Cross, Crescent and Star - Jerusalem, Israel

Greetings from the Jerusalem, the holiest of Holy, melting pot of the three great religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, torn in two by Middle East strife. We spent a glorious two weeks here, and it was not nearly enough, there is just too much to experience. 

The city is divided into the Old fortified City and the new modern area, roughly east and west Jerusalem. And although not on any map, it is also divided into Jewish and Arab Jerusalem, and the cause of so much tension and violence. The new city is a modern district with not much in the way of 'tourist sites' For pure atmosphere and a true time warp, the Old City is where it's at. The Old City is surrounded by large medieval fortified brick walls complete with towers, moats and murder holes (large openings through which boiling oil was poured over besieging armies.) The old city is divided into four quarters, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. Each has its own distinct character and feeling.

The Muslim Quarter is comprised mainly of the bustling souq. Small narrow covered alleys twist and wind through tight buildings, light peeking in through holes in the crumbling roof. Stores stock everything, from gaudy souvenirs to toilet paper and XXXXXL underwear. It's shoulder to shoulder all the time, which makes the tractors so much fun. They pull large carts, mowing people down who don't heed their call. Store owners throw trash in as the tractor passes buy, but it doesn't always make it in.  


Parts of the market are dedicated to certain wares, such as the silk market or the meat market. The latter in which you can come face to face with a goat head, sans skin and lower jaw, its tongue (a delicacy) hanging slack and eyes (another delicacy) clouded over. 

Also here, deep with the labyrinthe are the delightful hummos joints, where a meal is a plae of hummos, a fresh onion and a pile of pitas. It is all a big maze and bustling all the time...

except for this quiet moment, about 5:00 am when I am rushing to  mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Dome of the Rock

The Quarter is also home to the Temple Mount, site of both destroyed Jewish Temples and the current location of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Asqa Mosque. The Dome of the Rock, an amazing octangonal mosque built around the supposed stone where Abraham was to sacrifice his son and later Mohammed ascended to Heaven on his famous 'Night Journey.' The interior, is dominated by the enormous rock, and it is considered the third holiest spot in the Islam faith, after Mecca and Medina. The mount itself is rather empty and sparse, just dry, dusty land with little ornamentation. The Temple Mount is surrounded by the remains of a wall that support it, the Western Wall.  

The Jewish Quarter in contrast, has upmarket stores of expensive Judiaca and religious items. The streets are filled with synagogues. One evening, we wandered onto an Orthodox wedding in a ruined synagogue. The top of the synagogue had been blown off during the Israeli War of Independence (1948), and it was never restored. Instead, they continue to gather under the stars and this wedding was no exception. Their joy at the occasion, the singing spreading throughout the evening and their infectious dancing was heartwarming to behold. 

But the highlight is the Western Wall, better known as the Wailing Wall, the one remaining temple wall of the 2nd Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. This unbelievable structure is so commanding, not because of the actual wall itself, but for the collective religious fervour that amasses at the base. Upon closer inspection, the cracks in the wall are filled with thousands of pieces of paper, on which people bring their prayers before God. In theory, this is a hotline to God.  For those of you at home, the wall has gone digital. You can fax or email prayers and it will be printed out and stuck in the wall. The area in front is filled with Jews praying, singing, dancing, and celebrating, many of them, Orthodox, wearing the black jackets and hats, and Ultra-Orthodox wearing long black silk robes and large fur-covered hats. The women are separated from the men by a large barrier splitting the wall in half-actually the men get more. 

One day, we came across a dozen bar mitzvahs occurring simultaneously at the wall, the young boys reading from the Torah, while their mothers tossed candies at them from over the barrier. Once done with reading, they were carried on their fathers' shoulders and there was much celebrating.  

The Torah inside it's elaborate case at the Wailing Wall



The Armenian Quarter was the quietest of the bunch. Very low key, we visited the one church open to the public celebrating an Armenian orthodox mass. We sat on the carpeted floor as hooded priests went to and fro chanting all the while, and swinging the incense burner to fill the air. You can also tour the Armenian Museum, dedicated to what they call the first genocide of the twentieth century, the death of a million and a half Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915. The dark streets are postered with signs demanding some restitution and recognition of the tragedy from the Turkish government, and an air of sadness fills the streets.

The Christian Quarter is dominated by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot of Golgotha, or Calvery Hill, where Christ was crucified. On Friday right at 3:00, we participated in a procession of the Stations of the Cross, led by Franciscan Monks. 

Monks leading the stations of the cross near station #3 where Jesus fell to his knees for the first time.



We stopped at each sight, reading from the Bible in both Latin and English, and chanting while we walked the same path that Jesus took as he approached Calvery Hill. The last four stations are all within the Church itself, from the spot of the crucifiction to the Selpuchre itself, spot of the tomb of Christ and his subsequent resurrection. 




The church itself, far from being the tranquil holy spot we had hoped it would be, suffers from infighting among various branches of the Christian church. The actual church is divided into five areas, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox. Literally, there are invisible lines separating the dominion of each group, and they quarrel about changing light bulbs, or any group doing anything outside their area. This has had disastrous consequences for the building itself because the groups cannot agree on anything concerning restoration. Instead, the church falls into disrepair, while they continue to quarrel. This is nothing new. Seems they have been fighting for so long, that 800 years ago, they gave the keys to the one entrance to the church to an unbiased outsider, an Arab Muslim, and his family has held the keys to the church for all this time. Each morning, the key-holder gets up and opens the doors at 5:00 am sharp to this day. 

On Sunday, I attended 6:30 a.m. mass held in front of the Selpuchre.  It was a traditional Latin mass attended mainly by monks and nuns, most tourists not rising at that hour. Turns out there was three masses at the same time, and the cacophony of chanting, singing and organ music could only happen in Jerusalem, the city of eternal conflict. Of note, on the columns surrounding the front doors to the church, are a thousand years of graffiti, pilgrims coming and leaving an eternal signature of their visit.

The most unique experience we had in Jerusalem was Hezekiah's Tunnel. Built in 701 BC, it was built to divert the flow of a natural water spring from outside the city walls, to a protected location. In this way, the city would be secured a constant source of water and besieging armies would be defeated by the lack of water. You are allowed to travel the length of the tunnel, about a mile long. The kicker, it is pitch black and filled with ice cold rushing water up to your thighs in some places. With only the light of our mini-mag, we slowly made our way through, the ground beneath the water rough, uneven and filled with potholes. Definately not for the claustrophobic, the ceiling height ranged from cavernous to about four and half feet high and the walls were never more than shoulder width apart. A must for anyone to Jerusalem.  

view from Masada - the diamond shape to the left is the remnants of the ancient Roman force

From our base in Jerusalem, we took some day trips. One to Masada, infamous ruins atop a large mountain, in which the story is far more dramatic than the actual ruin. We arrived at the hill at five in the morning, to avoid the heat while climbing the mountain. A steady hour climb to the top while the sun slowly rose, we reached the top, drenched in sweat. The mountaintop was home to a thousand Jewish settlers in 73 AD. After the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, the Romans turned their attention to Masada, hoping to defeat them. For three years, the Jews successfully repelled the Romans, but at last, with defeat imminent, they made an elaborate suicide pact, whereby each man killed his family, then lots were drawn to determine the last man who would kill all the other men, then himself. The Romans reached the top to find 994 dead, with a women and her children who had hidden, the sole survivors. Today, it stands as a monument to Jewish heroism, and the rallying cry, Masada shall not fall again.  

We also wandered in the desert where Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Here at the Mount of Temptation, stands an imposing Greek Orthodox Monastery built into the cliff face and nearby the rock where Jesus was tempted by the Devil. Almost deserted, the few monks left lead a solitary life, seldom interrupted by tourists who don't bother to make the journey up.

We also visited Bethlehem in the West Bank, under Palestinian control. There we saw the Milk Grotto, a resting spot of the Holy Family as they fled to Egypt. There, Mary spilled a drop of milk while nursing the baby Jesus, turning the rock chalky white. Today, it is a shrine to infertile couples who flock to receive a bit of the chalky white powder in hopes of conceiving. And of course, the Amusement Park of the Nativity. We thought Jerusalem was bad. The Church of the Nativity is an amusement park, right down to the long lines into the grotto where Jesus was born and the hawkers/priests selling holy water and oil, candles and prayer flash cards. The people in line were clamoring to get a photo of themselves smiling, their head under the alter at the spot of his birth. We got right out. The whole area is under construction for the flood of tourists expected in Bethlehem in 2000.  

spot where Jesus was born...sans my head

And lastly, we went back to Tel Aviv for a little culture. Straight from London, the rave-reviewed production of Shock-Headed Peter, a collection of gruesomely delightful children's tales sung to the musical stylings of the Tiger Lilies. It was brilliant and we highly recommend it when it is sure to come to America.

Well that is a mouthful. Til next time.

Ann and Doug

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