In 2006 a small group of Aussies were working for the United Nations in the Middle East. Based primarily in Israel, Syria and Lebanon, we spent a year travelling all over, eating Middle Eastern food, trying hard to understand Middle Eastern politics, learning Hebrew and Arabic, and just absorbing as much of Middle Eastern culture as we could.
One of the things that stood out was the sheer history of the place. In Lebanon, we lived in the Mediterranean coastal town of Tyre, which was located on a Phoenician Harbour built three and half thousand of years ago (and it’s still possible to find shards of pottery dated that old when you go snorkelling). In Israel, we lived in Tiberius where Jesus did his thing with fishes and loaves in the Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago, and in Jerusalem which is soaked in history, especially the Old city.
So everywhere we visited, there was lots to see and do, but I think we started to take it for granted. When we were at St Catherine’s Monastery, we were asked if we wanted to visit the Museum, entry – $10. We were a bit museumed-out, so we baulked. The guy at the ticket desk asked if we were students, because they got the discount price of $2. We said no, still not enticed. Then he asked where we were staying – we were staying at the in-house accommodation at the Monastery – which entitled us to FREE entry to the museum. That finally enticed us. Thank goodness! The museum at St Catherine’s Monastery contains historical (and religious) artefacts second in value only to the Vatican!
But our complacency led to us nicknaming our little trips “RAS adventures”, RAS standing for Rocks And Sh*t.
In the twelve months we were there, we saw RAS from all over the region. Some of the highlights were:
- Jerusalem Old City: especially beers in the Armenian quarter, Dome of the Rock and Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- A visit to Beersheba to walk in the footsteps of the Australian Light Horse who fought there in WWI
- The first glimpse of the Treasury Building of Petra, Jordan
- The Sinai Peninsula: St Catherine’s Monastery and diving in the Red Sea. (Unfortunately we didn’t get to climb Mt Sinai because a series of suicide bombings were detonated in nearby Dahab so they closed the mountain)
- Buying carpets in Straight Street in Damascus, Syria
- Visiting the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. Sadly, I think these ruins have been destroyed recently by Daish/Islamic State.
- Floating in the Dead Sea and climbing up to the ancient siege city of Masada
- Snorkelling among huge jellyfish on Phoenician ruins in Tyre
- Weekend trips to Beirut
- Bahai Gardens in Haifa, Israel, followed by the strongest cocktail we have ever drunk at an Irish Bar up the hill in Haifa. The “cobra” bit us all!
- Christmas midnight mass in Bethlehem
That only scratches the surface, but it was a fantastic year abroad.