Exploring and reliving ancient Israel

By Wayne Wirtanen

(First of two parts)

In February ’04 I spent 10 days in Israel, and five things made unexpected impressions on me.

• First, I spent a couple of days each in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem completely on my own, visiting historical sites and marketplaces without seeing any signs of the problems that fill the newspapers here at home. Security was tight and effective at EL AL Israel Airlines, but that has been the case for many years. On a previous trip about 10 years ago, I saw occasional pairs of Israeli soldiers patrolling the streets; this time there was about the same level of security.

• Second, given that archaeological excavations have been going on here since who knows when, I didn’t expect to see any new and exciting ancient sites available for public viewing.

The Western Wall tunnel in Jerusalem is a prime example of a fascinating and complex, only-in-Israel mix of archaeology and political/religious issues that would make a great Indiana Jones epic. Secret underground excavations back in 1987 led to the opening of the tunnel in 1996. A religious controversy immediately resulted in the “Tunnel War,” which left 76 Palestinian and Israelis dead and some 1,200 wounded. It’s a story well worth looking into by punching up “Western Wall tunnel” on Google.

A trip through the tunnel is still restricted to guided groups and there is an admission charge. Somewhat claustrophobic in places, it is still highly recommended. Among the specific sights is a huge single temple foundation stone weighing an estimated 128 tons(!). Other marvels are the ancient underground aqueducts and cisterns for storage and distribution of rainwater.

• Third, I found the Galilee area (that I had not visited before) to be a semitropical Eden with a riot of wildflowers in bloom plus palm trees, banana trees and lush agricultural farms. Kibbutzim here have expanded their activities to include elegant tourist restaurants and lodgings.

• Fourth, I never knew the exact significance of the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall; it was obviously a remaining part of some ancient construction. A new 3-dimensional scale-model exhibit at the site revealed to me for the first time the extent of the Second Jerusalem Temple (destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70) that was originally on the site. The accompanying sketch (see page 113) shows the original size and shape of the temple and which part of it now survives as the Western Wall. This remaining segment was not part of the temple itself, only a portion of the foundation.

• Fifth, Orthodox Jews take their weekend, or Shabbat (Friday afternoon to Saturday night/Sunday morning), seriously. One example — my hotel had a Shabbat elevator. Standing in front of the door activated it to open. When the guest stepped inside, the door closed. The elevator stopped at every floor, thereby accommodating the tradition of avoiding most kinds of work on the weekend. Not even a button needed to be pressed. Very effective, I thought.

For years I’ve told my friends and acquaintances that, in my opinion, Israel has been one of the most fascinating countries to visit. No complete life-travel plan should miss Israel. Tourism is down due to recent well-known problems, but it’s recovering. According to Israeli travel officials, in September 2004 tourism was up 23% over that in September 2003.

Exploring ancient Israel

Everywhere one would look in Israel, and probably anywhere one would dig, there is evidence of historically important sites well known to students of the Bible. Following are highlights of some of the sites I had an opportunity to explore on this trip in and around Jerusalem.

• Christ’s burial place, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, from where he is said to have risen, is a tiny, low-ceilinged room allowing no more than four people in at a time. On the day of my visit the line was short and I was able to get in alone. I used an extremely wide-angle lens to take a photo.

As with most events that occurred thousands of years ago, there remains much controversy and discussion on religious topics. When I returned home, I punched up “Christ’s burial place” on Google and found 60,500 entries. (There appeared to be some differences of opinion among the few sites that I read through.)

• The Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is said to have been betrayed and arrested, has 2,500-year-old olive trees that still bear olives!

• Via Dolorosa, one of the most popular destinations for pilgrims who wish to follow the approximate path taken by Jesus dragging the cross, was nearly empty on this trip, compared to the crowded conditions some 10 years ago.

• Yad Vashem: this is a priority don’t-miss memorial. Scheduled for completion of major expansion in 2005, this exhibit of the World War II Nazi Holocaust will bring a lump to your throat, especially the children’s section where not only are photos on display but the names of young victims, as well as their ages and home cities, are read out in a never-ending monotone. I could never go through the children’s section again.

The positive note here is the Way of the Righteous, honoring the names of individual gentiles who, in spite of great danger to themselves, helped Jews during those terrible times.

At the Sea of Galilee

The remains of a small wooden boat were discovered in 1986 when a severe drought lowered the level of water in the Sea of Galilee. It was carefully pulled from the mud, which had protected it for some 2,000 years.

Very old wooden boats are often recovered in relatively well-preserved condition from saltwater sites, but in fresh water this is very rare. It took 14 years of complex chemical treatments to prevent the boat from disintegrating and to prepare it for permanent exhibit.

The boat and the story of its recovery are on display in a small museum at the shore of the sea. It has been determined to have been a fisherman’s boat in use in biblical times. The remains even show the results of repair and partial rebuilding during its years of use.

Next month: reliving a day in the life of an ancient Israeli.

Wayne Wirtanen was a guest of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.