Welcome back to my Israel series. One of my favourite countries in the world.
Jerusalem and the West Bank are the crux of most travels to the Holy Land. Which is completely understandable. It’s tough to compete with sites related to the religions of over half the global population and the multifaceted catch 22 political situation between Palestine and Israel. But the outcome is that one often neglects the extreme north and south of the country. Why, oh why, are the most stunning treasures often missed out on tourist loops?
I did not get to explore the Negev Desert and Eilat when I went to Israel for two weeks in November last year—this is now scheduled as my first post-COVID 19 travels—but I did make it to the north, all the way to the Lebanese and yes, Syrian borders. And it is what I encountered on the way that makes travel in Israel so darned addictive. Every 25-odd kilometres was a new experience, unlike anything else.
In prettiness personified multi-cultural Haifa, I gazed in wonder at one of Israel’s most photographed views, the picture-perfect symmetrical Baha’i Gardens from the top of Mount Carmel. Did you know when the Baha’i pray, they face Northern Israel? Aah, but more of that later in this post. In Crusader Akko, I witnessed the reckless courage of a movement determined to bring Jerusalem back into the Christian fold. And if not Jerusalem, oh, then Akko would do.
In Rosh Hanikra, raw nature tantalized me with turquoise-blue pools deep inside buttery chalk cliffs. The Sea of Galilee, 2,000 years on, still reminiscenced about the miracles and ministry of Jesus Christ. Multiplication of the loaves. The sermon on the mount. If you are Christian, this is your live Bible lesson. If not, and like me, it still resonates with a deep, palpable peace.
Banias Nature Reserve was where I made my way through dense green forests, past the gushing crystal-clear Hermon Stream, to a snow-white waterfall. A reminder that the journey was as important as the destination. And lastly, atop the Golan Heights, I looked out at Syria from an abandoned barb-wired war post, across a meadow called Valley of Tears.
Every 25 or so kilometres, a new understanding of life and nature, in an incredibly beautiful setting. Wanna know more about these treasures where tourist crowds are thin and time stands still? Read on. 😊
1. Baha’i Gardens, the iconic 19-terraced ode to Baha’i religion’s ‘Bab’
Nineteen manicured terraces punctuated with a gold-topped shrine bang in its middle, is Haifa and Northern Israel’s most iconic sight. Nineteen is a holy number in the Baha’i faith. Their calendar has 19 months with 19 days each, and its founder Ali Muhammad Shirazi ‘Bab’ meaning ‘gate’ along with his 18 disciples totalled 19. A relatively new religion, it was initiated in 1844 in Persia [present-day Iran] by a 24-year-old spiritual and social reformer. So, you may well ask, what’s the Israel connection? The Persian authorities saw Shirazi as a threat and had him executed in 1850. Shirazi’s followers smuggled his body into Israel and buried him on Mount Carmel. In 1953, the Baha’i global community donated US$250 million to have these exquisite gardens, with plants from all over the world, and shrine built in his honour.
Factoid: Israel is doubly important in the Baha’i context. In addition to the Bab’s tomb in Haifa, its ‘messenger’ from God and one of Bab’s followers, Baha’u’llah lived and wrote the Most Holy Book in nearby Akko in 1863. His mansion, where he is buried, is the most holy site for 7 million Baha’i followers worldwide.
Travel tips: 1) Do go inside the shrine, and right to the top of Mount Carmel for that perfect frame. 2) Only Baha’i followers are allowed to walk through the terraces.
2. Acre or Akko, the Crusader State’s capital in the Holy Land for 100 years
If you have the remotest interest in the Crusader-era and their escapades in the Middle East, you will love Old Akko. The port city is straight out of a Crusader history book with numerous sites marking its importance as their capital. Two stand out the most. The atmospheric Knights’ Halls and sinister Templars Tunnel. For those who are unacquainted with the Crusaders, here’s a super-brief summary: The year was 1095. Pope Urban II had just made an announcement. Freeing the Holy Land from Muslim rule would lead to salvation. Over the following years, nine Crusades left Europe for the Holy Land, one after the other, leaving carnage and bloodbaths in their wake. Despite all odds, the Crusaders did manage to rule the region for 200 years, from 1099 to 1291. But Jerusalem? Only for a hundred years. The rest of the time, they were based in Acre or Akko [in Hebrew] instead.
Travel tips: 1) The Knights’ Halls has a decent audio-guide included with the entry ticket. 2) See the city as part of a tour first, and then go back and spend a full day poking around its Crusader and Ottoman charms on your own.
3. Rosh Hanikra, nature and humankind’s accidental masterpiece
Rosh means ‘head’ and Nikra means ‘grottos.’ And that is what it is. A collection of dark, slippery grottos filled with turquoise-blue pools of the Mediterranean Sea inside chalk cliffs. No trip to Northern Israel is complete without a visit to this spectacular site—partly the handiwork of nature over millions of years ago and partly that of World War II South African and New Zealand soldiers in 1942. Whilst nature was not inspired by any particular mandate, the soldiers were working on the orders of the British who ruled the area then. The plan was to make a railway line from the Middle East all the way to Europe via Turkey. But politics had other plans. Transport 222 was the only civilian train to ever pass through the tunnels with 222 Dutch Jews in exchange for German Templers in 1944. The tunnel leading to Lebanon stands sealed since independence.
Travel tips: 1) Make sure you walk the entire trail through the grottos. They keep getting more beautiful, the deeper you go in. 2) After the grottos, check out the theatre for the sealed tunnel into Lebanon and the Lebanese border near the cable-car parking lot.
4. Golan Heights, occupied Syria in the State of Israel
Golan Heights was seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War or 3rd Arab-Israeli War. Apart from the US and Israel, no other country recognizes it as part of the State of Israel. Now why would I put a patch of forcefully occupied land as a treasure? Because it has in its midst unparalleled pristine nature. Way before modern borders, the area was under the Romans. A cult dedicated to Pan, the Greek goat-footed god of music, shepherds and wilderness, thrived in a town called Banias. Banias from Paneus from Pan. Snow-white waterfalls, gushing natural springs and glistening pools surrounded this town. Today, the site is called the Banias Nature Reserve and is easily one of Israel’s most beautiful national parks.
Further uphill, in the Valley of Tears on Mount Bental, one can look out at Syria and the military leftovers of the 1973 Yom Kippur War or 4th Arab-Israeli War. One-hundred-and-sixty Israeli tanks fended off 1,500 Syrian tanks over a 4-day battle. No one is still quite sure why the Syrians withdrew but it sealed Israel’s hold over the Golan Heights, for good.
Travel tips: 1) When in Banias, walk down the marked winding pathway to the waterfall and climb up the stairs on the way back. 2) Stick to marked paths. The Golan Heights is infamously dangerous and easy to get lost in.
5. Sea of Galilee, site of Christ’s Miracles and Ministry
Sea of Galilee aka Lake Tiberias aka Kinneret. The smooth dewy expanse of the world’s second lowest lake [after the Dead Sea] is inexorably linked to Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago, on its gentle shores, Christ ran his ministry and performed miracles such as multiplication of the loaves and calming the storm. For the past 1,600 years, pilgrims and travellers alike, have flocked to its churches and waters to recreate for themselves Christ’s life at a profoundly personal level. Mount Beatitude is where Christ is believed to have delivered his Sermon on the Mount, promising his followers blessings [beatitudes]. A Franciscan church funded by the Italian dictator Mussolini marks the site. Capernaum, a fishing village, is where Christ had his ministry and preached at. An octagonal architectural masterpiece with a glass floor hangs over the ruins of the original House of Peter and surrounding, also octagonal, Byzantine church.
Travel tips: 1) The remains of the 1st Century synagogue in Capernaum where Christ preached can be identified by the lower black basalt wall sections. 2) Just sit by the Sea and breathe in the peace.
Have I been able to inspire you to explore Northern Israel some day in the future, post COVID-19? I hope so. ❤
- I explored Northern Israel through two self-guided Abraham Tours departing from Nazareth.
- Staying there: I stayed in a private room at the 200-year-old Arab mansion Fauzi Azar Inn for two nights [the most charming guest house in Nazareth], and at Al-Hakim Guest House for one night [has the most delicious breakfast in Nazareth].
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to Israel for 15 days in November 2019. To read more posts in my Israel series, click here.]