Sunday 6 May 2018

Sunday is a normal workday in Israel. I hadn’t realised. I knew most Arabic countries did a Sunday – Thursday weekday, but didn’t know it was the same here too.

So it was busy. All the people were back out.

We were picked up for the day at 7.15am. And after a bit of a drive around the city picking up other people, we were dropped at a park in the northern end of the city, to transfer onto a larger coach for the day. I didn’t think we would be on a large coach tour!

We headed out of the city, heading east towards Jerusalem.

The guide pointed out lots of places enroute – the diamond exchange. Apparently 70% of the worlds diamonds pass through here. The holocaust forest – one tree planted for every Jew killed. And fields of chickpeas and corn. Staples!

After a brief toilet stop at a random service station, with an Elvis Presley theme, we finally made it to Jerusalem at around 9.30am.

Holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, Jerusalem’s Old City is one of the world’s most popular pilgrimage destination. And there were a lot of groups around. Rows and rows of coaches. Large groups of people all in identical t shirts.

Our first stop was in the hills – the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus. The Hebrew university of Jerusalem is also up here. From here there are good views across the city – with various domes visible between all the sandy coloured buildings.

We had a nice view of the Dome of the Rock – a blue and gold mosque – the dome covers a slab of stone sacred to both Muslim and Jewish people. We weren’t going to the complex that this mosque sits within, called Temple Mount. So only viewing from afar! It is difficult to get into the complex area and only Muslims are allowed into the buildings.

It is now a law that buildings can only be built using sandstone. They want to keep the city all the same colour.

From here, we drove (slowly! There was a lot of traffic) into the city. We passed next to the City of David – the original settlement in the area.

In the Book of Zechariah, mount of olives is where God will start to redeem the dead when the Messiah returns on Judgment Day. There is a large Jewish cemetery built on the side of the hill – 150,000 people are buried here in rows and rows of tombs in order to get a good place in the line.

There are 4 gates into the old walled city (there used to be 5, but one is inaccessible now). The walls were constructed between 1537 and 1542. We entered through the Zion gate and into the Armenian quarter.

The old city is divided into 4 quarters – Armenian, Jewish, Muslim and christian.

We were shortly in the Jewish quarter. This area is largely residential. We saw the old border of the city walls. Had some free halva samples from a shop. And weaved past a lot of fast food stalls.

The western wall was constructed 2,000 years ago and is Judaism’s holiest place. To get into the courtyard beside the wall, you had to pass through bag and person scanning.

The wall was built as a wall supporting the outer portion of Temple Mount, where the Second Temple used to be, but this Temple was destroyed in 70BC.

People come to pray at the wall. It is divided into different sections for men and women. There are lots of papers scattered within the edges of the stones – people believe that if you leave a wish, it has a greater chance of coming true.

From here we popped out into the Muslim quarter. And it was like walking into the souqs of Marrakesh. Rocks and incense being sold. The smell of incense in the air. Falafels cooking. Juice stalls. Men moving between the crowds with bread on their heads. And general chaos.

We started passing by plaques that had numbers on them. This is known as the Via Dolorosa (‘Way of Sorrows’) and is the route that Jesus is believed to have taken as he carried his cross.

We followed large parts of this path. Weaving between narrow streets full of market stalls and past houses (people live within the old city).

We popped out onto a slightly more open space – a circular area surrounded by shops. There are only about 4 ‘authorised’ shops here. And we had to go inside to listen about what we could buy here. But I wasn’t too interested. So went outside to buy some bread.

From here, we headed down through the wide market towards the Church of the holy sepulchre. This is one of the world’s most important pilgrimage destinations. And it was jam packed. You could barely move. The queue to enter the central shrine area was crazy.

Right in the entrance way was a stone on the floor. The Stone of Unction. This commemorates the place where the body of Jesus was annointed before burial. People were laying on the floor draping themselves over it.

After a quick circle around, we got out. It was far too busy. Then sat in the jam packed courtyard for a while, waiting for the rest of the group.

From here, it was finally lunch time. It was only about 1pm, but I was so hungry. We were in a rooftop restaurant and had 2 options for lunch. Veg or non-veg. The veg option was a falafel pita.

Then it was time to leave Jerusalem. We weaved through the markets of the Christian quarter, out to the Jaffa Gate. This is considered to be the main entrance into the old city.

Just out the front here, a large new looking shopping centre, lining the edges of the wall – but concealed in the same sandstone brick. Strange after walking around all the old buildings of the walled city.

It was about a half hour drive from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.

Past the wall separating Israel from Palestine. Through the desert, past Bedouin camps – with their herds of goats, past the ancient city of Jericho. Then descending down past sea level.

There was a sign marking where sea level was. Then various signs as we descended further, down to 428m below sea level.

The Dead Sea is the lowest, saltiest place on earth. The wafer is 10x saltier than the sea. However, it is rapidly disappearing and the water level is dropping around 1.2m per year, partly through Jordan pumping water out. And partly through evaporation. Apparently the surface area is now just 70% of what it was 20 years ago.

We saw where the Dead Sea level used to be – there was an old resort. Now just derelict buildings.

We were dropped off at a ‘resort’ style place, which was a bit disappointing. I would have much preferred a quiet area!

It was cool. I went for a float. And put some mud on myself. It wasn’t so salty that you couldn’t orientate yourself. I’ve floated in salty pools before – in Chile – and they felt a lot saltier.

We left the Dead Sea around 5.30pm and by 6.30pm we were back in Tel Aviv.

For dinner, we headed to a restaurant which was just one block away from us – Nanuchka – a vegan Georgian restaurant.

The food was really good. We had cashew cheese courgette rolls, in a tomato sauce. And vine leaves, filled with rice. And dessert – a chocolate slice, which was maybe one of the best desserts I’ve ever had.

Although we then went for dessert number 2! Also very close is another gelato shop. This one didn’t have as many vegan options as the one we went to yesterday. They just had 3 – halva, chocolate or coconut. We got a coconut gelato, cookie sandwich! So good.


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