April 1, 2014

Jerusalem Waldorf-Astoria about to open

For our guests with the most-demanding hotel requirements, we’re pleased to announce the opening of the new Jerusalem Waldorf-Astoria Hotel–just in time for Passover.

It’s located at the intersection of King David and Agron Streets–just a few minutes’ walk from The Old City’s Jaffa Gate,

It occupies the space once occupied by The Palace Hotel–built some 80 years ago by the family of the then-Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. That historic facade was preserved–at great expense–together with the elegant banisters of the lobby’s staircase–while the rest of the dilapidated building was gutted. A totally-new structure was built behind the facade, with the largest ballroom in Jerusalem.

See more information, together with some pictures, at

This new hotel is priced similarly to the nearby King David, David’s Citadel, and Mamilla–definitely high-end. So, it may not be for everyone’s pocketbook. Relax–we have many moderate hotels in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, that offer a very nice standard at more-affordable cost.

So, what are you waiting for? Come on over and say “Shalom”!

September 30, 2013

Noah and his Ark–21st Century Version

As this week we read the story of Noah in the Torah, let’s put it into a time machine, and fast-forward to the 21st century, and move it to the United States:

And the Lord spoke to Noah and said: “In six months, I’m going to make it rain until the whole earth is covered with water, and all the evil people are destroyed. But I want to save a few good people, and two of every kind of living thing on the planet. I am ordering you to build me an Ark. And in a flash of lightning, he delivered the specifications for the Ark.

“OK” said Noah, trembling in fear and fumbling with the blueprints.

“Six months, and it starts to rain”, thundered the Lord. “You’d better have my Ark completed, or learn how to swim for a very long time.” And six months passed. The skies began to cloud up and rain began to fall. The Lord saw that Noah was sitting in his front yard, weeping, and there was no Ark. “Noah”, shouted the Lord, “where is my Ark?” A lightning bolt crashed to the ground next to Noah.

“Lord, please forgive me!” begged Noah. “I did my best. But there were big problems. First, I had to get a building permit for the Ark constructions project, and your plans didn’t meet code, so I had to hire an engineer to redraw the plans. Even so, I got into a big fight with the building inspectors over whether or not the Ark needed a fire sprinkler system. Then, my neighbors objected, claiming I was violating zoning by building the Ark in my front yard, so I had to get a variance from the city planning commission. I had a big problem getting enough wood for the Ark because there was a ban on cutting trees to save the Spotted Owl. I had to convince U.S. Fish and Wildlife that I needed wood to save the owls. But they wouldn’t let me catch any owls, so no owls. Then, the carpenters formed a union and went out on strike. I had to negotiate a settlement using the National Labor Relations Board before anyone would pick up a saw or hammer. Now we have 16 carpenters going on the boat and still no owls. Then, I started gathering up animals, and got sued by an animal rights group. They objected to me taking only two of each kind. Just when I got the suit dismissed, EPA notified me that I couldn’t complete the Ark without filing an environmental impact statement on your proposed flood. They didn’t take kindly to the idea that they had no jurisdiction over the conduct of a Supreme Being. After that, the Army Corps of Engineers wanted a map of the proposed new flood plain. I sent them a globe. Right now, I’m still trying to resolve a complaint from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over how many Croatians I’m supposed to hire. The IRS has seized all my assets claiming I’m trying to avoid paying taxes by leaving the country, and I just got a notice from the state about owing some kind of use tax. I really don’t think I can finish your Ark for at least another five years!!”

The sky began to clear, the sun began to shine. A rainbow arched across the sky. Noah looked up and smiled. “You mean you’re not going to destroy the earth?”, Noah asked hopefully.

“No”, said the Lord sadly; “Government already has”.

And as long as we’re looking humorously at the story of Noah’s Ark, how can we forget Bill Cosby’s legendary narration: Enjoy!


June 13, 2013

Jerusalem’s ‘First Station’–from 19th century transportation hub to 21st century entertainment center

The historic building, as beautifully renovated and opened to the public in May 2013

The Jerusalem Railway Station opened in 1892 as terminus of the Jaffa–Jerusalem rail line. The idea to link Jerusalem to the coast by rail was first raised in the middle of the 19th century by Dr. Conrad Schick, Sir Moses Montefiore and others. The right to build  the railway was awarded by the Ottoman Empire to Joseph Navon. Under financial pressure, he sold that right to the French Société du Chemin de Fer Ottoman de Jaffa à Jérusalem et Prolongements.

The station was inaugurated on 26 September 1892 in the presence of the city’s dignitaries, Jews and Arabs. 

First train in Jerusalem Train Station, 1892. Photo Credit: Unknown (I wasn’t there)

The station building is a symmetrical structure containing the station offices, ticket hall and a concourse. It was, before later modifications, identical to the Ramla and Jaffa stations–all built at the same time by the same French company that built the railway. The triangular arches on the roof of the first floor, on both sides of the ticket hall, were built in early 1920s by the British Palestine Railway which managed the railway during the British Mandate. The building underwent many renovations over the years, but its basic shape has not changed since 1920.

Station’s city name in English, Arabic, and Hebrew–part of the 1920′s British addition

The station operated almost continuously until 1948, when traffic stopped on the Jaffa–Jerusalem line due to Israel’s War of Independence. At the end of the war a section of the track remained in Jordanian hands. Following the Rhodes Armistice, it was agreed that Jordan would hand the control of this section of the track to Israel, in order to enable Israel Railways to restore service to Jerusalem.

In 1959 the rail right-of-way was extensively renovated, but over time, the number of passengers using the line decreased, and service dropped to once or twice a day. On 14 August 1998 the last train left the station, and next day, the station was officially closed, and for the next 7 years, Israel’s capital city would be without rail service.

In 2005, the old right-of-way would be improved somewhat, so that rail serice was restored, but only to Malha–near the Jerusalem Mall in southwest Jerusalem.

The rest of the original right-of-way was abandoned, part of it later being converted into a lovely foot and bicycle path through parts of Jerusalem’s picturesque Baqa and German Colony Neighborhoods. But the once-beautiful, historic old train station lay derelict.

Following the precedent of the Old Jaffa Train Station which was beautifully redeveloped as an entertainment center, and opened to the public about 3 years ago (I hope to cover in a subsequent post), in May 2013, the station reopened as HaTakhana HaRishona (The First Station), a culture and entertainment venue. The $9.3 million refurbishment was financed by the City of Jerusalem and its Development Authority. The 4,000 sq.m. rail yard now features wooden decks, food stalls and umbrella-topped vendor carts. Several restaurants and pubs have opened in the area, with more under construction, and an exhibition of historic photographs is displayed inside the station house. The site will host musical, literary and artistic events.

HaMiznon–dairy-fish kosher restaurant–eating outdoors on the historic platform is a joy, even mid-day.

Market carts on which wares are sold some days of the week.

Given the city’s religious sensitivities, virtually any project undertaken in the city is carefully scrutinized, with an eye to trying to please as many, while offending as few as possible of our citizens and visitors. So, the question arose–should the venue operate on Shabbat, and should non-kosher food also be available.

Under the leadership of Mayor Nir Barkat and the more-liberal-leaning members of City Council, with an eye to attracting more young seculars to live in, and enjoy Jerusalem, it was decided that the site would remain open on Shabbat, and that there should be both kosher and non-kosher eateries there. Thus-far, all is going smoothly–there’s a nice mix of demographic elements there, and it seems that they coexist nicely.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the First Station displayed a scene that was probably a first for the capital city. While diners sat nursing beers or coffees at the nearby cafes, several hundred people gathered at the center of the wooden deck that runs the expanse of the station, participating in a rousing Kabbalat Shabbat service accompanied by drums and guitars, courtesy of Nava Tehilla, a local Jewish Renewal prayer and study group.

Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan brings in Shabbat with her daughter and the Nava Tehila band (photo credit: Tal Chalutz)

Rabbi Kagan mused about the experience of leading Kabbalat Shabbat services in such a public forum. The late Friday afternoon service at the station is a project led by the nearby Ginot HaIr Community Council, and the Kabbalat Shabbat services will be conducted alternatively by Nava Tehila and Invitation to Piyyut, another local group. But what’s fitting about the experiment is the entire concept, said Kagan, pointing out that Kabbalat Shabbat was done in the mid-afternoon in ancient times, prior to lighting the Shabbat candles, as the community courted the Shabbat queen in the town square.

“If Shabbat is the wedding, then this is the courtship,” explained Kagan. “The two parts haven’t come together yet.”

Perhaps, mused Kagan, the train station is Jerusalem’s courtship site, the seam line between east and west, religious and secular, which joins all of the city’s disparate parts.

Jerusalem’s new / renewed First Station is definitely worth a visit any day of the week!

April 11, 2013

Israel Museum Herod Exhibit Extended until Jan 2014

 Herod Exhibition Extended until January 2014

 Jerusalem, April 9, 2013 – In response to unprecedented public interest, the Israel Museum announced today that Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey will remain on view for an additional three months through January 4, 2014. The extension allows the Museum to better accommodate the significant numbers of visitors and school groups from throughout Israel as well as international tourists who are coming to experience the exhibition. In the eight weeks since the February 13 opening, Herod the Great received over 75,000 visitors, and, during the recent Passover and Easter holidays, over 3,000 visitors per day attended the exhibition. Timed tickets are issued during peak hours, in order to minimize waiting time, and visitors are encouraged to come on Sundays and other weekday mornings.

 About the exhibition

The life and legacy of Herod the Great, ruler of Judea from 37-4 BCE and considered among the most important imperial figures in history, is the focus of this groundbreaking archaeology exhibition. Centered on the findings from Herod’s tomb at Herodium – uncovered  in 2007 after a forty-year search – Herod the Great presents over 250 unique archaeological artifacts, exploring for the first time the life of this controversial king, whose historical and physical imprint is virtually unchallenged in this region. Many artifacts are on display for the first time and are illustrated by reconstructions of Herodian sites using original material. The exhibition also features a monumental, full-size reconstruction of the burial chamber of the king’s mausoleum, including the intricately carved sarcophagus believed to have held his body, together with fragments from the Second Temple of Jerusalem and reconstructed palace chambers decorated with meticulously restored wall paintings and stucco and mosaic work. Herod the Great is curated by David Mevorah, Curator of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Periods, and Dr. Silvia Rozenberg, Rodney E. Soher Senior Curator of Classical Archaeology


March 28, 2013

Herod the Great–The King’s Final Journey

In mid-February, the first-ever comprehensive exhibit devoted to Herod the Great was opened at Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of Professor Ehud Netzer, who devoted some 30 years to excavations at Herodium (Herodion), and was killed there in a tragic accidental fall on 28 October 2010, some three years after he found and identified Herod’s Tomb.

Three things especially intrigued me about the exhibition:

First–it focused on Herod through three of our less-well-known Herod-related archaeological sites–Sebastiya (Biblical Samaria)–where he built a palace dedicated to Caesar Augustus, his Jericho Palaces–where he died–and Herodium (Herodion)–where he was buried.

Second–State-of-the-Art computer graphics that allow us to better-visualize these sites, as well as Caesarea, Masada, and Temple Mount, where we already have some such resources available to us on-site.

Third–Insight into his grand lifestyle–Herod brought the ‘backwater of Judea’ onto center-stage. He personally imported fine wines, fruits, and sauces from neighboring countries. Each pot or amphora was carefully labeled in Greek or Latin, with contents and destination–for the personal use of King Herod. We see statuary tributes to Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, Augustus, and Marcus Agrippa–all from Sebastiya.

The tour through the exhibit begins at Herod’s Winter Palaces in Jericho. Here, in 35 BCE, he ordered the drowning of Aristobulus III–the last surviving, and very-popular descendant of the Hasmonean Dynasty.

We first see the Throne Room of Herod’s Third Palace, as excavated by Netzer for his PhD dissertation:

Most impressive is the magnificent fresco work that was painstakingly-reconstructed here. Caesar Augustus–Herod’s patron–was so pleased with Herod that he permitted him to mine cinnabar–a brilliant red-hued mineral–from his private property in Almadén, Spain.

Above Jericho, controlling the strategic Wadi Kelt route up to Jerusalem, Herod built a fortress which he named Cypros, in honor of his mother. Here too, Professor Netzer excavated:  We see Herod’s opulent private bath–a tub hewn from a single piece of stone, and a floor laid in Opus Sectile style–geometric shapes, typically in two colors, laid in a repeated pattern.

The exhibit ‘flashes back’ into some of Herod’s better-known construction projects–Temple Mount stands out. While some modern archaeologists (chiefly Eli Shukrun) dispute Herod’s role in this monumental project, most experts attribute it to him. Few artifacts have survived through the millennia–one of the most-impressive ones, seen here for the first time, is a magnificent Ionic column capital, weighing some 3 tons, believed to have come from Herod’s Royal Stoa (colonnade or basilica):

The mural displayed behind the capital is meant to give its perspective in the stoa, with the Temple’s Sacred Precinct in the background.

Within this ‘flash-back’ segment, we have computer-generated reconstructions of Herod’s other well-known construction projects at Caesarea and Masada.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a film tribute (in Hebrew with English subtitles) to the late Professor Netzer. We move from here to the ‘piece-de-resistance’ –Herodium (Herodion).

We’ve known, from the writings of Josephus Flavius, that Herod had first developed this fort, just south of Jerusalem and east of Bethlehem as another palace. But in time, he would have much of that earlier development destroyed, to be replaced by a mausoleum in which he would be buried. As previously-stated, Professor Netzer devoted some thirty years in search for this burial place. Finally, in 2007, he discovered it.

The mausoleum was lower down the slope than where it was expected to be found, and it had been intentionally smashed by zealots who took up positions on Herodium (Herodion) during the latter years of the Great Revolt–70-72 CE. The ‘why’ for this vandalism–Herod continued to be hated by the Jews over 70 years after his death.

Amazingly, much of the mausoleum was found. Its base had originally occupied some 100 square meters (about 1,100 square feet), and it originally reached a height of some 25 meters (about 80 feet), a 4-meter (about 13 feet) high section of its upper tier, weighing some 13 tons,  was painstakingly reconstructed by Israel Museum. The floor in this area had to be especially reinforced to carry the weight. As is the common practice at archaeological parks here, reconstructions using modern materials are done intentionally different from the original artifacts, so that we can easily differentiate.

Inside the mausoleum, we see the reconstructed sarcophagus, of missi-achmar (a very hard reddish limestone), which Netzer believed to have held Herod’s remains. This too had been intentionally smashed by zealot vandals in 70-72 CE.

Nearby the mausoleum, Netzer found two more sarcophagi of white limestone–believed to have been for as-yet-unidentified family members:

As stated in my earlier post, this exhibit should definitely be a companion piece to any historical / archaeological tour of Israel, as it supplements what we have in-situ on our various well-known sites from that period.

Feel free to request such a visit when you book your tour with Nat-Tours-Israel (currently scheduled to be open thru mid-October 2013).




March 17, 2013

Herod ‘the Great’

HerodHerod–often known as ‘the Great’–was born in the year 74-73 BCE to Antipater–an Idumean–his father–and Cypros–a Nabatean–his mother. Cypros was not Jewish, and Antipater may have been the product of a forced conversion (yes–for a brief time under the Hasmoneans, conquered nations were forcibly converted to Judaism). So, by classical Jewish thinking, Herod was not seen as being Jewish.

However, as his parents and he lived in a Jewish society, they adopted many of the Jewish customs and practices common to Jews of that period.

He is often described as ‘blood-thirsty’–and not without basis–he would order many of his family members killed–including his beloved wife Mariamne, and his sons by her. He would also order the executions of many other members of the Hasmonean Dynasty.

In today’s context, yes–he was blood-thirsty. But viewed in the eyes of civilized Roman society in which he lived, this was how one ‘got ahead in business without really trying’. Have a dagger in hand, and use it on your rivals before they can do the same to you.

Herod aligned himself with Anthony and with Cleopatra of Egypt. But after Anthony lost a major maritime battle (Actium) against Octavian, and the latter became Caesar of Rome (taking the name Augustus), Herod successfully switched alliances, and would become Augustus’ King of Judea. Herod took this position in 37 BCE, and remained until his death in 4 BCE.

So, for 33 years, Herod ruled the Jews, who wanted no part of him, and he ruled at the pleasure of Rome, who could have given him the ‘thumbs-down’ at any instant. Love him or hate him, one must admire his ability to walk this tightrope so successfully for so long.

According to the New Testament, Augustus ordered a census that was implemented by Herod. This census is what brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Jesus would be born then and there. So, what does Herod’s year of death say about the calendar as we know it? The curious, non-existant ‘zero year’ (between BC and AD or BCE and CE) must have come at-least four years earlier than we place it. Anybody ready to re-do all of our calendars?

In my line of work, Herod is fantastic. So much of what we see and do in the course of any tour of Israel has Herod’s fingerprints on it. Herod’s Second Temple, Machpela Complex, Masada, Caesarea, Herodion (Herodium) to name but a few.

Those of you who have toured with me in the past know that I’m not a big fan of museums. We have so much to see outdoors–in the field–so why come inside and see exhibits in a museum?

But just a few weeks ago, a monumental exhibition opened at Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It’s the first ever, dedicated exclusively to Herod, his history, and most-specifically, his final journey from his Winter Palaces in Jericho where he died to Herodion (Herodium), where he was buried. This exhibit will remain open thru this October–and in my humble opinion, is a ‘must’ companion piece to the archaeological sites which we’ll explore in the field. Stay tuned for my next piece which will be a detailed examination of this incredible exhibit.