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Jerusalem Remains Israel's Most Essential Site

By Robert Selwitz Modified: September 24, 2013 at 9:33 am •  Published: September 24, 2013
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Jerusalem is Israel's No. 1 destination for many reasons. Almost everyone who visits the country spends time in this history-rich political hotbed that has been fought over since its creation some 3,000 years ago.


     The walled Old City is the heart of the action. Covering 220 acres, the area is surrounded by 2.5 miles of walls with an average height of 39 feet. Buses aren't allowed inside, so the only way to see it -- whether in a group or on your own -- is by foot. Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent erected these walls between 1537 and 1541. Of the 11 gates, seven are currently open.
    The Old City is divided into Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters. The Jaffa Gate is the most popular entry point. To the right stands David's Tower, part of a citadel that's intriguing but wildly misnamed. King David was long gone before Roman King Herod built it. Later Romans destroyed the fortress during the first Jewish revolt in the years 66 to 70.
    Subsequent centuries saw various Crusaders, Mamaluk and other Muslim people build and ransack it. What you see today are remnants of construction by 16th-century Ottomans. The "tower," actually a minaret, is part of the citadel that contains interesting historical items and offers fabulous Old City views.
    The 14 Stations of the Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are ancient Jerusalem's prime draws for Christians. The stations -- whose locations were determined by St. Helena approximately three centuries after Christ's death -- mark the places he traveled en route to his crucifixion.
    St. Helena was the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, who in 312 legalized Christianity. She not only identified specific locations -- many of which are now found along the Via Dolorosa -- but erected the church within which at least five of the stations are found. These include the sites of the crucifixion, Christ's tomb and the resurrection.
     While Via Dolorosa gets crowded, it's nothing compared to the church's interior, which actually includes multiple churches, all under one roof. Armenian, Coptic, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy control separate areas.
     The Western Wall, originally constructed as a retaining wall for the second temple the Romans destroyed in A.D. 70, is Judaism's holiest site. Day and night, men and woman (in separate sections) pray before the wall. In addition, many people insert written prayers into crevices between the blocks. There is also an underground portion of the wall that can be viewed via a fascinating but strictly controlled tour.
    The actual site of the former temple is now occupied by the gold-topped Dome of the Rock. This shrine -- from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven -- and the Al-Aqsa mosque cannot be entered by non-Muslims. Nevertheless, they can be viewed from many elevated spots within the Jewish Quarter, the most user-friendly and comfortable part of the Old City. One reason is that so much of it was rebuilt following its capture by Israeli forces during the 1967 Six Day War.
    Much of the area and its monuments were destroyed by Jordanians during their years of occupation. During the intensive excavation and reconstruction that followed, archaeologists made some amazing discoveries. These include the Cardo, a Roman avenue complete with copious columns. Also, new plazas and revitalized areas were created. A visit to the Wohl Museum, under which extensive Roman foundations were uncovered, is also fascinating.
    Of course there are plenty of intriguing byways throughout the Old City. Particularly in less-touristy areas such as the more distant portions of the Muslim Quarter, you can find yourself in unscripted moments. For instance, while walking past a row of basic shops, my wife and I suddenly were in the midst of a funeral procession where a green-wrapped coffin was being borne on the shoulders of bereaved men.
    Outside the Old City, museums and intriguing neighborhoods abound. We spent six hours at the Israel Museum, home of the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls. On display through Jan. 4 is a fascinating exhibit about the life and architecture of Herod the Great.
    We spent extended time at the second rendition of Yad Vashem, Israel's main Holocaust history museum, and we also took a free tour of the Knesset, Israel's parliament; strolled through and dined at some of the superb restaurants along Ben Yehuda Street and Jaffa Road; and wended through the Mea Shearim district, heart of Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox and Chassidic community.
     Beyond Jerusalem there are must-sees that are difficult or impossible to reach without a guide. The most famous of these is Masada -- the desert fortress built by Herod. Ultimately, Jewish Zealots held off Romans for years before killing themselves to avoid enslavement.
     To reach the site 60 miles outside Jerusalem we hired a taxi driver we had earlier encountered. We had liked his personality and his English was good, so we paid him the equivalent of two tour tickets to take us to Masada; visit Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found; and to return via Jericho. Our four
unrushed hours at Masada seeing the fortifications, cisterns and palace ruins provided an incredible experience.
     Another highlight was an excursion to Hebron and Bethlehem, both within the Palestinian West Bank, that was operated by Green Olive Tours. Every day they take vanloads from the front of Jerusalem's YMCA through the border checkpoints. Then, with the addition of a Palestine-based guide, we headed to Hebron to begin our visit.  
     Though now almost all of its approximately 170,000 residents are Palestinian, there are 500 to 700 Jews living here in an enclave protected by some 2,000 to 3,000 Israeli soldiers. We went first to the Tomb of the Patriarch, the repository of the bodies of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives. The partitioned building has separate entrances: one for Jews and another for Muslims and others.
    Within the Muslim section we saw not only the tombs but also dozens of bullet holes -- each clearly marked -- the result of a 1994 massacre of 29 worshippers by an Israeli doctor. After exiting and re-entering the Jewish side, we saw men and women studying and praying separately. All were protected by guards carrying automatic weapons.
    Later we strolled the nearby deserted streets that once were part of a vibrant commercial and living area but were now bereft of people and shops. Our guide said this was the result of restrictions and street closures imposed by Israeli defense forces.
    After Hebron we moved on to Bethlehem, where we visited the
Church of the Nativity. It was commissioned by St. Helena and Emperor Constantine in 327. Today a bright silver star embedded in an underground grotto marks the spot where Christ is believed to have been born.
WHEN YOU GO
    For general information about Israel: www.goisrael.com
    Green Olive Tours provide excellent guided tours to the West Bank and Palestinian territories and cities: www.toursinenglish.com.
    The Mamilla Hotel is Jerusalem's best-located luxury hotel, and it has an excellent rooftop restaurant. From there you have a great view of the Old City, which is within easy walking distance: www.mamillahotel.com.
    Mantra Restaurant at Jaffa 31 offers trendy cuisine, a clever menu and friendly staff.
    El Al Airline: www.elal.co.il
    Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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