Why do I Travel? A Tour of Jerusalem: Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, Via Dolorosa, Mount Zion.
I came to Israel to report on Tel Aviv’s modern fashion designers and nightlife. However, I was as excited to see Jerusalem, the centuries-old city of miracles and blood.
I didn’t grow up in any religion, but have always been interested in ancient cultures. Spending a day in Jerusalem turned out to be one of the highlights of this tourism board trip, and reminded me of why in-person travel is so important. Read on for magic moments that you couldn’t get from reading a book.
Our wonderful guide Uri Golani took us for a day tour of Jerusalem, about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. We stopped to take in this view of the Temple Mount and Old City. For centuries, this tiny piece of land has been sacred to several religious groups including the Romans, Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Many travelers come here as a spiritual pilgrimage. But even if you’re not religious, Jerusalem is an monumental place to visit, especially with a guide like Uri who can explain the city’s complicated history.
(Photography in this post by me and Melissa Rundle. Magic moment #1: how awesome are these Asian tourists?)
Everywhere I looked, I had questions. Who are these men? Why are they swaying their heads? Why do the gravestones look like this? (Uri explained these are Hasidic or ultra-Orthodox Jews, “shuckling” back and forth as they pray in a traditional funeral. Idolatry is a no-no in Judaism, hence the plain markings.)
I can’t begin to describe the layers of human history at Temple Mount. So many different rulers and religions, over the centuries. At the top, you can see the surrounding Walls of Jerusalem, built by Suleiman I during the reign of the Ottoman Empire.
The most famous (or at least shiniest) landmark is the golden Dome of the Rock. After the Persians invaded in the 1st century, they built this Islamic shrine. In the 1990s, the roof was refurbished by King Hussein of Jordan.
(Note: you aren’t allowed to enter most religious sites unless your shoulders and legs are covered. Don’t worry, I brought a scarf!)
All over Israel, we saw people offering camel rides. Many of the animals wore colorful Bedouin garb. Magic moment 2: I tried to pose with a camel, and it grabbed onto my shawl and started chewing!
We stopped by the Church of All Nations — Catholic, but with an open altar for other Christian denominations. It’s next to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus supposedly prayed before he was crucified.
Magic moment 3: My filmmakers and I laughed at a sign that said “Please, No Explanations Inside the Church”. Then we fended off vendors trying to sell us olive branches, which may or may not have come from the garden…
It’s an uncanny feeling, walking in halls where miracles supposedly took place, inspiring everything from paintings to wars. This is the Coenaculum (Uri explained: “Dining room”) on Mount Zion, where Jesus and his disciples had the Last Supper.
Magic moment 4: we ran into a group of Jewish girls on a field trip. They were curious and giddy as kittens, and crowded around filmmaker Melissa when they realized she could speak some Hebrew. Since she’s Canadian, they asked if she liked Justin Bieber. When she answered no in Hebrew, they cheered at her language skills… and then their faces fell because they’re devoted Beliebers!
Magic moment 5: eating Jerusalem bagels, sold from a wooden cart by the Gate of Zion. Did you know that bagels are oblong and chewy here? We tried one with a pinch of za’atar, an aromatic green mix of Middle Eastern herbs.
By now, I’m sure you get my point — travel is filled with unexpected moments that make the experience magical. We stumbled upon this group of boys goofing around. Many people live in the heart of Jerusalem – it’s not just a tourist site — and you get peeks of everyday life like clothes hanging from windows.
And we came across several bar mitzvahs (coming of age ceremonies for 13 year old boys). This ages-old ritual has become a modern affair: the group had colorful balloons, an announcer with a portable microphone, and a film crew to rival mine.
Nothing encapsulates “traditional meets modern” more than an Orthodox Jew talking on his cell phone, overlooking an ancient city. (What’s the story behind the hats? Why and how do they curl their sidelocks? So many questions… thank goodness for our patient tour guide, Uri!)
I couldn’t wait to see the famous Western Wall, aka Wailing Wall. It’s a remnant of the enclosure around the Jewish Temple courtyard.
I’ve seen quite a few photos and videos of this spot, but still, it took me by surprise. I didn’t realize the wall is divided into two gendered sections. The male area was lively: some people were dancing in a circle, others chanting aloud. The women’s section is quieter; many sat in plastic chairs and read the Torah.
Before entering, everyone has to scan their bags and walk through a metal detectors. Guards make sure you cover your shoulders and legs.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be fashionable. We spotted a tour group of extremely wealthy Russian ladies. Each wore thousands of dollars worth of designer clothing, and shoes that weren’t exactly made for walking. (Those sunglasses are Prada Baroques.)
Filmmaker Melissa touches the wall and puts a note in one of the gaps. Every year, more than a million people leave written wishes or prayers in the cracks of the wall. These are collected and buried, in accordance with Jewish law.
Yet another fun moment: we learned that these “stirrups” are for people to stand on, so that they can look into the different sections.
Quite a different feeling in the Muslim quarter. Stalls line the cobbled streets. Vendors tried to entice us with fresh pomegranate juice and religious memorabilia.
Uri showed us the Stations of the Cross on Via Dolorosa. This is the path Jesus walked, with the cross on his back, on the way to his crucifixion at Golgotha. We continued the journey inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where pilgrims can light candles.
Ready for a transition? We went from the Mount of Olives (from which Jesus ascended to heaven)… to a Mound of Olives in the Machane Yehuda Market!
This festive Jerusalem marketplace sells food and goods, like colorful kippahs or yarmulkes (caps worn by Jewish men).
We got “Shuk Bites”, or vouchers that let us taste a variety of snacks from the market. These included mint tea, stuffed grape leaves, red kubbeh soup (with dumplings) and imaruly (a pizza-like pastry stuffed with cheese and spinach).
When we stopped by a juice bar, they offered us ghat, or qat! Legal in Israel, people chew this leaf as a stimulant (the Somalian pirates used it to get high before attacking Captain Phillips and his crew).
I found the leaves too bitter and spat them out. You have to chew ghat for at least an hour before it has any effect, so I can’t tell you how it feels…
Visiting Jerusalem left my mind reeling with questions and memories. I hope this post conveys what makes travel so special. I can tell you stories and show you images, but there’s really nothing like being somewhere in the flesh, reacting to the smells, sounds and people around you.
We were lucky to have Uri as our guide — he became our friend during this week-long trip, and we shared many laughs and discussions. I hope you’ll ask him to be your guide in Israel; info is on his Uri Golani Tours site.
I enjoyed writing this post, and hope I got the facts about Jerusalem right. If there’s anything that you’d like to clarify or add, please leave a comment or chat me on my Facebook.
What makes travel important to you? Would you want to visit Jerusalem?