How quickly everything changes in this land. From city to desert, from one religion to another, from intense culture to untouched nature…this is a land of extremes all packed into a very small space.
And in order to experience this country, you need to be prepared to process every one of those extremes, and to then rest and recover before you move on to the next. I learned this quickly during my recent trip to Israel, a trip that was far too short to get a full understanding of what a traveler can experience here, but that offered an eye-opening glimpse nonetheless.
You enter Jerusalem and head over to the walled Old City. In just one small area, .35 square miles / .9 square kilometers to be exact, you will wander around four very different quarters – Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian.
The main focal point is the Temple Mount, or Noble Sanctuary as it is known to Muslims, and it is home to some of the holiest sites in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The Dome of the Rock, a shrine built upon the Foundation Stone, is the location where Muslims believe Muhammed ascended to heaven. The al-Aqsa Mosque is where Muhammed was transported to, from Mecca, during what is referred to as the Night Journey.
The Foundation Stone, which is the stone from which Jews believe the world was created, is also the location of the First Temple where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. As a result, this spot has extreme significance as the crossroads between Heaven and Earth.
The Temple Mount also played an important role in the life of Jesus as the place where he challenged the Temple authorities and prophesized the destruction of Herod’s Temple.
As is quite clear, this one area is where important events from all three religions have taken place, and it’s all right up here, where, despite a few restrictions, an Israeli armed security presence and the occasional rioting, visitors can wander around in an attempt to grab a peek at the core of religious history.
Surrounding the Temple Mount is a wall, much of which was built as a retaining wall when the Second Temple was constructed some 2000 years ago. In the Jewish tradition, a section of this wall, known as the Western Wall, is now considered the holiest site for prayer given its proximity to the ‘gates of heaven’ and the original temple. Men and women pray in separate sections, visitors are welcome to approach the wall, pray or just walk around and it’s open 24 hours per day, every day.
Over in the Christian quarter sits the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where you can join the throngs of people from all over the world who have made a pilgrimage to witness the location where Jesus was crucified and thought to be buried. It’s also where Jesus is believed to have been resurrected. Inside you’ll find sections for various branches of Christianity – Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and more – each of which has certain responsibilities pertaining to the function of the church. Step inside, follow the flow of traffic to each important point and spend as much time as you’d like taking it all in.
It goes without saying that apart from those main sites above, there are plenty of other places to visit in the Old City, such as the markets in each quarter, the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice, with its great views, and my personal favorite, Elia Photo Service, an interesting 3rd generation family-run photography shop in the Christian quarter with some amazing photos that depict life in Israel over the last 90 years.
Again, that’s all in one tiny, tiny area. It’s intense and mind-blowing and fascinating all wrapped together. When you consider the long history of this city (Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities on the planet after all), the importance of this location for Muslims, Jews and Christians, and the fact that this city has been the scene of such conflict over the centuries, you’ll want to stop every few minutes in order to take a moment to breathe, to contemplate, to comprehend it all, or at least attempt to.
Of course, as incredible of a destination as this city is, there’s more to Israel than Jerusalem.
Once you venture out into the rest of the country, for example, you may find yourself standing at ancient, fortified Masada, built by Herod the Great high above the Judean desert, situated on a rock mountain. This is where 1000 Jewish rebels committed suicide, along with their families, instead of facing defeat at the hands of the Romans at the end of the First Jewish-Roman War in 73 AD.
An hour later, you could be as low as you can possibly go on this planet, floating in the Dead Sea, just bobbing around without any effort, giddy as can be, covering your entire body with its salty, therapeutic mud, and enjoying the view of the mountains in the distance, on the Jordanian side of the sea.
You could then be in the stunning Upper Galilee in the north of the country, riding ATVs through the countryside, completely surrounded by the inspiring nature and colors of the Hula Valley.
But a short time later, after a drive south, you could also be laying down among the crowds of sunbathers on the beaches of Tel-Aviv or participating in an intriguing alternative walking tour that focuses on the local graffiti and street art scene.
One meal you’ll eat such mouth-watering falafel, hummus, ful and labneh at a hole-in-the-wall eatery in the heart of the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem, the kind of local place I could eat at every single day, and for your next meal you may be dining on Middle Eastern fusion cuisine at a trendy cafe in front of a synagogue on the other side of the country, washing it all down with a dark Israeli beer.
There is much to see here. Much to do. Much to take in.
For such a small country, there is a never-ending list of experiences to be had, and again, my trip was unfortunately a short one. Just imagine what you can do with a longer stay.
A Complex Travel Destination
Yes, without a doubt, Israel is a complex place. It’s so complex actually that many people I met, and who call this country home, are just as unsure and conflicted about the situation here as any outsider might be.
A good way to sum it up is a message that an Israeli reader of mine wrote to me shortly after I arrived:
“Enjoy this beautiful, conflicted, encouraging, bleeding, amazing country. Peace and love.”
Israel is indeed all of that.
And I think that’s part of the reason why, when it came time for my trip to Israel to end, I found myself wanting to stay longer, much longer. I simply was not finished with my experience.
Perhaps, and I believe this also to be true, it’s the kind of country where one’s experience can never be complete. There are simply too many of those beautiful, conflicted, encouraging, bleeding and amazing layers of this land to learn about and to try to process as best you can.
And as every traveler I met in this country seemed to agree, regardless of religious or political views, it is this presence of such extremes in every single aspect of life here that makes Israel a truly fascinating destination to visit.
(There will be more posts to come about the people I met, the food I ate and some of the more specific and interesting activities I participated in while here.)
[Photo of Tel-Aviv beach by Or Kaplan]
Have you been to Israel? How was your experience? If not, have you ever thought about visiting?