Living the history of Israel

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on August 16, 2019 Published on August 15, 2019

Where the faiths meet and part: Jerusalem at dusk — a view from the Mount of Olives   -  Getty Images

Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, West Bank — wherever you go in Israel, its history accompanies you

It’s celebrity-spotting at its most bedazzling.

Wherever we go and whatever we do — be it wandering around cavernous churches, strolling the seafront, or shopping in narrow alleyways — we bump into superstars. Towering figures, complete with luminous virtues and dark vices, flowing robes and bestseller credentials.

It begins soon after we get to Jerusalem. Obedient to the guidebooks, we head to the Temple Mount, among the holiest and possibly most disputed 37 acres in the world. This is believed to be the spot where the first and second Jewish temples stood around two millennia ago. Today it’s the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped, tile-embellished Dome of the Rock.

We’ve seen the pictures and heard the tales. Even so, it’s overwhelming to stand where, according to tradition, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, before God replaced the boy with a ram; where Jesus cast out greedy moneylenders; where Mohammed ascended to heaven. And, to top it all, where God gathered the dust that created Adam.

This is the first of many sightings. Israel is a land where the past is as prominent as the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv. Where prophets and historical power-players are as omnipresent as American tourists, pram-pushing matrons and Orthodox Jews in black coats and hats.

On buildings and bracelets we spot the six-pointed Star of David, which signifies the young shepherd who defeated Goliath with a slingshot and then became king. In the ancient port of Jaffa, we encounter the disobedient prophet Jonah, about to embark on his disastrous voyage that ended with three days in the belly of a whale.

In the bylanes of Jerusalem we notice a portrait of Salah-ad-din, the remarkable medieval sultan who defeated the Crusaders. In a cluttered jewellery store, we examine a string of blue-green beads. “Eilat stone,” explains the shopkeeper. “One of the gifts that King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba.”

(We bought the beads. We also bought the story. Now I hope both are genuine.)

From a perch on the Mount of Olives, we look down at the 3,000-year-old Jewish cemetery — the final resting place of prophets, rabbis, prime ministers and anybody who can fork out $30,000 for a burial plot. It is believed that on Judgement Day, the dead will have to make their way to Temple Mount. Given that the Mount of Olives is just a short stroll away, it’s the perfect place to await the arrival of the messiah.

In the old city of Jerusalem, we wander from one neighbourhood to another. In the busy Muslim quarter, we buy stuffed bread and dried strawberries. In the Christian Quarter, we visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the spot where Jesus was crucified. In the Armenian Quarter, we explore narrow, medieval streets and bright ceramics shops — run by descendants of the artisans ferried from Turkey by the Ottomans to restore the Dome of the Rock.

In the Jewish Quarter, we welcome the Shabbat, watching in amazement as thousands throng the plaza next to the Western Wall. The Western Wall is a section of the massive limestone walls built by King Herod to support the Second Temple around 2,000 years ago. After the destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish worshippers began to gather at the site to pray and lament over the lost temple.

Usually, the mood here is sombre. But Friday evening is one big party. Groups of black-and-white-clad men sing and dance through the crowd. Girls in frills and boys in kippahs frolic about, while housewives chat in relaxed groups after a day of frenetic shopping, cooking and prepping for the day of rest.

Before our eyes, Jerusalem slips into stillness. Public transport shuts down, as do shops and restaurants. Many of those who observe the Shabbat avoid driving, cooking, using electricity or texting on their phones. So we head to our West Jerusalem apartment through streets that are dark and hushed.

Beneath this veneer of tranquillity, however, we sense the fractures and contradictions. The West Jerusalem we walk through, with its Hebrew-speaking population, broad roads and trendy restaurants, has the feel of a European city. East Jerusalem, with its Arabic-speaking population and crowded neighbourhoods, is bleak in comparison. And while candles are being lit and prayers offered on this side of the city, resentment and unresolved issues simmer just a short cab ride away. The realisation robs the Friday evening of some of its magic.


The next evening, in the Arab city of Nazareth, we welcome another Sabbath. Every Saturday night, a candlelight procession heads to The Church of Annunciation — a striking, modern structure supposedly built over the house where Mary lived and where Angel Gabriel delivered his news to the bewildered teenager who was chosen to be the mother of God.

Hundreds of people — some from across the road, others from distant continents — gather in a large courtyard aflicker with candles. Under the darkening sky, we listen to prayers in English, German and Latin. But it is the Ave Maria, sung partly in Latin and partly in Arabic — Assalamu alaikum Ya Maryam — that plays in a loop in my head.

At the church, we marvel at mosaics from distant lands. The Mary from Indonesia looks like a water sprite, undulating amidst fish and butterflies. The Madonna from China is cloaked in clouds and wispy robes.

I’m astounded by Nazareth’s determination to break barriers. My daughters are astounded by the katayefs at Abu Ashrafs — pancakes stuffed with goat cheese and walnuts and drizzled with geranium syrup.

The katayefs are just one of the many happy discoveries we make during our nine days in Israel. Through the trip we tuck into spicy shakshukas crowned with sunny eggs; crescent-shaped rugelachs of soft dough and chocolate; light-as-air hummus topped with spicy meats. We visit edgy boutiques and charming craft markets, golden Mediterranean beaches and the mineral-rich waters of the Dead Sea.

Soft skills: Rugelach, a traditional Jewish pastry   -  ISTOCK.COM


We fill suitcases with sesame-seed halva and peanut-puffs called bamba, rosaries and honey-scented tapers for devout friends and a filigreed silver Hand of Fatima for protection. But more than anything else, we amass stories. From the Bible, from history, from the enormous storehouse of human folly.

Outside The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, our guide points to a drab wooden ladder, propped against an upper window. “That,” he tells us, “is the Status Quo Ladder. It’s been in the same place for at least 300 years.”

The explanation is as startling as the detail. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was originally built in the 4th century by Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, to mark the spot where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Over the centuries, every Christian denomination wanted a piece of the edifice — leading to a complex arrangement involving the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Orthodox churches.

Relationships between the various denominations are tense. So much so that the keys of the church are kept with a local Muslim family. Despite safeguards, problems crop up. For example, on a sweltering day in 2002, a Coptic priest moved his chair into the shade and unwittingly strayed into the Ethiopian Orthodox section of the church. This triggered a fight that landed 11 people in hospital.

Nothing can be moved in the Church without the permission of all concerned. Which is why that unremarkable ladder, probably forgotten by an absent-minded workman over three centuries ago, continues to stand on a ledge.


We experience similar confusion in Bethlehem. The town where Jesus was born is a 45-minute bus ride from Jerusalem, but involves crossing into the dispiriting sprawl of the West Bank. Rather than nativity scenes and joy to the world, we find the Separation Barrier.

Come to Bethlehem: The town where Jesus was born is just a 45-minute bus ride from Jerusalem   -  REUTERS/MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA


This brutal creation of cement slabs and barbed wire is designed to keep Palestinians and Israelis apart and is a harsh symbol of a divided nation. We’ve read about this 700-km-long Apartheid Wall. But nothing prepares us for the sick reality of the 8m-high slabs of concrete; the ruthless shutting out of dissent, differences and other human beings.

The section of the wall that runs along Bethlehem is covered with anger and political art. There is the famous painting by Banksy, an anonymous street artist from England, that depicts two angels prising the wall apart. Other pieces of graffiti reinforce the sense of despair. “Just Remove It. Nike,” states one.

“This is where we draw the line,” states another

“Make hummus, not walls,” exclaims the most famous Bethlehem graffito. And, having sampled both the hummus and the walls in Israel, we can only nod in absolute, heartfelt agreement.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author of What Maya Saw

Travel log

> Getting there

The Ben Gurion Airport sits between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There are direct flights to Ben Gurion from both Mumbai and Delhi. The El Al flights are a little longer because they use a circuitous route to avoid the airspace of unfriendly countries. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are both walking cities. It is only when you venture into far-flung and steep areas such as the Mount of Olives or into Bethlehem that you need buses or taxis.

> Visa

The Israel visa involves rigorous screening; applicants are sometimes summoned for interviews, especially if they are travelling with children.

> Stay

There are innumerable hotels and hostels in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but Israel is an expensive destination. We opted for Airbnb apartments in the big cities and a bed-and-breakfast in the old town of Nazareth.

> BLink Tip

t makes sense to dress modestly as the churches, synagogues and mosques follow a strict dress code.

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Published on August 15, 2019
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