The beauty of the Baha’i gardens lifts my spirits. They do more than that for Baha’i. Devotees believe that ascending the 18 gardens’ 700 steps is like a pilgrimage to heaven.
Viewing the Phoenician seaport city of Acre (aka Akko, about 10 miles from Haifa) from the top of the surrounding ramparts also excites. It’s like looking through the pages of a Biblical history book. Small fishing boats bob at one of the world’s oldest ports while a mix of ruins, markets, mosques and an old fortress fill the twisting alleyways and cobblestone streets. They echo 4,000 years of history. The Old Testament speaks of it as do early Egyptian writings.
Maybe it hasn’t changed much in recent years, but since this is my first trip to Acre, everything is new to me. The vaults and halls of the 12th century Crusader’s fortress conjure images of armored knights fighting to the death. Inside I see the jail cell that housed former Israeli Prime Minister, Menachin Begin, when Israel was under British Mandate. The fort has a maze of underground tunnels that lead to shops including a “very high quality” shop where everything sells for $10. The 18th century turquoise dome of El-Jazzar Mosque towers above the old city. It is one of the most beautiful mosques in Israel.
Layers of History
Now it’s off to the Lower Galilee region and Tel Megiddo National Park. Tels are layered archeological sites and each tier represents another time and city. Megiddo has 17 layers, making it a favorite place for archeologists to discover new sites. Excavations have shown that through the ages this has been the site of numerous battles. Here, General Allenby battled the Turks and won by following Biblical accounts of former inhabitants. Many believe Megiddo is Armageddon and the final battle between Christ and the anti-Christ will be fought here.
Surrounded by mountains and multi-shades of green grasses, Tel Hazor National Park with 21 tels dating back to 3000 B.C., sits in the Upper Galilee. A Spanish university team unearthed a 900 B.C. city that contained an intricate water system plus a Citadel which sits atop one built by King Solomon. Alongside it is a metal statue of Don Quixote, leaving no doubt who did the digs.
Israel’s highest city, Tzfat, stands south of Hazor. Here, you can walk among some of the country’s most ultra-religious Jews. Kabbalah Jews, dressed in black suits, hats, white strings hanging out their shirts (called tsitsits) and side curls, spend most of their time studying every letter and accent mark in the Torah and the Talmud. This town’s hilly cobblestone streets boast old synagogues, art galleries, and its newest addition, a kosher pizzeria.
A few miles south by the Sea of Galilee, Kibbutz Ginosar’s Yigal Allon Center houses a relatively new find: The Ancient Galilee Boat, also called the “Jesus Boat.” In 1986, some old nails and wood were discovered alongside the water. Buried in the seabed were the remnants of an very old boat. “We didn’t know anything about boats here until we found it,” says Oma Cohen, one of the archeologists that worked on the 14-year boat restoration project. “It is from the time of Jesus, but we can’t say if he used it.”
It is known that Jesus worshipped at nearby Capernaum. That temple is now buried under the ruins of a larger Roman-looking temple. A partial plexiglass floor at the new ultramodern Christian church reveals the remains of St. Peter’s 4th century home.
Wines at Tabor Winery don’t date back to the 4th century, but the young winery produces some laudable Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Chardonnay. Or, if you are hungry, get kosher food and all the humus you can eat in Tel Aviv, along with sushi. Only two other places in the world, Tokyo and New York City, serve more sushi than Tel Aviv. Sakura restaurant, which offers several varieties of sushi, has even been touted by the New York Times.
Within the last 10 years, Tel Aviv became a UNESCO Heritage Site because of its multitude of Bauhaus-designed buildings. Bauhaus was a German, mid-20th-century modernistic school of art and design.
Now part of Tel Aviv, Jaffa is said to be the port from which Jonah set sail. Today, small fishing boats and restaurants line the shoreline and the smell of the sea and cooking fish wafts through the air. But nearby, find a different kind of vittles at Dr. Shakshuka restaurant. Shakshuka, a combination of peppers, eggs and a spicy tomato sauce, tastes like a North African version of huevos rancheros. Jaffa beefed up its shopping venues about two years ago. The old train station, now HaTachana, reinvented itself into a restaurant and boutique shopping center. More interesting are Kedumin Square’s undulating, stone alleyways where unique galleries, jewelers and craft shops pop up at every turn.
Tel Aviv fades into rugged, sandy and hilly landscape on the approximate 70-mile drive southeast through the Negev toward the Dead Sea. Bedouin tents and camels border the road. Surrounded by the Judean Hills, the Dead Sea sits 1,373 feet below sea level. Its heavy salt content makes drowning impossible. In recent years, new hotel/spas have sprung up at Ein Bokek Beach, one of the nicest is Le Meridien. Those who want to reap the mineral benefits of the Dead Sea flock here. They douse themselves in mud from pots placed on the beach, let it dry and then lazily float on the water.
A new cable car ferries visitors up to nearby Masada. This former mountaintop fortress palace of King Herod was where, in 70 A.D., the Zealots maintained a two-year standoff against eight Roman legions. The Roman victory was a hollow one because the Jews, approximately 1,000 of them, committed mass suicide rather than be captured. Visitors can see remnants of the regions’ camp, floor mosaics, the synagogue, the Western Palace and the baths.
Thousands of years have not changed much of the Negev. The city of Avdat, once part of the Spice Route between Petra and Gaza was inhabited by the Nabateans and later by the Byzantines. Structures like the church, a Roman tower and Nabatean temples have been excavated. When ascending the hilltop city, one sees a camel caravan in the distance. Actually, they are metal statues. Sculptures of animals and people appear throughout the ruins in places like the wine press and the market. They give visitors more of a feel of what daily life was like. The 2,500-year-old city was named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2005.
Jerusalem possesses many new sights. Yad Vashem, the poignant monument to Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes’ has added a Children’s Memorial. It is illuminated by a mere five candles, which are reflected in 500 mirrors. It is a haunting maze where a recording echoes the names, ages and country of some of the Holocaust’s 1.5 million young victims.
Many people come to Old Jerusalem to see the Western Wall, the golden Dome on the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Others come to worship. I saw a group of Korean tourists solemnly carrying a large cross on the Via Delarosa. They prayed at each station while making their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where
“Here in Jerusalem, our guidebook is the Bible,” Asher Altshul, our guide to the underground City of David. The city dates back 2-4,000 years and predates Jerusalem’s Old City. In 2005, archeologists unearthed what some believe is the wall of David’s Palace. David built the First Temple, which sits under the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The City of David correlates with many things in the Bible. Mentioned are Bulla, clay coin-like seals with Hebrew writing, which were discovered at the open-air site near Area G. (the Royal Quarter).
Hezikiah’s Tunnel was discovered in 1911 by Montague Parker while looking for the ark. (“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was loosely patterned after Parker’s exploits.) The 2,700-year-old tunnel was built to safeguard the water supply in the event of an Assyrian attack. Today you can wander through the tunnel and see the original chisel marks and ancient plaster. The tunnel emerges near the Selah Pool, the supposed place that Jesus performed the miracle of the blind man.
When speaking about Israel, David Ben Gurian once said, “If you don’t believe in miracles, you are not realistic.” No wonder archeologists really dig Israel. Their excavations constantly unearth amazing antiquities and constantly create new places for visitors to discover.
For more information, contact the Israel Ministry of Tourism, www.goisrael.com