Israel & Palestine – Day 4

Our fourth day we picked up two rental cars so that we could see some of the sights farther outside of Jerusalem.

At the first car rental – a man with a gun on his belt and extra rounds…
at the second – they were dressed up for Purim. The girl was some kind of Snow-White-Call-Girl and the guy appeared to be some sort of Gothic-Creep – but then it was prayer time – so he put on his prayer shaw and tied his tefillin / phylacteries to his forehead and forearm











We headed from Jerusalem east on the road to Jericho, which takes you pretty quickly out of the city and through hilly dry land, where you can see nomadic Bedouin families living in their settlements not far from the highway.  As the road drops at several places there are big lines made of large blue stones in the side of the hill indicating how many meters you are above sea level, but the road just keeps descending.

Photo from:

Then you pass by one marked “sea level” – and yet the road just keeps going down.

Eventually the road comes out near the northern tip of the dead sea where you have to turn south.

Well, you don’t have to turn, but the only other option is clearly labelled ‘for military use only’ and leads to no-man’s land toward Jordan, so it’s probably best to stay off it.

just a camel along the side of the road

All along the highway heading south along the Dead Sea (meaning the border with Jordan is to the east in the middle of the Sea) there are signs which read: CAUTION! Getting off the road eastwards and staying on the beach after sunset is strictly forbidden.  (OK – well technically it also said تنبيه! هبوطه من الطريق شرقا والبقاء على الشاطئ بعد غروب الشمس ويمنع منعا باتا. and זהירות! יורד מזרחה הכביש ולהישאר על החוף לאחר השקיעה אסורה בהחלט. – but that probably matters to few of you reading this.)

date palm orchards close to the dead sea

Our first destination was the mountain fortress of Masada.

This is an absolutely amazing place to see. It was originally built by King Herod when he was the ruler of the Roman client state of Judea in the first century BC. This was an unbelievable undertaking. The complex had palaces, living quarters, lots of military fortification, and lots and lots of supply rooms.

How the Roman elite built their saunas. There would have been another floor on these pillars, and fire heated water to circulate underneath

Considering it was a massive compound on the top of a mountain in the dessert, you had to be clever to get water supplies.  As was apparently par for the course for Herod, brute force and massive labor was the answer. Herod had water cisterns built with a total capacity of  40,000 cubic meters  – 40 million liters (about ten million gallons).  Nope, that’s not a typo  – 40 million liters of water.
To do this they built a huge and complex aqueduct system to catch the flash-flood type run off that does occur and direct this water to rows of protected plastered cisterns that were as high as possible along the western side of the fortress, but low enough for the water to run down  From these storage tanks it was simply a matter of lugging the water up the cliff face to fill the cisterns in the fortress.  The answer to that problem is simple – at least when your a 1st century BC king – slaves. Lots of them. Probably also donkeys.

This allowed the crazed (no seriously – he was crazy – he was so paranoid that he ended up killing two brothers-in-law, his mother in law, a few wives, and three of his own sons when he felt his authority would be threatened) ruler to remain up here for extended periods of siege without needing to be supplied from the outside.  This of course was the same Herod who ordered the murder of all boys under 2 living in Bethlehem after the 3 Maggi from the East came in search of Jesus, whom they described to him as “King of the Jews.”  Probably not welcomed news to Herod who counted that same title as one of his own.  So yeah – pretty much a power-obsessed, murderous nut-job.  But anyway…his fortified palace at Masada is sure nice.


pressing their faces against a ‘cool’ stone wall that’s in the shade
“masada fortress gangham style”
some of the dozens of store-rooms
starting to get a little tired of walking in the sun
finally…..a shady bench

Bear in mind that this mountain-top fortress was the third that Herod had built (after the Herodium near Bethlehem, and another near Jericho), and then he went on to have the Temple in Jerusalem built.

Masada is also known for a massive seige by the Romans.  There was a sect of  violent extreme-nationalists called the Sicarii who would stop at nothing to stop the Romans from gaining full control over them.  After the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD, they fled to the then-abandoned Masada fortress as a hold-out.

one of the Roman encampments used during the seige

The Romans surrounded the fortress with 10,000 men, and built an entire earthen ramp up to the fortress.  That’s right – they built a ramp of dirt up to the mountain top.


Then constructed a massive battering ram in a huge multi-story high siege engine – pushed it up their newly constructed ramp and toppled the walls. When they got in the Sicarri had chosen to kill each other and themselves rather than be taken (women and children included)  Well….OK then.


The most extreme we got was to walk down the Snake Path with our kids to the bottom of the mountain

setting a good example for the children
still enough pent-up energy to scramble up a boulder at the bottom of the hill
a well deserved ice-cream treat


Feb 25 – 32°. Possibly the hotest birthday Matea will have.

From Masada we headed back towards Jerusalem for just a few km’s to get to the Dead Sea.

The shore of the dead sea is the lowest point of dry land on earth, about 423m below sea level.

the Dead Sea is of course ‘dead’ because it’ so salty that nothing can live in it. At about 10 times the saltiness of the ocean – it’s a pretty briney body of water.

Which means of course – yes you float – a lot.  (if you think about it – you float when your body displaces a volume of water equal to your mass.  So if the water is much denser with salts, it takes less volume of water to equal your mass – so only a bit of your body displaces water. So you float when only a bit of your body is under water)


So the whole thing seems very cool, and exotic. It was something that the kids had been really looking forward to.  However you need to also remember that: swallowing incredibly salty water is not exactly pleasant  nor is getting it in your eyes, or any small abrasion anywhere on your body.


And seeing that the average child will always have a few scrapes on their body….


So probably within 3 minutes we had one kid out of the water, nauseated from having swallowed a mouth full, and others with bright-red legs where minor abrasions were now burning, and a few others generally in discomfort.  I actually was going to go in -but I didn’t even have time to change before the kids were getting out.


We left the Dead Sea as the sun was starting to dissapear behind the mountains to the west.  We hoped to find someplace to find supper as we drove back.

We ended up finding nothing. 

So we drove all the way back to Jerusalem, and ended up eating at the same Armenian place that we had eaten at earlier. So I guess that was one more day when our one meal of the day was at about 7.00pm

All we did was make the kids hike and swim in the 32° heat for the day.

Anyone want to come with us on our next vacation?

I didn’t think so.

Israel & Palestine – Day 3


In the morning we went to Christ Church in the Old City, apparently the oldest protestant church in the middle east.


a very popular cat during coffee time after church


We headed out to Bethlehem after that.  That meant walking through the old city over to the bus station by the Damascus Gate.


The Arab busses run out to Bethlehem – as Jewish Israelis are actually forbidden from entering the Palestinian Authority areas.  Well – it turns out there are three levels of occupied Palestine: Area C – where the government of Israel has management and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF – their army) controls security; Area B where the Palestinians have control, but the IDF has security, and Area A – where the Palestinians have both control and security.  Bethlehem falls into the 3% of the West Bank that  is Area A- meaning there is a fence around it, with military guards and passport control to make sure that no one is going in or out that is not supposed to. There were signs as you enter pointing out that entering Area A for Israeli citizens is “forbidden, dangerous, and illegal”

Obviously the big draw for this city is its status as the birthplace of Jesus.

The traditional site associated with Jesus birth is (of course) covered with an old church built overtop of it.  Well more of a Byzantine basilica or something.

This is the door to enter the Church of Nativity. There used to be a regular sized door (you can still see it in the stone work) but at some point in the door was significantly reduced to make it impossible to enter on horseback (as the building had been fought over for centuries). As a result, to enter the building now, it almost feels like going into a cave, as you have to stoop over (and try not to hit the forehead of the baby on your back right into the rock. try…at least).  It’s called the Door of Humility as you have to bend over – similar to how one has to lower themselves to submit to Christ.


“hey Mama, take a picture of Josh and me by the tallest candle in the world”


As almost all of the sites associated with the life of Jesus have been claimed as “holy places” by different groups over the centuries, there are plenty of churches, monuments, and other places that really border on shrines.  Also, since many of the chuches who were quick to stake their claim centuries ago are some of the traditions that really love ceremony, and decked-out churches, lots of candles, and gold…old-school-church-bling.   The other thing you notice is that there is for many visitors what appears to go much beyond interest  or even reverence for these places – they honestly believe that these places really are holy.  You see a lot of touching of stones, and kissing floors, and bowing before things- and a lot of people for whom praying in that particular spot obviously means much more than praying somewhere else.  For us – pretty weird stuff.  So after seeing many instance of that – we were a little curious what Micah was doing when he was kneeling down front and centre in the cave below the Church of the Nativity, right in the center of all the action. He was there for a while, and a pretty big group of what were I think Russians were filling through (as a group of Germans were singing Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht behind us).  Many of these women would bend over beside Micah and cross-themselves, pray, kiss the stone floor etc.



After a bit, we came up to the main floor again (most Biblical archeology agrees that the stable Jesus was born in was likely a cave, hence the ‘grotto’ in the basement of this church)  We read the account of the first Christmas from the book of Luke all together. Then Susan asked Micah what he was doing.  “I was just praying” he said.  When asked what about, he responded “I was just thanking God that He sent his son to earth to pay for our sins”




After the church we tried to find a place to eat – and ended up walking for a while before we found a little hole-in-the-wall falafel place.  The menu was all in Arabic  but the guy working there was super friendly and not only supplied our tribe with a great lunch, he also pointed us in the right direction to catch our bus back to Jerusalem.

I dare you to find a better falafel. I double dare you to find one for the equivalent of €1.


On the way back from Palestinian Territory we had to go through an Israeli military check-point.  It was interesting how little concern they had for us, and how much time they spent looking at papers and passports of the young Arab guys behind us.  MIcah & Josh were sitting behind us, and when the Israeli soldiers were examining the papers of the guys in the row behind them, there was the butt of an automatic weapon basically right in Micah’s face. Tried to sneak a photo on my phone – but wasn’t perhaps the best time.

I have no idea what this is …but you could buy it in the place Rob was getting some coffee.



if you need some Dental or Stomatological work done…here you go.


We made our way back to our house eventually, counted 8 kids and considered day 3 to be a success.

Israel and Palestine – Day 2

Saturday was our first full day in Jerusalem



Since it is the Shabbat, most things are closed – but there was a museum that was opened – and has free entry for kids on Saturday.  Since we had 8 kids, this seemed like a good opportunity for us.


Since there are no busses, and few taxies (at least I think – I’m still kind of confused on the whole ‘what still operates on the Sabbath thing’) we decided to walk. Google maps says it should take about 45min.  I don’t think they set the pace for small kids running off the trails and playing in trees or carrying kids on your back.  They should really have that as an option.

The kind of non-direct walking to the museum that may have had an impact on our transit times.




This was one of the things we saw in the Museum that really caught my attention, a little boy dressed up like a soldier complete with assault rifle and combat helmut.  It was Purim that weekend (a Jewish holiday that is supposed to celebrate the story of Esther who saved the Jewish people from annihilation under the Persian King )  but like so many of our holidays that remember something – it seems to have strayed a ways from its original intent. There is a tradition of dressing up – which like the Western tradition of dressing up on All Hallow’s Eve that morphed into Halloween costumes – the Purim costumes are pretty disassociated with a Jewish Queen saving her people from genocide 2500 years ago. After being around for a while though, I started to realize that dressing up like a soldier here is no different than dressing up like a police officer or fire-fighter in many other places. It’s a job that kids see everyday, it’s considered a public service, and with every able-bodied Israeli having to serve (3 years for men, 2 for women) it’s not like military service is far from any family.  Couple that with the fact that the military present around a city like Jerusalem appear to always be carrying a battle-ready assault rifle, you can see how this could not seem at all strange to a young child here.






By the time we visited the museum and started walking back towards our place we relised that there was not going to be a whole lot more we could do – so we stopped at a play park on the way home.


We wandered back to the Old City and found some supper (OK – by supper I mean ‘the one meal for the day”) at a great place in the Armenian quarter before heading back to the house.


Day 2: success.

Israel – Day 1

After a 3:10 wake-up to meet at the IKEA parking lot at 3:45 to get to Geneva airport by 5.00 for a 7.00 flight we were on our way.  It’s only a 4-hour flight to Tel Aviv, which seems long at the time when you have a wiggly 18month old who doesn’t sleep – but considering we flew to the Middle East I suppose it’s pretty good. (and paying less for all 6 of us than the cost of 2 tickets to Canada is nothing to complain about either)

Micah & Josh

Since we were 12 altogether, it was actually cheapest to hire a mini-bus to drive us from the airport to our rented house, so once we finally found that (after walking in and out of and around the airport carrying bags and children and a car seat for about 20 minutes) we were on our way to Jerusalem. That would be us and our four kids plus our friends Rob & Michelle and their four – so 8 kids between 18months and 12 years old.

Matea & Emma

If you notice above that it looks like Matea has a few tears in her eyes, its because her eardrum ruptured as the plane landed in Tel Aviv. She has a freakishly high tolerance for pain but was still in pain all evening. It wasn’t until the night that we were sure it had actually ruptured.

As soon as we left the airport, things looked different

When we got to the house the kids ran across the street to play at the play-park that we saw listed on the information for the house.  Except for the place where the play structure used to stand was now just a large black rubberized circle in the middle of the park – so the kids improvised.

Once we got settled we walked over to the Old City of Jerusalem.  Even though modern Jerusalem is a large metropolis, the old city is still surrounded by the 16th-century walls built by Suleiman the Magnificent when the Ottoman Empire controlled the city.  These were close to the 11th-century walls built to keep out the Crusaders, which were then destroyed so they wouldn’t gain a walled city.  Most of these followed the 1st-century walls rebuilt by Herod the Great during Roman times, and many of them are pretty close to the 7th century BC walls built by Ezra and Nehemiah when the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon.   Prior to that, King Solomon extended the walls to surround the first Jewish Temple which he had constructed, making the city walls larger than his father King David had done. So yeah – this city has some history.

We climbed up Mount Zion (which all the kids who have been raised in the Alps considered “not a mountain”) to enter through Zion Gate.

This gate is a stark reminder of the blood that has been shed in the centuries-old battle to control this city, as the entire gate is pockmarked from bullets fired during the war of 1948

Once inside the Old City – one very quickly gets a strong “we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto” kind of feeling.

Emma & Matea in front of the tower of David
7 of the 8 kids in front of a statue of King David

We walked through the Arab Markets, without losing any of the children I might add.

We made it to the Western Wall just before sun-down on Friday-when the Jewish Sabbath begins.

The Western Wall is actually one of the giant retaining walls built to hold up the Temple Mount – where the first Jewish Temple (built by Solomon in 10th century BC and destroyed by the Babylonians around 586BC) and the second one (built around 516BC and destroyed by the Romans 70AD) used to stand.  Ever since the Dome of The Rock was built in the 7th century when one the great Arab caliph empires controlled Jerusalem, the struggle for control of and access to this wall which is the closest thing remaining of the temple has been highly fought over.  Jewish people were denied access, then given access, then lost it again, then upon gaining back Jerusalem in the 6-day war they razed an entire Moroccan neighbourhood to get better access to it.

After the Western Wall, we needed to find a place to eat, but being Shabbat, everything in the Jewish quarter was closed, so we wandered back to the Arab quarter and had our first (of many) falafels.

We finished supper and headed back through the old city to our house.

Day 1: success.