Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Sentimental Journey: Jerusalem

After a grueling overnight flight to Tel Aviv, and an hour drive, I began my visit to Jerusalem the next morning at the top---the Mount of Olives. The stunning view is a panoramic sweep of historic churches, the Old City and its ancient filled-to-capacity Jewish cemetery with olive trees. This burial site had always been a hot ticket because according to the prophet Zechariah on the day of Judgement, God would stand here before entering Jerusalem. The earliest tombs dating back 2000 years, are at the foot of the mount in the Kidron Valley. I scattered some of mom’s ashes down into this cemetery.

Coming down from the mount, and into the Old City, I immersed myself in its bustling sights and sounds. Built by King David in 1004 B.C.E., Jerusalem was considered the center of the world making it a desirable conquest for rulers and kings who tried to storm its four kilometer long walls and citadel. The city’s magical quality owes as much to this ancient architecture, as the sacred atmosphere that surrounds the holy sites. Its history is woven with war and peace, destruction and resurrection in this city where the Jews built the Temple, where Jesus was crucified, and where Mohammed rose to heaven. As I watched an Orthodox Jewish boy dragging his Razor scooter up ancient stone stairs and lnavigated around children playing soccer in a cobblestoned alleyway, the charm of the modern and ancient worlds living in harmony for the next generation was everywhere.

My first stop after entering the Jaffa Gate was the Tower of David, a restored citadel built 2000 years ago, which houses a museum of 4000 years of the history of Jerusalem. The scope of history here that you can still reach out and touch never ceased to amaze. A climb to the ramparts rewards you with a view of the distinctly different quarters of the Old City.
The most important visit in the Christian Quarter is to the holiest Christian site, the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher where the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox orders have all carved out their own sections. The dusty church exterior offers no hints at the marvels of mosaics, altars, gilded chandeliers and famous religious artifacts inside. Legend says Jesus was buried here following his final walk, along the Via Dolorosa ( the Stations of the Cross). It was amazing to watch visitors come in and throw their bodies (and handbags) onto the Stone of the Annointment, where they say Jesus’ body was laid after he was taken down from the cross. 

In this quarter you’ll also find the famous market. Noisy, colorful and filled with souvenir shops selling everything from painted pottery and religious souvenirs, to ethnic costumes and rugs. Traditional haggling on prices is a must.
I made a beeline for The Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, a famous holy site since it was part of the Temple and close to its Holy of Holies, believed to be the place the Divine Presence never departed. History buffs, who don’t suffer from claustrophobia, should reserve a tour of the Western Wall Tunnels at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. There one discovers that the 180 feet long open-air section of the Western Wall is a small portion of the 1,700-foot original length beneath the city and one can touch the arches that supported Jerusalem’s streets over the millennia and the Western Wall itself.

Cross leaning against Church of Holy Sepulchur (above)

Another historical pit stop, the Cardo (a 6th century Roman street of stores situated between two rows of columns) where one can see the remains of the ancient columns, arches, stone floor and the day I visited, school kids enjoying a picnic.
Hungry? You can’t leave Israel without experiencing their famous street food; falafels. I stopped at My Burger next to the Cardo and dove into a delicious Middle Eastern fried chickpea ball sandwich. Here red cabbage, cucumbers and onions were stuffed with hand made French fries into the abundant creamy tahini sauce poured atop everything and oozing out of a thick and chewy pita-like pocket.

I took a quick walk through of The Armenian Quarter settled in the 4th century CE. to see St. James Cathedral, dating from the time of the Crusades, the12th century. Considered one of the most beautiful churches in Israel, it is dimly lit by oil lanterns, and at its center is a dome through which the sun shines lighting the paintings on the walls.
Finally, making my way to an area filled with churches, mosques and Yeshivas, the crown jewel of The Moslem Quarter is the shrine, the Dome of the Rock (below). It was built in 691 AD over a sacred stone believed to be the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. The dramatic, gold leafed dome is the most beautiful and visible architectural projections of Jerusalem’s landscape. My last stop before leaving Jerusalem was just outside of the Old City’s Damascus gate; The Garden Tomb. Believed by many to be the site where Jesus’ body was moved after his crucifixion and where he was resurrected, I arrived too early to get in, and my bus was leaving in a half hour, so I settled for a peek over the wall and a photo of the gate, this time. 

This story was published July 4th, 2009 in the provincial newspaper, The Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia, Canada as the cover piece for the weekly travel section.