Hi, I'm Rick Steves overlooking Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. To a Christian, this is where Jesus was crucified and buried. To a Muslim, this is where Mohammed ascended to Heaven. And to a Jew, this is where the Temple of Solomon stood. The crossroads of three great religions, Jerusalem has been fought over for centuries. This is the Holy Land.
In this show we're going beyond Europe to sample the wonders of Israel — from the historic and religious highlights of Jerusalem to the chic and modern spirit of Tel Aviv. Along the way we'll explore the ancient fortress of Masada, look for miracles on the Sea of Galilee, visit a Kibbutz and bob like a cork on the super salty Dead Sea.
In the Middle East Israel faces the Mediterranean Sea surrounded by Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Starting in the Holy city of Jerusalem we'll descend to the Dead Sea, and then climb the nearby historic mountain fortress of Masada, we'll relax in the seaside city of Tel Aviv, head up the coast to fortified Akko, then finish on the Sea of Galilee.
Whether you're a pilgrim or a tourist or a little of both, Israel offers a world of memorable experiences.
Here, on the Mount of Olives, some trees date back to Biblical times. Many believe that this is where Jesus ascended to Heaven and where he'll return to Earth. And, with the coming, of the Messiah, Jews buried in this crowded cemetery expect to be the first to meet him.
Jerusalem's importance rests upon a very special rock...on what Jews call Temple Mount. Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven from this rock and they have worshipped at a mosque here for 1300 years.
The golden Dome of the Rock is one of Jerusalem's enduring landmarks. Intricate geometric designs in stone and tile fit within its pure and simple lines. Muslims, Jews, and Christians all teach that Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son here. And long before the angel stopped Abraham's knife, even prehistoric religions considered this a holy spot. The rock was likely an altar for blood sacrifices.
This hill is the third most sacred location in all of Islam, and the same piece of land is the number one sacred spot for Jews.
When King David captured Jerusalem in about 1000 before Christ, he united the 12 tribes of Israel. His son, Solomon, built the First Temple right here. Later, Assyrians and Babylonians destroyed the united kingdom of Israel, and with it, Solomon's Temple.
But Herod, a Jew who was the Roman King of Judea in 31 BC, rebuilt Jerusalem and expanded a second temple which stood here. The western foundation of this Second Temple survives. Here — at what's called the Western Wall or Wailing Wall — orthodox Jews mourn the Roman destruction of the Jewish nation in 70 ad.
This began the "Diaspora," or dispersal of the Jewish people, which ended only with the establishment of modern Israel in 1948.
The square operates as an open-air synagogue — the most sacred in Judaism. The faithful believe prayers left in cracks in the Western Wall will be answered.
Old Jerusalem, circled by sixteenth century Ottoman ramparts, is divided into four quarters: The Jewish quarter springs from the Western Wall. The Muslim quarter faces the Dome of the Rock. And north of the Armenian Quarter, the Christian quarter surrounds the site of Jesus' crucifixion — marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
A high point for visiting Christians is the Via Dolorosa — tracing the route thought to be the one Jesus walked as he carried the cross.
The 14 "stations of the cross" remind the faithful of the events which culminated in the crucifixion. This is the third station, marking the spot where Jesus fell for the first time.
The pilgrims' journey ends in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Calvary Hill. Today the dark, sprawling Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the most sacred site in Christendom, is shared by Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Ethiopian, Coptic and Roman Catholic Christians.
I made an offering and asked a Coptic monk to say a prayer.
Rick: This is for my family...Anne and Jackie.
Monk: God Bless you, Anne and Jackie.
Rick: Thank you.
While Emperor Constantine had the first church built here in the fourth century, most of today's church is the work of twelfth century Crusaders. Wrapping Calvary Hill in a cluster of chapels, the church has a confusing multi-leveled layout.
At the top, a Greek Orthodox chapel marks the site considered to be the place where Jesus was crucified. Only a few steps away, under a grand dome, pilgrims' line up to enter the Holy Sepulchre and place a candle near the tomb of Jesus.
Exactly where Jesus was buried is disputed. Some Christians, many of them Protestants, believe The Garden Tomb at Gathsemany is the place and they come to this garden setting to remember.
It also dates from the time of Christ and, according to the Bible, Jesus was buried in a tomb like this. On the third day, he rose from the dead. And an angel rolled away the stone.
This model at the Holyland Hotel shows what Jerusalem looked like in the first century. You can see that old Jerusalem was tiny — only about one square kilometer — easy to explore on foot.
The Damascus Gate leads from modern Jerusalem into the old town's Arab Quarter. While modern Jerusalem teems with over half a million, only 30,000 people live here in the old city.
A ride on a Jerusalem city bus shows this culture's fascinating mix of modern and traditional. 80% of all Israelis are Jewish but most are non-practicing. Only 15% of Israeli Jews are Orthodox. 10% of the population is Arab and Muslim. Christians make up a tiny minority.
With the Jews, Muslims and Christians celebrating their Sabbath on different days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday are each holy days or days of rest for some part of the population.
If you read just the headlines, a visit could seem reckless. For 1500 years Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived together here, but not always peacefully. Jerusalem has been conquered eleven times and virtually destroyed five times. The presence of armed soldiers is nothing new.
I try not to let the threat of terrorism keep me at home. Of course, there's no substitute for common sense, doing your homework and being aware of trouble spots. But sadly, from London to New York or Oklahoma City — fanatics lurk at the edge of every day life.
In the Middle East, the pulse of the people resounds in open air bazaars and farmers markets. Here's where you get up close— and in Israel, olive-lovers find one more reason to call this the holy land.
Sabras are popular, prickly cactus fruits, but here the word has another meaning.
Man: The people who are born in Israel, ...we call them Sabra.
Man: We are tough on the outside, but on the inside, we are sweet.
Now, let's join the locals in an afternoon stroll down Ben Yahuda Street in Jerusalem's new city.
Jerusalem is a modern, people-packed city in love with life and in love with the Falafel — deep-fried ground chick pea balls served in pita bread with vegetables and spicy tahina sauce. Here's the falafel challenge: pack the chick-pea balls and various salads and sauerkraut into the pocket bread and season with spicy sauce. Then bite off the parts before they leak.
Israel is small, the size of New Jersey. And with its fine national bus service, getting around is easy and inexpensive. Bus connections are frequent to nearly all points. The exception is the Jewish Sabbath, sundown Friday through Saturday, when business in Israel nearly comes to a halt.
A must for any visitor: a trip down to the Dead Sea. And I mean down. At 1300 feet below sea level, you can't get any lower without a submarine.
This was the site of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorra. According to the Old Testament when God was about to destroy the cities, Lot's wife was warned to flee and not look back or she'd be turned into a pillar of salt. She looked back and the Dead Sea has been salty ever since.
But, as usual, scientists have their own explanation. The Jordan River empties into the lake and the only way for its water to escape is through evaporation. Evaporation concentrates the salt.
So, this land-locked lake is eight times saltier than the ocean — you'll float like a cork. And a dip rubs salt on cuts you didn't know you had. Keep the water out of your eyes and float near a shower. We're here in the spring and it's already hot. The heat gets unbearable in the summer.
Dead Sea spas — like this one run by Ein Gedi Kibbutz — have an impressive brag list. The air is clean and thick — there's 10% more oxygen here than at sea level — and the air is soothing. The haze is from bromine ... a natural tranquilizer. The Ein Gedi Spa used to be on the waterfront. But lately, with the Dead Sea dropping even lower, guests hop a little train to get to the water's edge. And if you just can't find the fountain of youth, how about the "mud baths of youth?"
We're sleeping at the Ein Gedi Kibbutz's popular 200 room guest house. There are about 250 kibbutz communities in Israel. Brian Denn, is a Texan joined this one 20 years ago.
Brian Denn: ...Mikhail Gorbachav came to Ein Gedi in 1991 and he walked around for like three hours mumbling to himself that this is what their founding fathers had in mind when their country was founded. He went back to Russia and couldn't get it out of his mind how the Jews in the middle of the desert had been able to come up with this oasis. Everything that they really represented had nothing to do with true communism...it was totalitarian — here, you can come and go as you want. We're always influenced by the negative connotation [of the word "Communism"] but true communism [in its pure sense — ] in its positive sense — is "equality" and that's what we have here in kibbutz.
Today the average Kibbutznik wants to live as comfortable a life as anyone else in the Western world and they look to the Western world as a standard of living. There's no better place in the world to raise children than kibbutz. It's a funny joke — 'this is the best place to be a little child and to be an old person — to grow old at', but it's really good for the in-between-years too.
Nearly 200,000 Israelis choose to live the collective life in kibbutz's. And the socialistic communities provide much of Israel's farm production. Only minutes away from Ein Gedi stands another reminder of Israel's commitment to its land and culture.
We're taking the gondola up to the powerful and historical mountain-top fortress of Masada. Masada was built over 2,000 years ago, back when the Jews were the rebellious subjects of Roman occupation. In 70 AD, Roman Emperor Titus, in an effort to put down the Jews once and for all, destroyed much of Jerusalem. Nearly 1,000 Jewish rebels — the original Zealots — fled to this fortress to defend their families and religion.
An army of 15,000 Romans attacked the rebels at Masada — you can still see the remains of their camp. Preferring a direct attack to a long, 'starve-'em-out' siege, the Roman army had a huge ramp built up this mountain. Knowing the Zealots wouldn't kill their own countrymen, they forced Jewish slaves to do the back breaking construction.
Slowly, under the frustrated gaze of the rebels, the ramp was completed. The Jewish rebels realized they were doomed to a life of slavery or worse. So, on the eve of the inevitable Roman breakthrough, Masada's rebels methodically took their own lives.
Today, Masada reminds us that Israel's staunch "they'll never take us alive" commitment to independence started 2,000 years ago. This patriotic site is popular for Israeli school children, for the ceremony swearing in Israeli soldiers, and for tourists — including survivors of Nazi concentration camps.
Jack Rosenthal: This number A11832 was when I was in Auschitz. There, I didn't have a name I just had a number. Today my name is Jack Rosenthal. I live in the United States. Whenever I am in Israel I come to this place — to Masada...and to me...this is the holiest place here among the very holy places.
Masada is still a symbol of Israel's determination to remain free, the 1948 birth of the modern Jewish state followed a slaughter of unthinkable greater proportions...the Holocaust.
Tourists become pilgrims at Israel's Holocaust Memorial. All visiting heads of state are brought here to Yad Vashem. The Memorial Museum chronicles the slaughter of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany. Artist David Olere left an excruciating record in these drawings of his 26 months in Nazi concentration camps. He was a prisoner at Drancy, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Melk and finally liberated from Ebensee in 1945.
The boxcar monument is a chilling reminder of Hitler's master plan to eliminate Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and political dissenters. Train loads were carted away.
And here along the "Avenue of Righteous Gentiles", trees are planted to honor non-Jews who risked their lives to help the persecuted. Yad Vashem imprints on visitors a searing impression of the horror. One must recognize the cause and the enormity of the Holocaust to understand the history of modern Israel.
The sky-scrapers of Tel Aviv are exclamation points which seem to declare that freedom is worth fighting for. The fruits of all the struggle may best be enjoyed here in the cosmopolitan heart of Israel. My best tip for enjoying Tel Aviv: see it as a fun-loving resort, just the opposite of Jerusalem.
Tel Aviv's waterfront promenade is the place to rock to the rhythm of contemporary Israel — foamy cafes, sugar-sand beaches and the Mediterranean. With a "use it or lose it" approach to the good life, young Israelis embrace the present.
An hour's drive up the coast from Tel Aviv takes us to the old fortified city of Akko. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Muslims gained control of the Middle East, including Akko. Then, in 1095 the Crusades began and for more than 300 years Christian Europe repeatedly sent armies to liberate "their holy land."
Over time, Akko was captured and recaptured by both sides. Beneath today's city, travelers can still visit the well preserved halls of the Crusaders. This was street level a millennium ago — you can almost hear the clash of sword on shield.
Eleventh century Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages and brimming with energy. The Crusades offered something for nearly everyone: For the nobility it was land. For knights in shining armor it was a chance for action in a far away place. The kings and popes saw prestige. Merchants saw an increase in trade.
And Christians believed that retaking the Holy Land, the birthplace of Jesus, would score them points in Heaven.
In 1191, Richard the Lion Hearted of England captured Akko and it became an important Christian outpost. A century later, Muslims took back the town and rebuilt on top of the Crusader city. What we see today has changed little in 800 years.
A short drive inland from Akko is the Sea of Galilee — the gateway to the Golan Heights. It's long been popular with religious pilgrims and locals. Now the world has found it and tourism is booming.
The northeast of Israel is impressively lush. For Christians, Galilee is famous as the place where Jesus turned disciples into fishers of men, calmed the storm, and walked on water.
This is a country of miracles — a blooming desert filled with friendly, resilient people. I'll be back.
And today visitors leave Israel hoping more than ever for peace in this complex land so rich in history and tradition.
I'm Rick Steves wishing you happy travels. Peace, ma salama, shalom.