Having traveled as much as we have, it is notable that Israel is one of the most fascinating countries we have ever visited.  We were intrigued to go there after an Egyptian friend described Jerusalem saying “You can smell the history.”  He was not wrong.

While living in Amman, Jordan we decided to take the 42 mile journey to Jerusalem.  In only the past 10 years the bridges were opened between the two countries as a result of their signing a peace treaty.  Getting there was between 3 & 5 ½ hours, depending on bus traffic and Israeli immigration.  Passing Israeli immigration “test” is not easy, even for an American.  They ask many, many questions; some questions many times trying to trick you.  And, “no” for the fifth time, I have never been to Syria, Lebanon or Pakistan.

As Americans, we have a different way of viewing Israel than most people that live in the Middle East. To begin, many people (not just governments) still do not recognize Israel as a legitimate country.  An Internet search can find Jerusalem listed as Jerusalem, NML, (No Man’s Land, not Israel).  When chatting with small children in Jerusalem, they called themselves “Palestinians,” not Israelis, and when we told them we are Americans, their faces went pale and they ran away from us.  Jordanians and Egyptians are more open toward Israel since they both signed peace treaties.  But a direct flight on Egypt Air or Royal Jordanian Airlines completely circumnavigates Israel to not be offensive to their passengers and it increases the flight time by thirty minutes.  As a side note, a fellow American friend (guy) was involved in a pre-flight “nightmare” while flying the 1 ½ hour Amman/Cairo flight.  He was assigned a seat next to an Arab lady and she screamed at the stewardess because she refused to sit next to him (an infidel, I suppose).  The crisis was resolved when an Arab male passenger offered to trade seats.  It is impossible to write about Israel without offending others, so I will express my own viewpoints knowing that many others in the world are in complete disagreement.  I respect other viewpoints and my views toward Israel have been molded by my experiences this past year. 
To summarize, I think that both the Palestinians and the Israelis are completely wrong in resolving their 60+ year struggle in governing themselves and the U.S. has done very little to maintain a neutral balance.

The Old City of Jerusalem is a walled city subdivided into sections.  They are the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Christian Quarter.  These quarters over the years have become vague since the Christian and Armenian populations are decreasing and the Muslim population is increasing.  Jerusalem is the historical center for three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islamic.  They say religion has been the largest cause for wars throughout the centuries and Jerusalem has had its share.

To pick back up at the beginning of this story, “you can smell the history” while walking the cobblestones of the narrow streets of Old Jerusalem.  I can appreciate why religious people would make the pilgrimage or move to Jerusalem, despite the hardships. It is a very spiritual and holy place that you must visit to experience.

The Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount is Islam’s third most important religious site (after Mecca and Medina), and it is from here that Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. Our photo at the top of this page was our view of The Dome of the Rock.  We tried to get in 5 differnt times and were refused entrance each time for varying reasons.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Sacred Tomb is no doubt the most important shrine in the Christian world. On the grounds of the Holy Sepulcher it is believed that Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and rose from the dead. Inside the Holly Sepulcher is the Stone of Unction or of Anointing. It is the polished red stone being knelt over in the photo below. According to tradition, the body of Jesus was anointed and prepared here for burial.
Situated along one side of a vast plaza at the bottom of Temple Mount the historic Western Wall. Also known as the Wailing Wall from the Jews chanting lamentations on Tisha b’Av, the annual fast, mourning the destruction of the Temple. The Western Wall, constructed of massive rough blocks of golden stone, is a remnant of the outer retaining walls of the Second Temple as reconstructed by Herod in 30BC (the First Temple, constructed by Solomon, occupied the same site but was destroyed by the Babylonians.
Since the final complete destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD70, the Western Wall has been the holiest place of prayer for the Jewish people. Jews come from all over the world to pray or to contemplate. Some place notes with hopes, dreams and messages of goodwill in the cracks of the Wall.
I call Israel the “Country of men wearing funny hats.”  I try to be respectful of different cultures but the Jewish guys from Eastern Europe crack me up in their attire.  Tall fur hats; long, polka dotted shiny coats; knickers pants with leggings all belong in a snow storm, not a hot afternoon.  But, to each their own and I always withheld my laughter until they passed by.
Besides a country of funny hats, Israel is the “land of heavily armed men.” The Israeli street police are young, very athletic guys that are heavily armed with automatic weapons, body armor and stun grenades.  Bell boys routinely have a pistol holster attached to their belts on their backsides in case of trouble (remember that tourist hotels can be a target for terrorism).  If you are a believer in Archie Bunker’s theory that the best way to stop plane hijacking is to give each passenger a pistol, then you would also believe that Jerusalem is the safest city in the world.
We visited Jerusalem on two occasions, once in the fall and another time for Christmas.  Since we were spending Christmas in Jordan, why miss the opportunity to spend Christmas Eve in Bethlehem where it all started?  Well, great idea but so-so results.  This is our story.

Traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem requires passing through Israel’s recently built wall that divides Israel from the Palestinian Authority.  In my opinion, the wall is Israel’s attempt to reconstruct the Berlin wall and one indistinguishable group into two separate societies.  Israel’s reason for the wall is to prevent suicide bombers from entering their country...  To pass through the wall is nothing less than passing through prison walls, but passport required.  It’s all very dreary and very depressing, so much for the spirit of Christmas. 

Once crossed into Bethlehem it gets even more depressing.  A city that once had millions of visitors, especially during the Christmas season, has virtually no visitors from abroad. Due to the recent Israeli/Hezbollah conflict, it is estimated that 7 million visitors cancelled their trips to Jerusalem and consequently Bethlehem.  As a result, the little guys, the “Mohamed Mahmoud” shopkeepers of the Arab world are the one’s that suffer the most.  Very sad situations and again, the wrong people end up paying. In addition, locals who once worked in Jerusalem are blocked by the wall to go to work.  As a result, Bethlehem is very sad with closed shops, staggering unemployment and a government that has little control. Almost all of their financial aid has been withheld by the western world for political reasons.  Again, the little guy gets trapped into a state of hopelessness; strapping on a bomb brings a mother’s good blessings, Israel get tougher on the Palestinians, etc. etc.  There seems to be no end to the spiraling of hatred.  As Golda Meier once said,
“There will be no peace as long as they hate us more than they love their own children.”
This was our take away photo of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.  It was like attending a carnival on a Wednesday night.  Hawkers were everywhere, the number of vendors on the street selling coffee far outnumbered foreign visitors.  There was the Church of the Nativity commemorating the birth place of Jesus where we participated in Christmas Eve afternoon mass.  The procession of priest knelt at the Alter of the Nativity, the site where Jesus is said to have been born.   However, we returned to the hotel well before midnight.  The fact that it was bitterly cold also prompted an early return.

In summary, Jerusalem is one of the most fascinating cities in the world to visit.  The situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis will not be settled in our lifetime so there is no reason to delay a visit.  There are
few places in the world where “You can smell the history.”

Prior to El Regalo