I came to Israel for my MBA teammate Roni´s wedding.
After a day in Bethlehem and another day in Hebron in the Palestine, I had to spend the night in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and holy city for the three monotheistic religions, for logistical reasons. I had already been to Jerusalem twice before back in 2007 and 2012. Since my visit coincided with the start of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, I had to visit whatever was open which mostly consisted of non-Jewish sites.
October 9, 2022: Holy Judaism and Christianity
My MBA teammates Rory, Pablo, and I all booked the same hostel in West Jerusalem. After arriving on the bus from Bethlehem, we all checked in. While Rory and Pablo wanted to rest up, I set out to meet some other MBA friends who were wrapping up their Old City tour at the Western Wall. After jogging through West Jerusalem to the Old City, I reached the Western Wall about 15 minutes before them, which gave me some time to re-visit the complex.
Also known as the Kotel, the Western Wall was built 2,000 years ago as a retaining wall for large flat area known as the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount today contains the Dome of the Rock, but 2,000 years ago it contained the Jewish Temple and, in the back of the temple, the Holy of Holies where God´s presence lies. Because the Temple Mount is closed to Jewish worship, the Western Wall has become the de-facto holiest spot in Judaism because it is the closest place to the Holy of Holies where Jews can pray. At any time, day or night, the Wall will be swarming with pious Jews.
The wall is divided into Men´s and Women´s sections with the men´s section being both considerably larger and theoretically closer to the Holy of Holies.
When entering the men´s side of the wall, I picked up a kipah (Jewish head covering) from the box and was asked by a religious man if I wanted to say a blessing with him and put on tefillin (ritual wooden boxes that contain specific bible verses). Moving through the mix of praying Jews and tourists, I walked up to the gigantic wall and placed my hands on it. Call it God´s presence or the right state of mind, but I felt special and meaningful to touch the wall knowing that people have been doing this for thousands of years.
Next, I met up with Jess, Carmen, and Andrea and we walked through the central souq (market of the Old City). Our goal was to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. However, we got lost. We appeared to be very close to the church, but there were some buildings in our way. We asked a passerby and she said to walk through an unmarked doorway.
We entered the door and it led to a dark candlelit church with Ethiopians chanting. Sure enough, we kept walking and ended up outside right in front of our intended destination!
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher contains the spot of Jesus´s crucifixion as well as the tomb where he laid for 3 days before his resurrection. The church was built in 326 by Constantine the Great, although it has been rebuilt a few times over the years. Today the church is run by a consortium of many branches of Christianity.
During Jesus´s time, the tomb was a cave, but Constantine had the earth removed so now, it is a large flat area with a small freestanding chapel known as the Aedicule built on top. Historically, the tomb has a multi-hour line to get in, but this time the line appeared to be short. We asked the people at the front of the line how long they waited, and they said just 15 minutes. That was good enough for us to give it a go.
The line took about 20 minutes and soon enough the priest let our group of 4 into the tomb. The tomb contains two ornately decorated rooms: an antechamber containing part of the original stone used to seal the tomb and the room where Jesus laid for 3 days before his resurrection. The tomb room is very small and only fit the 4 of us while sitting down. Just like at the Western Wall, there was a powerful feeling sitting next to the alleged tomb of Jesus.
The church was closing just after we left the tomb, so we headed back to our hostel to freshen up and get a drink. For dinner, our options were limited, as Sukkot officially began at sundown. This meant nearly every restaurant is closed in religious Jerusalem. Public transportation also stopped completely.
After some searching, we discovered our two options were an Irish bar and McDonalds. We picked the Irish bar. The food was expensive and so no tasty, but given our options, we were pleased. Also, they had lots of beer! After a lovely night with friends, we all retreated to our respective hostels.
October 10, 2022: The Temple Mount
I woke up at 7:00 and ran down to visit Jerusalem´s most famous and controversial attraction: the Temple Mount also known as Mount Moriah and Haram al-Sharif. The Temple Mount is believed to be the site of many important religious events. It was here where God created the earth by throwing a rock into the depths. That rock is known as the Foundation Stone. It was from here that God gathered the dust to create Adam.
It was also on Mount Moriah that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac (in Judaism) or Ismael (in Islam) before God intervened, and Abraham sacrificed a ram instead.
Later, the Israelites built their two temples here. The center of each temple containing the Holy of Holies where the Ark of Covenant and God´s presence rested. Today, the precise location of the Holy of Holies is not known, but Jews consider it the holiest site on earth. The first was destroyed in the year 587 BC by the Babylonians and the second temple destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD.
In the year 621, the Prophet Muhammad took an overnight trip here and briefly ascended to heaven where he spoke with Allah and past prophets in a journey known as the Mi´raj.
Today, the Temple Mount contains two structures. The Dome of the Rock, with its iconic golden dome, is an Islamic shrine built in 688 that covers the Foundation Stone. The Dome is the oldest Islamic building in existence. The Al Aqsa Mosque covers the place where Muhammad rose to heaven. In the earliest days of Islam, Muslims would pray in the direction of Al Aqsa.
When Israel took over Jerusalem from Jordan in the Six-Day War of 1967, they decided to give authority over the Temple Mount to the Jordanian religious authority known as the waqf. The waqf maintains the compound as well as determines access. However, Israeli soldiers are stationed there too, as the Temple Mount has been the site of demonstrations and attacks on Jews.
Currently, non-Muslims are allowed to visit the Temple Mount for 3 hours during the morning and 1 hour in the afternoon from Sunday-Thursday. Jewish prayer is banned and anything that could be construed as Jewish such as books or t-shirts with Hebrew writing are also banned. While Israeli Muslims and residents of East Jerusalem (who are strangely not Israeli citizens) can freely access the site, the Israeli government requires permits for Palestinians to enter. Permits are not issued to men below a certain age. That limit changes but is currently 35.
I arrived at the Dung Gate at 7:30. Much to my surprise there was no line. I breezed through the passport control and security check. Soon enough I was standing on the Temple Mount!
My first impression was that the place is humongous! It is basically an enormous courtyard. While the rest of the Old City of Jerusalem is crowded with narrow passageways, there is no shortage of space on the Temple Mount! There was so much space that I saw a group of children playing soccer in one area.
I first stopped outside the Al Aqsa Mosque with its silver dome. A group of Israeli soldiers were hanging out and chatting, but otherwise there was nobody around. The mosque itself was guarded by a sole Muslim man in his 30´s. I knew that walking up to him would get an angry reaction, but luckily the prayer room is visible through the entry door.
The Dome of the Rock is located at the center of the Mount. While the inside is also closed to non-Muslims, I admired the ornate exterior. A group of women from Texas were touring with a guide and took my picture.
With nothing else to do, I walked out the northern end where I saw a scuffle. An Arab man was upset that the Israeli guards wanted to search his bag. 20 or 30 people nearby gathered to hurl insults at the solders and defend the man. I’m not sure how it got resolves, but eventually the situation diffused, and everyone walked away.
Personally, I feel no sympathy for the Arab man. Security checks are done on all the non-Muslim visitors to the Temple Mount and are virtually everywhere in Israel such as malls and hotels. Everyone visiting the Western Wall, including Jews, also must be searched. Why should the Temple Mount, which has historically been the site of demonstrations and attacks be any different?
Next, I visited a couple Christian sites in the area. My first stop was the tomb of the Virgin Mary. The tomb is in a church deep underground. When I entered, there was an Orthodox Mass going on. I stayed for 10 minutes until it ended. Since I was hungry, I followed the people in line for Communion and got a piece of bread. The Communion line then continued into a doorway behind the altar which turned out to be the tomb!
Next door is Gethsemane, the place where Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot. While Gethsemane is described as a garden – and there is one- the actual betrayal supposedly took place in a cave that is now a church.
Having seen now everything in the Old City and surroundings, I walked back to my hostel, checked out and then continued walking through West Jerusalem to the Israel Museum. This is a museum of all things Israel and Jewish.
My favorite section of the museum is the archaeology section. This tells the story of Ancient Israel´s history from the arrival of the earliest humans all the way until the early Islamic period. Some of the incredible artifacts include a 92,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton, the earliest archaeological record of King David, early Canaanite pottery and a tomb containing one of the Jewish high priests involved in the trial of Jesus. Every artifact had some incredible story!
Next, there was a section on the modern Jewish people. The museum had Jewish bridal outfits from around the world and even historic synagogues from places such as India, Suriname, and Italy. The most powerful display contained menorahs from at least 100 countries and shows the breadth of the diaspora. Until recently, there were sizable Jewish populations in most Arab and Muslim countries including Yemen, Syria, and Libya.
On the second floor, there was a modern art collection which I was not expecting but really enjoyed.
The main attraction in the Israel Museum is the Dead Sea Scrolls. These 2000+ year old scrolls were found in-situ in a cave near the Dead Sea, the dry climate preserving them. The scrolls contain ancient Hebrew texts. Some of these texts are books of the Bible, some are stories that did not quite make it into the Bible such as the Book of Enoch and the 152nd Psalm, and some are political manuscripts. The scrolls are considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.
The same building contains the Aleppo Codex, a 1,000-year-old Hebrew Bible that was stored in Aleppo, Syria. The synagogue was burned in anti-Jewish riots in 1947, but the manuscript miraculously survived and was secretly transported to Israel after 10 years in hiding.
All in all, the Israel Museum was one of the best museums I have ever visited.
With that, it was time to head to Tel Aviv. Normally, there is a high-speed train and buses, but because of the holiday it was not running. So instead, I caught a private shuttle called a sherut from the bus station. While waiting for the shuttle, the taxi drivers told me that there was no shuttle, but I knew better and held out until one arrived. I paid the 35 shekels ($10) and was on my way to Tel Aviv!
From religious sites to the modern Israeli landmarks, Jerusalem has so much to offer. Even as a third-time visitor, I found the city mesmerizing. The Old City really is special as it is a perfect mix of tourist attraction and real living community. I would earmark at least 3 days to see the city and its surroundings. Plus its central location makes it a great base to explore the West Bank and the Dead Sea/Masada.
Visiting Jerusalem on a holiday (including Shabbat which takes place every Saturday) is really a pain because the whole city shuts down – it is even worse than Spain on a Sunday. Luckily, the non-Jewish attractions and restaurants are open and private transport options (sheruts and taxis) do operate.
Given the intense religious feelings, I found the people to be either extremely nice or extremely rude depending on whether they think you are one of them, could become one of them with some convincing or are a heathen.