The Jerusalem Post interviewed me during the recently concluded TBEX International in Jerusalem (TBEX is an international travel blogger and media conference). Just before wrapping up the interview, the senior correspondent asked me about my feelings about Jerusalem. I just smiled and said –"Do not die without going to Jerusalem." My statement came from deep within.
The strongest flavour
My whirlwind visit to Israel took me to Haifa, Caesarea, Nazareth, Bet Guvrin, Akko (Acre), and Nahariya, besides my six-day stay in Jerusalem. While each of these places served its own unique flavour, the most overwhelming of them all was Jerusalem.
As a city, nay, as a cauldron of cultures, Jerusalem has it all. From craft beers to Cinema City, from holy places to happening ones, from pre-historic to progressive, Jerusalem negates your beliefs about the Middle East. It sounds, smells, tastes, and feels just like any other global cosmopolitan hub of hubbub!
A multi-tiered cake of history
Though this was my second visit there, I continued to learn something new at every cobblestoned step. My walk through the old town Jerusalem introduced me to an unbelievable number of layers of humankind's history.
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At the Tower of David, our guide Alan pointed out those layers. From the Roman era to the Ottoman Empire, from the Crusader's time to the more recent British period, the stones of the tower wall showed it all. He explained since the actual creator of this tower (King Herod) was a hated soul and David was a loved king, over the centuries the tower got attributed to David. Little wonder then that the Jerusalem Development Authority spent millions of dollars to put up a projection spectacular to give the visitors a 45-minute glimpse into this complex history!
The Old Town—a heady potpourri
In old town Jerusalem, more amazing facts came to light. Though the four quarters—the Jewish, the Christian, the Muslim and the Armenian—have people from different faiths living there, their harmonious co-existence is remarkable and something the world could take a lesson from.
Some of the shops in these bylanes are hundreds of years old. The traders have been doing their trade here for generations. And despite the area being crowded, the vehicular traffic, wherever allowed, has complete respect for the pedestrians weaving their way through this maze.
This ancient part of Jerusalem also offers a quirky mélange of cuisines—shawarmas jostle for attention as falafals score a victory; lasagnas and burgers scream out loud to attract the scores of nationalities seeking their own favourite flavours; pizzas and pitas battle it out for glory at every corner.
Hawkers at every step tempt you with their wares. From handicrafts to holy symbols, red Kabbalah strings to the hands of God, goggles to picture postcards—everything is available for the seekers and takers.
Points of interest in the old town
Now, this can truly be an unending list. But here are some of the choicest ones:
1. The Western Wall: The holiest site for Jews, this centuries-old wall has been created with huge stones, some of them weighing as much as 575 tonnes!
2. Temple Mount or the Dome of the Rock: Arguably, this is the second holiest site for Muslims. Here, while the sanctum sanctorum allows entry only for Muslims, visitors are permitted into its precincts from 7.30 am to 10.00 am and from 12.30 pm to 2.00 pm (all days except during Ramzan). The queue here could be long. So, reach early to avoid disappointment.
3. Church of theHoly Sepulchre: The last five stations of Via Dolorosa (Jesus' Path of Suffering) are inside this massive church that houses the spot where Jesus was crucified as well as the tomb of Jesus. As this is the holiest place for all sects of Christianity, there are many chapels here representing different denominations of the religion.
And then, there's the New Jerusalem
As soon as you step out of the walled city, a different world greets you! Spanking new buildings, wide well-tarred roads, global brands, malls, and luxury hotels, punctuated with some well-kept period buildings and structures that impart even this new town a typical Jerusalem character. This part of the town is characterised by orderly traffic, evident security, and folks from different lands.
During my trip, while the winter chill was in the air, chapped lips indicated a dry climate. As I stepped up to buy a bottle of water, a sudden realisation about how expensive Jerusalem is dawned on me. This realisation stayed with me throughout my Israel trip—every time I took a cab, or bought some food. But I found comfort in the fact that as a traveller, I was NOT paying the 17% VAT every Israeli has to pay for most things.
Is Jerusalem safe?
As an Indian, I realise how every unfortunate incident may get blown out of proportion in the media. I guess that is how the media elsewhere also behaves. And since Israel is a small country in a volatile region, global media would have an even more exaggerated reaction to any untoward incident. With that clarity I approached Jerusalem and found it safer than most cities I have visited. And my fellow TBEX-ers shared this feeling.
Jerusalem extends its rainbow hues to all travellers, regardless of their purpose of visit. Here, one gets what one seeks. The place is rich in history and heritage, culture and character, cuisine and chaos, sightseeing and shopping. And this is a lot more than what I can say about most cities I have visited. So, coming back to where I started, my one-line advice for every travel-lover would be, "Do not die without going to Jerusalem!"