VISITING HEBRON & BETHLEHEM: Visiting these two cities during our trip to Palestine/Israel was something that will stay in my mind as long as I live. This is the feeling of excitement, nervousness, adventure, sadness, happiness which you don’t get anywhere else in the world. I won’t lie, I was a bit scared/nervous about our whole Jerusalem trip, especially with our 2 little girls. It’s just, I didn’t know what to expect there…reactions from the locals, political situations and etc etc etc. But once I set my foot there, I thought to myself “everything will be fine” and luckily everything was fine. Jerusalem is not really a perfect dream destination for many people; for lots of travelers, it’s not even in their bucket list. Even if not for religious purposes but for the love of history and culture, I think this place should be visited by every Muslim, Christian, Jew or even an atheist. It can be a bit overwhelming with all the information and knowledge you gather from this historical holy land but at the end of the day this place leaves you with hundreds of questions and thoughts in your mind.
I was being a bit lazy on uploading posts on our Jerusalem trip, only because there are soooooooooo many places to visit and so many things to do here. But I was going thru our photo albums from this trip recently and just suddenly made up my mind that I have to let people know about this amazing country, its cities, people, and everything else. So, this is my first post on our memorable trip to Jerusalem. Next one is on Jericho and Dead Sea and the final one is the most important and the longest one…Old Jerusalem.
TIME OF TRAVEL: We flew to Tel-Aviv on the first week of January, 2012 from Brussels. I was so excited for this particular trip that the long journey or reaching in Tel-Aviv at something like 2 a.m. in the morning with kids didn’t bother me too much. As for the weather, it was a perfect time to visit Palestine, I thought. It was a bit chilly (a light sweater or fleece was ok for us) but at least didn’t get any crazy desert-heat wave.
OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Hotel Addar in East Jerusalem, which is about 10 minutes of walk from the Damascus Gate or Jaffa gate of Old Jerusalem boundary and about 7/8 minutes of walk from Garden Tomb. Location was very nice and close to some local markets and shops. The hotel had free Wi-Fi and free good breakfast. It wasn’t all that luxurious and spacious hotel but the customer service was simply awesome. It is far from Tel-Aviv Int’l Airport (if I can remember correctly it took us about little more than 45 minutes) but our hotel arranged a taxi pick-up from the airport for a reasonable price. They also arranged a private one-day trip to Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, and Dead Sea.
EATING & SHOPPING: We had our lunch in a local street-side restaurant in Bethlehem. We had some kebabs, salad, hummus, pocket breads, and falafels in Old Jerusalem in couple of our meals, but they are so good that we really didn’t get tired of them. So, we decided to go with the traditional meal again (another reason is because we really didn’t see any diverse cuisine options in Bethlehem).
Old Hebron would be a nice place to buy some local souvenirs, but 99% of the stores there were closed during our little visit there. I’ve heard Hebron glasses are something famous there, which we didn’t see anywhere. We ended up buying some key rings and bracelets with Palestinian flags from some local teen age boys. You can bargain with them for a better deal, but when you look at their faces and know their situations you really don’t feel like bargaining. Instead, giving them some extra money would be something they would really appreciate.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: As I mentioned above, we rented a private taxi for a whole day (which our hotel managed for us) to visit Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, and Dead Sea (Kalia Beach). The whole trip cost us about 1200 NIS. The taxi drive spoke very good English and gave us all the history and necessary insights on all the places. I would recommend going to these places with someone local or tourist groups; entering these cities with your own car can be risky and hassle if you don’t know all the ins and outs. There are few check-points that we had to pass thru when leaving Jerusalem and entering each of these cities. Some of these cities are controlled by Muslims and Israelis aren’t allowed for safety purpose and some are Israeli controlled territories and not very safe for Muslims.
1) HEBRON: Hebron is about less than an hour drive from Jerusalem located in the southern West Bank. This was the capital of the Israelite state for a short time during King David’s era. The city is also known as City of Patriarchs. This is the 4th holiest site for Muslims after Mekkah, Madina, and Jerusalem and the 2nd holiest place for Jewish after Jerusalem. There is no modernization or development in this part of West Bank and the current situation of the country has made this place a ghost city. We really didn’t see any big buildings or any modern architecture while driving thru the city but saw many kids running and playing in the streets, which made me think about their unpredictable lives, if they actually go to schools, or how many family members have they lost so far in wars, fights, and attacks.
When we were driving toward Hebron, we saw an Israeli army or may be a civilian with a rifle gun guarding his family on the road side while someone else was fixing their car. We asked our taxi driver why the man had rifle in his hand and seemed like he was ready to shoot someone. Driver’s response was, since that was a Jewish family and they are in a Muslim territory…they are just always alert for the safety of their family. And you will see a similar site when a Muslim family is stuck in a Jewish community. It left me thinking, the unpredictable life that they and their family, kids live everyday. I can’t even imagine a life like this for our daughters. Thanks to almighty that we are so lucky…so lucky just to have a safe shelter, supposedly a safe community, good education system, and lots more for our kids’ better present and future.
a) OLD HEBRON: We had to pass thru the old part of Hebron to go to our final destination, Ibrahimi Mosque. We walked thru an old market passage before entering the mosque. Most of the stores here were closed (may be for the afternoon prayer) and looked very dead and colorless. Given the situation of this town, the face of this place really has a depressing look which leaves many mix feelings in one’s mind.
b) IBRAHIMI MOSQUE or CAVE of PATRIARCHS: This is the main attraction and probably the single most important reason for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to visit Hebron. This is located in the old part of the city. It is kind of intimidating to see Israeli/Palestinian armies guarding the outer territory of the mosque. Visitors have to pass through couple of gates and a security controlled check-point to enter the mosque. There are 2 entrances to the mosque: one for the Jews and one for the Muslims. Non-Muslim visitors are also allowed to visit the mosque but it is usually via the doorway for Muslims. All female visitors must wear scarf and a long skirt or cloak to cover up before going inside, which you can find near the entrance.
This is the historical place where the father of 3 major monotheist religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) Prophet Ibrahim/Abraham (AS), was buried and his tomb is located in a small room inside the mosque which can be seen through a window. Jews can look at the same tomb from the other side of the room which is a part of a synagogue. Other than Prophet Ibrahim (AS)’s tomb, the mosque houses tomb of Sarah (AS) – 1st wife of Ibrahim (AS) and mother of Ishaq (AS) (Isaac), tomb of Ishaq (AS), tomb of Rukaiya (AS) (Rebekah) – wife of Ishaq (AS) (Isaac). There is also a spot which is believed to be the burial place of Prophet Adam (AS) and finally, a remarkable footprint of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). This is truly an overwhelmingly emotional place for these three religions. It takes you back in time to those important eras of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The mosque itself is simple with some Islamic calligraphy but all the tombs are covered nicely with colorful cloaks with Arabic writings.
Other than these two sites, tomb of Prophet Lot is also located in Hebron, which is about 4/5 miles away from Cave of Patriarchs. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go there for time restriction. But if you are interested in visiting the biblical sites, that should be somewhere worth going.
2) BETHLEHEM: After visiting Hebron, our next destination was Bethlehem, another city in West Bank, which was about another 45 minutes to an hour drive. If you go from Jerusalem, the drive is a lot shorter. Bethlehem is in an “Area A” zone which is administered by the Palestinian Authority. The road to Bethlehem from Hebron is very pretty. The rugged terrain and deserted hills continue even after you enter the city. Bethlehem is not as calm and quiet as Hebron. Many Muslim and non-Muslim tourists come here for the soul purpose of visiting the birth place of Jesus/Isa (AS). Another important site in the outskirt of Bethlehem is the tomb of Rachel which we couldn’t visit. Rachel was the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and her tomb is a holy site in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
a) MOSQUE of OMAR: This is a significant and historical mosque for the Muslims in the main square of Bethlehem called Manger Square. Inside of the mosque is simple yet beautiful. The history goes that, in 637 A.D. when 2nd Caliph Omar (RA) conquered Bethlehem, he promised the Church of Nativity for the Christians. Instead he prayed in a place next to the church, which stands today as Mosque of Omar.
b) CHURCH OF NATIVITY: It is that historic place, where Jesus was born hundreds of years ago which used to be a stable during his birth. The church is heavily decorated with many ornaments, statues, and big hanging candle-holders/chandeliers. It is very crowded once you are inside the church. Make sure you have enough time to spare here because you will be standing in the line for a while to go into the basement to see the exact spot (marked with a star) of Jesus’s birth and where he was laid after he was born. Luckily, our driver knew people who got us in without standing in the line…phew. Be careful if you are traveling with kids, there are lots of pushing and pulling to go downstairs, since some people get really emotional and want to touch and pray near the star-marked place.
The church is located also in Manger Square and there is no fee to enter the church or to visit Jesus’s birth place.