Israel: Acre and Caesarea

I met a traveler from an antique land.

To be honest, I didn’t actually meet anyone in person but through the 1912 edition of Baedeker’s Palestine and Syria travel guide, a wonderful Christmas gift. I love old guides that reveal so much about conditions as seen through the eyes of whomever contributed to the text and what they thought would be important to the inexperienced traveler who had a case of wanderlust.

The red-covered Baedekers were known to be reliable and the traveler wouldn’t want to be without one – remember Lucy Honeychurch who was lost in Santa Croce without her Baedeker in “Room with a View”? I do have the very one Lucy carried (or at least a copy of Central Italy which covers Florence and Rome). Both guides were bought from the well-named Insatiables bookstore in Port Townsend, WA.

According to the flyleaf for the Palestine and Syria book, my fellow traveler was someone named D.P. Wetherald. I don’t know if it was a he or one of the intrepid British women like Gertrude Bell who tramped all over the area before World War I and drew the boundaries of the countries in the Middle East after the war. Whoever it was, bought the book in Cairo on March 7, 1914, just six months before the world turned upside down and the subsequent fall of the Ottoman empire that ruled the area. The guide covers what are now Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan.
With the exception of Lebanon and Syria, where we’d planned to go just before the uprising, we’ve had the good fortune to visit most of the major sites described in the book. Most recently, we spent time in Acre as did Mr. or Ms. Wetherald.

My ghostly fellow traveler must have had a special sentiment about Acre because I found a tiny dried wildflower pressed into the page containing a map of the area which has been settled since time immemorial.

It was Canaanite before waves of invaders moved in: the Phoenicians and Persians, the Greeks and Romans. It was in Acre that Herod received Emperor Augustus in 30 BC. The Roman Empire declined and other groups like the Seleucids, the Byzantines, and Ommayyad caliphs took over in a dizzying mash-up of history.

The port served as the gateway to the Holy Land during the Crusades where in 1104 the Knights of St. John conquered the city and built a gigantic castle for their headquarters. The city was popular with such travelers as St. Francis, a Holy Roman Emperor, and a king of France. Richard the Lion-Hearted saved the city from Saladin only to lose it again. The Crusader’s ever-shrinking kingdom finally came to an end in 1291. The castle was later occupied by assorted Ottoman pashas, but withstood Napoleon’s siege. It changed hands repeatedly again until 1948 when the Israeli’s took possession from the British who grabbed it in 1918, only four years after my traveler, Wetherald, visited.

My husband and I visited Acre in October. Wetherald visited March 26, 1914 according to a pencil notation. The guidebook considered Acre to be a minor excursion from Haifa, usually accomplished by boat because of the bad roads. According to the book, while the bazaar-market still presents a lively scene, the interior of the large mosque was “tasteless,” and the Ottoman military hospital “is said to have been once the residence of the Knights of St. John.”

That was then. Now the town, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, is bustling with tourists coming to walk the picturesque old lanes, peer into caravanserais to imagine merchants off-loading their pack animals after the long trek on the Silk Road, dine by the blue sea and venture into the restored Crusader fortress, much of which is underground, dimly lit, and definitely not for those with fear of confined spaces or the dark. Our guide led us ever deeper through beautifully-restored gigantic halls that served as refectory, hospital, a storeroom for the lucrative sugar trade, and one for unfortunate prisoners.

We emerged into the sun and modernity, blinking our eyes before moving into the shade of the souk. The narrow street was lined with shops filled with typical goods found in such busy markets in this part of the world: fresh fish, olives, fragrant spices, sweets, clothing, along with the inevitable buckets, brooms, and detergent.

A door at the end of the street was the entrance to what is called the Templar Tunnel where Crusaders once clanked along in their heavy armor on military business and laborers carted cones or loaves of sugar or supplies to and from the port to the castle. The tunnel is narrow and damp, and the knights must have been short because even I at just over five feet had to bend down in many sections.
We returned to brilliant sunlight at the Old Town, once one of the most important in the Eastern Mediterranean but now home to fishing and pleasure craft.

We lingered by the old sea walls watching the timeless scene and contemplating a sweet message daubed on a wall: a heart and Ali +Hlq.

And on the way back to the bus we saw more evidence of “sweet”:

The following day, we were presented with a graphic reminder that love doesn’t conquer all. We arrived at Caesarea to a scene combining the reality of modern times with the ancientsoldiers eyeing a display of the latest missiles.

Although the settlement was ancient, historical records begin in 22 BC, when King Herod the Great began to build up the town and port. He named it after Augustus Caesar and oversaw the construction of a temple dedicated to Augustus, a theater, a hippodrome and the famous aqueduct. The governors of Judea made it their home town when the area became a Roman province. Among the governors was the infamous Pontius Pilate. Saints Paul and Peter, among many other early Christians, resided here for various periods of time.

Arabs conquered the town but were pushed out by Crusaders five hundred years later. They, in turn, only hung on for twenty-one years before being swept away themselves. But one interesting side note remains: the town seems to be where the story of the Holy Grail began. When King Baldwin took the town on May 17th 1101, he seized an object from a ruined Byzantine cathedral. According to William of Tyre, the chronicler of the First Crusade, it was a round dish carved out of an enormous emerald used during the Last Supper. Baldwin was forced to give it to the Genoese in payment for the loan of a fleet. They took it to Genoa where it is displayed in the cathedral of San Lorenzo. Later, it was found to be Roman glass and is one of many contenders for the true chalice. Whatever the true story of the Grail is, the chronicler ignited the stories, legends, and quests that continue to this day.

The city unfortunately didn’t enjoy the same notoriety and gradually sank into the sand and sea. My traveler’s guidebook didn’t think much of it, saying it was a site that could only be reached by carriage in dry weather, and if you happened to be stuck, “Bosnians have been settled here since 1884 and can supply rough nightquarters in case of need.” The book also advised that the destruction carried out after the Crusaders left was still on-going by locals needing building materials.
We walked over ancient white marble in the blazing sun, trying to imagine the scene first in Roman times when crowds cheered chariot races as in the old film “Ben Hur.”

The heat from sky and marble forced us to retreat under a palm tree for a cool drink before we trekked through a dusty parking lot to take a close look at the aqueduct, partially buried in sand. It supplied water for 1200 years but was dry by the time the Crusaders showed up.

Now, it’s a sad remnant of a once-important city, a structure that now comes from nowhere and leads nowhere, only attractive to tourists and military activity.

Another day passed in the ever-changing, never-changing, always thought-provoking Middle East. Middle-east if you live in the West, the center of the world if you’re a resident.

All photos by author except photo of “Holy Chalice” which is from Wikipedia CC, photo by Sylvain Ballet, 19 August 2009

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A Bone to Pick – Part I

The weather at home was cold and damp. We wanted to go someplace warm and dry. On my lunch hour I contemplated the travel brochures displayed in the window of a travel agency next door to my office. Mexico, the Caribbean…or where? Lured inside by the thought of sunshine, I spotted the agent who looked like a pixie with her gamin haircut. She wore a tunic and brown hose with little green suede shoes that curled up at the toes. I asked her for some ideas, expecting from her appearance to be sent to rainy Ireland. Instead, she said a stack of flyers for a tour of Israel had recently arrived. “Would you like one?” “Why not?”

The itinerary of the two week tour covered all the tiny country from the Lebanese border and Golan Heights to the Red Sea. Tipping the scales in favor was the opportunity to see the cradle of Christianity and a day trip to ancient St. Catherine’s Monastery, home of the Burning Bush, located near the tip of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. We had been in Egypt several years before to see the standard sights but hadn’t had the time to leave the Nile Valley. The next lunch break I handed over my credit card.

We landed in Tel Aviv at dawn. We had hours to start looking around before meeting the tour group; not a minute to waste. Buildings from the 1930s designed in the Bauhaus International style were glowing white in the morning sun. Awnings over the stalls in the Carmel Market sheltered piles of fresh fruit and vegetables and other odds and ends typical of the Levant – spices, nuts, dried fruit and olives in burlap sacks. We wandered to the ancient town of Jaffa. The Greeks believed that Perseus on his winged horse rescued Andromeda from a rock in the harbor. In Biblical tradition, it was founded by Noah’s son Japheth after the Flood and was where Jonah was cast ashore after his adventure with the whale. As part of its great trading history, it served as the port for the cedars of Lebanon used in the construction of Solomon’s Temple. By the time we arrived it was a picturesque suburb filled with souvenir shops, a flea market and restaurants for tourists.

When our group met in the lobby, our guide introduced herself as Rivka. Fluent in Arabic along with Hebrew, Swedish and English, she had served as a translator for prisoner exchanges after wars with Egypt and was an expert in local history. Her flock was an odd assortment of Americans all with different motivations for the trip: elderly Jews who would stay on after the tour to try to find their relatives, young non-observant Jews wanting to see Israel with the ease of a tour, a couple on their honeymoon who dragged their new Burberry coats along in the heat everywhere they went, an  elderly Sunday school teacher desperately trying to understand the New Testament about which he seemed to know nothing, the nominally Christian  like ourselves, and a youngish man in brown polyester with shifty eyes and cowboy boots who lurked on the fringe and kept to himself. Each of us would incorporate our own backgrounds and motivations to see Israel through different lenses.

The next morning our tour commenced: baggage out by 7 a.m., group on the bus by eight.  The complex, entangled layers of history were immediately on display; a palimpsest where one civilization rubbed out another. Hatred and violence were a constant, never-ending theme at every site. We tramped through Iron-age sites like tiny Meggido (Armageddon), Roman ruins, Byzantine churches and their mosaics, Crusader castles, ancient synagogues, mosques and churches and those of more recent times. Our Sunday school teacher entertained us regularly with, “I didn’t know that!!”  The man in brown polyester sat in the back of the bus, alone.

In Haifa, the Persian flower gardens of the oft-persecuted Baha’i sect overlooked the site where a few boats managed to bring Jews to the Promised Land after running the British blockade after World War II. We stopped at the Lebanese border where a sign painted on a rock said Beirut 120 km, Jerusalem 205 km. That was the physical distance, but the mental distance seemed more like from there to the moon. We were near the entrance to a railroad tunnel, part of the tracks built in the Ottoman era. I expected Lawrence of Arabia to ride out leading his Arab insurgents on their stallions. Instead, a wedding was in process. The groom was attended by his fellow soldiers dressed in battle fatigues and carrying Uzis; the bride was in a shiny white gown covered in ruffles and flourishes. We joined in wishing them well while wondering about their future.

Back in the bus, the TV was turned on. CNN was showing pictures of tanks being hauled on low-boys toward some threatened destination. I looked out the window:  there were the very tanks. Rivka assured us there was no problem, but our evening’s destination, a kibbutz, was in the same direction. On arrival we were treated to a view of their bomb shelter and a children’s playground with a half-buried Syrian MIG where it came to rest after being shot down. The current shooting was near the next kibbutz to the north. We were restless thinking about the stress of living in such an unstable environment and worrying that the current fighting might come our way.

 More Middle-East politics confronted us when we viewed Israel from the Golan Heights. We drove half-way up the mountains on a road lined with signs warning of landmines. We stopped at a viewpoint. Above us were communications towers and below us was the country. The Jordan River looked to be a creek. Nearby was an Israeli monument to the fallen, small pebbles of remembrance instead of flowers scattered on the flat surface. Wreaths made of dried grasses and wildflowers hung on black steel anti-tank barricades. 


Safed, the center of Jewish mysticism was next on our itinerary. On the way we passed burned out buses and trucks from the 1947 war when Palestinians were forced out. Our strange cowboy-booted companion bought piles of rams’ horns and, in an uncharacteristic burst of volubility, told us that they were for a new sect he had founded in prison. No one could think of anything to say other than, “that’s interesting,” while picturing men in black and white stripes blowing on the horns in an exercise yard. Not wanting rams’ horns, I spotted a copper coffee pot that I thought had Arabic calligraphy as a decoration. After hearing the price, I countered with a slightly lower offer. The vendor looked at me and said, “If you want it, lady, pay the price.” I meekly paid. Later I looked more closely at my purchase – it wasn’t calligraphy, it was a dragon and the spout when turned upside down was an elephant’s head. Where did this object come from? Was it fake, was it real from some exotic place. Who knows? 

Nazareth has an enormous Franciscan church honoring the Virgin Mary with the nave lined with gigantic mosaics picturing her in the costume of the country that donated the panel. The Japanese donation was eye-catching with Mary in a kimono. Rather than view the church, two elderly Jews wandered off. We waited on the bus while Rivka searched the narrow streets and passages. By the time she found them they were hysterical with fear at being lost among local Palestinians. She led them back to the bus where they sobbed and comforted each other on the way to our next stop.         

We arrived in golden-hued Jerusalem, the medieval center of the world and the holy city of various aspects of God. It was a Friday; the Jewish Sabbath started at sundown.

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