In the Heart of the Holy Land – Bethlehem and Jerusalem

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We arrived to Jerusalem on the Monday (which is really Tuesday, remember?) just after the end of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.  The bus ride was an easy one, taking less than an hour.  Things were back into full swing after the holiday – people were back to work, shops were open, and tourists filled main attraction sights.  Over the few days we were in Jerusalem we were able to explore both the old, the new, and some of the out-skirting excursions.

Jerusalem — Old City

Old City Walls - Jerusalem
Looking over the Old City towards Damascus Gate.

The main attraction for most tourists in Jerusalem is the Old City.  As you can guess this is the oldest part of the city where almost all of the important religious sites are located.  The walled Old City is divided into four main sections (or quarters): the Armenian, the Jewish, the Muslim, and the Christian quarters.  We also learned in our free walking tour that there is a fifth unofficial quarter, the Syrian quarter.  Each quarter is unique in it’s characteristics and each holds the primary holy sites for the religion.

Via Dolorosa Path Map - Jerusalem

Since Ben is Catholic we started our exploration of the Old City with the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The Via Dolorosa (way of suffering) is named such by the Vatican, as it is the path Jesus took from being condemned to death until his crucifixion and death.  The path includes the 14 stations of the cross and is roughly 250 meters, zigzagging through the old city streets.  The places where separate accounts of Jesus’ tribulations during the walk with his cross are marked in a hodgepodge manner, and are sometimes hard to spot, but in most cases you can read about what happened there in Italian and English.  The final 4 of the 14 stations of the cross are all found within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre –  the large church/cathedral that was built upon the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and death.



Holy Seplicure combined - Jerusalem
Exploring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Exploring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was incredibly interesting and special experience in itself.  The Holy Sepulchre is considered the most important site in the Christian World.  Because of this, all the different Christian sects are insistent on being able to pay tribute to Jesus according to their individual traditions within the building.  Because of this, the Holy Sepulchre church is divided into four main sections: The Syrian section (yes, Syrian Christians), Russian Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman Catholic.  Additionally, the Ethiopians were pushed just outside the church to the roof/entrance along the course of the Via Dolorosa.   As it sounds, this is done in a the way triplets would divide a room they have to share: by building freestanding walls and partitioning off sections and mezzanines within the gothic-style church.  The Holy Sepulchre also includes remnants from what is thought to be Jesus’ tomb, although this is disputed (some believe he was buried in the Garden Tomb which we will talk about later). It also has empty rooms coming off the sides, and a cave underneath (the Armenian section).

Wailing Wall - Jerusalem
Wailing Wall with the Dome of the Rock in the background on the Temple Mount.

The Wailing Wall (or Western Wall) is the primary Jewish holy site within the Old City.  In the Jewish religion this is the most holy and sacred site in the world.  The wall is the only remnants of the Temple Mount, which was built by King Solomon 3,000 years ago on the land where Abraham came to sacrifice his son Isaac, and where Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven in the Old Testament.  The Temple Mount was destroyed by the Romans about 2,000 years ago, but for some reason they left the western wall.  The Jews have continued to focus their prayers here at the only remaining wall of the old temple as an act of defiance and keeping the sacredness of the site.  While Jewish texts record that the Mount will be the site of the Third Temple (which will be rebuilt with the coming of the Jewish Messiah), a majority of the Jewish people remain peaceful toward the current situation.  However, as with any religion there are extremists that occasionally will cause uprisings.  This is the reason for the high security one must go through today to enter the  Western Wall plaza and the Temple Mount (which we will explain later).

Temple Mount
Replica of the old temple before it was destroyed. The entrance displayed here faced south.

While the “wailing wall” portion that is used for prayers today is only 1/8 of the length of the wall before, it is housed in a large plaza, and is open for all people, all the time.  When we went, we were first surprised to see that the wall is split in half, for men and women.  While I believe we’d heard before that most American Jews celebrate in the ‘reformed’  and more ‘relaxed’ practice of Judaism, it hadn’t really sunk in.  In Israel, almost all synagogues and places of prayer separate men and women.  On this particular day, there were easily three times as many women praying as men.  And interestingly enough, most of the security forces there were women, as well – although many were just standing round in groups chatting and taking pictures – quite literally.  Most people pressed up to the wall for a chance to pray while touching the wall, while some older people sat at tables near the wall to pray or revere. 

Taking in the Western Wall for a while, we were of course right next to the 3rd most holy site in Islam (you can actually see it in the photo above, the big gold dome) – the Dome of the Rock.  The reason the Western Wall is so close to the Dome of the Rock is simply because the former site of the Temple Mount is exactly the same place.  It is written in the Qur’an that the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven from the same hill, and there is an imprint of his foot on the rock.  This is also where one of the five pillars of Islam was established by Mohammed.  The pillar we mean is the pillar to “pray five times a day” – not a physical pillar on the site.

The first time we tried to go in, we made it in time to pass security before the limited visiting hours, but we were told we were not dressed appropriately.  At first Amanda was instructed to cover her shoulders (her tee-shirt selves weren’t long enough), and Ben to cover his legs (he was wearing long shorts).  They let us proceed, directing us to another position past security, where they wanted to charge us $25 each for scarves to cover ourselves.  As we declined, they said only Ben needed to cover his immodest legs.  We still declined, at this point aware this was more an opportunists’ way to make some money.  We would come back another day prepped with layers of clothing.

We headed back to the Dome of the Rock our last day in town and were granted access without a problem, even bringing a picnic lunch.  The Dome of the Rock area is very large, a flattened meeting place on top of a hill, with the golden dome in the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven in the middle, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque nearby.  We explored the outdoor areas (non-Muslims are not allowed in any of the buildings), enjoying the views of the city and the magnificent golden-domed structure.  Since we were not allowed to enter we can’t answer if there is the claimed stone with a footprint of Mohammad inside or not, but it was very enjoyable to explore the area anyhow.  We also saw two separate groups of Jewish tourists being guided by a tour guide with an explanation on the history etc.  We noticed the tour group never came within 100 meters of the main Dome of the Rock, and had a military escort with a semi-automatic weapon, apparently for their safety.  Other than the fact that all eyes seemed to be on the Jewish tourists while we were there, it was largely uneventful, quiet and peaceful during our visit.

Dome of the Rock Panorama - Jerusalem

One of the surprising sites for us when arriving in Jerusalem was exploring the so-called Garden Tomb.  While it isn’t directly within the Old City walls it is just outside Damascus Gate.  We felt that with the close location and the history of the site it still best fit in the Old City section. The back-story is that, well, today no one REALLY knows where Jesus’ tomb was.  The Catholic Church has officially declared it is within the Holy Sepulchre Church.  However, this is not completely clear from the Bible.  Therefore, the Garden Tomb is based on a theory that the tomb where Jesus was laid to rest is actually outside the Old City walls.  In fact, this is mentioned in the bible, as well as other descriptors.  So an English religious group has funded research and bought, restored, and manages the Garden Tomb site today.  They run the site based on donations, and is free for all to enter.  We took the audio-guide tour, which covers the biblical description of the tomb area, and why the site they restored matches.  It was quiet, relaxing, and a nice change from the busy city and crammed streets in the Old City.  The interesting point they raised about Israel though was that ‘it doesn’t matter so much what actually happened, but what tradition is and what people practice‘.

Garden Tomb Duo Photo

When we weren’t visiting the rich historical sights that filled the old city we were wandering aimlessly and taking in much of the life that still exists there today.  As part of our wandering we would sometimes find ourselves in unexpected places learning something new.  On a couple occasions we actually found ourselves on the rooftops of the souks below.  Here you could see some of the many tourists sights below or people sitting quietly (usually in reflection).  The best part was that not many people (and especially tourists) knew about the rooftops.  In fact on a couple occasions we weren’t even sure if we were going through personal property or partial homes as we tried to find our way back down into the souks and toward the gates to exit the Old City.

Rooftop Walking
Rooftop views while walking in the old city.

Mount of Olives and Kings Valley

West of the Old City is the current border with Palestine.  From Eastern Jerusalem you do not need to pass through any security, so we went past the Damascus Gate on the north of the Old City and beyond it you are in Palestine, proceeding to the Kings Valley.  We wanted to get a good view of the city, so we walked up the hill and to the Mount of Olives.  It was quite a hike but nothing we weren’t used to.  On the way there we discovered the church built on the burial site of Mary, and the Church of All Nations with its ancient olive garden (where Jesus is believed to have prayed before being arrested) and beautiful stained glass and mosaics featuring crests and iconic symbols from various countries, such as the French flag, etc.  Beyond this there are two cemeteries, a Jewish and a non-Jewish cemetery.  The cemeteries here are highly coveted because it is like getting “front row seats” for the final judgement when the world ends, because God is supposed to hold his court of who gets into heaven from Jerusalem.  Above the cemetery on the Mount of Olives are a couple really great lookout points that we enjoyed and got an alternative perspective of Jerusalem, this time seeing the Old City first, and behind it the modern Jerusalem.

Valley of the Kings Duo
Tomb raiding in Kings Valley after taking in the views overlooking the city from the top of Mount of Olives.

Coming down, we wandered through the Kings Valley that runs North to South on the Palestinian side of the Old City.  We found some ruins, old tombs, and got to see a little more of the Palestinian side as we walked, before heading back toward the modern Jerusalem on our way back to the house of our CouchSurfing hosts again.


Welcome to Bethlehem

We had two main reasons we were interested in visiting Bethlehem.  One was that we wanted to experience a Palestinian area to better understand the ‘other’ point of view in the land; and the second reason was to see the nativity where Jesus was born. 

Getting to Bethlehem was relatively simple considering there is really only one bus line and you have to cross through a checkpoint along the way.  Going into Palestinian areas isn’t an issue as much as coming back to the Israeli areas.  But we will get to that part in a bit.

When we arrived in Bethlehem the difference in culture was immediate.  The taxi drivers were waiting and could spot the non-Muslim tourists immediately.  Since the bus dropped off just outside of the city and getting maps of Bethlehem in Israel wasn’t a possibility, it was a prime spot for taxis to grab business from tourists.  Since we really had no idea where we were in relation to anything, we opted to enter negotiations with the many taxi drivers screaming out their offering prices.  It was like a taxi auction.  Finally we agreed on 20 shekels, for the cabbie to take us to see the wall (known as the Israeli West Bank Barrier) that was built by the Israelis to separate the Palestinian side from the Israeli side and then to the site of Jesus’ birth (aka the manger, a la year 0). 

Things were fine until we got to the wall.  At this point Amanda got out to take photos while the taxi driver insisted on showing Ben the ‘options’ for tours around the Palestinian areas.  The wall is about 25 feet tall (twice as tall as the Berlin wall was), and is intended to eventually blockade all the Palestinian area from the Israeli territory.  There is also dispute on its placement, as the Palestinians see the Israelis as using it to grab more disputed land.  We are not experts on this and are unable to weigh in on these claims either way.  What we do know is that at completion the wall will expand a total of about 700 kilometers (today it is just over 500 kilometers long) A lot of interesting art has also been painted on the wall, as the highly poliltically-charged area produced works with great passion.  The most famous are the Banksy works (of which most have been removed and sold), but there is still a lot of great, inspired art here.

Wall in Bethlahem -- Bethlahem
Berlin wall or the Israeli West Bank Barrier??

Meanwhile, Ben continued to insist that we didn’t want any kind of tour – we just wanted to go to the places we asked.  The whole switch and bait really gets old and by now we are used to being the ‘jerks’ who really only wanted the thing we originally negotiated for.  Finally after a million ‘no thanks’ and reminding him of the amount he would get if he took us to where he agreed he angrily loaded us into the car and dropped us at the Church of the Nativity.  Happy to be out of the cab we explored the Church of the Nativity.  We declined offers for tours as we entered, and discovered it held up to what we had been seeing throughout Jerusalem – what something looks like on the outside does not depict what it will look like inside.  As we’d been traveling throughout Europe, we have seen many churches and cathedrals.  While these places of worship have varied a bit from one country to another; on the whole, you pretty much know what you are going to see when you enter a Catholic church.  But in Israel you really can’t guess before entering.  The Holy Sepulchre doesn’t look that particularly interesting from the exterior.  The church marking where Mary is buried looks pretty ordinary, but is 90% underground.  And the Church of the Nativity– partially because it is a historical site and not a church first—does not allude to what’s inside. 

Coming in the main entryway, the manger is a very large barn.  As with any iconic barn one might imagine, the center has a higher rooftop, with the wings of the manger being lower where the animals would stay.  In the 300’s AD mosaics had been but up high on the walls, and were partly destroyed by the Samaritans in the 500’s AD.  At the far end of manger there was a large altar space, and on either side a staircase leading beneath the altar, to the ‘Grotto’ — the actual place where Jesus was thought to be born, fittingly marked by a red star. 

Church of the Nativity combined -- Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born.

Visit Palestine Poster - - Jerusalem

After exiting this area, adorned with large iron chandeliers and dozens of low-hanging incense burners, we moved above ground again, and explored what was behind the door to the left of the altar.  Here we found a modern Basilica, which was about to begin a ceremony in Italian.  As we were not able to keep up, we chose to continue looking around.  Connected to the basilica that is connected to the manger, we found an underground cave with more relics from the past 2,000 years.  It held some carvings, art and old tombs left behind mainly by Romans, we believe. 

Having thoroughly explored the Church of the Nativity and its surroundings, we crossed the road and went to the Bethlehem Visitor’s Center.  The visitors center offered pamphlets with the Palestinian point of view of the current situation as well as a map of the downtown city area in Spanish.  Equipped with these two things we found ourselves a spot for falafels while we read through the other point of view.  Listening to both sides of the story really helps with better understanding of why things are the way they currently are.  After filling our bellies with falafel we used our new handy map to walk through the streets toward the bus that would take us back (thus avoiding annoying taxi drivers).  The downtown area itself resembled many other islamic towns – with souk-like markets, local businesses, and scattered mosques.  We were able to find the bus without much problem and were on our way back to Jerusalem without much of a wait.  This time however when we passed the checkpoint all the people on the bus had to disembark and show their passports or ID cards before re-boarding and continuing on into the Israeli areas.  For tourists it is easy – locals however must either have special ID cards if they are Palestinian in order to enter and Israelis would get in trouble as it would be found out they entered a Palestinian territory which is illegal according to law in Israel.


The Dead Sea

We were surprised to find out how close the Dead Sea was to Jerusalem.  It was less than an hour via bus to get to a ‘beach’ where we could swim in the sea.  We had been warned to not visit until late in the afternoon when the sun was going down due to the extreme heat (over 40 °C during the day).  Not wanting to miss this opportunity we chose an evening after a day in the city to make the journey.  At roughly 4pm one day we departed the main bus station and traveled outside the city, through beautiful desert landscapes, and 423 meters down below sea level.  We arrived at Ein Gedi, a well known spot not only for the access to the Dead Sea but also for the kibbutz and hot springs located in the area. 

Dead Sea Landscape Duo

Many of the kibbutz that were originally founded on the principle of sustainable independent farming communities now engage in larger business practices, such as running resorts, have sold their land, or manufacture beauty products from the minerals and sea salt that is abundant in the area.  While it is good for the specific kibbutz to make money for its members, it is hard not to be reminded of the way Native Americans in the United States have become dependent on casinos, etc and have moved away from their traditional culture over the years, and many Israelis told us that as an idea, the kibbutz has ‘failed’.

Once we were dropped off by the bus at the beach access point, we realized exactly why we had been recommended to visit in the evening.  At 5:30pm it was 39°C (~ 97 °F).  Many other people had the same idea – come for a sunset swim.  The views over the water and onto the mountain were beautiful.  After stumbling down the path to the salt rock covered shores we stripped down and carefully plunged into the extremely salty water.  It is hard to put the sensation into words.  First the water was so salty it almost felt like some kind of vegetable oil.  Second, the feeling of being weightless was unbelievable.  We guess it would be similar to what being in space would feel like.  You would try to keep your legs under the water and the relentless buoyancy of the saltwater would force them to float up to the surface.  The water slowly filled with young and old alike as people came for their sunset swim in the healing waters of the dead sea. 

Dead Sea duo - Jerusalem
Chilling — just reading a book while bathing in the Dead Sea.

Jerusalem – The New City

Jerusalem Market22

While most tourists stick to the Old City when visiting Jerusalem, we had been told by our CS hosts that the New City had much to offer as well and was worth checking out.  Taking their advice, we scattered visits to parts of the New City among out visits to the Old City.  The first place we visited was the Mahane Yehuda Market (aka “The Shuk” ), which is close to the main bus station.  Located in a historic neighborhood from the late 1800’s, today the market has 250 vendors and offers every type of food you would need: veggies and fruits, fish, hummus, teas and herbs, and even fresh pressed rice-cakes (you could watch it done right in front of you).  On the other side of the city we found the Jerusalem Railway Station; which has been gentrified and now is full of coffee shops, boutique cheese and olives stores, and handmade ice cream shops.  It was like Jerusalem’s version of the Ferry Building in San Francisco.  While there wasn’t much of the actual old railway station left, there was some history posted in a timeline manner near the main building.  From there we learned the importance the railway had in the area and the long running history of the line which opened in 1893.  The railway continued to operate (with some interruptions due to conflict) all the way up the 1998 when it was closed permanently.  In many ways the railway and the station were a reflection on the entire country.  Despite the conflicts over the past hundred or more years, today it has progressed and changed with the times — morphing into something modern and new with no signs indicating conflict or struggle.

Railway Station -- Jerusalem








For our last day in Jerusalem we decided to delve a little deeper into the the orthodox areas.  First we checked out the Russian Orthodox Church (where there was a geocache).  Near the church there is the ‘finger of god’ which is a completely in-tact column that was discovered in the 1800’s.  They believe the column was intended to be used in the 2nd Temple Mount (the one destroyed by the Romans), but was damaged so left in the ground.




Orthodox Jewish Man w baby - JerusalemOnly a few blocks from the church we found ourselves deep in a Jewish orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim.  At moments if really felt like we were in the middle of some flashmob.  Men and boys alike had the orthodox Jewish haircut and heads were either topped with a yamaka or a Borsalino hat (black rimed felt hat).  The full orthodox uniform of a black, three piece suit outfit was worn no matter if they were on their way to work or out walking the baby.  Women were dressed with long skirts and scarfs over their heads.  No collarbones, wrists, or tight clothing allowed.  At one point we even saw posters on the walls warning those who were foreigners walking through their neighborhoods to keep their sinful ways of dressing off their streets.  That paired with the unfriendly manner of the locals and we walked through the streets were enough to scare us back to the main streets.



To see more of the rich history and culture of Jerusalem, Check out additional PHOTOS HERE.