Around the Middle East
in 80 days

February 25th to May 14th, 2004

Part 7:

Israel (north and west)

         << Part 6: Amman to Israel    -    Back to Index    -    Part 8: Jerusalem and Masada >>


Introduction

Ah, Israel! This is a country I'd been dying to visit. I could hardly have more fascination and more mixed feelings about a country than I have about this one. Since it's such a sensitive topic, and since some people are so quick with accusations, let me explain those feelings a bit before I start describing my impressions.

Jewish culture

I feel a lot of admiration for jewish culture. Of the leading artists, thinkers, scientists and businessmen of Europe, a strikingly disproportionate number had jewish roots. Spinoza, Wittgenstein, Marx, Freud, Kafka and Einstein, to just name a few. Since jews are hardly a distinct race, and most of these men weren't religious, there must be something about jewish culture that breeds success, and I admire success. That generations of anti-semites managed to portray the jews as an inferior race against such overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a monument to human stupidity.

Though I am not a fan of religion, I also admire the incredible stubbornness with which European jews have preserved their religion throughout centuries of discrimination, repression, persecution and genocide. No other religion, and no other cultural characteristic in general, has managed to survive in such a hostile environment for anywhere near as long.

My hometown Antwerp has one of the world's largest communities of chassidic jews, and when I see them with their funny costumes I'm full of amused admiration for such stubborn defiance of fashion. They're so fanatically uncool that it makes them übercool, and I'm glad they're here. This is not a very intellectual argument I admit :)

Finally, as a history freak, the historic depth of jewish culture and traditions attracts me. No other people have such a long recorded history (the Chinese might disagree).

But then there's the jewish state, and that brings me to the other side of my mixed feelings.

The founding of Israel

I think no people could have deserved a home state more than the jews. You can't read the history of the jews in Europe without feeling this. They have been the constant victims of many of humanity's lowest characteristics: racism, intolerance, resentiment, religious fanaticism, cattle behaviour, scapegoatism. For centuries, jewish communities were driven from this place to that, and mass murder against them was a regular, almost predictable event, to such extent that it became a part of jewish identity - "persecution defines the Jew", as Sartre put it. The holocaust was but a culmination of all that.

To me the one thing that symbolised the need for a jewish state more than anything were the boats full of jewish refugees from nazi Germany which wandered the world's seas in the 1930s but weren't allowed to dock anywhere because no country wanted to take in more refugees. Many jewish refugees were actually driven back to Germany, never to be heard from again. The need for a state that would be a safe haven for jews can't be made more painfully clear than that.

However, you can't make up for the wrongs of the past with a new wrong. While I honestly can't blame the jews who survived WW2 for wanting to establish a jewish state in Palestine, this should never have been allowed, because it is a great injustice against the Palestinians, who had zero responsibility for all that happened to the jews.

In today's world, the founding of a new country on territory that has been inhabited by another people for many centuries could never happen - anyone would consider it barbaric to dictate a whole people to give up half its land. In 1947 however, it could happen, but only because of two circumstances: 1) Palestine was a British colony, not a free country that could determine its own fate, as it should have been; 2) The UN at the time was dominated by European (in the widest sense) countries which still controlled most of the world; colonised peoples had no voice at all.

Even then it was a very close vote that was only won after intense lobbying by jewish organisations in the USA, which in turn pressured other countries to vote in favour. The UN plan called for a jewish state about half the size of modern Israel, so in hindsight the Arabs would have been better off not resisting, but how can you not resist when a foreign people takes over your land because their ancestors lived there 2000 years ago?

In effect what happened is that Europe exported its problem to the Middle East. The Palestinians were made to pay for centuries of racism in Europe, and they could only be made to pay because they themselves were colonised by Europeans. Ironically, the Arabs had always been far more tolerant towards jews than Europeans.

Israel today

Anyway, though Israel should never have happened, and it was a terrible injustice to create it, that injustice is now done and we live in a new reality. Though many Arabs still dream otherwise, Israel is here to stay. Most of the current population of Israel was born there so it's as much their land now as it was the Palestinians' 60 years ago. Moving millions of people who were born in Israel out, and moving in a million Palestinians who have never even been there, would just be yet another injustice.

What needs to happen is quite obvious: either Israel should be restricted to its pre-1967 borders (its internationally recognised territory) and the occupied territories should be used to create a Palestinian state (the two state solution), or the occupied territories should be fully annexated and all inhabitants should be given full citizenship (the one state solution). While the one state solution would be the fairest, it is made impossible by the hatred that has grown, so we're only left with one option.

My one big problem with present day Israel is that it is simply not willing to implement this solution: to give up the occupied territories in return for peace. The proof for this is plain and simple: Israel's settlement policy. Since I support the existence of Israel, I also support its right to defend itself by any means possible, even when those means are harsh and lead to injustice. But building colonies in occupied territory has absolutely nothing to do with self-defence; it is blatant agression and the cause of most of the violence and thus most of the need to defend Israel in the first place.

Basically, Israel is the world's last colonial power. It could probably have a reasonable degree of security and peace if it were satisfied with its pre-1967 borders and gave up its expansionist agenda. Times have changed, and its Arab neighbours would all recognise those borders now. But a minority of Israeli's, driven by extreme religious and racist motives, think they have a natural right to more territory, and think it's perfectly justified to build jewish colonies in the middle of Palestinian land. Which is very, very, very similar to nazi Germany's colonial policy in Poland btw.

Sadly, Palestinian policy is equally being determined by an extremist minority. The terrorist organisations are the objective allies of the zionist movement, and vice versa. Terrorism inside Israel has scared the majority of Israelis into believing peace with the Palestinians is impossible, and supporting the likes of Sharon. In return, Israel's colonialist policies, by denying the Palestinians the right to exist on the little bit that's left of their own land, are driving the majority of them to such despair that they see the conflict as a struggle for survival, and terrorism as an inevitability.

If I don't dedicate a whole page to condemning Palestinian terrorists, that's only because noone elected them and noone in Europe supports them anyway; they're just criminals and losers at that. While I have no more sympathy for the likes of Sharon, at least they know what they're doing and are achieving their goals with their murderous ways, while the likes of Hamas are only pushing their people deeper and deeper into their hopeless situation.

Since I was talking about mixed feelings, I must also say that I do admire Israel's success. Israel's string of swift victories against its neighbours, who form an overwhelming majority, is simply amazing. But Israel is also outperforming all its neighbours on the social and economic fronts: it is a thriving democracy, while all its enemies except Lebanon are corrupt dictatorships with backwards economies. Which probably explains the military successes.

So these were my feelings going into Israel: very respectful of Jewish culture, strongly opposed to Israeli policies, very fascinated by the whole situation, eager to see it first hand, and assuming that the majority of people on both sides are just victims of the situation who are in no way directly responsible for all the violence and injustice.

March 21st (day 26): Entering Israel, Tiberias

Crossing the border

Most islamic countries (Syria, Lebanon, Iran, ... but not Jordan and Egypt) don't let you in if there is any sign that you have ever been to Israel - like an Israeli stamp in your passport. For anyone traveling the middle east south to north, avoiding this stamp is a crucial issue. For me it wasn't since I was only going to Jordan and Egypt after Israel, but I still wanted to keep my passport 'clean' for possible future trips to islamic countries.

To avoid the stamp you must ask the border guards to give you a stamp on a separate sheet instead of in the passport itself. There are a lot of conflicting stories on when and where and how this is possible, which makes the Israeli stamp issue the #1 topic on middle east travel forums. Later in Petra I met a British guy who was traveling north but had not managed to avoid the stamp and as a result he had to fly from Jordan to Turkey, skipping Syria altogether. That really sucks.

I did all the right moves, and managed to avoid the stamp. On the Jordanian side I first asked the border guards not to put an exit stamp in my passport - that too would be a sign that I'd been to Israel. Then I had to take a special bus that drives across the bridge and back all day - what a lousy job for the driver. This 200m ride took about an hour because of all the stops and security checks.

When the bus stopped on the Israeli side of the bridge I was amazed by what I got to see. Instead of old men with moustaches in military uniforms, here you had surfer dudes in jeans and pretty girls in nice outfits. All of them were young, had a nice tan and were constantly talking in little earphones - they looked damn cool and gave a very good first impression of Israel. Just for kicks I took a few pictures without anyone inside or outside the bus noticing.
Just as I was staring at a particularly gorgeous border girl (the nearest one on the picture) she grabbed a stick with a mirror at the end and started checking the bottoms of the nearby trucks for bombs. Now there's a sight you don't see every day.

Inside the customs building were more pretty girls. In fact, all the personnel there were pretty girls. Clearly it's a deliberate policy, probably to decrease irritation with the lengthy security procedures. While I was waiting for my luggage to come out of the scanner, one girl came up to me and said she wanted to ask a few questions. The 15 minute interrogation that followed was a most interesting experience. I had stamps of all four of Israel's neighbours in my passport by now so I guess I had it coming.

She started with questions like "did someone give you a package to deliver" and "have you been to Iraq", then she wanted to know everything about my trip: where I'd been, why I'd been there, what people I knew there, what places I was going to, why I was going there, etc. Although her questions were tough, she seemed rather shy; I felt like a school girl was asking me questions for her school newspaper, and I was giving smooth answers with a big smile ("do you have friends in Israel?", "not yet, but I'm sure I will after this trip").

But later she asked questions that I didn't want to answer truthfully (e.g. if I planned to go to the West Bank and why) and that made me nervous. Then when I showed her the map of Israel in my guide to illustrate my plans, I noticed with a bit of a shock that I had marked several West Bank towns with a fluo. That was a painful moment :) But I quickly flipped the pages and she didn't comment on it. I learned that being interrogated requires practice though; I think if you really want to hide something then it would be very hard to not change your tone of voice when the conversation turns to that subject.

Anyway, after 15' she let me through. Then I had to get a stamp from another girl behind a counter who started asking similar questions. She was really cute; after each answer she stared down at my papers with a puzzled look. And when she asked "why you don't want Israeli stamp in your passport?" she looked and sounded as if it was personally offending her; she almost broke my heart :) But she did put the stamp on a separate piece of paper and even gave me a big smile as she gave me back my passport.

Tiberias

I had left Amman heading for Jerusalem, but since I ended up entering Israel in the north (cfr. previous part) I decided to go to Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee instead and work my way around Israel in the other direction, keeping Jerusalem for last. In hindsight this was a good thing, this way I got to visit Israel proper with a relatively open mind, before seeing first-hand what it is doing in the West Bank.

Tiberias is an ancient settlement on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but doesn't have anything to show for its long history; it's just a modern town. I arrived in the evening and wandered around the center, looking for food and getting my first impressions of Israel. Two things struck me.

Firstly, a lot of guys were walking around with a machinegun slung over their shoulder. They weren't uniformed and they weren't guarding or patrolling anything; they just carried their machineguns around with them on their night out. A very weird sight for me; I'd never seen citizens armed to the teeth like that.

Secondly, the girls here were nothing like the stylish border chicks but quite the opposite: many of them looked like stereotypical white trailer park trash. Pompous hairstyles, too much make up, overweight but wearing pants that were too tight and too small so you could see half their ass plus a lot of fat popping out - jeez. My good first impression of Israeli girls was immediately ruined.


March 22nd (day 27): The Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee is the big lake fed by the Jordan river where Jesus spent most of his life among local fishermen, did most of his preaching and supposedly walked on water and did many other things mentioned in the bible. On this first full day in Israel I did what I came to this place for: I rented a bike and cycled all around the lake (a 60km ride), making various stops along the way. My first stop was at a banana plantation where I made the startling discovery that bananas grow upwards!

Tabgha

Tabgha is associated with three significant New Testament episodes, and each of these is commemorated with a little modern church, built over the ruins of ancient byzantian churches. The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes is built on the site where according to Matt. 14:13-21 Jesus multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish to feed 5000 people. The Church of Peter's Primacy is built on the spot where according to John 21:1-24 Jesus appeared after his death, performed a fishing miracle and reinstated Peter after his triple denial of Jesus (and made him the first pope according to catholics).

Capernaum

Capernaum is often mentioned in the New Testament as the town where Jesus lived in the house of Peter and performed miracles. It is now an archeological site with two main points of interest. One is an ancient synagogue in Roman style, the other is the supposed site of Peter's house. An octagonal Byzantine church was built around the house in the 5th century, and over the ruins of that church another octagonal church was built in 1991 - or did a UFO land on it?

Around the lake

A few kilometers past Capernaum I crossed the Jordan river at the point where it flows into the Sea of Galilee. Somehow you'd expect this confluence of two great historic waters to be noteworthy, but the mighty-by-name river turned out to be just a muddy backwater.
Crossing the Jordan brought me to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is actually Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967, and annexated in 1981, together with the Golan heights. It seems Israel is still considering the possibility that it may have to give this area back to Syria some day; there are hardly any new buildings here (certainly less than in the West Bank), most of the land is used for agriculture (mostly banana trees).

There are also several beaches and I made a stop at one called Kursi. It was almost deserted which is quite normal in March, but it was a warm day so I went for a swim - the first time this trip. This was much appreciated by the local insects who got their first good meal of the season: me.
The beach was only halfway my trip around the lake, but when I left it was already 4 pm. I wanted to be back in Tiberias before dark (6 pm) as there were no lights on my bike, so I pushed hard and non-stop for two hours. My ass hurt like hell from sitting on the bike's rock-hard saddle; I wrapped a spare T shirt around it but it didn't really help and just made it slippery to sit on.

As I approached Tiberias it started getting dark and now I got my sweet revenge on the evil Israeli insects: they were flying into my mouth in great numbers so now I could eat them!
I arrived in Tiberias shortly after sunset, exhausted but satisfied. Boy had I underestimated this trip! I'd figured I'd only need two hours of cycling for the 60km but I hadn't considered that the terrain is very hilly, so I ended up sweating hard for four hours.

As I cycled through Tiberias I noticed another strange Israeli phenomena: the streets were full of people, young and old, dressed in sports clothes, and they were just... walking. Walking fast. Apparently this is the national sport in Israel, I'd see it many times again. Why they don't just jog (most of them seemed fit enough to) is a mistery to me, perhaps some famous Israeli scientist said on national TV that walking is more healthy than running.

Sheikh Yassin

My first day in Israel was also the day on which the Israeli army assassinated Sheikh Yassin (the leader of Hamas) and murdered 7 innocent bystanders as well. I didn't know about it or notice anything until I saw it on the news. To their credit the Israelis who were watching it didn't receive it as good news but just as a sign of troubles ahead.

I had the bad fortune of sharing a dorm room with an incredibly obnoxious British guy who was carrying around a British flag and felt a constant need to voice his stupid anti-islamic opinions. While I was trying to follow reports on CNN, I had to endure constant comments like "CNN is always biased against Israel", "it (terrorism) is all because of the Koran", "look how much these people (a Palestinian manifestation) want peace" with a know-it-all laugh, and, his masterpiece, "the UN is an anti-semitic organisation". The latter compelled me to finally acknowledge his stupid comments, but when he said "the UN wants to make Jerusalem the capital of the world, don't you know?" I just gave up arguing with him.

The hotel offered a tour of the region that included visits to the Syrian border near Quneitra and the Lebanese border at Fatima Gate. I'd visited those two places on the other side (see parts 3 and 4 of this report) and would have liked to see them again from the Israeli side and hear the Israeli side of the story, but it was ridiculously expensive and not really worth a whole day. My fascist roommate had taken the tour that day though, but it was impossible to get any normal talk out of him.

Although Hizbollah had announced an immediate assault on Israel in response to the assassination of Sheikh Yassin (the famous "the gates of hell are now open" comment), the Brit said his group hadn't even noticed anything happening at the Lebanese border, nor had the tour leaders even thought it necessary to change the trip. Which just underlines how utterly impotent Hizbollah really are - luckily. All they managed to do (or dared to do) was fire one or two aimless rockets which came nowhere near a target. The gates of hell indeed.


March 23rd (day 28): Safed

Safed (or Zefad or Tzfat) is an attractive old town on top of a perfectly round hill. The top of the hill once featured a crusader fortress but is now a park; the streets below that are a maze of alleys and steep stairways. A broad stairway that cuts the town in two was built by the British in 1929 to separate the Arabs and the Jews after some riots. In 1948 there was heavy fighting here, and in the end the Arabs were defeated and fled the town. The old Arab quarter was later turned into an artists' colony.

Backpack blues

I arrived by bus from Tiberias. I wanted to leave my big backpack behind somewhere while exploring the town since I was going to move on to Akko that same day, but that turned out to be impossible. I asked the information office at the bus station, I asked the police office, I asked several shop keepers - noone would let me store my bag, even when I offered to unload it before their eyes to show there was no bomb in it. Noone bothered to say no in a friendly way either, a curt head shake was all I got even when pleading that I'd have to carry around 20 kilo of luggage to visit their town.

I'm not sure if I had a right to be pissed off about this, given all the terrorist attacks in Israel, but in any case I was, if only because of the general unfriendliness. And how can a police office refuse this small service - if they had any suspicion that there might be a bomb in my backpack they should investigate it instead of sending me away!

My map showed a tourist office somewhere in town so I headed there first, partly to ask if they would perhaps help me out, partly to burst out against them if they'd also say no. It turned out the tourist office had recently closed - much of the tourist infrastructure in Israel has - and of course the new service there wouldn't help me either.

Around Safed

I decided to check out the town anyway but keep it short. I first climbed the citadel to get that over with and see if I could perhaps hide my backpack in the park safely (I didn't). I was rewarded with a splendid view from the top, but otherwise it was a pretty ordinary park. There was a monument to commemorate the war of 1948 and the "liberation of Safed" - as it called the victory over the Arab population.

Then I wandered through the little alleys of the old town. It's a pretty place, but has an artificial feel to it; I think it's lost its charm by being restaurated and cleaned too much. I'd have that feeling in all old places in Israel; they really don't know how to preserve old buildings and areas without ruining their charm.
I visited two tiny synagogues (the size of chapels) with some historic value I forgot. There was absolutely nothing to see about them, but visiting them was fun anyway because a) I had to wear a cardboard yarmulke, the little round Jewish hat, b) I was carrying my huge back pack plus the small one around which was a ridiculous sight, and I almost wanted someone to complain about it so I could bite their nose off.
After an hour or two I headed back to the bus station and took a bus to Akko.


March 23nd-24th (day 28-29): Akko

Akko was the southernmost harbour of the Phoenicians. In Hellenistic and Roman times it was called Ptolemais and was an important naval base. The crusaders captured it in 1104, and when they were kicked out of Jerusalem by Saladin it became the capital of the crusader kingdom. In the end it would be the crusader's last outpost; when Acre (as they called it) fell in 1291 the crusader era was over.

After this Akko fell into total decline, but in the 18th century it started growing again under Turkish rule. The Turkish governor built new city walls, which withstood a long siege by Napoleon who attacked it from Egypt in 1799. It was supposed to be the first stage of his conquest of Syria, but instead he had to retreat and soon after he was driven out of Egypt by the British.
Take a look at the aerial shot of Akko. The part that sticks out into the sea is the old city. It still has the Turkish walls all around it. There was a wide moat separating the city from the mainland, so it was effectively an island. The moat between the old city is dry now, but you still have to use one of the two bridges over it to enter the old town. In the upper left corner of the old city is the old crusader castle.

There was a lot of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis here, but in the end the old city was left to the Palestinians, while the Israelis built a new city outside it. As a result Akko is really two totally separated cities, a weird situation.

I arrived in Akko in the early afternoon, walked to the old city and checked into a hostel there. I was the only guest, and I wouldn't see any other foreign tourists during my stay in Akko. I first went to the little beach you can see at the upper right of the aerial shot and relaxed in the sun for an hour, and then started a tour of the city walls.
The old city itself is very much an Arabic city, the only one left in Israel besides Jerusalem, but it's pretty much dead; there seems to be no economic activity at all and most shops were closed in the evening. Of the architecture I should mention the Turkish style mosque (but I'd see much nicer ones in Istanbul of course), and the caravanserai (trading post for camel caravans).
In the evening I spent two hours on yet another fruitless search for food in both the old city and the new. I ended up eating... falafel, in a snack bar in the new city. This time it was Israeli falafel which was a bit different at least :)

The next day I visited the remains of the crusader city. First I found the Templar Tunnel, a 300m long tunnel running below most of old Acco. It was an escape route built by the crusaders and rediscovered not so long ago. Pretty cool.
Then I visited the crusader castle, which is among the bigger and nicer ones I've seen. It is being heavily restaurated though and being pretty much stripped of all its charm in the process. The Israelis really suck at restaurating old buildings, it would be less bad if they'd just let them decay (also see Safed above, Jaffa below and the Jewish quarter of old Jerusalem in the next part). By the way, one of the castle halls had been split in two, and one half was being used as a post office. A post office!

The Great Hall of the castle must have been very impressive, but now it looks like a construction site, and as the pictures show they're really breaking down the whole thing and rebuilding a fake version of it over a concrete structure.
Some of the smaller halls had been completely restaurated already, but they were too small to make good pictures.
The nicest part of the castle is the crypt below it, and the narrow underground tunnel that leads to it - it's very long (took some 5 minutes to go through it) and irregular and twists a lot, really the kind of stuff that makes castles so cool! The crypt itself was not restaurated yet and not yet fitted with bright lamps, and that made it by far the nicest and most authentic part of the castle.
On the castle's courtyard I came across a class of Israeli school children, girls of some 8 years old. They were accompanied by two young ladies, one of who was carrying a machinegun to protect the children. It was an incredible sight and I wish I had a picture, but I waited for an opportunity to do it without them noticing and it didn't come.

I also visited the Okashi museum next to the castle, which had some very nice abstract paintings by Israeli artists, but the lighting was too bad for pictures.

To Tel Aviv via Haifa

I left Akko by bus in the late afternoon. I wanted to visit Haifa along the way and then head to Tel Aviv in the evening, but again that didn't work out because I couldn't get rid of my luggage.

When my bus arrived in Haifa I was immediately fascinated by the city. It is entirely built against a high 45 degree slope that stretches out all along the coastline, and many of the buildings are grouped together in geometric patterns. It's like a typical Israeli settlement but on a much larger scale. The few high-rises built on top of the slope look impressive (quote Skyscrapers.com: "[Haifa is] the only city in the world to have built skyscrapers on top of a mountainous terrain"). When I arrived the sky was blue, but just then a huge front of clouds appeared from behind the slope and drifted towards the sea - an amazing sight!
I was looking at all this while still standing in the big open-air bus station. When I started taking pictures, a security guard came up to me and asked me to follow him. He fetched his superiors who asked me some questions and told me I wasn't allowed to take pictures there. They were very polite but I thought it was quite absurd.

I asked if I could leave my backpack somewhere so I could explore the city, but that again proved to be completely impossible. Since this city was really to big to explore with 20 kilo of luggage on my back, and since I had no addresses of affordable hotels, I decided to just get on another bus and head straight to Tel Aviv.

Just as I was getting on the bus, I saw a guy walking around with my Lonely Planet guide looking for its owner. Oh my god I had lost one of my most valuable possessions! Without this guide I'd have had NO idea where to find cheap hotels and where to take busses, so it would have been a small disaster had I lost it. I was extremely grateful to this guy and praised my luck that he found it.

So in the early evening I arrived in Tel Aviv and found a hotel. I really wanted to see Haifa now though, so the next morning I took a bus back and explored the city. I'd only explore Tel Aviv the day after that so I'll talk about that later.


March 25th (day 30): Haifa

Haifa is Israel's third city after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The slope against which it is built is actually Mount Carmel, a site often mentioned in the Old Testament, e.g. as the place where the prophet Elijah challenged the 450 priests of Baal and then had them all slaughtered when they failed to impress the people as much as he did (1 Kings 18:16-45).

Despite these ancient stories, Haifa is entirely a modern town. In 1948 it symbolised the confusion during the Israeli war of independence: you had Israeli officials here trying to persuade the Palestinian population not to flee and making sincere promises of safety, but at the same time Israeli militia were driving Palestinians out of their homes and then burning those homes to the ground so they couldn't return - as was done with so many Palestinian villages throughout Israel.

When I arrived I first took a city bus to the north of the town and climbed Mount Carmel; a very nice walk (there's also a cable car). Along the way I visited Elijah's cave, supposedly the place where the prophet hid after killing those 450 priests. It's one of the holiest sites of the jewish religion (and by extension a holy site for christians and muslims too), and there are always people praying there, but strangely it looks like a world war 2 bunker rather than like an ancient cave.
On the slopes of Mount Carmel I got an excellent view on Haifa. In the distance (on the right of the picture) I saw a cool office building I'd already caught a glimps of from the bus, and I decided to make that my destination. On the top of Mount Carmel I'd wanted to visit the Carmelite Monastery, but it was closed between 12 and 15h and it was 12h30, grr.
Walking north while slowly descending the slope I passed through some nice residential areas - this the Israeli's are really good at. The picture below shows just how steep the slope is, and how they use the rock to support the high-rises.

The Shrine of the Bab

The biggest eye-catcher of Haifa is the Shrine of the Bab, which was built in the middle of Mount Carmel and totally dominates the city.

The Bab (Bab means gate in Arabic), an Iranian born in 1819, was one of two main founders of the Baha'i religion, which I know little about but which seems to be a rather sympathetic amalgamation of the world's major religions. Something I wasn't sure of while I was there but which turned out to be correct is that this is the religion of my Iranian step-aunt, so it's kind of nice that I chanced upon one of this religion's main holy sites.

The Shrine itself is pretty but not spectacular, but the huge garden built on a cascade of terraces above and below it is magnificent, easily the most beautiful one I've ever seen. It is being meticulously maintained; there is not a pebble lying in the wrong place. Unfortunately you can only visit a very small section of it; to wander through the other parts you need to sign up for a guided tour.

The Sail Tower

I'd never heard about this beautiful 130m high skyscraper, and it wasn't mentioned in my guide, so I just discovered it by seeing it. It was a long walk getting there but it was well worth it, this was easily the most beautiful modern building I saw on my trip (little to no competition though). I didn't know its name until I looked it up while writing this, but it's obvious.

As I was standing in front of the tower taking pictures, two security guards started waving and shouting to me. I pretended not to understand them and kept taking more pictures while getting closer, which drove them nuts hehe. In the end I was too close to pretend not to get it, so I asked what the problem was. "This is a government building, you can't take pictures of it". Jeez, I was just photographing it from the street, and anyone could have studied the outside of the building from pretty much any point on Mount Carmel. Anyway, I was finished taking pictures of the front, so I just walked to the other side and continued making pictures there.

Back to Tel Aviv

Back in Tel Aviv it was already dark but I decided to walk the long way back to my hotel. I got lost for a while and ended up in some shabby areas. But, the good thing was that I found a Chinese snack bar where I got a big cup of vegetables from a wok; a rare treat.


March 26th (day 31): Tel Aviv / Jaffa

Jaffa is an ancient city that was a major port in the days of Solomon. Tel Aviv, which is barely a century old, was built right next to it and has now swallowed it up. Though Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, the rest of the world doesn't recognise this and considers Tel Aviv to be the capital, so this is where all the embassies are as well as most of the international business.

Besides its political and economic importance, Tel Aviv also has excellent sandy beaches all along its shore, and that is a special combination that really appealed to me. It is generally a very pleasant and lively place; I could live there.

When I arrived from Akko on the evening of the 24th I made the long walk to the coastal area to find a hotel. I made a little detour to visit Rabin square, the square where prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by an extremist jew in 1995. I found a very nice monument there, but I'm not sure if this is dedicated to him or not; there was no sign in English. It's a combination of triangles that cleverly refers to the star of david.
In the streets near the coastline I found out that the budget hotels mentioned in LP have closed in recent years, another sign of the collapse of Israel's tourism industry, but with some luck I found a hotel that had a dorm.

One of my roommates was an interesting guy; a South African with jewish roots who'd lived in Antwerp for a year, doing business with the owner of Super Club (Belgians will remember the fast rise and fall of this company). Nowadays he makes a living with a poker web site, which I happen to be interested in, so we had a nice talk. It's on the site he works for that the following fairytale (which I'd already heard of) happened: a guy played poker on this web site and as a prize won the right to participate in the poker world championship in Las Vegas. Amazingly, though it was his first ever live poker tournament, he became the world champion and won 2.5 million dollar. The cherry on the pie of this great story is that the guy's name is Chris Moneymaker.

The South African had been living in Israel for a while and had lost a friend when a suicide bomber targeted a bar near our hotel. Still he was very open minded about the whole situation, nice person. He was very interested in hearing about Lebanon since he couldn't go there, though it's just 100km to the north. He advised me against going to the West Bank because it's too dangerous, which represents the general opinion of Israelis, most of who have never actually been there or have any clue what it's like.

Near my hotel was a supermarket, the only one I've seen on this whole trip. It was such a joy shopping there! Supermarkets really are a pillar of western civilisation, bless 'em. I got some yoghurt, some snacks and very tiny bags of minute soup which I would store in my backpack and enjoy whenever I was offered hot water (for tea) on a bus for weeks to come :)

Anyhoo, on this day I first spent some time relaxing on the beach, and then walked along the shore to Jaffa (about 2km).
Jaffa turned out to be yet another old place in Israel that has been restaurated into ruin; it has about as much historic charm as Disneyland. Underneath the central square you can view remains from hellenistic times, but that attraction was closed.
There isn't much else to see in Tel Aviv, so after walking back I took a bus to Jerusalem, where I'd stay a whole week. That week will be the subject of part 8 of this report.


         << Part 6: Amman to Israel    -    Back to Index    -    Part 8: Jerusalem and Masada >>






Godsmurf Tue 24 Feb 2009 @ 11:55
About equally funny I'd say. And I have no problem with anyone calling my clothes funny. Still, it's hard to beat men who wear women's shoes and put plastic bags over their big black hats when it rains. But there can never be too much funny-ness in the world so bless 'em.

Marvin Tue 17 Feb 2009 @ 15:02
You keep mentioning the "funny" clothes that religious Jews wear throughout your writings of the Israeli portion of your trip. Are they as funny as the strange copies of middle eastern attire that Catholic priests; nuns; and the Pope wear?
You look strange as well wearing funny European clothes.

My suggestion look in a mirror before you comment on others.

Flylice Tue 10 Jul 2007 @ 09:17
Alright, thanks for helping me waste 3 hrs at work...but anyway great travelog! I'm going to Syria & Jordan in august, but only have 3 weeks :(

Silvia Thu 29 Jun 2006 @ 04:13
I just love your website. It's excellent. Didn't read everything, but great pics.

Godsmurf Mon 10 Apr 2006 @ 13:41
I wouldn't recommend it, based on what a German girl who lived in Damascus told me (cfr the last paragraph of part 5), but on the LP forums I often see female solo-travelers who say they had no problems.

Ira Sun 09 Apr 2006 @ 20:58
Nice pics...very interesting.
Is it safe for a single woman to travel to Syria? Do we have to wear head scarf too?

Zoltan Fri 07 Apr 2006 @ 17:15
Hi Godsmurf!

Excellent site;I spent hours to read Your comments and check out the photos.
Good Job!

zeituni Sun 02 Apr 2006 @ 12:29
Hi again!

According to my sister(who until recently lived in East Jerusalem), there are quite a few Christians living in the old quarter and other parts of Jerusalem. However, they might not use the churches most commonly visited by tourists. When I was there there was also a grand celebration taking place at the convent of St Mary Magdalene and the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent. There were hardly anyone but Palestinians there, admitedly, some of them were from areas like Bethlehem or Beit'Jallah.

I know I'm not bringing firm statistics to back up this, but that was her notion and my impression as well.

Anyway, just a comment!

Still a very great travelogue! And on point on the Israeli border personnel!

Godsmurf Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 22:05
Thank you! If you have any questions feel free to ask, my mail is linked at the bottom of each page.

Vedica Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 09:17
i love your travelogue!!....it is amazingly interesting!
Am planning a trip to middle east myself (around July - yes i know itll be hot) and your site has been an EXCELLENT guide and resource! thanks for sharing!

cathleen Tue 28 Mar 2006 @ 08:36
great writeing and photos you really have a talent at breaking things down e.i. the formation of the isreali state etc. very objective

Godsmurf Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:04
Thanx for the compliments, glad to have readers :)

Well I'm not sure (I said they're *probably* not christians) but firstly I don't think I ever saw a Palestinian in any of Jerusalem's churches, and secondly I sensed humour instead of devotion in the way they were selling christian souvenirs. But I could be wrong of course. Am I?

zeituni Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 08:25
Fantastic travelogue! Are you writing a book?

One question however; why do you assume the Palestinians in the Christian quarter are not actually Christians?

hasof_TT Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 00:11
Great trip report. Was going to just scan, but got intrigued and am reading it word for word. Thanks for sharing!


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