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What every independent pilgrim needs to know about visiting Jerusalem

You don’t have to take a package tour to have a successful visit to the Holy City

By on Monday, 1 July 2013

Pilgrims lift a Cross for hire outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (AP)

Pilgrims lift a Cross for hire outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (AP)

“I have always wanted to go to Jerusalem!” That is the refrain I frequently hear when I say that I spend a few months here in the Holy City every year. The word “Jerusalem” is like a drumbeat in the heads of Christians. Some long to explore the earthly Jerusalem, others seek the heavenly Jerusalem. Many seek both. Such is the fascination of the Holy City that the annual number of tourists visiting it has doubled recently to four million. While some Catholics wait to find a suitable package deal or group tour, more and more pilgrims now make the trip independently.

As the London to Israel route is competitive the journey is not too expensive. Direct flights from London to Ben-Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, are about five hours and the 25-mile drive up the steep Judean Hills to Jerusalem, even in peak hour traffic, is less than an hour. While British Airways return flights from Heathrow start at £450 return, the cheapest return easyJet fare from Luton can sometimes be less than half that, if booked far enough in advance. El Al also has a range of fares from both Heathrow and Luton. An efficient shuttle service of Nesher mini-buses (£12) compensates for the lack of direct public transport from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem. A taxi costs £45.

Many solo travellers stay in the very heart of the Old City in the long-established low-cost Christian hospices. All have their own chapels. The star of these is the imposing Austrian Hospice (Austrianhospice.com, single room B&B £57 a night) under the direction of the indefatigable Sister Bernadette. Its appeal, apart from its grandeur, expansive views and peaceful gardens, is that it is right on the Via Dolorosa, the route along which Jesus carried his Cross to his Crucifixion. Nearby is the Ecce Homo (Eccehomoconvent.org, single room B&B £43 a night) run by the Sisters of Zion. This convent hospice, between the second and the third stations, houses a relic from the Fortress Antonia, part of the pavement which Pontius Pilate allegedly stood on when he condemned Jesus. An even larger Catholic hospice is Casa Nova (Custodia.org, single room B&B £46 a night) conveniently close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Making one’s way through the cobbled labyrinth of narrow alleyways of the Old City may be atmospheric but it can sometimes be challenging. This is especially so on a Friday. At 3pm (4pm in summer) the Franciscans lead the procession of the Way of the Cross. Friday is also a holy day for Muslims when the faithful from East Jerusalem make their way through lanes swarming with people to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. As Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath, is observed from just before sunset on Fridays until three special stars appear in the sky on Saturday night, thousands of Jews, many in black hats and black coats, start making their way to the Western Wall on Fridays. Although it is often a matter of elbow-pushing to make headway, as one priest said: “Here you come face to face with the seemingly intractable problem of how two very different peoples can live together.”

Whatever the time or day, tourists soon learn to ignore the sales pleas of the vendors in the tiny stalls and shops which overflow into the footpaths. Many, though, make their way to two famed cafes which serve fresh hummus with light pitta bread: Lina’s, not far from Christian Quarter Road, and Abu Shukri, opposite the fifth station on Via Dolorosa.

One advantage of basing oneself in the Old City is the marvellous sense of history, of staying somewhere which has been inhabited for more than 3,000 years. Visitors must reach their destinations by foot as most of the old narrow alleys and crowded lanes are inaccessible to cars.

Instead of hiring a guide many tourists and pilgrims go to the Christian Information Centre (Cicts.org) opposite the Tower of David, near Jaffa Gate. The well-informed staff, including a tri-lingual priest, are more than helpful. With maps, lists and fact-filled advice, they explain everything from how to catch Palestinian bus number 21 to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity or where to get the 486 or 487 Israeli Egged bus to Qumran or Masada on the Dead Sea. Most importantly, the office also houses the Mass reservation office (email: fpo@cicts.org), where bookings can be made for priests, religious communities and groups to celebrate Mass at the shrines under the care of the Custody of the Holy Land. Among the dozens of churches, these include the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the church at Gethsemane.

Another benefit of staying within the ancient walls of the Old City is that pilgrims can easily make daily visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred place in Christendom. Daunting and awesome candlelight processions take place there at 4pm every afternoon (5pm in summer). High Mass is at 6.30am (7.30am in summer) and on Sundays at 5.30am (6.30am in summer). In keeping with Pope Francis’s broadening of the Church and the “inclusion” of the believers of other faiths, many Catholics also join Jews at the Western Wall and the usually long queue to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Interestingly, by travelling with a friend or partner pilgrims are, according to Naomi Tsur, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, leaving a more positive footprint than those on an organised tour. She explained that buses leave their engines on “while the emerging group goes into a heritage site like a swarm of bees”. As a major goal of the city is now to encourage family or individual tourists, she added: “An individual tourist is completely different from a group which generates the dynamic of a crowd that sticks together and somehow invades the local scene. Individuals, however, have the capacity to blend and merge into the local environment. A group is not going to be integrated into the local experience because they will somehow be walled in by the group dynamic.”

Ten must-sees in Jerusalem by Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor OP

Within the Old City:

– The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified and buried

– The Dome of the Rock on the great esplanade of Herod Temple

– The Wailing Wall or Western Wall, the most sacred site in the Jewish faith outside the Temple Mount itself

– St Anne’s Crusader church

– The Tower of David – Citadel Museum (relates the history of Jerusalem and the surrounding area)

– The underground areas in the City of David (its Bronze Age excavations are the oldest settled area of the city)

– The Rampart’s Walk along the top of the walls surrounding the Old City

Outside the Old City:

– The Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus spent his last free night on earth) and the Mount of Olives

– The Israel Museum which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls (and the Biblelands Museum next to it)

– The top of the Mount of Olives for an overview of the Old City

  • Ann Farr

    When visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem pilgrims need to see the reality of the occupation by Israel. We have the freedom to visit any of the holy sites but Palestinians who do not live in those cities are denied access without special permits from Israel – which are rarely granted. Bethlehem is totally surrounded by the 8 metre Israeli separation barrier and many ‘tourists’ never see the extent of this or hear the stories of those Christian and Moslem Palestinians who have to live with the effects of it. Losing land, olive groves and homes to the wall. Jerusalem, a holy place for Jews, Christians and Moslems is not accessible to those who live in other parts of the West Bank.
    Jesus would surely be alongside those who are suffering – when we go – we too need to be alongside them. Not just passing through from holy site to holy site.
    The Christian leaders of Palestine ask us to go and see but they ask us to go and see the truth and to take a position of truth with regard to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. (Kairos Palestine 2009).

  • Arn Dekker

    Visitors to the holy sites need to be aware of the ethnic cleansing going on in the area. As prisoners in their own country, walled-in Palestinians welcome visitors to tell them of the daily discrimination and humiliation going on.
    Pilgrims should remember that visiting prisoners is one of the Acts of Mercy.

  • Jonathan Adams

    Two extra suggestions:

    Many people are uncomfortable with the crowds and tourist cameras and the occasional tensions between different denominations in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Do visit this Church, of course, but you might also value the peace and beauty of the nearby (Lutheran) Church of the Redeemer.

    The excavations at the “City of David” are worth a visit – especially on the tour run some Saturdays by the archaeological organisation Emek Shaveh ( http://www.alt-arch.org/tours.php). Do recognise, however, that the excavations present a preconceived Davidic view of Jerusalem – destroying later archaeology and paying no attention to earlier remains. It is good to go another 100 metres down the hill to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center and learn what it is like to be a Palestinian resident now of a place with 5000 years of history.

  • Ashley Burke

    Ethnic cleansing? I just walked through a park in the center of Jerusalem yesterday afternoon, and I saw Muslims AND Jews and their children at the same park, GASP! You’re so full of it, you’ve probably never even been here.

  • Ashley Burke

    I’ve been to Bethlehem then back to Jerusalem. I walked right through the gates both times, no one even wanted to see my papers. And ironically I was going to a Christian Arab church, where those leaders frequently come to Jerusalem. I’ve been to a Christian Arab church in Nazareth where the pastor loves Jews and loves Israel. If you think Jerusalem is not accessible to Arabs living outside Jerusalem, then you’ve never been here, or you were here with a blindfold over your eyes. Get a life. Get a brain. Without that wall people would still be terrified to ride the buses.

  • Maureen Jack

    A lovely thing to do late afternoon on a Friday is to join the nuns from the nearby convent on their prayer walk along the Bethlehem side of the separation barrier. They walk just beside the car checkpoint, the hole in the wall through which tourist buses pass with a minimal check. You will meet there the Palestinian woman in her sixties whose olive groves the Israeli authorities confiscated to build the wall. A Christian, she has been granted permits by the israeli authorities to make visits to Jerusalem at Easter and Christmas. This must mean that she is not seen as a security threat. When her daughter, who lives in Jerusalem, had her first baby, she naturally wanted to go to visit her daughter, who was ill, and to see her first grandchild. But the Israeli authorities refused her a permit. It is so important that pilgrims who go to visit the land of the Holy One also visit the living stones and listen to their stories.

  • Liz Burroughs

    Liz Burroughs

    You may well have walked in and out of Bethlehem without being challenged but I can
    assure you that you are one of a very small minority. Neither Israeli
    citizens nor Palestinians are allowed free passsge through that
    checkpoint. On your way towards the gate, you will have passed a notice
    saying: “Entrance to Palestinian Authoritiy Territories: no passage
    for Israeli citizens” and my Israeli friends tell me that, if they
    were found to be in Bethlehem or any other part of Area C of the West
    Bank, they would be arrested and the consequences would not be
    funny. As for the Palestinians, I too know a few people who are allowed
    to travel backwards and forwards to Jerusalem
    but the vast majority of Bethlehem-
    ites are not. Even those with permits experience difficulties. Next
    time you are in the area I suggest that you stand on the Bethlehem side of the checkpoint at about 6
    am and then try and walk through it with the Palestinians. That
    would certainly remove the blindfold from your eyes!

  • AmyK

    Pilgrims and tourists should also remember that people live and work in the old city of Jerusalem- it isn’t just for you to have a religious experience. By all means, visit the sacred spots, but remember that the crowd you are pushing through are people who depend on this place for their livelihoods, and many actually live there as well. I’ve seen many groups of religious pilgrims who, in their personal piety, have knocked over shop stands and banged people in the head with their wooden crosses as they’ve made their way up the Via Dolorosa.

  • cestusdei

    They should also be aware that Muslims are ethnically cleansing Christians from the West Bank. I talked to them and they told me that they prefer the Israelis’ over the Palestinian authority.

  • cestusdei

    It is important also to talk to Christians who have had their land seized by Muslims on the West Bank and are afraid to do anything about it.

  • cestusdei

    You can also visit the Temple Mount and see where the Palestinians have destroyed evidence of the Jewish temple.

  • cestusdei

    I took the bus both ways to Bethlehem. Both ways there were Arabs. Yes, the checked our papers but it wouldn’t be an issue if there were no suicide bombers. I was also there when the Muslims fired rockets at Jerusalem. Obviously trying to cause civilian casualties.

  • Maureen Jack

    Could you tell me how to contact Christians in this situation? I’ve spent a lot of time on the West Bank, know a number of Palestinian Christians, and have never heard any suggestion of Muslims taking Christians’ land.

  • Angela Godfrey

    Cestusdei: Sounds like you’ve been led up a garden path. Bethlehem has always been a paradigm of co-existence between Christians and Muslims until this day. But if you read the Kairos Palestine document, you’ll see that the Christian Palestinians are having it hard (and their lands seized) by the Israeli Occupation. This is causing them to leave, and Palestine is losing that paradigm of co-existence, so if Palestine does ever get full statehood (which frankly I hope for, because the alternatives are much tougher to reach, and probably far more fraught and bloody…not to say suicidal for we Israelis as a state) I certainly hope that the Occupation hasn’t ended their ability to live easily together, including via intermarriage, which used to be regular.

  • Angela Godfrey

    Cestusdei: The suicide bombings were a (misguided, in my opinion) strategy of Hamas in direct response to the massacre by the Jewish terrorist, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, in the holy of holies in Hebron (the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Ibrahimi Mosque) when he slaughtered 29 Muslims at prayer during the holy month of Ramadan during their early morning prayer. They, Hamas, decided that the massacre was a sufficient outrage that justified attacking Israeli civilians in revenge and to force Israel to want to make peace. (I learned this from a New York Times journalist who interviewed Rantisi at the time…) But generally the militant Palestinians –secular, Christian and Muslim– are resisting Occupation, or fighting for freedom. Just as my fellow Israelis engaged in attacks to liberate their homeland from the British in the 40s- the King David Hotel bombing killed over 90 British and others, carried out by terrorists who later became prime ministers – Begin, Shamir and others of the Stern Gang or Etzel or Irgun.

  • IJ

    It is also worth noting that what is now the Old City is centred on the Holy Sepulchre, which in Jesus’ time was OUTSIDE the Jewish city walls. Literally during the 300 yrs of Christian rule Jerusalem was literally rebuilt and expanded with the place of Christ’s Passion And Resurrection at its heart. The Old City is the Christian city Jerusalem and the ancient Syrian Christians still celebrate their liturgy in Aramaic. The major places associated with Jesus, His Blessed Mother and the apostles all had substantial and magnificent churches constructed during these Byzantine centuries which really were the glory days of the city never paralleled before or since. Enjoy!

  • cestusdei

    So there were no suicide bombings before Goldstein? And everyone of them did it because of Goldstein? So killing Jewish kids is okay then? What about the Christians on the West Bank who are occupied and oppressed by the Muslims?

  • cestusdei

    Sure, just go to Bethlehem and chat with the Christians when no Muslim is around.

  • cestusdei

    I think you are on the garden path. I talked with them and they basically have to pretend that all is well in order to avoid further assaults by the Muslims. It isn’t the Israelis that are kidnapping and raping their daughters. That’s what you call “intermarriage.” Wake up.

  • AngelaJerusalem

    Give me some names, cestusdei. I speak with Bethlehem Christians regularly, and this goes completely against everything they regularly say.

  • AngelaJerusalem

    No. There were no suicide bombings before Goldstein. Go check. Do your homework. But I don’t think it will convince you, because you’ve already made up your mind what you choose or want to believe. And no, of course killing is not okay. We Israelis have killed, on average, ten times as many Palestinian children as vice versa. That, too, is not okay. (http://www.justice-and-peace.org/PolicyAdvocacy/pahome2.5.nsf/0/A26FD9DD5802E1F088256E4600836288/$file/WipeAwayTears_web3.pdf)

  • TieHard

    This area was almost totally Jewish until the Romans ethnically cleansed Jerusalem destroying every tree and burning vegetation for 12 miles around and moving hundreds of thousands of people …thousands of escaping Jews were killed mercilessly…crucified in various postures …. the surrounding Jews fled homeless…to other lands . After the conversion of the Roman Empire this land eventually became Christian and was so for hundreds of years until it was taken with brutal force by Muslims who enslaved and taxed the local population and forced conversions. These became what we now call the Palestinians… The Christians were trapped and persecuted for centuries since…The Palestinians backed the wrong side when they supported the Nazis and made overtures to Hitler, – following WW2 they had few friends and their land and power base was taken over and the Jews who now had friends gradually came back and the State of Israel was reformed. This re forming of Israel was prophesied in the Bible. Amazing. All Christians should wonder at this unfolding of God’s plan which even emerged through our stupidity and war and brutality. As Christians we should also hope for peaceful relationships between both groups… but is it in the interests of elements in the Muslim population to live in peace? Lets see how they respond to the new offer of peace talks made yesterday by the Israelis .

  • cestusdei

    The whole point is that they don’t want to give their names. They fear retaliation. I am not alone in seeing this:

    http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3190798,00.html

  • cestusdei

    Really? They just invented them because of Goldstein? LOL. You are the one who refuses to see the truth. In every place where Muslims are the majority they persecute Christians. Ask the Copts. Muslims who live in Israel are much better off there. They could certainly leave and live with their coreligionists, but they don’t. Considering how much hate that Muslims have for Israel and their attempts to kill every last one of you it is amazing how blind you are to their intentions.

  • Tridentinus

    A great book to read is “Jerusalem : The Biography,” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. In it he relates the history of this city from its inception unto the present day.

    After reading it I concluded it that the present situation in the Holy City is little different from what it has always been throughout its history.

  • TieHard

    Sounds interesting will get a copy