Buses are the backbone of Israel’s transportation network, and the Egged company runs most of them – accounting for some 60 percent of Israel's urban and inter-city public road transportation. The company was even more of a monopoly a generation ago. Then, only wealthy Israelis could afford cars – nicknamed "privates" – because of punitively high import duties and gas prices. As trains did not serve the whole country, virtually everyone went by bus.
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Israel's national emblem features a seven-branch candelabrum and an olive branch, but a case could be made for the addition of an Egged bus. Wherever you are in the country, there it is. I found this out on my first visit here in 1969. My father and I took a desert jeep tour from Eilat to the famous Canyon of Inscriptions in the Sinai Peninsula, today part of Egypt. When we reached our destination, we seemed as far as way as possible from the familiar. But there it was, silently perched at the edge of a nearby canyon: the ubiquitous Egged bus.
Egged has been running buses for the last 80 years. Not one was entirely manufactured in Israel. Its beginnings were humble: converting British Army trucks that survived World War I into functional public conveyances. Indeed the military connection grabs you as you follow the signposts to the open-air museum through Holon’s bus depot on Moshe Dayan Street. You think you’re still in the bus depot when – silence. Sixty Egged buses from the early days of the British Mandate to the present day stand to permanent attention in two lines, parked with military precision. You feel like a general strutting in to inspect the troops.
Indeed, Egged has been continually linked with the armed forces. Find the old green-and-white four-wheeled Ford bus with its Rechovot – Nes-Ziona – Rishon LeZion route boldly emblazoned on the sides. Affectionately nicknamed "The Tepla" (Yiddish for "Teapot"), it plied its services between the towns and farming settlements of the region, transporting both passengers and perishable farm products, such as eggs and milk. Israel's War of Independence was actually triggered when one of these very buses was savagely attacked within hours of the United Nations voting for creation of the State of Israel.
Another American-built olive-green armored Egged conveyance stands nearby. This Mack vehicle had the distinction of regularly escorting the Israeli police to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem area of Mount Scopus, between 1948 and 1967, when East Jerusalem was in Jordanian hands.
Moving on, you pass a classic British Leyland RT model, which got heavy use as a mobilizer of Israeli soldiers to the fronts during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Sadly, many did not live to make the return journey.
The exhibits are silent witnesses to other tragic events in Israel’s history. Look for the four-wheeled American-manufactured GMC bus. This transport covered the then-two-day journey between Eilat and Tel Aviv, including the tortuous climb of Ma’aleh Akrabim (the "Scorpion’s Ascent," mentioned as one of Israel’s borders in Numbers 34:4). One such vehicle in March 1954 was struggling to reach the top when it was ambushed by enemy gunmen, who proceeded to murder the driver and ten passengers. This was by no means the last fatal attack on Egged buses. The shell of one of the many modern Egged buses destroyed in recent terrorist attacks stands silent sentry at the entrance to the open air bus exhibition.
Not all is tragedy, though. Find license plate 89-299. This is was the first type of bus in Israel to be air-conditioned. The model took time to spread through Israel. Even in the 1970s, inter-city travel on a hot summer’s day was luck of the draw. Depending on the whim of fate, your Egged journey was taken in either a comfortable air-conditioned executive-feeling bus or a dusty, hot-and-breathless specimen of a country more focused on a stern sense of duty than creature comforts.
Don’t forget to check out the Neoplan Skyliner 122, the only double-decker bus in the entire exhibition. Introduced in 1992, it gave passengers an expansive view of the road ahead and the goings on down below. This bus saw a decade’s service on several routes, including Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, before being withdrawn due to standardization and technical considerations.
Everybody has their favorite Egged bus story, so I’ll tell you mine. Six months ago, I traveled home to Jerusalem by Egged bus route No. 444 after completing the Eilat Triathlon. I omitted to make the mandatory booking for myself and my bicycle, but the driver was accommodating and saw to it that both of us duly got on. At the half-way rest stop at Hatzeva at 10 P.M., I made a last minute dash for some chewing gum. It must have taken longer than planned, because I returned to hear that the 444 had just torn out of the parking lot, headed northward with my prize bike in the hold. Fortunately, I was able to board another bus to Tel Aviv and managed to make it to Jerusalem at about 2 A.M. The bus station was locked up, but a kindly security guard reported seeing my bike being wheeled by official hands to the lost and found. And there it stayed, until I picked it up the next day. Thank you, Egged.
Egged Museum, the bus depot off Moshe Dayan Street, Holon. Bus 26 or 171 to the Egged bus parking lot.Admission free. Open Friday mornings, other times by advance arrangement. Telephone: 03-9143761. Bring sun hat and plenty of drinking water.