One of the oldest inhabited places on earth, Israel has been accommodating people since about 2800BC, it is central to many religions and was of course where Jesus was born (down the road in Bethlehem) and spent much of his life. Predominantly a Jewish country Israel is a country that many people have formed pre conceptions of. For example, Syria and Lebanon, two of its neighbours refuse to acknowledge the existence of Israel and a stamp in your passport will exclude you from entry to most Arab countries. In short, throughout the Arab world Israel doesn’t have many friends.
Looking for a place that Jews could call their home the biblical home of Palestine was the choice country. Inhabited by Arabs but run by the British, Jews began to slowly but surely inhabit Palestine. After World War Two and the extermination of over six million Jews many Jewish families relocated to the relative safety of Palestine. The British had been keen to make Palestine a Jewish and Arab country but when it became clear the Arabs were out right pissed off with the idea the British bailed and left the now huge Jewish and Arab populations to sort the mess out themselves.
A war broke out and in 1948 after defeating the invading armies of Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Jordan Israel was born and suddenly the Arabs that had called Palestine their home for centuries were out on their ear. After the war some effort toward creating peace was made and at the East of the Israel an area called the West Bank was left under Jordan control and inhabited by Arabs or Palestinians and to the South West a small area called the Gaza strip was likewise left under Egyptian control.
Further fighting broke out and eventually Israel claimed the West Bank and Gaza strip. Neither Jordan or Egypt agreed and it wasn’t long before terrorist strikes started against the Israel homeland from both West Bank and Gaza. Yasser Arafat was at the helm and after a while Israel let Gaza and the West Bank return to Palestine control.
No one really has found peace in Israel and Gaza though the West Bank has chilled out a bit, Gaza regularly throws bombs into Israel and suicide attacks are sadly common place throughout Israel, particularly in Jerusalem. Israel has all but cut itself of from both the West Bank where poverty is rife and Gaza where it is pretty much a free for all and as such no government on earth deems it safe to travel to.
Of course the Arabs have held a lifelong grudge and with Gaza promising daily to harm the exceptionally strong economy of Israel security is tight. Soldiers roam the street armed to the teeth, machine guns, assault rifles and all carried by teenagers is a common sight in Israel. Military checkpoints are regular and don’t expect to enter any public building without having your bag X Rayed. Even the American’s aren’t this paranoid – But in truth the Israelis have every reason to be.
The airport which we leave from ‘Ben Gurion’ is about half way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The distance between the two cities is about half an hour and so with little time I had to decide which we would visit. Tel Aviv is supposed to be the San Francisco of the East and whilst I love San Francisco it’s a bit formulated. A bit fake, a beautiful place nonetheless, yes I love the Wharf, the hills and will always remember driving across the Golden Gate Bridge at 3am blasting out Stereophonics in the worst rain California had seen in fifty years. But Jerusalem on the other hand is widely recognised (and is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site) as being one of the most beautiful, historical cities on the planet. There is no where on earth that represents such religious importance to so many religions than Jerusalem and nowhere is this more prevalent than the Old City.
The bus ditched us at the Central station and the first thing we noticed was how modern it was, I guess really I imagined Jerusalem to look either like a tired Beirut, worn down from years of wars and trouble, with a few churches dotted about. What we actually got was an uber modern megalopolis sprawled across the mountains and with buses that had Wi-Fi and a brand new tram system that cuts through the heart of the city in minutes.
Few things are written in English since Hebrew is the national language and so a bit of head scratching and asking locals and we jumped on the tram and pretty soon bailed at the old city.
What confronted us was huge walls surrounding a city that we could not see, except for the odd church higher than the 20ft castle like city walls. Jaffa gate was where we needed to be and is where all the budget places are. Hotels in Israel are massively expensive and most are around £50+ for even the most basic place consisting of a bed and a ceiling.
Now, when choosing a room the most important thing for me is safety, followed extremely closely by cleanliness and the first few places we looked at were disgusting. Absolutely minging places and when I was being asked fifty quid for the room I felt like handing out a head butt for the cheek. After a few places it was clear for our last night, standards would have to drop, I grabbed my guidebook and started to look for where a collection of hotels, perhaps mid range would be. An America girl asked if she could help. She was a Jewish girl and after I told her our plight she said to go with her and she would see if she could help. We went to her house and chilled out for a bit and though she didn’t have space for us she brought her grandma to us who is Armenian and who said we could stay with her. An elderly woman she took us round the corner and said we could stay in her house for the night. She gave me the keys and said she was staying in the house upstairs. I asked how much she wanted and she refused anything. So here I sit now in an Armenian Lady’s house, at no cost in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Actually I am going to stock up her fridge for her on the sly and so when we leave she will return and find that she has shopping she didn’t have, we’ll be gone before she notices just in case she takes insult by it!
As the crow flies the Old City isn’t that big. Less than a kilometre wide and about a Kilometre long it is but a maze of alleyways and set into quarters. There is the Muslim quarter, Jewish Quarter, Armenian Quarter and Christian Quarter. Here the religions live in their communities in safety and freedom. The Old City is filled with stunning religious buildings. It is home to some of the world’s most important religious sights and makes for a magical and mysterious time exploring the unique city. The Old city is named regularly throughout the bible and it here that the first Christian Martyr was stoned to death. It must have been strong stuff back then….. Ok, there is also the Wailing Wall, underground tunnels of cities gone by, St Anne’s Church (The Virgin Mary’s parents lived here) The station of the Cross which is accepted as being the place where Jesus was forced to drag his cross en route to his place of death. The Temple Mount is also here which is supposedly where Cain and Able to used chill, Noah also spent time here and it is also where Abraham offered his son Isaac for sacrifice. Muslims believe that actually the Temple Mount is where Mohammed went to join Allah in Heaven. The final place of Jesus life is here too, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. King David’s tomb is here and so is the place where Jesus’ mother the Virgin Mary passed on.
One of the most moving films I have ever seen and probably one of the most life changing and moving films ever made is Schindlers List. Well, Oskar Schindler is laid to rest here too.
That list is by no means exhaustive but gives a good idea of just how important and historically rich the Old city is. There is no transport allowed in the city and so it’s just a case of mooching along, getting lost and experiencing the city of such importance it is visited and inhabited by people from all over the world.
Not that I like to namedrop but we bumped into someone famous too. I was trying to take the photo and because the wall was so slim I had to find an alcove and get inside so I could get the correct distance between the kids and the background at the right balance. I saw someone to the side waiting for me to take the photo. She was smiling and with a friend and said hi to the kids. As I looked I heard Charlie say “Are you Susan Boyle” and she said “yes sweety” I climbed out and said thanks for waiting. I thought Charlie was taking the piss, it seemed he wasn’t and we exchanged a few pleasantries and went along our way. The kids were star struck J
Whilst not intentional I think we found the perfect place to finish the trip, what better place than here where we can experience so many religions and visiting so many sacred and holy places.
Whilst we aren’t religious that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate religion and respect those that practice it. If truth be known I find some religious buildings to be amongst some of the most beautiful and tranquil places there are. I find Religion intriguing, interesting and above all we revel in its mystique.