Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Visit to Israel

I spent two weeks in Israel recently, on a work assignment. I spent most of the time in Haifa, where my company offices are located. I also spent one weekend in the historic city of Jerusalem. It was a wonderful experience.

Here are some observations and thoughts, as well as some photographs I took.


Haifa is the largest city in Northern Israel, and the third largest in the country, after Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It is a beautiful city nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and Mount Carmel. I stayed in a hotel located at the top of Mount Carmel, with great views of Haifa Bay.

Haifa is a key technology center in Israel, and is home to the Technion, Israel's premier technology institute. My company's office in Haifa is located in the Matam hi-tech park, which is also home IBM and Intel and many other tech companies. Apparently Intel's Centrino chip was designed at this very location.

During the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict in July/August 2006, Haifa was very much in the news. Hundreds of Katyusha rockets, fired by Hezbollah from Southern Lebanon, fell in and around Haifa. While most of these fell harmlessly in the sea or in unpopulated areas, some did cause damage. Around 15 people were killed in Haifa. More importantly, normal life was seriously disrupted. My office colleagues showed me some of the places where Hezbollah rockets had landed. One landed sufficiently close to the Intel building to break some of its windows. However, in spite of the war, our office (and, I understand, almost all other offices) kept functioning throughout that period, with occasional bomb-shelter breaks being the only deviation from normal routine.

The most prominent tourist attraction in Haifa is the spectacular Bahai Gardens on the terraced slopes of Mount Carmel, one of the most important sites of the Bahai faith. Prior to this I had only a very vague awareness of the Bahai faith - I had seen the exquisitely beautiful Bahai Temple in New Delhi from the outside. In Haifa I learned of the Bahais' strong connection to India. Apparently the Bahai faith has had a presence in India since its inception, and India is home to the largest Bahai community in the world.

Here are some pictures I took in Haifa.

Above: A view of Haifa Bay from near my hotel atop Mount Carmel. At the other end of the Bay is the historic city of Akko (Acre). Not too far away beyond that lies Lebanon.

Above: A view of the Bahai Gardens - with the shrine of the Bab at its focus. This is one of the holiest sites of Bahai faith.

Above: The shrine of the Bab at the center of the Bahai Gardens, Haifa.

Above: Looking up Ben Gurion Blvd. towards the Bahai Gardens. This picture is taken from the "German Colony" area of downtown Haifa, which is now a lively area with restaurants and shopping. One restaurant I would recommend to anybody is "Fattoush". Especially recommended there is a dessert called "Knafi"

Above: A busy street in downtown Haifa. This is primarily an Arab area.

Above: A sweet shop on Allenby Road in downtown Haifa selling various kinds of Baklavas and Halvas. The Baklavas here are really very good.


Nestled in the Judean hills, Jerusalem is a place like no other. The emotions and passions that this city generates among so much of the world's population are just incredible.

Jerusalem is a historic city.

Throughout much of recorded history, Jerusalem has really meant the area that is today the walled Old City, covering an area of only about one square km (less than half a square mile), and is physically only a tiny part of modern Jerusalem (see this map of the Jerusalem metropolitan area today, and this map of the Old City). Outside of the Old City walls, almost all buildings - especially those in sprawling Jewish dominated Western Jerusalem - are less than 50 years old.

There is evidence of continuous human settlement in this area since 10,000 BC. The earliest surviving written record of 'Israel' is in an Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription from around 1200 BC. Jerusalem first came into prominence when David, king of the ancient Israelites, made this his capital city around 1000 BC. After being dominant in Jerusalem for about a thousand years, the Jews were driven out by the Romans. Emperor Constantine of Rome transformed Jerusalem into a center of Christianity in the 4th century AD, and it it remained under Roman and Byzantine rule until the Muslim takeover in 638AD. For most of the time between the 4th century and the Muslim takeover, Jews were not allowed into Jerusalem, and were only allowed back after the Muslim takeover. Between about 1100 and 1300 Jerusalem was fought over during the Crusades, repeatedly changing hands. From around 1300 to 1517 the Muslim Mamelukes ruled, and from 1517 to 1917 it was the Ottoman Turks. From 1917 to 1948 Jerusalem was in British control. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli war there was heavy fighting in Jerusalem. Jewish militias were able to hold on to the western parts of the city, while Arabs held on to the eastern parts. The Old City itself was fiercely contested, with the Transjordanian Arab Legion eventually prevailing. Western Jerusalem became part of the newly established Jewish state of Israel, while the eastern part, including the entire Old City, became part of Transjordan (Transjordan's name was changed to Jordan in 1949). For the next 19 years Jews were banned from entering the Jordanian controlled Old City. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel gained a stunning and decisive victory over its much more numerous and better armed - but poorly led - combined Arab adversaries, and all of Jerusalem - including the Old City - was reunified under Israeli administration.

Jerusalem is a Religious city.

According to the Bible (the Old Testament), Abraham fulfilled God's test to see if he would be willing to sacrifice his son Isaac at a hill-top in Jerusalem (link). Jews, Christians and Muslims - all broadly agree on this biblical story. Around 1000 BC King David's son Solomon built the first great Jewish temple on this hill-top. It was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Second Temple was built by Jews at the same site. The Second Temple - with some expansions, most notably by King Herod - lasted hundreds of years. It was razed by the Romans in 70AD. Only the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount (the compound wall of the Second Temple) survived, and came to be called the Western Wall. However, Jerusalem never lost its significance for Jews. Over many centuries Jews have prayed at the Western Wall, and it remains the holiest site of their faith. Jews everywhere pray in the direction of Jerusalem, and end their Passover rituals every year with the phrase "next year in Jerusalem".

Muslims believe that the prophet Mohammad, on his winged horse al-Buraq, made a night journey to the same hill-top in Jerusalem. From here, he made the Meraj - the ascent to God's presence (link). This is commemorated by a magnificent Islamic shrine known as the Dome of the Rock completed by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab in 691. The nearby al-Aqsa mosque was built soon after. These - with some modifications - have maintained essentially the same character over the last 1300 years. Together, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque comprise the al-Haram al-Sharif complex (the Noble Sanctuary). For Muslims this is the third holiest site of their faith (after Mecca and Medina). The very earliest Muslims prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, though Mohammad and his followers eventually changed the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. Unfortunately, the two days I was in Jerusalem (a Friday and a Saturday) non-Muslims were not allowed to enter the al-Haram al-Sharif complex, and so I couldn't take a closer look (I was told to come on Sunday).

For Christians, Jerusalem represents the land of Jesus. It was here that Jesus preached, and here that he was crucified. Commemorating this is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Within the church are shrines at the site of Golgotha (Calvary Hill) where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, and at the site of the sepulchre (tomb) of Jesus. The church was first built by Constantine in the 4th century, destroyed, and eventually rebuilt during the Crusader period. There are many - often squabbling - Christian denominations represented in this church. Weary of the constant squabbling, the Ottoman rulers imposed a "status quo" arrangement in the 18th century, dividing the church among the various denominations. This arrangement remains in force to this day. Old Jerusalem is also home to the Via Dolorosa (Latin for "Way of Sorrow"), where Jesus is believed to have walked on his way to his crucifixion.

Jerusalem is a city of conflict.

There are many historical sites throughout the world, such as say the the pyramids of Egypt, or the sites of the great Mayan cities in Central America, or even Rome or Athens. These cities have also had strong religious associations. However, unlike any of these other very important historic sites, the history that one encounters in Jerusalem is still a living history. This is not cut-and-dried history. This is history that people are passionate about, often still angry about. This is history for which people are willing to fight and kill and die. Given these ingredients, conflict is never far from the surface in Jerusalem, and often breaks out into the open. While I was in Israel, conflict did break out - over something as trivial as excavations related to repairs/reconstruction to a ramp in the Western Wall Plaza area, close to the al-Haram al-Sharif complex. Thousands of Muslim, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, percieved this to be a threat to al-Haram al-Sharif complex, and took to the streets in often violent protests (link).

Here are some pictures I took in Jerusalem.

Above: Old Jerusalem at night from the Mount of Olives. At the center is the majestic Dome of the Rock. The smaller dome on the left is the Al-Aqsa mosque. Adjoining the Dome of the Rock on the far side, and at a lower level (not seen in the picture), is the Western Wall. Also in this picture (but not brightly lit and therefore not clearly visible) is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Jaffa Gate, Old City, Jerusalem
Above: The Jaffa Gate, on the western wall of the Old City. In 1917, British General Edmund Allenby, having defeating the Turks in battle, ceremonially entered the Old City through the this gate, marking the end of 400 years of Turkish rule over Jerusalem. Between 1948 and 1967, the western wall of the Old City formed the international boundary between Israel and Jordan. West of the walls lay Israel. East of the walls - including entire Old City - lay Jordan.

Zion Gate, Old City, Jerusalem
Above: The Zion Gate, on the southern wall of the Old City. As indicated by the the bullet marks, this has been the scene of fierce fighting. Here, in 1948, a unit of the Jewish Palmach fought desperately in an effort to relieve the besieged Jewish Quarter of the Old City. However, the powerful and highly capable Jordanian Arab Legion led by Major Abdullah Tell prevailed, and wrested control of the entire Old City. The surviving Jews of the Old City surrendered to Abdullah Tell, and were evacuated through this gate. With this, Jewish presence in the Old City ceased for a period of 19 years, during which they were not even allowed to visit the Western Wall.

Above: The al-Haram al-Sharif complex and its northern boundary wall, as seen from near the Lion Gate (St. Stephen's Gate). Here, during the Six Day Way, on June 7th 1967, an Israeli paratroop brigade led by Colonel Mordechai ("Motta") Gur blasted its way through the the Lion Gate and entered the until-then-Jordanian-controlled Old City. After a brief skirmish, Gur took control of the al-Haram al-Sharif complex, and sent a famous radio message, "the Temple Mount is in our hands". However, with Jews being banned from the Old City for the previous 19 years, none of his soldiers knew how to get to the Western Wall, and Gur had to ask an old Arab man for directions.

Above: Me, on a rooftop in the Old City. Behind me can be seen the Dome of the Rock. Further away can be seen the bell tower of the Church of Ascension on the Mount of Olives.

Above: The Western Wall Plaza and the Dome of the Rock. After the 1967 war, a small part of the Western Wall was cleared of surrounding shops and other structures and opened to the public as the Western Wall Plaza.

Signs for visitors at the Western Wall Plaza
Above: Signs for visitors at the Western Wall Plaza.

Jews Pray at the Western Wall
Above: Jews pray at the Western Wall.

Above: Prayers at the Western Wall. A ramp to the al-Haram al-Sharif Complex can be seen in the background. Four days after this picture was taken a huge controversy broke out over excavations related to repairs/reconstruction of this ramp. (For more about this controversy see this).

Main entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Old City, Jerusalem
Above: Main entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There are many Christian denominations represented in this church. The Ottoman rulers imposed a "status quo" arrangement in the 18th century, dividing the church amongst the various denominations. This arrangement continues to this day, sometimes leading to bizzare results, such as the permanent presence of a ladder below the upper-floor window (For more about the ladder see this).

Golgotha (Calvary), inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Old City, Jerusalem
Above: Golgotha (Calvary Hill), inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified here. This site is now within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Two chapels stand here. On the left of this picture is the Greek Orthodox chapel, and on the right is the Catholic one. Nearby, under the great dome of this church, is the sepulchre (tomb) of Jesus.

Muslim Quarter, Old City, Jerusalem
Above: This is a view from near the Damascus Gate, looking towards the Muslim Quarter and the Dome of the Rock.

Above: This is a view from near the Damascus Gate, looking towards the Christian Quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (notice the two domes of the church).

Above: Market scene in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Above: In the Christian Quarter of the Old City. The dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can be seen in the background. What struck me about this scene was the sheer normality of this back-yard: there are regular people living in regular houses with regular back-yards inside the Old City. With all its history, and religion, and conflict, here normality can sometimes feel abnormal.

Above: Another scene of normality: The amusingly named "Holy Rock Cafe" beckons pilgrims and tourists on the Via Dolorosa.

Above: Near Herod's Gate is the Indian Hospice - an Indian presence in Old City Jerusalem. Apparently the Sufi saint Baba Farid of Shakarganj stayed here some 700 years ago, and his rooms then became a Sufi shrine. Some of the surrounding land was bought and buildings constructed with donations from Indian pilgrims visiting the shrine. Eventually it became a place to stay for Indian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem, and came to be known as the Indian Hospice. Since 1924 the Ansari family, originally from Saharanpur, has functioned as caretaker. (For more, see this and this).

Above: The Mount of Olives. This is a view from the ramparts of the old city walls looking outside towards the Mount of Olives. At the center is the Russian church with its golden colored onion domes. Below that is Church of All Nations. At the top of the Mount of Olives is the bell tower of the Church of Ascension.

The security wall, East Jerusalem
Above: Jerusalem has its Old City walls ... and then Jerusalem has its new security barrier ... its 'Berlin Wall'. Here is the security wall passing through East Jerusalem. For a sense of scale, compare with the vehicle on the right. Many human-rights organizations have severely criticized this barrier, but Israelis claim that it has been very effective in reducing the number of terrorist acts in Israel.

Yad Vashem - the Holocaust Memorial

While in Jerusalem I also paid a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, which is located on Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem. Here are some pictures.

Museum entrance, Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial), Jerusalem
Above: Museum entrance, Yad Vashem. The museum at Yad Vashem is a long, straight structure with triangular cross-section. It starts out as an overhang on a hill top, which is seen in this picture. The structure goes right through the hill, and ends as another overhang at the other side of the hill. The overhang at the other end has a beautiful panoramic view of Jerusalem.

End of the museum, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
Above: The end of the museum with a panoramic view of Jerusalem. One display that I remember particularly vividly showed an actual freight rail-car used to transport victims to Auschwitz, and nearby were canisters partly filled with pellets of Zyklon-B, the chemical used by the Nazis to kill millions in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and elsewhere. Observing these very ordinary looking objects - the Zyklon-B pellets looking no different from say vitamin capsules - and knowing what these were meant for, I thought of political thinker Hannah Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil" - the idea that acts of great evil do not necessarily need to be driven by great malevolence, ordinary banal people doing ordinary jobs with ordinary objects can result in great evil.

Some More Observation

On the Lack of Religious Architecture

One thing that struck me was that I hardly noticed any synagogues in Israel. In Jewish controlled Jerusalem, you will notice grand domes and bell towers and minarets of churches and mosques, and in Haifa you will notice the Bahai Gardens. But there are simply no religious Jewish architectural features that stand out. In Jerusalem's Old City, the magnificent Dome of Rock completely dominates the skyline visually. The main Jewish religious site - the Western Wall - is a ruin, though of course a very important, and ancient, and holy ruin. And the Western Wall is something that cannot be seen from far away. Even within the Old City, you can't see it unless you are right in front of it. Throughout Israel there are many secular Jewish buildings that stand out, skyscrapers, hotels, office buildings, and so on; but no Jewish religious ones. Walking around in Haifa one day, I did come across a synagogue. But I didn't realize it was one until I saw an unusual number of men in black suits walking into it. It was a pretty big building too, but there was nothing distinctive about it on the exterior - from far it looked no different from a regular commercial building.

On the Nature of a Religious State

Israel is unambiguously a religious state. It claims - proudly and openly - to be a Jewish state. There is no question of separation of church and state, or of confining religion merely to the domain of spirituality. Being a secular and rationalistic person, I am uncomfortable with the very notion of a religious state. In my view, religion, though important, is best left confined to the spiritual world, and the business of the material world should largely be conducted using non-religious forces such as democracy, rationality, etc. The irrationality of religious regulations can be easily seen in the rules of Shabbat (Sabbath) - the religiously designated weekly day of rest from sundown Friday to 'nightfall' Saturday. On Shabbat almost everything shuts down in Israel. As a tourist, it is difficult to find an open restaurant. Even public transport - buses, trains, and the Israeli airline El Al - shuts down completely. The strangest part of Shabbat is that observant Jews are not allowed to turn electrical devices on or off during that day. Apparently this stems from some ancient religious edict telling people to refrain from "creative work" and from "starting a fire" during Shabbat. Ways have been devised to get around this. Hotels have "shabbat elevators" which stop at every floor so you don't have to press a button, and "shabbat settings" on light switches, which make them turn on/off automatically. As things stand, modern life is not too seriously impaired by these religious rules. I found the "shabbat elevators" rather comical, but not problematic otherwise. But I am uncomfortable with whole concept. Today the religious leaders allow you to use "shabbat settings" to turn electrical lights on and off. What if tomorrow the same religious leaders reinterpret the same ancient texts to say that you cannot use electrical lights at all? Fortunately, I think most people in Israel are secular and rationalistic, so workarounds are found that satisfy the religious leaders, and allow normal people to get along with their lives. But there is bound to be some degree of tension between the religious and the secular. Since the state's claim to legitimacy is based on religion, secularists will never be able to completely dismiss the directives of religious leaders, however irrational they may be.

Above: Door sign to be hung on the door knob by Shabbat (Sabbath) observant gusts at my hotel in Haifa.

Above: Visitors to the Western Wall plaza are informed that passing through the metal detector at the entrance does not violate Shabbat rules.

Some more pictures from my trip can be found here.