Can it be 2023 already? It seems like not so long ago we were sweating it out in the Middle East. And now I’m sweating again as I try to recall, reminisce and review our visit in Israel, Egypt and Jordan – the last segment of our summer travels.
So where were we?
Day 37-40; Aug 25 -29, 2022
In my last post we wrapped up our time in Paris and then flew to Israel to begin our pre-cruise excursion in Jerusalem. We expected a Viking rep to meet us at the airport, but he/she was nowhere to be found. So we hired a private car to take us to Jerusalem, an hour drive from the airport in Tel Aviv. We lucked out in getting a driver who not only picked us up in a Mercedes Benz SUV, but also spoke good English!
The drive was very enlightening, as he made commentaries about life in Israel and also pointed out the separation barrier between Palestine and Israel – a network of walls, fences and surveillance cameras. He gave us insights on how the Palestinians clamor for work permits inside Israel, where wages are higher. But despite our initial concerns he assured us that Israel is a safe place to visit, and like driving in any big city the traffic congestion is a fact of life here.
Our four days in Jerusalem included strenuous daily tours inside and outside of the Old City walls. Added to it was the heat with temperatures similar to our home in Arizona, but with some humidity thrown in to make it a bit uncomfortable at times. But hey, we were in the Holy Land where Jesus Christ walked the earth!
Jerusalem is Israel’s modern day capital and home to many sites of religious, historical and tourist significance. It is loosely divided between the old and new; the Old City has areas that date back thousands of years and that’s where we spent two days exploring. The New City basically developed from the 1860’s to the present. But most importantly, the city is considered a sacred place for three main world religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Inside the emotionally charged city, each of these religions has sites they consider sacred and central to their faith.
We covered a lot of ground during our visit. Nathan was our local guide for the entire time (except in Betlehem). He displayed a vast knowledge of the city and its history. Since we were in the Holy Land he intermingled his commentaries with historic tales of culture, political and religious clashes, and the very diverse population here – all while respecting the melange of religions, cultures and traditions. He was amazing.
There’s so much to share about the places we visited and the sights we saw. Detailing all of the holy sites we experienced would make this post far too lengthy, so I selected which were the highlights for us.
Inside the Old City
Within the Old City walls surrounded by aged stone structures is where the Christians, Muslims and Jews all have holy sites of the utmost importance to them. It is home to four distinct quarters; Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian. Over 30,000 live in this relatively small area that contains an array of religious, historical, cultural, architectural, and archeological sites. It’s all set amongst a backdrop of lively daily life where everyone gets along just fine.
The Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock sits is the third holiest site in the world for Muslims, and is of great importance to Jews as well. They are at the heart of the conflict that divides Jerusalem.
The small part of the Western Wall that is exposed is the last remaining section from the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed in 70 AD. It is undoubtably the holiest site in the world for Jews. Everyone is welcome to whisper a prayer, but men and women visit separate areas:
In the Christian Quarter we walked in the footsteps of history – the Via Dolorosa (Station of the Cross) to the final stations inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church is home to two of the holiest sites in Christianity – the site where Jesus was crucified – known as Calvary – and the tomb where Jesus was buried and subsequently resurrected.
What surprised me was that inside the church I saw a bewildering conglomeration of several chapels and worship spaces encrusted with the devotional ornamentation of many Christian rites:
At the Jerusalem Archaeological park we walked on the remains of Jerusalem’s main street, which runs the length of the Western Wall, a remembrance of the destruction in 70 AD.
Our guide led us in exploring the endless winding streets of the fascinating Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters. We came across diversity and a myriad of unique, yet intertwining scents, sights, tastes and textures. It was a hodgepodge of cultures and religions encapsulated by ancient stone walls:
Outside the Walled City
Mount of Olives
At the Mount of Olives we enjoyed a fantastic view of the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s a site of great importance, being the place where Jesus taught his disciples, wept for Jerusalem and was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane:
At Mount Zion we visited the tomb of King David, and the room where the Last Supper was said to have taken place. Nathan was unable to make a commentary here, for it was filled with spiritual pilgrims:
The most striking structure at Mount Zion is the Dormition Abbey, a Benedictine church built over the crypt in which – in Catholic tradition – Mary fell in to a slumber before being taken to heaven:
Outside of Jerusalem is Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ and a Palestinian town on the West Bank. We boarded a bus and passed through the wall that separates Israeli and Palestinian control, then picked up a local Palestinian guide. We visited the 6th century Church of the Nativity, where beneath the altar of the church is the Grotto of Nativity – thought to be the actual site of Christ’s birth – marked by a star set into the floor.
Another revelation we learned is that the Church of the Nativity is technically three churches with shared spaces – Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic Christians all use this structure cooperatively. And so the church celebrates Christmas three times, the Catholics on Dec 25, the Greeks on Jan 7 and the Armenians on Jan 19.
Located in the modern city of Jerusalem is the Israel Museum where there was so much to see, but a few amazing displays stood out for us. The Shrine of the Book houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are some of the oldest Biblical scrolls ever to be discovered in caves near the Dead Sea in the 1940’s:
Adjacent to the museum is an amazing model of Jerusalem from the Second Temple Era, which reconstructs the topography and architectural character of the city as it was prior to its destruction by the Romans in 66 CE:
Although there were more biblical places to explore, for me the four days in the Land of the Bible made it a powerful tangible historical location of stories from the bible. There was so much history to absorb and learn that we had headaches at the end of each day!
Where We Stayed
We were billeted at the King David Hotel, a historic structure where Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings and other famous folks have stayed when visiting Jerusalem. We joined a tour of the hotel and were led to the Presidential Suite:
A hallway displaying signatures of the who’s who whom have stayed here:
It was an exhausting and comprehensive four days showcasing the major highlights of Jerusalem. While there are more places to visit outside of Jerusalem, this was an unforgettable and meaningful experience for us. As for me, regardless of one’s religious views, I felt an overriding spiritual energy in Jerusalem that was something very unique.
Next Up: Hello, Cairo!