Israel: Jerusalem and the Negev

Looking back on the photos from this section of the trip, we simultaneously thought, "wow!" and, "whoops!" This is going to be a long one. If you read every bit of it, you get a gold star, but we've labeled sections as clearly as we can so you can skip ahead to the things that interest you most.

We pulled into Jerusalem on Shabbat, giving us a chance to get used to the city at its quietest. Our friend Steve from college met us in the twilight to acquaint us with the local shawarma, show us where to get a stiff drink, and get us started with a few tips for our neighborhood.

Outside the old city walls, you could be in a modern city anywhere on earth. The light rail slowly cut its way through the mass of people wandering Jaffa street, street vendors beckoned you in, cell phone stores glowed with their high-tech wares. The only dead giveaways that you might be in Israel were the sea of limestone buildings and the kosher McDonalds up the street.

But once you're inside it, the old city completely transports you.

The Old City in 9 hours or less

The next morning, we started our day exploring the old city with our friend and tour/spirit guide, Shimon, at the magnificent Jaffa gate, passing into the Armenian quarter. This small and independent quarter houses the old city's roughly 500 Armenian Christians. It is also home to the Armenian monastery, which, as we learned from Shimon, you can only enter if you are Armenian. As we shuffled down the streets we marveled at the quiet beauty of this quarter, with residents who were clearly very private with the outside world and very close-knit with each other.


Next, we headed to the Jewish quarter, with its pristine buildings, relatively wide streets, and beautiful hanging gardens. This sparkling facade is the result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when a lot of the Jewish quarter was destroyed. Instead of simply rebuilding the government took advantage of this rare opportunity to excavate for archeological finds and totally redo the blueprint for the quarter, giving each block of homes a number of modern upgrades.


We meandered past the Hurva Synagogue, more popularly known as the "ruined synagogue" because of the amount of times it has been destroyed in its long history, to the southern edge of the Old City. From the top of the hill, you can look down into the excavations of the City of David, the original settlement built by King David. Shimon whipped out his handy binder o' maps to help illustrate how much Jerusalem's boundaries had shifted over the ages, with only the Temple Mount and tiny slivers of the City of David in common for all iterations of the city.


We curved around to pay our respects at the Western Wall, the remaining fortification of the second Jewish temple and the closest place to the Temple Mount where Jews are allowed to pray (in an effort to keep the relatively peaceful status quo). Visitors can slot little notes or written prayers into the cracks in the walls, though we were a little dismayed at seeing the cleanup crew coming through to remove them not long after our neighbors had hopefully jammed their wishes in.


Our tummies growling after all this history and walking, we headed deep into the Muslim quarter to stop at one of Shimon's favorite hummus places, Abu Shukri. We let Shimon do the ordering, as he was practically part of the owner's family by now, and we tried to stay out of the way. The master's work complete, a dizzying array of pickles, pita, hummus, falafel, and searingly hot fries came rushing out of the kitchen.


Once we came up for air, Shimon rushed us off to our next destination. But not before buying us all a piece of baklava for the road.

We climbed up one of the entrances to the Temple Mount to see the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, just for a peek. This most contested site is critically important in three major world religions: for Jews, it is the holiest place and the focal point of the First Temple, for Muslims, it is the third holiest place, where the prophet Muhammad was taken on his miraculous Night Journey, for Christians, the role the Second Temple played in the life of Jesus makes the place holy. Unfortunately, with the situation being particularly tense in Jerusalem, we were advised not to go all the way up to the top. But just getting a closer look at the glint of the magnificently gilded dome was a worthwhile stop on our tour.


We headed west through the Muslim quarter, stopping off at one of Shimon's favorite places to further satisfy our sweet tooth. At Zalatimo's, an absolutely no-nonsense family-run pastry cafe for over 200 years and counting, you order one thing, and one thing only: mutabak. You can get it with cheese or nuts and spices, but instead of explaining its mysteries to you, we'll just show you this timelapse of Zalatimo the younger at work with some tasteful jazz accompaniment:

And the final, dreamy product:


We wrapped up our time inside the old city itself with the Christian quarter, heading past the Ethiopian homes to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In Christian tradition, Jesus died and was laid to rest at this site, so it's a very emotional place to visit. Right as you walk in the door, people are kissing, crying, and laying themselves across a slab of rock where it is believed Jesus' body was placed before taking it into the tomb. The tomb itself is worshipped at by four different sects of Christianity, with each taking their turn to chant prayers and waft frankincense before surrendering their position to the next. Upstairs you can see Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, completely enclosed inside the church walls. All together, it amounts to an incredible and moving sight to behold.


In addition, we learned that during times of Arab control, church bells were not allowed to be rung in Jerusalem. Instead, the clergy would knock on a large plank of wood to summon people to prayers. While it's not certain, many believe that this is the origin of the phrase "knock on wood", as a sort of nod to God's hand in our fate.


We started heading out of the city, but since Shimon and the two of us had been vibe-ing so much on the food he decided to take us through the Mahane Yehuda and show us a few of his favorite stalls. This massive marketplace has all kinds of delectable foods, and overall the quality is very impressive. We tried sesame halva, a common dessert, for the first time, sampled a ridiculous amount of juices, and tried the most sinful chocolate rugelach we've ever laid eyes on. We could have stayed here forever, but at some point we had to let Shimon get back to his real life, so we slowly picked a pathway home in the fading light and said our goodbyes.


We've probably written too long about everything we did in the old city, but in reality it totally skims over everything we covered with Shimon in a single day. He kept us walking, staring, fed, and feeling safe for around 9 hours straight, and we are so thankful we got to spend our day with him.

Yad Vashem

We followed up our busy day in the old city with with an equally ambitious itinerary the next morning. We kicked things off with a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel's memorials to the victims of the Holocaust. While we spent about 3 hours in the Museum alone (and probably could have spent longer if we weren't emotionally spent), the site contains a full research institution and numerous commemorations to specific groups of victims, the righteous among the nations who helped to save Jews, and more. The exhibits within are made all the more hard-hitting by the institution's noble goal: to catalogue as many individual identities and lives as possible. In this mission, they become much more than a decades-old tragedy and a name on a list. Each victim is a story.


The Tower of David

After taking some time to decompress and gather our thoughts, we made for the old city once more to visit the Tower of David. A family friend kindly showed us around the stunning citadel, which was constructed by King Herod and built upon by numerous rulers that followed. We soaked in the beautiful space and caught some gorgeous views over the city at night before settling in for the night show, where the history of the Tower of David is projected onto the walls of the courtyard in amazingly sleek animations. It was a wonderfully graceful meeting of old and new, and we were lucky to see it.


After, we grabbed dinner with a friend, eager to talk through all we'd learned during our time in the city. We'd been so nervous before our arrival???what if it didn't feel safe? What if we'd have to cancel? But after spending a few days with Jerusalem, all we had left in our heads was awe. It is truly a cultural marvel, and we are so glad we were able to keep our plan to visit it.


A slight detour into the West Bank

The next morning we picked up our final rental car for the trip down south through the Negev, a vast desert where some of Israel's first settlers created farming communities called kibbutzes.

But first, we headed north and east through the West Bank to the Jordan River at the site of Jesus' Baptism. We'd done some extensive reading about whether or not this was a good idea, and even though everything we'd seen had said the area right around was totally fine, every few miles we would stop to remark, "Man, this is definitely not something our parents would do."

As soon as you leave Jerusalem on the main highway toward Jericho, it's absolute desolation. I've never seen such dry, empty looking desert. But even in this barren landscape, camel crossing signs abounded; Bedouins were brave enough to call this place home.


We pulled up to the river and hopped out of the car. On either side of the parking lot, fences and signs warned us against wandering: Danger, mines! We scampered up to the Baptism Site, where a very different scene awaited as people sung hymns and dunked themselves into the muddy, warm water. We stepped down to dip our fingers in, sad at the state of the once-mighty River Jordan but enjoying the songs of our neighbors.


The Negev

We hit the road south, stopping briefly to visit Qumran National Park, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves during the early 1950s.


Finally we reached Masada, the site of an ancient hilltop palace that was heroically defended by its Jewish inhabitants until their suicide to avoid capture. The fortress was almost completely isolated from the valley below???that is, before the invention of gondolas.


We took in the sweeping views of the Negev below and listened to the swooping birds whistle out across the vast cliffs. On a clearer day, we're sure you can see for miles and miles, but unfortunately a sandstorm had whipped up from Saudi Arabia and would affect our next two days' touring. Everywhere we went was dusty and difficult to see, but that just meant we had to focus on some slightly closer things.


Our last day in Israel took us down to Eilat and the Red Sea. Beat from all the touring, and wiping the dust from our eyes, we opted to do a little less adventuring and a little more lounging over some incredible seafood and coffee. After all, we had another world to prepare for across the border.


Up next:

We're headed to Jordan to get our Bedouin on, road trip, and learn just enough Arabic to make fools of ourselves!