From the snowy Peak of Mt. Hermon in the northern Galilee, through the lush greenery around the blue waters of Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret, to the heights of God drenched Jerusalem, down the shores of the Dead Sea, through the Negev Desert, to the southern tip of the resort town of Eilat on the sparkling Gulf of Aqaba, Israel is a quilt work and a Mosaic of experiences for the Tourist to Israel.
Its 8,630 sq. miles and size about that of New Jersey, has varieties of temperature and terrain as does the State of California. Its 7 million potpourri of peoples, from over 100 countries on 5 continents combined with their religions of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Druze, or of no religion whatever, provide for the tourist a heady delight to experience and much food for thought. And a musical confluence of Hebrew and Arabic, and Ethiopian and Russian, French, English, Spanish, Persian, Turkish, Portuguese, a number of Indian dialects from the recently found and immigrated exiled Northern Tribe of Israel tribe of Northern India, the Bnei Menashe (the sons of Manasseh).
Tourism History and Activity
Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, tourism could be characterized as primarily pilgrimage. Pilgrims, Christians in the main, had been coming to the Holy Land to visit the sites associated with the life of Jesus Christ. These sites were, by and large, under the custodianship of the major Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches - Roman Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and Armenian were the most prominent. These churches, with the Anglican, had, during Ottoman times, gained ownership or control of key tracks of land on which they had erected buildings to house their respective pilgrims. Even today, these Churches still own these properties, leasing them out to the Israeli Government. The Russian Compound in the center of West Jerusalem which is now leased by the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) to the Israeli government for the use of the Central Jerusalem Police Station, the Circuit Court and other government ministries, was, in the late 1800's, the center for Russian Otrthodox pilgrimage. Likewise, the Greek Orthodox Church owns the land on which the Knesset (Parliament) and the Presidential House are situated.
With the rise of the State of Israel, pilgrimage gradually gave place to a more general interest in Israel as a nation and as a people - "tourism" as we know it today. With the influx of Protestant visitors from all over the world conversant with the Bible, the Land as a whole and the places "where Jesus walked" began to attract attention along with the traditional holy sites and churches. The rise of archeology and the intensification of the discovery of the actual sites mentioned in the Bible, with, now, the support of the Israeli Department of Antiquities, broadened "pilgrimage" into "tourism". People now wanted to see the places that they had read about in the Bible, and now, thanks to the archaeological endeavor, had been made accessible. "Support for Israel" played its part, too, as greater numbers of Evangelical Churches, along with the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, saw that being faithful to the God of Israel entailed faithfulness also to the new nation of Israel, itself a fulfillment of prophesy. And it is so today. In the times of the the most turmoil and threat of war and terrorism (see Suicide bomber: a personal account), such as during the two Intifadas, and the most recent "Second Lebanon War", it has been the Evangelical Churches which have enabled the continuance of the Israel tourist industry.
Tourism today, cresting on an over 20% increase in 2007 than in 2006, is a rapidly developing movement still holding its place, having displaced the diamond cutting industry, and now second to the "High Tech" industry in providing revenue for the State of Israel. Muslim nations still not having diplomatic relations with State of Israel, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, now have a steady stream of tourism and it is not infrequent that Israeli tour guides learn their languages. But there too, it is largely the small evangelical minorities of these nations, however great the numbers, that are providing the tourists. Some Nigerian states are now almost completely sponsoring their Christians, Catholic and Protestant, making it possible for them to make pilgrimage to Israel, just as other Nigerian states are sponsoring their people for the Haj to Mecca. The Jewish communities of the United States bring large numbers of their youth to Israel through the "BirthRight" program enabling them to "taste" Israel and in the process, to do as the other tourists do -- tour Israel. Russians are now a common sight in the tourist hotels. This time, they come as curious tourists, not as Orthodox (in the main) pilgrims, and are guided by Russian speaking new immigrants to Israel, driven in buses owned by other Russian new Israelis. Tours to Israel, nowadays, are organized and promoted not only by the traditional tourist agencies abroad, but large churches and well known Christian pastors and "media magnets" are the new tourism promoters and organizers. It is considered now as part of their ministry. P
The Tour Agenda
Tourists usually enter Israel through Ben Gurion International airport, but other possibilities are through either Jordon or Egypt if either of these countries are also being visited prior to Israel. If entrance is through Jordon, tourists enter Israel through the King Hussein bridge (Allenby bridge) or the Sheikh Hussein bridge. If Egypt is visited prior to Israel, entrance is through the Taba border into the resort town of Eilat. At these entrances, the tour bus is waiting. If in the morning or early afternoon, the tour begins immediately, and if in the late afternoon, tourists are brought to their hotels. A day's touring usually ends at anywhere between 5pm and 7:30 pm - depending on the itinerary for the day and the size and interests of the group. The morning tour will begin after breakfast at anywhere from 7:30 am to 8:30 am.
The tour either begins to the north, around the Sea of Galilee taking in the sights connected with the life and ministry of Jesus, or at Jerusalem, taking in the sites connected with the last days of Jesus on earth (Bethlehem is included in the Jerusalem portion) , or, if the tour is primarily a Jewish group, visiting the sites connected with Judaism and the various Jewish communities. There are also tours connected with Islamic sites but these are rarer and arranged with specialized tour agencies from abroad. The usual tour may be anywhere from 6 to 10 days. There are usually side tours for the longer tours. These will extend the Sea of Galilee portion to include the Golan heights to the east of the Sea of Galilee and the area near Mt. Hermon with its streams and Tels to the north of the Sea of Galilee. The Jerusalem portion of the tour is extended to take in the Dead Sea to the south east of Jerusalem (the Dead Sea may be visited even on the shorter tours). Jericho is usually included on all tours as it is along the Jordon river corridor connecting the Jerusalem and Galilee sections. Tours to Israel may include a side trip to Petra in Jordon with entrance to Jordan accessed near Eilat and may include a side trip to Mt.Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, with entrance through the Taba border crossing . There are also specialized tours that may feature visits to archaeological sites or kibbutzim, as well as one or two day "cruise tours" with cruise ships making the circuit of the Aegean islands, Roades, Cyprus, Turkey, and visiting Israel with entrance and exit through the port of Ashdod.
Today's Variegated Tourism
Tourism can be vertical
Such as at Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Entering the room below that of the Last Supper of Jesus, one views the huge remembrance stone of King David from Crusader times. But behind the wall, one can see the niche in the wall at the exact height above the ground for the biblical scrolls to be placed. So this room was originally a synagogue. Walking around the outside of the room, one sees the "Herodian" stone blocks with their characteristic and tell-tale incised borders. So this room was originally built in the first century. And then you will be told by the Guide that an artillery shell from the 1948 War of Independence landed in the courtyard, shattering the successive layers of plaster, until the last layer, that did indeed extend down past the Ottoman Turk, Early Muslim, Crusader, Byzantine period levels, and ending with the original 1st century floor, was inscribed in first century Greek with prayers to Jesus. So this was a Jewish Christian synagogue, the first Church and home to the original Believers in Jesus before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The "Church House" that would later be called "The Holy Church of the Apostles" and the Mother of all Churches.
Tourism can be horizontal
Laid out before you in all directions, while one is in a "Jesus boat" (one of the touring attractions) on the gentle (most of the time) blue waters of the Sea of Galilee. There to the left on the eastern shore is the once fishing village of Tiberias, now the more fascinating home of the Shwarma in Pita, and rhythmic Eastern music. Following north you see the village of Migdal with its now red-roofed houses, which lent its name to one women resident who followed Jesus, her Master and her "deliverer". This was Mary Magdalena - Miriam from Migdal.
Going past the Kibbutz Ginosar, with its recently found and set on display fishing boat from the first century, the "Ancient Jesus boat" (prototype of the boat you are in), you follow along to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, which will be visited in the afternoon, where can be seen the Church of Mensa Christi (the "Table of Christ") commemorating the place where the resurrected Jesus cooked a fish breakfast for his disciples. But at the side of the Church, for the skeptics among us, one sees the first century steps going down to the shore and the lapping waters, that until 1964 (when Israel re-routed a water channel) were fed for thousands of years by a warm water spring that was a focal point of attraction for the Tilapia, also known as St. Peter's fish, or Amnon in Hebrew, or Musht in Arabic. This is where the fishing was great in the First Century.
Up on a hill behind the Church of Mensa Christi, all on the North Shore, is the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus gave "the Sermon on the Mount", and there, down below is the home town (for a while, at least) of Peter and Andrew - Capernaum, with its imposing and truly gorgeous, white limestone remains of the 3rd century Synagogue, built on the remains (black basalt) and general floor plans of the First century synagogue that Jesus frequented and proclaimed, "I am the Bread of Life".
And to the right, on the Eastern shore, there are sights to see, such as Kursi, with its ruins of a Byzantine monastery, the only place where the herd of Swine could have rushed down the slope into the sea without having fallen off the otherwise-all-around sharp and tall precipice, the slope of Gadarene where Jesus drove out the demons that then entered the swine.
Tourism can be "military"
As you ride past the teenage kids in uniform going back to their bases anywhere in Israel, after being at home on the weekend, Israel is so small. Or as the tourist bus passes to the left of a tank convoy up from the Negev on the way to the Lebanese border, only to be stopped by a herd of sheep and their Bedouin shepherd crossing the main highway. Or by the lone soldier guarding 20 or so M-16s and Uzi machine guns by the river feeder to the Jordon while in the river nearby a mass of screaming girl soldiers (and guys), let out on 2 week a year vacation, rafting without weapons with you down the white waters (bubbly froth) of the Nahal Hatzbani with its over-hanging and leafy trees and intermittent beaches (sand stops) to eat along the way. The Hatzbani, along with two other tributaries will lead you to the upper Jordon River, which will lead to the Sea of Galilee, which will lead to the "Jordan River", which will lead to the Dead Sea, which will lead, in the form of evaporated water (the Dead Sea having no outlet) to Heaven.
The Panorama of Tourism
Tourism can take you in a few short hours of whirlwind:
to the early centuries Nabatean strong hold of Avdat in the Negev desert.
To the white cliffs (and cable car) of Rosh HaNikra at the Northern tip of Israel where it meets the Lebanese border. White Cliffs lapped by the Mediterranean forging deep caverns at water's edge to enter.
To the magnificent civilization upon civilization Tel of Bet Shean, at the Jordan River entrance to the Jezreel Valley, upon which King Saul's body was hung by the Philistines, and which later became a built up Roman Colony, with all its bathhouses. Or Tel Dan with its altar to rival Jerusalem from the time of the divided Kingdom and with its earlier Bronze age entrance from the time of Abraham, or Tel Hazor with its casement walls protection which Joshua burned and from which Barak, later in the time of Deborah, would come down to defeat Sisera, or Tel Beer Sheva intimately associated with the events of Abraham, Tel Arad which stood in the way of Israel entering Canaan, Tel Megiddo with its protected water tunnel that one can go through, or Tel Lachish which Sennacharib of Assyria burnt.
To the Ultra-Orthodox section (no driving on the Sabbath!) of Jerusalem, called One Hundred Gates (or Measures), Mea Shearim, where the lives and the looks and locks (of hair), the customs and the smells bring you back to the synagogues and streets of 18th century Eastern Europe.
To the Bedouin tents surrounded with camels and children and black veiled women, where you can enter (has to be arranged) and sit on carpets and drink, sip, drops of coffee in a thimble container and no longer wonder, as you catch a T.V. from the corner of your eye, why there are antennas sticking out from the tops of the tents.
To the Orthodox monastery at the steep side of Wadi Kelt in the Desert, the Wadi that goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho and the Dead Sea
To Jericho, to the walls of Jericho (What's left of them), and to the Dead Sea, where you can relax on your back reading a newspaper in the saltiest and most buoyant waters in the world, where there is more relaxing and sedating bromide in the oxygen of the air than anywhere else in the world, 1,378 feet below sea level, the lowest point on earth.
To Masada, on cable car, the high hill fortress by the Dead Sea, built up by King Herod from Hasmonean ruins to become his fortress against the Nabateans, Cleopatra of Egypt, and against his own subjects, where the Jews held out against the Romans after Jerusalem fell in 70 A.D, and committed suicide rather than surrender, and where in Modern Israel civilians were inducted into the Israeli Army - "Masada to fall never again!"
To Herodion, the cone shaped fortress built by King Herod just north of Bethlehem, from which he sent its garrison down the short distance to kill the Child King destined to destroy his own Kingdom and his power.
To Bethlehem itself with its Church of the Holy Nativity and the Shepherd's field so familiar to the imagination and memory from Scripture and Carol and so "provocative" to what is in the soul of light and awe for those who treasure Christ.
To Golgotha in Jerusalem, just outside of the gates of First Century Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world and where He rose from the dead. To either one of the Golgothas, take your choice, the traditional Church of the Holy Sepulchre Golgotha, or "Gordon's Calvary" Golgotha. They each have something to say for them. For the skeptics among us. The First Church in the World, the Jewish-Christian Synagogue on Mount Zion, the Church of the Holy Apostles of History, instead of facing, according to established custom, toward the Temple Mount in plain view, at least in the First century, faces to the north, to Golgotha. But it facing exactly between the two Golgothas. So you can take your choice.