Travel: Finding beauty within a chaotic land
Ryan Summerlin March 9, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series of installments from photographer Dennis Jones, who is traveling in the eastern Mediterranean.
You hear of the dangers: the intense security, the rocket attacks, the insoluble animosity between Israelis and Arabs. The actual experience, though, is one of peaceful modernity. Israel presents many conundrums, not the least being the aching desire to live peaceably within an arch of hatred.
Tel Aviv is a vibrant beachside city of 3.2 million. Its broad, tree-lined avenues and skyline of high-rises are the antithesis of Biblical scenes. Lively cafes, chic boutiques and long, sandy beaches reveal a very hip scene.
Public transportation is excellent. We take a bus to Tel Aviv University to visit the Diaspora Museum. After passing the security cordon, a beautiful campus unfolds. Well-designed, modern architecture is set around spacious lawns, most containing monumental, contemporary sculpture.
The museum traces the histories and cultures in which Jews lived and often thrived, maintaining their traditions throughout two millennia of dispersion despite rampant and often brutal persecution.
Jewish traditions, still recognizable today, survived the heat of southern India and Indonesia, the deserts of China and Ethiopia, the cities of Morocco and the Americas, the inhumane Inquisition of Spain and the ghettos and pogroms of eastern Europe.
Moving north to Haifa, we find a quite different, modern city built around the hills, valleys and base of steep Mount Carmel. Its neighborhoods are a tree-covered springtime delight. Its famous Bahai Gardens are a treat we’ve been anticipating.
The day is picture perfect. Strolling Haifa’s panorama walk high up Mount Carmel, we’re treated to breathtaking views north along the Mediterranean coast to Akko and east toward the Galilee. The sea is a deep azure and the emerald hills to the east disappear into the haze. Downtown Haifa lays at our feet, 1,000 feet below.
Fifteen lazy minutes takes us to the upper entrance, where the gardens fall away in a steep series of extraordinarily symmetric, manicured terraces. One thousand, seven hundred steps await.
Each semicircular terrace narrows with the decent. The design leads the eye irresistibly to the golden dome of the Shrine of the Bab, Bahai’s first prophet. Unbeknownst to those entering from above, the shrine is only the halfway point. Garden terraces continue well below it, reaching the upscale restaurants of the German Colony and the harbor beyond.
Another day takes us to Akko, eight miles up the coast. Its history vanishes into the mists of early civilization. For millennia, it was the primary port though which Mycenaean, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Crusader and Ottoman fleets traded and conquered.
A Crusader fort dominates the heavily fortified, double walls of the old city. It’s said that 20 chariots abreast could ride the walls.
Akko is an Arab town. Narrow streets and alleys branch in an ancient maze of stores and restaurants. The life of the souk, the market, thrives in a twilight of tiny shops and fish markets. As it has been for millennia, Akko’s ancient harbor is home to a small fleet providing fresh fish from the Mediterranean.
We wander toward the mosque, an obvious landmark with its green dome and minaret. Said to be the loveliest mosque in Israel, the peaceful, spacious environs of its ancient courtyard and garden provide a respite from the cramped old city.
The man taking tickets speaks English. After visiting the lovely interior and poking around the garden, we fall into conversation with him. He’s Palestinian-American, educated at the University of Chicago in political science and has taught at the college level. He returned with his family to live in semi-retirement in his home town.
As with several other Palestinians we meet, we try to understand Israel from their point of view. Discrimination is a very real problem. Advancement in professions and getting a good education is difficult. Several young Palestinians we meet want to emigrate to Canada or the U.S., where they see more opportunity.
They, along with other Israeli’s we meet, see the settlement situation as a grave threat to Israel’s future. Sadly, everybody we talk with feels that any solution to live in harmony is generations off.
Our time in Haifa ended on the Sabbath, when everything closes. I photograph the Bahai Gardens at dusk from the German Colony far below. After a wonderful dessert, concluding four days of springlike February weather, we look forward to following the footsteps of history around the Sea of Galilee.
Dennis Jones is a local professional photographer and writer. He and Yolanda Marshall are traveling in the eastern Mediterranean. To see more photos, visit his blog at: www.dreamcatcherimaging.com.