IN A PURSUIT OF AN INVISIBLE ESSENCE OF THINGS

 or

ISRAEL REVISITED 

Winter 2023

 

Some places open up to you and embrace you immediately, with all the intensity and vigour that they hold. Others take time, they approach you carefully, precariously, taking small steps, misleading you, testing you. Israel, to me, belongs to the latter, even though it might seem flamboyant and grotesquely self-revealing, it takes time to start to understand it, it takes time for it to start to reveal its true nature to you, the immense depth and the vast variety that it holds. 

Tel Aviv

We start our journey, naturally so, in Tel Aviv. 

 

Tel Aviv feels like a boiling pot of anything and everything, the energy of which spills over and finds its way in most weird and unexpected shapes, grotesquely normal or normally grotesque. The architecture feels incongruent, eclectic at its best, now and then you see buildings laced with the cable work. Window shopping is a whole new mesmerizing experience revealing a world of garments that you wouldn’t find anywhere else, unless you travel back in time to the soviet 80s. We watch people wondering who’s buying all those weird flamboyant and gaudy pieces of clothing, yet every now and then walk onto an artisan shop – as those are aplenty here too.  

 

Tel Aviv sounds. It’s a musical city. The Israelis’ taste for music is exquisite, and Tel Aviv has replenished my playlists with the most creative, off-the-grid tracks. 

 

Tel Aviv lastsWe stayed in Tel Aviv for about a week. It felt like a month. According to Bhagavat-Gita, one day of Brahma lasts for thousands of years in our time reckoning. It might be that Brahma’s lingered here longer, for time here in Israel, runs very differently, and it’s a shared perception. Years ago, I walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, telling my friend who stayed waiting outside, that I’ll just have a look and be back in a minute. Indeed, I thought I had stayed for 15 minutes at the most. I was absent for two hours. 

 

Tel Aviv touches you. People treat you here as if they’ve known you for years, you don’t feel a stranger.

 

The breathtaking sunsets draw you to the ocean. Jaffa lights up as a queen’s crown each night and entices you to explore its Morocco-like meandering streets and markets, while street musicians set your body moving to their wild rhythms.

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Yardenit, Capernuam, Tiberius

 

The 19th of January is the Day of Christening, and all the believers aspire to immerse themselves in waters as water on this day, according to the Orthodox belief, becomes holy. So do I decide to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the more so that we are only a few kilometres away from the place where he was baptized by John – as believed so by the Israeli. Weeks later, we also find ourselves at the baptism site in Jordan, escorted by the border police as Jordan river is the borderline between Jordan and Israel, and the relations between two countries are also borderline, marginally peaceful.

The place is not as busy as I expected it to be, I mostly hear Russian, and some English – a group of black people are standing in the water up to their knee singing gospels, followed by some beast-like noises – it looks like an act of exorcism. I heard this sound before, in Kefalonia – lying on the ground, in a chain of bodies lined up to have the remains of Saint Gerasimus carried over us – someone started yelping. Saint Gerasimus is a saint who is believed to exorcize the devil. Demons, they say, can’t stand his presence. 

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I get a white shirt, go to change, find a quiet spot and walk into the water. It’s not cold, not as cold as it seemed when I found myself here the first time, years ago. Or, maybe, I am more seasoned now, more resilient. I push myself down, squinting, three times. I walk out and do it again, you are supposed to do it three times. Steve washes his face and hands, he doesn’t feel he has enough sins to wash off. Although, he does happen to drink the water that I collected from the river a couple of weeks later. That’s probably the most radical way to purify one’s spirit, and whatever comes along with it. I don’t know if this is the knowledge of the sacrilege of this place, or merely the invigorating power of the water, but I do feel renewed. As we step out of the baptism site, we see a saxophone player packing in his saxophone, he sees us looking hopeful and suggests that he plays a tune for us, putting the mouthpiece back on. His tune is a C-scale played in a random order. I find it rather encouraging. Maybe, one day I’ll have the guts to start a career as a street musician. 

We get in the car and the road takes us to the biblical town of Capernaum, located directly on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This is a place, where Jesus spent a significant part of his life after leaving Nazareth, a place where he taught, performed miracles and met five of his future disciples. It’s also here, at the Sea of Galilee that Jesus walked on the water, – I think to myself, watching the blue calm waters of the lowest sweet water lake on earth, which, they say, is fish-shaped if you look at it from above. 

They found the remains of two ancient synagogues built one over the other, here. Jesus gave the Sermon of the Bread of Life in this very synagogue [1]. Archeologists have also uncovered an early Christian home here, which is believed to be the home of Peter. There now stands a hexagonal Franciscan church. Nearby is a white Greek church of 12 apostles. Its pink onion-shaped domes stand out in the blue sky, and a beautiful garden entices you to stay and travel back in time. 

On our way back, I pause by a magnanimous tree at the entrance to the church, walk around it, seeing images of other trees and other places. For a fleeting moment I find myself in Ojaj by the tree where Jiddu Krishnamurti meditated, next to his library. Human memory is a maze. Flamboyant peacocks see us off. 

 

We end our journey at Tiberius, stopping there for dinner. 

It is a touristic destination with everything that this concept entails. I wouldn’t choose to go back there.

 

Haifa. Bahaj Gardens and the Cave of Saint Ilija

 

 We intended to stay in Haifa for an extended period, based on reviews and recommendations, but ended up spending only one night and I feel that I haven’t truly discovered the charm of Haifa. We spent hours trying to find a place to stay, having disliked and cancelled our first Airbnb, walking into each boutique and not-so-boutique hotel in town, and walking out, not because we are spoilt but because those places truly didn’t feel all too welcoming. Almost giving up, as the night was already setting in, we saw a guesthouse sign – Anna, in the so-called German Colony, right at the foot of the Bahaj Gardens.

 

(1Capernaum – Tourist Israel

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Anna herself takes us to an old but spacious apartment with a little terrace that goes right onto the splendid gardens. What more could one wish for at 10 pm. We watch the lighted path of the magic gardens going up along the slope of the Carmel Mountain before going to sleep. 

Those gardens are dedicated to the youngest, 200 years old religion of Bahaj. A fundamental belief of the Bahaj faith is that all peoples and religions will unite into one. Every Bahaj temple has 9 sides, 9 doors, 9 gardens and 9 fountains for 9 is a symbol of completeness and unity (1+0+8). 

As I wake up, I head to the Cave of Saint Elijah. It’s about 2,5 kilometres away from the Bahaj Garden, so I choose to walk and see Haifa waking up on my way. The walk is not charming, the five-storied concrete buildings are laced with cables – a sight I’ve only seen in India, before. Soon I see the sea. And the sign to the Cave. I take a turn off the main road and climb the stairs. The cave is located on top of a hill facing the sea. 

The Cave of Elijah is my reason for coming to Haifa. The prophet Elijah is believed to have lived in this cave on Mount Carmel in the nineteenth century.  It is also believed that Jesus Christ, Mary and Joseph stayed here on their way from Nazareth. It’s been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries, for Jews, Christians and Muslims. The energy of the cave has attracted Buddhists and New Age people too as they believe it’s a portal that connects you directly to the Source. 

I arrive around 9 am, and the cave is almost all mine, there’s only one woman and one man – I can’t see him, but can hear him praying, as the cave is divided into two sections by a wooden partition with the words of prayers carved into it – male and female. It joins up in the alcove at the end, and that’s the place where you want to linger and think of the most important. And I do. 

 

Cave of Elijah 

Derech Allenby 230, Haifa 

 

 

Acre or Akko – tripping back in time 

 

Akko’s history spans over 5,000 years. Several cultures have played an important role here: Israelites, Romans, Greeks, Crusaders, and Arabs, yet it is mainly the Crusader and Ottoman periods that moulded the city. And while its ethnic map is eclectic, the predominant population of the Old City of Akko is historically Arabic. 

The Old City of Akko was built during the Ottoman period. Beneath it lie the ruins of the Crusader city[1], which is represented by the Knights’ Halls (the Citadel) and Templar Tunnel. There is also the second most important mosque in Israel here – El-Jazzar Mosque, built in the XVIII century under the rule of Ahmet El-Jazzar (the Butcher), known for his exquisite cruelty. The mosque preserves the revered relic – the hair from the beard of the Prophet Mohammed, which is exposed once a year, at the end of the Ramadan, to be worshiped by the believers. 

The Old City of Akko once again reminds me of Morocco, with its narrow meandering streets, pungent smells and cats accompanying you every step of the way.

 

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 We arrive to Akko in the afternoon and, as it happens, spend the next few hours looking for a place to stay. Hotels and apartments in the old town are, indeed, an acquired taste. Tired, we decide to have coffee and another look online. We walk into the first random restaurant and order coffee. As we wait, I find and book a place in Nahariyya, which is about a half an hour’s drive away, right on the border with Lebanon. The waiter brings us coffee and we strike up a conversation with her, sharing our woes and asking about the place we are heading to. A big man with an impressive grey beard, a smile hiding in it, and inquisitive eyes joins the conversation. He’s also surprised we didn’t find a place to stay that we liked. He happens to be the owner of Effendi, a ‘very special hotel’ here, he says, as well as of this restaurant – which turns out to be a place people come to Akko for – one of the best seafood restaurants in Israel. That explains why the waitress looked surprised when we walked in and just ordered coffee. Unfortunately, we can’t cancel our current booking. But we decide to have a look at Effendi nonetheless, before leaving. Nearly every sign in the Old Town points towards it, and we’ve managed to miss it all the same during our hotel hunt. 

 

It’s a place with high ornamented ceilings, old wine cellar and a huge rooftop terrace with a view over the entire Northern Israel. The moment we step in the hotel, I receive a cancellation message from the place that we booked – due to a power failure. Life’s decided for us, we are staying at Effendi. The manager upgrades our room as a compliment from the owner, and we enjoy pure luxury for the next three days, as that’s how long we lingered in the magic town of Akko. That night we also dine at the acclaimed Uru-Buru restaurant, named after its magic owner and chef. We chose a tasting menu. Uru Buru comes to our table. “I learnt to cook myself, never studied it officially. To me, it’s all about combining the right tastes. Cooking is like math,” he says, having ordered the waiter to serve us orange and olive oil sorbet to cleanse our pallets before the next meal. White Israeli wine tasted especially fine that night. 

Next morning, I embark on a tourist route around the Old Town, which includes Turkish Baths, the Citadel or the Knights’ Halls and Hospitalier Fortress, the Museum and the Tunnels. 

The Citadel holds my attention for hours, it extends over an area of 8300 square metres. I was lucky to be there when there were hardly any tourists. The Hospitallers, the Order of the Knights of St. John, built this impressive fortress more than 700 years ago. The “warrior monks” founded this order to help and protect the pilgrims on their journey to Holy Land. 

 

Present day Citadel is a peculiar mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. It has enormous stone rooms, vaulted ceilings, and awesome acoustics, perfect for singing. The complex also includes a big dining hall, halls that contained the knights’ living quarters, the Orders hospital and the temple, all of which are perfectly preserved. I happen to be alone and take a seat in the temple – a place of worship for thousands of years. I close my eyes and my imagination takes me from one epoch to another to the depth of time. We are reluctant to leave Akko, but it’s time to move on. 

 

Where to stay: Effendi Hotel

Where to eat: Uru-Buru

Where to go: Turkish Baths, The El-Jazaar Mosque, the Citadel/the Knights’ Halls

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Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus

Today, Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel, as more than two-thirds of the population is Muslim. 

Jesus is believed to have grown and spent most of his life here.

The most important site of the city and one of the most important Christian sites in Israel located in the Old Town is the Catholic Church of the Annunciation. It is here that the angel Gabriel appeared to Virgin Mary and told her that she would give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. It is also believed that the Grotto of the Annunciation is the childhood home of Mary[1].

It’s a monumental building of modern and rather striking architecture. It was built in the mid XX century on top of the older structures which represent various layers of the site’s history and form a peculiar blend of history and modernity. 

The courtyard around the church is adorned with the mosaics of Virgin Mary representing various countries of the world, and hence the beauty of cultural diversity. 

The two-level church inside is just as striking as it is from the outside. It’s spacious and austere and the glass mosaics on the windows reflecting the light paint the space in various luminous colours.  The floor tiling creates an impression of climbing stairs. A grotto where Virgin Mary is believed to have been born is located in the centre, at a lower level. The inscription on the alter says: ‘Here the word was made flesh’[2]. Behind the altar there are stairs from the 4th century Byzantine church that led into the grotto. 

 

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Walking around the church I find archeological excavations of the site going back to the early Christians. I then take a walk towards the Saint Joseph church, the entrance to it is lined with beautiful big trees as if forming a magic gate to a sacred site. 

It’s also a two-level church, and the lower level are the remains of ancient Nazareth dating back to the II-I century B.C. – a baptismal pool with mosaics and a cave that is believed to have been Joseph’s workshop. It is here that your wishes may come true – all you need is to write it on a piece of paper and throw it into the pool. And I do.

 The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation

Yet, most memorable to me was the visit to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, also known as the Church of Saint Gabriel or the Church of St. Mary’s Well. According to the belief, this is the site where Archangel Gabriel appeared to Marry, who used to go to draw water from the spring there.

When I walk into a small, dimly candle-lit church, there’s only a church guard at a candle stall and one man wandering around, who shortly exits, leaving the whole church to me, with the church guard dozing off at the entrance. I walk past the icons to the alcove with the water spring at the far end of the church. I stay there listening to the water dripping, watching the image of Saint Mary receiving the blessed message from Saint Gabriel, materializing as an image of a little Jesus in her womb. I stay praying there for my unborn child. 

The church guard, an Orthodox Arab, gives me a little reproduction of that same sacred image as I’m leaving. Bless him. 

I was alone all the time I spent in St. Gabriel’s church, and just as I step out, I see a big group of tourists entering the gates. 

Life bestows more gifts on us than we might be ready to embrace or see.

 

 

 

 From North to South or on the way to the Dead Sea

Megiddo or Armageddon, the place of the last battle 

 

On our way from Nazareth to Ein Gedi, the kibbutz by the Dead Sea, we stop at Armageddon. It is indeed a real place, not a science-fictional fantasy as of late and a Biblical myth. It is Tel Megiddo (mistranslated by the Greeks as “Armageddon”), a word that in fact translates as ‘the city of happiness’, mentioned multiple times in the Old and New Testaments, a place of many decisive battles, from the times of ancient Egypt to World War I, identified as the site of the first and the final battles between the forces of Good and Evil at the end of time, the Apocalypses. The ancient town is located on a hill facing the Yizre’el Valley, connecting the cultural centres of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, and the trade route Via Maris – the Way of the Sea.

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Megiddo’s stratigraphy and chronology is very complex and is continuously explored. This archaeological site of an ancient fortress town has revealed more than 20 layers of ruins, ranging in time from the Neolithic Period (7000 BC) to the end of the Persian Period (332 BC). 

Here, on the vast area of 15 acres, you’ll find the remains of the Canaanite[1] palace (the late Bronze Age), the stables dating back to the 10th and 9th centuries before Christ, the times of King Solomon and King Ahab, when chariots were the sign of power; the temple area – where cultic practices took place for over 2000 years; the Southern Palace with the earliest seal of an Israelite king discovered to date dating back to the 9th century BCE and the intricate water system – the gallery, allegedly built during the reign of King Solomon: 187 steps take you down to the 70-metre long and 36-metre deep horizontal tunnel extending to the spring. 

“I can’t believe I’m walking on the ground that knows King Solomon, the stories that I read as a child – they took place here,” says Steve, Shlomo, Solomon… 

I close my eyes and find myself falling through the multiple layers of history of this mystical place, I hear the sound of horses’ hoofs in the stables, the chanting of the priests in the temples, worshiping different gods throughout centuries; and the regal footsteps of King Solomon. 

Time to come back to reality and move on. 

And as we move on, we soon see a post on the other side of the road. I pause to wonder what it is as we pass it by. I watch the quaint desert-like scenery and sandy mountains of various shades, from milky white to golden-purple, I also notice a lot of garbage on the sides of the road. 

Shortly, we see a sign to Jericho. We are in West Bank, Palestine. That day the Israeli bombed Jericho, and a couple of days later an American tourist driving through that same area was stopped and killed. Weeks later, we meet a woman who is from Jericho, in Jordan. I ask her about their life there. 

She says: 

– We go to sleep and we don’t know whether we are going to see another day. 

 Have you ever thought of moving? 

 No. It’s my home, it’s where my family is. We got used to it, she says with a smile. 

We stop at another post to enter Israel. There is no post to leave the country. 

Crossing the West Bank is the shortest way to get from Megiddo to the Dead Sea coast (takes about two hours) but next time I’ll probably choose a longer route.

 

[1] Throughout the Pentateuch and historical books, the Promised Land is frequently referred to as Canaan, and its non-Israelite inhabitants as Canaanites. In Greek sources, Canaan is sometimes an equivalent term for Phoenicia.

 

Ein Bokek and Ein Gedi

Ein Gedi is one of the first kibbutz in Israel, located close to the Dead Sea. We are going to stay there tonight, but we pass it by and head towards Ein Bokek for a dip in the Dead Sea as Ein Gedi’s Dead Sea beach is closed – due to sinkholes. Nestled between Israel and the Palestinian territories to the west, and Jordan to the east, the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth, is slipping away. The water’s surface is currently receding by about one meter per year. Scientists believe that this is due to the diversion of water from the Jordan River (which feeds the Dead Sea) and the mining of minerals from its waters in the south. And as the water recedes, fresh groundwater wells up and dissolves layers of salt, creating large underground cavities, above which sinkholes form[1].  They were first noticed in the 1970s, but have been forming more rapidly in recent years. At present there are more than 6 000 sinkholes in Israel alone. Ein Bokek is the Dead Sea tourist destination in Israel, a place peppered with chain hotels and swarming with tourists, yet, it’s worth coming here to immerse yourself in the salty jelly-like density of the Dead Sea.

NB: The maximum time recommended to spend in the Dead Sea is 15 minutes (once or twice a day). A shower straight after a swim is necessary.

 

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 Ein Gedi 

 

I was here over ten years ago. It feels different now. I am different. But the trees are the same, strong and beautiful gigantic Banyan trees, and many more. Ein Gedi is a kibbutz and an outstanding botanical garden with hundreds of plants and trees from all over the world.

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The kibbutz was built close to the old Ein Gedi Settlement and the Ein Gedi Nature reserve, a paradise for those who enjoy gentle hiking, with its picturesque trails, waterfalls, flowers and ibex unafraid of human presence, who we’ve also seen wandering around the kibbutz. The kibbutz was established in 1953, the people who founded it and their children still live here. 

Our little cottage is facing the Judean desert gorge. By night the air is still and balmy, the sky is peppered with stars, and the dark of the gorge feels bottomless. 

Here we meet Daniela, a slightly built, beautiful woman in her late 70s. She conducts tours around Ein Gedi – we are lucky to be her only guests this day. An American, she came to Israel first when she was only 20, 6 years later she came back to stay. It is here that she met Yehuda, her husband-to-be. They’ve been together for over half a century. Daniela and Yehuda were among the founders of Ein Gedi back in 1953. When they arrived, it was a desert. They now grow world famous Medjool dates – each tree needs 1100 liters of water every day for two months before it produces dates; mangoes and herbs. The Kibbutz also bottles the natural spring water to sell throughout Israel. They also discovered the natural mineral water springs up a mountain and built the Ein Gedi Spa – which was the main source of income for the kibbutz. They had to close it down during the pandemic – not to see the light again, for the pipes rotted during the down-time period and replacing those seems impossible at the moment.

On our tour Daniela intermingles the story of Ein Gedi with her own, spicing those up with the descriptions of different plants that we pass and occasionally stop by. 

As we meet at the entrance to the kibbutz, Daniela points at a plant two steps away. 

“It’s myrrh, – she says, approaching a small, shrub-like and thorny tree. – One of the three gifts the Magi brought to baby Jesus and that Queen Sheba brough to king Solomon. Myrrh had a greater value than gold when Jesus was born.  Along with frankincense, it was a sought-after incense and spice, known for its medicinal properties. 

They found a ‘perfume room’ there – she points towards the desert on the other side of the cliff, where the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve is located. ‘In the olden times Ein Gedi was renowned for making a very special perfume; and it still holds a lot of secrets.’ Indeed, evidence of human settlement in Ein Gedi dates back to the 7th Century BCE. But even before then, there was a presence here. Up in the hills above Nahal David (the valley/Wadi of David) there is a temple that dates to the Chalcolithic Era. The archeologists found 27 pieces of gold outside the ancient house. 

Only some 25 years ago a bulldozer clearing land for a kibbutz uncovered the synagogue dating back to the VI century A.D. An Aramaic mosaic inscription on the floor of the synagogue warns that “whoever reveals the secret of the village to the gentiles” will be severely punished[1]. The most common theory is that it refers to the Afarsimona very expensive and valuable perfume, that Ein Gedi was the center of production, which was a closely guarded secretAnother theory is that the Jews in Ein Gedi might have belonged to a secret sect of Judaism – the Essenes. Another layer of mosaic, discovered under the uncovered mosaic on the floor of this synagogue, featured a swastika, to support the latter theory. 

We continue our walk and stop by an Adenium – the Desert Rose, Nolina from Africa, Pachypodium and Pandanus from Madagascar; Shaving brush tree flower or Pseudobombax, native for Mexico and Central America -each flower on the tree opens only for one night; Jesse Tree under which Abraham received a message from Angels that his wife Sarah will conceive at the age of 92; and the Queen of the Night, that flowers only one night a year. 

“Nature is the strongest power of all, says Daniela. – It’s not easy to live here, there’s a water issue and many more other problems. But my life here’s been way more real than in the USA. Here, we learn to value what we have, we learn to value each other. Often, it takes a lifetime to understand what’s most important. But life is very short, yet we tend to live like it lasts forever.’ 

I stop and watch the Queen of the Night, so desperately beautiful and so intensely fragile when in blossom, she must know the value of the now. 

 

As we walk the paths of the Ein Gedi botanical garden, I see two women approaching: a younger one leaning on the arm of the older. As we pass each other, my eyes meet the eyes of the younger woman. That moment lasts, suddenly, I feel cold. There is total absence in those eyes. They are expressionless and empty, as if there is no person behind them. 

As we walk on, I hear Miriam’s voice as if fishing me out from the void that I found myself in for that long moment: the woman we just passed has her heart replaced. Did you see her carrying the bag across her shoulder? She holds her new heart in it. 

 

The remainder of our stay, for hours or days, I wander around, sit under magnificent Banyan trees and soak in the desert air saturated with the burning salt of the Dead Sea and the pungent smells of the exquisite perfumes of the distant past.

 

Masada – a symbol of heroism      

 Some 20 km away from Ein Gedi, on our way to Eilat we stop at the historic site of Masada, a symbol of heroism and martyrdom for the Jewish people. Mount Masada hosts the remains of an ancient Jewish fortress, built by King Herod in 1 BCE. It rises 450 metres above the Dead Sea in the middle of the Judaean Desert. it was the site of a major siege around 73/4AD. “Roman legions surrounded Masada, building a vast ramp to reach the fortress: rather than face capture and defeat, those within the fortification burnt everything they could, before committing mass suicide – killing women and children first, before eventually each other. As a result, Masada has become synonymous with resistance, the fight against oppression and Jewish heroism”[1].

[1] История крепости Масада | Израильский дневник (israeliblog.ru)

Masada – History and Facts | History Hit

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You can take a cable car to the site or climb a “snake path”, the mesa plateau top of the mountain is extensive and the site surpasses any expectations – it takes no less than 2 hours to walk around and explore each site, the two palaces, the bath house, watchtowers, the temple and much more. And the time you want to spend there, saturating the view is beyond measure. 

They say that it’s best to come here before the sunrise and walk up the snake path watching the sun rise above the desert.

But we are back on the road again…

The road to Eilat lies along the Dead Sea and crosses various ‘wadis’ – valleys. The scenery changes – from sandy rocks of various shapes and most vibrant colours to barren endless desert land. Now and then we see a road sign: Beware of camels near the road. 

Eilat

Eilat, a well-known Israeli seaside resort, boasts a magical location. Two countries are within a walking distance: Egypt to the south, and Jordan – to the west. We could see Saudi Arabia from our terrace.

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Not only countries cross their paths here, so do the continents. It’s where Eurasia meets Africa. It’s very much of a border place, as it’s also a duty-free area, which results in the commercial feel of it.

Eilat is a holiday destination for the Israeli, and it truly is one – in a modern tourism sense. 

The coast is peppered with high-rise hotels, shops and merry-go-rounds, occasional street musicians and many braid makers that seem to multiply each day. The Red Sea is well known for the abundance of fauna. Indeed. Years ago, I was smitten by it in Egypt. 

Here, around the hotels, there is neither fish, nor corals, you can find them closer to the border with Egypt, yet, even there, hardly any of those are alive, for apart from being a tourist destination, Eilat is also a big industrial port that holds an oil station. I happened to go snorkelling (for I was determined to enjoy the Red Sea, against all odds) on a day the oil was transported from a ship to the shore, I only learnt about it later, which explained the strange black particles in the water. 

We walk into Jordan on the second day after arriving to Eilat. It felt as if we had spent enough time absorbing the vibrant holiday vibes, for the moment. But Jordan is a whole different story.

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Back to Eilat we decide to stay for the famous Red Sea Jazz Festival. It’s held twice a year – in spring and autumn, in fact, Eilat boasts the reputation of being the jazz capital of Israel and has a complying sculptural ensemble on one of the round-abouts closer to the border with Egypt. At this festival, in one of the quaint little bars that we meet a band of young musicians called Mitzpe Ramon, the name homonymous to the place where they come from. They tell us it’s must-visit. And so does a patriotic Israeli waiter of French origin who writes two names on a small piece of paper, which I fold and put into my pocket, without looking. I find the paper later, when we are already in Mitzpe Ramon. 

But before we farewell Eilat we explore its surroundings, which, as we discover, are absolutely fascinating. 

Timna

Some places – I’d like to keep to myself. Keep quiet about. Timna is one of those. Colourful, vast, majestic Timna, the horse-shoe shaped valley where every rock holds a secret. You can hear their subtle whisper when the Sun sets and the Moon rises, shining its blue light over this Marsian surface. 

Timna – the place which history goes 6000 years back, the place of the worlds’ first copper mines, discovered by the Egyptians, the place of the famous King Solomon’s mines. Timna is where you find the temple of the Egyptian Goddess of love and music Hathor, “The Woman of the Stars” and the mythological mother of pharaohs, who crossed boundaries between the worlds[1]; and petroglyphs on the walls – dating back to 14-12th century before Christ; it is where you see the arches moulded by the rain and wind for thousands of years, the Mushroom Rock and the Spiral Hill – who is to tell the artist… 

 

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In the early hours of the evening, I see a fox scurrying across a vast plateau. He seems oblivious to my presence. In the heat of the day, we see ibexes sitting still, mimicking the rocks. Or the rocks mimicking them. Here – it is hard to say, what’s real and what’s imaginary.  

 

We stay the night in a cabin by the lake. We take a walk into the desert and deserted valley after midnight. The Moon is young and the night is dark, the sky is sprinkled with stars. And the Sphynx rock stands tall and proud in the midst of the sky light show. I know he’s alive and breathing. I know he’s seen more than a human mind can embrace. This is his place. Stay silent. Offer your respect. 

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We also stop at a little-known Lion Canyon, another nature wonder, a split image of an Antilope Canyon in Arizona, except that the latter is underground. 

Here, bizarre layers of rocks form a meandering narrow passage, sometimes hanging over you, only leaving space for the sun and the dazzling blue of the sky to seep in; now and then you need to climb up or down holding onto the metal handles. 

 

On our way back we meet the master of this place, he stays there gazing at us, posing for us. A little blue-green dragon.

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Mitzpe Ramon

 

Imagine living on a plane that’s stopped mid-air, amidst the most phantasmagoric sceneries – a magnanimous crater valley with layers of sandy rocks of the most vivid palette: from bright yellow to dark burgundy. It’s a big open-plan plane that has neither a roof nor walls. You know you are stationary, but you also know that you are up in the air and flying. That’s Mitzpe Ramon for you. Not a place, but an experience. Here, ibex are habitual citizens, and sky is as close to you as it can get. 

“All roads lead to Mitzpe Ramon”, said the young musician who guided us here, but there were points in its short, yet intense history when “The road escaped Mitzpe Ramon”[1] too, and when it was referred to as a lone town in the heart of the Negev. Mitzpe Ramon’s history starts in 1956 as a miners’ settlement, over time it expanded and turned into an artists and musicians haven, a place of inspiration – with its deep vast canyon and dark skies dotted with stars. Indeed, the Ramon Crater is one of the few dark sky reserves in the world. No wonder it is home to an Observatory. The 500 metre deep Ramon Crater is also the biggest crater of its kind in the world, the world’s largest erosion cirque“, shaped like an elongated heart. The rocks at the bottom of the crater are up to 200 million years old. Ramon Crater is where the Dead Sea originates from. It is also now a place for military missile tests and uranium storage, that’s why hiking in many places is restricted to weekends. Every now and then carefree tourists see a helicopter materializing out of thin air in front of them, asking them kindly to leave the area.

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One of the attractions of Mitzpe Ramon is a marvellous alpaca farm (2) where alpacas and llamas are truly spoilt and are probably happier here than in the Andes where they come from, being fed and pampered, having their teeth (as they grow like hair and in a natural environment are shortened by grazing on grass in a rocky terrain) and nails trimmed regularly. The farm also provides beautiful accommodation, but it needs to be booked well in advance. 

They sell hats and scarves made from alpaca wool and all the proceeds go to support the farm animals.

There are a few farms in the desert area, the enthusiasts who weren’t discouraged by the fact that desert is not a farm land. They made it blossom. Locally produced wines and olive oils are pungent and delicious. 

 

[1] Home • Mitzpe Ramon Experience (mitzpe-ramon.com)

[2]The Alpaca Farm • Mitzpe Ramon Experience (mitzpe-ramon.com)

Where to Stay:

Desert Peace 

“I believe the name of my zimmer attracts the right people,” says Gini, our host. Indeed. Our little home is an oasis of peace and quiet, it’s tiny, yet it has all one needs. There is a very comfortable double-bed with an orthopaedic matrass, a reading space with two armchairs, an electric heater (for rare colder days), a nice solar-energy supported shower, also with a heater, a convenient kitchen corner with everything you might need: from a stove, coffee maker to hand-ornamented wine glasses and flowery napkins. A jar of freshly ground coffee, a bottle of young fragrant olive oil from the North (where Gini used to live), and a plate of fruit for us. Each detail here is selected with care and thought. The room has windows all around the perimeter, it’s light and warm. The colour palette merges the inner space with the outer, where a little garden with a sofa, a table and chairs for four await. It’s a space that’s yours alone, it feels private and special. I practice my yoga here in the morning and cook a simple dinner in the evening – for its a special treat to have it here, under the stars, amidst rosemary, mint and little fragrant flowers. And there’s more to it. We have occasional visitors. Two little puppies that Gini adopted from a family of 9 that were left behind by the Bedouins and her friend saved from starvation. Gini barred the fence with horizontal boards to stop them from sipping in, but they’ve dug a tunnel under it. Steve told Gini that I did. I probably would have if they didn’t. Those sweet little fluffy creatures are making our stay all the more special. Gini with dazzling blue eyes moved to Israel from England some 30 years ago. She lived in the lush North, on top of a hill among the olive trees. For now, she chooses the desert with multi-layered multi-coloured rocks, as if painted by a divine artist. She is a therapist. She knows the power of touch.

Reluctant, we have to move as her place is booked for the next three nights. 

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Desert Home

For the next couple of days, we stay at David’s Desert Home. And it’s beautiful and artistic. Every detail is thought through, all furniture is hand-made from wood. The terrace overlooks the desert. 

 

What to buy: 

A hat and a scarf at an alpaca farm – all the proceeds go to support the animals.

Olive oil and wine at the Nana winery – started as a small farm in the middle of a desert, It now occupies a large area with olive groves and other trees and vegetables, and vineyards. They also provide yurt accommodation. A yurt is a common type of dwelling in the North. 

There are also cosmetics, soaps and incense oils – made onsite from local and carefully selected imported ingredients. 

Gifts and hand-made jewellery at Jasmine’s Gifts & Talismans 

 

Where to go:

 

Bersheeba Hotel: you don’t have to pay anywhere from 300 to 800 euro for a night to have a pleasant experience in this hotel. Have a tea with a cake at a terrace and enjoy the view of the crater gazing back at you. 

Alpaca Farm 

 

On the way from Mitzpe Ramon to the north, we stop at the grave of Ben Gurion, the person who made the desert flourish. It is a beautiful oasis on the edge of the crater with the breathtaking views, especially beautiful when it’s full Moon, said Gini.

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KLIL

 

Go to Klil, says Laura, Gini’s friend, as we are walking in the crater accompanied by two sweet dogs that she adopted. She is also the one who saved Gini’s puppies. “Tomorrow is Purim. Klil is known for its Purim celebrations.”

We approach Klil in the late afternoon. After days and days in the desert, the lush spring lime greenery of the North makes me – flower. There’s air that you can’t have enough of, and vast emerald space that your eyes feast upon. And above all there are Klils – trees with dazzling pink flowers that are starting to blossom, and now and then you see the explosion of this unearthly colour. Klil – the ecological settlement that exists totally independently from the state, using the solar energy and spring and rainwater – is named after this marvel. Here, you can hear the heart of the Earth pulsating.  

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We turn off the main road and soon see a sign to Klil and a little wooden cabin with a bar – a peculiarly dressed guard welcomes us in without any questions. 

 

And there and then, we find ourselves in a fairy-tale world of magicians, kings and queens, walking tables, savages, wizard doctors and what not. The road – for there are no streets in Klil – is swarming with people dressed up in most imaginative costumes. There’re street musicians and fortune tellers and a family of cavemen making a fire. It Is Purim. 

Purim is celebrated every year on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (late winter/early spring). It commemorates the divinely orchestrated salvation of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian empire from Haman’s plot “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day”. 

Purim means “lots”[1]. Like a lottery, which is not rational or predictable, Purim expresses that which is above human understanding and celebrates God’s involvement in every aspect of life. 

There is a spirit of liveliness and fun on Purim that is unparalleled on the Jewish calendar. They say if there were ever a day to “let loose” and just be Jewish, this is it. And so we do. We join the crowd and head to a large playing ground surrounded by trees – there’s food and drinks, DJs dressed as doctors. Music is indeed the best medicine. Children and adults of all ages – all dressed up and having fun, laughing and dancing. We join the celebration. And as I’m moving to the music, I thank the Divine force that guided us here. 

The Moon is shining bright, it’s full tonight. Hello, Klil.

 

[1]What Is Purim? – Chabad.org 

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Klil is not a town, nor a village, there are no streets here, just one main road and smaller ones that take you up the hills where we found our shelter for the next few days. A shelter to be remembered – Miriam’s home. 

If I were to describe Miriam’s home in one word – that’d be harmony. 

Everything about it feels beautiful, the woodwork, the flower arrangement art work on the walls, the kitchen complete with every item one may think of, the comfortable sofa in the living room – a perfect corner for reading and writing, a wonderful bed with a firm orthopaedic mattrass and beautiful bedding; and of course – the fire stove that creates warmth beyond the physical. The space inside resonates with the space outside – a little flower garden at the entrance and one at the back of the house with a wooden table shaded by two pine trees, and a Tarkovsky-like scene – an easel with an old mirror as a canvas, with the sounds of nature accompanying the beautiful setting. With walking trails and beautiful scenery all around, this is a place where you want to stay and linger.

 

There’s one café and a shop in Klil where you can find locally grown and manufactured produce, from bread and pastries, honey, olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables to locally produced wine and cosmetics. 

Klil is a magnet for creative spirits. Its scarce population is dominated by healers and therapists, craftsmen, artists and musicians. 

Every Friday the café next to the shop turns into a hub of music, picnics on the grass and a fair of local arts and crafts as well as vintage shopping. 

 

The entire area is abundant and needs time to explore – hills are laced with trails, there’s a trail that goes all the way along the dry riverbed and takes you to a castle up the hill. There’s another trail that takes you along a mountain river. The nearest beach is only 20 minutes away, and it’s a beautiful sandy beach with most enticing waters, albeit the proximity to the border with Lebanon. 

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Yet, what I’m most curious to explore primarily – are the villages of the secret Druze religion (from Persian darzi, “seamster” or from Arabic dārisah – “she who studies”). 

The next day after our arrival we head to the Yanuh-Jat village. 

As most Druze villages, it is located on a hilltop (historically for defence purposes). It overlooks Yehiam Fortress and the Western Galilee and the views are breathtaking.  The village of Yanuh is mentioned in the Bible (as Janoah), the Talmud and the Crusader documents. 

The number of Druze people worldwide is between 800,000 and one million, with the vast majority residing in the Levant (eastern Mediterranean). 

The Druze community in Israel is officially recognized as a separate religious entity with its own courts and spiritual leadership. The Druze speak Arabic and serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Druze are known for their loyalty to the countries they reside in, and they’ve always played an important role and attained high positions in politics, including in Israel. 

Having its roots in Ismailism, a religious-philosophical movement which founded the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt in the 10th century, the Druze religion is a blend of Islamic monotheism, Greek philosophy, Hindu and Sufi influences. Since 1050 the community has been closed to the outsiders and the religion has remained secret. 

Druze religious books are accessible only to the initiates – the uqqal (“knowers”). The juhal (“the Ignorant”) accept the faith on the basis of the tradition handed down from generation to generation. Furthermore, Druze women are preferred over men in joining the uqqal, as they are considered to be more “spiritually prepared”. 

The Druze believe that many teachings given by prophets, religious leaders and holy books have esoteric meanings preserved for those of intellect, in which some teachings are symbolic and allegorical in nature and divide the understanding of holy books and teachings into three layers: the obvious, the hidden and the hidden of the hidden. 

The Druze religion has no ceremonies or rituals. Druze principles focus on honesty, loyalty, filial piety, altruism, patriotic sacrifice, and monotheism. They reject nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs, and don’t eat pork. 

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Reincarnation is a paramount principle in the Druze faith. Reincarnations occur instantly at one’s death because there is an eternal duality of the body and the soul and it is impossible for the soul to exist without the body. A human soul will transfer only to a human body, in contrast to the Hindu and Buddhist belief systems, according to which souls can transfer to any living creature. Furthermore, a male Druze can be reincarnated only as another male Druze and a female Druze only as another female Druze. A Druze cannot be reincarnated in the body of a non-Druze. Additionally, souls cannot be divided and the number of souls existing in the universe is finite. The cycle of rebirth is continuous and the only way to escape is through successive reincarnations. When this occurs, the soul is united with the Cosmic Mind and achieves the ultimate happiness. 

The Druze avoid iconography but use five colours as a religious symbol: green, red, yellow, blue, and white. Each colour pertains to a metaphysical power called ḥadd, literally “a limit”, as in the distinctions that separate humans from animals, or the powers that make human the animalistic body: Green for ʻAql “the Universal Mind/Intelligence, Red for Nafs “the Universal Soul/Anima mundi”, Yellow for Kalima “the Word/Logos”, Blue for Sabiq “the Potentiality/Cause/Precedent”, and White for Tali “the Future/Effect/Immanence”[1]The mind generates qualia and gives consciousness. The soul embodies the mind and is responsible for transmigration and the character of oneself. 

The word which is the atom of language communicates qualia between humans and represents the platonic forms in the sensible world. The Sabq and Tali is the ability to perceive and learn from the past and plan for the future and predict it… and that’s what we all aspire to, don’t we, yet do tend to weave the same pattern in the fabric of our life, over and over again.  

 

We park opposite a small fragrant bakery. I see a man stepping out of it and ask him for directions – we are looking for the Khalwat (shrine) of prophet Navi Shams. He says: I’ll take you there. Meet Allah. He’ll be our guide who will spend most of the day taking us places and disappear just as miraculously as he showed up. 

A shrine of Navi Shams is a white austere, yet monumental building. Allah tells us about prophet Shams as he opens a door leading to a space with a tomb in the middle. The tomb of prophet Shams. We take our shoes off and step in. Allah tells us that it is believed that if you spend a night here, your body and spirit will be healed. 

I enjoy the quiet and austerity of this place, I’d be happy to spend a few hours here, and we do, on another day. 

Allah offers taking us to another shrine of Shaykh Abu Arus in a nearby village of Jat. Abu Arus is mentioned in the Druze sacred texts and was among the first missionaries to spread the Druze religion. The shrine is located outside the village, it’s a small space with a tomb of the prophet and a flight of stairs that takes you to a cave where he prayed. I stay here for a while. My body does. My heart and mind take me places within those minutes. To the cave of Babaji in Hairakhan. To the cave of Saint Gerasimus, in Kefalonia. To the cave of Alexandr Svirsky in the Svyatoy (Sacred) Island of the Valaam Islands. 

On the way out, we also stop by a magnanimous a few-thousand-year-old tree. A tree of Abu Arus. 

 

On our way back to Klil we drive into the sunset, one of the most memorable sunsets for me. I spot a big heart in the sky. I heart you too.

History & Overview of the Israeli Druze (jewishvirtuallibrary.org) 

The last few days we spend in a dream home of Ofer. We had to leave Miriam’s place and walking into a shop for coffee I ask the shop owner if she knows anyone’s who’s renting out a home. Ofer’s house is located in the oldest part of Klil, up the hill. It is where Klil started, it is where the path takes you to a castle along a meandering dry riverbed, it is where you see most gorgeous sunsets framed by Klil tree blossoms. 

 

It is here that I meet beautiful Telly. She fixes my back with the magic concoction of oils that she prepares and her healing touch and presence. It is here that Steve keeps the fire burning in the firepit by night, and I lie on the ground amidst the spring flowers feeling the tender touch of the spring sun by day. It is here that I play with the smiling goats, and we taste most delicious milk and cheese made at the farm two steps away. The farm, started by a young couple who moved here from Tel Aviv. I watch their kids mingling with the goats. I watch the husband talking about their life there, their cheeses and future plans. Their happiness is simple and genuine. 

Don’t lose track of the most important. Remember. Remind yourself. Stay alive. 

 

Where to go: Banana Beach, Akko, Nahariya

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Israel. 

Bewildering, overwhelming, surprising Israel. 

A sacred land – way beyond Christianity, you teach one to see. 

 

With gratitude to all the participants of this lifetime journey.

 

 

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