Fear Not This Holy Land – Israel

Fear Not This Holy Land

Crossing the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge back into Israel was much more complex than we had imagined. Palestinians must pass through this particular border check since they are restricted from traveling in Israel without a special permit. As they are not allowed to use the Tel Aviv airport, many fly in and out of Amman, Jordan. Needless to say, the security is tight and the process is painfully slow.

We watched others, tried to discover the correct way to proceed and found out first-hand just how frustrating it could be. We didn’t have the correct money, we had something that looked like a weapon (curling iron), our luggage was ransacked behind walls, and Molly, my daughter, was detained for further questioning (“Molly, are you hiding something from me?”). Yet, our problems were miniscule compared to those of the Arabs. Once through, we had our difficulties finding a taxi to take us in to West Jerusalem. We finally shared a cab with an English-speaking Palestinian woman who had a permit to travel through the area; fortunately for us, she spoke Arabic to the taxi driver and handled all the complexities. Her testimony of the problems and issues were enlightening as she offered us a much different side to the stories we had heard earlier. She is praying for the day when she can visit friends and relatives without the hassles of checkpoints and restrictions. Frankly, she was not too optimistic that this day would come soon.

Our home for the next three nights was the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem, which was yet another New World for us. The hotel was hosting a convention of Rabbis and this day happened to be the Shabbat. As per the rules of Shabbat, many technological developments cannot be capitalized upon including the operation of specific machinery and electricity. Thus, the check-in process proved quite laborious for us as was figuring out how to arrive up to the 22nd floor with elevators that were specially rigged.

We woke up early and had a “Jewish” breakfast of tomatoes, cucumbers, ‘everything’ bagels, pickles, feta cheese, onions, hard-boiled eggs, and hummus and thus fortified ventured out on a clear sunny crisp day.

Molly and Debbie
Molly and Debbie
Entering through the Jaffa Gate near the Citadel (Tower of David), we started our tour of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Old City and its maze of ancient pathways is confusing and nearly impossible to describe; it is literally a plethora of intertwining alleyways full of shops and ancient treasures ranging from hundreds of years before Christ, to the Middle Ages. The Old City is divided into separate Christian, Arab, Armenian and Jewish quarters.

We were approached by many different aggressive Arabs wanting to be our tour guides, but I had already agreed to utilize “David” (real name Hamdi) an Arab-Israeli. I had met him the previous day on my solo sojourn and he came to my “rescue” when an onslaught of police roared into the neighborhood and scared the daylights out of me. He was quick to assure me that there was no problem other than an “urgency” to rid the area of unwanted taxis. David was about 20 years old, and was true to his promise that he would be at his “brother’s” shop the next day available to show us his city.

David took us on a whirlwind tour of the Old City of Jerusalem. Literally, he was the fastest tour guide ever seen, which is something to be said when touring with Molly and Debby who can explore a city in record, and I mean record time!! I could barely keep up. David really was a gem and steered us away from some of the more aggressive shop keepers while positively keeping us from being bored. He kidded us about eating breakfast; apparently most Arabs don’t eat breakfast and he kept asking us if we ate our lunch in the morning (which was essentially what our meal was…..).

Wailing Wall
Wailing Wall
First we saw the Wailing Wall (also known as the Western Wall) the only remaining part of the Temple of Jerusalem which was destroyed at least twice throughout history. It is now the most holy place of the Jewish faith where people come to pray for their past history and insert prayers into the cracks of the wall. We too left our prayers in the wall. These shrines are heavily secured with checkpoints similar to what one experiences at the airport including metal detectors and baggage scanning machines.

Then we visited the Dome of the Rock also referred to as the Temple Mount or the Mosque of Omar, which was constructed directly on top of the Temple of Jerusalem. This is where Mohammed is believed to have ascended up to heaven on his horse. It is a fantastic mosque with intricate mosaic tiles reminiscent of Istanbul mosques. After the Temple Mount, we left the Old City through the Lion’s Gate in order to hike an intensive pathway to the top of the Mount of Olives where Jesus did much of his praying and teaching during his earthly life. Some of the olive trees there are purported to be 2000 years old. The Church of Mary Magdalene (built under Czar Alexander in 1888) celebrates where Mary witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven. It was a very tough climb but not nearly as dramatic as our trek in Petra and well worth it for the amazing panorama of entire city! We were proud that our first three historical journeys managed to celebrate the essence of each of the three major religions who claim Jerusalem as theirs.

Reentering the Old City once again, we continued on our religious pursuit and walked the Via Dolorosa or the 14 Stations of the Cross where Jesus carried his burden prior to being crucified. Essentially this walk was a series of monuments leading to the rock on which He was crucified.

David’s tour culminated as all tours in the area do, with a chance for shopping. He returned us to his family’s shop and Molly proceeded to meet the expectations, buying gem stones called “Stones of Solomon”, and other mementos. The shopkeepers kept us supplied with mint tea and promises of bargains galore.

After a brief respite, we ventured back to the fortress on foot as we did our best to stay off public transportation (since we feared that was where much of the violence occurs in this region) and this time entered through the Damascus Gate, one of the nine gates of the Old City, and definitely the busiest as it takes you directly into the Arab market. As the crowds pulse, merchants bring in new supplies and shoppers leave with their share of candy, spices, and clothing. We shuffled through just as the call to prayer sent some scrambling and it lasted long enough for us to make it through to the Christian area where we heard the bells ringing as well. The sounds came from all sides, confusing us while it mesmerized us. It had the effect of making the bustle and hustle around us appear mute. We continued hiking until we found Mt. Zion. There, besides visiting King David’s tomb, we also saw the site of the Last Supper. A group of devout Korean Christians were singing, praying and were totally entranced in their pilgrimage. They served to remind us how important this city is to everyone. We could not help but feel spiritually connected to numerous religions and humanity in general. Our trip back to the hotel quickly brought us out of this revelry when we stumbled through a yuppy residential area, and upon a group of young Israeli soldiers eating lunch.

We had planned a trip to Bethlehem in the heart of the West Bank for the next day but were having misgivings as the Israelis at our hotel thought it was not a good idea. In fact, the only ones who suggested it were the Arab cab drivers who would drop you off at the checkpoint where you would walk across, catch a new taxi and repeat this once again on your return. We were unsettled too about the prospect of going with David, who claimed to have an Israeli passport and a car at his disposal. Because of these credentials, he could take us directly into the city. The prospect of going into “Palestine” was intriguing enough for us to consider it well into the night. The next morning found us once again at the Jaffa Gate, looking for David. He showed up with a young man who could have been his twin and a car full of umbrellas, hats, t-shirts, and enough other paraphernalia to fill a store. They emptied everything on to the curb and David had us jump in as he admitted that he was a new driver and asked if I knew how to drive (just in case!)

Obviously, our doubts about this leg of our trip came rushing back; however, just an hour later we were in the city of Bethlehem looking for a place to park. David had arranged a Christian guide to take us through the Church of the Nativity. We were shocked by the absence of people, cars, or any action in this city. Jesus’ birthplace appeared to be sleeping. There was a group of Nigerians on a mission sent by their government. Our guide explained that for every person they send to Mecca, they send one to this Holy Land. We witnessed the actual cave where Jesus was born, the area of his crib, and the fields where the angels announced his coming. We then were ushered to Johnny’s, a store where our guide worked, and where the proprietor had once lived in Laredo, Texas. They were honest in asking us to buy something to help support them as the tourists have been almost non-existent since the Pope’s visit in 2000 for the Millennium celebration. Hotels in this city are currently priced at only $20 a night. Our trip back was slow, as entering Israel is much more difficult than leaving. We were told that most of the checkpoint guards are Russian Jews, not knowing the significance of that, we didn’t comment.

Jerusalem is an expensive city to visit but understandably so, as the cost of their security alone must be similar to the added expenses cities like New York and San Francisco have amassed since 2001. Our exit from the airport in Tel Aviv was striking by the comment made by the female security officer, “why would you come here as a tourist, when it is so dangerous?” We hope that someday soon others will feel safe making this journey as it is one everyone should do at least once!