A Funny Thing Happened to me on the Way to Dinner

Dinner in the Christian Quarter

Following my trip through the Western Wall, my failed attempt to gain access to the Al Aqsa mosque, a brief wandering through a cemetary from Lion’s Gate to the Golden Gate, bartering with Persian carpet dealers, and visiting the 14 Stations of the Cross and summiting Christ the Redeemer Church, (that wasn’t a run on sentence, was it 😉 ?) it was time to eat. Jerusalem had one more curveball in store for me.

Return to the Souk

The only time I get lonely overseas is when it’s time to eat. I’ve spent enough time eating alone in my life and I really don’t enjoy it. Eating by yourself overseas makes you realize that despite all the amazing things that you are seeing, you’re missing out on sharing those experiences with anyone else. With that in mind, I decided to take my meal at the busiest place I could find – the market souk near Christ the Redeemer church.

Clothing Inspection

I pause in my tale to describe my attire for the evening. Remember, I have been up running through the dusty streets of Old Jersualem from exactly sun-up to dinner which was probably 12 hours. I have climbed through churches, monastaries, into and out of caves, pressed flesh with religious elders, and struggled through masses of humanity in a desert setting. In other words, I smell My cargo khakis, olive shirt, and brown boots are covered in dust, sweat, and grime. I had been wearing a hat both to protect my shaved head from the Middle Eastern sun as well as to obey the religious sensibilities of each place I visited; some required head cover, others prohibit.

The Restaurant

I chose a restaurant for the view. 3 stories up from the market place I was able to find a seat. However, no one would serve me. After about 30 minutes of watching everyone eat, I turned to leave. Enough of this I thought.

Leaving down the stairs I passed the manage who asked how my meal was. When I expalined that there was no meal because no one would serve me, he disappeared into the kitchen and with a flurry of words in a language I could not identify (Armenian?) he discovered that they wouldn’t serve me because they thought I was an American service man.

Not caring to eat at any place that wouldn’t serve our military I decided to leave. I told the manager that I understood their objections and would leave. Again the man stopped me. He further explained that it wasn’t that they wouldn’t serve me, it was that they were too scared to serve me. He asked ‘You are a SEAL, no?’

That really took me back. I didn’t expect that. Compared to the waiters I was huge. Most Americans really do appear giant and fat compared to the people I’ve encountered overseas. At 195lbs, I am no exception. But a SEAL? No. I lauged it off and explained that American SEALs were much, much bigger, stronger and scarier than I could ever be. That thought both seemed to relieve and terrify them. I was seated and enjoyed a good meal and a tasty beer looking out over the city.

Getting to the Dig

It was damn early when I awoke alone in my hostel. The sun had not yet rose but my alarm roused me at the pre-set time; 4:30 am. “Sonofabitch,” I thought as I climbed out of my bunk to shut it off. Nothing registers with me in that early in the morning. It took me a moment to realize where I was and what the alarm meant.

The night before I had returned from an amazing time, my first day in the Middle East, to find a note waiting for me at the hostel. I’ve written about exploring Jerusalem here, here, and here, so if you are interested in back story, just check out those pages. The note was from my pre-arranged contact, a fellow Dig volunteer whom had been here a few weeks longer than I. It was short and to the point. ‘Meet in lobby @ 5:30am. Head to the site.’ And that’s why I was awake at that ungodly hour. To give myself enough time to wash the sleep from my eyes, get dressed and make a small pack for the day.

While the dining hours were listed as 5 am, I knew the set up would be earlier. Perhaps one bleary-eyed American wouldn’t be noticed. So I went to the mess hall early. I had to wake up somehow and sitting alone in my dorm was not the way to do it.. As luck would have it, the coffee (or what passed as coffee) was already brewing and no one was there to object to my taking a table.

By 5:30 I was in the lobby trying to look more awake than I felt and I met the other volunteer. He was in his late 50s and had recently retired from a civil service job and was clearly used to more authority than he had been given on this dig. He explained the basics to me as we returned to the mess hall to pick up supplies that would be our lunch. For the record, lunch was a bizarre affair of potluck. I’m not certain what kind of Rube Goldberg machine-turned-comestible we were expected to build with the materials but at least there were always materials.

My partner walked me over to the site. It was on the south wall of Jerusalem by what is known as the Dung Gate. By those walls were various trenches and partial excavations and over a millennia of debris. This is what I can tell you of the site dubbed Mount Zion:

(Here is a timeline of the occupation of Jerusalem for those whom are interested)

Mt Zion (the dig site) was located west of and outside the original City of David (more on the city of David later). Through the years of Roman annexation (foot note) it was home to the religious upper class. By the time of Jesus such figures as the House of Caiaphas are known to have made their home here. Of particular interest to the Biblical Archeological study (whom was partially sponsoring at least parts of the dig) the places we were excavating may have been the homes of the Pharisees whom judged and tried Jesus before delivering him to Pontius Pilate for insinuated crimes of treason.

After Jesus’ passing the landscape changed again, especially with the Jewish revolt which ultimately led to Rome bringing the hammer down and demolishing every part of Jerusalem “let no stone stand upon another.” From the perspective of our dig, that filled the area with tons of Roman-era debris and a certain amount of destruction.

As you can tell by that short narrative, war and destruction seems to be the only constant of that land. Conquering forces make excavation difficult in the manner that everything you find is either mostly or completely trashed. The good part is that we have consistent timelines and if you find certain markers (Roman roofing, or Turkish tiles), you know the context of anything you find near it.

The dig day starts by the volunteers (students, zealots and retirees for the most part) and the paid laborers (Palestinians, all) begin setting up for the day. Across the road that runs by the site is the foreman’s house. It’s the one with the donkey making noise all day. From there we unload spades and shovels, trowels, buckets, and surveying equipment. Tons of material. The archaeologists would show up right after that effort was finished.

Assignments would be made for digging and in what location. Some with other skills (like surveying – thanks, Dad!) would be assigned to various other projects. Some women whom I am certain are destined for saint hood brewed tea and coffee. That’s when we would get to work.

I was paired with one Dr Egon Lass. He had a reputation for being austere, imperious, and for not suffering fools gladly if at all. I had been warned about working with him both on the way over and by other volunteers. Of course I was assigned to him. The rumors were true. He was exacting but he had decades of experience. He held other people to a high standard but himself to an impossible one. He is also brilliant. I liked it so much that I volunteered to work with him the rest of the week.

And work was hard, painstaking, and very, very hot.

A Brief History of Israel

You can’t really appreciate the archeology without the history. Through archaeology, good, unbiased archaeology, that is we can discern a lot about this area and the timeframes included. However, a large portion of what makes this portion of the world so interesting – the passionate beliefs of 3 major world religions – also lead to contrary claims. I will limit this discussion to what is proven through shrewd science. If you disagree on the basis of religious principle, that’s great. You are welcomed to your opinion. These pages are not for you. If I’ve made a mistake with my accounting of the science here, please let me know in the comments and be prepared to include your sources. I can send you mine.

Also, this isn’t a complete history, just what is germane to the Dig history.

Egypt to Abraham and back again.

Over the years Jerusalem has taken many shapes. Although people settled (as best we can tell around 10,000 BC) the first to rule the area were the Egyptian Pharaohs. Around 1800 BC Abraham took his nomadic tribe from Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and defeated the locals in what amounts to a war over water property. Eventually his descendents sought refuge in Egypt due to massive climatic change that led to a drought through out all of the area. In or around 1250 BC Moses led the people on back (via a circuitous route). They battled Philistines and Canaanites and eventually were united under Saul. Saul was defeated at Mt Gilboa by the Philistines and Israel was divided in two; the north being Israel and the south being Judah. David conquered Jerusalem (what was known as Salem) and ran his nation from that seat of power.

David to Sargon to Babylonians and a return

David established Jerusalem (then called Zion) and his son and successor Solomon created the first Temple there (965-928 BC). After Solomon’s rule ended, the people entered into a cycle of subjugation. Around 722-205 BZC, Sargon of Assyria captured Israel (remember, the northern part of Saul’s empire) and forced Judah (David’s portion) to pay tribute. That included Zion/Jerusalem. In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and exiled the people to what is today called Iraq. Around 50 years afterwards the Babylonians themselves would be conquered by King Cyrus of Persia and the Jews returned to the lands of Israel, Judah, and the city we know as Jerusalem.

Greeks to Hasmoneans to Romans

Greeks maintained hold of the Holy Land from the 4th century BC via Alexander the Great (whom took the land from the Persians) and Ptolemy (Alex’s general took over the area when he died in 323 BC). Around 200 BC, the Seleucids (another off shoot of Alexander) took control. In particular, in Jerusalem, they displaced the Jewish priests from the Temple. That came to a head in 167 BC when Judah Maccabee rose up to conquer an area just about the size of David’s. This led to the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty – something which the Roman Empire found to be a very effective buffer between their grain fields in Egypt and the Parthian (Persian) Empire.


Rome liked having the Hasmoneans as a client state but they fought amongst themselves too much. Rome grew tired of this and intervened in 63 BC. They would then either rule via proxy (like Hasmonean marry-in King Herod) or through a Procurator like Pontius Pilate. This ultimately led to more war and in 66AD Rome crushed what is known as the First Jewish Revolt and sacked the temple in 70 AD thus ending what is referred to as the Second Temple Period. This wouldn’t be the end of Rome’s influence in Jerusalem for they expelled the Jews and renamed the city to Aelia Capitolina after putting down the 2nd Jewish Rebellion under Emperor Hadrian.

Christians & Muslims

Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in 313AD and his mother Helena went around consecrating sites associated with Jesus’ life, several in Jerusalem. 638 Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem bringing Islam to the city but Christian pilgrimages were allowed until 1071 when the Seljuk Turks invaded prompting the Pope to call for the crusades. In 1099 Crusading Christians would take the city but the crusades would continue for 200 more years. In 1187 Saladin the Saracen (of Kurdish origin) would take the city.

Ottomans, British, UN, and Modern Israel

1516 would see Palestine fall to the hands of the Ottomans for some 400 years until the British would take it at the conclusion of World War 1. They would turn it over to the UN which would ultimately lead to the 2 month Arab-Israeli war.

St Patty’s Day In Jerusalem

I joined the Mt Zion Dig after catching Dr Tabor’s lecture at UNCC promoting the Jesus Cave and his book The Jesus code. At the end of his speech he announced that he and archaeologist Dr Shimon Gibson  would be conducting a dig in Jerusalem and if you wanted to, you could volunteer. That was in November 2007. I had my paperwork submitted a week later. The dig would be that March.

I had never been to Israel or anywhere in the Middle East before. While I love history, I didn’t know much about the region outside the headlines. And hat was usually about violence. Other than watching Indiana Jones (and I don’t think it counts) I had no formal archaeological training. Still, I had to go. You just have t say ‘yes’ when these once in a lifetime experiences come your way.

In my very brief experience, archeology is a lot like driving long distance. The vast majority of the tasks you are expected to perform are so perfunctory that you set yourself to autopilot. Of course, if you are too zoned-out, you miss the great details that make the trip worthwhile. And sometimes missing those details can lead to disaster.

The question most people ask is ‘Was it Dangerous? As far as I know, Nothing very tragic occurred to our little group while I was a member. The question most people ask me is “Did you find anything?” The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ we found tons (literally) of material. Ceramic chips of ewers, wine jugs, and ritualistic water carriers. Bones of chickens and pics and horses. Mosaic pieces used in flooring and wall design as well as building material like clay gutters and steam vents. We found these shards by the thousands if not the hundred of thousands. The items, at first novel, soon became the debris of millennia. It was ‘just another mosaic piece’ which we would bag and label with the strata we were digging in for future analysis.

Every so often, someone would find something very interesting. A fine bone needle was discovered from Roman times. That was the proverbial needle in a haystack. How that volunteer discovered it is beyond my comprehension. We found a few small pieces of iron. Significant if you understand the context of how rare metal at all was at the time.

Of course, the mother lode was when anyone would find a coin. I’d love to tell you what kind of coins they were. But the fact is that they really are just a lump of metal oxidized to the point of green-blue brittleness. I never found any coins but then again, I wasn’t digging in the places where one might find coins. The closest I came was a relatively large piece of round blue-greenness with a hole in the middle. Dr Egon Lass expertly diagnosed it as a grommet, something one would tie a rope through and went about his day. I am not sure if there was a record, but I am certain to be the title holder in the number of chicken bones found.

Dr Lass continued my history lessons as we progressed through the days and the week. This kind of glaze found on this kind of ceramic indicated the Turkish presence. This kind of mosaic piece indicates the Roman period. This kind of color indicated Muslim influence. Each layer of earth and rubble we sifted through was an opportunity for a lesson

In addition to explaining the historical era of the strata we uncovered, he told me of a great many other stories about his life. At a very young age he escaped Nazi Germany for the states with his mother. He got an education through the Navy and studied to be an anthropologist. Somehow he wound up in the Middle East and doing archaeology. He lived with the Bedouins for a time and he told me many stories of them. The Bedouin people and their nomadic way of life have all but disappeared and through basic on-line research I have found no one else to have claimed to live with them. Dr Lass wrote about his experiences with the clans. About blood fueds and honor debts. About basic religious thought and customs bourne of a different age. About skills the Bedoin cultivated that seem superhuman those of use raised in suburban houses. On my last day he presented me with a chapter of his book, simply bound. It was the only remnant he had of it as the man seems to live sparsley. It is a phenomenal read and has left me searching for the original. (If anyone knows of where to find a copy of Egon Lass’s Seasons of Tulum, let me know!) That was a highlight of my trip.

Most days we would finish digging around 3. By the time we put everything away and were debriefed, it was 4. We trekked home and I would try to wash the eons of dirt off of me. I was alway exhausted in that kind of way a man unaccustomed to day-long physical labor would be. My mind would not let me sleep. ‘When’s the next time you’re going to be here?’ I would ask myself. That would usually be enough to send me back out into the Old City of Jerusalem for more adventuring.

I hit every place in the guidebooks. I explored every shop, every church, every museum. I ate in as many different places as I could afford and spoke to as many people as I could. (Sometimes in pantomime, sometimes in English, once, memorably in my pitiful broken Spanish.) My guide books became a checklist. If I couldn’t see a place one day, I’d try to get to it the next. Despite the early mornings and physical labor I kept very busy exploring.

Most days went like that. Some exceptions stand out:

St Patty’s Day 2008

St Patty’s Day began like any other. The dig started at 5:30 am, we broke for lunch at noon, and we would finish by 4 O’clock. I worked with WSDF reducing a great mound and all was normal. There was a brief period when we thought we heard gunfire in the distance – perhaps Kidron valley. Several workers stopped and gathered together in a low area. DSFGs didn’t move and I figured that he had seen everything one could see in the Middle East so I continued working with him. We ended up being fine.

Since the day was St. Patty’s I decided to test my theorey that EVERY city in the world has at least on Irish bar. Even here in the center of the Holy Land, there had to be an Irish Bar. It turns out there are several.

I had located one bar in the newer side of Jerusalem earlier in the week and was mightily unimpressed. All the locals were clickish and not very welcoming. I didn’t want to repeat my experience so I had made arrangements with two of my fellow volunteers to grab a beer that night. They wanted a long nap before heading out again and I just couldn’t justify waiting around in my dormitory for them to be ready so out I went. And sure enough there was an Irish bar. And yes, it was clickish but at least it was decorated for the occasion. Still, it just didn’t seem right. There was blasting loud music from a stero on the site and a muted TV showing very odd men in costumes doing what I could only assume was some kind of opera or play… with dancing.

That was too weird so off I went and before long I found another Irish bar. But this one was following the same model:  muted TV, and disassociated stereo, and the same sort of odd half-naked, spandex-wearing men sort of half dancing. Again the bar was not very welcoming and no one but me seemed to think that the TV was anything out of the ordinary so again I left.

By now it was time to meet up with my compatriots and the prearranged bar. We selected the location on the advice of a grad student whom had been here for 3-4 weeks. He was spot on. There seemed to be a bunch of NGO types here and the waitstaff friendly. That and the fact that I had people to talk with now made me feel better. I tried to describe the other places I had been and got blank stares. Eventually one of the guys pointed at the TV over my shoulder. “Did they look like that?” he asked? Sure enough this third bar had the same kind of thing. While I tried to figure it out he started laughing. “That’s Riverdance! They think St Patty’s Day is all about Riverdance!”

City of David

We had one field trip after a day of digging. One of the official team members, a PHD candidate from an Israeli university, led our group away from our dig site on the outer wall to the south east corner of the Old City. From there we walked through a decidedly Palestinian section of town through what was the first settled part of Jerusalem.

The buildings looked awful. I remembering wondering if these had been bombed in the war for Jerusalem or if it was just the manifestation of poverty. You could see that building materials had been scavanged from anything available. And that included burial structures in the hills literally thousands of years old. As awful as the living conditions looked, we intrepid explorers must have appeared worse. We had just conlcuded a days hard labor in the Middle Eastern sun. Each of us had spent the day crawling around, shoveling, and plowing through dirt and debris. We were covered in the earth and dust of millenia.

In what was my most surreal experience in all of the time I spend in Palestine and Israel, Mareike, our German dig expeditor went into a shop and came out producing icicles for all of us. We walked down the hill towards the nexus of the Kidron and JKHJKH valleys like ducks in a row eating cherry and lemon ices. Amazing.

 We came to the stream. Jews come here each Jewish New Year and empty their pockets. Money, lint, whatever is in their pockets goes straight into this stream. The ritual is supposed to be some kind of unburdening. What the reality amounts to is a tremendous pile of trash left in the ghetto by people who the area residents see as foreign occupiers. And we stood there, eating ices while some took pictures. Absolutely unreal.

The Stations of the Cross

The second station of the cross was far less exciting than the first. On the site stood the Chapel of the Flagellation (where Jesus took up his cross) and in I went. Tour groups were starting up now and I was jealous for the peace and quiet that I had enjoyed earlier that morning. I saw a few things, snapped a few photos and left. My own private Jerusalem was fading now as streets swelled.

Ecce Homo Arch

I located the Ecce Homo Arch – a gate from Roman times reputed (and disputed) to be where Pontius Pilate identified Jesus to the crowd stating ‘Behold the man.’ I am uncertain to why this arch got its name as it dates from the time of Hadrian. That’s about 100 years post Jesus. If nothing else, the arch is about as old as Christianity and I have tremendous respect for anyone who built something that lasted 2 millenia in a war zone.

Next I followed the street to the intersection. Armed Israeli guards stood here monitoring the floods of people passing by. The sun had begun baking the streets below so that you could feel the difference between shade and sun. The ever-present cobble stones ran up and down hills. Water and other fluids made the rocks slippy but no one seemed to mind.

Palestinian Kabobs

At this intersection was a Swiss hospice with a Palestinian man grilling kabobs outside. They smelled delicious. An Arabic pizza parlor of all things was across the street and another church was across from that. Palestinian women sat on blankets with groupings of plants and vegetables for sale. They had sad, defeated looks in their eyes and I felt poorly for them. I had no idea on how to make their plight better (and still don’t). I made it a point to remember them if I ever do.

Feed Me

My jet lagged stomach told me it was time for lunch (or dinner, or breakfast, or whatever) and I purchased a kabob on a pita from the man in front of the Hospice. I remember thinking how few of my friends back home would chance eating anything from a street vendor. It smelled sooooo good! My rationalization was that at least here I could see the food being cooked on real flames and charcoal whereas back in the states your local McDonald’s employee can and would do anything to that beef patty behind closed doors.

That pita was the tastiest thing ever. The flavors were excellent and it hit the spot. I took my purchase through the increasingly congested pedestrian streets that comprise the Jerusalem old city and found a stoop to eat on.

I remember the smells of the pita to this day. I remember looking up and down the street marvelling at the fact that I was actually in Israel. Life was really, really good.

More Via Dolorosa

The rest of the day was spent following the rest of the Via Dolorosa. Station 3 passed at the al-Wad road junction. Station 4 was an Armenian church with a mosaic featuring the image of a pair of sandlas rumored to be those of Mary. Station 5 brought me to where Symon of Cyrenne was recruited to help Jesus carry his cross. It was at this point the road wet uphill and the markets became really busy!

The side streets were filled with markets, and the smells and flavors were some mix of east and west that I had never considered. You could really sense the cross roads of Asia, Africa, and Europe that these markets must have provided other travellers for centuries.

Along the way I discovered many different alleys. This was mostly by accident. I think it would be impossible for any cartographer to actually map the old city in Jerusalem accurately. It’s a warren of densly packed streets. Even if you had a map, there are too many people crammed in to actually read one. You just have to go with the flow.

The Italian Connection

Station 6 linked to my trip to Rome in 2003. The Church of the Holy face sits here and marks where Veronica wiped Jesus’ face as he went by. That cloth was reputed to have been imprinted with His image and may now be stored as a at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I visited that statue when I was in Rome. Sadly, the relic was not on display. You have to love the naming convention though. Vera (true) + Icon (image) =(kinda, sorta)= Veronica.

Middle Stations

Stations 7, 8, and 9 are all kind of a blur. The route intersected with a souk – roughly translated, a market place. Now, all of the other streets and by ways were market places in their own way. The souks are larger but feel smaller, and are where the real traffic is. My photos of the soucks are all mostly blurred due to the jostling and shoving you find there. They tend to be covered from the sun as well. Later I’d figure out how to get above this claustraphobic mess. For now, I dove down a side street and to another and then to another until I ran out of side streets (and, thankfully, people!)

The Greeks

Escaping the crowds, I found the Greeks. It was amazing. I still have no good idea which chapels I went to. This may have been Station 8, the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Charalambos. Or it may have been Station 9 at the Coptic Patriarchate. It might not have been either. All I know is that I love the architecture and everyone was friendly.

The first portion was a trip down into the dark recesses of an ancient (2,000+ years old) cistern. After a brief conversation with the father who had been manning his post in the cool, dark portions of the cave for the past 12 years, I found my way down by the light of a candle. Sadly, I cannot remember the rest of the details of our conversation. A candle purchased by a donation to his cause lit my way.

Climbing down into the dark was a surreal experience. Knowing that this passage way was hewn millenia ago was like I was delving into the heart of Jerusalem. At least 20 degrees cooler, it was a dark, slippery, ancient heart at that. How many people I wonder out of the droves of pilgrims to this city ever made it this far?

Christ the Redeemer

Next on my list, and not quite one of the stations of the cross, was an iconic tower that shoots above the landscape. Not surprisingly, another Church called Christ the Redeemer. I have some amazing photos from here.

Eithiopean Church

Eithiopians are SERIOUS about their religious ties to this region. Luckily for me, most travellers to the Holy Land skip their monastary. Not me. I was able to visit with them in a near-private audience while they explained their history and faith. Amazing experience.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher – The Final Stations

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the main attraction for Christians pilgrimaging to the Jerusalem. As such, the last 4 stations of the cross are inside this building. With this reason it is incredibly crowded. Not only do all Christians flock to this place, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is actually administered by 4 different Christian Sects.

The Remaining Stations

Station 10 – Jesus is stripped – top of the stairs to the right outside the entrance
Station 11 – Jesus is nailed to the cross – upstairs just inside the entrance, at the Latin Calvary
Station 12 – Jesus dies on the cross – Rock of Golgotha in the Greek Orthodox Calvary
Station 13 – Jesus is taken down from the cross – statue of Our Lady of Sorrows next to the Latin Calvary
Station 14 – Jesus is laid in the tomb – in the edicule on the main floor, inside the tiny Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre

I wish I could say that this was a wonderful, transforming experience. It sounds great on paper. ‘Come see where Jesus’s cross was! Come see Jesus’s tomb.’ It was less than spectacular in person. The church is overly develoepd in a gaudy, opulent fashion. People jostle and jockey for position in a decidedly un-Christian behaviour. The actual stations have chipped away so much of the surrounding former structure that it is all but impossible to envision in your mind’s eye what the crucifixion scene may have been like.

Luckily, despite the press, that’s not where Christ was crucfied, nor is it where he was buried. I would eventually find both places with a very reasonable expectation of accuracy. But that’s one of the next stories to come.

Finding the First Station of the Cross

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.

Confused? Here’s a helpful map

Kidron Valley

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.

The Shop

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.

Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall

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.

How to be Indiana Jones

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.

Reaching Jerusalem

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.

My Hostel

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.

Night Wanderings

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.

Our 2008 Mayan Christmas Adventure

Here’s a quick overview of our 2008 Christmas adventure in Mexico. Since our February wedding will be held at the same hotel we stayed at during that trip – Aventura Spa Palace, I thought I’d make an overview of our last trip there. Hopefully you’ll see what made us enjoy it and want to come back.

Click on the links for more in-depth accounts of each. Click on the links by the accompanying images for our photos and descriptions of each place. More information will surely be added as I remember it! I also included the guidebook we used and some study materials I liked. If you can think of anything I left out, please add it in the comments below!

Day 1: Cancun

Jen and I flew into Cancun a day earlier than what our Aventura reservations called for. It was much cheaper to fly out of Charlotte on a Thursday night and stay in Cancun for a day than to fly out on Saturday morning. I know, I know, how stressful, right? Such a pain to have to go on vacation a day early.

Day 2: Adventura – Where James Bond Would Vacation

Mom and Dad had been telling us about this hotel for years but we never really believed them. It should have dawned on me that any place Dad chose to go to, willingly, multiple times had to have great service. I just didn’t believe them.

Why didn’t I just listen to my parents sooner?

Other Days

To be honest, the rest of my Christmas week is sort of clouded in a rum-induced haze. Here are a few of the trips we did in between sunbathing, playing poolside volleyball, kayaking, and eating ourselves silly at the hotel.


You can about the history of Tulum here. For me, it was a great chance to wander around ruins – my first since returning from Israel in March of 2008 AND to go swimming in the Caribbean sea -something made exceedingly difficult by the hotels on the Yucatan for some reason.

Now, until the end of my days I can talk about going swimming with my brother and father alongside Mayan ruins on Christmas!

Chitzen Itza

Again, Chitzen Itza has a long and storied history. More on that here. We decided to forgo the free tourist bus and instead rent our own car and make our own way to the iconic Mayan pyramid. Like they say, getting there is half the adventure. We drove through many villages and the city of Merida along the way.


We visited Coba on the return trip from Chitzen Itza. This is a far less visited city than Chitzen Itza and on a direct path from there en route to Tulum. It gave me better insight on to what the Mayans were all about plus you could climb on things! You can really get a sense of the jungle from on top of these giant pyramids! This was my favorite site that I visited in Mexico. More on Coba’s history here.


Xpu Ha is a jungle-themed hotel owned by the Palace group – the same people running the hotel where we stayed, Aventura. The great thing about this was that intra-hotel transfers were free as were all of our food, entertainment, activities, and of course drinks.

Stuff that Helped

I didn’t really study up on Mexico like I have done before my other trips. Still, there were a few items that helped me out along the way.

Lonely Planet Guide to the Yucatan

Lonely planet does a good job finding places for the young and adventurous. The history overviews in this book beat the hell out of what passed for education in my 8th grade American Studies book. And the cultural overviews gave me a pretty solid grounding in what was going on around me. The Yucatan (Regional Guide) really influenced our choices on going to Chitzen Itza, Tulum, and Coba and I hope to use it again this year when we visit Isla de Mujeres and any ceynotes that we decide to scuba dive in. Of course we didn’t check the hotel listings but the book gets 2 thumbs up!

The Other 1492: Ferdinand, Isabella, and the Making of an Empire

I love the Teaching Company. They just make great stuff. For those who don’t know, they get the world’s best professors teaching their favorite course and then tape them. It must be what college was like for liberal arts majors; you just sit and learn about stuff you are interested in. Awesome.

For me this course was more a bridge of our 2006 trip to Spain. There, we got a sense of Imperial Spain. This video series began with the reconquest of Spain and the discovery of the new world. Professor Ruiz does an excellent job of presenting history in an all-encompassing manner explaining how events would be seen by multiple cultural groups. Very enlightening.

Chitzen Itza

There’s a lot you can read about Chitzen Itza. The pyramid itself is a spectacular tourist draw and the iconic image of the Yucatan Peninsula. So much can be said about the heritage, history, and cultural impact of this long-lost city. This article isn’t about any of those things. It’s about 4 fools and a quick, off the beaten path adventure.

We rented a car from Adventura Palace early in the AM an quickly ventured off the ranch. Boy do things change when you are no longer on hotel property. The guys with the Uzis don’t care so much about or for your Bracelet of Power.

I’ve already mentioned that the interstates in Mexico are what country roads are in the States. Their country roads are what our jungles would be. If we had jungles.

We drove south past armed checkpoints of the Mexican army checking cars for drug smuggling. Alongside the north south route you can see hotels popping up every so often and then some supporting villages. Actually, villages is too strong a word. Let’s call them dwellings. If that’s where the hotel staff lives, I have no idea how they can be so nice to us the visiting tourists.

Eventually we came to an intersection of sorts and headed due West into the jungle. Zipping by in our rented Jeep you can see breaks in the jungle brush that act as driveways. Sometimes a carton or a plastic jug will be upended on a stick marking the entrance way to a dwelling. Glancing into the jungle dwellings you begin to wonder if you could live like that. Are you tough enough? That reminded me of our Tulum guide’s quip about the Mayan supermarket; it’s the jungle. He related that people living there thought the idea of being so dependent on others for food was insanity. They may have a point.

We headed for the town of Merida, passing kilometers of jungle and more army checkpoints along the way. The road led directly into villages and towns along the way. Giant Topes, or speed bumps ensured you slowed your roll. That affords time for you to see village life as well as time for the villagers to see you and present their goods. These goods are all the same across the entire route. Obviously more expensive at the hotel and at the airport, I imagine there is some factory somewhere that spits these things out and it’s up to the villagers to weave stories about them being hand made.

Reaching Merida, what our guide book lists as a ‘sleepy’ little town, we look around for lunch. The road had simply stopped and turned into a mini city full of one-way roads, houses, shops, schools and mess of one-way streets. We had some confusion as a jeep of armed…were they militia? the welcoming committee? army? …. we didn’t know… started to follow us. They followed us up one way streets, down others. That ended any inclination to explore ‘sleepy little Merida.’ We eventually lost them, or they lost interest in us and we continued on to Chitzen Itza.