I am seated in the hotel lobby in Tel Aviv in the early hours of the morning, giving much thought to the security situation in Israel: problematic, fast moving, tense, unpredictable.
Yet this is not today, it is not now. It is June 28, 2016. My mobile phone pings a news alert stating that gunmen armed with automatic weapons and explosive belts are staging a simultaneous attack at Atatürk Airport’s international Terminal 2. I am scheduled to fly to Istanbul in three hours’ time.
It is now January 2024. Should I not have the opportunity to return to this part of the Middle East any time soon – and that seems highly unlikely given the current dire situation – fulfilling my ambition to cross this land on two wheels, I would like to take this opportunity to describe my last trip in more detail to see if, one day, it may tempt other like-minded, adventure-biased bikers to head further than Europe’s eastern flanks.
I land in Tel Aviv after midnight and immediately receive a grilling at passport control: Why am I visiting Israel? How long will my visit last? What is my itinerary? At which hotels will I be staying? Once away from the airport and arriving at the hotel, I head to my room and immediately open the balcony doors, only to be greeted with a wave of hot air that almost knocks me backwards, such is the breath-sucking intensity.
The following morning, I am in full tourist mode. There is little wonder that Tel Aviv is often referred to as ‘the city that never stops’. The first modern Jewish city built in Israel, during the day it is a pot pourri of culture and art, and as dusk falls it engages in a rich nightlife. My hotel is situated alongside a stunning beach and waterfront promenade.
I make sure I take in a visit to Jaffa, with its artist galleries and studios jostling for space with boutiques and craft shops in the delightfully higgledy-piggledy alleyways. As I go about my business, recording notes and taking photographs, tensions clearly remain high in this city, with metal detectors present at malls, government buildings and train stations.
The next morning, I set off after breakfast, driving eastwards along Israel’s Highway 1, my destination, the Dead Sea. I drive past the skeletal remains of military vehicles, bombed, and abandoned from the time of the Six-Day War; relics of a brutal conflict between Israel and the Arab nations in June 1967. It is not long before I am reminded of the uneasy peace which exists in the region as I sweep past the contested separation barrier running alongside East Jerusalem, built by the Israeli Government in the West Bank during the second Intifada in September 2000. Today, the road is quiet as I pass clusters of dusty, weather-beaten, canvas tents and corrugated lean-to’s, homes to the semi-nomadic Bedouin who scratch a living from this semi-arid desert.
Jerusalem is situated 2,484 feet above sea level. I pass near Israel’s infamous security barrier, with its concrete barricades, gates, barbed wire, and patrol roads. Armed guards, watch towers and fortified gateways could not help but imprint on the mind a stark symbol of this State’s military control over the territory.
Highway 1 drops, and drops, and drops, until suddenly the Dead Sea shimmers into view. I arrive at a T junction; a left turn will lead me to Jericho. I turn right on to the world’s lowest road, Highway 90, and head into the northern reaches of the Judean Desert. To my left, the deepest hypersaline lake in the world makes for a mesmerising sight, its surface and shores lying 1,388 feet below sea level, earth’s lowest elevation on land. With the outside temperature hovering around 40decC, I am grateful for the air-con in the vehicle.
In only my short time here I have grown increasingly aware of the ongoing violence in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Life, it seems, continues to come full circle in the Middle East, with Israel’s military today continuing to tear apart Gaza, bringing the small strip of land to its knees, not bit by bit, but suburb by suburb, hospital by hospital, refugee camp by refugee camp. It is both heart-wrenching and appalling. Humanity has hit an all-time low. I am by no means a political activist, or an apologist, but when, on a daily basis, on news programmes you bear witness to the utter destruction of innocent human life and yet much of the western world sits back, twiddles its thumbs, huffs and puffs, comes up with pathetic excuses for the justification and thereby refuses to call for a ceasefire, many remain complicit in this brutal conflict.
There are few cars and little human traffic along Highway 90 as I reflect on this desolate, but enchanting landscape. Yes, I decide, despite the ongoing conflict, the region will remain on my bucket list for a return visit. Sadly though, as time slips by and other biking destinations beckon, several of those buckets on the list have developed holes in the bottom, drip, dripping away much of my hopes and aspirations. For Israel, that hole will require some serious plugging if I am to return.
Bordered by mountains to the west and the Dead Sea to the east, the Judean Desert may be relatively small, but boasts many nature reserves, historic sites, monasteries, and stunning panoramas, where ancient cliffs tower over plateaus, riverbeds, and challenging canyons. Throughout history, this sparsely-populated, rugged landscape has provided refuge for the likes of rebels and zealots, and solitude and isolation to monks and hermits.
Set amidst the barren landscape, in an area known as the Quman, I stop, alight the vehicle and eventually spot a small cave visible in the cliff face several hundred metres away. Blink, and I would have missed it. I am so glad I did not, for this is the cave where, in 1947, a young Bedouin goat herder stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries in archaeological history.
Excavated two years later, the cave had been home to the remains of at least 70 manuscripts, protected by tall clay jars with lids intact. They were later to make up a major part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Passing the former checkpoint demarcating the ‘Green Line’ of the Palestinian Territories, I call in at the Kibbutz Ein Gedi, first established over sixty years ago. The site has since seen the establishment of a hotel and synergy spa, discreetly placed within the grounds of a splendid botanical garden considered unique in Israel, as the climate allows for the growth of plants not seen in other parts of the country, or indeed Europe, including a splendid African baobab tree. The hotel has 160 individual units, from standard to luxurious, and guests can enjoy natural springs, a swimming pool, tours throughout the year, and exotic nature. The spa offers a range of treatment packages to suit all tastes and needs.
I enjoy several glasses of squeezed orange and apple juice before continuing my journey further south, arriving at Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the second most visited place in Israel after Jerusalem. Located at the top of an isolated rock cliff, this remote spot at the western end of the Judean Desert is where King Herod decided to settle and build his fortress. Today reached by cable car rather than having to walk the tortuous snake path which is clearly visible on the side of the steep cliff face, the mountaintop offers stunning views eastwards to the Dead Sea. Built as a palace complex in the classic style of the early Roman Empire, the camps, fortifications, and ramp that encircle the monument constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day.
The summit is strewn with the remnants of what once was clearly an extraordinary feat of engineering, with its impressive buildings with thick walls constructed of layers of hard dolomite stone, covered with plaster. Most impressive of all, I gaze down upon Herod’s three-tiered palace on the northern reaches of the summit.
Seventy-five years after Herod’s death, this rugged natural fortress was to witness the last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman Army. Having overcome the Roman garrison, a group of Jewish rebels were joined by zealots and their families who had fled from Jerusalem. Having established camps at the base of Masada, the Romans laid siege to the fortress, constructing a rampart against the western approaches, eventually breaching the wall. Preferring to die as free people rather than living life as slaves, the rebels decided on mass suicide. However, because Judaism prohibits this practice, the defenders instead drew lots and killed each other in turn, down to the last man and the only one to take his own life.
It is intensely hot now, around 42 degrees, with zero shade, and I am glad to return to the vehicle with its air-con, continuing my drive to my destination for the day, the popular health and tourism resort of Ein Bokek. Where I am now is a contradiction in terms: a stunning Isrotel complex complete with large swimming pool, outdoor terrace and snack bar, sun loungers and, across a road that seemingly leads to nowhere, one of the most stunning curiosities in the world.
After a late lunch, I skirt the impressive swimming pool, cross the dusty road, and walk across the rough sand to the Dead Sea. Across the waters I can barely make out Jordan, due to the haze. Strange. I had previously taken the opportunity to step into the Dead Sea whilst driving from Amman to Aqaba and it was hot then. Today, with the temperature still zeroing in above 40degC, I place my feet into the still water, and immediately step back out again.
It is incredibly hot. Other visitors encourage me to be bold, stating that once I am past around ten feet, the water cools down. Eventually I make it to waist level, and flop backwards. I immediately pop back up like a cork. Resting my arms under my head, I relax, close my eyes, and let the moment envelop me. It is a magical, unique experience; a moment in time which will stay with me forever. This is all very wonderful, and relaxing, although, admittedly, there is not much else to do in Ein Bokek except for enjoying the luxury accommodation, lying on the beach, or floating in the Dead Sea. But then, in life that is sometimes enough.
After a restful night’s sleep and leisurely breakfast, it is time to return along the same road I had previously travelled to a city of mystique and biblical wonder. I may do my readers an injustice, but I wonder whether you can name a place that has seventy names of love and yearning? I certainly cannot, until I arrive at the eternal city of Jerusalem, where extraordinary stories of love, hate, religion, power, glory, and defeat lie under every ancient stone.
Jerusalem overwhelms the emotions. There is promise here aplenty for the religious seeking a spiritual experience; there is archaeology for the curious; and there is entertainment, culture, and the arts for the modern-day tourist. This is a city of unity, if only in terms of structure, with every building having been erected in Jerusalem stone. With Haifa as the industrial centre of Israel and Tel Aviv the financial hub, Jerusalem was to become the administrative centre. The city is also the home of two impressive academic institutions, the extensive campus of the Hadassa University Hospital, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
I stop at the observation deck located on Mount Scopus, casting my eyes over the city for the first time. Despite this being a hazy morning, my eyes are drawn immediately to the Dome of the Rock, one of the world’s most magnificent architectural treasures. Beyond, I see the dark grey outline of Al-Aqsa Mosque, which literally translates as ‘the farthest’ mosque from the sacred mosque in Mecca. To my left is the Mount of Olives, one of the most prominent sites in the Jerusalem vicinity mentioned in the Holy Scriptures. At the base of the hill are the Gardens of Gethsemane, and herein the golden turreted Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene. Besides the compound of churches adjacent to Mount Scopus at its north, it is perhaps best known for the extensive cemetery which faces Jerusalem all along its western slopes. This is believed to be the place from which God will begin to redeem the dead when the Messiah comes, and why Jews have always sought to be buried here.
I head to the heart of Jerusalem, where the mightily impressive Old City walls – built in the early 16th century by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent – have eight gates. All but one (the Gate of Mercy) still serve Jerusalemites and visitors streaming to its markets, and sacred and historic sites. Located in the southwestern corner is Zion Gate, which bears Jerusalem’s earliest biblical name in Hebrew and English; the gate’s Arabic name is the Gate of the Prophet David, as the Tomb of King David on adjacent Mount Zion is close by. I note the scars made by bullet holes in these ancient walls, a reminder of 1948 when Israeli forces attempted to enter the Old City.
Zion Gate leads to the Armenian Quarter, home to around a thousand Armenians. It is as if I am stepping into a time machine. The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the fourth century AD, when the country adopted Christianity as a national religion and Armenian monks settled in the city. The quarter has its own unique charm and is pleasingly quiet as I pop my head into one or two small shops and chat with the hospitable owners.
Walking from the Armenian Quarter to the flourishing Jewish Quarter, I am soon at one of the Old City’s archaeological marvels, the colonnaded Cardo, dating from the Roman-Byzantium empire. The Jewish Quarter was destroyed during the third Arab–Israeli War in 1967. Upon the liberation of Jerusalem by Israeli forces, the quarter was rebuilt, but not before major archaeological excavations took place, revealing some extraordinary finds, including the axis of a byzantine church, and a synagogue from the 16th century. Most revealing of all, however, is the Cardo.
Every ancient Roman city had an artery which ran on a north-south axis and comprising two parallel rows of columns with stalls for shops on either side. While there were many segments of the Cardo that remained, it was the stretch in the Jewish Quarter that the archaeologists chose to remain exposed, and thereby enjoyed by tourists. Other parts of the Cardo were covered, and homes built atop. The Cardo, which links with today’s marketplace, houses a modern fresco depicting a typical market day scene during Roman times. If you have a sharp set of eyes, you will be able to identify some interesting details in the painting, including a boy from the modern era sporting a red baseball cap, standing next to a young Roman girl extending her hand with a pomegranate.
Weaving my way through the crowds to the Western Wall plaza I look down upon an extraordinary site, as hundreds of worshippers and visitors line up close to the base of this most holy of sites, offering prayers and wedging notes into the cracks.
Beyond the wall stands the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, a sacred place for Moslems and the most universally recognised symbol of Jerusalem. This masterpiece of Islamic architecture is located on a rocky outcrop known as Mount Moriah. According to Islamic tradition, the Rock (al-Sakhra) during the building was the spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven after his miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem on the winged steed al-Buraq. Sadly, strong rivalry continues between the Jews and the Moslems over control of the Temple Mount. The paratroopers that liberated Jerusalem in 1967 were led by Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan, who decided that, out of respect for Islam, he was going to leave Temple Mount in the hands of the Moslems. The problem today is that whenever Israeli Jews want to pray in the area around the esplanade, they become jittery and nervous. Hardly a surprise.
Israel is not impermeable. One is surrounded by hatred, with increasing violence every day. Yet, as a local tells me: “We cannot stay in a bubble, isolated from the hatred. Having said that, when you walk on Temple Mount, you feel as if you are walking on eggshells.” This, the holiest place to Jewish people, is a place of prayer for all nations, a place with no restrictions.
When Jews arrive to pray at the Wall, they come for an individual prayer, not one directed by the Rabbi. I am fascinated by the swaying that takes place; a way of offering a rhythm to the prayer, helping people to focus. It is as if some are in a trance-like state. I am, myself, transfixed by the number of pieces of paper stuffed into every conceivable nook and cranny, a tradition begun by a small Jewish community in Poland a century ago. Whenever anyone in the village discovered that a friend or neighbour was travelling to the Holy Land, they would hand them a note to place in the Wall. Today, most visitors place their own personal messages.
A long queue has formed at the entrance to the underground Western Wall Tunnels as I approach the Moslem Quarter. The closest point to where the Temple’s Holy of Holies once stood, the complex of underground tunnels is supported by arches and contain stairways that once connected the ancient city with the Temple Mount. Today, these passageways support streets and homes in the Moslem Quarter.
It is an immersive experience, with veiled women seated on the floor, wedged between small shops and cafés vying for trade as I squeeze past tourists and armed Israeli soldiers on every corner, stopping and searching, I can only presume,
Palestinians at will, pinning them against walls as they question them. It is a disturbing sight, and yet the soldiers, casually attired in mirrored shades and assault rifles slung over their shoulders, are happy to pose for pictures. I carry on to an oasis of peace and calm. The Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, the former residence of the Austrian ambassador in the 19th Century. Once inside, I climb the staircase to the roof terrace, which offers panoramic views of the Old City, with all four quarters clearly visible.
Next, I make my way to the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows) which, according to Christian tradition, was the final route taken by Jesus from the courthouse to Golgotha Hill, where he was crucified and buried. The route includes the fourteen stations through which Jesus is believed to have passed while carrying the cross, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also known as the Church of the Resurrection, this is among Christianity’s holiest sites. The building I enter today dates to the 12th century, during the time of the Crusades.
Leaving the Old City via the Jaffa Gate, my taxi takes me past the King David Hotel, on David HaMelech Street. Traffic is brought to a standstill by police motorcycle outriders as a fleet of 4x4s sweep out of the car park, one carrying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
My final evening in Jerusalem, and I eat at the splendid restaurant Eucalyptus run by owner and executive chef Moshe Basson, with a menu inspired by food mentioned in the Bible, which changes daily, according to what herbs and mushrooms chef picks during his daily trips to the Judean Hills. This is followed by a visit to The Tower of David, where visitors are treated to a Night Spectacular, a sound and light show and multi-sensory experience, where cultures, religions, rulers, and legends of Jerusalem are projected on the ancient walls and among the archaeological remains of Jerusalem’s citadel.
My brief time in Israel’s cultural and spiritual capital has been nothing short of captivating. Conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt, with every age leaving its indelible mark over the past three thousand years, this place of prophets and kings, and holy to three monotheistic religions, has helped shape part of the world we live in today. But what will become of this land if, God willing, we come eventually to the cessation of this senseless violence, with thousands of Palestinians, innocent Palestinians, killed with little or no remorse both in Gaza and the occupied West Bank? What of those thousands of displaced human beings without homes, or hope, or a future to look forward to? This is an ever-unfolding tragedy driven in the large part by Zionism, Israel’s national ideology, with Judaism serving as both a nationality and religion. I have no answers, and neither, it would seem, do others, apart from the most obvious and long overdue, two-state solution, and that seems a million miles away whilst the present far right government remains in power.
But, but, I have no doubt this land’s spiritual magnetism will continue to draw me, not only because of its overwhelmingly impressive sites, but also by its history, culture, arts, gastronomy and, most of all, its people, be they Palestinian, Christian, Armenian or Jewish.
And, just in case you are wondering, some of those seventy names for Jerusalem: Gai Hizayon (Valley of Vision); Ir Ha’Elohim (City of God); Ir Ha’Emet (City of Truth); Killat Yoffi (Paragon of Beauty); and, most poignant of all, Shalem (Peace). We can only but continue to pray for that.