Israel

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.

A tiny segment of the huge beach in Tel Aviv

After our two-week pass through Italy it was time for some adventure, so off we flew to Israel, a new country for me though Mark had been here in the 1980s. Our first stop was five days in Tel Aviv a city sometimes described as Europe in the Middle East due to its Mediterranean beaches, caf├ęs, and lively culture. My first impression was that that was pretty significantly overstated. In fact, I thought it was markedly seedier than I’d expected. Over a couple days, though, I grew more enamored of the place.

(It’s probably worth noting that I was bound to be comparatively unimpressed with the European nature of Tel Aviv after coming directly from Italy. As I write this while sitting in a hotel on the West Bank it occurs to me that if I went to Tel Aviv from here it would feel very European compared to this!)

One of the first things you notice in Tel Aviv is the architecture. It reminded me of a slightly downscale Miami or LA, but Mark explained to me that the architecture is called Bauhaus, named for a German art school that operated from the end of World War I until the Nazis closed it down in 1933. Many of the Jewish staff emigrated to Tel Aviv where there are today some 4,000 buildings in the simple, direct, modernist Bauhaus style; Tel Aviv is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of this. The style is not exactly what you would call pretty, but somehow it works as all the buildings we would see along a couple major arteries just fit together.

A couple of the boulevards we would walk along, admiring the architecture and eventually getting to the promised land (i.e., the beach)

The other big thing about Tel Aviv, of course, is the beach. There is nothing like a long Mediterranean beach to keep me happy and Tel Aviv has it in spades. We were lucky in that unseasonably warm weather had extended beach season into the end of October so we got a bit of time in the sun.

There is an amusing part of being on the beach. These are big, public beaches with the municipality renting chairs and umbrellas at wonderfully affordable prices, like $4.50 a day or something. But every so often you hear a recorded announcement over a loudspeaker, first in Hebrew and then in English, that there are no lifeguards on duty, that swimming without a lifeguard is dangerous, and that people must leave the water immediately.

And no one does. A little while later the announcement is repeated and everyone ignores it. Over and over again. What’s that all about?

An old friend of ours works at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. He was up in Tel Aviv one night and invited us to a pre-Halloween party with others from the Embassy where we met this scary woman. Fortunately she turned out to be more nice and fun than scary.

Another thing you notice in Tel Aviv is all the electric mini-vehicles. We’ve started to see what they call “e-bikes”, bicycles with small electric motors that help a rider keep up a pace or go up a hill. Here in Tel Aviv, though, they’re everywhere. And e-scooters and weird e-skate-board-kind-of-things. There are so many more than we’ve ever seen anywhere and they all go measurably faster than I would expect. They totally blur the line between motorized vehicles and self-propelled and bring to my mind all sorts of questions about licensing and safety and sidewalk usage and all that. Just another idiosyncrasy we’ve found.

OK, here’s something not so great we discovered in Tel Aviv: the food is remarkably expensive and really not very good at all. Eventually we found one or two places with decent food, but the prices were insane. Of course, it didn’t help that we’d just come from Italy, where food is amazing and often inexpensive. But wow, the first night we go to a restaurant and the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu (oh, wait, they didn’t print a menu, but the cheapest bottle of wine available) was $70. We just kept running into food that was OK but at prices that you would expect for amazing food. Sad!

What else do you notice in Tel Aviv? Lots of people in uniforms but even people in civilian clothes may be wandering around with submachine guns. I thought I was being discreet when I snapped this picture on the train platform but then saw that he was just staring right at me.

And then there was a day trip up the coast to Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. In part the trip was just because ultimately there wasn’t that much to do in Tel Aviv, but we did want to just see a bit more of Israel and Haifa is the home to the Bahai World Centre, the holiest place for those of the Bahai faith and another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The view over Haifa from the top of the Bahai World Center

What is Bahai, you ask? It’s a religion founded in the mid-19th century in Iran that today boasts some five million to seven million adherents. It tries to respect and incorporate all the great religions of the world but that, of course, is a profound threat to religious leaders who know the real truth. So the then-Shah had the founder executed and his remains lie in the Bahai World Center.

Our interest was less in having a religious experience – I have this feeling that we’ll have plenty of opportunities in Jerusalem – than in seeing the gardens. They are, simply, the most beautiful and perhaps perfect gardens I’ve ever seen. Just stunning, built on the side of a massive hill, with every blade of grass and flower in perfect form. You couldn’t go lie on the grass, of course, as is my wont, but it was beautiful.

Shots from the perfect garden

And then finally, the great story from the start of our time in Israel. On the way back from Haifa Mark and I were sitting apart as the train was crowded. At one point the seat next to him was empty and a very traditionally dressed Jewish man started to sit down. First, though, he asked Mark “Are you Jewish?” When Mark assured him he was not, the guy smiled kindly, bid Mark a good day, and moved on to somewhere else on the train. Apparently touching Gentiles is prohibited?

This could be a fun 11 days!

Finally, what’s a great city without great public art?