When I decided to visit Israel for the Traveler Bloggers Exchange Conference, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. Israel is a place filled with history and colorful culture but I also knew that it’s filled with tension and, at times, can be quite a violent place. The conference took place in Jerusalem which is one of the most contentious cities in the world. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into but I was definitely excited to hit the ground running as soon as I arrived in Tel Aviv. Little did I know the Jerusalem travel lessons I would learn!
Of course, when you visit Israel you, for the most part, have to fly into the airport in Tel Aviv. You go through customs (which took a surprisingly short time), grab your bag, and then grab a cab or
hop into a shared cab. I decided to hire a taxi to take me to Jerusalem which took about an hour and a half due to traffic. On our way to the ancient city, we hit a traffic jam in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. It was pretty bad…my taxi driver actually parked the car, got out, and smoked a cigarette during the jam. We’re sitting there in the middle of the Israeli desert and the sun begins to rise. It’s warm glow washed over the landscape, the road, the hills, and cliffs with a fiery orange light like a beautiful flood. After traveling for about 4 hours from Barcelona to Israel, the sun wasn’t really a welcome sight because I was so exhausted. Nevertheless, I gazed out the window and thought to myself;
“Wow, I’m in Israel.”
This thought alone really helped me get passed the annoyance of the traffic jam, the 4 am arrival time to Jerusalem, the fact I could not check into my lodging at that time, and my extreme exhaustion. I was in freaking Israel and couldn’t be anymore excited. I mean, this is a place I learned about as a child in Sunday school…the Holy Land…the beginning of our modern era so to speak. It’s a place I often felt a bit of fear and apprehension towards when it came to visiting because of the violence we often see during the 24-hour news cycle. But as I payed my taxi driver 300 shekel for the ride, the cold morning air and energy of the area quickly dissipated any anxiety I felt about visiting Jerusalem.
People were scuttling about beginning their daily routines.
The clanging of a tram bell and a morning call to prayer filled the air.
The sweet smell of pastry and bread wafted around me.
I just couldn’t wait to explore this ancient city. In the next 5 days, I’d have more than ample time to explore the sights, wander around the streets, and get to know the many faces of Jerusalem. Of course, some of these faces are beautiful and some of these faces are not so beautiful but overall Jerusalem is a pretty incredible place. I decided to stick to exploring only Jerusalem during this portion of my visit because I wanted to make sure I gained a deep understanding of the city and would have plenty of time to experience everything. Israel itself is filled with wonders and is definitely worth experiencing. If you can, be sure to visit other places in the country such as Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth, and Acre. These are just a few of my suggestions and each place has it’s own merits. You can also take side trips to Palestine, Beirut, and even Jordan.
Spending 5 days in Jerusalem gave me plenty of opportunity to wander around the city and explore the culture, food, historic sights, and even the nightlife scene. And they’re would be valuable Jerusalem travel lessons ahead of me! I also used this time to meet some pretty amazing people and form so great friendships! As I walked around the city, there were many things I noticed which were odd, different, and amazing. Check out my list of 5 things I learned while I was in Jerusalem.
Clash of Cultures
As you can imagine, Jerusalem has a plethora of culture usually distinguished by religious identification and there can be quite a bit of tension between these cultures. I don’t think Jerusalem is unique in the quantity of different cultures represented in the city. But it is a small city…and there are so many crammed in together. The tension is tangible at times. Within the Old City alone you have four major cultures represented including Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian. Within those categories you have multiple smaller identifications. Each religion believes what it believes and believes it fervently. What makes this so awesome is on one side of a street you might have a Christian cathedral while on the other side of the street you will have a mosque with its minaret. Despite the differences, most local people seem to get along fairly well. Just prepare yourself…you’ve never experienced anything like this.
Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath which technically begins right before sunset on Friday and ends at the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. During this time, Jews are not supposed to work at all and anything can be considered work. Walking, boiling water, switching a light on…all of this is considered work. In Jerusalem Shabbat is observed pretty strictly, so to speak. Everything shuts down and you won’t see very many people in the street.Though in other cities, such as Tel Aviv, bars remain open during Shabbat. Orthodox Jews (especially in Jerusalem) are rather stringent about their observation of Shabbat. It is not a good idea to walk through an Orthodox neighborhood during the Sabbath…just don’t do it. Nevertheless, if you can, take part in a Shabbat dinner. It’s an excellent cultural experience including prayers, candles, and delicious food and wine.
I’ve always loved hummus. In the US hummus is a very popular snack. But let me tell you…all hummus is not the same. I’m not exactly sure how the Israeli’s make their hummus taste like a tiny slice of heaven but they do. The hummus in Israel is creamy and delicious. I’ve never really tasted anything like it and basically ate it whenever I had the opportunity. Another thing I never realized about hummus is that it can be a meal on it’s own. Get it vegetarian style or with shawarma chicken on top plus it usually comes with pita, sliced onions, salad, olives, and/or pickled vegetables. No matter how you prefer it, having a nice bowl of hummus is a must when you go to Jerusalem or Israel in general.
I noticed how tight security is everywhere. When you enter the country, you feel as though you are being herded towards a bottle-necked gate to the country. However, entering the country isn’t really a big deal. I think I made it through in about 5 minutes or so. Exiting was another story all together. When I was leaving Israel, I was questioned about my American citizenship over and over again, my bag was searched item by item, and I even had to go to a separate room and remove my clothing. It was a bit crazy but I also understand given the tumultuous history of the country. In a lot of ways, it’s completely understandable though frustrating. Nonetheless, this isn’t exactly the norm for everyone but be prepared for anything and just go with it.
Another thing that was a bit unnerving was seeing loads of young people walking about with machine guns strapped around their necks and always hanging at their sides. In Israel, conscription is mandatory which means everyone 18 years of age (man or woman…it doesn’t matter) of Jewish, Druze, and Circassian identity are required to serve time in the military. When they are enlisted, they are a given a gun which they can never let out of site during the course of their service. They even have to keep it within their sight while they shower. So you will definitely see loads of people in (and sometimes out of) uniform carrying machine guns. But don’t worry…these guns are not usually loaded under normal circumstances.
The best part of visiting Jerusalem is its rich history. A large portion of it’s history is situated in the Old City and you definitely need to explore this section of Jerusalem. The city has been conquered and occupied by just about everyone including the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans, and the British….just to name a few. It’s been attacked 52 times, captured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice. It’s history goes back thousands of years with the oldest part of the Old City being founded in approximately the 4th millennium BCE…that’s about 8,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. It means there have been people living in the city continuously for over 10,000 years. All of this boils down to a complex, fascinating history much of which you can experience with a bit of exploration and sometimes imagination.
Are you ready to explore Jerusalem? What Jerusalem travel lesson do you think are in store for you? Let me know in the comments what you would most look forward to!
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