My alarm clock woke me early as promised. It had been a rough night of sleep.The combination of unaccustomed sounds, other hostel patrons banging their doors open and shut all night long, and my mixed up internal clock made my hard mattress even more uncomfortable. It seemed that I was only able to enter a good sleep minutes before the buzzer went off. My jet lagged body wanted noting more dearly than to sleep. But I was in Jerusalem! Remembering Conan I thought ‘There’s time enough for sleep in the grave!’ I took a hasty shower, dressed in sneakers, olive cargo pants, plain t shirt and packed. My guide book in my pants pocket, wallet, keys, and iPhone stored and my backpack empty save for a hat and long sleeve shirt, I went in search of breakfast.
Facts on the Ground
A recurring theme of my trip was ‘facts on the ground.’ This phrase can be used to refer to illegal Jewish outposts in Palestinian territory, mangled hotel reservations, or cultural issues. This morning it referred to the opening time of the breakfast hall. The facts were that breakfast was open. There was nobody around to provide instruction. Still hungry from the flights the night before, I combed the buffet for something edible.
I learned long ago that most people in the world do not believe in an American style breakfast. In Prague it was easiest just to party all night and sleep until lunch. My hotels in London, Rome, and Spain being accustomed to American clientele put on a great show for a price. My rumbling stomach was anxious to learn what was to be had hereon the edge of Western civilization.
My good friend, genius, and accomplished world traveler once told me that everyone should go places where they cannot read the signs and where they are discriminated against. In his mind this would lead towards better relations and increased compassion the world over. My breakfast reflected this. As a result, I am quite compassionate to others who become culturally confused over breakfast.
I eventually settled in on a variety of cheeses, breads, vegetables, and, what I still assume to this day to be a kind of pudding. Lactose intolerance be damned! Well fortified, I set out for adventure. My plan was, seeing how this was the Sabbath, I would go to the Western Wall to see services. From there I would try to enter the Dome of the Rock, and make my way to the points of the cross on the Via Dolorosa – what Crusader era pilgrims decided was Christ’s walk. These were my top 3 items on my visiting to-do list and I wanted to check them off immediately.
Leaving the Hostel
After breakfast I head straight for Jaffa gate. Sun was just rising and the architecture looked amazing. I had memorized the street names and city layout as best as I could. The descriptions accompanying maps in the guidebooks warned about the dizzying layout of the alleys inside the Old City. Centuries following the cycle of war, rebuilding, and more war have made the shop-lined passageways nearly indecipherable. Ounce-for-ounce Jerusalem must be the most expensive square footage in the world when You measure the cost in blood spilled through out the ages. This leads to buildings on top of buildings crowding out the sunlight and any celestial direction markers you might have. Once packed with people, claustrophobic conditions ensue.
The way to the Western Wall plaza was easy enough to follow. While I did have to double back on my tracks more than once I managed to find my destination without trouble. I made mental markers of the place in my mind that would be of great use later in the week. I hate being the prototypical tourist map in hand and of no clear direction.
Shortly I came to a checkpoint. Israeli soldiers with no-nonsense looks to match their M16s put me through a metal detector. They were much nicer than the customs official but without the language skills. They asked if I were Jewish and when I shook my head they stated ‘Christian.’ I didn’t seem to think it prudent to correct them ‘atheist’ and they waived me though. One asked ‘hat?’ and not knowing whether my VT ball cap would suffice, I shrugged my shoulders and produced it. He mimed that I put it on, which I did, and sent me on my way.
The Western Wall
The Western Wall (guidebooks told me to never refer to it as the apparently diminutive ‘Wailing Wall’) is the excavated remains of the Jewish Temple. Only a portion of what must have been the most amazing structure in the ancient world (remind me to cross check that with the pyramids) can be seen. In short, it is the foundational retaining wall on which the temple stood until the Romans declared that ‘no stone should stand on another’ after a first century Jewish revolt and destroyed the city. Today the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy place (I’ve read that it’s the 3rd most holy place after Mecca and Medina), stands on this ground. Jews worship the foundational wall at the bottom, Muslims worship in Mosques atop.
The Western Wall radiates holiness and sanctity even to a non-believer as myself. I entered the area from the metal detectors and found myself atop a bank of stairs looking down into the center. I tried to take a picture from the stairs only to find that my camera was non-functional. It had worked only the day before and had fully charged batteries! Maybe the x ray machine got to it, I’ll never know. Disappointed at the prospect of 16 more days in the holy land without a camera but elated to be somewhere so exciting I descended the stairs towards the Wall.
Reaching the courtyard I could see that the Wall was segregated by sex; Males could enter the much larger place on the left and women must worship on the right. Making my way to the male section, I was stopped. A very traditional Jew with long braided hair indicated that I replace my VT hat with a paper Yarmulke before entering. No problem.
I proceeded to the wall still in awe of the reverence showering the place. Men of all ages stood close to the wall, seated near by or along the sides. Some nodded and swayed while reciting scripture others prayed silently. Very few folded notes placing them in the cracks of the masonry. It was a very moving experience.
After several minutes of silent reflection I made my way to the base of the Wall. There is a popular print for sale all over Jerusalem (thankfully not at the wall itself) of Israeli soldiers, weary from the 1967 battles, placing their hands on the wall. It signifies the struggle of a people to return to their cultural roots and the deep and bitter loses they experienced making their way. It is evocative in the same way watching a Vietnam veteran approach the Vietnam memorial wall in DC. You can summon sympathy for the struggle but I hope no one reading this can or ever will be able to empathize with it.
I entered a chamber to the left of the wall, still inside the males-only worshiping section. Inside was a library of sorts and a weather protected continuation of the Wall. I had read earlier of a few places in the floor here that were covered in Plexiglas and provided a view even further down to the very base of the Western Wall. While that was neat, I felt as if I was intruding and left.
Dome of the Rock
The golden Dome of the Rock beckoned and I made my way to the covered ramp. There were all sorts of signs and I expected more guard posts. Sadly, even though the signs stated that visitors were allowed, the guards would not let me pass. The language barrier prevented further explanation but this was again another example of ‘Facts on the Ground.’
I was dejected. With my tight archaeological schedule and other unknowns, I didn’t know if or when I would be able to return. It seemed such a shame to travel all this way and then be prevented from entering the grounds.
I left the Wall and headed around to a few market side streets. I knew from the guidebook that one, if not more of these, provided access to the Dome of the Rock grounds. The caveat was that these gates were only accessible by Muslims. I didn’t intend on crashing the gates but I thought I might be able to sneak a glimpse into these forbidden grounds.
Merchants were just setting up shop. Merchant grounds here were like any others I had ever seen. There certainly were no zoning regulations as butchers set up shop next to antique stores, next to recycled appliances, next to spice shops. Colors of all types on rugs, food, spices, and ornaments breathed life into the cramped alleys. Smells of freshly baked goods and preservative spices began to flood the air and I felt at peace. I remember thinking how privileged I was to be able to see what I could and ceased focusing on what I was not allowed to view. How could I let a thing like access get me down? Here I was learning about a culture or cultures so very different from my own but yet so absolutely entwined in common actions. How many people that I saw here would ever make the reverse of the trip that I did and enjoy the activities I did in the United States?
Eventually I did find one of the gates and stood for a while gazing at the Dome of the Rock and the mosques on the premises. The view was very inspiring and calming.The lawn was meticulously cared for. Large palms and green grass gave color to the landscape. The plazas were unscrupulously clean and from this distance I could just make out the intricate patterns on the tiling of the Dome.
A Palestinian child approached me and asked if I would like to enter. I had no idea what to say. Yes! I wanted to enter. But the guidebook sternly warns you from trying. An Israeli soldier settled the internal dispute for me as the two of us walked up to the gate and prevented me from entering. A brief but passionate exchange between the Palestinian child and the Israeli guard ensued. Whether it was in Hebrew or Arabic I have no idea. What was plain after the child ran away was that I was not going to be able to go into the grounds, not today, and possibly not this trip. Nonplussed I set out for the next of my goals, the Via Dolorosa.