Jerusalem on hyperdrive

During our two final days in Israel, I stuck my fingers into the hole that held the cross on which Christ was nailed. (In order to touch it, you have to kneel before the little altar (see below) and reach in.

I rubbed my open palms over the stone slab on which his body was prepared for interment.

Some pilgrims merely pray at the stone on which Jesus's dead body was prepared. Others rub things on it to be sanctified.

We tried to go into the little chapel surrounding the cave into which his corpse was placed, and from which he was resurrected, but the line was so fiendishly long we reluctantly bailed.

The marble chapel containing Jesus's tomb.
Instead we walked around to the back of the structure, a quiet place where I was astonished to find a tiny cave-like shop selling candles and a handful of other religious items (this less than 10 feet from where Jesus rose from the dead!) All these things are in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, an enormous stone complex that encases the whole hillside known as Golgotha (or Calvary) where the foundational events of Christianity played out. We found it disconcerting to learn that what we always thought of as outdoors (that infamous hill) is now deep inside a structure at least as massive as the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
After leaving the church, we tried to walk along the Via Dolorosa, the “way of the cross” and follow the 10 famous “stations” that aren’t inside the church. But we got a little lost and wound up instead in the Western Wall plaza, one of the ultimate pilgrimage sites for religious Jews. They come to this particular section of the wall that once surrounded the second great Jewish temple (the one built by Herod and from which Jesus chased out the money-lenders) because it’s the closest point to the so-called “foundation stone” at which they can pray. (The foundation stone was the rock where God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, thus, in effect, founding the Jewish religion.) They can’t pray at the foundation stone itself because it’s inside the Dome of the Rock, which along with the whole area that the temple once filled has been controlled by Muslims (or Romans or Crusaders) for close to 2000 years.
These Orthodox guys were escorting an adorable group of little guys to visit the men's side of the Western Wall.
On the ladies side, some sit and pray, some pray with their heads pressed to the stone, and many stick little paper prayers into the cracks.
Both Jews and tourists can get into the former temple walls, but a) they can’t do any conspicuous praying and b) the visiting hours for non-Muslims are limited. Steve and I breezed in about 10:55 Tuesday morning, but 5 minutes later, the guards told us we had to leave, as the lunch-hour Faithful-Only period was starting. We tried returning at 1:30, when we knew that infidels would be allowed in for another hour-long period, but the line was so long it looked as if it might take an hour just to get through the security checkpoint. So we returned early the next morning (Wednesday) and strolled the enormous grounds (the size of 33 football fields), happy to have made the effort. Only Muslims are currently allowed inside the gold-topped, gorgeously tiled Dome of the Rock (from which Mohammed made his ascent to Heaven.) But just taking in its beauty was a sort of religious experience for me.
The Dome of the Rock
How much of a religious experience the Holy Sepulcher or the Western Wall or the Dome of the Rock is for anyone of course depends on what you believe and how strongly you believe the precise details (eg, did Mohammed really fly on a magical horse to this exact spot and is that divot in the rock really his footprint? Was Jesus really entombed and resurrected just a few yards away from where he was crucified?) However, Steve and I had three other Jerusalem experiences that, if not miraculous, would probably impress pretty much anyone.
— We went underground. We took the tour of the tunnels that archeologists have been excavating near the Temple Mount since 1967. Since Jerusalem has been built up in so many layers over the past 2000-plus years, this work has greatly illuminated the city’s complex past. And it once again makes you shake your head in awe at what a builder Herod was. The stones in the temple wall are some of the biggest ever used anywhere in human history. Here’s one, for example, that’s 45 feet long and is estimated to have weighed more than 625 tons.

The photos doesn't do justice to the size of this whopper.
— We strolled through the neighborhood of Me’a She’arim, just a few blocks from our hostel. It’s long been one of the best-known enclaves for ultra-orthodox Jews. The men wear some of the stranger outfits remaining on our planet. Their most religious women shave their heads (for the sake of modesty) and then cover their bald pates with hats or wigs and berets. Just four years ago, the community wanted to designate separate sides of each street for men and women (apparently the Israeli supreme court nixed that.) I was too nervous to take many photographs, as the residents have been known to throw stones at gawkers who are dressed too immodestly or otherwise violate community norms. But no one so much as scolded, let alone stoned, us.

Strolling in the ultra-orthodox 'hood.
— We ate spectacularly well.The Abraham Hostel also is just around the corner from Mahane Yehuda, the vast central market area crammed with nuts, dates, olives, candies, bread, fish, meat, halvah, pastries, coffee, tea, spices, and a vast array of beautiful fruits and vegetables.

Mahane Yehuda ranks with the greatest markets on earth, IMHO.
In recent years, the vitality of the market has also apparently sparked a culinary renaissance in Jerusalem. We ate five meals in and around it that ranged from excellent to electrifying. HaSchena was so wonderful we went back two nights in a row, during the first of which I embarrassed Steve by moaning so loudly over how good every single dish was.
It struck me that humans have developed ways to capture and share so many aspects of life — we reproduce sights with photos and videos. We record sounds with tape or digital recorders or our iPhones. But there’s no way to document and share physical tastes in a similar fashion. Some of the food we ate on this trip was so good I yearned to preserve it, both for myself and to pass along to others. As it is, you’ll just have to take it from me that it was fantastic. On faith.

3 thoughts on “Jerusalem on hyperdrive

  1. Christy Zatkin May 8, 2015 / 3:31 am

    It was in a jewelry shop in Me’a She’arim that 11-year-old Cynthia asked if the owner had any crosses for sale. Our guide and I swooped in, but the owner was amused.

  2. Michael Colligan May 8, 2015 / 5:39 am

    small naming error – to Muslims the rest of us are “infidels” – unfaithful, literally; to Jews we are “goyim” – which, oddly (I think, at least) means “nations” – in “Jewish-speak” this is sometimes shortened to “goys” but it means the same thing – the implications of the use of goyim is that while Muslims see themselves has having a faith, Jews see themselves as a “people” – which is a) why its very hard to become a Jew – you are taking on a nationality – and b) why there are only 13-15 million of them, worldwide,vs a billion Catholics, a billion plus Muslims etc

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