Israel Photo Diary – Dead Sea and Desert

My time in Jerusalem was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip – walking through the Old City mixing with Ethiopian monks, Hasidic Jews and Palestinian shoppers all in such a small space. The city itself is a microcosm of the cultural make-up of the rest of urban Israel, however I wasn’t to find that out for a few days since my next destinations were distinctly lacking in people especially when compared to navigating the crammed streets and souks of the region’s  historical capital.

Masada

To get the bus to Masada (and anywhere in Israel) a knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet is essential otherwise you will have no idea of the bus’s direction even if you know the number. All the bus stations (and some supermarkets) in Israel also have a high level of security with baggage scanners which while at first can seem ominous or a hassle actually make the country remarkably safe to travel through and these constant checks eventually become a routine part of daily life.

Masada, the rock plateau and fortification, besieged for months by the Romans, a siege that resulted in the mass “suicide” of the roughly 900 people trapped on the plateau to avoid a life of slavery. Since Jewish law forbids suicide, the killers where chosen by lots so that only one individual had to kill himself. This harrowing story combined with the amazing geography of the fortress make it one of the most visited sites in this country.28945542193_510603e112_o

I wanted to hike up to the top of Masada to see sunrise (and also therefore avoid the insane morning/midday/afternoon heat) and since I can’t drive I had to stay at the very overpriced hostel at its base. Dinner there cost more than my budget would allow me to spend and since Masada is in the middle of nowhere I unfortunately woke up at the ridiculous time of 4am to start my climb on a very empty stomach. The walk up the snake trail began in the dark alongside a surprising number of fellow slightly unhinged individuals. After around half an hour of climbing, it began to get steeper and as I drained my first water bottle and started deliriously fantasising about breakfast foods, calling the ascent to the plateau enjoyable would be as far from the truth as possible. There was after all a reason the Romans spent a ridiculous amount of time and manpower building a ramp up the other site of the plateau.29459413152_f48325d4b0_o

However all these grumbles are completely irrelevant. The seemingly never-ending steps did in fact come to an end and the view is breath-taking, unforgettable, string of other cliché words etc. Slowly watching the sun rise over Jordan and the Dead Sea whilst sitting knackered on the edge of a fortified plateau (health and safety completely forgotten) associated with one of the most tragic sieges in history was worth every drop of sweat.28943580234_6c5702881d_o29459421662_d172555f64_o

After exploring the ruins of the palace complexes, ritual baths and caves on the plateau and admiring the view over the multiple playing-card shaped Roman military camps and the surprisingly mediocre ramp that surrounded Masada, the siren call of food back at the hostel proved to great and I hoofed it back down the path. Having both not eaten for close to 24 hours and having just completed a pretty strenuous climbs I may have eaten two trays of breakfast food in a state of hunger that meant I was beyond caring whether the chocolate mousse touched the herring! Continue reading

Israel Photo Diary – Jerusalem Part 3

My third day in Jerusalem began rather dramatically – the drain in my basement hallway had exploded with a river of excrement, due to a problem with the Jerusalem sewers and not my lovely hostel. So running away from the pungent smell of my room I ended up in the “City of David,” a complex of archaeological remains, many actually pre-dating the biblical king and even featuring a Canaanite toilet seat!

One of the main highlights is wading through Hezekiah’s Tunnel – a 500m long tunnel channelling water from a natural Gihon spring and hiding it from invaders, preventing the water system being poisoned etc. 500m doesn’t sound particularly long but when the water is waist-deep the journey does take a while – and also the novelty begins to wear off. You can however see from the different heights of the tunnel roofs where the two tunnelling teams met, 3000 years before a similar event with the more waterproof Eurotunnel! There was also a wet floor sign by the exit – a bit of an understatement! There are also the remains of a stepped road leading up to the temple used until Jerusalem’s destruction in 70CE, which is now underground, showing how quickly street levels can change.

Walking back through the streets of the old city, I ended up at a much more contemporary sight and whilst it is easy to be lured in by the might of history and religions surrounding you, the current political situation should not be forgotten. The Museum on the Seam visibly shows the signs of a conflict that despite current peace, has not in fact been solved and effects the everyday lives of thousands of people.

One instance I personally experienced when getting the bus between Palestine and Israel was due to the merits of my British passport I was allowed to remain seated on the bus as opposed to Palestinians who where shepherded through rigorous security checks. I do not personally have a problem with the checks themselves but feel that all bus passengers should be treated equally. Anyway this museum hosts changing contemporary art exhibitions with a socio-political slant and whether or not the art is to everybody’s taste, it is art that can honestly and not pretentiously be called thought-provoking.dsc08402

To end my day I ended up where nearly every Jewish Jerusalemite was before the Shabbat shut-down – the Mahane Yehuda food market. The atmosphere was amazing; towers of spices, heaps of dried fruit, wheels of halva (a sesame-paste confection looking worryingly like paté) and vats of olives with half a city crammed into it’s covered tunnels, buying their whole family’s food for the weekend.

As someone who loves cooking I spent around three hours (possibly a bit excessive) attempting to narrow down my food purchases for the week-end resulting eventually in a rather bizarre combination of onion bread, a punnet of pomegranate seeds, a kilo of dried kiwis (yup my Hebrew definitely needs some work) and some mini pastries. It made a change from the houmous wraps I’ve been living on ever since – food in Israel being prodigiously expensive. You can get a train from one end of the country to another for the same cost as two packets of biscuits. I wish the same was true back home and you could get to Edinburgh for the price of some McVities Hobnobs though! I ended the day as mentioned in more detail here, joining the Franciscans on their weekly Friday procession along the Via Dolorosa.

My next morning began thankfully with the smell of cleaning products in the corridors but again took a slightly bizarre turn when I ended up wandering around a girl’s school in East Jerusalem. I’d been told the Rockerfeller Archaeology Museum was in a castle-like structure just outside my nearest city-gate although it seems the city is home to several castle-like structures. The school receptionist seemed quite amazed as to how I’d bypassed security to get inside and bemusedly directed me to a near identical building just down the road. Continue reading

Israel Photo Diary – Jerusalem Part 2

I began my second day in Jerusalem slightly nervous as I’d read of the dangers of walking on the Mount of Olives if alone and female – harassment, pickpocketing etc… However I took the precaution of visiting on the day the churches on the Mount were actually open and at a time when I rightly predicted most tour groups would visit and ended up spending a relaxing day slowing ambling down this not in fact very steep hill.

I began my day having got a bus to the top, not only of the Mount itself but also the high tower of the German Evangelical church of the Ascension with its Byzantine-style mosaicked interior. Continuing down the hill I ended up on the run… from nuns. Very scary Russian Orthodox nuns, whose convent I accidentally wondered into and considering they seemed to be aged around 70, they moved worryingly fast.

Luckily I soon found safer territory in the Mosque of the Ascension, a squat grey bulbous building marking the spot from where Jesus is believed to have ascended into heaven. Inside is an indentation that is apparently Jesus’ right footprint. The left was taken to the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount and eventually evolved into the footprint of Mohammed.DSC08198

After this I ended up at my joint favourite church I visited on the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Pater Noster where tiled panels show the Lord’s Prayer in 160 languages including Bisiac, Samaritan, Helgolandese and Wallisian alongside more commonly spoken languages such as English, Thai, Hungarian etc. A church was first built here by Queen Helena in the 4th century on top of a cave (still visible) thought to be where Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples. The view of the Old City of Jerusalem is also phenomenal, enabling you to see the design of the Al-Aqsa mosque much better than I was able (due unfortunately to being born without one of those pesky Y chromosomes) on the Temple Mount/Al-Haram ash-Sharif itself.

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Carrying on downhill, I reached the supposed tomb of biblical prophets Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi. Even if the prophets lived several centuries before this tomb complex was built, seeing this circular complex of rock-cut tombs by torchlight is still undeniably eerie. Soon I reached more modern Jewish tombs on the Mount, in never-ending rows as according to the bible the resurrection will begin here meaning it is a much sought after place of burial. Unfortunately many of the graves are now riddled with litter due to Hasidic Jews often being attacked if they come to pay respect to their relatives; the Mount of Olives being in predominantly Arab Eastern Jerusalem. Continue reading

Israel Photo Diary – Via Dolorosa

So starting my afternoon walking the Via Dolorosa, I began outside the city walls at St Stephen’s Gate, where legend states the first martyr of the Christian church was killed. Unlike the massive Damascus gate I had entered the city at, before being plunged into the souqs of the Islamic quarter, this gate is relatively small and lifeless. The first sites I visited on the Via Dolorosa also weren’t stations of the cross but nevertheless important – two places claiming to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. As often happens in the Holy Land, various Christian denominations have differing locations for where biblical events specifically happened and in this case the two sites were just down the road from one another. The first, the site claimed by the Greek Orthodox was an atmospheric candlelit room lined with wood panelling. The second, belonging to the Catholic church is a dull empty grey basilica above the cave in which Mary was said to be born (you can possibly tell which I preferred!). In the grounds of this church, more interestingly than the building itself however are the remains of the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus was said to have healed a sick man.DSC07979DSC07986DSC08005

Carrying on a few paces down the road, you reach a nondescript set of steps leading up to an Islamic boys school, which contains the ruins of the Herodium, Herod the Great’s private palace and where Pontius Pilate was believed to have been staying when he tried Jesus. This location is key to the direction of the route of the Via Dolorosa, marked out by Byzantine pilgrims, however it seems more likely the Pilate would have stayed in the Citadel across town, meaning the whole route could potentially be going in the wrong direction towards the Holy Sepulchre! However historical fact aside; the 2nd station was where Jesus was said to have received the cross and the crown of thorns explaining the design incorporated into the Franciscan chapel.DSC08012

As you carry on down the road, which is not a straight line but weaves its ways through souqs and changes direction, including doubling back at one point you pass more of the stations, some with dedicated chapels and others with nothing but a small mark in the wall to demarcate them. The 9th station for example (where Jesus fell for the third time) is a cross on a pillar embedded in the wall of the Coptic church adjacent to the Holy Sepulchre.DSC08140

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9th Station of the Cross to the left of doorway

 

I eventually wound my way up some steps onto the roof of the Holy Sepulchre itself, home to some ramshackle plaster buildings that are in fact an Ethiopian monastery; the monks being evicted by the Copts when their churches split in 1959. Most tourists just pass through their small dimly lit chapel, but having done a course on Eastern Christianity, I found the chapel with its intricately carved wooden screen and paintings of the Queen of Sheba fascinating. The monk-caretaker of the chapel was surprised at a non-Ethiopian stopping there for so long, resulting in a rather bizarre 10 minute conversation. Bizarre namely because he spoke no English and me no Amharic.28781997194_a4271c9285_o

Inside the Holy Sepulchre itself are the last five stations of the cross. Immediately in the entrance is the Stone of Unction, where Jesus’ body was said to have been anointed, surrounded by pilgrims covering it in oil and kissing it. One problem – said stone dates from the 19th century. At the time of my visit to the Holy Sepulchre, the shrine of the tomb itself was covered in scaffolding, making this dark atmospheric church full of nooks and crannies each housing a different Christian denomination feel even more chaotic. Every niche, chapel and lantern is owned by one of the Armenians, Franciscans, Copts or Orthodox that have a share in maintaining the church, and when this status quo is not maintained thing can turn physically violent (see this bizarre video), explaining why a ladder which no denomination claims ownership of hasn’t been moved for centuries! Continue reading

Israel Photo Diary – Jerusalem Part 1

I’m currently sitting in an Austrian-style cafe playing classical music which is being drowned out by the Muslim call to prayer of the mosques of the surrounding Islamic quarter of the capital city of the only Jewish state. Jerusalem is amazing because of this coexistence of cultures and I’m so glad it’s my location of my first trip outside of Europe (albeit I still travelled by Easyjet).

I spent my first day exploring the Old City which is where I’m staying – right in the midst of this amazing quagmire of beliefs and ethnicities. However my first morning got off to a bit of the shaky start when I tried to visit the Dome of the Rock. “Are you sure you’re not Jewish,” “Why are you alone?”, “You don’t look like you’ve had enough sleep” and most embarrassingly “Your skirt is too revealing” were just some of the comments said to me on the last two of the three security checks I had to go through to enter the Temple Mount. The reason I’m personally angry about the last comment especially is that my lose maxi skirt revealed… wait for it… my ankles. Whilst other tour groups were let in wearing capri pants, these guards chose to attempt to humiliate a young woman travelling alone – instead I got out the world’s largest scarf and turned it into a jumbo overskirt. They had to let me in.

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The building itself is beautiful with the shimmering gold dome and the blue Armenian ceramic tiling covering this colossal shrine. It dwarfs the neighbouring Al-Aqsa Mosque, previously the home of the Templars and stands out especially among the cream buildings that cover all Jerusalem’s hills. Yet sadly I just never felt comfortable walking around, constantly being stared at and approached by people demanding money for tours – the only time I’ve felt ill at ease I my whole time here, especially sad considering the importance and holiness of this site to so many religions.

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After this I wondered through the city streets, towards the Citadel also known as the Tower of David even though it was built by Herod the Great nearly 2,000 years later after King David himself lived. Then came the incident of the Armenian jewellery seller. He told me that the Citadel wasn’t open yet and would I like one of his business cards. Being a polite idiot I said yes before he took me into his shop and proceeded to try and make me buy his “very cheap” – they weren’t – earrings. After about twenty minutes I managed to leave with around fifty business cards and realising to be a little bit less English and polite. Lesson quickly learned. Oh and turns out he lied about the Citadel being closed. Continue reading