Travels in the Holy Land

Israel December 20th 2016 – January 3rd 2017

The Ayalon River or Wadi Musrara used to flow from the Judean Hills west through Tel Aviv to the sea at Jaffa; today it is re-routed through a concrete channel that lies in the centre of the Ayalon highway and adjacent to train tracks. The clogged artery of the busy city is encircled by the inert geometry of office towers.

Central Tel Aviv

There is a shabby but lively and welcoming Bohemian quarter, full of shops and restaurants in the narrow streets around Shuk Ha’Carmel (Carmel market), which itself is a long, narrow street, lined from top to bottom by a myriad of stalls selling every type of produce and everyday essential, always jammed with local shoppers. Street entertainers meet to make music at the top of the market adjacent to Allenby Street and crowds gather to listen. The unremarkable, traffic-heavy street is named after Field Marshall Viscount Allenby; it is argued that, as the leader of a British army that included Lawrence of Arabia, he enabled the creation of Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, through the comprehensive defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1917-1918. Allenby entered Jerusalem, famously on foot, at the head of a conquering army on 11 December 2017, 400 years after the Ottomans took it from the Mamluks. The previous Christian general to do so was Godefroy de Bouillon in 1099 at the culmination of the First Crusade.

The old port of Jaffa, dominated by the tall spire of St Peter’s Church, is now remade as a tourist attraction and the narrow streets are full of small artisan shops. St Peter was said to have stayed in Jaffa at the house of Simon the Tanner, and the front door of the house is found down one of the alleys. This was also the port that Jonah set sail from, prior to his encounter with a whale. The wharves are no longer filled with goods in transit but smart restaurants; and the small harbour is replete not only with fishing boats, as it has been for millennia, but also sleek leisure craft.

Along the coast north of Tel Aviv off the main highway to Haifa is the long beach at Beit Yanai backed by low dunes; such flat coastal habitats, rich in plants and associated fauna, are often those most transformed by ribbons of coastal development and much of the beach is protected as a nature reserve. In late December, this popular summer destination is an empty, windswept, wilderness.

The old city of Jerusalem is quiet in the Christian quarter, in which there are signs outside ancient buildings relating to Greek Orthodox and Latin Patriarchates. The Via Dolorosa is a narrow street that runs from the Lions Gate to the hill of Golgotha and is the route Jesus took, carrying the wooden cross, from the courthouse to his crucifixion.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the hill and the nearby burial chamber. The Church is dark; the monumental stone pillars hold up a beautifully painted dome; winding steps lead to brilliant, intricate, golden altars marking death and resurrection.

The glass-covered walkways in the old city are arched like little crystal palaces and filled with shops and stalls selling everything that is colourful, collectable and memorable. The Armenian quarter is commercially notable for the most vibrant ceramics. The Zion Gate brings a stream of visitors to the Jewish quarter, many of whom walk down the sloping streets past an excavated Roman road to visit the ancient, meleke limestone blocks built by Herod that comprise the Western Wall. The wall supports the Temple Mount on which is the perfect blue and golden Dome of the Rock and adjacent the Al Aqsa Mosque. A covered, rather ramshackle wooden bridge, the Mughrabi bridge, is the sole route that non-Muslims take to the Temple Mount. The Arab quarter has a more quotidian feel with less tourism, shops selling produce and children playing in the streets.

The old city possesses the richest and most complex of human histories and is at once magnificent in its enduring beauty and tragic from the unending litany of conflicts.

North of Tel Aviv is the predominantly Arabic city of Nazareth with a huge, domed church, the Church of the Annunciation, which Catholics believe marks the location of a cave where Mary conceived Jesus. The Greek Orthodox Church believes it was at a spring just down the road and this is marked by the Church of St. Gabriel. Most Christmas Day pilgrims appear to visit both; at the latter, a huge, artificial Christmas tree is erected next to the entrance gate, laden with an all encompassing rash of baubles; it provides a favourite backdrop for a selfie.

Mosque and church in Nazareth

Eilat in the south of Israel is a hub for both tourism and trade. Whereas Tel Aviv enjoys a Mediterranean winter of cool rain and grey clouds running in from the west, here in the bare rocks of the Negev desert it is bright sunshine tempered by a cool wind from the north. The town is clean and tidy; the narrow beach of pea-sized pebbles ever popular; and the short line of vast hotels as architecturally inspiring as any Spanish costa. The coral reef lies just off the beach and makes Eilat a hotspot for scuba diving.  Across the water, great cruise ships and cargo vessels line up off the Jordanian port of Aqaba. A huge flag on a mighty flagpole marks the Arab Revolt and successful Battle of Aqaba in 1917 against the Ottomans. The uprising  was led by the charismatic Bedouin Auda abu Tayi and supported by Lawrence of Arabia.

Nearby Timna Park overlooks the great Syrian-African rift valley, which runs dead straight from Eilat and Aqaba north to the Dead Sea. Here copper has been mined for millennia. Some say these were King Solomon’s mines. The geology is as complex and confusing as its history; the coloured sands and rocks are starkly beautiful. The artificial oasis adjacent a restaurant and visitor centre much less so.

The Dead Sea is flat blue and salt dead. A botanical garden high on the escarpment near the springs of Ein Gedi is a green oasis of exotic species planted around a Kibbutz, a peaceful community of small houses, over which fan-tailed ravens sweep and stoop at menacing speed. The garden is alive with small birds, most notably a large family of Tristram’s starlings, which constantly maintain contact with each other with a short whistle as clear as the blue sky.

Spring feels to be just round the corner; in late February, millions of raptors will commence their migration from Africa across the Rift Valley into Asia with a particular concentration at Eilat in one of the greatest movements of wildlife on the planet.

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