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Published: April 2nd 2017
Our inability to secure a timely flight from Muscat to Amman in Jordan meant a reschedule of our itinerary, which in my view became a bonus. It gave us the opportunity to instead spend a few days in Israel and meant that we would cross into Jordan at the hassle-free southern Red Sea border rather than the heavily utilised (and from all accounts often very slow) central border crossing linking Jerusalem/Tel Aviv with Amman. So we had an overnight flight from Muscat to Tel Aviv, transiting for 3 hours in Istanbul of all places in the middle of the night, but once we were settled in Tel Aviv these inconveniences were quickly forgotten. This was destined to be an interesting few days for me as I have actually visited Israel before, as a backpacker in the mid-seventies, so it was going to be interesting to see if any memories remained.
Home for the first couple of nights was a hotel in Jaffa (Yafo), an ancient port to the south of Tel Aviv, and quite different from the modern metropolis of the latter. The Old City is situated on a hilltop area overlooking the Mediterranean and dominated by St Peter's Church.
However, probably the most interesting area of all was the Flea Market, which is full of boutiques, cafes, bars and colourful street stalls selling vintage furniture and clothes, curios and antiques - a great area to just wander round and get lost. It was at a great Arab restaurant that we were to get our first taste of the world-renowned Shakshuka, a spicy egg and tomato stew that generally seems on offer in Israel for all three meals of the day.
Given the logistics of trying to park around Jerusalem and the inability to take an Israel registered vehicle into Bethlehem (which is in the West Bank), we decided to instead do an organised tour of these two cities run by Tourist Israel. We were lumped in with a bunch of Eastern Europeans for most of the day, giving us the rare opportunity to hear about all the holy destinations in both English and Russian! Given we were being picked up from Tel Aviv, it was a 7am start and it was hard to gauge what the weather would be like for the day, so in typical Aussie fashion, I fronted up in shorts, T-shirt and sandals. As we
neared Jerusalem and picked up our Eastern travellers, I noticed they were wearing pullovers, parkas and beanies. I think they were smarter than me, because not only did we get our only rain for the two week trip, but the temperature dropped and I certainly wasn't warm for the day!
While making it slightly less comfortable, the rain didn't really preclude our ability to check out the various sights. As we all know, the walled Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters, namely Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian, and we spent some time in each one. Our main port of call in the Jewish Quarter was the famous Wailing Wall (as I remember it) although it now appears to be more politically correct to refer to it as the Western Wall. This wall backs onto the Temple Mount and has become an open-air synagogue, with men and women in separate sections. Head covering was required for the men, for which paper kippot ('scull caps') were made available. Supposedly, the 'wailing' refers to the practice of Jews weeping at the site over the destruction of the Temples. Our other main visit, in the Christian Quarter, was the Church
of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Church of the Resurrection. This church stands on the site where most Christians believed Jesus was nailed to the cross, died, and was resurrected. There was the opportunity to view Jesus's empty tomb up close, but with a queue over 100 metres long, it just didn't seem a priority for me. Apart from these two specific sites, we took in some general views of the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as strolling along many alleyways and souks during the course of the visit.
For me, possibly the most interesting visit of all was to a site called Rachel's Tomb, located at the northern entrance of Bethlehem. This site is revered as the burial place of the Hebrew matriarch Rachel (now you all knew that, didn't you?) and is supposedly rarely considered a shrine exclusive to one religion and is in fact described as being "held in esteem equally by Jews, Muslims, and Christians". But the day we visited, there was certainly no space for the Muslims or the Christians and in the very small men's prayer room (men and women were segregated to different sides of
the tomb) there must have been some 30-40 Jewish men and boys variously palming the tomb, banging heads, wailing, chanting etc, and most of them appeared to be in a trance and seemed quite oblivious to the presence of us tourists (who quite frankly I was surprised were allowed to enter). I'm not a religious person and I struggle to understand this absolute undying devotion to their prayers, but there again, they probably don't understand why I like to watch rugby!
So on to Bethlehem, where the main attraction was the Church of the Nativity. This church was originally commissioned in the 4th century over the site that was traditionally considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus. Once again we had to queue up for over an hour to access the underground passage to see the star that supposedly marks that celebrated spot, and we only got in that quickly when our young Palestinian guide bulldozed our group past a busload of very irate German tourists who claimed to have been waiting longer than us. We also had our daily dose of adrenaline as our young driver confused the narrow road into the
church with Monte Carlo, scattering pedestrians to either side of the alley way as he drove at high speed - ah, the subtle cultural differences between the Arabs and the Jews!
From here, it was travelling northwards to Akko (Acre), taking a slight deviation en route to check out the very impressive Bahai Gardens in Haifa. These gardens are almost a kilometre in length, comprising 19 different terraces of flowers, water features and sculptures. We only got the opportunity to view it from the bottom, but it was certainly impressive. In total contrast to this was the Old City of Akko with its 'towering ramparts, deep moats, green domes, slender minarets, church towers, secret passageways, and subterranean vaults', both above and below ground level. It represents a lot of history and is basically one of these old town areas you could meander around for hours, which we did, but we did take in two specific sights. Firstly, we visited Crusader City (also known as Hospitaller Fortress), a series of underground gothic vaulted halls which were once headquarters for the Crusader armies. This is situated directly below Ahmed el-Jazzar's Citadel, which these days houses a museum. The other visit was
through the Templars' Tunnel, a subterranean passage which would have originally connected the harbour with a Templar palace, providing a secret escape route to the sea in case of attack. Interestingly, this was only discovered by a local plumber a little over 20 years ago.
From Akko, it was a short drive east over to the Sea of Galilee, which will be the starting point of my final blog on Israel.
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