If I could describe this trip in one word, it would simply be, perspective.
Israel surpassed my expectations in all ways. This country holds so much beauty, symbolism, history, pain, struggle, victory, hope, and promise. It is one of the most richly diverse nations in terms of religion, culture, and dichotomy of old and new. It is one of those places where if you don’t try to know the nation’s roots, evolution, people, faith, and history, you will simply not understand the culture. You will walk away with a shallow look at the country’s facade without knowing its whole story.
The Middle East has captured my heart. There is something truly special about this region of the world that continues to amaze and intrigue me. Maybe it’s because the mystery and taboo built up by media continually contradict my personal experiences of how warm, inviting, and friendly the people and landscape really are.
I have learned so much about the Jewish people, about how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all intersect, which has given me invaluable insight into why there is still so much hostility, why there is conflict, why there is pain and struggle, and why there is still so much hope for the future.
I have seen how Jewish people from all nations, Russia, Poland, Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, and more, are returning to their homeland. Their ancestral roots have led them back to Israel. They have been fleeing since the Babylonian empire conquered Israel, followed by Romans, followed by more conquering…
What I learned, walked, and experienced in only two weeks was so vast, yet dense, that I still need time to process it…but I only hope that I can share even a glimpse of what I saw and felt in that time with you through this post. Because this trip did change me. It opened my eyes and my heart to a sensitive climate that is so relevant in our present day world.
It gave me new perspective on how we distinguish ourselves from one another based on our differences even when we share so much in common, how we get along and share mutual grounds that we call home despite those differences, how we build walls (metaphorically and literally) that physically, mentally, and emotionally inhibit any opportunity from recognizing our similarities, how we never give up fighting for peace and resolution over generations of perpetual conflict.
It opened my eyes to recognize that we are all spiritual beings whether we want to admit it or not. We long for deeper satisfaction, purpose, and meaning in our lives that surpass religion and religious acts itself. We crave something greater than ourselves, and that’s why it changes us: “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
This is probably the hardest country I have tried to write about because of all the historical and religious context there is to grasp. Since words often cannot begin to capture or express all that is to be said (especially all of the historical details that I alone cannot summarize), I hope these photos will help cast light on my personal journey through Israel, the Holy Land.
Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, as well as a holy city for all three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is a city of pilgrimage and worship due to the plethora of holy sites that still exist today since biblical times.
So what do all three religions have in common? All three religions believe the Temple Mount is where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac. They believe Abraham to be the ‘father of their faith’ and ‘father of all nations’.
What holy site does each religion specifically hold sacred? The Western Wall, sacred to Jews as a remaining, intact wall that once supported their temples on the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, sacred to Christians as the place where many scholars believe to be where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected, and the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims as a present Islamic shrine, in which they believe their prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven, represent the most significant sites. Seeing that the Temple Mount holds such sacred value to the Jews and the Muslims for different reasons, we see the primary root of the Arab-Israeli conflict that persists today.
Due to these differences, the Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four main quarters: the Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, and Armenian Quarter.
You will see many Orthodox Jews wearing a traditional dress, consisting of black slacks, a white button-up, black jacket, and black top hat. They normally have long strands of hair, usually curled, hanging from the front sides of their faces. There are also many unorthodox Jews who just wear a kippah (the small ‘hat’ on men’s heads), but when you see this type of dress, you can distinguish the sects.
You must pass through a gate and security check before going up to visit the Temple Mount since it is Muslim ground. There have been recent, violent events, in which three Israeli officers were shot by Arab-Israeli men in mid-July of this year. Before entering, I was asked to cover my arms and legs but was not required to wear a hijab.
This shrine represents the third holiest site in Islam and faces in direction towards Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.
From the Mount of Olives you get spectacular views of the Old City, considering this hill separates the holy city from the Judean desert. It was once covered with olive groves, hence its name.
Walking throughout Jerusalem’s cobblestone streets…
The Garden of Gethsemane is believed to be where Jesus prayed and his disciples slept before the night of his crucifixion. The olive trees here have been found to date anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 years old!
Mahane Yehuda is Jerusalem’s most popular outdoor market, lined with various food vendors, cafes, bars, and more. I think almost everything is kosher due to the dominant Jewish population. My diet significantly changed while I was here, eating mainly vegetarian (except the occasional kabob or fish) since that is actually quite common. I ate a lotttt of hummus and falafel that I was basically on a chickpea diet. I also ate plenty of pickled veggies, yogurt, pita bread, and fresh fruits. It was pretty amazing to see how healthy people here regularly eat.
It was fascinating going from the Jewish Quarter to the Muslim Quarter and seeing the changes in customs. You see women wearing hijabs, the language changes to Arabic, and new foods are introduced. The atmosphere just feels different.
PALESTINE // WEST BANK
Bethlehem is famous for the location Jesus was born, acknowledged by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. The city actually lies in Palestinian territory, not Israeli territory. Fortunately, tourists can visit the West Bank fine by bus, but it is strictly prohibited that Israeli enter Palestine and that Palestinians enter Israeli territory. There are literally guards at EVERY checkpoint to ensure this is followed.
It was slightly nerve wracking crossing this border with all of the guards, knowing this is such a sensitive issue. If any problem were to arise while there, there’s always the possibility that a violent outbreak could take place.
Side note: all Israeli citizens, both men and women, are required to serve in the military for three years. You’ll see them walking around the city, armed in public – yes, carrying small machine guns and rifles. Yet, there is a level of trust and honor for their nation that this is not a general safety concern for the public. It is simply normal.
Hebron is considered a mixed territory for Israeli and Palestinians. It definitely made me a little nervous, but it was so interesting to pass through checkpoints and actually experience the situation in person. It was crazy to learn that our taxi driver (who is Palestinian) has never left Palestine his whole life because of all the regulations!
At the Tomb of Patriarchs where the primary biblical couples have been buried – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah – is actually divided into both a mosque on one side and a synagogue on the other side to accommodate both Muslims and Jews. Both religious groups can visit this sacred site that holds the tombs of significant figures in their faith. Obviously, however, they cannot visit the synagogue if they are Muslim and vice versa.
While in Palestine, I stumbled upon a coffee shop called ‘Stars and Bucks’. It wasn’t the real thing, but it did its job at catching my attention. So here’s a #basic picture of me with my Stars and Bucks coffee.
You can get a vast view of Palestine at the top of the Herodion National Park where it is believed that King Herod the Great was buried in a palace he had built in the Judean desert.
Street artist, Banksy, makes a recent appearance at the Israeli West Bank Wall…
Now the road trip begins! We (my parents and I) rented a car for the remainder of the trip. On our way to Haifa, we stopped by Caesarea and Akko.
Caesarea took my breath away with its rich, blue Mediterranean sea and ancient ruins. At Caesarea National Park, you can see palace ruins from King Herod’s reign, in which Romans (Emperor Caesar) funded the construction of this city on the sea.
At the Akko port, you can find a popular marketplace in narrow winding alleys. Hidden within the market is Hummus Said, said to be home of the ‘best hummus’ in Israel.
Haifa is a magnificent port city known for its beaches, Bahá’í Gardens, and Mount Carmel. The Bahá’í Gardens is actually a shrine for the Bahá’í faith. The geometric symmetry and patterns are pretty remarkable.
The Sea of Galilee has a more teal hue than other surrounding waters. This was definitely one of my favorite places and views.
Tel Dan Nature Reserve lies Israel’s northernmost city, Dan. The park is the source of the Dan and Jordan Rivers.
Nearby Dan also lies the Banias Nature Reserve at Mount Hermon, most famous for its hike to Banias Falls.
Hiking to Banias Falls…
Qumran National Park is significant as the location of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts of the Bible’s Old Testament, mainly the book of Isaiah, written by prophets in Hebrew text. They now reside at the Israel Museum.
Masada National Park lies in the Judean desert and was incredibly HOT the entire time. Regardless, it was incredible trekking up and down steps to see King Herod’s palace and city strategically built for Jewish escape and rebellion against the Romans. Due to Roman brutality, Jews were rebelling but eventually recognized they would be inevitably conquered soon. So instead of submitting to the Romans as slaves, they committed suicide in this city to die with dignity.
I had been waiting for this moment the entire trip! At last, we made it to Ein Bokek beach at the Dead Sea. The water is incredibly salty that your whole body just floats. It’s also the lowest point on earth, 400 meters below sea level. The saltiness actually stings against your skin that you can feel it; it’s supposed to be incredibly healing for your skin and illnesses.
Bet Guvrin Maresha National Park is home to various underground caves that people lived in around 300 BCE. That blows my mind. Each cave had its own purpose, whether it was for housing doves, pressing olives for oil, or hosting burial tombs. My favorite were the Bell Caves for their astounding height and vastness (all manmade!).
Tel Aviv is the modern city of Israel. It is bustling with traffic and a growing business center of the world. It is much more secular than other parts of Israel, but you will still find Jewish and Muslim customs spread throughout. Unfortunately, there is no subway system, but there are public buses. If you want to make the most of your time getting around though, I would recommend renting a car, or taking a taxi or Uber.
I visited the Museum of the Jewish People at the Tel Aviv University, Ezret Israel Museum, and Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Honestly, the museums in Tel Aviv pale in comparison to those in Jerusalem. I would only recommend the Museum of the Jewish People, as it had a really well done exhibit, although small.
I would recommend spending most of your time enjoying Old Jaffa and the Mediterranean coast.
Eretz Israel Museum: On the Edge – Israeli Paper exhibit
Dizengoff Center Mall is Tel Aviv’s most popular shopping mall where all dogs are welcome and where its famous food bizarre attracts an enormous crowd of visitors. The food is authentic, homemade, and delicious.
Israel encompasses great depth. It exposes different faiths, peoples from all over the world, foods, old and new customs, landscape, views, perspectives, and so much more. This trip was definitely a highlight in all my travel experiences because I was constantly challenged to learn more about the people, the beliefs, and the history. To put everything into perspective.
I was so interested in all of the different, personal stories of what brought people to Israel – a Russian man who just immigrated a year ago to return to his Jewish roots and pursue higher education, a young Persian man who returned because of his Jewish ancestry, American Jews who moved to Israel to experience their homeland, and the list goes on…
So grateful to have visited such a beautiful country. I have a new appreciation and love for Israel, the Holy Land.