Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Sat 24 Jul 2010 03:13

Israel is not a paradise for yatchsmen, as there are no anchorages or bays, just miles of sandy coastline, punctuated by five Marinas.   We would have liked to have stayed in downtown Tel Aviv, but the Marina there is closed for reconstruction, so we are in Herzliya, which is the next best option.  Sailing is popular in Israel however, and at sunset the sea around us is almost as crowded as the Solent.

Herzliya is a modern resort, 15 minutes’ drive north of Tel Aviv.  We arrived here in eight hours from Haifa, most of it under sail.  We had enough wind in the right place to fill both sails and it was a good passage.  We heard Oscar Charlie (Lebanese Navy) and the Israeli Navy on the radio, but did not see any warships or any other traffic, apart from some fishing boats and a few yachts as we approached.  We have been put in a good spot near the Marina office, and just next to a shopping mall which is almost identical to Whiteley’s in Queensway.  It has lots of American chains like Gap and Tommy Hilfiger and an upmarket supermarket which reminds me of Partridge in Sloane Street.  It is a weird sensation having come all this way, to be parked  outside Whiteleys of Bayswater, but it’s a novelty to walk through the mall in ultra cold air con, listening to muzak, after spending time in the sultry souqs of Arabia.

We hired a car and have been touring the Holy Land sites.   The Galilee is the area most associated with the life and preaching of Jesus.  The old town of Nazareth is  built on the side of a steep hill.  It has a large Arab population and a friendly atmosphere – it’s good to see Arabs, Jews and Christians all getting along, (although most Jews live in the new town of Nazareth Illit).  We joined the Christian pilgrims visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation.   It’s a huge modern church, commissioned by the Franciscans in 1969.  It has an imposing dome and a large outdoor and indoor space which it needs to contain the hundreds of visitors who arrive every day.   At the heart of the Basilica is the Cave of the Annunciation.  This is believed to have been the site of Mary’s house, where the Angel Gabriel arrived to announce to her that she was pregnant with the Son of God.  The cave includes part of a 5th Century Byzantine Church, which was rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th Century.   After the Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land it was the monastic orders, particularly the Benedictines and the Franciscans, and the Greek Orthodox Church, who kept the Christian presence alive.  The Franciscans were allowed  (by the Ottoman Turks) to buy the site in the second half of the 17th century.

A Roman Catholic mass was taking place in the sunken area in the centre of the Basilica.  A group of French pilgrims were singing a beautiful hymn and the mass was led by two young priests wearing gorgeous robes of white, gold and green silk.  The scene was very moving and I started to cry.   Many people around me observing the mass were taking photographs or videos, so I filmed some of it too and if it has come out I’ll put in on YouTube.

The Sea of Galilee is a serene aquamarine lake, surrounded by low hills. There is hardly anyone living around  it today, although Roman historians tell us that in the time of Jesus there was a large population of farmers and fishermen.  It is only 13 miles long and 6 miles wide, fed from the north by the River Jordan, which continues out of the south of the lake to the Dead Sea. 

On the north shore of the lake we visited the quaintly-named Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes.  The Church was built by a German Benedictine Order of monks, who live and pray in a monastery nearby.  They bought the land in the early 20th century, and when the site was excavated the remains of a 5th century Byzantine basilica was discovered, with a mosaic floor showing plants, birds and small animals native to the area as well as two fish on either side of a basket of loaves.  The modern church is very simple and graceful, built in the 1980’s but in the style of the original 5th century Basilica.   It is built out of white limestone, with white marble columns, a high ceiling held up by wooden beams, and the altar is made out of a rock, said to be the one on which Jesus lay the loaves and the fish before feeding the 5,000.  The original mosaic floor forms part of the floor of the nave. The monks have created a garden full of Mediterranean shrubs and flowers around the church.   A cloister surrounds a pool containing golden carp and a purple water lily.   It is a beautiful spot with a path leading along the lake shore, passing the deep pink domed roofs of a Greek Orthodox monastery, leading to the site of a modern excavation of the town of Capernaum. 

Capernaum had been destroyed and buried since the time of the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, but it had long been thought to have been the site where Jesus lived while recruiting his disciples.  The Franciscans bought the site in 1894 and excavations have revealed a Roman temple,  a synagogue and various houses.  One ruin is claimed to be St.Peter’s house.  Above it is an ugly contemporary church which looks like a tent, made out of concrete and smoked glass, but we have to sympathise with the architect who had to create a structure which had to have a transparent floor as well as accommodation for worshippers above.

The only town on the Sea of Galilee is Tiberius, on the western shore, founded during the lifetime of Jesus, and dedicated to the decadent Roman Emperor who succeeded Augustus Caesar (his stepson).  Tiberius and the Sea are 700 feet below sea level.   Today Tiberius is a popular Israeli holiday resort, full of hotels, and is also a place of pilgrimage for religious Jews as many of their most venerated scholars and rabbis are buried there.  We visited one of the tomb sites and thought it was very dour – everything black and grey, with Hasidic Jews praying in front of walls covered with Hebrew calligraphy.  The Hasidim wear long black coats, black hats and white shirts.  They have beards and side curls hanging down on each side of their face.  Their women are also very well covered, wearing long skirts, long sleeved shirts and turbans.   This form of dress had been traditionally worn by orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe since the 18th Century.  The Hasidim are ultra-orthodox and not very popular with the modern, more secular Jews, as they are exempt from military service, always vote for the most right-wing politicians and believe in having large families, so that their influence is constantly growing.

The shores of the lake in Tiberius are dotted with Christian churches dedicated to the disciples and we came across a very welcoming and attractive hotel, called The Scots Hotel, St. Andrews, Galilee.  It is owned and managed by the Church of Scotland and is on the site of a hospital opened by a Scottish missionary, Dr. David Torrance, in the 1890’s.  Dr. Torrance arrived as a young man and spent his life in Tiberius.  He was part of the ’Christian Mission to the Jews’ which was established by the Anglican church in England and the Presbyterians in Scotland, with the aim of converting Jewish people to Christianity.   It is debatable whether many Jews were converted, but Dr. Torrance was appreciated and loved by the community, opening its first hospital and building a good relationship with people of every race and faith.

Returning to Herzliya Marina after two days touring the Galilee and the Golan, we found an open air concert going on in the space between us and the mall.  An excellent band, called the Bix Band were playing American big band music – Bye Bye Blackbird, In the Mood, Pennsylvania 6-5000.  A large audience applauded and danced.  Once again I was moved to tears as we watched and sang along from the deck.  Can’t believe I’ve cried twice this week, but the experience of being both in the  ancient Holy Land and modern Israel is very intense and often emotional!