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“I am Ruined!” How to enjoy the historical and archeological sites of Israel

I am a sucker for ruins! It’s one of my favorite parts of visiting countries that have ancient cultures. Taking a nap sitting on a Roman column to try to recoup from jetlag while waiting to tour the Coliseum in Rome, check! Walking the ancient streets of Ephesus and standing in the spot that Paul baptized new believers, check!

So imagine how excited I was to find out that we were going to get the chance to go to Israel. Many days of our itinerary included just this sort of opportunity. For this blog post, I will be sticking to purely the archeological sites and topography. Many of these places had roots to stories in the Old Testament and some from the time of Jesus. But I will save some of my sentimental thoughts and the biblical journey and significance to me personally for a later post. Israel is so vast in history, varying landscapes and cultures, that it would be very hard to do it justice in one story. It would be so long and I do not wish to loose the readers in any way prior to getting to the truly important stuff!

Israel has it all! Desserts, Mountain Tops, Valleys, Beautiful Seas, Palm Date Trees, Olive Trees, Beautiful Flowers and old civilization ruins and lots of them. So here we go:

Caesarea Maritima: A Sea Side Town on the Mediterranean

On day one we head to Caesarea Maritima, which is located on the Mediterranean Sea. It was built by Herod the Great after he was elected King of Palestine by the Roman senate. Most Biblical Scholars and History buffs will know that Herod was not a nice guy. He built temples for money and not worship. Ceasarea Maritima was built to create a harbor. It was under the rule of Caesar Augustus (31B.C. to A.D. 14). These cities were built by the hard labor of the people and to gain their loyalty and to keep them working, every city had a Theater erected for entertainment, and many times a Hippodrome for Chariot Races. Of course there is always a grand fortress home for the Caesar and then the homes and markets for the community. Caesarea Maritima has extensive restoration to a majority of its city despite an 8th century earthquake that destroyed a lot of the city. It's located on the Mediterranean and it's beautiful and we had the perfect weather to enjoy being there.

The Theater at Caesarea Maritma.... A little modernized with handrails and lights for the tourists!

A little known fact... Roman statues did not contain the sculptures of the Emperor's head. The extensive marble carvings were carefully designed for a Roman in royal stance. A bronze head, which was easier and quicker to fashion, was used and changed out for each Emperor

The beautiful water on the Mediterranean Sea with the ruins of the Emperor's Fortress and Home

The Romans were quite industrious and smart. This is the aquaduct constructed to get fresh water to the town!

It was a great start to our trip!

Caesarea Philippi: Rocky Terrain Full of History

Today Caesarea Philippi is referred to as Banyas, which is a corruption of Panyas, meaning "the place of Pan", the Greek and Roman god of Nature. It is believed to be the home of Pan in the rocky cliff. It is a place known to be where sacrifices to Pan where made. But from the time of the Canaanites until today this spot of natural beauty has been a place of retreat, seclusion and worship. For us Christians, it's significant for the fact that this is where Jesus came perhaps to escape the crowds following him around the Sea of Galilee, but also to possibly to bring his disciples here for a time of retreat! This is the location where Jesus asked, "Whom say ye that I am?" and Peter responded with his great confession that Jesus was the Christ and Son of the Living God! Jesus said this is right "And on this rock, I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it". Jesus is using the visual image of the rock to signify that the church will be built out of believers who confess Christ is the Lord of all life, the Son of God and Savior of all mankind. He is saying that the church will be built on a foundation that will endure for all time. The magnitude and beauty of this area is hard to put into words. While there was sadness that pagan rituals of sacrificing to a Greek and Roman god took place here, there was also a peace and beauty to the spot and one could see why people would come for retreat and renewal. Knowing Jesus had walked this terrain was especially chilling.... But that is with all the locations where we 100% knew Jesus had walked. More on that later!

A drawing of how Caesarea Philippi might have looked

Capernaum: A quaint town to call home

Next we made our way around the area of Galilee to Capernaum. It lies along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was a great frontier town in the time of Jesus. There were 100 Roman soldiers stationed there and Jesus healed one of the Centurion's servants. Capernaum was central in Jesus' Galilean ministry. In addition to healing the Centurion's servant, he also healed Peter's mother-in-law of a fever, someone with an unclean spirit and someone with a palsy. Jesus called this "His own city " (Matthew 9:1) This is where he spent a great deal of time after his own hometown of Nazareth seemed to reject him. The ruins of the third century synagogue are preserved very well. However this is most likely the ruins of a second synagogue. After the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70, a great number of Jews moved into Galilee. And it became the center of Jewish culture and religious training. Due to some archeological finds, it can be determined that this second synagogue was built over the first one, so it can be said that Jesus literally taught and preached on these grounds!

The Synagogue

The outer walls

A view from below

Random goodies found!

I just can't help it! A photo in front of something so historical and monumental gets me EVERY time!

Masada: A Desert Fortress

Okay at this point in the week, I'm loosing all reference to day and time. I'm just going with the flow and enjoying what's on the itinerary. To get to Masada, you must take a pretty significant bus ride through the desert. We have been having picture perfect weather and I'm intrigued. I don't know too much of the history of Masada but I do know that an Israeli gentlemen on our flight over told us it was a must see majestic place. I'm really glad it was on the schedule. The drive to Masada takes us down the road that follows the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the earth. First let me say that I somehow envisioned the Dead Sea to look, well...dead. I thought it would be dirty, dark and not that appealing. I'm not sure why I thought that. But boy was I wrong. It is among one of the most beautiful bodies of water and scenery I've ever seen. The drive along this side of the sea was well worth the day regardless of what we encountered when we finally got to Masada. So we get to Masada and our guide begins to tell us of the history. While we are in the Dead Sea area, the fortress is built way on the top of a hill (plateau). The Romans built such a fortress carry marble and stone up a steep mountain. There is the original path which is snaked up the side of the mountain. It was literally called the Snake Path. You can take that up to the fortress. But I was so grateful that our tour company set us up to take the Cable Car. The cable car is funny. Our guide tells us that it can hold 80 passengers. But only about 45 Americans. So funny! I guess we are a little funny about our personal space. Up we go. Do not fear there are still plenty of hills and steps to climb. Okay so the story on Masada is that it was built by King Herod. Approximately 75 years after Herod's death, and the beginning of the revolt of Jews against the Romans, the Zealots began to inhabit Masada as their home base. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Romans turned to taking down Masada. When it became apparent to the Jewish people there that they would be overtaken, the leader Ben Yair decided it would be more valiant if they committed suicide instead of being killed by the Romans or worse becoming their slaves. Everyone died except two women and 5 children who had hid in a cistern. It is they that told the story of what happened!

Smooshed in and heading up the plateau! At least I got a window view

A View of the Snake Path

A model of Herod's Hillside Palace

Looking down at what's left of the real thing!

Ancient Interior Design!

A portion of the Dead Sea down below in the distance.

Walking through one of the store houses!

More and More and just too much to share in detail!

We visited Beit She'an which is known to be the location where Saul and his sons were hung on the city walls by the triumphant Philistines. In the Roman Era it was renamed Scythopolios and became the capital city of Decapolis. It offers some of the best preserved ruins in the Middle East. You can really sense and feel the city and the people that might have walked the streets!

As a person with Design background, I am always fascinated with columns which were the earliest form of architecture and design

Yes! Bryan was actually with me on this trip. He just wasn't too much in the photo mood during some of it.

So how do you plan and absorb so much on one trip? Here are some tips that I think will help, especially if you are specifically wanting to go to Israel.

1.) Book With A Travel Agent That Specializes In Holy Land Tours!

I am a seasoned traveler and I rarely ever plan a trip with a travel agent. I like to book my own flights, hotels and maybe plan ahead for one major outing or activity, but then go with the flow and be flexible each day with everything else. This would be almost impossible in my opinion for Israel. Especially if you were wanting to pack in as much as possible in 7-10 days. All the locations are relatively close, but there is still travel by vehicle involved, cultural things to consider, areas that on a given day wouldn't be best suited to go to for a variety of reasons. A professional tour guide from Israel can be invaluable in planning the itinerary (or adjusting it as needed), getting you in and out of check points (think West Bank) and knows the logistics of getting you into the sites and even down to knowing the best place for your group to stop and have lunch! Our guide Rafi would ask if we wanted lunch before or after a certain activity and based on our requests, he would call ahead, have us a table at a wonderful place and off we would be to our next stop in no time! I can't stress enough that this is important for this type of trip. We used local Travel Agency, Dehoney Travel.

2.) Dress Comfortably But Appropriate!

You will be doing a lot of walking. It's okay to be casual. But you're not really going on hikes. So unless athletic gear is just your style or you feel most comfortable in that, you can dress how you like. I wore loose casual dresses, as that is what I love and feel most comfortable in all day. You should be considerate of the fact that some locations with be religious and might require more modesty than we might be used to. So on Religious Site days, no shorts or exposed shoulders. I carried a kimono or wrap type thing with me most days. But of course again, that is my style. Even in Indiana you will see me in some type of drapey kimono or jacket type thing.

3.) Wear Comfortable Shoes.

Again, you'll be doing a lot of walking and most of it will be up steps, cobblestones and uneven surfaces. Now, I am not one to have my feet closed in tennis shoes a whole lot and definitely all day. I have a ton of issues with sensitivity due to having fibromyalgia (another reason loose dresses are my go-to choice. Anything binding or tight flares up nerve and muscular pain) So I opt for a comfortable walking sandal. I found a great brand and style a few years ago prior to going to Barcelona. They have been a life saver. So for this trip I actually ordered a pair in black and in gold to add to the tan pair I already had. They are the Ecco Damara Crisscross Sandal. I can't recommend them enough. But you get it... Wear shoes you can manage walking in all day, either walking sandals or tennis shoes!

4.) Drink Lots of Water.

This should be a no-brainer, but honestly I am terrible about taking care of my body this way. You will be in heat and it's dry and you will be walking and active all day from about 8am- 6pm. Luckily our bus driver had bottled waters on the bus for us to purchase cheaply if we needed it. I took advantage of this. But of course you could plan ahead and bring your own refillable bottle.

5.) Lighten Your Load.

I suggest for the ladies a small cross body bag or light weight, flexible back pack. Only carry essentials for the day like your phone, lip balm, a small collection of medicines like Advil, tummy meds etc. If you are doing a tour, the bus driver stays with the bus at all times and your stuff is safe. So I did take a bigger bag with more substantial items that might be needed for being gone all day, like a jacket or change of clothes if we had something that might require it. But I left it on the bus and only carried my cross body bag while off the bus at the locations. Plus my husband was carrying the heavy duty backpack, so I made him carry my water bottle. Haha

6.) Bring an Open Mind and Gracious Spirit!

There may be many locations that don't look or seem like you imagined. If you go in with an open mind, you will be so much better off to enjoy the experience. A gracious spirit will just help you realize that many people will never get this opportunity that you are being able to enjoy. It will help you when a foreigner is more aggressive or tries to push ahead. It will help you understand if a guide thinks about a place or happening a little bit differently than you.

So I hope and pray that if you ever have dreamed of going to Israel that you will be able to. I am totally "ruined", but in a good and perfect way. Shalom!

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