The best places to visit in Jerusalem – part 1
At the confluence of three most influential religions: Christian, Islam and Judaism, Israel is a fascinating destination. Easily and relatively inexpensively accessible from Europe, though it’s onward connections to the Middle East and Asia are pricey due to the lack of budget airlines serving the country.
Arriving in Jerusalem
Our Easyjet flight landed at Tel-Aviv Ben Gurion airport without much delay. It was Saturday evening at the end of Sabbath, so the airport was rather quiet. Most shops were closed, including the Ra-kav card counter(Israeli transportation card for metro and bus). Fortunately the public bus to Jerusalem started running so we took the bus to Jerusalem straight away.
Arriving at the Jerusalem central bus station the surroundings were more lively. We walked to a busy shopping mall opposite the bus station. There were fast food stands, bakeries and a big group of children and teenagers dancing in the middle of the hall. While devouring some tasty Israeli pastries (which become our regular snack every day), Todd couldn’t help walking into the dancing group asking what the occasion was?. A lady who looked more like a supervisor explained to us that they were members of a summer camp, celebrating their reunion here. Then she asked us “ Do you have any plan next Friday evening?” “Not much, we haven’t planned yet” we answered. “Then if you like, you are welcome to come to my house for Sabbath dinner” she smiled. Really? We’ve only been in the country for less than four hours and already receiving Shabbat dinner invitations?! We exchanged our contact details (WhatsApp) and couldn’t believe the generous hospitality.
Jerusalem Old City
Although all the tourist attractions are located in Jerusalem’s old walled city, most things are shut after dark and driving around is nigh impossible. Most tourists choose to stay in the modern section outside the city wall for convenience, as we did. In the morning we saw throngs of tourists marching towards Jaffa gate, the main entrance to the walled city as well as the popular tour starting point. We joined a free walking tour run by Sandeman, walked around old city’s four neighborhoods: Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim Quarter. It was fascinating to see the distinct difference among them and how the neighborhood’s ambience changed by just turning a street corner. At noon we walked a couple of streets outside the Jaffa gate and had Shawarma (Israeli version of Kebab) and falafel for a cheap quick lunch. The restaurants in the old city were quite expensive.
In the afternoon we walked once again in the Muslim quarter to truly appreciate its architecture. It is the oldest and largest “quarter” of the city. Although a bit rundown and chaotic, the beautiful century-old buildings were still wonderful to behold .
We stumped into the Christian quarter from Via Dolorosa, the famous street on which Jesus carried his cross on his last day. All stages of the walk were marked and treated as pilgrimage sites. A number of pilgrims passed by praying and carrying a cross on their shoulders.
At end of the street is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site of Jesus’s execution and tomb. The church has numerous monuments related to Jesus’ final days. The dimmed interior aids to its mysterious atmosphere. Everything was beautiful, richly decorated and looked centuries old. It was very busy in the afternoon with an hours-long queue to the Holy Sepulchre(Christ’s burial tomb) and The Rock of Calvary(the rock on which the cross was standing).
Western Wall Tunnel
Close to dusk we walked to Western Wall for our pre-booked Western Wall Tunnel tour. It is an underground tunnel that unveiled some covered part of western wall. Our guide was very informative explaining the history of the First and Second Temple, how the Western Wall was built and evolved. Inside the tunnel we saw the stone foundations of the Western Wall, ancient cisterns, Holiest of holy prayer hall (the closet point to the Second Temple to which Jewish people can access), and a new synagogue addition about to open for public. Would highly recommend!
Walked outside the tunnel it was already dark. The Western Wall Square was well-lit with many people were praying. The praying area is divided into male and female sides separated by a screen. Noticeably there were significantly more women than men. The gaps between the rocks were filled with bits of folded paper containing prayers’ wish. I can’t help but feel the heaviness of history in this place, but among the praying crowd it was very quiet and calm.