Israel

Monastery of the Cross by CC user ronalmog on Flickr

Introduction

Easily one of the world’s most high-profile nations for good reasons and less than good reasons, Israel is a land has been fought over by countless empires and nations going back to the dawn of civilization.

Due to its strategic position between North Africa, Southern Europe and Asia to the East, and its fertile lands that could easily make for a thriving civilization, the Egyptians, Judeans (Jews), Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Christian crusaders from Europe, various Arabic nations, Ottomans and the British has all possessed this territory at some point over the past 4-5,000 years.  In the modern era, Israel was set up by the British as a state for dispossessed Jewish people after the fallout of the Second World War, where 6 million souls were snuffed out by the cruelties of the Nazi war machine.

While the establishment of this territory has been controversial for the existing inhabitants of the region (especially after the Six Day War in 1967 which saw Israel expand its original borders), the fact remains that most average citizens here are peaceful and want nothing else but to co-exist in the region with their Arabic counterparts, as they are tired of the endless cycle of violence that perpetuates itself between the two groups ad infinitum.

They would much rather show you a land that is more befitting of the title given to it in Exodus (book in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible), which was described to Moses and his wandering clan by God as a land that floweth over with milk and honey.  While this may not be true in the literal sense, figuratively it is an apt description, as it is a land that is blessed with a gentle Mediterranean climate, and has a massive wealth of religious and historical monuments, contained in a landscape that will take your breath away.  Seal the deal with the sublime cuisine that you will encounter in Israel, and you have the makings of a trip that may rank highly in your personal top 10 journeys of all time.

Currency: New Israeli Shekel

Languages: Hebrew, Arabic

Dome of the Rock by CC user chadica on Flickr

What To Do

Any tour focused on Israel’s rich history should start in the ancient capital of Jerusalem.  Here, the Western Wall (sometimes known as the Wailing Wall), and the Temple Mount above it are easily the most significant religious sites in the entire country.  The wall is where practitioners of Judaism pray openly, as it is one of the last remaining pieces of the legendary temple of Jerusalem, which last existed in its intact form almost 2,000 years ago, when the Romans destroyed it in response to a local insurrection against the Imperial throne.

After the Roman Empire crumbled, the Byzantines controlled the region for a short time, before being displaced by Islamic conquerors, who largely retained control of the area until the 20th century.  Shortly after assuming control over Jerusalem, they built the Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the Temple Mount, as it is believed that Mohammed ascended to heaven at this very location.

The very spot on the Temple Mount where Mohammed is said to have been spirited to paradise is enshrined in a landmark monument known as the Dome of the Rock.  With the dome itself being coated in gold leaf, and the outside covered in exquisite tiles bearing many Quranic verses, merely seeing this place makes the journey onto the Temple Mount worth it.  Unfortunately, entry inside to non-Muslims is prohibited, so the views from the exterior will have to do.

As to the question of who possesses the Temple Mount, it is currently disputed between adherents of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, as all of these groups have laid claim to it in the past in the names of their faiths, and any attempt by any group in the recent past to pray here has been met with palpable hostility.  As such, prayer on the Temple Mount is not permitted and access to this sacred ground is tightly controlled, with visitation only allowed at certain times; as such, be sure to check ahead to avoid disappointment.

Dead Sea Floating no Hands by CC user amanderson on Flickr

Those that are interested in the origins of Christianity will not want to leave the country without exploring the region of Israel surrounding the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus the Nazarene ministered to the local people for several years.  Anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of religion knows what happened shortly after that, but those seeking to find locations in the region where He once walked will be quite pleased with this area, as it contains the approximate place where Jesus was baptized, the hometown of Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph (Nazareth), as well as the place where He was born into humble circumstances (Bethlehem).

After spending a week or so combing through the religious relics of three major world religions, you’ll probably be jonesing for a dip in the ocean.  While the Mediterranean coast has many excellent beaches, we recommend heading for the Red Sea coast city of Eilat, where vastly superior SCUBA diving opportunities await, and warm ocean waters year round will enable travel-weary souls to seek out some badly needed R+R.

Finally, a trip to Israel simply wouldn’t be complete without a dip in the Dead Sea, which also holds the distinction of being the lowest place on Earth at a depth of 394 metres below sea level.  This body of water has a high concentration of salt, making it much more buoyant than normal ocean waters.  As such, you can float in the water without being completely submerged, making it possible to chill out on a hot summer day and read a book at the same time!

Falafel by CC user youngshanahan on Flickr

What To Eat

Out of all the food served in Israel, Falafel has been declared its national dish. It is simply chickpeas that have been formed into balls and then fried, being served typically with hummus (described below), french fries and a salad.

Another common treat that Israelis indulge in is called Shawarma.  Shawarma is grilled meat, usually lamb, turkey or chicken that is served in a pita with onions, cucumbers, lettuce and tomato, and is often slathered in garlic mayonnaise.

Also, Hummus is well loved by many people in Israel, as it is a cream spread that makes for an excellent snack.  It is composed of creamed chickpeas, tehina, lemon and olive oil, and it is scooped up by many eager partakers with pieces of pita bread in social situations.

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