I didn't at all know what to expect when I boarded that flight to Israel.
My friends had been sending me articles about El Al, Israel's flagship airline, and their onboard missile defense systems. Apparently, they have the most sophisticated security system of any airline in existence.
I had been warned about the airport interrogations and had been told not to let anyone stamp my passport. Some countries don't recognize Israel as a country and won't let you enter if they see that you've crossed the border.
It's a complicated place, this Israel.
It's no easy task understanding what's going on over here, and the whole story involves elements of history, politics and religion from hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
If you want to brush up on your knowledge, it might be worth reading this.
I'll do my best to address the conflict in a future article because I think I would be doing both the country and yourselves, the readers of this website, a disservice by not broaching the subject. But outside of the conflict, and through sinking my teeth into the culture, people, food, and religion, I walked away with a very different understanding of Israel as it stands today.
And on top of that, I found something in Israel that I truly wasn't expecting.
Things to Do in Israel
My three weeks in Israel were a whirlwind. I covered almost half of the country in the first couple of days, and somewhat slowly completed the rest of it over the following two weeks. I wasn't totally sure what to expect from a country found right in the middle of a desert, but I knew I would find some unexpected treasures.
And a lot of sand.
Land Rover-ing in the Negev Desert
The Ramon Crater (aka Mitzpe Ramon), found in the Negev Desert, is 28 miles wide and is actually not a crater–it's what it called a makhtesh. There's not actually an English translation for this word because the geological landform it refers to is unique to this specific region, where the two official languages are Hebrew and Arabic.
A makhtesh is essentially a valley caused by thousands of years of erosion. A hard outer layer of rock forms over a landmass and the softer minerals underneath it wash away. The top layer then crumbles into the empty space below, creating what you see in the images above.
Adam Sela, a South African transplant and regional expert, loaded us up into his Land Rover and showed us petrified artifacts, geological formations, and stunning views of one of Israel's most unique landscapes.
His trusty Land Rover has clocked more than 1.3 million km in the Negev Desert.
Photographing the Dead Sea
I didn’t have very high expectations of the Dead Sea. From what I had heard, the coastline was littered with garbage and the water was gross and murky. To be perfectly honest, these assessments are mostly true—the swimming areas of the Dead Sea are cluttered with plastic bags and bottles and the water is brown and salty.
Getting outside of the swimming areas, though, and photographing some of the vistas in the lesser-known areas of the Dead Sea was particularly rewarding. Long turquoise waves brushed up against the toasted brown of the desert, creating an exceptionally rare effect. One particular area on the southern Dead Sea, just outside of Jerusalem, is host to huge salt formations and was perhaps one of the most photogenic vistas I’ve ever seen.
At 420 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. It’s salt concentration is so high that every part of your body floats and trying to keep any limb below the surface of the water is a difficult and hilarious task.
Exploring Timna National Park
30 miles outside the resort town of Eilat lies Timna Valley, an old copper mine now encompassed by a park. Most notably known for it’s unusual and stunning rock formations, the sights in the Timna National Park were created through hundreds of years of rock fractures and erosion.
With limited time available, I decided to conquer one monument rather than just barely see them all. Solomon’s Pillars, perhaps the most well-known formation in the valley, called my name, and I made it my mission to climb the entire thing. There are stairs leading about halfway up, but the rest required some free climbing.
The views from the top, though? Totally worth it.
Experiencing the Holiest City in the World
I didn’t have a particular interest in visiting the holy sites of Israel, but I found them just about everywhere I went. Jerusalem is hugely significant to many religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and there are sacred places for each religion found all over Jerusalem.
– In Christianity, Jerusalem is the place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.
– For the Jews, Jerusalem is the ancestral and spiritual homeland. Those who practice outside of Jerusalem pray facing its direction.
– In Islam, Jerusalem is sacred due to its association with Islamic prophets, namely Muhammed, who is believed to be a messenger for God. Abraham, David, Solomon, and Jesus are also regarded as Prophets of Islam, and each one has a tie to Jerusalem.
People of each faith intensely desire ownership of the city of Jerusalem, and so religion plays a large part in the conflict I mentioned before. Currently the people live in general peace within the city, but there is still a lot of tension. Jerusalem is divided, in fact, and one-half is considered to be a part of the new State of Israel (which was only recognized recently—in 1949) while the other still remains a part of the Palestinian Territories.
To see the holiest place on earth was, indeed, an eye opening experience. To see a city so largely divided, yet living as one, was something else entirely.
Falafel, Hummus, and Tahini, Oh My!
Eating in Israel is something to be especially excited about. I wasn’t excited when I arrived, but the more food I was presented with, the more infatuated with the cuisine I became.
With influences coming from all over the Mediterranean and Middle East, the present day cuisine in Israel is something of a Jewish fusion including foods from all over those regions. I was met with chickpeas in almost every form, and some manifestation of bread and olive oil at almost every meal.
And though it usually was, when hummus wasn’t served, I got very, very angry.
Connecting with My Heritage
But my pilgrimage to Israel was enriched by something more significant than incredible experiences and delicious food. I not only saw one of my good friends who now lives in Tel Aviv, but I met some of my family for the first time—cousins on the side of my family that I haven't connected with much.
I’ll tell you a secret. It’s something I don’t share with people often, but I have four names on my birth certificate. The name I don’t publicize is a German name which extends from my father in the United States to his family who now lives in Israel. Until my trip to Israel, I had never met another person with this name. But, when I saw the smiles on Hannah and Moshe’s faces, and when I met Henia, Sharon, and Gaya, I felt a unique sense of coming home that I had never experienced before.
You see, my grandparents left Vienna in 1939 at the start of the German invasion and, after a year of refuge in Italy, they migrated to Israel where they have remained ever since. Somehow, their warm welcomes and stories of my family left me feeling like I had found a piece of myself that I never knew I was missing.
Even though I had never met these people, something in me felt safe, and something between us clicked. They told me stories of family which gave context to my name. I felt like I had known them forever. They were my blood, and I could feel it. Through some strange twist of fate, I came to Israel as a tourist, but left feeling like I had found another home.
The topic of Israel can be controversial. This is a travel article, not a political one. Please keep your comments relevant and respectful.
Disclaimer: My trip to Israel was made possible through partnerships with the Israel Ministry of Tourism, Tourist Israel, Abraham Tours, and Abraham Hostels. Partnerships like these allow me to continue bringing you content from all over the world. I never allow such partnerships to compromise the integrity of my words and I will only ever recommend companies that I genuinely trust and believe in. Thank you for reading 🙂