Three great religions of the world have left their marks in Israel.
Sacred Site: The Western Wall in Jerusalem. PHOTO: AFP
DRIVING from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we were thrilled when a turn of the road brought to view the city - tier upon tier of white buildings ascending a hill dominated by the golden dome of Al Aqsa mosque. The domes of other mosques, the spires of many churches and the Temple Mount soaring heavenwards proclaimed the city to be the cradle of three great religions of the world.
On a short tour to the Holy land, the first place we visited was Yad Vashem, the world-famous Holocaust Memorial. Built on the western ridge of the city, a towering column displayed the words "Remember" on top. We entered "the Historical Museum" which detailed the hate campaign against the Jews in pre-war Germany and documented the stories of as many victims as the authorities could trace. Particularly moving was "the Children's Memorial", a dark, underground room where the names of 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust were constantly read out. It was a relief to emerge from this gloom to see the sun shining on an avenue of trees called "the Friends of the Jews among the Nations". It honoured the non-Jews who risked their lives to save the Jews during the War.
All that remains
Our next port of call was "the Wailing Wall", the holiest spot on earth for the Israelis. It is a remnant of the Western retaining Wall of the Jewish Temple rebuilt by King Herod the Great to an unparalleled magnificence in 20 B.C. Sadly, in a matter of 100 years, the temple was razed to the ground, the people massacred or driven out, and the city destroyed by the conquering Romans. Only a part of the Wall survived the plunder. The fleeing Jews were dispersed to the corners of the earth.
Yet, in their 2,000-year-long exile, they never ceased to pray for their return, turning their faces to the Wall. Once every year when they were allowed to visit the Wall, they would beat their breasts and wail for the loss of their holy temple. However, their prayers were answered after the establishment of the State of Israel in Palestine in 1948. In 1967, in one of the continuous Arab-Israeli wars, Israeli troops captured Jerusalem. The people poured into the courtyard in front of the Wall, kissing the stones and embracing each other. The Wailing Wall is now termed "the Western Wall" and it still remains their most sacred space.
As Christian tourists, we walked the Via Dolorosa, visited Bethlehem, Galilee and the River Jordan. On our way to Nazareth on a Friday, we had to stop at a crossing for a long line of troops to pass. Many of them were teenagers weighed down by their heavy packs and guns, marching to their homes to celebrate Sabbath the next day. This reminded us that Israel is a country at war with its neighbours, its citizens always combat ready. Everyone, man or woman, has to start military training at age 17 and be available for service. The return of the Arab territories Israel had annexed in1967 has not been effected despite unending negotiations.
Praying for peace
When we visited a farm house in Judea, the lady of the house lamented that out of her four sons, the eldest, 20, had just come back from Gaza with one leg gone, the second had left for the front and the younger two were still safe in school. "I long for peace," she lamented.
The drive from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea was picturesque as it lay through the Judean desert of sandstone hills and canyons. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth at 400 meters below sea level. Many tourists were bathing in the sea as it contains more salt and minerals than any other sea. They are considered beneficial to those suffering from rheumatism and metabolic disorders.
A land transformed
More than half of Israel is desert. We saw a landscape of fisted peaks, ratters and rock-strewn plateaus. Starkly beautiful, yes, but hardly suitable for habitation. Yet, Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel envisioned developing this land. Not only did he establish settlements in the Western Negev, but he himself joined a Kibbutz in Sede Boker, after he resigned as Prime Minister. He lived there as an agricultural labourer till his death. We visited his simple, wooden home, saw his library of 5,000 books and other memorabilia, including a picture of Gandhi. His grave overlooks the low sandstone hills of the Negev the symbol of a man who practised what he preached and set no limits to human and national achievements.
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