Israel/Jordan field trip

Every 2 years the Earth Department at U-Michigan leads an international geology field trip, and this year I went on the trip to Israel and Jordan led by my adviser, Adam Simon. The undergrad/grad student trip was focused on the amazing geology and cultural history of the Dead Sea Rift Valley and was 12 days long. Before leaving on the evening of February 26th, the course met every Friday during the semester to prepare. Each week a group of 2-3 participants presented an introduction to an area so we each became a “local expert” and prepared the group for what we would see. The first 7 days were spent traveling from north to south in Israel and the final 5 days in southern Jordan.


After landing in Tel Aviv we got on our bus and headed north to the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights regions of Israel. We were so fortunate to have Dr. Moti Stein, a geology professor from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, with us for the entire trip as a local who knew every rock in the country! Being an overall wet spring, the countryside was green and filled with flowers. Our first stop was a set of extinct cinder cone volcanoes that poked up out of the basalt plateau that is the highest elevation region in the country. Less than a mile from the Syrian border, we were quickly reminded of the very recent (and ongoing) military conflicts in this part of the world as we walked along fortified camps on top of the volcano and heard about the large offensives and battles that happened in the valley in front of us only 40-some years ago. Mt. Hermon, the highest point in Israel (although the summit is technically in Lebanon), was visible from here. The snow-capped mountain is one of the main water table recharge areas and therefore is extremely important to the water-deprived region.

We stayed in Kibbutz Gadot that night, the first a few “Kibbutzim” we stayed in during our time in Israel. A Kibbutz (plural = Kibbutzim) in Israel is a collective community that lives and works together to produce goods for the residents and sell for income. They were started in 1909 as a kind of “utopian” community based on agriculture and today there are ~270 Kibbutzim in Israel. Some have been privatized and get income through hotel stays for tourists, but most are still based on farming. We stayed in 3 different Kibbutzim and they all shared a few things in common: everyone in the community eats their main meals in the community dining hall, where people take turns preparing, cooking, and cleaning the dishes during the week. Homes/dwellings are relatively simple and condo-style, and the residents generally don’t have many of their own material items or cars. There is a real sense of community there that reminded me of growing up in rural North Dakota. Everyone is your neighbor and everyone knows about you and your family, so you can’t get away with being a jerk to anyone or doing something bad without everyone knowing about it. The people there do their jobs to better the community and then have hobbies for after work, and said that they moved back to a Kibbutz so they could raise their children there with the help of the community. But not just anyone can live there, and the Kibbutz council has to vote to approve your application. It’s also very common to only allow members who were born in the Kibbutz back, especially in the more traditional Kibbutzim. It was an interesting experience to stay in these communities but the accommodations there worked really well for our large group!

While in northern Israel we also learned about the Hula Basin and the ever-present water crises, evidence of earthquakes, human history and conquests, and the Sea of Galilee. Next we headed south and drove through Palestine in the Dead Sea Rift Valley, a massive, deep valley that holds the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea. This valley is still deepening and due to active plate tectonics. Here is the boundary between the Arabian Plate and African Plate, and this massive valley is caused by these two plates sliding past each other and pulling apart slightly over millions of years. This valley also contains the political boundary between Israel and Jordan. Geologists have determined that this strike-slip fault has moved the rocks on the Jordan side ~65 miles north from where the same rocks lie on the Israeli side, which is pretty cool. We stopped and toured the Kochav HaYarden Crusader Fortress, which was constructed in 1168 AD and is the best preserved fortress in Israel. It has a commanding view of the valley below so it was no wonder this fortress was a key stronghold for the Crusaders before it was finally overtaken after a year and half-long siege by Saladin’s Muslim army in 1189. We continued our drive south and learned about the complicated geopolitical boundaries and identities present in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Our group in Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is the prominent blue and gold dome in the background, and it sits on top of the huge Temple Mount that forms most of the eastern walls that surround the Old City.

We spent 2 days in Jerusalem. There is so much history in this city that active archeological digs are constantly unearthing new finds, but only if they can get the permission to start the digs. So many people and groups have claims over holy sites and ownership that even if we know we would find something underneath a field it can be impossible to actually look for it. Jerusalem traces it’s origins back over 3,000 years and has been conquered and changed hands 44 times throughout history. It is considered holy by three major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the walls that surround the Old City were built in 1541 AD. The Old City is divided into 4 quarters: the Jewish Quarter, Christian Quarter, Muslim Quarter, and Armenian Quarter but people from all walks of life are found in the streets of each every day. The energy of the city is palpable and electric, especially when you hear the Muslim call to prayer and church bells going on at the same time after work. It was the most intense place I have ever been and I was blown away by everything we saw. We started with a view of the Old City from the Mount of Olives, which is the hill east of the city. We descended along a narrow road that skirted the massive Jewish Cemetery and stopped to see the Church of Mary Magdelene, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary near the valley. The sites were incredible to see and feel as the Garden of Gethsemane was the place Jesus was arrested the night before the crucifixion. We continued into the Old City of Jerusalem and visited the Temple Mount and saw the Dome on the Rock, which is a heavily secured area due to it being extremely holy to both Jews and Muslims and therefore contentious. The Temple Mount is the base of the Jewish Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 BC. It is a massive structure and a portion of it is the Western Wall, where Jews go to pray and mourn the loss of their great temple. The Dome of the Rock is an Islamic shrine that was built in 691 AD after Jerusalem was taken by Muslim forces. Only Muslims are permitted to enter the shrine but anyone can walk the grounds of the Temple Mount when Muslims are not praying.

The Western Wall at dusk.

We then walked around the Old City, starting in the Muslim Quarter and following the Via Dolorosa, or way of suffering, through the streets. The Via Dolorosa is thought to be the path that Jesus walked with the cross on the way to his crucifixion and leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is considered the most holy site in Christianity and was pretty much built on top of the hill believed to be where Jesus was crucified and died. The exact location can only be guessed at, but at the time of Jesus this hill, or Golgotha, would have been outside the city walls and along a major route so everyone passing by would have seen the example of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the “King of the Jews”. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built by the mother of the Emperor Constantine in 335 AD after she made a pilgrimage trip to Jerusalem. The Church contains the crucifixion site as well as the tomb where Jesus rose from the dead. We visited the Armenian Quarter, bought handmade ceramics, and learned the small country of Armenia has a quarter in the Old City because they were the first Christian nation. As the sun set, we made our way to the Western Wall before heading out of the Old City walls to our hotel. The next day we toured the City of David, which is the original settlement of Jerusalem that King David overtook in a siege around 1000 BC. We felt our way through a narrow, hand-carved water tunnel beneath the surface and came out the other side at the Pool of Siloam, the place where Jesus healed the blind man. We visited the tunnels beneath the Second Temple, the place of the Last Supper, the Israel Museum, and countless other amazing places in our two days. It was definitely worth it to have a museum guide with us for our entire time in Israel. I learned so much more about the history, culture, and conflicts than I ever could have going solo. Jerusalem was an incredible place and words and photos do not do it justice.

The Dead Sea is hypersaline, being 10 times more salty than the ocean. I do not call it “swimming” here, you simply float. The mud of the Dead Sea is thought to be therapeutic, so obviously we put tried it on our faces!

For the last couple of days in Israel we traveled south into the Negev Desert. We visited the National Park of Masada, located south of the shores of the Dead Sea and built by King Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BC. Perhaps more interesting than the origin and construction of the palace and fortresses atop an isolated rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea Rift Valley is the Jewish myth surrounding it. At the end of the First Jewish-Roman War around 73-74 AD, the Roman Army was closing in on Jerusalem. A group of Jewish Rebels held out as long as they could but had to flee the city and took refuge in the fortress of Masada with their families. The Rebels lived on top of the plateau safe from Romans for somewhere between 1-4 years before the Roman Army attacked the last Jewish stronghold. They built a massive ramp up to the front door, burned it down, and entered the fortress expecting to fight the last of the Rebels and take the rest as slaves. But what they found instead was that every last one of the Jewish Rebels and their families had committed suicide, and chose to end their own lives before becoming Roman slaves. Today Masada is a symbol of courage for Jewish people and many questions still remain around the actual events that took place because only one account is written down by a scribe that is known to enjoy storytelling. Either way, Masada exists as one of the only surviving places on Earth where you can still see the evidence of a Roman siege, and it would be quite scary to be stranded on top of that plateau watching a huge army slowing surround and build up to your door.

On the northwest rim of the Ramon Crater in the Negev Desert.

Further southwest in the Negev Desert we drove through a really cool geological formation that is called the Makhtesh Ramon, or Ramon Crater. This huge crater was not formed by an asteroid impact but instead by erosion of an anticline. The Negev is one of the driest places on Earth and that makes viewing the rocks and structures very easy! Our last night in Israel was spent in a Kibbutz focused on renewable energy and the environment, and their income comes from cultivating algae for antioxidants, solar energy, and date trees. The final morning in Israel was spent exploring towering sandstone pillars, a mushroom-shaped erosional feature, and one of the oldest copper mines on Earth where there is evidence for early humans mining and smelting copper ore. The Timna Valley has been mined since the 6th or 5th century BC and is mentioned in the Old Testament. We even found some ancient slag on the ground from smelting, which is the “cream” skimmed off the top of the heavier copper ore during melting!


The Red Sea in Aqaba. Even though they are neighbors, Jordan is very different than Israel. About 80% of Jordanians are Muslim and the remainder Christian. It was strange to barely see any women out in the street, and we definitely felt like tourists when we snorkeled in our bathing suites among fully clothed Arab women.

We crossed into Jordan by walking across “no man’s land” between Israel and Jordan’s customs offices. It felt just like in the movies, with no guides or taxi drivers crossing with us. We got a new tour bus, driver, and guide in Jordan and drove to Aqaba. That first evening we snorkeled in the Aqaba Gulf of the Red Sea as the sun set over the mountains on the opposite side of the water in Egypt. It was really cool to think we were just miles from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The next day we drove north through the desert to the town of Wadi Musa, the gateway to Petra.

Petra is the “Rose City”, and is one of the 7 wonders of the world. It was literally carved from the red sandstone rock by the Nabataeans, an Arab civilization that lasted from about 4000 BC to 106 AD when the Romans conquered them. The Nabataens culture was centered on trade and their territory was in prime locations along the Silk Road, the King’s Highway, and the Perfume Route. They were nomadic and thrived in the desert due to their great ability to carve and construct impressive water funnels, pipes, and cisterns to store the little rain that fell. These people carved their capitol of Petra into the narrow sandstone valleys and built immense buildings and pillars to attract travelers to their desert oasis. After sea trade routes replaced the overland camel caravans, the Nabataen civilization slowly died out before they were conquered by the Romans in 106 AD and Petra was lost to the rest of the world. The “lost city” was re-discovered by a European in 1812 and the locals who inhabited the caves and buildings were forcibly relocated in 1985 when tourism and archeological work really started. We were extremely lucky to have an amazing guide for this part of our trip: he grew up nearby Petra and always loved the ruins. He went to school for archeology and is now finishing a graduate degree in England on preservation of Petra, and will soon lead all excavations and be in charge of the Jordanian UNESCO unit on Petra.

The first day was spent at Little Petra, which was basically the camel “truck stop” of the day where caravans would stop for food, water, and pay their taxes before heading on their way on the trade routes. The next day was spent entirely exploring the canyons and carvings of the city of Petra. The entrance is a 1.2 km walk through a narrow canyon called the “Siq” as the city is tightly tucked into the rock and protected from outside invasion. The first thing you see are the incredible water pipes and dams that made Petra a garden in the desert. After walking through the Siq you suddenly catch a glimpse of the Treasury, which is the most recognizable building of Petra. It is truly incredible and beautiful. But continuing on through the canyon it soon becomes evident that Petra is much much bigger than just that building and consists of an entire city and multiple huge, carved buildings, tombs, and squares. We were all exhausted after a day of walking and hiking around in this beautiful place.

Hiking in Wadi Rum. The sand expanse below is a highway for pickups, jeeps, and camel caravans.

Next up in Jordan was a stay in Wadi Rum. This area is complete desert and is the largest water-cut valley in the country. It is areas like these that attest to the Levant’s changing climate over the past millions of years, as huge amounts of water cut the canyons and shaped the landscape 2 million years ago. Today it is a desert region and the valleys fill with sand instead. It is a very rugged place that is a popular set for filming movies, especially movies about Mars. A few notable movies filmed in Wadi Rum are Lawrence of Arabia, Red Planet, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Martian, and a couple Star Wars movies. We rode in the backs of pickups through the desert to our lodges for the night and did some hiking, climbing on the rocks, sand boarding, and star gazing. Our last night in the Middle East was fantastic and remote, and we learned a Hebrew song about Petra from Moti, our geology guide, while sitting by the fire.

We even got to ride camels at sunset in Wadi Rum.

Our final day in Jordan was spent driving north to the capitol of Amman to catch our midnight flight back home. Along the way we stopped at a natural hot spring for a dip in the “Grand Canyon of Jordan”, drove through the Mosaic City of Madaba west of Amman, and had our last meal in the capitol. Madaba holds a lot of history for Jews and Christians. Located right at the top of the Jordanian mountains that rise up from the Dead Sea Valley, it is thought to be “beyond the Jordan” where John the Baptist baptized Jesus and was beheaded. The “City of Mosaics” is full of churches and temples that are full of amazing, intricate mosaics made of natural stone, which are still the choice souvenir of tourists today. We made it just in time to Mount Nebo before the park closed for the day. Mt. Nebo is the place where Moses and the Israelites first saw the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for 40 years after fleeing from slavery in Egypt. It is also where Moses is thought to have died and is buried, and a church, grave, and memorial commemorate the mountain. The view west from the top is spectacular, and on a clear day you can see Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley, and Jericho. Although haze prevented us from seeing the extent of the view, it still felt like a special place.

We made it back just fine despite the worries of coronavirus canceling flights on March 11th, 2020. The entire trip was just incredible and I’ve never learned so much about so many things in 2 weeks. Even though I was a little weary to travel to the Middle East at first, my experience was amazing and I would love to return to see the things I missed.