- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

JERUSALEM — Israel is a land of golden hills and desert, verdant valleys, white stone cities, Arab and Druze villages and Jewish settlements scattered on the hills. The beauty born of the ages quickly wraps a visitor in a warm and eerie embrace.

Irrigation has made an arid land lush with orchards and miles of vineyards. The wall, or fence, or barrier — it is called by several names — separating the Palestinian cities and villages from Israel has made the country safe from suicide bombers. They just can’t get through it. Rockets, unfortunately, can fly over it and tunnels burrow underneath it, but all is once again quiet on the Israeli front.

We arrived in Israel with a mixture of curiosity, concern and perhaps a little fear. Anxiety, anyway. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism had invited us, half a dozen travel writers from America, to come to see the glories of this remarkable place, glories in abundant profusion — but for tourists?

We were careful, to be sure, but a visitor is not here long before security becomes a given, like looking for a place to have a good lunch (no scarcity of these) but not something to worry about.

Tourists are looked after with care and concern, and the aftermath of the war clouds adds a sense of adventure. The death and destruction of just a few weeks earlier seem from a place far away.

Israel harks to the Bronze Age, and the footsteps of biblical, Byzantine, Roman and medieval inhabitants are evident everywhere. Modern Israel, now truly a land of milk and honey, will celebrate its 60th birthday in 2008. Jerusalem, the capital, is its crowning glory.

JERUSALEM AND THE PAST

“Jerusalem is for prayer,” says Nisso, our minivan driver, with a twinkle in his dark eyes as we speed away from Israel’s largest city. “Tel Aviv is for play.”

It must be true: Twenty-one Christian churches and more than 50 synagogues are found on Jerusalem’s narrow streets. Five of the synagogues are in the Old City. There are four mosques. Israel is a democracy, but it is not a secular country, and prayer and religious rules of demeanor and diet are enforced. Churches, mosques and synagogues are equally protected by vigilant police. Hotels do not serve hot food on Saturdays, and “Sabbath elevators” stop at very floor, so no buttons need be pushed.

The sacred Western Wall, adjacent to the Muslim Temple Mount, is all that remains of the Second Temple in the day of Herod the Great at the end of the first century B.C. At sunset on Fridays, the beginning of the Sabbath, hundreds of men and women, separated by a fence, crowd to touch the stones of the wall, praying, dancing, singing and squeezing small folded personal prayers between cracks in the stones.

Farther back on the large plaza, Orthodox women in long skirts and with heads covered push baby strollers or sit and watch their children play, the older ones taking loving care of their little brothers and sisters.

Jerusalem’s magnificent walled Old City is rich in holy sites. The narrow streets teem with shops, tiny restaurants, and women selling fruits, vegetables and mounds of bright green grape leaves. Above the shops and in the side streets of the Old City, which is divided into Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian sections, are houses and apartments, for Jerusalem is not only a city of archaeological splendor, but home to people of major faiths.

There is no physical division between the sections, except for the Temple Mount encompassing the Dome of the Rock and the great mosque — third in importance in Islam after Mecca and Medina — which is accessed with some difficulty.

The Arab souk, or bazaar, merges imperceptibly into the Jewish and Christian quarters. The 14 stations of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross walked by Jesus on his way to Golgotha, starts in the Muslim section and culminates in the Christian section in the large Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands atop what many Christians believe to be Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion.

The Holy Sepulchre is owned by the Coptic, Catholic, Greek and Armenian churches, each with its own chapel within. A small community of Ethiopian monks lives just outside the church. Their chapel is no longer within the church proper, as in the 17th century they were unable to pay the Ottoman taxes and lost their chapel.

Because the various Christian denominations could not agree on ownership of the church, an 1852 Ottoman decree, the Status Quo, assigned the duty of unlocking the church each morning to a Muslim. Members of the same family have had the key and performed this duty for many generations.

On the main floor of the church is what many Christians, particularly Catholics, believe to be the tomb of Christ, which at the time was outside the city walls, for Jews could not be buried within the walls. The Garden Tomb, revered by many Protestants as the place of Christ’s burial, is farther outside the walls of the Old City.

The Old City is rich in ancient ruins, among them the Cardo, an excavated and partially reconstructed Roman street that became the main road in Byzantine Jerusalem; the massive Broad Wall in the Jewish Quarter, probably constructed in the eighth century B.C.

The so-called Burned House dates to the fire set by the Romans in A.D. 70, when they destroyed Jerusalem. An A.D. 69 coin and analyses of the charred walls discovered during excavations indicate that this was a first-century building.

Most imposing is the medieval Citadel, also called the Tower of David, which is actually a 17th-century minaret just inside the Jaffa Gate in the Armenian Quarter. In the excavated courtyard of the stone fortress are ruins beginning with the second century B.C. and continuing into A.D. 12th century. The many chambers of the fortress serve as an excellent museum for the history of Jerusalem.

Near the Western Wall, south of the Temple Mount, lies an archaeological park with Herodian (first century B.C.), Byzantine (A.D. fourth to seventh centuries) and Omayyad Muslim (seventh to eighth centuries) ruins.

To the east, outside the Old City and facing the Temple Mount, is the Mount of Olives, a hill that has been used as a burial place since the third millennium B.C. The site is a popular spot for busloads of tourists to take photographs.

At sunset, Jerusalem turns to gold as the city reflects the setting sun on the white limestone, the Jerusalem stone. The exception is the new Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, which is constructed of gray concrete to invoke the dreary, sinister appearance of the death camps.

Yad Vashem is graceful and solemn, shaped like a long triangular tube with glass at both ends overlooking the valley on one side and the hills on the other. It is flanked by the avenue of trees dedicated to “the righteous gentiles” who hid and helped Jews, at great risk of their own lives, during the Holocaust. The museum is divided into rooms that recount the history of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Fascinating as the Old City may be, there’s more to Jerusalem than ancient history: shopping malls, markets, restaurants and museums aplenty, including the splendid Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed. There are theatrical events and concerts, tree-shaded residential streets and flower-bedecked villas and apartment houses — everything to make life pleasant.

MASADA

Rising high above the Dead Sea in the Negev Desert is a barren rock called Masada. Herod the Great enlarged the fortress into a palatial retreat from his enemies. Granaries and cisterns were full, replenished each time a messenger went to Jerusalem.

Masada was the last Jewish stronghold to fall in the anti-Roman rebellion that began in A.D. 67. A thousand defenders held out for two years until the walls were breached in A.D. 73. When the Roman general Flavius Silva finally entered Masada, he found the entire population, except for two women and five children, had chosen suicide over life in slavery. Masada remains a symbol of freedom.

Nothing is left but silent ruins baking in the hot desert sun, with the wind whispering the dramatic story. The fortress can be reached by an arduous climb or via a cable car that goes up and down every half hour.

From the top, there’s a view of the desert and the Dead Sea, where tourists and locals check out the saltiness of the water and the curative powers of the mud. Nothing grows around or in the overly warm water, and a dip is anything but refreshing. Nearby is Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, thanks to a goat that wandered off into a cave.

CATHOLIC CHURCHES

Throughout the country, large Catholic churches commemorate events described in the New Testament. In Bethlehem, now a Palestinian town, the Church of the Nativity marks the birthplace of Jesus. In Ein Kerem, a village just outside Jerusalem and the birthplace of John the Baptist, a 17th-century church is dedicated to him.

On a peaceful hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee and not far from the town of Nazareth stands an octagonal 1930s church dedicated to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, as told in the Gospel of St. Matthew. The building’s eight sides represent the eight blessings uttered by Jesus. An acoustical phenomenon on the hillside makes it possible for a speaker to be heard for a long distance.

The Sea of Galilee itself is a lovely, calm lake. Next to the lake are seven springs and two small churches, one the Church of Peter’s Primacy, a Franciscan chapel on the spot where many Christian scholars believe Christ appeared to the apostles after the Resurrection.

Nazareth, a bustling, primarily Arab town, was a village during the time of Christ’s youth. It grew in importance during the Byzantine period and became an important Christian site after the conquest of the Holy Land by the crusaders in 1099.

ROMANS, CRUSADERS

At the end of the first century B.C., Herod built an extraordinary harbor for the transit of luxury goods, such as spices, precious stones and textiles, from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. Caesarea was a perfect Roman city dedicated by Herod to his patron, the Emperor Caesar Augustus. Under Jewish law, although Herod’s father was Jewish, he was not considered to be a Jew because his mother, a princess from Petra, was not. He aligned himself with Rome and served both Mark Antony and Caesar Augustus.

Not much is left of Herod’s magnificent city. There’s the aqueduct, an enormous hippodrome, a splendid Roman theater now used for concerts and occasional opera performances, and remnants of the harbor, its original outlines visible beneath the water.

The great crusader ruins are in the ancient Bronze Age city of Acre, or Akko as it is known in Hebrew, once a leading Mediterranean port. It was inhabited, in turn, by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians, Muslims, crusaders and Ottoman Turks. St. Paul visited the city (then called Ptolemais), as did Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Marco Polo set sail from Acre on his way to the Orient.

The crusaders seized Acre as their main port after they conquered Jerusalem in 1099, but they lost both to the Muslims a century later. Richard the Lionhearted reconquered Acre, which became the chief crusader stronghold in the Holy Land and the last to fall to the Muslims. In 1291, the Mamelukes destroyed the city, as they had Caesarea earlier, and killed all the remaining crusaders. In the 18th century, Acre again gained prominence under Ottoman rule. An invasion by Napoleon in 1799 was repulsed.

Crusader castles lie buried under succeeding waves of destructive conquerors. The old Acre crusader city lies about 25 feet below the Ottoman town. Streets, buildings, an escape tunnel, grand halls and courtyards have been excavated. The Turkish citadel built atop the crusader ruins served as a prison for Jewish activists and political prisoners during the British Mandate.

MODERN ISRAEL

Tel Aviv is the country’s second city. As our driver says, it’s where Israelis come to play. The city was founded in 1906 when the old port of Jaffa, where the first Jewish hostel and synagogue opened in 1740, became too crowded. Jaffa was an Arab-Turkish town that became the port of entry for Jewish pioneers arriving from Europe at the end of the 19th century. It’s part of Tel Aviv now. Parts of the winding streets and stone houses overlooking the Mediterranean have been turned into an artists’ colony with studios, galleries and shops.

Not only is Tel Aviv a city of architecturally intriguing high-rises, but its residential neighborhoods are filled with 1930s art-deco buildings, many of them restored or in the process of restoration. It is a city of business and commerce, of fashion designers and interesting shops, many of them on Dizengoff Street and in the trendy Neve Tzedek section.

Tel Aviv young people drink and dance into the early morning hours at the beachfront discos and bars. Good restaurants abound, and beautiful sandy beaches line the city’s western reaches.

The lively daily Carmel market is a delight of sights and smells. Rich red watermelons, cherries, plums, grapes, apricots, nectarines, dates, olives and nuts entice housewives and tourists alike. All sorts of vegetables, Arab pitas and French baguettes overflow on the market stands. Many of the window frames and shutters in old Jaffa are painted blue as a protection against the evil eye.

A block away from the lively market, on Nachalat Binyamin pedestrian street, there’s an arts and crafts fair every Tuesday and Friday. Glass, ceramics, candles, jewelry and funky items are sold by the craftsmen who make them. Israeli craftsmen make beautiful jewelry, and both contemporary and old Berber pieces can be found in many shops.

North along the coast from Tel Aviv lies Haifa, an industrial city on the sea at the foot of Mount Carmel and the target of recent Hezbollah rocket attacks.

It originally was a fishermen’s village, but its modern incarnation began when the Templars, a Christian sect from Germany, arrived in 1869 with the intention of building the Third Temple. They brought everything from Germany necessary to re-create a German village in the Holy Land.

Haifa is home to the great Bahai shrine. The Bahai religion was founded in Iran in the mid-19th century by Baha’u’llah, based on a concept that all religions and all people are one. The Bahais bought land on Mount Carmel, imported marble from Italy in 1953 and built an imposing shrine with magnificent terraced gardens flowing down the hill toward the harbor.

A symbol of Israel’s prosperity is the growth of its wine industry. At the Tishbi vineyards at the foot of the Carmel mountain ridge, Jonathan Tishbi entertains his guests in a vine-covered patio with plates of cheeses and olives, crusty breads and several bottles of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon that can compete with vintages of Europe and California. Of his annual output of a million bottles, 20 percent is exported to the United States.

A visit to Israel is a step into time, with remnants of thousands of years of civilization scattered throughout the country from Safed in the north, a high, holy city once the center of cabalistic learning with 70 synagogues, to Eilat, which the Israelis call their Las Vegas (but no casinos) at the southern tip of the Negev Desert. Globalization has modernized the country, but its Old World charm and uniqueness persist. Best of all, you don’t have to peel the fruit, and you can drink the water.

• • •

Flights from the United States to Tel Aviv include Delta Air Lines from Atlanta, El Al from New York, and Continental from Newark.

The country code for Israel is 972.

Israel has many hotels in all categories. The David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv is an excellent hotel with reasonable prices.

In Jerusalem, the King David is an old favorite. The American Colony Hotel, once a Turkish pasha’s palace, is an elegant Relais & Chateaux hotel. We stayed at the five-star David Citadel Hotel. Some rooms overlook the Old City, others a busy intersection.

Haifa’s Dan Carmel Hotel is on Mount Carmel above the port. Well-appointed rooms have small balconies overlooking lovely green gardens.

The Amirey Hagalil Hotel, about half an hour’s drive from Safed, is a funky little hotel with a good spa. Rooms are small and without telephones, but the quiet surroundings are very relaxing.

Food markets, street food and hole-in-the-wall restaurants abound. Small carryouts and sandwich shops with a few tables in the bazaars and central town areas serve wonderful shawarma sandwiches of thin-sliced meat (usually turkey) with sauce, lettuce and tomatoes in pita bread. Typical of many restaurants is an array of small Mediterranean dishes as a starter, such as hummus, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, falafel, marinated cabbage, tabbouleh and pickles. One of the best small restaurants in Jerusalem’s Old City is Abu Shukri, 63 Al-Wad St. In Tel Aviv, the Dixie Grill, 120 Igal Alon St. is open 24 hours. It’s a combination of bistro and steakhouse.

For general information on Israeli hotels, restaurants, attractions, hours and so forth, go to www.goisrael.com. An excellent licensed guide for Israeli sites, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, is Tamar Rozanes. Her telephone and fax is 2-6429583; cell phone, 052-3812004; email:[email protected]

Americans have easy access to Bethlehem by taxi with a Bethlehem-born driver for the short ride from Jerusalem for about $40 to $50; alternatively, an Israeli driver can go as far as the checkpoint at the outskirts of town, where a Bethlehem taxi can complete the trip. No special documents are required other than a passport.

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