11 sites not to miss in the Holy Land.
Overlooking the ancient walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, the King David Hotel has been the home base of choice for visitors like President Obama, Prince Charles, Muhammad Ali … and yours truly.
Israel is such a small country that headquartering yourself in the King David Hotel makes sense. It’s within walking distance of absolutely everything you’ll want to see in Jerusalem, and an easy drive to such historical treasures as Mt. Masada, the Qumran Caves and Bethlehem. And nothing beats dinner on the patio after a long day of sightseeing.
The significance of this small land is pretty hard to overstate. For thousands upon thousands of years, Jews, Christians and Muslims have called it their homeland. They’ve loved it and fought over it since time began, it seems. Touring it was easily the most intense and demanding travel experience I’ve ever had.
Trying to remember the sequence of the various historical eras was a bit too much for me, frankly. Every evening, I strived to review everything I’d seen and get everything straight in my head.
I certainly couldn’t have done it without the lovely guide, Rachel Perk, who was sent to me via Abercrombie & Kent. The company set up our trip, booking superb hotels and an extensive itinerary.
1. Jerusalem’s Old City contains Christian, Armenian, Moslem and Jewish quarters. The ancient stone streets are open to pedestrians only. Here you’ll find the Way of the Cross, the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre—built on the presumed site of the crucifixion and tomb of Christ. Threaded throughout the sites are the hundreds of tiny stalls and shops of both Arab and Israeli merchants; literally every-thing you want or need can be bought somewhere within this colorful maze.
2. Masada is the mountaintop site of a palace complex built by King Herod the Great. After his death, it passed into Roman hands and was captured by Jews of the Zealot sect in 66 AD. We took a cable car up to explore the last stronghold of the thousand sect members who held out for three years against the invading Roman army. They finally committed mass suicide to escape capture and enslavement. “Masada shall not fall again” is a swearing-in oath of the modern Israeli Army.
3. The Qumran Caves are located in the rocky Judaean desert not far from Masada. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in huge, airtight jars in these caves by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947, nearly two thousand years after they were hidden there. According to the latest theory, hundreds of scrolls of the Temple library in Jerusalem were taken away and stashed in the caves at Qumran during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 68-70 AD. The Temple
itself was destroyed.
Until 30 years ago, it was thought that the Essenes, a strict mystical sect that allowed no women, wrote their history—and, indeed, the history of the Jews—on the scrolls and hid them. Authorship is still the subject of passionate debate, evidently. The Shrine of the Book, an entire building at the Israel Museum, is dedicated to the scrolls, and it’s a thrill to see the actual jars and the scroll fragments themselves displayed inside this haunting edifice. Some of the scrolls contain the oldest existing versions of biblical scriptures.
4. The most difficult day of the trip was a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum housing more artifacts of that horror than anywhere else in the world. Words cannot describe the experience, so I won’t even try. But anyone calling himself a human being needs to make a trip here.
5. The town of Bethlehem is in Palestine, so you’ll need a passport and a different guide to take you in. Bethlehem is a part of the Palestinian territory (located in different discrete districts throughout Israel) far from current conflict. It was a great chance to see everyday Palestinian life and, of course, the Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where Jesus was born. You do get to go down into the cave itself and put your hand on the very location of the birth.
We also walked in the fields where shepherds looked up and saw the star that led them to the nativity. The same olive trees have been shading those fields for more than 2,000 years.
6. Archeological digs at Beit She’an have uncovered a colossal, preserved city that developed over millennia—from ancient to Hellenistic times. It was once on a major trade route. Leave most of a day to explore the massive colonnaded streets, bathhouses, theaters and temples.
7. The largest city in Northern Israel, Nazareth is composed mainly of Arab citizens of Israel, both Muslim and Christian. Since Jesus spent much of his life here, it has several shrines commemorating biblical events. It’s a center of Christian pilgrimage.
8. We relocated to the magnificent, antique Scots Hotel in Tiberias, right on the Sea of Galilee. A boat ride on the sea was a trip highlight, and you can see the remains of a boat dating from the very year Christ gave his sermons here—perhaps the actual vessel he was rowed in. We also journeyed to the Golan Heights, from which we could see neighboring Syria and Lebanon. Israeli war planes massed nearby were a shocking wakeup to the current world.
9. Fabulous Acre, on the Mediterranean coast, is one of the world’s oldest seaports, mentioned 3,500 years ago by King Tut and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the main base for the Crusades, and we toured the Templar Tunnel, an Ottoman fortification called the Citadel, and the excavated complex of gigantic halls used by the Knights Hospitaller. The marketplaces are great here, and the seafront is a wonderful place to linger over a fish dinner.
10. Further down the coast is the charm-ing garden town of Haifa, along with Augustus Caesar’s ruins at Caesarea, where you can sit in an excavated 15,000-spectator Roman amphitheater by the sea and imagine watching the chariot races.
11. Staying in Tel Aviv at the close of our trip was a just reward. While I could have gone off on a foodie walking tour of old Jaffa, or explored the hip Bauhaus district, I decided, instead, to spend a perfect day on one of Tel Aviv’s sophisticated beaches. With bike parking and cabana facilities, the sugar-white beach is lined with cafés of every description. Besides lifeguards, there are fellows who assist you with lounge chairs and umbrellas. It’s like an exclusive resort, but it’s all there for the use of anyone who lives in-—or visits—this complex but gorgeous country. Turquoise waves gently lap; accents of half a dozen countries can be heard from contented beach-goers. The sun is always shining.