Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From the Beginnings of Life to the End of Days - Jerusalem, Israel


Destination:  Jerusalem, Israel

Number of Days Spent:  3 days (not nearly long enough)

Where we stayed:  Al Kazar Hotel - around $50 per night with breakfast & wifi - The staff was super friendly though we found one member to be a bit overly touchy feely for BOTH of our comfort levels.   We're pretty sure he was just a few bricks shy of a full load.  The rooms were clean, offered 24 hour mint tea (love it), breakfast terrific, view from the roof nice as well but it was a bit of a hike to get back to the hotel at night.  Despite this the value was good (by Jerusalem prices) and we would recommend this hotel. 

Best restaurant:   Abu Shukri Restaurant had a great lunch with falafel, hummous, salad & pita for around $7-$8.  It was pricey compared to the meals we had in Egypt but Israel is expensive in general and this place offered good value, especially considering that it's located in the old town.   As a bonus they let us make a sandwich each to go so we had a ready made dinner! 

Best of:   The place of so many important moments in Monotheistic history - Via Dolorosa (Way of sorrows), Golgotha, Wailing wall, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives and site of the Last Supper to name just a few.  The site of the beginning and the impending end of Christianity and Judaism.  

Worst of:   We both wish that non-Muslims were able to get inside the Temple Mount, Islam's third most holy site.

Most Memorable:  Witnessing the constant processions that occur at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.    

Useful Tip:  We took the free city tour of Jerusalem and found the orientation to be very useful.  The guides work for tips and do a great job!   We liked the guide so much that we returned the next day and purchased their tour of the most important religious sites in the old city (it was also very good).  Also, the Lutheran Church has just opened up their bell tower.  Climb to the top ($1) for beautiful views of the city, Holy Sepulchre & the Dome of the Rock.   

Move over Rome and the Vatican.  You may have one of the holiest spots on earth, but nothing can replace Jerusalem.  This is ground zero for Christianity and Judaism as both religions track their origins to this town.  Muslims call this the third holiest site behind Mecca and Medina.  No where else do Jews, Christians and Muslims all live and work within such small confines.  I could spend months just watching the dynamic that this creates.  For about 95% of the population, they all seem to coincide without problems, rabbi's passing burqa clad women, jean clad Christians shopping in the souq, etc.  Sadly however, we all know too well this delicate balance fails from time to time.  The threat of a bombs and violence is all too real.  Fanaticism represents such a small part of the total population, but their voices and actions are heard and felt every single day.  Literal translations of thousand's of years old text fuel fires of hatred that have been burning for centuries.  Not to be outdone, politicians use these ideologies to push policies that anger and upset the balance of peace.  It's a situation that may never be solved, but all we can do is hope that one day we can all live in harmony and learn to be more accepting of one another.

The city itself is divided into four quarters.  Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian.  In the space of about four square miles, these walls house the holiest spot in Judaism known as the Western Wall (or more importantly, the foundation of the holy temple), the holiest spot of Christianity in the form of the Church of the Holy Sepulture and the third holiest spot in Islam, The Dome of the Rock.  Overlooking the city is the Mount of Olives, a site where all three claim it to be ground zero for the end of the world, albeit, different supreme beings and methods of destruction. 

The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is all that remains of the foundations that the second temple sat upon.  Since the actual location of the Ark of the Covenant (Original 10 Commandments) still remains a mystery the temple mount itself is off limits to Orthodox Jews for fear of accidentally desecrating holy grounds.  With the top of the mount off limits, the wall and a couple of tunnels that run underneath have been used for worship in modern times.  No matter what time of day or year you visit, the wall is always a buzz blending tourists with worshipers mixing regular people with those donning more traditional garb.  We were fortunate enough to be here on a Monday when bar & bat Mitzvah's are regularly carried out.  Since the site is an open air synagogue, there is a divider that runs length of the plaza separating men from women.  The men's side, despite it being three times as large as the women's, was packed with young men "coming of age" while proud mothers hung over the barrier snapping photos of all the action.  

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From Judaism sprung Christianity and it is here in Jerusalem that so many important events occurred, mostly surrounding the final days of Jesus's life.  From the Last Supper to the Via Delorosa (Way of Sorrows) the cross on Golgotha, it all happened here.  The Via Delorosa is marked by stations, or biblical reference points, that start near the temple mount (where the court was during Jesus's time) and winds its way through town with the final stations being on the hill known as Golgotha and in the present day Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The church was built around 350 AD and literally covers the entire hill.  To actual crucifixion place is located inside on the second floor.  The various significant points are all marked by paintings, murals or elaborate mosaics.  Today the hill itself can only be touched in one place as early pilgrims would take a little piece back home with them. 

One interesting tidbit of information came about by the Turks.  Prior to WWI, the Ottoman empire ruled Jerusalem.  When the various sects of Christianity began to draw bloodshed over who had the rites to the church, the Sultan decreed that whatever was going on that day would remain the same from that day forward.  So if the Catholics had the tomb from 11:00-11:15 and the Greek Orthodox had the opposite corner of the church, while the Coptic Christians where cleaning the windows, then that's the way it is today.  It may seem a little silly, but it seems to be working.  With so many sects worshiping in different ways, the site is constantly alive.  Smoking urns pass by, ushers herd tourists and worshipers around to make way for processions; the whole place is a lively jumble of faith and tradition.  We ended up coming here three times, watching for quite some time and still to this day never full understood what was really going on.  On one of those three ocassions, we were trying to stay out of the smoking urn man's way when he came up and without notice or word spoke - pushed a fellow tourist out of his way just so he could swing his silly urn at a statue.  Apparently he must have missed the Sunday sermon about fellowship and love.

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Of course the most iconic symbol of Jerusalem is neither Christian or Jewish, but Muslim.  Glimmering in the Middle Eastern Sun, high atop the Temple Mount, stands the Dome of the Rock.  Covered in gold, the dome houses one of the most sacred spots in Muslim, the site of Mohammad's ascension into heaven on his Mi'Raj, or night journey.  Mohammed is believed to have traveled to Jerusalem from Mecca with Gabriel and ascended to heaven to meet with God from the rock leaving his footprint behind.  God tells Mohammad that he must pray 50 times a day and although this seems like a lot, he turns to leave in acceptance.  On his way out, he stops by Moses who advises Mohammed to go back to up there and negotiate a bit...50 times is way to much to ask.   Adding negotiating to his ever growing list of skills (along with traveling long distances in one night) Mohammed successfully barters it down to 5 times a day and thus, one of the pillars of Islamic faith was born.

Jews also hold that the rock is the birthplace of life on earth, and that the dust that God took to create Adam came from that very same rock.  Sadly, only Muslims are allowed into the dome so we were unable to see the actual rock.  The Temple Mount itself is a relatively peaceful place.  Muslims go about praying while Israeli guards keep a distant watch.  Perhaps it was just the time of year or day we visited (during Ramadan), but there were very few tourists as well adding to the solemn atmosphere.  

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Armenians are actually a sect of Christianity.  During the founding of modern day Jerusalem they were a wealthy nation and had the power and money to carve out their own quarter.  Today there are less than 500 Armenians living in the quarter making it the lest populated quarter.  It does however provide a quite corner of an otherwise chaotic city and the gateway out to the home of the Last Supper, which oddly, is located outside the current city walls.  When Sulieman the Magnificent (The Ottoman ruler during the mid 16th Century) heard that the architects had built the entire city walls and excluded the important site, he had the two beheaded.  How's that punishment for insubordination?  

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There are many other special places outside the walls of Jerusalem.  The Mount of Olives lies just up the hill from the temple mount.  With over 150,000 Jewish burial sites, the hill looks more like a huge cemetery.  The hill is claimed by all three Abrahamic faiths as the site of the End of Days.  Christians believe this to be the site of Jesus's return and from where he will cast his judgement.  Muslims share a similar belief in that Jesus will return here and meet with the Antichrist joining forces of good and evil and then all hell will break loose.  Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to appear, but when he does, many want a front row seat - hence the hill being covered in graves.   

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Of all the churches in the Old city only one Protestant Church stands - the Lutheran Church.  Two reasons for this.  The first and somewhat obvious reason is that the Protestant's are about a 1000 years late to the game of staking land out in the city.  To their fortunes, however, the Greek Orthodox guys, who once owned most of the Christian Quarter, were running a little short on funds and had to sell a chunk of land off.  The best part of the Lutheran Church is the fact that it sits a short distance from the Holy Sepulchre and offers stunning views from its tower (definitely worth a climb, see the photos below).

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Despite all the centuries of fighting, the city still remains relatively intact.   Many buildings have withstood the test of time and war much to the traveler's delight.  While we only spent three days here, we wish we could have spent weeks.  Even then we would only have a fraction of understanding of all the complexities that make up this thriving and very diverse city.    

To see more photos from Jerusalem click here!

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