Gardens at Christian Monasteries Are Dazzling Israel's Jews

The country's 50-plus monasteries are increasingly the setting for a great day out, a rare boost to tourism during the coronavirus era. A new book shows why

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A monastery garden in Israel, June 2020.
A monastery garden in Israel, June 2020.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Wooden benches overlook a tiny ornamental pool with goldfish in it. Chinaberry trees and fan palms cast shade. The pool is surrounded by bougainvillea and hibiscus, with copious reeds in the middle. The day is hot, but it’s cool in this garden, not to mention absolutely quiet and peaceful.

The Emmaus-Nicopolis Monastery belongs to a French monastic order, the Society of the Sacred Heart. It’s located near Latrun Junction between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It’s also just a 20-minute drive from my house, but I’d never been there.

Flowers at the Beit Jamal Monastery near Beit Shemesh, June 2020.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Last week, I finally visited thanks to a beautiful new Hebrew-language book, “God's Gardens in the Holy Land,” written and photographed by Ami Zoran. The work features 42 gardens at Christian monasteries around Israel.

Many are located in or around Jerusalem, but some are further afield like the one in Latrun. Others are near Lake Kinneret, on Mount Tabor in the north and in Haifa, Jaffa and the Judean Desert.

Zoran provides a detailed description of each monastery and the garden that’s inside or around it. He lists the trees, bushes and flowers, and provides historical photographs of the place alongside his own photographs and a few words about each site’s past.

The Emmaus-Nicopolis Monastery near Latrun, June 2020.Credit: Moshe Gilad

This is neither a book to sit down and read nor a guidebook for a trip. Rather, as the author says, “It’s personal research. I was a researcher; I worked for many years as an industrial chemist. The book is a study that stemmed from my hobbies – photography and music.”

The book emphasizes the botany of these gardens. At each monastery, Zoran chose one plant to write about in detail. At Emmaus-Nicopolis, it was the sword fern.

A shot from Ami Zoran's 2020 book "God's Gardens in the Holy Land."Credit: Ami Zoran

“An evergreen fern originating in the tropical forest regions of central and South America. The plant hides its beauty and charm in hidden, shaded habitats, and was therefore adopted in late Christian tradition as a symbol of modesty and humility,” he writes.

I had been familiar with this plant for many years, but I never knew its name. And I certainly never guessed that it’s a symbol of modesty and humility.

Prof. Amos Dafni of the University of Haifa was Zoran’s botany adviser.

A garden at one of Israel's 50-plus Christian monasteries, June 2020.Credit: Moshe Gilad

A green bubble

More than 50 monasteries are scattered around Israel, and Israelis aren’t well enough acquainted with them, even if that’s slowly changing. They’re surrounded by walls and exert a mysterious lure, though not necessarily a religious one.

Do I like sitting in monastery gardens because they’re beautiful? And where does their tranquility come from? Were the gardens cunningly planned to provide it? And what’s that strange sensation that accompanies your visit, that feeling of penetrating a forbidden realm, crossing a boundary and peeking into another world?

The Deir Rafat Monastery, as seen in Ami Zoran's 2020 book "God's Gardens in the Holy Land."Credit: Ami Zoran

“I’m drawn to the Other by inclination. I naturally seek out something different, something that isn’t us. It’s an aesthetic attraction,” Zoran said in an interview.

“It stems from several elements. When you enter a closed compound to which you a priori attribute spiritual qualities, it activates your enchantment gland. Maybe the effect is enhanced by the Christian symbols that create a mystical atmosphere. The flora, garden and nature induce a godly, spiritual atmosphere,” he added.

“The chance to sit by yourself, to be alone, enhances this. The fact that many of these sites are green bubbles inside a crowded built-up city also heightens the effect.”

A shot from Ami Zoran's 2020 book "God's Gardens in the Holy Land."Credit: Ami Zoran

According to Zoran, the best-tended and most beautiful gardens are at monasteries that also run guesthouses. The gardens there boost the monasteries' appeal.

When I asked whether writing about Christianity and Christian sites is even possible in today’s Israel, he replied, “It’s clear that a book like this, about the world of Christianity, won’t resonate positively with part of the public. But during my work on the book, I never sensed any recoil from the people around me.”

The monastery at Mount Tabor, from Ami Zoran's 2020 book "God's Gardens in the Holy Land."Credit: Ami Zoran

Hana Bendcowsky, a tour guide who runs the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, says Israelis are increasingly interested in Christian sites.

“It’s a two-way process. They’ve opened up more to Israeli visitors and there’s greater curiosity on the part of Israelis,” she said.

“There’s been an increase in the number of tours about Christianity for Israelis. Several books about Christian sites have been published in recent years, and they also attest to growing interest and curiosity. Slowly we’re realizing that there’s a lot of Christian culture around us that we’re unfamiliar with.

“The sites, for their part, are opening for longer visiting hours. They’re operating stores. Many monasteries offer good hospitality. Now, for instance, not many [Christian] believers are coming and there are few foreign tourists in Israel, but the sites are open to the public anyway.

The Church of the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor, from Ami Zoran's 2020 book "God's Gardens in the Holy Land."Credit: Ami Zoran

Monastery gardens are enticing in part because they leave visitors feeling they’ve been abroad for a bit, says Bendcowsky, who advised Zoran on the Christian terms in his books.

She also mentioned other Hebrew-language books in recent years that have helped Israelis get acquainted with the country’s Christian sites. Two are David Rapp’s “Israel’s Beautiful Churches” with photographs by Hanan Isachar and Nurit Shalev-Khalifa’s “Into a Locked Garden: Visits to Israel’s Monasteries.”

An Orthodox church at Abu Kabir, Jaffa, from Ami Zoran's 2020 book "God's Gardens in the Holy Land."Credit: Ami Zoran

Openness, but still some suspicions

The introduction to Zoran’s book provides a detailed description of the monasteries’ development. But according to Bendcowsky, there’s no religious significance to the sites’ gardens, design or choice of plants.

“It’s mainly about culture and aesthetics,” she said. “They lean toward making beautiful gardens in beautiful spots.”

A statue as seen in Ami Zoran's 2020 book "God's Gardens in the Holy Land."Credit: Ami Zoran

My questions about how the monks feel about the influx of Israeli tourists received different answers. Zoran says that at several monasteries; for example, the Benedictine monastery in Abu Ghosh and the Sisters of Sion Convent Hospice in Jerusalem’s Ein Karem neighborhood, people are cultivating the connection with Jewish Israelis. In other places the wariness is greater.

Bendcowsky says the monks and nuns don’t always understand what the domestic tourists want. “There are monks who think that the Israelis are taking over,” she said.

“It’s a threat felt by minorities in Israel, and it makes them nervous. From their point of view, Israelis feel too comfortable everywhere. [The monks and nuns] don’t always understand Israeli culture and don’t always like the behavior of Jewish visitors as landlords.”

An icon as seen in Ami Zoran's 2020 book "God's Gardens in the Holy Land."Credit: Ami Zoran

In any case, it’s not easy to choose which garden is the most beautiful or tranquil. Gems include the garden surrounding the pink-domed Greek Orthodox church on the northern shore of Lake Kinneret, the monastery garden at the top of Mount Tabor, and the modest garden of the Deir Rafat Monastery, also known as Regina Palestina, near Tzora west of Jerusalem.

But actually the winner seems to be at the Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem. There’s no monastery there, but when you enter from noisy Damascus Road you’re engulfed in serenity. It’s very easy to sink into thoughts about the meaning of life and its too-fast pace.

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