Israel, the Holy Land 1

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Entering Israel by private yacht was one of our most frustrating, but interesting experiences with ‘authorities’…



From Port Said it was just an overnight trip to Ashkelon.
We left the Suez Canal with a great sigh of relief and were even more pleased to have breeze to start sailing as we entered the Mediterranean, -maybe it would all be as good as this? – if only!

The wind died after an hour or so,we motored almost all the way thereafter.
At 2.30 am, it started.
Somehow and by a method we still puzzle over, as it was pitch black darkness, 50 nm out from Ashkelon and well outside their waters, the Israeli Navy detected our presence, started calling on VHF and continued incessantly…
Their VHF signal was so distorted as to be barely readable, but as soon as we realised it was us being called we replied. They had a long series of questions about our ship and personal details to which we gave the answers.
We wrongly thought that would be them satisfied, no, after a short while they called again on the same scratchy radio and the questions were repeated…again and again!
Was this an intentional tactic? to unnerve us and try to trick us if we were giving false information? -we didn’t know, but it meant that neither of us got much sleep all night!
One of us needed to be on the radio down below, the other on watch up on deck and us both trying to understand what they were asking!
It was only after daybreak that the calling stopped and that was after we were approached by a naval patrol boat at high speed, men and machine guns at the ready. It circled us doing do-nuts, creating a wash which spilt our early morning coffee and sent many things flying down below.

They asked all the same questions by VHF, were eventually satisfied, wished us a nice day and departed!

From there we had a very nice, peaceful sail into the marina!

Three Customs officers were waiting for us on the dock and there began the real interrogation!
We were separated from each other, one man came aboard and with me did a thorough visual search in every locker in every cabin, while a woman interrogated Mark first, particularly about our experience and time in Oman, Arab contacts and who might have had access to the boat while we were there. Then he was sent away, it was my turn
They were clearly most interested in any possible items we might be carrying, knowingly or unknowingly, as explosive little ‘presents’ from an Arab state to Israel…  Unusually, tobacco, alcohol and drugs were definitely not an issue!
The woman then did her own visual search within the boat and then by taking smears with chemical swabs from everywhere our fingers might have been, -door handles, taps, computer keyboards, -looking for traces of explosives.
I was relieved that she found nothing, but wondered how it would have been had one of us been having to use trinitrin for angina???
We didn’t mind the interrogation and searching, as they did it in the nicest possible way and in the circumstances of us entering Israel after such a long time in Arab countries, it didn’t seem unreasonable!
Immigration was next, although without the individual ‘grilling’, but there were many more of the same questions, very politely and with a satisfactory end result of our being granted 3 month visas.

The process took a couple of hours, but we were fascinated by it rather than irritated, it was our welcome to the Israel political situation!
We’ve continued to be very interested in it, never have we been so interested before in a country’s affairs. We’ve read about it, talked about it and been involved in many heated arguments, but the more we learn, the more confused we get and the more confused we find most everyone else to be too!
We’ve witnessed the Israeli government and military in action with the unfortunately tragic storming of the Turkish aid ship for Gaza and the international fall-out as a result of that; we’ve visited walled-off Palestinian Territories and seen the different way of life on ‘the other side of the fence’; we heard and saw a rocket from Gaza explode 500m from us in Ashkelon; probably just a protest by Hamas at the word of Peace Talks starting soon, but it was followed by a major bombing campaign of Gaza just down the road; we hear of more bombings and rocket attacks in the south of the country; and most recently, (to date!) a border skirmish with Lebanon where 3 of their soldiers were killed by Israelis, who were for some reason on the wrong side of the fence.
Clearly the Israeli administration’s answer to any threat is by aggressive defence -to put it kindly…!
But it is a complex and troubled situation, more than we will ever comprehend and undoubtedly with fault on both sides

Staying in Ashkelon, despite it’s being about 10 km from Gaza, one of the hottest trouble-spots in the world, you would normally never know. People get on with and enjoy their lives. Within hours of the recent rocket attack, the small crater was filled in and as usual on a Friday morning, the day before the Sabbath, people were out weekend shopping or already on the beach.

For us from the outset, stopping in Ashkelon gave us pleasant memories of Queensland; similar climate, gum trees, apartment buildings, European people and food.
And just like that part of Australia, it is a culture of sloppy dress, beach, barbecues… -and booze!

A few days after our arrival in the marina we had a taste of what Mediterranean cruising is likely to be, -maybe?
The EMYR (Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally) came to town with a hundred boats in party mood… We enjoyed seeing them and the marina put on a good welcome, but we began to hope they would all leave soon when the aerobatic display came so close…

We value our masthead and its fittings!

Ashkelon was a good place to stay for a few weeks. It is a comparatively quiet town but with everything that you need, the marina is friendly and un-busy.
It did prove to become very hot as July moved on, the sun was every day,  little breeze came over the high breakwater and there was nowhere to get out of the sun, apart from dockside restaurants, -where of course there is no such thing as a free lunch!
By leaving with the sun-rise it was good for getting back on the bike  to remedy that Red Sea loss of condition. In town riding required care, Israeli driving could be classed as ‘impetuous’… but away from the traffic, off the main roads the pleasantly rolling countryside could have been anywhere in Europe.
It was good base too, for us to leave the boat and travel, firstly to Jordan and then with the use of a hire car, the rest of Israel.

JAFFA  (Yafo)


Now merging into the southern apartment blocks of Tel Aviv and officially part of the capital city, is the old harbour town of Jaffa, named after its reputed founder, Japheth, son of Noah.
It was an important harbour in ancient times.
Habitation there has been dated back to Canaanites 4000 years ago.

It is also from there Jonah was said to have set out before being eaten by the whale!
There are ruins of buildings dating from Egyptian occupation around 1500BC, -King Thutmose was here, -subsequently Alexander the Great and the Romans over-ran and occupied it around the time of Christ.
During the Crusades it passed from first one winning side to the other before finally being lost by the Christians to Saladin the omnipotent Muslim.

The old, partially walled town has been recently rebuilt or restored to become a trendy area of quaint little homes and artist’s quarters, displacing the Arab fishermen who always lived there in favour of Tel Aviv corporate executives wanting to show status by being able to shun apartment buildings and live on the edge of town.

The streets are lined with galleries, many showing the best and most expensive, quality Israeli artwork

On a midweek day with everyone at work and few people about it’s an easy place to spend a few hours…but ‘just looking thanks…’

But not all of Jaffa is for rich young sophisticates. A few blocks back in the area of old factories and warehouses is the ‘Flea Market’.

Equally interesting to browse and far more affordable is the largest collection of second shops in one place I am sure I have seen, anywhere.

Never could there be so much old junk, useless bric-brac and quality antiques in such a small area.

Among it too is delightful eating, not exclusive, haute cuisine, but like our lunch-time choice, enormous plates of tasty cheap food served in noisy barn-like surroundings.

CAESAREA (Qaysariyya)

Founded by Phoenicians in the 6th century BC, north of Tel Aviv, Caesarea really grew to importance with the arrival of the Romans. King Herod made it the Roman headquarters within Palestine naming it after Caesar Augustus.
Interestingly, although there is not a lot to show for it now, he built probably the first completely artifical harbour -ever, without any natural shelter, by making a breakwater of concrete blocks and rubble.
It became an important town in its time and a great many notable events happened here during the biblical era, especially in relation to the Apostles Paul, Peter and Philip. It was an early centre of Christianity.
However, it declined and apart from a brief flurry of activity during the Crusades has remained a minor town since.

Now it is a small beachside settlement of low-rise holiday homes, golf courses and along the foreshore a string of Roman ruins.

Most impressive is the several kilometre length of aqueduct still standing

but there are also remains of a hippodrome and an old Crusader city on the site.
Probably best making the town known, is a restored Roman ampitheatre, the venue for large open air concerts for international attractions and Israel-wide audiences.


Beyond Caesarea is the beautiful university town of Haifa.

Unusual in Israel because of its having been built on hills around a harbour it makes for an attractive town, -albeit difficult to navigate on its narrow busy streets.

Unusual too as it has relatively little history. It was only a small town through the ages, known first in about the first century AD, subsequently to the Crusaders and Napolean, but it didn’t really rise to importance until the 20th century with the formation of Palestine and then later, Israel, it was and still is, the country’s main deepwater port.

Its best-known landmark is the Baha’i Gardens which stretch from the old German Quarter 900m directly up the hill with the central ‘Shrine of the Bab’, a golden temple dome. (‘gleaming with gold’ they say, but for us a dirty brown, unfortunately covered in hessian having a makeover!!!)
Access to the top gate where there is public entry is by an underground cable car, the Carmelit.

Baha’i was founded first in Iran by the ‘Bab’ during the 18th century, with the admirable principle belief that all men and all religions are equal under one God…
Unfortunately the founder was executed, but his successor, himself also a prophet of the faith, moved to Acre and formally founded the movement during the late 19th century. He is  interred there. The centre of the faith was later transferred to Haifa and these gardens completed in the 1950s.

They are formally laid out and immaculate. Entry to the public is limited to the top 2 of the 9 tiers, lower down, guided tours can be taken to some areas only, while Baha’is are free to wander anywhere and enjoy.

Higher up the hill (Mt Carmel) are expensive residential areas, hotels and the university, while along the ridge and overlooking the open sea is the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery

with gondola access for those who prefer to avoid the steps.

It was built as a Crusader stronghold in the 12th century, but the present building, its small chapel with magnificent painted ceilings date back only to 1836.

The city is a relative back-water compared with the corporate office blocks, apartment buildings and busy-ness of Tel Aviv.

However, with the university on the top of Mt Carmel, the attractive hill and harbour setting of the town, the small remaining old city on the waterfront and tidy downtown streets, life there could be very good.

We enjoyed our first stay, have been back once and are hopeful of getting back again for a little longer when we leave.
There is a marina on the north side of the town, so it is a logical place to call into in order to clear the country and leave for Cyprus or Turkey, possibly?

ACRE (Akko)

Across the bay north of Haifa is the ancient walled port town of Acre.

It is a stone walled fortress town and now declared a World Heritage Site.

It originally was a home of Canaanites, but known to the Egyptians as Akko, then overrun by Alexander the Great to became Ptolemais to the Egyptian King Ptolemy thereafter. The Romans subsequently also used it as a base.
As Acre it rose to importance as a Crusader town, and as a port for foreign ships. Marco Polo is known to have passed through on his way east.
More recently in 1799 Napolean fought a significant battle here, -he lost to the Turks.

Although there has been some restoration, unlike Jaffa much of the original stonework has been preserved and so are the traditional inhabitants, the Arabs.

A central landmark is the Al Jazzar Mosque dating back to the 1780s.

Another significant landmark is the Khan al Umdan, the ‘Inn of the Pillars’, once a grand inn servicing camel trains bringing grain and produce from the hinterland to the port,

It is still a ‘lived in’ town. Although the tourist buses are frequent, they are kept to the periphery and the original nature of the community remains.
Within the very substantial city walls is a network of narrow alleys, steps and doorways, -even secret tunnels, -washing lines and the cooking smells of Arab people living in close proximity.
We even witnessed a minor dispute and street fighting of the first degree, fists were flying and faces were crunching…we stood well clear!

The pretty little port still functions as a fishing base and there’s a small crowded marina, -but room for local boats only I suspect.
Now it is hard to imagine it once being a major base for foreign trade.


Inland from Haifa is the district of Upper Galilee and at an altitude of about 900 metres, the delightful town of Zefat.

The air is clear, the climate a little cooler and the views over Galilee refreshing.

As a town it has been known for almost 2000 years, but mainly as a centre for the learning of Judaism and even now, it remains the home of many of the various branches of Orthodox Jews.

It rises steeply up a hill with a central set of limestone stairs rising vertically about 150 metres, the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom.

Those steps are of significance. Built on the principle of a firebreak they divided the warring Arab and Jewish communities, the Arabs to the left, the Jews to the right, -and there are still the bullet craters in the Police Station and other nearby buildings to show for it. Also a (now unused) large arc-light search light at the top of the stairs.

Now it is the town of Orthodox Jews and artists, the latter having attracted a large tourist following.

Several streets are now rows of galleries selling art of many forms, much of it produced locally but increasingly as the tourist bus trade develops, other work is brought in from across all Israel.

It is an easy place to spend the Shekels, some of the artwork is just irresistable!

GALILEE  (Kinneret)

The cliffs of Arbel are a rocky outcrop above the Sea of Galilee, with great views over  both the district and the Sea…on a clear day in winter maybe, but it is unfortunately continuous haze in summer…

Of interest,the small village on the lake shore is Migdal, -or Magdal, the home of Mary Magdalene,

and behind the small town of Arbel is the volcanic hill with 2 peaks known as the Horns of Hittin, the site of a decisive battle when Saladin defeated the Crusaders, back in 1187.

Beneath the cliffs on the western shore of Kinneret, as the Sea of Galilee is known to Israelis, is the old town of Tiberias.
It has been a settlement from the time of Christ, being built there originally near hot springs.
Now the Tiberias has grown to be a lakeside resort with high rise hotels and apart from fragments of the old walls, not a lot remaining of the ancient city.
The one notable exception however is the Hamat Teverya National Park on the site of the hot springs and protecting the best preserved mosaic floor in Israel.
This has been the site of a synagogue since 4th century BC and some fragments of that remain, but later synagogues have been built on the same site, the mosaic belongs to one of about the 4th century AD.

The upper part of the mosaic has a repesentation of the Holy Ark of the Covenant and the 7 branched candelabrum.
Below is a Zodiac with the Greek sun-god Helios centrally and surrounded by the traditional signs.
The inscriptions are in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.

The Sea of Galilee is not a big Lake, only about 21 km long and a little less wide.
The Jordan River runs into it dirty and brown at the north end and out again at the town of  Kinneret on the southern, rather prettier, the water cleaner and nicer blue.

Nowhere is the river as big as its reputation and water is progressively removed so that by the time it reaches the Dead Sea it really is very small, slow running, reed filled and a muddy brown…
It’s hard to imagine that baptism by total immersion would be attractive!

On the eastern shore of Galilee however, there are many good swimming spots and over the summer, there is a good kite-surfing breeze blows up.

The wind is accelerated by the high hills on the western side of the lake and there is the story of Jesus having to rebuke the wind and calm the waters!

The northern end of the Lake is little developed and very attractive, it is also where the  major Christian sites are located.

The Mount of the Beatitudes is the site of the Sermon on the Mount, -when Jesus gave his ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’ and ‘blessed are the…’ messages.

It is celebrated by a church on the site in beautiful garden surroundings and views over the Lake.

Immediately below the Mount is Tabgha, a traditional fishing village and the site of the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.

It too is celebrated by a church and quite insignificantly, beneath the high altar a small mosaic depicting loaves and fishes, alongside the flattish rock where Jesus was said to have laid down the 5 loaves and 2 fishes.

A pity we cannot get closer to it, but although one of the best known, (if  its numbers of postcards are a guide) it is a sorry little mosaic compared with those much better ones depicting animals and birds all through the rest of the church!

Along the lakeshore a few kilometres is Capernaum, said to have been the base for Jesus’ ministry and from where he recruited several notable apostles.

There are the remains of a synagogue from the 3-4th century and other rubbly ruins of a town from older times.


Extending 30 km or so directly north of Galilee is the fertile Jordan Valley. It is irrigated by the river and great for orchards and market gardening.
To the east of that however are the windswept, infertile and battle scarred Golan Heights, wrested off Syria in the 1967 and remaining a part of Israel since. It notable for being windswept, comparatively infertile, having a massive military presence and still areas of unexploded mines, but at the same time being beautiful in its barren-ness.

Gamla is not much to look at now but has a history, being the site of a Jewish stronghold where 5000 Jews, rather than being taken by the Romans lept to their death over the precipice into the rocky valley below.

At the far north end of Israel, just kilometres from Lebanon and Syria is Mt Hermon, at 2224 metres, the only ski-field in Israel.
On a lower hill beneath it, are the remains of the Crusader fortress, Nimrod Castle.

(Mt Hermon is the brown one just to the left and behind)

Nimrod is one of the largest and most impressive fortresses to have survived from the Middle Ages in the Middle East.
After Saladin triumphed over the Crusaders at the Horns of Hittin, they were never able to retake this area of the Holy Land although there were several attempts.
Nimrod Castle was built by the Arab leaders in 1227 AD., in anticipation of another Crusader onslaught and in particular, their threat to take Damascus, but to where they never got near.
It is strategically placed to protect the route to that city from Acre.

see slideshow.



Nazareth is also in the district of Galilee and is the largest Arab town in Israel, with a 60% Muslim population, but ironically, as the place of the immaculate conception, it is where Christianity really began!
Although Arab, it is part of Israel rather than a Palestinian Territory.

Apart from seeing the Christian sites, we enjoyed the town and the people, our first visit wasn’t enough, we had to go back for a second, especially for the coffee.

At the time of Christ it was nothing more than a small village and although there are some 2000 year old remains, the area now known as the old town is mainly Turkish from the Ottoman Period.

It is a maze of narrow streets and alleys with steps (and donkey paths in the middle), wood-workshops, flour mills, shops, little houses, tiny churches

and many fine old mansions.

We stayed in one, the Fauzi Azar Inn. It was originally built in the 1700s by a Lebanese Christian family and is delightful, typical of the time with high painted ceilings,

narrow steps, arches and low (very low!) doorways.

Around the old city are spice markets and coffee roasters with a tantalising mix of aromas;

the traditional busy souq with fresh vegetables

and a much larger area selling just about anything!

Many of the buildings remain in quaintly original condition, -authentic -but not neccessarily good!

Right in the centre of the souq and not readily found as it is in the shadow of the much bigger Greek Catholic Church, -not much more than a hole in its wall, -is a tiny synagogue.

The present building dates from the Crusader period but is said to be on the site on the same synagogue where Jesus preached as a young man.

A little up the hill above the souq is the Mensa Christi Church, celebrating a table of rock.

The Franciscans claim this was the table at which Christ ate with his disciples after he had risen.

Along the hill a little is another little church, like many in the old city, in this case Orthodox, but notable for having been built over caves,

an example of many where early Christians often found it neccessary to live to avoid persecution.

Just on the edge of the Old City at Mary’s Well Square is the Saint Gabriel Church, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.
It is their belief that Mary was at the well when the Angel Gabriel visited her and announced her impregnation by the Holy Spirit.

Within the church in a crypt behind a railing is a spring, still running, the water believed to have healing powers.

The ‘other’ Church of the Annunciation, the Latin Basilica, is the focal point of Nazareth because of it’s modern hexagonal cupola.

(The Muslims neighbours making the most of it being the most photographed sight in the city to publicise their message!)

The present basilica was constructed in 1969, on the site of a series of previous ones all destroyed.

The site is said to be the home of Mary and hence, the ‘other’ version of where the Angel visited.

The lowest floor of the present church incorporates a cave grotto, believed to have been Mary’s residence.

Immediately adjacent is another Church, St Joseph’s, likewise built over a grotto, believed to have been his carpentary workshop.

In the courtyard are numerous excavations revealing the ruins of rudimentary houses,thought to have been the Nazareth Village of biblical times,

and in the cloisters are gifts of banners, mosaics and artworks from catholic parishes around the world, -I couldn’t let a modern mosaic of a little old boat go unnoticed…

On the southern edge of the city is a lookout platform known as the ‘Mount of the Precipice’ or the ‘Cave of the Leap’

This is where Jesus was taken to be ‘cast off a high rock’ by his persecutors after he upset them with his interpretation of the Jewish laws in the book of Isaiah, -he escaped…

The views from the bluff are panoramic over the lush Jezreel Valley.

The symmetrical, rounded mountain is Mt Tabor, thought possibly to be the site of the ‘Transfiguration’, where Jesus was mysteriously transfigured before the eyes of the Apostles and seen in the company of Moses and the prophet Elijah.

…..to part 2…..

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