Israel, the small Middle Eastern country bordered by Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon has been a meeting place of different cultures and religions since the beginning of history. Our writer Emma Clair Kelly headed there on a tour with Go Israel to discover this intriguing country which included its famous Holy City Jerusalem….
Jerusalem is a city a mere four hours from London Heathrow but it’s a place not appearing on everyone’s holiday destination bucket list. Although Jerusalem is laden with religious imagery and iconography, it’s not just a pilgrimage destination, this is a unique city which has so much more to offer. On day one of my trip I opened the curtains of my hotel room only to have my breath taken away by the majestic Mount of Olives in all its glory shimmering back at me. This started a pattern for the day; I am not sure if I even once peeled my eyes away from the extraordinary skyline and awe-inspired gasps were definitely a frequent occurrence!
Parts of the city date back to the BC period and evidence of settlements in the area thousands of years ago can be seen at the City of David where visitors can explore the ruins with the aid of an experienced guide, walk through the Tunnel of Hezekiah and visit the Siloam Pool. The astonishing history of the city is engraved into every block and it’s impossible not to feel overwhelmed by it all.
Irrespective of your religious persuasion a visit to the Wailing Wall is an absolute must. The weight of tradition and culture lies heavily on the buttresses of this reverent site but the seriousness of the area evaporates with the sound of Bar Mitzvah music and festivities as families gather together to celebrate this important milestone of a boy’s life.
As you meander through the narrow, cobble-locked streets of Jerusalem, you might look up suddenly and see a sign that says “Via Dolorossa” and there you are in the 21st Century walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Allow that to sink for a moment, before following the Stations of the Cross that are marked clearly along the route. Quaint little shops line the streets and it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the smell of spices, swish of silks and the intoxicating smell emanating from the numerous bakeries.
Your feet will naturally take you to the awe-inspiring Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the last four Stations of the Cross are within the walls and it is said to be the place where Jesus was resurrected, which gives the building an aura of veneration. However, aside from this you will be blown away by the intricate mosaics, crusader graffiti along the walls and the beautiful basilica. Inside you will find hundreds of people ranging from devout worshippers to those simply over-awed by the reverence of the place, lighting candles or being blessed. There is a striking sense of calm and peace when you walk through the doors, and it’s impossible not to feel the burden of stress from your everyday, ordinary life, not being lifted.
After a delectable lunch, I recommend any of the cafés or restaurants in the market area for a traditional pitta and hummus dish. Do not leave the restaurant without refuelling with a cup of traditional Israeli coffee- an espresso shot with ground cardamom, it is sensational! The coffee is boiled at least three times to give it a smooth, dark flavour with the cardamom adding extra zing to leave you buzzing for the rest of your exploring.
Next take a cab to the wonderful Israel Museum. Leave yourself plenty of time here to fully explore the gardens and the exhibitions inside, which, not only document Israel’s history but also exhibit pieces from other parts of the world. Outside the museum there is a breathtaking model of the city of Jerusalem which, gives you a birds-eye view of what the city looked like during Jesus’ time but inside is an equally fascinating exhibition documenting the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
There is no shortage of places to eat in Jerusalem, the traditional staple of hummus, falafel and tahini is the basis of all menus but each restaurant strikes out with their own versions or twists on a much-loved old faithful. While in the city, head to the renovated train tracks for dinner and drinks. There are lots of bars and restaurants with quirky layouts and designs with modern menus interspersed with local cuisine. Spending evenings around the market area gives you a chance to mix with the locals and have a slightly more authentic experience.
I definitely think it’s time to put Jerusalem on the travellers map. There is so much to explore and experience this incredible city ranging from ancient history to a passionate vibrant culture (and not to mention the possibility of eating your body weight in hummus)!
All words by Emma Clair Kelly, Emma was a guest of Go Israel but all her opinions are her own. Photos are by Scott Balaam and Emma Clair Kelly.