- Wednesday 25 December 2019
Aileen had a fantastic experience in Israel/ Palestine, visiting Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Read her blog about the experience:
"The Middle Eastern city of Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean coastline sparkles, with a surprisingly European vibe along its beaches. This contrasts pleasingly with the Arabian feel of the pretty old town and iconic clock tower of the adjacent Jaffa, which is within easy walking distance of the beach promenade.
Only an hour away by bus lies the city of contrasts that is Jerusalem. Split down the middle, the city is made up of East Jerusalem (the Arab side) and West Jerusalem (the Israeli side), with its delightfully higgledy-piggledy walled old town in the centre. I stayed at the charming Jerusalem Hotel, a historic building near the Damascus Gate entrance to the old town.
After entering through the gate, I sat for a short time on the front terrace of one of many tiny cafes serving tea with fresh mint and cardamom-laced coffee. The temperature was 29 degrees, so I refreshed myself in the shade with a mint tea while watching the bustling marketplace as it heaved with activity. Children played on the steps, women bought groceries, men chatted and tourists took selfies through gaps in the crowd.
A five minute walk into the old city, I met the Via Dolorosa, the route along which Jesus carried his cross. Walking along it, I found many of the familiar stations of the cross in the locations where they’re thought to have taken place. At the end of the walk, crowds thronged outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the immense church that now stands on the side of the crucifixion.
The spiritual significance of the place was clear as pilgrims broke down crying on their knees and blessed themselves with reverence. Inside the incredible building, artwork and gold hang in splendour as rays of light shine through windows beneath the great dome, creating an ethereal atmosphere.
In the old city, the world’s three largest religions are quite literally on top of one another, and the effect is dazzling. At the Western Wall, one of the most holy sites in Judaism, men pray passionately, often breaking down in tears as sincere as those of the Christians outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Immediately behind the wall lie two of Islam’s most holy sites: the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the iconic golden dome and intricate blue tile of Haram al-Sharif, or as it is known in Judaism, the Dome of the Rock. These sites are shared between these faiths, and often hotly contested among them.
The hills of the Mount of Olives stretch up just to the East of the old city. Knowing that a viewpoint lay just a twenty minute walk from Lion’s Gate, I began the uphill trek. The heat soon got the better of me, however, and I took a ride from one of the many taxi drivers calling out to tourists along the road.
From the top, I gasped at a magnificent view of the old city, picking out the gold dome of Haram al-Sharif, the black one of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the old city walls. On the way back down, I stopped at the beautiful Garden of Gethsemane, remembering the stories I learnt at school. Even for an agnostic, visiting these sites was very moving and I could easily imagine the people whose stories played out there thousands of years ago.
After so much walking, a big meal was in order, so I ambled back into the old city and stopped at Lina, a small restaurant famed for its humous. My plate of humous was large enough for two to share, and the stack of fluffy flatbread and bowl of pickles that came with it were so delicious that I ate until I was uncomfortable. The mouth-watering food is one of the memories that stands out most to me from this part of the world.
Just thirty minutes from Jerusalem by bus lies the smaller city of Bethlehem. Bethlehem lies beyond the separation wall that was erected around the West Bank area in 2012, and those visiting it must pass through military checkpoints. This does not present a problem for most tourists, but it is both interesting and sometimes heartbreaking to watch the difficulties it causes to local people. I caught my first glimpse of the wall on this drive, its greyness snaking across the countryside, reminiscent of the Berlin Wall.
Most famed as the site of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem is also known for its striking street art. There are a number of pieces visible by the prolific British graffiti artist Banksy, and the separation wall, which cuts through part of the city, is also covered with art from tourists, locals and activists.
Five minutes’ walk from the B&B where I stayed, I found Banksy’s famous Flower Thrower. The quirky Walled Off Hotel, also filled with his political artwork, stands next to the wall. No tourist to Bethlehem could possibly miss or ignore the presence of the wall, which has itself become a tourist attraction, albeit one that inspires anger more than awe.
The beautiful Church of the Nativity stands on the site of Jesus’s birth. Just inside it, an Orthodox Christian lady from Bosnia showed me five small holes in a pillar. She placed my fingers inside them, and I found that they made the shape of a cross. The lady smiled warmly, hugging me and kissing my cheeks before moving on.
A great crowd had gathered at the steps to descend into the cave that was used as the famed stable, many of their heads bowed in prayer. Inside the cave, a golden sun on the floor marks the spot where the manger is thought to have stood.
After emerging from the Church of the Nativity, I sat on the terrace of a bar on Manger Square, eating more delicious humous and drinking a local beer. Friendly waiters chatted to me as I watched the sun set behind the iconic church. They told me of the decreased number of tourists they have seen in recent years due to the political situation, and how delighted they are to talk with the tourists that do come.
The friendliness I experienced from people in Bethlehem is my strongest memory from it. I felt safe and welcome at all stages, as well as privileged to visit. The new direct flight from Dublin to Tel Aviv with El Al, due to begin in May 2020, will make it even easier for Irish people to do this. At only an hour’s journey from Jerusalem and 90 minutes from Bethlehem, Tel Aviv is a great gateway to these and many others sites in the area."