Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Haifa & Akko (Acre), Israel

Haifa Bay from Mt. Carmel above the Baha'i Terraced Gardens 
Haifa and Akko (Acre)
We awoke on Monday, November 15th, 2011 about 75 miles north of Ashdod in the port of Haifa, Israel. We were now in the north part of Israel, close to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee – both inland and to the west of Haifa.
Northern Israel - Ashdod to Haifa

I chose to tour Haifa and the nearby city of Akko – where the ancient Crusader citadel of Acre is being excavated and restored. Akko is a UNESCO World Heritage City because of the buildings and fortifications.
Haifa is at the base of Mt. Carmel, the legendary birthplace, grotto home and possible tomb of the Prophet Elijah mentioned in the Jewish Talmud, the Christian Old and New Testaments of the Bible and in the Islamic Koran. 

Haifa and Mt. Carmel area 

We met in the theater in the bow of the Constellation, and walked out a very long series of back forth walkways that went from the middle of the ship to the bow of the ship where the gangway was …. and then once again back and forth several times to arrive at the end of the long embarkation building on the dock and then thru the length of the building to the bus parking area!  By the time we arrived at the bus area, we had walked at least a quarter to half a mile!     
Yes!  I later complained very loudly about the long walk they forced everyone to make just to get to the buses!
I saw Mickey, our tour guide from the previous day and said Hi!  Mickey was taking a group on a tour of the biblical sites around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee that day.  My new guide was a very sweet lady named Revitale.
Revitale - our guide and "Yiddisher Mama"
Our bus wound its way around the city at the base of Mt. Carmel and then up the steep inclines to the Carmelite Monastery and church (elevated to a “minor basilica by a Pope) called Stella Maris or Star of the Sea in honor of the Virgin Mary.  The monastery is the center of the Carmelite Order for the world.  
See and learn more about the Stella Maris Monastery and Church
The church and monastery were used as a hospital for injured and ill soldiers by Napoleon in his 1799 campaign. The French soldiers were all put to death when the area was re-captured by the Mamaluk Egyptians.  There is a pyramid shaped monument at the entrance of the church in commemoration
Memorial to Napolean's troops at Stella Maris
Carmelite Crest above Stella Maris Church entry  
Stella Maris - Elijah on the entry door

Altar - Stella Maris Church on Mt. Carmel
Interior - Stella Maris Church, Mt. Carmel

Interior - Stella Maris Church, Mt. Carmel

Stained Glass - Stella Maris Church, Mt. Carmel

Dome Interior - Stella Maris Church, Mt. Carmel
Our next stop was at a view point high on Mt. Caramel that overlooks the beautiful. stepped terraces of the Baha’i Gardens (Bahh-HIGH).  The name of the Faith is derived from an Arabic word that means “Glory or Splendor.” Haifa is the world center for the Baha’i Faith.  The final resting place of its founder, the Ba’b (pronounced like the name “Bob”) or the Bahá'u'lláh is an exquisite white marble temple built in the center of the gardens. 
Upper Entry to the Baha'i Gardens

Baha'i Faith's Terraced Garden with Ba'b's Tomb

Baha'i Faith's Terraced Gardens from the top level.

The Baha’i Faith is a new, monotheistic religion started in Persia (Modern day Iran) in the 1840’s. 
Another View of the Terraced Gardens

An upper level garden with light

Tomb of the Ba'b - The founder of the Baha'i Faith

Our cruise ship - Celebrity Constellation from Mt. Carmel
We descended Mount Carmel to travel along the very busy, industrial seafront of the bay to go north to Akko (Ahhk-KOH).  We passed a place where Israel works on developing weapons that was right on the main road north. It was not a large facility, but the guide, Revitale, indicated that that is where work on "secret" weapons might be going on.
There was not a break in the crowded suburban setting when we arrived at our next stop in Akko – the usual stop at a souvenir shop!  The shop had high value, exquisite, copper, silver, gold and glass pieces on sale.  I wandered across the parking lot after a bathroom stop to buy a soda – Pepsi Cola - this time as I waited for others to finish their shopping. 
We then went around the corner of the shop into a garden and then into a museum building to enter the Crusader Citadel of Acre (AAHK-rey). 
There was a short video presentation in a small theater and then we entered the Citadel by a portion of the complex that was used as a prison by both the Ottoman Turks (prior to WWI) and the British (after WWI) until the British Mandate ended in 1948.  

During the British Mandate, Palestinians and Israelis were imprisoned in separate sections of prison. Many members of the Hagganah, the Irgun and other terrorist organizations (now called Freedom Fighters) were imprisoned at Acre.
Entering Acre Citadel - Toward the prison courtyard or the knights stable courtyard

The Prison Courtyard  

The Prison Courtyard - This was the stable courtyard area in Crusader times.
The Dungeon or Prison Hall next to the Knights Hall
The Knights Hall

The Knights Hall

The Knights Hall
The Refectory or Dining Hall

The Refectory or Dining Hall
Acre was captured during the First Crusade by King Baldwin of Jerusalem in 1104 and quickly became the main port used by the Crusaders during their years in the Holy Land. The port was busy and important because it provided more income to the Kingdom of Jerusalem than the entire realm of England did to the English kings. 
The port was so important that the Knights tunneled 350 meters to the port to have a completely enclosed route wide enough for wagons to use from the citadel to the sea.  The City of Los Angeles, California has replicated this idea by having a below ground-level, exclusive route for trucks and trains to get from the Port of Long Beach, California to the major train switching yards in Los Angeles to avoid pollution and traffic congestion.  We did not get to see this tunnel on our visit.
The city became the capital for the remainder of the Crusader Kingdom after Saladin’s re-conquest of Jerusalem in 1192
Acre was left in control of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John in 1229.  The Knights Hospitaller fortified the city. The Knights were a military religious order, providing armed escorts for convoys of Christian pilgrims to the various Christian holy sights as well as providing lodging, medical care, the manufacture and trading of merchandise – particularly sugar. 

The Order started in Jerusalem, retreated with the rest of the Crusaders to Acre. The Knights Hospitaller once again had to relocate to the Island of Rhodes when Acre was conquered by the Egyptian Mamaluks in 1292. 
I had already visited Rhodes as I followed the Knight’s path around the Mediterranean Ocean. I would visit the final destination of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John in three days when the Constellation made a stop at its home port of Malta.
The Egyptian Mamaluks and later the Ottomon Turks would carry out a program of destruction of much of the upper portions of the Citadel and the Crusader city of Acre. However, they let the rubble fall where it may and then built new buildings on top of the rubble, leaving the lower levels of the Crusader buildings intact under the new ground levels.
It is quite an experience to be able to walk in the majestic, forgotten halls where this ancient military order had carried on their daily activities. 

The citadel is still in the process of being restored.  However, it is being used as a tourist attraction and as large public spaces for putting on banquets, concerts and art exhibits.
Renovation work in the Hall of Pillars - Note the painting from an art exhibit on the back wall.

The Hall of Pillars now being renovated  
Painting from a recent art exhibit amid the renovation work in the Hall of Pillars
The group ended up taking the old escape tunnel from the main part of the Citadel to the burial crypt then up a few steps and out into the Arab quarter of the modern city.  The tunnel is tight with many zigs and zags here and there to get to the end. 
Inside the Knight's escape tunnel going towards the crypt and the outside world.

Knight's tombstones from 1290

Knight's Tombstones from 1290

Souvenir Alley just outside the Knight's Citadel

Inside a shop in Souvenir Alley

There were some souvenir shops on the route we were following once we out of the Citadel.  Some of the group stopped for more shopping.  While a few of us took photos in the area. Eventually, we ended up in a square alongside an entrance to a mosque.  There were more shops and a few little cafes for taking a break while some of the group did even more shopping.
Outside the Citadel
Feral cats - Akko, Israel
Courtyard by a mosque - Akko, Israel

Courtyard by a mosque, Akko, Israel

We ended up just around the corner from the souvenir shop and the garden entry to the Citadel.  I made the error in assuming that was where the bus would be still parked.  Revitale started another part of the tour to the Arab neighborhood’s souk or old market area.  I did not want to do anymore walking other than just back around the corner where I thought the bus was parked. 
I asked one of the tour members to let Revitale know that I was going to go back to the parking area by the souvenir shop where the tour of Akko had started.  I walked the short distance back around the corner to the souvenir shop and was jolted with surprise when I saw there were no tour buses parked there! 
Holy Toledo! What now?
I went into the souvenir shop to talk with one of the English speaking clerks to ask her what to do. 
She listened to my story and said “It happens everyday.  Just wait here and they will come back for you.”
I went back out front, bought another soft drink and sat out at the edge of the parking lot to wait for the bus to return.  As I was waiting, the local Arab or Palestinian high school dismissed.  There were lots of teens walking buy or running and horsing around as all teens do when they are free from school.  An older teen boy stopped and saw me sitting there and asked me to take his photo.  His friend (on the right in the photo) walked up and asked to be in the photo too.  I took a couple of photos of them. 
The thinner of the two (on the left in the photo) asked me to e-mail the photo to him.  I said I would and indicated that he should write down his e-mail address.  He had no paper.  I  had some of my business cards in my wallet, so I took out my wallet to search for one of the cards. 
Big mistake!  The boy reached for my wallet and managed to almost take out two $20 bills!  I told him no, put the bills back and then gave him the card and my pen to write down his e-mail address.  I was starting to get a bit nervous as they were both becoming jerks trying to outdo each other in being bold towards me. 
The same boy who tried to take the money started to pull at my camera as if to take it from me.  I said “No!” loudly and firmly.  Just then another of their friends walked by, they talked with him for a few minutes and then they all left together.  I admit I was getting very concerned for my safety at that point.
No matter the country or language – teenagers can be total jerks!

Teenage Jerks!

The tour bus pulled up shortly afterwards.  Revitale told us all how worried she was about loosing one of her group.  She said she is a “Yiddisher Mama” and always worries just like she does about her own children.
 We arrived back at the Constellation about 3:30 in the afternoon.  I did some shopping at the duty free shop in the embarkation building on the dockside and then repeated the long, long walk back and forth through the building, the covered outside walk, the gangway and back to my cabin.  I had a lite, late lunch at the buffet on Deck 9 and rested until dinnertime.
It rained again heavily during dinner and then again late at night.
Our next stop was the Island of Malta after spending two days at sea to get there.
Next – Malta and the quiet city of M’dina     
Please click the colored link to view my other blog about living in Hawaii "Life in the 50th State"
Please give me photo credits if you use or share my photos for non-commercial use.  
I use a Canon G-11 digital camera. I usually take the photos with a mono-pod as I am a real “Shakey Jake”! I do not use flash on most interior photos.

Please contact me at should you need to use my photos commercially. Larger digital files of my photos are available.

I encourage you to share this blog with your family and friends.
Your comments and criticisms are my reward for the effort to do this blog – they are appreciated.
Thanks for taking the time to read about my travels.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Traveler Al's "Almost a Last Hurrah" Voyages


Exit of the Grotto - Church of the Nativity - Bethlehem

I was the last one to board the bus which had come around to the other side of the Old City of Jerusalem, near the New Gate and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  We were on top of one of the seven hilltops that form the Old City.  (Rome is on seven hilltops too!)   

I did not pay too much attention to where the bus went in the next 20 minutes or so as I was tired and desperately needed a bathroom break.

The bus ended up in front of a modern hotel in a small, cramped valley. There were several hotels clustered together.  We entered the Olive or the Olive Tree Hotel for our lunch and mid-day break.  There were several tour bus groups having their lunch break here.

Hotel Olive - Lunch Buffet in the dining room

I don't care what language it is in - It's Coke Time!

A beautiful buffet lunch was set up. I got my bathroom break and on my way back to the dining room asked a waiter for a Coke and a glass of ice. Naturally, I had to pay for this separately.  It was about 2.5 Shekels.  I gave them 5 Euros and received some coins in change – which I still have.

Our break was about 1 hour long and it did make a difference, my energy level perked up and I was able to get re-hydrated.  I won’t say that I was jumping with energy, but I was ready to take on the rest of the tour to Bethlehem.

It seemed that the bus never really got far away from built up areas. Soon we were at the 30 foot high concrete slab wall that the Israeli’s have built around Bethlehem to stop the infiltration of Palestinian snipers and suicide bombers into the nearby Jewish neighborhoods.

Entering Bethlehem - through the 30 foot high walls and guard towers

Here is a short video and narration done by a National Geographic Magazine photographer with some of his photos that gives a better idea of the situation at Bethlehem.  The video is from 2007, so things are a bit better.  The Israeli Security Forces (the army) did not close the steel gate at all during the day we were there. 

It was easy to enter Bethlehem.  Later it would prove tedious and time consuming to get out of Bethlehem.

Mickey explained to us that the name Bethlehem means – Place of Meat” in Arabic and “Place of Bakers” in Hebrew.  The city is built on steep hills and is very crowded. To the east the hills drop down towards the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea.

Inside Bethlehem - Security wall in the middle distance.

Star and Bucks ?   Do you suppose they could be sued by Starbucks?

Mickey also told us that he had no authority to be our tour guide in Bethlehem. We had been advised of this on the ship when we signed up for the tour. The Palestinian Authority handles all policing and security matters inside Bethlehem including requiring all tour groups to have a Palestinian Tour Guide.  

I would latter benefit from this policy as Mickey had the time to take me to see places in the Church of the Nativity where the rest of the tour group did not go with the Palestinian guide.  It helps the Palestinians to earn a living in their surrounded,  walled in city.

Mickey told us that even today, because the hills are mainly made of limestone, there are many small caves and grottoes that are still used as stables to house livestock the same as it was in Biblical times.  Naturally, if the Holy Family was given a resting place in a stable in Bethlehem, it would be in a cave or grotto. 

Palestinian Authority Police Post - Bethlehem

We stopped at a police post to pick up Mamal, the Palestinian guide. The city is very tight, there are no large horizontal spaces for tour bus parking, so parking spaces have been built inside the ground floor of several buildings. These buildings are lower and about a quarter of a mile away from Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.   

Mamal received permission from the Palestinian Police to allow the tour bus to unload higher up the hill and much nearer to the Square and Church.  We all were happy with that decision!

Main entry to the Church of the Nativity - the door is only 4 feet high

Inside view of the low entry door - Church of the Nativity
There was a long line of visitors waiting outside the main entrance to the Church of the Nativity.  The entry door is quite unique in that it is less than four feet high, forcing visitors to bend low to enter.  This door is called the "Door of Humility".  The reason that the entry was lowered was that The Christian Crusader knights had the bad habit of riding their horses into the Church instead of dismounting and walking in.  Now, it is impossible to ride a horse into the Church!

Entering the Church of the Nativity via a side cloistered courtyard
Mickey had me follow him through another entry off to the side of the Church, through a cloistered courtyard and then into the Church.  He showed me the hatch doors built into the floor that were open to reveal the mosaic tile floor that had been built under the sponsorship of Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helen.  

Church of the Nativity - Hatches in floor to expose or cover original mosaics

Original mosaic tile work done during Constantine The Great's reign. These are about 2 feet below the current floor level.

Mickey led me over to the exit portal of the Grotto that is the place of Jesus birth that is down under the main level, got an okay from the religious guard for that section of the Church to take me down to the Grotto. The space is very small, very warm and claustrophobic due to the visitors packed into every inch of space. 

What is is like inside the Grotto - the Manger's location is behind the visitors.

Exit of the Grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity - the site of Jesus' birth.

The location of the where the manger stood is marked and encased in a glass case.  I was barely able to get any photo of it as it was totally surrounded by visitors waiting to see the Grotto Star.

There was a Spanish tour group going through at the time I was in the Grotto. Many of them were prostrating themselves face down over the Grotto’s Silver Star that ornaments the hole over the spot where Jesus was born. The hole allows access for religious items such as crucifixes and medallions to be lowered to touch the actual spot.  As soon as one person got up off the floor immediately another one took the place over this spot where both Jesus and Christianity were born.  

This is what you can see as people put themselves over the site of the Grotto's Silver Star

Mickey was able to ask them to allow me about 2 seconds to take a photo, but you can see that I was not quick enough to get an unobstructed view.

The place where Jesus was born.

Lamps inside the Church of the Nativity

VIP's at the Greek Orthodox portion of the Church

Another view of the Greek Orthodox Altar

Beautiful Lamps - Armenian Orthodox part of Church ?

Armenian or Coptic Orthodox part of the Church - Note religious faction guards leaning on columns.

Greek Orthodox Altar.

The more modern Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine - next to but connected with the Church of the Nativity.
My visit was soon over; the main part of our group would take a tour of the Church without going down the Grotto.  Mickey walked with me out to see Manger Square, which should be familiar to you if you watch the news articles about all the visitors there every Christmas Eve.  The Square is actually quite large when you are standing there at the side of it.

Manger Square - Bethlehem  The Church of the Nativity is behind me as I took this photo.

A street vendor that Mickey knew came over and helped me as well, as my legs were very tired and I was afraid of falling as we went down the steep walkways back to the bus parking building.

My impressions of the Church of the Nativity are negative.  There is no feeling of sanctity or reverence due to the huge numbers of visitors. I suppose that might come if one could come early in the morning or after the throngs of other visitors go so that one had the time to think and reflect on what happened in these places and what it all meant.  But, there is no time, no space and no quiet for that.

The building itself is in poor shape, though somewhat cleaner than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  There are 4 Christian religious factions who share the building and all that goes with it:  The Greek Orthodox, The Roman Catholic, The Armenian Catholic and The Coptic Orthodox churches.  They have the same sorts of turf battles with men sitting here and there inside the church to assert and protect the rights and claims for their particular faction.The agreements that bind the relationships of the different factions are based on the 1851 firman or ruling by the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire known as "The Status Quo" - which is not included in the agreements of the Vatican II Council.

The men sitting at the right and left are both guards for each of  their religious faction's parts of the church.

For once, I was the first one back to the tour bus.  About 10 minutes later the rest of the group returned and we pulled out of the bus parking building.  We made the mandatory stop at a shop “owned by Palestinian Christians” for souvenir shopping. The shop did have very many beautiful items in gold, silver and olive wood items made on the premises for sale, but the prices were high and I had no room in my luggage for souvenirs.  

Carving olive wood is one of the main occupations in Bethlehem.

To leave Bethlehem, we had to exit the by the only gate. Each car was stopped by Israeli Security. If the driver and passengers were Palestinian, they underwent a thorough security screening. The line of cars was about 15 cars long.

We waited to pass Israeli Security

And waited some more.

We watched the street vendors work the line of waiting cars.

Still a long line to exit Bethlehem

We had a good chance to watch the street vendors working up an down the line of cars and to look at all the graffiti painted on the wall.

Palestinian Graffiti inside the wall around Bethlehem.

Almost out of Bethlehem
It took about 45 minutes to make it to the gate.  The Security men and women boarded and walked up and down the aisle looking at each of us and asked if anyone had given us any mail, messages or packages to take out of Bethlehem. 

Somehow, this one resonates!

Once we cleared the gate, we began our journey back down the hills to Ashdod.

While we were still in the Jerusalem area, there were a lot of very complex cyclone fences alongside the road. At the crest of some of the hills there were odd structures.  These structures looked like the sail shapes of the Opera House in Sydney, Australia, but they ran for long distances along the hills. 

I asked Mickey if they were going to build stations for metro lines up there.  Mickey replied that those structures are built where there have been lots of snipers shooting at cars on the freeway and roads down below. The structures make it harder for them to make unimpeded shots!

The bus twisted and turned down the coastal hills into a rainstorm that continued all night long. Mickey joked with us that the Ministry of Agriculture would not let us leave because we brought needed rain with us!

We arrived in time for our dinner back on board the Constellation, very tired, but with lots of things to think about and remember.

Next - Haifa, Akko and the excavated remains of the Crusader's Headquarters at Acre. 

Please click the colored link to view my other blog about living in Hawaii "Life in the 50th State"

Please give me photo credits if you use or share my photos for non-commercial use. 

Please contact me at should you need to use my photos commercially. Larger digital files of my  photos are available.

I encourage you to share this blog with your family and friends.
Your comments and criticisms are my reward for the effort to do this blog – they are appreciated.

Thanks for taking the time to read about my travels.