This morning we met our guide, Benni Dagan, who would spend the next five days with us in Eilat and Tel Aviv. Benni is a fit gentleman who speak s perfect English and has traveled to the U.S. at least a dozen times. His favorite visit to U.S. was touring the West and Canada on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. A lawyer by training, Benni has been guiding scores of people through Israel for the last 30 years. I fondly nicknamed him “mountain goat,” as we could barely keep up with him on the steep steps and narrow passageways in Jerusalem. Photo journalist Larry Rose immediately recognized Benni at breakfast; he guided PBS’ Rick Steves on his tour of Israel and Palestine. Our courageous driver is Jiri, who will take us south to Eilat after a stopover at the Dead Sea and Masada tomorrow.
Today was the last day to exhaust ourselves before Friday’s triathlon, and we certainly did! It is always tough to balance race preparation (i.e. rest) with taking-in as many sites as possible. Talk of triathlon just could not compete with the history, monuments, culture and diversity of Jerusalem. A guide book will do a far better job of explaining the history and importance of Jerusalem—the birthplace of three religions. I can only share my personal experience in this complicated place.
The four of us began our tour on the Mount of Olives where Jesus was captured by the Romans, and later was said to have ascended to heaven. The olive trees are thousands of years old and still produce a healthy bounty. The Mount of Olives provides a fantastic view of the walled Old City, Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock.
After a quick visit to the Church of the Ascension in Gethsemane, Jiri drove us next into the Old City which comprises only one square kilometers in the modern city of Jerusalem. The Old City has four quarters: Christian, Jewish, Armenian and Muslim. Each quarter has its own culture and personality. To experience the culture and complexity of the Old City, you need about five days. But with Benni as our guide, we saw more tombs, churches and synagogues in one day than the Crusaders. We spent most of the day walking the Via Delarosa (“the way of suffering”) which is memorialized in the 14 Stations of the Cross. Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion outside the Old City wall, is now contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher- one of the most spiritual places I have ever visited. Here you see five of the fourteen Stations of the Cross including the exact spot of Christ’s crucifixion, anointment and burial. Some also believe the tomb of Adam is located in the church’s limestone foundation.
The winter time is perfect for touring the Old City. There were few crowds or long lines at any of the attractions. The summer season and religious holidays attract the most tourists and pilgrims. We were reminded about the low season and the “great deals” the shop keepers were offering. Speaking of shopping, popular items included widow’s mite coins from the time of Christ, rams horns, olivewood carvings, and gold.
After a late lunch, we concluded our visit at the Western Wall. The most spectacular site was a group of about 200 female Israeli soldiers visiting this holy place upon completing boot camp. It was strangely odd but satisfying to see 18 years old, highly-trained women sporting machine guns. Benni said that women serve in the Army for two years, and men three. It was a disappointment to learn that the Dome of the Rock is now closed to anyone not of the Islamic faith. The Dome was built on Temple Mount at the former site of King Solomon’s Temple, a sacred place for the Jews. The Dome houses the Foundation Stone, the source of the Universe for Jews; and from which Mohammed ascended into Heaven.
Stories from the Bible truly come to life visiting the Holy Land. Triathlon training can sometimes be a selfish way of life, focused on physical training and mental strategy. Stretching the mind instead of the hamstrings was a positive change of pace and reason enough to consider a race in the Holy Land.
Author Barbara Mica is a contributing editor to EverymanTri.com. Barb is a four time Ironman finisher and ITU Long-distance Championship triathlete. She has run more marathons than she’d like to remember. She and her family travel to many international race destinations and enjoy learning the lifestyle and culture of the host countries.