Day 10: Ramparts and Reminiscing

Trip Start May 19, 2009
Trip End Jun 16, 2009

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

(Day 10, Jerusalem) Our first full day in Jerusalem, and the plans called for us to make the most of it. We had already prearranged for a full-day guided tour of the walled Old City of Jerusalem on the recommendation of an Israeli friend, Malka. A cab ride took us to what is (really) called the Dung Gate, the closest--out of seven in total--to the Western (formerly Wailing) Wall, the "Kotel" in Hebrew, the holiest spot in Judaism. There we found our guide Jack, a friendly sixty-something British emigre--and raucous celebrations, complete with shofar (ram's horn) blowing, ecstatic songs, and families in sparkling costumes. Apparently Mondays and Thursdays are bar mitzvah days at the Western Wall...

We passed through the security check to take the ramp up to the expansive Temple Mount ("Haram a-Sharif" to Muslims), catching sight of the bustling Western Wall on the way, and the line of riot shields on the ramp in case of disturbances, as sometimes happens. Where the Jewish temple once stood is now home to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock, built in the 7th and 8th centuries, the 3rd most holy site in Islam. (Nearby, young kids played soccer--quite the contrast.) Since the latest intifada (uprising), tourists are no longer allowed to enter these magnificent buildings. But as the most recognizable features of the holy city, they were a sight to behold. It was great to be back at the center of the city where I lived for a year in my youth.

Onward, off the Temple Mount, through the "Cotton Market," one of dozens of covered and open-air streets that form the Arab shuk (market), full of souvenirs, clothes, food, shoes, etc. A left turn took us to the Jewish Quarter, modern and restored since Israel conquered the city in 1967, the Jordanians having destroyed it from 1949 until then. We took in a complex of small synagogues, also restored; the Cardo, a road from Roman times, now an upscale shopping street; and excavations of a city wall built to hold back the Assyrians 700 years before Christ, just one of dozens of invaders.

Our route took us just outside the city walls, through Zion Gate (pockmarked with bullet holes from several recent wars) to Mt. Zion, where we toured the supposed tomb of David (nearby is a new tacky gold statue of King David and his lyre); and the supposed room of the Last Supper (which most assuredly is not). On the nearby huge Church of the Dormition hung an enormous yellow-and-white Vatican banner, one of many signs of the Pope's visit just a few weeks ago.

Back into the Old City and the Armenian Quarter, where we were allowed to enter the Church of St. James' courtyard and see the wooden board and hammer used to announce prayer (from a time when church bells were forbidden). By the nearby Jaffa Gate, we happened to be in the spot where the Syrian Orthodox patriarch and his entourage arrived in black cars, a fascinating sight, what with the robes they wore, and the golden staffs and crucifixes, and the banging on the pavement to announce that someone important was passing by.

A quick stop to buy some fresh bread and zaatar (hyssop) from a street vendor at Jaffa Gate, and it was time to do something I had asked for specifically: climb atop the walls of the city. These ramparts are open to the public, and it's a keen experience and unique perspective to see the city (inside and outside) from above. We looked down into the Old City's streets and onto the roofs of church buildings and private homes; we saw the forest of water tanks and satellite dishes among the steeples and minarets. (Although it's not often described, people of all faiths coexist in very tight quarters in Jerusalem, albeit uneasily at times.) On the other side, we saw the construction of the new light rail (endless, we were told--a cautionary tale to those of you in Seattle); the colonial powers' buildings from the late Ottoman era; and the hills beyond, housing the university, churches, and the ancient Jewish cemetery. Along the way, we saw the guard stations dating from the 16th century, and positions the Jordanian soldiers held when the Old City walls faced the no-man's-land with Israel after the 1948-49 war of independence.

We descended at the Damascus Gate (my favorite, not only because it was the one I used to enter the Old City each week when I was in school here in 1986-87), and made our way through the busy market to Abu Shukry's for lunch, famous for its falafel, though we had quite the variety of dishes. Over the meal, we discussed politics with Jack, plumbing him for even more information than he was already dispensing on the tour, and getting a local perspective on the seemingly endless conflict that we read about at home all the time.

Afterwards, we pressed on to the Christian Quarter along the Via Dolorosa, the supposed route of Jesus as he carried the cross to Calvary (as do many pilgrims to this day). The displays of wares and kitschy souvenirs was in marked contrast to the solemnity of the route. Jack took us to one of the roofs of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial. (A common theme we are finding is that historical sites are either misnomers or very possibly totally wrong, but faith persists, and so people flock to these sites anyway.) We passed through the Ethiopian chapels (one of six Christian denominations that have a very complicated, tenuous arrangement to maintain the church) to the massive interior, housing the Greek and Latin (Catholic) areas, much more ornate and chock full of tourists and pilgrims, who come to touch this stone or that or to light candles. A shaft of light pierced the sweet-smelling air (from the incense), creating a spiritual scene.

Once more onto the roof of the Arab Market and through the narrow maze of streets to a dramatic overlook of the Western Wall plaza, where we started our day. Here we parted with Jack, as it was by now 5:00 p.m., and he had not only given us a full day's tour but had to get home before the impending holiday, Shavuot (Pentecost), a major Jewish pilgrimage holiday that would begin at sundown. Kevin and I spent some time at the Wall, placing notes in the cracks in the giant stones, as is tradition (it is said one is closest to God here). The Wall is a remnant of the enclosure of the ancient Jewish temple. Both the men's and women's sections were busy with those in prayer, the Orthodox dressed in variations of the 17th-century Polish garments they wear, including some pretty substantial round fur hats and the occasional silver or black robe and stockings.

A full day in the Old City, indeed--but we intend to go back, if only so we can shop (i.e. bargain, haggle) at leisure: I can get some sandals and Kevin can get a bit of the original crown of thorns (or some such) for his parents, who are quite religious.

But the day was not done yet! We flagged a taxi to take us out of town to see my college friend David, who I had not seen since 1989 and who invited us to his home in a quiet religious community for the Shavuot holiday meal (and to catch up and meet his family). As the cabbie refused to use the meter or come down on his price for the ride, we got right out and flagged another one who did. A half-hour later, David greeted us, two of his four young children (ages 2 to 8) in tow. We met his other kids, playful and dressed in their holiday best, and his wife Karen, just home that very day from an extended stay in the hospital, and yet happy and hospitable (if it were me, I'm sure I'd be happy to be home but not so sure about having guests!). It was great to see/meet them all, catch up and reminisce a bit (oh, those college pictures!), and experience the joy of the holiday in their warm, observant community (their neighbors have stepped up and inundated David and his family with food since Karen has been unwell). We took some pictures and made dinner (a feast) together before sunset (and the arrival of the holiday) put an end to certain forbidden activities; we talked and reminisced; and Kevin and I walked down the road to enjoy the sunset over the Mediterranean and a view of Tel Aviv. When some women neighbors came by (more guests!) in the late evening for a study session (it's traditional to stay up and study the holy books on Shavuot until dawn, though the women did not plan to be up that late), we made our goodbyes, called a cab to meet us at the town's gate, and headed back to Jerusalem.
(I'm so behind on this blog...trying to catch up as time permits.)
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