travel the holy land
Introduction: Visit the Vanishing Holy Land
Travel agents used to joke: "Going to Israel? How will you fill the afternoon?" The Holy Land was long considered smallish and unattractive, clumsily modern and unaesthetic: a country barely worth a half-day's visit. However, as a teacher of history on location, touring the country with students and professors from Israel, Palestine, and around the world, I am still once in a while stunned at the sheer density of major historical and natural sites in this (shared?) land.
We are not talking about second- or third-rank historical sites, of which there are many thousands in the Holy Land, but about first-rank global cultural heritage sites, of which there are easily one hundred. This is likely the highest density in the world. Moreover, many of these sites have exemplary or extraordinary remains from more than one period, covering together all periods of human (pre-) history. In addition, Israel and Palestine offer a dozen or so spectacular natural sites of unique global value.
But this traditional Holy Land is rapidly vanishing. American-Israeli columnist Bradley Burston recently published a piece titled: "Come visit Israel. Before it's gone." The subtitle was: "You're going to have to hurry." That article exclusively dealt with Israel's changing political landscape. However, the state of Israel's and Palestine's rich cultural and natural heritage is no less a case in point, due to the region's rapid evolution, and its price.
Let us take you on a quick tour to understand what we are talking about in more detail:
The Old City of Jerusalem is the Holy Land's greatest historical gem. This compound is a tight web of lanes, markets, residences, workshops, churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, tourist infrastructure, and plenty of archeological remains on three levels: underground, ground-level, and rooftops. This huge Swiss cheese is a living archeological mound, or "tell," a labyrinth with an awe-inspiring mix of religions, languages, and communities that measures less than a square mile and has almost no roads. We will spare you the long list of the holy sites of the various religions and only mention the number one of Judaism, the Western Wall, the number three of Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion, which ranks as one of the top holy sites for Christians.
Add to this the exquisite, rare early Muslim Umayyad Dome of the Rock, now gold-plated, a remarkable cluster of medieval Muslim Mamluk public structures, and various ancient underground passages or watering systems. Further, there are several top heritage sites outside the intact, walkable, sixteenth-century Ottoman walls of Jerusalem's Old City: for example the Mount of Olives, the Holy Basin and Silwan (the "City of David") with an intermittent cold spring, the Gihon, the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood Meah Shearim, the Landscape of Memory including Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Mount Herzl Israeli National Cemetery, as well as the partly preserved, former Muslim villages of Lifta and Dir Yassin. The latter village was the site of a massacre in 1948 and is today a leading Israeli mental hospital, specializing in the famous "Jerusalem Syndrome." Both villages have long been important symbols in Palestinian and Israeli collective memory.
A bit further afield from Jerusalem, there are about twenty places in a radius of as many miles, which would easily merit the status of UNESCO world heritage sites. There are three clusters: around Bethlehem (traditionally the birthplace of Jesus), Jericho (perhaps the world's oldest "city," with cliff-hanging monasteries), and the Dead Sea (the lowest spot on the dry surface of the earth, around a partly drained salt lake so thick people float on it). One of the Judean desert hills just south of Jerusalem is actually artificial and conceals one of King Herod's astounding desert castles; another such castle is cliff-top Massada nearby, which is already on the UNESCO world heritage list.
Yet another baffling site in the vicinity of Jerusalem is the Old City of Hebron with the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. The Hebron area is a fascinating tapestry of historical and contemporary Muslim-Jewish co-existence, conflict, and massacres. Nonetheless, the Ibrahimi or Abraham Mosque now literally doubles as the Biblical Machpela Cave Synagogue, all in a Herodian structure built on top of ancient burial caves.
Kiryat Arba, only a mile up the road, offers a prime example of a fenced-in Jewish West Bank settlement, with a memorial garden and graveyard dedicated to two infamous American fundamentalist Jewish terrorists (the site has been partly bulldozed by the Israeli army). This settlement is also remarkable for its community of converts to Orthodox Judaism from the Indian-Burmese border region, who are sometimes imagined as remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes featured in the Bible. This entire time-spinning micro-geography of Hebron-Kiryat Arba should be carefully preserved as a historical showcase of the Arab-Israeli conflict and current Muslim-Jewish relations, including the dense system of fences, checkpoints, and salacious graffiti, with "stone-throwers" posing for tourists.
And then there is more, much, much more in the Holy Land.
How come that the city of Nablus or Shechem with Mount Gerizim, long claimed as the real Mount Zion, or the archeological site of Sebastia-Samaria, the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Israel, are still off the UNESCO world heritage list? Both sites are located in the northern West Bank and counted among the most important political-religious centers in the Middle East in ancient times.
How about Tel Aviv-Jaffa, the throbbing Israeli metropolis, built around ancient Egyptian and Philistine ports? The inclusion of only about 1,000 buildings in the somewhat misnamed "White City" UNESCO world heritage site falls far short of the several thousand remaining examples of pioneering early modernist architecture from the 1930s. The style is locally called Bauhaus, named after a German architectural and design college closed down by the Nazis. The existing protection zones in Tel Aviv-Jaffa further include only relatively few non-Bauhaus buildings, of many hundreds that have outstanding historical significance for modern Arab-Jewish relations and the history of Zionism. Some of this city's greatest monuments, for example the world's first secular Hebrew high school in an iconic building symbolic of the Eclectic style, have already been demolished several decades ago. Others, like an intimate, functioning Iraqi immigrant synagogue in one of the last Arab buildings on Tel Aviv University's campus, are slated to be knocked down these very days.
The entire Old City of Jaffa, or rather its remains, with the British-built port and surrounding Ottoman areas, as well as Tel Aviv's Jewish historical core from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American and German Christian suburbs, and also the remains of the Bauhaus-style Levant Fair complex with several other key sites in north Tel Aviv, should be comprehensively protected from future modernization, i.e. destruction. The most vibrant neighborhoods of the Israeli metropolis today, however, are those of it's "Black City": a staggering global ghetto of "non-Jewish" refugees and migrant workers from around the world.
Further, the old train line climbing up from Jaffa's port to Jerusalem, the first in the region and a masterpiece of late nineteenth century French engineering, is quite a trip, alongside some of its picturesque sceneries and at least one stop on the way: the Old City of Ramle, the medieval Arab regional capital, spiked with precious historical relics, including several outstanding churches and mosques, reflecting a profoundly multi-religious past and present. Ramle's Great Mosque is in fact a converted Crusader cathedral. The 89-foot minaret of the Ummayad-Mamluk White Mosque towers above a system of underground arched cisterns that can be toured with boats.
In the south of Israel, the Negev Desert is crammed with geological jewels such as mega-craters, and with tells, i.e. "Biblical mounds" of layered ancient ruins sometimes dating back 5,000 years or more. As if this was not enough, there is also a network of 1,000-2,000 year-old Nabatean-Byzantine ghost towns connected to ancient incense trade and early Christian pilgrimage. Only five of all these sites are now protected as UNESCO world heritage sites, and even some of those already listed are freely accessibly and periodically vandalized. And this is merely the tip of the iceberg of an almost incredible geological and archeological wealth in the desert.
The same holds true even more for Israel's fertile north, the Galilee, and for the disputed Golan Heights. The number of UNESCO-recognized world heritage sites there (again five, none of which is in the Syrian-claimed Golan) could easily be quadrupled to preserve the rich human heritage in this region, from some of the world's most significant prehistoric and ancient settlements, via holy sites of a plethora of religions, to remnants of unique ecosystems and areas of breathtaking natural beauty.
The magnificent Old City of Acre has already received world heritage status by the UNESCO as a living, populated historical ensemble. The same should happen in Nazareth, Peqi'in/Buqei'a, Safed, Tiberias, as well as in the ghost villages of Kafr Bir'im (with its ancient synagogue remains) and Iqrit (with a long list of archeological sites). The latter pair, also inimitable illustrations of the Christian role in the Palestinian Nakba ("Catastrophe") of 1948, have yet to be restored to their dispersed Arab-Israeli villagers, alongside the still partly intact, traditional rural micro-landscapes. So far solely the village churches and cemeteries are preserved and are in fact still being used.
Most precarious is the state of the rarer but still above-average concentration of unrecognized natural world heritage sites in the Holy Land. So far there are only two Israeli UNESCO applications for such sites, and no site is on the list yet! Imprudent water, sewage, and industrial policies are already creating environmental havoc, notably around the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. The resolution of Israel's and Palestine's growing housing crises will soon eradicate also the last integral examples of ancient human-shaped ecosystems, with agricultural techniques dating back to pre-historical times. Unless action is taken to set aside more fresh water for natural protection and to quickly safeguard at least a few rural areas now, some of the Middle East's most gorgeous sceneries, familiar to people around the globe from every page of the Bible, will irretrievably vanish.
Academic Walking Lectures
Cities can be read like an open book, a perpetual text of signs, advertisements, graffiti, language policies, speech, people, clothes, architectural styles, city planning, shops, animals, plants, and memorial sites. Guided academic walking lectures in Tel Aviv-Jaffa include 40-50 stops or brief visits to sights on the way. Each walk lasts about three and a half hours including a coffee break (there is a half-time option for the graffiti tour). These walking lectures are conducted by Martin J. Wein, an Israeli and international academic with an M.A. in Jewish studies, a Ph.D. in Jewish history, and expertise in interreligious relations, the Holy Land, and the Middle East. You will need to bring good walking shoes, comfortable clothes (plus long pants or skirts and long-sleeved tops for religious sites), hats/sunscreen/water or umbrellas and a sweater (according to the weather), as well as change for a coffee break half time into the tour. Languages: Czech, English, German, and Hebrew.
Tour 1: Graffiti and Street Art Workshop and Tour
This event has two parts. We start in a local cafe with a brief lecture, discussion and slide show of famous graffiti and street art, which is currently blossoming in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Israel. Then we go out and see some amazing pieces of street art and stunning graffiti in situ: beautiful, funny, provocative, absurd, and creative. Using cutting-edge techniques of "linguistic landscaping" we decode grassroots politics and sports fever messages, simple Hebrew puns and smart multilingual jokes on the local walls. The tour itinerary changes in tune with the availability of graffiti and street art, which constantly fluctuates, but is usually based in and around Neve Tsedek, the trendy Frenchified arts quarter. Bring your cameras for documentation; next time you come the items you laughed about may already be gone, or painted over by something new.
Tour 2: Walking the Hyphen: From Dizengoff Square to Old Jaffa
Tel Aviv is situated around the ancient Mediterranean port of Jaffa and today Israel's largest agglomeration with a population of about 3.5 million, half of the country's citizens and a quarter of world Jewry. Tel Aviv has the largest ensemble of "Bauhaus"-style Modernist buildings in the world. The "White City" is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. We will explore the architectural, historical, artistic, linguistic, political and literary landscape by foot, either in the brisk early morning hours just when the city and its cafes and markets wake up, or else around sunset with a gorgeous view of the sea. The walk back in time from Tel Aviv to Old Jaffa by the beach leads us through a microcosm of the Arab-Jewish conflict and Palestinian-Israel collective memory in this city and country.
Diezengoff Square and Street, Historic Cinema Hotel
"White City," Bauhaus History and City Planning
The Eretz Israel Garden: Gan Me'ir
Historic Bialik Compound, Trumpeldor Jewish Cemetery (optional)
Nahalat Benjamin Street and the Eclectic City
Yemenite Vineyards Quarter and Mediterranean Villa Architecture
Former Manshiyyah Quarter, Hahagana Memorial and Hassan Beck Mosque
Beach Walk to Old Jaffa via the "Etzel Museum"
Clock Tower Square and the Old City of Jaffa
Jaffa Tell: Walking up 3,500 Years of History
Tour 3: Walking the Boulevard Ring: From Little Tel Aviv to the Seashore
This tour covers the center of Tel Aviv, from Shalom Tower in the South to the Marina in the North. Zionist history, but also interreligious relations and Israeli politics come to life as we visit site after site on the city's famous boulevard ring, arranged like pearls on a string. The boulevards were planted to suggest a European-style ring of bulwarks, typically replaced by gardens and public buildings in the nineteenth century. The pleasant shade provided by giant ficus trees also reflects the British city planning concept of a "Green City," where nature and urban life mix and mingle.
Shalom Tower, Herzl Street and the Myth of a City Built on Sand
"Little Tel Aviv": Where a Suburb of Jaffa became a Global City
Founders' Monument and Independence Hall, Shenkin Street
Rothschild Boulevard and Dani Karavan's Hanging Garden
Concert Hall, Rubinstein Art Pavilion, Habima National Theater
Chen Boulevard and a Buddhist-Jewish Monastery
Rabin Square, Holocaust Memorial and New City Hall
Ben Gurion Boulevard and the Residence of Israel's Founding Father
Independence Park and Abd El-Nabi Historical Muslim Cemetery
Marina, Gordon Pool and Atarim Square: City Planning Revisited
Tour 4: Walking the Path of the Righteous: Jaffa and South Tel Aviv
This tour is strictly interreligious. Following the old road north out of Jaffa along the railway line to Jerusalem we visit a set of picturesque Christian, Muslim and Jewish suburbs from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Our starting point is the center of late Ottoman Jaffa: Clock Tower Square. We finish at the Old Central Bus Station, a 1940s Bauhaus complex, which is today in Tel Aviv's vibrant global ghetto or "Black City." One of the neighborhoods visited started out as a small Jewish suburb with a conspicuous name: Tel Aviv. That neighborhood eventually took over all others, and even the city of Jaffa itself, lending its name to today's major international metropolis of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Clock Tower Square, Great Mosque, Former Jaffa City Hall
Raziel/Bustros Street, Jerusalem Boulevard, Noga Russian Theater
Former Manshiyyeh Quarter and the Old Train Station
German and American Christian Colonies and "Jews for Jesus" Center
Neve Tsedek Quarter, Suzanne Dalal Dance Center and Shlush House
Florentin Quarter and Levinsky Spice Market
Migrant Worker and Refugee Communities in the "Black City"
New Central Bus Station: Urban Planning Gone Wild
Neve Sha'anan Street, the Menorah Street Plan, Open Air Global Market
Old Central Bus Station
Adventurous Escapades in the Vanishing Holy Land: Two Itinerary Suggestions
1. A Weekend around the Sea of Galilee
Drive one hour north from Tel Aviv-Jaffa to Armageddon (Megiddo), an archetypal Middle Eastern archeological mound, which is perhaps up to 9,000 years old and has some 26 layers. Venture into the ancient water shaft. This is the only site of all places mentioned in these two itineraries that is already UNESCO protected. Continue an hour's drive east via Nazareth and Mount Tabor (ancient churches) or Mount Gilboa (breathtaking lookouts) to Belvoir, the bombastic black Crusader castle with a splendid view of the Kingdom of Jordan across the African-Syrian rift valley.
Head on north for another half-hour to the sublime ruins of Sussita in the southern Golan Heights for a sunset over the Sea of Galilee. Walk to the entirely unprotected ruins of a wealthy Byzantine town via a short path on a ridge between clearly marked and fenced-in minefields. Help yourself to columns, capitals, and giant marble slabs for free, if you can carry them.
Head to Tiberias, visible just across the lake, for the night. If it is a Friday night, arrive just past sunset and visit the famous Orthodox synagogues for colorful Sabbath Eve services. Women are in separate, half-hidden sections and need to dress conservatively. Men need to wear a head cover; even a baseball cap will do. For dinner perhaps try the local St. Peter's fish at the lakeside, but watch the cats, which tend to jump on the tables to share with you. Then take a nightly stroll through the elegant nineteenth-century Scots Hotel, with its terraces, gardens, and a small interfaith chapel in a tower of the old city walls. The extensive remains of the Tiberias Walls are made from regional basalt stone and entirely black, like Belvoir Castle and most other local historical sites as well as some new buildings.
Begin the next day with a visit to St. Peter's Crusader Church of Tiberias, which is shaped like a boat, and pay respect to a surreal Polish World War II military memorial in the Italian-style Renaissance courtyard (ring the bell to be allowed into the compound). Explore more holy sites in this profoundly multi-religious town and its surroundings, for example the alleged grave of Rabbi Maimonides under a giant red metal crown and other dated kitsch, lined by cute, provincial, religious-commercial stands. Or else, drive up the lake (or rent a boat?) to get to a number of Christian sites nearby, notably a few lakeside churches or monasteries, further St. Peter's ostensible hometown with synagogue remains known as Capernaum, and the Mount of Beatitudes in the meadows above the lake.
From here it's all nature: visit the Hula Valley Bird Reserve just half-an-hour north, in a largely drained, swampy upper basin of the African-Syrian Rift Valley, to watch migrating birds (in season) and other wildlife under the Kilimanjaresque, snow-tipped Mount Hermon, or Mount Sheikh.
Then drive back south via dust roads and alleys of eucalyptus trees along the partly canalized Jordan River through orchards and villages with colorful gardens. Reach Beyt Tzaida near the Jordan Delta at the northern tip of the Lake of Galilee for water hikes in the overgrown creeks (bring shoes to walk in the water, and swimsuits, towels etc.). There is a one-hour and a four-hour marked hike, the latter involves some swimming. Alternatively, dip into the surreal, Escher-like Hexagon Pool, with its natural, hexagon-shaped basalt columns, reachable via a half-hour's marked trail down into a fig-perfumed valley.
The late afternoon is dedicated to archeology again. From the nearby vestiges of ancient Jewish Gamla with stunning views, more bird watching opportunities, and remains of a Syrian village expelled after 1967 (including Byzantine church ruins), we descend rapidly back into prehistory through a quick visit to the "Stonehenge of the Middle East." The four gigantic basalt stone circles around a central heap with two intact chambers is called in Hebrew the "Wheel of Ghosts" and dates back up to 5,000 years. Reach it via a one-mile unmarked (jeep?) drive on a dirt track near Gamla, and another one-mile marked hiking trail through cow herds and abandoned fields. The area is a military maneuver and shooting zone accessible only on Fridays and Saturdays. Visit at dusk for highest adventure value and another lovely sunset over the Sea of Galilee, but better do not get stuck in the dark (pack flashlights and a cell phone, be careful not to blind the cattle with your car's headlights and slowly edge on with brief honks to move them off the dirt track, where they assemble to be taken to their enclosure at night).
Then drive an hour south to the enormous Byzantine remains of Beth Shean, Beisan, or Scythopolis. The ruins of this fancy Roman-style city of 40,000 were largely preserved after an earthquake in the eight century. But note that in antiquity this city already had its own archeological mound dating back to the sixth millennium BCE: the classical temple on its top was indeed the twentieth layer on the same site in succession. Come for a light show and a night walk through a Mikado of fallen columns and the largely intact basalt theater (reserve tickets in advance). Pop by the finely restored Ottoman town hall, the black Serail, and ruins of various other periods around the Byzantine excavations. Have dinner at one of the local Middle Eastern Jewish restaurants; spare the animals and feast on eighteen different salads, refilled for free, served with freshly-baked, delicious taboon bread.
2. A Day Trip in Judea
Start the day with a visit to the three main holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Western or "Wailing" Wall is strictly gender-separated, but open at all times. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is open 8am to 7pm (don't miss the separate Ethiopian Churches, the rooftop monastery, and the Coptic Church with a huge ancient underground water cistern, entry for a small donation).
Pending on the security situation and short opening times between prayers, which change by the season (inquire at the official tourist information bureau at Jaffa Gate), visit the Temple Mount plateau. There, pleasant gardens surround Al-Aqsa Mosque (entry for Muslim men only) and the gold-plated Umayyad masterpiece, the Dome of the Rock (entry for Muslim women only). "Non-Muslim" visitors to the Temple Mount pay an entry fee, while Muslim tourists are asked to give (sometimes steep) donations. Religious affiliation is literally tested by security staff through recitals from the Qur'an (secular Muslims should practice in advance!). The dress code for all these and the following sites is conservative for men and women, whereby the exact definitions vary, so bring some shawls, long pants/skirts, and long-sleeved shirts.
Off the beaten track in the Old City, explore the Small Western Wall (without gender separation), located in the Muslim Quarter at the end of a lane composed entirely of Mamluk buildings. Then drop by another few major Mamluk structures, for example the perfectly preserved Cotton Market with its historical underground Turkish Bath (ask to be allowed in for a tip) and the Palace of the Lady Tunshuq (now a carpentry).
The Armenian Quarter and its exclave on the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter is most notable for the marvelous St. James Cathedral (open only 6:30-7:30am and 3:00-3:40pm) and the touching memorials to the genocide of the Armenians, which peaked in 1915.
In the Jewish Quarter, check out the remains of the Byzantine main street, the Cardo, and the lovingly restored Hurva Synagogue (gender separated, open at prayer times changing by season, dusk is a safe bet). To acquiesce eager sellers in the Old City's ubiquitous markets, tell them that you may return later in the day.
At the intersection of the Jewish and Christian Quarters climb up metal stairs to the rooftop promenade in order to see the Old City's forest of spires all around, and find a spot where you can simultaneously view the three colossal copulas representing the three main Abrahamic religions: one golden (Dome of the Rock), one silverish (Church of the Holy Sepulcher), and one white (Hurva Synagogue).
Descend from the rooftops via the stone stairs of a Mamluk caravanserai, Khan as-Sultan, and exit the Old City via Damascus Gate to take a cab or bus going to nearby Bethlehem. There, visit the impressive Church of the Nativity on Manger Square, with the current structure going back to the sixth century CE. Continue by cab or bus for half-an-hour south via terraced groves and vineyards to Hebron or Al-Khalil. In both Hebrew and Arabic this means as much as "The Friend," which mocks the city's reputation for massacres, for example an anti-Jewish pogrom in 1929.
The Old City of Hebron is today largely abandoned due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but really yet another gem of Mamluk architecture. Head via a security checkpoint to the Abraham Mosque aka the Cave of Machpela for a chilling and thrilling experience of a mosque that is simultaneously a synagogue and allegedly houses the remains of most biblical patriarchs in what amounts to Mamluk cenotaphs (symbolic empty tombs). Also note "Adam's Footprint," a lengthy indentation in the stone frame of a small interior window.
Via a mile's walk through ruins and a semi-abandoned Arab neighborhood covered with juicy racist Hebrew graffiti, reach the gates of the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, the bastion of extremist Jewish settlers (bring your passport and, if you are not an Arab or a Muslim, hope for the best to be allowed in). Check out the grave of Baruch Goldstein, an American Jewish immigrant and Israeli army doctor who opened fire on praying Muslims in Hebron's synagogue-mosque in 1994. His grave is embedded in a small memorial garden dedicated to a fundamentalist guru, Rabbi Meir Kahane. Both men were killed by Muslims in turn.
Head back to Jerusalem on a bullet-proof settler bus via another Jewish settlement or two (one hour). Talk up the local Indian-Burmese, ex-Soviet, and American "modern Orthodox" Jews, while you enjoy the vistas of picturesque Palestinian villages nestled into the rocky hills.
© All rights of material on this website reserved by Martin J. Wein unless published elsewhere or indicated otherwise, last update 8 Sept., 2016, firstname.lastname@example.org.