Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Novice's Guide to Israel, Part One

It's said all roads lead to Jerusalem, so that's where I'll begin. 
(Old Jerusalem, June, 2014. All photos by LBG.)

I recently spent two days exploring this ancient city on a ten day tour of Israel with a group of friends. I've travelled to many holy places in my life -- the Vatican, the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the sacred Ganges in Rishikesh -- but Jerusalem feels totally different. It's holy not in a peaceful way but in a primal way. Entering the walled gates, you are immediately swept up in the noise and clamor and dirt and magnetic energy of the place and it doesn't matter if you're affiliated with any of the religions that worship here (I'm not), you're suddenly part of it.
(Southern wall of the Temple Mount.)

Getting around is no easy feat --  the streets are laid with ancient cobblestones (wear good walking shoes!), and some alleys are so narrow you have to flatten yourself against a wall if someone pushing a cart wants to get by. 

What follows is a highly selective guide to the top sites we visited. There are so many places we unfortunately didn't have time to see -- if you have any recommendations you'd like to share, I'd love to hear them!

1. Leave a note in the Western WallIt's a remnant of the ancient wall of the Second Jewish Temple (now part of the Temple Mount) and is considered the holiest site at which Jews can pray. 

I had someone I needed to pray for so I wedged my note into the wall (it's that large one) and stood there for a minute just taking everything in. On one side of me a young girl recited Hebrew verses in a quiet voice. On the other, a woman hugged her body to the wall and closed her eyes.

2. Walk the Quarters. There are four distinct quarters to the city -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian -- and I managed to make it to three of them. 
(Muslim Quarter, Old Jerusalem.)

If you get turned around, you only have to glance at the market stalls to find out what neighborhood you're in.
(Muslim Quarter, Old Jerusalem.)

(Christian Quarter, Old Jerusalem.)

(Jewish Quarter, Old Jerusalem.)

On our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a Franciscan monk suddenly sprang out of an alley and catapulted ahead of us. It was almost super-heroish. Apologies if it's not appropriate to view religious clothing through the prism of fashion, but I love his cassock, don't you? Completely utilitarian and yet so stylish: Martin Margiela, fall/winter 1300 A.D.
(Monk on a mission.)

3. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates from 325 A.D. and is run by a status quo committee of Christian officials -- Eastern Orthodox, Ethiopian, Roman Catholic and others. According to a centuries-old pact, nothing in the church can be touched or rearranged without everyone's unanimous consent. If you're already shaking your head over the perils of decision by committee, you would be absolutely right. See that ladder under the right-hand window? Because nobody can agree on what should be done with it, it's been leaning there for over 170 years!
(Church of the Holy Sepulchre.)

Think I'm kidding? Look closely at this etching from 1834 and you can see the ladder in the exact same place!
(The Immoveable Ladder, via)

(Interior, Church of the Holy Sepulchre.)

The little building below is called the aedicule and is where Jesus' body is believed to have been buried.

4. Walk the 14 Stations of the Cross. The Via Dolorosa, or "Way of Sorrows," marks out the path Jesus is said to have walked from the courthouse to where he was crucified. 
(Sixth Station, Via Dolorosa.)

5. Trek the Underground Tunnels (not for the claustrophobic). If you don't mind hip-high water, venture through Hezekiah's Tunnel, the ancient aqueduct that fed water to old Jerusalem. If you prefer to stay dry, go for Warren's Shaft. 

I took Warren's Shaft. Our guide wasn't kidding when he said it was narrow. It was like being in an Indiana Jones movie. The man ahead of me had to angle his shoulders to get through!
(Warren's Shaft, discovered in 1867.)

My husband and son naturally took the more adventurous wet tunnel. They came prepared with water shoes, swimsuits and mini flashlights. That beam is them finally emerging from the darkness -- it took them about thirty minutes to navigate all 533 meters. My husband's reaction? "Totally amazing, but at times the ceiling was so low and the water level was so high even I was a bit apprehensive." I decided I was very glad I chose the dry tunnel.
(Hezekiah's Tunnel, built in the 8th century B.C.)

5. The American Colony Hotel. That evening, we travelled into the West Bank to have dinner at a legendary old hotel that I'd been desperate to visit. Although officially in East Jerusalem, the American Colony has always had a neutral status, being owned not by Jews or Muslims but by Americans, British and Swedes. Everyone from Lawrence of Arabia to Winston Churchill to Bob Dylan has stayed there. To me, it's Jerusalem's Chateau Marmont: old-school, elegant and a little bohemian around the edges. 

We sat in an lush open courtyard surrounded by a symphony of foliage. The atmosphere was so magical that I recorded it on my iPhone -- clinking glasses, hushed voices in a medley of foreign tongues and the rustle of palm trees overhead, all wrapped up in the deep velvety intonations of a muezzin from a nearby mosque.

We did a little exploring around the hotel and stumbled on this underground bar (only open during the winter) and were told that it was the nightly meeting place for all the foreign correspondents who used to stay here in the 1930's and 1940's. Oh, if those walls could talk.

6. The King David Hotel. If the American Colony Hotel is Jerusalem's Chateau Marmont, then the King David is definitely the Plaza Hotel in New York. A soaring Art Deco edifice with gorgeous hand-painted ceilings, it's stately in a way that the American Colony isn't. If you're a world leader, you probably stay here. 

The carpet was a wonder unto itself.

We sipped cocktails in the gardens overlooking the old city and pretended we were a coterie of important dignitaries. It was wonderful while it lasted.

Leaving the next morning, we passed by the Israeli West Bank barrier wall. 

I'm already dreaming of going back.

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