A Day in Haifa

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It was a beautiful morning in late December when we set off on the coastal highway towards Haifa, just an hour or so northwest of Alfe Menashe. Along the way, we passed new construction on the beach front that one of our party, a friend from England, hadn’t seen before. Lately, developers have built up most of the available land along the Mediterranean coast, resulting in high-rises galore. This growth is a product of Israel’s fertility rate – the developed world’s highest – and the increase in home sales to wealthy Jewish North Americans and Europeans, as well as increasing numbers of Christian Zionists.

We also passed Jisr az-Zarqa, an Israeli-Arab village, the only wholly Arab town on the Mediterranean coastline in Israel. During and after the War of Independence, other Arabs living on the coast fled or were forced from their seaside towns. Notwithstanding that, the cities of Acre, Haifa, Tel-Aviv-Jaffa, Lod and others, all have large Arab populations.

Located just north of the wealthy town of Caesarea, Jisr az-Zarqa has been problematic since its beginnings in the 19th century. It was founded by black Sudanese, probably brought to the area by Napoleon to serve his troops. From the beginning, the villagers were shunned by the other Arabs in the area. Working for the residents of Caesarea has proved to be the most lucrative means of employment for the townspeople, but relations between the two communities are not good. A barrier separating the towns, built by Caesarea to distance itself from the noise of loudspeakers emanating from the mosques and the sound of gunfire from revelers at celebrations, hasn’t helped matters. Though it is relatively dilapidated, Jisr az-Zarqa has a fine beach and a modern sports/social center provided by the government, like the ones in nearly every Israeli town.

Entering Haifa, we quickly found a parking space at the foot of Ben Gurion Boulevard in the German Colony. From this vantage point, the view upwards towards the Carmel Mountain features the glorious Bahai Gardens … but more about that later. The German Templar neighborhood was established in 1868. The Templars purchased land that in those days was far from the town, which had only 4,000 residents. They also established other colonies in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and throughout Palestine.

The Templars took their name from the German Temple Society, which strictly followed the New Testament. They intended to build the first planned agricultural community in the Holy Land. The large, beautiful stone homes they constructed are popular tourist attractions today. The Templars prospered in Palestine but suffered as a result of their German affiliations during the two World Wars, when members of the community sided with the Germans. In 1947, the Templars were deported from Palestine to Australia by the British. Eventually, in 1962, they were compensated for their lost properties by the Israeli government.

We continued walking towards Wadi Nisnas, Haifa’s only Arab neighborhood that has preserved its original character. It typifies the religious and communal coexistence of Haifa, with its stone houses, narrow alleyways, and Oriental-style market. Because of its picturesque buildings and streets, Wadi Nisnas hosts the annual three faiths festival, the Festival of Festivals, held during the Christmas season. On the way there, we couldn’t resist stopping at Mama Pita’s, a hole-in-the-wall shop with people crowding the entrance. We sampled the cheap and tasty pita pizza, topped with salty cheese and zatar (hyssop). Delicious!

We had a hard time sticking together in the midst of the festival crowds, but we enjoyed an antiques exhibition, musical events, hawkers selling everything you can imagine, crowded pastry shops with mouth-watering displays, and a felafel restaurant with a loud greeter (the best felafel in Israel! he proclaimed) giving out free samples to entice customers to buy. There was a street art competition in the area, so we looked at the walls, roofs, even dustbins for their particular artistic messages. After we grew tired of fighting the crowds, we walked leisurely out of Wadi Nisnas to the lower terrace of the Bahai Gardens.

The Bahai Faith, a post-Islamic monotheistic religion, was founded in mid 19th century Persia and has about six million adherents today, spread around the world. More than two million live in India, with the balance residing in nearly all the world’s countries. Israel is the center of the Bahai Faith and hosts its most prominent sites: the terraced Bahai Gardens of Haifa, including the tomb of the messianic Bahai precursor “the Bab”, and the mausoleum of the founder Baha’u’llah in Acre. Since its inception, the Bahai religion has faced persecution from some Islamic authorities, since it defies the Islamic teaching that Mohammed is the last prophet.

The gardens themselves are magnificent, with terraces from the upper city down the Carmel slopes to the foot of Ben Gurion Boulevard, which ends near the water. Everything growing in the gardens is pristine and is beautifully maintained by the devotees of the faith, who volunteer to spend time at the shrine. Almost unbelievably, the beautiful lawns, shrubs, and trees are maintained without man-made irrigation. It’s a “must see” attraction in Israel, which explains why reservations are needed to tour the gardens, which is accomplished by descending the many sets of stairs from top to bottom. But even without entering the grandiose gates, tourists like us were able to enjoy the view and the ambiance near the bottom entrance.

Tired by now, we had a pleasant rest in the lovely garden of an attractive coffee bar/restaurant, sitting on upholstered chairs and sofas, listening to good music. We were just biding our time until our reservation time at the Isabella Restaurant, located in a Templar building on the boulevard. We enjoyed excellent scallopini there, the only place we’ve found in Israel that serves it. On our way out, we were thankful that we had made reservations, since there was quite a throng of hungry people at the entrance. So ended a lovely day in Haifa, port city and industrial capital of Israel’s north.

By Steve Kramer, in http://www.infoisrael.net

One thought on “A Day in Haifa

    Duane L Herrmann said:
    February 7, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    I’ve been to Haifa twice. It is wonderful, and worth the trip!

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