Almost 9 million people from several continents have found their home in the Holy Land, preserving their own culture, creating a diverse, unified state, Israel. This small country on the Arabian Peninsula hides a surprising amount of adventure and charming scenery, especially for those who haven’t been to the mysterious Middle East. Allow me to show you some of the most beautiful places I have been fortunate enough to visit during my one month summer practice.
1.Tel-Aviv, the country’s economic and cultural center
Tel-Aviv (Hebrew: תל אביב-יפו; Arabic: تل أبيب) is the country’s second largest city after Jerusalem, about 40% of the population lives here. Founded in 1909, the city was initially a housing estate on the outskirts of Jaffa, the ancient port city. Its eclectic architectural style perfectly reflects the different immigration waves. Not only is it one of the largest economic centers in the Middle East, but it’s also the center of nightlife, and the country’s largest university, the Tel Aviv University is also located here.
2. Jaffa, the ancient port city
Jaffa’s (Hebrew: יָפוֹ; Arabic: يَافَا) history goes back thousands of years, being one of the oldest ports in the world. During its 4000 years of occupation, it was destroyed and rebuilt countless times. Starting from Tel-Aviv, you can easily walk along the coast to Jaffa’s harbor, from where the city’s main attractions can be visited in a single sightseeing tour.
3. Jerusalem, one of the largest religious centers in the world
There aren’t many sights that could be compared to the Dome of the Rock being lit by the setting sun.
Jerusalem (Hebrew: ירושלים; Arabic: القدس), the capital of Israel, is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is considered to be the religious center of their faith by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. The Old Town is the most important place in Israel, divided into four traditional quarters. It is a very moving experience in the Christian Quarter to walk through the narrow, maze-like streets of Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Cross), which Jesus is believed to have taken to Golgotha. If we’re lucky, we might meet with a group of Christian pilgrims, following a route of 14 stations until the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This building is actually made up of 5 temples, but in such a crowded place it is quite difficult to distinguish between the Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Coptic parts. The Armenian Quarter is perhaps the quietest part of the Old Town, while the noisy, busy markets of the Muslim Quarter and its monumental mosques provide tourists with a spectacular view.
The courtyard of the Dome of the Rock is only open for 2 hours for visitors, but it’s worth getting up earlier and putting on appropriate clothes (especially women), as it is one of the most important holy sites. The main attraction of the Jewish Quarter is the 15 meter high and over 1900 years old Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. Thousands of tourists place slips of paper containing written prayers into the crevices of the Wall. According to Jewish law, prayer notes may not be thrown away, instead, they are buried in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
During the Shabbat hundreds of Jews pray by the wall from early morning. At this time, it’s forbidden to take pictures and you must strictly adhere to the dress code.
4. Haifa, home of the Bahá’í faith
Haifa (Hebrew: חיפה; Arabic: حَيْفَا), Israel’s third largest city, is known for its religious tolerance. Here we find the center of the Bahá’í religion, a faith which combines features of the most widely practiced religions. Despite being only 200 years old, it already has more than 4 million followers. According to their teachings, there’s only one God, and the major world religions are only different stages of the same thing. Among its principles are the elimination of prejudice, gender equality, and the harmony between science and faith. Their holiest sites, the Bahá’i Terraces and the Shrine of the Báb, can be visited only in proper clothing.
5. Acre, the favourite harbor of the Crusaders
On the northern parts of Israel you can find the charming, ancient city of Acre (Hebrew עכו, Arabic عكّا), which was fortified by the Crusaders in the 12th century. The city’s walls have remained standing over the years, despite being attacked several times. Its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been a major commercial port of the Mediterranean throughout history. While here, don’t miss out on the country’s third largest mosque, the el-Jazzar mosque.
6. The Dead Sea and its region, the most popular tourist destination
The Dead Sea (Hebrew ים המלח, Arabic البحر الميت) is actually an enourmous lake in the middle of the desert, on the borders of Israel and Jordan. It contains about 8 times as much salt as the water of the oceans, which means complex organisms cannot survive. The Earth’s lowest dry land point is located here, 400 meters below sea level. The mud of the Dead Sea is used to treat many health problems, like wounds, dermatitis, acne, or psoriasis, it’s also used in moisturizers and apparently it slows down the aging of the skin too.
We can’t possibly leave the region without visiting the breathtaking nature reserve and oases of Ein Gedi, and the tragic Masada. In 73 BC the Zealots of Masada sacrificed themselves in the name of freedom, while their city was under siege by the Romans. After killing their own families, each man committed suicide, so the attackers wouldn’t find anybody to take as slave. Masada is one of the most moving and spectacular cities in Israel, symbolizing national unity.
If you’d like to know more interesting things about Israel, such as the traditional clothing and dress code, the public transport, or the coexistence of the different religions, then next Wednesday’s article is just for you!