Israel's Good Name

Israel Railway Museum

In Uncategorized on October 26, 2014 at 4:38 AM

To celebrate my two-year anniversary with the IDF, and because I had a convenient ride, I took a little trip to the Israel Railway Museum in downtown Haifa. Having been on my to-see list for several years now, the train museum was even more interesting than I had imagined it would be. Located at the old railway station of Haifa East, the museum incorporates both the remains of the Ottoman train station that was built as an important rail hub in the Holy Land and remnants of the local train history leading up to today.

Israel Railway Museum

Israel Railway Museum

The first local train line opened up by the Ottomans between Jerusalem and Jaffa in 1892. Throughout the next few decades, the trains began to criss-cross the country and offered transportation to cities such as Damascus in Syria, Amman in Jordan and El Qantara in Egypt. At the time, the Hedjaz Railway ran pilgrims making hajj from throughout the Ottoman Empire to Islam’s holy cities Mecca and Medina in the Hedjaz region of today’s Saudi Arabia. Haifa East was a station for the Jezreel Valley branch of the Hedjaz Railway, most of those tracks now lost to history.

Old train station clock

Old train station clock

During World War I, the tracks were used by both sides: the Germans and Turkish to move troops and supplies and then at the end of the war by the British to ferry injured soldiers as the Germans and Turkish were expelled. Interestingly enough, the British actually bombed the Afula station which headed for Transjordan – which brings to mind The Train. After the Great War, the British ran Palestine Railways and luxury coaches were added to the standard passenger and freight trains. In the 1930’s, during the time of “The Disturbances”, Arabs would sabotage the trains and train-tracks in protest of both the Jews and the British. Rolling concrete bunkers were used to patrol and protect the tracks, the British soldiers armed with guns and ready for trouble.

1893 ambulance coach from WWI

1893 ambulance coach from WWI

After World War II, when the Jews struggled for independence the British trains became targets as both military sabotage and then, with the British leaving, to prevent the neighbouring Arab armies from invading Israel via rail (such as the bridge near Achziv). The trains were also used by the British to transport Jewish refugees from the ports and beaches where they landed from sea to the Atlit “Illegal” Immigration Camp. Once independence was established, the train lines were restricted to just safe Israeli stations and as the fledgling country developed and grew, Israel Railways incorporated captured and purchased train cars and engines. Today the trains are a crucial part of public transportation and I myself have ridden the train to all ends, north and south.

Halt!

Halt!

With the Holy Land’s train history covered, I shall now describe my visit. Paying the discounted soldier’s entrance fee, I was immediately directed to Coach no. 688, a British-built passenger car from 1970, where a short film was to be played. Sitting down in a normal coach, I watched a old black-and-white film about the transition from steam locomotives to diesel engines – interesting.

Watching the short film

Watching the short film

Disembarking, I began my self-guided tour of the various train cars and engines, including a 1902 Class 0-6-0 locomotive from Krauss, Germany and an 1893 passenger coach built by Baume et Marpent in Belgium and used by the British in WWI to evacuate wounded soldiers to Egypt. But my favourite train car was the luxurious Saloon coach no. 98 built by Birmingham RC&W Co. of England, used as a day saloon from 1922 till 1929 and then as a night saloon from 1929 till the mid-1960’s.

Enjoying myself in the luxurious saloon

Enjoying myself in the luxurious saloon

From the moment I entered the narrow wood-paneled corridor, I felt like I was living the classic Poirot murder mystery Murder on the Orient Express, albeit all by my lonesome.

British saloon coach

British saloon coach

Stepping outside, I examined the numerous trains on the many sets of tracks of Haifa East. The concrete bunker car from the 1930’s, which I mentioned above, was pretty interesting. Being that the modern train-line runs past the museum, it was interesting to note the contrasts of train types throughout the years. A particularly shiny and new-looking Israel Railways train was “parked” a few tracks over from the furthest museum piece, I wonder when that will enter circulation…

Coming from the east

Coming from the east

There was such a colourful view looking westward over the tracks, with the trains, the trees, the orange rooftops and of course, the wonderfully blue sky:

Heading to the west

Heading to the west

Finished with the outdoor section, I crossed back over the red metal bridge from where I came and entered the museum’s small exhibits building. Within, I saw innumerable documents, photographs, old tickets, stamps, work tools and models. With my father coming for me, I just breezed through, eyeballing only the most interesting pieces in the main room and the two antechambers. Leaving the museum, I spotted the Turkish monument erected in 1905 for the opening of the railroad station just outside the front gate:

Turkish monument from 1905

Turkish monument from 1905

In summary, the Israel Railway Museum is definitely worth the visit, all the more so for children and train enthusiasts.

Jordan River Valley

In Uncategorized on October 21, 2014 at 6:44 AM

This past Sunday, my father and I drove down to Bet Shemesh and Ashdod for shipping-related work, hoping to have a little fun as well. Leaving early in the morning in the rain, we chose the desert route – border-hugging Road 90 from Tzfat down to Jericho and then Road 1 through Jerusalem. Stopping momentarily in Bet Shean we had a large flock of pelicans pass overhead; the bird migrations in full force this time of year.

Looking down towards the Jordan River Valley

Looking down towards the Jordan River Valley

Our first stop was intended to be the mountaintop fortress of Sartaba (Alexandion) just before Road 505’s junction and after a wrong turn into a town, we were directed to a single-lane road that took us winding up the adjacent mountain. There, after parking, we found a desolate army outpost and a trail leading out to a rocky horn that I assumed was Sartaba.

Rocky horn - not Sartaba

Rocky horn – not Sartaba

Up on the horn, gazing out at the Jordan River Valley, I activated my phone’s GPS and discovered that the actual site was a few kilometres west from where we were standing. As you can see here, the dirt road snaking up the mountainside leads to Sartaba, looking down from where we were beside the army outpost.

The winding road to Sartaba

The winding road to Sartaba

As we looked out at the stormy clouds and the barren mountainous landscape, my father decided to see if he could roll a rock all the way down the mountainside. After the first rock crashed down into the dry streambed below, we saw small figures running away from the single-rock avalanche. I called out to my father to look at the birds running down there, assuming they were chukars or some desert quails, and then zoomed in on them with the camera. The 25x optical zoom was not enough and so I entered the iffy realm of digital zoom. I snapped and prayed, having a hard time seeing the colour-camoflauged creatures down below. Checking the display scene, I found myself looking at not birds, but gazelles:

Gazelles down below

Gazelles down below

Returning to the car, we attempted to drive to the real Sartaba but the road was too precarious and we do not have a 4×4. So, we returned to Road 90 and tried from a different access point. More rugged terrain suitable only for a 4×4. So, in summary, any attempt to reach Sartaba either requires a 4×4 vehicle or a very long hike up and around a mountain. Continuing down Road 90, we stopped next at a site known as Qasr al-Yahud (Arabic for “Castle of the Jews”) which is a spot along the Jordan River famous for several reasons. When the Jews crossed the Jordan River entering the Holy Land thousands of years back, as documented by the Bible, they crossed “opposite Jericho” and so tradition has it that this is the very spot where the waters stood in a pillar for the Jews to cross into the Land. Later, it is believed that this is where Eliyahu (Elijah) the Prophet ascended to the heavens after crossing the Jordan with Elisha.

Qasr al-Yahud - Israel and Jordan

Qasr al-Yahud – Israel and Jordan

But today’s tourists are mostly Christians who come to Qasr al-Yahud to baptise in the waters of the Jordan, a holy site harkening back to the dawn of Christianity. As far back as the Byzantine era, churches and monasteries were built along the banks, these being the lowest churches in elevation on Earth. These monasteries often served as safe havens for Christian pilgrims during times of Arab rule. The oldest monastery is St John’s which was rebuilt during the Crusader period on ruins from a Byzantine-era church. During Ottoman rule, when there was easy access for pilgrims, many Christian orders came and built their own monasteries. Earthquakes in 1927 and 1956 severely damaged the monasteries and after the Six Day War in 1967, the area became a closed military zone.

An abandoned Franciscan chapel

An abandoned Franciscan chapel

In the following decades, the monasteries became refuges for terrorists crossing the border and so the IDF was forced to set mines around the partially ruined buildings.

A minefield

A minefield

Now, at times of peace with Jordan, the site is open to visitors but several of the monasteries are still minefields and fenced off. When we visited, there were two Israeli soldiers and one Jordanian soldier guarding the border – a mere thirty feet or so of muddy water, where several pilgrims were in the water in white tunics.

Jordanian corporal keeping watch on the border

Jordanian corporal keeping watch on the border

After Qasr al-Yahud we kept driving until we reached the Beit HaArava Junction. There, we turned onto a small road to see the remnants of the original settlement of Beit HaArava (1939-48). At the end of the road we saw a few ruined houses, but they were on the other side of the security fence. We also saw a sign to the first potash plant which was in operations from 1925 till 1948. Getting back to the main road, we turned onto Road 1 to Jerusalem and took a two-minute detour to photograph Nabi Musa, the Muslim shrine and mosque for what they believe is the burial place of Moshe (Moses).

Nabi Musa

Nabi Musa

Pressed for time, we abandoned plans to visit the Kotel in Jerusalem and instead had a quick visit with family friends in nearby Ma’ale Adumim and then headed for Bet Shemesh to get the work done. When we left Bet Shemesh, heading for the port of Ashdod, this magnificent rainbow appeared in the sky:

Rainbow over Bet Shemesh

Rainbow over Bet Shemesh

After dinner in Ashdod, we took the labourious drive home via Road 6 – Israel’s longest toll-road and arrived home sometime after 9pm.

Sadot Winery

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2014 at 9:54 AM

With three wineries visited and sixteen wines tasted, we continued on with our wine tour. The four of us – Joel, Les, myself and our tour guide Yakov – popped on over to Sadot Winery, nestled in Sde Ya’akov just across the road from the fascinating Bet She’arim National Park. The newest winery on our tour, this estate winery is only in its second vintage.

The picturesque vineyard at Sadot Winery

The picturesque vineyard at Sadot Winery

Meeting up with Ro’i, the winery owner, we started with a look at his vineyards, sampling from two grape varieties. Even though the grapes are hanging lush on the vine, Ro’i is waiting for the perfect sugar levels before he harvests. What defines his winery as an estate winery is the fact that all his wines are made with grapes grown on the estate, definitely giving us the full behind-the-scenes.

Fruit of the vine

Fruit of the vine

After snacking on some grapes we headed down to his workshop and his rooms. Using a clever, yet simple, concrete structure, the winery’s various stations and the new deck is all in one spot, overlooking the vineyards, a water reservoir and the distant Mount Carmel. Ro’i showed us his latest batches, one just starting the fermentation process, kept in large temperature-controlled metal casks. Using little stepladders, Les and I poked our heads into the casks to examine the crushed grapes.

Peering into the cold cask

Peering into the cold cask

Moving on to the next station, Ro’i showed us the barrel room where his vintages are aging and his freshly picked grapes were waiting. And then, to the storage room where the finished bottles are waiting. With that, we headed up to the deck and made ourselves comfortable. Ro’i brought up his four wines and several bottles of cold water – the first winery to offer such a luxury.

Enjoying some Rosé

Enjoying some Rosé

We started with the Muscat Canelli and then, after some cold water and some discussion, tried the Rosé. After more water and more discussion, Ro’i poured us some Shiraz Tempranillo. And then, finally, the Syrah. After trying the superb Syrah Reserve at Tulip Winery, I saw the potential in this younger vintage. There was that same focused feel on the middle of the tongue, just a little larger – the general consensus was that the Sadot Winery Syrah just needed a little more alone time to fully mature and pack that wonderful punch. All I know is that if I were to ever make a wine that good, I’d be singing my own praises.

Ro'i and us (photo: Yakov Feder)

Ro’i and us (photo: Yakov Feder)

Finishing up our twentieth wine of the day, we thanked Ro’i, got back into the car and had a pleasant drive back to the hotel in Tel Aviv. As we drove we discussed the wineries and the wines. Each winery stood out on their own in some way or another, and their wines were a testament of hard work and fortune here in Israel’s magnificent wine country. This wine tour has really inspired me in the field of wines and I look forward to visit more and more wineries.

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