A pass a few more holy sites and a couple of miracles on our way to Tel Aviv
08.06.2012 - 12.06.2012
As much as you read and see about Israel in the news, spending time in Jerusalem you would be forgiven for thinking that the area is peaceful and stable. We decided to get our finger closer to the pulse, and head north into the Golan Heights. As late as the 70's the area was still an active war-zone, copping the brunt of Israeli and Lebanese/Syrian hostilities. Since the annexation of the Golan by Israel in 80's, the area has been mostly peaceful and is now dotted with many national parks and farms, making it a great area to explore. Just as long you can avoid the minefields!
The biggest problem when travelling in the Golan is the non-existent public transport. With this in mind, we decided to hire a car (a fairly cheap exercise in Israel) and headed north from Jerusalem. When you sign your car rental agreement, it states quiet clearly that the car must not be driven into the Palestinian Territories. However, the quickest route between Jerusalem and the Golan Heights runs directly through the West Bank. We were prepared for a long detour, until we learned an interesting fact. It turns our that Israel controls a highway which runs directly through the West Bank connecting the Holy City with the north of the country. Not something that shows up on your basic map of the region. In a similar scenario to that at the border crossing, although we weren't allowed to drive our car into the West Bank, we could drive through it along this designated highway, bordered on either side by high barbed wire fences. A couple of hours, and a check-point later, we arrived on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, sight of Jesus' miraculous water walk. As we found out over the next few days, this area is cluttered with more Biblical sights than you can poke a stick at. We ended our first day of travel in what would be our base for the next few days, the mega-hotel town of Tiberias. Not the most beautiful location, but it fitted our needs.
Unlike many of the Arab nations in the Middle East region, Israelis are lovers of hiking and outdoor pursuits. This is reflected in their national park network, which is extensive and well maintained. We spent the next three days driving between one park and another, soaking up the spectacular views and beautiful hikes. Although the main roads and national parks are clean and new, the scars of war are never far away. Driving along many of the roads can be unnerving as fences rise up on either side with large signs; 'Danger: Minefield'. At one point, whilst pulled into a rest stop, we noticed the broken wreckage of a tank sitting beside the road. Not your everyday highway debris. Despite all this, the areas which are safe to enter seem to have remained pristine. The parks offer some great hiking and wildlife spotting, all within a short drive of our base in Tiberias. On one of our final days in the north, we drove up to the remains of the gigantic 'Nimrod Fortress', a 13th century castle which towers over the surrounding mountains with views out towards the Lebanese and Syrian border. Although the walls are now crumbling, the ruins are still complete with towers and secret passages, making exploring exciting. But, almost as quickly as our time in the north began, we had to leave the Golan. We headed west, stopping off at the long shut Lebanese border crossing, before driving south along the western coast, in sight of the Med once again.
The west coast of Israel holds some of the more interesting cities in the region. Our first stop was at the ancient city of Acre, one of the oldest continuously inhabited sights in the region. The city reached its highest point as the major port for the crusader armies. It's easy to forget that the chaos and bloodshed of the 20th century is only one of many wars which have engulfed the region. The combatants may have changed, but the basic goal remains the same; Jerusalem. Much of the old castles of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, fanatical defenders of the Holy Land, are still in tact, surrounded now by shops, stalls and apartments. Heading further south we reached Haifa. Although Haifa possesses less illustrious history than some of the other cities in Israel, it still holds one of the most interesting sights in the country; The Baha'i Gardens. For those of you who, like me, haven't heard of the Baha'i, they are a religious group formed in the mid 19th century by a Persian noble. With a growing number of followers, the Baha'i don't build churches or mosques, but instead construct beautiful gardens. Those at Haifa are simply amazing, rising up the side Mount Carmel dotted with temples and religious buildings. Although the Bahai are still a small, relatively unknown religion, its hard not to think about the growth of the worlds major religions in their first hundred years. 100 years after the death of Jesus Christianity was still an obscure, subversive religious group. In 500 years who knows how powerful the Baha'i might be? But that is a thought for another day. We departed Haifa and dropped off our trusty car in Tel Aviv, our last stop in Israel. Tel Aviv seemed an appropriate foil to the beginning of our journey in Jerusalem. The pious, conservative nature of Jerusalem couldn't be further from the decadence and hedonism of Tel Aviv. You would be hard pressed to find any overt signs of religion in the bronzed bodies pacing along Tel Aviv's beach front. The city, Israel's business capital, represents the modern, secular side of Israel. A whole new side to what is a fascinating country.
Visiting Israel, even for a short time, is bound to challenge your views on the tiny, controversial nation and the region as a whole. After all there are very few places where you can see an armed teenage soldier perusing a shopping mall with their parents, watch children playing around a bomb shelter, or drive a hire car through a minefield. Whether you support Israel or not, the fact is that the cities and streets of the country aren't just dots on a map but are people's homes, where they were born and have spent their lives. Governments will postulate, discuss and argue over the best means to bring peace to the Middle East, but we should never forget that what is most important is the well being of the civilians. Those on both sides.
Some observations from the Golan and the Western coast:
1. Try not to drive off road, you might get a bit more than you bargained for.
2. The soldiers at the check-points may just be out of school, but they still know how to shoot.
3. Lines on a map don't quiet convey where Israel ends and the Palestinian Territories begin.