Sometimes holiday destinations seem familiar, as global monopolies dominate, however, when 12 men of the Hasidic faith (Hasidic Judaism is a branch of Orthodox Judaism) stood up and moved to the back of the plane to pray, mid-flight to Tel Aviv, I knew I was in for a unique trip. I was not disappointed.
We were travelling to Israel to learn about the Crusades (1095 – 1291). Remember school day lessons about Richard the Lion Heart? He was a central Christian commander during the Third Crusade. For 200 years, Palestine was dominated by the Crusaders, who, following an appeal by Pope Urban II, came from Europe to recover the Holy Land, promoting Christianity and protecting pilgrims. Their reward was said to be a guaranteed place in heaven.
Knights travelled from all over Europe with rabble armies. The journey could take up to 3 years. Many died en route. Bloody military battles ensued, and they massacred most of Jerusalem’s non-Christian inhabitants upon arrival. The Jews defended their quarter by barricading themselves in their synagogues, only to be burnt to death or sold into slavery. During the next few decades, the Crusaders extended their power over the rest of the country.
With this bloody history in mind, I stepped into Jerusalem and my first impression was of music in the streets, restaurants bustling with people and flood-lit buildings tantalisingly giving hints of ancient stories to tell.
Vibrant, sophisticated and exotic, this is Jerusalem today.
Next morning at the Mount Zion hotel I am woken by the sound of church bells, the first muezzin call to prayer of the day and honking horns from frustrated drivers stuck in traffic jams. We head off on foot to see the sights.
Silver Travellers should be aware that walking is essential in this city, good shoes and strong legs are necessary.
Stories taught at Sunday school now meet me at every step. Names such as the Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane; Tower of David and Pontius Pilate’s Palace are at every turn. Even if you are not a religious person it is moving to look down from the Mount of Olives towards the walled city of Jerusalem, over the ancient Jewish cemetery where the faithful wait to rise again come Armageddon.
We walk down the hill to enter the old city through Lions Gate which leads to Via Dolorosa where the Stations of the Cross begin. The streets are steeped in history.
The Crusaders only spent 30 years in Jerusalem itself but during that time they used their engineering skills to build two marvellous domed buildings (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) to protect the Holy sites. They obviously had time on their hands for you can see graffiti left by them in the form of little crosses scratched into the walls on the way down to the fine Roman mosaic floor of the Byzantine church where services are still held today.
Up above ground once more we walk through the Arab Shuk to the Tower of David to exit the Old City by the Jaffa Gate. Walking through these busy markets you see men greeting each other, joking and living with each other without any trace of the animosity much publicised by popular press.
Every meal we had on our trip set the taste buds zinging.
Taking a break in a small eating house in the Shuk we had a snack of hummus, beans and pitta bread which was delicious. The family had run this business for three generations, making a big batch of hummus daily and closing shop when it was finished. Closing times were therefore unpredictable. Each evening our guide ordered taster menus, so we were able to sample a whole spectrum of delicious freshly prepared dishes. Israelis are very hospitable and proud of the food and local wines on offer.
Leaving Jerusalem we headed toward the coast toward Telaviv. Economically and strategically it was important for the Crusaders to keep ports and trade routes open to Damascus. When the Crusaders opened up transportation routes from Europe, pilgrimages to the Holy Land became popular. At the same time increasing numbers of Jews sought to return to their homeland. Documents of the period indicate that 300 rabbis from France and England arrived in a group.
The Tel-Aviv / Jerusalem road led us past Abu Gosh. This is a fine example of where the Crusaders stopped for the night. The complex consists of a church, accommodation for men and animals and all the services you would need on a march. These hostelries were set up all along the route, each within one days’ march of each other.
Turning north we are heading to Akko (Acre), which has a secret.
Over the centuries Haifa and Akko have taken turns in being the dominant port of this impressive bay with its wonderful beaches and dunes. The port at Akko was built during the reign of Ptolemais 11 (285-246 BC). In the 13th Century this town became the capital of the Crusader Kingdom in the Holy Land.
The secret of Akko is that it is two towns in one!
Below the modern town is a perfectly preserved Crusader city which is being unearthed and brought back to life, while the modern town above carries on daily life as normal. The Old City of Akko, is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Excavations have unearthed walls, fortresses; the stone-vaulted Knights’ Halls; churches; synagogues and mosques, all reminders of the city’s conquerors and religions from the Canaanites and Romans to the Crusaders, Turks and British. An artists’ market can be found within the Knights’ Halls, as well as Hama al Basha, the Turkish bathhouse. It gives a glimpse of the exotic lifestyle people enjoyed here with its domed rooms adorned with ceramic tiles and exquisite floors. The sculpted figures taking a steam bath and being pummelled, bring it alive.
Israel offers a cross-section of hotels from the 4-star Mount Zion in Jerusalem to the family orientated 2-star Rimonim in Akko. There are B&Bs and kibbutz accommodation. If your purse has some stretch in it then the Efendi hotel in Akko could be termed a boutique hotel, where the owner Uri has just spent a lot of money on restoring the original painted walls and ceilings of two houses joined together. He also runs the best fish restaurant in town called Uri Buri!
In our pursuit of the Crusaders we are now heading South down the coast to Caesarea, but pop in briefly to Haifa to see the Bahai Shrine.
The city of Haifa has become a symbol of co-existence in Israel. This is a place where six different religions live together happily. No wonder, this city is at one with nature. Mount Carmel is the site for the Bahai Shrine and the World Centre for the Bahai Faith. There are forests, parks, groves and golden beaches. Garden lovers will be in heaven. At Christmastime Haifa holds the Festival of Festivals celebrating Hanukah, Ramadan, Christmas and New Year all in one!
Onward we go to Caesarea National Park which extends from the Roman theatre in the South to the Crusader city in the North.
Silver Travellers with an engineering background will be impressed by the Aqueducts that brought water from the North East 7 km away, to the city. One open and one closed for drinking water. There was also a pipeline that came from the South.
Back to Sunday school, remember King Herod? – this is where he built a large port city on the site of a Phoenician settlement. An impressive temple dominated the approach to the city from the sea. The port flourished through the ages but lost its political and economic significance following the Arab conquest in 640 CE. Caesarea was conquered yet again in 1101 this time by the Crusaders and then ruled by the Knights of Garnier. In 1251 the city was again fortified impressively. These walls stand solid today.
Kibbutz Sedot Yam was founded in 1940 and today wealthy residential areas with well manicured grounds line the approach to this marvellous archaeological area. As some of the site is underwater, archaeologists have to go scuba diving!
Israel is nothing but surprising. Historically it is unique. It offers the sense of history and wonder that travellers seek. It will not disappoint.
easyJet flies from London Luton to Tel-Aviv Ben Gurion airport.