On the roof of a hostel within the Old City walls, I spend the night tossing and turning because the weather is a bit cooler than I had planned for. ‘Should’ve slept with my pants and socks on’ I say to myself. My beanie had already fallen off of my head amidst the struggle. It is now 3:30 on our first morning in Jerusalem. I’ve been woken by the methodical chanting that is the Muslim’s call to prayer. It is serene and peaceful and lulls me back to sleep for another two hours before being awoken to church bells. This is the start of a jam-packed two day tour of the famous walled city.
Good thing our hostel offers free coffee.
The old city is the epitome of why this land has been sought after for several millennium. In one corner is the Jewish Quarter and to the West of that is the Christian Quarter. In the northern section are the Muslims and somewhere in between all of this are the Armenians. The only time in Jerusalem’s history where it’s had more than 150 years of peace was under Muslim rule. Other than that it’s exchanged hands between Jews, Christians, Turks, Romans, British, amongst others, leading to what is now one of the most eclectic cities on the planet. For now, it works and we were rewarded with what we’ve deemed the friendliest and most helpful people we’ve met so far.
Looking deeper to the geography of the region explains the economical reasons why Jerusalem has suffered centuries of war. Lying 40 miles from the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, the city is the major hub between some of histories greatest powers. The Babylonians to the east, the Egyptians to the South, Greeks and Romans to the West, Turks and Ottomans to the North. Even Napoleon’s great empire stretched as far east to Israel. It has been said that it’s easier to conquer than to build from scratch and Jerusalem is proof. Being “holy” land to the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had definitely added to the strife.
Of course, there is still a lot of unrest on the borders of Israel and as one local Jewish man said to me, “I get it.” Israeli’s understand why their neighbors are upset but still “the Jews need a place to go and we’re not going anywhere,” he finished. Several nations are ensuring that that statement remains true by supplying the nation of Israel with arms and munitions.
Our first morning we tag along with Aussie friends Steven and Michelle and head to the Western Wall, famed Jewish site, and witness Jews from around the world praying and sticking their prayers written on small pieces of paper into the cracks of the wall. The Western Wall is considered to be the most holy of Jewish sites and apparently all Jews should make a pilgrimage to see the wall at least once in their life. Steven and I adorn our provided beanie’s and enter the men’s section. The wall is named because it is on the Western edge of the Temple Mount, which in typical Jerusalem fashion, has exchanged hands between religious powers. Currently, the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim holy site and Mosque sits dead center of the Temple Mount. However, at one time the Temple Mount adorned Christian and Jewish holy temples. Between Erin, Steven and Michelle, I considered myself to be in a historical tour of the Old and New Testament and began to ask questions pertaining to the history of the area.
Since the Dome of the Rock was closed this day, we proceeded down the Via Dolorosa, famed for being the apparent path that Jesus Christ carried his cross on before being crucified. Finishing our half-day tour around St. Steven’s gate on the northern edge of the city, we retreated back to the hostel before going to dinner, planning our next day’s tour and turning in early.
Early the next morning, Erin and I hurried over to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus Christ is believed to have been crucified, otherwise known as Golgotha. Like anything considered holy or religious, this is debated. On the way, we smelled sandalwood incense burning and I snapped a photo that I absolutely love…see to the left. Once at the Church, mass was in progress in Latin, and the choir was echoing it’s sweet sounds throughout the domed corridors.
Next we hurried over to the Dome of the Rock where we bumped into Steven and Michelle again. This entire area is heavily guarded and we walked through two sets of metal detector’s. One American traveler had his pocket knife taken and was so perplexed as to why this would happen. I found that pretty amusing. We proceeded into the site where the Dome beaconed with the early morning light. The gold-colored dome is the centerpiece for most city photos taken of Jerusalem and for good reason. It’s beautiful. However, I am not Muslim nor are my fellow sightseers so we were forbidden entry into the Mosque. We carried on to the Mount of Olives where I received more history lessons.
The Garden of Gethsemane
This is the apparent site where Jesus prayed all night before being “turned in.” The garden still contains olive trees that have been carbon dated at over 2000 years old making it quite possible that Jesus Christ stood next to the same exact trees. About a five minute walk away, we descended to the Grotto where Jesus is believed to have been detained. Saying goodbye to Steven and Michelle, who were spending an entire week in Jerusalem, Erin and I began our walk to Mt. Zion. Of course, we were singing Bob Marley all the way.
Erin and I sang but also looked back at the Mount of Olives and our surrounding area and imagined what it was like during the times when the now holy figures walked about. With her knowledge of the bible, we attempted to recount the day by day events that took place here once Jesus Christ arrived on what is celebrated as Palm Sunday. We walked through the City of David on our way to Mt. Zion and continued our talk, piecing together what ended up being a fateful week. Arriving at Mt. Zion, we visited the site that was believed to be where the Last Supper took place. The two pillars are still there and you can envision it in your head.
We ended the long day at the Tower of David Museum which broke down the tumultuous history of Jerusalem for us. Retreating to our bedroom under the stars we easily fell asleep before catching a bus the next day to Tel Aviv.
Yet another modern city. You could pick it up and place it any other country and you wouldn’t know the difference. Famous for nightclubs and partying. Not exactly our cup of tea, so we had a long beach day, watched the sunset and went to bed. The next morning we hopped on a bus north to Haifa.
Famous for the Ba’hai gardens, a multi-terraced garden through the center of the city and at it’s mid-level is the Ba’hai Shrine, a Muslim site. We checked into our hostel and grabbed some lunch, a Shawerma. After ordering one, they shave the lamb off the rotating upright grill and fill the pita bread with tzaziki sauce, cucumber, tomatoes and the shaved lamb. It’s handed to you within two minutes of ordering and costs about $6. Sound familiar? The Shawerma is Israel’s Philly cheesesteak. The “gumbah’s” serving it to you are even wearing tight t-shirts over wife beaters that poorly attempt to hide their bulbous bellies. The only difference is they wear gold chains with a star of David pendant rather than the cross. After the sandwich is in your hand, they ask you “What kind of sauce” in a perfect Tony Soprano voice. Surrounding the stainless steel counter are the extras you can add to gussy up your sandwich. Peppers, carrots, cabbage and lemons, all pickled. Full to the brim, we began our trek to the top of the Ba’hai gardens.
The gardens were closed and again, we’re not Muslim, which we’re finding basically prevents us from seeing all things Muslim. We did, however, get a sneak peak at the peak of the gardens and they were absolutely stunning, including a view of the Mediterranean and city below.
Returning to our hostel, we met a girl from North Carolina, Janet and spent the night playing Rummy with her after a nice dinner. The next morning we hopped a bus to Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee.
Sea of Galilee
The site of Jesus Christ’s ministries and supposed miracles, Erin came up with the brilliant idea that we would ride and camp around the Sea of Galilee. Once arriving in Tiberius, we set out to find bikes and a tent and within an hour found a spot that would give us a free tent with rental. We packed my backpack and set out by 3pm. We passed Capernaum on the northern edge of the lake and stopped to pick fruit at some of the local farms. The farms follow the rules of the Old Testament where they are to leave 10% of their harvest to the needy. I gather this is where the concept of tithing was created. We pick mangoes and bananas that we never end up eating because they aren’t ripe. Arriving on the eastern edge of the lake at some beaches, we set up camp around 7:30 just in time for sunset. Extremely tired due to the heat that exceeded 100 degrees and the 30 pound pack I carried, we hit the sack early after a dip to cool off.
The next morning, we ride to find some food. Considering our dinner the night before consisted of sharing a bag of cocoa puffs Erin lifted from the hostel in Haifa, we are famished. Finding a sandwich shop we passed along the way, we split a sandwich and are offered a ride up the hill from a local, into the Golan Heights. This becomes one of many extremely nice gesture we experience in Israel. He helps us load up our bikes and we begin the ascent up the mountain. His Hebrew name I can’t pronounce or remember but he tells us his English name is Almond. It is he who is quoted earlier in this post about how Jews need a place to go. After he drops off at a supermarket and is leaving, he tells us where he lives and says if we need anything to stop by before wishing us a Happy Shabbat. We load up on some much needed food and bike back down to the beach to pack up camp before setting off on what would become a grueling climb to the eastern peaks of Golan Heights. Climbing the switchbacks, we stop roughly every 15 minutes for shade and water and finally arrive at our campsite at, you guessed it, sunset. Fortunately, there is a restaurant next to the campsite and we treat ourselves to some beers. Afterwards, we prepare our own version of Shabbat dinner consisting of pita bread, tomato, cucumber, avocado, carrots, hummus, and a bottle of wine. Drunk, we retreat to our tent. On the horizon below, we can see the lights of Tiberius glimmering over the Sea of Galilee and the stars are majestic overhead.
We climb even higher the next day and are beginning to question our ability to finish this ride. The heat is wearing on us and we are nearly out of water. Stopping at crossroads, Erin runs around looking for a tap for us to refill. Unable to find one, she somehow spots a fridge at a construction site near the road and decides to have a look. Caught red-handed, a worker stops her but end up giving her the entire bottle after she asks where we can refill our water bottles at. Replenished with the ice cold treat, we continue our climb before getting lost and asking directions at a gas station. Using our map, locals give us directions to off road track back to the eastern beaches. In the midst of the conversation, they recommend a nearby winery for us to visit and even call in to make reservations for us. They give us directions and then follow us to make sure we are on the right path. Chateau Golan welcomes us with open arms and gives us a tour and a free tasting. They are a boutique winery that still hand picks their grapes at harvest, which may explain why their cheapest bottle comes in at over $30. Leaving the winery, we continue our ride until we find the tiny road that gives us an exhilarating 30 minute downhill to the eastern beaches. We stop for a late lunch before continuing back to Tiberius and catching a bus back to Jerusalem. On the way we stroll easy, taking in the fresh air and witnessing just how beautiful of countryside we are in. All of the flowers are in bloom; bright pinks, oranges, reds, and stark whites adorn the roadsides. The air smells of jasmine and sometimes fresh bread.
Arriving back in Jerusalem, we find that we can’t continue on to the Dead Sea and will have to spend the night. A local calls three hostels close to the bus station for us and after realizing they were too expensive for us, offers us money. We decline and say we’ll just stay on the roof of our previous hostel, but he offers again. We decline again but still can’t believe it actually happened.
Another night on the roof in the clean, crisp air. The view is breathtaking as the sun sets over the city. Surrounded by churches, synagogues, and mosques, you can’t help but feel that with all of the prayers taking place from all three religions, amongst others, you are somehow protected. We rest easy and then board a bus for Ein Gedi the next morning on the Dead Sea.
The next afternoon, I am floating in the Dead Sea, the lowest point in the world. Erin’s eyes are burning because of the high salt content that trickled down from her hair. I can barely stay in for more than five minutes as it’s burning my freshly shaven face. But we float anyway, because it’s carefree and easy. We meet a great family from Maine and spend the night sharing our travel stories. Early the next morning we hike together to David’s waterfall in Ein Gedi, an oasis in the desert. Little pools are scattered along the trail and we stop to swim and cool down before continuing the trek. At the height of our trek, we are swimming in Dodim’s cave, the apparent site where David hid from Saul.
In the afternoon, we hitchhike to Masada, the ancient site of Herod’s palace and view the historical ground perched at a plateau atop the mountains. This is a sacred Jewish site, gaining notoriety because of a mass suicide that supposedly occurred here once Jewish rebels realized defeat to the Romans was imminent. After about four hours of touring, we hop the last bus for the border, Eilat. Spending the night there, we arrive at the border to Egypt the next morning. It is closed and guarded because of a suspicious package that has arrived from the Egyptian side.