Israel is a country with no shortage of awe-inspiring monuments and sacred sites. While Jerusalem is often thought of as the epicenter of Israel’s religious and historic treasures, there is plenty more for travelers to discover outside the walls of the Old City. In particular, clients with a penchant for ancient history, religious experiences and stunning natural beauty would do well to venture outside of Jerusalem. Exploring Galilee, the North Coast and Masada will give any visitor to Israel a more comprehensive and memorable sense of the country’s rich history and character in the truest sense — as was the case for me.
The ancient ruins of Beit Shean
// (C) 2010 Harold Hutchings
Just north of Jerusalem lies the massive region known as Galilee. The area is as popular with foreign tourists as it is with local vacationing Israelis since it offers so much in the form of leisure activities. This is due much in part to the beautiful Sea of Galilee (known as Kinneret in Hebrew). From sunning on lakeside beaches and serious mountain biking around the Sea of Galilee to wine tasting in the Golan Heights and relaxing in the Tiberias hot springs, there are numerous ways for clients to enjoy Galilee’s bountiful natural resources.
However, Galilee is also a deeply historical and religious place. For Christians especially, the area is ripe with significance as the place where Jesus spent the majority of his life. And just last fall, archaeologists uncovered a 2,000-year-old synagogue from the Second Temple period in Migdal, near the Sea of Galilee. Even for clients who are not so religiously inclined, the area remains a place where the history of ancient Israel comes alive.
Tiberias, for example, is home to the Yigal Allon Museum, which houses a wooden fishing boat from the first century that is more commonly referred to as the Jesus Boat. While no one knows if Jesus actually sailed on this particular boat, it is an archaeological rarity, especially because of its unexpected discovery in the Sea of Galilee in 1986, and because of its exceedingly well-preserved state (wood normally rots over time in fresh water). Seeing the boat firsthand at the museum helped me understand just how much history has been
discovered — and has yet to be found — in the Holy Land.
A similar experience took place during a nighttime stroll through the ancient city ruins of Beit Shean-Scythopolis at Beit Shean National Park in the Jordan Valley. Before my walk among the ruins, I watched, awestruck, as an elaborate sound-and-light show relayed the city’s long and eventful history — no fewer than 18 cities have been found to be
superimposed on top of each other at this very site. The “Shean Nights” show cost a reported $3 million to produce and that investment showed in its stunning use of graphics and sound effects. After the show, our group proceeded to walk through the city itself, which was lit up in such a way as to evoke the experience of having lived in the period when a devastating earthquake toppled the city in 749. It was one thing to watch the presentation and quite another to actually set foot on the very site where all that history took place.
While I’m not a particularly religious person, I felt genuinely moved by my visit to Tabgha and two of the region’s most famous sacred sites — the Church of the Beatitudes and the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes. The location of the Church of the Beatitudes alone is worth the trip, as it overlooks the Sea of Galilee. A feeling of serenity is likewise felt at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes, where I encountered religious tour groups singing hymns on this fifth-century Byzantine church site.
The North Coast
Further west on the North Coast of Israel, I discovered a gem of a destination: Akko, also known as The Old City of Acre during the Crusades. What I loved most about this UNESCO World Heritage Site is that it remains a historic town that isn’t overrun with tourists or modern, newfangled gimmicks or attractions. Instead, this is a place where practically untouched Ottoman structures serve simply as the backdrop to a vibrant — and mostly Muslim — community of local fishermen and families. With its winding — albeit sometimes confusing — brick alleyways, beautiful minarets and even secret, subterranean tunnels, Akko is a destination not to be missed on longer Israel itineraries.
My favorite excursion in Akko was a visit to the Subterranean Crusader City, an eerie series of vaulted halls hidden some 26 feet below the street level. Today, the halls play host to concerts and events such as the annual Akko Fringe Theatre Festival but at one time, they were the headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers of the Crusades. In one hall, I noticed a large patch of cement that canvassed the ceiling, later learning that this cement was covering a tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners who were held in the British prison above ground in 1947. Along the way, clients will also make their way through a dining hall that leads to a somewhat claustrophobic underground sewer (which is disinfected nowadays, thankfully), eventually ending up at a crypt, a hospital/post office, a small souvenir shop and, finally, a Turkish bazaar.
I had an equally haunting and memorable experience during my visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Masada. Traveling south from Galilee, your clients will immediately notice the impressive fortress, which is located in the middle of the Judaean Desert, near the Dead Sea. The impressive plateau was fortified between 103 and 76 B.C., eventually becoming a panic room of sorts for Herod the Great in 37 B.C. Years later in 73, after a four-year siege, it became the final resting place for a group of Jewish patriots, Zealots, who committed a mass suicide so they would never become slaves to the Roman army. Monks occupied it during the fourth and fifth centuries, but it wasn’t until 1963 when the site was
thoroughly excavated, preserved and rebuilt after being rediscovered in 1838. Since then, it has become a symbol for the modern-day Jewish state with the strong belief that “Masada shall not fall again.”
Making our way to the site, we took a cable car up to the top of the plateau and continued on our way through the complex. Throughout, clients may notice a single black line on the walls of the fortress — these are meant to denote what is original rock (below the line) and what has been rebuilt (above the line). A tour of Masada also introduces travelers to Herod’s ingenuity, via his clever water supply system, as well as his taste for luxury, as detailed in the rather spacious and lovely bathhouse. If your clients are planning to visit Masada in the summer or early fall as I did, advise them to bring lots of water with them to the top — the searing heat can be rather oppressive.
As impressive as the fortress was, it was also extremely poignant, making it one of the most unforgettable stops on my trip. While many people have differing opinions on whether the Zealots’ decision was admirable or not, I was particularly touched by what my guide, Rivka, said about it. The real lesson learned from Masada, she said, was that we should never let ourselves get into a situation where we are faced to make such a heart-wrenching decision. I couldn’t agree with her more.