The draw card for Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, was the promise of a session with Jonathon Cook, former BBC journalist and now a freelancer who lives in Nazareth with his Palestinian wife and their children. Jonathon writes a blog on the Palestinian situation in Israel, inter alia. His Facebook page and blog are well worth a follow.
I will not attempt to paraphrase his analysis of the history and current situation in Israel. Best you read his views for yourself.
We caught a taxi from Jerusalem to Nazareth (about 146km) and less than an hour and a half in time – such a small country to encompass so much. Nazareth is an unprepossessing town situated within the Israeli borders. The state of the infrastructure here compared with the roads and development in other parts of Israel demonstrate simply that the Israeli Government starves these Arab towns of funds in contrast to the big expenditures in the Israeli sectors.
With a population just shy of 76,000 this – the Arab capital of Israel — is the largest city in the Northern District. The inhabitants, when we were there in June, were predominantly Arab Citizens Of Israel. Now however, since the new apartheid citizenship laws have been passed, presumably they are virtually stateless unless they give their allegiance to the Jewish nation State of Israel.
Sixty nine percent of Nazarenes are Muslim and of those 30.9% Christian. Built on a hill alongside Nazareth, is Nazareth Illit or Upper Nazareth declared a separate city in 1974 and with a predominately Jewish population. Here the infrastructure is much better. A recent and excellent Palestinian movie, Wajib, was set in Nazareth and shows some of the contrast.
I understand some 60,000 ultra conservative Jews will move to Nazareth Illit in the future. Another takeover way of applying pressure on Arabs who remain in Israel.
We sat in the small town square with Jonathon while he told us that this square had been a place of Muslim worship until it was cleared in a beautification program prior to the Pope’s visit in 2000. Now every Friday, the Muslim community moves in with prayer mats and reclaims it for Friday prayers. Nothing is easy in Israel.
A walk through the small souq mostly passes run down empty spaces but then we come across a special place. Jonathan took us to a social enterprise working to revive the Old City, the cultural heart of Nazareth. Liwan operates as a tourism advice centre and cultural café.
The cafe has its own Facebook page at Nazareth – ليوان– LIWAN
Sami and Silki who run it could not have been more helpful in arranging a driver to take us on the roundabout trip to Jaffa via Galilee. Theirs is a great and wonderful challenge.
Like everywhere in this country, there are overlays and Nazareth is also a Christian pilgrimage destination. It was here, myth has it, that the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to become the mother of Jesus. Jesus is also believed to have grown up in this town.
The Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest Catholic church in the Middle East had a calm peace about it that made it the best of the churches we visited in Israel. I was so taken that as a long time lapsed Catholic, I even popped into the confessional to have a pleasant chat with the Bangladeshi priest on duty.
We left Nazareth for Galilee, the inland sea prominent in Christian myth. Here Jesus found his fishermen disciples; here he preached the Sermon on the Mount; here he fed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes. In fact much of the story of Jesus is based in this small area in the north.
Next we drove to Acre then down the Mediterranean coast to Haifa, Caesarea and Jaffa.
I first saw the walls of Acre (or their replica) in a TV show about the Holy Grail; in that narrative Muslim forces defeated the Crusaders. I have no idea of the verisimilitude of the series.
The Old City here is an UNESCO Heritage site going back to the Phoenicians.The current building forming the citadel is an Ottoman fortification, built on the foundation of the citadel of the Knights Hospitallers. That citadel was part of the city’s defensive formation, reinforcing the northern wall. During the 20th century the citadel was used mainly as Acre prison and as the site for a gallows. During the British mandate period, activists of Jewish Zionist resistance movements were held prisoner here; some were executed here.
Under the citadel and prison of Acre, are a complex of halls, built and used by the Knights Hospitaller. The complex includes six semi-joined halls, one recently excavated large hall, a dungeon, a dining room and remains of a Gothic church.
The city of Haifa is Israel’s industrial heartland with one of the major ports but the drawcard is the terraced gardens of the Baha’i Temple sloping down Mount Carmel to the Mediterranean, This is the world centre of the Baha’i faith.
Next stop was the ancient port city of Caesarea with its restored harbour, amphitheatre and aqueduct. Although this is a popular and busy national park and tourist attraction, I found it extremely disappointing. Having been lucky enough to visit Roman ruins in Libya, Tunisia and of course, Palmyra in Syria, these ruins seemed to lack a certain grandeur. We missed the gated community where Netanyahu and other wealthy citizens live.
The day ended in the increasingly trendified Old City of Jaffa looking across at the high rises of the modern town. On fields once famous for orchards of Jaffa oranges, all that can be seen now are the glass and steel towers that have risen to replace them. A delightful small town Jaffa, like most of Israel, has been under the rule of, and the homeland of many nations and races.
Some of the names associated with the history of this place include: Noah, Andromeda, St Peter, Napolean.
Here in Jaffa a guide who although she kept referring to the country as if it had always in history, been Israel, at least had the sense and knowledge to layout some of the civilisations that had ruled here.