Many call Jerusalem the center of the world, and it’s hard to argue since all eyes seem to be trained on it. The city is wonderfully modern and fairly safe—a first for us since Cape Town and definitely a relief. The Old City, separated from the rest of Jerusalem by beautiful limestone walls, holds more awe-inspiring attractions than any other place in the world.
The Old City is divided into four quarters: The Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, and Armenian Quarter. The ancient, cobblestoned streets wind through a fairly small place that holds precious places for three major religions. It’s not difficult to see how complicated the city would be to regulate.
We started our time in Jerusalem our favorite way: a bike tour (was a whiter sentence ever said?)! But not any bike tour, a sunrise bike tour! The tour’s early hours allow access to crowd-free sights and streets in both the Old City and modern city. It was the perfect introduction and gave us an appreciation for the wonders in store for us. At one point, we were standing over where the Last Supper occurred, beside the building that holds King David’s tomb, looking out over a sunrise on the Mount of Olives, with the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount to our left!
We continued our first day with an afternoon tour of the Old City from Tours for Tips. WOW again! The brief introduction (two-hours was NOT enough!) only reiterated that we needed to get busy!
It was Ryan's birthday and his parents gave us a special treat: Dinner at Notre Dame of Jerusalem, which has a rooftop cheese and wine restaurant that overlooks the Old City. It was a feast!
The next day, we took a quick day trip to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory, so we weren’t sure what to expect (again, we were here during a time of increased tension). While we never felt threatened, we did have to pass through a guard station to get into the area. We felt grateful that we could pass in and out of the territory freely, while this is much more difficult for others. Plus, the streets of Bethlehem were eerily quiet and empty, as their tourism has been affected greatly while people worry about the clashes between Jews and Palestinians.
Bethlehem is a quiet city with stone streets that haven’t changed since Mary and Joseph first arrived on the scene. It was a marvel to walk where they would’ve walked!
The Church of the Nativity is built over the stable where Jesus was born. Unfortunately the church was under restoration construction, but we were still able to glimpse the beauty behind the tarps. History tells us that the stable where Jesus was born was actually more of a cave that would be under the main house. We were able to go down into the cave where the altars hardly conceal the humble beginning of God’s son.
The cave was divided amongst the Catholic priests in one corner, the Greek Orthodox in another section, and the Armenians in a third section. Each denomination’s territory had strict property lines and hours of operation. While hundreds of people line up, the Armenians performed communion before the cave opened. Then, the cave wasn’t open thirty minutes before the Catholic priests closed it to hold a private communion. The hundreds of people waiting would just have to wait a bit longer. I heard many tour guides explain to their groups how viciously each denomination fought for dominion over territory. It was a mess and a disgrace. This is the face we show the world? We have no excuse to fight amongst ourselves like this, but we tried to not let this detract from standing in the place Jesus was born.
Anyway, after our short trip to Bethlehem we headed to Jerusalem’s fabulous street market for our favorite activity: picnic preparation. The selection was amazing—blueberry walnut bread (that tastes fantastic, by the by), cheese of every type (including a truffle honey situation we couldn’t afford), and an Israeli wine we dared to try. Whether in Central Park or Jerusalem, these are all of the ingredients for a fantastic picnic.
After our picnic we went to the world class Israeli museum. WOW. It has more artifacts than could be imagined on its well organized and laid out grounds. Everything we could’ve wanted!
Among many other things, this one museum holds the Venus Berekhat Ram (the oldest artwork in the world dating back to at least 230,000BC), a world-class Fine Arts Wing, and an Archeological Wing that literally tells the story of the world. No biggy. But main event for us? The Shrine of the Book.
The Shrine of the Book holds the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain the oldest biblical scrolls in the world. These scrolls date back from 300 B.C. and into 1 A.D. While pictures weren't allowed inside the vault, we can tell you this: they had better handwriting than us.
The next day was the main event: A tour of the holy sites of Jerusalem. Get ready!
Check out the full Israel Gallery here.