On our very first night in Jerusalem, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall. Both were quiet with only a few visitors. In the next few days, we would return to both.
On that first night, we walked slow and quiet through the old, dark Church of the Holy Sepulchre, not fully comprehending what we were seeing. Inside this building is the rock of Golgotha (or what was once the hill known as Calvary) and the hillside of Christ’s tomb. This church is the last 5 stations of the cross–built over the place where it is believed Jesus died and rose again. In the darkness, people light candles, kneel and bow, cross themselves and kiss the stones signifying where the cross stood and the marble slab where he was laid to rest. There are tears from many, others take photos in front of the sites, many light huge bunches of candles and then snuff them out to take home as souvenirs. There are some groups softly singing.
A variety of priests watch the proceedings–and make sure that proper respect is rendered–both feet stay on the ground, hands stay out of pockets, and that general order is kept.
The first night, we watched. Soaking it in. Laying our hands on the cold stone walls and floors.
The next day, we returned. This time we bought a few rosaries as gifts…so we could take them into these places with us–sanctifying them I suppose. It was phenomenally crowded. Lines wrapped around the tomb. But now you could see the ceilings and the walls. We stayed in there for over an hour–watching the tour groups from all over the world, trying to identify the variety of priests we saw–Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Ethiopians, Copts, Latin monks, and many who looked like Rasputin from Eastern European regions.
I began then to wish that I had brought a world map to ask people to point to where they are from. Jerusalem must have had more varieties of humans than I’ve ever seen anywhere in one place…Indian, Korean, Chinese, Eastern European, African, Americans, Mexicans, Europeans, and Arabs. A human stew.
We would return several times to the old church, mostly at night. Bryan bought a bundle of candles one night–and lit them in one big pyre–quickly snuffing them to bring home as souvenirs. One night we entered the tomb. Kneeling at the slab, touching the coolness of it. I lit a candle and wished that everyone could live in a satisfied peace…and we backed out of the chapel like everyone of faith did.
We stayed in the courtyard one night as the guards tried to empty the church and lock it up for the night. Once the big ancient doors are closed, a wooden ladder is used to climb up, turn the key, then push the latch and pop the ladder inside via a dog-door. Someone (priests?) spends the night in there.
One day we climbed the steps to the tower of the Lutheran Church–steps in a series of 48-60-70. Up to a beautiful breeze and all around view of the old city. Another day, we took the rampart walk–from Jaffa Gate to Dung Gate. Nice walk and good views both in and outside the old city walls.
On Friday afternoon–after having been to Bethlehem in the morning, we followed the monks on a procession down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem…the way of sorrows, the stations of the cross. It started near Stephen’s Gate, by the way to the Dome of the Rock (closed to non-Muslims) and the Ecce Homo arch. All sorts of monks, nuns, priests and tourists gathered. Suddenly there was a mega-phone and the priests recited the passages of the stations in a couple of languages before we moved as a flock to the next station. The long line of followers stopped at each station–whether it was in the middle of a bustling Muslim Quarter street corner, or the quiet alcoves near the Holy Sepulchre. I was disturbed that some of the shopkeepers talked louder than the mega-phone and threw things back and forth over the nuns and monks. Jews and Muslims hustled and bustled through the narrow ways lined with Christians–going about their business. Calls came from the minarets drowning out the mega-phone. It was a reminder that here, Christianity is the minority. What a day…following Jesus from birth to the grave, and beyond :)!
On this trip, we talked more about our religious views than ever before. We are mutts of religion…a bit of this, a bit of that. Skeptical of the politics of religion–not sure which man’s story to believe–and yet we are believers of God, of the beauty of nature, the goodness of dogs and animals. It became an on-going, pick-it-up-where-we-left-off conversation for the week in Jerusalem.
One night while having drinks and dinner in the Armenian Quarter, we discussed, debated, and laughed a lot about spiritual moments, and our views. We e:mailed Mark “I’ll preface this by saying we’re having wine and beers, but after all we’ve seen today, we’ve decided we must be Quakers.” To which Mark replied “The Holy Land has that effect on people…People in that part of the world have a tendency to produce more history than they are able to consume locally.”
So this entry is supposed to be about the Christian and Armenian Quarters. What else can I say besides showing the pictures?
Old Jerusalem can be parsed and counted in many ways: 7 gates in (Stephens, Herods, Damascus, New, Jaffa, Zion, Dung), 4 quarters, 3 religions, but to me–there are 2 ways that make more sense…Rooftop Jerusalem and Street Level Jerusalem.
I’d read in one of the tour guide books that Jerusalem became overburdened with spiritual significance: Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Solomon’s temple, Christ’s life and death, Muhammad’s night journeys. And I’d read that it was small and humble. I imagined it would be steeped in history, religious, and/or political significance on every square inch.
What I came to realize is that Rooftop Jerusalem IS the spiritual–the calm, the retrospective. It’s vastly different from the chaotic humanity in narrow streets below.
On rooftops you have a view of the whole of it–the golden Dome of the Rock, the Lutheran tower, the Holy Sephulcre’s domes, the green lights of minarets, the Israeli flags and menorahs, and the thousands of satellite dishes worshipping to the southwest.
Up here, you can see people working, hanging laundry, praying, admiring the view. You can better hear the church bells ring and the mosques’ call to prayers. You can hear the faint mumble of people talking, laughing, and the clattering of dishes. You can see over to Damascus gate and the colorful strung lights. You can see the sun and feel a breeze.
And you can see beyond the old walls of Jerusalem–the golden onion domes of Mary Magdalene’s church on the Mount of Olives beside the slope filled with thousands of Jewish graves, you can see other parts of Israel and Palestine in the distance.
It was the most relaxing thing in Jerusalem–to sit up on our hotel rooftop and take it all in. We began having breakfast up there–and spending time there again in the afternoons and evenings…just quietly looking and/or plotting our days. “what will we do today? what’s open today?” In such a city as Jerusalem, this is a little tricky because of the 3 sabbath days…Muslim = Friday, Jewish = Saturday, Christian = Sunday.
I can’t tell you how much we loved that rooftop at Hashimi Hotel in the Muslim Quarter! We wished that the hotel had served some refreshments up there–juices, coffees, something! We might have stayed up there forever feeding the stray cats, reading, enjoying the sun and wind–or just staring at the view of Jerusalem before us.
Travel days always bring some level of angst. This one was a big one. We were crossing from Jordan to Israel via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge. Mark Hamilton had warned us that this was one of the few border crossings in the world that still made a big deal of crossing from one country to another. I’d read travelers’ tales of long waits, intense questioning, lost bags, and unexpected closures.
Our taxi sped out of Amman on this bright morning and hurtled through the streets rimmed with eastward leaning trees, out into the empty land and down, down, down into the valley of the Dead Sea. Our ears popped. We marveled at the white and caramel colored land of Jordan (was this the Biblical “milk and honey” reference?).
Suddenly, our taxi pulled off the road. Two other taxis sat there–both with King Hussein Taxi stamped on the sides.
Our driver got out to talk with them. And then we were asked to switch taxis. As our original driver explained while we moved the packs from one trunk to the next, the first driver paid the second driver to take us the final bit to the border. We hopped into the 2nd cab and we were off again….this time with a car full of persistent flies. The last few miles seemed to be in a different age–we passed a herd of sheep complete with a shepherd in the red and white-checked head scarf and a herding dog. There was a smell of peat, and green trees lined the street. A black goat with bells walked with a dog along the side of the road. The road went down, more ear popping.
The entire journey from hotel to the border took only about 45 minutes. The border compound was a little cluster of buildings, with a bustle of people and transportation options. We entered a small room, put our bags through an x-ray machine and followed the people into another room and a line for passport control. The line was long and slow–and most people had little regard for it. Tour guides with bags full of passports tried to break line. We were in line behind a couple from California also traveling independently and struck up a conversation while vigilantly holding our places. When it was your turn, you paid JD 5 each to leave Jordan and got all the stamps. Then you were told to go sit and wait for the bus.
It was already close to 10 a.m. and the border was reportedly closing at 11 (not 1 p.m.) for Rosh Hashanah. We sat fanning off the flies and watching the show, talking to the Californians and a woman from Jordan with an 8-year-old daughter holding a U.S. passport. One of the border crossing security men smiled and assured us “You will be in Israel today.”
Finally, the correct bus pulled up…after there had been a few false alarms. We boarded and waited for another long while in the purple curtained bus. A young man got on and collected a fee to cross…per person and per bag. And then we were off.
The bus pulled out of the border compound and turned left past the soldiers and out into an empty street. We passed solitary platforms with soldiers watching carefully–machine guns at the ready. The bus had to make a few zig-zag turns to pass the barricades. After about 3 miles, we passed a checkpoint where we had to get out and show our passports while an Israeli soldier boarded the empty bus and checked it out. We reboarded, drove a bit again to another checkpoint with Israeli flags, and finally reached a large building for Passport Control. Our driver shook our hands as we left and picked up our luggage.
In this building, we went through airport-like security–bags on the belt and through a metal detector. We noticed that the Jordanian woman and her daughter were pulled aside in a separate place and were being questioned by a female soldier. Our passports were taken from us and collected by a young woman soldier dressed in a t-shirt.
She passed a small cotton wipe over them and took it to be analyzed. We were then ok’d to move into the next line. Here we would wait for almost an hour.
We were behind the Californian couple, in front of an Asian couple who were together for missionary work, and the Jordanian woman with the girl were behind them. We thought we would be the last crossing of the day, but another bus pulled in and about 50 Asian folks filled the room behind us. As we neared the passport control stations, we could see that only 3 were open. They were staffed by young Israeli female soldiers. Shy young lady soldiers were asking questions of those of us in line–“do you mind passport stamp?”, “are you together?” We were tired and getting hungry. Our line began joking about “you can stamp ME…just let me in!”
When we got to the window, we were asked several questions–“Where are you from? Where are you traveling from today? How are you related? Why are you here? Where will you go? Where will you stay? How long will you stay? Can you show me your flight return information?” and “will you be traveling in the West Bank?” Uh….Bethlehem is in the West Bank. So, I said–“Can we go to Bethlehem?” She said, “Yes–of course, this is fine…but anywhere else?” I answered an emphatic “No, thank you.”
She smiled at us, stamped the red Israel mark into our passports and nodded us through to the next line.
The next line was a haphazard glance at our passports and a wave into the waiting area–a cafe, empty cash exchange booths, and a waiting area filled with tourist groups gathering again. We were in Israel…with no sheikels and no ATMs around. A helpful soldier let me know that I could get cash just around the corner outside. We saddled up the packs and stepped outside, making our way around the building in the incredible mid-day heat.
“Just around the corner” was like another country. This was where hundreds of other people cleared passport control. These people dressed in traditional Arab clothing and carried huge piles of stuff–sometimes on their heads or in carts, sometimes stacked high on luggage racks–massive bags that looked like 100 lbs of meat wrapped in burlap, or 50 lbs of rice in pillow cases, or cases of water in milk jugs. People were busy on this side–hustling here and there with their baggage, yelling, sweating, and getting rides arranged. It was 2 days before the end of Ramadan, so I figured that many were coming/going to be with family for the Eid holiday.
We exchanged money and soon realized that our best ride to Jerusalem was to be a shared taxi for the price of 37 NIS (Israel New Shekel) each. Bryan paid and we piled into a van as passengers numbers 5 and 6. We needed 10 to leave.
Passenger #1 was an Israeli business man who spoke some English–he looked like anyone you’d see going to work on the el in Chicago, complete with laptop bag and newspaper.
Passenger #2 was also in business–let’s just say import/export, or theft. Every few minutes he would whistle, or yell out something and other men would approach the van handing in bags of cigarette boxes or a handful of cell phones. He crammed the packages into the back and the area around his seat.
Passengers #3 and 4 were older Palestinian ladies dressed in the long dresses, robes and head scarves. While they piously did not drink water during this Ramadan day–they did SPLASH it! A few times they would flamboyantly throw water on themselves (and coincidentally on me as I sat behind them), patting their faces and lips dry. We waited and waited. It was hot in there. I sweated in my long sleeve shirt–worn to be considerate of the culture–and eventually pushed the sleeves up over my elbows so that I could enjoy more of the little breeze we caught here and there. Bryan climbed out and walked impatiently around the van–keeping an eye on our packs that were now beneath a stash of cigarettes and what looked like a sheep carcass wrapped in burlap and paper. Whatever that was in that bundle, the flies loved it…and flocked to it.
Suddenly, but after about 45 minutes of waiting, we collected passengers #7-8-9-10 AND #11 and #12: a married woman traveling solo (who was arranged so that she had a single seat and did not have to sit next to a man), two young men and an older Arab man with the traditional keffilah head scarf, and two young girls without scarves who shared a seat vacated by the busy businessman (he sat on the steps next to the driver). I was fascinated by them all–and by the simple understanding and rearranging so that the single women were not profaned by sitting next to men they didn’t know.
We were finally off. I’ve never appreciated the breeze from an open car window more in my life! We had a checkpoint before pulling out of the compound. Half of the passengers got out at the road to Ramallah. Then after about 30 minutes, as we approached the outskirts of Jerusalem, we pulled over for a soldier to get in and see us and our passports. Traffic got thicker and suddenly as we sped around a bend in the road–I saw Jerusalem!
It was just a glimpse, but unmistakable–in the distance, the Dome of the Rock–golden in the sun, the walls. A smile, a chill and a wave of wonder passed over me as the view of the ancient city was lost behind a hill. This was the city so many people through the ages had fought for, the city that is Holy to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the city we all hear about–but few get a chance to visit. Here it was in front of me. We were here!
We were dropped at Herod’s gate (not Damascus as we first thought). We loaded up the packs, crossed the insanely busy road that circles the old city and entered through the towering old walls. Inside, the road became a walking street–caramel colored stonework on the ground and in the buildings, narrow alleys and quiet. We walked and walked–looking for the hotel and taking in our first views of Old Jerusalem. We asked–and got directions in English, or gestures pointing this way and that. We passed a bird store in the open at the top of a flight of narrow stairs. Chilly in the shade with the breeze up there–and all these brightly colored song birds chirping and singing. We entered a more narrow and closed-in area of shops–a stunning variety of goods for sale. This was the Muslim Quarter. Finally we found the Hotel Hashimi. We were buzzed in, welcomed by a very nice English speaking man dressed in bright white robes and invited to go wait on the rooftop while our room (#305) was made ready.
We stepped out of the arrivals area into the usual airport arrivals chaos. Loads of people welcoming others and lots of people trying to sell you a ride somewhere. The Shepherd Hotel had agreed to send a driver for us for 24 JD. We found him easily and stepped out into the warm evening light of Amman. I can’t tell you how good it smelled after 12+ hours on a plane.
He drove fast–flitting from lane to lane. It’s a good 30 miles into Amman from the airport–it felt good to smell the desert air and the warm breeze at sunset. The muezzins were sounding off for evening prayer. The trees along the road lean hard to the east (there must be some harsh winds in these parts).
Once we checked in to our Amman hotel (The Shepherd Hotel), we went walking. Our place was located just south of the area between the 1st and 2nd circles–and hey, even the circles read right to left (east to west) for 1 thru 8!
We found an ATM, saw the brightly spot-lit Iraqi Embassy (gorgeous Babylonian design in blue and gold), and wandered the quiet streets. It was now dark and people were breaking the fast (“iftar”). Holiday lights lit windows and balconies–Ramadan decorations of a crescent moon and star. The streets got busier as people came out. There were some far off fireworks. It looked like folks were heading to meet others–walking with excitement and carrying bags of food.
We found a small restaurant–and pieced together our order with the teenage guy behind the counter. And enjoyed the street scenes while eating a pizza and burger for only JD 7. It was a simple little thing–but the Arabic on the Pepsi can delighted me. We were finally here!
The next day started sunny and brisk. Even though it was daylight and Ramadan, the hotel served a buffet breakfast–coffee, hard-boiled eggs, pitas and hummus, cheese and sliced meats. We walked a bit–snapping photos of the hills of Amman and the white buildings cast pink with the early morning light.
Our hotel rang up a taxi to take us to the Israel border for JD 25. We threw our packs in the trunk and wondered if we’d make the crossing before the border closed for Rosh Hashanah at 1 p.m.
Jordan, Israel, and Palestine = September 28 – October 18, 2008
The Holy Land. The Land of Milk and
Honey. Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Bethlehem, Petra, Mt. Nebo, The Promised Land, and the Dead Sea. Religious stories, history, and politics all in one tightly-wound place.
Chicago to Amman, Sunday, September 28, 2008
We began talking about this trip a year ago. Despite that, the details came together rather late. The day of our departure, I was still making arrangements. I didn’t even begin packing until a few hours before we left for the airport.
We were nervous about this trip. The “Holy Land” brought to mind images of stone throwing, skeletons of blasted buses, and bleeding, crying people stumbling from bombed-out buildings. Add to that the fact that our economy was crashing–everyday there was news of another bank failing, another dismal Dow day, another company laying off thousands of workers. Plus this was one of those trips we call a “working vacation”: a location requiring mental and physical exertion…a very different culture, hiking, climbing, and two languages each with their own alphabets and reading right-to-left.
We packed light in two new backpacks–4 pairs of pants, 8 shirts, a rain jacket, a fleece, the Blackberry now enabled as a phone–to keep in touch with calls and with a new app called Twitter…”just in case”, 2 cameras, a video camera and lots of memory cards. I even left the film camera behind…a first for me! Our packs *together* weighed only 22 kg.
The Royal Jordanian flight left Chicago around 9 p.m. on Saturday night from the International Terminal. The area before security bustled with activity–bars, restaurants and shopping. On the other side of security, it was eerily quiet and empty. We bought big bottles of water for the ride and walked the long hallways. A man knelt quietly in a corner performing his prayers towards Mecca. A woman with everything but her face covered walked with a little girl dressed in a short frilly pink dress and a miniature head scarf.
About 10 TSA agents were on duty at the gate–scrutinizing each and every passenger. No pleasantries, no smiles, just a hard stare at your face, your baggage, your every move–some people were motioned over for a carry-on bag search. It took a long time to board the plane. And it was full. Overhead bins stuffed to the max, many seats filled with moms holding children in their laps.
We pulled away from the gate around 9:30 p.m. and drove slowly to the runway. The old plane took its time picking up speed and lifting off…and then took a scary amount of time to elevate. It would be 12 hours before we landed in Amman.
The plane was old–small, shared screens showed a few movies, exercise videos, and the occasional flight map to tell everyone where we were. The flight map always started with a diagram of the location of Mecca’s Kaaba in relation to the plane. We were served dinner shortly after take-off. And we settled into seats 8A & 8B with our neck pillows, water, and things to read. Lap children were laid out to sleep across their parents on the seat-back tray tables. Because it was Ramadan and we had only had a few hours of night, Ramadan fasters were offered another meal just before we passed into daylight again. The flight attendants asked in both Arabic and English, “Are you going to fast?”
The night and day flight passed slowly. Reading. Sore eyes. Headache. Getting up to stand for a bit. Dozing. Saw bits of the 3 movies: the new Indiana Jones, Leatherheads and a Jackie Chan movie. And finally, we began the descent. I opened the window shade to see white houses in the red brown earth of Israel and Jordan.
We landed around 5 p.m. in Amman. Paid our 10 JD (1 Jordanian Dinar is ~$1.40 U.S.) to get our Visas, waited an eternity for our bags and finally–headed out to meet our ride.