Palestine. When we hear this name in the news, it's most of the time about the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This part of earth has already seen so much suffering and injustice in the last 3,000 years, mostly in the name of religion and it's still not over.
Two weeks ago, I had the chance to visit this region for the first time with my wife and a mutual friend. It was an impressive and everlasting experience that I want now to share with you.
First impressions of the Middle-East
Arrival at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv after a long journey from Germany via Zurich (start at 4 o'clock in the morning...).
A very interesting airport, with its spacious central hall which almost feels like a shopping mall. But apart from that, it's not good organized, with very long queues for the passport control and arrogant staff.
Jerusalem, our final destination, is about a one hour by bus. There, we meet our friend T. and travel to the district in East Jerusalem where he lives. He has a huge flat with an nice view. I won't call it a pretty place, it's chaotic with much smelly garbage on the roadside, but very interesting and lively.
After a short break, we travel back to the city center of Jerusalem and go for a nice evening walk in the Old City. Divided in 4 quarters (Muslim, Jewish, Armenian & Christian), the Old City is a melting pot home to the holy places of many religions. We begin at the Damascus Gate with the Muslim Quarter, a narrow and crowded street labyrinth full of spicy smells and broad colors.
Following our friend and guide in this maze, we get a nice overview, including a glimpse at the famous Western Wall from above.
Finally, to end this tiresome but interesting first day, we eat a succulent diner at a Palestinian restaurant. My favorite dish: an excellent egg-plant mousse with Tahini!
Touristic spirituality, lively market & beer tasting
4 o'clock in the morning, I'm woken up by the first call to the prayer of the muezzin. While falling asleep again, I thought it just sounded like the call of a sweet potato seller in Japan ;-).
Today, we'll continue our visit of the Old City. Beginning at the Jaffa Gate, one of the main entrances, we stroll around struggling with a city map in Hebrew (there was no English map left...), following partly the stream of tourists and partly just our instinct in the narrow and colorful alleys.
After a while and still drinking an excellent but way too expensive fresh pomegranate juice, we arrive then by accident to one of the main touristic attraction, objective of all Christian believers, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
According the Bible, this church is the place where Jesus was crucified (Mount Golgotha) and contains his empty tomb, where Jesus is said to have been resurrected. I'm no believer and frankly I wasn't so interested to visit this site. But I must admit, I was wrong. Of course, it's full of "fanatic" tourists kissing the empty tomb or playing Jesus (it's called "Jerusalem Syndrome" and we really met one Jesus in the church!), but it's also a very impressive construction, a huge atmospheric building with many different levels and niches. You can really feel history in these walls!
Following this first touristic highlight of the day, we stroll back to the Damascus Gate (entrance to the Muslim district) and have lunch in a park nearby. There, we share a bench with two very friendly old Palestinian men. They speak pretty well English and we have an interesting chat.
Then, we go back to the maze of the Old City. Searching in vain for the Jewish District, we arrive by accident to the Western Wall. Also called the Wailing Wall, it's one of the last remains of the Second Jewish Temple and the holiest place for all Jews. This wall is situated at the base of the Temple Mount, one of the holiest place for Muslims, which we will visit tomorrow.
For non believers, the Western Wall isn't that spectacular and as we're there, only few people are praying, inserting their folded wishes in the cracks of the wall. Near the wall, successive groups of soldiers pose for the picture. All of them, men and women, carry automatic weapons. For us it's really unusual and scary!
Near the nearby Dung Gate, another group of soldiers is sitting in circle and listening to traditional music, really enjoying it. It's a very peaceful atmosphere and such a contradiction: They are so young and seem so happy, but must carry weapons and will possibly experience armed confrontations during their service in the military... What a waste of youth!
After this strange, but memorable experience, we walk again through the Old City and then take a tramway to our final destination, the Mahane Yehuda market.
Fresh and colorful fruits and vegetables everywhere, enchanting fragrances of spices and sweets full of honey, yelling merchants praising their goods, this partially covered marketplace, is like a paradise for all three of us!
We stroll there for about one hour before meeting our friend T. Together, we then go for dinner to a microbrewery nearby, the BeerBazaar. It a great place, with more than 100 beers, twelve of which are homemade and on tap! On top of this, they make excellent sandwiches.