Below: A typical, cobbled walkway in Jerusalem’s Old City
Israel’s ridged landscapes, helpful people, and amazing history fueled this ten day tour of the Holy Land.
One of my most memorable moments took place high above Jerusalem’s ancient, cobbled streets. A cool breeze wafted the smell of fresh baked challah (Hebrew bread) to the roof deck where I slept as the sun’s first rays glistened in the sky. The best view of Jerusalem’s Old City was seen from my “bedroom” where I had camped on a thick foam mat for the night. This goes to show that not having funds for luxury hotels sometimes works out in a traveler’s advantage, being able to experience the authentic feel of this location from a cheap rooftop terrace. Church bells chimed in unison, hours after the Muslim calls to prayer had floated through the even earlier air. As I took all of this in, I watched a flock of birds fly in unison among bell towers and hills to the music of the chimes. Jerusalem is such a spiritual place, where Muslims, Christians and Jews all share a piece of history and pride for their religion. During my tour of the city, I concentrated on the places which are sacred to the Christians and have written in detail about them below.
Above: Pieces of Jerusalem’s skyline from the roof deck at sunrise.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
This cathedral’s theme is the crucifixion of Christ, since some believe this ground was the spot where Jesus’ suffering on the cross and death took place. Once a bare hill called Calvary, there now stands one of the most glorious churches in all of Israel. Arriving in the morning before the crowds, I saw a side of the church that many tourists don’t experience during the day. Choir voices echoed between the heavy walls and reverberated through my body, giving the place of worship a fitting chill and adding to the ambiance of sorrow.
Above: Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
As is common in Jerusalem, historians have tried to pinpoint every last detail of the Passion History (Jesus’ last days on earth) by claiming certain areas of ground for specific events. For example, some say that this church was where He was buried or that another walkway a few yards away is spot is where He fell to his knees when carrying the cross to Golgatha. Although no one can tell the exact location of Jesus’ every step, I appreciated the monuments and chapels built in honor of these historical events. Having said this, many believe that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built upon the exact ground where Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Just to the right of the entrance is a relic many consider to be the stone that sealed the tomb after Jesus’ burial. It’s called the Angel’s Stone.
Above: The Angel’s Stone
Still other Christians believe they have found a different site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, which is called the Garden Tomb. This was supposedly the garden of Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus was buried. A hill that looks like a skull and is considered to be Golgatha is close by.
Whether you believe this site is the exact spot where Jesus was crucified or buried, it is certainly close to the historical area. And what matters the most is that the cathedral (and Garden tomb) both do an amazing job of portraying, through famous paintings and statues, the life sacrificed and holiness of it all.
Garden of Gethsemane and Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem
Above: Looking out onto the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Behind the Old City area of Jerusalem rises a hill that is almost too steep for a sane person to hike in the hot Israel heat. But of course, mixing adventure with the historical tour, we decided to hike up instead of succumbing to the Israeli cab driver’s pleas.
From the peak of the hill, one overlooks an olive grove, groomed and trimmed now by a city gardener. Back in Bible times this area was the garden where Jesus went with his disciples after the Last Supper in an upper room of the city. He knelt among the trees and prayed, knowing what he was about to endure. At dawn in this location, Jesus was captured by Roman soldiers and his trial began.
Above: Ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane
Above: Sign outside the groomed garden
Sea of Galilee/ Golan Heights
About two hours north of Jerusalem lies the Sea of Galilee, a popular pilgrimage area for those tracing the steps of Jesus and the area of many miracles reported in the Bible. (Matthew 4: Disciples from the Sea of Galilee; Matthew 15:29: Miracles; Mark 1: Jesus’ baptism and preaching at the Sea of Galilee.)
Enamored by the beauty of the lake and the many orchards and hills surrounding it, I decided to organize a biking and camping trip around the area. The only problem was, we had no bikes or tents! Working out to our advantage, as usual, a local hotel owner had a tent that someone had accidentally left the week before. He let us borrow the tent for free and rent bikes from him as well, so we were off for a sweaty ride from Tiberius, on the lake’s west side, past Magdala (the city where Mary Magdalene lived), crossing the Jordan River to the north, and landing on the upper east side’s beach for sunset. Along the way, we were able to glean in mango vineyards and pick left-over bananas, still on the trees as 10% of the crop that Jewish farmers leave for those in need. Read about the Old Testament law by clicking here. With the prices in Israel ($9+ for a loaf of bread and $12 for a carton of grapes in touristy areas) we considered ourselves poor and enjoyed the fruit! There were even spots marked on our tourist map as “fruit picking areas” so that the orchards were easy to locate.
Day two began with a breakfast sandwich from a roadside deli, consisting of all-beef franks (due to no pork being eaten by Jews), eggs, hummus, and tomatoes. This is where I started to learn that hummus is to Israel as ketchup is to the United States. It turns out, this fuel was much needed, since we decided to do a climb that “is difficult for the cars to even do” according to one local we met along the way. East of the Sea of Galilee is an area called Golan Heights, where vineyards and ancient temples overlook the sea below. After every curve we’d stop for more sun-warmed water, stored in the bike basket, but there would always be an even steeper grade ahead, glowing from the sun’s heat.
Above: Chugging warm water on the long road up to Golan Heights
A few hours before sunset, we were drenched with sweat and decided it was beer-thirty, no matter what price we’d have to pay. After our thirst forced us to sample some locals beers-wink, wink- our plan of biking a few more hills fizzled and we started asking where the nearest campsite was. Luckily, the restaurant was connected to a rest area and they allowed us to pitch the tent right in their side yard, behind some trees and close to the fire pit. We feasted on our packed lunch of avocados, tomatoes, pitas, hummus, peaches and tuna on crackers. (We may have budgeted for the beer, but there was no way we could afford the restaurant food. Great priorities, huh? Our picnic turned out to be just as delicious though, after the all day ride.) Night number two came, with no blankets or camping mats to lay on, but the view of the Sea of Galilee through the tent’s mesh window was enough.
Left: Sea of Galilee from Golan Heights on east side of lake. Yes, we biked that whole way!
On the third morning, we continued the climb, legs aching and butts bruised from the bike seats. When we actually reached the summit, a local, young Jewish couple started talking to us as they filled up their 4×4 (a common mode of transport in these back hills) with gas. When inquiring about the local winery, they were excited to not only give us directions to the Chateau Golan Winery, but also to call on their cell and reserve us a free tour and wine tasting. The Chateau Golan, in a very secluded woodsy area up on the mountain, is a boutique winery that picks their grapes by hand and stores the wine in oak barrels. We toured and tasted, but rushed back to the bikes for some carrots and hummus, needing something substantial before biking back down to the lake, a few kilometers below. It’s a good thing the rest of the way was a breeze, coasting quickly down the ridge with a view of the mountains in the peripheral and the lake below.
Above: Cellar at Chateau Golan Heights Winery
The very day we finished the epic bike tour, we didn’t stop to rest, but instead hopped on the last bus out of town back down to Jerusalem. We rested on our spongy mats on the roof deck one last night and felt like royalty to have something other than the tent tarp under our tired bodies. We’d wake early and move on to the Dead Sea the next day.
Ein Gedi/ Dead Sea
Above: Dead Sea’s salt-covered rocks
The lowest point on earth, it is easy to understand why Ein Gedi smells of earthy sulfur and feels like a dry sauna. In the middle of this barren, brown desert appears an oasis of water, sparkling green and showcasing a pink reflection of the mountains that tower around it.
Many historians have written about this area near the Dead Sea, including Josephus Flavius and writers of the Old Testament. We decided to investigate this area by hiking up to fresh water pools and the caves where David hid from Saul in the wilderness (I Sam 23). We spotted a jujubee bush, which is thought to be the plant used in the crown of thorns and we swam in fresh water pools which fed the fluorescent foliage.
This entire natural playground overlooks the Dead Sea. A quick dip in this salt-saturated water tingled my skin, and reminded me I shouldn’t have shaved my legs that morning! Swimmers do not even need to work to bob above the water and they will notice that the rocks below their floating bodies are caked with large chunks of salt crystals, giving the base of the shore a white glow. If one happens to get some water in their eyes, they’ll be momentarily blinded until someone brings them fresh water to pour rapidly down their face. (I know from experience!) The taste of the water on the lips is so salty that it tastes like some sort of chemical.
Above: A float in the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.
Above: Masada’s ancient ruins.
We’d heard that close by, Masada’s fortress on a mountain sat 1500 feet above the Dead Sea, so we hitch hiked 20 minutes from Ein Gedi to Masada for the grand tour.
Built by King Herod between 37-31 BC, the palace had a full bath house, lookout points and a store room that held years worth of grain and imported delicacies. From the inscriptions on bottles and near the storeroom doors, it is evident that Herod feasted regularly and drank wine and apple juice that he imported from Italy.
Many Jews visit this site because it was the site of the Jewish-Roman war. Many rebel Jews who opposed Roman rule retreated to this palace, eating the food in the reserves and worshiping at a synagogue they made out of Herod’s stables. When the Romans completed the ramp to take over the fortress, legend has it that the Jewish resident agreed death would be better than being taken slaves to the Romans. They cast lots to see who would take the life of the next, and pieces of clay pots with names written on them have been found and are displayed in the nearby museum. According to Josephus Flavius, in 73 AD when the Romans finally broke through the walls of this citadel, they discovered that the 967 Jews had killed each other until the last man, who was the only one who had to commit suicide.
Best told by the photos, Haifa’s Ba’ Hai Gardens were an impressive scene, located along the city’s steep hillside and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Haifa, a seaside port city, was also best known to us as the home of the best shawarma in all of Israel. Shaved pieces of lamb are stuffed into a warm pita and topped with a cucumber and tomato salad and hummus. I will definitely be finding a recipe for this and posting it under my recipe section.
Known for its beautiful beaches and crazy nightlife, Tel Aviv reminded me a lot of a Southern California town. An energy emits from this city and I was motivated to jog on the beach in the morning and enjoy the warm sand in the afternoon while reading and people watching. The only thing I had to skip was the nightlife, because a backpacker’s shoe collection doesn’t quite cut it in a Gucci stiletto world.
Above: Sun sets behind beach Tel Aviv’s beach volleyball courts.