Israel Feature

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Archaeology

In an earlier generation, archaeology was something of an Israeli national pastime; but it’s still exciting to walk, Bible in hand, in the footsteps of the ancients.

Biblical (Old Testament) sites abound. For starters there’s Megiddo, with its multiple strata and ancient water system (get the free brochure and visit the tiny museum); Jerusalem’s City of David, dripping with mystery, deep underground (the 3-D movie is a bonus); and Tel Dan, huge and verdant.

Explore Second Temple–period remains at Masada (again, take the brochure and find 30 minutes for the wonderful museum), and monumental masonry at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park (Davidson Center). On the Mediterranean, explore Caesarea, with its Roman theater, hippodrome, sunken harbor, mosaics, and Crusader ruins.

If a hands-on excavation, dirt and all, appeals, Archaeological Seminars has a year-round Dig for a Day program––actually three hours of fun––in the caves of Beit Guvrin–Maresha National Park. More heavy-duty digs, mostly in spring or summer, require a one-week minimum commitment from its volunteers; some insist on a month. For a list of expeditions looking for pay-your-own-way labor, browse the Internet; they change from year to year.

Reinforce your newfound archaeological expertise with a visit (best with a docent) to a museum or two: in Jerusalem, there’s the Israel Museum ’s excellent Archaeology Wing, and across the street the Bible Lands Museum. The less-known Mizgaga Museum on Kibbutz Nahsholim (north of Caesarea) has intriguing artifacts from the ancient port city of Dor nearby.

The Great Outdoors

Israel’s nature reserves offer an astonishing diversity, from the lush Upper Galilee to the arid southern deserts. In the north, Tel Dan is a fairyland of streams, greenery, and biblical ruins. The Banias seeps out softly beneath Mt. Hermon and churns its way south; an easy trail offers great views of waterfalls and cataracts. The Golan Heights has more challenging trails, most with running streams and natural pools.

Israel is a major bird migration route, from northern Europe to Africa in the autumn and back again in the spring. Many of the estimated 500 million “frequent flyers” rest awhile in the Hula wetlands reserve and nearby Agmon Ha-Hula, popular with pelicans and cranes. On the Golan Heights, eagles and griffon vultures nest in the craggy Gamla Reserve.

The desert has its space, its silence, and its own subtle beauty. Respect its power: Never hike desert trails alone; avoid intensely hot days; wear a hat and drink copiously. Consider an organized hike with (for example) the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. In the cool season, the mountains behind Eilat and the deep ravines of the Judean Desert offer serious hikers spectacular canyon trails (pay attention to flood warnings). Off-road trips in the Eilat Mountains and the area of the Ramon Crater are a lot of fun, and camel rides are an option, too.

Running water in the desert is pure magic. The Ein Avdat canyon near Sde Boker is easily accessible. The Ein Gedi oasis, near the Dead Sea, offers the shorter but often crowded Nahal David, and the much longer, more primeval Nahal Arugot trail. Both have natural freshwater pools and waterfalls, and are home to ibex (wild goats) and hyrax (small furry creatures).

Sacred Spaces

Faith has many voices in the Holy Land, and sanctity wears many different robes. For the uninitiated, it can be a bewildering multisensory experience. Some pilgrims find the hubbub at many sites disconcerting, but keep in mind that most places were not pristine in their day either.

For Christians of every denomination, Israel offers a unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. From the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan River and Nazareth, scripture comes alive. Ride a boat, explore ancient Capernaum, and contemplate the landscape where Jesus preached. In Jerusalem, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher evoke the scenes of Jesus' final days. The Garden Tomb is a mandatory stop for many Protestants.

For the Jewish faith, the holiest place in the world is the Western Wall, a remnant of Jerusalem’s ancient Temple Mount. Graves traditionally identified with biblical figures, Talmudic sages, and medieval rabbis dot the Galilee. The tombs of King David in Jerusalem and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mt. Meron in Upper Galilee are especially famous. But for many Jews, the entire land, rather than individual sites, is biblical and blessed.

The black-domed al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem’s Haram esh-Sharif (or Temple Mount), is the third-holiest place in Islam. The golden Dome of the Rock nearby is built on the spot where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended to the heavens to receive the teachings of Islam.

The landmark gold-domed Baha'i Shrine on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, in Haifa, covers the tomb of the Bab, the forerunner of Baha'i. Its gardens provide a serene environment for this gentle faith.

Museums

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is regarded as the country’s leading cultural institution, with Art, Judaica, and Archaeology wings––and of course the Dead Sea Scrolls. The undervisited Museum for Islamic Art has a world-class collection and an unrelated but stunning display of period timepieces. The Historical Museum of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, offers a powerful and thought-provoking documentation of a dark period. The nearby Herzl Museum uses engaging techniques to re-create the life and times of the founder of the Zionist movement, over a century ago.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is a don’t-miss for aficionados of modern art and architecture. Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum (not to be confused with the one in Jerusalem) specializes in glass, ceramics, coins, ethnography, and much more.

Haifa’s National Maritime Museum is devoted to the thousands of years of maritime history in the Mediterranean basin. The Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art on Mt. Carmel is a gem. Located in Haifa’s Hadar district is Technoda (National Museum of Science and Technology), a delightful interactive exhibition for kids and adults alike.

Guided groups generally skip the Masada Museum, but independent travelers will find it helpful in fleshing out their visit to the site.

At the southern end of the country, though not classically a museum, the aquarium section of Eilat’s Coral World Underwater Observatory and Aquarium provides an explained encounter with the fantastical creatures of the nearby coral reefs (be sure to rent the audio guide).

Updated: 11-2013

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