Jerusalem or bust
Covered by the first, and by far the longest chapter of the Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Israel. Of the (relatively few) places we’ve seen in the country, it was the only one offering sights that impressed us. That, together with its religious status, makes it chock-full of tourists—numerous groups of pilgrims, squeezing through the narrow streets of the Old City while chanting religious songs.
With tourists come all the annoyances of tourism-oriented commerce. Random people on the street offering city tours, rides to Bethlehem (which we couldn’t reach easily on our own, because our car rental contract forbade us to go into Palestinian territory) and virtually all taxi drivers peddling their services—particularly intensely trying to convince anyone heading for the Mount of Olives to not go there on foot, this being such a “steep and difficult climb”.
There are so… many… shops… All the main streets of the Old City’s Christian and Muslim quarters are filled with stalls selling symbols of every Abrahamic religion, sweets, juices, carvings, carpets and other crafts. It’s busy, it’s noisy and that’s what makes it beautiful—unless you’re looking for quiet contemplation. That’s much easier to find in the side streets, which are all but devoid of traffic, snaking between residential houses (yes, people do live in the Old City).
The Jewish quarter is much calmer. There are few shops, and most of them quite elegant, plus a few places to eat. It’s also the cleanest of the quarters, with the majority of houses (re)built in the late 60s and early 70s—visibly modern, but keeping the style and colors of the old buildings. This seems to be the general approach across Jerusalem, applied also in recent buildings, such as the Mamilla Mall. This one’s located just outside the Old City, near Jaffa Gate, and it looks like it might’ve been built together with the century-old walls adjacent to it.
Every major religion and its faction seems to have their own spots in the city—tombs, rocks, stones, caves, related in some way to their saints and prophets. Some of the religions disagree even, which of them keeps watch over the actual place of some event. Needless to say, many of these spots seem to be connected to historical events by faith rather than confirmed facts. Most of them were “identified”, and churches constructed around them, centuries ago, when modern archeological methods were unavailable. And today, I imagine, nobody in their right mind would dare to question the faithfuls’ beliefs.
The Western Wall was first on our route and it is… magical. There’s a bit of security to enter the plaza in front of it, and then a whole lot of space, with seemingly few tourists and many Jews coming and going to pray at the only site in the world of Judaism, that has the status of a temple. An excellent spot for silent contemplation, though perhaps better visited on cooler days or in the evenings, this being a completely open area, it does get hot in the open sun.
Church of Holy Sepulchre was second and this one, unsurprisingly, was packed with pilgrims. Visitors typically start off by kneeling at the stone, on which Jesus’s body was supposedly laid after taking it off the cross. Then, deeper in the church, there’s the grave of Jesus, with a long, long line of people wanting to get in for a minute or so, and be rushed out quickly to make room for others. We tried waiting in the line for a quarter of an hour and made barely any progress, then resigned. We did learn, though, that Calvary—the “mound” on which Jesus was crucified, wasn’t a mountain at all. Merely a rock that Romans used for executions, which in those times was outside the city walls of Jerusalem. That rock is embedded into the church and a chapel is built around and on top of it.
Then there was the Temple Mount. Not easy to get in for us, non-Muslims, because we could only enter through a single gate, a security check and only at short times during the day. We managed. The inside is very pleasant indeed. We couldn’t enter any of the buildings—the Al-Aqsa mosque, nor the Dome of The Rock, these being some of the holiest places in Islam. But even the outside of the Dome of The Rock (the “rock” being the one from which Mohammed ascended to heaven), was a stunning piece of architecture and ornamentation.
The whole Temple Mount is spacious and, outside of prayer times, sparsely occupied by Muslims and their families. Some come there to rest and have picnics. I was told that in Ramadan time the space hosts up to 120,000 people, and while we were there, preparations were already being made to receive them.
Finally, we checked out the Mount of Olives, though we did stop short of climbing all the way to the top. What made a particular impression on us were the ancient, old olive trees. Some of them confirmed to be two millennia old, and as such, witnesses to the events described in the Bible and other scripture. We don’t get to see a lot of living organisms that are this old. We tend to think of life as something, such as ours, that’s rather short.
We did check out the New Town too, but that was rather unimpressive. Frequented mostly by locals, and at nights had a large number of bars, many advertising to the tourists and expats in the area.
Sadly, we missed out on two places which were away from the city center: the Yad Vashem and the much-hailed Israel Museum. We had already made two trips to Jerusalem to cover the Old City, and didn’t want to spend any more days of our Israel stay in transit. These two places will have to wait for another visit.
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed Jerusalem. A friend of mine recommended that we stay there for at least a night, to get a feeling of the city, and its old parts in particular. I’m not convinced we would’ve liked that much—we were very comfortable in Tel Aviv and consider that a much more livable city.
I read enough about the tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians as to the status of the city—both nations considering Jerusalem its capital—but during our visits no such tension seemed perceptible. Both nations lived next to each other, most people trying to make a decent living. Only the amount of Israeli soldiers on the streets—many more than anywhere else we saw in the country—hinted at the conflict.