Jerusalem. Holy Land. Period!
I couldn’t wait to get out of Tel Aviv!
– No boss, no more work
– Get out of boredom
– Al Aqsa
“There’s a strange aura in Jerusalem. You can feel it when you’re reaching the city,” said my boss. Jerusalem, the center of the Abrahamic religions – rich in history that Jews, Christians and Muslims are proud of. I get giddy reading about Jerusalem, I LOVE THIS CITY! History buffs should feel me!
I expected colder temperatures, soldiers armed with rifles walking up and down the streets, old and dirty streets and not many muslims around.
I was still nervous about getting around because I’m a muslim. If I don’t wear the hijab, it would be easy for me because no one will know. My non-muslim friend asked if I could remove the hijab for safety purposes, while I’m in Israel. To be honest, I don’t know. I suppose if it is an emergency, between life and death, then probably. She asked if I would do that.
I thought, if Allah made me go to Israel when I really didn’t want to, there must be something good for me. And if Allah made me go, why would I want to defy His order? This wasn’t an emergency. I was just being a little paranoid. Plus, ever since I started wearing the hijab, I feel super ashamed if I were to leave home without covering up properly. And truth be told, I actually feel safer while wearing a hijab than without.
The Journey: Jerusalem, Israel
The sherut (shared taxi) drive was almost 2 hrs. It was a nice, smooth journey. However, I didn’t get that ‘special feeling’ when we were reaching the city. Simply because I didn’t know if I was reaching the city or not. There obviously wasn’t any tour guide to tell me, “We are here!” On the contrary, I believed I’ve reached Jerusalem because I saw hundreds of people at the market, a couple of passengers started alighting and the buildings looked different, older. So instead of wondering what awesome aura my body was detecting, I was wondering where to alight.
I definitely have no problems asking for directions. The problem was that they couldn’t speak English. I started to panic when the sherut turned a corner and we started heading towards where we came from. I quickly asked to be dropped off. The driver asked, “You…Old City?” I shook my head, alighted and he showed me the way back to the city centre. It wasn’t too far but being me, I headed towards the opposite direction from my hostel. I was definitely going to the Old City later that day but I needed to check in to my hostel first to drop off the luggage and backpack.
Finding the Hostel
The streets were steep. I remember my boss telling me that Jerusalem is hilly. Went up and down the streets until I got tired and asked for directions. Found the hostel after about an hour. And guess what? I’ve been walking around the hostel building the whole while! I didn’t see the huge hostel name at the top of the building. Really wanted to be angry at myself but I was too tired.
The temperature went as low as 6 degree Celsius up till 21 degree Celsius during the period I was there. Yes, it was so cold! Colder than I expected. I wish I brought a winter coat. The jacket I bought from H&M in Tel Aviv didn’t help at all.
On my third day, it was raining heavily in the morning and I began to shiver. The sky was so dark. I was hoping it would get better but it didn’t. I usually love cold weather but that day, I hated it.
I was generally stared at but not in a hostile way. More of like “I think you’re lost” or”Where are you from?” kinda way. Maybe because I don’t look Arabian yet I’m wearing the hijab. I got really nervous at first because I didn’t know what to expect. I kept telling myself that I was with Allah, nothing bad would happen to me. So I smiled at almost everyone who stared at me. And surprisingly, they smiled back!
Women & Turbans
While walking around, I noticed a lot of women wearing turbans. At first, I thought it was probably a fashion statement. But then as I walked further, I noticed shops selling similar turbans. Imagine the little hijab stores we have in Singapore, it’s exactly the same in Jerusalem except they sold turbans. So I guess in terms of religion, Jewish women wear turbans. I just Googled and it seems only married, Orthodox Jewish woman wear turbans to cover their hair. Always learn something new.
Men & traditional clothing
I’d have to admit that I was looking forward to seeing Jewish men in their traditional clothes. I didn’t see a lot of them in Tel Aviv. But in Jerusalem, they’re everywhere. We don’t see them in Asia at all, so it’s something new for me. Some of the men were wearing full traditional clothing – black coat, black hat, curly hair by the sides. Some just had the small head covering.
Soldiers & Rifles
I definitely saw a lot of armed soldiers everywhere. Although alot of them looked to be off-duty but the rifles were just strapped to their bodies as if it was a natural thing. If you think I was nervous in Tel Aviv, I was freaked out in Jerusalem. There were NO soldiers in Tel Aviv. None that I saw, at least. But the more I observed, the less intimidating it became. While I might stick out like a sore thumb, nobody ever bothered me. In fact, they all looked busy minding their own business.
It was Friday and I heard stores would be closed in the afternoon and all of Saturday. It was a holy night called Sabbath. In fact, there would be almost zero activity during this period – no shops would be opened and no public transport would be running. It felt like everyone was rushing.
I didn’t eat much in Jerusalem. I typically don’t while travelling so it’s normal. I’d be busy exploring all day that I sometimes don’t have the appetite or there simply isn’t much time. But I did get some snacks from a convenience store near the hostel.
One morning I walked into the breakfast area and heard someone playing the piano and everyone was cheering him on. He was really good. I had a good breakfast that day.
Perfect place for a tourist! An even more amazing place for history buffs! Jerusalem‘s streets were so clean and the city was so beautiful. Public transport was easily accessible, systematic and frequent. You can buy tram and bus tickets at the tram/bus stops itself.
Mahane Yehuda Market
I love going to markets. I’d miss the shopping malls anytime for a market visit while travelling. It’s more unique, cultural and it’s where locals shop at. So I was so happy that the hostel I was staying was within walking distance to the market. I think this is the market that I went to because I read the map wrongly (story below) so now I don’t know. Generally selling local food, it was pretty clean. Fruits and vegetables looked fresh and breads were so cheap. Reminded me of the market I went to in Vienna. Everyone was snapping up food to stock up for Sabbath.
Free Walking Tour by Sandeman’s
This tour is free. Starting at 2pm, it was a 2hr walking tour of the Old City, starting from the Jaffa Gate and covering most of historic sites: Old City quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian & Armenian, view of the Western (Wailing) Wall, Excavations of ancient Jerusalem, Incredible views of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Mount of Olives, Hurva (Ruined) Synagogue, David’s Citadel, Roman Cardo Maximus, Suq – Covered markets. I was so pumped!
2hrs before the walking tour
I had a few hours to kill before the start of the tour so I planned to do some sightseeing of my own. The hostel was located OUTSIDE the Old City, so I had plenty of time to explore the streets, markets, change USD to shekels, etc. There were so many shops lined along the streets. So the plan was to walk my way up to the Old City and by the time I reached Jaffa Gate, I’d be nicely on time for the tour. The map was clear and simple enough. I even had time to sit for a cold drink (I was surprised it wasn’t real fruit juice).
30 mins before the walking tour
But being me, I read the map wrongly. I went the OPPOSITE DIRECTION! It was 30 MINS more to the start of the tour and I WAS AT THE OTHER END OF THE MAP. I was heading towards the central bus station, not Jaffa Gate. Found someone who could speak English and she told me that I was going the wrong way. She advised me to take the tram, it’d be faster. I didn’t have time to wait for trams or whatever so I sprint-walked my way to Jaffa Gate. My legs were burning and I could feel the birth of some new muscles. I didn’t even let myself breathe, just GO!
I thought walking from Tel Aviv city centre to Jaffa old port was tough, I was wrong! This was hell! NEVER HAVE I EVER WALKED THAT FAST IN MY ENTIRE LIFE! I must’ve looked like a madwoman. No running for me because I was wearing pump shoes, nothing sporty. If I run, either my shoes fly off and hit someone’s face or I could hurt myself. By this time, I realised I have a problem with ‘Jaffa‘.
Slightly after 2pm
I saw huge ancient-like buildings when I was nearing Jaffa Gate. I didn’t know where to go from there. How Jaffa Gate looked like, I didn’t even know. I approached an old Canadian couple to ask if I was on the right direction but they didn’t know either. We managed to chat a little and by this time I wasn’t panicky anymore. “Are you travelling alone?” they asked. I managed a faint ‘yes’ while panting heavily. “Wow, you’re so brave!” I said my thanks and quickly finished my last lap.
I saw some gathering a few hundred metres straight ahead. When I reached, I was so happy to see my tour guide waiting (and I got the right tour group). Since everyone wasn’t there yet, we waited for quite some time – enough for me to relax and cool down a little. By this time, my feet felt sore and I felt a bruise coming.
Around 2.30pm – start of the walking tour
The tour guide started telling us about the Jaffa Gate and the history of Jerusalem. I was so happy to finally get my fresh dose of history when something horrible happened. As the group moved inside the Old City, a man charged up beside me and started asking questions. “Where are you from?”, “Are you muslim?”, “Why are you joining a Jewish tour?”, “Why are you supporting the Jews?”, “You should join my tour group, I’m a muslim”, “You support muslims!”.
I felt so humiliated! I think everyone could hear him from afar. How was I supposed to know there were muslims around, much less muslim businesses? That was my first time in Jerusalem and no one I know have been there before. And I planned my trip based on what I could Google. I couldn’t find any muslim tours online.
I WOULD GLADLY TAKE UP MUSLIM TOURS BECAUSE I WAS SEARCHING FOR SOMEONE WHO COULD BRING ME TO MAQAMS OF PROPHETS! Did he know about this? NO!
I was so sad that he accused me of supporting Jews instead of Muslims. I really didn’t know! Plus, the walking tour was free – I could pay a small tip (or not) at the end of the tour for the guide’s efforts and time.
Touring the Old City on foot
Anyway, I quickly joined the tour group again and re-immersed myself in history, refusing to think of what happened.
Anyone remembers the mighty lion in Narnia? His name is Aslan.
This is the excavation site of the ruins of the Jewish Temple during First Period. There was a Second Period where the Jewish Temple was destroyed again and currently there’s a lot of talks of building the Third Temple on Temple Mount aka Al Aqsa. But due to the Islamic Waqf, the building of the Jewish Temple for the third time is being hindered.
Mosque of Omar (RA): This is the area where our second caliph, Sayyidina Umar (RA) prayed at, outside of a church, so that muslims will never take over the christian church and change it into a mosque in future.
It is said that this is not the actual location where Sayyidina Umar (RA) prayed. Allahu A’lam.
The tour guide brought us on top of the 4 quarters for this view. From here we can see all 4 quarters, visibly marked by the various places of worship – synagogue, mosque and church.
These kids were super good, they got shy when we (a big group of tourists) started crowding around and asking them to repeat whatever they were doing for video and photo-taking.
Around 5pm – end of walking tour
I almost forgot about the loudhailer man until I was making my way towards Al Aqsa after the tour ended and he popped up again. I didn’t realise I was near the Jaffa Gate again – trust me, you can get lost in the Old City. If I couldn’t follow a straight road on a map (towards Jaffa Gate), I’d probably need a helicopter to get me out of the Old City.
That man, again
Anyway, he shouted from behind, I really didn’t know it was him shouting AT me. I saw the young men sitting near me glanced at me nervously. Some said salam to me and I gladly replied. Some of the youngsters had a small smile on their lips, as if knowing what’s gonna happen.
The man finally caught up with me and bombarded me with the same things he said to me before. He said, “you don’t know how difficult our lives are around here”. I told him I didn’t know there are muslim tours and I planned my trip while I was in my country so I didn’t know anything. I told him maybe it’s not his rezeki and that he should trust Allah to give him more rezeki after this.
In all honesty, I only had that ONE day to explore the Old City and Jerusalem. I’ve already booked tours to the West Bank (Ramallah, Jericho, Bethlehem) and Hebron for the rest of the days and then I’d fly to Amman. So really, there’s nothing I could do for him. And he said, “If you believe in Allah, you’d help us,” and he stormed off angrily. I felt like crying. So I’m not a muslim now because I don’t go with muslim tours? I have been looking and I couldn’t find any!
Just did a search on muslim businesses in Jerusalem and apparently muslim businesses were given hard times by the authorities. I feel bad for them but what can I do? May Allah ease their affairs in dunya and akhirah.
Walking through the Muslim Quarter
As I entered the muslim quarter, shopmen said salam to me and invited me into their shops. I politely declined. Some of them probably heard the commotion and maybe they were being kind. I felt guilty again for not buying from muslims. As I went deeper into the souq, I started to get excited again. I WAS GOING INTO AL AQSA!
Along the way, the shopmen looked so happy to see me, they said salam to me and called me sister. They asked if I was going to Al Aqsa and if it was my first time. They showed me the directions and some even offered to walk me up to the front gate. I really wanted to rest and eat something – there were a lot of restaurants but Maghrib was near and I haven’t prayed my Zuhr and Asr (Jama’ Qasr) yet so I dismissed the thought.
Entering Al Aqsa
At the gate, I felt like entering a forbidden palace. There were some armed soldiers (or police, I dunno) waiting around. One of them asked, “Muslim?” I nodded and was immediately let in. That was it? I was surprised! The tour guide (from the walking tour) told me that I’d be asked to recite about 17 verses of the Quran in order to be let in. I was like, “17 VERSES??” In my mind, I thought 17 chapters!
I was tired so I couldn’t think straight. In my head, I started to list out the short chapters I memorised but my brain was totally blank. I couldn’t even remember that I memorised Al Fatihah! I was THAT tired. And nervous! Anyway, Allah must’ve showered me in His mercy because I was let in so easily.
At the gate of Al Aqsa
There was a man sitting with his kids at the front gate, further in from the armed soldiers. He said salam to me and showed me some skirts to wear. I was wearing loose pants but it wasn’t allowed. Took the nicest looking skirt and went in. THIS IS IT! The reason why I came to Jerusalem.
Inside Al Aqsa
The atmosphere was so peaceful. There was joy in the air, I felt so at home. No more nervousness, just relaxed. I heard kids laughing and some were playing ball. People were walking around enjoying the view and taking photos. I wanted to check out the Jewish celebration of Sabbath but as soon as I stepped into Al Aqsa, I didn’t want to go out. So I cancelled my plans to watch the dancing and singing of Sabbath, I didn’t even watch Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. I just wanted to be in Al Aqsa.
I was actually surprised it was a huge compound. Never thought Dome of Rock is within the compound as well. Shows how much I don’t know.
I saw a mosque and people were praying inside so I had to look for the toilet and wudhu’ area. I saw this Asian looking woman. As I got nearer, I saw her lanyard, indicating her tour group and her name. She was from Malaysia. I was overjoyed. “Cik, Melayu eh?” (Aunty, are you Malay?) And we quickly started chatting. She was on her way to perform Umrah and asked what I was doing all alone in Jerusalem. I told her and she said, “berani nya sorang2!” (So brave, all alone!). She showed me the direction to the toilet and wudhu’ area. I said my thanks and went up the steps towards Dome of Rock.
Finding toilet & wudhu‘ area for ladies
It was very far! Behind the Dome of Rock, I saw a security guard and asked him for directions. He couldn’t speak English so I said, “wudhu’” and he pointed towards a building further back. The compound of the Dome of Rock ended with a small gateway and this was where I met two Arab girls who brought me to the toilet and wudhu‘ area. They tried their best to speak English. I think they must’ve learned the language in school so they were taking this chance to try speaking it. They asked where I was from. When I said Singapore, they look puzzled. Upon reaching, they left and I went to clean myself up.
At the wudhu‘ area, an old woman asked if I was Turkish. I said I was from Singapore but she frowned and went away. I went back to the mosque and at the front of Dome of Rock, I saw the Malaysian woman and we exchanged niceties again. One thing to note and be grateful for, mosques in Singapore are equipped with telekung, just in case we are not fully covered up for prayers but in other countries, not so. I was so happy I was offered the skirt by the gateman.
Praying inside Al Aqsa
There were a lot of Malays in Al Aqsa – they were part of an Umrah tour group. I felt comfortable knowing there were people who spoke my language.
Managed to pray Zuhr and Asr (by myself), Maghrib and Isya’ (in jemaah) in Al Aqsa that day. It felt so surreal. I never thought I’d be invited to the first qibla and the third most important mosque in Islam ever. Alhamdulillah!
I was given some dates by a lovely, smiley Palestinian woman. Alhamdulillah, just one date and my hunger disappeared. May Allah give her lots of rezeki for the rest of her life and may He protect her and her family in dunya and akhirah. Aamiin!
There were other people giving away things, especially for the Palestinians. I wish I had something to give away too.
Exiting Al Aqsa
It was so cold that night, I remember shivering while praying. After Isya’ I quickly walked back to my hostel. I wanted to stay longer but I was afraid they would close the mosque and it would get very dark, I didn’t know if it was safe to walk alone at night. Plus, the cold was bothering me too much. The long walk back to the hostel helped to warm me up.
I was too tired that night. The bed in the hostel was much more comfortable for me than the swanky one in the Tel Aviv hotel. I slept like a baby.
Woke up early (around 4am) that night and went to Al Aqsa again for Fajr. I had no idea if it was open or if the Fajr timing I googled was right. Wasn’t even sure if it was safe to walk alone in the morning darkness. All I knew I had to go again and if it wasn’t that night, I’d have no more chance. Convincing myself, I thought, if I were to die on my way to Al Aqsa, why not?
So I went, super excited early in the morning. I made wudhu‘ in my hostel and walked all the way to the Old City – probably 30 mins walk. Apart from the loud music and partying people from the hostel bar, nothing happened on the quiet streets. Alhamdulillah again for the chance to pray in Al Aqsa. Even writing this made me emotional. May Allah give me the chance to pray in Al Aqsa again. Aamiin!
Hadith on Al Aqsa
Abu Huraira (RA) is quoted as saying that Allah’s Messenger (SAW) said,
set out deliberately on a journey only to three mosques: this mosque of mine (in Medina), the Sacred Mosque (in Makkah) and the Masjid al Aqsa (in Jerusalem)
[Bukhari & Muslim]
Abu Darda (RA) is quoted as saying that the Prophet of Allah Muhammad (SAW) said,
a prayer in the Sacred Mosque (in Makkah) is worth 100, 000 prayers, a prayer in my mosque (in Medina) is worth 1, 000 and a prayer in Jerusalem is worth 500 prayers more than in an any other mosque.
When I exited Al Aqsa after Fajr, there were a lot more soldiers lined outside the mosque. I smiled at one of them and he smiled back so happily and crinkly-eyed.
Sherut transfer to Ben Gurion Airport
On my last night, I woke up at 3am to pack whatever I had lying around and checked out from the hostel. My sherut to Ben Gurion Airport would arrive around 4am. I went down and waited. The sherut came late, almost 5am. At first I believed it was a private taxi so I was ok with it being late. When the sherut came, I was surprised it was a sherut and there were other passengers sharing the ride with me. I was even more surprised that we were on the way to pick up more passengers. What’s even MORE surprising was, the driver couldn’t find the last passenger so we were driving around aimlessly for quite a long time. Some American passengers (they were very kind towards me) started complaining about catching their flight.
When we finally found the last passenger, there was no more room for him. A large Jewish man had to switch places with someone else so the last passenger could fit in. An English speaking Jewish girl told us not to worry as we were nearing the airport and we were not picking up anymore passengers. “FINALLY!” said one of the Americans.
It was a quiet, short ride up to the airport after that. As we got near, there was a checkpoint – like those Malaysian toll counters on the highway. A soldier opened the sherut door and came in. As soon as he saw me, he asked for my passport. “Where are you from?” he asked. I felt a chill going through my body. He went out of the sherut and the driver immediately took off! I quickly shouted for the driver to stop! The soldier had my passport! The Americans shouted for the driver to stop immediately! The English speaking Jewish girl spoke hurriedly to the driver and the driver went berserk! He exclaimed angrily and turned the sherut around, back to the checkpoint.
He shouted at the soldier and the soldier told me to come out of the sherut. The soldier asked me what I was doing in Israel, where did I go, did anyone give me anything. He wanted me to take out my luggage to inspect it. I was so pissed! We were going to be late! I opened the back door of the sherut and looked for my luggage. I told the soldier I couldn’t find it. Everyone’s luggages were on top of each other. The soldier let me off and I apologised to everyone in the sherut. I felt so lucky that they didn’t blame me for the holdup, especially the Americans. They were like, “How could they take away your passport!” I was so thankful for their support.
Cranky sherut driver
When we reached the airport, I paid the driver and I was waiting for him to give me my change back. He refused. I had no idea what he was saying in Hebrew but he was angry that I was asking for my change. It was quite a huge amount but it wasn’t that. I just hate to be cheated. After some time, he threw the change in my hand and kept scolding me in Hebrew.
Lucky for me, another Jewish man was there to make sure I was given my change back.
I made my way to the entrance and someone greeted me so cheerfully. There was a checkpoint at the entrance and I knew I was going to be checked. The officer asked me lots of questions – what I was doing in Israel, who was I with, did I know anyone in Israel, where did I go. He even inspected my documents, the ones I gave to the customs officer when I was entering the country. Every single item in my backpack and luggage was inspected thoroughly. Another officer was called and he asked me the same thing and I was finally given the OK to proceed.
There was a Chinese-looking man who got stopped for an inspection after me. I heard the officer asking him, “Are you sure you’re Indian? You don’t look Indian”. I couldn’t help smiling. “Yes, trust me, I’m Indian,” the man said as I entered the airport.
As I reached the check-in counter, there was a line where two officers were checking everyone’s passports and asking questions. Again, I was asked the same questions but this time, the officer explained that they just want to make sure that no one gave me anything to bring with me on the flight as there were cases where the things given were bombs. I was cleared and I went into another line for the check-in.
At the check-in, the staff was asking for the credit card that I used to pay for my flight. I panicked! I don’t remember which one I used and I only brought ONE card with me. If that was not the card, I wouldn’t be able to get on the flight! It took them about 5 – 10 mins to verify my card. My card was finally verified and I was given my boarding pass. Alhamdulillah!
My passport was checked briefly at a gantry and I was lead towards a small enclosed area.
My backpack was put on the conveyor belt to go through a metal detector, and then everything in my bag were taken out and individually swiped. Metallic gadgets were put into a detector again and lastly, I went through a metal detector as well. Had to inform the officer I had 6 pins holding my hijab. LOL!
American guy had to individually unwrap old newspapers from his ceramic souvenirs and then rewrap them all up again. Another American woman was talking and apologising too much because she was embarassed that the officers were inspecting her dirty clothes. “It’s ok, I’m used to this,” said the officer. Too funny!
The whole security process took approximately 3hrs (in airport only) and I was just in time to take my flight to Amman, Jordan. At least I knew I was going to be perfectly safe.
Had a short wait at the airport. I texted my family and friends to let them know I was still alive and definitely safe. After a very eventful morning, I was happy to be able to talk to them. A while later, I boarded the flight. Finally, I got some rest.
Jerusalem was VERY eventful for me but this is my favourite destination so far.
I definitely want to visit again someday, in sya allah! And I would definitely stay a little longer, especially in Al Aqsa. I didn’t get a chance to eat the local halal food, which I hope to do if I get the chance to go back there again, in sya allah!
There’s so many places tourists can visit apart from the Old City and Jerusalem itself. There are lots of tours to other places in Israel/Palestine and they are very affordable.
On another note, I don’t support wars, whatever bad things that are happening in this country, the region and in the world. I believe in justice and as a muslim, I believe that Allah is the most just. I try my best to support and help my fellow brothers and sisters in Islam and at the same time, respect people from other races and religions. This is what Islam and my mom teach me. Again, I’m so grateful to be born and bred in Singapore because we learn since young to respect, be tolerant and get along with people of other races and religions.
This trip is a great eye opener for me – to be grateful and humble with what I have. Allah’s rezeki for me is tremendous – more than just money and health, He gave me safety, peace and happiness since birth.
Should you wander to Jerusalem? YES! It was all so worth it!
- Stay in a hostel/hotel IN the Old City so that it’s easier to go to Al Aqsa.
- Stay longer in Al Aqsa, it’s not an easy journey so make it worthwhile.
- Spend more time in the Old City – there’s too many things to discover.
- Bring something to give away to the Palestinians.
- Try to look for muslim businesses and support them.
- Taxi to Bus Station: $5, informed reception to book
- Sherut to Jerusalem: $14
- Hostel: $41.05/night, 6-bed female dorm
- Breakfast: Free, complimentary of hostel, buffet-style
- Snacks: $20 – chocolate chips, chocolate bars, water, mini Pringles
- Sherut to Ben Gurion: $25, informed reception at to book
*All prices are in SGD (estimate).