Everything in Jerusalem has at least a story – at times historical, sometimes political,
often religious and almost always more than just one. Nearly every day would end up with a couple of hours on Wikipedia reading up all the stories, the controversies and the conspiracy theories on all I had visited that day. Culturally there was a sea of things to see, obviously highlighted by the Sabbath experience. When I was planning the trip one of the main to-dos was a Sabbath in Jerusalem. While I had feared it would be a bit of a struggle of an experience, it was the most fun day in the city where the noise of the crowds goes away to reveal the most amazing cultural experience. I am sure I will write a separate blog on Sabbath, so I won’t harp on it too much here.
While Jerusalem is a large city, most of the interesting stuff is located in a fairly narrow area around the old town, Jaffa Street and the Mahane Yehuda Market. I was lucky enough to be staying at probably the centroid of all these areas on Jaffa street, 20 meters from a train line less than a km walk to the Jaffa gate to the old city. The only place not walkable was the Zion gate and the viewing points and churches on Mount Zion. The apart-hotel, Check-in Jerusalem, was recommended by some friends who stayed there and it was just awesome with a large number of dining options right at the doorstep. It allowed for a reasonably priced large space in a generally expensive city with very friendly hosts. Early June also turned out to be nearly perfect weather with warm but pleasant days and cool evenings. It was hot in the Sun, especially with full pants, but all the religious places to see in the city, don’t give you much of a choice to wear shorts. In general the city had a very conservative vibe, which should be expected given all the religious overtones for almost all attractions.
I arrived on a Friday afternoon and things were just beginning to wind down for Sabbath. Soon the bustling Jaffa street was deserted and even the surface trains that run across it stopped. Only a few people were on the street and they all were dressed in this really formal attire with a very large and unusual hat. And they were all walking in one direction, so I just walked in that direction to see what the fuss was all about. The walk led me into the old city and soon the empty roads turned a little more crowded and ended up at a security check point within the Old City. There was a huge line to get in and then well-dressed folks and the obvious tourists like me were in different lines. I walked on and as I crossed the security I realised I had reached the famous Western Wall, the holiest place for the Jews. Once past the security, it was a party out there. Very high every crowds of Jews were thronging the area around the wall. They were loudly singing, dancing and just making merry. It was a sea of people and I stayed a little away, not wanting to interrupt any religious ceremonies.
A day later the whole old city would completely change character. The desolate streets from Sabbath were suddenly crowded with sellers, their artefacts and loads of buyers. There was a buzz of activity interrupted by push carts being taken up small ramps made on the side of the stairs. Most of the bazaar is on slopes and the four quarters carry their own vibes. The food is delicious but over priced, the wares are mostly made in Turkey and the bargaining is hot and heavy. It still is one of my most unforgettable experiences of being in Israel – a busy market interspersed with these unimposing monuments of immense historic and religious importance.
The first on the visit list was the Church of Holy Sepulture. While the name is not as imposing as some of the major cathedrals around Europe, and neither is the look, the significance of the church would put most others to shame. This commemorates the site Christ was crucified and buried. This is the place he is believed to have resurrected from. From the outside the church is anything but grand, though the inside is majestic. First sight you see as you enter is a stone
where Jesus is believed to have been laid down after he was removed from the cross. Beautiful lamps decorate the stone. As you walk left, you come across the resurrection rotunda in the centre of a large chamber with a beautiful dome that allows for a ray of light to reach the rotunda. Like most churches there are layers in the basement and here they are decorated with intricate mosaic work. There is also a spot believed to be the notch in the ground that held the cross. A good hour worth of walking around and there is usually a very long and slow queue to enter the rotunda, which is very tiny from inside. Considering it is the place where The Miracle happened, the queue is quite justified.
Having seen the most religious place for the Jews and one of the most significant churches for the catholics, it was time for the third holiest site in Islam, right after Mecca and Medina. In fact before the time of the Prophet, this is were muslims looked towards when they prayed. This is a stunningly beautiful and intricate monument built on the same mount whose Western Wall is a place of prayer for Jews. The Dome of the Rock houses the Foundation stone – which has religious significance in both Judaism and Islam. This is a place that has both religious and political stories. While its controlled by Israel, it is a sensitive spot and thus access is controlled. Only muslims are allowed to enter the Dome and also the Al-Aqsa mosque at all time. The mount on which they rest is called the Temple Mount and has restricted entry. Non muslims can go in only from one of the entrances (near western wall) and only in some limited morning hours. There is usually a long line and airport like security check. In ramadan, you can’t carry food or water inside. The Dome of the rock is spectacular enough to be worth the line.
While there are a number of churches all around, including one near the Holy Sepulture which has a tower that offers brilliant views of the city, the one I do want to talk of is the least imposing of them all. In fact it is not a church at all in the traditional sense. It is a garden with a tomb, that some believe is the real tomb of Jesus. This is a juicy controversy story that makes for some very good reading on Wiki.
While the old city captures most of the interest and charm of Jerusalem, that is not all what this lovely city has to offer. Jaffa street is very lively and active shopping and food destination with a number of road-side eateries. Surface trains run on this street giving it a distinct character. One end of this street is the Jaffa gate to the old city, the other side leads to this fabulous market – the Shuk. Mahane Yaguda is a place where locals shop and is now becoming an attraction for tourists. You will get huge varieties of tea, spices, candy and loads of fresh produce. Some of the cafes serve delicious food with some fabulous music.
It is hard to find a city as culturally deep as Jerusalem. There is a story waiting for you every few steps – you just have to let go, be silent, hold your breath and listen.