READ THIS ISRAEL TRAVELOGUE WRITTEN BY TRAVELLER DIMITAR GEORGIEV.
Jerusalem? The name of this city evokes associations solely with religion and conflicts. Is it really so? Curiosity drove me to peer through the kaleidoscope and see the colorful images in this part of the world. The mystique and magic of this city have lingered in my consciousness since my youth, especially heightened after reading the Bible. Should I mention the Crusades, the Order of the Templars, and the enigmatic mystery behind their actions? Why do Muslims have such an important and revered mosque there?
Are the Jews the chosen people of God? Conflicting questions to which sacred and historical books provided answers, but not a clear vision. Stepping on the land of biblical kings and prophets would be inspiring, and its energy would undoubtedly bring dimensions of new sensations. To set eyes on the walls of the fortress, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to touch the Western Wall would bring an act of empathy and humility. Alongside this, the geographical features of nature in these places, a combination of desert areas and fertile lands, along with the world’s saltiest lake, add color to the program. Traveling by car, dozing in uncomfortable positions, flying with screaming children are things without which reality would not manifest itself.
We travel late at night on the Trakia Highway, on the last day of March. The traffic is sluggish and insignificant for this season and hour. The car devours the asphalt ahead, and its lights illuminate the intersecting axial line. On the side, the lights of cities and villages flicker, providing information about coziness. It’s already midnight, and most people have tucked themselves into their beds, closing the last page of the day.
We stop at a gas station, one of the many we have passed. Plovdiv is not far. We’re halfway to the capital. Coffee with a packet of dissolved sugar is the necessary minimum for a dose of pleasure. We refuel and hit the road again. Our conversations revolve around Christianity, serving as an introduction to the place we are heading to.
We travel as a family with our best men.
We pass through the ‘Trajan’s Gate’ tunnel, having climbed the mountain ridge to emerge before the glow of reflected lights in the clouds above Sofia. We pass by a glowing cross along the road – a sign hinting at the predestined nature of our journey. It serves as a kind of landmark, indicating we are on the right path. Having traversed the darkness of mountain passes, the highway descends into the foothills of the Sofia plain. The capital shines ahead, and we enter a carpet of light. On Tsarigradsko Shosse, we halt at the first traffic lights, where, like night sentinels, they alternate their lights in the sequence of the three colors: red, yellow, green.
I enjoyed the hours on the streets after midnight, especially the illuminated silence cast like an invisible veil over the empty spaces and the tired shadows of buildings and trees, hushed in anticipation of a new day. Some 24-hour car wash off the road shows signs of life. After a short drive at a restricted speed, we descend from the boulevard with a right turn and, through Druzhba 1 district, head towards Sofia Airport.
“At the roundabout, take the third exit!” – the mechanical female voice of our navigator guides us. The wheel itself is so small that it could easily be covered with Uti Bachvarov’s tray, with which he cooks his feasts at fairs and squares. Well, I’m joking, of course, but its radius hardly exceeds three meters.
We find a parking space, and without unnecessary pleasantries, we are welcomed inside the fenced perimeter. We load into a minibus that takes us to the airport entrance. Mobile with only one light backpack for hand luggage, we are on the move. For our short three-day stay, there is no need to carry much.
Terminal 1 is small, with a few metal benches, check-in counters, an upper floor that was closed, and that’s about it. I assume millions of pairs of shoes have rolled through here over the years. It shows. It’s evident that this is architecture from a bygone era.
There was a free bench, and we took it. Other people, somewhat selfishly, were sprawled out on the others, sleeping undisturbed. The time was around one after midnight, and we had to squeeze the hours until our 5:50 AM flight. We had to nap under field conditions. To achieve this, I inflated two pillows, gave one to my partner, and propped the other against my shoulder. This way, I disconnected from reality for an hour or two. I woke up with a stiff neck. Pins and needles pricked my eyes. I felt my comfort zone beginning to leave me, like a friend from a fleeting affair. The time was approaching when we would transfer to the flight waiting area, and we had no idea who would bring us the tickets and insurance.
Some people stood in the middle of the lobby. Tourists, as usual. I approached and asked if they were part of the excursion. Yes, it turned out they were like us, waiting for someone to show up and hand out the tickets. Initially, we were supposed to fly from Varna, but the course of events led us to Sofia. The airline had regular flights from both cities. Minutes before the gates to the waiting area opened, a representative of the company appeared. She wasn’t in the best mood, probably due to having to wake up early to bring us the boarding passes. They mixed up my name, and I received Dimitrichka’s boarding pass. It was nice, but it didn’t suit me. Mine is Dimitar, and I don’t belong to the fairer sex. My wife noticed the mistake, and we exchanged documents in time.
The passport control skipped us, and we found ourselves in the waiting area with duty-free shops. Where did all these people come from? Here we are at gate 2A. No way to get confused. The men, representatives of the Jewish state, stood out with long sideburns and small round hats on their heads. The women were dressed more fashionably. There were quite a few young people, and since I didn’t see them like this every day, I wondered, what are they doing in Bulgaria?
“Probably students,” my best man speculated.
“They look like that to me too,” I confirmed.
I hadn’t seen an Orthodox Jew in person, but I saw one. He was a man around fifty, with a short haircut, long curls beside his ears, a long beard, and mustache. Dressed in black, he wore the same color hat on his head, emphasizing the strict doctrine of the religion in which he was brought up. In his hand, he held a round case with a zipper, similar to a box for musical instruments, which served to store his hat. In the waiting area, we managed to sit on a bench. We were lucky since the space quickly started to fill up.
“Do you know that alcohol in Israel is expensive?” I mentioned to my godfather. “It would be good to get something from the duty-free shop.”
He hesitated. Wanted to abstain a bit, but later agreed when I told him that in Israel, “nightcaps” are harder to come by.”
We visited the opposite alcohol store, where I grabbed a bottle of Chardonnay and stood at the counter to pay. I found myself facing the low neckline of the cashier. I was trying not to look at the tattoo on the exposed part of her ample silicone bust. I was fumbling for money in my wallet when I heard her voice asking for my boarding pass.
“Can’t I do it without it?” I asked, surprised.
“No, you can’t!” she replied with obligatory seriousness.
So I left the bottle, went, got my ticket, and came back to pay. I pondered mentally, what does a tattoo want to express? What is the strength it manifests? It’s definitely internal, personal, a response to the apathy and indifference of today’s times. A mark of a strong experience, a lingering memory, sexuality? A matter of choice, a stamp of self-assertion? A brutal rebellious stitch made with a needle on an invisible wound. A place torn in an attempt for freedom, an escape from the role of yet another frozen mackerel at the supermarket stand.
Each of these things gives me a reasonable answer. We gathered our bottles in hand luggage. Watching the trade happening with cigarettes and alcohol – the legal drug for the masses – I thought about how messed up we are in our heads.
We were supposed to be the first for the day, but we were running late. Two flights passed us, one to Milan and the other to Budapest. Thirty minutes after the initially announced time, we were at the gate and went outside, where the buses were waiting to take us to the Airbus. We filled three of them, resembling aquariums, and were shuttled to the plane.
After boarding the plane, we had to sit in different seats. Mine was by the window, my wife was three rows behind me, and the godparents were somewhere in the back. The daylight on April 1st was entering with its full force. It didn’t promise sunshine; on the contrary, it showed a gloomy and humid morning. I was supposed to make the most of the flight for a nap, but it eluded me. The moment we took off, a little two or three-year-old girl in the seat in front of me started crying uncontrollably. Neither cuddling from her mom and dad nor a biscuit helped, and this went on for an hour and a half. People around us tried to assist, but to no avail. We were already high in the sky when some guy stood in the aisle between the seats, opened the Talmud, and started reading from it in a hushed voice. No matter how much you tried to abstract yourself from the situation, it was nerve-wracking. The parents also appreciated the discomfort but were helpless. I thought of making some monkey faces through the seat opening to distract the child, but it didn’t look at me at all; it squinted its eyes and blinked. Dad took him to the aisle and made him sit there. He calmed down a bit or got tired, I don’t know, but he started crying again at intervals. So, he takes a breath, lets out a cry, and stops, repeating until he finally fell asleep, but we were already preparing for landing.
I had earplugs that I wisely carried for such occasions, but the source of the decibels was too close, and they didn’t help much. I tried to cheer up by looking out the airplane window. Below us, there was some island. The waves of the water curled around it. After a while, the sea ended, and the fortress of the continent appeared. The coastline curved in its contour until we flew over it and overflew bare mountainous areas. We descended to the south, into the subtropical geographical zone. Strands of white clouds were visible, and we were about to pierce through them. Not long after, the white fog followed. We were flying enveloped in condensation reservoirs, where occasionally a gap would appear, revealing a piece of blue sky warmed by the sun. We looked like some fly flying in a cotton field. Probably, one day, when we die, we will rise lightly towards the heights, without the help of machines, and we will float among these white fortresses, free and unaffected by gravity. I gazed, as much as I could, trying to catch a glimpse of angels or unidentified flying objects, but alas, there were none. Either we are alone, or our angels are invisible and protect us in their own way.”
In contrast, we had crying children, real ones, like the little girl in front of me, and a few more towards the front rows. Children are sensitive; they feel they are in an unfamiliar environment. We adults take it all for granted. We march forward recklessly, leaving the insurance companies to monitor the statistics of plane crashes. Such thoughts disrupt the euphoria of traveling, so I immersed myself in the inscription on the top of the wing: ‘Don’t walk outside.’ I wondered what kind of inscription this was and who would start walking on the plane’s wing, unless it’s Mr. Tau from the eponymous Czech series from my childhood. I thought like a child. Naturally, it refers to the ground service personnel.
When the little one calmed down and fell asleep, peace ensued, and everyone in the vicinity rushed to take a quick nap. The petite woman next to me had taken the tray off the back of the seat in front of her, propped herself with her hands, and forehead from above, trying to doze off. I hastened to do the same.
I might have stolen five minutes of sleep when the voice of the plane commander woke me up, announcing that we would land. I looked out through the window. We had descended significantly and were flying over some hills in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. From the side, the coastline with the bluish sea was visible, and I said to myself, ‘Here is the biblical land!’
At first glance, I was impressed by the lack of forests. Another thing I noticed from this bird’s eye view was the good layout of the buildings, stretched and arranged like components on a computer motherboard. The architectural ensemble was woven with perfect roads, following the landscape, along with cars moving on them. Viewed from above, they resembled colorful beads. The geometry of the suburbs created an aesthetic with forms of squares, circles, and triangles. The buildings were white, with flat roofs, occasionally adorned with red-tiled ones. They were modern, contemporary, and new, which spoke to me of well-absorbed capital, discipline, and good work.
We smoothly approached Ben Gurion Airport, located just outside Tel Aviv, and landed. Applause followed, which, in my opinion, meant, ‘We survived!’
It’s about nine o’clock in the morning. The weather is cold and humid, an unspecific climate for the region at this time of the year. We descend the stairs and are back at the buses headed to the terminal. There, checks follow: documents, scanners, and our alcohol pass through. In the large hall of Ben Gurion, we look around to recognize each other within the group. There’s a woman carrying a sign from the tour company. We encircle her like chicks following a mother hen. She speaks to us with a Russian accent and leads us to another person. This is Valentin. He will be our guide during our stay in the Holy Land. A middle-aged man, stout with glasses, originally from Plovdiv. He emigrated to Israel with his wife. He hands us maps of Jerusalem and caps with visors. Now, we recognize each other; we are twenty-eight people. We ask silly questions for the purpose of acquaintances. Valentin tries to engage in a dialogue with us. He briefly tells us where we are and what we will do during the day.
To start, we head towards the bus. We exit the glass and concrete of the building and pass by a wonderful garden with palm trees. The air is different. We cross some roads where the cars patiently wait for us, and we pass by a closed parking lot. The relatively new fleet is impressive, mainly Asian cars such as Toyota, Mazda, and Hyundai. Other preferred brands that catch the eye are Skoda, Volkswagen, and Renault. The white bus is waiting for us in the parking lot. It starts drizzling. We board and take our seats. I’ve noticed that people establish their habits in a new environment, forming a personal space zone. The seats occupied when initially boarding the bus remain the same until the end.
“Tiger!”, Valentin announces the name of our driver, an Arab around forty, neatly dressed in a white shirt and black trousers. He would navigate us through the roads of Judea. He had cheeky manners but was strict, punctual, and efficient.
We head towards our first stop of the day tour, the Church with the relics of St. George in the city of Lod. We leave the airport, maneuver through the cloverleaf, and are on the peripheral highway, heading south. Flat, cultivated areas meet our eyes. Olive trees are visible, along with an occasional tall palm and sparse greenery on meager soils. Water is scarce. In the distance, the outlines of tall buildings define the neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. We are drawn away from the fields and fatigue, but the desire to encounter new things keeps us in euphoria.
Canaan, that is the ancient name of this land. It’s biblical. The land was promised to the Jews by God. The history is long, but it can be summarized briefly. Abram, a shepherd, was called by God to come to these lands from the city of Ur, a place that is now part of the state of Iraq. This happened around two thousand years before the coming of Christ.
God speaks through thoughts, sometimes through visions to certain men, never to women. For women, angels are sent. These men are prophets, speaking only the truth dictated by God, no matter how uncomfortable for the rulers. Due to this, prophets are persecuted and cast aside. Even if they were deemed mad, their prophecies come true, securing their place in the pantheon of biblical history.
Abraham is one of them. God tells him that a nation will descend from him, surpassing others, serving as an example. A covenant is made through circumcision. Children are born to Abraham from his maidservant Hagar and his wife Sarah. Ishmael is born first, and later Isaac, when Sarah is advanced in age. Isaac rightfully inherits, while Ishmael and his mother are left in the desert, not forgotten by God. From Ishmael, a tribe will arise, and, 2500 years later, a powerful prophet named Muhammad will emerge. Isaac has twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Through a cunning blessing, Jacob inherits, becoming the patriarch of the twelve Israelite tribes.
Under Moses, the Israelites escaped Egyptian slavery, spending 40 years erasing their servitude. God provides laws through Moses for their society. The old generation dies in the desert, and the new, with divine aid, enters the fertile lands by the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, conquering city by city. Jerusalem solidifies in the territory of the tribe of Judah, hence the name Judea.
Our journey is brief, entering the town of Lud. Nothing special, resembling a Greek suburb. Lemon and orange trees dot the corners. Buildings are low, three to four stories. A few turns, a short stretch, and the bus halts in an empty parking lot. We disembark. It’s cold and cloudy. Approaching a passage between two white stone buildings, we see a dome and minaret of a low mosque beside a Byzantine church.
“Here lie the relics of Saint George!” our guide announces at an inconspicuous entrance, a gateway to the church. We step across the threshold. It feels sacred, much like our Bulgarian churches. I sense we’re in Bulgaria. The priests are Greeks with dark complexions, black robes, beards, and hair, just like ours. There’s a beautiful iconostasis and a stand selling candles. A somber depiction shows a wheel of torment and spikes. A saint is submerged to the waist in a white liquid.
Saint George was born in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). At the age of twenty, he became a military commander in the Roman Empire. Emperor Diocletian initiated persecution against Christians. The saint revealed his Christian faith and endured torture to renounce it, yet he remained steadfast! “This white substance is true milk,” Valyo says, pointing to the painting. “He was immersed in it after his flesh was torn by hooks.”
I didn’t want to hear more, but there was no escape. A chain with shackles hung on the wall, and we were told it had healing properties if placed on a sore spot. Saint George had been bound with it. The sarcophagus containing his relics lay beneath us in the crypt, but we didn’t descend to see it.
“Another legend tells,” Valyo continues, “how he saved a village from a man-eating serpent. A girl was tied near a nearby lake, and the serpent would emerge to carry her away. Hearing this, Saint George went to the lake and, using his spear, killed the monster. This is depicted in the typical iconography where he sits on a horse, spearing the serpent,” our guide concludes his passionate narrative.
We exit through the marble entrance, and outside a light rain falls. I feel like I’ve stepped out of a fairy tale as the scent of tobacco wafts in the air. I used to smoke, but now the smell repels me. I dart left and right to avoid it.
“Half of the church is converted into a Muslim mosque. They coexist peacefully. The church has been repeatedly destroyed over the centuries, starting from the Byzantine era. Stones from it were taken to build a bridge over the river passing by the city,” our guide shares again.
What more can I add about this city, except that our tour guide lives here? In the Bible, the city is referred to as Lydda. Here, Saint Peter healed a paralyzed man (Acts 9:32-35) before heading to Joppa (modern-day Jaffa, a district in Tel Aviv).
Back on the highway, Jaffa is our next stop. Lunchtime approaches. Tiger navigates us through narrow coastal streets and stops at an intersection near an old stone tower. It’s a clock tower, marking the starting point of our tourist route. Some tourists have circled it and seem content. We disembark. The sun tries to pierce the gray veil above us, and it’s evident we’re in the touristy part of the city. Small shops tempt with various treats. On the other side of the street, piles of sweets—oriental delights, caramelized sticks, fruits, fruit juices, pastries, creams—beckon us to indulge. Our guide informs us that we’ll take a short tour and then have lunch.
Instead of trying warm simit, I enter a currency exchange to swap dollars for shekels. It’s a one-person entry. A stern lady with glasses, bearing the seriousness of a tax inspector, asks for my foreign passport. Only then, against a hundred-dollar bill, do I receive some unfamiliar notes featuring someone’s face. I’ve always marveled at the foolishness of how life’s dance revolves around pieces of printed paper—some revel in them, others loathe them. They attract the gaze of greed but also untie the purse strings of benefactors, construct and demolish. Good and evil shake hands from above. What did Jesus say about them? “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17), and also “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
After exchanging money, I hear Valyo’s voice: “Jaffa is an ancient port. Pilgrims descended from here on ships to worship in the sacred city. In the early 20th century, a railway line to Jerusalem was built, facilitating the flow of passengers. Jaffa is also known for having the largest population of Bulgarian Jews.”
After a turn towards the sea, we find ourselves in front of a marble fountain with dried-up spouts. Nearby is some mosque. Valyo explains something, but I’m not paying attention. I’m not concerned with the history of this fountain and its purpose. Arabic inscriptions, something important once, but all I see is a facade stained by pigeon droppings, a dry trough covered in dust and debris. History can be made from anything. I observe the buildings along the roadside, trying to sense the energy of the place. Fourth-century structures in hewn stone and metal grilles, weathered at the edges, with tufts of grass poking through. A minaret from a mosque rises above them. I feel the coziness of the small town—a blend of oriental and cosmopolitan spirit. I hear sighs of relief embedded in the stones of the buildings, torn from the chests of pilgrims who arrived by ships from different corners of the world.
“This person is Bulgarian” Valyo says, directing our attention to an elderly, frail, and mobile man emerging from a nearby souvenir shop. Contact-friendly, with a smile and good Bulgarian pronunciation, he introduces himself as originally from Sofia. He left Bulgaria as a child and hasn’t returned for over sixty years. He is happy to see Bulgarians and expresses respect for our people.
We exchange a few stories with him and part ways to hear our guide’s voice again a few meters uphill.
“This is the arch of the central port, where pilgrims passed when they arrived here” – he continues guiding us through the history of the place, leading us to the left toward a narrow street.
Some stones are embedded in the wall of a residential house, and below is a tunnel we pass through. We ascend along a moderately wide cobblestone path with a drain for rainwater. The smell of sewage and aromatic candles from the side shops hits us. We’re asked where we’re from. We say Bulgaria and walk past. Not many tourists are around. We emerge into a sunny spot. Space opens up—a garden with greenery, tall and beautiful palm trees. Stone-paved paths and low fences create a labyrinth on the green areas. Excavations are visible. These are remnants of the Egyptian presence during the time of Ramesses II (around 1300 years before Christ). From Jaffa to Cairo in a straight line is about 400 km. We reach a high paved platform with a beautiful panorama of Tel Aviv and its long beaches. In the direction of the sea, the building of the Catholic Church of St. Peter stands out with its adjacent beautiful and tall bell tower. Close to us is a P-shaped sculpture made of white stone, a work of a contemporary artist, depicting the twelve Israeli tribes.
The weather is clear. The sun has dispersed the clouds and shines over the open horizon. A gentle breeze is blowing. In the distance, the yellow sand of the beach strip and the white crests of the approaching waves towards the shore are visible. The colossi of tall and futuristic buildings stand close to the sea, dividing the space with a designated central part for hotels, business buildings, and residential structures.
We took some photos. An elderly lady from our group shares that twenty years ago, she had been to this place, and Tel Aviv had low buildings back then. Valyo points towards the sea, saying that Bulgaria is in a straight line in that direction. He tells us about a recent incident where authorities rescued a Ukrainian man from the open sea. He had set out on a regular rubber boat to return home to Ukraine.
Jaffa is definitely on a hill. The city’s old name is Joppa. What else is this city known for? Primarily, for St. Peter. After healing a paralyzed man in Lydda, the holy apostle comes to this city and resides in the house of a certain tanner named Simon. The houses are quadrangular, low with flat roofs serving as terraces. At some point, Peter climbs onto the roof to pray and sees a vision. A sheet descends from the sky, carrying various animals, and a voice tells him, “Kill and eat!” Peter, being righteous, refuses to be tempted by unclean animals. However, the voice tells him that what God has cleansed, he should not consider unclean. This happens three times. Meanwhile, three visitors arrive. Their master, Cornelius, a Roman leader from the Roman army, sent them. He lives fifty kilometers north in the city of Caesarea. Cornelius had a vision, believed in Christ, and was instructed to find Peter to be baptized along with his family.
These three messengers explain to the apostle why they have come. Initially, he hesitates because baptism is not intended for non-Israelites. Still, the voice instructs him to do what is necessary, and then Peter understands the meaning of his vision—that besides Jews, God will accept Gentiles if they are worthy. Thus, Cornelius becomes the first baptized Gentile (Acts 10).
We would later see the house where St. Peter stayed, but before that, we left the sunny square through a bridge. On its parapets were engravings on metal cylinders representing the twelve zodiac signs. There’s a belief, Valyo tells us, that if you place your hand on your zodiac sign and make a wish while looking at the sea, it will come true.
Such things excite us like little children, and we set off to find our zodiac signs. Crossing the bridge, we exit the garden and find ourselves on the road facing the church of St. Peter. We turn left towards another square, where a fountain with interesting stone figures is visible. Next to a Greek tavern, housed in a solid building with blue shutters, we descend down the cobblestone to the harbor. There, in a niche, we discover the biblical house described in the New Testament that sheltered the apostle Peter. It is small, simple, and seemingly uninhabited at first glance. We continue with a reverse turn and descend to the actual quay of the harbor. Hungry now, we’ll look for a place to eat. Small and charming restaurants lure tourists, but our guide has something in mind and confidently leads us forward.
Jaffa is associated with the prophet Jonah from the Old Testament. He boarded a ship at this location and attempted to escape his responsibility to preach to the people of the sinful city of Nineveh (located in present-day Iraq) (Jonah 1:3).
Two other historical figures made a peace treaty in this city. In 1192, Saladin ruled Jerusalem and signed a treaty with the King of England, Richard the Lionheart, to provide access for Christian pilgrims to the holy places. This occurred during the time of the Third Crusade.
I’ll attempt to squeeze in a brief history of the knights in these lands, drawing from the endless sources on the internet. I’m not a historian, but curiosity stirs me, provoking me to dig into the information.
The beginning unfolds with the loss of Byzantium in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The city, located in present-day eastern Turkey near Lake Van, fell to the Turks, leading to the capture of the Byzantine emperor. This marks the onset of the decline of the Byzantine Empire. Seeking aid, Byzantium turns to the Pope in Rome and the Western kingdoms.
The first crusade takes place in 1095, marking the arrival of the Crusaders in these lands for about two hundred years. They conquer cities along the coasts of present-day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as some inland areas, including the revered city of Jerusalem. They establish five new temporary domains, with the Jerusalem Kingdom being the most powerful. The region is collectively known as the Levant. The Crusaders arrive from Western Europe through lands including present-day Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and Syria, using routes dating back to Roman times. Jerusalem and its surroundings remain under the knights’ control for nearly a century. Orders like the Templars and Hospitallers are founded, claiming to defend the poor, weak, and pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, sparking curiosity and conspiracy theories that persist to this day.
Jerusalem falls in 1187, seized by Saladin, who successfully unifies Muslim emirates. These events are portrayed in Ridley Scott’s film “Kingdom of Heaven.” The fall of the “holy city” prompts the third crusade in 1189. The kings of England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire—Richard I, Philip II, and Frederick I Barbarossa—journey eastward, taking both sea and land routes.
Frederick travels through present-day Turkey, meets a tragic fate drowning in a river with his heavy armor. The other two leaders use a maritime route from England and Southern France, passing through Sicily, Cyprus, Rhodes, and Crete to reach the Asian continent and reclaim the coastal cities of Acre and Jaffa. (These cities are a hundred kilometers apart.) Jerusalem remains under Muslim control but is open to Christian pilgrims through the treaty negotiated between Richard and Saladin in Jaffa, involving Balian, the last defender of Jerusalem, in the negotiations.
The city briefly returns to Crusader hands during the sixth crusade in 1228, holding it for only fifteen years. Muslims, now a formidable force, conquer the entire Levant, with the last Western knights’ defensive position at the strategic port of Acre in 1291.
Reflecting on the chronology of events during this time, I wonder: What happens to Byzantium and its northern borders?
Bulgaria has been conquered, reverting to a Byzantine province populated by Bulgarians and Slavs. Despite several attempts at rebellions, they ended in massacre. The resurrection of Bulgaria and its return to power were triggered by an icon. On October 26, 1185, during the consecration of St. Dimitar’s Church, rumors spread that the icon of St. Dimitar, protecting the city of Thessaloniki, mysteriously appeared in Tarnovo after the city was captured and plundered by the Normans. This strengthened the faith of the population, uniting around the brothers Petar and Asen. The Byzantine forces were defeated, and Emperor Isaac II Angel barely escaped. The Second Bulgarian Empire was proclaimed with Tarnovo as its capital. This positive outcome resulted from various factors, including the Crusaders’ movement in the region and Byzantine internal struggles.
The establishment of the knights in the Levant acted as a thorn in the side of the empire, causing concern. Byzantium, aware of potential threats, formed alliances with the Turks, who, in turn, violated agreements and harassed the eastern borders. Another invader, the Normans, descendants of the Vikings, had seized Sicily and raided the Croatian coast, with their strongest blow striking Thessaloniki, which they conquered and looted. Internal political strife further weakened Byzantium, ultimately leading to the capture and plunder of its capital, Constantinople, by Western knights in 1204.
We’ve come full circle, back to the street with the fountain. We stop at an inconspicuous place with tables and chairs set by the roadside. Burly men warmly invite us to sit. The aroma is enticing, with a skewer of sizzling döner visible on the counter. Valyo says this is the spot for today’s lunch, the best in the area. We choose a table and sit down. Orders pour in; we’ll boost their turnover. Kebabs, skewers, various meatballs—chicken and beef—and fried potatoes; we want to taste local cuisine. The food is kosher, adhering strictly to the avoidance of pork, rabbit, camel, and horse meat. Fish must have scales, and no milk is used in meat broths. These are all Moses’ laws (Leviticus 11:7), also followed by Muslims (Quran, sura 5:3).
Before our main course, they bring appetizers—a roasted eggplant with a special sauce, somewhat like our appetizer, and hummus made from ground chickpeas with garlic. We ordered mackerel, but it seems we are already satiated. Meat arrives in abundance. Valyo, being a good person, brings us more fried potatoes. We overeat, pay, and the bill comes to 250 shekels (about 120 BGN) for four people. It’s a reasonable sum for a lunch. I think that saving money on fleeting pleasures confines the soul to the worn-out robe of everyday life and feeds the demon of avarice. In our case, the food is abundant, but it is forgiven. We haven’t had anything since the previous evening, and it’s already past two in the afternoon. Justifications. After overeating, I feel sluggish. I know there is hunger in the world, yet we take food for granted and underestimate this fact.
The sun is scorching. We lazily get up and head towards the clock tower. There’s traffic, tourists, and locals here and there. A large family crosses the street. Later, a story would unfold about the population of the young state, how from its creation, with a population of nearly a million, it grew to nine million in seventy years. The government encourages childbirth through a program freeing women from work with more children. Benefits are paid, and insurance is provided. We might envy them, right? The truth is, we cannot compare ourselves to the Jews, and there are many reasons for that. One of them is their community, built on internal laws dating back to the time of Moses. And if we examine today’s legislation worldwide, we will see correspondences with the Old Testament. “The law” is an important phrase, also echoed in the New Testament. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill.” – says Christ (Matthew 5:17-20).
“What is ‘The Law’? I’ll try to clarify briefly. Moses, after leading the Jews out of Egypt around 1500 years before the appearance of Christ, climbed Mount Sinai during their wanderings in the desert. There, God inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets with fire. Besides these, Moses preached additional rules and norms of behavior for the Israelites, detailed in the Bible.
A similar event occurred two thousand years later with another prophet who preached instructions from Archangel Gabriel, recorded as surahs and ayahs in the holy Quran. They are a renegotiation of previous teachings, and the name of the prophet Muhammad holds great significance for over a billion people worldwide.
Now, we find ourselves at a Jewish bakery. The air is filled with warmth, ground flour, and toasted sesame. The aroma is irresistible. I instinctively reach for my wallet, buy two bagels, knowing it’s the most sensible purchase of the day. The narrow street is crowded with people—tourists, cars, all waiting at the traffic light. It’s unfair; cars get more time. Traffic jam. The green man stays lit. I walk through the red, waiting for a patrol car to pass. My wife protests, but I tell her it’s how they do it in Paris and urge her to follow. She waits for the green. We’re by the clock tower, built during Turkish times, as our guide passionately explains. There are various versions, but the one about a wealthy merchant donating it to the city intrigued me the most.
Our bus arrives; we need to board quickly due to congestion. Tiger navigates us through narrow streets, leaving Jaffa, leaving behind a beautiful memory. We hit the highways, heading southeast towards the holy city of Jerusalem, less than fifty kilometers away.
Before joining the freeway, we take a scenic route along Tel Aviv’s waterfront buildings. On the sunny boulevard, behind the yellow sands, stand tall buildings of global hotel chains. Business structures and historic century-old ones share space further inland. Passing by the sea, we see surfers riding coastal waves. People stroll in the park-like buffer zone between the beach and the boulevard.
The journey to Jerusalem captivates me. I can’t sleep during transportation. I close my eyes, in a half-dream state, traveling somewhere with someone. Another journey, another escape from our daily habitat. We fill the void, chase a dream, the unrealized one that will add color and weight to our existence. We’ll have new frames in the movie of our lives, then return home, craving more of this drug.
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
Not long ago, two hundred and fifty years back, life moved at a slow pace. A person could cover thirty kilometers on foot in a day, fifty on horseback. Ships sailed slowly with the wind. It took a month or two for a pilgrim to travel from Bulgaria to these lands. Now, we don’t even think about it. Yesterday I woke up in my bed at home, and today I’m a thousand five hundred kilometers away at the gates of Jerusalem.
Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders—all have traversed here, covering thousands of kilometers on foot or horseback. They circled the shores of the Mediterranean, aiming to claim lands, establish power, and turn the defeated into slaves. Our lands are paved with blood, sweat, pain, weakness, and cries of despair. The prosperity of the modern world rests upon human bones covered in the dust of time.
I open my eyes and peer through the window. Green hills have transformed into rocky ones. We descend towards some buildings in the distance. They appear white from afar—stone walls and concrete fortifications on slopes, with low-rise complexes atop. Valyo sits next to the driver and enlightens us:
“That’s the city’s university, one of the most prestigious in the country,” he points to a glass and concrete building perched on a hill. It is surrounded by lower adjacent structures and green lawns with a stone and wrought-iron fence.
Some moderately tall black cube-like buildings are visible from another hill. “That’s probably where they have their technological offices with modern server rooms,” the guide speculates.
Jerusalem is scattered across the rocky hills. It’s evident. In one direction, desert areas with yellowish-red rocks are visible, while in the opposite direction, it’s still green. The city seems to stand on the border between two geographical regions.
The sky brightens with floating clouds against a blue backdrop. We notice a concrete wall enclosing an area for kilometers. It’s about five to six meters high, topped with barbed wire with sharp edges. Watchtowers with observers are also present. A young boy and girl, dressed in military uniforms and carrying rifles, check our documents before letting us through. We pass the barrier and enter the Arab part of Jerusalem. The wall separates Palestinians from Israelis. It’s grim, but it’s a fact. Differences between the two societies are apparent. Contradictions in their ways of existence have escalated to extremism, but, as we would later perceive, despite discrepancies in religious, ideological, and political foundations, a peaceful coexistence is familiar to every individual. Love, family, these universal values serve as foundations for connection and understanding, key references for overcoming feelings of rage and vengeance.
As Valyo would later express at departure, “The two communities cannot exist without each other. Despite their differences, they live in a lasting symbiosis.”
What strikes us on the other side of the fence are the graffiti. Many concrete panels are painted with colorful sprays, showcasing both amateur sketches and masterful executions that evoke admiration. Their purpose is to impact visitors, and they certainly achieve the desired effect. They represent original ideas of Palestinian pain, depicted in vibrant colors. The themes are foreign and distant to us.
Later, I would read that the renowned Banksy also left his creations, one of which was uncovered with concrete and sold in secret markets. Caricatures of politicians, slogans, and three-dimensional paintings of the spirit of freedom—all depicted in the graffiti.
We pass them by, distancing ourselves from the wall, heading towards the city’s interior. I can’t say the neighborhood looks impoverished. It’s scattered, but its buildings are intact. A vacant area, indicative of water scarcity. There are quite decent hotels, one of which we would stay in for three nights.
Moving along the central street toward the church, perched on the opposite hill. This would be the endpoint of our day’s journey. Tiger descends, maneuvers, and enters a large parking lot within the city’s mall building.
We’re already tired. We disembark from the bus, searching for a restroom. Various shops with all sorts of clothes, toys, and souvenirs confront us. We forge our path and emerge onto the street leading to the holy temple. It’s no more than five hundred meters, and we’re on the cobblestone square in front of the church. Valyo gathers us and passionately recites a passage from the Bible.
“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain; Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; The punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:3-5) I sat and listened, feeling as if a large nail had been driven from my head to my feet, keeping me still as if nailed to the ground. We sat on the cobblestones in front of the building with a Byzantine-style facade. There weren’t many people. The day was transitioning into late afternoon. Our guide loudly explained the history of the church’s reconstruction.
Constantine the Great’s mother, Helena, laid the foundation in 325 AD; Justinian I rebuilt the basilica after a fire in 529 AD, and the crusaders expanded it further in 1130 AD.
The gate in front of us is bricked up, leaving a small opening for entry no higher than 1.30 meters and eighty centimeters wide. They did it to thwart horsemen from entering the sanctuary and defiling it.
The outline of the arch of the old portal was visible. Valyo says there was a Bulgarian inscription on the left side. I can’t resist and ask if it had three letters. No, it wasn’t three letters; it was the name of the Bulgarian who passed through here in the year 1800-something.
After the lecture, we enter the interior, stooping low to avoid hitting our heads on the upper threshold. The hall inside is large with a high vault. There are people, and a liturgy is underway. We’ll have to wait to pass through the spot of the nativity, located somewhere below.
I lean against a round marble column. It’s beautiful, made of brown-reddish marble with its characteristic veins. It’s polished smoothly, leading me to ponder the technology used. I inspect the inscriptions with pens and markers on it. There are also high ones, somewhere around three meters, it seems. Either they must be giants or they jumped high, I think. What human need is it to place symbols somewhere?
Is it a genuine desire for self-expression and immortalization or a subtly distorted message to those who come after you? Both seem true and characteristic of human nature to me.
The godparents are somewhere in the crowd. My wife is tired and wants to sit.
We pass through the icon of the Virgin Mary with the child, the only one in the world where she is depicted smiling. I’m sensitive, but I can’t say if I feel a force. These things aren’t like an energy drink. Touching such a sacred place probably works at a karmic level. Faith, faith, faith is needed for results, just like drop by drop, making a hole in the stone. That’s how I see things.
We head towards the manger, where Christ was born. Our steps lead us to a small room. It’s cozy. A marble low table with a silver star, resembling more of a sun, is the main focus. There are curtains, murals, priests. I close my eyes, feeling the place. I say a prayer silently. No expanses open up, nor does the light of my mind become stronger. It’s just a cozy and reassuring place. Perhaps I’m wrong. It’s possible, and I contemplate what’s more important in life, the water in the jug or the jug itself?
So, if the word has gone out into the world from here, isn’t it more important for life than the place itself?
She has such sinful thoughts spinning in my head as I write these lines. I go out crossing myself. The location is definitely sacred. There are thousands of churches around the world, I’ve seen all kinds, cathedrals, temples, but this one is unique, the original, the very source.
Bethlehem is also the birthplace of King David. The history goes that after the Jews settled in these lands following their escape from Egypt, they were ruled by judges. At one point, they decided to have a king as well. The last judge, Samuel, who is also a prophet, chooses the young shepherd Saul to be the king of the Israelites. He is chosen by divine providence. Saul becomes a bold king, but over time, he goes astray, and God calls upon Samuel to make a new choice. This will be David, also from the lowlands. After a long rivalry between the two, David will ascend to the throne after Saul’s death. Thus, he becomes the second king of the Israelites, defeating his opponents and establishing the lineage of Israel. He chooses Jerusalem as the capital and Judah as the main kingdom. The time is around a thousand years before Christ. It is prophesied that the Messiah will come from his lineage.
We have exited the “Nativity of Christ” church and pass through the wing of the Franciscan Order, returning to the square to get back to the bus. An elderly Arab sells water, beer, and various other things near his shop on the sidewalk. I pass by, but I return, unable to resist, and take two bottles of Amstel beer with low alcohol content. Alcohol is forbidden in the Arab world, but it’s allowed for tourists. Carrying the beers, we head to the ground-level parking where the bus is, surrounded by stalls selling clothes and souvenirs. We board, and something happens. There are some commotions outside. Tiger, our driver, and our guide confront the sellers, young and spirited Arabs. The police show up. They drive somewhere, and we, surprised by the incident, wait with question marks in our heads. At the root of the scandal, I think, were two of our girls. The Arabs, hearing that Valyo had told them to get on the bus, take it as a pretext not to buy anything from them. It seems they were looking for a reason to quarrel. Our guide stands firm for justice and does not get provoked. In the police station, he takes out all his money from his pocket and declares that if he lies, he will give it to the Arab, but if not, the Arab will have to do the same, and for that, they will have to go and ask the girls what Valyo said. The Arab hesitates and abandons his version.
It took them forty minutes. Valyo came back angry like a thundercloud. We asked him what happened, but he didn’t want to talk. Later, at dinner in the hotel, he would share his experience. The bus made several maneuvers in the parking lot and crawled up to the main road. Our hotel was not far. We disembarked and found ourselves in the lobby through some back entrance. We registered and got keys to our rooms. It was already seven in the evening, and we went straight to dinner.
A buffet table awaited us loaded with samples of local cuisine. There were various types of olives and appetizers with hummus, not lacking cucumbers, tomatoes, spicy peppers, meatballs, and white fish with sauces. For dessert, there were various compotes, dairy desserts, and pastries. We were not alone; there were other groups from Greece, Poland, and Germany. We tried to recognize them by their speech. At the neighboring table, I heard the most genuine laughter, the kind I haven’t heard at Bulgarian tables for thirty-five years. It was cheerful and contagious, from free people. We lost our laughter, the Bulgarians, and lowered ourselves. We ate, talked something among ourselves, and made sure to stay in our own lane, not to say anything unnecessary, not to expose ourselves or make a wrong move.
Valyo sat with us, open and direct, telling about the events of the day, talking about himself, how he arrived, where he lives, about his family. He made a plan to change the program for the next day. Instead of going to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea beach, we would visit Jerusalem since the following day would coincide with Catholic Palm Sunday, and the holy places would be crowded. We also decided that we would buy various candles and myrrh from the shop near the hotel. We went to our rooms; it was almost nine in the evening. I tried to open the bottle of wine I bought at the airport in Sofia. I lack a corkscrew. I repeat mistakes from the past. I struggle with the key from the room. It will work; I am silly at times, but I am persistent. I manage to push it. We are guests at the godparents’.
“You should have taken a bottle with a screw cap,” Georgi wisely remarks, and he is right, but I like bottles with corks. We toast, summarize the day, and sip from our glasses. After half an hour, we retire to our room. I thought, “How many things can a person see in one day?” and fell asleep.
My dream was in the Holy Land. I expected visions, but nothing of the sort. Despite sleeping with earplugs, I heard the muezzin’s chants from the nearby mosque’s minaret in a kind of trance. “What time is it?” I mechanically asked myself, looked at my phone, saw it was three past midnight, and fell asleep again until around seven in the morning. I get up, pull the curtain aside to reveal the vegetation-free hilly area of Palestinian land. Scattered white buildings bathed in the golden rays of the rising sun. A sea of hills and stones stretching to the horizon carries the sighs of past worlds where prophets walked, tearing their clothes in desperate cries to God, begging for forgiveness of the innate sinful human soul.
Today, we have a meeting with the sacred city of Jerusalem. Quick shower, light clothes, backpack, and we’re in the restaurant. Valyo explains that to avoid wasting time and with an eye on better prices, the shop next to the hotel will offer us everything we need, such as candles, incense, myrrh, and souvenirs. The Arab who owned it could satisfy even the most refined whims. There was a plus in this business since the owner was married to a Bulgarian, and after she introduced herself, she offered us a discount.
Trading in candles and icons may not be known to me as profitable, but it seems economically viable for such a place. It’s like selling air fresheners for toilets in a large residential neighborhood. They always run out and are in demand. The store had everything a devotee could need. Candles bundled in thirties, symbolizing the years of Christ, gold and silver-plated icons, iconostases made of olive wood reaching three-digit values in dollars, crosses in various varieties for believers and non-believers, robes, tunics, flannels, magnets, soil from the Holy Land, and more. The commercialization of faith repels me. We practically buy the most ordinary candles and myrrh, as well as a few postcards and magnets, and that’s it. In front of the parking lot, some old men sell magnets, with three coming at the price of one. Tourists are good people, and we buy.
Our bus takes us, and Tiger, our driver, drops us off at the checkpoint a kilometer away. Passing by the graffiti on the concrete wall, I couldn’t help but be amazed by some beautiful images, representing bright originality and good artistic value. At the portal, we are back for inspection. A young girl in military camouflage boards, glances at us, and gets off. That was it, we passed formally. Our journey is short, and after a few minutes, we arrive in a village near the Mount of Olives.
We descended to a small park, surveying the surroundings to see what kind of place it was. A children’s playground, stone fence, public toilet; the path continued somewhat uphill after a slight turn. Low angular stone structures with flat roofs, probably residential buildings, didn’t suggest coziness but rather practicality. Hanging power cables, supported by roadside poles, along with rusty metal pillars and railings, added to the scene. In the labyrinth of streets, these buildings restrained our gaze. Our only open space was the sky above, covered with wisps of fluffy clouds.
As we entered the Arab part of Jerusalem, approaching from the northern side of the holy hill, Vallo led our group forward and upward. Making a turn along the sidewalk leaning against the barbed wire fence, we anticipated seeing something interesting, and it didn’t disappoint. Reaching the overlook, the path descended towards stone terraces suitable for tourist groups, revealing hills spread around the city.
Before us lay the old part with all its postcard-like extras. A whitestone fortress wall, preserved in its entirety, encircled the eastern side from end to end. About a kilometer to our right, it stood above the Kidron Valley. Behind it, the golden dome of the Temple Mount marked the location of the ancient Jewish temple, housing the Ark of the Covenant. To the left of the dome, the flat stone platform ended with the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the three sacred places for Muslims, following the Kaaba in Mecca and the tomb of Muhammad in Medina.
Whitestone structures filled the Mount Moriah, also known as the Temple Mount. They resembled props from an ancient theatrical performance but actually presented a piece of the old world wedged into the perspectives of the present. As a counterbalance, the new world rose with its forms in the background, featuring tall, modern buildings and cranes forming a three-dimensional puzzle of the modern era.
Stone slabs and sarcophagi of deceased Jews covered the entire slope along the Mount of Olives, down to the lowest point by the grove and on the other side, up to the fortress wall. Sparse pine trees and centuries-old olive trees, remnants of the Gethsemane Garden, softened with their greenery the rocky landscape of this ancient cemetery. Church domes were like islands amid this scenery. The golden cubes of the Russian church on the right, protruding above a sparse pine grove, made a particularly impressive sight.
Our guide gathered part of the group and spoke loudly at one of the terraces. It would have been curious to listen, but I preferred to take a few photos with my wife. From what I could hear, the unremarkable church on our hill, which we passed on the left, was the place where Jesus ascended to heaven before the eyes of his disciples on the fortieth day of his resurrection.
This is the place where Christ looked at the city walls before passing through its gates, riding a donkey for the Passover feast. Due to the Jewish revolts in 70 AD, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman legions, leaving not a stone upon a stone of its walls. Later, in the 15th century, they were rebuilt in their current form by Suleiman the Magnificent. The eastern gate through which Jesus entered was sealed to avoid the prophecy of his return during the “Second Coming.”
Our guide also mentioned that being buried in this place is insanely expensive. This isn’t a problem for Russian oligarchs, who paid enormous sums, believing in the prophecy of Judgment Day upon the Messiah’s return. The belief is that on that day, the chaff will be separated from the wheat, starting with the souls buried on the hill, where forgiveness is possible.
Interestingly, Muslims also have a prophecy about the end of the world. A thin thread will stretch from the eastern gate of the Holy City over the Kidron Valley, and every soul will be forced to traverse it. Those reaching the hill’s summit, having lived in truth and righteousness, will be saved, while those who lied and sinned will not withstand and will fall into Gehenna.
Looking from this vantage point toward the walls of Jerusalem, I wonder about the compelling force of nations towards this city and whether it’s worth dying for. I’ve read that its hills are tunneled with passages, and several springs fill underground pools with water. The system is designed to be impervious to enemies. Other underground galleries and kitchens served as stables for knights. My imagination isn’t strong enough to traverse the layers of time, but it was sufficient to envision the desperation and cries echoing through the valley during another siege. I could see in my mind’s eye the attacks and fallen bodies of warriors rolling down the slope, pierced by spears, arrows, or cut with swords in an attempt to overcome the walls.
However, the temporal moments of this city don’t carry only sorrow but also songs, joy, and dances. It has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. There’s a sense of the place’s resilience, bubbling like a volcano’s core, simultaneously exuding a sense of inspiration and tranquility from the wisdom of past storms. The City of David, as known to the Jews, was captured by the second Israeli king, David, a thousand years before Christ. He seized the stronghold from the Jebusites, ancestors of the Palestinians. David built his house on this site and designated Mount Moriah for the temple, where the Ark with the tablets of Moses was to be placed. However, it wasn’t destined for him to fulfill this task; his son Solomon, who succeeded him on the throne, accomplished it.
The place of the temple is now marked by the “Dome of the Rock,” an octagonal structure crowned with a golden hemisphere, built in 691 AD by the Syrian caliph. Later, it becomes part of the complex associated with the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located a few meters away.
Legend has it that beneath the dome is the rock where Abraham intended to sacrifice his son Isaac. It’s also the rock from which God began to create the world. The presence of a Muslim shrine there might prompt one to question why.
In 570 AD, Prophet Muhammad is born. After isolating himself for prayers in a cave near Mecca, Archangel Gabriel appears to him, instructing him to read. Despite his lack of literacy, Muhammad begins memorizing and spreading the revelations, initially to his close ones and later to others. These teachings are transcribed and become the foundation of Muslim belief. The Surahs in the Quran number 114, considered the unwavering and irrefutable truth transmitted by God to humanity.
If someone claimed to receive a revelation from God today, one can imagine how people might react. Similar skepticism surrounded Muhammad. Persecuted, rejected, stoned, he goes to Medina, unifying tribes with his teachings. If it were false, it likely wouldn’t have persisted, yet under this faith, Arab tribes from the Arabian Peninsula unite and spread like a southern wind melting snow, reaching from India to Hungary, North Africa to Gibraltar. Today, believers number over a billion.
The answer to why there is a Muslim shrine there lies in the night when Muhammad was miraculously transported from Mecca to Jerusalem on his horse Buraq to meet God.
The golden dome shines like a fallen sun behind Jerusalem’s walls, standing out prominently in the panorama, less than a kilometer away. Only the cupolas of the Russian church to the right, rising above the pine trees, can divert attention with the same force.
“We’re descending the road!” commands our guide, and after once again counting us, we start down the asphalt road leading to the Jewish cemeteries.
In years of deprivation and homelessness, Moses leads the Israelites through the rocky desert south of here, between Egypt and the Dead Sea. At Mount Sinai, he receives the two stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments directly from God. These commandments, memorized by Moses, are transmitted to the Israelites, who craft a gold-plated Ark with handles to be carried and guarded by the Levites. The Ark is placed in a portable tent called the Tabernacle. Moses’ brother Aaron becomes the first priest of the Tabernacle. For years, the Israelites wander and carry the Ark until it finds permanence and protection behind the stone walls of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, around 960 BC. After Solomon’s death, the Israelite tribes split. Two tribes, Benjamin and Judah, remain in Jerusalem, creating the Kingdom of Judah, while the other ten settle in the north, forming the Kingdom of Israel with its capital, Samaria. Conflicts and civil wars, combined with acceptance and rejection of God, ultimately lead to the destruction and Babylonian exile of the rebellious kingdoms from 597 to 539 BC. The temple is plundered and set ablaze, and the Ark’s traces vanish inexplicably. Recently, speculation suggests that the divine tablets are hidden in Ethiopia, zealously guarded by Ethiopian Christian monks.
The Jews return from captivity after the Persian King Cyrus conquers Babylon and frees them. Saddened, they rebuild the temple anew, but not in the glory it once had. They lack independence and glory, falling under the rule of conquering nations.
The temple will be devastated in 70 AD by Titus’ legions, and in 135 AD, the city will be razed to the ground after another rebellion led by Bar Kokhba. The victorious Emperor Hadrian will rename the city Aelia Capitolina, until the time of Emperor Constantine the Great around 326 AD, when it regains its name, Jerusalem.
We descend the asphalt road, moving among numerous tourists, mainly heading downhill. Stone walls enclose us on both sides. To our left, the Jewish cemeteries stretch down, where the stone wall is lower, reaching to a person’s shoulder, and to the right, there’s another wall, tall above a human height, seemingly playing a fortifying role. The stone terraces on which the burial chambers are arranged descend like steps towards the Kidron Valley. One can freely enter through the entrance and explore.
The entrance to the Russian church is to the right. A metal gate, clinging to the wall, leads us into an inner courtyard. As soon as we pass through it, we break through time zones. From the stone trough of the street, we enter a green garden with tall trees, arranged and planted centuries ago, if not more. Their trunks are developed and firmly rooted in the hard soil. A stone alley leads gently uphill towards the temple. There aren’t many people, except for a few Russian-speaking tourists with wide-angle cameras. They stroll leisurely and peacefully. There are also two or three elderly nuns, watching us with the gaze of caretakers of this abode. A black cat rubs against my legs and lazily purrs. The alley takes us to a pre-temple terrace, a vestibule leading to the church entrance. The church itself is an architectural marvel with arches, curves, colors, and golden domes resembling onion bulbs. It’s a material expression of tales about Vasilisa the Beautiful and Koschei the Immortal. In fact, the church, Maria Magdalena, was built with funds from the Russian imperial family in honor of Alexander II’s wife, Maria Alexandrovna.
I ascend to the terrace and gaze through the trees. The opposite side of the hill with the walls of Jerusalem and the “Dome of the Rock” behind them is clearly visible. In a distorted space, I exist with two temporal dimensions aligned on a straight line. There are two points in contrast to its ends, and I attempt to maintain balance in their gravitational fields of attraction.
I see our group sitting on a bench below, waving for me to come down. Well, I descend; nothing lasts forever. Once again on the alley, but now in the opposite direction, heading down towards the street. There’s a restroom by the portal, and naturally, there’s a line. We wait patiently while simultaneously observing what’s happening outside.
Whoever allowed two-way traffic for vehicles on this narrow path must be joking. It’s narrow, fenced with walls, and serves as an alley descending from the Mount of Olives to the valley. If two cars meet in the middle, one had to reverse. I think it should be the one coming from below. We witness a similar case right in front of the church gates. Two drivers had met, and neither was yielding. The upper one is a taxi, and the lower one, a man loaded with his family. After the taxi driver exited his car and strutted around it like a rooster, showcasing the spectacle to tourists, the second driver had a chance to snugly fit into a niche by the wall, freeing up just enough space for the traffic coming from above. Passersby assist by forming a chain, pushing the niche as close to the wall as possible. We count ourselves again and descend to the bed of the dried-up Kedron stream.
“I don’t buy anything without the image of Botev or Levski!” I say to another Bulgarian street vendor trying to push some items on me, and he barely understands me.
We make a turn and head towards the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane, the same place that sheltered Christ and the apostles on the night of his betrayal. The thick tree trunks, resembling large barrels, impress us. I wonder if they were living witnesses to Christ’s time. Even if not, I naively believe the Crusaders must have harvested olives from them.
Powerful evangelical music in Korean emanates from a speaker hung above the capital at the church entrance. Groups of various nationalities gather in front of the open doors, predominantly Asians from the Far East engaged in some form of worship. Today is the day before Catholic Palm Sunday, making access to the churches challenging. Entry was out of the question. The music thunders somewhat off-key to our ears, with high decibels. We satisfy our curious pilgrimage by the rock on the side of the church where Christ prayed on the night before he was captured. It’s shady, and the olive trees in the garden are thicker than they initially seemed. If they could speak, what tales would we hear of their living history? Stories of battles, constructions, and upheavals. The place radiates antiquity and is an enclave within the city. Above us, on the other side of the road, the sealed Golden Gate is visible, where Jesus entered on the feast of Passover.
The Church of All Nations remains unexplored. From the outside, it doesn’t impress us much but rather resembles a pantheon. The vestibule is in Roman style, as the architect is Italian. Built in 1924 with donations from twelve countries, it has twelve domes. The interior is intentionally dark, in communion with the dark evening of betrayal. The place was chosen to attract worship and commemorate Christ’s last free evening. I can’t feel the energy of the place; it lacks a point of tranquility. The high-pitched, false Korean singing from the loudspeaker prompts me to move away. As an added challenge, more tourists join, some singing enthusiastically in tune with the music. Two thousand years ago, only the sounds of crickets and frogs from the stream were likely heard here, with shadows and reflections of lit torches playing on the fortress wall. Jesus wisely chose this place for solitude and prayers away from the city’s hustle.
It’s still before noon, and the whole day lies ahead. We retreat along the path between the ancient olive trees to cross the road and find ourselves in front of the tomb of the Virgin Mary with the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin.
We find ourselves in some empty basin. Its walls are built of white limestone blocks, about six meters high. We descended through stairs from one end, and at the opposite end is the entrance to the church. My first thought is, “We are trapped!” Where the temple’s vestibule is, there are wide steps descending slightly into an excavated area, treated and set aside as a sacred abode. Before we enter, Valo says:
“This is the tomb of the Virgin Mary! Some may say it’s in Ephesus, Turkey, but I am ready to refute them,” our guide states with unwavering confidence. “The Virgin Mary lived in Jerusalem and is buried here, in the tomb of her parents. The place is served by Armenian and Greek priests.”
The sources say:
̎Joachim and Anna are the parents. They live in Nazareth and struggled for a long time to have children. God hears Anna’s fervent prayers, and the archangel Gabriel appears to tell her she will conceive. Joyful, she vows the child to serve God.
After birth, Mary is dedicated to the temple in Jerusalem at three, cared for by the temple. At sixteen, she is given in marriage to the widower Joseph. Before their engagement, Gabriel announces she will conceive immaculately to fulfill the prophecy.
Mary’s parents die when she’s young. Later, Jesus and Mary are cared for by her husband. The family flees to Egypt briefly, returning after King Herod’s death. Little is known about Jesus’s childhood, except for his temple incident at twelve.
Joseph is not mentioned again; he likely passed away. Mary follows her son, but he distances himself. On the cross, Jesus entrusts Mary to the apostle John. After resurrection, he strengthens disciples for forty days, then ascends. Ten days later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles.
They speak miraculously in various languages, marking Pentecost. Apostles draw lots, spreading the word. Mary joins them, going to Crete and Athon, converting many. Athon becomes sacred. Mary visits Lazarus on Crete, returning to Jerusalem, facing challenges but protected by God.
Praying at Golgotha and Mount of Olives, Gabriel tells her God will take her in three days, giving her a palm branch. Her assumption occurs as foretold, witnessed miraculously by apostles, except Thomas, who arrives later. Opening her tomb, only her burial shroud remains. Virgin Mary passes at 64, in 44 BCE.
The Virgin Mary was buried in the Kidron Valley, where her parents and husband Joseph were also laid to rest. This is the location we find ourselves in, about to enter its interior.
Unusual for a church, the unassuming underground gallery we descend into exudes tranquility and comfort. Initially established with the support of St. Helena, Constantine the Great’s mother, in 326 AD, it was later restored by Queen Melisende in 1161 AD during the city’s Crusader rule.
As curious observers, we approach a niche on the right and find ourselves before the underground chapel with the crypt. What do we expect to happen? Nothing. We are curious observers like many others worldwide, some seeking solace for physical ailments, pain, or despair, while others carry joy, gratitude, or just a fascination for facts, places, and history.
I ponder on what unites us all. To come here for worship, one might have achieved success, found leisure, possessed resources, and overcome life’s storms, realizing profound truths about oneself and life. What might people seek here—gratitude, hope, forgiveness, healing for their spiritual wounds? I can only speculate on their motivations.
We don’t linger much; we proceed in order and exit. More places await our visit. Climbing the stairs upwards, we head towards the Old Jerusalem or, more precisely, one of its gates.
Once again, we find ourselves between limestone walls. The narrow asphalt path leads us to the walls, not mere props but real ones, made of white limestone blocks tightly bonded to provide sturdy protection for the city’s inhabitants.
It’s the year 36 BCE. Through this gate, they lead a man down the slope to Kidron. He is brutally stoned to death by representatives of the Sanhedrin—the religious governing body of the Jewish community. A young man, with them, guards their garments. Later, this youth will become the zealous propagator of Christ’s teachings. His name is Saul, but later he will be called Paul. The wicked man meeting his demise under the city walls is the first martyr for the new faith, remembered for centuries as Saint Stephen. Hence, this gate is also known as the Gate of Saint Stephen.
We stop in front of the open gates through which cars and people pass. Above the arch of the vault, symmetrically arranged, a pair of relief lions can be seen. Hence, it is also named the Lion’s Gate.
Valyo shares some introductory words before leading us forward.
“Through this gate, no soldiers entered in the entire history of the city until 1967 when an Israeli commando unit passed through here during the Six-Day War with the Arabs,” he tells us.
I turn back, gazing towards the Mount of Olives where powerful cypresses and olive trees stand. Shapes of Christian churches and the low stone architecture of the Arab quarter form the backdrop. Shadows of biblical figures crawl up its slope. King David ascends, leaving Jerusalem in the hands of his rebellious son Absalom three millennia ago. He will gather an army to reclaim the kingdom east of the Dead Sea, where the errant son will be killed. David will suffer, and sorrow will fill his heart.
Only one monument remains from those days, a low one, across from the Jewish temple—the tomb of the rebellious son Absalom. There lies also the tomb of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, which we won’t have time to visit.
It’s lunchtime, the sun is high, and we pass through the Lion’s Gate, stepping onto the paved path of the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the “Way of Suffering.”
Describing our route alone would be dry, so besides being objective, I’ll try to evoke the narrow cobblestone streets. Fourteen stations mark the path of suffering from here to Golgotha, covering about six hundred meters. The first is where Jesus was judged by Pontius Pilate.
Layers of stones and history have built the city’s map since 33 CE, with artifacts and traditions pointing to key points under the buildings’ foundations. At times, they follow the street’s path, and in places where new courtyards and building foundations appear, they emerge as thick, rounded stones, remnants of the old cobblestone.
Jerusalem’s fortress has a circumference of no more than four kilometers, and diagonally, it takes about twenty minutes to cross.
I ponder on faith. Is it within us, or do we hypocritically use it? When do we turn to God in prayer—during heavy burdens, surgeries, or for a myriad of other reasons? Billions of Christians, hundreds of thousands of temples, churches, and cathedrals, ranging from modesty to opulence. What is the right approach? As places for repentance, is every temple not a small Jerusalem in its core?
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) And the temple within us, I wonder, is it in order?
As we enter the Old City with just a few steps, on the right, a gate appears with a sign above it, “Birthplace, Virgin Mary.” A pantheon of artifacts awaits us, and it’s evident that this is one of them, drawing my gaze as we enter the city’s vestibule.
We walk a few meters, and the building on the left, or more precisely, behind the stone wall, is the first of the fourteen stops where Pilate pronounced the sentence. A narrow path with embedded pavers takes us through a corridor, arched and passing under a tunnel with rooms suspended above. Absent of concrete, everything is stone and blinding horasan. The walls are tall and robust, defining the truth of human psychology. No community or caste desires disturbance or surveillance by a neighbor or stranger. The gravitational pull of religions and customs is so strong in this area that preventing clashes within its borders is preemptively avoided by building thick, tall walls. Yet, humans are social beings, and pathways, like a neural network, serve for the transfer of goods and information.
It’s not surprising that provocateurs spoke the name of Barnabas loudly in these narrow spaces to set the tone for the crowd, predisposing the fate of Jesus. But everything had to happen this way; everything was predetermined:
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:22)
On the other side is the place where the beginning of the Via Dolorosa unfolds. We step across the threshold of the gates leading to an inner courtyard. Facing us is stone temple architecture and a present-day museum. The courtyard is small, angular. The scale of the space doesn’t allow for much unfolding. Virtually, I attempt to arrange the figurativeness of the past. The spot where Jesus was tortured in real-time is a quiet nook frozen in time. The stone forms of the architecture generate tranquility and silence. The dark fragment of the past remains in writings but not in the actuality. A stone tile from the prison floor displays evidence of thoughts from those times, showing the boredom of soldiers who played naval chess on it. The place is too narrow to accommodate many people. One can hardly experience much in fifteen minutes. The open gates of the temple invite us to peek inside, revealing benches with a dome above them, painted with a crown of thorns on the inner side. The reflections of the colorful stained glass windows lend a festive atmosphere, dispelling curiosity and the heavy thoughts about the place.
We exit and find ourselves on the cobblestone street, once again between limestone walls with high-set windows and metal grilles. The beige color is mixed with the hues of trinkets and hanging souvenirs in the series of alternating shops.
We ascend slightly and then descend. The variety of shops captivates us. The assortment is the same—candles, crowns of thorns, myrrh, scarves, wood carvings, magnets. The demand predetermines the offering. Someone is selling freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. I suggest treating my wife to a glass, and she willingly agrees. The juice introduces layers of sensations—freshness, quenching thirst, strength, mood, and coolness. A path of suffering and pain, and yet, we feel as if in a manifestation of a bright celebration. Is it appropriate? If God is watching us from above, He probably doesn’t want us to suffer. We cause our own suffering.
We descend to a small widening, akin to a small square, and turn left. Tourists abound, as well as local Arab merchants. Patiently standing by their goods, they don’t pull or call you; they just stand, and whoever comes, comes. Practice has tempered them in daily life, and they have apparently understood that arrogant attitudes repel pilgrims and tourists. Here, we find the next two stops on the Via Dolorosa. A patrol of young soldiers regroups on the little square and takes their positions. They wear full combat gear, and among them is a woman, quite attractive. The place is lively, and the Israeli government is taking significant measures to prevent incidents that could spark international scandal. For us, it was an attraction to observe the young soldiers, and we didn’t hesitate to take pictures, including with the charming female soldier.
Further down, at the end of the square, in one of the intersections, the next artifact awaited us—the place where Jesus leaned against the wall. At the very spot, there is a stone embedded in the wall. On it, like an imprint in soft clay, is the palm of Christ. Millions of hands have touched it with hopes, prayers, or just casually, to the point that the stone might have been scorched by the fire burning within them.
We turn right and head uphill through the narrow cobblestone path, passing by tourists in the tight canyon. Overhead, canopies and arches block the sun’s rays. As lunchtime approaches, our hunger leads us to gaze eagerly at the simit and pastries in the shops. Valyo assures us we’ll soon sit down for a meal. Exiting the tunnels, we find ourselves in another square with charming eateries along one of its streets. We secure a spot, order local specialties like hummus, kıpoğlu, garlic appetizers, falafel, fried potatoes, and chicken skewers. In a word, it’s a kosher feast. The place has a restroom, compact but functional. Attended only by men, they provide attentive service, making us feel privileged. Valyo generously shares the remaining food. Despite it being around two in the afternoon, our sense of time fades away. The sunlight matures, playing with shadows on the building facades. We pay and contentedly set off to meet the “Resurrection of Christ” church, just a straight walk from the last square we exited.
Standing before this majestic temple, we’re uncertain of what to expect or feel. The entrance, eccentrically to the left, aligns with a perpendicular wall, not grandiose or imposing, just an opening in the temple’s wall. People enter and exit, and as we step into the dimness, the organ’s melody guides us to the vast hall of the rotunda, where the stone chapel of the Holy Sepulcher is situated. Before the chapel, at the very entrance, a stone marks where Christ was anointed, and to the right, a staircase leads to the spot where the Lord’s cross was erected. These are the final stops of the Via Dolorosa, a few meters apart, embraced within the grandiose stone structure.
As we enter the rotunda’s perimeter, we’re asked to step back for a procession forming behind us. A male Latin chant accompanies rhythmic tapping on the stone floor and the powerful sounds of the organ. The crowd retreats to make way, and the edges become dense. Everyone turns their heads toward the procession, pulling out phones to capture the moment.
First, two men in extravagant blue suits and cherry-red Turkish fezzes on their heads pave the way. They make room for the following monks, clad in brown robes with hoods. The monks likely belong to a Catholic order. I glance at where our group has dispersed. We’re on both sides of the procession. I see Sonia wiping her eyes.
“I couldn’t resist!” she would tell me with excitement. “It just came from within, and I couldn’t help but cry!”
My wife had a handkerchief on her head; the godmother watched the procession in astonishment, and I, still in disbelief, surveyed the dome’s ceiling, from which daylight filtered through a circular opening in the center, recreating the shape of the sun with its twelve stone rays.
“It’s true!” I think to myself. “I’m at the Holy Sepulcher!”
This is the place where every Easter the Holy Fire descends. Is it a hoax or not? That’s the question every skeptic asks. It only happens during Orthodox Easter, not Catholic. Do the priests maintain the faith with white phosphorus up their sleeves? According to our guide, yes, but doubts linger in my mind. I’m a person of science, seeking an explanation, not ruling out the unexplained. This small stone structure, called Kouvouklion, is an object of daily worship. The laity desire a miracle to believe, and here it is. There’s too much evidence for the non-burning fire. Eyewitnesses, chronicles, records, including measurements of the electromagnetic field by a Russian physicist, convince us of its authenticity. The column outside is living proof, split since the appearance of the fire, after the Armenian patriarch bribed the sultan not to let the Orthodox enter the church in 1579.
This is where Jesus was laid in the tomb after his crucifixion. A piece of the stone blocking the entrance is preserved. Roman guards kept watch here until the third day, and it’s where women saw angels who told them that Christ had risen. We need to wait for the procession to finish, which would take almost three hours, before entering and lighting the items we carry. At the entrance, officials prevent people from going inside.
The procession circles around the tomb, singing repetitive chants like mantras. Someone from the procession falters and falls. They catch him and take him aside, offering water. More processions follow.
As ordinary visitors, we regroup and stand on the right side of the entrance to wait our turn. People from around the world, speaking different languages, young and old, men and women, push together to maintain order. Some short Spanish-speaking grandmothers press against my back. It takes effort to hold my ground. The place is packed because today is the day before Catholic Palm Sunday, and the Catholic Easter is a week later. The Orthodox Easter would be celebrated a week after that. Sadly, we were close to the miracle date, but we wouldn’t witness it. My curiosity sought the fire through the side round windows of the chapel. It reminded me of the crowded buses from the past—doors open, and a few people hang without getting off. To board, you have to push them in and claim your small space.
Valyo shouts from the side: “Hold on, this is a battle; don’t let them push you around. You came here to see, and you will endure!”
I think he would have made an excellent military commander in another time and place. Regardless, our turn comes, and we enter through the gate. Inside, there are two rooms, the first being the vestibule, and the second the actual Holy Sepulcher. Marble, candles, and icons surround us. I place the backpack with purchases from the church shop, say a prayer silently, and exit. At the exit, I decide to light a bunch of candles from the candle holder near the door, but a young bearded priest scolds me, and I extinguish them. It’s a little past five in the afternoon, and the fatigue from emotions and walks throughout the day is already felt. We navigate toward the exit, but we need to pass through the slab where Jesus was anointed and take the stairs on the right to the upper level, where the cross stood. It’s challenging for me to imagine the scene from two thousand years ago. We find ourselves in a closed space, resembling church sanctuaries anywhere in the world. The place was a bare hill outside the city. The sun had heated the stones, and people stood before the three crosses with their lifeless bodies hanging from them. They say that at Golgotha, Jesus’ blood reached the tomb of Adam, the first man lying below, to cleanse him of sin. We pay respects to the place and descend again through the stairs to the entrance. Outside, the buildings cast shadows as the sun sets. I feel light and free. We take pictures and venture through the labyrinth of stone streets toward the next stop, the Tomb of David.
As you mentioned, the old Jerusalem isn’t very large; it would take no more than a day to circle, but unraveling the artifacts embedded in each stone and peeling back the layers of history would likely take over a year. The space-time of the place loses dimension and contracts to the very point of creation. The stone from which the world was formed, according to beliefs, is located about a kilometer below the temple, situated above the Western Wall or the so-called Wailing Wall.
We find ourselves lost among the limestone facades and walls, entering the Jewish Quarter. It occupies the western part of the city, descending south towards the Temple Mount. There seems to be no distinct boundary. In old Jerusalem, four quarters coexist—Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish. If the Via Dolorosa were lined with the vibrant shops and stalls of the Arabs, here the streets are chosen by the people. Jews are measured dressed according to their own canon, with characteristic sideburns and beards.
We cross the Zion Gate, leading us to Mount Zion. The tomb of King David is in a narrow street resembling a sleeve. It’s a dead-end. There is also the building where the Last Supper took place. Our curiosity takes us to the vestibule of a short courtyard, where we can climb the stairs to the second floor of a small stone structure. Unfortunately, it’s locked. It’s hard for one to believe they’re standing before the true essence of the object. The modest and inconspicuous little house gives no hint of its significance to Christian faith.
There’s nothing to do here, so we head towards the entrance of a nearby stone facade, where the lights have already been lit. There’s movement in front of it. We enter the stone vestibule, and the attendants separate us—men on one side, women on the other. Women are not allowed near David’s tomb. Photography is also prohibited. They insistently give us a yarmulke, the small Jewish cap, which must be worn, or else you can’t proceed. After a short corridor, at the bottom, there’s a small room with a white stone sarcophagus. Next to it, young men bow and kiss the stone slab. On the way out, they touch a metal device wedged into the entrance page. I jokingly say to the men in our group, “Anyone who touches that iron won’t be able to let go of their money.” They laugh.
David, the shepherd raised to king by the Jews, carried through traditions and writings from generation to generation, was also a skilled musician. He played the harp and composed hymns praising God. Closed relics are before us in this small room, in a white stone coffin, and we are required only to believe that this is so. The Song of Ascents:
“Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways; You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. The Lord bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.” (Psalms 128:1-5)
We exit with a yarmulke on our heads, take pictures. The world remains the same—sky, stone, and sun. We capture the traces of millions of footsteps, smoothing the cobblestones beneath us, and gradually descend south along the western fortress wall to reach another sanctuary, a fragment of time left as a seal in the covenant of the ancients, where rivers of tears flow, and prayers and wishes are carried daily like the soft hum of a beehive.
Blessed be the Lord, my fortress, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle – showing me mercy, my stronghold, my high tower, my deliverer, my shield, and the one in whom I trust – subduing peoples under me. O Lord, what is man that you take notice of him, or a son of man that you respect him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow. (Psalms 144:1-4)
We pass by a family with two children. The woman appears worldly in a simple dress, but the man and the two boys are dressed in black, with curls on their sideburns and obligatory distinctive wide-brimmed Jewish hats. They might seem peculiar, but considering our location in the Jewish quarter of old Jerusalem, we were the ones filled with curiosity. While earlier we ascended, now we begin to descend, unaware that we have reached a small courtyard.
“We will visit the Hurva Synagogue,” declares our guide. It’s a Byzantine-style building located towards the upper side of the square, near the street exit we emerged from.
At the entrance, there’s a contradiction. Young boys, devout followers, engage in a debate on whether to admit us or not. Eventually, we are allowed in through a side entrance, ascending a narrow staircase to the second level. It’s designated for women, a terraced area overlooking the heads of the worshippers in the main hall. Amphitheater-like benches are mostly empty. Two girls and a foreign family are the attendees before us. We fill the space and glance into the synagogue’s interior. I feel like a front-row spectator in a grand theatrical production. Men pray, reading from pocket-sized sacred scriptures. The place exudes tranquility. I could sit for hours above the praying congregation and find solace.
The synagogue itself has a challenging history, as I’ll read later. It emerged slowly above the surface of the sacred soil, a result of the efforts and unwavering will of Jewish communities to obtain permission from Muslim rulers, along with debts to Arabs spanning centuries. Only a few years ago, the Israeli government built it in its current Neo-Byzantine style, borrowed from the architecture of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. There are no drawings or icons on the walls. The style is clean, dominated by the brown wooden benches, with black wrought iron on chandeliers and railings, along with a sign in Hebrew. Golden braids around the columns near the altar contribute to the grandeur of the place. The murmurs of prayers from worshippers fill the hall. However, we can’t linger indefinitely and step outside. In front of the square, a striking figure in a glass case captures our attention. It’s a menorah – a Jewish candelabrum with seven candles, arranged to form a semicircle in one plane. An ancient attribute representing a part of the Tabernacle, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.
We continue downward until we find ourselves in front of the entry gates to the square, at the end of which stands the high western wall of the temple, more commonly known as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall. Mandatory scanning is required. There’s no reason for them to stop us. We’re not terrorists, and we carry no harmful items. We’re tourists. Despite the two words having close meanings, they are still distant by definition, although they may have points of intersection. The directions are clear; women go to the right towards one end of the square, and men to the left towards the other.
“Well, we’ll have to part for a bit,” I say to my wife. Emancipation is an unfamiliar word around these parts. The diagonal towards the men’s section is longer, crossing the square and inevitably passing through a collection of hats. I see Jews with large, black, cylindrical hats on their heads, dressed in black, moving back and forth.
The Wall is a massive structure made of colossal stone blocks. It’s hard for me to imagine the muscular strength of the ancients, who likely used a system of levers and pulleys. Its height reaches 18 meters. It was built as a fortification on the hill over two thousand years ago. Above it used to stand Solomon’s Temple. Currently, there’s only a platform with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The gravitational pull of the whitestone blocks draws me like a magnet. I reach out and touch a stone from the structure. I close my eyes, and energies transport me into different dimensions. My fingers traverse centuries, and images pass through my mind like slides intertwined with feelings, struggles, desires, hopes, sufferings, feasts, will, despair, joys, and wisdom. Shadows of past souls have infused their energy into the stone. Is it possible, or is it a creation of my imagination? I have touched the very core of creation, and it pours its warm energy over me, as if I’m a baby in its mother’s lap. Rarely have I felt such tranquility. The place is undoubtedly sacred. I don’t see Jews crying or banging their heads on the wall. Instead, they stand upright, facing it, reading semi-aloud from their pocket-sized books, swaying back and forth, as if in a trance. They say if you write a note with a wish and stick it in the crevices between the blocks, it will come true. I don’t see any convenient crevices or notes. Someone takes care to keep the wall clean.
To my left, at the end, there’s an entrance. It’s dusk, and the lights are on. I go there, drawn by my curiosity. It’s an artificial cave in the hill, converted into a library. There are desks, shelves with books, and numerous people. My time is limited, and I have to head back. I bid farewell to this magical place. I pull back, turning my head one last time. A silent wall, a point of worship in this enchanting city.
The group has gathered in the square, waiting for me. I haven’t lingered much; I apologize and exit through the control gate. Our bus is waiting uphill on the road outside the city. Tiger, our driver, takes us out of the zone and leads us back to the hotel. Our dinner is short and unpretentious. We put today’s world to sleep, tucking it into the past, to wake up in the new, tomorrow’s world.
The morning of the new day greets us with a fiery sunrise. Orange hues saturate the facades of buildings on the bare hills, and the dark shadows on their opposite sides slowly slide away, making room for the light. After pulling back the heavy curtain from the window, I watched this scene with amazement. It was seven in the morning, and more exceptional experiences awaited us. Today, religion would take a back seat to showcase the natural riches and landmarks of this country. We were at the border between the fertile lands of Canaan and the desert area descending into the Dead Sea valley. This contrast is clearly evident when observed from someone’s vantage point. It’s confusing because in Bulgaria, the east faces the sea, but here it’s the opposite. The Mediterranean Sea is westward.
Breakfast awaits us, and we need to descend on time.
“Coffee or tea?” The question is cliché, but in this case, coffee always takes precedence, especially when it’s instant from the hotel machine.
By now, we recognize each other in the group and exchange greetings with a “Good morning.” We all know what today’s program holds, and eagerly switch teams and luggage. We would need swimsuits and towels. The weather promised to be with us, significantly warmer than the previous days. Valyo noted this as a fact and invited us to board the bus waiting for us on the main street. He did well to rearrange the program. Instead of visiting Old Jerusalem, which we did yesterday, today we were heading for the more enjoyable part. We would go to the River Jordan, immerse ourselves in it, and then float in the salty waters of the Dead Sea. Today is also Catholic Palm Sunday, and the walk we took yesterday wouldn’t have been possible today, given the number of visitors who would pour into the temples and narrow streets of Old Jerusalem.
Once again, we find ourselves at the checkpoint at the exit of Bethlehem. The wall with watchtowers and graffiti on it is noteworthy for us but not for the Palestinians. It had its purpose and shattered any illusions of territorial claims. Passing through, we head towards the city of Jericho, northwest, where in the luster of the landscape, the bare, rocky hills of the desert twist and turn.
“Winding spaces and new worlds,
realities discovered in a child’s dreams.”
by the author
I have never seen a desert area before. Bare hills, susceptible to erosion, yes, but extensive areas covered with pale patches of dry grass, poking through the cracks in the stones, is something new to me. I imagine what it would be like if it were just sand. I am curious and promise myself to see it someday. The charm of the journey lies in the sensation that we are moving at the bottom of a dried-up sea. In such a place, one can see how important water is. We have left the urban landscape to immerse ourselves in an atmosphere of a new dimension. We look curiously through the bus windows as the smooth asphalt road snakes between the beige background of the ridges. We spot an oasis on one side, a small trough of water with green grassy edges and structures made of stones and sheet metal. They are scattered without order, like a herd of wild goats.
“Those are Bedouins”- our guide says. – “They live as nomads, shepherds, and livestock herders. They’ve been living like this since biblical times. They don’t accept the conveniences of the modern world. Even though the area is dry, if there’s even a little rain, the hills cover in lush greenery suitable for grazing.”
Suddenly, I yearn to be like them, at least for a little while. To live for a month, no, more, and understand what kind of life they lead. No gasoline, no engines, no concrete or asphalt – their energy is embedded in daily transitions and caring for the livestock.
“Where I lay my head is home,
And the earth is my throne.
Adaptable to the unknown,
Under the wandering stars I’ve grown, by myself but not alone.
I ask no one.”
The song “Wherever I May Roam” by my favorite band carves its way into my head, setting its rhythm. I refuse to think about where we’re going and what we’ll see. My gaze glides over the stones that hold nothing. The wilderness is bare and unadorned, and it seems like in this lies all the magnificence – there’s nothing to spoil, nothing to fix.
We are all in our places, as we have been since the first day in Tel Aviv. People are slaves to their habits, and that is understandable due to the unwillingness to waste unnecessary energy. In nature, everything strives for minimal effort. A new perspective would change the chronology of the old one and disrupt the conscious process, and that would cost the brain efforts to rearrange things in sequences. Even a minor change, like switching your seat on the bus, leads only to one thing – discomfort.
We descend on a descent. Signs along the road mention our altitude relative to sea level. I read “-100 m” on one of them, but I’ve already felt it. My ears are clogged. Our road takes us up and down, towards the Dead Sea valley. I see another sign reading “-200 m,” and we continue. An invisible force presses on my eardrums, and I lose partial hearing. My wife complains about it too. It’s temporary, and we know it. At one point, we hit the bottom and emerge on a level surface. We are in an interesting valley. Decares of date palm orchards are visible. Against the backdrop of the bare and stony landscapes, this is a rich contrast. Dates are revered in these places, as we would later discover.
I remember how years ago we were strolling with a group of friends near landmarks in the Strandzha Mountain, close to the border with Turkey. Alongside the black road, there were scattered clothes and a bag of dates left by the refugees who had passed through there. That’s when it became clear to me that dates are the formula for success: calorific, filling, and light—ideal for long journeys. With four or five dates, a person can gather enough energy to cover a distance of thirty kilometers or more.
We move towards the elevations about twenty kilometers northwest. Below them, the contours of Jericho can be seen, the lowest and oldest city in the world, as it is known. It emerged twelve thousand years ago and is inhabited to this day.
For forty years, the Jews wander through the rocky desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the western lands of present-day Jordan, sustaining themselves with manna—the bread of God—and grappling with their internal contradictions. Moses is a great leader, but he is nearing the end of his earthly journey. He will stand on the ridge, facing the valley of Jericho from the northeast, and gaze at the fertile Canaanite lands covered with palms and greenery. There he will hear God’s voice for the last time:
“This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it” (Deuteronomy 34:4).
Moses will die at the age of one hundred and twenty. An entire generation, remembering the slavery of Egypt, has passed away. The newly appointed leader, Joshua, will hear the voice of God and face fortified cities and strong armies, starting with Jericho.
Two observers will be sent beyond the city walls, where they will be rescued by the harlot Rahab. In gratitude for her life and that of her family, they will be spared after the city falls. The Bible recounts many wonders about these initial actions. The Jordan River poses a natural barrier, complicating access to the city from the east, especially during the spring when the river is quite swollen. A miracle occurs with the Ark and the priests carrying it: as they step into the Jordan, the upper part stops flowing, and the lower part flows toward the Dead Sea. The Israelites cross through the dry riverbed to the other side, and the river resumes its normal flow after them.
Concerned Jericho residents witness around forty thousand people positioned before the walls of their fortified city. The takeover is peculiar; following Joshua’s prophetic instructions, they circumambulate the city walls for six days. Seven priests lead the way, followed by bearers of the Ark and then the army. On the seventh day, they make seven complete rounds, blow trumpets on the final lap, and upon a signal, the soldiers shout, causing the walls to collapse. Remarkable descriptions indeed, but archaeological excavations from that time reveal a similar scenario. It’s also a fact that a fault line runs near the nearby hills, causing significant earthquakes in the surrounding areas, witnessed even today in parts of Turkey and Syria.
As for Jericho in contemporary times, its low buildings peek through the bus windows, nestled behind sparse trees. The city sits just below the horizon, surrounded by nearby hills. We enter from the southern end, encountering low walls, practical houses in Arabic style with flat roofs, and fenced empty yards with occasional date palms. The Russian museum to our right stands out with its white elegance, a testament to Russia’s investment in the region. Climbing slightly uphill, we reach a small parking lot after a few turns.
“Dates are a staple for the region!” I hear Valyo’s voice. “You can buy some here, and also cosmetics with Dead Sea salts.”
The two shops stand at the upper part of the small square, where our bus stops.
They held Arab family names and sold various items – T-shirts, dresses, sandals, candles, souvenirs, magnets, airplane suitcases with wheels, dates, and different types of lipsticks. It’s around ten in the morning. The blue sky above promises sunny and warm weather, dispelling my worries about our first swim of the year in the world’s saltiest sea, especially after the chill of the past two days. Climate changes are evident; our guide would likely mention that temperatures around this time of year typically range between twenty-three to twenty-seven degrees, rarely dropping below twenty.
Upon disembarking the bus, our first task is to grab a cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Its mild acidity and a hint of tartness saturate our senses, bringing a sense of freshness. Nearby, a roped line traces a path from the city’s lowlands towards the nearby cliffs. I glimpse some structures embedded in the cliffs – perhaps monasteries, definitely falling into the category of architectural-historical specimens. The dark, dense openings of their windows remind me of empty, murky shells. The area is strewn with artifacts, and my curiosity piques as I read later that Jesus, after his baptism in the Jordan River, withdrew for forty days of fasting and prayer, facing trials.
The Arabs have carefully arranged their goods. I’m familiar with their trading tricks. The display exudes harmony and joy. Each item has a face exposed for display, but not everyone speaks. Some, you know, are the last thing you need, yet they grab your attention, and you involuntarily reach for money in your pocket. Commerce is a juxtaposition of two positions with mutual benefit. On one side, the buyer seeks value in the product, while on the other, the seller sees the monetary equivalent with a profitable percentage attached.
In this exchange process, part of the group will acquire creams and lotions exceeding our notions of a reasonable price. The same can be found back home for a fifth of the cost. The ingredients concentrated in the Pomorie field have excellent qualities, but here is different. These creams would restore elasticity and radiance to the skin, but youth never returns. Well, a little confidence from above doesn’t hurt. Another thing in our view was the dates. They’re sold back home, but this is their territory, and one is tempted to buy to experience a difference in taste. The price at the source was expected to be significantly lower than the one that passed through distances and hands of middlemen.
Inside the store, I gaze at a vest.
“My sister knitted it!”- the young, slender Palestinian seller says with a hint of pride in his Arabic-English. He towers over me, – “I’ll give you a discount if you also take the sandals.”
In the store, half the gender works, and I was definitely sure that if I asked someone else, they would tell me the same. But I knew that as much as I was trying on my shoes, his sister was knitting his vest.
When someone joins the conversation, they become part of the scene. I try on several pairs of camel leather sandals, assured that they are crafted from it, and after a few transfers through the hands, I decide on a pair. The magic is brief, lasting no more than a minute, but therein lies the power of the deal. Energy is released in the exchange of money for goods. Dopamine flows into the neural network, and one experiences their euphoria, a dose of happiness, an illusion for a short period.
Sonya and Georgi are content too, holding bags filled with boxes of dates and creams. We gather in small groups and chat. We wait for a person with his two daughters to choose a leather suitcase, then we board the bus again, heading towards the Jordan River.
Here are our chapters, handed out over the seats. We look through the windows, as if observing a projection of a National Geographic documentary. A picture atypical for our daily lives, unattainable, movable, separated from our visual organs by double-layered glass, the kind that shatters into small pieces upon impact to avoid injury. We travel through this world, but there’s a lack of touch. We can’t feel it, like moist clay rolled through our fingers. This is a brief moment in our observable field, tangible only through the bus windows. As we approach the border of the date palm garden, at one point, we are aligned with it, and in the next moment, it remains behind us in clear contrast to the desert.
My eyes embroider every pixel of this movement, to remain forever in my consciousness. If I come back here one day and travel this path again, will I recognize the place? Most likely, by some landmarks. The new picture will be compared to the old one, and consciousness will note the change but will want to preserve the prototype of the original. In repetition, the initial feeling of things is lost. If it’s beautiful, we’ll want to remember it as it was; if not, we’ll try to forget it.
We pass by stone buildings rising above the desert plain with the color of camel leather. Stopped like watchtowers along the road, these are church temples bearing the name of St. John.
We reach some parking area. It’s broad, there’s space. Cars are absent, but two other buses are parked. We descend and curiously survey the surroundings. Low structures, bundles of greenery, and a bell tower rising behind them.
Valyo leads us to the entrance. We find ourselves on a flat platform with benches. The changing rooms are on the side. Low and wide steps lead to the bed of the river, carrying its muddy waters and dividing Israel and Jordan. It’s not large. Its use as a resource for irrigation and industrial purposes has reduced its flow to almost one-fifth, affecting the level of the Dead Sea where it flows. Its muddy waters furrow the landscape like a flowing vein amid a dried puddle. We are at a sacred place. Here, Jesus was baptized by John. This is the beginning of the great mystery of the Holy Baptism.
On the other bank, platforms and structures are also visible. The bell tower that stood above the trees is from the Jordanian side and is part of a local church.
We are enthusiastic. We head towards the changing rooms and hurry to undress. Valyo warns us to wear swimsuits under our clothes and not to undress completely, as once wet, they become transparent, like nylon, revealing what’s normally unseen.
I didn’t bring one, but instead, I’m in my swimsuit, unlikely to be a sinner if I don’t have a robe. The others look like members of some brotherhood. Transformed, they stand in front of the water, on the specially built wooden platform.
Valyo wades in up to his waist and invites us. He starts in order, first, second, third, and so on, everyone in the same way—backward dip, straightening up, and then out.
“Come on, be more decisive, I’m freezing!” our guide shouts. “Doctor,” he turns to me, “come, let me baptize you, and your life will change!”
He amuses me, I go, grab the railing, and step in. The water is cold and brown. I feel the chill in my legs, lower back, and stomach. I didn’t expect such a surprise in these hot lands. I get used to it. Followed by immersion, first, second, third, that’s it, I’ve been reborn for something new and emerged. I take a photo of a Russian couple from our group. The others stood upright, wet on the wooden floor, cheerfully shouting:
“Congratulations, Sister Sonya!”
“Congratulations, Sister Nadia!” – adopting the game, they burst into laughter.
They resemble a wet white brotherhood, content and laughing. A small and dry Arab, washing the mud off the boards with a hose, looks at them. On the opposite side, on another platform, worshippers are invited in the same way. They are like a mirrored projection of our shore. This is a place for sacred rites, relaxation, and rest. It’s one of those parallel worlds we step into for a while when we want to take a breath from the hurried and burdened daily life. We don’t stay for more than an hour, but we already carry a part of its magic. Not that it differs much from any other shore in the world, but the fact that the sensory mystery of receiving the Holy Spirit from Christ happened here makes it different and unique. The world needs such places to maintain a balance against the forces raging within it.
There’s a state of consciousness where fatigue doesn’t set in quickly. Scenes change one after another, and the mind craves more and more, drawing energy from its hidden reserves to prolong the euphoria. The celebration is brief and shouldn’t be overslept.
Refreshed by the bath, sunlight dries parts of our bodies, while remaining water droplets are absorbed by the towels. Robes and swimsuits are damp, stored in nylon bags. Valyo takes a headcount, ensuring no one is forgotten or escaped, and steers towards the Dead Sea beach.
We board the bus; Tiger sets off, leaving the parking lot to return to the main road.
“The fault line of the earthquake zone runs along this ridge and continues north towards Turkey,” Valyo points to the hills we descended from into the valley. We enter a palm plantation, vast in acres. The tree trunks stand upright like temple columns, sturdy and unwavering, while their green, drooping crowns emit strength, prompting me to ask: How is this possible in this barrenness?
They’ve been here since biblical times, and the Jordan River used to be more significant. Its deposits and abundant water favored the cultivation of dates. Today, drip irrigation is used. We learn that palm trees are partly watered with salty water, enhancing their natural resources. Their resistance to salt makes the dates sweeter.
We move parallel to the Jordan River, elevated and distant. Google Maps shows markings for several churches on both sides of the river—Russian, Romanian, Greek, Syrian, Coptic, all Orthodox temples.
I was curious about the Copts, a church community I encountered in Jerusalem, attending their ceremony at the Church of the Resurrection of Christ the day before. Copts are Egyptian Christians, followers of Saint Mark, one of the evangelists. He was a companion of apostles Peter and Paul, moving with them to Rome and later settling in Alexandria until his martyrdom. Copts differ from Orthodox and Catholics in that they practice circumcision and receive baptism through a cross tattoo on their bodies. Their dioceses are spread across Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Israel.
Somewhere to the left lies the northern shore of the Dead Sea. Its calm waters level the bottom of the vast depression. A pumping station and rusty metal pipes traverse the empty area, sinking into the acres of the palm grove.
Approaching low buildings with a parking lot, we stop. We’re in front of some museum. Valyo wants us to go in and watch a documentary about the area, but, unfortunately (or fortunately for us), it doesn’t happen. There’s a shop where we can find something to eat. We have lunch coffee, nibble on light snacks, and continue without wasting more time towards the shores of the salty lake.
If Mars had water, perhaps there wouldn’t be a significant difference from the place we are passing through. Earth would resemble the surface of the red planet without this precious liquid. The black curve of the asphalt road and the calm waters of the expansive lake are elements that spoil the illusion that we are on another planet.
We descend towards the shore in the upper northwest part of the Dead Sea. In front of us, there’s a wide parking lot and an alley with greenery. The architecture of the low buildings designates areas for tranquility and relaxation, emphasizing their purpose for resort and beach activities. A bar, changing rooms with showers, and a small conveyor belt with a pile of salt serving as an attraction. A short alley with colorful flowers leads to a portal and a sign saying “Glamping.” It’s camping but in a more luxurious version, with low-cut grass, greenery from bushes and trees. Luxurious tents are set up on wooden platforms. Part of the alley deviates and leads to a longer, elevated path reaching the shore itself.
Once again in swimsuits, some barefoot and others in sandals, we descend to the shore. It’s no more than ten meters wide and entirely made of dried mud. Where the water meets the dry mud, it’s gray, slippery, with streaks of crystallized salt. The sun is intense, nothing like the previous days. I feel like this slope mercilessly absorbs the rays, biting into our winter skin. Plastic chairs are scattered around, along with a few umbrellas. There aren’t many people, but their absence isn’t felt.
Some have covered themselves in mud, others simply enjoy their freedom and the place they’re in, while some struggle to float in the salty waters but can’t. A short wooden bridge allows direct entry into the water. Our group disperses along the beach, and those who can find a chair and umbrella take advantage, while others lie on the ground on their towels.
We were warned to protect our eyes from the water to avoid consequences. Its salinity is three hundred and fifty grams per kilogram of water. For comparison, our Black Sea has a salinity of seventeen grams per kilogram. If something happened, we had to immediately rinse with fresh water. The taste, as I would later experience, was bitterly salty. The salts present were magnesium and calcium chloride, with the former exceeding the latter by almost double. The water had the consistency of the mudflats near the salt pans of Burgas and Pomorie but slightly more diluted and greasy. There was no way not to float.
In early April, the temperature was bearable. It was part of the culmination of our three-day stay in Israel. The emotions from the previous days melted away from our bodies, making us feel lighter. The peculiarity of these whimsical waters was that once you relaxed on your back above them, getting up required effort, and you couldn’t stand up without turning to one side. We did it with laughter. I fantasized that if I lay on my back, holding a towel stretched like a canvas with a straight stick, with a casual wind, I would reach the opposite Jordanian shore in a few hours.
This thought floated like a cork on the surface along with my body, gently swaying, demonstrating its celebration of idleness. Modern science is built on the foundation of imagination. The visible is an organized form of the invisible. Molecules and atoms are not observed with the naked eye, but we can imagine them. Indirect clues expressed in the macro-world can be mathematically modeled to represent the state and arrangement in the micro-world. Laws are derived from these dependencies, upon which humanity steps and generates its progress.
To look beyond our senses, imagination is necessary, and that’s why our teachers in class often use the phrase: “Imagine that…”—followed by countless scenarios. Contemplating this, I observe the gray clay-like mud at the edge of the shore and marvel at the peculiar white streaks of crystallized salt wedged between its layers. If I were to delve into it as an ordinary aesthete, I’d enjoy the striated patterns for a sufficiently long time until I got bored. However, the explorer in me wonders, how did this happen? Thoughts and imagination will start guessing and visualizing, while logic will cast doubt on every conclusion in its attempt to lead consciousness to the truth. The truth is that solid rock in the tremor, where once you step, you know you won’t sink. In this case, the truth simply tells me that these are deposits. What else could they be?
I plunge my fingers into the mud, scraping off a small piece to fill my hands. I rinse it with a bit of salty water from the lake, placing it on my knees and elbows. I blindly believe in its healing properties. For it to take effect, at least two weeks are required.
Truth and faith are intertwined. You can’t reach one without possessing the other. The godfather is fully immersed. Sitting on the chair, mud dries on him. He’s talking to Valyo, who’s nearby—and he’s also covered in mud. In fact, almost everyone is smeared with mud. Cosmetic companies in the lower southern end of the Dead Sea churn out products worth millions based on its content.
Its effect lies in beneficial chemical elements like sodium, magnesium, potassium, barium, selenium, and others penetrating the skin pores, stimulating nerve impulses, enhancing lymphatic flow, and blood circulation. This promotes intensive metabolism in cells and aids in the rapid removal of waste products from intercellular spaces. On the other hand, the deposition of sulfur compounds on bone cartilage alleviates joint pain due to improved friction.
Up and down, they might describe the process in some scientific journal, while I just imagine a lively stream rolling pebbles on its bottom. A wooden sign shows “-430,” and above it, another informs that this is the world’s lowest point. Two cheerful handprints are added, but it’s more of a mood-lifting image painted by the person who used black paint for letters and numbers. At the top, the pole finishes with a red-painted wooden circle. Indeed, we are at the lowest terrestrial edge of the Earth. We don’t miss the chance to take photos—a memory frozen when we tap the screen of our phones. Smiling people in swimsuits stand under this attraction to show their location. The background is the calm sea, two or three umbrellas stuck in the gray mud, and a sunny blue sky. Outside the frame are the joyful dark-skinned women enjoying the salty waters with wet shirts clinging to their bodies and the rocky shores of Jordan opposite.
I have no sandals; my feet are wet. On the way back to the loungers, I slide on the slippery mud, not falling but swaying like someone balancing on a tightrope.
Valyo is in contemplation, speaking about Bulgaria. He’s filled with patriotic feelings. I listen and friendly say to him, with a hint of playfulness, “Buy a house and come back to die there.”
“I’ll buy, I’ll buy!” our guide responds fervently.
He misses Bulgaria; it shows. He has somewhat settled his life in Israel. His daughter will soon get married, and he joyfully tells us about the upcoming event, but I sense that his heart pulls him towards Thrace, where he is originally from.
The salt began to crystallize on my body, and I decided to wash it off. I measured showers located one level up—a flat platform with a dozen arranged devices. There were no batteries with faucets; instead, there were some chains. You pull it, a valve releases, and coolness flows from above. After a while, it closes, much like a toilet tank. Well-designed, as water is precious in these conditions.
The day passes unnoticed, feeling its movement through the sun. I have my own definitions for morning and afternoon. From sunrise to midday, it’s green, unripe, and then it matures until it arrogantly rolls and falls behind the western horizon.
We don’t want to leave, but alas, the moment arrives. The sun is in its ripe part. We climb up the path, and every step takes us out of the realms of negative earthly values. Farewell, Dead Sea, and thank you for your hospitality. I ascend the steps in sandals, turning my back to the shore. I pass by elderly tourists, and in their faces, I read tranquility and joy from encountering the landscape.
On the last platform before the glamping site, a young girl takes a selfie. A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, a colorful dress saturated with her youth. All of this expresses a spirit of freedom and a love for life. English is a universal language, and I suggest taking a photo of her against the backdrop of the sea. She hands me her phone trustingly. Apparently, I don’t look like a thief. I narrow down the space to a few centimeters on the smartphone screen. I click once, twice, thrice, and that’s enough. I return the device. This is my last gaze at this horizon, and I want to remember it with the beauty of this girl. The sea is not dead; the sea is alive and embodies youth, carefreeness, and colors.
Valyo is seated at the beginning of the stairs at the nearby bar. He occupies one chair around a round table, in the company of an elderly gentleman. He patiently waits for us to emerge from the beach and talks to the person. The man wears a T-shirt with inscriptions in Hebrew. He has a badge attached with a ribbon around his neck.
“Doctor, come!” our guide waves me over.
I go and sit down.
“Are we waiting for more people from the group?” I ask.
“I think two girls are still behind,” he replies, turning to the person next to him. “By the way, we’ve been talking with my colleague here.
He claims to be a communist, a devoted Marxist.”
“Seriously?” I glance at the person opposite me. He naturally doesn’t understand Bulgarian and looks indifferent. Valyo introduces me as a chemist, a Ph.D. The gentleman looks at me, but I don’t seem interesting to him. His smile shows that he noticed me and shifts his focus to two girls sitting on stork-shaped stools somewhere behind me.
“Do you know each other?” I ask a naive question.
“No, he’s my colleague, leading a group here. We recognize each other by our badges. They must be worn around the neck and visible.”
“And so? Is he telling you if he’s a communist?” – I ask.
“Something like that, but when I see him staring at skirts, he’s definitely not a communist,” Valio suspects.
I reflect on how in Bulgaria, thirty-five years ago, our society was entirely led by communism. Meeting someone like this evokes astonishment, and the person seems like an antique pulled from a time capsule. Elevated, surpassing sixty, with whitened hair and a tousled neck, wearing a T-shirt with the company’s logo and shorts with imprints. I try to compare him to the former neighborhood OF members who always lectured us not to do this or that. They brought him, but those always wore shirts, trousers, and red ribbons on their sleeves. They’re gone now, extinct, and with them, the orders of the bygone regime. Did life and the labor of one or two generations of Bulgarians go in vain? Did they sow their crops on dry ground? Did their ideals make them happy, or did the labor of their hands, as seen in old photos, make them content? A forgotten ideology from which Bulgarians distanced themselves in every possible way. Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean it’s not alive and working somewhere else in the world.
In Israel, kibbutzim still operate. These are local communes whose existence is built on equality. There is no private property. Wealth is distributed equally, and governance occurs through general meetings. Labor is on a rotational basis to ensure interchangeability. Religion is not the core of the kibbutzim. They follow Marx’s famous phrase, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” These are idealized societies based on farming. The first kibbutz was established in 1909 by Russian Jews. Currently, there are around two hundred seventy with a total population of approximately one hundred sixteen thousand residents. They laid the foundations for the creation of the new Jewish state in 1948. Capitalist relations and religion, however, infiltrate some communes. Some kibbutzim are engaged in industrial production, hospitality, and catering, forced to hire cheap labor from representatives of other poorer countries.
I was thinking of starting a conversation with the gentleman, but our girls appeared, and with Valio, we left, leaving the stronghold of Marx’s ideas to contemplate the surrounding environment through the lens of his social worldview. In the parking lot outside the resort area, there were Arabs with camels offering a short ride as an attraction.
“Do you want to ride?” – I asked my wife.
She didn’t expect such an offer, but sensing her curiosity and childish desire, I encouraged her to give it a try. I was about to ask one of the Arabs how much it would cost, but Valio interrupted me and said he would give us a gift. He engaged in a loud conversation with him, and after some hand gestures and negotiations, he called us and urged us to climb.
The camel was in that position in which four-legged animals rest, spread on the ground with folded legs. Its back was covered with colorful stripes and a saddle, so it was impossible to tell whether it had one hump or two. I must admit I had never seen such an animal up close. “The ships of the desert,” as we were taught in school. Its halter was also quite colorful and attractive. When it felt a person on its back, the creature slightly protested by raising its head and showing its large teeth. The Arab invited her to stand up, at which point she lazily and reluctantly raised her front legs, followed by the rear ones, and my wife firmly clung to the saddle, relying on her instinct for self-preservation. Her smile and the stretched expression revealed the mood, which was like that of a child on an amusement ride. With a slow pace, the camel made a circle in the parking lot led by its master, and I took several good pictures. The descent was in reverse order. The camel simply knelt down and laid its body on the ground.
I took out some shekels and started to leave something for the Arab, but Valio argued with me:
“No”- he said – “it’s not allowed!” You’ll offend him!
“But how?!”- I wondered.
“Remember” – Valio continued – “when an Arab gives his word, it’s law! There’s nothing firmer than the word of an Arab. If he said without money, it means without money. We, as group leaders, have the right to use the privilege for one or two.”
And he was right because we made an advertisement, led the group as they say. After us, the camel made a few more rounds, but now at the appropriate price list.
The Arab was a good person and allowed me to take pictures for a memory.
I have a black and white photo from childhood. My grandfather put three children on his donkey, one of those gray, small ones with long ears. We held onto each other tightly to avoid falling, and our smiles were wide, and our eyes sparkled.
Again, we are in the midst of a naked wasteland. It will put on a garment of green moss after the drizzle, just to admire itself with its two-week transformation and reveal itself again to its harsh essence dictated by the dry climate. Perhaps it has always been like this, newborn, unwrapped, primal, and inhospitable, standing with its bare feet at the threshold of the fertile Canaanite land, tamed only by its Bedouin masters.
From the ephemeral resort area where we was, only the remnants of mud stuck to the soles of our sandals. The Dead Sea left its caress on our backs, along with the hot kisses of the sun. The road winds uphill, forcing the tired engine of the bus, resembling a submarine thirsty for a breath of air. We emerge from the negative values of the ordinate to align with the boundary of the world ocean.
Before entering the suburbs of Jerusalem, a roadside sign catches my eye: Good Samaritan, and I remember Jesus’ parable. I try to piece together the fragments in my head, and they come from the deep recesses of my memory, about how a Judean traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was beaten and robbed by bandits. A priest passed by and ignored the semi-conscious prisoner, as did a second person, but a Samaritan stopped to help, bandaged the wounds, and took the man to an inn, where he fed him and paid for his stay.
The story, known to all, is told by Jesus to a Jewish lawyer who tests him, asking how to attain eternal life. This parable is indicative that a neighbor can be not only one’s own but also a stranger (Luke 10:25-37).
Later, already at the hotel, I would share with Valio that I saw the sign, and he would respond that everywhere is full of biblical artifacts, and unfortunately, our time is limited to see more things.
At five in the afternoon, what could be done at the hotel? The remaining hours of this tale had to be scraped to the end. A short walk along the central street of Bethlehem would put its final touch on our excursion. So, after returning, bathing, and changing, we left the hotel lobby and walked along the sidewalk to the Church of the Nativity. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the facade of local culture and add a concluding fragment to our memories.
As it was a day off, we didn’t expect the shops to be open. Nevertheless, we needed to find a use for the remaining shekels. There was little movement on the streets. Cars passed by, but less frequently. It was time for the youth to come out and break the silence with the roar of engines and Arabic music from their car compartments.
“Darling, did they play for you?”- I shouted to my wife, who was walking with Sonya a few steps ahead of us.
Local youngsters had honked their car horns while passing through the main street.
“I don’t know.” – she coquettishly replied, turning back with a smile and raising her nose.
Despite the emotions of the day, fatigue hadn’t caught up with us, and our feet moved along the sidewalk tiles. The limestone facades of the buildings stood silent, revealing nothing about the presence of life in their dwellings. Dark windows, recessed terraces, the absence of awnings and colors, rather resembled fortress homes, and only the protruding bell towers and minarets with intricate architectural details hinted at the sacredness of the place. We couldn’t help but stop by the stone parapet off the road to admire the setting sun. The panorama of bare hills and scattered buildings imposed its dimensions on the perspective of the horizon. The sun carried its light into the depth of the west, burying along with it joys, desires, passions, and sorrows, as it has always done since the existence of this world.
We had scattered into small groups. We caught up with each other and passed each other on the road. The few open shops mainly offered alcohol and souvenirs, but we focused on spices. There was one we entered on the way back. We took a long walk to the mall, where we stopped on the first day, and turned back. The spice shop wasn’t far away. There, we saw various things that the Orient could offer in culinary terms. Slightly sugared and dried fruits, nuts, grams of turmeric and pepper satisfied our shopping desires.
The night lowered its veil the moment we returned to the hotel. Dinner no longer surprised us and didn’t arouse our curiosity. We quickly finish it and head to our rooms to get some sleep. The next day awaited us with a journey back to Bulgaria.
Dreams wander through the night and disturb their hosts. I tried to remember what I dreamt in the Holy Land, but unfortunately, as soon as I opened my eyes, the doors to the subconscious slammed shut, and the scenes vanished like smoke from an extinguished candle.
Our wake-up call is early, in the darkness. We need to get ready quickly and leave the rooms to be in the lobby at the appointed time. The hospitable hosts distribute individual packages of dry food at the reception and politely send us off.
Tiger, our driver, probably dozed off, and our gaze into the darkness of the deserted road would hardly prompt the appearance of the bus headlights. Nevertheless, he is a conscientious person and arrives as quickly as possible after our guide calls him.
Taking our seats and standing on the threshold of a new day with sleepy eyes, we’ll await the appearance of the streaks of light that herald the beginning of the day. Strolling between the buildings, we head to the main road to Jerusalem. I am surprised by the multitude of cars leaving Bethlehem early in the morning. Naturally, they are heading to work in the capital.
The highway is illuminated. Looking down from above in the darkness, one might liken it to a starry path. The moonless landscape is covered in a dark veil, and only the lights trace the connections between the clusters of stars at roadside settlements. Fortress walls, illuminated by spotlights, lights from car headlights and taillights, night roadside lamps, dark buildings – this is the modern Jerusalem. What was it like two thousand years ago? Essentially the same, but without electricity, glass, steel, concrete, moving sheets of metal, plastics, and rubber. It was intersected by the shimmering lights of torch flames, shadows, and vague silhouettes. In all these times, only one thing remains constant and unchanged – religions. Embedded in life and consciousness, standing in contrast to the hegemony of scientific and technological progress, they are the pillar of the human soul. Man is mortal; he has been and will remain a temporary inhabitant of the material world. The body, like packaging, succumbs to decay in the entropy of cosmic events. Religion is the balm for the wounds of our earthly journey, not for the visible ones but for those invisible, hidden deep within us.
The appearance of dawn is like a misty light from the east, catching us in the fertile plains of the Mediterranean. Green shoots cover cultivated lands like a carpet, and in the distance, the tall buildings of Tel Aviv are visible. The gathered morning clouds eloquently tell us that the day will be rainy. This doesn’t trouble us, as we carry the magic of the experience with us and leave the hosts’ home with a sense of satisfaction.
At the airport entrance, the farewell with our driver and guide is brief. I’m left with memories of Vallo’s robust figure and cheerful face, ready to change his expression at the first sign of injustice.
Our paths diverge. Absorbed in the flight schedule and security protocols, we pass through corridors with belts and metal detectors to reach the waiting area, where we can have breakfast with the dry packets from the hotel. The display scrolls through schedules, and the voice from the microphone announces flights to Sofia. Final check of tickets and passports, and we’re on the bus to the plane. We board, take our seats, and take off. Again, there are crying children, but this time they are far from me. The thick veil of clouds we fly over denies us a view of the earth. All that’s left is to patiently wait for the moment of landing after a two-hour stay in the skies.
Whatever we saw and experienced in Israel remains in our memories. We return to our homeland with new knowledge and a different perception of the world. Judaism, Christianity, Islam – powerful pillars and support for billions of followers worldwide. The Holy Sepulchre, Al-Aqsa, the Western Wall – they will remain the original gravitational centers at the point called Jerusalem, and they will be so until the end of the world. Because what is man if not a vessel of God’s promise, and while their teachings may differ, they inherently are and will be branches of one tree.
In the aftermath of writing the travelogue, a few months after our return from Israel, events unfolded there that changed the situation. Israel declared war on the terrorist organization Hamas, which had infiltrated its border and attacked cities with rockets. Many peaceful civilians were killed, and others were taken hostage. The response was swift. Israeli tanks and aircraft entered the Gaza Strip, systematically striking the buildings of settlements and displacing Palestinians from their lands. Time will reveal how the conflict will unfold, but this is not unprecedented. The history from biblical scriptures repeats itself, again and again. It seems that these lands are not meant for peace but are a simmering volcano in the fault line between the East and the West.