Holy Land sites can be found in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, but which of these entities a given site is in might depend upon with whom you're speaking.
Most attractions are clear-cut: The Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, is in the West Bank and, therefore, in Palestine. The Basilica of the Annunciation is in Nazareth, which is squarely in Israel.
It gets tricky when you get into East Jerusalem, which Palestine wants to make its capital but is currently under Israeli administration. And it is densely packed with sites important to Christians, Jews and Muslims.
The panorama of the walled city of Jerusalem seen from lookout points on the Mount of Olives includes the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (built over the site where Jesus is believed to have been buried), the Garden of Gethsemane, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (generally considered to be the third most holy site in Islam) and, in the immediate foreground, an ancient Jewish cemetery.
Hidden from view behind the old city walls, but just below the Dome of the Rock, is the Western, or "Wailing," Wall, the holiest of Jewish sites.
And the Via Dolorosa, tracing the path Jesus is believed to have walked on this way to Calvary and crucifixion, ends at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
While many sites in East Jerusalem are of high interest to pilgrims, three in particular (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock) would also be of keen interest to people of any religion, or nonbelievers for that matter. Each is aesthetically pleasing, charged with emotion and intellectually stimulating.
The Dome of the Rock, with its enormous golden dome and facade covered with intricate geometric patterns, is, in addition to its religious significance, a magnificent example of Islamic architecture.
The scale and utter simplicity of the Western Wall serves to intensify the impact of viewing it and the observant Jews who pray and rock before it.
And the atmosphere in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, administered (and divvied up) by six divisions of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syriac Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox), simply evokes an era long past.
One steps from the intense sunlight of a typical Jerusalem day into a dimly lit, maze-like world of rapturous crowds, striking works of art, quiet recesses and chambers reflecting contrasting interpretations of Jesus' teachings.
While these sites, along with the Church of the Nativity, are likely to be on itineraries for any first-time visitor to Israel and Palestine, the Quartet tour of West Bank attractions I was on also brought us to sites that are very likely to begin showing up on tour operators' Holy Land itineraries very soon, now that access to Road 60, which connects most major West Bank towns, has opened up and checkpoints are less intrusive.
None of the religious sites farther into the West Bank is as impressive as the East Jerusalem and Bethlehem sites. But pilgrims will nonetheless be interested in Joseph's Tomb just outside Nabulus and Jacob's Well, which is mentioned in the Bible and today is in a subterranean level of a soaring and modern Eastern Orthodox church in Nabulus. The church's caretakers still draw water from it, and visitors are encouraged to have a drink.
The other primary religious site in the West Bank is the Cave of the Patriarchs, thought to be the burial place of the Old Testament's Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. The site, in the southern Palestinian city of Hebron, is sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
While our group did not visit it, I had seen it on a previous visit. The city, which has hundreds of Jewish settlers in its midst, is among the most tense in the West Bank, and it's unclear whether tour operators would add it to itineraries in the near term.
Another religiously oriented site is a church still attended by the few hundred remaining Samaritans. It's on Mount Gerizim in Kiryat Luza, near Nabulus. (We saw the church from the highway but did not visit it.)
Nabulus itself has a wonderful old maze-like souk in the center of town and was a pilgrimage of sorts for me. A dessert that originated in Nabulus, made of lamb's cheese and semolina crumbs (rose water figures into it, as well), called kunafeh inspired one of my first-ever published travel articles. You can find kunafeh at several stalls in the souk, and it is well worth getting lost in the disorienting alleyways to sample it.
In the town of Sabastia is a Crusader-era church where, it is claimed, the head of John the Baptist was found (there are other sites, as far north as Armenia and Turkey, with similar claims). The church has been converted to a mosque.
The Arab military leader and ruler Saladin is said to have built the town's main mosque using the church's foundation as its base, though this, too, is in dispute; others believe the conversion was done by the Mamluks.
The Quartet seems to have high hopes for Sabastia, which has the most extensive Roman ruins in Palestine. Pleasant though they are, they're unlikely to impress travelers who have seen the great Roman sites in Ephesus, Leptis Magna or even Jerash in Jordan or Caesarea in Israel. It features an intact amphitheater as well as the simple remains of royal tombs.
The West Bank's most impressive ruins are in Jericho, which has two sites. The first is the excavation of Old Jericho, which holds importance as possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Despite its historical significance, what's on display will be of interest primarily to someone who has a strong interest in archaeology or history.
Another site in Jericho, however, has the potential to become a major tourist attraction that could draw visitors from around the world deep into Palestine. The ruins of Hisham's Palace, built by a prince of the Umayyad Empire in 743, contain the most extensive, intact mosaic floors of antiquity, and they're amazingly rich in colors.
The site was only uncovered in the 20th century, and there is ongoing debate about how to present the mosaics for view. Until that is resolved, most of the mosaics have been covered up again to protect them from the sun and water.
At this point, only one mosaic is on display, and it is very impressive. A scene, set in a half-circle, depicts three gazelles, two of whom are grazing peacefully. The third is being attacked by a lion. The animals are beneath a beautifully rendered tree. In both detail and artistry, the scene is reminiscent of the tapestries of Bayeux.
On the cliffs overlooking Jericho is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Temptation, built on the site of the cave where the Bible says Jesus meditated and fasted for 40 days and was tempted by Satan. Cable cars run up from the site of Old Jericho to the cliffs near the monastery, which offer panoramic views over the oasis city.
The most interesting of the contemporary attractions in Palestine are of a political nature. The Jacir Palace InterContinental Hotel, where we stayed in Bethlehem, is about 100 yards from the 25-foot-high wall Israel has built around and through parts of the West Bank. The bottom 8 feet or so are covered in graffiti, not unlike the western side of the Berlin Wall before it was torn down.
I followed the wall for about a quarter-mile; the graffiti was in most cases not virulently anti-Israeli but rather attempted to prick that nation's conscience: "Israel, is this what you want to be remembered by?" "Build bridges, not walls." "Here is a wall at which to weep."
And, as sometimes happens when graffiti artists see a blank canvas, the message becomes more personal. The fact that "Boas loves Monika" is now known to anyone passing that section of the imposing wall.
One of the world's best-known graffiti artists, Banksy, has visited Bethlehem on a couple occasions and left his unique brand of commentary on some of the city's walls, as well as on the Israeli security wall.
The West Bank does not have an airport. Like everything else in Palestine, building one would be entangled in regional politics, since Israel controls the airspace over Palestine. Most visitors arrive and depart from Tel Aviv, though there is some cross-border tourist traffic from Jordan, as well.
There are currently few hotels that carry familiar Western brands. There are two InterContinentals, one each in Bethlehem and Jericho (the latter also has a casino), and a Days Inn in Ramallah, where a Movenpick will be opening shortly.
This report appeared in the June 21 issue of Travel Weekly.