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Israel: The Modern Wonders of Anceint Israel
By Jack Maraffi

The hard earth cracked beneath my shoes like pie crust. Rain had come and gone, allowing the sun more than equal time on the parched yellow sand steps up snake path to the top of Masada. Day broke over the adjacent mountains as three small sandal-clad Arab boys raced by me. The modern tram, which takes about three minutes, passed swiftly overhead as if to mock my decision to take the one-hour walk to the top. But I was determined. I wanted to see how the 965 Israelites who lived here in 73 A.D. came and went to the stronghold. For over a year they held off the Roman legions and then decided to take their own lives rather than submit to them. Finally at the top, a panoramic view of the Dead Sea made it all worthwhile, not to mention the beauty of the sunrise over the caramel colored Judean desert. A marvel of ancient construction, with a water system, several palaces and vast storehouses, Masada stands as a symbol of man’s tenacity and defiance. It is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, and one of the world’s great walks.

 

As many do, I came to Israel for the rich tapestry of the seminal sites from the Bible and to see where the world’s three great monotheistic religions had their beginnings. It had been fascinating and satisfying to visit Bethlehem; sense the pastoral calm of The Galilee; to feel awed by the ancient Western Wall and the glistening dome of Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But I also found something else.Israel is a lot of fun with outdoor adventures for all ages.  I arrived at Masada from Eilat, Israel’s premier resort town at the southern tip of the country on the Red Sea. With a year-round temperature that varies between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, it is easy to see why there is explosive hotel growth there with many of the world’s major hotel chains staking a claim.

 

The entire resort area is only 15 years old so it is hard to find a bad room. There are plenty of restaurants overlooking the sun-washed coast where the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea provide splendid fish watching. Sailing, windsurfing, pedal boats and other water sports are available and the kids can even swim with dolphins.  On my way from Eilat, I passed the Negev desert’s gigantic Ramon crater, Israel’s Grand Canyon. It is one of the largest natural craters in the world with stunning rock formations; I passed up a chance to do some rappelling on mountain walls.

 

For thousands of years the Negev was a central part of the Spice Route plied by camel caravans transporting the coveted spices from the East. I couldn’t resist renting a camel there, if only to have the photo to take home.  As we progressed into the desert, we met a Bedouin tribesman whose family had lived in this hostile environment for thousands of years. He offered a number of local crafts for sale. Negotiating with this gentle giant of a man swathed in layers of slate grey clothing proved to be daunting. I assembled a small mound of semi-precious stones, which were hand-strung with silver beads separating them. Then I asked the price. We went back and forth with much shaking of heads and attempts to walk away (as my guide suggested). We settled on a few NI (new Israel shekels) and concluded the transaction with a cooling mint tea. $20 goes a long way in the desert. 

 

The next leg of my voyage took me to the seaside resorts of the Dead Sea about one half hour from Jerusalem. The Dead Sea, 1,320 feet below sea level, is the lowest point on earth and is the repository of all kinds of restorative claims. The water contains 21 minerals that are recognized for imparting a relaxed feeling, nourishing the skin and easing rheumatic discomfort. I wanted to slather myself with the signature black mud and see what happened. Thermo-mineral springs are found along the coast, as are elaborate spas and lavish resorts.

 

 

But first of all, a swim was required. The high salt content of the Dead Sea, over ten times that of the nearby Mediterranean, allows swimmers to float like corks. The black mud is well...black mud. You rub it on your skin and wait ten minutes then take it off. I can now attest to its ability to silken the skin.

It has been a revelation to me how many active leisure activities are available in Israel.  Serious outdoor sports are also found in the north, in Galilee and the Golan Heights. I am considering coming back for a walking tour of the 25 vineyards achieving high marks in international tasting...a personal passion and reason alone to return.  After all, 4,000 years ago a man named Abraham hiked with his wife Sarah from his home, in what is now Iraq, to what is now the country of Israel.

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