The Holy Places

Trip Start Jan 03, 2011
Trip End Mar 26, 2011

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Flag of Israel  ,
Monday, February 14, 2011

Yesterday we took a tour of the majority of the holy places in Jerusalem. The day I had been waiting for for weeks, well months technically (this is what I've been most excited about since finding out I was going on this trip), had finally arrived. I was SO excited!!! Also, I'm throwing out a disclaimer that this is going to be a LONG post. We went to A LOT of holy places yesterday, and I would like to touch on most, if not all of them. So bear with me.

We started out early in the morning, we left at 8am and went directly to the Western Wall. The plaza is pretty large, and the space next to the wall is divided between men and women. The women's space is MUCH smaller than the men's. I'm not entirely sure why this is, I guess more men come to pray at the wall than women? I dunno. Anyway, after listening to some history that I already knew from my capstone, we were given time to approach the wall and observe the people praying there. As I walked up to it, there were women who were backing away after finishing their prayers (I guess they're not supposed to turn their back to God at such a holy place?), women rocking as they prayed, women crying with their faces pressed up against the stones, and women just sitting and reading their Torah's to themselves. Then there were a handful of tourists just standing, watching, and taking pictures. Some of our group members wrote out prayers and tucked them between the stones with the thousands of other slips of paper. I chose not to, I don't really remember why. But as I found a free spot at the wall, I went up to it, put my hand on a stone, and recited the Lord's Prayer silently to myself. At first, it felt strange to be praying a prayer that Jesus gave to the world at a holy place revered by a faith that doesn't believe that Jesus was a prophet. But then I thought, well I could be thinking worse things, and this is how I choose to pray so they can take it or leave it... I guess it was hard for me to connect with a wall that wasn't even part of the Temple, it is a retaining wall that is holding up the Temple Mount itself. Plus, it wasn't even holy to the Jews until 1516 when Suleiman told them they could worship there. So I guess I felt cynical. But I still greatly respect the fact that the Jews find this to be a holy place, but I just didn't feel all that holy standing there.

Next, we went up onto the Temple Mount, where the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are. WOW. It was so beautiful!! There were courtyards, trees, buildings, all kinds of stuff up there! I had no idea! I thought it was just a big plaza type thing (which it is..) with just the Dome and the Mosque and that's it. But the trees and fountains made it such a beautiful place for religious study. There were actually a few different circles of Muslim men under the trees studying the Qu'ran. Kinda cool! The mosque was very pretty, and I loved the doors! I've discovered that I really love doors. They can be so ornately carved and decorated, and I love the symbolism behind them. But, after the Second Palestinian Intifada non-Muslims aren't allowed inside anymore, nor are we allowed inside the Dome of the Rock for the same reason, so we just got to admire the outside. But it was enough. The Dome of the Rock is BEAUTIFUL. The golden dome, the blue tiling, the Arabic script, the octagonal shape, it's all just stunning. The octagonal shape is actually based off of Byzantine (Christian) architecture, which is kind of cool too. But man oh man, what a beautiful building. So much detail in such a simple structure. Really amazing. Plus, there weren't that many people around, most of the tour groups gathered down at the mosque end of the Mount. Therefore, the huge area around the Dome was fairly empty which was nice. I find that I feel more serene and touched by holy places when there aren't many people around to ruin the ambiance. When mom and I went to Notre Dame in Paris, and Mont Saint Michel, the holiness of these churches was really moving and I think most of the reason was because there weren't many people around when we were there. So the fact that there weren't many people around the Dome of the Rock made it feel much holier, definitely one of my favorites of the day!

Next we made our way to the Pool of Bethesda. VERY cool! This is actually one of the spots where I wish we had had more time. There were many tour groups there, and we were on a tight schedule, so we didn't get to go down into the areas were the pools were. We saw them from above, which was still cool, and then went through an Russian Orthodox church that was dedicated to Ann, the Virgin Mary's mother. The church was beautiful, and when we entered there was an English-speaking group singing "Amazing Grace." It was really beautiful. Like I said, I wish we had had more time to look around the pools though...

Then we went to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, or the path that Jesus took with the cross through the Old City of Jerusalem, and made our way along the route. Once again, tons of people and there are lots of shops that have sprung up along the route selling crosses and postcards of each stop on the route. Kind of a mood killer... It was definitely an interesting experience, but hard to relate to in some ways just because everyone is pushing trying to touch each place.

The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where Jesus was supposedly crucified and where the cave where he was laid after the crucifixion is). WOW. This church is HUGE. I think there's a section for different sects of Christianity, one for the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Ethiopian (I didn't know they had they're own sect!), and maybe something else but I can't remember. The decor inside is crazy elaborate. Lamps and murals and mosaics and candles and icons and alters and everything!! First we waited in line to go into his "tomb" (I have a hard time calling it that when Jesus doesn't actually have a tomb since he ascended, but I'll follow the preferred terminology I suppose...) which was also elaborately decorated, and really all you can see when you go inside is the stone that supposedly closed off the cave where he was laid. Then we walked around inside, and made our way up to the Calvary, where we waited in another line to touch the spot where the cross was supposedly put in the ground. This part was kind of weird because basically it was just a hole in the floor under this altar that you had to crawl under, and inside the hole it just felt like wood or stone or something. Also, I never met a pushier group of people than the Armenian or Greek Orthodox Christians that were in that line to touch that heavens. I don't think you will be more blessed than I will if you get there before me....sheesh. Then we went back downstairs and passed by a rock that had an orange-y stain on it that is supposedly Christ's blood from the crucifixion. Our guide was kind enough to actually tell us when they're positive about these kinds of things and when they really don't know. This was a "don't know" and quite frankly I have a hard time believing that there's still blood on that rock from the crucifixion. That rock spent thousands of years being exposed to the elements before it was enclosed by the church...but anyway, I suppose we'll never know. 

After the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (and LUNCH finally!) we went over to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. This was interesting because the Mount of Olives itself is actually covered in neighborhoods much the way the rest of East Jerusalem is. It's really only the Garden of Gethsemane that is indeed a garden of sorts. The mount is also covered in Jewish cemeteries that want to be as close to the Temple Mount as possible so when the Messiah comes, they'll be right there. But the Russian Orthodox church that's in the Garden was closed sadly, but there was another church we went into, I think it was Catholic, that was also in the Garden. It was surrounded by olive trees, some of the oldest in the world! They were HUGE for olive trees! The church was also gorgeous! They were in the middle of a mass when we walked inside, and it was really cool to see the nuns and monks there worshipping. It was just really beautiful, and it was cool to see these holy places actually being used by people today rather than just tourist attractions. This church and the mass taking place were another favorite of the day!

Our last stop of the day was a church on another side of the Mount of Olives where the Virgin Mary is supposedly buried. There's another tomb for her in Turkey somewhere as well, but I have no idea which one is supposedly the right one. I guess it depends who you ask! But this church is a Crusader church, which was SO COOL! Very old and very dark inside, it was actually sort of a cave type structure. We had to go down a bunch of stairs below the ground level, and it also had tons of lamps and decorations and the like. You could go inside the tomb, but again, all there was was a worn slab of rock. The church was beautiful and old, but the inside didn't really do much for me. 

At the end of the day, I was tired (we did a TON of walking) but so happy! All of the holy sites were absolutely fascinating, and definitely lived up to my expectations. We leave Jerusalem on Thursday, which I am sad about because I absolutely love it here. But before we go, I'm going to try and put pictures up, so be patient and it will happen! :) 

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