Walking through the massive stone entrance of what two centuries ago was a gateway for pilgrims to a hostel in the historic port-town of Jaffa – not far from Tel Aviv – is a magical, eclectic artistic jungle. Interspersed throughout the home styled into a museum is a collection of objects that span from the contemporary to the classical, refined to the naïve, the secular to the religious – all coexisting in the same space.
This setting is the first on our journey through the land that is Israel. What we found on this first stop was strangely symbolic of the mosaic of the country itself.
“I created a world of my own to share with people in Israel, to teach Israelis about design, creativity and how to use art while not being afraid to mix the old and the new…”, said artist, collector and designer Ilana Goor, founder of the Ilana Goor Museum, “I believe that one should not be afraid of trying.”
The museum is lined with objects collected from many corners of the world. A hall is filled with African sculptures, a guest room with an iron lamp that Ms. Goor designed off of which a representation of Jesus dangles, while another of her sculptures juxtaposes a Menorah with a Crucifix.
In the center are a series of golden ploughs, likenesses of the instruments used by the founders of the state of Israel who toiled the land in their Kibbutzim, Israeli communal settlements.
A magical journey
Only in Israel can a lake become a sea as the Sea of Galilee. Only here can you float magically in the strange and acidy waters of the Dead Sea; and it is only here that the earth below your feet reveals tales that can easily become a gathering call for nations or religions, and even calls to arms. It is the conflicting tales of the history bellow your feet that represent the magic that impregnates the Holy Land.
Our journey through time begins in the contemporary Tel Aviv – literally the ‘hill of spring’, and the playground of this small country with its white-block houses and expansive beaches.
Sprinkled around this sea-side city are scores of early 20th century buildings inspired by the International Style, the formative days of modernism. Between 1930 and 1948 these buildings – many of which can be found around the central Dizengoff Square or on Rothschild Boulevard – earned the city’s reputation as the ‘White city’, and have since become internationally recognized for their architectural significance. The constructions themselves have plain white facades, simple lines, generous terraces, and elegant proportions.
After a walk on the seafront promenade, as the sun goes down, we move on to the northern outskirts of the city to the trendy formerly industrial old Tel Aviv port. At night the area is taken over by the hip, the young, the chic, the sexy, and the beautiful. Flocks of Israelis arrive in droves and you can feel their anticipation for the music to take over.
Before the music began
We dine at the Boya Fish and Meat Restaurant, a chic seafood eatery overlooking the port, drinking fine Israeli wine and enjoying the modern interior that resembles nothing other than a slickly designed film-set, with an exotic tall and slender tropical plant welcoming us at the entrance. The colors of the ceiling’s Plexiglas lighting fixtures rotate every few minutes, changing from pastel blues, yellows to a bright purple. We wait as the music begins to blare, and as it does, it feels like the port is about to erupt in euphoria. Crowds meander throughout the area – ready for an all-night party.
That night exhausted and excited, I gaze outside of my room at the David InterContinental Hotel – which towers over the city – with its impressive panoramic view of Tel Aviv at night. In the distance I recognize the boarded up walls of a night-club that had been in the news years earlier. It is the very place where twenty-one mostly teenaged Israelis were killed by a suicide bomber in 2001. This somber shadow that cast itself over the sea-side playground is part of the setting, something with which people live and grapple. It is quiet now, and it is time to live.
The next day we head north, passing the beach oasis of Netanya, to arrive at the archeological pearl of Caesarea, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Our guide tells us the story of this one-time imperial city that was masterminded by the ambitious and crafty pro-Roman leader Herod the Great – the King of the Jews from 37 to 4 BC.
An avid builder who brought the most modern building materials from Rome, Herod dedicated the site to his patron Augustus Caesar. But Herod had a mixed reputation among the Jews – although he was a savvy diplomat: he wanted it both ways. He enjoyed Roman luxury, technology and good living – yet he knew to craftily appease the Jews. He constructed a new temple in Jerusalem.
Here we walk through the vestiges of what remains of the ancient city’s historic theater, the roads and aqueducts, irrigation and drainage systems, all with a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean. It is like travelling back in time. Every monument or archeological site seems like an homage to a particular moment from another era: be it a part of the Jewish, Christian or Muslims history. After all, the roads of many civilizations at one point have led to and away from here.
From the ancient to the world of today, we drive north via the Mediterranean coast to the verdant Carmel region, the heart of Israel’s contemporary wine country to visit the father-son team heading the Tishbi Winery in Binyamina, established some twenty years ago.
Facing the challenges
We are greeted with wine and sumptuous cheese plates by a humble, hard-working Jonathan and his son Golan Tishbi. The pair run this boutique winery that produce over a million bottles of wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Emerald Riesling from grapes gathered from throughout the country – and even the desert, where vines are irrigated using a specially designed ‘drip’ system.
“It is difficult because we are a country full of war and disagreement, and it is not a quiet place,” said Jonathan, “And when the tourists do not come, they do not buy wine from the place, it is a real vicious circle.”
Passing through traditional Druze villages and their colorful markets, we then move onto central to Haifa, the most important port city of Israel. The city is dominated by the picturesque panorama and luxuriant and meticulously kept Persian gardens that lead to the dome of the Bahai Temple.
Our journey then takes us through the historic port of Akko – its colorful markets and the el-Jazzar Mosque, followed by a jeep tour of the Golan Heights – accompanied by the spirited seventy eight-year-old Tova Mayer, who greets us in traditional Hungarian dress and a cap adorned with the Hungarian emblem.
Tova shows us around the area and recounts the harrowing tale of how she made Israel her home as a young idealist at Kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar in the Upper Galilee after Hungary’s failed 1956 revolution. We swiftly drive through the many fruit orchards, along the Jordan River which flows more like a small stream. We amusedly disturb kissing lovers and simple naturists who are enjoying their time in the forested area.
Constantly on the move, we begin our southward in-land journey towards Tiberias, the resort town on the Sea of Galilee. Here visit holy sites – notably the Mount of the Beatitudes, the hill at the northwestern point of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is said to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
A voyage through ancient cities
Our voyage through ancient cities then takes us to Bet She’an, the remains of an ancient city with a glorious past whose zenith was during the Roman period. During the eighth century CE the city was destroyed by a powerful earthquake, although to this day one can follow the roads, baths and the theater only to imagine the life that existed here centuries ago.
The Dead Sea, the next stop on our journey, is some fifty miles long and no more than ten miles wide. It is located in the deepest tectonic cavity in the world, approximately 1,296 feet below sea level. The Dead Sea is in fact only a lake of pale blue water and without any form of life whatsoever. In the waters are high concentrations of bromide, magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium that allow you to, miraculously, to literally float atop of the waters.
The next day we move on to the nearby mountains behind ruins of Qumran, the caves where in 1947, two Bedouin shepherds found seven pairs of jars containing the Biblical manuscripts, the most ancient found to date: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
After Herod the nearby fortress of Masada was besieged by Roman soldiers and at the beginning of the Jewish-Roman war, by zealots. In 73 BC, Flavius Silva’s army besieged this majestic fortress. Four years later, Roman soldiers opened a breach in a wall of the fortress and those Jewish defenders who remained, approximately 1,000 in number, preferred to commit suicide rather than surrender to the invading army.
Our journey ends in one of the most holy of cities on earth, Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock casts the glory of its golden dome over all of Jerusalem. No place can claim more holiness. The Temple Mount is also a holy site for numerous religions. We then follow the Via Dolorosa, the stations that Jesus followed before dying on the cross, ending our visit at the wailing wall, at the foot of the Dome of the Rock and the El-Aksa Mosque. The Wailing Wall, which purportedly supported the foundation of Solomon’s Temple, is the most worshipped by the Jewish people.
Montreal-based cultural navigator Andrew Princz is the editor of the travel portal ontheglobe.com. He is involved in journalism, country awareness, tourism promotion and cultural-oriented projects globally. He has traveled to over fifty countries around the globe; from Nigeria to Ecuador; Kazakhstan to India. He is constantly on the move, seeking out opportunities to interact with new cultures and communities.