Monday, June 11, 2012

Traveling in Israel: A Day in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is full. Of history, religion and factions who think it should be theirs alone. Of tourists and pilgrims, preachers, priests, rabbis and imams, Arabs and Jews, tour buses, trucks and cars. It is a 10-ring circus, a microcosm of what is good and bad in the world and from its inception, a potential powder keg.

In a word, fascinating.

Also, exhausting and annoying. There is never enough time, enough room, enough energy.

Tip: It is a challenge for Levelers. The feet, hooves, wheels and seismic shifts of ages have ensured no level surfaces. Hills abound as do steps and you are at 2,500-3,500 feet above sea level. Bring a balance aid, prioritize and take your time. You can do it a little bit at a time. I only had a day but highly recommend scheduling 3 to 5 depending on how important the historic and religious sites are to you.  Just remember, it would take a lifetime to fully absorb this city.

I will walk you through a few of the highlights.

Get your bearings at the Mount of Olives.
Mount of Olives
 Start high to get your bearings of the city, especially the old city. Stand at the parapet in front of the Church of all Nations.

Pat of the Christian cemetery.
Below are  Jewish, Christian and Muslim cemeteries in the Kidron Valley, one of the city's most sacred sites. Each religion believes that this is the spot where the end times begin so naturally, all want to be at the head of the line.

Ahead inside the old city walls is the gleaming Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount and adjacent is the Al Aqsa Mosque. Only Muslims are allowed inside.  In back, beyond the wall, is the Tower of David. The gray dome is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. To the far left outside the Dung Gate is where the Palace of David once stood. The old city is divided into quarters: clockwise from bottom left, Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim.

Warning: You will be doing the Old City on foot, but you will be inspired by other pilgrims, many in much worse physical shape. If they can, so can you.

The "new" city is truly new; the first settlement beyond the walls wasn't made until 1860.

Church of all Nations
Church of all Nations, Church of Gethsemane, Church of Agony are three names for the church built on the spot and around the rock where Jesus laid his head in the Garden of Gethsemane and also where he was captured. For once, this location probably is the location.

The oldest olive trees in all of Jerusalem.
This is the latest church on the site and as you face it, enter from the back left. Head up the sidewalk, go right through a gate and continue along the walk that goes through the oldest olive grove in Israel.

Tip: Public restrooms are to the left at the end of the street up to the side entrance.

The door is designed as an olive tree.
Inside, the church is dark to put visitors into the agony of that night. Glass panels let you look down into the Byzantine church below but most important is the rock itself.

The rock upon which Jesus is said to have rested is surrounded by continuous crowns of thorns.
The grove, the church and especially the devout who kneel in prayer, are quite moving.

Tip: You exit through the front door. There are 14 shallow steps down to street/bus level.

The Crucifiction is said to have occurred on the mount as well.

The Old City
 We entered through the Dung Gate. Like the other eight gates in use, there are three arched portals: one for entering, one for exiting and the middle one for the military to control both directions. The ninth gate, the Mercy (Golden) Gate is closed until as the Jews believe, the Messiah enters or, as the Muslims believe, the just will pass on Judgement Day. Christians believe it is the gate through which Christ entered the city.

Old City walls.
The current walls were built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent between 1535 and 1541 on the site of walls from the time of King Herod.

Wailing Wall
It's the closest thing left to the Temple where the spirit of God lives, according to Jewish dogma. It's really just a retaining wall further shored up by Suleiman's builders, but Solomon's original temple could not receive more veneration.

You, too, may be affected, especially by the devotion of the women, whose side is much smaller than the men's and who seem to be much more genuine in their prayers. Anyone is welcome to leave a message scrunched in one of its cracks and according to our guide, you can now fax or email a message to be placed there!

Stop No. 5 on the Via Dolorosa
Via Dolorosa
This allegedly is the path down which Jesus was forced to carry his cross en route to Golgotha. It winds throughout the old city and its 12 stops are marked with plaques. We traveled about half of it between the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Jaffa Gate where we exited the old city.

Tip: It can be physically challenging at times but if you take it slow, it's doable.

Groups can be intimidating outside the church.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Protestants believe the Garden Tomb is outside the Damascus Gate but Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox believe this is the spot where Jesus was buried.
As you can imagine, there is much pomp and circumstance here, crowds of milling pilgrims and tourists, venders and guides.

Inside one of the many chapels.
Inside, the church is dim, dense with people and incense, glittery with gold, silver, crystal and brass. Individual chapels, many of them dating back to the Crusader era, break up any semblance of "flow".

Look inside the grotto where the true cross was supposedly found.
As usual, what happened where if here at all is subject to much debate. However,
in 362 A.D., when Constantine sent his mother, Helene (later Ste. Helena), to Jerusalem to follow up on a vision he had experienced, this is where the remains of the Temple of Venus stood. She was given a tour of the city's holy sites and told this was where the Crucifiction occurred. After prayer, she had the site razed and after some digging, supposedly found the true cross buried underneath.

Was Jesus buried here?
One of the big debates is which chapel is the site of Jesus' entombment? The generally accepted one is rich with embellishment and constantly prayed in and venerated. The grotto where the true cross is said to have been found is also near a ground burial cave that many believe to be the entombment site.

Or here where the only decoration is a simple row of stylized olive leaves?
Tip: Okay, here's the stair count: 18 very steep steps up to the place of Crucifiction, 60-70 steps to where Helena is said to have found the cross and one to three-step combos throughout the church as you go from one chapel to another. The bad news: Light is minimal and it is easy to stumble. The good news: You'll be accompanied by so many other people you are more likely to hit one of them than  the ground.

Everyday life is the best show of all.
The old city is full of winding corridors and nooks, souks and markets, fascinating-looking characters. When you tire - and you will - pick a spot to stop and watch the passing show.

The walk to the Shrine of the Book.
Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum
This repository of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on everyone's must-see list, is outwardly impressive, but after hiking around the old city, the 23-acre campus was daunting. Just as well because our time was extremely limited.

Tip: There is elevator access directly from the reception area to the Shrine of the Book.

Unless you take the elevator, you will walk through the entrance area and around, down a series of easy steps. You will also see lots of steps if you want to reach what are supposed to be superb collections in the other buildings.

Scale model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period.
The shrine itself is visually striking, its top resembling the finial caps at the ends of scrolls. Adjacent to the building and on a rise overlooking the city is a fascinating 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem in the second Temple period and the shrine itself is quite striking.

Warning: After walking down 12 steps, the interior is exceptionally dark, both for effect and to protect the precious sections of the scrolls which are arrayed in the circular room behind glass. However, those displayed are copies, not the originals, which makes the whole protection bit moot. Steps abound, none of them lit and several in our group tripped. Definite hazards.

I would like to return but if I do it will be early in the day when legs and knees are fresh.


Chris from said...

In terms of historical and religious significance, there is little to match Jerusalem. It's certainly a must-see destination for all educational and spiritual travelers.

August 23, 2012 at 4:59 AM

Post a Comment