Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport offers a tranquil welcome to one of the world’s most fascinating countries. From the plane we proceed through various vaulting, spacious galleries, nearly empty and decorated in the pink marble that epitomises modern Mediterranean airports. In each of the succession of halls large billboards showcase the highlights of Israel’s tourist attractions, one proudly celebrating ‘120 Years of Zionism’.
The August heat, we tell our taxi driver as he manoeuvres out of the labyrinthine car park, is intense, and he replies that it’s always like this. Tel Aviv is resplendent, shimmering white in the sunshine, and on the road to Jerusalem we sit back in the blissful air conditioning as evocative rolling scrubland glides past the window.
Jerusalem sits atop one of the many hills in the region, so looms magnificently overhead as we approach. The driver winds up and round a few streets, signposted in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and stops outside a hotel to ask for directions when we realise the satnav isn’t directing us perfectly to The National. Upon discovering its exact location the driver curses and is visibly disgruntled; this is probably because the way from our location is complex and narrow, but possibly because the hotel is in the Palestinian quarter.
Palestinian-owned, the hotel has hosted Jimmy Carter and King Hussain of Jordan, but is one of the most reasonably-priced options on Booking.com and is eminently comfortable, with spacious rooms, elegant décor and a comprehensive breakfast buffet including an omelette bar. It’s also well-positioned to serve as a base camp to explore the city’s Old Quarter, situated ten minutes’ walk from Damascus Gate.
Part of the grandiose 16th Century Ottoman walls that surround the old city, Damascus Gate is an ancient portal between the old and the new. It’s also one of the first places I noticed the city’s heavy military presence, with a small round booth overlooking the gate holding four or five soldiers armed with large assault rifles and what looked like grenade launchers.
A step through the gate is a journey through time; behind lies a busy traffic-lit street corner, ahead a winding tangle of narrow stone streets that date back centuries, mostly covered giving the impression of a tunnel and lined by bustling market stalls selling almost everything imaginable: huge piles of vibrant, fragrant spices, baklava, pastries, fruit, vegetables, freshly squeezed juices, butchered meat, spit-roasted meat, falafels, wooden carvings, jewellery, crucifixes, textiles, toys, cigarettes, toiletries, electronics, T-shirts, mugs – these later items incongruous with the time-travelling sensation but nonetheless a welcome reminder that this is a living, dynamic city defined at least as much by the present as by the past. All senses are pleasantly stimulated, the occasional whiff of off meat compensated by the rich aroma of myriad spice, and being mostly under cover the temperature is satisfyingly cool.
We aim, not immediately successfully given the challenge of navigating the maze and the fact that Google Maps directs you to a different restaurant, for Abu Shukri, on a sunny uncovered intersection of the winding markets and the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa. A friend has informed us already that it does the best hummus in Jerusalem and for a very reasonable price it serves up a quick, no-frills meze of flatbread, falafel, intense pickles and three exquisite hummuses.
Sated, we proceed to the Western Wall. Like the solders at Damascus Gate the checkpoint to enter serves as a stark reminder of the fraught politics of the region; airport-style metal detectors and bag checking machines are incongruous with the antiquity and sanctity of the setting. We diligently empty our pockets and prepare to show our passports. Throughout our stay in the region we gradually realise this is unnecessary as the checks are almost entirely aimed at Arabs. As obviously Western tourists we’re waved straight through, our days uninterrupted, while groups of Palestinians born in the area are held for more thorough checks.
The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism. Supposedly standing on the site of the western wall of the Temple of Solomon, it marks the western edge of Temple Mount and I’d only ever seen footage of it surrounded by huge crowds of devout Jews. On the day we’re there it doesn’t seem so crowded; we speculate this could be because it’s Sunday, but it’s also an early example of a number of hints during our trip that tourism generally is down given political events – although given the heat, August isn’t peak season.
A partition bisects the stretch of the wall visible from the plaza, designating separate sections for men and women to worship. As the symbolic manifestation of the identity of the Jewish people the wall is so revered it is considered disrespectful to turn one’s back on it. Archaeological excavations take place nearby, revealing ancient remains as splendid as the (effectively Medieval and later) structures that form the old city and its encompassing walls, but because of its spiritual significance no excavation of the supposed site of the temple itself is permitted.
Through another checkpoint, a sloping wooden ramp leads to the top of the Western Wall, onto Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock – built in 691CE by Caliph Abd al-Malik on the site of Abraham (or Ibrahim)’s preparation to sacrifice his son and the prophet Muhammad’s ascension – is simply stunning. The golden dome, visible from Bethlehem, immediately catches the eye upon entry to the spacious plaza that surrounds the building, but on closer inspection it is the intricacy of the artwork cladding the body of the structure that truly captivates. Non-muslims are not permitted entry to the shrine itself and it is so sacred it rarely holds services; its functional counterpart, the al-Aqsa mosque, sits opposite the shrine. This was the site of a geopolitically significant act of arson by a Christian Australian and supposed Jerusalem syndrome sufferer named Denis Rohan in 1967, who attempted to trigger the second coming of Christ by burning down the mosque. Since then Temple Mount and the two Islamic holy structures that sit upon it have been the sites of many flash points in the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Perhaps the best viewpoint from which to appreciate Temple Mount, as well as old Jerusalem, the new city and the stunning surrounding views, is from the Ottoman era walls that still surround the old city. Wall access is charged but not prohibitively dear, and as long as you have access to a guide book (or the internet) there’s no need to shell out for a walking tour guide. We accessed the ramparts from near the Jaffa Gate on our third day in the city and traversed the Southern and Eastern length of the walls, giving an otherwise inaccessible view of the old city from the outside and, looking outside the walls, visual confirmation of the disparity between the poverty of Palestinian areas and the pristine neatness of the walled Jewish settlements.
Jerusalem is famously the holy city of the three major monotheistic religions. Because it is these days associated with the conflict between Jews and Muslims, and the city’s checkpoints and soldiery bear constant testimony to this, it’s almost easy to overlook the significance of its Christian sites. A friend informed me that another contributory factor in this is Jesus’s own teaching that places (and objects) shouldn’t be worshipped, so there’s less veneration of the sites themselves, meaning you can walk straight past immensely significant New Testament sites and barely notice unless you’re keeping an eye out for them. Chief among these is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by Empress Helena on the believed site of Jesus’s crucifixion. Well worth a visit beyond its obvious spiritual significance, the church itself is a charming mish-mash of architectural styles given the many historical periods during which it was constructed and extended, and several major denominations of Christianity (including Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox) occupy different parts of the complex. As well as the site of the final steps of Jesus’s life the church complex also contains a secluded underground grotto in which he was supposedly entombed.
Close by is one of Jerusalem’s best kept secrets, the Austrian Hospice. In the heat, noise and bustle of the old city this is a welcome oasis of tranquillity, with a second storey café and outdoor garden that serves as the perfect spot for a break in a morning’s sightseeing – being a hill settlement Jerusalem isn’t a gentle stroll. Five shekels (about £1) buys access to the hospice’s roof which gives another stunning panoramic view of Jerusalem, and by happy chance we emerged as the call to prayer was beginning. With five or six mosques in immediate earshot, the effect of emerging to the roof amidst this haunting sea of sound was enchanting.
Leading towards the church is the aforementioned Via Dolorosa, which traces the route of Jesus’s march towards the site of the crucifixion. Plaques along the way denote the various stations, points at which significant moments in the journey took place. The Via Dolorosa leads from the heart of the old city to the Lion’s Gate, that leads to the valley containing the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
Up next: The Mount of Olives.