Hands on rocks: Jerusalem (vol. 1)

Old City streets

So this is what everyone is fighting over.

Jerusalem is an old place, and has been contested for almost its entire existence. It’s been under siege 23 times, attacked another 52 times, captured 44 times, and has passed through the hands of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Egyptians, Turks, Romans, Crusaders, Persians, and the British Empire. And, unlike the beautiful temples of Luxor or the expansive ruins of Petra, this city is still alive.

Today, Israel claims Jerusalem as its “eternal and undivided” capital; a claim not recognized by the larger international community since the eastern part of the city (which includes the Old City and all the religious landmarks) was captured from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day War and is considered to be an Israeli-occupied territory. Palestinians likewise claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, should one ever materialize. Hmm. Problematic.

More Old City streets

East Jerusalem, or the Old City, is now divided into four quarters: the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. Each is managed by religious authorities with a certain level of autonomy in managing their respective holy sites. For example, the Muslim authority manages the Temple Mount (site of the Dome of the Rock — more on that in a later post), and restricts visiting hours and denies entry to all buildings on the site for non-Muslims. The Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre (see below) is managed by several sects of Christians, but to keep peace among the fractious denominations, a Muslim family keeps the keys.

The result of all this history is a vibrant but tense city, with a palpable energy even for the nonreligious. The Old City street grid dates back to the mid-2nd century CE; narrow alleyways snake through old stone walls in an unending ancient labyrinth. Bustling souqs (markets) dominate the main pedestrian thoroughfares, offering for sale everything from produce to hardware, textiles, spices and tourist trinkets. The walls that now fortify the city are about 500 years old and help to lend East Jerusalem a distinct atmosphere from the surrounding New City.

We stayed in a quirky hostel in the Christian Quarter, with 2-foot-thick stone walls that are about 600 years old. Needless to say, our nights were quiet if a little chilly. The hostel was run mostly by Palestinians, and in fact the Old City boasts a diverse and intermingling populace peppered with pilgrims and visitors from all over the world. You sometimes have to ask if local people speak Hebrew, and English is always a solid standby with just about anyone.

Despite the diversity (or maybe because of it), the entire city, Old and New, feels tense. People are terse, pushy, sometimes outright rude. I noticed almost immediately, as the customs of public politeness I am used to were conspicuously absent. I hid behind Ben quite a bit, since Hebrew seemed to dilute the animosity a bit. When I did venture out in English, I was greeted with a conversation such as:

Barista: Something in Hebrew I don’t understand.
Me: Umm, can I please have some coffee?
Barista: What coffee?
Me: Umm, please, do you have just… Can I please just have some regular coffee?
Barista: What is “regular coffee”? What do you want?
Me: Do you have filter coffee, please?
Barista: Thoroughly irate now. What is coffee for you? Americano?
Nicer man next to me in line: Everything here is esspresso-based.
Me: To nice man: Thank you. To barista: Americano is fine. To da.

As much as I like to think I can be hard, that I can match a tough city push for shove, it isn’t true. I prefer to tread lightly on others, and to be honest, Jerusalem was challenging for me in this respect. But enough about that. Let’s get to the fun stuff.

Welcome mosaic for the Jewish quarter

We arrived on a Thursday night, the 5th night of Hanukkah, meaning our first day in the Old City was a Friday. This had an effect on our activities, since Friday evening starts the Jewish Shabbat, and Fridays are also the religious day for Muslims. Temple Mount was closed Friday and Saturday, so we decided to fist hit the Jewish quarter before everything closed for Shabbat.

We wandered aimlessly for a while, which is one of the most entertaining ways to explore Jerusalem. A bar mitzvah procession could be heard singing and dancing their way through the streets with a band. They came to the Hurva Synagogue plaza and danced around, hoisting the teenage boy on shoulders of friends and family.

As we were ogling some random piece of old city architecture (a door, I think), a man approached us and asked where we were from. We told him. He said his name was Jeff and he was from Chicago. Asked if we are Jewish. Ben said yes. He asked if we’d like to come to Hanukkah Shabbat that evening. We said sure. Turns out his job is “Shabbat hospitality” and that he matches various visitors up with one another and a local rabbi or family for Shabbat dinners. He told us to meet him and the others at the kotel (Western Wall) at five. We said okay. More on that in a bit.

Western Wall, with Dome of the Rock visible behind it

We then meandered to the Western Wall itself, to visit before the Shabbat prayers began in earnest (photographs are not allowed during Shabbat or other holidays). The Western Wall, or Wailing Wall as it’s often called, consists of a portion of the retaining wall from the Second Temple. The Second Temple was built in the 6th century BCE atop the Temple Mount and was expanded significantly by Herod the Great in the 1st century BCE; a massive retaining wall was constructed around the mountain to even out the foundation for the temple. This was a major ceremonial site for Jews, and contained the “Holy of Holies” — a room that was only visited once a year (Yom Kippur) by the highest Jewish religious leader to pray for the Jewish people.

In 70 CE the temple was destroyed during one of the city’s many sackings, and in the 7th century CE, the Dome of the Rock was built by the Muslim rulers of that era on top of the temple site. All that remains now visible is the Western Wall, which currently serves as the holiest site in the world for Jews. There may be other ruins of the temple beneath the Temple Mount, but the religious authority that manages the site does not allow excavation.

To enter the Western Wall plaza, you have to put your bags through an x-ray machine, submit to search, and walk through a metal detector. You then enter a large open area, with the Wall stretching along its length. You can see the golden Dome of the Rock towering over the Wall, just a stone’s throw away. Women pray on the right side, men on the larger left side. We took a moment to write the customary prayer on a piece of paper, washed our hands, covered our heads, and off to our respective sides of the wall.

Western Wall, men’s side

I am not religious at all, as you likely know. But I placed my prayer in the wall and touched the ancient stone; smooth from millions of hopeful hands placed upon it, slick from innumerable tears washing its surface, and worn from countless foreheads pressed against it in prayer. All around me women were praying, reading the Torah, weeping, muttering, kneeling. It was sombre and surreal; I could feel all that human energy directed at one object, and all that sadness swirled in the air around me.

The men’s side was a bit more festive, with a giant menorah and several bar mitzvah celebrations. Ben met me back in the plaza, and we left for lunch and the Christian Quarter.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, entrance

The centerpiece of the Christian Quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A massive and extravagantly decorated building, the Church is believed by many Christians (including Catholics) to stand on the exact place of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The original structure was destroyed in 1009, but subsequently rebuilt by the Crusaders.

Upon entering, you are confronted with the stone where Jesus was supposedly laid out after crucifixion. Pilgrims lay their hands on the stone and pray. We touched the stone, too. Also smooth from so many hands, so many prayers. Upstairs there is the rock where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, accessible through a small hole in an elaborate gilded shrine. We touched that, too.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dome and oculus

All over the church were ornate mosaics, gold embellishments, and small shrines. There was a tomb of some sort, though we didn’t really understand why there would be a tomb if Jesus supposedly ascended to heaven after being resurrected. I’ll have to look that one up. Priests of various denominations randomly passed by, muttering prayers and shaking incense at shrines and passerby. We got incensed a couple times. Did we look like we needed purifying?

Where Jesus was supposedly hung on the cross

After all this holy rock touching, we just had enough time to stop by the hostel and drop off some superfluous items (like cameras) before heading back to the Western Wall for our Shabbat matchmaking. We got paired up with a couple from Wisconsin (also rock climbers, coincidentally) and a young graduate from the states working in Jerusalem for 6 months before grad school. We followed our guide to the Jerusalem Soul Center (nope, not kidding), a gathering place run by an American rabbi living in Jerusalem.

Let me first explain that there are a LOT of American Jews living in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem. Israel encourages immigration of Jews from all over the world, and as a result there are many Americans, Russians, and other first-generation immigrants in the country. This transition is calling making aliyah.

So, most of the 30 or so attendees at Shabbat were Americans who had immigrated. Some had been there 10 years, others had just recently moved. With the exception of a journalist and his wife, I was the only non-Jew in the room.

The meal was a festive one. There were three courses, lots of hummos, and quite a bit of singing. Of course I knew none of the songs, and Ben knew very few of them, but we clapped along and tried not to look too awkward. We all had to introduce ourselves at one point, which revealed Ben is in fact Israeli (he has no accent when speaking English). This led to many questions like, “Why don’t you live here?” One of the few other Israelis in the gathering later pried at Ben’s life story, and was quite astonished at the portions Ben divulged.

This curiosity is a common response to native-born Israelis of Ben’s generation and a half generation before him. Many of the people here fought and suffered to secure a Jewish state, and therefore the first generation born in that state means a great deal to them. But he always tells them he is an American too, and that he likes his life in the States. Sometimes they laugh and understand, other times they are concerned.

We finished the gathering with some socializing (I got stuck with the chatty over-sharing wife of the journalist and some crazy American woman who hates Arabs) and some jelly donuts. We must have eaten 10 jelly donuts each during the 3 days of Hanukkah we were in Israel — they are a holiday favorite, and so delicious!

We left Shabbat and needed some secular wind-down time. We found a bar, drank some gin and tonics amongst the many Israelis who are not observant, and before we knew it the clock was hitting 1am. Sleepy time for us, even though the Israelis were just cranking up the party.

And that’s enough of a novel for one day in the Old City. I’ll wrap up the rest of our visit in the next post, which includes the markets, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall tunnels, and the City of David. So much in Jerusalem!


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