Back to the highlights from Israel. As I mentioned before, the advantage of staying at the Eldan Hotel is its proximity to the Old City. Arguably the biggest religious center in the entire world, the highlights of the Old City can be done in a day – but it would be very, very exhausting. My suggestion would be to give it a day and a half.
***I’ll try and limit the amount of historical background I get into (because quite frankly it would require pages and pages)
Before you go into the craziness of the Old City, I would actually recommend checking out the Tower of David Museum at the Jaffa Gate. We visited the museum at the end of our trip through the Old City, but in hindsight doing it beforehand probably would have been more beneficial. This museum will give you a great history of the city before you go and see the actual sights and can be realistically be done in a couple of hours.
You’ll also notice as you begin your journey into the Old City how remarkably international the environment is. Jerusalem, and in particular the Old City, really is the most international city that I’ve ever been immersed in with every sort of ethnicity represented. It just shows you how widespread Christianity, Judaism and Islam are practiced throughout the world.
We started our journey through the Old City at the Jaffa Gate, and made our way into the market to try and find the start of the Via Dolorosa. For those of you unfamiliar with the Via Dolorosa, it’s the path that Jesus Christ took on his way to his crucifixion. On the Via Delarosa, there are several checkpoint stations that mark where different miracles/events allegedly occurred during Christ’s walk. Be prepared to get lost. Although there are maps and a few signs to attempt to help visitors guide their way through, the Via Dolorosa runs through a very busy and crowded bazaar (much like the one in Fez, but with far fewer shop owners in your face). While some of the locals will actually try and help you, I’m afraid their kindness gets tainted by the locals who try and take advantage of you and get you in their stores. What you will find helpful is that there will be tour groups surrounding each of the landmarks, so use that to your advantage. I really need to find a way to create a perfect map of the Old City, with all the weird little roads and alleys marked. I’d be a millionaire from the sales off of the tourists.
Expect to see A LOT of religious zealots. As we were walking up and down the Via Dolorosa, there were several religious groups carrying crosses and chanting. At the final stop of the Via Dolorosa, the Holy Sepulchre (the site where Christ was allegedly crucified), there were hundreds of worshipers praying and weeping at the locations of the actual execution, where Christ was laid to rest, and his resurrection. I for one greatly appreciate the historical significance of all these landmarks, but I’ll be the first to admit that I was unsettled by the amount of crying and just 100% pure worship around me. I did feel in a way like an intruder invading people’s private moments. And I don’t mean to be insulting, but if I’m going to be honest – I really did think some of the people around me may have been slightly crazy.
Towards the end of the Via Dolorosa, you’ll approach the Jewish section and the Western Wall (a.k.a. Wailing Wall). Needless to say, you have to go through tight security to get to the Western Wall courtyard. My first reaction to seeing the wall was surprise at the size of what was actually left. I imagined that there was only small portion, but the ruins of the western side of the ancient Jewish temple was much larger than I thought. There are separate men’s and women’s prayer sections of the wall, so make sure to find a place to regroup after you’re done looking and/or praying (though I heard recently they are considering making the prayer areas mixed). There is also a dress code: men should have their heads covered and women should be pretty much covered to the knees and over the shoulders. Shawls and skullcaps are available to borrow.
You’ll notice when you approach the wall that there are thousands, if not millions, or pieces of paper shoved into the cracks of the wall. These are prayers or letters that have been placed in the wall as messages to God by pilgrims and anyone is welcome to contribute. Although I don’t practice the Hebrew faith, I still partook in writing a personal note and placing it in one of the cracks in the wall. God is God, no matter what your faith right?
Part three of this world religion tour (seriously it was like a straight-up, real-life Epcot Center World Showcase going from religion to religion) was to head to the Muslim section of the city. Because both Muslims and Hebrews share the Temple Mount, you will literally see a ramp along the Western Wall that will take you to the Dome of the Rock, the site where the prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
There aren’t many signs telling you that the ramp is the way to get to the Dome of the Rock, that’s why I’m telling you now. Also, there is a long wait – at least 30 minutes – so be prepared for that. Finally, be sure to figure out what hours the area is open for non-Muslims and plan accordingly.
Once you make it to the top of ramp, you’ll notice how serene the scene is and how impressive the gold dome of the Dome of the Rock stands out. Compared to the rather crowded Western Wall, there’s much more room to leisurely walk around. Although non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, the Dome of the Rock is very impressive on the outside to see and one can imagine how much more impressive the building was centuries ago to the visiting pilgrims.
All in all, seeing this melting pot of religions and nationalities is easily one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. It is hard to put into words how fascinating it was to see thousands of people from these three major world religions crash into this one area no bigger than the size of a small town. It amazes me to think about how much conflict has occurred over the years over this one region and, quite honestly, how much of a shame it is that there hasn’t ever been a way to find a resolution between what are essentially “distant relative” religions.