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10 Days in Egypt & Israel – Day 9

By tam-admin | December 7, 2007

We plan to tackle Jerusalem today, and we have to head out early because today is Friday and Shabbat (the Jewish holy day of rest) begins at sunset. The capital and largest city in Israel, Jerusalem is located in the Judean Mountains and contains such a vast concentration of historic sites, we know there’s no way to conquer this city on our own. We seek the advice of the hotel’s concierge.

While you can request a private tour guide, rates here are much higher than Egypt. The hourly tour rate here is almost as much as a full day’s tour in Egypt (starting at around $80 US dollars per hour – yikes!). It’s recommended that we utilize the services of a local taxi driver and negotiate a much cheaper price for the entire day. We decide to try it out and are introduced to the driver who will guide us through the city’s maze of historical remains.

After our lessons learned in Egypt, we run down the list of sites we’d like to see. Our guide agrees and asks if we’d also like to visit Bethlehem. We exchange a surprised glance and answer in the affirmative. Bethlehem is located in the Palestinian West Bank (simply called “The Territories” by the Israeli locals), and I am admittedly nervous about entering this area which has been a location for past Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. These days you’ll have to pass through Israeli military checkpoints just to cross into the West Bank.

Just outside the city limits of Bethlehem, our driver takes us to the top of an overlook and pulls over to make a phone call. This is as far as our Israeli guide will take us into the West Bank. He has arranged for a local Palestinian guide to take us from here. The guide and driver pull up and we jump in and weave our way through the narrow, winding streets of Bethlehem.

View of Bethlehem from overlook.

Photo: View of Bethlehem from overlook.

Our new guide first takes us to the Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world. We enter through the Door of Humility (a tiny door reduced in size by the Crusaders to prevent attackers from entering on horseback). This conglomeration of religious structures includes a Greek Orthodox Monastery, numerous chapels, and the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine – all built over an underground cave which contains a shrine built to commemorate the place where it’s believed Jesus was born. A 14-point star marks the location, and you’ll find lines of people waiting to touch, kiss, take photos, and leave prayers under the altar.

The Church of the Nativity is also the location of the infamous 39-day siege of 2002 during which Israel invaded Bethlehem. Since then, the ever-increasing and heavily publicized tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Territories have deterred tourists from visiting. Although we did notice some small groups touring the sites, for the most part, the streets and shops here were virtually empty. As our guide pointed out, the locals here who once thrived on tourism have been hurt badly by the negative publicity over the last several years. Tour guide requests have been reduced from several a day to one or two a week – if any. Our guide points out the safety we’ve experienced during our trip and asks us to spread the word back home. 

After spending time exploring this enormous religious site, our guide ends our tour with a trip to a local souvenir shop. We exchange glances again as we immediately reflect back to the perfume and papyrus salesmen of Egypt. Here, however, you won’t be pressured into these things. Nope. This time it’s jewelry.

We’re followed like shadows here and made to feel like injured antelopes being stalked by hyenas. Like Egypt, stores here customarily welcome you with  beverages in the hopes of making you feel enough at home that you’ll open that wallet a bit wider. You can’t touch or look at anything here without a sales pitch about it and a request to add it your basket. Every possible opportunity is taken to direct your attention back to the cases of jewelry (very expensive jewelry considering the 4 sheckles-to-1 US dollar exchange rate). The Egyptians may do well to take classes from the Palestinians. We try very hard to remember the situation the locals are in and purchase a couple of small souvenirs, and firmly explain to the hovering sales crew that we will not be buying any jewelry today.

As we get ready to head out the door, our frustrations are heightened when we learn that our driver has a flat tire and will be delayed. We’re stuck with the hovering staff. We grab a seat in chairs next to the door and pass the time with entertaining conversations with a couple of Palestinian locals. One of the gentlemen, an older man who I would swear was taken right out of The Godfather, sits casually across from us, dressed in a suit, leaning on his elaborate wooden cane and wearing a white fedora. In a deep, gravelly voice with a heavy accent, he asks what part of the U.S. we’re from. In reply to our “Oregon” response he says, “Isn’t that the state with all the snakes?” We exchange yet another surprising glance on this trip and stammer out an “Um… sure… we have some snakes.” He doesn’t seem like the type of person who would respond positively to being corrected by a couple of young tourists (and again, a vision of Don Corleone flashes through my mind). Future discussion indicates that he’s confused the state of Oregon with Arizona.

He chronicles various trips he’s taken to the eastern U.S. to visit his daughters who reside there currently. We learn that New York and Miami are his two primary destinations, and he’s smitten with everything Miami has to offer. He pauses, and with a very serious tone asks us which city we prefer – New York or Miami? We pause thoughtfully, not knowing what to say because, quite frankly, we don’t have a preference. This is a judgment question, and the wrong answer seems like it would garner some hostility, and “we like them both equally” doesn’t cut it. Leaning forward and staring intensely at us, he repeats, “Well, which would you choose?!” (The vision of Don Corleone is back). A quick review of his comments suggests that Miami is probably the best answer, and we are relieved when he sits back and responds with an affirming, “Um hmm.”

A second local joins the conversation. He has just completed his degree in Mass Communications and is finding it impossible to locate a job here. For part-time work he offers tour guides whenever possible in this now sparse business field. A few minutes later we’re relieved to learn that our driver has arrived, and we’re off to the border to meet back up with our original Israeli guide.

The flat tire has cost us almost an hour of precious time, and now we’ll have to fly like speedracers around the city of Jerusalem before Shabbat begins.

Our first stop is the Mount of Olives, offering spectacular panoramic views of  Jerusalem, including the Old City. It’s the perfect place to start your Jerusalem adventure in order to learn the lay of the land. Directly below us and lined in rows down the hillside is the world’s oldest cemetery that is still in use today. In the distance we can see the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Russian Orthodox church, the Montefiore Windmill, and off in the distance,  the Crusader Citadel (Jaffa Gate area), or, as our guide so creatively described it – “where people were fighting with crosses.”

View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

Photo: View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

From the other side of the Valley of Jehoshaphat, we’re able to see the Mount of Olives, the Church of All Nations and below it the Tomb of Jehoshaphat, Absalom’s Pillar, the Grotto of St. James and the Tomb of Zechariah. After a tour of the Church of All Nations, we head to the Old City.

The Old City is an amazing network of tunnels, streets, alleys, churches, mosques and markets, all surrounded by an enormous stone wall. It can be entered via any number of gates and is divided into four distinct areas: the Jewish Quarter, Christian Quarter, Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. In the southeastern part of the Old City stands the Dome on the Rock on the Temple Mount, a mosque which now resides over the location where once a Jewish Temple stood. And according to the Jewish belief, the earth in this location was gathered and used to create Adam. This site has been struggled over by Jews and Muslims for centuries. (Currently the mosque is typically only open to Muslims.) 

Next, we visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in the Christian Quarter. This is said to be the biblical Calvary – the site where it’s believed Jesus was nailed to the cross, died and was resurrected. You’ll discover a labyrinth of chapels, altars and arcades. Nearby are King David’s Tomb and the Room of the Last Supper where it’s believed Jesus dined with his disciples for the last time.

In the Jewish Quarter, we visit the famous Western Wall, the most holy of all Jewish sites. Sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall, the area is divided into a men’s side and a women’s side, and locals and visitors both come here to pray. Men are required to wear a kippa  (the small round cap worn by Jewish men) – if you don’t have one, there are paper versions available for use.
Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Photo: Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.
There are also various places throughout the Old City where you can view the original ancient street below. You can spend a great deal of time here not only exploring the religious and historical sites, but also shopping in the markets and sampling the huge variety of food. Also be sure to look for the 14 marked stations – each one has a significant religious belief associated with it.

The aroma of spices and fresh-baked bread fills the air. We grab a couple of tasty products from a bakery in the Jewish Quarter, and then our guide takes us back to the hotel. After a quick dinner, we hit the road again and make our way south to the town of Be’er Sheva. Here we’ll stop for the evening and save the remainder of the trip to Masada for the morning. The only decent hotel in Be’er Sheva (the Golden Tulip) is booked for the evening and we’re forced to stay in the only other accommodations in this small town – this place would make a hostel look like paradise. If you can’t get reservations at the Golden Tulip, plan on heading to the next town.

Check back to find out what happens tomorrow for Day 10 in Israel!

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