The Holy Land. First it was for the trade routes, snaking through arid, hostile terrain connecting Asia with Europe and Africa; then came the frenzied fervour of religion. No other place has been fought over so bitterly for so long by so many. Over the centuries, the Levant has become a repository of many a civilisation and their ruins, of blood, passion, hate, and the hope of redemption. The Holy Land has long been an epicentre for pilgrimage but over the past century and half, it has also attracted greater archaeological curiosity and tourism.
I also partook in this historical richness during a recent trip to Jordan and Israel. It was a short trip – 12 days – but plenty long for a thorough reconnaissance mission that would inform future, more focussed visits. Conveniently, Jordan issues visas upon arrival to Indians and an Israeli consulate in my city saved me the schlep all the way to the embassy for a visa.
Our first stop was Amman, the capital of Jordan. Almost half of the country’s population of eight million live in the capital and its environs, something that is easier to believe after driving through the Jordanian countryside. The first destination on the itinerary, Jerash, had to wait until the next day – despite a relatively short flying time and starting early in the morning, it was evening by the time we had reached our hotel.
Jerash is about an hour’s drive from Amman, approximately 50 kms to the north of Amman. Although archaeological evidence suggests Bronze Age settlements at the site, the extant historical record points to the city achieving a modicum of prominence only under the Greeks. While some sources credit Alexander or one of his generals, Perdiccas, for founding Jerash, its old name of Antioch on the Chrysorrhoas (Golden River) indicates that it was in the reign of Antiochus IV that Jerash came into its own. Jerash, or Gerasa as the Romans called it, grew to become an important trading centre under the Roman Empire and had flourishing relations with the Nabateans. In fact, it was one of the cities of the Decapolis on the eastern frontier of the Empire – for the curious, the others were Philadelphia (Amman), Pella, Gadara (Umm Qays), Dion (Beit Ras), and Raphana in Jordan, Scythopolis (Beit She’an) and Hippos in Israel, and Anatha (El Qanawat) and Damascus in Syria. Jerash was eventually destroyed by two forces – the Persians in 614 and the great earthquake of 749; what little remained was finished off by Muslim and Christian armies alike during the Crusades. As of May 2017, admission charges were (Jordanian Dinar) JD 10.
While Jerash is a fairly large excavation that 30,000 people once called home, a few structures stand out among the ruins. Thankfully, most of these are easy to identify if you have been to other Roman ruins and the services of a guide should not be required as long as proper homework has been done beforehand. The first edifice that greets tourists to Jerash is the famous Hadrian’s Arch. Built in 129 to commemorate the emperor’s visit to the city, the gateway is a triple-arched structure that stands an imposing 11 metres high. Immediately upon entry, one is greeted by the hippodrome, a giant building that once stood 245 metres long and 52 metres wide with a seating capacity of around 15,000 people.
The Visitor’s Centre is actually beyond this, a short walk away, right by the South Gate where the remains of the city walls built by Emperor Diocletian can be seen. One of the main features of Jerash mush be the Oval Forum, 90 metres along its major axis and 80 metres along its minor one. The space is colonnaded by 1st century Ionic columns with two altars in the middle. The cardo maximus, the main north-south road in any Roman town, connects to the Forum and leads to some of the other treasures of Jerash. Typically, the road is paved with stones diagonally so that chariots wheels do not gradually cleave the stones of the dorsum; incredibly, chariot tracks over centuries of use are still visible in the road.
Overlooking the Forum is the Temple of Zeus, built in 162. We were not allowed near it as maintenance work was being carried out. The temple stood on the site of an older Roman temple and was the focal point for those whose ishta deva was not the patron goddess, Artemis.
The cardo leads to the Temple of Dionysus. Given the trade between Nabatea and Gerasa, it would be remiss to discount architectural indications that the temple was actually dedicated to the Nabatean deity of Dushara (Lord of the Mountain) but the pluralistic pagan culture of Rome simply associated the Arabian god with one in their own pantheon. Interestingly, Dushara – Tushara – is associated with Shiva in the Hindu pantheon. The Qasr al-Bint in Petra is believed to be a temple to Dushara and contained a cubical block of stone as its centrepiece much like a lingam in Shiva temples. Regardless, the Temple of Dionysus was converted into a church in the 4th century by the Byzantines. This was during the rule of Justinian, when an orgy of violence against pagan shrines resulted in the recycling of building material for churches. No fewer than 15 churches stand in Jerash today.
Right next to the Temple of Dionysus stands the exquisite nymphaeum. Built in 191, it remains one of the better surviving structures in Jerash. Nymphaeums are a common feature of Roman urban planning, creating pleasant public spaces with flowing water for people to gather around. Usually built around natural grottoes, some have water furnished from afar and serve sacral, utilitarian and/or entertainement purposes.
A broad staircase on the right of the nymphaeum leads to the other better surviving structures of Jerash, the Temple of Artemis. Built in 150 by Emperor Antoninus Pius, a plebeian and one of the five good emperors of the Nerva–Antonine dynasty, the temple honoured the patron goddess of the city. Although the statue was probably destroyed by Umayyad caliph Yazid bin Abd al-Malik’s decree of 720 banning all images and likenesses, much of the damage sustained by the temple was when large parts of it were dismantled to provide masonry for churches under Theodosius in 386. To add insult to injury, Zahir ad-Din Toghtekin converted the temple into a fortress during the Crusades and Baldwin II set fire to it in the course of a battle.
Near the Temple of Artemis is a working replica of an ancient water-powered sawmill used to cut stone. Probably divined from ancient records, a French university sponsored the recreation and installation of the machine at Jerash some ten years ago. The conversion of circular motion to linear motion is an interesting demonstration of the technological skill of the Romans. Nearby, lies the remains of the Byzantine church of St Cosmas and Damian. Built in 533, it contains one of the few surviving mosaics in Jerash. To be fair, the mosaics from the Church of St. John the Baptist, adjacent to Cosmas and Damian, have also survived but have been removed to the Jordanian Museum of Popular Tradition in Amman. Interesting to Hindu tourists will be the swastikas adorning the latter mosaic, although the swastika is an ancient symbol that has been found from Ireland and Bulgaria to Japan.
Like all Roman cities of any standing, Gerasa also had a theatre; in fact, it had two – a South Theatre, built in 90 during the reign of Emperor Domitian with a seating capacity of 3,000, and a North Theatre, built in 165 but enlarged in 235 that could hold up to 1,600 people. The North Theatre was also used for government business during the early hours of the day when the sun was not so strong. Since the South Theatre was the main venue for cultural events, we chose to step inside. Some of it, the stage, for example, has been restored but the basic structure still remains. The acoustics are still quite extraordinary, as we found by virtue of a Jordanian Scottish bagpipe band that puts on a little show there. The South Theatre still sees use – if you visit Jerash in the middle of July, there is an annual Music and Arts Festival for 17 days. Inaugurated by Queen Noor in 1981, the festival showcases a wide array of singers, musical and folklore troupes, poetry readings, handicrafts, art shows, and even ballet, symphony orchestras, and Shakespearean theatre.
Jerash has much more to offer – at least seven mosques along with the usual Roman assortment of bath houses, arches, and colonnaded streets but we had to move on to Ajloun, our next destination. I would budget four hours on site at Jerash for a cursory and relaxed tour of the ruins but history buffs may need more time than that. Ajloun is also to the north of Amman and barely 25 kms away from Jerash. It made sense, therefore, to club the two together, especially since Qasr al-Hallabat, Umm Qays, and Hammam as-Sarah in the northern fringes of Jordan were not on our itinerary.
The fortress at Ajloun had a strictly military function and does not contain the fancy gardens and fountains common to Islamic castle architecture. Built in 1184 by one of Saladin’s commanders and nephew, Izz ad-Din Osama, the watch-post protected commercial routes through the region, controlled the bedouin tribes of Jabal Awf who had allied with the Crusaders, and kept watch over the iron mines in the vicinity. The utility of this fortification was short lived, for Saladin’s victory at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 pushed the Crusaders out of the region. Despite this, Aibak bin Abdullah, a Mamluk governor, expanded the fortress in 1214. Excavations at the site show that Ajloun Castle, also known as Qalat ar-Rabad, was built upon the ruins of a Christian monastery.
Ajloun Castle is important in that it is one of the handful of Ayyubid forts. Its small size meant that the garrison could probably not hold more than 200 men at a time. It should not take visitors more than an hour at the castle, including the small museum on site. Although the halls are bare now, climbing to the top of the ramparts offers a spectacular view of the region.
Upon our return to Philadelphia, as Amman was called in Roman times, we visited the Citadel. Sitting atop one of the seven hills that originally made up Amman – by the way, the number of cities claiming to be established on seven hills is uncanny, probably close to 70 – the Citadel holds one of Amman’s most iconic monuments, the Roman Temple of Hercules. Construction is believed to have started in 162 in the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the complete structure would have been larger than any in even Rome. The temple portico had six 33-foot tall columns of which only two remain intact. However, historians believe that the temple was left incomplete.
The other structure of note on the Jabal al Qal’a, the hill the Citadel stands on, is the Umayyad mosque from around 730. Based on its architecture, scholars surmise that it was built on top of a Byzantine church. The dome you can see now is a restoration, the original having collapsed probably during the great earthquake of 749. The mosque stood as part of a palace complex and lacks a minaret from which to make the call for prayer. Early mosques did not have minarets and the earliest such construction is thought to have appeared only some 80 years after Muhammad’s death. The oldest minaret in the world that is still standing is in the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia, dating in its present form to 836. The Umayyad mosque – or palace – did not have a long life; both were abandoned after the earthquake.
A nice view of Amman can be had from the Citadel, particularly the Roman theatre on Al Hashemi Street. As in Jerash, the theatre is still in use for cultural events in the Jordanian capital. There is also the Jordan Archaeological Museum at the Citadel, which holds the oldest known inscription in the Ammonite language. I would advise visitors to budget about 75 minutes at the Citadel.
The next day, we left Amman for Wadi Musa. That would be our base of operations for excursions into the famed Nabatean city of Raqmu – Petra – and Wadi Rum. On the way, we planned to hit Mt Nebo and Madaba. The first stop on the way was Mt Nebo, less than 40 kms from Amman, where G-d is supposed to have teased Moses by showing him the Holy Land that he would not enter. Jeremiah is also supposed to have hidded the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant in a cave somewhere on the same mountain. Christians believe that Moses died there and was buried somewhere in Moab while Muslims think that their Musa was buried 20 kms outside of Jerusalem at Nabi Musa. Of course, there is another debate whether Mt Nebo is indeed the one mentioned in the Bible but that is another story!
Mt Nebo, also called Pisgah, is about 800 metres above sea level and the ruins of a 4th century church were found on the site in the 1930s. The Franciscans, who purchased the property in 1993, have restored the area. Several beautiful mosaics have been uncovered and are protected by the Memorial Church of Moses, a modern church building that is essentially a shell placed on top of the historical artifacts. The Brazen Serpent Monument, a sculpture by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni (not to be confused with the 18th century Tuscan poet!), also adorns the mountain top. It combines the idea of Jesus’ crucifixion and Moses casting a bronze serpent on a standard to save his people from the venomous snakes sent by G-d for speaking against Him and Moses (Numbers 21:4-9) into a serpentine cross, an idea mentioned in the New Testament (John 3:14). This is the same symbol of healing and deliverance that mark pharmacies around the world.
As G-d promised in the Bible, you can see Jerusalem, about 50 kms away, from the mountain top. The spring of Moses, mentioned by Egeria the pilgrim (she also wrote a travelogue of her pilgrimage in the 380s 🙂), is also visible. A sight dear to Muslims in the same area is a tree that is believed to have sheltered Muhammad on a hot and sunny afternoon on his way to Syria.
Barely 10 kms away lay Madaba, where we went next. The Greek Orthodox Basilica of St George in Madaba contains the famous Madaba Map, the oldest known geographic floor mosaic – there was no way we could skip that, especially when there was nothing to do in the evening once we reached Wadi Musa! By Jordanian standards, Madaba is not a small town – it has a population of about 60,000 with a growing economy; it is also the site of the American University of Madaba since 2011.
The Visitors’ Centre at the St George Basilica has a short video about the Holy Land and the Madaba Map that might be of interest to tourists. From what is and is not shown on the mosaic of over two million pieces, the map has been dated to between 542 and 570. It is not known who created the mosaic but the Umayyads did remove figures from the mosaic when they conquered Madaba as they did in Jerash. An earthquake in 746 further damaged the piece and it was subsequently lost until 1884. From original dimensions of 21 x 7 metres, the Madaba Map has now shrunk to 16 x 5 metres.
I should probably say a quick word about transportation – although there is public transport – buses, no rail – in Jordan, most locals suggest renting a car, hiring a taxi, or joining group tours for the day. We did the latter: the advantage is obviously that we eliminated waiting time at bus stations or taxi stands but it also meant that we did not always get as much time as we wanted everywhere – sometimes we were given too much time and at others, barely enough. Whatever be one’s opinion about groups, these were universally the suggestions hotel receptionists and tour guides gave us. It may be because public transport is not reliable, or because the network does not serve tourist places with adequate frequency. Since I was not particularly keen on driving around in a place where my grasp of the local language and customs was less than passable, group tour it was. In any case, I suspect renting a car or hiring a taxi would be far more expensive for travellers on a budget.
The drive to Wadi Musa took about three and a half hours. The evening was spent in pursuit of local pleasures such as Turkish coffee or that sweet ghalyoon. Jordanian food is much like the food anywhere else in the Middle East. Hummus, dolma, baba ghanoush, kebab, and so on. What is uniquely Jordanian though, is mansaf. Essentially, the dish is prepared with lamb cooked in jameed – a hard dry yogurt prepared by boiling sheep’s milk which is then salted to thicken and left to dry and ferment – and served on bulgur. Unfortunately, mansaf is too salty for most palates but I did try to make the dish at home once without the excessive salt and it tasted pretty good. Mansaf is not entirely dissimilar to the Turkish Ali Nazik, though with less salt.
An interesting thing to note about Arab food is that the choice of meat leans heavily towards chicken and lamb; during my entire trip, I was offered beef just twice. In this context, the tantrums of the Muslim community in India over a potential ban on beef seems strangely out of place. Beef is just another option, not a proscribed food in Islam.
The next day, we headed to Wadi Rum, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Made famous by the exploits of British military officer TE Lawrence during World War I, Wadi Rum is nothing but 740 km2 of barren desert just north of the border with Saudi Arabia. But barren does not mean empty – besides the expected sand dunes and canyons, there are also inscriptions in Thamudic, Nabatean, and Arabic that go back up to 12,000 years in Jordan’s largest wadi. Several movies have been shot here as well – starting from the most famous Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Red Planet (2000), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Prometheus (2012), The Martian (2015), and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) were filmed partially in Wadi Rum. Hindi speakers may also relate to Krrish 3 (2013) which was also shot in the South Jordanian desert.
The desert has its own charm. It may seem odd to someone who has never been in one but there is a deep, calming, gravitas about the desert that I cannot explain. I spent a large part of my childhood in the desert but its seduction did not work until I was in my late teens. Wadi Rum felt…correct. Again. To be clear, the wadi is quite inhospitable to the uninitiated. There is no infrastructure whatsoever and only the local Zalabia bedouins are allowed to live there.
The only way to tour the wadi is by four-wheel-drive pickup trucks. Though there could be a language barrier, you will need a guide at Wadi Rum for everything looks the same to outsiders. Even then, it is unlikely that you will see all there is to see in a couple of hours. We missed, for example, the Jabal Umm Fruth and Jabal Burdah rock bridges, the Nabatean temple and spring, Lawrence’s alleged house, and probably some of the inscriptions. However, we – I – got to climb a nice, big sand dune and come screaming and tumbling down the soft sand. We also saw some of the canyons, the famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom, inscriptions, and where sands of different colours – red, yellow, and white – meet. It is also possible to get camel rides in the desert but at JD 20 for an hour, they seemed a little on the expensive side.
Wadi Rum is sometimes associated with the Roman Empire for the ascetic communities of Byzantine monks who used to live in the area. However, the locals told me that the name has nothing to do with Rome but means high valley, wadi meaning valley in Arabic and Rum meaning elevated in Aramaic. This is not an undeserved name, considering that the highest point in the wadi is almost 2,000 metres above sea level.
There are still several bedouin camps in the desert and some of them have set up restaurants for tourists. There is also life in the desert – for example, an annual camel race is conducted and the site is popular with rock climbers too. There are options to spend a night in the desert under the stars as well as take a ride in a hot air balloon, though we did not partake in such activities.
On the way back, we made a photo stop by railway station at Wadi Rum. During Ottoman times, a narrow gauge line ran from Damascus to Medina through the wadi. The Hijaz Railway was made famous by TE Lawrence’s assault on it during the Arab Revolt that was immortalised in the movie. The station has a life-sized replica of an Ottoman train that used to chug the lines. Today, the railway runs only from the Jordanian port of Aqaba to Amman and does not carry passengers; it is primarily to transport phosphate from the mines to warehouses and shipyards. India is Jordan’s largest customer of phosphate, responsible for 75 percent of the Arab state’s exports.
Petra was scheduled for the next day. Nestled against the slope of Jabal al-Madhbah, the Nabatean capital is the most visited of Jordan’s tourist attractions. Besides its famous rock-cut structures, Petra is known for the remarkable water collecting mechanisms employed by its inhabitants to sustain a flourishing city in the desert. Petra was rediscovered in 1812 during efforts to locate the tomb of Moses’ brother, Aaron. Arab tradition states that it was also Petra where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water flowed forth. We did not have time for the 12 km trek through Petra to meet Aaron, so we saw the tomb perched on a hill top from afar on our way to Wadi Rum the previous day.
Like Wadi Rum, Petra has also attracted film studios. Most famously, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was shot there as was The Mummy Returns (2001) and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Ticket prices are designed to encourage tourists to stay longer. For example, visitors who are in Petra for just the day are charged JD 90 whereas visitors who have stayed at least a day in Wadi Musa or its environs have to pay only JD 50 for a day pass; a three-day pass is only slightly more expensive, at JD 60. The Jordanian dinar, by the way, is a pegged currency that trades at $1.41 for the dinar. As a point of curiosity, the dinar is divided into 10 dirhams, 100 qirsh/piastres, or 1,000 fulus. Fulus are probably unheard of in quotidian transactions and piastres themselves are rare.
People have lived in and around Petra for at least four thousand years but the metropolis that is today known as Petra did not come into existence until around the sixth century BCE. The city reached its zenith around the close of the first century BCE during the reign of King Aretas IV, when it was a vital trade hub for caravan routes connecting India and China with Egypt and Rome. As a result, Petra had always caught the attention of its neighbours and was repeatedly invaded for its wealth. The city was finally brought into the Roman fold around 106.
Petra’s fortunes declined as another city, Palmyra began to flourish. However, the Nabatean capital retained its role as a centre for religion. Dushara was the patron god of Petra though shrines existed for the other pre-Islamic Arabian goddesses, Mannat, Allat, and Al-Uzza as well. The city was badly damaged by an earthquake in 551 and was finally abandoned after the Muslim conquest in 663.
The traditional entrance to the city for tourists is from the east. It is a short walk from the entrance to the Siq, perhaps 800 m or so. For those who are not so fit physically, horses or donkeys may be hired to cover this distance. A couple of Nabatean structures exist on this path to pique your curiosity for later. Right by the entrance to the Siq, the Bab al-Siq, are the Djinn blocks and an Obelisk tomb. As you walk deeper into the Siq, notice the occasional niches along the sides that held idols of Nabatean gods. Wind and water erosion over the years has given some of the rocks odd shapes and some of the striations are quite beautiful.
The Siq is slightly over a kilometre long and opens onto the breathtaking Al Khazneh, or Treasury. Despite its name, one thing archaeologists are sure of is that the building was not a treasury. Given the ornamentation on the outside, it may have been a royal tomb or a temple. Outside the Treasury, it is possible to hire camels or horse carriages to explore Petra further. While this is useful as long as you stay on the main track, it might not be as helpful if you want to climb up to a view point, the Royal Tombs, or other points of interest.
The main track leads right from Al Khazneh to the Street of Facades, which is lined with tombs. At the end is a staircase which gives a good view of the main area of Petra and leads to a sacrificial altar. There are about 700 steps, so be warned before you start the climb! Regardless, nothing stops the interested tourist from climbing up 200 steps to enjoy the view of Petra.
A little further along is the theatre. Given the similarity in design to Roman theatres, it is assumed that this was a Roman construction. However, Petra deteriorated under Roman rule owing partly to the sea routes that opened up across the Mediterranean. The theatre is also dated to the first century, before the Romans conquered Petra. This is not to say that the Nabateans had not been influenced by Greek and Roman architecture all over the Levant. The theatre is believed to have been able to accommodate 4,000 people.
Across from the theatre are the Royal Tombs. Not much is known about them except that they held several nobles. The Urn Tomb is recognisable by the courtyard in front and the colonnade on both sides. Inside, three asps are clearly visible from when the tomb was converted into a church; this is further corroborated by inscriptions on the wall recording its consecration in 447 by a Bishop Jason.
Nearby is the Silk Tomb which is distinguished by the colourful swirls of rock inside. Further along is the Corinthian Tomb whose ornate classical facade has been badly eroded but is still visible. At the end, the Palace Tomb has an elaborate three-storeyed facade with multiple entrances and a courtyard in front just like the Urn Tomb. These tombs are believed to have been constructed around 70, during the reign of Malchus II or Aretas IV.
These are the main tombs in Petra, though there are over 500 in all. Some are slightly more prominent, such as the one of the Roman governor Sextus Florentinus or the Roman Soldier Tomb, but most are badly eroded or were damaged when they were recycled for other purposes by later generations. Even the Florentinus Tomb is badly eroded but a Latin inscription identifies its occupant and dates it to 130.
From the theatre, down from the tombs, is a straight road to the Great Temple and the Qasr al-Bint at the end of the street. Large swathes of land on both sides are yet to be excavated but what little has been discovered – the nymphaeum, for example – is so badly damaged that it is quite easy to miss. A short colonnaded stretch comes up just before the Great Temple, one of the most spectacular structures in Petra and discovered only recently in 1992.
The Great Temple was built in the first century but like the Treasury, the it may have also been inappropriately named. For one, the lower level of the two-storeyed building contains a large hall suitable for public gatherings; secondly, the upper level has a theatron that could as easily be a bouleuterion. Additionally, the upper level is flanked by colonnaded walkways while the lower one by exedrae. Overall, the structure screams “government building” more than it resembles a temple. When I asked the guide about my suspicions, he admitted that this was a theory that was getting more support of late. However, for the group, he chose to go with the simple, popular, and possibly wrong explanation. This is unfortunate because it means that anyone who has not seen Hellenistic or Roman architecture before will simply be misled, not even knowing what to look for or ask.
Another reason the Great Temple might not have been a temple is that it stands right next to the Qasr al-Bint (al-Faroun). Although the Arab name for the building means Castle of the Pharaoh’s Daughter, it was unmistakably a temple – probably to Dushara. It makes no sense for two massive temples to the same deity stand right next to each other, and early archaeologists might have confused one for the other. The Qasr al-Bint was built around 30 BCE by Obodas III and is a large and imposing building in its own right, with three chambers and an altar out in front. Roman inscriptions name two of the deities worshipped – Ba’al Shamin and al-Uzza. One can only assume the third was Dushara given the god’s importance to the city.
Across the street from the Great Temple lies the Temple of the Winged Lions and a Byzantine church behind that, both of which require a little climbing. The temple has a recognisable structure of altar and pillars while the Byzantine church offers a couple of mosaics to those who made the effort to find it.
We stopped at this point as we did not have more time in our schedule for Petra. If you push on further for about 45 minutes – and remember that you are already about 30-40 minutes in from the entrance – you will come upon the Lion Triclinium and the Al Deir monastery, the largest building in Petra. There is also a steep climb involved, some 800 steps according to tourists who were ahead of us to reach the monastery.
Ideally, I would budget three days for Petra: one would be to trek to Aaron’s Tomb, another to follow the main trail, and the third to see the lesser trails and Little Petra – some of the surrounding caves and ruins nearby. A magical experience would be to do Petra by night, when they light up Al Khazneh with hundreds of candles. If this sounds too involved for your taste, I would still recommend approximately six hours at the site so that you can see the main trail up to Al Deir completely.
In the afternoon, we headed back to Amman so that we could proceed to cross over into Israel the next day via the King Hussein Bridge near Jericho. The border was only 50 kms away but we hoped to get there early to beat any crowd and to start our tour of Israel. The crossing facilitates not just entry into Israel but is also used by Palestinians living in Jordan to visit the West Bank. However, since Israeli customs do not have separate queues for those wishing to enter Israel and those heading to the West Bank, it becomes imperative to beat any crowd. Plus, it was the weekend.
It is important to note that neither country grants entry visas at the King Hussein Bridge border crossing, nor stamps the passports of departing travellers. Even travellers eligible for visas on arrival must get their paperwork beforehand if they wish to use this crossing.
When you are stuck on a bus with four hours to kill, it is inevitable that you start to interrogate your guide. I found out that Jordanians love their monarchy because the Hashemites did not have a reputation for corruption or severity. If the rest of the Middle East is to be the benchmark, I think the Jordanians have a point there. King Hussein, for example was popular not only in his own country but even globally as a good ruler and a decent man.
While our guide was clear about where Jordan stood on Palestine, after a bit of prodding, it turned out that Jordanians were less clear about their feelings towards Palestinians. The memories of Black September, especially among the older generation, remain fresh despite nearly 50 years having passed. Palestinian misbehaviour or disloyalty in other Arab countries – such as their support for Qadimah in 1990 during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait – has only reinforced a feeling of betrayal and resentment among many Arabs.
It was also interesting to see the deep unease Jordanians felt for the peace treaty with Israel that had been negotiated by their beloved king. When the Arab military track record against Israel was pointed out to our guide, he replied that some things cannot be understood by loss and gains – an interesting sentiment I also heard across the border regarding settlements.
Early next morning, we set out on our aliyah. In Hebrew, the word means elevation or going up and is used to describe moving to Israel. We were at the border by 08 15 despite a photo stop at a bizarre sign that announced that we were at sea level. We had to change buses and guides at the border and went north to Beit She’an, our first destination in Israel.
One of the cities of the Roman Decapolis, Beit She’an goes back at least 5,000 years like anything in the Holy Land. The city is perhaps most famous for being the site where King Saul and his sons were hung from the walls by the Philistines. Beit She’an’s story parallels that of Jerash – it was developed by the Greeks as Scythopolis but found its glory days under the Pax Romana when its population burgeoned to 40,000; much of the ruins today are from Roman times. When the Byzantines came, they destroyed all the pagan temples and built churches. By the time the Umayyads came, the city was well past its prime. Surprisingly, the Muslims lived beside their Christian subjects without demolishing the churches. Beit She’an was devastated by a massive earthquake in 749 after which it never recovered. Life went on under the Crusaders, Ottomans, and British but Beit She’an was no longer an important administrative centre as it had been from the time of the Egyptians until the Byzantines. One European traveller in the early 1800s described it as a miserable village with no more than 70 houses.
The oldest ruins of the site can be found atop a hill on the north side. Remains of the Egyptian governor’s house, parts of the fortifications built by King David and Solomon, and the ruins of a temple to Zeus can be found at the top. Beit She’an is a typical Roman city, with a theatre, nymphaeum, the defining cardo – called Palladius Street according to an inscription, named after a 4th century Roman general – bath houses, temples, mosaics, public toilets, an agora, and colonnaded streets. Although it is the the best preserved Roman city in Israel, it fails to excite someone who had just been to Jerash a couple of days ago.
From Beit She’an, we moved on to Yardenit, the alternate baptismal site on the River Jordan. Usually, the site is packed with pilgrims or the about-to-be-converted but we were lucky and found the place relatively peaceful. Interestingly, the site we visited is not exactly where Jesus is believed to have been baptised by John; that site is Qasr al Yahud, a good 115 kms away and just north of the Dead Sea. Yardenit was established in 1981 because of constant military activity near the Jordanian border. Qasr al Yahud was reopened in 2011 yet Yardenit continues to attract over 400,000 visitors each year.
From Yardenit, the Golan is not too far and we drove further north to the last spot of the day. There is plenty to see in the Golan but I suspect its fame is largely due to its annexation by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. After Syria’s failed attempt to recapture the heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel agreed to return five percent of the Golan to Syrian civilian administration. A United Nations Disengagement Observer Force monitors the area. In 1981, Israel removed the Golan from under military rule and extended its civilian administration right up to the border. The Syrian government helped to resettle people displaced by the border shift except for Quneitra, whose ruins from the two wars it maintained as anti-Israel propaganda.
Sites of interest in the Golan for those who are on a longer trip would be Gilgal Refa’im for its ancient megalithic structure, The Roman-era Jewish town of Umm al Kanathir, the Greco-Roman town of Hippos (one of the Decapolis), Tel Hazor of the Canaanites and Israelites, and perhaps the medieval Islamic Nimrod Castle. For us simple folk, we just enjoyed the view from a hill top. On the way up, the Israelis had put up some rather inventive sculptures of the oddest things made with weapons parts and were quite amusing.
At the top, the view was quite nice and green; it was easy to forget that you were essentially in the middle of a desert. We bumped into a couple of soldiers from the UNDOF and I asked them how their job goes. They reported that it was all quiet on the Northern Front. Israel has also been running medical camps for any of the Syrians who come across the border – unarmed, of course – and that has created some confusion among the locals: the country they had been taught was their arch enemy was offering them aid while their own people were savagely attacking them?
I asked our guide about what the general Israeli view was regarding what was going on in Syria and Iran. Unfortunately, I got the stock answer I might have heard from directly from Benjamin Netanyahu: Assad was bad, and Iran was expansionist. When I pushed back, citing Israeli sources, the guide quickly fell quiet. I guess these were not issues she was familiar with and she just passed on what she saw on the television, read in the papers, or heard from her friends (who may have seen it on the television, read in the papers, or… ). What made her answer interesting was that she was not a Bibi supporter, meaning that her views were prevalent even in circles that were not fond of the prime minister.
We stayed in Tiberias, that lovely town on the western shore of the Galilee. It also happens to be one of Judaism’s four holy cities (Hebron, Safed, and Jerusalem, in case you were wondering 🙂). After the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132-5, when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and expelled all the Jews from its environs, many of the rabbis and scholars came to Tiberias. Simeon bar Yochai settled in the city as did Johanan bar Nappaha and Judah Hanasi. Most importantly, for me, Tiberias holds the tomb of Moshe ben Maimon. Tiberias was not touched because it had not taken part in the revolt.
Early next morning, I visited the tomb of the Rambam. We are not sure where Maimonides was actually buried but all the legends point to the western shore of the Galilee. The tomb is also shared with Johanan ben Zakai and Isaiah Horowitz, important Jewish scholars in their own respect. The tomb was, to put it mildly, it was most disappointing. An odd structure stands atop the graves, which I was told was a depiction of a flame – all I am saying is that we should keep postmodernists away from anything of value!
Our group decided to go for a cruise on the Sea of Galilee that morning. It would have been a total waste had it not been for the surprising programme the captain had in store for us. First, he raised an Indian flag alongside the Israeli one on the mast accompanied by the Indian national anthem, and then he proceeded to encourage us to dance to all sorts of Israeli music. I did not recognise most of it but Hava nagila was reliably present.
Next, as prophesied in Revelation 16:16, we gathered at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. Megiddo is one of the oldest settlements in the Middle East, with human presence going back to 7,000 BCE. Located strategically at the head of a pass through Carmel Valley and overlooking the Jezreel Valley, it was inevitable that the settlement would be at the centre of many battles. Three consequential ones were between Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III and the Canaanites in the 15th century BCE, between King Neco of Egypt and King Josiah of the Kingdom of Judah in the 7th century BCE, and more recently, between the British and the Ottomans during World War I.
I overheard someone in the group mention something about “another pile of rocks” as we approached Megiddo. Technically, that is true. Ruins that go as far back as Megiddo does are usually no more than a pile of rocks – take Dholavira in India, for example, which is probably a couple of millennia younger. However, the importance of a historical pile of rocks can only be understood through interest and familiarity with their history. The tel of Megiddo – it is not technically a hill – holds the remains of one or two or even ten settlements but 26 layers of inhabitation have been found so far. So, needless to say, it is a fairly substantial pile of rocks.
To the discerning eye, there are some 20 structures that can be made out at Megiddo. Most, however, should recruit the assistance of a guide. All tours will start at the Canaanite gate, go past the Canaanite palace through the Israelite gate, by the stables, a main palace, and to the temple area. Although the Israelite gate is usually associated with King Solomon, recent radiocarbon dating puts the date a little more recently during the reign of Jeroboam II in the 8th century BCE.
A little further along, past the burial chamber is a viewing point whence the plains of Megiddo are visible. Evangelical tourists, we were told, particularly from America, are severely affected by the sight. Some started to weep while others launch into an impromptu display of glossolalia.
Do not miss the public granary, the most discernible of structures perhaps. There is also an Assyrian quarter with its own palace and stables, which should not be surprising given that there are 26 layers of civilisation one on top of another. One of the more spectacular sites at Megiddo is its water system. A central well, known as Ahab’s well, was fed by water from a spring some 80 metres outside the city. The inhabitants dug the well and then the underground tunnel to the spring so that their water supply would not be threatened during a siege. Of course, crediting anything to Ahab, an evil king according to the Bible, is going to be controversial – especially after Solomon’s gate was taken away from him by science. Visitors can walk along the tunnel – after descending some 180 steps – and see the spring, though it is not burbling as it used to due to water diversification and greater use.
Such feats of engineering, though rare, are not quite uncommon. In the Holy Land of circa the eighth century BCE alone, we know of a similar water system at Hazor, albeit shorter at 25 metres, and Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Jerusalem. In fact, an inscription states that the 540-metre-long tunnel under the City of King David was dug from both ends, attesting to the remarkable surveying and engineering skills of the Israelites.
After Megiddo, we went to see the famed Mona Lisa of the Galilee at Zippori. There is evidence of habitation since the Neolithic period but sustained building work and town planning can be confirmed only from the fourth century BCE. The town achieved its full glory during the reign of Herod, when the Jewish historian Josephus called Zippori the ornament of the Galilee. The city was, however, badly damaged by a massive earthquake in 363. In essence, Zippori is a Greco-Roman town that was later inhabited by Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans, British, and finally Israelis like many of the other ruins in the country; few seem to have been totally abandoned.
Although Zippori does not sound particularly different from Beit She’an or Hippos, its importance comes from the fact that this was where the Sanhedrin sat and where Judah Hanasi completed the Mishnah before he moved to Tiberias. Zippori is also thought to be the birth place of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
Primary places of interest are the synagogue, theatre, the Crusader castle, the Dionysus House, and the Nile Festival House. The Crusader castle offers a great view of the entire site, so you cannot go wrong with that. The Dionysus House is where the Mona Lisa of the Galilee mosaic was discovered. It is a spectacular piece of work, one of the best mosaics I have seen anywhere in terms of richness and variety of colour as well as the number of tesserae. Unlike the actual Mona Lisa in the Louvre, I assure you that this one is not overrated! Dionysus House is believed to have belonged to a very rich Roman who was clearly very fond of entertaining.
The Nile Festival House holds a few other large floor mosaics depicting centurions, amazons, and animals that our guide told us was from the Byzantine era. The “House” was actually a public space and so has little else by which to date it. Do not miss the synagogue, which is right by the Visitors’ Centre and hosts a fantastic four-part mosaic depicting the sacrifice of Isaac, the tabernacle in the desert, the Ark of the Covenant, and the signs of the Zodiac. There is also a video that shows the Jewish history of Zippori, especially the last days of Judah Hanasi. The video is not bad but it ends with a beautiful orchestral rendition of what I think was Shir Lama’alot that should not be missed.
Before heading south, we made one last excursion north to the Hula Nature Reserve. It was a rather plan, if you ask me: Hula Valley is famous for being visited by some 40 million birds during the migratory season and can be quite spectacular at the right time of the year. May is not that time. I am not much of a birdwatcher but if you are, March and November may be the best times to visit. There was, however, a very nicely done 3D audio-visual show at the Reserve with special effects. I will not ruin it for you – go see what the effects are yourself!
We greeted my old friend, the Mediterranean Sea, at Rosh Hanikra. The name means ‘Head of the Grottoes’ in Hebrew and is the site of an underground railway built by the South African and New Zealand armies in service of the British Empire in 1941-2. The coastal line extended the Acre-Remez line built by the British in 1920 through to Tripoli. Although this was a military line, one notable civilian exception was made: In June 1944, Transport 222 carried 222 Jews from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to Palestine in a repatriation programme with the British for German Templers in the Holy Land. Between 1941 and 1944, three such exchanges were made and 400 Templers were repatriated back to Germany.
There is not much to see at Rosh Hanikra but the brilliant blue water of the Mare Nostrum is still worth the visit. There is a short cable car ride that is advertised as the world’s steepest, at a gradient of 60 degrees to access the grottoes. There is no train ride now, even for a short distance. There is, however, a video visitors can watch that tells of the history of Rosh Hanikra. The border checkpoint on the border with Lebanon runs right up against the grottoes but is not open to tourists or travellers. There is a beach nearby too, but resist the temptation – there are rocks and strong undercurrents; besides, it is too close for comfort to an international border between two nations not on the best of terms.
Our next stop was Acre, one of the rare natural harbours along the Israeli coast. It is the holiest city for the Baha’i faith, presumably because Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri died there in 1892. Acre has been a port city since Phoenician times and has the ruins and landmarks of a dozen civilisations to show it. The entire Old City of Acre, primarily famous for its Crusader and Islamic monuments, is now a World Heritage site.
Given the narrow winding streets on the Old City, we did our sightseeing by foot. It would be faster and there is nothing wrong with a bit of exercise! We started with the 18th century mosque built by the Bosnian general of the Ottoman Empire, Ahmad Pasha al Jazzar. The general’s moniker means “butcher” in Arabic, a reputation that was well earned. The Butcher built his mosque in 1781 on the site of a former Christian prayer house of material that was taken from the ruins of Caesarea, Atlit, and other nearby ruins. The largest mosque in Israel outside of Jerusalem, AL Jazzar boasts of possessing a relic – a hair from the beard of Muhammad.
The Crusader Citadel is a short walk from the mosque and is the entry point to the Templar Tunnels and the Hospitallers Knights’ halls. Crusader structures throughout the Holy Land are massive fortifications, indicating their (deserved) unpopularity among the locals. During the Mandate, the Citadel served as a prison and held Jewish political prisoners among others. On May 4, 1947, one of the most famous prison breaks occurred in which 27 Jewish independence fighters escaped as did 182 Arabs; nine were killed in the escape attempt and eight were recaptured. Despite the mixed success, the Irgun’s rescue attempt was widely hailed as strategic brilliance and British prestige was considered to have taken a nosedive.
Crusader City, as it is now called, lies below the Citadel with its large halls and massive columns. It was probably last used in 1291 when the Christian garrison of Acre was defeated by Muslim armies out of Egypt. The Templar Tunnels run from this city to the port and were used by many as Acre finally fell to the Muslims. The underground city was complete in every respect, containing marketplaces, medical services, residences, and a church.
I would have said something about how one must walk through the Old Souk to get a feel of what a medieval marketplace felt like but the same sort of narrow, winding streets and crowds are ubiquitous in India and perhaps the novelty is not so much. Nonetheless, it is still a good place to pick up souvenirs. As you finish with the Souk, you should hit the fortifications and sea walls. It is a nice place to walk along and bump into the Franciscan St John Baptist Church which was built in 1737.
We moved on to Haifa for the night’s stay and on our way in, caught a view of the Baha’i Gardens in Israel’s largest port city. Also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa for its 19 levels of terracing, the garden holds the shrine of Sayyed Ali Muhammad Shirazi, the Bab, who was the forerunner of Baha’u’llah. No services are held in the shrine but it is a place for quiet contemplation and meditation. The garden is beautiful, but I felt that the view up or down its terraces was more pleasing than the garden itself. If you happen to be enjoying the pleasure of a ghalyoon or a drink in one of the many restaurants along Sderot Ben Gurion in the evening, it might be worth swinging by the Hanging Gardens for a quick glimpse by night.
After an obligatory halt at the Haifa beach next morning, we visited Caesarea. King Herod converted the former Phoenician naval station into a city of splendour in honour of his patron Augustus Caesar between 30 and 10 BCE and the port became the administrative centre of the Judean province of the Empire. Today, little has changed in Caesarea – the town is still one of the poshest localities in Israel and home to wealthy industrialists, businessmen, artists, and politicians. The current prime minister of Israel has his personal residence there, as does golfer Laetitia Beck, singer Keren Ann, the French branch of the Rothschild family, and the Wertheimers, Israel’s richest family. In a bit of modern extravagance, Caesarea is home to Israel’s only 18-hole golf course.
The harbour at Caesarea rightly gets the most attention. The largest artificial harbour of its time, the pace of work and ingenuity in its creation made it a truly remarkable achievement of Roman engineering and Caesarea rivalled Alexandria. Recent excavations have shown, however, that the construction was not as sturdy as thought and between seismic activity and the sea, the harbour eventually tilted into the waters and settled on the seabed. Despite its struggle with nature, the port did not diminish until after the Byzantine era when it fell in Muslim hands.
One of Herod’s extravagances was a palace on the promontory with an Olympic-sized swimming pool jutting into the sea. On one side of Herod’s palace is a theatre that could hold about 3,500 people; on the other is a hippodrome that could accommodate about 5,000. Like other Roman towns we had been to, Caesarea also contained bath houses and mosaics. Like the others, churches had been built over pagan shrines and some of the mosaics were from the Christian period while others were earlier. On the beaches, it is still possible to find flecks of green in the sand that are most likely jade from Roman times.
Interestingly, Caesarea is partially owned by the Rothschilds. Edmond James de Rothschild was a strong supporter of Zionism and had purchased much land in Mandatory Palestine on behalf of the World Zionist Organisation. Upon the creation of Israel, the family agreed to transfer the land to the new state. However, 35,000 dunam – about 35 km2 – around Caesarea were leased back to the Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Foundation for a period of 200 years. Caesarea is the only locality in Israel that is run by a private corporation rather than a municipality and the profits go towards promoting advance higher education and culture in Israel.
The beautiful blue waters of the Mare Nostrum and the Roman ruins on the shore made for a truly beautiful scene. I regret that we rushed Caesarea like frenzied tourists and would advise visitors to plan on a good four hours at the site. If you go by the harbour, you may even take a dip in the water.
Jaffa was the next destination for lunch as well as a walking tour. Honestly, I enjoyed the feel of Yafo more than anything I saw there but we did walk by Ran Morin’s Floating Orange Tree, the Statue of Faith in Abrasha Park, the 17th century St Peter’s Church, the Zodiac Fountain, and, of course, by Andromeda’s Rock and along the harbour.
Morin’s exhibit in the middle of the street has been entertaining passers by since 1993 and it gave me the odd sensation of being in a Surrealist painting! The suspended tree probably symbolises the separation of Man from Nature. The Statue of Faith in Abrasha Park depicts three scenes from the Bible whose message is, you guessed it, to have unquestioning faith in G-d. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and Jacob’s dream of a ladder to Heaven are depicted on the pillars while the crosspiece shows Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho.
Andromeda’s Rock gives Jaffa a nice touch of the classical. The story goes that these were the rocks upon which Andromeda was lashed as an offering to the sea monster Cetus when Perseus rescued and married her. Cassiopeia had once boasted that her daughter, Andromeda, was far more beautiful than the Nereids seen in the company of Poseidon. Angered by this, Poseidon sends a sea monster to harass sailors coming into or leaving the city’s harbour. Finally, an understanding is reached by which the object of the boast would have to be sacrificed. Andromeda was stripped naked and tied to the rock. Perseus manages to kill Cetus by wearing the invisibility cloak Hades had given him.
You can get a beautiful view of modern Tel Aviv from the waterfront at Yafo. The coast curves in much like Marine Drive in Bombay and the area is a popular spot among locals as at all cities by the water. By the way, most of the Jews who emigrated to Israel from India in the 1950s and 1960s are in Ashdod, about 45 minutes south of Tel Aviv. India’s Jewish population peaked around 30,000 at the time of independence but is now around 5,000; the descendants of Indian Jews in Israel today number around 70,000.
Jerusalem was our last destination and our arrival fortuitously coincided with Yom Yerushalayim, the day Jerusalem was liberated from the Jordanians during the Six-Day War. On normal calendars, that date in June 7, but Israel follows the lunar Hebrew calendar and according to which Jerusalem was liberated on the 28th of Iyar; this year, that fell on the evening we arrived in the city – yes, Jews also start counting their days from the evening before! Similarly, although May 14 is the date on which Israel was declared, Israelis celebrate Independence Day on the 5th of Iyar.
Jerusalem’s complicated status as at once the capital of Israel and disputed territory obviously raised some questions about settlements. I had an Israeli diplomat once answer me long ago that one way of looking at the settlement issue was that the Arabs took a gamble on eradicating Israel; they staked Palestine and lost. It was brazen for them to now hector for the status quo ante. While logical at a gut level, that defence held little water legally. Our guide had another, more discouraging perspective. Jerusalem – in fact the whole Land of Israel – was sacred ground that was promised to the Jewish people by G-d. Any compromise on even an inch of land was against G-d’s wishes. Settling the land in Israel was not about economic opportunities or escaping anti-Semitism: for these people, it was simply the right thing to do and there was no rational, legal, political, economic, or other argument the West could make to convince them otherwise. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” Psalm 137 reminds us, “may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth…”
There was also another group who believed that by creating “reality on the ground,” Israel’s bargaining position when it came to making that final peace deal would be strengthened. While settling in disputed territory was against international law, they argued, possession was nine tenths of the law. Clearly, we were not going to bring peace to the Middle East on this trip!
Another question Jerusalem triggered in my mind was the Israeli/Jewish response to proselytism. Judaism does not proselytise and in my experience, most Jews actually discourage you from converting to Judaism! How do Israelis react to missionaries that are sent out by churches in the United States and Europe every year to whittle away a little more of the pluralism worldwide? Our guide said that Israelis generally despised and this was validated by a couple of other people I asked – they all had a look on their face as if they had just swallowed curdled milk. Regardless, Israel has managed to stay off the international radar on such sociocultural frictions – there is either no reaction against such activity despite the rancour it creates or it does not make the papers.
Something that does make the papers but is often disguised as violence or crime is the conversion to Islam. It is the contention of many Israelis, allegedly with evidence in the form of public addresses and pamphlets that I did not see, that there is a concerted campaign by Arab youths from parts of the Muslim Quarter to seduce Jews and influence them into converting to Islam for love. The target is usually young Jewish girls. Similar accusations abound in India and the phenomenon is known as love jihad though it is usually scoffed at by the fourth estate and their friends. What struck me was how similar the stories sounded to the ones I had heard in South Canara or Bangalore.
Jerusalem has a reputation as a conservative city. Generally, the burghers are devout and observe the Sabbath. Many take their religious studies and obligations seriously and follow the mitzvot down to the last nikkud. To outsiders, some of this may seem strange or downright insane. To give just one example, the Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest, reflection, and prayer; Jews are forbidden from working from sundown Friday until sunset on Saturday. To most, this would simply mean staying away from school or office. Some Jews, however, take it a step further and abstain from any work: they do not answer the phone, turn on the stove, or even press a button to call an elevator! In my hotel, I saw a sign for the “Shabbat elevator” and had a quiet chuckle as I remembered how seriously Shabbat is observed by some. It had been a while since I had been among so many Jews that such signs were necessary and it was positively hilarious watching others less familiar with the kooky world of Orthodox Jewry scratch their heads and try to puzzle out why anyone would want the elevator to automatically stop at each floor.
Our first stop the next day was Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. Since we got there a little before opening, we swung by the Children’s Memorial, a separate structure on site to remember the 1.5 million Jewish children who were butchered in the Shoah. I decided to also quickly run up to Mount Herzl and pay my respects to Vladimir Jabotinsky and Theodor Herzl. Unfortunately, the area was closed because of preparations for Jerusalem Day celebrations later that afternoon.
Yad Vashem is organised chronologically, from just before the beginning of the Nazi era until the creation of Israel. The memorial slopes slightly upwards and overlooks Jerusalem Valley at the end, giving the feeling of crawling out of darkness into the light. The museum is very well done, with hours of video recordings and many heart-rending exhibits. There were more than a few wet eyes among the visitors, many of them non-Israeli. Children below the age of 10 are not allowed in Yad Vashem for obvious psychological reasons.
Time at Yad Vashem is tricky – as someone who has been very interested in Jewish history, Europe, and World War II, I would have liked to spend a good four hours at the memorial. However, the topic lies so heavy that it is not easy to digest more than a couple of hours at a stretch. How long you want to budget depends on not just your interest but also your fortitude.
Overcoming the sombre mood after Yad Vashem, we headed to the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum where they kept the Dead Sea Scrolls and had a model of Jerusalem as it was during the time of the Second Temple. The building housing the Dead Sea Scrolls consists of a black wall and a white dome only a third of which is above the ground. The black and white is supposed to represent the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, an apocalyptic prophecy of war found in one of the scrolls. The inside of the building itself is also designed to resemble a cave.
About half of the scrolls are simply copies of religious texts. A quarter are writings that did not make it into the Old Testament, such as the Book of Enoch or the Book of Tobit or the Wisdom of Sirach. The last part are texts that describe the beliefs and customs of various sects in existence around the time of the Second Temple.
I was not particularly excited to see the scrolls myself; left to my own devices, I would have rather spent the time attending a lecture at Hebrew University on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Call me utilitarian but the ideas contained on the fragile parchment are far more interesting than some two-millennia-old trinkets.
Most of the scrolls were discovered in Wadi Qumran in the late 1940s and early 1950s and Israel owns the largest collection of scrolls. The government has a policy of buying any scroll that may have escaped into private hands and intends to maintain as complete a collection as possible. So far, almost a thousand scrolls have been discovered from a dozen caves.
Around noon, we headed over to Bethlehem. The city is perhaps most famous for being where Jesus was born but it is also where King David was born and where Rachel died giving birth to Ben-oni (Benjamin). Although Bethlehem was destroyed by Hadrian during the Bar Kohkba Revolt, it was rebuilt by the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine who also built the Church of the Nativity in 327. The church was subsequently damaged during one of the Samaritan uprisings against the Byzantines but was restored by Justinian.
On a side note, many people mistakenly believe that Constantine converted the Empire to Christianity but that dubious honour goes to Theodosius (and Gratian and Valentinian II) and the Edict of Thessaloniki in 380. Constantine was the first emperor to convert to Christianity and it was his Edict of Milan in 313 that legalised Christianity in Roman lands.
There are three origins to Bethlehem’s name. The town was known as Beit Lakhmu, meaning House of God in Aramaic. The Israelites called it Beit Lechem, meaning House of Bread, and the Muslims know it as Beit Laham, or House of Meat.
The Church of the Nativity is a UNESCO World Heritage site and also on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The oldest church still in existence, it marks the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. Of course, these claims are as spurious as those claiming to know the exact spot Krishna narrated the Bhagavad Gita, the tree that gave shade to Muhammad on his way to Damascus, or some other fantastic tale. Yet these things are not governed by reason but by faith.
In the basement of the church is the grotto in which Jesus was born and the manger in which the newborn was waddled. The exact spot is marked by a 14-pointed steel star with a hole in the centre and pilgrims come to kneel before the spot and touch or kiss the star.
Although the Church of the Nativity was built only in 327, the site had spiritual significance even earlier. A temple to Adonis is supposed to have stood on the same spot, and Christians claim that Hadrian had it built to erase the memory of Jesus while some scholars argue that it was the Christians who took over an ancient pagan shrine as they did in hundreds of other places. The church was rebuilt in 565 and was spared destruction when the Sassanids conquered Bethlehem because General Shahrbaraz was impressed by the depiction of the Magi, the three wise men from the East (who all seem to always wear Persian robes). The damage to the church today is from age, earthquakes over the years, and the desecration at the hands of the Turks in 1244. It has also seen renovation efforts at the hands of Crusaders and later Europeans but it has clearly not been enough.
Even from its restoration under Justinian, the church is 1,500 years old and has massive arches that would make any Gothic architect proud. However, the mosaic from the first church built by the Emperor-Mother, Helena, is still preserved and easily visible. I did not find the church particularly beautiful but that may have been because much needed renovations were going on and there was a massive crowd around the grotto and manger. However, I did notice that three sects that share the church – Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox – and got to listen to one of their liturgies. I must admit that the sambrani – benzoin/frankincense – smell during the Orthodox service was quite pleasing and calming 🙂.
Back in Jerusalem, I headed down to Jaffa Gate to witness and maybe partake in the celebrations commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem. The trams were closed to create a pedestrian zone in the area, and so I had to schlepp in a good 30 minutes. This actually turned out to be a good thing because I was able to watch the ebb and flow and delirious Israelis all waving the national flag walking around, singing, and dancing all the way from the head office of the Jerusalem Post all the past Safra Square and down to Jaffa Gate and beyond. We stopped occasionally to watch and join groups of Orthodox Jews dancing like crazy, in one case, on top of a van!
Safra Square, the site where Edmund Allenby took the keys of Jerusalem from its mayor, Hussein Salim al-Husseini, on December 11, 1917, after dismounting from his horse at Jaffa Gate and entering the city on foot, itself was oddly deserted after a concert had ended surprisingly early by 18 00. I walked around aimlessly, enjoying the festive air and the unusual friendliness of the locals until a light & sound show started on the Old City Walls. Predictably, it told the history of the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967 and then had a short speech by Mayor Nir Barkat on how much the city has developed. Interspersed were a few patriotic songs.
I later found out that the programming committee for the evening’s official celebrations had creating a small controversy in their slogan of sorts for the 50th anniversary. There were objections to the use of the word, “liberation” in referring to the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967. It was only after the mayor put his foot down that the phrase, “50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem” went to the printers.
A little earlier, I had mentioned the unusual friendliness of the locals. Customarily, Israelis (more broadly, Jews born in the Holy Land) like to compare themselves to the sabra, a local variety of cactus. The plant is prickly on the outside that protects a sweet and delicate interior. Israelis can make an art form out of being abrasive and obnoxious but they are just as often sweet, hospitable, generous, and go out of their way to help friends. Of course, the joke runs that you sometimes have to truly turn a person inside out to see the good in him!
I think one thing we did wrong not just in Jerusalem but throughout the trip was eat at middle-of-the-road restaurants. The problem with this is that you get good quality food but catering to an international crowd. Of course, Israelis down grilled chicken, fish, hummus, and falafel as well as anyone else in the Middle East but where was my kibbeh, fried haloumi, and sabbich?! I would strongly urge visitors to Israel to try the hole-in-the-wall type of eateries that one can find in any city around the world. Sure, you may have had hummus and shawarma many times and all over the world but the variations on Israel’s streets are worth trying. After all, after politics, probably nothing animates Israelis as much as what the perfect hummus is!
Despite all the fun I had, I must admit that Jerusalem does not know how to set up a good ghalyoon! There were some nice lounges in Haifa but Jerusalem was surprisingly bad. It had to do primarily with the coal they used – while Haifa used regular coals, most cafes in Jerusalem seemed to have opted for the chemical bricks that contaminate the mu’assal bowl and give off a terrible taste. I was also shocked to discover that they had only one flavour available – double apple. Luckily, that happens to be my regular choice in mixes or as a single but I would have liked the option of playing with mixes. Perhaps I just went to the bad part of town but all the ghalyoon lounges I saw by Jaffa Gate seemed to operate similarly.
We started the next day with a visit to the Temple Mount. Also known as the Haram al Sharif, there was a long line at the entrance due to security procedures. Once through, we first went to the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque. Built by the fifth Umayyad caliph, Abd al Malik ibn Marwan in 637, the mosque was built on the ruins of a Byzantine church that had stood where the Jewish Temple had once stood. Al Muqaddasi, the 10th century Arab geographer, wrote that the dome alone cost seven times the revenue of Egypt to build; the mosque was deliberately built in so lavish a style to compete with the grand cathedrals and churches built by Europeans in the Holy Land. It was, in essence, a public relations battle for the hearts and minds of the people.
The Dome of the Rock is also known as the Qubbat al Sahkra and on its esplanade can be found several other structures that were the embellishments of later rulers. The Qubbat al Silsilah, or Dome of the Chain, for example, is actually the oldest structure on the esplanade and it is the spot where Judgment Day is prophesied to occur. Arched gateways mark points of ingress and egress but stand out as Roman rather than Islamic. The varying column colours suggest that much of the building material for the Dome of the Rock and its environs was stolen from Greco-Roman ruins in the area.
When the Sassanids captured Jerusalem in 610, they handed the Temple Mount over to the Jews who promptly proceeded to build a temple. However, the Christian reconquest turned the tables on them and the incomplete construction was immediately demolished. This was perhaps the last time until the Mandate that Jews fought to take the Temple Mount and Jerusalem.
The dispute over the site today, much simplified, boils down to the belief of some Jews that the Dome of the Rock stands on the site of the Second Temple. Unlike any regular synagogue, the Temple was where Jews could perform sacrifices. More importantly, it was the spot that was believed to be the home of the Shekinah, the dwelling of the divine presence of G-d. The situation amusingly lends itself to the Jewish people echoing the Hindu cries of मंदिर वहीं बनेगा 🙂. In any case, this is the reason why many Orthodox rabbis prohibit Jews from entering the area lest they walk into the divine presence.
Today, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the third-holiest mosque in Islam. That was not the case until the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and if you have friends who went before then, be sure to ask them to show you the photos of the interior – it is truly spectacular, much like the Sultan Ahmad Mosque in Istanbul…even better.
As we walked to the Kotel, we passed by the Sha’ar HaRachamim whence the messiah is supposed to enter the Temple Mount at the end time. This gate was walled up by the Muslims and a cemetery created just outside to prevent the Christian and Jewish prophecies from coming true. Since cemeteries are considered ritually impure in Judaism, the Messiah would not be able to cross through the gate unsullied. Of course, one wonders if such obstacles mean anything to someone who is supposed to be a messiah, but that is another discussion!
Just outside the Gate of Mercy could be seen the pleasing golden onion domes of the late 19th century Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene.
To access the Wailing Wall, we had to walk through the Muslim Quarter past Ariel Sharon’s house and partly along the Via Dolorosa. Sharon’s house in the Muslim Quarter, with its huge menorah and Israeli flags was seen by many as a provocation to Israel’s Arabs and as a message by others: This is the Jewish State of Israel. The failure of politicians to deliver peace for so long has made the squabbles between Israelis and Palestinians intellectually little higher than playground tantrums but with deadly tanks and helicopter gunships thrown int the mix.
The Wall. When we finally broke into the courtyard, the sense of history was palpable. Centuries of exile, decades of conflict, and the volatile emotions of a people become half-crazed washed over me. Like the soldiers of 28 Iyar, I solemnly went to the Wall and touched 2,500 years of History.
It need not be stressed that attire should be conservative when you visit any house of worship, be it a temple, church, or mosque. In most places, that means keeping your knees and shoulders covered. Some places have culture-specific restrictions. For example, at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, men had to wear a mundu. Women, unfortunately, have extra restrictions at some shrines. Usually, this means covering your arms completely as well as legs and covering your head. At the Western Wall, a large basket of kippot was kept for anyone (men) who had forgotten their kippah at home or for Gentiles who did not have one at all. It is the custom to approach the wall after covering your head with one.
It is not uncommon for local Arab youths to harass Jewish pilgrims sometimes, especially if it is a special occasion like a bar mitzvah or a mourning. The special attire or chanting for such events gives the pilgrims away and altercations are not as rare as one might like. There are always security guards available to escort such groups to and from the Wall to reduce the chances of a conflagration.
After the Wall, we went to the last place on our list for Jerusalem – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Standing on the spot a temple to Aphrodite used to be, this church commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Church of the Nativity celebrated his birth. The building as it stands today was built in 1048 though the original had also been built by Constantine and his mother Helena. That structure was damaged by fire in 614 during the Byzantine Empire’s war with the Sassanid Empire but the church was razed to the ground on the orders of the Fatimid caliph Al Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1009 as part of a general campaign against Christian places of worship in Palestine and Egypt. Oddly, Christian monks in France managed to hold the Jews responsible and expel them for several French towns and cities. This experience also shaped Vatican policy in the Crusades and the First Crusade was fought partly to rescue Christian holy places from the hands of the Muslims.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre feels like a bewildering maze, with several shrines within. There is the Greek Orthodox Golgotha Altar, the Stone of Anointing, the Aedicule in the Rotunda, and several smaller chapels and courtyards for the Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopian Orthodox sects. While I strolled through the whole church, I did so without a guide and did not get much out of the experience except for photographs. I would strongly recommend a guide and two to three hours to see the church properly.
I spent some time at the Golgotha Altar, where Jesus is supposed to have been crucified. This is, in true Orthodox style, a most lavishly decorated section and beneath the altar is a hole where the cross was said to have been raised. On both sides of the altar is visible the Rock of Calvary, the 12th station of the Cross. This, along with the Aedicule, are the two most visited sections of the church. The Catholics have a chapel to the side, the Chapel of the Nailing of the Cross, but it is easy to walk by without noticing it before the pomp and grandeur of the Greek Orthodox display.
As soon as you enter the church is the Stone of Anointing, where Joseph of Arimathea is supposed to have prepared Jesus’ body for burial. Pilgrims rub the stone as if to take back with them some of the divinity of Jesus but the only problem with this is that the story of Jesus anointing appears only in the mid-13th century and the stone was placed there only during the restoration work in 1810.
Behind the Stone is a wall with a beautiful fresco showing the anointment and marked with the insignia of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the many Eastern Orthodox monastic fraternities that have guarded Christian interests in the Holy Land since Constantine.
The Aedicule is composed of two chambers, one holding the Angel’s Stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb and one for the tomb itself. There is usually a massive line in the rotunda as pilgrims wait in line for an opportunity to touch the stone and tourists to take photographs.
Our last stop for the day and in Israel was the Dead Sea. As everyone knows, the water body is about 430 metres below sea level and ten time saltier than the ocean, making it possible to float on the water without any effort. The hypersaline endorheic lake is about 50 kms long and nine kms wide at its extreme points and is fed by the Jordan River. The high salt content ensures that there is no flora or fauna in the lake, thus earning its name. Contrary to popular belief, the Dead Sea is not the saltiest water body in the world – that honour goes to Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, whose salinity is so high that it remains liquid even in -50°C temperatures. Due to massive diversion of water from the River Jordan, the water levels in the Dead Sea are dropping by about a metre per year and is causing environmental concern.
I suppose it is possible to just walk up to the Dead Sea and take a dip but we went to a small resort on its coast meant to cater to tourists like us. It is possible to rent towels for a small fee and there is access to showers and soap at the facility, something you will very much want to avail of to get rid of all the salt. Women – or anyone with long hair, I suppose – are advised to wear shower caps and keep the salt out of their hair or there will be plenty of time spent scrubbing in the showers. In fact, it is advised to keep the salt water out of everything – mouth, nose, and eyes – for it stings like anything and tastes awful. This, I say with experience. Goggles might be a good bet as would some sort of rubber slippers – there are plenty of rocks underneath the water and it is not difficult to cut yourself on them, another unpleasant experience in the briny water! If you want to swim in a bit, do it gently on your back.
Masada is not far from the southern tip of the Dead Sea. From Ein Gedi, it is barely 20 kms but we were near Kalya Beach, about 60 kms away. It is an important landmark in Jewish resistance to Rome and the events have cast a shadow on to Israel’s sense of its history to this day. Herod’s fortress is the site of the Israeli Defence Forces graduation ceremony, where they climb up a steep cliff at night with torches and swear an oath at the peak as dawn breaks that Masada shall not fall again. Masada is not a place you should miss on a visit to Israel but because of a snafu with the airline and the wise team that put together the itinerary, it was logistically impossible to accommodate the desert hill fortress in our trip. A real shame.
Like Jordan, there is public transport in Israel but you might be better advised to rent a car and drive or take day tours from wherever you are staying. To get to Masada from Jerusalem by bus, for example, meant that I would have had to spend a good five or six hours at the site. Even for the most ardent history buff, three hours ought to be enough on a first visit. You would still have a lot of time left over even if you hiked your way to the top. Of course, if you intend to spend most of your time in Israel in cities, public transport should be easier within cities and between Jerusalem – Tel Aviv – Haifa. The problem starts when you want to visit places a bit off the beaten path for locals, like Yardenit, Hula Valley, or Beit She’an.
As I always remind myself, a good tourist makes peace with not being able to get to everything he wants on a trip. Some countries simply need a a length of time more than can be accommodated by normative employment conditions or budgets. Our itinerary was fairly packed and we did not dawdle anywhere; this was a good trip. It was made even better by the refreshing honesty our guide in Israel exhibited. I was seated right by her on the bus and maintained a steady barrage of questions on Israeli politics with a view to understanding how and why Israel got to where it was on several fronts. Unlike most guides who sugar coat the less flattering aspects of their country to outsiders, we were given an unvarnished view of the corruption, pettiness, and occasional futility of Israeli politics.
In many ways, Israel is not that dissimilar from India. Some of its institutional bottlenecks and the inability to resolve the issues or reform the system suggests that the Jewish state has grown out of its founding ideologies. Perhaps they provided the vital anchor prior to 1948 but it is a new Jewish existence now with different problems. Unfortunately, entrenched interests make it an uphill battle to push through changes everyone knows are better for the long term even if they pinch a little in the short run.
One thing India can learn from Israel – or Jordan – is how to promote and grow tourism. At the still functioning venues that we visited, like churches, there were tour groups with guides speaking several languages; all the historical sites had audio guides available in multiple languages as well as tour guides. Since all guides must be licensed, it was obvious that these were trained Israelis with linguistic skills. In comparison, tourist destinations in India like Dholavira are abandoned, which one ends up preferring when we see imbecile tourists clamber on top of the ancient statues at Mahabalipuram, Ellora, or Khajuraho. Audio guides are non-existent, maintenance is abysmal, and tour guides usually have such a thick accent that the Lonely Planet guidebooks are your best friend!
I must also comment on an interesting aspect of the group I was with for the twelve days of this trip. It is no secret that the Indian government has tilted towards Palestine and the Arabs ever since independence. Many Indians, too busy with the struggles of daily life in newly independent and quasi-socialist India, uncritically accepted the government’s position on the Middle East as it was of no direct concern to them. Over the years, however, this support has wavered as the Middle East was seen to do little to curb Pakistan’s religious fanaticism towards India. During my trip, several members of my cohort were forever ready to use euphemisms to describe Israeli policies or rationalise them away, sometimes even more than our guide was! Although a few people can hardly be said to make a trend, this sort of opinion was unthinkable even a few years ago. By and large, more and more Indians are beginning to feel warmly for the Jewish state.
This trip was, admittedly, slightly on the shorter side for me. I have found that touristic sweet spot to be between 14 and 16 days for me – anything shorter and I am left yearning for more and anything longer leave me mentally supersaturated. Additionally, having grown up in the Middle East, this trip felt a lot like returning home. I was surprised I still remembered enough Arabic to get around and that made the Jordanian part of my trip much easier though my lack of Hebrew made Israel quite sabra-esque!
With the experiences and information gathered on this first reconnoitering mission, I can put together an itinerary for my second trip to the Holy Land within minutes. The difficulty is only in finding the means to actualise it!