From when we first past the Arab village outside Caesarea, the first comments came about “dirty” Arabs. It is not the first time that taxi drivers comment on this. In fact, if I am in a car and it is daylight, every driver seems to be have a bad word for the place. So he was not the only one. But if there was an opportunity to pass a slight upon the neighbours, Jacob would take it up with gusto. Here is what I saw. Jisr Al Zarqa is indeed a bit of a dump. And the Israelis seem to use this example to foreigners to express their own superiority. I wish the locals knew about this and tidied the place, especially where it backs onto Highway 2.
We didn’t take the main highway into Jerusalem, rather the 433 back route, that eventually leads to Jerusalem from the north. Palestinians are banned from using this road. Fences and patrols would keep them off. Jacob pointed to the hills, saying that they are pretty but evidence of Palestinian arable backwardness. Or is it an example of how the Palestinians had been left only the most difficult land to farm? It wasn’t any value with arguing with Jacob though. I would learn more through listening. He was receiving nods of agreement from some of the Americans in the group though.
Harsh limestone hillside terraces farmed by the Palestians.
Enough. I had to get this off my chest before describing the actual trip. Because Jerusalem is beautiful. As Jacob informed us, it was the British who passed the law stating that all the buildings in the city were to be built of the light cream limestone (apparently the one good thing we had done). Nowadays the modern buildings are just clad with the stone. It is very pleasing. We drove into East Jerusalem, parking on the Mount of Olives. I will describe the places and history as Jacob did. That is, I will not qualify statements with “in this of that tradition they say that such-and-such will happen or had happened here. Each rock in this place seems to have a story linked to it.
The cemetery on the Mount of Olives will be the site of the Last Judgement. Therefore all interned here will be the first to be resurrected and undergo judgement. To be buried here could be seen as a form of eternal queue-jumping, at the entirely reasonable cost of twenty thousand dollars. But the place gives a magnificent view over the Old City, with the golden Dome on the Mount, the site of Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his most beloved son Issac at the behest of God. To the left, is the blue-grey dome of the Mosque of Al Aksa. This is where the Prophet Mohammed arrived in Jerusalem, flown on the back of a magical creature. It is the third most holy site in the Islam but is also the site where the Jewish Messiah will build the New Temple after entering Jerusalem through the Golden Gate. Historically, the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem had the Golden Gate sealed, in order to prevent the Jewish prophesy coming to pass. But it is also a site of great tension between modern believers of both faiths.
On the lower slopes of the Mount are the Garden of Gethsemane, now the site of the Church of All the Nations. That is the old Christian Churches : Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Assyrian and Ethiopian. Sorry Protestants: you guys are merely protesting Catholics. The church itself has the most wonderful mosaics inside and outside still have many of the olive trees which Christ would have walked through. There is a pillar marking the spot where Judas kissed Jesus, thus rendering Him up to the seraphim guard. Across the street is the now empty tomb of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Empty because she ascended directly to Heaven from the summit of the Mount of Olives.
Garden of Gethsemane. Olive trees, some of which are over 2,000 years old.
In order to get to the Church of the Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, one must walk through Bazaar. That was great but there was simply no time to stop and stare. Although the Church outside is nothing special to look at, it is wonderful to be there. And frankly, the city wasn’t busy. For a site of such historical and cultural significance, there was little queuing, apart for the Tomb of Jesus.
Again the church is split into zones of controls, with to my eye the Greeks getting the best of the deal, holding the site of the Crucifixion, the Tomb and even the centre of the world, at least as it was defined in Medieval times. The poor old Coptic Church just had a booth at the back of the tomb; the Assyrians a bare and graffiti-strewn chapel which has the tombs (again empty) of Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene. I didn’t even notice the Ethiopian section. Catholics and Armenians had the other, larger sections.
There wasn’t time for us to walk the Via Dolorosa but the last few Stations of the Cross were contained within the church. It was at Golgotha that I had a religious / spiritual / psychological experience (delete as appropriate). People can touch the rock at the foot of the cross (see picture to the left). I did so, lightly brushing the stone with my index finger and thumb. Both digits are still currently painful and when I carelessly licked my thumb later during lunch, I was surprised to taste warm, thick, salt blood.
Owing to the Sabbath, the Jewish Quarter was very quiet. Jacob knew his stuff; he led the group to a vantage point overlooking the Western Wall. It is called the Wailing Wall because above these foundations was once the Temple which contained the Jewish Holies of Holies. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter upon two occasions a year, a rope being tied to his leg in case anything happened to him while he was in the presence of the Holies. The temple was destroyed in AD70 by the Romans and because it is not exactly known where the Holies once stood, we were told that some Jews would not walk upon the top of the ramparts in case they accidentally entered the sacred site.
Jacob had nothing really to add about the Al Aksa Mosque but did relate of the recent riots (this decade) that occurred in the area. It was thus an area which we had to pass through security. That confirmed something that I had first noticed at the port of Haifa. The security guy standing point (right at the front) of the port and therefore the guy first to be shot if the area came under direct ground attack is black. Now, I thought this a coincidence until I was there during a shift change. Sure enough, the black security guard was replaced by a black comrade. At the Western Wall all those on gate duty, at both entry points, were also black.
I think most of the group posted notes into the wall. I was wearing my old African bush hat so didn’t have to avail myself of the paper yarmulkes that were on supply, although I would of worn one otherwise. I wish photography was allowed in the area because my colleague Peter looks, well, a picture in his!
The Judean Desert starts where Eastern Jerusalem ends. As the minibus descended into the rift valley, vegetation got scarcer and then almost ceased. The rounded limestone hills, light brown to cream in colour stood out. The Earth looks different without plants. As a geologist I was able to appreciate many of the features as we drove westward, heading towards the Dead Sea, 400m below sea level and the lowest point on the planet. But seeing the barren hills gave me a feeling of unease. It was like seeing one’s parent naked.
Swimming in the Dead Sea is both the most silly and the most relaxing thing I have ever done. There is no beach in the traditional sense of the word. The edge of the water is blue, sticky claystone which sucks at one’s feet until you slide onto one’s back.. And then you just float! Lying flat out, not even my ears got wet. It is amazing just how much of the body is above the water line. Just as well really, as the water is extremely acrid, being nine times the salinity of normal sea water. Getting out is fun! Showers and changing rooms were available, at the cost of NIS35 (about seven pounds / twelve dollars). Across the water rise up the mountains of Jordan.
It was up the Jordan valley that we returned. Once back inside Israel proper, Jacob spoke about returning to civilisation. Again, we were back into rich farmland.
Apart from such constant anti-Arab remarks, Jacob was a good tourist guide. Knowledgeable and efficient, he knew his routes, his scripts and was able to answer questions on other matters with real knowledge. Every mile there was something he could say about where we were. He is not a stupid man, it just amazing to me that how the strong love of one thing, in this case Israel, can lead a person to think so ill of those who do not share their passion and even to cleanse their nation’s own history. It was the lessening of the man but I know he is not the only person in the region who suffers from holding such an outlook.
It seems to me that Israel is the land where fact becomes myth and legends often become fact. Sometimes telling them apart is almost impossible.