Israel Part 1: Tel Aviv, Caesarea, Mount Carmel and Megiddo
Updated: Oct 6
Israel is a Middle Eastern country located on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The country itself is tiny -- 290 miles north-to-south and 85 miles east-to-west, at its widest point. For some U.S., East Coast perspective, that is about the size of the state of New Jersey. For West Coast perspective, that is the size of California's entire Bay Area.
The country of Israel has a population of about nine million people made up of Jews, Muslims and Christians, all of whom consider the land sacred and holy. This is a land I had wanted to explore for decades. I was blessed to have finally had the opportunity to visit earlier this year.
Israel holds so much history that there is no way I can do it justice in this blog, or ever, given that I am neither a historian nor an expert on the country. That said, I will do my best to share everything I learned about Israel during the ten-day tour I took, which was focused on the Judeo-Christian history of this beautiful country.
Daybreak in Tel Aviv
My first stop in Israel was in the city of Tel Aviv. This city that lies on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, was dubbed “The Mediterranean Capital of Cool” by the New York Times. Tel Aviv is among the top five most expensive cities in the world, topping out both Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Tel Aviv's proximity to the beach, is just one of the many factors that make this city so desirable to live in. Another persuasive factor is that it is a technological hub boasting fifth place this year in an annual survey by Startup Genome that ranks the "world’s most attractive ecosystems for startups and innovation." In fact, the country of Israel shows up time and again in the top ten of lists ranking the most technologically advanced countries in the world.
Beyond The Limits
Just before I reached the sand on Tel Aviv's long stretch of beach, I encountered this monkey standing precariously on its head, on a branch that protrudes from an ovular object, which to me, looks like a cacao pod.
From Tel Aviv, our tour bus headed to Caesarea.
Caesarea National Park holds the ruins of the ancient city of Caesarea Maritima, which was constructed during the reign of Herod the Great around 10-9 BCE.
Built on the ancient site of a settlement called Strato's Tower, Herod the Great renamed the city after Caesar Augustus, who gifted the small town to him. The city lies on the coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa and is one of the most important archaeological areas on Israel's Mediterranean coastline.
The beautiful artifacts found here date back to the first century.
This city became the seat of government for many Roman governors including Pontius Pilate. Pilate was in power during the final days of Jesus Christ and was the one who sentenced him to be crucified (Matthew 27:11-26).
Caesarea Maritima was also the site where Paul was held prisoner by procurator, Marcus Antonius Felix. We learned that upon his arrival, Paul was initially imprisoned in a pit such as the one in the picture above. During the course of his imprisonment, Felix and his wife Drusilla visited Paul and spoke with him (Acts 24:24-26). Procrastinating by reasoning that it was an inconvenient time, Governor Felix declined to pronounce judgment on Paul and instead held him prisoner for more than two years (Acts 24:27).
A few other interesting facts about Felix:
1) Described by historians as “cruel, licentious, and base,” Felix was formerly a slave that was promoted to the office of governor by Claudius Caesar.
2) Felix was married to two women by the name of Drusilla. The first was a grand daughter of Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII. The second, mentioned in the account above, was the daughter of Herod Agrippa.
The largest structure that remains on the grounds, is the 4,000-seat Theater of Cesaerea, built facing the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.
Most of the amphitheater, which is the oldest of its kind in the eastern Mediterranean, has been beautifully restored and re-restored. Today, the most intact remnants from the original theater are the semi-circle rows of stone seats.
I stood on the stage that has been used as a performance venue by contemporary artists such as Eric Clapton and Bryan Adams, and tried to imagine the Greek and Roman actors, the gladiators and the athletes that must have stood on the same stage, as well as those in the audience watching them while gazing out at the same sea, thousands of years ago.
In the midst of those thoughts, the voices of hundreds spontaneously joined a few that had begun to sing in a corner of the massive theater. The moment, the song, and the spirit, transcended all barriers and united strangers in a moment of praise.
Though dissimilar in culture, history and religion, the setting of this ancient city was vaguely reminiscent of Tulum, Mexico, in that these are both cities with ancient ruins, set against breathtaking, coastal backdrops.
I walked along the seashell-littered shore in quiet reflection before boarding our bus to head to the next stop.
The bus headed up the hill, as we caught our last glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea in the distance.
As we drove through the region of Mount Carmel, our tour guide Hanna, who was a wealth of information, shared that Israel is a recycling giant and leader, recycling almost 90% of their waste water. That water was extremely helpful in combating the fires, she describes in the video above, that decimated the area we drove through.
View from Mount Carmel
Some time later, we arrived at our destination. With a peak of just a little over 1,800 feet, Mount Carmel is not particularly high. That said, the contrast in topography from the flat, coastal plain from where we came, to these slopes, was striking.
Just in front of the church we visited in Mount Carmel, was a field filled with flowers to welcome us.
Mount Carmel is the site where the prophet Elijah challenged and prevailed over the priests of Baal and Asherah, opposing King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. At the time, Baal was considered to be the most powerful and supreme of all the gods. After Elijah's triumph, the people denounced Baal and proclaimed, "The Lord, he is God." (1 Kings 18:17-40)
After our time in Mount Carmel, we boarded the bus en route to our next destination, Megiddo. Along the way we passed this round stone near the entrance of a cave. I learned that this was the type of stone that sealed the opening to Jesus' tomb. More to come on that in a later post.
Tel Megiddo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the site of the remains of the ancient city of Megiddo. The city is located in the Jezreel (translated "God sows" in Hebrew) Plain, Israel's most fertile area. Megiddo is famously known as the site of many battles from the days of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III to Napoleon.
The name of this place is actually "Har-Megiddo." "Har" means "mountain, or a range of hills" in Greek, shortened from the word "harar" which means "to loom up; a mountain." "Megiddo" refers to the city. A corruption of this Greek word, Ἁρμαγεδών (Harmagedon), translates to "Armegeddon" in English.
When Napoleon Bonaparte first viewed this plain, he stated, "there is no place in the whole world more suited for war than this." In the Book of Revelation, Megiddo, or Armegeddon, is said to be the location of the final, great battle of the world.
After a long day of exploration and learning, I headed to dinner at Magdalena, which has been called, “the first Arab-gourmet restaurant in the country.” The restaurant is located about 20 minutes from Tiberias, where we were staying for the night.
The road to Magdalena hugged the Sea of Galilee and was full of hairpin turns that my taxi driver navigated with ease. We pulled up to a nondescript, strip mall adjacent to a gas station and just as I started to wonder if the driver was making a quick stop for gas, he exclaimed, "you're here." I got out of the car and wandered for a while before I found a staircase near a supermarket alley that led to this upscale restaurant.
Chef Yosef “Zuzu” Hanna, an Arab Christian, opened Magdalena in 2013 after starting three, conventional Arabic restaurants. At Magdalena, he focuses on Galilee Arabic fine dining which he describes as taking "the roots of Galilee cuisine, and bring[ing] them to the new world of cooking." You can enjoy his cuisine in the formal dining room or on the patio, which offers beautiful views of Mount Arbel and the Sea of Galilee during the day.
Jerusalem sesame sticks, frena, smoked eggplant cream, tomato salsa and olive oil from Kfar Rama orchards.
Frena bread is a close cousin of pita bread, but is much softer, fluffier and richer in flavor due to the robust olive oil used to make it. I had to stop myself from consuming the entirety of the warm, pillowy loaf so I could save room for my next course.
Galilean Lamb Chops with Roasted Vegetables
From the man and woman at my hotel's front desk, to my cab driver, and finally the waiter at Magdalena, everyone unanimously suggested I order the lamb. Only one bite into the first chop, I understood why. These lamb chops were perfectly seasoned and expertly grilled, resulting in perhaps the most succulent and juicy lamb chops I have eaten.
That concludes my first day and a half of adventures in Israel. My next post will be dedicated to my time in the Galilean region.