Historical Sites in Israel

Whether you’re interested in ancient history, or recent history, you’ll find places in Israel that will take you back in time. Jerusalem holds a treasure trove of historical sites such as the Tower of David, and the Western Wall, a historical structure that was once part of the Second Temple. Other top Jerusalem historical sites include the spectacular Dome of the Rock, and al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount, plus the magnificent churches on the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Cenacle. 

Historical sites in Israel are not limited to Jerusalem. Take a tour to Bethlehem to see the 4th-century Church of the Nativity built to mark the site of Christ’s birth. In the north, is the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and historical sites on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The incredible Old City of Acre has architecture from several historic periods, above and below the ground.  

Tel Aviv historical sites include Independence Hall, Ben Gurion House, the Neve Tzedek Quarter, and Rothschild Boulevard. Tel Aviv is home to over 400 historical Bauhaus buildings that have earned Tel Aviv UNESCO status. All of Old Jaffa is a historical site, where the ancient structures house eateries, galleries, and boutique stores. In Haifa don’t miss the mesmerizing Baha’i temple and gardens. Visiting historical sites in Israel will give you a better understanding of the country and its people.

Mount of Olives – History, Churches, Gardens and Graves

There is so much to discover on the Mount of Olives – history, religion, ancient graves and stunning views across the Old City of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives faces the walls of the Old City across the Kidron Valley. It is named for the many olive trees which once covered the hillside.It is actually not a single mount but rather a ridge with three peaks. The mount holds an important place in Christian and Jewish traditions and it was the site of several events in the New Testament.The Mount of Olives has been the site of a Jewish cemetery for thousands of years and today is said to have more than 1,500 graves. Jewish tradition holds that when the Messiah arrives it will be here on the mount and he will resurrect the dead on Judgment Day. Thus the desirable location of graves on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Also being just across the valley from the Temple Mount, the holiest Jewish site in Jerusalem the cemetery is the holiest place to be laid to rest. Jews continue to be buried here and the ancient and more recent graves are each photographed and recorded digitally for prosperity.Christian Pilgrimage Sites on the Mount of OlivesThe Mount of Olives has more than six churches on its summit and slopes; some of which are positioned to mark the sites of events which took place in the Bible.Church of all National (Basilica of the Agony) in the garden of gethsemane – This church holds a part of the bedrock believed to have been where Jesus knelt to pray on the night of his arrest. The church construction was paid for by several different countries which are remembered by their coat-of-arms worked into the glass decoration of the ceiling’s small domes. The most beautiful feature of the church is its stunning mosaic on the façade pediment supported by Corinthian columns.Paster Noster Church – This church marks the traditional spot where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. The cloister is adorned with plaques bearing the Lord’s Prayer in more than 100 languages.Dominus Flevit Church (The Lord Wept) – This is where Jesus stood overlooking the Old City and wept as he foresaw the city’s destruction. The structure is shaped like a tear and there is a large window looking out towards the Old City so you can enjoy (almost) the same view Jesus would have seen.Gethsemane – The well known garden mentioned in the New Testament where Jesus came to pray on the Night of the Last Supper and where he was betrayed and then arrested on the night before his crucifixion.Church of the Holy Ascension – The Dome of the Ascension was converted into a mosque by Saladin in 1187 but it still holds a slab of stone which bears Jesus’ footprint from when he ascended to heaven.Church of Maria Magdalene – A Russian Orthodox Church recognizable by its gold-colored onion domes. The church was built in 1888 and holds a beautiful mosaic depicting Mary Magdalene gifting an egg to Emperor Tiberius. Legend has it that the egg turned red as a symbol of Jesus’ blood when she handed it over to the Emperor.The Mount of Olives – Where, When, HowIf you want more information about the Mount of Olives take an organized tour or visit the Mount of Olives Information Center on Jericho Street near the Lion’s Gate. You can walk up to the Mount of Olives from St. Stephen’s Gate in the Old City or take a taxi to the many wonderful churches on the mount. Jerusalem public bus #75 also reaches the mount.
By Petal Mashraki

A Little History About the Dead Sea

Less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem and surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of the Judean desert, lies the Dead Sea (‘Yam ha Melach’ in Hebrew). Landlocked between Israel and Jordan, it has the lowest elevation (423 metres below seal level) on earth and is an extraordinary natural wonder due to the high saline (salt) levels it contains. The result of this salty water? Not only is it impossible to dive there (and it’s deep), it’s impossible even to swim! However, with its warm, arid temperatures and endless blue skies, it's also one of Israels’ most popular attractions, not just for tourists but for its citizens, who flock there to relax, hike, or indulge in ‘therapeutic treatments’ such as sulphur baths and mud packs, or simply soak up the sun’s rays, which are excellent for skin ailments such as eczema and psoriasis.The Dead Sea.Photo credit: © ShutterstockWhy is the Dead Sea Unique?Apart from the fact that its salt content is so high, and that it’s situated at the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea is unique because it’s actually full of life. Not life as we’d consider it - no fish or animal can survive there - but life in the form of minerals that aid and heal the body. The evidence is indisputable - in fact, both King Herod and Cleopatra visited the area to indulge in its healing properties. Today, it is still recommended by doctors worldwide as an excellent destination for the treatment of skin ailments, arthritis, and high blood pressure. And because of its desert location, there is very little rainfall, making it a popular year-round attraction. Whether you’re looking for a stone massage, an aromatic salt exfoliation body scrub, or a rejuvenating mud scalp treatment, you’ll be able to find it here.Mineral-rich Dead Seamud mask. Photo credit: © ShutterstockGeology of the Dead SeaAbout 2 million years ago, the land between the Sedom Lagoon (which connected to the Mediterranean through the Jezreel Valley) rose incredibly high, leading to the creation of this landlocked lake. As tectonic plates shifted, the floor of the valley shifted accordingly; at the same time, the arid desert climate led to the lake evaporating. As the years passed, the lake shrank and about 7,000 years ago, this resulted in what we know today.More recently, water from the Jordan River flowed into the Dead Sea but today, with water diverted from the Galilee, its only source of water is from flash floods and sulfur springs. Since water is continually evaporating (due to the desert climate) this means that the Dead Sea is actually shrinking, leaving behind crusty salt crystals which end up ‘snowing down’ up to 10cm worth on the seafloor each year. No wonder it’s impossible to swim here - the water concentration is so dense that your body automatically becomes lighter, leaving you floating to the surface!Amazingly though, at the same time, the Dead Sea still helps support a complex ecosystem. How? Freshwater springs and oases along the shore are home to many indigenous species of fish, plants, and mammals - including ibex and leopards. There are also over 300 species of birds in the area, including eagles, kestrels, and honey buzzards (all of which pass over, on their migration from Europe to Africa).A salt flat on the shores of the Dead Sea.Photo credit: © ShutterstockThe Dead Sea in Ancient TimesThere are many references in the Bible to the Dead Sea, with it called by other names, including the ‘Salt Sea’, the ‘Stinking Sea’, and the ‘Eastern Sea’. Historically, it has been regarded as more of a territorial boundary than a ‘destination’ - nevertheless, many important biblical settlements, including Ein Gedi, Qumran, and the ancient fortress of Masada were positioned there.Archaeologists also believe that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (referred to in Genesis as two notoriously sinful cities, and subsequently destroyed by God) happened in this area. The famous Old Testament story of Lot’s wife - who disobeyed God’s command not to look back and was then turned into a pillar of salt - is also believed to have taken place here. Fun fact: strange formations of salt, which resemble pillars, can be seen in the south-eastern corner of the sea, and have been nicknamed ‘Lot’s Wife’ by tour guides!TheQumran Caves near the Dead Sea.Photo credit: © ShutterstockThe Qumran Caves and the Dead Sea ScrollsQumran, nearby, is also home to the spot at which an astonishing discovery was made in 1949, when a shepherd boy (looking for a lost member of his flock) wandered into a cave and stumbled upon what, today, is named the Dead Sea Scrolls. Approximately 2,000 years old, and dating back to 3 BCE, these documents (made of animal skin, papyrus, and even forged copper) give us extraordinary and valuable insights into the Essenes, a community who had fled Jerusalem for this remote area, so as to continue with its unique way of life.Today, the Dead Sea Scrolls are a highlight of any visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Housed in an astonishing building named ‘The Shrine of the Book’ visitors enter this stunning white dome (an architectural masterpiece, designed to represent the lid of the jars in which the scrolls were found) to view these ancient Biblical manuscripts (also known as the Aleppo Codex). For any history lover, a private tour of the museum is highly recommended.The Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jerusalem. Photo credit: © ShutterstockThe Dead Sea Today - Shrinkage and SinkholesToday, there’s no point in pretending that isn’t a crisis on the horizon - the Dead Sea has a fraction of what it used to gain from its original water flow from the Jordan River. On top of that, the tiny amounts that remain are being diverted for other purposes - industry, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. To maintain its current size, it would need an infusion of 150 billion gallons of water annually and it receives about 10% of that. Time-lapse photography by Noam Bedein shows the alarming and dramatic changes that have occurred even in the last few years, as this landlocked lake literally dries up.And as if this were not problematic enough, there’s another problem with which to contend - sinkholes. As the Dead Sea shrinks, the freshwater aquifers along its perimeter recede; the water diffuses into salt deposits beneath the surface then slowly dissolves until the earth suddenly collapses (usually with no advance warning). In the last 15 years, over 1,000 sinkholes have arisen, swallowing up date palms, parts of the road, and even some buildings. More than one beach has even had to close, as a result. Scientists even fear that if things continue, the nearby springs that feed oases in the Judean desert will die too, leaving a vibrant ecosystem at great risk.A gazebo on the Dead seashore.Photo credit: © ShutterstockSocial Activism and Environmental ProjectsLuckily, it’s not all bad news. As more and more scientists and environmentalists speak out, highlighting the threat posed to the area, an increasing number of social activism projects are being set up, to counter this dangerous trend, Friends of the Earth Middle East, for instance, is part of a coalition of 21 environmental groups which have developed proposals to encourage individuals to conserve household water use. Moreover, the Dead Sea-Red Sea project is planning on opening a desalination facility in the area and, using advanced technology, aims to provide clean drinking water for millions of people in the region. Scientists are also trying to persuade local farmers in the area to plant different kinds of crops from those that exist now - olives, dates, and certain flowers, for instance, don’t require fresh water. And perhaps the most well-known venture is the Dead Sea Revival Project, which aims to become a leading NGO for environmental education and activism. Producing films, multimedia presentations, and photographic exhibitions, they aim to raise awareness not just amongst tourists and Israeli citizens but on a global level. Their fascinating ‘Virtual Museum’ allows you to tour the Dead Sea from your electronic device, and see for yourself the beauty of the place, as well as get involved in projects and enter competitions, all designed to highlight awareness of the challenges faced in preserving the area. Ibexes in Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.Photo credit: © ShutterstockSites and Activities in the Surrounding AreaFor any visitor to Israel, a day trip to the Dead Sea may well be one of the great highlights. But it’s not just the salty water itself that will leave people speechless, but also a large number of additional sites to explore and activities to join, all in the immediate area. For those, not a fan floating in salty water, or slathering themselves in black mud, a simple stroll along the promenade (from which Jordan is clearly visible) is highly recommended. All along are different beaches, with kiosks, cafes, showers, and sun loungers for rent. At some, it’s also possible to pop into hotels and enjoy their spa treatments. For the more adventurous, why not join a jeep safari? These four-hour adventures will take you inland, across rugged terrain, and let you see the beauty of the Judean desert up close and personal. These tours usually pass Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and also the ancient Murbaat caves. You’ll have the chance to experience some local Bedouin hospitality along the way, in the form of hot tea inside a large tent.A jeep safari in the Judean desert.Photo credit: © ShutterstockFor those who crave an adrenaline rush, there’s the possibility of rappelling down cliff faces in Wadi Qumran or skydiving off the face of the magnificent Masada fortress. If you’re looking for outdoor activity, but something not too extreme, then the hiking opportunities in the area are endless - Metsuke Dragot, David’s Waterfall, Einot Tzukim, Dodim’s Cave, and the Ein Gedi hot springs are all incredibly beautiful. The trails range in difficulty but there are 10 classed as ‘moderate’ which most people can manage. (Look out for the picnic areas, if you need a rest, and stop to look at the mountain goats on the slopes!)Another possibility, especially if you want someone else to do the hard work, is to take an organized Masada and Dead Sea tour, or combineMasada at sunrise, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea? Or, if you want a little culture thrown in, mix Jerusalem with a trip to the Dead Sea? For nature and history lovers, it might be worth taking a private guide to explore Qumran and Ein Gedi, who will know the best spots for you to spy ibex, eagles, and rock badgers. Or if you’re simply in the mood to kick back, then book the Dead Sea Relaxation Tour - it will revive every pore in your body!Qasr al Yahud, the baptismal site on the Jordan River.Photo credit: © ShutterstockThe Dead Sea is also very close to Jericho and the Jordan River, which give you the opportunity of visiting not just this small but ancient town but also the ancient baptismal site of Qasr al Yahud, where John baptized Jesus and where pilgrims still visit today, to dip themselves in the water. Sitting there, in the desert, by the Jordan, you truly feel you are in the wilderness. (Fun fact: historically, Christian pilgrims who traveled here from Jerusalem would be transported on camels - the journey took some days!)The fact is that the Dead Sea and its surrounding environment have something for everyone - and especially with a guided group touror a private excursion, with all the logistics dealt with for you, you’ll have time to take it all in. With its breathtaking hilltop fortress of Masada, a must-see for any tourist in the region, delicate ecosystem, and unique history, it’s the perfect destination for first-time and returning visitors. All you need to do is pack a broad-brimmed hat, comfortable shoes, sunglasses, and sunscreen and arm yourself with a bottle of water. Then start exploring - we don’t think you’ll ever forget what you see!Camel riding near the Dead Sea.Photo credit: © Shutterstock
By Sarah Mann

Acre - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Old City of Acre, on the Mediterranean coast of Israel north of Haifa, was declared a UNESCO site for its outstanding universal value and a Site of Antiquity. This honor was given to the city for its substantial preservation of the remains of Medieval Crusader buildings and the 18th and 19th century Moslem fortified town which lies above. The Old City of Acre provides us with insight into two major historic periods – the Ottoman and the Crusaders. The city retains much of the original structure and layout, with little change having been made over the last 300 years.The city’s strategic coastal position and natural bay made it a valuable trade port for the ruling powers over the years. Acre (Akko) is a walled port city and one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the world. Alexander the Great operated his mint here for 600 years; the Hellenistic Ptolemid Egyptians; Seleucids of Syrian; Romans and from 636AD to 1099AD the Arabs ruled Akko. However the two major cultures which have left the most significant mark on the city are the Crusaders and the Ottomans.The dynamic port was a trade hub between the east and west during the time that the Crusaders ruled Acre for 2 centuries beginning in 1104. The Crusaders constructed churches, public buildings and palaces. The Christian Hospitallers established themselves in the north of the city; Templers in the south-west and the German knights in the east. Foreign merchants built quarters in different areas of the city and the Church of the Holy Cross was built. There were covered markets, private homes and pilgrim hostels of which archaeological evidence has been found. The Crusaders lost Acre to Saladin and then regained the city with the help of Richard the Lionheart in 1191 establishing the 2nd Crusader Kingdom in Acre. Archeological findings show a change in the style of architecture at this time with European Romanesque and Gothic styles being introduced in the 13th century.The Mamluks (Muslim rulers in Egyptians) crushed both the Crusader rule and the city itself in a battle in 1291, their conquest continued until 1517. During the Ottoman Period (1517 to 1917) the city was left virtually in ruins. Daher El-Amar, and then Ahmed Pasha al-Jazzar, the Bosniak Ottoman brought the city out of its slumber and created a thriving port city once again.By constructing their city on the Crusader city the Ottomans preserved what remained of the Crusader city. The Old City today is characterized by Ottoman structures from this era including thick fortified walls on the edge of the sea; walled courtyards; public baths (Hamam El-Basha 1795) and Mosques. The city became so attractive that Napoleon attempted an attack (1799) but was repelled by Al-Jazzar. Al-Jazzar’s contribution to the city’s valuable structures including the Jazzar Pasha Mosque, or White Mosque which has a distinctive green domed sabil, tall minaret and beautiful tile decoration. The mosque is the largest in Israel, outside of Jerusalem. The Khan Al-Umdan (1784) was another product of Jazzar’s rule, it is a large well preserved khan surrounded by 40 granite columns once used as an important trading post. Later the khan became a holy site for the Baha’i faith when Baha’u’llah taught here. The Baha’i leader lived in Acre for the last 24 years of his live. He is now buried nearby, making Acre the Baha’i faiths holiest site. The Ottomans remained in possession of the city until 1917 when the British entered Palestine and turned the citadel into a prison.In 2012 a 2,300 year old quay was discovered at the foot of the city’s seawall as well as 300kg mooring stones and a 5 meter long Phoenician stone platform thought to have been used to raise ships from the water. Archaeological excavation continues and experts are convinced that more remarkable and valuable discoveries still await us beneath the Old City of Acre.
By Petal Mashraki
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