When we returned to our hotel room after our lengthy tour of Bethlehem on New Year’s Eve, we had the nicest surprise – our hotel had left us a bottle of wine and chocolates for my birthday! And that was the extent of our NYE celebration – a glass of wine and some dessert. While most years we’re out late ringing in the new year, this year we had some early morning plans for January 1st – getting into the Temple Mount, after being too far back in line a few days before. We were out the door by 6:30 am and in line outside the security checkpoint by 7 am, 30 minutes before opening time.
As we approached security, I was starting to get nervous – even though we’d checked and double-checked that they weren’t needed, everyone around us had their passports, and we could see people at the front being turned away. I hadn’t brought my purse, because people online talked about the extensive bag search and questioning over items, so I didn’t even have basic ID. My panic was totally unnecessary though – the guard asked Richie for his passport, Richie showed him his Texas driver’s license, and the guard waved us through with no further questions. It turns out that the people being turned away had Bibles and other religious items on them – a big no-no, as the site is maintained and monetarily supported by the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Jordan. Anything non-Islamic in nature (Bibles, items written in Hebrew, traditional Jewish clothing, etc) is prohibited – Richie even read online about someone being turned away for having a visible cross tattoo.
Access to the sites inside the Temple Mount seems to vary depending on the political situation in the region – we read reviews from a few years ago of people allowed into the Dome of the Rock and into the Al-Aqsa mosque, even though they weren’t Muslim. These days, all non-Muslims are prohibited from entering those buildings, so our tour was limited to the exteriors. Still, it was incredibly cool to be able to stand in an area of such importance to three major religions. For the Jews, as I mentioned in our Day 2 post, this is the foundation stone of the world, where the First and Second Temples rested (and the Holy of Holies), and where it is believed that Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). For this reason, and because a church was constructed here during the time of the Byzantine Empire, it is important to Christians. And Muslims believe this is the spot that Muhammad ascended to heaven (among other things).
Regardless of what you believe, the Dome itself is a gorgeous building.
The upside of having such restricted entry to the Temple Mount? Very few tourists in your photos!
Afterwards, we headed to the Garden Tomb, just outside of the Old City walls along a busy thoroughfare, at the peak of Mount Moriah. Our guidebook mentioned very little about the garden tomb, other than that it was an alternative site for the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. As we entered the garden, we were greeted by a caretaker who mentioned that a free tour in English was starting, so we hurried to join the others and learn why some believe in this spot over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
There’s a fair amount of detail on their website, and our tour guide Paul was very thorough, but in brief: as many historians believe that the trial of Jesus took place at the Citadel (Pontias Pilate’s residence), at the edge of the Old City, the location of the tomb inside the city (as indicated by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) didn’t make sense to a number of archeologists and historians. This place was found in the 19th century and meets a number of the descriptions of the crucifixion site. The most visible today is in the hillside, where the features of the rock resemble a skull, and the place for the crucifixion in Matthew, Mark and John is described as “Golgotha, which means ‘the place of the skull'”.
And there is an ancient tomb on the site, dated to the appropriate time period. In the photo below, you can see the wall of the tomb has been plastered, and a cross painted on the plaster. Beneath the plaster is an ancient painting of a cross, and the plaster has been placed on top to protect it.
There is a significant amount of evidence that was presented to us on our tour. Is it circumstantial? Of course. But so is the claim that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the spot (allegedly, in the 4th century, Helena asked someone where the crucifixion took place, and he pointed to a Roman temple that was built on that place at the time). To me, the evidence is more compelling for the Garden Tomb – but you should go check out both sites for yourself! 😉
Our final stop in Jerusalem was the Israel Museum, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Nearby is a scale reproduction of how Jerusalem is believed to have looked at the time of the Second Temple (70 AD).
The museum held lots of interesting exhibits, including full synagogues reconstructed inside! There were four synagogues that, at various times, were in danger of being destroyed or closed permanently, so the museum purchased the synagogues and rebuilt them as exhibits. In three instances, they even pulled in the ceiling, walls and support beams. There was also a beautiful sculpture garden.
We could’ve spent hours there, but it was rapidly approaching sunset and we needed to head to Tel Aviv for hotel check-in and dinner reservations for my birthday at an adorable little restaurant called Dallal. A delicious steak and a glass of wine was the perfect end to a long day of sightseeing.
I highly recommend our Tel Aviv hotel – the Shenkin Hotel, in a great neighborhood with lots of shopping and restaurants nearby, and a nice walk down to the harbor. Those who find European hotel beds to be uncomfortable will have no complaints here – this is by far the most comfortable night of sleep I’ve had in a hotel! And instead of the usual just-okay hotel breakfast buffet, the hotel contracts with two nearby cafes to serve breakfast – we had probably 15 options and ended up with a massive amount of food, all included in our very reasonable room rate. We actually didn’t need to eat lunch that day!
Our day in Tel Aviv was very low-key – we were flying out in the evening, but with the recommended 3-4 hour arrival at the airport prior to flight time, we didn’t plan any sightseeing. We had a relaxed afternoon shopping and picking up a few last souvenirs (I had been on the hunt for the perfect hamsa, a palm-shaped amulet used as a sign of protection, since basically day 1 of the trip and finally found one!)
Our airport experience on the Israeli end of things was a little bit different from our flight in – we joined a massive line at the entry of the terminal to have our interview and a scan of our luggage before we even checked-in. It took about 1.5 hours to get through that line. As we had pre-printed our boarding passes, we breezed through the check-in process afterwards, bypassing an equally long line. Israel Travel Tip #7: Always check in online and pre-print your boarding pass. Actually, that’s probably a good general travel tip, not just with Israel. After check-in, we had two more security checks before we finally reached the gate. Whew.
Since we started planning this trip, I’ve heard from lots of friends and family who have said they would love to go to Israel – do it. I honestly didn’t think I would love this trip as much as I did, but it’s definitely a top five for me. If you’re worried about safety, I completely understand – on paper, this trip can sound a little scary, and news reports of violence in the area don’t help matters. Of course you should always check the State Department’s travel warnings website for information before planning a trip like this, and monitor the current political situation. But I can say without any hesitation that I never felt unsafe while on the trip, and that everyone was welcoming and friendly to us. For those who are not involved in the conflict, the primary danger is being in the wrong place at the wrong time – which can happen anywhere in the world.
If you’re planning a trip and have any questions, I would love to help where I can! And for those who haven’t seen the posts from the beginning, here is a link to all my photos from the trip (mostly unedited, and entirely without captions) and here is a link to my Facebook album (edited and with captions, no account required).