The cruise allotted two days for the storied Holy Land; as a one-time student of the New Testament, I was thrilled at this opportunity, however fleeting. It was enough, barely, for an interesting taste of very awesome history. Instead of stamping our passports, the Israelis issued us with short-term visas. That saved us from being barred future entrance to inimical Arab states, a customary and appreciated gesture.
From the port of Ashdod it's a one-hour drive to Jerusalem, everyone in high anticipation.
The name of our guide, who was very good when we could hear her, escapes me now. She was well-trained to deal with any challenging or religious-type questions. If we asked why Jesus' body was commemorated in different places, or queried dubious tales about the Stations of the Cross, the answer was always the same: “It’s tradition.” Thereby causing an earworm in moi for the remainder of the day of Zero Mostel belting it out in Fiddler on the Roof.
Our splendid morning overview saw the city from the heights of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives. Note the view of Jerusalem seemingly surrounded by one big cemetery; here, Jews and Moslems peacefully share. The golden Dome of the Rock can be seen ahead on the eastern flank; it was not open for tourists that day, very disappointing. I, of course, was distracted by camel men patiently waiting for customers. After that it seemed abruptly soon for the obligatory stop at an obligatory souvenir shop. The prices were outrageous: reality tempering some of our expectations.
From one site to another, the vehicular traffic that day was horrendous; one can only assume it's 365 days a year. It's a small miracle we saw so much. Most memorable was the morning visit to the small Garden of Gethsmane beside the Church of All Nations. Ancient olive trees date back "to Byzantine times." It was the only spot of peace and quiet the entire day. A Franciscan monk was gathering olives; he must be quite accustomed to a constant file of gaping tourists.
Jerusalem is quartered into Christian, Moslem, Jewish, and Armenian sections. Among them the holy sites are managed by different religious organizations or nationalities, not without some difficulties. We passed the Place of the Skull, site of the crucifixion, having variable traditions for its eery name. Nearby we saw what is believed to be Joseph of Arimathea's tomb where Jesus was laid. It's within the British-sponsored Garden of the Tomb, and is a relatively recent archaeological discovery. It was a lovely place, not too crowded. Unfortunately, our special guide there spoke in such a low voice she was inaudible to most of us.
In the afternoon we entered the Old City through the Jaffa gate. We were then well into the crush. A seething mass of international humanity swarmed outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditionally accepted site of both the crucifixion and where Jesus' body lay for three days. Dozens of guides with competing voices waved their distinctive markers aloft as group signals. It's easy to imagine being trampled should some disaster strike. In the noisy melee, our guide beckoned us to inch our way into the almost pitch-black interior.
The mosaic portrays the anointing and burial preparation of the body. Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic faiths care for shrines within the site. Everyone wants to touch the Rock of Calvary around which the church was built. Here, as at most places, emotional Christians were in various stages of prayer, often blocking the view. No dallying; you move with your group or you're lost.
Little did we realize that being a Friday, the foot traffic was extra busy. Moslem holy day meant streams of people heading for the mosques. By late afternoon, Jewish Shabat was drawing throngs to the Western Wall, our ultimate destination. We stumbled single file along part of the Via Dolorosa, unbalanced on one side by overbearing Hasidim racing to the Wall and jostled on the other side by eager stall owners. Very disappointing not to have the Stations of the Cross pointed out, or if they were, not being able to hear our guide - way in front - leading our column. Glancing at the map in my hand was risky; one unguarded moment and this surging sea could easily swallow the troupe.
The Via, of course, like most of the Old City, is built up in layers and the first century AD was really meters below us, explaining why many sanctuaries and chapels are underground. References to bits of excavation we saw were lost in the general hubbub. I managed to spot the 5th Station of the Cross where Simon the Cyrenian assisted Jesus in carrying the cross. Here at the Franciscans' earliest chapel is an ancient stone said to bear the hand print of Jesus. Tradition, I suppose. I have a Kilroy-was-here moment.
|The Western Wall|
|Outside the gates|
The traffic delays, the crowds, the pressure to include as many places as possible inevitably create frustration at being unable to view without much pause or reflection. And yet, many marvelling flashes at the amazing panorama of human history! One is always aware of the passage of often-tumultuous centuries that altered, destroyed, excavated, or reconstructed the historic memorials. Most definitely I would return if I could. Having a personal guide would be worth it.
Originally I planned to include my second day in Israel in this post. Things tumbled out of hand as my journal sparked memories ― good, bad, and funny. I enjoyed relating the next one so much in retrospect, all I can say is come back to read (soon) Israel 2011.
Photographs, BDM November 2011.
© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.