Israel is a small country. As defenders of its current borders are quick to point out, it is scarcely larger than New Jersey, itself the fifth smallest US state. Indeed, it is so easy to traverse that there’s a joke that if you visit Israel in the morning, you’ll need to find something else for the afternoon.
Size, of course, isn’t everything. Within its 8,100 square miles there are around 30,000 recognised archaeological sites, many of them of religious as well as cultural and historical significance. The country bears the traces – and the scars – of successive civilisations, from the Canaanites and the ancient Hebrews, through the Romans and the Byzantines, the Muslims and the crusaders, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans, to the Zionist pioneers and the present-day Israelis.
Situated as it is midway between Europe, Africa and Asia, the country has welcomed visitors since the dawn of time. The canopy or chupah under which Jewish couples still stand at their wedding symbolises Abraham’s tent, which was open on all sides to greet guests of every nation. For Christians, Israel’s most notable visitors must be the three wise men, who travelled from the east to witness Jesus’s birth. Even without a mysterious star to follow, this is, therefore, a fitting time of year to explore the religious heritage of the Holy Land.
The obvious starting point is Jerusalem, not just because the city signifies so much for all three Abrahamic faiths but because, in Jewish tradition, the Temple Mount was the foundation stone of the universe. Religious tensions are palpable in the Old City, which is divided into four quarters: Christian, Jewish, Armenian and Muslim. On my recent visit, it was impossible to ignore the relish with which the Jewish guide detached the entire Muslim quarter from a model of contemporary Jerusalem to reveal the 1st-century city underneath.
Even more shocking to the ecumenically-minded traveller is that such tensions are also evident within the faiths themselves. In the ultra-orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, where heavily bearded men wear coats more suited to eastern Europe than to the Middle East, Jewish women are liable to be spat at for wearing “inappropriate clothing”, meaning skirts above the knee. Meanwhile, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which should be the most sacred site in Christendom, priests and monks from the six denominations that oversee the building (Greek Orthodox; Armenian Orthodox; Roman Catholic; Coptic Orthodox; Syrian Orthodox; Ethiopian Orthodox) regularly come to blows.
From the first glimpse of its honeyed walls, it is clear that the traditional epithet for Jerusalem, “the golden”, is no metaphor. The city was founded around 1000BC by King David and his tomb – actually a sarcophagus over a sealed rock – can still be visited. It was the focus of worship for Jews up to 1967, when they regained access to the Western Wall. Although the wall was never a part of the temple itself but, rather, a support for the Temple Mount, it has gained a place in Jewish hearts as the only part of the complex to have survived the Roman destruction. Equally fascinating is the labyrinth of tunnels that stretches for hundreds of metres beneath the wall, although excavation has been halted to allay Arab fears of its being a plot to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount.
The temple was built by Herod the Great, whose architectural legacy casts him in a different light from the tyrant of the gospel story. Not only the temple but the coastal city of Caesarea, which he founded in 22BC and which remained the administrative capital of Roman Palestine for 500 years, and the mountain fortress of Masada, where he built a winter palace, bear witness to his vision. Caesarea, where St Peter converted the first gentile to Christianity, and Masada, where 960 Jews committed suicide rather than suffer capture and enslavement by the Romans, are both essential stops on any Holy Land tour.
Despite their central role in Jesus’s story, the Christian sites in Jerusalem are underwhelming. The overly neat Garden of Gethsemane, Mary’s Tomb and the Last Supper Room are not just of doubtful authenticity but devoid of any spiritual aura. The Via Dolorosa, with its arbitrarily placed Stations of the Cross, teems with importunate street traders and trashy souvenir shops. Most dispiriting of all is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a maze of dismal and dilapidated chapels, which feels utterly unworthy of its sacred charge. Each of the warring denominations has to agree on matters concerning its upkeep, hence the murky state of so many of its aisles.
It is not just my own Anglican sympathies that make me choose the lesser known Garden Tomb as a more fitting location for Christ’s crucifixion and burial. This site, favoured by many Protestants since it was first proposed in the 1840s and subsequently popularised by General Gordon, not only matches the biblical topography, but has a devotional quality absent from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which made it by far the most moving of all the places I visited in Jerusalem.
A few miles west of the city and close to the heartrending Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, is the village of Ein Kerem, reputedly the birthplace of John the Baptist. While tourists inevitably head for Mary’s Well, from which the Virgin is said to have drunk on a visit to her cousin Elizabeth, or one of the village’s five churches, the most inspirational site is the small modern synagogue in the nearby Hadassah Hospital, for which Marc Chagall designed 12 stained glass windows, one for each of the tribes of Israel, replete with personal and scriptural symbolism.
Those prepared to brave the checkpoint queues can travel a few miles south and cross into Palestine to visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use. Given the squalor of the town itself, not to mention its tendentious association with Jesus’s birth (its naming by Matthew and Luke being needed to fulfil Messianic prophecy), most people will go straight to Galilee where, with the exception of his infancy in Egypt and his final days in Jerusalem, Jesus spent his entire life.
The most convenient base from which to explore Galilee is Tiberias, an ancient resort on the western shore of the Sea (actually, the lake) of Galilee. I stayed at the Scots hotel, a former 19th-century mission which has recently been converted and provides a generous blend of comfort and tranquillity. Along the shore, one can visit sites such as Capernaum, where Jesus began his ministry, Ein Tabgha, where he fed the 5,000, and the Mount of Beatitudes. It is possible to sail on the “sea” in a replica of a 1st-century fishing boat (as well as marvelling at the preserved hulk of the original in the nearby Kibbutz Ginosar). Those looking to spend time in quiet reflection would do well to avoid the all-singing, all-dancing American evangelicals who commandeered my trip.
From Tiberias it is a short distance to Nazareth, where the focus of worship is the Basilica of the Annunciation. This is the largest church in the Middle East, built over the cave where the Angel Gabriel is reputed to have informed Mary of her fate. Its monumental two-storey interior is dominated by a series of mosaics from around the world in which Mary wears outfits ranging from a Japanese kimono to Ethiopian tribal robes. Religious tensions are as manifest here too, with visitors forced to pass banners erected by local muslims, proclaiming the superiority of Islam.
Of all the sacred sites in Galilee – indeed, in the whole country – the one that I would most heartily recommend to tourist and pilgrim alike is Bethsaida. This was the home town of at least three of Jesus’s disciples (Peter, Andrew and Philip), and possibly also of James and John. It was destroyed by the Romans in AD70, with the remains later buried beneath the rubble of a 4th-century earthquake. For the past 25 years it has been excavated by a dedicated team of archaeologists, one of whom generously – and gingerly – led me down a 1st-century street that has recently been unearthed and which, given its connection to so many of his closest followers, is one of the few places – perhaps even the only one – where one can say with certainty that Jesus himself would have walked.
There was no church, no souvenir shop, no signposting and no jostling for position, simply an overwhelming sense of peace. At last I had discovered the true spirit of the Holy Land.