Jerusalem and the Holy Land

Apologies for the lack of posts lately, my six weeks of travel finished with a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem for the past six days.  We began our immersion into tourism with the path of Jesus’s crucifixion, the Via Dolorosa that cuts through the Muslim quarter of the old city, through endless souks, restaurants and religious sites.  Everything here seems to come back to religion in the end, whether it is the familiar Christian story, the similar Jewish one or the constantly riveting Muslim one.  Jerusalem is a contradiction of the blending and isolation of these religions.  The Old City is divided into four quarters or neighborhoods, the quiet and studious Jewish quarter with its wide streets and endless yeshivas(religious schools for the study of the Torah), the miniscule Armenian quarter where colorful ceramics and jewelry populate the shops, the noisy and winding Muslim quarter that is consumed by its souk and smells, and the Christian quarter with its tall churches and bustling tourists.

Our first day in the Old City we explored the Muslim and Christian quarters mainly, meandering through the souk, purchasing souvenirs, enjoying falafel and mezze and experiencing tourism at sites where Jesus was tried, crucified and buried.  We didn’t realize until later that we decided to do the main Christian sites on a Sunday and were overwhelmed with the busloads of tourists that followed the same path as us.  The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial.  The space was filled with pilgrims, saying prayers, kissing the stones of the Church and rubbing religious items on the actual sites as a blessing.  It is powerful to see religion’s deep effects on humanity, how thousands can come together from all corners with the same beliefs.  When we had our fill of the haggling vendors and constant harassment of the souk, we made our way to the European-like sanctity of modern Jerusalem.  Throughout our time here we would enjoy leisurely strolls through the pedestrian-only streets, gelato or espresso while people watching, street musicians, World Cup games and endless delicious meals at the many restaurants of the area.

Our second exhausting day in Jerusalem began quite early as we attempted to avoid the heavy crowds around the Western Wall and the Temple Mount or Dome of the Rock.  This particular day reaffirmed just how intertwined these three main monotheistic religions really are.  The Temple Mount, or Harem el-Sharif to Muslims, is the large courtyard home to the Foundation Stone.  Its large Herodian-era stones are all that remain of the Second Temple.  Jerusalem has experienced occupations by nearly every empire that has ever been in existence and has undergone massive structural changes as the empires changed the official religion of the region.

There have been two main temples for the Jewish people, both built on the same spot in Jerusalem, and both destroyed.  These temples were built around the Foundation Stone, or the Holiest of Holies, the site where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac, and the site where the Muslims believe Mohammad ascended into heaven and received the tenements of Islam.  This site is extremely important to all three religions and therefore, who is allowed to worship at this site has been in contestation for thousands of years.  After the Second Temple was destroyed, Muslims have been the only ones allowed to worship within the Dome of the Rock, the large blue and gold building that has populated postcards from Jerusalem for lifetimes.  However, other faithful are allowed to ascend to the Harem el-Sharif, or the Temple Mount and approach near the building.  The Jewish people, since the destruction of the Second Temple, have worshiped at the Western Wall, bowing their heads in prayer, rocking back and forth while reading the Torah.  The Western Wall is the actual western wall of the Second Temple.  The small portion that you have probably seen in pictures is all that is exposed.  However, in our underground tour of the Herodian built tunnel system beneath Jerusalem, you can follow the wall all the way through the Muslim quarter.

We visited on a Monday morning, early while the air was still cool and Jewish families from all over Israel and the world brought their sons and daughters to the Western Wall for bar and bat mitzvehs.  Throughout the streets parades of horn blowers, drummers and embarrassed preteens celebrated this coming of age ceremony, making for a very festive environment.

The last of our truly religious visits occurred on our last day in Jerusalem when we took an “Arab bus” through the West Bank to Bethlehem, the site of Jesus’s birth.  Here, in an otherwise typical Palestinian town, busloads of tourists march through the rowdy market to the Church of the Nativity.  Three sects of Christianity, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian, fight for real estate within the building, decorating the walls and alters with endless crucifixes, incense lanterns and icons.  We were able to touch the site where Mary supposedly gave birth the Jesus.  And two blocks away, we visited the site where Mary stopped to feed Jesus, an apparently very hungry baby.

Being in Bethlehem reminded me of Jordan, the women dressed in beautifully embroidered clothing, fashionable teens in stylish hijaabs, falafel and foul on every corner and every sign in Arabic.  Surprisingly, I felt a bit homesick for the rather unorganized fragrance of Amman.  Because Jordan’s population is heavily Palestinian, the cultures are very similar.  Since my parents were unable to experience Jordan, Bethlehem was a good taste of the “real” Middle East.

Also while in Jerusalem, we took a tour bus out to the Dead Sea and Massada, an ancient Herodian fortress and the last stronghold of the Jewish people during the revolt back in 600 BC.  Mom and Dad enjoyed the Dead Sea, struggled with the inability to stand and the necessity to float, scrubbed themselves with the black and scratchy mud and relaxed in steaming sulfur baths.  IT was a nice change of pace to relax at a beach, but I vow to avoid tour groups and organized trips like this as much as possible.  The lack of freedom to explore that comes with travelling with a tour group is rather frustrating.

Using AirBnB we stayed in a nice apartment just outside of the Old City of Jerusalem and took advantage of having our own kitchen.  We cooked three dinners and nearly every breakfast in our apartment, utilizing the extremely cheap and PRIME produce of the Makhane Yehuda (market) and the delicious spices that Israel had to offer.  I got Mom and Dad hooked on zatar, a Middle Eastern spice that adds strong flavor and salt to nearly everything.  We threw zatar on eggs, pasta, couscous, salmon, cheese, hummus etc.  I can’t wait to find massive amounts of this spice in the States!

The food of Israel is unbelievable! Some of our favorites have been the warm and crispy falafel sandwiches stuffed with cabbage, beets, cucumbers and tomatoes and topped with tahini and chilies; green shakshuka or poached eggs with spinach, cheese and cream served bubbling in a cast-iron pan; fresh pastries filled with everything from mushrooms, spinach and potatoes to poppy seeds, Nutella and cream; warm chewy bagels with thick creamy spreads and overflowing with freshly chopped vegetables; and our own cooking of couscous or pasta with tons of produce from the market and oven roasted salmon with mounds of fresh dill.

I’m flying home now, leaving the Middle East after six full weeks of travel.  But as I wait on my ten hour layover in Amman, among elegantly cloaked women and the smells of shawerma and falafel, I know that I will miss this place.  I want to thank everyone I met alone the way for their hospitality and knowledge, even the Israel security guards that grilled me for 30 minutes before I could even check in for my flight.  I hope to be back in this region in the spring for co-op and I know that I will most definitely visit Israel, Palestine and Jordan again in my future, Inshaallah.

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