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Winter Adventures in Israel – Episode 3: Jerusalem

After exploring a part of Tel Aviv, we thought it was a must to go to Jerusalem too, as we couldn’t visit the “Holy Land” and skip the most famous part of it. Our motivation was mainly fueled by curiosity and not so much by religious feelings, and this is reflected in the way we saw the city.

It’s easy to get from the largest Israeli city to the official capital of the country, there are numerous trains and buses on this route. The distance of about 70 km takes one hour, the road is in excellent condition (it’s a five lane highway on some sectors), and the railway is renovated and very efficient. There are no security checkpoints on the road, the whole area being under the jurisdiction of the State of Israel, but there are security checks at the bus and train stations.

We expected Jerusalem to be different, but the difference from Tel Aviv was much bigger that we thought, it feels like you are arriving in a different country. Tel Aviv is a rich and cosmopolite city, with sky-scrapers and modern technology everywhere, with few religious people and really high prices. Jerusalem, although considered by some to be “the spiritual center of the world”, is much poorer, outside of governmental buildings it was little invested here, there are lots of religious people (almost half of the Jews were wearing traditional ultra-orthodox garments and most of the Arab women were wearing veils), the prices are almost half and there are many Palestinians living in modest conditions. The “crossroad between worlds” atmosphere is present everywhere.

We came here by bus, and decided to walk from the bus station towards the center. The pedestrian streets in the central area of the city look nice, with many terraces and restaurants, all open in February. The crowd on the streets looks quite variegated, the holy places attracting pilgrims from all corners of the world. The variety of believers reminded us of our visit at the Vatican.

A picturesque place, very specific to this area, is the Mahane Yehuda bazaar, where we too strolled around for a bit. The combination of merchandise, fragrances and cultures is incredible! From all imaginable kinds of spices kept in overflowing sacks, to jewelry and ceramics, clothing and shoes, handicraft items and various “made in China” stuff, sweets and electronics, fruits and vegetables and much more – everything is neatly arranged in order to attract customers in this cramped, profoundly Levantine space.

The Old City is the main attraction of the city, this is the place where all tourists are heading, believers or not. The area is divided in four “quarters”: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and it’s surrounded by high walls, beautifully restored, with monumental gates.

The fortress is inhabited, there are old buildings where locals live in the midst of tourist madness, among hundreds of shops, venues and churches. An important part of the fortress is also a bazaar, which looks incredible, just like in the animated stories about the Middle East.

At the end of the fortress is the famous Western Wall, the most sacred place of Judaism, where we were only allowed to enter after another round of security controls, and men and women can only approach the wall in different places, specially designated, wearing decent clothing.

In the middle of the square, recruits of the Israeli army (many of whom were girls) were training in a gesture intended to show the entire world who dominated this holy place for the three main monotheistic religions.

After getting lost through some time-shattered Islamic graves, we went beyond the old city, where the climb to the Mount of Olives starts, a place filled with ancient religious relics. The “mount” is actually a hill, where, besides some churches and cemeteries, there are only poor little houses.

We went through the Gethsemane Garden and entered the Franciscan church there, then went up by the Dominus Flevit church to Har HaZetim, a place with a great panorama from where you can see the citadel, the Jewish cemetery and the hill. From there we continued towards the Ascension Chapel and the Russian Church, but it had already darkened and by the winter schedule, they were all closed.

After admiring the city from above, as it was already dark outside, we decided to go down and return home. We descended on a narrow and dubious alley that turned out a dead-end although according to Google Maps it should have continued, and then we finally got to the bottom of the hill, from where we took a minibus to the bus station. After 2 stops, the bus terminated, and we realized we were fooled, the man who recommended us to take the minibus was a friend of the driver – as any extremely touristic site, Jerusalem is not an exception when it comes to crooks, so pay maximum attention and do not rely on the “holiness” of the place, expecting good intentions from everybody. So we went on foot down to the bus station, and from there had no trouble to arrive back in Tel Aviv, although it was raining a little, a rare event in this country.

At the end of the day, we felt like we had seen too little of Jerusalem, and we’ll have to come back one more time to form a more complete view on this strange city. Not having the same religious thrill as the pilgrims, for whom each stone has a profound meaning, we looked at everything with the critical eye of the tourist that is not too easy to impress.

We were disappointed by how chaotic everything is, and how just few vestiges from two millennia ago have actually survived. Most of the places to visit now are in fact medieval or modern buildings, built on the site of formerly important ancient buildings. And the hill with olive trees was completely different than we expected. There is hardly anything arranged for tourists, and the inhabitants here do not seem to take advantage of the pilgrims, living like in an Oriental slum.

Of course we know that the area has been conquered and recaptured in the last 2000 years by many empires and civilizations that have put their mark on it and generated the seemingly random aspect of the present. We also know it is a disputed area, where much has happened in the last 70 years. But still, we were expecting more from the whole place.

We can recommend Jerusalem especially to the faithful, for whom the place has an important value regardless of context. For the other tourists we will come up with an opinion after seeing other parts of the city on our next trip to Israel. Until then, we’ll talk about what else we saw in Tel Aviv in the next article.

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