We woke up in our Jerusalem hotel room with the hope that the wind would be gone & the sun out. No such luck. After breakfast we returned to the overlook point on the Mount of Olives & it was gray & drizzling. But the wind was mostly gone & with the light the view was much better. There was a guy there selling camel rides, but with the wetness he parked the camel under a tree next to our bus.
The old city of Jerusalem is surrounded by city walls, most of which were built by our old friend Suleiman (also spelled Suleyman) the Magnificent. The walls, of course, have gates, two of which could be seen from our perch on the Mount of Olives. The Lion Gate is named for the lion reliefs on either side of the opening (look closely just to the right of the upper portion above the opening). It was prophesized that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate, so the Turks sealed that gate so no one could go through it, and it is still sealed. Our guide was of the opinion that this could be corrected one day, but it seems to me that a sealed gate would not be much of a problem for the Messiah to take care of himself (or herself?).
The hillsides on the Jerusalem side & on the Mount of Olives are covered with tombs almost as far as the eye can see, many dating back to the time of the Second Temple (the time of Jesus). The story is that when Judgment Day arrives the folks buried in this area are supposed to be the first ones resurrected, so all of these people are trying to be first in line. While there is a vast number of Jewish tombs here, there are also Christian & Moslem cemeteries in this area.
We next visited the Garden of Gethsemene & the beautiful Church of All Nations that sits there. Some of the olive trees here are about 1000 years old, but none are older than that because the Crusaders cut down all the trees around Jerusalem to build siege fortifications. The Turks later cut down most of the rest of the trees in what is now Israel, partly to build railroads, and the Israelis have been planting trees for decades to try to reverse this process (I remember contributing money for trees in Israel in religious school in the 1950’s).
The church is not very old, but it has a number of striking mosaics on the walls & ceilings. The ceiling is divided into sections, each of which has a decoration reflecting one of the nations that contributed to its building. The American section features a “Jerusalem Cross,” which is characterized by a large cross with a small cross in each of its quadrants. The centerpiece of the church is the rock on which Jesus is supposed to have sat and prayed prior to his arrest. It surrounded by a wrought iron sculpture representing the crown of thorns with birds.
After leaving the Mount of Olives we drove to Bethlehem. It is close enough to Jerusalem that in this country we would probably consider it a suburb, but it is in the Palestinian Authority, so there were obstacles. To get there we had to pass through the Israeli security wall & there were guards on both sides who had to clear us. Israeli guides are not allowed to work in the Palestinian territory so we had to pick up a Palestinian guide when we crossed the border (he was very good & not at all hostile to Israel). Actually, Israeli guides (like other Israelis) are not normally allowed to enter the Palestinian territory, so they have to wait at the checkpoint for their tours to return to Israeli territory. But the Palestinian group that was working with our guide organization had arranged for our guide to accompany us in Bethlehem, although she was not allowed to talk about it while we were there. She was pretty happy about this since she hadn’t been to Bethlehem in some years, so we were happy for her too since we liked her quite a bit. She was greeted by several people she knew in Bethlehem whom she hadn’t seen for a long time. Before going to the Church of the Nativity we spent some time in a Palestinian gift shop owned by the guy who arranged our Bethlehem tour (& they did a very good job of that). It had a lot of expensive olive wood carvings (mostly religious themes), which we were told is a dying art. There was a lot of other mostly religious stuff to buy, some very expensive & some pretty cheap. They served us tea & were not very aggressive, so it was OK considering it was essentially the price for arranging the Bethlehem tour.
We were in Bethlehem, of course, to visit the Church of the Nativity, built over a cavern where it is said that Jesus was born. We are pretty skeptical about whether the builders of this church really knew where Jesus was born. St. Helena, who was the mother of Emperor Constantine, who first legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, came to Jerusalem determined to locate the sites mentioned in the Gospels and claimed she did so. She built the first church here and also the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which contains the precise spot where Jesus was crucified & the tomb where he was initially buried (not to mention the tomb of Adam). She undoubtedly consulted the locals & asked around about local traditions about these places, but this was almost 400 years after the fact. Imagine someone coming to your town & asking about things that happened there in the 17th century, and not official things included in public records but things that happened to a small group unwelcome in majority society there. I don’t doubt the symbolic importance of these sites or their religious significance, and I am sure that these locations represent the best guess that could be made at the time, but their historical accuracy wouldn’t satisfy modern scientific standards.
Anyway, this church was very interesting. The old church is Greek Orthodox & attached to it is a Catholic church of more recent vintage. The Catholic church is where the worldwide broadcast of the Christmas eve mass originates. The Greek Orthodox church has paintings & mosaics on the walls and, under the current floor, a Roman era mosaic floor.
Each of these churches has a cavern under it (and I think they are connected, part of a single system of caves, but I’m not sure). Under the original Greek Orthodox church is the cavern with a marker of the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. Under the Catholic church is the cavern where St. Jerome lived when he wrote the first Vulgate Bible. The line for the first cavern is often 2 or 3 hours long, so we went into the other one. Our guide said that caverns like this were often used at that time for stables & guest quarters, and that the translators of the Gospels chose to use the words “stable” and “inn” because they would be more familiar to Europeans even though the original text could also have been translated as caverns. He said the cavern we visited would have been the “inn” where most of the guests stayed during the census, and that the other part where the overflow were housed was probably normally used for animals. I don’t know if that’s right or not, but as you can see below these locations are really underground caves, not what we would call an inn or a stable today.
After emerging from the cavern we visited a courtyard where the Kings of the Crusader state of Jerusalem were crowned, in the center of which was a sculpture of Saint Jerome, then drove back to Jerusalem for lunch and a walking tour of the old town. So, here are a few pictures to show what the town of Bethlehem looks like.
Back in Jerusalem we abandoned the bus for a walking tour. The first place we visited was a building designated as the location of the Last Supper (only the location, not the building). This was outside the walls of the old city on (I believe) Mount Zion (which is really more of a hill than a mountain). When we entered this room, very crowded with tourists (as was Jerusalem in general, and the Church of the Nativity too for that matter) there was a group singing hymns. On the way there we saw the impressive Church of the Ascension, built (along with the Augusta Victoria hospital) by Kaiser Wilhelm II after his visit to Jerusalem around 1900.
We entered Jerusalem through the Zion Gate (named for the “mountain”) & had a very good lunch in the Armenian Quarter near a gift shop selling religious ceramics. We then walked through the Armenian Quarter to the Jewish Quarter. Old town Jerusalem has four quarters (which will not surprise anyone familiar with mathematics), named for the population distribution in the 19th century. There are Muslim & Christian Quarters as well.
We walked by the Roman Cardo, which was a shopping street in Roman times. It is on a level much lower than the street on which we were walking. We also saw the location of the hospital that was the original headquarters of the Knights of St. John, who we encountered in Malta.
We walked past the open market area to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The first church on this location was built by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine who legalized Christianity, in the 4th Century. It was later pretty much destroyed but rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 11th Century.
This church contains what St. Helena concluded is the site of the crucifixion, the tomb in which Jesus was initially interred, the last five Stations of the Cross and the tomb of Adam. At one time it also contained the tombs of the Kings of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, but those were destroyed centuries ago under Muslim rule. This church has a long history of strife among the various Christian groups competing for control, to the extent of monks killing each other in pitched battles. But an uneasy settlement was negotiated by the Turks under which the Greek Orthodox oversee most of the Church with areas set aside for Catholics, Armenians, Copts, etc. within the Church. Under the settlement nothing can be changed anywhere in the church without the unanimous agreement of all seven (I think) religions, with the result that nothing has been changed. This standoff has led to some odd things: for example, one chapel (I think it was Armenian) was damaged by fire, but they have not been able to repair it for lack of unanimous consent. And even odder, there was a ladder on the outside of the second floor at the time of the settlement, so there has been one maintained there ever since (replaced a couple of times, but never removed). Sultan Suleiman entrusted the keys to this church to two Muslim families in Jerusalem who hold the keys to this day. It is a matter of great prestige for them; one family opens the church in the morning & the other locks the church at night after the Greek Orthodox monks have secured the doors.
Inside the church are some impressive mosaics, particularly in the dome (above) & a very long one depicting the crucifixion & the interment of Jesus, all of which reputedly took place inside this church. Just inside the front door is the stone on which Jesus’s body is said to have been laid out before interment, & there was a line of people to touch this stone. Actually, every part of the Church was crowded, mostly with tourists and pilgrims I would assume.
In the next room is a small building (fairly new) that contains the Holy Sepulcher. The line is very long & very slow, since they only allow a few people in at one time & there is no limit on how long you can stay. We did not have enough time to go in there, but we did see an Armenian shrine adjacent to it that the Armenians say is where Jesus’s head was placed in the interment. We were told that there were 25 or 30 tombs here in the 4th Century but after St. Helena selected this one as having been Jesus’s they destroyed the rest. There is one left, in an adjacent room, which is really a cave that you can walk into; I assume most of the crypts in this area originally were similar caves that could be sealed by rolling a large stone in front.
Climbing a flight of steep stairs took us to the site of the Crucifixion on what was once a hill called Golgotha (or Calvary, of course). The spot is covered by what is in essence a large table that is open on one side, & there was a long line to crawl in there to pray. There were some nice paintings on the walls and archways in this area as well. Directly underneath is a spot designated as the tomb of Adam, which is basically a window on the rock which is split in accord with the story (we were told) that the earth split at the moment Jesus died.
So that was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which has seen so much history and is so full of religious significance. Mark Twain had a few choice observations about this church & the plethora of religious sites housed in this one building, but I am not going to repeat them here. We next walked to the Western Wall which, as I have mentioned was built as a retaining wall to support the Second Temple when Herod expanded it (on the way our guide pointed out a sign on a house indicating that the occupant had competed the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, which is a very prestigious thing). This wall is all that is left of the Second Temple and it is a very holy site to Jews, who come here to pray & insert written prayers into the masonry cracks. Jews are not permitted to pray on top of the Temple Mount, which is under the control of Muslims, who have built two of their most important mosques on this site: The Dome of the Rock, with its distinctive gold dome, contains the rock on which Abraham is supposed to have started to sacrifice his son Isaac, and the Al Aqsa Mosque, which is where Mohammed is supposed to have ascended to heaven during his lifetime. Sometimes non-Muslims are barred from ascending the Temple Mount & sometimes they are allowed to do so, although they cannot enter the mosques, but at no time is it permissible for non-Muslims to pray on the Temple Mount or even to carry a bible up there. Anyway, both mosques are clearly visible from below the Western Wall.
The Western Wall is divided in two parts: the larger area for men & a smaller one for women. Because of this segregation Mary & I could not approach the Wall together. Men must wear head coverings to approach the Wall, & white yarmulkes are available for free (& to keep). Women are restricted at the Wall, apparently they cannot wear prayer shawls or engaged in organized prayer. Some women were arrested for disturbing the peace a few days before our visit when they broke these rules, but a Magistrate threw out the charges saying that this behavior was not unlawful.
There is an intense ongoing cultural conflict in Israel & especially in Jerusalem between the ultra orthodox Jews and the more secular Jews. The ultra orthodox (like the orthodox of other religions) would like to impose their strict rules of dress & behavior on everyone else. Women have been stoned for wandering too close to Orthodox synagogues in nonreligious dress & our guide told us she was leading a busload of tourists that was stoned when it drove too close to a synagogue. The big issue right now has to do with the exemption in Israeli law for religious scholars from the otherwise universal military service. According to our guide, when this law was enacted some 60 years ago it was thought that it would apply only to a few hundred special scholars. To qualify for the exemption one must certify that he will spend his life devoted to scholarship, foregoing employment. Today there are countless numbers of ultra orthodox Jews signing this pledge, and these people also believe they have an obligation to marry (often arranged ones) & devote themselves to maximum reproduction. The result is many thousands of families with 10 or more children living in poverty on a government dole in two room apartments. They have become a burden on the remainder of the population and are increasing in numbers so quickly that our guide believes they will constitute a majority of the population of Jerusalem before long, which would give them the political power to impose their rules on everyone in the city. So the new government seems prepared to do away with the military exemption; we will see. We saw many ultra orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, who are distinctive with big black hats & suits with white shirts. There is a special section set aside in the men’s section of the Wall where there are chairs & desks for their use.
At the exit from the Wall area is what we were told is the world’s largest mezuzah (usually a very small container of tiny prayer scrolls that many Jews affix to their door frames). We left the old city through the Dung Gate (its just what you think: this is the gate through which the refuse was taken out of the city). Then we drove to Haifa to meet the ship. Unfortunately we arrived after dark, so we didn’t get to see anything of this reputedly beautiful city, but we did see the lights of the Ba’hai Gardens that flow down the side of Mount Carmel (although I couldn’t get a picture from the moving bus). I guess we will have to save that for another trip. We sure got to see an awful lot on this trip, particularly considering it was only two days, and it was even more interesting & enlightening than we had expected. Our guides did a marvelous job of enhancing our visit to this fascinating country. So, as we head for Turkey I will leave you with some towel & fruit art.