About two years ago I was talking to a good friend of mine about all of his plans for future travel . He rattled off the usual suspects like Rome and Paris, and then threw out a couple less well-known choices, particularly a Mongolian mountain range called the Altai Mountains. Having done quite a bit of research he talked at length about the beautiful vistas and the untouched beauty of the region. When he had finally run through his entire plan for the trip, he asked me where I would like to go. I told him that I’d always wanted to visit Jerusalem. Taken aback, he incredulously asked, “Why would you ever want to go there?” Funnily enough, roughly a year after our conversation, fate provided me with an opportunity for this trip.
Three months out of college an immigration firm in Boston, Massachusetts, hired me as a Legal Coordinator. The head attorney has family in Jerusalem, and makes regular trips to the city to visit them. She offered some members of the staff the opportunity to visit the region for professional development purposes, to do pro bono work and engage in team building. Most of my colleagues jumped at the opportunity, having studied abroad or traveled extensively on their own. I was somewhat more hesitant. Primarily because I had never left the country before… and because I had never been on an airplane before. After a lot of consideration, my intense desire to see the city outweighed any concerns that I might have for the risks, or my own inexperience.
So I got my passport, packed my bags, did my best to assuage my family’s concerns, and boarded the flight for Tel Aviv with my coworkers. (For the record, all flights are short when your first flight is thirteen hours long.) We were picked up by our boss’ family and driven into Jerusalem. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I began to understand why this place had been the subject of so much attention and adoration over the centuries. This is a place where history is palpable, always nearby, and where history will continue to be made.
The Old City is surrounded by forty-foot walls constructed by the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. Walking through it is impossible not to feel a strong sense of anachronism, as if you and the world around you are somehow dramatically misplaced. The buildings, walls, and streets, are often centuries old but modern culture washes over it without ever seeming to interact. Smartphones are everywhere, and the storefronts sell suits, electronics, and Hello Kitty dolls from walls that are literally centuries old. As Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwhish stated:
“In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls/ I walk from one epoch to another without a memory to guide me.”
My personal favorite anachronism came while a few of us were on a roof looking out over the city. A group of children showed us the way up, for a price, and one of them was going on about how well his brother could jump. Suddenly the brother and a group of young men appeared and, at the little boy’s insistence, began to practice Tricking in front of us. Tricking is a gynmnastic combination of flips and spins that is incredible to watch. Cigarette clutched tight between his teeth, this young man of 16 or 17 began to spring into the air in a series of flips and kicks, all with the city skyline in the background. It is a hard image to forget.
We spent the bulk of our time in the Muslim Quarter, a typically less popular area in the old city. The competition for tourism is fierce, and the rival tour guides will often inflate the dangers of the Muslim Quarter so that travelers avoid the area and spend their money in the other three quarters. We actually overheard a tour guide discussing this with his charges. At this point our guide, an old Palestinian man who has lived through things that would break most people, shot us a knowing glance and looked away. That being said, during my time in the Muslim Quarter I only felt unsafe when Israeli soldiers and bodyguards walked by with guns out and safeties off. The people I met were universally friendly and kind, and were grateful to see western tourists experiencing their part of the city.
Of course it’s difficult to talk about Jerusalem without discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s always present, even when your mind is somewhere else. I laughed harder than I ever have talking to some of the Palestinians that we met, but found that the conversation could be highly volatile. We would be hysterically laughing one minute and then somehow the conflict would come up again. It was like there was a pain there that never quite receded, and every now and again they had to discuss it and release some pressure. It was humbling and enlightening, but then someone would crack another joke and the conversation would start back where we had left it.
This is Damascus Gate, and that is an Israeli sniper in the window.
In the span of a week we visited sites that people have dreamed of seeing for millennia. “Jerusalem Syndrome,” is well documented, and the holy city has led people to acts of passion and insanity for generations. I can understand why. It seemed difficult sometimes to go more than a hundred feet without encountering some kind of major landmark. During our trip we visited Bethlehem and saw the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born, walked by trees in the Garden of Gethsemane that were alive when Jesus was carried off by Roman soldiers, and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus was buried. If someone had told me that there was a Church of the Lavatory, where Jesus had once used the facilities, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
As something of a history buff, this was an incredible experience for me. We stayed in an inn that was a church and former crusader castle called the St. George’s Pilgrim Guesthouse. (Everything, for the record, is named after St. George. I bought coffee from St. George’s coffee stand.) I stood on ground that I had read about for years in courses on the Crusades, and even saw an image I used in my Honors Thesis blown up in a museum. Looking up at the Dome of the Rock, perhaps the most beautiful single thing I have ever seen, I could barely fathom all of the history that this place had seen and all of the lives that had intersected on this ground.
Our trip took us to Jordan where saw the desert in Wadi Rum, which T.E. Lawrence crossed on camel-back in real life and in his feature film. At the time that the firm hired me, I was reading a book on T.E. Lawrence called “Lawrence in Arabia,” that features these deserts on the cover. Amazingly, we even got to visit the ancient city of Petra made famous in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The city is centuries old and has had some remarkable poetry written about it, “Match me such marvel save in eastern clime, a rose-red city half as old as time.” It was well said.
It was at this point in the trip that my boss actually asked me if I had been experiencing too much history. I replied, emphatically, “Never.” I could fill up a hundred blog posts discussing all of the important historical sites that we saw and how they made me feel. My coworkers teased me before we left that I was likely to catch the travel bug, and they were completely right.
Now I’ve tried not to speak too much about politics in this post. The issue is large and complex, and I don’t want to do you the disservice of lecturing you on a topic that I haven’t fully researched. I have not read nearly enough about the subject, and my opinion is largely based upon the people that I met and the things that I experienced. I would recommend fantastic podcast called MartyrMade that actually addresses the issues and history of Israel and Palestine with incredible sensitivity and even-handedness. I will say that we met wonderful, kind, and generous Palestinians and wonderful, kind, and generous Israelis. That being said, I do think that it is important to share an anecdote that I found very telling.
There is a temple in the city of Hebron in the West Bank in Palestine that is something of an anomaly. Known as the Ibrahimi Mosque, it is built upon an older structure known as the Cave of the Patriarchs. This is said to house the tombs of several key Old Testament figures: Abraham and his wife Sarah, Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and Jacob and his wife Leah. It could more accurately be called the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. As with most holy sites in the region, this has tremendous importance for all of the Abrahamic religions. Abraham in particular is important for Judaism, Christianiy, and Islam, as the father of Isaac and Ishmael who would found the Jewish and Muslim people respectively.
This temple has been a mosque for hundreds of years, but in 1994 a man named Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque and opened fire on a large group of Muslims in prayer. The Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre left 35 dead and many more injured, and the Israeli government issued stringent restrictions on the mosque and the city of Hebron. The actual mosque itself was divided up and split 60/40. Sixty percent of the building was converted into a Jewish synagogue and the other 40% remained a mosque. I visited this mosque on my trip, and I found it very enlightening.
Security is, as you might imagine, incredibly strict, and the entrance to the mosque is actually a checkpoint. It is an impressive stone building constructed during the reign of Saladin, somewhat imposing from the outside. Inside however, the mosque is even more stunning. The walls are a deep green, and patterns of Islamic art abound on the walls and the rich red carpets. There are large square stone structures that represent the tombs of each of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Walking through this place, I felt an intense feeling of stillness and serenity. It is hard to imagine that it has such a violent history. The synagogue, on the other hand, provides a very different experience.
I could not take any pictures in this part of the building, and there are no good images online. Although security is less intense in this section, the armed guards out throughout and the less impressive décor make it seem much more oppressive. The Islamic artwork that caught my breath in the mosque is nowhere to be found, and has been covered and concealed. This has been replaced with white walls that seem to have been covered by a thin layer of stucco; with blue Hebrew script been painted onto the arches.
Although the rooms were filled with books and religious objects, I could tell that nothing there was more than 20 years old. Even the most impressive object, the tomb of one of the patriarchs, was left behind a gate, and almost seemed as if it had been taken prisoner. The paint was cracked and peeling, and the blue writing on the wall looked slapdash and rushed. I was overcome by a desire to scratch at the spotty white paint and see if I could find the emerald walls and scrolling art that had fascinated me.
Now I controlled this impulse, as it very likely would have gotten me in quite a bit of trouble, but I thought that it spoke volumes about my experience there. Whenever I think of the conflict I think back to those rooms, and the centuries of art and history of the region and its people. Sometimes this is out in the open in grand display for everyone to see. But sometimes it seems as though the real history and culture lies just beneath the surface, hastily concealed, but still there.
After we left Ibrahimi Mosque, we were walking through the streets of Hebron when we passed by a man selling leather bags at one of the many storefronts throughout the city. Most of the storefronts near him in Hebron had closed down and were boarded and locked up. He recognized that we were Americans and he interrupted our conversation with a request. I thought that he would try to sell us something, so I was surprised when he began to shout to us.
He reminded us that he and his family and his friends were not terrorists, that they were people living in a difficult, impossible, situation. He wanted us to remember this, and to let people know this when we went home, so that people understood what they were going through. We spoke to him for a few minutes and thanked him and continued on our way. I remember him frowning as we walked off. I got the impression that it wasn’t the first time he had told people this.
If you visit Jerusalem, and I recommend that you do, try to get as many perspectives as you can. Consider visiting the Muslim quarter, find a good guide, and ask a lot of questions. There is no easy answer to the many questions facing this country, and you certainly won’t find any. But you can learn, you can tell others what you learned, and you can hear voices that desperately want to be heard.