Holy Land — Day Seven
Old City Jerusalem
Every morning on this trip is an early morning. We set our alarms and meet in the restaurant on the sixth floor of the hotel to eat waffles and biscuits and bacon – oh wait. I mean hummus and cucumbers and rice with beef. I’m not kidding – there isn’t much to a breakfast in Israel that resembles one from America, so everyday I was happy to grab a boiled egg and either some pita bread with jam or a bowl of porridge, which looks a bit like oatmeal. And a cup of hot tea.
This morning was earlier than usual because we were headed to Temple Mount, and the earlier you get there the better. Lines to get through security can be an hour or two long – I’m happy to say it only took the 19 of us forty minutes to get through. No problem!
Maybe it surprises you that we had to go through security to gain access to the Temple Mount. First, it’s good to recall that Old Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian. It’s my understanding that there are at least two security posts in Old Jerusalem, and both are along the “borders” of the Jewish and Muslim Quarters. They remind me of going through airport security and, I believe, are there to keep the peace as best as possible.
Temple Mount is officially part of the Muslim section; however, the Israeli military oversees the security of the holy site. So as we go through security at Temple Mount, we see lots of Israeli soldiers.
Temple Mount is an elevated plaza that sits up higher than the rest of Jerusalem (at 2,428 ft). In fact, the Jewish temple, as originally built by King Solomon around 970-931 BCE, was actually on top of Mount Moriah. About 900 years later, Herod the Great expanded Temple Mount, basically building these (pictured above) 15-feet thick walls around the mountains to create the plaza above that still stands today. I read somewhere that Temple Mount is about 36 acres in size.
Temple Mount is famous for several things and has been around thousands of years. It is a holy place for three major religions: for Muslims, this is where Muhammad prayed and ascended to heaven; for Jews (and Christians), this is where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a display of faith (on the actual Mount Moriah), and it is where their Temple once stood; for Christians, this is where Jesus was presented to Simon the Priest and Anna the Priestess as an infant and brought here at the age of twelve – the time his parents “lost” him, only to find him teaching in the Temple (see Luke 2:41-52).
This is where Jesus would have worshiped any time He came to Jerusalem and was where He threw the money changers out (see Matthew 21:12-17). The Jewish Temple does not stand today. Instead, the Muslim’s Dome of the Rock sits (near) where the Jewish Temple would have been.
Our guide had a thought about Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem at the age of twelve that I hadn’t heard before – that they’d come for his Bar Mitzvah, which is a Jewish “coming of age” celebration for boys as they turn 13. Not sure how to verify that, but it makes some sense after having seen several Bar Mitzvah’s on our previous trip here.
In 2014, our time on Temple Mount was the most intense of the trip. A lot of the tension had to do with the dynamics of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in such close proximity to one another. Plus there were groups of Muslim women that day who chanted loudly the whole time…the tension was palpable.
I’d braced myself for a similar experience this trip, only to be pleasantly surprised by the peaceful air. The circles of women weren’t there, no chants could be heard, and very few guards mingled among us – though I knew they were there. Instead, I noticed things like the pretty trees and the enormity of the space atop this “mount” Herod had built.
There are lots of rules when it comes to being in this holy place. Men and women must be covered – no shorts or short pants. And women must also have their neck and arms covered, so we all had our wraps, skirts, and scarves on. Men and women can have no physical contact…not even for a picture. And you can do nothing that resembles a religious practice – in other words, no person or group could sing, pray, or read a Bible (in fact you can’t even have one with you).
That’s a lot to remember, so I count it a blessing that only one of us got reprimanded while touring this ancient site. No praying…or even looking like you might be praying.
We took lots of pictures in front of the Dome of the Rock, which is the oldest surviving Muslim building in the world, dating back to 692 AD, and of the East (or Beautiful) Gate, which has been blockaded. Temple Mount is a beautiful place and one that has a sacred feel about it.
The Western Wall
We exited the Temple Mount to the north, remaining in the Muslim Quarter, where we stopped for a break in one of the cafes. It felt good to sit down for a minute, sipping on sodas and tea.
From there we went through another security point in order to enter the Jewish Quarter, and we made a beeline for the Western Wall. Men and women separated as we took the prayers we’d written down on the bus ride into Jerusalem that morning and made our way through the crowd to squeeze our little slips of paper into the immense wall…and pray.
The Western Wall is also known as the Wailing Wall because Jews gather there to pray and lament. The wall is the actual western wall of Temple Mount and is considered holy by Jews because it is the only part of the original temple that is left.
Surrounded by such fervent prayers, it was easy to be overcome by emotion. Jewish women and girls were reading Scripture quietly, others were praying, still others moving as they prayed. I feel I have much to learn about the sacred and holy.
The Via Dolorosa
Once we all gathered back together, we headed toward the Christian Quarter to follow the steps that Jesus took the day He made his way to Golgotha, as He walked toward his crucifixion. The steps number fourteen in all and are called the Stations of the Cross. These Via Dolorosa, or “Way of Sorrows,” steps are a convergence of what can be read in Scripture about the last day of Jesus’ life, but several are based more on tradition — in fact, I read that today’s Via Dolorosa originates out of tradition but is made holy by the vast number of Christian pilgrims who have walked the path throughout the centuries.
We walked about half of them, and of course, at each step stands a church, venerating the moment for all who come to participate. The steps, in order are:
- Jesus was condemned
- Jesus was flogged
- Jesus falls as He carries his own cross (the first time)
- Jesus meets his mother
- Simon is called on to carry Jesus’ cross
- Veronica offers Jesus a handkerchief
- Jesus falls a second time
- Jesus meets and consoles some women of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls a third time
- Jesus is stripped of his clothing
- Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus died and was brought down from the cross
- Jesus was laid on a stone slab and anointed for burial
- Jesus was laid in the tomb
The last few of these stations are actually found in an ancient place called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Inside this church you can go up steps to see a hole where the cross was said to have been put in the ground as it was raised, a slab of marble where Jesus’ body was anointed, and the tomb where He was lain…to name a few.
There are some common points of history here in the Holy Land. One of them is the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, who was sent by her son to find the sites of all the Christian holy happenings and build churches on them. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was one of those. It marks the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, as well as, where He rose from the dead.
As I mentioned previously, in 326 AD, Helen had come looking for Jesus’ cross – the actual cross. After she spoke with the local people of the area, it is said she was able to find the pieces of the cross in a water system that a former invader named Hadrian had tried to hide/destroy.
This invader, Hadrian, had tried to rid the world of all things Jewish and Christian, so while he was in Jerusalem he destroyed holy sites and built, instead, Roman temples. Ironically, these Roman temples became markers for Helena years later and helped her find the place most believed to be the site of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection – so she had the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built there.
The tomb inside this church is encased in a marvelous structure, but the inside looked just like the tomb we’d visited the day before.
Today the church bears many scars of all the years of destructions, reconstructions, and natural disasters. Its mish-mash décor reflects its owners – of the past and now. Today the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic churches share the large building.
There is a bit of a square outside it where pilgrims (like us) can gather to admire and enter it. I loved sitting out there after I’d toured the building, watching all the believers come in and out. Christians from all over the world and of numerous denominations seek out this church because of what it stands for. Without Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, we wouldn’t have Christianity.
Wrap-up of Old City Jerusalem
Our guide surprised us by taking us to a sidewalk restaurant in the Christian Quarter not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was fun eating falafel and schawerma on the flagstone path of Jerusalem! A large group of students from Norway came in not long after we did and filled the rest of the tables.
Probably the funniest memory of this stop was the bathroom break – we had to take the most narrow set of winding stairs I’d ever been on up to a second floor that held two of the smallest bathrooms I’d ever seen. These were co-ed bathrooms, so we all (men and women) waited in line together. At first the conversation was awkward and stilted, but it didn’t take long till the men started making light of our situation, and we all laughed…even the darling girls of Norway smiled.
We had some free time to wander through the streets, and I managed to get with a few from our group who headed toward the Arab Market – a place I had hoped to see again since being there in 2014. The Arab Market is basically block after block of a narrow sidewalk running up and downhill with shops lining the path on both sides. Its tight quarters, bountiful color, foreign aromas, and sights were unusual and intriguing to us – like whole sides of beef or some other animal I could only guess hanging in windows – and held us captivated.
I don’t think any of us bought anything, but we were completely entertained. One shop had a giant pyramid of a green spice, probably three feet by three feet. The shopkeeper, or artist as I prefer to call him, was efficiently and effectively sprinkling small piles of yellow and orange spices symmetrically on the ledges of the pyramid. He had about two sides to go when we first stopped to take pictures. Maybe ten minutes later as we walked by again, he was already finishing the fourth side. It was beautiful!!!
Oh, our time in the Old City of Jerusalem went way too fast, yet I’m eternally grateful I got to come back here. Even though this was a quick trip into the old walls of the Old City, I have added to my memories and feel like I absorbed more of its history and beauty.
Political History of Jerusalem
After our jaunt through the Arab Market, we made it back to our group on time and left the Old City of Jerusalem (sniff, sniff) through the Jaffa Gate. As we headed to our next destination, we picked up a new tour guide, and he took over the narration, informing us that he would be taking us on a political tour of Jerusalem. He spent two hours with us, but I’ll do my best to summarize in short-order what he said.
This guy was younger and turned out to be an Israeli Jew who’d served his years in the Israeli Army. In fact, his grandparents were Holocaust survivors!
He explained that when his years of service were over, he began researching history and talking with various people and groups to try to make sense of what he saw and learned while in the Army. He discovered that much of what he’d been taught as a child and soldier was often “off the mark.” He now describes himself as a solidarity activist – an Israeli who sympathizes with Palestinians.
He gave us a map and did his best to help us understand a lot of history in a very short amount of time, much of which I’d never heard till then.
In earlier centuries, Jerusalem was nothing more than an old, walled city until the middle of the nineteenth century when it began to expand.
In 1917, the British, who had colonized what we now call Israel and Jordan, kicked out the Ottomans, who had reigned in the land and over the Palestinians for a few hundred years. Around this time, a political movement called Zionism emerged and was established to create a Jewish state, so as Britain began allowing Jewish immigration into the land, a rivalry between Zionists and Palestinians arose.
In the following decades, the tension between these two groups became more violent so that by the end of World War II (1947), Britain pulled out all together. Britain’s departure led to the United Nations’ creation of the nation of Israel in May 1948, giving Jordan control of the West Bank, as well as, parts of Jerusalem. In 1967, the Six Day War ensued with Israeli forces the resounding victors over several Arab nations around them.
As a result of all the changes that came with Israel’s victory, 800,000+ Palestinians were forcefully removed from their lands and became refugees with other Palestinians already in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, as we know it today, is meant to be holding these boundaries with Palestinians and bordering nations.
However, our Israeli tour guide explained that since Israel became a nation, the Israeli government has continued to eat away at the boundaries set by the UN by building Jewish “settlements” on Palestinian lands.
There are some great graphics that give us a visual of Palestinians’ loss of land, and this loss of land continues. As it stands now, Israel has used 40% of Palestinian land in what some call East Jerusalem to create more Jewish settlements, or suburbs. The treaty from years ago clearly states that the occupying country, Israel, cannot move their people into the occupied territory…yet they do.
Our tour guide emphasized that he, like many others, does not disagree with the idea of Jews having their own nation. He’s just against the forceful taking of someone else’s land. And Israel is very creative in the ways they take Palestinian land.
- As we drove through Palestinian (or what Israel would call “Arab” because they don’t use the word “Palestinian”) neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, our guide would point out buildings that had once been owned by Palestinians but are now occupied by Jewish Israelis – the large Israel flag flying on top of the home/building makes that quite clear.
- In the Palestinian neighborhood of Al Tur, a large separation wall divides the neighborhood in two, all in the name of security, but to look at the area it’s obvious that this is not a border to be secured.
- Israel builds enclaves, or small compounds, right in the middle of some Palestinian neighborhoods by hiring private organizations to do the building and recruiting of Israelis to move in.
- Israel will block areas and roads so that Palestinians no longer have access to their land, and by claiming an old Ottoman law that says when the land goes fallow (is not farmed) for 2 or 3 years, it goes back to the government – in other words, Israel “nationalizes” the land and claims it as their own. We actually met a few people later in our trip who have experienced this.
The more he showed us and taught us, the more clear the situation became. Palestinians and Israelis have completely different and/or separate languages, education systems, urban centers, public transit, and unequal infrastructures – meaning the Palestinians pay taxes to Israel but do not get basics as running water, sewage systems, roads, schools, electricity, law enforcement, and emergency services. Freedom of speech is reserved only for Israelis, and Palestinians don’t have any right to vote except in their own municipal elections – and they boycott those, often to their own detriment.
Palestinians continue to lobby for equality and to share Jerusalem as the capital of both.
When it comes to education, all children in Israel are supposed to have equal education, but, according to our guide, Israeli schools get more money per child and more schools – so that every child has a seat. It’s law to send children to school, yet Palestinians have a shortage of about 2500 classrooms – that means there are only seats for half the children. As a result, a lot of Palestinian families opt for a hybrid of public-private schools where facilities are sub-par and dropout rates are high. Add to that an 80% poverty rate among Palestinians, and the future doesn’t look very promising.
Palestinians have gone to the court system to argue their education case, and the Supreme Court did rule in their favor…but Israel is very slow in its compliance.
I could go on, but I don’t want to overwhelm you in the way that we were overwhelmed. This was no classroom lecture. Everything this Israeli guide told us, he also showed us. This young man wants to use his privilege as an Israeli with the freedom of speech to help make known the disadvantages of the Palestinian people.
Being an activist doesn’t come without risk, however. Our guide had an activist friend who was murdered about 18 months from the date of our tour, and there has never been any real investigation of it.
Our Israeli guide is not an extremist – in fact, I’d call him a peacemaker. He has lived both sides of this conflict. He sees things firsthand. He just wants justice for those who live in an unjust society. He ended our time with him, saying, “The delicate balance of Jerusalem is easily disrupted by extremists on both sides.” On that note, we headed back to Bethlehem.
More surprises for us on this day. At dinner we were introduced to some local families who opened their homes to us, loved on us, and shared their experiences with us. Having had our afternoon guide teach us some facts about life for Palestinians, then getting to sit down with those who are living it proved to be a lot for me emotionally.
I heard this mother’s story, whose daughter got sick, and the doctor in Palestine told her that if her daughter was to live, she had to get to an Israeli hospital. They had no permits and no time to file for them, so they found a way through the wall that would have meant prison if they’d been caught. The hospital they made it to immediately started treating her daughter for a deadly virus, and when the treatment began to work, the doctors started asking for paperwork and money. She had little money and no paperwork. Her husband couldn’t come to be with her (the wall), and she didn’t know how they’d get home. Even worse, if they couldn’t come up with the hundreds of thousands of shekels needed to continue treatment, they would release her daughter…to her death.
Long story short, God provided in some amazing ways, including a social worker who helped them get the needed paperwork and permits to go home and a banker who loaned them his own money so they could pay the needed funds.
Her daughter lived, and they got to go home, but they’ll pay this loan back for decades.
This sweet mother cried as she told us the story, and she churned her hands to emphasize what a fight it is everyday just to survive where they live.
She also told of the time their family packed for a day at “the beach” (The Dead Sea was the only beach they could access) only to discover that a new checkpoint had been erected “overnight,” and they weren’t allowed through. The boundaries continue to tighten-in around the Palestinians…in territory that’s supposed to be theirs.
Her husband shared about his Jewish friends who live on the other side of the wall that separates them. Before the walls went up, he heard from them regularly, offering their support and sympathy for the unfairness of their situation. Once the wall went up, their calls came less and less frequently — the husband’s theory? He thinks the old adage, “out of sight, out of mind,” rings true here. When his friends could literally look into the Palestinian territories and see the inequalities, their sympathies were riled. But when the wall blocked their view, so was the reminder of what (no, who) was on the other side. He didn’t seem to hold any grudge or ill-feelings toward his Jewish friends, but he did seem to have much to dislike about the wall and the government who built it. I was beginning to understand that these walls had multiple purposes and effects.
By the time we got back on our bus, I was an emotional mess. My heart was breaking for these Christian families who supposedly live in a democratic nation but have to live with no freedoms or rights.
It’s hard to believe all this happened in one day! Emotional highs and lows all day long. And the reality of where we were and the people who live there, these living stones…they’re personal now.
How am I supposed to respond?