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Published: April 6th 2015
'Why are you going to Israel? You're an atheist!' Was pretty much the most common question I faced when telling people of this trip, they threw it at me with all the incredulity and sarcasm they could muster. I sort of took their point, I tend to only accept things that scientists can explain with big numbers and complicated explanations that I can't even understand, but then I don't believe you need to believe in order to appreciate someone else's viewpoint. Besides, I don't believe a load of Greeks invaded a city inside a giant wooden horse but I still went to Troy, and I'm fairly certain short assed, hairy feet hobbits didn't carry rings around New Zealand but I still went there to look at their home. And anyway, Israel is a land of history and spirituality, as one of my pictures shows: every single action of God in the Bible, The Quran and the Torah took place within a tiny circle on this planet, and Jerusalem stands at the heart of all this. I explored it, spoke about it and am now writing about it with tongue firmly in cheek so hopefully nobody will take any offence. Haifa and the North Coast.
We flew into Tel-Aviv
but didn't have time to do much more than admire the beach view from the hotel window, so although the sun was out I couldn't get the guns out-probably wise in Israel even metaphorically. Instead we travelled north along the pretty coast and stopped at Caesarea
, a city that immediately immersed us into the ancient and biblical nature of the country as tales of King Herod, Muslim conquerors and Christian crusaders were explained to us via the fancy audio visual movie which I recommend you see. The main sight was the remains of Herod's palace, along with a theatre and a 250m long amphitheatre, as well the crusader city that was built on top of it. The remains are crumbling into the turquoise sea and the rest is earthquake damaged while the moats are dry, plus I'd seen most of it before in other places, but these were at least the first ones I'd seen on such a coastal location that had been enveloped by the sea and so made for a novel visit. Next was a place called Megiddo
, a small city with history stretching back to 4000BCE
situated atop a slight mountain that gave nice views across the valley. It's strategic position has meant that is has been ransacked and built upon by no fewer than 25 different groups at one stage or another, resulting in layer upon layer of remains and some 17 different religious structures, as well as an impressive 9th century water system dug through 30m of solid rock. Megiddo is known in Hebrew as Armageddon but clearly nothing too world ending has happened there yet, although the fact I had the Aerosmith song stuck in my head the whole time was apocalyptic enough. Overall it takes some imagination to appreciate and decipher and is probably not worth visiting unless you "don't wanna miss a thiiiiing"...cough. Haifa
made for a much more interesting diversion thanks to its World Heritage status gardens built on the slopes of the 546m high Mt Carmel. I usually like gardens as much as I would an enema, but it was hard not to like the19 terraced lawns manicured with pinpoint precision, replete with flowers, flowing water, sculptures and gates that led to a golden domed shrine which overlooked the pretty bay, all overseen by blue skies and a shining
sun. It was built by one of the worlds smallest religious groups, the Baha'i faith which only has 5 million members and for them this is 1 of their 2 most important sites to worship, if you were to pick a religion based on where you have to pray you shouldn't look too far past the Baha'i. Acre
was our final stop of this section although I'm not entirely sure why we bothered, it had a small harbour and mosque which apparently used to be important but now is most definitely not. Galilee and Nazareth area
This may surprise some-or perhaps explain a lot-but I was actually raised a Roman Catholic and my schooling until 18 leaned heavily towards the church, and although my attitude towards it was always more Monty Python it was still bizarre to be in a place I had heard about for so long. Despite the nuns and priests ramblings I'm not sure I ever connected them all as being real places, but it was around this area that Jesus' life took place; he was born in Bethlehem, grew up up in Nazareth, preached and performed magic tricks (sorry I mean miracles) in Galilee
and was crucified in Jerusalem. For the record I think Brian-sorry I mean Jesus-actually existed and that he was a real person who preached in this area, who was then crucified for being a trouble maker because he was starting to become more popular. I think some of the events happened, I just don't believe any of the religious connotations that accompany it, and that later historians did a bit of pick and mix from his and other preachers' lives and turned that into the Bible. But despite my blasphemous tendencies it was still great to be in a place and say 'ohh so THAT'S the Sea of Galilee'
etc. We started off here and enjoyed its calm, ripple free demeanour and contemplated that its no wonder Jesus could walk across as it looked smooth enough to skate on, although it's actually a freshwater lake and not a sea, told you it's all make believe...We started with an Ancient boat dated back to the time of Jesus which was interesting to see, although it was a slight stretch by the museum to suggest he may have preached from it. We visited a vast array of sites around here which marked
a biblical event and each now has some form of pretty church built upon it, and as this was Easter week each one came with a horde of coaches carrying pilgrims praying reverently, while bells tolled and psalms were extolled. At Tabgha
we saw the 'Church of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes'
built over the rock where David Blaine-sorry I mean Jesus-managed to feed 5000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, who needs Costco with value for money like that. Next was the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter
, where Jesus forgave Peter for denying they were BFF's at the crucifixion, and the Mount of the Beatitudes
where Jesus performed his sermon on the mount and first recounted some of his favourite catchphrases including the Lord's Prayer and 'salt of the earth'. It was at Capernaum
that he did his most work and it is mentioned in the Bible no fewer than 16 times, here he healed the sick, recruited disciples and did what any Son of God would do, hooked up with Mary Magdalene (says Dan Brown)or checked his Facebook etc. The site is now obviously in ruins but you can see
some of the old houses and synagogues built with rocks of volcanic basalt (formed over millions of years...).
there was the Basilica of the Annunciation
where the Angel Gabriel arrived to tell Mary she was going to be having a baby, (which is a knock on the door I hope to never receive, so if a guy calls Gabriel ever comes looking for me tell him I'm out). This site had a very impressive church built in the 1960s that houses the grotto of Mary's original house. It contains 2 different floors, soaring domes and pretty mosaics and is well worth a visit. Slightly less emphatic next door is St Joseph's Church
which is situated on the site of Joseph's workshop, it contains a crypt showing a glimpse of life back then and showed how wealthy the tolerant one was (his wife had a baby from another fella I'd call that tolerant, they'd be on Jeremy Kyle if it was now). We also visited Mary's Well
which is now dry and situated in the middle of the busy, traffic snarled and slightly beaten up Nazareth, it's certainly not the dusty remote village I expected. There was also
the Jordan River
where Jesus was baptised by John, but sadly nobody was being water boarded that day, and we also saw a fairly ordinary church at Cana
where Jesus became the toast of the party by turning water into wine and inventing Spin the bottle (one of those facts may be untrue). At Golan Heights
we surveyed the view and tried to take it all in, gazing at the Sea of Galilee, Hula Valley and Mt Hermon
, admiring the somewhat impotent Banias Spring
and 10m waterfall, and watched the villages from an extinct volcano trying to imagine Jesus wandering this land and going about his duties, speaking the words that have long since been written down and used to help, heal and give hope. Bizarrely, at this point we were also just 12 miles from the Syrian border and 15 miles from Lebanon, in an area infamous for a 1967 war when Israel fought over and won land from Syria. The minefields and bunkers remained as a grim reminder that this area is now as it was then, extremely volatile. During this time we stayed in a kibbutz
, a community of more Orthodox Jews that choose to live a
socialist/communist lifestyle in a traditional communal setting away from modern life in order to focus on the family and prayer. Regardless of whether you are an investment banker or milk maid there is one central bank account that wages are fed into and then a budget assigned to each family based solely on the amount of members you have. No mobiles, internet, cars, or social networks, it was tempting to join but I'm not sure they'd allow me my hair wax. On the way out of this area we stopped at Beit Shean
, a Roman city dating back to 500BCE that had a 7000 seat theatre, colonnaded streets, bathhouses, amphitheatre etc etc, you get the picture, I'd probably rather live in a kibbutz than see more Roman ruins. We also drove past Jericho-
the worlds oldest city at 10,500 years and skirted alongside the Temptation of Christ en route to the main star, Jerusalem. Jerusalem
It is simply a wonderful city dating back 4000 years, a place stuffed full of religiously important sites for a multitude of faiths. Jews, Muslims and Christians live and pray side by side amid the narrow alleyways filled with a seemingly endless tide of
humanity, where church bells struggle against the call to prayer, spices fight to assault your nose, stall owners haggle to get the better deal and ancient sites compete with each other to be declared the most holy and important. Jerusalem itself sprawls across a large area and contains nearly 1 million people but it is getting lost within the high walls and winding alleyways of the Old City
that was an unparalleled joy. The centre of it all is the area more commonly known as the Temple Mount
, a hybrid of Jewish and Muslim belief coexisting side by side, a wide open space containing the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa mosque
and the Scales of Souls
, all surrounded by the Tower of David
citadel, high walls, gates and ramparts. It was here on the Dome of the Rock
that the First Temple was built 1000 BCE on the spot where God made Adam, this original temple held the Ark of the Covenant with the 10 Commandments inside until it was destroyed. A second temple was built in 515BCE but was destroyed again(maybe get a burglar alarm for the third one). In the meantime in 690 CE the Muslims and Islam
had arrived and built on top of the rock in the belief that it was where Mohammed ascended to heaven to receive instructions from Allah. As a result this mosque with its blue ceramic tiles and gold plated dome, standing over a slab of rock is the third holiest site for the Muslims after Mecca and Medina-but also deeply sacred to Jews. It is this building that adorns the postcards and is one of the most photographed buildings on the planet, it shines like a beacon and seems to rise above its actual height when viewed from above the city, although up close it appears smaller and sadly the interior is only accessible to Muslims. When the second temple was destroyed all that remained was a simple retaining wall 19 metres long that was only built to support the outer portion of Temple Mount. The Jews that found the ruined temple cried at this remaining wall and so it earned the moniker 'The Wailing Wall'
but Jewish people prefer to call it the Western Wall.
It is here that Hasidic Jews come to worship, their loud rhythmical prayers and hopes are manifested in a physical full bodied rocking motion, broken
only by the turning of a page or to kiss the large slabs of rock. Tucked between these rocks are prayers written on pieces of paper, squeezed there by friends or family members on behalf of others who cannot make the journey themselves. It is a sensual and atmospheric place that oozes sacred dedication and fervent belief, that and a mixture of curiosity from the male tourists who don a Kippur to observe more closely while the women try to peer over barriers (they are not allowed to enter in case they distract the men from their devotion). After seeing it for so long on television it was great to final see it up close.
As if in some form of one-upmanship the Christians seem to try and go one better, for within the alley walls is the Via Dolorosa
, a winding path that is believed to be the route that Jesus walked carrying a cross on the way to his crucifixion. There are 14 such stations of the cross, each marking a specific event such as his trial, flogging, crown of thorns, given the cross etc and most are marked out by some form of church or place
of worship in its spot, whilst others simply occupy a plaque on the wall. Watching the pilgrims trek the route and stopping to pray at each one-and especially during this Easter week we visited-was certainly evocative. The Via Dolorosa culminates in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
a place that makes up for its fairly plan exterior with that is believed to encompass Golgotha/Calvary and the final 5 stations of the cross where Jesus was stripped of his clothes, nailed to the cross and crucified, before being taken down to be prepared for burial and finally placed in his tomb where he would later be resurrected. As one would expect the spirituality seems to seep through the walls of this church that was built in 300CE, helped by the fact that each in every direction there is a different service or denomination praying, the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox all share responsibilities here and when we visited on Easter Sunday it seemed that the 8000 capacity was exceeded and I nearly turned to prayer myself in order to escape safely. The 3 high domes, multitude of candles, chapels, tombs, shrines,
altars and of course the praying all serve to heighten the tangible atmosphere.
If you hadn't quite had your fill of famous religious events you can weave your way through the crowds to the area known as Mt Zion
that contains the room of the Last Supper
. The room was certainly plainer and different than what I expected and definitely no Da Vinci painting, but the fact that it was here that Jesus washed the feet of others, appeared after being resurrected and where the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost made the room have it's own sense of awe and wonder. The room sits just above King David's tomb
where you will find people praying with the same fervour as at The Wall, and not far along is the pretty Abbey of the Dormition
where Jesus' mother Mary died. If that doesn't quite do it for you then there are other sections such as East Jerusalem
with it's Garden tomb
that is another supposed site of Jesus' tomb set amid a peaceful garden(although archaeologists have recently dated it to 500 CE so it's blatantly fake, good effort though). The Muslim quarter
offers it's own unique spin on Jerusalem with
it's bustling alleyways and range of stalls with all manner of spices, sweets and random items you don't really want but look at anyway. Arabic slams into your ear like a mystical incantation and it is from here and especially the area around Damascus Gate
that you can view the Palestinian Arab way of life. Failing that there is the Jewish quarter
with it's synagogues, shops, and Cardo Maximus
showing the main road through Jerusalem at around 2CE, as well as an Armenian quarter
that I'm sure held interesting things but didn't visit. All told the Old City of Jerusalem holds a multitudes of interests for even the most well travelled visitor and captures the attention at every turn. Walking outside this offers no respite from the history either as you simply land feet first into other Biblical stories, just outside the Mount of olives area
contains the Garden of Gethsemane
where Judas betrayed Jesus and also the Church of all nations
and Church of the visitation,
both pretty in their own ways whilst also giving great views of the Old City. Simply put, if you stumbled over and fell in Jerusalem you'd probably end up landing on a religious
relic or place of worship, I loved it.
Aside from that Jerusalem also has the Israel Museum
which houses many ancient and important artefacts, we visited for the urn-shaped building called the Shrine of the Book that contains the Dead Sea Scrolls
. These were discovered at Qumran Caves
(which we also visited but wasn't great, you couldn't go in the caves etc) and are a collection of some 981 different texts which predate the Bible and span back to 400BCE, they are of importance because they include the second oldest known surviving works that would later included in the Torah. The museum also has an impressive large scale model of Jerusalem as it was during the second temple period and the museum is overall well worth a visit, the same of which can definitely be said of Yad Veshem
but for vastly different reasons. This is the Holocaust Museum that tries to make some kind of sense of the reasons behind, the suffering of and aftermath of the Jewish people during World War II when 6 million perished, a number that included 1 1/2 million children, just let those numbers sink in for a while. No flowery words or
moving rhetoric will be able to sum up what the museum holds but it is effortlessly moving and effectively put together, while monuments such as the Hall of Names, the Valley of the Destroyed Communities, Children's Memorial and the Eternal Flame alongside the names of the concentration camps definitively leave their mark. West Bank
It is therefore an enduring curiosity to me that a nation such as the Jewish who have had so much inflicted on them would harbour any thoughts of causing pain to others. The situation in the West Bank is tricky and I don't wish to take sides but I will try and explain it in as lay terms as I see it: After the Holocaust Jewish people wanted their own country and were given a large part of Palestine which they considered their traditional home, the problem being that many Arabs now lived there. The Jewish people were offered 55%!o(MISSING)f the land but the Arabs felt this was unfair so didn't accept the new country. Fighting began has been pretty much on and off ever since (Palestine fight though Hamas and Fatah). Israel, better funded and better equipped won the war and now
Israel has expanded to 77%!o(MISSING)f the area while Palestine
is 2 thin slithers, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It is this section that I struggle with, I can understand that the Jewish people-constantly overthrown and exiled-needed somewhere to live and why they chose this place, and in their view the Arabs only held some form of squatters rights there, in fact half of Jewish history had already taken place here by the time Mohammed even uttered his first words. But for the 2 million Arabs they have seen their area slashed and are now crammed into the Palestinian Territories
and even this isn't really their own as is actually 83%!u(MISSING)nder the control of the Israeli military. Israel has also built a huge security wall right through the middle of the West Bank with checkpoints that restrict the Arabs movement and continues to build over 100 settlements within the West Bank for Israelis to live-all technically illegal under international law. Of course the flip side to this is that it was the Arabs who rejected the initial deal all those years ago and the wall was built to stop the suicide attacks by Palestine, they also aren't
shy about throwing a missile or two in Israel's direction either. There is no clear answer here but on-going talks about a 2 state solution centre around what percentage each should get and how it would work, no end is in sight. For a Western visitor it is simply surreal to see the 8 metre high sniper wall topped with barbed wire snaking around the green countryside dissecting a country into sections where one group of people can live and not the others, accessed through strict security checkpoints and accepted via colour coded identify cards, while the wall itself has freedom graffiti and Banksy murals painted alongside. It all harks back to some dark age of South African apartheid or the Berlin Wall. That side of the wall is like an extended version of the Muslin Quarter in Jerusalem, or quite frankly any Arabic country and was fascinating to see, although we visited mainly for Bethlehem.
Due it's locaton within the West Bank this was not your nativity Christmas card scene with or wise men, instead it was a hectic and bustling town that led us to Manger Square
for The Church of the Nativity,
it was here inside the
mosaic covered church with it's columns, mosaics and lanterns that you can visit the grotto which houses the 14 pointed star to signify where he was born. Much like the Sepulchre there is a slight drop in the serenity and impact of the place as there is an eternal scrum for people to get own and have their photograph taking touching the spot but it is truly iconic never the less. Next to this is St Catherine's church
where midnight mass is beamed around the world on Christmas Eve. We also visited the Milk grotto,
a small chapel built to commemorate the place that a breast feeding Mary spilt some of her milk onto the rock which people now touch to increase fertility, needless to say I stayed well away. We also gazed out at the Shepherds fields
although this was more housing and honking cars than 'shepherds watching their flock by night'. A visit to Palestine is highly recommended though and you can make up your own minds.
Finally there was a visit to the fortified city of Masada
on a flat-top mountain. The views and remains were impressive enough some 485m up, one side staring down at
wide valleys, the Dead Sea and Jordan on the opposite banks, whilst the other side was enclosed by sheer cliffs and it all made the mountain seem pretty impenetrable. In fact the site is more famous for the fact that a group of Israelis took a last stand within the walls against the rampaging Romans who eventually built a massive ramp and jumped over to find the 1000 Jews had chosen suicide over slavery, an attitude that still emboldens Israelis today and they use it as a 'never again' attitude while quoting Masada. As we were close by we went for a float in the Dead Sea
, I have written about his before in my Jordan blog so I'll quickly state the facts: the floating is fun, the water tastes horrible, it's very rocky and hurts getting in, the mud pools make you smell horrific but leave your skin smooth and the hot spring are relaxing but leave you smelling of sulphur. Go do it all.
It was only a week and a brief tour of the country (via Encounters Travel who I recommend if you like that kind of travel) but I feel I saw enough of this
thin strip of land to understand it, or as well as you can ever understand a country as a foreigner, especially a country as complex and nuanced as this. The sites are phenomenal and drip with history and faith, whilst the landscape changes from beautiful blue bays to green valleys, sparse parched land and the Dead Sea, most of it in a constant flux of construction as they continue to practically build a country from scratch as they have done since 1948. I found the majority of the people prickly and direct and I do worry that they are heading down a road similar to Japan all those centuries ago by only allowing Jewish immigration, they seem at times almost xenophobic and only want to mixing and do business with their own while ostracising the Arabs. Perhaps their nature is understandable after all they have been through or perhaps I'm just finding problems and traits that aren't even there. I don't have the answers to why they are as they are, or why they have been treated as they have, or how to solve the West Bank or what religion to believe, but if the question is should you go
and visit Israel then the answer is a definitive Yes.
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