On the seventh day I took it easy. Like God. I had to.
I was getting burned out after a hedonistic blast in Tel Aviv, a heady pastoral fantasy in Galilee, the ascetic isolation of the Dead Sea, and a whirl through the devotional chaos that is the Holy City. The local word for it is ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’.
Think sensory overload, social bewilderment, mystical messiness, new wines in old skin and other parables. This was my first trip to Israel and it had come after a too-long wait. In the 1980s, I read theology at King’s College, London. I got a 2:2 and then went off to be a secular, agnostic, not especially spiritual English teacher before becoming a journalist. I discovered Sodoms and Gomorrahs all around the world, and was pretty contented.
But the Holy Land — Israel, Palestine, Jordan — had stayed imprinted in my mind. Echoes of Greek and a little bit of Hebrew remained with me. I’d loved the old maps. One black-and-white photograph in a dusty hardback had stayed with me: it was of the imagined site where Armageddon would arise one day. That was one of the first places I chose to visit. And the view from Tel Megiddo turned out to be divine (a ‘tel’ is a settlement mound). The lush, bright green valley of Jezreel filled the horizon, interrupted only by the peak of Mount Tabor, the locale of Christ’s transfiguration. A horde of Dutch coach tourists mercifully moving slowly behind me allowed me to enjoy the peace offered by the place, alone, under the shade of the date palms.
“There are 25 different layers of history here,” said Avihai, my guide. “And don’t forget that nothing has been here for about 2,000 years.”
He showed me some stables built in the 9th century BC, an immense cylindrical grain store — aka a Canaanite altar. When he mentioned Sennacherib and Ahab, I had flashes of my university days. These had been exotic, almost abstract names, but now I could imagine leaders, real people. “See that highway?” he said, pointing east. “It roughly follows the old trade route linking Babylon (modern-day Iraq) and Egypt, that’s what made this such a strategic spot.”
A short drive away was Nazareth, Israel’s biggest Arab city. I expected very little of the church dedicated to the Annunciation, the moment when Mary was told by Gabriel that she would bear a child. But the shrine turned out to be quite wonderful, with an ancient and atmospheric grotto in the basement on the site of Mary and Joseph’s house, and an art space on the ground floor showcasing images of Christ from around the world. At Diwan al-Saraya, a nearby cafe-cum-restaurant, I passed a lazy hour with Abu Ashraf, a cheery old Arab famous for his monologues on peace and goodwill, and for his qatayef, syrupy, cheese and almond-filled sweets, which I washed down with strong Turkish-style coffee seasoned with cardamom.
That night I stayed in a small chalet on the Sea of Galilee. As the lowest body of freshwater in the world, you expect something strange or extreme, but it’s a remarkably placid looking lake. I woke to scents of jasmine, mint and wild mustard and a warm, hazy day with a cool breeze wafting off the water. In the distance was the rumble of a few commuters; Israel is small and traffic is constant as there’s always a city close by — but most of the music was cooing doves and songbirds.
On a first trip to Israel, you inevitably end up ticking boxes. I made pitstops at Acre, Herodion, Beit She’an, Masada and Qumran. I swam in the Dead Sea — you just have to — and made the classic novice’s mistake of going underwater. I came up with my eyes stinging. And I offset all the quasi-academic edification with a couple of madly hedonistic days in Tel Aviv.
I’d arrived during a holiday called Purim which, Avihai told me, “celebrated the redemption of the people of Israel from Persia, about 2,500 years ago. It’s a good excuse for women to dress in less clothes.”
He was right. As we wandered along Rothschild Boulevard, the main drag, young women passed in catsuits, leotards and fancy dress, many of them heavily made up. Fewer men seemed to be in costume, and they walked around carrying bottles of beer.
“It doesn’t look very religious,” I said. “I don’t think this feast is very theological.”
“Tel Aviv is the least theological place on earth,” laughed Avihai. “In fact, it’s the city of sin!”
Rothschild Boulevard is, nonetheless, a place of immense symbolic value in Israel’s civic narrative. Along it are Independence Hall, where the Israeli Declaration of Independence was signed on 14 May 1948; many impressive Bauhaus buildings, symbolising the city’s modernist, secular foundation; and the old Carlton Café, where British officers had the city’s first condom machine installed — it’s now a branch of the trendy Café Louise chain. I walked the length of the boulevard, sharing a pedestrianised strip with skaters, cyclists, dogwalkers, families, couples, and a group of young IDF soldiers cutting shapes to house music. In the middle of all this partying, I caught a blast of the okey-cokey music of orthodox Judaism. I spied a group of men in bekishe overcoats and fedora hats dancing their Purim festival dance in an apartment block.
In the evening we got horribly drunk on arak (anise-flavoured spirit) at Nanuchka, a wild Georgian nightclub. Here, Purim was being celebrated by Russian women dressed as kinky nurses and by beautiful professional belly dancers, who strutted along the bar wearing bead bikinis and inviting members of the audience to join them. (No, I didn’t.)
From one extreme to another, I travelled to Jerusalem, just an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv but a world apart from the ‘city of sin’. I imagined it to be intense, divided, and a place that had the wear of ages in its skin as well as the memories of a once great city. It was, after all, once the ‘city of peace’, ‘God’s city’, Zion.
It was all these things. And it was also beautiful to look at. From the Mount of Olives you can take in the walled city, the even older city of David, and the modern sprawl, spread out over many small hills, with neighbourhoods, churches, mosques and monuments around the high places and olive trees and poplars on the steep hills and parks in the ravines.
Following the stations on the Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus took on his way to the crucifixion, you go through the Lions’ Gate into a labyrinthine city that combines a souk-full of souvenir sellers, cafes and snack bars, and spice shops with a multitude of religious sites.
You can run the whole Christian gauntlet if you’re that way inclined. I did the edited version, stopping to see the Garden of Gethsemane and the places where Jesus was betrayed, whipped and given his crown of thorns. When I tired of churches, I stopped for a fresh pomegranate juice and a spot of lunch.
The Western Wall is a remarkable moment in the city — I found myself beside orthodox Jews in their black and white, rocking back and forth, praying, reciting, protesting. But the special resonance lies in the fact the wall backs on to Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount, one of the three holiest sites in Islam. The beautiful golden Dome of the Rock — which houses the Foundation Stone, an important symbol for the three main monotheistic faiths — is the most majestic of the buildings here, and is visible from every point around Jerusalem. It shares a huge esplanade, originally built in the time of Herod the Great, with the Al-Aqsa mosque, where the faithful pray five times a day. From the rooftops above Temple Mount you can see back to the Mount of Olives and feel you have closed a circle, whether you believe in God/Yahweh/Allah/or not.
Outside the Old City, Jerusalem is an always thought-provoking, sometimes confusing, mix of modern metropolis and orthodox enclave. The growing numbers of Jews following Hasidic or even stricter orthodox laws means Friday and Saturday see a virtual closedown of some neighbourhoods. I spent my shabbat fruitfully, visiting the Shrine of the Book, the sci-fi-style home of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Museum of Islamic Art. The latter, which exhibits paintings, ceramics and exquisite carpets from across the centuries, reminds you how historically layered and multi-cultural Islam is, despite its relative youth, and how it spread far and wide through scientific and artistic exchange as well as through the sword.
I’ve come to realise Israel must be one of the most cosmopolitan nations on earth. The returning diaspora is one factor, with Jews from Europe, the US and South America relocating all the time, often controversially to the infamous settlements. But there are also Christian pilgrims from all over the world, and many end up staying. At St Peter’s Church in Jaffa, I chatted to Father Angelo, a Franciscan monk originally from the Philippines who had travelled and studied all over and spoke no less than 10 languages. His job was to minister to both local Christians — including a small, secretive sect called the Christians of Hebrew Expression, made up of converted Jews — and to all the foreign congregations who visited Jaffa.
Avihai explained that many pilgrims came on ‘the classic eight-day tour’, ticking off the most famous sites. Wherever I went I bumped into these group, most notably Eastern European orthodox Christians who seemed to touch and kiss every holy site they could find, and Nigerian pilgrims, who received government grants to help them make their trips.
I travelled up the coast with Avihai, and to Haifa to see the extraordinary tiered Bahá’í Gardens, and spent the evening on Mount Carmel, where I ate at a restaurant called Meat, which described itself as ‘a new hall of delicious lust’. The steaks were excellent, and I tried some Israeli wines. One was from the Yatir winery.
“Some of the vines are grown on the Israeli side and some in the West Bank,” said Avihai. “For that reason some people won’t drink Yatir wines, but I do.”
He had already confessed to me that he was ‘pretty right-wing’ so no doubt he was making a concession. But I’d like to think the bottle of superb 2009 Cabernet-Merlot-Shiraz was evidence that where politicians and patriots fail to make peace, the winemakers can succeed.
The final chapter
I was to witness this political symbolism for myself as I headed to Bethlehem in the West Bank. The trip here was both disconcerting and underwhelming. Christians queue for hours to see the 14-point star that marks the spot ‘where Jesus was born’. Imagining a barn, shepherds, an inn, or any rustic harmony was impossible. Crowds of pilgrims, photographers and site-kissers blocked the view and my guide, a cheerful but hurrying local Arab Christian, failed to counter the crassness of the experience with an uplifting story. I left feeling bored and a bit numb.
Being in the West Bank, I’d needed a non-Israeli driver to pick me up outside and escort me in. I had, however, forgotten to take along my passport. Moving back across the border, through a checkpoint, was a palaver. The only interesting thing was the Israeli barrier wall.
“We like to call it a fence,” said Boaz, my Israeli guide for this short side-trip. “It’s mainly just a fence and we don’t think of it as a border but as a security barrier.”
I liked Boaz — we shared a gargantuan lunch of mezzes and had a good old chat about politics, peace and pragmatism — but what I saw was very much a wall, and a border.
The Holy Land is as big as you wish it to be. Biblical stories unfold in Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Syria. The Quran features key scenes in what is now Saudi Arabia. Jordan, though, provided an extra chapter for my trip. I made the 250-mile trip to Wadi Rum with a driver, Kazem, through the high, arid plains and desert canyons of southern Jordan. Shepherds and goatherds, donkeys and camels, and various Bedouin encampments confirmed I had crossed at a geographical border — while lively, sometimes fraught, conversations with Kazem about Darwin (“He can’t be right, there are still chickens and mice together.”) and Noah (“It was not a normal boat.”), US foreign policy and dictatorship, marked the geopolitical realm I had entered. At times the land was parched and bleak, but there were irrigated sections, with crimson poppies and the black lily, Jordan’s national flower.
Later, lying in my tent in my Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum, I contemplated my journey. I felt I was at least close to the land and to touching the source of all the Abrahamic faiths: the great deserts at the margins of the Fertile Crescent, where the spurned, the landless and the vanquished conjured up a God to help them face up to a life without water, food, safety, comfort or joy. Here I rested at last, and had rich, intense dreams under the huge dome of the sky.
There are regular long-distance buses between Israeli towns, though many people prefer taking taxis to specific historical sites. There are plentiful, cheap, metered city taxis and many cab drivers speak English. In Jordan, there are mini-bus services to Wadi Rum and Petra.
When to go
Late March to June and September to early November are ideal with temperatures around 25C. Avoid Christmas and Easter, when pilgrims arrive in large numbers.
Need to know
Visas: A passport with more than six months validity is required for UK citizens flying in to Israel and Jordan. If crossing overland via the Allenby Bridge, you need to order a visa in advance, £67.50. jordanembassy.org.uk
Currency: Israeli new shekel (ILS). £1 = ILS 5.82.
International dial code: 00 972.
Where to stay
Brown, Tel Aviv’s loveliest boutique hotel, has small but stylish rooms and is close to Rothschild Blvd and hip Neve Tzedek. Double B&B from £155.
Mamilla is a grand Jerusalem hotel at the heart of a slick shopping mall and dining complex just outside the Jaffa Gate. Double B&B from £290.
Sun City is only 20 minutes’ drive from the main highway. This Bedouin-style tented camp enjoys fine views over Wadi Rum. Double B&B from £128.
How to do it
Cox & Kings has a 10-day private tour to Jordan and Israel priced from £2,195 per person, including flights, transfers, guided excursions, and four-star B&B.
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)