Travel consultant focused on cultural travel in the Middle East & Mediterranean
Of all the places I’ve been, I think it’s in Israel that history both ancient and modern is closest to the surface. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the first century AD, the armies of Islam overran the country in the seventh century, in medieval days the Crusaders and Saracens did battle in the name of religion, the 19th century imperial powers used Palestine as a pawn in their great game, in our time the Zionists established a nation in the hardest of circumstances, and the Palestinians now struggle to make a state of their own. All the actors in this history left marks on the country, its appearance, cultures, religions and ways of thinking; and the result is a destination that is endlessly fascinating for the traveller.
We usually start our travels in the modern Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv and the neighbouring town of Jaffa, the old port now renovated and transformed into an upmarket arts precinct.
We head north to Caesarea which has the most impressive Crusader ruins in Israel, then on to the coastal city of Haifa where we first encounter the country’s great religious complexity. The world centre of the Baha’i religion is here in a lovely complex set in gardens; and nearby we have the headquarters of the Carmelite order at Mount Carmel. Also nearby is the atmospheric Crusader seaport of Akko (or Acre, as it was known).
Nazareth is one of the most important places in Christian history, and an essential sight. Its two dozen or so churches range from the grand Basilica of the Annunciation, the biggest church in the Middle East, to the small and atmospheric Church of St Gabriel. As in other major places of pilgrimage, all the Christian denominations are represented in Nazareth.
The name of Jerusalem resonates through the ages, and still inspires the three great monotheistic religions. It has been a place of pilgrimage for millennia, and much blood has been spilled over possession of the city. Today it is a place of great contrasts, where spirituality, peace and beauty sit side-by-side with vulgarity, pushy commerce and political tension. It can be a demanding city, but it’s very beautiful, always safe for the traveller (as is the whole country), and always stimulating.
We approach the Old City from the Mount of Olives, where we get a panoramic view of the city walls, built by the Ottoman emperor Suleyman the Magnificent following the lines of the Roman walls. On our way down the hill, we pause at the Garden of Gethsemane and its Basilica of the Agony built with donations from many countries (including Australia). And we see a huge Jewish cemetery, for those who aspired to be buried facing Jerusalem, as well as a large Christian cemetery.
The Old City within the walls is divided into the Muslim quarter, the Jewish quarter and the Christian (or Armenian) quarter. All are easily negotiated on foot, and all welcome travellers. The Via Dolorosa which follows the last footsteps of Jesus winds through the densely populated Christian and Muslim quarters – each Station is marked by a chapel, and the Via ends in the holiest of Christian sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This enormous and very beautiful church is packed with every conceivable nationality and Christian denomination. Custody of the church is divided among Armenians, Greeks, Copts, Catholics, Ethiopians and Syrians – an appropriate symbol of Jerusalem’s religious diversity.
The most important Jewish site of all is the Western Wall (sometimes known as the Wailing Wall), the last remnant of a wall built by Herod the Great. The adjoining plaza functions as a large open-air synagogue, where non-Jews may approach up to a respectful distance. Above and beyond the Wall is the large enclosure known by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif, an Islamic complex containing the magnificent shrine of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque. Non-Muslims are welcome within the peaceful grounds of the complex, but not inside the mosque or shrine.
Before leaving Jerusalem, we visit the marvellous Israel Museum where the star attraction is the Dead Sea Scrolls; and the sombre and moving Yad Veshem Holocaust history museum. We move on feeling we have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating city.
Beyond Jerusalem is the Palestinian town of Bethlehem where King David spent his childhood and Jesus was born. We visit the Shepherds’ Field and the magnificent Church of the Nativity built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.The picturesque village of Ein Karem near Jerusalem was the childhood home of John the Baptist, and now also contains Chagall’s famous stained glass windows in the Hadassah Hospital.
Our last stop in Israel is Masada, the spectacular hill-top site above the Dead Sea where Herod built a magnificent palace, and where the Zealots held out against a Roman seige and committed mass suicide rather than surrender. It is a place of great symbolic significance for contemporary Israel.