Holy Holidays: 48 hours in Jerusalem

For a crash course in monotheism - or just for a fascinating and sybaritic weekend exploring the cradle of Western culture, make for the Holy City,
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The Independent Online
Why go now?

Easter is, of course, the time when the Christian faithful flock to the Holy City. And at this time of year in Jerusalem the weather can be perfect.

Beam down

El Al (0171-957 4100) flies scheduled from Heathrow and Stansted to Tel Aviv; British Airways (0345 222111) has services from Gatwick and Heathrow. Charter flights from London and Manchester to Tel Aviv and Eilat are widely available for around pounds 200, through agents such as Pullman Holidays (0171- 630 5111).

From Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv, there are regular buses and shared taxes which take about an hour to reach Jerusalem,

Get your bearings

Jerusalem's streets are not based on logic. Nor, it seems, do they bear close relation to the maps available. But basically it's a divided city - east is Arab, west is Jewish, though Jewish settlement building has somewhat blurred that. The Old City is walled, and divided into quarters by religion - Jewish, Muslim, Armenian. Outside it and running down to it (more or less) are the main streets in Jewish west Jerusalem - Jaffa Road - and in Arab east Jerusalem - Salah-u-din street. It is easy to get lost.

Check in

Just in east Jerusalem is the legendary American Colony Hotel (00 972 2 628 5171). It has nothing to do with America. It is English-owned, Swiss managed and Palestinian staffed. It was a pasha's palace, has a delightful courtyard and garden, and is the place to stay.

A cheaper alternative - with character - is the YMCA (00 972 2 625 711) in west Jerusalem, opposite the King David Hotel. (There's a Y in the east, too.) This has a good restaurant, and the terrace is a calm place in an often frenetic city.

Take in a view

Jerusalem is an intensely complex city, in its geography, politics, demography, religions and history. If you've just arrived, it can be difficult to get the measure of the place. There are two places to go at the start which will make the rest of what you see easier to understand.

Head for the Haas Promenade on the edge of West Jerusalem. It's a 10- or 15-minute taxi ride from the centre. You take the Bethlehem Road south and turn left. Suddenly all is laid out before you. You are looking across to the Old City - the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock may be shining in the sun. On your left is the modern capital of Israel. On the right is Arab east Jerusalem. On the hills around are the blocks of housing - the settlements the Israelis have built since 1967, to surround the city and consolidate their hold on it. Modern, recent and ancient history and legend are laid out before you. Pore over your map. Look at the names. The Bible story is out there.

In front of you and to the right of the old city is the Mount of Olives. Go there for a closer overview of the Old City and the Dome, with the new city behind. On the way stop on the ridge outside the Hebrew University and look west over the city and east to the desert, the Jordan valley and the hills of Jordan.

Take a walk

Time to plunge into the Old City. To get the full impact of this remarkable place, and what made it, go to the three shrines of the three religions which have competed, and still do, for Jerusalem. They're all within a very short walk of each other.

The Western Wall (please don't call it the "Wailing" wall), Judaism's holiest shrine, is all that remains of the Temple of Solomon. Above, on the site of that temple, is Islam's third holiest site (after Mecca and Medina) the Haram-al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) which contains Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. A few hundred yards away is Chrsitianity's shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on what is reputed to be the site of Christ's crucifixion and burial.

Marvel at how close they all are, and how this really is the crucible of monotheistic religious faith (and intolerance). Bear in mind that the rivalry is within the faiths, not just between them. As you walk around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you will pass through the areas possessed by six branches of Christianity: the Latin Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, the Syrians, the Copts and the Ethiopians (presumably the last in, as they ended up on the roof). Each jealously guards its territory. And at busy times - such as Easter - these men of God have been known to thump each other, and the temporal power, currently Israel, has had to send in riot police to separate them. To do all three holy sites, you need to start early, because tourists are allowed on to the Haram-al-Sharif only during the morning.

Lunch on the run

There are many cafes in the Old City. For the best coffee, look for the ones inhabited by locals in the Muslim quarter. Follow your nose for barbecueing kebabs. Here, or in the Jewish quarter, seek out the hummus that looks as if it's made on the premises, with whole chick peas and tahina.

Window shopping

Palestinian pottery is a good buy - the little bowls and vases make excellent presents. To get the best hand-painted stuff go to the pottery outside the Old City, opposite the East Jerusalem YMCA near St George's Cathedral. Pottery in more modern design is made by an Armenian potter called Hagop. Go to the Armenian quarter of the Old City, near the Patriarchate, and ask for him.

An aperitif

Finks is an eccentric little bar in West Jerusalem, on a street corner near the top of the Ben Yehudat pedestrian mall. Before the - surprisingly recent - explosion of drinking places in west Jerusalem, Finks was the only real bar. It's a piece of central Europe in the Middle East - and if the weather's cold, you can warm up there with their goulash soup. In east Jerusalem, go to the American Colony Hotel. In winter, try the cellar bar; in summer, make for the bar in the garden. Both alternatives are under the guidance of Ibrahim, a prince among barmen - a teetotaller who understands drink. The American Colony is a place for appreciative individual travellers, and is not cheap.


Go to either of the above, or, for wonderful fresh fish brought up daily from the coast, make for Ocean next to Beit Agron in west Jerusalem. It's expensive. Kebabs and Arabic mezze are good at East Jerusalem's Azzahara Hotel. There's a terrace if it's hot, and even an open fire inside.

Sunday morning: go to church

Jerusalem is a very rich diet. After the extravagances of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you may appreciate a simple, impressive and rather more spiritual place. This is the 12th-century St Anne's Church, built by the Crusaders. It's just inside St Stephen's gate in the Muslim quarter of the Old City.

A note of caution

Remember, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists and Jerusalem is a bitterly divided city. Tourists have, by and large, not been targeted, but violence is always likely.

The icing on the cake

Birds. In spring Israel is one of the most crowded routes in the world for birds flying between Africa and northern Europe. The best chance of seeing flocks is on the coastal plain on the way to and from the airport, and in the Jordan valley (half an hour from Jerusalem). Down there, watch the phone wires by the road for bee-eaters, which are seen as a glorious splash of bright greens and blues.

Alex Brodie is a presenter on Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, and a former Middle East Correspondent of the BBC