After a long night of celebrating New Year’s Eve, we woke up bright and early to catch a bus to Jerusalem. We had scheduled a holy city tour and in order to coordinate with the restrictive opening hours of the Temple Mount, our tour had to depart by 11 AM.
The ride was short and easy because unlike the Egged bus going to Nazareth, this line only stops a few places along the way to the Jerusalem bus station (here’s how to make the trip). There is also always the option of taking a sherut instead since they run the same route.
Once in the city we hopped in a cab, dropped our stuff off at Abraham hostels and walked with a group to the Jaffa Gate. A large group was gathering at this meeting point but many departed with the free two hour Old City tour. We hadn’t realized this was available (it is run by the same group who provided our free walking tour of Old Jaffa) and had instead signed up for a four hour Holy City Tour, which includes a few more stops as you probably guessed.
Jerusalem is sometimes said to mean “city of peace” which is ironic since it has been conquered more than any other city in the world. After a brief history of the Tower of David, and why its called that when in fact David did not build it, we walked towards the site of the last supper and King David’s tomb. I love how all the old and all the history of this city are mixed right into modern life.
The architecture is stunning but we quickly saw that, with a history like Jerusalem has, many structures are built upon older structures and sites so when you are visiting things like the last supper room, it is actually a structure built upon the estimated location of the original event.
We walked over to the Temple Mount entrance next to see the Dome of the Rock. This ended up taking a large portion of our time because security is tight and the site is only open a limited number of hours each day to non-Muslim visitors. We were in line behind a group of Orthodox Jews, who were thoroughly searched for religious materials, which are not allowed in the site, in addition to the typical security precautions. Unfortunately the Orthodox Jews were greeted by loud chanting in Arabic as they walked the perimeter of the holy site (it is forbidden in their religious beliefs to go onto the site, it’s that holy being the location of the First and Second Temples) so our guide lead us away to avoid confrontation.
This site is holy for Jews because it is built on top of what once was the First Temple and later the Second Temple. For Muslims, the Dome of the Rock which is standing on the site today houses the rock where Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside the shrine, so I can’t attest to it, but there are many rumors surrounding the rock that can be found inside. I was more preoccupied, however, with that 24 karat gold dome! Talk about a statement piece.
We were rushed through and then shortly thereafter pushed out the doors through a separate exit. The hours for visitors are seriously limited and they do not let you linger after the alarm to leave sounds. So instead, our group settled into a corner of the Muslim Quarter nearby the exit to discuss the more historical point of the place. I settled down against a little fence and was a bad student, because instead of listening I flirted with this little guy who seemed to have snuck out of his home to explore the big group of foreign visitors.
The Temple Mount exit dumps you out right by the Western Wall, so that was our next stop. It is the last remaining piece of the Second Temple I mentioned before so it is up against one side of the Temple Mount. The Western Wall is a holy site for Jews and many people come from around the world to tuck a slip of paper with their prayers, hopes and wishes into the crevices. I’d tell you what I wished for, but then it might not come true.
So many do this in fact, that the little slips are taken out and buried twice a year to make space for new ones. If you would like to see for yourself you can take a peak at the Western Wall webcam which shares the live action. Israel is seven hours ahead of EST so if your in my timezone take a peak around Friday morning to get a glimpse at the wall during Shabbat.
After exploring the Muslim and Jewish quarters it was time to head through the markets and over to the Christian quarter. The main holy site here is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus was said to be crucified. We did not stop at all of the stations of the cross, but many are housed within the church.
Like the other holy sites, the church is always very crowded so we stopped outside while our guide explained the historical and biblical significance of the place. My feet were still a little sore from ringing in the new year and dancing all night long just a few hours before so I sat down for a few minutes before we headed inside.
It turned out to be even more crowded on this day because the Roman church had sent their people to visit the church and we got caught in their procession. The artwork was especially impressive and depicts the history of the site. People line up for hours to get a chance to touch various stations, light candles and walk through the tomb. Many of the pieces of the church have been renovated and updated throughout the years, so the architecture, in itself, provides a history lesson.
Our tour ended later than planned, taking almost six hours instead of four due to security checks, crowds and questions (our free two hour walking tour in Jaffa took an hour longer than expected too) so be prepared to spend a little extra time on tours than is scheduled. I think that is just a fact of life. Our guide was very knowledgeable and made sure everyone experienced what they came to see, which can be a challenge considering the city is meaningful to so many religions and for so many historical events. There is no way I could have explored Jerusalem and understood as much without a guide.
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