It feels like the country is packed with Israeli tourists at every site at the moment. However, some sites that are usually overtaken by visitors from abroad are surprisingly empty, giving you the chance to see them for yourselves.
Read on for a fascinating guest blog from Danny Herman, also known as "Danny the Digger,” - an archaeologist and a experienced tour guide.
Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus, all of our lives have come to a halt in one way or another. After a tough lockdown that lasted for a few weeks, the country gradually opened, and we all had to get used to the new reality of masks and social distancing.
These days (August 2020) "the skies are starting to open up," as they say in Hebrew. However, with many restrictions in place. For the last six months, Israel has not hosted any tourists. On the other hand, locals can travel around the country again and are doing so like never before.
The Nature and Parks Authority sites require pre-registration. However, the forests, beaches and urban areas are open, with almost no restrictions.
This time period is a great opportunity to tour various historical and archaeological sites, in addition to the national sites. Throughout Tel Aviv, fascinating historical sites related to the history of Zionism are spread throughout, combined with markets, parks, and shopping centers.
Another great location to explore right now is Akko. The Hospitaller Fortress, known as the "Knights Halls" has reopened. At the port, you can go on short cruises around the city walls, and in the main market of the Old City you can enjoy excellent hummus or knafeh, and Arab delight, with coffee.
However, the best site to tour right now in Israel, is probably the Old City of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, because there aren’t any enthusiastic Christian pilgrim groups looking for souvenirs, most of the shops are still closed. But thankfully, all the main sites are open!
I especially recommend taking the opportunity to visit the three main holy sites of Jerusalem; the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Start the day with a visit to the Temple Mount. It is open in the morning to visitors from 7:30-11:00. Before the Pandemic, the queue for entering the site was an hour, or even two. However, when I visited yesterday, there was no line at all! A modest outfit is still required, and face masks are now also a must, but the Temple Mount is open, and relatively empty.
At the entrance, take a moment to appreciate the rich display of architectural details, some of them of marble, from the Crusader and Omayyad periods. You will also be able to admire the front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the other end of the Hulda Gate, the inner side of the Golden Gate, and stroll around the Dome of the Rock. Along the western side, the tombs of Hussein Ibn Ali, the founder of the Hashemite dynasty, and Abd al-Qader al-Husseini, the commander of the Palestinian forces in 1948, are also visible. Next to them, is the Gate of the Cotton Merchants Market, the most beautiful gate to the Temple Mount, which dates from the Mamluk period.
If you exit through this gate, definitely stop for coffee or some Tsai ("Tea" in Arabic) in the market. Another option is fresh hummus at the "original Abu Shukri,” along Hagye Street.
After this break, join the Via Dolorosa, the most important axis in the Christian world. It leads, by Catholic tradition, from the site of the trial of Jesus, to where he was crucified, died, buried and resurrected. Before the pandemic, the alleys along the Via Dolorosa were often packed with groups of pilgrims, especially at the narrow passages through the Ethiopian chapels. Not these days!
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a totally different experience right now. This church, said to be built over Jesus’s and the hill of his crucifixion, is usually so crowded with pilgrims and tourists. These days, there is almost no one in it! This is the ideal time to enter the church without overcrowding. It is also a great opportunity to get "clean" shots of the interior of the church, capturing all its rich and diverse ornamentation.
The burial cave itself is not open to the public because of COVID. Additionally, as of mid-August, the church is only open Monday to Thursday. Although, according to Omar, the Muslim who has the keys to the church (which is a story by itself), this will soon change when pilgrim groups will start flocking here again.
The Western Wall - the Kotel
Don't miss the opportunity to visit the Western Wall right now. The prayer plaza is now divided into capsules, but from above, the Western Wall stones overlook the worshipers. These stones, "with a human heart," according to a classic Israeli song, are waiting for you.
And this is absolutely the best time to visit!
The author of this article is Danny Herman, also known as "Danny the Digger.” He is an archaeologist and master tour guide and can tailor make a tour for you.