I booked a tour guide (named Barry) to take me north of Tel Aviv along the coast. We started with the city of Haifa, where we saw the B’hai hanging gardens on Mt Carmel. The gardens are part of a Shrine to the Bab, and overlook the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a holy place for the members of the B’hai faith.
While we were there, Tour Guide Barry told me he had been born in Morocco, and had moved to Israel with his family when he was very young. His family is Jewish and his father was a rabbi. I mentioned to him that so far I had seen quite a few Muslim mosques and Christian churches in Israel, but I had not yet seen a Jewish synagogue.
At hearing this, Tour Guide Barry’s face lit up and he said, “I will take you to the most beautiful synagogue in the world!” He then drove me to the Tunisian Synagogue in Akko.
The synagogue was built with mosaic tiles covering the floor to ceiling inside, each telling a different religious story. I was stunned by the intricacies of the mosaics, and couldn’t stop running my fingers over them. There was even a mosaic tile map in the stairwell depicting all the countries in the world where the Nazis had persecuted Jewish people. Tour Guide Barry motioned me down to the front, and he pulled back the curtains for me to see where the torahs were kept.
From Haifa, we went to the underground city tour of Acre, which is the modern day Akko. The underground city is surrounded by a wall, and just before the wall is a beautiful canopy of trees. The front courtyard of the underground city had been part of a prison during the British mandate in Israel. The underground city had been discovered when two prisoners dug through the ground of the exercise yard and attempted to escape through the underground city tunnels beneath prison yard in a real life rendition of the Shawshank Redemption.
Digging to uncover the city below didn’t begin in earnest until the 1990s, and it was opened to the public just a few years ago. As the past was un-buried, it was discovered that Acre was built around 4000 years ago. As with most ancient cities, control of Acre changed hands several times throughout history. The Romans originally built the city, Christian Crusaders overtook it during medieval times, followed by the Egyptian Muslims. The architecture changed with each change in power, and the relics from the preceding power were destroyed or buried. Even Napoleon attempted to take control of this valuable port city but failed against the strong sea port wall (which still has cannonballs embedded in it).
The city was entirely self-contained, there was even a latrine with toilet seats and running water. I commented to Tour Guide Barry that there was no privacy, and he said that no–by contrast the latrine was considered a location for socializing! Many business and political deals were done in the latrine, as well.
As we left the underground city, I wondered out loud how any new construction could ever occur without unearthing buried cities. This place clearly had layers and layers of history beneath its soil. Tour Guide Barry said landowners very often find old coins, pottery, or other archeological artifacts when they build. However, construction is only halted if Jewish graves are discovered, otherwise the landowner owns anything on or under the land. I asked if construction stops for other graves or just Jewish ones, and Tour Guide Barry pursed his lips and gave me a wry smile. “Just Jewish ones. Remember, Israel is a Jewish state–there is no separation as in America.” He asked me if I have any Jewish ancestry in my family and I said that actually I do (a small amount). Growing up, I learned many yiddish words in my family and at one point our Jewish blood was confirmed by DNA test. He asked where my family was from, and I told him that all of my great grandparents could be traced to Odessa, South Russia (they were Germans from Russia). He said, “Oh, yes, of course. There are many Jewish people from Odessa.” I was surprised to hear this and he said it so matter-of-fact that I wanted to know more, but we emerged in the sunlight to face a mosque right next door and I immediately asked if we could go inside.
Akko is now predominately Arab Muslim, and I asked to enter the mosque. We arrived just before the noon call to prayer, so we were allowed in although I had to cover my head with a scarf and wear a floor length skirt over the top of my own dress, even though it came almost to my ankles.
We stopped for a falafel lunch at a cafe next to the mosque. While we ate, a couple of friendly local cats stopped by–I couldn’t resist those faces. Tour Guide Barry said that while there are a lot of street cats in Israel they are usually well-cared for, especially the ones near the water that are fed by the fishermen. He turned to me as he popped olives in his mouth and said, “You are drawn to animals. That means you have a kind heart.” I could only smile and thank him.
Vendors were selling fresh pomegranate juice and sweets next to the cafe and mosque, including homemade nougats, halvah, and pressed honey and nut mixtures. I ate halvah as a kid and bought a chunk to bring home. It is made from pressed sesame seeds and oil, it is smooth and slightly sweet. The vendor said it had been made by his mother the previous day. I smiled, and told her to give her our best wishes.
After lunch, we stopped at Caesarea, a town on the Mediterranean Sea named for Agustus Caesar and home to a national park with a massive archeological site. It also includes a modern day city where Benjamin Netanyahu lives. Ceasarea was built by King Herod in 10BC on a former Greek and Phoenician trading site.
The city was first inhabited until 1265, first by the Romans, then the Christians, and finally the Arabs. There were three different walls built around the city, each built when control of the city changed hands. Excavation of the area began in the 1950s and 1960s, and continues to this day.
The Roman amphitheater of Caesarea looks out to the Mediterranean Sea. Tour Guide Barry said it is the largest unearthed amphitheater in the world, and the only one that faces west. However, he said that the views of the sea were likely obscured by the tall stage curtains that they believe were hung for theatrical performances. This is also believed to be the location where the Christian Apostle Paul set sail on his journeys. A stone in the amphitheater has an inscription to Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. During Roman times, it is believed that the amphitheater served as the location for mass execution of Jewish defenders of Jerusalem.
The amphitheater has 4000 seats in two levels. It is believed that a third level once existed. Apparently, modern day Israeli pop stars hold concerts at the amphitheater in the summer, and it is a prestigious place to perform.
Near the amphitheater is a hippodrome where chariot races, animal fights and gladiator competitions were held. Latrines line the entrance to the hippodrome. Tour Guide Barry said, “It was important to see and be seen here. A lot of political favors were set up or exchanged here.” I tried to imagine what it would be like to pass by the latrine on the way into a gladiator fight and I had to laugh out loud.
As we passed into the hippodrome, Tour Guide Barry pointed to an area where he said the gladiators would prepare for their fights. It was a gladiator locker room of sorts. He said the gladiators would also pray in that space. I asked him what he thought they would pray for and he said, “To win, of course.” I said, “But if they continued to fight, eventually they would die, right? Maybe they should have prayed for the wisdom to choose another occupation.” Tour Guide Barry laughed at this, and said he thought the gladiators enjoyed the attention.
The hippodrome had a section down the middle called the spina or spine. Columns stood there in the center as a sort of roundabout section in the arena. Apparently the VIP seating was at the first corner, which is where most of the chariot accidents and drama occurred.
Behind the hippodrome was housing for the city dwellers. The seating area of the hippodrome was mudded over when the Christians took power over the city, as they did not participate in the events that the Romans enjoyed. Instead, the seats became the backsides of apartment homes.
Square ovens and stoves were embedded in the clay walls. Fire could be started in the bottom and food placed across the top, like a modern day grill.
As we left Ceasarea, we passed by an aqueduct near the Mediterranean Sea that was used to provide fresh water to the city for about 300 years. It was approximately 5 km long, and 1.4 m wide and had a slight decrease in elevation grade from the freshwater springs inland to the town.
We also stopped at a picnic spot at a local park next to the aqueduct. There were several mosaic tile floors that depicted animals that were not native to Israel. Someone who had either traveled out of Israel or came to Israel from somewhere else had built those mosaics. I asked Tour Guide Barry who he thought would have come here to do these mosaics. He shrugged and said simply, “Military men, or the very rich. It was most likely someone very rich.”
As we came back to the present day freeway and traffic, I thought about what it must have been like to be so rich that you could order hand laid mosaic tile pictures of flamingos. Whoever had the pictures built couldn’t have anticipated that after so many years they would still remain, and cause us to wonder about that person’s identity. There are so many ghosts walking this land. Some are just beneath the surface and when we scratch it, we un-bury them. Others are deeper and aren’t liberated until the land is excavated. Some may never resurface, their riches and instructions and desires all buried in this land of desert and olive trees.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” I asked Tour Guide Barry.
“I think that a place is shaped by its history, I think every place has a spirit. And of course, people have a spirit and that can be anywhere,” he said. I nodded and said, “Fair enough.”
Just outside of Tel Aviv, Tour Guide Barry pointed to several construction bulldozers that had torn up the topsoil. “They are building a whole new city here!” he said excitedly.
“Do you mean over the ones under the ground? Will they find those cities, too?” I asked.
He looked somewhat confused at me in the rear view mirror and when he saw me smiling, he smiled, too.