I will start off by saying that Jerusalem is incredible. My expectations were already fairly high for the Holy City, but during my stay I was completely blown away by this little disputed corner of the world. I arrived in Jerusalem on an early Friday afternoon by bus from Tel Aviv. The bus was ran by Egged tours, took a whole 40 minutes and cost 18 shekels or five Canadian dollars. Not bad for traveling halfway across this teeny tiny country, right?
The bus dropped me off at the Central Bus Station and from there I navigated my way through the heavy bus station security on my way to find the tram. The security personnel made me go through metal detectors, open up my tightly packed luggage and then proceeded to rummage through my personal belongings. This kind of type security became somewhat of a norm throughout my travels in the Middle East, so I wasn’t too annoyed by it. After security, I sprinted across the street because I saw the tram coming. I felt a bit overwhelmed when I first arrived in Jerusalem as I glanced around this particular busy intersection full of army personnel, Rabbis, children and tourists. When I finally got on the tram and took a seat, an Israeli soldier sat right beside me…with his rifle, please see the picture below for my view! As mentioned in my previous post, seeing rifles became somewhat of a normality to me during my travels in the Middle East, but this was still only my third day and I couldn’t help but reach for my camera!
I then took the tram about three stops towards the city center and got off at Hadavidka Square in search of my hostel (which I heard was an epic one by the way.) The hostel is called Abraham Hostel and was the size of a mini apartment building and it overlooked Hadavidka Square, which is about a fifteen minute walk to the Old City of Jersusalem. After getting settled into my room, I recalled that the receptionist mentioned something about a Shabbat Dinner that night so I decided to make my way back downstairs to ask about what exactly that was and if I could sign up for it. My basic Judaism knowledge was definitely a bit rusty at this point, so I obviously had to ask the girl what a Shabbat Dinner was. Turns out it’s a huge feast to mark the beginning of the Sabbath, which according to my naivety wasn’t just on Saturdays and Saturdays only – but the Sabbath actually starts on Friday evenings. Starting then, everything in Israel gets shut down for about 24 hours from Friday evening to Saturday late evening. All of the stores, restaurants and public transportation is on lock down so that families can celebrate at home together. I found this cute, but was a little annoyed that the Sabbath can’t happen on Mondays or Tuesdays instead. This shift in the calendar means that Sundays turn into a workday and Fridays and Saturdays are the working days off. But being the Canadian non-Jew that I am, I was a little sad that this meant I couldn’t fully enjoy a perfectly good Friday night. So, this is why I signed up for the Shabbat Dinner with about 50 other hostellers. This was probably one of my coolest experiences when it comes to immersing myself in another culture. Everyone had a task when it came to cooking the feast whether it was cutting up meat or peeling potatoes or preparing the wine. My designated duty was with the parsley, which seemed a bit unimportant but I was happy to do it anyways, so long as I was contributing something. Afterwards, everyone sat down at a table and we sang the traditional Shabbat Dinner song “Shabbat Shalom!” and prayed in Hebrew. I, of course, had no idea what was going on and was just sitting on the sidelines watching this tradition as it unfolded around me. I love experiencing cultural traditions such as this, especially when it involves exotic food and wine, so I was happy to participate. The food was out of this world, as most of the food in Israel and the dinner consisted of different kinds of Middle Eastern salads and spreads, so much hummus, meats, vegetables and more importantly – wine. So in other words, it was heaven in my mouth and I ate as much as my little Canadian belly could handle. This hearty meal definitely made up for everything being closed on Fridays, it was so worth it.
The next day I woke up at about 530am because I signed up for a tour to the Dead Sea, Masada and Ein Gedi. I always knew that the Dead Sea was something that I wanted to see, so when I saw the posters for the tour that the hostel organizes, I knew I had to sign up. I have always wanted to go to the Dead Sea ever since I was eleven years old. I remember this so vividly because of a fascinating television show that I used to watch on TV after school called Spectacular Spas. This was probably the starting point of my obsession with travel and foreign lands. When other kids my age were watching the Simpsons and MuchMusic after school, I was watching the Discovery Channel and shows like Spectacular Spas. In the series Spectacular Spas, the host Carrie Oliver travels around the world in search of the creme de la creme of spas and spa treatments. Obviously, I grew envious of her life and somehow imagined that when I was older I would replace her as the host and I, too would get to travel the world in search of the best spas. This clearly never happened, but I do recall one episode that really resonated with me – the Dead Sea episode. Carrie travels to the shores of the Dead Sea to discover the world renowned Dead Sea mud and salt treatments. I fully remember her floating in the Dead Sea at one of the most famous spas there after a relaxing massage and day at the spa with the clay from the shores rubbed all over her. I knew right then and there that I wanted to do that. I didn’t care when, I didn’t care how, but it was on my bucket list. Little did my eleven year old brain know that I would eventually get to go there sooner rather than later, and today was that day.
Our tour bus picked us up around seven and then we were on our way. I met some amazing people in my hostel that had also signed up for the tour: Jenna from South Africa who is currently living on a kibbutz in Israel and Cem from England who is probably one of the most uplifting and hilarious people I have ever met. We were first dropped off at Masada around 11am. The drive there was winding and beautiful as the only major highway in Israel stretches along the Dead Sea, so the views were unbelievable. To our right were desert mountains and rough terrain and to our left you can see the shores of the Dead Sea and the country of Jordan in the background.
Once we arrived at Masada, I could already feel the heavy heat and that’s when it hit me: you are in the desert , in Israel, in the Middle East, thousands of miles away from home. I love that feeling of realization that you get sometimes when traveling. Sometimes its hard to fathom where you are in the world, and it feels like nothing. But times like these, that I was experiencing within that very moment are life-altering, they’re exhilarating and you grow to be appreciative of everything around you because you come to the realization that you may never see something like that again. I have only ever really experienced this a few times, the most vivid times I can recall are when I first saw the Taj Mahal with my own eyes in the North of India and when I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time. And now, Masada was really resonating with me, entering this corner of my travel soul, in a way – I would cherish this moment for a very long time.
Masada is a place that I, unfortunately knew very little about before going there. But, to anyone who has read the bible or studied ancient history probably has a faint idea of the significance of this place. Masada is basically a huge mountain in the desert just off the coast of the Dead Sea where King Herod used to call home. Aside from it’s historical significance, this place is absolutely breathtaking. I actually stopped taking so many pictures because it just wasn’t worth it as the photos did not do this landscape justice. We decided to hike up the side of a mountain which sounds exhausting and indeed it was. I thought I was in decent physical shape, but turns out ascending a mountain in the middle of the desert in the scorching heat is not an easy task. There was a cable car option, but it was more expensive so that is what leaned us towards the hiking route, but in retrospect I would have definitely paid the extra shekels to be driven up instead of dying along the way. I did not bring any hiking shoes, only my ballet flats which is absolutely not the proper footwear for a trek such as this, but I convinced myself I would be okay. I was okay, but my shoes were not. Another lesson learned? Don’t wear black when climbing up mountains in the desert, because you will feel ten times hotter than you actually are.
So, all lessons aside, this was a remarkable place with a remarkable hike and at the top we were rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view along with an audio guide to show us around the sites. We learned that the Romans spent years trying to overtake the kingdom a couple of thousand of years ago and were eventually successful. Many Roman casualties died along the way and you can still see where they set up camp at the base of Masada. But perhaps the most impressive sight of Masada, other than the views, is that of the ramp that the Roman constructed along the mountain to siege the kingdom. This HUGE man-made ramp still stands and is over 375 feet tall. One of the most notorious mass suicides occurred here when the Jewish people decided, once they realized they would not be able to fight off the Romans, that they would rather die at their own hands then become slaves to the Romans. The story of Masada is of course much more complicated than how I have just briefly described it, but I found it so inspirational and figured it needed a bit of a mention here.
So, after Masada we loaded back up into the minibus and drove back along the highway to Ein Gedi national park. This park is a beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert, with nature pathways and waterfalls into little streams and lagoons along the way. We only had about an hour and half here, so most of the time was spent in our bikinis and taking in the scenery. After climbing up Masada in the muggy desert heat it was definitely nice to relax in an Oasis like this!
After Ein Gedi we made our way to the shores of the Dead Sea in true Israeli fashion: at a private beach club. Many private beach clubs are along the Dead Sea, and so are some world famous spas, as mentioned earlier. There are a few towns along the sea with enormous hotels, and some with nothing but barren landscape. We ended up trailing off the Northern tip of the Dead Sea and went to a very busy beach club, which was actually kind of nice. They had a few bars, a DJ, a dance floor and of course a beach. The beach isn’t sandy though, rather it’s just dark clay – which isn’t just slippery, but it’s also piping hot. This made is super difficult to stand on and we were constantly running into the shade of the plastic beach chairs or onto the wooden docks because they didn’t retain heat like the clay. I honestly felt like I had third degree burns on the bottoms of my feet, it was not pleasant at all. So, if anyone is traveling there I would suggest bringing flip flops that you don’t care about that can get a bit messy. We, of course, wanted to float in the Dead Sea. This was what I was really looking forward to doing all day. There is a long dock into the water, and then you’re supposed to step in slowly and then lift your feet up and then VOILA YOUR FLOATING. It was an amazing feeling and I feel like I could’ve stayed there all day. We only had a couple of hours though, so we all just played around in the water – taking pictures of us floating, “reading” newspapers and just relaxing. The water itself is very murky, even murkier than Lake Ontario, but obviously the water colour isn’t exactly it’s appeal. The water contains 33% salt, so this is what makes everything float and thus the name the Dead Sea – because it can’t sustain life with the high salt levels. The water also contains many nourishing minerals that left my skin feeling so soft and clean. It is as much of a ritual when visiting the Dead Sea to cover yourself up in the mud as it is to float in the water, so of course, we rubbed the mud all over us. After rubbing the mud on our bodies, we sat out in the sun for a good half an hour to let the minerals really absorb into the skin. Then, we rinsed ourselves off in the Sea. I loved this natural mud treatment so much that I actually decided to “steal” some of the mud by scooping some up into an empty water bottle to bring back to Canada. This was the coolest and cheapest souvenir I have ever gotten. I don’t know if it’s even legal to take the salts and mud of the Dead Sea in that particular fashion, but I got away with it so that’s all that really matters I suppose. If you try and buy the mud here back home in North America it comes with a steep price tag, so I’m happy I took it! After bottling up my stolen mud, there was enough time to drink one more beer at the bar and then we had to head back to Jerusalem.
The next day in Jerusalem I signed up for another tour, the tour of the Old City. I don’t usually like signing up for tours because I hate the feeling of being “just another tourist” or walking around in huge herds of people with cameras and maps and baseball hats. I much rather wandering around and discovering the place on my own, getting lost and exploring tiny streets and great local food rather than being sucked into the tourist menus (and prices.) But, I figured that Jerusalem is a city with so much history and intrigue – that I couldn’t not go on a tour, and I think I made a really good decision. We walked around the four quarters of the city: The Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter and the Armenian Quarter. Each section has it’s own vibe and it’s own culture. The streets were also riddled with little markets and souks and pushy shop owners. We walked along Via Dolorosa which is known to be the path that Jesus Christ walked down before he was crucified – again, another amazing experience. We went into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is one of the most significant landmarks in Jerusalem, especially for Christians. It is located in the Christian Quarter and has become a major pilgrimage destination as it is the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Presently, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided up in very complicated fashion amongst several Christian denominations but it is also the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
After visiting this church we made our way over to Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall. This was probably the most impressive site I have ever seen in my entire life. The Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall” is the quintessential pilgrimage destination in Judaism. The wall is free and available for tourists to see, but it is imperative that the sacred area is respected. Again, you have to walk through complicated security and wear respectful clothing to cover up all shoulders and knee caps. The area in front of the wall is then divided into two: one side for men and one side for women. I found it incredibly interesting to see that the men’s side was about three times bigger than the women’s side and that they had a lounge area inside and away from the heat – the women’s side did not have this luxury. I wonder why? I never asked the tour guide, but I wish I did. All along the wall, you can see people praying and reading for the Torah while inserting little pieces of paper into the creases of the Wall. At this point, I tried to be as respectful as possible but I really wanted to get close enough to insert a little paper myself containing my own little prayers and wishes in life. I didn’t know exactly what to say in this little piece of paper and I’m convinced that whatever I had to say was nowhere near important as most of the other people’s prayers who were probably facing turmoil that I couldn’t even comprehend even if I tried. But I found a way to sneak through the crowd and actually managed to take a little photo of myself putting my prayer in the Wall. This was a very cool moment, but I tried to be calm and quiet and carefully snuck away after touching the Wall.
The tour then proceeded to go to Temple Mount, which is actually Muslim territory and not technically in Israel, but rather it is Palestinian territory. Israelis are not allowed to enter this area and you must show your passport to get into the area, as well as walk through some more heavy security. I was a little confused that tourists were actually even allowed to enter Temple Mount or see the Dome of the Rock because there were signs everywhere that read:
“…it is forbidden for any person to enter the area of Temple Mount due to its sacredness.” But, we entered anyways. The line was very long by the way to enter Temple Mount, verrrrrry long. About two and a half hours, which was not fun, especially because there is not shaded area in the line and it can be very hot in the Middle East sometimes! It also isn’t guaranteed that you will actually get to see Temple Mount because it closes down five times a day, in accordance with the Islamic prayer laws. They actually closed and locked the gate behind me (I was the last person to walk in with my tour group) and I heard the moans and groans of hundreds of people behind me in line, probably because they just realized that they would have to wait another hour or so to enter. The security almost didn’t let me in because I wasn’t dressed appropriately apparently, with my sheer long sleeved shirt, you could see my tank top and my shoulders. This seemed ridiculous to me, but I remained respectful as they yelled at me in Arabic to cover up. Luckily, a fellow tour grouper handed me her scarf to drape around my shoulders and this seemed to satisfy the security guards, but I could tell they were not a fan of me being there.
Shortly after walking through the gates I was approached by about twenty young Palestinian girls who were laughing and taking pictures of me with their cameras and cell phones. They were asking to hug me and to take pictures with me saying: ” You’re beautiful, where do you come from?” “I love you” “What is your name?” “Why are you here? Do you like it here?” It was a bit overwhelming, because in a way I felt like I was being pulled into multiple directions trying to give each question the time is deserved and smile for every picture with every beautiful little girl. I spent about fifteen minutes getting to know these girls who came from villages all over Palestine with their families to visit the Mosque which is in the Dome of the Rock. But, the time was cut short because the same security guards came up to me and told me to leave. I was appalled, why did they want me to leave? I got the sense that they thought I was tainting the sacred grounds of Temple Mount with my North American clothing and by posing for pictures with little Muslim girls and talking to them about where I come from. This upset me tremendously, but what could I say? I wanted to see the Dome of the Rock and explore Temple Mount more and actually relocate my tour group because I lost them in a frenzy. I tried to reason with the security guard to let me look for my group and he reluctantly agreed but I had to leave the girls alone. I understand him being protective of the land and of the girls, but I have never felt so insulted in my life. Maybe he thought I was too secular? Or maybe he thought I was a promiscuous American who wanted to teach the girls my awful ways? This is clearly not the case, but I have been told by many people from the area that some people think this way when it comes to young North American girls traveling through areas such as this. I experienced a similar phenomenon when I was in India last year when I visited the site of the Taj Mahal with my good friend Talia. We were bombarded in a similar way with pictures and questions everywhere we turned. Our Indian friend, Shreya, explained that people there view us as being “celebrities” or “movie stars” which as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s true. Blondes get even more attention, so in moments like these I am proud to be a brunette.
So, after locating my tour group I circled the area around the Dome of the Rock. Because I am not Muslim, I was not allowed to enter but it was amazing to just stand so close to this international landmark. The Golden circular roof was larger than life and the deep blue tile work on the sides were incredible – I couldn’t stop staring and snapping pictures. Whilst doing that, a young Muslim girl approached me with her little sister in tow and asked if I could take a picture of them. It always amazes me to meet strangers like this who want me to take a picture of them with my own camera. Sometimes they just want to see it on the screen afterwards and sometimes they just want you to remember them, but I love it either way. After taking a few photos I noticed her mother snarling at me from across the park and I quickly decided to walk away to avoid another confrontation, but it was too late and the SAME security guard approached me and told me to leave. This time it wasn’t really my fault however but because it was the Call to Prayer and all non-Muslims were required to leave Temple Mount. And, understandably so, so I quickly found my tour guide who was anxiously awaiting my departure outside the gate and we hurried off just in time for thousands of Muslims to congregate on the grounds in front of the Dome of the Rock to pray.
Yet again – another amazing site. So many amazing cultural experiences in one day and from different cultures altogether. It’s safe to say that I am in love with Jerusalem and can’t wait to return one day.