Exploring Old Jerusalem

Monday, December 19, 2016

Boker Tov! (Good morning)

An amazing day exploring a city that is thousands of years old. There is really no way to capture all of what we saw, learned, and felt in the few paragraphs we share with you. Yuval told us several times that we should not look at things as "historical" (in the sense of something that "happened" or "was" and is no more), because it is one chain of events and people that is still happening every day.  This city is very alive.

There are 9 gates into the old city, and by the end of the day we had gone through 4 of them: Jaffa, Dung*, Zion, and Damascus. Three of these 4 are named because the direction they face will take you to that city.

The old city is divided into 4 quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian.

*This gate was named because it was the one through which the remains (including dung) of the animals used in sacrifices were removed.


We walked through the Muslim and Jewish Quarters and saw the markets. These have been in continuous use for several thousand years.  The Muslim Quarter has had the same hustle and bustle that entire time.  Luckily we were there quite early before deliveries were in full swing but there were several "near misses" as young men pushed gigantic carts down the narrow alleyways without much attention paid to walkers like us. The goods being sold there ranged from Tshirts to falafel and everything in between.  The Jewish Quarter had an entirely different personality--having been completely redesigned in 1967 after being vacated in 1948.

We walked along and saw some of the Stations of the Cross--where Jesus walked down the Via Dolorosa on his last day, and went into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which--according to believers--contains the spot where Jesus was crucified as well as his tomb. We were surprised that there were minimal crowds; apparently, Easter is the busy time for this church.

 There is no provable certainty that this is the actual place of these events, but believers have had faith that it is for hundreds of years. We visited different chapels within the church for Coptic Christians, Armenian Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.

This is the most monumental and busiest gate in the wall. In its latest form, it was built to impress an Ottoman ruler who planned to visit the Holy Land. Since he would be coming from (present-day) Turkey, which is in the north, this is the first gate he would see. 

Then, to the Western Wall (Wailing Wall). A common misconception is that this is the western wall of the 2nd Temple. Not true!!!! Here is the story: When Herod became king of this area (under the Romans), there were hills and valleys. In order to build a new, large temple, he first had to make the ground level enough to build on. Instead of excavating and smoothing as we might do, he actually built a huge platform (of thousands of huge stone bricks) to make the base. This became known as the Temple Mount. The east and west walls were 488 meters (about 1,600') each; the north and south about 283m (980'). When the Romans destroyed the 2nd Temple in 70 A.D. they also started to destroy the mount itself, but gave up because it was so large. By the way: there is no physical trace (yet) of the 1st Temple. Currently, the Dome of the Rock Mosque stands in the temple's place. (Visiting times to the area are very restricted for non-Muslims.  We were get there before we leave for the South.)

To get to the Wall, you must first pass through a security checkpoint, including bag search and metal detector. Once through, we asked Yuval if anyone can visit the Wall. He said that Muslims are not allowed in (and, tit for tat, Jews are not allowed into the Dome of the Rock). Again we were perplexed. "They did not ask for any ID or ask us any questions. How do they know we are not Muslims?"  He replied that they use profiling to determine who can enter. Indeed, he said that he has had several experiences with tour groups where someone was pulled aside and questioned before being allowed to pass. But, we wondered, how do you prove you are not a Muslim? (or are a Jew?)  

If you have ever been to Jerusalem, you know how powerful seeing the Wall can be.  See Wendy's first visit (click).  This visit was not as emotional for Wendy but still every bit as powerful.  Wayne reacted this way: Though there were many people present (indeed several Bar Mitzvah ceremonies were in progress), lots of them were totally immersed in their own prayers. Of course, people come here to pray at the Wall, not to it. Why? Because it is a symbol of the strength, continuity, and endurance of the Jewish people.

The Western Wall we see today is only about 57m wide! And it is split roughly in 2/3 and 1/3 between the men's side...

...and the women's.  

As you probably know, many visitors bring prayers and/or special notes to place in the Wall. Several times a year; all of the notes are collected and put into bags and buried in a special cemetery. They do this because, as some papers may contain messages to G-d or G-d's name, they can't be burned or destroyed.
Prayers and Notes tucked into the wall

A Bar Mitzvah Family Picture

Why the Western Wall? If all four walls of the Mount are still extant, why do people come to this one? When the 2nd Temple existed it had an east-west orientation. So the part named the Holiest of Holies (where the Ark would be kept and where the Foundation Rock representing the start of creation) was closest to the Western Wall. So people pray here as it is the closest point to that sacred spot.

We also visited Robinson's arch (an area in an archaeological park) where families often conduct bar/bat mitzvahs.  In this area, the Orthodox rules about gender separation do not apply.   Additionally, we took a look at the egalitarian prayer space that was approved by the Knesset (based on the work of the leadership of Women of the Wall, and a number of progressive  Jewish groups in North America and elsewhere (Wendy serves on the Board of the Union for Reform Judaism--a group that has been instrumental in leading this effort).  While many Israeli Jews are wholly secular, the Orthodox Jews run the government and, for that reason, are very influential as to all matters relating to the practice of Judaism.  The egalitarian prayer space is not only on hold, but the government is threatening to enact punitive measures against women who wear a prayer shawl or read from the Torah at the Wall altogether.  This is a very sad situation.

Back to history. As the city has been populated for so many 1000s of years, it is constantly changing and growing. There have been at least 20 instances of major invasions which sacked and destroyed much of the city. After each it was rebuilt, often on top of the rubble from the previous population. And we saw many examples of this today. One highlight that illustrated this is the Western Wall tunnels. As noted above, the Temple Mount was built to provide a solid base for the temple. But since it was erected, the actual living part of the city has risen to about half its height. In other words, from where we stand and walk to the wall today, there is just as much of the wall below the ground! So archaeologists have dug a series of tunnels to reach to where the wall actually touches the bedrock, and people are allowed to take a guided tour through them. At one point we walked on the street that held the market that the Romans used in the first century A.D. So, theoretically, Jesus walked on this same street. Look at this picture (best we could do as the tunnel was only about 3 feet wide here):

This shows the top part of a Roman column on this street. It is about 7' high. As you can see, it has been completely covered and then some by the stones used when either the Byzantines or Mamelukes came through and built their city on top of the Roman ruins. This happened time after time. Note: at this point in the tunnel we are about 30 feet below the current street level. 

After the tunnel, lunch was a quick stop in the Muslim Quarter at Abu Shukri, a Palestinian restaurant, for hummus, pita, and falafel. Delicious! 'Nuff said.

The next stop was Mount Zion and the Zion Gate:

As on several of the gates, clearly visible holes are evidence of multiple 20th century attacks by bullet and rocket.

Ancient tradition says that King David's tomb is here (Yuval is skeptical). Once again, even here, the Orthodox doctrine of separating men and women holds. The stone coffin has a curtain bisecting its width. Men enter the room from one door; women from another; each can only view half of the tomb!  

Nearby is a small church, built by the Crusaders, which claims to be built over the site of the Last Supper.  This may not be the site either, and it is curious that Christian groups do not see this as a holy site as rarely is anyone found here in prayer.

OK......we couldn't have a whole post without describing at least one meal in extensive detail.
We had reservations at Machneyuda restaurant, a favorite of famed Israeli chef  Yotam Ottolenghi (though he is not associated with it).  This entirely Kosher market is among the two best in the country--according to Yuval. The restaurant has the same name as the famed Machane Yehuda Market which we visited beforehand (and which Wendy visited in 2014 (click here if you just can't get enough market pix), so their specialty is taking advantage of seasonal fish, meat, and produce from the market.  It did not disappoint. 

But, back to the restaurant. 

We had an amazing meal in this loud, happening place. The view of the kitchen from our second floor table.

Tuna sashimi with four preparations of beets.  This was delectable--can you imagine--beet dust, roasted beet, beet chip, and mandolin-sliced raw beets artistically arranged with the most beautiful fresh tuna ever.  Of course, if you don't eat beets, just don't look at the photo below.  


striped bass with market vegetables,

filet with mashed potatoes and braised red cabbage (about as exciting as it sounds),

semolina cake with Tahini ice cream and fresh fruit garnish,  OMG... this was so delicious and appropriately MidEastern in flavor.

and Persian lemon tart with coconut meringue (which tasted exactly like Key Lime pie--except as far away from the Florida experience as you can get). 

Wayne had White beer (that's the brand name),

and Wendy had Israeli wine (she has strayed from her usual Prosecco on this trip with no complaints). A memorable meal with more to come! Yuval reassured us that obesity is not really a problem here due to the Mediterranean diet and the amount of walking (averaging 15,000 steps a day).  Whew, because otherwise, we would be in trouble! 

That's the Monday report. 'We really didn't intend to do a post every day (and may not) but there has been so much to write about. Hope you are enjoying it as much as we are.

Love w&w......

ps: Yes....the King David DOES have an amazing breakfast buffet. Use your imagination.

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