We stood quietly when the sirens began to blow. Even though we were in the first Protestant church built in Jerusalem, we could feel the reverence of the moment: Israel was honoring her dead. The dead from the wars of independence, the dead from the wars on terror, still ongoing. Tomorrow would be Independence Day for Israel, but today was the day to memorialize all of those who had made it possible. Two minutes of our time seemed little enough to give.
Jeff Abel had met us on the pier at Ashdod to guide us on our return to Palestine, Israel, the Holy Land, land of many conflicts, many faces. As we dove into the Jeffmobile and headed for the highway Jeff explained that, due to Memorial and Independence Day celebrations, it may be crowded traveling into town. He was a master of understatement. Everyone was on the road and only a skilled, fearless and undaunted driver should attempt a passage. Boy, there was no mercy on those highways and no bluffing either. We elbowed our way into the new city of Jerusalem, parked underground and meandered up the Jaffa Road through the Jaffa Gate into the Old City. We had to pause at the gate in chagrin. Built by the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent over 500 years ago, the Jaffa Gate was the portal through which the British conqueror General Allenby had entered the city.
On foot and with only a modest entourage Allenby strolled through the Jaffa Gate. He sought to dignify his victory over the Turks in World War I with typical British understatement. It contrasted, of course, with the German Kaiser’s entry a dozen years earlier. For the Kaiser the Turks had pulled down an entire section of wall so that he and his army of entourage could enter the holy city seated comfortably in their carriages. A fitting anecdote about a small desert city, Jerusalem, which is of such little strategic value but of such huge religious value.
Here we find where the Jewish religion solidified into monotheism. Where Christianity was literally born and almost died. Where the Prophet leaped into heaven to negotiate with God, three times. Little wonder the eyes of the world are upon Jerusalem.
Jeff led us out of Christ Church and through its coffee shop back into the street of the Armenian Quarter, on to the Tower of David. An interesting edifice, it has served everyone from the time of David, no exceptions: a palace for Herod, a fort for crusaders, now a museum for all of the curious. Here the curators have done an excellent job by photo, illustration, diorama and narrative, encapsulating 5,000 years of human history and deadly conflict.
Climbing to the top of the Tower we garner a bird’s eye view of the Old City, the walls and the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley. The Old City, content within its walls, looks surprisingly small. Little wonder, with so many viewpoints crammed into such a small area, that there is friction: the Armenian Quarter butts against the Jewish Quarter and the Christian Quarter; the Muslim Quarter takes the other half of the Old City. The golden Dome of the Rock out dazzles all other edifices, crying out for attention. By comparison the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a mute gray.
Jeff led us down the steps and across the courtyard of the Tower. Here he found other steps which led us up to the walls of the Old City. A symbol of contention through the centuries the walls and been pulled down by the mighty repeatedly, yet rebuilt each time. The latest, and sturdiest, rebuilding was by Suleiman the Magnificent. His builders could spare no expense nor cut any corners. Yet they did – leaving the Tomb of David outside the walls. We strolled along the narrow pathway peering through various gun embrasures at the modern scene to our west – expensive hotels, pricey condos, cypress trees, landscaping, all making the modern scene a world removed from Jerusalem of a hundred years ago, a hard scrabble, tumbled down place.
The sun was warm and Jeff warned that it was a long way around the walls. After a kilometer or so we scramble down the narrow steps to the street and head for lunch near our next stop: the Western Wall.
During lunch we had time to gaze down upon the Western Wall and its plaza before it. The area is crowded with people, locals, tourists, Orthodox Jews.
Muslims do not come here as they may enter the Temple Mount to access the Dome of the Rock or the Al-Aqsa Mosque through their own entrance, forbidden to all but Muslims. The crowd before the Western Wall, Christians and Jews, waxes and wanes. The Western Wall is all that is left of the Temple, either the first or the second one. Solomon built the first temple above the city of his father, the City of David. It became sacred to the Jews when Solomon dedicated the temple to God, for God responded, I Kings 9, that “…his eyes and heart will be there forever.” Many interpret this passage to mean that this location is just a bit closer to God than other places. Hence it has become a pilgrimage spot, sacred to Christians and Jews.
We descend the steps into the plaza, having first passed through the metal detectors of security. Security is everywhere on the outside of the plaza. As we stroll across the plaza Jeff points out the First Mate’s entrance to the Western Wall. Women, who have little standing in traditional Jewish culture, are not allowed entry into the main prayer area – men only. But, traditions aside, a smaller area for women to enter and pray has been set aside. We part as she clutches the written supplications that the ladies of her bible study group have given her to deposit in the Wall.
The stones which constitute the foundation of the Wall area are massive, huge. Therefore the cracks between the stones are large enough for a hand to reach in. Here thousands of supplications to God have been deposited by pilgrims. Every few months the rabbi in charge of the Wall removes the papers and buries them on the Mount of Olives.
Jeff and I stroll into the men’s area. There is no need for me to don a kippah as Jeff informs me that my ball cap will do nicely – covering the head is all that is required. Jeff is a secular Jew who explains many of the traditions of the area with his tongue firmly in his cheek. As he rattles on about walls, temples, digs and other matters I only half listen, gazing at the Wall and all it represents. He then leaves me to place my own supplications within a large crack in the Wall. The men’s side of the wall is fairly quiet, the women’s side crowded and noisy. Having been here before I am amazed that there are so few men. Jeff suggests we enter the tunnel.
The tunnel has been dug northward along the Wall and is a huge edifice. Apparently it has gone too far as geologists have detected instability in some of the buildings in the tunnel area, caused by the digging. But for now it is an almost exclusive enclave of the Orthodox Jews. Jeff, hardly orthodox, strolls in like a lion. A small lion. Inside the tunnel are more chairs, prayer tables and prayer books. The Orthodox pray against the Wall, some rocking back and forth. Jeff points out the large cabinets which store both the prayer books and the scrolls which are read during worship by the Orthodox. We step to a back room and here are huge book shelves of research material on all matters of religion and Judaism. During his explanation of this material Jeff receives a sharp admonition in Yiddish from a nearby Orthodox. No translator is needed to decode Jeff’s reply. Silence ensues and Jeff continues his lecture. Interesting.
The tunnel is a fascinating area but it is time to meet the First Mate, who, being female, cannot desecrate this area. She is patiently awaiting us in the plaza area and falls in behind Jeff as we head for the Dung Gate. We are headed for David’s first prize: the City of David.
Excavations are underway at this ancient Canaanite village, er, city, which was old when David arrived on the scene. Relatively small, it was a walled city with little going for it. The climate was arid; it was far from trade routes or the coast. It sat on a small hilltop protected on three sides by modest valleys, its most valuable asset being the spring which outcropped from the hill just below the city. It was the only reliable source of water for some distance and a resource worth protecting. A wall had been built to protect the path down to the spring.
The spring has a long patrimony and that history is in much dispute today. The archeological record is not clear but, for sure, it was the locus of much activity. Hezekiah had the spring walled off to exclude invaders. Then he had a tunnel cut through solid rock which would divert all the water from the spring into the tunnel flowing below the city. Besieging armies would benefit nothing. Modern historians dispute this account, pointing to shafts and tunnels previously constructed by ancient Canaanites. But whoever built it, the deed was prodigious. The chisel marks can still be seen in the solid rock lining the tunnel. Imagine – working by torchlight far underground with only a hammer and chisel to remove solid rock. Working from both ends the tunneling teams eventually met in the middle, but not until after several mistaken attempts.
Jeff leads us down into the tunnel, which now sports electric lighting and steel mesh steps. The route down is steep, even with steps and handrails. For the ancients it must have been an exciting descent and challenging return. As usual in life we come to a cross roads. The tunnel forks and Jeff asks us: “Do you want the wet route or the dry route?” Continuing in Hezekiah’s tunnel means wading thigh deep in the running, chilly, spring water until its exit at the Pool of Siloam. We opt for the dry foot route: through the old Canaanite system to the street outside. Once in the street we stroll down to the Pool of Siloam and reconnect with the small but swiftly running stream, just before it disappears into the rock down the slope.
Back out on the street we realize just how hilly the Jerusalem area is. The hike back up to the Dung Gate will be uphill all the way. In a show of neighborly ecumenicalism Jeff steps into a small Arab coffee shop and speaks with the owner. Seconds later the owner’s cousin appears in his taxi, ready to carry a secular Jew and two Christians back to the city walls. As we roar up the steep hill the driver is busy on his cell phone, face timing with his daughters who insist on saying ‘hello’ in English to his customers. Cute kids, we say ‘good bye’ also and pay their father the best five bucks we have spent that day.
It is now early evening and we notice, as we enter the Dung Gate, that the foot traffic is all outbound from the Old City. Shops and kiosks are closing but Jeff is not done. We will walk across the city to the Jaffa Gate but travel on the Via Dolorosa, the way of Christ. Condemned by Pilate, probably at the Antonia Fortress, Jesus was given his heavy wooden cross by the Roman soldiers and compelled to drag it to his place of execution, Golgotha. It is uphill all the way; the struggle must have been fierce. Churches dot the way where legend says he suffered. The Emperor Constantine’s mother would command the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the spot of execution.
Along our uphill hike Jeff makes a detour into the Muristan. Here we view the stone monument to the Knights Hospitallers, the Knights of St. John. Under the leadership of the monk the blessed Gerard, they established a hospital on this site in the 11th century to care for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Their Order would morph over the centuries to more than hospital keepers – they would become fierce guardians of pilgrim caravans, the spear tip of Christian armies during the Crusader Era. Expelled from the Levant by Muslim forces they would become Knights of the sea. We will see them again in Acre; again in Rhodes as the Knights of Rhodes; again in Malta as the Knights of Malta. Remnants of the Order linger today as philanthropists or humanitarians in medical aid around the globe.
Back in the new city the Jeffmobile drops us at our hotel off Ben Yehuda Street, the main pedestrian mall. Our hotel overlooks the street, now filled with pedestrians. Under normal circumstances this would be a lovely spot, but tonight it’s guaranteed to be a lively spot. The eve of Independence Day is filled with fireworks, loud crowds, rock bands in the plazas. Lively. We slip out for a fish dinner at an outdoor bistro, watching the crowds continue to build. Back at the hotel we agree, yeah, its loud out there. But also, yeah, we’re tired. The Jeffmobile will appear at the door first thing in the morning. Good night.
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