“Like the soldiers of 28 Iyar, I solemnly went to the Wall and touched 2,500 years of history.”
Early next morning, we set out on our aliyah. In Hebrew, the word means elevation or going up and is used to describe moving to Israel. We were at the border by 8.15 despite a photo stop at a bizarre sign that announced that we were at sea level. We had to change buses and guides at the border and went north to Beit She'an, our first destination in Israel.
One of the cities of the Roman Decapolis, Beit She'an goes back at least 5,000 years like anything in the Holy Land. The city is perhaps most famous for being the site where King Saul and his sons were hung from the walls by the Philistines. Beit She'an's story parallels that of Jerash – it was developed by the Greeks as Scythopolis but found its glory days under the Pax Romana when its population burgeoned to 40,000; much of the ruins today are from Roman times. When the Byzantines came, they destroyed all the pagan temples and built churches. By the time the Umayyads came, the city was well past its prime. Surprisingly, the Muslims lived beside their Christian subjects without demolishing the churches. Beit She'an was devastated by a massive earthquake in 749 after which it never recovered. Life went on under the Crusaders, Ottomans and British, but Beit She'an was no longer an important administrative centre as it had been from the time of the Egyptians until the Byzantines. One European traveller in the early 1800s described it as a miserable village with no more than 70 houses.
The oldest ruins of the site can be found atop a hill on the north side. Remains of the Egyptian governor's house, parts of the fortifications built by King David and Solomon, and the ruins of a temple to Zeus can be found at the top. Beit She'an is a typical Roman city, with a theatre, nymphaeum, the defining cardo – called Palladius Street according to an inscription, named after a Fourth Century Roman general – bath houses, temples, mosaics, public toilets, an agora, and colonnaded streets. Although it is the best preserved Roman city in Israel, it fails to excite someone who had just been to Jerash a couple of days ago.
From Beit She'an, we moved on to Yardenit, the alternate baptismal site on the River Jordan. Usually, the site is packed with pilgrims or the about-to-be-converted but we were lucky and found the place relatively peaceful. Interestingly, the site we visited is not exactly where Jesus is believed to have been baptised by John; that site is Qasr al Yahud, a good 115 km away and just north of the Dead Sea. Yardenit was established in 1981 because of constant military activity near the Jordanian border. Qasr al Yahud was reopened in 2011, yet Yardenit continues to attract over 400,000 visitors each year.
From Yardenit, the Golan is not too far and we drove further north to the last spot of the day. There is plenty to see in the Golan but I suspect its fame is largely due to its annexation by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. After Syria's failed attempt to recapture the heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel agreed to return 5 per cent of the Golan to Syrian civilian administration. A United Nations Disengagement Observer Force monitors the area. In 1981, Israel removed the Golan from under military rule and extended its civilian administration right up to the border. The Syrian government helped to resettle people displaced by the border shift except for Quneitra, whose ruins from the two wars it maintained as anti-Israel propaganda.
Sites of interest in the Golan for those who are on a longer trip would be Gilgal Refa'im for its ancient megalithic structure, the Roman-era Jewish town of Umm al Kanathir, the Greco-Roman town of Hippos (one of the Decapolis), Tel Hazor of the Canaanites and Israelites, and perhaps the mediaeval Islamic Nimrod Castle. For us simple folk, we just enjoyed the view from a hill top. On the way up, the Israelis had put up some rather inventive sculptures of the oddest things made with weapons parts and were quite amusing.
At the top, the view was quite nice and green; it was easy to forget that you were essentially in the middle of a desert. We bumped into a couple of soldiers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) and I asked them how their job goes. They reported that it was all quiet on the Northern Front. Israel has also been running medical camps for any of the Syrians who come across the border – unarmed, of course – and that has created some confusion among the locals: the country they had been taught was their arch enemy was offering them aid while their own people were savagely attacking them?
I asked our guide about what the general Israeli view was regarding what was going on in Syria and Iran. Unfortunately, I got the stock answer I might have heard directly from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Syrian President Bashar al Assad was bad, and Iran was expansionist. When I pushed back, citing Israeli sources, the guide quickly fell quiet. I guess these were not issues she was familiar with and she just passed on what she saw on the television, read in the papers, or heard from her friends (who may have seen it on the television, read in the papers, or... ). What made her answer interesting was that she was not a Bibi supporter, meaning that her views were prevalent even in circles that were not fond of the Prime Minister.
We stayed in Tiberias, that lovely town on the western shore of the Galilee. It also happens to be one of Judaism's four holy cities (Hebron, Safed, and Jerusalem, in case you were wondering). After the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132-5, when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and expelled all the Jews from its environs, many of the rabbis and scholars came to Tiberias. Simeon bar Yochai settled in the city as did Johanan bar Nappaha and Judah Hanasi. Most importantly, for me, Tiberias holds the tomb of Moshe ben Maimon. Tiberias was not touched because it had not taken part in the revolt.
Early next morning, I visited the tomb of the Rambam. We are not sure where Maimonides was actually buried but all the legends point to the western shore of the Galilee. The tomb is also shared with Johanan ben Zakai and Isaiah Horowitz, important Jewish scholars in their own respect. The tomb was, to put it mildly, most disappointing. An odd structure stands atop the graves, which I was told was a depiction of a flame – all I am saying is that we should keep postmodernists away from anything of value!
Our group decided to go for a cruise on the Sea of Galilee that morning. It would have been a total waste had it not been for the surprising programme the captain had for us. First, he raised an Indian flag alongside the Israeli one on the mast accompanied by the Indian national anthem, and then he proceeded to encourage us to dance to all sorts of Israeli music. I did not recognise most of it but Hava nagila was reliably present.
Next, as prophesied in Revelation 16:16, we gathered at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. Megiddo is one of the oldest settlements in the Middle East, with human presence going back to 7,000 BCE. Located strategically at the head of a pass through Carmel Valley and overlooking the Jezreel Valley, it was inevitable that the settlement would be at the centre of many battles. Three consequential ones were between Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III and the Canaanites in the Fifteenth Century BCE, between King Neco of Egypt and King Josiah of the Kingdom of Judah in the 7th Century BCE, and more recently, between the British and the Ottomans during the First World War.
I overheard someone in the group mention something about "another pile of rocks" as we approached Megiddo. Technically, that is true. Ruins that go as far back as Megiddo does are usually no more than a pile of rocks – take Dholavira in India, for example, which is probably a couple of millennia younger.
However, the importance of a historical pile of rocks can only be understood through interest and familiarity with their history. The tel of Megiddo – it is not technically a hill – holds the remains of one or two or even 10 settlements, but 26 layers of inhabitation have been found so far. So, needless to say, it is a fairly substantial pile of rocks.
To the discerning eye, there are some 20 structures that can be made out at Megiddo. Most, however, should recruit the assistance of a guide. All tours will start at the Canaanite gate, go past the Canaanite palace through the Israelite gate, by the stables, a main palace, and to the temple area. Although the Israelite gate is usually associated with King Solomon, recent radiocarbon dating puts the date a little more recently during the reign of Jeroboam II in the Eighth Century BCE.
A little further along, past the burial chamber is a viewing point whence the plains of Megiddo are visible. Evangelical tourists, we were told, particularly from America, are severely affected by the sight. Some started to weep while others launched into an impromptu display of glossolalia.
Do not miss the public granary, the most discernible of structures perhaps. There is also an Assyrian quarter with its own palace and stables, which should not be surprising given that there are 26 layers of civilisation one on top of another. One of the more spectacular sites at Megiddo is its water system. A central well, known as Ahab's well, was fed by water from a spring some 80 metres outside the city. The inhabitants dug the well and then the underground tunnel to the spring so that their water supply would not be threatened during a siege. Of course, crediting anything to Ahab, an evil king according to the Bible, is going to be controversial – especially after Solomon's gate was taken away from him by science. Visitors can walk along the tunnel after descending some 180 steps to see the spring, though it is not burbling as it used to due to water diversification and greater use.
Such feats of engineering, though rare, are not quite uncommon. In the Holy Land of circa the Eighth Century BCE alone, we know of a similar water system at Hazor, albeit shorter at 25 metres, and Hezekiah's Tunnel in Jerusalem. In fact, an inscription states that the 540-metre-long tunnel under the City of King David was dug from both ends, attesting to the remarkable surveying and engineering skills of the Israelites.
After Megiddo, we went to see the famed Mona Lisa of the Galilee at Zippori. There is evidence of habitation since the Neolithic period but sustained building work and town planning can be confirmed only from the Fourth Century BCE. The town achieved its full glory during the reign of Herod, when the Jewish historian Josephus called Zippori the ornament of the Galilee. The city was, however, badly damaged by a massive earthquake in 363. In essence, Zippori is a Greco-Roman town that was later inhabited by Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans, British, and finally Israelis like many of the other ruins in the country; few seem to have been totally abandoned.
Although Zippori does not sound particularly different from Beit She'an or Hippos, its importance comes from the fact that this was where the Sanhedrin sat and where Judah Hanasi completed the Mishnah before he moved to Tiberias. Zippori is also thought to be the birthplace of Mary, Jesus' mother.
Primary places of interest are the synagogue, theatre, the Crusader castle, the Dionysus House, and the Nile Festival House. The Crusader castle offers a great view of the entire site, so you cannot go wrong with that. The Dionysus House is where the Mona Lisa of the Galilee mosaic was discovered. It is a spectacular piece of work, one of the best mosaics I have seen anywhere in terms of richness and variety of colour as well as the number of tesserae. Unlike the actual Mona Lisa in the Louvre, I assure you that this one is not overrated! Dionysus House is believed to have belonged to a very rich Roman who was clearly very fond of entertaining.
The Nile Festival House holds a few other large floor mosaics depicting centurions, amazons, and animals that our guide told us were from the Byzantine era. The "House" was actually a public space and so has little else by which to date it. Do not miss the synagogue, which is right by the Visitors' Centre and hosts a fantastic four-part mosaic depicting the sacrifice of Isaac, the tabernacle in the desert, the Ark of the Covenant, and the signs of the Zodiac. There is also a video that shows the Jewish history of Zippori, especially the last days of Judah Hanasi. The video is not bad but it ends with a beautiful orchestral rendition of what I think was Shir Lama'alot that should not be missed.
We greeted my old friend, the Mediterranean Sea, at Rosh Hanikra. The name means 'Head of the Grottoes' in Hebrew and is the site of an underground railway built by the South African and New Zealand armies in service of the British Empire in 1941-2. The coastal line extended the Acre-Remez line built by the British in 1920 through to Tripoli. Although this was a military line, one notable civilian exception was made: In June 1944, Transport 222 carried 222 Jews from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to Palestine in a repatriation programme with the British for German Templers in the Holy Land. Between 1941 and 1944, three such exchanges were made and 400 Templers were repatriated back to Germany.
There is not much to see at Rosh Hanikra but the brilliant blue water of the Mare Nostrum is still worth the visit. There is a short cable car ride that is advertised as the world's steepest, at a gradient of 60 degrees to access the grottoes. There is no train ride now, even for a short distance. There is, however, a video visitors can watch that tells of the history of Rosh Hanikra. The checkpoint on the border with Lebanon runs right up against the grottoes but is not open to tourists or travellers. There is a beach nearby too, but resist the temptation - there are rocks and strong undercurrents; besides, it is too close for comfort to an international border between two nations not on the best of terms.
Our next stop was Acre, one of the rare natural harbours along the Israeli coast. It is the holiest city for the Baha'i faith, presumably because Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri died there in 1892. Acre has been a port city since Phoenician times and has the ruins and landmarks of a dozen civilisations to show it. The entire Old City of Acre, primarily famous for its Crusader and Islamic monuments, is now a World Heritage site.
Given the narrow winding streets on the Old City, we did our sightseeing by foot. It would be faster and there is nothing wrong with a bit of exercise! We started with the Eighteenth Century mosque built by the Bosnian general of the Ottoman Empire, Ahmad Pasha Al Jazzar. The general's moniker means "butcher" in Arabic, a reputation that was well earned. The Butcher built his mosque in 1781 on the site of a former Christian prayer house of material that was taken from the ruins of Caesarea, Atlit, and other nearby ruins. The largest mosque in Israel outside of Jerusalem, Al Jazzar boasts of possessing a relic - a hair from the beard of Muhammad.
The Crusader Citadel is a short walk from the mosque and is the entry point to the Templar Tunnels and the Hospitallers Knights' halls. Crusader structures throughout the Holy Land are massive fortifications, indicating their (deserved) unpopularity among the locals. During the Mandate, the Citadel served as a prison and held Jewish political prisoners among others. On 4 May 1947, one of the most famous prison breaks occurred in which 27 Jewish independence fighters escaped as did 182 Arabs; nine were killed in the escape attempt and eight were recaptured. Despite the mixed success, the Irgun's rescue attempt was widely hailed as strategic brilliance and British prestige was considered to have taken a nosedive.
Crusader City, as it is now called, lies below the Citadel with its large halls and massive columns. It was probably last used in 1291 when the Christian garrison of Acre was defeated by Muslim armies out of Egypt. The Templar Tunnels run from this city to the port and were used by many as Acre finally fell to the Muslims. The underground city was complete in every respect, containing marketplaces, medical services, residences, and a church.
I would have said something about how one must walk through the Old Souk to get a feel of what a medieval marketplace felt like but the same sort of narrow, winding streets and crowds are ubiquitous in India and perhaps the novelty is not so much. Nonetheless, it is still a good place to pick up souvenirs. As you finish with the Souk, you should hit the fortifications and sea walls. It is a nice place to walk along and bump into the Franciscan St John Baptist Church which was built in 1737.
We moved on to Haifa for the night's stay and on our way in, caught a view of the Baha'i Gardens in Israel's largest port city. Also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa for its 19 levels of terracing, the garden holds the shrine of Sayyed Ali Muhammad Shirazi, the Bab, who was the forerunner of Baha'u'llah. No services are held in the shrine but it is a place for quiet contemplation and meditation. The garden is beautiful, but I felt that the view up or down its terraces was more pleasing than the garden itself. If you happen to be enjoying the pleasure of a ghalyoon or a drink in one of the many restaurants along Sderot Ben Gurion in the evening, it might be worth swinging by the Hanging Gardens for a quick glimpse by night.
After an obligatory halt at the Haifa beach next morning, we visited Caesarea. King Herod converted the former Phoenician naval station into a city of splendour in honour of his patron Augustus Caesar between 30 and 10 BCE and the port became the administrative centre of the Judean province of the Empire. Today, little has changed in Caesarea - the town is still one of the poshest localities in Israel and home to wealthy industrialists, businessmen, artists, and politicians. The current prime minister of Israel has his personal residence there, as does golfer Laetitia Beck, singer Keren Ann, the French branch of the Rothschild family, and the Wertheimers, Israel's richest family. In a bit of modern extravagance, Caesarea is home to Israel's only 18-hole golf course.
The harbour at Caesarea rightly gets the most attention. The largest artificial harbour of its time, the pace of work and ingenuity in its creation made it a truly remarkable achievement of Roman engineering and Caesarea rivalled Alexandria. Recent excavations have shown, however, that the construction was not as sturdy as thought and between seismic activity and the sea, the harbour eventually tilted into the waters and settled on the seabed. Despite its struggle with nature, the port did not diminish until after the Byzantine era when it fell in Muslim hands.
One of Herod's extravagances was a palace on the promontory with an Olympic-sized swimming pool jutting into the sea. On one side of Herod's palace is a theatre that could hold about 3,500 people; on the other is a hippodrome that could accommodate about 5,000. Like other Roman towns we had been to, Caesarea also contained bath houses and mosaics. Like the others, churches had been built over pagan shrines and some of the mosaics were from the Christian period while others were earlier. On the beaches, it is still possible to find flecks of green in the sand that are most likely jade from Roman times.
Interestingly, Caesarea is partially owned by the Rothschilds. Edmond James de Rothschild was a strong supporter of Zionism and had purchased much land in Mandatory Palestine on behalf of the World Zionist Organisation. Upon the creation of Israel, the family agreed to transfer the land to the new state. However, 35,000 dunam - about 35 sq km - around Caesarea were leased back to the Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Foundation for a period of 200 years. Caesarea is the only locality in Israel that is run by a private corporation rather than a municipality and the profits go towards promoting advance higher education and culture in Israel.
The beautiful blue waters of the Mare Nostrum and the Roman ruins on the shore made for a truly beautiful scene. I regret that we rushed Caesarea like frenzied tourists and would advise visitors to plan on a good four hours at the site. If you go by the harbour, you may even take a dip in the water.
Jaffa was the next destination for lunch as well as a walking tour. Honestly, I enjoyed the feel of Yafo more than anything I saw there, but we did walk by Ran Morin's Floating Orange Tree, the Statue of Faith in Abrasha Park, the Seventeenth Century St Peter's Church, the Zodiac Fountain, and, of course, by Andromeda's Rock and along the harbour.
Morin's exhibit in the middle of the street has been entertaining passers-by since 1993 and it gave me the odd sensation of being in a Surrealist painting! The suspended tree probably symbolises the separation of Man from Nature. The Statue of Faith in Abrasha Park depicts three scenes from the Bible whose message is, you guessed it, to have unquestioning faith in G-d. Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and Jacob's dream of a ladder to Heaven are depicted on the pillars while the crosspiece shows Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho.
Andromeda's Rock gives Jaffa a nice touch of the classical. The story goes that these were the rocks upon which Andromeda was lashed as an offering to the sea monster Cetus when Perseus rescued and married her. Cassiopeia had once boasted that her daughter, Andromeda, was far more beautiful than the Nereids seen in the company of Poseidon. Angered by this, Poseidon sends a sea monster to harass sailors coming into or leaving the city's harbour. Finally, an understanding is reached by which the object of the boast would have to be sacrificed. Andromeda was stripped naked and tied to the rock. Perseus manages to kill Cetus by wearing the invisibility cloak Hades had given him.
You can get a beautiful view of modern Tel Aviv from the waterfront at Yafo. The coast curves in much like Marine Drive in Mumbai and the area is a popular spot among locals as at all cities by the water. By the way, most of the Jews who emigrated to Israel from India in the 1950s and 1960s are in Ashdod, about 45 minutes south of Tel Aviv. India's Jewish population peaked around 30,000 at the time of independence but is now around 5,000; the descendants of Indian Jews in Israel today number around 70,000.
Jerusalem was our last destination and our arrival fortuitously coincided withYom Yerushalayim, the day Jerusalem was liberated from the Jordanians during the Six-Day War. On normal calendars, that date is 7 June, but Israel follows the lunar Hebrew calendar and according to which Jerusalem was liberated on the 28th of Iyar; this year, that fell on the evening we arrived in the city - yes, Jews also start counting their days from the evening before! Similarly, although 14 May is the date on which Israel was declared, Israelis celebrate Independence Day on the 5th of Iyar.
Jerusalem's complicated status as at once the capital of Israel and disputed territory obviously raised some questions about settlements. I had an Israeli diplomat answer me long ago that one way of looking at the settlement issue was that the Arabs took a gamble on eradicating Israel; they staked Palestine and lost. It was brazen for them to now hector for the status quo ante. While logical at a gut level, that defence held little water legally. Our guide had another, more discouraging perspective. Jerusalem - in fact the whole Land of Israel - was sacred ground that was promised to the Jewish people by god. Any compromise on even an inch of land was against god’s wishes. Settling the land in Israel was not about economic opportunities or escaping anti-Semitism: for these people, it was simply the right thing to do and there was no rational, legal, political, economic, or other argument the West could make to convince them otherwise. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem," Psalm 137 reminds us, "may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth..."
There was also another group who believed that by creating "reality on the ground," Israel's bargaining position when it came to making that final peace deal would be strengthened. While settling in disputed territory was against international law, they argued, possession was nine tenths of the law. Clearly, we were not going to bring peace to the Middle East on this trip!
Another question Jerusalem triggered in my mind was the Israeli/Jewish response to proselytism. Judaism does not proselytise and in my experience, most Jews actually discourage you from converting to Judaism! How do Israelis react to missionaries that are sent out by churches in the United States and Europe every year to whittle away a little more of the pluralism worldwide? Our guide said that Israelis generally despised that and this was validated by a couple of other people I asked - they all had a look on their face as if they had just swallowed curdled milk. Regardless, Israel has managed to stay off the international radar on such sociocultural frictions - there is either no reaction against such activity despite the rancour it creates or it does not make the papers.
Something that does make the papers but is often disguised as violence or crime is the conversion to Islam. It is the contention of many Israelis, allegedly with evidence in the form of public addresses and pamphlets that I did not see, that there is a concerted campaign by Arab youths from parts of the Muslim Quarter to seduce Jews and influence them into converting to Islam for love. The target is usually young Jewish girls. Similar accusations abound in India and the phenomenon is known as love jihad though it is usually scoffed at by the fourth estate and their friends. What struck me was how similar the stories sounded to the ones I had heard in South Canara or Bangalore.
Our first stop the next day was Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. Since we got there a little before opening, we swung by the Children's Memorial, a separate structure on site to remember the 1.5 million Jewish children who were butchered in the Shoah. I decided to also quickly run up to Mount Herzl and pay my respects to Vladimir Jabotinsky and Theodor Herzl. Unfortunately, the area was closed because of preparations for Jerusalem Day celebrations later that afternoon.
Yad Vashem is organised chronologically, from just before the beginning of the Nazi era until the creation of Israel. The memorial slopes slightly upwards and overlooks Jerusalem Valley at the end, giving the feeling of crawling out of darkness into the light. The museum is very well done, with hours of video recordings and many heart-rending exhibits. There were more than a few wet eyes among the visitors, many of them non-Israeli. Children below the age of 10 are not allowed in Yad Vashem for obvious psychological reasons.
Time at Yad Vashem is tricky - as someone who has been very interested in Jewish history, Europe, and the Second World War, I would have liked to spend a good four hours at the memorial. However, the topic lies so heavy that it is not easy to digest more than a couple of hours at a stretch. How long you want to budget depends on not just your interest but also your fortitude.
Overcoming the sombre mood after Yad Vashem, we headed to the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum where they kept the Dead Sea Scrolls and had a model of Jerusalem as it was during the time of the Second Temple. The building housing the Dead Sea Scrolls consists of a black wall and a white dome, only a third of which is above the ground. The black and white is supposed to represent the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, an apocalyptic prophecy of war found in one of the scrolls. The inside of the building itself is also designed to resemble a cave.
About half of the scrolls are simply copies of religious texts. A quarter of them are writings that did not make it into the Old Testament, such as the Book of Enoch or the Book of Tobit or the Wisdom of Sirach. The last parts are texts that describe the beliefs and customs of various sects in existence around the time of the Second Temple.
I was not particularly excited to see the scrolls myself; left to my own devices, I would have rather spent the time attending a lecture at Hebrew University on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Call me utilitarian but the ideas contained on the fragile parchment are far more interesting than some two-millennia-old trinkets.
Most of the scrolls were discovered in Wadi Qumran in the late 1940s and early 1950s and Israel owns the largest collection of scrolls. The government has a policy of buying any scroll that may have escaped into private hands and intends to maintain as complete a collection as possible. So far, almost a thousand scrolls have been discovered from a dozen caves.
Around noon, we headed over to Bethlehem. The city is perhaps most famous for being where Jesus was born but it is also where King David was born and where Rachel died giving birth to Ben-oni (Benjamin). Although Bethlehem was destroyed by Hadrian during the Bar Kokhba Revolt, it was rebuilt by the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine who also built the Church of the Nativity in 327. The church was subsequently damaged during one of the Samaritan uprisings against the Byzantines but was restored by Justinian.
On a side note, many people mistakenly believe that Constantine converted the Empire to Christianity but that dubious honour goes to Theodosius (and Gratian and Valentinian II) and the Edict of Thessaloniki in 380. Constantine was the first emperor to convert to Christianity and it was his Edict of Milan in 313 that legalised Christianity in Roman lands.
There are three origins to Bethlehem's name. The town was known as Beit Lakhmu, meaning House of God in Aramaic. The Israelites called it Beit Lechem, meaning House of Bread, and the Muslims know it as Beit Laham, or House of Meat.
The Church of the Nativity is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The oldest church still in existence, it marks the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. Of course, these claims are as spurious as those claiming to know the exact spot Krishna narrated the Bhagavad Gita, the tree that gave shade to Muhammad on his way to Damascus, or some other fantastic tale. Yet these things are not governed by reason but by faith.
In the basement of the church is the grotto in which Jesus was born and the manger in which the newborn was waddled. The exact spot is marked by a 14-pointed steel star with a hole in the centre and pilgrims come to kneel before the spot and touch or kiss the star.
Although the Church of the Nativity was built only in 327, the site had spiritual significance even earlier. A temple to Adonis is supposed to have stood on the same spot, and Christians claim that Hadrian had it built to erase the memory of Jesus while some scholars argue that it was the Christians who took over an ancient pagan shrine as they did in hundreds of other places. The church was rebuilt in 565 and was spared destruction when the Sassanids conquered Bethlehem because General Shahrbaraz was impressed by the depiction of the Magi, the three wise men from the East (who all seem to always wear Persian robes). The damage to the church today is from age, earthquakes over the years, and the desecration at the hands of the Turks in 1244. It has also seen renovation efforts at the hands of Crusaders and later Europeans but it has clearly not been enough.
Even from its restoration under Justinian, the church is 1,500 years old and has massive arches that would make any Gothic architect proud. However, the mosaic from the first church built by the Emperor-Mother, Helena, is still preserved and easily visible. I did not find the church particularly beautiful but that may have been because much needed renovations were going on and there was a massive crowd around the grotto and manger. However, I did notice that three sects that share the church - Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox - and got to listen to one of their liturgies. I must admit that the sambrani - benzoin/frankincense - smell during the Orthodox service was quite pleasing and calming.
Back in Jerusalem, I headed down to Jaffa Gate to witness and maybe partake in the celebrations commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem. The trams were closed to create a pedestrian zone in the area, and so I had to schlepp in a good 30 minutes. This actually turned out to be a good thing because I was able to watch the ebb and flow and delirious Israelis all waving the national flag walking around, singing, and dancing all the way from the head office of the Jerusalem Post all the past Safra Square and down to Jaffa Gate and beyond. We stopped occasionally to watch and join groups of Orthodox Jews dancing like crazy, in one case, on top of a van!
Safra Square, the site where Edmund Allenby took the keys of Jerusalem from its mayor, Hussein Salim al Husseini, on 11 December 1917, after dismounting from his horse at Jaffa Gate and entering the city on foot, itself was oddly deserted after a concert had ended surprisingly early by 6pm. I walked around aimlessly, enjoying the festive air and the unusual friendliness of the locals until a light and sound show started on the Old City Walls. Predictably, it told the history of the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967 and then had a short speech by Mayor Nir Barkat on how much the city has developed. Interspersed were a few patriotic songs.
I later found out that the programming committee for the evening's official celebrations had created a small controversy in their slogan of sorts for the fiftieth anniversary. There were objections to the use of the word, "liberation" in referring to the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967. It was only after the mayor put his foot down that the phrase, "50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem" went to the printers.
A little earlier, I had mentioned the unusual friendliness of the locals. Customarily, Israelis (more broadly, Jews born in the Holy Land) like to compare themselves to the sabra, a local variety of cactus. The plant is prickly on the outside that protects a sweet and delicate interior. Israelis can make an art form out of being abrasive and obnoxious but they are just as often sweet, hospitable, generous, and go out of their way to help friends. Of course, the joke runs that you sometimes have to truly turn a person inside out to see the good in him!
Despite all the fun I had, I must admit that Jerusalem does not know how to set up a good ghalyoon! There were some nice lounges in Haifa but Jerusalem was surprisingly bad. It had to do primarily with the coal they used - while Haifa used regular coals, most cafes in Jerusalem seemed to have opted for the chemical bricks that contaminate the mu'assal bowl and give off a terrible taste. I was also shocked to discover that they had only one flavour available - double apple. Luckily, that happens to be my regular choice in mixes or as a single but I would have liked the option of playing with mixes. Perhaps I just went to the bad part of town but all the ghalyoon lounges I saw by Jaffa Gate seemed to operate similarly.
We started the next day with a visit to the Temple Mount. Also known as the Haram al Sharif, there was a long line at the entrance due to security procedures. Once through, we first went to the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque. Built by the fifth Umayyad caliph, Abd al Malik Ibn Marwan in 637, the mosque was built on the ruins of a Byzantine church that had stood where the Jewish Temple had once stood. Al Muqaddasi, the 10th Century Arab geographer, wrote that the dome alone cost seven times the revenue of Egypt to build; the mosque was deliberately built in so lavish a style to compete with the grand cathedrals and churches built by Europeans in the Holy Land. It was, in essence, a public relations battle for the hearts and minds of the people.
The Dome of the Rock is also known as the Qubbat al Sakhra and on its esplanade can be found several other structures that were the embellishments of later rulers. The Qubbat al Silsilah, or Dome of the Chain, for example, is actually the oldest structure on the esplanade and it is the spot where Judgment Day is prophesied to occur. Arched gateways mark points of ingress and egress but stand out as Roman rather than Islamic. The varying column colours suggest that much of the building material for the Dome of the Rock and its environs was stolen from Greco-Roman ruins in the area.
When the Sassanids captured Jerusalem in 610, they handed the Temple Mount over to the Jews who promptly proceeded to build a temple. However, the Christian reconquest turned the tables on them and the incomplete construction was immediately demolished. This was perhaps the last time until the Mandate that Jews fought to take the Temple Mount and Jerusalem.
Today, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the third-holiest mosque in Islam. That was not the case until the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and if you have friends who went before then, be sure to ask them to show you the photos of the interior - it is truly spectacular, much like the Sultan Ahmad Mosque in Istanbul...even better.
As we walked to the Kotel, we passed by the Sha'ar HaRachamim whence the messiah is supposed to enter the Temple Mount at the end time. This gate was walled up by the Muslims and a cemetery created just outside to prevent the Christian and Jewish prophecies from coming true. Since cemeteries are considered ritually impure in Judaism, the Messiah would not be able to cross through the gate unsullied. Of course, one wonders if such obstacles mean anything to someone who is supposed to be a messiah, but that is another discussion!
Just outside the Gate of Mercy could be seen the pleasing golden onion domes of the late Nineteenth Century Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene.
To access the Wailing Wall, we had to walk through the Muslim Quarter past Ariel Sharon's house and partly along the Via Dolorosa. Sharon's house in the Muslim Quarter, with its huge menorah and Israeli flags was seen by many as a provocation to Israel's Arabs and as a message by others: This is the Jewish State of Israel. The failure of politicians to deliver peace for so long has made the squabbles between Israelis and Palestinians intellectually little higher than playground tantrums but with deadly tanks and helicopter gunships thrown in the mix.
The Wall. When we finally broke into the courtyard, the sense of history was palpable. Centuries of exile, decades of conflict, and the volatile emotions of a people become half-crazed washed over me. Like the soldiers of 28 Iyar, I solemnly went to the Wall and touched 2,500 years of history.
It need not be stressed that attire should be conservative when you visit any house of worship, be it a temple, church, or mosque. In most places, that means keeping your knees and shoulders covered. Some places have culture-specific restrictions. For example, at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, men had to wear a mundu. Women, unfortunately, have extra restrictions at some shrines. Usually, this means covering your arms completely as well as legs and covering your head. At the Western Wall, a large basket of kippot was kept for anyone (men) who had forgotten their kippah at home or for Gentiles who did not have one at all. It is the custom to approach the wall after covering your head with one.
It is not uncommon for local Arab youths to harass Jewish pilgrims sometimes, especially if it is a special occasion like a bar mitzvah or mourning. The special attire or chanting for such events gives the pilgrims away and altercations are not as rare as one might like. There are always security guards available to escort such groups to and from the Wall to reduce the chances of a conflagration.
After the Wall, we went to the last place on our list for Jerusalem - the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Standing on the spot a temple to Aphrodite used to be, this church commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Church of the Nativity celebrated his birth. The building as it stands today was built in 1048 though the original had also been built by Constantine and his mother Helena. That structure was damaged by fire in 614 during the Byzantine Empire's war with the Sassanid Empire but the church was razed to the ground on the orders of the Fatimid caliph al Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1009 as part of a general campaign against Christian places of worship in Palestine and Egypt. Oddly, Christian monks in France managed to hold the Jews responsible and expel them from several French towns and cities. This experience also shaped Vatican policy in the Crusades and the First Crusade was fought partly to rescue Christian holy places from the hands of the Muslims.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre feels like a bewildering maze, with several shrines within. There is the Greek Orthodox Golgotha Altar, the Stone of Anointing, the Aedicule in the Rotunda, and several smaller chapels and courtyards for the Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopian Orthodox sects. While I strolled through the whole church, I did so without a guide and did not get much out of the experience except for photographs. I would strongly recommend a guide and two to three hours to see the church properly.
I spent some time at the Golgotha Altar, where Jesus is supposed to have been crucified. This is, in true Orthodox style, a most lavishly decorated section and beneath the altar is a hole where the cross was said to have been raised. On both sides of the altar is visible the Rock of Calvary, the 12th station of the Cross. This along with the Aedicule, are the two most visited sections of the church. The Catholics have a chapel to the side, the Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross, but it is easy to walk by without noticing it before the pomp and grandeur of the Greek Orthodox display.
As soon as you enter the church is the Stone of Anointing, where Joseph of Arimathea is supposed to have prepared Jesus' body for burial. Pilgrims rub the stone as if to take back with them some of the divinity of Jesus but the only problem with this is that the story of Jesus anointing appears only in the mid-Thirteenth Century and the stone was placed there only during the restoration work in 1810.
Behind the Stone is a wall with a beautiful fresco showing the anointment and marked with the insignia of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the many Eastern Orthodox monastic fraternities that have guarded Christian interests in the Holy Land since Constantine.
The Aedicule is composed of two chambers, one holding the Angel's Stone that sealed Jesus' tomb and one for the tomb itself. There is usually a massive line in the rotunda as pilgrims wait in line for an opportunity to touch the stone and tourists to take photographs.
Our last stop for the day and in Israel was the Dead Sea. As everyone knows, the water body is about 430 metres below sea level and 10 times saltier than the ocean, making it possible to float on the water without any effort. The hypersaline endorheic lake is about 50 km long and 9 km wide at its extreme points and is fed by the Jordan River. The high salt content ensures that there is no flora or fauna in the lake, thus earning its name. Contrary to popular belief, the Dead Sea is not the saltiest water body in the world - that honour goes to Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, whose salinity is so high that it remains liquid even in -50°C temperatures. Due to massive diversion of water from the River Jordan, the water level in the Dead Sea is dropping by about a metre per year and is causing environmental concern.
I suppose it is possible to just walk up to the Dead Sea and take a dip but we went to a small resort on its coast meant to cater to tourists like us. It is possible to rent towels for a small fee and there is access to showers and soap at the facility, something you will very much want to avail of to get rid of all the salt. Women - or anyone with long hair, I suppose - are advised to wear shower caps and keep the salt out of their hair or there will be plenty of time spent scrubbing in the showers. In fact, it is advised to keep the salt water out of everything - mouth, nose, and eyes - for it stings like anything and tastes awful. This, I say with experience. Goggles might be a good bet as would some sort of rubber slippers - there are plenty of rocks underneath the water and it is not difficult to cut yourself on them, another unpleasant experience in the briny water! If you want to swim in a bit, do it gently on your back.
Masada is not far from the southern tip of the Dead Sea. From Ein Gedi, it is barely 20 km but we were near Kalya Beach, about 60 km away. It is an important landmark in Jewish resistance to Rome and the events have cast a shadow on to Israel's sense of its history to this day. Herod's fortress is the site of the Israeli Defence Forces graduation ceremony, where they climb up a steep cliff at night with torches and swear an oath at the peak as dawn breaks that Masada shall not fall again.
Like Jordan, there is public transport in Israel but you might be better advised to rent a car and drive or take day tours from wherever you are staying. To get to Masada from Jerusalem by bus, for example, meant that I would have had to spend a good five or six hours at the site. Even for the most ardent history buff, three hours ought to be enough on a first visit. You would still have a lot of time left over even if you hiked your way to the top. Of course, if you intend to spend most of your time in Israel in cities, public transport should be easier within cities and between Jerusalem - Tel Aviv - Haifa. The problem starts when you want to visit places a bit off the beaten path for locals, like Yardenit, Hula Valley, or Beit She'an.
As I always remind myself, a good tourist makes peace with not being able to get to everything he wants on a trip. Some countries simply need a length of time more than what can be accommodated by normative employment conditions or budgets. Our itinerary was fairly packed and we did not dawdle anywhere; this was a good trip. It was made even better by the refreshing honesty our guide in Israel exhibited. I was seated right by her on the bus and maintained a steady barrage of questions on Israeli politics with a view to understanding how and why Israel got to where it was on several fronts. Unlike most guides who sugar coat the less flattering aspects of their country to outsiders, we were given an unvarnished view of the corruption, pettiness, and occasional futility of Israeli politics.
In many ways, Israel is not that dissimilar from India. Some of its institutional bottlenecks and the inability to resolve the issues or reform the system suggest that the Jewish state has grown out of its founding ideologies. Perhaps they provided the vital anchor prior to 1948 but it is a new Jewish existence now with different problems. Unfortunately, entrenched interests make it an uphill battle to push through changes everyone knows are better for the long term even if they pinch a little in the short run.
This trip was, admittedly, slightly on the shorter side for me. I have found that touristic sweet spot to be between 14 and 16 days for me - anything shorter and I am left yearning for more and anything longer leave me mentally supersaturated. Additionally, having grown up in the Middle East, this trip felt a lot like returning home. I was surprised I still remembered enough Arabic to get around and that made the Jordanian part of my trip much easier though my lack of Hebrew made Israel quite sabra-esque!
With the experiences and information gathered on this first reconnoitering mission, I can put together an itinerary for my second trip to the Holy Land within minutes. The difficulty is only in finding the means to actualise it!