By Jerry Ginsberg
Because of the pandemic, any attempt at planning photo travel these days is a long way from normal. Still, it is my wish that offering a glimpse into a fascinating photo trip to Israel might spark hope that the proverbial light we now see at the end of the tunnel is not mounted on the front of a freight train.
Birthplace of two great religions and important to a third, Israel today remains at the crossroads of both history and geopolitical events. Clearly visible is today’s ultra-modern nation with its cutting edge technologies, but just beneath the surface lie thousands of years of fascinating human and architectural history.
When visiting Israel’s many iconic sites, one is often filled with a sense of awe at being in the place where so much of western civilization was shaped. It’s a multi-millennia saga of faith, struggle, and conquest. Still making headlines today – and it’s far from over!
There is a passion among Israelis for archeology. They know that there is so much history lying literally right under their feet. A great deal of this fascinating antiquity has been brought to light through countless archeological digs. In a place where there is so much history, many locals fancy themselves amateur archeologists. It is perhaps Israel’s most widely practiced passion.
The major cities of today’s Israel are, of course, Jerusalem as well as Tel Aviv and Haifa. There is a popular saying here that, “Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays and Haifa pays.” That succinctly expresses the distinct personalities of these three cosmopolitan metropolises. While ancient Jerusalem is famously focused on pursuits of faith, comparatively new Tel Aviv enjoys its role as a twenty-first century resort, replete with scenes of hip modernism, leading-edge digital technology, and world-class culture, while the bustling port of Haifa is the center of shipping and international commerce.
Of these three, Jerusalem has by far the most to interest, not only the tourist, but especially to the travel photographer. In addition to these great cities, there are many other places that are well worth our attention.
Let’s begin with fabled Jerusalem. The big attraction here is “the Old City,” the portion of Jerusalem that is surrounded by sixteenth century walls built by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I, dubbed “the Magnificent.” These stout walls contain seven entrances, or gates, each one an architectural gem.
The Old City is seamlessly divided by tradition into Jewish, Arab, Christian, and Armenian quarters. While it is certainly possible to enjoy strolling endlessly through these ancient and often confusing warrens, the major sites are:
- The Western Wall, a remnant of King Solomon’s Temple, built, destroyed, and rebuilt over ten centuries.
- This retaining wall is topped by the Temple Mount. Its glistening gold mosque, the Dome of the Rock, can be seen from miles around.
- The Holy Sepulcher, a magnificent crusader church, was built over a Roman temple and the reputed site of Jesus’ crucifixion.
- Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross leading to the Holy Sepulcher.
- The Citadel and the Tower of David with its sculpture garden and nighttime sound & light show.
No matter what your own beliefs might be, all of these and many other sites are historic, fascinating, and visually thrilling.
Make sure to see at least the Jaffa, Zion, and Damascus Gates, built centuries ago to provide entrances through the ancient walls. The Via Dolorosa begins at the Lion’s Gate, also known as St. Stephan’s. The Ramparts Walk allows you to circum-stroll the entire Old City atop the ancient walls. Make sure to carry water.
Allow time for the 60-90 minute guided tour into “The Tunnels” beneath the Old City where you will be able to walk actual Roman streets paved with their original stones. It’s quite an experience. Advance tickets are required.
Outside these venerable walls, Jerusalem throbs with modern life and culture. A huge collection of eclectic cafes serve an endless mélange of European and Eastern cuisine that will tempt you at every meal.
Make sure to visit the Israel Museum, home of the world renowned Dead Sea Scrolls and countless other fascinating ancient treasures. One of the most important sites here is famous Yad Vashem, the somber and moving monument and memorial to the 6,000,000 souls lost to the Holocaust.
This landmark city is very quiet with little traffic from Friday afternoon until sunset on Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.
There is so much to see in storied Jerusalem that it is impossible to take it all in with just one visit. Allowing a full week is not too much time.
An hour’s drive west on a super highway (try to avoid rush-hour traffic) will bring you to the sparkling blue Mediterranean and bustling Tel Aviv. This city’s glistening beaches and their lovely promenade cannot be missed. It’s a great place for people watching. Tel Aviv features lots of music, art and clubs as well as ultra-modern shopping for the very latest in chic fashions. Israel’s Independence Hall on Rothschild Blvd. is well worth a brief visit. (Unfortunately, Independence Hall is closed for renovations until 2023.)
Exploring the Mediterranean Coast
Heading north on the coast road along the Mediterranean, a stop at Caesarea will reward you with a Roman amphitheater, still in use today, towering sculptures, and the huge concrete harbor built around the time of Jesus by the paranoid Jewish-Roman toady Herod the Great. Although most of the original breakwater has been fractured and submerged through twenty centuries of sporadic earthquakes, there is still some of the first underwater use of cement to see here. Don’t miss the original Roman aqueduct.
Continuing northbound, the great Harbor of Haifa Bay curves before you. As a thriving modern port and commercial center, there is not much in Haifa to merit the attention of a tourist and certainly not us photographers. The two possible exceptions are the Technion, Israel’s hi-tech University, research center and counterpart of our M.I.T. as well as the headquarters of the B’hai faith with its gold domed shrine and expansive and meticulously manicured gardens; well worth a stop.
Heading on up the coast you soon arrive at historic Akko. One visible landmark here is the remnant of another Roman aqueduct.
After taking in this two millennia old vestige of Roman occupation, stroll through the Crusader Citadel, vast structures built by those European knights in the twelfth century when this city was called Acre. Prime among these is the Knights’ Hall with its many arches, vaulted ceilings and cavernous spaces. If you listen hard, you can almost hear the metallic clanking of the knights’ chain mail and swords echoing off these stout stone walls. These historic crusader structures stand today in the shadow of a large mosque and its towering minaret.
The port city of Acre with its medieval walls was the last vestige of territory held by the crusader knights before they were completely expelled from the Holy Land by their Moslem adversaries. Present day Akko has both Moslem and Jewish populations living quietly side by side. This is a fascinating place for anyone who appreciates history.
A bit farther on is the very northernmost point of Israel’s Mediterranean Coast. Hard against the border with Lebanon you’ll find the limestone grotto named Rosh HaNikra. This is one of my very favorite spots in all of Israel and a must-see location for any landscape photographer. Touring the grotto is a great experience in itself, but what really makes for a winning image of Rosh HaNikra is having the setting sun appear in the grotto’s window on the sea. This is not an easy shot to co-ordinate. It is best done in winter when the sun drops into the Mediterranean relatively early in the afternoon. Email me for detailed info if you plan to try for it.
Getting away from the coast and looking further inland, there are many places of great interest, some well-known, others less so.
Some of the best are:
- Tiberias – On the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Soaking in the mineral hot springs feels great. Iconic churches at Capernaum and Tagbha mark some of the many sites around this fabled lake at which Jesus is said to have preached.
- Safed – Mountain-top town with a picturesque artists’ colony and several small gem-like classic and still very active 17th century synagogues. The many narrow lanes in the old part of town bring new scenes at every turn.
- Bet She’han – Recently excavated Roman city with its historic amphitheater still in use.
- Tel Magiddo – Site of the long predicted Armageddon, the culminating struggle between good and evil.
- Jericho – Excavated ruins of the famous biblical town. Located in the West Bank.
- Quamran – Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947.
- Ein Gedi – Gorgeous oasis and sanctuary for exotic wildlife incongruously surrounded by the harsh desert.
- Masada – one of the most iconic places in history and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stronghold of the last stand of almost a thousand Jewish rebels who resisted the mighty Roman army as long as possible in the first century C.E. Masada has become the biggest archeological attraction in all of Israel – and for good reason. Its historic past coupled with its rugged physical challenges make it a draw for visitors of all pursuits. Most folks opt for the quick and sleek cable car for their ascent to the plateau summit of this uniquely formed mountain among the Judean Hills. However, the more adventurous among us can choose the 3 km hike up this steep rock. The hike includes an elevation gain of about 500 meters. That equates to a grade of about 16%, making for a peerless cardio workout. Make sure to start hiking at least an hour and a half before sunrise in order to avoid the brutal heat that often tops 100* F. Yes, there is yet another option. A tedious drive through the city of Arad can earn you a view from the mountain’s often overlooked west side where the hike to the top is via the original Roman ramp with an elevation gain of only about 100 meters.
- Dead Sea – Below towering Masada lies the famed Dead Sea. Floating in this mineral-packed lake, the very lowest place on Earth at more than 1400 feet below sea level, is one of the highlights of any visit to Israel. You won’t believe the buoyancy until you try it. Note: To avoid discomfort, do not use a razor on any part of your body within 24 hours prior going into the Dead Sea.
These and so many other places in today’s Israel reverberate with the echoes of millennia past and the promise of a bright future yet to be revealed.
Bear in mind that unlike the U.S. where the great majority of our National Parks exist to protect the works of Nature, those in history-rich Israel are predominately set aside to preserve its long record of human history and artifacts. And archeological activity is absolutely everywhere! With such ancient sites, preservation and restorations projects are also common and sometimes close locations to visitors (e.g. Independence Hall in Jerusalem, above). Check before you go!
Israel offers a wide variety of lodging choices to fit all budgets from world class five-star luxury hotels and resorts to modest guest houses. Unique to this land is the kibbutz concept. Many such locations have built wonderful modern hotels. For that real local feel, try staying at one of these now upscale establishments. It is a great and flavorful experience. Most Israeli hotel stays come complete with a hearty and eclectic breakfast buffet. After one of these, you’ll want to skip lunch.
Do not be concerned over the ancient non-Roman Hebrew alphabet. Virtually all major road and street signs are prominently displayed in English and Arabic as well as Hebrew. Most menus are likewise available in English.
I have never had a problem with rental cars in Israel, or at least, not any more than here at home. It is very likely that your rental contract will prohibit driving your car into the West Bank territories. A word to the wise. That said, it may be more convenient to use taxis within the major cities such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Finding parking spots there can often be difficult. When taking taxis, keep a sharp eye on the meter.
One cannot consider a visit to Israel without thinking of personal safety. While the 24/7 news cycle indulges in sensationalizing every event, whether large or small, a few days in Israel will show that, by and large, the people of all faiths here are peacefully engaged in going about their daily routines without the slightest bit of concern for the ever-present dramatization of the often hysterical media. That said, prudence dictates staying away from the border with Gaza. Check the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisories page for Israel, Gaza and the West Bank for current conditions.
Ever since a durable peace was established with neighboring Jordan a quarter century ago, there has been a booming wave of tourism from Israel to this very hospitable and tourist-friendly kingdom. If you have the time, it’s well worth devoting at least three and perhaps four days to unique Jordan. Your best bet is to avoid the many packaged tours and pre-arrange the hiring of a local guide with a vehicle to meet you at the border just outside the resort town of Eilat at Israel’s southern tip.
Prime locations in Jordan’s far south include:
- The wonderfully preserved 2,000 year old Nabatean city of Petra (Wadi Musa). Its striking and recognizable rose-red Treasury facade has been featured in several Hollywood movies. While there, make sure to also take in the monastery and very colorful royal tombs.
- Wadi Rum, parched, rugged sand and limestone desert where Sir David Lean filmed large parts of his 1962 classic, “Lawrence of Arabia.”
North of Amman:
- Jerash – Magnificent examples of classic Greco-Roman civilization complete with temples, arches, columns and a Forum.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.