Religious places to visit in the Holy Land (if you are not religious)

by Fernando Palhares  from Brazil

As the van approaches the end of the road, the sweat starts to build up, as I live in Saudi Arabia but am about to walk out of Jordan and walk into the West Bank, the Holy Land, the Occupied Territories or however you prefer to call them. If the Jordanians or Israeli border control guards decide to stamp me in te Allenby Bridge checkpoint, I will be unable to return to my home, work or friends, since there are no diplomatic ties between the State of Zion and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But through smiles and explanations, we are able to leave immigration without a trace of ink in my passport.

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Holy Land, the adrenaline buildup on way to the city by Fernando Palhares

Approaching Jerusalem from the Jordanian Border, you soon cross some biblical places like Jericho (the lowest city on Earth on the foot of Mount of Temptations), Aqabat Jabr (Palestinean city that thrived on tourism until it became a no-go zone for Israeli nationals) and Nabi Musa, a Muslim caravan resting place that stood still in time since 2000 years ago. But it is only after you suddenly enter Derech Har Hatzofim Tunnel below Mount Scopus that the landscape quickly transforms into the bustling quasi-European city that is Jerusalem.

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Holy Land, the Jewish by Fernando Palhares
If you just turn your head sideways, you will be immediately facing the Old City and its protective walls. One of the best points of reference is the blue building with the golden dome, the Dome of the Rock, which is among the holiest sites in Islam. Just beside this mosque is the Al-Aqsa Mosque (“The Farthest Mosque”, which is the 3rd holiest place for the Sunnis, as they believe that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was transported here in the Night Journey, and which was the direction of the Qibla before the Kaaba.
 
Both mosques are located on the Temple Mount, the place where the Jews believe Herod’s Temple was located (and destroyed in the Roman Siege of Jerusalem) and obviously this fact does not help relations between believers of the two religions. This is one of the sources of the Israeli-Arab conflict (among many other reasons) and as a result, Jerusalem became the militarized and constantly surveilled city of today.
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Holy Land, the Muslim by Fernando Palhares
In the Mount of Olives, you can find many other religious sites such as the Dominus Flevit church (shaped like a teardrop), Church of All Nations, The Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene, the Garden of Gethsemane (complete with millennial trees) and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, among others. A short walk away leads us to the Lion Gate and consequently to the narrow alleyways of the Old City itself.
 
You don’t need to walk far into the Old City Quarters to see the Franciscan complex containing the Church of Flagellation and the Church of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross (pictured). These churches have been designed by Antonio Barluzzi, which is one of the main architects for the Christian sites in the Holy Land. This is the place where the pilgrims start the Via Dolorosa, or “the Painful Path”, following Christ steps with the cross until he is crucified at the Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The way is dotted with souvenir shops, cafes, and of course, religious sites and pilgrims which get extremely emotional and lead to frequent weeping and fainting. Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox faithful walk alike, and for a moment everyone seems to be aligned and in peace with each other.
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Holy Land, the Christian by Fernando Palhares
The Old City is undoubtedly one of the most special places in the Holy Land, a labyrinthic collection of historic buildings that could keep you busy for ages traversing the four Quarters (Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian). But our travels took us in another direction, following the Jordan River up North until we reached the historical cities of Nazareth and Canaan on the way to the Sea of Galilee. Before reaching Nazareth you also cross the Megiddo Valley, which according to the book of Revelations is the place of the final battle or Armageddon.
 
In Nazareth, it is located the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is probably the prettiest church I have ever seen in my life. From the outside, it is a hulking colossus, particularly uninteresting, but the industrial interior is massive, spacious and airy, a Roman Catholic relief from the enclosed and often dense air and lightning from the Greek Orthodox churches. As with many of the other churches in the Holy Land, the current church was built on top of a Byzantine-era then Crusader-era church. Some special features of this familiar place are the several frescos and mosaics which portray the Madonna and the Child according to different nationalities (from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia). Also worth mention, this is the biggest Christian place of worship in all of the Middle East.
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Holy Land, Church of Annunciation by Fernando Palhares
From Nazareth, a short drive takes us to Canaan (where water turned to wine, a feat which would be praised by many in our modern age), Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee. Around this sea, many biblical miracles happened – chief among them the multiplication of fish and bread and the water walking. One of the most serene and peaceful sites on the area in called Capharnaum, and there are two remaining structures that capture the attention.
 
The first one in the White Synagogue, which is one of the oldest synagogues in the world. Opposed to all the houses in the area, the synagogue was made with a white stone which had to be carried from distant quarries. The synagogue is quite ornate and filled with Greek and Aramaic inscriptions, providing a tranquil place for a picnic or simply sightseeing. Within arms reach there are the remains of the Village of Nahum, with a cluster of houses around an octagonal church that is believed to be the House of Peter. As is the fashion in the Holy Land, the octagonal Byzantine church remains were preserved and a modern architecture marvel was built on top, a disc-shaped structure sitting on concrete stilts that harmonizes with the surroundings and provide visibility to the ancient building. The place is fabulous for meditation, with birds chirping and views of the Sea of Galilee.
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Holy Land, View from the Octagonal Church, Capharnaum by Fernando Palhares

The Holy Land is commonly associated with Israel, but isolating it would be extremely unfair to the neighboring countries which also make part of history. Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan, of course, are also very important entities of the Holy Land, and this is evident when we start to visit the sites on the other side of the Jordan River. One of the favorites is the Memorial Church of Moses in Mount Nebo (pictured), and in the distance, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the Dead Sea and the surrounding valley. Considering Mount Nebo is ~800m above sea level, and the Dead Sea is ~400m below it is easy to understand how the view is so great in this spot.

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Holy Land, Church of Moses on Mount Nebo by Fernando Palhares

After diving headfirst into this mythical Holy Land, it is time to go home. The moment we drive back into the city it become evident again why this place is so special – among the crystal clear chaos of the Muslim and Arab world, clashing with Palestine and the West Bank, across the street from the settlements and the occupied territories, and attracting visitors left and right, from different religions, with different beliefs, distinct world views and motivations, the Holy Land is still a place of peace, comprehension, and where it is possible to believe in a time where people all around the world will live in harmony.

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Holy Land, Madaba waving goodbye to us by Fernando Palhares
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