Culture

Start Here if You're Considering a Trip to Jerusalem

Photo: AP

Photo: AP

Rome is called the Eternal City, but Jerusalem is certainly more so. Older than Rome by a millennium, it was named Shalem at one point and finally segued into Jerusalem.

Just before the Six-Day War in 1967, Israeli poetess Naomi Shemer wrote the song “Jerusalem of Gold.” It was immortalized by the victory of the Israelis in the Six-Day War, a victory by this small country against the forces of combined Arab nations.

It’s mandated that anything built in Jerusalem must be constructed out of the unique large and intrinsically sculpted golden Jerusalem stone. At sunrise, and especially at sunset, the rays of the sun bathe the city with an ethereal glow that shimmers on every building.

Driving up to Jerusalem from the airport, the highway winds higher and higher into the ancient and venerable Judaean Hills, with their terraced landscapes, much the same as they have been for thousands of years. When the city comes into view, the first sight of it is breathtaking.

Jerusalem is divided into the old walled city, and the new city. The walls of the Old City were built in the 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent. Towering walls encompass all the ancient Biblical city and a bit more. The walls have ramparts to walk on and view the surrounding area. Several imposing gates offer entrance to the city, like the Lion’s Gate, the Damascus Gate, and the Jaffa Gate, which is the most popular. Inside the Jaffa Gate is the Tower of David, a complex which can be toured.

The Old City is divided into four quarters; Jewish, Armenian, Arab, and Christian. Each quarter has its own picturesque flavor. In the Christian Quarter you can visit the Tomb of Jesus and walk along the Stations of the Cross. On Easter Sunday thousands of Christians make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with palm fronds, to do just that.

In the Armenian Quarter, Armenian priests with their long robes and high head coverings stroll about. In the Arab Quarter, you can hear the cacophony of Arabs in the shouk (souk in Arabic), the marketplace which winds about between narrow stone walls. The shouk is a great place to shop for, among other things, items made of silver or native olive wood. Israeli coinage is the shekel, but dollars are welcome.

The Jewish Quarter, though built of stone to resemble the ancient quarter, has the newest buildings, as most were destroyed during the 1948 war. This is the Quarter that houses the Western (or Wailing) Wall, a remnant of the Jewish Temple built over two thousand years ago. It’s made of huge boulders, which were constructed at a time when there were no cranes or mechanical aids. The wall, which is above a spacious open plaza, is forty feet high, and forty feet under the plaza as well. A partition divides a women’s section from a men’s section.

Prayer books are available for visitors and the seams between the huge stones are filled with papers on which people have written prayers for good health, prosperity, or whatever they hope for. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the Torah is read, many Bar Mitzvahs are held at the wall.

Above the wall is the glistening golden Dome of the Rock mosque on the Temple Mount. Inside the mosque is a huge stone where Muhammad was said to have ascended to heaven. It is customary in the mosque to remove your shoes. The Temple Mount itself was where the Jewish temple once stood.

To see the wall beneath the plaza, take the tunnel tour. One boulder here is the size of a school bus! The tunnel tour ends in the Arab Quarter, past streets from the time of Herod, a king of Judaea.

The streets of the Old City are winding and picturesque. Wooden balconies protrude from above, and arched windows offer views into public and private buildings. There is always a dig going on in the Old City, where remnants of ancient times are often found. One of the largest archeological excavations is that of the City of David, where the dig has gone down to what might be the site of King David’s palace. Some excavations are open to the public and are explained by archeologist guides.

Roman pillars line part of an ancient street in the Jewish Quarter and modern Israeli shops are now located in a Roman arcade where ancient Romans once shopped.

In the New City, archeology is represented as well. Not to be missed is the famous Dead Sea Scroll collection in its own museum, which is a replica of the jars the scrolls were found in. Another great museum with archeological artifacts is the Israel Museum. Representing a more recent history is the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. Few come out of here without being affected by the exhibits.

There are many elegant hotels in Jerusalem, but the Queen is the famous and historic King David Hotel. Many dignitaries have stayed here over the years and you might spot someone famous in its elegant lobby with its many couches. It’s been a meeting and greeting place since it was built in the 1920s. Enjoy lunch in the airy porch restaurant overlooking the walls of the Old City. All hotels in Israel offer huge smorgasbord breakfasts as part of the hotel charges. The King David’s looks more like that of a wedding banquet. If you can afford to stay there, do so!

Jerusalem has its hotels rated on a star system and many of its lower priced and lesser star hotels are also very nice to stay in. In the Old City itself there are a number of hotels with interesting architecture and affordable prices. You can also stay at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, at the edge of the city, with bus connections to it. It’s a very modern place that overlooks Bethlehem, and has an archeological site on its grounds. It also has a gigantic indoor pool, as well as an outdoor pool and a water slide. It’s a great place to get a look at kibbutz life and for a family stay.

Jerusalem is a city holy to many religions, but it also has a bit of a nightlife and many
eateries, some very posh. The food to try here is falafel (deep fried chickpea balls) and shawarma (with meat). Both are served in a pita with the fixings: salad, often pickles, and techina, a whitish sauce. You can try these Middle Eastern specialties at any kiosk that sells them on the street and eat them while you tour.

The Sabbath is a special day for Israelis and its start is signaled by the haunting wail of a siren. Once it begins, there is no public transportation in the city, and none from Jerusalem to other places in Israel. However, private cars and taxis still operate. All banks, stores, theaters, and most restaurants are closed from sunset on Friday to dark on Saturday evening. Arab-owned businesses are open.

No visa is needed for Israel and there are direct and indirect flights there from major U.S. cities. El Al, the Israeli national carrier, is a great airline to travel on. It’s a way to get into the culture before you land in Israel itself. Delta, United, and Air Canada also fly there. Since the air fare can be pricey, try to fly in the winter, which is cheaper. Frequent flier miles can be as low as 80-85,000 points round trip then. Jerusalem can be chilly in the winter as it is higher in elevation. Do bring a warm jacket. English is spoken everywhere and signs are also in English.

Jerusalem will leave you with special memories, and a desire to return.