Travel: Rough Guide - Before Armageddon - a traditional last supper
Feasting on falafel, bobbing about on the Dead Sea, and avoiding the end of the world. Dan Jacobs, author of 'The Rough Guide to Israel and Palestine', remembers it well
Sunday 16 August 1998
Ramle is one of Israel's most mixed and ethnically integrated towns, with a bustling market, a great mosque that was once a crusader church, and a tower that was the minaret of another mosque (the rest was flattened in an earthquake). It also has, thanks to its large contingent of Indian Jews, Israel's best masala dosa (potato curry in a crunchy rice pancake).
A feature typical of British churches comes from the roof of an ancient water cistern here. Its pointed arches were the first in Islamic architecture, and were copied by the crusaders and used in churches ever since. Visitors can take a little boat and row around them.
Best town in Palestine
Nablus on the West Bank is rarely visited but one of the most interesting towns in the country, with a beautifully atmospheric old city full of sights, sounds and smells, and it is a stone's throw from ancient Samaria and Shekhem. Both are biblical sites which have ruins that you can explore in peace, away from the coachloads of Israeli and foreign visitors.
Nablus is famous locally for its fine olive-oil soap - when I popped into the Nabulsi soap factory, the boss was happy to show me around, as he will for other tourists if he has time. The other big draw is the pair of newly refurbished Turkish baths. Try them out for yourself (women on Tuesdays, men on other days).
The most amazing natural phenomenon in Israel and Palestine is the salt lake known as the Dead Sea - the lowest point on the earth's surface, at 395m below sea level. It is thickened by constant evaporation in the shimmering heat, and its shores are encrusted with strange formations made by the salt crystals left behind.
With brine so thick it feels like oil, it is impossible to swim in, though that is hardly necessary since the water is so dense that you float effortlessly, and can even sit in it reading a newspaper. On the other hand, you don't want to go in if you've cut yourself, if (men) you've just shaved, or if (women) it's your time of the month: disregard this advice and you'll never have to ask what the term "rubbing salt into a wound" means.
Most apocalyptic place is Megiddo in northern Israel, the site of battles ancient and modern ... and of one yet to come. Sitting among the archeological excavations here on a sunny day, with a lovely view over the neighbouring Jezreel Valley and a light breeze rustling the wild flowers, I couldn't help thinking what a peaceful, place this was. But looks are deceiving, for this is Armageddon, the site designated by the Book of Revelations for the great conflagration at the end of the world.
No sign, as yet, of the thunders and lightnings forecast for that day, but I was also eager to avoid the other prophecy concerning Armageddon, from the old Studio One reggae song which predicted that "a lot of people won't get no supper tonight" (Willie Williams - Armagideon Time). Since I didn't want to be one of them, and Armagideon time was getting on, I decided to make a move to find something to eat.
Israel and Palestine's joint national dish is falafel: deep-fried chick- pea balls served in a pitta bread with as much salad and as many pickles as you can cram in, plus lashings of sesame-paste tahina sauce. It is said that Haifa is the best town for falafel, Tel Aviv's version being too commonly padded out with breadcrumbs.
In Haifa, I tracked down the town's top offering and found an unassuming stall called, less unassumingly, Avraham, King of Falafel. Sure enough, the gear was pukka: freshly fried, hot and crunchy, served in a fresh pitta with masses of salad and pickled cucumbers and peppers. But just to be sure, I decided I'd better have another.
With all that heat, I felt like a dip, and what better than a plate of hummus? To find that, I had to cross the Green Line dividing Israel from Palestine, and head for a tiny diner called Abu Shukri, deep in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's old city.
Here, in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock, Islam's third holiest shrine, and a mere stone's throw (sometimes all too literally) from Judaism's most sacred site, the Wailing Wall, I found the object of my quest, smooth and rich, with just the right balance of chick peas, sesame paste and olive oil. This place gets quite packed out as Jew and Arab alike sink their differences (and their teeth) into another joint national dish - so it's wise to turn up early and avoid the crowds.
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israel & palestine
Charter flights go from London and Manchester and usually cost around pounds 200 to pounds 350. Travel agents specialising in flights and packages to Israel include AMG (tel: 0181-958 5636) and Peltours (tel: 0181-343 0590).
Ramle is easily reached by hourly buses from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There are no hotels in Ramle but it can be visited within a day. Israel's best masala dosa is available from Ramle's Maharaja restaurant.
Nablus is best reached by shared taxi from Radio Boulevard in Ramallah (about one hour's journey). The only hotel is the luxurious Sharia Omar Ibn al-Khattab. Cheaper hotels can be found in Ramallah and Jerusalem.
Megiddo can be reached by an hourly bus from Haifa (less than one hour's journey). Lodgings at Kibbutz Megiddo should be booked in advance.
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