Jerusalem and West Bank, Israel/Palestine
High above, the church bells begin ring from the Holy Sepulcher. “Allahu Akbar,” blares from the hundreds of loudspeakers throughout the Muslim quarter. Jewish Rabbis glide in-between alley ways, on their way to the Wailing Wall, singing hymns from the Tora. The air fills quickly with the scent of the thick perfume of frankincense.
I stand in the middle of all this, not a Jew, Christian or Muslim. Just a traveler, an observer of culture and life. The energy buzzes though the air like a summer wildfire. This place is special. There is no place like it anywhere else in the world. The dream comes to an abrupt end when you see the heavily armed military police, standing on every street corner, watching the people, watching you. This is Jerusalem. It can only be described with one word: Intense.
Getting to Israel
Today, Israel is a “hot spot” in the Middle East. In North America, talk of Israel inevitably pertains to politics, human rights and conflict. I, however, am not here to discuss any of this. I was a traveler of Israel. I went there to objectively observe another culture and learn about another place.
Visiting Israel is a popular topic among travelers as well. Is it safe? What about receiving that scary Israeli passport stamp*? In fact, many travellers opt to skip Israel entirely because of the difficulties that may arise before, during and after visiting here.
Israeli Stamp: Let’s clear one issue up quickly. If you receive an Israeli stamp in your passport, you indeed will be denied access from the following countries: Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen. People have also said they have had issues getting into: Malaysia, Pakistan, Algeria, Indonesia, U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. The notion that Israeli border guards will stamp a separate piece of paper other than your passport is completely unreliable, to say the least. Even if you can convince them to do this, other countries will notice your exit stamp from Jordan or Egypt. There is almost no getting around this problem. If you plan to travel to any of the countries listed above, consider visiting Israel last.
My story begins in Amman, Jordan. After my mother and I had backpacked through Egypt and Jordan, we were looking forward to the seeing the epicentre of all Middle Eastern culture – Jerusalem. We were unsure of what the day would bring us. We climbed aboard a mini bus from the Amman central bus station that would take us to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge border crossing between Jordan and Israel.
Our bus finally arrived. Exiting Jordan was simple and easy. On the other side of the border, things were very different. Heavily armed military police were everywhere. Tall, barbed wire fences surrounded the desert post. There were attack dogs and counter terrorism units right in the open, sending a clear message to everyone not to mess around here.
They shuffled my mother and I into a separate line from the Jordanians. We were asked many questions about our previous travels in the Middle East and where in Israel we intend to go. After that, they herded us into a device that blew shots of air on us, testing for trace amounts of narcotics and explosives.
After we made it through this section of security, there was more. Our bags were pulled apart and every single item scrutinised. I had an antique knife in my backpack that the border guards did not take kindly too.
After one hour of all of this, we were finally through. We were in Israel. Another minivan waited for ongoing passengers to Jerusalem. It filled up fast, and we were off.
The Holy City of Jerusalem
Upon entering Jerusalem, you quickly realise how modern this city had become. Western food chains and glitzy shopping areas are everywhere. But when the bus pulled up to our arrival point at the Damascus Gate, we left the modern world behind.
Just like in ancient times, this gate is the main entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City. When you pass through its tall arches, you step back in time. The honking of car horns are replaced with the calling of street hawkers selling their wares. Air pollution turns into the thick waft of frankincense, and concrete buildings turn into soaring, ancient structures. The abrupt change is shocking.
We found ourselves in front of the Hashimi Hotel in the Muslim Quarter. This hotel has a great atmosphere. Inside is a mix of old domes and traditional Middle Eastern architecture. The rooms make you feel as though you have travelled back in time.
We checked into our rooms and were immediately off to get lost in the labyrinth of alleyways of this ancient city.
Jerusalem’s Four Quarters
Walking through this city, you begin to see that there are four very distinct areas. One of these is the Muslim Quarter. This area feels like you’ve stepped into a Middle Eastern souq. Arab men call out, trying to sell unique and beautifully crafted products, including hammered copper, mother of pearl, frankincense, and Muslim art.
The next Quarter is the Armenian Quarter. I found that the Christian and Armenian Quarters sort of blend into one. As you walk past the countless churches, you will notice Ethiopian Orthodox Christians carrying crosses in remembrance of their savoir.
The last Quarter is the Jewish Quarter. The heart of this area the Western Wall. Within this quarter and you will find many ancient Synagogues.
The Dome of Rock – Haram ash-Sharif/Temple Mount
Probably one of the world’s most easily recognised structures is the Dome of the Rock. This was the first place I had wanted to see in Jerusalem. Muslims revere this site because they believe that this is where Mohammed ascended to heaven to be alongside God. This place is also significant to the Jewish people, as it was the location of the first and second temple.
We entered into the grounds of the Temple Mount through the Bab al-Silsila, just as pilgrims have for thousands of years. There was a peaceful calm in the air. Cyprus trees are scattered throughout the plaza. Worshippers ponder at the beauty and significance of this structure. So much history is here.
I tried to enter the Dome of the Rock but, as I am a non-Muslim, I was not allowed in. Wandering around the Temple Mount was, I imagine, an equally satisfying experience. The pilgrims here are very pleased to see you. Without a doubt, they will eagerly tell you a little about this place.
I highly recommend staying here for Adhan/Call to Prayer. The beautiful Adhan is called out from The Dome of the Rock, and you really get to witness the passion the Muslim people have for this incredible place.
The Western Wall – Wailing Wall
We headed southwest from the Temple Mount to find the Western Wall. As you approach the wall you will be required to wear a Kippah – the small, flat round, cap that Jewish people wear. Do not worry if you do not have one, as an attendant at the wall will hand you a paper one.
Paper Kippah atop my head I, walked up to the Western Wall. Jewish pilgrims, Rabbi’s and other devotees sing hymns, cry and worship towards the wall. The scene is absolutely spectacular. So much energy, passion, makes for one intense experience. You can stay here for hours, observing this wondrous spectacle.
To the north side of the wall is the Western Wall Tunnels. I entered here alone, but was quickly picked up by a friendly Rabbi who wanted to show me around. Even though he asked for baksheesh* afterwards, I still appreciated the tour. It was informative, and gave me a greater insight to the deep spiritual importance of the wall. He also showed me the deepest and oldest section of the wall, which is usually closed off to the non-Jewish.
*Baksheesh: Learn this word fast as it is used by everyone in the Middle East. The word translates to “tip,” which travellers in the Middle East will be expected to give for anything from getting directions, to someone lifting your bag onto the train. This word will drive you crazy by the time you leave the Middle East.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Dome of Rock’s Gold hemisphere glistens over the entire city, the Western Wall is a dominant fixture of Jerusalem’s streets. But the holiest site for the Christians sits humbly atop the hill, where it is said that Jesus was crucified.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is quite underwhelming at first sight. Tucked in between a few other stone structures, the church can be a bit difficult to find. Ask any pilgrim or local and they will point you in the right direction.
Heading northwest from the Western Wall, we followed the parades of Ethiopian pilgrims carrying the cross to the hill. Just following these pilgrims gave me a glimpse of the passion these people have for their religion.
Entering the Church with the many pilgrims was incredible. You will go by the places where Jesus was nailed to the cross, died and laid to rest on the slab of stone that is still here. Lastly, you will see the place where he rose from the dead.
After wandering the halls of the Church, we walked back down the hill to the Hashimi Hotel in the Muslim Quarter. Visiting all three major sites in one day is exhausting, but it is one amazing experience.
The City of David
Over the next few days, we explored more of the many religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. We saw the Citadel – a huge crusader citadel which contains Herod’s Tower and the Tower of David. There was the Room of the Last Supper – where Jesus is said to have had his last meal with his disciples before being arrested. Lastly, we saw the Mount of Olives which is a pleasant walk from the East Gate up to a hill, covered in olive trees, surrounded by one of the world’s oldest cemeteries.
The last place we covered was the City of David. From the Dung Gate, we headed east downhill to the entrance of the City. This massive archaeological site will take you deep underground to the remnants of King David’s city, founded 3000 years ago.
It takes quite a bit of time to see everything this site has to offer. A guide is highly recommended, as they will inform you on the area’s many historical findings. Much of the site is still under excavation, meaning that more and more will be readily available to see as time goes on. At one point of the tour you will even walk over an old aqueduct system, roaring water below that supplied the ancient city with running water.
The West Bank – Palestine
When entering Israel, it is best not to mention that you will be going to the West Bank. Journeying here will give you a good look at some of the major underlying issues that this part of the world faces. Palestine, which is enclosed by thirty foot, barbed wired concrete walls, is located here.
As I approached the giant walls that separate the West Bank from Israel, I began to feel uneasy. The area is frequently in spotlight for tragic reasons. As a traveler, I was mostly ignored.
The process to get across the wall was actually quite straight forward. The Israeli Army quickly checked my passport and waved me onwards to the West Bank. The modern buildings and amenities of the Israeli side are replaced by poor infrastructure and dusty streets on the Palestinian side.
The Wall itself is covered in anti-war graffiti. The graffiti is a great representation of the realities of what is happening here. Both sides have their own unique style.
As I exited customs, many smiling Palestinians offered me a ride to the first major sight here, Bethlehem. I wanted to walk, but they didn’t want to take no for an answer. After some laughs, and sharing of stories, the drivers pointed me in the direction in which I had to walk.
The West Bank is such a beautiful contrast to Israel, you really do feel like you have entered a new country. Palestinian people are some of the friendliest and most helpful people I have ever met. The walk to Bethlehem was incredible. Bazaars line the streets, selling minty tea and smoky kebabs. The 2 km walk took about an hour, with frequent stops for tea and delicious Palestinian food.
Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity – Bethlehem
Entering Manger Square is exhilarating. Vendors yell out in a symphony, donkey carts carrying supplies kick up dust into the air. Motor bikes roar through the centre. The scene will make you feel as if you are seeing the Middle East as it was long before all the modern developments.
You can spend hours wandering through the shops selling exotic items in the Old City. At the centre of it all is the Church of the Nativity.
The Church of the Nativity is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. In a predominantly Muslim area, this Christian church is located on the east side of Manger Square. Visiting the church will teach you about on some of the area’s history and, of course, take you to the exact spot where Jesus is said to have been born.
Bethlehem provides great insight into Palestinian culture and history. A trip to the area is a must for anyone who is in Jerusalem.
Just when things had all gone well, something began to happen in the square. People gathered and talk of riots and fighting were spreading. We hopped into a cab and drove back to the Israeli border to avoid all of this. On way to the border, things got sketchy. Many crowds gathered along the streets and our driver took a different path back to avoid the crowds. While driving down one of these alleyways, someone threw a large rock that smashed our front windshield in the cab. Our driver drove faster now, in a panic.
This is the reality of traveling to this part of the world. There is a lot of tension to say the least. Do not let this deter you from coming here. Traveling to Jerusalem and the West Bank is an incredibly rewarding endeavour. Apart from this incident, we experienced no dangers or issues. We arrived back to the border and walked back into Jerusalem with no quarrels.
Location: Jerusalem and the West Bank – Israel and Palestine
Daily Costs: Hashimi Hotel – $20 US per night. Average Cab ride – $5 US, Street Kebab or Bagel – $3 US.
Tips: Be very cautious when photographing here. Many of the Rabbi’s will not appreciate you flaunting you camera in front of them. Remember where you are, do not leave your bag unattended, or talk about the problems here. There are free walking tours in Jerusalem that are operated by young Jewish people that offer a great look into Jerusalem’s history and culture.
Recommended Guide Book: Lonely Planet Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Lonely Planet Middle East Phrase Book