Israel – Jerusalem

I ended up spending almost two weeks in Jerusalem, this city was amazing.

I flew in to Tel Aviv and took a shared taxi to Jerusalem. I was able to start off my time very comfortably – with a friend from home. While studying at Waterloo I met Aryeh, who is both incredibly smart and kind. He has worked at Perimeter Institute for co-op and is currently doing research at Hebrew University. I was so happy and surprised when I learned that he’d be in Israel when I was and he was nice enough to make time to see me and let me sleep on his balcony for the first night. 

I arrived in the late afternoon and Aryeh took me on a walk through the old city. It was pretty cool to have my first impressions of the old city at night.

We came across a guy playing “Fiddler on the Roof” which is from one of my favourite movies, and since that is exactly how I wanted to start my time in Israel I had to give him a few shekels.

Aryeh took me to the Western Wall, and I got my first experience with Israeli security. In my time in Jerusalem alone I saw more guns than I have in my whole life.

We went down through security and actually up to the Western Wall. I wore one of the kippahs provided before approaching, and it took all of my concentration to keep it on my head. We went up to touch the wall, and on the way back my kippah was blown off by the wind. Aryeh grabbed it for me, and I decided to give up and hold it on my head until I was out. 

I liked this picture of The Dome of the Rock, The Western Wall, and Al-Aqsa Mosque.

For the advice, place to stay, and just because it was great seeing him again, Aryeh helped make Israel a special stop.

In the morning I walked with him to Hebrew University because I wanted to see his office and it was on my way to the Israel Museum. I was quite surprised to find displayed there Albert Einstein’s last writing pad.

That was the start of an amazing day. The Israel Museum was really good, especially the Archaeological Wing for which I got a free tour from a Canadian tour guide.

My favourite item was the Venus of Berekhat Ram. It does look like just a pebble, but it’s believed to be the oldest piece of artwork in the world, dating back 233,000 years.

The museum was impressive and much of it was dedicated to Jewish culture and history.

It wasn’t exclusively Jewish though, and as always I loved the Islamic art.

Surprisingly, they also had a Van Gogh.

On the museum grounds is a separate building called the Shrine of the Book which houses some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex, all of which are extremely old.

On the other hand, in a nearby building the nano Bible is on display. The entire Bible was written in this tiny gold plated silicon chip by a focused ion beam.

Outside was a pretty cool model of what the Temple Mount and Jerusalem would have looked like in the time of the second temple.

I walked back to Aryeh’s apartment to get my stuff and move into my hostel.

On the way I walked past this sculpture, which is a Möbius strip – it only has one face. I hope that bothers you a little.

I took the light rail towards the old city where my hostel was and entered through my favourite of Jerusalem’s gates: The Damascus Gate.

I had booked a cheap but well rated hostel called Hebron Hostel right in the heart of the old city. Not only was it the cheapest option, but I discovered when I arrived that they provided free dinner every night. This hostel made my time in Israel, which is a very expensive country, one of my cheapest stops. Additionally it is family owned, the staff are fantastic, and a car and two kittens live there. One of the kittens was attacked by the father and lost the use of both back legs, so that was pretty sad. It was my favourite though and still managed to get around.

I began exploring Jerusalem and was a little nervous at first because tensions were high at the time. I arrived about a week after attacks and altercations around the Temple Mount.

My first major stop in the old city was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which I believe is considered the holiest site in Christianity. Its significance is that it supposedly houses Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb where he was resurrected. 

I accidentally sat through a church service here. I was sitting in some pews and before I knew it three priests had walked in, the door was closed, and everyone was speaking Italian. I stood up and sat down when everyone else did and tried not to look as out of place as I felt. 

My pictures in here weren’t great, but here’s Calvary. The person in the picture is kneeling at the spot where the cross is believed to have been.

The church was beautiful and had many differently dressed priests walking around.

It’s also bigger than expected, and walking around farther into the church brings you to the basilica built over the tomb. This is where Jesus is said to have been buried after crucifixion, and is the heart of the church.

The next day I decided to check out the Tower of David.

The Tower of David is a medieval citadel with a great view of Jerusalem. It is located by the Jaffa Gate and doesn’t actually have any connection to King David.

It was good to visit early on in my visit because it gave a view of many landmarks I wanted to make it to.

Dinner was served as usual on the roof of the hostel, which was a nice place to sit on the cool of night and meet people. I spent hours one evening talking with an American archaeologist working in Jordan. I really want to go to Jordan now.

The next day, Friday morning, I got to see Aryeh again. We were to meet at a large windmill that marked the location of the first Jewish settlement outside the old city. Wanting to see as many gates as possible, I made my way there through the Zion Gate.

Since Shabbat began later that day, he had to buy some food, and brought me to the Machane Yehuda market. We went there close to when everything would close for Shabbat and it was insane.

That night I went to the Western Wall to see what it was like at the start of Shabbat. There was dancing and singing, and the place was very busy.

While staying at my hostel, I waged a holy war against the other kitten, pictured here attacking my shoe.

Many battles were fought, and it doesn’t look like reconciliation is in our future.

The next day was trip out of Jerusalem which I’ll cover next, and the day after that was my most harrowing experience in Israel. I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum.

This museum was incredibly comprehensive, there were many stories about families and individuals in addition to the information about the war. There were videos of testimony from survivors describing their experiences, and some of the pictures and video from that museum will stay with me for life.

I left the museum both sad and furious. I was angry at how many people decided to take advantage of the situation and benefit from the persecution of the Jews. I couldn’t help but think of friends who are Jewish or have Jewish heritage without feeling both grateful that their families survived and angry that they might be considered less by others. 

The other side of this is the Righteous Among the Nations. Non Jewish people who rescued or protected Jews from the holocaust are remembered at the museum and invited to plant a tree there. One such person is Oskar Schindler, immortalised in the movie Schindler’s list. His actual list is kept in the archives of Yad Vashem.

I’ve always been interested in WW2 history, but never before was I impacted this much. There’s a difference between reading about how many died and how, and seeing their faces or reading their stories. As amazing as Jerusalem is, Yad Vashem is the only place I would consider essential, regardless of your religion or interests. 

After a heavy day like that, I decided that a day of walking was an appropriate follow up.

At the suggestion of the archaeologist, I started my day at the (free) Rockefeller Museum. It held some wood panels from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is the closest I’d get to actually going inside there.

Also really interesting was the “Galilee Man,” the oldest human remains found in the Levant. It is between 350,000 and 250,000 years old and belonged to an archaic Homo Sapiens. An older type of human than we are.

Continuing my walk around the walls of the old city, I arrived at the Mount of Olives.

My first stop here was the Tomb of the Virgin, where the mother Mary is said to be buried.

After this was one of the sites in Jerusalem I had been looking forward to the most – The Garden of Gethsemane.

The associated church next to the garden was a work of art. The floor and ceiling were both done in mosaics, as well as the depictions at the front.

What was amazing about the garden was that eight of the olive trees are actually old enough that they were there when Jesus was.

Further up the Mount of Olives is the Tomb of the Prophets. I think I got there a little after closing time, but the guy with the big metal key opened the gate for me and brought me down.

This was an interesting experience,and probably the most scared I was in Israel. He gave me a candle and told me to explore, so I spent the next few minutes trying to navigate my way through the pitch black tomb by candlelight. I don’t know if there’s a trick to doing it effectively but that candle was not nearly as helpful as I expected it to be, and as soon as I turned a corner I felt completely disoriented. Exploring tombs by candlelight though, I’d recommend it once. 

My journey up the Mount of Olives continued, and afforded some excellent views of the mount and the old city.

My mood quickly descended upon my arrival at the Church of Ascension at the top, as instead of giving me change for entrance the guy there claimed that his explanation of the church was worth the rest. It didn’t amount to much, but if you visit make sure to bring exact change.

It was interesting to see the place where Jesus is said to have ascended into heaven though.

After a much nicer walk down the mount, I reentered the city through the Lions’ Gate into the Muslim Quarter. The old city is divided into the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian quarters. 

I walked up the Via Dolorosa, where many stations of the cross are located, and stopped at Bassem’s Gallery and Café. This is the best café I found within the walls of the old city, and I was served by a 14 year old boy who was very nice and appeared to be running the whole operation. I tried Arabic coffee here for the first time, which is coffee with cardamom, and had some tea that came with mint leaves.

My daily pilgrimage however, was to a café outside of the old city called Etz Café. The staff there are awesome, the coffee is excellent, and it was a great place to try the local food shakshuka. Shakshuka is an egg dish done in a tomato sauce.

The old city was strange. Sometimes there was barely any room to walk with the combination of tourist groups and local people going every direction, and other times you could turn a corner and find yourself completely alone.

I met another Canadian at my hostel and we decided to go to the Temple Mount together. The Mount is significant for Jews as the location of the first and second Jewish temples, as well as being the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. It’s significant for Muslims as the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven, and after Mecca and Medina is Islam’s third holiest place. The rock from which Muhammad ascended is the centre of the Dome of the Rock, the oldest Islamic Shrine in existence.

As a first attempt to look around, this was not successful. We made the mistake of visiting on Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of fasting and sadness over the destruction of the first and second temples. The visiting times ended early, and as soon as we got up people with large guns were telling us to leave.

There was a bit of a showdown, with Muslims and Jews chanting at each other, separated by soldiers.

Not the best choice of days, though an interesting experience.

We then went to the Garden Tomb, which is a second possible location of Jesus’s tomb, rivaling the one in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

After another day trip out of Jerusalem, I did a bit of exploring out the Zion Gate. There was a building visible in the panoramic views of the city that I was curious about.

This turned out to be a very interesting area, as next to this monastery is King David’s tomb and the room where the Last Supper took place. 

King David’s Tomb.

Last Supper room.

Before leaving Jerusalem, I thought I’d try one more time to visit the Temple Mount.

After getting through security, where they ask you your religion, I was finally in. Non Muslims can’t actually go in the Dome of the Rock or Al-Aqsa Mosque, it was still worth visiting.

The Dome of the Rock is one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever seen. It was simply amazing.

Despite the politics, division, and tension present in the city, Jerusalem was a fantastic and truly unique experience. Walking through the city and stumbling upon places of such importance that you’d know even if you aren’t religious was cool, and places like The Dome of the Rock don’t need any significance to be impressive.

By the end of my time here I was ready to go. It wasn’t exactly a relaxing stop, but well worth it anyways. I spent my last night back on Aryeh’s balcony before taking a bus to Tel Aviv.

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