A visit to… the Holy Land
This is an account of a journey to the Middle East arranged by Cox & Kings. It took place at a time of war and consequent disruption to the tourist industry. Nevertheless, we were met with goodwill at every place in our itinerary.
My wife Sarah and I wanted to visit biblical and historic sites in Jordan and Israel. A tailor-made tour would allow us to combine highlights of the separate escorted tours and allow a degree of flexibility. Cox & Kings translated our requests into a workable itinerary. We established good relations with our two driver-guides who remained with us throughout our time in Jordan and Israel respectively. In our view, this is the essential element in making a holiday of this nature a success. At Jerash and Petra in Jordan we had the benefit of individual guides who were informative and happy to enter into general discussion about the history and architecture of these remarkable places. We were able to dispense with the iteration of basic facts, necessary for groups with varying degrees of prior knowledge on the sites.
At the time of booking, the Syrian civil war had forced thousands of people to flee across the border into Jordan. This would not have affected our travel arrangements as the camps were located to the north of Amman. However, the fighting broke out in Iraq as IS seized control of Mosul on 12 June. War seemed to engulf the region when, on 12 July, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in Gaza. On 17 July Israel started a ground offensive into Gaza. Unsurprisingly, this had a deleterious effect on tourist numbers in both Jordan and Israel.
Sarah and I had to decide on our attitude to risk. The direct threat was that posed by rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. However, the FCO were not advising against travel to either Israel or Jordan. We felt that the region was likely to remain unstable for the foreseeable future and that there was no sign of a general settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. It seemed to follow therefore, that the risks would have to be accepted if we were to enjoy visits to the historical sites and spectacular landscapes of these countries. The subsequent ceasefire probably ensured that there was no disruption to our travel plans.
Amman and Jerash
Late on 17 September, we arrived in Amman to meet our driver-guide, and early the next day we were en route for Jerash. This is a wonderfully preserved Graeco-Roman city that gives the visitor an insight into the culture of the 1st- and 2nd-century province of Palestine. The Amman cityscape by contrast contained Roman ruins and buildings from subsequent periods up to the present day.
Civilisations usually fell to conquerors, and famously the tribes of Israel settled in Canaan through their capture of Jericho. The view from the summit of Mount Nebo of Jericho and the Jordan valley remains much as it was when Moses stood there, denied the chance to enter the Promised Land. Kerak Castle brought the instantly recognisable European style of medieval fortification to the area. The castle was held by the Crusaders against Saladin for eight months after the fall of Jerusalem in 1187.
Petra is the outstanding archaeological site of Jordan and here we benefited from the fall in visitor numbers. Entering through the Siq with a first view of sunlight on the Treasury building was perhaps the most memorable moment of the entire holiday. The city beyond though is no anti-climax. The combination of Nabataean and Roman monumental architecture, built into the rock faces in a desert environment, makes Petra unique.
Our trip in a 4x4 across Wadi Rum introduced the first of two themes reflecting my interest in the history of this area: the part played by Great Britain in shaping the Middle East after the first world war. As we approached Wadi Rum we came across a small station on the Hejaz railway. Today it is used only for goods traffic but in Ottoman times it was a vital artery for supplying the Turkish army. Here for the benefit of tourists was a Turkish train of 1917, the type attacked by Lawrence of Arabia, complete with machine gun posts. After driving for two hours we arrived at Lawrence canyon, the mustering point for the Arab revolt prior to the advance on Aqaba.
The Dead Sea
The Kempinski Ishtar
hotel is truly amazing: a luxury hotel with gardens and pools set out on terraces leading down to the Dead Sea. Sadly, there were few other guests. The next day we drove to Israel, first visiting the site, on the river Jordan, where Christ is said to have been baptised by John the Baptist. We crossed into Israel by the Allenby bridge, said farewell to our excellent guide and continued towards Jerusalem.
On 11 December 1917 General Allenby entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa gate. I purchased a photograph of the moment from a Palestinian shop owner in the Muslim quarter. He told me that his grandfather had been present on that day. Britain ruled Palestine through a League of Nations mandate. Deteriorating relations between the Jewish and Palestinian populations led eventually to a British withdrawal. On 22 July 1946 Irgun, a Jewish military organisation, blew up the British HQ at the King David Hotel
with the loss of 92 lives. Sarah and I stayed at this still majestic hotel. The UN voted in favour of partition with the creation of separate Jewish and Palestinian states. The last British troops withdrew in May 1948.
We walked around the Old City, visiting the church of the Holy Sepulchre – mercifully free of crowds – and the Western Wall; the Pool of Siloam; the room of the Last Supper and David’s Tomb on Mount Zion; the garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives. Our second day fell on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Many places were closed but we were able to walk the Ottoman walls and visit the museum at the Citadel. The divisions between the communities in this city are immediately apparent. We noted the appearance of temporary homes for Jewish settlers in Palestinian East Jerusalem. Armed police and troops were an obvious presence throughout Rosh Hashanah.
Our Israeli driver-guide proved to be a mine of information. Our talks with him throughout each day added a new and most enjoyable dimension to the holiday. His experience in Israel’s citizen army gave us a useful insight into the country’s security concerns. These were apparent as we approached the Bethlehem crossing point on the wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories. We passed through the gates and met our Palestinian guide. He took us along historic Star Street to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square.
The road to Galilee
Driving north towards Galilee we visited the ancient ruins on the hill of Megiddo. This dominates the Jezreel Valley, a major artery between Asia and the Mediterranean. Allenby defeated the Turkish army here in September 1918. Turkey surrendered on 1 October. This point reflects the second of my themes: biblical sites. Across from Megiddo are the town of Nazareth, Mount Tabor – the reputed place of Christ’s transfiguration – and Gilboa, where King Saul and his sons were killed in battle.
Our base in Galilee was the Scots Hotel in Tiberias
, owned by the Church of Scotland. It is a very comfortable hotel with a heritage dating back to the 19th century with the establishment of a medical centre for local people. I am a member of the Church of Scotland in Chelsea. We sailed on the Sea of Galilee and visited Capernaum and the Mount of the Beatitudes.
Driving up to the Golan Heights we found ourselves on the verge of a war zone. There is much evidence of past conflict here: burned out vehicles, entrenchments and tank traps. Then we arrived at a point overlooking the Syrian border. Straight in front of us was the town of Quinetra, with fighting currently between government troops and rebels. We were joined by unarmed UN soldiers who had been based in Syria but now observing the border from Israel.
Along the coastline
The last phase of our holiday was a journey along the Mediterranean coastline. The Crusader City of Acre was fascinating: one story concerned the notorious El-Jazzar ‘the butcher’ who, supported by the British Navy, defied Napoleon in 1799. Haifa was a busy port but we enjoyed the visit to the Baha'i shrine on Mount Carmel: said to be where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal. Caesarea was Herod the Great’s city dedicated to the Roman Emperor Augustus. The aqueduct is a particularly impressive feature.
Tel Aviv was our final destination. We visited the old port of Jaffa, now a restored artist’s colony, and the Palmach museum in Tel Aviv. On 29 September we said goodbye to our driver-guide. I hope that he understood how much we valued his service. We flew back to London on 30 September. Cox & Kings did a first class job in arranging a holiday that met all of our expectations.
Mr and Mrs Noble travelled on a tailor-made itinerary to Jordan and Israel. For more information, call 020 7873 5000 to speak to a Middle East consultant, or visit the relevant sections on the Cox & Kings website:
Tailor-made holidays to Jordan >
Tailor-made holidays to Israel >
Most images courtesy of Mr and Mrs Noble.