Busy Ashdod is not only one of Israel's fastest-growing cities, it's also the country's largest port. Perched on the Mediterranean, it processes more than 60% of the goods imported into Israel. Home to many ancient peoples over the centuries, Ashdod today is a modern, planned city. It's also a convenient jumping-off point for exploring several of Israel's most interesting cities, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Bethlehem.
Bethlehem. Today the great majority of Bethlehem's residents, as elsewhere in the West Bank, are Muslim. But for Christians the world over, the city is synonymous with the birth of Jesus. As well, Bethlehem is the site of the Tomb of Rachel, the only one of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs not buried in Hebron.
Church of the Nativity. This is the oldest standing church in Israel. From the right transept at the front of the church, descend to the Grotto of the Nativity, encased in white marble. Once a cave-precisely the kind of place that might have been used as a barn-the grotto has been reamed, plastered, and decorated beyond recognition. Immediately on the right is a small altar, and on the floor below it is the focal point of the entire site, a 14-point silver star with the Latin inscription: hic de virgine maria jesus christus natus est ("Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born"). Manger Sq..
Church of St. Catherine. Adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, and accessible by a passage from its Armenian chapel, is Bethlehem's Roman Catholic parish church. From this church, the midnight Catholic Christmas mass is broadcast around the world. Steps descend from within the church to a series of dim grottoes, clearly once used as living quarters. A small wooden door (kept locked) connects the complex with the Grotto of the Nativity.
Manger Square. Bethlehem's central plaza and the site of the Church of the Nativity, Manger Square is built over the grotto thought to be the birthplace of Jesus. The end of the square opposite the church is the Mosque of Omar, the city's largest Muslim house of worship. The square occupies the center of Bethlehem's old city. It has a few restaurants and several good souvenir shops.
Rachel's Tomb. This Israeli enclave in a Palestinian area is on the right shortly after passing through the border. The Bible relates that the matriarch Rachel, second and favorite wife of Jacob, died in childbirth on the outskirts of Bethlehem, "and Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave" (Genesis 35:19-20). There is no vestige of Jacob's original pillar, but observant Jews for centuries have hallowed the velvet-draped cenotaph inside the building as the site of Rachel's tomb. Islam as well venerates Rachel. Next to the tomb is a Muslim cemetery, reflecting the Middle Eastern tradition that it is a special privilege to be buried near a great personage. Rte. 60.
Shepherds' Fields. As you approach Bethlehem, you'll see the fields of the adjacent town of Beit Sahour, to the east of the city, traditionally identified with the biblical story of Ruth. The same fields are identified by Christian tradition as those where bewildered shepherds "keeping watch over their flock by night" received "tidings of great joy"-word of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Luke 2). Two chapels-the Greek Orthodox Der El Rawat and the Catholic El Ghanem-commemorate the event.
Dead Sea. According to the Bible, it was along these shores that the Lord rained fire and brimstone on the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24) and turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt (Genesis 26). Here, at the lowest point on Earth-the bottom of the world: 1,292 feet below sea level-the hot, sulfur-pungent air hangs heavy, and a haze often shimmers over the water. You can float, but you cannot sink, in the warm, salty water.
Masada. A symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, Masada (Hebrew for "fortress") towers majestically over the western shore of the Dead Sea. Its unusual natural form-a plateau set off on all sides by towering cliffs-attracted Herod the Great, who built an opulent desert palace here; it was the first site in Israel to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001. To reach the top, most visitors make use of the speedy cable car. Starting at 8 am, it runs every half hour, with intermediate runs depending on demand. Maps, a detailed brochure, and a very useful audio guide are available at the top entrance. Adjoining the lower cable-car station is the Masada Museum, with hundreds of artifacts from the site. Especially moving is a set of 12 pottery shards, each bearing a single name. Archeologists believe these might have been lots drawn to decide the order in which the last remaining rebels would die. Off Rte. 3199, Ein Gedi. Admission charged.
Old City Jerusalem. Drink in the very essence of Jerusalem as you explore the city's primary religious sites in the Muslim and Christian quarters, and at the Western Wall, and touch the different cultures that share it.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Many Christians believe this is the place where Jesus was crucified by the Romans, was buried, and rose from the dead. On the floor just inside the entrance of the church is the rectangular pink Stone of Unction, where, it's said, the body of Jesus was cleansed and prepared for burial. The tomb itself (Station XIV), encased in a pink marble edifice, is in the rotunda to the left of the main entrance of the church. Between Suq Khan e-Zeit and Christian Quarter Rd., Christian Quarter, Jerusalem.
Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount. The magnificent golden Dome of the Rock dominates the vast 35-acre Temple Mount, the area known to Muslims as Haram esh-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). At its southern end, immediately in front of you as you enter the area from the Western Wall plaza (the only gate for non-Muslims), is the large, black-domed al-Aqsa Mosque, the third in holiness for Muslims everywhere. Jewish tradition identifies the great rock at the summit of the hill-now under the gold dome-as the foundation stone of the world. At the time of this writing, the Muslim shrines were closed to non-Muslims for an indefinite period. Security check lines to enter the area are often long; it's best to come early. Note: the Muslim attendants prohibit Bibles in the area. Access between the Western Wall and Dung Gate, Temple Mount, Jerusalem.
Jerusalem Archaeological Park. The site-often referred to as the Western and Southern Wall Excavations, or the Ophel-was a historical gold mine for Israeli archaeologists in the 1970s and '80s. Interesting Byzantine and early Arab structures came to light, but the most dramatic and monumental finds were from the late 1st century BC. Exposed to the left of the corner is the white pavement of an impressive main street and commercial area from the Second Temple period. The protrusion left of the corner and high above your head is known as Robinson's Arch, which was named for a 19th-century American explorer. Dung Gate, Western Wall, Jerusalem. Admission charged.
Via Dolorosa. The Way of Suffering-or Way of the Cross, as it's more commonly called-is venerated as the route Jesus walked, carrying his cross, from the place of his trial and condemnation by Pontius Pilate to the site of his crucifixion and burial; 14 stations mark the route. Muslim and Christian Quarters, Jerusalem.
Western Wall. The status of the Wall as the most important existing Jewish shrine derives from its connection with the ancient Temple, the House of God-it was part of the massive retaining wall King Herod built to create the vast plaza now known as the Temple Mount. With time, the closest remnant of the period took on the aura of the Temple itself, making the Western Wall a kind of holy place by proxy. (Expect a routine check of your bags-smaller is better-by security personnel at the plaza entrance.) Near Dung Gate, Western Wall, Jerusalem.
Western Wall Tunnel. The long tunnel was deliberately dug in recent years with the purpose of exposing a strip of the Western Wall along its entire length. One course of the massive wall revealed two building stones estimated to weigh an incredible 400 tons and 570 tons, respectively. Note that you can visit the site only as part of an organized tour. Western Wall, Jerusalem. Admission charged.
West Jerusalem. West Jerusalem houses the nation's institutions, is the repository for its collective memory, and-together with the downtown-gives more insight into contemporary life in Israel's largest city. The world-class Israel Museum and Yad Vashem are located here.
Israel Museum. The three main specialties of this eclectic treasure trove and world-class museum are art, archaeology, and Judaica, but the Dead Sea Scrolls are certainly the museum's most famous-and most important-collection. Ruppin Rd., Givat Ram, Jerusalem. Admission charged.
Yad Vashem. The institution of Yad Vashem, created in 1953 by an act of the Knesset, was charged with preserving a record of the Holocaust. The site's centerpiece is the riveting Holocaust History Museum, a well-lit, 200-yard-long triangular concrete "prism." Powerful visual and audiovisual techniques in a series of galleries document Jewish life in Europe before the catastrophe and follow the escalation of persecution and internment to the hideous climax of the Nazi's "Final Solution." Video interviews and personal artifacts individualize the experience. Hazikaron St., near Herzl Blvd., Mt. Herzl, Jerusalem.