If you read only the headlines, a visit to Israel can be scary. For 1,500 years, Christians, Jews and Muslims have struggled over the Holy Land. The presence of barbed wire and soldiers is really nothing new. Invasions and political turmoil have been the norm for about 4,000 years. In our generation, terrorists have left their ugly marks.
But make no mistake: Israel is worth your time. Tourists per se are not targeted by terrorists. And the sights, ranging from biblical ruins to Crusader fortresses to World War II memorials to cosmopolitan cities, are breathtaking. Here's a look at two of the top tourist destinations in Israel.
Before Columbus, many maps of the world showed Jerusalem as the center of the world. Jerusalem -- holy, treasured and long fought over by the three great monotheistic religions -- has been destroyed and rebuilt more than a dozen times. Its fabled walls corral a tangle of colorful, holy sites and more than 30,000 residents.
Jerusalem's tiny historic core, the dense and complex Old City, is contained within a mighty two-mile-long Ottoman wall. The old city within is divided into four distinct quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. During my visit, I found that the old town is fraught with endless little struggles. For example, the volume of the call to prayer at local mosques is turned up high -- some residents think it's to make a statement and to annoy the Jews. And Jews buy a house in what is historically the Muslim quarter and festoon it with Israeli flags.
But the fascination of Jerusalem isn't limited to its old town within the walls. Well beyond them lies the ultra-
Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea She'arim. Kiosks sell posters of leading rabbis. Each rabbi has his own following, and the rabbi you follow influences how you live and dress. Since this population takes the Shabbat (Saturday) very seriously, Friday is a huge day as all are busy preparing for their holy day of rest.
Complicated religions scene
The religious scene in Jerusalem is complicated even for tourists. Before planning our day, my guide asked me my religion. Local guides know that, among Christians interested in seeing Jesus' tomb, most Protestants prefer the burial chamber outside the walls in the Garden Tomb, while Catholics prefer the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While I'm Lutheran, this is one case where I would definitely go with the Catholics. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built upon the summit of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. Because it's holy for all kinds of Christians, who see things differently and don't communicate very well, it's a cluttered religious hodgepodge of various zones. There are chapels for Greek Orthodox, Franciscans, Coptic Christians, Armenians and so on -- each run by a different religious community.
While that church is important, the city's overall religious focal point is the Temple Mount -- considered by many to be the closest place on Earth to God in heaven. That's why Jews believe Abraham came here to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The golden Dome of the Rock shrine marks its summit. For Muslims, this rock marks the spot where the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to heaven. It is the third-most-holy place in Islam. While Muslims have worshipped here since the mid-600s, the first Jewish temple was built in Jerusalem around 925 BC. The Western Wall, one of the holiest places on Earth for Jews, wasn't designed to be that way. About 2,000 years ago, it was just the retaining wall that supported the main Jewish temple on Temple Mount. When the temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, the Jewish people went into exile.
Over the centuries, throughout the diaspora, Jews returning to Jerusalem came here -- to all that was left of their temple -- to pray and mourn its destruction. That's why it's often called the Wailing Wall. The wall is divided into a men's section and a women's section. As part of their ritual, Jews place prayers printed on paper into cracks in the wall and stand where they've stood since ancient times to pray.
Walking through the wall from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, all you need is your passport. Just cross the border and haggle with the taxis . . . and after spending about $5 and 10 minutes, you're looking at the spot where Jesus was born.
If you come, you'll find that Bethlehem is no longer just the "little town" of Christmas carol fame. It's a leading Palestinian city -- the city sprawls and is almost indiscernible from greater Jerusalem. It's not a pretty town; most homes and businesses stand behind security walls and fences.
But Bethlehem has a special energy and a very cool Arabic vibe, especially in the early evening. The Arab market is colorful. And the skyline is a commotion of both crescents and crosses -- a reminder that the town, while almost totally Arab, remains a mix of Muslims and Christians. Another surprise is on Bethlehem's main square. For more than 100 years, the Mosque of Omar has shared Manger Square with the Church of the Nativity. An imam there explained, "Bethlehem is holy for Muslims as well as Christians. For Muslims, Jesus is a major prophet. We also revere Mother Mary. In fact, an entire chapter in the Quran is named for her."
Oldest Christian church
Across the square in the Church of the Nativity, Christian pilgrims waited to touch, kiss and pray upon the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. In AD 326, Roman Emperor Constantine sent his mother, St. Helena, to establish three churches in the Holy Land, including the Church of the Nativity. Today the one in Bethlehem is oldest because the others were destroyed, then rebuilt. It is regarded as the oldest Christian church in daily use.
While our image of "no room at the inn" is brick and wood, the "inn" of Bible fame was very likely a series of caves. And "no room" likely meant that a woman about to give birth would not be welcome in the main quarters, as birth (like menstruation) was considered an unclean thing. Mary was sent out to give birth to Jesus in the manger cave, where the animals hung out.
So a cavern beneath the church -- the Grotto of the Nativity -- is the focal point of your visit. You take the steps by the church altar down into what's been regarded since the second century as the site of Christ's birth. A silver star in the floor marks the spot.
Leaving Israel, I wondered what Abraham would think about the inability of his feuding descendants to live together. In this land -- so treasured by Jews, Muslims and Christians -- I'm reminded that the prophets of each of these religions taught us to love our neighbors. Here's hoping the lessons learned while traveling in the Holy Land can inspire us all to strive for that ideal. Shalom. Salam. Peace.
If you go
GETTING THERE: El Al, the Israeli airline, has flights from both JFK and Newark airports. Round-trip flights on El Al in late April start at around $1,400. (Fares go up earlier in April, during Passover.)
COMMUNICATING: There isn't much of a language barrier. English is widely spoken, and road signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
GETTING AROUND: Though many travelers like to see Israel with a guided tour (such as Shalom, shalomisraeltours.com), Israel is manageable on your own, with a good guidebook. It's a small country, easily navigated with a rental car or on bus lines such as Dan (dan.co.il/english) and Egged (egged.co.il/Eng).
SAFETY: A U.S. State Department warning issued Feb. 3 cautions tourists about travel in the West Bank and Gaza.