Saturday, January 14, 2012

Israel Trip Report Part 3 – Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Trip Report – Israel 2011
  1. Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem
  2. Tour of Caeserea, Rosh Hanikra, and Acre
  3. Tour of Petra
  4. Tel Aviv
  5. Grand Beach Hotel Review
  6. United #91:  Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) to Newark, NJ (EWR)
  7. United #311:  Newark, NJ (EWR) to Denver, CO (DEN)
  8. United #403:  Denver, CO (DEN) to Orange County, CA (SNA)
Part 3 – Tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem
Morning in Tel Aviv
Morning broke in Tel Aviv with some blue sky showing through the clouds.  Rain was predicted for today and the weathermen didn’t lie.  I was able to get an OK sleep but I was not looking forward to my alarm going off at 6:30am so I would have time to get ready for my tour which started at 7:15am.  After a bus ride to a central gathering point I met up with the 11 others that were on the tour to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  The tour was split with the morning and lunch in Jerusalem and the afternoon for Bethlehem.   

The drive to Jerusalem took us along highway 443 through the hills and Modi’in and then into the West Bank.  As we drove the driver, also our tour guide, was providing commentary on a variety of topics including the high-end condos in Tel Aviv go for $6 million USD, history of the areas, the wars Israel has been in, and more.  His opinions were definitely pro-Israel although he did provide some even handed insight on issues on both sides.  One of the interesting points mentioned along the drive up was the amount of trees that have been planted to introduce greenery and replenish forests in the country.  Approximately 3.5 million trees have been planted with a focus on trees that do not need irrigation after their first year to preserve water. 

Once we started getting closer to Jerusalem the security walls began to appear.  We passed through a military checkpoint before entering the West Bank on a road exclusive to Israeli traffic – Palestinian settlements have no access to the road at all.  Due to a court ruling though, Israel must provide access to Palestinians to the road so they are building a parallel road with wall dividers to keep the people and traffic separate.  
Security Fence Between Israel and the West Bank

Unfortunately it was cloudy and grey all morning preventing us from getting great panoramic views while driving.  We passed by the Garden of Gethsemane, Church of All Nations, Mount of Olives, and the Church of Maria Magdalene.  We only did a drive-by viewing of the sites then headed around the walls of the Old City and parked the van.  We walked towards the Jaffa Gate getting oriented with the 4 quarters in the Old City:  Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Armenian.  The Jaffa Gate entry was originally designed to hamper any invaders trying to get in through the gate as all those entering have to make a 90 degree left turn once passing the gate.  The facades along this portion of the Christian quarter are heavily influenced by European design as they were built/rebuilt with German money in the 1800’s. 
Christian Quarter

We walked through the small streets lined with merchants trying to sell their wares to our group.  We were directed to an “official” bazaar to purchase goods.  I bought a couple items as souvenirs.  A small fountain was outside the bazaar next to the only Lutheran church in the area.  The first historical site on our walking tour of the Old City was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre located on the site of Golgotha and the place where Jesus was buried.  It was a bit awe inspiring to be going inside the church and climbing the very steep stairs to the top of the “mound” of Golgotha to where two alters are present where the crucifixion occurred, one Catholic and one Greek Orthodox.  The spaces were dark and intimate and the ceilings were a tile mosaic with wall frescos depicting angels.  Heading downstairs to right in front of the main entrance is the Stone of Anointing in the place where Jesus was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea (the stone is under the marble cover).  Further down the church is the Dome of the Sepulchre built on the location of Jesus’ tomb.  Walking around the church and praying was a very powerful moment for me.  One of the challenges of booking a tour to show you around versus going at your own pace is that you sometimes cannot fully take in the moment and experience of an incredible site before having to move on to the next spot.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Alter Over the Crucifixion Location

Stone of Anointing

Dome of the Sepulchre and Sepulchre

We left the church and headed through some of the other areas around the church and then along a path that followed the stations of the cross (in reverse order).  Down along more bazaars and through the Muslim quarter we stopped at the stations marked by large metal roman numerals.  Shortly after that we were passing the checkpoints for the Dome of the Rock and then the checkpoint for the Western Wall.  It was Saturday so we were unable to take any pictures from the Western Wall Plaza, but we were able to go down into the plaza and see the wall up close and those praying there. 
Western Wall
It was finally time for lunch and it couldn’t happen sooner.  Our guide led us to a restaurant back in the Christian quarter where we were able to sit down and get some food.  I opted for a shawarma sandwich and a Fanta.  The sandwich as good and I scarfed it down.  A couple of the other people on the tour tried the non-alcoholic beer.  Their facial expressions of absolute disgust solidified my desire to avoid trying to too.  We were able to get up to the roof and take some panoramic photos of Jerusalem, particularly of the Dome of the Rock. 

Shawarma and Fanta

Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock

In order to get into Bethlehem, our tour driver had to drop us off on the Israeli controlled side of the border and pass us off to a Palestinian tour guide.  Israeli citizens are not permitted to enter into Palestinian Authority controlled spaces.  It was a little disconcerting hopping into another bus and going through a checkpoint with soldiers and guns ready.  Once inside Bethlehem, the scariest part wasn’t the people or the PA police but rather everyone’s driving.  I don’t know if I can really complain about CA drivers anymore – except BMW drivers, they are about as bad as all those driving over here.  

Our destination in Bethlehem was the Church of the Nativity, on the spot where Jesus was born and is the oldest church in the world according to our tour guide. The original church was constructed by Constantine and St. Helen and later rebuilt after being destroyed. The original door had been filled in with stone and only a small door remains. The purpose was twofold; to prevent invading groups or cavalry from entering the church and to have all people visiting kneel in respect on the way in. 

Church of the Nativity

Inside of the church was rather stark with some of the original paintings of saints and apostles on columns and a small opening in the floor revealing the original tile mosaic floor.  The most decorative element in the nave was the Greek Orthodox alter above the manger and birthplace of Jesus.  Our guide took us to the stairs which lead down to where the manger was located.  Two alters are down in this grotto.  The one on the left marks the location of where Mary laid the baby Jesus down in the manger.  The alter on the right is above a 14-point silver star which marks the location of Jesus’ birth.  Being in this space, touching the silver star, and praying was an emotional experience despite the crowds of tourists.  I can only imagine how much more emotional the experience of celebrating Christmas here would be over just being in the church on a regular day. 

Alter of the Manger

Alter of the Birthplace of Jesus

Silver Star Marking Jesus' Birth

The return trip to Jerusalem took longer due to the checkpoint.  Our van waited in line to pass through the checkpoint with military guards all around.  Our passports were all ready as they approached our vehicle and I was the lucky one that received some added questions.  Nothing being the guy being curious, but I was asked where I was from in the US, and after I responded “California” he seemed excited to ask if I was from San Diego and a little disappointed I wasn’t. 


We returned to our original driver and headed back to Tel Aviv.  Our driver took us on a different path back to the city, along highway 1, which accentuated the topography of the area.  I knew that Jerusalem had some hills around it, but I was expecting a hill or two and a fairly broad valley in between.  Instead, each hill has a steep decline and then inclines into the next.  I can understand why the Top Gear hosts loved driving around the area in the Middle East Special.  The downside of these hills in a 16 passenger van and slippery road conditions is that the driver we had didn’t have as much control and it felt like we were frequently sliding around a bit and then slamming on the brakes.  We passed two accidents on one of the main downhill road segments. 
Settlement on Hill

Each passenger was dropped off at their respective hotel and I returned to the Grand Beach hotel to find that my bathroom sink was still running / leaking to the point where water was all over the tile floor and the small trashcan which had been cashing the dripping water was overflowing.  The faucet was left just slightly on and the leaks were coming from the faucet mounting.  After that was fixed I went out to find something to snack on for dinner and hit up an AM-PM down the street.  I picked up some very tasty braided cinnamon bread, some energy bars for tomorrow, and some milk.  Well, I thought it was milk but I think it is actually kefir a fermented milk drink that tastes like yogurt.  The only way I know what it might be is because I am addicted to Chopped on the Food Network.  The package was all in Hebrew so I had no clue what I was getting…

I think I may have a new guilty pleasure on TV  - watching professional darts.  I don’t know what it is about the world dart championship, but I couldn’t turn it off.  It was fast paced and, from what I could tell, really good matches.  The semi-finals were tonight so let’s hope the finals are tomorrow so I can watch the final match.

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