April 17, 2010 — Around the Old City of Jerusalem

April 17, 2010: Around the Old City

Damascus Gate, evening — still busy with merchants and buyers.

Yesterday, we walked through the Old City and today, we walked around it. Not that we actually set out to do that. These things happen.

After our pita bread and wake-up black olive jolt, we sat with the hotel’s instant coffee cooling beside our computers and tried to figure out how to get to Masada and the Sea of Galilee [Europeans actually like Nescafe; they have special drinks, hot and chilled, made from it, and they offer it on their menus as a specific choice.] The difficulties sprang like hydras, and twisted and knotted around one another until we threw up our hands two hours later and said, forget it. The problem is that to get to either of those places you have to spend about $100 per person for a bus trip that is subject to the whims and traffic jams of Jerusalem streets, and the delays of stopping at a dozen different hotels to pick fellow travelers up, that takes you to a lot of places you don’t want to go. They advertise Nazareth, etc. [don’t want to go], several other places [don’t want to go], a sweeping panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee [don’t want a panoramic view, I want to wade in it and walk its shores], and a stop for shopping [don’t want it]. So most of the long and tiresome hours you spend and pay for aren’t at places you want to be (which is why they would be long and tiresome).

We left late as a result – just before noon, and stopped at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center to find out about evening Mass. Jerusalem is filled with people’s dreams about what Jerusalem should be and mean, in the form of institutes and gardens and parks, dedicated monuments, places of worship, and organizations meant to help others. Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center was originally for French pilgrims; the Count of Piellat in 1883 or so provided the initial land. After a series of misfortunes in the various wars, the Vatican took it over, and now has the Legionnaires running it as an educational and pilgrimage center with hotel rooms, classes, and a nice restaurant.

From there we headed toward the King David Hotel, thinking that it would be a good place to find out the cost of hiring a taxi for the day so that we could see our choice of dreams rather than other people’s ideas of what the dreams should be. Our not-at-all direct route [we were more or less lost] took us along the Azriel Promenade donated by the Jewish Foundation of Canada – many blocks of shade and plantings of white calla lilies, lavender, rosemary, exotic flowers and pleasant trees – and into a plaza where we stood looking helplessly at the map. A nice English-speaking native came along and accompanied us for a ways up the hill and pointed us the right direction – very often standing around looking helpless with a map is the best way to get to where you want to go.

There were more gardens up the hill toward the hotel, with nasturtiums, pansies and honeysuckle, and the hotel walks were lined with white shrub roses. It’s a delight to be so far from home and find so many friendly plants – but un-nerving too. Where are the plants from 2000 years ago?  These familiar flowers seem yet another overlay of people’s dreams onto the land of the Caananites, a grace-note version of the embodied dreams and ideas of all of the different peoples who have inhabited or ruled this territory.

The King David is, by everyone’s standards, the luxe hotel in Israel. It features a long hallway of marble, inlaid with a strip of white stone on which are imprinted the names, signatures, and visiting dates of Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger (probably some women too, but not many), and so on. The King David is as far as it is possible to get from the Arab Quarter where our hotel lives. It was nice to go there and see the other side of things, and nice to know that the Rivoli and the Palestinian District have their place in the city too.

As we headed across the street to the Jerusalem YMCA, which is only a short step down in quality from the King David, a taxi driver accosted us and asked us where we wanted to go. We said, “Masada, but not today, Monday.” “OK, I take you for $320 round trip, both of you. The north shore of the Dead Sea, the south shore, the . . .” “OK,” we said, “What about the Sea of Galilee?” “I show you everything for a little more. $480 – Nazareth, Capernaum, . . .” “No, no, we only want to see the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan.” “But you will like . . .” And so forth. “Today, I take you to Jericho. Just half a day, $220. You will want to see.” “No, we don’t want to see.” “No . . . We took his card and walked away. Twice as much (with tip) as the bus, and still just as likely that we would see a whole lot we weren’t interested in.

Now what? Jim thought he’d like to walk around the Old City, and I wanted to go to Mt. Zion to see what was there. We headed downhill again – most maps don’t show topography, so when you see a road that runs more or less the direction you want, it doesn’t occur to you to think that you will descend a few hundred feet down steep stairs along the way. And what goes down is likely to come back up, at a time when you are more thirsty and fatigued than when you started down the hill. That was the case here, and we arrived half an hour later, with a sizable gain in elevation, at the Zion Gate on Mt. Zion along with today’s pilgrimages. Our favorite here was the middle-aged Japanese group who all wore white nylon vests with lots of zippered pockets, embroidered in black with “Cherubim.”

Pilgrims and others outside the Old City wall.

Mt. Zion’s buildings include an area marked off as King David’s Tomb (a low arched stone area blackened with candle smoke), a museum, a building honoring the Holocaust victims, and a church that is believed to be the room of the Last Supper. Like many other churches in the city, it was built by the Crusaders on the site of something earlier, and then turned into a mosque during the Turkish centuries before being returned to its current use by the British in the early 1900s. The mosque’s prayer niche, and one of its domes are still in the room.

Arched remnant of  a mosque that at one time occupied the Upper Room.

The room itself, while we were there had three other pilgrim groups. At the foot of the steep stairs leading to the Upper Room, as it is known, were the “Dos and Don’ts” – most notably, “You are at a holy site. Please respect the sanctity of the site. Absolutely no religious services allowed.” A bit contradictory, and not noticed by many of the groups apparently. Above the voices of the guides for the three different groups rose the chatter of the members of the groups, and then a loud “Shhhhh!” or two from other members. Soon, two nuns in one group chanted for a while, and when they were finished, men in the group went into a different chant, possibly Latin. Over in the adjacent corner the orange hats pilgrimage group were exiting, singing their own song. And as we came down the stairs to a courtyard, a French guide began leading his group in a French carol/folk song, very charming.

The “Upper Room,” believed to be the site of the last supper that Christ had with his disciples. I don’t recall where the shadow that looks like a bug came from.

They weren’t the only people in the area chanting. Near the Chamber of the Holocaust was a Jewish area, divided into a courtyard, and a large room. The room was for Men’s Prayers, and a section of the courtyard against a back wall had a sign, “Women’s Prayer Station.” Two dozen girls, ages four to about nine (and one four-year-old boy) were lined up on benches yelling out their lessons in chorus. Leading them was a nine-year-old girl in a floor-length gray satiny, swirly-skirted gorgeous dress; long black hair; she twirled and conducted and led them in their rousing choruses of Hebrew prayer that drowned out the men and echoed off the stone walls. I’d have given a lot to have a dress like that at the age of nine. Nineteen too, probably.

Tree of Life sculpture in the Upper Room.

From there we headed downhill, past a weedy area alongside the bus park. We met up with a long-legged black beetle, some butterflies, sparrows, lots of grasses, and a few of the red poppies that in Greece were sacred to Athena, but here are probably sacred to a saint. It was 3:00 p.m. and the walk led along open streets with little shade from the very hot sun, down the hill to the Valley of Kidron. This area is also called the City of David, with a long stretch of archeological excavations on both sides of the road that runs through the area. Across the valley is the Mount of Olives, with its own rich history, including a Russian church with half a dozen of the distinctive gold onion domes (it’s the Church of the Ascension, built over the rock which is believed to be where Christ ascended into heaven; it tris now managed by the Muslims). A couple of Roman tombs from the second century C.E. are cut into the rock in the valley – they look entirely Roman, and are called Absalom’s Tomb and Zechariah’s Tomb.

Jackdaw (crow cousin) on steps outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

We started uphill again, and came closer to the Golden Gate which was blocked off by the Muslims in the seventh century to prevent the Messiah from coming through as the Jews believe that He will do at the second coming. It’s worth noting that some Christians share that belief (I had not heard of it before), and that the Muslims also believe that Allah will come through that gate at the end of history. The walk runs through an Arabic cemetery with graves all the way up to the wall, and spilling down the steep slope on the other side of the walk. There was no mention of this very large cemetery in our guidebooks, even though it continued up the hill  nearly all the way to the end of the east side of the wall, a distance of several blocks. It took some research on Google to discover that the Muslims began to bury their dead there (according to a couple of web sites) because they believed that high priests were not allowed to go through cemeteries, and that because the Messiah would be a high priest, he would not be able to go through.

Part of the Muslim cemetery outside the eastern wall of the Old City.

For a long hot half hour we saw almost no-one. There were a few soldiers and a couple of little boys playing by St. Stephen’s Gate, a German tour group (not breaking into song), and a couple of random other walkers, but it mostly we had the walk to ourselves and the occupants of the graves. Only two out of the many hundreds there looked recently cared for – one with fresh paint on the unpolished white stone (they all were the same material, and all simple), and one with a low clump of yellow daisies blooming – but they could have been there twenty years or more. Some of the graves had large palm leaves laid across them, gray and brittle with years of weathering.

At about 4:00, we turned the corner onto Suleiman Street which was choked with buses and cars, and crossed over to the market side, almost overwhelmed with the contrast. There were even more people and vendors, more noise and smoke from the grills, more families and teenage boys, and the heavily coated and scarfed (but not veiled – we have seen almost no women veiled) women always carrying bags of something than when we left at noon. We pushed through the crowds, anxious for the hotel and a glass of water, stopping only to notice that the women in the front of the hotel were counting stacks of grape leaves.

Suleiman Street, a main street that runs alongside the Old City. The umbrellas and shades each protect a street food vendor from the sun.

Later in the evening I asked the guys at the baguette restaurant where we dined about the vendors. The women, they said, come in from the West Bank, bringing their own vegetables that they grow – without fertilizers or insecticides [perhaps because they can’t afford them?]. They said that these are the best vegetables and fruits in the city, and they themselves always buy from the West Bank women. I asked about the other vendors – they were still doing a bustling business at 6:15 when we walked over to the Notre Dame Center for Mass, and at 8:15 – well after sunset – they were just closing up. Where does all of that stuff go every night, I asked – all of the teddy bears and plastic dishes and pots and pans and table clothes and shoes and socks and stripy bras and bags of nuts and . . . ? They take it all away for the night, I was told – in their cars, or maybe to a storage place in the network of streets and alleys behind the main street. Every bit of it. The baguette guys also said that this was Saturday, and many more people come on Saturdays because the Israeli police aren’t handing out tickets.

We did walk to the Notre Dame Center, and sang through the 6:30 Mass that was half English and half Latin, with a small choir and a small organ, and a tall Irish priest who held a “birthday party” for Pope Benedict around the baptismal font at the back of the church afterward. He asked if anyone had a camera to take a picture of the brief event, so Jim obliged and spent some time this evening trying to get his computer to cooperate in sending along the photos which will go to the Pope himself. We walked back through the chilly desert darkness with a low crescent moon and Venus shining below it in the sky.

Legionnaire priest Fr. Eamon Kelly, holding a “birthday party” for Pope Benedict XVI after the Saturday evening Mass at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem.

Our present plan is to take the train to Caesarea – Roman ruins and beaches – on Monday. Tomorrow might be nice, but the Israeli soldiers can ride the trains free on Sunday and Thursday, so they are often crowded. [Another aside – we asked the baguette guys, who speak good English and are friendly, if they had ever taken the train to Tel Aviv. They were puzzled. No train, the bus goes to Tel Aviv. We insisted that the train went. They turned to a much older man who was chatting with a friend outside the restaurant. No, he said, bus. No train. The train goes for the Jews – no train for the Arab section. So although they could go on the train, we are sure, the fact is that it leaves from a Jewish section of town, and they won’t therefore go on it.] That gives us more time tomorrow to explore parts of Jerusalem that we haven’t seen. Like Athens, it seems to hold enough for months of exploration, so we shouldn’t have any trouble finding things to do.

Montefiore windmill, built in Jerusalem in 1857, to grind wheat into flour. There was not enough wind to turn the blades, and the Israeli wheat was harder than the grain that the mill was designed for, so the mill was not a commercial success.

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