“The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more, it is the history of earth and of heaven.”
– Benjamin Disraeli
If someone had told me a year ago, or even a month ago, that I would take a trip to Israel this spring, I’m not so sure I would have believed him. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to Israel; rather, the thought hadn’t ever really crossed my mind. As an Arab-American, I grew up surrounded by people who had such strong feelings about the politics and conflict – on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian situation – that my impression of the area had become marred by thoughts and images of unrest, violence, and even fear. During our time posted in Latvia, several friends and colleagues have traveled to Israel and returned with tales of wonder and profound personal connection to the Holy Land… even those who by their own admission don’t consider themselves to be deeply spiritual. So, after several long dark and dreary months of late autumn, winter, and early spring in Northern Europe, when M. found a low-cost, direct flight from Riga to Tel Aviv, we decided to seize the opportunity and make a short getaway for the warmth, sunshine, and layers of history that Israel would impress upon us. (Not to mention the promise of some of the best hummus and falafel in the world!)
Admittedly, it was a bit hard for me to feel immediately comfortable with the idea of traveling to such a hotly contested region, the product of the “CNN effect”, as my friend L. puts it. However, a bit of research and a quick Google search of recent crime statistics in places like Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC showed me that Israel, and especially Jerusalem, is comparatively as safe as, if not more so, than any other place I may consider visiting. Besides, with mass shooters invading shopping malls and movie theaters in the United States, and trucks driving through crowded festivals in Europe, what is safe anymore, anyway?
We packed our bags.
Our time in Israel was short – too short – but we made the most of it through a combination of guided, semi-guided, and self-guided tours through some of the oldest sites on the planet. In total, we spent three full days there, just enough to get a small taste of this tiny country which, including the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights, is only slightly larger than the U.S. state of New Jersey. While the following photos and their captions won’t nearly do justice to the fascination and magic we felt, they are my best attempt to capture our cursory, yet unforgettable experience.
Day 1 – The Judean Desert, Ein Gedi National Park, Qasr-el-Yehud, and the Dead Sea
Following our mid-evening arrival in Tel Aviv, we made our way to Jaffa (Yafo) to check into the apartment we had rented for our stay. We ventured out for a quick bite to eat before calling it a night, as we had to be up bright and early the next morning for our first excursion.
Our first full day began at 5:30 am, as we made our way to one of the beach hotels for pick-up for our first tour. While we usually avoid group tours like the plague, we found what seemed to be a nice compromise: a bus tour through the West Bank, to several different sites, with independent time at each place to explore on our own. Truly, it was the best of both worlds, as we did not have to rent a vehicle, navigate our way through the desert, or stay together with a large group. Our driver did a fabulous job of explaining the scenery as we drove from one side of Israel to the other, which allowed us to gaze out the windows. While we didn’t have a lot of time to explore each site, we saw a lot in one day.
The highway on which we drove (highway 443) from Tel Aviv eastward is Israel-controlled, but cut through the Palestinian Area A. As our driver explained to us, Palestinians are not allowed to use the highway, which is guarded on both sides by high walls, electric fences, and more security cameras than I have ever seen in my life. At each exit or path from the highway were large red warning signs like the one below, marking Palestinian Area A land. More surreal than seeing these walls and signs was doing so while listening to Patrick Swayze’s power ballad, She’s Like the Wind, which was the scene the next day on our bus ride between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Following a brief stop in Jerusalem to pick up a few more passengers – our first chance to get a quick glimpse of the city – we began our descent into the Judean Desert, which would take us from 2,600 feet above sea level (790 meters) to more than a quarter mile (430 meters) below sea level.
Our first official stop on the tour was Qasr-el-Yehud at the River Jordan, the site at which John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus. It is located in Area B of the West Bank, which is governed by the Palestinian Authority and kept secure by Israel. The Palestinians and Israelis cooperate with each other to keep this site accessible to visitors. We had a few minutes to wander around a bit, where we saw several large groups of fellow tourists engaged in Bible study and preparing for their own baptisms in the river.
Our next stop was about an hour away, at Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, a beautiful green oasis with several waterfalls in the middle of the desert whose high cliffs offer stunning views of the Dead Sea below. We only had an hour to spend here, so we took a short hike to see some of the waterfalls and enjoy the view from the cliffs. Although it doesn’t seem so in our photos, the park was quite crowded with other tourists.
Our short hike in Ein Gedi was just enough to get us warmed up for a bit more walking around as we explored Masada, King Herod’s impressive 2,000-year-old fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site. If we had had more time, we would have hiked from the bottom of Masada to the palace at the top, wondering all the while how in the world people carried supplies up and down such steep inclines 2,000 years ago. Alas, with only two hours to wander through the complex maze of rooms and walls, as well as have lunch, we opted for the cable car instead.
Our final stop on the day’s tour was at the Dead Sea. The lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea has a salt content of 33.7%, nearly nine times that of the earth’s four oceans. The high salt content makes it impossible for marine life to survive, hence the sea’s name.
Our drive back to Tel Aviv after such a long day was relaxing and quiet. It gave us a chance to reflect on the day and gaze out the window. We passed many of the Israeli settlements that are currently being built throughout the West Bank around Jerusalem. These settlements are a huge source of conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis… conflict I won’t get into here, but you can read about all sides of the issue via any major news outlet.
We arrived back in Tel Aviv just in time to catch the sunset from the balcony of the apartment. After dusk, we headed out in search of a great meal after our long day in the sun. We found some superb vegan food at a little place in Old Jaffa called Main Bazar. With several varieties of hummus on the menu, it was impossible to make a wrong choice!
Day 2 – Jerusalem
Our second day in Israel began with another early morning, this time to walk to Tel Aviv’s central bus station to catch the public bus (number 405) to Jerusalem. It was surprisingly easy to figure out, although I felt a bit on edge that morning, traveling by bus and transiting through busy bus terminals (that CNN effect in full force once again). An odd sight to see was that our fellow passengers included many young Israeli service men and women, several of whom boarded the bus with huge automatic weapons strapped to their backs. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that – whether safe or unnerved… I tried not to think about it too much. After the 90-minute journey through some intense traffic toward the end that could rival Washington, DC in some ways, we arrived at the central bus station in Jerusalem. From there, we caught the tram to the Old City, where we were to meet Amitai, our tour guide for the day, just outside Jaffa Gate.
I’d found Amitai, or Ami, as we called him, though another tour guide who had taken our friends around Jerusalem earlier in the year. Born and raised in Jerusalem, Ami is the son of an American father and a South African mother who immigrated to Israel several decades ago. Ami knew just about everything one could know about Jerusalem, not only because he is a lifelong resident, but also because he had completed extensive education in Israeli Studies and training in tourism. While his fee was a bit on the high end, it was worth every penny, because we never would have gotten as much out of our day in Jerusalem had we been on our own or with a large group.
We began our tour in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City and wandered through the narrow, cobblestoned alleys as Ami explained to us the intricate layers of history and basis for the religious beliefs that many people hold true today. His explanations were detailed yet straightforward, and he presented multiple sides to many issues.
As we left the Armenian Quarter and made our way to the Jewish Quarter, we walked along Cardo Street, which was one of Jerusalem’s main arteries during Roman times.
Upon entering the Jewish Quarter, Ami gave us a brief and very neutral Israeli history lesson. It gave us a bit more context to the sites we would soon see.
We spent a bit of time at the Western (Wailing) Wall. The wall had separate areas for men and women. M. and Ami went to the men’s side, of course, while I visited the women’s side. It was quiet and peaceful.
We followed the paths of the Old City into the Muslim Quarter next, where the vibe felt more Middle Eastern and eager shopkeepers with huge, genuine smiles invited us into their shops. It was here also that we enjoyed a spectacular lunch of hummus, falafel, salsa, salad, and pita at a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop that Ami knew we would love. And with a photo of the late King Hussein of Jordan himself on the wall as one of the restaurant’s renowned diners, what greater endorsement could there be?
Unfortunately, the line for non-Muslims to enter the Temple Mount was hours long, and while I proudly own my Islamic cultural heritage, I knew I did not have enough religious knowledge to answer the questions of the Israeli guards at the other entrances to the Temple Mount, reserved for Muslims only. I also did not have anything to cover my hair. Besides, M. would not have been able to join me there. Perhaps I will have the chance to visit another time. Sorry, Mom. 😦
Thus we continued on, toward the Christian quarter, beginning with the Via Dolorosa, the path of suffering believed to have been walked by Jesus to Calvary. For me, this was the most profound part of our tour, for historical, rather than religious, reasons. There are fourteen stations along the Via Dolorosa, each marking a pivotal moment in Jesus’ journey to his crucifixion.
After leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we took a taxi to the Mount of Olives. We began our tour there at the Chapel of the Ascension, from where Jesus is believed to have risen to heaven. This chapel, too, at one time served as a mosque, shown by a mihrab in the wall.
We briefly visited the Eleona Church, also known as the Church of the Pater Noster. Here, the Lord’s Prayer is written on tiles in more then 140 languages and displayed throughout the church and gardens.
From here, we stopped in the Jewish Cemetery, nearly at the top of the Mount of Olives, where Ami explained to us the three monotheistic religions’ versions of Armageddon / End of Days / Judgment Day and the role of the Mount of Olives, each one both similar to and different from the other.
We made our way down the the steep hill from the Mount of Olives, to the Garden of Gethsemane, in which grow 2,000-year-old olive trees. It is here that Jesus is believed to have prayed the night before his crucifixion. Scientists from Italy concluded in 2012 that the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane are among the oldest in the world.
After we bid farewell to Ami – about nine hours after our tour had begun – we walked back uphill to the Old City to catch the tram next to Damascus Gate and head back toward the bus station. We stopped at the Machaneh Yehuda market on our way to wander through the stalls and have a little something to eat. Once again, vegan options were plentiful.
By the time we got back on the public bus and headed back to Tel Aviv, we were utterly exhausted but also so full with the rich and unforgettable day we’d just had.
Day 3 – Tel Aviv and Jaffa
We decided to spend our third and final day in Israel relaxing by the sea and wandering through Tel Aviv and Jaffa. This cosmopolitan, modern city rivals Los Angeles in many ways, with its oceanside running/walking path, tall skyscrapers, and trendy restaurants. At the same time, there is a gritty vibe to the city, a sort of east-meets-west feeling.
We took our time getting started with our day and strolled through Old Jaffa’s flea market in the morning.
We went back to the apartment mid-morning to change clothes and head for the beach. We got there early before the crowds arrived (though it never got overwhelmingly crowded) and enjoyed the sound of the waves and light breeze.
A couple of hours was long enough for us to build up an appetite while doing nothing by the beach (and for one of us to get sunburned – and I’ll give you a hint: it was not this Egyptian girl!), so we packed up our things and stopped back at the apartment before heading out in search of a great vegan lunch.
M. found a place online with good reviews, called Four One Six, about two miles from our apartment. We took our time getting there and checked out the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood a bit. It was well worth the long walk there and back, as the food was divine and further shows that gourmet, cruelty-free meals can be done at the highest level. In fact, I am certain that the restaurant could easily fool most non-vegans.
We spent some time relaxing after lunch and a few hours later went out for our last meal. This time, it was at the little falafel shop just next to the apartment. The owner was so friendly and warm, and the falafel was fantastic.
While it’s impossible to get to know a place within a few days, weeks, or even months (and after visiting Jerusalem, I am certain it would take years to really get to know it), our first trip to Israel was extraordinary, easily one of the top five trips I have ever taken. We felt welcome, safe, and comfortable during our visit, and I hope we have the chance to travel to Israel again, as well as other countries in the Middle East, one day.
If you are contemplating a visit, I hope you will go, as you will be glad you did. Whether your visit is motivated by spirituality, history, curiosity, or simply food, there is something fascinating for everyone in Israel. Don’t let the CNN effect keep you from it.