Aug 25, 2005
|Thursday, August 25. Jerusalem, Israel. Feeling better, I headed to one of the most disputed pieces of real estate in the world: Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Jerusalem is where three major religions-Christianity, Islam, and Judaism-claim as either the holy land or the promised land. The immigration officer at the King Hussein bridge border crossing between Jordan and Israel thoroughly scrutinized my reason for visiting Israel and eventually granted me a thirty day visa. At my request, she did not stamp my passport with an Israeli entry stamp (The Jordan immigration officer likewise did not stamp a Jordan exit stamp in my passport), thus preserving my opportunity to travel to Iran at a later date. Any evidence of a visit to Israel in one's passport will deny you entry to, among other countries, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.
The walled Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Muslim (Northeast), Christian (Northwest), Jewish (Southeast), and Armenian (Southwest). Seven open gates provide entry into the Old City. It is largely pedestrian only, a maze of cobblestone paths amongst old stone buildings. I got a dorm bed in a hostel on the border between the Christian and Armenian quarters, and near the western Jaffa gate entrance. There were many armed Israeli soldiers standing guard just outside the entrance to the hostel. The previous evening an Arab stabbed two Jews, one of whom died. Jews placed a makeshift candlelight memorial at the spot of the murder, which was on a busy pedestrian street leading into the heart of the Old City. Welcome to the reality of Jerusalem.
Although the Old City is divided, you can walk freely through most areas. It's clear, however, that the Israelis are in control, at least visibly. Armed soldiers (green uniforms) and police (blue uniforms) are positioned at key locations throughout the city, usually working in pairs and wearing either blue or green uniforms. They wear bulletproof vests and are typically armed with an American made M-16A2 rifle, personal sidearm, and billyclub. Interestingly, women and Ethiopian men comprise a good proportion of the soldiers and police that I saw. In 1985 and 1991, Ethiopian Jews, called Falashim, were airlifted to Israel from their famine stricken country. Their integration into Israeli society wasn't immediate, but now they are accepted as full Israeli citizens, evidenced in part by their integration into the Israeli army and police.
The Old City of Jerusalem is an enigmatic city, which is sacred to three great religions. For Jews, the Western (Wailing) Wall is the only remnant of Judaism's holiest shrine. It is part of the retaining wall built by Herod in 20 BC to support the temple esplanade. The "wailing" moniker originates from Jewish sorrow over the destruction of the temple. The area immediately in front of the wall, divided into separate men and women sections, serves as an open air synagogue. Mostly orthodox Jews (identified by their black dress and hats) prayed at the base of the wall. Visitors are permitted throughout the area, but should wear a head covering (yarmulke) in the prayer section. I found it to have a surprisingly festive atmosphere, with the orthodox Jews praying, entire Jewish families strolling and mingling with friends, and tourists wandering and taking photos. The atmosphere turned more reverent at dusk on Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath called Shabbat. Shabbat runs from sundown on Friday and ends one hour after sundown on Saturday. The prayer area was a sea of men in black.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian quarter, is where Catholic, Orthodox, and several other churches believe that Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. The church entrance is through a small courtyard just off the Muslim souq. Originally of Byzantine design, the church was extensively rebuilt by the Crusaders and modified by numerous others over the years. It has a dark and musty interior with a few cats roaming about. I visited at night and had the place largely to myself to explore.
For Muslims, the Haram Ash-Sharif (Temple Mount) is one of Islam's holiest places. Harem Ash-Sharif is on the eastern edge of the Old City. It is a rectangular area surrounded by a wall. The Western Wall comprises the southwest portion of the wall. At the center is the Dome of the Rock and to the south is the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Dome of the Rock is the identifying landmark of Jerusalem. It encloses the sacred rock that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a test of his faith. Muslims believe this was where Mohammed launched himself into heaven to take his place alongside Allah. The Temple Mount is closed on Fridays and Saturdays, so I had to wait until Sunday to visit. The non-Muslim entrance is on the southwest corner near the Western Wall. There were surprisingly few tourists when I visited—perhaps a dozen that I saw. There were also few Muslims, probably because it was not prayer time. I could walk around the entire grounds, but was not allowed to enter any of the buildings. The photos above detail this beautiful, sacred place.
Saturday, August 26. Israeli Museum, Jerusalem. The Israeli Museum was about a 40 minute walk west of the Old City. It's on a hill next to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The highlights of this museum are the Dead Sea Scrolls (housed in the Shrine of the Book), the sculpture garden, and a strong Impressionist collection.
From the Israeli Museum, it's a short walk to the New City. As it was still Shabbat, the city was a virtual ghost town with few people at the city center. The only restaurant open was McDonalds. However, at about 8:30 p.m., the end of Shabbot, the city came alive with most stores and restaurants opening and people filling the streets. Quite a contrast from just a couple hours earlier.
Sunday, August 27. Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum), Jerusalem. Yad Vashem is a must-see for visitors to Jerusalem. It is a moving memorial to the six million victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The museum is housed in a triangular-prism shaped structure and details in chronological order the Holocaust. There are many first hand video accounts by Jews, as well as photos and other documentary evidence of the Shoah (Hebrew term for the Holocaust). In the last room, the museum maintains in a circular room an ongoing documentary archive of every victim of the Shoah.
I finally found a number of items in Jerusalem that I did not find in Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan (although they probably had them). A pharmacy in the New City filled my prescription for malaria pills (Lariam). It was a third cheaper than the best price quoted to me in the U.S. I stocked up on a general antibiotic and other cold medications. (Throughout the Middle East, pharmacies dispense medications without a prescription.) I also found a mosquito net, mosquito repellent (with DEET), and sunscreen. Surprisingly, it was difficult to find cheap sunscreen in the Middle East. I am now prepared as I'll ever be to visit Africa.
While walking the Old City, it's apparent that there are few tourists. Unfortunately, due to the Palestinean intifada, tourists have stayed away. The shops are largely empty and literally begging for business. Shopkeepers routinely stopped me and ask me to come into their shop. Jerusalem is a wonderfully enigmatic city that can occupy you for days. It was as safe as any other city I have been to so far in the Middle East, although the heavily armed police and civilians, and ongoing security checks take a little while to get used to (if you can ever get used to such things). Still, I found it difficult to leave.