After being refreshed and rejuvenated among the olive trees yesterday, I was ready to lose myself in the belly of the old city again. Arriving early, I was pleased to walk the streets before the vendors set up shop and the bustle of the day began.
After the weekend, the city was quieter overall and having become oriented to the streets and movements of the city, I felt more at home. Some of the vendors even remembered me. If I ventured in the wrong direction, I would recognize a street I could take to get myself back. Knowing the basics of getting around was no small feat and had come with clocking about 16 hours of walking during my first two days in the old city.
I decided to spend the bulk of my day in the Jewish Quarter visiting museums and archeological ruins are centered around the time of Jesus –
The Second Temple and city came into its full glory roughly 30 years before Jesus’ birth and was utterly destroyed 35 or so years after his death, so remembering the Jerusalem of this time has been central for the Jewish people. As Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the disciples and all their families were Jewish, I felt drawn to further understand the context and culture they lived in, the Jerusalem they knew, loved and visited throughout their lives. (to read more, click read more below)
I also enjoyed seeing the glass cases full of everyday objects found within these ruins. Jugs, bowls, combs, incense burners, pestle and mortar, spindle needles…When I was younger I would pass by these type of cases, having no interest in the ordinary and zeroing in on the extraordinary. Today, though, in wanting to have a view into their lives, these ordinary objects offered echoes and clues of objects Jesus’ contemporaries would have touched and used as part of daily life.
All Jews, if at all possible, made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year on select holy days, like Passover. It was very expensive for the average citizen to make the journey. It could take nearly a year’s wages to have the proper amount of money to purchase the sacrificial animal, and pay the tithe to the temple priest before ascending the Temple Mount.
Once atop, there was a great courtyard that spanned 1,600 feet. To one side were towering white columns with gold leaving and a vaulted gold ceiling. The temple itself lay at one end of the courtyard. Only Jewish people could enter the courtyard and only Jewish men could enter the temple grounds and only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies housed the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Ten Commandments that were given to Moses. It was understood that God himself lived in the Holy of Holies.
The temple and courtyard perched at the top of the Temple Mount was built one massive stone at a time under Herod the Great’s Rule. 10,000 men were employed to build the temple over several decades. It was completed in 30 BC. As I said, it spanned 1,600 feet and rose several hundred feet above the ground. One stone might be 45 feet long and the smallest stones weighed nearly 3 tons. They all were fitted seamlessly together and shone a brilliant white.
Today there is a grand mosque atop, called Temple of the Rock, that has a gold dome that dominates the city skyline. Built 1,200 years ago, an architectural and spiritual treasure, it is one of the holiest places for the Muslim people. The Western Wall, the only wall left standing of the original Temple Mount is where the Jewish people gather to remember and pray, feeling the Mount is rightfully theirs. They had built the Mount and had a temple a top for hundreds of years, on the sacred spot where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son to show obedience to God.
The First Temple, built by Solomon was torn down by Babylonians and the Jewish people returned after decades of exile to build the Second Temple. Four hundred years later, under Herod the Great’s rule, it was expanded and made into a home worthy of housing God. In 70AD the Romans burned the temple and whole city to the ground. Looking at the massive size of the Temple Mount (rebuilt by the Ottomans), it seems almost unimaginable that anything could tear it down. But down it went. It was reported that the Holy of Holies actually burned two days continuously.
The Romans over the next centuries began building within the city. In the time of the Roman/Byzantine Emperor Constantine (4th century), Constantine’s mother who was a devout Christian, came to Jerusalem and identified the location of Golgotha and the tomb and began to build what is today the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Through her guidance, the first Via Dolorosa was laid out. Initially the Christian quarter was outside the temple walls, but as walls tumbled and were rebuilt, the city expanded to include the Christian quarter within its walls.
In 1967, after two millennia of wars and different countries having authority over old Jerusalem (Romans, Muslims, Christian Crusaders, Turks, Great Britain and more), the Jews waged a war to have Israel become an independent state and won. They laid claim, and had access once again to, the surviving Western Wall as well as the area where they are now doing excavations of the city that existed during Jesus’ time. Jewish women I roomed with at the hostel said that when Jews visit the Western Wall they remember what the Temple Mount was for their ancestors and pray that one day they will again build a great temple on the mount and their rightful place in Jerusalem will be fully restored.
Perhaps this is a long history lesson, but it was what I was receiving today. Some of this I knew before I came, but a fair amount I had never heard and so I thought to share here. Standing on the place of so much history and seeing it all for myself makes it real. There was a movie in the archeological park that provided a picture of what the temple was like in its full glory which helped with being able to envision it.
I then went to a museum called The Burnt House which displays the remains of a house that burned in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Along with this display was a wonderful movie depicting the final years leading up to the destruction and what people experienced before and while the temple and city burned to the ground. Again, making history come alive.
As I walked through the ruins of each of these places I was aware that I was standing amidst the structures of Jesus’ time, walking the same pathways he once walked. The current city of Old Jerusalem is now several hundred feet above the city of 2000 years ago. It has been built and rebuilt after countless invasions and incredible destruction since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD.
This city of Peace has known more devastation than any other city I know. Jewish people have been massacred, and at another turn Christians were massacred and at another, Muslims. Each of the religious groups has experienced incredible sacrifice and dedication to this city they call sacred and central for their people. Today the city is sectioned into “Quarters”. Christians, Armenians, Muslims and Jews occupy and have sovereignty over and live within a quarter of the city. Just outside the city walls, there are additional sections, which include Palestinians and Greek Orthodox.
I found the tour of the museums and the history lesson enlivening, quickening my imagination as to how it might have been when Jesus walked this city. I did not see any Christian groups while I was touring these sites in the Jewish Quarter and wondered why. Is it because they are “Jewish?” museums and not then considered Christian?
Jesus lived in Israel, he was Jewish. Jerusalem and the temple were central to his life and to all those he healed, talked to, all those who followed him. I found a connection to Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Jewish Quarter in a way the Christian Quarter of the city does not offer as it gave incredible context to the time and culture in which he lived.
After a small lunch of Shawarma, I ended my day at St. James Church.
James, Jesus’ brother, was the first Bishop of the Early Christians. He was well respected by the Jewish priests and lived and ministered in Jerusalem. If Paul and Peter had a dispute or question to be resolved, they came to Jerusalem and James would give the final word on how it would be done. So, I wanted to pay my respects to James.
St. James Church is in the Armenian Quarter. The church is only open twice a day during a 30-minute service. I had to perfectly time my day and allow for time to get lost finding the church to arrive right at 3:00 pm when the church opened for visitors. (The other time of day was 8 am for 30 minutes which just wasn’t feasible.)
I haven’t said much about the Armenians. They have had a presence in the city for hundreds of years, perhaps longer. However, in 1915 with the Armenian Holocaust, a large percentage of their people were executed as part of an ethnic cleansing. Refuges poured into Jerusalem and the population of Armenians here escalated. They do not have many sites for people to see in their quarter. They live and worship here, have some storefronts, but do not seem to cater much to the tourists.
The church was not easy to find as the church's name was written in Armenian. I happened to ask a priest who was entering the church where St. James Church was. He said, “Do you want the Armenian church?” I said, “Yes.” “Follow me” he said and took me through the entry and down a hallway to the entrance of the church. The entryway did not feature a door, but a large hanging rug I lifted to go inside.
Built in the 11th century over the place where St. James was buried, the walls of the cathedral were covered with paintings from floor to ceiling on three sides. To the left were small shrines. One shrine is reputed to contain the head of St. James. I watched a number of people enter the church only to visit this shrine and pay their respects.
The cathedral was lit only with candles and the candles hanging from colored lanterns throughout the church. It had a fantastic effect. I sat on a marble bench as several black clad priests began chanting the mass. The priests wore black cloaks that hung from their head and extending to the floor. On their head was a hat-like structure that the cloak rested upon. I found the effect dramatic.
Upon leaving the church, I concluded my day and my experience of the old city. I received many treasures within its walls that have informed, enlivened, deepened and enriched me. It will take some time to assimilate the impressions and experiences. Like puzzles pieces, they weave a rich tapestry of how the sacred is held and revered across cultures and time.
And my search for Mary Magdalene...yes I found something here as well that I had not expected or known before...but this is for a further post. Stay tuned.
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