We had a very full day throughout the Old City of Jerusalem, getting to know at least a little bit of each of its quarters. There’s lots of sights, smells, and cultures packed into a very small area.
We started our day at church. Jenny’s uncle is the pastor of the English-language congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City. It’s not quite at the location of the crucifixion of Christ (that’s covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a chaotic building full of contentious sects that the orderly Lutherans are probably glad not to be involved with), but it’s just a block away. There are actually several congregations at the church (Arabic, English, German, and Danish), so the English congregation meets in a smaller chapel away from the main sanctuary. It’s a small space that was cozy for the group of 25 worshippers this morning. There were lots of visitors from around the world in the service, much more than the number of actual members there, and it was very welcoming for us.
After church, Fred and Gloria led us through the market (souk) and introduced us to some sellers that they like and trust. From there, they dropped us off at Jaffa Gate to start a free walking tour of the Old City. Allan was our Scottish tour guide, and he did a really good job of giving us an introduction to the city (well, good except for the time he lost us – fortunately, we found him later). He led us through the Armenian Quarter, up on the rooftops, down into the Hebrew Quarter (and down to the recently-excavated “Cardo”, the Roman’era market street), over to the Western Wall (this is where we got lost/he lost us), and through the Muslim Quarter to the Christian Quarter, with a brief discussion of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We probably would have gotten a more thorough introduction by taking the paid tour (85 NIS ~ $21/apiece), but this was really good for costing just a tip.
Amazingly, after all that exploration, it was still only 1pm. So, for lunch, we went to Abu Shukri, a hummus restaurant right on the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter. Really good hummus and falafel that cost only $11, including a Coke Zero and Pomegranate Juice! Om nom nom nom.
After that break, it was time to get back on our feet. We followed the historical pilgrimage route of the Via Dolorosa, what’s traditionally (and probably ahistorically) the path Jesus took from sentencing to crucifixion. Some of the Stations of the Cross are in churches, and we were able to see inside a few of them. However, some of the Stations are just seemingly arbitrary spots in the road where someone decided 1500+ years after Jesus’ life that this stone is where Jesus stumbled, talked to some women, or something. So, in summary, it’s one of those things that I did because you have to do it, but it doesn’t generally make much sense.
The last few stations were in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and this time we went in. That church is amazing and bizarre. According to legend, that one building contains the burial site of Adam, the crucifixion site of Jesus (Golgotha), Jesus’ tomb, and a cave in which the True Cross was found hundreds of years later. These sites (particularly Golgotha and the tomb) were inundated by Christians from around the world, though seemingly mostly from Russia. We got into the same rooms as these spots, but we weren’t willing to spend the hours necessary to wait in line to touch the Golgotha stone and enter the tomb. We also took a picture of the Unction Stone, the 200-yr-old stone that represents the stone upon which Jesus’ body was prepared for burial 2000 years ago – we didn’t follow the lead of some in laying on and crying on the the stone, or in rubbing a rag on the stone in order to bring back the holiness.
In other words, we followed the pilgrimage route, but we weren’t real pilgrims.
What makes the church more chaotic is that a bunch of different sects have responsibility and ownership for different parts. A Catholic altar is right next to a Greek Orthodox altar. The Syrians run this chapel, and the Copts run that chapel. The Ethiopians live on the roof. It’s bizarre.
Something that helped make some sense of it was another free tourism resource we found: free audio tours provided by the Old City of Jerusalem. I loaded them on my phone, and Jenny loaded them onto her iPod, and we learned about the city wandering through the ancient streets using 21st-century technology. For a free resource, we highly recommend it.
After the Christian pilgrimage, we used another audio tour to explore the Hebrew Quarter. Much of the Hebrew Quarter was destroyed in the 1948 and 1967 wars, and then Israel cleared out a lot of Muslim homes after they took over. The result is that the Quarter doesn’t have as much of an “ancient city” feel as the rest of the city. The shops are newer and more expensive, not the tourist trap after spice shop after tourist trap you see in the souks of the Christian and Muslim Quarters.
Our audio tour ended up at the Western Wall. Unlike our earlier trip on the free tour (when we were looking with four other tourists for our tour guide instead of focusing on the moment), we tried to let the place soak in more. The square was pretty crowded, so we didn’t push forward to touch the wall ourselves. Also, the men and women have separate sections of the wall, which both annoyed Jenny and made her not willing to risk getting separated by the crowds. Apparently, the crowds were bigger than a normal Sunday evening because of prayers for the Gaza situation, though it was apparently nowhere near as crowded as on a high holy day, a national holiday, or the start of Sabbath. The prayers were read over the loudspeaker, so everyone heard them. Unfortunately, we had no idea what they were saying in Hebrew. I’m curious if the prayers about Gaza were prayers for peace or prayers for victory, but either way it was the only way that the current crisis impacted our day at all.
By then, it was dark. So, we walked back to Damascus Gate, found the Old Arab Bus Station, and took a Palestinian Bus Service minibus to Fred and Gloria’s house. Time for dinner, relaxation, and writing up a blog post so that we don’t forget our full and amazing day.
There’s a lot more of Jerusalem to see (particularly the Temple on the Mount, the Mount of Olives, and some parts of the New City), but that’ll wait a few days. Tomorrow, we’re planning to go to Masada, the Dead Sea, and Jericho.