Safed, where the ancient still lives

The artists colony provides a great place to walk around. (photo credit: ISRAEL TOURISM MINISTRY)
The artists colony provides a great place to walk around.
Israel might be a young country, but it has a rich cultural and religious history. Every city contains roots of this majestic past, and one of the most special is Safed.
The most picturesque city in the North, Safed is awash with history. Every street you turn down leads to magical corners that seem to call out to visitors. Art enthusiasts, people on spiritual voyages and curious tourists can feel a connection to Safed as they walk its narrow paths.
The lines between old and new, sacred and mundane, religious and secular, are blurred in Safed, even as tensions run high in most other Israeli cities. As Safed is one of the four holy cities in Judaism and a center of Kabbala, it attracts many people who are looking to immerse themselves in Jewish study.
The first thing you notice when you finally reach the city at the top of the mountain is the incredible view of the Galilean valleys, and the cool, crisp air. Many of the numerous art galleries that have welcomed visitors throughout the years are still standing, though some artists have moved on to different places. Those who have remained welcome tourists with open arms, eager to show off their beautiful and original creations.
There’s no need to plan your visit ahead of time; you can just walk around, chat with residents, go inside the ancient synagogues and charming art galleries, and look out at the gorgeous view – calming the hearts and minds of even the most uptight Tel Avivians.
Signs attest to Jewish settlement in the city going back to the second millennium BCE. Later, Safed was one of the cities fortified by Josephus (Yosef ben Matityahu) during the great revolt against the Romans. Afterwards, the Crusaders built an impressive fortress on top of the mountain, later conquered by Saladin. During the Mameluke period, Safed became the capital of the Galilee and attracted many visitors. Later, the city blossomed and the economy thrived under Ottoman rule.
But Safed had a hard time holding onto its status as the region’s most magnetic city, and people slowly began relocating to other areas. Safed also suffered from the plague and two earthquakes in 1823 and 1837, which destroyed entire neighborhoods, and the city began to deteriorate. Despite this, there has been a continuous Jewish community here throughout history, and dozens of synagogues are still standing; some still function as places of prayer, while others are used as wedding halls.
The two most famous synagogues in Safed that no visitor should miss are the Ari and Abuhav synagogues. To reach the Ari Synagogue, walk up Ma’alot Olei Hagardom on Tarpat Street.
Besides the famous arch at the entrance to the Old City, these steps are the only remaining structure that once separated the Jewish and Muslim quarters.
As you walk along the street towards the synagogue, on building façades you can glimpse decorations from before 1948, including hamsas (hands meant to protect from the evil eye) and Stars of David. When you reach Hameginim Square, if you look carefully at the small homes and balconies, you can see these homes have been preserved from the 19th century.
The Ari Synagogue is named for Rabbi Isaac Luria, and Sephardi Jews from Greece – many of them kabbalists – frequented it. After it was destroyed in one of the earthquakes, the Ark was rebuilt from olive wood in the style of Eastern European synagogues.
From here, continue on to Abuhav, home to the oldest Torah scroll in Safed; it’s brought out TOUR ISRAEL and read from only on Yom Kippur, Shavuot and Rosh Hashana.
This Sephardi synagogue has an interior dome decorated with depictions of musical instruments used in the Temple in Jerusalem, and other priestly symbols. The walls are painted blue, as is traditional in Sephardi homes and buildings.
A visit to Safed would not be complete without visiting the ancient cemetery in which many famous kabbalists are buried, including Rabbi Joseph Karo and the Ari. It is also believed that ancient graves from the time of Shimon Bar Yohai are located in this cemetery.
I recommend ending the tour in the Artists’ Colony. Though no longer bustling as it was in the past, it is still the natural extension of the Old City. On its quaint streets, you will find a number of galleries run by local artists who are happy to show their painting and sculptures. If you come on a weekday, you can sit at a café or if you’re there on Shabbat, just find an available bench and watch the eclectic people; this is the best spot to people-watch or talk with passersby about their lives in the holy city of Safed.
If you still have energy, you can stop at the Meiri Museum, offering a historical perspective on life in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. Authentic pictures, historical documents and Jewish ritual objects are on display; the museum is open every day except Shabbat. ■ Translated by Hannah Hochner.
Location: Safed.
Type of outing: Easy walking. Recommended to dress modestly.
Length: 2-3 hours, about 2 kilometers.
Season: All year long.
Directions: Drive along Road 89, then turn onto Road 8900 towards Safed. Enter the city’s main entrance, and park in the area on Keren Hayesod Street.