Jerusalem - Thursday, December 18, 2003

The first day we arrived at sunset and met up for dinner with a friend of M's from her year in Israel back in 1988 as well as many years at summer camp. It was great to catch up with Caryn who now lives and works in Jerusalem full-time.

Our plans for the day centered on checking out the Old City which contains Jerusalem's most important historical and religious sites. Old City excavations have uncovered 20 distinct layers of civilization! Since tourism is down ~90% because of "the situation" here, we managed to snag our own personal tour guide. Unfortunately, rain, rain, hail, wind, and more rain greeted us when we awoke. We were lucky to make it through our tour without too much of a soaking since we were walking through alleyways and covered streets! Bente, a native Dane, has been guiding for 20 years and was full of useful information on our 3 hour tour.

The Old City is roughly 1km square and is divided into the same four quadrants laid out by the Romans in 135 CE - Armenian, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Quarters. The Old City houses important holy sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Christianity), Temple Mount (Islam, Judaism, and 10 other ancient religions), as well as the Western Wall (Judaism). Why are these places so important?

The Temple Mount is a 35 acre area that is traditionally identified with the biblical Mount Moriah, where G-d asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. King Solomon built the First Temple here in the middle of the 10th Century BCE and Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it in 587 BCE, when the Jews were led into captivity. The Second Temple was built in 516 BCE, after the Jews' return from exile. Religious scholars believe that the Holy of Holies, the most sacred and important spot on the Temple, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter once a year, was closest to what is now the Western Wall, making this wall the holiest approachable site in Judaism.

Two mosques sit on the Temple Mount - al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock. Both are BEAUTIFUL and contain intricate mosaics and metallic domes. As the third holiest sites behind Mecca and Medina, the Dome of the Rock is considered the place where Muhammad journeyed to on a winged horse and then ascended to the heaven where he met G-d before awaking back in Mecca. The Dome of the Rock surrounds what Muslims believe to have been Abraham's makeshift altar where he almost sacrificed Ishmael, his son by Sarah's maid Hagar. (Not Isaac as Jews and Christians believe)

For Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the site traditionally believed to be the place of Jesus' crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The Via Dolorosa (Path of Sorrow) is the route that the cross-bearing Jesus followed from the site of his condemnation to the site of his crucifixion and grave.

We started our tour in the Armenian Quarter which is the smallest with only 2K people and checked out their most holy site - St. James Cathedral. The Armenians still write and speak their own language, which is similar to Turkish.

The Muslim Quarter is the largest with 20K people; and the Jewish and Christian Quarters are split fairly evenly each with ~5K people. We next walked through the Jewish Quarter and noticed a big difference from the Armenian. The Jewish Quarter is all new and quite touristy by comparison to the other quarters. It was destroyed during Jordanian occupation from 1948-1967 and was slowly rebuilt in the ensuing years due to the extensive archeological projects which continue today. The Cardo was the original shouq and main thoroughfare during Roman and Byzantine times and has been partially restored to be lined with modern gift shops. The area surrounding the Western Wall was under construction, but we did manage to get a closer look at the M/F segregated site. The wall is strewn with pious worshipers and tiny paper notes fill the cracks in the wall, which the authors hope will be read by G-d.

The Muslim Quarter is the largest, has the biggest shouq, and is the edgiest/scruffiest of the quarters. We walked through all the markets and were surprised not to see more tourists, only to find out that the Muslim Quarter isn't high on the list of tour paths. We loved the atmosphere, despite the high presence of Israeli police. We sampled an amazing drink called Sahlab made of orchids, cinnamon, coconut, and other special things. It was the consistency of creamed wheat- white in color, somewhat thick, but you can drink it. FANTASTIC! We enjoyed a respite from the rain/wind and chatted with the shop owner while drinking our Sahlab. His shop was formerly full of souvenirs. Because of the bad press Israel is getting and "the situation", he's had to change jobs. So many shops in this quarter were closed. We weren't able to visit the Temple Mount because it is only open at certain times, but we did sneak a pic.

The Christian Quarter is dominated by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church is divided among the Franciscan, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches. The church is somewhat decrepit since the factions have a hard time agreeing on things. Each faction has its own chapel, some ornate, others rather simple. Jesus' tomb is a large marble structure flanked by huge candles and guarded by priests. Throughout our brief visit, we watched many priests from different denominations walking on a route from chapel to chapel swinging an incense burning lantern, stopping at each shrine.

After our tour ended, we wandered back to the shouq (market) in the Muslim Quarter to buy some pistachios and sunflower seeds and look for Hanukkah presents for M's nieces and nephew. We are spending the 1st night of Hanukkah back in Ramat Hasharon with The Bakers. This little adventure into the shouq made us realize how very little we know about kids!! What do you buy them?????? No clue. Left empty handed. Toys 'R Us seems like it would be easier b/c all the games have kids' age groups....right?

We left the Old City at ~3:30pm starved. The sky was gray; the rain blowing sideways, our umbrella was inside out most of the time. Being optimistic budget travelers, we decided to keep walking and not take a cab until we found the restaurant M's friend Caryn had recommended the previous night. Not so smart. The hail surprised us, and we took a beating as sunset came and went. It was worth the trek. We arrived at the restaurant dripping and ready to eat anything they put in front of us. While M can read Hebrew and understands many words, she is out of practice. This makes eating at restaurants somewhat challenging. Most folks know a bit of English but don't translate the whole menu for us. So we end up eating whatever the waitress recommends - Shishlik (kebabs), Shwarma (slices cut from pressed mutton roasted on a vertical spit), Humus, and Salads (cucumber & tomato mostly). The food is always VERY fresh, well seasoned, and YUMMY! This place is a vegetarian's paradise (Pam & Maria!!).

After our fabulous meal, we walked back to our hostel in the rain b/c we couldn't even find a cab and the dizzying array of bus routes left us too confused to try. After hanging our clothes out to dry, we headed out to a cafe overlooking the Old City to start preparing for our journey to Turkey on Saturday. We hope the weather is better tomorrow, as Jerusalem is a great city to tour by foot.

We ended our travels in Israel with The Baker family (M's cousin) on the first night of Hanukkah. After a big dinner, the kids lit the candles for the first night of Hanukkah, and we scarfed some donuts. It was great to end our trip with family. The kids were too cute!!

Oh yeah, they found Dave's bag after 10 days. Everything was wet, so our suspicions that it was lost in a snowbank might have been correct.......

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