Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jerusalem

Last visited: July 1999

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!

Jerusalem must be the most hostile city on earth other than an active war zone. The cradle of three of the world's great religions seems to seethe with centuries of pent-up anger and distrust. 

I'm sure there are those who have gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem who would say otherwise, but they would have travelled en-mass with escorted tour groups and stayed in religious nirvana without actually experiencing the living, breathing, palpable and infectious hostility of the Holy City.

We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on a pleasant July afternoon and were met by friends who drove us to their apartment in Jerusalem to stay with them for a few days. They lived in Gilo, a new Israeli suburb which I did not realise at the time was in occupied Palestinian territory south of Jerusalem. The apartments look nice from the outside, and are clad in the ubiquitous pale limestone with which all buildings in Jerusalem must be faced by municipal law, however, from the inside it was apparent that the apartments were cheaply built from cinder blocks and drywall.

Gilo is on a hill, and across the road from their apartment was a deep wadi, or dry valley, which I hazarded into while outside having a smoke. The contours of the valley were terraced as far as the eye could see, from the bottom to the top, and on these terraces there were sparse olive trees struggling to grow in the dry climate and poor soil. As I wandered the terraces, my mind was filled with wondering just how many centuries or millennia ago the valley had been terraced and when the first olive trees were planted. On the opposite hillside, about a mile (1 1/2 km) away, there was another big group of buildings which I presumed were also Israeli. It all seemed very peaceful, until I turned to go back and saw an Israeli military jeep drive past bristling with soldiers carrying automatic weapons. At first I expected them to stop and ask what I was doing, but they paid no attention to me and seemed to drive past every hour.

About two months after we returned home, we heard in the news that there were Palestinian rocket attacks on Gilo. We called our friends to make sure they were alright, and I was shocked to learn that the buildings on the opposite hillside were Palestinian apartment buildings and they had fired rockets across the very valley in which I had been wandering around into the very apartments in which we had stayed. Fortunately, our friends had recently moved to another part of Jerusalem and were not affected.

But I still shake my head to realise I was wandering around in no-man's land completely oblivious to the dangers.

The next day our friend called a taxi and we went into the city to visit a bank, as the magnetic stripe on our bank card was worn out and we needed to get some cash. My wife sat in back with our friend, whom she hadn't seen in years, and they were trying to catch up with each other. I sat up front next to the driver, and asked him to turn his radio down as it was blaring away and the ladies were trying to talk. The driver ignored me, so I asked him again to turn down the radio. "No speak English," he muttered. So I reached over and turned down the radio. He slapped my hand away and yelled, "Don't touch my radio!" Ahhh ... so he does speak English. He stopped at a traffic light, rolled down his window and yelled at the top of his voice in Hebrew to another taxi driver stopped alongside. When the light changed, he turned his radio back up, louder this time, and I remonstrated with him that the ladies were trying to talk in the back. "It's my taxi," he said. I told him I was paying for his taxi and I would like him to turn it off. The argument became very heated, and he pulled the taxi over and I thought we were going to get into a fight. Just then our friend in the back said "Here we are!" and paid the driver and the two ladies jumped out of the taxi, completely oblivious to the argument I was having with the driver. Like I said, the hostility is infectious.

At the doors of the large central bank there were two security guards carrying Uzis. We went inside, and there was a queue of people at the cashier counters, and another queue of queue-jumpers trying to push their way in. Our friend bypassed them all, went right to a cashier and asked a question, and we were directed to a desk sitting in the middle of the lobby. At the desk we explained our situation to the clerk, showed her the worn-out bank card, and she said no problem and asked how much money we needed and in what currencies. She filled out a piece of paper, we signed it, then she opened an unlocked drawer and pulled out a pile of money and counted it out for us. At a desk in the middle of the bank!

What to see in Jerusalem

Jerusalem and Israel are full of history and many places to see and explore. I can only describe those we visited.

The Old City of Jerusalem

After taking us to the bank, our friend took a taxi home, leaving my wife and I to explore. We crossed the road and walked along the fortress walls surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem, and entered via the Jaffa Gate. I was awestruck, walking inside a city that was founded 1000 years before Christ and rebuilt many times since. Just inside the Jaffa Gate is a tower and building called David's Citadel, and I marvelled that I should have the opportunity to walk inside and up onto the walls and ramparts. Never did I imagine that one day I should be in this place.

We then wandered through the alleys and lane ways of the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter until we reached the Western Wall Plaza, where Israeli security had set up check points and metal detectors we had to pass through before we could approach the Wailing Wall, which is all that remains of the Jewish temple site. We were then segregated - men to the left, women to a smaller area at the right. I was handed a paper yarmulke to place on the crown of my head, and I reverently walked to the wall and placed both my hands on the enormous limestone blocks that had been hewn by hand thousands of years ago. There were slips of papers bearing prayers that were stuffed into crevices, Orthodox Jews rocking back and forth as they prayed, and men kissing the stones. To the far left there was a doorway to a small room along the wall with copies of religious books, and grates in the floor along the wall where you could peer down 50 feet to see the bottom foundation stones of the wall. It was amazing.

I met my wife back in the plaza, and we noticed an Arabic bazaar off to the left and wandered down. There for sale were all kinds of goods, cloth, souvenirs - and even knives. This seemed very odd, as there was no metal detector between this souk in the Muslim Quarter and the Wailing Wall - but only between the Jewish Quarter and the Wailing Wall. We wandered further into the Muslim Quarter and saw the Dome of the Rock mosque through an open gate. We approached the gate, hoping to go in, but were turned away by a man who told us it was time for prayers, which didn't seem right as there were no mullahs calling for prayer. I took it to mean we were not welcome. As we ventured further, the lane way became narrower and there were now ancient houses on either side, and people were shutting their windows and doors as they saw my wife and I approach. Then a boy of about 12 years old came out and said, "I'll show you all the holy places, then you can pay me." I shook my head no, but my wife said yes, and the boy led us further into the Muslim Quarter and pointed to a corner and said, "This is where Jesus prayed," then pointed to a window and said, "This is where Jesus slept," and so on. I didn't believe a word of it. After five minutes the boy said, "Pay me now." I said no. He insisted and my wife insisted, so I gave him a few shekels.

We continued forward through the maze of the Muslim Quarter until we found the Flower Gate (also called Herod's Gate) to leave the Old City and return back into modern Jerusalem. We soon realised we were in a Muslim area and attracting a lot of hostile stares and angry looks, and walked as quickly as we could back down to the Israeli area, where we caught a taxi back to our friends home in Gilo.

The Dead Sea area

Our friends had an acquaintance who drove a tour van, and we engaged him to take us out for the day, under strict instructions that I only wanted to see historic sites, and not religious sites. He drove us through the fortified checkpoint out of Jerusalem and down into the Dead Sea valley, past Jericho and farms to the rocky site of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in a cave in 1947. Today there is a visitor's centre below the caves, and an excavation of the ancient settlement.

From Qumran at the north end of the Dead Sea, we drove to Masada at the south end, a distance of about 35 miles (55 km). Masada was a Roman fortress built 1300 feet (400 m) high up on a desert plateau overlooking the valley below the Dead Sea. Today there is a cable car to take visitors to the top, but when we visited there was only an ancient walkway snaking up the cliff face. As we approached the top, we were stunned when we were shown a huge underground cave that had been carved as a cistern and was completely full of rain water. On top of the plateau there was a stone wall surrounding the edge, and many non-descript ruins, but then we were taken to Herod's Palace and bath houses on the far end, overlooking a chasm. There we could see the remains of Roman tiled floors and wall frescoes dating back to the time of Christ. It was hugely impressive. In 66 AD, a large group of Jewish rebels took control of Masada and its food stores and water supplies and fought off the Romans for seven years, until in 73 AD the Roman Legions constructed an earthwork ramp from an opposite plateau. When the Romans had finished their ramp, 960 Jewish rebels and their families committed mass suicide rather than be captured.

After visiting Masada, we then drove down to a bathing beach on the Dead Sea. Our guide told us that everyone he brings there to bathe always ends up falling asleep on the drive back to Jerusalem. I told him there was no way that was going to happen to me - there was too much to see during the drive. We went to the Ein Gedi beach where there were change rooms to put on our swimsuits, then walked across the hot, hard crystallised salts and waded into the Dead Sea. I only got as far as thigh-deep in the water, when the buoyancy lifted me off my feet and onto my back. I don't swim, I don't even float, but on the Dead Sea I could easily do the backstroke for hours. What a relaxing feeling! Everything was calm and peaceful for about 1/2 an hour until my wife panicked - she was trying to stand up to walk back to shore, but couldn't get her feet under her. I too struggled to stand up, then helped her out of the water, and we went back to the change rooms, showered and dressed and got back into the van for the drive home - and I promptly fell asleep (much to my chagrin).

Language in Israel

The official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic, although English and Russian are also widely spoken.

Currency in Israel

The currency of Israel is the Shekel. At the time of writing, US$1 is equal to about 3.5 shekels.

Transportation in Israel

In addition to bus lines, Israel has an extensive passenger rail network that will take you from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem and many other cities. For more information, click here.

For information about flying into and out of Israel, I highly recommend you read about Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport.