Updated: Oct 6, 2018
As a lover of history, there have been few places I have been that gave me the "ohhhhh my god, the things that have happened here" feels as did Jerusalem.
My Israeli-American friend, Dan, lived in the city while he was studying at a Yeshiva. When I came to visit Israel, he was most excited to show me this city that had caused him to fall in love with this beautiful country.
As Dan lived in Tel Aviv at the time, we had to take the hour-long van ride between the two cities. In the photo on the right, you can see the type of van used. It was the slightly more expensive option than the bus, but it was faster and thus worth the slightly higher cost, It was also more comfortable, as it's a large minivan rather than a coach bus. Granted, buses are a lot more comfortable than they used to be, but...vans are still nicer.
While Tel Aviv has a very Western vibe, Jerusalem was much more Middle Eastern. This especially fascinated me because I am used to cities with Arabic influences to be, well, Arabic. Israel is by far the most European of the countries in the region (logical, considering it was founded 70 years ago by Europeans), and Jerusalem is a fascinating combination of Middle Eastern architecture, with "European" Jews (aka non-Conservative Jews), Hasidic Jews, and Palestinian Arabs all living alongside one another.
We walked for about half an hour, winding our way through the modern city. As we went along, the architecture was intermixed between old and modern while maintaining the same "Israeli" vibe. It was like a larger version of Acre, the old Crusades city on the Lebanese border we had been to a few days prior. So, really, I guess what I'm trying to say is that Tel Aviv is the odd one out rather than Jerusalem.
While "modern" Jerusalem was interesting, it was not our main destination: soon, we were walking alongside a tall wall (about 40 feet, or 12 meters) that was built in the 16th century by the Ottomans (replacing walls that had been destroyed, rebuilt, and re-destroyed and not re-built during the Crusades hundreds of years earlier) that protected the Old City. We followed this historic wall to one of the entrances, where we passed through the thick Jaffa Gate into the city.
Our first stop was Cardo Maximus, the remains of an old Roman road. Of course, the Romans were in Jerusalem considering the whole "Jesus died a Roman death" thing, but Roman history is not exactly what comes to the top of my mind when I picture Jerusalem. Thus, seeing Cardo Maximus was a nice surprise, and a good reminder of the many layers of history here.
Our first stop was Dan's old Yeshiva. While he went inside to greet everybody and ask if we could go in and explore. I remained outside and admired the alleyways and arches of the neighborhood. I stood in the corner and watched people make their way home, or to work, or wherever they were off to. We were in the backstreets but even so, I was struck with how quiet and peaceful the area was. Dan came back about ten minutes later, and said that they had agreed to let me in for free (he was allowed in for free because he was an alum).
His Yeshiva was called Aish HaTorah, right across from the Western Wall. While it is free for us, it is usually 10 shekels ($2.80), so not exactly a bank-breaker. It is an easy climb to the roof, which is quite large and provides a birds eye view of Jerusalem, part of the West Bank, and the Western Wall and Temple Mount. There is a glass wall that separates you from the ground many stories before, tall enough to prevent you from falling but short enough to not obstruct your view.
After we had enjoyed that view for a good 45 minutes, we headed back down, thanked the Yeshiva workers, and then went over to the actual Western Wall. Men and women are separated at the wall, and Dan went to the left while I went to the right. It took a few minutes for me to actually get to the wall - as I am not Jewish, I wasn't about to bowl worshippers over to get to it. Many had paper in their hands, which they tucked into the ancient cracks. This was an interesting cultural study. Coming from Minnesota, I have had little interaction with practicing Jews. Many around me were crying as they prayed. It was an interesting experience. I am selfishly glad that I had it, but how did they feel about a tourist standing amongst them while they had such a spiritual moment? After about thirty seconds standing at the Wall itself, I lay my hand on it for a second and then backed out of the crowd to find Dan waiting for me (there were a lot fewer men at the Wall so he hadn't had to wait so long).
We then wandered through more of the alleyways and arches that make up the Old City (as well as many other MENA cities). What really struck me about the city, more so than anywhere in the entire region, is how integrated the population seemed to be. In any given shop, there were Jews and Muslims side by side, interacting as any neighbors do. Now, I visited the city during a period of peace, so I do not know what Jerusalem's population is like in other times. But if this was any indication, the hatred is not as stark as is often portrayed.
Other than the anthropological aspect, my favorite thing that I found on our journeys through the old alleys is pictured to the left - it was a Medieval drinking trough that used a...can you guess what the base, the actual tub, is?
A Roman sarcophagus!
I just love that.
Speaking of Roman times, there was one last major site to see before making our way back to modern Jerusalem: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This happened to be a complete and utter surprise for me. I normally plan every minute detail of a trip (I love to plan and I do not love to waste money), but because I was visiting somebody who lived in Israel, I had done basically no research before touching down. I let Dan take care of everything. So when he told me that the church we had just arrived at was no ordinary church, it took me a second for his words to sink in.
So. Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. And buried in a cave. A few years later, Emperor Hadrian (yes, the wall man), ordered a temple dedicated to Venus built over the spot in order to try and suppress Christianity. 200ish years later, when Constantine had converted the Empire to Christianity, he ordered a church put on the spot instead. Legend (heavy emphasis there) has it that Constantine's mother re-discovered the tomb while construction was occurring.
It's history aside, this church was unlike any other I have visited. First off, it was huge and went down several levels into the ground. There were many staircases that led to various caves/tombs. The "regular" level was a normal enough church, with one exception: a very large room in the middle of it. There was an incredibly long line to go into said room. And the reason for this is because that is supposedly Jesus's actual tomb. I wanted to go in, but also I cannot overemphasize enough how long the line was. I did not want to that badly, and Dan had no opinion, so we left.
We left the Old City soon after that and meandered back through modern Jerusalem. Near the Old City is Mamilla Mall, a shopping street that had shops of every kind. I especially appreciated the bakery Roladin. It is a chain in Israel that Dan had been raving about for days, pumping me up for the experience. We each got a couple of goodies (mine had many, many strawberries), and we ate them while we rested on a lovely staircase in the shade. After watching modern Jerusalem go by for awhile, we made our way back to the transport hub where we were to catch our comfortable van back to Tel Aviv.