Editor’s note: for most of us in the West, we think of Jerusalem as the center of world religion, home to some of the holiest sites in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But for those of eastern faiths, this seems the place to go! Thank you, Sam, for your story and the journey into a place I’d never heard of until today. For more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.

As a rabbi, one of the issues that I am most passionate about is interfaith work. When I can visit a church, mosque, or temple of some sort and learn about the beliefs and history of others, that is traveling at its highest level for me. There is one city that most have never heard of that is a must for anyone looking to learn more about history of three of the world’s great religions. Yogyakarta is in the center of the island of Java, the most populated island in the world with over 150 million inhabitants. It is this island where the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, lies, and it is this country that has the largest Muslim population of any nation on earth. Yogyakarta itself is not a tremendously large city, having less than half a million people. With 13,000 different islands, Indonesia has so much to explore. Though travelers to Indonesia usually head straight to the paradise of Bali, the surfing mecca of Lombok, the diving utopia of the Gili Islands, or go to Borneo to spot orangutans and Komodo for their legendary dragons, skipping over Yogyakarta is a mistake none should make.

Yogyakarta is the historic and cultural capital of Java. Despite being predominately Muslim like the rest of Java, it is actually the non-Muslim ruins that are the primary attractions of this region of the island. Just outside the city lies the 9th century shrines of Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist shrine, and Prambanan, the second largest Hindu temple complex in the world, trailing only Angkor Wat. Borobudur and Prambanan were built around the same time by the Sailendra and Sanjaya empires that lived side by side.

It is great to visit Borobudur in the morning and watch the morning light hitting the shrine as the sun rises. Borobudur is in the midst of the Javanese jungle and was abandoned followed Java’s population’s conversion to Islam in the 14th century and was not discovered until the 1800s. Borobudur rises out of the ground with nine platforms, six square and three circular, topped by a central dome. On the shrine, there are 2672 incredibly detailed stone reliefs depicting the stories of the Buddha and Buddhist mythologies. Around the shrine are also 504 statues of the Buddha. Surrounding the central top dome are 72 Buddha statues seated in stupas, which look like giant bells. Borobudur is today considered one of the greatest archaeological sites of the world and constantly rivals Angkor Wat and Bagan for the most impressive site in Southeast Asia.

Borobudur

While Borobudur is great to visit in the morning, Prambanan is an ideal spot to watch the sunset as you explore the candi temples. Initially, there were 240 temples as part of the Prambanan complex, though many do not exist today as a result of devastating earthquakes in the region. The three main temples of Prambanan are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma, and many still have statues to the various Hindu deities. The central building of Prambanan rises 154 feet into the air. Following the sunset with the temples becoming silhouettes, the tall pointy structures are lit up by purple lights.

Prambanan at night

At the complex afterwards is a memorable experience in the arts, history, and culture, and that is a Ramayana Ballet. Ramayana Ballet is a uniquely Indonesian experience in which performers – through music, drama, dance, elaborate costume, and no words – perform an epic Hindu story. The story of Ramayana tells the heroic tale of Prince Rama and his loyal wife Sita. It is an epic story, a metaphor about the triumph of good over evil. Sita is abducted by the giant Rahwana and carried to his palace at Alengka. In his search for his wife Sita, Rama receives assistance from the white monkey king, Hanuman, who burns Alengka Palace and restores princess Sita to her husband. The first reference to the story of Ramayana in South East Asia was in a sixth century inscription in Cambodia. The Ramayana has two endings, and these are played alternately on different occasions. In the first, princess Sita is saved and is happily restored to her husband, Rama. In the second version, most probably the original one, Rama suspects Sita’s chastity when she returns. To prove that she has remained faithful to her husband, Sita asks to be burned alive. If she has lied, she will die, if not, she would remain unharmed. After being burnt, a living Sita emerged from the flames. Thus, it is a happy ending after all.

Ramayana ballet

In between visits to Borobudur and Prambanan, take a visit to the nearby Mount Merapi volcano. At 10,000 feet, Merapi is one of the twenty most active volcanos in the world. The area is beautiful, but this highly active volcano, which erupted again this past year, has a recent tragic story. In 2010 Merapi had a major volcanic eruption, showering ash over the surrounding area. In preparation for this eruption, the locals made bunkers to hide from the ash, yet provided no ventilation. The intense heat from the eruption killed hundreds in these bunkers, for a total of 353 deaths. A destroyed home with the skeletons of livestock today serves as a memorial for the 2010 eruption. Visiting this site is somber, yet is a reminder of the dangerous power of the world we inhabit.

The memorial to Merapi

The highlight of Yogyakarta may be, like many places, the people who live there. In this city, the people were incredibly kind and helpful. What was startling for me was that most people in Yogyakarta had never met a white person before and had only seen white people on television. As a 6-foot tall blonde haired, blue eyed guy, I was quite the spectacle and over my three days in the city, I had hundreds of requests for photos with locals who treated me like I was a movie star. Though this did get a bit tiresome, it gave me an appreciation for why actual celebrities might get annoyed with photo requests and it was a reminder for me to remain pleasant as I was an ambassador for people from the United States. The Javanese people are proud of their culture and will proudly show you their batik-designed fabrics, a trademark of the region, and for only a couple of dollars will serve you delicious Javanese cuisine. A must try is the luwak coffee, nicknamed the “crappucino.” The luwak is a weasel-like animal that partially digests coffee cherries and then defecates them. The droppings are then gathered and turned into cups of coffee. Though the idea of this may sound disgusting, this coffee is actually considered a delicacy and is the most expensive cup of coffee in the world, retailing in Europe and the United States between $35 and $100 a cup. However, in Indonesia, a cup is only a few dollars, and it is easily the richest cup of coffee I have ever had in my life.

During the day, Yogyakarta is known for its great shopping and also for the Kraton palace, which was the palace of the regional sultan. The Kraton is large and takes hours to fully explore, and there are puppet shows of Javanese history for all ages to enjoy. There, guards are dressed in traditional Javanese palace attire. In the complex, you can see the lavish lifestyle of the sultans and also the oldest and largest mosque in the city. Outside of the Kraton is a large field that is a gathering place for locals. In the field there are many games and festivities, and at night, the field comes alive with activities and people going by in their tricked-out bikes, motorcycles, and cars with colorful lights on the wheels. In the field is one of Yogyakarta’s most famous landmarks, twin banyan trees that are spread fairly far apart. Despite the distance between them, a tradition in Yogyakarta is to try to walk blindfolded between the two trees without bumping into either of them, which is harder to do than it sounds. If you are able to do so successfully, according to legend, your wish will come true. For me, my wish is just to go back to Yogyakarta, one of the best cities I have ever visited, and a place where you must go.

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