A tale of two cities

The holy fervour of Jerusalem or the pulsating vibe of Tel Aviv, both represent how Israel holds its heritage close to its heart as it marchesinto the future, say Gustasp and Jeroo Irani

As we stood on the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem (Israel’s capital), we could feel the thrum of the past; history lying under tangled layers of soil; of ancient civilisations buried under a sea of yesteryears. Jerusalem isn’t a musty museum; the city is a quixotic mix of sights and sounds; shimmering at sunset with a golden glow which emanates from its pale yellow limestone buildings. Tel Aviv’s polished visage we would view later, we decided, for the pull of Jerusalem is insistent and hard to ignore.

Every step we took on the cobbled streets, seemed to yank us back into a labyrinth of time and space and a kaleidoscope of eyepopping colour. The air was filled with the sonorous call of the muezzin and the peal of church bells; as Jews sauntered down narrow alleys; and black-robed Greek priests with flowing beards walked to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Indeed, Jerusalem is the heartbeat of three world religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We felt swamped by a virtual tsunami of religious fervour as often happens in an Indian pilgrim town. Our first stop was at the Western Wall or Wailing Wall. This is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount above it (held sacred by both Jews and Muslims) and for centuries, Jews, young and old, have come to the wall to mourn the fall of their First and Second temples.

Jewish devotees stood there, praying and rocking on their heels. Some caressed the wall, others kissed the old stone; some slipped pieces of paper (asking for divine favours) between the gaps in the wall… Our foreheads too seemed fused to the sun-warmed stone and we imagined an electric current raking our bodies, as we empathised with the sense of loss and pain of believers, over the centuries. The Temple Mount or the Dome of the Rock is known to Muslims as Al-Haram ash-Sharif and is the third holiest shrine for them after Mecca and Medina. Its gold dome dominates the skyline and it rests on a turquoise base of glazed ceramic tiles, which shields a stone slab from where Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. Not surprisingly, the stone is blessed for the Jews too, for, according to tradition, it was there that the Jewish patriarch Abraham painfully primed himself to sacrifice his son. It is this overlapping of different religions and their sacred sites that makes Jerusalem so fascinating and unique. And not too far away, the landmark copper dome of the Al Aqua mosque filled our view finders; it was hard to believe that it was devastated by earthquakes and rebuilt several times.

Jerusalem resonates with deep faith… Along the Via Dolorosa, Jesus Christ is said to have shouldered the cross and walked. Even in present times, groups of pilgrims retrace His footsteps on Good Friday, and gather in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was said to have been nailed to the cross. Inside, we were confronted by moving cameos – worshippers prostrating themselves at a slab of stone where Christ was believed to have been laid after he was brought down from the cross; some fervently pressed their foreheads to the stone as they prayed.

The narrow twisted lanes of the Old City have an Arabian Nights aura with shopkeepers hawking sticky dates, sequinned fabrics, and colourful sweets, bright as a child’s painting… The delicious falafels (fried balls of chick peas served with hummus and salad in a pita bread) that we had on the fly were bought from a wayside stall. But later, we also dined sumptuously at restaurants serving fusion and Middle Eastern fare.

A contrast from Jerusalem’s intensity of colour and the experiences it offers, Tel Aviv, an hour’s drive away, has been aptly nicknamed the Bubble. This is the modern pulsing face of the country. With its glittering high-rises, buzzing night life and powdersoft beaches lapped by the Mediterranean Sea, Tel Aviv is a party destination. At the heart of Tel Aviv is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of White City, which is home to almost 4,000 contemporary buildings built in the iconic Bauhaus (named after German art school Staatliches Bauhaus) architectural style. But Tel Aviv residents are the most proud of the city’s beaches. From the hip sands of Metzitzim Beach in the north to the more casual Alma Beach in the south, residents flock to the sea-side sands for gorgeous sunsets.

Wander the streets to admire the architecture or go café hopping, take in the arts scene or just slip into the city’s laid-back pace. Ultimately, both cities are the vibrant faces of Israel, a country that burnishes its past even as it lives in the moment and prepares for the future.

The authors are avid travellers and the views expressed in this article are their own

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