I was one of them. Despite having a great love for this third holiest place in Islam and despite my wife’s persistent demand to visit, I never even tried to plan one! Finding an easy way to get there and the worry about safety once there, appeared real impediments.
But now that my wife and I have been there, it all seemed relatively easy, welcoming, and safe. We faced no difficulty or impediments in visiting Jerusalem and several towns in the West Bank. Performing regular daily prayers and Jum’ah salat posed no hassles either. Palestinian brothers were especially welcoming and helpful to someone from the southern tip of this world.
Landing in Amman from Dubai, we spent 5 days in Jordan visiting castles in several cities, spending a full day in Petra, watching the night sky in the Wadi Rum desert, and enjoying the sunshine in the seaport city of Aqaba. From there we drove along the coast of the Dead Sea to the land crossing at King Hussein Bridge.
This was going to be a challenging occasion we thought, but neither the exit from Jordan nor the entry into Israel posed any problems.
After the normal screening of our luggage and exit stamp from Jordanian authorities, we were taken through several kilometres of barren land to a long queue of cars and trucks waiting to enter Israel. Once at the entry point, like at the airport, the luggage disappeared on the belt, and we joined the immigration queue. Getting a paper visa (hard copy), instead of a stamp on the passport, was no problem.
Surprisingly there were no visa fees. Very strange I thought. But the riddle was solved when we had to pay a large sum at the time of exiting Israel!!
An hour’s ride in a taxi took us to our hotel in Jerusalem. Located in the Palestinian suburb of Ras Al-Amud, next to Masjid Mohammed Al Fateh, it was only a 20-minute walk away from the Al Aqsa compound, with a clear view of Al-Aqsa and the old city.
Now we know exactly what Al-Aqsa is!!!
Masjid Al-Aqsa as mentioned in the Glorious Quran refers to the entire plaza/ compound with its mosques, arenas, gates, fountains, minarets, a Madrasa and many other religious buildings and historic grounds.
It also encompasses more than 200 historical monuments from across Islamic history. The most famous mosque with its magnificent golden dome and the bigger mosque with the grey colour dome, and their precincts cover 14.4 hectares. This is about one sixth the area of the old city of Jerusalem, located in its southeast corner.
The most magnificent building is the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat Al-Sakhra) with its eye-catching large Golden dome. It is a building of extraordinary beauty, solidity, elegance, and singularity of the shape – both outside and inside. The decoration is so magnificent and the workmanship is so surpassing as to defy description.
This Masjid was full of men, women and children praying salat, reading Quran or simply appreciating its grandeur. For Friday Jum’ah salat, however, this Masjid is reserved for women only. During late afternoon and evening, many families and groups were walking or sitting in the courtyard chatting happily. We prayed most of our salat in this Masjid.
Going down the steps led us towards the Al-Qibli Masjid, along with its vast middle courtyard comprising open gates, corridors, and trees. This is considered the main mosque in the Aqsa Plaza due to its role in Friday prayers and it is where the Imam and all male musallees stand.
Women can enter this Masjid anytime, except on Friday mornings until the conclusion of Jum’ah salat. It has the distinctive grey dome and a grand mimbar for khutbah, which has a long ancient history. The inside walls and the ceilings are breathtakingly attractive and magnificent.
Within the compound we also visited the Masjid Al-Buraq Al-Sharif, Islamic Museum, the large Madrasa and its Principal of Afghan descent, various corridors, gates, and graves of some famous Sahabas.
Our impressions of Al-Aqsa
Within a couple of hours of our arrival, we headed to pray Maghrib and Isha salats in Masjid Al-Aqsa. From then on, we prayed as many salats there as practical, including the Jum’ah salat.
Going from our hotel, we usually entered through Babul Asbaat (Lions Gate), one of the several entry gates through which Muslims can enter the compound. Non-Muslims can enter only through the Western Gate and are barred from entering inside the mosques.
What a sight and what a lot of locals and visitors there to connect with Allah. We met many Muslims from South Africa, Turkey, ex-Soviet Union states, Indian subcontinent, and from Arab and Western countries.
The environment was peaceful, with everyone moving around freely enjoying the grandeur of the buildings. Israeli military personnel were guarding all gates of the compound but never said a word to us and none came inside while we were there.
The whole compound closes soon after Isha, except during Ramadan. The biggest hassle for us was to find a taxi/bus in the busy traffic after Isha to get back to our hotel. Walking involved a long steep climb!!!
We prayed salats in both Al-Qibli and the Dome of the Rock mosques. Both have areas assigned for women. There was a special attraction and serenity though in the Dome of the Rock Masjid, with visitors flocking to visit “the Rock” from where Prophet Muhammad (s) is supposed to have climbed to heavens during Me’raj.
During late afternoon and evenings many families and groups were walking or sitting in the large courtyard in a picnic-like environment. In Masjid Al-Qibli people were mostly inside, praying or walking around the large magnificent mimbar with a long history and the extensive beautiful interior.
We would have definitely loved a longer stay, enjoying the magnificence of the whole Plaza and amassing the rewards of praying there.
The Old City of Jerusalem
The old city in which the Al-Aqsa Masjid is located consists of four quarters: Muslim (largest); Jewish; Christian; and Armenian (smallest). While locals are free to move around the entire city, their residence is restricted to their quarter.
As public vehicles are not allowed inside the old city, we were taken on a walking tour through its narrow streets, with shops on either side selling mainly food, clothing, and souvenirs for tourists. It was a long walk of some six hours going uphill and downhill on paved stones.
Major places of our interest included: Masjid Umar bin Al-Khattab; Al-Khanqah Al-Salahiyah (Salahuddin Ayyubi Waqf); Residence of Imam Ghazali (ra); Wailing Wall (Also known as the Western Wall); Church of the Holy Sepulchre — Holiest place for Christians, apparent place of Jesus crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
Most of the shops looked quite inviting and we could have spent hours there!
Mount of Olives
The large suburb located on the hills opposite the Old City of Jerusalem is the Mount of Olives with several historical sites.
We visited the Masjid and Maqaam of the great Sahabah Salman Al-Farsi (r); Maqaam of the Great Female Ascetic, Rabia Al-Basriyyah; Hebrew University of Jerusalem; the very old historical Augusta Victoria Hospital funded by international donors and the more recent Mustashfa Al-Maqasid Al-Khairiyah Al-Islamiyah funded by Islamic organisations; the remains of the Byzantine church and the Chapel of the Ascension.
A Lookout from the top of the hill provides an excellent view of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Hebron and Bethlehem
We also visited the two historically very important Palestinian-controlled West Bank cities of Hebron and Bethlehem during a one-day excursion.
Hebron hosts the famous Masjid Khalil (also known as Masjid Ibrahim), located wherein are the graves of Prophet Ibrahim (a), Ishaaq (a), Yaaqub (a) and Sarah—the wife of Prophet Ibrahim (a). At the bottom of the steps, near the entrance, we also witnessed the grave of Yousuf (a).
The Museum in Hebron provided the history of the city as well as the history of the occupation of Palestine. The visit ended with lunch provided by a local family at their residence.
The centre of attraction in Bethlehem is the church of Nativity, the apparent birthplace of Eesa (as). This oldest complete church in the Christian world was built in 6th century.
The doorway to the spot in the basement where Jesus (a) was born according to Christians is just 1.2 m high. This means having to stoop low, but we saw most visitors doing Sajadah at the doorway.
On the opposite side of the road stands a beautiful Masjid with a large minaret and the attractive Bethlehem Peace Centre. Muslims constitute the majority of residents in Bethlehem, we were told.
Completing the journey with Umrah
Having travelled to that part of the world, we had planned a visit also to Saudi Arabia. So back into Jordan via the Allenby Bridge, then straight to Amman airport where we put on our Ihraam and flew to Jeddah. Visits to Makkah and Madinah then completed our long-intended travel to the three Holy sites for Muslims, Alhamdolillah.
Organising the travel
This was the big question! Tours organised by agents in New Zealand and Australia were for Christian pilgrims. Companies in Malaysia and UK organise visits to Jerusalem but weren’t very helpful to someone so distant.
In the end, we turned to Jordan Royal Road Travel in Amman who organised the itinerary, transport, accommodation, and guide for both Jordan and Palestine. They do mostly group tours, but we opted for a car with a guide for just the two of us.
I remember recently seeing an advertisement from Perth for an organised tour to visit the three holy sites. This might offer an easier way to plan such a visit.