Picturesque Israel

History awaits the excavator’s spade in Israel, whose diversity of sights and sounds present an enigma for the curious modern-day excavators appearing in the form of tourists loaded with laptops, video cameras and smartphones for pictures and videos that highlight their visits to a place which witnessed scenes of war and peace, religion and tragedy including the legend of David and Goliath. 

History was certainly awaiting me as I began my five-day tour of Israel. My first historical moment on the first day itself was in Tel Aviv; Israel’s commercial, cultural and financial center. I was satying at the fabulous Dan Panorama Hotel, whose name was apt for its exterior panoramic view of a beautiful beach, a picturesque brown mosque and an old stadium-like structure – that I first mistook for an ancient “Gladiator’s Arena” till our guide cleared my misunderstanding. 

Su Newman, Marketing Communications, Dan Hotels Group whose flagship King David hotel is in Jerusalem, said that Dan Hotels had hosted many celebrities over the years, including Paul McCartney, Madonna, Leonard Cohen, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Simon (The Sounds of Silence) Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Art Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Michael Jackson, and others. Also, seeing familiar Indian faces, Hotel Dan’s Maggie from Kolkata treated us to delicious cake and coffee at the Dan Panorama.

The Dan Group is making history with India being involved. “The Group is planning to build its first hotel outside Israel in the city of Bangalore,India and this will be the first of the Group’s many hotels in India,” Su Newman told me while also adding to my eco-tourism queries about archaeological diving at the ancient harbours of Caesaria and Teldor built by King Herod whose ruins have been claimed by the sea. Tel Aviv, which is listed as a “White City” by UNESCO for its unique concept of functionality, is considered todays New York because this city too “never sleeps”. “Its bustling nightlife, clubs, festivals, make it a city that knows no ends” said our guide Theodora Ascher as our escort Meir Mizrachi drove us around to see the sights and sounds of Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa. 

 “Many languages that are extinct elsewhere are still spoken in Jerusalem (including Aramaic) which was the crossroads of cultures,” said Theodora while showing us the 16th century Jaffa Gate and citadel – and the Arab Souks selling quaint souvenirs like polished “thorny crowns” (‘Jesus’ crowns) and “nard” (myrrh-like perfume). My happiest moment was as I blissfully lay my head on the tomb of Jesus Christ at the Holy Sepulchre, while other tourists restlessly waited their turn. Legend has it that the King of Scotland wished to be buried in Jerusalem but could not and sent his heart instead, which got lost somewhere, Theodora said.

“You are now enroute to Africa,” said our guide while driving along the Great Rift Valley road(which is in Africa too) before departing the coast and ascending to Mt. Carmel (550 msl) where we saw early 19th century Jewish settlements, which had been the residence of the fabulously wealthy ‘Rothschilds’ family that introduced the prototype of international banking to Israel and the world.

I was curious to see a ‘kibbutz’ and visited a modern one – the swanky Hagoshrim Kibbutz and Resort Hotel, built on ruins of the winter palace of Emir Fa’ur, who had ruled the northern Hula Valley since Ottoman times. Facing the ‘Golan Heights’ and the snowy slopes of Mount Hermon and located in a Nature Reserve filled with springs, rivulets and the Rivers Dan, Hatzbani and Banias.

A ‘Turkish Hamam’ and sauna offers a pampering treatment that eases the kinks of motor travel. Mizpe Ramon, a town in the Central Negev highlands, added colour and wildlife experience to my tour. 

Tourists visiting Jerusalem must try out the Segway tour in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe area, which will remain a memorable experience for me. Our trainer Naftali taught us to balance and steer the vehicle before leading us off in linear formation to criss-cross the vehicular traffic amidst roads and street of Jerusalem. We sped down King David Street, past the Old Ottoman Railway Station (1892-1914), atop the hill and church of Mary’s “Dormition”, (show photos) and other places before steering our way back – tired but happy – to Segway base. A Segway ride would cost Shekels 195 for a two-hour tour. 

Strangely, but in all its beauty, time appears to have stopped when people visit the Sea of Galilee. I was left ‘time’less and ‘unspectacled’ for the rest of the tour. But nothing could dampen my enthusiasm at enjoying the feeling of the historic scenery and envisioning Biblical scenes of Jesus Christ – ‘walking’ on the Sea of Galilee; drawing his 12 Apostles from their fishing nets and boats to follow him; blessing and sharing ‘five loaves and two fishes’ with a crowd of 5,000.

On our last day, we took a desert tour in the heart of the Negev desert, where we experienced the unforgettable native Bedouin hospitality. Our elderly Bedouin Muslim host – Athiya – of the Azazmi tribe served us a traditional salad and pita bread meal with orange juice, while maintaining his fast during Ramadan. 

Bedouins are considered good story-tellers and Athiya had us rocking with laughter at some humorous ones as he described his family of 11 brothers and 16 sisters, besides cabins and bungalows for young couples. 

Our spirits soared high on completing our tour itinerary as we looked forward to window-browsing and souvenir shopping in Tel Aviv. Mild desert-sand winds shadowed us and a long train ran alongside, tooting a melodious goodbye before Theodora and escort Meir dropped us at the Clock Tower square and bid a final goodbye. 

I bought amazingly huge, delicious dates and crunchy giant pistachios for my folks back home, before wandering around the antique shops that seemed lost in time and reminded me of Chor Bazar in Mumbai – where similar old stuff is sold. Seems like nearly everybody in Israel has been to India, specially Goa and Mumbai. A Moroccan woman selling pair of jeans was happy to talk about her visit to Mumbai and Goa, while offering my friend Ramnath choices in men’s pants. 

As we taxied to Ben Gurion airport, I sighed with joy at having visited the “Land of my Dreams” and wished I could come back – in a Time Machine – to relive the Biblical history of my ancestors who lived here a long, long time ago.

Old Jaffa: a beautiful fortress

Old Jaffa, where St Peter’s Church hosts the Vatican’s Middle East embassy, was a fortress till its walls disappeared piece by piece through the older inhabitants building houses nearby. 

A huge brownstone tablet highlighted the BCE (Before the Common Era or BC) chronicled the history of Old Jaffa which was conquered by Egypt’s Pharoah Thutmose III in 1500 BC.  The stone stated: “The Israelites settled in Jaffa Region in 1200 (Biblical ref; Joshua 19:46) followed by the “Sea People” (Philistines), where the famed +Cedars+ (trees) of Lebanon were brought by ’floats” in sea by King 

Solomon to Joppa (Biblical ref: II Chronicles 2:16) for building the Temple of Jerusalem. Then Jaffa was conquered by Sennacherib, King of Assyria in 701 BCE, while BCE 586 witnessed Jaffa under Persian rule with the ‘exiles’ being brought from Babylon (Here I paused to remember the song made famous by ‘Boney M’ titled “By The Rivers of Babylon” about exiled Jews in Babylon pining for their homeland of Israel); a ‘Phoenician’ colony established in 586 BCE when – Biblical legends say – Jonah boarded a ship to nowhere but enroute was considered a “bad luck” guy and thrown overboard to be swallowed by a whale for three days and nights before being dumped at Niniveh.

Byzantine rule 324 CE-640 CE witnessed massacres being perpetuated against the Jews in the 4th century, while Islamic rule saw Jaffa become the port of the Provincial capital; The CE era saw Eretz Israel coming under ‘Marmeluke’ rule, where Jaffa became the chief port of entry for travelers and pilgrims of all religions till the 20th century; Eretz Israel was conquered by Ottoman Sultan Salim I for 400 years of Turkish rule that ended in defeat in 1917 by the British forces under General Allenby. The stone also highlights Jaffa’s conquest by French Emperor Napoleon in the 17th century.


    However, a mood dampener was the Immigrations desk at the Mumbai Airport – where hundreds of passengers queued for hours literally, while a few staff manned their cubicles which were 50 percent empty. After queueing an hour and noticing I had barely 30 minutes to board my flight, I requested an immigrations official who rushed me through the Business class side, while explaining the crowds away as “shortage of – and URGENT need for more – Immigrations staff.”  The Indian Government urgently needs to look into this to boost tourism. The return journey was pleasant through seamless immigrations and customs movement in Mumbai’s beautiful Terminal II Airport, though getting a cab/rick outside for home remains a ‘nightmare’ best forgotten 

    Israel Biblical history is present today in many legendary attractions, including the “Mount of Sodom” mountain range, where our tourist guide suddenly woke me from an afternoon’s drowsy shuteye with the words that “This is where Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.” Suddenly Biblical history sprang up before me as I recalled reading that legendary story where “An angel took Lot and his family away from the city of Sodom and Gomorah – which had turned into a place of evil, and gave the world the meaning of the word: sodomy. The angel had warned Lot and his family to not look back, but his wife turned to look and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt”
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