A Journey Through Israel
31 May 2022
‘Knafeh’ insisted my driver, who seemed impervious to the fact that I did not speak Hebrew. He carried on, pointing in the direction of where I was later to discover housed the old Jaffa Flea Market. ‘Knafeh’, I came to learn, is a delicious sugar-soaked pastry and just one of the many delicacies that has placed Israel firmly on the map as a culinary hotspot. Whether you are enjoying a casual lunch in the delicious hummus hangouts like Abu Hasan, sampling the various dishes on offer at local market stalls as music from every culture swirls around, or savouring wonderful fusion meals at high-end restaurants, the Israeli food scene is bursting full of talent and gourmet creativity. Each meal tells a different story, accompanied by an energy and passion that shines through on every plate. Not forgetting their delicious and complex wines!
A novel would not be sufficient to describe the extraordinary geopolitical, cultural and historical narratives of this country – but I will attempt to highlight a few of the incredible places, people and stories I encountered on my journey. Setting off via the ancient city of Caesarea, one of Herod the Great’s most iconic builds, our guide Shani patiently talked us through the magnificent and often tumultuous history of the Romans, Crusaders and Ottomans. Dotted throughout was the familiar thread of biblical stories learned when I was young, and of course the enormous importance of this land as the birthplace of three world religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Throughout the Holy Land, I was blown away by the ancient archaeological sites, including Caesarea, Acco, Tzfat, the Golan Heights, Gennesaret, not to mention the magnificent Sea of Galilee, the amazing site of Capernaum and the world-famous site of Masada with its compelling but solemn history. With our guide Shani, the story behind these ancient places came alive, the characters that had lived here through the centuries took on color and her narrative made each place a marvel.
Arriving in Jerusalem, I was immediately struck at the beauty of the old city walls, with its golden stone illuminated dramatically by the sunset and the magnificent Temple Mount, golden orb of the Dome of the Rock and King David’s Tower standing tall in the background. Avsha, our incredible guide, met us early the next morning and yet again was the font of all knowledge. He answered patiently and with passion all our questions on the history and importance of Jerusalem and the complexities of each different narrative. We were very privileged to have spent time whilst he explained so much of the past, present and hopes for the future as we explored the richly diverse heritage of the Arab quarter, the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter, and the Armenian quarter. Starting in the Gardens of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives was a wonderful point to grasp the conversation that lay ahead, as we walked and talked through so many streets passing beautiful architecture before finishing at the Wailing Wall. A highlight of the day was sampling the wonderful street food through the famous Mahane Yehuda market which was a riot of color and sensation. Nearby restaurant Machneyuda serves up vibrant Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine from a trio of celebrated Israeli chefs. Impossible to get a table but you must try!
The people are what truly made my journey here so special. Spending time at the Israeli Museum with Dr Alfonso, the curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, followed by a few hours at the Holocaust Museum was a day never to be forgotten. I also spent a fascinating afternoon with Yisca Harani, an Israeli academic who focuses on comparative religion, which was beyond a privilege. Her amazing summation from a totally historical and bipartisan view of the contrasting love of Jerusalem by the three monotheistic religions beautifully and sensitively illustrated why great Kingdoms have struggled to be the conquerors of Jerusalem, and why was the city was so important to each one of them.
Our next stop was Ramon in the Negev Desert, from which we traveled to the incomparable Six Senses Shaharut. After such an incredible culture and history-filled journey, it’s essential to take a few days to relax in the silence and beauty of the desert. Sitting that night on a terrace looking into the inky sky full of stars gave me time to reflect on these last few amazing days. Having this time to relax, enjoy the incredible spa and sample wonderful food whilst looking over the most beautiful views was a perfect end to my trip. Not to mention the epic jeep safari we embarked on with our guide, Adam, through the great Ramon Crater (also known as Maktesh Ramon), with a special surprise desert lunch. I won’t elaborate on this, so as not to spoil it for other travelers!
Back to Tel Aviv feeling well rested, we spent the last two nights walking by the sea, eating amazing food, wandering through the artistic area of Old Jaffa and relaxing in the cosmopolitan ambience of the beachside. Looking back to the Old Town of Jaffa, separated by the bohemian and vibrant area of Neve Tzedek, I realised what a country of contrasts, light, and complicated narrative this is. My days spent with Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs, Jews, and Israelis whose ancestors had hailed from the East, the West, the North and the South was fascinating. And above all, understanding without having my enjoyment compromised in any way that Israel is complicated, fascinating, and beautiful.