AUGUST 27TH 2000 - THE NORTH SHORE NEWS
OLD JERUSALEM – A CITY DIVIDED
Inside the shared Mercedes taxi, there was tension. Suddenly a low phsssst. My left breast felt cold and damp. All eyes were on me as a gaseous odor filled the air. I looked down nervously fearing the worst. The cheap Syrian lighter in my shirt pocket had exploded leaving the inserted plastic flower limp and vulnerable. I sheepishly apologized. No, I was not a terrorist. A sigh of relief and half grins from my fellow passengers
.I had left Damascus by bus at 7am that morning, crossed from Syria into Jordan and arrived at The Allenby bridge border to Israel by 1pm. An odd feat to a North American mind. Jordan has open borders with Israel. Syria has not. At immigration the young girl possessing military fatigues, a machine gun and lots of attitude, examined my passport. The blotched Indonesian Visa caused by a near death experience some years earlier in a waterhole in Irian Jaya caught her suspicious eye. Was this a willful act of obliteration? An hour and a half later I was grudgingly given permission to enter Israel.
The taxi finally pulled up at Damascus gate, one of eight entrances to the old walled city. Armored trucks were lined up outside. Israeli troops watched nervously, fingering the triggers on their various weaponry. A lone soldier with binoculars stood guard on the ramparts above. It was Friday. The Muslim day of prayer. Worshippers in white galibayaas and brightly checkered keffiyehs spewed forth from the gate like a fresh avalanche of snow. My chosen hotel was 100 yards inside the walls. After a brief battle against the flow, I acquiesced and squeezed behind a stall selling fried chicken until the crowd dispersed. The fifty dollars in my back pocket had disappeared to light fingers in the crush. I’ll never learn.
Next morning the combination of pealing church bells and Mullahs calling the faithful to prayer ensured an early start. I descended the steps from my hotel squeezing past the hawker who had set up shop at the entrance. The labyrinth of ancient covered walkways had already become a crowded souq. For a brief irreverent moment I felt I had stumbled upon a dress rehearsal for a Monty Python skit. Franciscan monks with humble brown habits, clenched hands, and pious expressions. Orthodox Jews wearing purposeful looks, vast circular fur hats, surely styled after lifesaver candies, or black trilbies with little pieces of wispy hair hanging in loose ringlets as sideburns. Richly bearded Armenian priests sporting tall black papal headgear. Their crossed arms concealed in the ample sleeves of flowing white gowns. Surely this religious mosaic must be unique in the world.
Old Jerusalem, is divided into four distinct quarters. Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. The City dates back some 5000 bloody years during which time 18 conquerors have ruled. A short four kilometer walk around the ramparts starting at Jaffa Gate is a great way to get some perspective on the size of this, the most religious and contested city in the world.
At the Wailing or Western wall, Jewish faithful pass through security checks to pray, read from The Torah, leave notes between cracks in the rocks or just nod before the remains of their last temple after it had been razed for the second time. The Western wall however serves another purpose. It shores up the Temple Mount on which the Muslim Caliphs erected the magnificent Dome of the rock Mosque in 691 AD. This was a piece of Jordan until the 1967 war. Thus, the third most important Islamic site after Mecca and Medina stands directly above the most important site to Judaism resulting in understandable tension.
All is not entirely well at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christ died and is interred. The various Christian factions housed within have not yet learnt to bury the hatchet. When I visited, an Armenian choir was competing with a group of harmonizing Franciscan monks for the ears of visiting pilgrims. Any attempt by one group to effect renovations or even scrub the front steps was instantly seen as establishing proprietorship by the others. Despite the resulting dilapidation and discord it was hard to escape the power of the place. The most important site in Christendom.
Weekends provide an interesting shopping and eating dilemma. Friday is the holy day for Muslims. Saturday for Jews. Sunday for Christians. Thus, if a Jew runs out of milk on Saturday he or she can shop in The Christian Quarter etc. etc. It all works quite well with one exception. This humble scribe was stunned to discover for the first time in the Middle East, a restaurant in The Christian Quarter that served fluffy scrambled eggs, hash browns and, wait for it, perfect crispy bacon. Surely a paradox in Israel. All this accompanied by freshly buttered toast and thick cut marmalade. So excited did I become that the first morning call of The Mullah had me irreverently salivating for the treat ahead. For me, Sunday began with a feeling of selfish deprivation.
Jerusalem is of course a large modern first world city with comforts and prices to match. Accommodation in the Old City tends towards the simple variety but the advantage of immersing myself in a place of such an intense past and present was worth the compromise. A tourist can spend several days visiting recent excavations, museums, religious buildings or just observing and listening to the vocal inhabitants air their endless gripes. Most importantly, Old Jerusalem is a fascinating microcosm of the world’s religious life and, depending on your point of view, its ability or inability to coexist.
IF YOU GO:
VISAS: Available at points of entry. Ask to avoid a stamp in your passport if you plan on traveling to Muslim countries such as Syria or Iran which will bar entry to anyone who shows evidence of having visited Israel.
SECURITY: Beware of pickpockets by day and take extreme care at night when the echoing alleys are all but empty.
WOMEN TRAVELERS: Wear discreet clothing. Take particular care in East Jerusalem - The Muslim Quarter. All that unsatisfied male testosterone. This is a city filled with religious buildings that you will not be permitted to enter without appropriate dress.
FOOD: Restaurants in The Old City are somewhat limited but by venturing outside the gates, any taste can be satisfied. Remember Jewish people love good food.
USEFUL WEBSITES: www.infotour.co.il and www.goisrael.com
WHEN TO VISIT: Late summer-early fall. Winter nights can be bitterly cold. Snow is not unknown.
USEFUL GUIDE: “Let’s Go” Israel & Egypt.