I’ve a great imagination. It doesn’t take much for me to imagine myself somewhere, to transport myself to another time and place, and let my mind wander to the point that the goose bumps are followed by tears. Hey, I used to cry at Coronation Street!

IMG_8792 (800x599)Walking up to top of Mount Bental, past the sign for the quite surreally namedcoffee chop, Coffee Anan (which means coffee cloud), and a host of peculiar iron sculptures, I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotion that would surface in the next hour or so. To be honest, I was clueless. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when the Syrians attacked the Golan Heights with 1500 tanks and 1000 artillery pieces, Israel matched this might with 160 tanks and 60 artillery pieces. Syria’s aim: to reclaim the territory that had been seized in 1967. Israel’s aim: not to give an inch. Heavy casualties resulted and the valley below was christened the Valley of Tears.

IMG_8794 (800x600)My first reaction to the black metal silhouettes was one close to despair. I’d had enough of commercialism; I wanted some authenticity, not yet another show, purpose-built for tourists. But as I wandered, eavesdropping on the talks been given by various guides to visitors from the USA, Europe, and Australia, the magnitude of what had taken place, here, 1165 metres above sea level, sank in.

IMG_8815 (600x800)For nearly 20 years (1948-1967), when Syria controlled the Heights, it regularly bombarded northern Israel from this point. In 1967, when Israel came out atop the Six-Day War, it won itself this strategic vantage point from where it could closely watch Syria’s movement. It’s also of vital importance for water as the area accounts for more than a third of Israel’s total water supply. And as was repeatedly mentioned in the days I was there, long after the geopolitics have been resolved, the fight for water in the region will continue.

IMG_8800In response to the apparent mobilization of its Arab neighbours, early on the morning of June 5, Israel staged a sudden preemptive air assault and destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground; later that day, it incapacitated a great deal of the Jordanian and Syrian air power as well. Without cover from the air, the Arab armies were left vulnerable to attack, and, as a result, the Israeli victory on the ground was also overwhelming. By the time the United Nations cease-fire came into effect on June 10, Israeli units had driven Syrian forces back from the Golan Heights, taken control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and driven Jordanian forces from the West Bank. Notably, the Israelis were left in sole control of  Jerusalem. The warfare resulted in the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees and brought more than one million Palestinians in the occupied territories under Israeli rule.

IMG_8803 (800x584)IMG_8805 (600x800)Wandering down the steep steps into the tunnels that connected the bunkers, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the claustrophobia, the frustration, the fear that the soldiers must have felt holed up, shelling the guts out of the land below. As recently as May this year, shells were exchanged across the border and the wars of old show little sign of abating.

In the valley beneath, fruit and vegetables grow peacefully. Tourists wander through the vineyards. And life continues with a sense of what passes for normalcy. I had hoped to come away with a better sense of where my sympathies lies but the more I learn, the more confused I am becoming. And I’m increasingly wondering at the minds of those who can so clearly come down on one side or the other. Amidst the interminable shades of grey, I can see very little black and white.


The last thing I expected to see in the Holy Land was a vineyard, which, given the fabled wedding of Cana, was somewhat silly of me. Back in 1967, when Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the closing stages of the six-day war, I don’t for a minute imagine that growing wine was top of its reasons for doing so. But in 1976, after a failed attempt by Syria to reclaim the area during the Middle East War in 1973 (when the heavy tank action resulted in the valley being christened the Valley of Tears), the first planting took place. Now, about 1500 acres are home to 17 vineyards, 16 of which are on Golan Heights and one is in Upper Galilee. Each of the vineyards is within a 40/50  minute drive of the winery in Katzrin.

IMG_8836 (800x599)IMG_8865 (800x590)The hills and mountains in the region climb from 400 to 1200 metres and the three wine regions produce just about all the wines I’m familiar with … and more. The Golan Heights winery itself is  owned by four kibbutzim (collectives), four moshavim (cooperatives) and the Galilee and Golan Heights Vineyards, Inc. It’s here that 40% of Israeli wine exports is produced alongside 20% of the local market share. Suitable soils, high altitudes, and the right topography caught the attention of some visiting experts from California who reckoned the region was perfect for vine growing – v0lcanic soil, rich in acid, that drains well. Ancient stones unearthed show reliefs of grapes and suggest that this wasn’t exactly a new idea, just one that had perhaps lapsed over the years.

IMG_8847 (582x800)Northern Golan is home to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier and Pinot Noir (and others I didn’t recognise). Central Golan has the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah (and more I’ve never come across). And Southern Golan has Muscat Canelli as well as its share of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. You can ski on Mount Hermon in the winter and an hour later, swim in the Sea of Galilee. Something for everyone.

IMG_8869 (800x600)About 300 hundred containers ranging in size from the massive 200 000 litre tanks to the much smaller 1000 litre ones hold enough wine to fill 5.8 million bottles each year. Every tank is precisely controlled to ensure that its contents do what they need to do before being aged in French oak barrels, each with a working life of no more than six years. White wines age from 6 to 8 months while the reds go from 6 to 26 months, depending on the age of the barrel. Humidifiers run constantly to keep the wood from cracking and to prevent the wine evaporating through the walls. The history of each barrel is captured on a computerised bar code and the assembly line is mind-boggling to watch.

IMG_8878 (800x578)Everyone has his job… from ensuring that the labels go on straight, to adding the inserts, to unboxing previously boxed wines for specialised branding. I could have watched it for hours. Anywhere from IMG_8886 (800x589)15 to 20% of the bottles are boxed and then later, once the orders come in, unboxed and labelled for US, German, Far Eastern, and domestic markets. A massive blue Japanese robot called Bottleman lifts the boxes onto pallets in preparation for their journey to the table. Everything runs like clockwork. It’s hard to believe such capacity, used as I am to the family wineries in Hungary where the closest thing I’ve seen to a conveyor belt is granny passing the bottle to grandad to fill it from the barrel.


IMG_8894 (600x800)IMG_8896 (600x800)IMG_8897 (600x800)The wine-tasting that followed  included instructions on everything from how to properly use a corkscrew to which wine is best to eat with ice cream. And they certainly ain’t cheap.  I was tempted by the Yarden Muscat as it has brandy added to it (that’s a combination I haven’t tried before), but invested instead in a bottle of Rosé to be broken open on some special occasion.

Interesting how this was one of my favourite spots this trip – and not a cross or a relic to be seen anywhere.




Described as the Holy of Holies from which the Divine Presence never moves, the Western Wall in Jerusalem was high on my list of places to see in the city. I’d been warned by an Hungarian to take extra care when composing my letter to God as whatever I asked for would be granted. And for the days leading up the visit, this ask played on my mind.

IMG_8353 (800x591)A holy place of prayer for Jews for centuries, in December 1947, after some bloody incidents with the Arabs, they were no longer allowed to approach the Wall. When the  Jewish Quarter of the Old City fell in May 1948, it would be another 9 years before they could even look at the wall from a distance. It wasn’t until the third day of the Six-Day war (7 June 1967) that Israel’s parachutists broke through the ‘bloody gate’ which the mufti had opened and liberated the wall. Later buildings were levelled and an area cleared in front of the wall for praying. I can’t quite figure out what the rocking is about – that back and forth movement of the upper body – but add it to the singing and I finally get why it has been known for eons as the wailing wall.

IMG_8282 (800x600)Today, men and women are segregated, each having their own side of the wall at which to pray. The touch of millions of hands and foreheads has polished the stone in places and no two pieces look alike. Every crack and fissure in the wall up to human height is home to pieces of paper containing the prayers of the faithful, a living testimony to faith, hope, and belief.

IMG_8269 (800x600)Nearby, sits the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Destroyed twice by earthquakes, once in 746 and again in 1033, and damaged severely in the quakes of 1927 and 1937, the building is still as imposing as ever. Said to be the point from which Muhammad travelled to from Mecca and from whence he departed for heaven.

IMG_8357 (800x593)In the distance sits the Golden Dome, considered ‘the most contested piece of real estate’ in the world. I think though that that refers to the foundation stone it houses rather than the dome itself… but I’ve been known to be wrong. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all view it as significant – which, in my little mind, would go some way towards confirming what I’ve always believed – there is one God who goes by different names.

This week, as the memories of my trip to the Holy Land remain bright and clear, I’m grateful for my bucket list – for that innate curiosity that makes me want to pack a bag and travel. And I’m even more grateful that I have the wherewithal to do so.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52


Here are four words… immersion, submersion, aspersion, and affusion. When you read them, what one word comes to mind …. apart from ‘clueless’?  I had to think about this one for a while and although I did make an educated guess, given that I was standing on the banks of the River Jordan at the time, I couldn’t for the life of me explain the latter two. And I’m supposed to know this stuff.

They’re all methods of baptism. Immersion and submersion are self-explanatory. Aspersion is baptism by sprinkling. Affusion is baptism by pouring. Ya learn something new every day. And in Israel I learned something new every hour.

The bible has it that Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan. But… and in a region that is loaded with buts this might come a no surprise… the exact spot depends on your religion. The Catholics and the Orthodox church have one spot near  Jericho (relatively undeveloped) set across from a lovely church on the Jordan side of the river (it was rather amusing to see us taking photos of them and vice versa).

IMG_8098 (800x600)IMG_8104 (800x600)There was an Orthodox baptism going on with a strange ritual whereby the priest tied a piece of string to the cross and then threw it into the water, said some prayers and then pulled it out again. He did this three times.

There were two jetties. On one, the Orthodox lads were doing their bit while on the other, a Catholic priest was saying prayers with IMG_8086 (563x800)his flock. In the middle stood a couple of Israeli soldiers, young enough to still have their confirmation money. That’s one of the strangest things I’ve seen … kids, with guns nearly as tall as they are. Everywhere. Mandatory service is still part and parcel of life in Israel – three years for men, two for women. Interestingly though, the lambs are no longer going quietly to the slaughter. Profile 21 is a code used by the military to classify people not fit for service (physically or mentally) and rumour has it that there are increasing numbers of conscripts faking mental illness to get out of service. They have my sympathy. Honestly, some of them looked like they hadn’t begun to shave.

IMG_8112 (800x600)IMG_8092 (600x800)And, overlooked by these armed teenagers, pilgrims of all sorts made their way to the water, clad in the regulation white robes. The songs, sung in different languages, were haunting and the sanctity was palpable.

Upstream, the Protestants have a much plusher spot, landscaped, and reeking of money. And this, too, is said to be the place it all happened some 2000 and more years ago. I stopped agonising over the truth about lunchtime on the second day and decided that my sanity depended on being able to literally go with the flow and to stop analyzing.

IMG_8661 (800x600)IMG_8674 (600x800)Here, even the water is clearer. The banks of the river are lined with what’s called the Wall of New Life. Various countries around the world have erected plaques with the bible passage translated in their language. Everything from Hungarian to Hawaiian pidgin. I searched for one in Irish but couldn’t find it.

So, does it really matter which site is the real thing? Perhaps neither of them is. And in the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn’t make a dram of difference. I can’t help wondering though why the Christians can’t sit around a table and decide, once and for all, what’s what. Or just fess up and say that nothing’s for certain other than that it was somewhere in the River Jordan. Can it really be that difficult?

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It seems as if much of what I’ve taken to be true is being challenged this week. And equally, what I’m expected to know as fact is requiring every ounce of belief that I have. On the road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, we passed an unusual marker…. and had I not being standing on the side of the road looking off into a deeper valley in the distance, I might have been able to get my head around the fact that I was standing a sea level. But if I was on flat ground and the valley in front me was deeper still, how could it be possible to be on land and yet be below sea level?

IMG_7864 (800x597)I’ve come to the conclusion (sad that it might be) that my brain has a limited capacity for facts. And to repeat the well-worn adage, the more I learn the more I realise I don’t know, and all I can say is that it’s frustrating.

I’m tripping over phrases that should mean something to me other than pure words: green line, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, West Bank… but those I can write off to a geopolitical ignorance that although embarrassing, might be understandable. But this sea level stuff – that’s something my nephews would know.

IMG_8032 (800x558)While I mightn’t have known that  down the middle of the Dead Sea  runs the border between Israel and Jordan, I did know that you can’t swim in it – you can only float. I mightn’t have known that it’s called the Dead Sea because it’s 8.6 times saltier than the ocean and thus nothing lives in it, but I did know that it’s famous for its mud. I mightn’t have known that it’s the source of balms for Egyptian mummies to potash for fertilizers, I did know that it’s bath salts are famous.

IMG_8021 (489x800)There’s a ritual. First you go the water and slather yourself head to toe in mud. Then you wait for 15 to 30 minutes (or as long as you can stand it). It’s surprisingly hard to sit still when you’re caked in black gooh. Then you get in the water and float … on your back. Floating on your stomach is strictly prohibited. It’s a must for anyone with psoriasis, dry skin, acne, muscle aches, dandruff, or those suffering from stress. Not for those with pacemakers or high blood pressure. Which leaves me wondering though… aren’t high blood pressure and stress sort of related?

IMG_8020People watching is great – wondering what they’d be like with their mud off… and then realising that it was off… and they were African. Obviously I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

And, while I wasn’t actually driving myself, so technically it might not count… I did get to drive on the world’s lowest road – Hwy 90 – that runs along the shores of the Dead Sea at 393 m below sea level. Not quite Route 66 but… Szilvester checked the altimeter on his watch at one stage and it read 345 meters below sea level so I know the signs weren’t lying.

The Dead Sea is said to be over 3 million years old – that’s old. And while water flows into it, none flows out of it; what disappears evaporates.  It was Cleopatra who started the Dead Sea cosmetic rage, a woman before her time, that one! And I couldn’t stop running my hands up and down my arms afterwards… soft doesn’t begin to describe the feel. I was wishing I’d brought a few ziplock bags – I could have carted the mud home.

Perhaps most interesting though is that each year, the River Jordan contributes less water to the Dead Sea – so the shoreline is dropping at a rate of about a metre annually. A massive problem. I’ve heard it said numerous times this week that long after the political situation is resolved, the region will still be fighting over water. There’s a plan afoot to build a pipeline to draw water from the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, thus refilling the Dead Sea and desalinating the water for human consumption. I tell you, it’s given me a whole new respect for the scarcity of water …. and the talent required to translate.

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Years and years and years ago, when visiting a plantation house somewhere in the Carolinas where the guide was telling us not to sit on the furniture as it was so old, I remember thinking that it looked just like what my granny had in her house. Two hundred years isn’t old, America, I thought to myself with a degree of superiority that comes from living in a relatively ancient world. But what goes around, comes around: that snotty-nosed reaction has come back to haunt me.

For three brave years, the freedom fighters on this rocky plateau – known as the Zealots – managed to hold back 10,000 Roman troops armed with every contemporary siege weapon. Finally a battering ram breached the walls. So begins an article on Masada in the Times of Israel earlier this year.

IMG_7978 (800x589)Masada is older than old. It dates back to King Herod’s time – in fact it was he who built the palace there (that same sad paranoid man who killed two of his wives and four of his children).

Towards the end of the siege, Zealot leader Elazar Ben-Yair called his people together (all 967  of them) and reminded them that they had promised to serve God and God alone. He urged them to die in freedom rather than live in servitude. They obliged. All the men put their names in pot and ten were drawn to do the deed. The people lay side by side, necks exposed to the swords of their executioners. One of the ten then killed the other nine before dying by his own hand. What the Romans saw when they attacked at dawn is unimaginable. In a bizarre twist of fate, it was supposedly the first day of Passover, a Jewish celebration of freedom. Only seven had survived.

IMG_7987 (800x600)IMG_8001 (800x600)With many of the walls still intact, original mosaic floors and frescoes can still be seen. Not for the first time I wondered at the way houses today seem to be thrown together  – and this with every modern tool known to man to hand – and yet these buildings, many hundreds of year later, built with sweat and tears, have stood the test of time. It defies belief.

IMG_8005 (800x591)IMG_8013 (800x600)But there’s another side to this story. One that exposes the myth of Masada. One that says the siege took seven weeks, not three years and that Elazar Ben-Yair was no hero, having despatched some of the En Gedi locals (700 women and children in all) and robbed them of their food. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, who has written two books on the subject of what he calls the ‘Masada Fraud’ posits: […] the myth was developed and disseminated by secular Jews. Observant Jews were not fond of the myth, and ultra orthodox Jews even criticized it. For the latter, the idea of militarily challenging the Roman Empire, the collective suicide or the assassinations committed by the Sicarii were acts viewed with scorn rather than awe.

IMG_8010 (578x800)But why go to all the trouble of propagating a myth that is so obviously different to the old writings of Josephus Flavius (37 BC – 100 AD). Let’s remember that Masada was only excavated in the 1960s, so all this is relatively new. From what I’ve read, the myth could well stem from he who headed the excavation, the late Hebrew University professor turned politician, Yigael Yadin. Ben-Yehuda naturally has a theory: As the Zionist national movement, dominated by secular Jews, began to preach and later practice the return of Jews to their homeland, they had not only to face the anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as ‘non-fighters’ but also to give the young generation of Israelis some heroic narratives.

Oh, whom to believe, whom to believe… could that much pressure have been put on Yadin to use some poetic licence when disseminating his findings? Who knows.

Whatever the case, Ben-Yair certainly wrote some moving text:

Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.

So, was it a hapless revolt or a heroic war … it was so long ago, does it really matter? I’m sure there are plenty more who could argue quite eloquently on both sides – but for me, the magic of Masada lies not in its history but in the view it offers from its walls and the fact that it’s still there… all these hundreds of years later.

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I’m not sure if I can take much more of this. That crash you just heard was yet another illusion being shattered. When I hear the word oasis I imagine an island of green with some palm trees and a pool of water smack bang in the middle of a sandy desert. Miles from anywhere. Add Lawrence of Arabia and a camel train on the horizon and my pictures I complete. What I don’t expect is a nature reserve along the lines of En Gedi (it’s also spelled Ein Gedi but I’m going with what I saw).

IMG_7873 (800x598)Located on the shore of the Dead Sea on the eastern edge of the Judean desert, En Gedi covers about 3500 acres, has two valleys, and four sweet-water springs. It has nine different walks varying in degrees of difficulty from 1 to 4 taking from 30 minutes to 9 hours and was declared a reserve in 1971.

IMG_7897 (800x587)I’m not one for walking – unless there’s a good reason for it. And yet I found myself striding forth with an energy I’ve not felt in a long time. And uphill, too! It seemed as if something new lay around every corner. Waterfalls, springs, trees and shrubs I wasn’t familiar with, animals of all sorts, and don’t even start me on the tourists.

When the crowd stopped there was usually an animal to look at. Sometimes a goat, sometimes an ibex and sometimes a rock hyrax. There are even leopards and hyena but they tend to come out at night when the interlopers have gone home.

IMG_7939 (800x599) (800x599) Perhaps the heat was getting to me  (a balmy 27 degrees C) but I started to see shapes in rocks and trees, even in the pools of water (until I realised that it was my reflection). At one stage I quite fancied that I found the desert’s answer to Dobogókő although no one else seemed as impressed with it as I was.

IMG_7896 (800x600)The Jewish town of En Gedi was a source of balsam for the Greeks and Romans until it was destroyed as part of Byzantium’s persecution of the Jews. Today, the Ahava factory which uses salt and mud from the Dead Sea to make beauty creams and such is alive and well and depriving tourists of their dollars by the minute. Pretty much all that’s left of the good times is the old synagogue – and even then we’re talking foundations rather than roofs and walls. Mind you, it has a fantastic mosaic floor dating back to the fourth century. There’s also a Judeo-Aramaic inscription warning inhabitants against revealing the town’s secret – which could well allude to the secret ingredients of the dead sea lotions and potions.

IMG_7950 (800x600)Just up the road, there’s the Ein Gedi kibbutz (this has an ‘i’…am sure). And hear that crash? Yes – another illusion shattered. I saw separate family homes – not dormitories. And I didn’t see any headband-wearing hippies. And it’s a hotel, too. Founded in 1953, it’s been cultivated as a botanical garden and the grounds are really lovely. The reviews online for the hotel though range from terrible to fabulous… so I wonder what exactly it depends on.

The concept of a kibbutz was birthed in Israel in the early 1900s by Russian disapora who seemed to have been out of sorts with the world. The Communists were too anarchical, the Jews too religious. Based on communal living where the children belonged to all, these communities espoused the mantra ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. From what I can gather it’s a form of socialism that is run by a collective democracy. The first generation of Kibbutz kids departed the familial folds and headed to the big cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Country living wasn’t for them. So the 1930s and 1940s were quiet enough on the Kibbutz front. Yet  in the 1950s and 1960s they were back in fashion and today 2.5% of the population (about 130 000) live in some 240 or so kibbutzim around the country.

Sounds grand in theory yet that whole free love thing is pretty difficult for me to get my head around. Not to mention living in a communities of a few hundred people. Bang goes anonymity. But as they say, a kibbutz is a home for those who choose it.