Thursday, June 20, 2013

Israel / Palestine: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and The Dead Sea.

It would take a night on the bus to get to Jerusalem from Dahab, but we decided that the opportunity to see the Holy Land was worth the cost. We left Dahab at 8:00 pm on June 17 and made our way to the junction that leads to Taba to the north and Sharm el Sheik to the south. There we would be joining with another bus to take us to the border at Taba.

We had heard that you have to walk a considerable distance over the 'no man's land' that exists between Taba and the Israeli border town of Eilat. However, there was not too much walking. What did take a great amount of time was passing through immigration, both exiting Egypt and entering Israel. Overall, this process took about two hours, which required us to stand in multiple lines and have multiple people checking our passports. Many questions were asked of us on the Israeli side, such as what we are going to Israel for, if it was our first time, profession, etc.

After passing through security, we got on another bus and headed towards Jerusalem. It was now around midnight and we were forced to sit at the back of the bus due to the bus being split up into two groups. At the front were the Russians, which comprised most of the group. The cost for the tour in Russian is $60, while the trip in English costed us $90 after a discount was given. The reason for the disparity in prices, we were told by two separate individuals, is that the Russians buy more souvenirs. We were told that we could take the tour with a Russian guide if we wanted, and we had thought about it and almost did it, but after thinking about the information on the sites, we figured that the extra money for the English guide was worth it. Looking back, it was.

It was hard to get a lot of sleep, and morning came early. We were passing along the Dead Sea when the sun was rising, and the sun peeking over the mountains in the distance was a nice sight. However, we continued to fall in and out of consciousness as we made our way to Jerusalem.

We finally reached Jerusalem around 6 am and our guide began to get some information on us, asking where we were from. Many of the English group, 21 in total, were from the EU. We were the only tourists in the group from the United States, and the guide said it was rare for him to have Americans in the group.

We entered the city, which is a city of hills, full of very old buildings and temples. It is a very beautiful city, much more beautiful than I had expected it to be. It is a lot greener than I expected it to be, especially since the surrounding area is still very dry desert. The guide began to tell us about each of the temples and churches which were below us, such as the Church of Mary and the Dome of the Rock. However, at this began, there were some problems. Both the Russian group and the English group's guides were using microphone headsets. The Russian's guide's headset was wired through the bus speakers, which connected to the back of the bus where we were sitting. The English guide's headset used a regular speaker. The Russian groups guide was not happy about the noise of the English guide's speaker, and the Russians seemed to want him to quiet it down. And, some of the English speakers were annoyed at the Russian guide's voice being projected throughout the entire bus. There was not much that could be done about it.

The English guide tried to keep his voice down after a while, but it was still annoying others it seemed. At one point it seemed that the Russian guide was trying to annoy him and he eventually didn't care what they thought.

At the beginning of the tour we drove to a viewpoint where the sun was rising over the city. It was very cool out at this point, and we were assured that it would be getting a lot hotter. After a few minutes here, we all got back on the bus and drove to Bethlehem. He talked a little about modern Israel and the 'war' with Palestine, and some of the history. There is a wall being constructed in Israel/Palestine and our guide talked about this quite a bit. Much of his talk was very political, and it seemed that he sided with the Palestinians. We stopped at a gift shop after driving around the city and got out to do some shopping and have tea.

This is where we really understood that the Russians tend to buy more than the other group of English speakers. Many people took baskets and loaded up with things. Beverly got a thimble for her collection and a couple postcards. Others either bought things or just looked around. It was nice to stretch. We left the gift shop after a while and went outside to rest and get a couple of pictures of the valley below. Then we got back on the bus and headed to the Church of the Nativity, which is also in Bethlehem. This is where Jesus was born.

The bus was parked in a parking garage, and we walked through some of the old city of Bethlehem before reaching the church. It is a very large church and there is a very small door that you must kneel down to go through. You can see where there were once larger arches at the church entrance.

The birthplace of Jesus.
Inside, the church is very ornate. It has been remodeled many times. The place where Jesus was born is below in a grotto. On this day, there was a mass going on, so we were not able to go down and see the manger where he was born, but we did get to look in. It was quite something to be there, at the spot where he was born. The church, obviously, had been built around the stables that once existed there, and the building itself is quite ornate and it is incredibly old.

There was another section that we did not get to see because of the mass. That is the area where the bones and remains of the babies killed by Herod are laid to rest underground. It would have been very interesting to see that, but perhaps if we return one day, we can see it then.

Next we went out to the old city of Bethlehem again and many people stopped for falafel and others bought some things at the markets there. Beverly purchased a couple shirts with an Arabic style pattern. They are quite pretty. Many of the shops accept multiple types of money, including US Dollars, Euros, and Egyptian Pounds. Many people were using US Dollars, which was interesting.

After this part, we headed to get an “early” lunch. It was only 8:30 am, so lunch was indeed early. We believe that this is probably the norm for the tour, however, because everything was ready and the set up was quite elaborate. The lunch itself was pretty good. There were many vegetarian options, with salads, breads, and much Israeli, Palestinian and Middle Eastern food.

We spent about half an hour for lunch before heading back to Jerusalem, which is very close to Bethlehem. When we arrived, our guide talked more about the wall that was being built and about the checkpoint that we had to pass through. Since we did not look Palestinian, we were able to pass through without being stopped. We went through a very long tunnel and then emerged back in Jerusalem.

The old city of Jerusalem
Palestinian / Israeli food
Here we would spend a few hours in the old city and spend a lot of time at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The old city is very interesting to walk through and is full of different stone walled pathways and shops. There are many areas that are numbered, called "Stations of the Cross," depicting spots where Jesus walked through when he carried the cross. The route is called Via Dolorosa.

We made our way to the Church and were taken to a very large building that is in a huge domed part of the church. This is where Jesus was said to be buried when he died and where he rose from the dead. There was a huge line gathered and it took about half an hour to get to go inside the small room where people would stop to pray. We were allowed about 15 seconds to see it before the next group went in. Inside there are two rooms, the second room is through a small opening and there is an alter-like area made where people kneel. After leaving, we walked through other areas of this massive church, which also houses the stone where Jesus' body was washed after he died and where the rock that was slid in front of his tomb is held. Overall, the church itself was very interesting, but I think that many of the artifacts, such as the rock in front of Jesus' tomb were made too ornate

The tomb of Jesus Christ.

After being in the tomb, we made our way though much of the old city. There were people selling juice, but much of what we saw in Jerusalem is much more expensive than Egypt, so we were careful with what we spent. We eventually reached the area where Jesus fell and touched an area of the wall to hold himself up. This part is very popular for people to touch, so we took some pictures and then continued on towards the Western Wall, which is also known as the Wailing Wall.

The Wailing Wall is the most sacred place for Jewish people in Israel. It is where the Temple of Solomon was destroyed twice. The temple has never been rebuilt a third time due to the proximity of other religious buildings, such as the Dome of the Rock, that exist on that site. At this particular time there was an important government member of another country on site and many news cameras were filming him as he went to pray at the wailing wall. The wall is divided into an area for men and an area for women. Here, people write their prayer down and stick it into the cracks of the wall.

I went to the wall to take some pictures and to stand near it. Many people were very somber as they prayed. This area was packed full of people as well. I noticed one note was open and it said “please help me and my son to get along better.” I thought it was a very touching prayer, especially in a day and age where I know many people who are not getting along and refuse to speak to each other.  It is interesting how children are so quick to forgive siblings but once we hit adults, we feel the need to prove our all-important sense of self-pride.  Of course, that is an issue for another blog, and not this one. We did not have much time at the wall, but we enjoyed what we did have. By this point in the day it was incredibly hot and standing out in the sun was brutal. After the wall we said goodbye to our tour guide who told us a little about the Dead Sea. We would be going there for about an hour (we were told an hour, but it was actually about fifteen minutes longer) to swim.

The Dead Sea is at the lowest point on the Earth's continents. The sea itself is comprised of an incredible percentage of salt which makes it near impossible to not float. When swimming in the Dead Sea, one must lay on their back and not swim on their chest, due to the salt getting in people's eyes, making their legs float and their faces to be downward, and causing many people to drown. It was very hot by the time we reached the Dead Sea and the water itself was very warm, almost hot. After swimming, we went back to the bus and headed back towards Egypt.

The bus ride back was very long and it was about 6:30 pm when we reached the Egyptian border. We crossed quicker than before. One of the passport control people was impressed that we were American. It is interesting that there are so few Americans here, and much fewer crossing into Israel. It was about 10 pm when we reached Dahab and our hotel, and we were exhausted. We had slept very little in the last 36 or so hours before we went. I tend to think that much of it is unneeded and may even distract from the significance of each piece.

The Dead Sea
Although Israel/Palestine is said to be somewhat dangerous (just how dangerous is left up to debate), we were glad to have seen it. The amount of history there is mind boggling, and the religious significance of the sites, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, is incredible. We wish we would have had the chance to see some more of the Muslim holy parts, such as going closer to the Dome of the Rock, but overall, we were very happy with the tour and were glad we took the chance to do it. It was something that we did not expect to do, and purchased on the spur of the moment. It was worth it.

Authors Note:  I do not take sides with this post, and understand that Israel and Palestine are both countries that claim this land.  I post merely as an observer.

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