By Jim Farber
Less than five days after I passed without incident through the military checkpoint to Eastern Jerusalem, political tension caused the border to be locked down. The situation reflected the heated political climate of the region. But it was also a vivid reflection of its ancient history.
Let me put it this way: What do the Israelites, the Jebusites, the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Moslems, the Christian Crusaders, the Mamelukes, the Ottoman Turks and the British — along with the Jews and Palestinians of modern-day Israel — all have in common? They all, at one time or another over the past 7,000 years, have claimed the region as their own. And a lot of blood has been spilled in the process.
Whether you are exploring the ancient tunnels of the Old City of Jerusalem and the newly excavated City of David or climbing your way up the “Snake Trail” to the remains of King Herod’s palace atop Masada, the history of Israel is right there beneath your feet, buried under layers and layers and layers of rocks. It’s a lot to comprehend.
In the humorous words of archeologist Asher Altshul, “Traveling in Israel makes your brain ache.”
This was my first trip to Israel and the Holy Land, and my brain did ache as I tried to unravel the Gordian knot of the region’s conquerors, prophets and noteworthy visitors: from Joshua and Abraham to Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, Saladin and Richard the Lionheart to Suleyman the Magnificent and Mark Twain the caustic, Lawrence of Arabia and Gen. Edmund Allenby, Baron de Rothschild and David Ben Gurion, right up to the United States’ Vice President Joe Biden and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose highly publicized meeting unraveled while I was there.
It’s not surprising that many would-be travelers are fearful of visiting Israel, but during my entire trip I never once felt threatened or in any danger, except when a trio of young Palestinians eyed my camera as possible booty — a “danger” as common in Los Angeles, Tokyo or Rio as it is in Israel. It’s always a good bet to be smart and stay alert, and tour leaders informed about potential hot spots steer their groups away from any chance of confrontation.
The big payoffs — visual, historical and cultural — make a journey to Israel a bountifully rich experience. And if you are religious, there is no place on Earth like Jerusalem with its confluence of Jewish, Christian and Islamic holy sites.
Though it is small, Israel is surprisingly diverse in its terrain and cultural tone, from lush farmlands to arid desert. Haifa and Tel Aviv bustle to a cosmopolitan beat and offer an abundance of delectable eateries, fine hotels and swinging nightspots (particularly in Tel Aviv where some clubs don’t even open until 2 in the morning. One of the most famous is called The Breakfast Club). There are seaside spa resorts along the Dead Sea to rival those of Miami or Cancun. But the real attractions are Israel’s historic locations, many of which are protected as national parks co-administered by UNESCO and designated World Heritage Sites.
In the northern part of the country, near the Sea of Galilee, is one of the oldest “Tels” (multilayered cities) in Israel — Tel Hazor. The Old Testament (Joshua 11:10) makes reference to it, saying, “Hazor was formerly the head of all those kingdoms.” Its foundations date back to the third millennium BCE, and wandering through its ancient walls, once-peopled squares and cavelike cistern is fascinating.
Even more interesting (and more popular with tourists) is the nearby ruin of Megiddo, where, according to the Book of Revelation, the final battle of Armageddon will take place. In both of these cases it takes a good guide and a lot of imagination to envision Hazor and Megiddo in their prime.
It’s far less difficult to comprehend the flow of history in the fortress of Acre (or Akko), which is considered to be the best-preserved Crusader city in the world. Located across the bay from the port of Haifa, Acre is a five-star attraction with its ancient walls and Citadel where Richard the Lionheart and the Knights Templar held court. If those stones could talk, what tales they could tell! The city also has a rich repository of history under Moslem and Turkish rule, with its mosques, bathhouse and caravan center. Plan to allow an entire day for this visit.
Two of King Herod’s impressive building projects also deserve a “must-see” rating. Caesarea was built as a Roman-era port city. Its fabulous ruins include noble residences (many decorated with elaborate mosaics), an oval chariot racing stadium (think “Ben Hur”) that was capable of seating 15,000 and a beautifully preserved Roman theater. The other great Herodian ruin is the mountaintop palace and fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. Accessible by hiking trail or gondola, its panoramic views, especially at dawn, are incomparable. On Tuesday and Thursday nights Masada is illuminated by a special light show presentation.
Nothing can prepare a first-time visitor to Israel for the impact of Jerusalem. As an Angelino born and bred on Disneyland, I had to constantly keep reminding myself, “This is the real thing!”
The Western Wall, holiest of all Jewish sites, is the actual foundation of King Solomon’s Temple. The stone cobbles of the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher mark the Stations of the Cross where Jesus suffered and was crucified. The Dome of the Rock is designated as the place where the Prophet Mohammed ascended into Paradise. A documented condition known as “Jerusalem Syndrome” sometimes takes possession of true believers as they trace their way through the city.
Whether you are a believer or not, to wander the narrow, crowded streets of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters of Jerusalem, with their bustling mixture of religions, cultures, pilgrims, tourists and heavily armed Israeli soldiers is one of the most unique travel experiences you will ever have.
Land of conflict. Land of wonders. That’s the Israel I discovered.
IF YOU GO
For information: Israel Ministry of Tourism: www.goisrael.com
Getting there: El Al, Air France, British Airways, KLM, Delta and American Airlines all fly to Israel by way of the David Ben Gurion airport.
For information on World Heritage Sites: http://whc.unesco.org
Jim Farber is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM