Mount of Olives, Jerusalem

The Mount of Olives looks out on Jerusalem’s Old City from the east. In purely geographical terms, it shelters Jerusalem from the Judean Desert and catches and directs precious water toward the city. It was once covered in olive trees, but not so much any more.

For 3,000 years the Mount of Olives has been Judaism’s most sacred burial ground. Some 150,000 Jews are buried there, including biblical prophets and revered rabbis. The Kabbalistic Zohar text tells that when the Messiah comes, the Mount of Olives will be his first stop and on that day, the righteous will rise from the dead.

Looking out at Jerusalem's Old City from the Mount of Olives, with the ancient Jewish cemetery in the foreground.

Looking out at Jerusalem’s Old City from the Mount of Olives, with the ancient Jewish cemetery in the foreground.

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Masada

Masada, Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, Israel Ministry of Tourism

Masada, Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, Israel Ministry of Tourism

The first I ever heard of Masada was from a very effective Israel tourism TV campaign way back in the early 1990s. Before then, I hadn’t thought much about traveling to Israel, if at all. The ad sparked in me an interest in the ancient land of Israel that continues to this day. It may have been the very gleam that became my work at Ya’lla Tours, including this blog.

Now that I have credited an Israel tourism ad with setting me on my life path, I must tell you I don’t remember much about it. There was a boy on top of Masada, wind in his hair, casting a poetic gaze out over the Judean desert. A dramatic voiceover spoke of heritage and heroism. Mostly I remember being stirred right down to my core. That’s good advertising!

Masada, Israel

Masada, Israel

Herod the Great, the Roman-Jewish ruler of Judea 37-4 BCE, was very fearful of assassination, so he built 8 isolated, desert fortresses in which to take refuge if needed. Masada is one. Around 30 BCE, he had a fabulous palace, complete with storage facilities to outlast a long siege, built atop this 1300-foot plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. It’s the perfect defensive spot. You can see for miles in every direction and the walls of the rock are steep. There’s no sneaking up on this place.

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During the last Jewish rebellion against Rome (which ended in 70 CE with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple), a group of Roman-resisters escaped to Masada and held out there for several years. In early 70, the Romans laid siege to Masada. After spending a few months building a massive ramp, they overtook the fortress. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, they found almost 1,000 inhabitants, men, women and children, dead by their own hands, and buildings ablaze. Excavations have only found the remains of 28 men, so Josephus may have exaggerated for effect. Whether 1,000 or 28, the story and Masada came to symbolize Jewish defiance and resilience in the face of suppression, as well as the loss of the Jewish homeland.

remains of Roman siege camp at the base of Masada and the attack ramp used to take the fortress

remains of Roman siege camp at the base of Masada and the attack ramp used to take the fortress

Masada is an easy drive from Jerusalem, less than an hour. If you’re in good shape, you can climb up in about 45 minutes on the snake path, a good trail with lots of switchbacks, or zip up and down in a cable car. The extensive excavations and restorations include two palaces, a synagogue, a bathhouse, storehouses, and cisterns. From the top, look down on the Roman siege camp, the Dead Sea and out over the beautiful desolation of the Judean Desert.

Click to see tours that include Masada.

Foto Friday – Israel

Anemonies in bloom in the Galilee, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Anemonies in bloom in the Galilee, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

"Mona Lisa of the Galilee" in Zippori (Sepphoris), photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

“Mona Lisa of the Galilee” in Zippori (Sepphoris), photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Nubian Ibex in the Negev Desert, photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Nubian Ibex in the Negev Desert, photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

the Galilee, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

the Galilee, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Holy Sepulchre Church, Jerusalem, photo by Noam Chen, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Holy Sepulchre Church, Jerusalem, photo by Noam Chen, courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

Private Touring in Israel

our guide Jacob modeling our touring van

our guide Jacob modeling our touring van

The advantages of a private tour may seem obvious to some, but we get quite a few questions about the distinction between our tours labeled “private” and those labeled “motor coach.” With Ya’lla Tours, and in general, a private tour means that the travel party travels with a guide in a private vehicle. The guide and vehicle are not shared with other travelers. Scheduled motor coach tours in Israel average about 20 passengers in a bus but could have anywhere from 2 to 50 passengers.

The biggest advantage of a private tour is the lower guide to traveler ratio. With a small travel party, there’s the opportunity for much more interaction and conversation between the guide and the travelers. It really becomes like a family unit. Rather than lecturing to a crowd, the guide has the time and proximity to speak directly to and with all of her/his travelers. With large groups at site visits, it can be hard to get close enough to the guide to hear what is being said, much less have a one-on-one discussion. (Don’t get me wrong, even guides of large groups strive to connect with everyone in their flock. I’ve been in groups of over thirty, where every traveler felt personally bonded with the guide. In addition to encyclopedic knowledge about their country, good tour guides possess infinite patience, humor, kindness and energy.)

Moving from place to place is also much easier with a small party. Vans can zip through traffic and maneuver ancient, narrow streets. Despite excellent drivers, motor coaches are far less nimble; it’s just a fact. Also, stops and site visits take considerably less time with a small party, meaning you see more and experience more of the destination. Imagine 2-5 travelers arriving in a van at Capernaum, for example. From the moment they park to the moment they are all gathered around their guide at the site should take five minutes. Now imagine a motor coach group of 20 – 50. Just getting everyone off the bus takes 5 minutes or more, plus another 10-15 minutes before the entire group is standing at attention, ready to learn about the site.

Finally, with a private tour, you have much more flexibility. From the outset, your itinerary is customized to your personal interests and needs. In Israel, this is especially important because, for so many, it is a religious destination. Scheduled motor coach tours are general interest tours designed for broad appeal. While they visit religious sites, the guide’s explanations are academic rather than religious in tone.

With a private tour, you can modify your itinerary as you go to suit your experience on the ground. If you fall in love with Jerusalem’s Old City and want to spend the whole day there, you can do it. Maybe you sacrifice another visit or have a longer day tomorrow to make up what you missed today; but you have options, the private itinerary is fluid. With a motor coach tour, such changes are impossible.

Now, all of this is not to say that we are totally down on motor coach touring. We are not. It’s a good value and can be a fun social experience, meeting and touring with people from all over.

Check out tour private and motor coach tours to Israel at www.yallatours.com/israel/

The Dead Sea: Grab a Natural High at the Lowest Place on Earth

salty shores

the Dead Sea forms part of the border between Israel and Jordan

the Dead Sea forms part of the border between Israel and Jordan

The Dead Sea is almost 1400 feet below sea level, the lowest place on earth. There is no outlet for the water, which flows into the Dead Sea, technically a lake, from the Sea of Galilee (also technically a lake) via the Jordan River. Water leaves the Dead Sea only by evaporation, leaving minerals behind in high concentration. Because of the extremely low elevation, the barometric pressure is higher than anywhere else on earth, there’s a greater concentration of oxygen in the air, greater filtration of ultraviolet sun rays, and the air is practically free of pollen and other allergens.

The Dead Sea has been known for its healing properties for thousands of years, and even today, the unique climactic and mineral properties are used in therapies for conditions such as psoriasis, arthritis and cystic fibrosis. Continue reading

Foto Friday – Coptic Churches

In honor of Coptic Christmas tomorrow, January 7, 2017, a few images from Coptic churches ~

Monastery of Paul the Anchorite in Egypt's Eastern Desert

Monastery of Paul the Anchorite in Egypt’s Eastern Desert

The Archangel Michael's Coptic Church, Aswan, Egypt

The Archangel Michael’s Coptic Church, Aswan, Egypt

Basilica of the Virgin Mary, Cairo, Egypt

Basilica of the Virgin Mary, Cairo, Egypt

Coptic Chapel in the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Coptic Chapel in the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

St. Samaan Church, Mokattam Mountain, Cairo

St. Samaan Church, Mokattam Mountain, Cairo

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!