Israel: The Magic of the Holy Land
Seeing Israel for the First Time
Immersed in the Beauty and Culture of The Holy Land
Women pray on the right side of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Israel. Jean Spoljaric photos. By Jean Spoljaric
Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem.
When I got the call asking if I’d like to visit Israel, naturally I resounded with a very quick and very loud, YES! I didn’t hesitate in the least. Sure I watch the news--I’m aware of the terror and chaos that has surrounded the country.
I’m aware of the political situation and I’ve seen the footage of suicide bombers and people fighting over land and killing others in defense of their religious beliefs. I suppose if you listen to mainstream media reports and you take them at face value you wouldn’t leave your own backyard.
But, with open eyes and an open heart you will see that Israel is an amazing country as well as an extremely safe place to travel to and from. I suppose it’s in my nature to try and find the best in people--I don’t pre-judge people or places and so I decided to travel there and see for myself.
Religion and Spirituality
Jerusalem is a city of overwhelming emotions, a city that promises a religious and spiritual experience, interesting tours and even more interesting adventures. You don’t have to be extremely religious, Jewish, nor do you even have to believe in a God to thoroughly enjoy everything that The view from the City of David, Jerusalem. Israel has to offer.
Jerusalem has fascinating historical and archeological sites as well as amazingly modern tourist attractions for lovers of culture, the arts, theater, music and architecture. And, if you are a foodie, Israel will be sure to please all your gastronomical needs. Trust me, you can’t go wrong choosing Israel to visit and explore. You’ll understand the level of safety when you arrive at the airport, and it doesn’t stop there. I felt extremely safe the entire time I was traveling about.
Love and War
Israel is a giant melting pot of religions, cultures and nationalities. For the most part everyone goes about their everyday life without interruption. I suppose if you travel to certain areas it would be wise to stay aware of your surroundings just like you would on a visit to NYC. Where else in the world do you have Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Arabs, and Israelis all living and working together? People praying in The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
It does feel as though there is a tug of war between the Palestinians and the Israelis, one that is made very clear by the very large, very long, double barbed wire fence that separates the two areas.
It was while I traveled in a van along the West Bank from the Dead Sea to the north towards the Sea of Galilee, that I sensed the tension and had my first geographical realization of exactly where I was.
The Old City
There is a magical quality about the Old City of Jerusalem that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it is due to its amazing history; after all, we are talking about “The Holy Land.” Or maybe it’s the towering ancient stone walls and buildings, or the sacred atmosphere that surrounds the holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions.
The enchanting quality of Jerusalem may also be a product of the colorful markets and narrow alleyways, all surrounded within the stone walls. But I think the real magic comes from the city’s ancient history--a history woven with war and peace, love and hate, destruction and resurrection.
A woman in the Muslim Quarter making grape leaves to sell.
The Old City was originally built by King David in 1004 BC. and has always been considered the center of the world. Ancient maps show the three continents known at the time: Europe, Asia, and Africa, situated in a circle with Jerusalem in the center.
Since then Jerusalem has been cherished and glorified by kings, rulers, and conquerors alike. Those who have attempted to storm its walls and destroy the Holy Land were met by the people of the nation who protected it with their lives.
According to the bible, this was the place where the Jews built the Temple, where Jesus was crucified, and where Mohammed rose to Heaven. Pilgrims, beggars, merchants, warriors and slaves have all walked the stone lined streets and have praised and revered Jerusalem. I too, felt like a nomad as I walked the ancient street of Jerusalem.
Over the years, the Old City has undergone many changes which have made it one of the most interesting cities in the world as well as an important focal point for tourism in Israel.
The city, resting on the original hills of the City of David and surrounded by a wall over four kilometers long with seven gates, 34 towers, and a citadel (the Tower of David), is divided into four residential quarters.
The Four Quarters
Teenagers on their cell phones in the Armenian Quarter.
The Armenian quarter is the smallest quarter of the Old City. The Armenians settled in Jerusalem in the 4th century CE for religious reasons and the St. James Cathedral was built in the 12th century. This church later became the center for the Armenian people in Israel.
It is one of the most beautiful churches in the country and is built upon the remains of a Byzantine church. At the center of the church is a dome resting on four pillars, through which the sun shines and sheds light on the paintings on the walls.
The Christian quarter has more than 40 churches, monasteries, and hostels that were built for Christian pilgrims. In the heart of the Christian quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Church of the Resurrection, which according to Christian tradition, was the site upon which Jesus was crucified and buried following his final walk along the Via Dolorosa, or the Stations of the Cross.
There are several sites that are important to the Christian tradition inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre including the Stone of Anointing, the tomb, and the rotunda. This church should not be missed; it’s astonishing and will take you back in time to a place you didn’t even know existed inside yourself.
Aside from the beauty and the deep religious beliefs that this churches grounds hold, there is a feeling that takes over as you watch people drop to the floor and pray and weep. It’s incredibly moving. I found myself fighting back tears as I made my way around this magnificent area.
The Jerusalem market place.
The Jewish quarter is the main residential area for Jews in the Old City. This quarter also contains the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, what was once a part of the Temple and close to the Holy of Holies and a holy place for the Jews.
Again, the Western Wall is also not to be missed. It is separated by sex with men and women on their respective sides.
I watched people touch, pray and worship the Wall. I watched as they stuck little pieces of paper into the cracks of the wall, perhaps little prayers or poems, names of loved ones who were in need. I could feel the power of my surroundings everywhere I turned.
The Muslim Quarter is the largest quarter in the old city, and most of its population arrived after its original Jewish and Christian residents moved to newer neighborhoods. The Muslim Quarter has churches and mosques, several Jewish homes and Yeshivas still remaining. The most important sites in the Muslim Quarter are sacred sites for the Muslim faith such as the Dome of the Rock on Mount Moria, another holy place for the Jews.
The Market Place
Don’t miss one of Jerusalem’s most popular tourist attractions: The market place, a noisy and colorful market locateFloating in the salty Dead Sea. d in the Christian quarter. One can buy anything from decorated pottery to candles to ethnic costumes to rugs to jewelry.
Follow your nose as you pass spices, coffee shops and bakeries. The merchants display their wares and the culinary delights emit tantalizing aromas with halva displays and spice shops galore.
It’s expected for shoppers to bargain for their goods, and if you are successful, the shopkeepers will come down from their original price. As you make your way through the market place, be sure to keep your eyes open for the big yellow awning where you will find the best Rugala Pastry shop in all of Jerusalem. It’s located on the Main Street as you exit the market place.
The Western Wall
The Western Wall is the last remnant of Jerusalem’s Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The Western Wall took on the sanctity of the Temple and for centuries Jews have come here to pray, in times of both joy and sorrow, and the custom was developed of placing a prayer note in the wall.
The rest of the wall’s 583 meters awaits you deep beneath the Old City in the Western Wall Tunnel, an incomparable foray into Jerusalem’s archeological past. As I walked around this area I was amazed by the calmness and beauty of the wall. Again, this is a place not to be missed.
The view from the top of Masada overlooks The Dead Sea and The Judaean Desert.
The Dead Sea
I’m not the bucket list type; however, The Dead Sea seems like a place that should be on mine. It’s the lowest place on Earth after all. I have to say, I was never so excited to go someplace and never quite as disappointed in it after getting there. The Dead Sea is in fact disappearing in large amounts on a daily basis.
The area where the hotels are located is in fact all man-made. If you believe in global warming, then you might blame the disappearance on that. If you want to visit the Dead Sea, you need to get there soon, as it will not last forever.
While traveling through the Judean Dessert, Masada is a must-see destination. Masada is a rugged natural fortress, of majestic beauty, surrounded by the beige colored desert and overlooking the salty blues and greens of the Dead Sea.
It is a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and the last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman army, in 73 A.D. The camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the monument constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day.
Hiking the Judaean Desert.
After Judaea became a province of the Roman Empire, it was the refuge of the last survivors of the Jewish revolt. They chose death rather than slavery when the Roman besiegers broke through their defenses. As such it has symbolic value for the Jewish people.
It is also an archaeological site of great significance. The remains of Herod's palaces are outstanding and very intact examples of this type of architecture. The untouched siege-works are the finest and most complete anywhere in the Roman world. A trip to Israel would not be complete without a visit to the amazing UNESCO heritage site Masada.
I ended my trip to Israel by visiting the super-hip Tel Aviv. As I arrived in the area, it was mid-afternoon and my hotel was not quite ready so I ventured to the beach. If yPeople gather at the beach in Tel Aviv. ou can imagine a beach in the middle of a desert than you will envision Tel Aviv, jam packed with beautiful young people, hard bodies, and smiles galore.
I made my way down into the sand—ahhhhh the sand. I was surrounded by sun bathers and sun worshipers.
I took a few photos, watched as some very young boys gathered around and smoked a hookah pipe and thought this is the new Israel. I took a dip in the warm water of the Mediterranean Sea and felt complete.
The next day I took a tour of the nearby ‘old town’ of Jaffa. I loved this area! One could say Jaffa was the original Tel Aviv as it’s a stones throw away from the craziness of the city.
Its cobbled old roads and crooked stone stairways are home to an Artist Colony. Each store front is unique with painters, haberdashers, stone polishers, jewelry makers and more. I absorbed the beauty in the area; I felt like I could stay forever.
The Bottom Line
It goes like this... regardless of your race or religion, your beliefs or disbeliefs, Israel has something to offer for everyone. It’s a magnificent country filled with friendly people, fabulous olive oil, hummus and falafel! It offers a wide array of things to see and do with an amazing culture, history and arts.
They are a technology-forward country, striving to make a difference. I can understand why people return over and over again. I put Israel in my top five favorite places that I’ve been lucky enough to visit. I hope to return someday and visit the areas I didn’t have a chance to see.
Jean Miller Spoljaric has a great time when she travels, and it really shows in her stories and her eye-popping photos. She brings her unique brand of enthusiasm to the art of travel writing. She lives in New York’s Dutchess County.