Sites in Israel abound with tales from the legends, myths and histories of three faiths
Between the going and the return, there is in any journey a distance traversed in space and time. There is also another, internal, journey: the journey of the imagination. Between the going and the return, our imagination of a place is sometimes confirmed, usually modified, occasionally changed.
The mind-picture I had of Israel until I went there for the first time was built, as is usually the case, from occasional bits of news read or watched. The nature of news being such as it is, the images I had seen were of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters, of guns and bombs and dying and killing. The country was famed for its security and the impression I had was of a troubled place that showed its neuroses and battle scars.
Every flight destination has its own character. A flight to Tokyo is full of quiet, polite people, as if the culture of Japan has already flown in with the pressurised air in the cabin. A little into my Air India flight from Delhi to Tel Aviv, I began to sense that the Israelis were probably a lot more relaxed than I had imagined. There was a murmur of conversation around the aircraft. Men and women were walking around barefoot, sipping wine, chatting.
The Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv had the appearance of an airport at a beach holiday destination – which, to my surprise, Tel Aviv turned out to be. Warm sunshine and glorious beaches greeted us. People swam in the Mediterranean, or lazed about sunning themselves, or played sports.
The wide boulevard running along the beaches – there was a whole series of them, one after another – had restaurants and pubs. The beach closest to our hotel had some too. A fellow traveller and I went down to hang out. Dusk fell, but life on the beach continued. The fabled security of Israel, coupled with the atmosphere of secure comfort, made us careless. She left her handbag on the beach and waded into the waters. I went off to get a beer. When we returned, the bag, with her passport in it, was gone. We had to call the police. They found it, minus the cash, in a trash bin a couple of hours later.
It may not be enough to prevent occasional petty crime, but there is a lot of security, not all of it easily visible, that exists in Tel Aviv. Another evening at a bar, I got a glimpse of this. I was sitting with a software engineer from Kathmandu having a beer. Neither of us paid much attention to the crowd of young boys and girls in jeans and tee shirts sitting at a table near us, beyond remarking on the huge German Shepherd dog with them. Then we noticed they also had Uzi automatic guns with them. They were not just hanging out there.
The vibe of the city, on the whole, is chilled out. There’s a lot of partying that happens, and the parties seem to go on till late. Young men and women mingle easily. The appearance of the place and many of the people is reminiscent of southern Europe. When the nation state of Israel was formed in 1948, a lot of the new settlers came from European countries such as Poland and Germany. To the Indian eye, they are indistinguishable from white people elsewhere.
This is, of course, an appearance that conceals a history of conflict stretching back hundreds of years. Tel Aviv itself is a modern city of skyscrapers but a walk of around an hour down the seafront promenade, an older reality begins to reveal itself. The city of Tel Aviv is new. It began life only in 1909 as a suburb on the outskirts of an ancient port city called Jaffa. That port city is still there, and the port – which finds mention in the Bible as the place where King Solomon who then ruled the place landed the Lebanese timber for building a temple in Jerusalem – is still in business.
It is a mixed Muslim Arab and Jewish area. We walked down a narrow stairway of hewn rocks, lined with occasional charming little galleries and cafes, to the port where fishing boats with their rough Arab crews bobbed about on the sparkling waters. The town of Jaffa rose behind this port on a steep hill. There are still bits and pieces left over from its complicated past. The clock tower, built by an Ottoman Sultan who ruled the area in the early 1900s, is an unmissable feature. The Ottoman’s were among the last in a long line of rulers who ruled Jaffa; their predecessors, stretching back to beyond King Solomon, included the Persians, Greeks, Romans, the Crusaders under King Richard the Lionheart, and the Muslim armies of Saladin.
The flea market near the clock tower, with its curious range of wares, is sure to take shoppers a while to pass. There are attractions beyond the flea market as well which make it worthwhile to move on. Not the least of these is the food. If you like fish, you can have a fine meal of St Peter’s fish, which is basically a whole grilled tilapia with salads and sides. The name, as with much else in Israel, comes from a Biblical story.
The whole country of Israel is strewn with locations associated with the Bible. There are places here sacred to the Jews, of course, but also to Christians, and to Muslims. All three great Abrahamic faiths were born in these lands. Their foundational myths and legends are here, and thus, too, their unending conflicts. No place brings home this fact more clearly than Jerusalem.
The Western Wall is the most sacred place of the Jews, who pray there against its ancient stones and occasionally leave little notes of wishes and prayers in its crevices. The wall borders the compound of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock is built over a rock that is associated with foundational figures of Islam and Judaism. Jews believe the rock was the one where Abraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people, had offered his son Isaac as sacrifice to God. Muslims recognise the association of the site with Abraham, who is known as Ibrahim, and Isaac, who is called Ishaq, but additionally believe the rock was the launchpad from where the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, ascended to heaven on a magical winged steed.
The distance from the Western Wall to the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock is about a hundred meters. About 500 meters from these is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the holiest site of Christianity. It is the church built on what is believed to be the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and his subsequent resurrection. There is within this church a tomb that is believed to be the tomb of Christ, from which he rose from the dead. The Crusades were motivated in part with the aim of recovering this church from Muslim rule.
These stories are still alive in Jerusalem.
Walking out of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I saw the most ordinary sight in the world: a woman staring into her phone. It was her attire that was extraordinary. She was dressed like a Crusader, in a white tunic with a red cross on it.