Jerusalem is the capital and largest city in Israel and is holy to three of the world’s great religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) and is considered as one of the oldest cities in the world and one of the world’s foremost pilgrimage locations. The cities walled Old Town holds a collection of sacred sites and relics where life still continues much as it has for millennia since the time when the prophets, Imams, kings, cardinals and Crusaders wandered its meandering alleyways. You will be enchanted by the churches bells, the Islamic call to prayer and the sound of the shofar as you other senses absorb the smells and sights of the spice souq (market). It is an incredibly unique place where the buildings of neighborhoods that has existed since the time of Jesus stand alongside modern business and apartment blocks. It truly is an unbelievable destination, a sensory and religious experience which has to be seen to be believed.
After exploring Tel Aviv, Haifa and the Sea of Galilee I had made my way to Jerusalem where I would meet and stay with Katie a friend from University days and Alon another local I had contacted through couchsurfing who offered to host me and show me around the markets. On my first night in Jerusalem I was surprised how chilly it got to in the evenings, this is because of the Mediterranean climate where the days are still fairly dry and fine, but due to the time of year and the elevation (750m) it often gets cold in the evenings despite the warmth of the days.
I don’t even know where to begin when describing what it is like to explore Jerusalem’s walled Old City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) as there is a breathtaking number of holy and historic sites as it is the atmospheric historical core of Jerusalem. A couple of the world class attractions in the Old City are as follows; Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock, Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Jewish quarter to name a few. Be sure to check out the most elaborate gate of the walled city - Damascus Gate – by staying and people watching and enjoy the hustle and bustle of the evening market.
Outside of the Old City there are more attractions, enough to keep you busy for several days such as visiting the Israel Museum, the Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum), the Mount of Olives and the tombs of the valley below it, the ornate Church of Mary Magdalene, one of the countless Souqs and the Parliament of Israel among many others. All of these sites lie within the Israeli controlled zones, to get to our next destinations – Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus – we would have to traverse one of the most controversial borders of modern day.
One of the more disturbing sites of Jerusalem is the highly visible Israeli West Bank Wall which Israel considers a security barrier. Its presence cuts across the region, separating neighborhoods and isolating people. It has been widely condemned with many artists using the large blank concrete panels, of which it’s constructed, as a canvas for artworks often in protest. It’s a truly strange sight and one I recall thinking how I don’t think I had ever been so close to history than at that particular moment when I stood beneath its 30ft sides.
It goes without saying that my visit to Bethlehem was somewhat unnerving as we were officially in the West Bank, a region we hear so much bad news on TV, but it ended up being a fascinating and pleasant visit to the Church of Nativity to see the site considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. Ramallah and Nablus’ bustling market places made for interesting day trip, but I found the journey to those towns the most fascinating part of the day as I travelled intrepidly by local bus, passing through various Israeli army checkpoints and of course at either end of the day witnessing The Wall and enduring the reentry process.
One of the last activities I did while in Israel was to reunite with my Israeli friends I had met with in Asia and join them for a day trip to the Dead Sea which is a short 60km drive from Jerusalem. Here you can bath and float in the extremely salty waters and smear the mud of the Dead Sea over your body as it reportedly has beneficial properties for the skin; another great day out. If you are thinking you’d like to intrepidly travel through Israel I would definitely implore you to do so, it’s a fascinatingly mix of old and new, with untold cultural riches it’s mind-blowing and makes for an extremely interesting adventure.