At the Centre of Action

Jerusalem (7 – 11 May 2013)

I arrived at my hotel in Jerusalem, La Perle, at about 9 pm on 6 May. By then the reception had closed.

It was somewhat embarrassing when the manager of La Perle, Daniela, called me in the late afternoon that day to find out where the hell I was. I had told her before that I would arrive at between 1 to 2 pm. By late afternoon, I was still chatting with Liliana in Tiberias about my adventures in Nazareth and Megiddo that day. I had clean forgotten about what I had told Daniela! Fortunately, Daniela could leave the keys in the letter box near the door for me.

My hotel was in West Jerusalem, the new part of the city. I was amazed at how European this part of the city looked. If someone had kidnapped me and brought me to West Jerusalem without telling me so, and covered up all the street signs, I might have thought that I was somewhere in Eastern Europe.

Just outside the old city

Ben Yehuda Street

Ben Yehuda Street

The scenes of Jerusalem most often shown in postcards and travel articles however were taken in East Jerusalem, the old part. This is also where the holy sites of the 3 Abrahamic religions are. Is there any wonder that everybody wants East Jerusalem?

I remember hearing many people say that Rome is the holy city of the Catholics, like what Mecca is to the Muslims and Varanasi to the Hindus. This to me is quite a misguided belief. Although Rome does receive pilgrims, it is merely where the Pope lives. People need to understand that the single most important event in all of Christianity is the Resurrection of Jesus. This happened in Jerusalem. If there is to be a Mecca or Varanasi equivalent for Catholics, that will no doubt be Jerusalem.

Within the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre are the spots believed by the Catholics and Orthodox Christians where both the Crucifixion and Resurrection had taken place. The church is unfortunately also a prime example of how Christians can be religious and yet at the same time be sorely lacking in Christian brotherliness.

This church is shared by the Catholic and some of the Eastern churches. There is a status quo agreement from 1853 under which the various denominations agree that no part of any common territory may be moved, removed or altered without the joint consent of all the denominations. Despite the agreement, the smallest of incidences had resulted in physical violence among these religious people, e.g. leaving a door open or moving a chair from an agreed spot, in the past. The denominations cannot even agree to crucial repairs to parts of the common territory. The ladder under the right window above the church entrance is called the Immovable Ladder and has been left there since at least the mid 19th century. The relevant people for some inexplicable reason simply cannot agree together on its removal.

Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

Thus the holiest site in much of Christianity is also the site of a big farce.

It should also be pointed out that the custodian of the key to the main door of the church is a Muslim family.

Being the supposed location of two really important Christian events, this church is always crazy crowded! There is always a long queue to visit the Aedicule, within which is the tomb where Jesus was buried according to the Catholics and Orthodox Christians. I think I waited almost an hour to get in. And this was during a quieter part of the day! Then after something like 2 minutes at best I had to leave.

The Aedicule containing Jesus’ tomb

Golgotha is on the second floor of the church. It is a small area and gets really crowded too. Small place and large crowd, lethal combination indeed. It was also quite hard for me to take a decent picture.

Golgotha (People are queueing up to venerate the stone on which the cross was raised. This is under the altar.)

Legend has it that Adam’s skull is buried under Golgotha. When the cross was raised, Jesus’ blood had dripped onto and seeped through the ground and then landed on Adam’s skull. This signifies the cleansing of mankind by the holy blood of Jesus.

This legend would of course mean nothing at all to Protestants since I think  they mostly believe that the Crucifixion and Resurrection had taken place at the Garden Tomb instead.

Every Friday, Catholics follow the stations of the cross in the old city. Nine of the stations are along the Via Dolorosa. The remaining five are in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. I had considered doing it but I always feel weird worshipping in public. I know it is Jerusalem and all but I do not enjoy public worship.

Jesus’ handprint along the Via Dolorosa

There seems to be more pilgrims from Russia than anywhere else. You can usually spot them from a mile away. They always come in a big group, the ladies always wear a headscarf in church since they are Orthodox Christians and they can be quite aggressive in getting into places. Whenever I saw them, I could not help but think about all the stories of Russians being unfriendly to foreigners and even being downright racist. I admit that I do not know any Russian, but the country sounds like such a dangerous or at least inhospitable place to visit for someone like me who is clearly Asian that I have not mustered enough courage yet to make a trip there on my own. Then there are also the news reports about Russia claiming its “sphere of influence” which to me is another way of saying “These countries are my minions.” The Russian pilgrims I came across did look quite religious though. On the other hand, it seems that nowadays the more religious someone is the more likely he or she is a Hitler, or at least an absolute nutcase.

The Mount of Olives is a hotspot for religious sites. This is a hill not a mountain and lies east of the old city.

Church of All Nations or Basilica of the Agony (it enshrines a section of the bedrock where Jesus was said to have prayed before his arrest)

Ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane that might have met Jesus

Church of the Pater Noster (it stands on the traditional site on which Jesus had taught the Lord’s Prayer)

The Church of the Pater Noster was the most noteworthy for me among this group of churches. Along the walls are murals of the Lord’s Prayer in many different languages. And I do mean many!

Dominus Flevit Church (it commemorates the time when Jesus had cried for Jerusalem because he knew that the Second Temple would be destroyed and the Jewish nation would be scattered around the world)

Church of the Sepulchre of St Mary or Tomb of the Virgin Mary (Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that it marks Mary’s burial place)

Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene

It was only much later that I realised that I had missed out on the chapel commemorating the Ascension. Darn…

There are also other religious spots just outside the walls of the old city.

Church of St Peter in Gallicantu (it commemorates Peter’s triple denial of Jesus)

One of the underground crypts at the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu. Jesus might have been imprisoned in one of these.

Remains of steps on which Jesus had walked on the night he was arrested

Representation of Mary’s tomb at the Basilica of the Assumption (or Dormition) outside the Zion Gate

I found out what a lousy map reader I was when I was searching for the Basilica of the Assumption. It is just outside the Zion Gate and yet I went all over the place in the vicinity trying to find it, thinking that it was some distance away from the old city wall. I bumped into some police officers near the Zion Gate and asked one of them for directions. It was a little embarrassing when she pointed to it and it was just right in front of me. Fortunately it was very obvious that I was merely a (dumb) tourist.

The Last Supper is by tradition taken to have been been eaten nearby in this room:

The Cenacle or Upper Room where by tradition the Last Supper is said to have taken place. The room looks too new by more than 1,000 years. There is even a mihrab in there (far right of picture) which was put there when the Ottomans made it into a mosque.

A room on the ground floor in the same building as the Cenacle is held by tradition to be King David’s burial place.

Jerusalem is so old and has been through so much in its long history that there are pockets of archaeological remains everywhere in the city. One noteworthy site is David’s Citadel, wrongly assumed by some brilliant Christians to be David’s, which is within the old city and quite hard to miss. The famous Tower of David in the citadel, in reality a Muslim minaret and therefore hardly Jewish, is an obvious landmark standing tall near the Jaffa Gate. The Tower of David Museum in the compound showcases the history of Jerusalem.

David’s Citadel

The real David’s palace is in the City of David, now an archaeological site outside the city walls. I tried to visit it on Saturday, my last day in Jerusalem, and found that it is closed on Shabbat.

Tomb of Absalom (in reality a burial monument for the adjacent burial cave and was built in the 1st century)

Remains of the Cardo

For an information overload on Israeli archaeology, a visit to the Israel Museum is a must. It was a really fascinating visit for me and I even got to see the Dead Sea Scrolls!

Model of Second Temple (part of model of entire old city of Jerusalem)

Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls

Mock up of ancient tomb

Ancient medical prescription (What on earth do they mean by an “impure” woman?)

Perhaps the most moving part of the city for me was the Western Wall. This is what remains of the wall that surrounded the courtyard of the great Second Temple of Jerusalem that had once stood on the Temple Mount.

Western Wall (men on the left, ladies on the right)

Western Wall

Despite the Temple no longer being there for so many centuries, people still come to this wall to pray and worship God. The faith of the Jewish people and the continuity of this ancient people’s religious beliefs and practices move me.

I think that no visit to Jerusalem can be considered complete without visiting the Temple Mount. I was brought up there during a city tour that I had joined.

Access to the Temple Mount is very strictly controlled. The only way up is via this big wooden ramp on the side of the Western Wall and visitors have to screened and checked like before boarding a plane. All other access points to the Temple Mount are guarded by armed soldiers and only Muslims are allowed through. Tourist visits are also only limited to certain times.

Dome of the Rock

The one highlight of my entire time in Israel has got to be this: visiting the gorgeous Dome of the Rock up close. It may not be as moving as the Western Wall but it was definitely very significant for me.

I was of course not allowed into the Dome which is a mosque, but it was sufficient for me to be able to walk around it and touch its cool marble wall. This place to me represents all the political and religious conflicts in the Middle East today. And these conflicts have shaped and are still shaping the way we do so many things.

I also felt grateful that I would not be struck dead if I should ever venture into the spot that used to be the Holy of Holies.

8 May 2013 was Jerusalem Day and I was lucky to be in the city then. On this day, the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the old city after the Six Day War is celebrated. Bands of Jewish youngsters, mostly boys it seemed, wandered around the streets carrying banners and Israeli flags.

Jerusalem Day celebrations

Jerusalem Day celebrations

There was a protest by a small group of Palestinians just outside the Damascus Gate. The protesters were waving banners and shouting slogans and later a group of Jewish boys came along and proceeded to drown out the Palestinians with their own slogans. It got a bit intense though no one seemed to want to fight. Nevertheless, the security forces decided to stand ready between the two opposing groups just in case. The restraint exercised by both sides, other than the shouting match, was very commendable indeed.

Palestinian protesters

Jewish boys celebrating Jerusalem Day

Crowd at the Palestinian protest

It was all rather interesting. If only I knew what the hell each side was saying.

Jerusalem is such a intriguing place! I spent a little over 4 days exploring the city and I feel that I had only seen a small part of it. I had actually planned to do a day trip to the Dead Sea to see the lake and Masada but in the end decided to give up the idea because I felt that I needed to give Jerusalem more time. I will definitely have to visit Jerusalem again.

Damascus Gate

View from David’s Citadel towards the Mount of Olives

Zion Gate with bullet holes

Deir Es-Sultan on roof of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

Old city bazaar

Jewish cemetery on Mount of Olives

View from Mount of Olives towards old city. The Golden Gate is sealed off to prevent the Messiah from entering. The Ottomans also built a cemetery in front of the gate in the belief that Elijah, the Messiah’s precursor could be prevented from entering and thus the coming of the Messiah could be prevented as well. Since Elijah was a descendant of Aaron, and therefore a priest, he was not allowed to enter a cemetery.


Lions’ Gate

On old city rooftop

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