For my last trip before heading back home from study abroad, I decided to visit Israel with Elyssa, my friend from high school who’s currently studying abroad in Jordan. I originally wanted to visit her in Amman, but it was expensive so we decided to meet next door in Israel. It’s sad to think that I just came back from my last trip and that I spent five days outside of Madrid when I’m leaving so soon, but the trip was worth it and hopefully it helped me get a taste of leaving Spain before I have to do it for real on Sunday.
After a long day of traveling that got me into Israel at 01:00 Saturday morning, Elyssa and I met up in Tel Aviv. Like all of my trips this semester, this one wasn’t without its adventures. Of course, there was a 45 minute delay during my layover in Istanbul, because I can’t seem to travel without some sort of delay. 🙂 It was an interesting experience nevertheless, because Hebrew became the common language among the passengers (other than me…) who didn’t speak Turkish. Though they didn’t have the same native languages, most of them were Jewish so were able to use Hebrew between each other, which was very cool to see in practice since that was the purpose of the language. Besides that, anyone who goes to Israel should realize that they take the whole “shabbat” thing pretty seriously. A huge portion of the county completely shuts down between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday. This includes the railway and buses that would have taken me from Ben Gurion Airport to our hostel, so instead I had to pay 167 ILS (~50 USD) for a private taxi. I continue to learn that the cheap flights might be cheap for a reason.
Tel Aviv is Israel’s second most populous city and also the home to its largest metropolitan area, and is known for its financial and business strength and lively, dynamic culture and nightlife. Far more liberal from the country’s official capital Jerusalem, the city is sometimes referred to as “the bubble” because the peaceful atmosphere serves as an escape seems so removed from the conflict that plagues the rest of the region. Its nickname as a “city that never sleeps” definitely seems well-earned — Elyssa and I walked around catching up until 3 AM and we were by far not the only ones still awake.
Though we didn’t take advantage of the nightlife because we just missed the Israeli weekend, we did have a lot of downtime enjoying the beach, which was packed with tons of people. We ended up with a bit of sunburn, but that didn’t stop us from walking along the Mediterranean coast and exploring the ancient port city of Jaffa. Overall, the Tel Aviv part of our trip was definitely the relaxing catch-up aspect that would differ quite a bit from the next few days filled with sightseeing, though we were able to see the old port, the clock tower, archaeological digs, and some markets. We definitely enjoyed it regardless, especially the beach and shawarma, hummus, fluffy pita, and other yummy foods. 🙂
On Sunday afternoon, we headed to the Tel Aviv bus station to take the 19 shekel Egged bus to Jerusalem, where we’d be sleeping that night and spending the next two days. The bus ride was pretty uneventful, other than the fact we had to go through Judean Mountains to get to Jerusalem, but the station and passengers were pretty interesting: the bus depot was full of activity, busy shopping areas, and IDF soldiers. Israel has between two and three years of compulsory military service for all citizens over 18, so that certainly makes for a lot of soldiers and an overall population with a great deal of military experience. Most of the soldiers travel in uniform and with their weapons when reporting to their posts and moving around the country, so, while a little off-putting to see such huge guns, this helps security. Apparently bombers have actually been stopped by these off-duty soldiers who had been carrying their weapons with them and heading home.
Though maybe we should have spent less time in Tel Aviv (or more time going out), seeing it before Jerusalem was a good choice because it really helped show the differences. From the second we got off the bus we could see that Jerusalem, considered a holy city by all three Abrahamic religions, was much more conservative than Tel Aviv. We barely saw any yarmulkes in Tel Aviv and saw lots of skin and tattoos. It was the opposite in the capital: though there were definitely some more secular residents and non-Jews, the city was full of kippahs and we saw many Orthodox and Haredi families with modest dress, payot, and tallit with tzitzit. Everyone was perfectly welcoming and the stricter religious observance wasn’t bad or anything, it was just very different from what we had seen in Tel Aviv and helped hammer in that aspect of Tel Aviv’s unique culture.
Interestingly enough, our hostel, the awesome and huge Abraham Hostel, was located right off of Jaffa Road, named after the city we had just left. It’s one of the oldest and longest streets in the city, and also one of the most important ones. We walked down the pedestrian street all the way to the walled Old City the first night. It was amazing to see the walls of an area so old and sacred to the world’s three largest religions just pop up out of nowhere alongside the cars and trams of the modern city, and then to have us just walk through the Jaffa Gate and be inside of it. After wandering around for a bit and getting some awesome and cheap falafel (15 shekels!), we headed in for an early night.
The next day started off bright and early, because we wanted to be at the Temple Mount by 7:30 AM when it opens. The lines tend to get pretty long and, as it is an actively used Muslim religious site, it completely closes down to visitors at specific times. The only entrance open to non-Muslims is the one right off of the Western Wall Plaza, so we took advantage of the early morning to also check out the Western Wall itself, which was full of people praying so I didn’t get to go up close to see the handwritten prayers, but it was still a cool experience nevertheless. The name refers to the fact that it’s the western retaining wall of Temple Mount, and it is thought to be part of David’s first temple and Solomon’s second temple, both of which were destroyed. It is arguably the holiest site in all of Judaism, probably more than the Temple Mount itself, which many Jews don’t go up to at all. Interestingly, like in Orthodox Judaism church services, access to the Western Wall is split according to gender, with men on the left half and women on the right.
After seeing the wall and waiting in line for 45 minutes, we went up to Temple Mount. We wandered around a bit and saw a few of the holy Muslim sites, like the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam built on the site of Muhammad’s Night Journey, and the Dome of the Rock, one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture and home to the Foundation Stone, which Jews view as the location of the Holy of Holies in the Temple and the junction of heaven and earth and Muslims view as the location from which Muhammad ascended to heaven. Many Jews still pray towards the Foundation Stone, and Muslims used to before changing that location to the Kaaba in Mecca. It was crazy to visit a place so holy to so many different religions that’s still so controversial. Apparently an Orthodox politician was also visiting that same day, so security was extra tight for fear that there would be conflicts between his group and the Muslim worshipers on the Mount… definitely a crazy feeling and a little scary to be walking around.
We still had some time to kill before our hostel’s walking tour of the Old City, so we visited the Davidson Center of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, also within Western Wall Plaza. It was very cool to see a bunch of ruins, but the coolest part was that we were able to walk through them and along one of the ancient walls. Add that to the fact that we saw a bunch of young boys celebrating their bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall after we finished up (how cool must that be?), and it was an awesome experience. From there we headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a church built on the spot where Jesus is thought to have not only been crucified, but also buried and resurrected. Obviously impressive on its own, but the church was also interesting in that its shared by many different Christian sects, including Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and a few more. Because the site is so valuable, the different groups often get into conflicts, try to maintain control of it for themselves, and sometimes fight over actions done by the other sects. This has led to a status quo agreement forbidding changes to common territories without consent from all of the communities, leading to delayed repairs and the famous “immovable ladder“. Two Muslim families actually hold the keys to the church, opening it every morning and locking it up every night for the Christians, because none of the orders would trust the others with the keys.
We did all of that and it was barely 11:00, but after chilling around for a little bit more it was finally noon and time for our tour with our hostel. They led us around the four quarters of the Old City, the Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish, and showed us basically all the same things we’d already seen. It was still worth it, however, because we got to learn more about what we were actually seeing and about the history. We had another early day tomorrow, so spent the rest of the day wandering around the Haredi neighborhood, Mea Shearim, and the nearby Mahane Yehuda Market, both located on either side of Davidka Square where our hostel was. Both areas are mostly filled with locals, with the former a much more conservative local sub-neighborhood in the city.
All of Tuesday was devoted to a tour of the West Bank that we booked through our hostel. The West Bank is the region to the east of Israel that makes up the bulk of the Palestinian territories and takes its name from its location on the “west bank” of the Jordan River. The area has a very complicated political situation given the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and that’s a total understatement. We weren’t really sure if we wanted to go there because of it, but after seeing our hostel offered a very awesome and comprehensive full-day tour that went to quite a few important holy sites as well, we figured we had to do it and are really glad we got to see another side of the region.
While most of the sites in Jerusalem were Jewish and Muslim ones, most of those we visited in the West Bank were Christian holy sites based on the Old and New Testaments. We first visited the believed site of the baptism of Jesus, Qasr el-Yahud, which is located in the Jordan River only like 10 feet from the Jordanian border, so it is very closely guarded. There were many pilgrims getting baptized there, but they were strictly instructed not to cross the river, or they’d be illegally entering another country. After that we went to the ancient city of Jericho, assumed to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world at over 10,000 years old. We can totally see why; the city really is a green oasis in the middle of the dessert. We saw ruins of the ancient city, its wall, the Zacchaeus sycamore tree, and the Mount of Temptation in the distance, before visiting the only brewery in Palestine, Taybeh Brewery, which was a pioneer microbrewery in the region. At the end of the day, we visited Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity and touch the rock they believe Jesus was born upon.
Other than the religious visits, we also had lunch and a walking tour in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the state of Palestine. At the current presidential palace, we saw the tomb of Yasser Arafat, one of the most important historical Palestinian leaders and first president of the Palestinian Authority who is either viewed as a heroic freedom fighter and martyr for Palestine or a terrorist against Israel. There aren’t really many sites to see in the city, but it was still very cool to walk around throughout the markets and get a flare for the city. It’s a lot bigger and more developed than I’d imagined, and is definitely a full-fledged Arab city filled with life and people. One of our favorite parts was when Elyssa and I politely declined a merchant’s offer in Arabic (la shukran, لا شكرا) and he was so amazed that a big group of tourists responded in Arabic! (Thanks goes to Elyssa for teaching me the “la” part, but I had the “shukran” part down. 😉 ) This was just another example of many that the Palestinians feel forgotten and ignored and just want some form of recognition, and are amazed when they get it.
Throughout the day, but especially before Bethlehem, we took a tour along the separation wall currently being built to divide Israel from the West Bank. Like the Berlin Wall, the barrier is full of graffiti directed at the international community, showing the people’s dislike of the wall and the current conflict. We stopped by a town that had the wall cut it in half, completely shutting down the stores right next to it, and also saw a refugee camp for expelled Palestinians from Israel. Definitely a somber end to the tour. Our tour guide took this opportunity to discuss the conflict in a very non-inflammatory way, which we were pretty impressed with, given his obvious Palestinian bias. He explained that the two areas are just currently filled with violence, hate, and misunderstanding, and unless the relationship is rebuilt people will continue to view an Israeli as a checkpoint or a soldier with a gun and a Palestinian as a militant with a rocket or suicide bomber. He expressed dismay in that he didn’t really see a solution in the near future.
All in all, Elyssa and I were very satisfied with our whole trip to Israel, especially the tour. I feel like we understand more about the conflict now, which basically means we realize how little we and everyone else truly understands. Jerusalem and the region is really like a microcosm with all of the many factions in the world all existing together in a small space arguing over high-stake artifacts, even between groups like individual Christian factions and secular Jews compared with more conservative Jews. Though things are okay at the moment and millions of people live, travel, and work there everyday, there are still so many real issues like misunderstanding and resentment bubbling under the surface that’s very palpable and scary if you’re paying attention. Not so much for safety reasons, because Israel has an amazingly advanced defense system and security procedures, but more because I don’t really know how things are going to be solved. Besides the conflict with Palestine, Israel continues to face its own internal problems as well, such as the issues with maintaining both a secular state and a Jewish majority without becoming too extreme or religious like Iran. I’m not really sure why I’m surprised there are still issues in the region though, considering people have been fighting over that same area of land for almost all of human history, with Jerusalem alone being destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. People have been struggling to coexist there for a very long time.
There’s no way we could’ve seen everything Jerusalem has to offer, let alone all of Israel, in such a short trip, but we definitely got a lot done. I still want to come back someday to see some more holy sites like the Mount of Olives, revisit some of the sites we already saw with fewer crowds, and see some of the attractions related to the state of Israel like the Knesset Menorah, the government buildings, Yad Vashem, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Shrine of the Book. There are also many other cool places in the country like the Dead Sea, Sea of Galilee, Eilat, and many more. Hopefully the next visit will be very soon. 🙂