Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Last Outpost

You really need to know the right Admiral to visit the fortress at Atlit. It's a closed military zone.

I'm a bit lucky with knowing those who hold keys to forbidden places. Knowing the right German journalist, I got to join her as translator to the village of Rajar, north of Israel's fenced border with Lebanon. Knowing the right creative taxi driver lets me go in and out of Ramallah, where I'm not legally allowed.

Now I've met the right admiral too. As part of a non-military-related joint project he actually requested me to visit the unreachable coastal gem, 70 kilometers north of Tel-Aviv. I'm grateful to him for the oppurtunity and for the base's sweet and knowledgable education officer for walking us through.

Atlit is even further off limits than the other two locations. It's only open to several elite units of the Israeli navy. The ancient fortress, dating back to 1217 AD, is situated on a narrow peninsula securing a quiet bay and keeping it hidden. This provides the navy's commando and other units with discreet conditions ideal for secret operations and training. Naturally, I was allowed to take no photos. The one above is from Google, taken from outside the base's fences.

Even deprivation has its advantages. Yes, the public is banned from this ancient paradise, but thus it remains paradise. Tall thistles were in purple bloom on the ruins that I haven't seen in coastal Israel since my childhood. They are extinct mostly everywhere here. Walking on a barely beaten path among enormous bushes of prickly pear, the fantastic stone walls, the blue skies and gushing sea, was an intensely sensual experience.

Putting a railing along the path or carving stairs unto the ragged rocks would doubtlessly kill the place in a way, not to mention opening a branch of some cafe chain nearby. The soldiers seem to be treating the ruins with utter respect. I saw no signs of vandalism, trash or recent damage. If only the Israeli army treated certain people this way.

Underground, in caverns dug by the fabled Templar knights, bats were screaming. At times more than 1000 knights resided in this Middle Eastern Mont St. Michel, under the spire of an octagonal Gothic church of which little remains. Octagonal it was indeed. Those were the knights who received the Temple Mount to live on. Al-Aqsa was their headquarters. The octagonal dome of the rock was their church and all their other churches were designed in its spirit.

Atlit's fortress, with its exceedingly tall towers and walls, was never conquered. King Friedrich II of the Holy Roman Empire tried to overtake it from within while staying as a guest. He ended up imprisoned in its dungeons. Muslims who attacked it from the mainland, leaving still visible scars on the forbidding walls, finally burned the fort's fields in anguish and retreated. At the fall of the crusader kingdom, Château Pèlerin on the Carmel coast remained its last outpost.

The knights, seeing no way to recover control of the Holy Land on their own, left to sea. Later came an earthquake and demolished their extraordinary town, leaving in its wake a few strange relics: the carved faces of a man and a woman on a pillar, a moat overgrown with wild coastal weeds and one huge tower, clearly seen from the Haifa-Tel-Aviv highway, awaiting days of peace when it will receive all who are hungry for ancient beauty.

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