Posts

Sculptures and silhouettes

I’ve a great imagination. It doesn’t take much for me to imagine myself somewhere, to transport myself to another time and place, and let my mind wander to the point that the goose bumps are followed by tears. Hey, I used to cry at Coronation Street!

IMG_8792 (800x599)Walking up to top of Mount Bental, past the sign for the quite surreally namedcoffee chop, Coffee Anan (which means coffee cloud), and a host of peculiar iron sculptures, I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotion that would surface in the next hour or so. To be honest, I was clueless. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when the Syrians attacked the Golan Heights with 1500 tanks and 1000 artillery pieces, Israel matched this might with 160 tanks and 60 artillery pieces. Syria’s aim: to reclaim the territory that had been seized in 1967. Israel’s aim: not to give an inch. Heavy casualties resulted and the valley below was christened the Valley of Tears.

IMG_8794 (800x600)My first reaction to the black metal silhouettes was one close to despair. I’d had enough of commercialism; I wanted some authenticity, not yet another show, purpose-built for tourists. But as I wandered, eavesdropping on the talks been given by various guides to visitors from the USA, Europe, and Australia, the magnitude of what had taken place, here, 1165 metres above sea level, sank in.

IMG_8815 (600x800)For nearly 20 years (1948-1967), when Syria controlled the Heights, it regularly bombarded northern Israel from this point. In 1967, when Israel came out atop the Six-Day War, it won itself this strategic vantage point from where it could closely watch Syria’s movement. It’s also of vital importance for water as the area accounts for more than a third of Israel’s total water supply. And as was repeatedly mentioned in the days I was there, long after the geopolitics have been resolved, the fight for water in the region will continue.

IMG_8800In response to the apparent mobilization of its Arab neighbours, early on the morning of June 5, Israel staged a sudden preemptive air assault and destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground; later that day, it incapacitated a great deal of the Jordanian and Syrian air power as well. Without cover from the air, the Arab armies were left vulnerable to attack, and, as a result, the Israeli victory on the ground was also overwhelming. By the time the United Nations cease-fire came into effect on June 10, Israeli units had driven Syrian forces back from the Golan Heights, taken control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and driven Jordanian forces from the West Bank. Notably, the Israelis were left in sole control of  Jerusalem. The warfare resulted in the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees and brought more than one million Palestinians in the occupied territories under Israeli rule.

IMG_8803 (800x584)IMG_8805 (600x800)Wandering down the steep steps into the tunnels that connected the bunkers, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the claustrophobia, the frustration, the fear that the soldiers must have felt holed up, shelling the guts out of the land below. As recently as May this year, shells were exchanged across the border and the wars of old show little sign of abating.

In the valley beneath, fruit and vegetables grow peacefully. Tourists wander through the vineyards. And life continues with a sense of what passes for normalcy. I had hoped to come away with a better sense of where my sympathies lies but the more I learn, the more confused I am becoming. And I’m increasingly wondering at the minds of those who can so clearly come down on one side or the other. Amidst the interminable shades of grey, I can see very little black and white.

IMG_8799

Nearly 400 metres below sea level… and counting

It seems as if much of what I’ve taken to be true is being challenged this week. And equally, what I’m expected to know as fact is requiring every ounce of belief that I have. On the road from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, we passed an unusual marker…. and had I not being standing on the side of the road looking off into a deeper valley in the distance, I might have been able to get my head around the fact that I was standing a sea level. But if I was on flat ground and the valley in front me was deeper still, how could it be possible to be on land and yet be below sea level?

IMG_7864 (800x597)I’ve come to the conclusion (sad that it might be) that my brain has a limited capacity for facts. And to repeat the well-worn adage, the more I learn the more I realise I don’t know, and all I can say is that it’s frustrating.

I’m tripping over phrases that should mean something to me other than pure words: green line, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, West Bank… but those I can write off to a geopolitical ignorance that although embarrassing, might be understandable. But this sea level stuff – that’s something my nephews would know.

IMG_8032 (800x558)While I mightn’t have known that  down the middle of the Dead Sea  runs the border between Israel and Jordan, I did know that you can’t swim in it – you can only float. I mightn’t have known that it’s called the Dead Sea because it’s 8.6 times saltier than the ocean and thus nothing lives in it, but I did know that it’s famous for its mud. I mightn’t have known that it’s the source of balms for Egyptian mummies to potash for fertilizers, I did know that it’s bath salts are famous.

IMG_8021 (489x800)There’s a ritual. First you go the water and slather yourself head to toe in mud. Then you wait for 15 to 30 minutes (or as long as you can stand it). It’s surprisingly hard to sit still when you’re caked in black gooh. Then you get in the water and float … on your back. Floating on your stomach is strictly prohibited. It’s a must for anyone with psoriasis, dry skin, acne, muscle aches, dandruff, or those suffering from stress. Not for those with pacemakers or high blood pressure. Which leaves me wondering though… aren’t high blood pressure and stress sort of related?

IMG_8020People watching is great – wondering what they’d be like with their mud off… and then realising that it was off… and they were African. Obviously I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

And, while I wasn’t actually driving myself, so technically it might not count… I did get to drive on the world’s lowest road – Hwy 90 – that runs along the shores of the Dead Sea at 393 m below sea level. Not quite Route 66 but… Szilvester checked the altimeter on his watch at one stage and it read 345 meters below sea level so I know the signs weren’t lying.

The Dead Sea is said to be over 3 million years old – that’s old. And while water flows into it, none flows out of it; what disappears evaporates.  It was Cleopatra who started the Dead Sea cosmetic rage, a woman before her time, that one! And I couldn’t stop running my hands up and down my arms afterwards… soft doesn’t begin to describe the feel. I was wishing I’d brought a few ziplock bags – I could have carted the mud home.

Perhaps most interesting though is that each year, the River Jordan contributes less water to the Dead Sea – so the shoreline is dropping at a rate of about a metre annually. A massive problem. I’ve heard it said numerous times this week that long after the political situation is resolved, the region will still be fighting over water. There’s a plan afoot to build a pipeline to draw water from the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, thus refilling the Dead Sea and desalinating the water for human consumption. I tell you, it’s given me a whole new respect for the scarcity of water …. and the talent required to translate.

IMG_8019 (800x600)