I am not going to write about the politics of Israel and the Middle East, about the Palestinians, about the violence or conflicts.
I visited a very old city with a rich history. A place foreign to me, with new sites, smells, tastes. We entered the walled section of Jerusalem through the Arab section, which did not require a security checkpoint.
I like old signs, carved into stone. When you can’t read the language, you instead notice the artistry, or the visual impact, rather than the message. I also love seeing familiar items, such as a Coca-Cola ad or a fast food sign, rendered in view of another culture. Skeptours had engaged the services of Eitan, who I describe as a secular rabbi originally from the U.S., who knew our group was not on a pilgrimage but who instead wanted to know history, culture, archaeology. His mission, if you will, was to interpret what we were seeing in terms of history. As we strolled through this part of the city, he pointed out landmarks and related stories. The Arab section was very crowded, and the narrow streets were lined with flea market shops, selling everything from t-shirts, plastic replicas of sites around town (but nothing related to Islam), carpets, brass lamps, food, shopkeepers calling out to passers-by.
While navigating the crowds and narrow streets (as shown in my first picture), we constantly passed groups of pilgrims that were walking the Via Dolorosa, and the Stations of the Cross. The practice of following the path supposedly taken by Jesus from his judgement by Pontius Pilate to the location of his burial started during the Byzantine era.
The actual path and number of stations changed throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, and was not finalized in its present incarnation until sometime in the 18th century. As typical, the different church factions have fought over the actual locations, the path, the right to administer the pilgrimages, and who owned what. Today, the groups were frequently dressed alike in matching shirts, or had name badges and lanyards, led by a guide that would hold up a sign on a stick. Watching the people walk, frequently singing hymns, through the bazaar/gift shop atmosphere, sometimes with tears in their eyes, was surreal. Walking past some of the Stations, out of order, Eitan would point them out to us. One site was an archway over one of the streets, which some people claim is the place from where Pontius Pilate judged Jesus.
However, this arch was built several hundred years after the fact. Never let a little bit of facts get in the way of a good story! Another spot with a Station marker was a indentation in the stone, which is supposed to be vaguely hand shaped, indicating a place where Jesus supposedly faltered and rested. Women were kissing the spot and crying. The shops in this area had baskets full of ‘crown of thorns’ made from grapevines, $5. Most of the sites along this way are completely random, with no historical or archeological basis.
Tour guides typically stop in front of the shops of their ‘special friends’ to allow their groups to shop, and where they will then received a commission on what is purchased. Our groups can pretty much be classified as ‘non-shoppers’, although we’ve been known to overstock on spices, Turkish delight, and foreign liquors. One place that did get quite a bit of attention was the fruit stand. Fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice! Each cup held the juice of three large fruits, for about a dollar (US dollars and Euros gladly accepted). After we had all refreshed ourselves and moved on, there was a bit of cash changing hands between the vendor and our guide.
We then went through a security checkpoint, run by the Israeli government, which was different from a U.S. airport TSA line only by having a metal detector rather than the full-naked-body-scan machine. Almost instantly, the views of the city changed. Gone were the flea markets, the t-shirt shops, the men sitting in chairs. There were women working in some of the places (not seen in the Arab section – the only women were usually walking in pairs or with children, but never working). The citizens were preparing for Sukkot, a Jewish festival. In the Jewish section of the old city, the spaces tended to be more open and less crowded. As the Jewish quarter had been severely damaged in war, much of this area is rebuilt, new, clean, and shiny. We went to the site of the Wailing Wall.
Naturally, being less than human, the women in our group were directed to one side of the divided Wall. (Something that doesn’t show up in most photos or films of the site). I love to people watch. There were families, tourists, pilgrams, teens, old men, and lots of Israeli security.
And then made our way to the Armenian section, to a restaurant for lunch. More shawarma. Not sure which I liked better: Turkish, Greek, Jewish or Armenian. Oh, wait. They were all the same!
Next post: The Temple Mountin Jerusalem
- Divisions – Jerusalem, Israel (travelpod.com)
- Byzantine-era ritual baths discovered on Israel’s Route 6 (haaretz.com)
- ‘Pontius Pilate’ Adds To Growing Biblical Epic Trend (screencrave.com)
- Traveling Israel: Masada and the Dead Sea
- Traveling Israel: Haifa and the Golan Heights