01.11.2012 - 05.11.2012
Israel: a small country on the Mediterranean Sea, difficult to get in and out of, and a mecca to three of the world’s religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Both being Catholic we had an interest in visiting the holy land and the sites that are referenced in the Bible, and to see for ourselves this country that has been coveted, conquered and fought over for centuries. We were not really sure what to expect from our Israeli experience, but the difficulty getting over the border into the country gave us our first insight into how things work here.
This little stretch of land has had a difficult past and the long struggles for independence have no doubt led to the high levels of security and visibility of service men and women on the streets. The border crossings were the toughest we have ever encountered, and in no other country have we witnessed so many service men and women out in public areas with their weapons on full display. The young men on our bus from Eilat on the south coast to Tel Aviv on the north west coast could not have been older than 20 and we admit that watching them get on the bus with their rifles casually slung over their shoulders was a little unnerving.
Tel Aviv is a city by the sea with locals and tourists congregating on its wide beaches and eating in the restaurants and cafes that line the promenade. It felt to us like a city that could have been in any country – there was a wide range of accommodation and restaurants, and if you have no interest in the religious or historical sites of Israel you could easily fly into Tel Aviv and just enjoy a city/beach break. We met a German girl who was doing just that – having a long weekend in Tel Aviv to escape Munich in November!
Accommodation in Israel is expensive in comparison to Egypt and Jordan and it was difficult to make the transition from our beachside resort in Sharm for US$52 per night to a hostel with shared bathrooms for US$65!! We are not anti-hostel at all and have stayed in some really good, well priced hostels in recent months but this was surprising. Getting around the country is relatively easy with the national bus service operating between all major destinations, and there are so many tours and guide services you can choose from depending on what you want to see and your budget.
With only five days left before our flight back to the UK we elected to do two day trips for two reasons: someone else would be arranging the travel and entry into the places we wanted to see, and we would also have the benefit of learning about the country and the sites from a local. Our guides were great at their jobs, passionate about their country and its history and did a good job of keeping everyone happy. (There is always one in every group who is not happy! Seriously, these people should just stay at home rather than complaining to the guide about the itinerary they were happy to pay for. Rant over!)
No trip to this region would be complete without a soak in the healing waters of the Dead Sea and it was the novelty we expected it to be. You could spend hours bobbing up and down in this water with a temperature close to bath water. After making your way in you lean back into a sitting position and your legs involuntarily lift off the ground leaving you to float effortlessly. The sea is 422 metres below sea level and is so dense with salt it is impossible not to float (we tried, you can’t sink in here!).
Not too far away is Masada, site of a fortress and palace complex commissioned by King Herod around 40 BC. It was also the location of a fierce battle between the Jewish Zealots and the Romans in 72AD which resulted in the Zealots committing mass suicide rather than being caught by the Roman army. It is said that there were as many as 15,000 in the Roman army and just short of 1000 Zealots, including men, women and children who had taken refuge here after Jerusalem had been captured by the Romans.
After a short ride in a cable car you reach the top of the site which still has remains from buildings. From the top you can see the Dead Sea just a short distance away and the ruins of the Roman camps that were built around the site before its capture.
Having visited the Dead Sea and Masada in one long day we arrived to our (less than pleasant, shall we say!) hostel in Jerusalem. This was the city we were most eager to explore and the guide we had was excellent, taking us through the history of the country and its people, and expertly guiding us to the important sites of the old city, including the path of the Via Dolorosa. It is along this path that the Stations of the Cross are believed to have occurred and whilst we were in the city we witnessed many pilgrims following its trail, some even carrying a cross above the crowd replicating Jesus’ journey.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most important locations in the city: it is believed this church is built on the site where Jesus was crucified. Some of the Stations of the Cross are marked inside the church, including the place where the crucifix is thought to have stood and the granite slab on which Jesus’ body was prepared for burial after his death.
One of our lasting memories will be standing in this church contemplating the history and its ties to Christianity, and hearing the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. It is evidence that despite setbacks, the city has come a long way in terms of acceptance and co-existence of the different religions that have fought for supremacy in centuries past, and continue to do so today in some areas.
From Christianity to Judaism, we spent some time at the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), a holy and sacred place for Jews the world over. The wall is said to be a remnant of a retaining wall around the original site of the Temple of Jerusalem and is a shrine for prayer and reflection. There are periods in history when Jews were denied the right to be in Jerusalem at all and the wall is a symbol of their faith that they would one day be allowed to return. Men and women are welcome to pray at the wall but are separated.
The recognisable gold dome is the Dome of the Rock – an important site for all three religions due to associations with both the first and second Jewish temples (both destroyed), the Bible and the prophet Mohammed. Built in 691AD it is the oldest example of Islamic architecture to be found in the world. It is history like this that makes Jerusalem such a fascinating place to visit – that on one site the most important religious locations for three different religions can exist.
After an action packed and information loaded morning in Jerusalem it was on to Bethlehem which was an interesting experience. Run by the Palestinians, the city is completed surrounded by a wall and we had to pass through a border check almost as if we were entering another country. Life on the other side of the wall appeared to be little different to Jerusalem, but our young driver tells us it is the safest way for them to go about living and it is a better arrangement for both the Palestinians and Israelis if they keep things separated in this way.
The key site of interest for Christians in Bethlehem is of course the birthplace of Jesus and we were taken to the Church of the Nativity which is said to have been built on the site where the holy family had stayed in the stable on Christmas Eve (for those who have forgotten there was no room at the inn that night!). Two markers are to be found in the basement area of the church – one is believed to be the place where Jesus was delivered and the other where the manger stood.
We found this experience a bit surreal and challenging – watching hundreds of people line up to place their hands on these identified special areas does lead you to question the accuracy of the information and to question your beliefs altogether. On the other hand there is something spiritual about being here with so many people who have all been raised to believe the same thing – no matter their race, or the country or when they were born.
If we had given ourselves more time in Israel we think we could have visited Masada and the Dead Sea on our own as it was too rushed doing it with a large group and there is a range of transport options on offer. For Jerusalem and Bethlehem though the tour was a good option and gave us the knowledge to be able to go out into Jerusalem again on our own and navigate the four quarters of the city – Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian.
It is probably not a country that will sit high on our ‘must return’ list, but we did leave plenty unexplored so there is scope for a return trip someday. We left feeling grateful that we had been and stimulated by the discussions and debates we had with fellow visitors about what we had experienced and learned. Whether you are a believer or not, there is a spiritual element to a visit to Israel and it does affect you.