Jerusalem is the most difficult city to decipher on earth. That’s not just us saying it. Try finding it on Google Maps. For security reasons high-resolution satellite pictures are not available, reducing the city to a fuzzy haze. This complexity continues at ground level.

Considering its significant impact on religious and world history, the area within the walls of the Old City is Lilliputian; covering less than a square half mile, it’s smaller than the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia. Upon entering the Jaffa Gate a visitor is confronted with an Escher-esque maze of narrow passageways, warrens and arches, some of them over two millennia old. Maps are of no use so we wandered along until we found what we were looking for; or got distracted and sought something else.

Jerusalem Damascus Gate

Cobblestone paths, worn smooth from centuries of foot traffic, lead up, down and around corners, past a wide array of vendors selling the hijab, the head covering worn by Muslim women, alongside stands stacked with colorful yarmulkes. A few yards away Christian prayer shawls are displayed and, somewhat incongruously, a merchant offering Philadelphia Phillies and Dallas Cowboys t-shirts with the team names spelled out in Hebrew.

Spiritually, Jerusalem provides sharp contrasts in worship as it is among the holiest sites for three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Christian pilgrims clutching rosary beads traverse the Via Dolorosa, the route of Christ to his crucifixion, as it winds its way through the Arab Souk. The Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed ascended into heaven, overlooks the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism where hundreds of Jews offer their own prayers to God.

Jerusalem Western Wall barbed wire

One evening we left the Western Wall as an energetic group of Orthodox Jewish men were dancing in a circle as they sang out in prayer. We ambled along Habad Street in the Jewish Quarter where our curiosity led us up a set of rickety metal steps attached to the side of a building, considering the setting they appeared to be a stairway to heaven.

After our climb we gingerly walked across the rooftops of adjoining buildings. Looking down into a courtyard we spotted a mosque, its confines protected by concertina barbed wire, while just 50 feet away Jewish children played in a similarly safeguarded schoolyard.

Jerusalem western wall soldiers praying

The dulcet tones of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, bounced off the limestone walls of the ancient buildings just as it has for generations.  As if in response, church bells started clanging their hourly chorus. The echoes of three religions rang in our ears as we made our way to the Muslim Quarter.

In the backs of their stalls, Muslim shopkeepers knelt on prayer rugs pointing to Mecca, suspending all commerce for a few moments of penitence. But nothing stops the constant aromas produced by grilled meats rotating on spits over charcoal flames. The cooked meat blended with amber pyramids of spices to create a heady mix of scents. Stray cats popped up at every corner, no doubt attracted by a whiff of all the cooking.

Arab market Jerusalem

On the Al-Wad Road (the term “road” is a loose one, it’s a pedestrian strip about 10 feet wide) we mingled with Christian worshippers walking the Via Dolorosa. Part of the route is still covered with paving stones from the Second Temple period, an era from the time of Christ. The narrow street is crowded with shoppers and young men pushing their way through with handtrucks laden down with boxes of fresh mint, dates and clothing.

Adding to the bedlam, toddlers swirled like beeping communications satellites around Orthodox Jewish mothers who tried to keep them in a steady orbit; Times Square on New Year’s Eve is less chaotic. Careful to avoid stepping on the women who set up shop on the sidewalk, laying root vegetables on plastic sheets, we exited the Old City via the Damascus Gate.

PI 1 Jerusalem Muslim Quarter produce vendors (575x493)

Leaving the pandemonium behind, we headed for the relative serenity of the Musrara neighborhood, a former No Man’s Land separating East and West Jerusalem. In a city over 3,000 years old, this 150-year-old area is practically a toddler, but one with a troubled past. It was one of the first neighborhoods built outside the city walls, making it a pioneer suburb. Originally it was a district for wealthy Christians occupying upscale housing.

After 1948, the advent of Israeli statehood turned it into a deadly No Man’s Land, a disputed border between Israel and Jordan. Its position made it vulnerable to Jordanian shelling while the Israelis mined it to prevent intrusion; snipers patrolled on both sides. Despite the dangers, refugees and immigrants moved into the abandoned houses; even as they lacked electricity, water and schools.

PI 4 Jerusalem blend of religions (575x482)

Now the neighborhood has been reclaimed by artists who create messages of peace for the present and future. A free tour of the neighborhood is given on Saturdays. Our guide, Matan, is part of an organization called Muslala, the name an alternate spelling for the neighborhood. They believe art is a powerful tool to bring together this once conflicted neighborhood. Through community outreach programs, including this free tour, and multi-cultural art displays they hope to start a dialogue between neighbors of differing backgrounds.

In some places the art forms bizarre juxtapositions. On one wall the word “Love” is painted alongside signs pointing to the local bomb shelter. They each use the same font and colors. According to Matan, the unasked questions are “Which one is more important? Which one leads to safety?” The bomb shelter itself serves a dual purpose as it is now a community arts center.

Musrara tour jerusalem

After walking the streets of Musrara viewing the latest open-air art pieces, we climbed down a set of simple wooden steps known as Chiara’s Staircase. Several years ago, Matan built these steps so his girlfriend Chiara, who lived in the lower Old City, could scale the wall into the elevated neighborhood when they wanted to see each other. That romance has ended, but this tenuous bridge across the former No Man’s Land lives on.

Below the steps we crossed into Arab East Musrara for our final stop on the tour: Ikermawi Restaurant, reputedly the home of the best hummus in Jerusalem. On the crowded sidewalk we sat side-by-side on benches, Muslim, Jew and Christian, literally breaking bread together so we could dip the pita into the shared bowls of creamy hummus. The pita and hummus blend easily.

Oh if Jerusalem were only that simple.

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Whenever there is a wall dividing one group from another it provides an irresistible canvas to artists, both political and otherwise. After seeing the murals on the “peace walls” in Belfast and the surviving sections of the Berlin Wall, we were curious to venture into the Palestinian territories to see the other side of the Israeli security wall.

To see the other side of the Separation Barrier we traveled to Bethlehem, which is governed by the Palestinian Authority, via Arab Bus #21 which leaves from the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. The ride takes only a half hour but truly enters another world. There is no checkpoint when entering the Palestinian territory but this changed on our return. Then the bus stopped at a checkpoint to re-enter Jerusalem so Israeli soldiers could come onboard to check papers.

Security wall in Israel murals Banksy

The British graffitti artist and political activist Banksy has made his mark in the area, although not on the actual wall. He painted the masked man throwing flowers at the top of this post and the girl above who is frisking a soldier.

Security wall in Israel murals dove Banksy

Another Banksy mural. The dove of peace wearing a bulletproof vest while being targeted through a rifle scope.

Security wall in Israel murals man walking

In many ways the security wall looks like the Berlin wall with its guard towers and graffiti. The neighborhood along it has become desolate, similar to what happened along the wall in West Berlin.

Israel defense wall guard tower

Israel defense wall mural Marianne

This mural borrows the imagery of Marianne storming the barricades during the French Revolution.

Israel security wall mural Wheaton College

Visiting the wall seems to be a right of passage for some American college students.

Israel defense wall mural rhino

A hippo breaks through the wall.

Israel defense wall street view white van

belfast peace wall catholic side

Note the two photos above. The first is of the wall in Israel from the Palestinian side. The second is a photo we took last year of the “peace” wall that still separates the Catholic and Protestant areas in Belfast. The only difference is the graffiti.

murals on security wall in israel

murals security wall in Israel

Israel defense wall billboard

One entrepreneur has put the wall to good use with a billboard for his shop.

Israeli defense wall house surrounded

This house is surrounded on three sides by the wall. Someone told us it is available for rent as a vacation rental.

Israeli defense barrier olive trees

Ironically, the wall cuts through a grove of olive trees. Olive branches are a symbol of peace.

Israeli defense wall along road

In some sections the wall projects out over the road.

Hopefully the situation will be peaceful enough one day so the wall is no longer needed.

Click the link for photos of the murals of Belfast.

And here’s a look at the current peace wall in Belfast.

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When we arrived in Israel we expected to stuff ourselves with Middle Eastern treats such as falafel and hummus, what we didn’t expect was some of the tastiest fruit and sweetest pastries of our journey. Israel has managed to create vast produce farms out of desert land, making street corner fresh squeezed fruit juice stands as ever-present as, well, street corners. They don’t ignore the good stuff though, the Eastern European heritage of many immigrants is reflected in the sweet cakes and pastries sold at every bakery.

Food in Israel fruit at juice stand

Israel had the best-looking produce  we’ve seen. Basically if it’s something that grows out of the ground, you can make juice out of it. Our favorite was fresh squeezed oranges and pomegranates with a touch of ginger and mint. Unlike the fruit smoothies we’ve seen in America, the Israelis don’t add any sugar or sugar syrup. With fruit this ripe and sweet, who needs it?

Mahane Yehuda Market Jerusalem

We were lucky to be staying only a block from the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. On Fridays, it was elbow-room only as the jostling crowds set a festive atmosphere as they prepared for the Sabbath. The picture of the challah vendor at the top of this post was taken at Mahane Yehuda.

Food of Israel Mahane Yehuda market

Part of the market is covered while the rest spills out onto the surrounding streets.

Food market Mahane Yehuda Jerusalem spice blends

Tempting bowls of dried fruits, nuts and spices.

Israel food artichokes

What’s a market in Jerusalem without some of the namesake artichokes?

Food in Israel Mahane Yehuda market cookies

There is no shortage of cookies and sweets at the market.

Israeli food crispy cheesy bread

Can you tell us what this is called? It’s a crispy phyllo-type dough wrapped around cheese, spinach and potatoes with sesame seeds sprinkled on top. It was served hot right out of the oven and was incredibly delicious.

Machane Yehuda market Jerusalem man dancing

We’re not sure why this man was dancing on the top of a van at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, but we did feel like we had just walked onto the set of Fiddler on the Roof.

Carmel Market Tel Aviv

The most popular market in Tel Aviv is the Carmel Market where shoppers can buy anything from food to clothing to electronics.

Food in Israel Carmel Market candy

Despite all the healthy Mediterranean food in Israel, those with a sweet tooth can still be satisfied.

Israel food Carmel Market

A lot of kibbitzing goes on at the market.

And what’s a good meal without some dessert at the end?

Food in Israel kosher gelato

This kosher gelato is non-dairy so it would also be good for those who are lactose intolerant.

Israel food pastry

We couldn’t understand the Hebrew writing on these pastries but a slice of each worked out just fine.

Israel food waffle dessert

When we ordered our waffles à la mode (with chocolate hazelnut) at this restaurant in Jerusalem, we didn’t realize it already came with heaping mounds of ice cream and whipped cream on the side.

Overall we really enjoyed the food in Israel. At one point we were getting a little hummused out after being in the Middle East for a few months, but a stop at our neighborhood juicer would invigorate us just enough to start diving back into the delicious local treats.

Click the link to read other stories about food.

One of the more sobering aspects of our journey has been the environmental abuse we’ve seen, sometimes in the least likely places. Although we’ve traveled all over the world and written about some incredible sights, the story that resonated the most with readers is the one we wrote about the plastic trash on the beaches of Bali.

The tropical paradise of Bali was anything but. We visited during what some locals call the “trash season.” This coincides with the rainy season as garbage-filled storm drains flow rivers of plastic into the ocean, which then flings the trash back in waves onto the beach. It’s not exactly the recycling program that they need. Despite all the pretty pictures we have posted, the one below has garnered the most worldwide attention to our site.

Bali Kuta Beach trash

A lonely mermaid washed up from a sea of trash in Bali.

A week before our visit to Bali we saw the result of an aggressive trash awareness program. Perth, Australia boasts miles of spotless beaches that were cleaner than any we’ve seen. The local Waste Authority, with the catchy slogan “Too Good to Waste,” promotes an active recycling program. But recycling alone won’t solve the problem. The main issue is the abundance of plastic being produced.

In the US alone over 40 billion plastic water bottles are used each year. And that’s in a country with a potable water supply. Reusable containers are gaining in popularity but as yet are not as ubiquitious as disposable plastic bottles.

Plastic shopping bags are being eliminated in many communities but are given out with abandon in much of the world; as if the cashier made a commission on every bag used. Sometimes this has led to comical situations where each piece of fruit is nestled in its own plastic bag. Even when we showed the vendor our recyclable cloth bag at markets in the Middle East, they would wave it away and shove our purchase in a plastic bag. Meanwhile, just halfway across the Mediterranean, the island of Malta charges for plastic bags so shoppers are diligent about bringing their own reusable bags with them.

Israel plastic recycling cages

This container on a street in Tel Aviv promotes plastic recycling. Unfortunately, due to security concerns it has to be an open cage.

After we published our story about Bali we became aware of an Australian group called “The Two-Hands Project.” Founded by Paul Sharp and Silke Stuckenbrock in 2010, the volunteer organization focuses on cleaning up the world’s beaches and making people aware of the dangers of plastic. They’ve used social networking to encourage clean-up efforts in over 35 countries. Their Facebook page highlights photos of successful clean-ups from around the world.

We asked Paul what primary message he’d like to get out to readers about their mission:

 “Plastic pollution is a symptom of failed design. Cleaning up is important and helps protect wildlife, though it will not fix the problem. Manufacturers need to move away from disposable design and implement reusable packaging and refund systems to ensure near 100% recovery of packaging and end-of-life products.”

He’s got a point, all the recycling in the world won’t make a dent in the huge amounts of plastic trash being produced daily. Until the plastic trash generation is cut off at the source, groups like theirs will be fighting a losing battle with their clean-up actions.

Thailand temple plastic recycling

This Buddhist temple in Thailand promotes biodegradable alternatives to plastic.

Part of the mission of the temple in Chiang Mai that is pictured above is to increase awareness of alternatives to plastic. Food containers made of compressed banana leaves instead of styrofoam are becoming more popular. We’ve also seen biodegradable “plastic” utensils made out of corn and other plant sources. While not a perfect solution, at least they won’t be floating onto the world’s beaches for decades after their use. Perhaps by then Bali’s “trash season” will become an unwelcome vestige of the past.

Click the link for more information about the Two Hands Project and see how you can lend a hand.

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem is the traditional path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Following the fourteen Stations of the Cross up the hill towards Mount Cavalry is a pilgrimage for Christians worldwide who descend in droves onto the narrow path. Some come alone while others are part of groups singing religious hymns in many languages along the way. In this multi-lingual city where signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English the Via Dolorosa stands out for still retaining its Latin name.

Via Dolorosa

This is a wide part of the path near the starting point.

We walked the Via Dolorosa on an appropriately dreary, rainy day. Surprising for a site that attracts millions from all over the globe, the walkway and stations have not become touristy attractions. In fact, some of them are even hard to find. We were pleased to see that Christ’s path to crucifixion remains a humble route and has not become Disneyfied.

Via Dolorosa Roman stones 100 BC

Some of the paving stones are from the Roman era of 100 BC.

Via Dolorosa Christ fell (525x471)

This chapel marks the 3rd station where Christ fell.

Via Dolorosa 4th station

Underground chapel at the 4th station where Jesus met his Mother.

Via Dolorosa

A blend of cultures on the Via Dolorosa.

Via Dolorosa Arab market

The path winds through the Arab market.

The only sour note is at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which straddles the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. There have been violent disputes over the centuries between various Christian sects that are engaged in a turf war over which one controls this most holy sight of the Christian faith. In 2008 a brawl between Armenian and Greek Orthodox clerics had to be broken up by the Israeli police. To help keep the peace a Muslim family has been entrusted with the only key to the church for over 1,400 years.

An agreement that was signed by all parties in 1853 called the “Status Quo” was supposed to solidify which of seven different Christian sects controlled which part of the Church. However the window ledges remain disputed territory. In the picture below there is a ladder leaning against a window over the entrance. Supposedly it has been there since at least 1852. There is no consensus about which group can move it. It makes one wonder that if different groups of the same religion can’t get along, what does that bode for a city that is a cradle of Judaism, Islam and Christianity?

Walking the Via Dolorosa is a moving experience on two levels. For Christians, following the path of Christ is literally a religious experience. For others it is a unique opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a major historical figure.

Church of Holy Sepulchre

The last five stations are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of Holy Sepulchre crucifixion site

Golgotha, believed to be the actual crucifixion site.

Church of Holy Sepulchre tomb of Christ (525x465)

The stone that according to tradition covered the tomb.