Safed is not only one of Israel’s holiest cities, it is also the highest city in the Holy Land. Set in the dense pine forests of the Upper Galilee, overlooking Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, Safed is a delicious blend of ancient grandeur and modern-day resort. For thousands of years, the ancient city of Safed was conquered and reconquered – always changing hands. Said to have been founded by one of Noah’s sons after the Great Flood, the city was inhabited by the local Semetic populations throughout the years. Josephus mentions Safed as Sepph, a fortified Jewish town in the Upper Galilee. Today, after years of conflict ranging from the Crusaders to the Mamlukes to the British, Safed survives – as pretty, vibrant and mystical as ever!
Safed’s Old City
The Safed that is today’s tourist hotspot is the Old City, originating from the Spanish Jews who settled the town after the Expulsion in 1492. From the old buildings to the ethnic atmosphere, Safed offers not just a jump back to the past but also a beautiful present. These days, the locals of Safed are often involved in Kabbala (a Jewish esoteric school of thought) and Kabbala becomes an integral part of society. The old city streets and houses are steeped in Kabbalistic influence – the doors and windows painted blue in mystical symbolism to confuse evil spirits. Along with the devout Kabbalists in the Old City, artists of varied approach have settled in Safed, creating the Artists’ Quarter.
Safed’s Artists’ Quarter
Once nicknamed the “Bohemian Center of Israel,” Safed’s Artists’ Quarter draws both the casual observer and the bonafide art critic to a world of art and beauty. Many of Israel’s best and most celebrated artists trace their roots to the Artists’ Quarter. Above the Artists’ Quarter, approaching the peak of the mountain that Safed is built on, are the old British Mandate buildings, riddled with bulletholes from the tumultuous War of Independence that swept the land in 1948. The battle was taken to the very peak of the mountain, Safed’s Citadel, where an IDF monument now stands to celebrate the victory.
Other things to do in Safed
Also in Safed is the Meiri Museum and the Hungarian Museum, both perfect for museum-lovers. For those religiously-inclined, Safed’s Old City is an ancient synagogue heaven! Beautifully done in old stone and ornate wood, many of the synagogues feature large, gorgeous murals on ceilings and walls. Many of the synagogues are still in use, visited several times a day by locals and tourists to pray. Don’t forget that when visiting a synagogue, please dress modestly.
For those interested in the deep past, many Jewish leaders are buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Safed. The cemetery is sought-after by people of all religions and backgrounds, to pray or to simply sit among the Jewish history makers and rabbis of old.
Outside of Safed are the two bordering cities of Rosh Pina and Hazor and on the wilderness side, the valley to Mt. Meron, a gorgeous mountain with a gorgeous view up at 1,208 meters (3,963 feet). Cherished by the KKL (JNF), Israel’s foremost organisation for the foresting and upkeeping of the land, the thick woods around Safed, dotted and streaked with old ruins and streams, are beautiful for hiking in. One of Israel’s most diverse walk, the Yam L’Yam hike (Coast to Coast), passes through the forests outside of Safed on the way to the Sea of Galilee.
By: Shem Tov Sasson. A Contributing Journalist for Tourist Israel, Shem Tov lives in the small Israeli city of Ma’alot. His personal blog about his experiences and adventures in the Holy Land can be found at Israel’s Good Name.