Israel. It’s a contentious country – situated at the crossroads of the Middle East, Israel is a hotbed of political and social issues. Israel and Palestine. Israel and the United States. Israel and Iran. As I’ve learned through many travel experiences, though, judging a country based on its slant in Western media is inadvisable at best and downright inaccurate at worst. In a similar vein to Iran, everyone that I had spoken to who had traveled to Israel had nothing but positive experiences about the food, culture, and its people. As with anywhere, the best way to judge a country is to visit it yourself.
The first issue when visiting Israel is the dreaded ‘Israeli passport stamp’. I had read multiple reports about the adverse effects of having this stamp in your passport – countries you cannot visit, troubles you may run into at various immigration departments, and I was fully ready to request not having my passport stamped. However, at border control the guard took our passport, scanned it, printed out a small piece of paper as our entry permit, asked zero questions, told us to have a great time, and sent us through to claim our bags. About as smooth as you can ask. (Side note: coming back into Israel from Jordan later in the trip, the process also ran just as smoothly – again there were no issues concerning passport stamps, it appears that the printing of this small entrance card is the de facto method of immigration into Israel these days).
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tel Aviv. Lacking the cultural and historical reputation of Jerusalem, I wondered whether it would just be ‘another city’. It’s not. Tel Aviv is a bustling hotbed of activity – miles of Mediterranean coastline (the beaches were still in use in late December, albeit sparsely compared with summer months), cafes, restaurants and bars that open late and bustle into the small hours of the night; markets permeating with the rich, fragrant smells of bourekas baking, the sweet odour of babka, the strength of freshly brewed espresso, the tang of fresh pomegranate juice, the thrill of tasting hummus in Israel using world-class Israeli olive oil and tahini, I could go on and on. Know this, if you love food and drink, Tel Aviv is truly a world class city.
What Tel Aviv offers in terms of food and fun, Jerusalem counters with culture and history. As we would be visiting Jerusalem over Christmas, we thought it would be an incredibly unique experience to visit Old Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve (side note: while I don’t often enjoy the experience of guided tours, we used the company Tourist Israel for a number of outings on this trip – for the most part the guides were well informed and the logistics were accurately stated. Sometimes figuring everything out on your own in this part of the world can lead to more headaches than anything, and it’s worthwhile to have someone handle the logistics for you).
Regardless of your religious affiliation, or lack thereof, the Old City Jerusalem is an incredible place. Comprised of four quarters (Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian), and most recently walled in about 500 years ago using the literal stones of its monumentally historic past, this city has been ruled and conquered by countless empires, cultures and religions throughout history. Our night tour led us through the Christian Quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Despite the crowds, there was an unmistakable energy in the air on this significant evening in this holiest of sites to so many people celebrating this holiday worldwide.
From Jerusalem we boarded a bus to the West Bank, en route to Bethlehem. I wasn’t sure how traveling into Palestine would go – would there be border security? Would it be rigorous? In actuality, we just drove right through, no questions asked. Once you cross the border, it immediately feels darker – in the literal sense with a lack of electricity, buildings gloomily lit or completely black as you pass by, and figuratively with people walking alongside the highway, holding their belongings. It felt more akin to many third world countries I have visited in my travels than the bustling streets of Jerusalem that we had just left behind.
We weren’t able to visit the Church of the Nativity – the site of Jesus’ birth – as armed guards informed the audibly disappointed crowds that it was an impossibility. We weren’t given a reason. Instead we spent a few hours wandering the Manger Square, poking into little shops, and just soaking up the unmistakably different, but still Christmas, vibe.
Bethlehem wasn’t what I expected. Or maybe it was. The Palestinian King of Corn was a big seller. Jingle Bells played on repeat. And repeat. Palestinian Military Police alertly patrolled every pocket of the Manger Square, their expressions as cold as the automatic rifles they held in their hands. Obviously they were there for a reason no one wished to consider. At the end of the day, though, the lights twinkled beautifully and every person I passed on the way out – from the lowly tea seller to the King of Corn himself – paused, smiled, and wished me a Merry Christmas. What more could you ask for?
It would be a disservice to take a trip to Jerusalem without visiting Yad Vashem, the harrowing Holocaust memorial situated atop Mount Herzl, a short light rail ride outside the city centre. I won’t attempt to articulate my feelings here in words as it would be a complete injustice to the magnitude of the experience, but it is one of the most passionately curated, informative museums I have ever visited. Everyone should experience it at least once.
From Jerusalem we boarded a bus to the southern tip of Israel – Eilat. At the crossroads of four nations (Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), Eilat is a location famed as a beach destination and featuring world class diving sites. Our bus trip took us past the Dead Sea and the Arava Valley. I had my first (and last) kosher McDonald’s experience (not recommended. In most instances I loved kosher food, but with McDonald’s, meat and cheese together is a key combination), and we exited the bus into most welcome warm weather. We managed to squeeze in two shore dives in Eilat, and as advertised the water was some of the clearest that I have ever dived. Otherwise, I wouldn’t write home about Eilat, it possessed some of the worst traits of a seaside tourist town (gaudy strip malls, overpriced meals) that just aren’t my cup of tea.
From Eilat we continued on to Jordan, which I will write about separately, returning to Israel five days later from the northern King Hussein Bridge/Allenby Crossing. The one place in Jerusalem that we had desperately wanted to visit, but didn’t have the opportunity on our first trip to the city, was the Dome of the Rock. Racing back to Jerusalem from the border crossing, we arrived just in time to see it during the final opening hours of the day (12:30-13:30), standing at the end of a colossal line, but still managing to spend about 30 wonderful minutes inside the Temple Mount complex.
The architecture of the Dome of the Rock alone will take your breath away. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad began his ascension to heaven here. The Foundation Stone it’s built upon is where God is said to have created the world. It’s the place where Jews face during prayer at the Western Wall to feel the strength of God’s divine presence. Simply put – it’s special.
On our last morning we awoke at 2:00AM to head to Masada for sunrise. After summiting the steps in the darkness we watched the light rays creep slowly over the Jordanian mountains on the horizon, illuminating the Dead Sea and the surrounding desert in beautiful shades of orange, yellow, and red. Any trip to Israel would be remiss without a float in the Dead Sea – at 430 metres below sea level it’s the lowest point on Earth. When people say you float in the Dead Sea they aren’t lying, the salinity is unbelievable, and despite the windy waves lapping at my head (the water tastes terrible), it was a great way to unwind and relax before heading home.
Overall, Israel exceeded my expectations. It felt incredibly safe while we were there, the people were friendly and welcoming, English was available almost everywhere, and it would be tough to top the package of food, sights and culture the country has to offer. It’s a storied country filled with passionate people, many of whom have distinctly varying views on similar issues. Regardless, though, I found my discussions with people to be filled with openness, a willingness to accept that there are multiple sides to a story, and a tolerance that truly warmed my soul.