I've never had an official bucket-list. However, the only place on earth I wanted to make sure I definitely visited at least once, has always been Israel. It was a real privilege to be able to finally go.
I was asked by Foundation Matters to film some footage for a presentation which takes people on a journey through John's gospel in the New Testament. While I was there I was able to take a few photo's when I had the chance. Unfortunately, there wasn't loads of time to take photo's as there was a lot of footage to shoot and hundreds miles to cover! It's definitely somewhere I'd like to re-visit with the sole purpose of taking photos!
We landed in Tel Aviv and made our way to our first stop in Jerusalem. Our first day of filming took us to the Dead Sea. Specifically to the Qumran National Park and to Ein Gedi. The Qumran valley is the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. These are hugely important documents in establishing the veracity of the New Testament scriptures. The story is enchanting... a young, bored shepherd boy lashing rocks into an open chasm hears a jar smash, accidentally uncovering some of the most important relics known to mankind.
Ein Gedi is a stretch of mountains that features prominently in Pentateuchal narrative. It's reckoned to contain the stretch of valleys and caves King David fled from Saul in 1 Samuel. When you visit, it's easy to imagine the scene.
The next couple of days were spent in and around Jerusalem. Previous trips by the charity had covered a lot of the old town so we weren't required to spend too much time there.
It was a strange experience. I wasn't as overwhelmed as I'd expected to be. Jerusalem, in my opinion, is the most important city on earth. The central focus of the three major religions and the spiritual base for the majority of the worlds population throughout history, even to the present day.
It's fascinating how within Jerusalem itself synagogues and temple sites, mosques and Islamic temples and churches and cathedrals are mingled together. Interestingly, as you can see in a couple of the pictures, is the very evident divide of Israelis and Palestinians by the West Bank barrier.
Rather than being enamoured by its rich biblical heritage, I was struck by the ritualistic fundamentalism of the orthodox Jewish community, and the narcissistic idolatry of the Christians. The vast majority of the religion on display seemed cold and mechanical rather than spiritual and heartfelt. Occasionally, there would be individual moments that seemed genuine (even in one of the pictures of the father and son at the wailing wall). I'll save my opinion on this for a future blog post which I feel compelled to write. It's inspired mainly by the people I met and was able to spend time chatting to during the trip (both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims). One of those people is in the last photo of this section; an ex tank commander in the Israeli army. We used one of his ATV's for a section of the film, along the West Bank, on one of the hottest days of the year (when out on the track I measured 42° on my watch). Once we'd been out and filmed he invited us into his air conditioned office for coffee while we waited to be picked up. After obligatory small talk, we found ourselves in an in-depth discussion which wound up covering the state of Israel, the Middle-Eastern situation, global terrorism, world politics, religion, lasting a couple of hours.
Next we headed to the Negev desert, on the border with Egypt, to the small town of Ezez where we stayed the night in the desert. It was a long drive but a long stretch in the car to rest was welcome. It also offered a good opportunity to take in the stretch of Israel.
As we arrived, the sun was setting and the smell of incense was in the air. - it was stunning. It was impossible to notice though... as we pulled up to the campsite we had to find a space between dozens of army vehicles. As we looked out on to the camp, soldiers were everywhere! We're on the border of Egypt so the scene seems ominous! As we get out the car, the buzz of drones was in the air with the sound of discussion. I honestly thought we'd just wandered into some sort of restricted area! It transpired that a section of the Israeli army were having a night of celebrations and meetings and we were sound. I took out my camera to take photos but was promptly told to put it away.
We enjoyed some gorgeous food before sitting under the stars with tea that had been brewing in the fireplace. Our beds for the night were either hammocks or mattresses on the floor. It was idyllic. That night was probably the most tolerable temperature, which should have made it easier to drift off, except for the distraction of machine-gunfire in the distance. Eventually, the noise became familiar and I eventually drifted off until about 5:30am when the firing was heard only a few hundred yards away.... For some reason, I couldn't get back off to sleep!
In the morning we enjoyed a huge breakfast before a camel ride through the desert to capture some final shots for the movie.
From there, we headed to the Galilee region to a small town called Poriya Ilit.
The final leg of the trip was probably my favourite. It was helped by an absolutely stunning home which we stayed in for the final few days called Birdsong.
From the top of Mount Arbel (second row of photos) you get an aerial view of the Galilee region and the sea of Galilee. It was incredible to gain some perspective on the key area of Jesus' ministry. We would slowly make our way through the region over the coming days.
In Nazareth, we visited a small reserve which had been designed to mimic a small first century village. One of my favourite parts was a replica of a synagogue which met the requirements of a synagogue in Jesus' day. It was stirring walking inside and being able now to picture, more vividly, the scenes described in the New Testament gospels. While we were there, we bumped into Mary and Joseph - it was a weirder version of meeting Mickey Mouse in Disneyland or something?!
We planned to hire jet ski's for filming on the Sea of Galilee but it turns out you need an Israeli license to drive them! Instead, we hired our own boat! It wasn't as exciting but it meant we were able to jump in and swim in the sea! It was strange how warm it was and that it didn't taste of salt water! The Sea of Galilee is also far bigger than I'd pictured in my mind.
From there we had our final day of activities to film which included rapelling and a bungee swing! The rapelling took place on the border with Syria (again, only a few hundred yards away) where the sound of missiles, this time, could be heard exploding. The guide we were with was now so familiar with these sounds that he'd stopped hearing them. It was impossible for us to ignore though! The enemy was visible from where we were working.
Both the rapelling and bungee swinging were incredible (filming the bungee meant lugging the camera gear over the remains of the bridge!), but as with the whole trip, by far the most memorable aspect of the whole day was chatting to our helper! We covered every subject imaginable and I gained knowledge and insights I wasn't prepared for, which have even affected much my own thinking. Again, I want to save the bulk of what this experience taught me for a more thorough blog post, but the basic principle is that getting out of your own context and meeting with those from completely different cultures/worlds is such a vitally important exercise; the value of which, shouldn't be underestimated. Realising, actually/tangibly rather than just casually, and experiencing other perspectives and viewpoints than your own, humbles and grounds you and enriches you infinitely more than staying in the safety of your own familiar and comfortable environment ever could.