Around the world in 125 days
This is an interesting country where people do not necessarily rest on the same day because religion is such a dominating factor. So if you want to visit a place, you have to already know who owns it. If they are Christian, then most likely they close on Sunday. If they are Jewish, then it is closed on Saturday, If they are Muslim, it is likely closed on Friday.
In Israel, a lot of people carry weapons openly. Pistols, rifles, M16, Uzi - you name it. Most are carried by soldiers in civilian clothes but some are just carried by average folks. I noticed some strapped their pistol holsters next to their cell phone ones. On one hand, it seemed to be a safe place. On the other you also sensed that violence could break out any time. It is rather disconcerting. We chose to not stay very long.
Crossing into Israel was a lot easier because the tour bus actually took us all the way across the Allenby Bridge to the other side of the Jordan River. The bridge was named after the famous general who led British troops during World War I and helped take much of the Middle East, including Palestine, from the Ottoman Empire. We saw a lot of construction going on because they were building a brand new bridge. At the border, we asked the immigration officer not to stamp our passport but pieces of paper. We wanted to do that in case we wanted to visit the Middle East again. A lot of Middle East countries, except Egypt and Jordan, will not let you enter their countries once your passport shows that you've been to Israel. That is why you must visit Israel last or make sure they do not stamp your passport. An Italian in our group was supposed to go to Syria. Unfortunately, his travel agent booked him through occupied Palestine. As a result, he was not allowed into Syria and had to join us in Jordan.
Once we were in Israel, we were given a tour of this ancient settlement, 6km from the Allenby Bridge. According to the Bible, it was the first city captured by the Israelites after their 40 years of wandering in the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. People settled in this area as early as 7,000 BCE. So it could be the oldest city in the world. We went to look at some ruins and historic areas. The main attraction in Jericho is the Tel e-Sultan, the site of ancient Jericho. Today there were just piles and piles of rocks. Later we stopped at a tourist complex and had lunch. Jericho is under Palestinian control. From a discussion with our lady tour guide, we learnt that vehicles here carry different license plates depending on who you are and where you live. If you do not have the right plate you aren't allowed to drive into certain areas.
Jerusalem is so famous because it is a holy city for three of the world's major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For Jews, it was because the Temple of Solomon once was there. For Christians, this was the last place Christ was active. For Muslims, the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven from the rock in the Sacred Enclosure.
Jerusalem consists of the Old City and New City. The Old City is surrounded by walls built by Suleiman the Magnificent (Ottoman Empire) in the 16th century. There are several gates that allow access to the Old City. which is divided into four quarters, Jewish, Armenian, Muslim and Christian. Each quarter has its own famous landmarks. The Western Wall is next to the Jewish Quarter. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the Christian Quarter. Near the Muslim Quarter, there are two important shrines, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque.
The hotel we stayed was very conveniently located, just outside the Old City wall and within walking distance to Jaffa gate, the main gate to the OC. Jerusalem was the last stop of our Imaginative Traveler tour and we were given a tour in the Old City before it was officially ended.
The first site we visited is The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter. This old church is interestingly also divided into sections, almost like the old city itself. Each section is guarded by different denominations. They are the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and Copt. Because they could not agree on who could be trusted with the church's key, it was given to a Muslim family patriarch, who is instead responsible for all openings and closings. What so special about this church is this was the reputed site where that Jesus was buried and then resurrected. It was kind of dark inside and full of religious objects and decorations. The most important element of the complex is the rotunda, which contains the sepulcher structure itself. The Sepulcher is within an elaborate structure within the rotunda, surrounded by columns supporting an ornamented, domed roof. In the Jewish Quarter, we visited a couple of old synagogues. These were built underground, below street level, because when they were built Muslims ruled the city, these were not allowed to be higher up than any Muslim structures. But the most interesting part of this quarter is the massive Western Wall or Wailing Wall. This Wall is reportedly part of the foundation of the last Jewish Temple.
This wall area is divided into two zones, one for male worshipers and the other for female ones. Most of the males wore yarmulkes or skullcaps to adhere to tradition. I was given a white paper one to wear when I went to visit the male section. There I had the opportunity to observe how the praying is done. The people praying are all dressed in a certain way. Many either wore white robes that have long black stripes on the side or just black long overcoats. They stood in front of the Wall and bowed over and over to it. A lot also sat down and read from a prayer book. Believers wrote or brought prayers on pieces of paper and inserted them into the cracks in the wall.
After the Wailing Wall, the tour guide told us that he had confirmed we would be able to go up on the elevation to see the Dome of the Rock mosque. He said we were lucky that day because the access is not necessarily open. It is closed at least five times a day when Muslims pray there. He led us up to this long ramp that curved from the base to the top of the wall, the former location of the Temple rebuilt by Herod. After seeing the golden dome of the Dome of Rock so often in pictures, it was exciting to see it finally in person. According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Mohammed went to heaven at this spot accompanied by the Angel Gabriel. It is the third holiest place in Islam after the Ka'aba near Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. This circular structure has a big piece of irregular rock in the center. This is supposedly also the rock on which Abraham bound his son Isaac to be sacrificed. We were not allowed to take pictures inside. But at least we could outside.
From there we visited the rest of the Muslim Quarter. The Muslim Quarter is full of shops and stores, very like any typical Middle East bazaar or souk.
There is a street called 'Via Dolorosa', running between the Christian and Muslim quarters, down which Jesus supposedly carried the heavy wood on his way to be crucified. Must have been a real drag. There are fourteen stations along this street that mark legendary events during his final trek. There is a marker to indicate what happened at that particular spot. For someone who is a Christian, this street has a lot of significance. This day tour did not take us to the Armenian Quarter. So we walked there ourselves since the whole Old City is pretty compact. The Armenian Quarter is smaller than the others and the streets were also much quieter. Hardly any shops or even pedestrians. We saw some churches. Interestingly, some of them are not even Armenian.
With so much history and religious significance, I could easily see why some Christians, Muslims, and Jews got excited and emotional about this place and are willing to fight for it.
Jerusalem was the end of our Middle East tour with The Imaginative Traveler. Mel and Kay left. Carolyn stayed on for an extra week. After all the time being together, we, the original five who started from Istanbul and the only ones to complete the whole tour, finally had to say goodbye to each other.
Previously our tour leader Sharleen had organized some dinner outings for the entire group, once in the Old City and once in the New City. But we still wanted to see more outside the Old City. So one afternoon we went to the modern part of the Jerusalem, to a street called Ben-Yehuda (son of Judah). It is a terraced street only for pedestrians, and here you can find restaurants, outdoor cafes and stores. There are also fast food place like McDonald. We enjoyed some shawarma for lunch at a outdoor cafe and tried to mingle with the locals. While we wandered the streets, we came across a Chinese restaurant located on a 2nd floor of a building. We decided to check it out. We climbed up the stair, only to be told that it was closed and we should come later. So we left and planned to go back around dinner time. By the time we finished our sightseeing and ready to go back, we just could not find the place any more. We did not take down the street name or street number, thinking we should have no problem finding it. But we were wrong. We walked up and down the street that we thought it should be located but it seemed to just vanish. Kind of weird. We simply could not find it any more. So we walked back to to the Old City and found a shishkebab restaurant in the Muslim Quarter and had a genuine Middle Eastern shishkebab dinner.
Of course, Palestine still had a lot that we wanted to see. So we decided to go to Bethlehem ourselves by taking a half-day tour and then take a full day tour to Masada and the Dead Sea.
Bethlehem of course was the place where Jesus was born. We visited the Church of the Nativity which was built to mark the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The church was built like a fortress, with a tiny door about 4ft high. There are two reasons for doing this; first, to prevent anyone from riding in on a horse, second, to force all entering the church to bow and show respect. Very clever. The church inside has a row of columns. On either side of the altar, there are stairs down to the Grotto of the Nativity. There we saw the exact spot where he is said to have been born. Pretty amazing. It is like a niche or small cave inside a wall. You had to bend down to see. The niche is floored by a piece of white marble and had a 14-pointed silver star embedded. Above it is a set of 15 oil lamps. Six belong to the Greeks, 5 to the Armenians and four to the Latins (Roman Catholics). Outside the church is Manger Square. There was a stage on one side that could be used for performances or religious celebration. From what I heard this place becomes extremely busy at Christmas time, particularly on Christmas Eve. Christians from all over the world flock to this place to attend ceremonies celebrating the event.
After the church, we had some free time to look around the town. The tour also took us to a souvenir shop where we had some refreshments before going back to Jerusalem.
On our last day in Palestine we spent the morning at Masada. It is an ancient fortress built on top of a mountain by the Idumean kings. Around 70 C.E. Jewish rebels chose to commit suicide here rather than surrender to the besieging Romans. You could hike up to the hill, and we saw some people doing that, but most of us took the cable car. There was really not much left of the fortress. Mostly just piles of rock everywhere. There are some structures still standing and some places where you could still see the remains of original mosaic floors. There is also cisterns where they saved rain water. I could imagine if they did not get water, any inhabitants would not last very long.
From the top, if you look down you see the plain below where there are outlines in the area where the Roman soldiers set up their camps and planned their attacks. You could also see one lower section where the Roman client king Herod built a palace. It had been a country place for these Herodian kings before some Jews revolted in 66 C.E and took over.
After Masada, we went to the Dead Sea for a dip. The Dead Sea is 400 m below sea level, and is now the lowest surface on earth. Due to the high saturation of salty chemicals, its water has incredibly high density. We made sure to bring some reading material along so that we could have photos of us reading while floating in the water. There were signs everywhere telling people what to do in case the water got into your eyes. Of course nobody actually dared to submerge their head into the water or attempt any swimming. I used my finger to put a little bit into my mouth. The water tasted horrible and it had this rather oily, sticky feel. There was a place for changing, and bathing facilities. One favorite thing for tourists is to cover themselves with the mud. Obviously a lot of people believed that the mud contains chemicals beneficial for your skin. They said it could make you look 5 years younger.
During this day trip, we also stopped at a couple of other places. One is called Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. They were found inside eleven caves. Some of the scrolls were Old Testament books, such as the Isaiah Scroll. This area is made of rugged mountains and valleys and we could not actually go to the caves but we could see some along the cliff from a distance. We did stop at a small museum that had a display of how these caves are supposed to look like inside.
In the middle of this arid desert there is an oasis: the Ein Gedi Botanical Gardens. Everywhere is brown and dry until you reach this place, then all a sudden, greenery took over. We eve saw some wild animals, deer mostly, roaming along this oasis. We saw a lot on this day trip. After this, we went back to our hotel, packed and got ready to leave.
From Jerusalem we made our own arrangements to get ourselves to the starting point of our next tour, Cairo in Egypt. Our transportation was by bus, known as Sinai Coach. On our last day in Israel, we got on the Coach, which took us from Jerusalem to the Egyptian border. This part of the trip offered us the opportunities to see other parts of this country, especially the highway system. One thing I found amusing was the peculiar name of the bus company, 'Egged'. During this trip, we made a stop at the city of XXXXX (Gaza?). There, unexpectedly, we met 5 Filipina ladies. They were on a tour to Egypt and came to Israel for a short visit.
© Dave Cheng 2000