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Israel - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Israel: The Bradt Travel Guide
The awe-inspiring Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the traditional site of Jesus’s Crucifixion, burial and Resurrection and the single most important shrine in Christendom © Noam Chen, IMOT
Jesus and the Romans
In 63BCE, Roman statesman and general Pompey the Great captured Jerusalem, replacing the Seleucids as the region’s great power, and demoting the Hasmonean king, Hyrcanus II, to acting king under Roman rule. The Jewish population was hostile to the new regime and rebellions eventually led to the final demise of the Hasmoneans, and the Roman rule over the Land of Judea. In 37BCE, Herod the Great was appointed king, becoming one of the Roman Empire’s most powerful leaders. Under him the great coastal city of Caesarea exploded on to the scene as one of the world’s most crucial seaports, the palace of Masada was built as his luxury playground and the temple was given a magnificent makeover. Despite these achievements the Jews were displeased, and revolts led to the destruction of the Second Temple under Titus. A last attempt in 123CE (Common Era, used in lieu of ad) to claim Jewish liberation failed after an ambitious but unsuccessful uprising led by Shimon Bar Kokhba. According to Josephus Flavius, a 1st-century historian, hundreds of thousands of Jews were exiled and dispersed across the empire, an event known as the Jewish Diaspora. Jerusalem was razed to the ground and on it built a wholly Roman city named Aelia Capitolina. Judea thereafter was merged with Roman Syria into the Roman province of Syria-Palaestina.
Jesus of Nazareth was born in the early years of Roman rule. However, it would be a further 300 years until Christianity was legitimised by the Romans and became the official religion. Details of Jesus’s life – especially his early years – are taken primarily from the Gospels, telling of his descent from the bloodline of King David, his mother Mary’s Immaculate Conception and his birth in Bethlehem following a move made by Mary and Joseph in compliance with King Herod’s census. The Gospels, however, mention nothing of Jesus from the age of 12 until he began his public ministry 18 years later, following his baptism by John the Baptist. For the Jews, the remainder of the Roman period is characterised by the survival of their communities, now scattered across the land and beyond. The supreme legislative and judicial body, known as the Sanhedrin (successor to the Knesset Hagedolah) reconvened in 70CE in Tiberias, reinforced over time by returning exiles. During these exiled years the great texts of Judaism were scribed, the Mishnah (a book on Jewish oral law) in 210CE by Rabbi Judah Hanasi, and the Talmud (a commentary on the Mishnah) in 390CE.
Abridged from the Geography and conservation section in Israel: The Bradt Travel Guide
The tranquil shores of the Sea of Galilee are steeped in New Testament history © Roman Sulla, Shutterstock
Israel is unique in that it has three highly contrasting geographical regions. In the west is the fertile coastal plain, home to major cities such as Tel Aviv and Haifa and the most densely populated region of the country. The forests, valleys, mountains and rivers that make up the north and east of the country incorporate the verdant Galilee region as well as the freshwater Sea of Galilee and Jordan River. More than half of Israel is desert, stretching all the way down to the Red Sea and the southern city of Eilat. The Dead Sea forms the eastern border with Jordan and stands as the world’s lowest point at 400m below sea level. Sitting in the vast Syrian-African Rift Valley, its extreme salinity does not support any living organisms, the freshwater oases that dot the desert the only source of life to the flora and fauna of the region. Comprising the rocky Negev, Arava and Judean deserts, Israel’s south is sparsely populated and transport links are few and far between.
Israel is today home to over 66 national parks and 190 nature reserves which are under the management of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INPA) In contrast to many other countries where the term ‘national park’ implies vast areas of open, protected land, in Israel the term is used to denote any protected area, be it a small archaeological site, vast canyon or landscaped hot spring park. Castles and fortresses, churches and synagogues, desert oases, caves, rivers, waterfalls and wildlife reserves grace the list of the country’s national parks.
The Bible describes the Holy Land as ‘a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey’. A total of 2,380 species of flora have been recorded, many endangered or endemic to Israel. The Mediterranean region supports the densest concentrations, where alpine species thrive mainly along the Carmel Mountain ridge, in the Jezreel Valley and in the Galilee region. Plant life in the desert is sparse with the exception of small pockets of dense vegetation in oases such as Ein Gedi and Ein Avdat. In its accreditations, Israel is famed as being the northernmost limit for species such as the papyrus reed, the southernmost limit for plants such as the red coral peony and the only place where the Euphrates poplar still grows. The famed Madonna lily and Gilboa iris, rare Kermes oak trees and gnarled, ancient olive trees decorate the fertile northern terrain while towering date palms flourish in the arid, sub-Saharan soils of the desert.
The barren beauty of the Negev Desert is home to wildlife-filled oases and the vast Ramon Crater © Dafna Tal, IMOT
Israel is home to 116 species of mammal, which, compared with the 140 species recorded in the whole of Europe, is vast. The country forms the crossroads for animals originating in the alpine European region to the north and those arriving from the desert regions of Arabia and Africa in the south. The largest inhabitants are mountain gazelles, wild boar, foxes, Nubian ibex, hyenas, jackals, wolves, onagers and the rarely seen leopards. The rock hyrax or rock badger, known in Israel as shafan, can often be seen between rocks and riverbeds. A large conservation effort is in play to reintroduce many biblical creatures long since hunted to extinction from their natural lands. Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo and the Hai Bar nature reserves are at the centre of this scheme.
Sitting on the main migratory thoroughfare, Israel’s skies and valleys seasonally fill with hundreds of species of birds who rest on their long journey south or north. A total of 510 bird species have been recorded, birdwatching reserves such as those in the Hula Valley, Eilat and Beit Shean Valley being prime places to see the splendid array of species that includes cranes, honey buzzards and pelicans. Of those who make their home in Israel are the highly endangered griffon and Egyptian vultures and imperial and spotted eagles. The Yehudiya National Park is the best place to see wild vultures soaring in the skies above, while the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority has a research station and shelter next to Belvoir Castle in the Lower Galilee.
People and culture
The Israeli population is a jigsaw puzzle of religions, cultures and traditions © Yonatan Sindel, IMOT
The Israeli population is a jigsaw puzzle of religions, cultures and traditions. Culturally, the country is a melting pot of different traditions where immigration has led to the emergence of strong communities even within different religious groups. Many groups and nationalities live in Israel, yet retain their strong cultural traditions, languages and ways of life. For most of the Jewish population, who are third- or fourth-generation descendants of post-World War II immigrants, their cultural affiliation is most certainly Israeli, and while each is proud of their heritage, there is an undeniable feeling of nationalism and patriotism.
Israel is home to more than 100,000 Bedouins, Arabic-speaking Nomads who lead a traditional desert lifestyle predominantly around the Negev area © Dafna Tal, IMOT
With weekly sell-out performances and record-breaking numbers of season-ticket holders, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra needs little introduction. Founded in Tel Aviv in 1936 as the ‘Palestine Orchestra’, it often plays host to guest conductors and musicians from around the world. Modern music is also big business and many young Israelis have a rather deep passion for heavy trance. Rock, jazz and classic 1970s and 1980s hits also make their way into bars and clubs.
Israelis love sport in general, and particularly extreme sports, such as skydiving, scuba diving, parasailing and kitesurfing. Soccer, judo and tennis also feature highly, while golf is limited to the Caesarea golf course. Mount Hermon has a ski slope, although in recent years this has been somewhat lacking in snow. In the same style as the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, every four years Israel hosts the Maccabiah Games, where Israeli and Jewish athletes from across the world compete in the country’s biggest sporting event. The games were founded in 1932. Over 7,000 participants from across the globe competed in the 2013 games, while the 2017 tournament featured 10,000 athletes.