The Holy Land
Part Three: Jerusalem, Israel
March 1, 2010
Dateline Jerusalem, Israel
Latitude at Jerusalem, 31.47 Degrees North, Longitude 35.12 Degrees East
Yesterday and today are Jewish holidays called Purim, which is a festival to celebrate the story of Queen Esther and how she saved the Jews, who were then part of the Persian Empire. The evil Haman planned to have the Jews annihilated, but Esther “unmasked” him and the King ordered him hanged. It is celebrated along the lines of Mardi Gras with costumes and parties. Eilon, our guide, picked us up early for a busy day of full-contact sight-seeing in Jerusalem (the city’s name means, ironically enough, the City of Peace in Hebrew, but peaceful it is not). Eilon showed up in a cape with a Maltese cross on it, part of his Purim Crusader costume from the night before. We assumed it was for our amusement, but we suspected that maybe also it was intended as a little poke in the eye to the Ultra Orthodox Jews who are big on vengeance and are still perturbed about the Crusaders invading their turf over a thousand years ago. Eilon tends to be a little feisty and confrontational in a mischievous, good-natured way (in Yiddish it is called chutzpah). He told us he was at a Purim celebration the night before, and he was costumed as a Crusader. His wife dressed as a slave girl held captive by the Crusader, but she had to work today in Tel Aviv, and so he had to unchain her.
The Crusaders were none to popular with the Muslims at the time either since when they weren’t trying to kill the Jews, they were trying to kill the Muslims, and thus the Crusader outfit can antagonize two groups of religious radicals simultaneously. The city is currently divided into East Jerusalem (Palestinian turf) and West Jerusalem (Israeli turf), although the Israelis often try to blend the lines by establishing settlements (their word – the Palestinians call it occupation) in East Jerusalem. These settlements continue to be a big bone of contention, one of many, that keeps things hopping here in the City of Peace. The Old City is divided into quarters – Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian, but in reality there is much blending from quarter to quarter.
Our first stop was in the heart of East Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City and the other six hills surrounding it. From the top of the Mount of Olives you get a quite magical and truly breathtaking view of the city with the limestone walls of the Old City seeming to glow in the early morning light, and rising above the walls, the truly dazzling sight of the golden Dome of the Rock with sun glinting off the gold dome and casting shadows on the ancient stone facades.
The view to the southwest is the Kidron Valley, stretching between the Mt. of Olives, Mt. Zion and the Old City which was a major Jewish burial ground in the two millennia before the birth of Christ. In Biblical times it was referred to at the Valley of Jehoshaphat (which we Americans have morphed into Jehosephat). Jehoshaphat was the King of Judah in the 9th Century B.C. – no word on where the exclamation, “Jumpin’ Jehosephat, came from. The tombs of several prophets from the Old Testament are believed to be here in a series of catacombs, although they are not marked. This was not the custom in ancient times – stacking was more the order of the day. The
external tombs came later and many Jews want to be buried there since they believe that if they are close to the Jehoshaphat Valley (where Judgment Day is supposed to take place) it will give them something like “First Dibs” on getting into Heaven. The Mount itself is covered with Jewish tombs in use since around 3,000 B.C., as far as the eye can see, extending to join those in the Kidron Valley. The tomb of Mary is also believed to be here and this is also a Muslim sacred site since they revere the same prophets as the Jews and Christians. This makes for a continually tense situation since this whole area is in the heart of East Jerusalem, which is Palestinian territory, and which adds another layer of anxiety to an already dicey situation.
And speaking of tense situations, we also could see from our vantage point, a walled compound with a huge Israeli flag which on the surface would seem okay since this is Israel after all. However, this is in East Jerusalem, the hoped for future capital of Palestine and the flag is one more “in your face” taunt to aggravate the Palestinians. As the story goes, a Jewish guy bought the house (now a fortress) in East Jerusalem and flies this flag, only slightly smaller than the deck of an aircraft carrier, (a small exaggeration, but it is big). The net effect is to send a strong message to the Palestinians which is essentially “Here, let me poke this sharp stick in your eye – just in case you forgot that you hate me”. Eilon tells us that rumor has it that the Palestinian man who sold the land to the Jew was killed by other Palestinians as a warning to others not to sell property in East Jerusalem to Jews.
The Mount of Olives is very significant in the Christian faith since Jesus spent the night here, his last before his arrest, where he delivered the Paternoster, his best known prayer, which has come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer. The Eleona Church (Eleona means olive garden in Greek), is also known as the Pater Noster Church) and stands today over the grotto where it is believed that the Pater Noster prayer was offered. And this was by no means the only church. The spaces on The Mount of Olives that are not covered with tombs are in fact covered with churches, most notably for Western world Christians, the Church of the Ascension which is intended to mark the spot where Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after his Resurrection. Of course all the other Christian churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian and Lutheran to name a few) built their own, convinced no doubt that they had the spot nailed down. Multiple buildings in sometimes multiple locales marking the holy places is very common in the Holy Land, but for the faithful, the literal is not as important as the concept. The predominant color of Jerusalem is shades of tan and beige, a subtle background for the bright gold of the Dome of the Rock and the seven golden onion domes of a Russian Orthodox Church called the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, commissioned in 1185 by Tsar Alexander III. There are also mosques on the Mount of Olives, including one built over one site believed by some to be the real place of Christ’s Ascension so that is just another thing for Christians and Muslims to bicker about.
To the southwest we saw Mt. Zion which is believed to be the site of the Last Supper, as well as the Tomb of the Virgin, with Crusader-era steps leading to an underground church where it is believed Virgin Mary was laid to rest by disciples of Jesus. It is marked today by the Church of the Dormition. As a side note, although these are called mounts, they are really hills by American standards in terms of elevation. Mt. Zion is believed to be the site of the tomb of King David, and though it is outside the city walls today, it is believed to have originally been inside (i.e. they moved the walls, not the mount). The City of David is believed to be in this same area, rather than beneath the old city. Mt. Zion is also the site of the tomb of Oscar Schindler, who saved over 1,000 Jews from the Nazis (the movie, Schindler’s List tells his story). He is interred in the Christian Cemetery here The Muslims also revere this site as the burial tomb of David since he is one of the prophets of Islam. On the subject of prophets – both Muslims and Jews believe that Jesus was a prophet for their religions with the messiah to come later. The Muslims believe he arrived in the form of Mohammed in 570 A.D. and the Jews believe he has not arrived yet. The more we learn, the more we are struck by how much the three major religions have in common.
We could see a winding road far below us where the tour buses were crawling relentlessly toward us, seeming to outnumber the cemetery headstones by a significant margin and so we reluctantly left for our next stop. It was time to move on, but we had to leave many things unseen and places unvisited, most notably the Russian Church of the Ascension, built to commemorate one of the several places where Jesus is believed to have ascended into Heaven the final time after his Crucifixion and subsequent return to earth. Their claim to fame aside from that is that they have a chapel where the head of John the Baptist was supposedly found – no word on how it got here. Strangely enough, there is also a Mosque of the Ascension, where a mosque replaced a Christian church, built where Jesus’ footprints were said to be preserved in the dust. These and other mysteries will have to be investigated and explored on a future trip since we had to stay ahead of the hordes in those tour buses.
We descended the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane which sits at the foot of it. It is really a grove of ancient olive trees, some estimated to be a thousand years old, rather than a traditional garden. The name Gethsemane means “Olive press”. Jesus had met here with his disciples on previous visits to Jerusalem in a grotto. It was here that Jesus, sensing the end was near, came with his most trusted disciples prior to the Last Supper, and then afterward returned to await the fate he knew was his. He was approached by a crowd led by Judas, who kissed Jesus shortly before his arrest by Roman soldiers. The grotto has since become known as The Grotto of Betrayal. The Church of All Nations stands here (also called the Church of Agony), built supposedly over the rock where Jesus prayed the night before he was arrested. It was built with contributions from 12 nations in the Byzantine style in 1924 at a site where several previous churches had stood.
We left the Garden and drove to a spot outside the eastern wall of the old city and were lucky, (or make that blessed, per Eilon), to find a parking space. We, in our Mercedes SUV, beat all the buses lumbering down to the city from the Mount of Olives and got this primo spot. This was one of Eilon’s strengths – knowing when the buses were coming and getting us to the tourist sites (and the bathrooms) ahead of them. We walked along the outside of the Old City walls where we saw hundreds of ruins of old mikvehs which were the ritual baths where pilgrims were required cleanse themselves before entering the temple. We had seen them in many previous sites, but never on this scale.
The tranquility of the Mount of Olives certainly belied the chaos of the Old City. Vociferous calls to prayer and clanging church bells, mingled with the clamor of vociferous tour guides and vendors was in sharp contrast, to softly murmured prayers on what seemed to be every street corner. And the visual impact was amazing. It was easy to imagine yourself back in Biblical times because there were no automobiles. It seemed quite frenzied, but not in the modern sense –
this frenzy seemed from an earlier time – sort of a slower paced frenzy. We saw merchants in every niche and doorway, with delivery carts rumbling down ramps over stepped streets. The diversity here is stunning – there is more of everything – more races, more religions, more ethnicity, more cultures in more odd clothing, more radicalism. And speaking of radicalism, was it our imagination or were some of these pedestrians a little wild-eyed? In the midst of all this – Jerusalem can give the distinct impression of being on a movie set where some of the extras are slightly deranged. It is unconventional – it is alive – it is fascinating.
We had entered the Old City and the Jewish Quarter through the Dung Gate, which prior to 1948 was doorway size, but it was later enlarged to allow cars to enter. The Dung Gate would seem to be an ignominious route for us tourists to enter such a glorious city, but the Muslims walled up the fancier gate to access the Jewish quarter called the Golden Gate, which was the way Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey just before his arrest. The Golden Gate is also the portal through which the Jews believe their messiah will enter the city when he finally comes. It is suspected by some that the Muslims walled up the gate and built a cemetery around it to thwart the coming of the Jewish messiah; however, for a messiah, this would probably be no obstacle. Nevertheless, it remains walled up, and so for us, the Dung Gate it was.
The most coveted turf in the city is what the Jews refer to as the Temple Mount which was the site of the First and Second Temples. The original, the First Temple, was built by King Solomon and destroyed by invading Babylonians in 587 BC. The Mount was created by filling in a valley between two hills to elevate the structure. It was originally built to hold the Ark of the Covenant (the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments on them – which have long since
disappeared and have been sought by Indiana Jones among others). The Second Temple was built in 515 B.C. and later and expanded by Herod the Great. It was destroyed by the Romans after the Jewish Revolt in 66 AD and thus, the temple in Jesus’ time would have been the Second Temple. It was there that he wandered off from his parents as a 12 year old during the festival of Chanuka and was later found sitting with the temple sages who were admiring him for his wisdom. This was when Jesus saw a woman who was to be stoned for adultery and he uttered the words, (paraphrased here), about those without sin should cast the first stone. The Muslims who control this area today call it Haram esh-Sharif which means “the noble sanctuary” in Arabic.
On Jesus’ final visit to the Temple Mount, he again entered the city through the Golden Gate and confronted the Pharisees in an attempt to purify the temple. He became angry and overturned the tables of the money changers and as he left, and he prophesied the destruction of the temple because it had become corrupt. I.E., the house of prayer had become a “den of thieves” and a “house of mercenaries”. A note on the money changers: All Jews were forced to pay a tax to the temple, however they only had Greek or Roman coins and the word the holy men running the temple had was that God only wanted shekels (1/2 shekel per person was the going rate.) Plus the coins had likenesses of humans on them and thus were further taboo. It is an interesting belief (i.e. man should not create likenesses of anything made by God) held by Ultra Orthodox Jews still today and it is strangely enough shared by Muslims. So money had to be changed and fees charged – it sounds familiar.
Another footnote from Biblical times is that they also sacrificed animals at the Temple, a practice that seems to be a multi-cultural, multi religious phenomenon. You have to wonder who came up with the idea. I’m thinking that maybe it was a quick thinking, fast-talking human scheduled to be sacrificed who tells priest that God spoke to him and indicated would much prefer, say a nice sheep or goat. And this could not be just any stray sheep or goat. It had to be sparkling clean so you can’t bring one from home. People actually bought a freshly laundered animal at the Temple to offer for sacrifice so that was probably something of a racket too.
In addition to buying an animal to sacrifice, a temple tax had to be paid whether you went to the temple or not and your goods could be seized if you did not pay it. And then there was the mikvah (ritual bath), no word on whether the tax covered that.
In light of all this money changing hands just to worship God, it is not surprising that the Bible tells us that Jesus felt that the worship of God had become far too mercenary. It makes you wonder what he would say about the Hour of Power, the Crystal Cathedral and all those charter jets today’s millionaire-ministers use. And what would Jesus think about churches with Starbucks and ATM’s in the church. Would he turn over the espresso machine and wreck the ATM’s? We found that Christian churches in Jerusalem are very plain it seems and fittingly so. They serve to remind us of the humble origins and indeed the humble life of Jesus, much better than the churches and cathedrals of today’s televangelists in their mega-churches, and their bi-coastal congregations contributing their mega-bucks.
The Western Wall was our first stop inside the city. All that remains accessible to the public of the Second Temple is part of a single wall that once surrounded the Temple Mount. The Jews picked this spot for the temple because a prominent rock was supposed to be where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son to demonstrate his obedience to and his love for God. This section of wall is known as the Western Wall – a.k.a. Wailing Wall (or Ha-Kotel in Hebrew) and is the place where Jews go to pray and lament (thus the “wailing” moniker) the loss of the Temple. This wall is actually a small part of a retaining wall for the Mount itself, built by Herod the Great when he rebuilt and expanded the First Temple. It serves as an open air synagogue and a venue for services, festivals and special rites. There are separate entrances for men and women and separate sections of the wall for prayers for men and women. Plastic chairs are scattered around both sides for those who plan a lengthy prayer session. There are many more chairs on the women’s side (which is much smaller than men’s side) and many were positioned against the dividing wall so curious females can peer over to see what the men folk are up to. The men were apparently not equally curious. Yes, I peeked into the men’s side and really the men are more interestingly costumed.
There were two types of activity. There were the serious prayers of the devout, their lips moving to a rocking motion of the upper body, reciting typically the Book of Lamentations and liturgical dirges called kinot. While at the wall we also saw a Bar Mitzvah procession – a white canopy held aloft, with the honoree underneath, blushing and seeming somewhat abashed at all the fanfare. Ahead of him, two men cleared the way with shofars blowing ( a shofar is a horn made from the horn of a ram, curved like the one in the Dodge truck logo), and everyone was chanting and singing. It was really quite a “moment” when we considered how many thousands of years this tradition has been repeated at this special place.
The other action at the Western Wall is the tourists gawking at the ultra orthodox Jews in the solid black Abe Lincoln looking suits and ear curls , snapping photos and meandering up to the wall trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. The hats varied widely among various sects, with the most astonishing being the ones Eilon termed the chocolate cake. It was indeed shaped like an oversized layer cake and made from dark animal fur of some sort. The wall is constructed of huge limestone blocks, sprigged here and there with wild greenery of some sort . In addition to verbal prayers, the worshipers can write prayers or petitions to God on tiny scraps of paper and stuff them into the cracks in the wall’s mortared stones. I wondered if it is perhaps a memo reiterating what the verbal prayer was in case it needed reiterating. I personally believe God would hear and remember it the first time, but who am I to question tradition? Above the wall was a walkway looking a little rickety and quite the afterthought, which allowed access to the Temple Mount. In the days of the Second Temple, access to the mount was via several flights of stone stairs, but all that remains of that today is the walled up arches visible high up on the wall.
Of course, the Temple Mount is also holy to Muslims since they believe Mohammed took his Night Journey to Heaven from the Rock on this spot. The Night Journey was a visit to Heaven by Mohammed who then returned to earth. Muslims currently control the real estate and have both the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque on the site, although it is policed by Jewish and Muslim police (from Jordan – Palestinians were considered too dicey) to keep order and each is tasked with the responsibility to reign in their own radicals. The brouhaha du jour while we were there occurred when Jewish radicals decided to flaunt the Muslim rule that no other religions can be practiced on the site. Ultra Orthodox Jewish “holy men” smuggled in prayer books and commenced to pray in a most conspicuous manner and consequently local Muslims pelted them with rocks. You have to wonder why, out of the bazillion rocky outcroppings in this city, did the Jews and Muslims have to pick the exact same rock? What are the chances they got the right rock anyway? Anyway, back to the sightseeing.
From the wall we proceeded to a fairly recently excavated tunnel unearthed by archaeologists which runs parallel to the remaining portion of the Western Wall. The tunnel exposes small sections that are now below ground and have been for centuries. The floor of the tunnel is a stone street built in the time of Herod the Great. You can see the arches employed to elevate the mount, to preserve the springs, to create cisterns below, (which had been carved out of solid rock), and to prevent erosion from above which was essentially land fill.
We emerged from the tunnel into the Muslim Quarter, the largest and most densely populated of the quarters. Our goal was to walk the Via Dolorosa, which means the Way of Sorrows in Italian. Its path is intended to trace the last steps of Jesus from the point of his conviction to his tomb from the east side to the west side of the quarter, where the events known as the Passion of Christ took place. The route has changed a bit from time to time over the centuries, as business needs and religious beliefs of those in power dictated. It is an approximation, versus the exact step by step, but it looks much as it did in the time of Christ – just the vendor’s wares have changed. This route is what tradition has established, although many scholars argue that it is likely another route was taken.
Our first stop was The First Station where Jesus was condemned to death, just a few steps from the tunnel exit and, in Jesus’ time, what was the lower retaining wall of the Temple Mount. In 33 AD, the time of his arrest, the building here was a Roman Praetorium , the headquarters of the Roman military governor, who was at this time Pontius Pilate. Today the building houses a Muslim school called Omariye College. It is in the courtyard of this college where every Friday, a group of Franciscan monks start the devotion to the Way of the Cross and follow it to the hill of Calvary (also called Golgotha) where the crucifixion took place.
The Second Station was only a few yards from the first, and is the place where Jesus was flogged and forced to wear a crown of thorns of acacia branches as he took up the cross. In Jesus’ time this took place on the area paved with stones called the Lithostrotos. Today there is a Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation and Chapel of the Condemnation. Above the street there is an arch called the Ecce Homo Arch where, supposedly Pontius Pilate watched the events and was quoted as saying as he presented the tortured Jesus to the crowd, “Behold the Man” (the translation in Latin is “Ecce Homo”) . However, scholars believe the arch was built by Hadrian in the Second Century AD, and so Pontius Pilate must have stood elsewhere to utter his insult.
The Third Station is located where the street takes a 90 degree turn and becomes El Wad road, one of the main streets of the Muslim Quarter. At this corner, it is believed that Jesus fell beneath the weight of the cross for the first time. There is a small Polish chapel here today with a carved relief above the entrance showing Jesus falling under the cross.
The Fourth Station is only a few steps from the Third. This is believed to be the spot where Jesus met his mother, Mary, who had stood by the roadside waiting for him to pass. There is an Armenian Catholic church here built on the ruins of an earlier church. A sculpture above the door is of Mary comforting Jesus. The Church is called our Lady of the Spasm, but I suspect something may be lost in translation since it was likely intended to portray more of an emotional event than a neurological one.
The Fifth Station is situated at the foot of a long steep ascent to the Hill of Golgotha where the crucifixion was to take place. At this point another Jew, a passer-by named Simon of Cyrene, was ordered to help Jesus with the Cross as he began the ascent of the hill. There is a marker here in the form of a Franciscan oratory (a little prayer nook of sorts). To the right of the oratory is a handprint in the stone of the wall which is said to mark the place where Jesus leaned against the wall and left a bloody print. Over the centuries, the impression has deepened in the stone as it is worn down from millions of pilgrims touching their hands to it.
Right across El Wad Road from the Fifth station is the Restaurant Abu Shukri , an Arabic hole in the wall sort of place with the best hummus in the world, where we stopped for lunch and it was outstanding. We ate mass quantities of the famous hummus, plus pita, falafel, tahini and goat cheeses. Outside Arab markets still line the streets, and aside from the conspicuous wiring for electricity and signs in English and Arabic, we envisioned it to be much like it was two thousand years ago. The merchandise is probably different too come to think of it with the big sellers being crosses and water pipes – but you get the idea. There are countless smaller streets and alleyways leading off of El Wad Road which look intriguing and are perfectly safe to explore, but we were getting pressed for time if we were to complete our journey this afternoon and had to leave those for another day. There is a section of El Wad that has been excavated to reveal the Roman Road below that was there in Jesus’ time, but the remainder of the road has been paved over with smaller stones over the centuries.
We climbed up a smaller street to the Sixth Station at the Chapel of St. Veronica, which marks the place where a woman named Veronica encountered Jesus. Veronica is not her Hebrew name but rather is the name the Roman Catholics use for her (later she became St. Veronica). She wiped away the blood and sweat from Jesus’ face. This story is not recorded in the gospels, but is in other records and is the subject of classical masterpieces of religious paintings. The site is also marked today by the Convent of the Little Sisters of Jesus, said to be built upon the ruins of a monastery from 546 A.D. which was supposedly built on the site of Veronica’s house.
The Seventh Station is at the site of a gate to the city that existed at the time where there was a judgment notice posted announcing Jesus’ crucifixion. It was here that he fell for the second time. This site is marked by a Franciscan chapel which houses large Roman column that had stood there. The Christian name for this site is Judgment Gate.
To reach the Eighth station we crossed into the Christian Quarter and had to make detours through several narrow streets and souks (markets) offering a variety of fresh produce and an array of sweets, since buildings erected over the centuries obstructed the old route. This site is believed to be the place where Jesus consoled the grieving women of Jerusalem as described in Luke 23:28. This site is marked by a Latin cross on the wall of a Greek orthodox monastery.
The Ninth Station is the place where Jesus fell for the third time, and it is marked by a Roman column at the entrance to a Coptic Ethiopian monastery. From there you can see the apse and roof of the Holy Sepulchre Basilica marking the site of the Crucifixion, and the Hill of Golgotha which was outside the city walls at that time. The name in Hebrew means “The Place of the Skull”, a fitting name since many executions had taken place there.
The Tenth to Fourteenth stations are all inside of the Basilica of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and are very close together. Built around the Basilica are churches from several Christian faiths – Coptic, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox – on what is believed to be the actual site – more or less. The first church was built by Constantine between 326 and 335 A.D. and suffered from earthquakes and conquests. Several subsequent churches were all built in the vicinity with each church convinced it had THE SPOT”. The current version of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built by Crusaders from 1114 to 1170 and is the original, though it has been repaired many times. The Church was built by extensive excavating around the tomb and exposing the bedrock of the hill in order to accommodate its size.
Surrounding the Basilica is a collection of smaller churches and hospices – creating a collision of the faiths in both the spiritual and the commercial endeavors. The power struggles for control of this sacred place between the various Christian faiths (17 are represented in Jerusalem) are somewhat circumvented by an agreement called the Status Quo, an Ottoman law which divides custody of the church between Armenian, Greek, Coptic, Roman Catholic, Ethiopian and Syrian Christians. The church is unlocked daily by a neutral party. There are two Muslim families, the same families for several generations, who are responsible for the keys. This solution works since this not a holy Muslim site and thus they make neutral gatekeepers. This practice was instituted by Saladin after he conquered the Crusaders. The various religions also take turns at the holy places, a practice rigidly observed and self-enforced. If you need to wind up your prayers at Noon, at 12:01 you better have said Amen and be on your way out of the tomb – or else!
There is a chapel at the Tenth Station called the Chapel of Stripping of Clothes which is up a short flight of stairs. It is at this point that Jesus was stripped of his clothes and there is a large oil painting depicting the event. It is very dark inside the basilica with vision further obstructed by Greek Orthodox priests coming though waving their incense burners. Eilon advised us to step lively to get out of their way if we see them since they do not step aside or acknowledge the mere humans in their path. As the Blues Brothers would say, “they are on a mission from God” – literally.
The eleventh Station marks the spot where Jesus was nailed to the cross. There is a Latin shrine decorated with mosaics to commemorate the event. The cross was erected along with those of two thieves who were also being executed. Crucifixions were common and this site was used frequently as a warning to all regarding the price for displeasing Roman rulers since Golgotha was on a frequently travelled road at the western entrance to Jerusalem
The Twelfth Station is the Rock of Calvary (the Latin name for Golgotha and which also is more phonetically pleasing for those church hymn lyrics – and besides nothing seems to rhyme with Golgotha). This is where it is believed that Jesus died on the cross, or he “gave up his spirit” as written in Matthew 27:50. This spot is at the heart of a Greek Orthodox Church where an elaborate altar with gold and silver covering just about every available surface. But perhaps the most striking art is a carved wooden statue of Mary, symbolizing the grief of all mothers who love their children. We could see the actual rock of Golgotha (this is the bedrock exposed from the Crusader era excavation) through glass. It can also be touched if the pilgrim is willing and able to do some serious squatting. Beneath the altar is bedrock where the cross stood, cracked so it is said by an earthquake that occurred the day Jesus died. The more nimble tourists can crawl under the altar (yes it is hugely undignified) and stick their hands (if they fit – Gary’s did not) into a hole in the floor and reach down about 12 inches to touch the rock (provided your forearm is small enough). I did touch the rock, but I have to report the experience felt much more like a Blarney Stone than a spiritual event.
After Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea asked the Romans for his body to prepare it for burial as described in Luke 25:53. The Thirteenth Station is the place where Jesus’ body was placed on a large stone where he was washed by women who were his followers and prepared for burial. The Stone of the Anointment marks the spot. It is a marble slab covering what is thought to be the original stone itself, which is also called the Stone of Unction.
The Fourteenth and final Station is the tomb where Jesus was buried which had been hewn out of rock by Joseph of Arimathea, who wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth, placed his body in the tomb and rolled a stone over the entrance. This site is housed in its own chapel which was erected by the Crusaders on foundations of an earlier chapel dating back to the Byzantines during the reign of Constantine. Since this was much closer to the time Crucifixion, this site is considered more likely to be THE place than some of the others on the Via Dolorosa. It is a very small area – only 4 people at a time can stand in it and we were allowed just enough time to light a candle, say a really short prayer and then we had to move on . The Greek Orthodox priests (minus the incense burners) are the enforcers. As we left the Greek Orthodox Church we exited through the Franciscan Chapel where there is a beautiful relief of Christ rising from the tomb in the Basilica of the Resurrection. It was quite uplifting after all of the grimness of the various memorials to so much sorrow, but I guess they don’t call it the Way of Sorrows for nothing.
From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we entered the Jewish Quarter again, this time walking along the Cardo, which was once a colonnaded street of shops and the main street of Byzantine Jerusalem, although the original Cardo goes back to Roman times. A portion of it has been excavated so it is lower than the street and it seems to have more upscale souvenirs (more local artisans, fewer Chinese labels) and we bought a few things for our library at home. One prominent feature of the Old City not advertised in the brochures was the abundance of military personnel, heavily armed military personnel at that, with more weapons on display than a redneck gun show. We found it a bit disconcerting to see so many hormonal teens (boys and girls both) sporting that unlikely combination of Uzis and zits. At one spot we observed a number of them chattering away like school kids (which they probably were just the previous month), with rifles slung over one shoulder and a back pack over the other. We know they are trained, but still wonder about the level of maturity and good judgment available to them at that tender age. It can make the average tourist a little skittish, maybe checking out his reflection in the shop windows to see if there is any way he could be mistaken for a terrorist.
We exited the old City through the Zion Gate and walked up a gentle slope to Mt. Zion, just outside the city. This hill, whether we stood on the exact spot or not, has a tremendous amount of Biblical history associated with it. We made a brief stop at the Church of the Dormition, with its dome, large bell tower and adjacent abbey. The church is built on top of the rock where it is believed that Virgin Mary began her eternal sleep (a.k.a .”dormition”, or “The Big Sleep”.) We noted that the big religious events always seem to have transpired on rocks here, but that is probably because that is what is most abundant and enduring. Although many believe that Mary spent her final days here, Ephesus makes that same claim, as do other historical places.
The Crusaders built a church here on Mt. Zion on the ruins of an earlier church to commemorate Mary’s death, as well as to mark the site of the Last Supper which was actually a Passover meal, the day before Jesus was arrested. Passover is still celebrated to commemorate the freedom of Jewish people from bondage in Egypt and a “seder” (the feast of the Liberation) is held to commemorate the event. Consequently, Egyptians became symbolic of all oppressors of Jews over the centuries. Seder always ends with the phrase, “next year in Jerusalem” for exiles and those dispersed around the world. The Haggadah, a special book of prayers, songs and stories with parts written over 3,000 years ago, is read at the feast by the head of the household, typically oldest male present.
It is believed that in Jesus’ time on this site there was a house with an upper floor where the Last Supper took place, and thus the name, the Upper Room. It’s Latin name is the Coenaculum (which translates as “the place of the latest meal”) and it is also called the Hall of the Last Supper. It is housed in a small section of the Crusader Church. It was at the Last Supper that the rite of the Eucharist (Communion) was established. Not only was this the site of the Last Supper, but per the scriptures, Jesus also appeared to his disciples as a pillar of fire (Acts 2:1-4) in this same room after the Resurrection (Pentecost). At that point, the Apostles miraculously began speaking many languages in order to be able spread the gospel. Archaeologists agree that ruins found below the Crusader Church do indeed date back to the time of Jesus. There were several different Crusades over several centuries launched to conquer the Holy Land, including the Knights Templar (of The DaVinci Code fame) and the Knights Hospitaliers whose actual mission was to assist sick and injured pilgrims in the Holy Land (giving us the word “hospital”). When the Knights Hospitaliers were driven out of the Holy Land, they took refuge in Malta and became known as the Knights of Malta.
As if that is not enough history, David’s tomb (King David that is) is believed to be directly below the Coenaculum. There is a very striking sculpture of King David erected in a courtyard to more or less, mark the spot, but unfortunately, the Orthodox Jews and the Radical Muslims (strange bedfellows indeed), periodically deface the statue with spray paint since neither group believe that “graven images” or likenesses of any of God’s creations should ever be displayed. Consequently these “religious hooligans” spray paint the face of an otherwise very excellent sculpture – just doing God’s work, I suppose.
Our brains saturated, we trudged back to our vehicle totally exhausted both mentally and physically – what a day. Our heads were full of religion, politics and history and our feet were tired and sore. We had an early dinner and went to bed early to rest up for the next day’s rigorous touring.
March 2, 2010
Dateline: Bethlehem, Israel
Today after we hit the shekel machine (ATM), which seems to be a daily occurrence now, we drove south of Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a distance of about 6 miles. Jerusalem sits on 7 hills and the countryside is green and fertile on the western side and brown and dusty on the eastern side. Bethlehem is on the dusty side, on edge of the Judean desert, but it is still somewhat fertile with terraced land with walls dating back over 2000 years. The primary crop is olive trees. Bethlehem (they pronounce it Bet-lay-him with the accent on “lay”) actually predates Jerusalem, since it is referenced as the city where the future King David was named king. The town flourished until Crusader times and then languished until 1948 when Palestinians settled here after being driven from their homes in other parts of Israel by the Jewish armies. It more or less still languishes with tourism its only business of any size.
To get into Bethlehem, we had to go through what they term Checkpoint Charlie to enter Palestinian controlled territory, (to use the term loosely). Every checkpoint in Israel is called a Checkpoint Charlie – it seems to have become part of the lexicon, but no one seems to pick up on the irony of a name from the Berlin Wall. Eilon told us the roads were built with funds from the US. I’m not sure why that is, but it was American foreign aid of some sort.
The Palestinians “control” this area mostly in name only and they govern at the pleasure of the Israelis. Their economy, livelihoods and day-to-day lives are actually controlled by the Israelis. For example, many Palestinians live in Bethlehem and work in Jerusalem. However if the border is closed for whatever reason, they can’t get to their jobs and they lose pay and/or employment. The Palestinian controlled areas are Gaza – a strip of desert on the Mediterranean and the West Bank (meaning the West Bank of the Jordan River, although these areas are more islands within the Israeli territory than a contiguous mass) In Biblical times this area was called Samaria (home of the Good Samaritan). Today the Jews call the West Bank territory “liberated” and the Palestinians call it “occupied” – a fairly substantial difference of opinion.
The Israelis have built a 23 foot high wall around the West Bank areas to attempt to control of the comings and goings of the Palestinians. This is highly criticized by some, but the Israelis feel it is essential for their security since from time to time, various Palestinian militant groups (mostly Hamas) declare an intifada, meaning it is open season for terrorist activity. The word translates as “the shaking off”, as if “shaking off” an oppressor. Ann intifada is usually declared in the wake of some sort of transgression (real or perceived) by the Israelis and is followed by reprisals by Israeli troops, closing borders and perhaps a mortar attack or two on a village. As to the rightness or “wrongness” of either party, it can be argued either way depending on who you think started it way back when, sort of like the Hatfields and McCoys. You would think but sharing the land would be a great idea, but that seems to out of the question from a political perspective. Actually it appears to us outsiders that the majority of Jews and Palestinians do get along, but the radicals on both side just can’t seem to let those festering animosities go – it’s a proud tradition, don’t you know.
The most recent intifada was in 2000 when Ariel Sharon decided to go to the Temple Mount and pray. This got the Muslims stirred up because this is their sacred ground and the next thing you know, suicide bombers were deployed, followed by artillery, and so on and so forth. Tour operators always caution that visits to Bethlehem and anywhere in Palestinian territory are always conditional, with the words “political situation permitting” liberally applied in their itineraries and so we were fortunate that things were calm today.
Eilon is not allowed to conduct tours in the West Bank area and so we had to have our own Palestinian guide or go with a large bus group accompanied by a Palestinian guide. Our tour operator had planned on our joining a larger bus tour, but we opted for an individual guide which actually turned out to be a lot more of a cloak and dagger operation than we would have thought. We felt very intrepid since we were on the lam from our tour operator’s schedule for us as soon as we set out for the West Bank, going “off the reservation” , so to speak. We met our Palestinian contact at a hotel in the rural outskirts of Bethlehem, so rural in fact, the odor in the air would give you the impression that some sort of manger was going to be really close by.
Our contact took us in his taxi to downtown Bethlehem to meet, Nidal, our guide. Nidal is a Palestinian Muslim, educated in Christian schools in Bethlehem. He said the school was the best in the area and his father could afford it and so he went. He is very articulate, as well as very well educated, and he probably knows far more about Christianity than most Christians. Bethlehem does have a large contingent of Christian Palestinians as well as Muslims and for the most part they all get along and have for centuries. Nidal actually does not charge for his tour – all he asked is that we visit a shop that sponsors him, no purchase required.
We observed on our ride into town that it was obviously poor, very third world and very far removed from the Nativity scenes on the lawns of the churches back home. However, our impressions changed rather dramatically once we reached Manger Square and walked to the Church of the Nativity. There were throngs of tourists, many pilgrims from foreign countries, some aggressive Russians and some really pushy Chinese, but Nidal managed to direct traffic sufficiently well for us to enter the church. He told us that many of the people around us were on a bargain tour from Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt. They drive all night on a bus (think school bus,not Greyhound), spend an hour in Bethlehem, an hour in Jerusalem and drive back. So it was quite understandable if they were a bit cranky. The throngs Nidal told us are nowhere near the volume of the days prior to the 2000 Intifada. Even though 10 years have gone by, many tourists are still leery of the violence, not just here, but throughout the Holy Land. Of course if you live in any major city in the U.S., violence is a daily occurrence, but somehow it always seems more ominous in foreign lands.
The Church of the Nativity, a Greek Orthodox Church, was built in the 4th Century A.D. on the spot where Jesus was believed to be born. The church was really multiple churches in that 3 Christian religions– Armenian, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox – share it. The church is built of golden brown stones , with a bell tower, and like so many others we have seen is very unassuming. We were surprised to find the entrance to it the size of a closet door. You could
still see the outline of a grander door, but back in the olden days they had the Ottomans and other rude people riding their horses into the church and making off with loot- silver candelabra, religious relics, gold crosses with precious stones, etc. The more brazen looters even brought wagons inside to haul off the really big stuff like the marble altars. The doorway is called the Door of Humility (i.e. you have to stoop to enter) which was probably named by someone looking on the bright side of the looting and pillaging.
The Church of the Nativity sits atop the site of the manger itself (called the Grotto of the Nativity) and to reach it, we had to wind our way through dark grim aisles (House of Usher sort of stuff), heavy chandeliers, ugly Crusader style art – you know the kind where all the angels and saints have those halos that look like gold plates behind their heads. There were also heavy wood carvings and distant ornate alters in silver and gold, gleaming in the dim light. The Grotto of the Nativity, was documented in 160 A.D. (relatively close to the time Jesus was born) as the birth place of Jesus, so it is more likely that they have the place right than some of the other religious sites. The church once had mosaics on the floors and walls, but only a few remain. There are still 44 Columns of pink marble also painted in the Crusader style with the gold dinner plate halos. They are very dark paintings which have darkened further with age and have not been restored and there is practically no light. It was hard to get that Christmas spirit here, but we dutifully pressed on.
Carried along by the throngs, we descended a short flight of steps to reach the Grotto of the Nativity. Nidal explained that the manger was probably in a cave since that is where animals were commonly kept at that time. At the entrance, everyone had to squeeze through a small door and again Nidal was invaluable in keeping the Chinese and Russian hordes at bay so we could get in. There was a mass being said in a foreign language – an Eastern European one, so we thought – and we listened for a few moments, and then two at a time we were allowed into an antechamber where there was a silver star set into the marble in the floor which was said to be the where the manger had been and the place of Jesus’ birth. The crusaders were said to have taken the original manger, but they showed up several hundred years after the fact so who knows.
Nidal retold us the familiar story of Joseph and Mary, who traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census and pay taxes. The law as decreed by Emperor Augustus was that taxes were to be paid at the place where the head of the house was born, and for Joseph it was
Bethlehem, and thus the long journey. While the light was dim, here in the grotto, it felt much more spiritual than the grim recesses of the church above. As we exited, however, we had a very special experience – one of the goose-bump-raising variety. Connected to the Church of the Nativity is the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s Church, built in the soaring European cathedral style with much more light and beautiful architecture. Our entrance to St. Catherine’s was perfectly timed as we were treated to the delightful singing of “Silent Night” (in English even) during the mass. We agreed this was the most spiritual place we had been in the Holy Land, and of course, the music really made the visit special. St Catherine’s Church was built in the 1880’s on the ruins of a Franciscan monastery (12th Century)which was built on a previous monastery associated with St. Jerome (5th Century) – thus the better lighting and overall ambiance. From there we visited several other grottoes, i.e. the Grottoes of the Holy Innocents, St. Joseph and St. Jerome. Grottoes, in addition to serving as stables, were commonly used as houses and burial sites in Biblical times. St. Jerome was known for translating various Bible writings into a single book in a common language and today his version is known as the Vulgate. He supposedly wrote, studied and died here next to the Grotto of the Nativity.
There are several other things to see in Bethlehem including many churches. I was intrigued by the name Milky Grotto Church, where supposedly Mary was nursing Baby Jesus and a few drops of milk dripped on a rock and turned it white. The white rock is said to deliver miraculous healing, but we were on a mission and off the reservation, so we had no time to try out cures for our tired feet. There is another church of note called the Shepherd’s Field Church. Both a Franciscan and a Greek Orthodox Church stand here to commemorate the announcement to the shepherds regarding Jesus’ birth. Also tradition says the three shepherds were buried here but the shepherds would have been long gone before the churches were built so that may be suspect, unless the church was built on top of an older church, as is usually the case here.
Our last stop was at the shop which sponsored our tour. It was really delightful with quality merchandise locally made. There was a lot of carved olive wood, and silver jewelry and we made a few purchases. The shopkeeper, a very gracious host and a charming man to boot, served us tea as we made our selections.
From Bethlehem and the West Bank, we drove to an area in West Jerusalem called Kiryat Ben Gurion that is in sharp contrast to the Old City, filled with modern buildings that would easily fit on a Star Wars movie set. It is the site of the majority of Israeli federal government buildings, museums and memorials. The most traditional building in terms of architecture was the Knesset, (translation is “Assembly”) which is the Israeli Parliament. It is a columned square building sitting on a hill, along the lines of the Parthenon. There is a sculpted menorah (a seven branched candelabrum) which is the symbol of the State of Israel and an eternal flame to commemorate victims of the Holocaust.
Communities only started springing up outside the Old City as recently as the 1860’s. The first was built by a British Jewish philanthropist named Sir Moses Montefiore, who was appalled at the slums full of people jammed together inside the walls and so he built 16 apartments called Mishkenot Shaananim – the (The pronunciation of this requires stuffing half a dozen olives in your mouth – I cannot reproduce it here with mere words). The translation is Dwellings of Tranquility. He also built Greek style windmills, (one of which is still standing) with the idea that the settlement could be self sufficient and grind their own grain. He did make a small miscalculation – there is rarely enough wind to turn the windmill (although these last few days we have been in Israel is a notable exception). At first people were afraid to live outside the walls due to bandits, but Sir Moses offered free rent and by 1900 a whole community sprang up called Yemin Moshe and development took off from there. Today the original 16 apartments are guesthouses for artists and writers and there are suburbs ringing the city in all directions. The suburbs are an eclectic mix of Florentine style towers, Russian domes, and Oriental temples, to name a few, as emigrants from other countries imported their own styles. Also there were many Jewish community projects intended to cater to the pilgrims to the Holy Land.
We made a brief visit to the Israel Museum to see the original Dead Sea Scrolls which are housed in a special building called the Shrine of the Book. It has a white dome on top – shaped sort of like a flattened Hershey’s kiss with a continuous stream of water running over it. The hall itself is underground. The dome is actually intended to represent the shape of the lids to the jars where the scrolls were stored in the caves at Qumran. Inside the passageways are dimly lit, enhancing the cave -like experience. Over 800 scrolls were found, although some are only fragments and many are in private collections. They cover not only Biblical scriptures, but also descriptions of daily life, history, etc. They were written between the 3rd Century B.C. and First Century A.D. Most are on sheepskin parchment which has been stitched together. The Great Isaiah Scroll, written around 100 BC, is the largest and best preserved and is 23 feet long when unrolled.
Our last stop of the day was the Yad Vashem Museum (meaning “a name and a place”) which is an archive, museum and monument to the estimated 6 million victims who died in the Holocaust. Eilon pointed out that Israel has just this year reached the milestone of 6 million Jews living in Israel. The museum is one long corridor carved into the hillside with 10 different halls, each one dedicated to a chapter of the Holocaust. Over 2,500 personal items have been donated. The exhibits are set up to detail the lives and the personal journey of specific individual individuals from 1933 to 1945 and the horror of the death camps. Adjacent to the museum is the Hall of Remembrance which is tomb-like chamber that bears the names of 21 of the main Nazi death camps in Europe on flat black basalt slabs. At the center of the chamber is a casket of ashes recovered from the cremation chambers. There is also the Hall of Names which has recorded information on all Jews who perished with as much biographical detail as available. We found the Children’s Pavilion to be especially moving. There is one tiny light illuminated in a darkened room for each child lost. The names, ages and country of origin are read continuously in a role call. There were approximately 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust, aged of 14 or younger, and the ghostly images of their young faces are projected on walls. There are mirrors strategically placed to magnify the effect, creating the illusion of an endless firmament of stars.
Extensive gardens and pathways surround the buildings, the largest of which is the Avenue of the Righteous Among Nations. It is a garden tribute to Gentiles who helped save Jews including Oskar Schindler. Over 16,000 individuals are recognized with trees planted in their honor with a
plaque containing each name, regardless whether it commemorates one Jew hidden in a farm house basement or a thousand employed in a factory, effectively conveying the message that every single life is precious. Also in the gardens we found another special beautiful and peaceful spot with a sculpture of half finished pillars symbolic of the unfinished lives that the Holocaust claimed. The museum was closing and the sun was setting so we reluctantly had to leave, with much remaining to see on a future visit.
This evening we had a special dinner with Eilon at the Karma restaurant near the Yad Vashem. We made the Jewish toast, “l’chaim” (to life) with some excellent Israeli wine. The toast if pronounced “La Heim” but the H has to be pronounced as if you are clearing your throat of a major obstruction. Tomorrow we have a free day on our own and so we said an affectionate goodbye to Eilon, who leaves us with many memories and a special fondness for his own brand of English pronunciation which sounds part French, part Elmer Fudd, with soft “r”s pronounced like “w’s”. We will miss him
March 3, 2010
Dateline: Jerusalem, Israel
Today we had a free day and decided to see parts of the Old City that we had missed the previous two days. We had a zillion things to choose from so we skimmed the tour books to see what jumped out at us. We also agreed we would sleep in, just a bit, to get rested up from our two days of hard core touring.
It was very windy as we walked to the Old City from our hotel, the Prima Royale. We stopped at the local YMCA, which is a far cry from the stereotypical “Y”. This one has a huge bell tower and an elaborate interior reminiscent of a fine hotel. We understood the prices are not like you typical “Y” either and they also have fine dining, but it wasn’t mealtime so we just did a walk-through. It was built between 1926 and 1933 by the same man who built the Empire State building. There is a soaring tower and two wings, and plenty of statuary including a 16 foot high six winged seraphim (aka angel). Like so much of Jerusalem, it is a real architectural mix – described in their brochure as Oriental Byzantine Romanesque Art Deco with Islamic art motifs. It sounds like a design nightmare but it actually works. Inside it is even more ornate. There are symbols from all 3 major religions (Jewish, Islamic, and Christian). There is a politically correct dome with 12 windows which represents the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Followers of Mohammed or the 12 Disciples of Christ, take your pick. The politically correct chandelier has the cross, the crescent and the Star of David and the elements are beautifully blended – if only the people of these 3 religions could function so well together. Oops there I go digressing again. Essentially, the theme of the interior design here is peace and tolerance among the faiths – always a good idea.
We walked on to the Old City and entered at the Jaffa Gate at mid-morning with the idea of walking the ramparts of the city walls. From there we would get an excellent perspective on the maze of narrow streets and alleyways that wind through the quarters, below an array domes and bell towers and steeples. There is a narrow passageway on the parapet atop the walls around the Old City. You cannot totally circumnavigate the Old City since the wall abutting the Temple Mount is closed, but you can walk the other three-fourths, if you have the time and energy, passing over the city gates. There are seven gates open today to the public – sometimes named for the place it leads to (e.g. Damascus Gate, Zion Gate, Jaffa Gate) sometimes after people (Herod’s Gate, St. Stephen’s Gate )or a function such as the Dung Gate and New Gate, which was added in 1889 to allow additional access to the Christian Quarter. We started our rampart walk at the Citadel – a crusader era fortress built on the ruins of a fortress from the reign of Herod and the time of Jesus. The Citadel is on the West side of the Old City and we headed counter-clockwise to walk the southernmost ramparts. The other walk we would have to save for a later visit.
From our route on the parapet, a distance of ¾ mile, we got a soldier’s eye view of the Hinnom Valley and the settlements from the 1860’s below and the roof tops of the Citadel itself, although we learned that the current structure (high walls on both sides creating a narrow passageway were made by the Jordanians between 1948 and 1967 to fight off the Israelis rather than the Crusaders. Jerusalem was not wholly controlled by the Israelis until the 6 Day War in 1967. At the southwest corner, the ramparts make a 90 degree turn and we could look down on the Sultan’s Pool from Ottoman times, once an ancient reservoir, but now dry and used for concerts. From there we walked past the Church of the Dormition to Zion Gate. We could see from the ramparts the vast cemeteries on Mount Zion itself. Zion Gate has seen its own share of violence – most recently in the 1948 war for Independence when the Jordanians held the city and the Israelis blew up the gate to get inside. The walls are still pockmarked with bullet holes from that era. Below us were the markets in the Armenian Quarter where we had walked two days before.
We made our exit at the Dung Gate since the rampart walk ended and we descended a series of steps and found ourselves on Chain Street in the Muslim Quarter, so called because it leads to the Gate to the Haram esh-Sharif (the Muslim name for the Temple Mount) which at one time was operated by chains. Here we met Kifa, a very earnest and pleasant young Muslim man, and a freelance guide who offered to give us a tour of the Haram esh-Sharif (a.k.a. Noble Sanctuary) for a reasonable amount of shekels. The Dome of the Rock itself was closed due the previous few days of name calling and rock throwing.
Just to recap what all the contention is about here – the Jews revere the site because they believe it was the place where Abraham offered his son to God as a sacrifice to demonstrate his obedience and faith. The Muslims revere this as a holy site because it is believed that this is the spot from where Mohammed ascended to the heavens on his Night Journey. It is believed that he traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem to heaven to meet with God and returned to Mecca by morning. However, it is also commonly believed that the spot was chosen because it was sacred to Jews and the Muslim caliph decided to locate his mosque here with the idea that the people should embrace the new religion which was intended to replace the old. As years went by – it possibly became more central to the Muslim faith – in keeping with the “sharp stick in your eye” tradition.
We arranged to meet Kifa in one hour, agreeing among ourselves that a Muslim guide is definitely the way to go since we don’t want to be the source of an international incident or inadvertently generate any rock throwing. The hours of visitation for non-Muslims to Haram esh-Sharif are actually a single hour from 12:30 p.m to 1:30 p.m. , which gave us a half an hour free, so we dropped into the Marocco Café, a tiny Arab restaurant with a very hospitable staff on the now familiar El Wad Road for Cokes and freshly squeezed orange juice.
We met Kifa who had added another tourist to our group, a young German man who spoke some English, the only language common to everyone, and so the multi-lingual Kifa conducted the tour in English. We ended up translating for the German gentleman since Kifa’s English was hard for us native speakers to understand and so by the time it got translated it into German, there was no telling what he thought Kifa was telling us. We entered the Haram esh-Sharif on the elevated walkway above the Western Wall with an excellent view of the goings on down below. We did see a secret service type stopped at a security check point and it turned out he was armed. We think he was somebody’s body guard, but he was turned away regardless, and escorted from the premises. Security is really tight and in addition to weapons, they are looking for religious texts and prayer books in case someone wants to do some non-Muslim praying or sermonizing on the grounds. On our way up to the mount on the walkway, we passed stacks of Plexiglas riot shield that looked well used, but hoped that they would not be needed today.
As a side note to the well-used riot gear, we were told by both our Jewish and Muslim guides is that Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israel are generally tolerant of each other and respectful of each other’s beliefs, often much more so that foreigners are. They say that living side by side for centuries generates this tolerance and that generally ignorance of other cultures and religion breeds the majority of the fear and distrust that exists, with the Ultra Orthodox Jews and jihadist Muslims being the notable exceptions. Kifa told us that before the intifadas and resultant Israeli crackdowns, the Haram el-Sharif was open all the time and people could come and go as they pleased. However the wackos have gotten more aggressive in the last 10 years, and so access for everyone, Muslims included is severely limited.
We entered the grounds of Haram esh-Sharif through the Moor’s Gate which is one of only two gates than non-Muslims may use. It is actually a walled compound within the walled city of Old Jerusalem. We emerged from the walkway to find ourselves in a very tranquil park-like setting. You would never imagine, history and media aside, all of the blood that has been shed over this tiny plot of of ground. Our eyes were immediately drawn to The Dome of the Rock, golden and fabulous in the early afternoon sun. The dome itself is made of individual gold-plated panels. The originals plates were copper, but King Hussein of Jordan contributed the money to convert them to gold. The Dome of the Rock, which is a shrine, not a mosque, clearly dominates the esplanade of Haram esh-Sharif, as well as the Jerusalem skyline. It is considered the first and greatest achievement of Islamic architecture. It was built in 688-691 A.D. by Caliph Abd el-Malik, whose intention was to proclaim the superiority and glory of Islam. It is an eight sided building below the dome which is architecturally, very mathematically precise and symmetrical. In addition to the golden dome, there is incredible tile work in blue and white. Some are geometric designs, but many are Arabic scrollwork with quotations from the Quran. There is scripture telling of the Night Journey of Mohammed on the circular drum of the building which sits on the roof of the octagonal building and supports the dome. The exterior walls are a combination of marble panels and more blue and white tiles with more Quranic verse. We saw pictures of the interior which is indeed fabulous, so we hope to be able to return
at a more peaceful time (whenever that may be) so we can see it . There is actually a rock inside with the floor built around it, or if you are a strict believer, it is THE rock. The Shrine has an inner and outer ambulatory which you can walk around, which is thought to emulate the circular walks that pilgrims take once they reach Mecca. Each side of the Dome of the Rock has its own flight of stairs with a freestanding arcade called a quanatir.
The Dome of the Rock has many smaller domes around it, with the most impressive being the Dome of the Chain, with its domed roof supported by 17 columns and its ceiling decorated with elaborately tiled artwork. It is said to be built on the geographic center of the Haram esh-Sharif and thus is considered by some to be the center of the world. Some of the columns supporting the arcade are recycled from Roman era buildings, a widely practiced construction shortcut in those days. It supposedly got its name because a chain was hung from the center of the Dome and whoever told a lie while holding on to the chain would be struck by lightning. The chain is no longer there so perhaps someone decided it was a bone-headed idea – sort of like sticking your tongue to the flagpole in sub-zero weather.
While the Dome of the Rock is the primary attraction, there are many other things to see including the many fountains throughout the grounds, most to facilitate the mandatory ritual cleansing before prayers. The earliest and largest fountain dates from 1320 and is still in use. The Museum of Islamic Art is housed in a Crusader era refectory and is more of a history museum than an art museum. Most of the buildings around the esplanade are madrasas (religious schools, but not the rabid terrorist-spawning variety have given them all a bad name in the western world. The oldest madrasa dates back to 1482, with an elaborate entrance of Mameluke design, typified by bands of colored stone. Also visible from the esplanade is the inside view of the Golden Gate which we saw from the outside two days ago. It was the one walled up by the Muslims in the 7th Century to restrict access to the Haram el-Sharif.
Kifa showed us El Aqsa (which means “the mosque” in Arabic,) and again we could only view it from the outside. We didn’t exactly understand why we could not go inside. Kifa’s attempt to be both diplomatic and speak English may have failed him. It was, we think, one or more of these things: prayer time, unrest, gender, or infidel status. El Aqsa was first built 20 years after the Dome, but not with the same artistry, nor apparently with the same craftsmanship, since it was twice leveled by earthquakes. The present structure dates from the 11th century. It was taken by Crusaders in 1099 as Templar Headquarters and they added
a facade. Later when they were driven out, the Mamelukes took over and added more arches to the façade. In the interior there are many 20th Century additions including marble columns donated by Mussolini (who would ever have thought of Benito as a benefactor?) and electric lights. The elaborate ceiling was provided courtesy of King Farouk of Egypt. El Aqsa also has a dome, but it is rather drab compared the golden dome. Also inside they once had a finely carved pulpit called a minbar (not to be confused with mini-bar) until it was lost in a fire started by a deranged visitor, which may explain why we were not welcome inside.
We left the grounds promptly at 1:30 amid announcements to the effect that it was time for all the infidels to exit (an approximation of the translation). We left through the Cotton Merchants Gate and were again back on the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter in the Souk el-Qattanin, a covered market selling all sorts of exotic goods in addition to the usual tourist stuff. Kifa pointed out to us a series of Muslim residences where it is customary to put up a poster advertising you have made your pilgrimage to Mecca. This is one of the requirements of all Muslims as one of their 5 Pillars of Faith.
Because we enjoyed our earlier time there, we went back to the Marocco for lunch with our very hospitable host and another great Arabic feast. It seems we have developed a taste for chick peas (the basis for hummus) that we are not sure will last once we get back home. We also had chicken on skewers, shwarma, fresh pita just out of the oven and more fresh squeezed orange juice. The juice machine sat at the front of the store and each glass was freshly squeezed from the oranges piled high on either side. There was an orange delivery in progress while we were having lunch, delivered in a hand pushed cart. It was a small donkey cart, only a small boy was pushing it instead of the donkey pulling it.
After lunch we walked through a maze of bazaars and ancient narrow streets back to the Jaffa Gate to visit the David Museum, which is housed in the Citadel where we started our explorations earlier in the day. There are 3 routes to see – the Observation Route along the ramparts which we did in the morning, the Excavation Route which focuses on archaeological aspects and the Exhibition Route which focuses on the history of the city. We chose the latter and found it was comprised more of models and dioramas than objects, which proved to be ideal since it gave us an idea of what things looked like in ancient times. I won’t go into all the history here, but suffice it to say – there is a lot of it, spanning from 3150 B.C. to the present day. We actually saw the exhibits out of chronological order due to a map mix-up, but still got the gist of the way things went.
Our brains were once again saturated with history and culture as we walked out of the Old City and so we sought relief at the nearby King David Hotel. They had some big bouncer types at the front door – but very refined bouncers – no chains, black leather or tattoos, and they let us in without a bag search or a body cavity check. We ordered cocktails and wine in the lobby bar and sipped them slowly as we observed the comings and goings of the upper crust, including what we presumed to be an upper crust wedding party. This was a reasonable assumption, since middle or lower crust people could probably not afford to have a wedding here. Although, they cater to the wealthy, the hotel is the ultimate in understated elegance. One exception to the understatement would be the names in the floor of the corridor just off the lobby of famous hotel guests over the years (sort of Graumann’s Chinese theater effect – but very well done). The furnishings were very ornate, with a mix of Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek design.
The hotel was built in the 1930’s for a Jewish Egyptian family (a rather odd combo) out of pink limestone, although it looks more tan than pink. The windows are trimmed in forest green and there are burgundy awnings on the windows. It was designed to look like an Egyptian temple and the lobby is described as being King Solomon style, with soaring ceilings and towering pillars – more of a throne room than a cozy hotel. After a few glasses of wine, you could imagine the pharaoh being hauled in on a solid gold palanquin by 10 burly slaves. Of course the revolving doors at the front of the hotel could be problematic in that scenario.
The King David Hotel has the distinction of being bombed in 1946 by the Zionist terrorist paramilitary group called Irgun. Some called them an army, but the nomenclature would probably depend on which side of the bomb detonator you happened to be on. At the time Irgun was under the leadership of one Menachem Begin, but the hotel owners apparently forgave him for the explosives, and he became a frequent visitor in later years. Despite the violence and threats of violence (it is quite an attractive target since it is the hotel of choice of the Western Fat Cats), it continues to be the premier hotel in Israel, hosting royalty, politicians, international celebrities and the occasional tourists who try to blend. We don’t know if we succeed in blending, but we were graciously served. They may have mistaken us for some foreign dignitaries, or maybe it was just the Amex Card. We and our Amex cards opted for an early dinner and early bedtime, concluding that tourism in Jerusalem is not for wimps.