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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ancient Lands, Modern Problems

I recently returned from a wonderful, awe-inspiring trip to the Middle East, during which I visited Israel, Jordan and Turkey, and saw some amazing sites and places filled with history. Imagine walking through the ancient city of Troy, which was founded some 3,500 years before the birth of Christ. Or walking the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, that retraces Christ's route to his crucifixion in Jerusalem's Old City.
Woman at Jerusalem's ancient Western Wall.

View from the Golan Heights.
More impressive than the ancient ruins, however, was the knowledge of the area's geopolitics that was shared with our group by both our Israeli and Jordanian guides. On a visit to Israel's Golan Heights (seized from Syria in the 1967 war), we could see both Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, we heard explosions in Syria as we stood high on the hill near an Israeli army bunker.

Along the shallow Jordan River, we saw both the Israeli baptismal site (very commercialized, with a fee for everything) and the Jordanian baptismal site (left as it was 2,000 years ago, and open to visitors free of charge, although permission to enter must be granted by the Jordanian military as it is a border area). The sites were separated by the river, which was about 12 meters across. Three meters on one side were Israeli, three meters on the other side were Jordanian, and six meters in the middle were international waters. The same countries both border the Dead Sea.

From Israel, we could see the ancient biblical city of Jericho, now part of the Palestinian Authority's lands. We crossed into the city of Bethlehem, now also ruled by the Palestinian Authority, past the
massive white security walls erected by Israel to protect its citizens from attacks by Palestinian terrorists. Our visit to the Church of the Nativity, which was originally commissioned in 327 AD by Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena over the site that is traditionally considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Christ, was led by a Palestinian Christian. He is a graduate of Bethlehem Bible College. We ate lunch in a Palestinian restaurant, then we visited a local gift shop run by a Palestinian Christian family. Understandably, tour guides and similar positions are predominantly Christians, not Muslims. Our bus driver, an Israeli citizen, had to wait with the bus and was limited to only 3 hours in Palestine.

Hearing about the complicated history and political and religious divisiveness of this ancient land deepened my knowledge of the conflicts but did little to help me understand the ongoing hostilities. Jordan, one of the Arab countries that fought against Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, now has a good relationship with its Jewish neighbor. Our Israeli guide pointed out areas captured from Arab countries during the war: the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. We saw new Israeli settlements on the West Bank, an area whose ownership remains highly contested.

Building in the city of Tzfat with bullet holes from the 1967 war.
We passed buildings pock-marked by bullet holes during the war. We heard about how the Golan Heights are still considered under international law to be occupied territory, and we saw the remnants of Syrian bunkers as we drove to the overlook. We passed a group of Israeli tanks in a wooded area practicing military maneuvers.

A visit to a kibbutz revealed signs warning of live mines, placed in years past as defense
against possible invaders from Lebanon. Israel is not at war at the moment, but the evidence of past wars, and preparations for any future needed military actions, are never far away.

One final thought: hearing about happenings in the Middle East on the news is one thing. Visiting the countries and seeing how small some of the areas are, and how much border area they share, presents an entirely different view of things. I better understand the fragile nature of peace in the area, as evidenced by the ubiquitous Israeli military and police. All Israeli citizens must serve in the military at age 18, men for three years and women for two years. In Jordan, a member of the tourist police accompanied us every day. Several people have asked whether it was safe to visit those countries. I always answer with an unequivocal 'yes.' At no time did I feel threatened or in danger. All our hotels had security, which ranged from someone staffing the front door to an x-ray machine that scanned each person and their luggage.

I would encourage anyone interested in ancient history and modern geopolitics to visit these fascinating countries. Not only did it make the religious stories I learned as a child in Sunday school come alive, but it gave me a real appreciation for the area as a whole.