Recently in Israel '05 - Part 3: Excursions Category

Friday Cat Blogging


In some parts of Blogistan, it is fashionable to post random pictures of cute cats to waste time on a Friday afternoon. Not that I make a regular thing of it, but you really can't go wrong with animal pictures. (Okay, I take that back. This is seriously wrong.) Anyway, I ran across this in the digital shoebox-o-photos today.

A genuine Egyptian kitty, giving us those hungry/adoring Worship-me! eyes. Olivia across this fellow stalking near the beach at Habiba. 2005:04:23 15:10:22

Midday Updates

A slight amendation: I correctly stated that Bethlehem is Beit Lechem (בית לחם) in Hebrew, which means "House of Bread." But I incorrectly implied that it means the same in Arabic. Close, though. To the Arabs it's Bt lahm (بيت لحم), which means "House of Meat." So there's a neat example of linguistic radiation for you.

More BLAST: hijinx ensued when the ground team's internet connection went down not once, but twice, due to problems on two different continents. Since grad students don't need sleep and are completely immune to stress, this obviously inconvenienced nobody. Anyhow, I hear things are looking good for landing in 36 hours or so.

Finally, I will be arriving back in the U.S.A. on the 21st of June. Summer solstice, wouldn't you know? In my case, the longest day of the year is going to last 32 hours. Even if I just take civil dawn in Israel to civil dusk in Minnesota I get 24 hours, 40 minutes of daylight. So, hey, I've even got those kids in Kiruna with their midnight sun beat.

The Road to Bethlehem

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Semi-arid hills (Mount this, that, and the other, Biblically speaking) surround Jerusalem. To the south they roll gradually down to the plain of the Negev desert. Hebron road is visible winding between them. More click-to-enlarge photos. 2005:06:06 12:09:41

Bethlehem: Beit Lechem in Hebrew, and very similar in Arabic, means House of Bread. While no doubt the area can yield a fertile olive crop, I have trouble picturing amber waves of grain on these dusty carapaces.

I decided that it was time to visit Bethlehem, as my final few weeks here were approaching, and I'd have kicked myself if I'd failed entirely to go. Because it's there. Because it's Jerusalem's other half in this Christian Mecca. And because it's as far into the West Bank as, realistically, I'm likely to get on this trip.

Only about eight kilometers of road separate the West Bank town from East Jerusalem, so I decided to walk. Best way there is to see the land.

Last Call


Time to place your final bets, for those of you playing along at home.

There's been speculation, there's been rumour. But now it's official, reservation in hand: I'm moving back to the States.

And because I'm just that big a tease, I'll tell you all when ... tomorrow. But be assured, it's soon.

Shepherds' Fields

Why yes, Franciscan monks actually can do tacky, I've discovered. This is the dome of the small church maintained in the Field of the Shepherds operated by this Catholic order. (Another post with click-to-enlarge photos.) 2005:06:06 08:04:55

While in Bethlehem I counted no less than three "Field(s) of the Apparition to the Sheperds" -- all separated by a considerable distance. I don't know what the geographic extent of a Heavenly Host of Angels is supposed to be, although I'm certain that theologians have debated the point somewhere along the line. Guess that would be more or less the inverse of the "how many angels on the head of a pin" query.

One of the fields is run by the (Roman Catholic) Franciscans, the other by a Greek Orthodox order. This is a fairly standard dualism, after all. A third is run by the local YMCA, as well. This is less traditional, I suppose. I'm not really certain why Khalid, my guide, insisted on taking me to all three of these sites, but he seemed pretty into them. But I wasn't paying him by the mile or by the site, so my only complaint is the tremendous number of flies infesting the cave grottoes at the two I ventured into.

Jerusalem Day

When I was there, Jerusalem Day was just kicking into gear. The place was overrun by noisily patriotic youth groups distinguishable primarily by the colors of their shirts. 2005:06:06 12:45:41

So it turns out that Monday was a curious day to pick to be in Jerusalem. The 6th of June was Jerusalem Day, the 38th anniversary of Israeli control of the entire city. It appears that the holiday was originally "Jerusalem Liberation Day" until someone astutely noticed that a third of the city's population regarded it as a calamity. Despite the bland name, the day is still a cause for jubilation on the part of the more stridently Zionist elements in Israeli society, and yeshivas, Jewish youth groups, and settler organizations come out in force. (A few more pictures are here.)

You could tell from the orange ribbons everywhere. The anti-disengagement activists have appropriated the color orange as their symbol. Hoping to invoke Kiev, perhaps?

There was some violence to mark the occasion, but nothing too serious. I was well out of the city by the time that happened, though. As the festivities sprawled into the evening, though, the heightened security did make getting back into Jerusalem from the West Bank an interesting experience.

Long Walk, More Walls

Sorry for not posting yesterday ... and what's going to be a fairly perfunctory post today. Long day of not working followed by long day of catching up on stuff. It happens.

Especially when you decide it's a nice day for a long stroll through the West Bank.

Took the bus into Jerusalem yesterday, from where I walked to Bethlehem. A wonderful excursion, on which details will follow when I've sorted through the photos and notes I took a bit. First impressions include: more sunscreen wouldn't have hurt; there sure ain't much oversight of who enters the West Bank; the Field of the Apparition to the Sheperds run by the Franciscan monks is less convincing than the one run by the local YMCA.

It's those walls again. Later, pictures of that distant one from up close. That antenna turns out to be right at the crossing-point into Bethlehem. 2005:06:06 12:32:28

Mount Sinai IV: Santa Katarina

Look! It's a stairway which the Bedouin have cleverly disguised as a pile of rocks. Heading down the Steps of Repentance is certainly faster than going up, but a bit more harrowing. Enlarge as usual. 2005:04:25 07:33:31

First of all, a correction is in order. Yesterday I went on at some length about my uncertainty over the relative arrangement of Jebel Katarina and Jebel Musa, and which one we were actually on. I've done some additional research on that point. Now, none of the sources I've found has a straightforward map that shows both peaks, so I've been doing as the cartographers of old, trying to piece together geography from scattered fragments of the written accounts of travelers. One of the clearest such accounts is here, although some of the dimensions cited are at variance with the otherwise commonly given values. To compare, the closest thing I've found to a map of the area is this.

The upshot is that I am now fairly certain that we were never on Jebel Katarina at all, and that the entire trail we used, and all the photos I've been displaying, are on Jebel Musa. In fact, you can see Jebel Katarina from Musa, and it appears to be a kilometer or two distant. And partially off-limits due to unexploded ordinance, to boot, from what I've read.

Moving right along, though. After having some breakfast and poking around for a bit on the summit of Jebel Musa, it was time to be moseying on down. The monastery of Santa Katerina is open to tourists starting at 9 am, so we wanted to get down by then. Once again, the Steps of Repentance awaited.

There is a traditional practice by which a Bedouin can leave a message in the desert for another encoded in the arrangement of a seemingly random pile of rocks, or rujum. On the way down, we speculated that the Steps must have been built by someone who had observed this practice, and decided to announce that "This Is the Way Down" encoded into what, to the untrained eye, appears to be a jumble of boulders.

Weekend Update

Yeah, I'm still around.

After working out the transit times and getting a late start this morning, I've postponed my planned outing to later this week. The agenda outlined in my previous post turned out to involve a non-trivial chance of winding up stranded in Bethlehem overnight. So, back to the drawing board.

On the plus side, that means I was at my computer to see a wonderfully-titled article go by on the astro-ph archive: Evolution of a Network of Vortex Loops in HeII.

So naturally I popped it open and discovered that, when viewed in a serif font, that was HeII (in astrophysics that would refer to a singly ionized helium plasma, but in a condensed matter paper it means helium in its superfluid phase). Which makes a bit more sense. Although now, I'm a bit curious as to what Infernal vortex loops would consist of.

Weekend Plans

Light blogging this weekend is a possibility. My goal is to use Jerusalem as a base of operations to explore Bethlehem and Jericho, examine the Separation Fence up close, and maybe get in some hiking in the West Bank.

This is a bit ambitious, so I'll be sure to let you all know when I get back how much of that got done.

Mount Sinai III: Origins

The geology of the Sinai betrays an exciting history as the intersection point of the Syrian Arc and the Great African Rift. Both sandstone and granite formations are found in abundance, since the area has been subject both to extreme volcanic building as well as oceanic flooding and sedimentation. At one time, this whole area was an archepelago of volcanic islands in the Cretacious Tethys Ocean, of which Jebel Musa (the Mountain of Moses, or Mount Sinai) is now the second tallest.

But then, Africa ran into Eurasia, lifting up the Syrian Arc. And a while later, the African-Arabian plate decided to begin splitting in two, and the resulting valley nearly swallowed the whole region. The outcome is the abruptly transitioning ecologies of the Levant, and these stark peaks not 50 kilometers from blooming reefs.

The first rays of morning illuminate the peaks of the Sinai Mountains. In the near foreground is the western flank of Mt. Sinai, beyond which nearby mountaintops proceed into the distance. It's still nighttime on the valley floors about a mile below. (Click. Bigger.) 2005:04:25 06:14:56

[Update: I have since resolved the Jebel Musa / Jebel Katarina confusion. See the next post in this series.]

The trail narrows and you see lightening sky through a rocky gap. I had to resist the urge to have a Frodo moment here. 2005:04:25 05:55:01

Earlier this week France voted Non! on the proposed EU constitution. Today the Netherlands did the same (but probably in Dutch). The Euro is tumbling, although it's still at historically high levels against the dollar. What does all this mean?

Don't ask me; I'm not the expert. But over at A Fistful of Euros, they are.

At the close of yesterday's post, dawn was breaking as we tromped along about halfway up the flank of Mt. Sinai. At this point, I suppose we'd been climbing for about an hour and a half, and only now were our eyes becoming noticably useful to navigation. Except for finding Bedouin tea houses. As I noted in this post, those shine like bonfires on the mountainside. At least to well dark-adapted eyes. While none of them is really more than a hut with shelves of drinks -- I'm really not certain how they get electricity up there, but I didn't notice any generators -- the second-largest is at the top of the camel-navigable trail, in the middle of this parking lot. For camels.

Mount Sinai I: Night Vision

Left to right: Tau; Olivia; Niva and husband; yours truly. Behind us, moon and stars set over the shoulder of Mt. Sinai. The trick to this shot is to set a long exposure that still uses the flash, with enough of a delay to let me get into the frame. Click the picture for a larger version. 2005:04:25 04:44:37

The Minnesota crew is busy this week hosting the spring meeting of the American Astronomical Society. It's a fair bet that gamma ray bursts will crash the party, but besides that I expect the usual scuttlebutt about NASA's funding adventures and where oh where is that second-year WMAP data? Let them be advised that juicy astronomy gossip is always welcome in the comments.

Since I've got nothing so exciting going down this week, it's a good time to rummage through the photo archive. This will be the first of a series of such posts covering the trip to Mt. Sinai last month.

The traditional way to see Mt. Sinai is as a predawn climb, so as to experience sunrise from the summit. For $20 a piece a local fellow (who I gather does mostly this) picked up the lot of us at Habiba around 1 AM. By "the lot of us" I mean myself, my dorm-mate Olivia, postdoc from her lab Tau, and an Israeli couple also staying on the beach there. And by 1 AM I mean 1 o'clock Sinai Standard Time, about 1:30 or so. Not a problem, as the drive is long and uneventful. For a couple of hours we variously dozed and watched the stars as we sped up into the mountains by moonlight.

Stalked by Camels!

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I'm noticing a pattern. I'm not saying they're out to get me or anything, but the camels are definitely keeping an eye on me.

Yes, yes, the beaches of the Sinai are camel infested. Nothing suprising about finding 'em there. And on the whole, I'd have to say that the mountains and much-needed exposure to sunshine made up for the fact that three or four would amble by an something like an hourly basis. Some of them were being driven by kids clearly trying to interest ... well, anyone ... in a camel ride. You learned to avoid making eye contact after a while. Others were on some obscure camel-y mission of their own, that seemed also to involve a lot of ambling up and down the beach, but with less of the persistent ride-hawking.

And sometimes, they'd just sit around. I think they figured they could just wait us out. That, or they were operating as some sort of fixed base camp for the kids.

The camel-infested beach at Habiba Camp, where we stayed in the Sinai. Pretty location, though, and actually rather nice-looking camels, as such things go. They still smelled like camels, though. 2005:04:23 14:22:35.

But check this out.

Moonrise over Jordan

Montage of the moon rising over the mountains on the Saudi Arabian side of the Red Sea, as seen from Habiba. 2005:04:25 20:44:52 to 20:47:41.

Just a quick astrophotography post today, continuing my creeping efforts to go through the pictures from the Sinai weekend.

The full moon fell on our last night in Habiba that weekend, which actually rather annoyed me, since that meant we'd had a nearly-full moon in the evening sky every night we'd been there. Hence no tasty dark skies to enjoy. But the moon is also photogenic, so I made do.

Weekend Invertibrates

Back in Rehovot today, it's about 24 hours after I set out from Minneapolis, but my biological clock is supposed to believe that it's more like 32. Gave John a bit of a run-around on the way to the airport when I forgot my passport, but it's been an uneventful transit since then. So for want of anything more timely to report, I give you ... coastal invertibrates of the Red Sea.

From near the tidal pool, a common sand crab hanging out on the rocks, trying to look like a rock while it waits for food to wander by. This fellow seemed singularly unperturbed by my presence, which I take to mean that I'm doing something right in my nature photography technique. 2005:04:23 14:00:07.

Recall if you will, that I spent a weekend in the Sinai last month, hanging out on the beach and hiking in the mountains. I have a rather large backlog of photographs to sort through, which will make good filler material for the blog every now and then. On a good day I might even string them together into an interesting and analytic narrative, but today I'm just going for passably coherent filler, since I'm jet lagged and still a bit under the weather.

On any reasonably healthy beach, a fascinating tidal pool ecosystem develops with each low tide, during which smaller fauna colonize the standing bodies of water left behind in depressions on the beach. Since these areas are re-submerged with each high tide, a diverse array of aquatic flora can thrive there as well. They are similar in many ways to a reef in miniature: abundant solid attachment points and shelter from predators; plenty of sunlight to drive photosynthesis; periodically strong currents replenish the oxygen and nutrients in the water. However, life in a tidal pool is much easier to photograph, since all this takes place in water only a few centimeters deep!

Sinai Trip Overview

The desert around the Red Sea is what you might call "camel-infested." This roadsign is a common sight on the highway between Eilat and Be'er Sheva.

I spent a long weekend on the Sinai peninsula in Egypt with Olivia, a student from my dorm, and Tau, a postdoc from her lab. I'll get around to all the fiddly details in good time, but at the moment I'm pretty busy catching up on this and that. So I'll summarize, and fill in the gaps later.

Last Thursday night was spent on the midnight bus to Eilat, about a five hour trip. Still shorter than the bus ride from Minneapolis to Chicago. Eilat is the city at the very southern tip of Israel, occupying a narrow chunk of coastline at the northern point of the Gulf of Aqaba. Jordan is five kilometers to the east; Egypt is about as far west. We arrived circa 5 am, napped on the beach until we could find breakfast, and took off for the Egyptian border.

Back ... Spare a moment?

Well, I'm back from Egypt. A lovely time was had by all, with minimal hassle at border checkpoints. I have a pile of email to get to, which I'll hopefully get around to in the next 24 hours or so. After which, I'll start posting details of the trip.

There's lots of work to do before I leave for the States Thursday night, so I don't actually have time to catch up on five days of happenings in the next two-and-a-half. Do me a favor. If you think I'm missing something crucial in the world, post a comment about it. Links make my life even better.

Sinai Peninsula

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Click above for an expanded view of the Sinai Peninsula from the U. Texas PCL Collection.

Heading to Sinai for the weekend with some compadres from the dorm, this seems a fair opportunity for another map post. After all, some of you have expressed an interest in keeping up with my whereabouts.

The Sinai is cut off from Egypt proper to the west, and Saudi Arabia to the east, by the two branches of the Red Sea, the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, respectively. To get there, I will take a five-hour bus ride from Rehovot down to Elat (this is about half the length of the ride from Minneapolis to Chicago) on Israel's few-kilometer-long strip of Red Sea beach squeezed in between Egypt and Jordan. From there it's a short taxi ride to the Taba crossing.

A hotel in Taba was the target of the large bombing in the Sinai last fall, so there's a big debate whether that will suppress the crowds heading south this season. The general feelings is that it probably won't, since almost nobody (myself included) actually stays in the big resort hotels. Like most everyone else, I will be staying in a small cabin in a little beach town.


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Some of my excursions are fascinating for opening a new place to explore. Others are no less interesting purely because I get to interact with people who aren't grad students in the hard sciences at the Institute. Good folks here, but it can be very insular. This weekend was of the latter type.

Thursday was Lynn's birthday, and since she's befriended us Americans adrift in the dorm, the pack of us tromped up to Herzliyya to attend the celebrations. She was staying with a childhood friend of hers (she discovered, many years after the fact) in what used to be the small town where she grew up, and which is now a quaint northern suburb of Tel Aviv.

There were adventures on mass transit. There was multilingual chatting over pizza, which I followed to varying degrees. There was serial delegation of the music selection, chased by serial mocking of each attendee's musical tastes. And since Lynn got her degree and cute accent in the UK, there was scotch, tea, and Irish cream, not intended for simultaneous consumption.

A lovely time was had by all, until we crashed en masse in the spare room, the floor of which had been completely tesselated with those foam mattresses you had naptime on in kindergarten.

[Update: Edited to use what is evidently the accepted transliteration of Herzliyya. I still think "Hertziliya" better reflects how it is pronounced.]


Kids being adorable as they posed their thoroughly peace-branded selves for passing photographers. 2005:03:19 19:34:15

Last night while buying nuts, I was approached by one of the servers at the cafe next door. He asked if he'd seen me at the Disengagement demonstration. I said that he had; I recognized him from the Rehovot bus. He said that it's good to know there's people like me in Rehovot.

That made my night. As promised, pictures from the demo.

Lenten Friday

One of the better views of the Sepulchre dome available from ground level. Taken from the Via Dolorosa near the ninth station. 2005:03:04 15:43:42

A couple of weeks ago I spent a weekend in Jerusalem, mostly poking around the Old City with my roommates. I've previously posted about that trip here and here. One thing I'm especially pleased we managed to do, given the season, was to join in the Friday Via Crucis.

Each Friday afternoon the Franciscan monks process down the Via Dolorosa, visiting each of the Stations of the Cross -- the Via Crucis (See my post with a map of the Old City. The first nine Stations are marked with circled Roman numerals; the last few are inside the Holy Sepulchre). While this is generally a low-key affair drawing the odd handful of pilgrims, during Lent this swells into a major event drawing hundreds.

As it'll be Easter in a few minutes, my time, this'll be my tip of the hat to the departing Lenten season1.


Abandoned British munitions dumps stretching across a dusty field near Gaza. If the rains keep up long enough, it might just yield a wheat harvest. 2005:02:19 15:18:44

Astro-Tiyul continued on from Pura to Kibbutz Be'eri and the nearby nature reserve.

An excerpt from the notes I took on the road back home illustrates my impressions:

...fields dotted with raised berms, abandoned ammunition dumps of the British army. The roads also clearly dated back to the Mandate, too. Even older, Byzantine cisterns poked from one hill, near an improbable -- if very small -- waterfall.

I could see Gaza in the distance, faint through dust-bleached sky. I could probably have walked up to the fence.

The Gaza Strip is hardly Mordor, but sometimes it might as well be, spoken of as it is, as a bogeyman land of danger and foes. So this verdant land between the road and the fence, littered with the detrius of old rulers and past wars, has a distinctly Ithilien quality.

Shalom Achshav

Photo stolen from Ha'aretz website. Original caption: Demonstrators taking part in a Tel Aviv rally on Saturday evening in support of an Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip. (Guy Raivitz)

Sometimes I do something worthwhile with my weekends. This was one of them.

If the photo was much larger, you might be able to see me over on the left. Later, I'll post my own photos and observations.

Yishrael yiotzat me'azza!

St. Patrick's Day

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A field in southern Israel, being absurdly verdant. 2005:02:19 13:36:32

St. Patrick's Day is yet another fond holiday that is sadly lacking in Israel. Tempting as it is to go around pinching people for not wearing green (this would be everyone, actually), I think I'd just be getting strange looks.

They're kickin' back green margaritas in San Antonio. Connor's got your coverage of the festivities in Chicago. As for myself, there's an Irish-ish pub down the road a way, so I'll have to pop down after work and grab me a Guiness. Perhaps while affecting a ludicrous Irish accent. (By the by, this post is much funnier if you read it with one.)

For those of you far enough north that green is not yet a widespread color, here's a wee reminder of what it's like. Despair not, me laddies and lasses. Spring'll be around before you know it.

The Blooming of the Desert

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Opuntia ficus-indica, commonly known as the sabra, is a form of prickly pear cactus and is practically the national plant of Israel. This large stand near Be'eri, better than twice my height, has clearly been enjoying the recent rains. The grass seems out of place, though. 2005:02:19 13:30:30

A couple of weekends a year, generally in mid- to late-February, half of Israel takes to the highways and strikes out for the desert. This time around, I was one of them. On the heels of the brief annual desert monsoon, all manner of magnoliophyta are desperately at work generating a fresh year's supply of dormant seed. For a couple of weeks, the desert was in bloom, and no good Israeli was going to miss their chance to gawk and trample.

A native-born Israeli is sometimes called a sabra, after the sabra cactus, a close cousin of the prickly pear cactus common back home in the drier parts of America. Supposedly they're prickly and tough, but sweet inside. I think so far I've only had dealings with the outside parts. While this is a sort of cactus given to stands of respectable size, this bush is certainly one of the larger that I've run across. I should have thrown someone in so the picture would have some scale. Suffice to say, the upper bits are four or five meters high.


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Looking south through a gap in the battlements of the Old City, the Separation Fence snakes along the hilltops. 2005:03:05 13:39:25

Walls can be some of the most enduring traces of settled civilization. The smallest, most primitive village may leave only the foundations of building walls for archeologists to find. They also become symbols of ancient power -- the Chinese emperors walled out Mongolia, Hadrian cut Britain in two, and in the end we gawk at the boundaries centuries after their usefullness has faded.

Small wonder then, that the Palestinians doubt Israel's claim that the Separation Fence is a strictly temporary security measure.

I spent Saturday morning walking along the ramparts of the wall surrounding Jerusalem's Old City. Although built only about 500 years ago by Suleyman the Magnificent, Jerusalem has been surrounded by some kind of wall in much the same location for most of the past 3000 years. Until modern times the wall existed, like most city walls, to keep invading armies at bay. Jerusalem doesn't seem to have had notable success with this tactic, though. Nowadays, though, I get the sense it's seen more as keeping Old Jerusalem in, preventing the antiqueness, the religious orthodoxy and ancient grudges, from spilling out and overwhelming the nice, modern New Jerusalem.

This is a land of walls.

In a Walled City

The source of less trouble than you'd think, although Sharon did manage to spark a four-year uprising with a poorly planned visit. The Dome of the Rock, which dominates the profile of the Temple Mount, covers a stone implicated in numerous Man-God interactions throughout the Torah and Quran. Below, Jews pray at the Western Wall, the only remnant of the Temple destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE. 2005:03:04 14:17:15

It was discovered that my Ukranian roommate had never visited Jerusalem in his several months here. My Jewish American roommate was already planning to spend the weekend there with friends, and suggested we tag along. Thus early Friday morning -- but not quite as early as we'd planned -- it was off with us to the bus station.

Early was a necessity since Shabbat begins an hour before sunset Friday afternoon. Jerusalem (and Israel in general) being the sort of place it is, with the arrival of Shabbat the buses stop running and most Jewish-operated businesses shut down. While cabs can still be caught during Shabbat, they get scarcer and more expensive. This made the Old City a logical base camp for our wanderings, since it's dense with interesting things to do and see. After all, there's just not that many genuine walled cities left in the world.

It's a quick bus ride from the central bus station to the Old City, but we'd gotten a late start and there had been some nastry traffic getting out of the Tel Aviv area, so it was pushing well into afternoon by the time we arrived at the Jaffa Gate. Falafel was in order. It should be noted that, like everything else near the Jaffa Gate, the falafel is overpriced and subpar. Still better than any meal you can have in Rehovot for 10 shekels.

Having a couple of days to kill, I took quite a few photos on this trip. In the interest of length and presentation, I'll post a selection of them over the next few days. Below, the narrative overview of my weekend.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Israel '05 - Part 3: Excursions category.

Israel '05 - Part 2: Assaying is the previous category.

Israel '05 - Part 4: Retrospective is the next category.

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