01.02.2018 - 13.04.2018
This Spring I visited a couple of zones of conflict in the Mediterranean so thought I’d write an email describing them.
First up was sun kissed Cyprus/Northern Cyprus in February.
After flying into Northern Cyprus (Turkish side) our first stop was the central city Nicosia, which is unique as it’s the world’s only divided capital city.
Greeks and Turks have both lived on the island for a long time but the Greeks have always been in the majority. In the early 1970s Turks made up about 20% of the population but were quite thinly scattered across the island. In 1974, in a display of needless machismo, the junta that ruled Greece at the time decided to invade (and run the country themselves) and the Turks responded by counter invading to protect Turkish Cypriots. After a few months of mid intensity fighting, a peace treaty was signed but with the island now split into a Greek South and Turkish North (not internationally recognised).
Whilst Nicosia didn’t have too many stand out sights, by far the most interesting aspect of being there was the atmosphere of the demilitarized zone that has formed right in the city centre. Whole chunks of the city have been either abandoned or turned into military posts and quite often you’d turn into an unsuspecting looking side road only to be faced by soldiers with guns and signs warning you that trespassers will be shot in several languages. Probably not a good place to absent mindedly get hammered methinks.
We then headed to the South coast and the pretty port city of Paphos. There are some great archaeological sights and once you can get off the beaten track in the Akamas peninsula some really impressive coastal scenery.
The highlight in the South was definitely climbing the highest peak Mt. Troodhos. Whilst you can’t get to the summit itself (British military installation) in February it was a great experience as the mountain is high enough to be covered in knee deep snow. There’s an extremely popular ski resort near the top but once you get away from that into the pine forests you almost feel like you could be in Scandinavia or the Alps as the perfect blue skies meets the green and white of the snow covered trees. Absolutely wonderful and not what you’d expect to find in Cyprus.
The problem I think I had with travelling in Cyprus was that it’s just really hard getting away from tourist developments. There are billboards virtually everywhere on the highways advertising property developers in a variety of different languages and it felt like the island’s economy seems to be based on a giant ‘laundromat’ model as Russians, other Eastern Europeans and even Chinese who’ve made their money through dubious means invest in the country and in return get a shiny Cypriot (read EU) passport. On top of endless dodgy Russians there’s also a huge number of annoying, generally fat and stupid British baby boomers, who bought and sold houses at the right time to live out a very comfortable retirement in the sun. Aside from creating an eyesore landscape of endless white duplexes, sprawling out from the dull cities, dodgy Adidas clad Russians and Daily Star reading Brits drinking pints of Carlsberg do not add much to the culture and I think they have sold their soul a little bit.
The North I definitely enjoyed more as I felt it still retained an old world charm about it. That said it’s also sold it’s soul somewhat as unexpectedly Northern Cyprus revealed itself to be a bit of an adult playground. The target market seemed to be Muslims from nearby countries (Turkey, Lebanon and beyond) but also from further afield in Central Asia as several impressive casinos have been built and are even joined by strip clubs in this Muslim country. Wandering round one of the casinos on a midweek night was a bit of a surreal experience as the designer clad patrons nonchalantly tossed around $100 chips and the whole place positively reeked of illegality somewhere in the system, but in an otherwise quiet coastal area.
To get around you pretty much have to rent a car but you’re rewarded as stunning coastal and mountain scenery is joined by some lovely cities in Famagusta and Kyrenia. There are some particularly good crusader era castles to climb up to and the bizarre ‘Blue Mansion’ owned by an eccentric lawyer/arms smuggler was a particular highlight. It’s much more sparsely populated than the South and in large parts of it not much is really happening until you come across another inevitable army installation of course.
The conflict in Cyprus and indeed the division as a whole felt a bit pointless as most Cypriots on both sides would actually like to reunify. Last year was a major blow to the process however as years of negotiations ending up collapsing after Turkey interfered and refused to remove their army presence from the island. As Erdogan pushes an ever more pro-Islamist agenda many on the Turkish side feel they’re losing their own much more relaxed culture as he tightens his grip on power. Pointless, expensive and misguided machismo started the conflict and even 45 years later continues to fuel it.
Whilst I enjoyed Cyprus it also me realise that I like more of a challenge when I’m on holiday. I don’t think I’m ready for the days of renting a villa and enjoying the sun as the main focus of a holiday so, looking for something a bit more on edge, this Easter I headed to the land of Israel. Or is it Palestine? Or Canaan? Or Judea? Or ‘The Holy Land’?
I don’t really know but as the different names above suggests, it’s one of the most contested places in the world. Travelling there has been an extremely thought provoking and stimulating experience, but I also pretty shocking too.
After getting quizzed for well over an hour by 3 different security agents at Tel Aviv airport (a Qatari ID + some unusual stamps in the passport “Where is this Somaliland”? will do that) I was very relieved to get into the country and headed straight to the Holiest of Holies, Jerusalem.
I arrived just as Shabbat (Sabbath) was breaking at Easter/Passover and being in Jerusalem at this time is an eerie feeling. Virtually everything shuts down with no shops open or public transport running. Jews also aren’t allowed to drive a car and it’s a surreal feeling in the dusk as you’re in the downtown of a city of nearly a million people but with virtually no noise. With the exception of some background automated noises like pedestrian crossings or the hum of street lights, there are no signs of life beyond the occasional Orthodox Jew in their extraordinary 17th century Eastern European outfits scurrying to get to synagogue.
The whole city is built from the same material called Jerusalem stone and in the silence, as you get closer to the Holy city a unique air of expectancy grows, I could easily see why so many people get ‘Jerusalem fever’ when they visit. It’s the most important city in the world to both Christians and Jews and third to Muslims (after Mecca and Medinah) and all (very pious) communities are easily identifiable walking around the narrow streets. To allow everyone to coexist peacefully, the old town was split into 4 quarters, a Christian one, an Armenian (also Christian) one, a Muslim one and a Jewish one where each community can live how they choose. They are all fascinating in their different ways and I thought it would only be right if I saw a range of devotion in action.
When I reached the old city I went and watched the eerily quiet Good Friday evening service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jesus alleged tomb location) and then afterwards went to the Western Wall (alleged last remaining part of the Jews 2nd temple) to see Orthodox Jews much more active prayer rituals. The following day I got through the heavy security up to the Dome on the Rock (allegedly where Mohammed ascended to heaven from). Even though they were thronged with pilgrims, looking round them and other sites like the Garden of Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives had an almost transcendental quality to the experience; like you were there but due to their importance to the different faiths and to human experience, being there just didn’t feel quite ‘real’, like you couldn’t quite believe you were in the place where Jesus/Mohammed etc. had been. This feeling of unreality was a sensation I would feel later on in Israel/Palestine and underpinned much of my time there.
After leaving Jerusalem I headed North and spent a fairly hardcore 2 days hiking the Jesus trail from Nazareth to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. It connects up important places in the life of the big man and whilst it was tough going with all the weight on my back it was a wonderful way to connect up the landscape and gather an understanding of how Christianity started. Some places e.g. Nazareth have changed a bit since the Bible and are now fairly ugly sprawling towns but other places, notably on the Sea of Galilee still retain a degree of bucolic charm and it again felt surreal walking in the footsteps of the disciples.
Israel really is ground zero when it comes to organized religion on Earth. Aside from its importance to the Abrahamic faiths, it’s also home to a couple of secondary faiths including Druze and Bahai. The Druze are quite secretive and won’t let you in to many of their temples but in Haifa (Israel’s third city) the Bahai spent about 20 years designing and landscaping a set of quite magnificent terraced gardens. They’re set out over 19 gorgeous terraces and rise several hundred metres up Mount Carmel. They were made a Unesco World Heritage site almost immediately and dominate the landscape in a way that I can’t recall one feature dominating a city so much.
Aside from religious sights there’s a wonderful range of other cultural sights which connect up large swathes of human history. From seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israel Museum to the Crusader and Napoleonic war port of Acre and even up to the amazing Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem it’s probably the fullest trip I’ve done in terms of trying to pack activities in. I was getting up and out by no later than about 7am and averaging around 30,000 steps a day which gives an indication of how intense a trip it was. My favourite historical sight however was definitely camping out and then hiking up the infamous ‘snake path’ to the incredible Roman era mountain top fortress at Masada on the Dead Sea. Somewhat reminiscent of Caribs Leap in Grenada, trapped by Roman forces, after a desperate last stand, rather than surrender, the 1000 Jewish rebels elected to commit mass suicide and Masada has become a byword for Jewish independence and freedom. When you reach the summit and look out over the spectacular views as with so many places it’s Israel it’s an incredibly evocative place.
Unfortunately I got stuck in a couple of places as during Passover transport becomes a real headache in Israel. Whilst I got to see the amazing standstill of traffic in Tel Aviv on Holocaust memorial day, over the 2 weeks I was there on 3 days there was no transport running at all and on another 3 were running a very reduced timetable so it was quite frustrating at times.
That felt like very much a ‘First World problem’ though as I next ventured into Palestine. Many tourists only really visit the somewhat ‘neutral’ spaces of Bethlehem and Jericho but in terms of understanding the conflict I found the countryside and main city of Hebron to be far more illuminating.
One of the most noteworthy things I found about travelling in Israel is just how fertile ‘the land of milk and honey’ now is. Israel are virtually world champions of irrigation engineering as through ingenious use of drip feeds and other technologies they have successfully ‘tamed’ much of the land and are now almost self –sustainable for food. It has come at a great cost for the Palestinians though.
When you cross over into Palestine one of the first things you notice is how much lower quality the land is compared to Israel. Green fields of crops and bovine pasture get replaced by scrabbly hillsides which can support sheep/goats and little else. There are however, pockets of greener land but these are almost all behind barbed wire fences and have IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) defending them nearby. Controversially, lots of hardcore Zionist Jews have moved into Palestine as they feel it’s ‘their land’ and by a variety of methods have slowly but surely taken over the best quality land.
Israel has gradually diverted water from the Jordan river (less than 5% now reaches Palestine) and other sources into Israel and what’s left for the Palestinians is almost not worth having.
Whilst the idea of a 2 state solution is very popular in the West, to some extent it ignores just how much the population has changed since it was first proposed in the 1920s. Even when Israel was created as a home land for European Jews in 1948 the population was under a million but its numbers have swollen 10 fold since then. Much of it is ‘by design’ as Orthodox Jews are encouraged to go forth and multiply and are subsidised by the government to an almost comical extent. In Jerusalem and other Orthodox communities you see couples with endless numbers of kids tagging along everywhere as they have around 7.5 children on average and the country as a whole is the most fertile in the developed world at over 3 per couple.
On top of this, immigration has continued apace and whilst some stories are almost heroic (e.g. Operation Solomon) much of the increase is due to the nearly 2 million Russians who moved in post USSR breakup. In many areas you’re more likely to hear Russian than Hebrew as anyone with Jewish heritage has a ‘right to return’ to Israel but many of the Russians were only grandchildren of Jews and were essentially economic migrants. Israel is now one of the most densely populated countries in the world and when you consider that most of the Southern half is the Negev desert it’s almost inconceivable to see how an agreed 2 states could be even remotely fairly apportioned. Israel has recently finished a huge series of desalination plants and some have optimistically reckoned that much of the Jordan river can be allowed to flow back to Palestine and allow it to become regenerated but I think population pressures dictate that a 2 state solution that both sides are happy with is now infeasible.
I found a similar story of contested space in the main city of Hebron; home to the tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) it is claimed by both Jews and Muslims and there’s a persistent air of tension in the city. To travel across different neighbourhoods you have to (very slowly) get through various IDF checkpoints as Israel has tried to clear the city centre of Palestinians and replaced them with Israeli settlers. On ‘security grounds’ the IDF have kicked Palestinians out of their homes and shut down most of the commercial centre of the city. On a visit to a refugee camp and speaking to some Palestinians they are under no illusions that the Israelis are gradually trying to suffocate life out of Hebron and Palestine generally. The current government of Netanyahu makes little secret of their desire to own all of Palestine and there are now over 3million Palestinians in Jordan alone. By slowly removing agricultural and any other economic opportunities for the Palestinians, they are hoping that the rest will simply gradually give up and leave. As one guy in the refugee camp said to me: “They were in the diaspora for 2000 years so they do not mind playing a long game but this is our home and we will never give in”.
I finished my time in Tel Aviv and once again the sense of unreality of travelling in Israel hit me. Full of artisanal coffee shops, interesting Bauhaus architecture, tech start ups and hippies smoking weed everywhere, in many ways it felt like a city the Guardian could describe as the ‘ultimate urban experience’. Everyone has dogs and are very chilled out and ‘happy’ but to me it brought up visions of the Capitol and their splendid isolation from the other zones in the Hunger Games.
In many ways Israel is an incredible achievement, from it’s legal system to it’s creation as the homeland of Jews after the Holocaust to the regeneration of Hebrew and the construction of a super strong national identity, there is a lot to admire… but it’s also one of the most unfair places on the planet where the country is basically run on an apartheid system. Most towns or cities are either Arab or Jewish but even in ‘mixed’ cities like Haifa the two communities don’t really mix; from childhood they attend different schools and are brought up to regard the creation of Israel as either the greatest event in recent human history or the ‘nakba’ (literally ‘The catastrophe’). This is then followed by national service for Jews and living in a police state for the Palestinians.
Things kicked off in Gaza when I was in the West Bank (but when has Israel/Palestine been ‘quiet’?) but entering Palestine via endless checkpoints and barbed wire fences didn’t feel dangerous, just deeply annoying. I’ve often found that the one of the things most frustrating about conflict zones is realising just how much money, time and effort is wasted on the military when it could be better spent elsewhere. Tens of millions are spent on the Palestinian side as the UN and European charities help offer limited support, but its dwarfed by the absurd extent to which Israel is ‘financially doped’. Thanks to the super powerful Israel lobby in Washington, it receives over $3bn a year in aid from the USA alone (way more than any other country) and it’s even written in American law that the contribution can only go up. This doesn’t even taken into consideration private Jewish contributors from around the world and the money is used to both metaphorically and literally build a wall blocking out the Palestinians.
Like most nationalities, Israelis vary a lot, for every ultra Zionist settler you’ll get several more easy going socialists who have no desire to harm the Palestinians. However, over time the 2 state solution has been largely shelved and the country has now settled into a ‘treatment is better than cure’ mindset. By putting up with having heavily armed soldiers posted everywhere (even in places like bus stops) it’s a price they’re willing to pay and by building huge border walls around Palestinian areas they’re effectively keeping the problem out of sight and out of mind rather than attempting to solve it.
The quality of life in Israel is now one of the highest in the world in many ways but this full knowledge of but ignoration of the problem is why it felt like they were living in the Hunger Games.
Whilst life in the West Bank was overcrowded with poor quality services (the streets for example were filthy) it could be a lot worse. Gaza’s population density is over 5,000 per sq km and ringed by the border wall and the naval blockade in the Mediterranean there’s a reason it’s nicknamed the ‘biggest open air prison in the world’. I can’t really imagine just how tough life must be there and felt at least somewhat hypocritical for visiting Israel and contributing to the economy etc.
With its wonderful wide ranging landscapes, unique culture and incredible history, it’s one of the most thought provoking places I’ve ever been to but I also left with very mixed feelings. Whilst Cyprus felt like a slightly unnecessary conflict and hope that at some point in the future things could change, no one seems to have any ideas on how to move the conflict forward in Israel and the great/awful reality for the two communities looks like it will persist.
From Tel Aviv,