By David Lindeman
For the Troy Daily News
Israel is a small country the size of New Jersey. It has just 8 million citizens, which is more than three million people fewer than Ohio. Yet, when it comes to religion, history and politics, Israel in many ways is the center of the world. And it’s a fascinating place to visit.
Ohioans like to think something is special if it has been around for a couple hundred years. In Israel, the story goes back more than 5,000 years and includes many different cultures and religions. You can barely turn around without running into another place where some significant and often world-changing event took place. It’s simply amazing to stand in places that were familiar to Abraham, David, Jesus, Saladin, Richard the Lion Hearted and countless other historical figures.
It’s impossible to cover in one story (or even a single book), but here’s an overview of what to expect for a first-time visitor.
The Christian Walk
One of the main attractions for visitors is the story of Jesus. It’s ironic that the sites most connected with his story have become scenes of discord among various Christian groups who want to control them. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the Crucifixion and resurrection, is also famous for the running fight among the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic s and others who compete for attention there. You can’t help but think if Jesus were going to show up today, he wouldn’t be hanging out in such places.
Still, they’re worth a visit if at least to say you’ve been there. Another example along the same lines is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church has been there since the 6th century, but no one has figured out crowd control during the ensuing 14 centuries. If you’re expecting a chance to quietly contemplate the birth of the savior, this isn’t the place to do it.
Much more in line with the spirit of Jesus are the sites in Galilee, where you will have more time to consider the momentous implications of his life. You can visit the traditional sites for the Sermon on the Mount, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the Transfiguration, as well as visiting Capernaum, where Jesus performed so many miracles.
This area includes the Jordan River, which as far as rivers go isn’t much but as far as significance is in a class by itself. As is the case of many things in Israel, there are various places where it is claimed that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
That brings up an important part of visiting Israel. You might not find the exact spot where things happened, but you will be close and that’s what matters. Whether it was Point A or Point B isn’t so much the issue is that this is the area where it all happened.
In Jerusalem, there’s the Garden Tomb, the protestant version of where Jesus’s death and resurrection happened, as well as the Mount of Olives and Caiaphas’ House, where Jesus was imprisoned. Tracing the steps of Jesus could take up all your time, but there also are other things to see …
The Jewish Story
The Old Testament atmosphere is still alive in Israel, where the stories of Abraham, David and the prophets come to life. Israelis are absolutely fanatical about archaeology, and you can hardly take 10 steps without stumbling into another historical dig of some kind.
You can’t go to Israel without visiting the Western Wall, the sacred place of Judaism. You also have to visit the City of David and if you’re up to it, make the trip through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a remarkable (and dark) tunnel cut through the rock to ensure the city’s water supply. You get to slosh through the water and marvel at the ancient Hebrew engineering.
No visit to Israel is complete without a journey to Masada, where the last Jewish holdouts against the Romans committed suicide rather than surrender. You can couple the visit with a trip to the Dead Sea where you can learn its remarkable story and float in the salt water at the lowest place on Planet Earth.
Masada, along with the Temple Mount, Herodium and other sites, were built by Herod the Great (yes, that Herod), and you’ll be amazed by the massive building projects this ambitious and paranoid leader completed.
Modern history is dominated by the Zionist movement and the Holocaust. A trip to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, helps put modern Israel into perspective.
The Old City
The Old City of Jerusalem is a combination of reverence and commerce.
The reverence comes from many Jewish, Christian and Moslem holy sites. The remarkable thing is how close all these areas are to one another. The Western Wall, the places where Jesus walked, Mount Moriah and the Dome of the Rock all are piled on top of each other.
Visiting the Temple Mount, the site of the Dome of the Rock, takes some planning. Get there early and don’t take anything extra. Don’t wear Christian jewelry or bring a Bible. That also brings up another issue — whenever you’re visiting any holy site, whether it be the Temple Mount or an old church, dress appropriately. In other words, don’t dress like an American, leave your shorts, short skirts and sleeveless shirts in your suitcase.
The commerce comes from the many shops in the Old City’s Jewish, Christian, Moslem and Armenian quarters. It’s kind of like a Strawberry Festival on steroids. Lots of tourist stuff, but also some interesting items and lots of things to eat and drink in an exotic setting. Wandering the streets of the Old City is a lot of fun (and, yes, it’s safe — the biggest threat is showing too much interest in something and being chased down by an overzealous shop owner wanting to make a sale).
The Other History
Israel’s location at the meeting place of Asia, Europe and Africa has made it strategically important since — well, since forever. There are layers of history here, from Egyptians to Babylonians and Assyrians, Greeks and Persians, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, British and finally Zionists. It’s a historian’s dream come true.
Beit Sh’ean is a must-see sight if you’re interested in archaeology, but it is just one of many such sites that are worth a visit. Ancient Jewish and Crusader battlegrounds stand next to famous places from Israel’s 1948 fight for independence and later wars. And you can always take in a place famous for past battles and one big future battle — Megiddo.
Well, Should I Go?
Absolutely. There is no place on Earth where so many different cultures and dreams meet in so small an area. You will see lots of soldiers in places where you don’t see them here; you will get hot; you will walk a lot; you will have to figure out how to work with kosher regulations and the Jewish Sabbath as well as other Muslim and Jewish holidays. But it’s all worth it.
It’s a land of contrasts. We saw an orthodox Jew playing Led Zeppelin on his guitar for contributions in a mall. Orthodox Jews and Christian monks walking through the Arab Quarter. A Segway tour on the Hass Promenade enjoying the view of Jerusalem – with one of the participants carrying An Uzi and four others with big guns in their belts. It’s the secular Tel Aviv and the religious Jerusalem, the well-ordered Jewish agricultural areas and the almost chaotic look of the fields on the West Bank.
It’s a land where everyone talks about peace but that has been the center of armed conflict for many centuries. An exceptionally violent place that was chosen by Jesus for his message of peace. A place with a rich history and an uncertain future.
In short, it’s one of the most fascinating places on the planet. You won’t be able to take it all in on one visit, but you will never regret making the effort.
David Lindeman is a former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected]