Dispatch Dot Earth | The Middle East: an adventure in history, culture, and connection

The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel

Dispatch Dot Earth is a collection of feature travel articles. The future may take us to Mars and beyond, but sometimes there's nothing like exploring our good old Earth.>

When I visited Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, I didn’t go with any preconceived notions on what these countries would be like. As with most of my travel I went with an open mind and an open heart, ready to receive the experiences and adventures that a new part of the world would give me. What I found in this diverse Mediterranean-desert region was a mixture of people, history, and experiences, all delicately intertwined with past and current politics, all nearly impossible to separate.
By Vanessa Bassett

Old City of Acre, Israel
The first part of the trip brought me to Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Acre, all on the western coast of Israel. I would argue that all three cities are brief but important “background learning” for the cultural smorgasbord that lies ahead. Tel Aviv provides an impressive amount of art and history, folded neatly into small neighborhoods and unsuspecting streets. Haifa and Acre are home to the holiest sites in the Baha’i faith, and both cities contain other significant historic sites from crusader ruins to Christian mysticism. Because Haifa and Acre are further north and geographically closer to the border of Lebanon, you might notice more Lebanese and Arabic influences in the people, food, and culture of these cities. Personally I was very moved by the kindness of strangers in these places. Locals happily helped me decipher maps and welcomed me cheerily to their country.

The Western Wall and Temple Mount complex, Jerusalem
After wrapping up on the west coast, a short train ride east brought me to Jerusalem. Being a bit of a history buff I knew I was in for some impressive sites, but I was taken aback by just how rich, how rewarding, and how meaningful this visit was. Most of us know that Jerusalem shelters important historic and religious sites for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but we aren’t always told how deeply intertwined these sites are in the daily lives of Jerusalem’s citizens. These three groups (in addition to several minority religious groups) interact with each other on a daily basis, passing in the streets, dealing in business, and living together just as those in less controversial cities might live. One of the most poignant moments for me was witnessing a Christian nun and a Muslim woman, both dressed in the clothing of their traditional faiths, stop to greet each other on one of the streets of Jerusalem’s old town. The women greeted each other with smiles and warm words, and kissed each other on the cheek before departing, each traveling in the opposite direction. To me, this was a perfect illustration of how the many cultures and people of the Jerusalem weave their lives together. Clearly these were both serviceful women devoted to their faith traditions, yet had found some common ground between them. What it was I will never know, but there was no mistaking their connection as one of familiarity and love.
The Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem, Israel
The Western Wall, Jerusalem

Old City of Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Israel

Jerusalem, Israel

Young military service members
along the Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem
During my stay in Jerusalem, I took a city bus to Bethlehem, which is located in the Arab state of Palestine. It was here that I experienced a similar mash-up of people and cultures that I experienced in Jerusalem, but with a more clearly dominant Arab-Muslim population, and no Jewish element that I could see. One of the most noticeable things to see on my arrival was the assembly of a giant Christmas tree in the middle of Manger Square, the traditional location revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. As I walked around the square, I saw monks of different monastic orders walking to and from the various churches in the area, clearly juxtaposed against the Arabic shopkeepers whose stores faced the square. I had positive and memorable interactions with the locals of Bethlehem. I was welcomed to their homeland, and felt safe walking around and seeing the different sites and storefronts. At one point I came to a small open air market, up the street from Manger Square. There were some small food stalls, and I stopped to get a falafel sandwich at one. The woman who served me was clearly Arab and Muslim, but greeted me in French. In my very limited French, I was able to convey “please” and “thank you” and make my falafely request. What I must impress upon you about this interaction is the warmth with which this woman smiled at me, and how the grace and open-heartedness with which she served me left a deep, indelible impression on my heart. Though it was a brief exchange, it is one that I recall as very human, and etched in compassion and understanding. It was such a clear reminder that humanity transcends borders, cultures, and politics, and that the richness of life is often contained in the heartfelt connections we have with others.

A monk at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Palestine

King Herod's fortress, Masada, Israel
My next stop was Masada, the remarkable desert fortress of King Herod, where Jewish rebels made their last stand against the advancing Roman army in AD 73. This site was another surprise, as I again came with no expectations, open to learning about the history of this significant place in Jewish history. This remarkable site wraps in its walls an event so significant, the eerie vibrations of its history seep out of the crumbling stone walls. The mass suicide of the rebel Jewish forces who retreated here haunts the silent mountaintop which tourists now daily walk and photograph. Being on top of this site, which the Jewish people hold so closely in their cultural memory, brought me face to face with the dynamic importance of this land which so many people call home.

Masada, Israel
The next stop on my Middle East trip was Jordan, to see the famed Nabataean city of Petra. After what I can only describe as a delightful border crossing experience where I was warmly greeted and joked with by friendly Jordanian border guards, I was welcomed by a tour guide and taken to the ancient city. While I acknowledge that I visited as a tourist, my experience in this Arabic country was nothing short of warm and hospitable, with an overall feeling of good cheer. I am an experienced enough traveler and a sensitive enough person to pick up on negative expressions in a host country. I have been in situations where I have felt unwanted and even unliked for being a tourist and an American. I can surely say that Jordan was not one of those places. There was a general acknowledgement of “yes, this is very much a tourist destination and we are in the customer service industry”, but more than that, Jordanian people seemed open and perhaps even mildly interested in who I was and where I was from. My answers to their questions were usually met with smiles and further friendly chatter. My time in Jordan was a wonderful introduction to a new culture that I had not experienced before.
The Monastery, Petra, Jordan
The Treasury, Petra, Jordan
Traveling to the Middle East was a wonderful, enriching, safe adventure, one which I would not hesitate to repeat should I get the chance. The people I met were diverse, yet it was easy to see that we are all humans having an expedition on this planet. Being in these special locations, so charged with history and emotion, enhanced my appreciation for the diversity of life. Being on the hallowed ground of so many different faith traditions has a way of imparting the weight and intensity of tremendous love and devotion that has been poured into them over the millennia. The treasure trove of this trip will stay with me for a long time to come.

New friends at the Treasury in Petra, Jordan