Palestine - few lands are so ancient and have such a troubled history. So, it's with excitement and trepidation, that my group tour crosses the Allenby (King Hussein) Bridge from Jordan into the West Bank and Palestine.
The term Palestine has been in use since ancient Greek times and Herodotus. Then, it referred to the southeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, beside Syria. Later, the modern State of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. as defined by the British Mandatory Palestine (1920-1948).
The State of Palestine today is officially governed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It claims the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip as its territory, though the entirety of that territory has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War. The West Bank is currently divided into 165 Palestinian enclaves, which are under partial Palestinian National Authority (PNA) rule. The remainder, including 200 Israeli settlements, is under full Israeli control. The Gaza Strip is ruled by the militant Islamic group Hamas and has been subject to a long-term blockade by Egypt and Israel (since 2007).
As I wrote under Israel, the current geopolitical situation in this region is complex and ongoing and I am not going to attempt to explain it further. Please read up for yourself. My understanding is, that according to international law Israel currently occupies land (see above), that legally belongs to Arab nations, Palestine in particular. So I have included those areas in this, Palestine post.
We take in Jericho shortly after crossing the border. Jericho is believed to be the world's oldest continually inhabited city and it dates back 11,000 years. In 7,000 BC Jericho had a population of 2,000 and was the largest city in existence. It was sustained by water from the nearby River Jordan. Jericho is probably most famous for its walls. They came later, of course. and were sloped (to make them difficult to climb), about 15 feet wide and over 10 feet high, with stone towers of about 25 feet.
This wall features in the biblical story in the book of Joshua and in musicals (Joshua fit the battle of Jericho). When Moses died, Joshua took over leadership of the exodus of the Hebrew peoples from Egypt into Canaan, the Promised Land. But Jericho lay in their way. God told the Israelites to walk around the wall, chanting and blowing trumpets, for several days. They did as they were told and the walls 'came tumbling down'. Perhaps that's why there's little sign of them in the scanty ruins. This is also the area in which Jesus was baptised (in the Jordan) and the home of the Mount of the Temptation. Not to mention the several monasteries.
A side trip from Jericho to Qumran, home of the Essenes, believed to have been the authors of the 2,000 year old Dead Sea Scrolls. These 15,000 priceless scrolls and scroll fragments were found amongst eleven rocky hillside caves from1947 to 1956. Mostly written in Hebrew, they include the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the Bible, along with other important religious documents. As with much else in this region, their ownership is open to dispute. They were mostly discovered during the period of Jordanian control of the West Bank. However, they were captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War and almost all of them are now held by Israel in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. Israel argues that they are hugely significant in the heritage of Judaism. The Qumran site is managed by the Israelis.
Into Jerusalem, It's claimed by both Palestine and Israel as their capital, Internationally, East Jerusalem, including the entire Old City, is regarded as belonging to the occupied West Bank territories. But neither part, West or East Jerusalem, is recognised as part of the territory of Israel or the State of Palestine. Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its capital, but few countries (other than the USA) have their embassies here. Nevertheless, West Jerusalem is the de facto capital of Israel,
The Palestinian Authority regards East Jerusalem as the capital of the future State of Palestine. It's currently in Israeli lands, but I'm going to write about it here, along with the other occupied territories that I visit.
The road winds steadily uphill through surprisingly green slopes. Jerusalem is 670 metres above sea level. First, Mount Scopus (its name means look out), for the iconic views. This city, one of the oldest in the world, dates back to the fourth millennium BC. It is hugely important to Moslems, Jews and Christians. East Jerusalem, where we are headed, contains the Old City, the City of David. By the eighth century BC, the city had developed into the religious and administrative centre of the Kingdom of Judah. Over the ensuing years Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, and attacked 52 times. There's too much to relate here. Again, the Bible tells the story better than I can.
In 1538, the city walls were rebuilt for a last time by order of Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire. Today, those walls still stand, surrounding the Old City. This has traditionally been divided into four areas – the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters. There are eight gates. Jerusalem, as a whole, has one million inhabitants.
Close by Mount Scopus - really an extension of the same ridge - is the Mount of Olives. Today, there are plenty of cypress trees, but no olives. Part of the mount, facing Jerusalem, has been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years and there are over 150,000 graves, cream boxes spreading over the western slopes. The Mount of Olives is the most sought after burial spot (an therefore expensive) as the Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, the resurrection of the dead will begin here. It's thought to hold the tomb of some of the Old Testament prophets.
The area is referred to numerous times in the Bible, both testaments. Several key events in the life of Jesus, as related in the Gospels, took place on the Mount of Olives, and in the Acts of the Apostles it is described as the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven. So it remains a major site of pilgrimage. It's sprinkled with churches, including the beautiful Russian Orthodox church of Mary Magdalene.
At the bottom of the hill, on the edge of the Kidron Valley, is the renowned Christian site, designated as the Garden of Gethsemane. Here, is the Roman Catholic Church of All Nations, also known as the Church or Basilica of the Agony. It's built over the rock where Jesus is said to have prayed before his betrayal and arrest.
I've revisited Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in 2023, so I'm going to add images from my second visit too. They were very similar, in terms of sights, but my 2023 is hard going. The traffic is slow moving. It's Jerusalem Day, commemorating Israel's' conquering of the city during the Six Day War in 1967. Very recently, it was the 75th anniversary of the Israeli State, in 1949. Blue Star of David flags are draped everywhere. Many Arabs take exception to the celebrations, especially the Jerusalem Day march through the Old City, which is seen as flaunting Israeli possession. There are often violent protests, especially around the Dome of the Rock, in the Muslim quarter.
In addition, there has been a recent escalation of violence in Gaza, with rockets fired. So today, tensions are high The city is crowded and the traffic crawls. Following a tour guide through the narrow streets of the medina,when there are 50 of you, is no mean feat.
In the Jewish quarter, the Western (or Wailing) Wall is believed by Jews to be the last remnant of the second Temple. begun by Herod the Great and so, is the most revered of all Jewish sites. This portion of limestone wall (all of the city is built from limestone) forms part of the larger retaining wall of the hill known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount. It's thought that there have been two temples on the site - the original built by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians and the second, built by Herod and destroyed by the Romans.
Orthodox Jewish tradition maintains it is here that the third and final Temple will be built when the Messiah comes.(Jesus is not viewed as the Messiah by the Jews) so, the Temple Mount is the place Jews turn towards during prayer. It's the presumed site of the Holy of Holies, where God is most present, although no excavations have ever been conducted here.
The Western Wall today is lined with worshippers, leaving prayers in the crevices and reciting their scriptures. Contentiously, a partition divides the men from the women. The men are allowed to wear shawls, talk and hold celebrations, such as bar mitzvahs. The women are only allowed to pray and that's under sufferance. They never used to be allowed all. But you can stand on platforms and peep over at the men. This is a Thursday, so it's a bar mitzvah day (Mondays and Thursdays). There are groups of celebrants boys in their hats, men in shawls and the boy in question walks under a canopy accompanied by musicians. The women wear their best. Small chic hats. Veils. And well tailored suits.
The Temple Mount was levelled when the country was under Arab control and the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were built here in the seventh century AD, one of the oldest extant Islamic structures in the world. The Rock is thought to be where God created the world, as well as the first human, Adam. And the site where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son,
It's also believed to be the site where the Muhammad tied his winged steed, al-Buraq, on his Isra and Mi'raj to Jerusalem, before ascending to paradise. It's also therefore a very holy site for Moslems. The Temple Mount compound is maintained by the Jordanian waqf; King Hussein of Jordan donated extraordinary amounts of money (eight million USD) to have the dome regilded. (He had to sell one of his houses in London.) The largest part of the Western Wall is here, in the Muslim Quarter, retaining the Temple Mount, out of sight and out of reach.
As a result, the Wall has been the catalyst for much conflict. Access to the Western Wall was in what was known as the Moroccan Quarter, but Jews were always allowed access to worship. Until Zionist movements in the early twentieth century incited several outbreaks of violence After the 1948 Arab–Israeli War the eastern portion of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan and the Jews were completely expelled from the Old City including the Jewish Quarter. The Jews were barred from entering the Old City for 19 years, When they conquered Jerusalem in the Six Day War, they bulldozed the Moroccan Quarter, to create the Western Wall Plaza.
The Muslim Quarter is the largest of the four quarters of Jerusalem (so not strictly quarters in the mathematical sense), home to Christian, Jewish and Muslim landmarks. The souqs are colourful and bustling except for the oldest, covered bazaar, which leads to the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This is closed today, to prevent access for protestors.
The Dome of the Rock is the key Muslim sight. But the Muslim Quarter is also home to the first seven (of 14), so called Stations of the Cross, on the Via Dolorosa (Sorrowful Way). This is traditionally believed to be the route taken by Christ, on the day of his execution. It evolved from Catholic devotions. Some parts are not even documented in the scriptures. The stations are marked by medallions and plaques on the walls.
This is where we move outside the city walls, following Jesus' route two thousand years ago.
Now we're in the Christian quarter, also a mélange of landmarks and home to some crusader remains, as well as several new-ish churches.
First, two more Stations of the Cross
Today the last five Stations of the Cross are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the huge basilica constructed to encompass the sacred sites where it's said that Jesus was stripped; nailed to the cross; died on the cross; removed from the cross and laid to rest in a cave tomb. A Franciscan chapel to the right of the Sepulchre entrance marks where Jesus was stripped of his clothes.
The compound is a confusing complex of chapels and churches with domes and towers. The main church has several different orthodox and catholic sections. Just inside the church entrance is a stairway leading up to Calvary ( or Golgotha), traditionally regarded as the site of Jesus's crucifixion. It's said to be the most lavishly decorated part of the church. but it's heaving, so it's hard to tell. There are two chapels here, one orthodox, one catholic, each with its own altar. The Greek Orthodox chapel's altar has prime position, directly over the supposed Rock of Calvary (the 12th Station of the Cross), The rock is visible through protective glass on both sides of the altar and underneath. I suppose it's a sort of a hill.
The Stone of Anointing, in the main entrance area is another tourist magnet. It's where Jesus' body is said to have lain, after he died. (It was only added in the 1810 reconstruction.)
The main altar of the church is found in the Greek Orthodox Catholicon, a Crusader-era church. It has a dome 20 metres (65 ft) in diameter, set directly over the compas. This is an omphalos ("navel") stone once thought to be the centre of the world (there's one of those at Delphi too). There's a huge crucifix on top of the dome.
But everyone wants to see the tomb. That's in a rotunda under an even larger dome, in a small chapel called the Aedicule (Latin for small shrine) The Aedicule has two rooms: the first holds a relic called the Angel's Stone, which is believed to be a fragment of the large stone that sealed the tomb; the second, smaller room, contains the tomb of Jesus. There's a very long queue that winds all round the chapel,
Behind the sepulchre, is the Chapel of the Apparition, reserved for Roman Catholic use only. There's an old Jewish tomb in here that our guide tells us is much more likely to be the tomb of Jesus than the one in the Aedicule. If I was cynical I would say that he was trying to fob us off, as he didn't want us to try and join the throng. Who knows?
I struggle with the Stations of the Cross. The rubric is based on later, European constructions, with continually expanding numbers of stations. There are too many more recent buildings along the way. It detracts, in my view, from what could be a spiritual experience. Sadly, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre doesn't change my opinion. Too many different sects confusing the story and introducing conflict and therefore doubt.
The church is jam packed with tour groups being given explanations or jostling for a better view, waving their phones for pictures. Then there's the tourist paraphernalia (hawkers in all the surrounding streets). I can only sympathise when some of my fellow tourists are ejected from the queue for the Holy Sepulchre by irate priests, because they are giggling. the close and convenient juxtaposition of these important sites in one building is hard to swallow.
Apparently my scepticism is shared by some experts. I've read that there's a strong chance that this is the place of the crucifixion. Golgotha. (There is the hill, sort of, inside the church). The Romans attempted to distract attention by building a temple to Aphrodite here, but in doing so they, marked the spot. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, excavated and found what she believed to be the original sites. She was responsible for the first of the many churches built here, over the ages.
But, as I suspected, it's unlikely that the tomb was so close to the crucifixion. and it is believed that the original burial place, provided by Joseph of Arimathea, was further afield and destroyed in the eleventh century. The jury is out on Gethsemane.
South, to Bethlehem. It's only a short journey. The first time rocks are hurled at the bus. Fortunately, they only dent the paintwork. Now there's a wall built, by Israel, to separate the Israeli lands from the West Bank and Palestine. Donald Trump would approve. Most people don't. Even Banksy has lent his support with artwork alongside the structure and the Walled-off Hotel (get it?).
Demonstrations here this week are Nakba (Catastrophe) related. No more blue flags. It's 75 years since the people of Palestine were ousted from their lands.
The biblical birthplace of Jesus is a small town still, 50000 people of whom only 20% Christian nowadays. (It was nearly 100%). But it's a major Christian pilgrimage destination. The supposed birth place of Jesus is in a grotto, under the sixth-century Church of the Nativity. Again, I was a little sceptical, but I've read that the actual birth site was indeed a cave. The manger was a stone cut nomad feeding trough, sadly replaced by a silver one. The birthplace is marked by a silver star (it was stolen by Greek monks in the nineteenth century but eventually restored.) According to biblical scholar E. M. Blaiklock, the cave 'is hung and cluttered with all the tinsel of men’s devotions'.
The site was again unintentionally preserved by the Romans. The pagan emperor Hadrian ordered a grove dedicated to the god Adonis to be planted around the cave. The first church here was built by Constantine, after his mother's visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. parts of this church (much extended and adapted over the years) date back to the sixth century AD.
But first, enforced shopping at a 'cooperative' that's called Johnny's Souvenir Shop. Inlaid crosses and carved nativity scenes. And jewellery of course. The demonstration consists of holding up a chain and saying it comes in different metals and with a choice of jewels attached. Apparently we have to go there before the church at the request of several passengers. Really ?
I sit outside instead of shopping and am chatted up by a Palestinian tour guide who tells me I have lovely eyes and wants to meet up. I suppose it's good that I'm not entirely over the hill yet.
The Church of the Nativity is actually three churches, (Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian this time). They share Manger Square (!) with the 1860 Mosque of Omar. On my first visit, the nativity church is decorated with glittery lights, surrounded by tacky souvenir shops and surmounted by another illuminated star. It's now more muted. but there are still the odd signs: 'Nativity Roastery and Creamery'. Touts even clamber on the bus waving necklaces and fridge magnets.
Bethlehem is as crowded as Jerusalem. The three churches that make up the Church of the Nativity are packed. Again, the Greek Orthodox Church has secured the main attraction. We have to stoop to enter the basilica, through a very low door called the "Door of Humility'. The queue to see the burial chamber in a cave below the Orthodox Church winds round the 44 pillars of the nave. The guide says we would have to stay in line for three hours. I hear another guide say the same thing to his group. Who knows if they are telling the truth, or if this is just another ploy?
The group agrees not to wait, though there is some disappointment. And then the line goes down rapidly, so we join it. But now we've already wasted an hour. And no, the guide is back and we're not going to queue. The Romanian Orthodox visitors are taking their time once they get there. At least we think we're not going to wait. It turns out we have to kick our heels on the bus instead, as three members of the tour group are disobedient and stick to the line.
Eventually, it's time to leave Palestine. Back to Israel.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.