Jerusalem is Israel's most important city for tourists. While many other locations demand attention, this world-class gem should be experienced unrushed and in depth. Surrounded by four kilometres of nearly five-century-old walls, the Old City can only be visited on foot. 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.
For Christians, the 14 Stations of the Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are Jerusalem's prime draws. The Stations -- the locations of which were determined by St. Helena, approximately three centuries after Christ's death -- mark the places he travelled 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 site of the crucifixion, Christ's tomb and resurrection.
While Via Dolorosa gets crowded, it's nothing compared to the church's interior, which 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 that Romans destroyed in 70 AD, is Judaism's holiest site. Day and night, men and women (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 strictly controlled, but fascinating tour.
The gold-topped Dome of the Rock now occupies the site of the former temple. 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
This most user friendly and comfortable part of the Old City was extensively rebuilt following its capture by Israeli forces during the 1967 Six Day War. Subsequent archaeological efforts led to some amazing discoveries such as the Cardo, a Roman avenue complete with copious columns. Also visit the Wohl Museum, under which extensive Roman foundations were uncovered.
Outside the Old City, one can easily spend a whole day at the Israel Museum, home of the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Now (through Jan. 4) the museum is showing a compelling exhibit about the life and architecture of Herod the Great.
Also experience Yad Vashem, Israel's main Holocaust History Museum; take a free tour of the Knesset, Israel's parliament; stroll through and dine at some of the superb restaurants along Ben Yehuda Street and Jaffa Road; and wend through the Mea Shearim district, heart of Jerusalem's ultra orthodox and Hasidic community.
Beyond Jerusalem there are must-sees that are difficult or impossible to reach on your own. The most famous of these is Masada -- the amazing desert fortress built by Herod. This is where Jewish Zealots held off Romans for years before killing themselves to avoid enslavement. Seeing Masada's fortifications, cisterns and palace ruins is an incredible experience.
Also find time for an enlightening excursion to the Palestinian West Bank. Particularly intriguing was a day trip to Hebron and Bethlehem, typical of those offered by Green Olive Tours.
In Hebron, though now almost all of its approximately 170,000 residents are Palestinian, there are 500 to 700 Jews living in an enclave protected by some 2,000 to 3,000 Israeli soldiers.
Particularly memorable was 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 not only saw 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 nearby guards carrying automatic weapons.
After Hebron we moved onto Bethlehem where we visited the Church of the Nativity. St. Helena and her son Emperor Constantine commissioned it in 327 AD. Today, a bright silver star, embedded in an underground grotto, marks the spot where Christ is believed to have been born.
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