Ancient and Modern Israel on the Mediterranean

If you haven’t done so already, please check out Part I and Part II posts about my visit to Israel.

After leaving the area of Galilee, we headed to the very northwestern part of Israel on the Mediterranean. There, right on the border with Lebanon (in fact you can see right across the border into Lebanon), is a beautiful grotto called Rosh Hanikra. The grotto was formed over the millennia by erosion, where the water from the sea gradually wore down the soft, limestone rock. The water around the area is a beautiful turquoise color, and looks really inviting for a swim.

Not far from Rosh Hanikra is the World Heritage city of Akko (also known as Acre). Akko’s primary history dates back to the Medieval era, when it was used as a port city by crusaders to rest on their way to Jerusalem. There are extensive remains of a citadel left over from the period, which are in excellent condition. The citadel includes a fascinating old prison, which was actually used recently during British colonial rule to detain activists belonging to the Zionist resistance movement. There is also a huge complex of inter-connected halls, which contained dining areas, shops, and residential areas for the crusaders to rest. Recent excavations have also revealed a tunnel that connects the citadel with the port. You can explore this narrow tunnel and walk in the same footsteps as the crusaders hundreds of years ago. Akko is a huge site, and probably deserves at least a full day to really explore fully, although unfortunately we only had a couple of hours to spend there.

Moving further south, but inland from the coast, is the biblical town of Nazareth. According to scripture, this is where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would give birth to Jesus. There is a huge church built over the cave where Mary lived during this time. In fact, there are actually three churches: the first was built during Byzantine times, and the remains of which can still be seen. A second church was built on the same spot during the Middle Ages, and a third church was built above this during the modern era. The Church of the Annunciation, as it is named, is the largest basilica in all of the Middle East. At the lowest level, which is currently underground relative to modern-day Nazareth, you can actually peer into the cave where Mary lived. After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he returned to Nazareth to live until he reached adulthood.

Not too far from the ancient city of Nazareth is the modern city of Haifa. Haifa is the third largest city in Israel in terms of population, and is sometimes referred to as the Silicon Valley of Israel because of the many tech companies with offices there, including Google, Microsoft, and Intel. While there isn’t too much of interest to see in Haifa, one thing you shouldn’t miss are the huge Baha’i gardens in the middle of the city, which are spread across 19 different terraces. The Baha’i gardens and shrine are the holiest site for members of the Baha’i faith, which is a relatively new religion that originated in Persia as recently as the 19th century.

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The Baha’i Gardens in Haifa

Leaving Haifa and continuing south, we came across the ancient city of Caesarea, which was built by King Herod the Great in the 1st century BC, with sponsorship by the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar (whom the city is named after). Caesarea was an important city for the Roman and Byzantine empires, and was also used as a base by Pontius Pilate, a Roman general who gave the order for Jesus to be crucified. Caesarea also has significance in biblical history as being the place where St. Peter baptized the first gentile.

The ruins of Caesarea are pretty extensive, with a large theatre (which has since been reconstructed and is still used for concerts), aqueduct, and hippodrome for staging chariot races. Interestingly, there are also the remains of Roman toilets right outside the entrance to the hippodrome! Aside from exploring the ruins, Caesarea occupies a beautiful position directly overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. There is a pretty beach on the site to stroll around, or you can climb over rocks on the shore for some great views of the city and sea.

Our final stop on the trip was the modern city of Tel Aviv. Although Tel Aviv is a large, traffic-choked city, it actually originated as an extension of nearby Jaffa, a city that dates back 4000 years and is one of the oldest ports in the world. Wandering around Old Jaffa’s narrow, traffic-free streets, you feel like you are in a completely different world, despite its close proximity to Tel Aviv. I thought it was interesting to check the various exhibits of modern art that are on public display in the Artist’s Quarter, or to explore the alleyways and admire the authentic Ottoman-style architecture.

Back in Tel Aviv, there is a beautiful beach and promenade to stroll along and people watch. Although Tel Aviv is somewhat short on must-see sights, one of the more interesting attractions is the Independence Hall, where David Ben Gurion (the first prime minister of Israel) declared the existence of the modern state of Israel in 1948, right as the British occupation was about to end. You can visit the room where Israel’s independence was declared. This declaration occurred at a very tumultuous time, as it was just hours before the Shabbat, and Israel was also anticipating an impending invasion by the surrounding Arab nations, which opposed Israel’s existence.

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The Independence Hall in Tel Aviv

It seemed fitting to end the trip in Tel Aviv, and its history relating to the establishment of modern Israel was like a book-end to all of the ancient and biblical sites that we had visited all throughout the trip. Overall, I found Israel to be one of the most historically fascinating countries that I’ve encountered during my travels. In part because of its unique location as a crossroads between three different continents, it has a culture, history, and mystique about it that is rarely found anywhere else in the world.

 

 

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