After a very restful sleep, we got up today to hit the sites. Our location at the Victoria Hotel truly is advantageous as we are within walking distance of so many points of interest.
We set out for the Mount of Olives. Walking through Herod’s Gate into the Old City, we were accosted by a mass of humanity. The walking paths were crammed with people and vendors. Many had not started selling their wares. For those that were open, everything seemed available–CDs, fruits and vegetables, breads, candies, pastries, clothing, toys. It was all there.
The exotic smells of roasting meats and Arabic spices filled my nostrils as we pushed through the crowds. Sometimes it seemed as if there were no rhyme or reason to the human movement–it felt like we were just being carried along. Men were dressed in modern garb. Most women wore the hajibs. Children were everywhere underfoot. Brilliantly colored lights were strung overhead in a zigzag pattern. Graffiti in Arabic covered the walls.
We kept walking. The streets were named after Arab leaders–Al Faisal, for instance. We turned at Lion’s Gate and found ourselves in front of a plaza for the Via Dolorosa. A man approached us about a taxi ride.
We escaped his entreaties by pretending we were with a tour group. Walking into a courtyard, we found ourselves in front of a Catholic Church–one of many dichotomies in a city teeming with people and seething, yet somehow still surviving, with religious intolerance bubbling under the surface.
This church, St. Anne’s was used primarily for singing purposes, a gentleman told us. We had approached the padre, who stood regally at the door, and asked questions. The padre immediately pointed us in the direction of an Irish gentleman whom we assumed to be a part of the diocese. This gentleman was a wealth of information.
As it turned out, we had stumbled into the place where it is believed Christ had healed the paralytic. In describing the archaeological significance of the area, we were told that the mineral pool was actually a spring that would burst forth with more healing waters once the pool above it had filled to a certain point. Apparently, there was some sort of apparatus that released mineral water into the healing pool. This gentleman then regaled us with a twenty-five hundred year history lesson about the Arabs, Christians, Jews, the Crusades, the Crimean War and on up to the founding of the Jewish State. He was fascinating.
From there we walked back out to Lion’s Gate. The street was narrow and it was hot. Walking down this walled street was a lesson in perspiration maintenance as the sun was beating down and exacerbated by the stone walls on either side. It created almost an oven effect.
We exited the Old City and crossed a busy highway. Across from us we saw a grotto where it is imagined that Mary, the mother of Christ later saw the cross on which He was crucified. It is located at the base of the Mount of Olives. Just above the grotto is the Garden of Gethsemane.
Barry and I walked into the Garden. It is very small, perhaps 10000 square feet, the size of a large lot in a suburban subdivision. Barry walked further ahead of me as my steps became slower.
I couldn’t believe it. I was looking at the actual garden where Christ sat with His disciples the night He was arrested. I stared at the olive trees. The were so huge and so old. I’ve been living in Italy and I’ve seen old olive trees and old grape vines. But I’ve never seen olive trees like this.
They were gnarled; they had tufts of leaves growing out of odd places. They had odd shapes. They were obviously ancient. Paths wound through the Garden. Flowers were growing in clumps. Then a shout.
A Franciscan priest shook his finger at me. I thought it was for my picture-taking. It was actually due to my attire–I was wearing a tank top which is considered disrespectful. I exited out the entrance and walked down the hill do buy a shawl-type shoulder covering so I could stay in the Garden.
Re-entering, I found Barry who had been searching for me. I explained what happened and we went into the basilica. After witnessing the actual Garden of Gethsemane, the basilica, for me, offered nothing. I wanted to get back out to the real thing.
I walked back outside. The Garden is surrounded by a fence, protecting it from being over-loved by hordes of pilgrims. Nevertheless, at the base of some of the twisted, ancient olive trees were piles of notes left by the faithful–requests for blessings or healing.
I grabbed the spires of the fence and just gazed. I took photos of every olive tree I could see. Which one did Christ kneel at to pray? Was I within inches of the location of the drops of blood that fell from His brow, the blood from His anguish? Where did the Roman soldiers grab Him? Where did the severed ear fall from the Roman soldier who bore the brunt of Peter’s sword?
I could only stare. It was too much for me. Such an experience, for a believer, brings home one’s faith. Was the gate from which we entered the same gate where the soldiers dragged Jesus to Pontius Pilate? Even if it wasn’t, just being in the vicinity was gripping.
Eventually, we left the Garden and walked up a paved road to the top of the Mount of Olives. Five different churches dot the Mount. Besides the basilica, there’s a Russian Orthodox Church, a Greek Orthodox church with a convent and monastery and another Russian church.
The fifth church was the Church of the Ascension, believed to be the place where Christ ascended into Heaven. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine I, had traveled to Jerusalem and identified two places associated with Jesus’ life. She ordered that a church be built at the believed location of His Ascension. We didn’t go into any of the churches except the basilica near the Garden.
From high on the Mount of Olives we were able to look into the Old City. The Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most holy shrines, stood out with its gold-sheathed dome against the sand-colored buildings in the Old City. As we looked, the plaintive sounds of Islamic calls to worship echoed over the City.
It was haunting. It was beautiful. It was eerie. My judgmental ethic wanted to look at it as unsaved heathen praying to a God who isn’t listening because they believe differently. My desire-to-be-Christlike ethic wanted to look upon it as God’s children seeking to know Him.
The Dome of the Rock was closed to all but Muslims. Since we are in the final days of Ramadan, only Muslims are allowed in. At one point in the Old City we approached a gate unknowingly only to be stopped by two armed Arab soldiers wielding sub-machine guns. We retreated.
After such an intense morning, we trekked back to the hotel. It was time for our old man early afternoon nap. I bought a kilo of fresh, succulent, green seedless grapes and munched on them all the way back.
Four hours later, I awoke. It was time to get moving again. We had wanted to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wailing Wall. It was approaching 6:00 p.m. and we had two more hours of sunlight. Once again, we started walking.
Back we went into the walled Old City. We followed Herod’s Gate to Lion’s Gate and watched for signs indicating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wailing Wall. Once again, the streets were jammed with people. Trash and garbage were everywhere. The streets were wall-to-wall humanity.
Continuing on I noticed a group of uniformed Arab soldiers with machine guns slung over their shoulders. I tried to be inconspicuous with my camera slung over my shoulder, my designer shades and my tank top. I didn’t expect to be stopped, but we were the only Americans in this mass of people. One can never know.
Then…all of a sudden…
<bang!> <bang!> <bang!> <bang!> <bang!> <bang!> <bang!> <bang!> I jumped five feet.
Two little girls had set off some pop guns.
After my heart quit fibrillating, we continued walking.
As we approached the Jewish Quarter, the crowds thinned quickly and noticeably. At the gate to the Jewish Quarter were hardly any people. The Arabs seemed to be separated by an invisible wall that told them not to even go near this entrance.
We walked through an archway and found ourselves at the Jewish equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie. We emptied our pockets and set our electronics and backpack on the conveyor belt. Passing through the scanner, I noticed how clean the tunnel was to the Western Wailing Wall. As a matter of fact, the entire area surrounding the Western Wailing Wall was immaculate.
As we entered the plaza where the Western Wailing Wall is located, I saw hundreds upon hundreds of people milling about. A group of developmentally disabled Israelis were singing a song. Hassidic Jews were milling about; most of them were heading for the Wall where dozens already stood, praying and swaying to and from the Wall. A fence divided the men from the women. I, still attired in a tank top, did not venture into the prayer area of the faithful out of respect.
We didn’t stay at the Wailing Wall too long. We wanted to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Returning back through the security gate, we re-entered the Arab Quarter along with its trash, rotting food and graffiti.
We followed the signs to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is considered to be the place where Christ was actually crucified and where he was buried. The Catholics built an elaborate church on the site. The outside is nothing impressive, but the inside is opulence on steroids. The actual believed spot of the Crucifixion is in a small, enclosed spot where pilgrims wait in line to enter for an opportunity to pray surrounded by icons.
I went in, with Barry right behind. Two Russian women were kneeling and Barry joined them. I looked around and walked out.
I just was not interested in an ornate church covering the supposed site of the Crucifixion. I was more moved by the Garden of Gethsemane, where we know Christ was. I could have gazed upon a tree He saw. That meant more to me.
After leaving the church, we returned to the hotel. I bought a chicken kebab from a street vendor and scarfed it down. We tried to find a secular area where we could order a glass of wine but nothing was available. No matter. After a day of spiritual revival and upheaval, bed sounded good.