Visiting Caesarea, Haifa, Golan Heights and Northern Israel
Ancient CaesareaNorth of Tel Aviv and south of Haifa, the ancient port of Caesarea was one of Israel's most important cities during the Roman Period, occupying a strategic spot on the Mediterranean Sea. Caesarea is now one of Israel's major archaeological sites. For several hours, my wife Fern and I explored life 2000 years ago with its ancient amphitheaters, crusader moats, palaces and bathhouses within the Caesarea Maritima National Park.
The Park opened in 2011 after archaeological excavations uncovered the Roman remains built by Herod (often called Herod the Great), however portions of the park are reconstructions. An introductory video features some of the city's historic figures. Highlights include entering through one of the arched tunnels into the Roman Theater which seats over 3000 and even today is a spectacular venue for concerts and performances, the huge horseshoe-shaped Amphitheater with sloping sides filled with rows of stone seats, beautiful mosaic floors in the bathhouse complex. The Roman Theater looks much like Rome's Colosseum.
Caesarea contains sites important to Christians, Jews and Muslims. For Jews, the city was the center of Roman Judea under the Jewish King Herod. Later, Caesarea became an early Christian center and was the site of the acts of several apostles. This city is the location of the 1961 discovery of the Pilate Stone, the only archaeological item that mentions Pontius Pilate, by whose order Jesus was crucified. Even later, Caesarea was conquered by Muslims and a nineteenth century Bosnian mosque is located nearby the Roman ruins.
Golan HeightsIn 1967 during the Six-Day War, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria. Today it is Israel's northern border and the Israeli portion is home to Jewish, Arab and Druze communities. The Golan Heights is probably most known as one of Israel's most strategically important areas.
We explored the area off-road by joining a four wheel drive jeep tour by former Israeli soldiers who provided their insights as we viewed some of the battle scenes and bunkers.
These battles took place in 1967 and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Syria unsuccessfully tried to recapture the Golan Heights. Just off-road, we saw burned out tanks, numerous signs warning of mine danger to stay out and trenches.
But the Golan is also filled with natural beauty -- fields of wild yellow mustard flowers and streams throughout. It's also wine country. We a wine tasting tour and lunch at the boutique Pelter Winery, located off Route 91 at Kibbutz Ein Zivan. The tasting included pairings with several goat cheeses, breads and gin. Established in 2001, an Australian-trained winemaker (Tal Pelter) brought his modern training to the Israeli market and Pelter is now one of Israel's most beloved wineries.
At the Mount Bental observation point, gazing across the Golan into Syria provided us with powerful insight into Israel's geopolitical and security situation. At this site, it is only sixty miles to Damascus, Syria. From the top of this volcanic cone, at an open-air lookout that was once a military outpost; the Syrian side of the Golan stretches eastward. We could also view the demilitarized zone and members of the United Nations observation force. We were able to walk within a bunker where displays explained the battles. Oddly, in the middle of this precarious position Druze vendors sell snacks, and the site includes a series of fantasy sculptures of creatures made by Dutch sculptor Joop de Jong from recycled from metal weapon parts. The lookout is off of Routes 98 and 959
Tsfat -- SafedAt 3000 feet above sea level, Tsfat is Israel's highest city, filled with cobbled streets and ancient twisting alleyways to the artist's colony with its galleries, shops and studios. This city is known as the center of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah).
Within the Tsfat Kabbalah Center, we visited the weaving studio where we were able to watch a weaver hand make a prayer shawl from gorgeous fabrics and vibrant colors. The beautiful courtyard within this complex contains a fig tree that is over 100 years old planted by the wealthy Hamami family who built and lived in this complex, a 30 feet deep water cistern built 275 years ago and some beautiful mosaics. On the rooftop observation point, the views are breathtaking.
In Tsfat, Rabbi Isaac Luria and his fellow mystics developed the Kabbalah, the movement of Jewish mysticism. We visited the tiny Ashkenazi Ari synagogue where Rabbi Luria created Kabbalah Shabbat, the prayers sung on Friday evening to welcome the arrival of the Sabbath. Tthe kabbalah service began with prayers in the synagogue and then the congregation walked to a nearby field. Built in the mid-sixteenth century by immigrants from Greece the synagogue was reconstructed in 1857 after it was damaged by an earthquake. The interior is lavishly furnished with stained glass windows, a large menorah, and an ornate carved olive wood holy ark. The ark is crafted in the style of an eastern European synagogue with two tiers of spiral columns and vibrant plant reliefs.
Akko -- AcreThis town is a UNESCO world heritage site. Akko was once a stronghold of the Christian crusaders in the Holy Land. Akko was also an important center of Muslim Ottoman rule. Today this town is an example of the multi-culturalism of northern Israel.
We walked by the el-Jazzar Mosque, one of Israel's largest mosques and an illustration of the Muslim influence in Israel, then and now. The mosque is named after the Ottoman governor who in 1799 repulsed the invasion of Napoleon. Just outside the mosque in the old city, there is an outdoor market with stalls featuring Middle Eastern treats such as halvah and pralines, as well as clothing.
We then walked through the restored twelfth century Crusaders' Fortress. The fortress contains a series of six vaulted rooms known as the Knights' Halls, huge marble columns, courtyards, towers, underground tunnels and market streets. Finally we saw the fortified walls that protected Akko and made it a militarily crucial town. Over the centuries, invaders damaged but could never destroy these walls.
Hula Valley, Upper GaileeWe stayed two nights at a kibbutz hotel in the Upper Gailee, surrounded by green space and the chirping of birds. The food was excellent and the setting was near the Jordan River, which was more in the nature of a calm stream during early April than a rushing river. In the evening there was a presentation by a second-generation kibbutz member. The pioneering socialist kibbutz movement played a vital role in the establishment of the state of Israel. The kibbutz was one of early Israel's most influential and distinct communities. Today there are about 270 kibbutzim in Israel, but many have become privatized.
We spent several hours at the Hula Nature Reserve. An area for environmental protection, about a half-million birds pass through the reserve each year. More than three hundred species flock to the reserve during the fall and spring migrations and some remain for the winter to nest. In the visitor center, a three dimensional movie puts the viewer into a bird's eye view of a migrating flock. Within the reserve, we saw the largest herd of water buffalo in Israel. From the observation tower, Fern and I had good views of the lake and the marsh with its reeds and papyrus. The reserve is near Rosh Pina-Kiryat Shmona Road.
Rosh HanikraAt this site very close to the Lebanese border, the steepest cable car ride in the world took us down a 210 foot cliff to beautiful sea grottos (sea caves) formed by countless waves hitting the soft chalk rock. From the top of Rosh Hanikra, we enjoyed the stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea down the coast. The waters are various shades of blue and green. We learned that this was also the location of a bridge and railway line (now mostly a dirt road) built by the British during World War 2 through the hillside to extend the Cairo-Tel Aviv-Haifa line to Beirut. The bridge was destroyed in 1948.
The incredible caves beneath these cliffs have been carved out by relentless waves pounding away at the white chalky rock for thousands of years. Footpaths inside the cliff lead from one huge cave to another. The sounds of waves echo as they crash off the water-sprayed walls.
Carmel Forest Druze CommunityFor a personal glimpse into the world of Israel's Druze community, we visited the home of local Druze residents. There are about 130,000 Druze residents in Israel, living in about 17 different villages. The largest Druze villages are in the Carmel Forest. This Arab speaking minority broke away from Islam about 1000 years ago. As we walked through the village, we saw that older Druze residents wore traditional garb. Some women wore white head coverings, with black shirts and skirts. Religious men wore dark robes, a white fez and baggy black pantaloons. So exclusive is this sect, that only a fraction of the community is initiated into its religious doctrine. The doctrine includes belief in reincarnation and does not allow gambling or alcohol.
The Druze people are famous for their hospitality. We ate pita bread with yogurt cheese, homemade hummus, grape leaves, salads and well-seasoned kabobs, while learning about Druze life. Since 1956, many Druze have served in the Israeli military. Special darbuka drummers were invited to provide after dinner entertainment.
HaifaHaifa is Israel's third largest city. From the pine-covered heights of Mount Carmel to Haifa Bay, the city has a setting that reminded us of San Francisco, California in the United States.
Israel is a world center for the Baha'i religious movement. On the slopes of Mount Carmel, the beautifully manicured Baha'I Gardens provide a serene environment. The Baha'I Gardens include nineteen garden terraces, fountains, gravel paths, groomed hedges, plants and trees. These gardens are a UNESCO world heritage site. Nearby the gold domed Shrine of the Bab is one of their holiest sites and it dominates the Haifa skyline. The shrine caps the tomb of its nineteenth century prophet and gleams with its gold-glazed porcelain tiles. The top of Mount Carmel provides an amazing view looking down on the gardens, the shrine and Haifa Bay.
We spent several hours with a guide from the Arab-Jewish cultural center, Beit Ha'Gefen (House of the Vine). This center was established in 1963 to promote inter-cultural dialog. We learned that this center promotes the holiday of holidays every December, when the Jewish, Muslim and Christmas holidays all take place at about the same time.
With our guide from the center, we wandered through the multicultural Wadi Nisnas neighborhood and markets. Within this neighborhood, unique artworks have been placed on walls of private houses and commercial buildings, often made out of recycled materials. As a result, people often stop and discuss their interpretations of these paintings and other works of art.
Haifa has a funky hip vibe. Our guide described it as a place where Israelis and Arabs live next door to each other. This is no longer referred to as co-existing together, but rather as shared living.
Saul Schwartz lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Fern. He loves to travel throughout the world and share his experiences through stories and pictures. Saul has published many articles, but most focus upon his passion to travel.
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