Is there any place on Earth quite so divisive as Israel? Three of the world’s major religions stake their claim to sacred sites inside its hotly-contested borders — the Holy Land occupies an altogether singular place in the junction of Middle Eastern history and politics. Unmistakably, emphatically modern yet suffused with a sense of the ancient, Israel demands to be seen, heard, felt and experienced at every turn, it excites one’s passion, inspires zealotry, vehemence, hatred and fanaticism all in the same breath. But there’s no shortage of ways to wind down, or things to see and do, either. Pilgrimage or vacation! Israel brims with possibilities.
Stroll around the Baha’I Gardens
The Baha’I gardens are among some of Israel’s most iconic landmarks. The resting place of the prophet and harbinger of the Baha’I faith — the world’s latest monotheistic religion — the gardens were planted on the slopes of Mt Carmel between 1989 and 2001, and were given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008. They’re undeniably regal, glitteringly green and startlingly symmetrical, rippling into identical 8-point hedges and bright, striking flower beds. Tours happen all week save for Wednesday, at 11.30am in Hebrew and noon in English. Plan ahead and arrive an hour beforehand, because spots are limited. Men and women must be covered from shoulders to knees.
Visit Nazareth Village
Jesus Christ was born in Israel’s largest Arab city, 3000 year old Nazareth in the historic city of Lower Galilee. Hallmark Christmas card renditions are probably more than a little outdated — the city of 75,000 is a bustling mini-metropolis, albeit one with stunning Ottoman mansions, and churches commemorating a different New Testament event on every corner. Towering high above the rest of the city is the Basilica of Annunciation, an astounding feat of Modernist engineering that’s believed to stand on the site of Mary’s home. Right across the street is the Centre International Marie de Nazareth a forum for charity work among Christians and inter-religious dialogue. Oh, and the city’s also got some of the best restaurants in Israel.
Row a boat through the pool of arches
The pool of arches was first built to act as a reservoir, and provide water to the residents of Ramla. Today, the 1200 year old marvel proffers visitors the opportunity to explore it via rowboat. Note the elegant pointed arch, which would go on to become a mainstay of Islamic architecture everywhere, being seen in famous monuments like the Registan in Uzebkistan. They lend the cistern an altogether majestic air, without which it might seem stifling underground. It takes the better part of half an hour to row round all of the 15 pillars, but it’s well worth it for the brief glimpse into the city’s rich history.