The Holy Land. The Promised Land. The Land of Milk and Honey. Few countries have as many nicknames as Israel. And that’s before we add other claimants, like Palestine or the Land of Canaan. There’s as many names as variations of hummus. The signposts and cuisine say something about the country’s delectability. And contestability. For every two Israelis there are eleven opinions, the saying goes. But don’t get the locals started on who first mashed chickpeas.
This narrow strip of the Levant, lapped by the Mediterranean and less than one-third the size of Tasmania, means different things to different faiths and cultures. It polarises and provokes passion. It’s the Start-Up Nation (another nickname) that’s been around for thousands of years. ‘I thought this was a work trip?’, quipped a family member seeing a photo of me atop a camel. Yes, I went to Israel on business. But the real business of Israel is its historical richness. This isn’t a stay-in-and-order-room-service destination. No one asked me about the floating of the dollar. But everyone wondered if I’d floated in the Dead Sea or touched the Western Wall or visited the fort of Masada. Yes, yes and yes! Being a good visitor – inquisitive, engaged and respectful – is good for business. Foreigners have been taking an interest in these parts for thousands of years. I’m just the latest. Although locals joke that ‘if Moses had GPS he would have gone somewhere else.’
It’s said that in this part of the world God’s only a local call away. In Jerusalem, He lives next door! Crammed into the limestone lanes of the Old City are some of the most sacred sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. I was struck – not by projectiles – but by the harmony. People going about their business friendlily and without fuss. Jews and gentiles, priests and pilgrims, Muslims and military conscripts. And cats. Dozens of feral felines introduced by the British after World War I to control the rat population. It’s worked. I didn’t spot a rat. The fate of rodents aside, the nearest I came to violence was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the sites where Jesus was crucified and buried before ascending to heaven. When my tour group attempted a shortcut through the long line waiting to visit Jesus’s tomb (his sepulchre), all hell broke loose (not so fanciful in these surrounds). The pilgrims thought we were pushing in. Hackles rose and someone channelling the wizard Gandalf insisted ‘You shall not pass’. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they’re too late – the tomb’s empty.
The Church was begun by (Saint) Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. It’s a collection of chapels, chambers and cloisters that looks unfinished. It’s breathtaking and chaotic at the same time. And very spiritual. We entered via the roof, where Ethiopian monks live. Other Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox denominations claim space within. They can never agree on things. It was a wise move by Saladin, who expelled the Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187, to entrust the task of opening and closing the Church to two Muslim families. They remain on the job to this day. The Old City’s beyond old – it’s ageless. Israeli flags flutter everywhere but maybe Jerusalem – which derives from the word shalom, meaning peace – belongs to all humanity.
Every hotel in Israel seems to be called the David Hotel. The manager of one of them, named David too, explained the difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the country’s beachside business capital: ‘In Tel Aviv, God’s a DJ, there are more bars than synagogues, and your body is your temple.’ Tel Aviv reminds me of the Gold Coast – hot, high-rise, hedonistic and handsome. I can understand why people move here for lifestyle not just faith. There’s even McDonalds. Kosher, of course. Tel Aviv eats late and parties early. Especially in Jaffa, the ancient port in the city’s south, which has a strong Arab flavour. There’s a shabby-chicness to the bars, restaurants, galleries and markets (souks). Given the port’s 4,000 year’s old, the shabby is authentic. And delightfully so.
I took up the cross to pursue my own crusade – in the name of history rather than a divinity. Crusader architecture is beautiful and imposing. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Saint Anne’s, named after the mother of the Virgin Mary, received my devotions in Jerusalem. While the coastal ruins of Caesarea and Castle Pilgrim, now a training zone for Israeli naval commandos, earned my wonder in the north. During my exploring of the Horns of Hattin battlefield site near the Sea of Galilee, named after the twin-peaked extinct volcano where Saladin crushed the Crusaders on 4 July, 1187 (an Independence Day of sorts), I was surprised to find groves of eucalyptus trees. They were planted to drain the country’s swamps and reduce the risk of disease. Job done, the evergreen Aussie natives have now become favourites with the region’s bees because they blossom most of the year, performing miracles for the Israeli honey industry. Another miracle is the largely-preserved compound of the Knights of St John (the Hospitallers) in Acre, which served as the Crusader capital after the loss of Jerusalem. The Knights are best known today for their eponymous ambulance service. Below the city are hundreds of metres of tunnels dug by the Templars linking their fortress to the port. Remarkably, they were only re-discovered in 1994 after a resident above complained about a blocked sewer pipe. Luckily, as they say in the classics, ‘shit happens’.
While the locals might be expecting someone else, I look forward to my second coming to Israel. Inshallah. If God wills it.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10