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Published: December 19th 2014
Hope you're all fine
The working world means I have much less time for holidays....but more money to spend on them! And my latest adventure took me to Israel.Whilst the country is absolutely teaming with history, it also has, as we know, a huge problem with terrorism. Unluckily for me, just a few days after it was all booked, the latest trouble erupted this summer. Fortunately by the time I went, the worst of it was over. But I had done a lot of researching and prepared myself for a lot of questioning and security searching as well have realised that as far as the everyday tourist goes, the risk of trouble isn't much greater than London or the USA.
And then two days before I leave....more trouble as a far right Jew gets shot by a Palestinian, who in turn gets shot by the Israeli Police, shutting down the Haram el-Sharif/Temple Mount complex which was my planned first site to visit.....
Nevertheless I jumped on my plane to Tel Aviv on the Saturday morning, ignoring all the worries of my work colleagues and family, and once again grabbing my
free newspaper at Luton Airport and feeling like a complete pro. The flight was ONLY 5 hours on easyJet, so as you can tell I was thoroughly entertained the whole time - but luckily the view of the Alps, Balkans and Turkey until it got dark was something to look at, and eventually I had arrived.
The most important issue that would affect me was the fact that I had already visited Morocco and the UAE, which I had read would subject me to further questioning, delaying my time at the borders. Which is exactly the thing you don't want when you've already travelled across Europe and still have 2 hours before getting to your hotel.Luckily, the lady at immigration didn't see my stamps, and just asked me the basic questions - such as why I was coming to Israel, where I was going/staying and who I knew in the country. I whizzed through immigration, got my shekels out at the cash point, bought some nibbles to break the notes, and then waited for my bus at the bus stop outside the terminal.
One of the things I had read in my research was that, helpfully for the tourist, during the Sabbath (Friday to Saturday sunset), there is NO public transport in the country. Having planned my holiday around this, it meant that by the time I arrived at the airport, the Sabbath was already over for the week, and I was able to jump on one of the first buses running that day.
Plus points of Israeli Buses: Cheap, Free WiFi, Bullet Proof Windows
Eventually arriving at my hostel in central Jerusalem I took an early night in order to explore the Old City the following day.
Waking up, and grabbing breakfast from downstairs, I then headed off for the Haram el-Sharif/Temple Mount, racing through the Old City and past the Western/Wailing Wall and making the queue by 8:10. The complex is only open for three and a half hours a day, from 7:30 until 10:00, and then 12:30-1:30. With major security checks I had read that the queue was particularly long, and already by the time I was there, the queue was pretty long. Not knowing whether I would even
be allowed entry (last I had heard, only men over 50 were allowed up), I waited and eventually after an hour and a half I was up there. First thing I noticed - screaming Palestinian girls...followed by touts telling me that, whilst I was non-Muslim, and therefore not allowed access to the Mosques, they could guide me to a window they knew where I could have a peak inside. I declined.
The complex felt very Arabic, and much like Morocco. Whilst it had been a long wait, it was definitely worth it, and despite not being allowed in, the Dome of the Rock was very impressive. For this is the supposed site where God created Adam, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, and where Mohammed was transported to from Mecca. A good start to my travels. I then headed back down into the Old City and headed up the Via Dolorosa, tracing Jesus's last steps after he was handed his cross until he was crucified. Whilst in some ways you feel like you are tracing back the steps of a man 2,000 years ago, seeing every step marked out with large plaques designating each
spot (VII - Jesus falls for the second time) and the commercialisation of the route (7th station souvenirs, and guided tours) it kind of takes away from the genuine history, and makes it feel almost like a theme park.
Following the route I eventually ended up in the Christian Quarter, outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the church that spans the site of both the Crucifixion and the Tomb of Christ. Again this would be a site that whilst widely known, looks nothing like it would have been at the time the events it celebrates took place. Instead of finding a hill on the outskirts of the city where Christ was crucified, and a tomb located some distance from that - a 5 minute walk from the centre of the old city takes you right into the church that has both enclosed within it.
Going left once you enter the church, inside the Rotunda is the very place that Christ was laid to rest on Good Friday and subsequently arose two days later. Waiting for over half an hour, you are allowed thirty seconds or so to touch
a slab covering the rock on which Jesus was supposedly laid to rest. Leaving this, and talking a walk around the corner and up some stairs, lasting no longer than 120 seconds, you arrive at the site he was supposedly crucified on, again waiting in a queue of around 20 minutes for 30 seconds or so of 'experience'.After exploring the rest of the church, I headed out to the Jewish quarter to visit the Western Wall in more detail. Heading again through a security check, I donned a kippah and touched the wall. Before writing a message, shoving it through the cracks, and then sitting back down and observing the most sacred place in Judaism from a distance.My last activity for the Old City was to head south, walk along part of the wall, and head to Mount Zion. Here is the location of the Hall of the Last Supper. Now turned into a Gothic Hall, and crammed with tourists, this room marks the spot that Jesus held the last supper, before being betrayed by Judas and arrested.
After this long day, and eating a Kosher McDonalds, I headed back of to my hostel, and
took an early night before the next day, which I had planned to visit Bethlehem. Having clearly not stalked Jesus enough, I took an Arabic bus from just outside the Old City to the supposed place of his birth, Bethlehem. The town is in Palestinian controlled territory, but entering caused no problems. I got off at the last stop, on the main road, and then walked up the hill, through the souq, and arrived in Manger Square just outside the Church of the Nativity.
Once again avoiding the touts, I headed inside, and joined the long queue to enter the grotto marking the spot of his birth. And as in Jerusalem, it looks nothing like it did in that time - gone is the stable, the hay, the donkey, and instead we find tourists, a church and candles for sale. Having waited for over an hour I eventually entered to find a star in what looked remarkably like a chimney. Touching it and then making my way out I made my way back to Jerusalem on the Arabic bus. This time being stopped at the wall to be checked by Israeli security. After informing the
guy with a huge gun I was English which proved to be no problem we were back on our way through the hills to Jerusalem, where I headed back into the Old City to buy souvenirs.
My final day in the capital consisted of visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, which when I visited was absolutely full of tourists, including groups of Israeli soldiers, all with their huge guns. The museum has recently been improved and expanded, with it now being built through a hill. Entering on one side you walk through a Toblerone shaped building with rooms located on each side beginning with the Nazi rise to power in Germany in the early 1930s, and ending with the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Whilst I had seen a lot of things about the Holocaust, the museum was particularly interesting as it dealt with the before and after, rather than only covering the Death Camps. However, saying that most captivating thing that will stay with me was a huge model of the process of extermination at Auschwitz - with models of people waiting out in the snow,
to enter the cellar, get changed, be gassed and then have their bodies removed and buried.
The final room is the Hall of Names, a circular room with a huge bookshelf on its outer edge. On each of the shelves were thousands of books, containing over 2,2 million names of Holocaust victims, which are being added to all the time. Leaving at the other end of the hill, you then have a view of the hills that make up the area, before going above the building and visiting the Eternal Flame, where every world leader visits on a state visit to the country.Heading back to my hostel for the last time, my journey in Jerusalem was over, but the rest of Israel was waiting.
This will be covered in Part 2.
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