Sign Up for Our Daily Newsletter
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
The North CoastFurther 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.
MasadaI 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.