A visit to the Holy Land

Jerusalem is a holy city to three major religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and is one of the oldest cities in the world.   It is the holiest city in Judaism and the spiritual center of the Jewish people since the 10th century BCE, the third-holiest city in Islam (next to Mecca and Medina)  and it is also home to a number of significant and ancient Christian landmarks.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the intriguing history of this city.

We stayed at Abraham’s Hostel, one of the best hostels we have stayed in so far in our journey around the globe, even though we had to spend the week in a 4-bed dorm because it was booked solid.  This is also the largest hostel we have been in with close to 300 beds.  This place was designed with the international traveller in mind offering many on-site services like a functional, well equipped kitchen, self-service laundry machines, a bar complete with happy hour, separate tv room with large screen tv, a tour operator, not to mention the daily tours and events on offer.  The hostel attracts a diverse clientèle from young backpackers to small families to older folks like us.  There’s room for everyone in this clean, modern, purpose-built hostel.

Even though I am no longer religious, I do have a pretty good knowledge of the bible from my Jehovah’s Witness upbringing.  I must admit that when we arrived in Jerusalem, I was immediately filled with a sense of awe and wonder that I was actually in a place that held so much historical significance. Mind you, it does take some imagination to connect the stories in the bible with the modern day locations of where bible events were supposed to have taken place.   For instance, the bible says Jesus was killed on the Hill of Calvary and buried in a tomb close by. Well, today, you can visit Jesus’ supposed place of death and burial which is claimed to be inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, apparently the most holy Christian place on earth.

We spent the week visiting as many sites as we could both within the city and a few side-trips beyond.  Here’s some of the highlights of what we saw in Jerusalem this week.

Old City

Just 15 minutes walk from our hostel, we went to the Old City several times throughout the week.  On the first visit, we joined a walking tour which gave us a good overview of the four main quarters: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian.  The Old City has a large local population of mixed religions in each quarter.  The winding streets and narrow alleyways are clogged with homes, shops, tourists and locals.

The Old City is home to several sites of significant religious importance: the Temple Mount and its Western Wall for Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians, and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims.

Both the Temple Mount and the Western Wall filled me with an overwhelming sense of awe because of all the history that has occurred on these sites.  The Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall, was much smaller than I had imagined it to be.  Divided by gender, two thirds of the wall is reserved for men, and one third for women.  This is where people of all faiths come to pray, often quite passionately.  One morning, we spent about an hour, sitting on our respective sides, watching those around us.  I found it to be a very emotional, moving experience as I watched people pray so intensely and with such conviction, some even crying out their supplications to their God.  The rock wall was riddled with tiny pieces of paper with prayers, stuffed into every crack.

Today, the Dome of the Rock sits in the middle of the Temple Mount which is where Solomon’s Temple used to be, as well as the rebuilt Temple from Jesus’ day.  Tourists are permitted to go to the Temple Mount during limited hours, which means there is always a long line-up, usually over an hour long.  As much as we hate line-ups, I’m glad we didn’t miss this opportunity to visit the Temple Mount.  Non-Muslims are not permitted in the mosque, which is the third most holy mosque in the world for Muslims (behind Mecca and Medina) but it was still interesting to walk around the site, which was much larger that I expected.

The Church of the Holy Selpuchre is venerated as the site of the Hill of Calvary where Jesus was killed, and it is said to also contain the place where Jesus was buried (the Sepulchre).  Many pilgrims travel from afar to visit this important Christian site.  The church was incredibly crowded with long line ups to the most holy places within.

Between all these holy sites, there are alleyways and winding narrow streets that are full of shops selling everything imaginable, especially religious icons.  You can tell which quarter you are in by the merchandise in the shops.

Mount of Olives and Garden of Gesthemane

When I read that the olive trees in the Garden of Gesthemane are over 2,000 years old, I really wanted to visit this garden at the base of the Mount of Olives, to walk amongst the trees that would have supposedly witnessed the fervent prayers of Jesus and his disciples the night before his death.  Today you can walk around the perimeter of the garden, but not amongst the trees which are safely secured behind a fence.  Of course, not everybody agrees that this is the actual garden where Jesus  prayed before his death, nor do all experts agree that the trees are 2,000 years old.  Again, it takes some imagination, and I suppose some faith, to believe these locations match the bible stories.

View of the Old City from the Mount of Olives

The Yad Vashem (Holocaust) Museum 

We spent a full day at the Yad Vashem Museum which was profoundly moving as we walked through the history of the Jewish nation, from bible times to modern times, with an emphasis of course on the Holocaust.  Within this broader historical context, it was possible to understand how deeply rooted anti-Semitism has been over the centuries and it helped me to understand how such hatred as well as apathy played a role in causing humanity to fail to help the plight of the Jews during the Second World War.  The museum is housed in a beautiful building in a peaceful, garden like setting, offering a place for quiet reflection after visiting the museum.

Israel Museum

The Israel Museum is the largest in all of Israel and is home to the most extensive collection of biblical and Holy Land archaeology in the world.  A uniquely designed monument called the Shrine of the Book, houses the Dead Sea Scrolls along with artefacts discovered at Masada.  Next to the Shrine is the Model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period, before it was destroyed in 70 CE.  The scaled model was amazing, a large reconstruction of the topography and the architectural character of the city as it would have been during Jesus’ day.

Food, food, food

The Mahane Yehuda Market was just around the corner from our hostel, making it an easy stop on our way home after each day of sightseeing.  It was here we enjoyed delicious bagels, reminding us of those from the Bagel Shop in Ottawa, the best baklava we’ve ever had, as well as cheese, olives and fruits and vegetables.  We cooked our own food most nights and haven’t eaten so well in quite some time.

Each Friday evening at sunset, our hostel hosts the Shabbat meal where everyone pitches in to help with the preparation and clean up afterwards.  Before the meal, candles are lit and a blessing is recited over the wine.  There is another blessing recited over two loaves of challah (bread).  Then everyone digs in.  This was our first Shabbat experience, one that we enjoyed very much.

During our week, we made a couple of side trips venturing into the West Bank and Palestine using public transportation which I will tell you about in the next post. But first we must fly to our next destination – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  We’re leaving around 2:00 this afternoon and we’re expected to arrive tomorrow at 1:00 pm.  See you there!

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One Response
  1. Angus says:

    Not sure I understand or agree with praying at walls or to shrines of any kind. I see the historical importance however prefer to believe that God is in all of us and all around us if we simply choose to see Him (or Her) there.