Israel: tough on the outside

From Biblical Armageddon to modern political turmoil, Israel conjures up vivid images and strong emotions. Matthew Teller peers behind a rugged exterior

5 mins

Rapture. The end of days. The seven seals. The four horsemen of the apocalypse. You have to believe me – I really tried.

I paced. I squinted. I did my level best to summon up the fury and the chaos of the final, tumultuous battle to come between divine forces of good and evil. But standing in the morning sunshine at Har Megiddo – translated in the Book of Revelation as Armageddon – the only thing I could summon was a scarlet Coke lorry, rumbling past on Highway 65.

Beyond the ruin-speckled slopes (Megiddo was a biblical metropolis), fields spruced the broad Jezreel Valley in blissful green. The air tasted of pomegranates. I pondered Satanic majesty as birds chirruped for joy. I wrestled the Antichrist while dappled shadows played on pitted stonework.

All in vain. Armageddon made me cross.

But that’s Israel all over – visually stunning, but pre-loaded with so much baggage the simplest excursion takes on epic profundity. It’s like the most mesmerising of the God channels on TV, where the sheer emotional pitch means every mundane minute of every ordinary day rings with exhausting intensity. Each stone has significance.

Israel – a sliver on the Med – was declared a state in 1948 during a conflict the Israelis term the War of Independence (Palestinians call it ‘The Catastrophe’). In last month’s Wanderlust, I travelled off the beaten track in the West Bank, a chunk of land that has been occupied by Israel since 1967. This month the focus is Israel ‘proper’, within its 1948 borders.

Most visitors focus on Israel’s biblical sites, but I wanted to dig down a little and see how feasible grassroots travel might be. Israel’s strong rural tradition means there’s huge potential for offbeat travel. I was keen to compare Bedouin encounters elsewhere in the region – Israel shares desert borders with both Egypt and Jordan – and then get a flavour of country life at two small artistically-minded hill-towns, Zikhron Yaakov and Umm Al Fahem, one Jewish Israeli, the other Palestinian. The plan was to end at Nazareth, testing my mettle on the country’s newest long-distance walking trail.


Back to school

Roughly half of Israel’s land area is taken up by the Negev Desert. Outside a small town near Jerusalem, I met guide Amir Gadnaor for the journey south. Straggle-bearded, floppy-hatted and – when he slid his wraparound sunglasses up – crinkle-eyed, Amir lives in Shaharut, a bone-dry huddle of houses on an arid clifftop near Eilat, some 300km away. For him, this was the long drive home.

Charmingly, ‘tour guide’ in Hebrew is moreh derekh, a teacher of the road. Amir fulfilled the brief literally and metaphorically; as he steered southwards, and the land dried from green to ochre, he pointed out drip-irrigated fields and copses created by terracing on the hills. “In 1948 this was desert,” he said. “Now, it’s the breadbasket of Israel.”

But, he added, there’s been a cost. For thousands of years the Bedouin roamed freely across the borderless deserts between Egypt and Arabia. Then 1948 severed links. Many families caught in the middle – in the Negev, that is – were expelled. The remainder were concentrated by the new Israeli government into a shard of land around the desert frontier city of Be’er Sheva. To this day tens of thousands of people remain trapped in ‘unrecognised’ villages – communities that don’t officially exist, without access to services or utilities.

Further south, where the panorama of peaks looks like a rumpled tablecloth, Amir pointed out a green-speckled wadi, centrepiece of the Ein Avdat National Park. The desert heat was magnificent, welcoming, uplifting. We crunched into the canyon and my eyes skated over the striated walls, bleached white limestone supported on reddish and greenish clays and laced with blackish seams of flint. Mossy pools flanked by tamarisk reflected a dragonfly’s escape into high shadow.

At the top of the wadi, Amir showed me a caper plant. He explained how it keeps its leaf surface salty, to osmotically suck moisture from the air, and how its seeds are slightly acidic, so if they fall on limestone they dissolve it a little to attach more firmly.

“The desert can give you strength, if you let it,” he murmured, before straightening up.

The rest of the day I remained the pupil to Amir’s moreh derekh: at the majestic hilltop ruins of Avdat, a frankincense trading station on the camel-caravan route between Petra and the coast; at the Ramon Crater, a vast, eroded desert depression; at an isolated alpaca farm, where horse-riders were setting off to view the sunset.


When we reached Shaharut, Amir refused to let me sleep alone in the tourist cabin beside the village and instead welcomed me into his family home, a large caravan that he had anchored and rendered in adobe.

“We came to Shaharut 21 years ago,” he told me that night, adding wood to the fire and giving the pot a stir. “It’s a very hard place to live; if you don’t enjoy the hardship you won’t make it. The first thing people do when they come to the desert is try to change it.” He shook his head. “Then it changes them.”

The empty quarter

Next day was focused around Kibbutz Lotan, one of the Negev’s string of ‘intentional communities’. Now a centre for ecotourism and birdwatching, Lotan adheres to the liberal Jewish ideal of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. It has a Centre for Creative Ecology, domed adobe huts formed from bentonite, a clay-like industrial by-product. There’s a kids’ eco-education zone. They recycle, they have composting toilets, they keep goats for yoghurt and they produce 1,000 tonnes of dates a year.

Amir’s words about changing the desert kept ringing in my head. Around the Negev I found new-agey tourist camps, idealistic collectives, organic farm shops, even a desert ashram. Timna, a centre for copper mining under the ancient Egyptians 3,500 years ago, hosted fabulous rock formations – pillars, bulbous mushrooms, vast canyons – but it was empty. Walking between rock walls, eroded like melting candle-wax, I thought of the same landscapes a few miles east in Jordan, and how little they would mean without the Bedouin.

The memory of this absence survives in Hebrew. The word for desert, midbar, derives from lehadbir, meaning a grazing place. The Negev was always a human landscape. Now almost 90% of it is given over to army bases and aerial bombing ranges. The remainder seems dominated by urban preoccupations and intensive agriculture. It’s like the Highland Clearances. Who’s left to graze?


Good times rolling

I headed north to blow the cobwebs away.

After Tel Aviv – a whirl of Bauhaus architecture, ethnic food and seriously fashionable people – a shore-hugging train ride led in half an hour to Zikhron Ya’akov. One of the oldest of modern Israel’s new towns, Zikhron was founded in 1882 on forested hilltops beside what was the Palestinian village of Zammarin. Bougainvillea drenches the shaded porches, wooden fences and red-tiled roofs of its 19th-century villas. Arched alleys hide ochre-painted jewellery shops and craft galleries. It’s an effortless place. Israelis weekend there in droves.

On the cobbled main street sassy tweens speed-walked towards a pink ice-cream parlour. Spreading around a hidden courtyard I found Tut Neyar, Israel’s only handmade paper workshop. Owner Timna Neumann sat with me under a mulberry tree while three Israeli visitors turned mulberry bark into paper – pulping, draining, pressing. We chatted. We chewed sugar-cane. We let shadows lengthen. Artisan papermaking suits Zikhron perfectly.

Grapes have been a big success here. One side of town is fragrant from the Carmel winery. At a wine bar-cum-deli run by Tishbi, another estate vineyard, a rather nice merlot accompanied a platter of distinctly upmarket ‘Israeli mezze’: ciabatta, black olive paste, roasted peppers.

Across town Nachi Bargida, whose Romanian great-great-grandfather was one of the first new arrivals, in 1887, clinked pilsner glasses while explaining the story of his newly-opened microbrewery. “I wanted to do something to make people happy,” Nachi said. “We are not only holy sites, not only the Arab-Israeli conflict. We’re living a great life, having a great time.”

To our left the sun was kissing the Med. To our right hills rolled towards Armageddon. Nachi spread his arms. “The width of Israel!” he laughed. I wondered if it was a toast.


Creating dialogue

Routes from Zikhron usually point north to the port city of Haifa, or west to the coast for historic Caesarea and Acre. I went the other way. Twenty minutes east in Umm el-Fahem, Said Abu Shakra took hold of my elbow. “I’m trying to paint myself out of a corner,” he chortled, as he walked me round his gallery.

One of the largest Palestinian towns inside Israel (population 45,000), Umm el-Fahem has a reputation for hostility: you won’t find it in the official tourist literature. In truth, it’s perfectly ordinary. Its best restaurant, El-Babur, serves rustic Lebanese-style food as good as any I’ve tasted in the entire Middle East. And in an unremarkable townhouse, stocky ex-police officer Abu Shakra defied expectations by opening the first Palestinian gallery of contemporary art in the country.

“People come here just to shake hands and discover a genuine side of Palestinian life,” he told me. By building bridges with the initially wary municipality, holding film screenings for local schools, running art therapy classes and offering free workshops for children with disabilities, Abu Shakra – an art-school graduate himself – has changed his home town. Local artists exhibit alongside international stars, drawing Palestinian and Jewish Israeli enthusiasts alike. “Crazy people like me want to create dialogue,” he grinned.

On the Jesus Trail

That desire for dialogue extends to tourism. In 2008 US outdoor adventure specialists, David and Anna Landis, and Israeli tourism entrepreneur Maoz Inon created the Jesus Trail, a 65km route linking Nazareth – the town where Jesus grew up – to sites of pilgrimage around the Sea of Galilee.

Uniquely, it links Christian and Jewish sites with Muslim and Druze holy places that lie well beyond standard tour itineraries. It was a labour of love: the trail is free, public and non-profit, feeding visitors (and, therefore, money) into rural communities along the way.

I met them at the Fauzi Azar Inn, in Nazareth’s Old City lanes. A global winner at last year’s Responsible Tourism Awards, this remarkable place – a 19th-century Ottoman mansion of arches, frescoes and painted ceilings – lay empty after the death in 1980 of its owner, Palestinian businessman Fauzi Azar. Revamped as an inn by Maoz in 2005, it has transformed its neighbourhood. Restaurants, hotels and shops are thriving. Nazareth’s mayor is getting involved. And from the beginning the Azar family has remained partners: today Fauzi Azar’s granddaughter, Suraida Nasser, manages this cross-cultural enterprise in the house she remembers as a child.


Appropriately, the Jesus Trail passes the Fauzi’s door. I walked parts of Stage 1, taking in the spectacular Roman-Byzantine mosaics at Zippori. But David and Anna were keen to show me some scenery.

We fast-forwarded 30km or so east to Stage 6 and the gentle ascent of Mount Arbel, where suddenly a panorama opened up across the entire, teardrop-blue Sea of Galilee, clear to Syria and Jordan. Memorable scrambling followed, on rocky paths leading down Arbel’s 400m cliffs, before the sun set theatrically behind the twin-peaked Horns of Hattin, location of Saladin’s victory over the Crusaders in 1187.

Carving the cacti

Sabra in Hebrew means a cactus fruit – prickly on the outside, sweet in the middle. It’s also the word used to describe a native Israeli. The metaphor fits like a glove: this is avowedly not a land of social graces, but once you unpeel the brusqueness, there’s generally kindness and generosity beneath. People might even smile.

Yet in tourism terms, it’s almost as if the sabra has been turned inside out. Travel is easy: everything works, the landscapes astound, there’s history galore, and it all slots into a ready-made narrative. It’s when you try to dig down that you encounter the prickles of competing histories, untold stories and neglected places.

Israel makes for fascinating, depressing, inspiring, confusing travel. Make sure you come prepared.

Matthew Teller is a freelance travel writer specialising in the Middle East. He tweets @matthewteller and blogs at

Matthew Teller also visited Palestine and wandered the West Bank for Wanderlust. Check out the full article here.

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