Suitcase and World: Jericho.

Monday, February 25, 2013


I had signed up for a 1/2 day tour of Jericho before I left home. The voucher said 8:30a pickup at the hotel. I was in the lobby by 8:15a and wondered who was picking me up and how they would recognize me. Around 8:30, I decided to head outside the front entrance. It was a beautiful spring morning - sunny, no humidity and perfect temperature. People were coming and going and so were vehicles. I just waited. 8:30a came and went and I decided to call the tour agent. The hotel parking attendant or maybe he's the concierge. In any event, nice guy named Michael. I asked if there was a phone I could make a local call with because I didn't want to use my cell phone with its exorbitantly high roaming charges. He asked if it was a local call and I replied, "Yes". I gave him the sheet of paper with the number on it and he dialed on his cell phone. The call connected through to a voice message so I hung up. As it turns out Michael was a really nice guy. We chatted for a few minutes and he asked where I was headed and I told him that I was going on a tour of Jericho. He then pointed to a smallish man standing nearby and said, "He's going to Jericho too, maybe you're on the same tour."

A bit more waiting and a burly man approached. He turned out to be with the tour agent. He pointed to a van and I got on board. The smallish guy got on board as well. There were two other people already on board.

With the two of us on board, our driver took off. Up and down the hills of New Jerusalem we went. Then, he pulled the van into a small narrow circular driveway. We had to all get down as we had apparently arrived at the central meeting point. We were ushered inside a hotel lobby and told to wait there. The smallish guy, whom I now knew as Christian-from-New-Mexico-but-now-working-as-a-teacher-in-Cairo was as confused as I was about what was going on. I told him not to worry. These tours have got a routine down pat. We just need to hang back until someone calls us and that was barely 10 minutes later.

Back on the same van we piled. This time, there were more people filling the seats. A rough count of heads and we were on our way. As we made our way out of Jerusalem, our driver/guide told us that we would be descending some 1200 meters from Jerusalem to some 300 meters below sea level which is the elevation that Jericho sits at. We would be entering the Judean desert and would make a few brief stops before arriving into Jericho.

First though, we had to drop off a few of the passengers and the guide who was narrating for us for our short trip from the central meeting point. Apparently, they were headed to another tour. That left about 7 of us on the van - me, Christian, Marione (sp) from Germany, Patrizia (sp) from Milan on of the guides and then another woman who. Nice small group.

You can't really tell from this picture but the desert hills were covered with a light green fuzz. 

The tree dotted hills of Jerusalem quickly gave way to the green hills of the Judean desert here. It's early spring in Israel so the desert is in bloom - little purple and white flowers everywhere. Our driver pulled off at a road sign that read "Inn of the Good Samaritan". I didn't expect to see a building but I did expect to at least get off the van and maybe see a marker where Bible historians believe the Inn to have been. Instead, the driver pointed to a museum and as quickly as we pulled off the main highway, we were back on it.

The desert was pretty much bare in terms of structures and even animals. The only exceptions were the permanent Bedouin encampments that now exist because the political conflicts in the area make it difficult for Bedouins to roam about.

Another Sea Level marker.  A small group of tourists posed for photos here.


A little further down the road, we arrived a the Sea Level marker. This time, we did get down for a photo op. We had descended some 900 meters and the temperature must have gone up at least 10 degrees; it was warm enough for me to take my coat off.

Surprisingly, there was only one vendor selling goods - jewelry which he had displayed on a large piece of cloth spread out on the ground. He also doubled as the camel attendant for anyone who wanted to ride on it and presumably, have their photo taken.

Sculpture Awakening by artist Nah-Or Ran, representation of a hand forming a zero - an artistic version of the Sea Level marker.

All the signs here are written in Hebrew, Arabic and English

It was about a 10 minute break and then we were back on the bus. We continued to descend downhill. At one point our driver/guide, Hassan pointed to our right - in the haze it was the Dead Sea and beyond that, Jordan. All I could see was the faint outline of the sea. To our left was the small city of Jericho - the oldest city and the lowest city.

 I knew we were entering Palestinian territory and the way the guidebooks and even the tour description had it, I fully expected that we would pull up at a checkpoint and have to show our passports. But there was no such thing. We cruised on into town.

Date palms.  The desert town is fed by underground springs, the only source of water.

The key in the two photos were at entrance to Jericho.  It serves both as a reminder and a warning; a reminder to the Arab people that they have an obligation to regain any territories that are considered to be stolen by the Jews (i.e. the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea) and a warning to all others that a Jewish state is ultimately unacceptable in the neighborhood.

Jericho is located in the West Bank which is administered by the Palestinian Authority; security is provided by Israeli military forces.

The key is not a unique example; it’s actually a well-known symbol among Palestinian refugees, many of whom still hold keys to property they (or their predecessors) left in 1948.

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Welcome sign marking the center of the small town.

A mosque, a reminder this is an Arab town.
First stop was to see the sycamore tree. Local lore has long maintained the tree, whose massive partially hollowed trunk measures 7 feet in diameter, is the very one featured in the biblical tale of Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax collector of short stature who, according to the Gospel of Luke, climbed the tree to get a better look at Jesus.

What I saw was a giant, hollowed out tree stump, encased in a large glass display case. The description, on the placard, was all in Greek which no one in the group could read so we each took a few photos and then it was back on the van.

Jericho's a small town, only about 30,000 full time inhabitants who make their living doing agriculture. The town is an oasis in the desert, fed by the Elisha Springs. I saw citrus groves and vegetable farms. Surprisingly, Jericho is also filled with banana farms. Who knew? I got a chance to taste their bananas - small in size, firm in texture and quite sweet.

After our visit to see the tree, we pulled into a parking lot of a place that looked like a rest stop for tourists. It was there that we picked up our local guide who was Palestinian and and authorized by the Palestinian Authority to be a guide. Nassri (sp) was his name. Seemed like a nice man right off the bat.

Next stop was to a parking lot located at the base of the Greek Orthodox monastery that is built, clinging really, onto the hillside of Mount of Temptation. The Mount of Temptation is said to where Jesus was tempted by the devil but the exact location really isn't known. This is close enough, I guess.

We had a few minutes for a photo op. I made a mental note that if I even come back, I'm going to take the cable car up the hill and then walk the rest of the way to actually visit the monastery. All we got to do was see it from the parking lot :-(

According to Nassri, two monks actually still live and work in the monastery.

View of the monastery from the parking lot.

I zoomed in for a closer view.

Cable car that takes visitors up to the level of the monastery.

More close up views of the monastery.  Always a mystery how monks build their monasteries in the most remote of locations!

On the way back, we made another pit stop. Nassri went to chat with someone. In the meantime, Hassan went off as well and a few minutes later came back with a bunch of the Jericho bananas in hand. He offered them to each of us - insisted we each take two. That was nice of him!

It was back to the rest stop next. Turns out it wasn't a rest stop. It was actually the entrance to Tell es-Sultan, the ancient city of Jericho, which grew up around a perennial spring, Ain es-Sultan. Archaeological excavations carried out in the mid-20th century evidenced 23 layers of ancient civilizations at the site.

We followed Nassri into the site, located on a hill overlooking the rest stop. At the top, we met up with two Canadian tourists. One of Nassri's colleagues asked if he would take them through the tour site. He kindly asked the four of us if it was okay for them to join us. Of course it was!

Nassri started with the history of ruins and details of the excavation process. I got lost in taking photos so I decided to just pretty much ignore him and read up on the ruins when I get home. I also got distracted by the cable car - it's here that you catch it to go up to the station near the Greek Orthodox monastery on Mount of Temptation. I get so easily distracted :-(

Okay, I love ruins but not all ruins. I love ruins where I can stand and reassembled the ruins in my head to imagine what the place might have looked like. These ruins, well, what we saw were effectively holes in the ground and large remains of stone walls. He pointed out the section where 23 different layers were excavated. I have to admit, I couldn't make out what he was talking about.

We went from one excavation site to another, Nassri explaining what we were seeing, me taking photos.

Part way up to the top of the hill.

The cable car to the monastery starts at Tell es-Sultan.

Building sits atop the start of the Elisha Spring.

Flowers blooming.  It's spring!

Looking back towards the entrance, where the van was parked.

Next visit, I'm going to be on that cable car heading up to the monastery.

Doesn't look like much soil but flowers are blooming.

Excavations are on-going here.

Archeologists have identified several civilizations once lived here.

More views of the ruins of the ancient city of Jericho.

From the top of the hill looking at the the modern city which is in the heart of an oasis.

And more ruins.  They date back to about 2450 to 2300 BC!

Jericho is not an attractive town but the Palestinians are working hard to make it a tourist destination.

Some of the ruins date back to the Bronze Age (2650 -2350 BC)!

It took us (maybe) about 1/2 hour to walk through the sites. It was back down to the rest stop which, of course, had a restaurant and shop. As we entered the complex, Nassri handed us 10% off coupons. I walked in and nothing interested me - with the exception of the Judaica, it was the same stuff that I've seen in Egypt and Morocco. I was tempted to buy a bag of the Dead Sea Salts - I have a colleague who had asked me to pick up some for him. Everything was in USD and I thought it all pretty pricey even with 10% off! Even the plastic bottles of spices and locally grown nuts were outlandishly expensive. I can get the same stuff at home for far, far less! Just as well since this is only my 2nd day in Israel - I have time to shop later!

By the time I made it out front, the others were already there waiting. A short while later, we were back in the van. Nassri was not with us. I didn't know we would be leaving him behind here though it made sense since this was where we picked him up. I felt bad that I hadn't thanked him while I had the chance. Now it was too late.

It was nice being back in Hassan's company. We were done with our tour, if you can call it that, to Jericho. I think we spent as much time picking up and dropping off various people as we had spent seeing sights only from a far. Not the best of tours. Now, it was a straight ride back to Jerusalem. As we got on the road, I had to remind Hassan that I was not traveling on to Bethlehem with the rest of the group - I was going back to Jerusalem. When I asked Hassan, where he was going to be dropping me off, he replied, "Your hotel". I asked him if he could drop me off at Jaffa Gate instead and for a few seconds, he pretended to give me grief only to tell me that he would be passing that way anyway so not a problem :-)

It wasn't long before we had left the desert behind and were back in Jerusalem. As we neared a checkpoint, I noticed the houses up on the hill. According to Hassan, it was one of the Zionist communities. A red sign warned Israelis from entering the the community as there is no guarantee of safety. Wow! It's one thing to read about the politics of this region, it's another to *see* it in person. On our way to Jericho, Hassan was explaining to us about the three sections in the country. Actually, they are referred to as Areas not sections.

Palestinian settlement located jut on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Israeli and Palestinian control over various areas in the West Bank was established according to the interim agreements between Israel and the PLO, as of December 2000. It's complicated. No wonder, the poor Bedouins stopped roaming.

In Area A, the main Arab urban areas, Israel has fully withdrawn. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has complete control over all civilian administration, and its paramilitary police force is in charge of security. Area A includes Ramallah, Bethlehem and nearly all of the Gaza region.

In Area B, the Arab towns and villages, the PA has full civilian authority but it shares security responsibility with Israel. Joint Israel-PA patrols operate here. In practical terms, Israel has very little presence. Nearly all of the strategic mountainous high ground is covered by Area B.

Area C consists mainly of uninhabited desert regions to the east and south. All Jewish communities and Israeli military bases are also part of Area C, as enclaves. Furthermore, Area C includes all the main roads between Jewish communities and also between the Arab towns in Areas A and B.

Before we all knew it, we were back in Jerusalem. I still had a 1/2 day left to wander about and I wasn't about to waste a minute of it!