Henning Petterson traveled to Israel and Palestine after a friend of his returned from her own visit with marvelous things to say about the region. In this photo essay, he shares his observations from his time there.

Why did you decide to travel to Israel and Palestine? What drew you to that part of the world?

I had never given much thought to visiting Israel or Palestine, actually, until a friend of mine went there and came back bragging about Jerusalem. She told me about the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, and about how she swam – or floated, really – in the Dead Sea. She talked about the juxtaposition of seeing the place where Jesus was born, and then seeing the parties on the beach in the city of Tel Aviv. I became intrigued, so I decided to travel there and check it out myself.

What was particularly unique about the area and the people?

Though I’m not a religious man, seeing the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem was quite amazing. So much of our cultural inheritance is from the area, and just being there gives you a sense of the holiness that makes the land so special for so many people. The country itself is full of contrast: the mysterious atmosphere in old Jerusalem is so very different from the fashionable nightclubs of Tel Aviv. It is really a country of both old history and new development.

What surprised me the most was perhaps how pleasant and easy it was to travel in the area, even when crossing the border from Israel into Palestine. People were very friendly and eager to talk.

What is your hope for others in terms of their understanding of the area and their desire or interest to travel there?

At least back in Norway, when people speak of Israel, they mostly speak of the conflicts. I think that tends to scare them from visiting. In my opinion, traveling is the best way to learn about other people and cultures. Being in Israel and Palestine – talking to regular people, getting a sense of the environment and every day life – allows you to develop your own perspective of the difficult situation in the area. I would certainly encourage others to visit, not only to inform their understanding, but to experience a beautiful, culturally and historically-rich area of our world.

What was the highlight of your time there? 

I’d say that the highlight was exploring within the walls of the old city of Jerusalem, with its narrow paths and bazaars. Every now and again, I’d catch a glimpse of the glistening Dome of the Rock. I’ll definitely go back there some time. I do wish to see more of the northern part of the country as we’ll; I’ve heard many positive things about the city of  Nazareth – the largest city in the north and the “Arab capital”, as they call it – so that will be on the itinerary, too.