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The Holy Land

Holiday Ideas & Foreign Travel
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The Holy Land


Postby TaurusTheBull » May 7th, 2018, 4:45 pm


On reflection, my mistake was reading my book at 11 pm on the arrivals airside of Ben Gurion Airport, because the immigration queue was so long.

After half an hour I was approached by a security chap and given a 15-minute interrogation as to what I was doing there, why I had such little luggage, how much money I had, and my life history.

Welcome to Israel!

Tel Aviv Airport wasn't a comfortable place to spend the night, as there are no benches, and flights seem to arrive and depart throughout the night.

Bus 485 takes an hour from the airport to the Central Bus Station in West Jerusalem, 16 shekels (NIS). I walked 4 km to the Old City and checked into Hebron Hostel, €10 or 45 NIS for a dorm bed. The hostel is between the Muslim and Christian quarters, and has a roof terrace with a splendid view to the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre. Free salad with hummus and pita bread is served on the roof in the evenings.

In the alleyways falafel is served everywhere.

Jerusalem is supposedly the most religious city in the World, containing the holiest sites in Christianity and Judaism, and those of great importance to Muslims.

It's long and chequered history of conflict continues to this day, exemplified by the multitudes of armed Israeli personnel manning Damascus Gate, the entrance to the Muslim Quarter, on street corners and to places of prayer.

Israel is usually in the headlines for the wrong reasons. A different headline featured on the day of my arrival. Rare flash floods had knocked out roads in the Negev Desert and around the Dead Sea, causing several fatalities.

I walked through the wet evening alleyways to the security gate overlooking the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. A dozen Orthodox Jews were reciting Psalms at the Wall. This is widely known as the Wailing Wall, because Jews come here to lament the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, nearly 2,000 years ago.

The plaza in front of the Wall was cleared of Arab houses after the six-day war of 1967. The next night, the eve of Shabbat, it was a chaotic sea of Jewry.

The Church Of The Holy Sepulchre is the generally presumed site for Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified and later buried. The queues to see his alleged tomb are continuous, from open till close.

In February the church was closed for three days, in opposition to the proposed imposition of back taxes by Jerusalem authorities, part of a supposed vendetta against the Christian community, who say Jews are surruptiously buying up land and defacing properties (the Greek Orthodox Church owns most of Mount Zion and nearly a third of the Old City).

In the Holy Land, division and conflict is never far away.

Another suggested crucifixion site and initial burial site, in the possible garden of Joseph Of Arimathea, is located in the Garden Tomb, opposite the Arab Bus Station just outside Damascus Gate.

There are so many walking tours that standing still for a few minutes often puts one within earshot of an English-speaking guide. There are so many tour groups that they block up the main alleyways. Tour buses line the roads outside the Old City and up to the Mount Of Olives.

There's no business like religion.

There is some respite from the hordes in the early mornings and evenings, which makes accommodation in the Old City very convenient. The only blockages then are caused by the narrow waste-collection tractors navigating the stepped alleyways.

After three days bumbling around legendary sites, I was ready for a change.

In a divided land, I took a bus 20 km to Ramallah, the largest city of the occupied West Bank, now called "the Palestinian Territories", as that region decreases in size. We passed a checkpoint, and the infamous Wall, started after the second intefada. This Wall is widely resented by Palestinians, and sums up the situation in the region.

Staying at a hostel in Ramallah, I took a 12 NIS bus 30 km to Jericho, the World's oldest known city, dating back over ten thousand years, but with few recogniseable archaeological remains from those times. It's also the lowest city in the World, at 258 m below sea level, and 5 km north of the Dead Sea.

I walked up Wadi Qelt, past the ruins of King Herod's Winter Palace, to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, built into the cliffs on one side. It's a spectacular setting, but the 90-minute walk is best done in winter, as by April midday temperatures are in the high twenties, and the sun relentless.

My 'phone welcomed me to Jordon!

Wadi Qelt continues for another three hours, up to Ain Fawwar, a thin green line in the desert. Mark Twain's 1869 book "The Innocents Abroad" was disparaging about Palestinian landscapes, but he came in September, when the land had been fried by the summer sun. As Wadi Qelt proved, there are a few, albeit seasonal, exceptions to his observations.

There are few tourists in the West Bank. St. George's was busy, with about 30 visitors. Palestinians are friendly enough, and some speak a bit of English. Public transport is via white minibuses that travel at set times, or by smaller yellow 'service' minibuses that travel when they have seven passengers. There are few signs in English, so asking around is key. Finding places can be a challenge.

One day I took a service bus down to the small university town of Birzeit. Fifty agorot of my NIS 4.50 fare was returned to me due to, as a fellow-passenger explained, "Israel complications".

This is the theory, proposed by Yasser Arafat in 1990, that the blob behind the candelarbrum on the obverse side of the ten agorot coin, allegedly shows a map of Greater Israel, including Amman, Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and northern Saudi Arabia.

Birzeit Old Town is tiny, quiet, relaxed and friendly. Many houses have colourful painted tyres hanging on their walls, often containing flowers. There is an old church here, and many locals are Christian. Nearby is Birzeit Brewery, churning out Palestinian Shepherd Beer.

The 10 km walk back from Birzeit passed ugly modern, and seemingly haphazard, urban development.

According to the Oslo Accords, Israel has varying control over the West Bank as designated by the ABC system, wherein Palestinians have full control only in C zones, such as Ramallah. Therefore spare land for development is at a premium, but that doesn't excuse the urban sprawl.

Together with the litter and the traffic, Mark Twain would be even less impressed today.

Ramallah is north of Jerusalem, and Bethlehem south, so I returned to Damascus Gate, via a cursory on-board ID check by an armed Israeli woman, and took another bus from there to Bethlehem, total cost 13 NIS.

Bethlehem is no longer the quaint Biblical village of yore. It's a city of 25,000 people, sprawling across scrubby hills adjoining Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. It draws the inevitable circus of visitors converging on Manger Square and the Church Of The Nativity.

The original church was commissioned by Helena, the mother of Emporer Constantine, and first dedicated in 339 AD. Subsequently destroyed by the Samaritans in 529 AD, it was rebuilt by Justinian soon after.

Across the square is Omar's mosque, and nearby is the 19th century Lutheran church. The Milk Grotto, another biblical legend, makes a nice retreat from the relentless hordes.

My last stop was a place that, perhaps even more than Jerusalem, encapsulates the history, religion and division so prevalent in this region.

Hebron, burial place of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob (aka Israel) and Leah, is important to Jews and Muslims. The Old City is split by barbed wire, netting, walls and security gates. The fear and loathing is palpable.

There is a tourist office in the Old City, closed on Fridays and Saturdays. Local lads offer guided tours of the area, with emphasis on the Palestinian viewpoint.

In 1929, during the British Mandate, many Palestinians were killed after riots in Jerusalem, and subsequently 67 Jewish emigrants were killed in Hebron. In 1968, following the six-day war, Israeli settlers started moving into Hebron, after which the Israeli government began the construction of Kiriat Arba, which today houses nearly 8,000 residents. In 1994 an American-born Jew who opposed the ongoing peace talks, walked the into Al-Ibrahimi Mosque and shot dead 29 praying Muslims.

And so it goes on...

The Tomb Of The Patriarchs, part of Al-Ibrahami Mosque, is at the lower end of Hebron's Old City, open to all at certain times, and surrounded by security gates. Muslim entrance is on one side of the building, Jewish on the other.

From the outside it seems more like a fortress than a place of prayer, a microcosm of the ongoing tragedy that is the Holy Land.

The Old City lacks the hustle and bustle of the past, having become depopulated over the last thirty years as many Palestinians can see nothing other than relentless Israeli incursions and occupation.

Life goes on in Hebron, despite only a trickle of foreign visitors to the city. It's a stricter city, with no booze.

I stayed with a local family, at Salem Guest House, overlooking the city, unmarked and only found after much asking around. Bed and tasty breakfast for 55 NIS.

My time was at an end. On a drizzly grey morning I took the 8-shekel bus from the Israeli side of the Tomb Of The Patriarchs to the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, and from there the 16-shekel bus to Ben Gurion Airport.

It was an interesting trip, and certainly educational, but it could hardly be called fun. At times it seemed more like a prison sentence than a holiday...

Expecting the Spanish Inquisition on leaving Ben Gurion, I was pleasantly surprised how relatively normal the security procedures were. Entry and exit stamps are on separate cards, so passports remain unsullied by an Isreali stamp.


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Re: The Holy Land


Postby JMN2 » May 8th, 2018, 7:34 am

At Ben Gurion they exercise risk profiling. Instead of taking off the shoes and combing through every item in every bag, for everyone, they classify you based on some criteria, have a chat with you, ask some questions. Perhaps you reading a book while queuing was a red flag. An old lady from Weston-super-Mare does not take as many resources as a curry house owner from Birmingham.

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Re: The Holy Land


Postby Lootman » May 8th, 2018, 9:40 am

JMN2 wrote:At Ben Gurion they exercise risk profiling. Instead of taking off the shoes and combing through every item in every bag, for everyone, they classify you based on some criteria, have a chat with you, ask some questions. Perhaps you reading a book while queuing was a red flag. An old lady from Weston-super-Mare does not take as many resources as a curry house owner from Birmingham.

Yes, El Al and the security authorites there do engage in profiling, including racial profiling. That is frowned upon in the West as politically incorrect but then not many bombers and terrorists are Norwegian grandmothers so maybe they have a point. In any event El Al has not had an incident in a long time.

Their methods are effective but do not scale. Try that at Gatwick on a summer Saturday and you have (even more) chaos.

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Re: The Holy Land


Postby JMN2 » May 12th, 2018, 12:21 pm

Great write-up Taurus. I am actually planning my 1st trip to Israel this summer, perhaps Tel Aviv and 2 day trips to Jerusalem. I am more interested in food, apparently there is good variety there, I love kebabs and all that. Also, craft beer boom has arrived there too so I will be concentrating on that as I am not a religious person at all, ex Lutheran, Lutheran being the default at the time of the birth together with a church tax embedded. My grandfather's Jewish parents came from Germany to renovate the castle in Turku, surname Von Printz (I kid you not), later just Printz, then changed to something very Finnish in the 30's. My grandfather was born 1917, was an orphan at very young age, and fought Russians in WW2 in the same team with later Finnish president Koivisto and Lauri Torni (John Wayne's characterin Green Berets was based on him).

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Re: The Holy Land


Postby JMN2 » May 12th, 2018, 12:42 pm

edit. sorry, his mother was Jewish, not the father. Grandfather had 3 daughters, one of them being my mother.

I wonder if I had any chance emigrating to Israel based on that history?

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