The featured pic at the top is Tel Aviv towards evening, taken from the old port city of Jaffa, which has been absorbed into Tel Aviv and is now the stylishly renovated waterfront precinct that all self-respecting coastal cities must have.
This was my last full day in Israel. We drove to Haifa in the north, then turned south and drove down the coastal highway through the ancient Roman-era city of Caesarea and on to Tel Aviv/Jaffa. We had to go through part of the West Bank again. There are security checkpoints at every entrance/exit but our tourist bus passed through unmolested each of the half a dozen times we went in and out.
It didn’t take long to get to Haifa up near the border with Lebanon. The area of Israel, including the West Bank (for geographical, not political purposes), is around 29,000 square km. As originally defined it’s a bit over 22,000. I was talking to Adel about this on the bus and we compared the size of Tasmania – 68,000 sq km or more than twice the area of greater Israel/Palestine. He was amazed that only half a million people lived in such an area, considering there are 9 million in Israel.
Religious hermits started to inhabit caves here in the Carmel mountains in the 13th century (thank you Wikipedi). That’s how they became the Carmelites. They were booted out after the muslim Mamluks took over in 1291, but by then the order had spread to Europe with returning defeated Crusaders. They came back to the Holy Land in the 17th century. This is the site of the original ‘Star of the Sea’ – ‘Stella Maris’.
As you would expect with such an ancient site, buildings have been demolished, damaged and rebuilt many times, like this church. A muslim ruler ordered it totally destroyed in 1821 but it was rebuilt in 1836, used by both the British and the Israelis as a military HQ at one stage in the 20th century but eventually given back to the Carmelites.
One of the most damaging episodes was Napoleon’s 1799 campaign to take over the Levant to block off British access to India. He failed, but left behind sick and wounded soldiers in this monastery. When he left, the Turks slaughtered them all.
If you enlarge the pic you might see in the furthest distance a pale white headland. That is Lebanon. The white infrastructure midway along that distant coast is the city of Acre, famously lost by Crusaders in the 13th century and resistant to siege by Napoleon in 1799.
This Baha’i ended up with their HQ in Israel because that’s where the founder fled after being expelled from Persia as a heretic. Quick reminder: Baha’i religion is a 19th century creation with three main principles: the unity of God, the unity of religion and the unity of all humankind (which includes equality of races and sexes, god bless ’em). This fabulous World-Heritage-listed spot was opened to the public in 2001 but planning for the shrine and gardens started in 1897.
Next stop the ancient city of Caesarea halfway down the coast. It was built by King Herod to curry favour with the Roman emperor, and it worked. It had a hippodrome, an amphitheatre and what they claim was the first artificially created deep water port in the world. Augustus loved it.
The Roman ruins are now part of Caesarea National Park. The Rothschild family used to own lots of land around here but sold it to raise money for a foundation which supports archaeological research. They donated the land for the park to the Israeli government. The investment shows; the tourist infrastructure at this historic site – galleries, washrooms, theatres, cafes, restaurants – is refreshingly upmarket. No touts or trash, or not much. There are a couple of theatres screening short documentary re-enactment videos about Herod and the Romans. They look like those cheesy sword-and-sandal epics of the fifties and sixties but the huge screens, comfy chairs and air-conditioning make up for the crap acting and dubbing.
Then it’s onward to Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Jaffa is an ancient Mediterranean port now absorbed into greater Tel Aviv. Much of the waterfront has been creatively and pleasingly transformed, as mentioned at the start, into an attractive Salamanca-style precinct.
Just beyond the seawall here lie Andromeda’s Rocks, where Andromeda was chained to be sacrificed to the sea monster but Perseus, son of Zeus, happened to be passing by, spotted her, fell in love with her instantly, rescued her and married her after chopping off the head of the sea monster which became the rocks. True story.
A few streets back from the beach strip the buildings are a bit more ramshackle but still have charm, I think.
They would have the odd earthquake in the Mediterranean from earthquakes.
I heard a loud siren wail and looked around to see whence it came. Might have had something to do with the Gaza rocket alarm of half an hour earlier. Turned out to be this tiny little thing. You see lots of these cars, also in Rome but I mustn’t get ahead of myself.
People have asked me about the Israelis as … people. You often hear that they’re brusque or aloof or downright rude. Our itinerary notes said that they tend to value directness and honesty over politeness and the need to be liked.
It’s so hard to generalise, especially with a multicultural people like this who really only share religion. There were some who reminded me of New Yorkers – indeed, we met a man in Caesarea who was born in Brooklyn but emigrated many years ago and who sounded just like Woody Allen.
There are many dark-skinned people, but it’s hard to know whether they are Ethiopian Jews – the Falashas – some of whom have lived here for centuries and some who were brought here in thousands from Africa in the late 20th century under the right of return of all Jews to Israel. They reportedly struggle to integrate socially and economically, but presumably they’re better off than the many illegal African immigrants who’ve come in recent years, as they have to many places in Europe.
The people you meet at Customs and Passport Control tend to be fairer, taller, more European looking – Ashkenazy, I suppose. They were like such folk everywhere – polite but bored and humorless. Also there are zillions of Russians, but again, it’s hard to tell whether they’re temporary workers or Russian Jews who’ve settled here. The taxi driver who took me to the airport in Tel Aviv was such a man. He was blond, overweight and spoke almost no English, although I managed to extract from him that he’d been in Israel 18 years. And there are squillions of Russian tourists, although you can usually pick tourists.
When we were unloading from the bus at our Tel Aviv hotel, an older lady walking past called out ‘shalom, shalom!’ (welcome) with a big beaming smile. And there was a funny little woman minding the ladies toilet at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem who talked loudly and merrily to the women in the queue – hello, shalom, where are you from? – laughing and bursting into song occasionally – I caught a line or two of ‘Ave Maria’.
We had a pitstop on the day of the coastal drive at a roadside stop that was as soulless and crass as those places are everywhere. Anyway, two young girls pushed in in front of me and English John patiently queueing at the junk food counter. ‘The Israelis don’t seem to go in for queueing’, said John with a disapproving frown. I agreed about the queueing but said the offenders looked more like Asian tourists to me. He looked again and said ‘I suppose so’.
Then again, some of my fellow travellers found the young staff at the Tel Aviv hotel unhelpful and unfriendly while I found them the exact opposite. I can’t help thinking a certain amount of prejudice confirmation and persistent mind-closure was going on.
AND there was nowhere near as much rubbish as in Jordan or Lebanon, although I suspect this has more to do with economics and governance than culture or religion. In fact I’d put out my shirt on it.