Jerusalem intrigues and fascinates! It does not matter what are your interests and reasons to visit Jerusalem. This at times tumultuous city has something for everyone. Undoubtedly, the first thing that comes to mind is religion. Home to the three major religions in the world, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have shared and fought for Jerusalem for the most part of the past two thousand years. However, its history and the tales of conflicts, destructions, and rebuilding predates the birth of Christianity and Islam.
However, if religion is not your focus, no worries! Jerusalem’s political history is a magnet for those who are interested in international affairs. You don’t have to be a historian or a scholar to be attracted to Jerusalem. Simply speaking, if you are a ‘history buff’ or just love history and current affairs for the sake of curiosity, Jerusalem must be in your short bucket list of places to visit. One thing is to have opinions based on the news media; the other thing is to walk the alleyways of the Old City observing the dynamics of its inhabitants daily lives, and have a conversation with locals while sipping coffee or tea.
Thus, talking to locals in this often portrayed as a dangerous city to visit, can change one’s perspective about its reality. Although one cannot overlook nor disregard the fact that occasional conflicts do happen. Despite the acts of violence that are committed sporadically, it is the fact that the vast majority of Muslims, Jews, and Christians live side-by-side in Jerusalem that reflects its daily reality.
More importantly, for the casual tourist, Jerusalem is a city where you can spend a week or so and enjoy days filled with activities. It is a city that one can explore without the help of a tour guide and enjoy the freedom of time to spend at will. I find it particularly exciting stopping at shops and cafes chatting with locals. Shopkeepers are always willing to offer their own perspective on their daily realities. Just do not expect more than two people to agree on anything here.
And remember! No one is in a rush here! It seems that everyone is accustomed to waiting. Some people are waiting for the first coming of the Messiah; others are waiting for His return. And there are those who are just waiting to go home at the end of the day to be with their families. Some of its inhabitants wait for the call to pray; others wait for enduring peace. And there are those waiting for the next waive of shoppers dropped by another tour bus.
Additionally, if one day is all you have in your tight schedule because in one week in the country you want to hit all the highlights of Israel, then I recommend joining a tour. A day tour will take you from one place to another maximizing the use of your time and providing with historic information and facts that will leave you wishing you had more time to spend in the city.
So, in my last visit to Israel I decided to make Tel Aviv my home base and go on day trips around the country, as I wanted to spend more time having fun and relaxing. So for my one day visit to East Jerusalem, the Old City, I chose to join a tour. I found it very convenient knowing that I would be picked up at the hotel in Tel Aviv and be dropped off at its door back in the evening. I must confess that I was a little hesitant because I was not so sure if that was the right decision.
Nevertheless, a successful tour depends on the particular tour guide and sometimes on the other travelers who are in your group. My group was a small one with only eight people. I chose to travel with Bein Harim Tours which provides day tours throughout Israel and some longer tours of two, three, four or more days. Bein Harim buses and vans pick up passengers at different hotels in Tel Aviv and bring them to a ‘meeting point’. At the meeting point passengers transfer to buses and vans heading to different cities and attractions in Israel. Some of them to Jordan.
Furthermore, each tour description offers recommendations about what to bring, how to dress and what to expect. I found them accurate and helpful on all day trips I went on to do with them. My hotel was only five minutes from the meeting point, so I was the last one picked up that morning. From the start, I liked the tour guide, Amir, who also happened to be the driver. What a fascinating story-teller! A linguist and a historian with a captivating sense of humor.
In fact, just before arriving in Jerusalem Amir made a stop for coffee. Surprisingly, a planned stop at a place that is all about Elvis Presley! Really? Was this a joke? My first thought was that I came all the way from California and my first stop on a tour of Jerusalem is at a diner that looks more like Graceland! Nonetheless, it was there surrounded by Elvis’ memorabilia that I started to talk to another passenger whose home is in New Jersey.
Consequently, Mike became my travel buddy for the day. Soon I found out that he was an airline pilot who was grounded in Tel Aviv for a couple of days. His flight like many others was cancelled because of the winter blizzard in the US northeastern region. As it is his first time visiting Jerusalem, it was exciting to see the reactions of a first time visitor and hear his impressions. He was marveled to find out that ‘it is safe’ to visit Jerusalem and remarked that he had to stop watching television. Mike now felt comfortable to bring his wife and his two little children to visit Jerusalem.
Next we stopped at a viewpoint at the Mount of Olives. Our was the first photo-op of the day! Overlooking the Old City with the iconic golden Dome of the Rock shinning on Temple Mount, offered a stunning view of Old Jerusalem and its surrounding valleys.
After getting acquainted with the geography of the city, we continued our trip passing the Garden of Gethsemane and the astonishing 2,000 year old burial tombs in the Kidron Valley, before entering the Old City by the Jaffa Gate. The small square inside the Jaffa Gate which leads to the entrance to the Christian Quarter to the left, the Muslim Quarter straight ahead, and the Armenian Quarter to the right past the Tower of David, was our first stop in the Old City.
Just before lunch we toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the holiest site for Christians, pilgrims line up to touch the Stone of Anointing believed to be the stone where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea, to pray at the Altar of Crucifixion, and to contemplate at the Aedicula believed to contain the tomb of Jesus.
Because of its importance to Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided among the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, and the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Overwhelming Christian pilgrims from all over the world, the church’s intriguing history and fascinating architecture is certain to dazzles even the most agnostic of its visitors.
Next stop was at the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall as it is also known, we passed through the Muslim Quarter where we had shawarma for lunch on the rooftop of a restaurant overlooking Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. After lunch we continued our tour which included the ‘stations of the Cross’, on the Via Dolorosa.
As we arrived at the last station of the Cross, our guide reminded us that we had been walking “not on the steps of Jesus, but at best above where it might have been the Way of the Cross on the day of his crucifixion”. Two thousand years of sediments deposited after a succession of destructions and rebuilding, as excavations show, have long ago buried the 2,000 year old pathways where Jesus once walked. However, such geological reality should not in anyway diminish what current day Old Jerusalem represents.
Another important via (street) in the Old City is the Cardo. Today, with part of the excavations completed, a section of the Cardo was rebuilt and reactivated with shops and art galleries in the Jewish Quarter.
Since part of the Cardo excavations work is still an ongoing project, visitors can see it from a viewing point installed above. The Byzantine Cardo is what Jerusalem’s main street was 1,500 years ago. Originally paved when Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem in the second century, the Cardo was expanded in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. In its glorious days, the wide colonnaded street ran through the cardo (heart) of the city.
In addition, one can have a good idea about what the heart of Jerusalem looked like in the Byzantine period. A replica of a mosaic found on the pavement of a Byzantine Church from the sixth century in the town of Madaba, Jordan, is on display in the Cardo. Known as the Madaba map, it depicts what the cardos, a feature in many Roman cities in the Near East looked like.
Similarly, the reconstructed Cardo is once again the main attraction in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. And not to be missed in the replica of the mosaic portraying the Cardo, on its right lower corner is the representation of a Byzantine girl handing a pomegranate to a twentieth-first century boy. Perhaps, to me this is a statement to how Jerusalem’s present is intrinsically connected to its past. Obviously, contrary to what many wish, its present cannot be separated from its past … not even for a second!
Finally, just before leaving the Old City, we visited the holiest place in Judaism commonly known as the Western Wall where Jews are allowed to pray. The Kotel (or, HaKotel) in Hebrew, it is also known as the Wailing Wall, in reference to the practice of Jews weeping at the site of the destruction of the Temples.
Built by Herod the Great, it is known as the Western Wall because it was one of the four retaining walls that formed a box-like structure. On top of this rectangular set of retaining walls, Herod built a large esplanade surrounding the Temple. Of all four retaining walls, the Western Wall is considered to be the closest to the Temple, making it the holiest places in Judaism outside the Temple Mount old esplanade itself.
However, on our way out of town heading to the Dead Sea, the moment Amir announced that we had arrived in was perhaps one of the most clarifying and entertaining anecdotes of the day. Although I had heard the story a few times before, it was particularly interesting and colorful coming from our guide’s sharpened sense of humor. A relief to know that this is all what hell is about! Or, a disappointment to those expecting a bit more in the after life. Passing through the Valley of Hinnon, Amir suddenly stopped the van, turned to us and said: Welcome to Hell!
Surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City including Mount Zion, from the west and the south, the Valley of Hinnon meets and merges with the Kidron Valley. Originating from the Greek word gehenna and from Hebrew geHinnon, the valley is the location where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. A place for those who fell from grace with the kings, in Jewish Rabbinic literature, and Christian and Islamic texts, Gehenna is the destination for the wicked. Literally it means the Valley of the children of Hinnon.
After being saved from hell, we continued through the Judean Valley, passing Jericho to the northern coast of the Dead Sea. Now in the desert and closer to the Dead Sea the landscape was no longer green, only dotted with beautiful oasis of date palms.
In our journey through the desert we were warned not to drink from the waters of the Dead Sea. Under no circumstances! “One single cup of water from the Dead Sea will kill you!” – our guide repeated several times. After a couple of hours getting muddy and floating in the mineral rich waters of the Dead Sea we returned to Tel Aviv. It was almost eight in the evening when I was dropped off at the door of my hotel. I would just have enough time to shower and go out to have dinner with a couple of friends.