That Tuesday was my Mom’s birthday (woohooo!), and it was also my parents’ last day in Jerusalem. We woke up early in order to make it to the Dome of the Rock, which is only open for a couple of hours each morning. By around 9 AM, we were walking down Jaffa Street towards the Old City’s Damascus Gate, and from there we made our way towards the Temple Mount. We had to be careful to approach it from the right direction, because our options were a bit limited- the Al-Aqsa Mosque is also in the area, which only Muslims are allowed to enter. Out of the nine entrances to the plaza, non-Muslims are only allowed to enter through one. So, we asked around and managed to find our way to the Western Wall, from which we could walk up a tall, angled platform to the Temple Mount.
The background of the Temple Mount is a long and complicated one. It was home to the first Jewish temple (supposedly with the Arc of the Covenant inside), about a thousand years before Christ, and is also known to Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif. Basically, Jewish holy text states that God gathered earth there which was used to form Adam, and that many biblical figures have performed ritual sacrifices there. The site was later home to a second temple (only to be destroyed by the Romans), and King Herod created the plaza that stands today. This land is also holy to Muslims, technically the third holiest after Mecca and Medina, due to the story that the prophet Mohammad traveled here in a single night and led other prophets in prayers. The event is known as the isra, or night journey, and was shortly followed by his ascension to heaven. After the Six Day War, control of the Temple Mount was handed over to Jerusalem’s Muslim leaders, which has been cause for plenty of controversy and even a few failed plots to blow up Muslim holy sites. This is one of the most holy, and disputed, pieces of land on earth.
The Dome of the Rock is probably the most recognizable symbol of Jerusalem. It is, as its name suggests, a huge dome in the Temple Mount that is covered in gold, which was donated by King Hussein of Jordan. The walls of the dome are completely covered in traditional Islamic mosaic and Quranic verse decoration, with no images of people or living things, in accordance to the Muslim belief in avoiding idolatry. The dome covers a piece of stone which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews. In the Jewish faith, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac here, and in Islam, the prophet Muhammad launched himself heavenward on this stone. Apparently, the stone inside still has a footprint from when the stone wanted to join the prophet Muhammad in heaven and attempted to rise from the earth, leading Mohammad to push the stone back down to the ground with his foot. Jews also maintain that the dome marks the center of the world. Nonetheless, the interior of the dome (like the al-Aqsa Mosque) is only open to Muslims. I think that the landmark is pretty fascinating- coming from a place like the California, where religion doesn’t often play a huge role in everyday life, the fact that this one piece of land is so important to so many people is really eye-opening, especially because of the interplay between two of the biggest world religions- how crazy is that?
We made our way around the Dome, taking in the detailed calligraphy and colorful decoration covering it. The gold covering the dome glistened under the sunlight, and the blues, greens, and white of the supporting walls were fully covered in detailed geometric design. In addition to the Dome, the Temple Mount also hosts a few other shrines and buildings. At one corner of the platform, a series of columned arches offers a beautiful view of the Mount of Olives, including the gold-plated mosque on its slopes. We wandered around the area, admiring the Dome from all sides and checking out the view of the rest of Jerusalem. Eventually, we made our way towards one of the arched exits that lead us back into the heart of the Old City. A short walk through the city later, we emerged through the Damascus gate and hopped in a cab to swing us back by our hotel. We picked up the rental car from the parking lot, dropped it off at the rental agency, and were soon ready to take on the next stop: Yad Vachem, the Holocaust Museum.
The creation of Yad Vachem began in 1953, organized by the Knesset (the Israeli legislature) in an attempt to memorialize the six million or so Jews who died in the Holocaust, and to honor those who tried to save them. The museum houses a prism-shaped history section, Hall of Names, Children’s Memorial, Avenue of he Righteous, and Hall of Remembrance complete with an eternal flame. We opted for a cab ride to the museum in an attempt to avoid the confusing set of bus and shuttle routes that could have gotten us there. It was definitely a good call- the museum was much farther away than I expected, and in a cab, we were able to enjoy the journey there. We ended up driving through a new area of Jerusalem that I hadn’t explored before, with a more residential feel and lots of rolling hills full of thick green trees. Yad Vachem stood proudly at the top of one of these hills, known as the Mount of Remembrance, its triangular prism of an entrance protruding from the top of one of the highest points. The prism is said to symbolize the bottom half of a Star of David in reference to the half of the population of Jews worldwide which was lost in the Holocaust. As our taxi pulled through the main entrance gates, large groups of IDF soldiers were casually standing around, waiting for their personal tour of the place. The museum is a major site in Israel, especially during Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence day. We made our way inside, picking up some audio tour headsets along the way.
I realized too late that it might have been a little strange to go to the Holocaust Museum for my mom’s birthday, but it is one of the major sites in Israel, and one that she had shown interest in. When in Israel, right? The museum itself was very well organized, rooted deeply in symbolism. Almost everything, from the shape of the building to the sculptures and foliage around it had some kind of significance. It was also very well organized- I was glad to have my headset to explain the chronological and thematic layout of the place. We walked alongside a wide range of visitors, from schoolkids to soldiers to orthodox Jews to tourists, all taking in the information together. I had studied the Holocaust in junior high and high school, and have visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., but had never experienced it in this much detail. The amount of information that this place provided was overwhelming. I could have easily spent days there, just to read every caption and listen to every information package that they offered. My mom, Mark, and I each took our own time making our way through the series of exhibits, reading and listening to as much as we could. I was personally most impressed by their follow-through on Holocaust survivors. One of the last exhibits had photos and statistics on the survivors of a women’s death march, both upon their liberation, and years later, including a detailed account of every single woman’s family and children. The amount of research that had been put into it was impressive, to say the least.
After making our way through the main exhibit, we stopped by the child’s memorial before heading back towards the main entrance. We hopped in a cab and headed back to the hotel, stopping to grab some birthday dinner along the way. The restaurant choice of the night was sushi, which I had never tried outside of the US. The food itself was pretty good, but we ended up in a kosher sushi restaurant, meaning that our options were pretty limited- shellfish isn’t allowed, so we opted for lots of salmon and tuna. Afterwards, we indulged in a some birthday frozen yogurt on the way back to the hotel. I returned to the dorms a little earlier that night, because I had a paper due the next day that I still had to finish up. We got a good night’s rest on our last night in Jerusalem, and prepared to set out for Tel Aviv the next morning.
The next day, Wednesday, my parents packed up their things and we walked down the street to a sherut stop. A sherut is basically just a taxi van that holds about ten people. The vans just wait out at this stop until they fill up, and then depart for their destination, which is usually Tel Aviv. We threw our luggage in one of the sheruts, paid a few shekels, and rode the hour or so that it takes to get to the transportation center there. I haven’t spent much time in Tel Aviv aside from trips to or from the airport, so this was a fun, new experience for me too. Tel Aviv is known as Jerusalem’s much more secular, open minded counterpart. It leaves the historic attractions behind in favor of beaches, shopping, and bustle. Its history is also pretty short- Tel Aviv was created by a few Jews who wanted to move out of the predominantly Arab town of Jaffa, relying on a set of town planners to create the new area. It was officially inaugurated in the beginning of the 20th century, and has accepted waves of new immigrant arrivals ever since.
We hopped in a cab to take us from the sherut station to a hotel that I had booked right on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. My parents had a flight back to the States early the next morning, so this would work out perfectly for them, providing one last day to relax seaside before heading out. There aren’t really any hotel options near the airport, which is about twenty minutes from the actual city, so we decided to live it up in Tel Aviv for a day. I had picked our hotel (the Lusky Suites) almost on a whim after reading a few reviews of different options in my Lonely Planet guidebook, and ended up getting ridiculously lucky- this place was great! Not too expensive, but still clean, quirky, homey, and in a great location. Upon our arrival, our room wasn’t quite ready yet, so we left our luggage there and walked down the street along the ocean to a small restaurant to grab some lunch. The hotel had given us a card that would get us each free dessert, so we decided to check out their recommendation (and probably earn them a little commission too!). This place was just as good of a find as the hotel was- great views of the ocean, huge portions, delicious food, and awesome service. I ate enough to feed about 100 people, and then couldn’t resist taking advantage of the free dessert. I almost felt like my parents would have to roll me back to the hotel.
By the time we returned, our room was all set. My mom wanted to check out the Diamond Center, citing the fact that in her years of training in gemology, Israel was always cited as a major center of quality work. The hotel arranged a ride over to the center, where we got a personal tour of the display room. This place was crazy- I usually complain when I have to pay more than $10 for…anything, and here we were admiring jewelry that was worth tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. We ended up indulging in a more reasonably priced pair of earrings before making our way back to the hotel. Tel Aviv, aside from the beach, also has a great shopping scene. We walked down the street to the Carmel Market, a large type of bazaar or souk that sold everything from fish to purses. Sundown was quickly approaching, meaning that shopkeepers would start packing up soon, so we went on a walk through the two main paths of the market (and made friends with a shopkeeper’s dog) before emerging from the souk and making our way back towards the hotel.
We ended up first walking towards the water, as most of the main city center of Tel Aviv is situated pretty close to the Mediterranean. It was a beautiful sight- the deep hues of the sunset reflected off of the blue of the sea as we walked back, only stopping to pick up some snacks for the night along the way. By the time we made it back to the hotel, we were all exhausted. It had been a busy, adventure-filled week, and a hotel on the water in Tel Aviv was a great way to wrap up the trip. My mom and I indulged in one more excursion to get some ice cream before heading to bed for the night.
We all woke up pretty early the next morning. The hotel had arranged a cab to pick up my parents at around 7 or 8 AM, so we dragged ourselves out of the room for breakfast downstairs before packing up one last time. The time came for the parents to set off for the airport, so we loaded up their luggage, and said goodbye for now. It was a great trip- I always enjoy showing people around and realizing how much I’ve come to know about an entirely new country, and it was really nice to be able to see family after months away from the States. Only one more month until I’m back in California- I can’t believe it!