Monday, November 29, 2010

Mediterranean Adventures – Part 10 (Jerusalem/Bethlehem/Ashdod Israel)

We were in for a uber dose of religion today…Jerusalem…the home of many religions. Now I admit I am more interested in history than religion, but I did get some goose bumps throughout the day.

The day started on Mount of Olives which overlooks the fortified city of Jerusalem.

Not only did the hill offer a breathtaking view of the old part of the city, but it is home to the Garden of Gethsemane. The garden is housed within the Church of all Nations which has the Rock of Agony (where Jesus endured his Passion) located at the altar. Dana was able to squeeze past the nuns and zealots, and briefly touch the sacred stone. From the Mount of Olives, we were able to view the Golden Gate where Jesus entered the city on palm Sunday.

Of course a day of wonders wouldn’t be complete without some annoyances. Again our tour group was packed with retired aged people and some frankly dumb ignorant American tourists. They would buzz around taking their pictures, not listening to the guide, and then later interrupting him to ask the same questions he just answered a second ago.
We entered the old city at Dung Gate and arrived in the Jewish Quarter. The outstanding feature you notice is the Western Wall (or wailing wall). It is essentially the retaining wall for the Temple Mount or Holy of Holies site. The wall is sectioned into male and female areas. The female area is about 1/10th the size of the male side and was totally packed. Seriously, there was over a hundred women in their section and the wall itself was packed 10 deep. The male side had maybe a dozen men in its vast space. It was a bit upsetting. The women were rocking, swaying, chanting, and weeping! Yes, crazy nose run, red faced, watching “The Notebook” WEEPING! I guess I know why they call is wailing wall huh.
There was a sign from a head Rabbi instructing Jews not to visit the top of Temple Mount. The reason is because the holiest of holy sites for Judaism is up there, but no one knows exactly where it is, so it would be pretty disrespectful if you accidently trod on it. Well a dumb tourist in our group asked if we were all prohibited from visiting Temple Mount. I asked her if she was Jewish (no), and therefore she could go there if we had time (I planned on climbing up there but sadly we didn’t have enough time). She said “but how will they know I’m not Jewish…”. Yes I almost smacked my head in disbelief. The woman was so worried they would stop her and quiz her on the Torah just to verify her religious background. The stupidity was unbelievable.

We walked the Via Dolorosa which is the actual 14 Stations of the Cross locations. The path took us through the Muslim quarter and one unsettling thing was the toys children played with…guns! Realistic looking guns! We saw the same kinds of toys for children in Greece. I guess if every adult must enter the service, then the children are encouraged to get the feel of an AK47. One kid was pointing a handgun (not cowboy and Indian revolver but a full on police issue looking handgun) at all the tourists and blasting us with the caps while his mother looked on with a bored expression.

The walk along the Via Dolorosa wound through the Muslim and then Christian quarters of the ancient city. The streets reflected times found over two thousand years ago, narrow and winding, lined with cobblestones and steep inclines. Well the tourists in our group were not navigating the rough terrain at all even though we were told prior to signing up that the walk was very strenuous (honestly it wasn’t…unless you were on your second hip). Hello, Jerusalem was not built for wheelchairs!
We reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is a church built on and around the holy sites of the crucifixion hill and the tomb.
We had to walk up steep narrow stairs in a single file line to reach crucifixion hill (or known as the Golgotha). There was a mob of people around the medallion marking the cross’s presumed location. I forgo trying to touch it out of fear of losing an eye.
Directly beneath the cross was a room called Adam’s Temple. Within the room was a split rock that was stained pink. Apparently, the spilt blood split the rock and stained it leaving a mark that would not wash away (ironic since Jesus is said to wash away out sins).
Nearby Adam’s Temple is a rectangular pink stone slab (the Stone of Unction) that is said to be where Jesus was cleaned and prepared for burial.
The tomb had quite the line, so we opted to see a similar tomb of the period. Nothing much but a hole in the stone…but hey it is a tomb for chrissake.

Okay now the old people in our group couldn’t keep up with the lines and the crowds, so they fell behind and missed some of the guide’s talks. Well in the middle of the most holy of Christian churches, a 80+ year old couple let him have it with a string of curses and furious fist shaking.

One of the interesting things about the Church is that it is partly owned by several different sects of Christians. They each own a portion (or place as the Ethiopians lay claim to the roof). Therefore, if anything breaks down or needs repair in the church, you need the agreement of several different feuding religious sects. Needless to say, the place was a bit shabby.

We left the Old City and drove over to the city of Bethlehem…which is located in the West Bank…yes you read right...we were about to enter Palestine (dun dun daaaa). The border crossing looked like we were entering a maximum security prison or Guantanamo bay (the Middle East version). Right before we entered machine gun manned turrets, our guide informed us he would have to exit the bus, but not to worry since a different guide would join us on the other side. Now behold the most ignorant conversation I have ever partaken in ever!

Dumb North Carolina tourist lady (in high pitched voice): “Does he have to leave the bus because he is Jewish?”
Me: “No, it is because he is an Israeli citizen”
Dumb NC lady: “so how do they know he is Jewish”
Me: “No, it is a passport thing. He has an Israeli passport. Certain countries don’t allow certain citizens in”
Dumb NC lady: “so his passport says he is Jewish?”
Me: “I give up”

Well Palestine looked and felt like a third world country. There was a definite air of poverty. Here we have a dove...wearing a kevlar vest...with a bullseye on it's chest. Yeah I am sure it is something symbolic...but it sure was hella creepy.

Not to sound completely biased, our Palestinian guide seemed like he was hiding something. It didn’t help that he kept over emphasizing the nice Christian shop he was taking us to. Yes, not everyone living in Palestine practices Islam. There are Christians and even some Jews (the land is pretty cheap and plentiful) living here. In fact there are Muslims living in Israel and even serving in their military (some of the best special ops are from a certain sect of Islam).

While we were shopping at the nice Christian store (again the guide would say this every five minutes to ease our fears of funding terrorists), the annoying ignorant old people in our tour group struck again. The shop keeper was giving a presentation about olive wood carving, and the same cursing old couple blurted out “do you sell souvenir spoons…how about thimbals!!!”.
We visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is built over the grotto/stable where Jesus was born. It is the oldest standing church in the country being built in the 4th century. See Israel has seen its share of wars with the Invasions of the Persians and the Crusades, so most of the buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt several times. This church withstood it all simply because of a mural. See it has the nativity story painted on the wall, and the three wise men from the east were drawn with Persian features and clothing (because the artist was like, well they are from the east and Persia is east of us). In the 600’s AD when the Persians invaded, they saw the mural and thought “hey that’s us…and I can’t read the Hebrew, so I guess this isn’t a Christian church and we should not destroy it”.

The entrance to the grotto was closed for an hour during masses (three of them, one for each of the sects housed there). Note there wasn’t a single person attending the masses except the priests. After the hour (or more since we showed up when the services were already underway) the doors opened and I was able to see and touch the supposed birth location, marked by a medallion.

We rushed through everything fast since we were on the verge of missing the boat…literally. We made it back with only about five minutes to spare. Our departure of Israel couldn’t have been better since three days later world news reported missiles were launched into northern Israel. Also there were flash floods in Turkey (both places we had visited within the last week…yikes).

Oh, Dana with foghorn leghorn…man their graffiti is crazy.


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