Tuesday, July 19, 2011


from one hand to the other, given not a trace
we suffer we joy we find such reaches to employ
all the feelings granted to us, we harken upon each one
we strive we linger we hold fast and fall upon

i take it till my dying day, that each of us must pay
the toll in heart break the dawn of new days
the pain and joys we suffer
am i not alone in these over crowded world
are i one with the masses
with the grotesque and the adored

a lone person smiling
a crowd of crying mourners
a flock in prayer an uplifted sayer
our voices cry for peace
yet slumbering we discover our internal is at war

we grind into the dirt we cleanse every pore
we sit with flies not twitching
we wash each and switching
alternating from health to dust
from rich into poor
we dive each time headlong
between activity and stupor

my fellow man, most precious lady
these emotions all i've felt
loss beyond reckoning
and joy untaken and uplifted
sadness at a single fault
and smiles secret and shared
i cannot walk past a single one
and feel i've never cared.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Jordan; Aman and Petra

If you are reading this, I will assume you are also reading Rayna's blog and her post about her trip to Belarus to lead seders there during Passover.  Well, with Rayna leaving town for a week, I decided I might as well do the same and take an opportunity to travel.

Some backstory: A tourist visa in Israel is good for three months.  My stay - three months and three days.  Thus I HAD to leave the country at least once and upon reentry get a new tourist visa for three months.  So I took the opportunity when it presented itself.

Sharon is a Rabbinical student at HUC, and one of Rayna's colleagues.  Her boyfriend Adam is a student at Hebrew University studying biblical history.  I've gotten to know both of them pretty well over the past few months, and had some incredibly interesting discussion with Adam.  He is like a walking talking insightful answer machine for all the questions that pop into my head here in Israel.  Turns out it works in Jordan too.

A week or two before Rayna's departure (a few days before Passover actually started) Sharon and Adam mentioned their plans to go to Jordan, and I jumped.  As the date drew nearer I made my bus reservations and hotel reservations online (it's cool, the bus system sends you a text message with your confirmation number, then you enter that into the machine at the station).  I was to leave one day before Rayna, and get back on the first evening of passover with time to get to seder.

So we took the bus to Eilat, on the Red Sea, the southern most part of Israel, then taxi'd to the border.  Walking across is a cinch, but you have to pay about $30 to exit Israel.  From there we taxi'd to Aqaba, the Jordanian town mirroring Eilat.  Both are beautiful beach towns.  We picked up our rental and drove immediately to a gas station.  When you rent in Jordan the tank is empty!  You return it the same way.  Weird, I know.

From there we drove back North all the way to Amman (which is actually North of Jerusalem by a little bit - reason for this is complex and involves the visa requirements at different points of entry to and from the countries).  We found a parking spot on the busy market streets of Amman and hoofed it to our Hotel.  It is always strange to arrive anywhere at night, but doing so in a rental, in another country, that speaks a foreign language, that has in the past been hostile, and with new travel partners, well it should be a bigger challenge that it was.  It was cake.  Except for figuring out where to park, we found our hotel, checked in, found Adam's friend (who was also staying there), got a recommendation for dinner, and ate an AMAZING mixed grill dinner for 3 for like $14.

Amman is a beautiful city.  It has it's challenges, and is very different from the more Western feeling cities of Israel, and of course the US, but it is also charming, and friendly.  Sweet smells (and some others...) of delicious food, new and different things for sale (and many many familiar things), friendly people, ancient ruins, modern conventions, and all very reasonably priced.  Truth be told the people were some of the friendliest I have met.

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Now, I wasn't advertising that I was Jewish, but I wasn't hiding it either.  i was honest with everyone, told them where I was from, but didn't offer any more info than I needed.  But it never seemed like an issue either way.  I hope this is true to some degree, and not just my optimism, but maybe people are beginning to see that we are all really much more similar than we are different.  Semitic people, Arabs, descendants of Abraham, half-brothers, cousins... monotheists.  Dark skinned, argumentative, fun loving, hummus eaters all of us!

So I felt very comfortable the whole time.

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Next morning we checked out of our hotel, brought our bags to our car and walked through the city a bit, to the Roman Theater, and the Greek Theater.  Around and about the shops in the old part of town where we stayed.  we ate at an upscale spot with a great rooftop terrace (if you know me then you know i'm a sucker for terraces) with a great view.

DSC 0072 The story gets a little more interesting here.  We headed south to the Amman Airport to pick up Andrea, Adam's sister.

In hearing about this plan from the start I'd made the rational assumption that Andrea must be at least as adventurous as Adam, since she was flying into Jordan from the states to meet her brother.  There are always potential complications in a complex pickup operation like this, so i figured she was a traveler to even attempt this arrangement.  On the ride there Adam assured me it was the opposite and that if he wasn't there waiting for her she would be quite upset.  Well kudos, Andrea, for taking the leap and flying way outside your comfort zone.  But don't worry, dear reader, we made it.  And I'm glad we had a little extra time!  They are building an amazing new airport literally in between and around the old one.  It is a complex glass, steel, and concrete form, but entirely curving, and arching.  Much like other Arab structures this one emulates the sheltering tent like structures native to this ancient culture.

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With Andrea secured, we got back in the car and headed south... to our ultimate destination, and one of the places I've been wanting to go see for YEARS: Petra.

Legendary city of stone.  Ancient mystery, magnificent unparalleled masonry, unique in the world.  Petra, just hours away, we were on our way.

The desert highway, rolling, burnt earth, and pipeline snaking forever alongside.  We turn off onto an older, smaller desert highway, that begins cutting through hills and valleys, shifting up and down, from lush to arid and back again.  Descending down towards the unknown, excitement brewed within me.

Finally, we round a bend and the road hugs a steep hillside, we descend towards a town that seems to reach up, beckoning, signs and light, many languages, banks, shops, all the elements of a major tourist destination.  Much like Aquas Calientes in Peru, modern entry and way-station for Machu Pichu, or even the town of Moab, Utah, the base for so many hikers and bikers in Arches National Park , all these towns feel the same in some weird detached way.

Our Hotel, or Hostel more accurately, is in this town, on the hill opposite the large brown red stone labyrinth that hides the ancient city of Petra.  You can see the mound below, obscured in mist and the diminishing light.  The sun began to set as we stashed our bags in our rooms, and i managed to route out yet another rooftop terrace to try to capture the mystery of this place.  The excitement inside me, the anticipation, the known energy of the unknown awaiting, pulsating in my chest.

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We dined at the hostel on their terrace, then moved into the Bedouin tent for some hookah.  As the night grew thicker so did the crowd, and some local Bedouins arrived and began to play traditional music on the Oud (like a guitar but with a fully rounded body and a twangy, lively, eastern sound).  Yes, we danced, and yes, we talked with the Bedouins, later into the night than I had thought reasonable for such a big next day, but we were wild, and we were wired, and we were all just so damn excited, i didn't think I'd be able to sleep much anyhow.

I did sleep, but I woke up as I tend to, before my alarm, wide awake, ready, and so excited.  Shower, pack back up, and back on the terrace for breakfast.  Delicious, but the flavors seemed to wink out on my tongue as soon as I got the food in my mount and my mind back on the day ahead.  Soon Adam and Sharon joined me, but I knew and understood that Andrea would be feeling the effects of 9 hours of time zones, and when she roused soon after, i have to say I was impressed, if unable to show it due to the implacable anticipation coursing through me.  
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We drove down, Adam guiding and driving since he'd been here once before, to the park entrance and parked on a sidewalk (totally normal here, I assure you).  Words began to fail me as they do now as I try to type.  So i will let photos speak for me, and try to provide some captions to tell you what they are.  You'll be able to ascertain our day, as these are chronologically placed.  The entrance hike in, the stunning delivery of the Treasury approached through a narrow chasm, the unbelievable wall street, the ascent up to the sacrificial altar, the Urn Palace, the treacherous donkey drivers, and the Monastery.  Unparalleled in all the world.  Enjoy.  I did.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Update - holocaust memorial day

Looking out from this perch i see the walls of the Old City, the buildings of the modern Jerusalem, and in the distance, a valley as old as time, filled with history. We look back through time and see the blood spilled, the tears shed, the people conquered, and brief moments of revelation and joy. But over it all is cast a pallor of war. Death and loss, pain echoing down nerves spun of memory and hope that we will avoid such catastrophe again.

Today is the day in Israel when we remember and mourn the holocaust. At ten am a horn sounded throughout Israel and everywhere, everyone stopped. And stood. In silence for one minute. I was with the HUC crowd, for a prayer service after which we all went outside for the moment. Standing on the street corner the horn sounded, and quickly everyone realized to be quiet. A bus pulled over in front of us and stopped. At first i was dismayed to be assaulted by the fumes and sound if it's chugging diesel, but then i saw inside, it was still and everyone was standing. I looked around, and construction workers stopped their pounding, and stood facing the walls of the Old City, shopkeepers and customers came outside, and stood in mutual silence.

Time stretched, everywhere I looked people stopped, standing, heads bowed or eyes east, the wailing of the horn a voice for a nation. Remembering our loss. Feeling a mutual pain and hoping for a future without a fear of this ever happening again.

I must go back now a few hours to the walk into campus before the service. As we walked we were joined by classmate and friend Jay Levine who told us the news about the death and recovery of the body of the tyrant and murder Osama BinLaden.

Can you sense this emotional connection already? I was feeling it more each moment as we sat and stood praying for life, and remembering our loss during the service for the memorial day. Today we have finally ended the tyranny of a madman, the news dumped on me without a moment to consider, celebrate, mourn, or even realize. And it struck me, how the news of killing Hitler might have felt, how the relief of the end of such disaster as the holocaust would have been received. Did we Americans just receive our recompense for 9/11? Is Osama the murder's welcome end the American version of an end we Jews were denied by Hitler's pathetic suicide?

I ponder. I have wanted the death of Osama for many years, which is an unusual thing for me. Justice and compassion must always temper our thinking, but this murderer deserved tenfold the pain he inflicted upon innocent victims. And now here it arrives, on a day we mark in Israel as the day of mourning, an event that must be venerated if not celebrated. A modern day tyrant wiped from the earth, and we are all better off without him.

Closure will never exist for the victims, and the relatives of the victims of the holocaust. There is no way to rationally understand or come to terms with such awful destruction and despicability. It is inhuman. And the numbers from that disaster defy sense as well. It is a wound that cannot heal, it is a dismemberment of history and of faith in humanity.

We Americans however have finally killed the tyrant Osama. Closure can and will come. We can and will win this war, and we can heal and move on. The buildings can be rebuilt, and sense can be restored. I will celebrate this act of violence toward the murderer, as i would imagine the murder of Hitler would have been celebrated as well. And i will mourn the loss of generations of Jews, Gypsies, Russians, Europeans, Asians, and Americans. All at once in a maelstrom of emotion only a stiff drink can resolve.

In my heart, all of this and all of you; sufferers, soldiers, celebrators, and strangers. May we move on, may we move forward, and end chapters of tyranny, murder, suffering, and sadness, and write new chapters of collaboration, progress, and peace.

- with Shalom from Israel

Location:Jerusalem, Israel

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ashkelon - Ancestors and ancient history.

There is always so much more that we don't know, than what we think we know, and even more than we actually know.  This is a story about my own unknown past, and a past that we will never truly understand.

My dear Mom, what a wonderful person, and what a wonderful mom.  She always gives, and I will never be able to give back as much as I'd like to, and not just cause she gave me life.  She gives me so much more.  Well we all lost some family last year.  My Grandparents Anne and Moshe Shapiro passed within 41 days of each other in the sad and beautiful way people who love each other go.  I miss them often, and know they are at peace and that their love blesses us all who know it.  With their passing last year I realized what a profoundly lucky guy I am in having my parents so strong and near.  Seeing both of my parents lose their parents made me realize how hard it will be for me to say goodbye to them when that time comes.  It is a marker of life, and a transition that changes a person's position and role whether they are ready or not.

I didn't know enough about my Grandparents, and I won't be able to ask them any more.  However, I am lucky enough to have parents and aunts and uncles who I can ask as many questions to as they will put up with.  And I am glad I can because the story of my family is as interesting as any story I have ever heard, and is uniquely mine!  Before my Grandpa followed my Grandma to the ever after, he moved to Portland for a few weeks.  I got to see him often in those weeks and asked him all about his parents, and his past.  And amazingly enough, much of his life took place here, in Israel.

Moshe was born in the USA, as was his sister Ruth.  Their parents however were born in the 'old world' of the diaspora, and moved to The States where they met as so many hopeful immagrants have over the last few centuries.  My Great Grandfather was from Odessa, Ukrain, and my Great Grandmother was from Prussia (the area of modern Germany that was once part of Poland, and before that, a contested region as there has ever been).  They met in the states, married, had two kids and moved to Palestine.

Palestine - that is a name that harbors as many misconceptions and historical myth as any in history, but put simply, it is this area, Israel, between times when it was known as Israel.  Now the name Palestine is confusing because it was created by people who didn't live here (maybe) or by a historical reference that is not really pronounceable, or a few other myths, legends, invaders, pilgrims, etc...  Confusing, yes, a name, definitely, and an idea then as now, without doubt.  My Great Grandparents moved here to do what so many have done over the ages; to create a land in the form of an idea.

They came here with their kids to help tame the land.  Back in the early parts of the 20th century Palestine was a swampy mess.  It had been a war torn land for so long, that the spirograph of civilization's history here is too confusing to comprehend.  So let me over simplify by saying there have been many amazing civilizations here, and as many destructions and genocides to match.  But 80 or so years ago, you could make a life here, and take part in the hope of creating a new land to match the dream of what Israel is in the hearts of her people.

Three years ago my Mom and her brothers' Joel and Mark all traveled to Israel with my Grandpa Moshe.  It was a trip through the family history for all of them, Moshe the most, but also for the siblings.  In fact the whole of my Mom's brothers and sisters, lived in Israel when they were kids with my Grandparents.  So in 2008 (?) the four of them came back to traverse this memory and discover the places they had connections to as a way of discovering themselves.  They lived in Haifa that year, but it was not the first time my Grandpa lived there, but that story comes later.

My Grandpa lived in Jerusalem when he was young - literally 1 block from where I am sitting, and living right now.  I kid you not.  I just turned my head and looked out the window as I type and I can see the third floor apartment where he and Ruth, and their parents lived decades ago.... (chills).  But they made their home in another city, called Ashkelon, and that is where this story takes us now.

My Mom has been carrying the burden of her parents passing heavily these past few months, and I know she has been seeking ways to help make this difficult transition.  One way to find peace for her, and for my Grandparents was our mission this day - to go to Ashkelon and see my Great Grandparent's graves, the house they built, and maybe get a taste of the life they lived here years ago.

So Mom, Rick, Rayna and I got in the rental car and headed West, down out of the mountains, out towards Tel Aviv and the sea, and then South, to a point that is just North of Gaza strip, to an ancient and modern city called Ashkelon.

As we came in towards the city we diverted to the North, not taking the standard route towards the city center.  We curled around and came in above the city on a long curving road with big meadows on each side.  In the distance on our left sat a copse of trees, and it was there, in a small cemetery our goal lay.  It was harder to get there than to see it but eventually we made it on a dirt road with no signs.  I didn't feel like I was trespassing on this unmarked sea of wheat to this island of trees rising above, but I also didn't feel like I belonged there.  That all changed over the course of the next hour.

I parked the car in the only place I could, just off the road, and as the engine died the peace of this place flowed over us all.  It was quiet in a windy way.  The waving of the grass, the wind in the branches, and an endless time of sun worn stone, graves covered in the dust of Israel, the grit of a dry land, the accumulated leaves and petals of the old, gnarled vegetation.  Time here was thick upon the air, and sweet.  Honey colored sun, warm eternal winds across our faces, and far away the city across the fields all around.

Mom knew where to find my Great Grandparents.  Their graves tucked away and in with the others, surrounded by wild growing plants in the tan dry earth.  Simple and stone.  Israeli graves are marked by stone rectangles that look like tombs above ground with angled horizontal headstones marking the lives of the deceased.

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It took me some time to feel my place here.

Eventually I began to feel my connection.  My family, lives that I'll  never know, but that created the history of which I am a part.  Who were these people?  I never met them, I'll never know them... but slowly I began to feel, this is my history, these are my ancestors, this is my land.  These are my graves.

My Mom knelt down, a hand on each grave laying side by side in timeless rest.  She laid a part of her peace to rest, and spread the peace to my Grandparents so that they may all lie together in peace.  Parents, children, grand children, and me.. great grandchildren.. and that day, Rayna and I together the loose ends of history waving in the wind of chance, to be tied together, to run our course, but now another link back illuminated i my living memory.  I may never know them but I know now a new part of myself.
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We took our time and when we were all ready, we drove on into the modern city of Ashkelon.  We stopped by the house my Great Grandparent's built.  It is a charming area like Alameda in the Bay Area where Rick's Parent's live.  Residential and sweet.  Small curving streets, parks nearby and the smell of the sea.  From there we decided to explore the history of this place farther back.... waaaaaaay back into the times of ancient history where stood the Ancient city of Ashkelon.

The ancient city was walled by a giant triangular wall (imagine a wall that is much larger at the base, so wide in fact it looks like a triangle in section) that arced around the city, ending at the sea enclosing a port.  The walls have spanned eons and at different times had additional walls on top, but all of these have fallen over the ages and mostly only the ancient fortifications remain.  Included in this wall, and marking the entry to the park contained within, one passes through the OLDEST ARCH IN THE WORLD

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or perhaps the oldest arched city gate in the world.  It is unclear, but what is clear is that you walk through this ancient city gate, which is a badass arch that still stands to this day.  It is OLD and made of mud bricks.  Ashkelon is so old it is the oldest port city in Israel, it is where the term "shekel" comes from (a unit of weight that is now the monetary denomination in Israel) and is where Scallions are from!  Who knew this rather unfamiliar place is so important in history and in our modern vocabulary!  We also found some flowers.

Finding grace in Ashkelon

Beauty in beauty Life never knew such yellow What a wonderful moment

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So we explored.  It is a large area, 150 acres, enclosed by these giant walls, and within are ruins of this once thriving metropolis.  All over there are ancient columns being used as parking lot barriers, tie-beams for newer walls, and as junk just laying on the ground and on the beach!!!! It's CRAZY!  Here are huge marble columns from antiquity just laying about... if I can figure how to get one off the beach and onto a boat you'll see it eventually in my house.

So we came home after an amazing day and at hummus basar.  Basically bowls of hummus with things like seasoned ground meat, or caramalized onions in the middle on top of the hummus.  It is GOOD.

A whirlwind of activity - Breakdown of fun

OK, wow.  So much has happened, and I've been too busy doing it to write till now.  Things are settling back down and Rayna is settling in for finals so I will do my best to get it all written.  There may be some chronological errors and ommisions so please bear with me.

Let's go back a few steps to my last post.  My Mom and Rick arrived in town and we went to Qumran to see the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, hidden, and discovered.  That was a WHILE ago.  Rayna and I had one other big adventure with them before Mark and Kate Rodman arrived for about 10 or so days to travel Israel with my Mom and Rick.  This blog now picks up with that adventure.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Qumran - Dead Sea Scrolls

Around 2000 years ago, Jerusalem was a city of Jewish people.  Much is known about this period, and much more is unknown.  Before this time we have certain accounts, and some are considered fairy tales, while others are much more factual, corroborated, and to me, interesting.  The scrolls discovered near the Dead Sea, at a place called Qumran date from just before the year 0.  Experts attest 150 to around 75 BCE.  For more information, visit the wikipedia page and click to your heart's content.  If you are interested in history, religion, the Middle East, this gem has it all.

Qumran is an incredibly intersting site.  It is an enclave of scholars.  Dedicated religious men who gathered there for potlitical reasons in order to be away from The Temple.  The 2nd temple to be specific.  This is the time of Herod, the time of the High Priests of The Temple, and an increase in political aspects of Jewish life.  Back then, if you wanted to pray you had to go to The Temple and generally sacrifice a perfectly good animal.  Or two, or three, or many many more.

These people at Qumran were known as the Essenes, and they felt that the dogma was getting out of hand.  There is a letter preserved form this collection that specifically states this political position!  it is amazing.  Anyhow, I could go on and on because the tour my Mom and Rick, Rayna and I and the rest of her class went on was guided by her professor.  Rabbi David Levine is an expert on this subject and teaches the Biblical and Late Antiquities history courses at Hebrew Union College.  AMAZING!  What an fantastic experience.  it was electrifying and so educational.

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So here we all are, on the tour and David took us through each area explaining not just what we were seeing (mikvas - ritual baths, cisterns and aquaducts, group eating areas and kitchens, and other architectural features) but how they are important to this site, and how they inform us about what was happening here and how this site was used.  On top of all that David elucidated why this is all so important, and what it teaches us about Judaism then and now.

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Feeling pretty cool after my "knock offs" joke.  Some sunglasses in the bottom of a deep cistern below.

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Look at my girlfriend!  She's lovely!

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Rabbi David Levine explaining the mikva.  A mikva is a ritual bath.  Below him is a pool with steps leading in to the very bottom.  Because of the steps we can tell this is not a water storage cistern, because the steps take up 1/2 the volume.  Also the two separate steps would separate the clean people from those entering the bath.  This facility housed around 120 Men.  It seems the major use was scriptural.  The two most important rooms were the group dining hall and the scriptorium where parchment was produced and the writing was performed.

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I'm pointing at Cave 4 where the many scrolls were discovered in their sealed clay jars.  Apparently when the Romans decided to sack Jerusalem they stopped here and many of the scrolls were secreted away into these caves.  Now these caves weren't just good hiding places, they were also the residential quarters of the men at Qumran.  However this cave looks pretty hard to get to, but who knows what the topography was like then.

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After the tour and a nice outdoor lunch we brought, David led us up the sloping desert to the cliffs.

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It is a stark, dry, and sharp landscape.  The stone crumbles easily into shards that can be quite painful to the hastily placed hand.  We all helped each other around dangerous terrain.  This wadi (river bed) becomes deluged with flash floods a few times a year.  The Essenes knew this and built an aqueduct.  Just above the complex in the flats is a fantastic wadi with three high waterfalls.  This time of year they are all dry, but during the rain they flood.  With this knowledge the inhabitants built aquaducts to bring the flashes of water into the complex and the deep cisterns and baths below.

At the top of our ascent we came to the flat area between falls 1 and 2 where the aqueduct terminates.  Some of us decided to scramble up and crawl through the man made tunnel aqueduct and onto some amazing bouldering terrain.

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You never know what you'll find in these caves.

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Rayna and everyone was feeling the effects of the sun in this hot below sea level desert.  But still smiling!

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David explains more about the aqueduct features and feats of engineering.

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I love jumping off things.

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A short dusty hike back to the complex at the end of the day.  Serously people, read that wiki page and discover this time capsule from just before the year zero.  It is incredible to see and be in buildings and caves occupied by these wonderful historians.

Thanks for reading!

Citadel of David? That's what they call it.

I got to go to David's Citadel with Rayna's hebrew class.  Aside from the language exhibit, I didn't understand much since the tour was in Hebrew.  The language exhibit is amazing though and it traces the histories of written language through the eons.  Highly recommended.

The citadel is a walled fortress built over many periods and by different people.  David never lived here.  Yes, there was a mote, and it had alligators.

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The Tower of David, it is a minaret for a mosque.

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A round table covered in sand, with a projection from above that charts the history of the letters.  AMAZING

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A classic view from the top, with the golden dome over The Rock dominating the scene.  Beautiful.

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A look inside the citadel.  Remains from previous years jumble the interior but leave the mark of history.  At night there is a light and sound show that is supposed to be quite impressive.

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Requisite shot of me and my beautiful lady.

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Dale Chihuly chandelier in the entry tower.  The light from the high windows illuminates it beautifully.

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