Israel - Exactly like Nowhere Else
The Tourist Office strap line is 'Israel - Exactly like Nowhere Else'. Few countries have more evocative names - or a book (the Bible is the most widely read book in the world - 3,900 million copies sold), which tells its story. History in abundance, religious landmarks relating to three major religions, the desert, the lowest point on earth, beautiful beaches, great food and good weather. It sounds like a place to visit.
Over the Allenby Bridge through the West Bank from Jordan and into the West Bank of Palestine/ Israel. The wait at immigration isn’t too bad - though the bus is comprehensively vetted. The Arabs taking through their trucks and buses are having a much harder time. Our entry visas are stamped on pieces of paper, to be collected when we return to Jordan. The Jordanians won’t object. They don’t recognise the State of Israel at this time. So we aren’t deemed to have strayed over the border.
Israel - the Biblical Holy Land
Most importantly, Israel is synonymous with the Biblical Holy Land. The earliest known archaeological artefact to mention the word "Israel" is the Egyptian Merneptah Stele (dated to the late 13th century BC). The name Israel (Struggle with God in Hebrew), derives from the Biblical patriarch, Jacob, who successfully wrestled with the angel of the Lord. Jacob's twelve sons became the ancestors of the Israelites, - the Twelve Tribes of Israel. as we all know from the musical, Jacob and his sons had lived in Canaan but were forced by famine to go into Egypt for four generations, lasting 430 years. Moses, a descendant of Jacob, eventually led the Israelites back into Canaan during the "Exodus".
Canaan, the Promised Land, Israel, Judah (which gave the Jews their name). The boundaries of these areas are historically fluid - at times they refer to the same area. It's thought that the kingdom of Israel centred around its capital Samaria, with Judah (capital Jerusalem) to the south.
Around 1000 B.C. King David ruled the region. David’s’ son, Solomon, built the first temple in Jerusalem. From 722 B.C. onwards the area was invaded and conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians (who destroyed the first temple, which was replaced by a second temple in about 516 B.C), the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Egyptians, Mamelukes, Islamists and others. The Bible tells the early part of is story much better than I can.The displaced Jewish population was dissipated around the world. Many Jews maintained links with their ancient homeland, especially following Nazi persecution and the Zionist movement grew up. In the late nineteenth century Jews began to relocate in what became known as Palestine (modern-day Israel, Palestine and Jordan).
The Modern State of Israel
Great Britain took control of the area, at the end of World War I, after the defeat of the Turks, when it was known as the Mandate of Palestine. After much negotiation, the independent state of Israel was declared, on May 14, 1948, with David Ben-Gurion as the prime minister. Throughout Israel’s long history, tensions between Jews and Arab Muslims have existed. The complex hostility between the two groups dates all the way back to ancient times, when they both populated the area and deemed it holy. War erupted shortly after the State of Israel was declared and hostilities have continued since. Most notably has been the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Suez Crisis, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
The geo politics of the region, are contentious and not easy to explain. There is ongoing conflict. Please read up for yourself. My understanding is, that according to international law, Israel currently occupies land on the West Bank, East Jerusalem and other areas, which legally belongs to Arab nations, Palestine in particular. So I have written about that region in a separate post, under the heading Palestine.
Nazareth and Galilee, Israel
North to Nazareth, huge and bustling. I'm thinking it's very different to the scenes in the Bible. There it is described as the home of Mary and Joseph. In the old city, the turreted Basilica of the Annunciation is, some believe, where the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear a child. St. Joseph’s Church is said to be the site of Joseph’s carpentry workshop. The underground Synagogue Church is reputedly where Jesus studied and prayed.
Next, Lake Galilee (very little fishing going on today). It's the scene of miracles, such as the Wedding at Cana, and the Feeding of the Five Thousand, with the loaves and the fishes. It's also the spot where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount (before he fed the attendees). The loaves and fishes are represented in one of the mosaics in the church at Tabgha, as this area is where the miracle is said to have taken place.
In New Testament times, Capernaum was a fishing village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Archaeological excavations have revealed two ancient synagogues built one over the other. They're amongst the oldest synagogues in the world. A house turned into a church by the Byzantines is also believed to have been the home of Saint Peter.
South to Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world. It's considered to be a holy city for the three major Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Both Palestine and Israel claim it as their capital, and it is currently the seat of government for Israel. Most of the major world powers have failed to recognise either claim, as the dispute between Palestine and Israel is ongoing and long running. East Jerusalem (mainly the Old City) and the Bethlehem city area are designated legally as belonging to the West Bank occupied territories. So, read about those visits here. Jerusalem is exceptionally quiet. Most of the stall holders are on strike, so the souks are empty, the shops all shuttered.
From Palestine, south into the Israeli Desert. Ein Gedi, (spring of the kid), is an oasis, an archaeological site and a nature reserve, to the west of the Dead Sea. It's a relaxing place to stop, admire the date palms and enjoy the sprinkle of water in the falls.
Onto the isolated hilltop fortress city of Masada. Herod the Great (many mentions in the Bible) captured the area and built his palace on the table like top (400 metre drop in one direction 90 metres in the other), in anticipation of further revolts. It sprawls over three rock terraces. There's a Roman-style bathhouse with mosaic floors and it is notoriously difficult to access.
Here, we are persuaded that this is one of those views that is best experienced at sunrise. So we are forced to arise at 3 a.m. to trek up countless steps and slippery paths and appreciate the sunrise over the Dead Sea.
To be fair, it’s a worthwhile enterprise, if a starkly brown vista. It brings home the sadness and courage of the splinter group, the Sicarii, who made their last stand against the Romans, here in AD70. They committed mass suicide, rather than surrender, setting most of the buildings ablaze. (960 men, women, and children in total. Only two women and five children were found alive).
We are rewarded an hour to recuperate after our exertions, by bobbing in the Dead Sea. It’s so saline that your arms and legs stick upwards and it's almost impossible to swim properly. The Dead Sea has 300g salt per litre. as opposed to the Mediterranean's 33g.(I think there’s a cable car at Masada now.)
The story of the remainder of this journey is to be found under Jordan.