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,