Jerusalem is a place that doesn’t seem real when you first set foot there. Sure you’ve heard about it on the news, and you probably expected it to be some sort of war-zone even. As a holy city for Jews, Christians, and Muslims you’d expect it would cause more than just a few problems. It’s nevertheless a fascinating city and one full of contrasts and contradictions. Religious observance coexists with modern secularism as well with surprising harmony. But there’s a sense that the place has witnessed history’s most momentous events, and for that fact it’s a bit like meeting a famous celebrity and not knowing what to say to him. There’s even a medical affliction in which visitors overwhelmed by the significance of the city start believing themselves to be the messiah or other religious delusions. I’m not making this up folks: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerusalem_syndrome). In the end, it’s still just a city. Where people live, work, and go about their lives – though they may walk by Jesus’ crucifixion site on the way to the office.
With no history of mental illness or religious background for that matter, I think I’m pretty well inoculated from aforementioned syndromes. However, crossing into Israel from its land border with Jordan would drive any well-intentioned traveller insane. I expected a bit of a hold up and stringent security checks at the Aqaba-Eilat border crossing, but I didn’t expect to be held at the border for an hour while I was questioned about my familial ties to Malaysia and what I did for a living (I have a hard enough time explaining that to people back home!). They’re CHINESE-Malaysian damnit! We don’t want to blow anything up. We love the Jews, heck we’re just like them. “Go sit outside while we rifle through your passport again” the border guard replies. He might have said “check over your answers” but to me that’s what they seemed like they did the whole time. This back and forth parade of questioning and waiting continues while I sit outside roasting in the desert sun with a couple other travellers who had wisely also been to Syria and Lebanon. They weren’t getting in anytime soon either I figured.
A brusque “enjoy your stay!” from the guard and I was officially admitted into the Holy Land with a 3 month visa. I had missed my intended bus due to the hold up so I had to kill a few hours in the seaside town of Eilat. There I got my first taste of the life Israelis have to deal with, security checks at every public market and mall, soldiers with M4s in line with you at the bus station. It wasn’t so much that there was security that was shocking, but rather the soldiers themselves were literally teenagers. Even girls aren’t exempt from military service in this country, and it was quite a sight-seeing a group of them giggling in a coffee shop with assault rifles slung over their tiny frames.
I arrived by bus in Jerusalem around late afternoon which at this time of the year was nightfall. The lighted glow of the Damascus Gate greeted me to the Old City, where I would be spending the next few days. It’s where Jerusalem’s clash of civilizations is most apparent, with a Quarter allocated for each of the big 3 religions plus another for Armenians for good measure. The major religious sites were just a short stroll away through tiny medieval laneways filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of the old Arabia. I stayed in the Muslim Quarter, which was I found out later was decidedly busier than the other quarters in the Old City. The Jewish and Armenian Quarters were mainly residential but clean and well laid out in contrast to the chaotic streets where I stayed. The Christian Quarter, apart from the religious sites, resembled a giant souvenir shop peddling all sorts of Christian and Jewish-themed trinkets and paraphernalia.
The Dome of the Rock is probably Jerusalem’s most recognizable symbol. It sits atop the Temple Mount and its golden dome is instantly spottable amongst a sea of brown and grey stone architecture. As the place where Mohammed supposedly ascended into heaven, it’s the third holiest place for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. As an infidel I had to be content admiring the Dome from the outside which I suppose was as close I can get for most. I found out later that religious Jews are forbidden to enter the area altogether, for fear that they would trample on the sacred ground of their Temple of Solomon, on which the Dome of the Rock is built upon. A five minute walk away however, the Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall) is the focus of prayers for much of Judaism. The last remaining vestige of the Temple of Solomon, it was fascinating to see people praying with their heads bobbing to and fro in front of the wall and prayer-notes being stuffed into the cracks. Later that week on Mondays and Thursdays, it’s a popular Bar-Mitzvah celebration site which added a spark of festivity to the otherwise solemn site.
This city is of course most famous in the West for where Jesus spent his last days. There are plenty of sites around that trace his life, including the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he was crucified. Seeing African tour groups re-enact the carrying of the cross and Asians pilgrims laying prostrate over a stone supposedly where Jesus’ body was lay was surprising to see. Others would break out into tears at the sight of some of these relics – a sight more interesting to me than the relic itself perhaps. I can see for some of these people that believing themselves to be Jesus reincarnated wouldn’t be that far of a leap. Perhaps it’s the sceptical secularist in me but it seemed somewhat arbitrary how the holy sites were chosen. Most of the “birthplaces”, “resting places” and other holy sites were deemed so hundreds of years later during the Byzantine Era. Really though, wouldn’t one cave sort of look the same from another after a few years? Then again what do I know? And who am I to question such devotion to one’s beliefs?
Jerusalem outside the confines of the Old City walls is equally as fascinating. Visiting the neighbourhood of Mea Shearim is like stepping back in time to 19th Century Poland where Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jews) walk the streets in long black coats and hats (for men) and long dresses with sleeves (for women). Though appearing similar, these are not Amish they wholeheartedly embrace driving cars and tapping away at I-Phones. A sight made even stranger by the fact the neighborhood itself looked like it was lifted straight out of an Eastern European Ghetto. A few minutes walk from that incongruous time warp and you’re in Modern Jerusalem which could pass for Rome or Istanbul. At the other end of the city, I climbed the Mount of Olives, which afforded me panoramic views of the Old City and a chance to see a bunch of churches marking the place where Jesus was betrayed to the Romans.
I figured since I saw where Jesus died, I might as well see where he was born as well. Bethlehem was only a 45 minute bus ride away, but it was located in the Palestinian controlled West Bank. It was a chance to see the “other side” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has graced news headlines for so many years. Most shocking was the 8 meter high “Separation Barrier” the Israelis built recently to keep out terror attacks. Palestinians see it as an “Apartheid wall” and a land grab. Palestinians are subjected to searches and questioning through heavily fortified checkpoints, but as foreigners we were allowed to pass with just a flash of our Passport. It was a bit unsettling to see, and reminded me of reading about the bad-old days of the Berlin Wall in so many ways, but as a short-term visitor I really don’t have the authority to comment on what is obviously a very complicated and contentious issue.
The city of Bethlehem itself was very quiet at the time of my visit just days before Christmas. The main focus for tourists is the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born and the surrounding Manger Square (with it’s giant Christmas Tree and picture of Yasser Arafat). The Church itself was much less crowded than I expected but still attracted a fair amount of foreign worshippers wanting to touch the “spot” where the Manger supposedly sat. It’s shared by both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and I was able to catch a very interesting and beautiful prayer ceremony held by the resident monks. Apparently things aren’t always as peachy there as a brawl broke out a few days afterwards between broom wielding monks! (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/28/police-storm-church-of-the-nativity-to-break-up-brawling-priests/?hpt=hp_c2)
My last stop in Israel was Tel Aviv, which is about as psychologically far away as you can get from Jerusalem, if not physically far. Only an hours’ drive from the religious devotion (fanaticism?) of Jerusalem and you’re in a seaside Mediterranean city with a long sandy beach and a lifestyle more akin to Southern Europe than the Middle East. The city is thoroughly modern in both form and sensibility but it’s not totally devoid of history. The ancient city of Jaffa is within walking distance of the high rise beach resorts and offers more of old world charm, albeit in a trendier more upscale version. But for today I came for the beach and though it was still quite chilly, it was perfectly sunny and a much needed cure for my strain of the Jerusalem Syndrome. This was indeed my last stop on this ten and a half month journey, and in a few hours I’d be on my way back home to the rainy streets of Vancouver just in time for Christmas.