Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cesarea, Haifa, Acco

Thursday night after Jerusalem, some of Lynda's coworkers began their trip home to Ohio. On Friday, Lynda and I went with a few of our remaining trip-mates to take a tour north from Tel Aviv to visit some of Israel's Roman Era past.

We left the hotel at 7:15 and boarded the tour bus with some strangers, then left for our first stop at Cesarea, an old port city built from nothing by Herod the Great back in the First Century A.D. Herod built a sea wall and constructed a deep water port for trading ships, making Cesarea an important port on the trade routes between Rome and the Far East. With the port in place, the city grew large by the standards of the era. But, as I can tell from my visit, the Mediterranean Sea can be a turbulent place. 

Even though Cesarea grew to feature an amphitheater, a hippodrome, and lots of impressive buildings and towers, the sea won in the end. One storm that was too strong damaged the break wall and the harbor was also broken. Combined with the growing decline of the Roman Empire, Cesarea began a slow decline and the population began to go elsewhere. 

Our tour took us to the amphitheater, across the excavations of the remaining portions of the hippodrome, and gave us the chance to see some bits of the decorations from when Herod lived by the sea. The tour guide and driver--named Menachem--also showed us a cornerstone of a house that (supposedly) Pontius Pilate built to gain favor of one of his superiors. I admit that I wasn't paying as much attention to all that Menachem was telling us because I was intent on taking pictures and looking for interesting stones to take home. (Don't worry, I never pried anything out if a wall, but made sure to only collected rocks that we were walking on. This probably ensured that it was trucked to the site fifteen years ago during a rehabilitation of the tourist site.)

Also, Menachem was very conscious of keeping us moving from place to place. We did have a full schedule of places to see and driving in between, but there was the added pressure of getting places and finishing before Sabbath (Shabbat) began at sundown. Not that Menachem was particularly Orthodox--that I could tell--but when a fair portion of restaurants and services shut down for the next 24 hours, there was a stopwatch on us.

In Cesarea and for the rest of the day, Menachem would lead the group from location to location, give a five-minute lecture on why we were seeing what we were seeing, then let us loose to wander and take photographs. He normally gave us five minutes . . . ten if the spot was bigger or somehow more complicated. I tried my best to capture the feel of places, but the camera lens always narrows the field of experience and the eye's memories are always so much more impressive. (I also never figured out how to get the Panorama feature to operate on my camera.)

I also tried to keep including my touring friends in the pictures. Though it might make some of them harder to use later in my "btw" country profile on Israel, I didn't want my memories to be confined solely to rock, wall, and water. I am quite sure I got a large percentage of that, I hope the himan experience will also come through. (As soon as I can download things from my digital camera, I'll point you to those banks of captioned photos.)

After Cesarea, we continued the drive to Haifa, where we were supposed to see the Ba'Hai Gardens. But due to the rains that happened off and on during our drives, the series of steps that led down to the gardens were viewed as too slippery for touring and the gate had been closed before we arrived. So we took pictures from above, looking down at the crescent of the city built up along the shore of the Mediterranean and coming up the hills towards where we stood. It was a pretty remarkable view, even so. 

[Side note amongst all of the memories and thoughts--our guide told us of a saying about the cities I experienced during the week there: "In Haifa, they work; in Jerusalem, they pray; in Tel Aviv, they party."]

From Haifa, we drove to Acco, where we saw a former prison building from some time in the past--I don't remember what Menachem said about that. But what was especially interesting about that was while the prison was being used, one prisoner tried to tunnel out of this cell and in so doing, uncovered an entire underground structure beneath the prison that dated back to the Crusades. So we toured through the cavernous halls beneath the prison. I couldn't help but think of the halls of Rohan or the mines of Moria as I walked between the big columns, the vaulted domes in the ceiling above and the like. (And the fact that they were doing reconstruction and restoration work on some of the columns and areas around us emphasized the "unnaturalness" of the experience.)

Acco wasn't the overwhelming experience of Jerusalem or the scenic experience of Cesarea. But it was a nice place to walk, experience history, and be around the people of Israel. Tourism is an isolating experience, and at times, you can feel very foreign and very "managed." The anthropologist in me doesn't like to feel so separated from everyone around me, emphasizing my difference. But it was a bit unavoidable in this circumstance. And since this was my first immersion into a foreign country and I wasn't prepared to try driving a rental car on my own and didn't have the language skills to so it alone, I think this was a good first attempt. Maybe if I ever go back to Israel, Lynda and I (and the kids?) can do more exploration on our own. But for the first experience, being managed worked well for us.

After the Crusades experience, we went for lunch at a cafe in Acco. Here was one of the more enjoyable moments of this day, as we talked one on one with some of the other tourists on this trip. While eating falafal, I found out that I was sharing a table with a couple from Melbourne, Australia who stayed in our Tel Aviv hotel when it was first opened decades ago. We also got to know a young German man staying in a Tel Aviv hostel and traveling alone while he took a break from his medical studies. Finally, we met a young Chinese woman who was in Tel Aviv for business and had extra time to explore the country. There were all nice people and good lunch companions. It was pleasant to spend some time talking about our own experiences and breaking down the barriers of our diversity. Later that evening, when we all departed the bus, we could say goodbye to each other with a bit more meaning.

The last stop for this day of touring was probably the most interesting and impressive--the Grottoes at Rosh-Hanikra.

Supposedly, when he was young Menachem swam here with his friends, and based on the pounding of the Mediterranean Sea into the cliff-side, he must have been something of a daredevil during his youth. We rode the cable cars down to the grotto entrance and our guide informed us that when he told us to go, we had to walk quickly along the pathways carved into the cliff side going down and around at sea level.

I was glad that there was a handrail, because the tunnel floor was slick with rain and sea mist. In a few spots, I might have lost my balance if not for holding on. But I had decided to take my iPad down here with me, to capture video of the tide pounding in and out, so I was also worried about dropping it. (I didn't.)

Menachem was intent on hurrying us through, but at one point, he was paused right in front of Lynda. I think he was waiting on people in front of us to move. But as we stood there, the seawater surged up from a tunnel behind us and flowed down the tunnel towards us. With our backs turned, we didn't know it was happening until we felt the water hit our feet and soak up to our ankles. There was a lot of unexpected shrieks and laughter.

Lynda wasn't entirely happy about getting her socks and shoes wet, but I thought it was a fun surprise. When we got back to the hotel that night, we used the bathroom hairdryer to prevent the sneakers from mildewing and after all, everything worked out fine.

It was a long day of travel and sightseeing, and when we got back to Tel Aviv, the sun was going down and Sabbath was underway. This was driven home when we got to the hotel elevators and found this sign waiting for us.

Dear guests. The left elevator is in a Shabbat position. For your convenience, please use the right elevator. Enjoy your stay. The Management.

As Brian explained to us, an elevator in the Shabbat position moves automatically from floor-to-floor, one level at a time. This allows the Orthodox to ride the elevator without doing "the work" of pushing a floor button. I loved this small window into the culture all around me. Just another example of how fun a trip like this can be.

1 comment:

Mom said...

great synopsis of your day, Dave. Loved it!!!