First day, thy name is Jet-Lag.
That’s why I’m calling it ‘first day.’ Technically our actual first day, which was yesterday, Jan 7, was over before it began, because by the time we arrived in Istanbul the sun was setting, and it was gone by the time our flight arrived in Tel Aviv. My first view of the Holy Land wasn’t of land, but of a bank of lights–Tel Aviv–emerging out of the flat darkness of the Mediterranean Sea.
We spent the night at a hotel in Natanya, a little ways up the coast. Our hotel was fancy-pants in the extreme, and we didn’t even realize that we were right on the Sea until we woke up and looked out the window.
The wonder and beauty of the site were balanced by the groaning of all my inner circadian rhythms, because when I say “woke up,” I really mean “woke up again.” My inner alarm clock, which has never managed to get me up on time on, for example, any given day I’ve asked it to, started going off every half hour starting at 2am. Poor body. It’s so confused.
Anyway. When you look at a map of Israel, you may wonder why there isn’t more sea-faring in their history, or more beaches in their touristry. As I learned firsthand when I tried to get onto the beach today, it’s because there’s a cliff.
I don’t know if this cliff runs up the entire country, but it did run the entire extent of my walk, so a trip to the Mediterranean waters had to wait until after breakfast. Which was amazing.
Behold: the promised land for both pilgrims and cheese-lovers. And my friends, I am both. The gray fog of jet lag stood no chance against the seemingly endless buffet of cheese, nameless and delicious and delightfully varied. My favorite was this one on the end that was the consistency of Greek yogurt but tasted like goat cheese, and was incredible when slathered over grilled eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers. Finally I know what the word “awesomesauce” truly means.
Breakfast also had things like salty fish chunks, some kind of avocado salad, molten chocolate lava cakes, and more typical fare like pancakes and cheese blintzes and strawberry jam. I might have gone back for seconds. Maybe twice. You know how in the “Lord of the Rings” movies poor Pippin is all distraught when whe finds out that there’s no elevensies, and you kind of think, “How can anyone eat that much?” Friends, now I know. My inner hobbit absolutely loves Israel.
After the glorious breakfast was over, we took a trip to Caesarea Maritima, which has a nifty history: Herod the Great (who was ruling during Jesus’ birth) decided that it would be a great idea to take this troublesome, cliffy coast and MAKE it have a harbor. This involved a massive engineering project where he (or rather, the smart people he hired or enslaved) built two enormous breakwaters, basically by dropping some hugs logs in piles just off the coast (but in an orderly fashion). He also decided he’d make his harbor a worthwhile destination by building a Roman theater, a hippodrome (read: sports arena), bath, and palace into the plans. And he named it Caesarea, to suck up to Caesar Augustus, and later people added “Maritima” to distinguish it from Caesarea Philippi. The harbor fell into disrepair after time and earthquakes and various wars happened, and the city was taken over by warring powers, including the Byzantine Christians and later the Crusaders. Caesarea was razed to the ground in the 13th century after an enormous Muslim army attacked the Crusaders. The ruins of the hippodrome, the theater, the palace, the baths, and even the harbor are all still intact. The picture below is of the harbor, which is now all silted up. Back in the day, the place where I took the picture from would have been underwater.
And here’s the hippodrome, where a very cool sculpture is under construction. The hippodrome doubled as a gladiator arena in the Roman days, and quite a few Christians may have met their Maker here, via lion.
In Caesarea Maritima, you can see a cross-section of the multiplicity of cultures that occupied this Roman-built city. Christians strove to possess it both as a strategic military point and because of the accounts from the Book of Acts that took place here and characters from the gospel, like Herod and Pontius Pilate, who lived here. Below, photos of the interior of a Crusader defense structure (12th c.), a cross on a Byzantine column (4th c.), and a Muslim minaret (19th c.).
After Caesarea Maritima, we headed eastwards, into the foothills of the Carmelite mountains. We stopped on top of Mount Carmel, where Elijah is said to have confronted those 450 priests of Baal (1 Kings 18). Hint: the priests lost. A lot.
There’s a Carmelite monastery (I only just got that name today, in case you’re wondering) atop Mount Carmel, commanding an incredible view, from the Mediterranean Sea to the sea of Galilee, which lies due east. You can also see important high places like Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon and Golan Heights, and low places like the Jezreel Valley and the Plain of Megiddo. But my pictures don’t do it justice. Sad face. Just imagine spectacularity, and you’ll be set.
From Mount Carmel, we went to Nazareth, which lies close to the Sea of Galilee. Here we stopped at our first churches: the Synagogue Church, where Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah and told his townspeople, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and they tried to throw him off a cliff. (We also visited the cliff. Probably not the actual cliff, but it still had a pretty serious precipice, and definitely jogs the imagination. Conveniently, it was called Mount Precipice.)
We also visited two churches erected on Annunciation sites. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary is said to have been visited by the angel Gabriel while drawing water from a spring outside the city, so they’ve built a church over the one natural spring in the area, which is now most definitely INSIDE the city. It was a really beautiful, quiet, surprisingly small site.
By contrast, the Roman Catholics hold that Mary received the visitation in her home, so they’ve built a basilica where folk memory says she lived. The church was built in the 1960s, and does gorgeous job combining the traditional features of a basilica with some more modern touches. Like: the wall outside the basilica, and the interior wall, is decorated with portraits of Mary from different countries.
I loved those. Also, the stained glass inside is beautiful, more focused on color than on image. But there was this one that I found entrancing:
It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Mary lean into the angel’s words…usually she’s being all meek and mild and leaning away or modestly crossing her arms over her breast. Here, she’s all, “WHAT did you just say?! I’m gonna bear a WHAT?! Speak up, buddy!” Or it’s like she and Gabriel are sharing a secret. They’re in cahoots. I love it.
We’ve driven into …oh my gosh. I just realized that I have no idea where we are. What is this town’s name? Oh, thank the Lord, it’s on the hotel card. We’re in Tiberius. Tiberius. No need to send a search party.
Wow. I need sleep.
Tomorrow we’re going to go touring around the Sea of Galilee, which is where Jesus performed most of his ministry. I’m having some trouble figuring out how to update the map I made from my tablet, but I’ll give it another shot after dinner, and I’ll update this post as necessary. In the meantime, here, have another picture!