NAME THAT COUNTRY

 

As our guide Jacob will tell you, Beit She’an (aka Scythopolis) is one of the world’s most extensively excavated Greco-Roman sites. Blessed with fertile land and abundant water, this strategic location at the convergence of the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys has been occupied at least since the 5th millennium BCE and holds remains from Canaanites, Egyptians, Philistines, Israelites, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines in 18 distinct layers. At its peak, as the main Roman Decapolis city, Beit She’an had a population of 40,000.

 

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Bird-watching in Israel

Birds near Eilat, Israel, photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

Birds near Eilat, Israel, photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

Just as Israel has historically been a thoroughfare for human traffic and a meeting point of diverse cultures, it is a superhighway and home for a vast array of birds. 530 species have been recorded.

As a geographical bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel hosts 500 million migrating birds each spring and fall. Winters in Israel are mild enough that some European and Asian birds winter there instead of traveling all the way to Africa.

A wide range of habitats makes Israel home to numerous year-round, resident species, including European, African and Asian species living on the fringes of their natural habitats.

Cranes in the Hula Valley of northern Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

Cranes in the Hula Valley of northern Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism

Any time of year is good for birding but especially November-May, which encompasses both fall and spring migrations and wintering birds. March is best, with spring migration underway, many of the wintering birds still around, and mating season making local birds particularly active and showy.

The prime places to see birds are in the Hula Valley in the north and around Eilat in the far south. Two birding festivals happen each year during migration season, in Eilat in the spring and in the Hula Valley in the fall.

NAME THAT BODY OF WATER

The inland sea pictured above forms part of the border between Israel and Jordan. This sea lies at the lowest elevation on earth, over 1,300 feet below sea level at the surface. Due to a unique mineral content, the sea water and mud are prized for their therapeutic qualities. The extreme salinity of the water makes it very difficult to sink. Bathers bob on the surface effortlessly. Atmospheric conditions here also have health benefits. High levels of oxygen are both invigorating and relaxing. It’s really a magical place. The sea is centrally located and makes an easy stopover between visits to other top tourist attractions. It also makes a good base for visiting a number of tourist sites.

 

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NAME THAT COUNTRY

This is one of some 800 Bell Caves in the Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park in the central part of our mystery. The caves were chalk mines dug in the 7th-11th centuries, during the country’s Islamic period. Miners would first dig a shaft and then cut blocks out of the soft chalk walls and haul it up through the shaft with ropes. Chalk was used in construction.

 

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3 Religious Sites in Jordan: Mt Nebo, Madaba, Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Mt. Nebo

Mt. Nebo

Everyone knows about Petra in Jordan; it’s the headliner, and for good reason. But Jordan is also home to some very important religious sites. It’s just across the Jordan River from Israel and very much part of the Holy Land.

Mt.Nebo is traditionally believed to be the site where Moses died and was buried. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, he was denied entrance into the Promised Land but he was allowed to look upon it from Mt.Nebo. As the story goes, Moses and the Israelites had been wandering in the desert for many years. It was hard on everyone. There was a great deal of kvetching and little gratitude, faith or loyalty among the Israelites. When he went out to get water for this mob of moaners, Moses was on his last nerve. “Fine,” he said, “we’ll get you your gosh darn water!” He struck a stone three times and water poured out. In that moment, Moses committed at least three sins and his fate was sealed. He failed in his responsibility as leader by losing his temper. He disobeyed the Lord by striking the stone rather than speaking to it as instructed. And, probably worst of all, he failed to properly credit the Lord for the miracle. His punishment was to never set foot in the Promised Land. It seems a harsh penalty. The poor guy left a life of royal luxury and accepted a thankless mission of extreme hardship. Why not give him some latitude, for pity’s sake? On the other hand, he fell short in his assignment of obedience to the Lord and leadership of the Israelites.

view from Mt. Nebo

view from Mt. Nebo

There’s plenty to ponder while standing on Mt.Nebo looking out over the Jordan Valley. If conditions are right, you can see Jericho and beyond to Jerusalem. Remains of a Byzantine church are incorporated into the modern church on site, which houses some very nice mosaics and the soaring serpentine cross sculpture at the edge of the summit seems to hang from the sky. It’s all very moving.

6th-century Holy Land map in Madaba

6th-century Holy Land map in Madaba

Just down the road about 5 miles is Madaba, famous for mosaics. They’re still excavating Byzantine remains all over town. The Basilica of St. George is the main attraction, where you can see the famous 6th-century map of the holy land in a mosaic floor.

the Jordan River at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

the Jordan River at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

possible (likely?) site of the baptism of Jesus, with remains of a Byzantine church

possible (likely?) site of the baptism of Jesus, with remains of a Byzantine church

About a 20 minute drive from Madaba at the very southern end of the Jordan River is Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site widely believed to be where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. There’s very strong archaeological evidence to support that belief. After the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, this border area had to be cleared of mines. Excavations began in 1996 and have uncovered Roman and Byzantine remains of baptismal pools, churches, pilgrim lodgings, hermit caves, a monastery and a prayer hall. This is also believed to be the site from which the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire.

I’m not at all religious but I was affected by the serenity of this place. Just thinking about it now is calming. My secular being has been similarly moved to the core at Mt. Nebo, Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall… Is there some inherent power in these places that is deeper than their associated spiritual traditions? Or does centuries-of-pilgrim-ardor hang so thick that even casual visitors are swept up in it? Or is it just the suggestion of emotional response that makes it so?

While these are interesting questions to consider, perhaps why we respond the way we do is far less important than the response itself. Aspire to faith in experience and acceptance of the unexplained. Ultimately, no matter our system of belief, the source of the feelings inspired by these places is the same for all of us. What differs is how we explain those feelings.

Visit Mt. Nebo, Madaba and Bethany Beyond the Jordan and feel for yourself: www.yallatours.com/jordan

A Travel Agent’s Trip to Israel with Ya’lla Tours, Part 2

Following is the second installment of a travel diary by Kelly Hyatt, who traveled to Israel in February of 2018 with a group of American travel agents. Thank you Kelly!

Read part 1 here.

ISRAEL 2018 – WITH YA’LLA TOURS, BY KELLY HYATT

Let me say a little bit about my host Ya’lla Tours USA. What an amazing group of people both on the US side and inside Israel. Participants of the familiarization tour were met at the Tel Aviv Airport by Ya’lla Tours representatives and transferred to the hotel. The people who work for this company in-country are some of the most knowledgeable, kind, interesting, compassionate and funny people I have met on my travels. Our tour guide and driver were really top notch. This being a travel agent FAM we were also inspecting other hotel properties and the best way to do that is to have dinner! Ya’lla arraigned some amazing dinners and always comped the wine and drinks, which was an added surprise and appreciated by all. All of the hoteliers were gracious and the properties were quite stunning. Each time we stopped at an archaeological spot or church or anything else, all our entries and transfers were seamless and we never ever had to wait, so very VIP!! And there were 14 of us, can you imagine if it was just a small group, I can say with certainty even a larger group will experience a totally seamless trip with this company.

Now back to my experience. I won’t tell you all the amazing and wonderful things I saw and did because YOU need to GO there yourself and you can always look at the Ya’lla Facebook page as we were all posting photos from the bus Wi-Fi (free) every day.

the Jezreel Valley from Mt. Carmel

the Jezreel Valley from Mt. Carmel

I am not what I would call an “overly” religious person, but I have studied the Bible and have a pretty good grasp of the Gospels and some Old Testament scriptures. This being a Christian tour, I was excited to see those places I had learned about. It was an extreme honor for me to volunteer to read the first scripture at one of our first church stops on Mt. Carmel at the Carmelite Monastery of El Muhraqa. This is a tiny church on top of a very high mountain overlooking an amazing valley. This is the place where God caused Elijah to defeat the priests of Baal. The scripture I read took on a very special and renewed meaning to me that day.

loaves and fishes mosaic at Tabgha

loaves and fishes mosaic at Tabgha

Certainly, how could one not be moved when you visit the town of Jesus, Capernaum, and visit the church at Tabgha, with its Byzantine era mosaic showing two fish and a basket filled with loaves depicting the Miracle of the Multiplication? And then to take a boat-ride on the Sea of Galilee, it was so quiet and serene and you could almost feel the presence of the ancients on the calm waters.

Our group did not have a pastor with us so when we visited Mt Tabor to visit the Church of the Transfiguration, we were treated to a special mass being done by a group that arrived before us. I have never been to a mass and they were singing in Latin and the small church was filled with joy and amazing light and love. It was so spiritual for all of us.

Nazareth Village

Nazareth Village

After this we went to the Mount of the Beatitudes the site of the Sermon on the Mount, and then on to Nazareth and Cana. We visited a place called Nazareth Village, a recreation of how life was during the time of Jesus. We were impressed by volunteers from all over the world, young people and old people working in Israel to help keep alive the Bible and the Gospels.

Yardenit baptism site on the Jordan River

Yardenit baptism site on the Jordan River

Our final stop this day was much-anticipated, a place called Yardenit on the Jordan River. We were given the opportunity to rededicate our faith with a renewal of baptism, but since we did not have a pastor or priest, Ya’lla provided a wonderful stand in, a young Messianic Jew, who was so filled with the love of the Lord that his excitement took over the whole group and 7 of us took the dip!!! It was truly a special time for me as even though it is symbolic, it was my own moment with my Savior before I entered into the city where HE died for my sins.

Megiddo tunnel

Megiddo tunnel

The following day we visited one of the most amazing archaeological sites in the world, Megiddo, the Hill of Battles, where 20 civilizations, built one upon another have been uncovered, this is the place of King Solomon’s stables, and is also the place called Armageddon. Here we learned how very smart the ancient Israelites were in how they figured out how to move water from springs outside the city and up into their mountain fortresses. We got to go down in to VERY impressive tunnels.