JERUSALEM is a unique place.
For a start it is a mix of three (at least) different cultures. The city is crammed with places, the names of which are straight from the Bible – and busy with tourists, residents, visitors from the surrounding countryside, pilgrims, groups and chaotic traffic.
It is not expensive for us, and as everywhere is close by is easy to get around, particularly in the old town with its narrow streets. I would recommend having a tour guide, otherwise you will certainly miss many things. The senses are battered by noise from bells, traffic, shouts, muezzin calling prayers, music of all possible types, and with smells, both good and bad. The chatter of many languages rings round the crowds, and the whole places oozes history. In brief, Jerusalem is a "must go to" destination.
Just about all the buildings are made from a rich, cream coloured sandstone. It was said that when General Allenby liberated Jerusalem in late 1917 – and we British took control – a law was passed that all buildings must be made from the local stone, and this still applies. It gives a warm feeling and at sunset the whole city glows. The city is hilly, generally 800 metres above sea level, around 2,600 feet, and was built originally by King David as his mountain capital. David’s son Solomon erected the first temple here.
The weather is not too oppressive; when I was there in June it was very hot (35 degrees C) but there was a breeze. In winter, the same months as ours, there can be snow, and the rain in January makes the desert bloom, although I found this hard to believe when the desert is all stones and rocks with an occasional wiry stunted, hardy bush struggling to grow upright.
Getting back to the history. There are traces everywhere of the times of Abraham 4,000 years ago to the Crusaders, a mere 1,000 years ago. One thing that surprised me, although it should not have done, was the closeness of all the places that I had heard of in the Bible. When Jesus walked the streets here, journeys were made by foot or on donkey, so of course the distances are not far, maximum one day’s walk away. One evening we went to eat at a rather good place, the Brasserie at Ein-Kerem. On enquiring if it was far to this town (where John the Baptist was born) we were told that it was "just there", at the edge of Jerusalem itself. On driving there we saw a church with glittering gold domes, the Church of the Visitation, marking the spot where Mary, Jesus’ mother, went to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
Exploring Jerusalem is fascinating, easily done on foot (so many narrow streets and lanes) and a guide from the tourist office is strongly recommended, otherwise you will miss an awful lot. The Wailing Wall, so sacred to Jews, is all that is left of the original walls of the temple, the old city. It is well protected by security and there are separate areas for men and women, and respectful clothing is always required. This means a shawl for ladies, and often a hat for men (or a skull cap, which is provided at most places, as are the ladies’ scarves for ladies, to be returned as you go out).
Then there is the Via Dolorosa, the way that Jesus walked when he carried his cross up to Golgotha. The various ‘stations of the cross’ on the way are often hard to find; some are simple, some are huge churches erected on that spot, and the whole route is up narrow alleys that have traders lining each side trying to sell you the same tourist junk or refreshments. This can become tedious.
Golgotha itself is now a massive church built over the site (around 1500 AD) where the crosses were erected. It is constantly packed with pilgrims and tourists. There is the stone with a large hole in it, where the cross was placed. There is where Jesus’ body was washed after it was brought down from the cross, as well as the tomb with what is left of the stone that was rolled away (it has had so many bits taken off it that the remains are now under glass) and then the small tomb itself. It is quite amazing that it is all still there, and still significant to so many people.
There were many sceptics who said that this couldn’t really be the original place/stone/cross etc, but does it really matter? History is there for you to touch and see, walking the streets that Jesus walked. It is quite an amazing experience.
Other places to see are Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, a strikiing, triangular building, grey concrete long structure with a glass section along the apex to let in natural light. As you zig zag from room to room, display of letters, artefacts, photographs, testimonies, you cannot help being horrified by what man can do to man. It is unbelievable that the Nazis exterminated six million Jews in such a relatively short time.
Outside in the shaded gardens are many walls, each representing a country, with names inscribed on them. These thousands of names are non-Jewish people to whom the Israelis have given the title ‘Righteous among the Nations’, people,who risked their own lives to save Jews from Nazi extermination, and the names include 525 Germans.
Yad Vashem is a moving experience. There is also the children’s memorial. You enter a dark large place, with just candles reflecting the one and a half million Jewish children killed, and their names are constantly read out in memoriam.
The Israel Museum is offers an idea of the scale of the city. There is a huge model of the city as it was, with the massive temple, the old walls, the new walls and the wells and gardens. There is also a King Herod exhibition, showing graphically how power corrupts and how Herod was so scared that someone would come along greater than him. He even split his empire into three parts so that his sons would never become as great as him.
The Mount of Olives gives an overview of the city, including the road where Jesus entered the city on a donkey. Today this is a packed cemetery. Walk down to the Garden of Gethsemane, where thousand year old olive trees are still in the garden, protected by strong iron railings, next to a spectacular Franciscan church. Then you can visit the upper room where the Last Supper was held. This room is said to have been built by the Crusaders around 1200 AD, on what was thought to be the site.
There are many walking tours, including round the old city walls, and more things to see and experience than I have space to tell here. You will never be short of somewhere to go and see and experience, even if you stayed a month.
Outside Jerusalem, most visitors go to the Dead Sea, from 800 metres above sea level in the city to 400 metres below sea level, the lowest place on earth. It is about one third salt, which is why it is easy to swim in it, but there are many notices warning you not to get any in your eyes, not to splash, not to dive, and if you swallow any to report to the lifeguard immediately. The salt and chemicals have provided one of Israel’s main exports for many years. The edge of the sea is crusted with white salt. Resorts are dotted along the shore line, but no greenery, no birds, no boats – it really is dead. And also shrinking, the level of water goes down about 1 metre per annum.
There are plans to pipe water from the Mediterranean, or from the Red Sea, but nothing has been put in place yet. Although it is an experience to swim carefully in it, and to cover yourself in therapeutic black mud afterwards before showering it off, the beaches are not attractive beaches. Fences and wires mark off the parts where you can go, and just rocks and stones everywhere.
Nearby is Masada, an unbelievable plateau that rises out of the desert. To get there, you climb the snake path or go by modern Swiss cable car, there is no other way. Herod, in 22BC, knowing that he was hated everywhere, built a wonderful castle on one end of this plateau. How on earth they managed it is beyond belief. Around 70AD, the Romans were persecuting the Jews and 964 Jews made it to this desolate place. They built cisterns and clever channels to harvest rain water and grew crops. The Romans determined to wipe them out, laid siege for three years, built a ramp of incredible height and eventually took the citadel, to find that all the Jews had killed themselves rather than be slaves.
Looking down from there now, you can still see the walls and camps that the Romans made all round Masada. With no habitation there was no need to move the stones of the camps, although an earthquake in 749AD settled them into neat piles. Masada is a UNESCO world heritage site and another striking place to visit.
Our guide casually mentioned that was where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt – and there is a lot of salt, of course – and at Qumeran you can see the cave where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. They are kept in a special building at the Israel Museum (see www.imj.org.il), which is constantly sprayed with water to maintain a steady temperature. It is eerie to go inside and see the scrolls behind glass, and be told that you are looking at the original book of Isaiah.
Yes, so much for the tourist in this country. The Tower of David Museum has fantastic light and sound shows at night, lasting around 45 minutes, representing the history of Jerusalem, starting with King David playing his pipes on the rooftops 3,300 years ago, through to the present day, and ending with the strong message ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’.
Shekels are the currency and pounds and euros are generally not accepted, although credit cards are in most places. In the Shuk (the chaotic market, which is a good experience) if you manage to find a toilet, you will wish that you hadn’t. Elsewhere, in all the museums, hotels, restaurants etc, toilets are fine. English is spoken everywhere, and good tea with cold milk is no problem.
Jerusalem has been welcoming visitors for over 3,000 years, and has a vast range of accommodation, from hostels to luxury hotels. If you want a taste of luxury, go to the David Citadel Hotel (www.thedavidcitadel.com( or its sister hotel the Mamilla (www.mamillahotel.com) where you can dine in style at a roof-top restaurant. It was here that our waiter tripped over a machine gun that was lying on the floor at the next table. It is quite normal to see uniformed people carrying guns, and also civilians (or maybe they are private guards), which gives an air of tension to us who are not used to seeing such things.
There are three holy days each week, Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews, and Sunday for Christians. On Saturdays, there are no buses or trams (a new modern tram system started operation just over a year ago), shops close, taxis are few and far between, and special arrangements are in place in hotels for food, drink and so on. Saturday (Sabath) starts at sun down on Friday until Saturday evening, when everything comes to life again and shops open again until 1am. Everyone seems to be out on the streets celebrating the end of the Sabbath.
You can find more details at the Israel national tourist office on www.goisrael.com
There are many other places in Israel worth visiting, including their Mediterranean coastline. Getting there is fairly easy. The national airline, El Al, flies from Heathrow and from Luton to Tel Aviv. Easy Jet also fly from Luton to Tel Aviv, and Easy Jet connection to Luton from Inverness and Aberdeen. Overall, it is not expensive.
Buses and taxis run regularly from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (45 minutes on a motorway). With a UK passport you do not need a Visa. Of course, your European Health Insurance Card will not work here, so make sure that you have health insurance – not that there is any special risk as the standard of health and hygiene is very high.
Jerusalem is a great and moving experience; you will never forget having been there.