Jerusalem's Old Town, One of the Most Interesting Places I've Been

A religious nexus for numerous people all over the world, the city has a certain energy as a result.  So many devout people all converging in one location, so much emotion in the air, you can feel it and get swept up within it – Jerusalem Syndrome, I mean how many cities are said to cause a mental condition in those that visit? It’s remarkable and fascinating, even for someone like me who is not particularly religious, or maybe it’s because of that…. I’m also naturally curious about people who think, believe, and behave differently than I do. As a result, I enjoyed and experienced the various religious sites equally.

While in the Middle East I also thought a lot about gender roles and it made me curious to know more about the women I saw there, in their various forms of dress. It was striking to see Jewish women praying so fervently in a cramped passageway during our touristy Western Wall Tunnel tour, one woman with an infant strapped to her chest and her prayer book pressed to her face. 

Our visit was, unintentionally, timed perfectly with President Trump’s visit and the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem Day. In a city where emotions always are running high, celebrations and protests took it up a notch. It’s a serious city, and depending on who you ask, an occupied territory. Soldiers are everywhere, armed and ready. It took a bit to get used to, flipping through my Lonely Planet while sidestepping packs of 20-somethings with machine guns. We visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Noble Sanctuary compound on Jerusalem Day. Waiting in line near the Western Wall to get into the Muslim site was an extremely tense experience. Many Israeli youth were also attempting to enter with their flags, aggressively pushing and cutting the lines. There was a heavy police presence, complete with riot gear. But once we walked past all of them and were allowed inside, I was stuck by the tranquility that existed within, birds chirping, leaves rustling... This was just two months before the shooting that caused Israel to shut down access to the mosque, resulting in large protests.

A quite moment inside the Chapel of Saint Helena at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built upon the site identified as the location of the crucifixion of Jesus. 

The city houses some of the holiest, if not the holiest, sites for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. When I think of religion and faith some opposing things come to mind: self-righteousness, oppression, war… but also acceptance, community, and love. A place of worship - whether a church, mosque, or temple – all lend a similar feeling of peace, serenity, and safety. You can find those places within Jerusalem, little sanctuaries where you can feel calm and comforted. Yet the city, as a whole, feels completely the opposite. It resulted in a sensation I hadn’t quite experienced yet in my worldly travels, an underlying feeling of unease, always a little on edge and anxious. For me, this emotional juxtaposition was intriguing and alluring. All of this and more, made Jerusalem one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited. 

In front of the Dome of the Rock at the Noble Sanctuary compound in Jerusalem. 

In front of the Dome of the Rock at the Noble Sanctuary compound in Jerusalem. 

A Day in Palestine

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Admittedly, I was really nervous about this part of the trip. I imagined long lines at the check point, being separated from my partner and roughly interrogated by the Israeli military – especially with Trump arriving in Jerusalem that same day. But real life is almost never like the movies. 

For a couple of shekels, we boarded a bus and were on our way to the check point. Everyone else on the bus appeared to be a local. We were dropped off near a fence that felt like the middle of nowhere and followed everyone up some steps and along a ramp. Signs in Hebrew and Arabic were posted on the chain link fence beside us, announcing what seemed be border closing times due to Trump’s visit the next day. We passed through what amounted to a subway turnstile, down another ramp, and out into Bethlehem. There were no lines, no scary border patrols… no one to even look at us, let alone ask us any questions.

Of course, we immediately met a tight knot of semi aggressive taxi drivers at the exit. One of them, a clean-shaven guy in his mid 30s wearing a red t-shirt, spoke English and reminded us that the city was shut down due the statewide hunger strike. We nodded along as if we knew all about it, but much to our burning embarrassment, we did not. He assured us the tourist sites were still open but all else was closed. He arranged for us to ride with one of his colleagues, a much younger guy who didn’t speak our language. For one fee, he would be our driver for the day, easy-peasy – we thought. 

Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity – poorly timed with some tour bus groups. Stooping to enter through the Door of Humility, about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide, we arrived in the main part of the church. There appeared to be some restorations underway, we looked around and then joined the masses waiting to enter another room that lead down to the lower level - to what’s believed by many to be the birthplace of Jesus. It was very crowded and the entrance small with steep stairs. People within were singing hymns, many were crying, the air felt thick with so much emotion. The alter and supposed birth spot of Jesus didn’t look like much to me, but it was the energy in the room that felt special. 

Across the street in Manger Square a large display and tents were set up for those on strike. The goal was to get the attention of international news organizations and of course, Trump, who was planning to visit the Church the following day. Trump ended up canceling his visit to the church and, though I don’t think it was ever confirmed, it’s believed to have been canceled to avoid those demonstrating in the square. We eventually learned that everyone was striking in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners who were on day 36 of their hunger strike. The prisoners in Israeli jails were protesting the conditions and calling for better healthcare, more family visits, landline telephones, an end to solitary confinement, and the Israeli practice of detention without trial. 

We took a short walk around Bethlehem, it felt eerie with all the shops closed and the streets mostly empty. After a minor, but frustrating, dispute with another English-speaking man who spoke on behalf of our taxi driver on whether it would be open and the cost of getting there, we were on our way to Herodium and Shepherd’s Field. Though interesting, neither were highlights for me. I did enjoy the view from Herodium, a fortress and palace combo, built sometime between 23 and 15 BCE on the top of a hill in the desert. It was also great to be there during the call to prayer, the different calls echoing across the desert from the various neighborhoods below. 

While driving around we got a stronger sense of how desolate the area felt, with most everyone staying in doors for the strike. We also began to notice a lot of heavily armed Israeli security forces, and street closures in preparation for a visit from the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. There were some young Palestinian guys driving around in a red car with two giant Palestinian flags sticking out of the windows on either side. It seemed like they were trying to annoy the officers, but we weren’t sure. I wish I could have gotten a photo of it.

The last stop was a section of the separation wall. It’s hard to find the right words to describe it. It was a solemn experience and it felt important for us to see it up close and read the messages written on it - some of them referencing Trump’s Mexico wall. A bunch of Palestinian guys were there hanging out including one running a little shop selling Banksy souvenirs and spray paint - in case we wished to leave our own mark on the wall. We bought a few post cards in support of their operation. 

Unfortunately, we got into yet another argument with the taxi drivers, this time the redshirted fellow reappeared to argue with us. There was a misunderstanding over the price of things and eventually we ended up paying nearly three times the original agreed upon sum. At the end of it all he laughed and told us he liked us more than Trump, which we think was meant as a good-natured compliment, but it stung us a bit like an insult – he’s not a man we want to be associated with… We slowly walked along the wall, our taxi following close behind, until we settled up.

As the end of our walk, we arrived at Banksy’s The Walled Off Hotel. A trip highlight for sure. It felt surreal and out of place and but also a perfect artistic response to the political situation there. And let’s be honest, I love Banksy and it was my first time seeing anything he’s done in person. Greeted by a monkey bellhop spilling clothing all over the sidewalk, we entered through red velvet curtains into an opulent lounge with Banksy artwork on the walls and a piano that played itself. It felt a bit like walking onto the set of a Wes Anderson film with the piano from Westworld as the centerpiece. Fanciful and humorous. The wide windows and balcony facing an intentionally oppressive view of the separation wall just a few yards away, allowing the visitor to sit on a plush seat sipping a mocktail and contemplating all messed up things humans do to one another. All the guest rooms in the hotel have the same view from the same artfully ironic vantage point. 

Behind the lounge is an excellent museum devoted to documenting and explaining the political situation to visitors, helping everyone to understand how we all ended up in this mess. On the floor above is a gallery space for local artists to display and sell their work. The woman working there was so friendly and excited to hear we were from the US. She was full of hope for Trump’s visit thinking he’d be the one to finally bring peace to her homeland. We just smiled and nodded, not wanting to take that away from her. As MLK once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” 

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24 hours in Tel Aviv

After settling into our hotel, we spent what remained of our afternoon walking along the seashore towards Old Jaffa. A bit too late in the day for a dip in the ocean, but I enjoyed the vibe and was reminded of southern California beaches and SoCal surfer culture. We arrived in Old Jaffa at magic hour, just as the sun was beginning to set. It’s a small little neighborhood, many of the shops were closing for the day, but things were still lively in Kedumim Square with evening dancing - many couples were participating and it was fun to watch. Prior to 1949, Jaffa and Tel Aviv were two different municipalities and it felt different than the other parts of the city we visited.  

From there we wandered back towards our hotel, stopping for dinner at Nanuchka, a Georgian-inspired vegan restaurant with some delicious food and cocktails. Awesome vibe as well, funky tables and chairs and lots of art on the walls. We sat inside near the bar. I had their French Lemonade cocktail, which I’d gladly have again – it had a hint of an anise flavor if I remember correctly and wasn’t too sweet or too sour.

After dinner, we headed over to the more touristy part of town and took a walk down Rothschild Boulevard to admire some of the Bauhaus architecture for which the city is known. Dubbed the White City, Tel Aviv’s collection of over 4,000 Bauhaus buildings is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The buildings were built in the 1930s by German Jewish architects fleeing Nazi Germany. The architectural style is geometric, spacious, devoid of ornamentation, and usually made of concrete. The Bauhaus movement had a huge and lasting impact on art and design. 

We ended the evening relaxing at Shpagat, one of Tel Aviv’s many café bars. We just happened to walk by and we were drawn in by the relaxed atmosphere and fun stadium seating– turns out (after a quick google) it’s one of Tel Aviv’s top gay bars – something you probably don’t find much of in the Middle East. 

The next day we tried to get an early start, and headed over to the Camel Market in the Yemenite Quarter to check it out and a take some photos. While it wasn’t the most exciting or interesting market I’ve been too, I was awed by the mountains of delicious looking red cherries for sale at the fruit stales. A trip regret: not eating any of them! 

Next up we wandered slowly back towards Rothschild Boulevard in search of some coffee. On the way, we passed what looked to us like a bomb shelter. I honestly thought we’d see a bit more of this sort of thing then we did.

It was at this point in the trip that I realized my bank had frozen my account. Despite an advanced warning of my travels and an acknowledgement on their part, they still froze my account – excellent fraud protection or complete incompetence? You be the judge. Forty-five minutes later and $15 dollars poorer due to the international calling fees, I thought it was sorted – but I was so wrong. More on that later.

Refueled from the coffee but frustrated by my bank, we set out for another walk, this time landing at Meshek Barzilay for lunch. It was a cute little place, we were surrounded by an eclectic mix of local families, international transplants, and presumably, other travelers. We got their chocolate mousse, and it was delicious – sometimes all you need to fix a bad mood is a little chocolate! 

From here we headed over to the Flea Market in Jaffa. It was probably one of my favorite things we did in Tel Aviv. I loved wandering around the neighborhood and in and out of bizarre, over stuffed, antique shops - so many little treasures for sale and interesting tableaus of life there. I could have easily spent another few hours – but with so little time we had to head back to our hotel, gather our bags, and head for the bus station. But, not before wedging in one more amazing meal at the Persian-inspired, Zakaim.

To sum it up, perhaps during our brief stay in Tel Aviv, we spent a lot of time eating and drinking… but in a city known for its food, cafés, and bar culture, it seems a fitting way to spend the time. It was a very comfortable city; one I could easily see my lifestyle fitting into. Hard to imagine a place so relaxing and full of art and culture and free love can be so close to so much turmoil. But that’s Tel Aviv.