The Holy Land of Israel

Jerusalem by Night

Jerusalem

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.

The Tour

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.

Holy JerusalemEarly 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

Garden of GethsemaneThis 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.

Mt. Zion

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.

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.

Haifa

Ba'hai GardensFamous 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.

Golan HeightsThe 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.

Dead Sea FloatThe 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.

Israel- History, Beauty and Tradition

Below: A typical, cobbled walkway in Jerusalem’s Old City

streets

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

garden

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.

sea

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.

water

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.

Galilee

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.

cellar

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

rocks

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.

sea

Above: A float in the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.

Masada

Masada

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.

Haifa

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.

Haifa

Tel Aviv

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.

tel aviv

Above: Sun sets behind beach Tel Aviv’s beach volleyball courts.