Jerusalem is one of THE MOST incredible cities I've ever been to. It is utterly fascinating. I still can't believe I finally got to go. I apologise now for the epic blog post. It was just such an amazing experience... there is too much not to share. We spent 3 days in the city, walking until we couldn't walk anymore, exploring, seeing, listening, taking it all in. We arrived on a Saturday just as Shabbat was ending. Everything was quiet and the restaurants were just starting to open up again. We found a little Kurdish restaurant called Ishtabach. It was buzzing. They served Shamburak, which was made in an open kitchen with a large pizza oven. Shamburak is a sort of meat-filled calzone with a long list of choices of fillings up on the chalk board. I went for beef cheek and Chris had brisket with sweet potato, spinach and all the sides. It was soooo good!
After a few days exploring the North of Israel we were back in Jerusalem. After checking into our hostel we headed straight to Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem's biggest and oldest restaurant. It is a fabulous mix of colours, smells and sounds. It has rows and rows of market stalls interspersed with mini restaurants and bars. I was in heaven. We bought pastries, fruit tea and olives from a guy from Hackney in London! After the market we found a trendy houmous bar called Arbes. They served bowls of warm houmous with different toppings and pitta bread. Chris and I are both crazy about houmous, so this place was just incredible! The staff were so friendly, the decor was fun and the food was great. Israel turned out to be surprisingly expensive, so we headed back to our hostel (which had a huge bar and social room) for a beer.
After a quick breakfast on our first proper day in Jerusalem we headed to Jaffa Gate to join our Old City walking tour. Our tour guide Ryan led us through the Arab market stalls and to the Western Wall. It was fascinating. I remember my dad having books and maps about Israel and the temple and the tabernacle within the temple. The Western Wall is the remaining wall of that temple, and the holiest place where Jews are allowed to pray. It was fascinating just watching, people washing their hands, praying, walking away from the wall backwards, Jews in their kippot, black hats, shtreimel (large furry hats), army uniforms and plain clothes. There were a lot of Bah Mitzvah's happening so there was dancing, singing and the sound of the Shofar (ram's horn blown to make music). This was fascinating too watching these young boys going through their ceremonies to become men. The woman and men have separate sections at the wall, so I watched mom's hugging their sons over the barrier.
After the wall we queued to get in to see the Dome on the Rock. This is the big mosque with the gold dome behind the wall. They only allow visitors twice a day for 3 and a half hours in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. We were lucky to be on the walking tour otherwise I think we definitely would have missed it with the strict time slots. The Dome on the Rock is one of the most holy sites in the Islam religion. The mosque is built over the rock that their prophet Muhammad's journey to heaven started from. This is the same rock that Abraham in the bible attempted to sacrifice his son at, so is an incredibly important place for both Muslims and Jews. The mosque itself is incredibly beautiful! It is a very peaceful place to be.
Our next stop was the Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus carried his cross. There are 14 stations of the cross that are part of the Catholic devotion commemorating Jesus last day on earth. Nine of these stations are along the Via Dolorosa. So many people walk this route... groups of nuns, tour groups, churches. On Fridays and Easter there is a procession that you can follow where they carry a wooden cross and stop at all the stations to further mimic Jesus walk.
We stopped for a very good falafel pitta and pomegranate juice for lunch on the way. At the end of the Via Dolorosa you arrive at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is an enormous church with a mish-mash of architectural styles. It bears the scars of fires and earthquakes, deliberate destruction and reconstruction over the years. It is built over two of the holiest sites in Christianity - the site where Jesus was crucified and his empty tomb. The church is owned by three major denominations - Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Armenian Orthodox. The Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian Orthodox communities have rights to use certain areas of the church. The Ethiopian monks live in a kind of African village on the roof, which we walked through to get in.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a vast space with over 30 chapels and worship spaces.... definitely not your standard church. The remaining 5 stations of the cross are all inside. There was a stone that people were kissing and rubbing their scarves on. A queue of people waiting to see Jesus tomb. In one stairwell there were thousands of tiny crosses carved into the walls. Stairs. Caves. Singing. Whispering. Chanting. Silence. Incense. Darkness. Candles.
After the holy church we went to see the tomb of David. On the way we bumped into Paul Hollywood who was filming for a new series. I thought it was hilarious! Definitely not someone I expected to bump into in Jerusalem! And that was the end of our Old City walking tour. Chris and I headed back to the Western Wall again, mostly out of awe and fascination, to take it all in again. There was a huge group of young army soldiers all standing in a circle singing. It was getting dark, so we headed to Machane Yehuda Market again to see what we could get for dinner. We ate at a tiny place called Jahnun Bar where we tried Melawach. Melawach is a Yemen pastry type wrap with a vegetarian filling. We had ours filled with all sorts (houmous, egg, salad, crispy onions etc) and they were literally one of the best things I've ever tasted! In the evening when the market stalls have closed and it is just the bars and restaurants open you can see all of the art painted on the market stall shutters. It it great to check it all out - a different side to Jerusalem! After dinner we stopped at a barber so Chris could get a haircut and went back to the hostel for a beer and bed!
On Friday morning Chris and I decided to split up. He caught the tram to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum, and I wanted to just walk around the city again. I knew Friday was a busy day in Jerusalem with the Muslims, Christians and Jews. It was also the start of Shabbat. I went straight to the market again and what a buzz there was. Everything is properly closed on Saturday and everyone was preparing for their Friday night meal. There was such a buzz! Being in places like that excite me so much! When I left the market there was someone playing violin outside and there was a bench in the sunshine across the road. I sat on it for a while. This old Jewish man who'd been listening too came to sit next to me. He offered me some nuts and seeds that he'd bought at the market and a shot of Johnny Walker which he pulled out of his jacket. I couldn't quite stomach it at 10am, so had to pretend. He told me about his 9 month old baby and his 5th wife, a Russian lady who had him locked up the previous week. And then it was time for me to move on... :-)
I walked back into the old town and bought some spices and gifts. Went back to the wall to watch again. Walked the Via Dolorosa again and watched another church procession carrying a cross. I had falafel and pitta for lunch and got stuck in an alleyway for about half an hour as thousands of Muslims rushed past me to the mosque for prayers. I walked through the Arab market and all the stalls were closed, with just a stick blocking their entrance. My phone nearly died and I got lost. Two young girls showed me the way back to Jaffa gate.
At Jaffa gate I met up with Chris and we joined a walking tour to see the Mt of Olives. It is very steep, so we caught a taxi to the top and made our way back down. Our first stop was the Muslim chapel of ascension, a shared Christian and Muslim church/ mosque that is believed to mark the place where Jesus ascended into heaven. Then the Paternoster church where Jesus wrote 'Our Father who art in Heaven'. The prayer is translated into over 100 different languages on the walls. As we walked down the hill we could see thousands of Jewish graves and an incredible view of the old city in Jerusalem. Next was the Dominus Flevit, a tear-drop shaped church which is in the place where Jesus wept and then the Garden and Basilica of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed. Our last stop was the Grotto of Gethsamane (also called the cave of Betrayal) and the Church of Sepulchre of the Virgin Mary, which are next to each other. The Grotto of Gethsemane was interesting as it was really small and dark, in a cave, with a few chairs. It is supposed to be where Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek and betrayed him. To access the Church of Sepulchre of the Virgin Mary you have to walk downstairs. I don't think I've seen that before in a church. It it where Mary and Joseph are buried. It was beautiful! Lanterns everywhere and some amazing colourful paintings. This is where the tour came to an end and we were totally churched out!
We made our way back to the old town and saw hundreds of Jews heading to the wall for their Friday evening prayers. On our last night in Jerusalem we had a Shabbat meal with a Jewish family. Someone had recommended it to us as it is such a huge part of the Jewish religion and way of life and there is a company called 'Shabbat of a Lifetime' where you can book to have a meal with a Jewish family. Our meal was with a young couple called Mandy and Etan. They were from New York and had been living in Jerusalem for about 3 years. Etan met us and the other guests on a street near their flat and welcomed us in. They shared what a traditional Friday night would be for them. They said their prayers, blessed their children and sang songs. We had a meal of houmous, aubergine, tahini, cold salmon, chicken soup with matzo balls (Jewish penicillin), rice, beef and a chocolate pudding with dried fruit and nuts to finish. They were very open and encouraged us to ask questions about anything... Judaism, Jersualem, politics, their lives. This was such an interesting experience as there had been so many things we'd been wondering and usually Jewish people are very closed. It was an amazing evening to be part of!