I try to keep my travel writing light and useful — lots of “how to”s and photos of beautiful places. But after visiting Jerusalem last month I was left so speechless, so in awe… I’m still confused how to put my experience into words.
Something happened to me in Jerusalem.
Some door inside my mind or soul or whatever you’d like to call it, opened for the first time and I’ve been desperately trying to keep it ajar since we’ve returned.
Our tour guide, Etai, warned me that this could happen.
“There is something special in Jerusalem. A force. A madness. There is a reason why so many people come here,” he said on the hour-long drive from Tel Aviv. I nodded my head, thinking of the many churches I’ve visited on my travels. So many, in fact, that the stone altars and stained-glass windows had all begun to blur together.
Another church. Another “must-see,” I thought as we passed through the imposing gates to enter Jerusalem’s Old City.
This is where I tell you that I identify as Christian.
But, I didn’t feel “more Christian” in Jerusalem.
I felt more convinced that Jesus was a human, instead of a nice, bearded man from Sunday School. And actually he didn’t sound as nice as I remembered the more we spoke about his recorded activities in Jerusalem. There he was on Temple Mount, overturning tables and whipping merchants. Here he was on the Via Dolorosa, crying while carrying a cross. There he was on a hill, dying as a criminal. And slowly I began to put away the blue-robed image of Jesus from my childhood and replace it with a living, breathing man — one who was a disruptive radical in Jerusalem’s record books.
As for the church considered the most holy Christian site in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was not the oversized, gilded temple that I had imagined.
On the inside, there was more in the way of bejeweled things to see. There were also a lot of tourists pushing and clamoring to see these things. To touch them or kiss them or take an iPhone photo of them. I don’t consider myself agoraphobic, but suddenly I had no interest in seeing what people were waiting hours to see. I felt that simply lining up with them would shatter the mental quiet I had been feeling since we entered Jerusalem.
What did interest me was the rock on which Jesus reportedly died: Golgotha. This rock remains split from an earthquake which occurred just after his death. It is also one of the few, sobering reminders that the church is built on an execution site and tombs. If you want to see Golgotha, take the stairs down to the church’s lower level.
Jerusalem’s Old City is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. Although there are no borders between the neighborhoods, you feel a subtle shift when you pass from one to the next. The storefronts change, the restaurants change, the smells change. Arabic signs give way to Hebrew and menorah stores become rosary bead shops.
We stopped for lunch in the Jewish quarter. Over shawarma and fries we asked our guide what it feels like to be Jewish in a conflicted Jerusalem.
“If you remember, the crusades between Christians and Muslims went on for hundreds of years,” he said. “Our conflict is only the most recent one. It started before we were here and will continue after we’re gone.”
Etai’s words struck me. His perspective could not have been more different than my mile-a-minute, “what’s the latest news?” Western way of thinking I’ve ascribed to for the past 33 years.
I suppose Jerusalem has that affect on her residents. You certainly get the sense of how small you are and how short your life is in the presence of so much history. There is no room for ego in Jerusalem.
Finally, we visited one of the most holy sites in Judaism — the Western Wall. After passing metal detectors and armed guards, we parted ways to the men’s and women’s sections of the wall. People in all manners of dress — from the formal, ultra-Orthodox suits to modern clothes — were entranced in prayer there. They were touching the wall, kissing the wall, tucking small scraps of paper with prayers on them into cracks in the wall. They were doing anything to get a little closer to what lies beyond — the now Muslim-controlled Temple Mount. Only Muslims are allowed to visit the mosque on Temple Mount and anyone found in the vicinity who is not Muslim will be arrested, our guide told us.
On visiting Jerusalem yourself
Go during off-season. Jerusalem is a popular destination, especially around Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter and the summer. The least-crowded times of the year are January, February, October and November. Visit the Old City on any day of the week, but not on Friday and Saturday when most shops are closed for Shabbat.
Hire a guide. There is no way we could have seen as much as we did and understood the gravity of what we saw without a professional guide. I can personally recommend our guide Etai from the Israel Travel Company.
Dress appropriately. Wear pants or a long skirt and long sleeves. Women should bring scarves to cover their heads. We dressed in layers, because even in November Jerusalem can be warm.
Leave the stroller at home. I found all of Israel very child-friendly, but the Old City of Jerusalem is not exactly stroller-friendly. We transported our son in our trusty carrier.
Finally, I hope you are enjoying a lovely holiday season wherever you are and whatever you celebrate. Today, we’re headed to the U.S. to be with family and we couldn’t be more excited to spend time with our loved ones. We’re feeling especially fortunate this year to have seen and experienced so much of this incredible world!