Saturday, September 11, 2010

Following in the footsteps of Jesus in Nazareth and Galilee. Exploring the north and more impressions of Israel.

Bathing in Yardenit in the River Jordan where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ.
Hi again as I write on our last night in Israel before crossing the border tomorrow morning to go to Jordan. The second half of our 8 nights in Israel were to be spent in Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up and was later expelled. From here the idea was to explore Nazareth itself as well as nearby Galillee, the Golan Heights, Haifa, Akko and the tip of the north of Israel, Rosh Haniqra near the Lebanese border which of course you cannot cross.

We took a taxi on Wednesday 8th September from Jerusalem to Nazareth and the journey was just under 2 hours. Our first impression of the town was not good. Nazareth has little to do with what we imagine it was like in Jesus’ day. It is the most Arab of Israeli towns, is sprawling and extremely dirty. Perched on a hill it seems the town is on a continuous hill which makes walking in the heat torturous. 70% of the inhabitants are Muslims and 30% are Arab Christians. There are no Jews.

One of my favourite streets in Nazareth because of the arch and the bouganvilla flowers
We have been staying at a guest house in the old city called the Fauzi Azar Inn which is highly praised by all the guide books. I expected a wonderful boutique hotel in this 200 year old Arab mansion but I found something else, a rather run down old house nearly in a ruin with some saving graces, such as the beautiful reception room. We have the best room in the house. It is big and light and sparse but has no decoration. It is clean for Israeli standards but not clean enough for me I’m afraid. On the plus side the staff are very friendly and there is a communal kitchen where it’s nice to mingle with the multi cultured guests. In short the Fauzi Azar Inn has something special about it, a certain charm and lots of atmosphere but is more suited to back packers. The only modern amenity is internet, something that works well in Israel as a general rule.

Reception at the Fauzi Azar Inn, the best part of the hostal.  The rest is not the same.
On our first day in Nazareth we explored the streets, walked through the endless souks which are mostly under a pound type stalls, got lost, visited the main holy site, the Church of the Annunciation and had a nice meal at the most recommended restaurant in the guidebooks. That was Tishreen in one of the main streets. Not a bad place but nothing to write home about.

Outside Tishreen Restaurant in Nazareth
The next day, Thursday, we hired a taxi for a day to visit Galilee and follow in the steps of Jesus so to speak, to visit some of places and events mentioned in the Bible. Our driver was Najib, an Arab who hardly spoke English and who I wished had seen to his B.O. before picking us up! He was nice enough but it was difficult to talk to him. He knew the right places to take us but didn’t want any new suggestions from us.

Photo with Najib our driver in Galilee and the North of Israel
Our first stop was at Cana where the famous miracle of turning water into wine was performed by Jesus Christ. The place was a bit run down and there were 2 churches rivaling which was the actual spot of the marriage. This competition seems to take place all over the Holy Land and is mainly a discrepancy between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church.

The Catholic church which commemorates the Miracle of the Marriage of Cana, the turning of water into wine.

Very soon after Cana we could see Lake Galilee and the Golan Heights in the distance. We stopped at a view point where in fact you could see Israel, Jordan and Siria from one place. I was most interested to see Lake Galilee from my studies of religion at school and University. It is called both the Lake and the Sea of Galilee, also Lake of Gennesaret, Lake Kinneret, Sea of Tiberias or Tiberias Lake and is located near the Golan Heights. More famous for Jesus having walked on it or multiplied the fish catch of his disciples in the Bible, it is in fact the largest freshwater lake in Israel, and is about 21 km long, and 13 km wide. At 209 metres below sea level, it is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth and the second-lowest lake in the world (after the Dead Sea). The famous fish, Peter or St. Peter’s fish is caught here. Eladio tried it at Tiberias and loved it. He ate it again today at Akko.

The part of the Sea of Galillee where you can see Jordan, Israel and Siria.  The hills are the Golan Heights
Our second holy site in Galilee was probably the highlight of our whole trip; a visit to Yardenit on the River Jordan where John the Baptist supposedly baptized Jesus Christ. A lot of people there were re-baptising themselves and bathing in the water in long tunics you could buy or hire there. The Yardenit people must make a packet. The lure of bathing in the River Jordan and at this spot was too big to resist and in we went. It was a huge pleasure, great fun, somewhat uplifting and also very funny; especially when the little fish swimming in the river bit our feet! Also it was great to cool off from the blazing sun. Here you can see Eladio coming out of the water in his wet tunic. He soon dried off! I bought mine and shall be using it as a nightie when I go back.

Eladio coming out of the River Jordan in his wet tunic.  An irrepeatable experience
Our next stop was the Sermon on the Mount, on the shores of Lake Galilee and also called the Mount of Beatitudes which I well remember from the Bible (the Gospel of St. Matthew). The 2 in particular I remember and always loved are: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall inherit the earth” and “Blessed are the meek for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. I couldn’t believe I was there. It is a well kept place with wonderful grounds and flowers and of course a church. Wherever there is a Biblical or holy site in Israel, there is a church to commemorate the event.

The Church of the Beatitudes on the shores of Lake Galilee. Brought me right back to my Scripture lessons at school.
From the Mount of Beatitudes we drove to nearby Tabgha where two of Jesus’ miracles took place, the catching of the fish and the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. Once again there was a church but also a lovely fountain with fish in it. At the altar in the church there was the well known fish and loaves ancient mosaic. So at the proverbial souvenir shop I couldn’t resist taking some pottery back with this design to commemorate the miracle. Wherever we go on our travels if we see nice pottery we bring back serving bowls and plates to our home; thus we have our South African, our Turkish, etc and now our Israeli pottery to eat our salads off and lovingly remember our trips to these amazing places.

The ancient mosaic design that depicts the Miracle of the Loaves and the fishes at Tabgha
From Tabgha we drove to nearby Capernaum, the village where Jesus went to live by the shores of Lake Galilee when he was expelled from Nazareth. It is also the village Peter was from. Today there are only ruins but the views are spectacular.

One of my favourite photos.  At Capernaum by the shores of Lake Galilee with a view of the Golan Heights. 
After a disappointing lunch in nearby uninspiring Tiberias, we asked Najib to take us to visit a Kibbutz. I had learned about them at school and was terribly disappointed with the one I saw in the Golan Heights. It was more like a run-down Spanish type “urbanización” than anything I had ever learned about. I had imagined everyone picking oranges, living together but it was nothing of the sort.
From the disappointing, dusty and empty Kibbutz we drove high up into the Golan Heights (what an exotic and far-away place to go to). I kept wondering why Israel needed such a barren area and wouldn’t it help peace if they returned the land to its proper owners, Siria. Maybe that’s on the peace talks agenda. I hope so.

A map of the Golan Heights which really belong to Siria.  They are very dry and unpopulated except for some kibbutzes
Yesterday, Friday, we stayed in Nazareth and went on the Tour organized by the Fauzi Azar Inn. Linda, an orphan from California, is in charge of the tours and I must say they are different. She doesn’t take you on the typical site seeing trip of the official places to see in Nazareth. These you have to see for yourself. No, she takes you on a different tour to see the things you wouldn’t normally know about and I must say she did a good job. The only other person on the tour was Merek, a young Czech diplomat based in the EU delegation in Amman.
Linda took us around the old streets and explained the architecture, she took us into carpenter shops which don’t look like they’ve changed much since Joseph’s time. If you don’t believe me, judge for yourselves from this picture.

A carpenter's shop in Nazareth that doesn't look much different from Joseph's times!
Linda also took us to the El Babour mill and spice shop which I adored. It had all the colours and smells you could imagine and was completely authentic. For 5 shekels (about a euro) we were allowed to help ourselves to whatever crystallised fruit or nuts we wanted. As I hadn’t had breakfast I had a feast.

The El Babour mill and spice shop in Nazareth, a find of a place with some amazing fruit, sweets and nuts
Our next stop was to a little Greek Orthodox church which you could only visit on this tour. The gate was opened by a lovely Ukranian nun called Olga with missing teeth. She showed us the jewel behind the gate; a church full of priceless icons. She also showed us a secret under the church, a man made cave built to hide Christians when they were persecuted after Christ’s death (and resurrection). It was an emotional visit for me especially. Afterwards we sat round a stone table under a vine drinking lemonade made by Sister Olga. We were 5 people from 5 different countries. I liked that.

In the Patriarche's room at the little Greek Orthodox church which the Ukranian nun Sister Olga showed us.
Linda’s tour also included a visit to the Mensa Christi church with the stone table (now an altar) where Jesus and his disciples were supposed to have eaten. When I touched the stone it was quite something to think that could be true.

The stone table at the Mensa Christi church in Nazareth.  Tradition says Jesus and his disciples ate off it.
The tour ended with a cup of cinnamon tea at a bar in the old town owned by a young Arab whose family had always owned the bar. The important thing was that at that bar Arabs, Jews and Christians played board games and drank together in peace. We were told that Nazareth was a peaceful and united place. That’s nice to hear. Now all they have to do is clean it up (a lot!).

After our tour with Linda we went on our own to visit another relatively unknown place of interest, the newly found ancient Roman Baths under a shop called Cactus. But that is an amazing story, too long to tell now, which you can read here on the website. Here you will find out about Martina and Elias’ find, a truly incredible story.

Martina telling us the story of the extraordinary discovery of the Roman Baths beneath their little shop in Nazareth
From the incredible Roman Baths where it is thought Mary bathed, we went to see her well, the so-called “Mary’s Well” at the Greek Orthodox, St. Gabriel Church nearby. Again this is the story of the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics disagreeing on where the Annunciation took place, as the Catholic church commemorating the same event is in another part of the town.

The original Mary's Well at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth
All in all it was a very uplifting and intense morning, so much so we spent the afternoon resting in our room back at the Fauzi Azar Inn. We did go out for dinner in the evening and were pretty disappointed with the choice, recommended by the staff at the Inn, Annai. You can’t always get it right, of course.
Today was our last day and we decided to visit the north, to see Haifa where our main objective was the Bahai gardens and also Akko and the northern point of the country. Thus we contracted Najib’s services once again.

The Bahais who have some 8 million followers, are an eclectic religion who profess and believe in unity, equality and peace and supposedly take the best of the 3 monotheistic religions. In the mid 19th century, the founder Hussein Alli, from Iran, (called the Bab) proclaimed himself the next great messiah of the 3 religions. The Bahais were persecuted in Iran and had to flee to other countries. In our family we know of one such family. Their daughter, Miad, is Olivia’s friend from school and is now living and working in Haifa at the Bahai Centre. It so happens that the Bab is buried in Haifa and there is an enormous shrine nearly 1 kilometre above sea level with the most beautiful gardens leading up to it in the form of 18 terraces. The gardens are among the most visited location in Israel and they are well worth the visit, for their beauty and for the views which are spectacular. Hopefully this photo will give you an idea of how wonderful they are:

The beautiful and captivating Bahai gardens in Haifa
Haifa deserves a mention. It is the 3rd biggest town in Israel and the biggest port in the country. It has 280.000 inhabitants, 90% of who are Jews. There is a saying in Israel that goes: “In Tel Aviv people play, in Jerusalem people pray and in Haifa people work”. I cannot tell you if the latter is true as today was the Sabbath and a non working day. In Haifa we also visited Mount Carmel (a mountain at the top of the city) which apart from having great views too, is home to the Stella Maris Carmelite church, another ecclesiastical gem in the Holy Land.

The Stella Maris church at Mount Carmel in Haifa.
From Haifa we drove to Akko (also known as Akre), another port town once the most important one on the Mediterranean sea. The ancient walls are still nearly intact and the most notable thing to visit, we thought, was the Templar Knights’ tunnels, an amazing construction the Crusaders built so as to enter the city safely. Today the town was full of Arab families sight-seeing and it was possibly the hottest day of our stay. We got lost in the souq (market) and were squashed by crowds pushing their way through the narrow passages. As I went past the stalls I realised just how many of them sold the horrible plastic weapons so many young Arab boys seem to like and play with in the street. As I said in my first post on our trip to Israel, this is not the right step in the direction for peace. Certainly not!

A ghastly sight, plastic weapons are on sale everywhere in Israel

You see boys like this playing with plastic weapons everywhere, an unpleasant sight.
When we finally found our driver we went for lunch to the Abu Christo restaurant by the sea which felt like a sanctuary after the rather harrowing and claustrophobic experience. It had great sea-food but what I liked best was the pitcher of lemonade (so typical here) of which I had 3 cold glasses to recover from the souq experience before I even started on my prawns.

The ancient Port of Akko in the North of Israel, famous for the crusaders.  Very different today.
We had hoped to go for a bathe but Najib was not interested in taking us to nice beaches, but to finish the tour and rush back to Nazareth. The trip ended with a visit to the very northern tip of Israel at a place called Rosh Haniqra. It was very crowded and hot again, we took a couple of photos and drove back to Nazareth.

The view from Rosh Haniqra, the most northern tip of Israel and near the border of Lebanon which you cannot cross.
On our way back we stopped at the top of Nazareth to take photos of the town and I particularly like this one.

The view of Nazareth from the top of the town, stunning
This evening we went out for dinner again and this time the choice was good. We went to a lovely little romantic restaurant called Alreda. They served very spicy gazpacho but lovely sangria; it nearly felt like being at home.
And this brings me to the end of my last blog post on our 8 day trip to Israel which has been a fascinating experience. In 8 days you can only get the feel of a place and touch some of the surfaces. So here are some of my observations and in no particular order.

There are many cats here, apparently a heritage of the British. However I have not seen one single dog and don’t know the reason for that. Nor have I seen any swimming pools and this is a very hot and not particularly poor country. Here Arabs and Jews and Arab Christians live side by side but certainly not together. I feel I have seen more Arabs than Jews and certainly feel this country is similar to an Arab country. I have only been to Morocco but there are many similarities; the noise, the heat, the dirt, the wonderful colours, the spicy food, the music, the way people dress …. Everything seems pretty run down, dusty, shabby, dirty, as if there is no pride in the towns. The country seems on the verge of war judging by the amount of soldiers and controls I have seen. But then we know that don’t we. I have seen countless numbers of U.N vehicles too. I have seen many houses, especially in Haifa, with solar panels on the roofs, as well as water tanks, something I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. I have seen bananas growing, mango trees, vineyards, pomegranate trees (and juice), olive trees and the most wonderful flowers growing in the heat and humidity, over the roofs of the old houses of Nazareth and on the roads. This country has a lot to offer but whilst there is no peace, progress in the everyday areas of life will and cannot prosper. On the bright side, I adored Jerusalem and was amazed and happy to discover and explore and follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth here and in Galilee. Shalom Israel, I wish you peace now and forever.

Flowers in Israel are exuberant.
Bye for now. Tomorrow we are off to Jordan so watch this space.

PS You can see a selection of photos of this part of our trip to Israel here

1 comment:

Eileen said...

Hi Masha,
Am enjoying your blog as we are traveling in Israel. We love Fauzi Azar Inn and also Annai Restaurant. Your entries about the places to see are very helpful. Thanks for posting.