Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jerusalem and the little town of Bethlehem

We like Jerusalem. Our first view of it as we came out of a tunnel from the border, is of the Dome of the Rock glinting in the setting sun. It's spread over many hills, and there are trees all around. The Old City is a warren of narrow streets that can suddenly open up onto views across the rooftops, and there's plenty to see. On Friday we got caught up in the crowds on the way to morning prayers at the main mosque which sits on Temple Mount, next to the Dome. Mainly men and boys, all rushing up the hill and through the cemetery by the city gate, reminding me of going to a football match. There was a big crowd as it was the end of Eid - a bit like a Boxing Day game. The Rock is where Abraham is said to have brought Isaac to sacrifice, and it is the third holiest site for Muslims and the most holy for Jews. In the afternoon we walked along the Via Dolorosa, the route that Jesus is said to have carried his cross to his crucifixion. The route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here we observed Christian pilgrims, mainly Russian, lighting candles, putting hands through holes to touch a rock, and numerous other rituals, all caught on camera by friends or relatives. The large building is divided up between different denominations - Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic etc. and since they often have disputes about the upkeep, the caretaker is a Muslim. It was a dark miserable place and I still don't know what a sepulchre is. It must be a tomb. Our day ended at the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, which is the only accessible remaining part of the temple built by the Jews (the Romans destroyed it, and now the Dome stands in its place). There was a good crowd, all dressed up, including the orthodox Hasidim in various funky headgear (fedoras or furry Licorice All Sorts style) and along with a bit of wailing there was singing and okey-cokey to usher in the Shabat. You have to pass through a metal detector before you can enter the plaza in front of the wall, and like other parts of the city we noticed youngsters, not always in uniform, carrying semi-automatic guns casually slung over their shoulders. It's a conservative city, so chow that night meant shwarma in a cafe in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side of town. Thank goodness for multi-culturalism...........

A brief history: Everybody who was anybody in these parts has been here - beginning with the Israelites and Philistines (therein lies a tale), followed by Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines,Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans (still flogging their furniture, I dare say) and ending with the British before they bailed out. In 1948 Jordan took control of the Old City and in 1967 Israel seized it from them.

The city is in very good nick, despite the history, and a delight to wander around after the crushed streets of Amman and Damascus, although in the souk you still have to shove a bit. On one day we took a minibus to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. We were dropped at the crossing point in the new 8 metre-high wall. It twists and turns up and down hills and around clusters of houses and on the Palestinian side has attracted a lot of graffiti. In fact, the wall has become a bit of a tourist attraction. Bethlehem felt like a nondescript little town to me, and the Church of Nativity another sad scruffy place. The streets were lively though with shoppers and Christmas decorations. Across the valley, on the other side of the wall, we could see a modern settlement perched on a small hill, like an old citadel. On our way back through the wall we had to queue to pass through the checkpoint. The buildings had the feel of a border crossing, which one day it may be. After 45 minutes, we reached the metal detector and could see the guard in his booth who had been shouting instructions through the tannoy. We watched as a little girl went back and forth through the detector, with less items of clothing each time, until the device stopped beeping. Her mother couldn't help her because she was on the wrong side. The guard waved us through when he saw our passports. There was then a secondary documents check and a device on which the local Palestinians had to place their right palm. This was a two-way barrier, so we took it in turns with people coming the other way. It was an eye-opening experience, but one that the locals seemed wearily resigned to.

2 comments:

yellowlemonie said...

Hey John & Gayle!

this is Kenny (one of the Singapore guys that you got stuck with for dinner in Petra!). Just thought I'd drop by to say hi and keep the stories coming in - it's a great way (for us) to see the world.. :)

take care and stay safe... while I return to the drudgery of student life once again....

cheers,
Kenny

PS: in my free time, i'll try and put photo on my blog (http://theadventuresofkenny.blogspot.com) as well...

margithille said...

Hi Gayle and John,

You've finally given me a reason to have a go at blogging, so you're helping a 'steel-grey surfer' (not quite yet a 'silver surfer' or granny on the internet)keep up to date-ish with technology! Tom and I enjoy your accounts (he forwards me your emails so as to be green and save on paper), and if we get a really really horrible rainy day, when Tom's not our on the bike he'll look at your blog too. We'll make the effort to upload some of our photos one of these days, so that you can see where we spent our New Year. For now suffice it to say that it's not 22 degrees in Welsh bothies. Love Margarete (and Tom)