviting rally sailors into their homes for dinner, or drinks and lots of chat. We spent an evening with David at his apartment, who in his spare time between 2 jobs and 3 kids and building a 43' yacht runs a sailing school for children. Next evening we went for drinks at another David's house, a single parent and also helping to run the sailing school in his spare time. Both went out of their way to drive us around, give us information, tell us about their very different backgrounds and show us great hospitality. What lovely people.
Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights
From Haifa the Carmel Yacht Club members organised a very pleasant tour for us to the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. Israel is not a big country, so you can cover several places of interest in a day trip.
First we stopped to admire the rapidly increasing shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is a very beautiful spot, and the probable base of Jesus' earliest preaching, the Sermon on the Mount, and the 'Feeding of the Five Thousand'. The tour took us to the modern church situated on the shore, where the nuns shouted at people for showing their shoulders – uncovered knees and hair not a problem here, but shoulders – the work of the devil!
We then went to the top of the Golan Heights to appreciate the view over the Sea. From the map you can see the strategic importance of the Heights, for water access and border control, acquired by Israel from Syria during the 6 day war in 1967. It is a beautiful pastoral plateau, and very popular with walkers. Our Israeli friend said that he liked to go walking in the Heights, as he knows that one day Israel will have to give them back! Although not everyone thinks this way - In May 2009, Netanyahu, a few months after becoming Prime Minister for a second term, said that Israel would never leave the Golan, and "Giving of the Golan Heights will turn the Golan into Iran's front lines which will threaten the whole state of Israel'. So that's pretty clear then.
The work of the pioneering Israelis who turned desert into oasis was formidable, and they continue to grow delicious fruit and vegetables to feed their industrious population, but it all comes at a cost as you can read here:
The long term sustainability of this desert agriculture is dubious. At no time in Israel did we see any measures to limit or restrict the free flow of water in showers or toilets, or washing of boats - unlike the Balearic Islands where the horrid tasting desalinated water is treated as a precious and restricted commodity. Still when the Sea of Galilee is completely empty perhaps they will start to take wasting water seriously! As it only rains 8 times a year in Israel and then only a splatter, the solution is unlikely to come from above despite their connections.
For our lunch stop we were taken to a Druze village. This offshoot of early Islam now has little relationship to modern Islam. The Druze are scattered throughout the mountainous regions of Syria, Lebanon and Israel. They have traditionally been very secretive about their lives and little was known about their beliefs. They are now coming out of the woodwork and hosting small groups in their homes so that others can understand what they are about. It's not so that you can be converted, as Druze is a closed shop. You have to be born into it, and if you marry outside the religion you are no longer part of the clan. They know that this means that their numbers are slowly dwindling. They believe in reincarnation for all of us, as one Druze dies the soul is born into another newborn Druze baby.
Anyway we had a tasty mezze lunch, washed down with water of course – no beer or meat in these households.
Our next stop was Caeserea, a port built by Herod the Great in the years just before JC, by sinking wooden frames filled with cement that sets underwater, clever eh? The process was virtually copied to build the harbour for the D day landings in Normandy. For years it was the greatest port in the eastern Mediterranean. This was our first introduction to the modern multi-media experience in these renovated sites, that almost eclipses the opportunity to see what's left of the real ruins. In this case it was artfully done so that those of us with no historical imagination could have a clear idea of what (someone thinks) it looked like in its heyday. It made a change from rocks in the desert, but you could just watch it on telly.
Akko Crusader Underground City
The tour next day included the Crusader fortress of Acre (Akko in Hebrew) followed by Nazareth. Unfortunately the tour guide seemed intent on sitting us in front of musicians and multimedia screens while various bits of history were reinvented in front of us, rather than let us wander the fascinating cavernous halls and storerooms and secret tunnels that allowed Knights Templar and Hospitallers to defend this outpost of Christianity from Mamelukes for 100 years. It was the chief port of landing for pilgrims and the most powerfully defended town in the lands. It was levelled by the Mamelukes in 1291 and rebuilt as an Ottoman city over the top. The vast Underground City is still being excavated and as you will see in the photos, once cleared it has to have concrete props put in place, which will then be poorly disguised as real Crusader columns before long. Lighting and plumbing is being installed behind the walls to create the ultimate tourism experience complete with mood lighting no doubt. Go soon before you can no longer see what is real and fake!
Despite being thought of as the childhood home of Jesus of Nazareth, the town today is predominantly inhabited by Arab citizens of Israel, both Christian and Muslim(68%). For Christians it is the site of the Annunciation (when Mary was told that she would have Jesus as her son) that is the big attraction.
I found the large modern church really uninspiring. Churches from around the world had been encouraged to provide art of their own 'madonnas' and it was interesting to see how she is interpreted in cultures around the world. She was white if you were European and Oriental if you were from that part of the world and definitely very black in others.
This was where our guide was shouted at by the nasty nuns -'You are a very bad man!' for telling one of our group that he thought his knee length shorts would be suitable attire to enter the church (bare shoulders seemed to be no problem here though).
The muslims had tried to build a mosque adjacent to the church, but it was demolished. Instead they have erected a large sign (see photo)to remind Christians of the error of their ways and and a very loud megaphone to announce the call to prayer in the open space where the mosque used to be.
Our last day in Haifa was spent on an independent tour of the Bahai gardens. The Bahai is a relatively new faith, totally the opposite of the Druze, that welcomes all comers from any religion and background. There are many Bahai headquarters around the world but this is the biggest and best. The exquisite gardens are tended by volunteers from within the organisation, who also were on hand to lead us through the grounds. It was hard to get a sense of what Bahai believe or stand for, other than that they are a sort of pan-faith NGO representing peoples interests within the UN. The founder sounds like a nice guy who believed that all faiths should come together and stop fighting each other. He was, of course, imprisoned and killed for saying something as radical as that.
Ashkelon , Israel
18 – 23 June
Our next stop was Ashkelon 90 miles south. It is a very modern marina with all services available surrounded by beachside apartments. It all looks very normal and at first you wonder why the marina is so empty. Something to do with being 8km from, and within shelling distance of, Gaza perhaps? They insisted it was very safe as it's so close to the border the shells go clean over the top! In the last fracas part of the marina wall was damaged by shelling, but there are no problems here at the moment, everyone is poised, waiting for Obama to bring world peace.
We haven't met anyone in Syria, Lebanon, Northern Cyprus or Israel who wants to fight with anyone else. It's all down to the men in power. Israeli history is so complicated and convoluted and everyone has an opinion that they want to tell you about. It's good to be here and to see and hear the politics from local people, not via the BBC.
Ashkelon would be a good place to enter Israel as it is very welcoming and there are spaces available. It is a bit out of town to serve as a base for exploring the country, though with a hire car this would not be a problem at all.
Our trips from here were to Masada, The Dead Sea, and Jerusalem
What should you do on a hot summer's day at midday in mid June in Israel? Lie on a beach? Shop in an air-conditioned mall? No - we went to the middle of the desert and climbed up to the top of an ancient desert fortress on a rocky sun-baked plateau of course. This is an isolated, naturally elevated spot overlooking the Dead Sea on the edge of the Judean desert. It was fortified by Herod the Great (father of the executioner of Jesus) as a refuge in case of a revolt. When a particularly antagonistic Jewish sect were evicted from Jerusalem, they fled to Masada, taking over the fortifications, and used it as a base to harass the Roman armies.
The Romans laid siege to the fortress and finally overcame it by building an enormous ramp from where they could wield a battering ram. When they got inside the inhabitants had set fire to the place and committed mass suicide to avoid being taken captive or as slaves.
We climbed the Roman ramp to gain access using any means possible to make our own shade (sarongs, hats, umbrellas). Actually the air was dry and so didn't feel too unpleasant at all. There were even some mad folk cross country running !! There were great views of the Dead Sea from the top. There is a fascinating water collection system built into the side of the cliffs, which we passed as we walked down the snake path. The rest of our tour group took the cable car down, but we took the hot walk to avoid being exploited for an hour in the inevitably overpriced tourist shop at the bottom where the guide gets the commission for his coach-load of shekel-wielding captives' spur-of-the-moment purchases. Yuk, I hate this sort of tourism!
Until recently Masada served as a place for swearing in soldiers who have completed their Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) basic training. The soldiers climb the Snake Path at night and are sworn in with torches lighting the background. The ceremony ends with the declaration: "Masada shall not fall again.” A good bit of brainwashing of young minds, I feel. Since conscription is universal for boys and girls at 18 for 3 years (girls 2 years) and there is no option for conscientious objection without going to jail, I find this scenario quite hair-raising, and unlikely to lead to a society with a balanced view of the world and their place in it.
Young minds - young guns!
After our exertions the coach disgorged us at a beach on the Dead Sea, where we could bathe for an hour and have the weird experience of not being able to sink. The Dead Sea is 8 times saltier than the ocean, so nothing lives in it, hence the name. It lies 422metres (1,385ft) below sea level, the lowest place on the planet's surface. It has been a health resort since the days of Herod the Great, and has a reputation for significant improvement of psoriasis and cystic fibrosis. It is very difficult to swim at all, you have to sort of flollop along, trying not to get the water in your mouth, or even worse, your eyes. Sorry we didn't have a newspaper to read, for the standard photograph!
There was a muddy area near the beach where you could slather yourself in foul smelling gloop, fooling yourself that it was the equivalent of an expensive Dead Sea mud treatment at a spa – well, it's as close as I'm going to get to one.
Why, we wondered, does the shore have lifeguards huts dotted around, when it is impossible to sink? We presume they are there to make people behave and stop splashing, and to deal with those that panic, blinded by salt water, unable to find their way to the fresh water showers!
What is more interesting about the lifeguard huts is that they have to keep building new ones closer to the water, as the levels rapidly recede. This is due to the diversion of water from the incoming Jordan river to irrigation projects and drinking water for Jordan and Israel. Israel has not turned the desert into productive agricultural land without any rainfall by magic – there is a penalty, that the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are disappearing, fast. The Dead Sea has retracted by one third in 20 years.
There is a joint Israeli, Jordan, Palestinian Red-Dead project to desalinate Red Sea water (from near Aqaba) for drinking and irrigation and to convey the waste brine to the Dead Sea for replenishment. Ecologists worry that importing a different type of sea water will ruin the unique properties of the Dead Sea, and there was a 2 year feasibility project to study this. The Jordanians have decided to go ahead without waiting for the results – none too surprisingly since we read that Jordan could very soon cease to be an economically viable country without it's own water supply. That's the trouble when you carve up the world at the end of an empire and draw imaginary lines around new countries without regard for their sustainability.
Suitably relaxed for our next adventure, the following day we went on a tourist tour of the amazing city of Jerusalem, probably the most fought over city on earth – everyone thinks they should be in charge of it.
First our guide took us on a speedy tour of the Via Dolorosa (meaning way of suffering).
It is a confusing amble through the crowded streets of the Old Town, filled with hawkers and market stalls. It follows the supposed footsteps of Jesus with the cross through the streets to the site of crucifixion which is now inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This huge cavernous church marks the site of Golgotha (or Hill of Calvary), where the crucifixion may have taken place. The location was not 'determined' until 300 years later, at the time the site of a pagan temple. Emperor Constantine's mother, Helena founded a church there, and maybe she was involved in excavations revealing a tomb and 3 crosses, depending on who you believe.
Subsequent destructions by Persians and Turks, fires and earthquakes and Crusader rebuilding in 1149 make it now a huge cross shape incorporating all the oratories, chapels and sanctuaries. Infighting between the different religions in 1852 caused the Ottomans to divide it up into areas for Franciscans, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox, with the remaining shared between the Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches.
It is really decrepit, badly lit and labyrinthine with no wall decoration, only oil lamps, incense, tourists and worshippers. Apparently there is still plenty of fighting about whose responsibility any repairs or improvements may belong to, so very little gets accomplished.
Here, religious fervour reaches new heights. The religious bring their souvenirs from the thousands of tat shops (scarves, trinkets, effigies etc) for them to be blessed by being placed on the 'stone of the anointing'
The Edicule under one of the main domes, houses Jesus' tomb where large crowds wait in line to enter. The 3 main religions (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic share the site for daily mass.
There are strange quirks in the Church, such as this ancient cave church off a part of the Syrian church:
The Ethiopian Monastery is relegated to the roof of the church. Here's a fascinating story illustrating the sensitivities from Wikipedia:
'On a hot summer day in 2002, the Coptic monk who is stationed on the roof to express Coptic claims to the Ethiopian territory there moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven were hospitalized after the resulting fracas.'
The western wall is the closest point that Jews can get to worshipping the site that might have housed the Holy of Holies, under the remains of the Temple Mount. Only a fraction of the wall appears above modern street level, and there is an excavated area below ground where the orthodox (dressed in black with sideburns, beards and hats) go to pray – men only. It illustrates how much of the old city still lies under the present day streets.
At street level the praying area is unequally divided between men and women. The ladies have to squeeze into an overcrowded section and compete for the opportunity to get forehead to wall.
When the Israelis captured/liberated the area in the 1967 war, the soldiers demolished the Moroccan quarter which stood 4m from the wall, without any government order, increasing the narrow platform from 120 to 20000 square metres. It is of course still a bitter memory for the muslims whose families lived there.
Western Wall Plaza previously the Moroccan quarter
In the background you can see the gold dome of The Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline. We would have liked to have visited, but it was closed due to tensions arising from a wheelbarrow of rocks having been found there, (which the Palestinians claimed had been planted by the Israelis) which could have been used to start a protest.
The Wall never seems to be closed to Jews for wailing, but Palestinians have restricted access to the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa mosque, their 3rd holiest place after Mecca and Medina. Presently Palestinians from Gaza and West Bank must be married and over 50 (women 45) to be allowed entry, on the assumption that they are less likely than their young counterparts to 'cause trouble'.
The rest of the day tour took in the Israel museum with an incredible model village of what ancient Jerusalem could have looked like, and the Shrine of the Book, the new home of the Dead Sea scrolls, found in a cave on the shores of the Dead Sea. They are not that exciting to look at, being on scraps of parchment and in a foreign language and no photos were allowed to be taken. It's probably more interesting to learn about them on the telly! Or perhaps I'm just jaded after so much sightseeing that I can't take any more in!
After our amazing trip to Egypt and the Nile cruise the rally returned to Israel to the modern marina of Herzilya where the rally ended with a big party and we all fell into an exhausted slump.
On an independent day trip to Jerusalem from Herzilya by train and returning by bus we took a' political tour'. We'd really recommend this tour, for the time being based from The Jerusalem Hotel near the Damascus Gate, in the Palestinian area.
It's aim is to 'discuss the historical, geographic, political, and socio-economic aspects of Israeli policies in East Jerusalem', and covers parts of the separation barrier, the Israeli checkpoint regime, and the issue of settlement and home demolitions and the impact on the Palestinian people's daily lives.
A prosperous Israeli settlement with Palestinian refugee houses behind:
Palestinians working in West Jerusalem have to cross the checkpoints every day with many delays and potential for harassment. Note the signs are only in Hebrew and English, not Arabic.
Palestinians living in Jerusalem have a residence permit which gives them some freedom of movement, but if they get married their spouse and children have no rights to live with them, only occasional visits. Is this to ensure that the Palestinian population of Jerusalem can only dwindle?
Palestinian homes can always be identified because of the black water tanks on their roof. Their water supply is often interrupted for days at a time, so they all store water. When they are saving water, flushing the loo is not an option. Nearby Israeli homes can use water without restriction, despite the ever decreasing level of the Sea of Galilee.
The new 'security' wall snakes it's way through the city, ensuring the wells, aquifers and influential people's homes stay in the Israeli side.
How much did this cost?????
We were taken to see (and in one case meet) Palestinian families who had been forcibly evicted from their homes and had set up camp to live in the street opposite their home while Israeli settlers moved in and set up armed guard to protect the new inhabitants. They had been to court many times over many years with documents to prove the ownership of the property, but to no avail. This story is happening all over Jerusalem, and even around Tel Aviv, as Netanyahu ignores international requests to stop this slow ethnic cleansing of Israel. Like a sinister pacman the Israelis are slowly, surely gobbling up the grid, creating more and more animosity amongst the remaining non-Jewish residents.
The previous residents on the street
A new settlement - comes with a minder !!
You should read more about house demolitions, and other examples of the current situation in the Occupied Territories. Don't forget that this occupation has lasted 43 years out of a total 62 years of Israel's existence.
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolition: www.icahd.org/eng
The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: www.btselem.org/English
The Alternative Information Centre: www.alternativenews.org/
Herzliya was a great base to spend a couple of months for land travel. It is 15 minutes by bus to Tel Aviv, from where you can get a bus to anywhere. The 90 bus goes to the Carmel market, where you can buy local produce for reasonable prices, and the 505 and 501 buses go to the central bus station from the main highway, 15 minutes walk away. It cost about £10 per day on the monthly rate including water, electricity and tax. Believe me we used a lot of power with the fans going full blast day and night to combat the humidity.
We also made use of the local airport to fly to Eilat to make the trip quicker to our dive course in the Red Sea. We stayed at Shark's Bay for our PADI course, which was delightfully basic and laid back, and not at all like mainland Egypt for backsheesh.
After diving we returned via Eilat(Israel) and went straight out again to Aqaba (Jordan) where we toured to Petra and Wadi Rum (photos later) before taking the bus back from Eilat to Tel Aviv across the Negev desert (4-5 hours).
I (Steph) went home to the Uk for my stepfathers funeral and then worked in the NHS for a fun filled few weeks. Stu looked after the boat and the beach while I was gone, and ended up with a mutually beneficial arrangement with Easy, the local sailmaker, that included using his machines to make our new bimini.
In late October we crossed direct to Larnaca in Southern Cyprus where we met up with our friends Brian and Lynnette, and we're introduced to Hashing – where you run or walk following a course set by coloured chalk on the ground – in a Railway Children fashion if you know what I mean. Larnaca marina was full to the brim and we got the only berth available as a yacht had just lifted out. There were no guarantees at all, the harourmaster said we would just have to turn up and see. As we arrived at 4pm with not much daylight left and a thunderheads forming all around we were very pleased not to have to carry on down the coast, especially since Limmasol and Paphos would not guarantee a place either.
One of the hashers mentioned a little port called Latchi on the north west edge of southern Cyprus. The pilot book still says it is only a shallow fishing port, but it now has been dredged and it a delightful little marina (no facilities) with a small holiday village ashore. It was full of local boats but the harbour master can be contacted by phone (email me if you need the number) and he will do his best to find you a place. You can even do your entry and exit paperwork there, though it may be necessary to go by car or bus to Paphos if the customs won't come to you.
This was our jumping off point for sailing direct to Finike, and we had another lovely late season sail, entering on 7th November in time for the liveaboard welcome party, which had been delayed to await us!!