Israel: Pilgrimmage Routes

At the end of August through early September, we spent 1 week in Israel, coinciding with the U.S. threat to strike in response to Syrian administration use of chemical weapons. Nevertheless, we continued our planned tour various religious sites of the region and became intimately familiar with the debate and tension that has riddled the Middle East. Experience an incredible blend of the holiest spots in the world’s monotheistic religions.

08/28/13: Starting out in Tel Aviv and drove northward to the Roman town of Caesarea built by Herod the Great in 1st century BCE. Enjoyed a falafel pita lunch in the port city of Haifa after viewing the extensive 19-layered terraced Bahia Gardens. Drove along the Sea of Galilea aka Lake Kinneret. Stopped at Nazareth to visit the church marking the grotto where the Virgin Mary lived.

08/29/13: Spent the night in Kfar Blum kibbutz in Upper Galilee in northern Israel. Surveyed the Golan Heights region, former Syrian territory. Visited the border of Syria and Lebanon. Ended the day rafting on the Jordan River.

08/30/13: Headed towards Capernaum to visit the octagonal church commemorating the Sermon of the Mount where Jesus delivered the Beatitudes and performed the miracle feeding the crowd of thousands with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Kids took a quick dip in the Sea of Galilee, drove along the West Bank of the Jordan River to Jerusalem.

08/31/13: It’s a quiet day in Jerusalem as the Jewish community observe Chabad. Starting at the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view of Old Town Jerusalem. Visited the church at Garden of Gethsemane to commemorate the night scene as Jesus prayed while the disciples slept. We took a walking tour from the Jaffa Gate through the old Armenian and Christian quarters, newly excavated then constructed Jewish quarter and colorful bazaars of the Muslim quarters. Took a quick detour out the Zion Gate to visit the room of the Last Supper and the tomb of King David. Followed the stations of the cross along Via Dolorosa to the Church of Holy Sepulchre which includes Golgatha where Jesus was crucified and the cave where his body was buried before the resurrection.

09/01/13: Continued tour of Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock where Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Isaac at Mt Moriah, location of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, now a mosque. The Western Wall aka Wailing Wall, adjacent to the Dome of the Rock is a synagogue. We also toured the archeological excavation of the City of David and the drier portion of the Hezekiah Water Tunnel. The day ended at the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and Herod’s Tomb exhibits.

09/02/13: Spent the day in the region around the Dead Sea. Drove past the Qumram Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls where found. Toured the impressive Masada fortress built by King Herod the Great and later used by Jewish resistance against the Romans. Ended the day floating in the mineral rich Dead Sea.

09/03/13: Lazy morning enjoying our amazing suite at the historic King David Hotel while hubby visited the Holocaust Museum. After checkout, we took a ride to Bethleham in the Palestinian area of the West Bank to visit the Church of the Nativity to see Jesus’ birth site and location of manger followed by a stop to the fields where the shepherds were greet by angels. Spent the night back in Tel Aviv in preparation for the Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year.

Turkey: West Meets East Crossroads

For the final 2 weeks of August 2013, we toured the highlights of Turkey, experiencing the blend of east meets west. The trip started with colorful & vibrant Istanbul along the European border, crossed the Dardanels onto the Asian side of Anatolia. We worked our way down the coast through the ancient sites of Troy, Ephesus, Pergamon through Perge then hopped inland to visit the fantastic rock formations of Cappadocia. The juxtaposition of ancient Greco-Roman, Byzantine Christian, and Ottoman Turkish Muslim influences are particularly striking.

08/15/13: Istanbul was the capital of Turkey and Ottoman Empire until the government became secularized. It is a city steeped in history, originally Byzantium from Ancient Greece. When the Roman Empire split into 2, it was renamed Constantinople and became capital of the Byzantine Empire. It is strategically located partly in Europe and also in Asia, at the end of the Silk Route and the intersection of several bodies of water. We started the day at Pierre Loti Hill to enjoy a panoramic view of the skyline around the Golden Horn graced with mosques. Before criss-crossing between Asia & Europe on our Bosphorus ferry tour, we enjoyed the colorful bazaars of spices, lights, rugs, scarves and yummy kebab galore. The day ended in Old Town with a visit to the Blue Mosque with its intricate tile work. The Hagia Sofia was built as a Christian church during the Byzantine Empire with repurposed columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, later converted into a giant mosque and now a museum for all the appreciate.

08/17/13: Starting from Istanbul, we drove along the European Coast to Gallipoli visiting important World War I battle sites. We crossed the Dardanels and spent the night in Chanakkule into Anatolia, the Asian side of Turkey.

08/18/13: Troy is the famed site of the Trojan War. We learned about the 9 layers of civilizations unearthed by Schlieman and others. It was interesting to correlate parts of the Iliad with some physical locations. Of course, the kids enjoyed climbing the Trojan Horse replica. After lunch, we visited Pergamon which was a large ancient trading city mentioned in Revelations. Spent the night in the coastal resort town of Kusadasi.

08/19/13: Ephesus is the site of Turkey’s largest open air museum of the ancient Greco-Roman city. We explored the agora, odeon, amphitheater, various homes, and towering facade of the library. The famed Temple of Artemis, once considered one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient. Only one column remains; the rest have been repurposed to other churches and mosques after the decline of pagan beliefs. People also make pilgrimages to the supposed home of the Virgin Mary where she stayed with Apostle Paul after the resurrection of Jesus.

08/20/13: Started the morning at Aphrodisias, city of Aphrodite, major marble producer of ancient world. It is famed for its huge stadium and many resurrected columns. In the afternoon at Pamukkale, the kids enjoyed ticklish pedicures by doctor fish then soaked in the hot springs which left vast travertine calcium deposits. Spent the night in the seaside town of Antalya.

08/21/13: Perge is an extremely well-preserved Greco-Roman city with an luxurious heated Roman bath, spacious agora, and extensive canal water pipe system. Asplendos has a very large Roman amphitheater and aqueduct. We finished at the Antalya Archeological Museum then flew to Hayseri in the Cappadocia region.

08/22-24/13: The inland region of Cappadocia is littered with wild rock formations of soft, easily carved volcanic ash. Various cave villages and monasteries were carved into the stone, resembling fairy chimneys. We also visited 4 levels of an 8-story underground city.

08/24-26/13: We returned to Istanbul for a couple days to explore the city on our own and rest before the next leg of our trip. We visited Taksim Square the demonstration site and major shopping center, Archaeological Museum, and also the seemingly endless Grande Bazaar.

Greece: Mythology Immersion and Island Hopping

In July 2013, we spent a month in Greece. We started with the first week on the mainland, visiting the ancient archeological sites. Then we enjoyed 3 weeks of leisurely tour through the Greek Islands, visiting: the big island of Crete, the Dodecanese (12 islands) with Rhodes, Patmos, and Kos, then finally the Cyclades with Amorgos, Mykonos and Santorini.

07/16/13: First full day at Athens. Started at the Acropolis then visited the Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum. There were demonstrations downtown, in the area immediately surrounding the Parliament buildings. We heard some loud chanting but mostly everything was very quiet around town. The tourism economy is really hurting here.

07/17/13: Long day driving south into the Peloponnese. First stop was Corinth, big city on the trading route between Europe to the west and Asia to the east from ancient times. The city was destroyed then later rebuilt by the Romans. Only the columns from the Temple of Apollo still remain standing. Learned about the 3 types of columns, including the beautiful acanthus leaves of Corinthian design. There is now a canal connecting the 2 regions. Made a quick stop at Nemea to visit the stadium and Temple of Zeus.

Mycenae was the center of the Mycenean civilization that followed the Minoan civilization on Crete and pre-dates the classical period of Athens. According to legend, the city was founded by Perseus, slayer of Medusa, and also visited by Herakles aka Hercules. Its walls were believed to be built by the Cyclops. Eventually, it was ruled by Atreus then his son Agamemnon, leader Greeks during the Trojan War. The site was excavated by Henrich Schliemann in the late 1800s where many treasures, including a golden funeral mask, were unearthed.

Epidaurus housed the center for healing, founded by Asclepius. The museum displays many token of appreciation with replicas of healed body parts. The site is most famous for the amphitheater with unsurpassed acoustics, originally used for therapeutic purposes. Later, all significant Greek dramas were first performed here. It seats 50,000 people and is still in use today.

08/18/13: After overnighting at the charming sea-side town of Nauplion and enjoying a fresh seafood dinner, we made a short visit to the remains in Tiryns then headed towards Olympia, where we enjoyed a spectacular sunset dinner in the gardens of The Olympia Hotel.

07/19/13: Olympia is the site of the ancient Greek Olympics. According to legend, King Oinomaos had a beautiful daughter Hippodameia, who could only be married to a man who could out-race the king’s chariot. Pelops, a formidable suitor, hired a servant to replace the kings wheel pins with wax, which melted and killed the king during the race against Pelops. Pelops held the funeral races in honor for the fallen king and those became the first Olympics. Athletes competed in the nude to earn fame & fortune for their city-state. They began the races by passing through a long tunnel symbolizing the purification process.

The extensive grounds included several temples, stadiums, and a training complex. The Temple of Zeus originally held the golden statue of Zeus, sculpted by Phidias, architect of the Parthenon in Athens. Many who beheld the statue again shimmering sunlight reflected from the pools of olive oil thought it was alive and thus, it was hailed as one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. The eternal fire was lit before the Temple of Hera. Statues and figures commemorated winners, shaming cheaters, and acknowledged sponsors. Due to earthquakes, the entire area was destroyed and buried under mud.

07/20/13: Delphi is an extremely ancient city, originally based on the worship of Gaia, pre-dating the Olympian gods. According to mythology, Apollo rid the area of the Python and henceforth Apollo and Dionysus ruled the town. Once a month, after enough ethylene had seeped through the crevices from the ground, the oracle or sybil would sit on a tripod and inhale the gas to gain mental clarity. People from all over would come to seek answers to their questions. Engraved on one end of the temple was the aphorism “All things in moderation”, at the other end “Know thyself”. The ancient Greeks understood the human condition. The town remained neutral throughout wartimes and gained much wealth through the advice dispensed.

07/21/13: Meteora houses the 12 medieval Greek orthodox monasteries are perched precariously on the steep cliffs. Previously, people and goods were pulled by a system of nets & baskets attached to ropes. Today, 6 monasteries are still operational and open to the public. It was a challenge climbing the steep stairs but visitors are rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views. We visited the following: Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas, Holy Monastery of Varlaam, and finally Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron.

We returned to Athens to enjoy dinner at the Plaka before heading out to the Greek islands. It was interesting to observe how much the monuments were in ruins after earthquakes and wars, in comparison to those better preserved in Egypt.

07/22-24/13: Crete is the center of the Minoan civilization, the oldest civilization in Europe. According to legend, Zeus & Europa had 3 sons who became the first Minoan kings. King Minos built his palace at Knossos and is known for the labyrinth designed by Daedelus to house the Minotaur. This palace is located near the modern town of Heraklion. We also visited Phaistos, the less busy and better preserved palace on the south of the island near the Libyan Sea, built by his brother.

07/25-27/13: Rhodes is the largest of the 12 Dodekanese islands near the coast of Turkey. Rhodes is also the name of the island’s largest town with formerly housed the Colossal of Rhodes, giant bronze statue that stood at the harbor and considered one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. The charming town itself is a medieval Venetian fortress that encloses a colorful market of shops and restaurants. Alexis was thrilled by her purchase of 2 blue Greek costume dresses. We took a day trip to the town of Lindos famed for its Acropolis overlooking the sea and surrounded by more colorful shops.

07/28-29/13: Patmos is tiny island, known for the grotto or cave where the apostle John received his vision for Revelations. A monastery was built high on the fortress in St. John’s memory. We enjoyed a lovely dinner on the sandy beach, overlooking the water.

07/30-08/02/13: Kos is a mid-sized island in the Dodekanese. It is famous for the Asclepion hospital, which was home to Hippocrates. In Kos town, there’s a medieval castle and cute little shops, like a smaller scaled version of Rhodes. We stayed 25 km from town, in the Neptune Hotel resort. The kids adored the luxurious swimming pools, full service restaurants, and enjoyed windsurfing and body-boarding at the beach.

08/03-04/13: Amorgos is a tiny island among the Cyclades chain with a monastery built high on the cliff with unobstructed panoramic views of the Aegean. We stayed near the port town of Katapola then drove a rental car to visit its crystal clear beaches, made famous by the movie The Big Blue.

08/05-10/13: Mykonos a big tourist town in the Cyclades. Its whitewashed buildings are lined with shops, restaurants, and picturesque windmills. The kids have learned to thoroughly enjoy gyros. We also took a day-trip to nearby Delos, the extensive archaeological site of the sacred birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.

08/11-14/13: Santorini is the picturesque island caldera covered with blue-domed white buildings. It seems every spot has breathtaking panoramic ocean views. Kids probably ruined the atmosphere but we really enjoyed a relaxing break at the Honeymoon Petra Suites with day beds and pool just outside our room. It was a blissful way to pass time, especially since we had no power for 2 days after a fire at the local power plant. We managed to drag ourselves to visit the quaint towns of Fira and Ia in between the lounging. What a lovely way to end our tour of the Greek Islands.