Wednesday, December 8, 2010

First day in Jerusalem

As the rest of the group came down to have breakfast, Dave said that the bus would leave at 8:00. I double checked my gear: hat, passport, camera, mesh wallet looped to my belt and tucked inside my combo shorts/pants with zipped pants legs on. As we climbed aboard the bus, I took a window seat and checked my camera. This was before the time of practical digital photography (i.e., cameras that were reasonably priced with good resolution); so for today, I allowed 2 rolls of 36 pictures each. As the bus descended the hill and headed for the Western Wall tunnels, I wondered what the evening would bring when Ariel would return. But it was just a few minutes away and we were soon parked outside of the Dung Gate.
As we left the bus and queued in a security line I gazed at the famous wall and tried to get a glimpse of the golden top of Omar’s mosque. The Wailing wall rises some 70 feet above the plaza floor which was cleared after Israel gained access to the site during the 1967 war. I could see that the upper half had small blocks of stones and the lower half had much larger blocks. Scattered on the wall were occasional puffs of plants which tumbled down. I saw that the plaza was divided into a larger area to the left for men and a smaller area to the right for women, separated by a short fence. I looked to the left and saw the arched doorway called Wilson’s Arch that hugged the wall. To the right, another line of people was making their way to the top of the mount, which is where we would be in a few days; but for now we followed our tour guide past the busy plaza and entered a door at the west end. 
We went down some stairs and I could see other passageways; I knew that Jerusalem was honeycombed with a maze of tunnels and it was tantalizing to think that one of these could lead to secret places (and get you lost). Our first stop was in a room that provided a peek through grates into the chamber under Wilson’s Arch. I saw Arks for Torah scrolls and many orthodox men swaying in prayer or sitting down in plastic chairs. Many wore prayer shawls, black garb, side curls, and phylacteries. From there we began walking through the tunnel, which was typically 7 feet high and 5 feet wide. It was quite a sensation to be there amidst so much really old history and mystery. The right side exposed the impressive ashlars which dated to the first century with an occasional break that indicated a doorway leading under the mount had once been there. We finally exited onto the Via Dolorosa.
The Muslims caused a riot over the extension of this tunnel in 1996, resulting in the death of 80 some people! Clearly the Temple Mount was a hotly contested site. Based on what Ariel told me, Ernest Martin contends that the area containing the Mosque of Omar and the Al Aska mosque was actually the site of the Roman’s 10th Legion and the Fortress of Antonia. Citing Josephus, Martin maintained that the Jewish temple was in a separate superstructure to the south of the present mount, directly over the spring of Gihon. The Romans tore it all down to the ground in 70 AD. That would make what remains here today interesting, but not relevant to the political emotions. It would not be the first time that a lack of knowledge had led to misunderstandings and violence.
The rest of the day was full of wonderful sights crammed into a few hours. We went underground to the original pavement of a street that reportedly dated to Jesus’ time. Then we drove up into the hills overlooking the Temple Mount and I was very impressed by the views and the hills! They undulated in all directions with nary a flat spot anywhere! We ate lunch at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel.
On the eastern slope of Mount Zion, we toured the Church of St Peter that houses a dungeon where Jesus reportedly spent the night of his arrest. We spiraled down the walls of a hewn out pit to the bottom of the dungeon that was illuminated by serpentine lamp holders. Wow! If this was the place, in the continuum of all time and space, here I was for a few minutes in the same place where history occurred. 
One of the highlights of the day though, was going to Bethlehem. As we approached the storied town situated on a series of hills, I was struck by a profile in the east. The sheered off mound of Herodium rose from the barren land a few miles toward the horizon. Herodium is, of course, one of the many strongholds/palaces that Herod built as places of refuge should he need them. I tried to imagine what the scene looked like back then. The stone homes lined up on the terraces of Beit Lechem with the unwelcome presence of Rome overshadowing the silent night. It was the dominant sight for all who lived here in 3 BC. The nearby Tower of Migdal Eder was a puny pile of stones compared to the palace of Herod the Great. But from its pastures would come the One who would strike terror into the Mad Ruler from Idumea. After all these years the land still held its shape, though the palace-turned-mausoleum had long ago been destroyed.
We parked our bus several blocks away from our destination. Near the bus was an open area with many Palestinians. All of a sudden there was a ruckus with angry voices. I saw what I thought were police with rifles trying to bring calm to an an agitated mob. This wasn’t good! But then it died down and we followed our tour guide through hilly streets to the Church of the Nativity. Bethlehem was like Nazareth in that a predominantly Christian and Jewish town had been supplanted by Palestinians. Their numbers changed the dynamic of both towns.
The Church was old, dark, and gloomy; nothing inside reminded me of joy or truth. The Church was supposedly built over a cave where Jesus was born; a golden star on the floor marked the spot. You had to stoop and climb down to see it. We departed the church onto Nativity square and I could see dueling spires of the crescent and a cross ahead. My walk back to the bus was somewhat uneasy in that I imagined that everyone I saw felt a sense of injustice. They were like the Judeans of old who were under Roman oppression. As we rode back toward Jerusalem I noticed dozens of cars parked alongside the road. Our tour guide said that these were from Palestinians who could not drive into Jerusalem; they had to take a bus instead.
Back in Jerusalem we toured the Shrine of the Book. Its architecture and design were clever and beautiful. The roof was shaped like a lid from one of the clay jars that held the dead sea scrolls and its spacious displays revolved around a larger than life stylized handle from a Torah scroll. The scrolls themselves from the book of Isaiah were unfurled along the walls behind glass cases. The Hebrew letters still visible after 20 centuries; their strokes and curls called out the Words of God. Found in 1948, they were a fitting accompaniment to the fulfillment of prophecy. I could see the Knesset office building as we moved on to see the outdoor scale model of Jerusalem. By now night was falling and we were all getting hungry. All aboard for the Jerusalem Shalom hotel. Our group ate dinner together and then prepared for the evening.
Our small group of 5 met Dave in the lobby and then boarded the hotel’s van as the night turned dark. Dave held the address in a small piece of paper and reluctantly showed it to the driver; the fewer people who knew this information the better. We headed out through the city lights and traffic. While I didn’t know how long the trip should take, I got the sense that the driver was either lost or did not know how to get there. He made a few stops and turn-arounds as the tension started to mount. After driving for a few minutes, he stopped in the middle of a dark road. All of a sudden the side door rolled open and we saw two Israeli soldiers with machine guns. They looked at these startled tourists and said “Americans?”. “Yes”, we said and then Hebrew was traded between the driver and the soldiers. Dave tried to intervene and very reluctantly shared the address with the soldiers. One thing was sure, we were headed toward Bethlehem and we should be going in the opposite direction! I pictured the rioting Palestinians and hoped we could find our way out of here. Somehow or another the driver got some better information and we finally found our way to the destination. We entered the building and I saw that it had many tables, an area to get coffee and the like, plus several colorful banners. There were a few people there, including our dear friend, Reuben. We were introduced to two of his co-workers and an orthodox woman who had recently made a decision to accept Yeshua as the Messiah. Just as she was starting to tell us her story a bearded man in a dark coat walked in the front door with Ariel!
When Reuben saw this, he immediately got up, excused himself, and walked over to greet the gentlemen. Then they departed into a side room and we never saw them again before we left. I knew I would have to wait until another time to learn more about what Ariel was doing and what he found out.

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