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Entries in Israel (5)


The Spiritual Gardens at The Scots Hotel

Towards the end of the 19th century, when the Ottoman Turks ruled the Middle East, the Church of Scotland sent a mission to the Holy Land under the leadership of a young doctor.

Explicitly, the goal was to improve health and sanitary conditions in the Galilee area. Implicitly, its mission was to bring Christianity to the local population.

In 1894, when it became apparent that the goal was unattainable, the young doctor converted his mission into a maternity hospital, open to all creeds.

It remained in operation, with the gratitude of the population, until the early1950’s when the nascent Israeli government introduced socialized medicine.

Following the closure of the hospital in 1953, and in a desire to find an alternative use for its property, the Church of Scotland, converted its buildings into a guesthouse for international pilgrims and visitors.

Delonix regia CaesalpiniaceaeIn 1999, the buildings’ further renovation and refurbishment resulted in the creation of a first class hotel, where the architecture maintains the spirit of the original structures. Respectful of the goals that brought the Church of Scotland to the Galilee in the first place, superb landscape architecture and garden design help make The Scots Hotel an elegant, spiritual, destination.

Jacarandum mimosifolia BignoniaceaeOn my travels through the Middle East last summer, our group chose this location upon the advice of the travel agent, who promised that we would be impressed. Indeed we were. The landscaping moved us greatly.

In the heat of August, when most of Israel is the color of sand, green vegetation is seen very rarely, except in the north, and the Galilee. While few, if any, flowers are in bloom at this time of year, some floriferous trees on the hotel’s grounds, such as Delonix regia Caesalpiniaceae and Jacarandum mimosifolia Bignoniaceae, gave us the splash of color that was sorely missing on this trip.

Our tour guide had taken us through practically every square mile of Israel and the accessible West Bank. Nowhere else did we see such horticultural beauty as was offered to our tired eyes by The Scots Hotel. The grounds surrounding its property are so magnificent that the photos above should speak for themselves.


How Landscaping Creates Serenity

Baptism Center, on the banks of the Jordan River. Photo copyright by Paul Charles Wolfe.The interesting thing about color in the Middle Eastern landscape is that it is found in very few places. To experience color, one must visit open air markets, gift shops, and art galleries. In markets, one finds colorful displays of spices and produce, as well as intricately decorated garments. Gift shops feature the handiwork of local artisans who create rather useful souvenirs in colors that reflect the vibrancy if the many local cultures that live there. In galleries representing local artists, the paintings have been executed in vivid reds, oranges and yellows - in shades so intense that they sometimes overwhelm tourists from more sedate cultures. Perhaps it is the bleaching sun that inspires the use of such vivid colors. However, as soon as one steps out of these venues, the landscape is bleak. Beige stone and sand are everywhere. That is the nature of the Middle East. Clearly one does not visit this part of the world for an aesthetic outdoor experience based on color.

Google aerial view of Kasar al Yahud, the location of the baptism centers on both sides of the sepentine Jordan River. The left side of the river is located in the West Bank; the right side is in the State of Jordan.During my visit there last August, when our tour group arrived at a baptism center on the banks of the Jordan River, we all let out a sigh of relief. We had found color. Baptism centers had been established on both sides of the river, in response to the needs of devout Christian tourists who wish to be immersed in the same waters used to baptize Jesus, over two thousand years ago. In creating this outdoor space, the attention given to atmosphere is impressive.

The azure blue of the water, combined with the pink of the flowers, are enhanced by the woodland effect of green-leafed trees on both river banks. All of these naturally occurring colors, deliberately landscaped only recently, contribute to creating a spiritual experience. The serenity of this place is palpable.


A Dream Come True: My Visit to the Baha'i Gardens in Haifa: A UNESCO World Heritage Site

It had always been my dream to visit the Baha’i complex in Haifa, Israel. The site, which is made up of architecturally stunning buildings and take-your-breathe-away gardens, is the spiritual center of adherents to the Baha’i faith, a branch of Shiite Islam. In addition, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. When my opinion was canvassed to find out if I would be interested in joining a tour of the Middle East, I replied with a qualified Yes. Whether or not I travelled would depend on this garden being included in the itinerary. I’m glad that it was.

The tour took place during the hottest summer that the Middle East had experienced in recorded history. All of us were slathered in sun block, wore wide brimmed hats and cooled our bodies with Cobbers. Bottles of water were stuffed into all available deep pockets as we clumsily waddled out of the tour bus to appreciate this site.

Our guide had driven us to the top of the hill on which the garden is situated. This was an ideal vantage point, deliberately created, I imagine, by the Minister of Tourism so that visitors would be able to appreciate the vast scope of the complex and its overall design. After we had spent some time capturing images, we left the site for other destinations. No sooner were we settled into the van, when the guide mentioned, in passing, that some tourists also book a guided tour of the of the Baha’i complex.

I had not known that an optional private tour of the grounds was available, for I would have insisted upon it. Unfortunately, we had committed to a heavily scheduled trip that was overflowing. Within one hour of settling into the van, we would be far away from this city and there were no plans to return. Neither was there any possibility of tweaking the itinerary to revisit the gardens. Happily, the guide had allotted a large block of time for us to enjoy the view from atop the mountain.

To better appreciate this magnificent site, here are some interesting details:-

  • The site employs over 100 full-time gardeners.
  • Annual maintenance cost of the gardens is around US $4 million.
  • The garden includes 8 environmentally-friendly irrigation systems that conserve water.
  • About 500,00 people visit this garden complex, annually.
  • Each year 8,000 Baha’i followers make a pilgrimage here.
  • Followers of the Baha’i faith number 5 million.
  • The faith promotes world peace and the creation of one worldwide community based on justice and equality.
  • Operational cost for the garden and complex are funded solely by members of the Baha'i religion, as donations are only accepted from within the Baha'i community.

Baha’i teachings maintain that the human purpose is to learn to know and love God through prayer, reflection and being of service to humankind. The role of the gardens in this religion is to create a peaceful, meditative atmosphere that uplifts the soul of pilgrims as they approach the shrines. The serenity that is created here is palpable. 

In the complex, a golden-domed shrine is surrounded by 18 immaculately-maintained terraces featuring symmetrical formal gardens that hug the steep slope of the Mediterranean seacoast elevation known as Mount Carmel.

The gardens are designed in nine concentric circles that look like waves extending out from the shrine at their center where Bahai prophet Siyyid Ali Muhammad -- known to Bahais as 'The Bab' -- is buried.

Included in the landscaping are works of stone and metal as well as fountains, waterfalls, shrubbery, ornaments, and lawns. The manicured gardens blend in with the natural flora, enliven the surrounding panorama of the mountainside, and create a small nature reserve.





In August, when we visited, the seasonal plant in bloom was Bougainvillea.

A view of the complex as seen from below. AFP photo –Sven Nackstrand.A night scene on the opening of the newly re landscaped gardens in May 2001, taken by Sven Nackstrand for Associated French Press. This view of the gold dome is not easily seen from above.



I Didn’t Know There Were Earthquakes in the Middle East. Did You?

I never stopped thinking like a gardener when I visited the Middle East, this past summer. Probably, that is what set me up for a shock as we were driving south from the Galilee to the central part of the Holy Land. About a few miles outside of East Jerusalem, the terrain suddenly changed. In place of the green farmlands, trees and plants, all I could see was cold dark rock. For a moment, I thought, that I was participating in a science fiction movie and that I was driving on a lunar surface! The terrain had turned a dark slate-grey color and appeared to be solid stone - not a blade of grass, not a single tree or shrub, not even a grain of sand or a drought tolerant plant, and not a sign of any wildlife. For as far as the eye could see, and broken up only by the distant sites of Palestinian villas towering on the horizon, there were rolling hills of stone, some in gentle undulation but most, aggressively protruding out of the ground, at right angle and 45 degree angles to the plane of the earth; and all in ugly pock-marked malformations. No life can exist on this bedrock: nothing can grow here, no animal can graze and humans cannot survive here for very long.

I asked our guide to explain the presence of this disturbing terrain. He replied that it was bedrock and that normally it is found deep underground. However, continuous earthquake activity over the centuries had pushed it up and out to expose it.

Credit: to our guide, the Holy Land sits on a geological fault line that runs from Madagascar, Africa in the south to Turkey in the north. Historical archival evidence confirms that earth quakes occur, in the area of this fault line, about every 400 years. This recurring phenomenon explains why there is mention in the Bible of certain significant towns in one chapter, and no mention of them later on. If an earthquake destroys houses, the inhabitants are killed and the town ceases to exist. However, if the earthquake activity leaves the houses untouched, at the least, it will choke off the town’s source of water, either from underground wells or from nearby sources. Without water there can be no life, the unharmed inhabitants of the town are forced to move to a new location, and the city is abandoned. A similar fault line is also known to exist off the coast of Lebanon, beginning just north of the Israeli-Lebanon border.

Credit: the next portion of out tour, our guide would point out ancient buildings that were built upon the earth quaked ruins of older structures. He would show us the different colorations of the foundations of homes and buildings, indicating that a darker formation represented the foundation from an earlier period, later used to support a newer structure. Of course, by newer, he meant from the Empires of the Greeks, the Romans or the Ottomans.




The vast Syrian-African Rift Valley - the physical boundary between the two continents of Africa and Asia. Credit: study was never this fascinating. But then of course geology and earthquakes were only marginal to the larger narrative. In school, we never did make it to study the book of Zacharia, where, in Chapter 14, an earthquake is described, as splitting apart the Mount of Olives.

Photo credit:AFTAUAccording to Tel Aviv University geologist Dr. Shmulik Marco, the Middle East is long overdue for a major earthquake that will have devastating effects. The last strong destructive quake occurred there in 1033 C. E. 


The Old City of Jerusalem after an earthquake, picture taken on July 12, 1927. Photo credit: American Colony Hotel, American Colony Collection, originally posted to 2007 The only known quake in modern time occurred in 1927 with an epicenter in the northern part of the Dead Sea and reading 6.2 on the Richter scale. Dr. Marco expects the next occurrence to measure over 7.0. That is why the government of Israel has already instituted codes, impacting the way new buildings are constructed, to help prevent catastrophic damage.

There is an old rhyming European adage that translates into “Man plans while God laughs”. Many in the Middle East hope for peace and secure statehoods while scientists warn of an impending physical disaster that will cut through all religious aspirations and political dreams. Earthquakes are equal - opportunity catastrophes. They don’t discriminate about whom they harm. Everyone will be vulnerable.


Bougainvillea Seduction

Copyrighted image by Paul Charles WolfeTropical flowers are a rare sight in the northern hemisphere of US Zone 4 or Canada Zone 5. That is where I garden. With the exception of red rhododendrons, dahlias and zinnias, there are few opportunities to experience intensely colored plants.

A trip to the Middle East, this past summer, put an end to that situation. Admiring lush, vividly colored tropical flowers became one of the highlights of my travels. After landing, as our group drove along the highway from Ben Gurion airport to the city of Tel Aviv, we saw roadsides lined with groves of flowering Bouganvillea. I had never before seen this plant; I was stunned and euphoric, at one and the same time.

Abutting the highways were privately owned citrus orchards delineated from public land by wire fencing. Decorating many of these boundaries were shrubs of Bougainvillea in a variety of tropical colors. In a hot country, such as Israel, most of the landscape is made up of sun bleached rock and limestone so that seeing any flowering plant becomes a treat for the eyes.

Image courtesy of Hearts of Israel. comUnderstanding the visual impact of this flowering shrub, some of the farmers deliberately composed groupings containing one Bougainvillea of each known color, in order to create striking visual effects. I would have liked our driver to stop the van to capture the sights with a camera. Unfortunately, there were no safe highway shoulders for parking. That made my need to record visual impressions of Bougainvillea all the more acute.

Image copyrighted by allanbecker-gardenguruDriving around the country, we got the impression that nature was making a defiant biblical-type statement: Bring on the heat, bring on the sun, bring on the drought and let me show you what marvels I can conjure up. Bougainvillea plants became star attractions but they also had a supporting cast. In many instances, we would find, tucked among these shrubs, other summer flowering plants that were equally at home in drought. Lantana, Hibiscus and Oleander are three other flowers that held their own in the brutal heat.

Image copyrighted by allanbecker-gardenguruThe decorative touch of vividly colored flowering plants was pervasive. No matter where we visited, we would always find a little grove of color to rivet the eye and break up the monochromatic landscape.

Image by wikipedia.orgOften, a strategically placed Bougainvillea would add the finishing touches to a landmark, making it more attractive to photograph.


Image copyrighted by allanbecker-gardenguruAs I travelled from one awesome tourist destination to another, I noticed that there were large stretches of highway that were barren, monochrome, and devoid of visual interest.  It occurred to me that it might be a great idea if the Israeli Ministry of Tourism would encourage garden designers to plant intricate, multicolored patterns of late-summer flowers on all unused tracts of land. Perhaps a prize might be awarded to the best composition. Such an event, creating a land covered in spectacularly configured blooms, might imitate the Dutch tulip festival of the Netherlands. Perhaps that might make this Middle Eastern country a late-summer destination for horticultural photographers. I would imagine also that tourists, who make camera pilgrimages to Monet’s garden at Giverney, and travel to English villages to admire perennial gardens, might be an ideal target group for such a festival.

Image copyrighted by allanbecker-gardenguruOne of my l concerns about visiting the Middle East in August had been the fact that most plants are not in bloom at that time. As a gardener who is passionate about flowers, I anticipated that the timing of our trip might turn out to be a missed opportunity. What a relief to have discovered Bougainvillea, Hibiscus and Lantana. I was very happy. Oh, by the way. In this part of the world, Lantana is nothing like the polite cascading container plant that we see at home. In the Middle East, it grows as tall as Lilac bushes do. What an experience!