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The holy land the centre of faith

By Joshua Woolf

Published: Thu 28 Jan 2021, 3:53 PM

The land of Israel is an incredible country with unparalleled natural beauty and unlimited historical and cultural sites, ranging from the very earliest human settlements to a hyper-modern startup nation. It is a place where cultures, ideas and religion meet, creating a unique and exquisite tapestry.

Whether your interest is history, archaeology, religion, culinary or culture, there are sights, sounds and aromas to delight all your senses.

As the cradle of the three Abrahamic faiths, there are a wealth of riches to be explored. However, faith is hardly a prerequisite for an enjoyable trip to Israel, as a diverse selection of exciting historical and cultural experiences are available that will appeal to virtually every taste.

With Jewish roots that stretch back to antiquity, the fact that it is the birthplace of Christianity and with a deep connection for nearly 1,400 years with Islam, Israel is a place filled with deep spirituality, which can be felt and touched in nearly every step.

From the first few moments in the country, visitors will feel the impact in their heart. This feeling will stay with you forever and will give you the desire to return again and again.

All visitors are drawn to Jerusalem, as they have been for thousands of years. This contemporary capital is a potent mixture of the ancient and modern, important religious and archaeological sites, cultural hotspots and a world-class culinary scene, which most definitely makes it a "must-see".

Its Old City, which dates back millennia, is the principal focus of the three Abrahamic religions. Before entering the winding, narrow alleyways of the Old City itself, it's fun to visit one of the great lookout areas that are dotted in the mountains surrounding the area. One is on the Mount of Olives and the other at the Haas Promenade - both offer impressive vistas. These are truly stunning at any time of the day, however, the final hour of sunlight basks the city in a golden glow. It takes on an even more magical hue, which lends to the name, 'Jerusalem the Gold'. One can clearly see all the historical sites laid out in the distance, with the twin domes on al-Haram al-Sharif, the golden dome of Qubbat al-Sakhra and the silvery-grey Al Aqsa, standing proudly and the domes glistening in the sunlight.

The ridge where the Haas Promenade sits is assumed to be the first point where Abraham

- who had travelled north from his Beersheba home to sacrifice his son (in Jewish tradition, Isaac was the son and Islam says it was Ismail), saw the place where he was supposed to carry out the deed.

That tradition of holiness was continued through King David, whose purchase of a threshing floor was proven to be a key factor of Jerusalem as a religious centre. He did not get to build it himself, but this same place was the location of Bayt al-Maqdis - and this spot has been venerated for its holiness for most of the last 3,000 years.

Al Aqsa is particularly central, revered as the location of the "Furthest Mosque", where tradition states that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) made from Mecca in one night aboard Buraq.

In the Old City's Muslim Quarter (the other main ones are the Armenian, Christian and Jewish Quarters), there is all manner of wonderful sights and smells. There you can sample freshly roasted coffee, buy spices, sample pastries, sweets and candies, taste fresh hummus with warm fluffy pita or lafeh, try on colourful robes and really get a sense and feel for the bustling market life that happens here daily - just as it has been done for centuries.

And don't forget to look all around you. On the walls, you might see "Hajj Art", a mixture of impressions of the Dome of the Rock and the Kaaba in Mecca, painted by Muslims who have been able to make the holy pilgrimage, and the ablaq from the Mameluke period - most usually red and white tiles in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is a fabulous city to just walk around, drinking in the history that pops out around almost every corner. However, all that walking and sightseeing can leave you feeling hungry, so it's a great thing that the culinary scene has flourished, offering a taste and flavour for every palate.

As one might expect, Jerusalem has a world-famous food market - Mahane Yehuda - close to the city centre in the Nachlaot neighbourhood. By day there are produce sellers and bakeries offering delicious breads and pastries, cafes, some specifically serving coffee, as well as places to sit down for an Israeli breakfast - a colourful mixture of eggs, cheeses, vegetables and more.

By night, the place transforms into one of the city's hippest nightspots, beloved by Jerusalemites and visitors alike.

While Jerusalem is often the main focus, especially for first-time visitors, the country has boundless opportunities to offer.

Israel is a place of contrasts and although Jerusalem is justifiably at the top of most people's wish list, a visit to Jerusalem's younger sibling, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, is also a "must-do".

Bursting with sidewalk cafes, world-class museums, charming parks, wide boulevards, almost nine miles of golden sandy beaches, concert halls, theatres, elegant restaurants (including the highest concentration of vegan eateries), chic shopping malls boutiques and with more than 300 days of sunshine per year, Tel Aviv is renowned for its easy-going, welcoming and friendly charm.

Tel Aviv-Jaffa is a city of fusion, combining one of the world's most innovative business centres - and the beating heart of the Start-up Nation - alongside Jaffa, one of the oldest functioning ports in the world.

Two of the country's most important goods were exported from here; Jaffa oranges from the mid-19th century and olive oil - still one of Israel's staples - from the times of the Prophet Hosea in the 8th century BCE.

Tel Aviv contains a mixture of building styles, but it is most famous for its core, the "White City", a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses the largest concentration of international-style "Bauhaus" architecture in the world.

Jaffa, officially twinned with Tel Aviv since 1950, is in the south and can be reached by strolling down those white sandy beaches or even by hiring a bike and riding along the promenade. Tel Aviv-Jaffa is a city with strong green credentials, and you will see many people out walking and cycling.

While Tel Aviv was established in 1909, Jaffa's history dates back some 5,000 years, experiencing numerous conquerors, each of whom left their own unique imprint. Remarkable historical landmarks, such as the Clock Tower, Saraya's Gate and Andromeda's Rock, attest to a thrilling history. The city also offers some of the finest fish restaurants in the country and the vibrant Jaffa Flea Market (Shuk Ha'pishpishim), a bargain-hunter's delight with a wide variety of charming boutiques nearby.

A two-hour ride up the coast from Tel Aviv lies the northern city of Akko, which like Jaffa, traces its origins to ancient times. Akko, which is another of Israel's many UNESCO world heritage sites and one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities, is a warren of tight and twisting streets, a nod to the height of its influence in the Crusader and Ottoman periods from the 12th to the 16th century.

This city is one of contrasts; a convergence of East and West, especially as a trading centre between Asia and Europe; modern versus antiquity, but blended into a rich melting pot. It was known for centuries as a gateway to the Holy Land due to its location as a port of entry for international dignitaries and that all-important trade.

Dominating Akko's skyline is the green dome, representing the colour of life in the desert, and minaret of the El-Jazzar Mosque, named for Ottoman ruler Jazzar Pasha.

Elsewhere, some of the most striking remnants of the near 200-year Crusader rule in the land can be seen in the old city. Akko was at its apex during that period, particularly in the 13th century, transforming into the largest and richest city in the Crusader kingdom, as well as its most important port. The impressive fortifications that we see today have been painstakingly excavated and recreated over at least the last 50 years.

Israel really does have it all. A modern country that combines an illustrious ancient history while being blessed with glorious beaches, breathtaking nature reserves, state-of-the-art health spas, hiking trails and spectacular views. One trip is not enough time to really absorb all the wonderful offerings available; we'd love to welcome you back over and again.

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