Monday, December 9, 2013

Jerusalem, Israel

Our final stop in the Middle East was Israel. Doug has been to Israel for business on several occasions, but this was my first time there. It was a quick half-hour flight from Amman, Jordan to Tel Aviv, Israel, and from there we had a road transfer to Jerusalem.

It's interesting that there are only two countries in the Middle East from which you can fly to Israel: Jordan and Egypt. This affected the itinerary, actually: we had to route the trip so that we could fly to Israel without having to fly back to Europe first.

Jerusalem was a fascinating contrast to Dubai and Jordan. It reminded me quite a lot of Turkey in many ways, and felt very European. On our first day, we visited the old city, which is surrounded by a medieval wall.

We walked through the market, which reminded us a lot of the one in Istanbul.

This one made me smile.

We stopped for some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, a fixture all over the market. 

After wandering around the market for a while, we made out way over to the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall), the most sacred site in the world for Jews. The wall is reported to have been built on the foundation of the original temple built by King Solomon 3000 years ago (IIRC). Jews from all around the world visit this holy site to pray.

There are separate sides for men and women.

The golden dome is that of the Dome of the Rock, which Muslims believe is built on the spot where Muhammad ascended to heaven. It's also the spot where Jews and Christians believe Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. (Muslims apparently believe this spot is in Mecca.)

Particularly amazing is that from this one spot, you can see places that are among the holiest in all three of the major western religions: the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Mount of Olives, where Jews believe the Messiah will return to Earth (and one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in the world is thus located there), and where Christians believe Jesus ascended to Heaven. That's a lot of religious significance in a small amount of space!

One of the places I really wanted to visit was Bethlehem, and so we hired a guide to take us there. We stopped outside of the city for this amazing view.

Carter sat here on this wall and looked out at the city for a while, and at least four other tourists took pictures of him!

The drive to Bethlehem was fascinating. The system of zones that Israelis and Palestinians can and can't go in is incredibly complicated, and apparently changes without much warning. Bethlehem is in the Palestinian territory, but the suburbs of Jerusalem keep getting extended and the borders keep changing. Our driver told us that in recent expansions, many Palestinian families were cut off from their own olive groves and have to apply for a permit every year to be allowed to go and pick their own fruit!

The Church of the Nativity is the main site of interest in Bethlehem. It is believed to be built upon the site where Jesus was born. The square in front of the church is called Manger Square.

There is a large Christian population in Bethlehem, thought most Palestinians are Muslim. In the photo below, you can see the turret of a nearby mosque. The call to prayer began when we left, a fascinating reminder of how diverse the population is in this area.

The church itself has been rebuilt many times, as you can see from the exterior architecture.

Our guide told us that this small door was intended to keep the Ottoman Turks from riding their horses into the church.

Like many Christian churches in the area, this is an Orthodox church, and so the interior looks different from churches you see in other parts of the world.

In particular, there were lots of lamps hanging from the ceiling, similar to the sorts of lights you see inside mosques.

There were many old frescos on the walls, most darkened with soot and time.

Carter was fairly patient!

This beautiful courtyard is in the interior of the church.

There were also many lovely mosaics.

These tile mosaic floors date were discovered during a renovation and date back to the 4th century.

These columns were painted as well, though many are faded.

There is some really beautiful art in the church.

Under the altar is the spot where Jesus is assumed to have been born.

The spot is marked with a 14-pointed silver star, and people crawl into this alcove to touch it.

Not far away is the spot where the manger that the baby Jesus was laid in was supposed to be located. I'm going to assume the actual manger wasn't made of marble, though...

The Church of the Nativity is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Palestinian Territories, and it was apparently voted in despite the opposition of the United States and Israel. Politics are inescapable here, apparently.

Speaking of politics, another of the fascinating things we got to see was the "wall" that Israel built in several places to divide the Palestinian Territories from Israel. There is a lot of graffiti on the Palestinian side and none on the Israeli side.

We were really interested in looking for the Banksy art on the wall, and we found Balloon Girl.  

This is another Banksy piece on the side of a shop near the wall.

Here you can see the elaborate security checkpoint we had to drive through to get to Bethlehem.

And here is Bethlehem, surrounded by the security wall. I won't pretend that I understand the politics of the situation, but it was very strange to realize that, rightly or wrongly, there is apartheid here.

The next day we went back to the old city and went in through the Damascus Gate.

From a rooftop, we had a fantastic view of the old part of the city and the Dome of the Rock.

We walked down the Via Dolorosa, reportedly the path Jesus took when he was forced to carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem prior to being crucified. Of course, the actual street he walked on is many feet below the current level, and the city has been built and rebuilt many times, so it's fair to assume the route is an approximation of the actual path Jesus took. Still, there were many pilgrims walking along and stopping to read the plaques on the walls along the way. There was one group who dragged a large wooden cross through the narrow streets, recreating Jesus' journey.

At the end of the Via Dolorosa is the Church of Holy Sepulchre, considered by many Christians to be the spot where Jesus was crucified and/or entombed and resurrected. Other Christians believe this site was located outside the city walls, and historical evidence is unclear on the precise location. Nevertheless, the Christian pilgrims who were visiting the site the day we were there were clearly moved.

This stone slab is called the Stone of Anointing, and is believed to be the stone that Jesus' body was laid upon in preparation for burial.

Clearly, touching this stone was a very significant and moving experience for the people visiting.

There were many beautiful mosaics in this church.

This structure is built on the site that is believed by some to be Jesus' tomb. (Again, some Christians believe the site is located somewhere else in Jerusalem, and not inside the walls of the old city.)

Overall, the old city of Jerusalem is very interesting. It's definitely full of history and sites that are important to Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

The landscape is somehow stark and green at the same time.

We found a children's museum in the city and spent a couple of afternoons there to give Carter a break from being dragged around. Here he's sitting on a chair made of nails!

Close-up of the chair. This is the old "bed of nails" trick, where your weight is distributed across the points so that you don't feel them when you sit on it. (Though I'm not sure sure what it would be like if you weren't wearing clothes...)

There were lots of fun exhibits.

This was one of my favorites: we built an arch with these foam blocks.

Then remove the supports...

And voila! The arch can support a person!

We had a lot of fun at the museum, and Carter got a much-needed play break.

From Jerusalem, we flew to London and spent two weeks in Great Britain, our last stop before heading back to the US. In the next post, I'll write about our time in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Dublin, and London.

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