Israel is a tiny country––only about 29,000 square kilometers––and yet, it is a place of amazing variety, with globally unique contrasts. For example, central Israel is the most populous place on earth, and yet, having planted over 240 million trees, it is the only country that ended the 20th century with more trees than it started with! Israel’s location, bridging Africa, Asia and Europe, has blessed it with four bio-geographical zones––Mediterranean, steppe, desert and African – make it unique worldwide in terms of its combination and variety of climate, flora and fauna.
Israel has virtually no rainfall for some eight months of the year, which has spurred it to develop alternative water sources. Seventy-five percent of Israel's water is recycled after use, and the world's largest desalination plant is located in Ashkelon. Israel has pioneered arid land agriculture, and has hosted more than 200,000 people from 130 developing countries for training in agriculture and other fields.
Israel’s achievements in hi-tech go back to its early days: In 1954, WEIZAC, one of the world’s first computers, was designed and built at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. Twenty-four percent of the members of Israel’s work-force have university degrees, the third-largest number in the industrialized world. It also has the world's highest count of engineers per capita, and 4,000 high-tech startups, the most per-capita in the world.
Israel has produced a number of outstanding sportsmen and women––in tennis, windsurfing, judo and track and field, the latter mainly thanks to the influx of newcomers from the former Soviet Union. In the 2007 Special Olympics, Israel’s team of 39 competitors garnered 42 medals: 11 gold, 22 silver and 9 bronze!
On the medical front, two out of the top three medications to treat multiple sclerosis were developed in Israel; Israeli microbiologists developed the first passive vaccine against the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, and an Israeli company developed the first ingestible video camera to help diagnose cancer and digestive disorders, so small it fits inside a pill! Israel also developed the world’s first pill to deliver a daily dose of insulin to diabetes sufferers.
Perhaps most meaningful of all, some say it is the variety of Israel’s people that makes it unique in so many other ways––only around 7.3 million, but hailing from over 30 regions and countries the world over.
The traveler to Israel walks through history: from windswept crusader castles to ports where seamen, pilgrims and famous travelers spent some time and then moved on; from desert landscapes that were home to traveling tribes, half-forgotten armies and merchants in camel caravans, to sheikhs’ tombs with whitened domes, silent monasteries and ancient synagogues decorated with colorful mosaics.
The State of Israel was created in the Land of Israel which was promised to the People of Israel according to Jewish tradition. It was where Jesus, the Christian Messiah, was born and the place where Mohammed, the Moslem Prophet, ascended to heaven. The meeting place of three continents and two seas, the country is a skein of cultures, customs and traditions, a country that was home to many people, cultures and changing religions. On the crossroads of ancient routes of commerce, the land also saw waves of conquering armies: the Canaanites, Hebrews, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders Ottoman Turks and the British made this much-desired small country into a battlefield where they strove for eminence, built fortifications, castles and royal palaces.
Settlement and Conquest --The Land of Israel in Biblical Times
The Canaanite tribes were the first settlers in Israel and its principal inhabitants until the second millennium BCE. In this early time the country was already a meeting place of different cultures: Egypt to the south, Assyria Mesopotamia and Asia Minor to the north. During the second millennium BCE several tribes started an invasion of the country, including the Philistines who came from the Aegean and settled in the southern coastal plain, and the Hebrews who came from Mesopotamia and settled in the hills.
The Hebrews, known as the Sons of Israel lived in the framework of 12 tribes who were united towards the end of the second millennium BCE by the first King of Israel, Saul. His successor, David, expanded the borders of the country and made Jerusalem, till then a Jebusite city, into his capital. It was here that his son King Solomon built the Temple with the Holy Ark. After Solomon’s death the kingdom was divided into two, with the ten northern Tribes setting up the Kingdom of Israel while the remaining two tribes set up the Kingdom of Judah in the Jerusalem Hills. In the year 721 BCE, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians; the 10 tribes were sent into exile and are considered “lost” until this day. The kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE, the Temple was destroyed and the Sons of Israel went into the first Babylonian exile.
Between Empires – From the Babylonians to the Byzantines
In the year 539 BCE, Babylon was conquered by the Persians and the tribe of Judah was allowed to return to Jerusalem, which was part of the Persian Empire. Jerusalem was erected from the rubble and the Second Temple was built. In the year 333 BCE, the Persian Empire, with the Land of Israel, was conquered by Alexander the Great, and in the year 66 BCE it was conquered by the Roman general Pompey. For the next 200 years the country was ruled by Jewish kings as a Roman vassal state. These were troubled times. In the year 70 CE the Temple was destroyed after a Jewish rebellion and in the year 135 BCE the Jews were sent into exile after another rebellion. Jerusalem was destroyed to its foundations and a Roman city was set up in its place.
Jesus, the Christian messiah and the founder of Christianity, was born when the country was under Roman rule, but it took 300 years until Christianity was legitimized in the Roman Empire which in turn became Byzantium in the east.
As Christianity was legitimized and became the official religion the view of the Land of Israel as the Holy Land developed. It became a destination for pilgrims and a huge building enterprise got under way with churches and monasteries built all over the country. It was at this time that parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem were built. Remnants of the building from this era can be seen at Ovdat, Capernaum (Kfar Nakhum,) Khamat Gader and Latroun.
Between East and West – From the Moslem Conquest to the Crusaders
In the year 640, the country was conquered by the Moslem Caliph Omar, beginning the period of Moslem rule in the country. In this very important period for the entire region, routes of communication were opened between the east and the west: goods, religious art and cultural and scientific knowledge started to flow from the East to Europe, mutually enriching each other. According to Moslem tradition, the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven from Jerusalem and as such it is perceived as the third holiest city. In the first years of Arab rule Christians were allowed to enter Jerusalem, but this was stopped in the 11th century, prompting Pope Urban II to call for the crusade to liberate Jerusalem from Moslem rule.
The first crusade ended with the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. During the crusader era the country became one of the most important commercial centers in the world with routes of commerce connecting China, India, Madagascar and Africa to European markets. The crusader cities became meeting points for Moslem and Armenian Christian merchants and their European counterparts. The remnants of these crusader cities can be seen in Acre (Akko), Caesarea, Jerusalem, Latroun and Kil’at Namroud.
The crusader era did not last long. In the year 1187, the crusader armies were defeated by Saladin in the battle of Karnei Khitin (Hattin). The crusaders then lost successive battles ending with their defeat to the Mamluks in the battle of Acre, their last stronghold, in 1291. From the beginning of the Mamluk conquest the country diminished in its economic and political importance. The Ottoman conquest of 1517 did not add to its stature. The Land of Israel was a backwater in the Ottoman Empire and except for a few pilgrims of the three monotheistic religions, traffic between east and west declined.
From the Old to the New– The British Mandate and the creation of the State of Israel
The turning point in the country’s importance came with Napoleon’s arrival in the country in 1799. Napoleon’s eastern campaign showed the west the country’s strategic and economic importance – a process that led to increased European involvement in the country. New routes of communication and travel were set up and Christian missionary institutions were set up in the country. More pilgrims started to come and Jews started to immigrate to the country. These and other events led to increased interest in the country – an interest that peaked with the British conquest in 1918 at the end of the First World War.
In the year 1948, the British Mandate came to an end and the state of Israel was created. Its founders said in the Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews and for the Ingathering of the Exiles from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace… will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions...”
The State of Israel, set up at the meeting places of continents, history and cultures embodies this rich web of cultures. Its population includes different peoples and religions, religious and secular, Arab Moslems and Arab Christians, Druze, Bedouins, Circassians, Samaritans and Jews from 70 Diasporas, from East and Western Europe, North Africa, Asia, North and South America. The people are settled all over the country in the Negev, Arava, Galilee and coastal plain, in moshavim, kibbutzim, vivacious cities and quiet villages busily engaged in industry and commerce, farming and scientific research. All of these cultures, peoples and religions created a rich tapestry of tradition, beliefs and customs that encapsulate the holy and the secular, the past and the present, the east and the west.