If you’re looking for a spiritual pilgrimage this winter, you may want to consider Israel and the historic cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. With an expert Vacation travel agent, you can make the holidays extra special with a unique experience you won’t soon forget. Get inspired as Alisa Ross remembers her immersive journey in September to experience the cultures and see the world’s most important religious sites in these holy cities.
In an area of Jerusalem’s Old City covering less than a square mile, tales of Romans and Crusaders, Byzantines and Ottomans are etched into virtually every stone; thousands of years of religion and culture overlapping to thrilling effect.
I’m visiting the Old City with my friend Jin. We’d first met a few weeks before, while working as volunteers on a quiet kibbutz in the north of Israel. As we picked apples together in the orchard that dewy September morning, we hatched a plan. On our next couple of days off, we’d take the first bus south to the capital to explore the most sacred cities in the Holy Land – as we as stuffing ourselves with halva and hummus.
From Religion to Religion
The Old City in Jerusalem is surrounded by fortress-like walls that reach 40 feet up toward the brilliant blue sky. I’m not religious, but—like many Koreans—Jin is Christian. And so, our first stop is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the spot where, it’s said, Jesus died. For centuries, pilgrims from around the world have traveled here to worship.
As we walk the Via Dolorosa—the route Jesus took to his crucifixion—we’re jostled by a stream of people , many of whom stagger under the weight of a rented cross tied to their back. The beautiful, 1,700-year-old church is revered by people around the world. Inside, it’s teeming with people clicking cameras, so we make our way up to the peace of the rooftop, where a small group of Ethiopian monks still live. At one point they had a chapel inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre, but that was lost during Jerusalem’s Ottoman Empire period, as they lacked both political power and the finances to make the tax payments demanded of them.
We then head to the heart of Jewish life at the Western Wall Plaza. Once we’ve made it through the airport-style security, the energy in the courtyard is palpable. The last remnant of the Second Temple, built in 19 BC by Herod, is one of the most holy sites in Judaism. Every nook has been stuffed with paper prayers by the devout, who believe the wall is inhabited by the Divine Presence. Hushed by the holiness of the place, we step back as the women in front of us shower limestone bricks with kisses. Across a divide, men do the same.
By now, the sun is setting and all we can think about is food. Just inside Damascus Gate, we find a hole-in-the-wall joint serving up lahmacun, a Turkish flatbread. The Arab owner shows us how to sprinkle sumac onto our Armenian pizzas before rolling them up to eat like crepes. Topped with salty, chopped lamb, they’re life-affirmingly good. Jin orders a Taybeh beer, brewed in the West Bank, I order a bottle of Israeli Goldstar. And there it is: all four quarters of the Old City—Christian, Jewish, Arab, Armenian—in one meal.
The only thing missing is ice cream; so, we set off on a gelato mission from the Old City into downtown Jerusalem. We wind our way through the glossy Mamilla Mall, with its Chanel perfume and Topshop dungarees for sale, and head deep into the buzzing, narrow streets of Yosef Rivlin and Hillel. The neighborhood is packed with bars and restaurants and Israeli hipsters smoking shisha. We head straight for Katzefet Café on Ben Yehuda, order strawberry ice cream topped with whipped cream, and toast the warm Mediterranean night.
To the Dome of the Rock
The next day, we wander up to our hostel rooftop and listen to the morning chorus of church bells ringing and Islamic calls to prayer. Watching the sunrise over the gold and blue of the city’s most iconic building –Temple Mount to Israelis; the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims—we decide it should be our first destination of the day.
For more than a thousand years, this was the site of Jewish temples, until the last one was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Christianity took over the city for the next few centuries before Arab followers of the new religion Islam conquered the city in AD 638. The first great Islamic building, the Dome of the Rock, was built atop the ruins of the last Jewish temple, and continues to dominate the Holy City’s skyline today.
We lined up with hundreds of others to pass through security checks before heading into the grounds. Ironically for one of the most contested places on earth, the scene is harmonious, with people picnicking and relaxing in the site’s 35 acres of beautiful gardens, but only Muslims can enter the Dome of the Rock to pray. Groups of non-Muslim travelers queue to look through a crack in a door of the building, although there’s little to see but darkness.
Next up, food. The hummus at Abu Shukri, just off the Via Dolorosa, is as thick as Greek yogurt, tart with tahini, and topped with olive oil and toasted pine nuts; this is the good life.
Journey to Bethlehem
The Arab bus station sits just outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate. We board the crowded number 21, headed for Bethlehem. Jin finds a space next to a veiled woman and says, “toda raba” (‘thanks a lot’ in Hebrew). The women on the seats behind giggle as Jin’s companion gently replies, “Shukran; it’s shukran here.”
Thirty minutes later, we’re standing at the Separation Wall that’s split Israel and the West Bank since 2002. Tourism dollars mean the little town of Bethlehem is the richest town in Palestine, but it’s still poorer than any I’d seen in Israel. We stop off for milky coffees, load our pockets with honeyed halva from a stall along the breezy main street that doubles as an open-air market, and make our way to the Church of the Nativity.
Walking around the main hall of the church, an old Palestinian man approaches and asks if we’d like to see where Jesus was born. Before we know it, he pulls us towards an exit for the Nativity Grotto and speaks with a security guard.
“There,” he says. “As it’s just the tow of you, you can go in this way and take a look around.” We descend into a tiny, dark cavern filled with golden lamps, tapestries and burning candles.
Here we are, standing at the oldest site continuously worshipped in Christianity. Suddenly, it occurs to me that the Palestinian man had been speaking quickly and Jin’s English isn’t perfect. I grab her wrist and whisper, “Jesus was born here.” I watch her realize the significance of where she’s standing, her face contorting to match a series of emotions: shock, rapture, and pure joy.
Afterwards, we run back to the West Bank checkpoint, catch a bust to Jerusalem and scoot up Jaffa Road to the main bus station as fast as we can, which is not fast enough. We just miss our ride out of town, so head to a station café. The handsome Israeli behind the counter looks at Jin, smiles, and asks what the giant ‘J’ on her T-shirt stands for.
Jin looks down at her top, back at him, and proclaims, “Jesus!” He cracks up laughing. And that’s it; there’s no way we’re making the next bus either. Soon, free coffee, biscuits and slices of chocolate cake are brought over to our table. This is the kindness we’ve experienced everywhere in the Holy Land. Togetherness and sharing have been the hallmarks of the is trip. Picking apples back at the kibbutz will have to wait for another day.
Spring and fall are usually the best times to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but just think how much more amazing it would be to visit it in the winter around Christmas time. Get matched with an expert travel agent, who can customize an itinerary for you, including private tours and transfers. Your religious pilgrimage in Israel awaits!