Middle East
Pope John Paul II places a letter into a crevice
of the Western Wall. The letter, expressing the
Vatican's apology for centuries of anti-Semitism,
is to go on permanent display at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Memorial of the Holocaust.

Inspired by Pope John Paul II
tourists are flocking to Israel
By Toby Saltzman

When Pope John Paul II stood on the emerald Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the blue Sea of Galilee, he blessed a tiny sapling of an olive tree, indicating a promising future for a land that has endured three millennium of history. There are few places in the world where time stands still; where the past and the present collide, yet dwell in harmony; and where three thousand years seemingly disappear before your eyes when you turn a corner from an ancient quarter to a new, if not for the thrust of timeworn cobblestones beneath your feet. Jerusalem transcends time past and present, old and new.

From the Mount of Olives you
see Jerusalem's layers of history.

Photo by Toby Saltzman
Time is a strange motivator for all visitors to Jerusalem. Most first-time visitors come in search of ancient splendors, to satisfy lifetime desires to tread in the footsteps of the Bible, see the exact spots where Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice, where Jesus preached, or where Mohammed prayed. The yearning to know the Holy Land is multi-denominational. The desire to feel the earth or see precious relics transcends religious differences.

A tiny land that contains the important religious shrines for much of the world's population, Israel has always enticed pilgrims to seek the private places of their souls and the sacred places of familiar Bible stories.

David's Citadel, built by Herod in 24 BC, houses the Tower of David Museum.
Photo by Toby Saltzman

It is inspiring, indeed, to stand on the Mount of Olives at twilight in view of Jerusalem's biblical landscape. As the sun guilds the stone buildings, you see various groups trailing peacefully through the ancient, narrow streets of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jewish quarters: the Franciscan friars, the Coptic and Armenian priests in mediaeval cloaks; the Muslims in robes; the Orthodox Jews in black garb.

To follow the Christian route along the Via Dolorosa as it winds to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus died and was resurrected, leaves many people breathless. For the first time in history, the clergy of the six denominations who share this church (and who traditionally do not see eye-to-eye) united in prayer to honor the Pontiff's visit.

The Western Wall shoulders 2000 years of history.
Photo by Toby Saltzman

For all its spiritual power, the Western Wall seems nothing more than a simple, high corner of stones interspersed with occasional tufts of wild grass and numerous crevices, the lower ones filled with tucks of hand-written notes placed there by hopeful worshippers. When Pope John Paul II placed his letter into a crevice, his action spoke volumes of heartfelt apologies for past centuries of anti-Semitism. The letter will be on permanent display at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Memorial of the Holocaust (another stop on thePontiff's itinerary.)

The Wall shoulders 2,000 years of the history of Judaism and Islam. It is the only surviving remains of the Second Temple. The court at its base is an open-air synagogue partitioned into separate areas for women and men. On the upper plateau is The Temple Mount, believed to be the place where God first formed man from the dust of the ground. It houses David's Altar, over which Solomon built the First Temple, which was later replaced by Herod's Second Temple. Also thought to be the scene of Mohammed's miraculous night journey, the Temple Mount is the basis for the Dome of the Rock, which is built around the Sacred Rock upon which Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac.

A stone frieze above a doorway on the Via Dolorasa.
Photo by Toby Saltzman

On Saturday mornings, the Wall is a scene of organized chaos: lines of men and women davening or praying; rabbinic students rejoicing with torah scrolls high above their heads; and families clustering around proud Bar Mitzvah boys.

The ancient Citadel stands nearby. Built by Herod in 24 BC, it was later destroyed by conquering Romans who spared its tower, dubbed The Tower of David. Inside, the Tower of David Museum recounts the city's story from the Canaanite period to the present through archeological finds and exhibits. A new, poignant display features 5th-Century crucifixes and artifacts that provide archaeological testimony to the massacre of thousands of Christians by the Sassanid Persians who conquered Jerusalem in 614 AD.

A sculpture at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem
Memorial of the Holocaust.

Photo by Toby Saltzman

Outside the crenellated walls of Old Jerusalem, a modern attitude reigns, but with strict respect for things historic. By law, all buildings are faced with the cream-colored "Jerusalem limestone" cut from local quarries. This stone, which glowingly reflects the sunlight, gave Jerusalem the name The Golden City.

Landmarks which have survived since the days of the British Mandate (after World War I) include the majestic King David Hotel, which holds court on a broad, tree-lined boulevard, and, immediately opposite, the towering YMCA building - arguably the most beautiful "Y" in the world. Nearby, an old windmill marks the entrance to Mishkenot Sha'ananim, a thriving artists' enclave. The Israel Museum's mind-boggling collection of archeological, historic and artistic treasures includes the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here, on the outdoor plateau overlooking Jerusalem is a divine respite: the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, scattered with significant works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henry Moore, Alberto Giaccometti and others.

Capernaum was the fishing village home of Peter and the
White Synagogue where Jesusfirst preached to his followers.
Photo by Toby Saltzman
For all its religious and historic significance, Jerusalem is a young-at-heart, cosmopolitan city with hip "new" pockets to explore. So take some time to enjoy the hubs of cafes, restaurants and boutiques before you head to the outskirts.

Pope John Paul II remarked on the emotions stirred by two particularly meaningful Christian sites: Qasr al Yahud, on the River Jordan - the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus; and, of course, Bethlehem, where the Grotto of the Nativity is certain to astonish you with its tiny size. It is best to visit Bethlehem, located minutes from Jerusalem under Palestinian control, with a qualified guide.

Tabgha, where an intimate chapel marks the traditional site of Jesus' multiplication of
the loaves and fishes, is a wonderful
source for ceramic souvenirs.
Photo by Toby Saltzman

For true romantics - and I count history and religious buffs among those for whom travel through history is a romantic journey - I suggest a glorious day trip to places bordering the Sea of Galilee that were on the Pontiff's itinerary. Head for Capernaum (the fishing village home of Saint Peter) and the White Synagogue where Jesus first preached to his followers. Then travel around the lake (the Sea of Galilee is really a fresh-water lake) to the picturesque Mount of Beatitudes, the site of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Later on, stop at Tabgha, where an intimate chapel marks the traditional site of Jesus' multiplication of the loaves and fishes. (Tabgha, by the way, is the best place to buy ceramic souvenirs decorated with loaves and fishes.) En route back to Jerusalem, stop at Nazareth. Nearby, the modern Basilica of the Annunciation is where Pope John Paul II celebrated Annunciation Day Mass. If time allows on your return, try to visit Bet She'an. The incredible excavations of this ancient settlement are documented on notes dating to 5000 BC. End your day with a romantic dinner at Mishkenot Sha'ananim. Reserve a table along the glass wall to see the moon rise above Old Jerusalem, illuminating the city for all humanity.

The Israel Ministry of Tourism InfoCenter
Phone: 1-888-77-Israel
Website: www.goisrael.com

For an easy, independent tour of Jerusalem's main sights, take Bus 99 on the Jerusalem Circular Line. It departs from Jaffa Gate every two hours.

A photographer crouches to capture
the majesty of Masada on film.

Photo by Toby Saltzman

Official Israeli guides, extensively educated in all religious, cultural and historical aspects, charge about US $140 for half-day tours and about $230 for all-day tours with transportation for up to four people. Be frank: describe the exact type of experience you want. Guides can arrange everything from an inter-faith tour of historic sites to a Christian baptism in the Jordan River to a tour relevant to your specific beliefs. The guides are reliable to escort you safely through certain remote areas. You may book guides in advance through your travel agent or at your hotel.

For an economical stay in Israel it's worth reserving accommodations (hotels or kibbutzim) in North America prior to your departure. Often (particularly in Canada) North American travel agents and tour packagers may charge 30% less for the same hotel you would be charged while in the country.




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