Today’s trip was dedicated to Haifa, the third largest city in Israel and the largest city in the North of the country. Located on the Carmel Mountain, where its steep slopes meet the sea, it was a tiny settlement eclipsed by its northern neighbour Acre (Akko) until the British decided built a major port in the 1920s; it is now the largest port in Israel and an important gateway into the Mediterranean.
The day began with a small celebration; this was our 40th field trip out of 80 on the course; our half-way point. One of our class put a lot of effort into making a cake to celebrate which was served with wine for a l’chaim, putting everyone in a good mood at 8am in the morning!
After enjoying a look out over the city from the Louis Promenade high up atop the Carmel mountain, we visited the city’s main attraction, the Bahai Gardens. These beautifully designed and maintained gardens dominate the hillside from a distance; consisting of several terraces and a large shrine in the centre. Inside the shrine are buried two of the most important figures in the Bahai faith, the Bab and the Abdul Baha.
As we descended through the immaculately tended gardens we learned about the Bahai religion; its establishment in Iran and the persecution which led to its relocation in Israel. Adherents of the faith are now spread out across the world but these gardens in Haifa are the main holy site together with another location in Acre. Sculpted gardens are a very unusual site in Israel and also contrast starkly with the industrialised scenery of the port – it is a beautiful area of serenity within the hustle and bustle of a busy city.
Having descended to the shrine, we left the area of the gardens and drove further up the mountain to the Centre for Ahmadiyya Islam in Israel. We visited the mosque and learned about this minority Muslim group, adherents of which were brought from India to Israel by the British to help construct the port. Their leader’s message of peaceful coexistence was well received although we were saddened to learn that they are persecuted within the Muslim world to the extent that going on the Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca which every observant Muslim man should do once in his lifetime) is actually often too dangerous to attempt.
Continuing the theme of different religions, our next stop was at the Stella Maris church, belonging to the Carmelite Order, a group of monks and nuns who since Crusader times have been connected to the Carmel Mountain. Inside the church is a cave believed to have been frequented by the prophet Elijah; there is also a small display of artefacts excavated on Carmelite land on the Carmel.
Outside the church, our guide discussed the history of the sanctity of the Carmel, which seems to go back to an association with Helios, the sun god of the Greeks and Romans, from the second century BCE. Helios has a close association with Elijah (the name; the fact that they both ride in fiery chariots) and it seems that Elijah’s association with the Carmel may have been inherited from Helios as a result.
We also learned about Napoleon’s campaign in the 18th century, which passed through the area of modern day Haifa, and indeed the church was used as a hospital for his wounded following defeat at Acre.
We hiked a short trail down the hill to arrive at the Cave of the prophet Elijah. A holy site for Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze (as opposed to the Stella Maris, which is holy for Christians), it is believed that Elijah spent time praying here before challenging the prophets of Baal (referred to in 1 Kings 18) at the Mukhraka. We discussed the life of Elijah, a (literally) fiery character, and noted the ancient pilgrim graffiti inside the cave.
After a spot of lunch we turned to the topic of modern Haifa and had a walking tour in the area of the German Colony. Founded in 1868 by a group called the Templers, consisting of German Christians, it largely consists of a beautiful wide avenue straddled by buildings that were clearly not built by local architects. All the buildings have a biblical quotation above the doorway, and the German member of our class kindly obliged with translations! We learned about the history of the Temple Society, some of the key figures, and its influence on the technological innovation in Israel, particularly with regard to the early Zionist pioneers.
We concluded the day in Nachal (or Wadi) Siach, a small valley that lies between two spurs of the Carmel Mountain on which the city is built. After a steep climb we were able to see the remains of a British Mandate period bathhouse and garden, based on channeling the springs further up the slope. As we continued further we found the remains of a Crusader church, believed to be the one in which the Carmelite order was founded. The area is currently not in a very good state but apparently the municipality has plans to refurbish and develop the area which could make it a very pleasant stop on future Haifa tours. Still, it does not stop the locals from coming here to cool off in the springs and pools during the hot months of the summer.
A day of multiple religions, modern and ancient history, and even a little hiking. Next week we will travel slightly further north to the ancient port city which Haifa usurped in importance: Akko (Acre).