Tag Archives: Jerusalem

My (current) top 20 cities … or today would be a good day to be anywhere but here

It seems to be the time of year for making lists, so today I’ve had a go at one a few people have asked me about: my top cities. I didn’t manage a trip these summer holidays, so as I head back to work this week, here are all of the places I would have loved to sneak in a visit to.

A few disclaimers: if you ask me tomorrow, this list may well have changed; these are cities to visit rather than necessarily live in; the list is drawn from cities I have actually been to, so there are some world class cities missing (and South America is notably absent … I must rectify that asap!) Feel free to tell me what I need to add; and I have excluded cities from my home country, even though Sydney undoubtedly deserves to be on any such list.

20. Stockholm

Almost missing out due to high prices and lack of sunlight hours, Sweden’s capital has just scraped on to my list due to its colourful buildings, beautiful waterways, and royal and intellectual history. Next time I’d try to go in summer rather than winter for some longer days, although Scandinavia in the cold is beautifully pristine.

19.  Phnom Penh

Beating out Bangkok which feels a bit too showy, Cambodia’s capital offers sobering history, cultural resilience, incredibly friendly people, and all kinds of opportunities to learn from people seeking to rebuild and restore. While Siem Reap holds the famous temples, this is the Khmer city whose streets I would love to wander.

18. Montreal

It was a toss up here with Vancouver, but the French factor tipped the scales for me. A stunning cathedral, an impressive penguin habitat in the biodome, a solid history museum, and French-Canadian culture of all kinds make this city a delight. And of course a winter visit adds to the beautiful vibe: snow just makes everything prettier.

17. Berlin

After being disappointed with Frankfurt and Munich, Germany’s capital restored the country’s travel value in my eyes. So many layers of history, a people who honour and acknowledge the past well but still look to and celebrate the future, an incredible array of museums and streets made for walking and people watching combine to make this one of my favourites.

16. Krakow

Old world Poland’s walled city with its bustling square and serene castle, alongside a funky modern city which pays respect to its tragic 20th century history, Krakow was an unexpected treasure and one I’d highly recommend.

15. Cairo

The only African entry on my list (although if the list were places rather than cities that might be quite different!), Egypt’s capital is worth the price of admission for the pyramids alone. But more than that, it is a melting pot of ancient and modern history, home to delicious cuisine including possibly my favourite meal ever, and the location of one of the world’s greatest museum collections put together like a haphazard choose-your-own-adventure maze.

14. Barcelona

A more recent addition to my list, Sagrada Familia on its own makes the Catalonian capital worth a visit. Antonin Gaudi’s imprint all over the city is an invitation to wonder, from crazy buildings, to an incredible park, to the design of the pavements. Add to that pintxos, cava, and people who welcome you into their crazy traditions and celebrations, and this is a city of history, architecture, and party.

13. Tokyo

One of my first big international cities to explore, Japan’s capital is unlike anywhere else, with ancient religion alongside modern tech obsessions and everything in between. I have been obsessed with finding good okonomiyaki ever since.

12. Budapest

Most people seem to pick Prague, but while I truly loved the Czech city, it was nearby Hungary’s similar but less crowded capital that stole my heart. The fairytale castle. The striking parliament building. The solemn Jewish museums and synagogues. The hauntingly beautiful Shoes on the Danube memorial. The cakes. The bookshops. The bridges. I could go on …

11. Lisbon

One of the world’s hilliest cities, Portugal’s capital will give you a workout and an overload of historic beauty. Castle ruins overlooking colourful tiled buildings. Various delightful modes of transport including elevators and funiculars. A golden bridge to rival San Francisco’s and a Christ statue to rival Rio’s. And. The. Most. Amazing. Custard. Tarts.

10. Hanoi

It’s hard to choose between Vietnam’s two big cities, and Ho Chi Minh is definitely worth a visit. But for me, Hanoi’s more old world charm, slower pace, and natural spaces tipped the balance in its favour. The art and history museums provided insight and a different perspective into a culture quite different to my own.

9. Florence

Again, many might prefer Venice or Milan, but of these three stunning Italian cities, for me there is no question. I love the river Arno and the Ponte Vecchio is beautiful despite being overhyped. I could spend days in the Uffizi Gallery and another one admiring Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Galleria dell’Accademia. Watching the sunset over the Duomo from high across the river after hearing Gregorian chants in an ancient church is but one of a multitude of standout memories I have from this incredible city.

8. Washington DC

I could probably make the US its own top cities list, and Chicago and San Francisco would rate very highly on it. But other than that one you just know is still to come, it is the combination of history, politics, culture, and nearly everything being free to visit that puts DC this high on my catalogue of must-visits. Having family live there for a few years means I’ve had the privilege of multiple visits, and there is always something new to discover. While American patriotism does not always resonate for us Aussies, it is fascinating to observe – from Arlington to the Capitol to the White House. And (apologies for bragging), meeting Bo Obama and hearing Barack speak were certainly icing on the cake.

7. London

This is one of a number of predictable entries near the top end of my list, but while finding lesser known gems is always amazing, there is a reason some places are perennially popular. The Clock. The Abbey. The Church. The Eye. The Tower. The Bridge. The Palace. The Theatre. The Hall. The Library. The Museum. I don’t even need to give their names for them to evoke the stories of history, culture, architecture. Sure, its probably got a lot to do with being from a former colony, and certainly the food isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be honest: any time I was given the opportunity to visit again, I’d jump at it.

6. Beijing

Shanghai was certainly up for consideration on this list, but of the two, it’s China’s capital that wins out for me. The Summer Palace. The Forbidden Palace. Tiananmen Square. The Great Hall of the People. The National Museum.  Plus perhaps one of the more surreal attractions I’ve visited, Mao’s mausoleum. The friendliness and stealthy photo snapping skills of the locals. The pride in both history and modern achievements. And of course who could forget the Great Wall.

5. Rome

From here on, ranking gets really difficult and contentious (as in, I’m even arguing with myself). No doubt this could be many people’s number one. The Eternal City. The Caput Mundi. Byron called it the city of the soul and Browning said everyone sooner or later comes by it. It wasn’t built in a day and all roads lead to it. It contains within it a whole other city/state. It touches on history that has shaped my culture and history that reflects my faith. I could wander its streets for days. I have. I hope to again.

4. Paris

The city of light; the city of love. The city of romance and beauty and charm. The city of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame; the city of Montmartre and the Seine; the city of the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. The Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Walking down the Champs-Élysées; eating crepes, macarons, eclairs, croissants. In my experience the stereotype is based in reality and the people are not always the friendliest, but they don’t need to be – they know we will all be back regardless of how they treat us.

3. Istanbul

The only city located on two continents. Where East meets West. No, its not Constantinople, at least not any more. The Ottoman Empire’s ancient capital and Turkey’s modern hub, it is currently one of the world’s five most populous cities (and the only one of those on my list). And they are people who embrace life, with the sights, sounds, and smells of this bustling city imprinted in my memory. From the Blue Mosque to the Spice Bazaar, and the underground Basilica cistern to the Hagia Sophia, there is a wealth of sites to discover. And the baklava is to die for.

2. New York

Predictable? Sure. Overrated? I don’t think so. I try not to be one to just go with what everyone else says, but in this case, I think they’re right. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. So nice they named it twice. I’ve had five visits and I’d go back in a heartbeat. I’d pretend to be a local and stay uptown near Central Park, catch the subway, walk the High Line. I’d embrace being a tourist and ice skate at Rockefeller Center, line up for the Empire State Building, and do the UN tour (again). I’d spend hours exploring the Met and the Library and the Natural History Museum. I’d get tickets for multiple Broadway shows and rectify one of the greatest blunders of my travels when we could have bought cheap tickets to a brand new sung and rapped musical about American history that had recently opened with its original cast in 2015* but chose to see Les Miserables again instead. I’d eat Korean and Italian and Thai and Indian and any other cuisine I stumbled upon. And I’d wander the streets looking up at all the familiar famous buildings, searching for hidden gardens, monuments, and waterfalls, and watching the world go by.

*Yes, it was Hamilton with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

1. Jerusalem

I know this will not top everyone’s list, but its been my number one for a long time. I love history, I love the Bible, I love the Hebrew language, I love the Palestinian people, I love the coming together of cultures and perspectives and stories. I love staying inside the Old City and walking the streets early in the morning before anyone is around, and again later in the day when the place is buzzing with activity. I love seeing the newest archaeological discoveries, watching the layers of history peeled back and some of the secrets of ancient cultures revealed. I wrestle with the politics and I grieve with many of the people, and I long to see new ways forward to find peace and justice. I’ve loved taking people to see and experience this incredibly unique city and I’m keen to do so again. Who wants to come?

Advertisements

Walls and Windows: an initial reflection

I spent most of April in Israel and the West Bank, perhaps my favourite part of the world, and also one of the places I find the most confronting, confusing, challenging and heartbreaking. There is so much I want to share but so much I am still processing and so much I don’t understand. So much that I want those who live there to be able to share for themselves. It’s difficult when people ask for highlights to try to summarise what stood out. But looking through my photos from this trip, I was struck by the preponderance of these two images: walls and windows. Perhaps exploring them will capture something of all that I am reflecting on.

Walls represent barriers, boundaries, and demarcations. They stand for keeping people in and keeping people out. They often divide. Each one tells many stories, all with at least two sides.

Windows represent visibility, perspective and viewing. They are there not so much to be looked at as to be looked through.  Each one invites reflection, and the opportunity to look at things from a new angle.

Ancient city walls

Walls have been part of human history for millennia. This gate, built by the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE, is what remains of the oldest wall I saw, one which it is probable people like Abraham would have passed through.

It’s at a site called Tel Dan, where there are also these ‘newer’ Israelite city walls – dating to the 9th century BCE.

At Megiddo, excavations lay bare the layers of various city walls built over thousands of years in this city which was destroyed and rebuilt 25 times.

At the entrance to the city are the walls of the fortified city King Solomon built.

At Masada, the remains of walls built to protect a desert mountain fortress still stand.

And inside the ruins of Herod’s palace, parts of the walls of an opulent bathhouse can be glimpsed.

Jerusalem Walls

The Old City of Jerusalem can certainly be called a city of walls – it is surrounded by them and contains within it one of the most famous walls in the world. The current walls around the city were built in the Ottoman period, dating to around 1540 CE. In places like this, you can also see the remains of much earlier walls.

The city’s main northern entrance is the impressive Damascus Gate, built on top of a gate dating back to Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century CE.

On the other side of the city, the Zion Gate bears bullet marks from the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

Within the Old City are remnants of much older walls, including the broad wall built by Hezekiah in the 8th century BCE.

And inside the newly excavated Kishle, remains of a wall built during the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence in the 2nd century BCE.

And of course, in the heart of Jerusalem are the remaining parts of walls of the Temple built by King Herod in the first century BCE. This is the Temple Jesus visited, taught at and pronounced judgment upon.

The Herodian stones are massive and impressive, up to 13 metres in length.

The closest part of the wall to where the Temple was forms a centre of Jewish worship and patriotism in the Old City, commonly called the Wailing Wall. Thousands gathered to received the priestly blessing during Passover.

Thousands more came to celebrate national pride on the country’s Independence Eve.

Spending time at the wall to welcome in the Sabbath is a pretty amazing opportunity to see something of the celebration and joy that Jewish worship can encompass – in a multitude of different ways all at the same time.

The plaza in front of the wall is divided by a different kind of wall, separating men from women, leaving mothers to stand on chairs craning to look over as their sons undergo their coming of age ceremonies.

One of my favourite Jerusalem walks is up on top of the Old City walls, where it is usually quiet and you can look down into the city upon all these things and ponder the stories they tell and the values they signify.

And you can also look outside the old city and in the distance catch a glimpse of the most modern of the major walls in this land … the Separation Wall.

The Separation Wall

Israel started building this wall in 2002. It is actually only a wall when it surrounds towns. For most of its length it is two barbed wire fences with an exclusion zone in between.

The Israelis say this is a security barrier to protect them against terrorists.

Many Palestinians call it a racial barrier or apartheid wall.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice found that the wall violates international law and in response the United Nations passed a resolution 150-6 (with 10 abstentions) condemning it and calling on both sides to meet the obligations they had already agreed to under the ‘roadmap’ to peace. I find it difficult to comprehend that my country was one of the six.

Politics aside, it’s hard to overestimate the psychological effect  growing up inside a wall like this has on children.

Frustrations and heartbreak are expressed by locals and visitors alike in graffiti and art all along the wall.

Famously, UK artist Banksy has painted various iconic images of subversive peace on it.

He also founded this establishment that bills itself as “the hotel with the worst view in the world.”

Inside is a small museum examining various perspectives on the impact of the wall.

Most mornings, those workers who have the right permits line up in this corral to cross the wall from Bethlehem into Jerusalem. Unless of course it has been closed for some reason – which seems to only be for those who live and work here, not tourists. Even when it is open to all, crossing a checkpoint with ease when most around you are questioned and searched is certainly a humbling experience.

Near the wall are a number of ‘refugee camps’ – but quite unlike what that name might suggest to many. Established just after 1948 and still under UN agency control, Aida camp, for example, is a rabbit warren of streets and apartment blocks home to five and a half thousand people in an area of 0.1km2.

Its residents use parts of the wall as memorials to children killed in fighting with wall security forces.

It is hard to see hope here. Surely there must be a better way forward. This kind of wall grieves me and I believe it grieves my Father. The founder of the Bethlehem Icon School painted this beautiful commission on the wall, a symbol of grief from this town’s most famous mother.

Windows

I have no solution to offer to this mess. And it wouldn’t be my place to offer one anyway. All I can do is share what I have seen, heard, and felt. But if there are any glimmers of hope I see in this place it is from the people I met who live there and are seeking to find and walk in ways of reconciliation, restoration, and peace. To me, in this place of walls, they are like windows.

I think of this window in Jerusalem from a church called Dominus Flevit, meaning the Lord wept. It looks over the Temple mount and remembers the place where Jesus paused to weep over this city. It causes me to ask where He is pausing and weeping today.

Or this window in Nazareth picturing Mary receiving the most surprising news of God coming in a completely unexpected way. It causes me to hope that just because we can’t think of a way forward doesn’t mean there isn’t one. God can still bring Peace in unexpected ways.

Most frequently, I found myself struck by many of the modern, abstract stained glass windows we saw in various churches in this land.

And the way each one reflects light in its own unique, often surprising, way.

From Nazareth to Bethlehem, Jerusalem to Galilee, I found myself drawn to the ways they let in and refract the sunlight.

The same sunlight, yet each has its unique beauty depending on its shape, colours and position.

To me that is a beautiful metaphor of what it means to be people of peace. People of light. People of faith.

And I met people like that in this land. People whom I continue to pray will find unexpectedly beautiful ways to shine light in the darkness.

A particular favourite of mine are these windows in a church at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee. They are made of very thinly sliced alabaster. I am attracted to their incredible beauty, but I’m also intrigued by their very existence.

Windows made of stone. Who imagined that possible? And is it therefore possible that there might be a generation in this place who are able to imagine the impossible and even somehow turn walls into windows?

 

Today would be a good day to walk the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem

I’ve realised that in my Monday travel reflections, I have actually been avoiding writing about some of my very favourite places to visit, because it is so hard to capture in a few words and images why I love them so much. One such place is Jerusalem. Definitely one of my favourite places in the world, I’ve been there on four different trips and I certainly plan to go back again in the future. In particular, today I’m thinking how lovely it would be to walk through the stone streets of the Old City. I won’t be able to capture all I love about it, but I’d like to at least make a start!

Mt Scopus view over Jerusalem

What do I love about the Old City streets?

I love the beautiful Jerusalem sandstones themselves. If stones could talk … what tales they could tell! And yet, silent as they are, they testify to the creativity and ingenuity of those who have come before, and to the inevitable passage of time.

Tower of David

I love the history. Imagining all those who have walked these streets before me. Allowing stories from ancient and more modern times come to life in the place where they actually happened.

Roman Cardo

I love the layers. The remnants of ruined houses from the Roman era frozen in time beneath the pavement.

Burnt House

Walking through the tunnel built by Hezekiah that lies beneath the foundations of the city itself.

Hezekiah's Tunnel

The archaeological excavations of sites where Jesus visited and spoke.
Pool of Bethesda

The jumble of streets with steps and twists and corners and hidden delights.

Old City street

Walking on the rooftops with their paradoxical mix of satellite dishes and ancient stones.

Rooftop Walk

I love the walls. Walking atop the city wall, circumnavigating the city just as David, Nehemiah and so many others have done before.

Walls

The ancient Israelite wall unearthed below the current street.

Hezekiah's Wall

The Western Wall. The remnants of the glorious Temple of Herod, a place for prayer and contemplation every day …

Western Wall

… and for an amazing celebration to welcome in the Sabbath evening.

Western Wall Sabbath

I love the markets. The hustle and bustle of shopkeepers selling artefacts and trinkets and the foods of a number of different cultures.

Old City shop

And getting up early enough to walk through the streets before the shops open and the tourists descend.

Old City shops opening

And I love seeing people’s faith in practice. Orthodox Jews mingling with Israeli soldiers, seeking ways to respect their shared traditions.

Crowds

Muslims gathered to study in the grounds of the Dome of the Rock.

Dome of the Rock study group

Christian pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa, following the footsteps of the crucified Lord Jesus.

Via Dolorosa sign

What have I learned from walking the Old City streets?

There is an incredible richness of tradition and history and faith in this city. A sacred place for the three of the world’s major religions, it has been a place of incredible prayer and devotion.

Old City view

Of course it has also been a place of terrible conflict and strife. As an outsider, the complex combination of historical experiences and current politics makes it hard to see how this can ever truly be a city of peace.

Western Wall Israeli soldiers 1

And yet … in the Old City itself, people of different cultures, languages and faiths work and live side by side. Ordinary people seeking to live their lives, even as the currents of world politics and religion swirl around them. They remind me once again of the common humanity we all share.

Old City Market

While as a Christian I believe that the story of Jerusalem (along with all other stories) ultimately finds its fulfilment in Jesus, I acknowledge that I can learn so much from people of other faiths and practices. I remember my own “good Samaritan story” – when I twisted my ankle quite badly one Friday morning on the uneven steps outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Christian pilgrims swarmed past me oblivious, the Israeli police paid me no heed, and the first Muslim shopkeeper I asked for assistance was afraid of compromising his faith by touching me on his holy day. Another Muslim stall-holder came to my aid, providing me with a cane and helping me hobble up the street to where I was staying. He told me why the first man had been reluctant to help, but that he believed helping someone in need was more important than following religious rules. I shared with him that Jesus told a beautiful story that very much said the same thing.

Mosque and Israeli flags

Psalm 122 calls its readers to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Is that because this city more so than any other needs peace? Perhaps. But it is also because this city was for the psalmist the place where the living God had revealed His very presence. The prayer was that His true shalom might be known as it radiated out from Himself and His people. In Jesus, God has revealed Himself once and for all to all people everywhere. No longer do we need to go to Jerusalem to meet with God. But I still pray that this place, so dear to the heart of His people throughout the ages, would continue to be a place where the hope of peace and wholeness that He brings may be experienced more and more.

Psalm 122 sign in three languages