Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Last year we saw a movie about the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 a.d. The Kingdom of Heaven was criticized for inaccuracies, but I found it exotic and romantic. It gave me an understanding of how the Europeans fought hard to keep the Arabs from over-running Europe. It was the same thing in Spain, when Ferdinand and Isabela fought the Moors - it was a battle of boundaries.

Jerusalem to me hearkened Christianity and Crusaders and the bible and Jesus Christ and his apostles, the temple, ancient gates, pool of Bethesda, Mount of Olives and Golgotha - places that I'd made pictures of in my head from scraps of information gathered throughout the years. Same thing with Nazareth, Bethlehem and the River Jordan - I had my own images of these places. Because of this, I was afraid of being disappointed in seeing the Holy Land. This had happened before when I saw a place and become disappointed because it didn't match my fantasy.

So it was with a bit of nervousness that I went to Israel. Well, you do get nervous because El Al, the Israeli flagship plane checks every thing you are carrying. An El Al representative (or Israeli representative) interviews you making sure you alone packed your bags, and then each bag is opened and the person runs a wand through everything. Even our boxed breakfast (sent by the Fairmont Heliopolis, demoted to a three-star hotel in my mind) was whisked away for thorough inspection. God knows how much radiation the orange juice and croissants had by the time we got them back. The small lamp I picked up in Cairo caused a slight delay because the wires had to be checked to make sure I didn't have a bomb. It's just as well, really, because we wanted to have a safe bomb-free plane ride from Cairo to Tel Aviv.

The plane ride was less than 2 hours; they're that close. There was no problem when we arrived Tel Aviv. Outside the airport terminal, we took Nesser shuttle service, recommended to us by our hotel. For 45 sheckels each, the shuttle brought us to Jerusalem Hotel which is near the Damascus Gate. (Exchange rate was around 3.5 sheckles to a dollar.)

We had found the Jerusalem Hotel in the internet. There's a site I google that gives me ratings made by customers, and Jerusalem Hotel had excellent reviews. It's a restored 19th century mansion built in the Spanish-Moorish style, with few rooms. The best part about the hotel is that it's walking distance to the Old City. A nice breakfast is included, and the restaurant's food is quite good so we had most of our dinners there. My husband swears their beer is excellent, and he looked forward to his cold glass of beer in the early evening after our touring.

When we arrived Jerusalem at around 7:30, our room wasn't ready and so we left our luggage and walked a few blocks to catch the bus that goes all around the Old City. It was great orientation although having had little sleep I dozed on and off.

Later that afternoon, after we'd checked in and rested, we went to the Old City to walk the Via Dolorosa. It was Friday and I'd read that the Franciscans have a procession every Friday afternoon. It was in fact better than an ordinary Friday because it was Good Friday, per Orthodox figuring. Add to that the fact that it was Passover. The Old City was crawling with Christians doing the Via Dolorosa and Jews heading for the Wailing Wall. It was great! I had never seen such a variety of people, all focused on their religion in such a small space. Listen: there were Muslims; there were assorted Christians - Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Christians, Ethiopian Coptics, Armenian Coptics, and Protestants I'm sure - and there were various types of Jews, Hasidic one of them. And they were all so intent in worshipping their God - the Christians venerating the site where Jesus was reportedly crucified and where He was entombed; the Jews bowing their heads in prayer in front of the Wailing Wall, and the Muslims in their mosques. And the wonder of it all was that the God these three religions prayed to was the same God of Abraham.

The configuration and boundaries of Jerusalem have changed through the years. The Old City now is not what the City had been during the time of Christ. This explanation is used when people puzzle over why the Via Dolorosa - the road Christ took as He headed toward Golgotha for His crucifixion - is right smack in the middle of a busy bazaar. In fact, others question if this Via Dolorosa that is marked in the Old City really is the genuine Via Dolorosa. It's like that in Jerusalem: there are two places that claim to be where the Last Supper was held; there are two places that claim that Christ was buried there, and so on.

Somehow we missed the Franciscan-led procession and so we walked the Via Dolorosa, searching for the Stations of the Cross markings in the busy souk (bazaar) until we finally made it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the holiest Christian site in the world), where the last four Stations are. Before getting there, we stumbled upon a joyous celebration of Ethiopians in their church, which is right next to the Holy Sepulchre. It's like a maze in the Old City, with buildings connected to one another. The custody of the Holy Sepulchre is shared by the Franciscans, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolics, with a Muslim family holding the door keys.

There were so many people in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you were wedged into a group and moved along with the wave of humanity up the stairs to Golgotha where Christ was crucified. I thought I'd fall off the narrow stairs because of all the shoving and pushing. Upstairs I took out some money for my donation, and when there was a surge of people, promptly lost the money. In any case, I did get to kiss the spot where Christ is believed to have been crucified. And we managed to visit other areas in the Holy Sepulchre; but I did not get into the tomb itself because of the crowd. By the way, during our visit to Jerusalem, I returned two other times to try and visit the Sepulchre or tomb and still couldn't get in. I had to content myself by praying and touching the outside walls.

It was Helena, mother of Constantine, who is credited for discovering the religious sites relating to Christ's passion. To be honest, I wondered how the sites where Christ was imprisoned, Crucified and entombed would all be within a few meters apart. There is a Protestant group that suggests the Crucifixion was on a former quarry, now a parking lot, and that the tomb of Christ was elsewhere. These inconsistencies did not diminish my faith; what was important to me was to look at Jerusalem and the Holy Land as a whole - in a long shot, so to speak, as opposed to a closeup. Christ, Mary, Joseph went to the Temple in Jerusalem during Passover; the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, but the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) remains. The Pool of Bethesda where Jesus performed a miracle exists. Stephen's Gate near where St. Stephen was stoned stands. The Mount of Olives and the grotto exist, and some ancient olives are said to have witnessed Christ's passion. Later, when we visited Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, Galilee, Capernaum, the River Jordan, I didn't concern myself with the exact spot where Jesus did this or that, but just took in the bigger picture of where Our Lord walked, worked, ate, preached, lived, died, and resurrected.

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