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A Little Background
The land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, known as Palestine, is one of the most fought over in human history. Anthropologists believe that the first humans to leave Africa lived in and around this region and that all non-African humans are related to these common ancestors who lived perhaps 70,000 years ago. At first glance this interest seems odd, because as bits of territory go it's nothing special. These days it's mostly desert and semi-desert. Somewhere back-o-Bourke might look similar, if a bit redder.
Yet since humans have kept written records, Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, Ancient Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims, Christian Crusaders, Ottomans (and other later Muslims), British and Zionists, have all fought to control this land. This has sometimes been for strategic reasons alone but often partly for affairs of the heart, because this land is steeped in history and myth.
Perhaps the most enduring cause for this conflict is that about four thousand years ago this was the land of a semi-nomadic war lord who came to be called Abraham and who's god Yahweh became the 'One God' of Moses then, in due course, the single, universal, all-encompassing, deity shared by all three 'Abrahamic' religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Once-upon-a-time this land was far more attractive to human habitation, lush and welcoming. Along with adjoining Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, the eastern shore of the Mediterranean was said to be a land of milk and honey. But climates change and expanding populations over-graze and cut down trees, as we have seen in desertified and deserted Petra, nearby in Jordan, that was a populous city in a green and pleasant landscape in the time of Herod. Now much of the Palestinian countryside varies in appearance from cultivated farmland, dependent on irrigation, to absolute desert.
In many ways this is vast improvement since the end of the nineteenth century, when it was most frequently described by visitors from more verdant Europe as desolate, poor, backward and diseased. Malaria and malnutrition were endemic and Western aid focussed on the provision of hospitals.
Today modern parts of Israel are a like resort areas of southern Europe or perhaps California. Many private houses are large and well appointed. There are many new high rise apartment blocks and more under construction. The use of a more or less standard colour scheme with light sandstone walls, and even raw concrete, gives the cities and towns a uniform clean or sandy look. The roads and other public infrastructure are of a high standard and prices are similar to those in southern France or Spain.
Israeli Jerusalem - A Modern City
Some parts of Jerusalem, Israel's largest city, remind me of Amman in Jordan or Damascus in Syria, before the recent destruction.
Although not nearly as rundown as those in neighbouring Egypt, Arab areas are not nearly so wealthy in appearance as the up-market, mostly European, Jewish areas. But not all Jews are rich or live the high-life either. Around half of the Jewish population is ethnically middle eastern, from poorer backgrounds. The late model cars of the wealthy mix with the not so grand. If you are interested Google Street-view is worth a look. Try clicking this link to see a not so wealthy area.
Physical appearance is where the similarity to Europe or California ends. This is a Jewish homeland, in many ways a theocracy.
Very orthodox groups abound and we were told by a cab driver when driving us on Saturday that some areas are out of bounds as cars moving on the street are stoned. Almost all official public signage is in Hebrew. English is widely understood which is good as otherwise it would be a difficult place to visit. This is complemented of replaced by Arabic in the Arab areas. Comprehensible to us, English/Latin signage is reserved for commerce, like shop and restaurant names and advertising displays.
About 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, both Muslim and Christian, and they are in a strange coalition with each other in contrast to the Jewish majority. We found the Muslim Arabs almost universally friendly, but not necessarily adverse to ripping-off tourists. People of unknown religion we interacted with on public transport and and in street cafés particularly outside the old city were usually polite and helpful and might have been in a major city anywhere in the world. But Jews who were self-identifying by their mode of dress were frequently aloof to rude to us tourists, except when they seeking contributions to various causes like the Synagogue or the defence of Israel. One exception was an elderly German man who went out of his way to talk to us and had, he told us, come to Israel as a young adult.
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