Israel is a remarkable, fascinating and controversial country. For many it is, above all, the Holy Land. Religious attractions include the walk along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (the Holy City and cradle of Christianity, Islam and Judaism); the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; the serenity of Galilee and the ride across the River Jordan, the river in which Jesus was baptised.
The compact size of Israel means that almost anywhere (with the exception of Eilat) is accessible for a day trip from Jerusalem. The coastal cities of Tel Aviv, Akko and Haifa can easily be visited in a day, as can the area around the Sea of Galilee and even (in a long day) the Golan Heights. There is enough to see in most of these places to merit a longer visit but, in terms of historical and religious sites, none of them can match Jerusalem. The first stop for any visitor has to be the Old City, which contains the sacred sites that have caused such turmoil and unrest marking Jerusalem’s history and still felt today. The Old City is divided into quarters (the Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim) each with its unique identity and character.
Note: Visitors should check official government advice before travelling to the Palestinian National Authority Region or to Jerusalem, as these areas may be dangerous owing to political tension.
For Christians, Jews and Muslims, this is one of the most revered cities on earth. Attractions range from religious emblems and relics of antiquity to modern items of interest. Religious tours are available from West Jerusalem and include Mount Zion and the Tomb of David. Other sites are the Tomb of Judges; Yad Vashem, the memorial to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust; and Mea Shearim (‘the hundred gates’). Visitors in East Jerusalem may follow the Way of the Cross, enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, see the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Jaffa and Damascus gates. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and is worth visiting.
Three important excursions are to the Abu Ghush, En Karem and the Hill of Rachel.
Temple Mount (Har Habayit in Hebrew, Al Haram ash-Sharif in Arabic), also called Mount Moriah, is sacred to both Islam and Judaism. It is a natural hill, which was built up artificially to support the huge Jewish Temple that stood here in Biblical times. Temple Mount has remained the focus of the Jewish religion ever since – when praying, Jews worldwide still face Temple Mount.
It was from a black rock within the complex, where, according to the Koran, Muhammad made his ascension to Heaven at the conclusion of his ‘Night Ride’ from Mecca and in the bible where Abraham offered Isaac for sacrifice. With the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, the octagonal, blue-tiled Dome of the Rock, with its huge gold dome, was built over the large black rock. Dominating the skyline of the Old City, its dome glinting in the sunshine, this beautiful building is Jerusalem’s most famous landmark and an absolute must for visitors.
Also on Temple Mount is the Al Aqsa Mosque, the oldest mosque in Israel and (unlike the Dome of the Rock) an actual place of Muslim worship. Its silver dome dates from the 11th century. The Islamic Museum, the third building within the complex, contains Islamic artifacts and relics. Only one of the 10 gates to the complex, Al-Mughradia (Moors) gate, allows entry for non-worshippers. This is located to the right of the Western Wall and is accessed from Western Wall Plaza. However, the complex is currently closed to non-Muslims.
Situated along one side of a vast plaza at the bottom of Temple Mount the historic Western Wall (HaKotel in Hebrew). 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 30 BC (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 70 AD, 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. In keeping with Orthodox Jewish practice (because the entire site is technically an Orthodox synagogue) the length of the Wall has been divided into separate sections for men and women. Any man or woman may enter their respective section, provided men have their heads covered (visitors can borrow a kippah or skullcap when entering) and women are modestly dressed. The Wall can be reached either through the Dung Gate or through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
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