Picking up where we left off in the last post, we arrived in Jerusalem in the late afternoon on Saturday. Knowing we only had a little bit of daylight left, we quickly checked into our hotel and headed into the Old City to get the lay of the land. Our hotel was in the perfect location – it was only a 3 or 4 minute downhill walk from the door to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City, which puts you in the middle of the Old City’s western wall (not to be confused with the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, this is just an ordinary city wall).
From that entrance, the Old City spreads out before you, with sellers at the market beckoning you into their stores, church bells ringing, and the melodic call to prayer echoing in the narrow walkways. It reminded me at first of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but after awhile I noticed a big distinction. In Istanbul, the sellers call out to you non-stop, and even a polite “No, thank you” is met with continued harassment (there, it’s best not to even glance at a shop unless you want to be followed down the hall by the owner!) Here in Jerusalem, though, the vibe was different. People called out, yes, but they were incredibly friendly and accepted a smile or a “no, thanks” without further comment.
As we wandered the market halls, we noticed a crowd standing around a point in the wall and realized we’d made it to a point on the Via Dolorosa – the way of the cross, the pathway commonly accepted as the road Jesus walked with his cross from the site of his judgment to the execution. The route has changed over history, and according to our guidebook, most historians would disagree with the starting point, stating that it should begin outside the Citadel (the Tower of David) as that was the residence of Pontias Pilate at the time. Still, we decided to walk the route; each stop is marked with a numbered sign, and our guidebook provided some information about what supposedly happened at each stop. As it grew dark, it was difficult to locate some of the stops (the aforementioned friendliness did help; at one point Richie asked me where we were on the map, and when I replied “I don’t know, I think halfway between 6 and 7?” the nearest seller said, “Yes! You’re right!”).
Finally, it was so dark that we couldn’t locate all of the stops, so we decided to pick up the trail the next day and end the evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which holds the last five stations of the Via Dolorosa (allegedly where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected). Even in the evening, the church is bustling with tourists and pilgrims following the path of Jesus. Because most of the light in the church comes from the sun through the glassless windows, the church has an eerie feel after dark – the few lanterns and candles do give it the atmosphere of a sepulchre. While we did go through the church, reading about the history of the building and how Helena came to believe that it was the site of the crucifixion, we opted to return in the daylight and see the full effect.
That night, Richie and I got our first taste of kosher dining. Israel Travel Tip #5: In Jerusalem, figure out which you prefer, meat or milk! In Tiberias and Nazareth (as well as later in Tel Aviv), we didn’t encounter many kosher restaurants, but most of the restaurants in Jerusalem are kosher. For the non-kosher diner, this primarily means that restaurants are in two categories: meat restaurants, which serve meat products (except pork) and milk restaurants, which serves items with dairy (and often fish). This doesn’t mean every single dish has meat or milk in it, but that the restaurant will not offer the other type (so no creamy steak sauce, and no pepperoni pizza). We asked for advice at our hotel and learned that there’s an upscale shopping mall just down the street with several excellent restaurants of both kinds to choose from. For our first night, we chose meat (Richie isn’t exactly the vegetarian type) at a yummy place called Kedma, with a beautiful view of the Old City at night.
The next day we planned to visit the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Entry for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount is strictly controlled, with hours in the winter from 7:30 am to 10 am. We arrived at 8:30 to a daunting line, all the way back to the beautifully named Dung Gate. Apparently at one time this was where city dwellers would dump their rubbish.
Unfortunately, this is about as close as we got.
We stayed in the line for 90 minutes, only to have the gate unceremoniously slammed shut at 10 am on the dot, with us still probably 20 meters away from the front. Sigh. We made a plan to return and cut our losses, heading over to the Western Wall. Also called the Wailing Wall by outsiders, the Western Wall isn’t constructed of anything special – it’s simply a retaining wall surrounding the Temple Mount, where temples originally lay atop Mount Moriah on a large slab considered to be the “foundation stone of the world”. After numerous conquests, both the first and second temples were destroyed, as well as a temple to Zeus built by the Romans and a Christian church. Finally, in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock was constructed as a mosque and has stood there to this date (albeit damaged and repaired several times throughout the centuries). Because of the temples that were destroyed within the walls, Orthodox Jews are forbidden to enter the walls, as they might inadvertently tread on the holiest land (the original location of the temples and the Ark of the Covenant can be guessed, but not known with certainty). Instead, they gather at the Western Wall – the place where they can be the closest to this holy land without stepping on it.
Afterwards, we headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see the place in daylight.
As you enter, you’re immediately faced with a slab, which claims to be laid atop the stone where Jesus’s body was placed to be washed for the burial. Pilgrims often kneel at the stone to pray and to kiss it.
We went around to the rear of the church, where the tomb itself is located. This is believed by many to be the place where Jesus’s body was crucified and resurrected, although there are a few alternatives (which I’ll mention later). You can enter the tomb for a moment to look, pray, or take a photo, and a very friendly attendant monitors the traffic flow so that you can have a little solitude in the tomb amidst the masses of tourists.
You can now see why the church is so dimly lit at night – with the exception of the few small lanterns and a handful of artificial lamps, the church’s light is provided by windows in the domes.
Upstairs, there are several chapels devoted to different denominations – as the church is so important, it’s held by several different groups, including the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic faiths. The Greek Orthodox chapel is said to be the crucifixion site by those who believe in this location.
Afterwards, we traced our steps backwards through the path of the Via Dolorosa to find the stations that we missed in the darkness the night before.
After a quick lunch, we headed to the Western Walls Tunnels tour, one of our only guided tours of the trip and well worth it. If I try to dig too deep into the timelines, I’ll mess it all up, but there’s a lot of information on that link. Basically, since the Western Wall (and the other structures of the Temple Mount area) were built more than 2,000 years ago, there’s a lot of archeological interest in the site. For intertwined political and religious reasons, though, the Temple Mount itself will likely never be excavated. The best they can do is dig around the Western Wall, and due to the way that the city was built, with aqueducts and cisterns underground, they’ve been able to unearth a great deal of the history of the Old City lying beneath the current structures. We traversed the old Roman road along the wall, explored a cistern that was used to supply water to Herod’s palace, and followed the twists and turns through the wall to see truly unique pieces of history – including a single stone, weighing over 500 tons, and approximately 45 feet long, nearly 10 feet high, and almost 15 feet wide. Yowza.
Just beyond this cistern, the tunnel tour takes you upwards, and you emerge just outside Station #1 of the Via Dolorosa, the site of Herod’s palace once upon a time.
After the tour ended, we were just inside the Lion’s Gate, which provides easy access to the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane. In general, the term Gethsemane has come to mean the entire area at the foot of the Mount of Olives, but there are a few places believed to be specifically where Jesus spent time with his disciples, and was betrayed and arrested.
Our first stop in the Mount of Olives area was a dimly-lit church with no signage and no fanfare whatsoever. Because of this, I didn’t take any photos of it – but it turns out it’s the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. Supposedly she was buried there in the mid-1st century.
Next, we went to the Church of All Nations, built on the land that is believed to be where the Bible refers to Gethsemane, and the place where Jesus was betrayed by Judas. The gardens surrounding the church have olive trees (and “Gethsemane” comes from Hebrew words meaning “oil press”) that were dated to more than 2,000 years old – so regardless if this is the exact spot of the betrayal, at the very least, Jesus spent time among these trees.
Probably 50 meters or so away from the church is a grotto, or cave, which others believe to be the spot where Jesus prayed with his disciples (Matthew 26:36).
As it was about an hour before sunset, we began to hike up the Mount of Olives in search of a great photo. I didn’t realize before we visited it, but the Mount of Olives is essentially a giant cemetery. There are over 150,000 tombs on this hill (including a few of the prophets from the Old Testament), largely because Zechariah 14 mentions the Mount of Olives as the place of the Lord’s feet on Judgment Day (and devout Jews wanted to be as close to that spot as possible).
At the top of the Mount is a gorgeous lookout point, and it has everything a tourist needs – a WC (bathroom) and a camel.
Richie set up his camera to snap some shots of the setting sun. We stayed up there for around 30 minutes, but the biting wind and the cold led us to leave before the sun set completely.
That evening, Richie made a noble sacrifice for his wife – he agreed to eat at a “milk” restaurant, because I wanted pizza. Just a few blocks from our hotel was a new restaurant that received rave reviews on Tripadvisor for its creative and delicious pizzas, and we wholeheartedly agreed with the reviews. It’s called Bardak, and it serves craft beers and kosher pizzas. Since Richie wasn’t familiar with the craft beers, they brought him a little tasting of all five they serve, and he loved each and every one.
So… here’s the thing. I realize I’ve only gotten through a day and a half, but this post is already ridiculously long. So tomorrow we’ll pick up with the Dead Sea, wine tasting, and land mines!