Thursday, January 20, 2011

In the Holy Land: Jerusalem

Exhausted, hungry, slightly ill, and getting grumpier by the minute, our patience for the delay was wearing thin. The long hours of waiting were made bearable only by our dry sarcasm about the current predicament and the knowledge that we would eventually be released. Finally, having made it towards the tail end of our trip we had three countries behind us, two border crossings, and numerous passport and security checks. This however, our third and final border crossing, would prove to be the most difficult, surprising, and ironic of all. 
Waiting on the Jordanian side:
To cross into Israel from Jordan is actually quite common and ever since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1994, tourism in both countries has boomed.  Despite this, and although we anticipated and built-in a contingency for potential delays, I did not expect to face so much opposition.  Our problem wasn’t that we were crossing into Israel from Jordan, but rather that we had stamps from Syria and Lebanon in our passports from the same trip, thereby alerting Israeli border control of a perceived security, or even worse, public relations threat.  It is important to note that Israel does not have an official policy prohibiting admission to people who have traveled to states that are considered hostile, such as Lebanon and Syria among others.  However, if you have traveled to these countries, be prepared for a very unofficial hassle including a potentially long delay and interrogations.
Yamakas at Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem:
Jaffa Road & Ben Yehuda Square, Jerusalem:
Although my passport was confiscated by the authorities, I was forced to wait six hours, and I was questioned about my personal religious beliefs, my parent’s racial and national origin, my political views, and whether or not I spoke Arabic, I did not get it nearly as bad as some of the friends we traveled with.  In fact and with much irony, this was not something I had encountered at all entering into Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan, but only at the Israeli border, where as American citizens we faced the most difficulty and hostility in the entire region.  We were not alone, joined by Japanese tourists, a Scandinavian family, an old Dutch man, fellow Americans, dozens of people of Arab descent, and even an elderly Catholic bishop.  It seems that the border control and security forces were having a bad day as they were convinced that we were there not for tourism, but rather to film a documentary on human rights abuses in the West Bank.  Confident in the fact that we had not broken any laws and that we were indeed there just for tourism, we eventually gained access into Israel with yet another fresh perspective gained on what we already knew to be a very volatile and sensitive region.   
Damascus Gate - East Jerusalem:
Touring City of David:
Jerusalem was our primary purpose for going to Israel and with our negative border experience behind us the marvels of one of the most significant historic cities in the world awaited us.  You don’t have to be a religious person to appreciate the spiritual power of this place; the holiest sites in the world for Judaism and Christianity and the third holiest for Islam share a very small area with one another, sometimes appearing to nearly sit right on top of one another.  It seems that every which way you turn there is a story, part of a long epic narrative which inherently links and intertwines these three great faiths together into a single tapestry whose shared past and future seem mutually dependent upon one another and whose foundations are built within the walls of this city.
 Old City Jerusalem:

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in all of Christendom, is the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection.  Encompassing the hill upon which he was crucified all the way to the cave in which he was entombed the church has a unique layout and shape with an ornate interior build out.  Here the deep emotional expressions of Christian pilgrims from all over the world can be observed as they kneel before the altar of Golgotha (the rock upon which the cross was embedded), touch the rock slab upon which he died and enter the tomb of his burial and resurrection.  Equally shared among the major traditional Christian sects (i.e. Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Roman Catholic) the church is a model of interfaith collaboration.  Under an Ottoman dictate originating in the nineteenth century to prevent fighting and bloodshed amongst the major Christian sects over who would gain rightful control of the church, the keys were handed over to a Muslim family to watch over the site and to open and close it daily to ensure its safety and security.  The same Muslim family has held this responsibility for generations and the tradition known as the “status quo” continues to this day.      

Via Dolorosa - Station IV:
Church of the Holy Sepulchre:
Courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre:
 Stone of Unction:
 Christ's Tomb:
Inside the church:

A short stroll away from the Christian Quarter through the Jewish Quarter will lead you to the Western Wall, the only remains of the original Temple built by Solomon and later improved upon by Herod the Great and the holiest site in Judaism outside of the Temple Mount.  Just on the other side of the Wall and literally on the site of the Temple Mount, you can view the minarets of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest Islamic sites in the world.  The Temple Mount has a long list of importance to Judaism as follows; the original site of the creation of the world and from which it expanded, where God gathered the first dust to create Adam, the site of Abraham’s binding of Isaac and the original site of the first two temples.  In Islam it shares the history of creation, Adam, and Abraham with the Jews, but is also the site upon which Mohammad ascended into heaven.  It is on this site that Judaism claims the third and final temple will be rebuilt, but upon which the Muslim Dome of the Rock already rests, leading to a major point of contention between the two faiths.  Again, in an area filled with so much strife and conflict, it is often easy to overlook the overwhelming similarities and synergies between the faiths and over which they paradoxically clash.        
The Western Wall:
Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall:

The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem’s most prominent structure, is unfortunately closed for entrance to tourists ever since the Second Palestinian Intifada.  While we can roam the grounds of the Temple Mount during the morning hours, only practicing Muslims are allowed to enter the Mosque itself.  The Palestinian attendant to the Mosque probably put it best when he casually and graciously told us, “Sorry, it’s just politics.”  And indeed, I agree, as only political agendas fueled by rhetoric of hate and centuries old animosities could place a wedge so big between faiths in which so much in common is shared.  The painful irony inherent in the beauty of Jerusalem is that the fates of these faiths seem essentially bound together in a Sisyphean game of geopolitics in which an agreeable outcome is unattainable.
Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount:

Just outside of Jerusalem’s Old City is the Mount of Olives, comprising the massive Jewish cemetery, the tomb of the Virgin Mary, numerous Cathedrals, and the Mosque of the Ascension which commemorates Christ’s ascent into heaven.  Religion it seems is everywhere in Jerusalem, whether you’re looking for it or not.  Even for the least religious person, it would be impossible not to be moved by the beauty of the Dome of the Rock, the energy felt by the faithful at the Western Wall, and the emotions of the Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  But perhaps our most pervasive religious experience was enduring the Sabbath…and no less having it commence on Friday at sundown, New Year’s Eve.

Mt. of Olives - Garden of Gethsemane:
St. Mary Magdalene Russian Orthodox Church:
 Mt. of Olives -  Jewish Cemetery:
 Views of the Old City Jerusalem from Mt. of Olives:
Mt. of Olives - Mosque of the Ascension:

I never really understood how serious the Sabbath actually is for the devout.  We spent most of our day on Friday hanging out at the Dead Sea, floating weightlessly and effortlessly on the salty, warm water, but returned just before sundown to a Jerusalem that had been effectively, almost entirely shut down.  Closed shops and emptied streets were the only scene and as we hadn’t really had time to think about our New Year’s Eve plans we found ourselves in a bit of a conundrum.          

Floating Around the Dead Sea:
Fortunately, after inquiring about our options from our hotel on Jaffa Road, we were directed to a small block just a short walk away that was full of restaurants and bars.  Although everything was mostly booked up, we were lucky enough to be able to squeeze into a very nice French restaurant, Adom, which served up a fabulous five course meal including, of all things, an exquisite pea soup with bacon.  Satisfied and completely exhausted by what can only be described as an epic trip of a lifetime, spanning four countries, one occupied territory, three border crossings, celebrations, friends new and old, numerous excursions, challenges, and incalculable rewards, Lily and I wandered back along the empty, quiet streets of Jerusalem on the eve of 2011, and slept peacefully, straight through the new year, thus concluding our remarkable adventures in the Middle East.      

-- KV
Sunset from the Rampart Walk, Old City:

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