Israel is a mind-boggling country, to say the very least. The following post is an attempt to collect my thoughts on our experiences there.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know the name ‘Nazareth’. It is a name that echoes from my childhood and lingers in memories of Sunday school and Christmas songs. I’m not sure when I even realised that Nazareth was a real city that I could visit, rather than a seemingly mythical place I’d heard about at church all those years ago.
To visit a place that is so often mythologised is a fascinating experience in itself. The Nazareth of my imagination was always a cute little village in an indistinct desert landscape – an image no doubt evoked by the cartoons that adorned the pages of my children’s bible. Yet the real Nazareth in the 21st century is a bustling Arab city in northern Israel, brimming with restaurants and cafes and shops and bumper to bumper traffic.
We booked to stay two nights at Fauzi Azar Inn, a 200 year old Arab mansion in the heart of Nazareth’s old city. The place was beautiful with its high, frescoed ceilings and old, creaky doors. On our first afternoon we visited the city’s main sight, the Basilica of the Annunciation, where the Catholic Church believes that the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to Son of God, before feasting on a scrumptious lunch at a restaurant nearby, which included my favourite dish – hummus.
The next day, we opted to take a day trip to the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights with a few others staying at the guest house with us. After leaving Nazareth we first stopped at the ancient site of Capernaum, where Jesus is said to have lived after leaving Nazareth. Here, we stood at the edge of the Sea of Galilee in the quiet of the early morning and watched the sun sparkling on the water, wondering if Jesus admired a similar view two thousand years before us.
Places like this are fascinating for anyone with a love of history. To think that one of the most influential figures in human history may have once stood on the ground before you is incredible – regardless of your religious beliefs. We wandered around for a little while, looking at the remains of a 4th century synagogue, which sits atop the basalt rock of an earlier synagogue from the time of Jesus. Then, we jumped back on the mini bus to head to the Mount of Beatitudes, believed to be the place where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and afterwards, the Golan Heights, where we visited Banias Nature Reserve.
If you had little knowledge of modern history, you could easily walk along the green paths, admire the waterfall, and simply enjoy the beauty of your surroundings without giving this place a second thought. The little trail that meanders beside the stream is so peaceful that it is difficult to fathom how much conflict this region has seen in the past. The whole Golan Heights area once belonged to Syria, before the Six Day War of 1967, when a big chunk of it was captured by Israel.
Exploring parts of this region was a good precursor to what the day brought next. In between a wine tasting at a boutique winery and taking a quick dip in the Sea of Galilee, we stopped briefly at a lookout at Mount Bental on the Syrian border, where we could take a look at an old Israeli bunker and grab a snack from the funky coffee shop if we so desired.
As we stepped out to walk up to the lookout, we noticed that we were parked next to a vehicle marked ‘UN’. Then we heard an explosion in the distance, and instantly turned to each other with ‘Is that what I think it is?’ looks on our faces.
At the top of the hill we looked out at the landscape before us. The foreground was lush and green; as it turns out, it is the site of an Israeli winery. Beyond it, the land looked vastly different: it was a dry brown colour dotted with clusters of tiny squares that made up towns and villages. The one closest to us was in ruins, destroyed during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and never rebuilt. Beyond the old bunker on the hill, two UN Peacekeepers were stationed as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force who have supervised the ceasefire between Israel and Syria since the end of the war. In the distance, on the horizon, we could see columns of smoke rising.
We hear of bombs and war every day on the news and seem to read an endless stream of statuses and articles about it as they pop up on our newsfeeds – so in many ways we’ve become desensitised to it. It’s always something that’s happening out there in the world, far away from us, and perhaps that’s why we were in a state of disbelief as we gazed out at the scene before us. There we were, mere kilometres from war, and we felt safe – all because of the invisible lines that humans draw in the sand, calling them borders. By chance I was born in Australia, and so, by virtue of my passport, I could stand on the safe side and look into the warzone without fear; I could leave the sight and sound of the bombs behind whenever I pleased. I could turn away and leave, and go somewhere else for a leisurely afternoon swim, whilst millions on the other side of that imaginary line are stuck in the danger zone, wishing they had the luck of someone like me.
That evening, we returned to our comfy guesthouse in Nazareth. We went out for a nice dinner and ordered way too much food. I remember thinking how strange it was that one day could serve up such dramatic contrasts – that you could walk around a historical site, visit a church, hike to a waterfall, taste some wine, watch some bombs go off, go for a swim – as if it was all normal. I’m not really sure what I should think or feel or say about it – except that we live in a crazy world and I am one of the incredibly lucky ones.