Jerusalem – Part II: The Old City

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.

Christian Section

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.

Jewish Section

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?

Muslim Section

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.

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Jerusalem – Part I

After our little excursion to the Dead Sea and Masada, we headed out of the Negev desert and back to civilization.  Our next stop was Jerusalem which was what could be considered the main feature of the trip to Israel.

Driving into Jerusalem is tricky so be prepared for a high stress driving situation if you’re behind the wheel.  All the maps of the city that we had lacked the small side streets and the Garmin GPS struggled to find certain streets and pronounce the Hebrew accurately in understandable English (You don’t know on-edge driving until you’re in a different country and Garmin spits out “Turn left on Allafuweesa Hearzog” and the only sign you see is Kovshei Katamon Street.)

We eventually arrived at our hotel in one piece – the Eldan Hotel.  This place is located across from the famous King David Hotel, so you can use that as a landmark when trying to find it.  The hotel itself is very nice, with renovated rooms and it’s in a fantastic location (a quick walk to the Old City, which will be in the next post).  There is very limited and tight parking, so again, have a good driver behind the wheel.   You will pay a a bit to stay here – at least $200 US a night and there is NO internet (which was very bizarre for the price we were paying for the room), but its location in relation to the sites makes it worth it.  If you do want to use the internet, you have to go next door to the YMCA or the King David to get a free WiFi signal.

Here are a few of the highlights from our first day (apologies for the relatively scarce amount of pictures – most of these museums didn’t allow photography):

Israel Museum

Hours
Sun, Mon, Wed, Thurs 10 am – 5 pm
Tues 4pm – 9 pm (*Please note the Museum is closed on Tuesday mornings and during special holiday hours)
Fri and holiday eves 10 am – 2 pm
Sat and holidays 10 am – 5 pm

***Children under 18 free admission on Tuesdays and Saturdays

The Israel Museum is a solid starting point for your visit to the city.  There you can view the Dead Sea Scrolls and Aleppo Codex and get a nice, but admittedly typical, look at a range of Jewish artwork.  The Judaic portion of the museum is a good exhibit of the history of Jewish culture and worth walking through.  There is also free parking at the museum and some very good free tours that are offered throughout the day.

Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum

Hours
Sunday-Wednesday: 9:00 – 5:00
Thursday: 9:00-8:00
Friday: 9:00-2:00
Saturday: Closed

A trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without a very necessary stop at Yad Vashem and The Holocaust Museum.  I’m going to say this right off the bat – this part of the trip will be extremely disturbing and emotionally draining, so be prepared for that.

At Yad Vashem, you’ll be able to look at the Hall of Remembrance – a dark, quiet hangar bay like structure that houses the eternal flame and the names of all the concentration camps carved onto the floor.  Down the way is the Children’s Memorial.  This memorial is a spooky, but beautiful tribute to the children victims of the holocaust.  The memorial is a completely dark walkthrough with only one candle in the center and mirrors all around that make the room look like it’s filled with starry candlelight.  The only sound that can be heard is the voice of one man reciting the names, birthplaces and ages of all the children victims.

Of the three big parts of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum is easily the most impressive.  Being from D.C., I made the mistake of thinking the D.C and Jerusalem holocaust museums would be similar.  The museum in Jerusalem is shockingly long, so give yourself at least two hours to go through it and I will admit is FAR better than the holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.  As you go through each room and listen to the hundreds of stories and read the thousands of displays, it’s indescribable to fathom just how unbelievably and incredibly horrible of a tragedy occurred.  Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of people with watery eyes or if you find yourself crying.  At the end of the museum, if you take a look around at all the faces of the other tourists, you’ll just see mass exhaustion and the look that everyone just got hit in the face.  Needless to say, this is not a “fun” thing to see or do, but it is an extremely interesting experience.

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