June 2005 Jerusalem photos
We visited Jerusalem twice, once with Jessica Burshell and once with Carol Robinson. Both times, our first stop was on the outskirts of New Jerusalem, to see the Dead Sea scrolls at the Israel Museum. To our disappointment, the Shrine of the Book shows only a small portion of one of the original scrolls (the rest of the scrolls on display being facsimiles). The display is still impressive, and the story of the discovery and preservation is almost as compelling as the stories in the scrolls. It involves a shepherd boy who threw a rock into a cave, various scheming antiquities dealers, the outbreak of the 1948 War of Independence, and lots of cloak and dagger stuff. The historical significance of the scrolls is that they are the oldest known Hebrew version of the Bible. The only Jewish religious tracts that pre-date the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Greek, the written language of the Middle East from the time of Alexander until the Middle Ages.

Actually, more impressive than the Israel Museum in terms of historical perspective was the Bible Lands Museum right across the street, where we spent several hours on each of our two trips. Despite the vaguely religious sound of its name, Bible Lands is not at all religious, or even particularly Judeo-centric. It has an incredible wealth of archeological finds from all over Israel, Jordan and Egypt, with extremely thorough and erudite explanations in English as well as Hebrew. We learned a lot about the history of writing, of seals and signatures, burial rites, architecture, wars and migrations in the Middle East, from the dawn of history to the Diaspora. Later, when we visited Egypt, we were really glad we had seen the displays and descriptions of the Pyramids in the Bible Lands Museum, which explained things much better than anything available at Giza!

For both of our Jerusalem visits we had lodgings in the Old City, which is still surrounded by high walls, built by Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th Century. While one can drive into parts of it, most of it is inaccessible to cars, being narrow covered streets with steps, so we left our rental car in a garage just outside the Jaffa Gates near where we stayed. When we were with Jess, we stayed at a Maronite Christian convent, in simple small rooms around a lovely peaceful courtyard. On our second trip, with Carol, we stayed at the funky Imperial Hotel. It dates from the 19th century and is where Kaiser Wilhelm once stayed. Its grandeur is definitely faded by now, but we were hooked when we found that Selma Lagerlof had spent time there. (She's the author of "The Wonderful Adventures of Nils," whence Akka got her name.) The Imperial proved as noisy as the convent had been peaceful, but it was all a good adventure.

On both trips first "must-see" in the Old City was the Western (or Wailing) Wall, the holiest of Jewish sites. It is the last remaining vestige of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 AD. Since taking over Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has cleared an enormous plaza in front of the Western Wall. Extraordinarily tight security is enforced to enter this plaza, with metal detectors and 4-5 armed uniformed personnel to check all bags. About 2/3 of the way toward the Wall, a fence separates spectators from the worshippers; then, inside that fence, there's another fence perpendicular to the Wall that separates the men's area from the women's. The women only get about 1/3 of the Wall; we understand that the women's share of the wall has been decreased over the years as ultra-Orthodox groups exert their influence. From inside the men's area there is access to a tunnel that goes under the buildings on that side of the square. Rob went into the tunnel, to find a library and lots more men reading and praying. We went to the plaza by the Wall several times, and we'd say there were generally around 200 men and women in the prayer enclosure, on average. Black and white predominated as the clothing colors of choice. One time, we saw a number of boys being escorted into the enclosure by singing men; it turns out they were having their bar mitzvahs. The boys' female relatives who wanted to watch had to bring chairs into the women's enclosure and stand precariously on them, so they could see over the barricade. Interestingly, the boys were not dressed up, but wore t-shirts and jeans - unusually informal wear even for the Old City in general, let alone at the Wall. Later, as we ascended the ramp to the Temple Mount, we noticed a group holding what looked like another bar mitzvah, in the archaeological excavations spanned by the ramp. The Wall continues over there, though we're not sure if this is still the wall of the old Temple or simply part of the retaining wall for Temple Mount. Anyway, there were both men and women in attendance at this separate ceremony. Maybe Reform Jews? Next must-see: the Temple Mount or Haram esh-Sharif, the third most holy site of Islam (after Mecca and Medina). Access to the Temple Mount is via a rather crude covered wooden ramp off to one side of the Western Wall. Although we'd already gone through tight security to enter the Wall plaza, there was another equally thorough security check at the ramp, as well as armed guards on the plaza of Temple Mount itself.

The Temple Mount plateau is the site of several of Islam's most holy places, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque, from which Mohammed ascended into heaven (for one night, just a preliminary visit, really) and the stunning Dome of the Rock, whose gilt dome dominates the Jerusalem skyline. The Rock (in the center of the Dome) is said to be the site where Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac. The dome is covered in real gold leaf, provided by Jordan's late King Hussein to replace the ugly fake gold, which replaced the original copper, which had been removed to make cannon. It's said Hussein sold a house in London to pay for the gold. It was worth it: the Dome is magnificent, as is the plaza that makes up the Temple Mount. It's geometric, with symmetric sets of steps and colonnades leading to the Dome of the Rock. The majestic Dome tops a stunning building decorated with blue tiles of cursive Arabic script praising Allah, leaded windows, carved and gilded doors. Alas, as non-Muslims we were forbidden entry to it, and to the Al-Aqsa mosque, by armed Israeli guards. (There was some disagreement amongst people we talked to about the legitimacy of this. Our Palestinian hosts at the Imperial Hotel insisted that we were allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock, at least - that's not a mosque, so there are no prayers to interrupt. On the other hand, some cruising friends were chased away from the door by Muslims shouting "Infidel Americans, go away.") Just outside of the Dome of the Rock is a smaller dome - the Dome of the Chain - a sort of open air mosque with slender columns and a beautiful tiled ceiling, said to be more magnificent than that in the Dome of the Rock. It's also said to be the center of the world…

The third standard "must see" in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - so off we went to see it. It's one of the holiest sites in Christendom. The church stands on the very spot where Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected, and fortuitously also the site where Adam's skull was buried. It also contains the place where the Holy Cross was hidden for some 400 years before being rediscovered by St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine. And, it's said to be the center of the world… (sound familiar?) Ancient maps were centered on Jerusalem, and a stone basin inside the church marks the very center. The church itself is a gloomy, somewhat deteriorating edifice, with very little signage to indicate what is what. The building is "owned" jointly by six different Christian sects: the Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Coptic, Roman Catholic and Ethiopian churches. Each sect's roles and privileges are guarded jealously, to the extent that none will allow any of the others to open the church in the morning and lock it at night - that job has been performed for centuries by members of the same Muslim family, who are of course "neutral parties". The division of areas to the different sects, and their rights to conduct ceremonies and carry out maintenance, were determined by an Ottoman decree of 1850. According to that decree, if one of the sects repairs a previously unspoken-for part of the church, the repairer gains "ownership" of that part. This leads all the sects to obstruct any repairs by the other sects, except in the repairer's own limited area. As a result, parts of the church are literally falling down; some years ago, the Roman Catholics replaced three of the six pillars supporting the dome of the church's main rotunda, but were prevented by the other sects from replacing the other three, which are visibly crumbling. We found the church interesting and in places beautiful, but the real impact comes from being at the site of all the events of Christ's crucifixion, and for us at least, that impact was dulled by all the gloppy (and somewhat shabby) embellishments that have been added through the years. For example, Christ's tomb was a cave in a rock, not an ornate little chapel inside a huge domed basilica, and to the extent that one can't see the cave (the entire hill was leveled by Constantine to build the first church on the site), one misses the point.

An interesting side note was the almost total lack of security at the Church of the Holy Sepuchre. In contrast to the metal detectors, wands and armed service personnel at the most holy sites of Islam and Judaism, there were rent-a-cops here, with the same security as a shopping mall. Guess we know where the conflicts lie. (Or maybe it's another illustration of the bickering for control among the sects who govern the Church.)

Of course, we spent a fair amount of time simply wandering around in the Old City. It has four sections: Greek Orthodox, Arab, Jewish and Armenian. No walls divide these, but each has its own character and flavor. Religious buildings are scattered everywhere. Unlike other Middle Eastern cities we've visited, Jerusalem doesn't have a bazaar or souk per se. Rather, most of the city streets form a huge bazaar. Parts are covered by domed roofs or rattan screens, others are open streets. Where the streets slope, there are wide shallow steps on either side, but the center is open for the push-carts which deliver goods around. These, generally "manned" by adolescent boys (we never could figure out how, if and when they went to school), have an ingenious "brake." There's a spare tire chained to the back of the cart. When the cart needs to be slowed, the kid tosses the tire to the pavement and steps on it. Unlike other places we'd been, like Istanbul and Damascus, where everybody in the bazaar is at least a potential customer (why else is he there?), in Jerusalem most of the people walking past the shops and stands of the bazaar are simply on their way somewhere else. This makes the vendors a little less insistent and perhaps a little more inventive. Our favorite of the many Jerusalem come-ons was "Is there any chance I can get you into my shop and rip you off?" Well, at least it's honest.

We did discover one way to get shop owners and street vendors to stop importuning us: we simply asked directions to our destination (or, if we had no destination, to somewhere in the general direction we were headed). Invariably, the would-be merchant immediately turned into a tour guide. "Oh, that's easy," he says, "You continue this way until the end, then turn right, then take your first left - that'll lead you right to it." Shalom.

The one sight that is unique to Jerusalem's Old City streets is the groups of Christian pilgrims following the Via Dolorosa, the path taken by Christ to his crucifixion. This holy route winds through the city, primarily through the Muslim quarter. There are 14 "stations of the cross" where certain events in the crucifixion supposedly occurred (according to scholars, at least 2 are almost certainly in the wrong places), each marked by a wall plaque. Pilgrims regularly follow this walk, often carrying a replica cross. (These can be rented at the start of the Via Dolorosa, and it's fun to see the boys dashing back from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, carrying the crosses back.) The pilgrims stop at each station, recite prayers, switch cross-bearers, and move on. We saw a group of African pilgrims, dressed all in white, who sang beautifully the entire way. The pilgrims are interspersed with tour groups following the same route but with considerably less fervor. Several of these groups had machine gun toting escorts.

We were endlessly fascinated by the incredible variety of people we saw in Jerusalem's streets. While the old city is traditionally divided into Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian sectors, each of which has a different flavor, in the streets of the bazaar everyone rubs shoulders. There are Palestinian women in traditional long black dresses with embroidered bodices and full head coverings (some carrying baskets or bags on their heads), modern teens in jeans and long blouses (no women in the Old City bare their arms or legs), orthodox Jews in log black coats with full beards and long hair topped by black felt hats, a few women in complete chadors, business men in suits - the Jews marked by tiny kippahs clipped to their short hair, kids in every bright outfit imaginable, Druze men in white or tan gelabbeyahs with white skullcaps, women in a variety of somber-colored long robes, some with beautiful embroidery or sequins, wearing many different colors of headscarves, and, of course, the tourists in their tan pants, plaid shirts, running shoes, floppy hat or baseball caps, and cameras. What a kaleidoscope!

The last day we were in Jerusalem with Jessica, we had an experience that isn't in the guide books, but which we found so moving that we went back to experience it again when Carol came to visit. We had read that the Armenian Church of St. James was one of the most beautiful churches, architecturally, in the city. Unfortunately it was only open during services, from 6 to 7 AM and from 4 to 5 PM each day. Because we were planning to leave in mid-morning, the afternoon times were out of the question; so the two of us got up at 6:00 (leaving Jess in bed) and walked the 4 blocks to St. James's.

On the door of the church was a notice asking visitors to respect the church, not move around during the service, and not cross their legs when they sat. We entered mid-service and found a company of perhaps 40 monks in prayer. Dressed in dark brown medieval robes with pointed hoods that totally hid their faces, they were chanting the liturgy, presumably in Armenian and definitely in some non-standard modality. Dim sunlight from the high windows filtered through the incense, but the church was also illuminated by scores of candles and oil lamps. The interior is beautiful, completely tiled in blue and white, with huge paintings almost too darkened by time (and soot) to make out, and two golden thrones near the altar: one for the patriarch and one said to be for St. James the Less (not to be confused with St. James the Great, over whose tomb the church was built), which is only used once a year. We sat (uncross-legged) in the benches at the rear wall - the rest of the church has no seats, only oriental carpets fully covering the floor --listened and watched in fascination, transported in a moment back a thousand years. Eventually (and not before the bench seats had impressed their hardness upon us) the monks all filed out into the courtyard, where many were revealed to be mere boys, who, after shucking their robes, wore the blazers and ties of a private school. Sure enough, off they marched across the street to the Armenian seminary, for their daily lessons. And off we went for a cup of coffee.

Hungry for lunch one day, Jess, Andi and Rob set off through the bazaar looking for a falafel stand. The only ones we found were stand-up places, and we were foot-sore enough to want to sit down to eat. Eventually, we found ourselves near the Damascus Gate, deep in the Arab quarter. We turned right, and about 100 meters along the street we saw a pizza place. Well, we thought, why not? We'd tried Armenian pizza and liked it; why not Arab pizza? As it turned out, both the pizza and the welcome were outstanding. We noticed, across the street, one of the plaques for the Via Dolorosa. We mentioned this to the proprietor and asked him which Station of the Cross this was. He replied with a straight face, "It's where Christ had pizza." We weren't sure whether to laugh or be embarrassed by his sacrilege, and we guess our dilemma showed on our faces. "No, really," he said. "Every year there's a pageant at Easter, and the guy who plays Christ in the pageant? He eats here."

We liked the pizza and the proprietor so much that we brought Carol to the same place. This time we elected to eat inside instead of on the street, where it was quite hot. The pizza was great, as before. Looking around the interior, we noticed a number of beautiful carpets hung around the walls. When we inquired about them, the owner told us they were pure silk, from Persia (Iran) and came from his brother's store. In fact, he said, if we wanted to look at some more rugs like these, he could take us there, no obligation of course … But that's another story.

(See our photos accompanying this Adventure)