(this is really long...)
We woke up freezing, and headed into twilight showers (couldn’t figure out how to turn on the lights…duh…). At least it was warm! I actually had a really nice shower, in spite of the light situation and the cold condensation dripping on me from the uninsulated aluminum ceiling when I turned the water off. Anyway, in Israel it’s okay to go out with wet hair, unlike in Egypt, so I wasn’t worried about looking like a whore with my wet hair, though I was a little worried about the temperature with my wet hair. I needn’t have worried, because by the time everyone got moving, my hair was mostly dry—thankfully! We headed out relatively early—8am—to try to get an “early morning” walk on the Old City walls in. Unfortunately, the Ramparts Walk opens at 9. ha—that’ll show us to wake up early! Instead we headed down to the Western Wall—the only remaining part (a retaining wall, actually) of Solomon’s Temple. We found the Temple Mount open to visitors, and jumped at the chance to get in there. And so my career as a Holy Land tour guide began in earnest. From the moment we appeared at the Wailing Wall until the end of the day (actually, even, the end of the week), my friends were asking questions, asking for explanations, asking for information, and I found myself actually giving it—with remarkable accuracy, too, I think. I seem to remember more from my visit and reading last year than I thought. More on tour guiding later.
After passing the security check for the Wailing Wall, we found we had to exit and enter a different security gate, with more metal detectors and bag searches, in order to enter the Temple Mount. oy. The security people confiscated Jay’s Bible—apparently Bibles are NOT allowed when you visit the site of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son—and they also managed to break my sunglasses. Too bad it was the first day I’d needed them since leaving Egypt! The clouds lifted when we left Bethlehem, and stayed away for the remainder of our trip. Great. Anyway, it was worth it all to get up on that plaza and stand where the great Temples of the Bible once stood, to walk where Jesus must have thrown money-changers’-tables over, to look out on the Mount of Olives from Mt. Moriah, to be there in the very place where so much of our faith tradition’s stories are centered. We weren’t allowed in the Dome of the Rock or the al-Aqsa Mosque, but we were able to walk around, to take photos, to enjoy the views, and to revel in the irony of the fact that we couldn’t bring a Bible to this holy place. We wondered if “they” were afraid that “we” would tap the Dome of the Rock with it and the whole thing would come clattering down, or what. When we were denied entrance to the Dome (even when we were appropriately dressed/covered and when we were ready to take off our shoes), we discussed the possibility of the 8 of us marching around it 7 times, then shouting and singing and seeing if it would fall down. We decided against it, in case you’re wondering. Anyway, the Dome is AMAZING up close. So much intricate tile work, you would think hundreds of people slaved away at it for years. Which they probably did.
Once we’d had our fill of the thrills of the Temple Mount, we headed down, Jay retrieved his Bible from security, and we threaded our way through the waking streets of Jerusalem, back toward the Jaffa Gate so we could get on with that whole Ramparts Walk thing already! But not without a stop for….breakfast…at Samara, a café that quickly became known to us as “our café.” After pancakes/egg dishes/bread + jam and hot chocolate/coffee, we were definitely ready to face the day. We went back to the Ramparts Walk entrance, discovered that our International Student ID cards would come in handy here (reducing the price to a mere 8 shekels, or about US$1.75). Sadly, I was disappointed by the Ramparts Walk. I mean, it was cool to walk around on Ottoman-period walls, but the section we walked on doesn’t have many Old City views (though there are some great views of sections of the city outside the walls, like Mt. Zion and some of the residential neighborhoods just outside the wall) AND the part you walk on has high walls on either side (yeah yeah, fortress, blah blah, don’t get your army killed by having them constantly exposed on top of the wall, etc etc…) making it hard to see most of the time anyway. Also hard to fall off, but that’s beside the point. We had some fun pretending to shoot arrows out the little archers’ windows, and we took some nice photos I guess (well, other people did, not me), but mostly I was saddened that I hadn’t suggested we ascend the wall at the Damascus Gate (I think the views are better from there—the Muslim Quarter, all around past the St. Stephen’s Gate). Oh well. It was a fun hour.
From there we jumped right in with the “Jesus sites,” as Stephen and I were calling them. We trekked up the Mt. of Olives—which, by the way, is quite steep and it really is a decent walk to the top—stopping only twice: once to visit the “Tombs of the Prophets” (Malachi and Haggai, and about 50 other tombs as well) and once to visit the Jewish cemetery that takes up most of the side of the hill facing the Old City. The Tombs of the Prophets (5 shekels each) turned out to be a bunch of 2500 year old tombs, sans any of the stuff you usually find in tombs. We went down about 20 feet, then found hallways of ground-level horizontal tombs. We could see where coffins had slid into the holes, but that was about it. There was a separate “room” with two tombs, in which I assume someone, at some point, found some kind of identifying references for these two prophets. Anyway, it was neat and allowed us to go underground, which is always cool! The Jewish cemetery is neat too, but harder to grasp because all the headstones are in Hebrew—even the dates, and I definitely don’t remember anything about the number/letter correspondences. But we had a lot of time to spend on the Mt. of Olives, because we began our pilgrimage just at the time when the Garden of Gethsemane was closing for afternoon prayers and lunch, so we had nearly two hours before we would be allowed in there.
We finally made it to the top of the “mountain” and spent some time taking in the panoramic view. Very excellent. Even better: a man with a donkey offering us a “taxi” (we laughed SO HARD when a member of our group very Egyptian-ly said “the same donkey Jesus took?” and the man said “oh yes…”), and an Australian man who was told by an Israeli (who looked at me before saying this) that he was “very lucky if all women in Australia are as beautiful as she is!” The Australian then proceeded to ask me where I was from and to offer me a camel ride on “his” camel. I looked at him, then at the camel (which was being led away by an Israeli man), and said “no, thanks, and if that’s your camel you might want to go catch it!” The man smiled, walked away, and laughed hysterically with his friends before finally going away. We had peace enough at last (and enough photos) but still plenty of time to wait, so Sarah went to sleep on a bench, and the rest of us sat down to chat. Then we had the intense pleasure of being surrounded by a group of Israeli soldier recruits—complete with big guns—being taken on a tour of their “homeland.” For some reason they needed to stand all around where we were sitting in order to get their lecture. Great. We managed to escape, but by the time we got Sarah awake and with us, the recruits were in front of us. We noticed that most had rifles but a few had grenade launchers. Just what you need on the Mt. of Olives.
Our first stop on the way down was Dominus Flevit—the chapel commemorating Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. This church is every bit as beautiful as I remember it—from the mosaic floor to the Byzantine altar to the view of the Dome of the Rock and the Old City out the window over the current altar. The grounds are gorgeous as well, and there were olives on some of the olive trees! Neat. The army recruits followed us into this site (after they stopped at the tombs of the prophets too…bet they were really intrigued…), and one of the soldiers actually came INTO the church with his big semi-automatic rifle. Ugh. I could not believe it. Another must have gone in while Jason was in the church, because he came out and asked “do you think that if an American soldier walked into a synagogue in New York with a big gun, that would be okay?” The frustration we were feeling with the overtly-armed nature of the Israeli army (which, for me, is also coupled with the average age of the soldiers—18) was definitely coming out as we tried to make our pilgrimage from the Mt. of Olives and into the via Dolorosa. We hoped against hope that the soldiers would move faster or slower or would maybe even just go away. Just in case, we hurried down the hill toward Gethsemane.
The Garden of Gethsemane is one of the most beautiful places in Jerusalem. 2,000+ year old olive trees—with thick, gnarled trunks and sprawling branches. In the spring, flowers galore. Even now, in winter, the ground looks fertile and ready for new life. The church is just as beautiful, with its “all mosaic, all the time” walls and its perpetually-lent purple cross stained glass windows, not to mention the international cooperation embodied by this church (it’s called the Basilica of the Agony, but is better known as the Church of All Nations, because so many nations contributed to the mosaics and the funding for the church). About the only thing that could disrupt the serenity of the garden or the spiritual experience of the place is a man in the garden saying “taxi? taxi? you need a taxi?” Which, of course, is precisely what happened to Jason and me as we walked around the olive trees that Jesus saw. Jason, in a really brilliant and beautiful moment, said “this is a holy place, it’s inappropriate to ask that here. Please leave.” The man looked shocked and did not leave, but apparently did wait until Jason came out and offered half an apology. Anyway, we recovered.
Across the way from the Basilica is the rest of the garden of Gethsemane (it’s not just a little plot of land!) as well as the “tomb of Mary” and a grotto which tradition holds Jesus prayed in many times, and which saw the disciples sleeping on that fateful night. The Greek Orthodox chapel that surrounds (controls?) the Tomb of Mary is more tasteful than most. Again we had to descend about 20 feet underground, but we were rewarded this time with a tomb tomb, which was nice. I’m definitely confused about this Mary business, because I thought the Roman Catholics said that Mary didn’t die but was “taken up” or “went to sleep” or something like that, but here’s a Greek Orthodox tomb of Mary. Anyway, it was pretty but nothing particularly of spiritual note for me.
We continued on the road and came back to the St. Stephen’s Gate (Lion’s Gate), so named for the first martyr, Stephen, who was stoned right outside this gate. The gate is decorated with a lion on either side…hence the “Lion’s Gate” as the alternative moniker. In any case, entering through this gate leads one directly into the Via Dolorosa, the “way of sadness”—the way of the cross. One can walk the 14 traditional stations of the cross through the streets of Jerusalem, beginning just inside this gate. I have to admit that it’s a little strange combining the “Palm Sunday” route with the “Good Friday” route and doing them at the same time. But we did it nonetheless.
The Via Dolorosa begins with two chapels—condemnation and flagellation. In this complex (which is also a monastery/convent), we saw now-familiar original Roman paving stones, but this time they had little patterns carved into them, which a sign informed us were “Roman soldier’s games.” Since these chapels are built across the road from the Antonia—Herod’s fortress, where Pilate would likely have passed judgment—there would likely have been soldiers here quite often or even all the time, and they probably didn’t go on tours of their “homeland” to pass the time. Some of the games are quite interesting—squares with diagonal lines creating boxes, sets of lines, and some games with interlocking circles. Most are quite crude and look as though they’ve been etched in with other pieces of stone or with fairly primitive metal tools. Limestone is a hard rock, after all, so I guess I can’t blame the Roman soldiers for not being more like Milton Bradley.
As we continued down the Via Dolorosa, we followed a pilgrim’s map and we stopped at each station, and went in the chapels associated with most of them. (One station, I think 4, was closed). It’s very interesting to do this purposefully and intentionally, especially since the streets of Jerusalem today are probably not so unlike the streets of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day—narrow, stone, crowded with people and with vendors. Granted, the vendors are different, but all the same, the streets are full of people. Doing this also helped us to realize just how far it was from the Antonia—site of condemnation and beating—to Calvary. That is, not very far. But it took us a substantial amount of time to do this, and we weren’t even carrying a cross. Granted, from the beginning to Station 5, where Simon takes up the cross for Jesus, is about two city blocks in any other city. Then, two stations later, Jesus “falls under his cross” for the second time. The chapel at this station was beautiful, but the tradition is, in my mind, spurious. How exactly did he fall under the cross when he wasn’t even carrying it? Anyway…we continued along, sometimes praying and sometimes chatting along the way. We missed station 9 because we couldn’t find it—the map was not clear enough to help us out in this case! We were okay with that, though, because it just meant that Jesus didn’t fall a third time under a cross he was no longer carrying. We managed.
From our lost wanderings, we turned a corner (following the street signs that say “Via Dolorosa”—a street that meanders in an Atlanta-worthy fashion) and found ourselves in front of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, a church with a hugely tall bell tower, complete with bells that woke us up every morning. Church of the Redeemer is practically next door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church built on Calvary and over remnants of a 1st century cemetery, and which contains Stations 10-15. We walked forward, looking furtively at some of the shops, including the shop where I purchased a stole last year, then passed a little doorway of sorts and found ourselves (again I say found because we were NOT expecting this so soon!) literally smack at the entrance plaza for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is simultaneously one of my favorite and one of my least favorite churches, which is hard to explain. I find that the overwhelming Greek Orthodox presence is, well, overwhelming. The oil lamps, the gilding, the metal plated icons, the decadence and overdone feel to the place…they really detract from what I (as a protestant) think of as a holy place and definitely add what feels like consumerism rather than sanctity. This situation is not helped by the fact that the Greek Orthodox control the “main events” in the church, and these are flanked by Roman Catholic and by other, less-lavish, Orthodox areas, making the contrast obvious and making most (maybe even all in my group) wish for more Roman Catholic controlled area. Thus sayeth the Protestants—“give us a Roman Catholic church any day over the crazy Greek Orthodox places we’ve been!” How’s that for a laugh! It definitely makes me smile.
After my tour-guiding was done (at the front door, so we wouldn’t have to try to stay together in the church and so we didn’t disturb what sanctity was left of the place), we headed in an up the stairs to continue our journey on the Stations. I must say I had a much better experience in this church (much like the Church of the Nativity experience) than last year. I had what might actually be called a spiritually enriching experience here, despite the glitz and glam and obnoxious tours. I was able to actually pray while touching the rock of Calvary (kneeling under a Greek Orthodox altar to do so), and while in the Tomb of Jesus. I think there are a variety of reasons for this, but all in all I think the Holy Spirit was moving and just really took hold of me for a while in that church this time. What are these reasons, you might be wondering? Well, first, it was a return visit for me and so I experienced less sensory overload. I knew what to expect and how overly ornate everything was. Second, I had no camera. I know I’ve said this before, but I really think that the loss of my camera let me really be in places, to experience them, to really look at things. No thinking about photos, no desperate need to document my presence at every place, no looking at the world through my viewfinder. This was definitely a blessing in disguise. Third, life was (is) pretty dark for me at this moment—especially over the holidays—and I needed some light pretty badly. I know perfectly well where the light comes from, and I needed it to break in. God provides—I needed more and I got more. I definitely experienced the light in the darkness, I definitely “got it.” To be in the tomb and be able to say “okay, you’ve been here, so you know what my family is going through, you know what my mom has been through, and you’d better be here with us OR ELSE.” There’s a hymn in the “new” Presbyterian Hymnal Supplement called “When We Are Called to Sing Your Praise” that has a line that says, “you understand the burdens that we bear, you too have walked the shadowed way and know our deep despair.” bizabt. (exactly)
Downstairs, under the hill (basically) is St. Helena’s chapel. You remember St. Helena, mother of Constantine, who traveled the Holy Land and declared where churches should be built? In the case of the C.H.S., there was again a pagan temple built on the site during the first years of the 2nd century, and Queen Helena traveled here and supposedly found the “true cross”—which, of course, hasn’t been seen in one piece since—in this very area. So, naturally, there is a chapel which may in fact be the oldest part of the church. I haven’t researched it fully, but it seems that Queen Helena is buried there? and that would definitely make it the oldest part. Anyway, what’s cool about this chapel is that on the walls along the stairs nearly every pilgrim that traveled to this church from the time of Helena until probably the last century or so has carved a cross in the stone. Not just any scratchy cross, but a symmetrical cross complete with flared ends. And all these crosses are nearly identical. It’s quite amazing, and very cool to run your hands over the cool stone and feel the crosses etched in, and to think that you are part of this long line of pilgrims, that the cloud of witnesses has left a visible mark. I wish I knew how they did it, because I would totally try to carve a cross without getting caught by a monk. Unfortunately, it seems that the church is always busy and that I would need a chisel (thanks Jason, for the info). Too bad.
By the time we gathered together at the door of the CHS again, it was dark and it was dinner time and the shops in the Old City were closing. We wandered a bit, but ultimately we headed back to the hostel to ask for some advice from Chris, the fantastic man who runs the place. As you’ve probably noticed, we decided not to move because Sarah woke up feeling no allergic reactions at all, and Jen agreed that it was okay enough for a few nights. This was, all in all, I think a good thing though we were COLD!! The place we were planning to move to also lacked heat, though, so ultimately moving or not was win-win. We just didn’t want to move our stuff, and Sarah and Jen agreed it was okay. Thanks, girls! Chris is such a nice guy, we were happy to ask him for help. He recommended an Ethiopian place, but Sarah doesn’t eat spicy food. Then he recommended a pizza place in the Old City, just a 5 minute walk away, and we jumped at it. The pizza was SO GOOD, we were happy happy people!! hooray for mushroom and black olive pizza. yum! It was a great end to a long day.
In the evening Jason and I took a stroll to the nearest bank so he could use the ATM. The ATM he had previously used, though, said it was “out of order,” so he used the other one. Unfortunately, it sucked his card in and wouldn’t give it back, and the only language the thing had was Hebrew. After several tense minutes of trying to figure out what it said and what was happening, we gave up. We walked the long and slow way back to our hostel…around the outside wall to the Damascus Gate, through the Muslim Quarter, to the Wailing Wall (where we stayed a little while), through the Jewish Quarter and past the Cardo, and around the inside of the Old City Wall back to the road that leads to the Jaffa Gate. We talked about worst case scenarios with his ATM card, and best case scenarios. He decided to go to the bank when it opened in the morning and see what they could do. We talked about culture and how strange it is that the Muslim quarter is so dirty—garbage everywhere—and the Jewish Quarter is so clean. We talked about Western coutries and industrialization and modernization, compared to developing countries that are still working on these things. We discussed whether “developed” countries looked like “developing” countries when they were still developing. We talked about the Israel/Palestine situation. In other words, we covered a lot of ground both literally and figuratively. It was great. We had a really good talk that challenged both of us to think in new ways, and that’s one of the things I love about being in a relationship with Jason. Always with the growing edges for both of us.
I have learned some things and realized some things from my experience of being the tour guide. Going to each place and explaining where we are, what happened there, some historical tidbits, the significance of the place/event, etc, is both fun and challenging as well as a teensy bit frustrating. It’s fun to share what I have learned, challenging to remember everything and to try to answer questions, and frustrating when I have to say things several times over or when I don’t know the answer (because obviously then I feel inadequate and like my friends are judging me, because then that one question I don’t know the answer to heavily outweighs the amount of info I do know and share). Part of me really enjoys being a “leader” in this way—going around and sharing cool things with people. Another part of me really doesn’t like being in charge like that because I feel like we’re all equals, peers, and no one person should be leading. There is obviously competition between these two parts of me, especially since when I know things I don’t WANT other people to be in charge. How’s that for honesty with something that’s really not good about myself? I have also suddenly found that people are coming to me for information, with questions about all kinds of things, and that I have a lot of this information. In other words, I am exhibiting a characteristic/behavior that is what I really admire about some of my favorite (and one least-favorite) pastors. The “s/he knows everything/has read everything/has been everywhere/is the person to ask about everything” syndrome. I seem to have it. And you know what? I like it and it’s affirming to me and my call. But it’s still weird! It’s weird to think that you’ll find my blog quoted on Sarah’s blog, because she “didn’t know about that!” or that people come to ask me “what do you know/think about xyz?” and they actually want to know my answer. I think I suddenly understand a tiny little fraction of what it’s like to be John (pick one) when I’m peppering him with questions about everything. Neat!