Category Archives: Muslim

The Most Crazy History of Ancient Acco (Acre)

Acre or Akko or Acco
The current Acre or Akko or Acco
Heracles
Heracles

Acre, or Acco has really a crazy history and one of the many reasons for that is because Acre is so very old, continuously inhabited since the early Bronze Age (c. 2000-1550 BCE) some 4000 years ago. In Egyptian records, it is mentioned in the Execration Texts, the First Campaign of Thutmose III and the Amarna Letters (ca. 1800 BCE), and today what Acre means is a coastal city with a small harbor and loads of tourism and an absolute crazy history with too many conquers and defeats to count.

In the start of its existence as city, Greek mysteries were at work here. The Greeks referred to the city as Ake, meaning “cure”. According to the Greek myth, Heracles found curative herbs here to heal his wounds. Josephus calls it Akre.

Acre was given to the Tribe of Asher, but ‘poor’ Asher failed to take it(Judges 1:31). Then it was given to Hiram by Solomon (I Kings 9:11-13). If that was not enough, Assyrian monarch Sennecherib took Acre, and another Assyrian monarch Ashurbanipal took it from Sennecherib.

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

In 333 B.C., it fell to Alexander the Great, but the city fell under Egyptian sovereignty in 261 B.C., and was renamed Ptolemais after Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who was the king of Ptolemaic Egypt from 283 to 246 BCE. In 219 B.C., the city fell under Syrian sovereignty. The violent history of the port city took a break until 65 B.C.

Cleopatra
Cleopatra

The city was captured by Alexander Jannaeus, Cleopatra and Tigranes the Great. Alexander Jannaeus was the King of Judaea from 103 to 76 BC., who married the wife of his dead brother, was cruel and expanded the kingdom with a bloody civil war. Cleopatra was the last active pharaoh of Egypt, after her death Egypt became a province of the recently established Roman Empire. Tigranes the Great was King of Armenia under whom the country became, for a short time, the strongest state east of the Roman Republic. And who said that history is boring, huh?

Herod the Great

In that year the port city was part of the Roman empire under Pompey, when it became a Roman colony where army veterans were settled and built a Roman naval base. Here Herod the Great and Octavian (Jewish Historian for the Romans) met together and made their peace.

After some time of rest for the poor city, it became suddenly the focus point because of the first Jewish revolt. In fact, Acre is the city, where the actual first Jewish revolt started. In A.D. 66, it was sacked by the Jews in reprisal for the slaughter of the Jews in Caesarea.

The Roman reaction on the Jewish sacking of the port city didn’t sit well by the Roman empire, and the Romans made their headquarters here for the war in the First Jewish Revolt.

First Jewish Revolt
First Jewish Revolt

By the year 190, it had its own bishop. In the Byzantine Period, it became largely Samaritan and was named Samaritiki. In the year 614, the city was taken by the Persian Conquest. In the year 636, it became part of the Arab Conquest.

Baldwin I
Baldwin I

In 1104, the Crusaders took it under Baldwin I who renamed it Saint Jean d’Acre after Joan of Arc and the city often was called Acre – The Crusaders also turned it into a naval base. But it took the Crusaders 4 years of siege of the city to do that. The city provided the Crusaders with a foothold in the region and access to vibrant trade that made them prosperous, especially giving them access to the Asiatic spice trade.

After the Crusader stronghold of Jerusalem fell to the Arabs, it became the Crusader capital and main port for the Mediterranean and various orders set up their centers. The centers were The Knights Templars, The Teutonic Order, Order of Saint Lazarus and the Order of the Knights of Saint John – Hospitallers. The good thing out all of it was that they allowed the Jews to live there too (which was different then normal those times).

Saladin
Saladin

The Crusader centers were filled with proud men, who would die for their order they belonged to. In the beginning, the Crusaders  seemed to be unstoppable and ‘waltzed’ through any defense. Because of politics and betrayal, the Crusader centers were serious weakened.

Saladin came and conquered in the most unusable and unconventional ways possible in ancient and modern warfare. In 1187 Acre was taken by Saladin. In 1191 the Crusaders came back and took the city back under Richard the Lionhearted of England and Philip Augustus of France. In 1192, it became the capital of the Crusader Kingdom because they couldn’t take Jerusalem.

In the times of the Crusaders and Saladin, unusable strategies were applied in the battles about Acre. The city was occupied by Arabs, who were surrounded by Crusaders, who laid siege surrounding the city. Saladin came and surrounded the Crusaders, who surrounded the city. This continued for many years, until the Arabs within Acre fell and the Crusaders managed to penetrate the city and could stop Saladin of attacking the city.

Mameluke
Mameluke

In 1291, the mother of all battles occurred and the Crusaders were defending their last stronghold against Sultan Khalil el Ashraf (Mameluke). In Acre, there were more then 12,000 knights and they swore to fight till the last man against the ‘Arab hordes’.

And that’s exactly what they did. Even when many Crusaders were wounded, they would normally be spared by the Arab armies if they surrendered, but they choose to continue to fight until their last breathe. Many Crusaders were praying while they were fighting. Many of them were in a trance, trying to kill one attacker after the other while singing psalms. It scared the Arab armies to their core because of the eerie and sinister sound the Crusaders made.

After the terrible battle was finally over, Acre and the surroundings were covered by thick layers of the dead and a deadly quiet ruled the city and surroundings; only seven Crusaders survived. Many Arab soldiers who also survived this massive battle spread the stories of the terrible deeds of the Crusaders, who managed to kill more then 29,000 Arab soldiers in this battle. It seemed for the Arab soldiers and populations there there was a curse on the land and city. Their victory tasted more then bitter.

For hundreds of years everyone avoided to visit the city and the lands surrounding it and everything laid in ruins and stayed like that. Many locals were telling that they could hear the eerie quiet voices still singing the psalms of those who were killed in that terrible battle.

And after 458 years, Bedouin Sheikh Dehar el-Omar happened. Dehar el-Omar was the administrative head of northern Palestine in the mid-18th century, while the area was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. He managed to bring the cities Tiberias, Arraba, Nazareth, Deir Hanna together under his rule and finally added Acre to his list.

He built fortifications, but not really rebuilt to city. For this, he invited the Jews to join him, which they did by mass. Bedouin Sheikh Dehar el-Omar hoped that the Jews would rebuild the city to its full splendor, but they didn’t. It looked like the Crusaders curse was still there. The city became a center of the cotton trade instead between Palestine and Europe. Acre had that time a functioning harbor and fortifications surrounding the city with makeshift houses between the ruins of hundreds of years of age. In the mid-1760s, Sheikh Dehar el-Omar refocused on something else and he reestablished the port town of Haifa nearby.

In 1775, Ahmed Pasha the Albanian (El Jazzar) rebuilt the city with its splendor. He also built the Turkish Aqueduct that brought water from the Kabri Stream to Acco. The Crusader’s curse seemed to be broken by El Jazzar, according the locals those times.

In 1799, the French armies arrived under Napoleon, but they manage to withstand the Napoleonic siege. El Jazzar managed that tremendous feat.

The biggest power for the Napoleon’s armies was their artillery, or with other words their heavy cannons. Their strategy was actually first the bombardments, then charge with infantry. They used cavalry as well, but that was useless during sieges. El Jazzar was for sure aware of that, and took care that his men were as protected as possible under the French bombardments; the city walls were thick and strong. The French failure was actually quite simple to explain: the ran out of cannonballs. At the end it would be too costly to attack the city with only infantry and they gave up.

In 1814 Suleiman Pasha became the ruler of Acco and totally rebuilt the aqueduct and it is the aqueduct that is still visible today.

El Jazzar
El Jazzar

During the British Mandate Period, the Citadel was used as the British prison where many of the Jewish freedom fighters such as Jabotinsky were imprisoned and others were hung. In 1947, Jewish commandos breached the walls of the fortress freeing both Jewish and Arab prisoners. In 1948, it was one of the three strategic cities of Galilee which fell to Jewish forces – Captured in May 1948.

From all that history, what’s left to look at?

Ottoman aqueduct to Acre
Ottoman aqueduct to Acre

First, we have the aqueducts in Acre (Helenistic, El-Jazzar and Suleiman Pasha). Those aqueducts gathered its water from Ein Shefa, Ein Giah, Ein Shayara and Ein Zuph.

Acre
El-Jazzar Mosque

Secondly, we have the El Jazzar Mosque, the El Jazzar Fortress (Used by the British as a prison and place of execution for Jewish underground fighters), Saint John’s Crypt, Khan El-Umdan, Tel el-Fukhkhar (Toron), Crusader Subterranean City, Harbor, walls (built by El-Jazzar).

El Jazzar Fortress
El Jazzar Fortress
Saint John’s Crypt
Saint John’s Crypt
Khan El-Umdan
Khan El-Umdan
Tel el-Fukhkhar
Tel el-Fukhkhar
Hospitaller Fortress also known as the Citadel of Acre
Hospitaller Fortress also known as the Citadel of Acre

 

Napoleon
Napoleon

What is interesting is Tel el-Fukhkhar or the Old Testament Tel is this is the oldest part of Acre and since the Crusaders, still important. The Crusaders called it Toron, from here Richard the Lionhearted set out to conquer the city, the French called this the Napoleon’s Hill, because they tried to conquer the city but failed and finally Israeli forces launched their attack on the city in 1948 and succeeded. I guess there was no El Jazzar anymore.

And you, my dear reader, think that’s it? You’re wrong. The current times is nothing else then history for those who study history in the next 50 or 100 years. We are simply part of it.

 

Jericho, the Ancient City, where Time Stood Still

Local authorities proudly call Jericho the ‘world’s oldest continuously inhabited city’ and this is no idle boast – archaeological evidence traces the city’s history back over 10,000 years. Earthquakes proved Jericho’s biggest challenge, leveling many of its most fantastic sites – such as Hisham’s Palace – over the centuries.When you visit Jericho, you will see it frozen in time; not much has changed since those times. Click here for maps of Jericho.

This article reads like an itinerary for a tour in and around Jericho. This article gives you enough information to go around this ancient city. But if you want or need more input and deeper background information, or if you are a Pilgrim and want deeper information about the Christian penetration of this place, talk with Wim the guide. Jericho is one of his many specialties.

In this article you find information what’s to see and where to sleep and eat.

Map Of Jericho
Map Of Jericho

Jericho has modernized somewhat since the Canaanite period, but not much. Small-scale farming still makes up a significant portion of the local economy, although tourism is making inroads. The town is rather scruffy and unkempt but retains a raffish charm and a smiley demeanor. Most visitors just stay long enough to ascend the Mount of Temptation and marvel at the archaeological remains of Tel al-Sultan (Ancient Jericho).

Brief History
Settled history in Jericho dates to around 10,000 BCE when hunter-gatherer groups settled here around a spring. Mudbrick buildings were erected at the site and by 9400 BCE it’s believed that some 1000 people lived here.

For the biblically astute, Jericho is known as the first city the Israelites captured after wandering for 40 years in the desert: shaken by horn blasts and the Israelites’ shouts, the city walls came crashing down (Joshua 6). Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the region in the 4th century BCE, Jericho became his personal fiefdom.

Further waves of occupiers arrived and departed until Jericho fell into the hands of Mark Antony, who gave it to Cleopatra as a wedding gift. Herod later leased it from Cleopatra and improved its infrastructure with aqueducts and a hippodrome. The 1st-century aristocracy of Jerusalem used the city as a winter getaway.

Christians celebrate Jericho as the place where John the Baptist received his own baptism in the Jordan River and where the temptation of Jesus took place on the mountain.

In the 1967 Six Day War Israel captured Jericho from Jordan. After the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, it became the first city to be handed over to Palestinian Authority control. During the Second Intifada, the Israeli army attacked the Palestinian Authority prison and security headquarters in Jericho.

Today Jericho has returned its attention to tourism and daily trade, and though you won’t find a great many foreign visitors in town, it makes an interesting stop for a night or two.

Sights

Tree of Zacchaeus
Tree of Zacchaeus

A gaggle of storefronts and restaurants with colorful bouquets of household products, fresh produce and roasting snack foods spilling into the streets marks Jericho’s diminutive and dusty town center. The Tree of Zacchaeus, nearby on Ein as-Sultan St (a sycamore said to be more than 2000 years old) received its name from the story of the wealthy tax collector who was too short to see Jesus amid the crowds and thus climbed this very tree to get a better view. Seeing this, Jesus asked the tax collector if he could visit his home, a gesture that so moved Zacchaeus that he decided to dedicate himself to a life of charitable deeds.

Jericho
Jericho

Many of Jericho’s sights are outside the city, making for good drives, hikes or cable car rides into the surrounding area. The best way to see these sites is to hire a driver for the day – 30NIS to 40NIS an hour is a fair price.

The new tourist information center in Jericho’s main square is an excellent place to stop at early in your visit. Staff speak fluent English and have a huge variety of information about sights and tours, as well as very useful maps of the area. It is open every day.

Tel al-Sultan (Ancient Jericho) (adult/child 10/5NIS; 8am-5pm)

Tel al-Sultan near Jericho
Tel al-Sultan near Jericho

It is impossible not feel a sense of history strolling around the mounds and ruins at Tel al-Sultan, where remains of dwellings and fortifications dating back some 10,000 years have been unearthed. You will see what look like sand dunes and stairways (the oldest known stairways in the world); underneath, the layers of civilization beneath go back even further into the mists of history.

Tel al-Sultan near Jericho
Tel al-Sultan near Jericho

The remains of a round tower, thought to date from 8000 BCE, indicates that Jericho was possibly the world’s first fortified city; legend has it that the tower withstood seven earthquakes. Though a large portion of ancient Jericho remains unexcavated, Tel al-Sultan is an essential part of any trip to the city, and what has already been identified here is very well explained on signposts throughout the site.

Mount of Temptation & Monastery of the Qurantul (round trip 55NIS; 8am-9pm)

It was on the Mount of Temptation where, so we’re told, Jesus resisted Satan after his 40-day fast in the desert. The Monastery of the Qurantul marks the spot where the Devil urged Jesus to make a loaf of bread out of a stone (Matthew 4:1–11). It’s an incredible feat of engineering, cut into the cliff face with dramatic views over the Dead Sea to Jordan.

Opening times for the monastery are sporadic but as with all tourist attractions in Palestine it is best to go early – or at least a couple of hours before sunset.

Note that the caretaker may lock the door if he is showing big groups around, so it is worth hanging around a few minutes if you find it closed.

Cable cars stop just before the monastery, and even the short climb up the stairs to the front gate can be a struggle in the midday heat. They sometimes stop running without notice, making for a sweaty 400m climb. The juice sellers and a couple of restaurants provide a good spot to catch your breath.

Hisham’s Palace (Khirbet al-Mafjar; admission 10NIS; 8am-6pm)

Hisham’s Palace
Hisham’s Palace

A short drive north of Tel al-Sultan, this is a spot not to be missed. The sprawling winter hunting retreat of Caliph Hisham Ibn Abd al-Malik must have been magnificent on its creation in the 8th century, with its baths, mosaic floors and pillars – so much so that archaeologists have labelled it the ‘Versailles of the Middle East’. It was not fated to last, however – it was destroyed by an earthquake soon after its creation.

The caretaker will direct you to a cinema, where you will be shown a 20-minute video on the history of the site, which gives much-needed perspective for a walk around the ruins. A high point is an amazingly well-preserved ‘tree of life’ mosaic in the entertaining room of the bathhouse. On one side of the tree two deer graze peacefully, while on the other a deer is attacked by a lion. There are various interpretations of the mosaic, including the struggle between good and evil, peace and war, as well as good versus bad governance.

Wadi Qelt & Nabi Musa

Wadi Qelt
Wadi Qelt

The steep canyon of Wadi Qelt links Jerusalem to Jericho and has a number of interesting religious sites along its course, as well as springs, plants and wildlife, and often breathtaking views over the mountains and desert. The whole canyon is hikeable, although it would take a full day, and even in the spring and autumn the heat can be intense. The key sites of the wadi are linked to the highway that connects Jerusalem with Jericho and the Dead Sea, and are well signposted in both directions. See for more information the Wadi Qelt & Nabi Musa article.

Qasr al-Yahud (9am-4pm Apr-Oct, 9am-3pm Nov-Mar)
Qasr el Yahud Jordan River Baptizing8At an isolated spot on the Jordan River, on the border between Jordan and the West Bank, stands the reputed spot of Jesus’s baptism by John (Matthew 3), which began his ministry. John was based here because it was an important crossroads for passing traders, business people and soldiers, but the same cannot be said of the site today. It was only reopened to pilgrims in 2011; you must pass an Israeli checkpoint and drive through a deserted landscape surrounded by barbed wire and  minefields to reach a car park, from where it is a short walk down to the river.

Expect to see dozens of pilgrims, most in white T-shirts or smocks, taking turns in walking to the water and submerging themselves. The Jordan River is divided in the middle by a piece of wood – which denotes the border and prevents people from wading to the other side. Just meters away, armed Jordanian soldiers loll on a bench, facing their Israeli counterparts. Whether you are religious or not, it is a beautiful spot, and the site has been fully renovated with changing facilities, a gift  shop, a food and drink outlet and shaded areas where you can sit and admire the view.

Inn of the Good Samaritan (adult/child 21/9NIS; 8am-5pm Apr-Oct, 8am-4pm Nov-Mar)

Inn of the Good Samaritan
Inn of the Good Samaritan

Located just off the main road between Jerusalem and Jericho, this site is associated with the popular parable told in Luke 10: 25-37. In the story, Jesus describes a man who is robbed, beaten and left for dead on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. A priest passes by and then a Levite but neither lends a hand to the stricken traveler. Finally, a Samaritan stops to help the stranger, dressing his wounds and bringing him to a nearby inn; thus ‘good Samaritan’ became a byword for  compassionate individual’.

Inn of the Good Samaritan
Inn of the Good Samaritan

Historians suggest that an Israelite rather than a Samaritan was the original hero of the story, and that a Greek translator mistakenly swapped the words while compiling the book of Luke.

Inn of the Good Samaritan
Inn of the Good Samaritan

Archaeologists have unearthed a Second Temple-era palace, presumably constructed by Herod, which may have been converted into the inn mentioned in the Bible. A church was added under the Byzantines, and during the Crusader period a khan (travellers inn) was erected. The ruins you can see today are a confection of foundations and mosaics from the different eras of construction. Also on the site is a new Israeli museum housing a collection of mosaics.

Jericho Cable Car (www.jericho-cablecar.com; 60NIS; 8am-8pm)

Jericho
Jericho

The Swiss-made red cable cars that ply the route between Tel al-Sultan and the Mount of Temptation are visible from throughout Jericho. Although they may appear dated, the 20-minute ride is a great way to see the city and the farms that dominate its outskirts. Even when the site is quiet, cars leave fairly regularly.Look out for the network of irrigation ditches that intersect the groves growing bananas and oranges, a technique used in this city for thousands of years.

Sleeping

Jericho’s accommodation scene is hardly burgeoning, but there is a handful of options for each price category.

sami-youth-hostel-2
Outside of Sami Youth Hostel

Sami Youth Hostel (02-232 4220; eyad_alalem@live.com; NIS 120)
The best budget option in Jericho, this guesthouse is nestled deep in the ramshackle refugee camp, with a dozen private rooms in a clean, quiet and enigmatically furnished two-story hostel. Coming into Jericho from Highway 90, take a left at the first roundabout, then continue straight – the guesthouse will be on your right. Failing that, ask any local for ‘Hotel Sami’ and they will point the way. The owner, Sami, speaks perfect English, and can advise on tours to the sights around Jericho.

Inside the Sami Youth Hostel
Inside the Sami Youth Hostel

Oasis Hotel (02-231 1200; http://www.intercontinental.com; d US$120-40, US$200)
Until 2014 this cavernous hotel was the Intercontinental Jericho, and the logo is still visible on the side of the building, one of the tallest in the city. Much of the decor has remained the same, and rooms are clean and modern, with baths and TVs.  The hotel also has two pools, a bar and helpful staff.

Oasis Hotel in Jericho
Oasis Hotel in Jericho

Jericho Resort Village (02-232 1255; http://www.jerichoresorts.com; s/d 350/450NIS, bungalows 500-550NIS)
Out in the north of the city by Hisham’s Palace, this resort hotel has two pools and a range of comfortable and well-furnished rooms, including modern chalets, doubles and singles. In 2014, the owners added two levels to the main building. It is popular with tour groups so be sure to book ahead.

Jericho Resort Village
Jericho Resort Village

Eating

felafel
felafel

The roads surrounding Jericho’s central square are packed with kebab and felafel stands, as well as small coffee shops. A kebab or sandwich is unlikely to cost more than 10NIS, and the park in the center of the roundabout is a lovely spot to sit, eat and watch the locals playing cards and smoking shisha.

Al Essawe (Main Sq; mains 15-45NIS; 6am-11pm daily)
On a corner overlooking Jericho’s main square, Al Essawe’s lovely 2nd-floor terrace is an excellent place to watch the world go by. The owner speaks English and the restaurant serves the usual Arabic fare, kebabs, felafel and mezze. Al Essawe’s speciality is barbecued chicken in lemon sauce. Coffee and shisha are served on the roof terrace.

Abu Omar (Ein al-Sultan St; mains 20-50NIS; 6am-midnight)
Next to the main square, this local favourite serves everything from felafel in pita (4NIS) to a half chicken dinner for two people (50NIS).

Rosanna Restaurant and Café (Jericho-Jerusalem Rd; 35-70NIS; 10am-late)
A good option for those staying either at Sami’s or the Oasis, Rosanna is walking distance from both hotels and serves Arabic and Western food in massive portions. In the evenings, films are projected onto a screen outside in the leafy garden, the centrepoint of which is a bubble fountain. Despite the signs, Rosanna no longer appears to serve alcohol, but the Oasis over the road has a good bar open 24 hours.

Getting There & Away

There are no direct service taxis from Jerusalem to Jericho. A private taxi ride from Jerusalem to Jericho (or vice versa) should cost around 400NIS. The best way to reach Jericho via public transport is from Ramallah, where buses leave regularly throughout the day. Ask around for the bus times, since they vary; they generally take around 90 minutes via a circuitous route to avoid the Qalandia checkpoint.Remember to bring a passport; you’ll need to show it on the way back  to Jerusalem.

Wadi Qelt & Nabi Musa

The steep canyon of Wadi Qelt links Jerusalem to Jericho and has a number of interesting religious sites along its course, as well as springs, plants and wildlife, and often breathtaking views over the mountains and desert. The whole canyon is hikeable, although it would take a full day, and even in the spring and autumn the heat can be intense. Map.

St. George’s Monastery
St. George’s Monastery

The key sites of the wadi are linked to the highway that connects Jerusalem with Jericho and the Dead Sea, and are well signposted in both directions. Beware of extreme heat in summer and flash floods in winter. The spectacular St George’s Monastery (9am to 1pm daily) is a must see in Wadi Qelt, built into the cliff face in the 5th century.

Wadi Qelt
Wadi Qelt

Turn right off the access road and park in the car park, from where it is a steep 10-minute walk to the monastery – expect to be hassled by donkey-taxi vendors the entire way. The paintings inside the main chapel are worth the walk, and parts of the original mosaic floors are visible below perspex screens. Up another flight of stairs there is a beautiful cave chapel.

Wadi Qelt
Wadi Qelt

Drinking water is available at the monastery. You’ll see signposts along the way for the three main springs (Ein Qelt, Ein Farah and Ein Fawwar) but don’t drink the spring water, it’s not safe and you can become sick after drinking.

Nabi Musa
Nabi Musa

Another road off the highway towards Jericho will take you to the complex of Nabi Musa (Prophet Moses; 8am till sunset). About 10km north of the Dead Sea, this is where Muslims believe Moses (Musa in Arabic, Moshe in Hebrew) was buried.

Nabi Musa
Nabi Musa

A mosque was built on the site in 1269, under Mamluk Sultan Baybar (it was expanded two centuries later) and annual week-long pilgrimages set out from Jerusalem to Nabi Musa – they continue today.

Nabi Musa Muslim graveyard
Nabi Musa Muslim graveyard

The road beyond the mosque takes  you past a Muslim graveyard – including the tomb of a former imam of Nabi Musa, sadly today covered in graffiti – and then into the Judean desert for some 20km. The road passes solitary camels, abandoned tanks and vast open desert.

Two days in Tsfat (Safed)

This is an article to spend your time in Tsfat, but instead of visiting this town for a couple of hours (like with most of the organized tours do), you spend two days at this ethereal place. Here I describe why and how. Here I talk about all the sights, neighborhoods, hotels, restaurants, prices, tips, entertainment, history, everything to make it possible to have your own tour without a guide. This is guide inside information shared with you. 

Print out this article or at least print the (embedded) maps. If you need more maps, click here for the maps about Tsfat.

Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter
Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter

The mountaintop city of Tsfat is an ethereal place to get lost for a day or two. A center of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) since the 16th century, it’s home to an otherworldly mixture of Hasidic Jews, artists and devout-but-mellow former hippies, a surprising number of them American immigrants.

Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter
Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter

In the old city’s labyrinth of cobbled alleys and steep stone stairways, you’ll come across ancient synagogues, crumbling stone houses with turquoise doorways, art galleries, artists’  studios and Yiddish-speaking little boys in black kaftans and bowler hats.

Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter
Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter

Parts of Tsfat look like a shtetl (ghetto) built of Jerusalem stone, but the presence of so many mystics and spiritual seekers creates a distinctly bohemian atmosphere.

On Shabbat (Friday night and Saturday until sundown), commerce completely shuts down. While this may be inconvenient if you’re looking for a bite to eat, the lack of traffic creates a meditative, spiritual atmosphere through which joyful Hasidic tunes waft from hidden synagogues and unseen dining rooms. Do not photograph observant Jews on Shabbat and holidays.

In July and August and during the Passover and Sukkot holidays, Tsfat is packed with tourists –both Israeli and foreign – and the city’s restaurants and cafes buzz until late at night. Winter, on the other hand, is very quiet, giving the city’s many artists a chance to get some work done.

Small History
Founded in the Roman period, Tsfat was fortified by Yosef ben Matityahu (later known as Josephus Flavius), commander of Jewish forces in the Galilee in the early years of the Great Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE). According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Tsfat was the site of one of the hilltop fire beacons used to convey news of the sighting of the new moon in Jerusalem.

The Crusaders, led by King Fulk of Anjou, built a vast citadel here to control the highway to Damascus. It was later captured by Saladin (1188), dismantled by the Ayyubids (1220), rebuilt by the Knights Templar (1240) and expanded by the Mamluk Sultan Beybars (after 1266).

During the late 15th and 16th centuries, Tsfat’s Jewish community increased in size and importance thanks to an influx of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Among the new arrivals were some of the Jewish world’s pre-eminent Kabbalists. During this period, Tsfat was an important stop on the trade route from Akko to Damascus and was known for its production of textiles. A Hebrew printing press – the first such device anywhere in the Middle East – was set up in Tsfat in 1577.

In the late 1700s, Tsfat welcomed an influx of Hasidim from Russia. Tsfat was decimated by the plague in 1742, 1812 and 1847, and devastated by earthquakes in 1759 and 1837. The latter disaster killed thousands and caused all but a handful of buildings to crumble.

In 1948 the departing British handed the town’s strategic assets over to Arab forces, but after a pitched battle Jewish forces prevailed and the Arab population fled – among them, 13-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, now president of the Palestinian Authority. These days, Tsfat’s residents include more than a few American Jews who turned to mysticism in a 1960s-inspired search for spirituality and transcendental meaning.

Map of Tsfat
Map of Tsfat
  1. Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue – Najara St; h9.30am-about 7pm Sun-Thu, 9.30am-1pm Fri, closed during prayers.
    Founded in the 16th century by Sephardic Jews from Greece, this synagogue was destroyed in the 1837 earthquake and rebuilt in the 1850s. It stands on the site where the great Kabbalist Yitzhak Luria (Isaac Luria; 1534–72; often known by the name Ari) used to greet the Sabbath. In the 18th century it came to serve Tsfat’s Ashkenazi Hasidic community, hence the synagogue’s name (the Jerusalem-born Ari had a Sephardic mother and an Ashkenazi father). High atop the 19th-century holy ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept), carved and elaborately painted according to the traditions of Galicia (Poland), the lion has a human-like face that worshippers speculate may be that of the Ari (the Hebrew word ari means ‘lion’). In 1948, the synagogue was packed with worshippers when an Arab mortar round slammed into the courtyard, sending shrapnel crashing into the side of the bimah (central platform) facing the door (the hole is still there). It was a miracle, say locals, that there were no casualties.

    Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue
    Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue
  2. Caro Synagogue. 04-692 3284, Eyal 050 855 0462; Beit Yosef St; 9am-5.30pm Sun-Thu, 9am-3pm or 4pm in winter, 9am-noon Fri).
    Named (like the street it’s on) in honour of the author of the Shulchan Aruch (the most authoritative codification of Jewish law), Toledo-born Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488–1575), this synagogue was founded as a house of study in the 1500s but rebuilt after the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837 – and again in 1903. To the right as you face the ark, hanging in one of the windows, you can see the twisted remains of a Katyusha rocket from Lebanon that landed just outside in 2006. In the 16th century, Caro, the head of Tsfat’s rabbinical court, was the most respected  rabbinical authority not only in Palestine but in many parts of the Jewish Diaspora as well. According to tradition, an angel revealed the secrets of Kabbalah to Caro in the house below the synagogue.

    Caro Synagogue
    Caro Synagogue
  3. Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry. 692 3880; http://www.hjm.org.il; HaAzma’ut Sq; admission 20NIS, incl tour 35NIS; h9am-2pm Sun-Thu, 9am-1pm Fri).
    Evocative artefacts, photographs and documents do a masterful job of evoking the lost world of pre-WWII Hungarian-speaking Jewry. A 17-minute film provides context. If you’re interested, museum co-founder (along with her husband) Chava Lustig will tell you about the Budapest ghetto, which she survived as a 14-year-old. The museum has extensive archives for those interested in doing family research. Signs are in Hebrew, Hungarian and English.

    Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry
    Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry
  4. Abuhav Synagogue. 04-692 3885; Abuhav St; husually 9am-5pm Sun-Thu, 9am-noon Fri).
    Named after the 15th-century Spanish scholar Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav, this synagogue was founded in the 16th century but moved to its present location after the 1759 earthquake. The ornately carved courtyard, restored in the late 20th century, is often used for weddings. Inside, the four central pillars represent the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) that, according to Kabbalists (and ancient Greeks such as Aristotle), make up all of creation. The oval dome has 10 windows, one for each of the Ten Commandments; representations of the 12 Tribes of Israel; illustrations of musical instruments used in the Temple; pomegranates (said to  have the same number of seeds as there are Jewish commandments, 613); and the Dome of the Rock, a reminder of the Temple in Jerusalem.

    Abuhav Synagogue
    Abuhav Synagogue
  5. Ari’s Mikveh. South of the southern end of Ha’Ari St; 24hr.
    A boldface Hebrew sign on the gate reads ‘entry for men only’. The reason is not gynophobia but the fact that inside there are naked men taking a quick, ritually purifying dip in the icy waters of a natural spring. Once used by the Ari, the site is run by the Breslov (Bratzlav) Hassidic movement.

    Ari’s Mikveh
    Ari’s Mikveh
  6. Canaan Gallery. 04-697 4449; http://www.canaan-gallery.com; Fig Tree Courtyard, 28 Alkabetz St, Synagogue Quarter; 9am-7pm Sun-Thu Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Sun-Thu Nov-Mar, 9am-2.30pm Fri).
    Continuing Tsfat’s centuries-old textile tradition, begun by Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Orna and Yair Moore’s studio produces richly textured tapestries, wall hangings and Jewish ritual objects (talitot, kippot, challah covers) made from cotton and chenille. You can see weavers at work at their upstairs studio.
  7. Citadel Park. Gan HaMetsuda; Chativat Yiftach St; 24hr.
    The highest point in central Tsfat (834m), now a breeze-cooled park, was once part of the largest Crusader fortress in the Middle East (its outer walls followed the line now marked by Jerusalem St). Near the park’s southern tip, the ruins of one of the inner walls can be seen along Chativat Yiftach St. From there, a path leads up the slope and under an old water pipe to a dark, flat, 30m-long tunnel that takes you into an ancient stone cistern. Stand in the middle and see what happens when you clap. Other footpaths lead up to the ridge line, which affords panoramic views in all directions.

    Citadel Park
    Citadel Park
  8. Citadel ruins. See the Citadel Park (7).
  9. Davidka Memorial. Jerusalem St.
    About 50m south of City Hall, the Davidka Memorial recalls the role played by the home-made, notoriously inaccurate Davidka mortar in sowing panic among the Arab population, possibly because of rumors that its incredibly loud 40kg warhead was an atomic bomb. About 3km to the left, a free audio guide tells the dramatic tale of the battle for Tsfat in 1947 and 1948 – from the Israeli perspective, of course.

    Davidka Memorial
    Davidka Memorial
  10. Fig Tree Courtyard. 28 Alkabetz St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu Apr-Oct, 9am- 5pm Sun-Thu Nov-Mar, 9am-2pm or 3pm Fri.
    Set around a centenarian fig tree and a 9m-deep cistern (visible through a glass floor panel), this collection of galleries and silversmiths’ ateliers is one of Tsfat’s classiest. From the rooftop patio you can see half the Galilee, from Mt Meron all the way south to Mt Tabor, with the cliffs of Amud Stream (Nahal Amud) in the depths below. Restrooms available.

    Fig Tree Courtyard
    Fig Tree Courtyard
  11. Former British police station. Jerusalem St. 
    Across the Jerusalem street is the former British police station, riddled with bullet holes from 1948, which is now used by the Tsfat Academic College.
  12. General Safed Exhibition. 04-692 0087; 2 Arlozoroff St; 10am-5pm Sun-Thu, 10am-2pm Fri & Sat.
    Opened in 1952, this group gallery – housed in the white-domed, Ottoman-era Market Mosque –displays, sells and ships works by about 50 painters and 10 sculptors, including some very talented immigrants from the former Soviet Union. If you find yourself intrigued by a particular work, ask for directions to the artist’s studio.
  13. HaMeiri Dairy. Yaniv 052 372 1609; http://www.hameiri-cheese.co.il; Keren HaYesod St; 9am-3pm Sun-Thu, 9am-1.30pm Fri.
    Run by the same family for six generations, this small dairy takes about 50,000L of sheep’s milk a year and turns it into delicious cheeses, including soft, creamy Bulgarian cheese (aged for a full year) and a variety of gvina Tzfatit (Tsfat-style cheese; aged for six months) that’s harder, saltier and sheepier than the supermarket variety – both can be purchased at the tiny deli counter. To get there, go all the way to the bottom of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom staircase, turn right and walk 50m. There are 45-minute tours (adult/child 20/15NIS, in Hebrew) at noon on Friday; a cafe is planned. Cheeses are made each Thursday.

    HaMeiri Dairy
    HaMeiri Dairy
  14. HaMeiri Museum. 04-697 1307; http://www.bhm.org.il; 158 Keren Ha-Yesod St; adult/child 6-18yr 20/13NIS; h8.30am-2.30pm Sun-Thu, 9.30am-1.30pm Fri.
    Housed in a 150-year-old building that once served as the seat of Tsfat’s rabbinical court, this museum illustrates Jewish life in Tsfat during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Exhibits include unique household and Jewish ritual objects made by local tinsmiths using empty kerosene cans (some even incorporate the Shell logo into the design). To get there, go all the way to the bottom of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom staircase and turn right. Upstairs is a re-creation of a one-room apartment inhabited by a family with six children. The mother got to sleep in the one bed, and the shower consisted of a hanging bucket made of reused tin with a showerhead welded to the bottom. Visitors are asked to check in their backpacks so they don’t knock anything over. Signs are in English.
  15. Kabbalah Art. 04-697 2702; http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com; 38 Bar Yochai St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu, 9am-2hrs before sundown Fri.
    Denver-born David Friedman uses the mysteries of the Hebrew alphabet, Kabbalistic symbols such as the Tree of Life, and the universal language of color and geometry to create striking visual representations of Kabbalah, and is happy to give visitors a short introduction to Kabbalah. Situated about 100m northwest of HaMaginim Sq.
  16. Kadosh Dairy. Kadosh Cheese; 04-692 0326; 34 Yud Alef St; 8am-8pm Sun-Thu, 8am-1hr before sundown Fri.
    Run by the Kadosh family for seven generations, this microdairy produces minuscule quantities of deliciously sharp, salty gvina Tzfatit as well as a variety of other cheeses, including blue cheese, kashkaval (a semihard yellow sheep’s milk cheese) and pecorino. You can usually watch cheese being made on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday from 8am to 3pm. To get there from the Synagogue Quarter, follow the signs down the hill to ‘Safed Cheeze’ or ‘Zefat Cheeze’. The dairy sells cheeses, as well as halva made with honey, stuffed grape leaves and local wines. A sampler plate with about 10 cheeses and bread – enough for a meal – costs 40NIS.

    Kadosh Dairy
    Kadosh Dairy
  17. Safed Candles. Najara St, Synagogue Quarter; 9.15am-6.30pm Sun-Thu, 9.15am-12.30pm Fri, 9.15am-1.45pm Fri in summer.
    If you’ve ever wondered how Shabbat, Havdalah and Chanukah candles are braided and decorated, drop by this emporium to watch an expert candlemaker at work – she’s often here from noon to 4pm Sunday to Thursday. Other waxy highlights include the world’s largest braided Havdalah candle (it’s got 180 strands) and a gloriously gory mini-diorama showing David holding aloft the severed head of Goliath – a masterwork of kitsch! Situated 50m down an alley from the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue.
  18. Safed Craft Pottery. 054 434 5206; http://www.haaripottery.blogspot.com; 63 Yud Alef St, Artists’ Quarter; h10am-6pm Sun-Thu, 10am-3hrs before sundown Fri.
    UK-born potter Daniel Flatauer works in the English studio pottery tradition, producing tableware, kitchenware and Judaica that is both functional and extraordinarily beautiful. He has the only salt kiln in Israel – if you’re not sure what that means, ask him!

    Safed Craft Pottery
    Safed Craft Pottery
  19. Sephardic Ari Synagogue. Synagogue Ha’Ary Sefaradi; Ha’Ari St; 1-7pm Sun-Wed, 1-5pm Thu in summer, shorter hrs rest of yr.
    Tsfat’s oldest synagogue – it’s mentioned in documents from as far back as 1522 – was frequented by the Ari, who found inspiration in the panoramic views of Mt Meron and the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai. To the left of the raised bimah (platform) is the small room, glowing with candles, where he is said to have studied mystical texts with the prophet Elijah. The present structure is partly the result of rebuilding after the earthquake of 1837.
  20. Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery. 058 714 7640; http://www.shevachaya.com; 7 Tet Vav St, Artists’ Quarter; 9am-6pm Sun-Thu, 9am-2pm or 3pm Fri.
    Kabbalistic concepts and women’s themes in Judaism are represented in the art of Denver-born painter and glass-blower Sheva Chaya Shaiman. She does glassblowing demonstrations on most days in July and August, and often the rest of the year. Situated across the street from the General Safed Exhibition.

    Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery
    Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery
  21. Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art. 04-692 3051; http://www.kabbalahart.com; 35 Tet Vav St, Artists’ Quarter; Usually (call before) 9am-4pm Sun-Thu, 9am-noon Fri.
    Avraham Loewenthal, who hails from Detroit, is happy to explain the symbolism of his colorful, abstract works, which are based on Kabbalistic concepts. Call ahead  for a private viewing. Situated across the street from HaMa’ayan HaRadum Sq.

    Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art
    Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art
  22. Yehezkel HaMeiri Viewpoint. Ma’alot Olei HaGardom. Opened in 2014, affords views of the Kabbalists’ tombs and Mt Meron.

    Yehezkel HaMeiri House
    Yehezkel HaMeiri House

Sights

Central Tsfat’s main thoroughfare, lined with shops and eateries, is north–south Yerushalayim St (Jerusalem St). West of here, a broad staircase called Ma’alot Olei HaGardom divides the Synagogue Quarter (to the north) from the Artists’ Quarter (to the south). The main alley in the Synagogue Quarter, famous for its many art galleries, is called Alkabetz St and Beit Yosef St (Yosef Caro St). The Kabbalists’ tombs are further down the slope. Most of Tsfat’s sights are in the Synagogue Quarter and the adjacent Artists’ Quarter.

Tsfat’s Galleries

A retreat and inspiration for Israeli artists since the 1950s, Tsfat is home to one of Israel’s largest collections of artists’ studios and art galleries, making it the best place in the country (along with Jerusalem) to shop for Judaica (Jewish ritual objects).

You’ll find jaw-dropping original art, commercial semi-kitsch and everything in between, and almost all the works – menorahs, mezuzahs, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, jewellery, glass work, sinuous modern sculpture, paintings – are imaginative and upliftingly colorful.

Most, in the mystical Hasidic tradition, are also joyous. In the Synagogue Quarter, dozens of galleries can be found along Alkabetz St, a stone-paved alleyway that stretches south from the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue; further south it is known as Beit Yosef St (Yosef Caro St). More galleries, as well as artists’ studios, are hidden away in the Artists’ Quarter along the alleys around the General Exhibition, including Tet-Vav St.

This list of galleries are located from the north to the south:

  • Kabbalah Art 04-697 2702; http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com; 38 Bar Yochai St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu, 9am-2hrs before sundown Fri. Denver-born David Friedman uses the mysteries of the Hebrew alphabet, Kabbalistic symbols such as the Tree of Life, and the universal language of color and geometry to create striking visual representations of Kabbalah, and is happy to give visitors a short introduction to Kabbalah. Situated about 100m northwest of HaMaginim Sq.

    Kabbalah Art
    Kabbalah Art
  • Safed Candles Najara St, Synagogue Quarter; h9.15am-6.30pm Sun-Thu, 9.15am-12.30pm Fri, 9.15am-1.45pm Fri in summer) If you’ve ever wondered how Shabbat, Havdalah and Chanukah candles are braided and decorated, drop by this emporium to watch an expert candlemaker at work – she’s often here from noon to 4pm Sunday to Thursday. Other waxy highlights include the world’s largest braided Havdalah candle (it’s got 180 strands) and a gloriously gory mini-diorama showing David holding aloft the severed head of Goliath – a masterwork of kitsch! Situated 50m down an alley from the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue.

    Safed Candles
    Safed Candles
  • Fig Tree Courtyard 28 Alkabetz St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Sun-Thu Nov-Mar, 9am-2pm or 3pm Fri. Set around a centenarian fig tree and a 9m-deep cistern (visible through a glass floor panel), this collection of galleries and silversmiths’ ateliers is one of Tsfat’s classiest. From the rooftop patio you can see half the Galilee, from Mt Meron all the way south to Mt Tabor, with the cliffs of Amud Stream (Nahal Amud) in the depths below. Restrooms available.
  • Canaan Gallery 04-697 4449; http://www.canaan-gallery.com; Fig Tree Courtyard, 28 Alkabetz St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Sun-Thu Nov-Mar, 9am-2.30pm Fri. Continuing Tsfat’s centuries-old textile tradition, begun by Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Orna and Yair Moore’s studio produces richly textured tapestries, wall hangings and Jewish ritual objects (talitot, kippot, challah covers) made from cotton and chenille. You can see weavers at work at their upstairs studio.

    Canaan Gallery
    Canaan Gallery
  • Safed Craft Pottery 054 434 5206; http://www.haaripottery.blogspot.com; 63 Yud Alef St, Artists’ Quarter; h10am-6pm Sun-Thu, 10am-3hrs before sundown Fri. UK-born potter Daniel Flatauer works in the English studio pottery tradition, producing tableware, kitchenware and Judaica that is both functional and extraordinarily beautiful. He has the only salt kiln in Israel – if you’re not sure what that means, ask him!

    Safed Craft Pottery
    Safed Craft Pottery
  • Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery 058 714 7640; http://www.shevachaya.com; 7 Tet Vav St, Artists’ Quarter; h9am-6pm Sun-Thu, 9am-2pm or 3pm Fri. Kabbalistic concepts and women’s themes in Judaism are represented in the art of Denver-born painter and glass-blower Sheva Chaya Shaiman. She does glassblowing demonstrations on most days in July and August, and often the rest of the year. Situated across the street from the General Safed Exhibition.

    Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery
    Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery
  • Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art 04-692 3051; http://www.kabbalahart.com; 35 Tet Vav St, Artists’Quarter; usually 9am-4pm Sun-Thu, 9am-noon Fri. Avraham Loewenthal, who hails from Detroit, is happy to explain the symbolism of his colorful, abstract works, which are based on Kabbalistic concepts. Call ahead for a private viewing. Situated across the street from HaMa’ayan HaRadum Sq.

Synagogue Quarter

Tsfat’s long-time Jewish neighborhood spills down the hillside from HaMaginim Sq (Kikar HaMaginim; Defenders’ Sq), which dates from 1777; all of Tsfat’s historic Kabbalist synagogues are a quick (if often confusing) walk from here. If you’re short on time, the two to visit are the Ashkenazi Ari and Caro synagogues. Galleries filled with exuberant art line the main alleyway, known as Alkabetz St and Beit Yosef St.

Synagogue hours tend to be irregular, especially in winter, and unannounced closings (eg for Monday and Thursday morning bar mitzvahs) are common. Visitors should wear modest clothing (no shorts or bare shoulders); kippas/yarmulkes are provided for men (or you can wear any hat). Caretakers appreciate a small donation (5NIS). Synagogues are closed to tourists on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Ancient Jewish CemeteryThe weed-covered, rock-strewn jumble of sun-baked graves below the Synagogue Quarter doesn’t look like much, but for followers of Jewish mysticism, the spirits of the great 16th-century Kabbalists buried here make this hillside an exceptional place to connect with the divine spark through prayer and meditation. A wander through the area is a bit otherworldly at any time, but it’s particularly magical in the early evening, when you can walk in the flickering glow of memorial candles, often to the haunting echoes of chanted prayers and psalms.

Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue – Founded in the 16th century by Sephardic Jews from Greece, this synagogue was destroyed in the 1837 earthquake and rebuilt in the 1850s. It stands on the site where the great Kabbalist Yitzhak Luria (Isaac Luria; 1534–72; often known by the name Ari) used to greet the Sabbath. In the 18th century it came to serve Tsfat’s Ashkenazi Hasidic community, hence the synagogue’s name (the Jerusalem-born Ari had a Sephardic mother and an Ashkenazi father). High atop the 19th-century holy ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept), carved and elaborately painted according to the traditions of Galicia (Poland), the lion has a human-like face that worshipers speculate may be that of  the Ari (the Hebrew word ari means ‘lion’). In 1948, the synagogue was packed with worshipers when an Arab mortar round slammed into the courtyard, sending shrapnel crashing into the side of the bimah (central platform) facing the door (the hole is still there). It was a miracle, say locals, that there were no casualties.

Caro SynagogueNamed (like the street it’s on) in honour of the author of the Shulchan Aruch (the most authoritative codification of Jewish law), Toledo-born Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488–1575), this synagogue was founded as a house of study in the 1500s but rebuilt after the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837 – and again in 1903. To the right as you face the ark, hanging in one of the windows, you can see the twisted remains of a Katyusha rocket from Lebanon that landed just outside in 2006. In the 16th century, Caro, the head of Tsfat’s rabbinical court, was the most respected rabbinical authority not only in Palestine but in many parts of the Jewish Diaspora as well. According to tradition, an angel revealed the secrets of Kabbalah to Caro in the house below the synagogue.

Abuhav SynagogueNamed after the 15th-century Spanish scholar Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav, this synagogue was founded in the 16th century but moved to its present location after the 1759 earthquake. The ornately carved courtyard, restored in the late 20th century, is often used for weddings. Inside, the four central pillars represent the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) that, according to Kabbalists (and ancient Greeks such as Aristotle), make up all of creation. The oval dome has 10 windows, one for each of the Ten Commandments; representations of the 12 Tribes of Israel; illustrations of musical instruments used in the Temple; pomegranates (said to have the same number of seeds as there are Jewish commandments, 613); and the Dome of the Rock, a reminder of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Sephardic Ari SynagogueTsfat’s oldest synagogue – it’s mentioned in documents from as far back as 1522 – was frequented by the Ari, who found inspiration in the panoramic views of Mt Meron and the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai. To the left of the raised bimah (platform) is the small room, glowing with candles, where he is said to have studied mystical texts with the prophet Elijah. The present structure is partly the result of rebuilding after the earthquake of 1837.

HaMeiri MuseumHoused in a 150-year-old building that once served as the seat of Tsfat’s rabbinical court, this museum illustrates Jewish life in Tsfat during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Exhibits include unique household and Jewish ritual objects made by local tinsmiths using empty kerosene cans (some even incorporate the Shell logo into the design). To get there, go all the way to the bottom of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom staircase and turn right. Upstairs is a re-creation of a one-room apartment inhabited by a family with six children. The mother got to sleep in the one bed, and the shower consisted of a hanging bucket made of reused tin with a shower head welded to the bottom. Visitors are asked to check in their backpacks so they don’t knock anything over. Signs are in English.

HaMeiri Dairy – Run by the same family for six generations, this small dairy takes about 50,000 liter of sheep’s milk a year and turns it into delicious cheeses, including soft, creamy Bulgarian cheese (aged for a full year) and a variety of gvina Tzfatit  (Tsfat-style cheese; aged for six months) that’s harder, saltier and sheepier than the supermarket variety – both can be purchased at the tiny deli counter. To get there, go all the way to the bottom of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom staircase, turn right and walk 50m. There are 45-minute tours (adult/child 20/15NIS, in Hebrew) at noon on Friday; a cafe is planned. Cheeses are made each Thursday.

Kadosh DairyRun by the Kadosh family for seven generations, this microdairy produces minuscule quantities ofdeliciously sharp, salty gvina Tzfatit as well as a variety of other cheeses, including blue cheese,  kashkaval (a semihard yellow sheep’s milk cheese) and pecorino. You can usually watch cheese being made on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday from 8am to 3pm. To get there from the Synagogue Quarter, follow the signs down the hill to ‘Safed Cheeze’ or ‘Zefat Cheeze’. The dairy sells cheeses, as well as halva made with honey, stuffed grape leaves and local wines. A sampler plate with about 10 cheeses and bread – enough for a meal – costs 40NIS.


Artists’ Quarter

Artist Quarter
Artist Quarter

The neighborhood south of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom stairway used to be Tsfat’s Arab quarter, as you can see from the minarets, but after the 1948 war the area was developed as an Israeli artists’ colony. To help things along, the government declared that any artist who was willing to live in Tsfat for at least 180 days a year would be given a free house and gallery.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, some of the country’s most celebrated painters (Moshe Castel, Yitzhak Frenkel, Simcha Holtzman, Arieh Merzer and Menahem Shemi), inspired by Tsfat’s stunning landscapes and mystical traditions, opened studios and held exhibitions in the town.

Art-lovers escaped the heat of Tel Aviv and spent their summers holidaying in the city’s two dozen hotels. Most of the galleries and studios around the quarter are open to visitors, with many artists happy to talk about their work and even happier to make a sale.

General Safed ExhibitionOpened in 1952, this group gallery – housed in the white-domed, Ottoman-era Market Mosque –displays, sells and ships works by about 50 painters and 10 sculptors, including some very talented immigrants from the former Soviet Union. If you find yourself intrigued by a particular work, ask for directions to the artist’s studio.

Ancient Jewish CemeteryThe weed-covered, rock-strewn jumble of sun-baked graves below the Synagogue Quarter doesn’t look like much, but for followers of Jewish mysticism, the spirits of the great 16th-century Kabbalists buried here make this hillside an exceptional place to connect with the divine spark through prayer and meditation. A wander through the area is a bit otherworldly at any time, but it’s particularly magical in the early evening, when you can walk in the flickering glow of memorial candles, often to the haunting echoes of chanted prayers and psalms. Anyone who was remotely famous has had their stones painted ‘Tsfat blue’, a light hue that reminds passers-by that the Kabbalists’ spiritual role is to connect the heavens and the earth. To avoid impure thoughts among the pious men who come to pray in Tsfat’s ancient Jewish cemetery, Hebrew signs direct women to separate walkways and platforms. But it’s not always clear where you’re supposed to go, and even strictly Orthodox people often ignore the contradictory signage, which is part of a growing trend among some ultra-Orthodox groups to separate the sexes to a degree unprecedented in Jewish history. If you can’t read Hebrew, all you need to know to keep the signs straight is that the word for ‘women’ (nashim, written) includes the letter Shin, which looks like a three-branched candelabra. As at any holy site, visitors should dress modestly.

Ancient Jewish Cemetery
Ancient Jewish Cemetery

Ari’s MikvehA boldface Hebrew sign on the gate reads ‘entry for men only’. The reason is not gynophobia but the fact that inside there are naked men taking a quick, ritually purifying dip in the icy waters of a natural spring. Once used by the Ari, the site is run by the Breslov (Bratzlav) Hassidic movement.

Tombs of the KabbalistsThe graves of many of Tsfat’s greatest sages and Kabbalists are about one-third of the way down the slope, just below a solitary pine tree in an area where the converging double walkways are covered with transparent roofing. If you can’t read Hebrew, ask passers-by for help in finding the tombs of Yitzhak Luria (Isaac Luria; born in Jerusalem in 1534, died in Tsfat in 1572), aka HaAri, the father of modern Jewish mysticism (Lurianic Kabbalah). Near the tomb of Luria is that of Shlomo Alkabetz (born in Thessalonika c 1500, died in Tsfat in 1580), best known for composing the hymn ‘Lecha Dodi’. Yosef Caro (born in Toledo in 1488, died in Tsfat in 1575), the most important codifier of Jewish law, is buried about 100m further down the hill.

Tombs of the Kabbalists
Tombs of the Kabbalists

Elsewhere

Citadel Park – The highest point in central Tsfat (834m), now a breeze-cooled park, was once part of the largest Crusader fortress in the Middle East (its outer walls followed the line now marked by Jerusalem St). Near the park’s southern tip, the ruins of one of the inner walls can be seen along Chativat Yiftach St. From there, a path leads up the slope and under an old water pipe to a dark, flat, 30m-long tunnel that takes you into an ancient stone cistern. Stand in the middle and see what happens when you clap. Other footpaths lead up to the ridge line, which affords panoramic views in all directions.

Yerushalayim StreetAbout 50m south of City Hall, the Davidka Memorial recalls the role played by the home-made, notoriously inaccurate Davidka mortar in sowing panic among the Arab population, possibly because of rumors that its incredibly loud 40kg warhead was an atomic bomb. About 3km to the left, a free audio guide tells the dramatic tale of the battle for Tsfat in 1947 and 1948 – from the Israeli perspective, of course. Across the street is the former British police station, riddled with bullet holes from 1948, which is now used by the Tsfat Academic College.

Yerushalayim Street
Yerushalayim Street

Museum of Hungarian Speaking JewryEvocative artifacts, photographs and documents do a masterful job of evoking the lost world of pre-WWII Hungarian-speaking Jewry. A 17-minute film provides context. If you’re interested, museum co-founder (along with her husband) Chava Lustig will tell you about the Budapest ghetto, which she survived as a 14-year-old. The museum has extensive archives for those interested in doing family research. Signs are in Hebrew, Hungarian and English.

Tours

While it’s easy to float around Tsfat on your own little trip, it’s a town where stories and secrets run deep.

  • Baruch Emanuel Erdstein (052 251 5134; http://www.safedexperience.com; per hr 180NIS)
    Offers spiritual walking tours, generally of three to five hours. Baruch, a storyteller and musician who grew up near Detroit, describes Tsfat as having a ‘tremendous gift’ to offer, that it’s a place that ‘opens people up to themselves, to their potential and to beginning to understand the meaning of their lives and of creation’.
  • Path of the Heart (B’Shvil HaLev, Tzfat Experience; 050 750 5695, 04-682 6489; http://www.shvilhalev.co.il; 7 Tet-Vav St, Artists’ Quarter; 2hr tour up to 8 people 350NIS)
    Runs experiential walking tours of the old city accompanied by Hasidic guitar melodies, tales of the Kabbalists and an exploration of their spiritual message.

    Path of the Heart
    Path of the Heart

Sleeping

Tsfat has lots of B&Bs and holiday apartments, some rented out by artists. Because most places keep Shabbat, some B&Bs have a two-night weekend minimum; it’s not usually possible to check-in on Saturday until after sundown.

Room prices rise precipitously during the Tsfat Klezmer Festival (mid-August) and around the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer (33 days after Passover); at these times, reserve many months ahead.

Back before air-conditioning, 950m-high Mt Canaan (Har Kna’an) – now a neighborhood of Tsfat – offered a welcome ‘hill station’ escape from the summer heat. The area is about 4.5km northeast of the city center.

  • Adler Apartments – 052 344 7766; adler1.4u@gmail.com; office in Adler’s Change, 88 Yerushalayim St; d without breakfast 300NIS, Fri night & all day Sat 350NIS, additional bed 100NIS. Has 10 clean, practical, simply furnished apartments with kitchenette, in or near the center of town. If you’re arriving on Saturday, easy-going Baruch can arrange key pickup.
  • Safed Inn – Ruckenstein B&B; %04-697 1007; http://www.safedinn.com; 1 Merom Kna’an St; dm/s/d/q without breakfast US$29/100/129/158, cheaper Sun-Wed, additional person US$29; reception 8am-8pm. Opened in 1936, this garden guesthouse has comfortable rooms ‘untouched by interior design theories‘, a sauna, an outdoor hot tub (open 8pm to 11pm) and washing machines (15NIS). Riki and Dov get rave reviews for their local knowledge and tasty Continental/Israeli breakfasts (30/60NIS). Call ahead if you’ll be arriving after 8pm. To get there, turn off Rte 8900 onto HaGdud HaShlishi St 250m towards Rosh Pina from the Tsfat police station (in a Tegart Fort built by the British in the late 1930s). Served by local bus 3 (4.80NIS, 22 minutes, twice an hour until 9pm Sunday to Thursday and to 2.30pm Friday) from the central bus station, or you can take a taxi (25NIS during the day).

    Safed inn
    Safed inn
  • Carmel Hotel – 050 242 1092, 04-692 0053; 8 Ha’Ari St, ie 8 Ya’avetz St; s/d/q without breakfast US$75/100/150. Thanks to owner Shlomo – who is likely to insist that you try his limon cello – staying here is like having the run of a big, old family house. Some of the 12, simply furnished rooms are romantic and some aren’t but they’re all clean and practical and some have fantastic views.

    Carmel Hotel
    Carmel Hotel
  • Artist Quarter Guest House – 054 776 4877, 077-524 0235; http://www.artistquarterguesthouse.com; 43 Yud Zayin Alley, Artists’ Quarter;  600-750NIS, additional person 100NIS. Northern Californians Joy and Evan warmly welcome guests to their two spacious, Ottoman-era rooms, both with high, vaulted stone ceilings and Moroccan-style furnishings. Swedish massage available for women.

    Artist Quarter Guest House
    Artist Quarter Guest House
  • Beit Yosef Suites – 04-692 2515; http://www.beityosef.co.il; 650NIS, additional person 175NIS. Rents out nine one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, with cosy, eclectic decor, in old stone buildings in the Artists’ Quarter. The same family, originally from Los Angeles, runs a cafe, which is where breakfast is served. Reserve by phone or online; when you arrive, Sharon will meet you with the key.

    Beit Yosef Suites
    Beit Yosef Suites
  • Ruth Rimonim – 04-699 4666, reservations 03-675 4591; http://www.rimonim.com; Tet-Zayin St, Artists’ Quarter; 700-800NIS. Housed in part in a one-time Ottoman-era post house, this veteran hotel has stone-walled common areas with wrought iron furnishings and fresh-cut flowers, expansive gardens, a spa and 76 elegant, modern rooms with sparkling marble bathrooms. Wi-fi costs 10/40NIS per two/24 hours.

    Ruth Rimonim
    Ruth Rimonim

Eating

Places selling pizza, felafel and shwarma can be found along Yerushalayim St and on the edge of the Synagogue Quarter, at HaMaginim Sq. All of central Tsfat’s restaurants close on Shabbat. If you decide not to drive to nearby settlements such as Rosh Pina, Jish and Amirim to dine, you can order ready-made food from several places on Yerushalayim St, with pick-up on Friday in the early afternoon – ask your B&B for details.

Coöp Shop Supermarket
Coöp Shop Supermarket

Another option is to self-cater at Coöp Shop Supermarket, 102 Arlozoroff St; 7.30am- 9pm Sun-Wed, 7.30am-10pm Thu, 7.30am-1pm or 2pm Fri. At Ruth Rimonim Hotel, a kosher buffet lunch or dinner on Shabbat costs 140NIS; reserve and pay in advance.

Entertainment

Back in the 1970s Tsfat had half-a-dozen nightclubs, but these days the increasingly Haredi city goes to bed fairly early, except in summer when tourists keep the old city’s streets and cafes lively until late. Almost everything is closed on Shabbat – except, of course, for the synagogues, some of which sing their prayers, such as Shlomo Carlebach (054 804 8602; http://carlebach.intzfat.info), or hold Hassidic farbrengen (joyous community gatherings).

Khan of the White Donkey
Khan of the White Donkey

Khan of the White Donkey – 077-234 5719, Maxim 054 449 4521; http://www.thekhan.org; 5 Tzvi Levanon Alley, Artists’ Quarter; h9am-4pm Sun-Thu. This pluralistic cultural center hosts a variety of cultural, environmental and health-oriented community activities, including concerts (50NIS to 70NIS), open-mic jam sessions (20NIS, on some Thursdays at 9pm) and a low-cost holistic medicine clinic (Sunday from 8am to 4pm). The alternative vibe attracts a mix of hippies, backpackers and strictly observant Jews. The center occupies a 700- year-old khan (caravanserai), beautifully restored with all-natural materials. Rents out three B&B rooms.

Getting there

The central bus station (www.bus.co.il; HaAtzma’ut St), situated about 700m west of the Synagogue Quarter, has services linked to the following destinations:

  1. Tiberias (Afikim bus 450; 16.50NIS, 40 minutes, hourly Sunday to Friday afternoon, one Saturday night)
  2. Jerusalem (Nateev Express bus 982; 40NIS, 3¼ hours, eight daily Sunday to Thursday, five Friday, at least three Saturday night)
  3. Haifa-Mercazit HaMifratz (Nateev Express bus 361; 1¾ hours, twice an hour) Goes via Akko (one hour).
  4. Kiryat Shmona (Nateev Express bus 511; 20.70NIS, one hour, hourly) Goes via Rosh Pina (10.20NIS, five minutes) and the Hula Valley.
  5. You need to know that there are a lot more direct buses to the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak than to Tel Aviv itself (Egged bus 846; 49.50NIS, 3½ hours, one or two daily Sunday to Friday). In fact, to get to Tel Aviv it’s faster to take Egged bus 361 to Akko and then hop on a train.