My dear friend Jimmy is an elementary school teacher here in London. He doesn't make a lot of money, but he has made travelling a priority in his life. He is only 31 years old, and he has visited almost as many places as I have! He has never been to a five star hotel, and he often travels with just a back pack and an open mind. He has just returned from Israel with four like-minded friends and has agreed to share his experiences and stunning photographs with Connotation Press. It's a beautiful piece and I'm sure you will enjoy it as much as I have. Let's discover the ancient and mysterious city of Jerusalem!
The only condition my friends and I had in mind for a Christmas holiday was that it had to be somewhere sunny. Our attention was drawn to Israel: blue skies, affordable flights, and winter temperatures in line with a summer heat wave in the British capitol. We were sold. Within a couple of days, three plane tickets were booked, and soon after, two more. Eight days with five friends from all over Europe; John from England, Jeremy from Belgium, Alessandro from Italy, Stéphane from Paris, and myself from the south of France. Parisians tend be quite chauvinistic, so culturally speaking that makes it five separate countries. It really does.
It's the 27th of December and we are taking off before we've even gone through security. Our taxi hits 110 miles an hour and I am still trying to fasten my seatbelt when we arrive at Luton, one of London's five International Airports. It would never be my first choice of airport, but with only two companies flying directly to Israel, one cannot be too picky. Now, nobody likes a crying baby on a plane, so if it stops screaming in the arms of its dad, don't try to put it back in the ones of its mum where it shouts itself hoarse! Those unpopular parents tried to trick the poor child every 5 minutes... for 5 hours! At the end of the journey, there was still no bond with the mother. My earplugs in, I got distracted by a group of Jewish people rocking back and forth in their seats. I will never know if they were praying for the plane to arrive safely, or for that infant to be gagged; nevertheless, they used every costume, accessory and headgear they had to make their wish come true.
David Ben Gurion was one of the founders of the new State of Israel after it regained its independence in 1948, and it is in the airport named after him that we spent the first hours of our trip. Stéphane had the genius idea of being born in Algeria, and it seemed like the whole country wanted to know why.
After two days by the Mediterranean Sea in Tel-Aviv, we were ready to explore inland. I would tell you everything I loved about this great city, but let's keep that for another chapter. An hour mini-bus ride took us straight to the heights of the Judean Mountains and its central city: Jerusalem.
It seems that there has always been some kind of human activity in this part of the world, and throughout history, many civilizations and religions have evolved here. In 886 BC, David, King of the Jewish people, established Jerusalem as the capital city of his kingdom. After his death, his son Solomon built a temple on top of a hill which is said to have hosted the tablets of the Ten Commandments. This temple - known today as the First Temple - was completely destroyed. The second was also razed and the Jews were exiled from these lands. This marks the beginning of a long series of attacks and seizures. Over the centuries, the Holy City was conquered by the Babylonians, the Romans, the Christians, the Muslims, then the Christians again, the Turkish, and finally the British during World War I. Britain helped the Jewish people regain their homeland again, and this is where David Ben Gurion comes into the picture. Under his leadership, the Jews first had to fight the Jordanians for independence in 1948, but they lost Jerusalem and all the Jews living within the walls of the old city were evicted. Israel had to establish its capitol outside the walls. In 1967, the Arab countries surrounding the Jewish state attacked them, but Israel won this war in six days and the ancient city became their capitol once again.
For an extra 40 shekels, the mini-bus took us to Addar Hotel, a six story no-frills building by the side of the road. The extremely convenient location was only a 10 minute walk from the maze of ancient streets of central Jerusalem. Having only slept an hour or so the night before, some of us felt like taking a nap, but I decided to start exploring the area on my own. Eight gates pierce the 12 meter high walls protecting the heart of the city. I entered through the New Gate, and stepped back in time. Now in the Christian Quarter, people are bustling around me, indifferent to the modern world outside the gates. Many tourists are here snapping photos, taking in the ancient air, and getting lost. Men carry goods in small wagons, on their backs or on their heads. Women are buying fruit, bread and spices from stallholders proclaiming that their products are the finest, the freshest, or the cheapest. Their monotonous proclamations are
like mantras. Everywhere children are running barefoot and laughing.
After my first impression of the ancient city seeped in, I soon realized that the 21st century had found its way here as well. Cars have been allowed to circulate through streets barely large enough for a camel, and there were plenty of them. I wondered how long it would take before the buttery color of the stones turns to grey. At the back of the shops, small televisions were broadcasting football matches, and everyone had a cell phone in their pocket.
The other three quarters of the old city are: the Muslim, the Jewish and the Armenian ones. My wanderings took me to a market street in the Muslim Quarter where each block seemed to have a specialty: metal, fabrics, shoes, condiments, meats, and of course souvenirs. I came across people dressed in all sorts of religious costumes straight from another time. It was already late in the afternoon, and I could feel that the summery shirt I was wearing in Tel-Aviv was not enough to keep me warm. It was probably about 50F degrees and Jerusalem can actually get a lot colder during winter. As a matter of fact, a week after we left the country, the whole city was covered in snow. I found myself some delicious orange blossom cookies and headed back to the hotel to change into something warmer.
A former work colleague of mine lives in Jerusalem, and since I was travelling in his home town, I thought it would be good to meet up with him for some local insight. We went out for a bite in the new city centre, in one of those small establishments that only local people would know. This is probably why they never thought of printing an English version of their menu. I pointed at the ingredients I wanted in my salad, added a dash of each dressing available on the counter, and voilà! Delicious. Cheap. Perfect.
Jaffa road is the main artery in this part of Jerusalem. A brand-new tramway runs up the middle of the pedestrian street lined with bars, restaurants and chain stores. The names of the tram stops scroll up in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. All three languages are used regularly here. In this part of the new city, the contrast with the old city is striking. Looking at the architecture, I could have been in any modern European city. After we ate, we ended up in a hidden café packed with Israelis finishing their meals and drinking wine. By that time, I could only manage an herbal tea, but even though I was exhausted, I had to ask my friend many questions about Israel and Jerusalem that had crossed my mind. When my curiosity was satisfied, I walked back to my hotel, ready for a long night's rest.
On the following day, our gang of five was back together. We hopped in a taxi, four of us squeezed into the back, keeping our heads down if the police were in sight. We wanted to start the day by reaching the top of the Mount of Olives, on the other side of the old city. The sun was shining, the sky clear, and the view of Jerusalem was spectacular. A man on a donkey appeared next to us. He made me think of Joseph looking for shelter for Mary to give birth. Tourists are very fond of this type of dramatization, and my friend Stéphane couldn't resist taking pictures with a "carpenter" and his animal for a few shekels. The emblematic characters of Christianity have left their mark all around Jerusalem, but the other religions are not to be outdone. Memorials are all over the city denoting where these religious icons lived, died or are buried. In the distance I could see the chapel holding the Tomb of the Virgin. Further away the Tower of David is believed to be erected on the site of the ancient palace. Right in the middle is the most remarkable of all with its golden roof, the Dome of the Rock, a shrine to the very place where Mohamed would have ascended to heaven. Finally, at our feet lies the most important cemetery. Jewish tradition says that the resurrection of the dead will begin here.
At the foothill of the mount, a stairway dives deep into the ground towards the Tomb of the Virgin. As the sunlight fades, numerous chandeliers light up the catacombs of the cave. A group of pilgrims launched into a beautiful chant adding to the mystical atmosphere. Our descent of the Mont Olives finished in front of the Lions Gate which marks the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, believed to be the path Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. We could have easily followed that road to his tomb, but somehow we got lost in search of a snack.
To enter the Jewish Quarter, we had to go through a long tunnel guarded by armed soldiers. On the other side, a large esplanade bathed in sunshine progresses towards an imposing wall separating us from the Temple Mount. I covered my head with a kippah to join the dozens of Jews communing at its base. This remnant of the ancient fortification surrounding the First Temple has been a site for Jewish prayers for centuries. I am not religious, but the ancient rocks of the Wailing Wall attracted my hands like metal a magnet. I just had to touch them. Like thousands of thousands of hand
before me; and this is probably what I am sensing, the humble palms skimming the smooth stone to feel the energy of countless other finger tips before them, and the vibration of words squeezed between the cracks on paper or in a pleading breath.
Our first attempt to go further did not succeed. The Temple Mont is an important site for many religions and its access is rigorously restricted with random opening hours. On that day, the gate was closed in mid afternoon, right in front of us. Cheer up, it's not like there is nothing else to see in Jerusalem!
After a short stroll in the Armenian Quarter, we were back on the Via Dolorosa. The original path would have lead us to a crucifixion hill, however, in the 4th century, a church was erected there. For obvious reasons, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been one of the holiest place in Christianity since its construction, and no less than six Christian religious orders claim right over its use. I read about the most surreal arrangement made to avoid conflict: in the 7th century, the keys of the church were placed in the custody of a Muslim family whose decedents still hold them to this day. Isn't that astonishing? The entrance to this major building is also surprising... through a single narrow door. The nave was packed, and while the never-ending flow of tourists and pilgrims are jamming in like commuters on the subway during rush hour, some unperturbed monks were fully immersed in their chanting.
There are many relics to be seen in the church, but the main attraction is the sepulcher itself, for which I had to queue. For a long time. My friends were long gone when I was finally allowed in a obscure chamber big enough for four people to kneel down, and even the shouting of the monk regulating the flow of visitors did not take away the serenity of this simple act. According to Christians, Jesus resurrected two days after his death, so theologically, the tomb is empty; furthermore, his body is likely to have been buried in a different place, such as the Garden Tomb
nearby, which I would recommend if you are in a hurry and don't have time for the lines inside.
Over dinner, our group agree to have an early start on the following day. We were leaving Jerusalem at the end of the morning so it was our last chance to approach the Dome of the Rock.
It is 8:00 in the morning, the gate is open, and the place is deserted. At the heart of a square marked out by great arches lies the Foundation Stone. You would not be able to see it, as it is entirely enclosed within the turquoise mosaics and the blazing tiles of the Dome of the Rock. Not only regarded as a holy place for Muslims, amongst other things, it was from this very stone that the world was created for Jews. The earth was gathered here to create Adam, and on this spot it the First Temple was constructed. The brouhaha of the city echoes in the distance. I sat down to appreciate the odd tranquility of this much coveted piece of land; but soon, we are asked to make our way out. We left the mount, the Old City and moved away, driving east towards the Dead Sea.
While Jerusalem is disappearing in the rear-view mirror, its suburbs depicts a different reality from the underlying inter-religious tolerance I had felt over the last two days. Before us stands another wall, far more recent. The tall concrete plaques are part of the West Bank Barrier, separating Palestinian communities from the rest of Israel. All of us are suddenly quiet in the car, considering the fragile harmony between men in this forever contested part of the planet. I stare at the horizon, and miraculously, in the clear winter light, as far as the eye can see, everything turned to gold. The naked rock, the burned grass and the walls, under a golden sun.