Where Bauhaus Meets Biblical - By Tricia Welsh

Tricia Welsh travels through the pages of the Bible on an odyssey through Israel.
January 2020

Tricia Welsh travels through the pages of the Bible on an odyssey through Israel.

But is it safe?” ask friends and colleagues when they hear my latest travel destination is Israel. “Well, yes, it must be,” I tell them. “Abercrombie & Kent would not be sending travellers there if it wasn’t,” I add – more to reassure myself.

Our 11-day small group journey starts in Tel Aviv and then takes us north to Caesarea, Akko and Tiberias where we stay for a couple of nights before setting off south through Nazareth to Jerusalem – our base for several more days. We are 18 – all Christians, except one Jewish couple from New York, and all interested in learning more about this incredible country that is held sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike and is usually in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Tel Aviv is a surprising city on so many counts: not least of which is its vibrant beach culture with 13 surf beaches along an attractive 14 kilometre Mediterranean esplanade edged today with large international hotels.

We stay at the stylish boutique hotel, The Norman Tel Aviv, where elegantly chic accommodation is offered in two beautifully restored 1920’s residences, with a rooftop pool and two excellent convivial restaurants. The low-lit Library Bar is the ideal spot to meet friends and sip cocktails.

Those with an interest in architecture will appreciate the number of Bauhaus buildings that proliferate throughout the city. With more than 4,000 Bauhaus style houses and offices, it has the greatest concentration of such buildings in the world. Designed by immigrant architects trained in Europe, they were largely erected in the 1930s and 1940s when many German-Jews left Nazi Germany - many settling in Israel. In 2003, its Bauhaus legacy was recognised by UNESCO who declared the ‘White City’ a World Heritage Site.

A visit to vibrant Carmel Market is an opportunity to see the abundance of fresh local fruits, vegetables and produce. We share fresh pita bread with hummus and spicy shakshuka, savour tabbouleh-filled pancakes, freshly-cooked falafel and sip hand-pressed tangy pomegranate juice. Be prepared for a flavour overload.

Our tour guide, Itamar, is young, affable and extremely knowledgeable. As we pass familiar names on signposts indicating Jericho, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem and more, he suggests: “We can travel through the pages of the Bible, here. It’s one of the most awesome countries in the world.”

We follow the coastline north to our first stop, the ruins of Caesarea, where King Herod built an impressive city dedicated to Roman emperor Augustus Caesar in 20BC. Its waterfront 30,000-seat hippodrome shares the same views over the Mediterranean as the country’s long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current weekend retreat, nearby. Caesarea is one of Israel’s most important archaeological sites.

At picturesque Akko, we stop for lunch in a restaurant atop the historic Crusader city’s walls overlooking the centuries-old ramparts. With its atmospheric alleyways, knight’s tunnels, pencil-thin minarets, the painted Mosque of El-Jazzar and food stalls, it is best explored on foot. We visit the Knights’ Halls and can almost hear the clank of armour echoing through the vast subterranean arched spaces built some 800 years ago by the monastic military Hospitallers order. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our base for a few days is Tiberias at the incongruous bluestone Scots Hotel, owned by the Church of Scotland. Tartan-clad hotel staff greet us and usher us at sunset to our spacious rooms overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It is very comfortable with excellent buffet meals, atmospheric dining under bud-lit palms at night and a cellar wine tasting of Israeli wines mainly from the Golan Heights and the Judean Hills.

While Tiberias is holy for Jewish people, it is also Jesus’ territory. He preached along the coast of the Sea of Galilee around Capernaum, an ancient fishing village where he lived; gave the Sermon on the Mount – a doctrine that changed the world; and miraculously fed 5,000 followers with five loaves and two fishes at Tabgha.

The road north climbs up to the grassy plateau of the much fought-over strategic Golan Heights where Israel borders with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon – the lush green landscape dominated by snow-capped biblical Mount Hermon. Soldier ‘cut-outs’ defend old hilltop bunkers while a destination signpost reminds us that war-torn regions are not so far away.

Heading back to Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, we board a private wooden boat reminiscent of those used by the apostles in biblical times. This large natural fresh-water sanctuary is one of the most popular tourist areas in the country, with little perhaps changed since Jesus was a boy.

The thriving town of Nazareth, where Jesus lived for 30 years, has developed around the Basilica of the Annunciation, its spiritual heart – and Mary’s home, where it is believed the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus.

Heading south, Beit She'an comes as a surprise. It is the best-preserved Roman-Byzantine city in Israel with impressive marble colonnades and a gladiatorial amphitheatre.

Simple Bedouin tents and date palms line our route to Jerusalem where our first view of it is from the Mount of Olives. We take in the majesty of the ancient white stone walled city crowned by the gleaming gold-leaf cupola of the Dome of the Rock - its Islamic heart, and note the Golden Gate through which Jesus is said to have ridden triumphantly on a donkey on the first Palm Sunday and where Muslims believe the Final Judgement will take place.

We check in to the luxurious yet historic King David Hotel where heads of state, royalty and celebrities have stayed over the years. Rooms are spacious, gracious and many have views over the Old City. It’s the centre of the city’s social life.

Built by King David around 1000BC, the religious and political capital of Israel is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth. On Sunday mornings, Christian church bells ring intermingled with the muezzin call to prayer from nearby Arabic mosques. Possibly no other city on earth has such a deep and profound effect on residents and visitors alike.

We discover that the Via Dolorosa or Way of the Cross, actually passes through the narrow shop-lined streets of the Old City. It even wends its way through the old covered Arab souk where we hear the lilting hymns of religious pilgrims as they complete their holy journey. Each station is marked along the route, culminating with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the most important in Christendom. Six different Christian denominations claim rights to it: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Assyrian and Ethiopian Orthodox.

Inside, we feel like extras in a Dan Brown movie as we shuffle on marble flagstones, smoothed over the centuries by worshippers, through the maze of high sandstone arches amid the hushed throng of Christians and visitors, queuing and bending low to kiss the most sacred spots within. As we consider joining the long queue to enter the inner sanctum housing Christ’s tomb – the holiest of all – a procession of Armenian priests, some wearing elaborate regalia, walk briskly to a nearby chapel, chanting and wafting incense over us in blessing.

You can almost feel Shabbat in Jerusalem. Jewish businesses close and Orthodox Jews in traditional garb – some with fur hats and cream coats, make haste through the Old City for the Wailing, or Western, Wall. Men and women are segregated for prayer – many secreting hand-written prayer notes into crevices in the high stonewall. There is great excitement as the scrolls of the Torah move around, where young bar mitzvah candidates read the lessons.

We take day trips to Jericho where Christians are still baptised in the muddy waters of the River Jordan, and to the Dead Sea where we float in its ultra-salty water and revel in its weird and unique buoyancy, to Herod’s mountaintop fortress palace at Masada where 1,000 Jewish zealots held off 6,000 Romans camped at the base of the mountain for two years in AD73 and to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

Lunch with a Palestinian family is a chance to hear the other side of life in Israel while a high concrete graffiti-covered wall in Bethlehem says it all. Our guide Motek explains: “The Israelis see it as a ‘security’ barrier; the Palestinians as an ‘apartheid’ wall". But it’s a stark reminder that these are countries at war and while everything looks smooth on the surface, in reality, there is much still to resolve.

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