Israel, the Holy Land 2

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We visited Jerusalem on the way back from Jordan, taking a car from Amman to the Allenby bridge crossing into Israel.



It is one of the busier crossings, it took several hours to get through, we had the impression that our progress was being deliberately delayed as we happened to be with a busload of Arabs, possibly Syrians?
After waiting in a queue not moving anywhere we asked if it was where we were supposed to be and were told to go over to another shorter line at the VIP desk…we got through before the Syrians, but it was still a long drawn out process, -not because of procedure,-we were just kept waiting and waiting….

From  the Allenby border crossing it was a short shared minibus ride out of the Jordan Valley up to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.

The Damascus Gate is one of the main entry points into the old city, we were keen to stay within the old walls if possible, -but it almost seemed there wouldn’t be room!
The gate is big enough, but it is near blocked by hawkers and venders.
Within the walls, the old city  and particularly this, the Muslim Quarter, is a maze of covered alleyways and narrow streets, often ending in steps and is unbelievably busy.
At that time of day, it was particularly busy, little shops and streaming people, impatient Muslims and impenetrable, wall to wall European tour groups, placard waving guides conversing on bluetooth, -not easy for us with backpacks and bags!

However, we were in luck and behind a very unpromising door and up a flight of stairs we found quite a delightful Arab Muslim Hotel, basic, but attractive and with scenic rooftop dining,

-a 360 degree view of the roofs, watertanks and antennae of old Jerusalem.

We loved the Muslim Quarter for its bustling crowds, the colour and the variety,

but the photos have to be taken early in the morning before the people arrive!

Mixed up in all this commercial bedlam are places of such serious religious significance, -the Via Dolorosa with it’s Stages of the Cross

and alongside the street vendors of the Muristan,

probably the most sacred place in Christiandom, is the sombre Church of the Holy Sepulchre, (Golgotha).
This is Calvary Hill which almost all Christians believe to be the site of the Crucifixion.
The present church is a bit of the original Byzantine with additions by the Crusaders and more later modifications. It contains the site of the crucifixion with a possible remnant of wooden cross and the a tomb said also to be Jesus’.
The church is administered by Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic faiths jointly, -although it is said that the keys must be held by a Muslim family to avoid squabbles!!!

It is open to anyone to visit ( I’m sure this is the same group of Muslims who  held us up at Allenby Gate!) -provided they are modestly dressed.

The several shrines devoted to various aspects of the crucifixion and the tomb within are all open to anyone, there might be a small wait to get inside, but being able to so freely access such an important place was, to me, quite unbelievable!
The building doesn’t naturally lend itself to frivolity but there was no request for quietness, despite there likely be a mass taking place somewhere, no restriction on photography of any sort and of course, no entry fees.

I was very surprised to find such easy, liberal access to all the Christian sites in the Holy Land. The only sometimes instruction and one which is a bit irksome in the heat, was  to ‘dress modestly’, meaning shoulders and knees to be covered. (Some lightweight ‘table cloths’ in the back-packs are handy, not stylish, but served our purpose!)

The walls around the Old City are completely intact and it is possible to do a perimeter walk, -although access on the section past the Temple Mount is not allowed for security reasons.

It is a good way of getting the city into perspective and seeing the layout of the  major sights,

the Tower of David, Jaffa Gate and beyond it the new city,

the Church and Monastery of the Dormition marking the place where Mary is believed to have gone into ‘eternal sleep’,

the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount with Dome of the Rock behind,

and across the Kidron Valley, the world’s largest and Holiest Jewish Cemetery, the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane.

The city is divided into unequal ‘quarters’, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian.

The divisions between are not always very apparent, the commercially busy ‘Muslim’ and only slightly less busy ‘Christian’ merging without borders, the only difference really being  that there is more Christian stuff in the Christian area and Islamic in the Muslim.
The ‘Armenian’ Quarter is small, quiet, home to a small Armenian community and with locked churches and gates also locked at night. It doesn’t attract many tourists but has some great pottery shops, special and quite different from the blue, ‘mock mosaic’  Jerusalem Pottery seen everywhere else.

The Jewish Quarter also (surpise?) has doors locked off from the Muslim end at night and also (surprise?) is cleaner, brighter, generally wealthier. There are thriving businesses on its main street, the Cardo.

In truth, the Cardo is new of neccessity, most of the Jewish Quarter was flattened during the 1948 war,

it was only after Israel took the city back from Jordan in the 1967 war that the quarter could be rebuilt.
Beneath the street are excavations of old Jewish Jerusalem, -some of them, for all their damp mustiness, are open to public display.

The Jewish residential area about it is all new too and like the business area, it’s a better, wealthier standard, but in the style of the rest of the old city…

but the opulence of the doorways does rather give the game away!

Just adjacent to the Jewish and Armenian Quarters, but outside the city walls on Mt Zion is the Coenacle, it contains David’s tomb and a dining room which is also said to be the site of the Last Supper

Although the dining room may not be unlike that in Leonardo’s Painting, it’s clearly not the same building. The date of construction has to be much later.

Across town and outside the city walls is the Mount of Olives, where there were many important events in the Christian story, but  especially the Ascension and where it is said the the second coming will occur.

There is the Garden of Gethsemane with a grove of Olive trees

where people often met in Biblical times. It’s where Jesus agonised after having been betrayed.
The Olive trees are very old and believably, said date back to Jesus’ time.
It is a very restful spot, despite busloads of tourists passing through it to the ‘Basilica of the Agony’.

Ascending the Mount, there is the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene with golden onion domes;

the Church of Dominus Flevit (Our Lord Weeping); a Carmelite Convent; a Paternoster and another church to mark the spot of the Ascension on the summit.

From there the view back encompasses the whole of the old city

and below, is the Valley of Kidron, -now studded with olive trees, but formerly a place for tombs and where (as they couldn’t throw back uphill!) people were stoned…

It is also the site of the Tomb of Mary. Deep in a cave beneath a small church is a shrine over the tomb and a long, (although not impossibly long for the determined) queue.

The major focal point for Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem and a continuing source of friction, is the Temple Mount, known in ancient times as Mt Moriah.
There Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, David set out to build a House of God, the Temple of Solomon was constructed to house the Ark of the Covenant, -and then destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. The Jewish Temple was rebuilt, John the Baptist was born, the Rabbis were rebuked by Jesus and the money-changers were expelled…   Then the temple was completely destroyed again by Herod with the Romans in 68 AD. They left only the Western Wall embankment and erected a Christian Church, the Temple of Zeus.
But things were happening there for the Muslims too. To them it was already important as  where Abraham offered up Isaac, but it is also the site where in the 7th century AD, the prophet Mohammed ascended to their God, Allah. To them it is the third most Holy site in Islam, -after Mecca and Medina.

The Muslims have been in possession of the site since, they built their Dome of the Rock in 691 AD. and the temple of Zeus is long gone.

More recently the Al Aqsa Mosque also appeared.
After passing through strict security, we are allowed to walk the perimeter only of both mosques, (with knees covered!) and Jews are strictly prohibited from the Temple Mount precinct.

Over the years of Muslim ownership the Western Wall was built onto as Old Jerusalem grew. Now there are the ‘Western Wall Tunnels’  filled with street vendors, -maybe this is to where the Traders in the Temple were banished?

Only a small part of the Western Wall remains, but for all its blankness, it is all that remains of Solomon’s Temple, it is the most Sacred site of any to Jews, and they come here from world-wide to pray, to lodge wish-notes between the stones and to have barmitzvahs and other special occasions. It is the most auspicious location in Judaism!

It’s plain why it is also known as the ‘Wailing Wall’…

Access to the plaza and the wall was denied to Jews after the 1948 war when Jerusalem became Jordanian Territory, it is only since 1967 that they have again been allowed back into it. To their displeasure  the Israeli Government of the time allowed the Muslims to keep the Dome of the Rock above, it has remained a cause of dissention and there have been many Jewish threats to destroy it to rebuild Solomon’s Temple, mark III.
It is believed that Abraham’s rock of sacrifice exists still beneath the Dome, they want to get their temple back over it.

Security for access to the Western Wall Plaza for that reason is as strict as in any International Airport, -maybe more so. Likewise the ramp which we had to use to access the Temple Mount passes within a few metres above the wall so has had to be completely closed in to protect Jews at prayer below from hand-thrown projectiles…

It’s a sad state of affairs when the 3 different religions have so much common heritage they can’t be more agreeable with one another,  -but that’s Israel!


Although it is only about 20 kilometres from Jerusalem, we drove to Bethlehem from Ashkelon.

Leaving the fertile coastal plains of Israel there is a checkpoint into the occupied West Bank and the landscape becomes hilly and rocky,  it’s Palestinian Territory.
Bethlehem is a small Arab town and under the control of the Palestinian organisation so not a part of Israel.
Like all towns in the area for the past 7 years it has been surrounded by a gruesome security wall erected by Israel.

We were told by the car rental company that it is not adviseable to take cars with Israeli plates into the city, the Palestinians will damage them, they must be left at the checkpoint or we would have no insurance.
We wanted to comply, but our ‘backdoor route’ from Ashkelon unknown to us, took us through a part of the barrier without a checkpoint, we kept expecting it, but were not stopped and found ourselves confused in downtown Bethlehem!
Far from having rocks thrown at us, the people we spoke to for directions couldn’t have been more helpful, friendly and all spoke excellent English!
They reassured us we would be fine in their town with our Israeli car, but we felt we should obey our instructions, so with their help, we made our way back out through the checkpoint we should have gone in at, only to leave the car outside and walk back in…

It is not an easy entry, passing through is as complex as any international border crossing and certainly not designed to make you feel comfortable about it. You are made to walk along cattle-shute like passages through the gate, security checks and passport controls!

On the Palestinian side are a collection of taxis waiting to be hired, readily rented for several hours of touring the city. We were lucky enough to find a very pleasant and helpful man.

Naturally seeing those incredible 20m high concrete walls for the first time took away any rush to see the scenes of the nativity, we had stop to admire the graffiti on the Palestinian side and amaze at the apparent stupidity of the arrangement!

The wall is so placed to include anything valuable to the Israelis, it loops circuitously and closely around individual buildings with no consideration of aesthetics.
Whereas the Israeli side is stark grey concrete, the Palestinian side is highly decorated with poignant and humourous comment…

our driver seemed almost proud to show us and as the graffiti says and we found the average Palestinian to be, bemusedly tolerant of their hopeless situation!
Bethlehem has suffered by its isolation. Given its importance to Christianity, if not for the security issues there would be many more visitors. The welcome from the people couldn’t be friendlier.

On the outskirts of the town are the ‘Shepherds Fields’ where the shepherds were supposedly watching their sheep at the time of Jesus’ birth.

There’s a park and ruins of an old Byzantine monastery and a contemporary chapel marking the significance of the site in Christianity

but looming over it now on the adjacent hills are clusters of Jewish ‘Settlements’,

An example of  those Israeli housing developments still being built on occupied West Bank land, encroaching illegally on Palestinian Territory.
As is the usual, they are built on the hill-top looking down on their co-habitants and the concrete security wall takes a detour around to include them…

The centre of Bethlehem is Manger Square

and the most important feature there is the Church of the Nativity.

This is a byzantine church from 326 AD although not now all original by any means.

Public entry to the nave is by a tiny door, ensuring there’s no chance of it being stormed by a Knight on a charger or an Arab on a camel!

The interior is dark and empty, without seating, there is an area of protected byzantine mosaic on the floor.

and an ornate sanctuary with a queue, waiting to get into the grotto beneath the high altar.

This is where Jesus is believed to have been born,

and the 14 pointed cross signifying the exact spot… the manger.
Maybe? maybe not, but plenty of people believe it and everyone comes to see it!

Adjacent to the Church of the Nativity is St Catherine’s Church

and under it are more caves used for hiding Christians and holding clandestine services in the times of persecution.

There’s a cluster of shops around Manger Square selling Christmas all year around. There is no pressure from street-side hawkers and most of it is not tacky stuff. In particular, the olive wood carvings of Nativity Scenes and Christmas accessories are very good.

Bethlehem is pretty, built on steep hills with narrow streets and many steps, the buildings mainly of white stone

and for an Arab town, kept reasonably tidy. They often are not!

The green/blue doors are usual, it is a good-luck colour for Arabs everywhere.

Leaving Bethlehem we had to reverse the security process walking through the checkpoint to our car, that was no surprise, but when we left the West Bank region with the car, it and we had a very thorough going over. After passing through the metal detectors, we were shuffled away to another room with nothing, the car and our bags searched thoroughly, we couldn’t understand why. It would be impossible to treat every vehicle going through that checkpoint with that degree of diligence, -maybe they were bored on a quiet Sabbath afternoon? Maybe we HAD been spotted entering Bethlehem via the back door after all? They wouldn’t tell us, but we rather suspect that might be the case.

Although we’ve hardly had vast experience in Arab/Israeli towns or the Palestine Territory,  we couldn’t help but be impressed by the friendly nature of the Arab people we’ve met, either Christian or Muslim, and to feel empathy for their oppressed situation.
We realise there is fault on both sides of the administration, but it’s attributable to the Religious Radicals on each side, not the average.
Sadly, neither the moderate Jews nor the moderate Muslims seem able to control the actions of their fundamentalists, their hatred for one another is so deeply ingrained, and the unfortunate Christians are caught somewhere in the middle.
Can there ever be a solution?

It’s a tragic situation for the average person in the street.



This is one of those ‘must-do’ experiences, but as for swimming in it, -once is probably enough!

The Dead Sea is only about 20 kilometres from Jerusalem and is formed by the final muddy trickle of the Jordan River, some underwater salt springs, a little freshwater run-off and a very high evaporation rate. It is reducing in size at a rapid rate as progressively more of the Jordan is removed for irrigation up stream. Moves are afoot to run water down from the Red Sea at Aqaba to keep it replenished?
It is about 70km long and 15 km wide, but with the reduced depths, the southern end has become separated and is now used for salt harvesting, needing a canal from the main lake to feed it.

Outwardly, it is really quite a beautiful lake despite being obscured by haze in summer

and the salt deposits just add to the interest, but it’s pretty toxic place!
At 420 metres below sea level the air seems heavy and incredibly hot, -although, it is claimed by the believers to be ideal for sun-bathing and psoriasis.
The thicker atmosphere is said to filter out the harmful UV rays…but only the most ardent sun-worshippers could enjoy lying out in that outdoor sauna

However, plenty do, as among the salt collection brine ponds at the southern end are big name resort hotels, where the only attraction is the salty lake (anyone for pickled pork?) and its horrible mud…
There is a whole cosmetics industry built in the belief of the vain that the nasty black stuff will make the skin young again.

We chose a spot at Ein Gedi and away from the masses for our ‘swim’, if a dip in a 30% brine solution where it is impossible to sink can be called that!

The air temperature was 39C (in shade), the water about 35C and with a viscous, oily feel.

It is impossible not to float, there is certainly no need to tread water and, once the feet are up, in fact it’s quite difficult to get them back down again!
All those stories of people reading the newspaper floating in the Dead Sea are quite true, although why you’d ever want to, I don’t know.
It’s not easy to relax in the water as you cannot allow even a drop in an eye, in the mouth it tastes like battery acid and any exposed area of mucous membrane burns furiously!

The freshwater showers on the beach are essential afterwards, fortunately the bad effects are soon washed away.


The good bit about going to the Dead Sea is a visit to Massada.
This is one of the most impressive hilltop fortresses anywhere and is on a plateau on the edge of the Dead Sea, about 450 above. (that is, at about sea level!)

Although used as a fortress for some time earlier, it was principally built by King Herod just a little BC. Unlike most hill-top castles it was particularly designed as fortified town able to withstand a long siege.
It had many buildings for long term storage of food, -grain, oil and wine, a complex water collection system of aqueducts and cisterns to make the best use of every little bit of rain that fell, there were facilities to keep animals and even breeding pigeons for food and fertilizer.
In about 70 AD, the end of the Second Temple period as Jews refer to it, (the time of the sacking and destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem) about 900  Zealots fled to Massada as a last outpost of Jewish resistance to the Roman Armies.
They held out there under siege for about 2 years before the Romans eventually got access by building a huge stone ramp up to the walls.
When they finally were able to storm the fortress, they were met by 960 dead Jews as they had killed each other by systematic suicide rather than suffer the indignity of capture.
The event clearly remains very important in the Jewish Psyche today!
Subsequently the place was not abandoned, but improved and continued in use as a fortress by the Romans and later Byzantine Christians used it as a secluded Monastery.

Access to the site is by cable car or walking up the zig-zag ‘Snake Path’ from the eastern side, from the west there is a shorter walk up the Roman built ramp.
Most walking visitors do so at day break (we left at 5am!) to be cooler, but also to enjoy the sunrise over the Dead Sea, then allowing time to look around the site and still be back at the hotel in time for breakfast!

See slideshow :

Now we have moved a little north and are in Herzliya Marina, just north of Tel Aviv and enjoying it.

It’s a very civilised place with proper shops immediately around the Marina and the big city nearby, we feel as if we have almost made it to the Med!

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