The Old City of Jerusalem is unique in that it is one of the holiest sites for at least three different religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I had a chance to visit it during a recent trip to Israel, and to explore the many important sites throughout the city.
One of the most interesting sites is the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall), which forms part of the remains of a wall surrounding a massive Jewish temple that was destroyed by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago. Today, people write wishes or prayers on a piece of paper, then fold it up and find a crack in the wall to place it in. Not surprisingly, most of the spaces in the wall are now completely filled with prayers, so finding a spot to place a new prayer is easier said than done. There are underground tunnels built underneath the Western Wall, where you can walk the full length of the original wall. A short walk from the Western Wall is the Room of the Last Supper, which marks the site where Jesus and his disciples had the Last Supper shortly before he was crucified.
The Via Dolorosa is an important street in Jerusalem, where you can follow the path where Jesus carried his cross up to the hill where he was crucified. At the spot where the crucifixion took place (which was formerly outside the city walls) now stands the impressive Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where you can visit Jesus’ tomb as well as see the remains of an ancient Roman temple that stood on the same grounds. Not surprisingly, this church is one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites.
The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into 4 quarters: the Christian quarter, Jewish quarter, Muslim quarter, and Armenian quarter. In the Jewish quarter, you can see the fascinating remains of the “Burnt House”. The “Burnt House” is a ancient house that supposedly belonged to an important priest around 2000 years ago. This house, along with most of the city, was destroyed when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and burnt down much of the city. However, excavations revealed the remains of pots, tools, as well as the most interesting find: the arm of a woman that had been severed from her body!
In the New City of Jerusalem is the fascinating Israel Museum, which contains many interesting exhibits. The most famous of these is the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are a collection of manuscripts written on parchment that are considered to be the oldest existing version of the Bible! They were accidentally discovered by a farmer about 50 years ago in a cave nearby to the Dead Sea. The Shrine of the Book (where the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display) also holds the Aleppo Codex, which is one of the earliest known versions of the Hebrew Bible.
A relatively short drive from Jerusalem, but within the Palestinian-occupied West Bank, is the city of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity now stands on this spot, which was originally commissioned by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena in the 4th century. Not surprisingly, the place draws huge crowds of people, as in the basement marks the exact spots of the cave where Jesus was born as well as the manger where he was laid and visited by the Three Kings. Although the West Bank has earned a reputation as an insecure region, it actually seemed quite safe, peaceful, and friendly (aside from the pushy vendors selling tacky souvenirs).
Further from Jerusalem within the West Bank is the Dead Sea, which at nearly 1500 feet below sea level, is situated at the lowest place on Earth! The sea (which is actually a lake) is so named because the salt content is so high that it cannot support any marine life. Also because of the high salt content, you can effortlessly float in its waters. Just make sure not to bathe in the Dead Sea for too long (and take a shower immediately after getting out), as you don’t want to absorb too much of the salt into your skin. The ancient Romans and Egyptians historically frequented the Dead Sea because of the supposed healing properties of its waters (as well as the mud found at the bottom).
At the top of a large hill overlooking the south side of the Dead Sea is the ancient fortress of Masada, which was built on the site of a previous palace of King Herod the Great. The fortress is now a World Heritage site, and was the last stronghold for the Jews after the Roman invasion and destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century. After Jerusalem was destroyed, several hundred Jewish rebels and their families hid at Masada and continued fighting, despite the fact that they were severely outnumbered by the Roman army. Eventually, the Romans laid siege to the fortress, and seeing that their unavoidable defeat would lead to slavery, the Jews ultimately decided to commit mass suicide (although surprisingly, the skeletal remains of only a few dozen people were ever found).
The fortress of Masada can be reached via a steep hiking trail known as the Snake Path (which takes around one hour to climb), or by taking a cable car for those with less time and/or energy. Situated at a strategic position on top of the hill, the fortress is positively massive. You can see the well-preserved remains of bath houses, store houses, cisterns, barracks, along with an ancient synagogue. It is essentially the size of a small city, and excavations are still ongoing. There are also great viewpoints of the sprawling Judean desert, as well as the Dead Sea in the distance.
After visiting Jerusalem and central Israel, we headed north along the Jordan Valley to Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, stopping to visit several impressive archaeological sites like the ancient Roman city of Beit She’an, the biblical city of Capernaum, and the crusader town of Akko.