Five days in the promised land is not a lot of time. My trek takes me to Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea and Eilat. It is too late for Hebrew lessons, so I grab a copy of Exodus and toss it in my travel bag for the flight. The overnight flight seems a small price to pay to end up on the other side of the world. Ten hours, and 202 pages into Exodus later, I arrive in the international airport in Tel Aviv at 3pm, and pass through customs & immigration effortlessly. I’m off to wait in the cab line up under the hot Israeli sun, heading for Jerusalem first – a 55-minute journey and a flat fee of 280 shekels ($70) into the city. (And yes, you will need to get some shekels at some point, either before or at the ATM’s in Israel, pick your pain in banking-fee punishment).
The road to Jerusalem from Ben Gurion Airport is rather ordinary, except for a small view of tall buildings of Tel Aviv from the rear window. Eventually, the flat greenery swells to small hills, and the luminous pink-stones buildings of Jerusalem emerge. I pull up the historic King David Hotel. Built in the 1930’s, the hotel exudes colonial splendor and has been the hotspot for diplomats for decades. The goal is to do a quick turn around and get to the Old city before dark. However, the epic view of the Old City from room 627, has slowed my progress substantially. The hotel has a restaurant terrace also offers a dizzying view of the city – ideal is late afternoon sunset when the light reflects off the salmon colored stone buildings.
It’s Friday evening (Shabbot), in the holiest city in the world – and it happens to be the first day of Ramadan as well. Being in Jerusalem on Friday affects a few things – one is wardrobe. I have been given specific instructions by my friend from the Los Angeles Jewish Federation to dress modestly on Friday evenings in Jerusalem – a skirt that covers the knee and bring something to cover my shoulders. Second, because of Shabbot – there is not a grill or hot meal to be found in Jerusalem. No, not even in the hotel. It is a cold dinner and breakfast on Saturday. Somehow, there is hot tea and coffee – phew.
The Old City is a mere ten-minute walk from the King David hotel. It is easily accessed by way of the Mamilla mall – a pedestrian on shopping street that leads to Jaffe Gate – one of the seven open gates into the walled city. One can not help but be taken aback by the quaintness of this millennia old city. It is hard to imagine that this little city has been the center of wars for thousands of years. This city is where the Abrahamic religions connect, and because of this its changed hands of religious control, countless times. Everyone wants a piece of Jerusalem.
The walled Old City, less than one kilometer, is divided into uneven quarters containing, the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter, the Armenian quarter. Enter at the Jaffe Gate, as this gives and easy sloping downward stone path, through the markets, which at the end, a right turn will lead to the Wailing Wall (or Western Wall as it is referred in signs). This wall is a sacred site for Jewish prayer, in which one rolls up on a tiny piece of paper a prayer and places in between the stones. It’s standing room only on a Friday evening and the Hassidic Jews fill the area in traditional black clothing, anticipating their sundown prayer. I manage to get a spot along the wall and feel the warm of the stone as the last of the evening sun set’s upon it. I decide to try my luck and leave a prayer in the wall. It is powerful. You too may wail at the wall.
The Christian Quarter’s central point of interest is the Church of The Holy Sepulcher, built by Constantine’s mother to contain the sight of Jesus’ crucifixion. There is a small spot in the church where visitors can put their hand though and touch the stone where Jesus’ cross apparently was, however, you will have to battle the crowds of Russian tour groups that are anxiously awaiting their turn.
The Muslim quarter contains an area called Temple Mount, which holds dual claims of both Judaism and Islam make it the most widely contested religious site in the world. On the sacred site, sits the Dome of Rock – a stunning gold dome that can be seen from all over Jerusalem. This structure contains the rock from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended into heaven on his Night Journey. Non-Muslims can gain entry to the Muslim quarter though a gate near the Western wall. Strict dress codes must be observed and also there are restrictions on days and times of visits to some of the sites. As Jerusalem lulls to a close for the evening I walked back the hotel for my non-heated dinner and plan my next day.
Saturday morning there is nothing, (and I mean nothing) open in Jerusalem – not even a coffee shop. However, there is one exception, oddly enough the Israel Museum is open. The museum is a beautiful, modern facility that holds the Dead Sea scrolls, as well a beautiful installation of how the region was affected by the many cultures that took over, like the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Perfect for an early morning visit before I head off on a five-hour drive to the Dead Sea and Eilat.
The highway out of Jerusalem, passes the 7000 year-old city of Jericho, and quickly turns to a rocky desert with not much in sight except for a few Bedouin nomad tents. According to my guide (Jacob) there is a lot to see on the way. He suggests: the Ahava cosmetic factory (a skincare product line known for their rich dead sea mineral ingredients), the En Gadi Desert (small walking tour through ominous stone mountains with tiny waterfalls) and Masada, the famous site that the Roman overtook in the first century C.E.
As I prepare for the first stop: a short trek through the En Gedi desert, Jacob assures me that I do not need sunblock, explaining that we are below sea level the suns rays cant do damage here, but I lather up anyway, no point in proving him wrong. The walk into the desert is miles, Jacob is well past retirement age but shows no sign of slowing down. He is on a mission to show me that waterfalls and has me winded. Once there there are loads of people lounging and cooling off from the hot desert air.
Masada is a city raised high on a hill / mountain. It is a famous old city and one of the last ones that Rome conquered around 70 CE. With the backdrop of the red mountains of Jordan, I spot my first sight of the Dead Sea – a thin blue grey line in the distance, sand formations everywhere. The terrain is simply ethereal.
The designated area where visitors can float in the Dead Sea is as tiny as a pop stand. It’s filled with Russian tour buses heading to the ten or so hotels over looking the tiny sea. There are make-shift change rooms on the beach to put on a bathing suit and test the salty waters. An interesting point is that the salt water stings every minor cut. But truth be told, I could not get past my knees. Maybe it was the odd smell, or the litter in the shoreline, or the sludge ring hovering the beach …I kept thinking, this water doesn’t drain anywhere. Yup, I went all the way to the Dead Sea and could not get in!
Eilat is an Israeli vacation hotspot on the Red Sea coast. Eilat is tiny. It has a unique position, at the bottom of the triangle shape that lends Israel access to the Red Sea, and wedged between two countries – Jordan and Egypt. From my hotel room I can see Jordan (1km), the mountains of Egypt (5km), and a distant view of Saudi Arabia on the edge of the Red Sea. I’m staying only one day and choosing how to spend it is a dilemma. You can pretty much walk everywhere. It’s busy – full of cafes, restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. Israel’s rich history and mix of religions create a heightened experience. Oddly enough, this is a region where peace and danger live side-by-side, and both lush foliage and desert terrains thrive. A journey to remember.