A Final Day with the Three Great Monotheisms

Today’s the last day of our trip. I’m writing this as we’re getting ready to fly home this evening after spending a final day in and around the Old City. We spent the day exploring the history and sites of the three great Monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

We started out with Islam by visiting Haram Ash-Sharif, the Temple Mount. I’ve been curious to see the Temple Mount since my mother returned from a trip to Israel in 1987 with stories of her trip. What was up there? What do the Muslims have on the land that used to contain the Jewish Temples? What’s in the buildings? In order to answer some of those questions, we got up really early to be at the entrance before the doors opened at 7:30. We’d heard stories of lines so long and security so tight that people in line at 7:30 didn’t get in when the gates closed at 10:30. Fortunately for us, that wasn’t a problem this time, as the line was short and the security relatively quick.

We ascended up a rickety wooden ramp to the only gate that non-Muslims are allowed to use (Muslims have many other entrances available to them). Once in, we spent about an hour wandering the grounds, looking at the amazing Dome of the Rock and the other buildings on the site, and enjoying the views of the Old City and the Mount of Olives. Unfortunately, non-Muslims are no longer allowed into any of the buildings on the the site, so I still didn’t get a first-hand answer to one of my old questions. I even got yelled at by some Muslim women for getting to close to the door of the main mosque there, the Al Aqsa – I thought I would be able to just look through the door, but even that was crossing the line.

Overall, though, the Temple Mount is a nice place to see. It’s much calmer than the surrounding Jewish and Muslim Quarters, especially in the northern half near the schools – tour guides seem not to have a reason to take their groups there. It’s also a good place to see some of the best examples of Islamic architecture from many different eras.

Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount

Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount

Domeof the Rock through a Qanatir

Domeof the Rock through a Qanatir

Keeping non-Muslims out of the Dome of the Rock

Keeping non-Muslims out of the Dome of the Rock

After that visit to one of the holiest sites in the Islamic world, it was time for church. We went back to Uncle Fred’s church, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. It was very similar to last weeks service, with one big exception: this time we had friends there. We saw Esther, the medical student from Papua New Guinea who also stayed at Fred and Gloria’s for much of the week to avoid the rockets in Beer Sheva. We saw Sven and Susan, a Norwegian/American couple we met last Sunday and with whom we ate at our second Thanksgiving Dinner. We saw the children of the Sunday School again. It was a very comfortable place to be.

After Church with Esther, our new Friend from Papua New Guinea

After Church with Esther, our new Friend from Papua New Guinea

After learning about Islam and celebrating with a Christian community, it was time to learn more about Judaism. We went to two museums that teach about the life of a wealthy neighborhood of Jerusalem that was destroyed by the Romans in 72 CE: the Burnt House (named after the ash in the ruins still left from the Roman destruction of the city) and the Wohl Archaeological Museum (aka the Herodian Quarter). The museums are run by the same people, as both display the results of excavations that were made after the Israel won Jerusalem in the 1967 War. Combined between the 1948 War and the 1967 War, the Jewish Quarter was largely destroyed, so they decided to delay rebuilding the site until after they had excavated it. Under the rubble, they found several houses from the Second Temple period. The houses probably houses Temple priests, as they were mansions of the era, with many personal ritual baths, frescos, and tile work.

We found Wohl to be much better than the Burnt House. Not only did it show a lot more buildings and artifacts, but also the Burnt House was explained through a really cheesy movie with bad CGI that imagined the life of the family.

The Ruins of the Burnt House

The Ruins of the Burnt House

With that, it was time to head to the last major item on Jenny’s wish list – the Mount of Olives.

On the way, we stopped at St. Ann’s Church and the Pool of Bethesda. The Pool is the site of a claimed miracle of Jesus, now the ruins of a Roman Temple, a Byzantine Church, and a Crusader Church, all built over a few huge cisterns. The Church venerates Mary’s Mother, and is one of the places that claims to be the site of Mary’s birth (the Russian Orthodox have a rival claim at a church next door).

Ruins at the Pool of Bethsda

Ruins at the Pool of Bethsda

After that, we left the Old City through the Lion Gate. I really hope to have a change to go back again. We descended into the Kidron Valley, and then started the hike up the Mount of Olives.

At the base of the Mount of Olives, there are several churches that we visited:

  • The Tomb of the Virgin Mary is where the Orthodox Church claim Mary is buried (the German Catholics make the claim for the Dormition Abbey on Mt. Zion). It’s a pretty but dark church, accessed by going down a lot of steps into the ground. There are several altars there for different Orthodox Groups: Copts, Syrians, Greek, etc.
  • Directly next door is the Grotto of Gethsemane, one of the claimants for the location where Jesus was arrested.
  • Across the street is the Church of All Nations, which might have the Garden of Gethsemane on its land (though a Russian Church behind it would disagree).
  • Finally was Dominus Flevit, a teardrop-shaped church which claims to be where Jesus cried for  Jerusalem.
The Stairs Down Into the Tomb of the Virgin Mary

The Stairs Down Into the Tomb of the Virgin Mary

View of the Dome of the Rock from Dominus Flevit Church

View of the Dome of the Rock from Dominus Flevit Church

Our final tourist stop of the trip was the top of the Mt. of Olives. Not only was the view of the city fantastic, but it showed many sites holy to all three religions: Mosques, Churches, and Synagogues. The Mt. of Olives has a huge Jewish cemetery because that’s where the resurrection is thought to happen, and it faces a Muslim cemetery on the city walls where some Muslims think the judgement will start. And between them? Churches. It’s a fascinating place and a great last stop.

Mt. of Olives: Jewish Cemetery, Churches, and a Muslim Cemetery

Mt. of Olives: Jewish Cemetery, Churches, and a Muslim Cemetery

So, we’re about to set in for our final dinner here, made by Aunt Gloria. She and Uncle Fred have been fantastic hosts, giving us advice, a great place to stay, teaching us about the history and cultures of area, and introducing us to great people.

We hope to come back to Israel and Palestine, but we won’t have these hosts. But I think we’ve learned enough to do it on our own.

A few notes that don’t fit anywhere else:

  • I’m probably going to go through shwarma and falafel withdrawal.
  • I passed up the opportunity to have a Falafel Laffa. I probably should have ordered it simply because it’s so much fun to say.
  • Two pomegranates make a very nice glass of freshly-squeezed juice.
  • We met many Arab friends of Fred and Gloria, but we realized that most of them are from the Arab Christian population. Some were Lutheran, some were Syrian Orthodox, and some were probably other sects. Perhaps we’ll come on another trip and interact more directly with the Jewish population here and with the Muslim population. But the expats and Arab Christians we got to know were all memorably nice.
  • As I write this, the afternoon call to Muslim prayer is echoing through the valley from a bunch of different mosques. It is strangely beautiful, but distracting. If I lived here, I don’t know if I would learn to ignore it, learn to love it, or get really, really sick of it.
  • When I initially anticipated the 13-hour Transatlantic flight we have this evening, I thought I would probably watch movies (I saw “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” on the way over), would catch up on podcasts, or would label photos. Instead, I’ll probably just sleep – we’re tired.
  • Observing the clothing here is interesting:
    • Most Christians, secular Jews, and Muslim men wear generally wear clothes that are little different than what you would see in WASP America.
    • Arab boys, men, and girls seem to look identical whether they are Christian or Muslim (except perhaps if you see them during one of the daily times for Muslim prayers). You can tell Arab Christian women apart from Arab Muslim women by the headscarves that Muslim women wear. It was interesting to see how the young, fashionable Muslim women made their headscarves part of their fashionable appeal – they used fabrics, colors, and even special folds to stand out while hiding their hair. We also saw the full burka, in which nothing was visible but a woman’s eyes, but that was very rare in Jerusalem.
    • Orthodox Jews have very distinctive clothing, with the men seeming to wear identical suits, shirts, hats, and pants. Often you can see the strings of their Tzitzit hanging out from under their shirts. They also wear hats every day, but their Sabbath hats are special – they look like big fur tires. It is fun to see an Orthodox Jewish man rushing down David Street, dressed in the finest 18th-century Eastern European fashion, with iPod headphones sticking out of his formal coat.
    • Clothing for Orthodox Jewish women shows a bit more personality, but is still identifiable – long skirts, modest tops, and a wig or wrap to cover her hair.
    • We saw more varieties of Christian priestly garb on the streets than we’re used to. Franciscans, Syrian Orthodox, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox all have distinctive robes and hats, and they’re all over the Christian Quarter. Uncle Fred is lucky in comparison – I never saw him wear his Lutheran alb outside of church.
  • Finally, while a baseball cap is good for keeping both the sun and the rain out of my eyes, my bright read St. Louis Cardinals cap was just too identifying. There’s a shopkeeper in the Armenian Quarter who got pretty aggressive with us the fourth time he noticed us walking past his shop without going in. Perhaps I should have brought something less conspicuous.
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About Lance Finney

Father of two boys, Java developer, Ethical Humanist, and world traveler (when I can sneak it in). Contributor to Grounded Parents.
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