The Cats of Israel

I suspect that many of you who read my blog know that I am fond of cats. The recent trip to Israel provided a great opportunity for cat watching–and photography. Throughout much of the Mediterranean, street cats are a constant presence, and part of the urban ecosystems. Israel is no exception, and I had some fun with the camera.

This cat and I made our acquaintance in Acre. A friendly sort, he enjoyed conversing and lounging. He was, however, very clear on one point. That was his tree.

Like many of the cats, he was fairly solitary, though there were a few other cats in the neighborhood.

In other places, there were groups of cats hanging out. In Capernum, for example, there was a group of three cats who were a posse. Making themselves at home, in around, under and on top of this bench, they napped and groomed, seeming to enjoy the heat of the day. It was quite warm that day, which made it perfect cat weather.

As with everything else in Jerusalem, the cats of Jerusalem are special. They clearly regard themselves as the guardians of the city, and take that responsibility quite seriously.

Admittedly, there are some who seem a bit more, ah, engaged in the whole watching over everything than others. Case in point: this feline somehow managed to find a soft couch to use as his base of operations. Most other cats in Jerusalem were out and about, whether supervising the Western Wall crowds, as these two kittens were, or stalking the wild discarded pizza, like this leopard-like fellow.

And then, there were the cats who simply sat and supervised, whether amid archaeological ruins or a wall in the old city.

Caesaria: Roman Port

As promised, I’m doing the Israel recap in chunks. Today: Caesaria. An ancient city built by Herod on the coast of Israel, dedicated to his patron, Caesar Augustus. Archaeologically developed over the last fifty years to reveal many of the original structures, it includes an ancient Roman theater (which many of us would call an amphitheater, but which our guide informed us was really a theater because it was only a semi-circle of seats, not a full circle). This stage and stone seats is still used for concerts today, and apparently holds about 4000 people.

If I’m recalling correctly, Caesaria was our first interaction with a large scale Roman ruin (though assuredly not our last). It provides an interesting view on how ruins in Israel develop, the layering of cultures on top of one another. In order to truly appreciate this, a (very) quick history lesson is probably useful.

The land which we now call Israel was inhabited and ruled by, in succession:

  • The Cannaanite (until roughly 1000 BC)
  • The Israelites (or Jews) (1000 BC – mid 500s BC)
  • The Babylonians
  • The Persians
  • The Greeks
  • The Jews (Hasmonian Dynasty–around 150 BC until a bit before the birth of Jesus)
  • Romans (63 BC – Mid 300s AD)
  • Byzantine Period (Mid 300s – Mid 600s
  • Muslim Rulers (650-ish until the Crusades ~1100)
  • Christian Crusaders (~1100 – ~1250)
  • The Mamluks (~1250 – ~1500)
  • The Ottoman Empire (1500  –  1917)
  • The British Mandate (1917 – 1948)
  • The State of Israel (1948 – Present)

Each of these cultures, (especially from the Romans forward) has their own distinctive architectural styles, but, for the most part, were building on top of the ruins or foundations of what came before. Thus we get walls such as this, in which a carved lintel from an earlier period is integrated into a later wall:

or this, where a wall is composed of various styles, clearly from different periods of construction:

I find the interaction of the various periods fascinating, not least because of the ways in which the different stone finishing techniques catch shadows and light differently.

As you may or may not know, my undergraduate degree is in Classics (Greek and Roman), and therefore I have a certain fondness for the relics and stories of those cultures. One carved stone element, in particular, caught my fancy in this regard: a carved head of a gorgon. If you recall the story, the gaze of the gorgon turns the object of the gaze to stone. However, here it is the head of the gorgon which has been turned to stone.

The layering of cultures is extensive: an ancient Roman city and port, but also the minaret from the 18th or 19th century (built upon a crusader ruin, which you can’t see in this photo:

In the interest of not writing a full travel log, and thoroughly boring you, I will append the rest of the photos as a gallery for browsing as suits your pleasure.

Caesaria, is a walk by the sea, through an ancient town. Like much of Israel, history is present in each step, and somehow feels more alive than in other places, as one sees the edifices of one culture re-purposed for the needs of another. The enduring message, for me, is that everything passes, and our great achievements are only the building blocks for those who come after.

First Reflections on Israel Trip

Eva and I arrived home yesterday–or at least our bodies did. I’m hoping our brains catch up sometime in the next day or so. The combination of jetlag, 24 hours of travel from Tel Aviv to Portland and an amped up caffeine addiction from all the great Israeli coffee have left me a bit out of it, but I trust a little more time will restore me to full functionality.

The trip was great. We spent lots of time with family and I got to know some of my younger cousins much better. Touring around Israel was beautiful (and there will be photos coming…I took over 1000, but haven’t done any editing yet). For the first time in 30 years, I was in Israel in a relatively peaceful period, which meant we were able to travel with far less concern for safety, and spent more time in places I haven’t been–like the old city of Jerusalem. All in all, an amazing trip.

A few highlights:

  • My cousin’s bat mitzvah under Robinson’s Arch (a section of the Western Wall of the Second Temple which is set up for men and women to pray together).
  • Many wonderful meals, especially breakfasts of fresh veggies, fruits, cheeses and breads.
  • Touring Beit She’an, an archaeological site excavated to the Roman period which gives an amazing sense of what a Roman city felt like.
  • Beautiful flowering plants everywhere (photos to follow).
  • Spending quality, if not quantity, time with one of my closest friends, and meeting her wife and dog (two separate people, the wife and dog–just to be clear).
  • Discovering that my spoken Hebrew is better than I thought, and that, for the most part, I can communicate in it.

As always, Israel is a complex place. No matter what your political persuasion, there are elements to Israeli society and politics that are challenging. As one tour guide put it, “the problem is that everyone is right.” With many competing ideologies and claims, it is not a restful place to be,  but it is thought-provoking. The situations there confound easy answers, and perhaps that very complexity and challenge is part of the spiritual richness of the land.

More posts and pictures will be forthcoming as my brain and body reunite, but I wanted to provide a first set of general reflections before memory faded any more.