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Israel's Cultural Mosaic

An Introduction to Three Religions
Israel's Cultural Mosaic
Religious and secular, Jewish and Arab, ancient and modern—there is no one Israel, and its diverse cities and villages prove it. Travelers who revel in complexity will enjoy discovering a surprise in every town.
By Sivan Askayo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Yadid Levy/age fotostock
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    An Introduction to Three Religions
    An Introduction to Three Religions
    Sacred to three religions, Jerusalem is one of the world’s holiest cities. Join pilgrims as you tour the Old City’s four quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Walk the Via Dolorosa until you reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter. Duck in and out of the Muslim Quarter’s market, picking up souvenirs such as beads and herbs, then admire the Damascus Gate and glittering gold of the Dome of the Rock. In the Jewish Quarter, walk an ancient Roman road past key archaeological sites before respectfully joining pilgrims at the Western Wall.
    Photo by Yadid Levy/age fotostock
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    The Biblical Significance of Nazareth
    The Biblical Significance of Nazareth
    The northern city of Nazareth is where Jesus is said to have grown up. It’s also home to the country’s largest Arab-Israeli population, making it a fascinating town. Both pilgrims and tourists can appreciate the city’s many churches, including St. Joseph’s Church, which was built over the ruins of a much older church and, according to legend, the site of the carpentry workshop of Jesus’ father, Joseph. Nearby, the Basilica of the Annunciation is the grandest church in Nazareth, said to be the site where the archangel Gabriel visited Mary. Emerge from these holy sites to satisfy more earthly needs at one of the Arabic restaurants or sweet shops. Then wander through Nazareth’s shuk, stocked with embroidered clothing, crafts, housewares, and local delicacies.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Gathering in Bethlehem
    Gathering in Bethlehem
    Bethlehem, like Nazareth and Jerusalem, is a name with strong religious associations. The modern town overlooks the Judean Desert and is administered by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Its Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest extant church in the Holy Land, and supposedly marks the site of Jesus’ birth. Rachel's Tomb, site of the biblical Jewish matriarch's burial, is located at the entrance of the city and holds significance within Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Visit Manger Square, adjacent to the Basilica, to watch city life unfurl in a public area unsullied by vehicles. Remember to bring your passport; you'll need to present it at the checkpoint to enter the Palestinian territories.
    Photo by Megan Eileen McDonough
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    Beautiful Haifa
    Beautiful Haifa
    Israel’s third-largest city has a distinct appeal, thanks to its mixed population of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. No matter your religion, a pleasant day in Haifa begins at the beach. Take to the white-sand Dado Beach, just south of the city, for a stroll and a swim, then stop for lunch at a local seafood restaurant. Walk along the ocean promenade in Bat Galim, then ride a cable car to the top of Mount Carmel for magnificent views and a tour of the Stella Maris Monastery. An entire afternoon is best spent within the grounds of the Bahá'í Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The gardens comprise terraces that climb the slope of Mount Carmel, and their geometric designs inspire both Baha’i worshippers and secular visitors.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Sun, Sea, and Sand in Eilat
    Sun, Sea, and Sand in Eilat
    At Israel’s southern tip, the city of Eilat lures vacationers in search of hot weather, beaches, great diving, and vibrant nightlife. Swimmers can snorkel with dolphins at the aptly named Dolphin Reef, or refresh with a postswim cocktail on the sandy shores of Bar Beach. Accomplished divers and newcomers to the sport alike can explore the coral reefs and nature preserves of the Red Sea. Nondivers can still take to the ocean by cruising the Gulf of Eilat or descending into the Underwater Observatory Marine Park, which offers close-up views of lionfish, groupers, and rays without all the trouble of getting wet. At another extreme, Timna Park, north of Eilat, offers a chance to see the dramatic beauty of the Negev Desert.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Modernist and Historical Museums
    Modernist and Historical Museums
    With such extraordinary history, it’s natural that Israel would have a substantial number of museums. With a broad range of themes and collections, the museums are your source for important lessons about the country today. Galleries and modernist architecture define Tel Aviv’s museums; an essential example is the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Jerusalem’s museums have a heavy spiritual and historical focus: Visit the Israel Museum to view the astonishing Dead Sea Scrolls, or Yad Vashem to remember the horrors of the Holocaust. Israel’s latest and most innovative museum is the Design Museum Holon, which pays tribute to modern, contemporary design and culture within a striking red building designed by famed architect Ron Arad.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    A Wealth of Archaeological Sites
    A Wealth of Archaeological Sites
    Israel is dense with archaeological sites, and national parks open these portals of antiquity to the public. In Beit She’an National Park, there exist ruins of late-neolithic settlements that were occupied through a succession of cultures, including Egyptian, Roman, and Byzantine. Vestiges of the oldest site of Christian worship (called a domus ecclesia), which were held in houses before there were established churches, can be found at Kfar Nahum (Capernaum), and a palace, amphitheater, and port can be explored at Caesarea Harbor National Park. Archaeologists at Zippori National Park uncovered a wealth of Roman mosaics, many of them honoring the god of wine. But to see one of the country’s most important archaeological discoveries, you’ll have to go to a museum: The famous Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
    Photo by age fotostock