Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Now that we are three days into Jordan I thought I would finally get around to blogging about our time in Israel. I'll share some of my thoughts about Israel and what I thought were some of our highlights. First of all the only two cities we visited were Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Our original itinerary coming out of Egypt had us spending only 5 nights in Israel before moving on to Jordan. Alethea wasn't feeling well for a couple days plus I was getting over an illness that I picked up in Egypt and didn't really feel 100% until the 2nd or 3rd day.  We ended up adding two days to our Israel visit and shortening our Jordan time by the same amount. I am glad we did because we both needed to recuperate plus there were plenty of things we wanted to see in Jerusalem. We also had some flexibility because once we flew into Israel on the 7th of November we didn't have to be anywhere except Amman, Jordan on the 20th when we fly to Kenya.

Dome of the Rock

To start with Israel is one of the countries on our trip that I thought I wasn't sure that I would ever get to travel to. It isn't because it is that hard to get too especially when there are daily flights from a few cities in the US to Tel Aviv every day. The main reason was the security and political situation. At the present time things are relatively calm. There are stories about the peace process and Israel starting to build or think about building some more settlements in East Jerusalem but there hasn't been a bombing since I believe 2007. I felt safe the entire time we were there. There were several armed soldiers and police around but we just got through coming out of Egypt and saw the nearly the same thing. I did look up on Wikipedia one day an article on all the bombings since the mid 1990's and did found out that we went to some of the places including some of the streets and markets in Jerusalem where they took place. We even rode public buses which were one of the most targeted objects during the second intifada. We even took a side day trip to Bethlehem which is in the Palestinian controlled territory. The Palestinian section actually looked better than parts of Egypt we had visited. You could tell it was a few steps down from the rest of Israel but it didn't look to bad. If anyone is worried about the security situation at the present time in Jerusalem then that shouldn't keep you from coming. Don't get me wrong there are places in the West Bank that you shouldn't go to unless you are on an organized tour. It did seem maybe a little tense especially on a couple occasion where well armed guards looked into our vehicles at checkpoints but it isn't really something to keep you from visiting. There are cities in the US that I have felt much less safe in like Memphis for example.

Now that I shared some thoughts regarding security I'll touch on some of the highlights of our time there. On our second full day in Israel we took a day trip down to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is only 12 kilometers away from Jerusalem and as I mentioned earlier inside the Palestinian controlled territories. You can actually get there by bus or taxi although the bus has to be an Arab one and the taxi cannot be a Jewish taxi. We took an organized tour with transportation included. We did have to pick up our tour guide inside the West Bank since he cannot enter Israel currently without permission. He said at one point that he has to go to Jordan first and then travel to Israel but would probably undergo intense questioning and may not be allowed in. Anyway, on our tour we visited the Shepherd's Caves, the Church of the Nativity, and the Milk Grotto. The Church of the Nativity where Jesus born was worth the visit. The church is actually three separate churches with the Armenian one being the one on top of the spot where Jesus was born. Once inside the main church our tour guide through his connections was able to get us in front of everyone waiting in line to see the spot where Christ was born. We sneaked in the exit way two at a time. The actually spot is underground and is very cramped. There are a set of candles and a 14 pointed silver star to mark the spot. I was able to get in and touch the star and snap a couple of quick pictures. It was crowded so they pictures are only so so. In all it was pretty neat. It would have taken us well over a hour to wait in line but instead only took a few minutes. Our guide earned his tip that day. On the way back from Bethlehem our driver stopped and let us take pictures of the barrier wall. It is pretty tall and intimidating. It is unfortunate that it had to be built but on the other hand bombings have decreased 90% since it was built.

Israel\Palestine barrier wall 

After Bethlehem and a couple days to get back on our feet from being sick we continued visiting sights in Jerusalem. On our first day we actually took a free tour that runs almost daily from the Jaffa Gate which made it convenient for us since our hotel was located right by the Jaffa Gate. The free tour was a good way to orient ourselves to Jerusalem. Our guide took us by some of the main sites but we didn't get to stop at them for long or go inside them except for the Western Wall but we only stopped there for 10 minutes. We did though visit each of the 4 quarters of Old Jerusalem on the tour. We decided on our next to last day to take the Mount of Olives Tour which was little bit more in depth and organized by the same company that puts on the free tour. On this tour we visited the Mosque of the Ascension where Jesus ascended into heaven, the Pater Nostre church where Jesus spent his final days and taught the disciple the Lord's Prayer, Dominus Flevit (Jesus Wept), Garden of Gethsemane – Church of All Nations, & Mary's Tomb. I enjoyed the tour. These areas on the Mount of Olives are in the Palestinian/Muslim section and are not impossible to get to but a little tricky.

When we got through with the Mount of Olives Tour we then toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church is traditional spot where Jesus was crucified, burried, and resurrected. There has been a church here to mark this spot since the the 3rd century. We were able to tour for about 90 minutes before closing time. We saw the Stone of Anointing, Golgotha where Jesus was crucified, and Jesus's tomb. At the tomb Alethea decided to sit outside and rest while I waited in line to enter. It was about a 30 minute wait to enter the tomb. Inside the tomb itself are two chambers. The first chamber displays Angel's rock which is supposed to be a fragment of the rock used to seal the tomb. Only about 6-7 people can fit in the first chamber. The second or inner chamber is a real small area in which you enter through a very small door. I had to practically crawl to enter. Only about 3-4 people can fit inside. In the chamber there is spot where Jesus is said to have been laid to rest. There are numerous candles and icons in this area. After about a minute one of the priest from one of the denominations started to usher people out. Some didn't want to leave. I thought it was very neat regardless of your religion or if you believe this to be the exact place where these events took place. We actually didn't have much time before closing and had to walk somewhat quickly through other parts of the church including the spot of the crucifixion. There you could wait in line and touch or as many were doing kissing the spot where the cross is said to have been placed in the ground. We didn't do so since one of the priest mentioned when we got up there that it would be closing shortly. The church itself is open from 4 am to 7 pm daily this time of the year and I believe it changes by a hour during the summer.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the roof
Some of the other highlights we did were visit Yad Veshem (Holocaust Museum) and the Israeli Museum where the Dead Sea Scrolls are located. Yad Veshem was pretty good meaning that it did a good job depicting the events of the holocaust. It is obviously sad and disheartening. We had been to Auschwitz last fall and have been in other holocaust museums. I would rate this one up there at the top and would recommend everyone to visit. The cost is free. The other museum we visited was the Israeli Museum. It is a national history and culture museum that has exhibits covering over 6,000 years of Israeli history. It also contains the Dead Sea Scrolls and a miniature model of what Jerusalem looked liked in 60 AD. The cost is 48 sheckels or around $13 USD per person but does include a free audio headset. I would recommend this museum as well.

Jewish Holocaust Museum
Another interesting thing that we experienced was the Jewish sabbath which runs from sun down Friday to sun down on Saturday. The best way to describe it is that Jerusalem shuts down one day a week like the US does on Christmas day. There is very little open. On Friday afternoon we were in a market eating a late lunch when we noticed two Jewish people walking around blowing a horn and making some type of announcements in Hebrew. They were in fact letting people know it was time to shut down. They even had orthodox Jewish people with funny looking hats walking around inspecting places to make sure they were closed on Friday and Saturday. We ended up delaying our departure from Israel from Saturday to Sunday because of the sabbath. The bus that would have taken us to the border crossing didn't run during the day on Saturday and we didn't want to go at night. The Israeli Museum was actually one of the few things open but the public buses do not run on Saturday so we ended up walking about 45 minutes from our hostel to the museum. If you travel to Jerusalem over the sabbath be prepared. There are sighs open to see but most shops, restaurants, and transportation options will be closed. 

Sabbath business inspector
Well that pretty much wraps up Israel. It is very special place considering all the religious and historical things to see. In my opinion it is safe and you can see most of it on your own but I would recommend signing up for some half day tours here and there. Israel is also a modern country so you shouldn't feel too out of place if you haven't traveled that much outside the US in my opinion. The Middle East is a volatile region so even though things are relatively calm now, I am sure it could change real quickly. The next stop on our voyage is the country of Jordan!

Link to photo albums:

Daily Log

Sunday November 7th
Landed in Tel Aviv around noon due to flight delay.
Took another hour to clear security and get bags.
Took 45 minutes to ride a sherut (shared taxi) to the Jaffa Gate
Hiked up the hill and checked into our hotel.
Mapped out things we wanted to do over the next few days.
Waked next tour to the tourism office.
Walked around for a little bit before finding a place for dinner.
Came back to hotel and got on the internet.
Still a little sick with diarrhea.

Monday November 8th
Woke up around 8 ish.
Ate breakfast at hotel (New Imperial Hotel). It was ok. Ate bland and conservative to help my internal systems. :-)
Went on free Jerusalem walking tour. Tour lasted three hours. We did this tour to orient ourselves to the city and see some sites with a tour guide for free. We walked and stopped briefly by the Church of Holy Sepulchre then walked up to the roof where the Ethiopian Church has its place. We then walked to the Muslim Quarter. The odd thing is that there isn't that much to divide it and I could barely tell we had crossed into it. We then walked over to the Western Wall. Had to go through security to get through to there. Tour guide gave us only 10 minutes at the wall itself. I went over into the male area and touched the wall. You can actually now email and Tweet a request to be printed and put into the wall. The women have to go into a separate area right next to the male area. I liked it. We then walked up and were able to take some good shots of the Dome of the Rock and see some of the other Muslim mosques. We then toured the Jewish Quarter and went up to another spot to take some more pictures. We then toured a small part of the Armenian Quarter before heading back to where we started at the Jaffa Gate which is only about 50 meters from our hotel. We did tip the tour guide. We then followed him back to their travel center which we had already heard about.
Booked a trip to Bethlehem. It is a half day trip and is in the Palestinian Territories. Should be fun.
Took our laundry into the new city area. We walked away past where we needed to go. Found decent directions at a hostel. Did laundry self serve. Took a little over a hour.
Ate lunch at local place. Pretty good.
Bought a Palestinian beer called Taybeh at local corner market. Kinda hoppy and not bad.
Got online and worked on Jordan stuff.
Starting to feel much better. Getting closer to 100%.

Tuesday November 9th
Woke up with the call to prayer around 4:45 am. Had difficulty sleeping.
Church bells woke me up shortly before my alarm went off at 7 am.
Took organized tour to Bethlehem. Tour started at 8:30. Bethlehem is in the Palestinian controlled territories. We went through a check point to Bethlehem which is only 12 km away from Jerusalem. You cannot really tell where Jerusalem ends and Bethlehem begins except for the barrier wall and checkpoint. We first went to the Shepherd's Field where the Shepherd's were first told of Jesus's birth. Climbed down into some caves and walked into a church on the site. We then drove next to the Church of the Nativity. It is located on a hill about a kilometer away. It was packed. Our guide who we actually picked up inside Palestine took us in the back door way. We got to jump in front of hundreds of people. We first went to an underground area of tombs where some of the children murdered by King Herod were buried along with St. Jerome who was responsible for translating the bible to Latin. He then talked to another guard and snuck us in two at a time to the underground area where Christ is alleged to have been born. People were probably waiting a hour or two and we just walked up. I never heard anyone complain though. I got to bend down and touch the 14 pointed silver star that marks the spot. I then went over to another spot a couple meters away which is allegedly the spot where Jesus was put in the manger. It is a small area. My pictures turned out ok but not great but it is so crowded with so many people in line that you have to be quick. We then toured the Milk Grotto church after taking our break in a Christian souvenir shop. On the way back we stopped at the security wall that the Israeli government has built and took some pictures. We then had to go through the checkpoint and had to show our passports (our driver handled it). Two armed soldiers with machine guns also peaked into our bus as well. We then drove back to the Jaffa Gate. I really enjoyed it and glad we took the tour. There was only 7 of us total and we were back around 1 pm.
Snack on some bread, apple, and crackers. We're still not 100%. I will not go into details.
Worked on Jordan research for about 90 minutes before the internet went out. Went downstairs to ask about and they said it would be out for hours.
We then decided to walk through the old city to the Austrian Hospice (hotel) to the roof of the building. Best panoramic views of Jerusalem I've seen so far. It was close to sunset and the call to prayers from what I counted were 6 different mosques were in progress.
We then tried to get as close to the Dome of the Rock as we could but were stopped by 3 heavily armed soldiers saying the area was closed to non-Muslims until tomorrow morning. We didn't argue.
We kind of got lost on the way back. A 12 year old kid started guiding us sort of and I knew what was coming. He started demanding money from me. He wouldn't leave me alone and kept repeatedly asking me for money. I also noticed he was eying me up and down and figured he might try to grab something but I had my wallet secured in a front pocket with half my money in my wallet and the other half in another pocket. If he would have touch me I would have knocked him on his rear. He eventually left. I also kept a close eye on him as he started to follow us again but quickly turned back. I sort of worried he would sneak up and take Alethea's camera or backpack. We made it to the Jewish quarter and then I led us back to where our hotel was at where we ate dinner at a restaurant right outside our door.
Bought two beers at the local market and came back to the hotel where the internet is now working. Doing some online stuff including photo editing while drinking my beer.

Wednesday November 10th
No sightseeing today. Alethea woke up with a bad headache. She describes it as brain swelling. A lot of pressure on her head. Went on a minor grocery run. We'll rest today and make a decision tomorrow about going to a doctor. Probably will have to delay our departure to Jordan by a day or so. Need to be more healthy before traveling.

Thursday November 11th
Alethea still not feeling that well but a little better.
Transferred rooms to a larger room around noon. We knew we had to do this on the last night.
Spent about 3 hours looking for places to stay since our place was booked full and we couldn't extend our stay. Alethea is too sick to travel plus there are things we would still like to see plus have enough time to see Jordan. We ended up finding a hostel called Jerusalem Hostel on Jaffa Street which is about a mile away.
Tried to mail post cards but post closed as I was trying to squeeze. This location is also closed.
Bought two slices of pizza.

Friday November 12th
Visited Yad Veshem Or Holocaust Museum – best Holocaust Museum I've seen. Not as depressing as Auschwitz though. I'll never understand the holocaust or how thousands of Germans killed millions of people including 6 million Jewish people. Some of the exhibits didn't speak well of the Pope and I don't blame the, because he didn't do enough or at least speak out against what was going on.
Transferred from our hotel in Old Jerusalem to the The Jerusalem Hostel on Jaffa Street.
Walked around market area close to hostel.
Stopped and ate some good shwarma in the market.
While we were at the mall we saw orthodox Jewish men walking by blowing a horn and telling shop owners they needed to be closing before sunset when the sabbath starts.
Grabbed a couple beers at the local market.
Spent three hours planning out Jordan. We had to redo our itinerary a little bit with Alethea getting sick.
Read an article on Wikipedia regarding suicide bombings in Israel since the mid-1990's. We've been in multiple areas that were hit and we rode public buses that were also hit several times. Also, since they built the wall the bombings are down 90%. There are also a lot of well armed police and military too. I don't feel unsafe. It is actually feel pretty relaxed.

Saturday November 13th
Walked to Israeli Museum from hostel. Took about 45 minutes
Toured Israeli Museum. It is basically three parts. Dead Sea Scrolls, miniature Jerusalem model from 60 AD, and the museum. Very good museum. Spent 2.5 hours.
Walked to Jaffa Gate which took around 30 minutes.
Ate pizza at Jacob's pizza. Very few things are open. Jerusalem shuts down for the sabbath like the US does for Christmas except this is once a week not once a year.
Took Mount of Olives Tour – Took nearly three hours. Took taxi from Jaffa Gate to Mount of Olives. Went to Mosque of the Ascension, Pater Nostre – Lord's Prayer (french church) had caves where Jesus spent his last week, Dominus Flevit (Jesus Wept), Garden of Gethsemane – Church of all Nations, Mary's Tomb.
Walked back to Jaffa Gate & tipped Danny our guide.
Toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Arrived around 5:30. Left around 6:50 pm. Waited in line to see Jesus's tomb (about 25 minutes – people were pushing), saw anointing rock where Jesus's body was laid after he died, saw Golgotha or place where he was crucified but couldn't touch the spot there was a line and it was getting close to time to closing time even the priest said it would only be a few more minutes.
Walked back to hostel and bought a couple beers & for the first time since outside the US some Reese's Cups. Israel is the first country outside the US I've been to that has had Reese’s.
Went to good soup restaurant for dinner.

Sunday November 14th
Woke up @ 7 am
Went to Jaffa Str. Post Office and mailed 5 post cards
Picked up bagels form Holy Bagel and ate them for breakfast at our hotel
Checked out around 9:15
Took city bus down the street to Central Bus Station
Central Bust Station is more shopping mall than bust station. Bought tickets & navigated our way on to a bus bound for Beit Shean border crossing. Several armed Israeli men 7 women on the bus that made multiple stops. Took two hours to reach the town. Waited hour for bus to go a few kilometers to boarder. Bus finally came by and drove right by us despite Alethea waiving. I hailed a taxi. There were few. Paid exit fee of around $26 US per person to leave Israel. Have to take a bus a few hundred meters over a bridge over the Jordan River.
End of Israel blog.