Monday, April 25, 2011


According to a brochure intended for travelling Israelis at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel is a lively, constantly developing country, rich in science and culture. For those foreigners fortunate enough to travel to Israel they will soon find that the description is not only true but somewhat of an understatement.

I had the great fortune to travel there in the spring of 2011 and toured the country with my friend, Alan. While my arrival (a day or so prior to Alan) was heralded by a bombing at a bus stop in Jerusalem in which a British woman was killed and many locals injured and torrential rain in a country I was expecting to be arid, things could only get better – and they did.

I spent the first five days of my trip in Tel Aviv (officially Tel Aviv-Yafo), a vibrant, bustling, modern and cosmopolitan city of approaching half a million souls. During my short stay I saw no evidence of violence of any nature, Arabs and Jews living side by side, people going about their business as they would anywhere else in the world. We were fortunate enough to have relatives and friends of Alan take us around to various places that I’m sure I wouldn’t have seen had I ventured there alone. During this time I met and in some cases shared a meal with, a chief executive of an Israeli bank, a senior Israeli diplomat, the executive director of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities and many others. All were charming and welcoming people. Historically of great interest to me was the old port of Jaffa (known locally as Yafo) with still intact Napoleonic cannons ready to take on alien invaders.

There are fabulous restaurants in Tel Aviv and we sampled a few. Israeli food is great and they have some wines that would match the quality and consistency of their Australian counterparts. As for hotels, we stayed at the boutique ArtPlus Hotel and as its name suggests there’s plenty of art in the rooms and corridors, so much so that they even offer gallery style tours of the premises.

While in Tel Aviv we took a train up the coast to the beautiful little beachside city of Netanya where we visited more of Alan’s friends. The train ride was interesting because it was Sunday (the first day of the Israeli week) and it was packed with soldiers returning to base from their homes where they’d spent the weekend. It was fascinating to see young people – boys and girls, some barely out of high school – with automatic weapons hanging by their side or down their back.

Friends took us to Mt Carmel where we saw the aftermath of the 2010 fire, then on to a Druze village. The Druze are, it seems, a mysterious sect of Islam but are so trusted by the Jewish Israelis they are called upon to do military service with the rest of them. We ate in a local restaurant and the food was glorious.

From Tel Aviv we motored virtually up the coast. We paid a visit to Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot the founding members of which included surviving fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There is also a children’s museum which commemorates the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust. I defy any visitor to come away with dry eyes. It was here that Alan bumped into the sister of his Hebrew teacher in Los Angeles so was able to practice the language.

We then visited Caesarea National Park. Caesarea was initially settled by the Phoenicians between 586 and 332 BC. It was later settled by the Greeks, but what was of great interest to me was the Roman period and the remains of Roman buildings on the site. After Herod was awarded the village in 30 BC he built a large port city and called it Caesarea in honour of his patron Octavian Augustus Caesar. By the year 6 AD the city had become the headquarters of the Roman government in Palestine.

The amphitheatre here remains pretty much intact and as the city was an army post, it was used for much more than light entertainment. It is likely that the Jewish Bar Kochva revolt of 66 AD was quelled from here and where the Jewish leaders headed by Rabbi Akiva were tortured to death.

Continuing north, to the north-western corner of Israel, we reached the border with Lebanon where we took a cable car ride at Rosh Hanikra. In ancient times Rosh Hanikra was along the trade route between the northern civilizations in Lebanon and Syria and the southern ones in Palestine, Egypt and North Africa. More recently, during World War II the British dug a tunnel for the railway running between Haifa and Beirut to facilitate the movement of supplies from Egypt to the north. When the British withdrew in 1948, Israeli forces took over Rosh Hanikra and the Palmach (Jewish underground elite force at the time of the British Mandate) blew up the railway bridges in the grottoes to prevent the Lebanese army from invading from that direction when the War of Independence began.

But the place now is a beautiful corner of the country with white chalk cliffs offering a spectacular and panoramic view of Haifa Bay, the hills of the Galilee and the Mediterranean. The grottoes below, formed by centuries of pounding by the sea and accessible by cable car and a series of tunnels and walkways, enable the visitor to experience the sighing of the gentle Mediterranean as it ebbs and flows beneath the cliffs.

From there we followed the Lebanese border for a while and then turned south to Nazareth, where Jesus spent his youth prior to the commencement of his ministry at the age of 30. Nazareth today is predominantly Arab with, of course, thousands of Christian pilgrims coming and going each day. We drove in incredibly heavy and chaotic traffic, walked around some of the backstreets and visited the Basilica of the Annunciation where the Angel Gabriel is said to have given Mary (probably aged around 12 or 13 at the time) the “good” news that she was pregnant. Beneath that church and clearly visible are the remains of the original village of Nazareth. We then walked to the “Synagogue Church.” This is a very small church, originally the synagogue which Jesus attended during his time there.

Doubling back we toured over to Akko (a.k.a. Acre). This was one of my favourite cities in Israel. Here you find ancient Hellenistic remains, Roman remnants, the Crusade and Ottoman quarters, the El Jazzar Mosque, an underground Crusader city and much, much more. The old city is surrounded by a wall so thick that our hotel was situated inside it! I was particularly taken by an inscription on an ancient anchor in the harbour (which I believe dated back to Phoenician times) which was dedicated to the spirit of friendship and cooperation between Jewish and Arab fishermen. In this city, a stone’s throw really from Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, Jews and Arabs live side by side in peace and small children of either race walk unescorted to school. It seems to be a million miles from southern Israel where Hamas in the Gaza Strip is firing rockets indiscriminately into urban Israeli areas. Whatever makes Akko tick and stand out from the crowd, someone ought to bottle it.

I can’t leave Akko without mentioning a nationally famous restaurant Uri Buri. Here Alan and I had the best meal of our trip. It is a seafood restaurant and it is possible to have the “taster menu,” which allows you to try a sample of numerous dishes until you call a halt. The local wine and beer was great as well.

Internationally recognised as Syrian territory but currently under Israeli civil administration is the Golan Heights. Two-thirds of this area was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. I’ll leave the rights and wrongs of the political situation to my reader but according to Frommer’s tourist guide the period of Israeli control in the area has been marked by economic development, prosperity and relatively tranquil relations between the Druze and Israeli settlers. Certainly it is a beautiful part of what Israel regards as Israel. As we motored up to the heights we experienced thirty degree temperatures below and very cold weather as we climbed with snow covered mountains in the background. Israelis ski here during the winter months.

Motoring south we followed the Syrian border. To the east of us, adjacent to the road we were on, were tanks, bombed out buildings and at least on one stretch of the road signs telling us to stay on the road because of mined areas. We frequently passed Israeli military and UN vehicles, reminders of the uneasy peace in the area.

Descending down towards the Sea of Galilee we stopped at a kibbutz where there is a lookout called Peace Vista. Sunset here must surely be one of the most beautiful scenes in the world. The sun disappears over the distant mountains, lighting up the sea as it descends in beautiful shades of red and orange.

In fact the entire area around the Sea of Galilee is one of serene, almost spiritual beauty. We didn’t stay in the rather touristy resort of Tiberias but high in the hills, at Arbel Village in Mt Arbel where we spent two nights. This enabled us to fully explore the region which was Jesus’ stamping grounds at the time of his ministry. We took in Capernaum where he lived with St Peter, the Mount of Beatitudes where he gave his famous Sermon on the Mount, the spot where it is said he performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the bustling, historical city of Tiberias itself. We also visited the kibbutz where the so-called Jesus boat is housed. It has been dated 2000 years which is how it gets its nickname.

From Arbel we continued in a southerly direction our first main stop being at Bet She’an. Once a thriving metropolis at different times during its history (it began as a settlement in the fifth millennium BC) to the Canaanites, the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Israelites, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, and the Ottomans, it us now a national park adjacent to its modern counterpart. Of great interest to me were the remains of the Roman city, the best preserved Roman ruins I’ve ever come across in my travels. Here you can walk down what was once a main street, a Roman road flanked on one side by a monumental colonnade which has survived to this day and visit an entirely intact amphitheatre which, unlike the one at Caesarea, was used solely for theatrical performances.

Not long after leaving Bet She’an we reached the northern barrier of the Palestinian occupied West Bank. We drove down its complete length alongside Israel’s border with Jordan, exiting at its southern end. From there we continued south to Masada and the lowest spot on earth, the Dead Sea. Here we spent a pleasant night and day at Ein Gedi kibbutz and sampled the delights of its nearby spa. Masada was the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans; its fall signalled the violent destruction of the kingdom of Judea at the end of the Second Temple period. The tragic events of the last days of the rebels Masada transformed it into both a Jewish cultural icon and a symbol of humanity’s continuous struggle for freedom from oppression. Built by Herod, King of Judea, Masada was a palatial fortress in the style of the ancient Roman East. The camps, fortifications and assault ramp at its base constitute the most complete surviving ancient Roman siege system in the world. We travelled up by cable car, the ride itself breathtaking. Personally I found exposure on the unfenced plateau at the top a little too breathtaking and retreated back down to ground level on the cable car.

From Ein Gedi we headed north, to Jerusalem which we had purposely planned as the culmination of our trip.

Neither words nor pictures can convey what this ancient city (there is evidence of mankind of one description or another living here for 1.5 million years) is really like. To quote from the opening lines of the preface to Simon Goldhill’s excellent book Jerusalem: City of Longing:

There are many books these days which sell themselves as “the idiot’s guide” or as the manual “for dummies.” This book is meant for the intelligent reader who wants to understand what it might mean to stand here or here in Jerusalem—to experience Jerusalem not just as a tourist site or as a day-to-day, mundane urban landscape but as a city where every space is layered with historical significance, religious intensity, and extraordinary stories about the people who have visited and lived in this city over the years. What makes Jerusalem unique is the heady mix in one place of centuries of passion and gossip, kingdom-threatening wars and petty squabbles, architectural magnificence and bizarre relics, spiritual longing and political nastiness. Of all cities, the Jerusalem of today cannot be understood without these layers of buried and exposed memories. This book undertakes what weird archaeology of human imagination, hope and disaster.

By the way, don’t go there unless you read that book and another by Simon Goldhill The Temple of Jerusalem.

What follows is nothing more than a tourist’s highlights of this extraordinary city.

We arrived on a Friday and stayed at the excellent YMCA Three Arches Hotel in King David Street right opposite the famous King David Hotel. It was within easy walking distance of the walled Old City via Jaffa Gate and to “downtown” in modern Jerusalem. While Alan visited friends he suggested something for me to do that he thought I’d like. At 3:00 pm every Friday the Franciscan Friars lead a procession up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, retracing Jesus’ last steps as he carried his cross to Golgotha. Catholic churches around the world traditionally exhibit paintings or plaques around the walls of their interior depicting each “station” or stage of Jesus’ journey. This procession, however, was the real thing, the actual places where each notable event occurred on his journey, culminating in the place where it is said the crucifixion took place, where he was embalmed and entombed. Although the service was in Spanish it was still a moving experience.

The following day, Saturday was of course the Jewish Shabbat so shops and countless other establishments are closed. On this day we decided to do a three hour (free) walking tour of the Old City. It was fantastic, the local guide literally a mine of information on all maters historical and religious. He had a brilliant knack of dealing with inter-faith and political matters even-handedly without even remotely favouring one side’s view. This, despite some pretty intensive questioning by some of the tourists. I so enjoyed this tour I booked for the next one he was doing in the afternoon. This was a paid tour with far less people so I was able to spend time talking with the guide. This tour covered predominately Christian sites and we covered the Mount of Olives, the Pater Noster Church and the Garden of Gethsemane. The tour commenced with a visit to a mosque which is on the spot where it is said Jesus ascended to heaven after his resurrection. The Moslems lend it to the Christians twice a year to commemorate the event. Pater Noster Church was particularly interesting. It is a French Catholic run site and includes a grotto where it is said Jesus lived for the week he was in Jerusalem prior to his death and gave his disciples the words of the Lord’s Prayer. There are literally hundreds of versions of the prayer in countless languages and dialects from around the world etched into the walls of the church gardens and building. Side by side in one spot is the wording in Hebrew and the original Aramaic, the language of the man himself.

The Garden of Gethsemane is a beautiful little spot at the foot of the Mount of Olives and it is said that Jesus spent his last night here. The grove is full of olive trees which the Israelis have had dated and are 2000 years old. What a story they could tell.

On Sunday we visited Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum). It is a beautiful museum dedicated to the six million who perished in the Holocaust. Outside were dozens of Israeli soldiers with their guns stacked neatly nearby. It is mandatory for combat soldiers to visit the museum and recommended for other soldiers so that they know what they are fighting for.

That afternoon Alan and I walked around the Ramparts. This is the walled fortification surrounding the entire Old City. The one there presently is from the Ottoman times but this was built over the wall erected by the Crusaders. It takes an hour or so to do the walk. It was during this walk that Alan and I heard what sounded like gunfire in the distance. We stood behind the wall and looked out to see flashes and smoke coming from a building in East Jerusalem (the Arab occupied area) followed by similar flashes and smoke from a building closer to us. I suppose this was about a kilometre away. Curiously this exchange which lasted about five minutes did not attract, as would be expected, helicopters, sirens, soldiers and police officers, nor did it make the news. I guess it was not significant enough. From what we saw and heard it is difficult to comprehend what it could have been if not gunfire.

After that little bit of excitement we took the Kotel Tunnel tour. This excellent tour takes you by the Western Wall (beneath the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount) and through a tunnel underneath. There is too much history associated with this tunnel to even précis it here and I would encourage a read of the official (English language) Kotel website.

On Monday we spent time around the Western Wall and environs. During this time I went up to the Dome of the Rock. Alan was turned back at the barrier as he had bought a Jewish religious item and such things are not allowed in the Moslem controlled area. The Dome of the Rock houses the rock from which it is said the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. It is thus the, or one of the holiest sites in the world for Moslems and, of course, right on the spot of the holiest site in the world for Jews, the site of the Second Temple. The Western Wall really is just the bottom part of the foundations of what was the Second Temple built by King Herod. It is difficult to comprehend the size of the Temple when you see what’s left of the foundations. On the Kotel Tunnel tour we were informed that just one of the stones in the Wall weighs over 300 tons.

That afternoon we visited the Israel Museum. Despite several hours there we barely touched the surface. What is particularly spectacular is a model of the complete city of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period which of course includes a scale model of the magnificent temple itself.

Alas Tuesday was our last day in Jerusalem. Alan left in the early hours to return to Los Angeles. As my flight wasn’t until late that night I arranged a half day organised tour to Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank. This took in the place where Jesus was said to have been born and Manger Square.

Despite the conflicts, the tug-o-war over relatively small plots of real estate and the jumble of faiths, languages and cultures, I came away from Israel with a love of the country, its people and the feeling that I had visited one of the most fascinating and exciting places on earth. All this, in a country of a little over 20,000 square kilometres, a fraction of the size of England.

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