My final days in the Holy Land include sightseeing two remarkable sites of excavation - Herodium and Masada. Both were built by Herod the Great (73-4 BCE), King of Judea under the Roman Empire. Both became a rebel stronghold during the Jewish Revolt against the Romans.
Located on a hill, Herodium or Herod's Palace is 6km from Bethlehem, 17km from Jerusalem. From the admission centre, the path circling upwards provide stunning views of the Judean Desert.
After watching years of Western media reports of the West Bank, I am initially unsure about visiting. However, a chance meeting with other experienced travelers reassure me of the decision to go.
From the Israeli town of Nazareth, I board a service taxi to Jenin; a Palestinian town in the West Bank. These service taxis are mini vans that function the same way as buses. Beside me sits an Israeli Arab woman, who goes to Jenin once a month to see her boyfriend. While she is free to visit the West Bank, he cannot enter Israel.
“What happens if you marry?” I ask. The situation seems no different. He still cannot move to Israel (or it is near impossible). She can move to the West Bank but cannot come back.
On reaching the checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank, the driver stops, collects our identification. He shows them to the guards before returning them to us. In a straightforward process, he drives us into the West Bank.
The road from Jenin to Ramallah passes some beautiful countryside; a semi-desert land of mountains and valleys.
After leaving Jerusalem, I make my way to the Sea of Galilee. To a town called Tiberias on the western shores.
Much has been written about this ancient city but what is like in the present? Firstly, I see very little of the large urban area. It is the Old City that takes my interest. For several days, I explore this grand walled complex of Old Jerusalem. At times, lost in the busyness and narrow streets. Among its people are Jews, Christians, Muslims, tourists, civilians and soldiers. The political divide is obvious. Greetings I hear include:
“Welcome to Israel.”
“Welcome to Palestine.”
And my personal favourite (occurring later in Nazareth): “Welcome to the Holy Land.”
Prior to my travels in Israel (or Palestine), almost all my knowledge of this region has come from the media and bible. Naively, I approach it like any country, which it is not. This is a heavily disputed place where politics, history and religion are almost one and the same.
My first taste comes during an overnight stay in Amman; the capital city of Jordan. By chance, I share a dinner table with four ladies from the Gaza Strip. Eager to make conversation, I tell them I am going to Israel tomorrow. After a moment's hesitation, one lady states, "Don’t say Israel. It’s Palestine."