The Holy Land

Last week, I took the trip of a lifetime to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  I saw the places where the most iconic figures in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam lived out their most important and significant moments, and I was in awe of every minute of it.  I’ll try to describe as much as I can about this incredible journey, where I went, what I saw, how I felt, and what I learned.

Tuesday, September 13th

We left early on Tuesday morning to catch the bus(es) to Jerusalem.  The whole journey from our house to our hostel in Jerusalem took about 7 hours, and if you want to read about what the border crossing process, you can read what I wrote about it here.

The trek from getting off the bus at Damascus Gate through the Old City to our hostel was our first little taste of the incredible history and bustling atmosphere of the Old City, particularly in the Muslim and Jewish quarters, which are both packed with stores, candy shops, restaurants, and hidden stairways.  Once we got to our hostel, the electricity was out so we just put our stuff down and then headed with our friends Michaela and Phoebe to check in at their hostel.  After hanging out there for a little while to recharge after the journey, we had a delicious “linner” at a cafe near their hostel, which offered a lot of pastas and sandwiches, which we were all thrilled about since they are so hard to come by in Amman.

Street in New Jerusalem

Then, we all wandered around the new part of Jerusalem for a while – checking out cool shops, enjoying the pedestrian-friendly streets (and the above-ground trains), and admiring the beautiful streets that each have different items strung above them – flowers, Chinese lanterns, umbrellas, sombreros, etc.  The city feels extremely Western – resembling many cities I’ve visited in Europe, particularly Strasbourg.  Almost everyone speaks English, and many Western things we have been used to (but missing in Amman) were available, and we made the most of them.  We ate a lot of pasta and pizza, enjoyed free beers at the hostel, and enjoyed not having to completely cover our arms & legs.  It was definitely a break from the much more traditionally Muslim atmosphere in Amman, which I didn’t realize I had been missing before I arrived in Jerusalem.

We made our way

Ester & veggies on a street corner.

all the way to the Mahane Yehuda market, which was full of fruits, vegetables, fresh meats & seafood, candy, and of course people everywhere.  We checked it all out for a while and all bought beautiful scarves (and Ester bought grilled veggies).
Then, we tried to go to a wine & cheese restaurant that is rumored to have a killer view….but they were all booked up.  So, in consolation, we walked down one of those beautiful covered streets in the new part of the city, past all the restaurant barkers advertising their menus and deals, until one of them offered us molten chocolate lava cake, free appetizers, and discounted drinks.  We bit at that offer and had a delicious dessert with a great view of the bustling streets at night, taking in the atmosphere of the city.

Ester, Gabby, and I headed back to our hostel in the Old City (Citadel Youth Hostel – do not book!), which has an amazing rooftop view – especially of the Dome of the Rock.  Gabby actually slept on the roof of the hostel since all the rooms were full – a unique experience for sure.  She ended up being the lucky one, since Ester’s bed gave her a bad case of bed bugs.  This is why I would ABSOLUTELY NOT recommend this hostel to anyone!!!

Wednesday, September 14th

We woke up on Wednesday ready for a full day of exploring and experiencing Jerusalem.  We had planned to take a free tour at 11am, so we left around 9:30am to give us some time to explore on our own first.  We ended up at a leather shoe shop, where Ester and Gabby both found the camel-leather sandals they had wanted as special souvenirs from the trip.  After that, we meandered our way through the labyrinth streets of the Old City to Jaffa Gate, near the Tower of David, for our free tour through Sandeman.  Right next to the gate we bought delicious date-filled doughnuts from a street vendor for breakfast and munched on them as we walked throughout the city.

Our tour started with the history of Jaffa Gate as the gate positioned at the end of the road to the ancient Jaffa Port in modern Tel Aviv.  We then headed through the Old City to the ancient Cardo, 22-meter-wide street of stores and home that lays at the heart of the Old City, and then to the Broad Wall described in the Bible as having helped to defend the then-smaller City of David from the Assyrians.

From there, we headed to a high viewpoint of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.  It was incredible to see in real life a place I’ve seen so many pictures & videos of.  The Wall is the last remaining piece of the Second Jewish Temple built by Herod, which was destroyed, and is the holiest place at which Jews are permitted to pray, according to the status quo policy (the Temple Mount is reserved as a religious site only for Muslims – Christians and Jews may only enter as tourists, with no religious artifacts).  As is customary, I saw and later participated in walking backwards away from the Wall in order not to turn one’s back upon the holy place.

Next, we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is said by many to have been crucified and buried.  We broke off from our tour group here in order to explore this

Church of the Holy Sepulcher – Altar of the Crucifixion

historic site, in which many different authorities from various international sects of Christianity each have carefully assigned areas of jurisdiction and ownership (this precarious balance has resulted in the Immovable Ladder, which we also saw in the courtyard).  Just inside the door is the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus is said to have been anointed before His burial, and to the right are stairs to Golgotha to the Altar of the Crucifixion.  We visited both these sites and observed their unique and detailed beauty, as well as the many people worshiping at them.  Further inside the Church are the Aedicule, containing a fragment of the Angel’s Stone which is said to have sealed the tomb, and the tomb itself.  Since the line to view these precious sites was over five hours, we could not visit them.





After that, we decided to get closer to the Western Wall as well.  On our way, however, we found the Hurva Synagogue (Destroyed Synagogue), a historically significant place of

Hurva Synagogue

worship in Jewish and Israeli history.  Its visitation is limited to organized tours at specific times for a fee, but we managed to sneak in with a German tour group, since I look very German and Ester is small enough to hide in a crowd.  We pretended to listen intently to the German explanation of this synagogue while actually reading about its history in English on the wall (conveniently hiding our faces from the tour leader).  We looked inside the beautiful place with the rest of the German tourists, took pictures, and then snuck out the same way we came in.

Then, we proceeded to the Western Wall, which we approached along with many Jewish women who were there to pray.  We sat near the Wall and appreciated its significance while listening to the murmured prayers of many women in Hebrew.  We walked backwards slowly away from it along with them, and it was a powerful experience to sit quietly and appreciate the ritual.

We tried to visit the Dome of the Rock, but since it was Eid al-Adha, it was reserved just for Muslims to worship.

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After that, we walked outside the Old City for a ways to the Garden Tomb, where most Protestants believe that Jesus was crucified and buried.  The Garden Tomb is a gorgeous, luxurious garden that is maintained by a non-denominational British Christian organization.  We joined an English-speaking tour with a few other Americans, which showed us another place where Jesus is said to have been crucified, a hill known as Skull Hill due to its resemblance of a skull, which is near a highway as may have been historically accurate to crucifixion practices – prominently displaying the event in order to intimidate potential criminals.  We then saw the tomb cut into rock within the beautiful garden, whose size and contents (a deep well as well as a wine press) suggest that its owner must have been wealthy enough to maintain such features.  It was a beautiful and moving experience, enhanced by the beautiful singing and violin music of traditionally Protestant Christian hymns being sung by a church group that was also visiting.

After that, we took the long, long walk from the Garden Tomb by Via Dolorosa down to the Garden of Gethsemane, taking in reverse the same path that Jesus walked with his cross to his death.  We solemnly admired the Garden of Gethsemane and the Basilica of the Agony that has been built there, and then trekked miles uphill on stairs to the Mount of Olives, to attempt to go to the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, which we never found and would have been closed if we did anyways.  However, the walk was long and meaningful, and the Garden was still and empty; a powerful experience.

That evening, Ester and I enjoyed some more delicious pasta at a little restaurant along the main street of the new city, and then met up with Michaela, Phoebe, and Gabby again at their hostel (which I would definitely recommend) to enjoy a night of free, live, traditionally Jewish music together.  We ran into a lot of other people from our program, and made some new international friends as well.

Thursday, September 15th

On Thursday, Ester and I had booked a free tour of Bethlehem, so we woke up early to catch a bus there.  We made it just in time, as traffic was thick during the last day of Eid al-Adha, and met our tour guide near Bethlehem University.  A German girl and some women from the UK and South Africa joined us on the tour – all of whom also happened to be staying in Amman as well.  We enjoyed getting to know them throughout the tour, which was supposed to be just 2 hours but lasted 5 – and we left before it had truly finished since we were ready to leave!  I would not recommend this tour guide, but if you are interested in a meandering tour of various sites around Bethlehem with varying levels of significance, he is your guy.

Anyways, our tour began with a walk through one of the many Palestinian refugee camps in the territories, with each building bearing the name of the town or village where its current residents originated, and which was likely destroyed.  Throughout the camp there were a lot of kids playing and running around, almost all of whom greeted us enthusiastically.  It was a humbling experience.

We then went to the Palestinian Cultural Center, where the guide showed us a traditional Bedouin tent and stitched Palestinian dresses for each town.  Then we headed towards the Israeli wall of separation, which is covered in meaningful stories posted every few feet as well as a ton of graffiti with political messages, including many by the famous graffiti artist Banksy.

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Next stop was the Bethlehem Icon Center which teaches young artists how to create detailed icons of religious figures for churches all over the world, where the director gave us a quick talk about the center’s mission and accomplishments.  Then we wandered through the streets to the original gate to the ancient city of Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph may have entered on donkeys at Christmas.  We went on to the roof of a wood carving factory, which had an excellent view of the whole town, and later the owners showed us how each of the tiny nativity scenes (or the not so tiny ones) are hand-carved throughout the city.

The place of Jesus’s birth – marked by a 14 point star

Our final stop on this tour (though we left it “early,” after 5 hours of being led around to various shops..) was the Church of the Nativity, built upon the site of Jesus’s birth.  The church is huge, and like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, many denominations hold their own places and ceremonies within it, and it is very beautiful and detailed.  We walked with many others down into the cave that holds the holy altar with the place of Jesus’s birth marked with a fourteen-point star, and the adjacent altar where the manger was placed.  Tons of devout people were crowded into the tiny space, each trying to touch and worship these sites.  After a while, we too were able to kneel and touch the star.

After the tour, we thanked our strange tour guide and took the bus back to Jerusalem, where we explored the Old City a little more, and then wandered around another beautiful part of the new part into Teddy Park, and eventually ended up at a delicious pizza place (I miss American food, okay?).  Ester and I both ate half a large pizza, since we were starving, and then met up with our friends again to talk about our respective days, since they had hiked up a mountain at Masada in the early morning darkness to see the sunrise over the Dead Sea, and then swim there, which was a trying but wonderful experience for them.  We spent one last evening walking around the new part of the city, this time exploring the Night Market that populates the sidewalks of Jerusalem on Thursday nights, checking out the gorgeous hand-made jewelry, home goods, and antiques and listening to the live music being played on the street.

Friday, September 16th

Friday was again devoted totally to travel across the border back into Jordan, which you can read about here if you want.

The whole trip was an incredible and very powerful experience.  It was unbelievable to witness the places where some of the most powerful and important events in history occurred, were written about, talked about, and worshiped for centuries.  It was also a very interesting cultural experience, with the obvious collision of many different cultures, religions, nationalities, ethnicities, and histories in just one place.  In some ways, the tension between groups was palpable – like in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where adherence to the status quo leaves the place paralyzed and unable to repair or label important sites – whereas in other places friendship and amiable relationships between diverse groups were celebrated, like in the new part of the city where we saw a “talk-in” where people of all ages, faiths, and backgrounds were invited to sit together in public and discuss the ways the city could be improved for all.  On the other hand, visible tensions were much more serious sometimes – like at the Israeli wall of separation in Bethlehem, scrawled with graffiti about the experiences of Palestinian refugees. I learned a lot, saw a lot of things I never thought I would see, and had a great trip.


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