Friday, December 03, 2010

Jerusalem, Israel

Jerusalem's most iconic

I was told to not bother visiting Jerusalem unless I had a thing for God. I am not religious, but I think the first word out of anyone's mouth if asked to associate Israel with something would be Jews or Jerusalem. I felt like I had to visit and give myself ample time there so my visit to the Negev desert in the South didn't happen. I wanted one good visit instead of cramming in two shorter visits.

I was assured by a number of non-bikers that the road to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv was not bad. I didn't believe them. They are the two largest cities in a country. How could the road not be incredibly busy? I tried to find side roads. I couldn't. I ended up back on the main highway fighting a headwind most of the day. The shoulder was big and the traffic was non-stop. The headwind slowed me down enough that I didn't even make Jerusalem by dusk. As the sun was setting, I found the big Judean Hills. They were not what I was looking for at the end of a very long day of riding. These were just like the other hills in Israel. Straight, no turns, and steep. They weren't fun to bike up, but I did hit a trip high of 73.6km/h on one of the descents. When I was finally in town, trying to find a hotel wasn't fun. I was tired and just wanted to be done. The first two places that I went to near the trendy Ben Yuhida street were both full. Every restaurant was closed in the area. It didn't look promising.

Ben Yehuda street, a pedestrian mall

I went down to the Old City, entered through the Jaffa gate, and found myself in the Christian Quarter. Christian's Sabbath is on Sunday and they still had people working and restaurants open on Friday. It can be convenient that the three major monotheistic religions chose different days to rest. Within ten minutes of entering the old city, I had a place to stay. I didn't shop around. I saw the Christchurch guesthouse and was immediately drawn to it due to my affinity for the city by the same name in New Zealand. The hotel's regular clientele choose it for more religious reasons.

A rainbow over the Dormition Abbey clock tower

I missed a great experience by passing out from exhaustion instead of heading over to the Jewish Quarter for the Sabbath. I'm not sure what I would have encountered, but I am sure it would have been good. It also would have been better than waking up really early and being locked in the hotel. When I finally got out, the streets were still empty. I tried to get to the Western Wall, but got lost in the Armenian Quarter, crossed through Zion Gate, and ended up on Mount Zion at the Tomb of David. I don't know if it is a proper synagogue, but they use it as one on the Sabbath. I didn't get too close. I didn't want to intrude. It would have made a great picture, but no pictures are allowed on the Sabbath. It is always interesting to see what rules I, and others, will choose to follow or not. Someone in my past told me a fun quote that those who need rules will never follow them those who don't need the rules will follow them whether they exist or not.

My second night in town, the Sabbath ended and a lot of the closed restaurants opened back up. However, they didn't have any bread because the bakeries were closed all day!!

Dormition Abbey

While at the tomb, I chatted with a couple folks on their way to synagogue. Two questions were prevalent. Are you Jewish? Are you considering moving to Israel? They didn't seem to have any resentment that I was breaking Sabbath. They were very welcoming. As I started back to the Old City, I arrived at the amazing Dormition Abbey, built on the site where it is believed the Virgin Mary died. While I was there, I experienced a quick rain that gave way to sunshine and a rainbow. Just around the corner from the abbey is the room where the Last Supper was held. There is so much history in such a small place.

City walls overlooking one of the Judean Hills.

Reenacting the Stations of the Cross, Jesus' final hours.

Jerusalem is a major city for all three monotheistic religions. It is number one for Christians and Jews and maybe number three for Muslims. At every turn, you are likely to be encountering a historical and religious x, y, or z. I can't imagine keeping track of them all. Most of the tours just concentrate on a few. One of the most amazing tours that I saw was a small group reenacting Jesus' final hours. They carry a cross from where he was condemned to where he died. Watching that was a little weird.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

That group's final stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Some Christian groups think this is Golgotha, where Christ was killed. Others just think it is where he was buried and resurrected. It is supposed to contain Jesus' tomb, but the tomb is surrounded by marble so it cannot be verified. No matter what the church is, Christians have made it a pilgrimage site for over 1500 years. When I visited the site, it was incredibly crowded, but it did not have the religious fervor that the pilgrimage sites in Damascus had. I am guessing that secular tourists dilute the fervor and there are more tourists due to the perception that it is safer to visit Israel than Syria. Maybe it is the way Christians embrace their religion, but that does not seem as likely.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Aedicule inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the supposed site of Jesus' tomb.

In Jerusalem, I had a great chat in a bagel shop with an American who had recently moved to Israel. She had moved around a lot in her life and wanted to finally settle down. I wondered why not NYC where she had lived before, but she wanted something that only Israel offered, a virtual guarantee that the boys she meet will be Jewish. Also, Israel makes it pretty easy to immigrate if you are Jewish. The Law of Return (1950) grants every Jew, wherever he or she may be, the right to come to Israel as an oleh (a Jew immigrating to Israel) and become an Israeli citizen. For the purposes of this Law, "Jew" means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism and is not a member of another religion. They can give you language classes, grants up to $10,000, help finding housing, help finding a job, and who knows what other perks. I'm told they are doing this to try to balance the explosive growth rate of the Arabs from their high birth rate. It is jaded thinking, but it does make sense. They don't want an even smaller minority ruling a majority.

I liked that this ornate door tied in basketball.

A bunch of shops in the Western area had famous political names that I recognized.

The most important site in Jerusalem to Muslims is the Temple Mount. It is where Mohammad ascended to Heaven. The Dome on the Rock is a Islamic shrine built over the actual rock where it is believe Mohammad ascended from. The Jews refer to this rock as the Foundation Stone. It is the most important site in Judaism. It is the center of heaven and earth, the point from where the world was created and expanded. Historically, it is also the location of the Holy of the Holies for the Jewish First and Second Temples.

Dome of the Rock

After the 1967 war, Israel had control of the Temple Mount, but returned control to Muslims. To this day, many Jews feel that was a mistake because the Third and final Temple is supposed to be built there. Some Christians agree because the building of that temple is a requisite for the Second Coming and Armageddon. Given the controversial nature of the site, destroying the Dome on the Rock and building the Third Temple would be a very likely cause of another World War which could be the Armageddon.

Western Wall close up

Due to the importance of the Temple Mount and the ban of non-Jews praying there, the Jews have found a place as close as possible to pray, the Western Wall. Half of the current wall is remnants of an ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Second Temple's courtyard. Some Muslims, trying to discredit the Jewish claim to the wall, say that the wall is only part of the Al Aqsa mosque that is on the Temple Mount. Jews have been using the site for prayer and pilgrimage for over 1500 years. However, that same small group of Muslims say that have only been doing it since 1917 for nationalistic claims and so the arguments go on and on and on.

Western Wall inner tunnel

Whatever the reality, the Western Wall is now the holiest accessible site in Judaism. It has been turned into an outdoor synagogue. Jews can be found there praying every day. Tourists can be found there everyday taking photos except on the Sabbath when cameras are forbidden. Conservative dress is required of anyone who wants to enter the site. When I stood at the wall, I felt peace and contentment about the place where I was in time and space, which is what I think the presence of God would be, not a sudden fulfilling sense of enlightenment. Maybe this feeling came from standing still after a long day and trip of being inundated with new sensations and ideas. Maybe it came from God. The religious would support one answer. The secular would report another. I can only guess and I'm not going to.

Western Wall overhead

Jewish Quarter

Abutting the Western Wall, is the Jewish quarter. The area seemed like the cleanest and most well maintained in the Old City. I will remember is most fondly as the place where Betty's 'best falafel restaurant' does not exist. I spent 2-3 trips looking for it. In its place, I found a lot of other Kosher favorites from my childhood. Potato latkes with apple sauce anyone? I don't normally walk between neighborhoods and see the differences, but they were drastic enough in Jerusalem that even I could appreciate them.

Where brooms come from.

After a single night at the Christchurch Guesthouse, I had to move. They were fully booked. I went to the Petra Hostel where I met an old guy there who used to live in the hostel. He had spent 5 years living in a communal dorm room for free in exchange for doing the hostel laundry each day. He said the laundry took him over 8 hours, but there was also a lot of down time. I like a free place to stay as much as anyone else, but I can't imagine living in a 6-8 person dorm room with the people changing every night for so long. Crazy.

A tractor in old city

Cookies at the Yuhida Market.

I enjoyed my time in Jerusalem, but I definitely agree with the girl who told me it is all about God. It wasn't my favorite time in Israel and while I am happy to have spent as much time as I did there, but I wonder if a visit to the desert might have been more what I was looking for. I'll just have to add it to the Next Time list. That list is getting bigger and bigger.

A Kipa for every day of the year.

1 comment:

  1. The 'right of return' extends to anyone who has a Jewish parent or grandparent. This is regardless of whether male or female. It is based on the Nuremberg law from the Second World War. I hope you decide to return again. If you do, Airbnb is a great way of renting a room or even settee so you can live like a native :-)