Travel: Israel

Jerusalem at sunset. Picture: Getty/Thinkstock
Jerusalem at sunset. Picture: Getty/Thinkstock
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THE most secular pilgrim can’t fail to be filled with awe by the birthplace of western faith, writes Fiona Laing

As a state, Israel’s history might only be relatively short, but its land is as old as you can imagine. It is so cradled in religions, cultures and politics that its past resonates everywhere.

At Mount Sodom, the biblical tale of the destruction of the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is utterly believable. Around us the desolate salty hills glisten in the sun. We’ve climbed 30km through a steep-sided, boulder-strewn wadi to the plateau in a tough jeep with Ibrahim, a Bedouin who spotted the market for off-road tours of this wilderness. A quirk of geology means that this is the world’s lowest mountain. It’s 220m high, yet 170m below sea level. We look out over the southern end of the Dead Sea which has been divided into salt pans fuelling an important mineral extraction and processing industry.

Another quirk of geology means that I can float in the Dead Sea. When you try to swim and water splashes into your mouth, you understand just how salty it is and that it’s easier to return to lazily bobbing on your back. In spring, it is just a small number of people at Ein Bokek, a town on the shore, testing the waters; in summer it’s a magnet for experience seekers.

The other Dead Sea experience is a mud wrap. I can’t tell you about the exact benefits of the mud’s minerals as my therapist speaks only Russian. She deftly applies the warm mud, then pulls the sheet tight around me and leaves me for 20 minutes to bake like one of those Bedouin lamb dishes cooking in the earth.

A few days later my skin is particularly soft – it’s just a shame about the expanded waistline. Israel likes its food and each meal we have is huge.

The beguiling buffet in Ein Bokek’s Isrotel Dead Sea Hotel challenged us to experiment with exotic food combos from its many hotplates. We kept telling ourselves we needed energy for exploring our surroundings.

At Sodom we had to draw on our imagination for the biblical picture, but at Masada there are many more physical clues to its key role in Israel’s story. The hill-top fortress was King Herod’s palace and then a besieged refuge for Jewish Zealots after the Romans attacked Jerusalem in the late 1st century. We could walk up the Snake Path to the 450m high fortress, but if the Romans took three years to conquer Masada, it seems sensible for us to take the three-minute cable car ride.

Nearly a thousand people lived up here during the siege. Herod’s palace had been well designed with flood water ingeniously captured and channelled to cisterns hewn from the rock. The Zealots eventually took their own lives as the Romans closed in. Once in control, the Romans imported their own customs and their bathhouse – with hypocaust or underfloor heating, and mosaics – is particularly impressive.

Masada’s story was recorded by Josephus Flavius at the time of the siege, but the site was forgotten until the 19th century. Interest quickly developed and it became an icon of Jewish identity. Since the 1950s, excavations have revealed what we see now, confirming much of what Josephus wrote.

The most famous documents from these parts are, of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls – found in the 1940s at the northern end of the Dead Sea. It is in Jerusalem that you understand their context. The Shrine of the Dead Sea Scrolls is at the Israel Museum in a fittingly dramatic building. Here their discovery, their significance and some texts are set out.

Nearby, a scale model of Jerusalem, originally built as a hotel whimsy in the 1960s, gives you a taste of the city before the Romans destroyed it.

The museum is also a stunning gallery where Israeli art, Impressionists, Surrealists, archaeology and fashion give unexpected insight into this cosmopolitan country.

Jerusalem’s history is a little daunting, with its layers of invasion, destruction and division. Each evening the walls of the Tower of David are transformed into a screen which chronicles those dramatic years. Using vivid imagery and majestic music, it’s a good way to get a grasp on the city’s story – although it’s even better to pay attention to our licensed tour guide, Aviram Politi.

The Old City is what most people come to Jerusalem for. Crammed into one square kilometre, it’s where all the cultures collide, creating a complex, multi-layered place. Peoples’ beliefs are very much in evidence – the clothes are the first pointers: Jews, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Bedouins going about their daily business. Then there are the church bells, the muezzins’ call to prayer and the pilgrims singing as they make their way past the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. The pilgrims’ goal, Calvary, the place where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried, is far removed from its original state – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has wrapped itself around these fragments of belief.

Queuing to go into the tiny tomb is worth the effort, but the tip is to do it before the tour buses start to arrive. Another tip is to indulge in coffee and strudel at the Austrian Hospice. Perched above Stations of the Cross 3 and 4, it is an elegant and calm place to take refuge after the assault on your senses in the cobbled alleys and stalls of the Arab quarter. The Viennese-style palace has guest rooms and a panoramic roof terrace, as well as the Austrian coffee shop. It’s a good place to pause before you tackle the Western Wall.

The retaining wall of the Temple Mount is the only remnant of the city spared the Romans’ destruction. It is Judaism’s holiest shrine, the place where Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac, Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven and the site of temples built by Solomon and Herod. The Western Wall Plaza is always bustling, but near to the wall itself, things calm as the faithful contemplate the sacred stones.

Another peaceful place is the upper room where Jesus was betrayed – a simple space contrasting with the Tomb of David, a busy synagogue, below.

When Avi points out there are 500 CCTV cameras in the Old City, you realise how seriously security is taken. But there’s fun here too. We whizz through the Old City on Segways, greeted by smiles as we go. We start from the First Station, the site of Israel’s earliest railway station, where restaurants and retail space replace carriages and rails, creating a popular destination for Jerusalemites and visitors alike. Our hotel, the Mount Zion, clings to a rocky valley side gazing out to the Old City a short walk away. It is also close to First Station, where we eat at Adom and Hachatzer. Both are new incarnations of established Jerusalem restaurants, the meals again hearty but with flashes of pure class.

The layers of politics and history, together with the reality of the modern city, mean Jerusalem is a place which gives you plenty of food for thought.

FACT FILE

• Isrotel Dead Sea Hotel, Ein Bokek, www.isrotel.com/hotels/isrotel_dead_sea, B&B from £270 per couple per night.

• Mount Zion Hotel, Jerusalem, www.mountzion.co.il, B&B from £200 per couple per night.

• Tel Aviv (Ben Gurion) airport is 45km from Jerusalem. easyjet (www.easyjet.com), El Al (www.elal.com) and BA (www.ba.com) have regular flights from the UK.

• Further information on Israel www.thinkisrael.com

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