Guns and Moses

Trip Start Nov 03, 2004
Trip End Nov 23, 2006

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Flag of Israel  ,
Monday, April 24, 2006

David has always, inexplicably, been suspect to the Israeli authorities. Arriving at the Eilat border post with two recent Syrian visas didn't really help his dodginess quotient, but, as far as we know, this time around he hasn't left Israel with an invisible alert stamp that holds you up at all borders until you get a new passport.

From Eilat to Jerusalem is a five hour bus ride after a two hour wait including an evacuation of the bus station. Jerusalem bus station was an eye-opener: nobody allowed off the platforms without passing through the metal detector and bag x-ray (this will become familiar); and (this will also become familiar) packed full of young men and women in khaki fatigues, lugging over-sized backpacks and casually slung M16s [one petite in Eilat had a grenade launcher], all smoking, drinking coffee and wolfing pizza.

Our hostel was in the Old City, behind the city ramparts, through the Jaffa Gate. The light was failing and we could either take the magical mystery bus ride and then our chances or have our first (of many) stand up with a taxi driver over using the meter*. Tired, stiff, grumpy, hungry and disconcerted by all the guns we picked the fight.

We arrived at the Jaffa Gate in a cloud of disharmony and mutual huffiness. David installed me in an alley (which functioned nicely as an Arctic wind tunnel) with our packs and plunged off down the slippery stone ramps of the souq, fending off brass pyramids and belly-dancer costumes, to find us a bed. Very atmospheric it was too - the hostel was in a low-arched, grotto-like space with narrow, twisting stairs (ideal for getting backpacks up); the room had divan window seating, arches, brass and glass doodads, an inlaid chess table and was last dusted about the time of Christ.

From the roof of the hostel Jerusalem is laid out around you. From above it looks positively Venetian - dusty terracotta tiled roofs and chalky white plaster towers interspersed with steeples, carillons and spires. Look a little closer: off to the right the golden Dome of the Rock sits about half way between the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mount of Olives.

The Old City twists and turns with slender streets and narrow stairways, like so many medinas. Here, though, the buildings are white stone, polished by centuries' feet and bustle - it shines in the sun, the window boxes sprout geraniums and Israeli flags, it's light and open. There isn't the feeling of lethargic busyness like the Arab medinas. The streets rush up and down the hills. The people do too - tour leaders chivvying their groups with one day to see all the important sights, Orthodox Jews debating points of law at a run, Muslims answering the call to prayer, monks hustling home with the groceries.

We shambled around the old town and stumbled across some Roman ruins. We sidled along the ramparts. We found ourselves on the Via Dolorosa (Christ's last walk)** which led to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The church has been built around the cave in which Jesus was interred and the hill on which he was crucified. It's a beautiful, dark, gothic feeling place with opulent Orthodox decoration in the glorious mosaics and the flickering candles catching the glass. It was crammed full of people.

The cynic in me cawed: well, if Christ was killed for a common criminal, they would have reused the cross, so how do they know the one found 300 years later on the rubbish pile is the "true cross"; since they crucified everyone here, how come there was a convenient empty cave right next door; where did a carpenter's friends find a solid marble slab to wash his body on?

The wistful part of me watched the faithful: who humbly knelt at the side of the slab to reverently touch or kiss a cold, hard, but for them tangible, relic of Christ's sacrifice; who brought a treasure, a gift, a shawl or a rosary to touch to the marble; who lit a candle for their prayers; who patiently queued to stand where Jesus last stood and to enter the chamber where he was laid; who traveled half a world to privately pray or publicly celebrate their faith.

We gloried in the soaring voices of worship from an Eastern European group of clergy and congregation - they echoed throughout the church and rose even over the babble of gawking tourists and taxed priests.

We were saddened by: the undignified sweeping up of candles lit in prayer when the trays were partially full; those who came to dump plastic shopping bags of merchandise on the slab for more authentic relic-ness; the priest who controlled the flow of supplicants into the sepulchre by frantically yelling, "more people, more people"; the noisy marketplace-ness of the shoving, flashbulb toting mass.

In total contrast we visited the Western Wall the following morning. You pass through the metal detector and bag x-ray to enter the cordoned off precinct. It's busy ... really, really busy. There is a constant flow of people up and down the ramp - Orthodox in their somber black coats and hats, clutching prayer shawls and trailing shirt tassles, young and old passing by or making a special trip, soldiers grabbing a yarmulke at the bottom of the ramp. There's eddying movement, the murmur of prayer and the buzz of conversation rises and falls but it's not a bazaar.

It's a strange thing - a church or mosque or synagogue might draw you because of its history or architecture or art but, once there, you try to let the place and the history absorb you, leaving those there to pray in a private space - at the Wall you come to watch the people pray, to tuck their prayers into the Wall, to meditate, or simply lean on, and draw strength from, a crumbling piece of masonry.

Thursday is bar mitzvah day. Then this is a completely different place. Inside it's a carnival - solemn but a joyously chaotic connection with thousands of years of culture and perseverance - an affirmation of belonging and heritage. There's hardly enough room for the Torahs to be maneuvered between the press of people and the swelling pride of fathers standing behind their sons awkward in unaccustomed prayer shawls; just close enough to be supportive but carefully not protective. Outside mothers in huge hats stand on chairs for a better view, beaming, videoing, describing everything in detail down cell phones to New York, Paris and Tel Aviv, breaking off to let loose celebratory yodels.

And for mixing it up on the religious front, we finished at the Dome of the Rock. Once more through the metal detector and bag x-ray and climb above the ruined Temple to stand on the court of one of Islam's most sacred sites. Beautiful mosaic walls, a gold plated dome (courtesy of King Hussein), a deserted, exposed courtyard devoid of people except the tourists, and a brusque denial of entry - it was unlike any other mosque we have visited.

What a place: where you can climb the Mount of Olives where centuries of Jewish dead await the Messiah's arrival via the Church of All Nations where the knotted olives may have witnessed Christ's prayers to see a skyline dominated by the mosque where the Prophet is said to have stood last on earth; where you can hear the haunting call to prayer from the Dome of the Rock, the pealing bells of the Holy Sepulchre and Jewish law robustly debated in the cafes and bus stops; where monks' habits, hijab and side locks are equally expected; where Jewish grandmothers and Palestinian tour guides spoke to us of living and working side-by-side, of sharing the celebrations and griefs of their neighbours' lives, of standing comfortably and uncomfortably together, of belonging and of fear.

Down a long twisting road lined with rosemary, for remembrance, is Yad Vashem, the memorial to Holocaust victims and survivors. The building is slender and juts confidently out over a valley lush with olive, cedar and cypress. Inside it is dim and tunnel-like, drawing you towards the light of the valley.

It is beautifully curated with a surprisingly light touch. It uses official German and Allied communications to make it's accusations. With a single treasured relic or a diary kept in the margins of a book it celebrates the will and endurance of the inhabitants of the ghettos. A wedding party photo where only one member survived past 1945 or a collected pile of worn out shoes are more immediate than the mass grave photos we have become inured to. One of the Shoah testaments was a 75-year-old man still struggling with his guilt, not at having survived, but at being unable to pray with his grandfather when they were lined up on the edge of the pit. He suffered the loss of his entire family, the horror of digging himself out from a pit full of corpses and yet, for him, that one moment when his instinctive fear of dying paralysed him, was a greater loss and a greater horror - it stole forever his certainty in his Judaism.

Yad Vashem gives faces to the dead, substance to their lives and voices to the survivors. It is less bitter than perhaps it could be but it is not a place you discuss easily afterwards.

On an overcast day we drove out from Jerusalem, heading for Masada, Qumran and some splashing about in the desert.

On top of a flat-topped, impossibly high, unexplained protuberance in a flat desert, a community of Jewish rebels held out against the Roman army. From their eyrie they watched the Roman legions sent to quell the rebellion massing at the base of their refuge. There was only one way up - the Snake Path - winding and climbing 300m into the sky. The Romans brought shovels and, under the command of Peter O'Toole, they constructed a ramp to the summit. When the siege engines had been rolled up the ramp, the defensive ramparts burned and the Romans retired for the final sacking tomorrow, Eleazar Ben-Yair called his people together. The rebellion had been about an end to slavery. They drew lots: each man would kill his wife and children, then ten men would kill the men and finally one would finish the nine and end it for himself. In the morning the Romans, bemused, entered a charnel house.

Like the small groups of escaping Jews drifting to the community at Masada we climbed the torturous Snake Path - three kilometres, 300m, eight hundred steps. At the top there are the remains of Herod's pleasure palaces, a simple synagogue, Roman fortifications and Byzantine mosaics. You can look down upon the outlines of the Roman camps and peer over at the, substantially intact, Roman ramp.

But Masada is more about what it was than what it is - a place where freedom was valued more highly than survival. You walk with its symbolism. It's a rallying cry. New paratroopers make the climb in the pre-dawn to vow under a rising sun that Masada will not fall again.

Being budget travelers (cheap), we didn't pay the extra for a private spa - anyway, mud baths are highly over rated. The Dead Sea doesn't really sport beaches as such, just thin strands of sharp stones. By going to the public beach we got to see the real people at play. There was an unofficial dividing line down the "beach" - Palestinians on one side with ladies wading fully clothed (headscarf included) to float billowingly; and everyone else in bikinis.

Actually, because you definitely don't want your head under this water and your feet absolutely refused to remain below you, floating is quite hard work. So is getting out because you can't get your feet to stop floating long enough to get them on the ground. If you get a mouthful of water it has a bitter tang but if you lick up a single drop it is searingingly acidic. The water dries on your skin to an iridescent sheen the texture of the finest sandpaper.

Picking up the muddy members of the tour, who hadn't even managed to struggle away from the spas to the sea, we drove to Qumran. After a falling out with temple elders, ("properly raised prayers have the fragrance of sacrifice"), Qumran was established as a community of religious nutter survivalists. They lived entirely for prayer and study and believed that they would lead the battle of the righteous when judgement came - they were pretty convinced that was any day now. They left us the Dead Sea Scrolls - a record of their thinking, a history of their time, religious texts, legal doctrine, prayers and rituals.

On our last day in Jerusalem we visited the magnificent Israel Museum. We came for the Shrine of the Book, home of the bulk of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are religious texts and whole books of writings - some, until their discovery, unknown or thought to be forever lost. The complete Book of Isiah is the centrepiece. But the writings detailing the workings of the community, their internal disputes and resolutions, their celebrations and ceremonies are the most interesting. They allow you to brush against the lives of people, alien by time and place. They gift you a life so removed as to be almost fairytale.

We didn't even make it to the archaeology section of the museum - we were too busy in the sculpture garden, contemporary art, Buddhist and Chinese sections.

We were very busy in Jerusalem. The streets lure you into drifting, watching and listening. You are drawn back and back to the Western Wall. I don't quite know how to crystallise our experience. I spent half the time afraid - afraid of the threats Israelis live with daily but also frightened by their casual acceptance that the solution is lots of guns in the hands of teenagers.

We were initially disappointed that we didn't come away able to, from personal experience, have a clearer understanding of the subtleties of the Israel/Palestine issue. Instead, every day we saw, and spoke to, Israelis and Palestinians walking the streets, tending their businesses, going about their lives, side by side, seemingly peaceful and content.

But isn't that one of the subtleties of the Israel/Palestine issue?


* They're legally required to use the meter. Most Israelis believe taxes are too high at about 45%. Most taxi drivers know the fares from Point A to Point B and would rather set a fare (with a little padding, naturally) than use the meter and declare the income. Getting ripped off by taxi drivers is one of the universal constants of traveling, and in a place where taxis have meters, it's not our function to pay extra for the privilege of helping the taxi driver avoid tax. We were thrown out of more than one taxi for insisting on the meter.

** Several tourists were heard deploring the fact that it is lined with shops - what do they think it was when Christ was just a sentenced rabble rouser?
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segacs on

Great writing!
Hi there, I just wanted to say I think you're a terrific travel writer and I've really been enjoying reading your blog.

hdh on

Thanks, but its been three years since we arrived home and I haven't even done India and Nepal yet - I'm not allowed to start organising the photo albums until the diaries are finished. Work is such a cramp on living!!

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