Among my photos from a recent trip is one of me standing beside a middle-aged Palestinian in the doorway of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I’ll call him the doorkeeper since it is his job every morning to unlock the doors to the holiest Christian church in this city filled with churches and to lock them again at night. This is his life’s work as it has been for members of his family for six centuries. Six centuries! Imagine that! Of course, in times of war and unrest, there must have been interruptions to this routine, but still . . .
Like many of us, I’ve often wondered what daily life is like in Israel. Despite the country being constantly in the news, my ideas of what it’s like to live, work, shop, travel, go to school, and raise a family there were pretty hazy. Also, there is the endless tension between the Israelis and the Palestinians. By air, Israel is only two hours from Istanbul, and I’d vaguely thought I should go there, but when and how? Then, two things occurred that made it happen.
Last year, I read an extraordinary book entitled Jerusalem, the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Well researched and well written, it tells the ages-long story of a city that for drama and religious importance has no equal. The second occurrence was meeting Bill Bache, a fellow American and a traveler who, having been to Israel several times in the past, offered to introduce me. Opportunity knocked. Dates were chosen, an itinerary drawn up, and less than a month ago I began one of the more curious adventures of my traveling life.
Although Bill and I hiked four days from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, stood by the tomb of Maimonides in Tiberias, visited Capernaum and other places where Jesus walked and taught, drove down to the Dead Sea and explored the fastness of Masada, it is Jerusalem that I’ll write about here.
On a wall of our home in Istanbul hangs a poster-size reproduction of the 13th-century Mappa Mundi. The original is large and hangs in an annex to England’s Hereford Cathedral. The ancient map, fancifully drawn, depicts the known world as round. Smack in the middle is Jerusalem, at the center of the world. At the time the map was drawn, the Crusaders ruled Jerusalem, but the Egyptian Mamluks were waiting in the wings. They in turn would be replaced by the Ottomans when the latter added Judea to their extensive empire. Jerusalem had always been contested and still is today. In the beginning there were the Jews, then the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Crusaders. Finally, there were Muslims that under one dynasty or another ruled the city until the end of WWI.
Jerusalem has had multiple periods of grandeur and decline. It was destroyed and rebuilt more than once. To put down the Jewish revolt of 66 CE the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed the Second Temple and burned the city. After the Jews rebelled a second time, the Emperor Hadrian tried to erase the Jewish presence entirely, even to the extent of placing statues of the Roman gods on the Temple Mount and changing the city’s name to Aelia Capitolina. Pity the poor Romans with this troublesome province of Judea on the edge of their empire. They had to keep marching their legions long distances to put down Jewish rebellions. No wonder they were so savagely angry.
Yet, throughout the centuries the pilgrims kept coming, even as they do today. At times Jews and Christians were allowed into the city, at other times not. The fact is that Jerusalem is of exceptional importance to all three religions of the book. For the Jews there is the Western Wall, which is all that remains from the time of the Second Temple, and is for them, the most sacred spot on Earth. For the Christians, Jerusalem is a place of pilgrimage where Jesus suffered and was crucified. For the Muslims, it is the place from where the Prophet ascended on his Night Journey to Heaven. After Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem is Islam’s holiest site.
For 2000 years believers have held that at the end of days, Jerusalem is where the Resurrection will happen. For centuries people have chosen to be buried as close as possible to the Temple Mount, so as to be first in line on Judgment Day. The thousands upon thousands of graves covering the hillsides below the Mount of Olives testify to this.
The Holy Land Hotel is in East Jerusalem, the part of the city occupied mostly by the country’s Arab citizens. Through the influence of a friend of Bill’s, we were able to get a favorable rate for our hotel room. (Israel is an expensive country.) The neighborhood surrounding the hotel reminded me of the non-descript neighborhoods of Istanbul, largely because of its Muslim population. In spite of its contrast to the much better looking Jewish sections, I hesitate to call it poor. It has a certain vitality that poverty-stricken neighborhoods lack. And it has services.
During much of my time in Israel I was ill. I arrived in Jerusalem with a painful eye infection that caused me to immediately seek a remedy. The pharmacist across from the hotel recommended an ophthalmologist in the neighborhood, who saw me immediately, gave me an eye exam, and prescribed eye drops that by the next morning gave me relief. Yet I was still not well because I also had another infection that turned out to be bronchitis. I tried to ignore it and soldier on, thinking that I would wait until I got home to see our family doctor. My condition worsened, however, becoming so bad that Bill urged me to cross the street to a medical center and see someone. The aged doctor who examined me quickly diagnosed my problem and prescribed an antibiotic that my friendly pharmacist, who by this time I was getting to know well, was happy to provide. I have to say that I was as well treated by these Palestinian medical professionals, as I would have been by any others and for much less cost.
Our time in Jerusalem was short, so we spent most of it in the Old City. Leaving the busy, automobile-choked streets outside the walls, we passed through the Damascus Gate into a world apart. Those high, enclosing walls date from the time of Süleyman the Magnificent, that is from the apogee of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Once inside the walls, in the narrow, pedestrian streets and lanes, we immediately felt the weight of history and tradition. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian — it seems as though all the world’s Christian Churches have a presence here. The Old City is paved in stone, and we know that under those we walk on there are other layers, some meters deep that formed the streets of earlier Jerusalems.
On one occasion, we took a tour of the Western Wall Tunnels, led by a wonderfully histrionic American woman who has spent much of her life in Israel. She took us underground along sections of the Western Wall that are buried out of sight. The famous, aboveground section against which the Orthodox Jews pray is only a short part of the whole that once stretched more than 400 meters to support the Temple Mount. Our guide paused near one section so we could admire the skill of its construction, the ashlars so carefully cut and fitted together. The largest of these, a huge limestone block, has been estimated to weigh 500 tons. How did workers move and set it in place more than 2,000 years ago?
What I most wanted to see in the Old City are the things that probably all first-time visitors request: the Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall, men and women separated by a fence; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre commissioned originally in the 4th century by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and built on the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried; and most of all the Temple Mount itself (Al-Haram ash-Sharif), site of the first and second temples, and now the platform on which stand the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the Old City’s most splendid edifice. Although the Jews maintain security on the Temple Mount, this is a Muslim holy place. General Moshe Dayan ordered it so at the end of the Six-Day War.
Bill and I, passing through a couple of security checkpoints, walked up to the Temple Mount on a sunny Sunday, our last day in Jerusalem. The large Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the world’s oldest, is off-limits to non-Muslims. (Why is it that I can enter mosques in Turkey, yet I am forbidden to do so in most other Muslim countries I’ve traveled in?) The man-made platform that is the Temple Mount is much larger than I thought it would be. In addition to the Muslim structures, it contains artifacts from earlier ages. Planted with trees on different levels, it has a quiet, peaceful air.
From a distance it is its golden dome that catches the eye. However, up close it is the gorgeous tile work that adorns the different facets of the Dome of the Rock. Around the top there are calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran, while below, geometric and floral mosaics prevail. Among the world’s architectural wonders, the Dome of the Rock stands out brightly.
I can’t conclude this account without telling you a small-world story. One day, by sheer coincidence, Bill and I ran into a friend of Kay’s and mine from our literary society. Halina is a lovely, cultured Polish woman, who volunteers for three months a year for Ecce Homo, the Convent for the Sisters of Zion. She was delighted to see us and arranged to meet us on our last afternoon and take us to the nearby village of Ein Kerem, the birthplace of John the Baptist, where we relaxed over an al fresco lunch before visiting the church wheree John is venerated. We also climbed a steep hill to a large Jewish hospital whose synagogue has windows designed by Marc Chagall. As an encore, Halina led us on a walk through the Ultra-Orthodox quarter of Mea She’arim, a visual experience I won’t quickly forget.
Although as countries go, Israel is rather small in area, it is so filled with splendid and important sites — historical, archeological, religious, and cultural — that one could easily spend a year with no other occupation than to take them all in. As it is, my two-week sojourn just gave me taste. It did satisfy my curiosity about many things, though. Now, when I read about things Israeli, I’ll be better able to picture them in my mind’s eye.