By Renée S. Gordon
The first Biblical reference to Israel appears in the Old Testament in Genesis, 32:28, when God tells Jacob that he will forever more be called Israel and Exodus 1:1 identifies the ethnicity of the followers of Moses as Israelites.
The earliest secular reference to the land of Israel dates from the 13th century B.C., when a stele in the mortuary temple of Merenptah, the pharaoh who succeeded Ramses the Great, was etched with a poetic mention of his battle against Canaan. The inscription reads,” Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.”
Israel’s story stretches back to antiquity and it has always been the scene of controversy and events that have altered the history of mankind. If we consider the real “seeds” of Israel to be the locations of religious significance to Muslims and “the People of the Book,” as well as sites of cultural importance to all mankind, we begin to realize how singular it is as a destination.
The country is small, approximately the size of New Jersey, and yet it has six United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites (WHS).
One of the best and most comprehensive ways to explore Israel is to visit these sites. A tour of them will take you throughout the entire country and enable you to better understand the rich and varied cultures that have contributed to its development.
The UNESCO WHS are nominated by individual countries and voted on by an international committee consisting of representatives from all but five countries in the world. The first convention was held in 1972 and the first site inscribed was the Galapagos. Currently more than 880 sites are listed. whc.unesco.org
El Al, Israel’s national airline, flies direct, nonstop, to Israel from more than 40 cities and has a perfect security record. In 1948, the State of Israel created an airline in order to fly the new president from Switzerland. An Israeli Air Force airplane was hurriedly refitted as a passenger aircraft and the new airline was named El Al, “to the skies,” from the book of Hosea.
The airline has been called upon to airlift Jewish people out of harm’s way on several occasions, most notably in May of 1991 when Operation Solomon facilitated the relocation of more than 14,000 Ethiopians to Israel.
Additionally the airline has flown numerous humanitarian missions including providing 90 tons of supplies each to 2004 Tsunami and 2005 Hurricane Katrina victims. Although El Al has been privately owned since 2005 it remains the national airline. www.elal.com
Haifa, in the north of the country, is 63-miles from the airport and is a perfect gateway to the surrounding area. Though ruled in the past by different groups such as the Romans, Crusaders and British, this thoroughly cosmopolitan city is Israel’s third largest, Israel’s biggest port and is completely modern.
Built on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, Haifa serves as a model of co-existence with no less than six religions and multiple ethnic groups living harmoniously.
The earliest mention of the city is in the Talmud in the first centuries A.D. when it was a port and fishing village on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea. The Crusaders conquered the city around 1100 and ruled it until 1265 when the Muslim Mamelukes took it.
In 1905 the Haifa-Damascus Railway was built, in 1929 the British modernized the harbor and on April 21, 1948, Haifa became the initial city controlled by Jews after the British Mandate.
In 2008, the Bahai Holy Places in Haifa were listed as UNESCO WHS because they serve as testimony to cultural traditions and heritage associated with events of universal significance.
The Bahai Shrine is an architectural wonder reached by a series of steps with 18 terraces, ornamented with gardens and fountains that descend from atop Mount Carmel, a distance of 738-ft. The complex includes the Neo-Classical Universal House of Justice with 58 marble columns, the International Library and the Shrine of the Báb, where his body is entombed. All of the buildings face the burial site of Baha’u’llah in Acre.
The Bahai Faith is founded on the principle that all religions share universal concepts and that Jesus, Moses and Muhammad are messengers. The Báb founded Bábism, was martyred for his beliefs, and foretold the coming of Baha’u’llah the most recent messenger. Baha’u’llah was exiled to Acre where he died in 1892. www.bahaigardens.org.il
Haifa’s tourist bureau has created a self-guided city tour and visitors can opt to walk, drive, take an underground train or cable car. The route encompasses 21 panoramic observation points, maps and audios for private use are available. The Thousand Steps Path is a series of four walking tours that are also offered by the bureau. www.tour-haifa.co.il
The restored German Colony is situated at the base of the Bahai Gardens. This area in the Holy Land became home to the German Templars in 1869. Today the structures are trendy eateries, galleries, museums and nightspots. In the evenings, it is illuminated by the reflected glow of the Bahai Gardens and it is breathtaking.
Carmel means “Vineyard of God” and 25,000-acres are designated Israel’s largest national park. Haifa is also referred to as the “City of Elijah” because it is here, on Mount Carmel, that the prophet hid from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in the 9th century.
Elijah’s Cave, the holiest in the country, is a point of pilgrimage for Muslims, Jews, Druze and Christians. He is the patron of the Carmelite Order and a monastery denotes the place where he defeated Baal’s prophets, 1 Kings 18:17-40. Atop El Muchraka, Mt. Carmel’s highest peak, stands a statue of Elijah sword upraised and an observation platform. The cave itself is venerated because of Elijah, as a location where the Holy Family stopped on their journey home from Egypt and for its miraculous powers. It is open to visitors at no fee. Allenby Road.
Tels are man-made hills that are composed of ancient settlements built on top of each other, some with many archeological levels. Israel has more than 20 tels and in 2005, three of the most significant Biblical Tels, Megiddo, Hazor and Beersheba were inscribed as WHS.
The 47.5-acre Megiddo National Park encompasses the 15-acre archeological site of what was once an important Canaanite city. Ideally situated to control the trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was the site of numerous conflicts over control. The city flourished until the end of the Persian Empire. Megiddo is commonly held to be the Biblical Armageddon, Revelation 16:16, site of the final battle between good and evil.
The archeological dig is on a 197-ft. elevation and consists of 20 important excavations. A tour begins in the entrance pavilion with a 10-minute orientation film, a museum and an interpretive model. Highlights of the tour are the Israelite Gate, the Southern Stables, the Northern Palace and the Temple Area. Of particular note is the double wall around the city and the water system designed to allow inhabitants access to water without leaving the walls. A 230-ft., 118-ft. deep tunnel ended at a spring with an entrance hidden from the exterior by a huge stone. www.parks.org.il
Tel Hazor was a Canaanite City in the Bronze Age and during the Iron Age it was conquered by Joshua. The archeological site of the Upper City rises 131-ft. above the Hula Valley and reveals 22 levels of civilization dating from the reign of Solomon. There are 9 viewing areas here including the Solomonic Gate, constructed during his reign, the City of Ahab and a 9th-century water system.
Beersheba, “Well of the Covenant,” was an ancient Judean city on the edge of the desert and the border of Israel. Its founding is mentioned in the Bible twice, Genesis 21:25-33 and Genesis 26:32-33. The site is entered through a gate in the double wall that encircled the town. Highlights of a tour here are the remains of the storehouses, the governor’s palace, four-room Israeli houses and a large stone altar.
The modern city of Beersheba is only a few miles away and it is renowned for the Bedouin Market held there every Thursday where the Arabs come in from the desert to both buy and sell. It is colorful and an utterly unique experience.
The city is also the location of Abraham’s Well. It is believed that here he watered his flock and argued water rights with Abimelech, thus the city’s name. Genesis 21:25-34.
Join me for part two as we continue to experience the wonders of Israel. www.goisrael.com
I wish you smooth and peaceful travels!