BURY Times reporter BRAD MARSHALL recently returned from a delegation of British journalists to experience the history and culture of Israel organised by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is the first in a series of reports examining the nation, its people and the ongoing conflict in the region.

Arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, named after one of Israel’s founding fathers, we travel up to the hills of Jerusalem through mist filled valleys, along new highways and past rapidly expanding towns and villages.

For one of the most ancient cradles of civilisation the air of modernity is overwhelming.

Everywhere cranes pierce the sky denoting new building projects — New Jerusalem is not just a name or an ideal but a reality.

After a few hours respite in the spectacular boutique Bezalel Hotel in Jerusalem’s centre, we sampled our first taste of Israeli cuisine, which joyously straddles the line between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean.

We then travelled down past the newly christened and highly controversial American Embassy — notoriously relocated from Tel Aviv to the former consulate on May 14, resulting in waves of violence across the country and the deaths of dozens of Palestinians.

From there we arrived at the fulcrum and heart of three of the world’s major religions. The Old City is home to the Western Wall, the last remaining of the structure of Jewish Temple; the Temple Mount, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the dazzling gold capped Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam; and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

After traversing between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters, and through more than 4,000 years of history, encapsulating Judean, Roman-Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Ottoman and British periods of occupation — we arrived at the Machne Yehuda market.

At night the market is transformed from a bazaar selling all manner of fresh food and goods into the centre of the city’s night life — as spaces are cleared, tables and chairs laid out and many stalls become bars.

Rising early the next day, after several briefings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, our delegation visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial and research centre for the Holocaust.

Recounting Europe’s decline into mass extermination of its Jewish population, orchestrated by the Nazis, Yad Vashem serves as an eternal reminder that the past must not be forgotten and the slide into persecution and genocide can often be horrifyingly mundane.

Heartbreaking, stirring and perennially important the site also offers stunning vistas of the hills surrounding Jerusalem, both lush green and brimming with rapid development.

Our afternoon rounded out with a tour of the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral parliament and centre of the nation’s democracy.

The next day we travelled to the core of one of the Levant’s ongoing conflicts, and to the Gaza border region, where we were exposed to the people’s delicate existence on a knife edge, punctuated by violence and conflict of the most extreme nature.

On Monday we had awoken to news that a botched Israeli operation inside Gaza had pushed tensions in the region from febrile to explosive.

Over the following day Hamas launched more than 400 rockets and mortar strikes as Israel fiercely retaliated with more than 100 airstrikes against targets in Gaza.

In and around the Israeli city of Sderot we visited schools emptied under threat of rocket attacks, as well as travelling to the border fence and twice having to rush to a bomb shelter when rockets were fired.

The following day we progressed to two of Israel’s other highly contentious frontiers and were briefed by the Israeli Defence Force about their operations at the borders with Lebanon and Syria.

Later, in a moment of surreality, ten minutes drive from the Syrian border, in an area annexed by Israel and neighbouring territory which had been under the control of ISIS and rebel fighters until June; we ate a ranch themed restaurant complete with photos of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne adorning the walls, and Hebrew cover versions of the Beatles playing on the stereo.

After a beautiful drive via the Sea of Galilee we returned to Tel Aviv where we had relocated the previous night.

Israel’s second city, Tel Aviv is a bustling metropolis bursting with culture, bars, restaurants and outstanding gold-sanded beaches, more akin to a Levantine Barcelona than any preconception of the Middle East you may have.

Here over the next two days we delved deeper into life in the city and across the Middle East, visiting the Institute for National Security Studies and dropping in on several of the young companies proving why Tel Aviv, home to the highest number of startups per capita in the world, has been dubbed the “startup city”.

We then concluded our stay traversing the city and uncovering its rapid and seemingly exponential growth from little over 60 families on the outskirts of the ancient city of Jaffa to a modern high-rise garden city via Bauhaus and irrigated orange groves — encapsulating the spirit and eclectic nature of this historic region.