Ever so often, I remember that I have been to a certain place and the thought that this is a fact about my life always makes me smile. The amazing opportunity to visit Jerusalem came my way two summers ago and taking it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Through an exchange, I participated in an intensive two-week course at the Hebrew University. This meant that while my mornings were spent learning about the water conflict in the region, my evenings and weekends were free to explore the city and by arriving a few days earlier, I gave myself a head start on doing just that. I could write about Jerusalem endlessly since there were many things that I loved about it but here are some of the highlights that made my travel experience so incredible:
1. The Old City. Obviously! Jerusalem is an ancient city and due to its importance in the three Abrahamic faiths, it is very rich in religious history. Hence, there are plenty of sites to see and a lot of them are within the walls of the Old City. It features four rough quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. I visited the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Other sites include the Tower of David, the Hurva Synagogue and the list goes on. A lot of them are fascinating for architectural and cultural reasons too so it is not necessary to be religious to enjoy seeing them. In fact, most are open to all visitors—the main exception to this then was the Temple Mount—but it is important to follow the attire and behavioural expectations for the religious sites should you wish to go in.
Another lovely aspect about the Old City is its bazaar or markets. You name it, there is probably a shop that sells it! From food, which I will elaborate on later, to religious items, pottery, clothes, scarves, shoes, bags, suitcases, ornaments, lamps, pillows, jewellery, various memorabilia and so forth, you can spend hours shopping and wandering in the cobblestone streets. Haggling is the norm and I found it to be a fun practice. A lot of the locals speak English well, or well enough, and the vendors in the markets are more than used to foreigners so language is usually not a problem. Trying not to enter every single shop, on the other hand, was.
2. The Mount of Olives. Like the Old City, several sites of religious significance are located on the Mount of Olives—this tends to be a pattern in Jerusalem overall because wherever you go, you are bound to be standing around something of some significance—but another wonderful thing about it is its breathtaking views. Since the Mount is located opposite the Old City, it is a great lookout point and provides beautiful photos of Jerusalem; the one used in this post was taken from here as well. I remember standing there and feeling absolutely stunned by the surreal scene before me. I knew then that I would remember that moment forever.
3. Food. If I weren’t South Asian, Middle Eastern cuisine would probably be my all-time favourite and so, eating in Jerusalem was such a pleasure. I had many okay-this-is-the-best-one-ever shawarmas, albeit the winner has to be the one I had in the Old City, and I turned into a falafel lover! Falafel was one of the only Middle Eastern foods I can think of that had long bordered on indifference and dislike for me as I remembered the falafel itself as being dry and bland. However, I ended up trying a sandwich from an Arab shop near campus and I was totally converted. I also enjoyed grocery shopping in West Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market where vendors sell fruits and vegetables, bread, pastries—one word: bourekas—sweets and other items in a souk style. There are various halal and kosher restaurants as well along with bakeries, cafés etc. Thus, eating and sight-seeing my way through the city was easily accomplished.
4. Weather. Jerusalem’s climate is very pleasant and the weather was not what I expected for a Middle Eastern city; especially in July! It was hot during the day, although temperatures usually remained within the twenties (degrees celsius), and cool at night. In addition, there was rarely any humidity or clouds, and definitely no rain, which meant that I woke up every single day to beautiful blue skies and the sunshine which literally, felt so good.
5. Transportation. Getting around Jerusalem was fairly easy as I could walk, take the bus, a taxi or hop on the light rail. Admittedly, being from Toronto, I am bound to prefer the public transportation system anywhere else but I liked that the bus drivers gave you change if you had bigger coins and you could use the transfer on your ride back. There is also a Central Bus Station in Jerusalem whence you can take Greyhound-esque intercity buses and this was very useful when I was later heading to Petra; more on that trip in a future post.
6. Security. Although I was a bit concerned beforehand, I had quite a safe experience not only in Jerusalem but throughout my trip which included cities in the West Bank—more on that next time—and as far as I know, the same holds true for my peers. Someone explained tourism in the region to me by saying that essentially, there is an ebb and flow. Whenever the overall conditions are relatively calm, there is a surge of tourists but if the situation tenses, there is a decline. I was actually surprised at the beginning of my trip by the sheer number of tourists around. Of course, spontaneous events may occur so one has to be mindful of that. Nevertheless, the day-day interactions between locals seem ordinary in that they go about their business and most were as friendly as anywhere else; happy to give directions, tips on where to go or just chat about life.
Other fond memories of my stay in Jerusalem include going out after Shabbat, hearing a live adhan, attending a film screening in the Jerusalem Film Festival and finding stray cats in almost every alley. Somehow, in the middle of all of this, a couple of weeks went by in the blink of an eye but looking back, it’s amazing how much I learned and experienced in that short time.
More photos from my visit to Jerusalem can be seen in my earlier post here.