View of Dome of the Rock from Austrian Hospice, photo by Mike Keenan
On our first evening in
Jerusalem, two other writers and I dine at J'oy Meat In, a restaurant in
Mamilla, a neighbourhood just outside the Old City and west of the
Jaffa Gate. Between 1948-67, Mamilla was situated along the armistice line between the Israeli and Jordanian-held sectors where many buildings were destroyed by Jordanian shelling. Designed by Canadian architect
Moshe Safdie, the Mamilla Mall opened in 2007. Safdie is identified most with Habitat, a pavilion for Expo 67 which paved the way for his international career.
The next day busy and blistering hot, we start at the
City of David, the original metropolis of Jerusalem, founded 3,000 years ago. We tour the Davidson (educational) Center and the Southern Wall excavations.
The Western Wall is a 57 m (187 foot) exposed section of an ancient wall on the flank of the
Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. It faces a large plaza set aside for prayer. The wall is a retaining wall, built to support the extensive renovations that
Herod the Great employed in 19 BCE.
Here, we witness joyous celebrations heralded by merry music streaming from clarinets, the horn of a ram, drums and even a saxophone, with parades to honour bar mitzvahs.
Bar mitzvah for boys and
bat mitzvah for girls are Jewish coming of age rituals. According to Jewish law, when children turn 13, they are accountable for their actions. It's wonderful to see the beaming pride etched on the faces of parents, and some have travelled all the way from the United States for this memorable family ritual.
Next day, we arrive at the lowest point on earth,
the Dead Sea. We visit
Kasr-al-Yahud, where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and later tour
Masada. Here, Jewish zealots held out against the Roman army and committed group suicide before they were defeated. Afterwards, we continue through the
Negev Desert to the
Ramon Crater and an exploration by jeep through jagged terrain and rocks of what is the world's largest geological crater. I jokingly ask our young driver how many flat tires per year. He proudly pats his Land Rover and replies, "only two," but at the very end, the number jumps to three and we are delayed 20 minutes! We dine and overnight at
Early in the morning as we watch a group of trim cyclists prepare for a desert race, we head to
Kibbutz Sde Boqer, where Israel's founding father,
David Ben Gurion, retired and where he is buried. We tour his living quarters and view memorabilia. An insomniac and voracious reader, innumerable books are scattered everywhere, and I spot a photo of his purported hero, Mahatma Gandhi. Outside, there is a statue of Ben Gurion performing a headstand, a daily exercise.
In the morning, we visit the bustling
Carmel and Levinsky Markets, then stroll through trendy
Neve Tzedek to ancient
Jaffa with its eclectic flea market. We amble through the Jaffa kasbah, with its art galleries and shiny boutiques. The afternoon is leisurely for last minute shopping and exploration or simply a stroll on the beach promenade. After dinner, we transfer to Ben Gurion International Airport for a late evening check-in and a post-midnight departure from Israel.
Israel's Ministry of Tourism prepared me with these facts: there are 10 nonstop flights a day from North America to Israel; with 8 million Israelis, even though Israel is the 'Jewish state,' 25% of Israelis are Christian and Muslim; there are more cell-phones, bookstores, laptops and museums per capita than in any country; Israel is considered 'Silicon Valley East,' the world's second-largest creator of software and systems; the green revolution began in Israel a century ago as more trees per acre than in any other country have been planted here since 1900; Israelis have used solar power for heating water for 60 years; and water-saving drip irrigation was invented here; cherry tomatoes too; almost everyone speaks good English; Israel is considered part of the francophone world because of the large number of French-speaking immigrants from North Africa; because the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, the sun's rays have an additional 1,200 feet to travel before they reach human skin, so you tan, not burn.
The bottom line is that with its ancient history and charm, I would return here in a minute. The food is amazing and so are the people, despite the political strife.
Besides writing for the five Niagara Postmedia newspapers, Mike has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of four thousand viewers.