Nazareth, Galilee and down the west coast…….June 2018

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.


Along the road, wire fences run along the Palestinian/Israeli border.

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 market at the entrance to the old souq


For me, this man sleeping outside his shop in the souq, symbolised the Palestinian struggle


The road in the old souq is being refurbished by enterprising Palestinians

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.


Liwan cafe and guesthouse

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.


Basilica of the Annunciation


Artistic homages of the Annunciation and the Nativity, have been sent from around the world.


The Basilica at night from my hotel room

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.


The Sea of Galilee




No guns allowed on this holy, tourist site!!


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.


A number of the back alleys were decorated with impromptu art.

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.


Boys planning to jump, pitting their courage against the odds

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.

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The Crusaders’ tunnel from the old city to the citadel

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.


The Baha’i Temple garden steps down Mount Carmel

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.


Seating for the Roman amphitheatre


A kitsch attempt at a gladiator’s chariot

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.


The old town of Jaffa has been well restored.


The view from the Old Town to the  high rises of the new city of Jaffa


Sensitive renovation and repurposing  of old buildings

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.











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Yesterday, going through my Facebook feed, a truly distressing story thundered out at me. It was a video posted by Jewish Voice for Peace showing Palestinian families trying to save their homes from being demolished in al-Walaja (west of the Occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem). Palestinians organized sit-ins and stood on roofs and stayed in their homes. They were met with terrible violence and injury by Israeli forces.

The homes are being demolished under the pretext of not having permits which are virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain.

Videos like this underline one’s impotence in changing the pace/direction of history in distant lands but it did remind me to stop procrastinating on my blog about Bethlehem.

Ten ks south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem historically reflects the same crossroads of history as Jerusalem and much of the Middle East. First mention of Bethlehem was by the Canaanites way back. Since the birth of Christ has been has been conquered and ruled by:

  • Romans (132-135),
  • Muslims (c.637);
  • Crusaders (1096-1099);
  • the Sultan of Egypt (1187) and again from 1813-1841
  • the Ottomans (1500′s) who ruled for 400 years.
  • the British who captured the city in the First World War and controlled it until 1948.

Jordan annexed Bethlehem in 1948 after the declaration of the State of Israel  and the Arab -Israeli war  and remained in power  until the Six Day War in 1967. During the Six Day War Israel pushed back the Jordanian border and took control of Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank. My earlier blog Israel 101 talks about the West Bank.


There are 42 Jewish settlements surrounding Bethlehem. Between the settlements and the town there is a settler ring road; and between that and Bethlehem there’s a wall. It is an open prison with approved access and egress for Palestinian people. There’s no other way to describe it


Outside the wall that confines Palestinians, a modern Israeli settlement.

We had chosen a tour into the West Bank at Bethlehem with Green Olive Tours and passed through the Israeli built Separation Wall to meet our Palestinian guide inside the Occupied Territories at the edge of Bethlehem, a town of some 30,000 people with a strong (16%) representation of Palestinian Christians.




The wall surrounds Bethlehem on 3 sides; any Palestinians who wishes to enter Israeli must pass through a checkpoint. We were told that at the beginning of Ramadan when Muslims wanted to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque next to the Dome on the Rock, 40,000 people queued at this checkpoint. Some Palestinians who work in Israel need  to leave home at 4am to get to work by 8am taking account of the procedures at the checkpoint. Such is the Jewish paranoia about “young radicals”, that to obtain a work permit to leave Bethlehem through a checkpoint, a Palestinian man has to be over 35, and married with children.


A carpark for Palestinians who cross at the checkpoint and Israel on the other side of the wall


Tourism is the main economic driver in Bethlehem, from major Christian tours to the humble juice seller along the wall

Close to the wall is the famous Banksy Walled Off Hotel, a fine gesture from an artist with a conscience. A few of his works adorn the wall itself.



The verandah of the Walled Off Hotel faces the wall


Banksy on the wall 


Banksy on the wall

After a walk along the wall we visited the less than 0.071 sq. k Aida Refugee Camp, home to some 5000 displaced people with an unemployment rate of 43%. This camp is one of 19 in the West Bank (and of 59 in total). It opened in 1950 after the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel and remains under the control of UNRWA. The  website is a great source of information.


This painting in an exhibition in the Banksy gallery told the tale of refugees for me.

The Aida camp has no health clinics although UNWRA provides medical assistance in Bethlehem itself.

The following details are from the UNWRA website: After a recent agreement with the Palestinian Water Authority, water is now provided to Aida camp for two days every other week, during which residents replenish their water tanks. However, the existing water network has not been upgraded since 1972 and the camp experiences constant water leakages. During the summer months, when water shortages are more frequent, camp residents are forced to purchase water.

The camp’s electricity supply is weak and overloaded. Power supply expansion and the sharing of connections is often unsupervised. Only a limited area of Aida camp is covered by a storm water drainage


Aida Refugee camp


A street in the refugee camp

Close by the camp are Har Homa and Gilo, two large Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law but their smart modern  architecture can be seen from a distance. (See photo above of the settlement outside the wall) . What a contrast.

Aida is the location of an NGO,  the Al Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Centre and a Youth Centre both of which practice cultural and creative arts as ways of maintaining traditional culture and of peaceful resistance. We attended a talk by a splendid young Palestinian woman who works at the centre and who outlined some of the programs. Children are taught aspects of their culture; theatrical and dance performances are held.


The children’s library in the Aida camp cultural centre

A constant military presence (the camp can be raided up to twice a week) and the camps’ proximity to the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, have made the it vulnerable to a number of protection concerns. Despite all this effort to withstand the poverty and oppression faced by those rendered homeless by Israeli occupation, injury is added to insult  when  clashes involve the Cultural Centre and many residents including children. An increasing number are reportedly being injured as a result of excessive force by the Israeli Security Force. Refugees in Aida Camp have  predominantly practiced non-violent opposition to the Occupation.


Recently the USA has put the Palestinian Authority on notice that its aid funding to UNWRA will cease. It is difficult to imagine the impact this will have on all the camps. It seems to me that the American President is almost challenging the Palestinians to revolt.

One could not go to Bethlehem without visiting the iconic Basilica of the Nativity built in the first instance by Helena Mother of Constantine in 327 to commemorate the alleged place of birth of Jesus 2000+ years ago a stable (or a cave) . After it was sacked the church was rebuilt by Justinian 1 in the 600s.

This is one of only 2 stops behind the wall for most Christian tourists to Israel since their buses stop only at the Church and at an Israeli souvenir shop. Sad they miss so much.

The 5thcentury church compound is off Manger Square at the end of a street of modern and old buildings, some of which are 500 years old


Couldn’t resist “Nativity Cocktail and Chicken”

The main Basilica of the Nativity is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Church. It is designed like a typical Roman basilica, with five aisles formed by Corinthian columns, with an apse in the eastern end containing the sanctuary.

The basilica is entered through a very low door called the “Door of Humility.”


The sanctuary of the Basilica of the Nativity

Armenians and Catholics also have chapels inside the church precinct. The adjoining Church of St. Catherine is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St.  Catherine of Alexandria and is built in a more modern Gothic Revival style.


Church of St Catherine


Church complex ahead

The grotto where, mythology has it, the birth of Christ occurred, is below the Church of the Nativity and can be reached through a series of caves below the churches. In 2012. the Basilica  became the first Palestinian site to be listed as a World Heritage site. A silver star marks the spot!!


The Star marks the Spot


A view of a corner of the town of Bethlehem from the edge of Manger Square

Our last stop was the Orthodox monastery founded by Sabbas the Sanctified from Anatolia believed to be 483 CE. Today,  about 20 monks live in the complex which spills  down a desert valley side. It is thought to be one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world and still maintains many of its ancient traditions. One in particular is the restriction on women entering the main compound. The only building that women can enter is the Women’s Tower, near the main entrance. Our guide implied some darker depths to the Monastery.


The multi level monastery has been here more than 1500 years


The Judean desert

While we were there a sad young boy with a donkey lingered around us hoping someone would pay for a photo or perhaps a desert ride.  Now weeks later, I think of the reminiscent images, Joseph bringing the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem on the back of a donkey or Jesus riding a donkey triumphantly into Jerusalem on what is now known as Palm Sunday.


Echoes over time





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Jerusalem and the Old City….June 2018

The first thing that strikes you when you land at Tel Aviv is the modern monumentalism of Ben Gurion airport. This is tiny country with a big sense of its own importance.

Next it’s the laconic attitude of the old Romanian mini bus driver who has no intention of leaving for Jerusalem until he has reached his full compliment. So almost an hour later we are ready to go. The mixed lot of passengers somehow reflects the multiculturalism of the country where 120 nationalities live.

First there is the beautiful young Palestinian woman with her baby who are home from Saudi Arabia for one of their regular visits. We detour and drop her off at a village outside the city limits.

There are 3 smart young Chinese tourists from London, a South African middle-aged man coming for a retreat in an Orthodox monastery. Then there are the two mid 30’s American women who have come from the Greek Islands and belying their hippy look, seem to be short on time since they want to know if they can “do” the Old City and the Dead Sea in one day. Obviously ticking their way through a bucket list!

Finally I arrive through a pedestrianized area at the Arthur hotel named for Arthur Balfour of the famous Declaration.


The downtown centre and the suburbs are clean, green, sand hued and multicultural. Splashed with the distinctive clothing of the Conservative Jew, Sephardic or Hasidic, there is an easy colourful street life with bars and restaurants lining streets in the centre.



Palestinian families enjoy the streets of Jerusalem


Backgammon games can be found all over the Middle East


Are there any large cities that don’t have buskers?

Young soldiers often attractive and vivacious girls, sometimes smoking, are frequent sights nonchalantly dangling their Uzis. But there is no sense of insecurity on the streets although we are told of frequent universal text messaging to warn citizens of any potential troubles.


The first shock is realising that most of the urban fabric has been built since the late 1800s; back then various national interests established large institutions, like the German Hospital, in the central core of Jerusalem near the Old City. That practice continues  albeit on an individual/family basis rather than a national level. Many a mega wealthy overseas Jew has endowed the city with a grand building dedicated to a worthy cause.

The outskirts of the city, all the major centres and suburbs are mostly the result of population growth particularly since 1948. The city centre was once 6 sq ks; greater Jerusalem is now 70 sq ks.

From the trams regularly travelling the main street to and from the Old City to the wider freeway infrastructure through out the country, you have to be amazed at all that has been achieved in the past 75 years.



The Old City

This is the magnet and the contested. Roughly one square kilometre, this walled city is the current manifestation of layers of cultures, kingdoms and religions ruled by different nations since the 11thcentury BC.

Until the mid 19thcentury this Old City constituted most of the city of Jerusalem. It is recorded on the World Heritage List.


Part of the Old City looking past the Dome on the Rock to the Mount of Olives rising up behind

Here are located key sites of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Were the world a sane place, these religions would live there happily together in the spirit of their teachings.

The Old City was formally designated into 4 uneven quarters in the19th century although traditionally the 4 areas had existed for centuries.

Those quarters are:

  • the Christian quarter (pop around 5.500) where one can find the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre;
  • the Muslim quarter (population over 30,000);
  • the Jewish quarter (population 4000 plus; and
  • the Armenian quarter (pop 500)

The population figures I give are estimates only and given only to show the order of difference.

In some streets in the Palestinian area people are moving out because the shops in the Old City are closing and they have to shop outside the walls.



But there are still many shops selling fine fruit and vegetables and my favourite, halva.


Women sell produce near the City gate



In the Palestinian Quarter Muslim and Jew mix on the street

The (Muslim) Dome on the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are found on the (Jewish) Temple Mount; hence an uneasy peace sits over this area that has the Jewish Western Wall as its base. In1967, during the Six Day War there was hand-to-hand fighting on the Temple Mount when Israeli forces captured the Old City. Today, the Israeli government controls the entire area.


Numbers of Bar Mitzvah were in progress before the Western Wall


Prayers at the western wall which forms a retaining wall for the Temple Mount


The Dome on the Rock

When we were there armed police escorted a few Jewish faithful across the open ground in front of the Mosque and the Dome on the Rock to the sealed Golden Gate located slightly below the level of the Temple Mount. According to the Jews when the Messiah comes, he will enter Jerusalem through this gate. To prevent him from coming, the Muslims sealed the gate during the reign of Suleiman.


The struggle is obviously a Jewish/ Palestinian one. Three Jewish army security towers guard the Damascus Gate, the only gate they guard. This is where where Palestinians enter the city since it is near the terminal for buses from the north, the area where most Palestinians outside the city live.


Armed guards watch Muslims enter the Old City

Groups of young heavily armed police are also at the intersections of the various religious quarters in the city. When I asked one what he was doing there without hesitation he said that they were on the lookout for young Palestinian troublemakers.


I was told that young Palestinian men under the age of 35 are not allowed to enter the Old City to go to the Dome on the Rock for Friday prayers unless they can prove they are married with children. All Palestinian men under 50 and women under 40 have to show their identity cards at the gate.

Walking through the Muslim quarter, it is clear that the Jews are trying to establish Settlements within the Muslim areas of the Old City and it is estimated that 1,000 Jews now live there. Mostly these Jew are the ultra conservatives who are determined that all Jerusalem will be theirs.

I saw a Jewish father with an obvious gun showing as he escorted a tiny child hand in hand from school. Schools are being established in the Old City and it is easy to pick where they are as security cameras focus on the narrow cobbled street in both directions. If any Jewish person or child leaving school exits these enclaves they have a private security firm protecting them, one man in front and one behind.



Guard houses/watch posts on top of a Jewish Settlement in the Old City

And all this dance of dare goes on in a tiny walled city packed with oblivious tourists who are simply signposted through the Christian and Jewish quarters.DSC06719

The Christian quarter where Christ’s Way of the Cross is marked and where the Church, built at the site believed to be where he was crucified and later rose from the dead, is thronged with the faithful.


A modest Station of the Cross; along the way is the more imposing Church of the Flagellation


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre housing the once rocky, now glorified, sites where it is believed that Jesus was crucified and the where he rose from the dead


The faithful pray at a replica of the tomb of Jesus

I couldn’t help thinking that these sites, as were others in this country, which are seminal to Christian belief and practice are, in fact, not all that physically imposing. Perhaps emptied of the queuing pilgrims who seemed to be dominated by those from Africa and South America the days I was there, perhaps in silence it might be different; there might be an aura.


Outside the Old City across a deep ravine, is the hill known as the Mount of Olives mentioned in the New Testament. At the foot of the slope is a church abutting the Garden of Gethsemane, built here in remembrance of the night before his crucifixion when Jesus prayed while his disciples slept.


A pleasant walk down the Mount of Olives


Masses of Jewish graves sloping down the Mount of Olives

Down the side of the Mount demonstrating again the entwinement of the religions are Jewish graves.  They are vying to be close to the sealed Golden Gate on the other side of the ravine where the messiah will appear and the Just will enter the Old City on Judgment Day. It seems everyone wants to be close to the Messiah when he gets there as the burial sites are fiercely sought after.


If only it were all peace and harmony in the Holy City as this busker in a niche portrays


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