Category Archives: Middle East

Modest Building is Israel’s Independence Hall

The country is 64 years old, an ths low-key Tel Aviv landmark might be due for a makeover

Israel’s Independence Hall is a former private residence where members of the National Council, representatives of the Jewish settlements and the Zionist movement, met in quasi-secret on May 14, 1948, to sign the Scroll of Independence and establish the Jewish State of Israel. This year, the event is celebrated on April 25.

The event makes Tel Aviv, previously modern Israel’s capital, the Philadelphia of the country. In fact, Philly also served as the US capital Philadelphia served as one of the nation’s many capitals during the Revolutionary War, and the city served as the temporary national capital from 1790 to 1800 while Washington, D.C., was being construction. There the resemblance more or less ends. Continue reading Modest Building is Israel’s Independence Hall

Bible Replay: Easter & Passover Coincide

All Jerusalem celebrates major religious holidays this weekend

Jerusalem is not by any stretch a secular city. It is a teeming place where believers of the three major monotheistic religion aggressively and assertively practice their faith, in often uneasy proximity and also often at odds with their coreligionists of slightly different stripes. This year, followers of the Old and New Testaments meet on the narrow streets of Jerusalem. The Biblical story of Jesus’ last days focuses on the Last Supper, which was a Passover meal, and the Resurrection three days later. That chronology is happening again this year, with Easter weekend coinciding with Passover. The timing is close to the Christ’s last days on Earth in this very city.

Continue reading Bible Replay: Easter & Passover Coincide

A Homeward Odyssey

The good, the bad & the unexpected during a long journey

When I headed for Israel for the Society of American Travel Writers Freelance Council meeting, I knew the journey would be long, requiring an overnight near Newark International Airport (EWR).  El Al is the only airline I can think of whose transatlantic flights leave the East Coast in the early afternoon, and there is no way to get there from Denver on same-day flights. I knew that the return trip would be long, because I would be starting in Eilat, the Tel Aviv-Newark segment  alone is 12 butt-numbing hours in the air and then I still had to get to Colorado. But the odyseey was more orduous than I’d anticipated.

First Delay in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv, January 26 –At 1:20 a.m. in Israel, I was  supposed to have taken off 40 minutes ago via El Al from Tel Aviv (TLV) to Newark. Except there was a mechanical delay — plus the airport is closed to departures every night from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. I wanted to alert United, because I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to make my flight to Denver. I tried to do this online, somehow, but United’s website continued to give me a cyber-runaround — asking for my MileagePlus number again and again and not enably me to proceed from there to My Flights or My Reservations or anything else. the website was than My Frustration.

Fortunately, El Al invited SATW members into the Business Class lounge, and an agent there connected me to United’s reservation line and handed me the phone. The first recording said my call would be answered in 5 to 10 minutes. It was closer to 15. When an agent finally came on line,  I told her that I was delayed for more than four hours in Tel Aviv and needed to alert them because I wouldn’t be able to make my Newark-Denver flight. She chose not to listen to the second half of what I said and switched me to the international desk, where the recording said the estimated time before my call would be answered would be 54 minutes to one hour!  Last time I looked, Newark to Denver is not an international flight, but United’s reservationist chose to get me off the phone as quickly as she could. I wish I had gotten her name.

Continue reading A Homeward Odyssey

Jerusalem’s 9/11 Memorial Quiet & Uncrowded

Modest memorial honors 9/11 victims

By the  time the World Trade Center memorial was dedicated with great fanfare on September 11, 2011, in  Manhattan, the considerably more modest 9/11 Living Memorial a few miles outside of Jerusalem had been open for nearly two years. Of course, it is thousands of miles from the World Trade Center site. The Israeli memorial is a bronze depiction of an unfurling American flag on a granite base that includes a piece of steel from the WTC rubble.

9/11 Living Memorial just outside of Jerusalem.

Located on a plateau in the Arazim Valley, this modest memorial sits in the middle of a broad hillside plaza lined with a low wall containing all the victims’ names. It was paid for largely by the Jewish National Fund, which is best known for its remarkable tree-planting program.

A main highway is nearby, as is an expanding bicycle path. When it was dedicated in November 2009, “the event drew a crowd of 150-200 participants, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert,” according  to a local report of the day.  U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham and Defense and Air Attache Colonel Richard Burgess took part in the dedication ceremony.

It is a worthy stop on a visit to “the golden city” of Jerusalem.

Egypt: What a Difference Two Years Make

Revolutions might inconvenience travelers, but they change nations

The pyramids at Giza near Cairo have endured through the ages, and they will survive the current instability too.

If you really want to go somewhere, my advice is: go while the going is good. Egypt had been on my to-visit list for a long time  before I grabbed the opportunity to visit exactly two years ago. I left the U.S. on January 29, 2009, and arrived in Cairo the following day. Now, I am glued to CNN, watching history unfold as Egyptians unleash a tidal wave of discontent with their government.

In 10 jam-packed days with Society of American Travel Writers colleagues just two years ago, I spent time in Alexandria, Cairo and on the Nile. Fabulous sites and sights, but an undercurrent that all was not right in overcrowded cities and with so many people struggling economically.  The undercurrent has now boiled over, and Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities are filled with protesters pressing for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for some 30 years. His rule has been marred by unsustainable population growth,cronyism, pollution, overcrowded cities, high unemployment, a region where religious extremists have political power and human rights abuses — and now, a crackdown on communication with the Internet all but shut down. Protesters protested, opportunistic looters looted and the government imposed a curfew and unleashed the army.  It has been a toxic political mix that is affecting not only Egyptians over the long haul, but also visitors right now and will impact tourism for some time to come.

I favor the right of citizens to break the shackles of dictatorships everywhere and to enjoy personal freedoms. I hope that Egypt can find a quick resolution to present situation and an end to violence. I hope that Egyptians can experience and the the world can witness the installation of a non-dictatorial, non-extremist government. Beleaguered and perhaps soon former President Hosni Mubarak has imposed a curfew, cut off Internet and cell phone service. The government has been trying to control what he surely views as an insurrection, but that its moves have just served to further enrage protesters and outrage the world. Supporters of Egypt’s protesters have gathered in Washington, Chicago, New York and elsewhere. Still, this blog is not about geopolitics, but about travel. But just as Egypt’s antiquities have survived power shifts over the millennia, I hope that when things settle down again, visitors will once more be welcome and feel comfortable seeing the country’ s wonders.

Cairo's Tahrir Square. Its neighbors include the old Egyptian Museum, the American University in Cairo, the Arab League headquarters and such international hotels as the Shepheard, the Hilton and the Intercontinental.
Tahrir Square now. "Tahrir" means Liberation, so it is no surprise that protests are centered there in this move toward liberation from a 30-year dictatorship. Of Alexandria's two sweeping harbors, this is the eastern one with the beautiful, sweeping Corniche. Its name reflects the French influence during the city's international years.
Of Alexandria's two sweeping harbors, this is the eastern one with the beautiful, sweeping Corniche. Its name reflects the French influence during the city's international years.
Current protests have been sweeping Alexandria. (Assyrian International News Agency photo)

The Egypt Ministry of Tourism, if it is functioning right now, is laying low about visits to the country, 11 percent of whose revenues come from tourism, which is of course in jeopardy right now. According to new reports, tourists in Cairo are being warned not to leave their hotels and especially warned not to attend any political gatherings or demonstrations. EgyptAir and some other airlines (and I don’t know which) have reported suspended Cairo flights, as others are trying to readjust their schedules to accommodate a government-imposed curfew. The international airport is crowded with travelers trying to get out of the country. Cruise ships are aoviding the popular port of Alexandria and shifting their itineraries. For travelers, asll this, so far, is an inconvenience. For Egyptians, it is no less than a revolution — not the first in its long history. Now, I’m going back to CNN.

Addendum: According to a January 30 report in The Telegraph (also reported elsewhere, “group of nine men broke into the Egyptian Museum, which is on the edge of Tahrir Square, the epicentre of protests, searching for gold.  They broke into ten cases to take figurines. When they discovered that the figures did not contain gold, they dropped them and the items broke. They then seized two skulls of the 2,000-year-old mummies and fled.

“Dr Zahi Hawass, the director of the museum, said: ‘Demonstrators in collaboration with security forces stopped the thieves and returned the relics to the museum – but they were already damaged. Only their heads were intact. Egyptologists described the smashing of the irreplaceable artefacts [sic] as “devastating”.

Ironically, a new museum has under construction and scheduled to open in 2013 at Giza. If it were already open, it and its irreplaceable teasures would much less accessisble to mob action than the present museum near Tahrir Square.

Will High-Tech Border Fence Become a Tourist Attraction?

Other walls that kept people apart eventually draw tourists together

Walls are sometimes meant to keep people in (prisons, for example) and sometimes to keep them out (fortresses). The Great Wall of China to keep the Mongols out, Hadrian’s Wall to protect the Roman presence in Britain against raiders from the north, the Berlin Wall to keep the East Germans in and Israel’s walls to contain Palestinians are just a few examples over the centuries. 

I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China in both directions from Bandoling, an attraction for foreign tourists and visitors alike, because it is the most convenient segment to Beijing and the most developed as well.

The Great Wall of China, built in the 3rd century, B.C.

I’ve hiked along a section of Hadrian’s Wall west of Carlisle. Once a formidable barrier, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and north England’ s most popular tourist attraction.

Hadrian's Wall, begun in 120 A.D. and more than 70 miles long.

Nothing symbolized the Cold War more than the Berlin Wall, which divided the city that once was (and is now again) the capital of Germany.  Segments of the Wall have been relocated all over the world to memorialize the terrible tensions of the Cold War era and all the repression involved. The first time I went to Europe, I passed through Checkpoint Charlie separating the two halves of divided Berlin. Germany and Berlin have been reunified, and I’ve seen segements of the wall in Manhattan, Rapid City and elsewhere. I haven’t seen the one at Israel’s Ein Hod Artists’ Village, an sad and ironic place for it, since Israel is still building its dispiriting security wall.

Built in 1961 to divide East and West Berlin

Israel started building a formidable wall after the Second Intifada in 2003, and they haven’t stopped yet. An eight-foot wall cuts through some Palestinian towns and surrounds others, separates farmers from their field and their livestock, and makes Palestinians prisoners on their land. I passed through it in June going to and from the airport in Tel Aviv. It is not a tourist attraction but rather an impediment to Palestinian people and a provocation to them. Hopefully, a two-state solution will be hammered out of this bitter conflict and the wall (or small sections of it) will eventually become a curiosity and tourist attraction too.

The wall was begun in 2003 and is still under construction. When completed (or if completed) it will be 760 kilometers long (430 or so miles -- but correct my arithmetic if I'm wrong).

Another barrier, this one high-tech rather than brick and mortar, is/was a planned “virtual” border fence between the US and Mexico. This Bush administration brainchild, conceived in 2005 and was sold to Congress and the tax-paying public as chain of cameras, ground sensor and radar installations that were to detect “illegals” crossing the 2,000-mile border between the US and Mexico. Boeing has raked in a billion dollars, only about 53 miles of fence were ever constructed. Janet Napolitano is the  former governor of Arizona (you know, the state where Congresswomen, federal judges and 9-year-olds occasionally get shot), knows something about border problems and immigration issues. She is now the Secretary of Homeland Security and announced a few days ago that the project is dead. What took the Obama Administration so long to dump it? It cost $15 million a mile — money that could have gone elsehwere. Looking at previous attempts at fence-building, I wonder whether the bit of “virtual” fence will ever be a sightseeing attraction. You be the judge.

Installations like this were supposed to secure the 2,000-mile-long US-Mexico border. Only 53 miles have been built, and that's it. Have taxpayers gotten their billion bucks' worth?

 With the dream of a high-tech barrier stretching from one end of America’s southern border to the other – originally hailed by then-President George W. Bush as “the most technically advanced border security initiative” ever – officially canceled, I wonder what the next frontier will be to keep people out or in or have something to look at when it’s finished.

Skip to next paragraph

In announcing that it would pull the plug on the troubled “virtual fence” project, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Friday it would instead pursue a region-by-region approach, with different parts of the US border protected in different ways as dictated by terrain and other area-specific conditions.

“This new strategy is tailored to the unique needs of each border region, providing faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and capability,” said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement.

Israel Bulldozes East Jerusalem Hotel

Provocations, one after another, test Palestinian patience  — and challenge tourists to visit

Once again, the peace process has become fragile.

When I was in the Palestinian Territories/West Bank/Palestine last June, I tried to keep my feelings about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians measured as I wrote about my experiences and observations. I believe in the principles of the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism, which is “dedicated to fostering and facilitating tourism initiatives which contribute to international understanding and cooperation, an improved quality of environment, the preservation of heritage, and through these initiatives, helping to bring about a peaceful and sustainable world.” Palestine could, should and hopefully will be the poster child for bringing this about.

 I witnessed among the Palestinians a longing for their own state — no less so than Israel itself when it was carved out of Palestinian lands more than six decades ago.  Faith-based travel is growing, and much Christian travel to the  Holy Land  should include important West Bank sites, not just Israel (Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Galilee) and preipherally to Jordan. But the Israeli government kneecaps the Palestinians at every turn, discouraging tourism and even prevening Israeli Jews (other than settlers) from visiting another part of what is still legally part of their own country. IMHO, the Israeli government does not want its secular citizens to see how it is mistreating and humiliating Muslim and Christian Palestinians on the West Bank.

Most incidents, a few of which I witnessed and an arbitrary checkpoint holdup that I epxerienced last June, are minor and are unreported in the world media. But recent ones again are shining the international spotlight on the situation. The two-state solution, which had again seemed closer, is being torpedoed by a barely restrained Israeli military. Young Israeli soldiers with their UZIs slung over their shoulders remind me of farm boys in the woods, ready to shoot at anything that moves. Tensions rise, and with every bullet and every dose of tear gas, the opportunity for tourism to help bring peace fades again.

Here’s the recent news — and I write about these incidents not to discourage visitation butactually to encourage it. Not only is the West Bank a key part to the Holy Land and an area rich in archeology and history, but I believe it provides visitors a rare opportunity to spend a few days on the cusp of history — with awareness of what is happening.  I never felt in personal danger — and I suspect that if were there today, I wouldn’t feel I was in harm’s way either.

One Week; Four “Incidents” Resulting in Palestinian Deaths

Now, when much of the watching world had hoped for a real chance of peace, the Israelis are at it again. The four incidents below happened within just one week; the dates might be off by a day due to the time zone between the Middle East and the US. I’ve been clicking back and forth among websites, so I hope I embedded the correct link for each incident. Each one is another nail in the coffin of the peace process.

On January 1, Israeli troops fired what was described as a “massive” amount of tear gas to put down what they called “”a violent and illegal riot” but was probably the weekly demonstration protesting the security wall in the town of Bilin. A 36-year-old, asthmatic Palestinian woman died from tear gas inhalation. Israeli authorities are investing. — Reported in the New York Times, Agence France-Presse and elsewhere

On January 2,  Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man early after he  approached soldiers “from an unauthorized lane” at the Hamra checkpoint northwest of the city of Nablus. He allegedly tried to attack troops with a bottle and ignored orders to stop as he approached the soldiers. The Palestinian  had a bottle. The Israeli soldiers had guns. Israeli authorities are investigating. — Reported in the Christian Science Monitor, Agence France-Presse and others

 On January 7, Israeli troops made a pre-dawn raid on an apartment in Hebron to arrest suspected Hamas members. Problem is, they stormed the wrong apartment and killed a a Palestinian man who was asleep in his bed. He was variously reported to be 65, 66 or 67 years old, but reports agree on the rest of the story. Israeli authorities are investigating. Reported by the Associated Press,  the New York TimesCNN and elsewhere

On January 8, Israeli soldiers shot and killed another Palestinian man, again at the Hamra checkpoint. According to a CNN report, “a Palestinian man made his way toward Israeli security personnel yelling “God is great” in Arabic while carrying a ‘suspicious object’ in his hands, a spokesman for the Israeli military told CNN. Soldiers began an ‘arrest procedure’ and yelled at the man to stop and fired warning shots, but the man did not stop advancing, the spokesman said. ‘The soldiers were left with no choice but to fire at him,’ the spokesman said. The Palestinian had a “suspicious package.” The soldiers had guns. I suppose Israeli authorities are investigating. — Reported by CNN and elsewhere.

If you search the ‘Net for “Nablus” or “or checkpoint. or “Palestinian killed,” you find incident after incident reported by the international media. Sometimes the Israelis say they found explosives or weapons or something. Often, they don’t bother explaining anything at all. After all, thee’s always another incident to investigate. Untold thousands of Palestinian prisoners are being held in Israeli jails, with human rights organizations alarmed at accusations of torture and abuse. But these watchdog groups are powerless in  country whose government pays scant attention to any critics. A search for “Palestinians in Israeli jails” brings up thousands of links. Wikipedia’s summary  is as good as any.

Shepherd Hotel Being Demolished

What kicked off this post was a report earlier today that Israeli bulldozers began knocking down the historic Shepherd Hotel in East Jerusalem to build yet another illegal Jewish settlement. The European Union reminded Israel that settlement building on occupied Palestinian territory is illegal, but the conservative Israeli government has never paid much heed to international law when they are breaking it. The hotel was vacant, but that is not the point, is it?

 US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called it a “disturbing development” that “undermines peace efforts to achieve the two-state solution.” United Nationals Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations said that “inserting settlers into Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem” undermined prospects for addressing the city’s status.

First Vice President of the European Commission Catherine Ashton said, “I strongly condemn this morning’s demolition of the Shepherd Hotel and the planned construction of a new illegal settlement. I reiterate that settlements are illegal under international law, undermine trust between the parties and constitute an obstacle to peace….The EU does not recognize” the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel and again expressed concern for recent violence and growing tension. The Israelis have a habit of pushing the Palestinians to the breaking point and then retaliating harshly. — Reported by The New York Times, Reuters and elsewhere

When I was there in June, Israeli bulldozers knocked down more than 20 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem to make way for an amusement park of some sort, so this latest demolition project does not surprise me, but it still saddens me. Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations haven’t totally broken down, but they can be described as being at a standstill. KAIROS Palestine, an interfaith peace initiative of the dwindling Christian population on the West Bank, is still supporting it.

Winter is not prime travel season to the Middle East. I hope that tensions will easy, the Israeli soldiers will be less trigger-happy and that when authorities say that they are “investigating,” they really are. And I hope that visitors will again be encouraged to see some of the Palestine/West Bank sites. My June visit certainly opened my eyes to the region’s history, faith, archeology, landscape and humanity.

O, Isolated Town of Bethlehem

Bethlehem, largely isolated behind a high wall, remains the symbol for the hope of peace

Last June I spent more than a week in Palestine, AKA the West Bank and officially called the Palestinian Territories or some such phrase that denies the validity of independent statehood.  My group’s first stop was Bethlehem, cut off by a high “security wall” erected by Israeli authorities to isolate the Palestinians and make it more annoying for tourists to visit the city where Jesus was born. Whether or not one is a believer, the hoops that people have to go through to worship,  celebrate or simply sightsee are incomprehensible to anyone who believes that human rights, human dignity and the right to self-determination are more important than politics or religious differences. Every religion preaches tolerance, but we see too little of it in what is commonly referred to as the Holy Land.

Back up at Israeli checkpoint set up at the single entrance into and out of Bethlehem.

Except at Christmas, Bethlehem is a relative quite place.

Manger Square and other quiet places surrounding the Church of the Nativity in June.
Christmas pilgrims (and probably a lot of security personnel) peacefully filled Manger Square a few years ago. AP File photo.

Israelis and Palestinians have more or less been talking for several months now. Hopefully, quiet times will continued, and a lasting peace will soon prevail. After all, the faithful make a Christmas pilgrimage to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. No matter what one’s believe, that should be a goal for all. My friend Rich Grant put ths quote on his Facebook page: ““My first wish is to see the whole world in peace and the inhabitants of it as one band of brothers, striving who should contribute… most to the happiness of mankind.” George Washington

Amen.

"Overrated" Travel Sites Still on My Bucket List

Graduate-degreed people dis world sites that I still want to see

I live in Boulder, Colorado, which has again been named the “smartest city in America” — most recently by The DailyBeast and previously by Forbes. I sometimes think that I am virtually only person in town over the age of 25 without a master’s degree — or more. Now a website called OnlineMasters has come up with the six most overrated historical sites in the world.

Click on the link above to read their reasons, but meanwhile, here’s the list:

1. Stonehenge
2. The Colosseum
3. The Alamo
4. Machu Picchu
5. Petra
6. Angkor

The only one I’ve ever seen is the Colsseum, and that was during a long-ago, post-college European tour that featured a lot of capitals, including Rome. I’ve seen other, smaller more remote stone circles in the British Isle but never Stonehenge. I would like to visit San Antonio, and if/when I do, I will certainly go to the Alamo.

Boulder’s token dolt that I am, without a master’s degree — online or otherwise — Machu Picchu, Petra and Angkor are still I my bucket list.

Emirates Orders More Boeing 777 Aircraft

Dubai-based airline expands its large Triple Seven fleet

Emirates Airlines, the Dubai-based, award-winning international carrier, has ordered 30 777-300ER aircraft to add to its 71 already on the books, of which 53 of this model are currently in service. The Triple Seven a long-range, wide-body airliner is the world’s largest twinjet. Quite unsurprisingly, even before this latest $9.1 billion order, Emirates is the world’s largest operator of 777s. Plus, just last month, Emirates ordered 32 Airbus A380 planes.

The airline’s strategy is to become a world-leading carrier and to establish Dubai as a central gateway to worldwide air travel. In all, Emirates already 86 777s (three 777-200s, six 777-200ERs, 10 7777-200LRs, 12 777-300s, 53-300ERs and two freighters, numbers that are mainly of interest to airline geeks. It operates the 777-300ER  in a three-class configuration with eight first class suites, 42 business class seats and 310 Economy class seats, plus offers an additional cargo payload of 20.1 tons. Oh yes, it also operates 79 Airbus A380s, 70 Airbus A350s and seven Boeing freighters.

I didn’t do the math because I don’t do math, but Emirates did and says that its fleet totals (or will total, I’m not sure which) 204 widebody aircraft worth more than $67 billion dollars. In a lousy year for world aviation and the global economy in general, Emirates Airline recently reported its 22nd year of profit, up 416 percent to close at $964 million dollars over its 2008-09 profits of $187 million dollars. I add this only because there has been so much whining among US and international legacy carriers that I find all this quite remarkable.  US gateways are New York, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Travel writer colleagues who flew Emirates not long ago to a meeting in Bangkok via Dubai reported favorably on the experience.