For some people, Jerusalem is all about the holiest places in their religion. For others, it’s about the cats.
Jerusalem is a big deal, a central focus for three major religions. While it is relatively small – fewer than 900,000 people in the entire city, while the Old City with its concentration of major religious sites is less than one square kilometer – it has obviously been one of the most important cities throughout the history of the West and Near East. Mark hasn’t been here in over 30 years and I’d never been to Jerusalem, so it was kind of crazy that we only had four days to explore the city. In retrospect it seems like kind of an unforced error. Someday we’ll have to correct it.
The history is complicated and I’m not going to even try to summarize it. Suffice it to say that over the last 2,000 years it has been occupied by Jews, Christians, a variety of Moslem rulers, and for a while even the British. As a writer in Wikipedia puts it, “Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.” So yeah, a lot of history here.
The Western Wall, perhaps the holiest places in the world for Jews, with a full moon rising behind it
Our first afternoon, after taking the short bus ride in from Bethlehem, we walked into the Old Town, through a teeming market, and out to the Western Wall. I had to read up to understand just what this big limestone wall is all about. The wall was built under the Jewish King Herod (he of Christmas story fame) as part of the Second Temple. When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD this wall was all that was left.
Still, why is it such a big deal? Well, the Second Temple is thought by Jews to stand on the very hill where God created Adam and where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. As such it is the holiest place in the religion and the Western Wall thus abuts this holiest of holies. It is said, in fact, that the divine presence remains there to this day.
The bustling markets inside Jerusalem’s Old City
For Muslims, it’s a big deal, too. It was here, you see, that Muhammad flew one night in the year 621 so he could ascend to heaven and have a little chat with God. On the site of the rock – supposedly the same rock on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac – stands the Dome of the Rock mosque. The dome itself was built in the early 11th century and thus is one of the oldest Muslim building still standing, though the iconic gold leaf roof was added only in the 1950s.
I fully expected to understand it all a little better after taking the opportunity to tour the area, but that was not meant to be. We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and the Temple Mount area is closed to non-Muslim tourists Fridays and Saturdays. OK, fine, we’ll come down early Sunday morning – our last day before going to Jordan – and see it then. So at 8:30 Sunday morning, after spending a bit of time wandering around trying to find the entrance, we were in line. A long line. A really, really long line. After 15 minutes of moving a little, but not much, we calculated that it would take two hours before we got to the entrance. That’s a long time to wait but we both had our Kindles, so what the hell. We inch along slowly, slowly getting closer.
At some point, maybe around 9:30, we learn that the entrance is open only until 10:30. Well, maybe that means you have to be in line by 10:30? There is absolutely no one to ask and only one small sign in Hebrew that seems to indicate the closing time. It seems as though they wouldn’t just let us all stand in line for hours and then say to a few hundred people “That’s all, folks!”
Well, in fact, that’s exactly what they did. As it got close to 10:30 we saw a few big tour groups in front of us just leave. Mind you, this after standing for nearly two hours. We got closer and closer … and then they closed the gate. No more today! It’s inconceivable to me that a religious site would treat people that way, let them queue up and stand in the sun for hours if they’re not going to get in, but they do. Quite similar to the mess and massive crowd trying to get into St. Peter’s when we were in Rome a couple weeks ago. As though I needed another reason to think poorly of religious institutions.
One of the highlights of the Israel Museum was this scale model of Jerusalem from the time of King Herod, some 2,000 years ago. It really helped me get a sense of how everything fit together.
Enough about what we didn’t see, though after those wasted hours and the frustration and ensuing exhaustion from all that standing we didn’t have a lot of interest in seeing stuff for the rest of the day. The big highlight for us in Jerusalem was the Israel Museum, a massive institution that houses everything from a scale model of Jerusalem in the time of the Second Temple to the Dead Sea Scrolls to a big archeology wing and a variety of sections of fine art from both Israel and around the world. We spent maybe three hours there, far more than we would normally spend in a museum and we still didn’t see everything we wanted to.
The Shrine of the Book, part of the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept
Oh, and there was that Church of the Holy Sepulcher. For Christians this is big: the place where Christ was crucified and the site of his empty tomb. (It would be a lot clearer to a lot of people – including me – if it were called the Church of the Holy Tomb, since who knows what a sepulcher is. But they didn’t ask my opinion.) Now, I’ve never given it a lot of thought, but I would have guessed that Calvary – to the extent that Christians thought they knew where it was – would exist in some lonely, sad, somewhat isolated spot. But no, there it is, right inside the church in the middle of the city. And then just a few yards away is the place where His tomb (or sepulcher for those who like big words) was. All this was discovered by Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, just as she helped identify the manger where Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Early in the fourth century she came to Jerusalem, had some workers dig a bit, and found the True Cross right here, along with some of the very nails used to crucify Him.
I wasn’t convinced.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the very spot where Christ was crucified. Kind of an important spot for Christians.
And just a few yards away is the spot where Christ’s tomb was, from which, of course, he arose. I wonder if it’s crowded here at Easter?
At any rate, that was our historic experience in Jerusalem. On our last night we had dinner with an old friend Augie, who works at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. We were joined by a friend of his also at the Consulate, along with a couple from the British Consulate, and a friend of his visiting from San Francisco, all gay. That’s more gay socializing than we’ve done in a long time. The highlight was hearing of the tour one of them did in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi boyfriend he dated for a while. A gay Jewish American dating a Saudi man, just the kind of story that I’ll bet keeps the Wahhabi extremists awake at night.
From here it’s off to Jordan for a couple weeks and then we’ll work our way down the eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula, stopping in some of those little countries that are safe for Western tourists.
With our friend Augie on our last night in Jerusalem
Mark walking through the ruins of the citadel, or Tower of David as it’s known. Dating from the 13th century, today it hosts the Museum of Jerusalem, a good way to track 4,000 years of the city’s history.
For us the highlight of the visit was the Israel Museum, one of the biggest, most interesting museums I’ve ever seen. One exhibit was particularly odd. After an hour or so walking through the archeology section of the museum, you exit into an exhibit of … cats and dogs. It was incongruous, to say the least.
Along with the scale model of Jerusalem, the Shrine of the Book, and the cat-and-dog exhibit, there was a big section of fine art, including this Van Gogh
And a special exhibit of Ai Weiwei, a very prominent Chinese artist and activist. This was the middle of a three-part series. In the first he’s holding a two-thousand-year-old Han Dynasty vase. In this photo he’s dropped it, and in the third it’s smashed to little pieces. It’s supposed to be about the destruction of cultural heritage and history. Or something like that. And yes, it’s controversial to destroy ancient artifacts, even for art.