A Travellerspoint blog

January 2021

Hanging Out in the Holy Land: Eastern Israel and Jerusalem

Driving from the western to the eastern edge of Israel took less than an hour. We found a cabin on Airbnb that was part of a development right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We had a beautiful view of the sea, which of course is actually a freshwater lake, and the Golan Heights on the far shore. It was strange to think that this relatively nondescript place was the site of some of the most dramatic moments described in the New Testament. We went down to the beach and stripped the kids so they could play in the sand and the shallow water. The waves were surprisingly forceful for a small lake, apparently because of strong winds generated by the climactic difference between the low-lying shoreline and the surrounding hills. One particularly emphatic wave knocked Cleo flat onto her back and for a second or two she was submerged, staring up at me through the crystal clear water with a bemused expression. Although there was no real danger, the moment underscored how completely dependent she was on me to protect her from all the world's dangers great and small. I reached down and pulled her up before she had a chance to become scared.
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For some reason I have very little memory of Galilee, and very few photos. I don't remember where we had dinner, and I'm fairly sure we never went to Tiberias, the only major town on the lake. We left early in the morning to see the Dead Sea before doubling back to Jerusalem. One thing that had confused me when planning the trip was how to drive from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea without passing through the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. We had no intention of making that border crossing with two small kids. As it turned out, Highway 90 which passes through the West Bank is under complete Israeli control.
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Having a float in the Dead Sea is one of Israel's iconic experiences. The water is so heavily saturated with salt and minerals that it's almost impossible to submerge oneself in it. The sensation of effortless floating on the surface attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year, although the popular conception that it is impossible to drown is actually a myth. If someone accidentally turned onto their stomach, they might have a difficult time getting their limbs underwater to maneuver back to the face-up position. This can lead to swallowing of hypersaline water which can disrupt the body's electrolyte balance very quickly. It's not a place to let one's guard down. We arrived at the Dead Sea at the popular access point of Ein Gedi and had a quick float. I didn't particularly enjoy the oily feel of the water and we had to enter the sea in shifts because the kids were too young to join us. In fact Cleo got some water in her eyes just messing around at the shoreline and was howling up a storm until a more experienced tourist came by to bathe her eyes in bottled water.
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On the opposite side of the highway from the small beach is the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. This lush oasis in the Judaean Desert is fed by several springs that flow downward from karst in the surrounding mountains. The most popular hike extends from the ticket office to David's Waterfall, named for the biblical hero who took refuge in Ein Gedi from the jealous king who wanted him killed.
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It was a short hike but much of it was uphill and we had the kids on our backs. Fortunately it was a relatively cool day or the half-hour climb would have been unbearable. Our efforts were ultimately rewarded with the sight of a staircase of natural pools connected by short waterfalls. We still had our bathing suits on so we were in perfect position to cool off underneath the last waterfall.
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Jerusalem had a quite different atmosphere from Tel Aviv. Our Airbnb was on the ground floor of an atmospheric stone building in a relatively modern area of the city, practically next door to the Machane Yehuda market.
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Of course it was no accident that we were situated in proximity to Shuk Machane Yehuda. The main produce market is always the first thing we look for when deciding which area of a city we're going to stay in. Machane Yehuda fell somewhere between the touristy superficiality of Shuk Ha-Carmel and the gritty utilitarianism of the Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv. We encountered all the usual Middle Eastern standbys but also plenty of creative and unusual delicacies. Best of all there was a large selection of restaurants inside the market and we eventually chose a small Lebanese place that was very satisfying. The market itself closes at seven but the area around it is filled with open air restaurants and bars and it was always still full of energy when we retired for the evening.
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Naturally the main draw of Jerusalem for travelers is the Old City. The Old City is surrounded by an imposing twelve meter wall that was built by the Ottomans five hundred years ago and the only entry is through one of the eight gates. We entered through the Damascus Gate and soon arrived at at the square outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built on the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and burial. Just on the other side of the division between the Christian and Muslim quarters is the Via Dolorosa, believed to be the path that Jesus walked while carrying the cross.
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The center of the Old City is largely occupied by an intriguing Arab bazaar filled with beautiful displays of ceramics, metalware, and fabric. One particular shop specializing in blue and white porcelain was especially stunning. The ancient alleyways and stone staircases lent historic gravitas to the merchandise.
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South of the Christian Quarter is the Armenian Quarter, which had more open space compared to the narrow alleys and tunnels of the other quarters. Here we were able to get to an upper level which gave us a better appreciation of the layout of the Old City.
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Eventually we found ourselves at Temple Mount, the most heavily touristed part of the Old City. At the Western Wall we had to split up as men and women are apportioned separate areas of the wall to pray at. It was fairly easy to tell the serious worshippers from the spectators because their religious fervor was palpable. I kept a respectful distance and only approached the wall to touch it briefly. We never found our way into the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli soldiers barred our progress at the one entrance we found although we never determined if that was a temporary or a permanent state of affairs. We weren't tremendously enthusiastic about entering all the contentious religious sites so we let it go.
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The Muslim Quarter had by far the fewest tourists and we received a number of bemused looks from the locals as we passed through with the strollers. It must be an unusual existence for the Arabs living in Jerusalem, especially those without Israeli citizenship, being treated like foreigners or enemies in their ancestral homes.The hilltop area outside the Lions' Gate on the eastern side of the Old City was surprisingly desolate but had interesting views over East Jerusalem. I had a very limited understanding of the Israeli jurisdiction over the eastern half of the city and did not by any means feel safe bringing the family any further.
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Of course there was much more to Jerusalem than the Old City and the Machane Yehuda area and we had enjoyable walks going between one and the other. At one point we came across a Georgian restaurant which was something I had never previously encountered, and the food was quite good.
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We had quite an eventful final day in Israel. Our flight was a red eye departing late in the evening and we needed to fill the entire day before heading back to the airport. We first drove back to Highway 90 along the Dead Sea and drove south to Masada. The area around the desert fort was one of the most desolate environments I have experienced.
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We took the cable car to the top of the mesa where we toured the ruins of Herod's Palace and admired the views over the desert that extended as far as the Dead Sea. The legend of the heroic mass suicide of Jews in the face of Roman conquest has not been corroborated by archaeologic evidence, but it still makes for a compelling atmosphere at the top of the isolated mountain.
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We took the southernmost transverse back west towards the Mediterranean, on the northern edge of the Negev Desert. At Siderot we were less than a mile from the Gaza border, a place where Hamas rockets had landed many times. Nevertheless it seemed as peaceful a place as anywhere. An hour later we were back in Tel Aviv just in time to have dinner at a pleasant bistro on Ben Yehuda. We had come full circle after our whirlwind tour of this tiny but fascinating and historic country.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:07 Archived in Israel Comments (2)

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