My Journey to Jerusalem

“Oh Jerusalem, the city of sorrow
A big tear wandering in the eye

Who will halt the aggression?
On you, the pearl of religions?
Who will wash your bloody walls?
Who will safeguard the Bible?
Who will rescue the Quran?
Who will save Christ, 
From those who have killed Christ?
Who will save man?”

Nizar Qabbani

The feeling I had when arriving in Israel was one of curiosity. Knowing that this was the Holy Land and the birthplace of Jesus (In Islam: Prophet Isa) was something I felt blessed to be able to witness. However, I was also interested to know what was happening on this side of the world. To me, believing is seeing.

Our journey began and ended at Eilat. Immediately after we got our rental car, we drove to Dead Sea, which is located at the southern tip of Israel. The drive took us about four hours as we took the scenic route through the Negev desert.

Dead Sea

We woke up early for sunrise at Masada National Park. The queue already forming when we got there. The quickest and easiest way to the top is by cable car but we opted for hiking via the Snake trail to watch the sunrise. It took us 90 minutes before we reached the top.

The Snake Trail is a combination of hard dirt, some loose rocks and stone steps. It is a constant climb to the top, about 980 feet in elevation. It is strenuous, especially in the heat of midday, but to watch the views over the Dead Sea unfold as we steadily climb higher is rewarding. Phenomenal.

Masada is a Unesco World Heritage Sites. When I did my research, almost all the historical stories about Masada comes from the first-century Jewish Roman historian, Josephus. But there was also contradicting evidence from the Archaeology. Whatever it is, this ancient fortress Masada is worth visiting.

Ein Bokek is located right next to the hotel strip of the Dead Sea, and not far from the hotels’ shopping center and the Ein Tchelet Mall. We were impressed with the cleanliness of the beach. Floating on the salty water of the Dead Sea is a must do activity. Beautiful blue waters with salt build up at the shore are contrasted with the red earth and mountains.

On the way to Jerusalem, we stopped at The Ein Gedi Spa. You can’t visit Israel and not take a dip in the Dead Sea. Known throughout the world because of its high salt content, which allows visitors to float effortlessly, and for the therapeutic mud which forms at the edges of the water. 

The mineral baths and the solarium offer a fine and relaxing retreat from the turmoil of everyday life. It offers a chance, together with the Dead Sea mud, to renew oneself. There is a shuttle bus to the sea, heated pool, a swimming pool, restaurants and stores selling Dead Sea products.

JERUSALEM

Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is a holy city to the three most important monotheistic religions; Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is home to the Western Wall,  the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and two important mosques: Al Aqsa and The Dome of the Rock.

Streets of Jerusalem

We enjoyed wandering the streets of Jerusalem. There is no place in the world that could make you feel at peace and to live such a different experience in places with so much history in almost every corner. There are four quarters in old Jerusalem, Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian. Each offered something different and they seem to blend extremely well given their differences. We let ourselves get lost in it, exploring the old, winding streets, wandered into the many stores, smell the fragrances, eating the beautiful food and snacks, drinking the most flavourful chai tea, and let the history seep into us.

Al Aqsa Mosque (Masjid Al Aqsa)

“Recite the Al Fatihah (verses of Holy Qur’an),” the Palestinian Guard said. One can enter the The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque only if they pass this elusive test among others, to prove one “Muslimness.” Non-Muslims cannot enter the mosque or the Dome but can wander around the Temple Mount site outside the buildings.

The inside of the Al Aqsa mosque was breath taking and serene. Al Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medinah. I took my time in absorbing every detail that caught my attention. Beautiful recitation of the Holy Qur’an inside, and I get to meet the people of Al Quds and Palestine who were very warm and friendly. Watch the Video

The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra)

The Dome of the Rock is something one has to witness himself or herself. Words cannot do it justice. This octagonal mosque structure with significant gold-coated dome is a breathtakingly landmark for Jerusalem. The interior artwork, motives, patterns and decorations are amazing, and it’s history even more so. Muslim believes this is where Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) ascended into heaven, where he met the earlier prophets, and eventually God (Isra and Mi’raj).

I walked downstairs to a quiet space where the famous rock is located and just sit, taking in the momentous occasion. After several moments of praying for families and friends, and paying homage to this holy place, I continued my stroll outside the compound.

“The Dome of the Rock is a building of extraordinary beauty, solidity, elegance, and singularity of shape… Both outside and inside, the decoration is so magnificent and the workmanship so surpassing as to defy description. The greater part is covered with gold so that the eyes of one who gazes on its beauties are dazzled by its brilliance, now glowing like a mass of light, now flashing like lightning.”              

Ibn Battuta (14th century travel writer)

Western Wall

The Western “Wailing” Wall, otherwise known as HaKotel in Hebrew, is one of the absolute must-sees on any visit to Jerusalem. The raw, emotional power of this huge wall (the only remnants of the famed Second Temple), blow my socks off, regardless of my own religious persuasion. Thousands of people journey to the wall every year to visit and recite prayers. Visitors to the wall have long followed the practice of wedging small slips of paper, upon which prayers and petitions are written, into the cracks between the stones.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a church in the Christian Quarter. The heartbeat of Christianity within Jerusalem can be found at this church. It contains two holiest sites of Christianity, the site where Jesus is believed to be crucified and his empty tomb where he had been buried. Watching other people reaction and worshipping is spiritually enlightening. Watch the Video

Mount of Olives

Located on the eastern side of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives is the place to come for spectacular sunset views across Jerusalem and especially vistas of the Old City of Jerusalem. We walked up the hill and enjoyed the scenic view from above.

Historically, the Mount of Olives  was a site of great importance and considered the center of Jerusalem. The site is a location of holy pilgrimage for both Jews and Christians, with over 150,000 graves and a number of important Christian churches located on this amazing mountain ridge.

Bethlehem

We travelled to Bethlehem from the bus station across Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. There are plenty of taxis at the checkpoint but we have hired Abod, a Palestinian, who guided us. Bethlehem is part of the West Bank that forms the bulk of the Palestinian territories, the remainder of which is comprised of the Gaza Strip. Abod brought us to see real life Banksy’s famous works, the Flower Thrower and the Girl frisking the Soldier.

We then made our way to Manger Square where the Church of the Nativity stands. Abod spoke to the guard and we managed to escape the very long queue of pilgrims. The Church is one of the oldest churches in the world and was built above the cave where, according to the Bible, Jesus (Prophet Isa) was born. The church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is ornate and beautiful.

We descended the narrow flight of stairs into the crowded Grotto of the Nativity under the Orthodox side of the Church, after waiting our turn among the throngs of tourists. I am always overwhelmed by the significance of the major historical religious sites regardless of which religion they relate to and the birthplace of Jesus was no exception. It was an incredible moment to touch the star and the atmosphere in the Grotto was electric.

Our next stop is the Separation Wall that blew our minds. The tall concrete wall, lined with watchtowers, cameras and barbed wire, was a shock. It highlights the severity of the political situation and the reality of those who live under its shadow. The wall is covered with graffitis and messages, many of which are dedicated to the political situation between Israel and Palestine. We could spend hours checking out the walls if not for Abod. If we ever visit again, we would not take a guide so as to be free to explore on our own.

Aida Refugee Camp which hosts refugees from demolished villages. The entrance to the camp is marked with a right to return key, which signifies that the refugees have a right to return, and a right to the property that they left behind. To both of us who have the freedom to travel all over the world, it was difficult to comprehend life within the borders of Palestine. The constant tensions, frequent clashes and the realisation that many of the children have only known life within such a confined area is exceedingly difficult to comprehend.

Bethlehem is surrounded by so many Israeli settlements, which are visible from various vantage points throughout the city. The settlements are populated with Israeli civilians and are considered illegal in the international community. Watch the Video

Eilat

Eilat is located in the south of the Negev desert, on the top of the Gulf of Aqaba and has a border with both Egypt and Jordan. Eilat is a compact city with most activities centered along King Solomon Promenade. Being in such close proximity to the Dead Sea, the city is home to a range of unique items, from mudpacks to salt scrub.

OUR VIEWS

Before traveling to Israel, I was very apprehensive due to the situation of the country; the occupation, civil unrest and all the negativities in media. But once I got there, I was fortunate to not witness any aggression, and I felt very safe.

Israel is not a cheap country to visit but it is very special because of the unique landscape, the history of religion, the world-renowned and Unesco world Heritage Sites, and the wonderful weather. Very small, yet very diverse. This is a place we would want to visit again. And we wish nothing but peace and love in Jerusalem.

They say

If we love God most

We will love others best

But why oh why

Jerusalem oh Jerusalem

Intan
Tips & Suggestions:
  1. Dress appropriately
  2. Be prepared to be strictly interviewed at the Airport
  3. Currency
    • The currency in Israel is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS). ATMs are readily accessible in all major cities and most places accept foreign cards.
    • During our trip, the rate was: 100 shekel = €25 / SGD38
  4. Business Hours
    • Weekend falls on Friday and Saturday
    • Most restaurants, shops and public transport close on Friday afternoons and reopen late on Saturday (Shabbat)
  5. Transportation
    • We chose to hire a car for our trip.
    • Do not miss Eilat shuttle (Bus), which costs USD8 per person. As we missed the shuttle, we took a taxi to Eilat which cost €50
    • Eilat shuttle offers a cheap and easy bus between Eilat city, hotels and Ovda Airport.
  6. General etiquette and conduct
    • Being sensitive to cultural traditions and political tensions
    • Regarding photography, getting a camera out is generally not an issue in most places frequented by tourists, but be considerate and ask for permission.
    • Off-limits for photographers are military sites and border police at checkpoints.

3,000 km road trip across Morocco

“Fly out or you will be in jail,” the female custom officer said.

OMG. I always thought I hold one of the strongest passport in the world and can stay almost everywhere without a visa. I’ve just learned that a Singaporean can only stay 90 days out of 180 days in Europe (Schengen countries). So, in order not to overstay, I need to spend some days at a non-schengen countries.

There are some places I love to visit. After some thoughts, I decided to visit Morocco.

MOROCCO

Driving Map across Morocco

Morocco is a North African country bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The population is distinguished by its Berber, Arabian and European cultural influences, mainly French.

We started and ended our journey in Tangier. Our first stop was Chefchouen. It was a 2.5 hours drive to our first riad. A riad is similar to a Bed and Breakfast, a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden, courtyard and/or roof terrace. Staying in a riad which usually located in the medina is a unique experience, but it is not for everyone.

My opinion of Riad:

Pros: Unique beautiful experience, easy access to medina, shopping and restaurants

Cons: Usually small and compact, not sound proof – can be noisy for light sleeper, no private parking, no amenities

CHEFCHOUEN

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Chefchouen is a beautiful blue city. We enjoyed getting lost at the medina and the square of Plaza Uta El-Hammam. Life moves at a slower pace in this city. It’s a perfect place to wander and take photos.

I had my first taste of Tangine for lunch. Tangine is the slow-cooked dish of Morocco and revered for its sweet and savoury flavours. Tangine can be cooked up from almost anything; lamb, chicken, beef or even fish.

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In the evening, we had our next tangine dinner at La Lampe Magique restaurant. The scenery was beautiful and the call to prayer, azan, provide beautiful sound to the ears.

MEKNES

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On the way to Meknes, we spotted a Sunday market near Laghdir. Lucky day! To me, a visit to local market is an efficient way to immerse ourselves into one’s culture. It was so interesting to get a sense for the locals, their products, food, and how they live their life.  I bought olives, fruits and a colourful Berber hat.

Meknes has its charm on its own. Some of the main attractions are Volubilis, Moulay Idriss and Bab al-Mansour. We admired the ornately decorated gateway of Bab Mansour, the city square, and the many winding streets of the city.

FES

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The drive to Fes is only an hour journey but the difficulty we had were finding the parking. A Moroccon guy in a scooter spotted us looking for direction and approached us to follow him. As naïve as we were, we followed. He showed us a private parking place, showed us our next riad, and convinced us to take “a professional tour guide” that will show Fes for five hours.

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Fes medina is beautiful, with medieval architecture, vibrant souks and old-world atmosphere. Some of the places we visited are the Couwara tanneries, 14th centuries Madrasa Bou Inania and Café Clock.

MERZOUGA (SAHARA DESERT)

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The drive to Merzouga was the longest but we enjoyed the journey. Beautiful scenery along the way, and the road except in very few places is well maintained. We spent about eleven hours on the road, including stops. We stopped at Azrou for coffee, the cedar forest for the monkeys, and village Timahdite. We had our lunch at Zaida town in the Midelt province.

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The camel trekking across Sahara desert was an experience of the lifetime. With a group of thirteen, we talked and laughed, looking out over the vast of Sahara desert, swaying with the beats and sounds of drums, and staring at the night sky. Beautiful stars.

OUARZAZATE

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Ouarzazate is a city in the south of Morocco’s High Atlas mountain known as a gateway to the Sahara Desert. It is a huge Taourirt Kasbah, home to a 19th-century palace, and has the views over the rugged local landscape, which features in several movies such as The Mummy, Gladiator, and the recent ones, Prison Break.

We had our lunch at Todgha Gorge, the limestone river canons located at the eastern part of the High Atlas mountains near the town of Tinerhir. As recommended by the riad host, I had my first Hammam. The Hammam itself was a nice experience but the massage was mediocre. I had better in Singapore.

KELAAT M’GOUNA

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Watch Video : Morocco’s Festival of Roses 2018

When we planned our visit, the dates for Rose festival were not confirmed. Some websites mentioned that it will be on first week of May. We booked our stay for second week.  We just hope that our dates coincides with the festival week, which they did. How lucky we are!? We were so fortunate to experience the Rose festival which include the visit to Rose valleys where the roses are harvested. The exhibition, flea markets, and traditional musical performances were interesting. We also watched the parade with the selection of the annual Rose Queen. The smells of roses fills the air at el Kelaa M’Gouna.

MARRAKECH

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On the way to Marrakech, we visited Ait Ben Haddou, the red-earth city. My favourite movie of all time, Gladiator, was filmed here. It was a wonderful place but we were too tired to explore more grounds.

It was not good getting lost in medina. We got so confused with the streets, panicking, and an ‘angel’ demanded Dh200 (equivalent to 20) for showing us a public parking. “Do you think this is China?” he said when I gave him Dh100. It  makes my blood boil! A local taxi in Morocco charge around Dh20 – Dh100.

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In the evening, we enjoyed siting in the terrace of Le Grand Balcon du Cafe Glacier, which has an incredible view of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the bustling courtyard and market place. We had to pay Dh20 per person (exchange with a soft drink).

ESSAOUIRA

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Essaouria is a laid-back alternative to Marrakesh. We heard plenty of stories about Jimi Hendrix in Essaouira. This is another city that I enjoyed the most, together with Chefchouen. The time in the souks was pleasant. I enjoyed the fresh air, walking to Skala du port for the picturesque views over the fishing port.

RABAT

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Rabat is Morocco’s capital of Islamic and French colonial heritage. We witnessed many quarrels and shouting in Rabat. Maybe it was the starting of the fasting month, which testing one’s patience. Or maybe that’s the way it is in the north.

We visited Kasbah of the Udayas, the city oldest quarter, built during the Almohad dynasty in 12th century which has a beautiful garden. We also visited Chellah (old fortress) and Hassan Tower (incomplete mosque) during Friday praying.

TANGIER

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The city of Tangier is located at the western entrance of the Strait of Gibralta, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Some tourist especially those coming on motorcycles adventures, take ferry from Spain with a sailing duration of one hour.

Overall, I would say that Morocco is a very beautiful country and urge friends to experience themselves. There are many cool sights and contrasting experiences that is unforgettable. We met some nice people and appreciate their warm and kindness. We also met some interesting characters that testing one’s patience. This is why researcher says that traveling is good for mental health.

Written By: 

intansg

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SUGGESTIONS AND TIPS:

  • Do your homework and plan carefully especially if you intend to self-drive.
  • Staying in ‘Riad’ is a good experience, but for a less stressful events, book a hotel with own private carpark.
  • If you are ‘lost’, keep calm and call the hotel for direction. Do not allow anyone to take advantage of your situation, they will demand loads of money.
  • There were many police stops, ensure that you abide to the speed limit. If not, they will ask for coffee money (DH200 – 20) and cigarettes.
  • Hiring a Guide in Morocco is NOT necessary.
  • There are many tourist scams in Morocco, special mention Fes and Marrakech. Some work in groups. I understand that these people are trying to make a living but the events will scare off tourists who are genuinely interested in visiting this beautiful country. Something need to change.
  • Be firm when being approached by the ‘friendliest’ man in the street. Say ‘La Syukran’ (no thanks) for any offers to help or showing places. Our own experience – we were greeted by a friendly man who said we should take pictures from the cafe terrace. “It’s free and has nice view”, he said. From the terrace, he brought us down to another exit which is a shop! He became very aggressive when we told him that we were not interested to buy anything. In the end, we were forced to buy dry dates for Dh100 (which were the “cheapest” in the shop), so as not to create chaos.
  • Stay away from ‘chocolato’ – drugs.
  • Stay away from Henna ladies unless you wanted a henna tattoo.
  • Communication barriers in many parts of Morocco as most speak only Berber, Arabic and French. Best to learn some basic.
  • Take small notes with you. Some vendors pretended they do not have enough change.
  • Be extra careful when taking photographs. Most Moroccon do not like their photos to be taken, or they will demand for money or the camera.
  • In the airport, the immigration queue is long and slow. Make sure to have ample time to arrive at the airport.

ACCOMMODATION:

Chefchouen 1 Night Accommodation: Dar Z’man Guesthouse S$50/night

*Public Parking near Riad Madrid -30 dirham-

Meknes 1 Night Accommodation: Riad Hiba Meknes S$45/night

*Public Parking along the street -20 dirham-

Fes 1 Night Accommodation: Dar Bouanania S$32/night

*Public Parking Bab Boujlad -30 dirham-

Merzouga 1 Night Accommodation: Auberge Le Petit Prince S$40/night

1 Night Accommodation: Sahara Desert Camel Trekking

*Private own parking -no charge-

Ouarzazate 1 Night Accommodation: Dar El Nath S$70/night

*Public Parking -30 dirham-

Kelaat M’Gouna 2 Night Accommodation: Kasbah Tasseurte S$40/night

*Private own parking -no charge-

Marrakech 2 Nights Accommodation: Riad Jnane Mogador S$60/night

*Public Parking across the medina -60 dirham-

Essaouira 2 Nights Accommodation: Ryad Les Sultanes S$40/night

*Public Parking -60 dirham-

Rabat 1 Night Accommodation: Riad Meftaha S$90/night

*Park car in Street of Iran, next to the riad -no charge

Tangier 1 Night Accommodation: Hotel Continental S$60/night

*Private own parking -no charge-