Charlotte,NC to Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta to Tel Aviv. A few hours on a plane to go a few millennium back in time. It was March, 2008 and I had joined an archaeological expedition sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, biblical studies expert Dr. James Tabor and famed archaeologist, Dr. Simon Gibson.
Our mission was to excavate a patch of land located on the southern wall of Jerusalem’s old city called Mount Zion. I would learn later in the trip that this wall was erected 1500 years after Christ during the reign of Suleman the magnificent and crossed through the center of a nicer section of Jesus’s Jerusalem. In fact, Dr. Gibson would tell us that we were very likely digging in the very priestly homes that Jesus may have been tried in, only footsteps away from where he would have been condemned to crucifixion but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Plane to Tel Aviv
The plane ride to Tel Aviv had been different from any I was used to. Departing in evening in Atlanta, the flight took forever and finally reached after noon Israeli time. As you might suspect, security was very tight on the entire flight. With about one hour left en route the passengers were instructed that walking about the cabin would no longer be permitted. That was fine by me. I had been trying to guess the Greek land masses and islands dotting the Mediterranean that we had been passing over the previous few hours. With the approach to Tel Aviv imminent, I didn’t want to miss a thing.
We crossed north of the city of Tel Aviv and circled over the surrounding areas. I was surprised at how much green I saw, much of it inside green houses. My seatmate, a professor from BYU on his 17th trip to Israel to lead a biblical studies tour confirmed what I had read in guidebooks; Israel had been investing heavily in bringing life to less-than-hospitable climes for decades.
Customs was a trip. I had a letter signed by Dr Gibson confirming that the reason for my stay was the archaeology trip. This was heavily examined and I was quizzed on it as I was quizzed on the dates and nature of my other passport stamps. Czech Republic, Italy, England, Spain. Yes, these were all pleasure trips I confirmed as the customs man glared at me. Just another American adventurer off to play Indiana Jones.
I also had a list of all of my hotels which was fortuitous. The customs agent recognized that I was only going to be digging for a week but my return flight wasn’t for much later. After a few minutes of being ridiculed for not being able to pronounce the names of my hotels properly he asked me what I intended on finding. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to what I might uncover on the dig or through the entire trip so I merely replied ‘Whatever is out there.’ A few minutes later I was free to go.
The BYU professor had offered to get a Sherut with me – a special taxi that runs the distance Tel Aviv to Jerusalem at just over an hour. True to his word, he was waiting for me and after I got my luggage and he got a sim card for his phone, we were off.
Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
Finding a Sherut was important. I left the states Thursday night and it was now after noon on Friday. Although I understood that the Saturday Sabbath, being a holy day, Jerusalem would be just about shut down. What I didn’t realize was that this shut down would start a half-day in advance for the Saturday sabbath. If I didn’t get a taxi I would be stranded in Tel Aviv with no hotel, no transport, and no idea how to get one.
Luckily, we filled the sherut and in short order we were off for Jerusalem.
The drive to Jerusalem was like any other filled with cars, traffic, etc. I always marvel at how different cars are overseas, different models, brands and the like. The professor filled me in about the 1967 war and the current state of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The route we were chauffeured lent itself to our discussion as it was a main supply line running from Jewish held Tel Aviv to Jordanian help Jerusalem. Several rusted, bombed out armored personnel carriers were left along side the road, discards of a 40 year old conflict with roots millenia ago. I tried to envision myself driving a caravan through this run. With the road passing through valleys and high terrain to fire down on, I thought that I’d much rather be the one shooting down than the ones driving through.
Our progress and my history lessons were halted mid-trip for a terrible accident that required a hospital helicopter to pick up the injured from a car wreck. This was the first of many examples of past and present existing side by side.
We reached Jerusalem as dusk was setting. Jerusalem as I envisioned it, perhaps as you are currently envisioning it was really Old Jerusalem. New Jerusalem is modern if not as sleek and impressive as Madrid, London or New York. The Jewish held New Jerusalem sprawls everywhere west of Old Jerusalem. East Jerusalem, the Arab /Palestinian sections start on the north side of the Old City and continues to wrap around clockwise. The combination of flat roofs, earth toned sidings, desert interspersed with scrub brush and variety of wealthy shopping districts (The German section) and poor, patched houses (Palestinians) reminded me somewhat of Los Angeles.
Even as the sherut was dropping off all of the other passengers, the professor included, I could tell that I was not in Kansas anymore. The architecture- I wish I could convey the style – was reminiscent of70’s Miami set in desert in tan tones. Security was everywhere. There was a lot of shouting, a lot of street noise, and everyone everywhere seemed to be in various stages and intensities of arguing. This was the first time I had traveled someplace without making the slightest attempt at learning a few phrases in the local language and I really regretted it now. My Western ears couldn’t make out the difference between Hebrew and Arabic if my life depended on it. Hopefully, it wouldn’t.
I was one of the last dropped off at a hotel, or in my case, a hostel. More accurately described, Beit Shmeul is like a cross between a college dorm and a community center. Made from cinder block and filled with an assortment of people. Sadly, not many people were very interested in engaging those outside their cliques.
My room was very much like my college dorm except it had a shower and 3bunkbeds instead of 1. Luckily I seemed to have the room entirely to myself for my entire stay so I could afford to spread out. One upside the room had on my dorm was that I could see a section of the walls of Old Jerusalem. The professor had warned me against going inside the city walls at night but I was hungry and didn’t travel all that way to sit in a cinder block tower. I also remember getting a feeling of incredibly loneliness once I settled down and had nothing to do. It seemed the best way to combat it was to go exploring.
I set off down a few streets and wandered around until I got my bearings. Once I was certain I could get my way back to Beit Shmuel, I headed off for the city. It was night and it was hot. I had no idea as of yet how hot it could get.
The old city is framed by walls erected by Suleman the magnificent, a Turk. The combination of lighting on these walls cause them to glow in this wondrous golden hue that seemed to radiate history, import and religion. I was in awe of the place.
I walked and explored without any clear idea of what to do or where to go so I entered the first gate I found, Jaffa Gate. This is apparently the main tourist entry point and shops, money changers, and a few restaurants with menus in English on one side exist there. So do shopkeepers as keen to their environment as spiders are of flies in their web.
The first one pounced with the skill of a thousand applications. “My friend, my friend, you speak English? Can you help me?”
Can you help me?
When I am abroad I travel by and large the courtesy and grace of strangers. I am painfully aware of how poorly non-English speakers are treated in the States by the minority of ugly Americans. This said, I try to be a good ambassador for my country and citizen of the world in general while abroad. Of course I answered ‘Yes, I speak English. Happy to help.’
The shop keep led me into his store, one of the few things in the area that was opened. He showed me a bunch of his wares, typical tourist trap chotchkies and proceeded to write various sales pitches on the cardboard backings they came in. “Which sounds better?” he’d ask. “25 % off or 5 for the price of 4?” This went on for a while, each time with the prices getting better and better.
Eventually I made to leave and he grew irate. “Why did you make me show you all of this stuff if you weren’t going to buy anything?” he shouted into the street which had grown even darker. The was no one left now besides a few soldiers and other shopkeepers standing having tea together and they stared at me. I made a mental note not to come back near his shop again.
Face red from irritation and a bit of public embarrassment I quickly started walking down a very dark alley. If the rabbit’s warren of alleys, side streets, and endless shop doors that make up the center walks of the Old Jerusalem is confusing in the daylight, it is nearly impenetrable in the dark. The Professor had warned me not to walk through the old city at night unaccompanied and I suppose that stuck in my mind as I wandered alone between ancient high-walled alleys. I have difficulty describing the entire experience of arriving in Israel and Jerusalem but it was definitely like nothing i had ever experienced before. It was very old, very tense, and very foreign to me. The exotic smells left over from today’s markets, alien sounds and the dancing shadows got the better of me and I headed out back through Jaffa gate of which I came.
East Jerusalem by Night
I went north following the wall that encircles old Jerusalem marveling that I was actually half a world away from home. I felt alive with all of my senses engaged. Before going on this trip my only knowledge of Palestine was rooted through the what a good portion of the world refers to as NY Times bias. I had never met a Palestinian before and only half knew the history of the area. Admittedly, my only point of reference was the PLO and Arafat. I came to Israel to fill the gaps in my education and to form my own opinions but I will confess to being predisposed to not feeling warmly towards Palestinians. In that regard I measured my walk around the city to the north gate, what my guide book listed as the beginning of East Jerusalem, the beginning of Palestine.
There were no tourists walking about this time of night and certainly no westerners. A point underscored for me by the groups of young males that hung out together watching me silently. They would go quiet as I approached and cease whatever they were doing as I walked by. A few repetitions of this started to wear on my nerves and I returned to the west.
Eventually, not finding anything else to do, I made my way back to Beit Schmuel and went to sleep in my bunk. I set my alarm for 5:30am, 30 minutes before the kitchen opened,and made my plans for the next day. Saturday in perhaps the most religious city in the world. That should be interesting. I would have to get the bulk of my exploring done that day as Sunday I would start the dig.