Day 1 - West Jerusalem
Shalom. I have arrived! Palm trees lined the roadway from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. . I am staying in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood west of the old city. I marveled how -even in the heat - women wear all black with long sleeves, long skirts - no pants, no arms showing, an occasional color but no printed or bright fabrics. I changed money into shekels. Slept two hours. Had a falafel. Met my roommates: from Poland, Norway, and one who is applying for Israeli citizenship. Went back to bed at 11 pm (4 pm my time at home) and slept the night!
Day 2 - The Old City of Jerusalem
I made my way to the old city, entering through the Jaffa Gate – one of seven gates - and immediately climbed the stairs to walk the ramparts (the pathway that runs across the top of the walls encircling the city which operated as military outposts to view anyone approaching or leaving the city).
I came down from the ramparts in the Jewish Quarter and found myself heading towards the Western Wall. The Western Wall is the only remaining wall of the original Temple Mount built as the foundation for the Temple that was destroyed by Romans in 70 AD
This was the beginning of a day I can only call intoxicating. I arrived in the city gates with an entirely different plan for what I would do and see in the city than what actually happened. I had wanted to walk the ramparts to Lion’s Gate, but that way was not open, and so I came down at Zion Gate in a whole other section of the city. I had thought to wait until after Shabbat to visit the Western Wall. And then I created another plan after the Western Wall that was diverted when I found myself paying to take a tour of the Western Wall that lay beneath the city.
I had read that this tour is so popular that tickets need to be reserved two months in advance and so had not put it on my itinerary. But the man at the booth said that an English version of the tour would begin in 20 minutes and there was a place left for one on the tour. So, I figured it was for me!
With about 20 others, we descended and descended down steps to come to what would have been street level 2000 years ago. It was an extraordinary tour. We were given a detailed history of the Temple Mount and Temple that sat atop - as we walked the length of the 1600’ long wall that formed the western side of the Mount. We circled around underground aqueducts and stood on the original flooring that ran alongside the parameter of the Temple Mount . And there was the realization that when anyone today visits the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall) that towers into the sky, they are not seeing the full measure of the wall as much of the wall extends hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the current city.
After re-emerging, I looked at my map and set out to find a particular street only to find myself winding through streets that snaked, rose, then fell, and crisscrossed the stone city. Wanting to stay in the Jewish Quarter, I found myself in the Armenian Quarter and then the Muslim Quarter. I walked through markets and neighborhoods, long corridors of cobblestones, stone archways, and terraces that jutted out over the street and endless walls of stone. Finally, a young Muslim boy helped me find my way through. As we reached the end of the Muslim quarter he pointed the way for how I could continue, as he would not step foot out of the Muslim Quarter.
I had a glimpse of how the Muslim, Christian and Jewish religions seemingly coexist within the parameters of the city walls. The pilgrims that daily flood and move through the streets speak the languages of the world. English, French, Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Hebrew…. European, Asian, Each pilgrim wear an attire that reflects their customs and practices. Many chant, say prayers and move with great reverence through the city. Others behave more like tourists with cameras, wearing short sleeves and constantly pointing to things. There is an air of tolerance for everyone and permission for everyone to approach the sacred in the way they choose.
As I was carried through the streets and quarters of the city, I felt that these walls held much more than three religions. The Jewish tradition is held differently by the orthodox, the conservative, the reformed and the Messianic sect - each with a distinct perspective on the practice of Judaism.
As I walked through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I discovered there are six distinct Catholic sects. Roman Catholics, here are called Latins. On equal footing with the Latins are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites) and the Egyptian Coptic. They each have jurisdiction over a section of the church that houses the stone of Golgotha, Jesus’ tomb and other treasures. There must be agreement between the six factions if any repairs or changes are to be made. This has proved quite difficult.
For instance, there is a small wooden ladder propped up on a window and resting on a ledge above the entrance. It has been there since the 1800s. There has not been agreement on when, how or where to move it so it is still there nearly 200 years later. It seems one faction has jurisdiction over the ladder and another on the ledge. Contention between the different Christian faiths is so problematic that none of the clergy are entrusted with the key to the church. The church is opened and closed each evening by a Muslim man whose family has been empowered to lock and unlock the church since the 12th century.
I am aware of the long-standing animosity between the Jewish and Muslim factions before. During this day I did not witness anything but tolerance of each other, except when the Muslim boy would not stop over the imaginary line dividing their two quarters in the city.
Religion can bring the best out in people and also the worst. Adhering to one’s faith and the laws expressed within a tradition without also adhering to the spirit of these laws leads to intolerance and violence. It seems to me Jesus attempted to speak into this, to remind everyone of the Golden Rule of all traditions: to love others as you would love yourself. In the wake of his life, death and Resurrection his actions have seemed to only add more fuel to the fire in Jerusalem, rather than the water so needed to soothe the collective heart.
After 8 hours of walking the city I realized I had to find the Jaffa Gate so I could make my way back to my hostel before sundown when Shabbat (Sabbath) would begin. Only after stepping back into the 21st century, did I realize how the city had drawn me in. It was like I had disappeared down a rabbit hole in time.
Tonight Shabbat began at 6 pm. In Israel, all stores, transportation, restaurants, banks…well everything closes down at sunset every Friday night and then starts up again after Sunset on Saturday in observation of God’s decree that the seventh day of each week is a day of rest. So, leaving the city at a reasonable time was important if I was going to get the bus back to where I am staying.
As there are no restaurants open tomorrow, I was advised to go to the market not far from my hostel. An open air market that stretches several city blocks in all directions, I was treated to the farmer’s market of farmer’s markets with all manner of produce, nuts, dried fruits, cheeses, cafes, music… As Shabbat was about to begin, the market was in full swing. It felt as if everyone in Jerusalem was at market. A feast for my senses, I managed to wind my way through the streets and stalls and buy some fresh strawberries, dates and fresh bread.
Leaving the market, still hours from sundown, the stores were already closed, the streets quiet. Everyone was heading to be with friends and family to welcome in the Sabbath.
Looking back, I see how not being a part of a tour or adhering to a set plan allowed me to come into relationship with the city, have it draw me in, and led me to feel the pulse, the heart of what makes it tick. I may not understand what this is, but today I felt it.
As the day concluded, I had one word for the old city of Jerusalem: Intoxicating.
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