By Ed Wetschler
“Haifa is the most beautiful city in Israel,” says guide Ziv Cohen as we gaze at the Mediterranean from a high terrace. And he’s right. Looking around, I’m reminded not of Jerusalem, with its ancient golden stones, nor Tel Aviv, where town meets beach, but of San Francisco. Except that here, the water is warmer and calmer, the sky is bluer, and there are more Jews. Well, sort of.
“It’s hard to find a Kosher restaurant in Haifa,” Ziv once told me. Right again. This is the most integrated city in Israel and maybe the entire Middle East — a town with multi-ethnic neighborhoods, cultural institutions like the Arab-Jewish Center, and easy smiles.
But beautiful and friendly though it is, Haifa doesn’t get as much buzz as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Jerusalem has more holy sites, and Tel Aviv, the hippest vibe east of Madrid, not to mention an abfab centennial. Just the same, Haifa is my favorite Israeli city, the Goldilocks mean between ancient, sacred Jerusalem and modern, secular Tel Aviv. It’s sophisticated, physically stunning, home to must-sees like Elijah’s Cave and the Baha’i Shrine, and the ideal base for visiting Acre (Akko) and the Galilee.
In a heroic effort to snare more attention, new tours and packages are making all this more accessible to visitors who aren’t traveling by cruise ship. But first, the backstory:
This view of Haifa Bay from Mount Carmel is pretty much the one that Elijah would have had. Photo by Ed Wetschler.
Elijah and the Carmelites
If you went to Sunday school — any Sunday school — you know how important Elijah was. This biblical prophet browbeat the ancient Jews into maintaining their piety, he was the precursor to the Messiah, and he’s venerated in Islam for having preserved monotheism at a time when paganism looked like a swell idea. Not for nothing is he the one prophet God carried up to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Elijah slept here. Now this grotto is a shrine below the main altar of a Carmelite church. Photo by Ed Wetschler.
Elijah lived awhile in a cave on the slopes of Mount Carmel, so during the Crusades, some Roman Catholics decided to travel to the Holy Land and live in caves on that same hill. Muslim troops eventually ousted them, but in 1836 the cave dwellers’ spiritual heirs, the Carmelites, returned to build Stella Maris Church and Monastery. So now you know how the Carmelites got their name.
Stella Maris’s octagonal chapel features a swirling depiction of Elijah en route to heaven, but the real attraction lies below the main altar: there, you can step into what is said to be Elijah’s cave, a low-ceilinged grotto just big enough for a smaller marble altar, a few candles and photos, and a little crucifix.
That cross would offend observant Jews and many Muslims, so you might expect Elijah’s cave to set off yet another dispute among religions in Israel. Yet it hasn’t, maybe because these religions are busy enough disputing holy sites in Jerusalem. Or maybe it’s simply because Haifa is so laidback.
But even if an observant Jew would hesitate to enter a church, this grotto is still a place associated with Elijah — Eliyahu Hanavi — for whom every Jewish family at every Passover seder pours a glass of wine. Had this man not preached at the time of Ahab and Jezebel, there might well be no Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. So I entered the grotto. I paid my respects to the great prophet.
And then, God forgive me, I ate shellfish.
An Acre of Crusades
How do you earn an honorific like “lionhearted”? King Richard I did it in 1191 by slaughtering 2,700 Muslim prisoners of war
Tough guys, those Crusaders. But Richard I was not the first over-assertive kid on the block. Armies have fought over Acre (aka Akko), the ancient port a few miles from Haifa where Richard killed the POWs, for centuries.
Alexander the Great conquered it from the Kingdom of Israel in 332 B.C.E., after which Egypt, Rome, and then Mohammed’s followers played bloody games of musical chairs. The Crusaders seized it in 1104 and spent much of that century building fortifications that were “impregnable,” except that Salah al-Din (Saladin) still managed to boot them out in 1187. Richard the Lionhearted regained Acre in 1191, and now comes the fun part.
From the outside this World Heritage Site looks like a modest Turkish enclosure that’s only a few hundred years old. But what you’re looking at is buildings the Turks and Arabs erected buildings on top of the Crusaders’ fortifications and quarters, so when you descend belowdecks, you don’t see ruins; you see sturdy chambers and large halls that lay undisturbed for almost 1,000 years. And for bonus points, the subterranean layout keeps the place relatively cool in July.
The Crusaders could have used some cooling off: The Templars, Hospitalers, and other Christian factions all earned “F” on their report cards for Works And Plays Well With Others. Each claimed a different section of the fortress, and sometimes they actually fought each other for space. This did not exactly help them in their efforts against their official enemies, so sure enough, the Muslims evicted them (again) in 1291. Or more precisely, slaughtered them.
Today you enter a large open courtyard, mere centuries old, with two stories of graceful arches. Then you go inside, where a stone in one room sports a Fleur de Lys, another features the sign of the Hospitalers, etc. It’s not hard to tell who hung out where.
The grandest Knights Hall, the Refectorium, features a surprisingly high Romanesque ceiling supported by Cyclopean pillars and ten-foot-thick walls. Somewhat less authentic is the bar and klieg lights; today this grand space is used for concerts and parties. In the 1940s, though, this was no place for partying; the British executed Jewish independence fighters here.
I walked from room to room through low, tight tunnels, stared at the tombstone of a Crusader who died in 1290, imagined warriors battling boredom and lice, and emerged just as a muezzin was calling the faithful to prayer. A lot of Arabs live in Acre, and the real estate directly outside the exit from the historical site is owned by al-Jazzer Mosque. The mosque rents shop space there to locals who sell pita, pastries, coffee, fish, fruits, hummus, shawls, spices, souvenirs. I tasted a fragrant cinnamon roll, a Middle Eastern pan chocolate, a pistachio loaf….
Al Jazzer mosque rents space to vendors at the exit of the Crusaders’ fortress at Acre/Akkor. Photo by Ed Wetschler.
The mosque itself was built by Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzer, an 18th-century Turkish governor who, like Richard I, had a nickname. Al-Jazzer’s, unfortunately, was “The Butcher.” I ask Ziv why the pasha was called The Butcher. “Al Jazzer,” he replies slowly, diplomatically, “was a very negative person.”
Go to Haifa, Part II.
ED WETSCHLER, Associate Editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky and Caribbean Travel & Life. He is the former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine and consulting editor for Caribbean Escapes. He is the current president of the New York Travel Writers Association.