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Istanbul, Ephesus and Jerusalem & the West Bank Tour Updates

Posted: July 01, 2014

July 2014

Hello Travelers,

I recently finished an enjoyable month abroad working on the itineraries for Tours for Travelers. The first week I spent in Istanbul hunting down new galleries, revisiting museums and eating at new restaurants with my Istanbul friends. The second week I drove along the the scenic Aegean coast via the Gallipoli peninsula visiting Troy, the old Greek towns of Assos & Behramkale, the ruins of Pergamum and two towns near Ephesus, Selcuk and Sirince (pictured below).

I could not be happier with the finishing touches to the Aegean tour. The boutique inns I found are beautifully preserved historic buildings run by local visionaries with excellent knowledge of the surrounding areas. The meals are especially delicious and the ruins are stunning and abundant, including some of my favorites that are definitely off the beaten track, such as Magnesia Ad pictured below. 

 

 

After a wonderful 18 days in Turkey  I flew to Israel to put the finishing touches on the Jerusalem tour. I first visited Israel in 1985 while I was taking a week R&R from my job in Egypt working as a tour conductor for a small British tour company. On that first visit after an overnight bus trip from Cairo across the Sinai, where I witnessed the most spectacular sunrise I'd ever seen, I arrived in Jerusalem. Once there I met and befriended an expat Jewish guy from NYC named Shlomo. Shlomo was a passionate and knowledgeable guide who for a small fee and lunch would walk with me throughout Jerusalem from morning till dusk, filling my head with history and stories that beguiled my imagination and left me feeling like a western civilization illiterate. Besides feeling a bit under informed I also remember feeling a profound sense of awe at the depth of this place, wonder at it's ability to survive throughout its tumultuous history, a bit intimidated and definitely intrigued to learn as much as I could about it. I returned to Jerusalem, and Shlomo, three more times in 1985 & 86 and had not been back until last fall 2013 when I decided to add a Jerusalem tour to the roster of Tours for Travelers.

 


Twenty eight years later I found Jerusalem to be every bit as intriguing and thankfully less intimidating as it was during those first visits as a young man. The old town was still mostly that of an old and colorful Arab souk with that spicy aroma and amazing hummus and falafels; The Church of the Holy Sepulucre hadn't changed, still wonderfully scented from 1,700 years of incense and candles and filled with all those individual tiny dark chapels and the delightful little Ethiopian Copt rooftop chapel, and of course the center piece - the majestic tomb of Jesus. Further along the smooth cobble stones of the old town the enigmatic Wailing Wall remained as the last remnant of the second temple and continues to attract the serious prayers of the Jewish faithful. Above the wall, stood the beautiful golden Dome of the Rock, still dominating the Jerusalem skyline and one would hope becoming the symbol of peace sometime in the future, as its importance to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike remains as it has for hundreds of years.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you". I believe that wholeheartedly, and as much as I had hoped that Israel would be the same as it was twenty eight years earlier it was not, it had changed, significantly. It's true that many things remained as they were and it's my hope that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock last forever. 

But; there's a new structure that's been built and it's every bit as monumental as the aforementioned places, however, it's not at all beautiful or ancient so that we can gaze nostalgically with our imaginations. In fact, it takes no imagination at all. It's a segregation wall, or fence depending on your position, built by the Israeli government for security since the end of the last intifada in 2005. In places this grey giant reaches 25 feet high and is topped with barbed wire. It can be seen snaking for an eventual 430 miles over the landscape throughout Jerusalem and within the Palestinian territories basically surrounding the entire West Bank like a prison yard.

It is a fact that since the wall was built suicide bombings have essentially stopped, but as an outside observer I have to ask myself at what cost? Many Palestinians now spend countless hours of their everyday lives just making their way around these walls to get to school, visit family, shop for food or go to a clinic for medical care. Tasks that used to take five minutes can now take hours and often times they have to funnel through cattle call lines and are questioned by young Israeli guards at numerous check points. This policy is extremely controversial and begs the big question, is it absolutely necessary? Has everything been done to avoid the need for such a demeaning imposition to exist? 

The first two intifadas were filled with brutality on both sides and brought on by years of struggles and hostilities, but this wall is like "spit in the eye" according to one Palestinian I spoke to. He believes that they'll have no choice and that eventually the violence will begin anew. The wall is only one part in a series of punitive measures the Israelis have enacted in order to build security, security they deserve, but again with these sort of measures the ultimate price may be too big. The current Israeli policies could effectively break the will of the Palestinian people and drive them out of Israel. I hope that this is not a planned policy, or I fear that peace in Israel may never be achieved. 

One of the many big questions that still loom over this whole situation came about in 2000. President Clinton presided over a summit with Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak at the Camp David. In the end Arafat turned down with no counter offer what many thought was the Palestinians best opportunity for peace, it included a road connecting the West Bank with Gaza, sovereignty over some east Jerusalem neighborhoods, a natural barrier to Israeli settlements and perhaps their best chance at obtaining their own country through peaceful means.  President Clinton was among the chorus of world leaders that agreed with this assessment. Since Arafat's rejection of this agreement the plight of the Palestinian people has gotten worse by the year. There are so many questions and differing points of view that need to be considered and weighed about this conflict. I've decided to extend my interest to you and include a conversation about this as a part of the Tours for Travelers program.

Tours for Travelers "Jerusalem & the West Bank" will spend three days visiting sites in and around Jerusalem with our Israeli guide, then another three days visiting sites in the Palestinian territories with our Palestinian guide. My goal, to the best of my ability will be to show both sides without taking sides. However, you can be sure that the points of view you will hear from our different hosts will be passionate and nationalistic. My sincere hope, like so many others is that there can be peace in this region and that both the Israelis and the Palestinians can thrive to the best of their abilities. Whether a two state solution is possible probably comes down to the fate of Jerusalem, as well as the plethora of details that continue to mount and shift with time including the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Time will tell whether or not the Israelis and Palestinians can find a peaceful solution, but it's hard to be optimistic with this wall looming over the landscape. Having said that, my knowledgeable Jewish guide at the Israeli Museum reminded me, "what else do we have but hope"?

 
 
 
 
The US government is the biggest player outside of the Israelis and Palestinians with regards to this conflict, so discussions, first hand observations, and our effort at understanding the situation as Americans I believe is important and potentially helpful. To be sure our tour is not going to be limited to a discussion about the conflict, we'll be spending most of our time digging into the ancient history of this mythical land, visiting beautiful historic sites, eating wonderful food and enjoying the hospitality of the Middle East people who invented the concept. So pass the bread, the hummus and the Hookah, fill up your wine glass and let's dig in for a profound and memorable experience in Israel and Palestine.       
 
 
Warm Regards Always,
Kevin Sheehy
612 998-7488
 
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