Jerusalem: the Old City must-see
May 29, 2019
Ever wondered about visiting Israel? The holy land, as it is commonly labelled in predominantly Christian Europe, plays a major role in Islam and Judaism as well. The best way to witness and experience the coexistence of these religions is to arrive right in the centre, Jerusalem.
My first impression that I put down in my diary was: it’s all yellow. Everywhere are fencing. Everything is made of stones and full of children.
After landing in Tel Aviv
We arrived in the night to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Luckily caught the last sherut, which is a local minibus used as a shared taxi. They usually stand in front of the airport waiting for those who are brave enough not to have anything pre-booked. And it only takes about an hour. That’s how we ended up in the middle of nocturnal Jerusalem, searching for dinner. Successfully. My first of many street foods, hummus and falafel, yum!
The dark streets of Israeli unofficial capital (note: it became officially recognised by the US by the end of 2017) were surprisingly welcoming, warm and entertaining. The local art picturing Israel as the centre of the world, squares filled with stationary bicycles connected to street lamps and huge statues willing to be climbed kept us busy quite a while before reaching our hostel. Here comes the first story.
Finding a hostel
Did you know that you can touch a foreign passport only in gloves? To be honest, I’m not sure until today if it is a common practice or we just got this weird experience. The Arabic man took us up the stairs, under the arch and in between the columns into a gloomy tiny space without door or window, with one mattress on the floor and a hole in the ceiling. Mhmm, we do like low cost, underground, alternative -fit in your fav expression- places but this, after the flight, customs and long wander through the city, was a bit too much for us. So we left, to meet the night again.
With backpacks on, determination and slightly withering smiles we started unpopular rounds around hostels. And got lucky considerably fast. Mouldy walls and window into an inside corridor couldn’t discourage us and thus we gratefully fell into the bed. Yes, single bed. Yes, two people. The breakfast on the rooftop, though, with the view over Dome of the Rock and Mount of Olives compensated everything.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the starting point
To confess, I’m not much of a planner. So, reading the Lonely planet the evening before visiting a place was already an effort. We picked a couple of spots and hit the streets. Our first stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is claimed to be a place of Jesus’s tomb. Do not mistake, the empty one. He’s been resurrected, after all. Hanging chandeliers of flickering candles and traditional stained glass create an iridescent light and peaceful atmosphere only disturbed by a crowd of visitors. Very tall and slim white candles can be purchased and lit with a special intention, placed into big containers filled with sand.
Dome of the Rock, the most recognisable landmark
From here we followed Via Dolorosa, which is believed to be the path that Jesus walked in the day of crucifixion. Thus fulfilling our Christian duty of pilgrimage, free to explore further. Dome of the Rock, the biggest landmark of the city is an Islamic shrine located on the Temple Mount, right in the middle of the Old Town. If this is not enough surprising, as Jerusalem is the main centre of Christianity worldwide, the western wall around the Dome forms the Wailing Wall, which is the most religious site for Jewish people. And this is the glory and the beauty of Jerusalem, the encounter of three biggest religions and cultures under one roof. Orthodox Jews, devoted Muslims and worshipping Christians all browsing the same streets. Only entrances differ. There are gates open only to Muslims and there are hours reserved to non-Muslim visitors. There is military control, gender separated entrances and strict dress code.
How have we managed to get in? Pure luck, once again. A young boy in the street figured out we must a bit lost when we tried to enter the Muslim gate and offered to guide us all the way around so we would catch the right timing. Be wiser, check the entrance and visiting hours ? The inside is astonishing. The vast court made me feel so tiny. The walls decorated with millions of tiles awaken the admiration of the creators and the time they spent here. The golden roof is blind towards your religion or race. But if you wonder how it all happened in this manner, read through a little bit of history. It actually makes sense. (Wiki is good enough.)
Mount of Olives and Zedekiah’s Cave: as above, so below
A little hike, taxi or a camel brings you up to the Mount of Olives, whichever you prefer. We walked. Stopped by a few more places, including Gethsemane garden and Muslim cemetery. Reached the top with the view over all the diversity and looked down to the biggest and most ancient Jewish cemetery. And it was all yellow. The same colour as all the walls and all the floors of the city. The Jewish graves are traditionally made of stone and they even bring small rocks to commemorate their ancestors, in a similar manner as Christians bring candles. It’s possible to visit a few tombs around here as well.
So why is it all yellow? Because it’s made of limestone. And that was extracted from under the town. The Zedekiah’s cave is also known as Solomon quarries, the main source of limestone and the biggest underground of Jerusalem opened to the public. That’s where you wanna be when the temperature starts to hit the 40s.
Beyond the capital
This was my impression of Jerusalem, the controversial capital of Israel and Palestine. Shiny and tensed. Our trip continued to West bank, to complete the picture of this contrasting country. And when we rent a car, we took off down south to explore the ancient fortress Masada located on the top of the hill in the middle of the desert overlooking the Dead Sea, which is paradoxically below sea level. And up north to the greenery of Golan Heights, terrace gardens of Haifa and picturesque coastal town Akko; ending up in metropolitan Tel Aviv enjoying the sand, the wind and the beach. The checkpoints and military zones are the challenging part of driving around but the short distances are a great benefit. The whole round took us approximately 1000km and 10 days. Full of magic and adventure. Yes, expect more stories ?