It has been a tradition to celebrate our birthdays with a special trip and special birthdays with even more special trips. Ksenija’s 50th was with gorillas in Rwanda, Mirek’s 60th in with whale sharks in Mozambique.
“Mirek, where do you want to celebrate your 70th?”
“In Jerusalem!” came a surprising answer. And more specifically at King David Hotel. Since 1929 the famed 5 star establishment has hosted kings in exile, queens, heads of states and movie stars. One can literally walk in their footsteps. Here Winston Churchill’s, Silvio Berlusconi’s, and Elizabeth Taylor’s.
At the end after a quiet dinner at a small restaurant, and fantastic cake in a lively coffee shop, we only had birthday drinks at the hotel’s stodgy bar. We sat in the uncomfortable armchairs, drinking overpriced (and god awful) cocktails. We noticed some businessmen at the bar speaking Czech, then a whole bunch more Czech men in dark suits coming in. Turns out the Czech President with his entourage was staying there to open a Czech cultural center. It would be an understatement that Mirek dislikes the Czech President any less than the American President, so we hightailed it out of there.
We could walk back through the lit up streets to our cute Airbnb right in the Jewish quarter. We loved staying in the traditional heart of Jerusalem and four nights certainly was not enough. We were right on the seamless border of Armenian and Jewish quarter on a pedestrians only old cobblestone road. At any given time we might encounter monks …or rabbis…and sometimes we even visited with the Roman time market people. We soon found our favorite coffee shop for fresh morning pastries and excellent cappuccinos. We loved sitting at their window, watching people as they started their day. We could see men in their traditional orthodox black suits and black hats going to study Torah…many of them taking their kids to school or daycare on their way. Women with their long skirts and their fancy wigs instead of scarves covering their hair going to work or shopping. Or just getting a morning coffee and a bagel or delivering some.In the evenings we would cross the plaza with the giant golden menorah to stop a few doors down from our apartment at a neighborhood kosher restaurant; excellent, fresh and inexpensive. There we could observe the local families and chat with the cook and waiter.
We would venture into the Muslim quarter and feel perfectly safe. Mirek claimed he was surprised by the low presence of soldiers, but I think they were just not as noticeable because by and large they were young and cute and friendly. As there is a compulsory service there are also a lot of young women patrolling with their tight fitting uniforms. You are less likely to pay attention to their big guns and protective vests, especially if you are a man. As a woman looking at them I could not help but remember Gal Gadot in the movie Wonder Woman. The Israeli actress is a wonder woman in real life, too. She spent two mandatory years of service in the Israeli Defense Forces enlisted as a combat instructor and does many of the movie stunts herself, and she is a mother of two girls. (Which do you think is harder?)
The three quarters are all right next to each other in the old Jerusalem and the untrained eye can not tell right from the start where one begins and the other ends. The myriad of shopping stalls blend into each other, too. Except at night when the bazaars and souks empty and one is not allowed to enter into the Muslim quarter. There are also restrictions on visiting the Temple Mount, most holy to both Jews and Muslims. The Jews venerate it for here stood their temples destroyed by Babylonians. In Solomon’s temple was the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle, where God’s presence appeared and Ark of the Covenant was held, containing the Ten Commandments given to Moses.
For the Muslims it is revered as the Noble Sanctuary, the location of Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem on a magical horse for prayers at the El Axa Mosque and his ascent to heaven and back. As a commemoration of this sacred event the famous gilded Dome of the Rock had been built.For a few hours a day people of other religions are allowed to visit the area, but not enter the sites or pray openly. The area is actually guarded by Jordanian security forces that politely but strictly usher everyone out when it is time for Muslim prayers. There is a certain level of antagonism at the Christian sites, too, though that is entirely internal. It is especially evident in the Church of Holy Sepulcher, which contains the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified (Golgotha) and where he was buried and resurrected (the empty tomb). The control of the church itself is shared among several Christian denominations and secular entities in complicated arrangements. In fact historically the animosity between the Greek Ortodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Ortodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic was so bad, that the keys to the church have been given to two Muslim families, passed down generations from father to son. The different Christian factions have control over different parts of the church. In the back of the complex we discovered a small community of Ethiopian monks, where it seemed like nothing has changed since the early centuries.Interestingly enough some Protestants actually think the real tomb of Jesus is not here but at The Garden Tomb, at a rocky escarpment outside the Jerusalem walls. Whatever the case, the visit to this site is definitely more evocative and spiritual than the mobbed church.
Of all the religious places in Jerusalem and whole of Israel it was the Wailing Wall (Western Wall) that really touched us both. Because the Jews are not permitted to pray on Temple Mount, their holiest place, the Western Wall just under it, is where the prayers are said. I thought only Jews would be permitted to go to the wall and mourn the destruction of their temples, but it was open to all. Being the non praying, non religious people we did not intend to go all the way to the wall. Yet a sign there to the effect that “your sorrows being lessened at the wall” lead our steps to the men’s and women’s sections of the wall. Having just recently and unexpectedly lost my best friend back home I found it touching and healing to stand at the wall with many women pouring their grief to the stones that for centuries have stood as silent witnesses.
The history and politics of Jerusalem is so complicated that it is very helpful to have a good guide to explain it all.
We joined two walking tours of Jerusalem. One took us to Mount of Olives where for me the most spiritual Christian place is located – the Gethsemane Garden. This is where Jesus went to pray after the Last Supper and in all his humanity, afraid of suffering awaiting him, asked God for “this cup to pass me by”. The Olive Grove has large old olive trees dated up to 900 years old, some probably offshoots of the same trees that witnessed Jesus’ prayers and fears. Gethsemane means olive press in Syriac Aramaic, the language of Christ. Across from the garden at the foot of Mount Olives is the rock cut Tomb of the Virgin Mary. It is interesting to note that Mary, Maryam, mother of Isa (Jesus) also has a revered position in Islam where one of the longer chapters of Quran is devoted to her.Not surprisingly the grave of Mary or Mariam, who was of course Jewish, is in close vicinity to the Mount Olives Jewish Cemetery, the most ancient and most important Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem, containing hundreds of thousands of Jewish graves.
Many graves have small rocks placed on top by visitors, taking place of flowers, harder to come by in the desert land.
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and throughout its bloody history many of different faiths have fallen. Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.
With so much to see in the old town, we barely managed to venture out into the new areas of Jerusalem. Except for one night when two lovely Servas ladies called Ravital and Tal took us for dinner to Mahane Yehuda market. The food stalls were just being converted into ad hoc eateries and the night was alive with the young Jerusalemites of all creeds, giving us hope for the peaceful coexistence in the future.
PS. This post concludes our year of travel. First year that is! We enjoyed it so much, that after a short holiday break back in California, we are embarking on our second year of adventures. Thank you for following along and as usual we are looking forward to your comments.