by Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: I looked at Israel in 1998, a more hopeful time for peace in the region. One can only hope that such relative peace will one day return. I also looked at Israel in 2012, so you may wish to peruse my new essay An Israel Travel Itinerary. Below, I have updated the earlier article.)
I had come to Israel, the Holy Land, as a secular pilgrim, to experience the cultural spirituality of this remarkable region, birthplace of the three great monotheist religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And I wanted to assess how hopeful it was that the Jews and Arabs/Palestinians of Israel could get along.
My curiosity may parallel yours. Israel is in the news almost daily. Over 400 foreign correspondents are permanently based in Jerusalem, second only in press corp size to Washington D.C.
As a secular pilgrim, here were the three most intriguing experiences of my trip.
Old Jerusalem, entirely surrounded by a wall, is one of the most moving spiritual places I have experienced.
Each of the three major monotheist religions has some of its most sacred places here.
The Jews have their Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, a section of the temple that the Romans destroyed in 70 A.D. Rabdinnical teaching holds that a divine presence remains here. The fervor of Jews who pray here, “wailing” in lament over the destruction of the temple, is unmistakable. Small pieces of paper with messages on them are stuck in the cracks because of the belief that prayers sent from here are likely to be answered. The supplicant may be a black-garbed devout Jew, known as a Hasid, or an Israeli soldier carrying a rifle. Women have a place along the wall separate from men for their prayers.
Moslems have their Dome of the Rock, built in the 7th century. From a rock beneath this dome, Mohammed is said to have leapt to heaven to take his place with Allah. The dome is an architectural gem, with a blue mosaic ceramic exterior and a golden roof. The interior has rich ornamental detail that one could meditate over for an hour.
Christians have their Stations of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa, that Christ walked before he was crucified, plus the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church is jointly administered by several Christian denominations. Franciscans were holding a service during my visit. One of the ironies, my guide informed me, is that the Christian sects squabble over the hours during which the church should be open, so the keys are kept by a Moslem attendant.
On my own, after the guided day, I had time to observe the several thousand people who live within the tight quarters of Old Jerusalem. The narrow streets came to life with schoolchildren and shopkeepers. At a small restaurant I watched the parade as I scooped up delicious chick-pea humus with pita bread, savored some tasty lamb shiskabob, and washed this down with Israeli wine. Each of the religious groups has carefully delineated living quarters for its community. Archaeology continues to progress here. I visited the current site of exploration, the South Wall, where the stone architectural grandeur of King Herod, from the time of Christ, is duly appreciated.
In the zeal evident at all three shrines I could see the religious sentiment that had brought such joy, inspiration, artistic energy, comfort, grief, devastation, and destruction to the human race. The pillaging of the Christian Crusaders and the rapacity of the Moslem Suleyman the Great in the 16th century are equally grim tales. The ambivalence I felt at all these sites was overwhelming. They reminded me of who we are, as humans, with all our beauty and ugliness.
Jordan Valley and the Galilee
Next I drove east and north to see the Jordan River Valley, the West Bank (of former Jordan, now in Israel), and The Galilee, a bucolic area associated with Christ. A ride through this rural landscape served as a counterpoint to the urban walk in Jerusalem.
Immediately east of Jerusalem I saw Bedouins, tending their herds of goats and sheep in this arid environs and living in tents, as they have from time immemorial. However, a few portable electric generators and satellite TV dishes were apparent.
Turning north along the Jordan River, I witnessed mile after mile of the Israeli agricultural miracle, making the desert productive with all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Water catchment ponds in the valleys adjacent to the mountains, drip irrigation, and controlled greenhouse environments support this farming. The large food production feeds Israel and generates significant export revenue.
The lands controlled by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank include the ancient city of Jericho, inhabited for over 10,000 years, and a patchwork of other parcels joined by highways where the Israelis maintain security. Complicating the situation are the Jewish settlements scattered across the West Bank. Sorting all this out is an enormous task, given the competing claims for land in many areas and the inherent security risks in the present arrangement.
Next I stopped at one of the most lavish archaeological sites in Israel, Bet She’an. This elaborate, wealthy Roman town, destroyed in a earthquake in 749 A.D., was excavated only in 1979. The dig has uncovered a 7,000-seat theater, an amphitheater for gladiator-type shows, and numerous columned public temples and buildings. Of particular beauty are the intact ceramic mosaics of horses that were the street-paving décor of the day.
Farther north is the freshwater Sea of Galilee. Along the north side of this fish-rich lake are several sites associated with Jesus. His favorite town was said to be Capernaum, which enjoys a garden-like Mediterranean look. The Mount of the Beatitudes, where Christ delivered his famous “Blessed are the peacemakers…” doctrine, ranks as one of the loveliest settings in the country and is today relatively free of commercialism. This pastoral green landscape is truly the land of milk and honey.
Masada abd the Dead Sea
East and south from Jerusalem lies the fortress Masada and the tour de force salty Dead Sea, the final memorable encounters during my Israel visit.
Masada is a lavish mountain-top stronghold built by Kind Herod 36-30 B.C. Herod was a master builder, here and at a dozen other sites. He envisioned Masada as an impregnable fortress where he and several thousand followers could withstand years of siege. Masada had an ingenious water catchment system that directed the rains into vast underground reservoirs. Herod’s quarters were particularly posh, especially his bath, as was the custom of the day. Some of the colored wall frescoes have been preserved. Herod died without ever using Masada.
When the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D., about 960 Jewish zealots from the city and elsewhere escape to Masada, defeating the small Roman garrison left there to maintain it. An incensed Roman commander ordered the retaking of Masada at all costs, committing 10 Roman legions to the task. The zealots withstood the siege for 2-1/2 years, finally choosing mass suicide over capitulation to the Romans. The phrase “Masada Never Again” resonates in the modern Jewish vision, meaning Israel must never allow itself to be placed in such a desperate situation of subjugation, where death would be the more attractive alternative.
On the drive to Masada, which is on the western shore of the Dead Sea, I passed a rugged mountain landscape dotted with caves. At a cave site known as Qumran, a Bedouin shepherd boy searching for a stray goat in 1947 happened upon an urn filled with scrolls. These records became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical documents. They can now be seen at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Besides seeing Masada, bathing in the Dead Sea was a treat. The salt content is roughly 10 times as dense as ocean water, making my body buoyant, allowing me to float easily. Salt in the water draws water out of the body, opening and cleansing the pores. Mud treatments are also possible. The abundance of bromide salt is said to have a tranquilizing effect on bathers. I stopped at the resort Ein Gedi for my ritual immersion.
No area on earth can excite in a traveler a more profound sense of attachment to the long story of human history.
If the peace process ccan ever return, Israel and the adjacent region, especially Jordan and Egypt, will benefit greatly from tourism. The future of the area is bound up in the ability of the Jews and Palestinians to cooperate. I remember early one evening I had just left the Church of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, where a Catholic mass was beginning. Outside, in the twilight of this Palestinian town, the haunting cry of the holy man signaled Moslems to come together in prayer, an event that happens simultaneously all over the country. The evening was also the Sabbath, so Jews were gathered in prayer. For a moment, it seemed, universal peace reigned over the land. This was my fondest memory of Israel, a land whose fertile valleys and austere deserts gave birth to the religious heritages informing much of the world today.
Israel: If You Go
The main tourism information source is the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, www.goisrael.com.