My Favorite International Cities - # 12 - Haifa, Israel
First published February 9, 2022 and reproduced here by permission of the Morning News and SCNow.com.
Most of us have a mental picture of the Middle East as heated desert with cultures in conflict, often violently, and so it can be. But NOT Haifa. Although I have been specifically to Haifa only once, I have explored through Northern Israel many times. Haifa is one of my favorites partly, I suppose, because of friends living there, and partly because of its outdoor life, its multicultural business buzz and its zest for life. It is a walking city and no desert in sight.
Haifa is a beautiful small city of about 300,000 population, nestled between harbor and ocean running up and along a hill they call Mt Carmel. And it has been there in some form for about 3300 years.
The name has evolved over the years from Canaanite, Latin and Persian/Arabic, probably meaning “fruit/sumak” or “near the seashore;” the Greeks and Jews say the name might have come from Caiaphas. It became a more important industrial and port city in the late Muslim or near modern era starting from about 1750. Part of its multicultural heritage reflects forward to today and helps to explain its free spirit and vibrant sense of community. It has been ruled by Canaanites, Israelites, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Egyptians, the British and now the Israelites again. The city itself over the years was home to large populations of Syrians and Turks, then Crusaders mostly German and French (you can still explore the German Colony and nearby Muslim markets), then the Bahai, then the early major Jewish migrations from North Africa, Turkey and Romania and then from Central Europe; so that even the Jewish populations in Haifa are diverse.
Without intent, Haifa became a truly international city; its common to walk along and hear three or four languages, all from the locals. But all this diversity did not prevent the chaos of the times during the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of the Jewish state, as there were shelling and bombings into and within Haifa. Ironically, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were trying to drive the Arabs and Bahai out of Haifa while the locals, including even the mayor, were working overtime to keep them. Much of this conflict has been forgotten or forgiven. The Bahai have become an important part of the city, both with real estate and influence and as a tourist draw, and even the Catholic Carmelite Monastery on Mr Carmel is a tourist draw. Only once did I see hostility, with an Arab waitress at one of the many beach restaurants that line the ocean, who yelled at we dumb Americans, not knowing some of us understood her insults and tropes – by the way the food was great, just not the waitress’ prejudice.
Besides tourism the major business of Haifa is education (the top three schools of all Israel are there - the University of Haifa, the Hebrew Reali School and the Technion Institute (see the Mada Tech Center); other key business include shipping, refining, maybe a surprise, but electronics and “high tech,” and chemicals (akin to Basle, Switzerland, dye making went back to Canaanite times). Maybe peculiar to me, but I enjoyed watching the ships coming and going out of the harbor.
Since its easier to go downhill than uphill, start your tour atop Mt Carmel at the University of Haifa. Stroll its campus and explored its excellent library and museums of early Haifa life, culture, art and history that include some life-sized exhibits. Carmel Park is nearby. You probably should take a cab, or the underground to downtown, in any event, over the hill to the Carmelite Monastery (Stella Moris) and Lighthouse. The Chapel is fabulous with ceiling art and a statue dedicated to Elijah of Old Testament times; Elijah withstood Jezebel nearby and hid in a cave here, before fleeing further south to Sinai. Then down to seaside, turning south to famous beaches and north to the city.
Oddly enough, since now a Jewish city, the Bahai Center and Gardens are the most prominent tourist point in Haifa, greeting over a million visitors per year. The Bahai Faith grew out of Iran/Persia from one individual Muslim believing in one creator god, a unified humanity and a unified world/universe; he is now called the Bab, and his successor, Bahaullah, is recognized by adherents as the Messiah of the Hebrew and Muslim scriptures. The Bab was executed in Persia in 1850, but his mausoleum is now in Haifa. The Bahai Faith now has about 9 million worldwide adherents, the largest number in India. Haifa is its world center; curiously, there is a small Bahai center in Kingstree, SC with a major radio station/transmitter. Fleeing persecution in Persia and Turkey the Bahai adherents began buying up land in Haifa in about 1870 from the Ottoman government based in Acre accumulating about 1000 acres in the heart of Haifa, running from mountain top to the harbor. The amazing gardens are built down the hill (finished in 2001) deliberately in 19 terraces and 1000 steps, to include a library, offices, meeting centers, the Universal House of Justice and the Bab Mausoleum. Expect to spend about half a day here; I was able to talk my way into all the buildings, save the Bab Mausoleum/Temple (I was a Gentile non-believer). Some guards were conversational, but most just looked at me in polite silence. Curiously, few Bahia really live in Haifa anymore, they are there only because of the Center. A fascinating factoid: the gardens require about 400 swimming pools of water per day, and water is the highest single overhead expense – also no machinery is allowed in the gardens, all work is done by hand.
Make time for side trips around Haifa… the local history and architecture is great and the ambiance of history, important. I suggest at least one day along the coast to Acre, Caesarea and Nahariyya: Acre is famous for its Crusader and Ottoman Empire days and Caesarea for its Roman days (interesting factoid: the sea walls at Caesarea are even now well preserved cement walls and piers poured under seawater, something we STILL TODAY have trouble doing). Save at least another day for the Galilee area and its important Hebrew and Roman/Orthodox Catholic sites, monuments, architecture and artwork; spend some time at Beth Shan and Mallott if you can. Cute story: one day, Alex and I, driving a couple of Florence, SC folks around Galilee, began to argue over or disobey our Israeli Waze GPS in English system “lady” to the consternation of our passengers – so I whispered to Alex to dial it to a language they would not know – problem solved – and we could still argue. Another time Alex and I were warmly allowed to join an American Jewish wedding within an ancient Synagogue in Zippori, once used by the Sanhedrin; we were not invited wedding guests, of course.
By now you all know I like small, family style restaurants and my favorite foods are Italian, French, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian – but really, I like food everywhere and have eaten almost everything from snake to monkey. Unfortunately, my favorite restaurant in Haifa is a place you probably can’t get into…..the kitchens of Aggie and Alex majestically perched atop Mt Carmel overlooking both the Bay and the Ocean. They have plotted to make me gain weight, as they feed me almost every two waking hours, no matter “what.” But you will enjoy, as have I, Ein El Wadi, Fattoush, Kandarim and Abu Marun. I would be amiss not to also recommend Nof Chinese.