Holy Days in Jerusalem

In the Chapel of Ascension, we touched the footprint of Jesus, though it in no way looked like a footprint, while in Paster Noter, we studied the many languages in which to pray.

I never really planned to go to Jerusalem. It is not that I planned not to go, but I was just so caught up in travelling around Eastern Europe. But as my friend moved to Jordan with an invitation for me to visit her, my boyfriend suggested that we also visit Israel.

While not on my travel wish list, I will have to admit that as a historian Jerusalem fascinates me. I have spent years studying the cultural and political meeting between East and West and the concepts of identity formation and nationalism.

One might say that it is in my very DNA to appreciate the symbolism which Jerusalem holds for so many people, and to want to become better acquainted with it myself – though on a less symbolic and more touristy level.

So, while I didn’t really plan to go, it seemed an obvious destination once we decided to go to the region, anyhow.

The importance of Jerusalem in history

What makes Jerusalem unique is its 8000 years of history and its role in the development of the Occident as well as the Orient.

As a holy city for three of the worlds largest religions, it has been a place of conflict ever since its origin.

Before the development of Christianity, neighbouring states would attempt to conquer the holy city of the Jews and to get their hands on the Jewish gold hidden within the temple.

With the arrival of Christianity and later Islam, the conflict changed from a feudal wish to gain riches, to a need for ruling the holy city.

So many rulers; each of them leaving their mark on the city – building and rebuilding it.

Through every age Jerusalem has played a central role. From the origin of monotheistic religions, through the European Middle Ages to the Ottomans and modern day international history.

To apply a religious metaphor, Jerusalem is a Mecca for historical studies – with empire after empire conquering the city either for the gold of the temple or for the holiness of the temple mount.

For this reason it is also a very popular city for the mainstream tourist and, as in Florence, it has been difficult to see the city for tourists. The city seems to be surviving off the religious tourist groups that wash through the old city as tidal waves.

However, I still liked it. I liked the smells coming out from the shops near Damascus Gate. I liked the two completely different worlds that lay beyond Suleiman’s walls in East and West Jerusalem, and I liked Temple Mount.

I am so very happy that I am not Jewish and could enter without an eternity of burning in hell.

Despite the amount of tourists, Temple Mount was peaceful and small groups of Muslim women or men were gathered in the shadow studying the Quran. Not far away at the Western Wall, Jewish men and women were reading the Torah in much a similar fashion.

The Christians did not seem to really read the bible anywhere, but rather they really loved to kiss and touch everything just partly religious. All of them finding comfort and peace in the holy city.

Our visit to Jerusalem

We arrived in Jerusalem from Tel Aviv around midday and had a bit of time to get acquainted with the area we lived in just next to the hustle and bustle of David Street.

At 2.30 PM we joined a free walking tour of The Old City in order to get some sort of overview on which to base the rest of our visit. The tour was okay, but nothing at all to that of Tel Aviv. However, a few interesting facts popped up and we ended up with a good sense of direction in the old city.

The place I found most interesting, though also most ridiculous, was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Our guide could tell us quite a few stories detailing the absurdity of the politics going on within the walls of the church and in the fighting between the different Christian groups, each demanding a place in the church.

For instance, the church is locked every night at sunset and opened again at dawn, leaving only a small group of Franciscan monks within the walls. This procedure has been carried out by the same Muslim family for hundreds of years. The reason that it is a Muslim family which bears the keys to the church is simply that the Christians could not agree who amongst themselves should do it.

On the front side of the church, it is possible to see a ladder which makes it seem as if the church is undergoing renovation. Renovation is done in the church at present, but the ladder is not a part of it. On the contrary, it is yet another example of the absurd politics within the church.

The ladder was used back in the 18th century when the church was also undergoing renovations. The Christian communities within the church figured that the ladder must have become holy through its use during the renovations. The question was – who should have the ladder?

The Ottoman rulers of the time had to break up the fighting over the ladder and placed it where it is now, demanding a status quo. Since then no ruling power or internal agreement amongst the Christians has been able to settle the disagreement over the ladder, thus continuing the status quo and leaving the ladder on the façade of the church. Perhaps the visit of the pope to Jerusalem in a few days will be able to settle the issue once and for all.

Looking back, I found the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the most interesting place in Jerusalem because it so obviously shows the absurdity in fighting over material space or holy items.

I am quite certain that Jesus would have found it extremely strange that so much energy should be spent on fighting over space in a church which may or may not be at the place that he died.

Moreover, the historical animosity between different Christian communities in their dealings with the church is probably not what he hoped his legacy would be. But then again could he ever have imagined the influence he would have over future events?

Tour de holy sites

On our third day in Jerusalem we decided to marathon some of the must-see places in and around the city. Thus, we got up før fanden fik sko på (before the devil got his shoes on) and went to stand in an already long line at the entrance to the Temple Mount.

Behind us stood a large group of tourists from Taiwan, all of them around my height at 160 cm and all of them laughing and pointing and indicating at the height of my boyfriend, finding him very fascinating. However, they were miles ahead of the Russian tour group of the day before, when it came to politeness.

As mentioned the Temple Mount was peaceful. I immediately fell in love with the mosaic covered Dome of the Rock with its golden cupola. Unlike much of the Old City, it wasn’t crammed in to a small corner, but stood majestically in the centre of the mount.

When we asked someone to take a picture of us a security guard immediately told us off because we were holding hands on the picture. Apparently, no touching is allowed on the Temple Mount.

I am not sure if I am offended that someone would tell me off for such an innocent gesture or embarrassed that I didn’t uphold the customs of the place, but the incident certainly made me think over the question of who actually owns the right to decide how people act in a place so holy to so many.

Can a Muslim security guard be allowed to decide how a Christian acts in a place holy to them both? And should the Christian be allowed to offend the Muslim by acting in a way natural to himself in front of his God? I suppose there is no correct answer and that it only comes to show the complexity of the situation.

The thought of everyone sharing the Temple Mount in peace is pleasant, but if the different variants of Christianity cannot live together within a church without the strict rules of old Ottoman rulers, then how should three much more different religions agree on sharing Temple Mount?

Leaving the Temple Mount we took bus 75 from East Jerusalem bus station to the top of the Mount of Olives. From here we walked down through the Church and Chapel of Ascension, Paster Noter and every other church open on the way down.

In the Chapel of Ascension, we touched the footprint of Jesus, though it in no way looked like a footprint, while in Paster Noter, we studied the many languages in which to pray.

From there we walked down to a beautiful view overlooking Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Trying to stay ahead of a loud group of Malaysian Christians, we descended the steep mountain looking briefly at the churches on the way. At the very end we made it to Gethsemane Garden and the Church of Nations.

After having walked all the way back to Damascus gate, we took bus 21 to Bethlehem, ending the day with a tour of the Church of Naitivity and the rather strange Milk Grotto.

I really liked the town, not only because it was exciting to pass into Palestinian Territory, but also because the town was full of life. After enjoying the Church of Nativity which was extremely disorienting and once again being told off this time for crossing my legs while sitting, we went around the town looking at souvenirs and postcards.

I managed to by a poststamp from the Palestinian Territories, which I think is pretty cool.

We ended the day by enjoying a meal of local food at a restaurant on the main square. It was the first meal I got in Israel which did not include falafel or hummus and a perfect ending to our marathon tour of the holy sites.


The Jerusalem Shock

In large groups they enter through Jaffa Gate and walk down David St., turning at the souq and moving towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where they mill around their chosen chapel and push their way towards the tomb which is claimed to house the bones of Jesus.

Jerusalem is a dirty town which all Semitic religions have made holy… In it the united forces of the past are so strong that the city fails to have a present; its people with the rarest exceptions, are characterless as hotel servants, living on the crowd of visitors passing through.

– T.E. Lawrence quoted in Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia

His words, though very undiplomatic, are just as befitting for 2014 as they were back in 1915 when Lawrence wrote them in a WW1 report to the British War Ministry on the situation in the Middle East.

The old city, which lies within Suleiman’s 500 year old walls, is a city which in many ways lives in the past rather than looking towards the future. Over-cramped with souvenir shops selling Chinese produced religious symbols catering to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Cheap plastic icons, small breakable menorahs and scarves en masse.

At the same time there is no restaurant within the old city serving anything but falafel, shawarma or hummus. No experimenting cuisine, no modern art, no rethinking the old city.

In 2014 as much as in 1915, Jerusalem is a city of the past, only the indoor plumbing has been upgraded. Or that at least is the impression of a tourist.

The character of a shopkeeper

The shopkeepers are characterless men trying to gather attention to their wide variety of Chinese souvenirs. They ask: where are you from? You answer, and then they go on to say: You are welcome! – sounding as if you had thanked them for something. They might ask what you like, what you are looking for and you answer: I am just looking. Then they go on to telling you that it costs nothing to look, and ask you to see whatever they think you are looking at in other colours inside.

The thing is, not one word differs from shopkeeper to shopkeeper as if they are robots or have all taken the same business course in English. My boyfriend compared them to characters in a computer game.

They seem characterless and are extremely annoying. However, as Lawrence also notes, there are the odd occasions when you experience a shopkeeper who has character, such as the young man whose family owns a ceramics factory in Hebron and who did very poorly in school and really hopes to design patterns for ceramics. Who shows you his designs, which he has hidden away in a drawer, while working in the shop in Via Dolorosa.

Or the old man in front of a shop unlike no other, where huge piles of dusty old pots and pans make a chaotic display, and who sells you a small wooden box that has never been to China.

I am sure that when the shopkeepers go home they are not characterless, but in their job which they do every day all day long catering to rowdy and often impolite customers, they no longer show their character.

That is, unless you are lucky to catch them at that small moment in time when they are tired of saying the same thing over and over again.

Being the holy city of three monotheistic religions makes the city a confusing melting pot between rude Russian groups of over religious women, American Jews who are returning to the land of their forefathers, Orthodox Jews who try to navigate in between all the not so orthodox tourists, backpackers who come for a day of rushing through the major sites and well us, the not so religious tourists, who visit because it is exactly that – a melting pot.

It is also a city which is clearly divided into four very different quarters; the Christian, the Jewish, the Muslim and the Armenian – each of them very distinct because of the people living there.

The Armenian which is pretty much the odd boy in class as it is also Christian but still not a part of the Christian quarter, is very quiet but otherwise looks very much how I imagine the Christian would look without the many souvenir shops and tourist groups.

The Muslim quarter is alive with locals shopping and going to Al-Aqsa. It is a lively quarter that only the rare tourist groups venture into.

The Jewish is much newer than the rest as the old quarter was completely destroyed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and was rebuild in the 1970’s. This also allowed for large archaeological excavations in the Jewish quarter and it looks very much as a mix of old ruins and modern yet moderately fitting houses. The area is quiet, except for the random tourist group heading towards the Western Wall.

I liked both the Armenian and the Jewish quarters, but preferred the Muslim because it seemed much more vibrant and as the only place where people lived in the present.

The Christian quarter was horrendous in the amounts of souvenir shops, tourists and the attitude of all sorts of religious people and groups moving forward, ploughing everything down in their way to the next stop of their pilgrimage, not stopping to simply enjoy the life of present-day Jerusalem.

In large groups they enter through Jaffa Gate and walk down David St., turning at the souq and moving towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where they mill around their chosen chapel and push their way towards the tomb which is claimed to house the bones of Jesus.

They often have a priest with them and I met quite a few of these priests who seemed to look down on me and wanting me to move down the line because I was not a part of his pilgrimage tour.

We decided during our tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that we wanted to go all in and also see the tomb or sepulchre. Thus, we got in line and were immediately pushed back by several big Russian women who found it their right to butt in in front of everyone else to get up to their group.

I had sudden flashbacks to my meeting with Russian queue culture from Saint Petersburg train station and was really scared of the aggressiveness of these women.

Fortunately my boyfriend was able to somewhat protect me from them, while another Russian group finally stopped their advance, starting a Russian discussion about whether or not to be allowed to move up the line because you were late for your group – or at least that is how it sounded.

Now fortunately I can look back and laugh at the ridiculous situation and how all these babushkas wanted to get into a tiny room with a stone coffin for 20 seconds, kissing it and praying before being pushed out by a priest.

Despite my feelings about the Old City and particularly the Christian quarter being over-cramped with items and souvenirs catering to the tourist and without space for the local life, it was still a fascinating meeting with Jerusalem.

As my boyfriend reminded me, this is what Jerusalem is and always has been. As the holy city and a major spot for pilgrimage as well as the destination of e.g. the European crusaders, Jerusalem has always been a place full of visitors and tourists, a place which catered to the foreign.

Thus, while I dislike that in 2014 the souvenirs are from China and India, I will have to admit that despite my normal apprehension of overly touristy places, in Jerusalem it is also part of the unique position the city holds as a destination and holy place.

And while I personally prefer cities which are living in the present, I still consider it an amazing experience to visit Jerusalem – this city of the past.

While I have spent this blog mainly complaining about how Jerusalem anno 2014 is overcrowded with tourists, I promise to be a little more diplomatic next time and write about our own visit to the city and its history.

Until next time,



A Bit on Tel Aviv History and Architecture

Rumour will have it that as the tourists and rich have made their entry into Neve Tzedek, the artists and bohemians are moving on to Florentin, making it the new and upcoming neighbourhood.

If you put two jews in a room you will end up with five opinions! An iPhone is a peace of plastic with an Israeli brain! It is our second day in Tel Aviv and we are starting it off with a tour of the White City…

The White City

Despite the terrible jokes of our guide, he provided us with a thorough description of how Tel Aviv began back in 1909. He showed us the architecture of Rothchild Blvd and the surrounding streets while describing the first decades of Tel Aviv existence.

According to him, it is possible to walk down Rothchild Blvd and see as the city develops through the changing architecture. Except for the modern skyscrapers, which are from the last decade or so, the most dominant architectural styles of the area are the eclectic Orientalist style of the 1920s complete with arches, domes, oriental tiles and Greek inspired decorations and the International style of the 1930s – also known as Bauhaus.

More than 5000 houses around the centre are inspired by the Bauhaus school. The style was brought to Tel Aviv by German Jews who fled Nazi-Germany in the 1930s.

Unlike in Europe where much of the houses from this period were bombed away in WW2, Tel Aviv seems to be bursting with modernist houses of the International style. Sadly, many of them are crumbling and in a terrible state and pretty much falling apart in front of you.

However, our guide told us that in present-day Tel Aviv you have to agree to renovate one or two old houses in order to gain a permit for building. Thus, for every tall sparkling skyscraper being build in Tel Aviv an old historical house is completely renovated.

I really like that idea and it makes me want to return in 10 years just to see how far they have come with renovating the old houses. If things are going as they are now, the city will be full of skyscrapers mixed in between beautifully renovated houses from the 1920s and 30s.

After finishing our tour and having had an overload of Jewish jokes, we went on to see the centre with King George Street and Dizengoff Square and onwards down to Neve Tzedek and Florentin.

Neve Tzedek

Neve Tzedek which is one of the many names of Yehova and means the Abode of Justice is older than Tel Aviv itself. Today it is a fancy south-western neighbourhood, but in fact it dates back to 1887, 22 years prior to the founding of Tel Aviv.

And once again, it is the story of a group of Jewish families who were tired of living within the confines of Jaffa, thus moving out into the desert sand. The story however does not say whether they argued and complained as much as the later families establishing Tel Aviv.

The area is as Rothchild Blvd full of houses build in the International style. However, as the neighbourhood is two decades older you also find Jugendstil/Art Noveau inspired houses.

It is in many ways similar to Montmartre as it has a village feel atmosphere with small quisant houses in narrow streets. I definitely found it the most pleasant neighbourhood in Tel Aviv and was happy to see that also here were houses under renovation.

The very polite receptionist at our hostel had mentioned an ice-cream parlour called Anita. As we walked down Shabazi Street we easily spotted the place as it was full of locals and tourists alike standing in line for a homemade ice-cream to enjoy in the sun.


After strolling around in the neighbourhood, we moved on to the rougher Florentin in which our hostel is. Here renovation is far away and the neighbourhood which is from the 1920’s suffers from lack of repair.

However, rumour will have it that as the tourists and rich have made their entry into Neve Tzedek, the artists and bohemians are moving on to Florentin, making it the new and upcoming neighbourhood. In a similar way as Neu Koln is slowly taking over from Kreutzberg as the hip place of Berlin.

My boyfriends very diplomatic statement of Florentin was that it was crappy. And it is true in a sense, but the area has potential and Herxzel Street and Florentin Street offer a ray of interesting places which indicate the bright future that the neighbourhood is on the brink of.

Unfortunately I have managed to delete 400 pictures from Neve Tzedek and Florentin.

From all of us to all of you ,

Shalom Shabbat


Meeting Israeli culture, enjoying Old Jaffa, getting lost in Ha’Carmel Market and walking the beaches of Tel Aviv

The story of our flight to Tel Aviv very well sums up how the guide of our walking tour today explained Israeli culture – 80 % complaining, 20 % eating and then arguing for desert, not to forget the fact that Israelis are always late.

We have arrived in Tel Aviv! After an extremely long and cold day in Vienna we were greeted by a night temperature of 19°C and a very clean and organised airport. But before writing about our amazing days in Tel Aviv, I’ll add a few words about our journey from Austria.

Arriving in Tel Aviv

After a long and windy day in Vienna, we found ourselves finally boarding the flight to Tel Aviv, scheduled to land at 0:50. The boarding was in every aspect a different experience.

The passengers were mainly Israeli and many of them Orthodox Jews with big black hats and beatiful facial hair. Everyone was carrying hand luggage that seemed to weigh several tonnes and getting everyone on board was a puzzle that I still don’t know how was solved.

The Israelis moved slowly, while complaining and chatting and finding non-existent space for their heavy hand-luggage. The Austrian flight attendants were in every way stretched to the breaking point having to accomodate the passengers while moving the boarding along quickly.

Even when the pilot informed us that we wouldn’t make it to Tel Aviv before the airport closed unless we took off within 10 minutes, the Israelis continued their slow pace.

My boyfriend and I as well as an American lady behind us were all rapidly growing old with the thought that we might have to sleep overnight on the flight before taking off in the morning. But finally, with a few strict words from the flight attendants, people found their seats.

We made it to Tel Aviv at exactly 0:59 – one minute to closing.

The story of our flight to Tel Aviv very well sums up how the guide of our walking tour today explained Israeli culture – 80 % complaining, 20 % eating and then arguing for desert, not to forget the fact that Israelis are always late.

According to him Tel Aviv was founded by 66 Jewish families who began arguing the moment they had bought the land of future-Tel Aviv from the Ottoman Empire. They ended up splitting the land into 66 plots and then having a 10 year-old child draw seachells to find out which family got which plot. This again was surely followed by further complaining.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Old Jaffa

We woke up late on Friday, enjoying the possibility of a proper sleep. Around noon, we took a walk through Jaffa, which is an ancient seaport that Tel Aviv has grown together with.

While Tel Aviv dates back to 1909, Jaffa is more than 5000 years old and one of the eldest seaports of the world. Today, it is – as so many other historic places – a touristy hot spot famous for a clocktower, a flea market and Old Jaffa Port.

The flea market reminded me of the Grand Bazar in Istanbul and was full of colourful clothes and jewellery. The neighbourhod is quisant and despite the many tourists, including us, it has maintained a local atmosphere.

We ended up eating humus and enjoying the vibrant life of the Old Jaffa Port. I really loved the port. It was so very scenic and the hummus we had bought at a local restaurant tasted absolutely marvellous.

We ended up with a romantic stroll around the seaside of Jaffa.

I must admit, I really start liking the idea of having a travel buddy – espacially when promenating in such a beautiful spot.

Ha’Carmel Market and the beaches of Tel Aviv

After returning to our hostel we headed out again, desperate to see as much of Tel Aviv as we could during our short stay. We walked up Jaffa Road and further on Nahalat Binyamin to the arts and craft market. I had really looked forward to this and was so happy to catch it as it is only twice a week.

However, the items at display were both expensive and just as ordinary as at any other arts and craft market. I had hoped for something a bit more exotic but went away with the feeling that most of that stuff I can buy at the local christmas bazar back home.

What did please us greatly was the bustling and completely chaotic Ha’Carmel Market which took us absolutely by surprise. Here were fresh fruits and vegetables, cheap shoes and clothes, supplies for the home and much much more.

The market originally grew out of the Yemenite neighbourhood, Kerem HaTeimanim, in the 1920’s and is today an integrated part of Tel Aviv for tourists and locals alike. After finding our way out of the hectic market space and getting a breath of fresh air we walked through Kerem HaTeimanim ending up at Allenby Street.

From here we promenaded back along the beaches, walking with bare feet at the shore and past the many danger signs which warned people not to bath or swim in the area. I still haven’t figured out whether it is because of strong undercurrents that a sign was placed every 5th meter, but the locals definitely didn’t care.

In fact there are a lot of danger signs around Tel Aviv. Except from those at the beach almost every electricity line is accompanied by warning signs and even at the hostel toilet we are warned not to touch certain areas as it may cause immediate death.

I thought I would worry mostly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I am certain that the bare electrical lines running through the streets of Tel Aviv are a whole lot more dangerous. While it in many aspects is a modern city, the electricity lines seem to be a donation from the old Soviet Republic. But then again, I always had a soft spot for old Soviet buildings and architecture, and with all the dramatic warning signs guiding me away from danger, I only find it and added quirk to the splendor of Tel Aviv.