A few notes on Jerusalem.
First impression on leaving Ben-Gurion airport, a wall of of heat, dryness and smell of ash and spice.
Our hotel was on Saint George Street in East Jerusalem at the heart of the Arab part of the city which meant I got to know that area fairly well. It was a ten minute walk to the Old City, approaching it via the gorgeous Damascus Gate. A new tram system handily takes you from one end of the new city to the other so if we didn't feel like walking we hopped on the tram and got off at the Jaffa Gate.
On the main road at the top of Saint George Street is a historical monument marker where previously stood the Mandelbaum Gate, the checkpoint dividing Jerusalem between Israeli and Jordanian forces between 1948 and and 1967. On our side of the former checkpoint the streets are populated with Arabs and Muslims, lots of little Arab-run shops and stalls where you can buy sweets galore. Goods from the main shopping areas spill from little shops and stalls, fruits, sandals, headscarves, mobile phone accessories, clothes, clothes, clothes, cheap tat, plastic toys. The pavements heaving with well covered-up women, cars beebing incessantly (you stop hearing it after a while) and reversing up entire one way streets.
On the other side of the former checkpoint is the ultra-orthodox Jewish area (of the Mea Shearim street where they tried to pass a law that would enforce men and woman to walk on opposite sides of the street) where the men where black suits and black fedora-looking hats with ringlets falling down the side of their faces and the women wear a different style of headscarf to the Arab women. It's a surreal scene to get off the tram at the top of our street and see the ultra-Orthodox Jews cross over to their neighborhood and the Arabs cross into theirs on the other side.
The Old City itself has to be seen to be believed. The current walls of the city were built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century. The City is split into four quarters - Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Christian. Each quarter is an amazing display of of its own identity mingled with the fanfare of tourists passing through. The Old City isn't just a place of astonishing historical beauty, it's a proper lived in city where small kids play football up and down the narrow streets. Every building is build with the distinctive Jerusalem stone which takes on the hue of the sun at its every shade from sunrise to sunset. The highlights for me were the Western Wall, we happened to be there on Simchat Torah which is the celebration of the end of the annual reading aloud of the Torah. They sure know how to rejoice, the Jewish men danced and sung under large Torah scrolls on their way down to the Wall and back up again. Stupid me, didn't notice the Western Wall was split into a men's section and a women's as I made my way towards the men's section. Thankfully someone politely informed me to go to the women's section before I offended someone!
Other highlights were the Garden of Gethsemane where two thousand year-old Olive trees reside, a really moving experience for me. I loved walking through the Kidron Valley, away from all the tourists and churches. The valley is the oldest area of human habitation in Jerusalem and is basically bit of a mud track valley between the Old City and the Mount of Olives leading you past ancient tombs and eventually ending up at the incredibly poverty-stricken-looking Arab village of Silwan. We wandered through the village, the locals were very friendly and helpful, it was only afterwards that I noticed that tourists are generally advised not to go there because of high tensions because of prospective Israeli archaelogical projects which would include the demolition of some eighty odd Arab homes in the area. All I can say is that the locals were very nice to us.
We travelled to many wonderful places north and south in Israel but Jerusalem, for me, is the most incredible place I've ever been to. I already dream of going back...