Around the Middle East
in 80 days

February 25th to May 14th, 2004

Part 8:

Jerusalem and Masada

<< Part 7: Israel (north and west)    -    Back to Index    -    Part 9: The West Bank >>          

March 26th - April 1st (days 31-37): Jerusalem

Jerusalem! How to tell the history of this city without filling a whole book? Well, like this: around 1000 BC it was conquered by the Israelites who made it their capital and built their First Temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Later the Persians let them rebuild it but after a revolt against the Romans it was destroyed again in 66 AD, along with most of the city. Meanwhile a guy named Jesus had been crucified here, though noone took much notice at the time. In 638 the muslims captured the city, but from 1099 until 1187 it was in the hands of the crusaders. Little known to most Belgians is that the first king of Jerusalem was Godfrey of Bouillon, the duke of Brabant (i.e. Brussels and Antwerp), and the second one Baldwin, the count of Flanders. In 1948 the Israelis captured the western half of the city, since 1967 they also occupy the eastern half. Both Israeli's and Palestinians claim it as their capital.

As I put it in my travel log, Jerusalem is like Disneyland for religious people. It is full of holy sites, each of which gained its perceived significance from some religious story that was usually attached to its location by a clever political or religious leader, almost always without any factual or historical basis. But then religious people aren't bothered by facts, and if it makes them happy to believe that they really visited the exact spot where Jesus or Mary or Mohamed was born or died or went to heaven, then I'm happy too.

I arrived in Jerusaelm by bus from Tel Aviv in the late afternoon. The bus station is in western Jerusalem, a long way from the old town which is in eastern Jerusalem, but a nice Israeli dude with dreadlocks first gave me directions and then decided to just give me a ride. He'd come to the bus station to pick up his girlfriend, and as soon as they'd dropped me off at the walls of the old city they started making out, hehe.

I was very eager to see Jerusalem so as soon as I'd checked into a hostel I started exploring the old city. By lucky coincidence it was a Friday, and sunset on friday evening is the start of the Jewish shabbat and the best time to visit the Western Wall, so that's where I headed first.

The Western Wall

The Western Wall is a remaining part of the wall that was built by Herod in 20 BC to support the esplanade of the Second Temple. Since the temple itself was destroyed a century later and never rebuilt, this wall is its only physical remnant and therefore the holiest site of the jewish religion. The area in front of it functions as an open-air synagogue. This is again symbolic of the stubbornness of religious jews and scores them a lot of coolness points in my book - destroy their temple and they'll just work with what little was left standing, their religious feelings for the site entirely unaffected by the destruction.

I walked towards the western wall, following a stream of Jewish families, many of them in the funny orthodox clothes, heading towards the wall right through the old city, which is mostly inhabited by Palestinians. Things seemed perfectly peaceful; there were some soldiers here and there but nothing excessive. The wall area is completely sealed off though and everyone has to pass through metal detectors.

It was very busy in front of the wall, and the air was filled with the asynchronous wailing of praying jews. With the darkness setting in it was all very atmospheric. Visitors weren't allowed to get too close to the wall, but I saw a barrier perpendicular to the wall that split off about 1/4 of the area in front of it. I figured that was for visitors, so I went there, got close to the wall and then looked over the barrier at the praying people, sucking in the atmosphere.
After about 10 minutes I started looking around for a chair, and then I noticed that all the people around me were women and girls. It took another minute before I realised that I was not standing in a visitors' section, but in the women's section. Oops! I quickly moved back, and then decided to take a picture from a distance. While I was taking my time setting up my tripod, a girl came up to me and kindly pointed to a sign about one meter in front of me that said "NO PICTURES ON SHABBAT". When I embarass myself I can do a pretty good job :)

Jerusalem by night

It was dark now and I explored Jerusalem further, trying some nightly photography with my tripod. I first walked through a completely deserted Via Dolorosa (the street through which Jesus supposedly carried his cross) towards the eastern city gate, then wandered through the graveyards below the city walls, and then decided to climb the nearby Mount of Olives, the place where Jesus was arrested but which is now mostly famous because it provides the best panoramic view on Jerusalem. All this time I didn't meet a single soul; eastern Jerusalem is a pretty dead place at night.
I enjoyed the magnificent nightly view on Jerusalem for a long time, and then walked back to my hostel, very much satisfied and with a very good first impression of Jerusalem.

I'd stay in Jerusalem for a whole week, visiting the city in bits and pieces throughout the week, in between day trips to the West Bank and Masada. It would be confusing to show this week's pictures in the order I took them, so I'll first tell you all about Jerusalem, and then about the other places I visited.

Mount of Olives

Let's start with the place where I ended my first nightly exploration: the Mount of Olives. It is really just a hill, right to the east of the old city. The following picture is a view east from the tower of the Lutheran church in the middle of the old city. Behind the beige buildings of old Jerusalem you see the golden Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, which is the plateau on which the Temple of the jews used to stand (cfr. below). The hill behind that is the Mount of Olives.
The right part of the hill is a huge jewish cemetary; when you climb the hill you walk around this cemetary to the top of the hill where you get the famous viewpoint. But there's plenty to see along the way. At the foot there is the Tomb of the Virgin Mary (I'd already passed another tomb of hers in Ephesus in Turkey :) ), and a bit above that are two churches: the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus spent his last evening, and the Russian Church of Mary Magdalene.
Visiting these and other churches in Jerusalem was a bitch btw; most of them are only open at certain hours on certain days, so usually when I went to one I could only write down those hours and try to come back again at the right time. This is the main reason I criss-crossed Jerusalem so often, but I persisted and got to visit them all in the end.

Then the best part of the Mount of Olives: the view from the top.

City Walls

On the last picture above you see the south-eastern section of Jerusalem's city walls. The current walls were built between 1537 and 1542 under the Turkish sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, and they're fully intact. I walked around most of the old city, though not in one go, and in places got some nice view since the city lies on a plateau.
It used to be possible to walk on top of the walls, all around the old city, but this walk was closed for security reasons. When a soldier at a gate was checking a car, I managed to sneak up the stairs to the top of the wall though. Up there the gate to the actual walk was closed, but I could still walk along the north-eastern section of the wall. The last thing I expected to see there was this:
Except for the sports fields it was a slum up there, though all the houses had satellite dishes. The streets were incredibly littered. While I was sitting on a little playground I watched some hyper-active Palestinian kids playing. One of them sprayed something at me while laughing, which pissed me off until I noticed it was just soap :) Another little kid threw a stone the size of a fist at his friend's back and missed his head by less than a meter. Freaky place, it really had a ghetto feel to it and I pity the kids that grow up there.

Temple Mount

Temple Mount is supposedly the place where Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Later it was the site of the jews' two great Temples, the first of which was destroyed by the Babylonians and the second by the Romans. After their conquest of Jerusalem, the muslims built two large mosques on top of Temple Mount, supposedly because it's also the place from which Mohammed launched himself to heaven. This story conveniently allowed the new religion to compete with its two parent religions in their very heartland and was probably invented for exactly that purpose; in any case Temple Mount became the third holiest site of islam after Mekka and Medina. Nowadays it is a large rectangular esplanade. Part of its supporting wall dates from Herod's time; that's the famous Western Wall discussed above.
When Israel captured Eastern Jerusalem, including Temple Mount, in 1967, some extremist jews suggested blowing up the two mosques, and some have actually tried to do so, but Israel's policy has been to respect the significance of the site for muslims and guarantee their access to it, which is commendable.

Temple Mount used to be freely accessible for everyone, and the two mosques open to visitors, but because of recent tensions and sporadic violence, access is now very much restricted. I tried several times to get on Temple Mount through one of the entrances the muslims use, but I was always turned back by Israeli soldiers who told me to come back the next day. In the end I could only visit it one morning when the site was closed for muslims for a few hours, and only by going up a ramp next to the Western Wall which was built as a special entrance for non-muslim visitors.
One of the two mosques on Temple Mount is the Al-Aqsa Mosque, first built in the 8th century and rebuilt several times, the last time in 1035. The crusaders used it as a palace. It's the biggest mosque in Jerusalem with room for 5000 worshippers.

Since it lies right above the Western Wall, this mosque is Jerusalem's main trouble-spot. Jewish extremists have tried to blow it up, and muslims have thrown rocks at jews praying at the wall below. You may also have heard of the terrorist group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, set up after Ariel Sharon visited the site in 2000, an event which set of the second intifada which muslims call the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Somewhat hilariously, even archeology leads to conflicts here as both sides try to advance their historic claims to the site and accuse each other of destroying evidence that would suit the other.
The eye-catcher on Temple Mount is the Dome of the Rock, built in 688-691 over the rock from which according to muslims Mohammed ascended to heaven. The Arabs, having just conquered the city, wanted a monument to match the christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre (see below) and this was the result. Originally the dome was covered with real gold but that was removed long ago.
It's a damn shame I couldn't go inside the two mosques, especially the Dome of the Rock which has a magnificent interior.

At 10am soldiers started urging us towards the exit as the site was being closed for visitors before being opened for muslim worshippers. While leaving I ran into a few young orthodox jews who were carefully walking at the very edge of the esplanade, even following its outline when it protruded outwards. It was a funny sight and I wasn't sure whether to interpret this as a sign of respect or disrespect for the present islamic nature of the site. Later I found out it was neither. Orthodox jews believe that the Temple will be rebuilt by the Messiah after his coming and that noone may tread on the ground of the holiest chamber of the Temple before he does. Noone is really sure where exactly the Temple stood however, let alone where the holiest part was, so these people aren't taking any chances: they just walk along the edge to make sure they don't accidentally walk over the holy spot. Pretty cool in my opinion :)

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

So we've had the holy sites of the jews and the muslims now, but the site I spent the most time at was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, supposedly built on Golgotha (the Hill of Cavalry), the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried (sepulchre means grave). It was a short walk from my hotel and always freely accessible, and I was so captivated by it that I visited it almost every day, before or after my day trips, to take more pictures.

The church was originally built in Byzantian times (replacing a Roman temple), damaged by the Persians, destroyed by a muslim ruler, then rebuilt and heavily expanded by the crusaders. Since then it's seen many more changes and additions both above and under the ground, making it a chaotic maze-like building. Throughout its history this holiest of all churches has been hotly contested by the various branches of christianity, who each control certain parts of it.

It's by no means among the most impressive churches in the world, but I loved the clash of architectural styles, and enjoyed seeing the groups of priests and monks of all the different christian brands performing one ceremony after another on a tightly controlled schedule with absolutely no worshippers other than themselves attending. I had a great time taking pictures around the church, experimenting with my camera a lot to deal with the darkness and sometimes getting results that looked better than the real thing.
The main part of the church consists of two large domed halls. The most important one is a rotunda called the Edicule which was built over the holy sepulchre itself: the cave in which Jesus was supposedly buried. The hall now contains a granite structure, decorated with huge candles. Four persons at a time can enter it. Its core, the exact location of Jesus' grave, is so small that you have to kneel to enter it. I went in and tried making a picture, but it was just too small.
Next to the Edicule is another domed hall, the Basilica. It wasn't open for visitors but one time I managed to sneak inside right after a ceremony and quickly took a picture of the dome.
Other places inside the church...

Around the old city

All the major places discussed above are inside or right next to the old city. There are plenty of other things to see there as well, though none as spectacular.

Old Jerusalem consists of four parts: the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters. Everything shown so far lies in the Muslim and Christian quarters which are the biggest and liveliest and are mostly inhabited by Palestinians. Here Jerusalem is very much an Arabic city, and a pleasant one at that. There are some Israeli soldiers hanging around, but the locals don't seem to be bothered by them much. On my first night in Jerusalem I followed a family of orthodox jews walking through the area and they seemed perfectly at ease and not unwelcome there.

The next day I saw a very chilling scene though, one that I'd often recall afterwards. On a busy street corner in the muslim quarter, three smartly dressed young guys with jewish caps were chatting. Nothing special, except that one of them who was sitting down was holding a gun in his hand and kept his finger on the trigger. It was so provocative. The atmosphere around them was very tense, but they were clearly enjoying themselves. As I walked by an old Palestinian got angry and shouted "Go away! Go away!" (in English) which just caused them to laugh.

This small scene only involved a handful of people, and certainly says nothing about any people in general, but that it was possible says a lot about the political situation in Israel and about the different rights of the different ethnical groups. Just try to imagine a young Palestinian sitting in a jewish area with a gun in his hand...

Jerusalem's most famous street, the Via Dolorosa (through which Jesus supposedly carried his cross), lies in the muslim quarter. I walked through it many times since it brought me to the Mount of Olives.
The christian quarter (a name with little meaning nowadays) has a big authentic souq. In the two biggest streets most of the shop owners are mainly selling souvenirs for christian tourists (crosses, statues of saints, etc). I thought it was a funny sight, because although there is a sizable christian minority among the Palestinians, most of these shop owners are probably muslims making an easy buck.
The Armenian quarter is very quiet but has some nice churches. Visiting the St. James Cathedral took a lot of dedication since it was only opened during the occasional ceremony. After a few fruitless attempts I managed to be there at the right time. I watched the ceremony and discreetly took some pictures. While I was sitting back and watching the ceremony a priest suddenly came up to me. I thought he was going to complain about the camera, but to my surprise he said "please don't cross your legs!". Apparently that's unrespectful in Armenian churches, funny.
The small Jewish quarter looks completely different from the rest of the old city, since it has been completely restaurated and stripped of all its charm in the process, which always seems to be the case with restaurations in Israel. Whereas the other three quarters have no visible borders between them, all entrances to the Jewish quarter are guarded, for the obvious reason that since 1967 it is inhabited by jews whereas the rest of the old city is still inhabited by Palestinians.

There was nothing interesting to see there, but I was very much amused when I unexpectedly ran into the supposed (oops did it again) tomb of king David in a synagogue. Amused because king David is about as historical a figure as king Arthur or Robin Hood are - i.e. he's not; there is no historic record that shows he really existed, let alone where he might be buried.

Yad Vashem

On my second day in Jerusalem I visited Yad Vashem, a holocaust museum and memorial site which occupies a green hill in western (new) Jerusalem. The museum is rather small and mostly displays texts, large pictures and copies of historic documents that recount the nazi genocide on Europe's jews chronologically, from Hitler's rise to power to the end of WW2. It does an excellent job of that though. I walked around it with a lump in my throat for several hours.

Contrary to what you'd expect from an institute whose official name is "Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority", the texts and the museum in general are very serene and entirely unpropagandistic in tone. I was surprised and very impressed by that. The makers let the facts speak for themselves without any additional colouring, and I think that is the biggest sign of respect for their gravity.
In the beginning of the exhibition there was a big picture from 1939 showing a laughing Polish kid waving a gun to intimidate some frightened old jews, while occupying German soldiers watched on. This so reminded me of the scene I'd seen in old Jerusalem that I couldn't take my eyes of it. Other pictures, of roadblocks around jewish ghettos, reminded me of Hebron which I'd visited the day before. Comparing Israel to nazi Germany has become a cliché and is of course an exageration, but sometimes the similarities stare you right in the face.

After my tour of the museum I wandered around the hill, visiting most of the monuments on it. While I appreciated the soberness of the museum, I felt the domain could use a landmark monument.
Another monument I want to mention is that for the child victims. It is a totally dark maze of windows and mirrors in which hundreds of little lights get reflected. Because of the darkness you can't see which of the thousands of lights are reflections and which are not. Meanwhile the names of children killed in the camps are read out loud.

Right next to Yad Vashem is another green hill with the grave and memorial of Theodor Herzl, the founder of zionism. From what I could see through the gate it lacked all the serenity of Yad Vashem, but unfortunately it was past closing time already.

I got off my bus back to old Jerusalem about halfway and explored the new city for the rest of the evening. It is a pleasant place but without any special monuments, though I'd have made some pictures if it hadn't been dark yet.

March 31st (day 36): Masada and the Dead Sea

Masada is a flat-top rock in the desert, near the southern tip of the Dead Sea. It was fortified by Herod who also built a palace there. When the Jews revolted against the Romans in 66AD, it was captured by a small group of fanatics called the Zealots (from which the English word). When after a long siege the Romans were about to break into the fortress, the 967 Zealots (men, women and children) committed mass suicide. This bit of history is strongly remembered in Israel's national consciousness, and "Masada shall not fall again" is an often-used rhetorical battle-cry that also features in soldiers' oaths of allegiance.

On my one but last day in Jerusalem I made a day trip to Masada. I arrived at the foot of the rock in the smouldering heat after a bus trip of about 1.5 hours. The cable car that went up and down turned out to be ridiculously expensive, so even though I was in a bit of a hurry (I wanted to swim in the Dead Sea that same day) I decided to go up on foot.
I rushed up the hill in exactly half an hour, enjoying the increasingly spectacular view to the east on the Dead Sea and the barren plain before it. The combination of the desert landscape with its strange patterns and the water behind/above it produced a surreal effect; I felt like a satellite watching down on earth.
Once on top, Masada itself turned out to be pretty uninteresting; just a big oval plain with the reconstructed foundations of the ancient buildings. But with such a view on such a landscape, who cares?
I spent about three hours walking all along the outskirts of the ancient fortress anti-clockwise. Herod built his palace against the northern tip of the rock, on three different levels. It must have been magnificent and it's still the most interesting bit of Masada, but I could only visit the top level, the rest was closed for restauration.
On the western side of Masada you can still see the big ramp that the Romans built (all while being attacked by the Zealots) to reach the fortress walls. It's at this ramp that they finally managed to breach the walls, pushing the Zealots to their desperate act.
The southern end of Masada was deserted; since there are no ruins there most tourists don't bother to make the long walk. I sat there alone for a while, relaxing and enjoying yet another fantastic view, when an energetic old Canadian who had broken away from his group turned up alone. We had a friendly chat, which was quite surrealistic. One of the first things he asked was whether I was also fascinated by how the jews have all this responsibility, being god's chosen people and all. In his world-view everyone is religious and believes in these kinds of things apparently. I'd expect that from an American but not really from a Canadian. Anyway he was a friendly old chap and I just nodded politely, and he even made a decent picture of me with my camera, a rare event.
Which brings us back to the east and the most unusual view of all. Here are some more pictures of it, this time showing the remnants of the fortifications along the rim.

The Dead Sea

After climbing down from Masada I took a bus north and got out in Ein Gedi, an oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea. By the time I arrived it was already 4pm. I'd read that Ein Gedi is one of the most popular Dead Sea beaches, so I'd expected something of a medium-size beach resort, but it turned out that the actual beach was just about 50m wide. It being late March there were only about a 100 people there so this was not a problem, but I can't imagine what it must be like in summer.

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth (340m below sea level) but is of course mostly famous because its water is so heavy that you can't sink in it. In fact you can hardly call it water; it is a slimy (33% solid) substance that contains high quantities of bromine, magnesium and iodine. These are supposedly good for the skin but you don't want to get any of it in your eyes or mouth or in even the smallest wounds. Remembering how much the salty water in the lake in the Bahariya oasis in Egypt had hurt my eyes half a year before I was very careful from the start, and never had a problem.

Floating on the Dead Sea water is a very fun experience, you definitely have to do this if you're ever in the region. I liked pointing one leg upwards while floating on my back and trying to keep my balance, but I always rolled over sideways. The fun quickly wears off though as it doesn't take long to get used to not sinking and it doesn't feel that special anymore then.
As you can see in the picture, the Jordanian shore isn't that far and since you can't sink, it would be dead easy (dead seasy?) to swim across. I didn't see any security measures (like an army patrol) but I'm sure they must be there.

On the beach many people were rubbing themselves all over with black mud from a pit which was a funny sight. When I got out of the water I felt like I was covered with slime. I went in search of the dressing room, where some grumpy fat Russian cleaning lady said the showers were closed. A local guy translated what she said and added that he'd just take a shower anyway if he were me, which I did, I just had to, I couldn't put my clothes back on while being all covered in slime! When the fat lady saw it (not much privacy in that shower) she started cursing me in Russian, and when I got out she locked the door behind me. Bad luck for the people still on the beach.

I had to wait a long time for a bus back to Jerusalem, where I arrived after dark. I headed straight to a burger restaurant and ate like a lion since I was really starving. I hadn't eaten anything all day, not even breakfast, since neither Masada nor Ein Gedi had had food for me. Budget traveling can be tough :)

Epilogue: About Israel

This trip to Masada concluded the Israel chapter of my journey, so time for some general observations about the country.


Israel is very much a western country. It has some oriental and mediterranean elements, and sometimes it feels rather American, but its mostly a European society, with all the good and bad things that implies. Compared to the other countries I visited that means more efficiency, freedom and open-mindedness, but less friendliness and hospitality and a less relaxed attitude. The most striking difference was the gender equality though. With women active in all professions and most notably almost as many uniformed women as men on the streets, the contrast couldn't be greater with the Arabic countries where I never once saw a woman in uniform and rarely one in a responsible function. In this, Israel is a shining example to the region.

People and Languages

Israel has some 6 million inhabitants, of which about 1 million are (the descendants of) Palestinians who didn't flee in 1948. These "Arab Israelis" have full citizenship (though they don't have to serve in the army, for obvious reasons), which ironically makes them the only Arabs with democratic rights. I believe Arabic is more or less an official language next to Hebrew, but I only saw it on traffic signs and the like.

These things I knew in advance, but other things surprised me. Firstly, I had thought English was a generally used second language in Israel and expected most Israelis to be fluent in it, but that turned out not to be the case at all; many Israelis hardly know English at all. Equally surprising (to me) was that Palestinians generally speak it rather well. I guess this is due to past British colonialism and present UN involvement in Palestinian territories.

While English may not be used that much, there is a widespread second language in Israel: Russian. Though it is never used as an official language, I saw Russian magazines, Russian advertisements and Russian signs in shops, and I often heard Israelis talking Russian to each other. Over the last 20 years, Israel has taken in over a million new immigrants from Russia, and they're having a big impact. They're also very easily recognisable, at least the women, because of the distinct Russian make-up and dressing style.

Also worth mentioning are the immigrants from Ethiopia. I'd heard about this "lost tribe of Israel"; black jews who were all moved to Israel not so long ago, but I hadn't realised they were so many. In any case they're beautiful people.

Though they have some jewish lineage, most of these recent immigrants can hardly be called jews. Most of them only moved to Israel for economic reasons, while Israel is only taking them in for demographic reasons - they help outnumber the Palestinians. The big problem of rightist Israelis is that Palestinians have a much higher birthrate, and that is why they encourage more immigration - only recently we saw Sharon urging France's 300 000 jews to move to Israel, for example. All this while over half a million Palestinians are living in miserable refugee camps just beyond Israel's borders. It is a very wicked situation.


The one thing that makes life in Israel different from that in other western countries are the intense security measures. In the last four years, hundreds of Israeli civilians have been killed in terrorist attacks, and many aspects of public life have been affected or determined by the need to defend against such attacks. Seeing and experiencing this security system first hand was very interesting.

First of all, since every Israeli citizen has to spend two (women) or three (men) years in the army, a considerable percentage of the population is in military service, so there are always lots and lots of soldiers everywhere. Most of them are carrying a machinegun, even when off duty, wearing it as casually as you or I would wear a backpack while going about their daily lives. Still, since they're there and they're armed they're providing security. Whenever I took a bus there'd always be a few soldiers on it, just passengers going from A to B like everyone else. Their machineguns, slung over their shoulder, would typically rattle against all the chairs as they pushed their way through the bus, rather funny.

Israeli cities have huge shopping malls, probably among the biggest in the world. This may be due to American influence, but it's also a matter of security: shopping malls are easy to protect. At every entrance there are security guards with metal detectors, and they check everyone. This sometimes causes queues though, and queues make good targets for terrorists.

I really liked that they treat everyone equally; even orthodox jews were checked as thoroughly as everyone else, so there's no need for anyone to be offended. For comparison: in Egypt, where upper class shopping malls and hotels have similar security measures, they only really check poor local people; a white tourist like myself can walk through the beeping metal detectors without any reaction. That's nice and not irrational if you think about it, but so incredibly insulting to the locals.

Smaller places like supermarkets, restaurants and bars typically have only one entrance, also guarded by a security guard with a metal detector. I can't recall ever seeing a place that did not guard its entrances like this; any such place would probably lose a lot of customers.

Besides busy public places, busses (the prime means of public transport in Israel, as in all of the middle east) have been the other main target of suicide attacks, so the transport system is affected as well. Inter-city busses (which function like trains do in Europe) only operate between big protected bus stations and never stop to pick anyone up along the way, so they're almost impossible to attack. The bus stations are either fenced in with only a few guarded entrances, or they are combined with shopping malls, like the central bus station of Tel Aviv which is situated on floors 4 to 6 of a gigantic shopping complex (the busses have to drive up long twisting ramps to get there, quite spectacular).

City busses are a different story, they stop in the streets and are very vulnerable. In Jerusalem suicide attacks on city busses have occurred quite a few times, so before my trip I'd resolved to just use taxis in that city, but after all the insane death rides in Syrian and Lebanese taxis and mini-busses it seemed quite ridiculous to worry about the tiny risk of a terrorist attack now. So like most Israelis I just ignored it and used the bus when I needed to get around. Most busses had a security guard on them who at each stop was the first to jump off the bus and look at the people waiting to get on, if any. I don't think it's very effective, but there's little else they can do, except put a guard or soldiers at each single bus stop which would be very expensive. I wondered what would happen if an Arabic person in a loose robe would get on the bus, but I never saw that happen.

The most remarkable thing about all these security measures is that they seem to be working. Some terrorist attacks still succeed, but there are much fewer attempts than there used to be and most of them fail. Israeli society may still be affected, but it is by no means paralysed. The security measures aren't really that much of a nuisance, and the casualty rate is not nearly high enough to cause widespread panic. Israel could probably live like this forever without ever feeling a need to make concessions to terrorists. In that sense, it has already defeated terrorism.

I found it interesting to watch all this first hand not only because it characterises the region, but also because it may be a preview of what's in store for Europe. If islamic extremism continues to grow here, and more attacks like the Madrid bombings occur, we will probably see our society adapt in the same way Israel did. Much as I hope this will never be needed, it is good to know that it can be done succesfully without too many sacrifices to civil rights and liberty and without having to discriminate against local muslims.


While Israeli society has learned to deal with terrorism, its tourism industry has been heavily hit by it. Everywhere I went I found that many hotels and tourism services mentioned in my four year old travel guide had recently closed. I suspect this has just as much to do with the bad image Israel's own policies have given it though. An indication of this is that most of the tourists in Israel are Americans (who generally don't have a bad opinion about Israel). It was really remarkable, because in the other countries I visited during this trip I never once met an American.

<< Part 7: Israel (north and west)    -    Back to Index    -    Part 9: The West Bank >>          

Godsmurf Tue 24 Feb 2009 @ 11:55
About equally funny I'd say. And I have no problem with anyone calling my clothes funny. Still, it's hard to beat men who wear women's shoes and put plastic bags over their big black hats when it rains. But there can never be too much funny-ness in the world so bless 'em.

Marvin Tue 17 Feb 2009 @ 15:02
You keep mentioning the "funny" clothes that religious Jews wear throughout your writings of the Israeli portion of your trip. Are they as funny as the strange copies of middle eastern attire that Catholic priests; nuns; and the Pope wear?
You look strange as well wearing funny European clothes.

My suggestion look in a mirror before you comment on others.

Flylice Tue 10 Jul 2007 @ 09:17
Alright, thanks for helping me waste 3 hrs at work...but anyway great travelog! I'm going to Syria & Jordan in august, but only have 3 weeks :(

Silvia Thu 29 Jun 2006 @ 04:13
I just love your website. It's excellent. Didn't read everything, but great pics.

Godsmurf Mon 10 Apr 2006 @ 13:41
I wouldn't recommend it, based on what a German girl who lived in Damascus told me (cfr the last paragraph of part 5), but on the LP forums I often see female solo-travelers who say they had no problems.

Ira Sun 09 Apr 2006 @ 20:58
Nice pics...very interesting.
Is it safe for a single woman to travel to Syria? Do we have to wear head scarf too?

Zoltan Fri 07 Apr 2006 @ 17:15
Hi Godsmurf!

Excellent site;I spent hours to read Your comments and check out the photos.
Good Job!

zeituni Sun 02 Apr 2006 @ 12:29
Hi again!

According to my sister(who until recently lived in East Jerusalem), there are quite a few Christians living in the old quarter and other parts of Jerusalem. However, they might not use the churches most commonly visited by tourists. When I was there there was also a grand celebration taking place at the convent of St Mary Magdalene and the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent. There were hardly anyone but Palestinians there, admitedly, some of them were from areas like Bethlehem or Beit'Jallah.

I know I'm not bringing firm statistics to back up this, but that was her notion and my impression as well.

Anyway, just a comment!

Still a very great travelogue! And on point on the Israeli border personnel!

Godsmurf Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 22:05
Thank you! If you have any questions feel free to ask, my mail is linked at the bottom of each page.

Vedica Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 09:17
i love your travelogue!! is amazingly interesting!
Am planning a trip to middle east myself (around July - yes i know itll be hot) and your site has been an EXCELLENT guide and resource! thanks for sharing!

cathleen Tue 28 Mar 2006 @ 08:36
great writeing and photos you really have a talent at breaking things down e.i. the formation of the isreali state etc. very objective

Godsmurf Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:04
Thanx for the compliments, glad to have readers :)

Well I'm not sure (I said they're *probably* not christians) but firstly I don't think I ever saw a Palestinian in any of Jerusalem's churches, and secondly I sensed humour instead of devotion in the way they were selling christian souvenirs. But I could be wrong of course. Am I?

zeituni Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 08:25
Fantastic travelogue! Are you writing a book?

One question however; why do you assume the Palestinians in the Christian quarter are not actually Christians?

hasof_TT Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 00:11
Great trip report. Was going to just scan, but got intrigued and am reading it word for word. Thanks for sharing!


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