Friday, February 6, 2015

Jerusalem - New Year in the Twilight Zone

A single image to perfectly sum up the entire city.
Please hold while I perform a slow, deliberate eye roll. I just need to get it out of the way, and then we can move on.

OK, thanks. That felt good.

Never-ever ever have I seen such a profusion of oddities as on my visit to the "Holy Land". Between people dressed like a macabre circus, the crying, beating of heads against walls, making out with rocks, shushing others, and throwing sharp, accusatory looks at those raising their voice above a reverent whisper, I felt like I was in a psych ward at times. Jerusalem is a city thoroughly fixated on itself, an exercise in perpetual navel gazing, and an absolutely unbridled, fanatical preoccupation with religion. This self-obsession results in a total lack of any vibe or scene normally attributed to a city, but it does offer an unparalleled access to the historical record of a place that's obviously sacred ground for a lot of people.

Since we had a mere 4 days in Israel, we spent them all in Jerusalem and its immediate vicinity. I'm fully aware that our experience would have been a lot more varied had we visited other parts of the country, but we didn't have the time, and in retrospect I have no regrets about our choice. Jerusalem is undoubtedly a must-see. If Wikipedia is to be believed, during its long, dusty history it has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. It's worth getting to know the city and its journey through history, the tribulations that have led to it becoming the most contested strip of land in the world. Just be prepared for a thoroughly trippy experience.

A cafe set into a tunnel near the Western Wall of Temple Mount, and a street of a local market in the Jewish quarter.

The Old City is one big, 3-dimensional maze. Streets and alleys branch off in every direction along both the x and y axes, making it fun to explore and get lost in. Unlike the medinas and souks in the rest of the Middle East, the Old City of Jerusalem is pristinely clean, without so much as a gum wrapper in sight. Despite being crammed with shops, hawkers, gawkers, and Jesus stalkers, the Old City looks like it was built yesterday.

brass antique shop, Old City 
The bustling markets of the Old City where you can hear every language in the world spoken. We saw tour groups from Africa, families from  all over Europe, a convent of nuns from Russia... just about every ethnicity you can imagine is walking these streets.
Old City market stalls overflowing with religious memorabilia
Walking around the sprawling Mahane Yehuda market with its myriad of cafes and food stalls
Mahane Yehuda is a sweet tooth's paradise

Jerusalem's main claim to fame is its status as the epicenter of the 3 abrahamic religions, and it has all the monuments (and associated seething tension) to go along. We didn't make it to the Dome of the Rock - could have tried, but it sounded like a dicey proposition that may or may not have been more trouble than it's worth. We did however visit the Wailing Wall, or Western Wall, perhaps the most sacred site in the world for Jews.

Petitioning your local higher power in writing. People insert notes with prayers and implorations into each and every crevice of the colossal stones.
Jews come here from all over the world to pray, or, as we were told, sometimes to simply stand and feel their Jewishness come through for the first time in their lives. It has stood here for 2000 some-odd years, and has been a bull's eye for prayers of the world's jewry during that entire time. In 1968, it was separated into a men's and women's section. Under pressure from the haredim minority, who believe in segregation of the sexes and that women have no right to read from the Torah, the supposedly secular government of a supposedly secular state caved and built a wall. The reasoning being that Israel relies heavily on support from the world's Jews, and what unites Jews the world over is their religion, and the haredim are an embodiment of said religion, so they didn't want to create friction with them. The reasoning, in other words, being complete bullshit, and nothing more than state-sanctioned discrimination against its own citizens.

The women's section of the wall is less than a third of the men's section.
Some groups of women have repeatedly tried to mount opposition to the separation, claiming that Israel is a secular state, and as such, all of its citizens are entitled to equal access to national sites. Their efforts have not been very fruitful. They have been arrested, tear-gassed, even physically assaulted by the haredim, who apparently would not hesitate to throw chairs at women for disagreeing with them. These vile troglodytes - uneducated, aggressive, appallingly mannered, and disturbingly numerous - have an amazing amount of sway in Israeli society, and tend to get their way on just about every issue they raise, so the separation of church and state, despite being law, appears even more tenuous in Israel than it is in the US.

On this issue, if nothing else, Israel should do some serious soul-searching. After all, what better way to begin to heal the injustices endured by Jews over millenia at the hands of oppressors, conquerors, and ethnic cleansers, than to yield to a rabid minority, and discriminate against your own citizens, over some unfounded fear of a potential PR problem?

Not that I have a bone in this fight. Someone should clarify to the swarming worshippers that this wall is not even part of the Temple, but just a detail of its supporting structure. They might as well be praying to a culvert. Ok, moving on.

On to the most holiest of holies of the Christian world - The Church Of The Holy Sepulchre (henceforth known as the COTHS, amen). This place is actually legitimately incredible. First, it's the size of a small city, with its own enclaves and neighborhoods, streets, hideaways and nooks. Like the city it stands on, COTHS occupies many levels and each area has its own architectural style and history. It's like an entire Jesus-based ecosystem. There's even a church within a church! In fact, it feels like the building may have at some point simply grown over existing streets, and incorporated them, like a tree growing through a fence. In reality, it grew around a stone on which Jesus' body was supposedly laid after being taken down from the cross.

One of the enclaves in a subterranean level

Flo demonstrating how to rub a rock to get magic powers.
detail of a mosaic wall depicting the crucifixion.
Candles burn in a holder around the wall of the Aedicule, which is a tiny building wholly contained within the COTHS, inside a massive rotunda. It contains the Holy Sepulchre (Jesus's tomb). 

A small chapel adjacent to the Aedicule
Chapel of St. Helen
Outside the COTHS, just across a little hidden courtyard, we stumbled upon another little nondescript Armenian church with a poster of a large, cavernous hole on the door.

The door in question is the open one on the right.
Intrigued, we peeked in. Turns out it was the Coptic Church of St. Helen, and underneath it - a huge cistern that held water during the construction of COTHS. After paying the attending priest an entry fee (Jesus gotta get his cut) we ducked through a low doorway, squeezed through a cramped, dripping corridor and descended down a flight of slippery stairs into a giant, dark, yawning maw.

The acoustics inside this space are amazing. Every whisper reverberates and echoes, amplified tenfold. Visitors are encouraged to "sing their hymn" here, which of course, we gladly did. Seeing how we had the place all to ourselves, we sang the entire Lion King repertoire. Not the original songs of course, that would be lame. We sang the honest trailer versions, which sounded phenomenal in our private stone cauldron, and we were pleased. When we heard someone else coming down the stairs, we had to cut short our acoustic desecration and hightail it out of there. The last thing we heard was the new guy singing actual church-y songs into the dark void, so - I say we win "Best Use of Space" award for that day.

And that was the kind of thing that I loved about Jerusalem. Its myriad layers, both physical and metaphysical, beckon to be explored. So many hidden treasures are peppered throughout this modestly sized city, so many pieces of history unearthed and exposed at every turn, that even if you chuck your guidebook out the window and simply sleuth your way through, you will stumble upon fascinating finds around every corner.

Touring the Western Wall tunnels.
Be prepared to spend a lot of  time in Jerusalem below grade, if you want to explore the past.
Tunnels under the Western Wall are a world onto themselves. Deep underground, they are what used to be street level in Biblical times, and excavation continues to this day.
A view of the Old City and Gardens of Gethsemane from the Jewish Cemetery on the Mount of Olives
A good view of Old City walls.

Garden of Gethsemane Church
History buffs will enjoy the countless museums of history, exhibits on anthropology and ancient cultures, and archaeological excavations. The Tower of David museum has perhaps the most comprehensive museum of Jerusalem's history, covering everything from 6000BC to present day. It is located inside a towering fort from the times of King David that has been repurposed to house the collection. It's a good half-day activity, very much worth it, both for the amazing sprawling grounds of the fort, and the vibrant, multi-media collection. Just see if you can keep track of how many times Jerusalem has been fought over!

Second Temple period

Crusader period visualization
Jerusalem residents - British colonial period.
On a more recent historical note, a trip to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial packs a powerful sucker-punch to the feels. Here again the breadth of documentation, variety of exhibits, psychological analysis of the period, haunting physical artifacts, and video testimony of survivors - all cocooned in a somber space tilting above your head - combine to make a wholly immersive, and deeply disturbing experience.

Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum
The halls of Yad Vashem. The gigantic building literally tilts over your head, managing to make the visitor feel claustrophobic and creating a more intimate interaction with the exhibits.
Zyklon B canisters that contained gas used in extermination chambers
prisoner uniforms
The Hall of Names is a large, circular hall lined with 360 degree shelves, containing thousands and thousands of books that are filled with names of the victims. Efforts to recover records of all the victims are still ongoing.

We also visited the Archaeological Park - a massive excavation site just outside the Old City gates. Historians and archaeologists dug up a whole chunk of an ancient city, and you can wander through it like no big deal.

Jerusalem Archaeological Park, under the Al Aqsa Mosque

wine jars

The Davidson Visitors' Center is built right into the excavations, in a graceful melding of modern architecture and ancient city walls. It houses a collection of coins, household objects, and art that's been recovered in the excavations.

Finally, we took a quick detour to the West Bank.

The West Bank is one of those touchy areas that's always being fought over, so it's not exactly a big tourist magnet, but there is a part of it that's under Israeli control, where visitors to Jerusalem can come and go fairly freely.  The area we went to see is called Wadi Qelt, a valley running through the Judean desert, between Jerusalem and Jericho. It's a wild and rugged place, barely populated and quite removed from civilization, which made it a perfect spot for a bunch of Greek monks to build a monastery there! St George's monastery is a 6th century institution clinging precariously to the cliffs, still functioning and welcoming visitors, and it makes for quite a change of pace from the bustle and noise of Jerusalem.

Wadi Qelt. Local bedouins will swarm you immediately upon arrival offering donkey rides to the monastery, and pomegranate juice. "Vitamins! Vitamins!" We opted to walk.
To get there, you take a taxi. This unfolds in the following manner: approach a line of cabbies hanging out by a bazaar that's wrapping up after the morning rush. Tell a group of them where you want to go. Hear the proposed rate for a round trip. Feign outrage and start walking away. Get chased down by the one cabbie most willing to haggle. After a few back and forths, settle on about 300 shekels (roughly 75 bucks), hop in and go.

The ride out to the desert takes about half an hour, and they will give you an hour once there, to check out the monastery before bringing you back. If you can get them to wait an hour and a half, definitely do. The extra half hour would have been nice, as it takes a good 10-15 walk to get there from the taxi stop.

walking to the monastery
A really beautiful and picturesque setting
Originally built in the 6th century, the monastery was almost completely destroyed by the Persians when they invaded in 614. For a long time, the ruins stood in disuse, until a Greek monk traveled here in the 19th century and began a complete restoration. It was finished in 1901, and in that form it has stood - and welcomed visitors - ever since.
Inside the monastery. It's very quiet and very zen here. All you hear is wind and birds. Tea and candy is set out for visitors by the monks who live here.
a sharply dressed dead guy in a glass box.

remains of monks killed in the Persian advance. 
a chapel carved into the cliffs

Overall, we really enjoyed exploring Jerusalem. It's a city very much geared to cater to visitors; understandably, as millions have been flocking here for thousands of years, starting with pilgrims journeying on foot, to today's tourists arriving through Ben Gurion airport. The life of Jesus is chronicled painstakingly, and written into every stone in the city. Stories of conquest, liberation, destruction and resurrection are all carefully documented and lovingly shared in expertly curated forms. There is an indisputable air of mysticism and a pull of history to this place. The modern, developed parts, though lovely in their own right, almost seem beside the point, a kind of lobby and concession area for the magnificent theater that lies beyond.

Mamilla Mall, where we had breakfast every morning, is a beautiful outdoor shopping and entertainment area in the new part of the city. The walls of the Old City can be seen in the background.
If you're not religious, and overt religious display puts you off, you really do need to arm yourself with patience, because Jerusalem swarms with zealots of every stripe. Interactions with the orthodox  (of any religion) can be unpleasant, so I would suggest avoiding them wherever possible. Generally we found Israelis to be less friendly and open than people we've encountered elsewhere. Not unpleasant or rude, just a little more brusque and impatient than what we're used to. It can be a bit of a jolt, especially in the service industry (waiters, tour guides, etc).  But, they do serve breakfast all day pretty much everywhere, and it is much easier to get sloshed here than in the Arab world, so there are many sides to that coin. If you adjust your expectations, you'll have a great time, and enjoy your glimpse into one of the most fascinating cities on earth.

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