Being a nexus of several of the world’s most popular religions, it should come as little surprise that Jerusalem’s Old City is divided into 4 quadrants. Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. The Via Dolorosa follows the East entrance on Jerusalem’s East side, just past the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque and continues into the Christian section in the West. I followed one of the major streets inside the Old City and made my way to the beginning, or the 1st station of the cross.
The Muslim Quarter
In little time I was able to traverse most of the Muslim quarter and find a number of the stations. Most are well marked with Roman numerals set on tiles into the alley walls. These walls belong to any number of churches, mosques, temples and the like. Interestingly, shops of all kinds and residences are all mortared in together. At any time you can find stone support structures comprising of eight kinds of architecture spanning the centuries of habitation. Paying careful attention to the kind of architecture, debris walls, and masonry you can construct a time line of destruction and rebirth in your minds eye. I did this as I walked from the Dome of the Rock counting backwards from the stations I found until I located the second station.
Great, my wanderings took me to the second station. If I could only find the first station, I could travel the path in order. I walked purposefully, guide book tucked in my pants pocket but could not find the station. I passed several churches on my left headed Eastward and shops on my right. Merchants called out to me as they did everywhere ‘My friend, my friend!’ Finally one asked ‘May I help you find the first station?’ Soured on the experience of the night before I ignored him and followed the road straight through the Lion’s gate leaving the Old City and into the Kidron Valley that is the East side of Jerusalem.
Here I could see the great valley stretched before me. On the opposing hill I could see thousands upon thousands of Jewish graves. That must be the Mount of Olives, where I was told that people request to be buried so they might get a first hand look at the resurrection.
On my side, just outside of Suleiman the Magnificent‘s walls I found an Arab cemetery I passed several peaceful moments here reflecting on what I had seen. Graves were piled one on top of another. Instead of tombstones and green plots of earth, the ground was divided into rectangles of various sizes and caped with heavy stone lids. The graves were in various states of disrepair. What looked to be the exploded remains of fireworks littered the grounds. Some of the final resting places boasted mementos mourners had placed years ago. Surrounded by graves here and looking at graves across the valley, a morbid mentality possessed me. I wondered how these people passed. Was it through war? Noting the disrepair and lack of new mementos I wondered if the original mourners had passed, too.
Sounds of life in and around Jerusalem brought me back to the present. The solitude of the cemetery provided me the necessary camouflage to take out my guidebook. Where was that first station? The book noted it was difficult to find but the description didn’t match the area. Per the instructions, it wasn’t very far off from the 2nd station which I had found with little difficulty. I walked up the street again slowly, searching. The only thing I found was a tall, gaunt Palestinian standing in front of a shop. Before he could address me, I ducked into a nearby church.
St. Anne’s Church
St Anne’s Church (the traditional site of the birthplace of Anne [Hannah], the mother of Mary) was neat and cool and like everything in the Old City, very, very old. I checked out ruins of a previous church on the grounds and saw the limestone. I could appreciate now why modern archaeologists disputed the claim of the Via Dolorosa being the actual path Christ took; ruins erected after his death stood 30′ below the current city. The cistern of this particular set of ruins lay even deeper. For various political-religious reasons, excavating in the Old City was near impossible. How could you ever really know what lay here on the 1st century?
Aside from the ruins, there was a simple church. Wire mesh hung over the entrance to keep Jerusalem’s ubiquitous pigeons out. (Those pigeons must be what keeps the city’s impossible stray cat problem well-fed.) Inside the church were rows of simple hewn benches. The narthex lay at the front and there were no decorations in the plain, cool room. This would provide stark contrast to the over-the-top decorations nearly every other purported holy place would have.
I was joined by a German tour group shortly after entering. I could not follow the guide’s discussion (don’t speak German and this was 18 months before I would learn basics traveling in Germany!) but he seemed to be exploring the acoustics, particularly the echo of this place. They soon broke in to song. Their voices blended marvelously with the construction of the room. The acoustics wrapped the song around you in blended harmony. Happy for this bit of serendipity, I followed them out.
Back on the street I was no closer to finding the first station. As best as I could figure it should be right by where the shop was. Approaching the spot I realized that there was a car ramp that led to a set of closed wooden doors adjacent to the shops. Having learned to look through every keyhole, window, and portico in Rome for hidden treasures, I skipped past the merchant, eying me as his first customer of the day, and walked purposely up the ramp.
The First Station of the Cross
To my dismay there were no keyholes. I debated opening the heavy, 2 story painted wood doors when the merchant approached me. “My friend, let me help you find the first station.” I needed help, I wasn’t going to find it on my own, and realizing that this would eventually lead to a sell of some kind, I nodded. He smiled, opened the wooden doors and escorted me through and into what can only be described as a construction zone.
We weaved our way past heavy equipment, masonry blocks and dry bags of concrete and made our way to a heavily stylized alcove with a tremendous view of the Dome of the Rock. This was the first station, finally! Even had I mustered the nerve to open those doors (seemingly rude for a tourist to do, don’t you think?), I never would have gotten past the construction. Standing in the cool alcove taking photos on my iPhone, I was thankful. Here’s where the merchant started up his conversation.
“Do you need SIM?” “Do you need batteries?” “Do you need rugs?” Apparently he had everything in the world on sale. He asked where I was from (US?) and what I was doing here. I explained that I was a student (technically true) and that I had come to learn (very true). I hoped that this would dissuade the sale because after doing the currency conversions in my head I realized that his price range for items was far, far beyond my means. Despite my backpacker-esque looks, I was pegged as the wealthy American.
Not wanting to seem rude, but not wanting to spend a car payment on a t-shirt, I asked where he got the cigar he was smoking. His eyes lit up and he asked me if I would like to have one with him, no charge.
I entered his shop and met his brother. Artifacts of all nature spanned the walls. Coins, jewelry, icons, statues, rugs, and artwork was everywhere. I was amazed. The taller brother went in search of a cigar for me and, on the promise of tea and because he professed that it was his culture to have tea with the first visitor that he met this morning, I sat with the older brother.
Before long the younger brother had returned with a small cigar and tea garnished with mint and sugar. I was pretty happy with myself and this was the cue for the older brother to show me exquisite and expensive rugs. He explained that they were made in Persia (Iran), Syria, and elsewhere. I told him that I thought they were beautiful but I was a poor student and that the prices of the rugs were roughly equivalent to what I had paid for my entire 2 week journey. He told me not to worry, to relax and that he was practicing for future customers.
The younger brother had disappeared after producing the cigar and tea but now re-entered the shop with two 60-something American women, both thanking him for helping them find the first station. They were obviously more affluent than I immediately received the attention of the older brother. I finished my cigar and tea and waited patiently to make my goodbyes until after the ladies left. Neither had made a purchase.
I thanked the brothers and made for the door. The older brother scowled. He intimated that it would be very rude to not make a purchase after being served tea. This reminded me of Heinlein’s TANSTAAFL -‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. The older brother informed me that it was his culture’s belief that if they didn’t make a sale to their first visitor of the day, the rest of the day would be awful. He went on and on and eventually I relented.
I calculated how much I would have paid a guide for the tip of how to find the first station. After all, I reasoned, how many people intent on doing the stations of the cross walk would have missed that first stop (or did these guys get them all into their shop?)
I added that sum to what I would expect to pay for the tea and the cigar and found a pendant that roughly matched that value. Refusing multiple up-sells and threatening to leave at one point, the older brother spat at the ground, muttered something in Arabic and disappeared out the door leaving the taller, younger brother to close the sale. At the register I asked what his brother had said. ‘He said you bargain like an Arab’ the shop keep told me through pursed lips. ‘And he’s not very happy with me for bringing you in.’ Whether this was a compliment, an nicety, or whatever, I’ll never know. The merchant got his sale to his first visitor of the day, I had some tea, a cigar, a lesson in marketing and cultural dynamics, and saw the first station and came away with a pendant that would make a wonderful gift. I think I got the better deal here.
As I turned to exit, the younger brother asked with a gentle face ‘You will tell your friends about us?’ “Friends?” I thought. The closest person I knew might be deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq at the moment and I supposed quite busy. Next to that were some friends in Europe before everyone else back in the States. Again a feeling of how far away I truly was coursed through me. I replied that I would of course tell my friends and family (and so I have – that’s you guys!), thanked him profusely for his hospitality and left.
Thousands of Miles from Home
Checking my watch, it was just past 9 am. I had been awake for 4 hours, seen so much of Jerusalem and still had so much left to do and see! If the rest of my trip was to be as eventful as these first few hours, I was really in for an adventure! I made my way to the second station absolutely delighted.
I was thousands of miles from home, I had no friends remotely near by, I couldn’t speak any of the native languages and I had no clear idea what I was doing. I was having the time of my life.