In Jerusalem

“In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,

I walk from one epoch to another without a memory

to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing

the history of the holy … ascending to heaven

and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love

and peace are holy and are coming to town.”

In Jerusalem, by Mahmoud Darwish


I arrived in the Holy Land after my three day stop in Geneva, passing through Istanbul and forgoing another night’s sleep.  Upon entering Turkey, I realized I was in another world, one where religious affiliation is worn on the surface and the languages leave me in a daze.  That is, except for Russian, which I found to be prevalent everywhere during this trip.  Given that I am preparing for a trip there in just a few weeks, I was thrilled when a man approached me and asked a question in Russian while I was waiting in line for my flight to Tel Aviv.  I answered him with a big American smile on my face… in Spanish.  Really, brain?

In somewhat of a sleepless blur, I made it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a sheyrut (a van for door-to-door travel).  My “twin” and I giddily greeted each other and picked up immediately from where we left off (which was New York City about a year ago), talking about our lives, our dreams, our loves, and coffee.  Our oh-so-desperate need for coffee.  After fueling up with caffeine and snacks, we set off to explore, and I learned as much in five days as I would have in a semester-long college course.

Jerusalem has a gravitational pull.  I had the distinct feeling I was at the center of the world, the navel of the universe.  So much has generated there and emanated outward, changing our history and our humanity forever.  Paradoxically, it also has a vacuum effect, pulling you in.  In some places during my travels, I’ve been able to skate through unnoticed by the city or its residents (Geneva being the most recent example).  But Israel is more like that friendly maternal neighbor who notices that you’re alone for a holiday dinner and drags you over to eat with her family (or rather, to force-feed you because you’re looking far too skinny lately).  You are pushed into the rhythms and movements of the city whether you like it or not.

Sundown on Friday marks the start of Shabbat for observing Jews.  During the afternoon leading up to this momentous hour, twin and I walked all over the old city.  I had previously imagined Israel in distinct compartments, separated by dotted lines on a map: west and east; Palestine and non-Palestine; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, secular.  But my experience proved otherwise.  The Via Dolorosa snakes through the Muslim Quarter.  The Dome of the Rock looms over the Wailing Wall.  My best friend was almost run over by a Heredi man on a bicycle, a Palestinian girl on training wheels, and a (presumably) secular man on a segue all in the same afternoon.  Vendors sell menorahs next to Virgin Marys next to keffiyehs.  One culture can not be carved away from the others and still remain intact.

A map of the Old City, from Wikipedia

That afternoon, as we were making our way through the Muslim Quarter, we found ourselves stuck behind a group of Spanish or Italian Christian pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa (complete with large wooden cross).  We paused to watch as they began singing hymns in Latin.  Like clockwork, the late afternoon Muslim call to prayer from a nearby minaret broke through their songs.  Hearing Arabic, layered on Latin, monitored carefully by Israeli soldiers wielding large guns shortly before the Shabbat horn was a lot to process.  My head was spinning, as if I were at a dangerously high altitude.  I didn’t know if I should feel nervous or spiritually inspired.  We ducked into a nearby hospice and climbed up to the rooftop as the calls to prayer echoed throughout the city.  The view was calming, and my stomach started grumbling with the smells of dinner wafting from kitchens all across the quarter.

After a rest, we cut through the crowds on our way to the Western Wall to watch the pre-Shabbat activities.  The streets were full of Jewish families dressed to the nines, toting suitcases along to the Wall and then to Shabbat dinners at loved ones’ houses.  The Wall was buzzing.  The prayers were more fervent than usual, accompanied by singing and dancing within the sectioned-off prayer areas closest to the wall.  We witnessed a comically belligerent argument between two conservative Jewish men with curly white beards.  I only wish I spoke Hebrew so I could have deciphered what was happening.  The Shabbat horn called out once the sun had set and the observers scattered to get to their festive dinners, and I found myself in awe once again of sitting squarely in the middle of the third-most holy site in Islam (Dome of the Rock), the Wailing Wall, and the Mount of Olives.

For the next twenty-something hours, finding open stores would be challenging.  Shabbat is a day of rest and celebration, which requires that observers not work (or sell, buy, cook, tear, write, ignite, or extinguish, among other things).  We were stuck eating leftover pita bread and dried apricots we had purchased from the shuk a few days before.

Since driving cars is prohibited for observers during Shabbat, Saturday turned out to be the perfect day for a twinly road trip through Israel, which I will recount to you all very soon.
Here are some of the magical colors and images I captured in Jerusalem.  I only wish that photos came with sounds and scents, too.  Without smokey falafel, cardamom, apple shisha, and frankincense, I feel like I’m only telling a fraction of the story.
A pyramid of spices
Twin buying falafel (and orderin in Arabic, naturally)
My first falafel
A young boy learning the tricks of the trade, moments before the man shooed us away like flies.
A view of a minaret from the Via Dolorosa
Twins on the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice
Via Dolorosa, station five: Simon the Cyrenian helps Jesus carry the cross
Christian Quarter
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus' body was supposedly laid
Vintage filter in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
A morbid mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Fountain Bazaar in the Christian Quarter (notice how everything is printed in Russian)

35 comments

  1. Casey

    Is there a certain place you stayed while in Jerusalem? I’m trying to go over to the Middle East and possibly do a home stay or nursing internship, but I’m not sure which websites to trust and such. Any information you have would be super helpful! Love all your pictures and mad jealous of all your awesome experiences!

  2. Pingback: Capture the Colour – Soulshine Traveler

  3. kt

    I’m a Jerusalemite for 15 years and love your whole description in the 3rd paragraph, “jerusalem has a gravitational pull”… Very insightful!

    • Thanks Christina! I adored Jerusalem. There is a definite heaviness to it though, which can get overwhelming at times. It’s also strange for me as a non-religious person… I felt sort of out of place amid so much piety. Thanks again for reading!

    • Thanks! If you are considering visiting Israel, I do recommend a guidebook of some kind, not just to point out the best sites to see, but also to explain many of the cultural and political nuances of the place (The Lonely Planet is a good one). There is a ton going on below the surface there. My favorite places in Israel were Jerusalem, Akko, Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea. There’s also Tel Aviv, if you’re interested in a more modern city with a great nightlife. Good luck planning your trip!

      • Thank you so much! I will be in Jordan starting this summer and am hoping to spend at least 2 weeks in Israel while there (I will be in Jordan for over 3 months). Thank you so much for your advice!

          • I most certainly will if I have ANY internet access! I will be going on an archaeology dig. 2 actually. I go up in Aug with a grad student I’ve been working with and his wife near Karak in the ancient kingdom of Moab. I then get 2 1/2 weeks off before I join my professor in the ancient kingdom of Edom, working with Solomon’s Copper Mines

            • What an incredible experience that will be! Even if you don’t have internet access, journal like a madwoman on whatever scraps of paper you can find and then update us on it afterward! And I really do you hope you make it to Israel in your free time. Best of luck!

            • Wow! That is a great idea! When I am working at the mines, I am sure I will not have internet, but a journal is genius! (who would think you can actually RECORD your thoughts WITHOUT electricity! What a world!) lol I honestly didn’t think about that! I can’t wait! I will have weekends at hostels and such so will likely get limited wifi in that time! Thank you for all your inspiration!

  4. Wow, Meghan! You outdid yourself on this post….it is spectacular! I love how you brought the words and photos all together like a perfectly fitting collage. It sounds like an amazing city with so much to see and so much incredible culture. Some of the pictures remind me of parts of Morocco. I’ll never forget the call to prayer and the souqs! Then to have Muslim mixed with the Jewish culture and religion would be utterly amazing!!!! Wow, can’t wait for more posts. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one on the Freshly Pressed page!!! Nicole

    • Nicole thank you so much! Jerusalem is very inspiring (if heavy). I think if I were ever a writer or artist, it’s someplace I’d love to live. The Muslim Quarter and Arab areas did feel like I’d wandered into another country (which, depending on your views of Palestine, I had!). I only wish I had more time there.

      Thanks again!

      • Cool Meghan! Your friend Roxanne stopped by my blog! Thanks so much for referring her! I told her I bet you are an amazing friend! 🙂 Keep up the traveling and awesome blog!!!!!! WOuld Love to go to Israel and yes I’m with your point of view that it is two countries. N

  5. Beautiful photos. I really must visit Israel some day. I’m fascinated with the middle east as a whole, but I’m particularly intrigued by Jerusalem. Thanks Meghan for increasing my wanderlust!

    -Mark

    • Thanks a lot Mark! I highly recommend Israel as a starter to the Middle East, or as my friend calls it, “Middle East Lite”.

      I’m reading through your blog as we speak, and developing my own Easter Europe wanderlust!

  6. What an amazing experience to be there during that time! I cannot even imagine sitting in a high place and being able to look down and hear everyone chanting. I get chills just reading about it!

    I love the colors on the plates! I have a friend who collects plates like that for decoration from every place she visits.

    Keep having fun! These posts are awesome!

    • Jill, it was surreal, and haunting, but I grasped onto it knowing that moments like that don’t happen too often in life! And yes, I adore the Armenian pottery. I wish I could have bought out the whole store to decorate the home I don’t currently have.

      Thanks so much for following along!

  7. I could not have had a better time with you, twin. The colors really do seem brighter when you are here. Hearing you narrate our trip together feels like listening to my fairy tale, and then waking up to realize it all happened in real life too.

  8. Niki

    Meghan, the pictures are fantastic! Beautifully narrated and depicted. Hopefully I’ll get to visit Jerusalem one day. It’s high on my to-do list.

    • Thanks Niki! I highly recommend visiting Israel some day. It’s not the easiest travel spot, both in terms of logistics and a general sense of heaviness that comes along with the difficult questions that arise when you’re there. But it is sensational and full of beauty.

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