Exploring Israel and Jordan: A History Lesson

"Exploring Israel and Jordan: A History Lesson," with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, June, 13, 2010,13-15.

American visitors have long been fascinated by Israel. Jews visit and revisit Israel for many reasons—family ties, pride in the independent state, and such sites as Masada—where Jews held out between 37 and 31 BC against the Romans before committing suicide—and the Dead Sea which yielded the famous scrolls. Christians flock to such Holy sites as Bethlehem (where Christ was born) and Nazareth (where the Christ lived as child and where Palestinians predominate). Moslems go to the golden roofed Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, the Tomb of David on Mount Zion (revered by all three faiths but probably not the actual site of David's burial.

I was delighted when invitations to give some lectures in Israel gave me another reason to revisit Israel, which I had last visited in 1984-85.


Jerusalem has a population of under 800,000 if the disputed East Jerusalem is included; its history goes back to 1000 BC when King David established it as capitol of the Jewish nation and his son Solomon commissioned the building of the first temple.

Jerusalem, Israel

An aspect of most travel is a history lesson, and this is especially true of trips to Israel. My wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I began with a full day exploration of the Old City, which embodies the special flavor of Jerusalem: one hears Moslem calls to prayers and Church bells, and sees Hasidic Jews in the streets or hears them praying at Western Wall of Herod's Temple which was mostly destroyed in 70 AD. Paying homage to the continuity of the Jewish people, observant and secular Jews alike visit the Wall, with separate sections for men and women according to Orthodox tradition.

The Old City contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is reputed to have been crucified and buried. Within the Old City, we walked the Via Doloroso (the path Christ walked when carrying his cross). Also recommended is a visit to the stunningly beautiful golden-roofed Dome of the Rock, an Islamic Shrine completed in 691 that contains the Foundation Stone, from which Muhammad ascended to heaven. Noteworthy, too, is the Al-Aqsa Mosque to which Muhammad was transported from Mecca to begin his Night Journey.

Another day we revisited the Old City and focused on the Archeological Park, adjacent to the Western Wall where we saw relatively recently excavated ruins from Jewish, Roman and Byzantine culture; the Davidson Archeological Museum within the Park adds to understanding the excavations.

I recommend an entire day at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial to Martyrs and Heroes. Opened in 1953 at the foot of Mount Herzl on the Mount of Remembrance, Yad Vashem expanded in 2005 to include a Holocaust History Museum and to become more of a teaching resource. With its one long corridor carved into a mountain, culminating in light to represent the reemergence of the Jews in Israel and the world, the new prism-like triangular structure offers a historical overview of Holocaust on the order of US Holocaust museum; the addition includes a detailed history of Nazi ascendancy and its effects on Jews and features videos of survivors telling their stories.

But Yad Vashem has also retained its identity as a Memorial. The highlights of the latter are the Hall of Remembrance—with the names of 21 of the main concentration and death camps—the Children's Memorial, and the Avenue of Righteous Among Nations to honor Christians who aided Jews.

At the Israel Museum, we saw exhibits of Dead Sea scrolls as part of the Shrine of the Book as well as giant model of what Jerusalem looked liked before the fall of the second temple. The Museum includes the splendid Billy Rose modern sculpture garden, a treasure with its fine works by Picasso, Henry Moore, and David Smith.

Although moved by historic sites that are the basis of much of the world's cultural values, I found my return to Jerusalem a tad disappointing. Because of airline terrorism, suicide bombers, Mid East military strife, and the economic downturn, fewer tourists are visiting Jerusalem. In a sense ultra-orthodox religious laws affect the city; the ultra orthodox or Haredi make up more than 600,000 to 800, 000 of Israel's 5.4 million Jews and a great many of those live in Jerusalem. With its somberly dressed orthodox citizens, little street life at night, and people worried about the future, the city lacked something of the buzz and ebullience I remember.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv Mediterranean coast, Israel

The second largest city in Israel, Tel Aviv has a population of about 400,000 and is far more secular, cosmopolitan, and seemingly energetic than Jerusalem. In truth, we felt more comfortable there. Tel-Aviv was founded in 1909 on the outskirts of the port city of Jaffa, a mostly Arab city at the time. Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is not a city where religious Jews play a strong role. One does not see large numbers Hassidic and ultra orthodox. In addition to the primarily Jewish residents, one encounters a diverse mixture of Europeans who combine touring with a beach vacation.

Tel Aviv market with local fruit, Israel

Located across the street from the beach, our well-appointed Sheraton Hotel met our expectations and our room had a nice view of the ocean and the adjoining boat basin. Our room had nice view of beach, but we also had walking access to the hum and buzz of the vibrant downtown.

Our five to six mile round trip walk along esplanade to Jaffa, the old historical city adjacent to Tel Aviv, was a fine way to spend several hours and in Jaffa, we enjoyed seeing the clock tower, outdoor theatre, and fine views overlooking the ocean.

Highly recommended: the Tel-Aviv Museum, Israeli's leading museum of Modern Art, with its great permanent collections thanks to support from European and American donors; while we there, the featured temporary exhibit was by the Israeli sculptor, Zadok Ben-David.

With its focus on Diaspora since the fall of the Second Temple, the excellent Diaspora museum on the Tel Aviv University campus focuses not only on Diaspora communities in Europe and the United States but also early ones in Alexandria and Babylonia. Presenting not just insights into Jewish history but into world history, the Museum is a must with its moving videos of now defunct but once formerly flourishing Jewish communities as Fez and Salonika as well as a good visual exhibit about the once important Yemenite Jewish communities.

Israel Food and Restaurant Recommendations

Middle Eastern food may not be one of the world's great cuisines, but a mezze—an assortment of small salads and dips served with breads (sometimes but not always a version of pita)—before the main course can be delicious. We found the Israeli portions enormous and quickly learned to split entrees.

Our best meals featured fish. In Tel Aviv, at Don Vito, a Diary/Italian restaurant, we enjoyed splendid red mullet (near Bar Ilan University, Hashomer Intersection Kiryat Ono. At Benny haDayag (Benny the Fisherman), in Tel-Aviv harbor, we had excellent sea bar (their term for a fish which looked like kind of sea bass) as well as a fine mezze and an excellent chocolate soufflé. In Jerusalem I would try Ima, a good meat restaurant with a nice mezze at Ima, 55 Shmuel Baruch St.

Four Days in Jordan:

Most tourists to Israel make the mistake of bypassing Jordan, but I highly recommend it for those who have time. Because there have been acts of violence, the State Department recommends vigilance. Purchasing a visa from the Jordanian Embassy in Washington enabled us to cross at the Allenby Bridge. But even with a visa bought in advance crossing the Israel-Jordan border is time consuming and tests one's patience.

For a price of $1060 for the four days and three nights (excluding hotels), Golden Escort Tours—which the American Embassy in Jordan recommended—provided us with a driver from Jerusalem to the border; after crossing we met our professional and helpful driver, Samir, who took us around Jordan for our four days there.

On the way to our hotel in Amman, we stopped both at Mount Nebo (also known as Pisgah)—where, according to the Moslems and Jews, Moses ascended to a view of the holy land—and at Saint George's Church in the city of Madaba where we saw a Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of the former Greek Orthodox Basilica which had been discovered on the site in 1933. Scholars have used this 542 A.D. map to learn what Jerusalem looked like at the time.

The next day on our City Tour we saw the Citadel (with Roman, Byzantine, and Omayyyad ruins in various stages of restoration) and an impressive Roman Theatre seating 6000 and dating to 170 AD. We also visited the Abdullah Mosque in addition to the city Souk (market) and drove through wealthy areas where extended families live in large houses—grandparents, children, grandchildren—with multiple kitchens.

In Amman, we stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel, an elegant luxury hotel with beautifully appointed rooms, exquisite service, and fine restaurant including an Italian and an Asian one. The hotel has a wonderful spa and fitness center featuring a beautiful swimming pool.

On our third Jordan day, we drove three hours to the hospitable Movenpick Resort, well-located near the major Petra sites.

Petra, Jordan

A magnificent site, including an old city, temples and tombs carved by the Nabataeans from textured and colored sandstone, Petra is one of current Seven Wonders of the World. From the third century BC until 106 AD, Petra was an important trading city. Until rediscovered in the early nineteenth century, it was forgotten by all but local Bedouins.

As the ¾ mile Siq--the imposing entrance pathway to the temples and tomb—descends it becomes a deeper and narrower canyon. Ancient carvings in the cliffs soar to about 165 feet. At the end of the Siq, the passage opens onto the magnificent 140 feet high and almost 100 feet wide chiseled Treasury—really a tomb built in Hellenistic style but given the name of Treasury by Bedouins and others because of rumors of ancient treasures that have never been found. (The site is familiar to those who have seen the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusuade.) Further on the Outer Siq leads to the Urn, Corinthian, and Palace tombs, collectively called the Royal Tombs, which are not as well preserved as the Treasury but are still magnificent sites. Glistening with various tinctures created by minerals, their walls and ceilings suggests abstract paintings. We continued to the Theater carved out of rock and the main freestanding Temple.

The highlight of our fourth and last day in Jordan was a two-hour jeep drive through the Wadi Rum desert where we saw amazing red and brown sand and rock formations.


Israel and Jordan are splendid, even exhilarating places to visit. Despite some limited recent terrorism in both countries, we never felt in danger and walked about without concern. Within the walled old city of Jerusalem, there is a strong Israeli armed presence. I have felt a lot less safe in other places including—to recall an article in STAR—India a few months after the 11/26/08 attacks on major hotels or Egypt after some tourists were killed in Luxor, to say nothing about and Haiti in the early 1980s or France when the Algerian Generals tried a coup in 1962. In part because of fatigue due to the wars with Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008 and a sense that peace negotiations have stalled, morale—to say nothing of tourism—in Israel is not as optimistic or as exhilarating as during my prior 1984-5 visit. Jordan has its own divisions between Bedouins who have lived there for centuries and more recently arrived Palestinians.

Fear and suspicion are common denominators in how Israelis view Arabs and Arabs view Israelis. Israelis Palestinians, and Jordanians share weariness with conflict and a desire for peace.

I dream of Palestinian and Jewish children playing together without fear of violence in neighborhoods where adults live side by side in cooperative communities and of Jordanians and Israelis crossing borders without undue impediments.

If you go: As with all venues, the cost of flights varies dramatically; for $1440 round trip we flew from Ithaca to Newark and then directly for 12 hours or so to Tel Aviv, and then back the same route. You need a visa to cross into Jordan; I recommend getting it in advance from the Jordanian Embassy in Washington because you can then cross the border to Jordan at the Allenby Bridge. But even with a visa bought in advance crossing the Israel-Jordan border is time consuming and tests one's patience. After paying an exorbitant Israeli exit tax of about $45 in Shekels, we waited an hour for a short bus ride, which cost another $8.50 each.

Whether by air or land, Israel security entering and leaving the country is proficient but not officious.