That title. As weird for me to say, as it is for you to hear. I mean, Israel. Jerusalem. Hanging out. Those words can’t possibly go together, can they!? Well, surprise surprise as Jerusalem really is quite the place to ‘hang out’ despite its religious significance, heavily disputed ground or that it’s the cultural melting pot of all melting pots!
Considering just how many countries surprised you and I last year, I have to say that all things considered Israel is super-high on the list of the surprise pile along with two other old favourites from 2015, Malta and Poland. (Though to be fair pretty much all of the Balkans could be considered for that accolade).
Getting to and staying in Jerusalem
My first two days in Jerusalem were spent almost entirely with the two guys I met on the bus to get here after the lovely German ladies and I parted company. Canadian Liam introduced me to his English friend Ben. During the bus ride we established that we were staying at the same hostel. What were the odds!? Well, 1 in roughly 16 actually. Time would later reveal that we had checked into the single most impressive hostel I’ve stayed in this year.
I bet you didn’t expect me to be saying that in the city of Jerusalem.
Over the two days that followed the three of us embarked on a ‘hanging out’ mission. I didn’t take my camera out once during these two days and instead focused on chilling and having a nice time in their charming company. These early 20 year olds were two of the nicest young men I’ve met on my travels and both real character-ambassadors for their respective countries. As such I’m really hoping to see them again before I leave the country and if that happens, I’ll be sure to detail what their stories are and why they are in Israel.
With the lads and I also now having gone our separate ways, it was time to get back into a day in the life of The Unlikely Traveller.
Jerusalem’s old city:
The old city of Jerusalem is unproportionately split into 4 quarters; Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish. Back in the day when King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel, all of the city was Jewish and so of course there were no other quarters. Having now walked in each of the quarters at length, they’re honestly all as pleasant and welcoming as each other although the Armenian’s will try hard to get you to buy their world-renowned pottery.
I was told that you could feel the atmosphere change when you entered a different quarter but I did not find this to be the case. Yes, you will be able to tell the differences for several reasons (people, buildings, language etc…) but at no time did visiting a different quarter feel hostile or unsettling. In fact, a wonder around the Muslim quarter was as pleasant (if not more) than the others but then again, as I spent six continuous weeks in Morocco and Egypt perhaps this made me feel more at ease in such environments?
Here are some images taken from the some from the different quarters:
Jerusalem’s Old City walls were built in the early 16th century by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
I believe there are eight gates to access the old walled city but one of those, the Eastern gate, is inaccessible. Now get this…
It’s believed that the closing of the Eastern Gate was to prevent the Jewish Messiah from gaining entrance to the temple on the Temple Mount.
Muslims also put a cemetery directly in front of the gate as an extra layer of precaution, believing that the Messiah, being a good Jew, would not walk through it and become unclean in doing so. However, whatever Christ touches becomes clean, so that presents no problem.
At first, you can imagine my reaction to this but then after my thoughts matured a little, I questioned whether this really is any more unfathomable than me (and so many other Christians) praying to a God we have not seen or heard…
One of the other main eight gates, Damascus gate, recently became infamous due to its location of where an American student was stabbed and killed by a crazed Palestinian man. This happened just last month folks (February) so still very active in the forefront of many peoples minds. The attacker was was shot dead at the scene likely to be from one of the many police visible on site than from the fella you will see below. Honestly if you saw how may police were around, you’d accept that the Palestinian must have really had a death wish but then I guess certain delusional radicalists/martyrs really do huh…
Still, it’s so desperately sad to hear things like this can happen in such an amazing city but yet it serves as a constant reminder, that anything can happen, anywhere.
Here’s a picture of the scene at the gate just last month.
Here’s the same gate today.
Yes, that’s a sniper.
Jerusalem’s new city:
Think old, think quiet, think unmodernised, think dull and then be completely surprised…
The Western Wall
This was one of four walls built by Herod the Great and it’s largely still intact. This is where one or more Jewish temples once stood. The wall itself isn’t necessarily considered sacred but the fact that it has a connection to the Temple Mount makes it holy to the Jewish people. It is referred to as The Wailing Wall but this is not a description you’ll hear from a Jewish person. Also below you can see the pieces of paper stuffed into the crevices of the wall which are prayers from the people.
Mount of Olives/The Garden of Gethsemane
Located at the foot of the mountain exists The Garden of Gethsemane. The garden is where Jesus went with his disciples to pray after the Last Support before he was crucified. It was here that he was also arrested.
For me and until now, this location had only ever existed as a biblical text that I learn about dating right back to my childhood. For this to now be a tangible and no longer imaginative or mythical, well it was quite a realisation.
From across the road, I could see it beyond and past The Church of All Nations and Church of Mary Magdalene.
Directionally, getting here is easy to reach. On arrival I really wasn’t sure what to expect and so remaining neutral I wouldn’t be disappointed or overwhelmed. On arrival my euphoria was heightened when I thought how proud my Mother, Nonna and other departed relatives would be of me right now.
The area of the garden they protect with a fence is roughly around 20 x 30 meters which is enough for around eight olive trees and other floral arrangements. You know although the olive trees on display today are of course not the same ones dating back to the time of Christ, many believe that the current ones are very possibly descendants of those in the garden during Christ’s time!
This hilltop courtyard is the most sensitive religious site in Jerusalem. It’s holy to Jews because their ancient temples once stood here in this area and for Muslims it was where their Prophet Muhammad visited before his ascent to heaven. For these reasons, access to the Temple mount is heavily restricted and monitored.
Non-Muslims and even Israelis are allowed entry at certain times of the each day via some guarded fixed wooden stairs located close to the Western Wall.
Aware of this, I arrived to the queue early as I did not want to miss seeing Jerusalem’s most photographed landmark. The security check was standard and required a passport for me to enter. The name of this Iconic gold-topped Islamic shrine is The Dome Of The Rock.
The area itself then is both highly important to both religions and so you might be wondering how this can co-exist? Well, it does but it does so under some strict rules including the fact that it’s forbidden for Jews to pray on the Temple Mount! So, if you’re an Israeli and you’re not prayer, then this is accepted.
I was completely unaffected by such political matter or religious bias so I was just thrilled to be able to get so close to it and take some half decent snaps although the interior Dome of the Rock is not accessible to non-Muslims. In terms of the one hour I was there, I just remember how peaceful and tranquil it was.
I was really thrilled to get images of this quality.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Sadly, what should have been the most holy of experiences was a real anti-climax as the Church was closed the afternoon I went down to visit it! This was a massive disappointment for many other tourists too. Still, I took some basic photos from the outside which was better than nothing at all I guess.
Oh, if you’re wondering what the significance of this place is and why I was gutted to not go inside, well, this is where both the Orthodox and Catholic Christians mark the spot crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ! Inside is a stone slab where tradition says the body of Jesus was prepared for burial. Further more, during Roman emperor Constantine’s reign, a tomb was discovered here and that is thought to be Jesus’ tomb.
You can imagine my disappointment not to have made it inside. Still, would it have delivered a massively memorable experience? I dunno…
Yad Vashem (The Holocaust History Museum)
This was always going to be a must and the fact that it was free to enter, well, that was a massive bonus for a self-funded backpacker! Then consider that it is one (or more) Jewish families who have privately funded this entire museum.
Some of you may recall that my Mother and I visited Aushwitz last year and as per the account of everyone who goes there, it was a daunting, harrowing, sobering experience.
That said, the Aushwitz museum would have to go a long way to match how much effort has gone into this place. It was honestly incredible and painted a time line for events leading up to, during and post WW2 that were readable in English. In fact, I spent nearly three hours here which I think is my museum record.
Actually it was here right at the end of the museum that I was re-reminded of the power of video over still photography. Thinking back there really aren’t many still images that I have ingrained in my mind but seeing some footage of dead, unimaginably thin bodies being tractor-scooped into a ditch really hit me hard. Those of you back home can probably imagine my open-mouthed expression when it came on the screen. I recall feeling somewhat queasy after this video.
I don’t have any significant pictures to show you of Yad Vashem but at least there’s a shot of the forest area surrounding the museum. They say there is a little hike trail too so combined such events would result in a fulfilling but thought-provoking day.
I hope this has been a decent introduction to Jerusalem for you folks as it’s taken me an age to put to together. So after nearly a week here I’m soon planning to head further north for a short while to sample life up there although it would not surprise me at all if I passed back this way during my exit of this small country to see and enjoy more sights and attractions.
Jerusalem, you and I have unfinished business…