Jerusalem and the West Bank

Jerusalem is a city with a history like no other. The city maintains a certain aura that will inspire the most even ardent atheist. The West Bank, with an equally impressive history, has much that will intrigue visitors, not least of which is the powerful culture of the Palestinian people.

Petra Hostel

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by HobWahid on May 7, 2003

The two best things about the Petra Hostel are its location and its view. It is located right inside the Jaffa Gate on the edge of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. From here you can easily access all the major sites of the old city, as well as have access to numerous restaurants and shops. As for the view, it is so spectacular that the hostel actually charges non-guests 5 Shekels to see it. It is easily on of the best views in the Old City. From the rooftop you can see all of Old Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock, the Holy Sepulchre. The hostel will provide you with a mattress and sheets for a small fee if you wish to sleep out on the roof, and during the late spring, the weather is just perfect for doing so. Going to bed and waking up the glowing magnificence of the Dome of the Rock is something to be experienced.

For those not wanting to sleep outside, the Petra Hostel has dorm rooms for around $5/night and private rooms for around $8. The prices are negotiable though and a good bit of arguing will get you a long way. Many of the rooms have private showers and baths, but there are public ones as well. Hot water is readily available; you just have to ask them to turn it on for you about 20 minutes in advance. The Petra Hostel is not the most plush of places. Each room has a collection of rusty old bunk beds with rather thin mattresses. The rooms are a bit cramped as well, but most of them do have a balcony, which is a plus.

The staff of the Petra Hostel in general are not terribly helpful or friendly. The man who they seem to have employed as the street tout for the Hostel is a man who likes to poke at your nerves and make you uncomfortable. He followed us all around the Hostel and made inane comments like, "The people of America will suffer soon." But once you get by him, the others aren’t bad. They will do whatever you ask, but will do so without a smile. The only real exception is an American, from Cleveland, named Calvin, who one day decided to get up and move to Israel. He ended forming his own religion and is an extremely friendly and fascinating man if you get the chance to sit down and talk.

So while the Petra Hostel is not the most wonderful of hostels, it works, and it is cheap. Personally, I think the view itself is worth the price for one night.

Petra Hostel
Jaffa Gate
Jerusalem, Israel

Haram ash-Sharif/Dome of the Rock

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by HobWahid on May 7, 2003

The Dome of the Rock, possibly much to the chagrin of some, has become the symbol of Jerusalem. It is present in every picture taken of Jerusalem, and when we sit at home and conjure up images of the Holy Land, it is hard to avoid having that shining gold dome creep into our thoughts. It can be seen from almost every corner of the Old City of Jerusalem. It stands there, shining in the golden sun, like some aureate beacon, looking out over the city and protecting it. It may be strange that this symbol of one religion has come to embody Jerusalem, a land which defines religious plurality, but it has, and it is easy to see why.

Built in 688 by the Caliph Abd al-Malik, the Dome lies on the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven to pray with all the other saints and prophets. It is one of the holiest sites of Islam, right after Mecca and Medina, and the architects spared nothing in creating its grandeur. Modeled after the domes of the Hagia Sophia and the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock is an impressive structure. It is infinitely more bright and colorful than its counterparts, with beautiful blue and green tiles adorning the outside, as well as colorful marble and gold gilding on the inside.

The courtyard around the outside of the mosque is called Haram ash-Sharif (meaning the Noble Sanctuary) and is considered a place holy to all three monotheistic religions, but most specifically Judaism and Islam. It is not only the site of the original temple that was destroyed and the site of Muhammad’s ascension, but it is also considered to be the hill on top of which Abraham was called to sacrifice his son. The place is heavily guarded and you may experience difficulties getting in. Often times non-Muslims will not be let in, this is in reaction to numerous attempts to desecrate or destroy the mosque, so do not get too discouraged if you are denied entrance. There are two specific "tourist" gates, and if those are closed, then your chances are minimal, but if it is open, make sure to seize the opportunity.

Next to the Dome of the Rock is the al-Aqsa Mosque, slightly less grand from the outside, the al-Aqsa mosque is still a magnificent piece of architecture. Dating back to the 8th century, the mosque is a vast space that can accommodate thousands of worshipers at once. Although the minbar was burned to the ground by a crazy Australian, the mihrab is a wonderfully intricate structure and worth a look.

Whether you are standing in front of the Dome or gazing at it from across the city, it is hard not to be in awe of its magnificence and feel the religious power that emanates from it. A truly magnificent site.

Dome of the Rock
Temple Mount (haram Al-sharif)
Jerusalem, Israel
+972 2628 3393

Western Wall

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by HobWahid on May 7, 2003

Sticking out from the side of Haram ash-Sharif and the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall is one of the most sacred and spiritual places in all of Judaism. It lies there, in the shadow of its opulent neighbor, an arrant contrast. The wall is plain, and simple. It really does look like just a wall, but it is its history and its ability to gather so many worshipers to its base that makes it one of the truly remarkable sites in all of Jerusalem.

Security to get into the wall is understandably tight, but once you are in, you are immediately struck by the serenity of the place. The main area is filled with people bustling about, but the area directly in front of the wall is roped off, reserved only for Jews, and is completely serene. This area is filled all day with worshipers standing before the wall, their faces barely six inches away, only to then press their hands against the wall and full their face close to kiss the stone before them. Some even put prayers that they have written on scraps of paper into the wall in hopes that they will be heeded. Others sit on benches, with an open Torah in front of them swaying as they chant, losing themselves completely in the rhythm of their words.

The Western Wall is open 24 hours a day, and if you can, you should come and see the Wall at night, when the place is most peaceful and the wall glows in the light of the moon. Also if you can, make your way up the stairs behind the entrance of the wall to one of the rooftop lookouts above. These offer the best views of the wall. From there you can not only see the wall in its entirety, but you can also see the Dome of the Rock peeking up behind it. It is a strange feeling to stand there and look at to places so holy to their religion right next to each other, touching each other, living in perfect symbiosis all while their followers cannot seem to find the same harmony.

Western Wall
Western Wall Plaza
Jerusalem, Israel

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by HobWahid on May 7, 2003

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on what is one of the holiest sites for Christians, is a building that has as many critics as it does admirers. Before I entered the Church, I had read in many guidebooks, and heard from others, that the church is not spectacular and not to get my hopes up. So I entered with much lowered expectations, but as soon as I entered I was absolutely blown away, and ended up leaving with a much deeper connection to my faith than I could have ever imagined.

From the outside, the Church is hardly impressive. It is squeezed in between a number of other buildings, and the entrance is hardly the grand entranceway that you find on the likes of the other great cathedrals of the world, but then again, that is where some of the charm lies. Immediately upon entering you are greeted by the supposed stone upon Jesus had his anointment before burial, actually you are first greeted by a man offering his services as a guide, but you can just move past him. Behind the stone lies a lovely fresco. Moving to the left of the stone you are greeted by the Armenian chapel and the Three Maries Altar. As you pass by the altar, the Church begins to open up and before you appears the Tomb Monument, the Tomb of Jesus. A giant ornate wooden kiosk in the middle of the Church houses the Tomb of Jesus, which you can enter, only four at a time, so you may have to wait your turn. The tomb is a surprisingly powerful place, surrounded by numerous benches upon which worshipers pray in silent and nuns are brought to tears. Moving on through the cavernous chapel you will pass by numerous naves and chapels built by various Christian sects. In the very back down a long set of candlelit stone stairs lies the Church of St. Helena and the Church of the Mocking, probably the most peaceful part of the complex, the perfect place for some self reflection. Heading back towards the entrance lies the most spectacular part of the Church, the Cavalry, an elevated platform that houses two chapels, the Chapel of Cavalry, which marks the spot where Jesus was nailed to the cross and the Greek Chapel, which marks the spot where he was crucified. These two chapels are by far the most spiritual part of the Church and are always filled with worshipers sitting in somber silence.

Is it a beautiful commemoration of the Christian faith or a monstrosity? You will have to decide for yourself, but you still cannot deny that the place does hold a certain religious aura that is both powerful and comforting.

Holy Sepulchre
Christian Quarter
Jerusalem, Israel
+972 2627 3314

Ramparts Walk

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by HobWahid on May 7, 2003

There are many places from which you can get excellent views of the Old City of Jerusalem from above, but one of the best is by taking a stroll along the walls and ramparts of the city. The Old City of Jerusalem is surrounded by a few kilometers of walls that at some points reach as far as 15 meters above the streets below. While you cannot walk a complete circle around the city, the part behind Haram ash-Sharif is closed for understandable security reasons, you can still walk about three-quarters of the walls and that is plenty to give you some spectacular sights of all the major sights in the Old City.

The walls are divided into a northern section and a southern section. The northern section is the better half, giving you better views of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, but the southern section also provides good views of the Armenian Quarter and the Mount of Olives. Also, because your ticket is good for both as well as good for up to three days, it is possible two split up the ramparts into two different days. The entrance for both the southern and northern parts is at Jaffa Gate, but you can also join the walk at Damascus Gate. Those are the only entrances, but you can descend whenever you wish.

Along the northern section you will get good views of the New City of Jerusalem as well of the Christian Quarter, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Once you hit Damascus Gate, which has excellent views from the top, you will be in the heart of the Muslim quarter with the opportunity for some spectacular shots of the Dome of the Rock.

The southern road is a bit quieter, but along the way you will get some nice vantage points on top of the numerous buttresses scattered along the ramparts, such as the view of Armenian Cemetery.

The walk is not too strenuous, but does require a good bit of up and down, as well as some navigating of narrow steps, but it is definitely worth it and is sure to provide you with some of your most memorable views of Jerusalem.

Ramparts Walk
Entrances by Jaffa Gate and Damascus Gate
Jerusalem, Israel

Church of the Nativity

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by HobWahid on May 8, 2003

Built upon the supposed cave in which Jesus was born, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the world’s oldest churches, and an extremely venerable building that is simple, but still brings about a certain awe.

Getting to Bethlehem from Jerusalem is extremely easy. It is just a 3 Shekel minibus ride from Damascus Gate to the Bethlehem checkpoint, which you should be able to cross with ease. The checkpoint itself is an interesting spot. While not the largest or strictest of checkpoints, the Bethlehem checkpoint will still give you a glimpse as to what the Palestinians who travel the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem every day have to deal with. A Palestinian man in front of us who was going to the hospital was denied access to Bethlehem because he only had an ID card and not a passport. You will experience no such difficulties though and will find the IDF guards extremely friendly and you may even get a nice photo with them.

Once you cross the checkpoint, it will be another 3 Shekels to get into central Bethlehem and to the Church. Upon arriving at the Church, I highly suggest you get one of the official guides outside. I am not usually one for getting official guided tours, especially at religious sights, but the tours there are extremely interesting as the guide will not only tell you about the history of the Church and the significance of the various shrines, but he will also give you detailed descriptions of the siege that occurred in the Church in 2002 when over 100 Palestinians locked themselves in the Church and were besieged by the Israeli military. Your guide will tell you all about the siege (filled with a good bit of propaganda that you will have to sift through), show you the bullet holes from Israeli snipers, as well as other interesting places, such as where the Israeli military tried to blow open the doors to the church. For 3 Shekels each, the tour is worth it, even though you will most surely be dragged into a nearby souvenir shop afterwards.

The church itself is rather simple. To enter,you must duck down and enter through a small wooden passageway, which opens up to a plain stone columned hallway lined with sensors dangling from the ceiling. At the end of this hallway is an ornate gold and silver altar with stairs that lead down behind it to the place of Jesus’ birth. It is a small room with a small area, which looks rather like a fireplace, marking the spot of the Nativity. To the right,more stairs lead to another room in which a nun sits with her head bowed and a rosary running through her fingers all day long. For both its religious importance as well as its being the stage upon which the siege of 2002 was acted out, the Church of the Nativity is an unforgettable visit.

Church Of The Nativity
Manger Square
Jerusalem, Israel

Ram Allah: The Heart of Palestine

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by HobWahid on May 13, 2003

For many, Ram Allah is the heart of Palestine -- it signifies the spirit of the Palestinian people. It is the financial center of Palestine as well as the seat of the Palestinian Authority. A city of around a half a million people, Ram Allah is the bustling center of Palestinian life. Thousands of Palestinians cross the checkpoint outside of Ram Allah every day to go work in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel. Ram Allah is not a typical tourist area. There are no historical sights to see, most of those having been destroyed long ago, and it not a place to go for nightlife. One goes to Ram Allah to see the spirit of the Palestinian people, to talk with locals, sit around, smoke a shisha, and take in the sights and sounds of this city that has seen so much in recent years, but still finds a way to maintain its vibrancy and sense of daily life.

Getting to Ram Allah is rather easy. It is just a 3 Shekel, half-hour minibus ride to the checkpoint and then a short taxi ride into the center of the town, to the square called "Minara," the lively center of town, a square containing towering statues of lions that have been littered with graffiti and posters of dead Palestinians.

If you are going to make the trip to Ram Allah, I suggest you get a guide. We found ours through our hostel and if you are staying in the old city as well, you should have no trouble finding someone who can take you through Ram Allah. Getting a guide gives you the benefit of having someone who knows the city and can show you around with ease. Your guide will also be able to introduce you to people with whom you can talk, and he will be able to show you where you can get the best shawerma, shisha, and masteka (Palestinian ice cream). If you go alone though, you will have no trouble finding your way around and finding people who will help you. One of the great parts about Ram Allah is that, unlike Jerusalem, nobody will try to lure you into your store to rip you off, or ask you to just come take a look.

Our tour of Ram Allah began with a wonderful shawerma sandwich at a local café. From there, our guide took us to meet a group of Palestinian lawyers that work with Amnesty International in helping victims of injustices bring cases against both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. After a very informative session with them, we met up with some female students from Beir Zeit University and talked with them about the female perspective on the issue of Palestine. The students were extremely friendly and intelligent. Any visit to Ram Allah should include a visit to Beir Zeit University, as this is the intellectual center of Palestine and the point from which numerous activists emanate. Our guide then took us around to show us some of the houses that had been bulldozed by the IDF, as well as a police station leveled by Apache helicopters, and then the most shocking site, the compound of Yasser Arafat that was destroyed and besieged just last year. Seeing all these piles of rubble that were once symbols of the move towards Palestinian sovereignty showed just how strong the will of the Palestinian people had to be to move on with their lives, even under such a state.

Walking around Ram Allah you get the feeling that you could be in any other normal Arab city. The streets are full of life, shops are open and people run about their daily lives with smiles on their faces, but there are still things that hint as to the state in which these people live. Graffiti is sprayed across the walls of the destroyed police station saying, "Resistance is not terrorism." The local ice cream shop has cartoons in the window of Kofi Annan with the American flag in one eye, the Israeli in the other, and blood dripping from his hands. Right next door, there are posters of the American woman who was run over by an Israeli bulldozer earlier in the year, "Rachel Corrie: Victim of Justice."

Visiting Ram Allah is not a pleasure visit, but it an enlightening experience, one that will bombard your eyes and your ears. When you cross the checkpoint into Ram Allah, you will immediately notice the difference between it and the rest of Israel. It lacks the same modern amenities and it is generally not as clean. To come to Israel and not visit the West Bank, to not see the other side, is a crime. While Ram Allah does not have the history and monuments to offer that other parts of Israel do, it can offer you an unforgettable chance to experience the hospitality and friendliness of the Palestinian people that will overwhelm any of the preconceived notions you may have carried.

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