The first places that come to my mind when I think of Israel are the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. As a wee lass I was raised in a Catholic Church where many a Sunday’s I was left with the other linoleum lizards to learn about Jesus. These days I don’t identify with the Catholic faith, but I will forever have the VeggieTales theme song burned into my memories.
Religion is a very individualized process, and I have always resonated more with the Christian faith, but I am by no means well versed on the Bible.
Regardless of where anyone is in their walk with faith I think it’s safe to say these two cities are worth a visit. After an amazing day at Masada and the Dead Sea, we woke up bright and early again for our second port of the cruise. We docked in Haifa, Israel where we had a much easier departure process while heading to meet our guide for the day, Igal. Our first stop was to Bethlehem – a two hour drive away. I immediately noticed Igal spoke much less than our guide the day before, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt because it was early.
Bethlehem is a Palestinian town located in the West Bank, one of the two areas (Gaza Strip and West Bank) advised against visiting. Tourists are free to come and go with caution, however Israelis are not allowed to enter into Palestinian Territories unless they receive approval. Our guide Igal is an Israeli citizen, and because of this he was not allowed to give us the Bethlehem portion of the tour. Thankfully he was able to enter with us, however we picked up a Palestinian guide before entering through the check point.
The first thing I noticed about Palestine after spending the previous day in Israel was the difference in how they treated their land. There were heaps of trash tucked in all corners around Palestine, while in Israel the streets were clean. It was a bizarre difference of two locations so close to each other. The conflict between the two areas was certainly felt more within Palestine, from needing a local guide to reading signs threatening Israeli people.
I still felt safe throughout this entire day, it helped being in such a large group of other tourists.
The Palestinian guide we picked up was very kind, and passionate about her job, but incredibly difficult to understand. She walked too fast at times, causing some stress on the folks who were slower moving. This day was a prime example of what happens when you cram too much into one day. I tried my best to understand her through our personal headset devices, but the best way to hear her was standing as close to her as possible.
Our first stop in Bethlehem was to the Church of the Nativity. This church is one of the most sacred sites of the Christian religion as it is said to be the birthplace of Jesus. Today this church is one of the oldest christian churches still in daily use. The interior was beautiful, but I could not tell you what I learned while inside. Aside from seeing the cave entrance where He was born, I had no idea what I was looking at.
The tour became comical to myself and some of the other guests at one point, because it was so all over the place that no one quite knew what was going on. I gave up trying to listen to the guide and instead focused on soaking in as much as I could. I knew I could read more about what I had seen when I returned home. After spending more time than necessary inside the church, we walked back to the bus to head towards our next destination.
We were headed to a local shop selling olive wood fixtures, jewelry, and other traditional religious items, where I bought my mom an olive wood cross. I was more interested in the sights along the way, and by this time my belly was screaming for food.
For lunch we ate in Bethlehem at an assembly like buffet station. The food was delicious, aside from the fact I decided it was a good time to try chicken liver. I was having a “when in Rome” moment thinking I wanted to try any of the local foods I could (while actively avoiding my allergens) and this was a drastic error of judgement. I am not one who can hide their facial expressions well, and my disgust was seen by those around me.
Somehow I couldn’t get Duncan to try the liver, I wonder if it was something I said.
After lunch it was time to say goodbye to our Palestinian guide, and we headed back to Israel to finish our day in the Old City of Jerusalem. We ended up having to walk part of the way into the city center due to traffic, but these mishaps are some of my favorite. There are few things I enjoy more than walking around new to me places. We entered in through the dung gate, the lowest part of the Old City where all the waste used to exit when it rained (according to Igal), and we were immediately met with music and a parade celebrating a bar mitzvah.
What an incredible way to enter into the city.
We first headed towards the Western Wall, the last remaining outer wall of the ancient Jewish temple, and an incredibly important site of modern Israeli history. People of all religions come here to pray either with spoken word or writing prayers onto pieces of paper to stick into the wall. Igal told us people often write questions on their papers and then place them into the wall, so I decided to participate.
Men and women are separated by a divider and there were far more women on their side of the wall than men.
After spending time observing the happenings at the Western Wall we moved on to walk through the narrow streets of the Old City. This is about when I lost what was going on. Similar to our Palestinian guide, it was very hard to hear Igal. I discovered they both had been talking right on top of their microphones making the sounds muffled. They both reminded me of Charlie Brown’s teacher.
I did my best to stay close to him, but eventually I gave up and tried to enjoy the atmosphere without the history lesson.
We walked the streets as we headed towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which I sadly had little to no knowledge of. This is where my lack of Bible smarts bit me in the butt. I think if I’d had a baseline knowledge of the significance of certain locations we were visiting I wouldn’t have been so frustrated by the lack of audible information. I now know the church is identified as both the place of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus.
What stood out to me most was the Stone of Anointing, and a small window viewing into Golgotha. There were people on all side of the oiled up stone rubbing their personal belonging over the top of it. This is said to be where Jesus was laid after his death, but I have read conflicting information. Golgotha is the rock where Jesus was crucified, and there is an area within the church you can touch the rock, but the amount of people inside made me want to move through the area as quickly as possible.
The viewing point was more than enough.
We made our way from the church back through the streets towards the bus to begin the long drive back to the ship. What I enjoyed most in the Old City was all the narrow streets, the architecture, the alleyways, and the local hustle and bustle (not to be confused with the tourist hustle and bustle.) I would love to return someday and wander these streets, get a little lost, and have more time to soak in what I am seeing.
Maybe if I am lucky I can find my orange and white friend again.
If this post felt chaotic in anyway, then you are getting an accurate representation of how the day felt for me. Large tours in larger cities are hard to execute well. It wasn’t Igal’s fault (though at times he was more interested with his phone than with providing information), and I did my best to enjoy the city for what it was. No regrets were had, without this tour I would not have been able to see as much as I did.
The trade off for a rushed tour is the ability to see a lot of things at once. While this is not normally my cup of tea, the day was good and I am thankful to have seen the sites regardless. Two days in Israel was just enough to get an idea of all the beauty to be seen and history to be learned. Perhaps one day I can return to see these cities again on my own terms.
Next up: our half day in Cyprus.
Q: Have you ever been on a less than stellar tour?