Atheist in the Holy Land: An Observer’s Experience

Before I visited, I considered Jerusalem only as a city for revelling at the abundance of religious sites. The reality, however, is vastly different from this: with a buzzing nightlife and incredible food, it has an atmosphere very much like a European capital, while maintaining its Middle Eastern flare.

Do Your Homework on the Holy Land

First of all, Jerusalem’s main attractions must be given the credit they deserve. As you may have realised by the title, I don’t follow a religion, but that didn’t stop me from marvelling at the huge number of holy sites that are contained within the tiny space of the old city. I was also baffled by the ease with which so many people live alongside these precious monuments. Visiting Jerusalem without an understanding of its religious significance makes it only half the trip it could be, so I would recommend reading up a little before you go!

My visits included The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is thought to have died; the Western (Wailing) Wall, where Jewish people go to pray and leave notes for God amidst the cracks, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located on Temple Mount.

The Dome of the Rock stands out amidst Jerusalem’s many religious sites. Photo © Georgia Dey

The highlight of the weekend was the Dome of the Rock, built around 690 AD, enshrining the Foundation Stone, a holy site for Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. Decorated with blue tiles and topped with a real gold dome, it truly is incredible. Visiting hours are limited so be sure to check the times when you arrive but the queues are well worth it!

Partying in the Holy Land

Due to a happy coincidence I visited on the weekend of Purim — similar to a sort of Jewish version of Halloween. There was dressing up and drinking galore all weekend, which made for a fun, yet more bizarre, experience of the city. The Post Hostel — see next — took us out on Thursday night, the first night of the weekend in many Middle Eastern countries, and gave us a sample of what Jerusalem’s nightlife has to offer. It was surprisingly versatile, with drinks at the Meken Yehuda Market, followed by bars catering for a variety of musical tastes.

Accommodation in the Holy Land

After researching various Airbnbs and hostels we eventually picked out the Post Hostel. The location was perfect, roughly equidistant to Meken Yehuda Market and Jaffa Gate, the entrance to the old city. The price was also very reasonable, £23 per person per night for a shared dorm room. On arriving at the hostel you’re greeted by a colourfully decorated bar area and a chill-out room. It also boasts a modest terrace with a pretty view. It was clean, fun and well-located so I would highly recommend it to any fellow travellers looking for a relaxed and friendly hostel.

Shopping in the Holy Land

The souks in the Muslim Quarter are a must, especially if, like me, you have a lot of relatives’ birthdays coming up. They are full of beautiful trinkets and jewellery. Of course you have to haggle but once you get the hang of it you can find some real bargains. The next stop for shopping, this time for some delicious street food or fresh products, is Meken Yehuda Market. It’s bustling and vibrant, everything you would expect from a wonderful Middle Eastern market place. The sellers are friendly and know their wares well, so if you’re looking for the perfect spices, teas or Turkish delight just ask one of the stall-holders — they’re always willing to chat.

The perfect place to pick up some gifts for the folks back home. Photo © Georgia Dey

An Afternoon in Bethlehem

I spent an all-too-brief afternoon in the town of Bethlehem. The bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem costs less than 7 shekels, roughly £1.50, and the drive doesn’t take long, so it’s a fantastic way to see Palestine and more key religious sites, namely The Church of the Nativity and the Shepherd’s Field. Sadly, The Church of the Nativity is currently undergoing reconstruction, so there was a lot of scaffolding, which detracted from its beauty a little. The views from the Shepherd’s Field are stunning and the atmosphere is very relaxing, so even as an atheist it was a wonderful experience.

If you’re planning a trip to Jerusalem you should make the trip past the wall and see life on the other side. Around the globe we are all-too-aware of the conflicts taking place between Palestine and Israel but it’s easy to forget when you’re there, as you feel so safe and comfortable. As a student in Amman, I have become accustomed to the hospitality of Arab people but if it’s something you have yet to experience, I highly recommend that you do so in Palestine. The generosity and kindness that you’ll be shown is incomparable.

A list of the names of Palestinian children massacred in 2014. Photo © Georgia Dey

Furthermore, the brutality of the wall was astonishing. At one point there was a large poster telling the story of a boy who had been shot by Israeli snipers while playing with his friends. Merely meters from this was graffiti on the barrier wall listing the names of children who had been killed in a massacre in 2014. It was harrowing to stand in that spot, knowing what had happened there. Words cannot fully describe it, so I hope that you will be able to visit for yourself.

Photo © Georgia Dey

Recommendations

My trip to the Holy Land was much shorter than I would have liked but if I go back — which I hope I will! — I would return to these key places:

  • The Dome of the Rock
  • Bethlehem
  • Post Hostel
  • Meken Yehuda Market
  • The Arab Souks

Featured image © Georgia Dey

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